It has been a tough journey and it’s not over yet. A sense of foreboding tugs at me as I walk off the plane, through bright and shiny Durban airport, and out into the dark, dense night. We have been in transit for twenty-six hours, and we’re stressed and exhausted. My eyes are bloodshot and my emotions raw from too many hours in the coffin-like darkness of the cabin, watching zombie movies to pass the time, while my two-year-old slept fitfully in my cramped, stiff arms. The older kids, aged five and eight, have been taking in non-stop Disney-toons. They look wired—legs wobbly, eyes glazed—but we still have a two-hour drive ahead of us before this is over.

I wish my husband was with us. Steady as a rock, his calm would come in handy now. But he had to stay back in the U.S. (where we live) to finish off a project at work, before joining us.

Heavy rain thunders down on the roof of the arrivals terminal and gathers into rivers on the roadways. The still bodies of cars in the parking lot are indistinct through the haze of the downpour as I struggle to navigate the sudden cultural rerouting that happens every time I go home. The outside air is thick, and black, and heavy with wood smoke and humidity, and when it hits my skin the recognition of the place, the smell and feel of it, is primal, and sensual, and profound. It makes my cells hum.

My husband and I both grew up in South Africa, but we haven’t lived here for over a decade. Still, even our children think of it as our family’s real home. Every year we come back during the northern hemisphere summer, trying to stay connected, moving between relatives like nomads on the trail of belonging. But that sense of belonging—the fragile knowledge of our place in the world—gets more and more elusive every year. Partly because of the necessary and snow-balling cultural shifts that have been remaking our country; cutting new, unfamiliar curves and twists in the social landscape. But also because of something else: an ominous mood, a fatalism, a harsh and unpredictable criminality, and the shimmer of violence that hangs at the edge of everything.

My father meets us at the airport, running towards us out of the rain, head bent against the cold drops. He kisses each of us in turn, once, on the forehead, and then turns to lead us out into the storm.

A break in the rain allows us to load our luggage onto the canopy-covered back of his Ford pick-up truck. I feel self-conscious about how much stuff we have—the bags, and strollers, and car seats—too First World, excessive. No matter how many times I pack for this trip I can never make that adjustment while still in the States. I lift the kids in and tell them to sit on the bags, then climb in myself. My dad’s old dog, in her corner spot by the door, eyes us warily. It’s tight and claustrophobic as we head out onto the highway, and set off for a small village on the edge of a little coastal town called Port Shepstone.

My parents, once solidly middle class suburbanites, are now footloose and nomadic for the sake of a modest income. They often live in their caravan, moving where my dad’s employers want them to go. But they’ve rented a cottage here, at least in part to be able to accommodate this visit from us. Just as well, as my mom will say, or they would have washed away with the rest of the caravan park they had been staying in until a week before.

When my son needs to pee we have to stop at the side of the road. Smoldering orange smudges of fires in the night-bush remind us of the people out there. I wonder how they keep their fires alight in this weather—the on-and-off rain—making roofs with sheets of tin or canvas. Wood smoke drifts over the black tar, at times so thick that it obscures the speeding cars that scream by in the pitch of the night. I tell myself to stay calm, trying not to think about talk of high-jackings, and murders, and gangs that cruise the night searching out opportunities for crime. It’s always hard, but especially so when I’ve just arrived, to find the right balance of fear. What a target we would make: an old man, a young woman, and three young children. A cab full of expensive-looking bags of stuff. My father is impatient. He knows we shouldn’t linger here. We both watch my little boy, standing at the side of this road, unsteady on over-tired legs, taking much too long, peeing into a darkness he does not know. We look past him, into the night, watching for anything that moves.

An hour later, we reach the tiny cottage that is my parents’ new home. It used to be a servant’s room, set out in the back of a huge yard. The main house, a modestly sized Cape Dutch, used to be a second home, a holiday home, on the edge of the warm Indian Ocean, on the stunningly beautiful South Coast. Now it’s the only home of a man long unemployed, long divorced, counting coins to buy food for two beloved, scrappy little dogs which he will keep telling me are purebred, when we meet the next day. But for now he is hidden deep inside the thick brick walls and layers of security doors and burglar bars and all we see is a small yellow light seeping out from somewhere deep inside.

Inside our cottage we try to scrape together domesticity to calm the disorientation of travelling too far. The children are jetlagged and bewildered and can’t settle down. I make beds and my mother makes tea. My father goes to sleep outside in the caravan where he keeps his radio, his bible, his whiskey, and his gun. He and my mom will use that as their room during our visit. My husband—when he joins us—and I, will use theirs in the house.

My mother and I argue about the children. She thinks they’re misbehaving, need a firm hand. “You never behaved like this,” she says.

“How many times did you make us fly half-way round the world?” I reply, with too much agitation.

“You go to sleep,” I tell her then. “I will stay up with them.”

But she cannot. Duty-bound. Unwilling to abandon.

Eventually the children settle down and she heads out into the dark to her place beside my father.

