In 19th-century South Africa, it’s a foggy day when a child (Lukas) disappears. Elias Van Rooyan is in his shed where he usually cuts wooden beams, but it gets too foggy to cut (since the wood is damp). He calls for his wife, Barta, to bring him coffee. He and Barta are one of four families with a house on Barnard’s Island, all of whom are Afrikaners (descendants of white, mostly Dutch settlers, who during this time period are a minority in the South Africa but who control the government and many other aspects of life). Although Elias makes wooden beams, he’s the only one on the island who isn’t a woodcutter who goes out into the woods to chop down trees and sleeps in a shack in the Forest.
The novel’s opening passage helps establish the setting; in particular, it emphasizes the difficult natural environment that the characters live in. Fog literally obscures a person’s vision, and here it seems to symbolize how Lukas’s fate is shrouded in uncertainty. Elias’s status as the only woodcutter in his small community (where all the other men are woodcutters who cut trees down instead of shaping them into beams) suggests that his character is alienated from others.
Barta asks Elias where Lukas is, but Elias doesn’t know. Elias considers asking a neighbor’s oldest boy for help cutting beams, but it would be too far of a walk for the boy. Elias figures the only real way to make more profit where he currently lives would be to start shooting elephants, but that would require expensive equipment. Elias and Barta’s oldest son Willem tells Elias that Lukas isn’t anywhere in the house. Elias says to check with Aunt Malie, but Lukas isn’t there either.
Elias is more focused on his schemes to make more money than on his missing son. He thinks of the neighbor’s boy in terms of his money-earning potential, and this perhaps reflects his relationship with his own children.
Although Elias isn’t worried about Lukas being gone at first, when Lukas doesn’t show up, eventually all the women in the area start going out into the fog looking for the child. Aunt Malie scares everyone by telling a story her aunt heard about a child who froze to death in the fog. Eventually, while Elias is out searching with old Aunt Gertie, Aunt Gertie suggests that maybe they need to get help from the other men (who are four hours away at a logging camp).
This passage hints at the gender divide in the community—while Elias and the other men continue with their work, largely unbothered by Lukas’s disappearance, the women are more concerned about Lukas and go off searching for him. Although this chapter mostly follows Elias’s perspective, it also hints at the limits of that perspective and how the women around him do things that he doesn’t notice or appreciate.
That night, Barta despairs that something bad has happened to Lukas. All the people of the small settlement try to reassure her and remember where they last saw Lukas. By morning, the fog is gone. Men go out searching, and they keep searching for eight days before everyone finally gives up hope that he’s alive. Seven months later in August 1865, a forester discovers a skeleton that might belong to a small child, although it could also possibly belong to a baboon.
The chapter ends on a deliberately ambiguous note, leaving it unclear if Lukas is actually dead. This uncertainty reinforces the fog’s symbolism in the opening lines of the book. The confusion about the bones, which might belong to a small child or might belong to a baboon, hint at humanity’s connection to nature, demonstrating how despite humanity’s attempts to control nature or separate themselves from it, in the end, humans aren’t so different from animals.