The Watcher (short story)
He stands by the window, an old revolver in hand, and watches them come up. Even in the boiling sun they walk as cats do in the rain: drenched, timid, careful. Walking like whispering. Zimbabweans. Just crossed over - he has seen others like them. Many others. Watching from this same window. Seen them seep into his country like water. He knows he will see even more; they never stop coming, they are a tide.
His window faces a tight-fisted stretch of open country - all brown and dry and un-giving. And then there is the dusty road that spans like God’s belt all the way to Johannesburg and beyond. Red and endless. Always the Zimbabweans emerge like apparitions from the bush after crossing the broad Limpopo River. When the Limpopo is full he can stand at this window and listen to it heaving, churning log-bearing muddy waters like a strong-limbed washer woman, famished crocodiles holding their breath somewhere deep inside her belly.
But this has never stopped them, the Zimbabweans. They plunge into the Limpopo, sometimes drowning, and, if they survive, rise like mists from the water to cut holes in the border fence into his country. Then they plough through the jungle, and then eventually onto this very road that runs in front of his house. Headed to Jo’burg. What puzzles him, what he would really like to find out, is how they leave no footprints on the earth, make no mark, and drop nothing. And how it is that when they walk, like whispering, they do not cast shadows on the earth.
He has been standing at the window long enough for him not to know how long it has been. But what he knows with certainty is that he needs to sit down and rest his screaming knees. Yet somehow he cannot pull himself from the window, so he merely shifts the weight on his feet, holds the gun tighter. He dug it out of his storage after that boy Jo told him how some of them had tried to break into his house the week before. Bloody criminals. If they think they can just break into his country, and then into his house, he will show them. Just let them try it. Let them try.
His late wife MaMhlophe would disapprove of the gun; she would probably even go out there and give them food and water. MaMhlophe. MaMhlophe who gave without thinking. MaMhlophe who believed every despair could be mended like a damaged fence. MaMhlophe whom beggars knew by name. Thinking of his wife, and her kindness, almost makes him put the gun away in shame, but he tells himself that even his MaMhlophe would not have enough kindness for this. Not for a country vomiting hordes and hordes of its people into theirs. No, MaMhlophe, with all that kindness, enough of it to bury the broad Limpopo, would not be prepared for this.
He caresses his graying beard and reminds himself he is not intending to do anything bad; he is just doing what anyone would; standing at his window, watching, and holding his gun in case he has to use it, after all these people are not just people. They are also illegals - criminals; even the sun itself knows that.
An insect lands on his forehead and he slaps it dead without thinking. Pha! He wipes it off with the back of his hand. He can see them clearly - they are close now. The tall one in the red and black T-shirt carefully looking about him, and for a minute he thinks the man is looking right through the window and into his eyes. He tenses, tightens his hold on the gun. And then he sees the man turn and look back at the other two. What is he saying to them?
He can see the strain scattered on the man’s face. Fatigue. And maybe desperation? Or whatever makes a tall man with a small, round head and twigs of arms choose to get up one day and walk away from everything he knows, walk to another country where he has to move like he is there and not there at the same time. Then comes the fat, short one in the white shirt and green cap, the one walking with a limp. What happened to that one? Did he leave his country like that, to make it all the way to South Africa on that foot?
It is the fat one’s carriage that makes him loosen the grip on the gun, makes him almost drop it. Even with the limp, he reminds him of his one childhood friend, with that proud gait of a lion. See how he holds his arms at his sides. See how his head perches on his neck. Those poised shoulders. Just like his own friend, Zuma. He almost smiles, thinking of his boyhood, distant, gone now. He has not seen a resemblance like this and it makes him dizzy. But no, this he is looking at is not his friend. He remembers the gun. Grips tighter.
And then comes the woman. The brightness of her yellow dress matching the red road and going quite well with the brown country; matching so nicely he almost wants more than anything for them to stop, stop right there in the middle of the road so he can take it all in. She carries a basket in her arms, and it is the way she carries it. Carries it unlike he himself has ever carried anything or seen anything carried. He watches her and he is suddenly curious, suddenly hungry to know what is in the basket. What can be in there that makes this woman without a country carry an ordinary basket like she owns everything there is to own, like she carries God?
Walking like cats in the rain; drenched, timid, uncertain. He sees them dodge pools of water from the rain that is not there. No rain, just the sun. Directly overhead, all bared teeth and fierce and roaring. They are moving away now, but he still holds onto his gun. They pass the little anthill, then towards the baobab tree. He knows they will stop there. They always stop at the tree, all of them, like they have seen the baobab in their dreams, somebody - an ancestor perhaps, telling them as they sleep, as soon as you cross and follow the red road running through the settlement you will see a baobab broader than hope and there you are supposed to rest.
And they rest. The woman and the tall one sitting down, their backs to him. The fat one standing, leaning against the baobab. They do not look like resting people. They are there and yet they are not there, like they left their tangible selves back in their country, left them tucked away in empty matchboxes and then slid inside old, falling-apart shoes for safekeeping.
And then he hears it. It takes him by surprise and he almost smashes his head against the window. His ears thunder. Thunder. The grip on the gun again. He sees the dust leap from the ground, flying all over, and then the jeep boiling towards the baobab. He catches himself shouting and he does not know what he is shouting, and at whom he is shouting. But he is standing at his window, shouting, and no one will hear. They are running now. The woman first, and then the tall one, then the fat one last. Running like spilling.
He sees the jeep jolt to a stop, and the border policemen pounce on the fat one. He must have been toppled to the ground because he can see the policemen’s black batons rise and fall, rise and fall towards the ground: beating, pummeling, flogging. He watches the batons, the bodies, the arms rising and falling, rising and falling. Like a river breathing. After a while he begins wondering when it will stop, surely the fat one must be subdued by now. He has to be, all that clobbering.
But the batons rise and fall, rise and fall like the roar of an injured lion, and he just stands there, watching, his hand tighter than ever on his gun, suddenly wanting for it all to stop, for them to stop because somehow to him it is no longer the fat one they are clobbering now, but his own childhood friend Zuma, and can hear his screams for help in that voice he knows so well, can see the blood oozing from the cuts, taste his friend’s fear, feel his raw, beaten flesh in the hand that is also holding the gun.
And then suddenly the beating stops and they pick him up, toss him in the back of the jeep, and it takes off down the road. All he can see is dust now. Mushrooms of clouds of it. He thinks of the tall one, and the woman. Will they be caught? Will they be flogged? What will the woman’s dress look like after they roll her in the dust? He waits and waits. And then finally, a cloud of dust again and the jeep charges down the road like a terrible beast, going back the way it had come. More dust and a rush of yellow is all he sees. The basket. He remembers the woman’s basket, remembers her fleeing the jeep without it.
The basket. He rushes to the door, unlocks it, and hurries to the baobab, not feeling the sun mauling his back, not feeling the ache in his knees. The basket. He finds it under the tree. A newspaper whose red letters scream “Zimbabwe is mine” stirs inside. He pokes with his gun, pushes the paper aside. He is not prepared for the two little eyes that quietly watch him, not prepared he is dazed and his heart roars. He stands there looking at it and looking at it and looking at it, until he finally crouches and picks it up, letting his gun drop there in the dust and not stopping to retrieve it because he knows that to shield the baby from the sun, he has to hold it with both hands, hold it close to his heart like he is carrying God.