A beautiful summer’s day greets us congenially as my sister Gayle and I stroll into the bar area of the luxurious Bush veld resort. Tables nestle casually under the luscious thorn trees, with a live band of various cheerfully twittering birds entertaining us free of charge. We have a whole weekend planned to recharge, chat, reminisce, and solve the world’s problems, and our own, at leisure.
We get seated at a table that allows for a generous panoramic view of the surrounding hills and valleys, the tranquil earth instilling an inner peace even to the most restless soul.
A waiter, dressed in colourful traditional clothes, introduces a special offer: with every cocktail, a complimentary cigar is served. We giggle like teenagers, as we have never smoked, and then I decide to try the novelty – after all, we are on holiday!
Gayle, the table, surroundings and sounds fade suddenly. It goes completely dark. When I wake up, all shaky and blurry, with no idea how much time has passed, the first thing I notice is that my sister is gone. All our belongings are missing too. No cellular phones, no wallets. Unable to process what has happened, I suddenly focus on her jacket, still hanging over the chair’s back, and my brain screams at me that something is terribly wrong.
I struggle to my feet, fervently looking for any sign of my sister, the scene rising and falling in and out of focus in waves of dizziness. Everything around me seems disturbingly normal. Waiters are moving back and forth with orders, and guests leisurely talk to each other, sipping on marvellous outlandish cocktails and drinks. When I try to get the attention of a waiter, I know without a doubt that I have not been imagining things – I croak when I try to speak, and the harder I try to scream, the less any eligible sound escapes my mouth, albeit a hoarse raspy moan.
I grab onto one of the waiter’s arms as he walks past, and lose my balance in the process, but hang on for dear life, while I croak to the best of my ability: “Help me, please. My sister is missing..” The waiter stares at me as if I have the plague, or lost my mind, or both. I refuse to let go, shaking him and screaming silently: “My sister is missing, my sister is missing!”
The sheer terror in my eyes must convince him that there might be merit to my story, and he assists me quickly to the manager’s office, eager to be rid of the wild mad woman. The manager forces me to sit down on the closest chair, summons a glass of water and begs me to take a sip, in order to calm me down. I obligingly take two quick sips, hoping that it might help my voice to return to normal, but when I try to speak, I have to strain to get out the slightest whisper: “My sister is gone! We were having cocktails and I lit up that complimentary cigar that the waiter told us about, and I blacked out, and when I woke up my sister was gone. All our belongings are gone too. But here is her jacket, see, it is her jacket, but she is not here, she is gone!” Exhausted from the exertion, I slump back into the chair and close my eyes for a moment to catch my breath.
I burst into tears, as the only response from the manager is a thoroughly confused look. Wild and disorganised thoughts race through my mind: “What am I going to do if no one believes me? How will I find Gayle? How will I be able to look for her if I am still dazed and dizzy?”
It takes another hour to be taken seriously by management, who reluctantly agrees to call the police after I threaten to call the media to assist me. The possibility of bad publicity definitely weighs more than the perceived peril by a mad woman and her “missing” sister.
It is four hours later. I sit despondently on a chair at the bar, my sister’s jacket draped around me for emotional comfort. I have relayed my dazed experience a few times to different officers now, and they definitely do not share my concern. One officer even hesitantly offer what she thinks is a viable explanation for my sister’s disappearance: “Ma’am, you and your sister are like best friends, right? It is possible that you drank your cocktail too fast, and got slightly intoxicated, don’t you agree? Don’t you think she might have gone for a walk to give you time to sober up?” I warily shake my head. Obviously, the officer do not know what kind of a relationship we have.
I am the youngest of three daughters, born and raised in a smallish town in the North Western Province. Our childhood was neither spectacularly happy nor sad. Both our parents worked, and we were often left to our own devices after school. Very conservative child rearing rules were followed when they were home though, and we were expected to be seen and not heard.
