Chapter Two: Spears and Storks
The Setswana word pula meant "rain". In truth, Mma Ramotswe thought as she sat by her desk, it meant so much more. The rains brought life to the nation. The clouds would build, the first fat droplets would patter into the dust, and down would they would come. The rivers would flow. The cattle that had cropped listlessly on scrub for months could gorge themselves on the grass that grew after the rains. To the Batswana, pula was the word for prosperity and luck. It was why the nation's money came in pula notes, and it was their national motto for the most fortunate country in Africa. There was a subtler meaning, as well. The rains were not to be taken for granted. They came infrequently even now, in the wet season. The riches they brought had to be husbanded with care and respect. The Batswana had taken this lesson to heart after centuries of living in a country caught between veldt and the dry Kalahari. It was why their leaders--beginning with that most revered of men, Sir Seretse Khama--had been so careful with the riches of Botswana. Even the sudden discovery of diamonds had not corrupted them, as oil had the Nigerians.
The flow of pula had slowed of late into the Ladies #1 Detective Agency. The peace on earth and goodwill toward men of the Christmas season meant fewer wives asking about errant husbands or employers suspicious of their employees. Mma Ramotswe was philosophical about this. Times had been lean in the early days of the agency, when it had been near Kgale Hill. She was fortunate enough. Sitting here, she could see what wealth she had. What had once been the back offices of Tlkoweng Road Speedy Motors had become the home of her detective business. One small room, two chairs, two desks, a filing cabinet, and a kettle for tea. Scrub brush, unless one counted the files in the cabinet. Clients helped, one way or another. Perhaps not always to their liking, but usually to their benefit. At the other desk, her associate detective and office manager Mma Makutsi tapped away at a report on her typewriter. The eyes behind the large glasses could look as sharply at others as at an imbalance in accounts, and her temper could be as difficult as her complexion. Yet still, a true and loyal friend. Through the door she could see into the garage. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni diligently serviced a truck. Charlie worked somewhat less diligently beside him. For all the apprentice's mistakes and foolishness, Mr. Matekoni rarely raised his voice against the young man. He brought the same gentleness and honesty in their marriage to her. Mma Ramotswe was truly a rich woman.
A slight figure bicycled up to the front of the garage. A long package rested across the rack behind the seat. Resting the bike against a wall, Mr. Polopetsi wandered into the one-room Ladies #1 Detective Agency. Mma Makutsi primly pushed up her glasses and straightened. Mma Ramotswe hid an amused smile behind the lip of her mug. Few would think Mr. Polopetsi a threat. He reminded her of an antelope. A reedbuck, perhaps: delicate animals that wandered the veldt, crouching down in times of danger. A helpful man, grateful for the job Mma Ramotswe had found him at the garage. Entirely too helpful, it seemed, for an associate detective touchy about questions of position. One day she might even challenge him. Mma Ramotswe only just suppressed a laugh at the idea of Mma Makutsi tapping Mr. Polopetsi on the head with a duelling stick. She checked. Had they enough? Yes, they did. Mr. Polopetsi gratefully accepted a mug of tea from the small collection Mma Ramotswe kept about to serve clients.
"Thank you, Mma," Mr. Polopetsi said, sipping. "It was very hot by the dam."
"You should be glad, Rra," Mma Makutsi said, her typewriter's carriage chiming as she slapped it home, "that Mr. Matekoni pays you for playing with his children."
"He is a great man," Mr. Polopetsi said.
"Indeed he is," Mma Ramotswe said.
"I do not think Mr. Matekoni is a great man," Mma Makutsi said. She paused. "It is not that he is not a good man. He is, as all of Gabarone knows. But that does not make him a great man."
"She is right, Mma." Mr. Polopetsi nodded sagely. "There are great men, and good men."
"And what of Sir Seretse Khama?" Mma Ramotswe gestured at the picture of Botswana's founder, mounted opposite the certificate that proclaimed Grace Makutsi a graduate of the Botswana Secretarial College with the esteemed final grade of 97 percent. "What of him?"
"I would say," Mma Makutsi said, after a moment's deliberation, "that he was both great and good."
"Eeeee," Mma Ramotswe agreed. "I think, Mma, that it is better to be with a good man than a great one."
"Yes, it is true. Very true." Mma Makutsi nodded. "I am glad I have Phuti Radiphuti, rather than the rich men the other girls from the college, who did not even get fifty percent, try to get. Even if certain uncles with big noses cannot agree on lobola--"
"Uncles are important, aren't they, Rra?" Mma Ramotswe quickly said. The travails of the negotiations of Mma Makutsi's bride price to marry Phuti Radiphuti, manager of the Double Comfort Furniture Shop, had stretched her engagement as long as Mma Ramotswe's with Mr. Matekoni. "It is good you are an uncle to Puso and Motholeli. Did they have fun?"
