Fiction and Drama
The healer is here
There was a spirit Pa used to ask me about when we were starved. “When were you born?” he’d say.
“I don’t know.”
“You can ask it?” he’d tell me, and then he’d wave his hand around in the dark.
I’d shake my head.
“You don’t believe?”
“I can’t see it,” I’d say.
Then he’d bang out tobacco from his pipe against the headboard and get up. Pa would look out the window, then, and I often fell asleep with him standing there.
The first time Pa put a hand to his side was while driving us back from a call; with his other hand he reached for my head and peeled me off my seat. The steel door felt cold as it caught the small of my back and his bottle spun to a stop between us, slipping into a groove rusting on the truck bed. His ceiling had cracked the previous year, and often the wind peeled the tape we used to seal it. Now the wind seeped in through the cracks and heaved in warm pellets of rain. Pa used to say each ping reminded him of a god without favor. Other times he would say there was a creature he could feel was perched above us, one spitting marrow into a small cage.
He rolled down his window and spat, too, that night.
“Keep it from me,” he said and patted his side. “I’m burning.”
I nodded and went back to my seat.
Then we drove the rest of the way to the boxes in silence.
I looked out the window and Pa bottomed his bottle before we reached home.
Inside our box, I latched the door, loosened his belt, and undid his boots. I blew out the paraffin lamp, and in the day that followed, I watched him as he lay shackled on his mattress. He said the sweat ran over his body like ball bearings, that night, and I moved away from the hand he stretched out toward me. In the morning, Pa rose to his feet again, but his head was leant crooked. It inched toward the ground as if to listen to a grave, he said.
It was Monday and I was thinking of him. I shifted into second and U-turned across the first traffic island in Rosebank. Then I ran a red light and cut into Main and Church Streets.
Pa and I never used to talk on our drives home. We used to work on the routine he’d set up between us. I was a boy. I had to offer him his whiskey and he’d wave me away.
Pa never needed words to offer me his meaning. He had only to sit down with his neck stiff, and I remember his long face, how his eyes would bolt down on the road whenever he took the wheel, and how I used to think he was dead, at times, when the two of us left the city limits and the wheels on the van would crunch the gravel on the narrow tracks. I remember how his tears would soak into his beard.
It was late that Monday, and taking the bend, I shifted back down to first.
Then I took a breath and shook him out of my head.
My call was a four-room brick face with a man down. His blood hadn’t drained down to his ankles yet, but I had to rush in order to find out what remained. He lay in a small building, they’d told me, and its yellow light was spilled on a yard a block ahead.
I shifted the van back up to second before I hit the brakes and clutched for a hump. Then I took it down to first, again, for the incline, and that’s when I heard them.
Often, our calls would arrive this way. First we had to drive up to where a body was laid down, and then we had to hear the sound of its women.
Often, they wailed.
Once, when it was just me and Pa, it was laughter that surrounded a house.
Outside the yard, I shifted down to neutral and left the van on idle.
Then I thought of my father. Pa taught me everything I knew about calls.
“This is a call we’re on,” he used to say.
The job used to come easy to men like him. Pa had been drafted for a post working with EMS recruits: our work at the boxes was still in phase one, back then, and it hadn’t been emptied of its funds. Healers were settled into terms with the clinics. This was during the first wave of sleepers in the city, and Pa liked to take me with him on the late-night rides. We used to take the commuter line in and drive back out with the hospital men. He’d touch my shoulder whenever he needed a whiskey. The roads we got on were bumpy, then, and farther out from the city. Often they made Pa sick, and sickness turned him churlish. I often heard the bottle rattle inside his cooler box as it broke his needle kit. Pa never used the needle kits.
“That’s your last one, now,” he used to say.
Then I’d take my last sip and cap his bottle. I’d push his whiskey back in the cooler.
“It’s right you bring some fear to it,” he’d say, and I always nodded when he spoke.
Outside the yard, I shook him out of my head, again. Then I pulled the key to kill the engine. My call had a set of bars cast over its door. Its light streamed through the windows and each square pulled a slat of yellow over the yard. It was a sunken home. It had a small wire fence and the grass was wilted. There was a cement walkway that led up to a red stoop and on top of it lay two plastic chairs: one turned over on its side. It was a pink house, flanked by two arid plots, and I could hear its women weeping inside.
