Bush Tales by Maggie Ritchie
My dad had brought in graduates from Lusaka to teach in the new college, but they had to leave in a lorry in the middle of the night.
‘They didn’t have the right tribal scars on their faces to protect them from the witchdoctor’s bad medicine,’ Dad told the Jacobs when they came for a visit.
The farmer laughed and wrapped a big arm around Dad’s stiff shoulders. ‘Don’t worry my bru. There are plenty more college kids with fancy degrees. Not enough reliable farmhands, that’s my trouble. Forget about it. Have a cold one.’
The Jacobs had brought a case of beer for the grown-ups and biltong for us kids. Mrs Jacobs kissed Mum and settled down next to her on the verandah sofa; the men sat on the wicker armchairs. On the coffee table a tray held the Johnnie Walker Black Label, soda siphon, ice bucket and a silver box with stale cigarettes. Sitting on the red tiled floor, I chewed on a salty leather strip, my back against Mr Jacobs’ solid brown legs.
Fireflies spiralled through the blackness like sparks from a bonfire and bullfrogs pushed obscene croaks into the night. The women’s murmurings twined around each other and drifted out into the dark. The men’s rumbling voices were easier to hear – and their stories more gripping.
There had been a panga murder in the village the night before. A man from another tribe had come to study at the new college and had been sleeping with all the wives and girlfriends. He’d been chopped into little pieces.
‘They had to use a dustpan and brush to sweep him up,’ Mr Jacobs said.
‘Christ, what a country,’ Dad said.
Mr Jacobs laughed. ‘You’ll be all right, James, They’re like children. Just show them who’s boss, ja? Get yourself a gun and patrol the perimeter fence at night.’
‘I saw a snake today,’ my mum said, her voice thickened by whisky. ‘A green loop hanging off the verandah roof. It swung its head down, looked at me and hissed. Its mouth was black inside.’
‘Black mamba. You don’t want to mess with one of those,’ said Mr Jacobs.
‘I thought it was rather pretty,’ Mum said. ‘Come on kids, last one in bed’s a hairy egg.’
‘Oh, Mu-u-um! Why can’t we stay here with you? I’ll be really quiet, I promise,’ I said, looking up at her tired face. Her white hands around the glass were knuckled with ruby and gold rings from the bazaar. Her hair was piled high and stuck with hairspray. She was wearing a linen dress embroidered with gold and brown lilies. She looked elegant next to Mrs Jacobs whose large bottom and chest were covered up by her floral cotton frock.
‘Come on, Lizzie,’ my brother said. He had been hanging around Mum’s neck, chewing on a strand of her long auburn hair he’d pulled free. He held out his warty, ink-stained boy’s hand and pulled me to my feet. ‘I’ll race you. I’ve got a brilliant trick we can play on Annie.’
‘Now, John, what have you got up your sleeve? She’s only a baby and I don’t want you playing tricks on her,’ Mum said, picking up my sister, a sleepy two-year-old with a tousled mop of white-blond hair that defied any brush.
My brother stood on one leg in his khaki short-sleeved shirt and shorts, one bare foot resting on the other. He leaned his sun-bleached head to one side, trying to look innocent, struggling to wipe the lopsided grin off his face. One of his front teeth had been chipped when he hit it with the back of a hammer. He’d been building a tree house ten feet up the tallest tree, the one with the smooth trunk that was hardest to climb.
‘Oh, nothing, Mum, I was only kidding. Come on, Lizzie. Last one in bed’s a hairy egg with purple spots and green snot.’
With a squeal I ran after him, my skinny legs and arms flailing in happy panic as I tried to keep up.
‘Children! What do you say to Mr and Mrs Jacobs?’ Mum said.
‘’Night, Mr and Mrs Jacobs, thank you for the biltong,’ we sang before racing off.
At the bedroom door, John stood laughing and panting. He ducked my blows and headed off to his room. I had changed into my nightie and was under the covers when he came back in his pyjamas to hover at the door. Mum came in with the baby and climbed into the double bed next to me, Annie snuggled up at one side and me at the other.
John said, ‘If you like I could get in too and make sure the girls are all right.’
‘Just until the wee one falls asleep, then,’ Mum said.
She read us our favourite scary story about horrible creatures called the Hobias who sneak into an old couple’s cottage. Their little dog, Toby, frightens them off with his barking until the old man ties up his mouth. The Hobias come back and cut up Little Dog Topy with their axes and put him in a sack. Inside, where they’d cut off his arms and legs, he was all yellow, like a sweet potato.