Mother’s head is shaved. In my early days I longed for the day I would see her face. Now that I can see it, I want to pat my fingers to her lips, and imprint her prayers on my heart before they are swallowed by the passing of events. But I have neither bone nor skin to touch and feel with.
Her eyes are the shape of pain and tears. Every now and then she looks away from the mourners – and straight to me as if she can see where I am. But I know she can’t see the cold breeze that I have become, or that I am trying to glean some warmth from her. Her rueful eyes tell me she thinks I am gone for good.
A white-haired woman with mother’s nose and mouth brings her matooke, liver, offal, and millet porridge. But none of it stays down. It is as if I am still in her belly, churning out whatever I don’t want. For days she eats nothing. The bones at the base of her neck threaten to pierce her red brick skin. Her eyes turn yellow and burrow into her face. Her lips grow deep red cracks that could soak up a river. I can almost see her sinking into the ground.
She shambles away from the group and into the kitchen. I will her to open the fridge. I will her to remember pineapple-sweetness. She strides over and opens it. She reaches in for a white bowl with sliced pieces of pineapple. She eats one, then another, until the bowel is empty. I sigh. At least she can still hear me. She turns to stare at me as if she knows I am there.
When she tires of sitting and staring into me, mother goes to her bedroom and lies on a bed the colour of the sky. She closes her eyes but her eyelids keep fluttering. She tosses, turns, and says a prayer as the thoughts in her head fight each other. She thinks of a man. He is large, very tall. He has a spiky moustache. His eyes, the colour of fire, threaten to burn her.
“It isn’t mine! Get rid of it!” He spits at her in her dreams.
“Who else could have made me pregnant?” Mother’s voice rises.
He slaps her and shoots his knee into her belly. Her face contorts in pain as she lands on her side. I see myself being thrown about, failing to keep from bruising her from within.
When she gets up there is blood on her cream dress. The big man dashes out the door. She cries out, both hands around her belly. She rushes to a small white bathroom and runs the shower. A red stream that is really parts of me flows through the drain. She pats herself dry, wedges a wad of toilet tissue between her legs, and throws on white knickers and a red dress. She rushes out of the room through the same door the big man went through.
Looking at her memories now, I see that that’s when my journey started.
Day and night I stay with her. While everyone else sheds clothing she piles on more. She trembles and shivers like there is no sun in the sky. I know this is because of me – the cold breeze that I am keeps her freezing, but I cannot bear to be far from her.
One time she wanders off and enters a church. It is almost nightfall. She sits on the front pew, mumbling things even I cannot hear. Then she starts sobbing and it sounds like there could be three other women inside her, all sobbing. I move closer to her. She holds her black sweater tighter around her body. The sobbing becomes like the pattering of rain after a downpour. She rocks back and forth like a pawpaw tree in a storm. Looking at her it seems she will buckle under the grief she is wearing.
The next day they are to bury me, or rather what is left of me. I am only lumps of blood caking the sheets; nothing of my earlier self is visible. Only the cord, sac and afterbirth lie in a small basin like goat’s entrails after the slaughter.
I watch as people, an army of sugar ants, weave through the banana plantation to my shallow grave. I comb through the banana plantation thinking of a way to get back into my body. My mother’s silent tears weigh on the wind around me. I crash into the afterbirth, just as they are emptying the small basin into the gaping hole. This is how I get a body the colour of rust. The one I find myself with, in the new world
When my eyes get used to the lack of light, I notice there are spots of shadows darker than their surroundings. They vibrate and stretch towards each other. Sometimes they turn mid way, almost as if what they left behind was calling to them. One comes full speed at me and I duck. It occurs to me then that while I have a soul inside a body, these ones have neither; they are only appendages. I watch as one stumbles into another and they both stop vibrating. Their mourning also ebbs. I watch several mergings before I know how to do it myself.
I work as fast as I can, lumping these dense shades together. I do the same with the light ones. I can feel which ones are peaceful, or happy, or angry. Putting together an angry soul saps energy out of me. I still need food, but the memory of pineapple-sweetness bears no appeal for me. After a time, I feel faint. My colour fades to a see-through brown. I know the other souls could take over me. So I will myself to enter the world I left behind.
I breeze into the convent. The air is suffused with the scent of night rose. I kiss the white and purple petals and inhale. I tuck the memory into myself. I spiral into the upturned bell of an orange canna lily – there’s something quaint about being in a cupped space – it tickles too, I giggle. I run through the whorls of a red African hibiscus, like a pebble rippling the surface of a placid well. When the last wave stills, I float from the flower garden and into the chapel. Its double doors flung open are the arms of a homely woman waiting to embrace me. I fall into her bosom.
The nuns kneeling down, with their heads bowed, their white veils – creaseless – folded along the same lines, are like white knights on a giant chessboard. Parts of me think if I moved just one of them the rest would tumble. Other parts think that their prayers – strings – would suspend them in midair, like puppets dangling in a ventriloquist’s hand, and the show would go on. The priest, his litany as fluid as a river, intones.
My soul snags earnest prayers from the altar. I wonder if God would have heard them had I not eaten them. I wonder if He has a chest of unanswered prayers, if He rummages through it sometimes, to answer prayers on a whim. Mine would be to have an eternal hail of prayers, to keep me from dying a second time. I roll myself in the swirls of incense and seep out through the latticed ventilators. There’s a lot to be gained in being a breeze.
Jazzy teaches me that there’s more than one meaning to light. She is the next one after me that knows things. The day she joins my new world, the light keeps swelling in whiteness like it could shatter us to beyond existence. The tremor that runs through me is like thunder splitting the sky. Still, I hold out my hands of rust.
I step out of my skin of shadows and into the spot of light. Whatever falls will land squarely in my hands. There’s a pop, a whoosh, then a heaviness in my arms, and above me the light is sealing off, screwing up like the surface of a flat navel.
Flesh as pink as a tongue is squirming in my hold. I can tell it’s a she because of the softness of her yolk-yellow soul. She shakes faster and faster. I struggle to hold her together, so that nothing of her wastes in spillage. She turns, seeking out my eyes. Usually, baby souls don’t know what they are searching for when they look for your eyes. But this one wears the sense of inborn enlightenment, of knowing I have a soul and where to look for it.
She is entering into me now, touching my soul with the nimble fingers of her own yolk-yellow one. My early days unravel before her. This is how I know she is the soul catcher.
When she closes her eyes I feel her back peddling out of my soul.
“None of the others can do that.”
“See me, touch me like that.”
“There are others here–?” Her words hang in the semi-light, not quite a question, a statement or an answer, but like she is confirming something she was already wondering about.
“Yes, many others, but I couldn’t catch them.”
“Yet you managed to catch me.”
“You made it easy. You’re almost whole. You smell of fresh iron.” I don’t add that the rest are fragments, dismembered souls mingling with bodies that are not their own, all fused together by the smell of old rust.
“What’s that sound?” She asks, as if she can see the thoughts I haven’t spoken.
“It’s the mourning wind. Heavy with the bewilderment of lost, mixed-up souls. What else can such a wind do?”
“It could sing. Form a choir. An orchestra even.”
“A choir of moaning wind … What are you? A jazz maestro? ”
“You tell me. Aren’t you the name giver?”
I sweep in through her eyes and into her yolk-yellow soul.
In Jazzy’s early days there is a man perched on a wooden chair with a guitar in his lap. Her mother, glowing and round-bellied, is facing him. He is strumming and singing, and her mother is smiling and swaying with her eyes closed. In her warm darkness Jazzy is moulded into a complete circle surrounded by love. The mother smiles and closes her eyes as the man sings.
My princess is coming
I am a simple man, I don’t deny
Kings so far high know not that I walk this earth
But even a simple man can father a princess
If love is true, who am I to say this isn’t possible?
My princess is coming
When the song ends both their eyes are wells of happy tears. He leans the guitar in a corner of the room and she takes its place in his hands.
The next day, there’s a blotch of red on the mother’s side of the bed and on her white nightgown. Her hands fly to her stomach and she lets out a muffled cry. Her hollowed out eyes meet the man’s, which are now filled with fear as dark as a rain cloud. That is when Jazzy begins to see the white light.
A man in a white coat runs his hands over her mother’s belly. He squeezes jelly on it, and spreads it with the white probe. After some time he shakes his head.
There are wails, like the sort that the mourning wind makes in our world. This is how Jazzy leaves them and comes falling through the navel of light into my arms.
“I can’t remember a time when they didn’t sing to me,” Jazzy says.
“Remembering will keep us alive, I suppose –”
“Sometimes I see mother standing in front of many children. She is telling them stories from a book. They are smiling and asking her questions. Sometimes I see her reading those books in the night. Her heart beats faster as she turns the pages. I get curious with her. I follow the word her eyes have left. She loves the stories. I love the stories with her.”
“What kind of stories are they?”
“All sorts, I suppose. Happy, sad, good, bad …”
“Do you remember all of them?”
“Not all at once. They come to me as they please.”
“Do you think we shall ever return?”
“Hope is still hope. But at times I wonder what hope there is in returning to a first dying.” Jazzy looks into my eyes and this time I don’t begrudge her entering my soul.
“Going back is a sweet pain. Who knows, maybe with time we shall find a way not to.” I turn to Jazzy as she retreats from my soul.
“What do you mean? I thought you only go back when you remember.”
“Not only then, I also go back when the prayers run out. They are what we feed on.”
“What happens if we don’t feed?”
“We waste away, piece by piece. Catching souls one can only save so much – when souls waste away they begin to wail. Their wails join the mourning wind and the mourning wind eats out what’s left. Then we are no more.”
“How do you know that?”
“I just know it. Some things you get to know with time. ”
“We must need many prayers then. Where do you find them?”
“The convents are the best, I breeze in empty but breeze out full. Who knows? Maybe one day we shall eat enough prayers to reach God. Or maybe we have already reached Him. Or maybe this is where the nuns pray us to.”
“Do you think it’s the same place our mothers pray us to?”
Her words shoot a star in me. But the feeling is so brief that I think I imagined it.
I feed Jazzy her first prayer. She takes it in morsel by morsel as if she is intoning a few words herself. No new soul before Jazzy has eaten a prayer like a ritual. This is the thing that I love best about Jazzy.
After she’s eaten, I lead her through the semi-darkness, and where the shadows are deeper, we pause. Her soul becomes a magnet that draws the other souls out. They attach to hers, diluting the yolk-yellow. When their mould is complete, she shrinks them off, like the wings of a dandelion fruit dropping a seed. For a moment I think she will dissolve into the gloom about us, but her colour deepens and blows out her body; I know what to do with wasting souls, I think, but I wouldn’t know how to deal with shrunken souls.
Then we watch as their bodies materialise from the semi darkness, as the souls find their way into the bodies. When that is done I bore into their early days and I know how to name them.
Our time is marked by the umbilical-light splitting open and sealing off, by new souls dropping into our semi-darkness. Jazzy knows when to be light, dark, or deep to catch a soul.
It depends on how strong or weak, how angry or happy, or sad the souls are. I notice the paling before she knows what is happening to her.
“What’s happening to my colour?”
“Don’t worry, do you feel okay?”
“I think I am going to die. Again,” she adds in a wry voice.
“You aren’t dying. Just getting weaker. You need to feed.”
“But you haven’t gone to the convent in a while.”
“True, but I saved some prayers for you.”
I blow out some fervent prayers into my hands. I offer them to her. She slurps them up, and we return to the business of catching and naming souls.
We stop in front of a shadow that feels like fire. Jazzy’s soul begins to sear and my eyes tear. We try to turn but the hot shadow finds our eyes. We try to shut it out but we find our souls have been bored into by two others, both the colour of a raging forest fire. The two souls fade their burning as they let us into their early days.
“Agony is a joke if you are jerked out.”
“A forked hand reaching in.”
“Cold metal searing warm darkness.”
“Being ripped apart.”
“Like they need to feed you to many dogs.”
“Human flesh feeds them – satisfies their cravings – we lay there in the cold – watching the fangs tear us to pieces – they tore off my hand – my head – my arms – they dug out my eyes – my tongue – they mangled my heart – his heart – our souls – we refused to be swallowed – we collected all the pieces.”
“I put him back together – he put me back together.”
“As best as we could – as best as we could.”
“Then we went back and burnt them – then we went back and burnt them.”
“Then we saw the light – then we saw the light.”
“Now who are you cold and mellow one – now who are you cold and mellow one?”
They let go of us suddenly. We recoil in the darkness. When our souls return to our bodies, we face two creatures. Their fire red souls, different shades, are patched onto each other. Each has a white eye and a black eye. One has a hand with two thumbs sticking out of his ear and one hand with three middle fingers. The other has two index fingers on one hand attached to his stomach and one hand with four and half fingers. I have never seen souls so ugly.
They look the way I imagined Frankenstein to have looked. Mother read the book a lot in my early days. That’s how I name them Jagenstein and Pokenstein.
Jagenstein and Pokenstein are like constantly brewing storms. Their souls fight to put themselves back together. Their bodies fight to rearrange each other. When they have almost got it right, they start all over again. Sometimes Jazzy has to scoop up their pieces and separate them after they have muddled into each other. From this we learn that Jazzy’s other undoing is separating angry souls. She pales faster and shrinks until I shove prayers into her mouth. In such moments, she needs more and more to stay alive.
Between the two of them, Jagenstein and Pokenstein consume more prayers than fifty souls would. My visits to the convent increase. Shuffling from body to breeze and back taxes my soul. If I didn’t have Jazzy, I would have wasted away.
“I wish we could let these ones go,” I sigh.
“We could, right?”
“Yes, but I have a feeling they would take the rest of us with them.”
“I know; the anger they harbour is more than all our lifetimes.”
“And our deaths,” I add.
“I guess they are right to be angry. I mean, they didn’t … come here like us.” Jazzy falters.
“You mean ‘die like us’? You can say it, it’s not like something worse will happen to us.”
“You know what I mean, their mothers didn’t want them; they got rid of them.”
“Does it matter? We all ended up in the same place.”
“Our mothers wanted us. Maybe that’s why we are whole.”
“Whole! She says ‘whole’! Like we can breathe, eat normal food. Feel our mother’s warmth!”
“At least we can think. Can you imagine dying in eternal ignorance?”
“I would be too ignorant to care that I am ignorant. So it wouldn’t matter.”
I leave Jazzy staring after me. I wish I could escape this gloom.
When I feel calmer I look for her again. I find her slumped in another dark corner, beginning to pale. I gather her in my arms, and we return to the other world to gather prayers.
We blow wider. We blow further. We comb through stadiums of overnight congregations. We sift through the noises to find the prayers. We lay traps in hearts and minds, as we convince bereaved mothers to sit in sofas, and wring their hearts to people they pay by the hour. The sessions usually end in prayer, and we scoop up verse after verse as they are mumbled from trembling lips.
We enter homes, we look through doors and closets and cupboards, we go up to ceilings to see what prayers might have hidden there. We tuck them into ourselves and thank God we don’t have to knock on doors to be let in. There’s a lot to be gained in being a breeze.
We check under pillows, fluff out dreams to shake the prayers loose, we scoop up even the ones left in the drool; sometimes prayers are mumbled in sleep. We enter cisterns, we snake down drains to retrieve those flushed away.
We catch tunes too. Jazzy also feeds on music. She won’t complain if we go back tuneless but after a day her guava pink skin will tinge into a dirty brown. So we have learnt to intercept radio waves to catch the one station that plays soul music. If it is Thursday we go to a club where her favourite band plays. The singer is a woman with lots of honey and a little gravel in her voice. When we take her tunes Jazzy becomes pink to the point of a newborn baby. She laughs like wind chimes then, and even Jagenstein and Pokenstein try to smile.
It is a day like any other for prayer gathering. Jazzy and I start at the convent. The habited nuns are having communion. We are floating in the centre aisle. The last takes her bread. She turns to return to her seat. Her face is dark. But her mouth and chin are the colour of naked flesh, of healing burns. Jazzy and I see the priest’s hands at the same time. They are the same colour. “Then we went back and burnt them – then we went back and burnt them,” Jazzy and I remember our first encounter with Jagenstein and Pokenstein and their raging anger. We stare at the altar and wonder where God is, if He catches our prayers, if their parents’ burns are enough punishment. We return to our new world, not with prayers, but with a kind of fire in our eyes.
The chair shifts and I recall it is the one with an unstable leg. But it is too late to get another. No time. My nose brushes against the dusty wooden surface of the wardrobe as I reach again for the edge of the carton in front of me. There are about a half-dozen of them up here. Which one will have the picture frame? I feel the tickle of dust and I attempt to snort air out of my nostrils, but still I erupt in a sneeze. The chair lurches and I freeze, heart wobbling along with the furniture, until it comes to rest. Whew.
