The concrete floor is uncomfortable, the sleeping bag thin. The night is cold, and the wind seeps through the many openings of the gazebo. But these are the least of my concerns. There are three dogs just outside the doorless gazebo; vicious by the sound of them. They turn rabid at my slightest movement. Their barks and growls saturate the silent night. They could be right at my ear and it wouldn’t make a difference.
But they refuse to get in. This only gives me slight comfort – I won’t be torn to shreds by ferine dogs. But what will tear me to shreds? What keeps the dogs from getting inside the gazebo? There is no physical barrier. So what are they afraid of? I doubt they have had any form of sophisticated training. They are rural dogs after all.
Some believe that certain animals possess a sixth sense for the supernatural. The thought frightens me. Dad has told me so many witchcraft stories that my mind need not exert its imagination as to what keeps the dogs away. The gazebo does belong to some shop owner after all. They are usually the most suspect of rural folk.
Do they own a python which can regurgitate dollar bills as easily as it can swallow a rat? Am I right now sleeping in the snake’s lair? Will I hear it slither from the back, its muscles writhing it toward me? Will it find its way into my sleeping bag as it investigates the intruder? My heart pounds my chest like a relentless drummer on his drum.
I pull and hold the sleeping bag tighter to my neck. The dogs growl in answer; their barks a cacophony composed in hell. I wonder if they will ever find the courage to get in. Will I even see them if they get in? I face the open entrance, but I’m only greeted by darkness. Where is the full moon when you need it? I definitely will not be falling asleep. I’ve seen enough National Geographic to know how manic a pack of hunting wild dogs can be. I will not be roused by jaws clamped around my neck.
A physical threat in front, a supernatural one to my back. I never checked the back of the gazebo. Why couldn’t I pluck up the courage to check? It was getting dark, but I could have searched through it and given myself some relief. All I know is that there is a raised counter back there, which could conceal anything.
Is that where they keep their beaded clay pots which can magically transform into vile stubby goblins? Will I only hear their shrill threats in the pitch black? Are they staring at me right now, their eyes red fluorescent orbs bouncing in the dark and warning all not to approach? Will I survive the night unmolested? I can’t master the courage to look back. If they are there, I’d rather wallow in ignorance until the last possible moment; until confrontation is unavoidable.
Sweat pours on my back, though I shiver from the cold. The sound of my breathing now fills the night. The room empties of air. I feel like I will suffocate.
Why did I put myself in this situation? Why couldn’t I have stayed at the school and left the following morning?
“It’s not very far to the main road,” the old students told me.
“It won’t take you long to get there,” they lied through their teeth; teeth which deserve a good bashing in.
I only found out from the three local boys who walked with me part of the way that it was 22km from the school to the tarred road, and the “shortcut” was a mere 16km.
Optimism is a cruel thing. I should have just turned back and supplicated the school staff for the night’s accommodation. And why was I even in a rush? Because of the unpalatability of groveling to the staff? Because of the excitement of getting an A-level place?
I don’t even know why I was excited. After all, the headmaster seemed a disagreeable man, who hated me as soon as open my mouth and dare to speak without being spoken to. If it were not for the string of A’s, I’m sure he would have kicked me out of his office, with a self-satisfied grin plastered on his face.
“You like to talk, don’t you,” he said to me instead.
It would have been funnier if I wasn’t being stared down by his contemptuous face; dark, weather-beaten, wrinkled and locked in a frown.
And why would Dad send me to look for a place at such a remote school? I mean, the place is visited by a single bus three times a week! It would beggar belief, if the pain in my feet wasn’t reporting that I had to walk 22 or 16km just to get transport back to Harare.
And by the time I got to the main road, it was close to dark. Couldn’t even find any transport. After hours of standing at the side of the road, I had to acknowledge defeat. The one crazy idea I had allowed to creep into my head became the only option – sleeping in the gazebo next to the store right beside the road. Thank god for the store, I had told myself.
Everything would have been tolerable if the dogs hadn’t showed up – those hounds from hades.
Three feral dogs seemed to magically materialize from thin air. They must have been foraging throughout the day. But they came back home, and to terrorise me as a bonus. At first I thought I was a goner for sure; death by mauling; ending up in the bellies of three rural dogs at the age of 17. My funeral would probably have confused most people.
But I quickly learned that the dogs would not get in. An electric fence could not have been a better deterrent. The more I think about it, the more I want to run from this place. But I’m stuck here for the whole night. Whatever malign creatures are in here will do with me as they like.
I wish I could fall asleep – better to be cut by the surgeon’s scalpel while unconscious. But I can’t go to sleep. The predator is alert when hunting; the prey is always alert.
I just heard the howl of a hyena. National Geographic is becoming helpful in more ways than I ever imagined. There are hyenas prowling the night? How remote is this place? If there are hyenas, what else is out there; lions, leopards? I’ve seen the documentaries about leopards dragging people out of their homes in Kenya, and lions busting their way into flimsy huts to get to their residents in Tanzania. There isn’t even a door on the gazebo.
