Monday, July 22, 2024

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M.A. Kelly | Carapaces

It would be incorrect to say that I actively disliked her then, despite what you might decide from the things I’m about to tell you. No, not at all. I do dislike ambiguity in any form though, so let’s be clear from the get-go: there were many times when we’d enjoyed each other’s company greatly and even took pleasure in gently mocking each other, especially in the early days. When I was struggling with my identity – well, present tense might be more appropriate because that’s still a work in progress – she gave me reassurances that experimenting with my pronouns was going to bring more benefits than blowback (she wasn’t entirely correct there but I was glad to take her advice nevertheless). And when I started to get gigs in Windhoek, trying out my persona as Namibia’s campy version of Trevor Noah, she always asked if I would put her on the guest list and occasionally, she even showed up.

But going back over several years now, certain of my friends have been inclined to ask me versions of “Why do you put up with that wretched woman?” and increasingly, I had been wondering the same thing myself.

The whole Victorian invalid schtick – acting as if permanently indisposed, lying wilting on a faded sofa, the crystal bottle of smelling salts within easy reach – had grown very old, very fast eight years ago, when she first arrived in town. Sadly, it was a condition that appeared to be chronic. (No, the apt analogy isn’t mine by the way, before you go accusing me of a privileged background that would have left me with highbrow literary allusions at my fingertips.)

The crunch, if you like, had come last week when Hiskia had called me in a fury and used the word ‘blood-sucker’ while referring to a recent altercation he’d had with her. It was then that I realised that other people besides me had grown terribly weary of her persistent, if good-natured, demands on us all.

 She’d always been a poster-child for the hopelessly scatterbrained but since mid-2020 – when she’d insisted she’d caught Covid although she’d never bothered to isolate herself or get tested – she seemed to have decided that joined up thinking could no longer be expected of her. Ever since I’d known her, she’d always been ditzy though – or however you want to characterise her constitutional inability to cope with the smallest of life’s challenges – and this was why she always eventually fell out with people who really should have been canonised already for their tolerance.

Herold told me that she’d recently cancelled an important introductory meeting with his team because of some lamentable excuse: shit wasn’t aligning with some other shit that day so she couldn’t be expected to pitch up until – I dunno – the stars did something more auspicious? She’d thereby lost the contract I’d lined up for her and had then sent out the usual appeal to her dwindling number of friends to please front her the rent until… well, we all knew it’d be an age before we saw that cash again, if at all. Thank God she didn’t have the skills to add GoFundMe to her passive-aggressive toolkit.

 That she was the sole architect of her serial misfortunes should go without saying, shouldn’t it? Her world view and mine couldn’t have been more different, which is why her tribulations were – in some guilt-inducing way – almost pleasing to me. We all like to see the philosophies we’ve signed up for vindicated by events in real life, don’t we, so whenever things went wrong for her – a cascade of little setbacks that spilled into outright calamity far too often – I couldn’t help but gloat inwardly, just a bit. As she crashed in flames, which she almost always did in the end, I rose in my own bloated estimation. See – right there, I’m admitting to a personal failing, something that she could rarely bring herself to do, for all her insistence that she had a finely honed talent for self-awareness.

 Take, for example, her attitude towards personal possessions. When, on a tediously regular basis, she left her second-hand phone out on a table in a public place, or on the kitchen counter when she had a spontaneous house party, she would put its inevitable disappearance down to the fact that people were struggling – did I even realise that? – and had to resort to crime to make ends meet. I wasn’t going to let that go unchallenged on the last occasion it had happened:

 “Are you telling me that the guests at your flat on Saturday were all street people or something? That’s just mad! You need to get a grip. You seriously do!”

But no, she wanted me to understand that she didn’t differentiate between her rich friends (who were they, I wondered?) and those individuals who might have only come along for a free meal, if truth be told. And talking of people with incomes, could I sub her the cash for a replacement phone until she found a way to make some money? Better still, would I just agree that she could come live with me while she got her act together financially? That met with a solid “Er, let me think about it, maybe…” of course, and a new parcel of remorse.

 In more jaundiced moments, I considered the possibility that in part, she clung to me because of the cultural capital she believed she accrued from our relationship. There are not that many queer black ‘celebrities’ like me in our country, even now. What little money she did appear to make seemed to be linked to freelance work on LGBTQI+ programmes and I had an inkling that my name, casually inserted into conversations with potential employees, might have had something to do with that.

I’d recently grown terminally jaded. Can you tell? We’d arranged our ‘girls’ trip’ to the coast six months back but to be frank, by the time it came around I was just about done with her. (Also done with her referring to us as ‘Thelma and Louise’. Did she honestly not remember how it ended for those two ladies?) The group of people willing to be bystanders to her chaotic existence was now down to me and a handful of her newest besties – credulous types who were still charmed by her mane of frizzy yellow hair, free-spirited gypsy routine, and the shameless name-dropping from when she was something peripheral in the Bay Area music business, several centuries ago.

There wasn’t a deadline she couldn’t overshoot by months, a borrowed car she couldn’t bump, a property’s gate she couldn’t leave swinging open invitingly. She’d once even managed to mislay a priceless pedigree Maine Coon cat she was supposed to be pet-sitting. I don’t remember a time her taste in men didn’t run to penniless musicians and unemployed barmen who, predictably, lifted her bank card and bruised her battered heart before vanishing off into the night.

This litany of disasters would trouble the rotating cast of concerned people orbiting her at any given time – but the lady herself seemed far less disturbed, if the speed at which she heedlessly launched herself at the next catastrophe was anything to go by.

