Africa’s red dawn broke upon the lands of the Western Cape and the veil of darkness was replaced by fiery light. The sun peeked its way over the mountain’s top before waking beams of gold burned away the misty morning fog. The cobra slithered between the tree’s long shadow, and the eagle’s call echoed far upon the still air. They glided above the canopies, and their song clung to the steep valleys as they tumbled to lush green hills. Like emerald flame, the sloping fields glistened, and the sun’s morning call settled upon the town below.
The warm kiss of its light was eagerly welcomed upon the cheeks of the homeless, Redmond Daniels. His tired eyes were forced open by a rush of unwelcome light. His neck crooked and his back bent, he dragged himself up. He slumped himself against the collection of cardboard and newspaper that formed his bed, down the side of a local store.
Red tilted his head to one side and grimaced as his neck cracked and popped. He sighed with relief and like a tired lion, yawned and stretched his limbs. His spindly arms poked upward as he began to sit and put on his beaten shoes.
“Go!” a voice bellowed, “Get away! I’ve told you before … Stinking street rat, you’re not welcome, it’s trespassing, get out!” screamed the shop keeper’s wife as she hurtled towards him, broom in hand. Great wafting blows rained downward as the buxom lady barrelled down the path towards him, like an angry rhino. Exerting tremendous amounts of energy, her frantic attack fell shy of Redmond who desperately collected his belongings. Clutched to his chest, he scurried his way free and out onto the streets of his shanty town home.
Red peered over his shoulder as he snuffled and grumbled in disgust at his rude awakening. The shop keeper’s wife stood proud before her alley as her burning stare escorted Red away. With clenched fists at her side, her large bosom protruded above a hanging gut. Atop her mighty frame, sat an unimpressed flab of a head so large it could be mistaken for a watermelon. Struggling to survive within its centre, was an overwhelmed collection of features that resembled a bulldog chewing a wasp.
Red shook his head and scoffed as he tucked his hole scattered jumper under his arm and rubbed his hands together. He paced around the corner of the street and past the lean-to shacks of corrugated iron and patched together wood.
He greeted the faces of the people that appeared along the way as they popped up from garden walls and peered out from behind iron shutters. Their familiar smiles faded to looks of concern as they watched the scrawny figure of Red march off up the road towards the higher parts of town.
Taking in the sights around him, he tapped and fidgeted with his clothes. There was a restlessness about his nature. His eyes wandered to the Roikaans covered hills that intersected one another as the birds sang their morning song. Man, carved vineyards clung to the impossible slopes of the mountain valleys. Great shards of pale stone bubbled their way above the lush green canopies to form a jagged wall of rock. Red’s eyes filled with the sun’s light that gleamed through the mountain’s void to cast a great shadow, like a sleeping giant, upon the town below.
He trudged his way up over the steep tarmacked hills of the valley township and approached the home of the Sinoda family. A trusted refuge for Red, in a life full of uncertainty and hardship. The smell of steamy red bush tea brewed upon last night’s braai and Red followed its wispy plumes of smoke that lifted and faded into the cloudless sky above. He stepped forward and pushed the barbed wired gate open ready for his morning visit. His face screwed upward as the ear-piercing screech of the gate clanged shut behind him.
He began to walk up the broken slabs of concrete that formed a loose pathway towards the wooden shack that leant suspiciously to one side. The assortment of faded and scavenged timber mixed with sheets of iron unconvincingly as they patched together like a child’s den.
Stepping under the pagoda’s welcome shade, he stooped and slinked his way past the dog’s rumbling breaths and approached the door it guarded. His bony hand wrapped around the door’s handle before he shoved it open and walked inside. Red glided across the kitchen floor whilst he greeted the ever-joyful Caroline before slipping into his friend’s bedroom.
As they made eye contact, Red grinned and eagerly made his way over to him before their hands slapped together and slid back to wrestling thumbs. They jostled and giggled before Red felt his thumb pin to his fist in defeat.
