AUGUST 24, 9:52 PM
“You’re already asleep,” Lettie said quietly.
When her two small daughters didn’t respond, she stood up from the edge of the bed and went outside. A weak light above the door illuminated a patch of beaten ground. It’ll rain again soon, she thought as she stroked one of the few remaining tufts of grass with her bare foot.
“Hey!” came from the doorway of the neighboring house. Just as large as hers, and one of a row of eight structures. Window, door, window.
“Hey!” Lettie answered.
Miriam was leaning against the door. “Where are they?”
Lettie had expected Jo-Jo back two hours ago at the latest. The meat and mielie pap had gotten cold a long time ago. Jo-Jo wouldn’t care, but she did. She always liked having the whole family at the table.
“Do you think they’re at Yonela’s again?” Miriam asked.
Yonela the widow, Lettie thought. A house as large as theirs. As small as theirs. On the neighboring farm. She sold alcohol out of her refrigerator. Illegally. But what else could she do as a widow? She was lucky she had even been allowed to stay on at the farm after her husband’s death. The farmer almost exclusively used seasonal workers from around the area, and the houses weren’t used much these days. Lettie didn’t want to know if Yonela was paying her rent in more than rands.
“They don’t have any money with them,” Lettie said. “We’d know if they did.”
“But they could borrow some.”
“Uh-huh! I wouldn’t put that past Sipho!” “Let’s go see Princess.”
They walked down three houses. The light over the door was out. All they could see was the flickering from a candle inside. Lettie knocked.
After a few seconds, Asanda stuck her head out the door. She was Princess and Cesar’s oldest. She let the two women inside.
Princess was sitting at the table in the middle of the small room. She had her back to the door and didn’t bother to turn around when Lettie started to speak.
“Not a trace of them,” Lettie said. “What should we do?”
AUGUST 24, 9:59 PM
Gcilitshana reached the two others. “Maybe they’re gone now!”
“We just got one of them!” she said, shaking her head. “I’m surprised they didn’t react immediately.”
“Maybe we should go back into the house!” Muller.
“Might be more dangerous than staying out here. There’s at least fifteen unprotected meters back to the bathroom window.” McKenzie.
Gcilitshana studied the path between the fence and house, and agreed that the woman was right. The worst part was that they would not only have to make it back to the house, but they might have to work their way around the building as well if they wanted to reach the front door. Climbing out the window was one thing, getting back through the window was something else completely. Too much time for the bastards to blow them away. “Muller,” he said. “I really want to know what you have in the house. Just tell us. They’re not just here for a few bills.”
“That’s ridiculous,” the farmer said. “There’s nothing here.”
“Pssst!” McKenzie hissed.
“What?” Muller said.
“Be quiet! Something’s going on!”
A bullet crashed into the tree next to Gcilitshana. Another hit him.
“On the ground!” McKenzie yelled.
AUGUST 24, 10:00 PM
Nobody noticed him as he crossed the hall. Cesar Mhlaba slowly moved one foot in front of the other.
A woman was whimpering quietly. A masculine voice said in Xhosa: “The Boss will take care of it!” Betsie and Jo-Jo. The girls and Trixie were silent. The repairman and the delivery boy were, too.
The door behind which Thabo had just vanished was ajar. He could hear the foreman breathing.
Cesar was convinced from the direction of the sound that the five shots had come from their side. Had to be the Boss or that woman. He didn’t trust Gcilitshana in the slightest. He had heard things about him, about how the cop had shot people by the side of the road. You didn’t have to be- lieve everything, but you did need to be cautious. Was the cop possibly working with the tsotsis out there?
He was now standing at the door to the room in which Zak had to be located. The door was shut.
Cesar hadn’t considered what he might want to do in this situation. He had only envisioned himself with a gun in his hands. That pig standing in front of him, him shooting, done. And now he could really do it. He would do it!
He slowly turned the knob. Well oiled, not a sound. The door opened easily.
Zak was leaning far out of the window. He was holding a heavy gun.
Cesar stepped into the room. He was just taking aim when more shots were fired outside.
AUGUST 24, 10:02 PM
The reception was best up on the rocks. Two bars. Steady.
He had walked back slowly. He had tried twice to complete the call, and then it occurred to him to climb up on the boulders. Even an idiot would assume that the connection would be better from there.
He could see the farmer very clearly from up here. White skin reflects light, he thought. As do pale clothes.
The phone rang.
“Please leave a message for Dr. Ramesh. He can’t take your call right now. Beeep!”
Shit. His inbox.
Alcohol and dagga made a dangerous cocktail.
And Ramesh—Dr. Ramesh—always had too much in him. Of both. Sleazy Indian.
He tried one more time: “Please leave a mes- sage for Dr. Ramesh. He can’t take your call right now. Beeep!”
And again. And again. Then he hurled his phone. Far enough into the field so it wouldn’t break.
He stood on the boulder and stomped his foot in frustration. That crap doctor. The phone rang.
Despite the leap from the rock, the landing was soft. He was lucky he didn’t hit a stone. He hurried toward the glowing screen, grabbed the phone, and pushed the green button.
“Heita, Bro B! Where are you? Doc? Doc who?” Eddie, the idiot. Why did he have to call now of all times?
“Listen. I’ll call you back. Can’t talk now!”
“Bulelani, what’s going on?”
He hung up. He had to get back.
Shots were coming from the farm again. He started running.
