New short fiction: ‘Looking for Simphiwe’ by Sifiso Mzobe

The JRB is proud to present a new short story by award-winning author Sifiso Mzobe.

Mzobe was born and bred in Umlazi, Durban. His debut novel, Young Blood, won the Herman Charles Bosman Award, the Sunday Times Fiction Prize, the South African Literary Award for a First-Time Published Author and the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa.

He is currently working on a new novel, with the working title Durban December, as well as a collection of short stories.

~~~

Looking for Simphiwe

The knock on our kitchen door did not sound particularly urgent, but I did suspect it had something to do with my brother, Simphiwe. I shared a room with him: my fifteen-year-old troublemaker of a brother. In a descent too fast—only three months—he went from being a karate-loving child of great promise to an out-and-out lost one. I curse the day he started smoking wunga. That poison turned him into a common neighbourhood thief.

I had fought for Simphiwe’s honour when the very first allegations of stealing clothes from washing lines were linked to his name, only to find he really was the thief. I slapped him when he stole and sold my cellphone. I lost it and decked him when he pinched cash from Ma’s purse. Then I had to recoup our household appliances from the wunga merchant—all sold to him by Simphiwe.

‘Khulekani, someone’s here for you,’ Ma called out.

I didn’t answer: I had just noticed that next to my flip-flops, the box with my new sneakers was empty. I imagined the foul things, in dirty places, that Simphiwe was stepping on with my new sneakers; saw visions of him high after he sold them for a wunga hit.

Before he became a wunga boy, we had shared some of my older T-shirts. When Ma forced us to go to church, I let him choose from my smarter clothes. But Simphiwe stopped loving himself after he inhaled that first wunga drag. His side of the room became untidy, his bed never made.

‘Simphiwe needs a klap,’ I said to the mirror, before finally responding to my mother’s call.

I walked out to see scrawny Boy Boy, another wunga slave, waiting outside the front door.

‘I was just checking on Simphiwe,’ he told me. ‘I heard he was in a fight at the wunga spot. Is he here?’ Boy Boy couldn’t look me straight in the eye. He scratched the back of his head, arms and shoulders—tell-tale signs that he yearned for a hit.

‘You know I don’t entertain his nonsense. It has nothing to do with me. It’s his life not mine. He is not here.’

I was going to close the door, but he went on.

‘I thought, as his older brother, you should know,’ he said, his scratching growing vigorous.

‘What’s wrong with you?’ I asked.

‘I need a hit. Do you have five rand, Khulekani? I want to buy bread.’

‘You just told me you need a hit, Boy Boy.’

He got my drift, understood he was not going to get a cent out of me. I fumed at Simphiwe’s latest stunt, my vanished sneakers and the dead gaze in Boy Boy’s eyes. It all worsened the hangover I had.

I decided to drink some water and nap it off, waking up to a silhouette at my door an hour later. It was Ma.

‘You know I’ve never dreamed of your father since he passed, but I just saw him now in my dreams. He told me Simphiwe is in trouble,’ she said.

‘Simphiwe does this every weekend. He’ll be back. Besides Ma, I have tests this week. I need to study.’

‘Shut up and listen to me.’ Tears filled her eyes and she went on. ‘Your father said Simphiwe is in trouble and you must look for him. And that is exactly what you are going to do.’

Simphiwe had been going AWOL over weekends regularly, so to me it really was no big deal. But I was alarmed by what Ma had said, and how she said it. I ran out of the house.

The change in my little brother’s life had been so swift. It was painful to witness: the lies, the stealing, the shame he brought to the family. My dad must have been turning in his grave.

I tore open a new airtime voucher and thought angrily of my sneakers—brand new, and two sizes too big for Simphiwe. I had saved to buy them by bussing tables after my classes at tech. Since Simphiwe’s antics were not good for my studying, I usually crashed with friends on campus and only saw Ma and the troublemaker on weekends. It was a fine arrangement, and I was on course to finish my Tourism diploma on time.

Cold, bottled water lifted the weight from a heavy night. I had partied after my shift, got home an hour before sunrise. Blocking thoughts of Simphiwe, I decided to rather call the beautiful girl I had met at the party. She’d stood out, the only dread in a sea of weaves.

While punching in the voucher PIN I made out the scrawny frame of Boy Boy with another wunga addict on the outskirts of my peripheral vision. They looked lost. When they saw me and approached I saw the need for a fix in their eyes.

‘Have you seen Simphiwe yet?’ I asked.

‘No. Eish!’ Boy Boy whined, and clutched the back of his head.

‘What’s wrong, Boy Boy?’

‘I haven’t had a hit today. Help me out; the pain in my belly is unbearable. I can feel my intestines twist into knots. The back of my head is cold, my whole body itches. Please, Khulekani, I’m only short by five rand. I beg you, please, my brother. I am good for it. We have this roof painting job, but we can’t function without the hit. I’ll pay you back this afternoon.’

