blood orange

chapter 1: Zulu juju

Natal is the land of the Zulus. Hills dotted with cows and clay huts run from the Drakensberg down to the sea, where bananas, pawpaws and palms tangle on the sand and sharks glide in the deep.

I am called Gecko, for as a tot I gurgled with glee at the sight of the rubbery, magic-fingered lizards on the roof over my cot. I am seven and my brother Zane is just three. He is named after Zane Grey, writer of the cowboy paperbacks my father reads. Zane has the blue eyes of my father, the jeep-riding, cow-herding farmer. I have the olive-green eyes of my mother who was a nurse in Addington Hospital in Durban. Now she is just a mother out on the farm, far from the flicker of dizzy lights and the whistles of the barefoot rickshawmen.

Beauty is our Zulu nanny. She calls Zane and me white Zulus for our feet are hard from barefoot running and we love to mouth Zulu words. When she rolls her rolling pin, her fat jellies and she sings a Zulu song, sad as black bass weaving through reeds. Sometimes Zane and I and Beauty’s boy Jamani drop our lizard chasing and bird hunting just to listen to her river song. When I was still a piccanin she tutuzela’d me on her back, a back-to-front kangaroo. Snug in the hollow of her back, I felt her humming and singing seep into me.

Beauty loves sweets: luckydip sweets, lollipops, jellytots, the lot. She sniffs out our hidden sweets and blames it on the rats. The other thing Beauty loves is seawater. We bring back Coca-Cola bottles of seawater from Chaka’s Rock, where we caravan under palms in which monkeys chitter and chase. Beauty believes the seawater is magic. At sunrise, when the nkankaan bird cries ha ha haaa, she drinks a bitter swig of Indian Ocean and it makes her feel good and strong. My father says that it is all the swiped sweets that make her strong.

At dusk Beauty comes out to catch Zane and me for our bath, the dogs, Dingaan and Dingo, yapping at her heels. I dart off and hide in the hibiscus jungle. Zane ropeladders up the old jacaranda tree and Beauty has to lure him down with the bribe of a ride on her back. Then Beauty comes after me, with Zane clinging to her like a beady-eyed nagapie.

Jonas, the old man gardenboy who haunts the shadows of our backyard, giggles toothlessly at us and rolls a cigarette out of newspaper and Boxer tobacco. Owls swoop in the dusk and Cape turtledoves call karoo karoo in the bluegums.

Beauty catches me in the end and squeezes me against her watermelon bubs. So it is that hippos kill more men in Africa than lions do. With a lion you are always on edge, for it may just chase if it is hungry. With a hippo you laugh as it plods in the mud. Then, before you can say Pietermaritzburg, it charges and it’s bye-bye blackbird.

Cooped in the tub, Beauty scrubs us till our skin tingles. One time she swatted me on my bare bum because I stood on the edge of the tub and peed down onto Zane’s head. Her swat stung like blazes. Still, Zane and I play monkey tricks on her. We splash her, so her pink pinafore looks like a map of the world with damp seas and dry land. We pull the doek off her head, and her spongy hair springs up free.

Whenever she baths her Jamani in the tin tub in the rondavel hut in our backyard, she Vaselines his skin until it gleams. Though I beg her to Vaseline us, she just rubs Zane and me dry with towels until it feels as if our skin will snakeskin off. While she dries us she jams her hips against the door in case we bolt barebum into the yard again. Jamani (in my tatty hand-me-down shorts) peeps at us from the door. He laughs at our larks but he never jumps into the tub with us. Beauty forbids him to but she will not tell me why.

Lucky Strike is our Zulu cook. He tells Zane and me stories while we eat our supper in the kitchen. Beauty and Jamani stay to listen for a while before going outside to their rondavel. Lucky Strike tells us how the warriors of Chaka, the Zulu king, ran barefoot over duwweltjies to prove their manhood. He tells us how the sangoma in leopard skins and cow tails reads the future in scattered bones, stones and cowrie shells. How he breathes over the bones to witch Xhosa enemies into porcupines or tortoises.

While his voice flows, Jonas juggles hissing pots and smoking pans on the iron stove that gobbles up bluegum wood.

On holidays we eat at the long table in the dining-room with my mother and father and the zebra skin on the wall. My father tells us how he shot the zebra, and of the time he shot two springbok with one bullet. By fluke the bullet flew through the head of one buck and felled another running behind. My mother tut tuts. Zane and I beg him to go on telling, but he wants to hear the BBC news on the radio. He has a deep lion’s voice and when he goes tula, Zane and I tula.

The BBC tells us there is a star called Ringo in England. Ringo rhymes with our dog Dingo.

My father is my hero. He is strong and carries me up high on his shoulders so I can see over the heads at tombola fairs in Howick. My father taught me how to thread an earthworm onto a hook to catch bass, to curve a cricket ball in the air, to carve a cattie out of a forked stick to shoot starlings – ratty black birds that glint hints of green and pink in the sun.

Once a fluke tennis ball flew from his racquet to kill a swooping bat.

My father, like a hardy cowboy, does not cry. One time he had his foot inside a gumboot when the lawnmower blade took the tip off his big toe. My mother bound his toe in cloth she tore from his shirt to dry the blood. My father chirped: Hey, Nurse, ever had a fling with a farmer? My mother frowned: You think you’re Gary Cooper.

To me my father is Gary Cooper in High Noon.

1969. A man has landed on the moon. We all go outside to look. On the veranda my father lifts me up onto his shoulders. There is the moon. A scoop of vanilla ice-cream in the sky. My father holds my mother’s hand as if they know the American up there and are scared he will fall. Zane is fooling around with Dingaan and Dingo. I look long and hard but I see no man on the moon, just a fuzzy, rabbity smudge.

– I think he is on the other side, my mother whispers. This is a pity. I have never seen a live yankee-doodle dandy, just flick heroes like Clint Eastwood.

– The world will never be the same again, my father says. I have hardly discovered the world as it is, and already it is changing. What amazes me more than a man on the moon is a voice coming over the radio all the way from America, for you can see the moon with your bare eyes but you cannot see America even from the top of the Drakensberg.