Dembe told them that he was going to avoid stopping until they got farther north. He told them that he would by-pass Gauteng entirely, since they now had enough gasoline for a return journey.
“We’ll take the narrow roads,” he said, “and maybe we can avoid the animals too.” The professor thought to himself that people might be more dangerous, but he stayed quiet.
Vivienne was passed out in the back seat. She nodded off barely twenty minutes after they left the township, and had been sleeping ever since. The commotion with the beasts had tired her out.
The professor and Dembe both remained silent about their assaults. Instead Dembe talked about the climate in South Africa, and asked the professor if he has ever seen a lion.
“Not in the wild,” he answered. “And I hope that I won’t see one close up.”
“Not to worry, sir. In a combi you are always safe.”
From animals, maybe, he thought, but with the way the driver took fast turns, they are lucky not to have tipped over yet.
They drove for a few hours, crossing empty lands. In the distance, on the horizon, a massive fire burned.
“What’s that?” the professor asked.
“It’s Johannesburg,” Dembe said, then he turned on the radio to a news station.
A female voice read a special bulletin: “To add to the chaos in the north of the country, journalists have been reporting an blight that has been affecting cattle, humans, as well as some plants. Hospitals have been ravaged by infected people, and the disease has already spread past early attempts at quarantine. Scientists advise to avoid contact with infected creatures, and warn citizens to wash their hands regularly.
“In a reversal of normal disease contagion, rural populations have also been badly affected. The Department of Health believes that the illness might be airborne. So far, little is known except that the first signs are fever, cold sweats, and delirium. Patients progress to internal organ failure within a matter of hours. In many cases necrosis of the fingertips has been witnessed. We advise anyone with these symptoms to call the Epidemic Control Centre immediately. Please do not leave your house if you suspect you might be infected. Stay away from densely populated areas.
“The scientific community has not found any connection between the mysterious disease and the rampaging animals, but there is rampant speculation that they are signs preceding the end-of-days.
“Regardless of religious beliefs, it has become very clear that the northern provinces of the country have been lost to the government. Today at noon, the president has asked the military to withdraw from Gauteng in order to focus on quarantining the Safe-Zone around the coast.”
The president’s voice came on, again speaking in slow deliberate English.
“It is with great displeasure that I ask the army to withdraw from the Gauteng area to return to the Safe-Zone. We need every available hand to form a barrier against this pestilence from God. The Government has moved to Cape Town, and we ask all healthy people to head towards the coast. We have camps set up in Kwazulu-Natal and the Cape Province. Please leave everything and come immediately to a safe area. The north of the country is lost to us.”
“Wow,” the professor said, “that sounds very serious indeed.” Dembe made a face in the rearview mirror, and turned off the radio.
“Iz bad. Very bad.”
“Well, my friend, I will understand if you want to go home to your family.” He hesitated. They made eye contact in the mirror.
“Sir,” the driver said, “this man you are looking for? Can he stop this disaster?”
“No,” the professor leaned closer, “but maybe she can.”
“The girl?” asked the driver. “Is she a witch?” The professor looked at Vivienne, curled into a ball on the back seat.
“She is not a witch, merely a girl who fell from the sky.”
“How did she call that monster?”
“I don’t know. I doubt she called it. But she stopped it.” He looked out towards the city on fire. A huge cloud of black smoke covered the horizon, spilling into the sky and covering the white disk of the sun. “And if she can stop them, maybe she can stop all of this.”
“But why do you need the man?” asked the driver confused.
“He stole something from me.” Dembe clucked his cheek, and shook his head.
“What did he steal?”
“My identity.” The professor touched the burning scar on his face, and felt the sting deep inside his face.
* * *
They stopped at an abandoned picnic area, overlooking a watering hole in a valley. Dembe pulled out his propane stove and grilled some sausages. The red sun hung low on the horizon, and the warm tones of the sunset cast a vibrant hue against the cliffs nearby.
The door of the van slid open, and Vivienne stepped out, rubbing sleep out of her eyes.
“Are you hungry?” the professor asked.