My phone hummed on the passenger seat.
It was a call from my dispatcher, and I turned it over to hide its face against my thigh. I didn’t want to speak to Leonard, but I knew he wouldn’t stop calling me about the side. I waited for it to shake again. Then I turned it over to look at what he’d sent.
That was his offer.
Earlier that night, he’d called me up for the side when I’d taken out the van.
“Cue me your location,” he’d said.
“I’m on the road, Leonard. I’m two blocks down from the site.”
Then he’d gone quiet. Leonard liked to be called Larry on call nights.
“Good,” he said. “Now listen.”
I listened. He pressed the phone against his bulk and moved. Leonard shifted his feet across the floor and I could tell he was searching his box for quiet.
“Listen,” he said. “They’ve found a girl there.”
He dropped his voice to a whisper. On Leonard, a whisper came out in hisses, but he was a man who felt favored by them. He didn’t like the men he shared his box with, he said.
Our dispatch office, where Larry made his calls, was housed in a shipping container in a township on our west coast. The settlement was reported as modest in our city records, which meant that privacy was a thing its people only heard rumors about.
The boxes were rent-fixed and corrugated to streamline insulation, Leonard said, and often, he’d take a chair out to smoke a cigarette on the gravel patch outside his own, sunning himself while he joked about the closeness of our toilets and the likelihood of illness.
The boxes were shanties, each fitted into rows that made up one of the city’s many squatter-camp holds, and most of us could never tell if Leonard meant the pride he displayed at living in one — inside a plywood shack, a zinc four-corner, or the new shipping containers that were stolen and sold to us from the south harbor — as a method of injuring our own. Our dispatcher often had a grin he wouldn’t drop whenever he stepped out of a box.
I remembered the first time I signed up with him. He’d had the four of us stand outside his box for an hour before he swung his arms up and laughed. Then he’d pointed us to a van that sat on cinder blocks across the way, rusting at a crooked angle under the sun.
It was all that remained of the hospital men, he said. Then he read our call sheets back to us and we each left feeling better than we had the previous morning. It had excited us, in the end, that a man in our business could carry on him the smell of meat.
“Larry,” I said. “I’m not doing any more sides. I’ve been put on medicine.”
“I know, just hear me out. This is an open option. You touch her or you don’t. The deal’s going for five hundred. That’s all I’m saying.”
I heard him trap his bad cough. Leonard had a bad cough he liked to trap inside his chest. It burnt him before he’d lay a fist on his ribs to wheeze it out.
“Just think it over,” he said.
“I don’t think I will, Larry.”
“I don’t think I will, Larry,” he said.
I could see him throwing his arms up in his box, the sweat beads tracking down his nose as he heated up. That was good. It left me satisfied to think of Leonard that way.
I had my doors locked and my windows rolled. The yellow light from the call fell on my hood as I waited in the car. From behind the wheel, I could see birds slicing across the pane.
Then I took a moment to think about the side.
Most of us called them sides from how we’d find them, but just as often, it was to keep the men from thinking of their names. Most of the girls we found were children, but we could never tell when we’d come across one, or how they’d come to find the floor of a house. Most times, all we could do was knock on a door and wait.
“It’s all good luck,” Leonard would say. “If you don’t touch this girl, you’d have to walk out and fill your head with whatever you’re leaving her to.”
“You could leave her to rest.”
“You could leave her to rest,” he’d say. “Not even on her feet. Listen to yourself.”
I never knew what to tell him. Often, we’d find the sides in worse shape than we did their calls. It didn’t help to tell a house to let them go, either, since none of them ever did.
“Let them go where?” they’d say, and I never answered.
Instead, I always wondered what Leonard would tell them.
If Pa lived, he’d be halfway down the length of his bottle. It set him drinking, to be sent out on calls. Pa needed a big fog in his head to bring his hands to use, and he couldn’t do the work they gave him when his head was clear. He wasn’t much good at it, he used to say.
Maybe I’d see him too, I thought, darting under their lights. Outside, the ravens circled a narrow berth around the roof of the house, keeping a close vigil on where the tiles had been set to hold up the vane. I couldn’t tell if it creaked under their cries or not, but the tin looked old to me, like it leaned on something crooked. Maybe it had a burden on its side like Pa.
