The Shadow of Death
Lungile Manyathi

The city always winds down with the setting sun. The day to day activities fizzle at the moon’s smile and the lazy blinking of the first stars. However, that evening the process was disrupted by commotion. People bustled past our house, conjuring up an atmosphere charged with tension and anticipation. My mother and I stepped out because we had somehow forgotten to buy milk, or there was not enough bread for the following day, all I can recall is that it was a small emergency.

Our curiosity was … when, after crossing a few streets, we found a crowd, gathered a stone’s throw away from the convenience store. They surrounded a dingy alley recently stripped of weeds by the locals to make it appear less threatening in a city ripe with crime. We walked past people speaking in hushed whispers that melted away as we drew closer to the scene. Then a hoarse shout erupted from a man who had seen enough,

“Where is her mother?!”

Beside us, a woman cleared her throat in discomfort and shook her head, a frown creased her eyebrows. She looked familiar, a face we had seen a dozen times working the cash register at the store.

“The body of a young girl was found in the alley less than an hour before we got here,” she quietly whispered as she tucked her own child into the pleat of her skirt, fingers protectively wrapped around the boy’s shoulder.

Through the loosely packed limbs of the people in front of me, I spotted the flowered pattern of a lilac dress fluttering carelessly in the evening breeze, a pink shoe abandoned far from the a body and a pale hand, laying palm down against the tar. No movement came from her tiny fingers or the scattered, beaded braids stemming from her head.

The victim’s mother did not come forward. Instead, the wailing of sirens released us from guarding the horrific scene. By the time the police marched into action and closed off the alley, people had dwindled. With their own children gathered, they went back into their homes while others continued about their business with the casual throw of glances towards the alley. My mother and I solved our own small crisis by finding whatever it was we needed at the convenient store. The night engulfed the witnesses we were, just as people had the story swallowed by the next day. Yet, the smell of fear permeated from the alley with a suffocating intensity.

The truth is, crime is nothing in a city and everyone is used to it. Yet, no one could dismiss the kind of fear that remained lodged in the back of everyone’s throat leading to distrust. Assumptions bubbled over the fences. There was talk of seasonal cars that kidnapped girls, waves of gossip about witchcraft, claims of domestic violence responsible for the death of children and constant whispers of serial killers on the hunt for virgin blood. Apart from the horror that befell her, is the realisation that no one ever asked what her name was, how old she was, what happened to her, or how her body appeared in an alley that had stood vacant the day before. People only questioned the whereabouts of her mother and when she did not appear, allowed the police to do away with the body.

For a month after that incident, I walked through my neighbourhood with a set of keys lodged in between my fingers because I was scared of getting attacked. I walked faster each time I sensed a car slowing down behind me and tensed when I approached a group of strangers. I practiced self-defence through internet videos, purchased and obsessively checked if I had pepper spray packed into each bag I carried out of the house. I rigorously monitored my surroundings at all times for any signs of danger or threat. I breathed a sigh of relief when I made it through the gate at the end of the day only to battle through paranoia over all the noise that pierced through the silence of the night. The irony of it is, nothing happened. The problem is that nothing happened. Nobody did anything apart from hiding their own children. All avoided the alley with abnormal determination, allowed weeds to sprout and overtake the space.

There were no protests, no memorial service or a mere prayer session held in one of the churches that decorate nearly every street corner. There were no posters erected on street poles, no articles of her murder and never a media post about her. She went down in history as a consequence of the city. People reduced her to the resident ghost of a vacant alley, whispering:

“Never let the city swallow you like it did her.”

“Never be out on your own as she was.”

“You do not want to end up like her.”

Recalling that incident always brings to mind life’s fragility and the lack of justice afforded to such victims. A testimony of fear that grapples with people, dominating over their existence and rendering them helpless. This is a fear I can attest to. I suppose there is no truth to the idea that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ in a city, evident in the way people brushed away the responsibility of that girl’s justice by calling out to her mother.

I felt compelled to write about what happened to her as an acknowledgement of her existence. A small contribution to a struggle greater than we care to imagine when nestled in the idea of safety. I often hope her mother was informed of the whereabouts of her child. A child she had blessed with life and a name. A child, I can only assume, she cherished and loved. A girl that belonged to her.