"Puso is born to hunt, Mma. Sharp eyes. Very sharp." Mr. Polopetsi cocked his head. "Although Motholeli is just as good. She would make a fine hunter herself. I would like to take them to Molepolole, to teach them how to track in the Kalahari."
"He wants them as bait," Mma Makutsi said. "He wants a lion."
"They would not make good bait," Mr. Polopetsi said. "Too quick. Mma Ramotswe would be better. Although, I think the children would be sad if we were too slow and Mma Ramotswe was eaten."
"I think I would be very sad, too," Mma Ramotswe said. She gestured at the package. "A gift, Rra?"
"For the children." Mr. Polopetsi unwrapped it. "I could not think of what to get them for Christmas. After today, I decided they would like these very much."
Mma Ramotswe's breath caught when the paper fell away. She had seen such things at the tourist crafts store and being sold by traders at the Mall. Nestled within were two long Basarwa bows--two and a half feet of springy wood, bound at each end with antelope sinew. Bowstrings of sinew were wrapped around their centers. Quivers of bark and leather--colourful bands of white, red, and tan decorating them--lay beside the bows. The cap of one was open. Inside were the thin, unfeathered arrowed of the Basarwa. Their points were small iron arrowheads, made to deliver a poison after the shaft fell away after striking an animal. With each bow and quiver were iron-tipped spears fashioned to finish off a hunter's prey after it collapsed, weakened, from the poison. They were beautiful. Simple in the way of the baskets that the women of the villages wove, yet lovely in the way a thing crafted by hands that valued the old ways of the land.
Would Puso have held such a bow if his mother had lived? She could see him on the desert sands, dressed in the loincloth of the San. Motholeli would have carried a digging stick and perhaps a baby wrapped in hides. Mma Ramotswe frowned. Yet, she could envision her foster daughter bearing bow and spear. Tracking...what? Not lion. Not antelope. The vision became night. The moon high over the Kalahari as Puso scouted for his sister. Tense and watchful, Motholeli peered into the darkness for something. The monsters she had been called to hunt. A dimo
--one of the giants who stole young children away for their feasts. Children had been taken from the villages, and only bones left for their weeping parents to mourn. The people had appealed to their kgosi
, and the chief had summoned the Slayer and her brother. Now they hunted the cannibal. Watch out, Mma Ramotswe wanted to shout. Watch out. Mr. Polopetsi waited for her approval. It had been a kind thing he had done. A generous thing. She wanted to tell him to throw them into a fire. Do not take my daughter away, she wished to cry, as the Slayer's mother was to have cried when the men came for her child.
Before she could say anything, a horn blew loudly from outside the garage. Mr. Polopetsi wrapped up his gift. Mma Ramotswe shook away her spell of fear. The children would love their gifts and be happy that their "uncle" cared for them. That was all. She felt ashamed for being the foolish woman Charlie would have called her, if he had known her thoughts. The horn blew again. Curious, Mma Ramotswe joined Mr. Polopetsi and Mma Makutsi at the doorway leading into the garage. Fanwell drove in, towing a Land Rover behind him. Mma Ramotswe had convinced Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni to give the younger apprentice more responsibility. Away from Charlie's foolishness, he seemed to leave behind the girl watching and idle chatter the two lapsed into when they thought Mr Matekoni--or the sharp eyes and tongue of Mma Makutsi--were elsewhere. Charlie was forbidden from driving the truck. The unfortunate matter of Charlie's short-lived Ladies #1 Taxi Company had not been forgotten.
Even the wreck of Charlie's taxi cab could not compare to the state of the Land Rover. Mma Ramotswe had seen many vehicles pass through the garage in all sorts of conditions. None were quite so-- She could not find the words to describe it. If one had driven her tiny white van through the Okovongo, rolled it down Mount Otse, and trampled it beneath a herd of elephants, it would have been not quite half as damaged as what Fanwell towed in. Dragged in. Out of the passenger seat of the truck stepped a white man nearly as rough. Dark hair brushed the shoulders of his stained bush jacket. His eye-- Mma Ramotswe respectfully avoided looking directly at the worn patch over his left eye. Sun had deeply tanned his face. A number of necklaces ranging from charms to teeth strung on a leather thong to a gaudy cross hung around his neck. Sandals of tire tread and leather straps left prints in the oils leaking from the wrecked vehicle. A stork, Mma Ramotswe thought. He moved like the storks and herons at the reservoir by the Gabarone dam. Graceful in flight, they picked their way awkwardly in the water by the banks.
With a loud thump, the Land Rover's engine smacked into the concrete floor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors.
The man bowed his head.
"Awww, crap," he said. "Not again!"
"It is finished," Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni said, wiping his hands on a piece of lint. The Land Rover lay in pieces around the garage. "Not even Mma Potokwane could ask me to repair this."
