The magistrate notes that spring is on its way, and says that he’s decided to take the barbarian girl back to her people. He writes a document to the provincial governor saying that, “To repair some of the damage wrought by the forays of the Third Bureau, and to restore some of the goodwill that previously existed,” he is going to pay the barbarians a brief visit. He says that he also has a second document to write, but cannot figure out what it is—a memoir, confession, or a thirty-year history of the frontier? He ultimately gives up trying to write it, and gathers three men to assist him on his journey: two young soldiers and an older hunter and horseman as a guide. They depart on the third of March.
The magistrate, done with trying to unravel some secret within the barbarian girl that might prop-up his own sexual desire and identity, has decided to return her to her people. His note to the provincial governor, however, comes across as having a different mission: correcting the wrongs which the Empire has committed against the barbarian people. Seeming to have no reservations about sending such a letter, it appears that the magistrate has become so anti-Empire that he doesn’t care how rebellious his dissent will be perceived by high officials. The magistrate’s attempt to write a history of the settlement also becomes an important motif, as in his mind this “history” becomes a muddle of personal memories and confessions, the cycle of seasons and nature, and the linear events of the Empire’s actions.
The magistrate says that the group eats well on the first leg of the trip, but that’s about the only good thing he mentions. The journey quickly becomes rough, and the magistrate says that the physical intensity of the trip makes him realize how aged his body is. The wind is constant, and gusts of sand bite at everyone’s skin and interfere with eating. The barbarian girl, however, doesn’t complain, and seems used to the conditions of desert travel. On the fourth day, the group enters more desolate territory; crossing a frozen lake, the guide and a horse fall through the surface and have to be pulled out. The band leaves the lake floor behind on the fifth day.
Though the magistrate imagined that his trip would be routinely easy, it seems that he might have miscalculated. Why, indeed, didn’t he wait to begin after winter had passed? It seems as if the magistrate’s venture into the depth of winter represents, subliminally, his desire to enter the foreign, alien environment of a world governed by the seasons, and not the governmental power of the Empire. It’s as if the magistrate has purposefully put himself in a position of danger in order to escape the peril of his Joll-infected life.
On the seventh day, after the group has made a difficult crossing over a patch of sand dunes, they come upon the bed of an old lagoon. The men dig into the soil and find good water. At night, the magistrate notes that the barbarian girl is at ease conversing with the other men, who make their first gesture of friendship to her by inviting her to watch them bake bread. The magistrate says that he’s “surprised by her fluency, her quickness, her self-possession,” and even catches himself “in a flush of pride,” thinking: “she is not just the old man’s slut, she is a witty, attractive young woman.” He says that, if he had known how to talk with her this way before, perhaps they would have warmed up to each other.
The magistrate is surprised by the charisma suddenly displayed by the barbarian girl—she never displayed this kind of social ease and animation with him. Interestingly, the sheer fact that she’s capable of being so at-ease socially with the other members of the crew is enough to re-arouse the magistrate’s interest in her. It’s as if the magistrate cares more about the girl’s ability to appease certain standards of sociability than her ability to strictly satisfy him as an individual.
Later, when the magistrate and the barbarian girl are in their tent asleep, the magistrate wakes up to find the girl fondling him, and they have intercourse. When the magistrate awakens, he is deeply troubled—alarmed by having united with the barbarian girl after a hiatus of five months, he wonders what brought about his sudden willingness to have sex with her. He notes that it hasn’t escaped him that, in bed in the dark, the disfigurements on her body—caused by her torturers—are easily forgotten. He therefore gathers that it’s the “whole woman I want, that my pleasure in her is spoiled” until the marks of her torture “are erased and she is restored to herself.” He then asks: “is it she I want or the traces of a history her body bears?” He sighs, embraces the girl, and falls asleep. The group rests on the eighth day.
Here, the magistrate’s conflicts revolving around his sexuality and his philosophy of history—that one should tarry with the past in order to fully unravel its stories—merge. The magistrate, by wondering if his delight in the barbarian girl is “spoiled” by her scars, imagines an ideal past in which she was whole and untarnished by Joll’s interrogation practices. But her scars’ blockage of his access to such a pure past raises the question: does he want the girl for who she is, or for his own fantasy about who she was? This conflict resonates with the nature of Joll’s supposed quest for truth in his torture victims—he searches for a confirmation of his own precepts, not the real truth.
