In 1993, in celebration of its 20th Anniversary, The Writers' Union initiated a Short Prose Competition for New Writers to discover, encourage, and promote emerging writers of fiction and non-fiction. One past winner and two finalists have since gone on to publish books. This year, thirty-three Union members donated their time and expertise to read 392 submissions, distilling them to a shortlist of twelve strong entries. The judges of the final jury, Gail Anderson-Dargatz, Shauna Singh Baldwin, and Paul Quarrington, selected Lewis DeSoto's "Invisible" as the 1998 winner.
Final Jury's Comments
"`Invisible' is a marvelous, powerful, well-executed story. The apparently well-researched details give the story its authority, and the images it contains have haunted me."
"`Invisible' pulls the reader in slowly, bringing the enormity of the final gesture of protest squarely into focus."
Shauna Singh Baldwin
"The writer handled the materials with masterly assurance. It was a good and important story written with grace and poetry. Three cheers for the author."
The man comes out of the trees and starts straight up the slope to the spot where Elias sits on an outcrop of stone. The movement in the screen of Acacias that hides the river has been so cautious and stealthy that at first Elias takes the shape to be that of an animal-a Kudu buck or solitary buffalo wandering up from the pool downstream. Not a predator, there are no leopards or cheetahs left this close to the border, they have all been killed, casualties of the insurrection-too many men with guns wandering the countryside.
The man carries an AK-47 rifle cradled in both hands. He wears a tattered camouflage tunic, khaki shorts that are stained and torn, sneakers on his feet with the toes showing where the tips have been cut away.
Elias has one quick look, then shifts his gaze some yards to the left of the approaching figure and remains motionless, not even raising the cigarette that burns between the fingers of his left hand where it rests on his knee. A hawk soars above the veld on the far side of the river, a distant black speck harrying some unseen prey, dropping then rising, then plummeting again.
Elias comes here often in the morning, in that hour when his breakfast duties are over and there is a respite before the preparations for lunch must start. It is the only moment of silence in his day. He likes to watch the sunlight move across the plain and then touch the distant hills. The view reminds him of the country of his childhood; in another time, in another place, when he had a different name.
"Sawubona, brother, greetings," the man says. He stops at some distance. His face has the wariness of someone who has seen killing. The gun shifts so that its barrel points at Elias. "Don't be afraid. Are you alone here?"
Elias says nothing. The cigarette is burning his fingers and he lifts it carefully to his mouth and inhales. Clouds are forming along the peaks of the mountains across the plain. There will be rain soon, if not this afternoon, then tomorrow. Or the day after.
"Don't be afraid," the man says again and his eyes search the bougainvillea bushes behind Elias. He is more a boy than a man, with soft brown eyes that strive to be bold. The gun barrel droops towards the ground. "Do you work up there, in that hotel?"
Elias half turns his head then lets the hot ember of his cigarette fall to the ground where he grinds it out with the toe of his polished black shoe.
"I am hungry, brother. Do you have any food with you?"
Elias reaches into his shirt pocket and brings out his pouch of Boxer Brand tobacco and his rolling papers. He trickles tobacco into a leaf of paper and rolls it tight before licking the edge. He lights the cigarette with a wooden match then stretches forward and sets the tobacco and papers on the ground. The boy's finger slips inside the trigger guard of the automatic rifle before he crouches to take the tobacco. He limps away a few paces and lets the gun lean against his thigh while he rolls a clumsy cigarette. On the side of his left leg there are open sores near the ankle and a deep red gash down the calf muscle.
Elias watches the reappearance of the hawk as it ascends on a updraft. Suddenly the boy sits down. He drapes his arms over his knees and lets his forehead rest on them. "We were five in the beginning. Three days ago. They've been chasing me for three days. They caught us as we were crossing the Tugela river. An ambush. They knew we were coming. We never even saw them. Just the noise, like hailstones on a tin roof, and then a wind chopping across the water and we ran. All of us. My comrades went down in the mud like antelope with their legs cut out from under them. I heard the soldiers on the river bank laughing."
The boy lifts his head and sucks hungrily at the cigarette. Elias can smell the tiredness on him.