My death may be more glorious than I previously imagined. Instead of the stomachs of mangy mutts, my prospects may involve the insides of a regal lion or leopard. At least it will read better on the cause of death; not so pathetic or prosaic.
Now I’m a bit glad that the hellhounds are out there. As long as I can hear them, nothing has gotten to them yet, and I will also remain alive. But the dread is unbearable. I am stuck in a strange place, with unknown carnivorous animals and invisible spiritual assailants. I had no idea such terror could inhabit the mind.
Thinking of the hyenas gets me back to the mysteries of the gazebo. Does the mistress of the shop own one, which she rides in the night? Will it visit me later? Will it leave me unscathed, or will I be intimately acquainted with its bone crunching jaws?
I must stop thinking like this. I am literally giving myself a heart attack. But how do I get these thoughts out of my head. They have taken up permanent residence. They ring my skull like my head is a rattle at the mercy of a hyperactive toddler.
My body is now drenched in sweat. Older sweat is drying, and new streams taking its place. I don’t know how many layers now. I can smell myself. This oddly enough adds to my distress. I smell and feel like I haven’t bathed in a week. The sweat is so pungent I’m beginning to feel a headache. I just have to hold on, I keep reminding myself. Just hold on; morning will come soon.
The sun is coming up. I must have dosed off for a bit, but no more than an hour I’m sure. And I’m still alive, and hopefully unmolested; who knows the spiritual costs.
Finally I can leave this place, and maybe even forget about it. When I open my sleeping bag, I’m knocked out by my body odor. I didn’t know I could repulse myself so much. I smell like I was bathing in the sweat of twenty different men. How will I get in a bus stinking like this? What will the other passengers think of me? I’ll have to summon my prepubescent hutzpah and not give a shit.
I unzip my sleeping bag, and my body betrays me. In the night it must have turned to slate. It creaks like old wooden floor boards with my every movement. My muscles ache and my back screams for relief. I had forgotten how painful it was to sleep on the floor; a lesson I’d rather not be taught again.
When I get out of the sleeping bag, I stretch my body. I may need to be nimble enough to escape three dogs very soon. I roll the sleeping bag and place it in its pouch. At least that’s all I have in terms of luggage. It won’t slow me down as I run for my life to the main road.
I sling my bag over my shoulder and go to the exit. And right on cue, the dogs blare their symphony. But now I know their bark is worse than their bite. The invisible line drawn in the dirt keeps them away. How scrawny they now look in the light – three mangy mongrels, probably stunted by too much in-breeding.
How the rising sun drags confidence along. I stand at the entrance with fists on my hips like superman ready for flight.
If only my powers extended beyond the gazebo.
It’s no less than 20m to the main road if I go through the shop gate. Going through the barbed wire fence is not an option, with three dogs on my heels. How do I get out?
The dogs begin barking again, and the rays of opportunity shine on me. They are barking at two women who are going through the shop property. They are balancing firewood on their heads. The gears of my mind now spin. The dumb mutts will chase anything that moves. That will be my chance to slip away unnoticed.
I watch the ladies and the dogs carefully. The dogs bark at them and even escort them a few meters. They expose their impotence. The ladies go through relatively untroubled. But I won’t make a run for it now. The ladies are most likely familiar; I am not. I will wait for a bigger distraction – someone who would rather not be pestered by the dogs – someone who will keep them busy.
It appears that I may not have to wait long. Three young guys are coming for the shop. They are stern-faced like they have somewhere to go – no-nonsense. They walk like they own the country, their gaits overly self-assured, and even mechanical. Quite severe and ridiculous for my taste, but useful.
The dogs don’t disappoint. They bark at the three men, ever keeping a safe distance. I’ll be out of my prison in a few short moments. I ready myself. I watch the scene unfold like a hawk.
But the more it unfolds, the more my heart falls into a pit. The three men ignore the dogs. A buzzing mosquito could have given them more distress. The dogs also pay them little heed after a short lackluster performance. They don’t even follow the men.
Now I’m angry. Why couldn’t these stupid chess pieces behave as expected? I’m stuck. How the hell do I get out? Could I brave the storm and just walk out? The dogs would surely smell my fear. What do I do?
I won’t remain stuck in here. The next diversion will be my only chance. I’m getting the hell out of here.
After an eternity of waiting and castigating myself for my cowardice, my chance finally arrives. Three kids, two boys and a girl pass through the shop gates. I can’t suppress the smile on my face. The two boys hold large tree branches. No doubt they are well acquainted with the repellent dogs.
When the dogs move to their latest target, I get out of the gazebo. I head for the fence, the gazebo shielding me from the dogs to my back. Only when I’m going through the fence do I look back. I can’t even see the dogs. I made it. I can’t believe it was so easy. I scooch through two lines of the fence, being careful to avoid the barbs. And I’m finally free.
I have never been so happy to see a tarred road in my life.