FICTION: Jeffrey

BY ANDRE LEMMER

The children, tongues untied, were partly in shock, partly delirious with the excitement of their discovery: askeleton with no head, bottles lying nearby, a blanket tied over the bushes.

“Slow down, Thandi. Tell me slowly.”

“Yoh, chienie Tixo, we was scared. We ran all the way, baas.”

“Don’t call me baas, you know that. This skeleton – whereabouts is it?”

“In the bush, baas. There where it is so thick, on the hill behind the tennis court”

“Sipho, you take me there. I better check before I call the police. Thandi, go tell your mother, she’s in the kitchen. Your brother is coming with me.”

………………………..

The skeleton, part-clothed in torn flannel and a tweed jacket, was part-sunk into the earth. The arms stretched forward like a diver’sin mid-air, the legs spread, rank grass sprouting between them. Under a nearby bristle bush was the skull, grinning and chap-fallen, empty eye sockets gazing heavenwards. A crumpled old felt hat lay amongst a litter of medicine bottles under a blanket that had been spread tarpaulin-wise between the branches of two wind-stunted rooikrantzes. Empty sherry bottles lay deep in the shadow of the shelter, and amongst them, a rusty asthma inhaler. The blanket flapped in the fresh south-westerly wind. Sipho hovered a distance away, bare legs shivering in the September breeze.

There could be little doubt: It was Jeffrey. I had never known his surname. Jeffrey who? Village gardener, seldom sober. Local gillie. Partner to a foul-mouthed, nameless harridan. A mystery man, but with secrets that interested no one in the village. Now, a missing person that no one missed. I told the police about his supposed disappearance from the village in February, that I had helped him get his sick partner to the Walmer Clinic, that he had disappeared soon after, and that we all assumed he had left the village to be near his woman. There was a brief stir in the village for a day or two.

“Hadn’t seen Jeffrey for months. Or heard him! Thank goodness.”

“Poor old Jeffrey. He wasn’t old: about fifty, I think.”

“Stopped coming to work in my garden round about January.”

“Used to give him a lift in the back of my bakkie into town on his babbelaas days. He would never sit in front, you know.”

“Thought he’d gone to join his old foul-mouthed crone – what was her name?”

“Dunno. We called her Olive Oyl. Looked just like Popeye’s girl. Always in her cups, she was. Ship sherry. She was sent inland somewhere, her chest, you know. Asthma.”

“Yes, Jeffrey got me to take her to the clinic. Looked a gonner.”

“You could never tell whether she was plain drunk or sick. Both probably.”

“He missed her, did old Jeffrey. Told me so.”

“Ag, dronkverdriet. In his cups as usual.”

………………………..

A case was opened. Then a long, official silence. No news of any investigation, or funeral, or inquest. My daughter tried to phone, to ask about funeral arrangements. She was prepared to organise it, saying her Methodist church would assist. But no one knew anything about the case or where the body was or when it would be released for burial. So she gave up.

We turned back to our affairs. Jeffrey had always been insubstantial, at the margins, a kind of blot on the village. At a social club supper, Larry Harper, a trade union official, professed guilt. No one cared or listened. Larry was new– he had only been in the village for a few years. He owned a fancy new house on Abalone Lane. We were the land-grabbers, he said.

“Jeffrey’s forebears were the Khoi,” Larry proclaimed. “Men of men, decimated by our smallpox, our bullets, our forefathers’ greed.”

Their land had been stolen. Now we sat pretty – while Jeffrey died in the reserve taken from his people.

At least, someone said, Jeffrey had his chance to circumvent his victimhood. He had been in the voter’s queue on the cliff-top in 1994, a new voter, making a cross on the ballot. Voting for what, I wondered? Who would redeem the ravaged collective past of the Jeffries of this world?

