The Shadow Box
Nonku had been in a car before. Her Grade R teacher had once grown concerned at a persistent cough that she had had for many days. Mr Shabangu was a kind and pious man, and a gentle instructor, and a great teller of compassionate stories. He had brought the child’s cough to her mother’s attention, but his concern was met with rebuff. After days of no improvement, he resolved to take the child to a doctor himself.
He drove an ancient blue sedan, cancerous with rust. It was likely far older than Nonku herself, but to the child, it was as good as a gilded chariot. It smelled nice, a rosary hung from the rear-view mirror, and—except for papers and books strewn across the back seat—its interior was immaculate.
That had been the only car ride in the inventory of Nonku’s memory. Fond was she of the recollection; the intrusion of kindness into her life that day resulted in her swift convalescence.
For the second time in her life, she was a passenger in a kind grownup’s car. Like the first time, she felt distressed and unwell and a little afraid. Unlike the first time, the feelings were not to be transitory.
The social worker’s vehicle was much nicer and more luxurious than Mr Shabangu’s, but Nonku could not tell nor would she care for such nuance. To her, a car was a car, and they were all magnificent and opulent.
They drove for a long time and Navi played music on the radio. Nonku did not recognise the songs, for she only knew some hymns and folk songs meant for the singing of schoolchildren. Nonetheless, the mezzo-piano of a string quartet sounded to her like the sort of music one might hear in Heaven, and her eyes closed to the gentleness of it. It made her think of her mother, which she had tried very hard not to do. Was her mother in Heaven? She had not yet been instructed in Hell and its antecedents, but she wondered with rudimentary reason: if all the dead are given up to Heaven, then what wrongdoing could there be in the world that merit be dispensed at its repudiation? She had seen that mercy is rarely offered to those most in need, and if the unprivileged living dwell in fissures where material salvation will not reach, then such low places bereft of grace must also exist in the world to come. That is where the unprivileged dead surely go, and her mother was now among them, she thought. Her bottom lip began to quiver.
Nonku surrendered a sniffle that was not unnoticed by Navi who turned down the music. Are you hungry yet, Nonku? she kindly asked.
The child nodded in the affirmative and did not raise her eyes.
—Then let’s stop to get some food. I think we’ll both feel better. Navi turned an off-ramp that led to a highway-side rest stop. She fuelled her car and the two of them enjoyed a hamburger and a milkshake at the coffee shop. To Navi, it was a necessary inconvenience that would affect the rest of her day’s schedule. To Nonku it was a feast beyond even a king’s imaginings. She could only remember ever having eaten bread, margarine, potatoes, sometimes meat, and the modest lunches that her school provided. She had known about such things as hamburgers and chips and soft drinks, but they were the equivalent of eating gold bars seasoned with diamonds. She would never have imagined that anything could be as delicious.
They got back in the car and re-merged with the highway. Nonku’s stomach was full, but within her, the pain was growing a chasm that a million of the world’s delights would fail to fill.
They soon exited the highway again and navigated the streets of Pietermaritzburg’s central business district. Their journey terminated at an old Victorian building which had been many things during its stately life but was presently an orphanage euphemised as a children’s home.
Navi seated Nonku in a waiting area while she filled out forms and held adult conversations with other adults who staffed the institution. Meanwhile, a cataclysm was occurring in the girl. The life that she knew had been annihilated, and she was unmoored in a storm to which her heart and mind were mutineers yet uncoupled by maturity, and against which she had no defence save the stoic ability, so unbecoming of a child, to hide from those dear few who would deign to regard this frail creature with the encumbrances of love and dignity, and know the extent of her distress and her confusion and her despair and her dread. She attempted to distract herself from her torment by playing with toys that lay scattered about for use by ones like her, and in failing to do so, she settled for the appearance thereof.
Navi returned with a woman at her side. A tall blonde woman who wore a kind face in the way that a salesman might, as an occupational duty. Nonku, this is Charlene. She’s a psychologist. Do you know what that means? Navi continued to speak before the child could answer, She’s going to have a little chat with you. But don’t worry, I’m going to be waiting right here.
The woman led Nonku into her office, which was painted in gaudy colours and images of cartoon characters and superheroes decorated the walls. In front of her desk was a grouping of couches where she offered Nonku a seat, and she sat herself opposite the child.
—Nonkululeko is a beautiful name. Navi tells me that your friends call you Nonku. May I call you that?
The child nodded.
—Nonku, I’m Charlene. As a clinical psychologist, I’m here to make sure you’re well and to help you understand what is happening to you. Do you know what this place is?
The child shook her head.
—This is a children’s home. It’s a safe place for kids like you. This is where you’re going to be living for a while. Do you understand what happened to your mommy?
Nonku began to fight the tears. She’s dead, the child said, staring at her feet as she tried to will the tears back into their wells.
