I woke up last night and saw you in the kitchen drinking juice with Mommy, but Mommy said I should go back to bed right now because you were tired and you couldn’t talk. But you looked so different daddy with that huge beard, but I guess I was still sleepy. Why didn’t you come to hug me daddy and tuck me in as always?
Mommy slept late and when I came to wake her up the door was locked. I cried and cried because you always said I could come in when I am scared. Mommy spoke through the door. I should stop crying because I would wake you up. She said I should go back to bed and she would send you in when I was quiet. I am sorry I fell asleep and didn’t see you come in. When I woke again you were gone. Mommy said you only had one day and had to catch the flight back to fight the war.
I love it when you send me letters as you know I love to read, but Mommy said you were too busy to write. She said she gets very lonely at times and she misses you. I miss you too daddy. Mommy got a new hair cut yesterday. I asked her if you were coming and she looked sad. She said she just wanted to look pretty. She wanted to feel good, just for herself.
Mommy said I could sleep over at Nala’s house. She said she would pick me up but I got tired of waiting and decided to walk home. I know where Mommy hides the key so I let myself in. Daddy, I could see that you had come back because I saw your boots in the lounge. I put them on and stomped around. I wanted to kick all those bad men who want to fight you. Don’t let them hurt you daddy, you know Mommy and I would miss you so much.
Mommy got angry when she saw me in your boots. She shouted at me when I told her I missed you so much, I just wanted to feel close to you. She said I had strange ideas. Do you think so Daddy?
Mommy threw the boots out and said men were all the same, they walked in and made a mess. I know you don’t do that daddy because you always but your boots on the shoes rack.
Daddy I have to stop now. Mommy read my later and said you are going to be too sad when you read my letter. She said I should write and tell you all about school. I am going to throw this away and write a new one, or perhaps I will save this until you come. I miss you Daddy so if you come back when I am sleeping, could you wake me? Please?
I love you Daddy.
PS. Daddy, could you cut your beard? I prefer you without it, but, I will still love you if you don’t. I don’t want the enemy to recognise you.
Trust hummed the tune to “My Redeemer Lives” as he turned the corner into Rissik Street. The unwieldy weight of his spruce-top acoustic guitar danced across his back with each step. Trust always played back each song on the playlist in his head and reminded himself of what chords he needed to play and the changes in the strumming pattern at each section of the song. By the time he got to the last song, which was usually after about twenty minutes, he would be at Commissioner Street, in the safer part of Johannesburg. It was a nerve-wrecking experience, every Saturday, having to walk down Rissik Street whilst trying not to show just how terrified he was. He was eight minutes away from Park Station and halfway through song number three, “Take it all” when five, maybe six, unkempt boys who looked older than they should, surrounded him.
A short one stood in front of him placing his face uncomfortably close to his.”We don’t want to talk shit with you, just give us the phone, Baba,” he said.
Trust stuttered, “I, I don’t have a… ” He felt a sharp object press into his lower abdomen and complied. As the thugs fled in different directions, Trust took panicked breaths and, for the first time, smelled the stale alcohol from the short thug’s breath, and something else. White spots appeared in his eyes, blocking more and more of what he should have been seeing. Then black ones, yellow ones and red ones. He felt faint, and felt himself fall to the ground as a capacious pain shot out from where the knife had poked him. “At least they didn’t take my guitar,” he thought, as he fell to the pavement in slow motion. He heard the hollow thump of his guitar hitting the pavement, and then he heard nothing.
My father told me that when he was my age he wanted to be a painter, actually, not just a painter but an artist. However, after a short stint in Paris with more girlfriends than galleries he decided that he wasn’t good enough to be an artist. There were other who were gifted, he was merely persistent and even on that count, not persistent enough since he abandoned paint and Paris and decided to light up the sky instead. Now I don’t know exactly what he did, the word electrician was often thrown around, words like switch gear too. All I do know is that while my dad lived, he lit up the room, quite literally.
Una laps the pond water like a dog. Her eyes stare into the sharded reflection of her animal self. None to see her in the moonlight. It’s her and the pondweed-and-frog smell of the night. She wonders how it is that all she ever feels, really feels, deep down, is utter confusion – a constant state of not being in touch, missing out on vital truths, seeing them in outline perhaps but never grasping them in her spacious moon-brain. The pitted moon – how far from the earth and closer to the sun, yet always one part in utter darkness.
She envies the clear conviction and certainty of people who live in her world. Why aren’t they aware of the bendable, stretchable universe and the chaos. The limitations of her mind perplex her. Why can’t she reach out and touch those shadows that circle around her like dancers.
