It began raining the day the dogs found Sipho Sibanda. A soft, gentle patter that fell like a benediction from the hands of a loving and indulgent god. Two dogs, both of indeterminate colour and breed, approached the man lying in the bushes. With exaggerated care, they placed one muddy paw gingerly in front of the other, then stopped abruptly, taut limbed and stiff tailed, their bodies poised for flight.
The reeds sighed and parted as the dogs drew closer, sprinkling their backs with drops of water. The dogs sniffed at the man’s bare feet and nudged his cracked heels before edging their way up his legs. One of them, the male and the larger of the two, lingered over the remnants of dried blood and excrement that caked his buttocks, its nose twitching in a frenzied dialogue that only dogs understand. Then, with an almost human reverence, it began to lick at the patch of dry white residue splattered across the back of the man’s thighs. There would be no abuse or rocks hurled at them. Sipho Sibanda was dead.
Madala found Sipho Sibanda the next day and by then the river was in flood. Thin veins of white foam criss-crossed the dark muscular torrent as the river swept past, moaning like a madman to break free of its banks. It was like a giant pinned down on an operating table, its skin flayed back without anaesthetic. The carcass of a large animal flashed by, its legs stiff and pointing crookedly to heaven. A withered tree branch, a jagged piece of styrofoam, a woman’s shoe, alone and without its partner. Sodden spoils of life, soon to be deposited at the feet of a capricious and vengeful god.
Despite his limp, Madala was surprisingly nimble. He slid down the river bank with his knees bent and his arms outstretched like a surfer. He was wearing black gumboots, the only thing of value he had left from the mines. He’d sewn his olive green tarpaulin himself and it flared outwards from his shoulders like a cape. He came to this spot on the river at the same time every year. Five thirty in the evening on the eleventh of February and it was the eleventh of February today.
Last year he’d lost his footing and been dragged a hundred metres downstream by the current. He’d never had a chance to place the flowers properly or even say a prayer. The year before that, his flowers had clung stubbornly to the far bank of the river, infuriatingly out of reach and wedged among the driftwood and plastic shopping bags, like another piece of rubbish. Each year the river conspired to mock him and each year he wondered why he came at all.
With a loud sigh, Madala rummaged inside the folds of his tarpaulin and took out a bunch of small white flowers. Seventy five rand from the BP filling station, an extravagance for most people in Alex and especially so for him. He held the flowers to his nose, squeezed his eyes shut and took a deep breath. In the past, all it took was one smell of the flowers to conjure up a richly textured image of her face. Now his memory had faded so far into the distance, her face had become no more than an indistinct blur of shapes and sounds he barely recognised as belonging to a woman. His woman. Madala inhaled again, more sharply this time and with greater urgency. But it was no use. He shook his head in annoyance and scowled at the flowers. He might as well have bought plastic.
Suddenly, a putrid smell wafted around him and Madala’s nostrils crinkled in distaste. He raised his head and sniffed the moist air, seeking out the source of the odour. Madala had smelled death too often not to recognise the sickly foulness that accompanied it. He stepped forward, brushing the reeds aside like they were curtains. The smell was more pungent now and yet he almost stumbled over the body. It was a man’s body. He was tall, lean and slightly muscled. He was lying face down as if there was something particularly interesting hidden there in the mud. His trousers were bunched around his ankles and his shirt was nowhere to be seen. He had bite marks on his thighs, stray dogs no doubt, and one buttock was already half eaten away. Madala swore out loud and crossed himself repeatedly, his profanity growing more pronounced with each circuit.
‘Fock! Fock! Fock!’
Madala clambered back up to the road and pondered what to do. It couldn’t be him, he’d been very careful. His instincts told him to leave the body there to rot. It was safer that way. But he knew his conscience would nag him and he didn’t have the energy for any more turmoil inside his head.
He trudged all the way to the Alexandra police station and stood hesitantly in the entrance. Except for the two framed photographs of the president and the minister of police above the counter, there was no one in sight. Water dripped off his clothes and formed a puddle around his feet.
