Enchanted Earth Adventures:The Vïpawatu by Liso Zenani
The Bird and the Shadow
It was an evening like many another, and Billy Benson — despite his trembling lip — had resolved not to cry. With enormous effort, he had managed to ignore the ache in his knees, arms and back quite successfully. It was the smell he couldn’t get over. A wave of nausea washed over him as he flushed yet another cigarette stub floating in aged urine and something more sinister. Clenching his fist around the brush, he gave the seat a brisk scrub and noted, Twelve more to go!
It was not the first time Billy was punished for something he had neither done nor could explain. It had happened earlier that week, while one of his teachers had been giving him the usual caning. To Billy’s shock and the teacher’s terror, the cane had come to life, jerked itself off his grip and attacked him for good measure, then shattered the pane on its way out the window. Billy was certain everybody had seen that, yet it was only a matter of moments before he found himself in the principal’s office, accused of hurling canes at educators. Like the day Aldene Paxton had compared Billy to her grandmother’s cat and found herself sprouting a couple of long, thin whiskers, or the other in which another teacher had likened Billy’s nose to a Vienna sausage and subsequently missed school for a discreet operation at the local hospital, Billy had expected the principal’s paddle. After a breathless tirade, however, the principal had sentenced him to scrubbing the school toilets on a cold Saturday evening, and the job was proving much more difficult than expected.
Billy was unaware of the second person in the bathroom until he was nearly knocked off his feet on his way out the cubicle. Relief replaced his initial fright when he realised that it was only Bhut Siphe, the school caretaker, he’d bumped into.
‘What are you still doing here, boy?’ the caretaker asked.
‘I . . . I was just finishing, Bhuti.’
‘Leave the rest to me. It is getting dark; you should go home.’
‘Thank you, Bhuti.’
Bhut Siphe’s sympathetic nod told Billy that the man appreciated the gravity of those words. It showed that he understood Billy’s frustration and knew that the gratitude went far beyond that evening’s assistance. It proved that he knew he was the only person in MerryWeed Village who even bothered himself with Billy.
After fifteen years of hatred and ostracism, Billy had since abandoned any attempts to figure in the people of MerryWeed’s good books. He had perhaps committed the unforgivable sin on his very first day on Earth, when he’d become the sole survivor when the local hospital had burned down within minutes of his birth. Before eventually conceding defeat, he had lived his life hoping against hope that each coming day would be the one on which the town woke up and ceased to view him as a living reminder of how they had lost their own families and friends. That he was always involved whenever strange and peculiar things occurred did not help matters, and he remained regarded as ‘that lunatic you steered clear of if you had any concern for what’s good for you.’
Late April meant winter was swiftly approaching the Western Cape, and that, though it was only half-past six, the streetlights had long since switched on when Billy left the school. As he ducked out the gate, he pulled his beanie tighter over his curly head. Billy had inherited the thick, dark curls — along with his snub nose — from his late, white mother, and from his black father he’d inherited his round face and his pale-brown eyes. He tightened his scarf and prayed that the moody sky would not start pouring like it’d been threatening all evening.
With the corner of his eye, Billy caught a swift, flapping movement and turned just in time to spot a large, brownish bird vanishing over the school block. He was about to shrug this off and proceed up the street when something familiar struck him about the bird and he recalled yet another strange incident. Earlier that day, he’d stood flustered in his bedroom, watching the strangest and ugliest bird he’d ever seen perched on the tree outside his window. With an enormous bill and razor-sharp talons, the bird had at once resembled a pelican and an eagle, and as Billy had been rubbing his eyes in disbelief, his stepmother had come in and urged him to hurry or he’d miss his detention. ‘And pull up your blinds; your room is gloomy!’ she’d added, leaving Billy debating his own sanity when he realised that his blinds were down and that no bird sat on the tree when he pulled them up.