My closest sibling is two years older than me, but I have been sort of taking care of her since early childhood. Gayle was the shy one, with impeccable manners, always diligent and kind, and a model daughter. She was quiet in her ways, and never demanded any special attention. Unfortunately, she was also a little overweight, and had mousy fine hair that my mother always pulled back in two tight ponytails to reveal protruding ears. Being the cruellest species alive on earth, children at school teased her constantly about this, and although she visibly cringed at the insults cruelly tossed at her, she never retaliated.
It happened more than once that I jumped in, quite literally, and defended her like the proverbial mother tiger defending her vulnerable cub against advancing predators. I did not only attack them physically, but also did not hesitate to inform the closest teacher of their bullying in explicit detail, grinning happily when they got into trouble, and had to apologise to her.
Since then I became her guardian of sorts, defending, cheering, or mothering, as dictated by the situation. A very close bond developed over the years, even to the point where the one could feel when the other was sad, or in trouble, without fail, and we often telephoned each other simultaneously, giggling at our telepathic capabilities where each other is concerned.
That is what the officer does not understand. I know she is in grave danger, and that she was harmed in the most horrible way possible, and that I had to find her sooner than later, or it will be too late. My mind search desperately for a way to convince the police of the serious nature of the situation, and make him listen, because I know!
An urgent shout shakes me from my thoughts. A police officer is running down the hill that borders the bush pub, arms flapping, shouting something intelligible.
The feeling of dread rises like springtide in my chest as the officer explains that various barefoot adult footprints as well as drag marks were found in the soil that leads up the hill. A team is despatched and I follow as best I can, struggling against the lingering giddiness, ignoring the manager of the bar that tries to stop me.
What they find at the end of the footprint trail, buried in a communal shallow grave, covered hastily with small rocks, are human remains. I die a thousand deaths as I randomly grab at the cloth rags covering the faces of the victims, allowing a tiny sigh of relief to slip out every time it is not my beloved sister I uncover.
My search becomes more and more fervent as I do not find any trace of Gayle, no pieces of familiar clothing or our cell phones and wallets. At last I have to relent that she is not at the scene, but with the initial relief another wave of desperation fills my heart and brain. “Where is she? Is she alive? What are they doing to her?”
I cringe involuntarily and fall to my knees while sobs explode from my chest when I examine the bodies found. The fifteen victims I count have the most horrific mutilations inflicted to various parts of their bodies. Eyelids are stapled closed, mouths sewn shut with a crude implement of some sorts, leaving ugly jarred cuts. Grotesque ornate wooden plugs protrude from the ears of the nameless victims. Signs of severe struggling are evident, as not only their fingernails are badly broken, but fractures also show that they were restrained forcefully and without any mercy. Bruises to the lower parts of their bodies unmistakably point to sexual assault, and I realize with horror that they were alive while these inexplicable atrocities were executed. The gruesomeness of the situation floods me again without warning and I have to retreat to a few rocks nearby quickly to relieve the nausea that engulfs me!
The search is resumed with new fervour by the team of police officers, all doubt now pushed aside that my sister, and possibly others, are indeed in very grave danger. More footprints are found, and the search escalates with intense velocity.
I stumble after the police, ignoring their pleas to go back to the resort. The next hour and a half passes in a daze, with police officers alternating between running, walking, retracing their steps and shouting instructions, all set against a majestic South African sunset. There is no time to appreciate the beauty of nature’s way of bidding a gracious good bye to a long day, as the team realize that daylight is running out quickly, and with that the chances of finding any possible victims alive in time.
As the midges quiet down and the shadows lengthen, we increase the pace even more, following the tracker as closely as possible, without disturbing the trail. I have never felt so alone…
As we cut cross yet another hill, an officer spots what looks like an outbuilding of some sorts, in the distance. I am forced to stay behind this time with an officer that has to restrain me as the team advances carefully. A lifetime of sorrow ages me visibly while we wait. Half an hour crawls past at the pace of a dead tortoise trying to cross a highway. Little sweat streams run uncontrollably down my back to stain my shirt, while fear, anger and despair well up at will.