Madala looked around him, wondering who had spoken and if indeed they were swearing at him.
‘Voetsek!’ the voice cried again.
He hadn’t seen the policeman. Like a dark, brooding cloud, he rose up from behind the counter and wagged a finger at Madala.
‘Don’t I know you?’ the policeman asked. He wasn’t expecting an answer and Madala knew better than to provide one. ‘You’re Madala, the crazy man who talks to the river.’
Madala stepped forward as if the policeman’s description of him was an acceptable substitute for his name.
‘I found somebody,’ he said softly. The words were lumpy and misshapen in his throat and he swallowed several times to ease their passage.
‘I told you to fuck off,’ the policeman said again. He really wasn’t interested in what Madala had to say. He stood up from his stool, all six feet of him, and pointed at Madala again. ‘You’d better get out before I charge you.’ He glanced pointedly at the handcuffs on his khaki-clad thigh and then at Madala’s muddy footprints leading from the entrance.
‘Charge me with what?’
The policeman’s eyes flew open at Madala’s apparent truculence.
‘What did you say?’ he asked. He leaned over the counter to make sure he didn’t miss a word.
‘I said I found somebody.’
Madala could tell that for all his bluster, the policeman was afraid of him. They called him Madala because ever since the accident at the mine, he dragged one foot behind him like an old man. No one even remembered his name was Jacob. It was as if the name Jacob Zwane had been erased from the public conscience the moment he’d been discharged from hospital and Madala written in its place. That made him sad.
He shouldn’t have come. He should have gone home and sat behind the small wooden table from which he sold cigarettes by the stick and sweets that cut your tongue and made it bleed. Suddenly, he longed for the wooden stool with twin indentations that cupped his arse as snugly as his woman used to do. He’d promised to look after her brother, promised that he’d take him in if anything happened to her. Well, he had, in a manner of speaking. She’d have been pleased about that – or would she? Madala wasn’t sure.
Next year he’d be back by the river, his memory more wayward than ever and with another bunch of flowers clutched in his hands. One day he’d forget the exact date the river took her. He wondered which would go first, the time of day it had happened or the date. It wouldn’t help to write it down. He was already having trouble calculating the right change for his customers. Nowadays, numbers refused to stand still and be counted. They hid behind each other and ran around in his mind like chickens. Worse still, he might forget the way to the river and have to depend on her brother to take him there. It was all very tiring. All Madala wanted to do was go home
He was almost at the exit when a small, energetic woman barged through the aluminium doors. She swept past Madala as if he wasn’t there and hoisted herself up on her toes for she was rather short.
‘My son is missing,’ she declared in a voice made for a much larger woman. She had an air of authority about her, like a mother in a well-run household where the children were in school and the bills were paid on time.
‘Sergeant Ncube,’ the policeman said introducing himself. ‘What is your son’s name?’ He asked this with a grin as if he might know the woman’s son. Then he pushed his notepad to one side and filled the space with his gut. He looked more inclined to converse with the woman than to write anything down.
‘Sipho. Sipho Sibanda.’ the woman said.
Sergeant Ncube frowned and the woman’s lips turned down in concert with his.
‘Sipho Sibanda,’ Sergeant Ncube repeated with a puzzled look. He was about to say something when he noticed Madala standing by the door.
‘What are you still doing here?’ he shouted. He had an audience now and his voice was much louder than necessary.
‘Her son. He is by the river,’ Madala said. He didn’t know how he knew, he just did.
‘Don’t pay any attention to that fool,’ Sergeant Ncube insisted. He took a pen out of his pocket and tapped it impatiently on his notebook. ‘Now, when did Sipho go missing?’
But Mrs Sibanda wasn’t listening to him. She’d turned to Madala with both hands clasped to her chest as if to stop her heart from tumbling out onto the floor.
‘Do you know my son?’ she asked. She tried to control the quiver in her voice by speaking through tightly puckered lips.
‘He is by the river,’ Madala said again. ‘I saw him.’
The God Who Made Mistakes by Ekow Duker is published by Picador Africa.