THE TASTE OF GRAPES was the taste south of his grandmother’s garage back home. Small as marbles, green and sour skinned—when you bit them, the skins spilt and squirted the globe of flesh into your mouth, smooth and soft; if there were any sweetness, this is where you would find it. He could not define the taste, the wildness, something shocking and undomesticated, that set the hard little fruits off from the sweet Thompson seedless in the grocery stores, which were oblong and swollen with watery pulp. He ate without thinking, plucking the fruit from the stems and pushing it through his lips, not hungry, but taking comfort from the automatic motion, something to do.
He had been in shock; he was sure of that, hadn’t known exactly what he was doing, where he was running to. His companion, Elder Porter, had been with him, but not for very long; whether they had split up out of instinct, whether they had gotten separated or disagreed over a turn to the left or right, or if he had simply sprinted on ahead, he did not know. He had thrashed through yards of trash, flung himself over fences, run through weeds and over the hard-packed ground where children played, past doors where young men stood abruptly and shouted or stared, or sometimes they gave chase, but he weaved and scrambled. He had no plan, didn’t know where he was going, so there was little advantage for those chasing him who might have known the alleys and footpaths, all the tricks and dangers of the township. All the sounds were shouts; all he felt was fear. Elder Porter might be dead. Unless the Lord had come down and plucked him up or parted the way for him, he was certainly dead, dead as Stephen, stoned under the hands of the incensed mob, a martyr sure of heaven.
While he had been the faster runner.
Maybe it was the Spirit that had brought him here; maybe those had been the wings that had lifted him over this wall, the top sown with jagged teeth of broken glass, and into this garden of well-kept rows. It was February, late summer, and there were the leafy tops of potato plants; tomato bushes hung with small red bulbs; two short rows of corn, dry leaved, mostly husk and stalk; grapes that dangled from the vine that had been trained along the wall; tiny water ditches scooped between the rows. His hands weren’t shredded—weren’t even cut—from the glass atop the wall. He must have thrown his satchel up first. He didn’t know.
He had wet himself somewhere along the way, and he tugged his pants down his hips now, tried to peak them in the front to keep the damp cloth away from his skin. Somewhere, too, he had slipped and ripped the left leg of his pants where a bloody rash showed through. He must stay here until dark at least. But even in the dark, how was he to find his safe way out? How was he supposed to make it home? He heard shouts from the street and pushed himself deeper into the vines.
For any chance he had, he might as well be on the moon.
They had turned a corner, he and Elder Porter. They had not heard any news that day; they had not been paying attention, missed the clues. They were coming from a good appointment; a family named Fis was going to be baptized. There were six of them, three of them over eight years old, the age of accountability required for the ordinance. The Fises had come to church, they called the elders engeltjies, little angels, who had brought them the truth from God. He had been excited, jabbering with his companion about the upcoming baptismal service, enjoying for the first time success in the work, the sheaves they were gathering in. The whites, among whom he had labored for his first eight months, seemed limp and apathetic, but amongst the blacks and the coloreds, they had found good ground, softened and thirsty for the refreshing of the latter rain.
They hadn’t been paying attention. They turned down a side street and drove into a riot. And then they had done everything wrong.
He couldn’t remember if the car had stopped, if they couldn’t back up, how or why they had gotten out of the front seats. They had seen it, though. The necklace, the burning tire forced down around the arms of a black policeman. The man—the body—was tipped on its side, knees together, the flesh charred and crumpled, the skull laid against the road, the body smoldering. The mob was a pulsing, thick-muscled whip, coiling in on itself and stretching out. They had seen this, he and Elder Porter, and the people had seen them, two white boys on the edge of the crowd. There was pointing and shouting, and the elders had run.
He had run. He thought he remembered Elder Porter running.
