Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 430 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories, Sand, Rain, Heat, The Tales of Talker Knock and 50 Short Stories: The Very Best of Steve Carr, and LGBTQ: 33 Stories, and The Theory of Existence: 50 Short Stories, published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.
By Steve Carr
Baina’s footprints are left in the crumbling dry earth. She leans to the left to balance the weight of her naked child that she carries on her right hip. Her pale green cotton wrap-around skirt that reaches to her calves, loosely fitting pink t-shirt, and face, are covered with a thin layer of white dust from the dirt stirred up by the hot winds. Her braids that hang down to the middle of her back are dyed brick red from a mixture of clay scooped up from the creek that runs alongside the village and berries plucked from the bushes that line the creek. The other women in the village keep their heads wrapped, hiding their hair, protecting their scalps from the harsh sunlight. She passes by us avoiding our glances; she has no interest in us and has had none since we arrived here.
Sitting on a folding canvas stool, Marcie gulps water from a plastic bottle as she watches Baina walk by. She lowers the bottle and wipes the excess water from her parched lips with the back of her hand. “She’s really quite lovely,” she says of Baina.
I thought that very thing the first time I saw Baina two days ago, but never said so. I watch as Baina raises her child higher on her hip. The glare of the sun prevents me from seeing her clearly as she gains distance from where we sit. “She doesn’t seem to like us being here,” I say.
“I’m not so crazy about us being here either,” Marcie says.
The flies here are ubiquitous and their weight on my flesh when they land is noticeable, like pebbles falling on my skin. I swat at them with a stick laden with leaves, but it does little good. Smells, topsoil, and bits of debris, are quickly carried away by the wind, but the flies seem to hover effortlessly in the air.
Baina disappears inside her shack at the other end of the village. Marcie stands up, stretches, and then wipes away the dust that had accumulated on her sunburned cheeks. “I’m going to try to take a nap,” she says. She kisses me on the cheek, a kiss as soft as a butterfly landing on cotton, and then opens the tent flaps and goes in.
A small herd of goats enter the village with Keb right behind them, guiding them with his staff. The goats have small bells around their necks that jingle metallically. Keb is over six and a half feet tall and very thin. His hair is gray and his skin has the texture and appearance of aged black leather. He wears a pair of shorts, but no shirt or shoes. He stops in front of our tent.
“Don’t lose hope. Your jeep parts will arrive soon,” he says in English heavily accented with Afrikaans.
“We’re paying for our foolishness,” I say. “We should never have left the highway.”
His laugh comes from deep within his lungs. His grin spreads across his face, exposing his toothless gums. “Your luck is that your vehicle break down near our village.”
“So true,” I say. “Tell me, Keb, why is it that Baina dislikes us so much?”
Keb shakes his head and looks toward the direction of her hut. “She’s not originally from this village and she has no friends here. Now that she has no husband, her baby is only thing she find pleasure in.”
“What happened to her husband?”
“He walk into the bush country and not return.”
The jeep sits on the side of the dirt road with its hood raised. In the moonlight and covered with dust it has the look of the carcass of a wild animal. The quiver tree that stands nearby is like a sentinel whose skinny trunk appears as if it can barely hold up its head of tangled branches. The calls of coucals from their nests in the nearby brush is like one-note hoots made through hollow tubes. The cracked earth beneath my boots crunches with every step. When night fell, so did the temperature, and the tepid sweat that soaked my shirt earlier is now chilly against my back and chest.
I open the trunk to the jeep and take out my leather suitcase, lay it on the ground, and open it. I take out a bottle of liquid body wash, a tube of toothpaste, a bag of hard mint candies, two new handkerchiefs I had bought at the airport in Johannesburg, a pair of socks, a packet of wet wipes, and a bottle of aspirin, and place the items on a towel. I return the suitcase to the trunk, and then lift the towel by its four corners, and holding the corners together with one hand, toss the bundle over my shoulder.
It’s about two miles from the jeep to the village and the near-desert landscape bathed in moonlight is stark and seemingly endless. We had decided to leave the main highway to take a jaunt on the back roads, never expecting we would get lost, or that the jeep we rented would break down. It was Keb who came upon us while he was herding his goats and took us back to his village. Our traveling companion, Chris, and Naeem, a young man from the village, left on foot to the nearest town to get help. That was two days ago.
