'Mr Boomslang' is the title story of the book of short stories 'Mr Boomslang & 7 Other Rhodesian Fireside Tales' available here on Kindle and Paperback.
Roger swung round on his rickety swivel chair and checked the wall clock. He waited, watching, as the second hand came chugging up, finally joining the minute and the hour on 12.
Standing he lifted the FN rifle from the wall next to his desk and automatically checked the safety catch. Plonking his khaki hat on his near bald head he stepped into the passage. 'I'm just going out,’ he shouted, ‘back in an hour!’
‘Alright,’ returned his wife from the kitchen side of the house.
‘Alright,’ returned his mother from the scullery. 'Lunch’ll be ready when you get back.'
It gave him a certain pleasure to shout through the family home. He liked the way his voice bounced, resonating off everything inside. Pushing open the screen door he saw the ‘guard-the-farmer’ fellow standing at the far end of the verandah, looking attentive, his colleague most likely down the kitchen side of the house.
‘I’m going down to the stream. Will you stay?’
The man smiled and drew himself to attention, his own FN drawn into his side.
‘I’m not going far.’
He really wasn’t. He wanted to check the level in the little river, a handy excuse for having a break from the damn paper work really.
He strode purposely over the sloping lawn of their front garden, the driveway from the farm entrance sweeping down to his right. He hurried past the last showing of summer’s flowers laid along the edge, and down into the vegetables. Here were carrots, cabbage, beans and broccoli laid out in trellised rows and growing strong. He noted how the large plants seemed to be explosions of deep green out of the earth, frozen in time, while the smaller shoots in the young beds grew out delicately, small slivers of life.
He nodded as he walked, happy. What had started as just a patch was now a big part of the farm’s income. Its cash (together with the never ending Land Bank loans) funded his real passion and his major project; the coffee and mangoes.
He whistled as he walked, badly but happy with the tuneless tune, lengthening the stride of his heavy boots on the down-slope, his soles mashing into the moist earth. He liked to be alone among his plants and on his land, he liked to walk and breathe and watch his things growing.
Further down now, closer to the stream, he saw the new coffee and mango trees. The coffee was already six foot high, their still thin but spreading boughs casting a dappled shade against the slanting sun.
At this, the first tree level, the canal was fed by a small reservoir higher up. Into the reservoir water was pumped from the river below, tumbling noisily into each canal as it was pulled upwards, seeping through to each tree quietly drinking and growing. The stream was the life blood of the place. The future of everybody who lived and worked on the farm lay in the strength of its flow. He bent down to his knee and put the tips of his fingers into the running water. He stood and walked, putting a hand on the trunk of a tree as he passed, murmuring to all of his plants as he went. All was good and alive. Alive! The life reminded him. There had been a killing on the other side of the village the day before. The black field supervisor had been shot, his wife raped, thankfully they came in the morning and the kids had been at school.
Three levels down was the valley floor itself, where the stream bed lay. According to his father the river had only dried up once in the last thirty-one years, in all that time of the changing seasons and the changing of the farm, he and his brother growing into men and the young sprigs into trees. He was confident in the river, but there was always the shadow behind. If it were to dry up again, what with the Land Bank loans to cover the trees, the costs of war… he shook his head. He sat, lowering himself onto the brickwork of a canal distribution box.
He put his palm over his heart, feeling the pumping. He wasn’t walking enough lately. Instead of using his legs to get to the huge cattle paddock, nowadays he and one of the guards would nip down in the pick-up, do the job and hurry back.
‘I’m losing shape,’ he thought, ‘sometime I’ll pay for it.’
‘The guard will be wondering, worried that I’m off on my own.’
He loved to have some time totally alone, but that love was dissolving, along with hope, replaced by fear for the future. War, all that war promised, those were his thoughts.
‘It doesn't bare thinking about,’ said the Wagtail hopping from stone to stone. ‘Take a break, enjoy now,’ chorused the dragon flies zipping in and out of the sunrays, floating through the trees and their leaves.
He looked down at the stream tumbling at his feet. It wasn't wide, a good nine foot, and it wasn't deep. It swirled against the exposed rocks and tinkled over the pebble bed, their colours playing in the speckled shade. He watched it flowing, seeing in his mind how it sped from here to the tea estate next door, never complaining; always generous to all gathered on its edges, flowing further to farms and places he didn’t know, all of them connected by its water.
'It’s a good river, good and strong. If it fails, well...'
It didn't bare thinking about. To lose the farm would be to lose his life. His life was entwined with the wild animals, flowers and trees, snakes and insects as much as it was with the bank and the loan.
