THE PANGOLIN KILLERS
Tarantulas are hairy
Oak Bay, South Africa, Saturday
Tomorrow, Liva would be on the police’s most wanted list. In five days, vile criminals would leave her brother to die terribly in a factory freezer and her best friend to almost die an excruciating death in a fish pulper. In less than an hour, hairy tarantulas would move in.
But right now, Liva had actual problems.
“You are off to Congo again? What about my birthday?” she asked. She felt like screaming.
“Honey, don’t speak with food in your mouth.” Liva’s mum dabbed some breakfast off her lipstick with a crisp napkin. “A tropical storm has damaged the energy plant up there. They need our help to fix it. It is a high-profile project with the Danish government.”
“You were there two weeks ago!”
“That was the other Congo, moron. You know there are two, right?” Liva’s brother, Carl sailed in and plonked down at the table.
“You are late!” snapped Mum.
“Sorry Mum. I just had to finish my school project.” Carl leaned over and kissed her cheek.
Liva looked intently at Carl. Unbelievable. The Fortnite sounds from the gaming room had been unmistakable.
“But Mum, what about my birthday next weekend,” Liva tried again.
“Liva… you’ll be 12. Just plan something with your new friends. That girl you brought home. Britney? Maybe she can help. I bet she is one of the in-girls. She’d be good for you!”
Liva leaned forward, elbows on her knees. Mum had always lived in a parallel universe to her. There was no point in even trying, because on this planet, planet Earth, an entry ticket to the in-crowd did not include frizzy hair, freckles, and absolutely no tween body shape in sight! The day after Britney had been over, she had sniggered to the other girls at school about having visited “Alpaca’s house”. Liva had giggled along until she googled what alpacas looked like.
Britney had only come over because she fancied Carl. All girls did!
“What do you want for your birthday?” her mum asked, after receiving no response.
“A puppy?” Liva tried holding her breath.
“Yes, sure!” Mum swept her neat hand around the open-plan kitchen, perfected in glass and white marble. “You know very well that we are only in South Africa for a few years. We might get stationed in Angola next.”
“I don’t speak Portuguese.”
“Then you just learn it,” her dad responded, putting down his iPad. “Carl, here you go – my credit card. You can pay for the party with it. And when you need to go anywhere, you can just order an UBER taxi.”
“Why can’t I get the card? It’s my party!” She clenched her jaw. Carl was one year older, but that was not the point. She was still on the parents’ blacklist.
“To prevent you from doing something crazy?” Carl suggested.
Mum raised her eyebrows. “Well, maybe not just yet.”
Liva sighed. “So, Claire will be our nanny?”
“Oh… we forgot to tell you. Claire tripped over something last night and broke her ankle. The agency is sending another great nanny.” Mum checked her iPhone. “Someone called Cebisa. She is Xhosa and should be here any moment.”
Great. Another nanny. They were all the same and dead anxious to please Mum. Liva finished her croissant in silence while taking in the view across the bay. The fishermen’s colourful houses above the harbour spread up the mountainside. Her favourite was the orange one in the middle. That house was the opposite of hers. She was sure there was a happy, noisy family. And they would have lived there forever.
Unlike her. Mum and Dad were diplomats stationed in Africa by the Kingdom of Denmark, always on impressive projects and missions, which meant that they had to move from one African country to the other. All the time.
Not easy when you sucked at small talk, which happened to be an essential survival skill in her life, where she had to make new best friends over and over, every time they moved to a new country.
Her latest social skills disaster had been last year in Uganda.
Uganda. Definitely the best stationing so far. Lush, colourful, and right on the equator, complete with a troop of wild monkeys in their garden. She had tamed a baby monkey and taught it tricks. Looking back, it was probably not the best idea to take it inside to an embassy cocktail event. The monkey had gone berserk. A week later, her embarrassed parents had deported her to a posh boarding school in Denmark – the longest, darkest six months of her life. COVID-19 had solved that, of course. The school closed, and she went back to Africa. South Africa this time. It did, however, more than hang in the air that she was on trial.
