Winner of the Deon Hofmeyr creative writing prize
If there’s one thing I hate most it’s being interrupted mid-beer. I’m sitting outside at MaBliksem’s on an upturned crate under the bluegums holding communion with my medicine when the messenger arrives. He’s a short young white man in a suit. All the patrons shift at the prospect of being interrupted by such a serious-looking fellow mid-beer.
MaBliksem emerges from the shack she operates the shebeen from and shouts, ‘Moegas!’ Her hands are on her hips and you know she means business. When she calls you like that, unless you’re in bed with her, she bliksems you out of your good zone and in to the present century. She usually reserves this shout for when you have drunk too much of her product and parted with too little of your cash. She gives you a week’s grace that you can set your watch to.
‘Moegas wena! Dié lightie soek jou.’ She points me out to the fellow, who holds a hat in his hands as he walks over.
I whisper, ‘O fok, a Bible basher,’ and the patrons seated near me shake their heads.
He stands in front of me, scrunching the hat in his hands. ‘Detective-Inspector Moegas Moahloli?’
I point at an upturned crate opposite me. He sits on the edge of it with his legs tightly closed as if he might catch a disease. There’s only one way to go back to enjoying my medicine and that’s to get him to drink with me. I pour some beer into a sawn-in-half plastic milk bottle and hand it to him. He eyes it. Now I know who I’m talking to.
We remain locked in a mutually suspicious stare for minutes. Finally, because he needs my help, I think, the young man takes a sip from the bottle like he’s a church mouse having its first lick at the communion wine. He says something I can’t hear because a family of hadedas flies low overhead like a motley squadron of bombers and they drop mournful wails that obliterate his words and he’s left shaking like a leaf in a radioactive wind.
‘Come again?’ I say.
‘The dominee’s daughter.’
‘What about her?’
‘Fok.’ I finish the quart and call for another. MaBliksem comes over and puts one at my feet and gives me the beady eye. I’m on day four, I think. ‘When did she go missing?’
‘A week ago.’
‘Where was she last seen, and who was she with?’
‘At the river, with the barman’s son.’
I shake my head. ‘Danie’s, you know …’ I flash my hand in the air like it’s a fish turning about.
He looks puzzled. I leave it.
‘Is Dominee Isaacs in the church now?’
‘I’ll come around in an hour or two. Are you going to drink that, my son?’
He considers the bottle for a moment and then stands up and gives it to me. I can see that he won’t make it. Not here in Moertoe, the thirstiest town in the universe, where we still operate on the Dop System and take things slow and casual. He’ll move to the city where he can be among more serious people. But it will eat him alive and spit him out and he’ll be flung back here, where one day he’ll grow a chest hair or two from MaBliksem’s mix and, if that doesn’t kill him, he’ll turn out fine, just like the rest of us.
‘Kea leboha, Detective-Inspector,’ he says. He looks like he’s about to cry. He turns to leave and says something but all I hear is hadedas screaming as I down the rest of the beer. When I arrived here earlier, I ordered some of MaBliksem’s brew. She puts it in a plastic milk bottle so that I can take it with me when I leave. I pick the bottle up off the ground and walk after the serious fellow to the gate. Already he seems like he’s fading into the distance because of the speed and overseriousness of his movements.
He’s left the gate open for me and as I exit MaBliksem’s she calls, ‘Moegas!’ and I stop dead in my tracks. I turn and she blows me a voluptuous kiss filled with promises for later, standing in the doorway to the shack, our son dancing around her legs. I smile but I wave her off and turn back to the path.
I stop for a piss and through the bushes I can see Ou Skaapie standing in the farmer’s lucerne fields, grazing on the good stuff. If I had my way I wouldn’t interrupt my donkey. If I could afford it I’d buy him some companions for him to – when he’s done eating – mount and enjoy, with the blazing sun on his back and the fresh breeze blowing off the sweet, sugary grasses of the mountains, delivered straight to his nostrils without him even having to think about it. If I had my way I’d still be at MaBliksem’s, consulting the depths of the bottle.