 Were her patented brand of toxic positivity only to rebound on her, it wouldn’t have been so bad, yet the ripple effects had a way of touching the blameless, far and wide. Members of this misbegotten crowd usually managed to escape the immediate consequences of her latest lapse in judgement – luckily, she still insisted on sending missed calls when she needed a favour, which gave everyone a decent-enough excuse not to respond until the current crisis had resolved itself. But she almost always managed to find one poor victim to answer her innocent-seeming plea for help and once drawn into the ‘little difficulty’ in question – which tended to metastasize into a full-blown disaster fairly quickly – then for a long time afterwards this poor sucker was left rueing the moment they gave in and offered their assistance.

She also had an irritating way of tipping her head in a show of sorrowful sympathy once she heard that someone (someone like me) was committing the cardinal sin of actually going out to work for a living and feeding the rotten-to-the-core capitalist system. She was naturally far too busy picking up healing vibes at self-empowerment workshops to waste her days on such mundane matters.  For someone who preached peace, love and tolerance, she could be remarkably patronising and critical toward those nearest to her. That’s to say, for all intents and purposes, just little old me by that stage.

 Anyway. Anyway. On that Saturday, if anyone was the true target of my dislike, it was me in fact – growing more and more ashamed of my disproportionate contempt for her and hating myself for it. Distance, I had decided – as in making sure she was too far away from me physically to demand lifts or ask to borrow my printer – was going to solve a lot of my problems. I had an old work colleague in Henties Bay who said he could probably offer her a live-in position managing his guesthouse and bar, which was why I was still determined to see this weekend through. I sort-of felt bad at foisting her on Johan – exploiting his famous forbearance to remove her from my immediate vicinity – but I had taken the trouble to outline her numerous organisational shortcomings to him in some detail, and he hadn’t seemed especially fazed. I did wonder if he’d somehow heard about her natural propensity to sleep with any man even remotely connected with the entertainment business, but he’s a big boy and I was fairly certain he could handle any fallout from falling into bed with her.

 I was also going to use our time driving down together for another self-serving purpose. To engineer an opportunity to set out for her all the life-lessons she perhaps ought to have taken on board in the eight years of our association, forcing her to look at the spectacularly poor choices she’d made on her spiritual journey and blah, blah, blah, wellness and self-care and recovery and all the rest of it. (And there – that’s me being devious, another shortcoming she would never recognise in herself although she is a world-class manipulator.) 

In the absence of any acknowledgement from her that I might have a point – or any enthusiasm for Johan’s job, if it was offered – I was planning to extricate myself from our unhealthy entanglement in the future. Enough truly was enough. For my own sanity, and before I said out loud to her one of the many cruel-to-be-kind sentences that I rehearsed in my head on a daily basis, I was going to erect some of those precious boundaries she was always going on about, and then patrol them with heightened vigilance. Whatever extreme measures it might take, I was adamant that the era of being at her daily beck and call was coming to an end that weekend.

Why have I gone to quite this much trouble to describe for you someone you would do well to move continents to avoid? (And to show how much I had to strengthen my resolve by cataloguing her most egregious fuck-ups to myself as I drove across town to collect her?) Allow me to introduce you to the walking disaster zone that is my older half-sister Carol, known to everyone unfortunate enough to be acquainted with her as Birdie.

🙣

Should you ever be introduced to us together (God help you), you are not duty bound to try and find some similarities in our features, once the shock of our contrasting appearances recedes and Birdie has interjected with her routine smug comment that she is my ‘sister from another mother’. Flipping convention on the head, the older child in our relationship is the loudly rebellious, world-changing non-conformist and the second born – me – is the obedient, dutifully dull conservative. At least, that was how she contrasted us whenever the chance arose, despite the fact that both caricatures are fundamentally untrue. 

A lifetime ago – or so it seems – Birdie had descended on Namibia in the aftermath of some shop-lifting ‘misunderstanding’ back in the US, where she had lived all her life with my white father’s first wife. She was just supposed to stay a few weeks and actually, I’d only been made aware of her arrival when Papa grew tired of hosting her and asked if I couldn’t keep an eye on her until it was time for her to leave. (He was the one who’d compared her with a frail consumptive from a 19th century novel, by the way.) Like the naïve fool that I was back then, I’d agreed.

Call it the reverse of black tax if you like, but I’ve been reaching into my pockets and exhausting my patience saving her thin Caucasian skin ever since she then decided that the Land of the Brave was her true spiritual home and she wished to stay. By then our shared father – always an ephemeral presence at the best of times – had contrived to vanish off the scene and Birdie had no one else to turn to except me. So began the endless, costly battle of trying to get all her paperwork in order, complicated exponentially – I soon found out – by the fact that every essential bit of documentation to support her claim to Namibian citizenship seemed to have fetched up on a different continent, often in the safe-keeping of people with whom she’d since become estranged.

Once I’d subsequently established how much Birdie was going to continue to rely on me, call in favours (that were never returned), and generally treat me as her PA-slash-servant, things cooled quite a bit between us. This far and no further had become my mantra when dealing with her, but it proved wickedly difficult to put into practice.

She did eventually make new friends and acquaintances to harass, but without a blood bond to enforce their obligations to her, she would usually revert to me when they disappointed her in some manner. (The reason Hiskia is currently in the dog house is that she’d asked him to deliver a parcel to his home town in the south since he was going there soon for Christmas. Except that she actually expected him to drive it to a place almost 500km away across the border. When he demurred, she threw her toys out of the pram, according to him.)

By now, I considered my familial duty towards her done, many times over. So, so done. Having met Birdie a couple of times, even my own mother – generally a stickler for the rule that family always comes first – had warned me that when it came to my half-sister, this principle didn’t compel me to run myself ragged and bankrupt myself in the process.

