FlairShort story

At Death’s Feet

At Death's Feet, a short story by Innocent Madzhoni

My back is lurched against the fence of ‘God Will Never Forsake Us’ church, on Seretse Street. I absent-mindedly stand looking at the sun about to set. On the other side of the road is a leveled grass field that leads to a rivulet. A primary school stands erect after the rivulet, with its broken windows facing the sewerage waste passing through rivulet. I must admit, the odor that rises from there is enough to cause health issues.

The sewerage wastes gushing through the rivulet are heavy, and a bridge must have been built for the learners to walk to school. Instead, the schoolchildren have two options. They either take Seretse Street that joins Benji Street and makes way to Andrew Mapheto Drive., at one of the harshest traffic lights in Thembisa. Or they can decide to pay R2 to these unemployable and drug snorting guys who are always guarding the rivulet. The pathway is made of mediocre and sloppy concrete pipes – that always move when there are floods.

But my focus is not on the school or another church after the school, actually there are five to six churches that are a five minutes’ walk from the church I’m standing against. There’s only one library, which is not even within sight.

Anyway, my eyes, which for no reason itch, are looking at the man I don’t want disappearing.

I can’t contain my heart or even my body. A heavy ethereal object chokes me, it’s bitter and extremely nauseating. I struggle to push it down my throat or at least cough it out. I can feel death as it crawls around my body. However, I’m not afraid of what could happen after death, I’m rather calm. I don’t know, but I think at the final moment, death isn’t as terrific as you idolize it with satiated health. At this very moment I’m torn between images of death and exceeding happiness. What brings me here could lead to both.

With each step he takes, I can’t hold my breath. As he walks further, sweat evaporates on my dark and rather dislocated face. My legs – which are shaking or dancing to Kabza De Small’s Thula Nana playing at the tavern on the third street to where I stand – can’t move like a person exploring a transcendental painting.

He is at the end of the road now, he turns and looks back at me, phone still on his ear. He tells me using his forefinger that he will be back. To start with, he was an hour late for this meeting. Now I don’t know if I should even wait or decide to go home. I can’t go home. At least I should wait for him, maybe he won’t be long.

It’s summer and darkness approaches late. I reckon that township tsotsis must hate summer, because at four o’clock in the morning, which is the time our parents run to the train station, darkness has already ebbed. When they retreat back to their shacks and back-rooms hours later, the darkness has not yet masked the earth. But then again, darkness is not the prevalent prerequisite, hunger and desperation are. Dammit, perhaps It’s high time I also leave this cheap sentimentality of mine. My parents have never been part of the masses who work for twelve to sixteen hours per day; we live way above the poverty line. They are one of the few who have more than enough but still reside in the township.

I jump the street to pick up two bricks that some boys were using to play soccer on the grass field. Crossing the street back to the church’s fence, a heaviness hits my heart, there are no cars traversing so I kneel down for a second. People don’t want to help; they continue to walk right pass me like ants. But I don’t want their help. My scream will pierce whoever will attempt to help me. I eventually stand up and walk to the fence.

I have a heart condition. I shouldn’t panic or be anxious. At this point I’m not only panicking, I’m anxious to the point of biting my tongue, whose blood makes me feel better. That’s what I do when I’m terrified. I have a second way of comforting and making myself better in calamitous situations:

I imagine myself as a regular member of a community, and it is the so-called unlawful occupation. Out of the blue, the government’s police arrive and begin to burn our houses in order to chase us away. At the moment the houses are set on fire, I’ve exited to the shop to buy bread, but my daughter is inside the house and she burns to death. Hours later, when the media people ask me how I feel, I respond, ‘One day. Some day. I will burn this country.’ Years later, I start a revolution and literally burn this country – with everyone gasping, ‘he’s that man who said he’ll one day burn the country.’

As I think about the scenario, I feel better. But danger, in spite of everything, roams around me. Not only am I outside the house with my skinny jeans, fancy jacket and latest Jordon sneakers in the township; I have ten thousand rand with me. A stack of cash some black men have not touched, smelled or seen.
A silent prayer occurs in my mind, I don’t regularly pray unless I’m in those dire situations. With my itchy eyes I study the people passing by. I’m practically studying the face of my potential killer. My heartbeat slows down at the sight of a child, their innocence saves me the trouble of thinking they could be murderers. But I can’t be too sure, as I can’t be sure enough to trust the men who are walking past me wearing colorful suits and socks.

The biggest problem, though, lies in these men who are leaving the tavern with a bottle of beer in one hand and a cigarette in another. Or those with Uzzi hoodies who just got off the train from searching for work in white suburbs. Their innocence dwells in them feeding their ever-hungry stomachs. Stomachs whose hunger feeds on the helpless.

