1. -Preface-People who saw it thought it was a shooting star. Itstreaked across the dark night sky in a brilliant white arcand disappeared from view beyond the horizon. It sloweddown over the dark outskirts of the brightly lit city andemitted a blinding flash before shooting off into thedistance. The few who noticed were either too drunk tocare, or too far away to matter. One man was neither… He stopped his yellow van in the veldt near a kopjebordering on the township of Soweto. An acronym forSouth Western Townships, Soweto is the largest blacktownship in the country, and crime and domestic violencehere typically reaches its peak over the festive season. He wore the blue safari suit of the South African PoliceServices, and patrolled the no-mans-land that bordered theinfamous township, keeping his eyes peeled for any signsof wrongdoing, mischief, or vandalism. There was also adarker reason why the Police kept up a regular presence inthis area: dead bodies. It was common to find the victim of a late nightmugging, or a drunken brawl, sprawled lifeless in the long,brown grass; and although he had seen his fair share, stillhe had hoped that tonight of all nights it would bedifferent. He stepped out of the van and looked around. Certainthat this was the area he had seen the strange light, he tookout his flash-light and played the beam over the veldt. Not
2. certain what he was looking for, he cast about aimlessly fora few moments before a flash of colour caught his eye, andhe aimed the beam in its direction. There was a bundlehidden in the grass, and he recognized it for what it wasimmediately; an abandoned baby. This kind of thing was on the rise as more and moreyoung mothers made the callous decision to abandon theirnew-born child in the wild when they had too manymouths to feed, or had a husband working on the mineswho would ask awkward questions about the childspaternity. Forgetting what had first brought him here, he steppedup for a closer look. The infants’ wrappings puzzled him.Most young mothers could not spare an extra blanket for ababy they meant to abandon, and anyways, the whole pointof leaving a child in the veldt was that it would die ofexposure, and were usually naked and lifeless when theywere found. He squatted in the grass and shone his torchat the pathetic heap, and then felt his chest tighten as hesaw a small movement. This one’s alive! he thought. Putting his torch back inhis pocket, he picked up the tiny bundle and carried it tothe van. He couldn’t see its face as it was entirely coveredby the swaddling, but he knew what was in there, and heknew it still breathed. Soft whimpers emanated fromwithin, and he placed it gently on the passenger seat besidehim. ‘Tango three-five-seven – reporting,’ he spoke quicklyinto his radio. ‘Go ahead Tango three-five-seven,’ a voice distorted bystatic interference replied. ‘I have an abandoned infant in sector three. It’s stillalive – over.’
3. ‘Okay Tango three-five-seven, standby – over.’ Hewaited expectantly for a few moments before the radiocrackled back to life. ‘Tango three-five-seven – over.’ ‘Standing by,’ he replied. ‘Take the infant to St Marys on Bezuidenhout. Do youcopy? – over.’ ‘Loud and clear – Tango three-five-seven over.’ He started the engine, then slowly bumped and rattledover the uneven ground before finally emerging on thepublic road. It wasn’t far to St Marys and within fifteenminutes he had parked the van and made his way up thestairs to the door, the infant cradled in his arms. St Marys was the orphanage the police and socialservices made use of whenever they had a runaway to dealwith, or a child left orphaned by the senseless violence soprevalent in the townships. He knocked on the door andwaited. A kindly looking nun opened up, and gave him apolite smile. ‘May I help?’ she asked. ‘I’m so sorry to intrude, sister, but I have a little bundleof joy for you,’ he smiled. A look of gentle concerncrossed her face as she reached out for the child. ‘I trust you have all the relevant documentationavailable, sister?’ he asked as she took the child from hisarms. The orphanage would take full responsibility for thechild until they could track down the parents, or makeother adoptive arrangements. It was all standardprocedure, and they handled it in an efficient, casual kindof way. ‘Of course, Corporal. I will have it all filled out in themorning. You can come by and pick it up then,’ shereplied, turning away from him and placing the bundle on
