Thursday, February 6, 2020

Short story: Marasta and the missing girl

Stone figures, a dog and a search party

There are several places in the world where the ocean lies close to a sea of shacks. It startles the senses. Marasta lived in such a place. From her corrugated iron shack you could peer over the main road and over the dunes that lay beyond -and catch a glimpse of the sea. There the wind whips, the gulls cavort and, on most days, fishermen line up their rods with tips pointing to the sea. Further inland, behind the shackland that Marasta called home, lay Glendale, a part of a larger sprawling township once reserved for people of mixed descent, but now open to all. That space had vibrancy, history, mean roller skaters, a regulation community hall or two – all the things that define such neighbourhoods. Yet, also in that space ... children went missing. They fell through the cracks, often in broad daylight. Last seen at a certain spot, last sent to buy bread or milk ....

Marasta's shack was close to the strip of tar that joined the wind-lashed False Bay and the university-town of Stellenbosch, a road that passed eye-catching vineyards, warehouse-size barns and sparkling Dutch-style white houses on farms such as  Meerlust, Spier and Vredenheim.

Her yard was filled with artifacts, a mixture of her own works and found articles. A bicycle frame - salvaged from a skip - now painted red. A weather-beaten canoe, filled with sand and sprouting plants. A wheelbarrow standing, its tin basin painted to resemble a purple dress and where the wheel once was, twisted metal with eyes made of bolts. An old skateboard, repainted a deep green to the resemble a giant cactus leaf, its pointy end stuck in the ground. She sculpted the wooden figures – busts of dignified rural women and men, a giraffe, a green elephant head with oversized ears and some cement figures including a calf-sized elephant, an angel and a Jesus figure with a black face. 
On days without rain, Marasta placed a large varnished wooden giraffe with dark brown spots at the side of the road, just left of the yellow line. It beckoned passers-by, those with spare money in their wallets, to pull up, come over, and part with their money in exchange for a giraffe or a stone figure. But, generally, the cars flew past what some would call a sculpture garden (Marasta used no such term) ... and Marasta wondered whether they didn't like giraffes, were intimidated by the hodge-podge of shacks, or were just going too fast to stop.

Marasta got the news on her cell phone. It lit up with a Please call me. When she called back, the voice at the other end was hesitant, strained and unusually low. Marasta got a bad feeling. It was Mamkhulu, in distant Willowvale. "The news is bad." She felt heat rising in her gut, a bit like heartburn but not as bitter; she sensed a burst of throbbing at her temples and a small spasm in her chest. She could feel her breadth getting short. She moved closer to the shack wall, clutching a corner to steady herself. She reminded herself to breathe and, as she did so, struggled a bit to stop the phone from slipping from her hand.

Gogo, was dead. Gogo who had helped raise Marasta. The voice on the line was unsteady, the quivering slightly masked by the bad line. The phone was given to someone else; she recognised it as Thami. "We called the ambulance. Then we made her comfortable," he said. "But she could not hold on. It was a mild thing, pneumonia. But for an old person, too much."

Marastas chest rose and fell, and her voice shrunk to a whisper, "Okay, Okay, I'll call you back." Her sob escaped before she had properly rung off, and with blurry eyes she found and pressed the end-call button.  .

She tried to gather herself and walked slowly round to the shack, heading inside. But like a wave that returns after pulling back, a shudder and tears rose within her body. Her breath was hoarse as she inhaled. "Gogo, gogo." She clutched herself around the midriff, bent over. Then she fell to the side on the bed, her fingers grabbing a handful of the quilt. Tears flowed. She reached for a towel from a pile of nearby crispy clean washing and held it in front of her eyes, crying into it. Now and again she banged the bed with the side of a fist.

Marasta's son, Kenny, was a godsend in several ways. In his twenties, for now he was happy to help his mother run the spaza store. He had tried False Bay Technical College, but he was nudged out by a combination of administrative chaos, student protests and a lack of interest in his subjects. He had wanted to be a mechanic, but the course was over-subscribed and a harried college clerk pointed him in the direction of boiler-making. Marasta had suspected it might not work out; the boy had always only been fascinated by cars, especially the bits under the bonnet.

Now Kenny was a pillar to his mama, selling magwinyas, apples, cigarettes, airtime, tins of baked beans from a low table in the yard, near the fence which faced inland to the sea of shacks. But even godsends have their downsides. Kenny swung between being helpful and a combination of drinking sprees. Not far from the shack was a small bar near a little open field, one that was prone to being marshy when it rained. Inside, seated around a trestle table dotted with quarts of Castle and Hansa, the men played cards or rolled dice while they sipped the golden liquid.

