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Bruges Beguinage

The House Of Infinite Possibilities

Jacob’s house surrounded by the lions, hyenas and elephants of the Serengeti National Park changes its character with every stroke of Jacob’s paintings. What is the mystery behind Blessing’s sudden disappearance from Jacob’s house? Will this house of infinite possibilities reveal a strange secret? Or leave the reader wondering?

Gleaming white, shining, standing out amidst a sea of different hues of greens and browns, Jacob Smit's bungalow that sat just outside the boundaries of the Serengeti National Park, was iridescent in the noonday sun. It wasn't a large bungalow, only one story, built, assembled and disassembled in Johannesburg, and brought the entire way through several African countries, nearly 4,000 km, on two flatbed trucks, and reassembled on the spot where it had set for ten years. Jacob hadn't traveled more than twenty miles from it since the day it arrived and he moved his things in. He had greased the palms of many government and park officials to be allowed to set his house down in its location, but feared those same greasy palms were capricious and might remove it in a heartbeat if the whim struck them. His decision to set up the bungalow where he did was just as random. There was no special significance to the location. One day while on a holiday Safari he saw the spot and vowed to build a house there. The rest is history. Almost.

It was late April, and while Jacob's best friend, Lethabo, and Lethabo's new girlfriend, Blessing, were still sleeping in the guest room, Jacob set up his easel and paints at the farthest boundary of the lawn, facing the front of the house with most of the Serengeti at his back, he sat down to paint the house for possibly the thousandth time. His reasoning behind painting the house was that every form of animal that lived on the Serengeti, along with the park's other-worldy landscapes, had been photographed by thousands, possibly millions of others, but only he had a house – his house – that also could be considered part of the Serengeti, that he alone painted. It wouldn't make him famous or any richer, but it was a way to pass the time.

In a stand beside his easel he always kept his rifle. It was the only way to keep the more dangerous wildlife at bay. It was illegal to shoot them, but the loud noise of the weapon normally frightened them off, but some returned anyway, like Old Sneezer, a large male lion with a habit of sneezing. Other than that there was nothing cute or adorable about him. He was as mean and ferocious looking as any lion Jacob had ever seen. While Jacob painted, the lion stayed a healthy distance away, but he paced back and forth, keeping his eye on Jacob. These encounters with Old Sneezer were infrequent but memorable and unnerving. Calls to the park rangers did no good. What did they care if Jacob was mauled to death by a lion?

Jacob placed a fresh canvas on the easel, and with the ubiquitous flies buzzing around his head, began to sketch on it the outline of the house. He could have easily done it by memory but he liked to think of himself as Monet painting the Rouen Cathedral in the varieties of light that fell upon its facade. He looked for the subtle nuances in the way the shifting sunlight altered lines and shadows. Nothing was ever constant, especially in the way he saw and painted his house. An half hour later, with the house sketched to his satisfaction, and his eyes burning from the glare of the bungalow's white paint, he opened his thermos of Laborie Alambic Brandy – the brandy a gift from Lethabo – and filled the cup to the brim. The brandy was one of South Africa's best. Jacob believed that the best of anything should never be appreciated in moderation. He just put his lips to the cup when Blessing came out of the front door wearing one of Lethabo's bright red and blue dashiki's that barely reached to her thighs.

In appearance, Blessing was a stunning woman. At over 6 ft tall, and with her lean and taut physique, people often assumed she was full or part Maasai, which she was quick to dismiss as if such a notion was beneath her dignity, not because she had a dislike for the Maasai, but because she hated anyone making assumptions about her, because as she would say, “It leads to all sorts of mental mischief.” Her head was shaved bald and was as smooth and shiny as a bowling ball. Dozens of earrings dangled from her ears, not a pair among them. She wore anklets with small bells that tinkled with every step she took. She wore dried mud on her toenails. When Jacob asked her why, she said, “It keeps me grounded to the earth.”

She and Lethabo met at a cafe poetry reading in Johannesburg. She went for the poetry, he went because he heard it was a good place to meet women.

