Dion spun back to the oval of daylight and said a prayer. He didn’t pray to Jesus or Qamata. He prayed to his father, ten years lost and dead in the mines.
Watch over me. Lead me to gold and back to the light.
He sniffed his last lungful of fresh air, jasmine and pending rain in it. He pulled on the dented hardhat—a hand-me-down from his father—flicked on his headlamp and descended.
Two hours down, back squawking from the constant crouch, the tall man’s misery in the mine, he thought of Thabo though he tried not to.
Thabo’d be pissed if he found out. When. Thabo’d know, he always knew, and it wouldn’t be about gold—he’d cut his boet Thabo a share of that. He’d be pissed about the Zama’s code, how Dion broke it going under alone.
“I die where he dies. He dies where I die.” That was Thabo’s mine entrance prayer and Dion’d heard it a hundred times. Always together. Down for days and even weeks in the abandoned shafts and dark. Digging. Trading jokes and joints and dreams, ready to die together. Because a Zama Zamas never goes or dies alone.
Deeper. Almost a kilometer under, if one trusted the painted numbers from miners past, the air no longer cool but dense and swampy, the armpit of the earth. When this mine was open they used to pump ice water down to keep the miners from overheating. New mines had air conditioning for the deepest diggers. But here? Illegal and ghost mining? One had to sweat it and forget it.
Anyway, the hell-heat kept most cops out and the few that chanced it down would never find them. Under, the ghost miner was king rat. Like his father used to say, “No one knows the maze better than the rat.”
Ducking overhangs, crawling holes, body caked with sweat and dust, Dion reached the spot where he and Thabo had last drilled. His lamplight swept over the rusty generator and the finger-thick holes in the rock. As far as Dion was concerned, they’d sucked out what little gold stone they’d find here. Risking dying for a bucket of rocks that might bring a pebble of gold, worth fifteen dollars cut two ways, less when they brought other Zamas. Next to nothing was nothing, barely enough to cover food for him and his mother, let alone the rare beer.
Dion sighed and moved past their spot, the deepest he’d ever been because Thabo wouldn’t go farther.
“Past here ain’t safe,” Thabo’d said, pointing his bum arm, mangled from a cave-in. “Zamas go deeper, they don’t come back.”
Dion’d argued that here was tapped out. They must go down. They’d argued a dozen times but Thabo always won because he was older, maybe smarter.
“Death knocking at the door here, always. You wanna invite him in?” He’d say, shaking dreads and rolling eyes. “We here to survive.”
Dion said aloud what he always told Thabo when he lost the argument: “Just surviving ain’t living.” Plenty of Zamas died higher up from generator fumes and cave-ins, getting capped by rivals or robbers. If Thabo wouldn’t go deeper, Dion’d go down alone. Thabo’d thank him later.
The tunnel opened slightly to where he could almost walk upright. He said it again, “Just surviving ain’t living,” his words dulled against the stone as the tunnel narrowed. Unlike Thabo, Dion had always had the desire to go deeper from his first time in the mine. The earth held a kind of magnetism; as if gravity was stronger on him the deeper he went. And there was the gold.
On his belly, pushing his tool bag in front of him, Dion played the game that drove him down. He weighed future gold, conjured what it could buy: His dream Land Rover. A real Rolex. A new fridge for his mother. Fine girls at a bar and him threaded up and smooth. He was undressing a naughty one when he heard the sound. Distant clicks, like the whir of a bent fan blade, far down the tunnel.
Dripping water? A bat? Sound did funny things in the tunnels.
Dion froze and listened. Felt for his gun in the tool bag. The pistol was there. Solid and assuring.
Could be village boys, trying their luck.
Dion and Thabo took some under when the work required it, making Zamas out of children, but those scared babies would never go on their own. If they had, he’d kick their asses topside. He’d beat terror into their mosquito hearts and bruises into their pride.
He shoved the bag and moved faster, on elbows and knees, mouth dry, tasting dust. The clicking louder now, like a playing card in a bike wheels’ spokes and, for the first time in a very long time, Dion was afraid in the tunnels.