The village is quiet when I enter it except for the sounds of voices coming from inside the plywood and corrugated steel shacks. To avoid going by our tent I’ve entered the village from a different direction, and it takes me a few minutes to catch my bearings. The village isn’t very large, but it fans out in circles and all of the shacks look the same. It’s only when I see the tent at the other end of a village path do I realize I’m standing in front of my destination: Baina’s shack.
I lay the bundle at her door and as soon as I turn to walk away I hear her door open.
“Why do you come to my home?” Baina asks bluntly, gruffly. Her baby is nursing on one of her nipples.
“I brought you some gifts,” I say. I point to the bundle on the ground.
“I heard your husband was lost in the bush country.”
She taps the bundle with her foot. “He not lost,” she says and bends down, picks up the bundle, turns, and goes back into her shack.
In the middle of the night the air is hot and still. Marcie is on her side facing the open tent flaps. Her breathing is labored, as if gasping for a fresh breeze that never comes. Moonlight has set the inside of the tent aglow in the color of the tent’s bright yellow nylon. The silhouette of a lizard slowly creeping along the outside top of the tent takes on different shapes with every movement it makes, like that of a black cloud drifting across the sky. My face is awash with perspiration that has pooled beneath my eyes and in my ears. The smell of mosquito repellent that Marcie doused the inside of the tent with is thick and acrid, but in the absence of mosquito netting, it seems to have worked. Without the mosquitoes buzzing in my ears or feasting on my skin it’s easy to forget I’m in a rural part of South Africa, hundreds of miles from a city.
I climb over Marcie, careful not to wake her, and when outside of the tent I stand and stretch, my fingers grasping for one of the millions of stars that are clustered in the night sky. One of the many emaciated mongrel dogs that inhabit the village slinks out from behind a stack of empty oil barrels and stares at me warily for several moments before trotting off toward the open scrublands. When I turn my attention to the direction of Baina’s shack I see her standing naked in the street not far from her doorway, bathed in moonlight. She tilts her head back, spreads her arms, and begins to slowly turn.
“What are you doing out there?” Marcie says to me from inside the tent.
I turn to see her pale face yellowed by the light inside the tent. “Getting some fresh air,” I say.
When I turn to see Baina, she’s gone.
Keb hands me a bowl of fresh goat milk. I slosh it around for a few moments before taking a drink. Although warm it’s surprisingly refreshing and sweet. I drink the remainder and hand the bowl back to him.
“Where is Baina from?” I ask him.
He pulls on the rope tied to the goat that he milked. It’s now struggling against the hold the rope has on it to return to the rest of the herd. Looking at me appraisingly, Keb replies, “Kenya.”
With the heat of the day, the flies have returned.
“She said her husband isn’t lost,” I say and look up to see a sparrow-hawk circling in the sky in a repeated tight orbit as if trapped there.
“Maybe not lost and just walk away,” he replies. He unties the rope from around the goat’s neck allowing the goat to join the other goats grazing among the sparse patches of grass.
With their skirts hiked up above their knees the village women kneel in the mud along the creek, splashing their laundry in the muddy water. Their children and a few dogs play among the bushes behind them. Kneeling on the bank of the creek apart from the others, is Baina, who has her infant strapped to her back. Her braids are coiled into a cone shape atop her head. While the other women chatter in Afrikaan interrupted with bursts of giggles as Marcie and I wade into the creek to bathe the stench of sweat from our bodies, Baina keeps her head down, silent and seeming withdrawn.
The water is tepid and is like stepping into thin soup; bits of mud and grass immediately adhere to my legs. The floor of the creek is smooth and slick beneath the soles of my bare feet. We wear shorts, t-shirts and ball caps. The cap that Marcie wears is the one I bought for her in Paris. There’s an Eiffel Tower logo on it. Marcie is a few feet ahead of me. I watch her blonde pony tail sway back and forth as she balances herself with every step.
She lets out a yelp, and cries out, “I’ve been bitten,” just before she falls back against me.