When his money was depleted, Marasta had to give him a loan. Then another and another. "I'm your mother, not your mashonisa," she said and with a resigned look she would take another R100 note from inside her bra. She recorded the amount in a small booklet that nestled in a shoe-box under her bed. By now, Kenny owed her close to R7000. True it hadn't been that much until recently. Late one night he had been driving a friend's car, a smokey-engined fiat Uno, and rammed it into a pole. The pal’s bones weren't broken in the crash, but the car's its front grill horribly bent and the radiator cracked. Marasta had to part with R5500 to get the car fixed. "Mama, I will pay you back someday. I promise." Marasta shook her head. “Im waiting for that day.”

The only time Kenny got off work was on Saturdays when a neighbour's boy, Jele, helped out. Marasta liked Jele, despite the boys penchant for delinquent actions. Where Kenny's flaw was aggro in the presence of other males and downing too many cubic centimetres  of beer, Jele's fault was – in Marastas words – ‘getting up to nonsense. Younger than Kenny, Jele was chubby and big for his age. Marasta recognised where the naughtiness came from. Boredom. If Jele threw a tennis ball, a window was likely to shatter. The boy liked seeing things burn, and every year around Guy Fawkes Day, he experimented with decanted gunpowder from firecrackers. At one point he sent his mother's pot hurtling into the air. His mother, Dudu, was not amused. "I was only trying to prove that crackers are dangerous," he moaned as he held his palm to the cheek she had slapped.

For Jele being at Marasta's was a bit like being at a reform school; once Dudu and Marasta made him sandpaper an old door after he pilfered cool drink bottles from Marasta's yard and sold them to buy lollipops and a yoyo. Since then, when he worked at Marasta's place, he was on his best behaviour.  Marasta wondered if it was forced compliance or stepping up as he was given something useful to do.
But Kenny and Jele differed on many things ¾ if one chose Pirates, the other worshipped Chiefs; if one claimed jam was best, the other pretended to intensely dislike it, if preferred hot sun, the other extolled the alleged virtues of rainy days. Kenny tried to instruct Jele on how to lay out the apples and cigarettes on the small stall near the fence, but Jele said: “’Stay out of this. Youre not my boss. We're both moegoes.”

As a result, there was often name-calling and invective. One day Marasta returned from looking for useful seashore debris to find them wrestling the ground, trying to choke each other into submission. She watched them for a few minutes, hands on her hips. The mongrel, Galaka, trotted up and stood poised, body tilted forward, ears up and releasing a soft growl. Marasta said, "Break it up, you idiots," but too much testosterone and adrenalin swirled around for the mtwanas to hear. She fetched a bucket of water and sloshed it on them. As the boys swore – “fuck’’, “damn” – and separated, she said, wagging her finger: "Next time, boys, it will be hot water!"

Galaka was Kenny's dog, a reddish-brown mutt, with equally reddish eyes. He was fit and sleek with a pelt that glistened when the sun was out. But now the animal was equally bonded to Marasta. Marasta and Galaka talked to each other on long nights when the boy was out gallivanting, when dagga wisps swirled and the South Easter turned demonic.

Kenny slept in the smaller room of the shack. Marasta's tools and half-finished sculptures were his room-mates. While his single bed was squeezed against one of the longer walls, the tools - an assortment of hammers, chisels, a hatchet, a few saws - either lived in on an open wooden box or hung from the other wall.  About a metre from the foot of the bed, the sculptures, wrapped with re-used string and black plastic sheeting, lay on the floor or leaned against the wall. It annoyed Kenny that when he needed a change of clothes, he had to fetch it from the brown cupboard in his mama's room.

After Marasta received the call, the day sped by (her feeling afterwards) and dragged along (her sense while in it). She spent much of that afternoon working on a pillar of wood, a large stubby log with stumps of branches sticking out, first hatcheting and then chiseling.

At times she focused on the wood, coaxing a shape out of it. Someone looking on would have seen vague signs of a nose and eyes being born out of the wood. At other times, her hands paused and  her mind wandered to Willowvale, hundreds of kilometres away, to the days when she had helped Gogo fetch eggs from the hen-house every morning. Gogo had been strict. She’d made sure the children did their daily chores – boys milked the cows; she and a cousin swept the yard; it was also her job to ferry water from the river in the afternoons. In between the memories she felt a hollow forming in her core. She squeezed her eyes shut, feeling the warm tears gather and trickle.

