Friday, February 14, 2014

The Secret by Beryl Ensor-Smith

When Helga Swanepoel's poodle gets scratched at Sarie Blignault's house, the Church Sisters realise that Sarie is hiding something, in the latest instalment of Beryl Ensor-Smith's charming series of comic misunderstandings in small-town South Africa.

It was Helga Swanepoel who discovered that Sarie Blignault was hiding something from the other Church Sisters. She had called round at Sarie's to drop off the minutes of the previous AGM, to be read before the next meeting, and had taken her poodle Bianca with her. Sarie lived in a house on a large plot adjacent old man Davenport's smallholding and backing onto the banks of the vlei... an ideal place for an overweight dog to run around. Bianca had been reluctantly coaxed away from the house, but had soon come yelping into the sitting room, a long scratch along the side of her body that had stained her pale fur red.

Helga had naturally been very upset and after the two women had comforted the dog and ascertained that the scratch was superficial, needing only to be cleaned, she set about discovering who or what had done this hurt to her beloved pet. Sarie professed complete ignorance, but would not meet Helga's eye.

"Perhaps Bianca got through the fence at the back of the yard and went into the squatter camp along the banks of the vlei? Perhaps one of the hens there, or even a goat, attacked her?"

"I suppose it could have been caused by the horn of a goat," Helga said dubiously.

"Yes, yes," Sarie agreed too eagerly, "that's what it must have been."

Driving home with her unhappy pet, Helga's doubts grew. Bianca was a timid dog (some would have said gutless) and would never have approached another animal. Indeed, it was her wont to flee at the mere sight of another creature. Helga was convinced that someone or something had crept up on her unsuspecting Bianca and taken a swipe at her. Thoroughly outraged at this unprovoked attack on her defenceless pet, she was determined to get to the bottom of it.

The Church Sisters, when they next convened to prepare for their annual fete, didn't seem all that interested in her sad tale, embellished though it was to make it more dramatic.

None of them liked Bianca much, considering her spoilt and unhygienic as she had a 'delicate stomach'; Helga's explanation for her unreliable digestive tract!

"She's a pig of a dog," Christina du Plessis stated in disgust, and for once the 'sisters' were in full agreement.

Their casual response to Bianca's wound only provoked Helga's heightened indignation.

"You wouldn't be unsympathetic if it had happened to one of your pets," she accused, "and I don't suppose it's occurred to you that whatever attacked my Bianca is obviously vicious and may not confine itself to striking animals. Next time it may be one of you that it attacks!"

This got their full and immediate attention, she noticed with triumph.

"We don't go into the squatter camp," Elaine Ferreira protested.

"Who says it happened in the squatter camp? Only Sarie, and I can tell you that she acted very guilty when she saw what had happened. If I had a suspicious nature, I would say that Sarie was trying to hide something!"

"Hurumph," said old Mrs Merton, "That's impossible. Sarie's an open book, quite incapable of the slightest deception. Here she comes now... take a look at that face. Have you ever seen anything more ingenuous?"

The other 'sisters' took a good look and agreed to a woman that Helga must be exaggerating. With her childlike innocence, some thought she just missed being simple! What they failed to take into account is that the most guileless of creatures can, when feeling threatened, resort to unnatural cunning.

Leon Markovitz, local pharmacist, was the next person to be puzzled by Sarie's behaviour. She sidled into his shop, took a quick look around to make sure no-one was behind any of the racks of toiletries on display and asked breathlessly:

"Leon, can I ask you something in confidence?"

"Yeees," Leon replied warily, remembering an occasion in the recent past where Sarie, leaning across the counter, had asked in a voice just above a whisper for a medication that had taken him completely aback. However, when her request came this day, it seemed innocuous enough.

"When a person gets a pet it has to go to the vet for serums and things, doesn't it?"

"Yes, Sarie. All household pets should be inoculated against disease and dewormed too."

"Do you... do you keep any of those things here that I could give the dose myself? The nearest vet is in Waterfontein and I can't get there, not having a car."

"No, Sarie," he replied kindly. "The vet stocks animal medicines, and some have to be administered by injection. I could perhaps give you something for deworming. My medication is for humans but we could try one meant for babies or toddlers, adjusting the dose to the weight of your animal. What is it?"

Sarie took another uneasy look around. "It's a cat," she said reluctantly. "It's still very wild and lives in the rocky outcrop on the bult on my property."

