BABY AND THE BOER
The Boer’s cheeks
creased as he squinted his eyes against the African light, and as
the pick-up truck jolted down the rutted road, he felt a surge of
dread. It had been three weeks since he had seen Serafina and her
baby, but somehow they continually managed to creep into his thoughts,
usually when he least expected it.
The sun was
fever hot now, ash-white, rolling to the west. A few yards ahead,
cacti basked in the pounding dayshine like green porcupines, and the
clouds cast shadows over the dull earth. The landscape here never
seemed to change. It was perennially dry, shamefully barren. Scrubby
bushes swayed in the breeze as the pick-up truck passed by, and dust
veiled the tops of jagged rocks, powdering them pale. The Boer allowed
the pick-up truck to coast downhill toward the township, and heard
pebbles striking the fender. The faster he went, the harder the pebbles
hit, but this did not bother him.
When the Boer
reached the bottom of the hill, he parked near the graveyard, and
headed into the Sorry Supermarket. A shrunken, old black man stood
behind the counter smoking a pipe. He can’t have been used to seeing
white people here, yet he remained expressionless, and the Boer saw
that although the man’s eyes were wide open, the irises were covered
with a thin film of milky blue.
the Boer said.
The man nodded
in response, and the Boer put a warm bottle of Coke and his money
down on the counter, glancing at the sticky blue sweets, the Lifebuoy
soap, and the bunches of small green bananas stacked on the shelves.
The Boer drank
the Coke out by his pick up truck looking out over the sandy bush.
What few trees there were coiled and twisted at odd angles, their
branches like deformed arms and fingers. Their roots were conspicuously
large, delving deep into the soil. In some places there was no vegetation
at all, just cracking earth baked hard by the sun. Old people sat
on their haunches outside some of the shacks, or lay on cushions or
mattresses among whorls of golden-gray dust. The Boer thought he could
make out Serafina's hut, a mere speck in the distance. A smudge of
smoke hung there, in the still air like an inky thumbprint on a piece
of blue paper.
husband, had been angry. He had blamed the Boer for leaving Serafina
in the field - but it wasn’t his fault she’d died. These things happened,
and this had been her first baby, birthed in the long grass and cornstalks.
It would be almost a month old now.
Wiping his mouth
on the back of his hand, the Boer started toward the cluster of huts.
Clouds of dust curled around his feet as he walked, and he stepped
over tatters of newspaper and fragments of filthy rags. He saw a pile
of rusty scrap metal and two goats, a black one and a white one, tethered
to a post.
As the Boer
drew closer, some of the children stopped playing to look at him.
Others ran into their homes. The younger adults averted their eyes,
and the older ones stared impassively right through him, which was
perhaps the most disconcerting of all. At last, he reached Serafina's
compound. He recognized it by the makeshift fence of logs and cans.
It was ghostly quiet. No chickens scratched in the sand, and no goats
chewed on the half-burned pile of rubbish. A tarpaulin canopy had
come un-nailed from all but one of its posts and rode on the wind
like a large, white flag. The Boer craned his neck to look into the
dark mouth-like opening of the hut. He couldn’t see anything. Puzzled,
he backed away, turning toward the people whom Sipho and Serafina
might have called their neighbors.
A pregnant woman
sat on a wooden stool busily shucking corn. A young girl who was wearing
nothing but an oversized T-shirt and a white plastic belt assisted
her. The girl’s skimpy outfit accentuated her skinny legs, which seemed
unusually long. Her tiny braids made a thin, black wreath around her
"Is Sipho here?"
pregnant woman wiped the sweat off her forehead."Ai, no! Sipho noooooo!"
The woman shrugged
and said something to the girl.
"She know just
little Afrikaans," the girl said. "She say she no seeing Sipho."
"Did he go to
"Maybe he go."
the baby? Did he take the baby?"
girl said. Frowning, she turned to the woman and said something in
Oshiwambo. The woman shook her head. "She say no baby," the girl translated.
and resumed their work. The Boer started back to his truck. As he
walked through the dust, he saw that someone was watching him. The
man's woolen hat was tilted forward, and he leaned against the shell
of a beat-up red car smoking a cigarette while watching a little boy
play with a stick, drawing circle after circle in the cindrous earth.
You look for Sipho?
The Boer nodded,
looking out at the surrounding desert. The ashen rocks lying in the
dried out grass reminded him of skulls.
The man took
a long drag on his cigarette. "Sipho just go," he said.
"And what about
"There is no
baby," the man said, slowly and deliberately. The Boer followed the
man’s eyes, and then he understood. At the edge of the burial ground
was a tiny grave marked by a white plastic cross, encrusted with dirt.
The Boer licked
his dry lips, tasting again the sickly sweetness of the Coke. The
afternoon light shook away from him slowly and painfully.
"No?" he managed.
"No baby." The
man pulled his hat down low and his little son put down the knobby
drawing-stick. The boy looked up at the Boer, who saw his reflection
in the child’s eyes, tiny and distant in circles of inky black. Disconcerted,
he looked away.