I should have known better than to demand my father stop the car. We were on day one of a projected three-week trip and my father’s much reiterated aim was to check in at the Zululand Safari Lodge before dark. But we’d been on the road for three long uninterrupted hours and I was tired and twelve and willing to seize upon any opportunity to stop, to spend money.
Roadside stands were a common enough sight on the highways and byways of South Africa and there was nothing to suggest that this one—set up on the otherwise empty stretch of highway between Mtubatuba and Shikishela—was anything special. But I was drawn to it, irresistibly.
Normally my father would sigh at my avidity: he might moan or discreetly roll his eyes heavenward, or cast a look of weary allegiance towards my mother. But in the end he would always give in. This time, though, he shot boldly past the stand. And without a word. I sulked. I cried. I made an exhibition of myself.
I remember the jingle playing on the radio, ‘we love braaivleis, rugby, sunny skies and Chevrolet, Braaivleis, rugby, sunny skies and Chevrolet …’ as my parents began to argue, as there rose from me a crescendo of complaint, a demented throbbing chorus that grew louder and more intense until at last my father gave out a strange cry and hit the brakes hard, bringing the big Chevrolet to a skidding halt.
For a time no-one spoke. Then my mother began to cry. I felt torn between wanting to flee and wanting to make things better, for already I was feeling guilty. But the lure of the stand was strong and I got out of the car and walked back along the hot road in the direction of the makeshift table set up in front of the parked kombivan.
In the passenger seat sat a white man with long stringy blond hair, smoking a cigarette, one tanned arm hanging from the window. Behind the table, on which were arrayed trinkets and brooches, pendants and beads and figurines, some beaded jewellery, a couple of little boxes, a clumsily fashioned giraffe, nothing to interest me, stood a black man of about thirty-five. I didn’t like his scarred face, nor his insincere smile.
I was about to head back to the car when I saw tucked half out of sight two little wooden legs. I reached out and discovered that they belonged to a little dark stick creature. I stared, captivated, breathing deeply in and deeply out, before taking him up into my hands.
The Tokolosche is a familiar figure in South African folklore, a small hairy creature—rarely if ever up to any good—and about which I had first learned from Iris, our Zulu maid. Iris liked of an afternoon to gather up all the shoes in the house and to sit cross-legged in our courtyard polishing one after the other while relating to me African folktales that purported, in their final sentence, to explain how things had come to be how they were: And so that is how the hippo lost all his fur!
What I liked to hear about were the Tokolosche. These creatures terrified Iris and she told me that her husband had placed their bed up on paint tins to prevent them from ‘joining her’ at night. She cautioned me always to sleep on my back, and blushed when I asked why.
At school, Garth de Mierwe told me that the Tokolosche was a sex maniac and endowed with a penis so long it had to be slung over its shoulder.
There was no sign of a penis here but of course this little Toki was only a wooden approximation crafted of stick and a greasy sort of twine, a cheaply, crudely fashioned thing with little patches of fur, like a cheap nylon, glued to his little legs, his arms, and on his head. His plastic eyes, not the least bit lifelike, were glued haphazardly, crude white paste leaking out of the side of its left eye like the crust of sleep. Sharp teeth cut bluntly from white cloth. And a little red smudge of tongue.
I held it up to the black man who smiled knowingly and took the figure from me. My mother was standing beside me now and it was to her that he made his pitch. Speaking in fluent English he claimed that the figure protected its owner against evil spirits, that it brought good fortune, prosperity and excellent health, guaranteed. I turned to my mother, who reluctantly asked the man how much it was. He told her. And my heart sank. Even I could see that this little Toki was overpriced. And yet she smiled a little smile, and paid.
It was after eight, and dark, by the time we turned off the third and final exit and drove up the dirt road to the Safari Lodge. A young black woman showed us to our huts by torchlight and once settled I examined my little Toki.
He was a fragile thing and although I wanted to keep him close I worried that if I took him to bed I might by rolling about destroy him. There was a small stand beside my bed, with two drawers. In the top one I found a Gideon’s Bible. I took it out, dropped it into the bottom drawer and slid Toki in the top drawer.
I slept until six, when I was woken by a single brisk knock on the door. I sat up and watched as a young black man came into my room, bearing a wooden tray upon which sat a tea pot and a single cup. He smiled broadly at me and placed the tray on a small stand at the end of my bed. After checking that Toki was safely in his place I fell back to sleep for another two hours, wondering when at last I woke to full daylight whether the young black man had been an apparition. But there it was, the tea tray, perched on the table at the end of my bed.