A horn sounds at the gate, two short blasts and a longer one. And I hear Tempest, the gateman, shout from the back of the house, followed by the sound of his thundering feet. Kai! Of course today Port Harcourt traffic has to disappoint by being free-flowing. I shove the carton back into the corner and almost lose a leg getting down from the chair. I drag the chair out of the spare room and back to the dining table, use a napkin to wipe the sweat from my face and the dust from my arms, and I have just parked myself in front of the TV when the front door opens. Through it, I see Tempest leaving the compound, likely on an errand for Mom.
“Welcome, Mom.” I am out of breath, does she notice?
Lugging in a bag emblazoned with the Everyday Supermarket logo, she only hums a reply. Her eyes sting with their glare.
“Queen Wakama,” she says derisively.
I jump up to collect the bag, mumbling, “Sorry.” A well-trained Nigerian child should have met her outside to help carry stuff inside. Instead here I was in front of the TV, seemingly unbothered. Mom is not to know that this is as a result of what I’ve been up to. I hope she never does.
As she rustles past me, the flowing sleeves of her bright green ankara dress brush my cheek. The fabric holds the sweet scent of her mango-based eau de toilette, a scent she’s caught me trying on many times.
Later, I help her with dinner. I start peeling the yam, but after a minute of watching me impatiently, she collects the knife and drags the tuber towards her, murmuring something about us being here all night. So instead I wash the green vegetables which will go into the pottage last, and for that she is willing to relinquish control. Through it all I am weighing her mood and what her reaction might be to what I want to say. Since the answer is uncertain, in the end I just spit it out.
“Mom, they gave us an assignment in school.”
Just turning back from balancing the jerry can of palm oil near the burner so it can melt, she shoots me a so what look.
I swallow. “We’re to write an essay–”
“Wakama, is this the first time you’re writing an essay?”
“–on our fathers.”
She grows so still that for a moment she looks like a mannequin.
“So I need to get some information on—”
Mom’s raised palm dries up the words in my throat. When her nose flares in that particular way, it’s never good. But does this woman really expect me to suppress all curiosity about him?
“Are you speaking the truth?”
“Yes, Mom, I—”
“Don’t ‘yes-mom’ me. We talked about this when you were little, and I thought it was over.”
I gape. “I don’t even remember that conversation!”
“No matter, it took place.”
“But it’s for school.” My voice is beginning to thin out and it’s annoying, as I have promised myself I will stop whining. It is unbecoming of someone who will soon be a teenager. That’s what my best friend Powei says.
“Well,” she says, lifting the cover of the pot forcefully, “those teachers are aware that there are single parent families without a father in the picture, so what do they mean?”
“But…if I just had a picture of him, that might help.”
Mom spins around, a fork clenched in her fist like a weapon. “There is nothing, you hear me?” As I flinch, she shakes her head sharply. “Wakama. Growing up without a father is not the worst thing in the world. I mean, have you ever wanted for anything?”
My father, I nearly throw back, but shake my head slowly, looking at my feet in their bright orange flip-flops.
“And that is more than many others have,” she says in a self-defeated, perplexed manner, hurt radiating from every pore.
OMG, not again! She’s an expert at this, making me feel like the most ungrateful child in the world.
The tension in the room vies with the hum from the refrigerator and I keep my gaze respectfully trained on the pulse beating in her neck.
“I’m sorry,” I mutter finally. Reluctantly.
She lets the moment swell, to give the apology room to breathe, to ferment and mire me in penitence. Then she yanks on my arm and pulls me to her, smearing my cheek with a film of sweat and at least one layer of Mac foundation.
“Oh, my child. You’re something else. It’s alright, now,” she says soothingly, even though it isn’t. Air whooshes out of her nose in an exhale, her usual end to a heavy conversation. “How about beginning your essay with: ‘My mother embodies all the characteristics of a good father and more’?” she says. When I draw back to look at her quizzically, she lets out a trill of laughter. “That should give you extra marks for creativity.”
This time I wait until Mom has gone for a verification exercise at her office. They were told to bring all the certificates they had accrued before and after getting the job, as well as documents like their acceptance letters, pay slips and the like. She’d grumbled all night as she brought down cartons and suitcases, because even though most of her documents and certificates were in a certain folder, there had been a stray few she’d had to chase down like hidden treasure. I am searching for my father’s picture within the first hour of her departure.
I had seen it before, a glimpse at least, if not a proper look. I was much younger when I had chanced upon it in a cupboard somewhere. I had a vague impression of a light-skinned man with a thin line of hair on his upper lip. I had turned the frame over, feeling its edges, my fingertips travelling over smooth wood to something I could peel. Then Mom had appeared screeching and snatched it out of my hands. I don’t remember anything she said, but I will never forget that she was almost crying as she smacked my hands repeatedly and, when I burst into tears, she held me tightly to her chest. Even after we moved house I never laid eyes on it again. But seeing her rooting through things looking to complete the requirements for her verification at the Civil Service Commission, it crossed my mind that I might have been looking in the wrong places.
The first suitcase yields nothing besides the smell of unaired clothes, uncut wax materials still in their bundles, a necklace with missing stones wrapped in tissue, coral beads in a small drawstring pouch. I scrunch up my nose at some string and lace lingerie and two ancient wigs that remind me of the goats our principal keeps in his compound.
The second suitcase appears to be much the same, except there are also some books with yellowed pages authored by Barbara Taylor Bradford, Bessie Head, James Hadley Chase, and Cyprian Ekwensi. There’s also a copy of Every Woman which I thumb through. My stomach clenches at the intriguing sex illustrations so I keep the book aside for further investigation. An unopened pack of long expired tampons, plastic bags folded with lace-heirloom-care bearing M&S logos, Dubai something-something, Sahaad Stores in Abuja.
When my fingers touch wood, I think maybe it’s a broken animal carving from Jos. I remember seeing one or two a couple of years ago. But my heart cheers. It’s the picture I’m looking for. It looks both familiar and not, like an image from a half-forgotten dream, and I hold my breath as I turn it over, savouring the satisfaction of discovery. The back is covered with rubber tape, but my searching fingers register something hard and knobby underneath the tape. Strangely, though, the many repeated layers of tape are fresh, their edges still adhesive, as if someone—my mother, obviously—had only recently replaced the tape that was there before.
Excitement clogs my throat even as the illicitness of what I’m doing vibrates through my limbs, so that the fingers that clutch the picture hesitate to go further. What if Mom just shows up out of nowhere, saying they had finished early or that it’s been postponed or…something? No. I let out a breath and steel myself. I just have to hurry. When next will I have another such opportunity? Left to her, never.
After putting the suitcases away exactly the way I found them, I leave her room for mine and settle on the chair in front of my dresser. I wipe the surface of the frame with a shirt destined for the laundry basket and look at it fully for the first time since retrieving it from the suitcase. My heart thrums. This is he. Light-skinned as I remember from my last viewing, but only now can I see the wave in his hair, the wide nose, eyes that are kind of like mine. He has one leg propped on the low rung of a wooden chair, his forearms crossed over his knee, and he looks straight at the camera, intelligence and knowledge in his gaze, confidence in his stance. Why did he leave us?
Well, if I can’t get answers to that, I can at least get something from the picture which I can use for my essay. I’ll have to make stuff up, but what do I do if Mom asks to see it out of the blue? Maybe I can tell her the assignment is to be used for some kind of African exhibition, some study by foreign researchers, and we aren’t getting any copies? Yeah, right, Wakama. I can almost hear Powei’s disbelieving laughter. You don’t lie enough, she always says, that’s why when you do, it always sounds like an alien abduction theory.
I take time to remove the strips of rubber tape, laying them sticky-side up so I can replace them when I’m done. Then I turn the frame over in my hands repeatedly, but see no opening through which I can slide the picture out. Not your regular picture frame, then. The picture itself might hold some clue, then – his name or address, the date it was taken. Something. The small knob I had felt through the rubber tape glints and winks intermittently like Christmas lights. Strange. I glance out the window. There’s a bit of sunlight coming in, but it can’t be responsible for the shine. I touch it. It feels kind of warm. Maybe it’s custom-made and if I turn it a certain way, the picture will come loose. I try to lift it, but it doesn’t budge. So I twist it and it turns. Bingo. I twist it again and again but although it seems to be loosening, it doesn’t come off. I quicken my movements.
“Look at you, all grown up.”
I scream and leap to my feet, the picture frame clattering to the floor. I was so focused on my fingers that I hadn’t noticed anyone enter the room. The back of my knees hit the edge of the bed as I turn towards the source. Mom can’t be back so soon, can she? Why didn’t I hear the car?
But of course it isn’t her. It’s him. Standing a few feet away and occupying the space between the bed and the wardrobe. I appraise him in quick glances, disbelieving my eyes. There are new lines in his face, some grey in his wavy hair, and his moustache is thicker. His clothes are wrinkled, somewhat outdated. A faint smell of mothballs tickles my nose. He looks round the room with a furrow on his forehead and a twist to his mouth as if he doesn’t particularly like the décor.
He waves a dismissive hand at the stuffed Kermit the Frog on the bed. “You’re older than this, my dear, aren’t you?” Then he looks at me with a smile, a gentle one although there is something in his eyes that keeps my throat tight. He cocks his head. “Wakama, isn’t it?”
“Wha-wha—” I scramble onto the bed to put some distance between us, my heart and lungs fractured. Am I dreaming? “Where did you come from?”
“Where do you think?”
Not through the door, which is shut. Besides, I would have heard it open – or footsteps at least. I look wildly around, and my gaze halts on the frame now lying face down on the floor where I had flung it in my fright. The knob is still glinting and winking at me. As if to say, mockingly, Here’s your clue. All that twisting…OMG. My gaze lifts in degrees to clash with his, this stranger who is no stranger.
He nods somewhat indulgently. “I see you’ve got the gist of it.” He gestures to the chair. “May I?”
I don’t reply, wondering if he can actually sit. Isn’t he some sort of spirit? He takes my silence as consent and settles on the chair with a sigh, looking quite solid as he bends to picks up the frame. He stares at it a long moment, mouth hard, and then places it on the dresser. His stillness raises the hair on my nape, but when he looks at me again, it is with that same benign, but somehow scary, smile. What is happening? Is it permanent? Is he here to stay? My desires are mixed on this. What will Mom think?
“Hmm. You’re getting quite tall.”
He looks me over, his eyes running leisurely over my plaited hair and bare shoulders in my patchwork dress and lingering on my bare feet. For a moment, I want to dive into the wardrobe to escape his scrutiny.
His words register belatedly and I feel compelled to say something to make him stop staring. “I must get it from you,” I say haltingly.
“Is that so?” And now his smile is more a snarl. Likely seeing the alarm in my demeanour, his face softens and he gestures to the copy of Every Woman I had put on the bed. “Interesting book?”
I feel myself go hot and wish I hadn’t picked the book up.
“Do you enjoy such books, such pictures?” I am unable to look away from the mesmerizing hold of his gaze, and my skin prickles unpleasantly as his voice drops. “Do they serve as good company at night, when you are all alone and your fingers creep underneath your nightgown and in between your legs—”
“Shut up!” I don’t know when the words escape, my heart shivering in my chest. What kind of man is this?
He only looks amused. “Now, now. Is that any way to talk to your father?”
“You’re not my father!” Fear grows into a barbed, sour thing on my tongue and I hop off of the bed to the other side so that it is between us. He only watches me, hands on his knees.
His gaze sharpens. “Did Oko confess that to you?”
It takes a while before I understand he is referring to my mother and I shake my head sharply. I don’t want to hear this. I don’t want to hear anything more. “Please leave.”
“I said, please—”
“Oh, I heard you the first time,” he says with a chuckle. “But what do you suggest?”
“Where do you suggest I go to? Owerri? Enugu? Maybe Lagos?”
His voice is so reasonable I want to shit myself. “Wherever…you’ve been all this while.”
He rises and although he doesn’t advance further, I take a step back.
“You know that’s not possible.”
There is a long silence, and my eyes skid off his to the window beyond his shoulder. Through it I can hear the hoot of a lorry from the nearby expressway, the buzz of the generator at the business centre down the street, and Tempest speaking on the phone in his lilting pidgin interspersed with cackling laughter. I feel removed from all of that, shut up in this space with this man. My dreams of the tears and explanations that would come when I eventually met him seem ridiculous now. Why hadn’t I listened to Mom? This is no father ready to affirm his love, but a cold stranger devoid of feeling.
I want to run out the door and hope he disappears, an awful dream, but deep down I know that won’t happen. And I’m not sure how he will react to a sudden move like that. If my mother had really trapped him in that picture frame, how had she done it? All by herself, or had someone helped? More importantly, how can I put him back? I wish Mom would return now; she would know what to do.
“How…” False start. I try again. If I am calm enough, maybe he will inadvertently tell me what I need to know. “How did you get in there in the first place?”
“How do you think?” And from the lift of his eyebrows, I fear he is one step ahead of me.
Then I hear it. First the low distinctive hum of the Honda and then, like the sound of the final trumpet, the horn at the gate, two short blasts, another longer one. She’s home! I see a flash of panic light up my father’s eyes, but it is swiftly chased away by something that resembles regret.
“Mom’s home. You have to go.”
“I wish we’d had longer to talk.”
Me too would be the polite response, but I can’t voice the lie. “Maybe next time.” But never again, I promise myself. Never, ever, ever…
He nods slowly, his gaze unwavering, then holds out his arms. “A hug for your old man?”
The very idea makes my flesh prickle and I shake my head. “I don’t think so.” I hear the drawn-out whine of the gate and faint voices, likely an exchange between Tempest and my mother. Suddenly those suggestive words my father had spoken to me flash across my mind. They had been a violation. Of something fledgling and precious and unaware.
“No,” I say firmly.
“Please.” I swear his eyes shine with tears. “Whatever my failings, you’re my daughter. One embrace, to tide me until the next time we see each other – if we ever do,” he adds on a low note.
My heart is too pure for this world. That’s what Powei tells me. But the thought of the man who sired me begging for one hug from me, his daughter, knocks down some of my defences. Mom is almost inside the house so he will want to be gone before she sees him. I give a jerky nod and with a small smile he lopes round the edge of the bed.
From then on it is just impressions: the calculating gleam in his eye, the dull shine off the edge of the picture frame in his hand—when had he picked it up from the dresser?—the sound of the front door and Mom calling out, “Wakama!” And like a slap, it dawns on me: No, I don’t want this man to hug me after all, and I don’t care if Mom knows what I’ve been up to, I just want her here.
“Mommy!” And even I can hear the fear, urgency and tears crammed in that one word.
I try to rush towards the door, but I’m out of room to manoeuvre and with bared teeth he is upon me, his long arms clasping me tightly, his fingers furiously twisting the knob of the picture frame. And the words that fall in a dark stream from his lips will be forever stained in my memory:
“As pictures do, as pictures fall
They do not speak or move at all
They watch us voiceless from the wall
So too will your soul hear this call.”
He finishes as Mom bursts into the room. He says, “Welcome home, Oko. I could never forget those words,” and she screams and screams as I black out.
When I come to, I feel like industrial wax has been poured over my limbs. Even my brain, for all that I’m still able to think, seems immobilized. I don’t know how the picture frame has been placed, but I can see them clearly. My mother, shocked gaze looking right at me, is on the floor, her back against the wall and my father standing above her.
“Fascinating piece of work, this picture frame, isn’t it? Where does it get these shots from? I mean, she looks so peaceful and happy in her Sunday best, wouldn’t you say?”
My mother is silent.
“Hmm. You never did convince me that she was mine, my darling. Is she? Was she? Although I’m not sure if it matters now. I’ve missed you. God. Your skin…”
“Don’t touch me!”
And then Tempest’s voice from outside the room, some paces away from the sound of it. “Madam, madam!”
Mom clears her throat and her voice, when it comes, is sudden and startling. “Tempest, come o! Thief!”
I can picture the man’s temporary hesitation at the urgency in her voice before I hear his feet begin pounding towards us. My father appears frozen for a moment in shock, likely having expected Mom to get rid of Tempest. Then an ugly expression suffuses his face and he lunges at her. But Mom is on her belly, slithering on the floor and between his legs like palm oil poured from the bottle so that his hands grasp only air. He twists around to look at the woman undulating across the floor towards me, and the bafflement on his face mirrors mine.
Then Tempest slams open the door, transfixed at the sight that meets his eyes. My father’s expression is clear: who to tackle first? But that split second of indecision is all Mom needs to grab me. It’s the picture frame, I know, but I can actually feel her arms around me as she holds it to her chest.
“Kill him!” Mom says to Tempest, but the words come too late as my father’s blow connects with Tempest’s face and he crumples to the floor. She lets out a hiss of frustration as my father spins on his heel and bounds over.
