Regaining consciousness, Anulka found herself lying in the dirt in the street surrounded by a forest of legs and feet.
Through their legs she could see that the shack had burned quickly; and now it was all but raised to the ground. There remained only smouldering timbers, blackened posts, all stunted and charred: the remains of the structures that had once supported the roof and walls of their home. In their midst, hot ash lay like a ghostly grey shroud from which white smoke rose and dissipated into the dark night. The damage to the next shack seemed to have been contained before the flames had destroyed more than the closest flank wall. People were still dowsing it down with whatever water they could get their hands on; and two drunks were pissing on it, thinking they were being helpful.
No one seemed to have any sympathy for her: Neighbours were circling her, looking down at her with a hostility that she couldn’t understand. Where she might have expected sympathy, their faces spoke of mistrust, hatred and suspicion. She didn’t need that. It had been a horrible and painful thing that she had had to do but there was no other way. It was lucky that she had only a brief second to think about it: Any longer, and she could never have brought herself to do it, to deliver that coup de grace that ended the pain that the writhing burning woman was having to endure. How could anyone know how much pain Granni would have suffered had she been allowed to continue burning until flames killed her?
But her neighbours obviously didn’t see it like that. It appeared they saw in their presence a firebrand. They babbled hysterically amongst themselves, avowing that she was a witch – a witch who had perpetrated a great mischief; and they were congratulating each other that they had managed to entrap her before she used her magic powers to get away.
Anulka raised an arm, wishing to answer their accusations.
Shocked, she realised that a woman had spat on her, the gob landing on the nape of her neck and trickling down inside the collar of her scorched night-smock.
“You witch!” the woman cried, trying to harvest another mouthful of gob to expectorate over her again.
“Yes, you witch!” Others took up the cry.
They were circling her, spitting, jeering and striking her with their staves as they hurled more outlandish accusations at her – accusations that, as everyone was talking at once, were difficult to make the sense of and so even harder to refute.
Some woman shouted, “This woman lay with our great Piet McOobo and conceived his child!”
She tried to sit up to talk, but she was pushed down again. From the ground, she told them, “Yes, I lay with him. But that would not have been possible had he not lain with me too. When I told him that I was with child by him, he said that he was called to things greater than bringing up a mere child; and he left me to go to Botswana to learn how to fight as a guerrilla.”
“Don’t believe a word!” the woman shrieked, now frenzied. “A spirit told me that the boy ran away to flee her evil powers. It was to escape her that he must now spend his life living as an outlaw in the shadows.”
“Well, what do you expect?” Anulka asked. She had managed to sit up now, and she addressed them all. “You want a hero? So do you think that he should sit on his bottom in Ochatingi waiting for the police to come and arrest him? He had to get out, didn’t he? That Piet McOobo is a hero, that he will one day become a great leader, I do not doubt…
“But in the meanwhile,” she told them, “Somebody always has to be left to pick up the pieces.” She rose to her feet. “Now someone please tell me, where is my son?”
They weren’t going to tell her. They said that it was she who had brought ill on the McOobo house which had twice been raided by the police; and now it had been burned to the ground.
Yes, she admitted, the police had raided it. And on two occasions. But she hadn’t even come to live at the shack at the time of those raids; and, anyway, they were looking for explosives the first time; and, on the second occasion, failing to find Piet, they had arrested his father.
But the crowd was fired up; and now a woman came to the front of the crowd and, pointing at Anulka, she told them, “It was she who started the fire and killed Granni McOobo. I saw her throwing the kerosene over the hut and over the woman…”
For a few moments Anulka thought she was to be lynched. Then an old man came forward and placed himself between herself and the crowd. In the darkness, Anulka recognised him as Benjamin Shalmi, the scoundrel who was living in what had once been her father’s house. He struck the ground with his staff and held up a hand for silence.
Scoundrel or not, Benjamin was the father of the witchdoctor – so he was a man to be respected. The crowd fell silent.
