WIM, proprietor of Wim's Public House, an overland stop in Rhodesia for black lorry drivers
!KOBO, a San lorry driver, barely five feet, slender build, coppery complexion; he sports an American cowboy hat, khaki shorts, and cowboy boots, and his forearms have been scarified with black, swirling designs.
BOY, a white runaway
OLIPAH, a Shona turnboy, or driver's helper, in his middle teens
POLICEMAN, an Ndebele police sergeant
Wim's Public House. WIM idly casts small bones across a table littered with empty bottles and jars as !KOBO looks on. WIM takes a pull from a handmade cigarette, scoops the bones up without looking, then casts them again. Outside the wind howls faintly. A lightbulb glints through a perforated aluminum can fastened to the ceiling above the table. Otherwise, the stage is completely black. The lights are brought up slowly as the scene progresses, as if the audience's eyes are adjusting to the dark.
!KOBO: [staring at the bones] What do they say?
WIM: Let's see. [He takes a final pull on the cigarette and throws it, still burning, to the floor.] The bones say "You are going on a long journey." [Laughs.]
[!KOBO spits on the floor.]
!KOBO: Come on, my brother. I've been driving since yesterday night. I'm in no mood for your foolishness. Will I have a lucky trip?
WIM: How can you have luck with such cargo?
!KOBO: Just filling a need. There's talk of a riot in Bulawayo.
WIM: There's always talk. Still, the police might set up checkpoints on the roads. You'll need the proper travel documents.
!KOBO: Travel documents! [Spits.] I can remember when the San people came and went as they pleased, never mind documents, my brother!
WIM: Do I look like your brother? I don't even know you, man. [suspiciously] How do you get about without papers?
!KOBO: [Laughs.] Magic.
WIM: [shaking head] Do you even have ID? [WIM retrieves his identification card from his back pocket, shows it to !KOBO.] If you're not white and you don't have one of these, you don't exist.
!KOBO: No worries then. They can't touch me if I don't exist. Now tell me what the bones say.
WIM: I tell you, man, these bones spoke only to my mother.
!KOBO: You're her sib. The bones passed to you when she died.
WIM: The magic's in the reader, not the bones.
[At this point, the lights are bright enough for the audience to make out the interior of Wim's. Notices are posted in festive colors: NO MOOCHING. NO KNIVES. NO GLUE. NO GAMBLING. Other than the table, the only furnishings are a sink, an open refrigerator filled with jars of brandy and two-liter bottles of beer, an empty shelf, an iron bed, and a toolbox. An adolescent white BOY wearing a rucksack stands near the door with his back to the audience, watching with them.]
!KOBO: Come on, brother, have another try.
WIM: Okay, okay. [casting the bones] The bones say--[Pause.] "You will not grow any taller." [Dissolves into laughter.]
[!KOBO spits on the floor.]
BOY: [Steps forward tentatively.] Excuse me.
[WIM and !KOBO turn and stare at the BOY.]
WIM: What is it you want, then?
BOY: I'm looking for a ride south.
!KOBO: [Looks keenly at the BOY.] You're going south?
WIM: There are no drivers here for runaway Rhodie boys. Why don't you go to the British Petroleum station, ask one of the white lorry drivers to take you? [The BOY looks down at his feet. WIM pounds the table, shaking the jars and bottles, startling the BOY.] Because they'll call the authorities to come take you back to your family, that's why! We don't need problems with the police.
!KOBO: [alarmed] Police?
BOY: Please. I won't cause any problems.
[!KOBO exits furtively, and the wind slams the door behind him. WIM looks up, realizes !KOBO is gone.]
WIM: Super. You drive off my only customer. Go away! Make trouble for someone else.
BOY: Can't I wait here for another driver?
WIM: So you can chase him out also? Gap it, or I'll call the police! [WIM rolls another cigarette, lights it. The BOY makes no move to leave.] You think I'm afraid to call?
BOY: You haven't even got a telephone.
WIM: [shaking his head, laughing softly to himself] Cheek. [Outside a lorry engine fires up.] Tell the truth, I'm glad that bushman's gone. Sorcerers, every one of them.
BOY: He didn't seem so bad.
WIM: Sure, they don't at first. All jolly fun and best mates, till you drop your guard. They aren't like you and me. Too much desert and too much God, my mother used to say.