I whistle to Ou Skaapie but he doesn’t even raise his head and I love him so dearly for this, but his ears prick and his tail sashays as he drops a fresh pile of shit on the field, and I love him even more.
‘Hey jou fokken luigat! Wat sê jy?’ I ask as I near him. He lifts his head and he grins at me. Or maybe, most probably, he doesn’t, but it doesn’t matter. I pat him and he carries on chewing. He’s gotten nice and fat this summer and he’s well set for winter.
Ou Skaapie lets me climb on and I point him towards the dusty road leading into Moertoe. I hear a man screaming. I turn and see Jakob running towards us, waving his arms. I know what he wants and Ou Skaapie knows what he wants too, so Ou Skaapie starts into a sort-of trot, his top speed, and we make our getaway just in time. Jakob stops. He stands there, out of breath, bent over with his hands on his thighs and he shouts, ‘You can’t just fokken graze here!’
I laugh, and Ou Skaapie laughs too, or maybe he doesn’t, and we leave the man in a cloud of dust, or maybe we don’t, but it doesn’t matter because the sun is blazing on our backs, the breeze is sailing straight into our nostrils without us even having to think about it and our bellies are full of the good stuff. At times like these, even if Dominee Isaacs’s daughter is missing and that’s now my problem, life’s good.
Dominee Isaacs is leaning on the gate outside Moertoe Gereformeerde Kerk. He never changes out of his churchy outfit, and some people say he sleeps in the starched-up thing and they wonder if he even fucks in it. He’s looking worried but his eyes light up when he sees me and Ou Skaapie come clopping down the path leading from the river bridge that separates the east side of Moertoe, where us poorer blacks and coloureds live, from the west side of town, where the whites and the richer blacks and coloureds live.
My father always joked that Moertoe Gereformeerde Kerk wasn’t actually called the ‘NG’ but the ‘en gee en gee en gee …’ because it conned the mostly white congregants into paying over most of their salaries to God, to bribe Him to forgive them for fucking each other’s wives and cheating the rest of us. These days the mostly coloured congregants come here for the wine, a strong late-autumn harvest, and to try their luck with the dominee’s daughter, a beautiful young blonde woman.
I dismount and lead Ou Skaapie through the gate, which Isaacs holds open for us. We’ve had disagreements in the past about allowing Ou Skaapie to roam among the gravestones in the front of the churchyard where all the white people are buried. Isaacs says it’s disrespectful for Ou Skaapie to basically shit on the heads of the deceased. He says it’s fine for Ou Skaapie to graze and shit out back, where all the blacks and coloureds are buried near the riverbank in shallower graves overgrown with weeds – those blacks and coloureds who paid for lots to be buried here in status as God’s true children and not, like the rest of us will be, interred out on the homesteads and the farms, where you can see the mountains and the wind whistles in your nostrils.
Today Isaacs doesn’t complain. He clears his throat as if he has something to announce, but he only greets. He leads me in to his office at the back of the church. He calls for his assistant, an attractive young coloured woman, to bring wine. We can’t start business until God’s nectar is served, according to the customs of Moertoe, so he asks after my health while we wait.
‘I’m right,’ I say, and flash my hand in the air like it’s a fish turning about.
He nods. The assistant carries a tray in with a jug, a sawn-off plastic milk bottle and a cup on it, and pours a full measure for me in the plastic bottle and a half measure for Dominee Isaacs in the cup. I swallow the half of it and immediately hear hadedas screaming in my ears, flying low over the church like kamikaze pilots. Through the window I see Ou Skaapie grazing among the dead whites, his tail swaying, shitting industriously.
‘Annetjie is verdwaal,’ Isaacs says. He breathes deeply and steeples his hands.
I nod. ‘Have you spoken to the boy?’
