2017-SA-SSCOMP
SHORTLIST ANNOUNCED | WINNERS ANNOUNCED 31 MAY

2016 SA Writers College Short Story Competition Runner Up

 


'And the Meek' - by Matthew Child

 

 
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There are creatures on this earth that live and die in one day. Born beneath stones in fast-flowing streams, the change of season sees them float to the surface in bubbles, like ghosts crossing the void. These are the mayflies of the order Ephemeroptera – the ephemerals.

He nods, pretending to understand.

“They lack even the mouthparts to feed,” she says. “So they can’t consume once they’ve metamorphosed. They just buzz around for a bit and party and mate.”

“All the important stuff then.”

“That’s how we should be.”

“What, mating?”

She blushes and smiles. “We should be born without mouths, so that we can’t do any damage to the earth or to each other. So that we focus on the present.”

He thinks of a few people he wouldn’t mind seeing silenced forever. Like his boss, the prick. Not just a surface-layer prick – a deep prick. The kind who buys a Porsche while firing half his staff. Some people are just unsalvageable.

He’d say, “Siyanda, you’ll action this, OK?” as if the vagueness of the verb masks the lack of meaning in the work.

Wodwo wonders about these people who begin and end in office block coffins, who eat at places called Tashas and speak about boutique wine bars and the new BMW series. When the dizzying emptiness of their lives comes to dizzy them, rolls back their eyes, kicks them in the balls, what do they feel? They’ve convinced themselves that life is simple, like a menu, shutting out anything that’s not lifestyle. Wodwo wanted to feel more than comfortable.
 
He had found her on the street, plastered to the trunk of a robot, beneath the poster: PENIS ENLARGEMENT. A meek scrawl saying Lost Soul? Be found. There was no number but a strange address: A delta in the heart of Joburg, a Walden by the pond. He called his boss and told him to go action himself.
 
Wading through tall grass, he crawled through a gap in the fence, into an area set aside for birds. In a clearing, hidden from sight from the surrounding joggers and dog-walkers, was a crude bivouac made from branches lashed together with satin ribbons and dusted with thatching grass. A wisp sat over a potjie humming some sort of pop song. When she saw Wodwo coming she grabbed a sharpened stone and braced herself – he thought he heard snarling.

“Hey sorry – I’m not a tsotsi – I’m here for your ad? I’m a lost soul?”

“What’s your name there, honey?”

“Wodwo. The wanderer.”

“Come on, that’s not a real name.”

“It’s my tribal name,” he said. “All right, it’s my spiritual name.”

She eyed him slyly.

“Would you be more comfortable if I was called Matt? That’s racist.”

She laughed and lowered the flint. “I’m Aquamaria. The sangoma.”

“You’re a pretty pale-looking sangoma.”

“Racist,” she grinned. 

“So what now, sangoma?”

“I dunno. Do you want to look at some birds?”
 
And now she’s telling him to listen, really listen. He gets down on his hands and knees and nestles his ear in the undergrowth.

“I don’t hear anything.”

“Exactly. The vegetation should be teeming with small creatures like Dendromus mysticalis, Dasymys incomtus, Suncus infinitesimus,” she says, incanting the Latin names like a sorceress, “but their habitats are too degraded.”

Suncus infinitesimus – that’s a cool name.”

“The Least Dwarf Shrew.”

“What does it do?”

She shrugs. “Probably just tries to survive.”

“Much like what we’re doing?”

“To be present and not to dissipate. That’s the goal.”

He likes that. They’re not hanging out – they’re eking out.

She takes his hand and leads him up the path, explains that shrews need intact habitats to survive, that their bodies are little furnaces funneling through the veld, blazing micro-trails, igniting the insides of owls. The facts are biological, as if she were once a scientist, but her tone heretical, as if she’d been exiled from the academe for demonising the data.

“Besides, it’s not what they do that’s important – it’s about all of us existing together, allowing each other to flourish. Did you know the extinction rate is a thousand times what is should be? Think of rhino poaching, climate change, fracking in the Karoo fucking up the Riverine Rabbits – all these interesting creatures buried beneath concrete and greed. Pretty soon the rich and powerful will have erased all features on earth, leaving us no choice but to stay at home or go shopping. Which is of course exactly what they want.”
She’s pretty cute, all nerdy and apocalyptic.
 
Her favourite mornings were those looking out from her bedroom window and watching the wind move the leaves in waves of shadows and listening to the birds syncopating their calls from unseen perches and her knowing that the world can be a beautiful and peaceful place and her trying to hold onto that feeling before it drained away with the flow of the day. She was a little princess lost in a world of bushveld trails. But she got a job like the rest and she met some boys with whom she could have married and made children and they would have had names like Jack or Matthew or Sarah and they would watch TV on the weekends so mommy and daddy could get some fucking rest and they would become ungrateful little monsters just like their parents and the cycle of reproduction would start again. She was sucked into routine back then. She started being aware of herself saying things like “It’s Monday and I’m already tired” or “I work hard too, OK?” or “Did you have a good weekend?” and she was so hateful. Every time she looked at those fat cows in her office her eyes stung and she wanted to fight. She couldn’t let go of all the water it took just to sustain their lifestyles. The kind of people who eat lunch on principle.

