58. The silence started at the front of the kombi…(L.Dhlakama)13 min read

The silence started at the front of the kombi when I suddenly turned off the latest dance hall song on the radio. “Ahh, Blaz, why you turn it off?” Fidzo, the conductor who quite liked the new song, protested. When he didn’t get a response, he looked over at me and saw that I was serious, a state that he had never seen me in, not even at a police road block. “Ko?” But I did not respond so Fidzo followed my line of vision instead to see what had gotten me so somber. “AH!” Fidzo exclaimed when he saw what I was looking at. His loud and sudden exclamation silenced all the passengers, all except Michelle with the eyebrows that faded in the middle like they were once one, who was squashed up at the very back of the kombi examining her nails and talking obnoxiously on the phone to one of her many suiters.

“Ko what is it?” some of the passengers enquired when the driver slowed the vehicle down to a snail’s pace. The front two rows strained their necks to see what it was that was mesmerizing Fidzo and me, and as the first few passengers saw what it was that they were approaching they let out cautiously quiet exclamations. The passengers in the back who did not know the reason for the sudden lull were annoyed. They were late to reach their destinations, and when the kombi came to a complete halt, they all but protested, that is, until Fidzo sternly held out his arm for them to be quiet. Now all but Michelle strained to see what had stopped the vehicle. A police road block was unlikely since the new dispensation, so what could it be?

By the side of the dusty road, where the kombi had come to a somewhat involuntary halt, was a cobra. I registered silently that it was at least three meters long and possibly 30cms in diameter. Usually, I would have driven away from the snake, swerving all the way to the wrong side of the road to make certain that I was as far away from it as possible, but something about this cobra was unusual. Its face and the top half of its body were raised off the ground and whilst I was driving in its direction the cobra had been looking expectantly at me through the windshield. The hood on either side of its face had only been open on one side- the side of its face that was nearest the road- and for some unearthly reason that I and Fidzo could not later describe to listeners, it was automatically apparent that this stance meant that the cobra was hailing a ride- our ride- like a hitchhiker who puts their thumb out at oncoming vehicles going in the direction that he wants to go in.

With everyone now transfixed on the reptile- even Michelle- all followed its progress as calmly, and with the front half of its body still raised and visible, it purposefully slithered in front of the kombi and then appeared to disappear round the side. Only when it was out of sight did all exhale. Fidzo, always the joker, looked at me and began to say, “Did we see what we just saw?” but he jumped out of his seat along with everyone else in the kombi when he heard the thud, thud, thud on the passenger side door of the kombi. Fidzo and I looked at each other wide eyed. No one could move as the thugs stopped and were replaced by human sounding grunts of effort and then the sound of the handle of the door being lifted and then the pop of the door opening. As the cobra climbed into the passenger seat everyone close to it, including me, backed as far away from it as possible, but politely so, so as not to offend the venomous stranger.

Once coiled up comfortably with its head still raised, the cobra looked around. First it made eye contact with me and appeared to give a little nod of gratitude, then it turned back and looked over its seat to examine all the passengers behind it, tongue flicking out of its mouth all the while. Finally, it locked eyes with Fidzo and did not move until Fidzo reached his trembling hand beside the snake and cautiously pulled the passenger door shut. When Fidzo’s arm was safely beside his own body again the snake blinked and appeared to nod at the weary conductor. Before turning back to face the front the snake’s mouth suddenly opened and all expected that it was finally going to put its glistening fangs to use when instead the words, “Thanks ka sha,” sounded from its mouth in an impossible combination of husky and high pitched.

When the cobra finally turned its back to its captive audience the passengers all silently looked at each other with questioning looks. Everybody wanted to know if they were the only ones seeing this, if they weren’t in fact hallucinating, and if indeed the snake had spoken or if it was some trick of the wind. Everyone was frightened but transfixed to their seats and unable to run away. A full minute of silence passed before the now dizzy with confusion Fidzo thought that if the snake had indeed addressed him, it would be safest not to offend it by not responding and so he hesitantly stuttered, “Ka one, Mdara. It’s good.”

The snake turned to its right and once again locked eyes with me. It nodded its head towards the steering wheel and I hurriedly turned on me indicator to weave back into traffic, embarrassed that I had been caught staring instead of doing my actual job. In the usual way of kombis I managed to cut someone off to get back into the road but no one in the kombi seemed to register the angry hoots and honks of the disturbed motorists as we drove on silently with our reptilian passenger.

The passengers looked straight ahead, above the snake’s head, and kept very still, only glancing directly at the cobra every now and again. Those that had stops along the way kept quiet about asking the conductor to leave them in case the snake did not approve. The kombi was only half full but Fidzo did not haggle for new passengers, nor did I stop for the people at the side of the road with their arms out expectantly. I kept my eyes on the road. I found that I was having difficulty breathing and mypalms were sweaty. Ever so slowly so as not to alarm the snake by any sudden movements I placed my hand on my thigh and pinched myself. At first, I could not feel anything and this assured me that this was all just a dream. I sighed with relief, decided to enjoy himself before I woke up and so I turned to the snake and smiled. The snake felt my eyes on him. It turned to look at me and politely returned my grin. As the snake smiled back I felt a sharp pain on my thigh. I glanced down and my smile faded as I realized that I was still pinching himself, hard, and this was not, in fact, all a dream. Hesitantly I put my hand back on the steering wheel and glanced at the snake. The snake was looking at the spot where I had pinched myself and flicking its tongue, then it looked up at me. “Where are you going up to?” it asked in its husky-high pitched voice.