The doorbell startled her back to the present.
Carl and Liva peered at the intercom screen. This was definitely not pale and nervous Claire!
A stern-looking woman swung down the path in a bright orange and green Xhosa dress.
Beast, the neighbour’s giant dragon tortoise, was sunbathing on the path.
It stretched out its neck and hissed at Cebisa. “There goes the next nanny,” whispered Carl.
Without missing a stride, Cebisa swung her right foot to the side of the tortoise. Beast violently spun 360 degrees.
Angered, Beast positioned himself for another strike. Cebisa grabbed its neck and squeezed it in an iron fist until its black button eyes started bulging. Only when its tongue stuck out, did she let it go. Beast swiftly sought refuge in its shell.
Cebisa continued down the path, then looked straight into the camera, eyeing the kids. She gestured, “Open!” with a sweep of her hand.
Just then, Liva’s parents came down the stairs with their luggage. “We are running late.” It never took much to stress out Liva’s mum. “Could you open, Liva?”
Liva chewed the inside of her cheek. A tsunami was brewing. Chaos. Definitely not what she needed right now!
Carl pushed her aside and opened the door.
“So nice to meet you, Mrs Dayi.” Dad stepped outside and eyed the street for the UBER. “So, these are the kids. My wife emailed the agency the house rules and manuals, so I think you are all set. They gave that to you, right?”
Cebisa hesitated for a split second. “Of course,” she beamed. “You also agreed to me running my business, right?”
“Your business?” Mum looked up from her UBER app for a second.
“I am an inyanga – a herbalist. I sell natural African remedies.”
Mum opened her mouth and tried to get eye contact with Dad, but he was finding a path around Cebisa’s bags. “Ah yes. Of course. Oh, the UBER is here! Bye kids!” Mum smoothed Liva’s hair one last time. “OK, see you in a week!”
As the UBER drove away, Cebisa pointed at the bags. “Take those to my flat.” She grabbed a green suitcase and disappeared into her annex of the house.
Liva and Carl inspected the pile of bulging bags and caught wind of a sweet aroma whiffling up. Carl grabbed a blue one and swung it over his shoulder, but immediately flung it back onto the grass.
“What?” said Liva.
“There’s a crocodile in there!”
“A crocodile? Come on…”
“Trust me, or it’s a huge iguana or something.”
“It doesn’t look like it’s moving…”
Liva and Carl hesitantly approached the bag like a bomb squad. Cebisa came out of nowhere and grabbed it.
“The rest,” she pointed. “Don’t break the tarantula cages.”
“What?” Liva took a step back.
Cebisa sighed and took the bag. “They are hairy, but harmless to humans.”
Without hesitating, Liva pulled out her phone and WhatsApp’ed her dad. It dinged a “Can’t talk right now” message straight back. Followed by a blow-kiss emoji.
“Come on, sis,” Carl panted, dragging a glass-clunking bag. “Make our new nanny happy.”
Liva sighed, picked up a round bag and carried it at arm’s length. It was feather light. What is in there? Liva wondered from Cebisa’s doorstep, the bags now piled up in her flat.
“Do you need help with unpacking?” Carl’s eyes stayed with the tarantula bag.
“See you at six for dinner,” Cebisa said, and slammed the door shut.
They gawked at the door.
“Righto—I’ll be in the gaming room,” Carl said and turned around.
“This is not good,” Liva whispered, her faced creased with a frown.
“Are you nuts? The last nanny was a total pest. This one means freedom.” Carl ran off. “Dinner at six!”
Liva paused for a moment, then scrolled down her phone contacts but did not know who to call. Behind the door, she heard heavy chopping.
High quality camel milk
Armed with a coke, her phone, and the credit card, which Carl had abandoned on the breakfast table, Liva found her favourite spot under the milkwood tree.
Perfect! A five-kilometre adrenaline-rush zip-line high over treetops. Cool. She scrolled down the website. And expensive. Even better. This will go down well with Britney and her crowd next Sunday.