His thoughts sifted down to the worst and most likely cause—another gang poaching. Robbers. He’d had close calls before and the scars to remember them. Knuckle and knife scars were nothing, though. Some carried AK’s and used them with less thought than swatting a fly. Shootings happened. In the mines, with nothing but stone and water to witness, anything could happen.
Dion unzipped his tool bag and tugged out the pistol. The grip of the gun evened his heart. He stashed the bag behind him and crawled quiet as he could toward the sound. It clicked louder, echoing in what must have been a bigger chamber ahead. He thought of flicking off his lamp, but if someone was there they’d have seen the light already.
“Hey,” he called out. “Who’s down there?”
The moment he called out the clicking stopped. His heart sprinted.
“Hey! Who there?”
Then a voice, though the words were unclear, as though whoever was there had a rusty throat or chunk of phlegm to clear. Dion couldn’t understand any of it. There was a smell, too. Unfamiliar, then familiar. Sweet, like grapes. Soothing somehow, even as his heart scurried like a mouse in a jar.
“Who there? I got a gun!”
His lamp spot hit the far wall of the chamber. Almost there. The smell came stronger.
A gas leak? But there wouldn’t be a smell. Just sleep and never waking up.
No. The smell was sugary. Not grapes but grape gum. Chappies. His favorite flavor, the smell of childhood. The gum his father brought from town by the handful, Dion blessing his father’s big hands each and every time.
He slid the last few feet on knees and elbows, gun gripped in both hands. When he came into the chamber—as big as any room he’d seen down here—he whipped his head around, cutting the room with light, the pistol shadowing the beam. His light passed something shiny in the corner, like black metal, then swung back to it and Dion saw movement. A man.
He was old and squat, crouched like a bush. A sleeveless undershirt over his thick muscles, miner’s hat on head, white beard and glowing eyes underneath it. Dion leveled his gun at him and the old miner chuckled, chewing gum.
“Took you a while,” the old man said and smiled, his teeth bright in the lamplight.
The gun quavered in Dion’s hands. He struggled to keep his voice steady. “Why you down, old man? Ain’t a place for you.”
The old man stood and dusted his pants. “Always been down. Life is work. Gotta work and work.”
He sauntered to where Dion crouched in the dirt, not minding the gun. Maybe he couldn’t see it?
“I got a gun. I cut you down!”
“Maybe you shot that thing, but you ain’t shot nobody,” the old man said. “That’s clear as water, boet.”
“Ain’t your brother. Don’t know you!”
“We near family. Know your father. Know him well.”
“Mean knew?” Dion said, finger flexing on the trigger. “He’s dead. Dead ten years down here.”
The old man smiled like he knew better. “Maybe so. But I know you. Look just like him. Same eyes and big ears. Tall like him. Both tall as spears. You Dion, ain’t ya boy?”
Dion swallowed hard. Eventually he nodded, his lamplight juddering the cavern walls.
“Might be. Don’t answer to boy, though.”
The old man moved closer. Dion tasted the dizzying sweetness, the grape aroma stuffing his head with a father memory: the two of them trading Chappies flavors, laughing in their shanty, the horse-shoe shaped scar on his father’s cheek flexing as he chewed.
“I older than you by a thousand kilometers, so you’re boy. Name is Bandile.”
The old man shifted, eyes squinting in the bright light, as Dion studied his face. There’d been a Bandile in the village. He’d worked with his father when the main mine was still running and for years after, ghost mining. But that had been a decade ago, more, when Dion was just a kid. He scoured the old man’s face, digging deep in his memory to match it.
“Heard Bandile was dead,” Dion said. “Some story of down with no up.”
“How’s a ghost miner gonna die? Now flick your lamp higher so ya don’t blind me.”
Bandile, an arm’s length away now, smiled even wider. Up close, the light no longer glaring, his teeth were not white at all but grey as tin. His eyes black and shiny, kind eyes, but crazy maybe.