“We have absolutely nothing in common,” Lethabo told Jacob in private soon after arriving. “In fact we don't like one another very much, but after I told her about you and your house she was keen on coming along, so here we are.”

She walked across the lawn, each self-assured long stride accompanied with the ringing of her bells. She stopped a short distance away and peered at Jacob curiously as he leaned over to see her around the edge of the canvas. “I hope you slept well,” he said.

“Nature is very noisy.”

“Yes, the lions, hyenas and elephants were making a ruckus last night.”

She turned and looked at the house, shielding her eyes with her fingers kept separated as if looking between window blinds, to lessen the glare. “Anywhere else it would just be another house,” she said. “Lethabo said your house is the only thing you paint. Why?”

“It has infinite possibilities,” Jacob replied.

She then turned and pointed at the canvas. “May I see it?”

“Certainly. I've only sketched it so far.”

She came around Jacob and his easel as if creeping up on unsuspecting prey. When she stopped and turned to look at what he had drawn she let out an audible gasp. “It's magnificent!”

“It is?” he replied, surprised. He leaned back to study it. He thought maybe he had misjudged his perception that he lacked talent.

“Do nothing else to it. Don't add any paint.”

“But, it's meant to be a painting.” He gazed at the canvas, trying to imagine it without paint.

“Re-imagine it.” she said.

“I'll think about it.”

Without saying another word she strode back to the house.

He watched her go, trying to shove aside his impure thoughts about her. She truly was a magnificent creature. He got out the tube of white titanium paint and squeezed a large glob onto his palette. Painting the first strokes of white on the sketched house began to remove his thoughts about her and made him feel better.

An hour later, with much of the first coats of paint applied to the sketch, he returned to the house, but before going in he saw Old Sneezer prowling in the grass where he had been painting.

 Inside the bungalow the window glass made especially for Jacob for the bungalow cast refracted prisms of light on most of the interior surfaces. Hundreds of miniature rainbows shimmered on every wall. Jacob had grown use to them and barely noticed the colors anymore, but Lethabo, who had seen them before likened it to being, “inside a kaleidoscope.” Blessing said the effects caused her to have motion sickness and kept her sunglasses on while the sun was up from the moment she first stepped into the house the late afternoon the day before. The sun hadn't set when dinner was served so she came to the table wearing them. Jacob and Lethabo had been sitting at the table waiting for her. The bamboo fan attached to the ceiling above the table wobbled with every turn, making a clicking sound, like the ticking of a second hand on an old clock.

Her plate of nyama choma was already at her place. She lifted her sunglasses and gazed at it for several moments. “What is this?”

“Grilled meat,” Jacob replied.

“I know, but what kind of meat?”

“Goat. What did you think?”

“Something more exotic, like zebra or gazelle.”

“Killing animals on the Serengeti could get me in big trouble. It's considered poaching.”

She picked up her fork and stabbed a piece of meat. “When you were sketching, I saw you had a gun. What is it for?”

“I was painting, not sketching,” Jacob said, brusquely. “It's for protection.”

“From what?”

“Lately a large male lion has been sniffing around. I call him Old Sneezer.” 

She put another piece of meat in her mouth. “I should like to see this Old Sneezer,” she mumbled. “You should do a . . . painting . . . of him.”

“Everyone knows what a lion looks like.”

“Everyone knows what a house looks like.”

Twenty years before, when only twenty-six, Jacob won a Ugandan diamond mine in a game of poker while kicking about in Tunisia. He thought the deed to the mine was a fake and would have been okay with that since it was a great game, win or lose, until he had the deed examined by a register of deeds six months later while in the city of Kampala. He traveled the sixty miles to the mine and began the mining operations anew. He seldom went into the mine – claiming to be claustrophobic – but quickly became a very wealthy man thanks to the back-breaking work of the miners. Being a man of conscience, he treated the miners as well as he could and paid them more than most of the other mine owners paid their miners. He took frequent holidays and traveled to every country in Africa. It wasn't until that fateful safari trip on the Serengeti that he found the excuse he had been looking for to sell the mine and settle down. On the margins of the Serengeti was vastly different than Soweto where he had grown up, and though closer to Johannesburg than Uganda had been, it wasn't so close as to rekindle his hatred of big cities. Besides, he liked animals, and the Serengeti had those aplenty.    