She bit her lip. Right. New friends. Again. I can do this. Liva punched in the card number: zip-line booking confirmed! Pleased, she leaned back and took in the gnarly branches. Her heart sank a little. Sushi at the mall is perhaps more their thing? She sighed.
A bird chirped. A dog barked in the distance. The afternoon sun warmed her body, and she drifted off.
Without warning, an excruciating pain hurled Liva out of her snooze. Her toe was thumping! She screamed, ready to whack the snake, but instead stared straight into black button evil eyes.
Beast continued forward. She shooed it with her hand, and its razor teeth almost clamped around her fingers. The lawn was massive. A flipping agro tortoise. What is its problem? Liva scampered up and hobbled on her good foot across the lawn to Cebisa’s flat.
“Cebisa?” No answer. She opened the door and stepped in. A warm, sweet and earthy scent whiffed against her. Claire, the last nanny, had not touched her mum’s minimalist design. Now it was like stepping into a breathing cave. Goosebumps slid along the back of her neck.
“Hello?” She hopped in.
A huge, white Nguni cow skin decorated the living area floor.
“Oh, no.” Liva saw that she had smeared blood from her toe on it. She hobbled on in semi-darkness to the small kitchen and grabbed what she thought was a tea towel. It was crisp to the touch and long. Super long. She switched the light on. It was a snakeskin!
What…? She stepped back and bumped her sore toe into something scratchy. A crocodile! She hurled the snakeskin at it, but nothing happened. Only its glassy eyes stared back, its mouth in a frozen bite from when it had been stuffed.
“This is just too freaky,” Liva mumbled. Get a grip! Where are those tea towels? She scanned the kitchen top. A white chopping board and a sharp knife lay unwashed in the sink – stained red. The knife was still dripping. Of blood? The crocodile stared back at her.
“Yes, Liva. This happens around here!” it seemed to warn. In three one-legged jumps, Liva reached the door separating Cebisa’s flat from the main house. Cebisa stood in the doorway.
“I see you met my crocodile, Snappy.” Cebisa hung up the snakeskin.
Liva just stood there, unsure which move would be wiser. She hobbled forward, leaving a blood smear on the tiles.
“Oh, for god’s sake, girl!” Cebisa exclaimed. “What a mess.”
Tears welled up in Liva’s eyes. “Beast bit me,” she began, with a slight quiver in her voice. “I was under the milkwood tree and he came out of nowhere and bit me.”
“Stay here!” Cebisa ordered. She grabbed a handful of dried leaves and a dollop of yellow paste from a small jar. Liva watched through the window as Cebisa strode out to Beast and threw it at him. Delighted, he gobbled it up, then his long neck and legs went limp and hung flat out of his shell. Cebisa picked him up and propelled him back over the fence. That’s really normal!
“Did you kill it?” Liva asked as Cebisa came back into the flat, not sure if she was supporting Cebisa or the tortoise this time.
“He will be fine again tomorrow. Let us look at this…” Cebisa inspected Liva’s toe and busied herself with a paste of purple powder. She smeared it on the wound.
“What’s in it?” Liva asked.
Cebisa placed her hands on her hips, elbows out. “Why? You’ll pop a painkiller tonight anyway and think that’s what worked.”
Liva frowned – that felt unfair. “I know a bit about African herbs…” she explained. “I lived in Uganda before.”
“So, you lived in Uganda?” Cebisa softened.
“Yes, so I know that the aloe leaves in the garden are anti-bacterial. And those purple flower dune plants work against bluebottle stings.” It felt good to relate, but Cebisa did not catch on while she busied herself with Liva’s wound.
“Done. You will be fine tomorrow. Now, off you go.” Cebisa didn’t even look up.
That evening, when Carl and Liva went down the stairs looking for dinner, they spotted Cebisa picking herbs in the garden.
Mr Grant, their obnoxious neighbour, stood on the other side of the garden fence, clutching his lifeless tortoise with both arms. He was sweating under its weight in a brown suit and tie.