4. a nearby table. She started making soft, motherly, cooingsounds as she unwrapped the blankets that swaddled theinfant. ‘Okay, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow then. MerryChristmas, sister,’ he said, feeling a bit awkward. He turnedto go. A soft gasp arrested him, and he turned back to thenun who had her back to him, intent on the small shape infront of her. She was no longer cooing. ‘Is everything alright?’ he asked. ‘Why don’t you come see for yourself, Corporal,’ shereplied quietly. He walked up beside her and looked down. ‘Oh… this is bad,’ he whispered. A beautiful little boy with bright blue eyes and wisps ofwhite-blonde hair looked up at them. ‘Where did you say you found this child?’ she asked,real concern in her voice. ‘Soweto. In the veldt just outside Soweto,’ he repliedtightly, his heart in his throat. They looked at each asrealization dawned. ‘Muti,’ they said in unison. His heart hammering in his chest, he remembered thelast victim of a muti killing he had seen. Limbs severed,heart and kidneys removed. The abductors had harvestedalmost every part of the young body; it was one of thegrisliest things he had ever seen. The witchdoctors of Southern Africa were, and are tothis day, seen as men and women of vast power by themajority of black South Africans, and it wasn’t unusual foran employer to receive a sick note issued by aSangoma excusing a worker from duty due to worms in thefeet, or other such nonsense. One of the darker sides of this tradition was theunfortunate belief held by a small minority that the body
5. parts of young, white children had healing powers, and thetrafficking of human remains was a reality that the policeand social workers fought on a daily basis. ‘Oh my word, oh my word - thank the Lord,’ she saidin a whisper, ‘it looks like you found this one just in time,Corporal… and what a beautiful little boy!’ He shuddered to think what would have happened tothe child had he not come along. ‘I must have scared them away, sister,’ he said. ‘Damnit, this makes me sick!’ He was trembling, and he took adeep breath to calm himself. He didn’t normally becomethis rattled. ‘Well, at least he’s in one piece,’ he said. ‘I suppose theusual adoption procedures won’t apply here. I’m surethere’s a mother in Sandton somewhere that’s frantic tofind her little boy. I reckon it won’t be more than a day ortwo before we find the child’s parents and take him offyour hands, sister.’ ‘Yes, I suppose you’re right,’ she replied. ‘I’ll keep himwarm and safe until you do, Corporal.’ She smiled down atthe little form that had screwed up its face and was wavingits arms around madly as if in a titanic struggle with someinvisible foe. ‘Thank you so much for saving this one,’ she finished,and he could see the moisture in her eyes as she looked upat him. He smiled back at her, feeling that, despite themany hardships his job entailed, it was moments like thisthat made it all worthwhile. ‘Thank you for caring, sister,’ he replied with feeling. The nun picked the baby up and held it to her breast,rocking back and forth, making hushing sounds, so he lethimself out quietly.
6. Back outside, he climbed into his van and sat quietlyfor a moment. They would find the child’s parents and itwould become just another case in the thousands that theydealt with, but for tonight, just for tonight, it would be theyoung police officer’s proudest moment, and he smiled tohimself as he drove away into the night, the light in the skycompletely forgotten.
7. Chapter 1 -The Runaway-Johnny slumped down next to the river and threw his bagto the ground. Bone-tired and weary, he closed his eyesand put his hands to his face, his blonde hair falling overhis fingers. He sat like that for a few moments before hisshoulders started to shake - slowly, imperceptively, like thetrickle that signals the first cracks before a dam bursts; andsoon gut-wrenching sobs wracked his young frame. He fought the tears like a wild animal ripping at the barsto its cage, clenching his teeth in shame and frustration.But still they came, and in the end, he surrendered to thepain, and let the tears stream down his face. He could imagine his father’s voice in his head as hewept, ‘Stop crying you damn baby! I swear, I’ve hadenough of you and your bloody crap! I’m counting tothree! One … two … three!’ Still the tears came. Over the years, Johnny had taught himself to control thepain and rage that stormed within when his father hit him,or shouted and swore at him, and called him names. Hethought himself inured to the abuse, but where thereshould have been the warmth of love and security, Johnnyjust had a big, dark hole. He raised his head, wiped his nose on his sleeve anddried his eyes with the back of his hands. The sun wouldbe down soon, and at this time of the year it would be cold