[The sound of the wind rises as the door opens. !KOBO rushes in carrying his turnboy, OLIPAH, cradled in his arms. The turnboy stares at the ceiling in rapture.]
!KOBO: Help me! I drove my lorry over Olipah.
[!KOBO stretches out OLIPAH's limp body on the table.]
WIM:How did you run over your own turnboy?
!KOBO: An accident, my brother. Even over the noise of the engine, I could hear his legs break. [Shudders.] They made a sound like sticks snapping.
WIM: Shut up and help me. [WIM retrieves a pair of tin shears from the toolbox and cuts away OLIPAH's trousers. The turnboy's crushed limbs look like cased sausages.] His legs are filling with blood.
[OLIPAH shivers uncontrollably. !KOBO strokes his turnboy's head.]
!KOBO: Sus! A sight like that, my brother, I need more brandy.
WIM: You've had too much already. Didn't you look under your wheels?
!KOBO: If you would put lights out there, a man could see. Olipah was sleeping under the motor to keep warm. I swear, that's the up and down and straight on it. I'm blameless. [Holds forehead with both hands.] Your brandy's turned my blood to tree sap.
OLIPAH: [smiling beatifically, his entire body quivering] Just before the lorry drove over my legs, God spoke into my ear.
!KOBO: [to OLIPAH] You're done for proper, my brother. [!KOBO squeezes his hand.] Everything, it's all right.
OLIPAH: He spoke to me in a whisper. When I heard the engine start, I couldn't move.
WIM: Here take some of this. [He offers the turnboy a jar of brandy from the refrigerator.] It'll help with your legs.
OLIPAH: No. Let me keep the pain. This way I know it isn't just dreaming that God spoke to me.
BOY: [leaning over OLIPAH] What did God say?
OLIPAH:[Looks up at him, still beaming.] He expressed his gratitude.
BOY: For what?
!KOBO: Oh, my head. I feel a powerful babalass already coming on.
WIM: Sod your bleeding hangover. Help me clean up before we fetch the police. [WIM takes the bottles and jars from the open refrigerator and begins pouring them into the sink. OLIPAH slips into unconsciousness.] They'll say it was my fault you became drunk.
!KOBO: I'll tell them I made you give me more brandy.
[!KOBO places his head on OLIPAH's chest and listens.]
WIM: They won't listen.
!KOBO: [lifting his head] Ow! There's no heartbeat here!
WIM: Bugger, bugger, bugger! They'll take my place. Your driving license also, if you ever had one.
[WIM, !KOBO, and the BOY sit at the table around OLIPAH's corpse.]
!KOBO: [to WIM] You can think of something. Tell me what to do, my brother.
WIM: Stop calling me that, bushman. My father was an Afrikaner.
!KOBO: [looking him over] You must take after your mother.
WIM: Go back to the bush, little man.
!KOBO: Your father doesn't make you superior to me. It just means your mother liked to spread her legs for white men.
WIM: [also standing] She warned me against you bushmen and the bad luck you bring. You come in here, I never see you before, acting like we grew up together, talking to me about magic, taking my mother's casting bones down from their shelf. And now I have all these troubles.
[WIM crosses the room to the bed, lies down, stares at the ceiling.]
!KOBO: [chanting, eyes heavenward] The doors to the next world are closed to us. [to the BOY] Say "Closed are the doors."
BOY: Closed are the doors.
[WIM raises his head from the pillow.]
!KOBO: The spirits of the dead throng together, like mosquitoes that swarm in the evening. Say "Like mosquitoes, swarming."
BOY: Like mosquitoes swarming.
WIM: What in hell are you doing?
!KOBO: [to WIM] Quiet! I'm praying before the dead body. [He gazes toward heaven again.] Like swarms of mosquitoes dancing in the night, when the world has turned black.
[!KOBO turns expectantly to the BOY.]
BOY: [enthusiastically, as if taking part in a game] Entirely black.
[WIM shakes his head in disbelief.]
!KOBO: When the night has turned black, the mosquitoes swarm, they swarm like whirling leaves.
BOY: Like dead leaves in the wind.
