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The Baby And The Boer - Elizabeth Lowry

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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.

"Hello Tate..." 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.

Sipho, Serafina’s 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 head.

"Is Sipho here?"

"Sipho?" The 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 Ovamboland?"

"Maybe he go."

"What about the baby? Did he take the baby?"

"Baby?" the 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.

They nodded 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.

"Howzit, man? 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 the baby?"

"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.


Elizabeth Stamford lives in New York City, USA.



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