Leon looked at her in concern through the thick lenses of his spectacles. "Sarie, wild animals, especially feral cats, can be dangerous. It's not a good idea to befriend them."

"Oh," she protested quickly, "this one is getting tame very nicely. It doesn't spit at me any more even when I get quite close. One of these days it'll let me pat it, I know. It already drinks the milk I put out for it each night."

"Well," he said, unconvinced, "I really do advise you not to try to touch it. It could give you a bad scratch and then you'll need an anti-tetanus injection."

Sarie was silent for a moment remembering that this had indeed happened to poor Bianca. "I'll be very careful, Leon. We can start with the worm medicine and after that I'll work out a way to get it to a vet."

"You can always come to Waterfontein with me the next time I go, if that would help."

Sarie smiled sunnily at him. "Oh, you are a kind person, Leon. That will be fine."

"So, how big is your cat? Can you guess how much it weighs?"

The smile was replaced by a worried frown. "I... I can't really say. It's quite a big cat."

"Not a kitten?"

Sarie looked troubled. "I don't think so, Leon, but I don't really know for sure. It's about as big as Miems Gouws's little dog."

Leon racked his memory, coming up with a mental image of Miems's pavement special.

"That big? Are you sure, Sarie?"

"Oh yes. At least. Maybe even a bit bigger." There was no uncertainty in her voice this time.

With some reservations Leon did a quick calculation, put a few small tablets into a bottle and as well as writing down the dose on the sticky label for the bottle, explained clearly and simply to Sarie how much and when the tablets should be given.

"How will you see that the cat swallows them? You won't be able touch it, Sarie. Remember what I said!"

"Oh I will, Leon. I'll crush the tablets and put them in some mince. Thank you so much."

Leon felt very uneasy once she had left the pharmacy. He did not like the thought of the trusting Sarie trying to tame a wild cat. The sooner the animal could be taken to the vet for immunisation the better, and he would make sure it also had a rabies shot, just to be on the safe side. He spent a restless night and just before dawn came to a decision. Before leaving for the pharmacy he telephoned Sarie.

"Would you mind if I told Gideon Visser about your cat? He could supply us with a good, strong cardboard box to transport it to Waterfontein. A lot of the hardware for his store is delivered in hefty boxes."

Sarie reluctantly agreed but insisted that Gideon be sworn to silence. "Please ask him not to tell anyone, and especially not the Church Sisters."

"Why especially not them, Sarie?"

Having little choice, Sarie told him about the wound inflicted on the unfortunate Bianca.

"Helga was really upset, Leon, and if she finds out my cat did it, she'll get someone to shoot it, I know!"

Leon liked the sound of Sarie's cat less and less. It definitely seemed unpredictable. Nevertheless he honoured her request, telling Gideon only that Sarie needed a strong cardboard box to get her new cat to the vet and did not yet want anyone in the village to know she had acquired a pet. Gideon, ever amiable, agreed both to supply the box and not to mention the cat to anyone.

Moses Shilowa, walking home from work on a farm to his house in the squatter camp in the late afternoon, came across a strange sight. He stood and watched for a while, then told his wife about it later. There was this crazy white woman talking to a tree spirit near the rocks on the bult. She was looking up into the branches and spoke for quite a long time, and had even put an offering of meat on the ground!

His wife shook her head in wonderment. "Hau! And they laugh at us for praying to ancestors?"

During the next week there was some consternation in the dorp. Old man Davenport had reported the loss of two of his ducks and Miems Gouws was missing one of her hens.

"It's too bad," she complained to the Church Sisters at their next charity needlework session. "I rely on the income from those eggs to supplement my small pension. Whatever is taking our birds has to be stopped, and soon!"

Sarie's head shot up in alarm, but before she could say anything, Marion Klopper intervened. "It must be a jackal. We get them from time to time, but I've never heard of one actually coming into the village. They mostly keep to the farms and take lambs."

"My poor Bianca," Helga wailed, "savaged by a jackal!"

"Oh, do stop that infernal noise Helga," nasty old Mrs Merton commanded, "and I doubt it was a jackal if Bianca got scratched as you say. Jackals have paws, not claws!"

"But they do have sharp teeth!"

"You think this beast turned sideways, inserted a fang and ripped? It certainly is intelligent and showed great presence of mind."

"Well the scratch is there to prove it, so there!"

