Clara-Moon was three years old before she realised that she should have a father somewhere. Her mother Lucilla had never referred to him, and spoke of men in such withering tones that she sensed that any question about him would rebound badly in some way.
“We don’t need any man to help us, do we, Clara-Moon,” her mother would say, as together they hoed and weeded the vegetable garden on their farm just outside the town. “We’re self-sufficient. That means, we grow everything for ourselves. Aren’t you glad we don’t have to go to the shop to buy nasty tinned food like other people?”
Lucilla, committed to being at one with the Earth, passionately renounced anything that smacked of convenience. She milked the cow, she hoed the soil, and scrubbed the clothes with soap she made herself from soda, ash and mutton fat. She didn’t just weave the cloth from which she made their clothes, she sheared the sheep herself, spun the wool and dyed it with tea. Clara’s badly-fitting garments, in dingy shades of brown, satisfied Lucilla, who believed that only natural, organic products should touch her daughter’s skin. Clara- Moon, scratching at the coarse weave, wasn’t so sure.
Her mother had ripped out the electricity when she came to live on the farm and with no radio, music or television, Clara-Moon learned to read at an early age. During the long evenings, while her mother wove lengths of cloth or knitted lumpy sweaters from home spun wool, she would read aloud from a catholic collection of books provided by her mother: legends and fairy stories, botanic texts, Enid Blyton adventures and women’s literature.
Once, impressed by the fun everyone had in The Third Form at Mallory Towers, she asked, “Why can’t I go to school too, Mother?”
“Because they’d fill your head with a lot of rubbish, “ answered Lucilla shortly. “You’re home-schooled and much the better for it.”
Lucilla was a vegetarian and so, of course, was Clara-Moon. They ate eggs, but when the hen died of old age, Lucilla would bury the carcase under the steaming compost heap.
“Good nutrients are returning to the earth,” she’d say, and it never occurred to Clara-Moon that other people might actually cook and eat the fowl. Lucilla did not consider cooking a skill worth mastering and her daughter was accustomed to wildly differing meals, depending on what was in season. Her mother served piles of spinach, platefuls of carrots or boiled onions and Clara-Moon ate these uncritically until she was old enough to enjoy experimenting. Then she discovered herbs that vastly improved plain boiled fare and started growing her own coriander, oregano, and mint for flavouring.
Meal times, such as they were, were spent improving her grasp of Lucilla’s favourite subject: the Rhythm of Life. Every sprouting seed or wandering insect was an opportunity to teach her daughter something meaningful about the wonders of nature. Before she could write her name, Clara-Moon knew all about the usefulness of dung-beetles and the symbiotic relationship between aphids and ants.
Lucilla rejected story-books in which the animals talked or wore clothes, but encouraged her daughter to read from National Geographic, discussing the pictures.
“This is real life, far more meaningful,” she said, “See this thin old lion all by himself? He’s been chased out of the pride by a younger male and he’s probably going to starve to death because he’s almost toothless.”
Clara-Moon shuddered. “I don’t like animals like that, they’re cruel.”
“Nonsense, that’s simply nature,” said Lucilla briskly, picking up the compost bucket and leading the way outside, “It’s called survival of the fittest. If people could also die when they had outlived their usefulness, we’d all be better off.”
“But people might enjoy being old,” muttered Clara-Moon.
“Look at this stalk, sweetie,” said Lucilla, ignoring her. “See the green insects on it? Clever old Nature has disguised them so birds won’t see them and eat them. They’re called Praying Mantis.”
“What’s that Praying Mantis doing?” asked Clara-Moon curiously. “It’s climbing on top of the other one.”
“He’s mating with the female Mantis,” said Lucilla, glad of the opportunity to introduce the facts of life, given the absence of a bull on the farm. “He’s fertilising tiny eggs inside her. Soon she’ll lay those eggs and later a whole lot of baby Praying Mantis will hatch out.”
“Now what’s she doing?” Clara-Moon peered closer. “She’s chewing his head off! Mother! Stop her!”
“He’s served his purpose,” said Lucilla calmly, “She needed a male to fertilise her eggs and now he’s no use to her any more. I expect her body needs the protein.”
At five years old, Clara-Moon was a thoughtful child. That night, before her mother blew out the lamp, she asked, “Mother, which male did you mate with to get me?”
Lucilla smiled at her fondly.
“He was just a man who seemed right at the time. When we mated- only with people we call it having sex – we lay on the sweet-smelling hay outside the barn with the beautiful light of a full moon shining down on us. That’s why you’re called Clara-Moon. Clara means pure and the moon that night was wonderfully bright.”
“So where is he now? My father? ” Clara-Moon savoured the word. She loved the legends of King Arthur and pictured a smiling man with long golden hair, his silvery-white horse whinnying and stamping its hooves in the moonlight.