—I know that this is very hard for you, Nonku. Your mommy was very sad and very sick.
—Was it because I wet the bed? asked Nonku.
—No. None of this is your fault. Her words were empty to Nonku, who remembered what her mother had told her, and the one unassailable certainty in her world was that her mother would never lie to her. This axiom had congealed in her mind at an age when convictions were chiselled into the still-soft marble of understanding. For as long as she would remember these early days of her life, she would remain at least partially captive to the belief that she had perpetrated matricide.
Charlene continued to talk at Nonku. She explained processes and expectations and funerary schedules and foster care with as much torsion to fit the faculties of a child as her training could tolerate.
Following the homily, Charlene gave Nonku a box of juice to occupy her. The child was beginning to learn that the world rewards a willingness to say what it wants to be said, and a willingness to remain silent when anything said may be uncouth.
The two women stood aside and spoke and Nonku overheard words like raped and depression and poison and suicide, but she did not yet understand them. They would settle in her mind as the dust in the forlorn shanty that had been her home, and one day they might yet dance in the scattered illumination of whatever intruded in that dark and secret place where she would keep them, and throw them into agitation.
Title: The Shadow Box
Genre: Accessible Literary Thriller
Age range: Adult
Word count: 66,000
Author name: Callvern Harding
Why the project is a good fit: Trident Media Group seems welcome to stories featuring underrepresented demographics and communities, as well as stories that blur genre delineations.
The hook: Nonku Nzima is a woman trapped in a forest bunker, and her potential saviour turns out to be a psychopath torn between rescuing her and living out a depraved fantasy with impunity; as we learn more about Nonku, the line between captive and captor begins to blur.
Synopsis: Nonku is the newest resident of a sleepy South African hamlet. Her evasiveness about her past captivates antisocial ex-con Sep and his ailing friend Craig. At Craig’s behest, Sep travels to a bunker in a nearby forest to where Craig has abducted Nonku, intending to torture and murder her. When Sep arrives, he finds his friend dead of a heart attack and a hysterical Nonku desperate for freedom. The tableau stimulates Sep’s dormant sadism, and Nonku realises that it will not be easy to dissuade him from completing Craig’s work. The disappearances draw attention and as the pressure builds on Sep to act, we explore three traumatic periods of Nonku’s life. They expose an unhinged survivor prepared to weave any web necessary to regain control of her life. Nonku’s history reveals a past connection to Sep, and suggests that her present dilemma may not be what it seems.
Target audience: The target would be for adult contemporary thrillers with an accessible literary bent.
Bio: I was born and raised in the midlands of South Africa’s east coast where I have personally witnessed residual colonialism and Apartheid-era attitudes amplified by the isolation of rural communities.
Platform: Owing to mental illness, I presently have no social-media presence or platform.
Education: I have a masters degree in mathematics and and undergraduate degree in philosophy.
Experience: In 2020, I was awarded “Highest Honours” in the SA Writers College Annual Short Story Writing Competition. I have written several short stories and I’m in the process of writing my second novel. I earn an income as a language editor of academic articles and masters/PhD dissertations.
Personality / writing style: I enjoy multilayered modernist and poetic prose, and I often inject a metafictional or metamodernist perspective into my writing. My ambition is to grow as a prose stylist, with Banville and Nabokov being unassailable personal heroes.
Likes / hobbies: When I’m not reading or writing, I enjoy composing music, studying language, and attempting to befriend cats — not necessarily my own.
Hometown: I’m from the South African city of Pietermaritzburg. A hometown I proudly share with literary luminaries like Alan Paton and Bessie Head.
Try opening a door as a joke.
Even with the streetlights on, it gets dark outside. And trust me, it always gets cold.
We gathered pizza boxes and liquor bottles around us to keep us warm. It kept the light at the end of the tunnel shining. And though we never walked towards it, we had it around as a point of focus. Something to gather around and tell our stories while the bottle got passed around. We didn't have a care in the world, we were seen as the crust-botom of society and it was expected of us to live freely. Of course we weren't serious, we're a bunch of dirty clowns going with the hedonistic wave. And if you think you aren't jealous of us for having the audacity to live a life of freedom, then you're wrong.
Everyone wants this.
Why else have I seen randoms getting on their high horse and yelling at us for doing exactly that? What the hell do they care when I've done nothing at all to get in their way. Most of the time, I'm polite and cross the road, just to tip my hat and let that poor soul work out my existence in their own time.
But, why so serious? Because living care-free is one thing which I can always go back to. But hell, I move from town to town as if its 1933, carrying a guitar, a banjo and an accordion, a notebook filled with poems, writings, drawings and lyrics. And there's something called the internet that I just need to push the buttons to, maybe there'll be an opportunity I gotta see! Then, I'll turn it down because the streets is where I want to be. But, at least, I'll have seen't it.