A memory flickered then flamed: Dion, five or six years old when the Zama Zamas came back from the illegal mine, his father leading them—must have been just a few years before he died. His father crying. Heads gashed open, faces white from dust, the Zamas returned, howling over smashed limbs, crying over their lost brothers and how Bandile had gone too far, always too deep, until he’d been on the wrong side of a cave-in that buried a dozen men and the boys along with him. Dion remembered the story and, suddenly, the man. Bandile. Years older, stooped and white-bearded, but him in the flesh. Dion eased down his pistol.
The old man smacked his gum, the Chappies grape packing the air. For a moment Dion forgot where he was. Like he was dreaming, floating in the chamber. He had the oddest feeling that others watched from nearby. That the stone had eyes.
Then he snapped to, feeling weight in his hand. The gun, still there, his palm sweaty on its grip. He stuffed it back in the tool bag and pulled out a warm beer. He popped it and handed it to Bandile.
“You hear that sound before? The clicking?”
Bandile chugged a long pull then considered Dion. “You mean this sound?” His belch filled the cavern, the croak of a giant toad.
Dion laughed and took the can back. They passed the beer; the only sounds the flex of aluminum and their long swigs.
“Haven’t tasted hops in a long, long while,” Bandile said. Dion saw, or thought he saw, a flicker of something in the dark eyes—sadness or hurt—then gone.
“Where you been these years?” Dion said. “How come no one see or hear from you?”
Bandile chomped his gum. “Been under. Deep and deeper. Magic spot,” he said. “Golden. Words don’t tell what the eye can’t see.”
The old man’s smile reappeared. “You want, I take ya down. Make ya golden.”
Dion drained the last sip of beer and crushed the can. He watched the glow of Bandile’s cigarette. When had he lit it?
There was something in the old man’s voice that pulled him, like the lure of deeper tunnels. He might be crazy but one had to be crazy to be a good Zama Zamas. And his eyes. They shied from Dion’s lamplight but they had purpose. Clear and narrow purpose.
“Show me,” he said.
Bandile winked and stood. He moved toward a crack in the far wall, twisted through and disappeared. As Dion stood to follow, the strangest thing of all struck him, stranger even than meeting a man who was supposed to be 12 years dead, two kilometers under the earth.
Bandile had no light. He ran the tunnels in darkness.
Bandile called from inside the crack. “You going down or going in circles?”
An old Zama’s taunt. A thing you said to a boy when they first came down and froze in the tightness and dead air. Only a Zama would know it and only a Zama would respond right. When you said it, boys went down or they went home.
As Dion followed down the narrow tunnels, he patched together stories of Bandile his father had told him.
How Bandile was the bravest and craziest of the Zamas. How he’d stay down for months, longer than any ghosts.
“Most golden ghost miner ever.” That’s what his father had said. A half-dozen Bandile stories Dion half-remembered, of course the mines gave more stories than gold.
Like this one in which he seemed to be sleepwalking, creeping through tight shafts, following a ghost miner who was supposed to be ghosted, who reeked of bubblegum.
Who’d believe him? Thabo’d cluck his tongue, call it a “ganja fable.” Dion, too, felt like he was stoned, half-dreaming these tunnels and the grape tang.
“Where you get the Chappies, old man?” He called ahead. “You got a stash of ’em?”
Bandile sang in a low voice, “It’s big bubble fun with Chappies Bubblegum. Gives you flavor by the ton . . . ”
Dion grinned. He hadn’t heard the song since he was a kid. A 70’s TV jingle his father used to sing. They’d saved and collected the “Did You Know?” facts on the wrappers. Did you know? Ants communicate by smell. Did you know? The polar bear’s skin is actually black. Did you know? Astronauts become a little taller in space due to the lack of gravity. Dion still kept the full jar of odd facts under his cot.
“Can’t live on Chappies,” Dion said. Though he’d given it a serious shot as a boy. “What you eat down here? How you live?”
Bandile stopped and grinned in the lamplight. Then he turned and scuttled along the wall. His hand wove close to the stone, then suddenly shot out like an arrow, faster than Dion could see. His fingers jerked back from the wall pinching a squirming thing, some palm-sized gogga. Bandile held it up. A cave spider. Harmless, but big and ugly as hell. A nightmare thing, a tarantula and a scorpion’s love child.