He caught himself whimpering and grabbed his ankles, beating his head against his knees while he prayed to God until his heart stopped shuddering and he could distract himself with thoughts of home, remembering the vines behind his grandmother’s garage, the oxidized paint that came off the tin siding onto your hands, your shirt and pants, so he and his cousins couldn’t play around the garage without someone knowing where they had been, out among the grape vines and the money plants, or further back, into the weeds that grew up around the stump of what had once been a red maple tree, with a split trunk that made two seats, rotted a bit, favored by box elder bugs and spiders that spun webs in intricate octagons and tetrahedrons, patterns he had had no names for then. There was shade there, the long stalks of sunflowers, and the weeds and scrubby suckers that shielded the tree stump from the low back windows of the house.
It’s where he and his cousin Peta would sit and tell each other dreams and remarkable things they had seen. When there was nothing remarkable, they made things up. He once said he had seen the ghost of their grandfather in the back hall standing near the pantry when he had been on his way to the bathroom. Peta once poked out her belly and told him she was going to have a baby. Until he was old enough to know better, and to like other girls, he had thought he would grow up to marry his cousin Peta.
She had written him once since he had been here. They had grown apart. She’d come to be a small, stoop-shouldered girl who played clarinet in the band and had no aspirations he knew of after high school. She was white haired, and when he had last seen her, at the farewell lunch held in his honor back home, she wore large, plastic glasses with translucent pink in the frames. Something about her made him think of a rabbit.
A low coop of some sort, empty, pieced together of scrap, shielded the far corner of the garden from the house. He shifted farther into the tiny wedge of shade created by the corner, folded his arms over the top of his head to deflect the searing heat from the top of his skull. Peta the rabbit. He was going crazy, that was all. Under the circumstances, it was to be expected.
He did not hear the old man soon enough even to get his feet beneath him. He started to move only after he saw him, unsure of whether he should go back over the wall or attack or perhaps just talk. The man looked to be sixty or more—gray dust in his hair, shirt hung open over his belly—carrying a hoe with a thin, worn blade and a broken handle. A black man, of course, the old man who kept this garden. He had come home from work or back from the riots. He had had himself a bottle of lager or a carton of beer, had eaten his dinner, probably putu and maybe some chicken, and now he had come out to work in the garden, where he found a white boy, nineteen years old, muddy white shirt and torn pants, amongst his grape vines. The elder held out a hand in front of him, as though he were signaling stop, opened his mouth to speak, but the man had only gaped at him—he had the beginnings of a grizzled beard, white brows above his eyes—then turned and walked away.
Now the elder’s stomach began to shake. He did not follow the man toward the house. He shoved a fist into his mouth to keep from making noise, but he cried anyway because now he had been found, and now he was going to die. The mob would beat him; they would puncture and shred his body with makeshift pangas; they would burn him while he was still alive. The fear finally made him heave, and he knelt in the dirt on his hands and knees, retching up the sour grapes. He pulled his satchel to him, but he did not scale the wall. It was still light out; the streets around him rocked with chants and shouting, and he did not know where he was. Perhaps it was the voice Elijah heard, small and still, that told him to stay, but he could do nothing else. He squeezed his satchel between his knees while he prayed, his mortal need pressed into words. No one came. Not the old black man, not a crowd of hostile boys, not an angel or a vision. He prayed, and no one came.
Spent, finally, he lay down on the earth, uncertain, as the night hours came, whether he had given up or he was safe. He was not sure. Beyond the wall, he did not know which way to go. Tomorrow, he would fast because his situation was perilous. But he would not leave the garden.
Simon Bob had been shocked near dead to find a white boy in his garden. There was a woman in the congregation where he went sometimes with his wife who claimed she saw the souls of the dead. They came to her in her house, standing by her stove or behind her where she could glimpse them in a window or a mirror. He had thought of what a fright that would give him; he had no interest in ghosts. But seeing the white boy in his garden, he thought that’s what seeing a ghost would be like; in fact, he believed, or would have before, that he had a better chance of seeing a ghost at his bedside than he did a white man, other than the police or army, sitting in his garden. One was unlikely, the other impossible.
