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The Projectionist
A short story by Susan Warring

I live in an old drive in theatre on the outskirts of a small town on the edge of the Kalahari desert. Quite regularly, people still drive in with kids in the back of their bakkies and picnic baskets at their feet, wanting to know what show is on that night. My dad used to be the one to go out with a gun and tell them to get lost but now it’s Jannie. He’s only 13 but he knows how to use a gun and they seem to know it. They reverse pretty quickly out of there, their eyes big. You have to reverse if you don’t want to go all the way up and turn around on the tar apron in front of what used to be the projection room and is now our house. The ‘in’ road is our drive now, and the ‘out’ road is closed off. So usually they do a three point turn into one of the rows the cars used to park in, still lined with the poles that once held the speakers. Now those poles mark the edges of the paddocks my Pa divided the parking lot into, and where he now grazes his boerperds, nosing for grass clumps between the islands of tar that are crumbling into the sand and weeds. There’s not much grazing as you can imagine, but then my Pa wouldn’t keep a boerperd if it wasn’t a tough beast suited for the hardships of Africa. A real Afrikaner of a horse.

I’ve tried telling Jannie and Pa that you don’t need to chase these people off like kaffirs looking for work. But they’re not interested. Trespassing is trespassing. Get soft and you’ll get murdered in your bed. Finish and klaar. Plus Jannie is always looking for an excuse to swing that gun around – his dream is to use it for real. Not on jackals and dogs and vultures – they’re just vermin, target practice. No, his dream is to use it to save our family from evil forces. Sometimes I think he must be the one seeing things out the window of the viewing room, which is now our bedroom.

It’s been a few years now since the drive in closed down and we walked among the stompies and khakibos wondering how we were going to make a normal house out of a projection room, a shop and a men’s and ladies’ toilet with five toilets each. Pa kicking over the fading Coke cans and saying in his voice that you know you mustn’t try and answer back to, that this place is our second chance, going for a song, twenty decent acres narrowing off to a point next to the nature reserve, space for a stud with real horses, space to rebuild your reputation and make good.

Not so many people come anymore since we pulled down the screen, which was losing panels and dangerous. But secretly every time someone makes that old mistake I feel this funny desire to run over and talk to them. Because sometimes I do the same thing.

You’d think it would be in summer, those long hot nights, when people used to come out here and spread blankets in front of their cars and eat sandwiches and kuier with their mates and watch Arnold Schwarzenegger sort out the world that’s always such a mess. But strangely enough, I see them in winter. When the nights crack with cold and it’s totally silent out there, that’s when I look down and I see the cars parked in the darkness. I see cigarette smoke snaking out from between them, I hear muffled laughter. And I see movies.

On the screen that’s not there anymore I see herds of mustangs thundering over the prairies, chased by the cowboys who know the difference between the rubbish fit only for rodeos and dog meat, and the stallions with valiant spirits, the stallions that chop at Mexican horse-stealers and mountain lions and rattlesnakes. I see them cut them out, ride them down, challenge them, win their respect, place the bits in their trembling mouths, slide the bridles over their rolling eyes, tighten the girths under their quivering bellies, and ride them triumphantly home, somehow saving their families and the hearts of their small towns in the process.

This is the part I’m still trying to work out. How do they save their families? Sometimes they lose everything in the chase. Their own horses are left far behind, their possessions are destroyed, they are so many miles from their mothers that the whole film right up till the end you see only flashbacks to remind you of what they’re doing it all for. Yet somehow when they come back, dusty, bruised, thirsty, they’ve made up for it all. They’re heroes. They’ve lost a good trained horse, but they’ve tamed a magnificent wild stallion, and somehow this means that they have gained more than they lost.

Then, as I ponder this, through the rows of dark cars comes the snorting and stamping of the stabled horses, and that’s when I go down to talk to them, hoping somehow they will answer my question. The stables are in the base of what used to be the screen, behind what used to be the kids’ swings and slides, so I have to walk through those rows of parked cars, up and down those little hills and valleys, my feet crunching over the crumbling tar. I go to Eufees first, and cautiously offer my hand to be sniffed. Usually he’s friendly but he can be mean, and you have to keep out of the way of his hind legs. Stallions can be a handful. But mostly, this time of night, with no mares around and knowing there’ll be none till morning, he’s relaxed. He mumbles at my hand, looking for a snack, and blows deeply. I look at his half mast ears and breathe the sleepy stable smell and wonder what it is about his heart that might save my family. Or is he perhaps the wrong kind of stallion?

In the nature reserve next door there are zebras and though they don’t look like a horse should – tall and proud, with a high arched neck and streaming long tail – even though they look like fat ponies and when they trot you can see that it would be a spine-jolting gymkhana kind of thing, not the springy power of the true bred horse – still, you can’t really laugh at them. They are really vicious. A year or two ago when Jannie only had a pellet gun, he used to climb through the fence and go after guineafowl. Once he got near a herd and when they galloped off he shot into their jiggling backsides and came back laughing about it.

Next day he went back and started tracking them for fun, and the herd stallion came around behind him and charged him, head down, ears flat, teeth bared, and if Jannie hadn’t scrambled up that thorn tree he would have got him for sure. He dropped his gun on the way and that stallion trampled it till it was bent and useless, and then turned and started kicking the tree. He hung around for a couple of hours, grazing and watching him out of the corner of his eye, and then slowly moved off, but it was nearly sunset before Jannie got the courage to climb down and run home. He thought that stallion was lying in wait for him behind every bush and when he got home he was white in the face.

