From behind the barbed wire Bongani stared at the apple trees, his hands pressed tight against his gnawing stomach. He tore his eyes from the round red juiciness of the fruit just long enough to glance at the sun—almost midday. Very soon they’d unlock the gate and he would run as fast as his muscles allowed to reach what would be his first meal in two days. He swallowed hard before licking his dry lips. If he was quick enough, he’d be able to grab the ones that were not yet rotten to the core. Once he cheated and ate one that must’ve just fallen off the tree, its crisp, firm flesh burst with sweet delight as he bit into it. After that, Sir told the labour masters to check each apple before it was eaten.
“I hope you’re ready to work today!”
Bongani lowered his eyes, like mama told him to do when he spoke to Sir.
“Yes Sir, I’m ready.”
“Good, because I hear you were too slow yesterday and didn’t get any food.”
“I’ll be fast today Sir.”
The fat man snorted and spat on the ground before addressing the group eagerly awaiting the jingle of the gate keys.
“For those of you who are new, these are the rules. You are here to do a job—pick up the apples that have fallen from the tree. Make sure to get them all, insects and pests find even the small bits, and it puts the whole tree at risk. You can eat whatever you gather except for the newly fallen apples. Those go into the baskets next to the tree. If you’re not fast enough, you will go hungry.” He eyeballed Bongani before continuing. “You are lucky to be here. Times are tough and jobs hard to find, especially ones that give you food.”
With purposely slow strides he made his way to the gate. Excited chatter rippled through the group when he pulled out the keys and fingered through them for the right one. Before he inserted its metal shaft into the lock, he turned to face the crowd again.
“Remember, once this gate opens you are to behave like human beings, not animals. No shoving…and no touching me.”
Bongani felt himself being pushed forward, the crowd behind him eager for the promised food. Reluctant to get too close to Sir, he smashed his elbows back, hitting anyone unfortunate enough to be in the way. Not long ago he accidently bumped into the big man, it was a lesson he did not wish to repeat.
When the lock finally snapped open, the hungry labourers pushed past him, now oblivious to his elbows jerking back and to the side violently. Sir stood in the middle of the exit, a cynical smile pulling the edges of his mouth as the workers streamed past his bulky frame like there was an invisible shield surrounding him.
Once passed the fat man, the crowd reverted to chaos, each out to get as much food as possible to fill their grumbling stomachs. Bongani forced his short little legs to run faster than they were made to.
Beneath the tree he gathered as many apples as he could, fighting off the dozens of fingers grabbing and scratching in desperation. Shortly after, he dragged his loot to the side. There, under the watchful eyes of the labour master he checked each fruit. The firm ones had to go into the baskets, while the softer ones were his, all his. A quick summary of his stash told him today was a good day, and a contented smile spread his lips.
He glanced up to watch the stragglers, the slow ones who had just reached the trees, happy not to be one of them. All the edible apples had been taken, leaving only the horribly rotten bits stuck to the grass. His eyes followed them as they scraped the sticky goo and licked their fingers. Yesterday that was him, frantic and hungry, but not today. Today, he hit gold—six edible apples, two of them not completely brown yet.
After the labour master checked his stash he wandered back to his room to eat. He didn’t have long. Sir expected him.
“After the apple run, you will work in the house on Saturday, Bongani,” Sir had said.
At the time Bongani thought how proud mama would be. Working in the house was far better than collecting rotten apples. Maybe, if he worked hard, Sir would let him do it more often.
He finished eating and grabbed his comb. I have to look my best, he thought while dragging the broken plastic through his hair. He had only one pair of shoes but they weren’t bad. The big toe on the left side peeked through a hole on the top, and he wondered if Sir would notice. He decided if he stood with the left foot slightly behind the right, the hole would be hidden.
After washing his hands under the tap outside, he headed to the house, his heart hammering his chest with each step he took. He’d never been to the house before, but had heard lots of stories. Some say there is enough food in the storehouse to feed a country, and not just fruit, meat and cake and something they call chocolate. Others talked about the house having more than three rooms and stairs going up and up.
Bongani chuckled. What silly things to believe, he thought. After looking up at the sun, he increased his pace. It was heading toward the afternoon, and he didn’t want to be late.
By the time he reached the large iron gate his shadow was long and stretched out, like a giant attached to his feet. He pressed the red button like Sir told him to, and the gate magically swung open. The dusty road was instantly replaced by hard grey cement on which several cars were parked.