When an officer appears eventually, my heart sinks to a new low, and the dizziness and nausea threatens to make me retch again. He looks at me with so much sympathy, I suddenly do not want to hear what he has to say, and I involuntarily cover my ears.
“Ma’am, please come with me,” he pleads uncomfortably. “There is something that the captain wants you to see.” I stumble forward, clinging to his arm for support, while fresh tears stream across my cheeks, anticipating the most terrible of outcomes to the ordeal.
As I reluctantly move towards the building, my mind starts processing the images. A rugged outbuilding the size of a rondavel is outlined against the horizon. There is no sign of life, apart from police officers busily scurrying about. Nothing bodes any evil or wrongdoing from the outside, and I know that whatever the police want me to see, is waiting inside.
The first sense that heightens involuntarily is my sense of smell. As we approach the entrance gingerly, I smell conflicting scents, ranging from damp clothing and sweat, to faint traces of perfume, quite unbefitting a seemingly uninhabited ruin in the middle of the Bushveld.
The scene that unfolds inside initially confuses me. There is a tattered desk and chair propped against one wall, with an old calendar dangling skew from a nail. The roof, made of grass, is in dire disrepair, and the early night sky is clearly visible through the wooden beams. An empty box or two were discarded carelessly in one corner, while a dirty bucket without a bottom keeps the swinging half-hinged door open.
The floor on the other side of the small building has been covered by flattened boxes. On the boxes, piles of clothes are neatly stacked. T-shirts, pants, shorts and jackets have been sorted into lots. All the clothes were clearly second hand, some dirty, displaying disconcerting stains that resemble dried blood and mud.
A sort of relief runs through me when my darting eyes tell me that there are no bodies piled up covered with rocks, as we have seen on the hill. But relief only lasts for a second, as I recognise my sister’s sarong, the bright primary colours taunting me from the top of one of the batches of garments stacked at the far end. I fall on my knees, grabbing the piece of material, and press it to my face. The unmistakable smell of Royal Secret, my sister’s favourite perfume since we were teenagers, fills my nose.
Trying to comprehend and process what we have found temporarily turns me into a mute as I stare at the floor. The captain’s voice forcefully returns me to the present: “Miss Peterson, I assume you recognise the sarong?” I manage to nod my head slowly, painfully, and he continues: “Is it possible that you are mistaken? That design is fairly popular, and many women use it?” I jump up and unceremoniously thrust the sarong under his nose and demand in a hoarse voice: “Smell! Royal Secret. My sister’s favourite perfume. Stop trying to convince me that something is wrong. I know something terrible has happened!” My outburst ends in a hysterical shriek, and I bury my face in the silent piece of material, tears disappearing into the red, blue and yellow.
The captain allows me to grieve for a few moments, but then urges me: “Miss, I have something else to show you. It seems to be connected to the mutilated bodies we found, unfortunately…” His voice trails down to a whisper at the sight of the anguished stricken look on my face.
I get up reluctantly, unable to handle more terrible information, and walks slowly towards the desk that I saw when I entered the shack, where the captain is waiting.
An old, tattered and well-worn Bible lies open in front of me. Various pieces of paper of different colours and sizes stick out from apparent places of interest to whoever the owner was. Several parts of the visible passages have been underlined heavily, with hand written notes in an untidy handwriting clearly visible in the margins.
The passage is from the Old Testament, the book of Isiah, chapter 6… and I feel my blood churning as the words turn into intelligible sentences…
(1 In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the LORD sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.
4 And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke.
5 Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.
8 Also I heard the voice of the LORD, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.
9 And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not.
10 Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed.
11 Then said I, LORD, how long? And he answered, Until the cities be wasted without inhabitant, and the houses without man, and the land be utterly desolate,
12 And the LORD have removed men far away, and there be a great forsaking in the midst of the land.)
The images of the mutilated bodies we found earlier flash before my eyes, with their eyes stapled closed, their ears plugged, and their mouths sewn shut. I turn to the captain in horror: “He or they think that they are fulfilling a divine instruction?!”