I still remember him well. A nuisance always, staggering, foul-mouthed along Marine Drive, lambasting Olive Oyl. Or on the rocks, with a hand-line, pulling in a fat Jan Bruin bream, and grinning slyly at the very spot where we would stand fishless all day. A casual gardening job heralded another drunken binge. Then the obeisances. Cupped hands and humble bows, himself dissolved in liquor along with his inhibitions. The village would be filled by his shouts, calling down imprecations on our heads.

Then I remembered the skull. Now that drunken, lashing tongue, eaten by ants and wild cats, was silenced for good.

And so, a few rand for a day’s trimming, cutting, weeding, mowing, scraping and raking. Then the booze-up and they would disappear into the bush for days. Boesman and his sick Lena.

That was when she left, and Jeffrey disappeared for eight months before he came back, briefly, as a skeleton in torn flannels and an old, tweed jacket.

………………………..

One day in November I heard the dogs barking and a coloured couple was at my door. Outside stood a black Mercedes.

“Basie Meyer? Your son, you say? No, sorry, Dr Meyer, I know no Basie Meyer.”

“Oh, the body that I helped find in the bush. Jeffrey he was called. Yes, we tried to organise a funeral for poor Jeffrey – but no go.”

Astonishingly, they wanted me to help them fight for their son, Basie. Confront the authorities and shame the police – in short show the world that people cared. But first, the mortuary release had to be signed by the Commissioner. There was to be a memorial service for their son and they asked if I would deliver the eulogy.  They had not seen their son for so many years. They had lost touch after the Group Areas Act removals. Their son would not go with them to the cold of Belfast. They had heard later of dagga and liquor and Korsten gangs and a spell in gaol and then, nothing.

Dr Meyer from whose loins Jeffrey had begun his long dissipated travail sat quietly on my couch, a tear or two falling from his wrinkled face. A grief incongruous with a mix of Irish brogue and flattened Korsten vowels. His wife screwed up a handkerchief in her hands. She said it was their fault. That they should have stayed with their child, not abandoned him to so many evil influences.

………………………..

The police had tracked down Basie’s wife, Betty, in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Patensie. They had been to see her and she had mentioned me. So Olive Oyl was really a wife, I thought.

I said I was sure there had been no murder – at least not of the usual sort – that Jeffrey, sorry Basie, had died of grief. That he had been inconsolable when his wife had to leave. That we all thought he had left to be with her. That I was sorry and that yes, I would help with the funeral. My daughter’s church would organise it. That it would not help to dwell on past mistakes.

FICTION: Amnesia

BY JO-ANN BEKKER

She loses the words she writes down. They travel from head to hand and fall from her fingers. She is a gardener sweeping up the words that mouths release, raking up the sentences collected on pages by lawyers and academics. She sweeps the words and sentences into a pile, then chooses just a few to display. Once they have been planted in print they leave her.

When she reads her words in the newspaper she cringes at their inadequacy. At all she could have written, but didn’t. Errors of grammar and style scream out at her. But if she returns to the reports a few weeks later, she thinks perhaps she did the best she could, considering the pressure of time, considering the restriction of word limits.

Decades later she finds her reports on a civil conflict, reads them as if for the first time.

We were in our yard when we saw the group coming. We went inside but they broke the windows and climbed inside. They stabbed me three times, on my back, then they threw stones at my wife. They chopped our hands with a bush knife.

Later that night our five-roomed house was burnt down. Our younger sons took the dogs but we don’t know what happened to our pigeons.

This is what we lost in the fire or have left behind:
A truckload of sand and 12 bags of cement to plaster the house
Furniture.
A fridge.
A hi-fi.
An orchard which produced oranges, naartjies, peaches, pears, loquats, grapes, lemons, apples and sugar cane.
A vegetable patch which yielded mealies, potatoes, sweet potatoes and pumpkins.

She remembers her week in that small city. She stayed in a hotel at one end of the street. The Supreme Court was at the other end.

The conflict was between an ethnic political party and the new civic front. The front claimed the ethnic party had the tacit or even active support of the state: their warlords were known to the police but remained free. The civic front brought interdict after interdict against the warlords. But no one was arrested. The warlords remained at large. The conflict raged on.

