By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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Long past midnight Sam parted his mosquito net. He’d been in Namibia for a month, and each night he lay awake, listening to the corrugated-metal roof ping and the cinder-block walls pop as they cooled. He couldn’t adjust to his new surroundings: the language, the climate, the rural isolation. Giving up even trying to sleep, he padded barefoot across the concrete floor and stepped onto the cool sand of the homestead yard. The full moon was like an overripe, incandescent fruit, and everything wore its pale-blue glow — the grass-roofed huts where his host brothers and sisters slept; the room adjoining his, where his host father quietly snored; the homestead gate, which was really an old mattress nailed to a wooden frame, the fabric gone and coils rusted. Beyond the gate was his host family’s millet field, the young plants only as tall as blades of grass, and beyond that were other homesteads and other fields, cattle kraals, wells, a single tar-paved road, an overgrazed forest of stunted trees.
How far will you go to make a difference? the Peace Corps recruiter had asked him. The youngest of four brothers by eight years, Sam had joined the Peace Corps right out of college. He’d come to the remote village of Thikama (literally Stop, meaning “This is it; there’s nothing after this”) to teach English; to learn a new language and culture; to prove he could make a place for himself anywhere in the world. But a month of sleepless nights had sapped his resolve. He told himself it was just culture shock, the heat, the constipating millet porridge.
The only thing that comforted Sam was the pack of semidomesticated dogs that slept outside the fence. His arms resting on the mattress-gate’s metal lip, Sam breathed in their smells — the hot stink of their breath, the redolence of their filthy paws. There were eight of them, seven descended from the midnight-black matriarch, whose whiskers were white and whose nipples hung low and loose like a milk cow’s. The smell of these dogs took Sam home to his family’s farm in Maryland, where his parents bred Chesapeake Bay retrievers. While Sam’s older brothers would sneak off to smoke weed and drink cheap beer in cornfields, Sam, still in elementary school, would sneak out to the kennel. By the time his brothers had all gone off to college, the only companions Sam had left were the runts he’d persuaded his parents to keep over the years.
A cough startled Sam. “Who’s there?” he whispered.
“Ah, it’s just me, Mr. Sam,” said Tate Petrus, Sam’s host father, a widower with a gray beard and balding head. Tate Petrus worked in a grove of mopane trees near the tar road, where he wove enormous grain baskets out of bark. Now he was dressed only in red silk boxer shorts. “I was just going to the toilet,” he said.
Sam was also shirtless, his chest and arms so white they glowed. He’d grown a slight paunch since coming here — from the thick porridge, he guessed. He wondered how odd this looked to his host: him standing by the gate half dressed at 3 AM.
“Is everything OK, my boy?”
“Everything’s fine. I like to . . . be near the dogs.”
“The dogs?” Tate Petrus said in an asthmatic rasp.
“My family raises dogs.”
“For what purpose?”
“To sell to hunters.” He explained that the breed had heavy fur for warmth and big paws for swimming and could be trained to retrieve downed ducks out of the icy Chesapeake Bay.
Tate Petrus said he’d seen dogs like that during Namibia’s liberation struggle. He’d spent the last five years of the war imprisoned on Robben Island, where the guards had big, terrible dogs that were always barking and showing their teeth. He asked Sam whether the retrievers were equally ferocious. Sam chuckled and said no. Then Tate Petrus asked, “What can you tell me about my dogs?”
The unnamed dogs that slept on the other side of the fence were flea and tick infested, neither vaccinated nor fixed. In the structure of their bones and the slope of their shoulders Sam saw some Rhodesian Ridgeback and hints of German shepherd, but mostly, he guessed, African wild dog. Not sure what his host father wanted to hear, Sam said, “The matriarch is pregnant.”
“Is it?” Tate Petrus exclaimed, then wheezed and cleared his throat. “How do you know?”
“Her teats are swelling.” They were always swollen, but Sam knew the difference.