Recently, I’ve taken to thinking of my poor, messy, beleaguered sister, living there on the frontline of white privilege, as ‘Burden’. Never was an epithet better applied.

🙣

Fortune had temporarily favoured me on the drive up to the pass through the mountains.

Outside her current accommodation – filling up the boot of my little SUV with her assorted grubby canvas totes of belongings and cooler bags doubtless filled with tasteless vegan food – Birdie had blurted out that she had a bit of super-super-exciting news, and my hardened heart sank.

Yesterday, she’d announced, someone had proposed that she put her (endless) free time into writing a little self-help guide so that other people could gain useful insights from her countless instructive experiences. (Once I discovered the identity of this ‘someone’, I was going to be having a word with him or her, for sure.) My half-sister had decided that this was just exactly the right direction for her to take at this point in her life and was filled with demented, misguided enthusiasm:

“It’s like, yeah, yeah, the universe sent this idea my way at just the right time. Right when people are really struggling to get their heads around stuff and need to see light and hope. Yes? Agreed? Zack?”

The mooted book’s unique selling point – which would make it a best-seller, allegedly – was that the priceless advice it contained would be based on Birdie’s wanderings on life’s highways and byways and not from an author’s formal qualifications or professional experience. There were enough of those manuals for sale already, she’d continued breathlessly, as I resigned myself to an interminable few hours in her agitated company. She’d never read one herself, of course – they were too hidebound in the counsel they gave (‘fascist’ was the word she spat out); this she’d been able to surmise from a quick scan of their cover blurbs. Hence her conviction that her deeply personal and counterintuitive observations would impart wisdom aplenty to those disinclined to seek enlightenment from a trained practitioner with established credentials.

She had loads of ideas already – enough for a second volume even! – and once she’d prepared a rough draft, she’d be looking for sponsors to underwrite the cost of self-publishing the first book. I didn’t even look up from my task of playing Tetris with our luggage because I knew she’d been eyeing me hopefully at this point.

Under normal circumstances – not that such things really exist when it comes to Birdie – once the journey began, I would have been concentrating on ignoring her as she babbled on about her latest conspiracy theory or whatever other tin-hat paranoia was currently keeping her awake at night. (Providing her with last-minute, long-distance shuttle services had been something she’d expected of me within days of our first meeting.) Driving carefully, trying to avoid the rocks and dips on the gravel road, I’d mutter an occasional “Yip”, just to give the impression that I was listening to her.

But on leaving town at dawn that morning, and to my gratified amazement, Birdie had paid no attention to me initially – sitting with a notepad on her lap (and dirty, bare feet up against the glove compartment), furiously jotting down ideas for her manuscript, then reading them back to herself sottovoce.

This was definitely helpful in respect to my plan for the weekend because she was essentially compiling an inventory of the multiple set-backs she’d encountered in her forty-plus years on earth. Some were so trivial that I had to muffle a snort of derision; others recalled imperilling situations that could have ended very badly indeed. Not just for her, but for whoever had been caught up in the perfect storm of her life at any particular time. That she was blind to the distinction between being unable to source menstrual cups in Malawi and rolling an overloaded car full of hitchhikers off an embankment and into a ditch was clear, not to mention symptomatic of her oblivious narcissism. 

After 30 minutes or so, once we had left the suburbs well behind us, she looked up from her scribblings and asked me what I knew about podcasting, because that was something else she was hoping to get into soon. Hadn’t I been involved in launching one myself at some point, she asked airily? With a brain like a rusted old sieve, how come she’d remembered that little detail, which I’d mentioned just the once, ages ago and only in passing? The glorious respite over, I promised myself that whoever had planted this second fuck-witted notion in Birdie’s addled mind was going to be hearing from me very soon.

My sister took enormous pride in sanctimoniously informing people that she had such a deep-rooted suspicion of the tech bros that she, for one, was not going to partake of their particular Kool-Aid. (Naturally, barely anyone had a clue about this reference, but that was Birdie in a nutshell: embedded in a pop-culture from before most of us were born.)

Birdie’s winsome profile photograph on her moribund LinkedIn page was maybe ten years old and her list of jobs there wasn’t much more up to date. Given her antipathy towards all things digital, I grasped that she would therefore be needing someone to facilitate her entry into this brave new world, with the obvious candidate being yours truly.

Worse was to come. It now transpired that Birdie had interpreted my silence up to this point as a scathing critique of all her plans and wanted me to know how much this annoyed her. In her self-absorption, she’d evidently been expecting a running commentary from me on her quiet ramblings, even though they certainly hadn’t seemed to be directed at me. But her excitement over her new project made her less reproachful than usual and she voiced her dismay only mildly:

Image: Swansway MG Unsplash modified

“Anyone ever tell you you are way, way too judgemental and negative Zack? You don’t even need to say one single friggin’ word but I know you, and I can tell you think it’s all a crap idea. Like, total crap. Unsupportive, as usual. My bad, I should have known.”

“And anyone ever tell you you are far too capricious Birdie? Always jumping from one brilliant idea to the next. With not even one cent to get anything actually off the ground. And what’s more, expecting everybody to race to your assistance.”

To my surprise, she laughed long and loud, and this made me happy because I’d instantly wondered if I had been too cruel.

“My day will come. It will. You just wait and see, oh sceptical, sensible little brother of mine. My boat will come in, hey ho, and if you’re extra lucky I will fling you a life-jacket and rescue you from drowning in a sea of soul-destroying consumerist materialism.”