8. at night. He worried about wild animals too. The oldhunters had driven elephant, lion, rhino and leopard out ofSouth Africa over a hundred or more years ago, but theforest can be a big, lonely place for a thirteen-year-old boyon his own at night. His thoughts wandered to earlier that morning. He hadbeen so excited he had hardly slept that night. They weregoing fishing again! Every year, Johnny and his father would go away on atwo-week fishing trip to the Eastern Transvaal, knownofficially as Mpumalanga, or ‘the place of the rising sun’,home to some of the best trout fishing in the world. Somestill called it the Eastern Transvaal though, usually thosewho had a hard time accepting the radical changes in thecountry, and his father, Hendrik “Robbie” Roberts, wasdefinitely the latter. Early that morning they had packed all their gear into hisfather’s old Ford bakkie and hooked up the equally squalidlittle Jurgens caravan his parents had spent theirhoneymoon in twenty years ago. Caravanning was highlypopular amongst South Africans during the apartheidyears, and although in severe decline these days, one couldstill find the odd caravan park hidden away, sometimes inthe most charming little places. Robbie had looked Johnny in the eye and said, ‘Ja, myboy, so it’s off on another adventure, just you and me.Maybe this year you’ll finally catch the big one, hey?’ Robbie Roberts loved Johnny in his own peculiar way,and there were the odd moments when Johnny felt asudden stab of feeling towards his father, but it neverlasted long. The moment he started drinking, he turnednasty – real nasty – and then all the frustrations of a failed
9. career and the loss of his wife would find focus in Johnny,and Robbie Roberts drank every evening without fail. Johnny’s only defence was to make himself scarce atnight, something he had been doing for as long as he couldremember. He wandered the streets at night until longafter other kids his age were in bed, often falling asleepbehind the train shed, or inside the old flour mill, beforefinally creeping back into the house and making himself acold sandwich and crawling into bed. The drive had been pleasant enough, and Johnny lookedforward to two weeks of beautiful, sunlit days, spentfishing and swimming. He stared happily out of thewindow as they drove north, watching with delight as thegrey cityscape dropped out of sight behind them, and theland opened up on both sides, the greens and browns ofAfrica that Johnny loved so well. ‘So, your teacher tells me you bliksemed the Viljoen kidlast week?’ Caught unawares, Johnny had had to thinkquickly. ‘He said we were trailer trash, and he called you a badname, Dad.’ ‘Really? What did he call me?’ ‘He said you were a poephol!’ His father found this highly amusing, and he chuckled tohimself behind the steering wheel for a moment beforelooking at Johnny again. ‘So you beat him up?’ he asked. ‘How old is he?’ ‘He’s seventeen, Dad, but he fights like a girl.’ ‘No my boy, it’s you who fights like a man! I’m proud ofyou,’ he said and put an arm around Johnny’s shoulder.
10. Johnny sat with his back against the tree and rememberedthe conflicting emotions that gesture had caused in him.Love and pain; bittersweet.They had arrived at the campsite at about midday andquickly gotten everything set up. Once the caravan wasunhitched it was a simple matter of erecting the canvastent that adjoined it and created a living room of sorts, andunpacking the accessories. The small orange portabletelevision with its bunny-ear aerial, the folding camp chairsand table, and Johnny’s camping cot. He would sleep inthe tented living area, while his father slept in the caravan.It suited them both. Once done, Johnny had run to the edge of the lake inpleasure and taken a deep breath of the beautifully clean airof the countryside, so different to the stale air one usuallybreathed back in Jo’Burg. He spent half an hour splashinghappily on the water’s edge, startling the trout beneath thesurface, before returning to the campsite. His pleasure had turned to dismay when he got back tothe caravan and saw the bottle of brandy on the tableoutside. Robbie sat on a folding canvas camping chair witha glass in his hand, looking pleased and content. ‘Hey my boy, there you are! This is the life, hey!’ Hisfather always became overbearingly jovial after his firstdrink, and Johnny knew from experience that by thesecond drink, the jovial spirit would be replaced by a sullenintensity that could avalanche into rage and violence at anymoment. He secretly hoped that perhaps theirsurroundings would douse his father’s aggression,particularly as they were away from the grey world theynormally inhabited. Perhaps the cycle would be broken.