We had two rondavels and a seven-roomed house of concrete bricks. It was not yet completed. We were just about to put the roof on. The children ask about our three cows, 28 chickens and three dogs. More than anything the older ones want to go back to their school.

She has a vague memory of interviewing refugees in suburban servants’ quarters. Her report says she also interviewed a woman hiding in a church room:

My 70-year-old father was murdered. This happened after he brought an application against warlords who threatened him because my brother supported the civic front. My father’s murderers were the same men he named in his affidavit. They stabbed him to death. They stabbed me twice. The police have arrested no one.

She cannot recall the face of this woman.

She remembers driving out of town. The hills green and dotted with homesteads. Her report has a photograph of a warlord she interviewed. He denied calling for violence at a public meeting. He said members of the civic front had attacked leaders of his ethnic party first. But he added: The police were, however, able to protect us and we reached home safely.

She remembers spending days sifting through affidavits collected by religious groups and human rights lawyers. Her reports contain the names of the priests and attorneys she interviewed. She can’t recall their faces. She can’t remember writing the words she wrote.

She remembers what she didn’t write down.

Her first night in the city. She phones the older brother of a childhood friend. A tall measured man. They speak haltingly over dinner about their jobs and relationships. They sit side by side in a movie theatre while an actress boils her married lover’s pet rabbit in a pot. They part quickly afterwards.

Her last night in the city. Her hot humid hotel room. A ringing phone. A human rights lawyer saying come for supper. She has already eaten. A ringing phone. A lawyer listing the reasons why she should join him and another journalist and another lawyer. A restaurant in an old colonial building. The lawyers are hilarious.

FICTION: Smiley

BY KIMBERLY BETH WATSON

I used to visit her Facebook profile sometimes and shake my head because she’d become a statistic of small town living. You know, married at like 20. Spawned a couple kids. It was always kind of shocking, though. Like she was smart. Definitely smarter than me. She even did a semester at New Mexico State studying biology. But when I ran into her mom, Kathy (who “could have been gay”, my own mother told me), she said it had been “too far away from home”. Home, that illusive concept. Both of ours were somewhere in the litter of houses scattered on the borders of large forests, or along the winding interstate parallel to the Lamoille River. It might have even been picturesque as long as you passed through at 50 miles an hour. When it’s a blur you can’t see the addiction, the bi-weekly visits from child protective services, the well-meaning moms who chain-smoke with their minivan doors rolled up, passing out Capri-suns.

 

I remember an email she wrote to the Hotmail address my mother made for me in our early high school days when we were still kind of in touch. She was writing to say she had “done everything except for vaginal sex” with the older brother of our mutual friend Alicia. Her parents had found out and she was definitely going to get in trouble. The frustration of conservative parents trying to control a girl who has discovered herself was beyond the boundaries of my imagination.  She had been top of her class in bible study. She did that shit out of school, like, on her own free time, voluntarily. Yet she was always kind of wild, in that backwoods eclectic podunk way that lets you have god but also tie-dye everything and country music.

But yeah, that guy wasn’t the best dude. Once when the bus dropped me off he yelled, “Don’t you live with a bunch of fags?” and I went home and asked what “fags” was. In retrospect, his family had all kinds of their own problems. Alicia told me her step-dad used to, you know, to her and her little sister. She told her mom Helen but the woman stayed with him. I know he’s still on the sex offender registry because I’ve looked. I hear Helen drives the school bus now.

 

There were weird shows her parents wouldn’t let her watch, like CatDog on Nickelodeon. In retrospect I guess it is perverted that an animal has two heads and no ass. When I was 9 her 10-year-old brother asked me out while we were sitting on the couch but when I told her she was grossed out and I broke up with him 5 minutes later. In between her bible study wins and obscure trips, like the time she went to Australia, at least three boys in our school fell in love with her. I remember one of them was literally obsessed with her in the fourth grade. It was even cooler because he was in grade five. That was the year our teacher let us assign our own nicknames he promised to use all year.