I still felt I needed to justify my previous mean-spiritedness, despite the good grace in which Birdie had parried my gentle scolding:

“I prefer not to think of it as judgemental, if it’s all the same to you. I hold everyone to a high standard, don’t I? Everyone. Then when they disappoint me, which they never fail to, I see it as the ultimate betrayal, like the whole world has let me down. I always want people to do better but at the same time, I’m fully expecting them to fail me. That just makes me a realist”

“But then you over-react accordingly. Just saying.”

“And I over-react accordingly. Yes.”

🙣

We bounced along the gravel road leading us away from town and into the desert, each small rise taking us a little higher up onto the Khomas Hochland plateau. To each side, fading boards showed the names of the farms that had been owned by settler families for generations, the heavily padlocked gates now guarded by CCTV cameras on high poles and flanked by signs issuing warnings to trespassers in four or five languages.

It was still early and the road was quiet; we soon passed all the cyclists out for a last training session before the Desert Dash race the following weekend and then had the route to ourselves. Big and small antelope – don’t ask me what types – skittered away from inside the roadside game fences as we approached them, then calmly stood off a little distance away to watch us motor on. Although there was no tall grass yet, the first scattered showers of the season had created emerald-green patches carpeting some more open areas; the panorama of rolling hills and an occasional flash from a puddle that had not yet evaporated were soothing, refreshing. Birdie put away her notes and sat quietly – the spellbinding effect of the unfolding views eventually reduced even the chattiest people to silence, I’d noticed from my many shared car trips to venues around the country.

I was tired and unfocused and approaching the pass, I’d announced that it was time for a bathroom break. As I decelerated and swung right to head up onto the large patch of level ground where a picnic area and toilets were to be found, Birdie yelled at me to stop. She tended to yell a lot, often when it was wholly unwarranted, but as she pointed out through the windscreen I could see that this time, she had some justification. Right in the middle of the track was a small tortoise, plodding slowly along the path that the car was about to take. Despite living in Namibia almost all of my life, being a city guy, I’d only ever seen these animals pancaked on the highways during my travels to gigs in distant towns.  I carefully negotiated around the little creature and then brought the car to a stop a few metres beyond it.

We got out to take a closer look, Birdie sighing loudly as I locked the car with an instinctive reflex. As mentioned, I’m someone who’s most comfortable in the city (actually, I’m only comfortable there; not for me all this eulogising about the charms of being in nature). But I had to admit he was a handsome little fellow for all that, with concentric markings of amber and chocolate-brown blocks, glowing against the paler background of his shell. He was tiny – he comfortably fit in Birdie’s hand with room to spare when she bent down to pick him up – and he shone as if he had been newly polished with Vaseline. She shrieked at me to go get my phone to take a picture and it gave me just a little touch of satisfaction to see the poor animal retract his head anxiously and dribble a squirt of gunk over her palm as he recoiled from the sudden noise in the deep silence of our surroundings.

But then my attention was drawn somewhere else, all around in fact. You’re going to have to trust me on this but once I registered a movement between some boulders, and Birdie snapped her head round to look in the same direction, it became apparent that we were in the midst of a large collection of tortoises. Fifteen, maybe twenty of them – varying in size from a few centimetres long to the size of a cycle helmet – moving like clockwork toys all around us and patrolling the sandy gravel of the clearing further up on the crest of the hill. It was truly astonishing to see the variations in the patterns and shapes on their shells, and how some were ambling along slowly as if lost in thought while others were marching forwards with speedy determination.

I stepped back to the car to retrieve my phone, something that took a while given the sweet wrappers, juice cartons, vaping paraphernalia and tissues that Birdie had already scattered all around the vehicle’s interior in the short time that she’d been inside. Rising from eventually locating it underneath her seat, I was startled to hear the sound of Birdie talking to someone a little further up at the rest stop. For just a moment, I assumed she was chatting to the tortoise she held – that would have been just like her, believe me – but then my panic began to rise as I realised that she was talking to a man. A man who had not come up to this place by car since mine was the only one to be seen at this lonely spot. A man who therefore represented a number of potentially alarming scenarios by his unlikely presence there.

 I could make out his high, wheedling tones between Birdies’ louder exclamations; they seemed to be engaged in a friendly conversation but nevertheless I stayed hidden, crouching slightly behind the open door of the car so that I could observe the situation and decide how I would need to act in order to rescue Birdie from whatever new drama she’d initiated.

 A gangly man dressed in some patched and worn clothes was bending to place an assortment of tortoises in a loose grid arrangement on the ground, three rows of three little bodies, chosen to show off the differences in their colouring. Although they were a distance away, I could plainly see that some of the animals’ shells had elaborate star-shaped patterns on them, in contrast to the simpler, square designs Birdie and I had seen on the first animals we had encountered, some of which were still strolling about around me.

Wherever Birdie went, she tended to accumulate a little entourage of human waifs and strays but – Jesus Christ – how had she managed to find this particularly raggedy specimen up here, many, many kilometres from literally anything at all?

The man stood to contemplate his handiwork. Some of the tortoises began to crawl off immediately but others remained strangely motionless, exactly where he’d positioned them. In the still air, the couple’s voices carried across to me and it didn’t take but a moment for me to understand that the seedy character was trying to interest my sibling in buying some of the animals.

Birdie kept on nodding as the man explained the deal to her. She must call him Leo, because now they were friends, weren’t they? She could take one of the live animals – sjoe, she could take all of them, he had a crate ready – and he would give her a special, special price. A discount for a bulk purchase of N$500 each (through my astonishment, I had to admire this individual for his bold entrepreneurship). Or, she could take some of the empty shells – she could see how carefully he had prepared and polished them – also for the same special price since she was his first customer of the day.