“Truly,” Tate Petrus said, “you know too much about dogs.”
Sam nodded. The truth was that he felt more comfortable with the dogs than he did with his host family.
The dogs were a ragged bunch. Not working dogs. Certainly not companion animals. Too cowardly to be watchdogs. Sam wasn’t sure why the family kept them. When Tate Petrus walked to work, a couple of the males followed, but he never passed them a treat or patted them on the head. Sam had seen people in Namibia throw rocks at dogs. He’d even heard that dogs were eaten. They weren’t raised for the slaughter, but if a dog were hit by a truck or caught killing chickens, the animal’s neck would be unceremoniously slit and its meat cooked directly on hot coals. In a purely utilitarian way he understood that everything had a purpose — growing up, he’d eaten the meat of cattle that had won him blue ribbons at the county fair — but eating dogs felt wrong to him.
At mealtime, over a plate of porridge and a bowl of goat broth, Tate Petrus told Sam stories of his dead wife, his time fighting for his country’s liberation, and how he’d toiled in a limestone quarry with Nelson Mandela during his imprisonment. The rock dust had caused his asthma, he said: “The guards made us cart rocks out of the ground in the morning and dump them back in the quarry in the afternoon. They thought repeating the same job for years would break us.” He laughed until he wheezed. “It showed us they had no vision. With no vision how could they sustain apartheid?”
Tate Petrus’s eldest daughter was thirteen, all beanpole arms and legs. Her name was Today, and she began stealing into Sam’s room to wash his clothes and sweep out the sand. One day Sam opened his door and found her inside, reed broom in hand. “You’re cleaning for me?” he asked.
The girl nodded. She wore pink corduroy shorts and no shirt. Her hair was short, and her chest was flat. The only blemish on her face was a scar above her left eyebrow.
“I can pay you,” Sam said. He reached for his wallet.
Today frowned and shook her head.
“What do you want?”
She narrowed her eyes and said, “Play mancala.”
They played the board game in the shade of the omuye tree, a wild fig with branches that fell in waves to the ground. Today traced the board in the sand and lined it with marble-sized litchi seeds. Her hands were rough and pitted, not what Sam expected of a young girl.
She trounced Sam, beating him five times. It was embarrassing. After the last game Sam said, “You won again,” and Today imitated his accent, saying, “Yesh, of courshe, Mishter Sham.”
He brushed the board away and said, “Ngoye oshinena.” He’d meant to say, Ngoye oshinona — “You brat,” in Oshiwambo — but he’d confused the penultimate vowel.
Today’s jaw dropped. Sam realized he’d just told a thirteen-year-old girl, “You are syphilis.” But then Today’s face blossomed into a smile so genuine Sam couldn’t help but smile back. Soon they were laughing, holding their stomachs, calling each other “gonorrhea,” “chlamydia,” “herpes,” even “HIV.”
Today grew bold. Much to her father’s chagrin, she nicknamed Sam “Mr. Syphilis” and even called the name across the schoolyard, raising the alarm of his colleagues. Sam told his host sister she had to stop, but she didn’t. With a sly smile she’d ask inane questions: “Do all white people drink as much water as you, Mr. Syphilis? Is that why you’re so pale?”
She took to inviting herself into Sam’s room each night, to do her math homework at his table while he graded papers. She would interrupt him with her questions — “Why is your nose so sharp? Did your mother pinch it when you were naughty?” — and he would tell her to get back to work.
One night Sam looked up to find Today studying a photograph he had taped to the wall. Taken the day before he’d left for Namibia, the picture showed Sam dressed in a barn jacket and holding a toy duck over his head. Next to him Ivan, the only runt from his boyhood still alive, crouched with his mouth open, waiting for Sam to throw the toy. The picture had always made Sam smile.
Today, however, furrowed her brow and narrowed her eyes as she examined it. She’s wondering why I put up this private picture, he thought. Most photographs of Namibians were formal shots, the subject serious and unsmiling.