The lights in the house glow orange and comforting. She watches, like an outsider, through the curtains into her home. Her children move in the lounge and the man stands clutching an oven-glove watching a fascinating moment on the little television across the room. She hears the hum of TV talk and human conversation. It’s a very pretty sight – moving and comforting – yes.
To be a part of that and not – an interesting position.
She pushes her hands into the grass and slowly gets up. Brushes the pond-side bits and pieces off her cotton dress and slips sandals onto her feet, spits the hair out of her mouth, straightens her cardigan.
He steps onto the veranda and frowns into the darkness. “Una,” he calls, “did you get the teddy bear?”
She’d forgotten about the child’s bedtime comfort. She’d come out to look for it among the trees where the children had been playing. They both knew the drama that would ensue.
“No,” she said.
“Well come in anyway. It’s late and sooner or later he’ll have to learn to do without the thing.”
The limp thing smelt of her little son’s adenoids and perspiration. It was almost hairless where he had rubbed it and held it night after night. There were patches covering the holes where stuffing had leaked out. It had a green waistcoat and its eyes were dulled with scratches. An object of love and security.
In that warm house there is never time to reflect, to talk to the quiet. Out here in the autumn darkness she feels less like the squeezed teddy bear.
“Una!” there is a note of impatience now.
I’m coming into the warm world again, to be filled with business and cooking and you. I’m leaving behind my animal self, leaving it crouching in the long grass, gazing at the moon.
A thin string of smoke rises to the air on the mountain. Then another and another and another. People are settling in for the long night ahead as the sun says its red goodbyes over the peak. They’re stupid. Letting them know exactly where they are. Making it easy for them. Like killing an ant. Around me, smarter people hide under the trees and next to the rocks as the long grass of the field keep guard. A small river breaks the field into two. It runs with a steady stream of water only interrupted by the occasional floating, rotting island. A year ago people would have cared. They would have tried to get them out, but know it just seems like a task that would waste energy and make too much noise. Rubble and remnants of structures that were once houses line both sides of the street that was once a home. Up closer to the mountain, I know, stand another, collapsed and empty. A creative mailbox would have proudly displayed its number as 831. 831 26th Avenue, Rietfontein, Pretoria. I can still remember my address. Useless, I guess, but it is like a memento of yesterday. Just a piece of it that can’t be stolen or ‘forced-extracted’.
“Why are you standing in the middle of the street,” I hear a voice from behind me say, “Aren’t we going in there?”
I look around to find her standing behind me, a frown settled on her brow and a look pointing past me to a bare, concrete structure. “Maybe it would be better to sleep in the field,” I say, “Safer.”
She doesn’t even take time to think about it. Her brow frowns and her lips pull tight.
“Boetie!”she says, the word still as innocent in her mouth as ever, “You promised we wouldn’t be sleeping in a field again. You know I hate the…”
“The rats and the spiders and the snakes,” I finish for her, “And the crickets and the grass sticking to everything.” I look to her with a grin.
“Well I do,” she says and walk closer to me, “Please can we just sleep in there?”
I know we shouldn’t. The field will hide us from troublemakers and FFE troupes. The structure won’t. I listen for a familiar crackling sound, but none meets with my ears and I let a sigh escape from my lungs. She still stares at me with those big, blue eyes. The same ones my mother used against me to do the dishes.
“Fine,” I finally give in, “but just because it’s your birthday, Anne. Tomorrow we’re sleeping in the field and you’re cuddling the rats, Okay?” She laughs and pushes past me.
“Race you there!”
The structure is cold. A breeze runs around its corners and whistles at the next. No one else occupies the destroyed space and we walk towards a section that still has some of its roof intact. I set our bag down and point Anne towards the floor under the roof. A few tiles still managed to survive their cracked siblings. She does as I instruct and I decide to take a look around before settling in myself. Here and there something different peaks through the normal piles of rubble. A television, its screen broken, lies next to a shopping cart with only two of its wheels left. The television once would have shown his face declaring war against anyone that opposed him or he simply didn’t like. It would have shown those first few months drenched in red and it would have shown the week that the bombs started destroying everything. I walk back to Anne where she sits rummaging through the bag. She looks up as I come closer.
“Where’s the juice box I found?” she asks.
“I gave it to that kid remember,” I say knowing she wouldn’t. I didn’t tell her.
“Not again,” she moans, “You always give our stuff away.”
“We have enough. Bread and water. Those kids don’t even have brothers or sisters like we have. Right?” Her lips tighten again, but I don’t let the frown climb back up her forehead. I tickle her and she falls on her back laughing.
