Suspend Your Disbelief

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Stories We Love: “The Silver Sky”

South Africa:Tsitsikamma sunset
I read Elizabeth Jonsson’s “The Silver Sky” in a Reader’s Digest anthology, and, judging by a search on Amazon and Google Books, that may be the only place it can now be found. And I would not laud the story as a perfect gem, either, because for most of its seven pages, I felt confused about what I was reading. A German settler returns to the West South African castle of his youth, this time bringing an English wife. He remembers his youth, considers the region’s “heartbreak castles” (built by wealthy Germans before the first world war), dwells on his parents and his childhood. The analytical side of my brain, as I read, remained confused about where we were going, what sort of story this was, and my trust in the editors of Reader’s Digest began to erode.

Then the story zoomed in on one particular aspect of his childhood, his childhood companions, a family of Bushmen, a race made nearly extinct thanks to European genocide.  This family taught him their click language, taught him how to hunt and live in the wild, taught him their “ancient laws and primitive craft.” They taught him, too, how to hear their high-pitched pipes, a music inaudible to any normal European.

However, as he grows up, both his parents and the bushmen themselves point out that a time to part is coming. Suddenly the story’s shape becomes clear: the man is weighing his new adult life against the one he had as a child. He has not lost it entirely: the story concludes with him reflecting that,

Tomorrow he would teach Joan to follow the honey bird as Khaobob had taught him—he would show her the wild game and the herds of cattle and karakul sheep grazing on the rough expanse of country which would glow with a brilliant carpet of flowers after the first rain.

Yet something dear has been lost, and he understands that even if the bushmen were to return, he would not be able to hear their pipes. He belongs to another world now, to the “lighted windows” that welcome him home.

  • Something dear has been lost to us too: Elizabeth Jonsson’s collection The Silver Sky and Other Stories is out of print. Hunt it down at your local library, or try to find a copy of Great Short Stories of the English Speaking World, Vol. 2 – published by Reader’s Digest in 1977.

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