January 14, 2015
It took four nights of heavy drinking, cajoling, and a wet kiss from Leon’s girl Fadanaz for Thursday to say he would consider going into the water. Even then he never thought it would come to pass. But soon they were sitting in the Merc next to a row of strelitzia palms that wound along a dirt road to the beach in the dusk, their fronds spreading out like press-on fingernails. He would have been able to hear the pounding surf if Leon wasn’t thumping his Kwaito music, and they’d both grown up near the sea so he didn’t smell the seaweed any more. Thursday had resolved that this time he would be firm with Leon—he was not going in the water, there was no way he was going in.
“I can’t do it, my broer,” Thursday declared. “I don’t know how.”
“Come on, Thursday,” Leon said. “I started with nothing. I was out there in the rocks all alone with the police, pulling myself on the kelp.” Leon laughed, in awe of himself, reminiscing. “Should have been on the news. I can barely even swim. You’ve got the breather and my lank equipment. The breather is easier than a tank.” He began pumping his head to the syncopated rhythms of the Kwaito.
“Can’t you give me your mask?”
“I gave you my old mask, voetsak. My new one cost a thousand bucks. It’s not my fault you’ve got a conch for a nose.”
“You must be mad,” Thursday said. “I’m not going out there. There’s a storm coming. There’s sharks.”
“There hasn’t been an attack in months.”
Thursday was skeptical. Attacks on poachers were never reported anyway. Another diver would deliver the news to the family, and if he was polite, give over whatever money he’d made from selling his catch. That was how it worked in Hermanus.
“You sure?” Thursday asked.
Leon assured him that no poacher had been attacked in months and reminded Thursday of his victories on the swim team in Standard Eight. “You need a lookout, Thursday. That’s the first rule. I would have let you be the lookout, but I’m sick.” He shivered for emphasis. “I set everything up yesterday. If you don’t take the perlies someone else will. Just go for the blue plastic eggs. I’m the only one who uses them. There’s hundreds. Maybe five hundred. That’s like two hundred thousand rand. But I’m not selfish: you just take as many as you can and bring them back.” He showed him a pistol stashed beneath his seat. “Don’t worry. We’re protected.”
You’ve got to be firm, Thursday thought. He reached over and turned off the stereo. “Don’t listen to your music. I don’t want any cops.”
“Stop being such a poes. You said you need the money, right? I’m doing you a favor. The cops stop at four and it’s seven o’clock. You’ve got the cell phone, né?”
Thursday adjusted the condom-wrapped cell phone he’d shoved next to his crotch. “You’ll call if they come?”
“Of course.” “No music.” “Ja, no music.”
They went over it one more time. He was to look for the plastic eggs, the blue ones with sand in them. Three buzzes on the cell phone or six flashes on the light meant get out of the water. Thursday took the dry suit and the fins and the surface breather. The condom was lubricated so the cell phone slipped down to his calf by the time he walked along the crescent beach and waded into the surf.
Thursday swam around for half an hour in the bay, kicking his fins quickly from fear in the darkness, and the only thing of interest he found was an old warped field hockey stick. Leon had made it sound like the visibility would be just like the television show Baywatch, and once he was underwater he’d see everything as clear as a bathtub. The blue plastic eggs would be sparkling like jewelry, and he would be able to kick leisurely down and scoop up the abalone. But fog kept covering his mask and he had to blow out hard with his nostrils to get the steam out, then there was the problem of the umbilical line of the surface breather, which must have had a leak in it, because the air had a wet taste to it that made him wheeze. He could see about a meter in front of him. In the blackness there could be anything: fish, abalone, a whale, a rock, a chest of gold doubloons.
Moonlight streaked down and he realized he was near a kelp bed; then the shafts retracted behind a cloud bank. He kicked towards the edge of the kelp bed and turned on the flashlight attached to the tip of his speargun. An octopus scowled at him from a cragged rock, but when he reached in to grab it, it disappeared in a splotch of ink. There was nothing else in the water but kelp and tiny green diatoms, things he could not eat or sell, not even a crab. He could not believe it—Leon said he’d been here only yesterday, and marked the area with a blue plastic egg. He’d said five hundred. Thursday had expected fifty.
But now everything had been picked clean and canned, or picked clean and dried, bound on a ship to the Orient. Perhaps another diver had already found the plastic eggs. There was no point in shivering in the water.
His head surfaced in a white rush of foam. In the distance, he could see the stacks of dark-churning clouds being flash-bulbed by the heavens above Old Hermanus. The storm’s advance was not fast—Leon had been right about that. On shore, the soft curl of the beach spread blue in the moonlight, and dim stars shined through the mozzie net of salt spray. Leon had parked the car behind the tallest tree. Thursday lifted the flashlight from the water and beamed out a simple signal, telling him that he would be coming back on shore.
He waited for Leon’s response, and it came. Four flashes, nothing else. This had no meaning other than the fact that he was there waiting and not, hopefully, listening to music.
But then there was another flashlight: moving, bobbing. A light that had come from the beach. No, two of them. Moving quickly.
He could see them bouncing up and down the sand and out towards the forest, then disappear into the dark foliage behind the beach. Then, a flash of red and blue lights from far on the other side of the beach streaking towards the foliage, right where Leon was waiting.