We saw, on our first day at the lodge, antelope and impala, warthog and giraffe. None distracted me long from the thought of my little Toki waiting for me in his drawer. And as soon as we returned I rushed back to my hut to check that he was where I’d left him.
And there he was, looking, I thought, in his wooden, expressionless way, pleased to see me. I set him beside me on my pillow and began to talk. I told him about my parents, and about our house in Durban, and about Iris, and how at night you could see from our back yard, glittering beyond the sugar plantations, the lights of the township she lived in. And when I told him about the time my uncle on a hunting trip to Tanzania had shot an elderly leopard out of a tree I could almost hear him laugh.
That first day set the pattern for the following week—a pattern to which, day by day, I increasingly did not, or was not able to, conform. For I soon started to weaken, to sicken, in fact, to the point where, on the fourth day, a doctor had to be called in.
But first I must explain what happened on our second night.
We’d gone that day on yet another game drive, further afield this time, beyond the confines of the Safari Park and into Umfolozi National Park where lions and rhinos and elephants and leopards freely roamed. I went to bed early and had started telling Toki about my day when my father came in and asked me who I was talking to. I pretended not to know what he was talking about.
I fell quickly asleep, forgetting entirely to say goodnight to Toki. Perhaps it was this oversight—this omission—that led to what happened next. I woke sometime in the early morning to a scratching sound. It was coming from the drawer. Carefully I opened it and there erupted a great shriek. It was a sound like that of an animal caught in a trap, and it echoed alarmingly around the hut. I slammed the drawer shut. It took me a moment to realise that the shrieking in fact was my own.
My father was the first on the scene. I pulled myself together. I told him that I’d had a bad dream, that he should go back to bed, that I was fine, absolutely fine. And when I was once more alone I slowly, and with thundering heart, opened the drawer again.
Apart from his eyes, which had taken on a new sheen, a new depth, and had come to luminous life, the thing that struck me most forcibly about Toki’s transformation was the way he was breathing: rapidly, as a terrified animal might. For some reason I thought of a crouching frog, breathing in and out great bellyfuls of air—but of course he looked nothing like a frog. He was far too hairy, for one thing. No longer a bundle of sticks and glue and nylon fur, he was now completely covered with a glossy black pelt. It looked silky to the touch, almost but not quite oily.
I could see by his swivelling, fear-filled eyes that he was more terrified than I; even so it took me several minutes before I reached out to touch him. He made a little squeaking sound and scampered further back into the corner of the drawer, breathing even more rapidly. I put my finger to my lips and shushed him. It was clear that he understood. He continued to cower, but quietly.
The Tokolosches I’d heard about were trickster figures, brim full of devilish confidence, and possessed of sexual mania. This little creature, which shuddered under my softest touch, whose little heart beat and trembled, when eventually he let me stroke him, inspired in me tremendous love. I no longer felt myself in any kind of danger.
After he had settled somewhat I reached into the drawer and ever so gently levered my hand underneath him—he felt strange and moist: had he wet himself, I wondered, in his terror?—and very slowly I lifted him up. I held him for a time in the palm of my hand and once his breathing had settled I placed him very lightly on my pillow.
I can’t say how long I lay there, looking at him, while he, sitting on my pillow, inches from my face, looked back at me with his rich dark shining eyes. I soon discovered that my voice, far from alarming him, appeared to calm him. I murmured at first sweet nothings, which he quickly appeared to grow bored with, and so I told him instead about our visit to St Lucia two days earlier, and about the way the ranger banged on the side of the boat each time we went round a bend in the river so as not to startle the hippos. I talked just to keep talking. And when after a time he seemed to grow tired—his eyes narrowing, his chin dipping—I put him back inside the drawer.
I lay awake for a long time, though I must eventually have dozed off because at six-thirty I was once again startled by the knock at the door and the delivery of my tea tray.
The first thing Toki demanded, when eventually he spoke, was food.
I will do my best to explain what it was like, listening to the little beast speak. It began as a kind of intuition—by this I mean that I had a vague sense of what he was thinking or hoping to say. These intuitions gradually began to formalise themselves into words, into complete sentences—not out loud, you understand, but as a kind of silvery whisper in my mind—and soon we were able to conduct entire conversations. No subject, no idea, however abstract, seemed beyond his grasp.
