Caledon Police Station – 1966
I could hear it whistle before I felt it, but by then it was too late to flinch.
Swish. Wha-taa! Aaieee!
Swish. Wha-taa! Aaieee!
Such a clever, cruel instrument, the sjambok—just a tapered rod of hard, bendy plastic, with a handle at the thick end and pain at the other. They used to make them out of rhino skin, but plastic is cheaper these days. Native herders use them on cattle, and policemen use them on the natives. When Bantu rioters see a line of advancing policemen with sjamboks, they scatter as if they’re being chased by snarling dogs (oh, yes, they have those too).
Now, the average sadist will hit you all over with a sjambok—back, legs, neck, whatever they can reach. But an expert will pick one spot and aim for it every time. First it stings, then it bruises, and then it cuts you to pieces.
Here in that basement cell, there were no rioting crowds—only me with five or ten policemen. The sjambok was just for me. It sliced through the air, then bit into my back. I screamed after each stroke. It did no good to be a hero and take it without a sound—that just made them want to hit harder. Two of them held my arms, so that I was stretched around a concrete pillar in the middle of the room. The man with the sjambok took a few steps back between each stroke, so he could wind up properly.
When they let my hands go, I fell to the floor.
“Jou fokken bastard,” the guard panted in my ear. He grabbed me by the hair and turned my head to spit in my face. “Fokken bastard.”
Someone brought a bucket of water and poured it over me. The liquid was lovely and cool until the salt hit the raw cuts. Then it turned to acid. Seawater, you bastards! I screamed until I was hoarse. They switched places so that everyone could take a turn.
When I was nothing but a puddle of blood and piss on the floor, they picked me up and sat me down to take my statement. My ears were ringing, and my back was peeling off in strips. I couldn’t think straight. Had I really done what they said? Maybe it was a dream.
I did remember a few things. I remembered how sunny it had been that day, a perfect Spring morning. I remembered the feel of the Spanish steel in my hand. I remembered the look on his face when he saw me for the first time, really saw me. Not a nobody in a blue uniform, not a nameless pest he could swat like a fly. I’m not your messenger boy. I’m not here to bring you your tea or your papers. I’m the Angel of Death, and today is Judgment Day. Well, I didn’t actually say that—but I should have. I’m always thinking of something clever to say when it’s too late.
And I remembered the to-do afterwards. Christos! After they caught on to what was happening, everyone began flapping their arms and running around like the pigeons in the park when a dog runs by. What to do? What to do? Some of the MPs got to me first. There were so many; they dragged me to the ground and stomped on my hand so I would drop the knife. All the while the Honorable Members were shouting and cursing and piling on top of me, swearing like sailors. Then red-faced policemen pulled them aside, swinging truncheons and kicking me with their steel-toed boots wherever there was an open spot. First in the head, and then on my back when I curled into a ball. I held my hands over my face, and they were sticky with blood that dripped into my eyes. Was it mine or his?
Then they threw me into a paddy wagon and brought me to the chookie, here at the Caledon police station. You would have thought I’d killed their own grandfather, the way they howled and ground their teeth at me. And then they brought out the sjambok.
“Who are you working for? Who? ANC? PAC? Who gave you orders?”
“It’s just me,” I said, “just me.”
But they didn’t want to hear that, and they beat me some more. They made me scream so hard that afterwards I discovered I had torn my throat to shreds. My Grandma Katerina (may she rest in peace) used to love my singing. “Such a sweet voice,” she would say. “Like a bird. No, an angel!” But after the beating, to this very day, it sounds as if I’ve gargled with broken glass.
Let me tell you, when someone is beating the shit out of you, you’ll say anything to make them stop. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I said, “All right, it wasn’t me, it wasn’t me. It was the worm. The worm told me to do it.”
Well, that stopped them. For a little while, anyway.
Alexandria – 1924
Grandma Katerina wore black every day, like a crow, and her face was as wrinkled as a prune. Her left eye was clouded over as if someone had spilt milk in it, and the other children in the building were afraid of her. They said she had an evil eye, but I didn’t care, because she was my Yia-Yia and she gave me halva and rock sugar when I was sad.
