by Natasha Moodley
On his left arm, there was a sore that festered in the heat. Trudging heavily, his breath came short and ragged. Red mush was in a dark rim with puss that spluttered in bubbles. A stray finger gnawed at the sore.
There was drumming in his ears, then the flies buzzed around it. Quick, quick, get them off! It was voices, whimpers of girls and the fretting of Bettina that had brought him. Her constant worrying that they were withering.
Eyes scrunched by the sun looked around. Trailing the rusty iron prod and nets, he moved closer.
It was a sister at the clinic, who had told her that eating mainly pap was not good, for in some African countries this had been known to cause rickets, which she described as a funny bending in the knees and feet. Zanele, their youngest, was already beginning to walk funny.
Fifty metres from the Lake he heard the rumble, not so quiet.
She had nattered that sleeping on the hard floor was flattening Selina, their eldest, who would soon be a woman. How did Klaas expect her to find a husband, with a white girl’s behind?
His movements grew stealthier as he approached. Nerves carousing through his body like live wire.
When they had worked at the big house, Bettina had complained less. She would watch her favourite soap-Generations-while doing her ironing in the laundry room. It was no matter that the small, television, was black and white and that ever so often she would have to smack it, to bring the picture back, as long as she got to see Archie Moroka, she was happy. Also there were the leftovers from lunch to take back for the children.
He picked at the sore tracing the rough scab on its rim. Puss slithered beneath his fingernail.
Klaas was a ‘piece boy’, working a piece here and another there. He too, missed working for baas doing the garden, even in summer, when it sweltered and the work was hard.
It happened one day, when the couple was upstairs arguing. Baas, who was a Director for a big bank, had lost his job. Apparently, he did not meet his targets. Missus believed that it was all a smoke screen, for the board really wanted to bring in an affirmative action candidate, to secure more government business. It was greed but Bettina and Klaas had to go.
In the quiet he heard the bay, with the wind whipping the water.
Historically, people living close to Lake St. Lucia fished using spears and long sticks to either stab or stun fish, like shellfish. To catch them, the catcher must wade into the water until he is knee-deep, and then seduce them with the net.
He cupped his heart but the beating would not settle down. When a carer of the earth is afraid he gets his strength from the soil by turning it over, feeling the red cloths in his fingernails and then from patting it down again. With sandy hands he stood twenty metres from the water’s edge and sucked the air for calm.
Glancing around before sitting on his haunches he observed the sides of the bank that were sopping with mud. Medium sized pink prawns swam closely from one shallow pan to the next. Catching the rays of midday light, their pink shells appeared to be almost obscene in the myriad of convulsing brown mud. Since the prawns almost huddled together, they would be easier to catch than the bigger fish that darted about nimbly.
In the heat of the day the water felt cold-an icy, creepy feeling of pools sliding around his boots in menacing circles. Immersed knee high, he looked around. The only movements were from rustling leaves and the only sounds were the omnipotent rumblings of running water, grunts and growls. Panicking at every stir would be pointless.
With the prod in his right hand and the semblance of a net in his left he faced the bank. It would be simple-stab with the right and then gather with the left, stab and gather, stab and gather. He deliberated and then moved with a fierceness that squashed the fish into mush. As he tried to extricate the white softness from the mud, he realised that the force was too much-he needed to stun and not squash.
He brought the prod down again, this time quicker but with less intensity, it fell into a tangle of seaweed. Vexed he freed it and waited before bringing it down in clean strike. The water leapt up as some fish scuttled. Others floated dazed, on trails of mud. Quickly he gathered them in the net and continued to stab and gather. Fifteen minutes later he smiled weakly. His net was just a little over a quarter full.
The rumblings went dormant in the heat as silence fell on the day. Moist beads of perspiration stained his hat. He swallowed in great balls to ease the dryness cutting his throat. The quiet had unnerved him. The quiet scared him. His instinct had a raspy voice- if you’re afraid that means you’re still alive. Move.