The two women glared at one another, with the eyes of all the others fixed on them in vicarious enjoyment. A quarrel between two of their members relieved the monotony of endless long, hot, summer days. Their attention thus diverted, no-one noticed that Sarie Blignault had become very agitated.

Moses Shilowa, on returning home that evening, had further news to impart to his wife.

"You know that crazy white woman I told you about? She's now throwing bones around that tree, making magic. I saw them with my own eyes, all scattered around. If she was black she would be a sangoma! I think she's a white witch."

His wife looked alarmed. "Where exactly does this woman live? I want to warn the children to keep away from her."

Sarie, meanwhile, was shaken by what she had heard at the meeting of the Church Sisters.

She made straight for the rocky outcrop on the bult, looking for her cat. It was nowhere to be seen, although, to her great dismay, there were a great many bones around the base of the tree. She knew the animal took shelter at night among the rocks in a kind of cave, but that night when she went back with a torch and shone it into the entrance, she could see nothing and sensed that it had still not returned. Greatly worried, she spent the next day traipsing between house and bult and was almost weak with relief when, at dusk, she saw two eyes gleaming at her between the rocks.

"You're a naughty cat," she admonished it sternly. "Eating birds is bad, especially ducks and hens belonging to other people! If only you would come into the house I could feed you and you wouldn't need to go hunting. Tomorrow I'm going to fetch a box from Gideon to catch you and take you home so that no-one will find you and kill you!"

Which she duly did, on the pretext of needing it to get the cat to the vet. Her first priority was to safeguard her pet. The vet could come later. Gideon scouted around looking for a suitable container.

"So you've got a cat Sarie? That's nice. They make good pets."

"This is such a lovely one, Gideon. It has the most beautiful pale red fur and the prettiest pointed ears. It's getting used to me now. When I talk to it, it answers back," she added proudly.

"That's nice," he said again, absently. "Here's a good strong box Sarie. Will this do?"

She looked at it critically. "I think it's a bit small. Do you perhaps have a bigger one?"

"I dare say I can find one." Gideon was surprised that she had rejected what he thought was a fair-sized box, but he obligingly rooted around until he found a bigger one.

"How's this?"

"Oh, that's fine, Gideon. Just what I need."

Back home she spent some time planning how to perch the box upside-down from two branches of a bush alongside the cat's lair so that it would fall when the animal brushed past, going into the cave. She tried it out a few times, with varying degrees of success. Sometimes the box landed upside-down as she wanted, sometimes on its side, and sometimes it didn't fall at all. Sarie realised that her efforts might be wasted, but she was prepared to be patient. She went home, made some sandwiches and a flask of coffee, took a blanket and found a hiding place from which she could watch the rocky outcrop. As it was still early and there was no sign of the cat, she set about collecting some of its droppings to see if the worm medicine had had any effect, but was disappointed to find nothing resembling a worm when she separated one with a stick. Nevertheless she put some into a bottle to take to Leon. Maybe the worms were very small and one needed a microscope to see them?

When Moses Shilowa came home from work that evening, his wife had news for him! A young goat was missing from the squatter camp. Although the political barrier between the different races had come down, most still kept to their own communities, so the township residents had not heard that one of Miems's hens had disappeared. They had, however, learned of old man Davenport's loss as he reckoned that a denizen of the camp had nicked his ducks, and sent round a policeman, who had asked some very unkind questions. Moses brooded on the matter all through his evening meal and then told his wife that he was sure the white woman had taken the goat.

"Those bones I saw the other day... they could have belonged to Davenport's ducks."

"And I can fly," his wife said rudely. "Just how do you suppose a white woman could have got into the township and stolen an animal without being seen?"

"She's a witch isn't she?"

His wife snorted and started stacking the dirty dishes.

Sarie's trap had, by some or other flukey means, succeeded at the first attempt, but...

Gideon was busy rearranging some of his shelves when Sarie rushed breathlessly into the store the following day.

"It's my turn, as a Church Sister, to visit the old folks' home and read to them and I'm late," she told him, "but Gideon, I need a stronger box! I caught my cat, but with one thrust of its paw it broke through it and got away again. Will you look for a better one for me?"

With a smile of apology she rushed out again, leaving Gideon staring after her in astonishment. Her next hurried port of call was Leon's pharmacy where she handed him the bottle containing the cat's droppings.

