Woman’s Rock rises from a dry stream bed, whose sand has forever recorded the tracks of animals and humans who cross it.
Rising from the flat landscape like the back of an enormous snake…
the summit of Woman’s rock is gently curved hinting at the enormity of the coil that is hidden below.
And the skin is cracked and flaking with scales. It was named Woman’s Rock for the local women who once washed in the stream bed and laid the clothes on the north slope to dry in the sun.
Near where the women once slapped and wrung the laundry, lives a Python. I heard of her at a picnic, days before I set up on Woman’s rock to paint. She comes out of her home under the rock during these winter months to sunbathe. Although innocent of eating babies and livestock, she provokes stories of deadly Python encounters like the story of the missing truck driver who stopped to pee. A policemen found his truck idling on the roadside and went to investigate. The feet of the truck driver were found protruding from the mouth of an enormous snake. The moral, said the story teller is not to pee under low hanging branches.I set up my easel on a crest of barren rock. The air was clear and bright and one could see the gentle curve of the horizon as if standing on the deck of a ship looking out to sea. From here I could see the Python should she come. In a moment of distraction, I would miss the first glimpse of her behind a rock. Silently she slid to me, condemned by god to make tracks like a river in the sand. She bit me over the kidney and threw her first coil over my shoulder to trap my arms. I fell from her weight and as we rolled she wrapped me up like cable on a spool. Her coils trapped my arms before I could reach for my pocket knife to saw at her side. She tightened her grip each time I exhaled. Her mouth opened, her jaw unhinged to put me inside her, the course lubricated with hideous quantities of mucous.
I never saw the snake, but fear of her fired my imagination like kerosene. I began to paint in earnest, wondering how I could use the willies to make a good picture. The distant horizon was placed high on the panel with a stroke of turquoise tempered by ochre. For thorn trees a few green dots were scattered across the plane and a knife on edge made blades of dry grass. I imagined the Python below my feet, huge and turning. Woman’s Rock was drawn like her side pushing up through the flat plane. To my right a man appeared on a rise of rock a hundred feet away and he called and waved as if I knew him. I returned the wave and continued to work. He paused and watched and looked around. Soon, two young men came up on my left. The older man also advanced. I was alarmed by being approached from two sides. My adrenal glands gave a squirt and I imagined a knife. They spoke to me in Setswana and I said that I only spoke English. To this, the older man said through broken teeth, “Five Pula, drink”. Pula are the local currency, so either he was asking me to give him money for a drink or he was offering to buy my water. Optimistically, I offered the water. Wrong, he wanted the money. The other men were still and watched with interest. I patted my pockets and said “no Pula”. He did not look happy and he did not back away, but continued the negotiation and brought the price down to “two Pula”. One of the younger men kept a heavy pair of pruning sheers on his shoulder. I saw the bludgeoning. The other held his body obliquely to mine and kept one hand in his wind breaker. A memory of being mugged on the Brooklyn Bridge came to mind. Something was needed to keep this engagement positive. I had a very showy new camera hanging from the easel, a big red back pack at my feet and I’d just been to the cash machine, so I offered them my lunch. They took all but one cookie, which I made a show of keeping to maintain the pretense that we were sharing and having a spontaneous picnic. The men sat to eat and I squatted with them. I was scared but also angry at losing my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. If only they’d asked nicely! Slightly amused by the vehemence with which I defend good manners, I kept the tone light and told them of my friendship with Rre Motsewabeng, the farmer who owns Woman’s Rock. With this information the tone seemed to change. Was it that they could not rob and injure me because I was no longer alone and anonymous? Or were they relieved, no longer apprehensive of me, a stranger, since I had proven a local connection? Fear of the unknown, the Python, made it difficult to understand.