“That’s a picture of me and my dog,” he said. “Do you like dogs?”
She swung her furrowed brow to Sam. “No. They smell and have parasites. Why have your picture taken with a dog?”
Sam’s face flushed. He’d had enough of this girl and her questions for one night. “Today, I have a lot of tests to grade. Find someplace else to do your homework.”
The girl’s head dropped. Slowly she gathered her notebook and pencil. Sam watched her leave, wondering if he’d been too tough on her. Probably, but she needed to show him more respect.
After that, Today stopped coming into Sam’s room. She no longer swept for him or washed his clothes or asked him to play mancala.
The following week a series of storms transformed the countryside. The runoff gathered in low areas that before long teemed with grass and wildflowers, and by the end of a month the millet had sprung up over Sam’s head. Today and the other children hunted frogs, fished with mosquito nets, and gathered wild spinach, palm nuts, and the citrus fruit marula.
In between rain showers one day, Sam visited the toilet, a three-foot-square corrugated-metal shack with a narrow hole that opened onto a pile of feces and a thousand flies. As he sat there, Sam heard someone running toward him and then the voice of his six-year-old host brother: “Mr. Sam! Mr. Sam! Snake go in there!”
Without wiping, Sam stood, pulled his pants up, and threw open the door. His foot caught on the concrete threshold, and he fell forward in the sand, half in, half out of the latrine.
“Where’s the snake?”
No answer. Sam saw Today standing next to the boy, her mouth agape. Sam zipped up, and Today exploded in laughter. The boy said, “Sorry,” and ran off. It was not the first practical joke he’d suffered at his host sister’s hand since he’d made her leave his hut.
“Today!” boomed a voice. An asthmatic cough followed. The girl went quiet. Tate Petrus approached in a royal-blue jumper, a camouflage canteen over his shoulder, and he fired off a volley of angry Oshiwambo that Sam couldn’t follow. Today hung her head and left.
Sam stepped back inside the latrine. He heard Tate Petrus’s voice. “Mr. Sam, may I please speak with you?”
“I need a minute.”
A few minutes later Sam found Tate Petrus in the shade of the fig tree. From his canteen the older man poured two glasses of ontaku, a nonalcoholic beer made from crushed millet and sorghum. With his left hand touching his right elbow — a Namibian gesture of respect — Tate Petrus handed Sam a cup. Sam took a sip of the bitter drink and choked down the half-ground millet kernels. He wondered if he’d ever get used to ontaku.
“I must apologize for my daughter,” Tate Petrus began. “I think I know why she is acting like this. You know we had another Peace Corps volunteer before you.”
Yes, Sam had heard of Mr. Brad: How Mr. Brad had spoken Oshiwambo like a native. How he’d herded cattle and goats with the boys and pounded millet into flour with the girls. How the students had learned so much from him. How his appendix had burst, sending asthmatic Tate Petrus running three miles to the nearest phone. How the whole village had gathered when the medical helicopter had landed. How, weeks later, a Peace Corps staffer in a Land Cruiser had come to retrieve his things and reported that Mr. Brad had returned to the U.S. to recover; a replacement was on the way.
Sam was the replacement.
Tate Petrus said, “Today and Mr. Brad were very close. They played these jokes on each other. Today is a good girl, at times mischievous and naughty, but I think she is sad because she didn’t get to say goodbye to Mr. Brad. She expects you to be just like him.” Tate Petrus sipped his ontaku. “I tell her it’s OK that you’re different, that you don’t enjoy these jokes. But she doesn’t understand.”
Sam nodded. “I get it.” He knew he’d upset her when he’d kicked her out of his room. He felt he deserved her practical jokes.
“Good, and thank you for your understanding. I’ll talk to her. Don’t worry.”
In silence Sam swallowed the remaining ontaku. With his tongue he worked the millet shards out of his teeth.