I would love to say that I was primed to launch myself into the breach at any moment, if it became clear that things were taking a sinister turn and Birdie was out of her depth. We always do think, don’t we, that we’d know exactly how to react when a situation begins to deteriorate before our eyes? But I was just too dumbfounded to step in and – it pains me rather to admit this – my sister did seem to have things under control, even though the negotiations she was conducting were plainly batshit crazy.

I’d long ago accepted that Birdie seemed to pay little heed to goings on in the world – I imagine it just wasn’t good for her precarious mental health to follow the news – but she surely couldn’t have been unaware of how our government views wildlife trafficking.

She handed the tortoise she’d been cradling over to the man, wiped her palm on her shorts, and beckoned towards my vehicle, screaming my name. The man finally spotted me and his whole bearing changed in an instant. Immediately he was on his guard – annoyed and mistrustful, despite his hale greeting:

“Dude. Duuude. My friend. Is this fine lady your woman?”

So far, as I’d been watching the transaction unfold, it had been impossible for me to judge how harmless this Leo might have been. But the unctuous, ingratiating way he called out to me now – not to say the riled confusion in his voice – told me that he was surely up to no good. Perhaps the best way to avoid escalating any nastiness – and I did feel that nastiness might yet rise to the surface – was to ignore whatever bargaining was underway between Birdie and this bum, I thought a bit doubtfully. I therefore stayed where I was, making a show of inspecting my nails, letting my sister continue but feeling a little cowardly under the circumstances nevertheless:

“I’m pretty sure I don’t have enough cash on me either way, but I can go check in the car, just in case. I’ll ask the guide as well; maybe he has some.”

It was the strangest thing to say, even for someone as habitually befuddled as my sister. She knew full well we definitely didn’t have much cash in the car – just a few coins to pay car guards once we got to the coast. Everything else to do with the trip was going on my credit card, of course. And she hadn’t identified me as being related to her, either, but had consciously wanted to mislead Leo regarding the nature of our relationship.

It was then that I grasped that Birdie had concocted some plan to get us out of Leo’s clutches and the unnecessary search inside the Suzuki was going to be her chance to let me in on what she had planned.

I could hear Leo anxiously calling Birdie back as she walked over to the car but she ignored him. She made sure she was turned away from him before discreetly pointing to a thicket of stunted trees off to my left. I had noticed a rather odd smell when I’d first parked the car and now, I was sure that it was coming from the direction Birdie was indicating, where a small cloud of flies wove through the quivering currents of hot air above the bare branches.

 And then I saw it. And once I had seen one, I saw many. Bodies of tortoises, large and small, arranged with care in low pyramids underneath the bushes, some with ashy feet and heads still protruding from their shells, others with their carapaces hollow, revealing a view clean through to the other side. The dirt around them was crawling with thousands of ants. While the live reptiles we’d both seen milling about might have gathered there to eat some tasty plant that had sprouted after the first rains, this abattoir with its collection of charred carcasses was clearly the work of human hands.

 We’d arranged a pretty prompt start that morning, and had made good time. Perhaps Leo had still been sleeping in a shelter hidden a distance away when we’d driven up, not expecting customers quite so early. Some planks that I imagine he was going to set up to display crystals and maybe some crude artworks for sale were still tilted against the big signboard listing all the rest stop regulations.  For whatever reason, he’d plainly not had time to clear up the evidence of the carnage just beyond the hilltop before confronting Birdie with his sales pitch. In fact, had Birdie not pointed out the bodies to me, I’d probably have decided that the pervasive stench came from the overflowing rubbish bins dotted around the site and the toilet cubicles.

 We leant into the front part of the car, one on each side, and pretended to search the interior for cash. And for the very first time in my life, when Birdie told me that I had to believe that she knew what she was doing, that I had to trust her without question, I accepted that I should do as I was told.

🙣

“Look, Leo. Look, man. Sorry. We don’t have enough cash to pay you right now but we will be coming back this way on Monday morning and I can buy some stuff from you then. OK? We good with that? American dollars or rand?”

carapace
Images: Alex Pixabay modified

Leo tried out a bit of deception that he knew was doomed to failure – explaining how his was a most busy enterprise and, who knew? maybe he wouldn’t have many tortoises left by then. Birdie was having none of it:

“You can keep some back for me can’t you, seeing as you have a guaranteed sale? Say five of the live ones to give to my friend in town with a garden as a ‘thank you’ gift for letting me stay with her. And maybe ten of the very small shells for me to take back to the US with me when I leave next week? They’re gonna look so awesome when I arrange them in my pool house in LA.”

And now my admiration for her was growing by the moment. Leo had taken her for a rich dumb tourist and she had decided to play along, although her reasons were still opaque to me. The shabby little butcher’s excitement was palpable; he was looking to score one of the biggest deals of his no-good career and this made him fatally incautious:

“Yes, yes! And when you come back, I will have for you some other nice things. If you are wanting fresh meat for the braai, then you can just let me know. Or maybe a kaross from the farm, or even other things you are not buying in town. The best sort of very rare and very valuable gifts to take home, my lady!”

Birdie made a splendid show of being caught up in his enthusiasm:

“Maybe some jewellery, Leo? Neat necklaces with a bit of ivory carving, ivory pendants? They’d make cool presents for all my friends. I’ve looked everywhere in town but I can’t find them. It’s OK to still buy these, isn’t it?”

“Come back Monday and I will have these for you. Your driver over there will tell you it’s one-hundred percent fine for me to sell them as long as it’s coming from an animal that is already being dead.”

