Excerpt – Copyright 2011 – All Rights Reserved

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DIAMONDS IN THE DUST

CHAPTER 1

     She’d got away. The man slowed down to a jog and took a deep breath to quiet the hammering in his head and ease the pain in his lungs. He looked up in time to catch one last glimpse of her before she disappeared around the bend. He’d never catch her now. “I’ll get you, you worthless dung beetle. Next time.”

After all that planning she’d slipped through his fingers. He kicked at a large, black rhino beetle struggling through the rain-muddied path in front of him and watched it tumble into the churning waters of the river two meters to his left. Going after her during the day had been a big mistake. Now there were witnesses.

He’d take a short cut and met the others back at the car. The short cut proved to be a long cut as the sodden earth sucked at his shoes like quick-sand and slowed him down to a crawl. But it was way too risky going back the way he’d come.

By the time he reached his car, hidden in some brush, he could feel the weight of his blunder lighten. She’d be back. She’d never leave the others.

 *

      It wasn’t the lightning that frightened Ida Morgan. She stopped munching on her toast to listen. Thunder grumbled in bad-temper then suddenly threw its venom at the earth, striking its target in a blinding bolt of light. This was a big one. She covered her ears and waited. A deafening crack–splintering and rumbling slowly into silence.

It was what followed that alarmed her. A thin wailing sound slashed at the air for several seconds then that, too, subsided. Someone was in trouble out there but the last time she’d gone to help a person, Tony had died.

Ida jumped up, threw the last morsel of honey toast onto the side-plate and dashed over to the lounge window. At first, distinguishing anything through the driving rain was like trying to see through a striped frosted window. As the storm lessened she began to grasp the extent of the damage to her garden; ripped off branches and twigs hurled to far corners; her bougainvilleas and roses stripped and their bruised flowers strewn across patches of lawn which stood like miniature islands in a flood plain. But no sign of life.

Beyond her fenced garden she noticed the once towering wild fig tree had taken the fury of the lightning strike. Neatly carved down the middle, half the tree had collapsed sideways over the swollen stream whose rushing waters tumbled under it. From where she stood, it looked as though the tips of its branches reached the bank on the far side. This side of the stricken tree remained standing but listed to the right. No sign of movement out there either.

Within minutes the gurgle of rainwater down the drainpipe slowed to a trickle. The storm ended as it often did in the lowveld of South Africa, as suddenly as it had started. Ida hesitated at her front door, clutching the lower gate key. She looked down at her soil-stained ‘takkies’ and wondered how well they’d keep the water out. But she knew she was just buying time. Who cared if her feet got wet? She couldn’t ignore what she had heard.

She arrived at the new six foot tall wire mesh gate and stopped. Her confidence sagged. She reminded herself it wasn’t so bad in the daylight when she could at least see around her and feel like she had a fighting chance. The fact it was unlikely to happen again was little comfort. With a thorough scan of the whole area she slipped the key into the lock.

Once through the gate, Ida picked her way over slippery boulders and patches of sodden grass to the stream’s edge. Watchful and listening for any sign of movement, she began to question the sound she’d heard after the strike. She felt some of the tension leave her and became aware of the devastation before her. What a mess. This was going to take some cleaning up. Empty milk bottles, cool-drink containers, pieces of ragged white plastic littered the high water mark where grass and weeds lay leveled against the ground, stretching out in the direction of the water’s flow.

As she rounded a rock that rose above her shoulders, a large, blue, plastic bin caught her eye. Wedged in the sheltered recess of a rock and bobbing gently some 20 feet away from her, the blue bin floated in a tangle of uprooted plants and other rubbish. The bin, though scarred by years of rough handling, was sturdy–perfect for carting litter away. If she stood on that rock over there she might be able to pull it in.

She searched around for a stick strong enough to do the job. Glancing back at the bin to gauge how long it needed to be, she grew rigid. The bin began to bounce erratically from side to side as eight little black fingers emerged, gripping the lip of the container. Then faint bursts of sobbing as the fingers disappeared and the bin settled once more.

Ida sprang onto a rock to peer into the bin. A child, barely covered by the wet rags clinging to his body, faced downward, his arms and legs jammed against the corners of the bin.

“Bambelela, ngizokusiza. Hold on. I’ll help you,” Ida said in Zulu, grateful for her childhood relationships on the farm in KwaZulu-Natal. She leapt off the rock. A cursory glance around the area revealed no stick long enough to pull the bin in. She headed home, returning a few minutes later with a garden rake. Clasping her hands around the end of the rake handle she extended it over the water. It was just too short. Maybe there was extra reach using one hand while stretching out and balancing with the other.

The end of the stout wooden rake sagged but she hefted it upward and let it fall. It missed and crashed into the water. She almost had it. The second attempt snagged the bin. A startled yelp came from inside as the rake whacked the edge and sent the bin dipping and diving.

“Kulungile. I have you.” Ida tugged at the container, feeling the resistance of clogging debris. Finally the bin broke free and she tugged it toward the rock she stood on. She knelt down next to the container. Steadying the bin with one hand, she reached out to the child with the other. “Give me your hand.” The child remained glued to the bottom of the container.

Ida sank down on the rock and stretched out her legs. She hooked a toe under the edge of the rim and the bin stabilized. “What is your name?” She leaned back for a few seconds to relieve tense muscles in her neck. There was no answer but a little black face, tear tracked and taut, turned up to stare at her. Ida smiled. “I do not bite.” Again she reached out her hand.

Eyes fixed on the bottom of the bin, the child slowly released pressure on the sides and suddenly grabbed Ida’s hands.