I kept my eyes up. One of the birds came down to claw at my hood. I watched her climb up the van and open her beak, and the two of us stared before she flew back when I knocked on the dash.
Then I stepped out for a smoke. Down the road I could see the railway line, and it gave me thoughts of leaving, to look at an old house like that. I was put on medicine, I thought. Maybe work won’t take away what’s left of me.
Inside the van, I stuck my hand in the dash. I found an empty bottle, a nip standing on its head at the back of the hole. I’d been off bottles since I started on my meds; I couldn’t tell if I missed them or not. They took away my time, but left a sweet taste in my smokes.
I felt for my bag. Pa’s the one who’d taught me how to tie a bag. He said to find loam and to break the loam with ivy. Pa could fill up with lessons for me on a drive. He didn’t mind the hospital men, he said. It kept the hospital men quiet, and each man could keep an eye out on the road. None of them could figure Pa from his work. It kept him drinking, when he didn’t have a word to spare. I still thought about him.
I closed my dash and found my amulet. I always let it dangle down my front. It was a small disc, the size of a rand, and I let it hang down from a knot of twine.
The air was warm. Daylight heated the roads leading down from the mountain, raising the smell of tar that hung over their yard. My call had a broken gate. The bottom wire was trapped, and it scraped out runnels on the soil when I pushed it. I thought about how that gate felt like an omen. I remembered Pa’s large hands on my shoulders, the smell of whiskey on my skin. My father told me never to run when he took me on calls. I knocked twice on their door. Then turned around to cast an eye over my van.
Often on the road I saw the night sky rising in black bars between their houses, and I heard the voices of their women push themselves up against the panes. Tomorrow night would mark the start of another set of calls being taken down at the boxes, which would bring with it more roads, and I would knock on their doors until none of us were left.
The cries stopped and a woman arrived to work on the latch. On the threshold, she was wearing a black tunic, the cloth fitting her like a loose tube.
“We didn’t know you were here.”
“It’s all right,” I said. “How long’s he been down?”
“It’s been a day, sir. We brought him in from the clinic.”
I nodded and watched as she pulled a key from her chain.
“Where is he?”
“The kitchen, sir.”
“You don’t want to bury this man?” I said. “You’ve decided this?”
“Please, sir,” she smiled and unlocked the gate. “Could you follow me?”
I followed her.
We walked into a narrow hall. The house was sunk under the smell of damp wood and paraffin fire; there was a gray carpet leading up to the kitchen, and the living room was small, crowded with couches kept inside cracked plastic sheets.
“I’m Wezile,” she said, and I nodded. I never gave my name out on calls.
“The largest space we have is the kitchen.”
Locking the door, she apologized and returned to my side.
“Everything has been cleared for you.”
Her head was hung low, and I could see where her sallow skin had started to crease. Her eyes fell in crests at the edges of her face, but each orb was still brilliant from her tears.
“On Monday, Mister started complaining of a pain in his chest. He woke up screaming in his bed, sir, and he told us he was being stabbed.”
“How many of you live here?”
“Four,” she said.
Her fingers rose over her shoulder as she led me down the hall toward the kitchen, which was lit up at the far end of the passage.
I couldn’t see the others, but there was a window hung on the opposite wall. It had no curtains, and as we drew close, a raven swooped past the pane.
“What does he do for work?”
“Mister drives a truck from Durban, sir. He has his job with petroleum.”
We walked into the kitchen and she pointed to the others. They were all dressed in the same tunic, kneeling on the lino and crouching around the body.
I stood at the door. I could see the chest on the man, but not Leonard’s side.
“The healer is here,” Wezile said, and each of them turned, reaching up to greet me.
“I need you to find something to cover that window with,” I said from the door. “Then I need you to bring me two buckets. Fill only the one with water.”
Wezile left, and when she returned she used a white tablecloth to drape the kitchen window. She opened the cabinets below the sink and pulled out two buckets; one of them was blue and the other was silver. I watched her let the water drum against the plastic base, which left the rest of us standing behind her in silence.
I decided to walk in and shake their hands. Even though they offered me their names, I wouldn’t keep them. I was on a call. On a call, one name meant more than enough.
The man lay on his back and the women parted as I drew close.