Trailing his load and prod he started to leap through the water sending flailing sprays into the air. He clamoured up the bank and then made a mad dash away from the water’s edge stopping only when he was a safe distance away. Doubling over and gasping the urine dribbled unchecked.
Breathing easier he rested in the cool of abandoned leaves. He spied a spot in the shade that would make a shallow bed for his catch. Slowly, he eased the net into the slightly damp earth and covered it with stray leaves. The fish slumped limply with their movements going slighter.
The walk home would be long but at least Bettina would have something to cook. He had made a fair catch without coming to harm but there was disappointment in the day as the other net remained empty. If only he had stayed in the water a little longer and filled the other one–partially at least. No harm had come to him, after all. Bettina would be able to buy bread, matches, and fill paraffin in their lamp and maybe a little gas in their stove with just a few extra Rands. It would be nice to see his girls smiling, his wife humming as she tore the fleshy bits free from their shells. If they had a little extra to sell, Bettina would be so proud of him perhaps even smile their alone smile- moistening her lips and then mouthing a gasp. With all the years behind them, when Bettina smiled like that, Klaas still felt a rush in the neck.
Empty handed he walked toward the bank, hesitant. The saltiness of the sea clung to him. Ten metres from the water’s edge, he knelt on the ground and tried to listen. What he was listening for, he was unsure.
The rumbling of running water and animal noise was pervasive, echoing everywhere, sounding no different closer to the ground. Klaas remembered how Baas used to tease him when he caught him speaking to plants. Despite this, Klaas believed that the plants could tell him when they were swollen with seeds and ready for germination or if they were suffering from the ravages of unseen pests. The roots were in a quandary, divided in opinion, what message could they bring? A grown man should know his own mind.
In Dante’s Medieval Inferno, the fitting punishment for the sin of greed was for the sinner to be immersed in a boiling cauldron of oil. Dante devised this extreme punishment, for in medieval thought, the desire for more, was at the root of all sins.
He held the prod with a knowing hand and the net lingered at his heels while he scouted the scene. They huddled from one shallow pan to the next unperturbed by the looming shadow. Flecking the flies away he watched. There were nerves but the debilitating fear had given way, at least for the moment.
He entered the water of a side slough, and faced the bank, with his back turned to the great expanse of a winding waterway. Swiftly the prod came down on a shell splattering white fleshiness into mush. The force was too much. Save your strength. Calculate before striking.
He made a bold strike paralysing the fish. Quickly he gathered three large prawns into the net. Stab and gather. Stab and gather. Pink and white layers rose in the net. The water ricocheted off his knees as he stopped and removed his hat to wipe his forehead. Just a little longer before he could leave. Stab and gather. Stab and gather.
Something gleamed faintly in the midday light. One stout leg entered the water and then the other. It shoved its trunk forward effortlessly until the dark, scaly hide was hidden by wetness. There was a faint stir as it pulled into a tight line. They gleamed again, like two pieces of broken glass. The tail stiffened as it glided swiftly, through the water.
With satisfaction, Klaas looked at his net. It was a quarter full. He did well but his pleasure was disturbed by the sudden feeling that something was there. He turned his head. It was just the water and the sun playing tricks. It was only the leaves and flies making noises. Just a few more, before he could leave.
He raised the prod and then stabbed catching only stone. Irked that he was thrown off, he stabbed forcefully and split a shell open, exposing the white meat. Then he heard another sound, more distinct this time. He stopped and let out a breath. Turning shakily, he saw them. Five metres away green flecks were gleaming, on a tight line that darted closer.
Shaking he dropped his net and prod. The long tail swished and pushed the dark body forward forcefully. It was getting closer. Roused by the smell of his own breath and instinct, he started to move, frantically, pulling his legs through the water trying to half lunge, half run. He made a desperate bolt, to get to the bank. Dry land is your only chance.