Confined to his bed, the merry looking man’s face was full of happiness and humour. At the sight of his visitor, his large caring eyes of hazelnut brown twinkled above a wholesome smile that reached to his ears.
“Morning Wolf,” Red chirped as he slumped himself down into a plastic chair at his bedside.
“Ay, morning bru, didn’t expect you so early?” Wolf replied as his smile warmed Red’s spirits.
“Bru, that crazy shopkeeper lady was so mad this morning. Nice little spot for a snooze if it wasn’t for her. Like waking up to a stampede of angry wildebeest … And that broom,” he joked as Wolf snorted from his nostrils. He grabbed his stomach and rolled in his bed with laughter as he thudded his mattress in amusement at his friend’s wit.
“Roi straat?” Wolf asked as his wide eyes hung on Red’s response.
“Ja, the little shop, the one that sells those marshmallows covered in nut flakes you love—"
“Mmm, yes, that woman’s crazy bru, at least you don’t need an alarm clock ay!” he joked as he slapped Red’s arm and the pair sat like two grinning cats, “Light my smoke Red,” he added as he leant over his lighter. A cigarette hung from his clamped lips as Red torched the end of it and Wolf stoked its end, “Cheers boss,” Wolf said as he let the smoke billow from his nostrils.
“Mark around?” Red asked as Wolf nodded with a mouthful of smoke, “I’ll catch you in a bit bru, gonna go see the old man,” Red confirmed as the two bashed knuckles before they parted company. Red stepped back outside and nosed his way to the back of the property where a small wooden shack stood on mounds of dirt bound paving stones.
The weathered wood faded and warped as its cracks filled with subtle light that shone from within. He stepped up onto its creaky porch before he invited himself inside and slumped down onto the wicker chair by Mark’s side. His old friend’s gapped smile lifted from behind the puffs of smoke that plumed from his pipe. It wafted around aimlessly in the broken light above as Red watched on in fascination.
The hooped rings drifted past Red’s sharply cut features before they broke and slithered off out the open window. He perched himself on the edge of the chair as he waited for the old man’s final draw to leave his cracked lips. A wheezy fill of his lungs followed as his smile boated above a knobbly chin.
“You’re up early,” Mark said.
“I had my sleep interrupted,” Red replied as Mark raised an eyebrow and stood up. He hobbled his way outside and pulled a metal pot from smouldered ashes. The tea bubbled and steamed as he poured it from its spout and into two well used mugs. A labyrinth of wrinkles creased beneath his eyes as he carried them inside and hunched down before his young guest.
Mark placed the steamy brew in front of Red and shuffled over to his seat. He paused before he hovered above his chair and then let his old frame drop upon its cushion.
“So, what’s going on Red? First time I’ve seen you this week. Unlike you,” he asked as Red acted suspiciously and avoided eye contact.
“Been busy ya know. Gotta try make money to survive. Its windy this time of year, gets cold at night,” Red said as he studied the knots on the wooden floor.
“Yes, we do,” Mark agreed as he lifted the mug to his face and sipped. As he peered over its mist, his milky eyes of dark green studied Red’s body language. They shrewd as he squinted his failing eyes towards Red’s twitching face, “But what have you been doing to make your money Red?” he asked as his suspect hesitated.
“Favours and stuff … Little jobs here and there,” he said as he took a gulp of his tea. Red’s eyes swelled as the scolding heat burned his mouth and forced him to spill it back into his cup.
“Ok,” Mark replied bluntly as he watched Red mop his lips dry, “You’re a smart kid and have good intentions. Don’t lose sight of that for money. Too many do and it winds them up in trouble, I was no exception,” he confessed to the young man that he saw himself in, “Money comes and goes but shame and guilt stay with us for a long time, sometimes forever,” Mark added as he looked out the window.
His lashes kissed together as he watched the trees waver in the morning winds before he turned back to look at Red who had already finished his tea, “You drunk that quick … Thirsty?” Mark laughed as Red stood briskly to his feet.