In the hollow of the tractor tire the matriarch gave birth to eight puppies. During the school’s morning break, Sam found her curled against the worn rubber, the litter crying at her teats. The puppies’ fur was wet and matted, their eyes shut tight. He thought about all the times his family had called the vet when a retriever had trouble delivering puppies, and here was this old dog, already the mother of numerous litters, who’d birthed, cleaned, and begun feeding her pups in the time it had taken Sam to teach three classes. He decided that he’d sneak her a piece of meat that night to give her strength.
At home on the farm Sam had fed his family’s dogs. Each had a bowl with his or her name stenciled on the side. Here on the homestead it was Today’s job to feed the dogs. She took leftover porridge to the gate and dumped it in a hubcap. Sam could understand why the dogs spent half the day scavenging for food.
One night, six weeks after the litter was born, Sam heard Today call, “Sema! Sema!” “Sema” was Oshiwambo for “Sammy.” Sam rose from his table.
“Sema!” Today called, walking to the gate, carrying a plate of porridge.
Tate Petrus appeared in his doorway in his red silk boxer shorts. “Today!” he said sharply.
The girl turned and saw both men. To Sam she said, “I’m just calling your namesake.”
Tate Petrus spoke in Oshiwambo. Sam caught the word okambwa, puppy.
Today replied, “It’s true.” Then she said, “Come.”
They followed. Today dumped the food into the hubcap, and the dogs, old and young alike, rushed to eat. They took hasty bites and stretched their necks to swallow the thick porridge.
Arms crossed, Tate Petrus asked, “Which one?”
Today pointed to the runt, a female. She was skinny and small, her tail so pale and slender it looked like a rat’s.
Sam said, “You named that puppy after me?”
Today nodded. The runt darted around the bigger dogs, stealing a bite here and there, until one of the dogs snarled and sent her yelping away. Her right eye was opaque, blind.
Of all the puppies, Today had chosen a scrawny, half-blind runt to name for him. And Namibians believe that names carry legacies. When Sam had first introduced himself, Tate Petrus had remarked, “You have a good name. The hero of our country is also Sam: Dr. Sam Nujoma, our president.”
But now Tate Petrus didn’t look impressed. He leveled a finger at his daughter.
Sam figured this was another of her pranks, but he decided to play along. Maybe, in her own way, Today was reaching out to him. He knelt and studied the runt, who hid behind her mother. “I’m touched, Today,” he said. “Thank you so much. Really, I’m honored.”
Tate Petrus wheezed, “Yes, of course, Mr. Sam. Of course.” But he glared at his daughter.
At the OK Grocer in town Sam bought the only bag of dog food they had. With a feather duster the shopkeeper brushed a layer of dust from it. Sam hailed a taxi and rode fifty miles south on the tar road. Then he walked for an hour on the sandy paths that led to the homestead, the twenty-pound bag on his sweat-soaked shoulder.
He thought he might offend Today if he openly took over the dog’s feeding, so he fed his namesake in secret. He began training Sema using the hand signals with which he’d trained dozens of retrievers: Index finger straight up — sit. All fingers extended with hand parallel to the ground — lie down. Fingers extended with palm perpendicular to the ground — stay. Quick twirl of a horizontal index finger — roll over. Crook of the index finger — come.
Within a month Sema weighed as much as the other puppies. Within two months she was bigger. She grew heavy in the flanks, with a barrel chest and a rich, shiny coat. Her white feet and tail made her look graceful, and her blind eye didn’t hamper her at all.
As the cool, dry winter began, the millet was harvested, threshed, and stored, and Sam took Sema for long walks through the barren fields. For every mile he walked, Sema ran three, chasing ground squirrels and bringing back bones and cow patties for Sam’s inspection. Neighbors marveled at Sema’s obedience. They clapped when she played fetch or sat or stayed on command. Sam told the boys who tended goats that some dogs were bred to herd animals.