He was dressed up. They’d fitted him inside a gray suit with a silk tie. His feet were covered in navy socks, and each foot was tied under a polished brogue. The costume didn’t surprise me. Most of the calls we got had trouble separating our work from a burial. They wanted this man on his feet but had prepared him for a casket. I knew it from the nights I used to go on the road with Pa. It’s only the fear of a house, he used to say.
I dropped my bag and placed a hand over his chin. His breath felt light on my fingers.
Then I asked Wezile for salt.
Uncapping the blue lid on her shaker, I poured two handfuls into the bucket. Then I stirred it in with my hand, feeling the sharp plastic ridges raised at the bottom. My plastic bag lay slumped by my side. I used my free hand to undo its knot and dug my fingers into the loam, sifting it for ivy. I was on my knees when I turned back to face him.
My call looked comatose.
His skin was peeling off his cheeks and his eyes were sunken under the brow. His nose was narrow, the mouth below it pursed, and even at his age, which I thought of as 55, his frame was large but sinewy. He had taut neck muscles and his hands were upturned at his sides. Each was the size of a child’s boxing mitt.
I looked up again.
“Did this man beat any of you?”
They were quiet. I flicked the water off my fingers and steadied the bucket.
“Not often,” Wezile said.
I nodded. It was better if a house offered us the truth. That’s what Pa used to say. I still remembered the nights he’d take me on bad calls. My father always left a body cold if the house wasn’t dealing him straight. There wasn’t much of a point to it, he’d say.
I undid the man’s tie. It was folded tight, and I had to turn the ribbon over his neck to push his collar open. Then I started on the buttons.
“Did he live inside?”
“Mostly, sir. We have another room at the back.”
Wezile shuffled to my side and I thought of Leonard again.
“Sir, could I get you something to drink?”
I shook my head as she got to her feet.
I thought I could hear her bones creak over the lino.
On the floor, I parted the man’s gray lapels and broke open the rest of his buttons. I felt my patience slipping. On my knees, I watched as the buttons scattered and sank into the crevices below the cabinets. I wanted them to look for each of those pellets after I left. They’d find them sitting behind spiderwebs clutching half-eaten husks, I thought, and maybe then they’d stop to consider this man’s prey.
“I need you to bring me a blade.”
Wezile nodded and left the kitchen. I turned back to the others.
“You don’t keep any Bibles here?”
They stared at me before the tallest one nodded. She was thin and looked to be the youngest. Her skin was firm and as sallow as the first’s. I told her to come closer.
“I need you to take those out of the house,” I said to the rest. “Take the crosses, too.”
I turned back to the girl.
“You’ll have to touch him. I need you to open his mouth.”
The girl nodded and knelt down; straddling his head with her knees, she pried his mouth open and kneaded him in both cheeks to keep his jaws split. I could tell she’d lost any feeling she might’ve once held for him.
I watched her work. The girl’s hands were steady, and she only jumped when the first bird clattered its beak against the window. I also looked up then. It wouldn’t be long until they came at the pane like hail.
“Don’t be afraid,” I said. “They’ll leave when we’re done.”
I sat back. I could feel the itch of the ivy climbing up my fingers. It formed a red rash around my fist and I pushed my hand back in the bag until it was covered with loam. Then I shook my amulet out of my shirt and pulled my fist out again, full of soil, and poured the loam over each of his eyes. Then I filled up his mouth.
I now needed to cut him, but Wezile wasn’t around.
“You can let go of him,” I said. “I need you to take off his socks.”
The girl undid his laces as I turned to scan the kitchen for knives. I was at the counter when Wezile walked back in and handed me a pack of razors. I took one before we gathered around the call. The girl knelt down. Wezile stepped a foot away from us.
“How many of you did he rape?” I asked.
They didn’t answer, and I turned back to the girl.
“It was all of us,” she said.
I nodded. Then, for a reason I couldn’t tell, the action made me relent. I decided to ask her for her name. She told me it was Lindiwe, and there was a lull as I took it in. Then Wezile walked to the counter and uncrossed her arms.
“Will he be good now?”
I didn’t answer. They always asked me this, and I never told them. I never believed I could change what a call was, and I never came back to find out if I did. I only had the words I’d once heard Pa use on a house.
