People who saw it thought it was a shooting star. It streaked across the night sky in a brilliant white arc and disappeared from view beyond the horizon. It slowed down over the dark outskirts of the brightly lit city and emitted a blinding flash before shooting off into the distance. The few who noticed were either too drunk to care, or too far away to matter.
One man was neither…
He stopped his yellow van in the veldt near a kopje bordering on the township of Soweto. An acronym for South Western Townships, Soweto is the largest black township in the country, and crime and domestic violence here typically reaches its peak over the festive season.
He wore the blue safari suit of the South African Police Services, and patrolled the no-mans-land that bordered the infamous township, keeping his eyes peeled for any signs of wrongdoing, mischief, or vandalism. There was also a darker reason why the Police kept up a regular presence in this area: dead bodies.
It was common to find the victim of a late night mugging, or a drunken brawl, sprawled lifeless in the long, brown grass; and although he had seen his fair share, still he had hoped that tonight of all nights it would be different.
He stepped out of the van and looked around. Certain that this was the area he had seen the strange light, he took out his flash-light and played the beam over the veldt. Not certain what he was looking for, he cast about aimlessly for a few moments before a flash of colour caught his eye, and he aimed the beam in its direction. There was a bundle hidden in the grass, and he recognized it for what it was immediately; an abandoned baby.
This kind of thing was on the rise as more and more young mothers made the callous decision to abandon their new-born child in the wild when they had too many mouths to feed, or had a husband working on the mines who would ask awkward questions about the child’s paternity.
Forgetting what had first brought him here, he stepped up for a closer look. The infants’ wrappings puzzled him. Most young mothers could not spare an extra blanket for a baby they meant to abandon, and anyways, the whole point of leaving a child in the veldt was that it would die of exposure, and were usually naked and lifeless when they were found. He squatted in the grass and shone his torch at the pathetic heap, and then felt his chest tighten as he saw a small movement.
This one’s alive! he thought. Putting his torch back in his pocket, he picked up the tiny bundle and carried it to the van. He couldn’t see its face as it was entirely covered by the swaddling, but he knew what was in there, and he knew it still breathed. Soft whimpers emanated from within, and he placed it gently on the passenger seat beside him.
‘Tango three-five-seven – reporting,’ he spoke quickly into his radio.
‘Go ahead Tango three-five-seven,’ a voice distorted by static interference replied.
‘I have an abandoned infant in sector three. It’s still alive – over.’
‘Okay Tango three-five-seven, standby – over.’ He waited expectantly for a few moments before the radio crackled back to life.
‘Tango three-five-seven – over.’
‘Standing by,’ he replied.
‘Take the infant to St Marys on Bezuidenhout. Do you copy? – over.’
‘Loud and clear – Tango three-five-seven over.’
He started the engine, then slowly bumped and rattled over the uneven ground before finally emerging on the public road. It wasn’t far to St Marys and within fifteen minutes he had parked the van and made his way up the stairs to the door, the infant cradled in his arms.
St Marys was the orphanage the police and social services made use of whenever they had a runaway to deal with, or a child left orphaned by the senseless violence so prevalent in the townships. He knocked on the door and waited. A kindly looking nun opened up, and gave him a polite smile.
‘May I help?’ she asked.
‘I’m so sorry to intrude, sister, but I have a little bundle of joy for you,’ he smiled. A look of gentle concern crossed her face as she reached out for the child.
‘I trust you have all the relevant documentation available, sister?’ he asked as she took the child from his arms. The orphanage would take full responsibility for the child until they could track down the parents, or make other adoptive arrangements. It was all standard procedure, and they handled it in an efficient, casual kind of way.
‘Of course, Corporal. I will have it all filled out in the morning. You can come by and pick it up then,’ she replied, turning away from him and placing the bundle on a nearby table. She started making soft, motherly, cooing sounds as she unwrapped the blankets that swaddled the infant.
‘Okay, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow then. Merry Christmas, sister,’ he said, feeling a bit awkward. He turned to go. A soft gasp arrested him, and he turned back to the nun who had her back to him, intent on the small shape in front of her. She was no longer cooing.
‘Is everything alright?’ he asked.
‘Why don’t you come see for yourself, Corporal,’ she replied 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 of white-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 replied tightly, his heart in his throat. They looked at each as realization dawned.
‘Muti,’ they said in unison.
His heart hammering in his chest, he remembered the last victim of a muti killing he had seen. Limbs severed, heart and kidneys removed. The abductors had harvested almost every part of the young body; it was one of the grisliest things he had ever seen.
The witchdoctors of Southern Africa were, and are to this day, seen as men and women of vast power by the majority of black South Africans, and it wasn’t unusual for an employer to receive a sick note issued by a Sangoma excusing a worker from duty due to worms in the feet, or other such nonsense.
One of the darker sides of this tradition was the unfortunate belief held by a small minority that the body parts of young, white children had healing powers, and the trafficking of human remains was a reality that the police and social workers fought on a daily basis.
‘Oh my word, oh my word – thank the Lord,’ she said in 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 to the child had he not come along.
‘I must have scared them away, sister,’ he said. ‘Damn it, this makes me sick!’ He was trembling, and he took a deep breath to calm himself. He didn’t normally become this rattled.
‘Well, at least he’s in one piece,’ he said. ‘I suppose the usual adoption procedures won’t apply here. I’m sure there’s a mother in Sandton somewhere that’s frantic to find her little boy. I reckon it won’t be more than a day or two before we find the child’s parents and take him off your hands, sister.’
‘Yes, I suppose you’re right,’ she replied. ‘I’ll keep him warm and safe until you do, Corporal.’ She smiled down at the little form that had screwed up its face and was waving its arms around madly as if in a titanic struggle with some invisible foe.
‘Thank you so much for saving this one,’ she finished, and he could see the moisture in her eyes as she looked up at him. He smiled back at her, feeling that, despite the many hardships his job entailed, it was moments like this that 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 let himself out quietly.
Back outside, he climbed into his van and sat quietly for a moment. They would find the child’s parents and it would become just another case in the thousands that they dealt with, but for tonight, just for tonight, it would be the young police officer’s proudest moment, and he smiled to himself as he drove away into the night, the light in the sky completely forgotten.
Published Titles in the Johnny Roberts Series:
Book Two: Johnny Roberts and the Gods of Eden
Andrew Noble © 2012
Cover artwork: Adam Van Der Riet © 2012
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or
utilized in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or
other means, including photocopying and recording, or in
any information storage or retrieval system, without
permission from the author.
© 2012 Andrew Noble All Rights Reserved