That evening, Kenny returned early – for a change. Earlier, she had given him the message in a brief call. Was it that or a coming storm that blew him homewards? Marasta, who had been sitting on the bed, bowed, with her forehead against her hand, almost as if she were praying, sat up. She wiped her eyes on her sleeve when she heard the gate squeak. On the small table, the sauce from the tripe and beans was congealing; the food half-eaten. She looked up.

Kenny sat at her side and turned to embrace her. “I'll be okay,” she said, after a few minutes.
"I want to go to the funeral.” she said. “I must. But I have no money to get there. I also have nothing to give for funeral costs. I won't forgive myself if I can't go to the funeral."

“How much?”

She figured it out in her head. When she reached East London she would need to take another kombi taxi to Idutya and from there travel the last 27 kilometres to Willowvale. She counted the fare on her fingers. R750 there and the same back. R2000 is what she would like to give towards funeral costs.
"About R4000". She felt embarrassed. She had always worked well with money. Made it a point never to sell her soul to moneylenders. But fixing that damned car had drained her purse.

Her eyes were dry now, but her face was still a little sticky. Kenny held her hand. "Mama. Don't worry. Maybe I can make a plan. Hustle." She pushed away slightly, so she could look at his face. "Its eating me up. But, no, I dont want you to go and make loans. I'll work something out." She tried to think of options for raising money. No ideas came to her. Her temples throbbed.

The next day, after a restless night, Marasta made a trip to the Buy-Smart supermarket in Glendale. She broke her stride at the brick side wall of the shop where Galaka wagged his tail and settled down. It was their ritual. He would wait for her return with a dollop of cat's mince wrapped in cling wrap.
In the entrance foyer people were talking about a missing girl. They put up a notice: ‘Missing girl: Tarryn, 13. At the bottom in smaller print were the words:  "Reward R10000 for good information that helps us find her."

Marasta recognised one of the group, a women in a floral-print dress, a white t-shirt and sneakers. She was Celia, a well-known activist from Glendale. "The community groups have been out every night. Nothing. Street after street," Celia told her as Marasta leaned in on the small group. Marasta and Celia had met a few months before when Celia stopped her faded red Toyota Tazz and wandered through the yard, peering at different pieces. Not long after that, when pulling the newspaper wrapping off a paraffin lamp she had bought from the Babbie near the station, Marasta saw Celia's picture. It adorned a front page story about Women's Day in the local free newspaper. In the first few paragraphs, Celia talked about the many things that faced women in communities: the hard times, the bitter life, the unpaid maintenance, the make-up that hid the purple bruises. That was all she could bear to read. With a deep breath, Marasta had put the crumpled page aside.

Now Marasta shook her head, clenched her fist. It was a mild day, but she felt a flash of cold run through her body as she thought about where Tarryn might be, how scared the child must be.  Celia said: "It's been more than a week. We're very worried."

Marasta exited the shop foyer through its corner entrance, brushing against the stand with the free newspaper. Outside, next to where Galaka was coiled, sunning himself, she crouched with one hand on the unpainted brick wall and closed her eyes. In that moment her dream from the night before flooded back. She saw a road, a busy one with a middle line and a bus stop. Then a smaller road. She saw a head-high green gate with wire netting and a brown lock. The images melted away before she could discern a number on the gate. She opened her eyes. Galaka, now standing, was looking at her with interest. She patted the dog behind the head as if to say, "It's all right.” Looking into the dogs eyes, the realisation came to her that, working together, they could locate the child. She nodded, partly to herself and partly to the dog, and stood up.

She re-entered the shop. The turnstile clicked and she strode past the small fruit and vegetable section, feeling the cooler air on her neck. In one of the aisles, she touched Celia's shoulder as she reached for a packet of flour from one of the shelves. Celia turned and smiled.

"Hey, Marasta.“

"I think I can help," Marasta said. "I am not hundred percent sure, but I have an idea where to go. Where to look." Celia replaced the flour and left her half-filled trolley in the middle of the aisle.
Out in the sunlight, Celia started towards her parked car, but Marasta touched her shoulder and said: "Lets walk from here. On foot will be better." They walked up one street and down another. Marasta wore khaki cargo pants, the ones with additional side pockets down the leg. She was glad she had chosen them. She was also pleased she’d worn her takkies that day rather than the old leather boots she sometimes wore when prospecting for things like dumped wheelbarrows or old bicycles.

