An exciting story about a missing baby, Musa, Hannah’s urgent mission to rescue an innocent child from a kidnapper isn’t just macho - it’s a lead to a serendipitous discovery of a heavy gang of thugs with a marooned child, and a love affair of a lifetime.
Hannah sped down the Mbabane-Manzini Highway in her rented Chevrolet Cruze as though her survival depended on it. It was always the case when she worked, and she was always working. Hers wasn’t what you call an eight-to-five job. It was some kind of mania, even if she wouldn’t admit it.
Still incensed from her unsatisfactory outcome in Manzini, she overtook a snail-paced vehicle and honked at the driver as she passed. No one seemed to understand the urgency of her mission.
When she’d engaged the Manzini Police Department, they’d been adamant that with no court order, Musa Shabalala’s failure to return home didn’t warrant a police search for him. His babynapping concerned no one, even those at the various television stations. Even the local newspapers chose not to mention the story. It appeared that pending the settlement of the divorce and the custody, that Musa Shabalala was fair game. Even though his mother, Betty, was frenzied, it appeared that everyone had consented to disregard the snatching; everyone! everyone but Hannah, who was not prepared to allow an eleven month old child, to become another casualty in a domestic conflict.
The sun sparkled off a brown board that read ‘Café, Phone and Gas – next exit road.’ A muffled curse passed her lips. She’d sworn to call the office back in Mbabane at around ten. She flashed a quick look at her watch: one fifteen p.m. Notwithstanding her assertions, that she was absolutely able to take care of herself, her colleagues would be worried about her. Swerving off the road, she obeyed the sign and pulled up at a decrepit souvenir shop stuck at the side of the road. Its woody balcony needed only a gigolo with a sunhat covering his eyes, and a cheroot protruding between gritted teeth to be mistaken for the back lot of Channel S Studios. A large bird hung overhead, seemingly waiting for the shop to finish dying.
The interior was dark with a faint musty stink. It was over thirty-four degrees Celsius outside and it had to be at least thirty-two inside. Apparently, there was no trace of a phone. Actually, there was no trace of life, but for the mould thriving on the angles of the old refrigerator case. Regardless of the tags promising ‘cold Coca Cola’ all around it, its mantelpieces were heaped with grimy brochures. They had titles that stimulated apathy at first sight, for Hannah. Titles like: Sex, Loneliness, and fathers. Hannah neither discussed nor read about such things.
“Can I be of service?” Hannah turned around at the echo of a man’s voice. “Miss?”
“Your container looks broken,” Hannah said, motioning towards the refrigerator. “Do you have something cold?”
He shot the container a what-the-hell-is-that look. “Power’s out,” he eventually said. “None since four, maybe five weeks ago.”
“All right then, a phone?” she asked.
Just like her, he had denim trousers and boots on, but he had also added a cowboy hat, a blade on his girdle and a napkin around his neck. No one had told Hannah that in Siphofaneni, it was still the wild south.
“Over there,” he said, motioning his head towards the dimmest part of the room. “Suppose it still works.”
It was a British phone. Hannah couldn’t recall the last time she’d used one of these, but it served the purpose all right. It linked her to an operator, and she was connected to her office.
“Social Welfare, Sophia speaking. Can I help you?”
“It’s me,” Hannah said. “I’m a few kilometres past Siphofaneni now, so you can relax.”
“Hannah? I’ve got Mrs. Shabalala on the line. Hold on a second, and I’ll tell her you’ve got everything in the palm of your hand.”
“Just put her through, Sophia. I’ll talk to her myself.”
She ran her fingers through her hair. The tiny phone booth was hot as a furnace, and she imagined something might have sneaked into her shirt. She hoped it was just a sweat bead.
“Hannah,” Sophia went on, “Allow me to tell her. You have enough stress to handle without Betty Shabalala crying miles and miles away. I can manage.”
“Appreciated, Sophia, but it’ll soothe her if she talks to me.”
“Oh, it’ll soothe her. It’s you I’m concerned about.”
There was a brief moment of silence, then Betty Shabalala was on the line. “Miss? Can you hear me?”
“Yes, Mrs. Shabalala. Can you hear me?”