As the children sleep, sharing thin mattresses in the tiny front room, I lie alone, just a few feet away, through the small kitchen, in my parents’ bed, watching the night through the tall windows next to me. Thick security bars cast shadowy geometric lines against dark glass. The windows are propped wide open to the warm, KwaZulu night, and the curtains, pulled to the sides, hang motionless in the soggy air. There is no wind, just the pounding, relentless rain, and beyond that the sound of heavy surf, of large breaking waves very close, pushing hard against the land, swollen by the engorged rivers pouring in around us.

The next day the rain is light and steady. We walk to the beach. Debris covers the sand and the rocks as far as we can see. There are fridges, and stoves, and baby-food bottles, shoes and hangers and plastic bags. We hear that the river over-ran its banks in the night, washing away camp sites and homesteads upstream. People drowned.

Dead fish have been washed out onto the rocks and sand of the beach, and then inland to the edge of the raised parking lot. Women and girls come walking out of the bush to collect the fish, filling their skirts with them.

It is the salt water that killed them, my father explains to my son. They are fresh-water fish, pushed out of the meandering river by the fury of the flood, and into a wide, rough ocean where they could not survive.

Zulu men and women in blue municipal overalls are building piles of garbage on the beach while scavengers carry off appliances and furniture. A rich-looking white woman directs a team of black laborers to load massive, ornate twists of pearly-white drift-wood, sculpted by disaster, onto a truck, while a very thin, grey-skinned, sickly-looking man in tattered clothes sits on a wall at the edge of the beach, watching. He slowly peals a big dark-green avocado with his teeth, spitting the strips of thick skin down onto the white sand below his dangling feet, and then bites into the buttery, rich flesh and chews it slowly.

By nightfall the piles of rubble are burning. They smolder for a day or two, slowly getting smaller. The workers pile on more: broken planks, blankets pulled out of the ocean, plastic bottles. There is a lot of broken glass which they collect with their hands and put into bins on the edge of the beach. The public school holidays are about to begin and the beaches must be cleaned. A week later they are, and the weather has cleared, and the splendor of this astonishingly beautiful place is restored: Lush green hills; crystal ocean water; white beach sand, and sunny warm days through the winter. The air smells faintly sweet, perhaps from the sugar cane farms all around, and slightly salty from the crisp sea breeze. It is a beauty that is startling no matter how many times you have taken it in.

Now we walk to the beach every day, past the 1970s ranch houses set deep in enormous, leafy yards, surrounded by tall fences. Some are neat and frozen in time, others starting to decay. We seldom see any people. When I was a child these would all have been the holiday and retirement homes for affluent people from the city. Now I don’t know who lives in them. About halfway between our cottage and the beach stands a new, ochre-colored double-story that doesn’t fit in. Drug money, people say. What’s left of the yard has been paved in brick, and on that hard, rough ground the guard dogs lie. We have to pass close to the gate; there is no other way to go. As we approach the house my son and daughter slow down, and walk closer to me. The toddler in her stroller reaches out a hand to grasp her sister’s. The two big German Shepherds will charge at us like they do every time we pass; their long toenails scratching the bricks as they crash into the eight-foot metal gate that keeps us out, and them in.

But once we’ve passed them, the mood lifts and the children grow impatient for the sea. We reach the top of the hill where the blue-black surface of the road spreads into a parking lot that slopes steeply down to where the ocean gleams. At the bottom edge of the lot, just above the beach, sits a small, square, raw-brick tuck-shop run by a thin, dark-skinned Indian man, with a serious chain-smoking habit, and a tiny, kind wife who does all the cooking. We buy lunch from them every day—hot dogs, and ‘curry bunnies,’ and ‘russians with chips’. He is protective of the children, keeping an eye on us from his spot above the beach. He has told me that they are “Indigo Children.” Children born at a particular time have heightened intelligence and special abilities. He says he can see the signs in my children.

At the top of the hill, I look down and see him sitting at the edge of the beach on his white plastic chair. He leans to one side, over his lanky crossed legs, one elbow propped on an armrest, a cigarette dangling from his fingers, gazing at the ocean as it flows to the horizon—sparkling blue splendor under a sharp sun. So I let the two older kids rush ahead, down to where the waves arc, smooth as glass, and crash onto the grainy, white sand and jagged, black rock. As they pass the tuck-shop man he turns and his face lights up. “Aaahh, good morning,” he yells after them, and my daughter spins in a full circle, giving him a broad smile, and runs on after her brother.

I can already feel the fine mist of salt spray that rises from the water as I push the stroller down the hill, past a group of municipal workers lying, crouching, sitting on the grassy edge of the parking lot. A few of them watch as we pass. Most appear not to notice us. I greet with a nod, and a woman responds with a slight dip of her head.

We set up camp on the beach.

My husband arrived the day before, and has gone into town in search of an internet café, with the promise that he will join us on the beach soon. I keep glancing up to look for him. I notice a small boy in swimming shorts playing nearby, peaking between rocks, squatting down to dig in the sand. A man is with him but he doesn’t sit down. He follows close to the boy, talking to him constantly.