That evening, Jacob raised the windows enough to allow the cool evening breeze to form crosscurrents in the rooms. The sheer curtains danced on the incoming air and the mosquito netting around the beds gently rippled. The three of them had been playing the card game Black Lady since after dinner on a card table that Jacob set up in the living room. Lethabo had brought along a bottle of Glen Grant whisky that the three took their times savoring with each glass full. It was rumored that Lethabo made his money from illegal drugs, but not even Jacob, who had known him since high school, knew for certain. Lethabo responded to questions about his business dealings in the same way he did about anything he didn't take seriously, with a hearty guffaw and a friendly pat on the back.

After Jacob won several games – he was a master at card games after-all – he took down the card table. Jacob and Lethabo settled comfortably into the two overstuffed chairs and lit cigars. Blessing disappeared into the bedroom but could be heard softly humming.

“So what's going to happen with you and Blessing when you return home?” Jacob asked.

Lethabo took a puff of his cigar and the exhaled a cloud of smoke. “Nothing. We'll go our separate ways.”

“She's gorgeous. The sex must be fantastic, at least.”

“We haven't had sex. She says she's saving herself for the right man, which isn't me.”

At that moment the bedroom door opened, and Blessing walked out. She was wearing a bright red ankle length kanga and a matching scarf wound around the top of her head. Her feet were bare. She had changed her earrings to large hoop-types that hung from her ears like overlapping bracelets. 

“I'm going for a walk,” she announced.

“I'll get my gun and come with you,” Jacob said, starting to rise from the chair.

“I'd rather go alone.”

“You can't.”

“Why not?”

The answer seemed so obvious that for a moment Jacob was tongue-tied. “There are dangerous animals out there. Animals that will kill you. Animals like Old Sneezer.”

She shrugged. “If I see a wild animal I'll scream. You can come rescue me. It will fill your need to exert your delusions of masculine power.”

“If Old Sneezer sees you out there alone, you won't have time to scream. He'll have you on the ground and your neck in his jaws before you can even let out a squeak. Lions have an uncanny sense of where the throat is on almost every animal it wishes to eat.”

“I'll take my chances,” she said and then went out the front door.

“Can you imagine what living with her would be like?” Lethabo said between puffs on his cigar.

In the middle of the night, there was tapping on Jacob's door. He opened his eyes and stared into the moonlit darkness. “What is it?”

“She hasn't returned.” It was Lethabo. “Her side of the bed hasn't been slept in.”

“Hold on.” Jacob got out of bed and put on his pants, shirt and boots. He opened the door to see that Lethabo was fully dressed also. “I'll get my gun and we can go out to look for her.”

They were bathed in bright moonlight as soon as they went out the door. A few yards from the house, Jacob turned and gazed at it. It was aglow. “What a beautiful painting that would make,” he said.

They searched the lawn, calling out to her, but found no trace of her, and didn't get a response.

“Wouldn't there be something of her left behind if that lion or another animal dragged her off?” Lethabo asked.

“I would think so,” Jacob replied. “I hope to God she didn't wander into the park. If a guest of mine is killed in within the boundaries of the park they will surely take my house away.”

“I can't have my name in the papers back in Johannesburg,” Lethabo said. He hemmed and hawed before saying, “What if we do nothing? No one knows she came here with me.”

Jacob hesitated before answering. “She may yet turn up. Let's go back to the house and wait and see what happens.”

The sunlight on Jacob's house was particularly bright, bringing out flecks of reflected light in the paint that sparkled like diamonds. He sat at his easel and gazed at his house. Blessing had given him the gift of confidence in his work. What he had sketched on the canvas really was magnificent. He felt a twinge of guilt for never going into the park to look for her. Even after the three weeks had passed since her disappearance, he half expected to see her walking across the lawn at any time. But he didn't really believe that would happen. Old Sneezer had returned and at times got closer to the house than he ever had.

~Steve Carr

The House of Infinite Possibilities: Welcome
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