“So you saw the girl throwing the gas over the old lady?” he asked them. “But did any of you, you stupid headless chickens, see the agony in that old lady’s face before this girl did that? And if you did, did any of you do anything about it – other than squawking and babbling and asking each other should be done next?” He glared around him. “The thing this girl did was a brave thing to do.” He paused. “A braver thing than any of you had the courage or the brains to think of doing…
“So I would, all of you, start praying now: Pray that if you are in the fire, burning and screaming with pain – when you have no hope of anything better than a dreadful death – then someone will have the courage of this girl and spare you from further suffering.”
It was a long speech; and he ended it by looking down at Anulka and saying: “So, Girl, I applaud you for your courage. You do not require any forgiveness but that a place be reserved for you in heaven; and when I tell the Ancestors of this thing that you did, they will keep such a place for you.”
Muttering, the crowd started to disperse. Anulka found herself alone, hunched up on an empty stage. Benjamin had gone: Although she had every reason to dislike him, she would have liked to have thanked him for what he had said. He had stopped them persecuting her. They certainly wouldn’t countenance her; and no one would take her in for what remained of the night, but they wouldn’t hound her.
She picked herself up and started making enquiries around the shacks until she found Tom and gathered him up.
But they were still muttering, “Witch.”
At sometime after four am daylight came. The early morning dew had soaked her and she shivered uncontrollably. Miraculously Tom, clasped tightly to her, was still sleeping. Anulka watched the sun’s yellow orb as it climbed unhurriedly from a sleep of its own somewhere over the horizon, the gentle hills that lay beyond Ochatingi and stretched up all the way to Pretoria itself. From the closest hill, where the Company’s compound stood, you could see as far as the city. Perhaps it was to the city that she and Tom must now make their way. There, she could enquire if she couldn’t find some sort of employment and a place to sleep. But they said that in the slums around the city people slept in bus shelters and they requisitioned disused drain pipes in which to set up their homes: Perhaps even that would be better than this open ditch where she and Tom had spent the remains of the night.
Possibly she could get work teaching, typing even? She had been to the city a few times before but now she tried to imagine what living in it was like; and she wondered if she would ever be able to find her way around it.
By now Pretoria would be shimmering as the sun put its stamp upon it. How she wished the sun would hurry over here and do the same thing over Ochatingi. She craved warmth – even though she knew that, as the day went on, that warmth would turn to a merciless heat beating down on them and she would be clutching Tom to her even more tightly, giving him such shade as she could, rather than the warmth that she had tried to give him during the night.
She saw Ochatingi waking: She could see wisps of smoke coming from the shacks; and the sickening pall of white smoke still rose from where their home had been. In it there would be lying what remained of a body, incinerated, she rather hoped. But that was something that she would have to check and if needs be to attend to. No one else would bother: they would leave whatever wasn’t burned to be picked over by the foxes and wild dogs.
Not sure what she could do if she found any of Granni’s remains, holding Tom close, she made her way back into the township. She hoped the fire had done its job. She knew she wouldn’t find anyone prepared to assist her giving Granni’s remains a decent resting place; and she couldn’t risk lighting another fire to finish off the cremation: Whatever Benjamin may have said in support of her, they would lynch her if she did.
When she arrived at the remains of the shack, her task was easy: The fire had done its job; and there were no traces of any remains in the debris – there was only ash, a blanket of smoking white ash that covered everything.
Anulka didn’t countenance the tribal religions but, in Venda, as words came into her head, she made up a little prayer that, she guessed, would be something between a tribal prayer and the Christian prayers of her father. She prayed that the Ancestors would guide Granni’s spirit on its journey; and guide Anulka, too, because she needed guidance: she had no idea what to do next.
She said “Amen” at the end of it. She didn’t exactly know what that meant – although she knew the Venda language had a word like that which, in much the same way, they used at the end of their prayers.
“Amen” she said again; and opening her eyes, she saw the jerry can used by somebody to fire the shack. She picked it up, turned it round in her hands, keeping it at a respectable distance from her. Then she pulled it closer for more careful examination.
In the morning light she saw that it was painted in the green of the military; and that it bore the stamp of government property: the five pointed star beneath which were the initials ‘S.A.P.S’.
That, everyone knew, stood for ‘South African Police’; and, with a shock, Anulka knew it was to the South African Police that the can had belonged.