“Just thirsty. You know me!” With a wan smile, the professor handed her a small water bottle. “Thank you.” She downed it in no time, and pulled another one from a plastic bag.
“How far are we?”
“We’re in the Freestate, apparently,” the professor answered. “We’re about five hours away.”
“Iz slow because we cannot take the motorway. We camp here tonight. Tomorrow we leave early.” Dembe flipped the sausages over, and the meat sizzled on the skillet. He was staring into the valley below, fixated on the orange reflections off the water.
“What’s wrong?” Vivienne asked.
“Eh…” he hesitated, “there are no animals here. Iz very strange. This time is their drinking time. Water holes draw in all kinds of animals.”
“Perhaps it’s a good thing,” the professor said. “A little quiet will do us good.” Dembe nodded his head and served the sausage along with mielie pap, a sloppy polenta.
He built a a small fire and they sat, staring at it until they ran out of burnables. Then they turned their attention to the sky, briefly admiring the stars before retiring to the seats of the combi. To the north, along the horizon, a powerful fire lit the edges of skyscrapers, and the dense blackness of smoke consumed the vast empty space inhabited by the stars.
* * *
When they woke up, they were met with darkness: a dark heavy cloud hung low, sweeping over them with the menacing look of a deadly storm.
“This is not good,” Dembe said. “A storm is coming. Very unusual.”
“It looks ominous,” the professor said. “Rain?”
“Yes, but I’ve never seen anything like that before.”
The vast ashen cloud was covering the northern skies, folding the very earth into it. Inside the top layer, flashes of lightning flickered like a dragon’s tongue.
“Let’s go,” Vivienne said, “before the storm hits.”
They jumped in, skipping breakfast, and sailed northwards on the dirt roads, heading into the black cloud. It was easy going, but the air itself felt charged. Eventually, the white van drove under the shadow of the cloud, and the world itself became dark. Dembe turned on his headlights, but they were of little help. The air was soupy with flying sand and ash, which stuck to the windshield, smudging the semi-circular range of the wipers. A fierce wind blew, pushing against the van.
“Ay…” Dembe sighed, gripping the wheel with both hands. He looked nervous.
“Don’t worry,” said Vivienne. “Everything will be fine.”
They shared a bag of raisins, absorbing the empty silence inside the storm. There was no rain yet, and it seemed as if the cloud was holding it all back, waiting for the perfect moment to release it all at once. Vivienne looked up and noticed the fricative grinding of particles as the mantle of the sky slowly folded together in an ever-changing process of gaseous mutation. Dembe tried the radio, but there was only static.
“This is not the Africa I know,” Dembe said panicking. “No animals, no sky. Iz very unusual.”
After an hour of driving into the darkness, the colour of the grass changed.
“Is the grass burnt here?” the professor asked.
“I think so,” Dembe said. “We burn the grasses sometimes. A controlled burn. We burn it along the roads.”
“I see,” said the professor. “It makes everything seem dark.”
It became oppressive inside the van, dark as night, and from the windows, they could only see pitch black air absorbing everything. The road in front of them was a sienna line, leading a few meters into the darkness, illuminated by the weak headlights.
Dembe was ill at ease, and the professor stayed quiet. It felt as if they were driving into the bottom of the sea.
“I don’t like this,” Dembe said. “It feels wrong.”
“Don’t worry,” Vivienne replied again, but his nerves couldn’t hold.
“Am I driving to my own death? This is bad. Very bad!”
“Please,” the professor pleaded, “We’re so close. You’re simply suffering from psychological turmoil.”
“No. You say it’s okay, but iz not okay. We driving with spirits. We driving to hell itself.” He hit the brakes, and stopped in the middle of the narrow road. A wide arc of lightning broke free of the dense pall above them, and struck the road ahead, illuminating brightly the area around them. The world was blanketed in burnt, black grass as far as the light allowed them to see.
“Look!” Dembe shouted. “Everything is dead! You are taking me to the spirit world!”
“Now just a—”
“I have children, you know. I have a wife. Back in a safe place! They need their papa. They need me!” Above them the sky churned, rumbling a deep penetrating bass sound. “I am sorry,” he said. “We are going back.”
