Tuesday Fiction: “Case Notes of a Witchdoctor” by Nick Wood
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Nick Wood. Nick is a South African writer, currently resident in London, UK. Nick has published a YA SF book in South Africa entitled The stone chameleon, as well as about a dozen short stories in venues such as Infinity Plus, Interzone, PostScripts, Albedo One and AfroSF. He has also published and presented on (South) African speculative fiction in general. Nick is a member of the Clockhouse London Writers group and can be found at http://nickwood.frogwrite.co.nz/ , where (amongst other things), he is touting his second novel (tentatively titled Azanian Bridges.)
This is the story’s first publication.
Case Notes of a Witchdoctor
He’d reached the age where he’d seen it all—liars, psychopaths, the neurotic… and the completely insane. Psychosis it was, though, that still just about held his interest.
Like the young black man in front of him, sitting and grimacing, but trying hard not to tilt his head. He has some insight, then, not wanting to reveal a listening attitude in the silence of the sickly yellow room.
Not enough insight, though.
Mark spoke, to put the young man out of his misery.
“I’m afraid you’re going to have to stay in for the weekend, Kolile.” (Try as he would, he’d never been able to make the correct click on the X in Xolile’s name.)
This time he could see he had the patient’s full attention. “Please, asseblief doctor, I need to go home this weekend.”
Mark played with the orange government biro on the open folder between them, feeling a little bored, a little helpless. There was a limit to what he could do—and it was Friday afternoon, with rush-hour traffic no doubt building early along De Waal drive.
He took the pen and wrote with finality in the psychiatric notes—Provisional Diagnosis: Psychosis. Keep in for further observation.
He looked up. Xolile was sitting rigid, staring behind him.
Despite himself, Mark turned, to see the thick door and blank wall. He dropped his hand away from the panic button underneath his desk.
“What do you see, Kolile?” he smiled reassuringly and with certainty, keen to wrap up the consultation quickly now.
The young man looked him squarely in the eyes, as if oblivious to customary respectful gaze avoidance for his elders.
“An old white man,” he said. “I think he may be your father.”
Mark laughed then, loudly. His father had been dead three years.
He stood up: “You’ll feel better after a weekend in, on your medication. The staff are very good here.”
The young man stood up and held his gaze, until tears leaked from his eyes and he looked down.
“Please,” he said, “my mother needs me. I am sick, yes, but I think it is because the ancestors call me.”
Mark hesitated; he’d been reminded of caring for his own mother, for a good many months after dad’s death.
“Why do they call you?” he asked, cursing himself for delaying on what was surely a certain decision, but looking for a hidden delusionary system.
“To become a healer too, like you,” Xolile said, his voice muffled in the blue overalls, head bowed. Mark realised abruptly that the young man’s head was bowed to hide his tears.
“We shall see,” he said, opening the door. Staff Nurse Dumisane, who’d been waiting outside in respect for psychological confidentiality, came in and ushered the young man out.
Mark nodded goodbye and closed the door.
Friday at last, Friday, fucking Friday. The surf must be pumping at Kommetjie by now. Time to wash the working week off him in that frenzied cold water.
He closed the file on his desk; Xolile Ngubane. Shut.
He’d seen so many tears, so much snot en trane, this was no different.
But Xolile’s presence didn’t seem to have fully left the room. Mark could almost smell the lingering pain of his tears, the sourness of his body odour, his leaking desperation.
Still, he had seen it all. He picked up the file to leave the room.
“Where are you going, son?”
Mark dropped the file, having half-opened the door with his right hand. He peered back into the room, scanning the walls, the psychometric test cupboard, the desk, underneath the desk…
He stopped himself. Stupid, stupid, he really just needed a rest; it had been a hell of a week.
No one to go home to, though. Sharon had left eight months ago, and he’d left Jo’burg over a year ago now, to get away from a needy mother. There had been lots of leavings, with so few greetings anymore.
He picked up the file and sighed. At least the sea didn’t judge him. Muizenberg soon with a boogie board maybe, for, actually, he felt like a warmer and gentler swim. So, home first, pick up the board and head waves-side, before the beach bursts with manne jostling for board-space.
He stopped himself from announcing his plans to the air and cursed as he saw the black smear on his fingers. The cheap plastic biros tended to leak like an old man with a dodgy prostate. (At least he could still piss a few bubbles into the pot.) Throwing the pen into the bin, he wiped his fingers with some desk-tissues; it’s okay, man, just so long as he’d kept the file clean.