Thankfully, we are interrupted by excited voices, and I found myself outside the building, inhaling large amounts of clean air, to try calming my thoughts.
I vaguely hear, as if from a great distance, that a new set of fresher footprints were followed, and that a number of men were rounded up, ready for interrogation by the captain. I follow with dread, wanting to know, but not wanting to find what seems to be the inevitable outcome.
We reach an opening in the bush, and the first thing I notice is an ornate spear, carefully arranged amongst a pile of rocks, resembling the proverbial Excalibur sword of Arthur. Next my attention moves to a tall figure who is detained by two officers. He is dressed in a hideous head dress and badly fitting colourful western clothes, clearly belonging to some of his victims. His face has been painted to depict a wrathful and vicious expression.
Fear is a funny emotion. When it lingers too long, snubbed, it turns into anger, a hatred so powerful, it engulfs all reason, igniting a fight response more powerful
I do not think. I act as my primordial brain instructs me to do. I lunge forward, rush past the officers, grab the Excalibur spear, and with inhuman power I attack the creature that took my sister away from me. I must have looked like the devil reincarnated to that god-awful being as I raged towards him. Thick waist length dark brown wavy hair are spread disorderly around my head like a misshapen halo and my full lips are pulled back into a cruel grin. Everything happens in slow motion as I jump up and raise the spear at the same time, then crashing down with every ounce of energy I can muster, to bury the spear hilt deep in his chest, watching with diabolic pleasure as the blood spurts from his chest and mouth. Some of the blood spurts on my face, and I turn my head in disgust.
It takes more than just a few minutes to regain control of my own brain. Air rushes in gasps through my nose and throat, making frightening animal like noises. I shake uncontrollably, and my heart pounds in my chest like a sledgehammer. I am not sorry for what I have done. In fact, I wish I could do it over and over and over, until the hurt in my heart subsides to a level I can endure.
Above the confusion, I discern an anxious officer’s voice shouting to the captain: “Cap, more bodies!” My legs refuse to carry me, and I crawl like a wild dog towards the voice. Then I see it. Three bodies on the ground, discarded like used paper bags, only covered partly by rags. Raw screams rack my ribs as I recognise my sister’s wrist with upturned palm, protruding from a blood-covered cloth, begging me to find her.
The hurt and sorrow is unbearable, yet I cannot take my eyes away from the humble bundle. I reach her and remove the cloth attempting to cover the brutal mortification inflicted. Three rag strips have been arranged purposefully over her eyes, nose and mouth, as if part of a ritual performed. I will never be able to describe in words what I feel as I carefully lift the first rag slowly from her eyes. Her eyelids have been stapled closed in crude fashion, as with the other victims. I see with exaggerated clarity that some of her eyelashes are missing, and it feels as if the pain in my heart physically rips my chest apart, bending me double and I find my head resting on her chest, while uncontrollable sobs blur my vision.
Then I hear it. So feint, I think I might have imagined it. A heartbeat. “O, God, no, please” the thought races through my mind. “Please don’t let her be alive through this torture”, and simultaneously: “O, thank you God, thank you for letting me find her alive!”
What happens next feels surreal. I experience an almost out of body experience, my soul floating somewhere between myself and my sister. Thankfully, I cannot feel the pain in my chest any more, and a blue calmness wraps itself tightly around me, focusing every sense I have to the most of my ability. My hands stop shaking, pins and needles indicate that additional blood flow has been restored to my extremities, I focus like an eagle, consciously shut out all sounds, and with infinite care and love, I remove the staples from Gayle’ eyelids one by one, guided by the light of a torch held by a police officer.
What happens next, however, let my soul crash back unceremoniously back into my psychologically battered body with such force I almost lose consciousness. Gayle opens her eyes. What I see saddens me so, I will not forget it until the day I die, and it will most probably even follow me into eternity.
