Death of the Mantis
Sixty Years Ago
The desert glowed in the dawn light. The Bushman boy woke from a deep sleep, still tired from the exertions of the last days. His father was already up, standing like a sentry, watching the sun creep above the horizon.
We must go on, Gobiwasi, he said. We will reach The Place today. We must travel while it is still cool. Here, chew on this as we go. He handed the boy a chunk of hoodia.
For the boy it had been a journey of heat, of sun, of exhaustion, as he tried day after day to keep up with his father. But he had offered no complaint, and now felt the thrill of discovery ahead. Today he would be at The Place! Very few people had ever seen it or even knew about it! He gathered up his few belongings, gnawed the root, and tried to match his fathers easy pace.
After about an hour his father stopped and pointed silently ahead of them. Gobiwasi could see what looked like small hills on the horizon. He looked up at his father, and the man nodded. Then they set off again.
At last they came to the hills a group of koppies rising out of the desert. They passed between them until they came to one in the center of the group - a solitary hill with a rocky cliff facing them to the east, steep slopes to the west. It was uniformly high north to south, showing caves and recesses from bottom to top in the cliff. They rested in the dappled shade of a scrubby acacia and ate and drank a little. Then Gobiwasis father said it was time.
First they went to a large overhang in the center. There his father pointed out paintings of ancestors, men and women dancing, thin-legged, watched by gemsbok, eland, and springbok, gorgeous and strange representations that left the boy awed and a little afraid. Low down on the right, a lion, teeth unnaturally large, with a black mane and a long tail, seemed to growl at him.
Then they climbed to a cave many yards off the ground. The walls were black with soot, and on the floor lay a human skeleton, bones picked clean. Spread around it in a spiral were the contents of a hunting bag - spear, bow, delicate arrows, knife, cord, sandals that looked as if they would fall from the feet at the first step, leather-topped hollow root for holding the arrows, and several horns that Gobiwasi knew had contained poisons. To one side was a toy bow with small arrows a childs precious possessions. And two necklaces of cocoons containing pieces of ostrich egg shell that rattled in dance. A Bushmans entire life lay on the floor. The boy wondered whose life.
They climbed farther, Gobiwasi scared of the height, afraid of slipping and falling. His father scampered up to the topmost cave, almost perfectly round at the entrance and perhaps five yards deep, and waited there. When the boy joined him and had caught his breath, his father took him by the hand and led him past a crowd of people, watching from the walls. Red people and brown people. Adults and children. Animals watched too, and a strangely-shaped white fish that Gobiwasi did not recognize.
For the next few hours his father told him about the spirits and about the ancestors, visiting different caves and pointing out important paintings. Then they climbed down, and his father showed him a hidden spring at the back of a small cave, from which they drank.
On the second day his father said they must fast. No food and just a little water during the day. Gobiwasi must purify himself. For that night he would come to know the spirits of The Place. Gobiwasi was excited, scared, wanted to know more. But his father would say nothing, and they spent the day resting in the shade.
When it was dark and before the moon rose, they climbed to the very heart of The Place. In the dark it was difficult, but the man knew the way, and they went slowly. You must remember the path, he said. You will need to find it again a long time from now. After a while they came to an open place and rested. His father gave him some white powder to swallow, and then he collected a bunch of very dry grass from the previous summer or perhaps the summer before that. We will need fire, he said.
At last they came to a huge dark mass with a gaping crack, as if split by lightning or a supernatural power. They squeezed through the crack into the deep dark inside. It was cool, and Gobiwasi thought he heard whispers. It is the spirits, he thought, his heart in his mouth. Is this what my father meant? His father sat, put a wood block on the floor, and rolled the firestick between his hands. After what seemed an eternity, the grass flared.
Suddenly the cave became the night sky. Blinking lights set in darkness. Lights of beauty that searched, probed, judged. He saw the light flicker on his fathers face, saw that his eyes were tight shut. He heard voices in his head, knew his father heard nothing. He cried out.
Then it was over. The flame died. The lights were gone. The beauty was gone. The voices were gone. He felt his fathers hand dragging him through the crack in the cave wall, skinning his knees in the process. The pain brought him back to his senses. He cried out, gulping the cool night air, and feeling a terrible thirst.
We will go now to the spring. You can drink. Then we will eat a little hoodia. Then you will sleep and dream. For the spirits have accepted you.
Gobiwasi looked up at the stars and thought they were close enough to touch. They are watching me, he thought, and watching over me. Then he went with his father.
When Gobiwasi had drunk his fill, his father said, You have met the spirits. You have seen their home. The Place is very sacred and very secret. You must take nothing. You must tell no one where to find it except your own oldest son when his time comes. And you must tell no one what you have seen here tonight, not even him. Do you swear this?
Gobiwasi nodded. I swear.
