Baleka didn’t like leaving her kids at home alone and today for some reason she was more nervous about it than usual. “Penny, you remember what I told you, stay in the compound,” she said to her five-year-old daughter, the oldest.
“Ee mma,” the little girl said while pulling a dress over the head of the orange haired plastic doll she held.
“Nkuku will be here just now. If it gets dark before I get back go to Tebogo’s, she’ll be home from school by then.”
Baleka looked at Moarabi lining his herd of mud cattle up in a row behind the stick wall of his tiny kraal. She didn’t want to go but she couldn’t wait for her mother any longer. Her prize winning goat had not returned with the others, she needed to go out and find it somewhere in the bush. It was common for the goat to go missing, she was absent minded. But today was just the wrong day with her mother away to Maun and no one to watch the kids. If Baleka hadn’t chased her children’s father back to Maun the night before he would have been around to watch them, but once again her quick anger came back at her just as her mother always reminded her it would.
“Okay I’m going then. I won’t be long.”
“Go siame, Mama.” Penny stood up taking her young brother’s hand and they both waved as Baleka hurried out the gate. Her babies. Why did she feel as if tears were building up in her throat? She would only be gone a few minutes, an hour at most. She’d get the goat and rush back. It was nothing. She did it all the time, why did today feel so different?
“Bye-bye my babies, be good.”
Baleka knew her nanny goat, Pulane, liked the soft new grass nearer to the river and made her way there. She jogged trying to get there faster. The children would be fine, she told herself but she knew too that Penny often lost concentration when she was playing; at five she couldn’t be blamed. Though Moarabi was not naughty, he was only three and needed someone to keep an eye on him. Baleka warned them not to leave the compound, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t. She could have brought them with her, she wished she had, but they would have slowed her down and she thought if she was fast it would only be a few minutes. They were only babies, she shouldn’t have left them, especially now with all of the people disappearing. This was not the time to leave anyone alone.
She walked quickly telling herself they would be fine, her mother had likely already returned, maybe just a few minutes after she’d left. They were fine. Besides, though Penny was only five, she was clever and responsible. She loved her little brother and mothered him sometimes more than Baleka did. Even though people had been going missing, so far they’d never stolen children, Baleka told herself. No the vanishings had never happened to children.
She rested for a moment under a squat camelthorn tree. She looked out over the flat bush but could see nothing. The rains had been good before Christmas and the grass was high. A great place for goats to hide- and snakes, Baleka reminded herself. The sun was moving fast in the western sky. She set off at a trot; she was not far from the river now.
Baleka stopped running to listen. She heard something. There were lions out here, leopards too. She needed to keep alert. But that wasn’t what she thought she’d heard. She thought she heard a bell in the distance toward the river, a goat bell. She could see nothing through the tall grass. Pulane was big but not taller than the grass. People laughed at her for naming her goats; Baleka didn’t care. She respected her goats, they provided for her and her kids. One day she would be the most successful goat farmer in the district maybe in the whole of the country. Already Pulane won first prize at last year’s District Agriculture Show in Maun. Now the nanny was pregnant and there was no way Baleka was going to lose her to a hungry predator. That’s why she’d taken the chance and left her children alone in the village; she needed to find this goat. She suspected she was pregnant with twins. Baleka mated her with a purebred boer goat, also a prize winner, from a farmer in Maun. The offspring would be purebred from two prize-winning parents. Twins would bring her a lot of money.
Baleka stopped again and listened. She was sure she heard a bell and headed in the direction the sound came from. She walked fast. The sun already sat red and low in the western sky she had an hour at most before it would be dark. She didn’t want Penny and Moarabi home alone when the sun set and she didn’t want to be out in the bush with no gun once darkness descended.
Baleka climbed over the embankment of the river and there was Pulane, big and fat, her white coat pristine, her brown markings classic boer goat patterns. Baleka couldn’t help but be proud. Pulane drank water, completely oblivious to the problems she’d caused by not coming home with the other goats.