The conspiratorial look he cast my way left me in no doubt. Good grief, so Leo was going to bribe me to make sure that I’d turn a blind eye to this very, very illegal bit of business? Hand over a haunch of game to secure my silence, for example?

His open-air marketplace was on one of the secondary routes from the city to the coast. What other products was he willing to supply to the right traveller, at the right price, out here far away from the scrutiny of law enforcement and beyond the police checkpoints close to Windhoek?  And how much was he prepared to risk, if it ever turned out that he’d misjudged a situation?  I had to assume that more calculating brains were masterminding matters and that Leo was just a small and replaceable cog in the whole grim enterprise.

Before we left, Birdie secured in place one more critical component of her mystifying scheme. She turned on her heel as we were heading back to the car and in the rear-view mirror, I saw her take a couple of selfies – arm draped in a chummy, condescending pose around Leo’s thin shoulder – then tap out his contact details on her phone.

🙣

It was only after we’d made to leave – Birdie gently removing six or seven tortoises from the path as I carefully reversed away – that my bladder reminded me why we had paused at the rest stop in the first place. The little operation that Leo had going – corralling these creatures then slaughtering some and preparing their carapaces for sale as knick-knacks – was likely to include other partners – ones that I was in no hurry to meet on their way to rendezvous with him. He’d also hinted that he could supply other stuff, so he was presumably the middleman for small-scale poachers wanting to get rid of meat, horns and skins from the animals they’d snared or shot at the farms round about. With tourism season in full swing and half of Windhoek decamping to the coast over the next few weeks, he could be assured of making a decent sum of money from folk who didn’t ask too many questions.

But if he was also selling elephant ivory, he was potentially mixed up with some much bigger players. I’d recognised his accent during his sales spiel; it was the same as my mother’s, which meant that he was from the far north-east of the country, where wildlife was still to be found in abundance. All the clues were starting to add up.

 Extremely rattled, I therefore hurried to put some distance between us and Leo, still standing waving cheerfully from the clearing at the top of the pass.

Once again, Birdie sat in silence as I drove, occasionally consulting her phone then jotting down something on a new page of her notepad. After a while, the road took a sharp corner and she let out a little gasp; the route was about to begin its descent through a much drier landscape of rocky gullies and steep, bare slopes of rust-red rocks before it met the barren, sandy plains far below. The contrast between the vista before us and the farmlands we’d just left behind was what had made her draw in her breath. I pointed to a few scattered black shapes gliding purposefully across the sky high above us as I pulled the car over onto a piece of bare ground next to the road. The birds represented one of the few animals I could reliably identify:

 “Vultures. You see them? Probably something to do with Leo and his business back there. I don’t think it takes them long to fly from A to B when they spot something dead.”

We got out of the car and I looked around for bush that would shield me as I answered the call of nature. The encounter with Leo had left me miserable and unsettled. The verge where we’d now stopped had evidently been used by other drivers as an improvised place to park too – there were several beer bottles and what looked like bones from chops scattered about. Had other people quickly abandoned their planned break at the rest stop once they were accosted by Leo? Or – if they were familiar with this route – had they just driven onwards, knowing that they preferred this view, which was every bit as extraordinary in its own way.

What Birdie said next was so uncharacteristically downbeat that it was clear she shared my feelings for once:

 “This is a God-awful freakin’ country sometimes. Why the hell does Leo have to go and kill everything? There’s no excuse, is there, not really?”

 I told her to hold that thought because by then, I could wait no longer to relieve myself. When I reappeared, she was rummaging around in the back of the car and seemed to have perked up a bit, yelling “padkos?” at me over her shoulder as I waited for her to locate the food she’d brought along for us to share on the journey.

Image: lcv2105 Pixabay modified

 I felt a pinch of remorse watching her shift the assorted bags and containers around the crowded boot. I’d recently been offered a proper bakkie at a very good price but had turned it down with profound regret. My little lime-green Jimny was the butt of many jokes from my friends – the jolly gay jalopy, someone had dubbed it – but it was compact enough that I could always refuse Birdie’s frequent requests to help her move house, or help one of her sketchy friends to do so. If I’d upgraded to the Hilux then I would have had no excuse not to help her out any more.

On one of her less-disorganised days a couple of years ago, Birdie had let herself into my flat and placed tiny stickers in different colours on all the food in my fridge-freezer. Red stars went on the various different types of meat, which she told me later she wouldn’t deign to eat any longer; food she was still undecided about since she suspected she might be allergic to it was labelled with orange stickers (fish and various baked goods). Stuff I would be allowed to serve her when she came for a meal (essentially frozen desserts and a frozen vegetarian pizza I’d bought by mistake) was anointed with green stars. All the stickers fell off almost immediately, but not before she’d changed her mind about pretty much every category of food and its hidden dangers for her, occasioning yet another lecture from her about my own, admittedly haphazard, eating habits.

So watching her haul out a couple of plastic containers now and anticipating that she’d have brought nothing I could consume with any enjoyment, I reminded myself that if my scheme to deposit her with Johan this weekend all worked out as planned, then disagreements over her dietary dictates would soon be a thing of the past.

Yet miracles of miracles – Birdie was showing me a tub containing a pepper steak pie still warm from oven, slices of processed cheese, a chocolate donut, and some juicy-looking chicken wings. She placed it on the bonnet of the car then fished a bottle of Grapetiser from the pocket of her shorts and handed it to me. Then even more miraculously, she disappeared behind the car and returned with her own breakfast, almost identical to mine but with much smaller portions. I was so astonished that I was speechless. For once, Birdie’s maddening fickleness regarding her diet was working in my favour and what she said next almost had me choking on my drink:

“Don’t get on my case Zack, OK? That Banting food costs the earth and anyway, what was the point in wasting tons of my money on shit you won’t eat? I actually love Sparberry if you wanna know, and these pies hit the spot nicely. Only not every day of the week.”