After that his father showed him the ancestors in the sky, bright-eyed and clearly seen. They spoke of these and other things, until Gobiwasi fell into a drugged sleep.
At dawn he woke with his head full of vaguely remembered dreams. His father was already up and motioned Gobiwasi to join him on a flat rock facing the east. Together they watched the great sun slowly lift itself from the desert to scorch another day.
It was so hot the jackal couldnt stand still on the sand. It must be well over 100 degrees out there, Vusi thought, watching the jackal trotting towards the shade from the birdbath where it had been drinking, shaking its paws comically when it stopped momentarily to sniff the wind. Vusi turned back to the others. Where the hell was Monzo? Hed be the first to complain if anyone else was late, but he had no problem keeping his boss and three colleagues waiting for a quarter of an hour. He was probably picking a fight with someone or causing other trouble. Theres always one on every team, on every one of my teams anyway. Vusi frowned.
Lets start. He wanted to get the meeting over before the extra bodies in his office drove up the temperature. The windows were closed against the heat, and a desk fan was laboring to keep the office bearable. There wasnt much to discuss anyway. The meetings existed because Monzo complained that he wasnt being kept informed. Thats because no one likes him, and so no one talks to him, Vusi thought sourly.
We need the aerial species-count numbers for the quarterly report. Whos got those? Silence. It was Ndoli, the office manager, who answered. A slender man with rolled-up shirt sleeves and inkblot patches under his armpits. Monzo will have them.
Vusi sighed. Well, of course. It was Monzos job. He did the statistics and drafted the damn report anyway, coaching Vusi on the presentation to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park Steering Committee. Monzo was good at what he did, when you could focus him on work. They werent going to get anywhere without Monzo, damn him!
Vusi used his handkerchief to wipe his damp face. Why didnt they have air conditioning anyway? This was the main Botswana office of the Transfrontier Park after all. Ten thousand square miles to manage! He looked out of the window again. The jackal had reached the shade of an acacia tree and was lying, panting. Hes hot too, but he doesnt have to deal with Monzo and the Director of Wildlife Conservation, Vusi mused unsympathetically.
Where is Monzo, anyway? Vusi asked no one in particular. Hes twenty minutes late now. Im a busy man. Were all busy! He glared at the others as though they were to blame for Monzos rudeness.
Again it was Ndoli who answered. He said he was going to check up on the Bushmen. He drove out that way this morning.
Why? Whats it got to do with him? Why did you let him go?
Ndoli rubbed his chin. A group of Bushmen had moved close to the park boundary a few weeks ago. No one knew why, perhaps not even the Bushmen themselves.
He was worried theyd poach in the park. He didnt bother with Vusis last question. Monzo never asked permission for his escapades. A month ago he had gone off on a field trip to the middle of nowhere, supposedly after poachers, and hadnt returned for five days.
So what? Maybe they kill a springbok. Is that going to ruin the statistics? We dont want all the trouble the Central Kalahari people had. High-court challenges, Survival International, speeches at the United Nations. Vusi felt his blood pressure rising. He thumped his fist on the desk. Im in charge here! His staff looked at him silently.
Vusi lost his temper. Well, get out there and find him!
He pulled a file across his desk and pretended to study it, indicating that the meeting was adjourned. No one would argue about looking for Monzo in the suffocating heat. They simply wouldnt do it.
Why must I work with people like this? Vusi asked himself. When will I get a promotion out of here to head office in Gaborone, or at least to Tsabong? He heard the chairs scrape back as his staff left. He glanced up, avoiding their eyes, and found the safety of the window instead. The jackal had gone. He looked down again, and a bead of sweat dripped onto the file.
Oddly, it was Ndoli who became concerned. As much as he disliked the man, he had a sneaking admiration for Monzos manipulative abilities. Certainly, Monzo would be capable of keeping them waiting, but hed do it for a reason or to make a point. Here there was none. And why didnt he answer the two-way radio? Ndoli had tried several times to raise him. No one had heard from Monzo since he set off to check on the Bushmen. Hell with him, Ndoli thought, he deserves whatever he gets. But, unable to concentrate on anything else, after an hour he cursed loudly, causing everyone in the communal office to look up. He grabbed a bottle of drinking water and opened the outside door. Waves of heat invaded the office like a live thing, gobbling the less fiery air inside the room. He forced through the barrier of heat, slamming the door behind him.
His vehicle was parked under shade cloth with the windows open, but the drivers seat was still too hot for his bare legs. He had to perch on the edge of the seat so that his shorts protected him.
The dirt road was nothing but a track leading from the Wildlife offices at Mabuasehube through thick Kalahari sand, and he had to use four-wheel drive, sometimes low range, to battle through it, avoiding slowing lest he sink in and be unable to move again. Maybe thats what happened to Monzo, he speculated. But why doesnt he answer the radio? Maybe hes driven out of range. As he drove, his shirt used captured sweat to glue itself to his body, while his face and arms suffered convection roasting from the open windows. The discomfort made him furious. Monzo better not be sitting under a shady tree drinking beer!
