What if there was a body buried beneath the rich soil? Under my poor tomatoes and spinach?
The notion came to me out of nowhere. One moment I was feeding the raised bed of tomatoes, spinach, and onions and the next, well—a shiver skated down my spine. I shook my head but couldn’t get the stupid idea out.
Probably all that Mzansi Magic this month, I thought, assigning blame to all those doom-is-coming instrumentals that accompanied the crime shows. Yes, I nodded slowly, deliberately. Even as the line between the real and the imagined grew fuzzy, and a net of uncomfortable curiosity and unresolved questions widened around me.
At least I had my garden.
I tipped the funnel to the loose part of the bed and watched the dirt soak it up, swell, and take on the rich hue of skin. But then the image of a soiled hand, lifeless fingers exposed, shot my heart high right into my throat. And before you judge me, just you wait until you get to my age. When you grey, like me, you don’t just think of death often; death visits your mind like an old friend. It has become my undeniable companion, a cold whisper that rumbles louder as the years unravel.
“Ouma Rosvita? Goeie more?”
Oh, thank God, a distraction.
Still, I jumped like a cat and spilled the cold water on my fluffy slippers. My thigh muscles tensed, and my joints buckled. Ah yes, the ungracefulness of age—sore muscles and loose joints have become my torture.
“Did I scare you?” Niita, my caring neighbour for a decade now, was a vibrant woman.
“Goeie more, Niita. Urrgh.” I rubbed my inner thighs.
“You pulled a muscle? I’m sorry.”
The young are always asking stupid questions.
I stretched my back and leaned on the thin fence that separated our houses, taking my time. The frigidness of winter cracked new patches of skin I hadn’t considered before the stretch, and now, my soaked feet were numbing slowly.
“No, no.” I lied because age doesn’t steal dignity. “Don’t trouble yourself. The screws in my body are just loose and rusty.” Then when her concern turned to pity, “These shoulders once bore the weight of guns and bombs amidst the chaos in Cassinga, you know. It’s just about time they retire. The whole household slept well?”
She smiled. “Yes, yes. We did.” She cupped her hands and blew air into them. Her eyes darted between me and my vegetable bed.
“Something troubling you, dear?” I titled my head.
“I was just wondering if you heard of Emma’s supplements products. They might help boost your immune system and strength.”
“Supplements? Are they good enough?”
“Good doesn’t even cover how much they do for you.”
I squinted at her suggestion.
“They are exceptional.” She said, her voice a little too sharp around the edges. “I used them myself. Great for those screws.” She laughed, then continued, “ I can tell my daughter to bring them to you so you see for yourself.”
I pretended to think, watching how straight she stood, already picturing myself nearly pain-free after a few vitamins. “If you insist. Tell her to come no later than one. I have an old friend in the location to visit.”
Either it was a few minutes later, or I had drifted, but the next thing, Emma was at my door, grinning and waiting for me to let her in.
Do her vitamins bring back teeth too?
Emma’s PharmFits bag on the sofa took up a whole cushion, even more than me. Emma used her fanciest words to explain the immune boosters, the memory enhancers, the dietary supplements, and all their endless benefits. But when she showed me before and after pictures of people that had used the products, I had to mirror her smile. “With these two products,” she continued, “you’ll be ageless,”—ageless—“you’ll be able to do anything,”—anything—“even run a marathon.”
I nodded. If I bought tonic tea and two types of immune boosters to drink together with my blood pressure pills before bed.
And would you know it, the following day, I was brand new—reborn.
To embrace the potential the products held, I brewed the tonic tea and swallowed one more immune booster pill. The day was a breeze, a flashback to the me of decades past. I did my chores, called my son, Inde, in Oranjemund, and my arm didn’t cramp once from holding the phone for too long. I even cooked my scotch broth soup with joy. I soaked the dried mixture of barley, split peas, and lentils in cold water and sliced the mutton steaks into bite-size pieces. A friend of mine from Cassinga always advised me to cook them separately. As the peas and barley rose to the lip of the pot, I thanked the technology of electric stoves—back then, I had to pound the peas, soak them for hours, and suffer with the repercussions of a tripod over an open fire. Gently freeing the chunks of meat from their bony confines, I added my spices and broth mixture to the simmering pot before bringing it to a boil.