He wondered what the boy was doing there, and he thought many times during the night that he should go out and talk to him, to see where he had come from and what he was planning. But he did not. Only trouble could come from that. He stayed in the tiny house, worried the boy might knock on his door; then, when that did not happen, he knew that the boy had gone.
The next day he learned who the white boy had been, a young minister from America, lost, feared dead within the township that shook still with chants and songs and burning buses. People said the army was coming; they would drive the streets in armored cars, the boys would throw stones and a few might be shot, but they would not find the boy they were looking for. They would never find him here, not if President Reagan and America declared war.
Others would. When they did, the young men would run him down in the streets like a frightened buck and kill him.
But that, anyway, was who the boy had been.
When Simon Bob came to his garden the next evening, the boy was still there, huddled in the dirt amongst the leaves and stalks. This he had not dreamed. Vines crackled as the boy pushed himself to his feet. Simon Bob stood looking a moment, then jabbed at him with his hoe.
“Go, you,” he said. “Voetsak.”
The boy shook his head.
Simon Bob brandished the hoe in front of him like he might shake it at a dog.
“Help me,” the boy said. The voice came out like old paper unfolding. The boy had been sitting here all day, scoured by the sun. Simon Bob wrinkled his forehead.
“You have to help me,” the boy said again. His hands bent like claws toward his chest.
Simon Bob shook his head. “Go, before my grandson finds you here.” He pointed with his hoe. As if to mimic him, the boy shook his head in turn.
Simon Bob struck him a light blow across the shoulder with the hoe’s handle. The boy curled his back, putting his arms above his head, trying to tuck his whole self between his knees. Simon Bob poked and hit, striking the boy across the back and arms, jabbing at his stomach, legs. The boy started to cry, but he would not move. He burrowed himself amongst the grape vines, pressed to the garden wall, until the heat passed from Simon Bob, and he stopped striking with the hoe and left him.
The elder waited, after the man left, for the sounds of feet, the grumble of the mob. They did not come. The sun dipped lower in the west, and a shadow grew from the wall at his back, covering his head, his knees, and finally his feet. He felt safer at night, as though he were invisible in the dark, though he could discern that the blocks outside the garden grew restless, keen with sound: calls for children, hollering between neighbors, greetings and farewells, profanity, threats, trouble, violence. He wondered what had happened to Elder Porter, if he was in the same mess somewhere, if he could be nearby, hearing the same sounds, whether anybody even knew they were gone.
He was tired now, hurting from the old man’s beating. He had not eaten that day nor drunk, though the air felt hot enough to burn if you struck a match, and he sat amongst the leaves and bushes and ripening fruit with a hat he had made of leaves to keep the sun off his scalp. He imagined that his proximity to temptation and his resistance would add power to his fasting. Much of the day, as best he could as he circled and squirmed to keep out of the sun, he had spent in prayer: an hour cataloging and begging forgiveness for his sins, ceaseless cries for deliverance. No thoughts had come to him, no answer, no way, and he thought now, if the situation did not change, he may do as Jesus had done, go forty days in the wilderness without the taste of bread. And when Satan came to sit him on the pillar of the temple, he would go with him as far as the edge of the location, to the first white streets of town, and then he would turn and run from the devil.
Matches for the lamp lay on the wood-topped table beside him, but Simon Bob sat in the growing darkness of his house, the hoe laid across his lap, drinking beer after beer brought to him from a shebeen by a young boy he had hollered at from his open door. He could be killed for hitting a white man. He could be killed by others for letting him go. He could be killed for many other things as well—or for nothing at all. It was best here to live without being seen. The police didn’t see you and harass you about your papers. The tsotsis didn’t see you and knife you in the street.
