By Ekari Mbvundula
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 a human. 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.