The spider’s legs pedaled the air, its underbelly shone like plastic in the bright beam.
Bandile brought it up to his mouth and popped it in whole. He chewed and swallowed, the cave spider’s long hind legs the last to go, spindly and sucked though his lips.
Dion gagged and Bandile smiled.
“Now he’s part of me and I part of him.”
They reached a cavern with a hole in the floor. Just big enough for a man to fit through if he raised his arms over his head. Bandile pointed down, then hopped in and wriggled like a snake, smiling at Dion as he plunged into darkness. Dion counted one and a half before he heard the old man hit bottom.
How deep were they going?
“There’s a drop.” Bandile called up. “Toss the bags down. Then ya’self.”
Dion dropped the bags then shined his headlamp in the hole. Bandile was a short man but it was at least five meters to where he stood.
Bandile’s teeth shined in the spotlight, his eyes glossy marbles as he laughed. “Bend your knees and hold your balls when you jump.”
“How we get back out?” Dion shouted down.
“You think too much. Like your father.”
“Mention him again, I smash yo-face!”
Dion glared into the hole waiting for the comeback, but Bandile was outside the lamp’s halo. There was only the smack of his gum from beyond the light.
Then a different sound, the rhythmic clicking, only louder and varied. Like it came from several spots below.
“You hear that?” Dion said. “You hear it?”
The clicking stopped at once. Gum chewing resumed.
“The shimmy of your rabbit heart?”
“Fuck you, old man. I come down you gonna swallow your teeth. Or maybe I go topside. Leave you down. Get some cement and seal you in. That old Zama’s trick.”
Bandile whistled and clapped. “We got a huge crawl, boy. Let’s not set off wrong. Man can’t work the mine with his head wrong.”
“That an apology?”
“Oh sha sha we got to live together . . . ” Bandile sang up. “ . . . I . . . am everyday people.”
His father’s favorite song. Dion smiled despite himself and shone the light straight down. As well as he could see, the ground looked level to land.
“How we get out?” he called down again.
Bandile tsked. “He worry about out when he ain’t even in.”
Dion lowered himself into the hole, inching down as low as he could before he let go and dropped. Hanging. Hesitating.
“You a Zama or a Mama?” Bandile called up. Another ageless taunt to goad a boy deeper under the earth. Dion had used it himself.
But it worked. It pulled on his blood and puffed him up like wind under his wings, the sweet grape smell heavier. Dizzying. He envisioned other Zamas watching, waiting for his choice, their eyes unblinking.
“A Zama,” Dion said through gritted teeth and dropped into the dark.
He followed Bandile deeper for what seemed kilometers.
“More tunnel than the Nile is river,” Bandile said, flicking a spent cigarette into the dark. The old man took each turn and tunnel without pause, moving like he was in city alleys he knew well. He must have been over sixty but Dion, less than half his age, could barely keep up. The air wetter and heavy with heat, like he was inside a huge mouth, his clothes soaked through and sticky, licked by its giant tongue.
How far under? Two kilometers? Three? How far did it go?
Finally, Dion stopped against a rock wall and slid down to sit.
“Water break,” he said weakly.
“Eks n dom Kaffer!” Dion said. “I’ll break your tits,” maybe ten percent of his Zulu lexis along with ‘Zama Zamas.’
In the lamplight, Bandile’s dark skin glowed bright. Dion had the feeling he could see through him to something else, maybe the stone behind, like the old man was fading away.
Bandile shielded his eyes and cursed.
“Told you, boy, flick your lamp up so ya don’t blind me.”
Then that sugary grape smell. Stronger, almost nauseating. Lightheaded, Dion blinked till Bandile came whole again.
Maybe he’s a fucking ghost, Dion thought, almost too hot and tired to care.
He drained his water bottle when the old man refused it, and concentrated on his breath, slowing and smoothing it.
“We almost there?” Dion said.
