The Green Thief
I live in the mountain.
On a sunnyless day seared with the foul stench of a rotting road kill animal, I saw two boys coming up the mountain. They were a different type of intruder from the usual; not old women collecting rare plants or bark and monkey paws for medicine, not hunters looking to catch rabbits, not the thieves who come to hide stolen property inside the big crime safe they dug up and sealed with hay and leaves. These boys were climbing with a different purpose, and though I couldn’t see their faces I knew they would get here soon, or at the very latest by evening. No one would dare sleep in the tangled forest where the snakes were as big as a fat woman’s arm and rare insects competed in an off-tune karaoke every night. No one would dare. Even when the police came after me, running up the mountain with their wolves, they only got as far as the three-meter thorn tree and barbed wire wall made by these hands—my bruiseless hands. I knew I could stop running. I was raised to run till the road ended.
I giggled to myself and repeated to myself: “my bruiseless hands.” This was particularly amusing to me because I had built what people down the townships called a foolish castle. My house was taller than the tallest tree in the domed rocky mountain, made out of thick tree trunks, branches, wire and leaves. I built it in two months, as invisible as a ghost. There was a time in a past I cannot remember that I had friends who I would meet by the river to smoke the herb. They were loyal friends to me and told me all about what the people down in Mkhwakhweni Township were saying about me. The people claimed to have seen a structure slowly rising up. “Hahahahahah,” Mbogodo laughed. “A construction built by a ghost.” It was evident that the builder had a vision, but no one knew who he was, or even saw him working. Those who stayed awake till early in the mornings saw something moving through the trees and spread rumors that I was a ghost.
Who could know who I was and what I was doing up there? So they called me “Spoko” or “Leselo wase ndzabeni,” the ghost of the mountain. People had forgotten my real name and what I had done that made me run away.
Now, four years later, I had never been caught, never sent to trial, never been convicted. My community regarded me as non-existing. I understood that Life had been forgiving to me. I had been given a chance to make something of myself, to live my life on no man’s land, far from anyone’s daughters or dogs. I sat prostrate on my Amarula tree arm chair with my head hanging upside-down, a position which gave me a perfect view of the soon-to-arrive trouble seekers who had probably been dared to find Spoko. I could see now that one of the boys had a camera around his neck. They hardly spoke to each other, yet I could see their cautious movements as they climbed, the slope slowing their enthusiastic velocity. They must have heard that this mountain has deadly snakes, big rabbits and human-attacking baboons. I watched in annoyance as it became darker and darker and they climbed higher and higher.
The sun had just set behind the mountain crest. I had to cook my dinner, beetroot leaves and the potatoes I had boiled last night. I called my three dogs, put leather belts around their necks and attached them to a chain which was joined to a round wire rail. It was time for them to start barking and to threaten the intruders.
My three dogs are my house guards, virtuous and fierce. They‘re capable of scaring away just about any animal trying to enter the boundaries of my territory. I stole them from the townships down in Mkhwakhweni. They were the only three that never barked when I broke into the owner’s homes. I had to take all three of them together. The rest I released into the forest behind the Kruger Mountain. Anyone who saw a last image of me in Mkhwakhweni would have seen me walking up the mountain in a dirty military suit, with three vicious “deer,” like a rebellious Santa Claus.
“There he is!” the tall boy shouted, his voice filtering through the sound of the dogs’ barking. His friend wiped his sweating forehead. I was still sitting upside-down on my log chair watching the fire brew my dinner. What got me up was the realization that these boys showed no sign of fright. Seeing their dusty school shoes park in front of my fence, I turned around and landed on my feet. Slowly I raised my ugly face to their confused stares. “Kunjani babe Spoko,” the tall boy said. He spoke to me. My eyes stared at them, and though I wanted to scream at them, my voice went silent as a ghost’s. Only a cough came out.
“Nifunani la? Heeh,” I responded in anger.
“Sexela kukhluma nawe, kafushane nje,” they replied together.
“Heeh?” I said. Turning around, I clapped my hand once toward the ear of the one of the dogs, signaling them to stop barking. My intention was not to let these boys in but to convince them to leave. It didn’t matter what they wanted. It was about who I was, about keeping up my reputation. I was “Spoko,” everyone was scared of me—only a few people had seen me (and this was still not confirmed by the police). The second, shorter boy held the edge of my fence and stuck his head inside to take a look at my space.
“Sicela kungena, Spoko,” he said, flashing a big smile at me and my dogs. I found myself sweetening in spirit, almost shy as I pushed a part of the fence with my shoulder. It shifted slightly to reveal an opening small enough to allow a flexible entrance. The boys moved closer and stretched their arms across it, dragging their legs behind. In an instant they were both inside my home. I still had nothing to say to them as they looked around, astonished by my surroundings and creations. They found the sofa logs to sit on and helped themselves to my royal seats.
I watched as they unzipped their bags and took out notebooks and pens. The tall boy signaled the short one to speak. “Mina ngu Penuwell wase Barberton, lo ngu Big Fizz wase Swaziland, and we are here to interview you for our school paper at the Patriotic Boys’ High.” Their good English confused and annoyed me.
“Interview for what? What did I do? What is this paper?” I replied in English, defining our language of conversation.
“We are doing an investigative story about you, we are investigative journalists,” Big Fizz replied.
“We run a publication called Solved and we know that you were the most talked-about mystery in the Lowveld area between the year 2004 and today,” Penuwell said.
I wasn’t given a chance to reject this strange proposal, and these eccentric, over-confident black boys continued to talk. At that time none of it made sense to me. But I had proved to them that I too could speak a bit of English. I also went to school once, not so long ago.