“Oh! God be praised you’re there. I called John’s supervisor. I acted as if I was the bank, and that I required more information for his mortgage. It’s not enough to mother his child. He mentioned that John was leaving in a few days. When I pushed him harder, he said he supposed he might make a call in from the road, the road, Miss.”
“I did imagine that. I did mention it to you that he would drive, didn’t I?” Hannah asked. Unless they could afford a private jet, they wouldn’t fly. It was too simple to track them that way.
Mrs. Shabalala went on to talk about her former soon-to-be husband, and how getting Musa out of the country before the guardianship hearing befitted his character.
Suddenly, her voice was choked with tears. “You’ll find Musa, won’t you?”
“Of course,” Hannah answered. “Yes, I’ll find him.”
“And you’ll bring him straight to me, right?” Mrs. Shabalala was candidly crying now, and Hannah had to wipe a tear from her eyes.
“I’m sure I will find him,” she reassured her.
If she failed to bring Musa back, she’d hold onto Ron Shabalala’s tail until the lawyer obtained some kind of court directive to bring the boy back. The imperative thing was to ensure that the man didn’t just take Musa and vanish off the face of the earth.
“Do you have company?” Hannah asked, as she heard the unrelenting muffled sobbing. “I could request one of my colleagues to be with you while you wait.”
A man’s voice echoed over the wire. “Miss?”
“It’s Thabo Masuku. Betty’s father.”
“I’m about two and half hours north of Lavumisa now.”
“Please get him back, Miss. You can’t even imagine what it’s like to lose a child. I hope you never know such heartache and sorrow. I’m really begging the Lord on your behalf …”
Hannah’s eyes finally gave way to tears. “I’ll get him. I give you my word.”
She ended the call with her thumb and held the handset to her chest for almost a minute. Deep hatred for Ron Shabalala ripped her insides; and the same went for most fathers. Every brainless last one of them, placing what they desired before what they had to know was important for their babies.
When she stepped out of the phone booth, the retailer was waiting for her. He looked at her, and he gave her a cold tin of Coke.
“Kept cold in the cellar,” he said.
She grinned her thanks. “Do most people drive out here? I’m searching for a young boy and his dad.”
“Little boys and their fathers pass here, I see plenty. Is the baby yours?”
His eyes were caught on her blouse. She glanced down and noticed the soaking that her tears had marked on her navy jacket. For a second, she thought of playing on his sympathies, but her conscience wouldn’t let her do it, no matter how much she would have enjoyed claiming any of the children she sought, as her own. She swabbed her cheeks. She took out a picture of Musa from her pocket and gave it to the man.
“I’m trying to find him for his mother, who is deeply sunk into apprehension and worry over him. If you did see him, it could be helpful.”
The man looked intensely at the picture. What he saw was a lad of twelve months or so, almost throttling a downy dog in a sweet cuddle. The man gnawed the inside of his cheek.
“He’s with his pa, you say?”
Hannah nodded and motioned to take the picture back. The man seemed hesitant to give it back.
“Whatever you can remember,” she said.
He transferred his weight, massaged his chin, and mopped his hand over his denim trousers.
“The other day,” he said, “a group of guys walked in here, nomads perhaps. I recall a gun casing on one of them. He mentioned something about waiting for a man with a child; he had a photo and asked if I’d seen them. Perhaps it was this one.” He shrugged and gave back the photo; the boy’s brown eyes grinning at them.
“Do you have any idea where they were going?”
“There is definitely one place where the hunters would be from around here,” he said, taking steps around the counter to the cash register and tapping Hannah’s drink with his finger.
“Do you have a map? The mountains of Big Bend-Lavumisa are kind of tricky.”
After thirty minutes of suggestions first one way then another, Hannah received a pencil sketch of the journey. Waving goodbye, she went into her car. She drove straight through St Philips. The place had tourist shops here and there that tried futilely to conceal the view. She then drove away from civilisation for the hills once again. There, she rumbled along behind a deep green Jeep full of holidaymakers cheering at the awesome sight of shrubs around Jozini. She, too, had cheered, until she realised that she was desperately lost. It was nearly an hour since she’d last seen a green Jeep; and since then, she had not seen even one person.