“I don’t want to die!” He started to turn the car around, and Vivienne slid open the door. A terrible warm breeze whipped at the inside of the vehicle. The professor shielded his face against the biting particles of sand.
“What you doing?!” Dembe yelled, completely exasperated. “Close it!”
“No!” Vivienne said firmly. “We will go on without you if we must.”
“You will die. Iz too dangerous.”
Vivienne stepped out into the darkness, her form partially obscured by the blowing sand.
“Go!” he shouted at the professor. “You go now!”
“Wait!” the professor yelled, but his voice was swallowed by the whistling wind. Dembe looked at him, and shook his head.
“I’m sorry,” Dembe said. Then he started driving slowly. The professor jumped out, taking his carry-on with him. The driver completed his turn, jumped out to close the sliding door, and looked back one last time at the duo, who were walking into the most sinister storm he had ever seen. Then, without doubting his decision, he drove away, heading south, towards the ribbon of blue sky kilometers beyond the charcoal clouds.
They walked as if in a void. Around them was only blackness, and the occasional snaking contours of the clouds as ferocious sparks of lightning leapt up high. The professor held the rim of his hat tightly drawn over his face, clutching the strap of his carry-on bag, which he had slung across his shoulder, a white gap showing his shirt beneath the ripped seam. Sand filled their shoes, plugged their noses, and invaded their vision.
All around them was a low rumbling vibration, and the air itself felt like sandpaper. They walked in silence.
“It smells,” the professor tried to say after some time.
“What?” The constant grinding of molecules made talking almost impossible.
“It smells like decay!” he yelled.
After some time, when the dust got even thicker, the professor tapped her on the shoulder, knelt down and opened his bag. He dug around and found two shirts, one of which he tied around his face. Vivienne took the second one and did the same. She wrapped her nose and mouth tightly.
When she looked down, the professor was pointing at something on the ground. He was yelling at her, but she couldn’t hear anything, so she crouched down, and placed her ear next to his mouth.
“The grass,” he said, “it’s not burnt. Feel it! It’s rotting.” She touched a few black strands, and instead of finding a crispy, ashy texture, she felt a sliminess that stuck to her fingertips. Immediately, she wiped her hand on her pants.
“It’s a blight!” the professor shouted.
“A disease!” Then he grabbed her arm. “Look!”
Where she touched the grass, the sliminess had disappeared and a young new blade was sprouting. The tiny tuft of grass reversed its coloration from brackish to green, spreading out radially. The colour gave them hope. The light green was a breath of fresh air under the perpetual darkness of the storm.
“Let’s keep going!” Vivienne shouted, but before they moved on, the professor took out a small black bag from his carry-on. He unzipped it and removed a GPS system.
It flickered on and shone a dim light onto the professor’s face. The shadow of the red welt of the X stood out through the cloth wrapped around his face. Their position was displayed on the map. They stood up and continued on.
Eventually, they decided to go off the road in order to make a direct line for the address, to which the warehouse owner had told them he had delivered the lab equipment. Vivienne led, and as she walked a bit of greenery returns to the landscape. The professor followed close behind, stepping on the trail of freshly sprouted grass in her wake.
Around them was nothing, only decaying matter. The complete absence of scenery and conversation allowed the professor to turn inwardly, to contemplate the events of the last few weeks. He wondered whether it all really happened, or whether he has suffered a debilitating stroke, or some other brain-eating illness. He looked around and saw nothing, only an all-consuming darkness in front, and a tiny strip of sky beneath the dense clouds behind them. I’m walking the wrong way, he thought briefly. I should be going towards the light. Then he tried to recall his last truly rational moment. His mind skipped to the packed lecture hall, and he was watching himself on stage, fearless and attractive. In the darkness he frowned, placing one footstep mechanically after the next. If I am dead, I haven’t had a bad run in this life. I might not have many mourners at my funeral, but my work might find its way into textbooks. Under the shirt wrapped around his face, he smiled a tight smile when he remembered his meager married life. It wasn’t that bad, he thought. If I am dead, then so be it. They walked and walked through an apocalyptic landscape, a landscape where all potential for life had vanished. It was the last vestige of a world that once thrived. The brackish grassland whispered like ghosts in the foul winds that bit at the two travellers, and the professor contemplated the frailty of life itself. Everything, he realised, is in such a fine balance. What a true miracle it was for life to spring out of nothingness on our pale blue orb so many millions of years ago. Then he thought about his lab. It was a folly for me to try to create a new kind of life. He looked up at the sky: a deep, angry nest of electrical strikes. I am ready to die, he thought.
