Corvus (Novel excerpt)

By

L. Lee Lowe

CorvusCover1-frontweb_thumbZadie set a large latte down in front of the backpacker studying his Lonely Planet. ‘You don’t want to go there,’ she said, indicating the left-hand page. ‘You’ll get ripped off, that’s a market for tourists.’ Sometimes advice was rewarded with a bigger tip, but this lad looked as if he could barely pay for his coffee.

He glanced at her, then down at his mug. ‘That’s me, Mophead Mark.’ She liked the bottlebrush hair, the freckled ugliness, the seafoam eyes flecked with turbulence, his slow smile. ‘It’s terrific, who made it?’

Coffee art—another good source of tips. But she was giving this one away. ‘I’m a design student. Keeps me from getting bored on the job.’

‘It takes real talent to catch a likeness with only a few strokes—and in froth no less.’

‘Nah, it’s mere trickery, like being able to add up a column of numbers in your head. It doesn’t make you Ramanujan; it doesn’t even make you an accountant.’

He seemed surprised by her mention of the mathematician. ‘You’re local?’

‘I didn’t peg you for a racist.’

‘Wow, a bit touchy, aren’t you?’

‘In South Africa you’ll learn race is the first thing everyone thinks about.’

‘A few more years, skin colour will be irrelevant.’

‘A post-racial world?’ she scoffed.

‘Depends how you define race. I hear there’s already a cognoscens presence in Cape Town.’

From the corner of her eye she saw Anton come through the swing door from the kitchen and hurriedly pulled out her order pad, then scrawled a number. ‘Here, ring me after six, and I’ll show you round. There’s a few places might interest you.’

That evening, succumbing to his entreaties—‘on your stubborn mophead, then!’—Zadie led him down to the beach. They ate the gutsy samoosas she’d brought, licking their fingers and laughing as the southeaster freewheeled like a surfer high on his own recklessness. Mark wasn’t much of drinker, so the second can of beer stayed in her backpack. He offered a joint, though. Barefoot, they walked along the ribbon of firm, vermiculated sand, and stopped to talk, to gaze into the moonlit spindrift, and walked on again. He liked the way her hips moved as if she were treading water, a serene swell. He liked her liquid accent, and the way it raced away from her when she described a recent exhibit, her new kitten, the hungry stick kids up north. He liked the way she pretended that sand in your pubic hair was erotic, not messy and uncomfortable.

Towards midnight they began to retrace their steps, she knew a jazz club where the drinks were cheap, and the music Cape Town’s best-kept secret: ‘Even if you could find it, they’d never let you in. Security tighter than the Island, back in Mandela’s time.’

‘They don’t fancy foreigners?’

‘They don’t fancy rich white boys.’

‘So if I had a fanny . . .’

She laughed then, and gave him further reason to appreciate his endowments. Later, when he came to write his first novel, he’d invoke a surfer’s finely tuned sense of wind and wave, but now there was no metaphor, no transcendence, now no heady rip of words, only the stoptime of breathing in rhythmic unison—a break in the incessant hiphop of pounding surf and pounding wind and pounding thoughts.

‘It’ll be your cash, and no friggin shit, ya hear?’

Hastily they uncoupled and stared at the two kids, one with a knife glinting in the moonlight, the other with a screwdriver. Zadie reacted first; nodded, unslung her backpack, handed it over—every movement slow and smooth, unthreatening. Mark studied the knife-wielding mugger while his mate cast Zadie’s belongings onto the sand and rifled for wallet and mobile. They couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen.

Memory rides the long corridor of time with grace for month upon seamless month as if the wave will never break, then it’s arse over tit into whitewater, into seething depths. This was the moment Mark would remember time and again; remember, years on, when it ended, as he came to fear it would end. The moment he’d sought. The moment he could have chosen to grab his board and paddle ashore.

‘Tell you what,’ he said. ‘I’ll give you my cash and 500 Euros from the nearest ATM if you let me meet the rest of you.’

The younger lad left off his scrabbling, the older one gave a disbelieving snort. ‘There ain’t no rest, ghostbag. And damn sure no ATM.’

It was Mark’s quiet confidence—his lack of fear—which confounded them. ‘I think there is. And lads like you can earn real money, not crotch coins. You think I’m stupid enough to come down here without a motive? Everyone knows to keep off the beaches at night, even the tourists. It’s in all the guidebooks.’

They were wary now, uncertain. A drug deal, it was written on their faces.

‘You know that simudzai means forward, don’t you?’ he added. Then a touch scornfully, ‘The drug trade is for fools, not simus.’

‘You’re not afraid of cogners?’ the older lad asked.

‘Do I look afraid?’

The simu imijondolo crouched like a wounded animal in a cleft between sheer grindstone cliffs. They reached it by a narrow, scrubby track which forded a shallow lagoon before zigzagging out of view from the shore. If there were crocodiles—weren’t there always crocodiles?—no one seemed particularly fussed. The walls of rock retained the day’s heat and magnified their breathing, though it wasn’t a steep climb. Despite a distressing scrawniness, the simus were surefooted, lissom even, and the extraordinary vision of their kind enabled them to scamper through the darkest pockets and beneath the lowest overhangs with ease. Soon they increased their pace, smelling the campfire before they could see its shielded glow; tonight, at least, there would be meat or a stew for the hungry.