!KOBO: [staring hard at the BOY]Not "dead leaves." Not "wind." I said "whirling leaves." How can they whirl about without wind? Why have they fallen from the tree if not dead? One oughtn't waste words when one talks to God. [The BOY looks down at his feet. !KOBO's gaze returns to the ceiling as he resumes his prayer.] The dead spirits wait for the One who will arrive to say "Come" to this one, and "Go" to another. And God will be with his children.
WIM: Jesus bloody Christ!
BOY: And God will be with his children.
WIM: [to the BOY] It isn't your Christian God he's speaking on, you know. Bushmen have strange ideas on that subject.
!KOBO: [looking down on the corpse of OLIPAH] Poor sod. [Long pause.] We might take him into the bush. Outside behind the toilets, hey?
[WIM sits up in his bed, considering the possibility.]
WIM: We could bury him in one of your coffins.
!KOBO: No, no. Leave Olipah to the hyenas. That way there's nothing for the police to dig up.
[WIM brightens for a moment, then slumps back in the bed.]
WIM: No, man. The boy's seen everything. Come, let's get this over with. Drive me to the British Petroleum station. We'll call the police from there.
!KOBO: Hold! The boy wants to go south. I'm going south. And I need a new turnboy.
[WIM steps back and considers !KOBO and the BOY.]
WIM: Fill your lorry with petrol and drive far away as you can without stopping. Never come back, understand, bushman?
!KOBO: Call me bushman again, [spitting] I kill you, Bantu.I am San. You know what that means? The real people.
WIM: Okay, you're San. Now help me get your turnboy out of here.
[The BOY holds the door. Leaves swirl in across the floor. WIM lifts OLIPAH from the table, exits. !KOBO pauses at the door before exiting and looks thoughtfully at the BOY.]
!KOBO: A white turnboy! [shaking his head] Now there's trouble for you!
!KOBO and the BOY are seated in the cab of a moving lorry. The instrument lights illuminate theirfaces, !KOBO's scarred forearms on the steering wheel. Outside the cab, two headlamps cut into the darkness.
!KOBO: That was a terrible thing back there. Poor Olipah. [!KOBO pushes his cowboy hat back on his head, spits out the window.] Listen. If you're my new turnboy, there's things you need to know. This lorry is called The-Voice-in-the-Desert. It's one of the names my people use to call God. She's a five-tonner, fought in World War Two.
BOY: [confused] God?
!KOBO: [Laughs.] No, the lorry, of course. [!KOBO reaches across the BOY to open the glovebox. He removes a jar of brandy, unscrews the lid, and drinks deeply, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.] Let me tell you the duties of a turnboy. Be sharp always. Make certain our cargo doesn't shift back there, and don't allow the ropes to become slack. Does it bother you that we carry coffins? [The BOY shakes his head.] Good! We take them to Bulawayo, receive top dollar after the riots. Keep the glass clear of dead insects--a dirty windscreen hurts my eyes. You climb out on the running boards for this. There's no time for stopping to clean windscreens. Do you know how to fill the tank? [The BOY nods.] How to repair a puncture? [The BOY shakes his head.] No worries. I'll show you this. Be certain The-Voice-in-the-Desert is never hungry for oil. The belts become noisy, put some soap on them--it helps with the squeaking. That's enough for the moment. [!KOBO shifts uncomfortably in his seat.] One more thing, my little brother. We come to a checkpoint, tell the police I'm your father's employee and you're training me to drive the lorry.
[The BOY nods.]
BOY: Will anyone miss Olipah?
!KOBO: [laughing] Will anyone miss you? Rhodesia's a big country, it swallows boys up whole. Tab!
!KOBO: Tab! That's Africa, baby! [Pause.] Why you want to go south, little brother? [The BOY shrugs.] Forgive me for asking. I fully know why boys leave their parents--to become men.
[The BOY stares at !KOBO's scarred forearms on the steering wheel.]
BOY: How did you get those?
!KOBO: These? Initiation scars, one for each animal I hunted.
BOY: [awestruck] You killed that many animals?
!KOBO: More. There's not always time to make these marks after a kill.
BOY: Your father teach you?
!KOBO: No, no. I was the youngest of six children. You have to understand, children are born to a San woman only one every five years. A child must be strong enough to walk all day on its own before its mother brings another into the world to carry. Imagine! Five years apart! When the time came for my first buck ceremony, my father was so old, he had become a child again. I taught myself to make these marks from a television program I saw one time in a store window. Do you know that before the Bantu peoples and the European peoples arrived, there were only San? Not just in the desert, little brother, but in all of southern Africa!