"I need some food. I need something to eat. You could get me some food from the kitchens. I know you work in that hotel." He indicates Elias's starched white jacket and black trousers. "Anything. I don't care if it's from the rubbish bins. Anything I can eat, brother. Nobody will miss some bits of food from the rubbish bins, will they?"
Elias is looking at the distant hills. The clouds there remind him of the mists that came up the valley in the mornings when he was a boy. And sometimes the man on the horse would be there. A tall silent man on a white horse, that seemed to glide through the mist, both man and beast looking straight ahead to their destination. Not once had he ever looked down at Elias. Not even when Elias, bold one day, had shouted after the man, "Sir! Umfundisi! Where do you go?" But the man had not turned round. Like a figure from a dream. Perhaps it had been a dream.
"What's the matter with you?" the boy with the gun says. He springs to his feet and presses the barrel against Elias's cheek. The metal is warm from the boy's hand. "Don't you know how to talk?"
Elias looks down at the slow curl of smoke from his cigarette.
"I could kill you. Now." The soft brown eyes go hard and flat. Elias knows that in some circumstances it is possible to kill someone without asking yourself whether there is a reason that person should live or not. The boy's finger curls down on the trigger and the hammer falls with a metallic click. Elias's heart falters for an instant, then beats again, fast.
A shriek of hysterical laughter jerks from the boys throat. "I don't have any bullets! They only gave us five each... I used them all up... trying to shoot a fucking antelope!" He screeches with laughter again and flings the rifle into the grass, as if now that its potential as an instrument of authority is exhausted he can finally discard it. He slumps down and pulls off his beret and scratches vigorously at his scalp.
The tarnished metal badge on the beret glints in the light and Elias sees that what he at first took for a regimental insignia is in fact a schoolboy's badge. He can read the lettering, Parktown Boys High. Scavenged who knows were, for the only way this boy could ever have visited that school would be to mop out the toilets or empty the refuse bins.
Elias gets to his feet. He brushes away the bits of grass from the seat of his pants. The boy is shivering in the hot sun. Flies have settled on the sores at his ankles. He has the look of death on him. He is already dead. He is a ghost.
Elias looks down at the pouch of Boxer Brand tobacco and the sheaf of cigarette papers on the grass but leaves them where they are. Instead, he picks up the two butts he has smoked and shreds them between his fingernails as he walks back up the path to the hotel.
The moment he comes round the side of the building his eyes take in the whole scene within a second-the staff lined up below the verandah, waiters in white jackets, maids in blue aprons, Mr. Benson the manger, the group of soldiers in camouflage, the two Saracen armoured cars blocking the driveway, one with a soldier at the machine gun on the turret. There are no guests on the verandah. Perhaps they have been told to stay inside. Perhaps they have seen this all too many times before to be curious.
His eyes see all this in an instant and he is already taking a soft step backwards on the gravel drive when a Sergeant in a peaked cap notices him.
"You! Come here, hey."
The machine gun on the Saracen swings round to cover him and Elias is glad he is respectably dressed in his white jacket and black trousers and polished shoes.
"Where are you coming from now, hey?" the Sergeant demands.
"By the river, Baas." Elias keeps his eyes down, careful not to look the soldier in the face.
"And what were you doing there?"
"I was looking at the land."
"Looking at the land? What were you doing that for? Why are you interested in the land?"
"It reminds me of the country of my childhood, Baas. I was looking at the hills."
"Huh!" The Sergeant scratches at a mosquito bite on his neck. "Who else is down there? Did you see anyone, did you speak with anyone? A man with a gun? Hey?"
Elias shakes his head. "I did not see a man," he says. He had seen the glint of the river through the Acacias, and the warmth of the plains in the morning light, and the distant blue hills of his childhood on the other side of the border. He had not seen any man. Perhaps there had been a ghost passing through the field of his vision briefly, but that was all.
Elias takes a quick glance now at the soldiers spread out near the Saracen. Among them is one who is dressed differently, in a blue safari suit, with a pistol in an open holster strapped to his hips. He watches Elias the whole time the Sergeant is shouting questions, expressionless, without once blinking his eyes. Elias feels naked under his scrutiny, as if the man can see into his thoughts.