He could hear the crocodile grunting, imminent. Then the whole Lake seemed to laugh in an evil frenzy. Hippo sounds, humming leaves and flies were hysterical. Two hundred and fifty kilograms was coming at him. The crocodile raised its trunk out of the water and with its grisly jaws locked it struck Klaas with a blow across the head. He fell hard, like an old tree.
The midday sun blazed on as he faced teeth, like mountaintops. The jaws were wide baring large cones with crusts of yellow and brown. Sour breath reeked. The crocodile snapped its jaws over his armpit and Klaas let out a horrific scream. His arm was being ripped from his body as he was twisted in and out of the water. Seaweed slithered into his mouth forcing him to splutter and gasp. With his free hand, he tried to beat it over the head, weakly.
The crocodile dragged him further into the Lake before rolling him in a deadly circle. Incisors rammed deeper into his flesh, he swirled in a pool of chunky red cloths. Bones crackled. A last scream before he sank into the underworld where blackness would come.
The smell of crisp, toasted Sesame buns and grilling beef made Bettina and her girls edgy. The aromas of freshly fried chips, fresh lettuce together with the cool of mayonnaise and tomato slices wafted through the room in tantalising waves. As they waited, they stared at the ground intensely-as if they were concentrating their energy into a single spot. The aroma of cooking food was an unbearable taunt and after a bit the youngest of the girls relented. She looked up at the cashier expectantly but another number was called. Her eyes averted to the ground once more.
The broad shouldered stranger wore a sturdy hat, a pair of ‘bush’ pants and the vest of a fisherman, decorated with feathers and hooks. Slippery mouthed diners crunched on their burgers and looked at the ensemble curiously. In St. Lucia it was unusual to find an older white male with an African woman and her children out at a MacDonalds outlet. Verne crushed the slip between his thumb and index finger edging closer to the till. The smell of food and cooking oil was suffocating. Four trays laden with hamburgers, soft drinks and chips were plonked onto the counter. Finally, their number was called.
With a coke in his left hand and the door in the other, he watched Bettina and the girls file out. The youngest girl had a finger latched onto a chip. Bettina reproached her with a fierce stare.
“Please don’t wait for me. I am just having a drink. I couldn’t possibly eat in this heat. You go ahead,” said Verne.
“Thank you. We are hungry,” replied Bettina.
Despite himself, he could not help but think that for the hungry there is little restraint as he watched them settle their broad lips over the Sesame buns. He did not want to embarrass them so he looked away only to hear liquid being slurped in great gulps. As he sipped his coke he stole a look and watched them guzzle chips and buns. Placing his coke on the table, he remarked, “Bettina, maybe the girls should slow down, we don’t want them to choke now?”
He waited for a few seconds while Bettina swallowed. “They’ll be fine,” she said and continued to eat.
Worry was not a deterrent, as they had gone without a solid meal for too long. Klaas was a man of routine habits. When he did not come home that evening, Bettina had been frantic, pacing, searching up and down the road long into the night. The next day she went to her neighbours for help. No one had seen him. Word was sent out and a group of men went to the town centre to look for him. They came back without news and Bettina and her daughters suffered a night of uncertainty, until the following morning, when a youth from the camp brought the broad shouldered stranger to their door.
“Thank you for the meal,” she mustered.
“Don’t mention it,” he said.
The trays were empty.
“My husband, you have news?”
“Yes. I’m afraid it’s not good.”
“Is he dead?”
When Bettina made up a fresh bed, she would get a certain feeling. First, she would take the pressed sheets out of the cupboard and sniff them, breathing in the scent of steam from a hot iron, which sometimes lingered. Once the sheet covered the mattress, she would slowly run her hands over it to smooth out wayward creases. Then the pillows would be fluffed before they were placed next to each other, gently. At this stage, the bed was ready for another sheet, which Bettina would tuck in firmly. It would be straight and taut carrying just enough tension. Slowly, the duvet would slide over in a crescendo where the whole bed would come together seamlessly. Then Bettina would pause until the feeling passed. No one made up a bed quite like Bettina, Missus used to say.