BOY: How many animals do you kill to complete an initiation?
!KOBO: Even Olipah never asked so many questions all at once! I don't know. This television program didn't say.
BOY: Wasn't there anyone else in your family who could tell you?
[!KOBO leans out the window, spits, looks up at the stars.]
!KOBO: My mother told me there were sixty people in our family when she was a girl. I took my name--!Kobo, with a click at the beginning--from the part of the desert we walked in from the beginning of time. But how can one hunt with all these fences you put up? We kept no crops or goats. Our kinsmen left in ones and twos and threes. Some died. Some pushed into Botswana to find work in mines or to serve as slaves in the households of the Botswana chieftains. One day I woke up, there was only me and my childish father. [!KOBO sits up quickly.] Be sharp! Here's a checkpoint.
[A squeak of brakes and, after a series of downshifts, the engine slows to idle. The headlamps shine on two black policemen. One trains his rifle on the lorry while the other approaches and shines his torch into the cab.]
!KOBO: Good evening, my brother.
POLICEMAN: [to the BOY] You shouldn't be out so late at night, baas. There's been trouble on this road.
BOY: It's all right. I was teaching our man to drive.
POLICEMAN: [looking into the cab suspiciously] At half past midnight?
!KOBO: The motor quit on us and we had trouble starting it again.
POLICEMAN: [still speaking to the BOY] You want me to radio ahead to your parents? They must be frightened for you.
BOY: No worries. We're almost home.
POLICEMAN: [waving them on] Go well, baas.
[!KOBO starts the engine and works through the gears, laughing softly to himself.]
!KOBO: It's a wondrous thing to be invisible. They see only the blinding whiteness of your face, my little brother. It's lucky God brought me a white turnboy. Remember when Wim asked me how I would get to Bulawayo without travel documents? Magic, hey?
Daylight. !KOBO stands before a campfire, holding a knife. The-Voice-in-the-Desert is parked on the shoulder of a desolate stretch of highway. The BOY looks on. The bonnet is propped open with a stick, an open toolbox on her running board. A radiator hose hisses steam. In the background, an expanse of rocky hill country with only sparse vegetation.
!KOBO: [Sighs.] We might have been in Bulawayo by now. [He finds a rubber patch and a knife in the toolbox, heats the knife over the fire.] Watch. [!KOBO stands over the engine with the heated knife, places the rubber tire patch on the leak, and melts it over the hole in the hose. The hissing stops. The BOY looks at !KOBO's repair job doubtfully.] We need to let her rest before we put more water in her.
BOY: How long?
!KOBO: Who can say? Sunset maybe, please God. [He spits, pulls the cowboy hat down to better shade his eyes. The BOY removes a small book from his rucksack. !KOBO paces before The-Voice-in-the-Desert.] This is really the bhundu, baby! It's even worse farther south and west in the Matopos Hills where my kinsmen lived--nothing but rocks and thorns. [The BOY looks up at the landscape without interest, then begins to read the book.] What story is that?
BOY: Captains Courageous.
!KOBO: Read it to me.
BOY: I'm already in chapter five.
!KOBO: No worries. A good story begins anywhere.
BOY: [reading from the book] "Since he was a boy, and very busy, he did not bother his head with too much thinking."
!KOBO: Ho! That's true. I've large experience with boys and never known one who thinks too much! [The BOY looks up from his book.] Read on.
BOY: [reading] "He was exceedingly sorry for his mother, and often longed to see her and above all tell her of this wonderful new life--"
!KOBO: Why is he separated from his mother?
BOY: He fell off a ship.
!KOBO: In the ocean? And he didn't drown?
BOY: A fishing boat saved him. He's working now as a fisherman.
!KOBO: Do you miss your mother?
BOY: Do you want me to read this?
!KOBO: Beg pardon. Continue.
BOY: "He was exceedingly sorry for his mother, and often longed to see her and above all tell her of this wonderful new life, and how brilliantly he was acquitting himself in it."