In the distance they could make out the outline of a remarkable tree. It was a baobab with an enormous trunk, and its empty branches hung in the air like an upside-down root system. Lightning flashed behind it, but despite its eerie silhouette, they veered off their b-line to investigate.
It was at that point that the professor looked back, and noticed that the path of greenery which had sprouted in Vivienne’s footsteps was slowly returning to the blackened rot behind them. The disease was slowly killing those plants once again.
Beneath the tree, they stopped for a moment. Vivienne dranks the remaining water, and wiped the sand out of her mouth. When she leaned against the massive baobab, the plant reacted gratefully, the bark became lighter, and at the tips of the branches tiny buds appeared. They opened into a canopy of pink blossoms, that quickly rained down on them, before opening up into a truly vivid green umbrella. The tree lived.
She motioned for the professor to come closer, and when he did, she spoke into his ear.
“I understand now,” she said. “I think I know my purpose.”
“What?” he asked, unable to hear her. She didn’t repeat it, but smiled instead. She wrapped her arms around the immense trunk, and kissed the tree. The professor watched her, then checked the GPS. He pointed in the direction, and they continued walking.
Three kilometers later, they crossed a farm road, and found a pickup truck shining its white headlights into the stormy night. The professor ran forward, waving his arms in the beams. There was no response from the person inside, so they went closer.
Inside they found the remains of a man, his skin hollow, dried, and partially decayed, exposing the white cheekbones of his skull. His eyes were open, one eyeball balanced like a large marble in the socket of his face. The professor’s screams were absorbed in the grinding whirl of the spiralling winds.
Vivienne gasped when she saw him, his skeletal hands still clutching the steering wheel, a wedding ring reflecting the dashboard lights. She touched the dead man on the shoulder, feeling the sharp, round joint beneath his t-shirt. The muscle itself had desiccated, withered away, leaving only a mummified husk of a person.
Nothing happened. The man didn’t spring back to life, his rotting form simply stared forward, perhaps to his final destination—his home maybe, where his wife might have been waiting for his return.
The professor vomited on the asphalt.
Vivienne pulled the man’s body from the driver’s seat, and when it hit the pavement, body parts scattered, rolling across the road. She looked over to the professor who was screaming something, but she couldn’t hear. He coughed up some sand, then covered his face again with his shirt.
Vivienne walked around to the passenger side and climbed in. She waved at the professor, who carefully stepped over the corpse, and seated himself in front of the steering wheel. When he shut the door, the silence stung his ears.
“Let’s go,” Vivienne said. “I can’t help him.”
“What happened to him?”
“I don’t know.” A tear ran down her cheek, creating a muddy line, which she wiped away before the professor could see. He handed her the GPS, and they started driving. It went much faster in the pickup truck.
Soon enough, they saw a road sign that read “Welcome to Maropeng, the Cradle of Man.”
“We’re almost there,” Vivienne said, staring at the yellow dot on the GPS.
“Then what happens?” the professor wondered.
“I’m not sure, but all I know is that we are going to the right place.”
“How do you know?”
“I can just sense it. We are heading to the centre of something big.”
“Ground zero,” the professor said.
“What is ‘ground zero’?” she asked.
“It’s a term that denotes the epicentre of an explosion. Or the origin of a tragic event.” She looked at him. She could sense his fear.
“William,” she said, “thank you for coming with me.” He nodded, keeping his eye on the road.
Several columns of lightning arced out of the black sky and landed between them and the horizon, crashing loudly in a blinding whiteness. In the flash of light, Vivienne noticed a building ahead.
“There! That’s gotta be it!”