“Smiley”, she said.

 

I guess wanting more for someone is kind of selfish. Like having the audacity to “see more” for someone demeans their personal life agenda of important and fulfilling things.

But on the other hand, your life does kind of end when you have a kid young in a small town and also lack higher education, right?

I mean, she works at the village pizza place now. Okay, it’s the co-op local organic Vermont version of pizza, but it’s still in a village.

She’s probably happier than I am. Actually, I can say that for sure. In an organic way, not like in the way that people crop and edit their pictures because she’s not on Facebook that often and doesn’t even care that she has a double chin in her profile picture because she’s just happily laughing with her son. Plus, she’s definitely learned all those things you presumably learn when you become a mother: the innate selflessness, the radiating beauty of creation, the self-sacrifice.

So I guess that’s happiness.

I always felt bad for mauling her with attention when she schlepped all the way to visit me in the city. I was 11 and lonely and didn’t know why my own uprooting happened. But also thank god it did.

Anyway babies are gross or barely tolerable.  We’re not friends on Facebook.

FICTION: Aunty Ose

BY ALUKA IGBOKWE

The memories of Aunty Ose remains, determined to overshadow the the playful recollections of my prepubescent years: war start with street boys, Okoso with neighbours which left our fingers smarting, hide and seek and hopscotch with willing girls.

Aunty Ose or Pepper Aunty. The moniker was not because she sold peppers at main market or because she shared a tender redness with danjarawa peppers. It was because she derived a deep personal happiness from hurting others. Some of us can remember such people: people who kidnapped footballs, who drove us away from play grounds, who reported us to our parents if we climbed guava and mango and orange trees. Aunty Ose was such a person.

Aunty Ose was a stout woman with a reddened skin lined with crooked green veins reaching out like roots – evidence of many years of toning with cheap bleach. She wasn’t married, but it was said that her husband drove her out because she was barren. I wondered what kind of man would marry a woman who wears a frown like a second face and appears to be perpetually smelling the air. Others said she was a witch. I did not know which to believe. I just wanted her to leave our street and let us play until our heads ached, until our throats were parched and our limbs bruised. But she would have none of that.

One day, I was playing football with Confusion, Rubber Boy and Jet Li. We constructed a makeshift field by walking six steps one foot in front of the other and then drove cassava stems into the soil to serve as goal posts. Jet Li and Rubber Boy against me and Confusion. We had been sent home for not paying school fees, so we played during school hours. We liked it each time we were sent home. In fact, most times, whenever Uncle Kalu sauntered into our classroom with that Book of Life of his that is as big as an encyclopedia holding the names of debtors and creditors on separate pages, we would leave before he mentioned our names, even if we had paid.

We like to give ourselves names. It makes us feel important. He was called Confusion because he had a quarter-past-four eye. He would be looking at you and you would think he is looking at another person. If he happened to be looking at another person, it would be like he was staring at you straight in the eyes. I think he enjoyed confusing us.

Rubber Boy was named for his previous life playing rubber bands. Green, red and yellow rubber bands circled his wrists like bracelets – trophies from games with street boys.

Jet Li, at the slightest provocation, would aggressively kick the air this way and that way like an atilogwu dancer, as if he were strong. I could beat him and I’ve beaten him before with all his fake kung-fu.

I do not want to share my name because I am ashamed and I do not want you to start laughing at me.

When Aunty Ose returned from where ever she went, we knew that trouble loomed. She refused our greetings, which was not unusual, but we didn’t care, so we continued playing. When she came out again, we knew she was coming to pierce our hearts with her assegai and beat our bodies into shape with her knobkerrie. She called Confusion over. Their lips moved and we couldn’t make out what they were saying. He returned and said she asked us to leave her house front, and that she wanted to sleep. I confirmed she was really a witch – who else would sleep at noon so as to be awake and fly in the night.