The sheer terror, sorrow, shock and grief that stare at me, is unbearable. She does not seem to recognise me, and cringes at my touch, fighting against me, trying to get away. She grabs the piece of torn cloth and with desperation tries to cover her eyes with it, trying to get away from the piercing light of the torch shining in her face. The white of her eyes are a horrible colour, a mixture of red and orange, irritated by the cruel metal staples. I instinctively start making soothing clicking sounds, and cradle her as close as possible to my chest.
“I’m here, Gayle, I found you”, I whisper softly, while maintaining eye contact. “You are safe, you are safe, you are safe, I have you now, I won’t let go” She stares at me without comprehension, collapses, then fight again with the strength of a mad person, wild eyes and groping hands searching frantically for the cloth to cover her eyes.
I keep my voice calm, although my soul dies little by little of sorrow moment by moment, as I repeat soothingly over and over: “I have you now, you are safe.”
Although I weigh a mere 48kg, I bear against gravity, not letting go for a moment, holding my dearest sister as close to my heart as possible. One vicious look that makes my hazel eyes look like glowing gold, stops the officer in his tracks as he steps forward to relieve me of my burden.
The hours that follow are blurry, without substance. I have vague memories of an ambulance, nurses, doctors and police officers. The only clear recollections that I have are that of the occasional jolts from Gayle, as she desperately fights me to see where she is, only attempting to vanish behind any piece of material she can grab onto as soon as light shines in her face. This alternates with me trying to keep the rags from touching her mutilated eyelids and me cradling her closer and closer, and whispering: “You are safe, I won’t let you go, you are safe.”
Days turn into weeks. Recovery is slow. By the grace of God they did not have time to sew her mouth shut, or harm her ears with wooden plugs. Doctors tend to the wounds to her eyelids and ravaging rape injuries using the best medication. The emotional damage, however, is severe. Gayle do not talk. At all. She shows no interest to participate in any conversation, and is cared for like an infant. During this time, I never let go of her hand, and even though she does not react to anything I say, I repeat a million times and more: “You are safe.”
Physical wounds heal, and new wispy eyelashes grow back. Occupational therapists eventually help her to walk again. She stays silent.
The day arrives when she is allowed to return home. I hold her limp hand on my lap as we are driven to our parents’ house. I lovingly help her out of the car, and hold her as close as possible while we ascend the steps to the front door.
Home, at last! We walk slowly into the lounge, where my parents anxiously await us. And then, for the first time since the incident, Gayle shows signs of life. She walks forward slowly, and with a low, broken voice announces: “Mom, Dad, I have been assaulted in the most horrific way possible.”
For hours, days and weeks I was strong. I ignored every time my body or soul demanded my attention, pushing it to the subconscious, concentrating on my sister, and her well-being only. The sentence uttered is so unexpected, it breaks through my fragile defences completely, and I just notice vaguely that everything goes dark around me, and I float off in a quiet dark and cool blissful oblivion.
It does not fit, I think, and frown. The clear cheerful melody playing aloud has no place in this sad and awful tale? Slowly, oh so slowly, I resurface, and return to the world of reality. My eyes fly open, and as I jolt upright, arms aching, body shaking, with eyelids swollen heavily from crying, I finally realize: “It was a dream! Just a dream!”
The dream refuses to leave my mind’s eye. I see Gayle’ eyes, all red and orange, ducking away from the intruding light of the flashlight and bright hospital lights, I see where the eyelashes are missing. I smell the dried blood, feel her limp body in my arms, and relive the terror in explicit detail.
I force down a very strong cup of coffee, and decide to call my sister. I have to reassure myself that this was only a very bad nightmare.
The phone rings for a long time before it is answered eventually. It is her husband: “ Hi, Jane. Funny you should call. I am actually a bit worried…. Gayle and a friend were invited to a luxury resort in the Bushveld, and I have just received a call from the manager at the resort. Gayle seem to be missing. Only her jacket was found hanging over a chair…”