THE FLIGHT OF THE BAT
It is 2071. The century-long Slow Apocalypse has left the southern African town of Rhini isolated and depleted but more or less functional. A more or less peaceful place. But young Kato Marnus – a bit of an outsider, bookish but ungovernable – has committed just one outrage too many. He is banished. A lonely journey, on foot across those all-but-deserted territories, begins – a journey of terrifying discovery and self-discovery, and of unexpected beauties ...
The Flight of the Bat is a story running in parallel with The Wisdom of Adders.
Praise for The Wisdom of Adders
The Wisdom of Adders is a profoundly insightful, magical book told in
accessible, almost playful language. It's set in a very real, yet
strangely unreal future Eastern Cape. Through it a young girl goes on
a quest that will become a rite of passage and change everything.
- Don Pinnock, author of Rainmaker
By the end of the first day of his exile Kato and the two Monitors had reached Frizzy Scamp. They had covered some thirty gruelling kiimithas. Frizzy Scamp consisted of nothing more than a dilapidated hilltop building threatening fire-ants and adders, dominated by a grove of eucalypts and the remnant of some ancient fort of stone. The one habitable room was occupied by a crone with a skin stiffened to bronze by dirt and isolation, a blathering youth who might be her grandson, and a meagre stock of essentials that she was prepared to trade at jaw-dropping prices.
They had walked fast, despite the rough condition of the path that followed the old Entu. That east-west route, legend had it, had once been a broad macadamised highway thundering with wheeled traffic night and day. Now there was scarcely sufficient foot and donkey traffic to keep open a crease between the grasses and the prickly-pears.
They had walked fast because Kato could no longer look back. He had to walk faster than memory itself. Despite carrying a pack full of gear he had pushed the two Monitors to their limit, his natural stride lengthened by fury, self-disgust, and the adrenaline of fear. They had not complained, even on the last uphill stretch, even though their job – to make sure Kato Marnus left, and left for good – had been rendered redundant by their charge’s own apparent desire to get away as quickly as he could.
At dusk they collapsed amongst the root-buttresses of the eucalyptus trees, and lit a fire in a nest of rocks. Only then did the reality begin to catch up with him. The westward hills that now screened Rhini – his home, his once-upon-a-time home, home that could not be home again – those hills seemed to grow smoky and insubstantial with melancholy and loss. Now that he had come to a standstill, his instinct was to break out in rage. He stalked away across the bare hilltop and began to rave and stamp. He cursed the magistrate and the fates and his own stupidity alike. He picked up rocks and hurled them across space, as if he might hurl out of himself certain images, a certain clang of shovel against stone that had reverberated through his head for days now. He snatched up sticks and broke them across his thighs and flung them cartwheeling away and screamed until his voice cracked.
Some corner of his consciousness all the while watched his own performance, as if from a great distance. Abruptly the energy drained away, and he stopped, feeling foolish and exposed. From under the eucalypts the two Monitors, the woman, and the drooling youth were all watching him, shaking their heads. He knew what they were thinking: There he goes again, that temper of Kato’s was always the problem, wasn’t it.
Growling, he stumped off to the edge of the clearing where the hill dropped steeply away. The lower slopes were dense with euphorbia and other thorny horrors that seemed to presage the tortures he imagined ahead of him. Far down in the shadowed gorge a rib of shiny water intruded. He could see the tops of drowned trees sticking above the surface, less the river now than a re-entrant of the risen sea.
“The ol’ Grit-fist, huh,” a voice at his shoulder said.
He had quietly been joined by a pair of Postals, slung with their orange runners’ sashbags, bearing such sporadic communications as nowadays made their way between settlements. Shanky and sweaty, they were familiar to him; Postals often ran the same routes for years on end.
“Rezoni. Dezoni.” He offered his elbow to each in greeting. Though to be honest, he couldn’t remember which was which.
“Kato,” said Rezoni (or Dezoni). “Hau, we heard about you. Sorry for your troubles, man. We heard you drew the East card.”
“Is that bad?”
Rezoni and Dezoni shrugged in unison. “Well, going West you’d have hit the Atomscorch around Nummers, not too lekker. Going North it’s a fracking long way to Blooms, three weeks’ footing, I reckon, and then the same again to Gutting, which they say is hell on earth.”
“And South it’s just ocean and the ghosts of icebergs,” grunted Dezoni. “So it could be worse.”
“Where’d you come from today?”
“Near Kings; before that, Buffalo, on the coast.”
“Could I go there? It’s past the hundred, ne? I have to go at least a hundred kii.”
The two Postals glanced at each other, shook their heads in their spooky unified way. “No. Buffalo’s closed off. Even we can’t get in; high shiny metal wall, not even a gate. Just a drop-tray for the post, and there’s not much of that. Frack knows what goes on inside.”
“So what’s beyond the Grit-fist river?” Crazy: he knew more about twentieth-century Australian literature than he knew about what lay fifty kiimithas east of his own town. So much for vaasity.
“Well, if you just stick to the Entu, you go through Piddle, nobody much there, miserable lot. Another sixty kii or so, you get to Kings. Not much there either, it’s an old elechemical zone, and smells like it. Revolting. Even the bandits don’t stay long.”
