Still smiling about the splendid night he had spent with Esmeralda-who-turned-into-Agnes-again, Servaas was guiding the old Enfield through a sandy patch on the road to Omdraaisvlei (about halfway between Britstown and Prieska), when he saw the bedraggled figure waving frantically at him. Already going slow, he stopped next to her in a cloud of dust.
Servaas – also a sight for sore eyes under the layer of dust and sand – stared at the person for a while. He made out that it was a female – the ragged and torn dress suggested as much – but that was where deduction stopped and guessing started. How old was she? And…was it just a deep tan or was she San or of mixed descent? The wrinkles and lines on her face suggested a lifetime of hardship while the bare feet must have walked for many miles since the last bath.
“Morning…” Servaas said courteously.
“Môre Baas.” Well, that sounded strange to Servaas. White people aren’t called Baas (Boss) anymore, not like in the 60’s and 70’s, when Apartheid herded people into unnatural layers, sedimenting some lower than others.
“I’m Servaas,” he corrected the old woman.
“You must help, Baas Servaas, my daughter…”
The toothless mouth explained – in a mixture of broken Afrikaans and English (with a few click-sounds thrown in for good measure) – that her daughter was dying in a hut nearby. When she heard the motorcycle, she ran to the road in the hope of finding help. Would the Baas please come…?
What could he do? That was no time to discuss the changed politics in the country, let alone giving the old woman a lesson in correct use of language in 2014. Following the slowly jogging woman, Servaas putt-putted along behind her to reach the wooden shack a few hundred metres into the veld.
“Come Baas, help…” She beckoned him inside.
The sight that met Servaas when he entered the gloomy interior made him blink a few times before he took off his hat and used it to cover his eyes. Yes, he’d seen naked women before…not long ago, in fact, in the nudist camp. And yes, he promised wholeheartedly never to lay eyes on such a sight again… And how unexpectedly ironic was this?
The woman in question was laying down on a threadbare mattress, as naked as the day she was born and moaning softly. A sheen of sweat covered the copper-coloured skin that stretched over the distended abdomen.
“She’s having a baby?” Servaas had to repeat the question from behind the hat.
“Yes, Baas. Since last night. I’ve burnt some herbs and danced for her, but it didn’t help. You must do something, please, Baas.”
What followed, might be described as Servaas’s worst nightmare. Peeking from behind his hat, he tried to make sense of what he saw, and quickly covered his face again.
A desperate argument ensued. Realising that his ignorance and the woman’s desperation weren’t doing any good at that moment, Servaas eventually knelt down to inspect the uninspectable.
“I can see the head…,” he whispered. “It seems to be facing the wrong way.”
When Siena was giving birth to Servaasie, Oudok gave a running commentary on what was happening while Servaas cowered behind the door. He remembered how Oudok described how the head crowned, how the shoulders were released and the little body extracted. Quite clearly, Oudok described the boy’s face before the birth was complete – he said something about Siena’s nose. That meant the baby was facing…upwards? Or was that at a later stage?
Gritting his teeth, Servaas touched the head gingerly. It was warm and moist and covered with blood. And then…something extraordinary happened. It was as if the feeling, the touching, of the human infant transformed Servaas into an automated being. No longer did the sight of the naked woman have an impact on him. No longer did his mind work like an elder’s as he became unaware of his surroundings. He didn’t think about him as a male or the woman as female. The only thing that mattered, was the child – and the realisation that if he didn’t do somrthing, a life (or maybe even, two) would be lost.
The mother-to-be relaxed between the contractions. Tentatively, carefully, Servaas tried to push the little head backwards. To his utter surprise, the head did, indeed, move. The next contraction started, accompanied with a tired groan from the mother. And then, amidst a gush of fluid and blood, the head slowly progressed to eventually rest in Servaas’s trembling hands. By now he was praying loudly.
The little body followed. Shoulders, arms, torso, legs…and then the little boy lay limp and still on the mattress.
He’s dead, Servaas thought. I’ve delivered a corpse…
The old woman snatched up the baby, held it against her chest, and started crooning something that sounded like a lullaby. Still the infant remained quiet.
“Slap it!” That’s what Oudok did after Servaasie was born. Held him upside down and slapped the pink little bottom rather smartly.
The old woman looked at Servaas, not understanding what he meant. Servaas sighed, reached over with a blood-splattered hand, and whacked the baby on the bum.
It wriggled a bit.
The little chest heaved.
And it let out a mew-like whimper.
The two women wouldn’t let Servaas leave.
“Stay for the night, Baas. Please. Just for the night. You can leave tomorrow, but don’t leave us alone now. We may need your help…”
And so he did. The mother recovered surprisingly fast and Servaas watched – not ashamed, but in complete fascination – as the baby took the mother’s breast to suckle contently. The old woman busied herself by cooking some porridge, which Servaas truthfully declared to be the best meal he’d had in some time. Afterwards, when the mother and the baby drifted off to sleep, Servaas listened as the old woman described their life of hardship and suffering.
“We’re simple people, Baas. My daughter can do house-work, and I like to plant herbs..but that’s all. Nobody gives people like us work anymore. It’s not like the old days…”
“You mustn’t call me Baas – my name is Servaas.” Then he remembered how Agnes planned her new future. She had told him how her life as a gypsy had been a sham, and how she was going to find a patch of ground. Herbs, Servaas, she had said, that’s the future. Organic herbs. Fresh. I’m going to grow herbs and supply shops and restaurants. It won’t be easy, but it’ll be honest. I like that.
The next morning he said goodbye to the thankful two women.
“I’ll name him after you,” the mother said, smiling.
Servaas started the Enfield and rode off, leaving the women waving. They watched as he turned into the gravel road leading to Omdraaisvlei, then hugged each other.
“Baas Servaas.” The young mother whispered as she tickled her son’s little chin. “You’ll go far…”