‘Ou Danie says the two of them were fishing. Annetjie tried to kiss him, but he didn’t want to, and she got into the boat and rowed off, promising to return and gut him and strangle him with the cords of it.’
I consider for a while. ‘Which direction did she row in?’
‘North, towards the city.’ He refills my cup, and then straightens a crease in his pants. ‘Annetjie’s been behaving strange. About two months ago I found this in her room.’ He opens his desk drawer, takes out a small item and hands it to me. It’s a plastic Pokémon toy, stuck through with needles and nails, and smeared with what looks like dry blood. ‘She died her hair black, and started listening to heavy metal music.’ He removes a rolled-up poster from the desk drawer, rubs the elastic band off and unfurls it. It’s a poster of Jesus with his arms outstretched, backgrounded by a blood-red rainbow, with bats coming out of His shoulder and what I assume is the band’s name written at the bottom: ‘Fokofpolisiekar’. He rolls it up and puts it safely in the drawer. ‘I found a marijuana pipe in her room. I think someone has sent a demon of Satan into her body, and I was … skaam to say anything.’ He straightens the crease in his pants that has been created by him straightening the one that was there before it.
‘There are some fucked up things I have seen in Moertoe, Dominee,’ I say, ‘that would set your pretty little ears on fire. They’ll burn even as you kneel to pray and you’ll have to excuse yourself to dab your face with holy water before you can look your flock in the eye again.’
He nods. I suspect that if he didn’t need my help he’d have said something.
‘Listen,’ I say, coming to the important bit, ‘the best place for me to start is to consult with my people’s doctor.’
He nods again, but I know he’s always had a grudge against Moloi, the town’s ngaka, and I can hear delicate eggshells being crushed, maybe, in the silence.
‘Before I go, I need to ask you if you feel there is anyone who would want to harm you or your daughter.’
He clears his throat and announces his enemy: ‘TB Culosis.’
Obvious. There has been an open rivalry between Isaacs and the enigmatic preacher from the east side, known in Moertoe as ‘the man with the strongest juice in town’ after the power of the wine he hands out to his congregation. Pastor TB is rumoured to be able to heal people of diseases with one look or word.
I stand up and say, ‘I’ll see what I can do.’
We shake hands. There’s a corner of his eye – there always has been – that gives me the feeling that Isaacs believes I can never be among God’s chosen children, as if I’ll never be invited to eat at the Big Man’s table, and I’ll just have to hang off here on the fringes hoping for some crumbs to nourish my heathen soul. I’ll never be buried here at Moertoe NG in the front among the whites. At best I’ll crawl into a shallow grave out back where the river, when it bursts its banks, will claim my bones and send me drifting forever into the nowhere ever after. That corner of his eye irritates me, so I say, ‘Ou Skaapie hasn’t had apples in a long time.’
Isaacs nods stiffly as if he suddenly has a pain in his neck. He shouts an instruction to his assistant. His hot thing returns and hands me a bag of Golden Delicious apples.
The truth is like dung. It will out. No one understands this better than Moloi, my old friend, an ngaka who lives in the hills outside Moertoe. The only problem is that it’s a real pain in the balls to get to his house – a small, thatched rondavel built nearly on the very top of a steep koppie. But Ou Skaapie’s major talent, aside from packing lucerne away and shitting on dead people’s heads, is climbing steep paths.
I cheer Ou Skaapie on with a sweet bag of bribery and he makes short work of the path and the apples. We stop outside Moloi’s hut and listen to the beat throbbing from within the rondavel. I hear Moloi belting the words out: ‘I’m your weekend … Weekend speshiaaal!’
Moloi emerges and comes over to pat Ou Skaapie. He looks up and greets me in his customary way, by making the noise of a randy baboon: ‘Bogoom! Bogo! Bogoom!’ This goes on for several minutes. Finally, maybe his throat is sore, he stops and says, ‘Detective-Inspector Bogoom!’ This is our private joke, referencing the fact that my foreskin still hugs my penis snugly like a warm beanie in the winter – I’ve never been up into the mountains, and technically I’m not a man in Moloi’s eyes.