The group gets on its way the next day, and the guide tells the magistrate that they are probably one or two days away from seeing the mountains—the territory of the barbarians—and then another day from reaching them, though it’s hard to say. At night, the magistrate wakes up and senses that something is deeply wrong—but it’s just that he’s surprised to find that the wind has ceased. He, the barbarian girl, and the men from the other tent all meet outside and watch snowflakes descend—“the last snow of the year,” the magistrate proclaims. When he and the girl return to the tent, they make love again, “but halfway through” the magistrate loses his “touch with her, and the act peters out vacantly.”
That the magistrate’s “act peters out vacantly” halfway through having sexual intercourse with the girl resembles his earlier description of his tendency, at his age, to “feel like a storyteller losing his story” after he’s commenced fornication. This petering-out on the magistrate’s part reflects his failure to uncover the full story of the girl’s past—again, here his conflicts around sexuality and history: losing connection with the girl during sex resembles a fading-out ideal about her past which, however fanciful, still spurs his very attraction to her. Sex never realizes this ideal.
The magistrate awakens to hear a voice calling to him. It’s one of the men—bad weather is on the way. Seeing a “gigantic black wave” on the horizon, the group hurries to disassemble their tents and secure the horses. Rapidly, the storm is upon them, and the magistrate and barbarian girl’s tent is taken by the storm. Then, for five hours, the group huddles behind the horses and firewood they’ve piled, being pelted with “snow, ice, rain, sand, grit.” The storm lets up midday.
Why the magistrate has elected to embark on such a long journey before the arrival of spring is odd—he’s put himself and his companions in danger. The brooding ominousness of the storm also suggests an element of foreshadowing: that a difficult series of trials may be about to befall the magistrate’s life—trials associated with his decision to take this trip.
On the tenth day, the guide believes he sees the mountains they’re seeking, but the specks he points to are, the magistrate says, actually three barbarian men on horseback. He concludes, therefore, that the group is nearly there. He further notices that they never seem to get closer to the barbarians—he wonders if the barbarians are ignoring them, or if they’re even there at all: maybe they are a “trick of the light.” Eventually, the magistrate tells the group that there’s no point in chasing the barbarians, and he decides to ride out alone towards them, but his horse, low on energy, can’t “raise more than a shambling trot,” and the magistrate gives up.
The magistrate’s speculation about whether the barbarians are a trick of the light can be read as an ironic comment by Coetzee, particularly regarding Joll. The question hints at the possibility that the barbarians as a whole are only an imagined bogeyman of the Empire, or a mirage only perceivable in the broad daylight, and which the magistrate couldn’t see if he were wearing sunglasses (like Joll). It’s as if Joll is chasing after people he thinks are real, but whom he only sees in his mind, since his sunglasses block them, and who in reality do not appear the way he imagines them.
Several uneventful days pass, as the group slowly advances towards the barbarians, trying to conserve the strength of their horses. The magistrate again decides to ride out alone to the men on the horizon. Now there are not only three of them, but as many as twelve, he gathers. Still, however, they vanish before the magistrate can get too close, and, returning to his group, he says they must simply ignore the barbarians. The magistrate then mentions that the barbarian girl has begun her period, and—believing in a superstition that “a woman’s flux is bad luck”—the other men want the girl away from the horses and from their food. She keeps to herself, and the magistrate performs a cleansing ritual every morning, after sleeping with her, in order to appease the men.
Even though the men are members of the Empire’s purportedly civilized society, they nonetheless house superstitions about women’s bodies that are stereotypically associated with the supposedly “primitive,” “uncivilized” nomad people or “barbarians.” The fact that the men require the magistrate to perform a cleansing ritual seems absurd in comparison to the absence of such a ritual in Joll’s profession (as the magistrate imagines, at least), since the gruesomeness of his acts vastly outweighs the impurity attributable to a natural, bodily process.
Finally the magistrate says that they’ve reached the foothills of the mountains. He and his companions finally understand that, while the barbarians are following them, they’re also leading them. Eventually the group comes upon the barbarians; the magistrate approaches them while the other members of his party stay behind. One of the barbarian horsemen points an ancient musket at the magistrate’s chest; he then puts his hands up and retreats.
The magistrate’s bold willingness to approach the barbarians alone demonstrates his belief that they are people who will deal with outsiders diplomatically—that they aren’t naturally violent and won’t simply kill him on sight. This sense of ease in dealing with the barbarians certainly is not common among the Empire’s agents.