He thought he was going to catch it for sure about losing the gun, but Pa laughed when he heard the story. He admires spirit and Jannie has plenty. Instead of a sjambokking he got his first decent rifle. A man’s gun. You should have seen Jannie swagger with that thing, even though he never shot anything decent with it for ages, till he was strong enough to manage it.

Pa is always muttering about that nature reserve. He watches the horses carefully in case of diseases so he can go off and complain. Foot and mouth, rinderpest, specially horse sickness, he says any one of those could turn up anytime. He pours weedkiller along the boundary which is always marked now by dead yellow grass.

He and Jannie shoot the eagles out the sky though – no fences there, and when those nature conservation okes come along Pa picks up his rifle and his back stiffens, his shoulders brace, his eyes harden. He tells them that he’s got a mare foaling this week and he’s not going to risk it with this vermin in the sky. He doesn’t listen to their stories – of course they will deny that their birds can carry off prey as big as a newborn foal. And now that there’s a kaffir behind the wheel as well as in the back of the bakkie you can just plain forget about him listening to anything they say. One time he did suggest that if they wanted to compensate him the value of a foal – say four thousand Rand – as a sign of good faith – but even from where I was watching, behind the stables, I could see them drop their eyes and shake their heads "Aaish!" in that way – that way about a kaffir that makes you so mad – it’s not just saying "No."

After that he ran them out threatening to shoot them too and we thought that was the last we’d see of them. But they do still come. Every couple of vultures. Talking about good neighbourliness and conservation/farmer partnerships and other stuff that Pa says is just another word for stealing your land, your whole damn country. You have to lock up what’s yours he says, or they’ll come and take it. That goes for the mares too. He used to leave them out in the paddock, with Eufees penned safely up, but not anymore.

Not since that bloody zebra stallion got in there and covered his favourite mare.

You can’t abort a mare, Pa says, or you’ll lose her. And she was a good one. But you can make sure it never happens again. That night, when we heard screaming and whinnying and galloping, and we saw in the dimness the glow of jagged stripes and the glint of teeth buried in the mare’s wither, where she stood, trembling and still, sweating, with that wild smell coming off her in waves.

He broke through in the corner, in spite of all the reinforcing we put there, and pa’s patrols, shooting through the fence where the stallion would gallop in, wheel, gallop off, and keep coming back all day. Pa was sure it would hold, but at three in the morning we heard the commotion and ran out with torches.

He wanted to shoot that stallion right there on her but he was afraid the collapsing body would break the mare’s back. He tried to force him off her, throwing stones and shouting, but then stopped in case, withdrawing, he injured her internally. So eventually there was nothing to do but, like the mare, to stand and sweat and tremble, and load the gun for when he was finished, and train his sights on him, to take him then. That very moment.

What he didn’t expect was for the dismounting stallion to run straight for him, not the other way, to the hole in the fence. He covered the distance in a second or two, growing so big in the sights that Pa stumbled back taking the Lord’s name in vain which he never, ever did. Then that bastard was over him, wheeling to turn and kick at him, but then Jannie and me ran in from the sides, and he turned again, rushed at Jannie, knocked him flying and was gone.

Pa was all for tracking him next morning and shooting that dangerous beast, but after a few days’ thought he settled for an official complaint to the nature conservation department. The old ways don’t work anymore, he said. It didn’t matter how many vultures we shot, those kaffirs from the nature reserve were always paying us visits. It was like a dripping tap. This land is not ours anymore, he said, what’s a man supposed to do?

Nearly a year later the mare gave birth and he was forced to attend it to make sure she was safe. The foal came out all ziggy zaggy and brown, like you’d nuked those bold white stripes in the microwave or something. Muddied, narrow bands of off white and donkey brown, still rippled with the liquids of birth – it was unclear what the foal would be like when dry. We were going to kill it then and there, to save the mother’s strength so she would come back into season and be properly mated to Eufees. But then Johannes, the oldest groom and the one who never said anything, he came to Pa and asked if he could buy him. Maybe said Pa, how much? Two hundred, my baas, said Johannes, looking down, making himself small against the wall. Ag ja, take the mule, said Pa, a little surprised at the price Johannes was prepared to offer. But two hundred was two hundred, and if a kaffir was mal enough to pay it, that was his problem. We would dock it from his pay over a few months.

So Johannes took him, and what happened to him, I do not know. We never saw him pulling a cart or nothing, but then we don’t go to the stat where those people live.

But that foal and its father bothered me. I thought about them a lot when I lay in bed. In the movies when the wild stallion mates with the mares they give birth to magnificent foals who grow into fiery horses. There is honour and manliness in riding them. They turn boys into men.

Even if I could find that mule with the stripes that looked like an extinct kwagga’s, I wouldn’t be a man for riding it, I’d be a joke. And as for trying to get a saddle onto that zebra stallion – if I came out alive, I’d just look like something from a circus.

Pa put razor wire along the boundary after that, and he patrols it at night when he can’t sleep. I look down from the bathroom window and I see the glow of his cigarette as he stands for a long time in one spot, the place that stallion broke through, and just looks out at the darkness beyond.

And me, I stare at the space where the drive in screen used to be, and I wait for a new movie to begin.

Copyright © Susan Warring 2004

Susan Warring lives in Johannesburg where she works (writing), studies (more writing), and writes fiction. Her aim is to have more time to write fiction. Although she has always written, she has only been writing for websites, competitions and publishers since April 2003. Her work has appeared on the Internet and ‘The Projectionist’ won second place in a competition run by a magazine and a publisher. It has recently appeared in a collection of South

African short stories called Urban ’03.

This short story may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.

This electronic version of The Projectionist is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author. For rights information, contact The Richmond Review in the first instance


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