I dismount and shake Moloi’s hand. He leads me inside his hut. I present him with a bottle of what he thinks is expensive Scottish whiskey – it carries the label of the brand he loves, but it is actually leftover dregs that I have snatched from sleeping patrons of MaBliksem’s – and, payment for his services made, he invites me to sit down, waving an ichoba to bless me or chase a fly away, I’m not sure which.
He begins, as he always does, by launching into an explanation of my existence: ‘Have you ever watched baboons? All they do is inspect things all day long. Inspecting each other’s fur,’ he scrunches his hands up into claws and shows me how a baboon would inspect another’s fur, ‘inspecting blades of grass,’ he searches the ground, ‘inspecting the sky,’ he looks up, ‘inspecting running water as if it’s the most fucking marvellous thing ever!’ He laughs. ‘Even inspecting their own reflection that is inspecting them … inspecting them … inspecting them …’ His voice trails off as he twists the bottle cap of the whiskey off and takes a deep, fiery swig. He bares his clenched teeth and hisses. I think I see hadedas reflected in his eyes.
‘If they are not inspecting things, do you know what they are doing? They are detecting new things to inspect. So, you see, baboons, too, are Detective-Inspectors.’
I laugh. ‘I see your point.’
‘What brings you here, Detective-Inspector?’ He takes a lavish swig of the pricey stuff.
‘A missing white girl. Dominee Isaacs’s daughter,’ I say, and then I explain everything I know about the case, including that Isaacs believes that TB Culosis has sent a demon of Satan to possess his daughter’s curvaceous body.
‘We must consider the facts,’ Moloi says. ‘The girl has taken into her bed almost every man in this town, has she not?’
‘This is true. But why has she run away?’
‘She is running from centuries of guilt, and the overseriousness and strictness of her father, Dominee Isaacs, who she is clearly rebelling against by fucking anything with three sticks that moves, including the likes of you, even with your foreskin hanging off it.’
‘So you will not give Isaacs muthi, then?’
‘Not a single herb.’ Moloi swats at a fly with the ichoba.
‘How am I to find Isaacs’s daughter?’
‘Are you not, like me, one of the few men in the whole town she hasn’t fucked?’
‘I have no eyes for her.’
‘Then she will find you, Detective-Inspector.’
‘Ah, I see your point.’
I make my way down the steep path on Ou Skaapie, followed by the sounds of Moloi screaming after me: ‘Bogoom! Bogo! Bogoom!’
On the outskirts of Moertoe, my friend Bakgadi stops me on the road outside his house and holds Ou Skaapie’s head while we talk. I ask after his health.
‘I’m right,’ Bakgadi says, flashing his hand in the air like it’s a fish turning about.
I hand him my bottle of MaBliksem’s mix and he takes a long swig. We both know that this is the reason he has stopped me. ‘What about your wife?’ I ask.
‘She has grown too serious,’ he says, momentarily freeing his lips from the bottle to answer. ‘I took a new lover in rebellion.’
‘He banna! Another one?’ I wonder if it was Dominee Isaacs’s daughter, but I leave it alone.
He shrugs and returns my bottle, empty, and goes along the road in search of new things to escape the overseriousness of Agnes, who is standing in the doorway of their hut, casting me a scalding glare. I move on. I stop at a homestead further along the road, on the banks of the river, and call for my eldest son. He appears out of the tall maize and runs to me.
‘How is it with your mother?’ I ask.
‘Right,’ he answers.
I hand him my empty bottle and he runs inside the house and returns with it full, and he hands it back to me. I drink, and meditate for a while, as hadedas scream overhead and one flies straight into the trunk of a weeping willow and flops over, cold. It looks like it’s dead, but it gets to its feet and tries to run, as if attempting to take-off. It wobbles and goes headlong into the river where it thrashes about for several minutes. The early evening sky is a toxic purple and burnished orange, from all the gold dust and shit blowing off the city.
