The magistrate begins the last chapter by acknowledging that, sometimes, there are fresh hoofprints in the fields around the garrison which were not there the day before. Further, the fisherfolk refuse to go out to the lake before sunrise—and their catch is so meager that they can just barely get by. The magistrate also says that the town knows that their main irrigation pipe—the water-current of which is currently turned by a blind horse—could be cut at any time, and so they’ve already begun digging new wells. Also, since the school has been closed, the children are tasked with trawling the fingers of the lake for crustaceans. Basically, the settlement is preparing to protect themselves against what they sense to be an imminent disaster.
Anytime someone, even a horse, is blind in this novel, it’s significant. The blindness of the horse symbolizes the uncertainty of the settlement’s future—the horse, ambling forward towards something it cannot see, but nonetheless continuing to perform a function for the survival of the settlement, is an allegory for the settlers themselves. Not knowing about their future or their end, but only “waiting for the barbarians,” the settlers almost return to the form of cyclical time which the Empire as a whole represses, and which the horse’s circular path hints at.
That magistrate has once again taken the lead of the garrison. Mandel has only left the settlement with three soldiers, and so—in order to create the illusion of having a fully-manned garrison—the magistrate arranges for a row of helmets and spears to be set up along the northern rampart of the settlement, and he has a child move each helmet ever so slightly every half-hour. This, the village hopes, will fool the barbarians into thinking that the fort is still fully guarded.
It still is uncertain whether it’s likely that the barbarians will actually attack or just leave the settlement alone. Ironically, the magistrate’s decision to set up the row of helmets, which face the quite possibly empty frontier around them, is keyed into the kind of linear way of thinking he disdains—thinking concerned ends. Every time a helmet gets shifted, the end—the invasion of the settlement—is presupposed.
The magistrate then describes a visit by Colonel Joll. One night, at two o’clock in the morning, the magistrate awakes to a pounding at his door: a soldier asks him where the warrant officer—Mandel—is. But Mandel is no longer here, and the warrant officer relays this to Joll. The magistrate catches a glimpse of Joll through the carriage glass, but the Colonel closes and locks the door to his vehicle before the magistrate has a chance to speak with him. The magistrate taps on the glass of the carriage door, but Joll utterly ignores him. Finally, Joll’s men brush the magistrate away from the carriage, and a stone strikes the roof of Joll’s car, and then a second one, which nearly hits the magistrate himself. After an escort of the Colonel’s comes running up to announce that there is nothing left for them to take—that all the horses were taken by Mandel’s men—the magistrate tells him to stable their horses, come inside to the barracks, eat, and tell him their story of campaigning on the frontier.
The tables have certainly turned: whereas before, the magistrate was despised by the townspeople and injured by some of them, now they have even more contempt for Joll and his men, and try to injure them. Ironically, though Mandel tried to strip the magistrate of all his humanity and civility, and made him devolve into a nearly bestial state, and though Joll beat the magistrate down during his last visit, the magistrate has retained a sense of civility, reason, and decorum that far exceeds the two officers, since he’s even willing to house and feed Joll despite their past conflicts and Joll’s brutal acts.
The men, however—as the magistrate points out—are starved and exhausted, and barely pay any attention to him. The magistrate stares through the window and observes the silhouette of Joll. Though he feels an urge to “smash the glass, to reach in and drag the man out through the jagged hole, to feel his flesh catch and tear on the edges,” he resists. Then, the magistrate notes that—as though Joll had sensed these murderous intentions—the Colonel slinks across the carriage seat and stares at him through the glass. The magistrate observes that Joll’s glasses are gone.
Despite the civility of the magistrate’s outward appearance, within him, a fiery lust for violent revenge ensues, highlighting the ironic fact which Coetzee exposes about the relationship between civility and “barbarism”: they’re always connected, since their individual meanings are mutually dependent. The disappearance of Joll’s glasses symbolizes that he’s been forced to see the truth of his weakness and flawed sense of certainty and entitlement. Furthermore, his eyes (and thus his own secret interior) are now exposed to others, as he has lost the protection of his power and arrogance.