“Oh yah, there’s a couple of groups, horsemen. There’s never much for them to bandit at, so they range all over the place. You never know where they might pitch up and savage someone just for the hell of it. Watch out for a black flag, white writing on it. Sanskrit, they say. Nasty bunch. You can avoid ’em easily enough if you’re alert.”
“Sounds fabulous. What’s after Kings?”
The Postals shrugged simultaneously. Dezoni said, “Don’t really know. We hear names: Konker, Butters. There used to be a place called Tatters, there may be someone there. All pretty damp that side, it’s said. Maybe two weeks beyond that, we hear tell of Tikwini, big place. Somewhere for you to aim for, maybe. They say the old Entu ran all the way there.”
Kato had heard of Tikwini: a former slaving and whaling and industrial port that had gone the way of most big coastal cities: inundated and decayed. It had never sounded attractive.
“Listen,” said Dezoni, “we need to clean up, get the weight off our feet. See you around the fire.”
“Fire,” Rezoni repeated unnecessarily.
Kato lingered alone a little longer, looking down the declivities of the Grit-Fist gorge, his heart sinking likewise. Pronouncing sentence, the magistrate, gruff and not un-gentle, had said: “The Monitors will escort you to the Grit-fist bridge, and that is where they will leave you.” It had felt like a blow to the solar plexus.
At the fire the Monitors carefully refrained from commenting on his tantrum. The shorter of the two was nursing sore feet, and muttered, “I’m going to call this the Kato Blister. I’m scarred for life.” The taller one, his kindlier face softened by firelight, was frying up some trout chunks from Rhini’s tank-farm, some herby greens from the indoor gardens: he had gone to some trouble to go beyond puttkos survival bars and compacted trail-mix. “Thanks, man. Last meal before the execution, sort of thing, huh!”
“We hope it won’t be that bad, Kato. Whole new life, possibly!”
“We? Speak for yourself, Sbu,” growled the other Monitor. “I’m scarred for life.”
Sbu smiled. “Don’t mind Shongwe, he’s not mature enough to understand compassion.”
“Frack maturity, I aged twenty years just today. You better go that hundred kiis, Kato Marnus, or I’ll lace my girlfriend’s jakkalboots with your gut-strings.”
“Oh, yeah? And who’s to find me, out there?” Kato retorted, jerking his head towards the violet unknown. “You, you vicious cop? Please. You already want to go sniffling off home.”
“The fracking Fed Pollies will get you,” Shongwe muttered.
Dezoni (or Rezoni) giggled. “What century are you living in? No such Pollies any more. Government, law, great Mzansi nation?” He blew such notions explosively off the ends of his fingertips. “Just warlords and marauders, brothers. And masses of empty space.”
“Maybe some places have a magistrate like ours, or something,” said Kato hopefully.
The others nodded; it was possible, they seemed quietly to agree, though without conviction.
“I mean, societies tend to coalesce in similar ways, right, all over the place, throughout history.”
Shongwe leaned towards Sbu’s ear, “The boffin says what, coal-what?”
Kato said faintly, “I mean, what even if I were to just go back, one day, maybe? What could anyone do? Rhini doesn’t have a gallows to hang anyone, no prison to shut you up in. So?”
They all pursed their eyebrows. Sbu said, “Nobody knows, I guess. Not even the magistrate knows, probably. Because no banished person has ever come back.”
At that dark thought they all fell silent, firelight hazing and brushing at their faces, possibly all thinking about their little town – shrunken, inward, hovering somewhere between the miserably deprived and the comfortingly self-sufficient.
“I’d give you a thick ear, for starters,” Shongwe grunted after a time, “just for being your usual nuisance.” That was hurtful, mostly because it contained truth. Kato knew he was being punished not just for the latest unforgivable – incident – but for pretty well a lifetime of outbursts and outrages, annoying and sometimes imperilling even his nearest and dearest. He knew what townspeople said of him: nice enough most of the time, very bright, bookish, works pretty hard ... but. At some level, he suspected, he was also being punished just for being an outsider in the first place, a gerbil, as he and his father were sometimes nastily called: originally desert-dwellers from further north-east. Or they were quarry-quarries, like other uprooted nomads, so-called presumably because they were habitually targeted.
He wanted to cry, but instead snapped nastily at Shongwe, “Don’t worry, no doubt the bandits out there will do your dirty work for you. And steal your girlfriend’s boots.”
Sbu snorted. “He doesn’t even have a girlfriend. Have some more spinach and trout, Kato.”
Kato was feeling sick to the pit of his stomach, but he forced the food down. They were all bone-tired, Monitors, Postals and miscreant alike. They inflated their narrow mattresses and nestled down between the tree-roots, wrapped in their night-bags, looking up at the stars shivering among the eucalyptus leaves.
Something dark and large flickered and squeaked past his face. He startled before realising what it must be: a bat. It felt both forbidding and intriguing; there had been almost no bats left back home. That phrase – back home – made him flinch inside. What meaning did it have now? Then sleep overtook his grief, as moths sought the warmth of his face and the rubbery bats rustled down and took them almost off his eyelids.