“You are such a funny child,” she would say, smiling, when I told her about a dream I’d had. “Animals can’t talk, silly.”
“Yes, they can, Yia-Yia. I hear them.”
Before bedtime, I would sit in her lap and she would read me stories from the Bible or sing the parts of the Erotokritos that she remembered. “Ah Crete,” she’d say, looking out the window as if she could see the island where she was born.
I liked to bury my face in her neck when she picked me up. It smelled like flour and cinnamon. She would rub my curly hair and give me yellow sultanas and dried black dates from a clay jar on the kitchen table.
I was born in Mozambique, but I lived in Egypt with Yia-Yia—in Alexandria, at the very top of a whitewashed house. From the rooftop garden I could see the Cathedral of St. Saba. It had a big copper dome that glowed like a blood orange when the sun went down.
Yia-Yia called me Mimis, except when she was cross; then she would call me Demetrios or Dimitri.
Some children asked why I lived with my grandma. “Where’s your mama?” they said. “Where’s your papa?” When I asked Yia-Yia, she told me that Papa’s name was Michaelis. He lived in Portuguese East Africa. He was so important and busy that he’d sent me to live in Egypt so that Yia-Yia could look after me properly. She never told me much about my mama; she was always too busy when I asked her. “She’s in Africa,” she would say, or “She’s in heaven with the angels,” or “I don’t have time to tell you now, Mimis. Here’s five malleem, go buy sherbet from Mr. Habibi.”
And then I would run down the crooked stairs, around the corner, and across the road to the Souk el Medan in the Plaza Mohammed, its dusty streets piled high with bales of raw cotton and boxes of vegetables, its narrow alleys filled with markets stalls. I spent hours there, watching the hawkers haggle with women in coloured hijabs. I loved to wander down the cool, dark walkways of the markets, drinking in the musty smells of spices and incense and sweat.
And Mr. Habibi, the sherbet seller—I liked him. He always joked with me.
“Hallo, Mr. Habibi, two please.”
“Dimitri, where did you get this money? Did you steal this from Katerina?” His face was stern, but his eyes were twinkling.
“No, I didn’t. Yia-Yia gave it to me.”
Mr. Habibi stroked his grey beard, as if he were thinking hard about it, before he smiled and gave me the sherbets.
“I knew you were joking,” I said, laughing. “You always say that!”
“Don’t eat them too quickly now,” he shouted as I ran out.
And off I went to watch the other children spinning tops on a box, trying to knock each other’s off.
“Can I play? Can I?”
They looked me up and down. “Do you have a top? No? Then go away, these are ours.”
“Huh, no sherbet for you then,” I sniffed. “I’ll go play with my other friends.”
I didn’t really have other friends, but I liked to play with the lizards and birds that lived near our house. The sparrows of Alexandria are like the grains of sand in the desert. Flocks of them came to rest on our rooftop at dawn and again at dusk, gossiping until dark. I filled a big flat dish with water every day, so I could watch them splash.
Hello, Mimis, would you believe what Mrs. Sparrow did this morning?
She chased a falcon away, didn’t you, dear?
Oh, you, says Mrs. Sparrow. It was all of us, wasn’t it. We may not be strong, but we are many! Go away, Mr. Falcon, no eating our little chicks today!
On and on they chattered, until they gave me a headache by all trying to talk at the same time.
They weren’t very good guests sometimes, eating the seeds that Grandma had planted in neat rows in her small garden and pooping all over the laundry hanging on the line to dry. Then I’d have to run at them with a stick. “Hey! Stop messing on our sheets!”
And away they flew, all together, and never once did they bump into each other as they went home to the olive groves for the night.
See you tomorrow, Mimis.
Whenever Grandma Katerina went out, she took me with her. Down to the spice market to buy fennel and cumin seeds, or to the docks for the fresh fish lying on blocks of ice covered with straw, or to the butcher’s shop, where lambs with no faces hung on hooks.
Help me off this hook, Mimis.
Sorry, little lamb, no one can help you now.
Take me home, Mimis.
All right, I’ll ask Yia-Yia. Why don’t you come home for dinner—do you like mint and honey, or do you prefer harissa?
