FICTION: Sufficient Reason

BY J.L. SERFONTEIN

“I also know that we must go and work in the garden.”

Voltaire, Candide

John’s anticipation turns dull and dutiful as he pulls up to the heavy black wrought iron gate. Whitewashed pillars on either side arch down to the wall that is too high to see over, barbed wire spirals along the top. He has to hang half out of the car window to reach the intercom button, and is about to push it again when Elize answers, faint and crackly.

            “Hello?”

            “Hi, Mum, it’s me.”

            “Who is it?”

            Sticking his head out of the window, John raises his voice to make himself heard.

            “It’s John!”

            “Johnny! Why are you shouting?”

            John rolls the car down the long driveway, wheels crunching deliberately on the gravel. The symmetrical rows of topiary are shaggy, the lawn mangy with irregular bare and yellow patches. Skeletons of rose bushes are evenly spaced along the walls, and the geometrical flower beds are empty except for some wilted weeds. It is hard to reconcile this neglect with the meticulously manicured garden of his childhood – Petrus forever tending to it.

            The house has not changed; it is the same ornate gable, the same thatched roof and whitewashed walls, but it seems smaller, more remote. Only one of the green wooden window shutters is ajar, the rest are closed. The black iron bars over the windows look like they have latched onto the house.

            Elize is waiting inside the threshold, shading her eyes with one hand.

            “The prodigal son returns!”

            They smile and hug, happy to see each other.

            “It’s good to see you, Mum.”

            “Such a lovely surprise! Why don’t you stay the night?”

            It takes a while for John’s eyes to get used to the low light inside the house. He notices the faint smell of fresh paint in the hallway.

            “I wish I could. Next time.”

            The living room is newly renovated, glossy, like the pages of an interior decorating magazine: mahogany furniture with gently curved legs flaring to scrolled feet, crest rails decorated with ornate carvings of roses; the lounge chairs and couch newly upholstered with ivory velvet; wooden floors, with a plush morning blue rug to match the curtains; white pottery decorated with blue English countryside scenes on the coffee and end tables; fresh red roses in one of the vases; walls cluttered with paintings with intricately moulded golden frames. 

            John walks over to the front window and opens the shutters. The sunlight that reflects off the varnished wooden floor makes Elize squint.    

            “Not too wide, I can’t stand the heat.”

            Elize looks John up and down, a half-joking inspection.

            “Look how pale you are, it’s not healthy. When are you coming home?”

            John looks out the window with a small stiff smile.

            “The garden’s seen better days.”

            He remembers taking Petrus’s lunch out to him: thick slices of white bread with peanut butter and jam, and coffee, in Bettie’s tin plates and cups. Sometimes Petrus would tell him a story while he was eating, always the same story, about a poor man and his wife that decided to work in their garden. They dug the whole day, but during the night a bird came and whistled, undoing all of their work. At a loss to explain the uncultivated garden the next morning, all they could do was dig some more. When they found no trace of their work the next day, the man decided to hide in the garden to see what happens to their work every night. He caught the bird and was about to kill it, but the bird pleaded with the man, promising to make milk for him if he spared its life. It was good milk, so the man took the bird home and kept it in a cage; his family grew fat, while their neighbours were as thin as always. The man warned his children not to tell anyone about the bird, but one day the neighbours’ children begged them to reveal their secret. As soon as they took the bird out of the cage to show the other children, it flew away. The children tried to catch the bird, but it flew further away every time they approached. That night, when the man got home from work, he found the neighbours calling out for their children, and in his house, the cage was empty. He was sorry because he knew that he had lost his food, and his children forever.

            “What can I get you?”

            “Some water, please.”

            “Don’t you want some coffee? Tea? There’s beer. Let me get you something to eat.”

            “Just some water, thanks.”

            Elize gets up, calls down the hallway.

            “Bettie!”

            Sitting down, John notices a painting on the far wall, a family portrait, recognisable as one of his mother’s paintings from the deliberate idealism. In it, his mother is seated on a chair, him as a toddler standing in front and to the left of her. He is holding on to her arm and shoulder, looking up at her sweetly, expectantly. She is looking back down at him with the serenity of unconditional love. The lighting is centred on mother and son, his father standing behind them and to the right, where it is darker. He is looking down at his wife and son, resting his cheek on his fist, with an inscrutable expression.

            “Johnny!”

