Paul Trouillebert: The naked snake charmer
Whenever Vetfaan is asked about the sexy girl he had met that fateful summer’s day, he blushes, stutters and tells you to mind your own business. Should you persist, a rather unpleasant exchange of a more physical nature is sure to follow.
The problem involves the fact that this waif of a girl – somewhere between mid-thirty and menopause – had the body of an athlete and the ageless wisdom some women seem to possess.
It was a particularly hot day, with heat shimmers rising and warping the scenery of the Kalahari. The distorted surroundings often create a surrealistic atmosphere, especially if the traveller is new to the area. Vetfaan, being a born-and-bred son of the region, simply failed to notice the visual impact of the heatwaves. His attention was focussed on the joint where his big toe joined his foot.
Now, anybody who has had some experience with gout, will understand the degree of pain and discomfort poor Vetfaan endured that morning. He had already eaten a handful of black cherries, drank two litres of water, ate three lemons and packed his foot in ice. Nothing helped. The throbbing, red, painful joint insisted on swelling up even more, forcing Vetfaan to take off his boot while driving to Upington, where he hoped to see the new doctor he had heard so much about.
Well, heat waves may have escaped his attention…the girl in the middle of the road did not. No Kalahari-man will ever drive past a stranded woman. Especially if she’s beautiful. Or wears a revealing, short skirt. Or stands in the middle of the road, aiming a short-barrelled .38 at you. In this case, the woman in question had ticked all these boxes, and Vetfaan did, indeed, stop.
She was unapologetic about the gun, saying a girl could never be sure who would stop to offer help.
“Listen, I’ve been around. I’m a woman. You’re a man. It all adds up.”
“What does?” Vetfaan didn’t understand.
She ignored his question, picked up her bag and got in. “Drive slowly and don’t make an accident. I’ve had enough trouble in my life.”
“What’s wrong with your vehicle?”
She eyed him for a full minute before answering. “Mam doesn’t like the smell of petrol. Neither do I, for that matter.”
She rolled her eyes heavenward in exasperation. “Mam. My snake. Short for mamba.”
To recount the disjointed conversation that followed, would involve many pages of blank looks and horrid stares and still-born sentences. The short version: Mimi – she of no fixed abode and rather limited means – made a living as a snake charmer. She also treated various health conditions, communicated with departed family members and had once sat as a model for a famous artist.
“That’s immortality, understand? Paintings don’t grow old and die. Oh, the paint the artist used, might get a bit flakey,but the picture? It remains as beautiful as the day the brush touched the canvas.”
By the time they reached Upington, Vetfaan was completely confused. His passenger was either completely mad, or perhaps the most interesting woman he had ever met. Fascinated by the possibilities, he asked her to join him for coffee before his appointment with the doctor.
“Doctor? What for?”
He explained. She suggested moxibustion. Vetfaan said the people in the Northern Cape frowned on polygamy. She laughed.
“No, it’s not that, silly man! I burn a herb on your toe, and you feel better. Moxi-bustion…the burning of mugwort. It’s an old Chinese trick. see? Mugwort, that’s the herb – is what you need. I’ve got some.”
Vetfaan claims to be the first man in the Kalahari to have undergone moxibustion. There, on the front seat of his old Land Rover, his strange passenger rolled a few mugwort fibres into a little ball and placed it on his swollen toe. He watched, horrified, as she lit the potion with a small gas lighter and was amazed that he felt no pain.
“The swelling will go down now,” she said, “but I must go. Mam needs something to eat and you’re too nice. And…I must still find my two friends. I’ll just keep on looking, even if it takes forever. So, thank you and bye-bye.”
Vetfaan watched, dumbfounded, as she sauntered down the street, swinging her bag casually as she strode along. He ran a hand over his still-bare foot and sighed with relief when he noticed how much better it felt. By the time he had his sock and boot back on, Mimi was nowhere to be seen.
On his way back to Rolbos, Vetfaan stopped at her abandoned vehicle. On the back seat he found an old shoe-box with a dead rat in it. Mam’s supper? In the boot, another box – a lot bigger, containing three pieces of art.
It was Gertruida who told Vetfaan about the girls and the great portrait artist, Paul Désiré Trouillebert. “The Young Girl, the Harem Girl and the Snake Charmer were all painted by the same man, Vetfaan. Remember, Trouillebert was a landscape artist – he abandoned his attempts at portrait works because he fell in love with the girls in his painting – like all artists do. The real, flesh-and-blood subjects were admired for their beauty, but the paintings became the loves of his life – because they were immortal. Time would not decay their beauty, neither would the lovely faces and bodies sag and become wrinkled.”
“Immortal? Really? Are you saying that I…?”
“Either that, Vetfaan, or you’ve lost your mind.” Gertruida shrugged. “I don’t know which is worse…”