After another brick hits Joll’s carriage, thrown from townsfolk watching from above, an assistant of the Colonel’s comes running up and shouts that they must get on their way. The magistrate, however, grips this assistant’s arm and demands to know what happened on the frontier. Reluctantly, the man tells the magistrate that the expeditionary force is “gone. Scattered. All over the place.” He says that he has no idea where they are—that they had to find their own way, since it was not possible to stick together. Still pursuing more information, the magistrate demands to know how, exactly, the barbarians were capable of exacting such a defeat upon Joll’s forces. The sobbing man replies that his company froze in the mountains and went hungry in the desert, and that they had no idea the conditions would be as such. The barbarians, he says, lured Joll’s forces on and on; uncatchable, the barbarians kept their distance and picked off Joll’s troops one by one.
It seems that it’s precisely Joll’s sense of certainty and entitlement—his feeling certain that the barbarians would be no match for his expeditionary force, and his feeling that the Empire was entitled to the land, lives, bodies, and minds of the barbarians—that caused this tragic defeat. Further, Joll’s assistant’s description of the battle makes it sound like the barbarians effortlessly defeated Joll’s troops—that they conveyed a combat prowess and knowledge of how to use the land militarily that far superseded the utter lack of strategy by Joll, who entered the desert with a child unfit to be a guide and said he’d figure out his military strategy when he arrived in the barbarians’ territory.
After Joll’s carriage and company leave, the magistrate’s narration shifts, and he says that digging on one of the settlement’s well-sites (the third) has stopped. He and the diggers he employs have a brief conversation. The diggers say that they are unable to dig where the magistrate directed, as they’ve found that they’re on top of a grave full of randomly discarded and improperly buried corpses. The errant bones make digging very difficult, but more importantly suggest that a less than desirable quality of water will be extracted from the area. The magistrate climbs into the pit they’ve dug, and when he tries to dig further, he strikes bone himself. They agree that the digging must begin closer to the wall of the ruins.
The grave of improperly buried corpses eerily stings of being a place where Joll had his men dispose of torture victims he ended up murdering, but which the magistrate never knew about—prisoners either at his own or at other frontier settlements, or victims of past “Jolls” in past incarnations of the settlement. The fact that such bones would taint the water supply of the settlement is a haunting but ironic testament to the flaws inherent in the “new men of Empire’s” desire to forge fresh starts wherein the past cannot be traced. Even the dead bodies of the desert show up in the very water that keeps the settlers alive.
The magistrate describes a dream where he’s in the well-pit, digging again. He feels under the surface of the water, searching for bones, but his hand discovers part of a woven sack that’s rotten and which crumbles in his hands. After next discovering a fork, the magistrate uncovers a dead parrot with empty eye sockets and sagging wings. Yet when he releases the dead bird, it falls through the surface of the water without any agitation—without a splash. He then thinks “poisoned water”—he must take caution not to drink where he’s dropped the parrot. “I must not touch my right hand to my mouth,” he says.
This dream differs from the magistrate’s usual recurring dream, but echoes the feeling that the horror of past actions can never be totally erased. The magistrate continues to “dig” and seek to uncover truths, even if those truths of past atrocities “poison” the present.
The magistrate then says that he hasn’t slept with a woman since he returned from his expedition to return the barbarian girl to her people. He tries to invoke memories of his massaging rituals—and, though he’s successful in conjuring up vivid images, it ultimately brings no visceral, bodily satisfaction. Burdened by regular erections which he cannot relieve with actual sex, he visits the herbalist to get a remedy for his problem—he’s given milkroot. Yet, though he devotedly takes his concoction daily, the magistrate still feels like he’s not attending fully to the problem.
It's ironic that now, when the magistrate fantasizes about the barbarian girl and finds that he can imagine vibrant and detailed images, he gets no visceral satisfaction, when the very opposite was the case before: the barbarian girl lacked animation and excitement, but the magistrate found an intoxicatingly pleasure in their massaging ritual.