The interview began with them telling me about my profile according to their research. “We were told that you are a serial thief in this area. You were suspected of stealing both property and dogs from people’s yards. Is that true?” Big Fizz questioned.
“No, I don’t know it,” I said.
“Well it doesn’t matter because we and our media group at school think you are a very interesting person. You have done a socially odd deed,” Penuwell said with a solemn expression.
“You are a fugitive who is believed to have turned into a ghost, which is very cool. But here you are, and you’re actually a real man,” he continued.
“You see, Mr. Spoko, that to us is worth a big story, or even a movie,” Big Fizz said. “And it is amazing that the police have not found you to this day; yet you live in this green house,” he continued.
I looked around my house, confused, “Green house?”
“Yep. You are preserving the forest. You’re recycling things that were just lying around in people’s yards. You are not damaging the environment or wasting water and energy like everyone else living in the townships and the city,” Penuwell explained.
I looked at the boys, slowly putting together what they had just said to me. As intimidating as it was, it didn’t make sense. “You mean that I am good? A good man?” I asked them finally.
“Yes, you are!” said Big Fizz. “I mean come on, you didn’t kill anyone, you didn’t cause a protest against government and you didn’t burn a foreign man in Soweto in the name of xenophobia. You just stole dogs and the treasure of hoarders.”
“I mean you stole dogs, a crime that did not at all disrupt society, but still caused enough trouble to make you famous throughout the area. Even the newspapers wrote about you,” said the short boy, Penuwell.
I could only stare at them and shake my head as if to say that I didn’t believe them. What they were saying was nonsense. Yes, I did steal 15 dogs, or maybe more than that (on different days and occasions). I never meant to make it a story. As for committing a crime, I knew I was, because I had to break through people’s gates and jump walls in order to free their clutter and noisy dogs. Sometimes I had to let a dog chase me, in order to study its weakness. If you know what I know you can end up getting it to follow you.
It was evident that the boys expected me to do more than nod or shake my head. They were waiting for me to respond, either positively or negatively, to their accusations. But all I was thinking was that I had to get them to leave my compound.
Big Fizz twisted his forehead with a frown. His mouth was open and his eyes were looking straight at my feet strapped in tyre sandals. I only realized after seeing a badge with the writing “in stadium operie” on the boy’s blazer that they were dressed in their school uniform. This Patriotic Boys’ High School. I knew that school. When I was 17 I had worked there for my uncle, who had won a tender to do garden landscaping for the school. Since I had failed grade ten twicemy future was in gardening the white man’s yards. In their school’s lavish landscape and manicured garden, I was employee number 12.
Watching the boys scribble on their notepads, it occurred to me that these young boys were the sons of the handful of black people who had benefited from the surge of the capitalist democratic system. They weren’t born in a matchbox RDP house, and their parents didn’t have to struggle to pay for their schooling. They were a product of their western education, art classed and media roomed. To a man like me that was a status that didn’t easily make sense, far less than the story they made up about me. I had caged myself away from the world for so long. I didn’t keep up with what had been going on and the big changes in black people’s self-esteem. The white man had even taught the little ones to twang. The way these boys went on about this ideology of theirs, saying that I was a freak of society and a hero to the environment, was beyond me. It didn’t even intimidate me; it was as foreign to me as a European textbook teaching me about my history as a black man in Africa. I had always felt that my history textbook had been wrong, wrong from the day that Jan Van Riebeeck put his wanton foot on the coast of South Africa with colonization in his mind.
I knew they looked down on me. I was a 28 year old man who was not in their league. I didn’t have the silhouette and background that they did. I was a mysterious dog thief to them and as brainwashed as they were in their Christian school. I was exotic, farfetched, an adventure, a typical form of entertainment that could only satisfy the delusions of a western-educated slaved black person, I thought.
“So what do you have to say, Spoko? How can you defend yourself from these charges, if you have to?” Penuwell asked loudly, breaking the ice of my thoughts.
“No. I did not commit any crime. If it was so, then everyone in the Townships that I robbed of a dog would have come after me. After all, if they think that a dog is a man’s best friend, I proved that wrong,” I said. “A dog is not a black man’s best friend but an animal that makes a chased man grovel and beg for his life,” I said astutely.
“Interesting!” said Big Fizz jotting down on his notebook.
“So you stole from people the one animal that helped the enemy. In other words you had a grudge against dogs. Were you once bitten by a dog during the Apartheid times?’
I looked at this boy with all-around frustration because he didn’t get it. He didn’t get what I was trying to tell him. These boys were naive and trained to find or create a tale that was not really there, like that of Santa Claus, or rabbits laying chocolate eggs at the time that their Jesus died.
“Boy, do you know what the colonizer man in his settlement and segregation did to the black man’s mind? You probably don’t because to you it’s all about race,” I said.
“Ah, so it is the white man’s fault that you stole,” they both giggled loudly.
It was the sound of a crowing rooster that reminded me it was now morning, and I realized that these educated boys would never understand what I had wanted to tell them about the fall of the black man.
Khethiwe Mndawe lives in Nelspruit, South Africa. Her poetry and African short stories have appeared in South Africa Poetry Institute Publication, Tufwrite, The Sunday Times and elsewhere. Her children’s books, Eco Friends (2011) and Lights and Freedom (2012) were published by Khevia publishers. A freelance journalist, Khethiwe has written for Unisa Inspired, SME South Africa, Achieve magazine, Lowvelder, Podasa, and other publications.