            Bettie’s wrinkled face is beaming. John’s delight at seeing her is easy; he gets up and they hug tightly. Standing back, Bettie holds him by the shoulders, studying his face intently.

            “My boy, it is still you.”

            “I’ve missed you, Bettie, how are you?”

            “I don’t complain.”

            “John would like some water, Bettie, and could you make me a pot of tea?”

            Her gait slowed by age, Bettie walks out into the hall without saying more.

            “I’ll go help her.”

            “She’ll manage – she hardly does anything to earn her keep these days. Are you still in that cold, dark flat?”

            “I like it there. London’s a good base for my work.”

            “I don’t know how you can do that job. It can’t be good for you, taking pictures of other people’s suffering all the time.”

            “Someone’s got to do it.”

            “But why do you have to do it? It just feels like sticking your nose in other people’s business to me. And your photos are always so depressing.”
            “It’s the news, Mum.”

            John walks back to the window and looks out to the boundary wall on the right. It had not been built yet, the day they arrived home to find Petrus standing in the neighbours’ driveway. Mr Botha, red in the face, was loudly berating him for intruding on his property. Petrus kept quiet, somehow stoic and defiant at the same time. Tabitha, the Bothas’ domestic worker, was standing on the porch, crying.

            “The garden needs some work.”

            “Seriously darling, when are you coming back?”

            Only half listening, John tries to find the connection between the house he grew up in, and this one with the shaggy garden and glossy living room. The link is flimsy, it keeps slipping out of his grasp, leaving him to feel detached, like an intruder.

            From his mother’s intonation, he recognises a question.

            “You remember Ina Meyer?”

            A pause as John registers what his mother is asking.

            “No.”

            “You know, Barbara Meyer’s mother, Barbara was a couple of years ahead of you at school.”

            “Don’t remember.”

            “Sure you do, you’ll know them when you see them. Ina’s brother has a game lodge near Sun City, beautiful place, five-star. Anyway, a couple of months ago all of his Land Cruisers, the ones they use for game drives, got stolen. Turns out that his workers were in on it. Most of them have worked there for years, he built houses for them and everything.”

            Shaking his head slightly and pursing his lips, John gazes out the window again. The three-tiered marble fountain in the middle of the garden is dry. There is a crack in the bottom with a clump of brown grass sticking through it. The fountain was bubbling away as always that day, but its reassuring murmur was no match for Mr Botha’s anger. With a stern voice, John’s father told him not to stare as he took his mother by the arm and firmly steered her towards the front door. Flustered, hurrying to keep up with his parents, John heard something like the crack of a whip. He looked around and saw Petrus bending down to pick up his cap. Petrus stood upright, turned around, and walked out through the gate, unhurriedly, his shoulders straight.  

            “You’ll have to do something about the garden.”

            Elize studies the man looking out the window, tries to see her son in him.

            “You really have to come home.”

            Bettie returns with the drinks, John hurries over to help.

            “That’s heavy, let me take it.”

            Bettie’s look of reproach stops him in his tracks. 

            “Let me decide what I can carry.”

            Deflated, John thanks, Bettie. She puts down the tray, turns around and walks towards the door. John wants to ask her to sit down, to have a cup of tea with them, but now he hesitates and she disappears down the hallway. He remembers the way Bettie looked at him on that day when Petrus walked down the street without looking back. Tabitha used to come over to visit Bettie most days, but she must have left on the same day as Petrus; he never saw either of them again. 

            “See what I have to put up with – you’d think it’s her house.”

            John busies himself with pouring water from the bottle of Evian into a glass. He pours a cup of Earl Grey tea, hands it to Elize.

            “Did you get good photos of the protest?”

            “Yeah, got a few shots I can use. I was hoping to get some of the cyclists going past, but the race was cancelled.”

            “I know, uncle Chris flew down from Jo’burg for it, had to pay to fly his bike down too. Don’t get me wrong, I feel sorry for those people, but getting the Argus cancelled, there has to be a better way to do these things.”

            “So you’re sympathetic as long as it doesn’t interfere with a recreational cycle race for middle-class white people wearing lycra.”

            Elize is hurt by the quick hostility in his reply. John notices, regrets his reaction, but it is too late to take it back.

            “That’s not what I mean. Don’t put words in my mouth.”