!KOBO: How can he be brilliant when a moment earlier the story says he does not bother his head with thoughts? [The BOY closes the book.] This is a stupid story. [!KOBO snatches the book from the BOY's lap and throws it on the fire. The BOY jumps up, tries unsuccessfully to save the book from the flames.] I have a better story. Let me tell it to you. [He squats.] It's written in the ground at your feet. Come see! [The BOY reluctantly obeys. !KOBO points down at the sand.] A man's footprints. These swirls here, a beetle. See where their two paths meet? If the swirls made by the beetle fall inside the footprint, it means the man came first. But the swirls disappear at the footprint and continue on the other side, just so. The beetle first! The wind is light and would blow the beetle marks away in an hour, maybe two, so surely the man walked by not long before we came, hey?
BOY: [excited] Who is it way out here? One of your people?
!KOBO: No. The print's too big for a San. It's not a European, either. Rather, someone unaccustomed to shoes--you can tell by the thickness of the callouses on the sole behind the toes and on the heel--a Bantu man, probably Ndebele this far south.
BOY: Why is he walking out here?
!KOBO: Who can say? Somebody's always walking on this continent somewhere. Tab! [!KOBO walks several paces and squats again.] Now look over here. A steenbok. The short stride and deep print says the animal is ill. Or pregnant maybe. Time for hunting. [He rummages in the cab behind the driver's seat, retrieving a small throwing spear that folds at the center, and a jar containing a yellowish liquid. He immerses the tip of the spear into the liquid.] This poison makes it so the animal's muscles will no longer work. The animal lies still while I whisper into its ears.
BOY: [thoughtfully] What do you whisper?
!KOBO: My gratitude, of course, [The BOY stiffens, stares at !KOBO.] for giving up its life to me, for helping me on my way to become a man. [The BOY continues to stare.] What's wrong?
BOY: [looking away] Nothing.
!KOBO: [picking up the water jug and threading the handle through his belt] I'll try not to drink it all. We need some for the radiator.
BOY: Let me come with you.
!KOBO: Someday, maybe. It's a hard thing, I know--I was once a turnboy. Mind you stay here with the lorry. Sleep in the shade beneath The-Voice-in-the-Desert. I'm off.
[!KOBO pulls his cowboy hat firmly over his head, exits trotting with the assegai held at shoulder height.]
Same scene at night. Galaxies fill the sky. The BOY is asleep under the lorry, his rucksack for a pillow. !KOBO, bare-chested, stands over him for several seconds, as if trying to make a decision. He's wearing combat boots instead of his cowboy boots and holds a bundle wrapped in his T-shirt, the throwing spear under one arm, the jug still strung through his belt. The liquid in the jug is dark. Finally he shakes the BOY.
!KOBO: Wake up, little brother!
BOY: [stirring] Uh. How did the hunt go, !Kobo? Where's the kill?
!KOBO: [sitting] He was too large to carry. [The BOY sits beside him. !KOBO holds up the bundle.] I brought only this. [!KOBO stretches his legs out to the campfire and raises one of his feet, showing off his combat boots.] Nice, eh? I traded my cowboy boots to the man who made the footprints. These are more comfortable for walking and hunting.
BOY: You saw him, then.
!KOBO: Yes. He was wearing a soldier's uniform.
BOY: What was he doing out here?
!KOBO: It would be impolite to ask. Perhaps he deserted, or he was a terrorist, who can say? All soldiers look alike to me. He carried these boots--it makes it harder for the security forces to track him that way. Bare feet can belong to anybody.
[!KOBO unwraps the T-shirt to reveal a heart and some strips of fat.]
BOY: Will you cook and eat that?
!KOBO: Cook it, no. Eat it, yes. [He bites into the heart, then offers the organ to the BOY.] Share some. You haven't eaten since before we met. [The BOY hesitates, then accepts the heart. He looks at it, then at !KOBO, who nods at him encouragingly. The BOY bites into it.] Good, good!
[The boy passes the heart back to !KOBO.] You are brilliantly acquitting yourself in this wonderful new life! [Laughs.] Do you long to tell your mother? [He unstrings the jug from his belt, drinks deeply, then passes it to the BOY.] Here, take some of this. The water's gone.
BOY: What is it?
!KOBO: In !gaa, the dry season, you take liquids wherever you find them. [The BOY drinks. A trickle of blood runs down his chin and he wipes at it with the back of his hand, smearing it across his cheek.] Not too much.