“I’ll drain him,” I said. “Then I’ll take on what’s inside him.”
Wezile moved back with the girl. I took off my amulet and pressed it down on his chest. Keeping the disk in place, I used the blade to trace a small circle around the rim. The man’s blood seeped and I peeled off his skin. Then I leaned forward to remove the charm.
“You’ve hidden her,” I said.
The two of them remained silent, but each stood with their faces turned toward me.
“Sir, we had no other choice.”
Wezile paced across the kitchen and stopped.
“We didn’t know if we had your help.”
I stood up and held my amulet; Lindiwe turned her face down and shook her head.
“We should let him rot, sisi. This is costing us a fortune. We should use this money on the house. We don’t have a guarantee he’ll change.”
“This man is a healer, Lindiwe. You must trust in his work.”
“Healer? He won’t trust it himself, sisi. He tells us of draining. What is draining?”
The girl wasn’t wrong, but Wezile stood unmoved. The elder wanted to know if I could turn their man into a saint, and I couldn’t. Instead, I shrugged, feeling tired for each of us.
“He’ll walk,” I said. “Now I need you to tell me where you’ve hidden the child.”
“She’s in the flat, sir.”
I waited for more, but both of them were still. I could tell the other two with the crosses wouldn’t return.
“Well, I want to see her,” I said.
“Please, sir. We can bring her after.”
I shook my head.
“She’s in the bathtub,” Lindiwe said. “I carried her in last night.”
We headed for the bath. Lindiwe led us down the hall and we entered the last door before the lounge, where the light switch wouldn’t turn, gluing us to the frame.
I could make out the child’s limbs. Her right arm and leg were slung over the rim and there was no scent inside, only the faint smell of old detergent. Her head was rolled back with its top against the wall, and she stared open-mouthed at a place beyond the ceiling, looking older, I thought, than what Leonard had sent me for.
I heaved her up. Taking her by the underarms, I draped her over my shoulder and wedged myself between the women. Then I started down the hallway, feeling leaden in all my limbs.
“The man said you would take five hundred for her,” Wezile said, but I didn’t answer.
“Please, sir, don’t let this stop you.”
“It won’t stop me,” I said. I laid the girl down on the floor.
“We also want this child to live,” she said.
I never knew if any of them did.
I once asked Pa why he had a house take away its Bibles when they called for him, but he never answered me. He only took me by the hand and led me out to the back of our box, where he handed me his coat and laid himself out on the soil. Then he told me he was a call and that I had to work on him.
The late sun fell flat on my back as I took out the bag. It drew small shadows that deepened the grooves in his neck, and I stuck my tongue out to think. I didn’t nick him in the vein. Pa grew his nostrils, and I was almost done with him when he laughed.
He reached into his shirt and pulled out his amulet with the string. Then he reached in again and pulled out a crucifix.
I tried to work through my anger.
“What’s it for?” I asked, but he only laughed.
Then he got up and beat the dust from his coat.
We were both inside when he told me none of them knew.
The girl’s braids had fallen in a tangled web around her head, and I could see they hadn’t dressed her. She was in a threadbare nightgown and its white flaps were open at the sides, revealing her naked body, which lay unmarked on the kitchen floor. My call must’ve used his hands, I thought. Then I searched her neck and found her pulse.
This came as part of the job.
Dispatchers kept dropping their ages to bait us out on calls. It was an old practice; sides meant a double cinch for men who worked dispatch, but depending on their age, it made the job tough for a man on the road. We got sick from taking on old sides.
I told Wezile I’d take her water, and when she returned, she carried a yellow enamel cup, brimming and dented around the lip, and set it shaking at my side.
“Sir, maybe I could go get you the money now?”
“No. I need you to see if this works.”
The water wasn’t too cold. I drained the cup and went over to the girl. Pulling the saltwater bucket toward me, I dipped and rinsed both hands before I arranged her head next to the man’s. How many times had he arranged them just this way, I thought, the head of a predator along its prey. Then I started on her with the loam. I went over each of her eyes before filling up her mouth. Then Wezile handed me a fresh blade, and I placed the disk on her chest. Her skin was soft, and it didn’t take much to peel a piece off.
