Imaginary Numbers

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UMTHAKATHI

“Come. You go.”

The professor woke up with Vivienne nestled into his shoulder. The large woman, who asked to be called Junior, stood in the doorway, which cast rays of sun through the dust.

“Dembe,” she said. “He iz waiting. You come now.”

Vivienne sat up and rubbed her eyes. The professor rose and put on his vest and suit jacket, which they had hung over the lawn chair.

“Thank you,” Vivienne said, “for everything.”

The woman waved away her gratitude with kling-klanging bangles.

The driver was packing his van. He was not surprised to see the two unusual travellers. As they approach, he summoned the professor to one side.

“Mister,” he said, “my cousin is in a township north of here. He will drive you into Guateng. I am taking you there today. It’s a long trip. And you will have to pay me before we start. Extra rand also for police and army.”

“Very well,” the professor said. He handed the man 1,700 rand, what he expected to be more than enough. “You may keep the rest,” he said, then added, “Can we get breakfast, or some espresso before we go?”

“Ahhh,” the man sucked air between his teeth. “No breakfast here. We will stop later. But I have coffee for you.” He handed the professor a thermos. “Lots of sugar,” he laughed.

Vivienne embraced their hostess. “Thank you, Junior,” she said. “You are a wonderful person.” The woman wished her good luck, and as the combi pulled away, a handful of children came out of the shacks, one of them hanging onto Junior’s leg.

* * *

The drive was more of the same. They picked up passengers, who paid, then got off at some point. Most of them were heading into nice neighbourhoods, where they cleaned houses, or did gardening. Everyone was quiet, some look very tired.

For lunch they stopped for roadside fish and chips, which the professor bought for the driver as well. The man showed them on a map where they were going.

“Next,” he said, “we go through the mountains.”

In the distance, purple spires jutted out of the landscape, and the closer they got, the less green the surroundings became. The grasses were the colours of a cave painting: ocher, umber, gold, and ash. The roads were empty, and Dembe stopped picking up passengers.

“This is why it’s expensive,” he explained. “No one commutes here. Only trucks. And now, iz dangerous to go past the Drakensberg. We will have to pay the army to pass.” After an hour of driving, the landscape changed. The succulents and greenery of the Cape gave way to savanna and rolling hills with tiny streams carving valleys into the ancient sediment. There were four jeeps parked across the road; men in camouflage and machine guns stood watch.

The driver slowed down, and rolled down his window. A man wearing a wool hat approached, and they spoke in Zulu. The sergeant leaned his head in and saw the two sitting side-by-side. He told them it was too dangerous to let them pass.

“We cannot control the animals,” he explained. “You mustn’t pass here. Go home. Be safe,” he said.

“I’m afraid we must pass,” the professor replied.

“Can’t you let us go on?” Vivienne asked. “It’s very important.”

“How important?” The man looked at the driver, then asked him something in Zulu. The man responded by handing the sergeant a 100 rand note. The soldier made a ’tch’ sound, shaking his head. Then he smiled at the passengers.

“Enjoy Jo’burg,” he said. “But be careful.” They both thanked him, before the driver was allowed to pass further into an empty landscape of nothing but grass.

“What did he say?” Vivienne asked the driver.

“He say you are stupid. You foolish. No one wants to go north.”

The professor looked concerned. The driver saw this in the rearview mirror, but ignored it. The road was long and straight, and only occasionally veered to wind its way past some low mountains, or rocky hills. Amongst the grasses, Vivienne spied pastel blue Secretary birds roaming on their long legs—quills sticking out of the top of their heads. They were tall and graceful, hunting snakes sailing through the sand.

After a while, the van turned off the paved road and drove down a dirt path.

“Where are we going?” the professor asked.

“My cousin’s house. Don’t worry. Just stay near me.”

In the distance, there was another shanty town. This one was much bigger, with trails of smoke rising into the sky. The houses were patchwork constructs made with refuse, tin, and sometimes traditional mud and thatch. On the way into the township, they passed a number of men carting firewood in a pickup truck.

“That is hard work in the townships,” the driver explained. “We all need fuel and propane is expensive. Wood is free, but we have to go very far to find it. These men bring it to us for a price.”

Inside the shantytown, they followed a large dirt path, that crossed a muddy stream. There were children bathing and playing in the mud. The combi stopped in an open square where there were women grinding maize into meal in enormous mortars. They were singing, and stomping their feet. The square was filled with people doing all kinds of things: men carving, or bending rusted barbed wire into animal shapes; women carrying babies tied to their stomachs; merchants selling a variety of meats; and young men flirting with girls dressed in colourful skirts.

“Okay. Please,” Dembe pleaded, “stay close to me.” They got out, and it seemed like all the attention focussed on the two passengers.

“Dumela!” shouted Dembe. “I’m Victor Mbuyazi’s cousin.” Some men approached him and they discussed something loudly, finally laughing and shaking hands. Dembe pointed at the professor, said something in Zulu, then offered the man some money.

