‘Traitors’ by Doris Lessing

Most of Doris Lessing’s writings are autobiographical in nature. Her short stories are infused with the heat, sun and arid beauty of rural Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where she and her brother grew up. As a young child Lessing had dreamed of having a sister instead of a brother. 

‘Traitors’ is the story of two intrepid young girls who go exploring in their neighbourhood. Written in the first person, Lessing’s writing style is lyrical, almost poetic, as she describes the animals they encounter — cattle, wild guinea fowl, pigeons and lonely looking dogs. Lessing sets the scene when the girls first set out on their adventure: 

One morning, at sunrise, when the trees were pink and gold and the grass-stems were running bright with drops of dew, we walked, heads down, eyes half-closed against the sun, past thorn and gulley and thick clumps of cactus where wild animals might lurk.

We are never told the names of the two girls. They breakfast on wild plums and pawpaw gained by throwing stones at the tree. One day, believing themselves lost, they suddenly find themselves near the boundary with the neighbouring farm. They have not met the Thompson family and are chased away by the black servant. A few days later the girls hear that Mr. and Mrs. Thompson are coming to visit their parents and feel guilty for having strayed near their farm when their parents would probably have told them not to, and to be wary of people they didn’t know.

Lessing portrays Mrs. Thompson as “a large, blonde, brilliantly-coloured lady with a voice like that of a go-away bird.” The girls’ father clearly takes a dislike to her. The Thompsons had heard that the house they now live in had been rebuilt after a fire, caused by a fallen oil lamp, had burned it down. Mrs. Thompson wants to know if this is true or merely a local legend. The girls’ father takes the Thompsons to the spot where it happened. He shows them the ashes and scarred grass which is still visible. The girls confess that they used to come here to play. Later, sitting on the veranda in the gloaming of the summer evening their mother tells the girls never to go there again. 

My two little girls out there in the bush by themselves is unthinkable. Danger is everywhere,” she says.

Picked by Carola Huttmann. Passionate about art, literature and writing, Carola draws much of her creative inspiration from the richness of landscape, stories, history and traditions of the Orkney Islands which have been her home since 1995. Find her at Twitter: @CarolaHuttmann / https://carolahuttmann.blogspot.com

First published in African Stories, Michael Joseph, 1964, later Flamingo Modern Classics, 2003

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