‘I’m like ancestral bubblegum stuck to your shoe’ – Read an excerpt from Charlie Human’s new book Ancestral
More about the book!
Penguin Random House has shared an extract from Ancestral, the new novel by Charlie Human.
About the book
Clementine Khoza is a hard person; hard to know, hard to love, hard to fight. When she was a little girl, her grandfather put a stick and a shield in her hands and taught her the ancient stick-fighting art of her Zulu ancestors. The hard way.
And right now she is in a hard place, searching for Drew, her young son – kidnapped and drawn into the heart of a vicious gang conflict. Ex-army and ex-cop, Clementine has tracked Drew’s phone to Welcome Shade – a sprawling retirement estate that has fallen into disrepair to become a gang-infested war-zone. With nothing but a talent for violence, a drone piloted by a skinny Afrikaans street kid as her eye-in-the-sky, and a huge dog with PTSD who tried to kill her and then, somehow, became her sidekick, she’ll wield stick and shield, machete and shotgun, and wade through a sea of bodies to find her son.
But the gangs are only part of the problem. Dark, twisted things stalk the estate: nightmare creatures, elite military snipers working as mercenaries and a sword-wielding man on a white horse who has made her and Drew part of his agenda. And then there are the memories and visions of her ancestors, and her own very special hallucination whom she nicknames ‘Glitch’.
It’s going to be a hard day.
Read the excerpt:
I’ve got a blood-smeared Perspex riot shield in one hand and an iron-capped stick in the other. My ihawu and induku. Shield and spear. The metal of the gun in my waistband is cold against the skin of my lower back. I adjust the grey beads crossed over my chest like bandoliers, and tie back my hair. These kinds of pre-war rituals got me through Somalia. They’re going to have to work now.
I stand in a pool of pink light that drips from a neon sign from one of the spaza shops in this street. The badge-shaped burn on my palm throbs as I squeeze the leather handle of the shield. There’s a harmonic rushing sound in my ears like singing – the same incessant humming, droning song that’s been in my ears for weeks.
Maybe it really is singing, but in a language I don’t understand. Or maybe my brain is throwing up random bursts of noise. Trauma, doctors say, will do that to a person.
But I can’t think about that. My mind is fragile and untrustworthy. If I’m honest, it’s always been the weakest part of me. I can’t rely on it to accurately remember the details of what happened. That would be too much to ask of it. I brush my fingers over the fire-ravaged skin of my arm: thick like scales, coiling down like a snake to the burn-mark on my palm.
The noise in my ears soars like an unearthly choir, voices rising and falling like a wave.
‘It is singing.’
I shift my eyes over to the other side of the dark, dirty street. The area surrounding Welcome Shade is a warren of brick and corrugated-iron houses stretching all the way down to the restless yellow dunes in the south. Those dunes. When I worked the unit I’d found more bodies in those dunes than anywhere else on the Flats.
Glitch is propped up against the peeling wall of one of the lean-to houses. He’s wrapped in his blanket, watching me with his calm brown eyes, eyebrows quirking slightly like he’s amused at my stupidity.
He’s judging me and I’m failing. I submit Exhibit A of my mental state into evidence.
‘Fuck off,’ I say half-heartedly. I know that won’t work. He’s worn me down. I’ve shouted at him, screamed, thrown things, even pulled a gun and tried to put a bullet into him. That had just made him laugh.
But this man in a blanket continued following me around, for days now, round and round like a vulture circling a dying person. No, not a man. Let’s call him what he is: a hallucination. An apparition that flickers and moves, dancing, like sunlight on water. ‘It’s singing,’ he repeats in his low, calm voice.
‘Is it now?’ I spit out.
I know I should avoid getting sucked into an argument, but I do it anyway. It’s my nature.
‘Listen,’ Glitch says, putting a hand to his ear. ‘Can you hear it? That’s the sound of your calling.’
‘Get the fuck away from me,’ I scream, and I catch a glimpse of myself in the dirty window of the house. A crazy woman shouting at the air.
He laughs and shakes his head. ‘We’re stuck together. I’m like ancestral bubblegum stuck to your shoe. Yes, you can get rid of me, but the only way is to get your hands dirty.’ He taps his ear again. ‘What do you think?’
I hiss in frustration. ‘Not really my thing. Can you change the channel? Maybe something more upbeat?’
He grins but his eyes are hard. ‘You’re going to have to listen to me at some stage. Do you know what madness feels like?’
I stare at him and I swear his face starts to contort, just a little.
‘Your mind starting to fray?’ he says. ‘Your perceptions becoming less and less trustworthy?’
Sweat prickles on my neck and I grip the shield tighter.
‘It’s what happens,’ he says. ‘It’s what happens to everyone who is called but doesn’t respond.’
He flickers and appears right next to me, leans in to whisper in my ear: ‘This is not a wrong number, Clementine. I’m going to keep calling until you pick up.’
I turn away from him with my heart beating and sweat on my palms.
I stare dead ahead, forcing my mind to cut him out. I look at the gates in front of me. Glitch flickers and reappears next to me. For a moment we stand and stare through those gaping gates and down into the valley together.
‘Welcome Shade’ the billboard above the broken gates proclaims in a neat white font. ‘Your Hard-Earned Rest’ is written in smaller cursive lettering above a stock photograph of an old couple walking hand in hand. Cute. Except someone has put a bullet-hole in the old man’s forehead and graffitied a forked tongue in the old lady’s mouth. I don’t know art, but I know what I don’t like.
‘He’s in there, Clementine,’ Glitch says.
‘I know,’ I say, my voice cracking.