7) BABOONS :
When morning comes, I suggest: “The other kids have no way to go to school, Mammie, but maybe we could give them a lift? It’s the baboons, Mammie Kassie, êna makula stêrek, they’re really strong! You should see the branches they can tear off.”
Kassie, her arm gesturing in the direction of the car, begins to speak when Pappie Sarel interrupts. “Jus` don’t tease them, Boet, and I tell you they won’t tease back. I’ll send a kaffir with you kids, starting today. Old M`dhalha will do. He seems to take an interest in you. I’ll give him the shotgun. That’ll scare the hairy-backed buggers off.”
At 7:00 a.m., this time with M`dhalha standing to one side, I wait as usual atop the big round ‘sleeping-buffalo-boulder’ beside the dirt road, directly across from the van Wyk’s dairy.
Two other boys, kicking stones, saunter up the road toward me, a roly-poly fellow of eight, and a thin stick-legged taller chap of twelve. “`Lo, Boet,” the chubby one greets me, nudging at his thick glasses.
“`Lo, Varkie,” I smile. “`Lo Piet,” I greet, and jump down.
“I see you brought your old kaffir,” Piet teases, then picks up a stone. “Hey, Oink,” he challenges at Varkie, “let’s see if you can hit the van Wyk’s signboard from here!” and he throws so hard that the rock clangs and ricochets.
“Eina! Wat die hel!” a voice hollers from up the driveway.
“Sorry, Alex!” Piet shouts back, laughing, as fifteen-year-old good looking Alex, trailed by his reedy eleven-year-old brother, come into view. Meek little Mark holds his neck.
“You hit Mark!” Alex blazes. “I’ve told you to look before you throw!”
My head comes up. “Mark? You all right?”
Mark rubs at his neck, but turns his eyes away. “Ja man. Jus` nicked.”
Piet, looking straight at me, teases, “See, if I’m so good with a stone, who needs your bladdy kaffir along, hey, Boet? I’ll get the baboons!”
But M`dhalha’s quick glance silences me.
The narrow trail disappears into the seemingly impenetrable curtain of soft fern and ropy lianas and towering teak, but comes out on the broader swath of the natives’ footpath. Even here the treetops inter-link. It’s like walking within a magically paved tunnel of waving delicacies of lace, the leafy canopy pouring down liquid patches of gold from giant slivers of sunbeams. In here we usually meet no one else, since most of the blacks from the Compound leave very early to be at work, but at times a laden-down woman, some with children in tow, or an older man, or even a group of young men would be discovered. They’d stand pressed into the shadows of the leafy undergrowth, saying nothing until spoken to. And always, no matter how rude we whites might be, the blacks were most polite. But of such inequalities between white and black little is ever acknowledged. It comes by way of the birthright of each group, by the way we all are being raised, as it always was, and for some of us, as it always should be.
But on this day, all we boys meet up with are the baboons. As usual, I am the one who sees the slope-faced apes first. Respectfully, I whisper, “Jambo Umfuzi! Hamba! Hello Grandfather! Time for you to go!”
Umfuzi, seeming to nod, disappears. The forest goes still. All remains hushed, ominous.
Piet runs up, demanding, “Where? Where’s the bladdy thing?”
I point away. “Daar! There!”
Alex, his voice an urgent whisper, calls, “You kids, wait!”
We stop up. All around us in the path with its paving stones of golden yellow light that spears down in gothic shafts from the winking canopy of lace, there is a cathedral hush. But there is something ugly about that quiet. Usually when we come across the pack there are about twenty or so of the dusky creatures, chattering and entertaining with their marvelous acrobatics amidst the branches. And then one of us, usually Piet of course, would begin goading at them with grotesque facial gestures and weird noises. The apes inevitably respond by barking back insults and sometimes hurl seedpods and shake the branches with their antics. Ha!
But now? I feel goosebumps.
M`dhalha calls softly, “Stay long, like a string. We must be a python, not a puff-adder.”
Piet spits. “Puff-adders are lethal. Pythons slow. Just shoot the hairy bastards, kaffir!”
But I’ve had enough. “Piet. His name is ‘M`dhalha’. M’dhalha. Respected One. Hear?”
Piet advances, hands balling. “Yeah, Boetie? Does it now? M`dhalha this and M`dhalha that! You’d swear that the kaffir was your own fuggen father, you little Back Seat Brat!”
My eyes firm. He is taller than me, but I stare, determined to show no fear.
Piet’s eyes glisten with uncertainty, but he goads, “Come on, Boet. Come on, you fuggen little kaffir-boetie, fight!”
Then the baboons explode. From the sudden maelstrom of the swirling canopy a furious hail of broken branches, bouncing fruit kernels, boomerang-hard sausage-tree seedpods and gobs of smelly yellow raw dung pelts down.
We rush for cover. M`dhalha snaps the .410 up and an orange belch blasts from it with an echoing Boom! that sends rustling shivers through the leaves.
A second of silence.
But the apes, seeing that none among them are actually harmed, begin quickly reappearing. A little chastened, a lot more wary, they perch and chatter and argue over the matter of exactly what next to do.
A young female, her baby clung tight to her side, descends to within a stone’s throw and commences a screaming lecture, full of insult.
Spattered in stench, I begin to laugh, but then Piet angrily flings a stone and hits her so sharply that she drops her child. The tiny body, almost naked of hair, screams as it crashes to the forest floor.
“Los! Leave it!” M`dhalha shouts, reloading, as Piet runs into the ferns, yelling, “Grab it! Grab it!”
Above us the baboons erupt. They tear off the green and heavy seedpods, break larger and larger branches, hurl things down.
Varkie, squealing in fear, waddles further away down the path, and breaks into a run. I shout! But Umfuzi, the old watchman, springs.
Whump! The sound of it is distinct. The impact of some ninety pounds of infuriated menace catapulted from a great height instantly flattens the pudgy youngster. Dust clouds swirl. Even so, on all fours both boy and baboon almost at once back off, the ape to gain advantage, the boy in dazed bewilderment as he scrabbles for his glasses. Wet blood drips from his shredded ear, spouts in raked reds from the gashes to his shoulder and thigh. Strangely though, he makes no sounds.
M`dhalha tries to trace the circling baboon in his gun-sight.
I notice the mother, to one side, go quietly to rescue her baby. Her child clutched precariously to her chest, she howls defiance as she clambers back up the tree. Her voice goads the monstrous male into leaping at Varkie’s neck, but just then the boy stumbles for his yet again dropped glasses, and the baboon rips him from forearm to wrist. The ape screeches and howls, bares finger-sized fangs, begins circling again, and looks for the killing leap.
But then, flashing as it hurtles end over end through the air, M`dhalha’s great knife impales itself in the ape’s back, thwunk! The baboon falls face down, spread-eagled, still.
“Sawright, Basie. Sawright,” M`dhalha clucks at Varkie, gently prying the heavily bleeding kid up from the dirt. “Bring the knife,” he tells me.
I somewhat tentatively tug at the heavy steel from the still warm threat of the back of the huge baboon. It is, I realize, the first time I’ve touched the weapon. And from that moment, I want a knife just like it.
Varkie begins to whimper. M`dhalha wordlessly turns with him in his arms and lopes back toward the van Wyk’s place.