Billy gave his head a little shake and picked up his pace. MerryWeed Village was located in a dull and quiet street downtown, and despite the streetlights, the small forest to Billy’s right managed to create an eerie atmosphere. For a moment, the rustle of the wind on the forest floor even sounded like someone’s footsteps. Billy shivered and clenched his gloved hands.
Cleaning toilets is all you’ll ever be good at! he remembered the principal saying. He blinked back a fresh bout of tears and picked up his pace even more as he passed the butchery.
He was unaware of the shadow that leaped from the spooky forest onto the street behind him.
The strong smell of nicotine and the sound of shrill laughter brought Billy to a sudden halt when he turned the corner by the small, dreary tavern. Aldene Paxton — a girl whose thin face and bulging eyes made her rather resemble an aged fly — stood across the street smoking with her friends Nicole Sprigham, Lungile Qoqi and Clayton Spears. The notorious school bullies! Since he was half the weight of their thinnest member, and since nobody at MerryWeed Village paid the least bit of attention when he reported, Billy had always been an easy victim.
Remembering the day Clayton and Lungile had held him by the arms and legs and swung him back and forth while a jubilant Nicole had sat on his chest, Billy was slinking away to find an alternative route home when one of them called, ‘Hosh! What d’we have here?’
‘It’s little Freaky Benson!’ called another.
Billy tensed. Before he knew it, they were towering over him in a circle. He shivered, then clenched his fists tighter.
‘Where’re you sneaking from, Freaky?’
‘I was . . . I had detention,’ Billy tried to explain.
‘Nice beanie. I like,’ said Clayton, snatching it and covering his withering ginger head.
‘Please, this is — ‘
‘And I like the scarf,’ Nicole said, her stubby fingers reaching for Billy’s neck.
They laughed as Billy pulled his collar up to keep warm.
‘Leave me alone. . . . Let me go,’ he pleaded, a crack in his control.
‘And I like the face,’ Aldene quipped, holding Billy’s face in between her hands. ‘My ouma’s cat would love it too, no?’
She began slapping him repeatedly on both cheeks.
‘Don’t do that. Leave me alone!’
A fat droplet hit the ground.
‘I . . . I think it’s gonna rain, Deney,’ Clayton said with sudden panic.
‘Freaky Benny gonna cry?’ Aldene jeered on in a mock-childish voice. ‘Nice coat. My nephew — ‘
‘LEAVE ME ALONE!’
The hold Billy had desperately maintained over his emotions all evening shattered. His eyes stung and became blurry, and there was a sudden shrill in his ears. All hell broke loose as all of his anger, frustration and pain erupted in an anguished cry. With horrified expressions, the bullies were blasted off their feet with sudden, immense force, and the heavens roared and burst in the most intense storm Billy had seen that year. Lightning flashed and thunder tore through the air; fat raindrops splattered loudly on the rooftops and roadway; the wind howled and whirled quite violently; Billy realised he was still screaming.
With a muffled sob, he returned to his senses. His throat ached and his eyes still pooled. He tried to wipe them with the sleeve of his coat, then realised his clothes were soaked and used his hands instead. Shaking water off his hair, he sprinted up the road, took a left and leaped into Pep Store’s tiny porch.
The shop had since closed for the night, and the security guard could be heard humming to himself as he turned off the lights. More lightning flashed and the rain fell harder. The raindrops were now ridiculously thick, and Billy found it quite impossible to see more than a few feet beyond the porch. That was why he didn’t notice the figure that slipped into the street after him.
Billy shivered even more and attempted to collect his thoughts. What happened back there? he asked himself — a question he’d grown used to asking himself, over the years; a question he’d asked himself each and every time strange incidents occurred in MerryWeed.
He was startled well out of his wits by the gruff sound behind him. Turning, he found the security guard standing on the doorway, absolute displeasure etched onto his ample features.
‘Mr Williams, sir. Can . . . can I wait here for the rain to pass, sir? It will only be — ‘
‘Out! Get away!’
Billy scurried off the porch as the man hefted his cudgel menacingly.