“Ebiye,” she says in an oddly resonating voice whose authority causes a ripple in the room. My father stops in his tracks, looking confused. And then he cocks his head, and the chuckle that shakes his body grows to a full-blown laugh. “Shit, I’m out of practice,” Mom mutters under her breath, just before he takes one long stride over to her and strikes her with an open palm. As she loses her grip on me, I am flung into the air and skid over the side of the bed to land on the floor. Even with the bed somewhat breaking my fall I swear all my bones are fractured.
“You actually want me dead?” I hear my father hiss.
“Well, not before, because I actually thought you had some humanity left in your veins,” Mom says in a strained voice, and although I can’t see anything, I hear the rustle of clothes and a faint grunt, and I guess she is getting to her feet.
Then I am airborne again, and I come face-to-face with my father. He is sweating, his face grim as he stares at the picture frame. “If anyone is going to go, guess who it’s going to be, Oko.” And if I was scared of him before, it’s nothing to how I feel at the malevolence in his eyes.
Suddenly there’s a crash and I hear the splinter of glass—my mirror? My father blurts, “Why did you—?” and then with a guttural cry, his face is pulled backwards and I hear a thump as he falls. I’m unlucky again as the picture frame slips out of his hands and I crash to the floor for the second time, agony reverberating throughout my body.
“Thank you, Tempest,” Mom says quietly. And then I feel her fingers on my face, and they are the most beautiful thing ever. Then she rises, takes a shard of glass from the floor and lances her finger, smears my face and then my father’s with her blood.
As pictures go, as pictures fall
Ebiye, you shall heed my call
Your soul must return, still in thrall
To free my daughter’s from your pall.
This time I’m expecting it. And although what will happen afterwards is unclear, I welcome the darkness with relief.
When I awake I can feel the softness of a bed beneath me. I feel fossilized and as the drama resulting from the picture frame hits me in flashes, my heart twists with fear: am I still trapped in it? Experimentally I wiggle my toes and they comply. A sound must have escaped me because I hear Mom’s voice from beside me.
I force heavy lids open to see her leaning over me, forehead furrowed. Then I peep downwards and see that my legs are draped with a duvet. If Mom is here with me, if I can see myself, then we must be all right. Mom touches the back of her hand to my forehead, my cheek, my neck.
“Here, take a sip.” I steel myself for something vile like juice from strained bitter leaves, but when the cold sweetness of Coke touches my lips, I gulp it down gratefully. It’s so uncharacteristic of Mom that I want to laugh, but my lips are sluggish.
“Rest,” she says. She sets the glass on the table with a thunk, and I see the plaster swathing her thumb. In a few minutes I am close to sleep again, but Mom’s voice penetrates. “I’m sorry, Wakama.”
Why is she apologising? Her eyes are red-rimmed with concern but are also brittle in a way that makes me wary. She must be mad at me. If I had been less curious, none of this would have happened. And then my thoughts splinter: What exactly is Mom? How the heck could she rattle off all those incantations? My mind finds it even harder to grasp the memory of her moving so swiftly over the floor on her belly. Maybe one day I can summon the courage to ask. Will Powei believe me when I tell her all this? Okay, maybe I won’t tell her after all. It’s too complicated, really.
“I’m sorry, too, Mom.”
And as I drift off, I realize there’s a lingering smell of smoke in the room.
Annetjie and I take turns carrying the bag of Ma’s ashes. The bag isn’t very heavy, but our arms are tired and our feet stumble over every rock and ditch. The sky is empty, like our tummies, and sometimes when I look up, I am dizzy like I will stumble and fall up, and up, and up, and never stop falling, empty like the wind. Annetjie says I’m stupid, and that won’t happen. Our world is a ball that keeps turning like when you have a bucket of water and you’re turning it round and round and round so the water doesn’t fall out.
But I’m so thirsty, and I don’t want to think about water.
There is not much shade and my skin is angry like I’ve been stung all over by wasps. I wanted to stay by the little river where the poplar trees are. I caught a tadpole there and the mud felt good on my legs where the thorns bite me. But we must go, go, go. West to the sea, says Annetjie. Where the harbour lies. Before she went to the angels, Ma told us we must go west along the Big Road, away from the city. We must not talk to strangers. We must hide when we hear them because they will hurt us, because we are small. Then, when we get to the sea there will be the boat that will take us home across the ocean to where Auntie Ida lives with Uncle Ben. We must tell the people we are Ma’s daughters. We must not say anything about Pa because he is a bad man, and people will want to hurt us too.
When I think about Pa my throat is tight and I want to cry, but Annetjie says I mustn’t waste my tears on him. I need my tears inside me because we are so thirsty, and we don’t know when we’ll find something to drink again. Annetjie says I must stop asking if we’re nearly there yet because we’ll get there when we get there. Annetjie says they will have raspberry ice lollies on the boat, and if I’m a good girl and walk all the way, then I’ll have as many raspberry ice lollies as I want to stain my lips red.
Thinking about the ice lollies makes my tongue thick and heavy, and it sticks to the roof of my mouth. I part my lips, about to ask Annetjie about the boat and the nice people there, but she’s stopped on the rise, her hand shading her eyes.
“Hush.” She yanks my hair so hard that I bite back a yelp.
We’ve been walking forever through old farmlands. Last year when Ma was only a little bit sick and there was still petrol for Pa’s car, we came driving here and the fields were all canary yellow and green grass. The wind smelled like cow poo when we passed the farmsteads, and the aunties’ washing made flags in the wind. Now everything is dust and stalks grazed down to the roots. Every now and then we pass bones. Not all the bones belong to sheep or goats and Annetjie says, “Don’t look,” then I scrunch my eyes tight until Annetjie lets out a breath so I know it’s okay to open my eyes again.
Annetjie stands like a soldier, and when I reach her I can also see the dark green trees through the shimmer haze—a village of mud huts and roofs like pointed hats. Aunties are working in the maize field and little chickens chase each other in circles.
My tummy rumbles, and I can taste the mielies already, the fat kernels dripping with butter and crunchy salt that pops between my teeth. Maybe the aunties will give us fresh, cold milk to drink too.
Annetjie pulls on my arm, drags me along, away from the village. “We must go around.”
“What?” I cry. “Why?”
“Those people will also throw stones at us,” Annetjie says. “Remember like last time?”
I stumble after her, my disappointment crawling up out of my stomach.
“We don’t want you to get hurt again.”
When we ran forever ago, the children threw stones at us and called us dumb umlungu. Annetjie won’t tell me what umlungu means but I think it has something to do with Pa because the bad people were calling him that when they came to fetch him. The cut on my forehead is still angry and hurts a lot, and often Annetjie stares at me with a frown.
“We must hurry,” she says. “I don’t know if there is another boat soon.”
“Where are you two girls going?” a woman asks.
We both squeak with fright because we didn’t see the big brown auntie walking towards us. She must’ve been coming round the koppie, and she’s carrying a big bundle of sticks on her head.
Annetjie pulls me behind her, her grip on my wrist so hard I have to bite the inside of my cheek to stop myself from whimpering. Annetjie always says you must never cry in front of strangers.
“None of you business,” Annetjie snaps at the auntie.
The woman’s smile is big and white, her skin shiny and dark, and if Annetjie’s sharp response bothers her at all, she doesn’t let on. “Two little girls, sunburnt and with ragged dresses… Mmm? Where are your parents?” She sets down her load with a sigh.
“We’re fetching medicine for our ma,” Annetjie replies.
I clutch Ma’s ashes to my chest. “But—”
Annetjie pinches the skin of my wrist hard enough for me to swallow a whimper.
But Ma is with the angels. My throat grows thick. Why is Annetjie lying to the auntie?
The auntie nods, as if Annetjie’s words are heavy stones.
“Would you like some pap, girls?” She dips her head towards me. “And that is a nasty cut on your sister’s brow. I have some medicine I can put on it to make it better.”
“We really need to be going.” Annetjie tugs on me hard enough for me to stumble.
The auntie clucks her tongue, shakes her head, the openness fled from her features.
“You’re not fooling me, little girl. Your sister is hurt, and you are both running from trouble. I shouldn’t bother with you if you’re ungrateful little dogs, even with all the troubles. Come with me. Go. It doesn’t matter.”
She lifts her bundle of sticks and just like that, the nice auntie turns her back on us and continues on her way to her village.
My tummy turns in on itself and growls, and after all the walking that we’ve done today, and the day before, and the days before that makes my knees fold. I sink onto the ground clutching Ma’s ashes, and I let the tears go. I cry great, heaving sobs that rattle my chest and squeeze my throat.
I can’t tell Annetjie that this kind auntie reminds me of the aunties back home who used to bath me, brush my hair and tell me what a pretty little doll I am. If I do, Annetjie will pinch me and yell at me that we can’t talk to those people because of what they did to Pa.
The auntie mutters to herself in her own language then says to my sister, “Come, girlie, no one will hurt you. We are good people here. Come have some food. Let me look at your sister’s wound.”
A moment hangs, and the shimmery voices of the boomsingertjies scree-scree-scree in the scraggly gum trees nearby. My tears sting my cracked lips, and I suck in enough breath to hold back the next sob. I mustn’t cry. I must be a big girl like Annetjie. But it’s so hard, and I can’t anymore. I’m empty like the sky and the world is so big and we’re going to walk forever and ever and never reach the sea.
And I want a raspberry ice lolly.
I can almost taste the sugar sweetness, feel the tart little ice crystals between my teeth before they melt.
Annetjie pulls me up onto my feet, takes Ma’s bag. Her hand is firm in mine, the skin rough, but she doesn’t let go. We drunk-stumble after the auntie. Everything hurts—my head, the throbbing of my skin where the thrown stone cut me. My feet. My legs. The sides of my lips where my tears sting. My arms are empty without the bag of Ma’s ashes so I take the bag back from Annetjie.
The village is another world—orderly rows of vegetables, furrows gurgling with crystal clear water. The goats are white with brown patches, their slit eyes like dragons’ as they glare at us then bleat at our passing. The auntie—she says her name is Miriam Arendse (like the bird, and I try to imagine her with a wicked, hooked beak but can’t)—guides us past the rusted corrugated sheets of the palisade that bristles with wicked tangles of razorwire.
Even here. There is always danger.
She says this place is not like the city, and they’re not hungry, like the people we have left behind. The women here are big and round and soft. The men don’t look like walking skeletons with skulls for eyes. Children are playing with skipping ropes and a ball made from patches of leather. They stop and stare at us as we pass, and I stare right back at them. Annetjie looks straight ahead of her as if none of this is real.
Auntie Miriam has a house by the kraal where a big white-and-black cow whisks at flies. The auntie’s home is a pretty little cottage made from mud with a thatch roof. Inside smells like the Cobra polish the aunties back home used, and there is a brass praying hands picture hanging over the small dining table with the whitest crochet tablecloth I’ve ever seen.
“Will you tell me your names?” she asks as she stirs up the embers in the hearth.
“We don’t tell our names to strangers!” snaps Annetjie, who stands by the door not quite willing to step over the threshold like I have.
Auntie Miriam clucks a little, like a hen, and does that pursing of the lips, but that is all; she doesn’t ask our names again and I can see she has some angry words hiding on her tongue. But she dishes us cold krummelpap with a red sauce. I never liked krummelpap back in the Before—Pa always says that was what kaffirs ate. All I know is that the K-word is bad (Ma always said). But I don’t mind the krummelpap now because my stomach is all hollow.
“Don’t eat so fast,” Auntie Miriam says to us. “You will make yourself sick.”
Annetjie glares at her and shovels the food into her mouth. She isn’t even using the spoon. I can’t see her chewing. She makes me think of a dog that is defending its bone from the other dogs. If she starts growling, I won’t be surprised.
“You don’t have manners, girl,” she says to my sister. “Is that what they teach you in the city?”
“We don’t come from the city,” my sister retorts.
“Of course you don’t.” Auntie Miriam gives a soft snort of laughter, as if dealing with rude girls is something that doesn’t bother her.
I keep my head down, take smaller bites. Auntie Miriam is right about me getting a sore tummy if I eat too fast. I chew each mouthful slowly until the krummelpap slides down my throat all smooth even if it tastes like snot. And I use the spoon. It is dented and scratched, and there is an H engraving on the handle. Our family had an L, for Lategan, but I keep that to myself because of Pa.
I am a good girl. I want to make Auntie Miriam happy because she is being nice to us. The aunties back home always said: ‘Don’t make your mother cry up in Heaven.’
“Where are you children going all on your own?” Auntie Miriam asks.
“I…” Annetjie looks down at her empty plate, her shoulders slumped. She doesn’t have anymore bite in her.
Auntie Miriam seems satisfied. “You know…” She fetches a jar from the shelf the measures out a handful of dried leaves. “You can tell me later, how about that?”
Annetjie mumbles a response, but from the way she keeps her hair in her face, I can tell that she doesn’t want us to see that she’s crying.
Auntie Miriam grinds the leaves with pestle and mortar. The sound is a dry chrrrrr-chrrrr.
“I could use the help here,” she says, not quite looking at us. “Ever since my Jakob went to join the Prophet’s Army with my sons, I’ve had too many tasks for one old lady. And Dominee September runs a school here. It is a better place here for children than out in the veld.”
Annetjie screws up her face. “We must go fetch medicine for our ma.”
“I don’t think you have a ma or a pa to fetch medicine for,” Auntie Miriam says. She holds Annetjie’s gaze so she can’t look away.
Annetjie wipes at her nose with the back of her wrist, smearing dirt across her face.
After we have eaten, Auntie Miriam looks at my cut. She shakes her head and clucks her tongue. “What happened here, girlie?”
“Some bad children threw rocks.”
“Lindi!” Annetjie says then claps her hand in front of her mouth because she is always telling me we mustn’t share our names with strangers.
But the auntie isn’t a stranger anymore, is she? Why is she being so nice to us? What does she want?
Yet she doesn’t ask why the bad children threw rocks, and I don’t tell. The green paste she puts on my head stings like a hundred bees and I don’t want to cry but I do. Auntie fetches a bowl of warm water and washes my face and my hands. The lullaby she sings is one Auntie Tessa always used to:
Siembamba, mama se kindjie,
Siembamba, mama se kindjie
draai sy nek om, gooi hom in die sloot;
trap op sy kop dan is hy dood
Ma didn’t like Auntie Tess singing that song, she said it was horrible. But the way Auntie Miriam sings it I know she doesn’t mean the words. Later, we have warm rooibos tea with honey, and Auntie Miriam puts a big black kettle on the stove. We must both bath properly, she says, and while we are busy with the soap and warm water in a bucket, she scrubs at our dresses. We are given two old shirts to wear for nighties. They smell of camphor and make me think of Ma’s cupboard with the coats.
“Tomorrow you will be nice and clean, and we can go see the dominee,” Auntie Miriam says.
By now, Annetjie’s eyes are heavy and she yawns. I yawn too until my jaw clicks, and the auntie smiles.
I help her fold blankets into pallets for us to sleep.
Annetjie wakes me and it’s dark. Long fingers of moonlight slice past the curtains and make Annetjie’s face into a skull.
“Be quiet,” she whispers. “We must go now.”
Where? I want to ask, but when she looks at me so fiercely, I know I must be obedient. She rolls up the two blankets, and gives them to me to hold, along with Ma’s ashes. Our dresses are still damp, but we put them on, and leave the shirts in a pile on the floor. In the kitchen, Annetjie fills a dishcloth with rusks that she removes from a tin on the cabinet.
“What are you doing?” I whisper at her. The door to Auntie Miriam’s bedroom is closed, but what will she think if she sees us fiddling with her things?
“Shhh.” Annetjie glares at me and I shut my mouth.
She takes dried peaches too, and a knife, then motions for me to tiptoe after her. The back door’s latch slides open with only a tiny squeak, and we step into the dusty moonlight. The cold slices right through my thin dress, but I must be a big girl for Ma, and not shiver like a ninny.
I want to ask Annetjie why we’re going in the middle of the night because Auntie Miriam is nice, and we’ll make her sad by doing running away, but the moment I open my mouth, Annetjie presses her finger against her lips.
Quiet little ghosts, we slip from shadow to shadow between the mud brick homes with their pointy roofs. A man with a big knobkerrie walks is walking along the wall. He has a blanket wrapped around his shoulders, but he doesn’t see us when we hide behind a chicken coop. Our breathing is loud, and he passes by so close I can hear the leather creak-creak-creak of his sandals. He still doesn’t see us.
We don’t go out by the gate. Annetjie has found a spot down the side of the wall where a sheet of corrugated metal has come loose enough for us to push through. I don’t cry out when a jagged edge cuts my arm. I’m a big girl.
The blood tickles down my arm and quickly cools as we pad down a goat path, into the riverbed and along the watercourse.
“If we stay with the river, we’ll get to the sea,” Annetjie says. “I don’t think we must stay near the road because there will be more bad people.”
“Did Auntie Miriam say so?”