‘I would, Boy Boy, but you are not helping me with Simphiwe. I bet you know where he is, but you are covering for him.’

‘No such thing. He has not been smoking with us for a week. Look for him at the wunga merchant,’ Boy Boy said, scratching harder, almost peeling the brown off his skin.

‘What’s his name? Skhumbhuzo?’

‘Not Skhumbhuzo. Bheka, in the shacks. That’s where he smokes now, where I heard the fight happened.’

Boy Boy directed me to the shack and again pleaded most sincerely for cash. He looked to be in physical pain, so I relented and gave him five rand.

Then a friend of mine called: ‘We are around the corner to pick you up.’ One beer to kill the hangover led to a drinking spree that put the Simphiwe problem on the backburner and ended with me sneaking into the house in the early hours of Sunday morning.

I really thought Simphiwe would be in our room when I woke up, that he would be asleep fully dressed and snoring like he usually was, his socks stinking up the room. I was so convinced that his thin self was concealed in the bedding that I called out—to nothing. I also thought I’d wake up to Ma away from home and in church as usual, but she was in the lounge on the sofa, her eyes red with worry.

‘Ma, did he return?’

‘No he didn’t. Did you not find him yesterday?’

‘No, Ma.’

‘He is worrying me.’

‘Don’t worry. He probably lost track of days—the wunga he smokes does that. Are you not going to church today?’

‘No, we will visit the sickly instead.’

‘I heard he was seen at the wunga merchant in the shacks on Friday. I’ll look for him later.’

‘You could have done that yesterday. What’s wrong with you?’ Ma asked.

‘It was late when I heard the news. I could not risk going there at night with the muggings in the neighbourhood.’

‘What’s holding you back from going there now? Alcohol steams off you with every answer. That child is watching you: that’s why he is this loose!’

‘I don’t smoke wunga and Simphiwe doesn’t drink,’ I retorted.

‘That’s all you know? To answer me back?’ She was mad.

‘What did I do, Ma? Every time Simphiwe does wrong you blame me.’

A taxi stopped at the gate.

‘We’ll continue this conversation when I get back,’ she snapped, closing the front door.

Through the lounge window I watched Ma get into the taxi. For the first time that weekend she smiled, greeting her friends from church. But when she settled in her seat she cast a sullen gaze out of the window as the taxi drove off.

With Ma attending to her church stuff, and Simphiwe out there chasing, Sunday mornings were perfect for studying. Ordinarily I was efficient in the silence, and I’d planned to study for the last tests of the semester coming up that week, but on that Sunday thoughts of Simphiwe crammed the empty space in my mind.

My books were open on my lap, but I stared out of the window, looking at nothing. When I looked back into the room it was to our wall unit, stacked with Simphiwe’s trophies for running and karate. He beamed at me from his school picture—a smile I had not seen in months.

I tried to nap, but couldn’t take my eyes off his drawing on the wall in our bedroom. On white A4 paper he had sketched a lake, using two shades of pencil. I was so deep in the drawing that the lake seemed to ripple and shimmer.

When I came back to reality, I opened the kitchen door and went out looking for my brother. I had not been to the shacks in almost two years and I was surprised by how much the community had grown in such a short time. Boy Boy’s directions were spot on: I saw my destination from the top of the hill, a neat shack at the bottom of a long, winding road.

Sunday morning unravelled as I made my way down. A young mother hung the last of her infant’s clothes up on a line. An old woman tossed water from a bucket on the pathway just after I passed. I walked faster to avoid the stream of soapy water. I recognised a few faces from high school, but I was in no mood to chat.

Unlike most other shacks, made of timber and metal roof sheets, Bheka’s was built properly, with concrete blocks and roof tiles. Straws containing the poison—wunga—lined up in his overall pockets. I watched as he made a sale to two boys about my brother’s age. Young slaves to the first high, each was his own family’s Simphiwe.

‘Your brother exchanged his cellphone for a lot of wunga,’ Bheka told me. ‘He took his SIM card with him. I don’t know where he went because it gets busy here on weekends, but he was here. He started a fight. It wasn’t in my yard; it was down there at the cul-de-sac. Tell the boy to cool it. He’s still young and the things that come out of his mouth are too old for him.’

I sat on the steps and smoked a cigarette, my mind processing this information. A wunga boy stopped and shook my hand like he knew me. As he let go of my hand I realised it was a friend’s brother. He had grown unhealthily thin. After greeting, I asked if he had seen Simphiwe.

‘He was here on Friday with Dumisani. There was a fight. Dumisani started the whole thing. Simphiwe was fighting for him. He is everywhere: dice game, cards … your brother doesn’t know when to stop. And he never backs down. We broke the fight up but your brother just kept pushing it. It’s that karate that makes him think he is invincible. And it’s worse since he became friends with Dumisani. Your brother uses Dumisani’s reputation as a shield, but the boy whose nose he broke is just as bad, if not worse.’

