Petros and Melva stood in the doorway with the plastic shopping bags still in their hands. In Petros’ hand the keys jingled and he put them in to his pocket but didn’t move. Melva made a low sound which escaped from her lips, filled the air and died.
Everything was gone.
In their one room shack Petros and Melva had previously had a comfortable life: a bed with a decent mattress and a roof that did not leak. There was a table with a hot plate for cooking that was placed next to their TV cabinet that doubled as a dresser. Now it belonged to someone else, the someone who left the smoking muti in the middle of the floor.
Before he could do anything, Petros put his plastic bags filled with pap and vleis down on the floor, just to the side of the door. He took his wife’s from her as she stared at the nothingness and the muti smoking and then took her by the shoulders and turned her around. They walked out to the courtyard still not speaking and Petros stood, with his hands in his pockets and Melva looked down at the ground.
“Now the sangoma has our things,” she whispered. Petros smiled and shook his head. He always smiled when he was nervous.
“Woman,” he spoke in their native Ndebele. “Don’t say such things.”
“Someone has our bed,” she said, now with tears in her throat.
Petros moved slowly toward a new neighbors house and shouted a greeting through the doorway. The neighbors TV was playing loudly and he assumed it would be their excuse for not knowing anything of the robbery that had just stolen everything from him.
The neighbor made no answer and Petros moved down a few shacks to find another doorway.
Again, he shouted a greeting.
An old woman’s head appeared in a doorway. Her face was wrinkled and filled with black freckles, her eyes nearly blue with cataracts. Still she bowed in a polite greeting.
“Ninjani, Mama,” Petros said.
“Yes?” The woman could hear his Zimbabwean accent and would not give him the pleasure of speaking Zulu with him.
“Mama,” he said with a smile and a sigh. “I have been robbed there,” Here Petros pointed toward Melva, still standing in front of their empty shack in the courtyard.
“Oh, no...” the woman seemed genuinely saddened by the news and shook her head. Petros was grateful for her reaction and instantly soothed that the neighbors were not involved.
“I am hoping to talk to someone who might have seen something,” he continued.
The old woman lifted a bony finger toward the red shack on the other side of his, past where Melva stood watching him. “Xhoia is home,” she said in a hoarse whisper. “He is sleeping but he drew his water from the courtyard this morning.”
“I am grateful, Mama.” Petros bowed and the Mama shook her head again.
“It is the children now, Pastor,” she said in the same hoarse whisper. Petros turned toward her again and became sixteen years old, hearing his granny teach him something new. “The thieves are getting younger and younger.”
“Mama,” Petros bowed and took his leave. Somehow he did not smile.
He walked past Melva who did not ask him what the old lady said, past the loud shack with the TV and rapped on the door the Mama had pointed to. The red shack, as he and Melva had been calling it, was the one that belonged to the man who drank a lot of beer. Soon the drunken neighbor appeared in the doorway.
“Are you Xhoia?” Petros was now bold. A neighbor had referred him to go knock and now he would not be treated harshly, coming here on the orders of the Mama.
“I am Xhoia,” the man responded, but did not offer his hand.
“I am Petros, your new neighbor here,” Petros pointed to his shack whose open door showed the smoking muti on the floor.
“Look there,” Xhoia pointed to the smoking muti and opened his eyes wider. “Did your nephew put that there?”
Petros smiled and shook his head, thinking Xhoia was hallucinating and making up family relations that Petros didn’t have.
“I have no nephew,” Petros said, his smile still on his lips. Xhoia walked toward Petros’ door and looked inside. Melva watched him with curiosity.
“There were two men here this morning, Pastor,” Xhoia was now excited to be of use to the new neighbor, even if he was from Zimbabwe. “One of them said he was your nephew.” Xhoia’s shirt blew in the gentle breeze, and his pungent odor filled the courtyard.
“We have no nephew,” Melva spoke for the first time, causing Xhoia to turn and look at her.
“He was a liar and he was robbing you!” Xhoia seemed angry he had been fooled. “I saw him there, lifting your mattress and I said ‘Hello!’ and the boy said he was your nephew and he was helping you to move to your new place.”
Petros listened intently and put his hands on his hips. Xhoia pointed down the alley that led to the courtyard and showed Melva and Petros the path the young men took to an awaiting bakkie where the furniture and electronic equipment was loaded.
“I was going to ask if I could help,” Xhoia was now upset with the memory. “But my back is not good, it’s why I don’t work.”
“I will call the police,” Petros said, after hearing the account.
“But look!” Xhoia pointed to the shack again. “They have left the warning, you can’t involve the police!”
“Muti has no power, other than the belief that people give it,” Petros gave this answer to most people who asked him about the traditional medicine, meant to give ancestral curses and blessings.
“I will not testify and live a cursed life, Pastor!” Xhoia was among the masses that believed in it.
Melva let a low sigh escape from her lips again.
Xhoia turned to her, and held up his hands. “Here you live, now!” he said, correcting the judgement he felt coming off of the new Pastor and his wife. “Here you live!” Xhoia stamped his foot on the ground, showing the hardened dirt that was now her harsh home, with rules so different from Zimbabwe. “That smoking muti in there? I would take it as a blessing on your family, that you were not around when the robbery took place!”
Melva turned away from him and left it to Petros.
Petros dropped his hands and smiled again. “I am going to the police and I will inform them what you have told me,” he said. “I will not identify you so you will not have to be deposed.”
“No!” Xhoia shouted. It was hard to tell if Xhoia was still drunk or if he was more upset about the robbery or the curse that may follow him if he ignored the muti left to burn in the shack. “You will not! I will come out of my place and tell the police that you sold your things and staged a robbery if you involve them!” Xhoia marched toward his shack, muttering how the whole day was cursed and he should have stayed at his girlfriend’s place.
Petros and Melva watched his disappear into the red corrugated metal shack, then appear again. “If you involve those police they will not even find your things!” Xhoia shouted. Down the alleyway, the stooped-over Mama was shaking her head, but went back inside.
Petros looked at Melva, whose shoulders were slumped. They both walked into the shack and looked at the smoking ball of twigs that gave off a sweet perfume and burned slowly. It couldn’t have been there for more than two hours.
Petros walked toward it, the only remaining thing in his dirt-floored shack, and kicked it a few centimeters to see if it would burn his shoe. When he saw it didn’t, he kicked it out to the courtyard, where it continued to smoke.
Melva stood and stared at it for a moment. Before she could turn toward her empty shack, the neighbor with the loud TV came out and stood in the courtyard; stretching and watching the dumb twigs smoke as if it were a replacement to his television.