He stood and walked, downstream a way before striking up and to the left. The far side of the river was now part of the lower portion of the Naude’s farm. If he saw the Naudes at all, he thought, it was shopping in the village or at the rare times they were both at the club. The path on Naude’s side was better, more of a four-wheel drive road. He could see from the grass that it hadn’t been used for some time, at least since he was last here. He picked up his pace, thinking of home, holding his FN by the grip as though it were a pistol. It wasn't good practice but it was comfortable as he walked.
He pushed himself. His lungs were opening nicely, pulling gusts of the clean air into him, the prickling of sweat on his back and forehead waking him up to the beauty all around. He attacked the slope, climbing one contour level higher, pushing hard until his lungs burned and then he stopped to breathe, to feel the rushing and pumping of his own bright blood.
He hooked his left hand over a coffee tree branch as he stood bent over, his heart thundering in his chest and ears, his pulse beating against the skin of his neck.
He chuckled to himself as he wiped his forehead with his wrist, the rifle still clutched at the grip, his left arm still hooked over the branch steadying him.
He lowered his rifle arm, aiming to rest it as he always did on his boot toe, but he misjudged.
He tapped the rifle against the side of his boot.
There was surely a plug of soil stuck inside it, he wanted to see it plop out.
Tap, he continued, tap, tap, hanging on the tree.
Suddenly a feeling flooding through his body, a prickling he knew from years of being on the land, an awareness. ‘Slow down,’ said his brain in a voice not a voice.
Slowly, he turned his head.
Its black eye watched him. Its fangs, pulled apart by a stretched open mouth, covered his index finger up to the first joint, without touching the skin. Its body lay stretched straight out along the branch, bright green. From his low angle its head was large.
It was obvious it was a Boomslang, perhaps the most poisonous snake in the veldt, so deadly it could easily kill a cow never mind a man. What was it doing? As dangerous as it was it was a snake that stayed away from people. It fed on birds’ eggs and smaller animals, chameleons, a snake that with its big eyes was rarely seen, as if it saw first, always, and made sure to stay hidden. It was a quiet animal of the trees, content to live its life in the branches.
He was certain it hadn’t been there when he reached up. He would have seen it. The tree was brown, the snake the deepest, brightest green. He would have seen that un-ordinary eye as he was seeing it now, so clearly he could see the reflection of his own face staring back. It must have approached while he was busy with the rifle.
Suddenly he became aware of a different noise. Again, it was the feeling, the instinct bred into a farmer's son that told him to listen. The noise of the river and of the canal was loud but inside that, and growing, was a new something that he searched for. Voices. People. The sound solidified, men walking down Naude’s rough road towards him. He worked at slowing his heart and his breathing. The snake still watched him, its cold lips still pulled apart. The voices were coming closer and then they broke into view.
Coming towards him and walking easily along the double path were three men. They were smiling brightly, talking as they walked, playing, for them too it was a walk in the country. Each was carrying a weapon. Ugly, stubby AK 47 machine guns held like pistols in their hands, a rocket launcher balanced on one’s shoulder, and bandoliers of ammunition draped around their waists.
Adrenalin. A spike into Roger’s bloodstream causing the world to rush up to him, his heart to pound suddenly in his throat. Yesterday’s killings, he was thinking, the dead man, the woman. His wife at home, his mother, Naude and his wife at home over the rise. The path led to either homestead or straight on to the tar road, and then to the village.
He could see their eyes swivelling as they chatted, scanning the bush on their side and the orchard on his. They hadn’t seen him. He was camouflaged, held in the half shade. He flicked his eyes back to the snake. There it lay, its eye on him and at ease, watching. He flicked his eye back to the men and froze as the rocket man looked right at him, right through him, his mouth open in mid-laugh forever burned into Roger’s mind, etched in the acid of adrenalin. But there was no cry, no sudden pointing of weapons at him, no bullets.
They were abreast of him. There was nothing to hide him but the shade and the pattern of his shirt. He was naked, waiting for their shout. Thoughts of his guardsman swam into his mind, how if they’d come together they would have been seen, talking as the three were. The thought that this was the end came to him, settled on him, and he cared not at all because there was home, undefended, and the people there.
They kept walking, talking, they passed him by. He slapped at his rifle barrel as he brought it into his shoulder. A clot of earth fell. The rocket man turned, shouted.
The third man was running.
He tripped, fell.
Roger sat. He put his hands to his face, his heart beating. The three lay on the path, blood glugging into the sand, their feet kicking as their nerves twitched, a stain splashed inside one of their trousers.
He breathed. He held it the breath, listening as the chirping of the birds began again.
He turned his head.
The snake was gone.
The snake was gone.