‘Dumisani who?’

‘You know him, he lives near the butchery. You went to school with his brother, Sango.’

‘You mean that fat boy?’

‘He is thin now, after what happened last year and his time away. You know what happened, right?’

‘Yes, I know.’

‘Anyway, I’m in a hurry. Good to see you. You have five rand for me? I need to get my day going.’

I don’t remember if I gave him the money or not. Not much registered after the bolt of shock that went through my body as I connected the name to a face. Dumisani was Sango’s younger brother: the killer kid.

On my way back I had planned to buy thin cut T-bone from the butchery—a little contribution to the household from tips I had made on Friday. The only butchery with decent meat was near Sango’s house anyway. I’d pass by and ask about Dumisani’s whereabouts.

I buzzed at the gate and waited, until the neighbour opposite, an old lady, called out from her verandah: ‘There’s nobody there. They are away at a church conference. Try them tomorrow.’

‘What about Sango? Is he around?’

‘Sango works in Richards Bay now, since the beginning of the year.’

‘And his younger brother, Dumisani?’

‘Who am I answering to? My boy, who are you?’

‘Apologies for not introducing myself. I went to school with Sango and my name is Khulekani.’

‘I see. I haven’t seen Dumisani since Friday morning when he left the house keys with me.’

‘Do you have his phone number?’

‘He doesn’t have a phone. He is a wunga addict. His parents got fed up because every time they buy him a new phone he sells it.’

I thanked her, smiled politely, and said goodbye before she started down the road to chatty. I dialled Simphiwe’s number three times on the way home, hoping that, by some miracle, he’d paid the wunga merchant and got his phone back while I was out looking for him. All I got was his voicemail.

Ma had just finished cooking when I got home. I told her the story but left out all the added madness that had come into Simphiwe’s life. The fact that she knew he’d become a wunga addict was bad enough, without me turning the screws. She did not need to hear about his crazed fights and his camaraderie with killer kids.

‘They left in a friend’s car,’ I said. ‘My guess is they went to the city. There were parties all over this weekend. I checked at one of his friend’s houses, the one they told me he was with. A neighbour told me the family was away. I’ll check in the morning.’

A very small layer of worry lifted from her face. Nonetheless, it was a grim Sunday. I did not eat. The house was filled with the delicious smells of Sunday supper, but I felt sick.

That night I fell asleep on my books, but woke later with a jolt after a nightmare in which a green Golf was going up in flames.

***

By the time I arrived at my first class the next morning, Tourism Policy, my bad dream had been forgotten, as nightmares and even happy dreams usually are. I was supposed to study past test papers for the rest of the day, but the weight of the weekend won, and I squashed in a few hours rest at a friend’s room while he was in Technical Drawing.

I stared at the ceiling for a while, and then fell into a deep sleep riddled with bad dreams that went on and on, chilling my bones. Nightmares about Simphiwe, or rather his voice, for he was out of focus and far away. There was no background either—just a thick blackness and his voice: loud, complaining, accusing …

‘Of all people, Khulekani, I thought you would find me. Do you know how cold it is here? When you come here, bring my jacket!’ he shouted.

‘Which jacket?’

‘That blue Nike one, with the white tick.’

‘But you sold it for straws of wunga.’

‘Just bring me a jacket. It is cold here.’

His face faded away …

I sat bolt upright, soaked in sweat. I grabbed my backpack, and hailed a taxi to Umlazi township.

The taxi dropped me off at the butchery near Sango’s house. I knew Sango’s family well enough to know that both his parents were teachers. They had lived in Umlazi for a lifetime, in a neat house with a lush, trimmed, well-looked-after lawn. When we were still in school, especially primary school, Sango would come and play soccer at our section, in our yards, but we never played at his house. Their grass and flowers were too manicured for our kick-abouts.

They raised Sango right. Connections got him a dream job when he left high school. He was about to marry his girlfriend from church. His was a life prescribed, and he aced it with flying colours. Sango the genuine good son, yes, in him they succeeded in raising right. In their youngest son, Dumisani, they bred the opposite. From a crybaby, Dumisani had grown to be general bad news: high school dropout, addict, killer kid.

On the front door of Sango’s parents’ house, a sticker announced ‘I belong to Jesus’, and their dining room could pass as a shrine. The face of the clock on the wall was a solemn, gazing Jesus Christ. The usual players were also there: a painting of a blue-eyed Virgin Mary and a large painting of Joseph and Mary staring at baby Jesus. Practically Nordic, of course, all their halos bright and gold, just like the colour of the hair on their heads. And there was JC again, this time on a cross carved out of wood. In the mix, away from this centrepiece, was a picture of Sango and Dumisani with their parents, dignified folk in their Sunday best. Peace was brimming in everyone’s eyes, except Dumisani’s. There was a tint of confusion, or evil, in his stare.