The magistrate tells the barbarian girl that he’ll help her up the slope to the horsemen, and asks her to speak with them, and decide whether she wants to join them or return to the settlement. When they make it up the slope, the magistrate asks the girl to tell the horsemen why they’ve come, and to tell her story—the truth. The girl smiles a bit, and asks if he really wants her to tell them the truth. The magistrate says, “What else is there to tell?” Then, a little desperately, he says to her that he wishes for her to return with him to the settlement—that this is what he truly wants—but of her own choice. The girl, however, says: “No. I do not want to go back to that place.”
The girl’s question seems witheringly ironic, in that telling the “truth” about what the Empire has done to her might lead the barbarians to actually become antagonistic, fulfilling their role as the Empire’s bogeyman. The magistrate’s question (“What else is there to tell?”) also bears a subtle irony in that it reflects Joll’s philosophy about extracting the truth from his torture victims, since he believes that, when experiencing great pain, people reach a point when they can only tell the truth—that it’s forced out from them. Further, in this climactic moment the magistrate seems to realize that he has real feelings for the girl, and he wants her to reciprocate them willingly—but she seemingly does not, or else the magistrate’s connection to the Empire makes his offer impossible to accept.
The barbarian girl tells the magistrate that the horsemen would like to take the girl’s horse, but the magistrate says that—considering the weak condition of his horses—he’d rather buy horses off the barbarians instead, with silver. He then gives the girl a bar of silver, and asks her to show it to the men and tell them he’ll pay one bar per horse. However, the leader of the horsemen simply takes the bar, and the girl relays to the magistrate that the leader considered it to be payment for not taking the girl’s horse. Finally, the girl and the magistrate say goodbye and part ways.
The leader’s way of handling his exchange with the magistrate suggests that the barbarians are highly contemptuous of the Empire as a whole. The girl’s decision to return to her people, having rejected the magistrate’s invitation, reflects her desire to put her painful past at the settlement behind her and her willingness to totally reject the purported “comforts” of civilization, which never existed for her.
As the magistrate and his group start to head back to the settlement, he notes that spring has come, and realizes that it would have been safer to have started the journey now than before, though he doesn’t believe himself to be wrong for taking the risks. He says he knows, however, that the other men blame him, and are also probably infuriated because they’ve realized that “they were not part of an embassy to the barbarians . . . but simply an escort for a woman.”
This observation by the magistrate—that his men are started to look down upon him—marks the beginning of the magistrate’s downward spiral into becoming an outsider to his people. However, his belief that they perceive the trip to have been a mere escort for the girl proves incorrect, as we later learn that they actually accuse him of colluding with the barbarians.
As the group retraces their route, one of the two soldiers contracts an infection on his foot, and the magistrate scolds him for not changing his footcloths daily. A quiet tension grows between the magistrate and the men—he says he keeps to himself, and notes that the men talk in low voices and become quiet whenever he’s within hearing range. Then, as the group gets closer to home, the magistrate says he finds the face of the barbarian girl “hardening over in [his] memory, becoming opaque, impermeable, as though secreting a shell over itself.” He says that all he wants to do now is to live out his life with ease in a familiar world, and die in his own bed, “followed to the grave by old friends.”
The magistrate’s memory of the girl’s face is becoming a sort of souvenir of the past—an image marking her face’s vague traces, but which can’t convey the full depth and detail of his experience of her. This opacity to her memory resembles how the magistrate always saw her—as hiding a depth in need of extraction. Now, a gloss atop the clarity of her actual form, this opacity introduces an obstacle to the magistrate’s conviction for uncovering and preserving the truth of the past, making it apparent that this conviction is not perfectly achievable since human memory naturally distorts what it stores.
When the group finally returns to the settlement, the magistrate is surprised by the way they’re greeted by the fort’s guards. The horsemen who trot out towards them don’t gallop in excitement, and aren’t followed by any running children—instead, they surround the magistrate and his company, and their eyes are “stony.” They don’t answer any of the magistrate’s questions, and they march him and the others back like prisoners into the settlement. When they enter, the magistrate notices that the army has arrived, and “the promised campaign against the barbarians is underway.”
The magistrate’s note to the provincial governor must have incriminated him right from the get-go, so his surprise at his less than hospitable welcome seems a bit naïve. It’s clear that the magistrate, though understanding how the fear around him functions and is formed, is nonetheless out of touch with the culture of racism and xenophobia around him—any concerted effort to contact the barbarians would seem to inevitably result in punishment in such a society.