“He wasn’t someone I needed to have around, and you wouldn’t have liked him at all – he drove a noisy motor bike and had horrible black hair on his arms. But he was young and very … vigorous.”
Her mother sighed nostalgically at the recollection.
That night Clara-Moon had a nightmare for the first time in her life. In it, her mother reared up from the haystack and bit off a man’s head, ripping at the flesh and snorting in satisfaction as blood streamed from her mouth. Her eyes turned into little black faceted mirrors as she brayed, “ The protein is good for me.”
Clara-Moon woke up screaming.
Until she was fourteen, life for Clara-Moon went on according to the rhythms of the seasons: planting, weeding and harvesting. A small, unsmiling girl with pale skin and fine blond hair that belied her strength, she was nervous of strangers and spent her free time reading or making finely observed drawings of insects.
Lucilla, whose hair was streaked with grey, had grown gaunt and stringy with the harsh outdoor work and had started muttering to herself as she worked. For the essentials the farm could not provide, she cycled infrequently down the hill into town, returning with paraffin, matches or sugar and primed with scathing comments about the teenagers she saw there.
“Such terrible music they play, and so loud! And the clothes some of them wear – they’re practically naked. Thank heavens you’re not an ordinary person, my darling.”
Clara-Moon wondered what it would be like to be an ordinary person. She was vaguely aware that her upbringing had been somewhat different to others but she was quite content with her life so far. She knew she would have to leave the farm one day and study something, probably botany, although Lucilla said she already knew as much as was useful.
But one day the Ventersdorp Education Officer, red-faced and officious, arrived unannounced at the farm, his little blue sedan braking to a stop outside the house in a cloud of dust.
He and Lucilla exchanged loud and angry words behind the closed door of the dining room. When he departed, revving his engine triumphantly, Lucilla was flushed with rage and holding an official document in her shaking hand.
“My poor baby, you have to go to school I’m afraid, ” she said tremulously. “Or they’ll send me to jail. But it’s only for two years. You’re allowed to leave when you’re sixteen.”
Clara-Moon’s heart leapt with excitement but she tried to look as miserable as her mother seemed to expect. Mallory Towers still had a strong appeal.
It didn’t take longer than a day at school for Clara-Moon to realise she could just as well have been living on another planet for fourteen years.
She knew nothing at all about the essentials: pop groups, films and fashions and when she spoke she didn’t use the slang of the other confident, noisy teenagers. In the Enid Blyton books she’d read, the girls said things like ripping and I say, what fun! But when she innocently used these phrases they snorted with laughter and chanted “Clara –Loony! Clara-Moony!”
But in any case she was automatically banished to the outer edges of school society because she was the daughter of that crazy woman who cycled around town on an ancient bicycle and shouted at people. With a growing resentment towards her mother’s oddities festering inside her, Clara- Moon resigned herself to two years of hell.
It was while she was sitting silently in the furthest corner of the playground, eating a sliced turnip sandwich and studying a column of red ants, that Flippie approached her, drawn by her fine blonde hair and air of calm. His father was the town drunk and Flippie, three years older than Clara but a fellow-outcast, sported a shaved head and several defiant tattoos to show he didn’t care. He was tall and well built and Clara, who had dropped the Moon after the first day, fell instantly in love with him.
“Whatja doing after school?” he mumbled.
“Wanta come with me for a burger ‘n coke?”
Clara knew this was the first step on the road to hell, but it was the only offer of friendship she’d had, and she wasn’t going to refuse.
“That would be ripping.”
“You speak funny, you know that?”
As they approached the Burger Shack the smell that wafted out to Clara made her almost sick with desire. So this was meat.
When the hamburger arrived, adorned with fried onions, it tasted as good as it smelled, and although the coke was unpleasantly fizzy, Clara felt this meal had somehow ordained her into a higher level of the human race. She realised exactly why other people were meat-eaters and felt a sudden rush of pure rage against her mother who had denied her this basic pleasure of life for so long.
“Good stuff, hey?’ mumbled Flippie with his mouth full.
“Yeah, too right.” Clara was happily picking up the slang.
Before the first month was out, Lucilla knew that her worst fears had come true. The dross of the middle classes, with whom she was forced to mix, was polluting Clara-Moon’s mind. Lucilla noticed with alarm that money was missing from her purse. ( Clara couldn’t rely on Flippie to buy her a hamburger every afternoon and she needed money to feed her new addiction). Her conversation had started to include incomprehensible phrases and daily, she became more of a stranger to her mother.
