18 May The Leopard in the Lala – Excerpt
Excerpt. © All rights reserved.
The Leopard in the Lala (Prologue & Chapter 1)
Maybe he was a tsotsi?
‘Yoh, yoh, yoh!’ Baba Khumalo extended an arm to prevent his first wife from moving any closer to the body. What he could see of it was a bloody mess, and the smell of bodily fluids was overwhelming in the heat. The buzz of flies was as intense as the torrent of prayers falling from his wife’s mouth.
‘Stay here,’ he instructed her, before walking hesitantly towards the body. It was partially hidden in a thicket, drag marks in the sand indicating that someone had made a half-hearted attempt at hiding the corpse. Bab’Khumalo stopped half a metre away, put his hands on his knees, and leaned tentatively towards the body. It was definitely a man, but he could not make out the facial features, which were swollen and bloodied.
He looked around. Whoever had done this had dropped the man in the middle of nowhere for good reason. This was not a well-travelled path. It was far off the main tar road, and the only reason Baba Khumalo and his wife, Ma Lettie, used it was to get to their local temple of the Nazareth Baptist Church. The Shembes gathered every Sabbath to pray, and this Saturday was no different. At the thought of the Sabbath, Baba quickly scrunched the material of his white robe at his knees so that the hem was lifted off the ground. He did not want to take the chance that blood might somehow seep into the cloth. The body had not been there when they’d walked through the veld that morning. Of that, he was sure. Someone had killed the man while the Shembes had been praying. And the thought of such violence made him feel sick.
‘Eish,’ he said, shaking his head. Sadness overwhelmed him. What a waste. A young man, it seemed, his life snuffed out in such a brutal way.
Baba Khumalo decided right then and there to say a prayer. It was too late for the man, but it would make Baba Khumalo feel better. He was sure the man’s mother would appreciate that someone had taken the time to say a few last words.
‘Lord,’ he began, then faltered. What to say about a man he didn’t know? Maybe there was a reason for his horrible death? Maybe he was a tsotsi? Was it right to pray for someone who deserved to die this way because of the pain he inflicted on others? Baba Khumalo chided himself. What right did he have to judge the dead?
The sound of his name, whispered fiercely, prevented him from continuing with his prayer. At the urgency in his wife’s voice, he turned to look at her.
‘Come, Bab’Khumalo,’ she cried. ‘What if the men are nearby? Let us call the police! This is a police matter!’
She was right. The men could be nearby, waiting and watching. He could not say she was being ridiculous. He turned back and gave the corpse one last look. His wife berated him again.
‘The police, Baba!’
Baba Khumlao screamed as something gripped his ankle. His heart almost failed him at the sight of the grotesquely moving face below him.
1. A business under threat
Lazarus stood in the small, windowless concrete storeroom, that he rented from a man in one of the many rural villages scattered between Jozini and Mevamhlope town. The room reeked of the unmistakable odour of feral animals, even though, the skins had been tanned. The skins, which had once adorned lithe bodies, lay in stacks on the concrete floor. Lazarus inhaled deeply. It was the scent of money, and he couldn’t get enough. He turned slowly to look at his stock. He had a long way to go, but it was a good start. A great start, in fact. Six months ago, he didn’t have a rand to his name. He’d had to start over, but he’d done it before, and the hard lessons that had been learned back then, ensured he wouldn’t repeat the same mistakes.
Monkey, civet, and genet tails hung from the rafters, while the skins were placed in piles according to their species. Impala and nyala skins were relatively easy to come by, but it was the leopard skins that made Lazarus’ heart thrum with excitement. He was in possession of full leopard skins, as well as black bags filled with pieces of skin cut and sewn into traditional attire for the Shembe Church. He had found himself an excellent tailor; a man skilled at making sure that every inch of the leopard skin was utilised, so as not to waste one cent of profit. Lazarus smiled in anticipation of his first Shembe gathering. He turned off the light and pulled the security gate closed. He made sure it was triple locked, then stretched up awkwardly to pull the roller door down with a clank. He whistled as he walked, his walking stick striking the hard soil with a slow rhythmic tap. As he approached the car, a young man jumped out of the driver’s seat and went round to open the passenger door.
‘We’re good to go, Dumi,’ Lazarus said, with a tight smile. ‘All set!’
The next day, Lazarus and Dumi set up their stall at the annual Nazareth Baptist Church gathering, in a village called Judea. The sheer volume of people was overwhelming, and more were still on their way. Lazarus berated himself. There were thousands of people, and he would miss out on so many sales because he simply didn’t have enough stock. Dressed in a white robe, he stroked the beard he was trying to cultivate with one hand. Before becoming a Shembe, he’d always been clean-shaven, but the laws of Shembe dictated that men must not shave their facial hair. It was slow going. In fact, so slow he resigned himself to the fact that he would sport an unimpressive face of fuzz for another few months. Overall, though, he was pleased with himself; he’d managed to integrate well into the Shembe community while keeping a low profile. He was simply doing what he did best: manipulating a situation to the best of his ability, for his benefit. No one had any reason to question whether he had ulterior motives. He watched, listened, and applied what he saw in the right setting.