But when night descended, an overwhelming harshness filled me. The sound of the television became deafening. The humming of the fridge was off-key. The carpeted floor under my feet vibrated violently. The pictures on the wall spun and blurred.
Had Emma’s instructions been to drink the tonic tea twice a day?
The memory of her words wouldn’t stick. And as I walked to my kitchen to boil some water, stiffness slowly consumed me. My last memory is turning the kettle on and then a flash of red, followed by a black nothing.
When I came to, machines beeped everywhere. My nose prickled as it filled with the smell of body odour and sickness lingering beneath cleaning chemicals.
“Hello?” My voice had turned to ash. “Anyone?”
My answer was a paper-like sheet scratching my legs, a pulse spreading between my eyes as I met the gaze of a nurse holding a file, scribbling something.
“You finally woke up.” She said, reaching to check an IV drip connected to me.
“What are you doing? What am I doing here?”
“You inhaled too much smoke, Grandma. Your neighbour brought you in yesterday.”
“Sm-I don’t smoke!” I said, incredulous. “Did you write that down? Where is my neighbour?”
Her brows furrowed as she backed out, talking about letting the doctor know, “Try and calm down.”
The doctor, when she came, offered me no answers. Something about a fire. Nothing about my vitamins, the kettle, or the neighbour that had brought me in.
The fire, I learned, had consumed the once white cardboard Inde had bought me with his first job as an accountant. My grey fridge, only a few months old, was an ashen rectangle. During the country’s pursuit of independence, I believed I had experienced and buried every terrifying emotion imaginable. I thought my inability to feel things deeply resulted from the constant struggles I had endured. But I was wrong. A kitchen has a special place in every woman’s heart, even this woman.
Niita found me staring at the debris of my favourite things and offered me porridge and milk —as if that could return the teacups I’d made in pottery class. “Thank you,” I said anyway. She took my hand and led me to the front stoep, and I sat there, not eating. “Niita,” I whispered. “What really happened here? All I did was start the kettle?”
She shook her head, leaned closer and wrapped an arm around me. “I don’t know, but I’m here for you if you need anything. Anything.” I couldn’t tell if the smell of smoke was coming from her skin or what used to be my kitchen.
All she’d seen was the smoke, she said, through her window. She’d broken down my door and rescued me from the kitchen before calling the police and fire brigade, then rushed me to the hospital.
I leaned into her now, thanking her for more than the food.
“By the way, Emma said you’ll need to make a statement at the police station to get insurance money. You have insured your things, right?”
“Right. Yes. My son made me do that many years ago. Thank Emma for me. What could I possibly do without you?” I closed my heavy eyes, considering how lucky I was to have comforting and caring neighbours.
The next day, I hailed a taxi to the police station.
I stood in the queue for ten minutes before a policeman came to my rescue; my knees were on the verge of buckling as he eased me out of the line.
“I’m Constable Shigwedha. Let me assist you. Nowadays, youths are unbelievable. They were supposed to let you get assisted first.”
“That’s our future generation,” I agreed. “In my day, I’d have offered the chair to the adult as soon as I heard him breathing in the hall.”
Constable Shigwedha sat behind a desk and motioned me to sit opposite him. “Nowadays there is no respect for elders. What is your name, kuku?”
“Rosvita Kakololo, but my friends call me Ouma Rosvita.”
He took a paper and started writing. “Okay, Ouma Rosvita. What brings you here?”
“I’d like to make a statement,” I said, my throat closing up slowly. “A fire broke out in my house. I will need the statement so that the insurance company to cover the costs.”
“Alright. Can I have your ID, please?”
I handed it over.
“Now tell me the full story.”
I told him how I woke up from the hospital bed, confused, and hearing that my kitchen had burned. I told him what my neighbours observed and what was lost in the fire. And then, like a child, I started to cry.
