After about a minute, the sudden dark that had slammed around me when the mat went down became more of a gloom, sliced through with dust-busy beams where there were holes in the weave.
Was that why the hippo was covered in blood?
Was that why the stall-holder told me I’d see a hippo at the house? Not a carved hippo, as I’d thought, but this, much-too-real beast? Was it some kind of sick pet of his?
I was sure that hippos ate pond weed or something, so how could giving it ‘sacrifices’ of meat manage to tame it?
This whole day was crazy, and getting crazier. I tried hard to believe that something being as crazy as this, meant it couldn’t be true. He couldn’t really kill me. Even a crazy white man living in the jungle with neighbours who didn’t speak my language, couldn’t get away with just sacrificing people. He hadn’t even gagged me. I would scream, and help would come. Right?
But right now, screaming would be stupid. It wasn’t like I was in real danger. If I screamed now, and someone came, I’d look like a dork, standing down here like an idiot, saying “please help me out, cos I need to take a leak.”
If only I had just taken a deep breath, gritted my teeth, and gone out on the boat this morning. Even better, if only I had swallowed my fear of looking like a wuss, and just told them I didn’t want to go out on the boat. I could have stayed in the hut on the bed and dreamed up some plot for my novel.
Either way, now I’d be sitting in the restaurant trying to face the stench of calamari, line-fish and crab from the plates around me as I tucked into my salad and chips.
I could be sitting there, right now, feeling sorry for myself over not being able to order something normal like a burger, rather than sitting here feeling sorry for myself over facing immanent death.
I corrected that thought: Possible death.
Unlikely and improbable death.
But, still possible. I couldn’t get away from that, because of the blood on the hippo, because of the way Outjie giggled, because this was Africa and people really, truly do get chopped into bits for use in muti. Was that what he was after? Thought he could magic himself off to a big mansion in South Africa, just by feeding the hippo my liver or something?
As much as I told myself to stop thinking such rubbish, I could taste this morning’s bread and coconut, acid, at the back of my throat.
“HELP, I’M STUCK!” I shouted, without letting myself think about the decision to shout. “I’M DOWN HERE! SOMEBODY GET ME OUT!”
I wasn’t encouraged by how flat and weak my yell sounded. The mat and the sand must have muffled it.
I’d have to wait till he opened up again, then I’d give it everything. Better save my voice. And be quiet, listen, so I could try again if I heard people close by.
I could be cool. I could wait.
The one thing that couldn’t wait, though, unless I wanted to embarass myself even more, was deciding which side of this sandy floor I was going to dig a bit of a hole to aim into.
I was just shoving sand back over the damp patch with my foot, when a corner of the mat lifted.
I braced myself ready to yell, but Outjie simply poked something through the hole, and closed up again right away. In the gloom, I couldn’t make out what it was, but, what I had glimpsed looked suspiciously like a hosepipe.
He was planning to drown me? I almost giggled, myself. He could be crazy enough to try that.
Wonderful! Then all I had to do was tread water and float till the level got high enough that I could climb out.
As long as the hippo wasn’t waiting. As long as the path was open and I didn’t have to risk the landmines.
As long as, as long as he didn’t make it just deep enough that I couldn’t stand, and couldn’t climb out. I wasn’t that fit, and I never swam by choice.
How long could I tread water?
I was just trying to gauge the exact depth of the hole, my height, and the reach of my arms and legs, when I smelt a completely unfamiliar smell. Something sort of herb-ey, not marijuana, since I’d smelt that a few times before.
This smelt more like something my mother might use in the kitchen, except she never had.
Was he going to gas me?
I pulled my t-shirt up over my nose and mouth, wishing I hadn’t just peed, since I remembered that wetting the cloth helps make more of a filter. It would have been disgusting, but…
The smell was getting clearer, so I held my breath.
It didn’t smell like gas, I told myself, didn’t smell like poison.
It did remind me, just a little, of something, now I thought about it. One time I’d watched some people ‘smudging’ each other with a feather and some sort of incense burner thing.
Maybe this was part of his ceremony. Maybe he was ‘purifying’ me.
I still held my breath, just in case.
The smoke was pouring through into the hole now, strong enough to make my eyes water. I pinched my nose harder and clenched my teeth. My ribs were tugging at my muscles, demanding air.
I did an odd sort of swallow to try and hold the reflex down.
My stomach went into spasm. I had to breathe, but what would happen if I did?
A second later, I found out.
I couldn’t hold it any longer, my guts were heaving, fighting, shoving me to my knees and as I reached to break my fall, I gasped, huge relief, and the smoke rushed into my lungs.
What happened was nothing at all, except for a fit of coughing that got me breathing again and again.
Then, something did happen.
A good thing happened.
A very good, wonderful thing, that felt very good.
Delicious…. s t r e e e e t c h.
I became very, very tall.
Tall enough that I could climb out of the pit with ease. Yay.
Except I didn’t need to climb out, because the pit was just a little dimple in the middle of me, and really, I was the whole of the sky, complete with a brain made of fairy-light stars.
The stars were diamonds in the hair of a beautiful lady, her hair was the moonlight shining down like a net to become my nerves and my veins.
Not that I needed any nerves and veins. Since I was the night sky behind her, and night sky is just vast, empty black.
So now that was me.