‘Listen, boy,’ I say. I pause for a moment to consider him – a strange boy who hangs about like a question mark. I choose my words carefully, and ask: ‘I have a task of the very highest order to assign to you. Do you declare without a flinch of hesitation that you will accept such an important undertaking?’ I know he’ll respond to this kind of nonsense. I still have much to teach him.
He nods furiously and his head moves so fast that he struggles to bring it back under control but he manages.
‘You and your friends are to watch the river, night and day, for a young white woman who will be rowing a boat. If you see her, don’t talk to her. In fact, block your ears and shield your eyes immediately. She is a water-borne disease that will make you very ill. Come and tell me immediately. Do you follow?’
‘Yes, sir!’ he answers, standing to attention and saluting.
‘You’ll find me at MaBliksem’s.’
I wave him off, and Ou Skaapie clops into town.
It’s a warm morning and I’m right, happy as a fish, sitting on an upturned crate under the bluegums at MaBliksem’s. I’m consulting my medicine when my eldest son arrives and interrupts me mid-beer.
‘The woman! The woman!’ The boy jumps up and down.
‘Sweet Jesus!’ I hiss, ‘Not so loud, boy, you’ll wake the patrons – all good men who are trying to forget their troubles here!’
He whispers an apology. I pat his head and say softly, ‘Don’t worry. You’ve done excellent work of the highest order. Go and fetch Ou Skaapie from the farmer’s fields. Pay no heed to that mampara Jakob and his donkey shit about paying for the lucerne in bulk and that he will have to charge for oxygen particles and the like, hear?’
He nods vigorously and runs off. He is still nodding when he returns with Ou Skaapie. He waits for me at the gate. I mount Ou Skaapie and point him in the direction of Moertoe. I tell the boy to give his poor neck some rest, and he tags along, throwing stones at anything that moves. I stop by the church and scream for Isaacs to come out. He shuffles into view and I tell him what has happened. He goes inside to collect his churchy coat and hat, and then we walk down to the river. At a spot under the weeping willows, we will intercept his daughter. We find a place to hide behind the reeds near the bank and watch the river silently.
We hear the rebellious daughter’s voice from downriver. She is singing: ‘You don’t come around … To see me in the week …’
‘Praise Jesus!’ Isaacs shouts, then he says, ‘As it is written in the Book of Ruth, 3:10–12: Then Boaz said, “The Lord bless you, my daughter … I will do everything you ask, because all the people of Moertoe know you are a good woman.”’
I tell him to shut up. My son starts dancing.
Annetjie sings: ‘By Friday night … I know, I’ll be waiting for you …’
The boy starts to sing along, even though his singing voice is poor, and Ou Skaapie shits on Isaacs’s shoes.
‘I’m your weekend … Weekend speshiaaal,’ the daughter sings, and I know she’s just come from Moloi’s.
‘By the grace of our Lord!’ Isaacs shouts. His daughter sees us and rows over to the bank, still singing – this time it sounds like it could be the heavy metal music that Isaacs told me his daughter started listening to. The boy is dancing so happily that he nearly topples into the river, but he steadies himself, blocks his ears, shields his eyes, and runs away.
She glides to the water’s edge and the boat gently nudges the bank. She climbs out, sloshing through the water, and Isaacs runs at her, screaming scripture. She steps around him and comes straight at me with something burning in her eyes. She says something but I can only make out one or two words as I swig from my bottle and hadedas swoop overhead and shit everywhere.
Before she can reach me Ou Skaapie gets, I think, an idea of the deliciousness of lucerne, and he points us homewards to MaBliksem’s with the sun blazing on our backs and the wind sailing straight through our nostrils without us even having to think about it.