Bandile champed and hummed. “Almost to the almost.”
“How far?” Dion said.
“How far, he asks, again and again, like a child. Deeper says the Zama. Always deeper.”
The old man chewed and chewed and his Chappies grape snuffed what little air there was. When Dion closed his eyes he saw the faces of lost Zamas. Some he’d known and others he hadn’t. In his head their lips moved, all sharing the same word: Deeper.
On their bellies downward the tunnel was an oven.
Dion’s hands grew raw. His eyes stung with sweat. His chest swelled just to hook his breath. Ahead, Bandile crawled more relaxed than ever. Whistling and humming, his voice soft, like they were on a Sunday stroll.
“You even know what Zama Zamas means?” Bandile called back.
Dion struggled for breath. The air stagnant and thick, like someone was exhaling it in his face. How much air did a man need to move? To survive?
“Means ‘try, try.’ ” Dion gasped. “My father told me.”
“He’s wrong. Bad translation. Means ‘taking chance.’ That’s what we do.”
“You speak Zulu?”
Bandile nodded. “Xhosa and Fanagalo, too. Mine pidgin. But don’t have to know Zulu to know it. Just have to do.”
At last they crawled into a chamber the size of a bus. Bandile sat down and Dion stood up, finally, a gasp of relief on his lips. He stretched his long back and rolled out the kinks in his neck and shoulders, gingerly rubbing his scorched palms. His light searched the room for another exit but found none.
This must be it. At last we dig.
Bandile crossed to a stone in the corner, a boulder big as an armchair. He leaned into it. His dark and muscled back strained against the impossible weight. Dion watched as, somehow, the old man shifted the huge stone from its spot. Bandile crouched down and nodded Dion over.
Under where the stone had been was a hole. Dion shined his light down. A tunnel like a throat twisted out of sight, narrow as an oil drum.
“A blind shaft?” Dion said.
“Zama Zamas go down.”
Bandile put his hand on the back of Dion’s neck, gently clasping, just as his father used to, his dad’s way of showing love through touch not words. Though Bandile’s hand was strange, not the right weight or feel. It felt rough as old leather and odd-shaped, like there weren’t enough fingers for a hand. Then the grape smell was back. Denser, hitting his head like a pull off a strong joint.
“How we gonna go down?” Dion said.
“Like you came out of your mama. Head first.”
“Down a hole like that, get stuck, don’t get unstuck.” Dion’s voice didn’t feel like his, like it came from far off. From topside. Was it still day up there? Already night?
Then the sweet sugary smell and the strange feeling of being watched, urged on, from the walls and the darkness below.
“You want to move to Joburg,” Bandile said. “Get a fishing boat, yeah?”
Dion spun his head, muscles heavy and tired, moving a chore. The air seemed thin, like he was breathing through a cloth.
“How you know that?” It was a faded, boyhood fantasy.
“Your father told me,” Bandile said. “Did you know? I know all about you, Tsotsi.”
His voice changed when he said the word, grief in the tone, like Dion’s father was speaking through the old man, and a hand closed on Dion’s heart. That was his father’s nickname for him—Tsotsi, gangster, a gentle joke—and only his father’s.
Bandile dropped the bags down the hole. Dion heard them slide, waited for the sounds of them hitting bottom. Nothing.
“You know where my father die? You with him?”
Bandile smiled. “I do. I was.”
“Did you know? Zulu name for Joburg is Egoli. Means ‘a place of gold.’ ”
Then, without another word, Bandile squeezed headfirst into the hole till he was nothing but legs and boots. Then those were gone, slithering down, around a turn. Vanished.
For hours Dion followed Bandile’s boots through the narrow shaft. Every time panic crept back—from the thought of how much rock was over him, how it was too tight to turn around—Dion’d focus on the sweet smell of Chappies and the soles of Bandile’s boots in his lamplight.
He followed the boots and played the gold game. Crawling, imagining a chamber filled with more than he could carry. He’d move to Jozi, buy a pad. A flat screen with a Bafana Bafana match on, covering half the wall, Thabo and him would scream at the players, stoned out of their gourds. This and more Dion conjured as they inched down the scalding stone.