She took the sketch map and parked on the edge of the thin road. Turning the map and studying it, she realised that she was nearly there. Regrettably though, she was about ten kilometres laterally side-tracked from her supposed destination, with no perceptible way of reaching the place she sought. But still somewhere in the jungle there were men waiting for Musa and his father to show up, and she was absolutely determined to be there when Musa and Ron Shabalala arrived.
In the car, she flipped her bush of curly hair up on her head, paying little attention to the fact that she might look like a mop, and pulled the hair off her neck. She then engaged the car into first gear and slowly returned to the road, searching for a route to the eastern mountains. When she finally noticed a fairly indistinct track heading to the east, she swerved off the gravel road and went after it. After less than a five hundred metres drive it was apparent that the car could go no further. She got out of the car to have a look. Almost thirty metres ahead, the track ended unexpectedly at a slim natural stone bridge that protruded over a small winding river, the consequence of thousands, perhaps millions, of years of speeding water, on an arch that reached nowhere.
Wondering what she ought to do, she took a few steps towards the bridge just to try and see where she was. As she walked through the scrub, she lost her footing and muffled a curse at her boots. Considering what the girls in the office had said about scorpions and snakes, she’d set aside her Pierre-Cardin shoes and donned leather boots and wondered how the nomads had ever escaped the bad guys in slick-soled boots that didn’t even give at the ankles.
With one foot on the bridge, she peeked carefully over the edge. Underneath her, hundreds of metres below, was a desiccated riverbed. Stones, boulders and pebbles, in every tint of copper, orange and red, lay piled into heaps and heaps over each other. Doubtlessly, the river once extended over hundreds of metres. But as far as she could see, the landscape didn’t change. So, this was it. The mystical Lowveld people talked about so often. This is what they meant. In spite of being cynical at heart, she could feel the force around her.
Folks who were fascinated by these metaphysical forces argued that the place had some kind of electromagnetic force. The Dlamini tribe and the Maziya group had walked around and around this place unwittingly, until new groups formed and couldn’t find each other, tricked by forces they later agreed were supernatural. Even the man who had made her the map in the dilapidated little shop had warned her about the confusing forests there.
A pebble loosened under her foot, and she stepped back, hastily, away from the ridge. It descended, rolling over and over, and she listened for the eventual clicking sound when it struck the rocks below. When none came, she leaned over carefully to look over the edge. The boulder beneath her moved, and her hands waved in the air like a buffoon on a diving board who had changed his mind at the last minute. She tried to turn and propel herself to safety, but her body betrayed her. She yanked in a futile scrabble of arms and legs, trying to drive herself towards a safer spot against the cliff, but failed to obtain a firmer foothold – then it happened!
Her screech reverberated against the high banks of the river, a screaming that simply carried on and on, tossing her from pebble to boulder, boulder to boulder, one wail after another, as she dropped in freefall down to the river. She struggled for breath, but none was available, as if she drifted down an empty passage, with no air. Her drift became sluggish until she felt buoyant, descending like a leaf falling off a tree in a cool breeze. However, there was no gentle wind, no breeze at all, not even air to inhale; No resonance either. As if in some nightmarish movie, her lips were parted, but nothing escaped through them. Nothing seemed to move, except for Hannah. She drifted in slow motion, like the special effect on television, and she started to accept the fact that death was imminent, waiting edgily for her life to splash abruptly in front of her, so she could lament her faults and be penitent before splattering to her death on the jumble of rocks below.
Abruptly, air filled her lungs, and she screeched again, immediately as her body struck the water with a monstrous splatter. She descended tenderly until her body hit the base, and she then ascended, struggling for air, to the surface.
Somewhere in the bushes near the river was Welcome. He hid lying on his abdomen, mingling with the shrubs and the rocks among which he hid, keeping an eye on the river. He was sure that the Dlamini boys were somewhere on the distant side, along with Thandi and the baby, all holed up in that hovel, relaxing and safe in the belief that he was a carcass, decomposing underground.
He had kept his eyes on the surroundings for a while now. He couldn’t afford the risk of not watching the direction from which the Dlamini boys would come. How else could he find a lair that a considerable part of the law society in the adjacent town, and the constabulary hadn’t discovered yet?
