Zoo City


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Lauren Beukes is a writer, TV scriptwriter and recovering journalist (although she occasionally falls off the wagon). She has an MA in Creative Writing, but she got her real education in ten years of freelance journalism, learning really useful skills like how to pole-dance and make traditional sorghum beer. For the sake of a story, she’s jumped out of planes and into shark-infested waters and got to hang out with teen vampires, township vigilantes, AIDS activists and homeless sex workers among other interesting folk When she’s not tutoring her baby daughter (aka the queen of eeeeeeevil) in practical ways to take over the world, she also writes books, short stories, magazine articles and TV scripts various. Her non-fiction book, Maverick was nominated for the Sunday Times 2006 Alan Paton Non-Fiction Book of the Year competition. Zoo City won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2011.


I wake with a start, my heart thudding. Benoit is fast asleep, lying behind me so we’re curled together like a pair of quotation marks. It wasn’t the dream. There was a noise.

I sit up, listening carefully. There is the sound of running feet. A shout drifting up from the street. A door slams. More shouts. Gunshots. Unreasonably, I immediately think of Songweza. The way the sound is dulled, it seems like it’s coming from the Twist Street side, and I glance out the window to check. The street is quiet, not even a plastic bag stirring in the trees.

The Mongoose’s face appears at the end of the bed, nose snuffling as he stands up on his back paws to peer at me.

‘Looks like it’s just you and me.’ I slip out of bed, pulling on some clothes and a pair of slops. ‘The unholy alliance.’ Benoit doesn’t stir.

The lights are on at 608. I rap lightly on the door and Mr Khan, the little tailor whose wife has a talent for weaving anti-theft charms into his work, opens the door a moment later. He used to have a small shop in Plein Street, but now he does what business he can out of Elysium Heights. His wife, Mrs Khan supplements her charm-making by advising residents on government grant applications. It helps that her Black Scorpion is easily hidden in her handbag when she goes down to social welfare, with applications and ID books in hand.

Mr Khan beckons with little grabbing gestures for me to come in quickly before scurrying back to the window and the unfolding drama. I step over bolts of cloth and squeeze in round the sewing machine on the desk to the window, where Mrs Khan, their twelve-year-old daughter, the sex worker from across the passage and a man I can only assume is her patron for the hour, have taken up viewing positions, all looking down over the street. We’re not the only tenants enjoying a little four a.m. drama. On either side of us people are leaning out the windows to look, smoking and chatting. 

‘It’s these gangs,’ Mrs Khan tuts, shifting her weight to balance the sleeping baby on her hip. ‘And that damn private security.’ The police are a joke with a punch-line you’ve heard before. Armed response runs Zoo City and the downtown area the same way dogs piss on their territory. They’re only interested in protecting their buildings. If a crime happens across the road, it’s as if it doesn’t happen at all. They lose interest as soon as it’s out of their jurisdiction. Unfortunately, Elysium and Aurum fall out of the borders of privatised law. Our landlord is too snoep to pony up for protection. 

There is another crackle of gunfire. A muzzle flash is reflected in the broken windows of the building on the corner. Then a man scrambles out from the cover of the trees lining the avenue, firing back over his shoulder. His trainers make a tennis-court squeal as he skids on the wet tarmac. A Bear lumbers out behind him and looks both ways, as if checking for oncoming traffic.

This is not the strangest thing I have seen in our street. There was the attempted rape that was interrupted – Mrs Khan roused some of the larger men on our floor, and they beat the would-be rapist into a coma. There was the night D’Nice got stabbed, unfortunately not fatally. There was the murder in the stairwell a few weeks ago. But the weirdest was the night the owner of a local brothel paraded her girls and their menagerie naked down the street hoping to drum up new business. 

‘Dogfight turned bad,’ says one of the guys leaning out the window of 610, with great  authority.

‘Not too late to place your bets,’ his goateed friend says. But their laughter is hollow.

‘No, man,’ Mrs Khan says, annoyed, ‘shows what you know. It’s a gang war, definitely. The 207s were moving in on the Cameroonians two weeks ago now. This is revenge, you’ll see.’

Mr Khan tries to shoo his daughter back to her bed. ‘Come on, my baby, you need to rest for school tomorrow.’ But the girl doesn’t move. This is better than TV. And probably better than school too, as far as her life education is concerned.

On the street below, there is another shot. The Bear’s shoulder collapses with a jerk. It roars in pain, rises to its full height, and then seems to think better of it. The man tugs at the Bear’s arm, trying to get it to move. It roars again and then drops back on all fours. The man starts to run, gesturing urgently for the Bear to follow him. It starts after him. But it’s too late.

More bullets, AK-47 rounds this time, rip through the animal, knocking it sideways. The man screams and starts running back towards the Bear, then hesitates. The Bear shambles another step and then collapses on its backside with a surprised whuff. It tries to get up, confused. The AK-47 stutters again. The Bear’s forepaws slide out from under it. Its jaw strikes the kerb with an audible crack. The people at the window wince. Very slowly, the Bear’s head lolls to one side. The man turns and runs like hell is at his heels.

It will be.  

We hold our collective breath. A tsotsi holding that favourite weapon of revolutionaries, criminals and revolutionaries-turned-criminals walks cautiously out from beneath the scaffolding of the trees, the AK-47 at his hip ready to be swung up. There is a blur of wings hovering above his shoulder. A Hummingbird. He walks up to the Bear and prods it with his foot. It doesn’t move. He empties another clip into it anyway. The Bird darts forward to see, darts back again.

There are sirens in the distance. Private security, not police. You can tell by the pitch of the wail. The tsotsi looks up and sees half the building standing at their windows, watching. He gives us a cheerful wave and steps back into the trees, his Bird swooping about his head.

We know what’s coming. None of us say anything. The Mongoose paces the window ledge, whiskers quivering. The sirens get louder. The Bear lies motionless on the pavement beside the metal frame of a licensed vendor’s stall.

The air pressure dips, like before a storm. A keening sound wells up soft and low, as if it’s always been there, just outside the range of human hearing. It swells to howling. And then the shadows start to drop from trees, like raindrops after a storm. The darkness pools and gathers and then seethes. The Japanese believe it’s hungry ghosts. The Scientologists claim it’s the physical manifestation of suppressive engrams. Some eyewitness reports describe teeth grinding and ripping in the shadows. Video recordings have shown only impenetrable darkness. I prefer to think of it as a black hole, cold and impersonal as space. Maybe we become stars on the other side.

I turn away as it rushes down the road in the direction of the running man. Mr Khan covers his daughter’s eyes, even though it’s her ears he should be protecting. The screaming only lasts a few awful seconds before it is abruptly cut off.

‘Tsk,’ Mrs Khan says, to break the silence that’s weighing down on us, like someone has turned up the gravity. ‘This city.’



(C)  Lauren Beukes 2011

© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.