Sometimes, when the dry wind blows in from the desert, Vrede gets that faraway look in his eyes. He’d go out, sit on the veranda and sniff the air; as if he expects the wind to carry the scent of some strange animal into town.
“He’s at it again,” Vetfaan says while Boggel opens another beer. “I wonder what he smells when he sits with his nose in the air like that. It must be something…he’s been at it for the last hour or so.”
Boggel nods. “And it’s only when the wind comes in from up South. It must be some plant. Maybe an animal – but there’s nothing out there, only sand.”
“Look, that wind hits us from an area between Bokkop and the road to Grootdrink. That stretch of sand goes all the way to the Karoo. There are few farms, occasional settlements and almost no people out that way. Maybe he’s just being a dog, you know. Sniffing the air and shooting the breeze, as it were. Dogs do that, I think.” Kleinpiet uses sheepdogs on his farm, and they never cease to amaze him. Once he watched one of his dogs herding the sheep away from a patch of green grass – when he inspected the area, he found the puff adder.
“It’s the dry air,” Servaas says, “it causes sinus problems.”
Vrede starts making whimpering noises in between his sniffing efforts. He’s obviously excited – or upset – about something.
It is the dry season – as usual. The fountains and streams that feed the great Orange River have run dry, and the water level has dropped to an unprecedented level. A slow and shallow stream feeds the remaining pools; while rocks that have been submerged for ages, now bake in the heat of the relentless sun.
Not far from the bridge between Rolbos and Grootdrink, a strange object has surfaced. The concrete has lost its paint, but the frown between the eyes of the gnome is as evident as ever. No longer coloured with the faded paint that gave it the ugly appearance, the garden gnome now has an ominous, grey look. The penetrating concrete eyes seem shut – the hollows where the pupils uses to be, are filled with the only bits of colour left on the statue. The green algae growing makes him seem sightless.
The little brown bird flies over the water, looking for something to feed on. The severe drought has even had an influence on the insect population, causing the birds to diminish in numbers as well. Desperate for anything to feed on, the bird alights on the gnome’s head. The fine beak pecks away at the green…pecks away, until the empty pupils can stare out at the world again with the same malice that landed it in the water in the first instance.
The two little boys trudge down to the water with grim faces. Not only do they have to fill up the huge container with the muddy waters of the pool below their village, but they have to heave the burden back up the hill to their home afterwards. The container gets filled with the murky water of one of the deeper pools. Then, despite the fact that their mother urged them to hurry home, they enjoy a swim in the tepid river.
“Look, a stone man,” the one shouts, pointing at the gnome.
They wade trough the shallow pool to the figurine, excited by their find. The younger one tries to lift it, but it is too heavy.
“Let’s lift it together…”
They try. They heave. They slip…
The gnome topples over, pinning the younger boy’s hand. He cries out in pain as the older child rolls the gnome off the crushed limb. They do not need a doctor to tell them the slender arm is broken. Realising they have to get help, they stumble to the bank.
“Let’s go to the bridge,” the older one says eventually. “Maybe we can get a lift to town, where a doctor can help.”
The man in the car watches his rear-view mirror carefully. Although he hasn’t spotted a tail, he’s not taking any chances. He needs to get away – as far as possible from civilisation – to protect his creative and unusual lifestyle. He has made sure he packed everything he needs: food, water, the cameras…
At first, when he spots the two children in the road, he curses. Then a slow smile spreads across his thin lips. This may be quite a break… He stops to pick them up, promising to take them to the nearest doctor. A mile later, a tyre bursts and the car slews into the only tree next to the road. The flickering flame in the engine compartment goes unnoticed for too long.
It is Gertruida who sees the pall of smoke on the horizon. It is too thick, too concentrated, to be a veld fire, she says. Vetfaan says he will investigate, gets his keys and walks to the door.
Nobody knows why dogs recognise evil the way they do. Some people believe they are much more aware of paranormal events than humans. Some even state they bark at ghosts. But Vrede, the police dog that refused to obey corrupt masters, doesn’t bark.
He simply gets up to jump on the back of Vetfaan’s pickup.
“He’s never done that before,” Gertruida remarks.
Kleinpiet laughs: “Maybe he wants to protect Vetfaan. Come on, let’s all go.”
The Upington Post carries the article in the newest edition. Police are still speculating on the mysterious accident that claimed a life. The most wanted paedophile, Mannetjies Mouton, was apparently killed while he abducted two children from a settlement nearby. The children are still in a state of shock and unable to give a coherent statement to the authorities. The youngest apparently broke his arm in the accident.
“When Vrede starts scratching like that, it’ll rain soon,” Gertruida says, after she read the article to the group in Boggel’s Place. “Let’s hope he’s right. If the Orange doesn’t get water, the vineyards along the river will be destroyed by the heat.”
Vrede is right. In two day’s time they’ll have a cloudburst. The river will rise and the bridge over the Orange, on the way to Grootdrink, will have to be closed for two days. The mud from upriver will cover the rocks and fill the pools that once provided the only source of water to the poor communities that live on the banks of the river.
The two boys will return home to tell their mother about the man of stone that broke the younger brother’s arm. She’ll tell them no, it wasn’t a stone man, it was the accident. The boys know their mother too well to argue. Despite the cast, they’ll still have to fetch water every day; only now they’ll stay far away from the place where they bathed before the rain came.
And the dwarf – the one with the empty pupils and the frown – will submerge again until the next drought. Vrede, as if by magic, will stop sniffing the air after the first rain.
Servaas still thinks the dog has a sinus problem.
https://rolbos.wordpress.com/2012/04/26/die-tuindwergie/ was the first installment of the garden gnome’s activities.