Sango’s parents welcomed me warmly, with a genuine goodness that made it hard to understand how they had bred a killer. But as his father asked my business, deep, silent pain surfaced and settled in his eyes.

‘How can we help you, my boy?’ he said.

‘My name is Khulekani and I’m a schoolmate of Sango’s. I’m looking for my brother, Simphiwe. He was last seen with Dumisani. I wondered if he could tell me where Simphiwe is?’

‘We last saw Dumisani on Friday when we left for a conference. These kids, they are not back until today and Dumisani is still supposed to be signing. If his parole officer gets here to find him absent, there’ll be trouble. I’ve never seen a person care less than my boy.’

‘We have the same problem at home.’

‘Where have you heard of a sixteen-year-old gone for the whole weekend? Who knows what evils they are doing? They don’t go to church. They don’t believe in the Saviour. A life without the fear of God is not a good life.’ His eyes shifted to my backpack and he asked, ‘Are you coming from school?’

‘Yes, I’m at Mangosuthu University of Technology.’

‘What course are you studying there?’

‘Tourism.’

‘That’s the way, my boy. There are no shortcuts to a better life. You must have education and faith. Where do you praise?’

‘Catholic.’

‘That’s very good. Keep it like that. You can never go wrong with education in your mind and Jesus in your heart. Leave your number. I’ll get Dumisani to call you when he gets back.’

‘I’d greatly appreciate that.’

‘Mama, please get my diary.’

Sango’s father had the latest cellphone, but he still believed in writing numbers down. I saved his number on my phone while he heaved to get up and buzz me out into the wintry, silvery-orange setting sun.

Simphiwe would usually return on Tuesday afternoons, high out of his mind and exhausted. He would sleep until Wednesday afternoon. When he woke up I could recognise parts of his pre-wunga self, before the drug took hold. But by Wednesday evenings the craving would call him back and he would be gone.

In the few clean hours he had, he used to read a magazine or take out his pencils and draw. The day he picked up his wunga habit Simphiwe had stopped drawing things from nature. Instead he drew self-portraits, again and again. The first portrait was detailed and impressive. He had captured his character on paper. But as his moments of sobriety became scarce, so his portraits lost their detail.

I laid Simphiwe’s art out over his unmade bed, and realised that since the drugs started he had never finished a drawing. He began afresh on new paper after sketching only a few details of his face. The portraits started missing ears, then hair, chin, mouth, nose, eyes, until the last drawing was just an outline of his head. He had drawn his own disappearance.

Monday was the lightest night of that week, not weighed down by emotions. I consoled Ma, told her he would return and draw beautifully again. We watched TV and talked about the news, the weather, and the good Simphiwe of the past, the Simphiwe who was still a child in our eyes. The conversation turned to Sango and his perfect life, and then to how expensive my education was, and ended up with grumbling about how the price of cooking oil had rocketed.

On Tuesday I wrote and, frankly, aced the test. Afterwards I sat in the quad and smoked a cigarette that made me dizzy by the third drag. Then, while downing a Red Bull, I saw her, this beauty from my class, Anele, my friend who was steadily stepping away from the friend zone. We had planned to study together. She waved and walked over.

Tall, spindly, a high-jumper in high school, her eyes made me see stars. Sitting next to her in class, or working on assignments in the library, the pull between us was magnetic. Every time I leaned into Anele I inhaled strawberries and my insides twisted. I had told her how I felt. She had smiled doubtfully, but I could see that slowly she was warming to the idea.

She laid those eyes on me. I felt the warmth of her concern when she rested her hand on my back.

‘Are you okay? You seem down,’ she said.

My worries obviously showed. I told her Simphiwe’s story as we walked across campus.

‘My cousin is also on that wunga. You leave nothing within reach of this dude. At the height of his madness he stole a pot while it was cooking Sunday chicken curry and sold it—with the curry!’ she said.

My enamoured eyes had been all over her for the entire fifteen-minute walk. Whenever I was with Anele my burdens disappeared. We arrived at the door to her room.

‘You must eat something,’ she insisted. I bit into the sandwich she made me but struggled to swallow.

‘I have to return these books, they’re due today,’ she said. ‘I’ll be back in thirty minutes, and we’ll work on the paper then.’

I worked on the test paper while she was at the library. This was part of my charm offensive: she’d return to a man with all the answers. I was done in twenty minutes.

I did my best to quell the drowsiness I felt. I went out to the garden and smoked a cigarette, paced about the room, opened her album, snooped, lay on my back on her bed and read one of her celeb gossip magazines. The softness of her fragrant bedding won. I napped.

I woke to soft strawberry warmth in my arms—Anele, up close at last. Out of her window the day had gone, the afternoon shaded by the setting sun. We cuddled, both of us fully dressed. Sparks in our eyes set off a series of time-stopping kisses; I was lost. The electricity between us rose to too high a voltage. She stopped.