            John looks around the room, something to do in the uneasy silence, notices the family portrait again. A beautiful painting that covers over the barbed wire and the burglar bars, like all of his mother’s paintings.

            “I like the family portrait, is it new?”

 

            They fill the rest of the afternoon with pleasantries, placid and oppressive, until it is time for John to get ready for his flight back to London. After taking a shower, he finds Elize in the study.   

            “I’ve got something for you — found some of your old photos clearing out the house, and thought you might want to keep them.”

            The heavy maroon velvet curtains in the study are drawn, the desk lamp providing the only light. Two of the walls are fitted with bookshelves, but they are mostly empty. There are a few books on one of the shelves near the door, a Bible, and some old Bible study books: “Feminine Appeal: the Seven Virtues of a Godly Wife and Mother,” and “Uninvited: Living Loved When You Feel Less Than, Left Out, and Lonely.”  Picking up a shoebox from the mahogany desk, Elize knocks over a stack of papers. John drops to his knees to pick them up—letters, handwritten on paper yellowed by age. Thick black lines block out sentences, sometimes whole paragraphs. A red stamp across the first page of each letter: OSHAKATI. He recognises his father’s handwriting, but it takes a moment for him to realise what they are. He looks up at his mother, but her face is outside the light, he can’t make out her expression. John gets up and hands the letters to his mother. He wants to say something, but Elize speaks before he can find the words.

            “Look at the time. Better get going if you want to catch your flight.”

            Out on the porch, John takes another look at the garden, this time without saying anything.

            “When are you coming home?”

            They hug goodbye

            “Well, at least don’t wait another year before you come and visit your mother.”

            “I won’t, Mum. Take care of yourself.”

            Driving through the gate, he glances up at the rear-view mirror. His mother is shielding her eyes with one arm, waving with the other. Her expression is inscrutable, her shoulders straight as she turns around and walks back into the house.

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FICTION: Jeffrey

BY ANDRE LEMMER

The children, tongues untied, were partly in shock, partly delirious with the excitement of their discovery: askeleton with no head, bottles lying nearby, a blanket tied over the bushes.

“Slow down, Thandi. Tell me slowly.”

“Yoh, chienie Tixo, we was scared. We ran all the way, baas.”

“Don’t call me baas, you know that. This skeleton – whereabouts is it?”

“In the bush, baas. There where it is so thick, on the hill behind the tennis court”

“Sipho, you take me there. I better check before I call the police. Thandi, go tell your mother, she’s in the kitchen. Your brother is coming with me.”

………………………..

The skeleton, part-clothed in torn flannel and a tweed jacket, was part-sunk into the earth. The arms stretched forward like a diver’sin mid-air, the legs spread, rank grass sprouting between them. Under a nearby bristle bush was the skull, grinning and chap-fallen, empty eye sockets gazing heavenwards. A crumpled old felt hat lay amongst a litter of medicine bottles under a blanket that had been spread tarpaulin-wise between the branches of two wind-stunted rooikrantzes. Empty sherry bottles lay deep in the shadow of the shelter, and amongst them, a rusty asthma inhaler. The blanket flapped in the fresh south-westerly wind. Sipho hovered a distance away, bare legs shivering in the September breeze.

There could be little doubt: It was Jeffrey. I had never known his surname. Jeffrey who? Village gardener, seldom sober. Local gillie. Partner to a foul-mouthed, nameless harridan. A mystery man, but with secrets that interested no one in the village. Now, a missing person that no one missed. I told the police about his supposed disappearance from the village in February, that I had helped him get his sick partner to the Walmer Clinic, that he had disappeared soon after, and that we all assumed he had left the village to be near his woman. There was a brief stir in the village for a day or two.

“Hadn’t seen Jeffrey for months. Or heard him! Thank goodness.”

“Poor old Jeffrey. He wasn’t old: about fifty, I think.”

“Stopped coming to work in my garden round about January.”

“Used to give him a lift in the back of my bakkie into town on his babbelaas days. He would never sit in front, you know.”

“Thought he’d gone to join his old foul-mouthed crone – what was her name?”

“Dunno. We called her Olive Oyl. Looked just like Popeye’s girl. Always in her cups, she was. Ship sherry. She was sent inland somewhere, her chest, you know. Asthma.”

“Yes, Jeffrey got me to take her to the clinic. Looked a gonner.”

“You could never tell whether she was plain drunk or sick. Both probably.”