“Stop this about that woman. She wants us for the child labour.”
I don’t know what she means by those words. They are English words from big school, yet somehow I don’t think the child labour with Auntie Miriam will be so bad. Her arms are soft and she is gentle. Her eyes smile with sadness.
We walk and we walk, and the stars in the heavens turn. The moon sinks big and orange, and Annetjie says we must follow the moon because that’s where the sea is. I tell her that the moon looks like a skull but she smacks me on my sore arm.
My legs and my feet are so sore I’ve stopped feeling them. Every step makes me bite the inside of my cheek but I keep walking. I watch where Annetjie goes. I stop when she does, but we don’t rest long enough to get cold.
When the sky turns the same colour as Ma’s ashes, we halt by the ruins of an old house. The wind slaps at the loose tin and rattles a gutter so that it goes brrrrrrr. Annetjie lets me have a rusk. It’s very hard and I have to suck at it to soften it before I can crumble bits off into my mouth. My tummy stabs me and I lick up every crumb off my fingers and the front of my dress.
I fall asleep right where I’m leaning against my sister. I think maybe she falls asleep too, because when she wakes me, the sun is already sinking to the west. Always to the west.
“C’mon, Lindi, we must go,” Annetjie say as she gives me water from a little flask.
The drink tastes funny, like there was medicine in the container before Annetjie filled it with water. My mouth is so dry and terrible, but Annetjie only lets me have two mouthfuls. Everything hurts, my feet, my legs, my arm where I tore myself on the metal. My head feels as if the children are throwing me with rocks again.
“They can’t throw you with rocks, silly,” Annetjie says as we start walking again. “They throw rocks at you. You must learn to talk properly. You’re not a little girl anymore. You’re not allowed to cry.”
I hold onto Ma’s ashes so hard I can feel little bits of bone poking into my arm. I know there are little bits of bone because I looked when we first took the ashes. The man in the black suit had brought Ma in a little wooden box he left on the dining room table. The aunties were in the kitchen busy making tea, and Pa was in the fancy lounge talking to the dominee about the service. Annetjie was practising the piano. There was no one to stop me from looking.
I don’t know what I was expecting. At that stage when I thought of ashes, I’d imagined the fine stuff that drifts in the air from when you burn paper. Not the gritty stuff like sand. With the bits of bone. I’d held one shard, about the size of the flat of my hand. It was rough and blackened, and it was difficult for me to imagine that this had once been Ma.
That shard is still in the bag. Annetjie says that when we get to the sea we can throw Ma in the ocean where she can be free with the wind and the fish and the dolphins. But I want to keep that one piece of bone because then I can have something of Ma always.
She always called me “my poppie” and would tug her fingers through my hair until I got sleepy. Pa always said I mustn’t bother Ma when she was sick, but I’d sneak into her room. She was very sick near the end, and Pa wouldn’t let her take all her medicine. But Ma said the medicine would let her get to the angels, and can I be a good girl and fetch her medicine where I saw Pa had hid it.
I am a good girl. I don’t cry.
The wind always blows here. The trees are bent-over old men and have no leaves on their one side. We have to squint and there’s sand in my mouth. My lips are paper and taste of old blood. We don’t walk fast because there are thorns. Ugly thorns. They are on flat discs with nasty bits that stick up and burn with pain when they get in my feet. I learn quickly where to step to avoid them.
Still, I won’t cry, even when I see Annetjie is trying to pretend like she’s not wiping tears from the corners of her eyes.
“I’m so tired, Lindi,” she whispers through her cracked lips.
I slip my hand into hers and lead her along the goat paths through the hissing grasses. The wind lashes about us as if he’s an angry man with a stick looking for mice.
The houses we pass are dead, every last bit of roofs and windows taken away so that only their empty eyes watch us pass. Their mouths are filled with broken teeth, like Pa’s when the bad people were finished with him.
The sun roars overhead, baking the ground until the air shimmers with false water always ahead of us. No matter how much we walk, we never reach them.
“It’s not water,” Annetjie tells me. “It’s a mirage. It’s the hot air. Don’t look at it.”
“I know,” I say, but deep in my heart I wish it is water. I am so thirsty, and we finished our water a long, long time ago.
Ma’s ashes are so heavy, like my feet. I don’t feel the thorns much anymore.
Maybe the wind will blow all of me away with the next gust. My hair has come loose from the braids Auntie Miriam made, and gets stuck in my eyes, my mouth with the sand and the taste of salt. My tongue is a worm in my mouth and my head throbs every time I breathe.
Annetjie and I lie down under a bush. I want to ask her about snakes but I’m so tired, the words turn to mud, and I fade into my dreams where Ma is smiling, and she enfolds me in her arms and tells me that nothing, no one can ever take her love away.
We wake when it is evening and the shadows are long. There’s a soft rumbling in the distance, almost like grumbly thunder but growling a bit louder then softer, coming closer then going away. The sea.
Once upon a time, Ma took us to the beach and she bought me ice cream that melted into the cone and over my hands. Everything was sand and stickiness, and when I licked my hand, I tasted sunscreen and sweetness. But that was a long, long time ago.
Ma sat under a striped umbrella and rubbed coconut oil into her legs, brown and smooth. When I grow up I want legs like Ma’s.
Only my legs are knobbly, red and full of sores, bites and scratches. My skin is a bag for the bones that carry me. I’ve seen what’s underneath. I will have a skull too, with round, gaping eye sockets and a grin that smiles with too many teeth. I’m not scared of being dead. I was dead before I was born. I’ll be dead again one day.
But the idea that I will stop being, wink out, scares me. It’s stepping off a cliff and falling forever into nothing. So we walk. Every day. Farther and farther. Because, it’s better than waiting for the bad people to come find us. Better than lying under a bush and waiting to sleep forever.
There is no harbour when we get there. Not anymore. I don’t think it has been here for a very long time. The buildings are dead, walls blackened and tumbled over. The only boats are half-sunken wrecks where black seals bask in the sun. Flippers flapping, sniffy, whiskery noses pointing at the sun.
We stand on the concrete quay that points a finger into the ocean. The sea is grey and green and sucks at the cement dolosse as if they’re sweets. A riot of gannets clouds the air with their never-ending ghharaa-ghharaa-gharaaa. Sharp wings slicing and their wise, mad eyes spearing fish out of the ocean. They fall like blades then shoot up again. Razor wings. Razor beaks. Oh, for razor wings to carry me away across the ocean.
I drink a mouthful of salt water. The sea tastes like tears. It is cold and turns my stomach, and I spit it out again. Yuck. My throat aches, and my arm where I cut it on the metal is all swollen, puffy and gross. White stuff leaks out when I prod at the sore.
Annetjie is a statue, arms held stiffly by her sides, and hands clenched.
I breathe deeply of the cool sea air and poke about in the shallows on the slipway where anemones make flowers in blues and reds. The water is ice and feels good on my feet.
“Annetjie,” I say. “When can we go back?” We’ve finished the last of the food and water, and even Auntie Miriam’s krummelpap is better than eating dreams. Even if the dreams taste of raspberry ice lollies. I don’t think there ever will be raspberry ice lollies ever again. I can still pretend to taste them.
“There is no boat,” she whispers.
I walk to the end of the guano-spattered quay. The concrete is rough under my feet and I stand and stare for a long while as the sun slowly arcs across the sky to where it turns big and red and sinks into the ocean.
The breakers explode against the dolosse, sending up plumes of white froth that spatter me with moisture. Ma’s ashes hiss into the churning water where they vanish into nothing. I only remember about the shard of bone when it’s too late, and it plops into the water with the rest of Ma.
“There is no boat,” I tell Annetjie when I return to her.
She is crouched where she stood all afternoon, huddled over like an ant heap. She doesn’t move, doesn’t breathe.
That was the previous night. During the daylight, no one dared to hear anything. No one saw anything. Only the smouldering remains of the gutted shops, the products pilfered through the gaping windows, the meagre security bars of gates guarding doorways tossed aside, and the crying families on the dusty roads of Diepsloot Township told the story.
It was 2008 all over again. Same reasons, same faceless mob, same targets. The foreigners. The job stealers. The Pakistanis. The Malawians. The Zimbaweans. The Tanzanians.
The police arrived – always after the fact. And only after sunrise. Their claim was that it was impossible to police when load shedding power outages turned the township into a dark pit of lawlessness. To us it rang of hollow excuses. A lack of will.
My name is Godfrey Chami and I am afraid they are coming for us tonight.
Our shop was the envy of street number 4. We didn’t have street names in Diepsloot, but it didn’t matter; everyone knew us and where to find us. They’d even done a TV story on our family. Tightly knit. Making South Africa our new home. Best prices. From washing powder to Nikes (we had a Chinese supplier), we knocked out the competition – the local spazza shops that were the staple on every corner of every shanty town in South Africa.
My father was a very religious man. He was Muslim. My mother was Catholic. How this worked, I still do not know. He attended mosque and she church. Her church was actually a hall near the police station where a spark of electricity was to be found.
Don’t get me wrong. We did get electricity, it was all illegal connections courtesy of our neighbour, Mr Maobi, and a daisy chain of extension cords that ran from his window into our kitchen. But when the country is caught in rolling blackouts every day, it doesn’t matter if you’re legal or illegal, you are all in darkness. Another reason for having no electricity was the rats. Rats chew everything, and in Diepsloot – like in most townships – the rats were legion.
So, my parents came from different religions, but my grandmamma, Bibi Zihada, who also left Tanzania with us years back, is of an older faith. My parents didn’t approve of her talking about the old ways to us, but I knew it dealt with all sorts of magical concoctions, and herbs and ancestors. I would see people, even South Africans, coming to her for advice or for potions. The problems they brought seemed to be the universal. Love, Money, Jealousy. Revenge.
On most days I attended school. My little sister, Neema, and my younger brother, Joseph, also attended, but school was something that only happened some of the time. Like, say, the electricity. So I also worked in the shop, which was our pride and joy. We lived in a hastily built shack of corrugated steel and our Bibi Zihada lived in a small brick room behind us. When it rained it leaked everywhere. This was only temporary, my father assured us. He was planning to move us into a house of brick with a decent roof. We were the three little pigs looking for an upgrade.
Of late my mother has been talking about a priest at her gatherings who is passionate about our cause, about foreigners’ rights. Father Emmanuel Andengenye. A clever man, by my mother’s reckoning. Far too good looking to be a priest, by my father’s reckoning. Her devoted visits have caused a few arguments behind the curtain which divided my parents’ bedroom from our three beds.
“That man has no sense. If he did he wouldn’t be making such speeches. Not when there are ears everywhere,” my father would protest. “We don’t have rights. Accept it. All we can do is keep our heads down and stay out of the way. And that includes not looking for these rights.”
But my mother was a headstrong lady. “What about those boys that stand on the street corner? Those boys should be in school. I walk past them every day, and the…the filth they say to me! Such disrespect! Things I wouldn’t even think a fifteen-year-old should know. Godfrey is their age and he doesn’t know these things.”
“They’re just being boys.”
“They are being rude. They have no respect for us. Nobody does. The police are the same.”
“They are our customers, Grace. They keep us from starvation.”
“So we should have full bellies and no rights?”
“It’s better than empty bellies.”
“…and no rights?”
“Yes! Of course!”
A tense silence.
“Everybody thinks 2008 is behind us. But it is not. It never left. Nothing was resolved. It is building up again. Can’t you sense it?”
“Is that you speaking or Father Emmanuel?”
“Tcht!” It was my mother’s favourite expression for anything that was so frustrating it was beyond words. “Now you’re just jealous. I am serious. I don’t feel safe at the shop.”
A harsh whisper. “Keep your voice down, woman. The children.”
Her return whisper, just as fierce. “Do you not care for your family? I am scared, Ahmed. I don’t like how those…those Zulu and Xhosa men look at me. Like I am something they can just take. They all look empty and hungry.”
Placating murmur. “They are not all like that, Grace.”
“Well, if that is so, then why aren’t they stopping those who want to harm us?”
“I do not know.”
More tense silence. But at least I could feel the anger wasn’t being directed at each other anymore. This was good. The worst thing for me was hearing my parents argue.
My father chuckled. “You know what Bibi said the other day?”
My mother sighs. “What did she say, Ahmed?”
“She said what we need is a little bit of that old magic.”
Then. “Funny enough, Father Emmanuel was saying the same thing.”
One church evening, my mother took Bibi and I to the little hall to pray for our safety. Father Emmanuel was there, greeting everyone at the door. A powerfully built man with clean white teeth that gleamed. His face made me think of those actors on soap operas. He shook and greeted his congregation as we filed into the sparsely decorated hall. Plastic school chairs and a bare dusty stage. It soon occurred to me that we weren’t all foreigners. Yes there were Tanzanians. Zimbabweans, Nigerians, but there were also a few South Africans in the mix.
The father stood up on stage and closed his eyes. He lifted his arms outwards, his black robes hanging like spread wings and he pronounced with ringing clarity: “I am Emmanuel. I am the Nameless Angel.”
“Amen,” the crowd pronounced.
“So good looking. Like your Babu when he was young,” Bibi murmured to my mother. “I can see why you come here so regularly.”
Over the next hour an impassioned Father Emmanuel told us all to fear no evil, for God walked amongst us. That angels were everywhere and that we should have faith. The sweat on his brow was impressive. His movements across the stage left footprints in the dust that made me think of the televangelists I’d seen on the pirated DVDs we sold in the shop. But we never got to see the end of the sermon because something crashed through one of the high windows like a flaming arrow. A skinny old woman in full church attire of hat, handbag and blow-away dandelion hair, screeched and began batting at her flaming head. Others around her threw their jackets over her head to smother the fires. Chairs were already flying every which way, scraping along the wooden floor, as people moved towards the side doors.
“Get Bibi out of here!” My mother screamed, and I hoisted my grandmother, bird-like and brittle, around her waist and carried her over my shoulder like a barrel. I didn’t think twice as I saw more flaming rockets flying through the windows, causing little devils of fire to caper and dance on the floor.
I glanced at the priest. He stood very still. His eyes wide, his chest heaving. He stood like a holy relic. Slowly he lifted his arms, those wings of righteousness, and over the chaos of screams and running, and thudding feet, he boomed: “For the LORD will pass through the land…”
The smell of paraffin and petrol was strong in the air, stinging eyes. Someone was struggling to get the doors open. People were slipping in the glass from the shattered bottle bombs. I put down my grandmother and my mom looked back at the boiling crowd behind us.
“I need to help,” she said. “Get Bibi to safety! Go!” She was a face in a crowd, squeezed between two bodies, then she was gone.
My heart was thudding with real fear now.
My grandmother gripped my arm. “You’re safe with me, mjukuu.”
“… But when he sees the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe, the LORD will pass over your home. He will not permit his angel of death to enter your house and strike you down!” The priest’s voice was like a cry to arms.
People began to scream in fresh pain and it took a moment inside the crush of the crowd for me to register flying bricks, half rocks, pieces of cement, even a flaming tire, hurtling through the windows. Some of the other side doors were rattling like sabres against shields before a battle. The claustrophobic crush was choking me and my heart was a frenzied bird in a cage. Black spots threatened my vision, then, as the doors in front of us gave way, so too did the doors behind us, and what was waiting outside poured in.
At that moment the electricity cut off and everything was plunged into darkness. The mob surged over the trapped crowd inside, and it became a dark grunting maelstrom of sticks, cries, fists, shoves, bodies falling the ground, others being dragged off. My grandmother, the brittle bird, never let me go. She pushed her way through the war zone. Chilled night air mingled with coppery blood. Paraffin, running footsteps. People in our crowd were picking up whatever weapon they could get a hold of. An old rusty dustbin post, complete with nails. I saw it swing and catch a youth not much older than me in the head. I shut my eyes, still fighting to breathe.
It would be an hour before we made it home. My grandmother was covered in cuts and bruises. The side of her head was bleeding. But she shrugged all the concern off of herself, pressing me to my father who covered me in kisses and held me tight. My siblings were hiding under their beds, holding each other’s hands.
Then Neema asked. “Where’s mama?”
“Your Babu was an albino, did you know that?” Bibi said.
I didn’t answer.
They had found her.
“A very powerful man. Revered and feared at the same time was your Babu.”
Raped and strangled.
“Of course, the witch doctors were always hunting him. They wanted his powers.”
I need to help. Get Bibi to safety! Go!
Her final words.
My grandmother laid a bruised hand on my arm; I had gotten away with virtually no injuries. Bibi wore her own wounds well. Like it was nothing. And my mother? Darkness. I couldn’t think of that. Not yet. Maybe never. “It is in times like these that your brother and sister are going to need you.” A pause. “And your father.”
He was inconsolable. I had learnt that word in English class when we read Bleak House by Charles Dickens. An English writer being studied by African children a century after he died. Random musings.