AUGUST 24, 10:02 PM
The policeman was hit. Jayne leaned over and touched him lightly. He grimaced. “My shoulder!” He was lying on his side, and she patted along his uniform until she felt something damp. He groaned. “That hurts!”
Gunfire was now coming from both sides.
Jayne twisted around and fired her automatic in the direction she had just been shooting. She had the impression that the gunfire immediately lightened, although bullets continued to bury them- selves into the apple trees and the ground.
“Franz! Shoot in the other direction. Someone’s coming that way!”
From where he was lying on his stomach, Franz pulled out his pistol. He flipped onto his left side and fired with his right hand. Slow and controlled. One bullet after the other. And so the two of them fired in both directions.
Jayne emptied her clip and reached for the small pistol in her waistband. She had brought it along for closer distances.
She couldn’t see who was shooting at her. Had she missed her target in the bush? Had there been two people there? Had one of them concealed himself nearby? The shooting had stopped from over there. It was also quiet from the other side now.
But now there were shots coming from the house. She couldn’t tell where they were coming from exactly. Or in which direction they were be- ing fired.
Jayne turned onto her back and tried to get an overview of the situation. The cop was injured, though not badly. He still needed to be taken into the house, though. They had covering fire, but their attackers were on two sides, just waiting to kill them.
Or on new orders.
Or on help. Maybe they were hurt.
The shooting stopped for the moment. It had just been a war zone, and now…She counted the seconds. Eight. Nine. Ten. She had to make a decision soon. For the cop.
A burst of gunfire struck the ground beside her. She instinctively pulled herself into a tight ball, and tried to see what was going on with Franz. He started to shoot again.
This attack was coming from the west. She peered toward the north again and fired her pistol at one-second intervals until it was empty. They wouldn’t be able to hold out like this much longer.
AUGUST 24, 10:01 PM
More than once, Zak thought he saw some- thing. Or someone. It seemed to him as if there was a pale glimmer somewhere back in the distance. Hidden behind a bush. There where the path led to the neighboring farm.
The shimmer was weak, but steady. And it hadn’t moved. Until now.
It was far off, but he watched it draw closer to Dad and the other two where they were standing outside the fence.
Zak tried to concentrate. Used the scope. But all he saw were the old irrigation canals, which offered a good hiding place.
Focus, he told himself. He tracked one of the canals. Very slowly, so he wouldn’t miss anything. There was an advantage to knowing your way around. And he knew the farm better than anyone. Except perhaps Dad.
Nothing. He followed the canal back in the other direction.
Zak lowered his gun and gazed at Dad and the others. They were now lying on the ground. Had someone been hit?
His eyes wandered back and forth between the trees and the canal he had just been following. If the three of them had been fired on from over there, then someone had to be hiding at that spot. From his vantage point, it wasn’t easy to survey the entire open area. The small patches of pasture, scattered bits of underbrush, and the uneven terrain offered the attackers numerous options for concealment. Anyone in dark clothing could lie down on such a tuft of grass and be practically invisible.
Now he could make it out more clearly. It was a shirt. Yellow. He just needed to find the figure in his scope. Then…
He reshouldered his gun and studied the land- scape again. A gentle draft blew through the room. Strange. He’d closed the door. There was a tiny, dried-up bush. And he recalled seeing the movement somewhere very close to it. He kept looking, in concentrated circles, as he had learned from Dad.
Behind him, he heard the click of a gun being cocked. Right behind him. He jumped up and let his gun tumble down the face of the house. At that very moment, shots crashed through the window and slammed into his chest. Three in all.
One of the three bullets hit his heart.
AUGUST 24, 8:29 PM
“Yeah?” she said into the phone.
The superintendent had forbidden her from answering the phone like this. But first of all, he wasn’t in the office this evening. And secondly, you couldn’t please everyone all the time.
“Yes, yes,” she then said. “This is the police station on Maluti Road in King. And I’m Constable Ncita!” She added: “How can I help you?” She knew perfectly well that the irony wouldn’t make its way down the phone line. A white woman on the other end. Concerned, but under control.
“And what are we supposed to do?” she asked in response.
“Drive out?—To the farm?—But it’s already dark!—He’s probably fallen asleep. Don’t worry. –Then he’s out checking the fence.”
She had almost said that he was probably fucking the maid. Just the day before, Joyce Ncita had read an article that claimed that farmers these days were still having sex with their domestic and agricultural workers. Just like they’d done during Apartheid. Disgusting. Or the daughter of the maid. It depended on the situation.
“All alone on the farm? Alright.—Give me your phone number. It’s not showing up on my phone.”
AUGUST 24, 10:00 PM
Princess turned to face her visitors. “I’m so pissed off!”
The candle behind Princess flickered in the wind that gusted through the open door. Lettie could hardly see her face. She wondered about the two other women. About why they were so upset. She felt worried, not angry.
“If I have to drag him back from that slut’s place one more time,” Princess said, “he’ll get no sex for a month.”
Lettie had heard Princess utter this threat with some frequency. But she also knew it was an idle threat. She liked to put up a front when the women were on their own.
“Should we go over there?” Miriam asked.
“Not without Noluthando,” Lettie said.
“I don’t understand how she can sleep so hard when Thabo isn’t home,” Princess said.
“I’ll knock on her door.” Lettie turned around and walked over to the house next door. However, before she could knock, the door opened. “I heard you,” Noluthando said in her deep voice. “I’m coming!”
From The Farm by Max Annas. Used with the permission of the publisher, Catalyst. Copyright © 2020 by Max Annas.