The man approaches and the Sergeant steps back respectfully. Elias looks down at the gravel.
"You spoke to somebody. A black man, like you."
What difference does colour make if you have not seen a man, Elias thinks. There was no man, only a ghost of somebody already dead. And what colour is a ghost?
"What did you tell him, hey? That you would help him? That he should wait until we were gone?"
Elias holds his silence.
"Pass book," the man says, extending his hand with an impatient snap of his fingers. Elias reaches into his trouser pocket and withdraws the green booklet that he always carries there.
The man flips through it cursorily and hands it back. As Elias reaches forward the man lets the pass book drop, and Elias has to stoop to retrieve it. A thin film of dust covers the man's tan veldschoen and for a brief moment Elias wants to reach out and brush the dust away.
"You kaffirs are all alike. Liars." The shoes retreat from Elias's vision. The Saracen armoured cars start up, the soldiers climb on board.
Mr. Benson comes forward, waving a handkerchief against the exhaust smoke. "Okay, the show is over. Inside. There's work to do."
The staff prepare the dining room for lunch. There is none of the usual chatter. The waiters avoid each other's glances, as if they wish to remain invisible. At noon, Samuel the headwaiter walks through the lobby with a small brass gong, tapping it melodiously to announce that lunch is served. The guests trickle in.
Only one table is occupied in Elias's section; a middle-aged couple and a young woman he supposed is their daughter. Elias sets a menu in front of them, and then water glasses and a bowl of spiced peanuts. Each time he reaches across the table the young woman edges her body away from him. He has the impression that she is holding her breath.
When he brings the salads the girl shies away from his arm and wrinkles her face at her mother. "Ugh, he smells. They should make the staff here bathe more often." She pushes the plate away with the tip of her finger. Elias writes down their choices on his notepad.
Out of sight behind the kitchen door Elias lifts his sleeve to his nose and inhales the smell of his jacket. Is it the scent of the boy in the trees that she notices, or the odour of his own fear?
From beyond the verandah a series of quick bangs sounds. Thunder already, Elias thinks. Perhaps the rain will come sooner than he guessed. The cook slides three plates along the counter, two steaks and one chicken, and says, "Ready!"
Elias takes two of the plates out and places them before the middle-aged couple. The girl has not touched her salad.
Back in the kitchen he arranges the chicken on a tray, fetches a linen napkin and some silverware, a bread roll and a glass of water, then carries the tray to the side door and goes out across the gravel driveway and down the path to the river.
The boy is not where Elias left him. The tobacco pouch is there on the grass, but not the rifle. Elias sets the tray down. He walks to the Acacia trees and finds the body near the river bank.
There are three gaping holes in the boy's shirt, each one ringed with a circle of burnt cloth from where the muzzle of a rifle must have pressed against the chest.
Elias unlaces the boy's sneakers and removes them, then tugs the ragged shorts from the thin hips. He unbuttons the tunic and turns the body over to ease the arms free. The boy lies naked. Elias folds the dead hands over the holes in the chest. Then he removes his own clothes and struggles into the dead boy's rags. With the tip of his finger he touches his own belly through the bullet holes in the tunic. The sneakers are too small, so Elias goes barefoot, the way he did when he walked through the mists beside the river of his childhood.
He retrieves the tray of food and carries it back to the hotel, through the front doors, across the lobby, and straight into the dining room.
Conversation falters, then dies, as Elias marches past the diners in his ragged uniform. At the table where the young woman sits he puts the tray down and seats himself across from her.
Elias waits for her to look at him, directly at him. Then he begins to eat.
Lewis DeSoto was born in Johannesburg. After immigrating to Canada he studied Art at the University of British Columbia. His fiction has appeared in Quarry, Prairie Fire, Event, Prism International, and Coming Attractions 96. He was also shortlisted for the 1998 CBC/Saturday Night Magazine Canadian Literary Award. He lives in Toronto where he hopes to soon marry the artist, Gunilla Josephson.