My father had locked himself up in his shop late at night, not caring about the warnings or the curfews. He didn’t come home for two days. My grandmother had cooked for us. Even though she was in pain, her head giving her pause every now and then, she got on with it. We even went to school.
What else was there to do but dance around the precipice of the hole left by my mother?
“You must eat something, Godfrey. Please. Just a little bit.”
The hole in the air was the same hole in my heart was the same hole in the pit of me. My centre was gone. I was nothing.
A hollow being, waiting to be filled.
The priest came to visit under the cover of darkness.
Since the attack on his congregation things had died down a little. But the tension was there. In the streets. Our mother’s funeral was a rushed affair. And it was complicated by the identification of the corpse (my father tried to be strong, but he seemed to be disappearing into himself day by day). Father Emmanuel had intervened on our behalf.
“It seems you are the man of the house, my young friend.” Father Emmanuel’s face was a terrain of broken cheek and fractured jaw which buried his good looks. His eyes were swollen and bruised. But he was alive, and he seemed to be feeding on the physical pain. For a moment he had struggled to speak, and I saw his swollen lips were cracked and split. “A cowardly stroke of a wooden plank with nails in it. Luckily the nails broke. None pierced my flesh. Hallelujah, it’s a miracle.”
I could not tell through his ruined face what expression he wore. If he was being flippant to a God that hadn’t saved his congregation or my mother. But it took too much energy to care.
“I am here to talk to your Bibi,” he added.
I led him out back. Past the rusty Ford Cortina. A relic from Mr Moabi next door.
“Come in,” she said. Her voice had a faint echo like the dank bottom of a well. It was a tight squeeze but we all managed to fit. We stood straight against the bare brick wall whilst she sat on the floor, her blanket spread on the hard cement. Her throwing bones at the ready. Her herbs were kept in old jars along the walls on shelves of bricks and planks.
“The nameless angel arrives,” my grandmother said. “What does he want from an old lady?”
Father Emmanuel bowed his head and said something in Sawhili. I do not speak the language. I am more fluent in the township lingo, a mishmash of Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho.
“Let the boy understand,” said my grandmother. “He is now having to grow up fast.”
“Your loss is the loss of all our people. And the danger is still imminent. I am a man of the cloth, but I am also a man of our people. And the old ways,” said Father Emmanuel.
My grandmother nodded slowly. “Are you asking for something, Father?”
“I have learnt of an attack. Imminent. Soon. This time it’ll be the shops that will be targeted. They want to steal our livelihood. They want to chase us out of Diepsloot.”
“Maybe tonight. Maybe tomorrow…”
“The cowards don’t like to attack during the day. Too many faces to recognise. They love the dark.”
The priest stood very still for a long time. So long in fact that I thought he’d gone to sleep, arms hanging at his sides, head down, as if thinking deeply. “The dark is what we need.” I felt a chill ripple up my arms. “We can use it.”
My grandmother leant forward, peering up at that beaten face. “Tell me about the dark and we shall see about the old ways.”
I can feel the flames even from here. No sirens. Just people throwing buckets of water. South Africans, Zimbabweans. Just neighbours trying to put out the flames as the Somali shop owner stands, his arm around his daughter, weeping, watching the fire light up the pitch black sky. The looting was over in minutes; it was more a snarling pack of dogs than people.
I stood chilled, despite the heat pressing to my face. Chilled heart. My grief was something wild and roaring in my ears.
The priest’s and my Bibi’s words slither over one another like snakes, a fork-tongued foreshadowing in my mind.
Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”
The old ways.
I need your help. We can’t let this keep happening.
For no reason I picked up the soot that was landing like black snow around me and I slowly rubbed it into my cheeks, my forehead, and my lips. The acrid smell of burning wood filled my nose.
Finally the sirens came. But the Somalians were done. They would never come back here.
I turned away and walked back to our shack. My grandmother stood in the doorway. A short squat old woman. White curls, a strong face, the cut down the side of her head was scabbing over, like a badly tarred road, but healing. It would leave a scar.
She had a shawl pulled tightly around her. Her eyes looked yellow in the night fire. “Your grandfather would have wept.”
“We just need a bit of that old magic,” I said.
She stared at me as if she’d never seen me before. It was not something I would never have said. Before. Before her. It was flippant even.
But it could just be the soot on my face that made her look at me that way.
They came only after the armoured Nyalas had left.
The curfew was still in full enforcement.
The one street lamp down the road flickered like a dying firefly. Orange light showing the retreating vehicles.
My grandmother had insisted we all gather in my father’s shop. She had spent the day spreading the word to every household up and down our section of Street 4.
We gathered: the car guards, gardeners, car washers, tree fellers, the domestic workers of Gauteng who left for the city before first light and came back home after dark. We communicated in broken English or Xhosa. People brought their blankets, for it was going to be an all-nighter. My father didn’t seem to see any of them as they filed in through the front door. To him the world was all shadows and ash.
It was a sombre atmosphere. The little children didn’t even whine or wriggle as they tended to do, especially when confined to one space. We kept all the lights on inside, but still we jumped at any sudden loud noises. Most of us had endured refugee camps. Border crossings. Interrogations. Bribing officials. This was just another chapter in our long migration.
“You said my Babu was an albino. Was that true?” I asked my Grandmother. I had never known my grandfather. Not even seen a picture of him.
“Yes, Godfrey. He was a powerful man.”
“How?” We never seemed to have been wealthy. “How was he powerful?”
“Albino blood makes a person very special, in our belief. But even if he hadn’t been an albino, your Babu would have been special anyway.”
In my experience, albinos weren’t any different from other people. But I’d heard the stories from Tanzania. They were called ghosts, walking spirits, demons. Reviled. Hunted, even. Their body parts fetched a high price from witch doctors.
We need a bit of that old magic.
I shivered. “What happened to him?”
“He died of the skin cancer. An albino weakness. His skin didn’t do well in the light.”
“Bibi?” My voice hitched, I suddenly felt five years old again. The numb grief for my mother had cracks growing in it. And underneath waiting… the molten lava of pain. I felt a tremor. “What are we waiting for?”
She thought for a moment. Her gaze was outside, scanning the waiting darkness.
“The old ways.”
Another hour passed. The shop lights were attracting bugs to the window panes. Past the wings of a moth I saw something move down the dirty track we called a street.
At first a shadow, then a blur, then a man. Father Emmanuel. Running at full tilt. His robes flapping. Head up, teeth bared. His swollen face still a horror of violence. Running for his life. He slammed on the glass of the door with the flat of his hand, startling children to awaken and cry. Adults blinked, rubbing their eyes.
My father turned his head, but made no move. I got up and went to the door, unlocking the flimsy chain and bolt. The shop wasn’t the strongest built place; a converted RDP house that my father was renting from a South African man for an exorbitant price. I’d heard my father complain of the rent many times to my mother.
My heart choked.
The priest pushed his way in.
“Don’t bother locking it,” he said. “They’re coming.” Sweat coated his brow. That righteous gleam was back in his eyes and he was filled with crackling energy. “Stand up everyone! Stand up. They’re coming. They’re coming for us.”
Now people were awake. They stood up, all of them, and made a weary rank and file towards the front of the shop.
The priest looked around. “No matter what happens. Do not be afraid. Let’s pray.” Everyone lowered their heads.
When he started to pray my back and scalp tightened with gooseflesh. “For the LORD will pass through the land to strike down the Egyptians. But when he sees the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe, the LORD will pass over your home. He will not permit his death angel to enter your house and strike you down.”
The lights buzzed, and suddenly everything was in darkness.
People screamed involuntarily.
“Don’t be afraid.” The priest reminded everyone. “It is load shedding. Like clockwork. You can set your watch to the darkness. And darkness that is timely is fortuitous.”
Then we could hear them. A mob shouting something. Men. Angry men. Shirtless. Drunk. Their blood high on exacting vengeance for a perceived wrong. I could almost hear it in multiple veins and muscle. A hundred hearts, beating, marching, kicking up dust.
And what wrong had we done? Being different? That we were from over there and not from here? Was that our wrongdoing? I pushed Joseph and Neema under the counter and I put my finger to my lips. “Shhh.”
They were two pairs of eyes. But I knew they understood.
I thought of my mother, and my hands curled into fists. The chanting and shouting grew closer. And suddenly the windows were a jagged symphony of breaking and shattering. The fire had arrived too. Flames in bottles. Torches on sticks. They must have seen us all, just standing there in the dark. Not moving not saying anything. Like sacrificial lambs awaiting the eternal darkness. I wondered if that darkness tasted like velvet tears. Like relief.
For a brief moment the mob actually paused, unsure.
Father Emmanuel stepped over broken glass and went outside through the front door. Alone. A black cut-out in the flames of the mob.
“I would ask that you turn away. Before there is death,” he said to the crowd.
A thin man, clad only in torn red overalls tied around his waist and holding an old garden rake in one hand, suddenly skipped forward and swung a bottle crashing it into the priest’s head. The priest collapsed, and I felt the resolve of those in my father’s shop fall with him.
Then, amazingly, the priest struggled to his feet, swaying unsteadily. He spread those wings of his, and roared: “Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’” He paused and then asked. “Are we not all brothers?”
The shirtless man shoved the priest back into the dirt. He then lifted the rake over his head and brought it down on Father Emmanuel’s leg with a meaty chunk. The rake’s cruel teeth found their mark, and the crowd cheered, their greedy eyes burning as bright as their torches. The priest screamed, his voice breaking off as the skinny man tried to unhook his garden rake from his thigh, but dragged him along in the dirt instead. My heart was thumping in my throat. Salty adrenaline. Bile and fury.
And then the priest’s hand caught the skinny man’s wrist, and his voice, horse and ragged said, “‘For am I not my brother’s keeper? Should I not forgive him…?’” A gasp. “Forgive him for his trespasses?”
I turned to my Bibi. Her eyes were closed and she was whispering to herself. Then she opened her eyes. They were blind and pale.
Above us, on the tiled roof we heard a loud thump, we all jumped.
The rake man never knew what hit him. Something black flapped onto him as if an eagle was attacking him from above. There was a gasp from the mob as well as those of us in the dark shop. Something snapped, and then the skinny man howled like an animal. The rake was lifted by the shadow and an instant later it drew back the gristle and skin off of the skinny man’s face, revealing bone. The skinny man collapsed, writhing on the ground. Then the rake embedded itself in his head, cutting off the skinny man’s cries. The black silhouette of the stranger hulked over him.
The crowd in the shop shrank back in fright. The mob was silenced.
Only the priest made a sound.
“Brother,” he whispered to the black shape. “You came.”
The dark shape turned towards us in the shop. It wore a fearsome visage of vengeance. Blind, red-rimmed eyes bleached blue by the sun. Wisps of yellow and grey hair. He was dressed in what looked like a monk’s robes, the cowl collected around his thick, powerful neck, and he stood with his arms wide.
But it was the smile, I am sure of it even now. Not the violence. That smile stopped the entire mob in its tracks.
Rows of ivory fangs, sharper than a Gabon viper’s.
“She called. And I came.” The faded eyes and my Bibi’s met. And then he turned to the mob. “You like to hunt? I know a thing or two about being hunted.” He lifted a steel claw from under his sleeve. “Albino hunters lost me my hand.”
In a move swifter than the eye could read, he lifted the skinny man by his scrawl of a neck. The man’s one eye was a staring nothing, yet he twitched. Then the stranger bit down, sinking all of that ivory death into the man’s throat.
And he drank deeply.
I do not know for how long we stood, the mob on one side, the shop of foreigners to the other, this horror beast in the great divide, drinking the blood of a dying man. All I know is, by the time he was done, what was once a man was more a fleshy husk that he cast aside. By this stage Father Emmanuel had pulled himself to his feet, favouring one leg. His trousers were already blackening with blood, but he didn’t seem to care.
“Demon!” spat someone in the mob, and there was a half-hearted jeer, which curdled and died, as the hulking thing took one step forward.
“This is no demon,” the priest’s voice was weakening, even though he still stood firm. “He is my brother. And he belongs to the old ways.”
“You will be cursed for this!” Someone else cried.
“I already am.” The stranger’s smooth silken voice caressed the night.
The mob, like an animal surged forward, wounded but still dangerous.
And again it was halted.
Suddenly my grandmother was there, between the priest and the monstrous albino, facing the mob.
My grandmother spoke then like she was lecturing a bunch of misbehaved children with monster stories: “He is blind. But by night he sees all. And with darkness being so regular these days, so regulated, you could set your watch to it. With that darkness, will come our vengeance.”
The priest continued. “Can you really take that chance? Do you really want to challenge an angel of God?”
The mob moved backwards imperceptibly, away from the shop. And slowly, they turned, and began to disappear into the black night where only the rats ran free.
The violence ceased. Over the next few days there were protest marches in the cities arranged by South Africans who embraced their fellow Africans. Politicians condemned the violence, and a certain amount of peace was restored.
I too found my own peace. A purpose. I wrote my goodbyes and left them on the till of my father’s shop. I then found my grandmother in her tiny brick room. “I would like to learn the old ways,” I demanded.
“To what purpose?”
“My mother died before her time. Those who harmed her need to be found. Will you help me, Bibi?”
She sighed: “This vengeance business is a snake eating its tail, Godfrey. I don’t wish it on you.” She sighed again and shook her head. “Just like your grandfather, you are.”
“Will Babu help me?”
She looked at me for a long time before she said, “Vengeance is in your blood.”
Olisa Onwualu is a nerdy artist based in Abuja. He graduated from Nnamdi Azikwe University with a BA in Fine Arts, where he specialized in painting. He works freelance as an illustrator and concept artist. When his hands aren’t glued to a pencil, he spends his time watching art tutorials, playing video games, reading and attempting to work out. He is currently working on a science fiction fantasy comic book called Dive. You can contact him at: email@example.com and see more of his work at OlisaOnwualu@deviantart.com
Tell us a little bit about your background.
I’m a Nigerian, Igbo to be specific. I’m the last of four children. I spent a small portion of my childhood out of the country, but the rest of my life has been in the motherland. As long as I can remember I’ve loved art and have been drawing since I was 4. Studying painting in university helped to build an even stronger appreciation for art.
What art, comics or characters inspired you to be an artist and illustrator when you were growing up and why?
That’s a tough one cause I grew up watching so many cartoons from the 80s and 90s so there are multiple characters that shaped my childhood, like The Transformers, Ninja Turtles, X-Men etc. I think cartoons of that period defined my love for superpowered individuals and alien races from distant realms. Why they had such a profoned effect on me I don’t really know, maybe I’m secretly from another planet or a mutant in hiding.
What is the most challenging aspect of being an artist in Nigeria?
The general lack of appreciation of art in Nigeria. The fact that artists in Nigeria are seen as individuals who lack the intelligence to succeed in other professions deemed superior by society and have simply decided to settle for art.
Are you involved in a lot of other projects outside your regular job? Can you tell us which ones you’re currently most excited about?
I’m handling a lot projects for different clients right now but I have to say, the one I’m most excited about is my personal project which is the recreation and reimaging of characters I created when I was really young.
What strategies do you use to carve out time for sketching?
I always carry my sketchpad around with me everywhere I go. If I don’t feel inspired to draw, I simply go online and see what other artists are up to and I get the push I need to be creative.
What TV shows would you sneak out to watch right now?
Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead (right now anyway).
Who are the most exciting artists on the Nigerian scene right now?
There are a lot of Nigerian artists out there that im really admiring and always looking out for like Mohammad Agbadi, Mike Toney, Jibrin Ebenezer etc.
What was the most discouraging time in your career and how did you overcome it?
The first two years after service ws very slow and I was still trying to find the direction I wanted to go as an artist. As a result, I wasn’t progressing as an artist and and had no recognition whatsoever. How I was to able to overcome this was by networking with other artists and using social media to get my art out in the open. I’m still very far from where I want to be but I’m progressing, and I suppose in any career that’s the best to ask for.
Looking back, is there anything in your career that you would do differently? Any major decisions you regret?
Well, my career is still progressing but while starting, one thing I regret is that I would have been more consistent in creating art and focusing on learning the techniques and principles in art.
What is it you would most want to be remembered for when you’re gone?
I would like to be remembered for being original and very proficient in my trade.
So I’m going to admit something difficult to you. I suffer from depression. Over the years, I’ve worked to manage the condition – keeping track of my diet, making sure to maintain my social connections and countering negative self-talk with more realistic perspectives. But it doesn’t always work. Sometimes, no matter how hard I try, I find myself sliding down a lightless hole created by the condition where my horizon narrows till all I can see are the flaws and the imperfections, all the ways that I am failing to measure up
On those days it is all I can do get out of bed and shower. The simplest human interactions become excruciating. And long term focus and concentration – the kind that is essential for the editing and writing and research I do to make my living – becomes impossible. When in the midst of it, it can be difficult to explain to others what’s happening. One of the first things depression does is isolate you. You become convinced that no one wants to hear your whining. And so in silence you work to stop the slide, to pull yourself out by any means you can.