Bandile had slipped further ahead. His boots there, then gone. Like he’d turned somewhere. But when Dion caught up the side tunnels were too small for anything but a dog—no way Bandile took that. Must be farther ahead.
Dion picked up his pace and shouted. “Bandile. Where you at?”
But Bandile didn’t respond, and when Dion stopped moving he couldn’t hear him either. Just his own breath in his ears and the drip-drip of water.
Then something else, that clicking again, only multiplied. An echo, maybe, for the clicks seemed to come from all over, in front and behind, from the stone itself, as if they called to each other.
“Bandile! Where you at, old man? Stop fucking with me.”
The clicking abruptly ceased. No sound but Dion’s ragged breath and the leaky faucets of the stone.
Dion crawled as fast as he could, scraping elbows and knees, not caring, lamp bobbing with his panicked head, animating the stone, making it close in around him. Though it wasn’t a trick, the roasting tunnel was tighter, a closing fist, and now it seemed to run straight down. His mind tightened too, not even forming the whole thought, just the mean of it: how I get back?
He braced his shoulders against the wall, stopping his slow slide, forcing himself to pull a deep lungful.
Spit, he told himself. An old miner’s trick after a cave in, when one can’t tell up from down. Spit. Then dig opposite from how it falls.
He hawked up some moisture, managed a pebble of saliva. It fell straight past the light of his lamp into the tapering dark. His heart revved.
Upside down and sliding headfirst.
Dion pressed his body against the tight walls, easing himself downward. Muscles straining, the heat unbearable, no longer the armpit but the ass of the earth, he told himself, straining for each breath from the soupy air.
Then the tunnel suddenly widened. He could catch his breath but couldn’t halt the slide. He braced his hands against the passage, forearms trembling, holding his weight till his raw-skinned hands weakened against the hot stone and he slid, dragging fingers, boots, and elbows against the jagged walls, walls that didn’t feel cut by tools but rougher, almost chewed.
But no sound or sign of him as the tunnel walls grew even slicker and Dion plunged downward, waiting for his head to smash bottom, if there is a bottom, till suddenly there was.
He crashed on his hard hat, crumpled on his head, braced for the impact and bite of stone, legs curling on top of him like a puppet with its strings cut.
But where his head landed wasn’t hard, not stone at all, but soft and sticky, like ripe fruit. His eyes inches from it, a spongy golden wall. His hands, with the bit of leverage he could muster, pushed at it. The rubbery wall gave but wouldn’t yield. A dead-end inches from his face. Stuck. Upside down. No space to turn. Air became a solid thing. His thoughts fractured then locked on a shifting noise above.
“Bandile! Bandile!” He screamed, the name tearing his dry throat. “I’m stuck! Hit a dead-end!”
He heard the chewing, imagined the face, the shiny eyes and grey teeth. The joke he’d make as he yanked Dion out.
But Bandile didn’t come. He just chewed and chewed.
“Bandile! Can’t fucking breathe, man. Stuck on my fucking head. Please!”
Then the chewing gave way to the other sound. The clicking. So loud it vibrated the walls.
“You nearly there, Tsotsi.” Bandile said. “Almost golden.”
His voice wasn’t right. More like clicks mimicking words. Dion rolled on his helmet, tilting his head against the soft bottom, neck straining from his body’s weight, forcing his headlamp forward to see above.
Bandile was somehow suspended in the passage. Grinning. But like his voice, the grin was wrong. An approximation of a smile, like he’d been faking it and had tired of the effort. His face shimmered and shifted, not a man at all but something else, a thing Dion knew but couldn’t name, black as wet stone, horned . . . not horned but . . . then the sweet smell returned, filling the shaft, and Bandile’s face was again there. Eyes glowing.
“Zamas never die alone,” Bandile said.
Shuffling sounds came from beyond Bandile, a skittering on the stone above. Then shining eyes in dark skin, a circle of stares, as a dozen Zamas filled the tunnel. Men and boys, all upside-down, all watching Dion. All clicking words as one, barely understandable:
“Zamas never die alone,” they said.
