The Box

The streets were ablaze with people cheering. Flags were burning on the street, and a group was setting an effigy of the now-former leader alight. The country had gone through some dark days, but those days were hopefully over for good. They had fought for liberation and had finally won.
It was a cold victory bathed in the blood of the fallen. It had cost money, families, and above all, it had cost lives. Lives that would never get to see what they had paid for. Tonight, mothers and fathers had to accept the icy hope that their children had died for a more peaceful future. Some parents were still hoping for their children to return after being taken in the middle of the night by the secret police. The country ran red with the memories of the fallen. And yet people in the streets rejoiced. There seemed to be no outward thought of those who had paid the ultimate sacrifice to ensure a future. The swarms moved through the streets with no clear objective other than to eradicate the past as if inflicting pain now would close their generational scars and trauma.

The symbols of the past were torn down and broken asunder. Some people expressed anger they had never felt able to because the system would have punished them for being too bold. Now that the bold had won the hard fight, it was time for the meek to show themselves. They would now shape the future for which they were too scared to fight. The meek shall inherit the earth because the bold stepped forward and were summarily cut down.

These were the streets that Sipho worked through. He witnessed his people trying to stand up, faltering, and then trying again. Once unheard, ignored and punished for voicing their discontent, their past “leaders” could never silence them ever again.

Sipho saw all of this, but it meant nothing to him. His mind focused solely on the item in his pocket. He could feel its shape in his hand. Its hard edges felt alien in his hand. Its cold, smooth surface begged him to look at it. He would have taken it out, but just as he was pulling his hand out of his pocket, he heard a panic-stricken scream coming from the alley he was about to pass.

He knew he shouldn’t investigate. He knew his mission was more critical than someone screaming in an alley. He couldn’t hold off delivering the contents of his pocket to its destination.
“But what if someone needed help? What if he was the only one who had heard? The voice in his head scratched at his guilt.

“We can’t go looking. Singenaphi thina[i]? If they are in trouble, it’s their beef.” He answered himself but slowed down slightly.

He was moving towards the alley, even as he thought that. “Too many people had been lost in this fight. If life was not sacred now, what had been the point of trying to change things?”

The alley was between two tall apartment buildings. There were a few trash cans lined neatly against the wall. There was an old streetlamp in front of one of the buildings; the light didn’t penetrate far into the alley, but he could see the silhouette of a gate at the other end. The alley smelled of decades-old urine, and there was the faint fetid stench of rotting food coming from the trash cans. He could see a figure hunched over in the furthest corner closest to the gate. It seemed to be straining and trying to hold something down. Sipho could hear a faint, pathetic whine but couldn’t see where it was coming from.

“Ekse, ugrand[ii]?” Sipho stepped closer. He was trying to see into the corner.

When he got closer to the figure, he realised it was hunched over another person. The whining was coming from the second person.

“JY[iii], Whatchu doing?” Sipho shouted.

He stepped forward, moving faster. He didn’t know what was happening, but he had to help. The figure turned around; its face was in shadows, a hood was covering his face. Sipho took out his phone to find the flashlight.

“Ungenaphi, vaya kau[iv]?” The man croaked, sounding out of breath.

“Ekse[v], I’m just trying to help.’

“Vaya uyoz’pandela[vi], this one is mine.” The man said, pointing at the whining figure in the corner.

He finally got his flashlight to work when he saw her. She had on a light blue summer dress and flat shoes. Her blonde hair was cut short in a pixie cut. There was a necklace on her neck with a coin hanging from it. Blue welts were starting to form on her cheeks and face. A belt was tied around her hand, and next to her was a lacy cloth lying discarded next to her. A river of blood was snaking away from the woman. There was a big round red circle on her abdomen, and the longer Sipho looked, the darker it seemed to become.

Sipho could finally see the figure clearly. He was a huge man. He had arms the size of trees and a neck that looked like it could support a building. His pants were around his knees, and he held the belt around the woman’s hands.

“Vaya, Mnqundu[vii]” He shouted and returned to what he was doing. His hands were moving up her thigh. She tried to wriggle away faintly, but he held her down roughly.

Then he looked up at Sipho’s eyes as if trying to stare him down.

“Hayi[viii],” Sipho said evenly. He locked eyes with the other man.