These bouts can last for days, for weeks, for months. And when they pass, they leave in their wake piles of unfinished work. Phone calls I should have made, emails I should have answered. Deadlines long passed. And the gnawing guilt and shame that sows the seeds for the next bout. I fall further and further behind – endangering personal and professional connections with each bout.
I write this not to offer excuses for the lateness of this edition – we all have challenges in our lives and issues that we are all dealing with – but to shine a light into my corner of the world and by illuminating what is there, push back against the darkness.
Because we are living in dark times. Our world today is filled with violence and chaos. Some days it feels like the inmates are running the asylum and the only sane response is to get back under the covers and wait for the madness to pass. But one cannot hide from the dark forever. At some point we have to take the first step to emerge into the light. It is usually painful, often filled with loathing and despair, but it must be done if we are to grow.
In this sense,
– and each is a story of hope and resilience. From spirits trying to understand their past lives, to lovers fighting against possession, and individuals and families standing strong in the face of violence and ruin.
We also feature art by the incomparable Ghanaian artist Setor Fiadzigbey, who generously donated the cover art, and Olisa Onwualu who illustrated the interior. We can’t thank them both enough.
Above all, we want to thank you, our readers and supporters, for hanging in there with us. It can be a struggle sometimes, but we aren’t going to give up, and we hope you won’t either.
This child will die. This child will die and it will be my fault, I say, rocking back and forth on the chair, the balls of my feet balanced on the ground. No. I catch myself. No, Land forbid it. You will live, I watch my words bounce off the surface of the earth and disappear into the air.
I look at Ma, expecting a rebuke, or perhaps a statement to counter my words, but she looks away. She is sitting an arm’s length away and with her back turned to me, but from the corner of my eye I see her drag a foot across the ground and fold her arms over her chest. Her leg taps the ground impatiently.
She is restless. She is never restless. But then she has never had to wait this long at a life tying, especially not at one for her children. The last one, the life tying of her third son born of her second husband, had so many people in attendance that the ceremony had to be extended to the following day. The many strings given to him lie plenty around his neck. He will live a long life. His way will be smooth.
I look down at Nyanga as she fidgets in my arms. She purses her lips and tucks a tight fist under her chin, then raises a brow slightly and goes back to sleep. It is the same thing she did two weeks ago, the day she was born. It is why we called her Nyanga, meaning the one who comes with pride.
What sort of a name is that? Ma had asked, wrinkling her brows.
Do you not see the way she looks with disdain at the world? I tried to explain. Like she is too much for it.
Indeed. It is a sign she does not want to stay long in it. Ma quipped in response.
I said nothing. It was true. If nobody showed up for this life tying, Nyanga would die and it would be my fault. Who marries for love except for fools who forget that the life of their child is tied to the family they are born into?
If I had married the man Ma had arranged for me, the one whose bloodline ran so deep it could be traced to the first man, the man with a large family made up of many children and grandchildren – all strong, direct bloodlines that would guarantee one a sure way in this world, Nyanga would have had a crowd at her life tying today. Many would be fighting for their turn to bind my child’s life to theirs, instead there was only one unwilling soul and one fearful one, both waiting for more to arrive.
In our land, there were blood ties by marriage and blood ties by birth. When you are married into a family, the man and all his people tie you to them. And then when you give birth, the child is tied to the man and to his family. But blood ties are fickle things, once cut off from its source they snap off as easily as a dried leaf falls off a tree, reducing your lifetime by half.
This was why Ma had tried to get me to see reason. Marry for the ties, she said, do you not see? It is what I did after your Baba left me.
Baba had died early. Too early. He joined the earth long before I learned to speak my first word. Though not one of the strongest in our land, he had had a good bloodline. And so after he died, Ma made sure to marry again, choosing a bloodline so strong that if she ever had to be cut off from it her lifetime would still be long.
But I did not care for a long life. I was content with the ties my Baba had left me. They would see me to a reasonable number of years and then my time would be up. But now, as I look down at Nyanga sleeping in my arms, I wish I had cared. I wish I had remembered to think not only of myself but that she needed to be bound to a family, a people, a community. I wish I had more to give her than just my own life tie, lying small and limp and grey around her neck as a reminder of where her journey had begun.
Ma stood up and walked to the edge of the compound. She squinted her eyes till they looked like slits. Leaning forward, she gazed into the setting sun in the distance. Then she turned to me, her face carrying all the impatience of a woman not accustomed to being kept waiting.
I could tell what she was thinking before she said it. The day was gone. If he did not show soon, we would have to leave. Nyanga would be left with just my tie around her neck. And by the end of the week, she would be dead.
I swallowed a sob, then coughed to let it out. Nyanga stirred, opened her brown eyes and fixed them on me. In the light of dusk they looked more golden than brown, a much lighter shade than mine. They were her father’s eyes, but not only because of the colour. It was the way they fixed themselves on me, boring deep into my soul as if trying to search for something. A look only her father had ever given me.
It was said that eyes like that belonged to a special people. The Gifted. Travellers destined to walk the earth for all their lives. It is of these people that her Baba belonged, and if he ever returned to tie her to him, Nyanga would become a wanderer as well.
Our people saw them as restless spirits. Constantly moving in groups of four or five or moving alone, they didn’t have complete families. Their bloodlines were short and their blood ties even shorter.
We do not live long, my love, but we live full, he had said to me the first night we met. As we lay on our backs and gazed at the stars, we plotted a future together that neither one of us were certain to see.
I did not know I could ever have come to love someone of his kind. As children we learned to run away from them, hiding behind our mother’s wrappers as they passed, avoiding their too light gazes, which the elders had told us were because in walking all the corners of the earth they had seen too much.
On the day we met, he had saved me. I had been walking through a bush path I should have not been on, and came across a wild boar, its mouth foaming, and its husks large and sharp. I tried to run but I tripped and fell. I was sure then that I had met my end and I said a quick prayer to my Baba, asking him to welcome me when I arrived. That was when he appeared, out of nowhere – this man that would become my saviour, the father of my child, and since I am now tied to him, my life. He drove his spear into the boar and lifted me from the ground.
His eyes were the first thing that caught me. Everything that had happened up to the moment he stretched his hand to me had seemed like a blur, but as I looked into his eyes, the world suddenly became clearer and I could have sworn I saw into his soul. I knew then that the elders were wrong; their eyes had not seen too much because they walked the earth, they walked the earth because there was much their eyes needed to see.
The earth is big and beautiful, he would say with a sparkle in his eyes, gazing longingly at the night sky. And life, it calls. Can you not hear it?
I couldn’t help it; I enjoyed listening to him as he mused. He talked about the things he saw in all the places he had been. The place where all the waters gathered together so that it was all you could see every way you turned, even meeting the sky. And the people who lived on it, building their houses on top of sticks dug deep into the sand under the water.
He spoke the languages of many people; indecipherable words that rolled from his tongue with such ease and beauty, they sounded like the songs the birds whispered to one another as they sat on the trees. Everything he said was foreign to me, but they captivated me. So when he promised to take me to the places he had been and show me the things he loved, I clung to his every word.
When? I had asked.
Soon, he had replied, but for now I must leave and I do not know when I will return.
But will you return?
Yes, my love, I will always return to you.
And he did. After weeks of waiting, he would return to me. That first time, I ran to him and held on to him so tight our bodies felt like one. Later that night, under the stars, we did become one. He took me in the same spot where we first met, with the heavens and all its hosts bearing witness as our breaths and moans carried with the night wind. He stayed one day longer than the last time, and then he left.
The second time he returned, many months had passed and my stomach was already swollen with Nyanga. He had placed a hand on my belly and Nyanga had moved under it. We laughed. Then he cried. And before he left, gave me a necklace made from something he called sea shells. They were tiny, like small stones, but bore no further resemblance to the dull, brown rocks of the earth. He also left me with a promise: I will return. I held tightly unto both.
The third time he returned, he held my hand as I pushed Nyanga out into this world. But at that moment, knowing that he would return did not seem enough, I wanted more. I hoped that Nyanga being tied to him would be enough to keep him in one place, to make him stay. That his coming and going, his constant moving like a cloud in the sky or a leaf tossed by the wind, would come to an end.
Ma called him “Waka-waka”. I hated it. She hated him. So when he took off an hour after they placed Nyanga in my arms, Ma looked at me. It was a look that said: Waka-waka has left you. You are alone. Your child will die and it will be your fault. It was a look that was louder than her voice could ever have sounded. It shook me. It pained me. But it did not surprise me.
I did not want to believe that he was leaving me yet again. A corner of my heart hung on to the hope that he would return in time to give Nyanga a place in the world. And as I look at Nyanga now, her golden brown irises glistening in the rays of the disappearing sun, and she pulls her face into a wide smile, that corner of hope widens.
So when she removes the hand tucked under her chin and stretches it outwards like she is reaching for someone, I look up.
It isn’t his appearance that makes my heart leap for joy. I am not surprised to see him there outside the compound, with a sprinkling of dust on his shoulders and scattered over the soft curls that make up his hair. It is the sight of the two dozen or so people standing behind him, all with golden irises glistening in the sun. More travellers than has ever been seen in one location before. They have come for her.
I stand up slowly, my eyes fixed on him. Ma’s eyes dart from me to the crowd now making their way into the compound and her mouth falls slightly agape. She staggers backwards, her eyes falling to the ground as she avoids their gaze in fear.
I walk to him, my eyes blurring with tears. He smiles widely and stretches out his hands as he walks towards us. Nyanga and I fall into his embrace.
I told you my love, I will always return, he says, planting a kiss on my forehead. He cups my face, sliding his thumb over the tear that runs down my cheek.
I close my eyes as the warmth in my chest spreads to the rest of my body. Then I look down at Nyanga and whisper to her: Nya, it is okay; your Baba is here to tie you. And it does not matter that you will not live long, you will live full.
It was one of those downpours that made you think the world was angry at something. Sudden release. Like the sky had been holding its breath for too long. Without so much as a growl or rumble up there, and I was soaked before I could move an inch. Trying to get home under this would be inviting a cold, so I looked around for anything to shield me from the onslaught.
Wiping the rain off my face, I spotted a bush path. I could barely make out the tip of a rusted zinc roof somewhere along it. I dashed for it, running as fast as my soggy jeans and shoes would let me.
A few gasps along the path, I stopped to catch my breath. Up ahead an abandoned house, half buried in the bush, stared at me through empty window sockets. Its roof sagged like the face of a drooling old man. A rotting plank hung askew above the gaping doorway.
I braced myself and made for the building. Beggars weren’t choosers.
Inside was much like the outside; grey and decaying. The walls and floors bore cracks that crept into dark corners with grass growing in-between their narrow gaps. In some parts of the wall the plaster had fallen off, exposing algaed blocks that would crumble at the slightest pressure. There wasn’t much of a roof left and rain trickled through holes, forming puddles in the in the broken concrete. The ceiling boards hung like stalactites, some barely attached to the structure. The place was littered with garbage; bottles, broken toys, plastic containers, pieces of cloth, so much junk all covered in algae and mould. And of course to compliment the décor, vulgarities had been graffitied across the walls in paint, charcoal and what may have been shit. The house had a dank and rotten smell that teased your nose, alternating between decaying and pungent.
I found a dry spot on one of the crumbling windowsills and half-sat, half-leaned on it, staring at the junk around me and hating the tingling chill creeping over me through my wet clothes. I tapped the back pocket of my jeans to feel the reassuring bulge of a sachet. Arizona, the guy under the tree had said. Smiling with a mouth full of yellowed enamel he had added, you go feel am, I swear die.
Well, I had nothing but time to pass and the rain didn’t look like it was letting up anytime soon, so I pulled out the sachet, glad that it was water proof. I took out my plastic yellow lighter and the free joint the guy had rolled for me. Shaking off the dark bits of dried grass that clung to it, I lit up, puffed, then took in a proper drag. It was good herb: I could already feel the tingly warmth in my chest after only a single drag. I let it fill me up, rise from my belly and crawl into my head until I felt buoyed and the rain and cold began to seem pleasant. I smiled and leaned back. It was good, but I’d smoked better weed back in Uni. Ironically, smoking weed hadn’t been my vice of choice then.
The first time I smoked was in my second year of university. It was the only thing I could do to help me forget the guilt that had dug its roots into my chest.
Uche’s simple words had shaken my core and squeezed my heart. This was our second year of school. I was 18. I had no job. I was an only son from a Catholic family. A horror spread across her face as she realized I was as terrified as she was.
“What do you want to do?” I had asked tentatively, dreading her answer, my heart beating right against my ears.
“I-I don’t know.” She had started sobbing, “What should I do? I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do.”
I said nothing. I realized that day that I was the worst type of coward. I let her carry the weight of the choice alone. I started avoiding her calls and found a hundred reasons to stay off campus. Then one day she stopped calling. We never spoke again after that. I couldn’t bring myself to ask her what she did or how she was. On the rare occasions when we ran into each other I couldn’t meet her eyes. I couldn’t risk seeing the look of disdain I knew she felt. I avoided her like a bad dream until I graduated a year ahead of her. The last time I looked her up she was doing her masters somewhere in the UK.
I let time pleasantly drift past, listening to the sound of falling drops, and enjoying my buzz. I’m not sure how long it took but the rain eventually slowed to a lazy drizzle and the light violet of dusk now tinged the sky. I was still coming down from my high and my thoughts were everywhere. My eyes were roaming all over the room when I spotted something tucked into the roof, just on top one of the few unbroken ceiling boards. I got curious. I wasn’t tall enough so I dragged a cement block over and climbed on top of it.
It was an old carton. I pulled it out slowly, careful not to touch the filthy cloth on top of it. The box was already crumbling, any slight manhandling and it would break into so many pieces. Carefully I pulled it out, stepped off the block, and placed it on the ground. The box was just big enough to hold two pairs of shoes. I fished a stick from the corner of the room and carefully lifted the rag covering the opening. I jumped back. For a moment I wasn’t sure what I was looking at.
“What the hell?” I muttered to myself. I was staring into the dark hollows of a skull. A baby’s skull. The neat arrangement of an infant’s skeleton lay on layers of rotten cloth, grayed and stained with damp.
A sudden flicker between blinks superimposed the image of a baby over the bones. My knees felt weak and I staggered backwards. For a few incoherent moments I stared at the bones, the memory of Uche’s words drifting through the haze in my head. I used the stick to lift the filthy cloth and laid it back over top of the box.
I picked the box off the floor and lifted it over my head as I made to put it back where I’d found it. My feet had barely touched the concrete block when the bottom of the box gave out. The bed of rags, rich with the smell of mould and decay, landed on my head before slipping to the floor while bones rained down on me with tiny clatters, scattering like an ominous divination across the littered floor. If you don’t know what it feels like to be high then you wouldn’t understand the stark horror I felt. A chill crawled all over my body and my hands trembled as I forced a scream back into my gut. I couldn’t stop shaking. I heard someone laugh and I turned around to look, only to realize no one was there and I was the one laughing. I forced myself calm, though my heart thundered in my chest and I felt the irrational urge to laugh again. I was still high.
I was spooked; I needed to get out of here, rain or no rain. I bent down and picked up the skull. I’m not sure how long it took me to pick up all the bones I could find, place them in the carton, and put it back on the roof, carefully placing a hand beneath it this time to keep the bottom in place. By the time I began the walk home it was dark and all I could feel was the desperate craving for a shower. Times like this I was thankful I lived alone. I didn’t need anyone asking me questions.
The smell hit me as soon as I opened the door. My room smelled foul, like… like a stinky wet rat. No, like a wet, dead, rat. The smell hung in the air with no apparent source. I was too tired to start searching for the creature and I could already feel a headache building, so I opened up the windows, put the fan on full, and had the shower I’d been craving. Afterwards, sleep came easy, probably because I was exhausted and still a bit buzzed.
I stirred awake sometime in the night to find myself shivering. I felt a chill spreading through the room, I felt it most on my toes so I got and closed the windows, and got back into bed pulling a blanket over me. Just as I settled to sleep, I heard a click. I jerked up. I knew that sound: it was the window latch. Didn’t I latch it well? I pushed off the blanket and was just about to get out of bed when the windows started swinging open. I knew it was the wind but something made me freeze in place. The windows were opening with an exaggerated slowness, just like someone sneaking in might open them. But who would sneak into a window one storey up? The hinges didn’t squeak, no, just the drawn-out sound of metal grating on grit. It rattled the back of my teeth. The cold continued to seep in, finding its way through my clothes. I knew no one was there but knowing did nothing to reassure me.