“Come,” he said and waved the professor over. “My cousin is away now. We must wait.” And they followed him to a larger thatched roof enclosure. It was circular and outside a bonfire burned, roasting a pig. He motioned for them to sit on some chairs next to the building. Everyone stared at them, as if they were ghosts trespassing onto reality. The professor tried, but couldn’t seem to smile at anyone, and no one smiled at him.

When they sat by the fire, an argument broke out between the men roasting the pig. They shouted at Dembe in Zulu. Some of them stepped closer to Vivienne, pinching her arm. They clucked their cheeks at her, and scowled at the professor. When he stood up, a pair of large hands held him down.

“Dembe!” Vivienne screamed. “Help.”

“You come into my kraal. You better ask me for help, girl.” The deep voice belonged to a tall, muscular man the colour of coal with a number of pink scars across the side of his right arm. He was wearing a leopard skin headband, a pair of blue and red swim shorts, and some worn sneakers. Hanging across his topless chest was a pair of necklaces made from animal teeth, and his arms held the professor firmly in place.

“Why do you come here?” he asked. “You sit at my fire like you are invited.” His breath smelled of death, and the whites of his eyes were bloodshot. Sweat dripped from his arm onto the professor’s suit. He shouted some orders, and within seconds the bonfire was surrounded by men holding machetes, spears, knobkieries, and hardened leather shields in the shape of pointed ellipses.

“You in Zulu territory. You in my territory.”

“Please don’t hurt him!” Vivienne screamed, and suddenly a group of men held her tightly, making sucking and clucking sounds at her. She smelled their sweat, their hate, through the miasma of the roasting boar. The leader laughed.

“When you come to a kraal, anything you bring is a present. Understand?” he pulled the professor up out of the chair, spun him around by his collars, and kicked him in the chest, launching him into the middle of the circle. A cloud of red dust rose where he fell.

“You come here dressed to lie!” he shouted. “Did you bring a weapon? Because now you should use it,” he said to the professor. The leader started chanting a war song, and the rest of the men joined in, pumping their weapons in the air. They stamped their feet, chanting and pumping their weapons. Some of them hit their leather shields with their knobkierie clubs in time with the beat. Vivienne struggled and the men groped her and bound her hands with a plastic tie. One of them held her by her hair.

The professor felt for his glasses, and stood up when he found them. His suit was torn at the seams, and covered in red dust. The leader had taken a burning log from the fire and circled the professor.

“This is not your place, old man. You owe me a price for entering here.”

“Here, take anything you want,” Dr. Borgiac said, “just let her go. Please,” he begged, “don’t hurt her. Please.” He held out his wallet, one arm outstretched.

The leader laughed, and pointed the fiery log at him. “You beg, but you are not on your knees.” Then the professor dropped down.

“Please,” he pleaded. “Don’t hurt her.”

“And you? You trade your life for hers?” the leader asked, swinging the torch at him. The professor fell backwards avoiding the flame. Then the man stepped on his chest, pinning him. “I don’t think that is a fair trade.” He shouted some commands in Zulu and a man with a machete came to take the Rolex off the professor’s hand. He collected the fallen wallet, removed the money, the credit cards, and tossed the rest in the fire. In the distance they heard a gunshot, and the men froze momentarily, shocked to hear it so close.

The leader ordered some of the youth to go investigate. He held the flame close to the professor’s face. The heat stung, and he could smell his grey hair being singed.

“Let him go!” Vivienne shouted.

“We’ll deal with you later. And with much pleasure!” the leader told her. “But this man needs to know the price of coming here uninvited.” Dembe, who was also being held, was thrown into the centre as well, and the leader spoke to him in Zulu, shouting loudly, and spat in is face. Vivienne recognized the word ‘petrol’, and wondered if they are talking about the extra petrol in Dembe’s van, or if they planned on burning them all.

“My panga!” the leader shouted, and a man handed the leader a machete, which he heated in the bonfire. Dembe stood up, shouting a string of Zulu sentences, that caused a number of men to jump on him, punching him in the gut. They hit him in the back with clubs, and kicked him in the ribs when he fell to the ground.

“Stupid man.” The leader shook his head and approached with the heated machete. “I will brand you both like cattle. Anything that wanders into my kraal belongs to me.” There were more gunshots in the background, screams, and a terrible wailing sound that was unlike anything the professor had ever heard.

The man looked over his shoulder for only a second, before he cut into the professor’s cheek with the hot knife. William Borgiac screamed loudly in pain, and Vivienne feels it vicariously.

“Stop!” she shouted. The man laughed, slicing a welting, red X into the professor’s cheek between his ear and the corner of his mouth.

“Don’t worry, girl!” he shouted. “There is some for you too!” The screams in the background had increased in intensity and proximity, putting some of the men ill at ease.