I untie my shoes and take them off as my feet are heating and my toes are hurting. I hope this doesn’t come off as an advertisement: I’m not selling them. I stand up to look at the end of the road to see if that guy is coming or not. He is not, but two men who fit the description of my potential killers are walking up the street from the end of the road. My plan is simple: I don’t look in their eyes. Here they are, I can’t resist not looking. ‘Hola,’ one of them says, with a smile that seems genuine. I nod; they continue to walk past me.

I can’t take this any longer. I’m not a prisoner.

The darkness has approached, the lamppost on the other side of the street shines on my face. It’s my protection. It’s strange that such a light that lures people from the village to the city and proceed to shine on them when they slit each other’s throats is one that protects me tonight. Perhaps tonight it shall shine on me as my throat is twisted. My legs still don’t want to go; this is the moment of death or happiness. If I leave, I shall receive none – not what I came here for. I’m definitely leaving with one between the two.

I met this guy through a classmate who had bought a laptop from him. I’m told this guy works at Makro, that’s where he gets his material at a fair price. ‘He probably shoplifts those things, but he won’t say,’ my classmate said. The classmate gave me his contacts, and we shared what I wanted to buy from him: a laptop and a digital camera.

I have ambitions of being a photographer. I want to capture the township at its most vulnerable; to catch what most artists miss: the beauty which rests on the fractured body of the township. The music. The theater. The tender love stories. The art studios. The dance moves. With the township being a chaos in itself, we must look within the chaos to find beauty.

Do I want to be famous with this pursuit? I don’t know, I don’t think I have enough luck. That’s life… at least as I have seen and experienced it. It pushes one thousand to the top, to the lights that glitter, where money talks, and the billions left at the bottom try to reach that point of fame and riches, thinking it is possible because someone at the top has the same background as them. But it never happens, and then the grave is filled with despair. Anything tasteful, anything fame, anything glittering, anything money, is not hard-work and it is certainly not talent, skill, or intelligence. It is luck. Luck produces the man of the hour.

‘I’m waiting for someone to arrive with the material you brought from me,’ he took off his hoodie hat.

‘No problem,’ I responded.

‘You know, I’d like to meet with someone first.’

‘It’s okay.’

‘It’s still a laptop and a camera, right?’ He turned and slyly greeted a woman walking past us. He continued, ‘you do have the money, right?’


‘Cool, let me call this person to make it fast,’ he said. That was right before he disappeared on me like black people’s salaries.

I don’t know this guy. How sure could I be that he didn’t have a gun or a knife on him? He could see I was shitting myself. Knife out, and I could’ve handed him all the money I have. Neither do I know my classmate to the point that he wouldn’t hire a killer for a share of ten thousand rand. There’s nothing genuine about them. My hope loosely hangs on the thin line of humanity, a line that when money is involved disperses.

It’s a church building I’m standing next to. So, I decide to amble up and down. If someone sees me, they will sense it’s just a young man infested by the spirit of Christ and he’s praying. My eyes are blinded by the police vehicle’s multi-colored lights. The squeaky noise these vehicles make is enough, I find the lights to be unnecessary.

‘What’s going on there?’ A police officer opens his window.

‘Nothing is wrong. I’m waiting for a friend.’

‘Hope you’re not selling illegal things.’

‘No. No, I’m not,’ I respond with evident annoyance. Can’t she see what I’m wearing? I’m wearing a quality perfume, with an expensive watch. I don’t want to be bored.

As I lose the sight of the police vehicle lights, my annoyance is buried with fear. Maybe that was my last chance of getting away. The police would’ve driven me home if I told them I was in distress. At any moment, that man could send his friends to come and attack me. Daylight crimes don’t get solved in the township. When it’s this dark, the police don’t even care to investigate.

Here, at this spot, will lie a body dripping blood and spectators will come and watch. But by tomorrow afternoon, children will arrive and play soccer. They will use these very bricks I was sitting on. One child will score and stand here where I will be murdered to celebrate a goal.

I look at my watch, it’s Eight Thirty. I’ve been here for about four hours. Death didn’t win. Happiness didn’t win. I stand with disappointment running in my veins.

I navigate through the dark, I run when I hear footsteps approaching. I slow down near the tavern, people are singing Sjava’s Umama. I feel the nostalgia, I want to be home with my mother. As I stand here, I’m not yet safe. With my hands on my knees catching some air, there’s a tap on my shoulder. It’s better I take out this heart before it crushes my chest.

This can’t be. it’s that guy!

‘Why didn’t you return back to me,’ I catch some breath. ‘I waited for you.’

‘I called you a couple of times, you didn’t answer your phone,’ he hands me a bottle of coke.

‘Is it?’ I take out my phone. ‘Oh goddammit, yes, my phone is on silence.’

‘Let’s meet tomorrow at the same time, I’ll have the merchandise firsthand.’

‘Sharp,’ I set the pace, it’s a ten minutes run to make it home. The lamppost continues to shine, with the dark escorting me home.*****

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