It didn’t escape me that she’d just suggested that she would be paying for this feast herself, instead of handing me the receipt and expecting a refund. On this day of all days, just when I’d decided that we were going to have to live in towns halfway across the country from each other if we were to have any kind of relationship, Birdie was confounding one expectation after another.

🙣

We ate in companiable silence and I wondered if there was any compliment I could pay my sister about today’s choice of refreshments that she wouldn’t take as a sly dig at the type of inedible fare she’d pressed on me in the past. It was generally this way with her – Birdie was prickly and ever primed for criticism, and anyone wanting to get on with her knew exactly the type of charged words to avoid.

A bird with a miniature crest and red eyes had been sitting in a tree close to us, chattering away, and when I brushed the pastry crumbs off the car’s bonnet it came down and instantly began devouring them from the ground at our feet:

“See, even that bird approves of your picnic. A good choice. A very good choice. Thanks Birdie, for being so thoughtful.”

Birdie regarded the bird in silence, then balled up a tiny piece of cheese between her fingers and threw it high in the air. The bird caught it effortlessly on the wing, then moved in closer as Birdie prepared the next morsel for it from her leftovers.

“I love animals. I can’t bear it when people hurt them. It hurts me, too. Understand where I’m coming from?”

We were going to have a discussion about what had just taken place at the rest stop, then. It did seem like a good moment so I packed away the foil from my pie and the cheese wrappers and then rested back against the car to show that I was ready to listen. The funny little bird kept us company, pecking speculatively at the chicken bones I’d lobbed a few metres away as it waited for the next treat from my sister.

“I’ve not quite figured out what I’m going to do yet, but I am going to do something this time. And yes, don’t tune me that I told Leo I wanted some tiny shells from the tortoises and this means he’s probably fixing to round up some of the babies and kill them. It was not a good choice of words there. I wasn’t thinking straight. So I need to work out what to do about that when I put in a call to him later.”

I patted her hand to show that I was listening and that I understood. She seemed close to tears as she went on and a show of empathy was definitely required.

“Umm. Yes. So last week I was heading round to the gas station to get some milk when this guy walked up to me and straight off, I knew he was gonna hassle me for something. I don’t have to tell you it happens pretty much every day. More so after Covid and the drought. People coming in off the farms desperate.”

“Well, I don’t generally walk around places as much as you do but I get what you mean. Times are tough. Everyone knows that.”

“He stood in front of me so I couldn’t get by him then he reaches into a basket he was carrying and pulls out a towel and shows me some newborn puppies lying there. Black and white ones, eyes closed and everything, curled up together. Nowhere near being weaned. Maybe four or five. He asked me if I wanted to buy them and he must have seen that I kinda did because he fiddled around a bit then held one up close to my face. And then I could see that they weren’t just hungry or dehydrated. The one he was showing me had blood around its nose and its bottom and I could tell it was very sick. It was probably dying, Zack.”

“I’ve never heard of that before. People trying to sell stuff made of wire and beads, yeah sure. Slingshots, leather stuff. Baskets, all the time. But never live animals.”

“I was so torn. You can just imagine, can’t you? I didn’t think I could take them home – what if they had some icky disease they could pass on to the landlady’s dogs? But I thought I could maybe buy them and then take them to the SPCA and save them that way. But at the same time, it seemed like a terrible plan. Like, they probably just needed putting to sleep unfortunately – that’d be the sensible thing to do.”

“I have absolutely no idea what I’d have done, Birdie. But then let’s be honest, he wouldn’t have tried to sell them to me, would he? He spotted you and saw an easy touch.”

She took a very deep breath, a long gulp from her drink, then continued in a wavering voice:

“Well. I did nothing in the end, did I? Like a complete moron. And that’s the problem as it still stands for me now, I suppose. I told him I’d think about it ‘cos honestly, honestly, I didn’t know what was the best option. And I was super upset. I explained to him that I never have my phone or purse with me when I just pop out for some milk or whatever. It’s the truth nowadays actually Zack: how many times have I been robbed now in that part of town? But I said he should stay there while I went to get some cash. I thought that’d buy me time, give me time to figure out what to do next. But I think he realised that I was getting suspicious or was changing my mind because he just put the puppy back – it was all floppy and dribbling in his hand – and walked off. I could tell he was angry. He was actually a pretty scary character.”

And yet not twenty minutes ago she’d stood up to Leo, who was quite an intimidating type himself behind the feigned friendliness and bonhomie.

“Birdie, he’d have found someone else to buy them soon I should think. There are lots of people stop around there to check their post boxes.”

“Give me some credit. You don’t have to spell it out Zack. People like me, you mean. Rich white women who have fallen for the same thing in the past.”

“I’m not going to disagree. You said it. And so then?”

“As soon as I got home, I called the SPCA and told them what had happened. I described the gas station and the girl I spoke with seemed to know exactly what I was going to tell her. I said that it had only happened about quarter of an hour before so they could go down and take a look and see if the puppies could be rescued. I was trying to ask her if I should have paid for them anyway and brought them over myself but then I ran out of credit.”

“I don’t think there was going to be a happy ending either way. They’d have died eventually wherever they were because they were so young and sick, I should think. Don’t beat yourself up, Birdie.”