One of the youths returned, out of breath. He ran through the wall of men into the open, where the professor was pinned under the man’s foot, screaming in pain.

Umthakathi iDlozi!” the boy yelled, panicked. The men looked in the direction he was pointing. Then the boy sprinted away, disappearing into a narrow alley. The men were confused, shaking heads and talking in hushed tones to each other. One or two of them addressed the leader, who was stunned and staring at the source of noise, which seemed to be getting closer and closer.

Suddenly, from behind a row of tin roofed shacks, the large stone head of a massive beast erupted. It smashed through the shacks, and barreled towards the circle of men, who scattered quickly upon seeing the monster.

It was a rocky elephant, missing the characteristic ears, and attached to the end of its trunk was a long mouth with two sharp rows of shark teeth. The entire animal lacked detail, as if it had been lazily carved out of rock. When the beast charged, the leader dropped the machete and the torch, and fled into a nearby shack. The professor rolled to the side, towards the thatched roof building, and once he got to his feet, he ran for cover behind the wall.

He stumbled, because the earth beneath him shuddered under the weight of the rampaging elephant. Vivienne made for the machete, and rolled under the immense legs of the beast as it charges the fire. Sparks flew up in a tower of ash, and flaming logs tumbled forwards into the shacks, and the roasting pig exploded like a greasy bomb, scattering burning oil onto some of the fleeing men. They dropped to the ground, screaming and rolling in agony. The leader emerged from his shack, firing a rifle at the elephant. He was shouting loudly, trying to rally his men. The elephant bounded forward and grabbed him with its crocodile mouth. He shot off the remaining rounds, which bounced off the rocky skin, then he cursed loudly before the animal flung him high into the air. The shirtless man landed with a crash on top a tin shack some distance behind the wall of flame that was now consuming one side of the square. Nearby laundry on lines caught fire, and as the beast turned around in the pit, extinguishing the bonfire under its stoney feet. In the meantime, Vivienne had managed to cut her binding with the hot knife, freeing her hands.

“Vivienne!” the professor called. She looked at him, pressed against the white wall of the round building. Then she heard a deafening, screeching-grinding sound as the elephant attempted a trumpet. They both noticed that rising all across the animal’s skin was the geometric hexagonal lattice of a sharp crystalline structure that jutted out like spikes from its back.

It snapped its crocodile trunk in the air, and pawed at the ground with its front foot. The beast eyed Vivienne, who was standing in the open, and snorted.

“Vivienne!” The professor cried again in the background, but she didn’t hear him. She was focussed on the animal. They made eye contact, and she entered its heart, she felt the momentum before thoughts leapt into action. She knew what it was going to do, sensed the flow of cause and effect before it all would unfold.

The animal charged, flicking its sharp tusks from side-to-side. The girl leapt up, stepped on the tusk and was tossed into the air. The trunk snapped shut, biting nothing, and Vivienne summersaulted onto the animal’s head, balancing her feet on the crystal lattice piercing its back. She held on while the mammoth tossed its head, and where her hands touched the stone skin, they heated up. Her hands glowed like the machete heated in the fire. They changed from red to orange to yellow to white hot, searing her handprints into the rocky skin. The animal squealed, and shrieked, jumping sideways into the thatched-roof rondavel, collapsing its wall.

On the ground, the professor dodged falling stones, and all the while, the animal started to heat up too. The stone melted around the crystal, dripping like lava over its head. The rocky skin started to glow, and glisten. It became shiny and then as the elephant cocked its head, staring directly at the professor, the trunk sprung forward poised to bite. It snapped shut in slow-motion, coming to a perfect standstill, frozen inches from the cowering professor.

When he realised those double rows of sharp teeth hadn’t sliced through his spine, the professor opened his eyes, and saw the enormous beast vitrified, like frozen obsidian, hard as glass.

Vivienne was leaning against the crystal.

“You okay?” she asked.

“Barely. You?”

“Yeah, but can you help me get down? This thing is slippery.”

From the top of the elephant, she witnessed a massive amount of destruction. A path trailed through the township, and a fire was spreading on the other side.

“Haai!” Dembe yelled from under some tin plates. He jumped out and ran towards them. “Is this your umthakathi? Did you call him?”

“No,” she answered, jumping onto the broken wall of the rondavel, the grass of its thatched roof blowing around in a breeze. “I don’t know. It just came.” She climbed down the rocks wall, back onto the dusty ground. “What is umthakathi?” she asked.

“Witchcraft,” he said. Then he looked at the animal. “You saved us.”

“What do we do now?” the professor asked.

“Come. I’ll take you farther. But we go now.” He pointed to some jerry cans some of the men had brought closer while they were encircled. “See those? Bring them. We’ll need them.” They each grabbed one and ran back to the combi, spilling gasoline as they went. After the chaos, the township seemed abandoned, and in the aftermath, they passed through it unnoticed by anyone. Their furtive exit was marked only by a cloud of red dust in the wake of the white van.

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