The dusky light that borders night flattens the city and reduces the squatter camp across the way to a single row of shacks. Smoke from cooking fires winds upwards; the spirals twist together until the smoke is too fat and heavy for the air to hold and it sinks back like a sigh onto the low roofs. Cold drops on us.
Sindi’s head rests again between her knees. I sit next to her, my palm pressed between her shoulder blades, concentrating on the whispering of her breath and the rising-sinking, rising-sinking of her back.
I watch the shadows move between the shacks: the shades of men drinking and women cooking, the shades of children playing and dogs sniffing. Everything’s humming along. The smoke drifts, opening up their lives for me to see; then it wraps them up and hides them away again. The smell of shack life – of burnt wood, of samp sticking to the bottoms of pots, of meat shrinking in a gravy of water and cabbage, of people’s shit and dogs’ shit and rot and rubbish – drifts across the lanes, ignoring the concrete barrier that separates cars going west from cars going east, and sticks its fingers up my nose. Noises float over the highway and take me home.
Mama squatting by the government tap at the end of our street, talking to Next-Door-Auntie while she scraped plates with her fingers. Behind them, the queue swapping chat while a ten-feathers-chicken tikked at the crumbs of pap Mama flicked from her fingers, running circles whenever she turned on the tap to rinse.
“Whose hen is it?” Someone pointed at ten-feathers with a dirty pan.
“Daai anorexic ding?” The whitey who stood at the junction by the mall every day begging change shook her head. “Looks like Gogo Nkosi’s chicken, they all scrawny like that one.”
“Looks like Gogo Nkosi,” came a shout from the back of the queue. Everyone laughed.
Across the highway, a woman screams. Someone shouts and bangs a pot against the corrugated wall of a shack, and the dogs in the camp pick up the commotion. A shot cracks, and two shadows break free from the haze and run down to the road. They bolt across the lanes, not pausing to look. Without slowing their pace, they vault the concrete barrier and make it almost all the way to our side before a man leaps clear of the line of shacks. In one hand, he holds a gun. He shuffles down the embankment, but he isn’t as easy on his feet as the boys. Arms windmilling, he slides the last couple of metres to the road.
“You fucking shits, I’m going to kill you!” he yells, thrusting his hand forward. Gunshot fractures the air.
Sindi’s head snaps up. She sees the two boys running up the embankment, she sees the man with gun. She stands, too quick, and sways as the man fires again. The boys bolt past her. They’re fourteen, maybe fifteen, about the same height as us; the one in the front wears a dark, oversized coat that flaps behind him. In the low light, Sindi might look the same to the gunman.
“Run, Sisi!” I yell, and she runs.
The boys are fast. They disappear over the top and we scramble after, not looking back to check if the man with the gun is following. As we crest the ridge, we see the boys pull back the KEEP OUT – GOVT. PROPERTY sign and slip through an open seam in the rusted car-yard fence. The fence rattles as the sign swings back, closing the gap behind them.
The fence stretches for a kilometre. We’ve walked it before, dragging a stick along the links until the guard dogs came, barking-barking, snapping and snarling. The man with the gun could pick off someone running along it, easy.
Sindi heaves back the sign and slips through the gap, but she doesn’t duck low enough and a wire snags in her hair. I bounce on my toes. The man is coming. Clambering over the barrier in the middle of the road, gun tight in his grip. Sindi twists and turns, trying to pull free, but the wire works deeper into the mat of her hair and won’t let go.
The gunman is coming.
She grabs her hair and rips it free, leaving a tuft for the wire as a toll. Grunting, she lurches into the scrap yard.
The ground swells around us in uneven mounds and slopes. The earth remembers the shape of the course, though the lawns are long dead and no one plays golf here any more. Ahead, a dark mountain of dumped petrol-cars rises into the deepening night, rusting and rotting, the biggest pile-up I’ve ever seen.
Sindi stumbles, already struggling for breath. Her skin, slick with sweat, looks plastic. The boys throw her a look and I wonder if they think she’s the man with the gun. Behind us, the fence rattles.
“I’m going to get you, hear? I’m going to fucking get you.”
I can feel the man’s fingers twisting around the gritty wire like they’re around my neck. Then, somewhere in the hollow space between the petrol-cars and the fence, the pack begins to bark.
The dogs are coming.
The boys run towards the car-mountain and veer left when they reach the tangle of slumped bumpers and gutted chassis. Sindi leans forward, trying to push herself, faster-faster, but her legs aren’t listening and her feet smack the dust slow-mo. We both scan over our shoulders, checking for dogs, checking for the man, and in that second the boys vanish, like they’re witchdoctors, spirit people, ghosts.
Extracted from Sister-Sister, published by Kwela, R195.