His son had been seen, and in detention the Afrikaans policemen had made him stand for hours on top of bricks; they beat the backs of his legs and the soles of his feet, touched the bare wires from the end of a lamp cord to his penis, shocked him until he shat on the floor, then cursed him and made him clean it up. His daughter, a man looked at her, and she had her first baby at fifteen. No, that was not the worst thing. She lived far away now, in Natal, but she was still with her man, who still promised to finish paying her bride price, the lobola Simon Bob knew he may never see.
But there was friction that came from living so close, every man rubbing against his neighbor. There was friction, and friction, he knew from the machines he worked on, generated heat, and with heat things expanded. That was what was happening in the world now, in the bristling streets of the township: friction, heat, a growing pressure—a new law, a new arrest, a new song, a new killing, a new baby, a new shack, all onto the little plot of land inside the fence where already there had been no room. Always, since the white man and the black man had come to live together, it had been like this. “They won’t let me be a man.” Simon Bob remembered him saying that, his son, before he was killed one night in the road. “They won’t let me be a man.”
Simon Bob set an empty bottle on the floor without looking down in the dark. Now there was a white boy in his garden—not just a white boy, an evangelist, a minister. What would God say about this? Love thy neighbor? Pray for the one who uses and who persecutes you? Give him your other cheek to strike you there as well?
Simon Bob did not know what the boy preached, but he had lived long enough with little to find the truth of small things: his papers were in order; he had a place for his garden, no trouble with his wife. The Christians told him that his son was alive somewhere with Jesus. That was good enough for Simon Bob. That was all.
Everyone—his friends, his brothers and cousins, the girls—all excited when he told them what the letter from Salt Lake City had said: Africa. They all knew boys being sent as missionaries to Europe or South America, the Philippines. But Africa—he had pictured himself rumbling through the bush in a Land Rover. Ignorant. On the news, the place was on fire, Winnie Mandela telling the crowd that with their matchbooks and their necklaces they would set the country free. His mother was going to write the church, tell them they couldn’t send her son into a war zone. There was always a war, his father had told her. Their son was enlisting in the army of God; he was already at war with the world.
He had come, bleary-eyed and dry-mouthed after the long flight across the Atlantic. The jet lag, the difference of a dozen time zones dogged him for a week. His companion bent the rules, let him sleep late, find his feet. For nine months, he saw no war here. He tracted, knocked on doors in the white cities and the suburbs, asked the black maids who answered for glasses of water, promising to come back when the missus was at home. The people weren’t interested in their message. The people had their own church. The people didn’t care, and sometimes his companions didn’t care much either. He talked very little about the gospel in those first months. He was homesick. He grew despondent, then indifferent himself, and lazy. He learned about surfboards, diamonds, politics: The blacks fought amongst themselves. They were superstitious. They had no education. They stole. Ja, apartheid; there would be hell to pay someday. Ja, the Americans didn’t understand it, didn’t know their blacks. It was going to take time, that’s all, time to bring them along.
There were riots—but they happened in the townships, the locations, the growths that attached themselves by asphalt veins and a ceaseless string of putco buses to the cities. There were killings there, necklacings; there was danger. The townships, that’s where the war was.
And that’s where the elders wanted to go, where he had been transferred after nine months. They could not live there, but the township was their field of labor, a field black and ready to harvest. He had not been sent as a reward for faithful service, but perhaps as a project for reclamation. Here the world was different. Here his companion was Elder Porter, nervous and willing. Here they did not knock on endless doors like salesmen; here they served, struggling to look after the needs of their people. They taught in homes where one convert invited half a dozen friends to share what he had found. Their car served as taxi, supply wagon, ambulance. Here he had begun to find a sweet taste to the work. He had begun to hurry, had making up to do, lost time. They had first met with the Fis family only three weeks ago. This was what it was supposed to be like; that’s what he was getting ready to say to Elder Porter when they had turned that corner. This, a family brought to God—brought to God, whom he, for perhaps the first time in his life, was coming to know himself.