I took some of her with me to the call. On my knees, I pushed the amulet back inside his wound and touched him on the crown. I cupped the top of his skull with my fingertips and eased my hand behind the back of his head, which, even shaved, felt hefty on my palm.
Then I breathed twice and he jumped.
The ebb took him whole, lifting his back in an arch before planting his feet on the floor. I pushed my other palm under his back, and that took what was left of me. It didn’t take long before I passed out, kneeling crooked at the sides of his head.
Opening my eyes, again, I saw him touch back on the floor. I’d seen too many men fall on their backs, I thought, and I turned his head over, spilling the soil in a slush out of his mouth. The ravens cawed outside, and my call began to choke. He doubled over on his side and gripped his stomach, filling back into what should’ve been left a corpse.
I thought of that. Maybe Pa took me out on too many calls.
They used to cover my eyes when my father started raising.
I used to stand waist-high against the women inside a house, and before he’d lay his hands on a call, he’d tell them to cup a palm over my eyes. I knew my father’s men from their smell before I ever saw them jumping off their floors. It was a smell I knew. It pushed into the room and filled me with a picture of home. I remembered the rain, and how we used to stalk each other’s backyards for worms. Our boxes had no wires back then, and when the gas hissed low, we’d stoke a fire and lay it out on the hearth. The firewood would take on the form of charred bones, and underneath it, below sheets of rusted zinc, we’d discover the worms and their holes. Later, when I rode with Pa on his calls, I could remember those days. I could remember the smell that came with the burden of winter.
It smelled of wet ash.
The scent filled the room, and Wezile walked over with water for the call. I motioned for her to keep her distance, but only the young one listened; she caught her elder by the shoulders and drew her back, keeping them stood in place by the counter.
Then I turned and took another look at him.
Their choking often came with the smell. Calls would convulse before they fell silent again, at which point they’d fall into the slumber of a stone. It was what I treasured most about the road. We never got to see these men walking inside their homes.
I bent down and held his head. Then I rinsed the rest of the soil from him by cupping saltwater and splashing it inside his mouth. On waking up, he’d feel as good as buried. The thirst would make his skin feel tender but taut, and his meat would clutch hard against the bone.
I looked up again.
“Wezile, I’ll need you to bring me the money now,” I said.
“Of course, sir.”
“The birds are gone,” Lindiwe said when Wezile left. She looked up to study the tablecloth, keeping her eyes strayed far from the girl.
“They were here for Vuyani,” I told her.
I didn’t know why I’d taken on his name, but that was what most of us would tell them. The truth was that the ravens had only started perching on their houses a year ago. There were reports that they’d been drawn to the cape by a change in climate, and others that pinned it to the city’s rise in carrion. I could never tell. It seemed, on most days, that it was all of us who were headed toward waste.
Lindiwe paused and faced down again.
“This is not a good thing we did,” she said. “I can tell from how you work you don’t think it’s a good thing.”
I shrugged. I arranged the girl’s braids on the side of her face and spread the roots of her hair to reveal her crown. I was back on my knees, again, and I shuffled closer to her.
“I brought her in last night,” Lindiwe said. “Sisi thinks I don’t know what he is, but I know. I knew when I came here. Maybe the others don’t.”
I asked her about them.
“They’ve gone to pray with Tatu’Mthembu, sir. He’s a churchman down the road from here. That’s where they took their Bibles when you asked. He’ll charge them, of course.”
“Did you know?”
“No, I only knew after. Mister won’t allow us in the yard. It was after he fell that we went back there. Look.”
She knelt down and held the girl’s wrists. Then she did the same with her ankles.
“That’s how we found her. Mister had her chained to the bed.”
I nodded. The girl’s ankles and wrists were raw around the ends.
“In the clinic, they said Mister was asleep. They told Wezile to take him home and pray. They never say if a person has it.”
“When did Vuyani get you?”
Lindiwe shrugged. “I was given to him. I’m from the farms.”
Then she brushed a braid off the girl’s face.
“Look, this one’s even younger than me.”
I nodded again. Wezile returned with the money and handed it to me wound in a thin elastic band. I counted fifties, making sure it balanced the amount.
Vuyani had fallen asleep.
“You can take him, now,” I said. “He’ll be awake this time tomorrow night.”
“He won’t remember anything about today,” I said, “but like I told you, I don’t know what kind of man he is.”
