What made Servaas turn off the main road to Springbok? Was it his tired hips or the arthritic fingers on the throttle? Or perhaps some hidden spiritual instinct that told him to do so? One cannot always explain these things – we all do something at times and then try to tell ourselves some intuition guided us to do so.
Oh, he’ll tell you it was the sign at the open gate, but – as obvious as it may seem – that’s not true. He decided to turn off long before he saw the gate. The solitary little rondawel next to the big Bluegum tree and the slowly-turning windpump made a pretty picture in the emptiness of the barren veld around it. And yes, he was tired. His aching backside – not used to the uncomfortable seat – demanded a bit of respite. But there was a tug, a desire, to ride through to that cottage that he later couldn’t explain.
When he stopped his Enfield (with a relieved sigh) next to the small verandah, the place seemed to be deserted. A tired rectangular rockery sported a few dead twigs while the stoep was dusty, the steps unswept for a long time. Wilted weeds struggled to survive in the cracks in the steps. But there was a tendril of smoke coming from the chimney, suggesting some life inside – and that’s what made him knock on the door which stood slightly ajar. While he waited, he noted the one hinge hanging loose – the place was obviously in a bad state of repair.
The cottage had a wooden floor and after his third knock, Servaas heard the shuffling of feet inside. An ancient face peeked through the gap between the door and the frame.
“Ye-e-e-s?” Suspicion weighed the question down.
The voice belonged to an old woman. Sparse grey hair, mole on the prominent nose, pale lips, wrinkles. Too many wrinkles. It was the face a photographer dreams of – it told of hardship and endurance; a lifetime of struggling and disappointment. The eyes – barely visible between the wrinkles – were dull and uninterested.
Servaas didn’t know what to say.
“I thought I’d stop by to say hello.” It sounded as lame as it was.
“The sign said to keep the gate closed. It was open.”
A cackle of laughter surprised Servaas.
“He escaped a long time ago.”
“Yes, him too. Now go away.”
“Listen, that tortoise was mine. Mine! And he shouldn’t have left.” For a moment, Servaas saw fire in those dull eyes and felt ice slip down his spine.
Servaas is no fool. Here was a woman with a temper and a touch of insanity – there could be no doubt about either. The dishevelled appearance, the unkempt hair, the rags she wore…no, this one wasn’t normal, he was sure about that.
“He escaped?” In his mind, Servaas saw a running tortoise shooting anxious glances over its shoulder, scowling to see through the dust. The image made him smile.
“He sure did, that mean critter! Took to the road and thought he’d get away with it. Got him half a mile down the main road the next day and brought him back.”
“You sure it was the same tortoise?”
“Of course! I painted my initials on his stomach. Come, have a look.”
The strange woman then led Servaas into the dark interior of the cottage. She seemed to have forgotten that she recently ordered him off the property and was now humming to herself when she stopped to point at the object next to a well-worn sofa.
“There,” she said, “you can see for yourself.”
“Of course he’s dead, Mister! Are you stupid or something? That’s his shell. And here’s my initials.” She turned the shell over to show the faded paint paint spelling DdM. “Dorothy de Meyer, that’s who I am. See?”
Just like Daisy de Melker, Servaas thought with a shudder. Not wanting to offend her, he nodded.
“Are you staying for dinner? My husband – he adored that creature – won’t be in, so it’ll be just the two of us. Liver patties. They keep surprisingly long in the freezer if you add enough salt and pepper.”
Again, her sudden hospitality surprised Servaas. She was, he decided, quite unpredictable.
“Why did he die?” His curiosity got the better of him.
“Chopped his head off, I did. Made a lovely soup. He’s not going anywhere, ever again…but I keep the sign up, just in case.” She stared out of the window. “You never know, do you?”
“Where did your husband go? Won’t he join you for dinner?”
She laughed again: a cackling, raspy noise emanating from her ancient chest. “Hardly likely, I’d say.” Her eyes had suddenly become hard and icy again, measuring Servaas from head to toe. “Well…?
“No.” He’d made up his mind by this time. “I just came to tell you about the gate.”
“He ain’t going anywhere,” she said, pointing at the shell, “I saw to it.”
Servaas made his way to the door, stopped to stare at the rectangular rockery, and shook his head.
“I’ll be on my way, then. Thanks for the offer for dinner, but I have to go. Give my regards to your husband, will you?” He had to get away from that place, from the suspicion slowly growing inside him. As he laboured his leg over the frame of the Enfield, he saw her watching the rockery with unusual intensity.
“You sure about the liver patties?” Her rasping voice was almost drowned by the starting of the engine.
…And that rectangular rockery where nothing grew.
To make sure, he closed the gate behind him. One cannot take chances with such things. Servaas isn’t a superstitious man – not at all. But just like gates aren’t supposed to keep tortoises in (and, of course, they don’t pay much attention to people telling them where to stay), so one cannot always assume that the liver patty you get for dinner has its origin in the butchery in town. After all, the old woman’s remark about the freezer sent a chill down his spine, didn’t it?
No; Servaas will confess if you give him enough peach brandy, sometimes it is far wiser to ride off into the sunset than to ask one more question – or to wonder about the urge that made him stop there. And, he’ll whisper, it’s not only animals that want justice. But justice, he’ll go on, comes at a price. A man must decide whether it is worthwhile to pursue the matter before committing yourself.
Maybe that’s what the old woman’s husband found out eventually, as well…