Baleka stood watching her for a moment. She didn’t hear the twig that broke when a foot stepped on it or the rock kicked lose that rolled down the embankment settling at the edge of the river quickly disappeared by the water that engulfed it. Baleka didn’t notice anything until it was too late. When the hands went round her throat and the cloth was placed over her nose and mouth, a cloth smelling of something organic like petrol.
Before everything went dark, she remembered her children waving good bye as if they’d never see her again. But at least now she knew they were safe- for they would not be among the vanishings for that night. She knew this for certain because she was the one chosen to disappear- not them. And before her mind shut off and betrayed her completely the last thought she had was one of relief.
Urine and the stench of human waste filled her nose and pushed her awake. Baleka opened her eyes but could see little in the shadowy room. The only light came through a tiny brick sized hole at the top of the wall next to the ceiling. It led straight outside and though it was night the moonlight shone in through the space. The room had unplastered, cinder block walls. She could only see outlines of what looked like beds in a line along one wall. Her head ached at the back and she reached behind to check for blood. She felt nothing.
She slowly sat up. A noise behind her made her jump. She could just barely make out the outlines of two people huddled in the corner from where the sound came.
“You alive then?” a man’s voice asked.
Baleka remembered her kids alone at home and Pulane calmly drinking water. She remembered being choked. Where was she? What happened?
“Where’d they grab you?” a girl’s voice asked.
“Who are they?” Baleka said, not sure who to trust.
“We don’t know them. They keep covered,” the man said.
“What do they want with us?” Baleka asked.
“We think maybe it’s muti. They take blood and other things, sometimes hair, sometimes pieces of skin. They take it when we sleep we think. Eventually they take everything,” the male voice said from the dark corner.
“Everything?” Baleka asked.
“They kill us,” the man said and Baleka heard the girl take a breath in. “At least that’s what we think. Maybe they let us go, we don’t know.”
Baleka could see the outline of the man holding the girl closer. He whispered to her. The man sounded Zimbabwean, but the girl was a Motswana.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
The girl was suddenly animated. “Tiny was from Makalamabedi! Did she go home?”
“Tiny? Tiny Thebeetsile? Was she here?” Baleka knew of Tiny. She lived with her mother though she was old enough for her own place. People said she was crazy. She’d been walking home from the lands and had gone missing. The police said a lion ate her. No one included her in the vanishings.
“Yes, Tiny was here. They took her away. Did they take her home?” the girl asked.
Her voice was so hopeful Baleka didn’t want to disappoint her. “Maybe, I don’t know. They live on the other side of the village. Maybe they took her home.”
“See I told you, George, I told you they would let us go just like they let Tiny go.”
“Sure, Phatsimo, sure that’s what they’re going to do. Don’t worry.”
If Tiny couldn’t hear the resignation in George’s voice Baleka could. Her eyes were adjusting to the darkness. The room was large, it was very long, going back a distance to where she couldn’t see the other wall. There were lines of beds on each side, about five beds each. “So were there others, besides Tiny?” Baleka asked.
“Since I’ve been here there was only one other, Bakang. She was from Maun,” George said.
“I never thought they took muti like this. I thought they kill the person straight away and take what they want.”
“Maybe this is the modern way,” George said. “I’ve been here for a long time. I’ve lost track now, maybe months. What’s the date?”
“The 15th January,” Baleka said.
“Really? It means I’ve been here for almost six months. I wonder what my family thinks.”
Baleka thought she heard him crying. What kind of place was this? She’d never heard of anything like this before. But she knew one thing, they were not going to get out of this place alive. Baleka was pretty sure Tiny hadn’t. What would the captors gain by letting them go, certainly they would talk. The only answer was to kill them, she was sure of it. She was not going to die here. They would have to be saved or they would have to escape. Baleka would not consider anything else. Her goats waited for her. Her mother. Les. Penny and Moarabi needed her to take care of them. They were too small to be without a mother.
Baleka decided right then she would not be dying anytime soon, she had too much to live for. She looked up at the tiny window. She could see a small square of night-time sky with a single star framed in the hole. She closed her eyes and saw Penny and Moarabi looking at the same star and in that moment they were together. And in that moment she knew they would be together again.