She looked through the small window of the door and saw the beige curtains hanging limply. She looked at the bed- a solitary figure in the sparsely furnished room-with its sheets bunched into a mound. Bettina swallowed. Then she rested her forehead against the door and took a deep breath. The sheets she once pressed at the big house were so white and crisp. She tried to recall that feeling she sometimes would get after making up her favourite bed but she could not muster the feeling of a job well done, of certain tenderness and sweetness wrapped into one.
Verne touched her shoulder and asked,
“Wait outside with them. I’ll go in first. Please”, Bettina replied.
“As you like”
His dark body was hooked to a gargoyle of beeping contraptions. He looked small and frail in the mound of sheets. Bettina steadied herself against the metal handrail of the hospital bed; at least he was still alive. Under her breath she muttered gratitude that he had not been taken from her. No movement came from the bed. When she saw it, she sat down.
His left arm was covered in a bubble of thin plastic. Bettina looked through the bag and saw bits of flesh clinging to the bone of his arm. She jerked her head away from the ghastly sight. Tears rolled unchecked. With fuzzy eyes she forced herself to look again and take in the sight of the barely covered bone. Where it had flesh-sinew or tissue- it was a pussy, red blob, with holes that were punctured with deep tunnels. From one hole she could make out the bold whiteness of the sheet. The skin was split roughly in sections running into ragged edges.
The door opened and a nurse followed by a doctor entered the room. As they approached her she dabbed her eyes with the back of her hands.
The doctor explained, “this must be very distressing for you.’
“He is a lot better than he looks. He’s lost a lot of blood and his body absorbed tremendous shock and naturally, trauma. Then there’s the risk of infection.
You understand that he will have to stay here for at least another two to three weeks?”
Bettina did not answer.
The nurse interjected, “He is going to be alright. He is going to survive this.”
The doctor confirmed, “Yes he is a tough one. Of course, he will never have the use of his left arm again.”
He was lying face down in a mud slough when they found him. His arm was covered in shreds of cotton drenched in blood. Gushes of red had found their way into the sodden earth.
Looking around first, the Ranger stepped into the water. He poked the body with a stick but there was no movement. Sitting on his haunches, he turned the body around. When he looked at the man’s arm, he saw the wounds gapping and wide. For a second, Klaas opened his eyes weakly.
“This one’s still alive,” the Ranger said.
For the patrol unit it had been a long week but it had been worth it. First, they arrested a suspect with a hoard of 134kg of prawns and then later they had caught another suspect in Empangeni with a hoard of 186kg of prawns. And now if the man would survive the attack… this would be a real opportunity. To learn.
The Ranger waited anxiously for the days to pass. Klaas regained his strength slowly and it was weeks later when he was finally taken of the drip and could get solid food down. Arresting the man was not a consideration as he was only a small time subsistence poacher and besides, the Ranger felt that he had been punished enough. News of the attack spread quickly through the sleepy, coastal village and the locals took a keen interest in man’s recovery.
After the patrol unit had rushed Klaas to the hospital the Ranger called on a local breeder named Verne. Not much was learnt from the site- the shallow mud slough- where Klaas was found with his face covered in mud. Verne believed that it was likely for the attack to have taken place close to the bank. In all probability, the crocodile took the man, when he was a metre or two away from the water’s edge. The croc then would have dragged him, underwater, further into the Lake.
It was a good strike-no nice little snip and tuck. From the damage, it was clear that the man had been well and truly impaled on the thick-walled teeth, erect in the outside of the crocodile’s jaw. Even if Klaas had put up a fierce fight, he had little hope of freeing himself from its jaws. The crocodile should have then gulped him down. Instead he was found washed up on the bank?
Verne speculated that if it were an older croc, one scenario could have been that when it snapped its jaws, there was a chance that a tooth broke off, startling the croc for a moment. Klaas, maybe, could have freed himself and made an escape. Still though, the croc could have attacked again.
