The day Nine Toes disappeared in the Kalahari remains shrouded in mystery. Gertruida says there has to be a logical explanation, but Servaas – in an uncharacteristic pensive way – reckons one should never dabble with superstition or magic. Vetfaan dismisses the whole episode as a myth while Boggel only smiles and reminds them that the Kalahari is a great keeper of secrets.
Nine Toes, the Bushman, used to visit Rolbos occasionally. Way back then, he’d saunter in to Boggel’s Place with a casual smile and a cheerful greeting. He did this when he had something to sell: sometimes a few strings of beads, at others something more significant like an old coin or a rusted pocket knife. He’d explain these finds by telling them about the abandoned wagons of the old Dorslandtrekkers – the Afrikaners that that tried to escape British rule by trekking to Angola through the merciless desert which killed so many of them.
“There are wagons out there, Mister Boggel, just like the people left them. Eish! Many of them are almost worn away by the wind and the sun by now, but some things remain – if you knew where to dig in the sand. In the rusted tins and leather sacks, one may find strange things.” And with that, he’d hold out a handful of Kruger Pounds or maybe a ring or a necklace.
Nine Toes was rather aptly named. Many years ago a surprise meeting with a cobra – in the dead of the night – resulted in the snake being decapitated and a young Bushman contemplating his rapidly swelling big toe. He knew what would happen once the poison spread and did the only thing he could. When Vetfaan once said he didn’t believe a word of that story, Nine Toes produced the evidence the next time he visited Rolbos. The shrivelled up, dried-out toe silenced his critic completely.
Servaas had tried – many times – to find out where Nine Toes’ wagons were, but the man shook his head.
“Mister Servaas, leave those wagons to rest where they are. They supply me with a means to survive and they deserve to be undisturbed. There are graves there, too. Six of them. Long ago they had wooden crosses with names but now only the rocks on them tell you where they are. Four small ones, two big ones. And the spirits? They are there, too. They talk to me. They don’t want to be disturbed.”
Now that, of course, drew a sharp rebuke from Oudoom; but Nine Toes remained unfazed. He wasn’t talking about ghosts, he said, but spirits. There was a difference, he maintained.
“A ghost has a body, a face, a voice. When a ghost touches you, his fingers burn like ice. But a spirit…no body. No voice. A spirit can move right through you and you’ll never know. But take time, Mister Servaas, to sit down and talk with a spirit, and you’ll get an answer; not in words, but here.” He tapped the side of his head. “Spirits are soft, mostly kind and always ready to listen.”
Servaas scoffed, which only made Nine Toes shrug. An ignorant, sceptic old man could not be blamed for not believing him, after all. Oudoom remarked that that was the problem with the world those days: people believed in the most absurd things. No, Nine Toes countered, that was wrong.
“We must welcome the spirits, Mister Oudoom. They share this world with us. Sometimes they go away – I don’t know where – but then they return again. I’ve heard you people talking about angels – it’s the same thing, I think. Only, the spirits I know of don’t have wings and they don’t shine. They are. That’s all. Like the wind, they don’t move with feet. But just like you can feel the wind, I can feel the spirits. Eyes can’t see them, no, only your heart.”
Gertruida reckoned that one must not dismiss such arguments. Africa is a continent of superstition and myth – which may overlap remarkably with reality. “It’s a state of mind,” she said, “a way of thinking. We are, truth be told, the result of our upbringing. You grow up in a Christian home, so you never question the ideology. The same thing applies to all religions and certain philosophies: they get so ingrained in your mind that you never take time to dissect what – exactly – you believe in.” She smiled at that point and made a dismissive gesture. “Live and let live, I say. If Nine Toes believes in spirits, let him be. We’re not going to change it.”
But Nine Toes wasn’t finished. “Sometimes we house those spirits. They stay here.” He thumped his chest. “Other times, they live in animals. Snakes house bad spirits. Strong spirits prefer lions. My father is an elephant.”
That was one bridge too far. The group at the bar fell silent and stared at the ceiling. Arguing with Nine Toes would have been an exercise in futility – agreeing with him, equally unthinkable.
Then, yesterday morning, a strange thing happened. During the night, Vrede barked so much that Boggel had to get up. He checked his bedroom, the house, the street outside…nothing.
But that morning, a copper coin– obviously old – was found on Boggel’s veranda. Boggel picked it up and placed it on the counter. Gertruida came in a while later and gasped.
“Where on earth did you find this, Boggel?”
“Oh, on the doorstep. Somebody must have dropped it.”
“No way, Boggel! This is an 1853 penny with the bust of young Queen Victoria. Very rare. Nobody carries such coins about in their pockets! It’s a collector’s item.”
As Boggel turned the coin over, Vrede started barking again outside. Vetfaan came in and asked what was bothering the dog.
“Dunno. He’s been acting strangely since midnight. Bark, bark, bark all the time.”
“Well, he’s outside now, hair on his neck all erect, barking at the ground.”
Gertruida got up suddenly and walked out. Then she called them all over.
“Look, a print.” She pointed at the track in the sandy sidewalk. Vrede was standing a yard away, obviously annoyed at the spoor.Eyes fixed on the track, there was no mistaking what was irritating the town’s dog.
“Mmm…interesting.” Vetfaan bent down to have a better look. “It’s a brown hyena. Been a long time since last I saw one in the area.”
And so the group went back to the bar to have a cold one and chat about the strange coin Boggel had found.
Which is a pity.
Had they looked at the spoor a little more closely, they would have noticed a missing toe. And then, when the months went by and their favourite Bushman never showed up again, they would have understood.