Taking a deep breath, I pushed myself off the bed and walked over to the window. Something shifted in the darkness outside. Maybe I was imagining things but I thought something had moved towards me in the gloom. No, it was just my shadow shifting under the dim light from the security bulb outside. I smiled nervously and pushed the windows closed. What if someone is sneaking in? I knew no one was but, what if? I needed to satisfy that part of my mind otherwise I knew it wouldn’t let me sleep. What if? I opened the windows and looked out and down.
Two very wide and moist eyes were staring at me unblinking. The cold gripped my heart and prickles erupted across my skin. Something flashed beneath the eyes and it took me a second to realize it was a widening smile filled with yellow teeth. The eyes blinked and I tried to scream. My chest heaved and my mouth hung open, but no sound came through. I shot a look at the door. Would I make it before whatever was there crawled into my room? I looked out the window again. I saw nothing. No eyes, no yellow smile. Nothing. I was freaked out. I was seeing things. I was never smoking weed in a decaying building again, never-ever-ever again, definitely not one with a baby’s corpse in it.
I closed the windows and as my heart quieted its soundtrack, I realized the smell had returned. Dead, wet rat. Maybe not a rat, but it was definitely something dead and damp. There was no way I could go back to sleep without help so I rolled a joint and smoked myself to a soothing high that left me unbothered by the smell, then I went back to sleep.
I was standing in the middle of my room listening to echoes of a baby’s cry coming from far away. As I listened it grew louder and louder and with it, came an overwhelming sense of urgency until I felt I had to find the crying baby immediately or something terrible might happen. I ran out the door and found myself in my room back at my hostel when I was 18. Uche stood in the near the window with her back to me, her shoulders shaking with sobs. I reached for her. Maybe this time I could fix it. I put my hand on her shoulder and gently turned her around. Her face was exactly as I remembered it: red-eyed, streaked with tears and swollen from crying. She was holding a delightfully pudgy baby girl in her arms. The baby couldn’t have been older than a month or two. She nestled quietly in Uche’s arms, one little hand clutching her mother’s dress. So small, so fragile, so peaceful. She gurgled and I smiled, my eyes watering.
“You kept it,” I started saying, the weight in my chest lifting as I reached for the child.
“My pikin,” Uche said in an unusual raspy voice.
“What?” I stopped, looking up at her. But Uche just kept sobbing, her face concealed in the shadows. I started to tell her that everything was alright now that we were all together, when the baby’s gurgling turned into sudden shrieks – raspy, dry shrieks that turned my blood cold. I reached to take the baby once again, hoping I could calm it, but its face began to contort like soft clay and its lips pulled back over its teeth as its skin dried up into the hollows of its face. I pulled my hands back as the baby reached for me with bony arms, shrieking into the darkness that surrounded us. This was not our child. I turned to warn Uche. I froze. There was no Uche. I found myself staring instead at a woman with bulging eyes that oozed with puss. Thick tufts of unkempt hair framed her face; her yellow toothed grin seemed to glow in the dark. It was the face I had seen outside my window.
I awoke, clawing my way into the darkness of my room with a scream caught in my throat. My shirt clung to my body, cold and damp with sweat, while my heart tried to beat its way out of my chest. I breathed hard. My windows grated against the sill and my breath caught. The windows had swung open again and were continuing to swing, scratching like bone on wood.
“What the fuck is wrong with me?” I whispered into the dark. Why am I getting jittery over nothing? Obviously, something was wrong with the window latch, nothing more. I climbed out of bed trembling. I inched my way slowly over to the window and pulled it shut. I couldn’t trust myself to look out this time. My fear was far greater than my curiosity.
I climbed back into bed. Maybe all the weed I’d smoked to sleep hadn’t been a great idea after all. With a sigh I rolled unto my side, thinking of how groggy I was going to be in the morning.
She smiled back at me.
I screamed into the face breathing rotten air into mine. Her grin widened and I screamed again, throwing off the blanket as I scrambled off the bed and backed away until my back hit the wall of my room.
“Oh God, what the fuck!” I gasped trying to push myself through the wall. Her lying form twitched and she was suddenly standing on the bed, her arms outstretched and her eyes on me.
“My pikin…” The words drifted my way, laden with the smell of decay. I glanced at the door. I leaned forward to make a mad dash for it when the woman twitched again and she was now standing a few steps away from me, reaching.
“Please…” I shook with sobs. Tears rolled down my face in the dark as I thrashed against the wall. “Leave me alone!”
Bone-cold fingers wrapped around my throat and I froze like a broken mannequin as she pulled me towards her, our faces so close I could see the dirty bone of her skull through the cracks of the seeping gashes on her face. Her dead eyes were glazed over with a milky whiteness that leaked out the corners and her nose had an unnatural twist. She smiled again and I could see her dried up lips cracking.
“My pikin…” Her corpse-breath filled the air between us and I gagged, choking back another scream.
“My pikin!” she shrieked, grabbing my face with both hands. “Wey my pikin?!”
The stink dizzied me and for a moment, I thought I would faint. She wrapped her arms around me, cradling me like a child and pulling me towards her shriveled bosom.
My mind screamed and tears ran down my face as I prayed desperately that this nightmare would end but my body wouldn’t move. I was crippled in her arms.
“My pikin…” Crooning, she lifted a stringy breast, thrust it into my mouth and I wished I was dead.
I struggled against the fetid embrace, choking on the stinking brownish liquid forcing its way through my mouth and nose. I couldn’t breathe and for a moment I thought I was going to die after all. Eyes wide, I drowned in rotten milk from a decayed breast. Somewhere during my mental struggle, things began to blur. The screaming in my head grew distant as the rotten fluid clouded my eyes. Faraway voices drifted my way like echoes and then like a vague dream, I began to see things I couldn’t explain.
I watched two men walking quietly through a bush path, whispering words I couldn’t hear to each other. Their forms were distorted like images reflected off a desert haze, stretching and yawing with subtle ripples. The old house blurred into view, its image wavering, struggling to be still. It wasn’t quite as condemned as it was now but it was still in bad shape. The vision rippled and I saw one of the two men going around to the back of the hut. Ripple and blur. Inside the hut the two men were struggling to hold down a woman. I knew it was her – the one cradled me. Her tattered clothes ripped off in their hands as she screamed and bucked like a wild beast in their grip. Even then, I could see the madness in her eyes. The images of their act fell like angry rocks. Thrusts and screams. Grunts and frenzied laughter. Again the vision rippled and I saw her naked on the ground, her head to the side, nipples trickling with breast milk, feet apart and blood between her legs. Her breath came in rasps as her eyes searched the roof of the old house from where the distant cry of a hungry baby fell.
“My pikin,” she rasped. “My pikin.”
She wrenched me from her bosom and shoved me aside. The grotesque images still burned behind my eyes. She stood over me and pointed a decaying finger with a long yellowed nail at me.
“Wey my pikin?” And she disappeared.
The revulsion struck me hard and quick. I emptied my stomach on the floor, only vaguely aware of the cloying smell of half-digested food. Then, hugging my knees to my chest, I rolled unto my side and darkness enveloped me.
The next morning I spent hours in the bathroom trying to scrub the filth off me, gagging at the memories of the past night. Scrub as I might, I still smelled the rot clinging unto my skin. I felt violated. Scarred physically and mentally. A part of me wished I was dead. A part of me probably had died.
Last night I saw what happened to her. I felt her pain and fear as she was ravaged by those two men. What would drive a man to do that? She had hidden her baby from them before they came upon her. After bleeding out on the filthy ground of the abandoned house, her desperate soul stayed behind to watch her baby starve to death, crying in the roof where no one would ever hear it.
A sudden wave of anger threatened to burst through my chest. These men were filth. Less than filth. A slow painful death would only begin to scratch the surface of what they deserved. I wanted to scream and grab them by the throat like she’d grabbed me. I wanted to hit them over and over and over again till they felt half as much pain they had inflicted on her. I wanted to do something, anything to balance the tragic scales. I felt a dull throb in my hand and I surfaced from my anger to feel pain pulsing through my knuckles. I had been punching the wall and I hadn’t even known. I knew I was losing my mind but I was sure of one thing; I had to go back to that house. I couldn’t turn my back on another child.
I lost my way twice trying to find the old house, and by the time I did it was late afternoon. I was hot, tired and dripping with sweat. The building was as I left it, watching me through forlorn eyes that seemed to share my misfortune. I entered, making my way to where it all began, with my mind trying to convince me that every dark patch on the floor was the mad woman’s blood. The box was where I left it, half hidden in the roof. I took a deep breath, squatted and started looking for any bone fragment I must have missed. I knew she was watching me because the smell of rot filled the air. I picked all the tiny fragments of the skeleton that I could find in the dim light of the evening, and when I was really sure there was nothing left, I reached for the box.
Carefully holding its base, I lowered it to the ground and emptied its contents unto the dirty rag that had fallen on my head the previous day. Then with the care and calm of a resigned convict, I began to arrange the bones. When I was done, I placed them back into the box and gently returned it to its home, covered in the filthy cloth it had come with. My legs ached and I was hungry but my fear gave no room for an appetite. A thought occurred to me. I was wearing the same jeans I had worn the day it rained so I reached into the back pocket and pulled out the sachet of weed. Something dropped to the ground with a click and I looked down to see a finger bone: tiny and grey. And then it all made sense. She had followed me home, seeking out what was hers. I lowered the box a third time, picked up the bone and placed it where it belonged, then for what I hoped was the last time, I returned the frail carton to its resting place.
That night the air was warm, no rotten smell drifted my way and I slept without the sounds of grating windows.
It’s been five years now and things are more or less normal. I work in an orphanage, but I don’t intend to have any children of my own. I can’t be a father; I’ve already had my chance.
Last month I ran into one of the men at the shopping mall. I knew it was him. There was no doubt in my mind. The way he reeked of her. I wouldn’t mistake that smell for anything. He was much older now, carrying a pot belly like a trophy. That old anger flared like a freshly fed flame and it was all I could do not to inflict the harm I had dreamed of over and over for the last five years. I stalked him long enough to know where he lived and then I went back to the old house. It was still there. Not much worse off than it was the last time I saw it. The bones were where I left them too. I took a piece of her child and buried it in his compound. I had a feeling I would run into the other one in due time.
Tawene squeezed the fingers of her left hand until her knuckles made a popping sound – something she only did when she was unbearably anxious. She stood in front of Kaliwe’s door as the words he’d said on the phone echoed in her mind.
“It’s best if you never see me again.”
If he was any other man, she would have taken him at his word. But this was Kaliwe who had never said a word to intentionally hurt her. Who, only a week before that call, had thrown her a surprise Diva birthday party, just like she had always wanted. He’d even had an African print gown made that fit her like a glove. When she had embraced him her happy tears had run down their cheeks…
She bit her lip and took out her spare key. She only wanted to understand.
The first thing she noticed was the smell. Glancing around the dim lit flat, she saw half-empty tequila bottles littered across the floor, some had spilled on the tiles and carpet. Good Lord, what happened to him? She looked up and had her answer. Kaliwe stood in the kitchen, one of his hands gripping the edge of the kitchen table and the other up to his left eye in a fist, like he was in pain. Instinctively she took a step forward. He took a step back.
“You can’t… can’t get any closer to me. Stay away Tawene, please.” The tremor in his voice scared her. He sounded like he was suffering, yet he seemed more scared for her.
“Kali, I… I’ve missed you so much.” Tawene said, not taking another step forward. Tears welled in her eyes as she felt the gap yawning between them like the Rift Valley. He didn’t move, and through his open eye, she saw his abject fear and pain, and it broke her heart.
“Tawene…” Kali began, with a hint of the tenderness she knew. Hope fluttered in her. Maybe he would let her in… Then he suddenly doubled over and screamed, stumbling backwards, bumping into a sofa, knocking over one of the half empty bottles of tequila. He pressed both hands over his left eye.
“What’s wrong?! Talk to me, please!” Tawene sped to his side, moving to hold him, but stopped, her hands frozen just above him. She did not dare to touch him in case it made the pain worse. Whatever it was.
“You need to get away… now!” Kaliwe’s voice was hoarse with pain, his hand alternatively gripping the couch and jerking sporadically in the air.
But Tawene was frozen in place as tears began rolling down her cheeks. Suddenly, like he was gripped by a new, sharper pain, Kaliwe backed away from the couch, and stumbled to the floor. Screaming, he flung his left hand away from his eye, and gripped the wrist.
Nothing prepared Tawene for what she saw. Kaliwe’s left eye was white and pupiless, but then the pupil began to expand. The growing pupil was ringed with a dark blue iris instead of Kaliwe’s natural dark brown, and it spiralled like a bottomless whirlpool. That whirlpool in his eye drew her in, stealing her air, her mind, her spirit, her sanity… she felt she would lose them all if she kept looking at it.
Tawene screamed. Kaliwe jerked his head up making a gagging, choking sound, then an inhuman roar escaped his lips and his body began to jerk in unnatural ways. His face twisted into something unrecognisable for ahuman. The Thing lurched forward like it wasn’t accustomed to having a body. It slammed one side of Kaliwe’s body against the dining room table, which tipped up on two legs, then crashed back into place. It ignored the impact.
Tawene fled towards the door. As she ran Kaliwe’s body was pulled upright, as if by an outside force, and his hand clawed towards her at an impossible speed. He gripped a corner of her silk scarf, slipping it from her neck, and growled as he tore the scarf apart.
Tawene reached the door, yanked it open and ran through it. Turning to slam it behind her, she caught a glimpse of the transformed Kaliwe, one eye totally eclipsed. The Thing that used to be Kaliwe did not take its eyes off Tawene until the moment she slammed the door. Running, she fled to the parking lot, not daring to see if she was pursued.
When the door slammed shut, Kaliwe instantly felt control rush back into his limbs. The Thing was present in every muscle and nerve, but it seemed it was taking the back seat – for now. His lungs had not taken a breath since the Thing took over. It had no use for oxygen. However Kaliwe did, and he gasped as if he had just surfaced from a deep sea dive and crumpled into a heap on the floor, holding his side where his hip had hit the table.
You don’t even know how to operate a body, Kaliwe directed his thoughts at it. You could have killed me! He knew the Thing did not speak words, but it radiated a tangible energy that Kaliwe could match with an approximate human emotion. It was tired, like a fighter that had attacked too rashly and worn itself out. He also sensed another emotion: Disdain at the limitations of its host, like an irritated airline passenger.
His own anger towards this parasite threatened to bubble up, but he suppressed it, focussing on examining the damage the unwelcome joyride had done on his body. He had learned early on that anger only fuelled it. Leaning against the door, he eased up his t-shirt. He exhaled raggedly, realising he was going to left with a nasty bruise.
Since this thing had… infected (no, he wasn’t going to say possessed) his eye it hadn’t responded as savagely as it had today. This Thing inside him hated Tawene. Or rather, as Kaliwe had come to understand, it hated the feelings Tawene awakened in him. The powerful love, gentleness and peace he felt when she was near. It fed on his inner darkness, and these feelings of light were starving it.
As he tested the limits of his movements, he heard Tawene’s Toyota screeching out of the parking bay. Although he wasn’t surprised, the sound made him miserable. I hope you’re happy! Kaliwe thought at the Thing. It was idle now, swirling around within his consciousness, and exuding a casual curiosity about taking complete control of his body.
Two months later, Kaliwe opened the mailbox on the wall next to his door. The fact that he was receiving mail at all made him mildly surprised. He now worked from home and ordered all his food online so that he never needed to leave the house.
He pulled out a tightly wrapped package which fit neatly into the palm of his hand. It was wrapped in soft, dark green leaves. Frowning, he looked around cautiously and slipped it into his pocket before he went back indoors.
He had chucked out most of the furniture, leaving only a plastic chair and a rough table. He sat down and eased the package apart with his fingers. The leaves rolled open, and in their centre was a piece of black cloth.
He felt an odd stirring in his left eye, an irritation that was nearly an itch. He gave his head a shake, blinking his eyes rapidly until the irritation subsided. He took a breath and looked down at the package again, prodding it tentatively. Figuring he had nothing to lose, he picked up the black cloth and unfolded it.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said aloud. It was an eyepatch. The only place he had come across one of these was in novelty toy stores, along with other goofy pirate gear. He stared in disbelief at what must have been a sick joke.
Kaliwe squeezed it in his hand and pounded the table. He didn’t need anyone else to tell him he was a freak! He roared and flung the wrapping and eyepatch off the table, feeling his anger boiling up.
The Thing in his body roused in glee, drinking greedily from his well of rage. Kaliwe hated to give it the satisfaction of a meal, but he could not control his emotions. Placing his hand on the wall, he forced himself to count his breaths and calm down. He would burn this cruel prank…then destroy his mail box.
He scowled at the package then kicked it with the tip of his boot. As he did this, a scroll of white paper parted from the leafy wrapping. Curious, Kaliwe picked it up and opened it.