Lucilla consoled herself by adopting a small white-haired dog, the first on the farm. Until now, every animal had been expected to earn its keep by providing wool, milk or eggs, but aware that she had somehow lost Clara-Moon’s uncritical affection, she allowed herself this single fluffy indulgence. Muffy followed her everywhere, jumping onto her lap as soon as she sat down and sleeping on her bed.
Clara disliked this yapping little animal and the feeling was mutual. Muffy, sensing her hostility, snarled under her breath and cowered whenever Clara came near.
“You never let me have a dog, mother,” Clara said coldly, “You said they were no practical use, remember?”
Lucilla looked at her in silent reproach, stroking Muffy’s white curls.
“I need someone to talk to,” she said pointedly, but Clara slammed the door of her room.
One afternoon, Clara invited Flippie back to the farm. Lucilla was in town, and they wandered about hand-in-hand picking late strawberries and blackberries. Flippie was fascinated with the barn and all the rusty farm implements standing unused.
“Check the wheels on this old tractor!” he exclaimed admiringly, entranced by machinery of any kind. He was saving up for a motorbike. “Hey, what’s this?”
He’d spotted a large wooden cover on the floor of the barn and lifted it up.
“Cool, looks like a proper inspection pit for servicing a car.”
They peered down into the darkness. Lying on its side was a red motorbike, the keys still in the lock.
“A Harley Davidson!” breathed Flippie.
Clara felt a sickening jolt in the pit of her stomach. She knew instantly whose motorbike this was and backed away from the pit, feeling slightly faint.
“Give me a hand, let’s see if we can get this out. There’s a block and tackle here.” Flippie was flushed with excitement. “Jeez, what a find! I wonder whose it was? Ours now, I reckon.”
Together, with great difficulty, they lifted it. Clara wasn’t really surprised to see a crushed skull and a scattering of yellowed bones on the floor of the pit.
“Hey, the poor bugger must have fallen off his bike. Long ago though, I reckon this model’s at least twenty years old.”
She made no reply, staring down at the bones as if in a trance.
“I bet this could still go,” muttered Flippie, ignoring the skeleton, insignificant in the face of the bike’s dusty magnificence. “I could fix it up.”
“Okay, take the bike and try to get it going at your house. Just don’t let my mother see you.”
“Then we can go places, baby!” Flippie grinned. “You ever been to Durban?”
“No, but that’d be cool. You fix the bike and we’ll go!”
When he’d left, slowly pushing the heavy machine, Clara shovelled sand over the bones. She felt she owed her father some sort of burial so went outside and picked some lemon blossom, which she scattered into the pit.
That night she glowered across the table without speaking, watching in revulsion as her mother slowly masticated her food, making small wet noises of satisfaction. Lately she’d started to chew very slowly as she’d lost several of her teeth, making her look like an old woman.
A couple of weeks later, Flippie looked for her after school and said, “All fixed up. You still on for Durban?”
“Yes, of course.” Clara thought quickly. “Come out to the farm for supper this evening. There’s a full moon – we can drive through the night.”
“Dead romantic, you are.”
Lucilla was picking beans when Clara got home, her faded homespun dress hanging loosely over her scrawny frame. Lucilla hadn’t been well for some time but refused to think of a doctor, preferring to dose herself with a concoction of herbs.
“I know you killed my father,” said Clara quietly. “I found his motor bike. And his bones. In the garage.”
“Well, that’s ancient history.” Lucilla seemed genuinely puzzled at her concern. “ I told you, we didn’t need him. His was a very unenlightened soul.”
With both hands, Clara reached for her mother’s throat and with surprisingly little effort, snapped her neck. Lucilla’s last coherent thought was how like her father she looked and wished she could remember his name.
“Well, mother, what did you expect?” Clara giggled slightly hysterically at the inert form at her feet, “You’ve served your purpose.”
She dragged the body across the yard to the compost heap, forked it to one side and pushed her mother underneath. Then she shovelled the muck on top, estimating it would take several months for the nutrients to be absorbed.
As she did so, she heard a whimper of distress behind her. There was only one practical way to deal with Muffy and although he tried to escape, Clara was too quick for him.
Flippie arrived as the sun was setting, heralded by the throaty roar of the Harley Davidson. There was a delicious smell coming from the kitchen. .
“All set?” He was dressed in black leather and a nazi-style helmet sat aggressively on his shaven head.
“Let’s just have a quick supper first,” said Clara, ladling the stew onto two plates.
“Is your Ma okay about this trip?”
Well, actually she’s considerably warmer now than she was this morning, thought Clara, smiling to herself. She felt light as air and delightfully free. Flippie grinned happily and picked some small bones from the stew, placing them neatly on the side of his plate.
“Not just a pretty face, you can cook too, hey?”
“Never mind the compliments, finish up and let’s go,” she said.