After a short walk through the crowds, he made his way slowly up to the stall and watched Dumi pocket the crisp hundred-rand notes handed over to him in exchange for an imitation imbatha. The young man who had bought the imbatha looked at the real leopard skin capes on display with longing. But he’d had to settle for the impala skin decorated with rosettes drawn on with a black koki pen.
‘Shame,’ Dumi said to the young man, without sympathy. ‘Don’t worry. One day, you’ll be able to afford one of these.’ He stroked the leopard skin before giving it a final pat. ‘And I’ll be here waiting to sell it to you.’
Lazarus watched the customer’s face brighten a little bit at the encouragement, but the smile faded. Lazarus knew there was no way the young man would be able to afford the price of a real skin. Not now. Not ever. Lazarus had a feel for people, and this boy was not a future client.
Lazarus walked up to the table, skirting around it to stand next to Dumi.
‘Look at this boss,’ Dumi grinned as he gestured to the empty boxes behind him. Dumi had arranged the boxes so that they created a partition of sorts, allowing Lazarus to take a seat out of view of customers, and other stallholders. Dumi quickly unclipped several money pouches from around his waist and handed them over to Lazarus.
Lazarus unzipped each of the pouches and did a quick count of their contents.
‘Yoh!’ he beamed. If the rest of the assembly was this prosperous, they were doing very well as traders at their first Shembe gathering.
‘And look,’ said Dumi, his voice barely audible as he handed Lazarus a small Croxley notebook. He opened to the right page and pointed his finger at the writing. ‘Orders for real leopard skins!’
Lazarus ran his finger down the page and counted each name and its accompanying phone number. There were thirteen of them. Thirteen potential customers waiting to be converted into sales! Lazarus shifted in his seat and lifted his robe. He clipped all but one of the money pouches around his waist, handing it over to his assistant.
‘Good job, Dumi.’
The young man secured the pouch back into position and bent down to pick up Lazarus’s walking stick. Lazarus used to hate the walking stick. He felt it made him look weak. Powerless. But he needed it. Once he’d come to terms with the fact that his leg would never be as strong (or useful) as it had been six months ago, and he understood that pain would be his cross to bear, he reached an agreement with the stick. They were friends who would grow old together, so they must learn to respect each other.
Lazarus left the stand and again moved into the flow of people. He smiled as he walked. He liked the crowds; he liked how everyone was so focused on where they were headed or what they were doing. Just as he was thinking how he also liked that no one stood out and it was easy to melt into the crowd, he froze. In the middle of the pathway, standing out like a sore thumb, was a tall man. He was not a Shembe follower. The large logo of a rhino head within a circle, printed onto his shirt, made that very clear. Lazarus waited until the man turned around before his suspicions were confirmed. What the hell was Senzo Mdletshe, head of Umkhombe Anti-Poaching Unit doing at a Shembe gathering? Lazarus spat onto the ground as he thought about the problems that the anti-poaching units caused poachers – no matter how big or small. They didn’t care if you shot a rhino or snared a nyala bull. They were always sticking their noses in, making life impossible for people trying to make a living, or put meat on the family table.
Senzo began to move, and Lazarus’ eyes darted between Senzo and his stall, which was the direction in which Senzo was heading. Lazarus’ heart thumped heavily in his chest. He could not afford to be singled out by Senzo. He also couldn’t afford to be seen by him. He walked as fast as his limp would allow, sneaking behind the row of stalls until he was in hearing distance of his stall. Before he could alert Dumi, Senzo stood in front of the young man.
‘Sawubona, mfo,’ Senzo said, picking up the leopard skin imbatha the young man had been eyeing out earlier. ‘How much?’
‘Yoh! That beautiful one!’ said Dumi. ‘Eight thousand rand. That’s was a very powerful leopard, that one.’
Senzo nodded at the price, then looked Dumi dead in the eye. ‘Do you have the permit to go with it?’
Dumi’s face crumpled in confusion. ‘Eh?’ he said. ‘A permit for what?’
Senzo put down the skin and crossed his arms. Lazarus could almost feel Senzo’s anger rippling out to meet him.
‘According to the Biodiversity Act 10 of 2004, if you are in possession of a leopard skin you require a permit. And,’ he continued, despite the blank look on Dumi’s face, ‘if you go on to sell that skin, you must provide your buyer with that permit. So, I’ll ask you again. Do you have a permit for this skin?’
After a nervous pause, Dumi recovered quickly. ‘Hah!’ he laughed with a swagger of confidence, ‘that skin is old! It was my father’s and his father’s before him. You didn’t need a permit back then.’ Senzo snorted in disbelief. ‘Really? You are selling your grandfather’s leopard imbatha?’