He recognised Tawene’s handwriting instantly. Not taking his eyes off it, he sat down and drank in her words:
Do you remember the moment I fell in love with you? I was stressed about my midterm, convinced I’d grade much lower than my classmates. You asked me why I was so ready to fail… When I couldn’t answer, you told me that everything you saw I was capable of made my failure unthinkable to you. You don’t know how profound that was for me. It taught me that I didn’t have to ask permission to be brilliant. When I later told you I had passed top of the class, you just stared and stared at me, without saying a thing… then you kissed me for the first time…
I won’t let you go.
I’ve done research about your affliction, and have finally found a pastor who moonlights as an exorcist. What you have is a kind of spiritual infection called a Chintu. He gave me the eyepatch that you will find enclosed. It isn’t a cure, but it will suppress the spirit until the cure is ready in about a week. God, I hope it works. Let me know by responding through the address on the back.
I love you. Every day.
Kaliwe closed his eyes and sighed. Then he turned quickly to the eyepatch on the ground, picked it up and dusted it off, now treasuring it in his palm. He looked from the eyepatch to the letter, and his right eye brimmed with tears. Even after he had frightened Tawene so badly… she still loved him.
His left eye remained dry and cold.
After a moment he stood up decisively, and went to the bathroom, cradling the eyepatch in his hand. At the sink, he peeled off the black paper he had stuck over the mirror. He moved the eye patch towards his face, but paused, lowering it again as he glimpsed his reflection for the first time in weeks. His unshaven face was unrecognisable. His right eye was brown, but bloodshot. But it was his left eye which held his attention. The white of his eye was gone entirely, and only the deep blue pupil swirled about slowly but continuously, like a diseased marble in thick sludge. It made him queasy to look at it.
Not daring to hope, he blinked away from his reflection, and lifted the eyepatch to his face. Taking a deep breath, he put it against his eye with an uncertain shiver. For a moment he felt the spirit, the Chintu, attempt to resist but it was quickly stilled. Kaliwe gasped and looked up at the mirror. The skin around his left eye appeared to be smoothing out and the bruising was fading. However, these signs were minor compared to the change he felt inside.
For the first time since the spiritual parasite had taken his eye as its home, Kaliwe felt clean. He felt blissfully alone in his own body, a kind of peace he had thought he would never feel again. In the mirror, his smile was almost unrecognisable to him.
He laughed and a joyful tear rolled down from his right eye. His left eye still couldn’t make tears, but he didn’t care. He was free!
“Tawene…” He murmured, touching the eyepatch lightly. He was moved beyond words… when everyone else in his life feared him, she hadn’t given up on him. Suddenly, he had to see her. Kaliwe prepared to wash and shave.
Kaliwe arrived at the Vorna Valley flats where Tawene lived. He switched off his motorcycle, removed his helmet and took a deep breath, enjoying the feel of fresh air in his lungs. He appreciated it so much more now. He looked up at the identical doors, but focussed his eye on the Tawene’s door. Three floors up, the fifth door from the right. Flat 306B.
Nervous, he dismounted and walked towards the staircase, touching the eyepatch lightly. This would be the true test of whether it could contain the Chintu. When he got to her door, his heart was pounding, but not because of the stairs. He raised his hand, knocked once, then froze as all the “what-ifs” bombarded him at once. This was a mistake, he thought, and he quickly turned to leave.
The door opened behind him. He heard a gasp. He didn’t look, but knew it was Tawene. Her familiar scent of floral perfume and cinnabons surrounded him. Still he would not turn and face her.
Tawene touched his shoulder lightly, but to Kaliwe it was the most powerful force he had ever felt. He turned his head and gazed upon her face. Five of her dreadlocks framed her left cheek down to her ear. The rest of her hair was pulled back in a flowing ponytail. Kaliwe let his seeing eye trace the gentle curve of her dark brown face and neck.
She was beautiful.
Her eyes brimmed with tears, and he saw her looking at the eye patch. Then she looked straight into his seeing eye and he exhaled in helpless bliss. She embraced him tightly, and he wrapped his arms around her as if she was the only lifeline saving him from the abyss.
“Tawene… oh my love…” Kaliwe murmured. He pulled back from the embrace, cupped her smooth face in his lighter brown hand, and kissed her.
A week later, on a typical Johannesburg winter day, Marcus was smoking a cigarette stub in his corner of the office common room, alone. A short stocky guy, he often seemed a shorter than his full height since he slouched. Several people entered the room and when he rolled his eyes to look, his stomach turned to acid. Kaliwe was back and he was surrounded by his usual cronies. They were hugging him, making jokes, and shouting in obnoxiously joyful tones. Gugu, the pretty office flirt, was smiling at Kaliwe the way she always did… the way she never did at him. Marcus clenched his fist and turned away with a growl. Conversation drifted to his ears despite his attempts to ignore it.
“Oh my goodness, Kali, what happened to your eye?” Gugu gushed. Marcus couldn’t help but look, hoping it was something terrible. His eyes widened when he saw that Kaliwe’s left eye was covered with a patch.
“Ok,” Marcus said in a low tone to himself. “You officially have my interest.”
He put out his cigarette on the polished wooden table and walked towards Kaliwe…
Kaliwe stepped back to address the group. “Guys, I know you have a ton of questions, please listen to me first. I won’t discuss what happened to me, but I do want to apologise for the way I have treated you. I pushed all of you away, and I’m sorry.”
Bill thumped his shoulder. “Kali, come on. Sure you went a little crazy for a moment there, but we won’t hold that against you!”
“Speak for yourself. I say drinks are on Kali for a week,” said Mpho with a grin, patting him on the other shoulder. Kaliwe smiled, touched that they were so forgiving. It was that moment that his eyes met Marcus’ through the crowd. Guilt tightened his throat. They had forgiven Kaliwe easily, but Marcus… his sins had left him friendless and ridiculed. Kali broke away and walked towards the shorter man. The others watched him in surprise.
He noticed Marcus’ eyes widen in shock as he approached. But he knew there was also something else there. Since the Chintu had possessed him, Kaliwe had developed an ability to sense negative emotions in others. He sensed a deep hatred in Marcus. He stood in front of Marcus, putting a hand on his shoulder.
“I owe you the biggest apology Marcus. Even before my… experience, I should have treated you more kindly. I’m sorry.”
Marcus glanced at Kaliwe’s hand on his shoulder then glared at him. “Don’t touch me.”
Kaliwe moved his hand away but stood his ground. “I’m trying to be sincere, man.”
Gugu sighed. “Don’t waste your breath on Marcus, he’s allergic to friends.” The others laughed, but Kaliwe shook his head.
“No, I don’t think it’s right for us to leave Marcus out. Isolation is enough to put anyone in a really bad mood.”
Marcus frowned in puzzlement, not knowing how to respond. He had never been apologised to. “So what… saying ‘sorry’ makes us friends? That makes it ok that you tanked my chances of getting a promotion? Now they all treat me like shit.”
“Let’s be honest, you got ruthless with Bill in the process, and I couldn’t just let that slide,” Kaliwe said. “Look, I’m – not looking for an easy way out… Just a new start.” Kaliwe extended his hand.
Marcus’ nostrils flared, but then he calmed himself, glancing at Kaliwe’s hand then his face. “Tell you what, Madiba. If you take that eye patch off, we’ll call it even.” Marcus grinned with self-satisfaction. An eye for an eye would be poetic justice.
Kaliwe’s extended hand curled into a fist and he lowered it. “Payback isn’t going to solve anything. I just want peace.”
Marcus laughed. “Peace. Of course you would talk about peace like it’s free for everyone. You’ve never been hated, ever,” he said. “You can’t even take a little embarrassment, too scared of showing your busted eye to your groupies. Don’t worry, they’ll still lick your boots tomorrow.”
Gugu stepped in, furious. “Marcus! Out of all your dickish moments, this one blows the most. Can you just grow a spine?”
Kaliwe raised his hands. “Just a sec, Gugu, please. I’m not trying to start a fight.”
“Well Marcus obviously wants to, why not make him happy?” Gugu said with a dismissive hand gesture, her manicured nails clicking.
“Marcus-” Kaliwe began.
Marcus shrugged irritably. “Why do you even care? Do you lose sleep not being best buddies with Marcus the Dick?” He stared Kaliwe down with his lip curled. “Take off the dumb patch, then we can talk.”
“That’s not happening Marcus,” Kaliwe’s voice was like steel. He had stopped faking friendliness. Good. Marcus hated his fake-ass bullshit.
“Too bad, you’ve just lost a new groupie. I would have made a good one,” said Marcus.
“Marcus! You’re a selfish jerk who never gets over anything,” Gugu shouted. “If you were wondering why we don’t hang with you, it’s because you will never be Kaliwe. I don’t know why he bothers with you.”
Marcus felt something inside him crumble irreversibly. Didn’t Gugu see that he cared about her the way Kaliwe never would? That his heart rotted in the mires of unrequited love?
Gugu turned, linked her arm through Kaliwe’s, and began marching him back to the group.
Marcus saw red.
He moved like a cobra, clamping his hand on Kaliwe’s shoulder and yanking him out of Gugu’s uninvited embrace. He clawed his fingers at Kaliwe’s face, ignoring Gugu’s scream and the shouts from the others. The eye patch was strapped on tightly, but Marcus got a firm grip on it.
Kaliwe clutched at Marcus’ wrist, twisting and wrenching it this way and that to make him let go. But Marcus would not. The others didn’t dare touch either of them, but instead gathered in a circle around them, calling out and pleading.
When Kaliwe realised that he couldn’t push Marcus away by force, he yanked him close instead. “Marcus, forget embarrassment, forget my social life, forget yours,” he growled. “If you do this, you could destroy everyone here.” He saw confusion and hesitation on Marcus’ face.
But it didn’t last long. “As long as you go down too.” Marcus snarled. Then he gripped the strap and ripped off the eye patch.
Tawene closed the car door, paused and smiled. Her Kali was back…
While he went ahead to the party, she had gone to pick up the cure. She held the small reused cooking oil bottle and put it into her suede satchel. The exorcist told her that drinking the liquid while wearing the eye patch would allow the cure to cleanse Kaliwe’s spirit of the Chintu. He would be free again. She smiled and walked to the office common room. She would call him away and hand it to him at a discrete moment. She couldn’t wait to see him happy and free again…
Kaliwe had never before felt the intensity of the rage and glee that consumed the Chintu as soon as Marcus tore off the eye patch.
The feeling radiated from his left eye, spreading through his skull like an ice cold wave as the Chintu advanced through him faster than he could comprehend. In horror, he realised the warm edges of the cold wave were himself, his consciousness, his control over his own body. Kaliwe might have been screaming, but his vocal cords felt so far away from his ears that he couldn’t be sure.
Marcus took a quick step back. Kaliwe’s body was convulsing, his face contorting with expressions never seen on a human face. As he watched the horrific transformation, Marcus’ mouth dried. Everyone else stared with their eyes wide open. Mpho and Bill backed away quickly.
“Kaliwe… what’s happening…” Gugu said in a shaky voice. She took a short step forward then stopped, wanting to help Kaliwe but not knowing how.
Then, the Thing That Was No Longer Kaliwe looked up. Both of its eyes had turned navy blue. It directed its gaze at Marcus, although it couldn’t be described as staring. It looked like it was seeing through him.
The Chintu moved Kaliwe’s arms this way and that, practicing using a body again. It looked down at the floor where the eye patch was. As it stepped towards it, everyone else stepped back. It found bending awkward, but managed to pick up the eye patch and stood staring at it with loathing. Gripping it in both hands, the Chintu tore the patch in half.
Marcus pulled back his fist to punch Kaliwe’s face. His fist was stopped dead, and it took him a moment to realise Kaliwe was gripping it. He had moved that fast. Marcus’ eyes locked with the Thing that operated Kaliwe, and he was more terrified than he had ever been in his life.
The Chintu grabbed Marcus’ forearm with its other hand, then twisted, not stopping until it broke in two places. Marcus’s screams were ear-splitting and the Chintu let him fall to the ground in agony. Gugu screamed and ran, pushing Mpho out of the way, and stumbling as she forced the door open. She almost rammed into Tawene entering.
Tawene jumped out of the way as Gugu and the others ran past her. Their colour-drained faces told her exactly what had happened.
“Oh no…” Tawene hurried inside, and had to step around chairs that had been toppled in the rush. Then she saw It. She saw Marcus on the ground next to It, shivering and grey. His arm…
Tawene clamped her hands over her mouth and screamed into them, collapsing in dismay. Helpless tears flowed from her eyes as she crouched on the floor. She was ready to die, for what was there left to live for? This was worse than the first time she had lost him. Now, the soul she loved was gone, with only the shape of the man left behind.
She gasped as the Chintu stepped towards her. Marcus pulled himself up, groaning, then hobbled to the fire escape. Tawene got up and turned to run, then spotted the bottled cure on the floor where it had landed after falling out of her bag. Sure, she couldn’t get him to drink it, but maybe…
Without considering it for a moment longer, Tawene grabbed the bottle, just as the Chintu grabbed her other wrist. Before it had a chance to stop her, she drank every drop of the remedy. It growled, but more out of irritation than any sense of defeat. Then she launched herself at Kaliwe’s body, and held him.
Deep within himself, Kaliwe screamed. No! Don’t let me hurt you! No!
He had been beaten down into his own subconscious to only a fraction of consciousness, but when the Chintu touched Tawene he began to fight for control.
Meanwhile, the Chintu was using Kaliwe’s fingers to scratch at Tawene’s arms and back. She cried out, but held on tighter.
No! Kali thought, and felt his consciousness expand a little.
Kaliwe’s body jerked and slumped, and suddenly no one controlled it. The Chintu had turned inwards to fight Kaliwe’s counter attack, to compress and crush his awareness completely. It was trying to kill him, even if the cost would be destroying the body they both needed to survive.
But a part of Kaliwe was still present in his skin, and he felt the pressure of Tawene’s embrace, felt what it meant to him. There was love in that embrace, a ferocious love which demanded his freedom. Something else flowed in waves from her too, a weapon. The cure. It was mixed with her essence which he perceived in his mind as a soft luminescent tide, trying to reach him past the black crude oil ocean which was the Chintu. The creature swelled up, morphing into a black thorny wall, towering high above Kaliwe, blocking him from the warm energy of her love and the cure.
By instinct he knew he had to get past the Chintu. He ran to his right, seeking the end of the wall. But as fast as he could run, the wall grew twice, and then ten times, faster on both sides, onwards to eternity…
“Tawene…” he lamented.
In the material world, Tawene’s wounds begun to bleed through her clothing. Tears streamed down her face. “Come back to me…” she whispered. Her fingers slipped as her arms weakened…
The Chintu’s wall grew higher as well as wider, arching over Kaliwe, shrouding his consciousness in a dark, rapidly closing dome. Around isn’t going to work! He stopped running.
Then I’ll go through.
He leaned full tilt into the thick thorn bush. He cried out in agony as It tore his flesh. It’s not real, he thought, remembering the last time the Chintu had “burned” him. The pain stopped all at once. In disbelief he began to sprint, seeing a glimpse of the light that was Tawene’s spirit ahead of him.
A chill ran through him… It was using words.
I maay not hurt your body but I caan aalwaays hurt your mind…
Not merely raw, alien emotion, but comprehensive threats. He didn’t stop running. A thorn tore into him and as he glanced down a perfect cube of flesh was missing from his arm, exposing bone underneath. Disgusting, but not painful. Then he got the strangest feeling, like he was forgetting something, but he didn’t know what it was.
Do you remember how you met her? It hissed.
Of course he did. He treasured that memory every day… what was it…? No… No, it couldn’t be… he panicked when he realised he had no idea how he and Tawene had met.
I will eeraase her from your mind! If you kill meee, you won’t even know her, much less LOVE her! I. Will. BREAAK YOU!
Kaliwe ran faster than he ever could in reality, and as he did, his right arm tore off, but a moment later, he found the wall of Tawene’s light, embraced it, and became one with it.
The Chintu screamed, the scream twisted into a gargle, and then into the sound of air passing over an empty glass bottle… then it was gone.
Kaliwe’s conscious grew and filled his mind, then his torso, then his limbs (which were whole), and his body was his own again. The first thing he felt was the weight of his lover’s body as she slumped on top of him, slipping into unconsciousness. He caught her before she fell and knelt down, lowering her to the ground.
“Hey…” he put his hand gently on her cheek, tears ran from both of his eyes. “It’s gone… you did it…” Her eyes fluttered open. Comprehension slowly dawned on her face and she managed a weak smile.
“I love you, Kaliwe.”
He smiled back, wiping his eyes of the fresh tears that rose from them. “I love you too…” He froze, then shook his head, blinking.
He could not remember her name. He could not remember his own name.
It didn’t matter. All he knew was that he loved her more than his own life.