He hesitated, the wall was dripping sound. Leaning his right ear against the bricks’ clammy, slippery surface, he listened.
A quavering voice, soft but through cold stones, old stones—a leper asylum before it became a mad-house, so he’d heard.
A dim and distant voice, which was just repeating his name, over and over again.
So many voices lost here.
But this one knew him.
He had no answer. It was time to go.
Softly, he closed the door behind him and headed for the nurse’s station, along the banana-coloured hospital corridor. He nodded at a puffed up psychiatrist passing him; Jesus, that guy needed to learn to treat his patients more respectfully.
He took a right turn into the nurse’s station and the adjoining patient lounge, which was empty, as they were all out for their early supper. Behind the glassed sealed area Sister Mbolo and Staff Nurse Dumisane were standing, collecting night meds from cabinets, eyes flickering up to patient charts on the walls.
Mark stepped into the station quietly; file ready to be deposited alphabetically into the cabinet. He’d update online records next week.
He needed a swim badly.
Dumisane glanced at him, sieving a few tablets into a metal bowl. “Xolile to stay in then?” he asked, clicking extravagantly, to Mark’s ears. (He’s Zulu after all; Xhosa clicks come easy to him.)
The old man caught his eye, lounging just across the room. He didn’t recognise him, but he knew it wasn’t—it couldn’t be—his father. But dad had lain a bit like that, in the days following his stroke, limp and helpless and dumb.
Three weeks of silent helpless lying, before dying quietly, in the middle of the night, when no one was around.
But he’d done his grieving, processed his feelings, put it all behind him. He’d known what to do, after all. (Spilling himself verbally and with tears; off-loading to Sharon, while trying to hold mom together at the same time.)
Three months after tossing the last bit of dirt on his dad’s grave with his own hands, Mark had realised he’d put it all behind him. (Well within the stipulated normal grief time parameters: he’d been proud of that, until Sharon had punctured it by leaving without explanation.)
The old man in the lounge bent over and pulled a page from one of the ward Bibles. It looked like he was going to roll a cigarette with it. Despite himself, Mark smiled—certainly not dad, then.
“Dr. Bezuidenhout?” Dumisane was standing up straight, peering at him with obvious bewilderment.
“Um,” he said, “Kolile can go home for the weekend, but will need to be visited tomorrow by the community team, to get collateral information from his mother.”
“The community team’s off this weekend—I can go, I’m on duty and Sister and the others can cover me,” Dumisane smiled.
“Really?” The sister glowered at him and then laughed. “So he’s safe to go out?”
Mark paused, looking at the Sister, short and smiling, but knowing she was also pure steel underneath.
“He thinks his ancestors are calling him.”
“Oh,” she rolled her eyes. “Another ukuthwasa then. Bloody government’s to blame I tell you. They still haven’t created enough real jobs.”
He chuckled to himself as he picked up a pen. It was fine for her to say that!
He hesitated and then, for the first time in a long time, Mark changed his file notes using stale, scratchy white correction fluid, countersigning the change as the traffic grew rapidly louder along the road outside Valkenberg hospital.
He smelt burning and looked up in alarm. The old black man was smoking the Bible.
* * *
Mark woke with the sense of someone watching him.
Without even opening his eyes, he knew who it was.
“Hi, dad.” On opening his eyes, he was unsurprised to find his room empty. His dad had been dead three years, after all.
Mark rolled over, groaning, stiff from a late evening”s bodysurf at Muizenberg. As it had for many months now, the bed felt too big for him.
It was a bright and sunny master bedroom, looking out on a small but neat Rondebosch garden, orange bougainvillea framing razor wire and a hyperactive alarm. It was all somewhat on the dull side in long Cape winters, though. As for the children’s bedroom—well, that never happened, did it?
He walked stiffly through to the bathroom and splashed his face with clear and cold water.
Water always does the trick.
A pale and wrinkled face stared blankly back at him, gray hair hung lankly down alongside his cheeks. Shocked, he took several paces backed, slipped and banged his head against the towel railing. No stars, just a burning red blur in front of his eyes.
And an expressionless dead face.
It was his father’s face, not his.
Mark reeled backwards, averting his eyes.
God, it was as if dad had died without feeling, without thoughts, a pale husk of a once strong and fierce—but funny—man. It was early morning when we’d last seen him, but for moments he’d failed to recognise it was him, so shrunken and waxen he was.
Mark sat on the bathroom mat, its crinkly blue plastic fur tickling his naked thighs—but he couldn’t give a shit about that, quietly crying until thoughts came again.
Including one terrifying and growing thought.