All of them chewing and chewing. The sweet scent of Chappies overpowering, spinning his blood-filled head, as their faces changed. Dion blinked, tried to swallow, as coffee brown eyes gazed down, eyes he knew like his own. A squeal stuck in his throat as he recognized who they’d become.
A dozen copies of him above, bearded and thin-lipped, all with the same horseshoe-shaped scar on their cheeks. A scar Dion’d stroked as a boy.
His heart wobbled. This isn’t happening . . . It’s a nightmare . . . a head injury . . . lack of air . . .
A sadness flickered the brown eyes, like they recognized Dion but couldn’t help. Couldn’t do a thing. Then the coffee eyes narrowed, burning with purpose.
His many fathers began to sing. A loud chorus but mechanical and flat, as if they knew the words but not their meaning:
It’s big bubble fun with Chappies Bubblegum
Gives you flavor by the ton,
Lots of colors to choose from.
Everybody knows the one . . .
Chappies bubblegum . . .
Chappies Bubble . . . gum!
Dion’s breath came in rasps as the sweet smell vanished and dank air stuffed his nose. He blinked rapidly as the faces shifted again, like they’d been only smoke or fog, masking the true things underneath. The things they were.
The smooth-curved heads of enormous ants gleamed in the light. Big as large dogs, antennae quivering, their grey and bulbous eyes glistened. Jagged pincers clicked and clicked, sharp like black tusks, the echo like knives in Dion’s skull.
His heart rocketed and he screamed and screamed, tearing his throat, until he blacked out.
When he came to his lamplight had faded to a sickly glow, the ant creatures still above. Clicking. Watching. Waiting outside the halo of his lamp.
What are they waiting for?
He cursed them. He screamed and cried like a child. If he was standing upright, at least he could fight. If he still had his gun he could . . .
Then the floor under his head moved.
His cheek, forced into the sticky surface, felt it. Pulsating, undulating. The muted sound of a thousand clicks beneath tickled his ear, somehow responding to the clicks above, as a tiny spot tore in the shell, inches from his wide eyeballs.
He watched, paralyzed, as the spot became a gash and tens of thousands of golden insects scurried from the membrane, stepping clear of the weak oval of his light, their pincers miniatures of the larger creatures, clicking in unison, inches from his face. Waiting, moving as one.
Did you know? A queen ant can lay two million eggs a month.
Another thought screamed his head, they’re like fire ants . . . but golden, then the scream reached his lips.
When his lamp died and darkness closed its doors, the tiny ants rushed over him like rising water. Tens of thousands of legs swarmed his head, up his shirt and pants, tickling inside his boots, stinging with nips like fire, biting, biting, searching his body, pinching not eating, then Dion understood.
Did you know? Army ants eat from the inside out.
They were probing him for weak spots, seeking the softest path inside.
Dion clamped his hands over his nose and mouth, his agonized screams muffled, fighting the need to breathe as the ants roofed his hands and wormed under, thousands of legs prickling his lips and squeezed-shut eyes. Nibbling, waiting, knowing he’d have to breathe eventually.
He heard the scurry of the larger ants descend. Felt their barbed legs upon him, antennae probing. His mind contracted as sharp pincers sliced his stomach and legs. The cuts almost painless until the pincers spread the wounds wide, making doorways for the tiny ants to pour inside.
Dion’s mouth opened to scream and the golden insects flooded in, choking him, gushing down his throat, a fiery hell burning from the inside as they feasted.
Through this blazing torment, his last thoughts only shrieks, Dion felt their hive mind work together as they devoured, the sweet smells of their language passing through him, as they charged his stomach, his lungs, his skull, eating memories and gold hopes, binding him to them, Bandile, his father, the hundred lost Zamas of the tunnels, all bound as one colony, chattering a final thought, not even his, of the thing they dug toward, so subterranean and massive, the last sliver of Dion’s human mind could not contain it:
Did you know? We dig deeper, always deeper, to . . .