Those women were so old it was as though they had been formed in some primordial time before even the gods knew what the sky looked like. They had been moulded from the ancient clays of the universe and now they sat, like boulders, presiding over the world, watching it from sockets speared with lines. They never seemed to move. They never seemed to age as though they had reached a plateau in their mortality. We nicknamed them the Mountain Women.

My mother had not aged with grace. Her face was weathered and worn, a leathery mask over the beauty of her long dissolved youth. She kept her hair tied back in a scraggly ponytail the colour of ash. It annoyed me how she scraped it all back, left nothing to cling to the browned lined skin of her face, left nothing to soften it.

It worried me that she had aged so badly and I wondered if I too would age with little grace. It troubled me that one day I too would become gnarled and worn like some old tree along the highway. I found myself staring at her when she spoke to me and when she walked away I would touch my face, ensure that I had not altered to mirror her.   

Mara told me that my mother was beautiful, but Mara saw the beauty in everything. She had to because her life was rather ugly. Her father worked for my mother, as a foreman on the grounds of the motel my mother managed. He was a rough, frightening man with a violent air about him and he always smelled of alcohol. Sometimes bruises would appear then disappear on Mara’s body and we all knew the reason, yet no one would openly say it.

It wasn’t as though we were trying to protect Mara’s father, no one particularly cared for him, but it seemed easier somehow not to say anything, as though we were afraid of the effort it would take to comment on one of those bruises.

The motel which connected us all in our small community was situated along a stretch of road between the cities of Johannesburg and Durban called Van Reenen’s Pass. It was a tragic stretch, thin and winding, its only advantage being that the surrounding area was considered scenic by some. We had few travellers, they trickled in every so often, and we all came to terms with the fact that we had chosen to exist in some forgotten valley of the universe.

No one had come to this stretch of earth on purpose; everyone had somehow been washed up here, marooned without a map or compass. The Mountain Women, it is said, had come to exist because the unknown owner of the motel had once housed his mother in a room of his motel and then others joined her after a while until there was a whole population of them, stones that grew and moved. Mara and her father had been running from something and had fallen headlong across Van Reenen’s Pass and my mother and I had left a stagnating father in the hopes of a less stagnated life.

We sometimes swap one prison for another.

We never saw or spoke to the owner of the motel, we simply assumed his mother was one of the Mountain Women and we knew his name was John. He corresponded with my mother via email as though he himself did not want to make the laborious journey down Van Reenen’s Pass to his dilapidated motel.

I was bored the day I met the man with a donkey’s face. I was sitting on the low surrounding wall and watching some horses graze on the mountainside when he drove up in a dented car which spat out smoke and rocks like the chaotic tail of a comet. I cannot really remember his face; all I can remember is that it reminded me of a donkey. Even now when I think of him I trade his face for a mule’s face. I do not mean the comparison to be derogatory in any way; some people have beagle faces, others have horse faces and he had a donkey face.

His name escapes me, I cannot find it. I want it to be beautiful, but I think it was plain and that is why I have forgotten it.

He smiled at me as he had climbed out of his car, a tired, sweaty smile. I regarded him from my seat on the wall with the bricks poking into the soft bottom of my thighs and the brim of my hat pushing down across my forehead like a sweaty metal band, and I wondered what it felt like to hurt a man.

He booked a room in the motel, one with a veranda, and I showed him the way to it. He walked behind me and though I never turned to see where he was looking, I felt his eyes on the back of my body, slowly appraising me. He made me feel both defensive and beautiful simultaneously.

That night I asked Mara about the man with the donkey’s face. She told me she had seen a wedding band on his finger. I wondered how I had missed that in my observations. I asked her what she thought it felt like to hurt a man and she shrugged.

‘Like honey and cyanide at the same time.’ She finally said and the honesty behind her words troubled me.

He took his ring off the one day he came to speak to me. Somehow the pale band of skin around his finger seemed more obvious than the ring. He had a nervous smile, one that would scuttle across his face like a crab across the beach sand. His smile never seemed to know whether it should stay or leave and it had a strange effect on his face, as though his entire face was unsure of itself.