Treading, he saw Leon’s headlights go on and then start out through the forest, and then just as soon stop. The red lights and flashlights surrounded the car. Two more sets of red and blue lights approached on the beach and he could hear the warble of a megaphone. Some muffled dog barks. There was no way around it: Leon was caught.
“Yissus!” Thursday breathed.
He sank and rose in the rhythm of the night swells. Leon had not prepared him for this situation. Other than the flash signals, they had not developed any kind of plan for arrest. He had no idea what to do as he de-fogged his mask.
Suddenly, a wide beam of light swathed through the waves around him. He rose up in a swell and turned to see another wave about to crash, but he ducked his head under the wave with the respirator clumsily in his mouth. Shouting voices could be heard: “—one hundred meters… ident—” Then more barks, more megaphone.
The swell rose up and the beam of light came closer, and when he sank with it, the light silhouetted him briefly in his lycra-capped skull onto the approaching swell, then moved off him. But in a few seconds the beam had swung back around and steadied onto his head. They’d spotted him.
A rogue wave dropped down on Thursday hard and pushed his head below, tumbling him about. He swallowed water and surfaced and be- gan to cough, but the umbilical line was sucked into the next swell and before he could take his lips off the respirator it pulled his whole body forward as it got caught into the surf and advanced towards the beach. His mouth exploded in pain. He cut himself free with the tip of his spear gun, then finned down hard and held his breath, listening to the steady chug of the boat. The breather rumbled and gasped as the brine seeped into the battery, sending up green alkaline tufts of cloud.
Under the flotsam he could hear the engine of the police boat as it coordinated the arrest with the officers on the shore. They would be watching for air bubbles. Maybe for his flashlight, too. He could make out the boat’s clothes-iron silhouette against the moonlit surface. When it passed over, he kicked up, taking a few more breaths. The police spot- light was fixed on the surface breather and already he could see a long hook being extended down into the water to pick it up. He dove down again, finning hard, until he was clear of the wave break. The police boat continued scanning the waves in the surf with its spotlight.
“This is the police!” the megaphone blared. “We know you are here! Come to the surface and identify yourself or we will shoot!”
That didn’t sound like the police. The Hermanus police were soft and never shot anyone, much less put any poachers in jail. That was why half the town poached: easy money with low probability of capture. A few months of steady abalone picking and you could buy yourself a Merc. That’s what Brother Leon had told him tonight, anyway, in his Merc.
Two sharp cracks rang out and Thursday could see the water splash up in the circle of the spotlight in the surf.
But he could see from the spotlight that the boat was headed in the wrong direction, towards a cove popular with the poachers. Maybe there were other divers out tonight. Hopefully there were. He caught another breath and sank down again in the black wash of the sea.
The storm clouds slowly swallowed up the moon, and he found him- self in total darkness, with no sense of up or down. His imagination went wild and he started to panic: sharks, hostile poachers, police bullets, all of them could be hurtling towards him in the water. He fumbled to hit the button on his flashlight, expecting to see a jaw full of jagged teeth about to gulp him whole, or a bullet streaking towards his brain.
But there, in the midst of the shooting and the raid and the approach- ing storm, he didn’t see any sharks. No bullets, either. What Thursday saw instilled in him the deepest relief he’d had since he’d left Abalone Silver: the beacon of the blue plastic egg. He’d descended right into Leon’s abalone patch.
The mollusks were healthy and active in the night, sliming along the rock in a little garden of red gracilaria. There were urchins, a couple of crayfish, and a rock lobster. He found a largish looking abalone covered with seaweed and pried it off. The abalone slid its foot onto his hand and nursed at it like a babe.
He couldn’t believe its weight: enormous, much bigger than the oldest abalone at the farm. It was so big that the shell covered both his hands. Maybe thirty years old, maybe forty, and worth a few thousand bucks by itself. The flat kelp noodled up harmless to the surface, and nothing dangerous was in sight.
Above him the boat chugged off towards the cove, expecting the div- ers to flee onto the beach. Any other novice would have swum into the hands of the cops by now. But Thursday was beginning to feel comfort- able without the tangled line of the surface breather. And amongst the abalone, with their patient ways, he felt to be amongst friends. He could hold his breath longer than most people and his ears didn’t bother him when he dove down deep. He just had to be careful about the spotlight.
It would be some time before the police boat stopped searching, and he might as well make the best of it. It would take maybe ten trips. He took out his pry bar and went to work.
DEJI BRYCE OLUKOTUN graduated from the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town, where he was taught by South African writers André Brink, Mike Nicol, Andre Wiesner, and Henrietta Rose-Innes. He also holds degrees from Yale College and Stanford Law School. His novel Nigerians in Space, a thriller about brain drain from Africa, was published by Unnamed Press. His work has been featured in Vice, Slate, GigaOm, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, Guernica, The Millions, World Literature Today, ESPN, Chimurenga, Global Voices, Joyland, Words Without Borders, Alternet, Huffington Post, PEN America, The London Magazine, Molussus, The Beat, and Men’s Health. Deji is an attorney with a background in human rights and technology. He currently works at the digital rights organization Access, where he drives campaigns on net neutrality and surveillance. Before that, he fought for free expression and the defense of writers around the world at PEN American Center with support from the Ford Foundation.
Adapted from Nigerians in Space, by Deji Bryce Olukotun, Copyright © 2014 by Deji Bryce Olukotun. With the permission of the publisher, Unnamed Press.