“Thank you,” Wezile said, handing me the money for the girl.
I took it and squeezed the fifties inside the band with the rest, pushing it deep inside my pocket. It was always different with a side. There were houses that buried these girls.
I took my amulet out and pressed it down on her wound. Then I placed my fingers on her head and waited, but nothing came. I eased my palm behind her back and waited a moment longer, but nothing caught. I tried it again and she was still.
Wezile walked over to Vuyani and asked Lindiwe to help carry him to his room. Lindiwe hesitated and turned to me, but I told her to go on — I watched them hold him up by the ankles and wrists, dragging him from the kitchen like a sack of driftwood.
I touched the girl again, but nothing took. I felt surprised at the amount of effort I used. I plucked the amulet out and wiped it on both sides with my thumb. Then I ran the twine through its hole and pushed it back in again, but nothing stirred.
I sat back and watched her breathe.
In the other room, I could hear them drop Vuyani over his bedsprings.
I’d cleared her hair, I thought, revealing her crown, but nothing had worked. I could feel the heat from my illness reaching up to my ears.
This sickness often came with the job. Calls could dispense a residue inside the body, an effluvium borne from their closeness to death, which went straight to the bowels. We often prepared for this by keeping the second bucket unfilled.
I reached for mine next to the call.
On my feet again, I searched for the door.
My stomach moved in a circle behind me. I’d planned to touch them both before I got sick, but the girl wouldn’t take. I didn’t know why she wouldn’t take.
I found the kitchen door and undid the bolt. Leaving the key in the hole, I pushed the wood against the wall. The tablecloth fell off the window, and I pushed outside to heave.
The night air cooled my sweat.
Leaning against the wall, I stood with my legs parted on the soil. Insects tittered inside the grass, invisible under squares of weak moonlight, which oozed like a thin film over the yard. The smell pierced my throat and I fumbled toward the tap.
Under the kitchen window, I released my sick into the grille.
Then I opened the tap and ran the water, splattering more vomit on the drain.
I thought about my father and how he never got sick on the job. Pa could pat his palms on a call before getting back on his feet. It was only a nip that could set him back on his knees.
There were times Pa’s drinking could get the better of us. My father could walk in from a tavern with scars hatched across his forearms like a trawling net, and I couldn’t keep his clothes on him when it was time to set him down for sleep.
This would happen during our winters.
Pa would kick at the walls of our box and swear, raising our pots, and then he’d begin to strip himself bare. I’d have to stoke a fire for the paraffin stove before heaving it inside. The rain would tap over the lid and the hearth and I would watch as the flames tinted the mesh dome a bright orange, a color that often put both of us to sleep.
I closed the tap and stumbled over the grass. Pulling the bucket to my elbow, I stood in the clear night. In the distance, on the road, I could make out the van. I was standing inside a small yard, I thought, caged by a low fence. I could see the lights burning inside the flat.
I turned back toward the kitchen.
Opening the door, I slid my arms through the crack and removed the keys. Then, dropping them in my pocket, I walked back in.
The air was muggy. I closed the girl’s nightgown and pulled her over my shoulder. I could hear Lindiwe and Wezile’s footsteps, the pair thumping down the hall as I closed the door behind us. Outside again, I locked the two of us out.
The girl’s braids had fallen over her face, and her mouth hung open against her neck. I propped her back against the wall and felt the last dregs of nausea subside. This side is a child, I thought. Then I spat into the soil and turned back to the flat.
This was where her life had halted. I pulled her over my shoulder and started with her across the yard. I headed toward the flat, not knowing what else I hoped to find.
The girl’s braids kept falling over my back as I walked, and each strand felt like the whip of a dry vine. I winced at each lash, thinking maybe they’d shriveled from a poison inside.
I could hear the door open and lock again. I knew Wezile had a spare key for the kitchen, but when I looked back, I saw the lights flicker before they blinked off.
I carried the girl across the yard.
Reaching the flat, I unshouldered her and leaned her back against the wall. Her head was tilted toward her chest, her face staring out at the open road.
They’d hung a lot of keys on the hoop. I tried the first and it picked loosely inside the lock. The second was a fit, but it wouldn’t turn, and the third was too big for the hole. I tried the fourth and it caught and shifted, but it was a stubborn lock. I had to use both hands to set it loose. Then I pushed the door open, waited a moment, and turned around again.