‘You can answer that, you know,’ she said.

I had not heard it. Twelve missed calls from the same number—Sango’s father. I ignored it and got back to kissing, but he was persistent. At this perfect moment to seal the Anele deal, I took a call I had to take.

‘They were beaten by people in Clermont for housebreaking,’ Sango’s father said, distressed. ‘Bloodcurdling mob justice. Your brother escaped early on. My son, Dumisani—he was close to death when the police arrived. We are with him at Westville Hospital. He’s unconscious but stable. The doctors told me there’s heroin and Jik and rat poison in his blood. This wunga of theirs drives them crazy.’ The phone line was crackly and I struggled to hear.

I struggled to believe what I had thought I heard, convinced myself that my mind had made up the words Sango’s father had just told me, that maybe the bad phone connection had somehow distorted his speech. I called him right back, and he told the story exactly as he had done a few seconds earlier.

On the taxi ride home I worked out many ways of how I would tell Ma, but when I saw the pain in her eyes I told her the news as bare and gritty as Sango’s father had told me. She called him immediately, and broke down when she heard it first hand.

Her sobs pierced the walls of our home all through the night. I whispered angry questions and a prayer into the darkness of the bedroom.

Why is Simphiwe this lost? Why did he inhale that first wunga drag? Why did I have to witness my mother breaking down? Why did my father die and leave us? Where are you, little brother? Please God keep him out of harm’s way, wherever he is.

The next morning we were at the taxi stop earlier than the township’s earliest risers. Ma looked far away into the distance, my thoughts were sombre. As we stood in the cold darkness in silence, I had a feeling of déjà vu—this had happened before. I felt exactly like I did that morning my father had slipped into a coma and we had to get the first taxi—part angry, part sad, and really scared. It had been chilly and dark, just like this.

The Clermont Police Station was packed, and there was no seating, so we perched on the edges of the charge office benches. Service was slow, the long queue served by just one officer. And the young constable was unable to multitask. Numerous times I saw him stop stamping a document to make a leisurely comment to his colleagues, holding the stamp in mid-air while he yapped.

There were a lot of mothers in the queue. Ma was soon exchanging stories with the woman next to her. This lady was immersed in shock because her son had stabbed an old family friend dead. She told her story with sad resignation. ‘Our children,’ they both lamented.

Ma turned to me. She asked, ‘Are you not hungry?’

Further along our bench there was a man with a large gash in his head. The wound was right at the top of his skull, not long, but deep, and in need of stitches. It seemed to have a pulse, like there was a tiny heart beating under it.

‘He crept up on me, hit me with a golf club. I had done nothing! I was just drunk and walking by,’ he told people who asked.

‘No Ma. I’m not hungry,’ I said, looking away from the man’s dreadful head.

We sat there for three hours while the Claremont Police Station continued to malfunction. But it was our turn, eventually. I explained our story.

‘The detective is not in. He’ll be in tomorrow,’ the young constable said.

‘After waiting for so long we can’t get help?’ I said ‘Don’t you know anything about the case?’

‘No. The proper person to talk to is the detective in charge of that case.’

‘Are you serious? You mean in this whole place there’s no one else who can help us?’

‘The detective will be in on the night shift. I’ll give you his office number. Call him and set up an appointment.’

‘Are you serious? This is a joke!’

The idle group of police officers beyond the counter turned to witness my tantrum, looking more lively than I’d yet seen them.

‘If you paid as much attention to your cases, they’d be solved!’

‘Shut your mouth! Go outside and wait by the gate,’ Ma said.

I stormed out, furious. In a glance back I saw that Ma had her hands together, as she pleaded with them. Our constable, plus two female constables from the slacking gang, were listening to her.

While we were waiting for a taxi home, one of the young female constables called out to us and ran up to Ma.

‘Here is Detective Shange’s cellphone number,’ she said. ‘Phone him in the afternoon because he only knocked off this morning. And tell your son to stop being so rude.’

In the taxi I tried the number three times and got voicemail each time. When we arrived Aunt Busi was waiting by the gate. She hugged Ma and put her arm over my shoulders. In the lounge they quickly descended into maternal sadness.

I went out and did some neighbourhood digging about the car that Dumisani and Simphiwe had left in. I got information from here and there that led me to think that the driver was a certain Sandile I was vaguely familiar with. I was told he drove a green Golf I. The same make, model and colour as the car I had seen burning in my nightmares.

Sandile was older than both Dumisani and Simphiwe, by a few years. He was studying Land Surveying at Durban University of Technology and worked part time on weekends and holidays, a true busy bee. His parents had moved to the suburbs leaving the house in his hands. I had known him to be a cool guy, one of those people sure to succeed in life. He was wiping down his green Golf I after washing it when I found him.

He was happy to talk. ‘I know Dumisani from way back, and Simphiwe from karate, but I did not know he was into these things. I was told they had car rims for sale,’ Sandile said.