Zadie had volunteered at the Cape Flats, but these sad little shelters of plastic sheeting and rusting, corrugated tin wouldn’t keep off even the mild summer rains. Around the campfire she counted half a dozen ragged figures, at least two she thought were girls, one of whom looked no older than six or seven, though chronic malnourishment may have stunted her. Simus usually grew very tall.

Their energy was undiminished by hunger, however, and they argued fiercely, if quietly, among themselves at the appearance of strangers, monkeys no less, in their midst. To her surprise, Mark seemed to follow the rapid talk in Afrikaans, though he said nothing till invited by the tallest lad—Rafi, someone had called him—who had a compelling, self-assured air. Simus were known for their arrogance, but she wondered what had given this lad such a decided sense of entitlement. There were plenty of angry young men about, blokes ready to kill you for a pack of cigarettes or a wrong word, blokes on tik whose nerves crackled and sparked like shorted wires, whose sweat smelled of leaking battery fluid. At fifteen or sixteen Rafi already stood taller than most men, in a few years he’d be plucking lightning bolts from the sky and filliping them coolly at any sapiens underfoot. Though much of what you heard was bound to be exaggerated, she found it hard to meet his eyes; all their eyes.

The wrangle might have continued if Rafi hadn’t held up a hand, waited till they fell still, and addressed the youngest child. ‘So, what do you think, Leonie?’

The girl’s eyes passed quickly over Zadie to come to rest on Mark. Her scrutiny was solemn, followed by a child’s sweet smile and a confident switch to English. ‘He’s OK, we can trust him.’ Then her thumb slipped into her mouth, a ripple of what Zadie first mistook for amusement sweeping the group. But Mark nodded as though he understood a secret language and was rewarded with a groundswell of approval.

‘Ugly muggle’s got a brain.’

‘Brought any sweets?’

‘Rad hair.’

‘Hangs tough, doesn’t he?’

‘Must be someone like Leonie in his family.’

Meanwhile the older lad from the beach had busied himself with removing several lopsided wooden spits from the fire. One by one he sliced the roasted birds from the skewers with the same bone-handled hunting knife he’d brandished as a weapon, its tapered blade now glistening with fat, and deftly segmented the meat into equal portions which he arranged on two battered enamel plates by his feet. At this last remark, he paused and looked up from his crouch, thrust his knife to the hilt into the sandy ground as if to scour it for another task. The others also gave Mark their heightened attention.

‘Is that how you know?’ Rafi asked, a slight edge to his voice. ‘A brother or sister, a cousin maybe?’

‘Not exactly.’

‘Then how?’ The edge sharpened on the whetstone of their hardscrabble lives. For all her gifts, Leonie was still a young child who sensed more than she always understood.

‘There was a girl—’ He glanced sideways at Zadie. ‘My girl, till the accident.’ A gust of wind stirred the embers, sifting ash over the plates of meat, wafting chalky swarf into his face so that he was forced to blink several times in rapid succession. ‘At least that’s what the police called it when they closed the case.’

With a soft gasp Leonie shucked her thumb, but Rafi didn’t even look her way. ‘Right, boet,’ he said, gesturing briskly towards their meal. ‘Let’s eat.’

The meat smelled good, but these kids needed every calorie—which lowlife nicked from a beggar’s bowl? Gamely Mark and Zadie split a tactful piece, pied crow proving to be gamey but perfectly edible, a bit chewy perhaps. Within a month, they were sharing a flat. Within six months, married. Within a year, she was pregnant with Zach.

It wouldn’t be till his stay in Cape Town that Zach learned of his parents’ role in founding the cognoscens network which by then provided training camps for politicised simus worldwide—nobody, it seemed, could do it better than the South Africans, and drug-money rumours notwithstanding, support from private foundations and wealthy Fulgur rivals (or wannabe rivals like flamboyant biotronics magnate Leo Chandra) kept the Scorpions from making any key arrests. At the outset Mark’s confidence matched Rafi’s, but he’d not grown up with knives and taped pipes as his cricket bats; muggings, his test matches. A single disembodied incident might not have done it, but when Leonie was found dismembered on the strand, crows already feeding, something broke inside him, tore loose like a bough in a gale. He stopped writing. He stopped surfing. One evening from the shelter of their veranda Zadie watched him drag driftwood into a heap just beyond the dunes and set it ablaze, standing so close that she feared for his hair, his eyebrows, his skin. She didn’t interfere when he emptied a sack of crows—five, six, nine, maybe ten, where had he collected so many?—onto the flames, the stench nothing like the smell of roasting meat. Next morning at the corner shop she was forced to tell old Ibrahim a stammered lie, which he was too kindly to dispute. Two days later they had the results of the prenatal genetic workup, and providentially after a tattered night, Chandra’s offer of a lectureship. Though Mark’s father was dead, and his mother dissuasively remarried to a Californian banker, Mark was relieved to go home. In celebration they bought two dozen oysters, but one look at the first plump and quivering mollusc on its splayed shell, its liquor briny as sweat, and he was unable to sever its lower adductor muscle. They ate a supper of bread, cheese, and sunny mangoes instead.

You can read, listen or download the novel from http://lleelowe.com/corvus/

The audio readings were done by Welsh actor Ioan Hefin. You can find out more about him on http://www.ioanhefin.com

INDEX | EDITORIAL | POETRY | FICTION | INTERVIEWS | ESSAYS & REVIEWS | COMPETITIONS

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