"I can't find any worms, Leon. I think my cat needs stronger medicine, but perhaps the worms are small? Please excuse me, I'm very late!" and away she flew.

Leon also looked surprised. The dose he had given Sarie should certainly have produced some results. He glanced at the contents of the bottle and did a double-take. He was still pondering about the implications when Gideon walked in. He told Leon about Sarie's attempt to capture her cat. Leon groaned aloud:

"I should have known she would try to do such a foolish thing. Why am I not surprised?"

"You'll be pretty surprised when I tell you the result. She says that cat split the box open with one paw, and it was a sturdy box, Leon. No normal cat could have done that!"

Leon looked down at the bottle containing the cat droppings. "And these are mighty big turds for an ordinary cat."

The two looked at one another in growing alarm.

"We'd better take a look at it," they said, as one man.

Both made hasty arrangements for assistants to man their respective businesses while they were away, climbed into Gideon's bakkie and, on Leon's suggestion, picked up Japie Fourie, newly retired, en route to Sarie's house. Japie was a quiet man who despised gossip and could be trusted with Sarie's secret. They explained the whole sequence of events to him on the way. True to type, Japie said nothing, but his expression hardened, a sure sign that he realised the gravity of the situation.

Gideon remembered Sarie saying something about the animal living in an outcrop of rocks at the back of her property and the three men made their way there, scouted cautiously round the rocky hollow and had just decided that it wasn't there when Japie, whose hand was resting on the trunk of a near-by tree, chanced to glance upwards.

His eyes widened in alarm. "Look up here," he said quietly, stepping back to allow the other two to see. They followed his gaze and froze.

"My God, it's a Rooikat and Sarie's been trying to tame it!"

"Worse than that, she's been trying to catch it! What now, Leon?"

Before he could reply, Japie said grimly "It should be shot, no question about it."

Leon and Gideon exchanged a glance.

"Let's try capturing it first. Then perhaps we can release it somewhere where it won't be a menace to anyone," Gideon suggested. Japie acquiesced with a shrug. He, too, found the idea of killing the animal distasteful.

"Any idea how to go about doing this?" from Leon.

It was Japie who came up with a possible solution. "Old man Davenport has a cage lying somewhere on his property."

"Yes, I remember seeing it. I think it's in the long grass right at the back, but we can hardly ask to borrow it without telling him why, and after having lost two of his ducks he'll insist on shooting the Rooikat. That would be a pity as Sarie is right in one thing, it's a beautiful beast."

"We'll just have to 'borrow' it for a few hours," Leon said with a sigh. "Let's tackle one thing at a time. We get the cage; we catch the Rooikat; we take it away and release it."

Without more ado, the three men planned their course of action. Leon would stay below the tree so that the cat wouldn't attempt to come down, ("but run like hell if it moves!" Gideon instructed.) He and Japie would take the bakkie to the rear of old man Davenport's smallholding, find the cage, somehow contrive to get it over the back fence and into the bakkie, thus completing stage one of their plan.

And so it went. With luck and some stealthy effort they found the cage, brought it back and managed to squeeze it between the rocks at the entrance to the cat's lair, positioning it just behind and out of sight. The Rooikat would be inside the cage and the door sprung before it realised it had been trapped... they hoped! Then it was a matter of scaring the cat out of the tree and into its lair, which proved to be the most difficult and hair-raising part of their scheme, but finally it was done. Only then did they realise that the Rooikat would need to be sedated before they dared move the cage. It was thoroughly riled, snarling and fighting to free itself.

Leon drove back to the pharmacy. There he prepared a strong liquid tranquilliser which he divided between two syringes to which he attached thick needles and when he rejoined the other two men, handed one to Japie.

"You're the darts player. Climb up onto that ledge and aim for the cat's flank some place it can't bite or shake the thing loose. Throw at an angle from above so that the tranquilliser will drain into its body and for heaven's sake, don't miss! We need to take the other syringe with us in case it wakes up again. I had to guess the correct strength of the solution." (He seemed to be doing a lot of that lately! The next time he saw Sarie walk into the pharmacy, he should remember to be on his guard. Her most endearing quality, her utter artlessness, was the very thing that boded ill for those whose help she solicited!)

"Tell me again," Japie said as he started climbing the bult, "just why we're doing this."

"Because we're bloody mad!" Leon said grimly.