He took two camp chairs from the boot of his car for us to sit on. I asked for cold water and downed it while he told me how the whole thing went down.

‘It was a smooth, cheap exchange,’ he said. ‘Nice rims too, BBS mesh. I paid them a grand and dropped them off at the wunga merchant. It was there that Dumisani remembered he had money to pick up in Clermont and asked me for a ride. They bought me a sixpack and filled the tank in my car. Off to Clermont we went. It was all smooth at first. Then it just went crazy.’

‘How?’

‘They started with the wunga while we waited for the man with the cash, a taxi owner. They were blitzed by the time he arrived. He let us into his house. Do you know what Dumisani does? He asks for the bathroom and steals a phone from one of the bedrooms!’

I drank the last of the water, chewed ice, and shifted in the camp chair, unsettled by how the story was developing.

‘Dumisani collected the money and then we went to another wunga smoking den, still in Clermont, where the stolen cellphone was quickly up for sale. They smoked more wunga, I drank my beers.

‘We went our separate ways when they decided to burgle a mansion in the vicinity that had its lights off. They thought I hadn’t heard them hatching the plan, but I was right behind them. I knew everything—including that I was to be the unknowing getaway. “We’ll send him out for more beer and tell him to park at the gate of the mansion when he returns.” That is what I heard your brother say. I started my car and left them at that smoking den. I’ll tell you Khulekani, your brother changes. He’s quiet, but once he smokes that wunga Simphiwe begins to speak the language of thieves. That’s the last I saw of them, going to rob that mansion.’

I walked home in the dusk. Sandile’s Golf was in perfect condition, not charred like the one in my nightmares. I comforting myself with this, through that sleepless, starless night.

***

Detective Shange returned my voice messages around four on Thursday morning.

‘I’ve been out since my shift began. I don’t think I will be at the station at all today. Can you meet me in the city? Meet me at the Umbilo car licensing department between eight and ten. I drive a red Toyota Sprinter. Call me when you get there,’ he said.

I was at the licensing department by half past seven. I called him when his car entered the gates. He motioned me to get in.

‘Do you also work nightshift?’ Detective Shange inquired.

‘No. Why do you ask?’

‘You look tired, like you have not slept. Which one is your brother?’

‘The one who escaped the beating.’

‘Funny enough, Dumisani’s reputation preceded him. I had heard about a mad, handsome killer kid through my friends at Umlazi Police Station. But when we got to the scene I only saw the harmless child in him begging for his life. He told us everything, you know. Before he passed out, he sang about your brother. But there are things that can be done. We can work the case to point and pin everything on Dumisani. Your brother must just lay low. It would be even better if he actually moved away. I’ll search everywhere and not find him, even when he is there. I’ll tell the judge he is nowhere to be found … if you get my drift.’

‘He really is lost,’ I said. ‘We haven’t heard from him in six days. That’s why we called you. We thought you could shed some light on the case, to tell us what really happened.’

‘The owner of the house walked in on a burglary in progress. He pulled a gun and walked the two culprits out into the street. The whole neighbourhood quickly converged and doled out mob justice on the boys. Dumisani bore the brunt of it because your brother managed to escape. For sure he is in hiding. But you would not tell me even if you knew where he is. Would you?’

‘Serious, we really don’t know where he is.’

Shange broke into a tired smile. ‘Well, I just wanted to let you know there is an angle we can work in this case. With a bit of cash, of course, a little something for going to the trouble of not finding him. Call me when you have what can make this go away.’

I ate an orange at a kiosk by the taxi stop, shaking my head over the offer from Detective Shange—selling Simphiwe’s freedom for two thousand rands. Right there and then I came to the conclusion that when Simphiwe returned I would definitely pay the bribe. I would beg and borrow if I had to, anything to keep him away from jail.

Sango called.

‘Have Dumisani and Simphiwe gone crazy? Why did those two choose the darkness instead of living in the light?’ he said.

We reminisced about how bright our ambitions were when we were their age. He told me there was a baby on the way, work was perfect, and gave me brotherly encouragement about my studies.

‘I hear Dumisani was seriously hurt. How is he?’

‘He regained consciousness this morning. He doesn’t know what happened or where he is. How is your brother?’

‘Simphiwe’s story is worse, my friend. We have not heard from him in six days. Ma is going insane with worry.’

‘Now that’s what drives me crazy. They worry our parents. They should be enjoying their lives, reaping the rewards of decades of hard work. Instead they wake to calls from police stations and hospitals in the middle of the night. By the way, the visiting hours at Westville Hospital are from twelve to two. Dumisani is in Ward 4C. Maybe he’ll be able to tell you what happened.’

***

Beautiful, but most of all clean: my verdict of Westville Hospital. I waited in the foyer for the lift to take me up to Dumisani’s ward, and inhaled sterile air, very different to the dodgy smells of government hospitals.