“Shhh,” I say lowering my voice, “We’re making too much noise.” I laugh at her and then help her upright. Then I reach into the bag and pull out two slices of bread and a bottle of water. We sit there, eating in silence as the moon takes over the shift from the sun.
“Boetie,” she says after a few bites, “Do you think Mom and Dad would have been here if I didn’t cry?”
I sigh. She always asks this and I always give her the same answer.
“Mom and Dad died protecting us. They wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”
“I still remember her smell, you know?”
“I know. Me too,” I breathe in the night air and she mimics me, “It’s getting late. You better sleep. We’re going over the mountain tomorrow.”
She takes the last bit of bread into her mouth and lies her head down on the bag as she chews the last bits.
“Happy birthday, Anne.”
That night as the moon kept rising and the air became colder my eyes shot open at the sound of a familiar crackling.
“Davey, where did you get that?”
The man rubbed the wine stain profusely. His favourite shirt, completely ruined by overindulgence and assorted silliness. Muttering, he gave up. The stain would have to remain…
“My dad never locks his cabinet. Look at it, Martha…It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
“David…your shirt’s a mess.” His wife was a neat freak. She had seven arms, no breasts and a monolith in her stomach. That’s how he saw her. “Ja…Ja…It was a silly accident, Jennifer…Nothing to get pissed about,” he hollered towards the kitchen. She never knew when to let something go. “Then you mess it up worse by trying to clean it. Why didn’t you just leave it for me?” He bit down hard on his teeth. “One of these days…” She came into the room. “David, I’m talking to you…”
“Davey, be careful…Please…”
He loaded the red stained, rolled-up carpet in the back of his dirty bakkie. “Have to stop by the carwash first, then go to the supermarket, then I have to get rid of the carpet…Lastly, I have to pick up the girls, can’t forget the girls…”
“Don’t be such a baby…Nothing’s gonna happen!”
He bought himself a tall strawberry-flavoured crushed ice and invoked brain freezes, whilst loading the cart with boxes of custard and yogurt cookies. He waltzed in the isles, attracting stares and sniggers masking secret admiration. Then he found what he was really looking for…He was a gap-tooth kid again, doing whatever he felt like with no fear of the consequences.
“Davey, you always get us into trouble…DAVEY, WATCH OUT!”
His favourite song, “Break my stride”, served as the soundtrack for his journey. CD on loop… The clean bakkie stopped by the side of a road overlooking a steep embankment. He wrestled the heavy carpet from the vehicle with great difficulty. He ensured that the coast was clear, before rolling it over the edge. He stood there, staring entranced as the carpet rolled to the bottom where it joined an army of other lonely junk. He felt free at last, severed from useless responsibilities…
“Martha! Martha! Please, wake up now…Open your eyes, Martha!”
The two girls sprinted towards the bakkie, competitive to the last. “Ja, good one, my girls… Linda took it!!” He laughed uproariously. “But don’t worry, Sandra…my little angel…you’ll get another chance tomorrow…” The girls giggled in stereo. “Is mommy home yet?” He stared off into the distance, suddenly distracted. “No, Sandra…Mommy’s not home yet…”
“Please Martha…Please don’t leave me…” The blood dripped from the walls and pooled on the shaggy carpet, more blood than he had ever seen before…
They arrived home at last. The girls ran into the house. Davey stayed in the bakkie. He turned up the volume on his favourite song, “The king of wishful thinking”… CD on loop…The girls screamed…
“David…Dinner’s ready… I made your favourite… Thanks for buying them those dolls; they’ve been nagging for weeks… ” Jennifer kissed him tenderly. “Ja, I found those dollies on special this morning. There were just two left, how lucky was that, babe?” She smiled. “Very lucky, Davey…” “Ja, I bought the dollies home and put them on their beds. You know, to surprise them…” She ran her hand through his gruff hair. “I’ll be there just now, babe.” His wife was his loving inspiration. She had auburn locks, flawless skin, timeless curves and a new future in her stomach. That’s how he saw her. He had fallen asleep in the dirty bakkie. He gathered himself, shaking cobwebs loose. “Count your daily blessings, Davey…” This refrain looped in his head, as he went inside…
My swollen tongue mangled the explanation. His flashlight was brighter than the sun.