He leaned against the garden wall. He had been waiting on God. He had been waiting for the old man in the house to come back with a policeman or an army sergeant. He had been waiting for God to pluck him up and spirit him away. To sleep, wake, and find himself miraculously somewhere else. To feel the assurance that he could rise up and walk unnoticed through the streets, the eyes of his enemies holden, and pass through the crowds like Jesus did through the Pharisees at the temple. Every shout on the street, every passing footstep on the other side of the wall brought him to a crouch or to huddle closer in the cornstalks or the vines. He had thought of going to the house; he had crept up last night, to the door, knocking, whispering as loudly as he dared, but no one came. Then he had heard voices on the street, a light flared up in the house next door, and he scrabbled back to the garden plot, where he tried again to clear his mind, to sift through anxious thought for reason or inspiration amongst the pounding worry.
He did not sleep. He examined his faith, weighed his doubts, found himself somewhere in the middle, the fulcrum on which the scale balanced. It seemed pointless to give up on his faith now, for then he would both be alone and know it. He decided that if his enemies came, he would stand before them and declare the word of God as though he had been sent for that very purpose. Perhaps he had. Maybe all of this would yet be turned to good. He opened the scriptures and read stories of deliverance: Daniel from the den of lions; Meshach, Shadrack, and Abed-Nego from the fiery furnace; Alma and Amulek from death and prison; David from the hand of Saul.
The New Testament, though, he found full of martyrs: James, Stephen, the saints who were stoned or sawn asunder, even Peter and Paul in time. His legs cramped from sitting, so he stood to stretch them, though he could not stand straight, or his head would appear above the wall. His stomach grumbled and his bowels were loose. A martyr to the cause was assured his place in heaven.
The thought gave him no comfort.
“You have to help me,” the elder said.
Simon Bob had hoped, though he had not been so certain this time, that the boy would creep off during the night, and then it would never have happened. But the boy did not go. He had peeked early in the morning and seen him there still, and the thought of this troubled him that day. His wife would not come until the weekend. Daniel, son of his own dead son, did not come around home much. If he did and found the boy, that would be the end of the trouble.
“I did not put you here,” Simon Bob said. “You climbed my wall to get in. Climb it tonight and get away.”
“I’ll never get away. I don’t even know where I am.”
“I can’t help you.”
“What am I going to do?”
“Call the police. They’ll come get me.”
“No.” Simon Bob shook his head. “I want nothing to do with police.”
“The army, then. There’s somebody you can tell.”
“You do not want to be on the wrong side here,” the old man said. The worst thing was to be thought a traitor, and there were so many sides, so many to be offended.
“Nobody will know if you just call the police.”
“Everyone will know. It is two miles to the police station, and then I must bring them back here, to my house, and then I must bring them to you in my garden, and all the neighbors will say, ‘What are you growing back there, Simon?’” The old man rubbed at his scalp. The boy’s face was dirty, and his hands. His eyes were tired and red. “What are you doing here?” he said.
“I was running.”
“You’re an American. What are you doing in South Africa? Won’t they make all the Americans go home soon?”
“I’m a missionary,” the elder explained. “We come here to tell people about the church of Jesus Christ.”
“You’re a Christian,” Simon Bob said.
“Yes,” he nodded. “Yes. The name of the church is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
The old man said nothing.
“Do you believe in God?” the elder said. Automatically, he reached for his bag.
Still Simon Bob stared down at the elder. He did not look as though he had heard a word.
“Don’t you think God would want you to help me? Maybe God brought me here because you’re the only one who could help.”
“Is your God in that book?” Simon Bob said. He pointed to the binder the boy had drug from his satchel.
The elder tipped up the cover, then thumbed through the pages. Simon Bob waited. Finally, the boy turned a page toward him. There were three people in the picture: two men, with white hair and white beards, floating in the air with a glow around them, and beneath them another on the ground, his arm tipped up as though to shield his face.