It wasn’t far from my van.
I thought of leaving the girl by the door, and then I decided to.
I was already on my way out when I turned back.
I thought of how Leonard did his work.
I didn’t want to be like how Leonard did his work.
Most of us knew there wasn’t much our dispatcher wouldn’t do to pull a coin from the hands of a poor house. Leonard nursed a habit of fielding us calls that arrived from the men who’d done the most harm in their homes. Our dispatcher was never bothered by the state we’d find their sides in, and often he had nothing to say, either, except to tell us to hike up our fees if we felt the need to settle our stomachs.
The flat was small. It had a naked bulb, fitted sideways across the ceiling, which threw down a fluorescent light, sinking most of the shadows beneath the bed and the cabinets. The room was also clean, with stale air, a scent of polish and candle wax, and it had a bare cement floor with a single bed pushed up against a pocked wall. Next to the bed stood a narrow wardrobe: the door had been loosened from the hinges and now lay on its back against the unit, revealing a cracked full-length mirror. Lining the wall were tapered posters of soccer players, the papers gone yellow from time, below which, in a far corner, stood a blue bucket, halfway filled with water and ringed with a scatter of matches. There was no bedding drawn on the mattress. The windows had been left bare, the panes cracked between the bars.
I went back for the girl. I pulled her up and laid her over the mattress. Under the bed, I found the chains. They looked new, as if bought in time for her.
I couldn’t find her clothes. I pushed her closer to the wall and sat on the edge of the bed with the chains. Then I pulled on them again, but the locks wouldn’t turn.
I walked to the wardrobe. There were blue overalls hanging down from the rod, and beneath them an assortment of clothes folded in a loose pile. I pulled out a shirt with the logo of a trucking company — a gray pair of pleated pants. Then I threw them back on the pile.
The chains weren’t long. I pulled on each from the foot of the bed, and both of them caught. Then, when I pulled on them again, I felt something groan against the cement.
I got on my knees and found the trunk beneath the bed. It was green and dented. The handles were padlocked to the links.
I decided to arrange the chains on the bed. I could tie them back on and touch her, I thought, but I’d left my loam on the floor inside the kitchen.
Tired, I stood up for breath.
Then I lingered for a moment.
I thought about Leonard and how he did his work.
I didn’t want to be like how Leonard did his work.
I decided to take the girl back to the van, and it didn’t take me long to drag us across the yard. I unshouldered her into the backseat and started the car. Then I watched my phone on the passenger seat. I had an urge to leave it dead at the call.
Exhaling again, I thought of my father.
I shifted into second and drove out to Mowbray, parking the van at the edge of the station, open for the next man on call. My breath drew a thin mist across the pane, and I reached over and wiped it, revealing a strip of lights that lined the horizon on Kewtown.
The city had droned down to silence, and I took a moment to breathe.
My father never drove himself to a fortune. Pa never stayed long enough on the city roads after taking up his calls. He’d grown up in a village, he often said, one built inside the pit of a narrow valley, a small strip shouldered by a bow of low-lying hills.
Often at dawn, a blue fog would roll down from the sides of the escarpment, and the mist would cloak itself around their doors as it moistened the windows under the thatch. Pa said this fog came down all year, and sometimes it would fall on them as thick as rain.
They used to call it the night spirit, he told me, and in the mornings, it would draw moisture from their noses for half an hour before it lifted off the crests.
Then the midday sun would drag itself over the valley and beat down on their compound: this from the dirt road that trailed out to the nearby villages and led them out to sea, and also from the rear, where the hills widened and joined the mountains that marked the start of the provinces in the north. Pa said this was his home, and one moment it was frozen over, while the other it grew so hot it appeared to be drowning.
I turned off the ignition and leaned back in the seat, not far from where I paid for my room. Then I walked out and left the car unlocked, with the keys spread out on the passenger.
Opening the gate to Ma Thano’s hair salon, I carried the girl inside. I could feel the world grow still as we took cover under the back of my shed. I looked out the window as I laid her down, and I couldn’t tell what it was I wanted to see: if it was my father who’d one day walk across the pane, or if it was the spirit he’d warned me of.