He resisted it at first, hiding it away behind deliberate thoughts of beach or shopping, moving in safe and familiar spaces.
But there was no hiding from it—it kept popping back into his head.
He sighed. He knew he had a phone-call to make. He knew he had somewhere to go.
Mark stood up and faced the mirror. His own tired face looked out at him. He washed his face, shaved and dressed carefully and respectfully in white collared shirt and grey slacks. The house was too quiet, too empty—and the face in the mirror looked even emptier still, although he was just relieved it was his face.
Pulling his mobile from his trouser pocket, he speed dialed the ward.
“Staff Nurse Dumisane? Doctor Bezuidenhout here. I think I should come with you to visit that patient this morning. Ja, I’m ready—half an hour, hey. See you outside my house, you’ve got my address, ja nee?”
The street was quiet, still early on a Saturday morning in a cul de sac set back from the Main Road. The trees were in full bloom but starting to sway from the gathering South-Easter.
Mark jingled some coins in his pocket, deciding to text his sister in Jo’burg as a distraction.
He was going someplace he’d never been before; a place he’d always managed to avoid.
A black township.
The white Government Garage car arrived, an old Fiat, Staff Nurse Dumisane waving cheerfully from the rolled down driver’s window,
Mark got in, feeling even more anxious.
As they pulled off and headed down past Rondebosch station and across the wasteland of the Common, he felt his pulse start to race.
“So,” he said, “where are we going, again?”
Dumisane glanced at him sideways and then focused on the road, swerving to avoid a taxi pulling out suddenly.
“Gugs, been there before, Doctor?”
Ah, Gugulethu, not the worst thankfully, but no doubt bad enough, with very few—if any—white mense there.
Mark shook his head coolly. “”No, can’t say I have, Dumisane—any tips?”
The staff nurse gave a big laugh as he swung past a bus and the streets started to fill up, heading steadily away from the Mountain. “Stick close to me, doctor, and you’ll be fine.”
Houses had given way to wide and dingy council flats surrounding dirt yards, bright washing swinging from lines hanging out of windows or in courtyards.
The men on the street looked rougher and tougher and downright dangerous.
Dumisane pulled to a halt alongside a small brick terraced house, brightly painted in blue, with a small but neat path.
Mark raised his eyebrows discreetly. He’d expected more overt poverty, more visible desperation.
“We don’t all live in corrugated iron shacks, you know,” Dumisane said shortly, getting out of the car.
Mark felt a pang of shame; Dumisane was a damn good nurse and obviously a sharp reader of people. He still couldn’t stop himself looking carefully around, before opening the door and stepping outside to join Dumisane.
The staff nurse was already by the door, chatting in swift isiXhosa with a smiling middle-aged woman in a neat red dress and headscarf. He beckoned Mark over.
“This is Xolile’s psychologist,” he said. “Doctor Bezuidenout, this is Mrs. Ngubane.”
The woman gave a little nod as she took his hand with both of hers. “Please come in,” she said. “Would you like some tea?”
Mark smiled, wondering if the English resonance was intended for him. She led the way inside, into a small but neat kitchen with dining area. Mark noted the door through to the other rooms—or room—was firmly closed.
Mrs. Ngubane lit a gas cooker underneath a battered but ready silver kettle. She turned to Mark: “Five Roses or rooibos, Doctor?”
“Uh, rooibos please, Mrs. Ngubane.”
Dumisane was obviously a Five Roses man. She gestured them both to sit on stools arranged tightly around a small wooden table.
Mark turned as the door creaked behind him.
Xolile stood, the room behind him darkened, but he looked cheerful and neatly dressed.
“Hello, doctor, staff nurse,” he said breezily, stepping inside and closing the door behind him. He leaned back against the door and folded his arms.
Mark sat and drank his hot tea, looking at family pictures arrayed on the wall, while the conversation drifted awkwardly around Xolile’s interrupted studies. He’d been a physiotherapy student at UWC before he’d been picked up by a police patrol, wandering and confused, in the dunes near Monwabisi.
Mrs. Ngubane looked cross, reminiscing on the events, “You sure it’s not dagga, my boy?”
“No, mamma!” he said. His arms dangled by his sides, as she had already reprimanded him for the rudeness of folded arms, following up with a warning against hands in pockets.
There was a man in some of the photos, but only in those with a younger pre-adolescent Xolile.
Mark signaled to Dumisane. Dumisane would be able to get much better information from the mother if both were unburdened from the demands of English.