“Mrs Malan said something that hadn’t occurred to me. I asked her if she knew anything about dog diseases because I was still thinking I should have brought them home and tried to look after them – and maybe if it ever happened again, or he was still there the next day, I would still go ahead. I know it sounds crazy but I totally wasn’t thinking straight. I was trying to find out if her dogs could catch something off the puppies or if her two were vaccinated and so they were safe. ’Cept, you know, she’s been around the block. She said if I had bought the babies off him, then the man would have just bred from his bitch again straight away and when she gave birth he would do the exact same thing – sell the babies in town whether they were sick or gonna survive or whatever. In the end, I would have just been encouraging him, making it much worse.”

“So there you go. You were basically screwed either way. And maybe the SPCA did go and try to find him and they would be able to make a better decision about what to do, based on what you said.”

“I wish that made me feel better. I keep telling myself the same thing, I do. The puppies would have suffered if I’d taken them home and what if I’d had to stand by while some vet told me they needed to be put to sleep later on? I would have just been in total pieces. But I still feel helpless. I keep hoping that some tannie did buy them and they got the medicine they needed and she’s feeding them with a little bottle even now and giving them cute names. And the more I think about that fucker who didn’t care one bit about them suffering, just using his poor pets for money probably year after year, the more I want to fight back just a bit. The world’s a cruel place isn’t it, but that doesn’t mean that people have to be monsters.”

 Birdie had a look that I’d never seen before: a great sorrow that the world wasn’t the essentially benign place she’d always pictured it after all, but also a resolve that she had it in her power to do something about it.

“And all of that is why you’re now going to teach Leo back there a lesson, I’m guessing?”

“If I can. It’s everything all together isn’t it? All the wars everywhere, the children in boats, the pollution, the fires and floods. And Covid will be back, or something like it. I can’t do anything about any of that but I can stop that one man from…”

She couldn’t bring herself to form the words that would describe the final agonising moments of the little creatures before Leo placed them on the pyre – maybe already dead but maybe not. And fortunately, she didn’t have to – I was well able to imagine every appalling detail for myself. A vivid imagination was one thing she and I did share.

Birdie took the empty tubs round to the boot and when she came back my sister seemed to have pulled herself together. She also seemed to have uncovered some shred of sympathy for Leo’s plight:

“Can we blame him? Really? I’m not letting him get away with it but still, he’s not the root of the problem, is he? He’s only small fry. Even a bit pathetic in his own way. As soon as we hit Swakop I’ll go and report what we saw, what he said. Put him on speakerphone in front of witnesses to confirm what he’s gonna bring along thinking I will be there to buy it Monday morning. I’ve got a few contacts down there so I’ll see what they can do.”

Once again, I could barely credit what I was hearing from my sister:

“Contacts? Contacts? What are you telling me Birdie?” She laughed again, and again I was happy to hear the sound.

“Let’s just say there’s loads about me you don’t know, right? I’m not some undercover cop or reporter or anything, don’t get your panties in a bunch. But I do happen to know a few people, experts who will know what to do next.  And hopefully they’ll come and arrest him with all his swag on Monday. If he’s got any sense, he’ll give up the names of the bastards supplying him then and also the other bastards buying from him, if he has regular customers, which I think he does. There’s no elephants anywhere near here – did you figure that out? He’s getting that ivory through someone else then, and that someone else will be part of a big poaching ring for sure. There’s more to this than what we just saw today, I can guarantee.”

 By now, we were back in the car. I had a great deal that I wanted to say to Birdie – an immediate apology for misreading the situation with Leo just now and not being enthusiastic about her book idea, to start with. But also I wanted to explain why, given our history, I felt she needed another type of apology for the way I’d judged her since she’d arrived. It would all have to wait though because she was curling her filthy feet under her and – I could see – preparing for a nap. What I came out with now was clumsy and inadequate:

“Look at you! Fierce guardian of the tiny and the defenceless suddenly. I’m proud of you my child, I truly am.”

She gave me a sharp but loving poke in the ribs and we pulled out onto the road heading down from the pass and on west, to the wide and welcoming sea.

———–

Images: Dall-E 3 / Alex Pixabay modified
Image: Swansway MG Unsplash modified
Image: lcv2105 Pixabay modified

M.A. Kelly
M.A. Kelly
I am Marisa Kelly (writing as M.A. Kelly), born in Manchester, England, although I have lived permanently in Namibia for most of my adult life. I am a professional English-language editor of technical/scientific materials and I also contributed opinion pieces on social, economic and cultural issues for The Namibian newspaper between 2017 and 2020. My short-form fiction has appeared online in the following publications: The Kalahari Review, Ibua Journal and Writers Space Africa. I was a prize-winner in the Phoenix Short Fiction for Children Competition (Cardiff University and University of Namibia) in 2020 and in 2023 I was a prize-winner in the National Arts Council of Namibia creative writing competition. In 2020, I won the Goethe-Institut Namibia prize for fiction about the pandemic and my contribution appeared in their published anthology In Times of Pandemic. In November 2022, my short-story collection A Bed on Bricks was published by Modjaji Books of Cape Town. I am also the volunteer manager of 'Sew Good Namibia' - a collective of disadvantaged Namibian craftswomen who create ecofriendly household products from upcycled furnishing fabric.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Wild ride. Love the way your leads started at one place, and by the end of the road and story, they had discovered so much more about each other and arrived as different people. A story that’s also a journey! Love it!

    • Thanks so much for the lovely comment! I have recently been challenging myself to write about characters with whom I have limited empathy, and about whom I am rather judgemental at times. Certainly Birdie falls into that category so I am glad that you appear to have found that she ‘works’ as a fictional creation.

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