Darkest noon

2013-10-09 00:00

HIS head exploded into a million shards of skull. Morsels of minced scalp and brains splattered onto the roofless walls, our school uniforms and them.

Darkness came down on both of us kids like a heavy, soiled blanket. That war was a scavenger of many who flew too close to the sun in 1989, and it spewed its sulphuric lava even on the lame and weak. Mpumalanga Township, in Hammarsdale, was at war and blood was flowing like the waters of Howick Falls.

I remember an old, wrinkled man (I never got to know him) who clung to a cane when he walked, carrying a bulging, Edwardian-looking leather suitcase that matched the troubled skin of his face.

We knew that something was up when we saw one of the township bandits pushing a motor vehicle tyre, which was then nicknamed “the necklace”. His long, scarred face was immensely grim with an equally sinister smirk that spelt trouble. He was the most feared of all our elected goons and even our side whispered his name. His cheers always heralded the arrival of some kind of doom for all who found themselves in his clutches.

He sang struggle songs as he went, yelling: “Sizoyotha inja!” (We are going to burn this dog). Out of childish curiosity, we followed him and we later learnt that his struggle songs weren’t necessary, because there was to be no struggle whatsoever and no “dog” to burn.

The streets became deadly quiet as people swiftly retreated into their homes, probably to mind their walls, but my friend and I didn’t shy away from what we thought we knew was about to happen. The most gruesome, grisly occurrence I have witnessed to date, awaited our arrival.

We heard that the old man had stepped off a few bus stops too early. Wrong stop, wrong time. He asked for directions at one of the houses by the road. Apparently, he was first invited into the house for a sip or two of umqombothi beer and was also given something to eat, with a promise that they were going to take him to his relatives’ house that he sought. They knew that the house he was looking for was on the other side — the opposition side.

He was so happy and gullible that he had received such welcome from his “compatriots”, and after one too many sips of beer, started singing praise songs of the opposition. His hosts gladly joined in and sang along. He hailed his leader and nonchalantly related to them how his sons had organised bloodshed of the members of his opposition (our side), fuelling their anger even further. There was forced cheering and ululating from the offended listeners, but not for long.

We first saw him being escorted out by five impis after his final drink of beer. He seemed in high spirits and had a distinct spring in his step as they led him into one of the ruined houses that had been burnt during a violent altercation between the two sides. The old man didn’t even see his necklace leaning against the wall by the doorless frame.

The stabbing started as soon as they stepped inside the lifeless house and we, as if shackled, stood by the doorway and watched — too young and too petrified to scream or run, for we knew pretty well what fate awaited telltales and sell-outs.

I remember the look of shock and utter disbelief on the old man’s face when they pulled out their knives. The pilgrim soul in me knew then that the stories weren’t just stories, that a living monster was literally raising its dagger in front of us — shaking the very ground we stood on.

The old man did try to run and fight, but was outnumbered and cornered. The bleeding saw to it that he had no chance against the skilled youngsters who were busy carving holes into his flesh with knives that were as big as maize leaves. I don’t remember the old man crying out for help. Actually, he didn’t.

It was like looking inside the torture chamber of hell — we were breathless and spellbound. Time stood still. Maybe there was no time at all. The devil was undoubtedly at play there and there were no tricks or special effects to deem it as a hoax.

There were two knives to share between the five of them — a few stabs each and then the knife was swiftly thrown to the fastest thug to lunge forward for it. Obviously well-rehearsed moves. It was almost like a game or some cold entertainment that was accompanied by their heartless chortles.

As the old man fell to the ground, he looked straight into my eyes. A poignant stare that shrieked into my heart. Was he asking me to tell them to get it over and done with? Or silently saying: “My poor children. Don’t look.”?

I remember cold sweat chilling my spine and armpits as that noiseless moment froze time. I hadn’t an inkling of what it meant then, but I do now. My gut was in a huge knot and my breath caught in my throat.

The carving stopped after he hit the floor and they all stood over the oozing old man like starved vultures, arguing about who was going to “finish him off”. One of them kneeled and grabbed his prize by the head from its pool of redness, rammed his knife into his feeble throat and sawed until it hung only by one carotid. There was a loud, unpleasant gurgling sound as blood rushed into his lungs. His limp body convulsed vigorously.

My mind briefly strayed from that site and wandered away. It was like a dreadful dream. I silently begged my feet to carry me away as his head hit the floor again with an unnerving hollow thud that shook me awake. His eyes were dead now, and tears flowed from them and mixed with the pooling blood he lay on.

I stirred, but in vain. The performance demanded an audience.

No amount of anything dead or alive warranted what they did next. I mean the man was dead — mauled and very dead actually. But somehow they felt like he wasn’t dead enough and poured a whole gallon of petrol all over him (the necklace wouldn’t go around what was left of his dangling neck).

As he was set alight and the tyre placed on top of him, it bellowed tarry black smoke in the air and made the scene as dark as night — dark.

I was like a hypnotised person as I watched the old man tossed and turned to allow the guzzling flames to do a proper job. The game had turned into an unpalatable braai and the smell of burning human flesh became unbearable.

After his head exploded with a deafening bang and we got brains all over our school uniforms, I ran and my friend followed after some hesitation, as if he hadn’t had enough of the show. The explosion awakened me from that zombie state into a frenzied gallop. Each to his house and each to himself. Never to speak of it again.

Our young lives knew that what we had witnessed was not a normal sight for anybody, let alone two fragile kids. Something inside me was lost that day, something pure and innocent took leave forever. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for my friend.

The smell of burning flesh lingered about me for years on end as if it was branding me as a prime suspect and worse, a participant of that slaughter. A terrible fear of getting lost and asking for directions became common.

To this very day, if I happen to walk past that house (which has since been rebuilt by the government), I cringe when imagining the air blowing his ashes towards me. Then with that inner eye, I see his pleading eyes again. I retch.

So many stories have been told of that long-gone violence, but the old man’s story wasn’t. Definitely not by me. I’m the only one left to tell it as my friend took a turn for the worse and became the township rogue himself. Evidently, the experience appealed to him more than it affected him. He was shot and killed a few years later.

That gore and cruelty remains astoundingly palpable to me and sparks a grave hunger inside me to tell. Probably to heal my aching soul.

May the stories of the old man and my friend be reminders that we should never ever again go back to such shameful hatred and ignorance, so that our country’s children can walk through life in daylight and have no darkness fall on them.

• We will be publishing stories by the finalists in our True Stories of KZN 2013 competition in the next few months, before announcing the winners in the last week of November.

JOE Spirit was born in Mpumalanga Township, Hammarsdale, a place that was an inferno in the mid-eighties and early nineties. The ugly ruins of that era are still in the hearts of many there. He makes mental notes of the things that happen to and around him, especially those that touched his soul. He loves to travel and doesn’t like to conform to standards. His first story won the True Stories of KZN competition last year. He would rather smoke and write than engage in senseless talk.

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