The magistrate therefore calls on Mai—the inn has closed down, since there were too few customers—to come help in the barracks kitchen. Mai, very thankful for the opportunity to work at the barracks (alongside her mother), tells the magistrate that she wishes there were something nice she could offer him. In response, the magistrate tells her that he wants her to follow him upstairs. Mai, not wanting to leave her baby alone in the kitchen, wraps it and brings it up to the magistrate’s room. Settling the infant on some cushions in a corner, she undresses, and she and magistrate have sex.
Again, the less than civil side behind the otherwise highly civilized surface of the magistrate expresses itself through his sexuality. The magistrate rather boldly and disrespectfully uses Mai’s offer as an inroad to satisfying his sexual needs, and Mai, being in a position of need, likely feels obligated to appease him. Still, Mai ultimately doesn’t express bitterness or discontent at the situation, even though it ends quickly.
The magistrate and Mai discuss the barbarian girl. Mai says that she—and everyone else who knew the girl—liked the girl very much, since she never complained and always did what she was asked. The magistrate and Mai have intercourse again.
For the very reasons that the magistrate disliked the barbarian girl—that she was stolid, not vocal about her feelings, and passive—Mai did like her.
Later, Mai says that she doesn’t want to think about the barbarians, since “life is too short to spend worrying about the future.” Further, she tells the magistrate that she knows she doesn’t please him during sex—she can always sense that he’s “somewhere else.” Mai then says that the barbarian girl told her the same thing about the magistrate—that he was always “somewhere else.” Mai adds that the girl was incapable of understanding the magistrate, of knowing what he wanted from her. The magistrate is surprised to learn that Mai and the girl were so intimate, and Mai explains that she often visited the barracks’ kitchen when the girl was working. She says that they would share with each other what was on their minds, and that sometimes the girl would cry and cry—that the magistrate made the girl very unhappy.
Mai’s comment that life is too short to worry about the future reflects the magistrate’s own distaste for the linear sense of time, concerned always with ends, which he attributes to the way the thoughts of the Empire’s citizens are organized after a certain age. Also, the fact that both Mai and the barbarian girl have noted that the magistrate is always “somewhere else” whenever he’s had sex with them ironically hints at the magistrate’s inability to participate in sex without being concerned about its ending. Unable to be present during sex, the magistrate commits the very crime of thought he despises.
The magistrate says that this comment by Mai opens “a door through which a wind of utter desolations blows” upon him. He tells Mai that she doesn’t understand—that there’s a whole side of the story she doesn’t know, since the barbarian girl could never have told her it since she didn’t know it herself. The two are silent, but the magistrate eventually says that, perhaps, when the barbarians arrive at their settlement, the girl will be with them. But Mai says that she’s terrified—that sometimes, when she imagines what might happen, she’s stopped in her tracks by fear. The magistrate consoles her, assuring her that the barbarians will harm neither the children of the town nor anyone else, for that matter.
The magistrate continues to be haunted by his past relationship to the barbarian girl, which continues to remain frustrating and inscrutable to him. The magistrate’s claim that there’s a side of the story that Mai doesn’t know at once suggests his continued attempt to connect to her and affirms the distance between them, which he tried so hard to close and thought was bridgeable—thinking that he could uncover a hidden depth within her. The magistrate continues to feel detached from the tangible sense of fear the other townspeople are living with.
The magistrate then says that Mai sleeps better downstairs in the kitchen—she likes to wake up near the fire and also to have her child with her in bed. It’s also better if Mai’s mother doesn’t know where she stays her nights. The magistrate concludes that he, too, thought his relationship with her was a mistake, and says that he doesn’t want to visit Mai again—though, for an evening or two, he “experience[s] a quiet, fickle sadness, before [he] begin[s] to forget.”
The magistrate’s relation with Mai, though nothing much more than sexual, was rather short-lived, which suggests that the magistrate, once again caught up in finding a specific end, a certain idea of sexual or emotional gratification—characteristic of the very linear thinking he disdains—was inevitably disappointed by Mai.