Marasta was a brisk walker but she slowed down when she heard Celia breathing hard to keep up. People who knew Celia started to join in on the journey, first one woman, then another. Then a man wearing a koffia. Then a youth who appeared to know the man. "Im also coming with, Oom."
Soon there were more than a dozen. They did not speak much. Marasta was looking this way and that. She knew her face was probably marked by frown lines between her eyes (Kenny says that's what happened when she was thinking hard). She was simultaneously determined and uncertain: What have I done? Will I let these people down? But she pressed forward.

First she was led by colours and familiar signs from her dream - a purple postbox, a blue sign for a crรจche. At one point, she noticed the bus stop from the dream. Then it was down a small lane. Galaka, as if knowing something, stopped and barked outside a house, number 17, with a green gate. It was the yard of Malgas, the man who owned two bakkies -- the one who built RDP houses, Celia told Marasta. Marasta tried to urge Galaka to move along, testing him. But the dog stood firm. Celia said to Marasta: "We were here with the community police forum the other night. Malgas came to the gate and told us he hadn't seen Tarryn. Wouldn't allow us to enter his yard. He said there was no point in searching there."

Galaka barked incessantly. His tail was stiff and raised; his eyes staring ahead. The gate was midway between the house on the left and the yard on the right where vehicles normally parked. Now and again, between barks, Galaka emitted a low growl. "Malgas, Malgas", Celia shouted. "Malgas. Open up". No-one answered. Malgas appeared not to be at home.

They could see someone at the kitchen window, a woman. Marasta thought they should wait for her to open the gate. But impatience and excitement got the better of the group. Someone shouted, "Let's go in", and with people in the group pressing from behind, Marasta, Celia and a few others pushed hard against the gate and it gave way, the broken latch and lock falling to one side.

Galaka charged to the garden shed at the back of the property. The crowd gathered at the locked door. The latch went flying as members of the group, using two rocks from the yard, bashed the door open. Marasta rushed in with Celia. Her eyes fell on the rolled up rug on one side of the shed. Her mouth opened and the sound tumbled out. Guttural. "Tixo!" One end of the rug was tucked slightly behind a dusty waist-high cupboard. At the nearer end, they could see school-shoe clad feet. Marasta pushed the crowd back. From the door, they craned their necks to look inside. Celia went closer to look over the cupboard and turned weeping, hoarsely. "It's her. It's her." She was shaking her head, her hand in front of her mouth as if to hold back the sobbing. "No ...!"

The next day Celia came by the sculpture garden, stopping just in front of Marasta's giraffe on the verge of the R101. Marasta watched as Celia cranked open the Tazz's door, watched as her dusty black and white sneakers picked her way over some stones in yard.  They hugged, and in a flash, Marasta saw again Tarryn's dusty black shoes peeking from within a rolled-up carpet. Marasta wasn't an avid hugger, but now she held on to Celia a bit longer. Celia opened her purse and fished out some notes: "We can't thank you enough. Her mother and father are broken ... but they are thankful you helped to find the body. That bastard, Malgas, was arrested today in Bellville South. His lover said she had no idea."

A day later Galaka trotted beside Kenny and Marasta as they walked to the taxi-rank in Glendale. Kenny sweated a bit. The weight of Marasta's two bags - the blue and red zip up plastics bags widely used by travelers that hail from dusty settlements - pulled the edge of his shoulders downwards.

Marasta bore a backpack, the black and blue nylon, a hospice-shop special that Kenny had once used for carrying his technikon books. "Mama, you look odd with that bag. " Kenny said. Marasta laughed:  "How am I supposed to look?" She turned her head to look at him, a sad sparkle in her eyes. "Just behave yourself while I'm gone." Marasta had left Jele and Kenny in charge of the shack and the spaza. "Try to work together; stop being idiots. For once in your lives." She looked at the dog. "Galaka will guard my things in the yard."

They were at the rank. She breathed deeply and exhaled. Kenny spied the driver, a wide-hipped man who wore a black mariner's cap with a small shiny peak, and after making sure it was the correct taxi, left the bags at the driver's feet. Better for the driver to wrestle the bags into the small luggage section. Marasta hugged Kenny, both holding on for a long while. Then she crouched, patting Galaka.  The mongrel wagged his tail and looked at her with large oval eyes, blinking.  "You know Im coming back -- sure you do." she said to the dog, nodding slowly.

Then she disappeared into the gaping Hi-Ace door.

Frank Meintjies

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