‘Who are they?’ He pointed at the Mountain Women.  

I shrugged, ‘Old women who stay here. No one really knows where they come from. They come and then they stay.’

‘This place is so peculiar.’ He motioned at the motel and the surrounding area but I knew he meant the whole of Van Reenen’s Pass. ‘It is so separate, so secluded, like another world.’

‘It sometimes feels like that.’ I admitted. ‘It sometimes feels completely cut off from everything else.’

‘Do you like it here?’

‘I came here when I was very young so I don’t really remember anything else.’ I replied.

‘I don’t know if I like it here.’

I wondered why he did not leave then.

Mara’s father went too far the one night and in the morning we scrubbed away the bloody stains on the wall. My mother told me that she would never come back. They had found an aunt somewhere, it sounded funny when my mother said it as though aunts tended to sprout up everywhere, and Mara was to go and stay with her.

I was not able to wish her goodbye or good luck. One day she was with me and the next she was not. I felt jealous somehow, of her escape, that she had managed to crawl away from this place. She had left me. I was alone, cleaning up the crusty stains of her blood along the edge of the kitchen counter.

It seemed that blood was the only way to escape from this place. A bloody highway led away from these mountains and valleys and this old worn motel with my mother’s old worn face and her scraggly ashy hair. The ferryman demanded a payment.

Everything seemed different once Mara left. The world seemed dislocated, strange, and I myself felt lost. She had gone. I would never hear from her again. And it was not the separation of friends which made my self feel disjointed, it was the glaring, terrible fact that she was gone from Van Reenen’s Pass, that she had been able to leave. That, that was like gall in my mouth and it made me almost hate her.

He was packing up, the man with the donkey face. He was leaving, just like Mara. He could come and go as he pleased and yet I would remain here, stuck, immobile, like the Mountain Women.

It was the cold, ugly truth that I too would become ashy haired and worn faced and broken in this place where the world rushed by and never paused to look or care or witness. It was that truth like an iron hand on the back of my neck which made me seek him out despite the white ring of untanned skin around his left finger. That realization propelled me forward into his room whilst he packed his bags. I wanted a way out too. I would pay in blood.

And when we were done, sitting in the dark room, slippery and hot, I felt nothing. I was an empty well and I was sure if I swallowed a stone you would hear it rattle down my body to hollowly hit the stony floor.

‘Are you alright?’ He asked and tried to touch my face.

I jerked away from him. I did not want to feel him because when I did I would know the truth. I would know that there was no escape. And I did not care if I offended him or angered him because he had wronged me and himself and the nameless, faceless woman he was married to. I looked at him and I spat at him because in his eyes I saw Van Reenen’s Pass just like I had seen it in my mother and in the Mountain Women and even in my father. This place, this secluded, isolated place was everywhere.

‘Get out!’ I shoved at him and kicked him and screamed wordlessly through tears that were both hot and cold. ‘Get out!’

He abruptly left and I never saw him again, the man with the donkey face who had made me bleed. I could feel him on me for days, like dirt under my fingernails, dirt that would not come free. Was I more now or was I less? When I looked in the mirror I only saw two dark eyes and nothing else. I felt nothing else. I was still as much Van Reenen’s Pass as I had been before the man with the donkey face and before Mara had left. It was still part of me and I knew that wherever Mara was it was part of her too.

‘Like honey and cyanide.’ Mara had said.

I looked down at my hands in the bathroom basin as I washed them, trying to rid them of dirt that was not there. They sunk down the bottom of the basin, bloated and terrible.

That was what it felt like to be me.

Like honey and cyanide. 



Kerri-ann Bevis is a final year English Studies major in South Africa. She hopes to further her studies in Applied Languages whilst continuing to write. She hopes one day to write both for print and for screen.


I enjoy writing about relationships which are suspended in a hyper-real realm that is isolated from the normal world. This story is an examination of what it is to be a girl on the edge of adulthood as well as a look into the mind of the restless youth of today, constantly looking for their humanity. I don't know if my protagonist found it.  



Copyright 2009