The magistrate then discusses how, in the evenings, as long as his ration of firewood lasts, he will occupy himself with his old hobbies, such as trying to decipher the language on the wooden slips. He says that it would be a noble gesture to the ancient inhabitants of the desert to write a history of his settlement—a history for which no one but the previous magistrate, himself, would be better qualified. However, whenever the magistrate sits down to write this history, he seems unable to write anything besides an account of the inhabitants’ psychology and their love for their settlement—about how they “lived with nothing between [them] and the stars,” and “would have made any concession, had [they] only known what, to go on living here,” since it was “paradise on earth.”
The magistrate’s inability to write an accurate history of his settlement in favor of writing a vague and romantic portrait of the townspeople speaks to two important themes explored in the novel. First, the magistrate’s less than diligent dedication to writing the fort’s true history contradicts his philosophy about struggling with the past and recording a direct truth for posterity. Second, the fact that he favors writing about how the settlers supposedly had a pure connection with the universe or stars shows that he’d rather write about history from the cyclical view of nature and the seasons—from the rotating celestial sphere. He also clearly idealizes how the settlement was before the arrival of Joll and his men, subtly comparing this pre-Empire settlement to the idea of a child’s purer sense of time and life itself.
The magistrate imagines that, perhaps at the end of winter, when either he and the rest of the settlement’s inhabitants are either cold and starving or threatened by the presence of barbarians—perhaps then he will “abandon the locutions of a civil servant with literary ambitions” and actually start telling the truth of what happened. The magistrate then says how he thinks he wanted to live beyond, outside, of history—to live outside of the mode of perceiving time which the Empire forces onto its subjects. He says that he never wanted the barbarians to have the history of the Empire forced upon them. While he’s lived through a lot in the past year, he doesn’t understand it any more than a “babe in arms,” and that, of all the people in the settlement, he’s the one least fit to write the town’s history.
Even though the magistrate seems to prefer entertaining his more literary and philosophical inclinations when trying to write the history of the settlement, he still intends to abandon his romanticism when the circumstances are right. Further, it’s as if the magistrate’s traumatic imprisonment and sensitivity to Joll’s mistreatment of the barbarians have made him at once the most knowledgeable, but the least level-headed, potential writer of a history of the town.
The novel ends with the magistrate narrating a scene that resembles his recurring dream, only it actually is from real life. He crosses the barracks yard, which is inches deep in snow, and his “footsteps crunch with an eerie lightness.” Children are playing in the center of the square, building a snowman, and the magistrate walks towards them. The children, unlike in the dream, are not alarmed, for they are too engrossed in building the snowman to pay the magistrate any attention. The magistrate notes that one of the children—the leader of the group—orders that someone gets objects for the snowman’s mouth, nose, and eyes, and the magistrate says that “it strikes me that the snowman will need arms too, but I do not want to interfere.” After the children have finished putting the snowman together, the magistrate says it’s not bad. He concludes that this scene is not the one he dreamed of, and that—like a lot of things nowadays—he leaves it feeling “stupid, like a man who lost his way long ago but presses on along a road that may lead somewhere.”
The magistrate’s ending comment about feeling like he lost his way long ago, but that he nevertheless persists along a potentially destination-less path, implies that the he has begun to enter the kind of cyclical perception of time that he always dreamed about, but not quite—it’s not the miraculous flux of endless time he’s always romanticized. As symbolized by the discordance between the magistrate’s dream and the real scene resembling it in the town square, the ends for which the magistrate has dreamed have never fully arrived. Most especially, his dream of a pure form of cyclical time is revealed to be one such idealized end that the reality of his new directionless-ness doesn’t accurately reflect. Coetzee ends the novel with a typical sense of ambiguity, as the magistrate and the settlement move into a hazy future that may just be another repetition of the past. Many events have taken place, but we must wonder if anything has really been learned and if anything will really change.