Dumi shrugged. ‘Times are tough.’
Senzo stroked the rough fur. ‘It’s aged very well. You must have kept it locked in a box full of mothballs for all these years.’
Dumi didn’t blink. ‘Yes,’ he agreed. ‘We as a family are well known for our preservation methods.’
Lazarus watched as Senzo stared Dumi down. ‘I’m watching you,’ he said. ‘What you are doing is illegal, and I will make sure that you are stopped.’
And with that, Senzo turned on his heel and left.
Lazarus felt the anger that had lain hidden behind his fear suddenly raise its head. How dare he? How dare Senzo threaten his business! He bet Senzo had a leopard skin at home, probably stolen from the stash of skins, and other animal parts they confiscated from hardworking men like himself. Lazarus had worked too hard to get this business off the ground. It was nothing on the grand scale of his previous line of work, but he, more than most, knew that life was a series of new beginnings. And he was making the best of a bad situation. And here in Judea, was his new vision come to life: hundreds, if not thousands of followers, wearing clothing made from the leopards he sourced.
Lazarus followed Senzo for a short while before he saw him come to a stop under a tree. He kept his distance, so couldn’t quite see who Senzo was talking to, but he did notice a flash of irritation cross the man’s face. Then Senzo was off again, but this time a woman, also not a Shembe follower, skipped to keep up with him. Lazarus limped after them until they came to a concrete one-roomed building where a white man was standing outside. As was expected of all followers and visitors, the man was barefoot. He was dressed casually, in a pale khaki t-shirt and shorts, and his face wore an anxious expression.
Lazarus hung back, looking for a place to stand that wouldn’t make him look like he was spying, but close enough that he could see and hear what was going on. He looked down at his stick and smiled. He hobbled over to a young woman who was seated on an upturned paint tin within hearing distance of the group. Within a few short steps, he had aged ten years. He hunched his back and contorted his face into a mask of extreme pain.
‘Sorry, Sisi,’ he grimaced, pointing at his leg. ‘Please! My leg,’ he gasped. ‘Aaaayi! The cramps!’
The woman sprang from the tin, clucking around Lazarus, then eased him onto the paint tin.
‘Amanzi ngicela, Sisi,’ he said, requesting water to ensure she would have to leave him to find it.
Lazarus turned himself around on his seat so that he could spy on the group out the corner of one eye, then set himself the task of ironing out the conveniently timed cramp in his thigh. Suddenly, dancers dressed in capes and headdresses appeared before Senzo and the white man. Lazarus watched as Senzo clapped the white man on his back. The man began to talk with the dancers, and Lazarus noticed an intensity in his expression. This was clearly an important moment for the man. Lazarus could just about hear them, only losing the thread of conversation when the blast from vuvuzelas, or the beating of drums, filled the air.
‘What do you guys think about them?’ the white man asked the dancers. ‘They look real, right?’
The dancers, who were proud and upright in their leopard skin amambatha, looked at one another and laughed nervously before speaking at once.
‘They look good!’
Hands stroked the fur capes over their shoulders and chests.
‘And what do your friends and other followers say? Anything bad?’ he asked, his forehead creasing with worry.
The dancers shook their heads and again spoke at once.
‘They are very positive!’
‘They want to know where we got them!’
The white man looked relieved and nodded as he spoke. ‘That’s good! That’s great. That’s what we want to encourage. Go out there and enjoy your day and let us know how people react. It’s important for us to know how people respond! Through the elders, we will get more of them out there.’
Lazarus was stumped. He peered across the distance and tried to work out what the dancers loved. He couldn’t see anything different about them, so he picked up his stick, jamming it into the ground to secure it, and rose slowly from the tin. He followed after the dancers as they began to move into the crowd. As Lazarus passed the building, his gaze fell on the young woman he’d seen walking behind Senzo. She turned away before he could get a full view of her face, so with one last glance in her direction, he hurried on so he didn’t lose sight of the dancers. As he followed, an old man fell in step beside him.
‘They are making a big mistake,’ he said, before spitting out the side of his mouth.
Lazarus glanced at the man. ‘Askies, Baba?’ he said but didn’t break his pace.
‘Those young people,’ he said, pointing at the retreating backs of the dancers. ‘Just like our forefathers before us, they are being misled by a white man.’
Lazarus stopped. This better be worth it, he thought as the dancers dispersed into the crowd. ‘I don’t understand, Baba.’
‘Those skins they are wearing. They are fake. That white man is telling us that we are killing the leopard and soon there will be none.’ He snorted in disbelief. ‘He knows nothing! We serve an almighty God! Shembe will not allow the leopard to die out. And if they do,’ he shrugged, ‘then Shembe will have another plan.’
Lazarus stayed put as the old man ambled on. His mind whirred with the implications of the unexpected revelation. Once again, Lazarus faced a business under threat.