Hard work never killed anyone, Bettina’s mother used to say. So, it was not the work she minded but the smell of grease that clung to her hair. She wrapped her head tightly in a doek yet she always left for the day smelling like frying chips. Not that she was complaining as they had plenty to eat, these days, with all the leftovers, and she was never bored in the hot and busy kitchen.
She tied a knot at the top of the green refuse bag and lifted it into the nearly full dumpster, which stood in a tiny passageway off the back entrance to the kitchen. Flies buzzed merrily around the bags. Bettina smiled thinking that the farm had no shortage of flies or visitors. She was about to go back to the kitchen when she heard a voice. He was giving a talk to a group of tourists. Curiously, she stopped to listen.
“Rural people in the Philippines call crocodiles, “buwaya”- the bearers of bad tidings- for they believe that these reptiles are in league with the ‘dark forces of nature’. Sometimes they are referred to as “asuwang” or witches and are also compared to corrupt government officials, greedy businessmen and tax collectors. Currently, much is being done to improve the perception of the Filipino croc, as its negative image poses a serious extinction threat. By hunting them down, the locals believe that they are ridding themselves of bad luck. Considered to be the most endangered croc species in the world, today the Filipino croc barely survives in the wild.
In St Lucia, despite our poaching problems, we are fortunate that our crocodiles are our only wetland hunters. I can safely say that our local population has a healthy respect for our crocs….”
As the voices drifted toward him, his back tensed. He was a lone shadow on the lawn, a sliver of a stick falling on twelve o’ clock. At the top there was a split into an inverted v, where the inimitable gardener’s hat sat. He held the hose against his side letting the water pour onto the bed. Steady now. Move on to the next bed and keep staring at the ground. Breathe and count. He knew the drill and parts of the talk by heart. Verne and the group stopped to the right of him about ten paces away. Only a slight pause before
“What disturbs me most about this Filipino, ‘superstitious nonsense’? By the way, is any one here from the Philippines? .. Good…Thought so. Not that it would have mattered, is that crocodiles eat to survive. By no means, can you call them greedy. These reptiles have highly acidic stomachs-in fact the most acidic recorded for any vertebrate. They are able to digest even bones and shells and are able to devour their prey in one go. So, crocodiles do not have to feed often.
When they do feed, I assure you, it’s a good one.”
Tense moments for Klaas as Verne turned toward him and winked. A routine they had worked though many times before yet Klaas felt the same anxiety.
In the grips of an enigmatic orator, they listened. Steady now. It won’t be long.
“The Nile crocodile hunts by getting close to its prey and then lying concealed. When there is little distance between them, the croc will surge up with a great burst of speed and will knock its victim down before snapping him up in its jaws.”
Purposefully he moved to the side of the group-to an ideal spotting spot- as Verne had coined it. Klaas knew to be unobtrusive, to be a prop in the background waiting for his cue.
“Ladies and gentleman, the only known survivor of a crocodile attack in the whole of St Lucia, believe it or not is with us today. Not known for words, he won’t address you. But if you turn to your right you will see one of our gardeners, Klaas.
His survival was a true miracle. Shortly after the attack, he lost consciousness. What Klaas does remember is being in the jaws of the croc. To know the power of the beast one has to feel it. For us, the closest example, I guess, would be to imagine that a massive earthquake hit the world at once and that the earth was cracking on every continent. For Klaas it seemed like every bone in his body was breaking at once.
Believe it or not, he tried to hit the croc, over the head. But it was a weak attempt. Limp, with his arm in the jaws of the beast, he could not resist as it shoved him in and out of the water. Then inexplicably, the croc simply let go- as if to spew him out- before sinking into the water and gliding away.”
His cue had come. With his right hand, he waved vigorously at the group forcing the left one to dangle. A stricken pause, before a slight wave came back at him.