I catch her in my arms. “What do you mean you’ve been bitten?”
“A bite. On my ankle,” she shouts, on the verge of hysteria.
I lift her up and carry her to the bank where Baina stands watching, waiting. I step out of the water and lay Marcie on the ground. The other women gather around as Baina wipes mud from Marcie’s ankle, exposing two round puncture wounds a quarter of an inch apart.
Baina looks up at me, her eyes steely with calm. “Snake,” she says. “Take her to my house.”
Inside her shack I lay Marcie on a straw mat on the bare dirt floor. I take a quick glance around. There’s a small fire pit dug in the dirt in the corner of the room and a candle stuck into the neck of a bottle sits on a wood crate along with a small mirror and hairbrush. The things I gave to her are laid out in a circle on the floor beneath the only window.
“Leave now,” Baina tells me and opens the door.
“But, my wife . . .” I begin.
“Will be sick but not die,” she says.
It’s nighttime and after several hours sitting on a stump outside of Baina’s shack and hearing Marcie puking, Baina opens her door. “She will sleep here tonight,” she says. “In the morning bring us some fresh milk.” She closes the door.
On the way to the tent I see Keb latching the gate to the pen for his goats. In the darkness of a moonless night he appears even thinner than he is; a skeleton covered with a hide of skin. My voice startles him when I call out to him. He whirls around, not seeing me at first.
“The chatter of the women of the village made me think you were a demon,” he says with a nervous laugh.
“Baina is performing her dark magic on your wife,” he answers. “Did I not tell you that many in the village believe Baina is a witch?”
“No, you didn’t mention it.”
He looks around, checking to make sure he isn’t seen talking to me in the darkness, and then comes nearer to me. “Have you seen that her child never cries?”
I hadn’t noticed it, but now that he brought it to my attention, I don’t recall the infant uttering a sound. While I could recount every detail about Baina – her appearance, her speech – the child had been an almost invisible being, there but not there. I glance the direction of Baina’s shack and quickly feel ashamed of myself for questioning for a moment if Baina was indeed a witch. “It’s superstitious nonsense,” I say.
“Maybe so, maybe not,” he replies. “You Whites see the world differently than us born on African soil.”
If possible, I could feel the color of my skin, the whiteness of it in comparison to his and compared to everyone in the village.
“In the morning I will need to buy some milk,” I say and then turn and walk to the tent.
At the break of dawn, yelling coming from within the village awakens me. I pull on my pants, crawl out of the tent and look up the street toward Baina’s shack. There’s smoke rising from the shack’s roof. I rush down to where Marcie is standing barefoot in the dirt. She looks stunned, unable to turn her head away from the flames that have engulfed the door and are eating through the walls. Many of the villagers are standing around, some shouting as they shake their fists at the growing inferno as if angry that the fire is an invader in the life of the village. Some of the men rush to and from the creek and toss buckets of water on the nearest shacks.
“What happened?” I say to Marcie, grasping her shoulders and staring into her blue eyes.
“Baina woke me up and told me to get out of the shack.” she stammers. “She pushed me out just before it all went up in flames.”
“What about Baina and her child?” I ask, glancing around and not seeing them.
“I don’t know. I just don’t know,” she says as she falls against my chest, shaking and sobbing.
It’s then that I notice that the things I had given Baina are on the ground where Marcie and I stand, encircling us.
In the hours after the fire I alone searched the ashes and burnt hull of Baina’s shack looking for signs of Baina and her child, and find nothing. The villagers stood about watching me, speaking in whispered Afrikaan to one another, but stayed back from Baina’s destroyed shack.
Chris and Naeem, who have returned just hours ago with a mechanic who has fixed the jeep, tell me they saw Baina walking toward the bush country with her child strapped to her back. They stopped their vehicle and called out to her, but she kept walking.
With the tent and sleeping bags folded and returned to the jeep, we stand around saying goodbye to Keb. “It’s not the earthly Baina your friend and Naeem see,” he says. “She has returned to looking for her husband in her spirit form.”
As Marcie climbs into the jeep, she says, with nervous laughter, “No man is worth all that trouble.”