Sam began to feel good about his Peace Corps placement. His classes were going smoothly, and for the first time he was sleeping through the nights. Sema had relieved his culture shock and anxiety.
One afternoon as Sam returned from the school, he heard a dog’s yelp — a sharp, piercing cry of pain and surprise. He ran through the gate and heard another yelp, then a stifled whimper. He searched the yard, the outdoor cooking area, the bathing area. From behind the chicken coop came a long, low growl.
Sema was cornered between the coop and the homestead fence, her tail tucked and her ears lying flat. Her good eye stared in terror at Today, still dressed in her school uniform of white shirt and navy skirt. She stood above the dog and brought a length of wire down on Sema’s back. Sam heard it snap against the dog’s flesh. He heard the tremble in her growl, her labored breathing.
“Put that down right now,” Sam said sharply.
Today turned. Sema shot past her and fell on Sam’s feet. Through his shoes he felt her shake.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he asked.
Today frowned and pointed at Sema. “Your namesake was chasing chickens.”
The coop was a roar of clucking beaks and beating wings. Loose feathers danced in the air. A hastily dug hole led under the mesh fence, and broken eggshells littered the sand, some oozing half-developed embryos. Flecks of eggshell were caught in Sema’s fur.
“Your namesake ate eggs,” Today said. “She would have eaten chickens too.”
Sam took a deep breath. “Sema should be punished,” he conceded, “but you never train a dog by beating it.”
The girl rolled her eyes. “It was chasing chickens.”
Sam squatted beside Sema. Her ears perked up, and her eye focused on him. Sam picked her up by the loose skin on the back of her neck, held her muzzle close to his face, and said, “Bad dog. Bad. Do not eat eggs. Do not chase chickens. Bad.” He put his index finger in front of her face and swept it to the side. But Sema didn’t look chastised; she looked relieved. When Sam released her, she loped away.
Today clicked her tongue and threw the wire against the coop. “You know what happens to dogs that kill chickens?” she asked.
Sam knew. “Do you like to be beaten, Today? Do you? She has feelings just like you.”
“Yes. Think of her as your sister.”
Today’s voice grew quiet. “My father says that during apartheid the whites called us ‘dogs.’ Now you say I’m just like a dog? That I’m the sister of a dog?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“It’s what you say.” She rubbed her hands together as if to wash them and stalked away.
Sam felt very white, very out of place.
When Tate Petrus came home, Sam told him what had happened. He said he’d never meant to imply Today was like a dog. He apologized for scolding her, and for Sema getting into the chicken coop.
“Once dogs get inside the coop, it’s difficult to keep them out,” Tate Petrus said. “The chickens get frightened, and the eggs go bad. It takes away our food.”
“It won’t happen again,” Sam said. “I’ll pay for the damage.”
Tate Petrus waved his offer away. “Don’t be angry with Today. She was doing what she thought was right.”
From then on, Sema slept in Sam’s room, in his bed. She no longer interacted with her brethren. Is this the beginning of canine colonialism? Sam asked himself. He was the only reason for Sema’s entitlement; she was his only comfort and the only reason he slept.
The Namibian school year ended in late November, and shortly after that, Sam received a letter from the Peace Corps requiring his presence at a weeklong training in the capital. His first thought was Sema: who would care for her while he was gone? Sam asked Tate Petrus, who put his hands together for a long time. They were sitting in the sand beneath the fig tree. Finally he said, “Today will carry out this duty.”
“Today? Are you sure?”
Tate Petrus whistled, then shouted, “Today!” When she didn’t answer, he called again, “To-DAY!” The yelling made him wheeze.
The girl came running, squatted before her father, and waited for the asthmatic episode to pass. Sam tried to detect any animosity in her, but she gave no hint that she was aware of his presence.
“Mr. Sam must travel to the capital. During this time you will take care of the dog you named after him.”
If Today was appalled, she hid it well.
Tate Petrus said, “It’s good now, Mr. Sam.”