Toki was clear in expressing his needs and desires and it made perfect sense to me that having taken on a living shape he now required sustenance, nourishment. The only trouble was that his appetite grew and grew. At first he made do with the occasional snack—a few gummi bears, some crisps, the chocolate mint from the pillow—but it seemed that the more he ate the greater his appetite became. I began smuggling leftovers from breakfast and lunch and dinner into the hut for him, which soon became a risky business. In the end, though, when I became too weak to leave the hut, Toki simply polished off everything that was brought to me on a tray. This confused the clinical picture. Why, my parents wanted to know, if I was eating so much did I appear to be wasting away? The less I ate, the more he needed to. By the third day I had no appetite at all—and when my parents forced me to eat, I could not keep it down.
In the morning I sat just outside the hut on a folding chair watching the zebras graze and the other guests traipse to the pool and back, white towels slung over their shoulders. I overheard my mother and father arguing about me. How sullen I’d become, how remote! My father said that I was heading towards adolescence and that this sort of behaviour was to be expected; but my mother made the point that I hadn’t been like this a week ago.
I grew anxious. How long before they made the connection? After an hour or so I went back to bed and cleaned out Toki’s drawer. Perhaps I should explain here, for the curious or practical-minded, that once he started eating he also started shitting. This too made perfect sense. He was now a living thing and I suppose that what goes in must come out. I spread out in the bottom of Toki’s drawer some two-day-old newspaper and this I replaced twice a day. Even when my whole body ached, when fever swept through me, when I was too ill and weak to reach for my glass of water, I scrupulously cleaned out the whiffy little pellets he left in a corner. I hated the thought of Toki sitting in his own shit.
That afternoon I managed to walk the 500 metres to the watering hole and there I sat watching as first the warthog and then twenty minutes later the nyala drank their fill. By the time I walked back to the hut, the sheets had been changed and there was a new chocolate mint on the pillow. I unwrapped it and gave it to Toki; he ate it eagerly. I rolled the green foil into a little ball and flicked it high into the air. Toki and I watched it rise. Toki and I watched as it fell down near my feet.
It was on the third night that I received my first ever blow job. My parents had booked a night game drive and by this point it was obvious that I was far too unwell to come along. They didn’t like to leave me alone, they said, but this was precisely what I longed for, to be left alone, or rather to be left alone with Toki, and so I insisted that that they go.
Little Toki was an expert cocksucker—he managed to keep his sharp little fangs well out of the way, and seemed to have no gag reflex. You might argue that I was still young and that size wasn’t likely to be much of an issue, and in a sense you’d be right; but bear in mind that Toki, for all his growth, was himself only a small beast—smaller than an infant—and the way he took my little prick all the way down to the shaft, his cold wet nose pressed into my sparsely haired crotch, is surely to be applauded.
I wasn’t ejaculating in those far-off days, but I did reach what I’d now call a dry orgasm: a tingling sensation in the tip of my cock built to a climactic shiver, which then ran through my balls and even up into my stomach. Little Toki, his tongue flickering at the corners of his mouth, crawled down my leg, nestling comfortably against my right ankle and here, for the rest of this our second-last night together, he slept soundly.
It was on the fourth day that the doctor was summoned. The Zululand Safari Lodge did not have one to call its own but they did have an arrangement with a larger hotel in nearby Ubizane. Dr Traugott was a sandy-haired man with great big freckled hands, small yellow teeth and a chattering mouth.
Even now I can feel the cold chill of his stethoscope on my bare chest and on my back, and smell his warm, sour and not entirely unpleasant breath. Examination over, he asked my parents whether he could have a few moments alone with me. I saw their hesitation but they did as he asked.
Once they were gone from the hut he sat down on the bed beside me, fished about in his coat and retrieved a pipe that, after elaborate preparations, he lit. I thought this a strange thing for a doctor to do during an examination, even in those days. I watched as he puffed. His pale eyes had taken on a misty vacant look but when he turned to look at me they had cleared to a new lucidity. He asked me whether I’d been seeing strange things.
A part of me wanted to point to the drawer where Toki sat, to be rid of my secret. But I did not reply.
‘What about strange dreams?’
I was silent.
That was when he asked, ‘Are you eating the food they bring you—or are you disposing of it?’
I nodded again.
After some more questioning—and I was honest in my answers, though without ever giving Toki away—the doctor called my parents back in. The problem, he told them, was not within his competence. They asked, what sort of problem was it, then? It was a spiritual matter, said the doctor—the German word he used was seelisch.
‘I’d like the boy to see my colleague,’ said the doctor. ‘Dr Mngabu is his name. He’s what we call a sangoma.’
