Khamy stitched a rabbit pelt cap using a bone needle and sinew thread. Across the hearth, Boubou ground away at a curving piece of driftwood.
The grinding stopped.
Khamy glanced up, then around to the doorway. There stood Autshumato, silent as a wisp of fog.
The standing man grinned. “Storm coming, heavy with rain! Are we ready?”
Boubou held out his handiwork, deeply cupped at one end. “Bailing bucket finished,” he wheezed.
Khamy uncovered two oars from their hiding spot. “Handles sanded.”
Autshumato took the wooden parts. Khamy shouldered a bundle, then pulled the cap on, sinew end still dangling. Boubou rose shakily, racked by a coughing fit.
“Count twenty twenties, then set it afire,” Autshumato said, laying a hand on Boubou’s shoulder. “Thank you, old friend. I’ll come back for you if I can.”
“Hah! I’ll be dead long before you dare make the crossing again. Go on.”
Autshumato and Khamy took the long way down to the beach, skirting far around the stone building where three Dutchmen watched the horizon for ships seeking provisions, while keeping half an eye on the prisoners.
The two Khoikhoi found the hidden rowboat that had washed up during the last storm. They checked the cracks they’d tried to patch.
Khamy glanced at ominous swells racking the sea between Penguin Island and the mainland. Hoerikwaggo mountain, land of his ancestors, stood like a table to the south. Would the battered craft hold together that far?
Surly clouds swarmed from the northwest. Khamy could smell the weather-anger on the wind, matching the turmoil in his heart. Foreigners plowing up the grazing lands of the People – Autshumato’s protests falling on deaf ears – True People responding with cattle thefts from the Dutch interlopers – all resulting with the three of them, banished to this island for a year and a half.
Well, Autshumato had plans. No one knew the Dutch like he did. He knew their weaknesses.
Shouting arose from up the island. Flames shot into the air, whipped by the wind. Their ramshackle cabin, set to burn, luring the Dutchmen’s gaze.
Autshumato and Khamy shoved the rowboat into the frigid water and leaped aboard just as the downpour began. Khamy set to rowing, hauling hard, hauling for their lives through the rough swell and rising wind.
A year’s worth of rain pelted his laboring shoulders, added to the water sloshing through leaks, drenched Autshumato while he bailed furiously. Khamy puzzled over why Autshumato had insisted on making their break during a rainstorm. Wouldn’t it put out the cabin blaze, end the distraction too soon?
It did. Khamy heard shouts from Dutchmen racing to the beach. He threw all his strength into his strokes. They weren’t yet out of range of musket fire.
Autshumato laughed as he bailed, laughed at the sight of those tall, crazy-eyed foreigners priming their muskets, aiming, firing.
“Wet powder,” Autshumato chuckled. “Muskets are useless in the rain.”
Penguin Island slowly shrank under the growling skies. Khamy grinned. They were going home.
© 2021 by Joyce Holt
In 1658 Autshumato was banished to Robben Island (also known as Seal or Penguin Island) for turning his loyalty back to his own people, the Khoikhoi. He’d been working as interpreter for Jan van Riebeeck (Commander of the Cape for the Dutch East India Company) and helping establish a supply route of cattle from the interior to the provisioning station that became Cape Town, South Africa. The Dutch commander had ignored Autshumato’s protests of unfair treatment of the Khoikhoi and of appropriating their grazing lands. In the First Khoikhoi-Dutch War, he would go on to use the rainstorm-and-wet-powder tactic to win battles against the foreigners.
Artwork by a descendant of the Dutch interlopers, Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef (1886-1957). (South African copyright law specifies works become public domain 50 years after creator’s death.)