One summer she got a research internship following birds around the Kalahari Desert, gathering data on their behaviour.  She learnt basic survival skills. She would speak with the birds while they foraged, asking them Am I crazy? Am I fucking crazy? She was happy. She decided she liked speaking with the birds. So when she returned she didn’t go to the interview her dad had arranged. She started squatting in Delta Park, spinning little sticks together to make fire, trying to grow her own vegetables and when it all got too much she would sneak in some tins of spaghetti and feel guilty.
When Wodwo saw the empty Macaroni packets, he said “So you’re just a tramp?” and it hurt her because at least she was fucking trying. She told him that by the time she was done with him they would both be sweet little Buddha mystics, eking out with all the other creatures.
 
They find a bench by a small pond. There’s a hard-yolk sun nesting in the sky and if you keep your line of sight to canopy-level or above you might just convince yourself this is natural. But picnickers sprawl out amidst the dog shit and debris and look past each other, look past other picnickers, look past everything into personal voids. Some of them have babies and she stares at the small creatures clambering stupidly through the grass. The deep well of hatred sloshing around in her belly is a gravitational force; it stoops her, a furtive, bird-like foreigner transfigured by terror of offspring.

“The greatest gift we can give our children,” she says, “is to make sure the other children aren’t born.”

Wodwo turns to her and sees her seriousness. “That’s a pretty harsh statement.”

“These kids are just growing up to want more and more.”

He nods, understanding. His gaze drifts over the picnickers and he sees a young girl sitting amidst the Cosmos flowers with a blue light glowering across her face, eyes sucked into her iPad. They call it information, but it’s disembodied. Taliban beheadings, arctic drillings, motorised dildos – they all converge on the same soft grey spot in the brain. As if lives now are paper thin, pulp fiction.

He says, “What we need to worry about is not the multitudes coming into this world, but the multitudes who don’t give a damn about the world. That’s our problem – the bored.”

“The ever-widening gyre of consumerist shit.”

“Poetic.”

“What rough beasts.”

“I get it.”

“Thoreau said the whole world is a canvas for our imagination.”

“Sounds like a bumper sticker.”

“Shut your face,” she laughs. “It’s deep. The art of life is to stay interested. Be present.”

“To not own iPads.”

“Let’s promise to always be mystics together, to not have mouths.”

She holds out her pinky finger for him to interlock but he leans in to kiss her instead. He feels his whole life has been standing by a river waiting for the chance to get to the other side. But now he wants to ooze back under the water, crawl beneath a stone, wait forever while uncertainty passes by. 

“Mouths are good for some things,” he says.

Her nose twitches, testing the air for sarcasm. She smiles but she’s afraid. His kiss ignited in her that ancient impulse for sex, love and family, but she won’t go back to bourgeois. A helicopter drones above, and now the noises of humanity leak back into the scene – barking, shouting, crying. They look at each other as if they were the first two species flung together, treading water in the primordial swamps while the whole world turned predatory. The meek will always be there, he thinks, a pile of bones beside the powerful, inheriting the failures from above.

“What do we do now?” he asks.

“We keep fighting to survive. To live.”

“Never start a fight you can’t finish,” he says reflexively, but he knows fights never finish, no matter how many you start, no matter how strong you are or how many Sudoku puzzles you can do, no matter the self-help books and rich inner lives lurking inside you, fights manifold are there to roll you over and send you tumbling back into the oil-thick waves. Never start a fight you can’t let fray and unravel into the tedium of groceries, dogs, misinterpreted texts, gnawing emptiness. Maybe never start anything at all.

“OK, well, it’s not fighting exactly,” she says. “It’s more like being happy with just being.”

He smiles, stands up and takes her hand. “Come. Let’s drift back across the delta.”

They pick their way through the picnickers, trying to keep the line of vision to canopy-level or above.

“Here’s a thought experiment for you: say we were lovers,” she side-glances him slyly, “and we were walking through the wilderness.”

“Where would we have sex? Is that the game?”

She laughs and blushes. “No, idiot. Say we’re walking and we come across a porcupine quill and I pick it up and tap you on both shoulders and say something like ‘I hereby knight you, Sir Wodwo’ – ”

“Lame.”

“–  shut your face. That memory would form part of our mythology. It’ll add meaning to our lives. Help us notch time. But we can’t do that if the interesting creatures aren’t around.”

Now all he sees is dog shit. He wonders whether that’s part of someone’s mythology.

“I’ll always pick up porcupine quills with you.”

She smiles and blushes as they crawl back through the hole in the fence.
 
There’s a land of beauty and peace hidden somewhere. Perhaps it’s already been pulverised to dust and they have to push it back together, one speck at a time. The newspaper they use to light the fire says “Global Markets Sink” and he thinks it sounds like Atlantis fabling around them; the great economic fairy kingdom finally returning to fantasy.

She strikes a match and says, “The only reality is the landscape – with the trees and the soil and the birds and us”. She spins in the hovel, singing and spilling beans, squelchy on the floor, overcome with raw happiness, the kind that lava-flows from deep magma core. Wodwo watches from his corner, shrew-like and near-blind with bliss. The Suncus infinitesimus, sunk in love, an infinitesimal in the ecosystem and okay with it. A couple of ephemerals eating each other’s hearts to live for a few days on earth.

 
 
 

 
THE END
 
 
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