“Thanks for the tea Mark,” he said as he walked towards the door.
“Leaving already? Drink my tea and then disappear like a fart in the wind! The cheek of it,” he joked as Red smiled and looked him in the eyes for the first time that day, “Come on I’ve been wanting to show you something,” Mark insisted. Red wary of time was reluctant to stay but Mark led him back over to his trusted chair.
“There’s so much to life you just wouldn’t believe Red,” the mysterious old man said.
“Like what?” Red replied as he followed him over to the corner of the room.
“Like you wouldn’t believe,” Mark joked as Red smirked, “Some people spend their whole lives oblivious to what this world has to offer, and few know what others have to give,” he riddled philosophically as Red stewed on his words.
“How do you mean?” he asked as Mark’s ground teeth grinned back at him.
“Ah Red I doubt you’d believe me even if I told you what I knew.”
“Why would you make something up? Never known you to tell a lie.”
“So, if I told you whales walked, you’d believe me?” Mark said as he lifted his eyebrows high.
“Well no,” Red replied as Mark waved his bony finger before his nose.
“Exactly,” he said as he sat back in his chair and opened a small tin. He stuffed his pipe’s bowl before he struck a long candle and began to drag on its bit. Thick smoke whistled up its shank and leaked from his dry lips beneath flared eyeballs. Red leant towards him and waited on his words as Mark took great pleasure in building the suspense.
“You can tell me anyway,” Red said hopeful to hear more as Mark looked at him through the hazy cloud that lingered between them.
“You’ll think I’m mad,” he said bluntly as Red smiled back at him.
“I already do!” he joked as Mark chuckled and tapped his hand on the small tabletop before him.
“Very well … But I did warn you,” Mark replied as he reached down and pulled a drawer open. He plucked a singular key from its tray and stood, before he slid his chair across the floor. Steadily, he knelt with displeasure as his groans met with the creak of his overused limbs.
He clicked the key into its slot through a hollow wooden knot before he pulled a hidden hatch open and reached inside. Red peered over his shoulders impatiently as he brought a quaintly carved box to the table.
He lifted its simple lid open and pulled a small handbook from its base and placed it upon the tables top.
The rare and wonderful species of Umba by Augustus J. Green.
Its leather-bound cover read in simple scripture of gold leaf, edged in a trim of perfect symmetry.
“What is this?” Red asked as he reached for the book and Mark’s smug stare observed him study the cover, before peeling its pages open.
“Careful,” Mark said as a flat pressed flower slid from inside.
“What the,” Red gasped as he lifted the strange plant to his face. Half creature, half plant he marvelled in awe at its soft petals of pale lavender, “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Red confessed as he looked at Mark who sat back in his chair and tapped his sandals on the floor to a boastful beat.
“That’s because it is not from this world Red,” he stated as Red looked at him flabbergasted.
“How do you mean?” Red scoffed.
“Look at it!” Mark said plainly, “Do you think we have such things on earth?” he protested.
Red studied it further as he observed the pale petals that grew from a delicate face of white stems. It flowed up from a jellyfish like body that was cupped inside a blooming pink flower. All of which was no larger than the pages of this small and intriguing book.
“Well … No, yes. I guess … Is it real?” Red asked fascinated as he placed it in Mark’s waiting hand before he turned back to the book’s pages.
“Certainly is,” Mark mumbled as he placed it carefully upon his thigh.
With fascination, Red opened the cover wide to reveal the strangest and most terrifying of beasts illustrated upon its pages. Rare plants and trees were drawn in fine detail between clusters of handwritten notes. He flicked back to its cover as he read its words aloud and turned back to Mark who smiled proudly at the foreign object.
“Umba?” Red asked, “Is that where it’s from?” he added as Mark’s eyes turned back to him before the old man nodded and his lids closed shut for a moment.
“Yes Red … Umba,” he said as he looked out the window to the horizon, “A whole … Other world,” he muttered quietly.