When a sudden shout shattered the quiet afternoon, it was like a real wallop from an empty sphere. Nobody had approached from either side of the river, but unexpectedly, here was someone floating like a plug on the surface, spluttering and heaving in great breaths. And the splash that preceded it; huge as if he’d leaped from the ridge of the riverbank; or dropped. He had no idea whether the youngster, apparently a boy, had intended to leap into the river, but apparently, from the way he scraped at the boulders, he was resentful about being there. Welcome thought of helping but considered it against his dysfunctional leg, the gradient of the mountain, and the minutes it would take to reach there; not to mention the danger of being exposed before he was ready to take a step. He decided not to move.
The colossal stallion he had bound to a solitary tree shook its head, crackling the leaves. It sounded like a breeze, and Welcome was certain that nobody would mind the wind, particularly with the boy screaming as he dropped into the river. Welcome remained where he was and observed. He had no intention of showing-up until it was really too late for the Dlaminis to react to his appearance. The boy, whose lengthy fluffy hair stuck out from his skull, had successfully dragged himself onto a smooth rock just by the river. The guy had his boots on, suggesting that he had been either thinking of risking the ‘great jump’ or had simply slipped and slid down and was fortunate to be alive. His boots were apparently causing him discomfort now, and Welcome observed with detached amusement as the youngster jumped around and twisted, attempting to balance on the rock while he shook the wet boots off his feet.
Even from afar, it was apparent to Welcome that he shivered, rubbing his arms up and down, squeezing his shirt fringes, and returning to the job of taking off his boots. It called for great self-control for Welcome not to let out a hoot when the youngster finally managed to get one boot off and toss it towards the riverbank. The youngster used his free foot to assist himself to remove the second boot with less effort, and it accompanied the first one on the bank.
Taking a break to rest one hand on the bank, the baby then eased himself to the safety of the concrete bank. Welcome bowed his head swiftly when the boy shaded his eyes and gazed up at the cliffs.
“Is anyone out there?” a feminine voice shouted.
Welcome was aware of the tears in the voice, and he wondered just how young the guest was. Suddenly, Welcome was pleased to see that the baby had managed to reach the safety of the bank. The voice trembled with cold, and Welcome wanted to tell him to remove his wet clothes, but he didn’t dare reveal his hiding place.
Fortunately, the baby was clever enough to consider undressing on his own. Satisfied he was alone, he started to undo his shirt. His back facing Welcome, he pulled the soaked shirt off his head. Welcome saw a strap running across the boy’s back. Wondering just why the boy had worn the strapping, Welcome elevated his head a bit, to make sure that his kaki hat blended in with the brownish rocks, as did all he had chosen to wear, ride, and carry. The boy began to peel off his navy denim trousers, most likely store-bought Welcome guessed, which was apparent from the way the sun’s rays sparkled off the fasteners. Under the slacks, instead of the customary long johns, was some delicate kind of fabric that hardly concealed the boy’s ass.
Once more, the boy yelled, asking if anybody was out there. Satisfied, he removed the strapping that ran around his back and shoulders. He stretched each of the clothes out on the rocks to dry, and then eased himself down onto the rock. Touching the heap of fluffy hair, he removed some fasteners and allowed the curls to float free.
An inquisitive feeling began to well-up in Welcome’s belly, and he unhurriedly turned to ascertain that no one approached from behind. A hunch suggested that something was amiss. He couldn’t tell what it was until the baby stretched out on the bank to dry. Welcome gazed down and noticed two smooth bosoms with dark nipples, attached to what he had taken to be a boy’s chest.
She stretched her hair out around her head on the rock, and excluding the smallest triangle of fabric, which seemed to be bound to a ribbon and only concealed her most private of places she remained naked. She relaxed in the sun, just like the day she had emerged from her mother. She was there for the remainder of the afternoon, slumbering on and off, standing up and patting her clothing now and again, constantly gazing around, and not covering up until almost dusk. Welcome was aware of just how long she had remained there, simply nude, as he kept his eyes on her the entire afternoon. Certainly, his mind was on the Dlamini boys, regardless of where his eyes happened to loiter.