Mikki van Zyl

Casual cruelty


 

Bertie got to camp late and went straight to bed. He fell asleep thinking about Kaz. How they had been friends for almost sixteen years! As students, they were both outsiders. Though an Afrikaner in an Afrikaner establishment, Bertie didn’t fit in with the other guys … brawny, loud and … rugby-ish. Kaz the Indian girl. She inspired quietude.

Her drawings first attracted him – eyes transfixed by the pencil swaying and curving on the page. In a few lines animals would emerge from the paper.‘Please may I have it?’ he surprised himself one day.

After that they felt free to greet each other. Became lab partners, the undisputed ‘A-team’ of their year. They shared an abhorrence of cruelty, though both understood nature’s violence. She accepted the protection of his friendship and he fell hopelessly in love with her.

Bertie still remembers the day she got this job. She burst into his lab, waving the letter triumphantly. The dreaded moment had come. He hated himself for wanting her so desperately he could thwart what she wanted most – to be a wildlife vet. She had paid with her youth for this moment.

‘Do your folks know?’

‘No. You’re the first.’

He barely contained his joy, secure now with knowing his place in her life.

‘Let’s have some lab coffee, for oulaas. Celebrate our rites of passage.’

Soon the aroma of coffee stilled the chemical smells.

‘Bertie. Bert. Wake up!’

Kaz was standing over him with an enormous mug of coffee.

He remembered. He was visiting Kaz at her lion project.

But something in her voice was awry. She looked hunched and miserable.

‘What’s up? Why do you look so …’

‘ … awful? … After you’d gone to bed, I overheard Mku talking to Desmond, you know, the pilot from Kaligari safaris. He came up from Mana pools yesterday … Something terrible happened near there.’

He waited. She would tell him in her own time. She walked over to the back of the tent, staring through the opening overlooking wheat fields. He came to stand next to her.

They looked at Mt Meru, a quarter moon riding behind wispy clouds, high above the dawnlit snows. A row of bluegums threw dark shadows on the other side of the golden field, a light wind rippling a sad song through the stalks.

Finally he laid his hand lightly on her arm. She sat on the bed, perched against his knees.

‘It was in the Zambezi.’

‘Someone we know?’

‘Manie Burger’s outfit.’

‘A little boy was eaten by a croc. An American and his son and daughter were in one canoe, and Manie and Sinza, his tracker, in another. They were paddling downriver when he noticed a big croc in the shallows. He told them to get to the bank, leave the croc space to go into deep water. They were a few yards ahead. Then a shout. He turned round just in time to see this massive croc lunge at the other boat. There was a huge splash, the canoe rocking dangerously. The little boy was holding onto the girl and their dad was desperately trying to still the boat. Next thing, the croc came shooting out of the water again, this time grabbing the boy. The girl also fell into the water. By now Manie had his handgun out. Everybody was trying to get hold of the boy. For one moment the croc let go of him, then gripped him firmly and swam off. Manie shot at the croc, but nothing happened. The boy was gone. Sinza had managed to get the girl into their boat. Manie had to hang onto the father who was ready to dive in. He went near hysterical when Manie was shooting at the croc.’

‘What then?’

‘They searched for two nights and two days. Eventually Manie shot the croc; they cut it open, found body parts of the little boy.’

‘What a terrible way to die? What a terrible thing to witness. Your son dying like that.’

‘Ja. Now apparently the American is trying to blame Manie, saying he should have been more careful, and accusing him of shooting the boy.’

‘It would have been a blessing if he had.’

‘Well, they could find no evidence to suggest that he’d been shot.’

‘Where was the child’s mother?’

‘In Harare. Doesn’t like the bush. Didn’t want the girl to go. Said it was for boys.’

They both know. Bad things happen in the bush. Often due to carelessness. Sometimes through pure chance.

‘Now there’s an enquiry. Manie won’t be happy. It’ll put a stop to his game plans for a while.’

‘Why? Why should he worry?’

Kaz looked at him askance. ‘I thought you knew.’

‘What?!’

‘Some of his trophy lions are very suspect.’

Bertie sighed. Why were things never clearcut?

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