[!KOBO takes the jug from the BOY, rises. He carries it over to The-Voice-in-the Desert and drips some of the coagulating blood into the radiator.]
BOY: I don't think that's a good idea.
!KOBO: The Voice-in-the-Desert must have its share. [!KOBO places the nearly empty jug on the ground, sits down next to the BOY.] Okay, now watch. [!KOBO spits on the point of his assegai and wipes it carefully on his shorts.] I don't want to get any poison inside me. [He makes a swirling cut on his forearm with the assegai, then moistens ash from the edge of the fire with the fat from the kill and rubs the mixture into the wound. He shows the fresh scar to the BOY.] There are probably words to say, but there's no one left to remember them.
[!KOBO stretches his legs before him, leans back on his elbows.]
BOY: [excited] We could make up our own words.
!KOBO: No, little brother. The words we need were passed down from the beginning of man. Have I told you about the n!osimasi--the ancient people? [The BOY shakes his head.] They lived in the long ago when God still walked the earth. There were different groups of people, The Jackals, The Zebras, The Porcupines, and so on. All animals were n!osimasi, but over time most took on the appearance and habits of the creatures whose names they now bear. Except for a very few, who still look like people. Look above us. [He waves his hand in a sweeping movement that encompasses the sky.] Even the moon and the stars, like the animals, are said to have once been people of this early race, the n!osimasi. If they're helpless to change the course God sets for them, how then can you or I?
BOY: How do we know our course?
!KOBO: Sometimes God whispers it in your ear. [Laughs hollowly.] Like Olipah.
[They stare at the stars.]
!KOBO: Yes, my little brother.
BOY: [Sits up.] Did you whisper your gratitude to the steenbok you just killed?
!KOBO: Of course.
BOY: Like Olipah's god.
!KOBO: Just so. Can't you simply enjoy our sky for a moment?
BOY: Was it you who whispered into Olipah's ear?
!KOBO: If Olipah said it was God, who can argue?
BOY: [stealthily reaches for the assegai] He couldn't move when the engine started because of your muscle poison.
!KOBO: You're talking nonsense. [!KOBO sits up and tries to place a hand on the BOY's shoulder. The BOY stands and moves away. !KOBO rises to his feet.] You should be more like that boy in the book and not bother your head with too much thinking.
BOY: [shrinking back from !KOBO] Did God tell Olipah you needed a white turnboy to get you through the checkpoints?
!KOBO: [Freezes.] Be still! Listen. [The wind sweeps across the stage, softly rippling their clothing. The BOY shudders.] Perhaps God simply expressed his gratitude.
[The BOY stares at the blood on the back of his own hand.]
BOY: Where did you get this blood?
[!KOBO kicks at the fire, scattering sparks in the BOY's direction.]
!KOBO: What difference does it make? Didn't you hear my story? Africa is full of animals of all sorts.
[The BOY brandishes the assegai.]
BOY: Leave me alone!
!KOBO: Let's not row like this. We're both n!osimasi, lions who never took their animal shape. [Both remain motionless. Long pause. !KOBO spits, slams the lorry's bonnet shut, and climbs into the cab.] Come, my little brother, one cannot remain a boy all his life. Africa is full of animals of all sorts. [He pushes his cowboy hat back on his forehead, takes the brandy from the glovebox, fires the engine.] Get in and let's be off. These coffins are needed in Bulawayo.
BOY: [shaking the assegai at !KOBO] I'll kill you if I have to.
[!KOBO glares at the BOY for a moment, spits, then laughs. He toasts the BOY with the brandy jar, drinks.]
!KOBO: Go well. To hunt you would be like killing myself. Tab!
[!KOBO puts the lorry in gear, turns on headlamps, and drives toward the BOY and the audience. The highbeams produce a searing flash of white light, momentarily blinding the audience. By the time their eyes readjust to the darkness, !KOBO and the lorry are gone. The BOY holds the assegai in the faint light of the dying fire, alone beneath the stars. The engine noise fades until The-Voice-in-the-Desert can no longer be heard. The BOY looks down on the remaining blood in the jug, picks it up and threads it through his belt. The lights are brought down as the BOY begins to trot into the desert, and darkness swallows him.]