“Your God is white,” Simon Bob said.
“Jesus was an Arab, I think. Something like that,” the elder said, fudging.
Simon Bob smiled. “Then he must stay over in the Indian township. We need many gods here. The Afrikaner’s god says we are the cursed children of Ham. The Englishman’s god—he says many different things. The Indians, they need many gods, too, because theirs is a land like ours of many people.”
“We believe there’s one God, and one Jesus.”
“I think so, too,” Simon Bob said. “Who is this?” He pointed to the third man in the picture.
“Joseph Smith,” the elder said. “God’s prophet.”
“Do you have any black prophets in that book?” Simon Bob said. The boy was not from here, and Simon Bob enjoyed cheeking him, giving him grief. What could the boy do?
The elder closed his book. “Why don’t you get the police?”
The old man wrung his hands around the handle of his hoe, scraping at his top lip with his bottom teeth.
“They’ll kill me,” the elder said.
“They might kill me, too,” Simon Bob said. “There is no leaving for me.”
“I wish you could,” the elder said.
Simon Bob looked at him. “That way is east,” he said, pointing behind the elder’s shoulder and past the wall. “You must go that way.”
This time, the boy followed toward the house. Simon Bob did not go inside, but walked through the narrow gap between his house and the one to the west, toward the street, where the boy would not go. He reached the street himself and stopped. There were few people out on the block. Tomorrow, that would change. The buses would be running again. The mood was calming; people would be going back to work, the flow of bodies that pulsed like a wave, flooding into the white city, where the boy in his garden belonged, sucking back out again to fill the black one.
What was he supposed to do? Fly? Carry the boy back to the city in a sack? He leaned the hoe against the wall of the house, feeling the heat stored up from the day radiating from the blocks.
His grandson, his grandson’s friends, they would kill the boy. They would run him in the street for sport, maybe. They would necklace him, maybe. They would do worse, worse than the policemen had done to his own son—though that was bad enough, and in the end, Simon knew in his heart, it had killed him, not the drink, not the car. This boy seemed very young, young in a manner his own son, his grandson, had not been for very long. He was taller than Simon Bob, with a narrow waist, sloping shoulders, blonde hair matted and greasy from three days in his garden. He was not from here.
The boy was a Christian. Simon would give him over to the Christians. God, then, could do with him what he would. He set off walking toward the church. It would be out of his hands.
“The lost boy, the white boy, he is in my garden.” Simon Bob explained it to his pastor.
“Does anyone know he is there?”
“If anyone knew, he would be dead. He was alive when I left him, and if he is alive there still, then nobody knows.”
“Is he safe there? Does your grandson know?”
“He has been there three days. My grandson is not at home. And when he is, he is not in the garden where there is work to be done.”
“I can’t imagine that he will be safe in your garden. Can you hide him in your house?”
“No,” said Simon Bob.
The pastor pursed his lips to think, bearing down on Simon Bob without speaking a word. He was a man, Simon Bob knew, who loved a mountain. When there had been a church to build, he had gone from house to house like a crafty beggar, supplicating in the name of the Lord, with a heavy hand on your shoulder. He looked down on Simon Bob now with an aspect of great thought, bulging eyes with hardly any brows, lips parted as if he were about to whistle.
“You couldn’t bring him here?”
“No, of course not,” the pastor said. “We need a car.”
“I have no car.”
“We need a car.” The pastor was waving a finger. “Go and see that he is still there.”
Simon Bob nodded and turned back home.
Simon Bob picked up his hoe from where he had left it alongside the house. The boy was still in his garden, on his knees in the brick-colored dirt, surrounded by the vines. He was praying, whispering to himself, hands clasped in his lap. The boy’s white shirt was filthy with grime, his arms and face, the crown of his head burned red from the sun. He wore a little black name badge on his shirt pocket, scuffed black shoes with thick soles run down at the heel. He would tell the boy to wait, someone would come. Then he would go down to the shebeen himself. When he came home, the boy would be gone.