If we could have afforded to take Dad to a hospital as good as Westville Hospital, would they have detected the impending stroke that struck and halted his life? He was locked in a coma for four days, then he was gone. We cried our eyes out in the chaos of a government hospital. If we could have afforded Westville Hospital, Dad would still be alive and Simphiwe would be on the right path. My father loved him, you know? Simphiwe spent his whole childhood sitting on his lap. He looked so relaxed, so sheltered when Dad was alive.

I asked for Dumisani at the reception. A light flashed on the electronic board behind the nurse—a patient in the ward was in need.

‘That’s him. Follow me,’ she said.

Dumisani had his own room. Through the closed door we heard him loudly crying out. The nurse looked at the surprise in my eyes.

‘He wants a painkiller. That’s how the addicts are. Especially the wunga boys. It dulls the senses so much that they need four times the required dose of painkillers. They also like the opiates in it—makes the detox bearable.’

‘Those drops please. I’m dying of pain. Please nurse, I’m dying here,’ Dumisani moaned in a mumbly, thick voice as we entered.

Both his legs had multiple breaks, and a network of wires and screws ran lengthwise along them. His left arm was in a cast, the other had stitches running from shoulder to wrist. He was severely disfigured—his head grotesquely swollen, a stitched gash on his forehead. His upper front teeth were missing. I saw that he was begging for a painkiller through a wired-shut, broken jaw. A big chunk of his left ear was severed. I had never seen anything like it before.

‘Please, nurse. Please!’ he pleaded.

‘I’m fetching it now, don’t worry,’ she said.

After the nurse had left the room, he mumbled: ‘I only remember the ride from Umlazi to Clermont and absolutely nothing after that. I did not believe it when they told me what happened. I thought I had been in a car accident. These idiots got me good. I was told that rocks broke my legs, a panga sliced my face, a knife cut my ear, a hammer broke my fingers.’

It was hard to understand him, and I scraped the visitor’s chair closer. I could hardly bear to look at him—close up the injuries were nastier, bruises everywhere, every inch of exposed skin black and blue.

The nurse returned and squeezed a few drops of painkillers through the gaps left by Dumisani’s lost teeth. He winced and adjusted back to a comfortable position. The grimace revealed to me that he had lost most of his bottom teeth as well.

‘They tell me Simphiwe disappeared into thin air. That boy has my respect because even though he has never been in jail he plays the part of a crook well. He knows that the number doesn’t shift backwards, it only moves forwards.’

Dumisani went on rambling through his wired-shut jaw. Despite the pain he suffered he had a sense of pride in the events that had led him to that hospital bed. It was a step up, according to the warped crook mentality he had picked up in juvenile jail. It was just as well the painkillers took over quickly, because the drivel he was speaking made me want to shut him up. Even after he fell asleep that same careless smirk prevailed. I had to physically restrain my right hand with my left, because it wanted to strangle the life out of him.

For the next two days we scoured hospitals and drug dens with my Uncle Clive. I hardly slept, surviving on ten-minute naps while we drove around searching. What woke me up each time was what I saw in those naps—Simphiwe with his back to me, disappearing.

On the afternoon of the second day I woke from one of those naps to see Uncle Clive looking straight at me. We were at a red traffic light. He kept his eyes on me as the light turned green and we drove off.

‘Khulekani, we must try other means. There are people with gifts out there; we must try traditional healers as well. There is one in Port Shepstone. I hear he is good at finding the lost. I know my sister doesn’t believe in that world, but with the situation we are in we have to try everything. Saved or not saved, we are still African,’ he said.

‘I have been dreaming of him since he disappeared, but more so in the last two days,’ I said. ‘He has his back to me and disappears when I focus. If a healer can help us find him, we should visit him.’

‘We have to wake up early tomorrow because Port Shepstone is far,’ my uncle replied. ‘We must be on the road by half past three at the latest.’

After a long silence he added, ‘We have to start searching morgues as well. Better sooner than later.’

That night I switched my cellphone off and cried. I tried to sleep, hoping to find Simphiwe in my dreams. But sleep was elusive and I stared into the dimness of our room, faintly lit by the streetlight outside. I could see Simphiwe’s drawing, the one of a shimmering lake, come to life on the wall. I turned away to the blank wall on my side of the room.

I switched my phone on around two in the morning. There were several voice messages from Detective Shange, and one SMS from Anele. She was just checking on me, and asked why I had missed the test. She said working on test papers was no fun without me.

Detective Shange was serious, repeating one message: ‘Call me when you get this.’ I didn’t bother to return his calls. I was in no mood to talk about bribes. I opened the curtain and saw Uncle Clive parked at the gate. I had one of Simphiwe’s T-shirts with me. An item of clothing was necessary to help the traditional healer find him.

While we were driving to Port Shepstone Detective Shange called me repeatedly—first from his cell number, then from his office number—so finally I answered.