Mark put his empty mug down and stood up. “Is there a space we can talk in private, Kolile?” (Always, he struggled with the correct pronunciation.)
The young man stood up squarely, a good few inches taller than Mark. “Sure, doctor, the street.”
“The street?” Mark heard his voice almost crack with a sudden surge of panic. “Why the street?”
“A bedroom is too private,” he said. “The street is better.”
Mark wondered whether Xolile had guessed he was anxious there—and even more so at the thought of walking and talking in a township street. He seemed brighter and more lucid today—perhaps indeed it was a reactive psychosis—just maybe drug induced?
He followed the young man through the doorway, down the path and onto the pavement. A few men and women stalked past, turning to stare briefly at him.
Xolile smiled. “You’ll be fine,” he said. “Everyone knows me.”
So, for some minutes, they walked and talked, Mark probing about his past and recent present, looking for cues and clues as to the onset of his confusional state. His father had left suddenly when he was ten; they had no idea where or why. Prior to his admission, all he could remember was a gathering glow inside and his dead grandmother whispering in his ears, telling him he needed to become an isangoma, to heal his people.
Mark stopped. Xolile had turned into a main street, littered with spaza shops and large shipping containers filled with people doing business. There was a particularly appealing cell-phone company obviously doing great business inside a grey metal container jutting some way into the road, people spilling out into the road and pavement, taxis hooting past. Mark was relieved to notice that few seemed to look at him anymore.
Xolile gestured him onwards. Mark hesitated. He wanted to ask Xolile something for his own benefit, rather than Xolile’s. Ethically, such role reversals were generally frowned upon. There was something slightly freeing about being on strange streets, however, so he took a deep breath.
“My father,” he said, “is gone like yours, but dead. You saw him at the hospital and I’ve seen him since. What must I do?”
Xolile stopped. Mark noted he sighed slightly before speaking. “I saw an old man, who I guessed might be your father. Beyond that, I cannot help you at all, doctor.”
“But don’t your beliefs involve contacting the ancestors?”
Xolile looked straight at him and Mark could see amusement and something else etched on his face.
“My beliefs, not yours, doctor. Even then, I’m not sure of them myself. Look!” He turned to gesture at a shop behind them.
The shop had an open hanging canopy, dangling with jars filled with… strange looking shapes in syrup or brownish liquid, organs perhaps—or animal parts?
“Would you consult here? Would you take those things if prescribed, to help you contact your father?”
Mark spotted a placard outside. It was a doctor’s surgery, but not one that he recognised.
It looked as though Xolile had only just started. “Would you sacrifice a chicken—or a goat? Doctor, there are no shortcuts; you cannot pick and choose our beliefs, like a vulture that is fussy for only the best meat. You must swallow all the bones, too.”
The young man looked down, as if suddenly ashamed of his outburst.
Mark looked down too, embarrassed at asking, wishing he could retract his thoughts and words.
There was a muffled ringing noise. Xolile fumbled a cell-phone out of his pocket. “Nomfundo!” he shouted, turning away and breaking into rapid isiXhosa.
Ah, a girl!
Mark looked up as his father walked past.
For frozen seconds, he watched the stooped and familiar gait down the busy street, dad’s slight right-sided shuffle after an earlier warning from a left-sided stroke.
Then he ran, until he was alongside and in front of him.
It was an old man indeed, but with a craggy black face and silver pepper-corned hair, neatly dressed, as if off to a Saturday Church. The man looked at him uncertainly. “Police?” he asked, “or tourist?”
Mark raised both hands, ducking his head in apology as well.
He made his way back to Xolile slowly. He was still busy on his phone, talking excitedly and looking at the ground.
Mark looked around to track the smell of burning meat. A man and a woman were braaing a sheep’s head over a hollowed metal barrel. A few other people were gathering round, bringing drinks, perhaps from a local shebeen.
He felt exposed, isolated.
Xolile finished his call. “Sorry, doctor.”
Mark held his hand up. “Never mind,” he said. “I don’t suppose you saw me running after anyone just now?”
Xolile gave him a puzzled look.
Mark gave a wry smile. “No matter, perhaps it was all in my head.”
Xolile shook his head firmly. “No wonder you umlungu have such big heads,” he said. “You try and fit everything into it.”
Despite himself, Mark laughed. As he laughed, it suddenly dawned on him that just maybe he would never stop missing his father.
He no longer felt so certain of anything and everything, either.
They turned to watch people gather for food. “You fancy some, doctor?”
Mark laughed again: “Just a little taste.”
It was nice to be invited.
There were indeed new things to see—and new things to do.
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