The boy jerked away from him, eyes wide, once he sensed someone standing there. He stood in a crouch, brushing off the knees of his pants.
“I’ll give you everything I have,” he said. “My watch. I have thirty rand in my wallet.” He stopped, maybe realizing it wasn’t much to offer. Then Simon Bob saw that the boy was looking over his shoulder. He turned to see his grandson.
“Daniel,” he said.
“What is that?” his grandson pointed at the elder.
“Daniel,” Simon Bob said again. His grandson moved to come closer, but Simon Bob barred his way. Daniel Bob was older than the boy in the garden, twenty-four, but still young and full of smoke. To his grandfather’s eye he was not a revolutionary, but a hood. His friends were arrested for stealing and assault, not sedition. He did not work often and spent most of his nights down the road in one of the shebeens, drinking, listening to tapes of music from America, stealing out sometimes to huddle with a group that assembled for a moment to share a cigarette, then disbanded again in three or four different directions with nods of the head and short shouts of reminder or insult.
Daniel looked at the old man with his head cocked and chin raised, as though he might say something wise.
“What are you going to do with him?” Daniel said.
“Nothing. I am doing nothing with him, and you are doing nothing with him,” Simon Bob answered. “He can go out the way he came.”
“No,” Daniel said. He shook his bowed head as if he were haggling over a price in the market.
“He is not from here,” Simon Bob said.
“I know he is not from here.”
“He is an American.”
Daniel shrugged. “I don’t care where he comes from.”
“Daniel,” the old man said. “Go now.”
“No, no,” Daniel said, shaking his head. “We’ll give him a chance. Let him run. Run, boy.” He bent and put his hands on his knees, while he called to the elder. The elder stood with his hands at his sides. Daniel Bob’s head was shaved; he wore a slick nylon jacket, the sleeves pushed up toward his elbows, baggy chinos. There was menace about him, in the cocky way he stood, the fashion of his clothes.
“Get away,” Simon Bob said. A change came over Daniel’s face, a transformation the elder could see settling like a front down the base of the mountains back home.
“No,” he said.
Simon Bob swung with the hoe’s handle, striking his grandson across the cheek. The elder waited for Daniel to strike back, to wrestle the hoe from his grandfather’s hands, beat the old man with it himself. But he did not. He stood, half-turned from his grandfather, a hand to his face. He started to walk toward the house, then broke into a jog.
Simon Bob stood, trembling, watching where his grandson had gone, the world finally come apart.
“He’ll come back,” the elder said.
Simon Bob, his back still turned, nodded.
“He’ll bring his friends.”
“Yes,” the old man said.
The boy’s legs gave out, and he sank down against the garden wall, feeling the grit of the bricks scraping at his back as his shirt rode up. It was done now.
Simon Bob stood there, still watching where the grandson had gone, twisting the wooden handle of the hoe in his hands.
Finally, he turned to the boy behind him.
“Come,” he said.
The elder heard them first, the harsh shouts from the knot of young men down the dirt street and kitty-corner to the house. They stood looking at one another: the white elder and Simon Bob, who had hold of him by the shoulder, and the young black men down the street. The street was like dozens the elder had seen: packed dirt, water tap with a skid of mud the shape of a pennant in front of it. Houses of blown block and adobe with corrugated zinc roofs, dust on everything, giving the whole world here the texture of sandpaper. Streets and houses full of people whom he loved and feared, an alien world of stupefying want where he could labor but could not live, where some would kill him and some would call him angel, and he, with his imperfect heart, could not tell one from the other and probably could not love both.
From the corner, Daniel whistled and pointed.