11. ‘Hey Dad, let’s try catch some fish!’ said Johnny eagerly,hoping to curb his father’s early drinking. ‘Nah my boy. Tonight we’ll light a fire and braai us somemeat. There’ll be plenty of time for fishing tomorrow,’ hereplied. ‘I’m bloody tired after that long drive, but thedoctor is in the house, and he’s already prescribed me mymedicine!’ Robbie laughed and drained his glass. Reachingfor the bottle, he poured himself another liberal dose, andafter topping it up with cola and ice, he sat back with asatisfied sigh and looked around. ‘Ja, Johnny, this is the life. This is what I work so flippinghard all year for, so we can come here and be happy fortwo weeks,’ he said. ‘You see, my boy,’ he continued with a slightly martyredair, ‘when you have to look after your own kids one day,when you have to work your fingers to the bone for aminimum wage for some damned darkie in a flashy car,then you’ll see just how important these few days awayreally are.’ Johnny let out a silent sigh. Everything was going righton schedule… soon his father’s self-pity would turn toself-loathing, and then the cycle would begin again. ‘So while you play with your friends, I’m working myselfto a standstill,’ his father continued, ‘and to think I do it allfor you.’ Robbie became pensive, pondering, as he drained hisglass – again. When he peered up at Johnny, he could seehis father’s eyes were already becoming bloodshot. Heseemed upset about something… he’s probably thinkingabout Ma, he thought. ‘What are you looking at?’ asked Robbie, half-jokingly,half irritably. ‘Here – pour me another drink,’ he said,handing Johnny his glass. ‘And start the fire while you’re at
12. it. It’s about time you did something productive aroundhere. You’ve spent enough time splashing around in thewater, now it’s time to earn your keep.’ Johnny refilled his father’s glass as quickly as he could,and then started getting the fire started. Robbie wasn’tangry – not yet any-ways; he was still in high spirits as thebrandy warmed his blood as he sat in the sun, but he wasalready becoming belligerent, and Johnny recognized thewarning signs. ‘Phaark! What’s this?’ Robbie spat. ‘I didn’t ask for a cupof bloody tea! If you’re going to pour me a drink makesure it bloody well tastes like one!’ Robbie leaned forwardand added another two fingers of brandy to his glass,sloshing a fair amount onto his lap. ‘Aah crap it and all! Now look what you’ve made me do!’he shouted standing up. Now he was angry. ‘I’m sorry, Dad. I didn’t mean it, really.’ Johnny was warynow, and he dodged backwards nimbly as his father aimeda lazy open-handed swing at his head. Robbie hadn’t putmuch heart into it, but he was already unsteady on his feetand now he overbalanced as he missed, and crashed intothe table, sending the glass and the bottle crashing to theground. ‘You little twerp!’ he shouted, still sprawled on the table.‘Get back here you bliksem!’ but Johnny was alreadyrunning away towards the lake as fast as his legs couldcarry him.Johnny looked around him and knew he should startmoving again soon. He didn’t think his father would becapable of following him, not tonight, not in the state hewas in… but having made the decision to leave, he had nointention of being caught and going back. He stood up,
13. brushed the leaves off his pants, picked up his bag andstarted walking.Earlier, Johnny had decided to sneak back to the caravanafter a few hours, as he hoped his father would have beenasleep by then – although it was still only mid-afternoon.Johnny wasn’t sure what to expect, as his father didn’tusually drink so early in the day. Typically, his dad wouldonly start drinking after he got home from work, andwould have passed out in the lounge by ten o’clock or so,or occasionally staggered off to bed after about six or eightbrandies. This time it was different; he didn’t have to getup for work in the morning, and the sun was still high inthe sky. ‘So … you’re back?’ Johnny jumped with fright. His father was still in thechair where he had left him earlier, and still drinking. ‘The fire … went … it went out. Hell, I don’t know …’Robbie slurred and looked down at the half empty glassclasped in his hand. Johnny had never seen his father thisdrunk before, and it frightened him. Robbie looked up suddenly and stared at Johnny withclear, white eyes. They weren’t bloodshot anymore, andJohnny saw madness in them. That frightened him evenmore. ‘You know Johnny, it makes no difference if you leaveand don’t come back. Blood is thicker than water, and allthat crap.’ Johnny didn’t know what he was talking about. ‘I told Magda that adopting you was a mistake,’ he wenton. ‘I told her, but she wouldn’t listen … such a goodwoman.’ Johnny listened in silence, not sure what hisfather was saying.