Sam wasn’t sure whether it was good or not. Today followed Sam to his room and didn’t speak when he showed her where the dog food was kept and how much to give. Sema lay on the cool concrete floor and didn’t appear to remember the beating Today had given her, which surprised Sam — in his experience dogs had long memories.
The morning came when Sam was to leave. While it was still dark, he took Sema for a walk. They watched the sun rise and the wood smoke float into the sky as cooking fires were lit.
Later, while Sema napped in the bed, Sam packed a small bag. He put on his shoes and moved to the door; Sema’s eye opened. Sam stepped over the threshold; Sema rose. He began to close the door, and Sema scrambled off the bed, her nails clicking on the concrete. Then the door was shut, and Sam heard her scratch the wood and whine.
He left his key with Today and asked her not to let Sema out until he was gone. He was worried she’d follow him to the road.
Today nodded. “Inda po nawa, Mr. Sam.” Go well.
Sam smiled. These were the first words she’d said to him in days. “Thanks, Today. Kala po nawa.” Stay well.
The training was held at a four-star hotel where the rooms had wondrous machines that boiled water or froze it into cubes, that dried wet hair, that cooked without fire. Sam hadn’t seen many of his fellow volunteers in a year. Everyone looked tanner, thinner, and hairier.
In addition to their teaching, the other volunteers had started adult literacy classes and AIDS support groups, solicited computer donations, and begun construction on kindergartens and pit latrines. Some had even been asked to be bridesmaids and groomsmen at weddings.
What have I done? Sam thought. He realized he’d spent most of his year at odds with a thirteen-year-old. He wished Sema were there.
On the final morning of the training, the director told them to think about the legacy they were leaving. “If you do the best you can with what you have,” he said, “your legacy will be positive. Good luck, and have a great year.”
While the other volunteers clapped and hugged, Sam slipped out of the conference room. Amid hawkers selling strips of barbecued goat meat and cabdrivers clamoring for customers, he boarded a minibus headed to the old homeland. The driver motioned for him to sit in the front seat — perhaps, Sam guessed, because he was the only white patron. Sam didn’t protest.
The bus conformed to no schedule and left only when it was overfull, hours later. As they turned onto the B-1, the only north-south highway in the country, Sam tried to sleep but couldn’t. He tried to read but couldn’t do that either. In the end he looked out the window at the great plains of Namibia: No people or buildings. No rivers or lakes. Nothing but nondescript bush land and an endless road that stretched on, straight and flat.
When the minibus pulled off at a gas station, Sam got out to explore the small village that had sprung up around it. Women sold corn cooked in the husk and fried bread called “fat cakes.” A man asked his name, then emblazoned a makalani-palm nut with “SAM” and offered to sell it to him.
Inside the minimart a stuffed animal caught Sam’s eye. At first he thought it was a Chesapeake Bay retriever, but when he picked it up, he didn’t recognize the breed. It was either a type of dog he’d never seen before or one the toy designer had created.
Turning the stuffed animal over in his hands, he realized he hadn’t worried at all about Sema since he’d left. At heart he knew Today was a good girl. The thought of returning to the homestead empty-handed suddenly gave Sam pause — he should bring gifts. He bought Today the stuffed dog. For Tate Petrus he picked out a cowboy hat with blue, red, and green stripes, the colors of SWAPO, the South West Africa People’s Organization, which Tate Petrus had joined to fight for Namibia’s independence. Sam bought bags of individually wrapped candies for everyone else.
Back on the minibus, Sam sat with the stuffed dog on his lap.
The driver said, “A gifty, ja?”
“Yes,” Sam said, “for my host sister.”
“Is good,” the driver said.
It is good, Sam thought. Long after he left, Today would have this toy, and she’d think of Sam, the crazy white man, and his dog. He flipped the stuffed animal over, and a ray of sunlight was reflected in its glass eye. Would this stuffed animal be his only legacy? He certainly wouldn’t build a kindergarten or a latrine. No one would ask him to be a groomsman. He needed something.