“Don’t you think I should drive?”, she pleaded. He blocked innocent logic from entering his mind. The party ran rampant through his system, poisoning the blood all over again. “No Sherry, I’m fine…”
I was on my way to a late night braai. Due to religious and personal reasons, I never drink, except on Saturdays. By the time I was ready to leave, that spark had already clicked in my body. It was urging me on. It’s like I was floating on millions of beer bubbles.
“I don’t think we should come to these parties anymore, Adrian.” She was stone-cold sober. The five months without a drink had flown by. “We need to get away from that crowd.” His jumbled understanding rearranged her meaning into a meaning of his own. “So, my friends aren’t good enough anymore?”
The long drive to Ian’s house gets me every time. I’m usually alone, with only the radio DJ’s for company. Just 33km to go. Lucky for my mate that he’s so masterful at braaing a tjop.
“I’m not in the mood for another argument.” Her head rested wistfully against the window. Street lights were flitting overhead in fast-forward. “I’m young. I want to have fun. I want to enjoy myself before…” She became fierce in an instant. “Before what, Adrian?”
“Good evening, Sir. I have stopped you because you were driving in an erratic and potentially dangerous manner. Can I see your license?” He seemed bored. “You smell like you’ve been having a good time, nè?” A fleeting memory flashed through the dronkenskap, reminding me that the licence was still on my kitchen counter. “Eish officer… I forgot my licence at home. I’m so sorry.” He looked at me, perplexed. “Come again. I didn’t understand you. What’s wrong?” Ja, how could I forget? I accidently bit my tongue a few kilometres back. Pothole or something… Somehow, the thing was now swollen enough to hamper speech. I took my Blackberry and typed a note of apology instead. Also, I added an offer for financial aid at the bottom of the message. “Is R200 ok?” The officer scanned the phone, his flashlight still searing my brain. He nodded. Maybe I was offering too much, but I’m new to this kind of thing. There’s no information pamphlet on how to conduct bribery. Everyone else does it, so I figured I’d give it a try. I fumbled in my purse and took out the loot. I didn’t wait around for a receipt.
The silence engulfed them. His blood was boiling. He turned up the audio to try and defeat the silence. Sherry didn’t retreat from his taunting. She turned the volume down again, as their hands started tussling childishly for control. All eyes averted, while his brain floated in a pungent, ethanol soup. She looked up. Her pupils constricted.
My eyes were trying to readjust, to focus on the blurry street light. I felt beer draining from my mouth, nose and ears. What a waste… My tarmac bed was uncomfortable. I tried to move, but couldn’t. I can sleep here, but I’d rather crash on Ian’s couch. My mouth was watering for that lamb tjop.
The medics lifted him gently onto the stretcher. His neck secured, his body was now possessed of a brand-new immobility. His bloodshot eyes remained open. As they loaded him onto the ambulance, fire fighters were still battling to put out the inferno.
The flames danced with reckless abandon, embracing the charred remains of three people and two unrecognisable vehicles. The ambulance started up and drove away from the catastrophe, taking him further away from his old life. The hypnotic sirens signalled a new beginning. “You got thrown clear of the accident, Mr Lazarus. You are very lucky.”
I saw his lips moving. Then I fell asleep.
“He is safe with us…” She stood there, anchored to earth by two concrete pillars of skin and blood. This hollow assurance meant nothing.
“Please, do like all the others have and just leave.” It took her decision mere seconds to become fully fledged, stripped of all doubt. “Give my boy back to me, right now! I’m not going anywhere!”
The haze of her tears obscured his response. The barrel arose, pointing up at her face. His mind fixated on one thought. “MY mother couldn’t get ME back…” This magnificent boy with his toy gun; and then his gun spoke…
She had an affinity for the pronunciation of names. No matter the language or dialect, her tongue snapped around its intricacies and held fast, until names blossomed from her lips like butterflies escaping their cocoons. There was the croak of a sleepy frog in her susurrant “Mbembe”, the crack of a breaking bough in “Cormac”.
It was only her own name that flapped from her lips and fell, flaccid, to the floor. She did not speak it often in the village. She spoke her name so seldom that it was forgotten after some years.
She fashioned a new one through hints and nudges, never uttering it until its being was roughly fashioned through the tongues of others. They struggled, lips clawing over syllables, chipping them jaggedly until at once the name took off, exploded into the air like a spout of water. She caught it, and in her mouth the malleable sounds were softly smoothed into a gentle stream, a rush of water over cobbled stones.
She was The Whisperer.
Flash fiction is an extremely concise work of fiction.
While there is no widely accepted norm in terms of its length, some self-described markets for this category impose lower limits as low as 300 words. Others consider stories as long as 1,000 words to be a more appropriate length for this genre of writing.