Some days she took me to the English Puppet Theater, so that I could meet other Greek children, but I didn’t get along with them because they thought I was an Arab with my long jalabiya.
“What’s an Arab doing here?” a boy whispered once to his friends, loud enough for me to hear him across the room. “They’re not supposed to be here.”
“Are you sure he’s an Arab?” I heard someone else say. “He looks like a darkie. A Nubian, maybe.”
“Hey, are you talking about me?” I said, walking towards them.
Some of them looked away, but the two that had started it stuck out their chins at me.
“Are you a Nubian?” the first one asked, “or an Arab?”
The second one chimed in: “Either way, no Arabs or Nubians are allowed in this section. This is for Europeans—go back to the bazaar where you belong.”
“I’m not an Arab. I’m Greek, like you. There’s my grandmother sitting over there. Go ask her.”
“Yah, she dresses you funny, and you stink of garlic. Go sit back there, where we can’t smell you, mavro.”
“Gamoto malakas!” I cried. “I came to watch the show anyway, not make friends with you poustis.”
The boy in the cream suit stepped back as if I had slapped him. His friends stood there wide-eyed, their mouths opening and closing like fish on dry land.
“Did you hear that? I’m going to tell my mother what you said,” the malaka shouted, but I was already walking away.
Afterwards Grandma Katerina said, “Why don’t you try harder, Mimis? You should make some nice Greek friends instead of playing with those sewas in the market.” Her brown eye was soft in her lined face. “It’s not good to be alone.”
“What are sewas, Yia-Yia?”
“They’re street children, Mimis, young ruffians. They don’t have homes or families, and they steal things and make trouble all day. You should be with your own people.”
I shrugged. “The Greek boys don’t like me, Yia-Yia. They say I smell bad and look like a Nubian. What’s a Nubian?”
“What? They said that? Well, they’re just ignorant children, and if they don’t like you, they don’t know what they’re missing. One day you’ll find someone, and you’ll be best friends, like David and Jonathan from the Bible. Now, why don’t you choose what to have for dinner?”
She was so sweet, my Yia-Yia, and I loved her so much. Only one time was she cross with me. It was a day when the Arabs had had enough of the British bossing them around and there was a riot in Ras el Tin, the Turkish district. I watched from our rooftop as they set fire to the market where I bought my sherbet. They were all shouting and waving their fists and throwing things. Then the British and Australian soldiers came marching in, wearing their pith helmets and khaki uniforms, and they made a line and fired their guns into the crowd. It was like a thunderstorm right next to our house.
If there’d been a to-do before, it was even worse after they fired the guns. Screaming and moaning rose up everywhere, and now the women were joining in with their ulululu and crying. There was such a noise.
The birds flew all over, in a fright. What’s happening? What’s happening?
Yia-Yia found me on the roof and pulled me inside by my collar. “Dimitri!” she whispered, as if the men might hear her. “What were you doing out there? You could have been killed.” She dragged a chair in front of the door.
I stuck out my bottom lip and said, “I wanted to see.”
“Vlakas,” she hissed.
She took me by the shoulders and shook me like a rag doll. Her good eye was bulging out, her face was screwed up into a knot, and it scared me so much that I began to cry. But when she saw my face, she also burst into tears and hugged me tight, and fed me raisins as the fighting went on outside, into the night.
Papa came to visit us one year at Christmas.
“Dimitri—is that you? How you’ve grown! Why are you wearing that tunic? Only Arabs wear that. Are you spending a lot of time in the sun, Dimitri? You get darker each time I see you. Ma, you’ve got to keep him out of the sun. And your hair. So curly!”
“Hush, Michaelis,” said Grandma. “It’s not his fault. He’s wearing a jalabiya to protect him from the sun. He can’t help how he is.”
“He’s starting to look like his… I was hoping he would take after me and not…”
“Michaelis! Stamata to! We can talk about this later.”
Then Papa saw me pouting and said, “Come, give Papa a hug. Don’t be scared now—I’ve got something for you.”
“Is it sweets?” I said.
“Much better. It’s a lion’s tooth from Africa.”