I began to purposefully take deep breaths to get my lungs functioning normally again, the passengers near the snake stifled gasps as they realized that the snake could indeed talk and it was not the wind playing tricks, and the passengers in the back whispered questions amongst themselves. “Blaz?” the snake patiently questioned again.

I opened my mouth to respond but I found that no words could go past the lump in my throat, I tried to swallow the lump and respond before the snake took offence at my fear. Fidzo, fearing that the unanswered question would put us all at risk mustered up the courage to answer. “Just after Sam Levy’s, that where we turn back around and head back to town,” he managed. The snake had whipped around to look at him when he started speaking. Now it turned back around and faced the front once again.

“That’s alright. I suppose I can get to my house from Sam Levy’s,” it said, sounding quite dejected. Everyone held their breath, not knowing how to respond.

I managed to swallow the lump in my throat though I still had difficulty breathing, “Where… where… where is your house? We can easily drop you. We do it for special pass-“ I trailed off, panicking at the possibility of having upset the snake by calling it a ‘special passenger’. The snake looked at me and flicked its tongue in my direction. I wasn’t sure if it was getting ready to lunge at me or not.

It opened its mouth and revealed its translucent fangs, “Eish,” it high-pitched hissed, “that would be bho, Blaz, thanks ka sha.” Igripped the steering wheel tighter to stop the snake from seeing that my hands were shaking. I gave the snake an awkward nod as it gave me the directions to its home.

The snake turned around to look over its seat and one by one examined each passenger, extending its body to really examine the people in the back. Once again it suddenly opened its slimy mouth to reveal its impressive fangs. The nervous passengers smiled back, realizing that this was the cobra’s way of being friendly. Suddenly, a deep chortling sound began to come from the snake’s belly and out its mouth. Michelle let out a yelp and then covered her mouth lest she draw the snake’s attention to herself, but the snake only continued to laugh. The passengers directly in front of the snake let out forced, awkward chuckles, so as not to offend the snake by letting it continue to laugh alone. When the snake had regained composure, it spoke in-between giggles, “It’s a silly story really, I’m sure you are all wondering what I am doing out in daylight.” Some of the passengers shook their heads emphatically to reassure the snake that it was not strange that it was out in daylight, once again, so not to offend it. “You see, my owner threw me away because he was tired of taking care of me in return for me providing for him financially.” Here, the snake momentarily turned to the front to make sure the driver was on the right road. The passengers took this opportunity to exchange glances to make sure that they were not the only ones hearing and seeing this. The snake turned back around and continued, “You can’t throw me away. Once you have me, you can’t throw me away. That’s rude, is it not?” The passengers nodded emphatically and this time when the snake began to laugh again they all joined in because it was now apparent that the snake did not appreciate rudeness.

The kombi came to a stop in front of the snake’s owner’s house. This time without being asked Fidzo opened the passenger door for the snake and the snake gave him a nod of appreciation. The snake paused on its way out and looked at me, “how much do I owe you?” it asked.

I tried to hide my eagerness for the snake to leave as I said, “No, no, no Chief, this one is on me, no charge for err, friends.”

“I insist,” it insisted. I looked the snake over, not seeing where the snake could possibly be holding the three-dollar bond notefare.  As I opened my mouth to insist once again that friends do not charge each other the snake opened its mouth and said, “Alright then.” I sighed with relief at the prospect of the snake leaving but was shocked to see the snake open its mouth so wide that its jaws were at a one-eighty-degree angle. It began a retching motion that rolled from the very tip of its tongue all the way to its open jaws. With each retch it seemed to get closer and closer to me and just as I was about to faint with fear, the cobra began to throw up perfectly crisp one hundred US dollar bills. They spilled all over my lap and seat and onto the dusty and sticky floor of the kombi. Finally, the snake was done throwing up money. Gasping for air it closed its mouth and shook itself. I, Fidzo and every single passenger were now the ones with their mouths open wide in shock and fear. All had forgotten to politely act like a talking snake that threw up money was a normal everyday occurrence. One man, the passenger closest the door slipped out on unsteady legs with his mouth still open and backed away from the vehicle. When he was a safe enough distance from the kombi he turned around and began to stumble-run away with his hands in the air and his mouth agape in a silent scream.

The snake however, seemed not to notice the passengers’ rudeness. It addressed the still petrified Fidzo and me, “Ka one, Mablaz, thanks,” it said with sincere gratitude. It slithered out of the kombi, still panting from its efforts. As it slithered towards its gates it turned back towards the petrified occupants of mykombi one last time, “Oh, just remember to spend all the money within twenty-four hours… or else.” And with that the cobra slithered over the durawall into its yard to reunite with its owner.