After half an hour, he was starting to wonder if Monzo had gone another way. But around the next bend, he saw Monzos vehicle, off the road on the higher, harder verge. He pulled in behind it and went to investigate. Monzos Toyota HiLux 4x4 bakkie was not locked, but nothing appeared to be wrong. Ndoli walked around the vehicle and saw a set of footprints heading away from the road. He followed them for about 50 yards, until they disappeared as the sand merged into the ubiquitous calcrete limestone of the Kalahari. Circling around for a few minutes, he spotted the prints continuing into the desert sand.
Soon the prints disappeared again. As he searched for them, he came to the top of a donga, a steep ravine cut by an ancient stream through the grey calcrete. The soft rock at the edge was crumbling.
Ndoli looked down. At the bottom of the donga, some three yards below, Monzo was lying on his back, not moving. Next to him squatted a Bushman. Two others stood and watched. When they saw Ndoli, there was consternation; then they waved and shouted to him.
Ndoli let out an exclamation and scrambled down the scree slope. A few moments later he was kneeling next to the prone game ranger. One of the Bushmen was trying to pour water from an ostrich shell into Monzos mouth, but the liquid appeared merely to be running over his face. Grateful for his first-aid training, Ndoli felt the throat and found a faint pulse. He thought he detected shallow breathing, so he spread fine Kalahari dust on his palm, held it to Monzos nose, and was relieved to see it move. Next he felt for injuries, but found no obviously broken bones. But the back of Monzos head was a mass of congealing blood; he must have sustained a vicious head blow when he fell into the donga. And he would have sunstroke as well.
Ndoli turned to the Bushman. When you find? he asked slowly in Setswana.
Soon. The man shrugged. It was obvious that his knowledge of Setswana was limited.
The man shook his head. Give water.
Ndoli wondered if it was safe to move the injured man, wanting to get him out of the sun. It would be difficult to do carefully even with the Bushmens assistance. Monzo was large, big-boned and overweight. After a moment he decided not to try and pulled off his damp shirt, using it to protect Monzos head and arms from the marauding sun. Then, asking the Bushmen to wait, he went back to his vehicle and radioed for help.
Vusi was not overcome by sympathy. What was Monzo doing wandering around in the desert and falling into dongas anyway? Serves the bastard right! But, of course, it would create more work for Vusi and difficulties for his staff. How typical of Monzo! Perhaps he would be rid of him for good. But he shook his head to dispel such uncharitable thoughts. The man was in critical condition. He was suffering from heat stroke and dehydration in addition to concussion from the bad head wound. He had not regained consciousness, and the doctor who had seen him in Tsabong thought his skull might be fractured. Now he was being taken by helicopter to the hospital in Gaborone. And whose budget will pay for all that? Vusi fumed.
He heard the outside door open. Ndoli must be back. He went out to the main office and found the manager looking tired, hot, and depressed.
What took you so long?
I stopped at Monzos house to tell Marta about the accident.
Vusi paused. He should have done that himself. I want a report on what happened, he snapped.
I dont know what happened. The Bushmen found him lying in the donga with his head bleeding. I told you everything on the radio.
Did you get their names? The Bushmen?
Ndoli shook his head. Theyre not going anywhere. Ill recognize them when I see them. He wondered if that were true. There was something generic about the small, yellow-brown people and, if they wanted to, they could vanish into the desert in a few hours.
But what was he doing there? How did he fall into the donga? It was broad daylight! Vusi winced, thinking of the blinding sun.
Maybe he was looking for the Bushmen, or discovered the donga, wanted to take a look, and got too close to the edge. It was very crumbly. Perhaps it broke under him. Hes heavy enough.
Maybe. How long will it take to get him to Gaborone?
Should be there. They left well over an hour ago.
Vusi was silent. An unpleasant thought had occurred to him. Perhaps Monzo had found the Bushmen and had picked a fight with them. Maybe he got a rock in the back of his head and a shove into the donga for his trouble. Still, Bushmen arent aggressive. They are peaceful people. They had tried to help. But Monzo could make anybody mad. Perhaps there had been a struggle and Monzo fell. Well, they would know what had happened soon enough, once the man regained consciousness.
Vusis thoughts were interrupted by his radio phone. He grabbed it and listened for a minute. Then he thanked the caller, disconnected, and turned to Ndoli who was waiting in the doorway. Monzo died on the way to the hospital. God rest his soul.
Ndoli nodded and walked away, the talk in the office suddenly stilled. Vusi scowled. There would have to be an investigation. Intuitively he knew that while his difficulties with Monzo were over, his real problems were just about to begin.