“Now, you won’t get lost, will you? We’ve only got so much water, remember?” Henry is a changed person. Lat night’s remorse has changed to overconfidence; his demeanour suddenly that of a conquering hero rather than shame-faced crook. “Oh, and I’ll take the water, thank you very much.” He holds out his hand to receive the bottle from Vetfaan.”
Vetfaan and Fanny walks ahead, with the smirking Henry a few yards behind them. This is how one should conduct business – catch them by surprise when you slap your four aces on the table. Yes, this feels like the good old days when the deals were sweet and the profits huge. Life owes him a break. It owes him big time…
“He’s not normal,” Vetfaan whispers, “the way he changes from Jeckyll to Hyde is frightening. Last night…this morning – it doesn’t make sense.”
Fanny lengthens her stride so that they are even farther ahead of Henry. “I know. In the past I saw glimpses of that. He’d be shy and quiet, but when it came to financial matters, he wanted to take over the conversation. Maybe he was just trying to assert himself in front of others. What I realise – and isn’t it ironic that I only do so now – is that you can’t believe a word he says. I think he’s a pathologic liar, Fanie. He’s the ultimate actor: he only says what you want to hear. It’s uncanny. Maybe it’s the result of all those lonely childhood years filled with intense feelings of inferiority. Whatever it is: he’s dangerous.”
“I agree, Fanny. Unstable is the word that comes to mind. He switches from one personality to another with such ease… Who is he, really?”
“I don’t know, Fanie. Damaged goods…”
They reach the dune before the Valley of the Buried Wagon when the sun is almost directly ahead.
“Listen.” Vetfaan turns to their tormentor. “The wagon is in the next valley. We’ll climb to the top of the dune, and you’ll be able to see what is left of the skeleton of the wagon. Now me and Fanny? We’ll wait at the top of the dune. You go down and do whatever you have to. Tell you the truth: I don’t want to see what you do down there.”
“Oh no, mister wise-guy. I need hands and pockets to carry those coins out.” He taps the side of his head while shaking the water bottle with the other. “I thought about everything, my friend.” He hisses the last word. “You come along.”
Vetfaan sighs. He was hoping they’d be able to escape while the madman is busy with the gold. Then again: where would they go – especially without water?
Only the top of one wheel is visible above the sand when they reach the bottom of the valley.
“It’s there,” Fanny points towards the one side of the area. With down cast eyes and slumped shoulders, she seems a completely defeated woman. Vetfaan stands quietly to one side, jaw muscles working while a million thoughts cruise through his mind. The lion, preparing to attack…
“Then, my sweet, you had better start digging, hadn’t you?”Henry’s sneer widens. “We don’t want mister farmer-boy jumping on my back, do we? Go on, let’s see you get down and dirty, my dear. I like my women like that.”
Fanny sinks to her knees and starts scooping the layer of sand away from what used to be the bed of the wagon. Tears make dusty streaks down her cheek. Henry turned out to be such a horrible person; and for a while she had been considering marrying this…this monster? How stupid can a woman be? How terribly wrong…?
When the ancient and worn timber is exposed, Henry commands her to lift the loose planks. She does.
And then it happens.
The puff adder has been using the space below these planks as a burrow for some time. Little pieces of bone – certainly from mice and other small animals – litter the lair. It certainly is the perfect home for a snake, especially in an area without rocks or other hiding places.
The snake rears it’s head. Vetfaan screams a drawn-out Nooooo! He knows these adders are amongst the fastest strikers in the snake world, and if Fanny were to be bitten here, there’s no way he’d be able to save her.
Later, Vetfaan and Fanny will wonder about Henry’s reaction. When Fanny shrieks and falls back on the sand, the heinous smirk disappears from his haughty face. He drops the water bottle and dives towards the snake, trying to get hold of its neck.
Henry has no chance. The snake gets him three times: twice on the forearm and once on the wrist. The fangs penetrating the inside of the arm, just above the hand, do the damage. The potent venom gets injected directly into the venous complex beneath the skin, allowing the dose of venom to travel directly to the heart.
It’s over in three minutes. Oh, Vetfaan and Fanny try. They try for much, much longer. Without cortisone and antivenin, it is impossible.
“He saved my life.”
They’re back in the camp, sitting in shocked silence at the fire. After they had given up hope of reviving Henry, they buried the body next to the other three skeletons they had found there – oh, it feels like ages ago. There was no way they could carry him across the sand in the heat of the day. They emptied his pockets before they covered him up. That’s when Vetfaan found the distributor cap in the side pocket of Henry’s pants.
“Ja.” Vetfaan gets out the Cactus. He saw the look of horror on Henry’s face as he took that last, fateful dive. There’s no question about it – he reacted to save the one person in the whole world he loved. That, and his last words, croaked out when his eyes were dimming already: I’m…so terribly…sorry. He was desperately trying to say something else, reaching out with a trembling hand to touch Fanny’s face, when he sighed – and was gone. “I’m sorry.”
What else can he say?
“He was a troubled soul, Fanie. The way his personality swung to and fro – some psychologist will make sense out of it – I can’t. A sociopath? A psychopath? A nasty manipulator? Schizophrenic? I can’t bear thinking about … And then, in his last act…”
Vetfaan moves over to share body warmth with her. “That’s who he really was, Fanny. The real Henry. The Henry his father killed when he was a small boy. He could have been such a different man, if only he had a chance to develop normally.”
“We’ll get a helicopter, won’t we, Fanie? To fetch him? Please?” Small-girl voice, plaintively pleading the hurt to stop.
“Of course we shall. We owe him that, at least.”
The soft night wind moves the sparse dry grass around the camp. It reminds Vetfaan of old !Tung’s almost-asthmatic breathing. A light gust swirls up a little winking cloud of sparks from the embers, carrying them high into the sky where they mingle with the stars. For a brief second, they form part of the milky way. Just for a moment – like we all do.
Fanny rests her head on the broad shoulder of Vetfaan.
“I wonder where !Tung is now,” she asks softly, looking at the stars.
Vetfaan doesn’t have to answer. The whisper in the wind tells him so.
And something to read this weekend..
Also here: http://www.mybooks.co.za/book/41813/65-shades-of-guilt