The elder wrenched himself from the old man’s grip. It was too late, but he would run now, now that he had a direction—away from the crowd of men on the corner. He took a few hopping steps to the side, putting the old man between them, putting him on their side, as though the old man had brought him not for deliverance, but to be delivered. He was hopping, edging sideways toward the opposite corner, trying to pick a road, as if he were testing the young men to make sure of their intentions, taunting them, egging them on to race. They stood smiling and talking amongst themselves, looking his way. They would bait him longer. They weren’t ready to run yet.
He would run. He did not think about his martyr’s death. The fear in his body had turned to fuel.
There was another sound, a coming cloud of unison and heft. He had not noticed it until the crowd came spilling around the corner closest to him, from the direction he was prancing toward. It was the sound of the crowd again: rhythmic, raised voices, clapping hands. People were stepping out of doors to see. Some joined in, women clapping and starting to sing, children, little ones, coming out in the dirt yards to dance.
A choir dressed in purple robes filled the street from side to side, singing in Zulu or Xhosa. The elder didn’t know the tune; the words came to him only as sound, harmonious but inexplicable. Some in the choir clapped, some raised their hands. He could see their faces, some with smiles, some with eyes half-closed in concentration, as if they would praise their hearts right out through their pores. Some faces were squirrel-cheeked and fat, some heads smooth pated with a ring of tight gray hair like moss, some with glossy braids or stiff, curled coifs. All the faces dark, blue-black and brown, all of them singing, all looking beyond him as if there were no white boy gaping at them from the side of the meager road as they came marching, no pack of wolves on the next corner waiting to do murder.
They came on, flocking around him in their purple vestments, folding him into their undulating sea as they moved down the street with hands raised high above him so the wide hems of their garments hid his face and shoulders as they bore him away. He was in the midst of the song now, that sound, as though it came out of him in all directions, robed in their purple, urged on by the touch of a hundred hands, feet that pressed his own to move. There were other shouts, but the choir pulsed forward, flowing around and past the obstacle, undaunted, unperturbed.
He did not see if the old man had been swept up with them. He barely had the wit to follow as the wave took him forward off his own feet. There was a car, the boot gaping open, and then he lay shut inside the lightless trunk, body bent, the hard-worn road beating him at the hip and shoulder as they drove, feeling invisible in the darkness as the sounds of traffic fought around him, praying only not to stop. The old man was not in the car when it pulled off the road outside the township, not among the circle of faces that peered in on him as the lid raised or the hands that lifted him out of the boot. The strangers asked if he would be all right from here, gave their soft handshakes and good wishes, then climbed back into the lopsided Toyota and made their U-turn while he stood beside the road in his soiled clothes at the edge of town.
The streetlights were still cut off in the township. He could see the flicker of fires here and there in the dusk, a white haze like some fallen star that marked the police station. Two miles, the old man had said, from the garden and the wall. He thought—maybe in that moment when he had broken away, when everybody saw him do it, maybe that had been enough to save the old man. He closed his eyes, trying to see a picture, to assemble words into prayer, lips cracked, his head light from hunger. Then the bones went from his legs, and he scissored down into the dirt along the road outside the city, his body leaching out the poisons of adrenaline and fear, replacing them with mystery and grief.
Simon Bob turned away as the choir passed, going back to the garden, where he bent to work among the rows. Nothing grew in the thin dust of the township except around the privies, where it fed on human waste. It had taken years to build this soil. He had nursed the ground with scraps of vegetables, chicken dung, blood and bonemeal; turned each year’s vines and husks and tops back into the plot; built the wall during better days. It was strange luck that had brought the boy here—good or bad, he could not tell. He would have to wait to hear.
In the corner was a pile of grape stems, a flimsy cap fashioned out of leaves. Simon Bob spread the bits about, then chopped at them with his hoe, working them into the earth around the base of the vines. He worked as shadows bloomed along the ground, thinking of a boy, until he heard footsteps coming up behind him. Then he propped his hoe against the garden wall and turned around to meet them.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.