Perhaps Sema could be his legacy. What if Sam showcased his namesake’s talents during a school assembly and started a dog-owners club? Kids could bring in puppies, and Sam would facilitate obedience classes. Was this the unique gift he had to offer his village? There was certainly interest — think of all the people who’d asked to see Sema’s tricks. He could apply for a grant from a pet society to give vaccinations. The club’s dogs could perform at large gatherings, like Namibia’s Independence Day. Surely this was why he’d come to Namibia. He would teach people that dogs, when treated well, are loyal companions.
Then he thought about Today. Although she had beaten Sema, maybe she had grown fond of the dog over the past week. Could Sam convince her to adopt and care for his namesake? He gripped the stuffed dog and kneaded its grain filling.
© Michael Roche
The minibus dropped Sam by the side of the road, and he struck out on the path to the homestead. The rainy season had begun, and families were plowing their fields with donkeys and oxen. As Sam passed, they looked up from their plows and called out greetings. Soon Tate Petrus’s homestead was in sight. Sam stepped through the gate, calling, “Mu hala po nawa.” Good afternoon.
The children rushed out to greet him and led him to the fig tree. Sam smelled the cook fire and boiling millet. Today, armed with a three-foot stick, stirred the porridge. Sam waved, and she waved back.
Beneath the tree lounged Tate Petrus. “So, you’ve returned,” he said. “How was your trip?”
“Very nice, Tate, thank you.” From a plastic bag Sam produced the cowboy hat.
“For me? Oh, my.” Tate Petrus put the hat on. The price tag dangled over his eye. “Now I look like a liberation hero.” The children laughed and clapped. Tate Petrus took Sam’s hand and thanked him.
Sam divided the sweets among the children. Then he beckoned Today over. Hesitantly she left the cook pot. Sam held the stuffed animal out, and she accepted it, bowing her head. Then she ran back to the pot and propped the dog next to her in the sand.
Sam was hot and tired from his long day of travel, but happy. He thought he’d take a bucket bath and then walk Sema. He whistled, but Sema didn’t appear. Maybe she was mad at him for leaving. He whistled again. Still no Sema.
“Ah, Mr. Sam,” Tate Petrus began. He took off the hat. “While you were away, there was a problem.” He cleared his throat, and then an asthma attack set in.
“What happened?” Sam asked him, but Tate Petrus’s lungs had seized. His hand was clamped over his mouth as he tried to clear his throat. It was agonizing to watch. He forced out, “Your namesake. She was inside the chicken coop, and —” He started wheezing.
“What’s happened?” Sam asked. He looked from Tate Petrus to Today to the other children. Only Tate Petrus met his eyes. He held up a finger, as if to say, Give me a minute.
But Sam could answer his own question. He knew what happened to dogs that got inside the coop, that killed chickens. He said, “Sema’s gone?”
“She was delicious,” Today said. Her voice held no malice. She could’ve been talking about the heat.
Tate Petrus’s face was purple, and he beat his chest with his fist. Today was steadily stirring the millet, the cooking stick thwacking the cast-iron pot. Next to her calloused foot sat the stuffed dog, like a faithful companion. The toy’s eyes held the firelight. Then Today shifted to stir from a new angle, and her body blocked the stuffed dog from the firelight, and the dog’s glass eyes went dark. Sam wanted to yell, to cry, to tell Today how much he’d loved Sema, to tell her about every dog he’d ever loved, about how hard it had been for him in Namibia until Sema had come into his life. He wanted to tell her that he’d dreamed she’d come to love Sema as much as he did. He opened his mouth but couldn’t speak. He just stared at her until she looked up and met his gaze. She was smiling.
“You’re so serious, Mr. Sam,” she said with a laugh. Tate Petrus’s wheezing dissipated, and he chuckled. In the quiet, from across the millet field, Sam heard Sema bark.