It’s not that we didn’t agree to leave. We planned on leaving, except that Rubber Boy committed a foul before she came out to tell us to leave, so we wanted to play it out before we moved elsewhere. Since Jet Li is the goalkeeper on their side and Confusion is the goalkeeper on my side and Rubber Boy committed the foul, I was the one to take it. I was glad I didn’t acquiesce to becoming the goalkeeper. I would have missed this golden opportunity to prove to Jet Li that I am a great footballer and not the ‘JB’ he always called me.

I bent over and positioned the ball at the spot the foul was committed. I scooped warm soil round the ball because it was always rolling over. Satisfied that the ball was firmly in place, I stepped back and locked eyes with Jet Li. Jet Li squatted into an imaginary chair, waiting for my kick. I looked back at Confusion to give me that go-ahead look but he gave me that be-fast look. I rolled my eyes and sucked my teeth.

I muttered a word of prayer and looked around at imaginary spectators. I saw them waving at me with permanent smiles on their faces. I drew my foot backwards and released it so the ball could curve outwards. The white ball stiff with trapped air was making a smooth journey, but instead of moving in the direction it had been shot, it took a sharp turn as if it had suddenly developed a mind of its own, as if something was playing sweet ogene for it. It was heading directly at Aunty Ose’s louvres, bent on shattering them.

It slammed into them and the louvres chased each other towards the ground. They covered the cement floor with uneven shards. For a moment, the wind paused and the trees quieted as if in solidarity. Silence enveloped us. We stood unflinching, unmoving, stoic. I think we were all thinking the same thing as we dashed off at once to hide behind the oil palm tree.

Stooped behind the oil palm tree like harried dogs, we feared for our lives. If Aunty Ose was really a witch, she would surely come in the night and drink our blood and eat our flesh and fly away with our skeletons. If she reported us to our parents as usual, it could be worse. It is like killing us and calling back our spirits and killing us again.

Aunty Ose rushed forward through her back door, her wax wrapper loosely wound around her chest, screaming, “Chim o, umuaka a egbugom o!” My God, these children have killed me!

“We should go and tell her sorry” Rubber Boy said, his voice light and feathery.

“Shhh. Do you want to die?” Confusion said, “Haven’t you heard she is a witch? Have you forgotten what she did to Yahoo Yahoo the last time?”

“What if she finds us?” I croaked, choking back tears.

“Shut up! She will find us if you continue this way. Let her find us and I will show her some skills” Jet Li said, wringing his hands like two entwined snakes.

I shot him fierce eyes and said “Onye ara, madman, you’re the one that’ll make the first run if she…”

“Will you two kom-kombilities just shut your stinking buccal cavities?” Confusion interjected harshly, his voice high. I do not like Confusion, he feels because he can speak big big English and because his father is a lecturer at the University College, he had somehow become a lord over us.

By this time, Aunty Ose had stopped wailing. She had reemerged from her house fully clad. She peered around, sniffing like a dog, as though certain we were hiding somewhere nearby. When her search proved futile she made for the exit. We did not need a soothsayer to tell us where she was going. Tonight, we are going to be killed and have our spirits called back again to be killed all over.

There is this myth that if as a child, you tie a knot at the tip of ashara tea before your assailant reached your home, your parents would forget everything they heard. Just like that, amnesia. Buoyed up by this myth, we searched frantically for the nearest ashara tea to make a knot. If we must escape the wrath of our parents and not have our buttocks tender and swollen as retribution from papa’s cowhide, we have to make a knot at the tip of ashara before Aunty Ose reached our homes.

We searched until we came upon a cluster of green lemon grass shaped like broken knife blades. We took our positions and faced our chosen stems. We each chose the greenest we could find. We called her name thrice: “Aunty Ose! Aunty Ose! Aunty Ose!” and tied our knots slowly so that the grass would not snap. That done, we were certain our parents would forget whatever Aunty Ose had come to tell them and come to receive us prodigal sons with arms spread apart whenever we returned.