It happened one afternoon, when I was walking through the packed parking lot of a shopping mall, with you at my side. We were nearly clear of the many, many cars, giant beetles in their assortment of bright colours, sunlight glinting off their metal backs.
My foot rested on the cement walkway. I lifted myself up off the tarred road, and then I saw it. It was strange, because my back was turned to it, and yet I saw it all before I even turned around, before my feet found the tar again and rested there, uncertain.
Two dogs, apparently without owners, passed each other as they ran across the road. The air shifted. Reality shimmered, blurred out of focus and then snapped right back. A moment later both dogs whirled around, ears pricked, teeth bared. Each had just noticed the other, and their behaviour was so odd that I said to you, in a wary whisper, “That’s strange. Look!”
The dogs snarled at each other, poised to pounce, looking almost like mirror images. A funny shiver started at the base of my spine. There was something so human about the pair of them. It disturbed me. I felt a brief flash of panic; I didn’t want to see them fight, and I wondered what I could do to stop them.
Then their owners appeared. One was a woman, dressed absurdly in layers upon layers of clothing despite the sweltering heat. She lunged at her dog, burying her pale, pasty face in its side, her long, unruly black curls falling over its dirty back. She screamed, and her words were unintelligible.
The other was a man, tall, so tall, with broad shoulders and a filthy corduroy jacket. He grabbed his dog around the middle and pulled it away, then he and the woman glared at each other, continuing the altercation in silence.
The woman was alone, but the man had reinforcements. A woman appeared behind him, gently touching his back. His wife, I presumed. She wore a ridiculous billowing coat. Behind her was a little boy in a striped red and white t-shirt.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the spectacle. It was bizarre – dirty, poor white people in the middle of Gaborone, fighting over dogs – or for dogs – or against them. It was difficult to tell. The man and his family glared at the lone woman and spoke to her in hushed tones, in that broken, battered tongue of theirs that sounded less like a language the more of it I heard.
The woman backed away, defeated, and returned to her car – an ancient white truck. Her dog was still gnashing its teeth, transformed from a mild-mannered mongrel to a rabid beast in her arms. It had grown to twice its size now, and she struggled to push it into the truck. Its hair had grown long and matted, its eyes wild.
I turned my gaze to the other dog, and noted, with a shiver of revulsion, that it, too had changed, and resembled the other one exactly. I didn’t know what to make of this. I closed my mind before the possibilities could come streaming in. I didn’t want to think about it. I didn’t want to know. And yet I couldn’t stop watching.
I looked at the woman again. She hesitated at the door of the truck, as if she wasn’t ready to surrender just yet. But her enemies were not having it. The other woman opened her long, dust-covered coat, and something small tumbled out of it. The object rolled across the parking lot and came to a stop at the lone woman’s feet.
She leapt back with a terrified cry, and I saw what it was. A bundle of straw, fashioned into the shape of a doll. It wore small, dainty clothes; khaki trousers, a white shirt and a blue hat.
I frowned, puzzled. The lone woman, though, understood the significance of the doll all too clearly. She kicked it away, leapt into her truck and drove off in a cloud of dust, her dog yapping madly all the way.
The dust cleared, and I watched the small family move slowly towards the fallen doll. The mother stooped to pick it up, her coat sweeping the floor, and when she rose….ah, it sounds like madness, even to me, but when she rose, the doll was gone. In its place was a little girl, no older than six, dressed in a white shirt and khaki trousers, with a blue denim hat in her hand.
Before my head could wrap itself around what my eyes had seen, the boy came to me, hands outstretched.
“Please,” he whispered.
I shook my head. “Sorry.”
He persisted. He came right up to where I stood rooted to the ground, and ran his rough, cold little fingers across my arm. His eyes were dark, almost black, and piercing. His lips were so chapped I was afraid they would split apart and spill thick, dark blood on the ground, blood as dark and fathomless as his eyes.
“Please,” he asked again, in his lilting voice. “Please, please. Please? Give us. Give us.”
The words sounded uncomfortable on his lips, not as if he were foreign, but as if he weren’t used to talking at all. I shoved my hands into my pockets and withdrew them, empty with the exception of a few pitiful coins. “I’m sorry. That’s all I have.”