“Oh, thank you, Papa! Did you kill it yourself? I’ll put it with my other treasures. Come see, come see what I’ve got. I kept everything you’ve brought for me. The carved giraffe—one of the legs broke, but you can fix it, can’t you? And the thumb piano with the metal keys—I can play a song on it.” Plink plunk plonk.
“Dimitri, Dimitri, slow down, let me say hello to your grandma first. Then I’ll come and play with you.”
“Yes, yes, run along now. I’ve been on the ship a very long time, and I need to rest.”
He lay down on the couch and fell asleep right away.
“Don’t bother him now, let him be,” Yia-Yia said.
But I stayed right there and watched him breathe in and out. I ran my hand over his hair, not as curly as mine, and traced his thick eyebrows with my finger, and the sharp stubble on his chin. My hand looked so dark against his skin. Maybe the sun was not as strong where he worked. I squeezed myself next to him and slipped my hand into his. It was warm and dry, and I could feel small cuts and rough bumps on his knuckles and fingertips. My hand was so small in comparison—it was like holding onto a branch of my favorite climbing tree.
I fell asleep next to him, and when Yia-Yia came and carried me to my bed, I cried and said I wanted to stay next to Pa.
“Let him rest, Mimis,” she said. “When he wakes up, he’ll play with you.”
I woke up extra early and watched him sleep, waiting for him to wake. But the next thing I knew, some of his friends from Port Said had come around with bottles of Ouzo and stinky cigarettes to get him up. “Michaelis! We heard you were back. Come and visit with us!”
And they all went out drinking, while Yia-Yia and I waited for him to come home and have dinner. He stayed out until the muezzin called the faithful to morning prayer.
Still I looked forward to his visits. When he was in a good mood, he’d take me to the seaside and teach me how to fish and skip stones on the water, and I would show him how much I knew about the electric tramlines. “That green sign shaped like a round sweet, that one goes south. And the red half-moon is the Rhageb Pasha line. And the white star, that one takes you home by Rue Toussom, but you have to get off at the Banco di Roma and walk.”
He would smile and show his white teeth and pat me on the head. “Very good, Dimitri—you’re a clever boy.”
My smile felt as if it reached up to my ears. Maybe he would take me with him when he went back! “Can I go on the ship with you, Pa? I never go anywhere.”
“No, my boy, you stay here with Yia-Yia. There’s nobody to look after you in Lourenço Marques when I’m at work. Now don’t cry, I’ll be back soon. Come on, I’ll buy you a chocolate from the bazaar.”
I swallowed hard and wiped the tears away with my sleeve. “All right, then. Can I have two?”
Sometimes, when Papa came, Grandma Katerina would let me sleep on the couch so that he could have my bed, and I would fall asleep listening to them talking in the kitchen. They sounded like the big green flies I kept trapped in a jar.
One night I heard Papa say how different Africa was from Greece and Egypt, and how he was the supervisor of twenty Bantu men—give him five good Greeks and he could do the same job in half the time, by God!
“Michaelis!” Grandma Katerina said, making the sign of the cross.
“Sorry, Ma,” he said. “I’ve been out there too long. The mavros I work with are lazy bastards, rough and ready. Half of them are convicts, I think.”
“Don’t swear, Michaelis. The boy will hear you.”
“Ah, I’m sure he knows how to curse already. Alexandria is full of sailors.”
“You should get married, Michaelis, and take him with you. The boy needs a mother.”
“Actually, I wanted to tell you—remember Yiannis? From Port Said? We were in school together.”
“Yiannis? Is that Ereni’s boy?”
“Yes, him. He introduced me to his cousin Marika. She comes from a good family, and I think she likes me. I’m going to meet her parents. I have to catch the bus to Port Said tomorrow, early.”
“Oh, Michaelis, thank God,” she said.
He was quiet for a time, then whispered, “I haven’t told her about…” I could picture him nodding towards me on the couch, but I kept my eyes closed and pretended to be asleep.
“Don’t wait too long, Michaelis. She deserves to know. Besides, I’m getting old. I can barely walk up and down the stairs now. The boy is very sweet, but soon I won’t be able to keep up with him anymore. As it is he’s running wild around town by himself. He should go to school.”