‘A witch doctor, you mean.’ This from my father.
‘Dr Mngabu is a traditional healer,’ replied Dr Traugott, coolly. ‘He lives and practises in a nearby village.’
‘Will he come here?’ asked my mother.
‘No. We will have to go see him. Tomorrow.’
Thereupon ensued much uproar, much debate. But eventually an agreement was reached: my father would accompany me and Dr Traugott.
I feel a little embarrassed setting down what happened next. Suffice it to say that sometime between midnight and breakfast I felt a long Toki cock sliding up inside me. My arsehole when I woke on that fifth morning was raw and bruised and burning and I finally understood what Iris warned about all those years earlier. There was even some spotting on the sheets and I remember thinking what a good thing it was that we weren’t home: it would have been a challenge there to hide the laundry from my mother. Here at the lodge the sheets were changed each day as if by magic and I knew that by the time I returned from my visit to the witch doctor the sheets would be fresh and tight and crisp. And if I didn’t return—well, then it wouldn’t matter, would it.
I wish I could describe the journey from the lodge to the village but for most of the trip I was stretched out across the back seat, the plush velour against my hot cheek, my eyes closed. At one point I turned onto my back but all I could see were snatches of vast sky and the odd power line. We turned onto a rocky track, unsuited to the long wheelbase and soft suspension of the Chevvie, and then the car stopped. Staggering out of the back seat, I could see what appeared to be a small village, a few scattered beehive huts. We were greeted by a youthful woman bedecked in beads who kissed the doctor on both cheeks and lightly touched the top of my head before directing us to the second hut on the left. My father wished me luck, shook my hand. The doctor bent low and explained, his hot sour breath tickling my ear, that I must upon entering the hut lick the sangoma’s hand. I did not argue, so glazed and dazed and emptied out was I.
My impression of the inside of the hut was a blurred and queasy thing; I felt uneasy. I remember that cow-tail fly whisks hung on the walls; I remember a great number of glass jars; and that herbs lay drying on what looked like tea towels on the ground. It was dark and warm and there hung in the air a resiny smell.
The witch doctor, who crouched in front of a wall of glass jars, was wrapped in a cloak of leopard skin. Tied about his waist was a pouch made from the dried-out bladder of a goat. He extended his hand, palm up, and leaning over, I licked it. The sangoma nodded, gestured for me to sit straight, and stared at me for a long time. Then he began to ask, all in gestures you understand, for not a word passed between us, a series of questions.
Once I had answered gesture with gesture, as honestly as I was able, he began to burn what smelled like sage in a small ceramic pot, adding to this various dried herbs and who knew what else from the glass jars arrayed behind him.
When he gestured for me to get undressed, I felt no scruple. Nor did I feel fear when he took from his pouch a razor blade. The small incision he made, just above my right temple, was painless. But when he dipped his right index finger into the medicine, the muti he had made, and began to massage the potion into the cut, I winced. It stung and it throbbed. He repeated this procedure at my left temple, at the point where my collar bone met my shoulder, and—turning me gently about—on each cheek of my bum. Then he indicated for me to get dressed.
I sat before him and watched as he began throwing an assortment of bones and coloured pebbles onto a mat. This he stared at for a time, before smiling broadly, pleased apparently with what he saw. He gave me a very small pebble to swallow and this I did baulk at, but he persisted and I gave in. The last thing I remember is that he began making crosses in the air above me and in front of me, to the left of me and to the right of me …
It was night when I came to, and cold. The witch doctor was gone. There was a gas lamp in the corner, and by its flickering light I could see the anxious face of my father peering over me. The doctor, who stood beside him, wore a satisfied look, a little complacent. I was feeling much better that night as we drove back to the lodge: still weak and frail but somehow in possession of myself. It would have been impossible to navigate the way without the directions of Dr Traugott. I sat upright this time and as we drove through the not-so-dark night—for it was the night of the super moon—I saw illuminated by its pale light no end of wonders.
Back at the lodge, I went straight to my hut. The bed was made as I knew it would be. And there was the mint chocolate on the pillow. I sat there for a moment on the edge of the bed, and began unwrapping the chocolate. I bit into it and watched with pleasure as the lurid green filling began to ooze out. I caught it just in time with my quick tongue. I chewed, swallowed, and placed the remaining chocolate in my mouth. Only then did I pull open the drawer and peering in saw all that was left of Toki—a few sticks, a twist of twine, and a smear of stinky mud.