‘There is someone at the station you need see immediately.’ My heart filled my chest with one loud thump as I mistook what he said to mean they had found and arrested Simphiwe. Before I could speak he proceeded. ‘He says he knows where your brother is.’

‘We’ll be there in twenty minutes. Keep him there’, I said.

Uncle Clive stepped on it.

In Shange’s office there was a serene man in his late fifties. Introductions were made. The man was a traditional healer from Eshowe, north of the coast. He was the opposite of the traditional healer stereotype, being clean-shaven, wearing no beads, no traditional garb, but rather swanky trousers and a shirt, and his shoes were definitely imported Mauri. Manqele was his name.

I learned later that he was something of a rock star in the world of traditional healing. He made his name during the floods of 1987 when he recovered over thirty drowned bodies. He had known the precise location, date and time when a corpse would wash up to shore, or resurface bloated and face-down in a river or lake. Over the years his gift of finding grew, and he started to find the living. Locating runaways, missing children, and young professionals no longer calling home since they moved to Gauteng, made him a mountain of money. He looked at Uncle Clive and spoke soft and slow.

‘Two days ago I was in Pinetown blessing a new house for a client. While I was doing my work I was overpowered by a vision. Visions come to me when people approach me to find their lost ones, but this time it came to me before I was approached. I went back to Eshowe but what I was seeing grew stronger; it gained detail. Yesterday a voice started to partner the vision. It told me to come here and ask about a beating. I am seeing him now as we speak. He is wearing a blue T-shirt and black jeans, black and red shoes. He looks like this boy you are with, but darker.’

‘Is he alive there, the place where he is?’ I asked.

‘His eyes are open. There are a lot of trees. Take me to where it all happened, and I’ll find him.’

Detective Shange drove us to the scene. When we got there Manqele stood in the centre of the road and looked around. He stood still in the darkness and right then I recalled that my new sneakers, the ones Simphiwe was wearing without my permission, were black and red.

‘He was here, then he kicked his way out of many hands and ran that way,’ Manqele pronounced, and began walking down the street.

We all followed him. He branched into another street, then another smaller dirt track, and finally reached a cliff at the end of the section. Manqele stood quietly, looking at the rocky twenty-metre fall.

After a while he said, ‘He fell here.’

Some morning light revealed a gentler route down. We followed him down and into a shrubby area. The rising sun uncovered it clearly, the dense forest before us. ‘He is here.’ Manqele pointed to the forest.

Detective Shange called the dog unit. But while we were waiting for them to arrive, Manqele suddenly walked into the forest. Wordlessly, Shange took off the vest beneath his shirt and left it on a small tree for the sniffer dogs to find and track us when they arrived. We stayed on Manqele’s heels, following him for over an hour. All the while we looked around, calling out Simphiwe’s name. Manqele’s step grew less sure when we came to a clearer part inside the forest. He walked slowly, then stopped and looked back to the dense trees we had just negotiated. We turned and saw the dog unit emerge. Two officers, white and black. Two hounds, both German Shepherds.

The dogs sniffed Simphiwe’s T-shirt and led the way eagerly further into the forest. At a stream they stopped and seemed confused. One barked downstream, the other sensed something upstream. The officers untied their leashes. They went off like bullets in opposite directions. Uncle Clive followed downstream with Shange and one dog unit officer. I went upstream with Manqele and the other officer.

We did not chase far. Hardly fifty metres upstream we found the beast barking savagely. Just then, the dog that had sensed something downstream returned, a muddy object clenched in its jaws. Uncle Clive, Shange and the dog unit officer followed behind, winded. We scraped dirt from the muddy object, and I saw the colours red and black. Both dogs went crazy, barking in the same direction, across the stream, but hesitant to cross.

I saw more red and black, and went as berserk as the sniffer dogs. I ran across the stream, up an incline, and there was Simphiwe. He was just lying there with his eyes open, his body resting like he was in deep sleep. At first I thought I saw a smile on his face, but it was his dislocated jaw. When I got closer it was clear his body was stiff and swollen, his hands hardened to claws. The twenty-metre fall had destroyed him internally—later it was revealed he had a punctured lung, broken ribs, a shattered collarbone. I imagined him stumbling in pain until his final collapse, here. How long had it taken for him to die? I felt his cold neck, closed his eyes and sat next to his body until the coroner arrived.

***

Our bleeding hearts were resilient, accepted Simphiwe was gone, and searched for the light.

His karate coach called him a talent, his running coach declared him a natural runner.

‘He was handsome,’ Aunt Busi said.

‘Lost,’ said Uncle Sbu.

‘But with that brain and vision he could have been a great somebody,’ added Uncle Clive.

‘My baby was gifted,’ Ma said.

I finished my diploma and got a job that has taken me places. I have seen beauty, and pretty much every time I have been spiritually moved by the landscape I feel the same way and think the same thought—that Simphiwe could have drawn the life out of it.

  • Sifiso Mzobe is a writer and journalist based in Durban. Follow him on Twitter.

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