14. ‘And those damned nuns, all holier than thou, telling uswhat a clever little boy you were. I knew we should neverhave done it.’ ‘What are you talking about Dad?’ Johnny asked, hisheart in his throat. ‘Don’t call me that! I am not your father! I don’t know whoyour father is, but it isn’t me!’ he shouted. Johnny took an involuntary step backwards, his hand tohis mouth. Never in all the years of beatings and abuse hadhis father hurt him so severely. He felt a wrenching pain inhis gut that felt like a knife had been stuck into him. All hislife had been spent trying to impress his father, trying tofind some way of earning his love and respect. ‘But …, but … I’m your son, Dad. Aren’t I? Please saythat I am.’ He could feel the tears burning the back of his eyes andhe tried desperately to force them down because he knewhow much his father hated it when he cried, and he wantedhis father to be proud of him. He wanted his father to lovehim. He wanted his father to - to … he just wanted hisfather. ‘Dad …?’ ‘I AM NOT YOUR FATHER!’ Robbie roared. ‘You area bastard! You hear me? A stinking little bastard! Perhaps thedevil spawned you, but you are no son of mine! Hell, youdon’t even look like me!’ That caught Johnny completely off guard. He knew hedidn’t look anything like his father, who was dark-haired,dark-eyed, short and stocky; whereas he was blonde, blue-eyed, tall and athletic for his age. In fact, even at thirteen,he was already half a head taller than his father was. The photographs of his mother in the lounge at homeshowed a merry little woman with clear, blue eyes and a
15. shock of red hair. But… Johnny knew many people whodidn’t look like their parents, didn’t he? ‘Finally figured it out have you? Took you long enough,you stupid little turd!’ Robbie sneered, reading Johnny likea book. ‘I’ve decided the orphanage can have you back. I’mfinished with you. When we get back home, I’m sendingyou back! I’m sure I’ve still got the receipt somewhere.’Robbie started chuckling so hard that he nearly spilled hisdrink for the second time that day. Time seemed to slow down. Finally convinced of thetruth, Johnny felt a blinding rage surge within him. Thepain and desolation he had endured for so many yearsbecame anger and hatred as a lifetime of abuse anddegradation overwhelmed him. He took three stepsforward until he was standing directly over his father. ‘So I’m not your son?’ he hissed through clenched teeth,his face inches from his fathers. ‘You’re sending me backwhere you found me? ‘Okay Robbie, but first we have a few accounts to settle.Only a father has the right to hit his kid. If I am not yourson, as you claim, then I’m calling you out. Stand up!’ For the first time in his life, Robbie Roberts wascompletely at a loss for words. Johnny had never stood upto him before. It occurred to him that perhaps it wasn’tcowardice or fear, but rather respect, that had held himback. ‘Stand up!’ Johnny shouted. ‘Now you listen here, boy, if I stand up there’s going tobe hell to pay ...’ Johnny grabbed his father by the front of his shirt andpulled him upright out of his chair. Placing his right footbehind Robbie’s, he pushed, sending his father sprawling
16. to the ground in a tangle. With a shout of rage, Robbiejumped to his feet and lunged at Johnny, and met a solidwall of fists. Stars exploded inside his head and the lastthought he had before losing consciousness was howmuch it hurt. Johnny peered down at his father’s unconscious bodythat lay slumped on the ground. In the distance, from oneof the nearby campsites, he heard faint shouts of concern;they must have noticed the commotion. He knew it wouldonly be a matter of minutes before they came along toinvestigate. The cold reality of what he had just donefinally penetrated, and he panicked. Without thinking,Johnny ran into his tent, grabbed his rucksack from hisbunk, and fled. It was done – there was no going backnow.As Jonny now wandered through the darkening woods, hereplayed the scene repeatedly in his mind. Consumed withguilt, and another emotion that he couldn’t quite fathom,he realized that he had reacted very violently to his so-called father, when in truth, Robbie hadn’t even laid a handon him – for once. Robbie had hit Johnny countless timesin his violent outbursts, and on a few occasions, had evenbeaten Johnny senseless; but never before had Johnnycontemplated retaliating so violently. Instead, he was moreconcerned about impressing his father, finding ways inwhich he could gain his respect. This time it was different;their roles reversed; he had beaten Robbie senseless and tohis surprise, it had felt good. It felt really good. It dawnedupon him then that this emotion so foreign to him waspride. He was proud of himself. He continued walking, deeper and deeper into theforest… away from the only life he had ever known.