"Even for fruit cake?" Mma Ramotswe asked. The fruit cake of Mma Silvia Potokwane, the head matron of the orphan farm outside of Gabarone, was renowned throughout Botswana for its persuasive powers. "Not even for that?"
"I am not Reverend Mwamba," Mr. Matekoni said. "I cannot ask for a miracle. There is too much damage. What this man did to it-- Land Rovers are excellent. Strong of heart. But they cannot survive everything."
"Look, Rra," Charlie said, excitedly, pointing at a body panel. "Bullet holes! He is a mercenary. Or a spy!"
"How do you know what bullet holes look like?" Mma Makutsi said, her head peering out of the agency's doorway. "Are you a tsotsi? Do you have an illegal gun hidden? Watch out, or the police will come and take you away!"
"Ow, Mma!" Charlie protested. "I have seen films. These are from bullets."
"He is right," Mr. Matekoni said. He idly fingered the row of perforations. "I have seen such things, when one of the safari companies bring me a vehicle after a hunter has an accident. These are too close together to be from a hunting rifle. These were from a soldier's gun. And this--"
Mr. Matekoni frowned. Taking a pair of pliers, he tugged at something wedged into the underside of the engine block. It was a tooth--no, a fang, at least a foot long.
"That was not from a soldier," Charlie said, quietly. "Unless it was a very, very big one! Ow!"
A mystery, this Mr. Alexander Harris. Mma Ramotswe considered what her mentor, Clovis Andersen, would have said about this in her much-thumbed copy of The Principles of Private Detection
. Clothes make the man, both in how he wears them and how he does not
applied here. Both Mr. Harris' vehicle and bush clothes were not barely-used in the way a tourist's possessions often were. They had seen much hard use. In her brief glimpses of him, she had seen the crudely-repaired tears in his clothes. No woman would stitch so badly. He was a man alone, then, used to fixing what he could. Not a hunter, either guide or paying guest of an expedition. Such men usually carried more signs of wealth around them. Not to mention guns. A missionary, perhaps, given the large cross at his neck. Or one of the white volunteers who came to Africa, drawn by its troubles and a need to help. Good people, though too often their ideas faded in the face of the way things had always done here. A volunteer, yes, a man who had been in the troubled countries north of Botswana, which lacked her nation's wisdom and peace.
Mr. Harris sat outside by the acacia tree. Not, Mma Ramotswe noted, under it. Clearly he had enough experience to know snakes could roost in its branches. A dove cooed in the afternoon stillness. It had been calling for years for a mate that never came. Sitting beside a rucksack, he whittled on a broken branch with a clasp-knife. A man used to working with wood, from the deft manner he worked. A carpenter or builder--the battered red toolbox beside him was long, large enough for saws and hammers instead of a mechanic's spanners. Every few minutes he drank deeply from a plastic jug of water. He slumped like her neighbour's yellow dogs, when they flopped to their sides in the dust as the heat overcame them. Retreating, Mma Ramotswe brewed another batch of bush tea. Mma Makutsi raised a brow when her employer took the sugar-dusted donut Mma Ramotswe had been saving for an afternoon snack. Mr. Harris straightened when she came bearing her small gifts. One hazel eye looked at her from under the shadow of a slouch hat shapeless from use.
"Dumela," she said.
"Okay, going by the donut and the mug," he said, "I'm going on a limb and guessing that means 'hello' instead of 'we wish to sacrifice you to your pagan gods.'"
"People say that to you, Rra?" Mma Ramotswe said. He spoke in a rush, like the Zambezi in full flood rather than the slow currents of the Limpopo.
"Be surprised how often it comes up. I know twelve African dialects." He accepted them in the Batswanan manner, with both hands. "I'm totally fluent in 'hello', 'goodbye,' 'my what a very nice AK-47 you have, there's this thing called a safety I can tell you about', and 'not the face, not the face!'"
"Yes, Mr. Harris, 'dumela' is hello in our language. 'Tsamaya sentle' is goodbye." Mma Ramotswe smiled. "It means 'go well'. I do not think you will need the other two phrases here."
"Good to know." Mr. Harris bit into the donut. The transformation was startling. A blissful grin blossomed on his features, as bright as the sun rising. "Okay. Uh, you're married right? To the guy who might be fixing my brakes? Spotted the matching rings."
"He is my husband, yes," Mma Ramotswe said. A detective himself? "Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, finest mechanic in all of Botswana."
"So, instead of offering to kneel at your feet and make sweet sweet love to you," Mr. Harris babbled on, "I'm just going to ask where I can get more of these, because God it has been six months since I last saw a Twinkie and--er--"
Mr. Harris coughed at Mma Ramotswe's blush.