The man is in his sixties. He looks fit and strong. The fair European skin on his face and fore-arms, and under his thinning hair, shows the blotches of sun-damage ubiquitous among white South Africans. But I notice how uncertain he seems. A nervousness that is out of sync with his muscular shoulders and expensive looking shorts. He watches the boy too closely, and won’t let him wander more than a few yards before calling him back. The boy is watching my son, who was given a fish by some passing fishermen and has it flapping noisily in an overfull plastic bucket. So I invite the boy closer. I greet the man, and he comes over and says hello. I ask if they’re on holiday, and where they’re staying. He tells me that the boy is his grandson, that he is looking after him for the last time, while his daughter, the boy’s mother, packs up their house.

“She’s moving to Australia,” he tells me. “We had a bad experience in our home in Jo’burg. It’s happened before so she’s had enough.”

I don’t ask what happened. Johannesburg has a reputation. Unthinkable things seem almost commonplace.

“It’s gotten too bad here,” he says.

“Everyone seems to be leaving these days,” I say. “All our friends are trying to decide whether to stay or go. We don’t live here anymore.”

He looks at his feet, at the boy, at me. He scans the beach quickly, looking for any threats.

“Do you think you will go, too?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “I grew up here. I’ll never leave.”

I follow the sweep of his eyes across the clean, fresh water, the soft, sun-warmed sand, the deep, blue sky. Then he turns again to watch the small, bare back of his grandson, who will grow up somewhere else.

On the edge of the beach, leaning on the rim of a cement rubbish bin, a lone black-skinned man in torn shorts watches us.

That night, after the day’s sunburn has been treated, and the abandoned seashell collections left to dry outside, pale as elephant bones in the light of a small moon, time slows and almost stops. Through the heavy fog of sleep, I realize that my mother is leaning into the dark bedroom, framed in the doorway by a dim light, urgently whispering my husband’s name. He stirs beside me, and I hear her say, “Someone has been in the house.”

Instantly awake, I reach a hand to the crib next to our bed to feel the child sleeping there and then walk, quickly, through the kitchen to the front of the tiny cottage, where my two older children are.

In the dark they are little mounds on the floor, and I kneel beside them, and put my hands on them to feel for the rhythmic rise and fall of their breath. A rush of adrenaline has swollen my heart, and it thumps uncomfortably in my chest, and makes my breathing heavy.

A few feet away, in the bathroom, a window is propped open above the bath-tub; the security bars gone. I stand on the cold, tiled floor and stare at dark smudges on the edge of the white tub where muddy feet slipped slightly as they felt their way down in the dark.

The front door stands ajar. The key that was on a hook in the kitchen when we went to bed, dangles from the inside lock.

Outside, in a dim circle of light, cut from the deep darkness of the world beyond, is my skinny, grey-haired mother, crouching in her baggy pajamas; pale, bare feet on the patchy lawn, gathering up the scattered contents of her purse.

We know we have been lucky. Wanton violence is a common feature of home invasions in South Africa. Almost everybody has a story to tell and some you’d rather not hear.

Afterwards, my husband locks up while I make sweet, milky tea. My mother sits at her warped, plastic kitchen table, placing desperate, increasingly frustrated calls to cancel her credit card. She reacts with exasperation when we suggest calling the police, and then softens her tone.

“Things have changed in South Africa,” she says. “You don’t realize because you don’t live here.”

Two days earlier I read a report claiming one in three policemen is illiterate, ten percent can’t drive, and one in eight is being investigated for criminality. But no one is certain and it doesn’t matter anyway, because people don’t live by statistics but by what they see and hear, and by what their friends tell them. They tell each other not to stop at traffic lights after dark, or for police vans at night. And never if you see what looks like a body lying in the road. They say the police can’t help you, they can barely help themselves, and the private security companies, paid for by landowners who don’t trust the police, are really “spotters” for crime gangs, identifying houses that are easy targets. And then some say all those rumours are just racism and fear.

My mother says the police might not even come out, and if they did we’d have little common language between us since they don’t speak much English and we don’t speak any Zulu and they’d never do anything about the break-in anyway.

In spite of my mother’s agitation there is a resignation about her that is as unsettling as the break-in itself. My father—an old white guy in a politically hostile environment, who has to work hard to keep his low-paying management job—is so tired that she hasn’t even woken him. The landlord, who never sleeps at night, called my mom’s cell phone to say there were men creeping around the property in the dark. He doesn’t come out of his house to check on us till morning.

We don’t call the police in the end. We drink our tea, recheck the locks, and head back to bed. I take a large fishing knife with me. It has a curved, wooden handle and deep serrations, which catch a little as I tuck it between the mattress and the baseboard. It feels a bit ridiculous, but it also feels better than having nothing. Somewhere in the quiet of the gathering dawn dogs bark urgently, as though our visitors are making their way down the street, house by house.


Melissa Webster holds an MA from Johns Hopkins Krieger School, where she received the Outstanding Graduate award in 2011. Her writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Agape Review; New Contrast; The Mail and Guardian; Harare News; Outside In Literary Travel Magazine; The Centre Magazine; and Up, Do : Anthology of flash fiction. Her short story, “Space To Fall” was produced as the award winning short film Freestate, and optioned for a feature film. Melissa lives in Cape Town.