He showed no interest in the money. His gaze passed over the coins and returned to my face, pleading. “Give us…give us. Give us the…”
But he was already moving on to the next person, a dreamy expression on his little face, a weary sigh on his lips as they formed the request again. “Please? Please? Give us.”
The parents watched me warily, as if afraid I might run off with their son. The girl stood in the road, staring at nothing, her dark eyes lowered. I offered them a smile. They didn’t return it.
They were all so lost, utterly out of place in that dusty, crowded mall, with their matted dog, furtive eyes and clothes that hung off their backs. They looked alike, and possessed a certain appeal, but they fell just short of any kind of beauty. The mother and daughter had delicate papery skin that seemed as if it would turn to ash at the slightest touch. Their hair was too fine, too wispy – it caught in the almost negligible breeze, picked up static and clung to their skin.
The father and son had the same thick, dirty hair that looked as if it had once been blond but had since been soaked in oil and grime. Their skin was tough, thick like pigskin and just as unyielding. They were different, and yet exactly the same in their awkward looks, features pleasant, but too strange, too unsettling to be admired.
The parents looked around them, only now becoming aware of the little drama they were starring in, and the curious glances they had attracted. Immediately they drew together, the two of them and their dog, and started to retreat towards their unwieldy vehicle.
There was something sad about their shiftiness, as if too much attention could wither them up like broken leaves left to the elements. I pitied them, and yet…and yet.
“That was a marvellous trick,” I ventured, indicating the girl.
The child looked up at me, her eyes wide with fear.
“It’s not a trick,” her brother declared from behind me.
The words sent the girl fleeing into her mother’s cloak, where she remained, partially hidden in the swirls of fabric.
The woman gave me a strained smile. “Don’t mind him.” Her voice was weak, the voice of a straggler in the aftermath of war. “He’s not…quite…right, you know.” She held a hand out to the boy and he ran forward and grasped it.
“Please?” he went on. “Please give us…”
There was a trace of doubt in his voice, as if he didn’t really know what he was meant to be asking for, and for a moment I believed his mother. Perhaps he wasn’t quite right, after all. But his eyes flickered to mine, holding my gaze for a full minute, and he seemed perfectly right then. Horribly, unnaturally right, like rain that soaks you through before it hits, or night sweats and fever, or an open window that you could have sworn you closed.
They didn’t walk away. They fell back, a retreating army, like the tide, and swept towards their mud-spattered bakkie. As they left, I realised that their dog was missing. I saw it a moment later, barking from the back of the bakkie, a rope tied round its collar, holding it securely to the vehicle. It was a tame mongrel again, nondescript, friendly. Of course.
The boy shrank into his mother’s hand, years running down his shirt like melting ice cream, until she had to lift him in her arms and carry him because he was too small to walk. Her cloak blew around her tiny frame, and her hair blew around her pale, papery face.
The man mumbled something garbled as he climbed into the car, too tall, much too tall to fit, yet fitting anyway. In response, the woman whispered to the little girl still hidden in her cloak, and I saw a small white hand reach up and deposit the denim hat on the dark head.
And then… and then the girl was gone. The bakkie pulled out of the parking lot, and the boy, grown again, sat in the back, stroking the dog. The last thing I saw before they vanished into the distance was the little girl, sitting beside her brother, holding in her hand the hat that was the key to her enchantment.
My feet came unstuck from the tar and turned towards you. “Did you see that?” My voice cracked with awe.
You glanced over your shoulder. “See what, dear?”
And I knew then that I had stumbled onto something I was never meant to see, because no one else seemed to have seen it. Because the mall was just a mall again, the breeze was dry and crackly, and the heat bent the air around us into vague apparitions. Because in the gap between turning around on the walkway and turning back to you, no time had passed at all. You didn’t see me stop. You never even realised I was no longer at your side.
The air sighed softly as I took that step again. My right foot landed on the cement, and a moment later my left foot followed.
“Never mind,” I said, linking my arm through yours. “I thought I saw something.”
“You must have imagined it.” There was laughter in your voice.
“I must have,” I agreed, and we walked on, my secret drifting away, slipping from my mind until I no longer remembered seeing anything.
Of course, that must have been what they had intended all along.