"Lemme just pretend I pulled a Trek, went around the sun," he continued, "and those last ten seconds did not happen. Uh, thanks for the donut."
"There is a tuck shop down the road," Mma Ramotswe replied. Americans! So forward.
"Also, not 'Mr. Harris'." He extended his right hand, left hand gesturing wildly with the mug. "'Cause only two times I ever was called Mr. Harris. One was at my wedding, and really not going there. The other was my high school principal right before he booked me time in detention. Name's Xander."
"Dumela, Xander." She shook his hand as a proper Motswana would: left hand laid on her right forearm, to not get into mischief. Mr. Harris--no, Xander copied the gesture after a moment. "I can ask one of the apprentices to fetch you another."
"Nah, I'm good." His single eye focused on the sign above the entrance to her agency. "'Ladies #1 Detective Agency'. Huh. Cool. Ever think of calling yourself number two?"
"No, Rra," she said. "We are the only agency in Botswana, and the only lady detectives. Why would we say we are the second best agency?"
"Because...you try harder!" Xander sighed. "You know, if you were taller, thinner, a guy, wore glasses and tweed, and were about to call me a pillock, you'd be the man I'm working for. Exact same what the hell expression. I forget sometimes to dial back the pop cult."
"It is alright." Mma Ramotswe smiled. A puppy, she decided, as well as a stork. Playful and clumsy.
"Friend of mine, she worked for a private eye in L.A.," he said. "What was their motto? 'Helping the hapless'? Nah, 'we help the hopeless'."
"A good motto," Mma Ramotswe said. "Is she still working there?"
"Working on her beauty sleep." Xander Harris' easy smile cracked. Mma Ramotswe shuddered. So sad. So very sad. "There was-- I didn't get the details. Some kind of childbirth, complications. Coma."
"She will get better, Rra." An old scar twinged within Mma Ramotswe. A baby, held only for a few hours, before the sisters prised it from her arms. "She will. It happens, Rra. Miracles do."
"I don't count on them much...Mma?" Xander said. "Is that how they say it? Heard your friends call you that back there."
"Mma," she repeated, pronouncing the slow m and the long "ah".
"Yeah. Uh, Mma, I'm gonna head into town, find some place." Shouldering his rucksack, he took hold of a single-speed bicycle leaning against the wall of the garage. He strapped his toolbox to the rear rack. "I'll call about the Land Rover, although the last time a mechanic looked at me like the way your husband did, there were three months of prune hands and leopard print thongs and the rowdiest women's bridge club in Oxnard and sweet Jesus let's do the time warp again."
"No, Rra, we can drive you," Mma Ramotswe insisted. "It is a little thing. The Presidential Hotel may have a room."
"Nah, hostel's good enough." He drained the tea, then the jug. "So--"
He wavered when he threw a leg over the bicycle. His single good eye opened wide.
"Okay, new plan."
He toppled over into the dust. It seemed to take a long time for his rangy frame to fall. Frozen for a moment, Mma Ramotswe called for help. The staff of the garage rushed out. Mr Matekoni and the apprentices milled about. Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi exchanged a brief, exasperated look. Men. She opened his bush shirt while Mma Makutsi shaded him as best she could, using the last of the water in the jug to wet her threadbare white handkerchief. Mma Makutsi laid the compress on Xander Harris' brow. Both women had nursed invalids. Mma Ramotswe had cared for her daddy during the long time it took for the dust of the South African mines to finally claim his life; Mma Makutsi had cared for her late brother while he suffered from the disease that infected so many of Botswana. Mr. Polopetsi squatted beside him with fingers taking the pulse in the American's wrist. He had been a pharmacist's apprentice, she recalled, before his superior had placed the blame on him for his own mistake in prescribing drugs that killed a patient. Two years in prison and the loss of his license had not taken away his own medical knowledge.
"Charlie, go," Mr. Polopetsi said. "Get salt. As much as you can, and water."
"Salt?" Charlie asked, dithering.
"Go!" Mr. Matekoni ordered.
"I have seen this," Mr. Polopetsi said, "at the hospital. They drink too much water, and the salt is washed out of their body."
"Ahn?" Xander cried, writhing. "AHN!"
"Shhh, Rra," Mma Ramotswe said, a hand on his chest. He had many, many scars.
"First wave, fire!" Xander snapped. His tone became a soldier's. "Everybody, hand to hand! Move, move! Right flank, close in!"
"We must bring him inside, out of the sun," Mr. Polopetsi said. Xander struggled weakly when they carried him into the agency, placing him on Mma Ramotswe's desk.
"Ahn?" He seized Mma Ramotswe's arm. "Ahn don't..."
"Help is coming," she soothed.
"Don't--" He collapsed. "Don't do the stupid thing. I love you. Don't. Don't--"
So much pain could lie in a person's heart, Mma Ramotswe thought. So much.