An hour later they had only just accomplished their objective and managed to lift the cage with the sleeping cat gingerly onto the back of the bakkie, when Sarie returned. The dust of their vehicle still hung on the air when she walked through her front gate. Popular with the residents of the old age home, she had been invited to lunch with them and had stayed longer than usual.

Mrs Shilowa had yet more information for her husband Moses when he came home that evening. While working in her vegetable patch she had seen a van with two white men park in the bush, where no van should be. One of the men had furtively climbed over the back wall of Davenport's property while the other kept watch. A short while later a wire box had come flying over the wall. The first man had climbed back over the wall and helped the other lift the box into the van before the two had driven off. Moses questioned his wife closely about the appearance of the box.

"It's a trap," he said slowly. "Now we know how that white woman gets her animal sacrifices and what happened to Davenport's ducks and the goat!" He went on to say they must warn the other shack dwellers to keep their animals from wandering. Really!

What was the country coming to with white men creeping round stealing other people's property and white women practising witchcraft?

During the course of the following week Sarie realised that her cat had gone. She arrived at the Sunday church service with eyes swollen and red from weeping. The Church Sisters crowded around her demanding to know what was wrong.

"My cat's disappeared," she told them brokenly.

The 'sisters' looked at one another in astonishment. They'd had no idea Sarie had a new kitten! So that was Sarie's little secret, Helga thought with satisfaction. She'd been right in thinking that Sarie was hiding something.

"It's that damned jackal; it's taken it. I knew it wouldn't stop at birds," she said indignantly.

Sarie looked stricken. Could Helga be right? Was there indeed a jackal on the prowl that had stalked and taken her beloved cat? She burst into a flurry of anguished tears and the sisterhood spent the next ten minutes soothing her with pats and handkerchiefs. Sarie then decided she was unable to attend church in her grief-stricken state and made for home, leaving them to crowd into the back pew of the church, earning a stern look from Dominee Seibrand as the service had already started. They gathered together afterwards and decided to buy Sarie a new pet.

"But not a cat," Marion Klopper said firmly. "She's obviously not capable of looking after one."

Two goldfish were decided upon as being suitable, but when they arrived at Sarie's house to deliver them the next afternoon, it was to find they'd been pipped to the post not once, but twice. Sarie welcomed them warmly, very pleased with her new fish.

"They won't be lonely," she told the 'sisters'. "Leon's given me a beautiful black kitten - he went all the way to Waterfontein to buy it - and Gideon, a canary, so they'll have lots of company. What's more," she told them delightedly, "Elsie Fourie has just phoned to say that one of her boarders is on his way over with another pet... his white rat has had babies and he's bringing me one. He'll be here any minute."

On hearing this, the Church Sisters became flustered. No, thank you, they wouldn't come in; they had another pressing engagement and would have to look at Sarie's new pets another time. While she looked on in bewilderment, they scuttled to their cars as fast as their collective legs could carry them.

During the next month Sarie settled down contentedly with her pets, showering them with love. Whenever it was her turn to visit the old age home, she started taking one with her. The matron treated this breaking of the rules with indulgence, even though it meant that Sarie didn't do much reading. She wasn't very good at it anyway, and the old folk enjoyed her pets... until the day she arrived with her white rat! Chaos erupted and it took some time for the staff to calm the agitated oldies. The matron then told Sarie kindly but firmly that while she was always welcome, she was, in future, not on any account to bring any of her animals!

Sarie accepted the rebuke with resignation. Later that evening she cuddled the white rat, stroking it softly with one finger. "You mustn't feel hurt, Wendy," she told it tenderly. "I don't understand why, but some folk are afraid of God's lovely animals. The only one they should be frightened of," she added, "is that jackal, and I think that even it only needs to be taught to respect its fellow creatures." She buried her nose in the soft fur of the rat's neck. "You know something, Wendy? That's exactly what I plan to do. I'm going to catch that jackal and tame it, and then we'll all live happily together in this little house!"

4 comments:

  1. yet another clever Story, gentle humour , real characters and credible situations.
    well done!

    Michael McCarthy

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    Replies
    1. Another fun one, Beryl! I always like how each of your characters seem on such a "mission." And the subtle, and obvious humor ("but run like hell if it moves!") Keep 'um coming. (Couldn't figure out how to spell in my first effort ;-)

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  3. Hi, Michael and Jim,
    Thanks, as always, for your comments and encouragement, which give me the impetus to keep going!
    All the best,
    Beryl.

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