“I’ll tell her eventually,” said Pa, “but it’s a big move from Port Said to Lourenço Marques. I’ll let her get used to the idea first, and then I’ll come and get him when we’re more settled.”
After that I didn’t have to pretend to be asleep. I could see my new mama, singing songs of Crete in an apron dusty with flour, feeding me dates and raisins, making all my favorite cakes in a white house in Mozambique—just like Yia-Yia, but with two brown eyes. And all the while the flies buzzed about in the jar, bzz, bzz, bzz. They had crawled into my ears and into my dreams.
In the morning I woke up and ran to tell Pa about my dream, but he was gone.
“Where’s Papa?” I asked Grandma.
“He had to leave, Mimis,” she said, “but when he comes back next time, he’ll have good news for you.”
“Is it my new mama? Will he take me on a ship to meet my mama? Will she sing to me and give me halva?”
“Oh, you young rascal! We thought you were sleeping.”
“I was, but some flies whispered in my ear. I’m going to pack right away.”
“No, wait, Mimis,” she called, as I ran out to get my things. “He won’t be back for a while.
“But I want to be ready,” I said.
I went to my room and put all my treasures in a little bag—the broken giraffe, the lion’s tooth, the finger harp, and all the other little gifts he had brought to me from Africa, along with some things I had found in the bazaar, like the red wooden top I’d stolen from the unfriendly sewas when they weren’t looking. Then I went to the kitchen and wrapped some pita in brown paper, and put a banana and a handful of nuts and raisins in a little cloth that I folded myself. I arranged everything next to the front door, so that I would be ready when Papa came to fetch me.
And then I waited. Every day, as soon as I woke, I ran up to the rooftop to see if he was coming for me. But the streets stayed empty, except for the old men sweeping the cobblestones and the birds getting ready for the day.
After two weeks, the banana had turned black and the pita was so hard that even the sparrows didn’t want it.
Yia-Yia made me take the suitcase back up to my room after the third week. “I’ll tell you when he comes back, Mimis,” she said. “Now put your things away, so that I can clean up down here.”
After the seasons changed, I stopped running to the rooftop. By the time Christmas came around again, I had forgotten about my new mama. But sometimes, when I reached under my bed to look for a toy, in the far corner where Yia-Yia couldn’t reach with her broom I would see my suitcase, covered with dust.
In 1966 a messenger stabbed South Africa’s Prime Minister, Hendrik Verwoerd, killing him in front of a packed House of Parliament. At a hastily convened trial afterward, the assassin did not speak in his own defense and was declared insane—they claimed that he thought an imaginary tapeworm had goaded him into doing it. He was removed from public scrutiny, put into an asylum, and forgotten by history.
Based on actual events, DIMITRI AND THE WORM is this man’s story. The novel traces the peripatetic journey of Dimitri Tsafendas, from his lonely childhood in Africa to his exile abroad and back again to his date with destiny. He is abandoned by his family and rejected by every country he seeks refuge in. The only constant in his life is the tapeworm that he believes lives inside him, offering advice when he needs it and sometimes even when he doesn’t. His outrage at his personal circumstances and the injustice of the world grows after every frustrating encounter with brutally indifferent bureaucracies, until he takes it upon himself to strike a blow for all the wretched and dispossessed. His target is the one man he believes personifies all the evil in the world—Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of Apartheid, whom Dimitri also holds responsible for keeping him apart from the woman he loves, due to her race. The story explores themes of race and alienation and poses the question of whether it is Dimitri Tsafendas who is mad or the cruel and absurd system of Apartheid itself.
I am a third-generation Chinese South African who came of age during the Apartheid era. As a lawyer, I acquired intimate knowledge of the byzantine laws that upheld the system. As a member of an oppressed minority, I gained firsthand experience of the impact of those laws on marginalized communities who suffered under their yoke.
Malcolm Chang currently lives in Vancouver, Washington. He has served as the president of the non-profit Newtown Literary Alliance in New York City, and his work has appeared in the Newtown Literary Journal, the online magazine Gravel, and the online interactive poetry project Queensbound. His story “The Cruelty of Children” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Embark, Issue 17, October 2022