Palo Alto Weekly 21st Annual Short Story
As I walked down the road, my shoes kicked up the golden sand around me. The sun beat down tirelessly, though hours still remained until noon, yet, a wind blew past, rustling my ragged gray sweatpants, and I reached for the zipper of my fleece to pull it higher. I looked up again, brushing my hands through my hair, and glanced around. To my left, a soccer field of sand and a goal post with peeling white paint and no net. To the front, my family and our friends walked with the guide, advancing towards the village that lay ahead.
It was a small African village that lay in the middle of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana. Most of the homes were round single-room mud huts with straw roofs. Aluminum cans filled with sand dotted the walls to keep it insulated. Some were only tents. Occasionally, we passed a smooth, four-walled room with a door and paned-windows painted in some bright color; a home built for an elder out of respect, paid for by the government.
Our guide led us down the town's only road as another safari van rumbled past, on its way to a mid-morning game drive. The people inside chatted loudly, and laughed abrasively, completely unaware of the village. I noticed beers in their hands, despite the time.
"Drinking this early? Must be Europeans," I laughed to myself.
Two young boys ran by, wearing dirty mismatched clothes that didn't really fit right and no shoes. Their joyous shrieks rang sharply in my ears, contrasting with the throaty bellows of the buzzed tourists. Empty beer cans lay half-buried in the sand on the side of the road, and a chain-link fence stood dilapidated and staggering. My feet sank into the sand as we walked down the path. We turned off the road at a break in the fence, venturing a few yards across a bare stretch of land leading into a nearby cluster of trees.
At a tent, our guide stopped to talk with the family lounging outside. They were gathered around a small fire, with a wisp of gray smoke rising slowly into the cool air. The rest of us hung behind as he began to talk to them in Setswana. I didn't understand what he was saying so my attention began to wander. Eventually it settled on the grandmother. I watched as she sat on a faded green canvas folding-chair, ripped and frayed at the seams, that she probably found in a trash heap nearby. She was talking to another member of their family, and I stood transfixed, eyeing her toothless mouth as it chomped and clicked, giving wheezy orders to the man. A few moments later she got up and reached under an old wool blanket that she was sitting on, and pulled out a wallet. I figured it probably contained the family's entire income. She picked out a single coin and placed it in the man's hand, presumably telling him to buy something they needed.
I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was my mother telling me we were leaving so we could continue our morning game drive. We started walking back to the van parked on the outskirts of the little village. As we passed the last house, my father noticed a young boy playing in front of the house with his mother. My father reached into his pocket and pulled out a candy, holding it out to the little boy. At first, the boy turned around and buried his face into his mom's shoulder. She stroked his back and then turned him around and pushed him toward us. Reluctantly, the boy took a few steps, and then, in the last few feet, ran forwards. He took the candy from my father's hand, looking up at him, smiling with a gleam in his eyes. Then, he rushed back to his mother, showing her his prize with enthusiasm. I smiled.
As noon approached, our guide turned the van around and headed back towards the camp. It was getting unbearably hot, as afternoons in the deserts do. I was busy wiping away the beads of sweat forming on my forehead, before they could run down my face and add to my increasing discomfort. I was ready to return to camp and take an afternoon nap to escape the blistering sun, even if meant enduring that cot for a few more hours.
The others were still on the lookout for animals, on a high after spotting a leopard for the third time in two days. Although it had probably been the same animal every time, it was still incredibly rare to see a leopard, much less lounging around in the open as we had just witnessed. My father let us know just how lucky we all were.
"In all my years visiting game reserves while growing up in South Africa, I never experienced a leopard so close up, or in such a dramatic fashion," he told us. My mother corroborated, telling us that despite visiting numerous parks with my dad on their honeymoon, she had never seen a leopard before this trip. But soon I would realize how truly fortunate I was.
We reached the little town from that morning, and we rumbled through, too busy discussing the "big five" animals of Africa to notice anything was wrong. At the request of one of our friends traveling with us, we stopped at the tiny store on the edge of town so she could take a peek at the curios. We all groaned that this was at least the hundredth time she had gone looking for local arts and crafts, only half-jokingly. My sister noticed the store was advertising cool drinks and Simba Chips, our new favorite snack, so we all piled out of the car to buy some refreshments.
The store was locked. I peeked through the barred window, taking in the sight of a cramped store with straw baskets hanging from the ceiling, brightly painted wood carvings of animals on a table, and walls with shelves from floor to ceiling filled with every conceivable item of food. But there was no one in there. In fact, there was no one anywhere nearby at the outskirts of the village.
Mystified, we walked back into the town along the same road from that morning. It was lined with the same empty cans, and I kicked up the same golden sand as the group sauntered along the path, but I couldn't help but feel a difference. In place of a pleasant vibe, I sensed a tension in the air that I hadn't felt previously. Every house we passed was deserted, and the atmosphere was heavy with heartbreak and worry.
In the distance, I spotted the grove of trees, and as they loomed closer, I could hear a faint murmur of unrest growing louder. Knowing it must be coming from the family we had visited that morning, we turned off the path at the break in the fence. The stretch of land that just that morning had been all but bare, save the tent family, was now full of people. The crowd stood there watching, gossiping, looking on with concerned faces. The gasping cries of the old woman could be heard above the hum of the crowd. A younger woman with a distressed look on her face, and a hint of perpetual sadness in her eyes, stood trying to comfort her. My mind flashed to the wallet full of money the grandmother had been sitting on and I feared the worst.
I glanced around and noticed my family was having an intense discussion with our guide. I rushed over to find out what was going on, hoping that my suspicions were incorrect.
"Did you guys find out what happened?" I asked nervously.
My father looked at me with an expression of sympathy. "This family had all their money stored in a bag that the old woman would sit on, and someone stole it this morning."
I wanted to cry. Even though I had done absolutely nothing, I felt terrible about what happened, like my spying that morning had caused the whole thing to occur. I peeked back at the old woman. The crowd around her was thinning. I guessed that we had arrived long after the discovery that the wallet was missing, and people now felt they had paid their fair share of sympathy and were returning to their daily activity. Even the young woman was now busy taking care of a child, and the grandmother had stopped crying.
I wanted so badly to be able to help, to do something. I reached instinctively into my pocket, as though I would find my own wallet in there, full of money that I could give to the tent family to help them out. But I knew there was no money in there. I didn't even carry my own wallet. I didn't want to look stupid, so I left my hand in my pocket, like that had been my purpose all along. My hands were restless. I scrunched up the fabric in my pocket, and stuck my fingers through a hole that had begun to form in one corner. Mechanically, my left hand found its way into the other pocket in my sweatpants. I felt something in there, and I quickly pulled it out, curious to know what it was. It was a candy left over from the stash we had intended to give away to children that we encountered.
I looked back up at my family, who were still busy idly chatting, before my gaze returned to the grandmother. She was alone now, sitting in her chair once again. She looked miserable, as if she wanted to cry, but all her tears had been used up. I slowly walked over to her, noticing wrinkles in her face I did not see earlier that day. The fire was out, but as I closed in behind her, I could smell the trace of smoke and burnt wood still faintly lingering on her. I breathed out a sigh, unsure if I was doing the right thing, but it was too late, because my noise caught her attention. She turned around and stared at me. I stood there, frozen for a moment, and then slowly handed her the candy. Her face remained blank a moment, and then an amused expression slowly crept across her face. I smiled.
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The Palo Alto Weekly Moonight Run & Walk is happening September 16 at the Palo Alto Baylands.