When he’d supposed the rain could not get any worse, Billy had been totally mistaken. The raindrops got thicker and thicker still, and thunder roared louder, with startling frequency. It was not long before visibility turned futile altogether; Billy couldn’t see his own hand outstretched in front of him. He ran up one street and down another with very little sense of direction. Finally, in desperation, he moved towards the buildings lining the street, balancing himself on their walls, turning and curving along.
Firmly bent against losing the buildings, Billy completely forgot about the alley between the Post Office and Sis Neli’s Fatcakes. He lost balance, staggered and slipped into it. The alley reeked of the rotting rubbish scattered around the floor — the black plastic bags long since ripped up by dogs — and was so narrow that three people could hardly have fit side by side. But it was quite dry, there, and with a sigh of relief he contented himself to sit the storm through.
Billy’s relief soured to alarm, however, when a towering, shadowy figure who seemed to exude the icy chill of the night entered the alley.
Billy had never seen such a man in MerryWeed before. He was tall and wore a black, hooded cloak and heavy boots. Every instinct in Billy’s head screaming that the man was quite dangerous, he desperately staggered to his feet and attempted to back away.
As the man advanced, Billy felt as though something invisible was pouring a bucket of freezing water down his nape. The chilling sensation spread to his arms and down to his legs, leaving each part of his body it encountered heavy and numb. Within seconds, all of his attempts to back away were quite futile.
The man placed a freezing hand on Billy’s shoulder and bent his head towards him. Billy catch a glimpse of a frightening pair of gleaming black eyes before an ear-splitting screech tore through the night. It was so loud that the tip-taps of the raindrops on the rooftops and pavement were hushed. When the man, seemingly distracted, looked upwards in search of the source of this noise, Billy discovered that he could move again and hastily covered his ears. When the screech died out, he sprang for the exit at the other end.
‘Why such haste?’ demanded a deep voice.
Billy froze. The man had somehow materialised in front of him, blocking the other exit as well. Before Billy could pick up his trembling jaw, the man advanced once again, his arm outstretched.
‘I don’t have any money,’ Billy pleaded. ‘Please . . . you can . . . you can search me if — ‘
Billy was cut off by another terrible screech. To his shock, a large, brownish bird with a pelican’s bill appeared and bore down on the man with its eagle-ish talons.
The cloaked stranger staggered backwards and raised his arms to shield his hooded head. The bird sank its talons onto said arms and jabbed him repeatedly on the head with its large beak. He managed to free himself long enough to draw from beneath his cloak a long and gleaming sword with which he swung furiously at the bird. It flew out of harm’s way in the nick of time, delivered another jab and dodged the second swing.
Billy was so engrossed in this fight that at first he did not hear the soft voice that seemed to whisper inside his head. Go, it urged him. Get away from here! He did not hesitate when it finally registered. He sprinted towards the exit as fast as his freezing legs could possibly carry him.
He had almost reached the street when another toe-curling screech sounded behind him. Turning, he saw the bird flump to the floor, blood dripping from its left wing. The man lifted his sword and was about to deliver the final thrust when in a sudden whirlwind and pale light the bird transformed into an olive-skinned young woman with a spiky, silver Mohawk and glowing amber eyes with vertical pupils like a cat’s.
Before Billy’s very eyes, the torn left sleeve of the woman’s lilac coat came to life and slithered towards the man. It coiled itself around his sword and jerked it off his grip.
Now in possession of the weapon, the woman swung and slashed; it was now the man’s turn to bob and duck. Just as Billy thought the man would now be vanquished, he turned and, with shocking ease, took one gigantic leap and landed on the Post Office rooftop. He stood there long enough to cast Billy a lingering look, then turned and vanished when the woman hurled the sword at him.
‘Be careful, Billy Benson!’ the woman said, and before Billy could figure out which question to ask her first, she had sprinted out of the alley.
‘Wait! . . . Who are you?’ he called after her.
There was nobody on the street when he followed her out.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — ends
an excerpt from the unpublished novel Enchanted Earth Adventures:
The Vïpawatu by Liso Zenani
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