Tears stung Ida’s eyes. His hands were like stripped chicken bones taken from the fridge and his young body rattled with tremors. She stole a glance at him from the corner of her eye. He was taller than she had thought. Maybe eight or nine years old.

“How on earth did you end up in that bin in the middle of the storm?” Ida rubbed his bone-lumpy back while she led him along the path to the house. His only response was a frenetic clicking of teeth.

Once inside the house, she cocooned him in her bright red knitted blanket and settled him on the sofa. After starting a hot bath, she made and handed him a peanut-butter sandwich and milk. The child fought his way out of the blanket and took the plate but turned his face away. Ida strode over to the old Steinway upright, stretched out nimble fingers, and began to coax out the rhythmic sounds of Black Gospel in “Oh happy day.” Every now and then she raised her eyes to study the child through the mirror above the piano.

Torn between the music and the food he finally decided he could have both. He attacked the food, his chin jutting out from side to side in time to the beat of the music. He stuffed in the food until his bulging cheeks made it difficult to draw his lips together. No problem. He chewed anyway, swallowing hunks of bread, and in no time he was done, sending the last few bites down with the milk. Little fingers chased crumbs around the plate and by the time he’d finished, his shivering had stopped, too.

Ida ended the song and plopped down next to him on the sofa. “What is your name?”

The child looked down.

“Is it Vusi?” A shake of the head.

“Phineas?” He frowned.

“Okay,” she said, straightening up. “It’s Moses then.” Ida pulled him up. “Time for a nice warm bath, Moses.”

Moses’ face remained blank. Ida made washing body movements. A tiny light flickered in the brown eyes. Ah!

Closing the bathroom door on the child she went in search of a T-shirt and a pair of shorts from a time long before she’d reached her present five feet one inch. When she returned with them she stopped short. Moses stood in the middle of the bath, fully clothed, scrubbing both the clothes and himself with energy. Brown water slopped up the side of the bath leaving a line of scum in its wake.

“Moses.”

The child stopped abruptly and stared at the wall.

“Sorry,” Ida said, turning her eyes away from him. “It is easier to wash yourself when you take your clothes off first. You can dry yourself with this towel. Then put these clothes on.” She looped them over the rail. “They are too big but they’re clean.” She began to help pull off sopping rags, wandering what color they used to be. Then she looked down. Her head snapped up.

“You’re not Moses. You’re Mosesina.” She stared into the face of the girl. She paused. “What the heck,” she said. “Moses is easier.”

While she waited, Ida picked up the phone and dialed White River Police Station. “I’d like to report a missing child,” she said. “Actually, she’s not missing; I found her.” A pause. “I don’t know. She can’t speak. No, she’s not dead. She’s just too traumatized to speak. Maybe you can get her to talk?” She gave her address, “It’s 6 Jacaranda Drive.” She concluded the call and waited for the police to arrive.

On her way to see how Moses was doing, she heard the phone. “No, Mr. Mbuso,” Ida said into the phone, clutching it tightly. “I know how important it is. I’ll have it done in time. By Wednesday next week. I promise.” She caught her breath and continued. “Yes, first thing.” She slowly returned the phone. Another weekend spent working. She couldn’t lose this job. If her finances didn’t improve soon she’d be losing her home. Things had been very tight since Tony had gone.

When Moses still had not returned from the bathroom, Ida went to investigate. She heard sounds of movement behind the door. On opening it, she saw Moses on the floor mopping up the last splash of water. The child had almost done a better job of the bathroom than she would have. Moses flipped the towel onto the side of the bath and smiled from behind her hand.

“Ngiyabonga, Moses. Thank you.”

The bell at the front gate rang at five minutes before eight. Moses swung round to face Ida at the kitchen table and started to rise. Ida caught her by the arm. “It’s okay, Moses. I think it’s the police. They have come to help you.” She stepped over to the intercom at the kitchen door while checking through the kitchen window. A police GTI was parked outside her gate. She pressed the gate buzzer.

The sergeant hoisted himself out of the car. He sauntered to the gate, leaning backward somewhat, in order to carry the load of his ample stomach in front of him. Behind him, an officer, whose immaculate uniform ended at his mirror-clean boots, both minus shoelaces.

“Mrs. Morgan?”

“Good morning.” She took the sergeant’s hand. “Thank you for coming.”

“I am Sergeant Jawena.” He faced the other man. “This is Officer Dube.” Officer Dube’s eyes were active in his still face, taking in the house, the garden, the car and finally settling on Ida. He investigated her, too, but did not attempt to greet her. Ida wondered if the small patch of white hair at his right temple was the result of the parasite Bilharzia or if that was an old wives’ tale.

“Tell me what happened here,” Sergeant Jawena said, his round face serious and attentive.

As Ida explained, she looked back at the house. The tip of Moses’ head showed above the lace curtains in the kitchen, then disappeared.

When she had finished, Sergeant Jawena shuffled his feet on the driveway and said nothing for several seconds.

“You can help her?” Ida asked.

“Mrs. Morgan, we can help this girl.” He shook his head slowly. “But it is a big problem. Everyday we are hearing about children who are needing help. It will take some time.”

“All she needs is someone to find out who she is and where she lives.” Officer Dube took a sudden interest. “They are too many,” he said. His restless eyes were off again, searching.

“Too many problems or too many children?” The tension in Ida’s neck was returning. “Why don’t I get her? Maybe she’ll talk to you.” Ida strode over to the kitchen door and leaned through it. “Moses. Come. The policeman wants to talk to you.” She tapped the side of the doorway, waiting.

“Moses?”

She looked at her watch. Time for working was being eaten up. There was no response. She stepped through the doorway. A quick search of the house revealed the front door was unlocked and the child had gone.

To read a much longer excerpt – indeed, 20% of the text- click here.