“What’s in that pipe?” Red chortled as Mark’s brows flattened, “Sorry, sorry. Carry on,” Red insisted.
“A place where creatures you couldn’t imagine exist, mountains so high they try to touch the stars. Islands of floating stone and great endless chasms of fiery water. Birds bigger than elephants and beasts far larger than that. Trees that break the clouds above and endless fields of flowery elixirs that can cure even the foulest of ills,” Mark Sinoda reminisced as Red listened to his every word. He looked back at the abstract specimen and couldn’t help but partly believe the old man’s words.
“I do not think you’re crazy Mark, that thing is like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” he confessed, “But—"
“But … It’s just a little hard to believe,” Mark interrupted as he got up and began to put his secret box back in its hiding place, “I can imagine it is Red. It always is until you see it with your own eyes,” Mark said truthfully as he reached for a new match.
Red looked above his silver topped head and checked the time on the wall’s crookedly hung clock before he sprang from his chair with urgency.
“I’ve gotta run,” Red said as he walked over to the exit, “I’ll come by tomorrow,” he added as Mark stood up and walked over to him with haste. He placed his twig like fingers on his shoulder and halted his leave.
“You always have a place here Red, you know that,” he said as he reassured the young man who looked down at his feet and then over to the bedroom where Mark’s wife snored away.
“We both know that’s not true,” Red joked as Mark turned to observe the gurgling mass sprawled out across his bed sheets.
“Ahh, the fire breathing dragon,” he joked as Red burst into laughter. A disgruntled voice fired back at them in a grumbled blurt of disgust.
“I’m sleeping,” Yelled the woman before she rolled over and fell back to sleep instantaneously.
“We noticed,” Mark replied candidly as Red shook his head and chuckled. He grabbed the bottom half of the stable like door and swung it open, “Seriously Red, if you’re ever in trouble.”
“I’m fine Mark,” Red insisted as Mark grabbed his shoulder again.
“Red,” he said sternly, “I mean it,” he added as Red looked back at him.
“The last time you said that to me you sent me to stay with your aunt Iris. The worst week of my life.”
“You’re homeless! It cannot have been that bad, she’s a charming lady,” Mark protested.
“She made me clip her toenails!” Red yelled as Mark spilled into laughter.
“Ow Red you make me laugh, at least it was a roof over your head. Better than being on the streets.”
“No … it’s not,” Red replied bluntly. Mark smiled before his face dropped, and a serious look fell upon it.
“Seriously Red, if you don’t have anyone to turn too. You can turn to me,” he said as Red’s lips curved up and he nodded.
“I know Mark. Honestly, I know … Have a good day,” Red concluded as he walked away from Mark’s shaking head that leant from the exit. As he rested his hand on its bottom half, he watched Red go and couldn’t help but wonder.
Mark looked down at his wrinkled old hands before he turned back inside and caught a glimpse of his face in the mirror. The broken glass reflected his leathery face that now resided far south of its original origin.
His marbled eyes glistened above the bags that sagged to his creased and crinkled skin of sun kissed brown. He scratched the white bristles of stubble on his cheeks before he laughed and turned to sit back down.
“Life’s a fickle mistress,” he said to himself as he couldn’t help but worry, “Ahh Red my boy,” he mumbled as he reached down to a drawer by his side. Mark slid the wooden tray open and began to flick through the documents and boxes before he paused on a neat mahogany chest.
It’s polished top swiped clean of dust by his palm, he placed it upon his lap and clicked its latch. He lifted it open and pulled a small stash of money from its velvet lining. Mark stacked it and shuffled the elastic around its papers before he put it to one side and reached back to the box.
A passport lay there, which he pulled out and opened wide before he lifted it to his face. He observed the passport details of Redmond Daniels that he had taken upon himself to acquire. Red’s life had begun to slip down a dangerous road long ago and Mark had taken father like precautions. The unused passport clamped shut as he placed it back inside and piled the cash on its top.