Joel is sugar high when he peels open another swirl lollipop. His nerves are slightly overstrung by the long drive from the city to Dingaan’s home in the countryside. He reclines a little into the kombi’s front passenger seat and plies his mind with thoughts of Dingaan hoping it will crack open to the secret fairground—a lotus land nestled deep in his fledgling heart.
He peers through the kombi’s window frame and across the long reach of desolate farmland and wonders why he feels this way about Dingaan for Mother had warned him not to allow his heart to love boys. Mother said if boys are found to love each other, then real boys would snip at their pee-pees and bury them alive.
Mother let Joel sit in the front passenger seat of the kombi so he could roll down the window. A wild midsummer wind blows over his patted hair. He imagines it ribboning into whorls of invisible ponies that gallop over his head and into the back where Mother is seated; twirling the kombi into a merry-go-round—a spinning equestrian world far hidden from Mother and her bearings. He pictures Dingaan and himself riding ponies two abreast, dizzied with the many-coloured lights and looped music of that stolen sprint around the centre pole of the secret fairground. He wishes to turn to see Mother’s eyes before he imagines more but is afraid to look; so, he thinks of them as the kombi’s mirrors, seeing only what is behind her.
When they arrive at Dingaan’s home, they find him crawling bare knee and toe over burning stones, playing with a blade of yellow grass with which he marshals an army of fire ants. His skin is burnt umber and a scarlet dungaree is tied at one shoulder. Joel watches with boy-like wonder as Dingaan orders the army into single file, marching the long procession of fire soldiers out of the blistering sun and into a tiny hole under the pepper tree to the side of him.
One of the skeletal fire soldiers crawls on Dingaan and meanders around his little finger and the small back of his hand. Joel can sense that the fire soldier is disarmed by the gentle way Dingaan commands his hand under him. And in sensing this, Joel feels strangely wrapped in Dingaan’s skin and being walked on by the lost fire soldier. So much so that it feels like the fire soldier’s feet are needle ends from Mother’s wig when it grazes the nape of his neck. He looks on as Dingaan lays the blade of grass on the back of his hand, on the winding path of the lost fire soldier, so when he climbs on it, he flies him to the hole, to a little pocket in his playground world.
Mother reminds Joel to run along and play. He is stickied with sweat and lollipop sugar, baking in the sun and longing sorely for the shade of the pepper tree. He sidles over to the makeshift swing hung under the tree, grabs onto one of its wires, and, with half-burnt eyes, follows Dingaan over the stones and holes dotted around the theatre of his operations. He quietly tugs at the wire and wonders if Dingaan remembers him on the spring day that brought Mother and him there the last time. If he remembers crying with unbridled laughter as the swing flew him into the air and back, Joel’s small hands catching him, aiming him at the sun and releasing him again into the air.
Joel remembers how very little they spoke on that spring day. How Dingaan seemed somewhat foolhardy and mystic—a celestial scarlet bird Joel would have followed to the edge of the cosmos. But instead, he followed him across a cloudy river of pollen and barbel fish, over pulled barbed wire fences and into a veld of sickle-bush that drooped lanterns of lilac and gold, where Dingaan showed him how to aim a slingshot at weavers and Cape sparrows. And at sunset, he followed Dingaan home, where they lit ends of sticks of the velvet raisin and played fire spinning in the backyard. Joel delighted in being the one to show Dingaan something new: how to burn the stick slightly and quickly blow it out to leave the end rosy red. Afterward, he spun a few rings and danced for him like the fire dancers in the city circus. And finally, he took a bow as fire dancers do to end their display; this he remembers fondly as it was the one item that brought out a magical smile from Dingaan, and this warmed Joel’s heart in ways that were new to him.
Another dissident fire soldier strays from the army and aims toward the half-licked lollipop Joel threw away. Dingaan orders him back with a gentle sway of his blade of grass, marching the panic-stricken warrior to the hole. He carries on with the operation for a good long hour; maybe two. All the while, never looking Joel’s way.
The cruel noonday sun turns a silvery glow, crowning the back of Dingaan’s head to his widow’s peak, leaving his delicate face in its shade. Joel sits on the swing and looks on from under the shadow of the pepper tree. He settles there restfully until his sugar high wears off. Until he is no longer brave enough to say hello. Until the tired ponies, and lights and motors, and the tired song of the secret fairground retire in quiet and sad surrender.
Still, he looks on, quietly, and fixes a smile for when Dingaan will look up from his silver crown. But he never looks up.
As Mother prepares for them to leave, Joel sees Dingaan round up one more group of fire soldiers into a hole. He watches Dingaan fill it with earth and feels his body suddenly grow deeply cold, numbing from within.