“What the fuck you say? Get out of here before you get hurt. This one is mine. I have to finish before she gets cold. Go find your own. The streets are full of iz’febe.”

“Hayi”, Sipho repeated.

The man stood up, pulled up his pants and stepped towards Sipho.

“Last chance,” he said as he slightly moved his right leg forward and raised his brick-sized fists.

“Hayi”, Sipho moved his left leg slightly forward.

He put his phone in his pocket and checked to see if the item was still there. Then he raised his hands with his palms facing the man.

“Brother, there have been too many horrible things. We do not need to be these people. We can be better.” Sipho said, tears welling up in the corner of his eyes.

“Fuck that, this is a dog-eat-dog world. Tonight, I will eat you and fuck her”.

He took one giant step and had Sipho within arm’s reach. He hunched his body down a little, preparing to throw a haymaker. A haymaker that never came as he suddenly pitched forward. There was a gaping wound on the back of his head.

Standing behind him was the woman. She looked barely conscious, but she had mustered up the strength to strike back at her assailant.

“Help me”

Sipho ran up to her just as she was passing out. He picked her up and slowly carried her out of the alley. People were still celebrating. They did not see what had happened in the alley. He carried her a block away and then looked down at her to see if she was still breathing. He tried to flag down a taxi and shout to people for help, but no one came to help. They were too caught up in revel to notice him. He was nearly at the hospital, hoping to at least find help there. Someone bumped into him, and he lost his grip on the woman. She fell to the floor.

“Askies[ix],” said the teen girl who had bumped into him. “Hey, what happened to her?”

“She was attacked. Please help us,” Sipho said, out of breath.

“Hayi, not my problem,” She said before moving on.

Sipho picked her up and walked ever faster. She was breathing heavily, and he could feel her warm blood starting to move down his leg. He had to help her quickly, or it would be too late.

“Hey, what are you doing with her?” He felt a hand on his shoulder.

He tried to struggle free but couldn’t without dropping the woman.

“I need help.” He didn’t even look at the hand on his shoulder.

“Did you do this to her?” said the stranger.

Sipho turned around to see this burly man in jeans and a t-shirt. He was looking down at the woman with furrowed brows. He looked up at Sipho, then down at her.

“Hey guys, this dude did something to this girl. Help me.” He started shouting

Sipho could see three guys with the stranger. They looked at Sipho holding the woman with blood dripping down his leg.

“What did you do?” said the stranger.

“Nothing. I am trying to save her.” Sipho said, unable to get a grasp on what was happening.

“Let’s see what the cops say.”

“There are no cops. This is a revolution.”

“Good point. Maybe we should introduce you to a tire, and it will warn others we don’t do such things in our country.”

“Guys, I am just trying to help; some guy attacked her, and I helped get her away. Now I am just trying to get her to the hospital.”

“Grab him!”

The woman had fainted and couldn’t help him. There was no one to tell them what happened. She did not see as Sipho was dragged into the centre of the street and a tire put around his neck. She would not see the tire being set alight.

Sipho stood in the middle of the street doused in petrol. They were about to set him alight when he saw the man from the alley coming towards them. He was still staggering.

“LOOK!!! There is the man who attacked her. Look at his head. He has a wound. She hit him.”

But it was too late, the man in the jeans had struck the match, and Sipho never got to finish his sentence. He put his burning hands into his pocket and held the object in his pocket. He hoped he could keep it from being burnt by holding it tight. He didn’t scream. He just held onto it until the end.

The fire brigade came to investigate hours later. The only thing they not burnt to a crisp was the small square jewellery box.

[i] SA slang: How are we involved?

[ii] SA slang: Hey, are you ok?

[iii] Afrikaans: You!!

[iv] SA Slang: Why are you getting involved mate?

[v] SA Slang: Hey

[vi] SA Slang: Go and hustle for your own.

[vii] SA Slang: Go Asshole!

[viii] Xhosa: No

[ix] Afrikaans: Sorry/Excuse me

Nyameko Ishmael Bottoman is a South African author and teacher. After graduating from the University of the Western Cape, he moved to South Korea and subsequently other parts of Asia. This was where he reignited his love for the written word. He helped develop the first South African online magazine in the role of editor.  He has published two books, a children's book and book on South African Folklore

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