And the whole time, he just listened. No foot tapping, irritation, or groaning. He handed me a handkerchief.
“I’m sorry,” I told him when my sniffles died down.
“No need,” he said. He asked me for my insurance credentials, my cell phone number, as well as my postal and home addresses. He excused himself for a minute and returned with signed and stamped papers. He told me I should pay N$60.00—“statement fee.
“Thank you, officer. You saved me.”
“No,” he grinned. “Thank you.”
“You’re the kindest policeman I’ve ever met, Constable Shigwedha. I’ll never forget you.”
The minute turned into several, and then half an hour without Constable Shigwedha or my ID returning. My relief was turning into something else. I walked out of the room as fast as I could straight into the neighbouring rooms—both were vacant, and by now, the long line I’d been in had disappeared.
Into the hallway, I yelled, “Constable Shigwedha?”
A man’s head poked out of the door at the end of the hallway. I rushed forward. “Sir, do you know where Constable Shigwedha is? He forgot to give me my ID.”
“I’m Constable Shigwedha,” the man said, stepping out to shake my hand, then inviting me into his office, where another policeman stood by the window, tapping on his phone.
This Shigwedha was pot-bellied, rings framing his eyes, and his smile lacked the genuine glee to assist that I’d seen in the other one.
“No, the other one. With a grey shirt and a badge on his breast pocket.”
The officers swapped a look.
“Is this your ID, ma’am?” the Pot-bellied Constable Shigwedha asked.
I snatched it from him. “Did he leave it with you? Is he not here now?”
“Kuku, step this side, please. Come here.”
My mind raced with possibilities of how I might have offended the law. I dragged my sudden heavy feet to the cubicle.
“No need to worry. However, we have a few questions. Have you seen these people anywhere?” He handed me three flyers, each with a different face and description. I narrowed my eyes, focusing on the first image itself. It was of a young man. It was Constable Shigwedha.
“This is the Constable Shigwedha that helped me. Such a kind soul. He went somewhere?”
The officer called another officer, who came rushing and breathing heavily. “Kuku, did you give him any of your important details?”
“Yes, of course. For my insurance claim, my insurance number, my cell phone number, and my addresses.”
The panic was spreading, from them, slowly into me. “Yes, yes, my kitchen burnt down. What’s the problem?”
“Please, just check the next flyers. Do you know those people?”
“Jesus Christ. Those are my—are they in danger? I need to warn them.”
The officers abruptly stopped me as I reached for my phone in my handbag.
“No. They are the danger. We’ve been looking for them for a year now. The man that helped you was a fake Constable Shigwedha. They work together with Emma and Niita. They con people. They are very dangerous. You are in danger.”
“Not my good neighbours.”
They ignored me. “If he dropped this ID just in the hallway, he could still be close.” They dashed out of the room, guns holstered.
Oh, to be young and fast.
The next statement I made, the real one, was a repetition of the first, only with what happened before the fire: the tonic tea and the immune boosters. It had all been a setup. All of it—one big scam.
Inde stood next to me in the garden, one hand on my shoulder as I watered my tomatoes and spinach. Through an app on his phone, NBC was playing the news of the week.
“Turn that off,” I snapped.
He turned it down, not off, and I pretended not to watch.
It had been a week since my kitchen had been burned down. The soil was parched.
Maybe my notion hadn’t been so ridiculous—the unease in my chest about evil lurking the neighbourhood. I pictured Niita and Emma’s slender hands, covered in soot, counting my insurance money. A fresh shiver raced across my spine.
On Inde’s phone, their images flashed across the screen. My good and caring neighbours, the patient police officer.
How could I have been so stupid?
My fingers cramped, and the can fell to the ground. “Turn that thing off, Inde.”
“Okay,” he said, borrowing the tone I’d use to soothe him as a child. “Everything is ok now.”
Maria N. Iita is a writer from Namibia. She has a bachelor’s degree in Occupational Therapy. Her work has been published in The Kalahari Review and a novella, The Holiday Deceits.