For a moment Bongani was unable to move, transfixed by the house towering over him. He gaped at the majestic windows, sparkling in the afternoon sun.
“Who are you?”
His head jerked toward the sound of the tiny voice. There, small as a Billy Goat buckling, stood a fluffy haired boy.
“What’s the matter, can’t you talk?” The boy circled him before facing him head on, arms crossed over his little chest.
Bongani lowered his eyes. “My name is Bongani.”
“I bet you’re here to see my daddy. Come I’ll take you.” The boy smiled before leading him toward the magnificent house.
“My name is Charlie,” he said. “Saturday’s my birthday. I’ll be six years old.”
Bongani listened without answering.
“How old are you?” Charlie stared up into the other boy’s dark eyes.
“I don’t know. Maybe…twelve.”
“You don’t know how old you are?”
“The sun has risen and set many times for me. I didn’t always count.”
Charlie thought about the words for a while. “You should think back and add them up, then you’ll know for sure how old you are.”
“I can’t really add, but I can count—up to twenty.” Bongani pushed his chest out with pride. He was the only one in his family who could count that far.
“Charlie! Take him around the back.” Sir’s voice bellowed from the front door.
Charlie obeyed without a word and led Bongani to the back door. Once there they almost ran smack bam into the back of a large woman sweeping the kitchen floor.
“What are you up to little Charlie-sir,” the woman chuckled.
“I brought you a gift,” Charlie said, pointing to his new friend.
Bongani smiled. No one had ever called him a gift before.
“Start here. I will fetch you later to help me in the house.”
Bongani’s eyes scanned the room before resting back on Sir.
“It will be spotless, Sir,” he replied, not quite sure how he was going to fulfil his own words.
The big man snorted before storming out of the barn.
“Don’t worry, I’ll help you,” Charlie’s small voice sounded from behind a wooden pillar.
Bongani fetched a broom from the corner and shook his head. “No, little Charlie-sir, you must go and play.”
The white haired boy sighed before plonking himself on the floor. “Do you think my daddy is clever?”
Bongani nodded. “I think he is a very wise man.”
“Why?” he stared at Bongani, a frown creasing his forehead.
“Because, he has lots of food, lots of cattle and a big house.”
“Mommy says he’s a foolish brute and a horrible liar,” Charlie whispered. “She says he loves money more than people. She said it just before she left.”
“She left?” Bongani stopped sweeping and kneeled next to the boy who wiped a tear from his eye.
“She left,” he sobbed. “Daddy said she’s never coming back.”
Bongani shifted in place uncomfortably. “Don’t worry, I’m sure that’s not true.”
“What’s going on here?”
Charlie jumped up at the sound of the big man’s voice.
“Nothing daddy,” he stammered. “Bongani was just telling me to get out of his way so he can clean.” The boy dashed past his father and out the barn.
“Come Bongani, I need your help in the house.”
Bongani followed without a word. Once in the house he was led up the stairs and into a large bedroom. He gaped around the room. Thick heavy curtains were drawn shut, enveloping the room in darkness. A dishevelled bed stood against the wall. Around it photographs and papers were scattered among broken picture frames. To the side a chair lay tumbled over onto its back.
“You see that over there?” Sir pointed to a large red stain on the carpet. “I spilled some wine.”
“I will wash it, Sir.” Bongani said, proud that he was the one chosen for this important job inside the house.
“No, washing will not work. You need to remove the whole carpet.”
Bongani moved his gaze from the stain to the big bellied man. He wondered why Sir was wet with perspiration—he had never seen Sir do anything that made him sweat. His eyes trailed down to the man’s protruding stomach before latching on to his trembling hands.
“There’s some wine on your hands too, Sir,” he said.
Bongani watched as Sir’s frantic eyes rested on his stained hands.
“No matter about that,”—he barked—“just tidy this room, and get the carpet out of here.”
Bongani nodded and started picking up the scattered papers.
“Once you’re finished I need your help in the field.”
“In the field? By the long dry grass and the withered tree?”
“No, further along. It’s a special job. Bring some black plastic bags and the spade.” The big man headed to the door but turned around when he reached it. His eyes darted from the unmade bed to the stain on the carpet and then to Bongani. He stared at the young boy for a few moments before wiping his perspiration drenched forehead. “Be sure to say goodbye to Charlie before you leave. You will be out there for a long time.”
Bongani’s heart felt light and happy. What could this special job in the field be? Sir looked very serious so it must be important. If mama could see me now she would be so proud, he thought.