“Hey, you!” he shouted at Cebisa. She ignored him.
“What did you do to him?” he bellowed. “Hey! You, there!”
She finished with the herbs, then offered a calm hand over the fence. “I am Cebisa Dayi.”
Mr Grant did not take it. Instead, he pointed Beast’s head towards Cebisa “You KILLED my tortoise.” Its neck dangled wildly from side to side.
“It’s just sedated.”
“What?” His face and neck reddened.
“Your tortoise attacked Liva. It is sleeping, OK? Next time it won’t be that lucky!”
“I will call the police!” Mr Grant took a threatening step forward.
Cebisa lunged forward and jerked him up against his side of the fence, holding his tie.
Mr Grant could not pull away without dropping Beast, his face inches from Cebisa’s.
Just then, the gate bell rang. A plumb, energetic woman was waving outside. Cebisa pushed Mr Grant off, bringing him off balance. He landed with a thump, still clinging on to Beast. Liva and Carl watched as she strolled to the gate with a grin. The women chatted in Xhosa as they walked over to Cebisa’s flat.
“She seems nice, but in a freaky, scary way,” said Liva.
“Wonder who the other woman is?”
“No idea. Maybe there is some food in the kitchen?”
An aroma of freshly made lasagne wafted past as they walked in.
“Yum! Look.” Liva pointed at the covered dish and reached for some glasses. “Grab the milk, will you?”
Carl took a carton from the fridge and started pouring.
“Yo… Liva?” He stared at the label.
Import from Egypt
Liva sniffed the contents of the carton. It smelled normal. But then again, what did camel milk smell like?
Suddenly, the door to Cebisa’s flat opened. On instinct, Liva and Carl ducked down behind the kitchen island. Cebisa entered with the plump woman and gave her a sandwich bag with some green powder and a small jar with terracotta-coloured paste.
“Just smear it on the rash three times a day, Thobeka. It will solve it.”
“Thanks, Cebisa.” Thobeka peered at the table. “Do you sell camel milk as well?”
Cebisa shook her head. “Camel milk has strong powers. Some say it helps against diabetes and allergic reactions. But this one is just the label—it’s cow’s milk.”
“My cousin was told it can cure insecurities.”
There was a pause. “I doubt it, but you can have it. The mind is powerful, so it might work. I won’t charge you for it.”
“Thanks so much.”
Cebisa hesitated. “Tell your cousin to go to the traditional market above the harbour. There are some powerful sangomas. They can help her become what she desires. I do not sell that kind of stuff, but they have potent medicines there.”
Cebisa then let Thobeka out. As she crossed the kitchen to her flat, she shouted towards the kitchen island. “Turn the lights off, will you?”
Liva froze – that was too creepy. How did she know they were there?
In bed, Liva could not sleep. Incredibly, her toe was already back to normal, but Cebisa’s words to Thobeka kept spinning in her head:
They can help her become what she desires.
“That is the solution!” She sat up and grinned broadly. “But how do I get her to take me to the market?” Cebisa was spooky, to say the least. Also, she had already dodged Liva’s questions once today.
She grabbed her phone and WhatsApp’ed Carl.
“U guys surfing near the harbour tmrw?”
(Thumbs up emoji) IMAGE
“Take me along.”
“You can’t surf.”
“Just want to hang out at the harbour. Cebisa won’t let me go alone.”
Yes! This was brilliant. She would find a stall and buy a powerful potion. Come Monday, she would sail into school. The girls would swarm around her. She would be funny. Entertain them about Beast. Announce the zip-line booking. They would totally love that. She would be cool. OK, maybe not. But at least she would be normal.
A filthy, perfect street dog
While Carl and his mates paddled out to catch some waves, Liva made her way up the streets above the harbour. It was like being back in Uganda. Everything just flowed more.
 A sangoma is a South African traditional doctor, healer or “witch doctor”.
 Utatomkhulu means grandfather in Xhosa.