“He missed her, did old Jeffrey. Told me so.”

“Ag, dronkverdriet. In his cups as usual.”

………………………..

A case was opened. Then a long, official silence. No news of any investigation, or funeral, or inquest. My daughter tried to phone, to ask about funeral arrangements. She was prepared to organise it, saying her Methodist church would assist. But no one knew anything about the case or where the body was or when it would be released for burial. So she gave up.

We turned back to our affairs. Jeffrey had always been insubstantial, at the margins, a kind of blot on the village. At a social club supper, Larry Harper, a trade union official, professed guilt. No one cared or listened. Larry was new– he had only been in the village for a few years. He owned a fancy new house on Abalone Lane. We were the land-grabbers, he said.

“Jeffrey’s forebears were the Khoi,” Larry proclaimed. “Men of men, decimated by our smallpox, our bullets, our forefathers’ greed.”

Their land had been stolen. Now we sat pretty – while Jeffrey died in the reserve taken from his people.

At least, someone said, Jeffrey had his chance to circumvent his victimhood. He had been in the voter’s queue on the cliff-top in 1994, a new voter, making a cross on the ballot. Voting for what, I wondered? Who would redeem the ravaged collective past of the Jeffries of this world?

I still remember him well. A nuisance always, staggering, foul-mouthed along Marine Drive, lambasting Olive Oyl. Or on the rocks, with a hand-line, pulling in a fat Jan Bruin bream, and grinning slyly at the very spot where we would stand fishless all day. A casual gardening job heralded another drunken binge. Then the obeisances. Cupped hands and humble bows, himself dissolved in liquor along with his inhibitions. The village would be filled by his shouts, calling down imprecations on our heads.

Then I remembered the skull. Now that drunken, lashing tongue, eaten by ants and wild cats, was silenced for good.

And so, a few rand for a day’s trimming, cutting, weeding, mowing, scraping and raking. Then the booze-up and they would disappear into the bush for days. Boesman and his sick Lena.

That was when she left, and Jeffrey disappeared for eight months before he came back, briefly, as a skeleton in torn flannels and an old, tweed jacket.

………………………..

One day in November I heard the dogs barking and a coloured couple was at my door. Outside stood a black Mercedes.

“Basie Meyer? Your son, you say? No, sorry, Dr Meyer, I know no Basie Meyer.”

“Oh, the body that I helped find in the bush. Jeffrey he was called. Yes, we tried to organise a funeral for poor Jeffrey – but no go.”

Astonishingly, they wanted me to help them fight for their son, Basie. Confront the authorities and shame the police – in short show the world that people cared. But first, the mortuary release had to be signed by the Commissioner. There was to be a memorial service for their son and they asked if I would deliver the eulogy.  They had not seen their son for so many years. They had lost touch after the Group Areas Act removals. Their son would not go with them to the cold of Belfast. They had heard later of dagga and liquor and Korsten gangs and a spell in gaol and then, nothing.

Dr Meyer from whose loins Jeffrey had begun his long dissipated travail sat quietly on my couch, a tear or two falling from his wrinkled face. A grief incongruous with a mix of Irish brogue and flattened Korsten vowels. His wife screwed up a handkerchief in her hands. She said it was their fault. That they should have stayed with their child, not abandoned him to so many evil influences.

………………………..

The police had tracked down Basie’s wife, Betty, in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Patensie. They had been to see her and she had mentioned me. So Olive Oyl was really a wife, I thought.

I said I was sure there had been no murder – at least not of the usual sort – that Jeffrey, sorry Basie, had died of grief. That he had been inconsolable when his wife had to leave. That we all thought he had left to be with her. That I was sorry and that yes, I would help with the funeral. My daughter’s church would organise it. That it would not help to dwell on past mistakes.

FICTION: Amnesia

BY JO-ANN BEKKER

She loses the words she writes down. They travel from head to hand and fall from her fingers. She is a gardener sweeping up the words that mouths release, raking up the sentences collected on pages by lawyers and academics. She sweeps the words and sentences into a pile, then chooses just a few to display. Once they have been planted in print they leave her.

When she reads her words in the newspaper she cringes at their inadequacy. At all she could have written, but didn’t. Errors of grammar and style scream out at her. But if she returns to the reports a few weeks later, she thinks perhaps she did the best she could, considering the pressure of time, considering the restriction of word limits.

Decades later she finds her reports on a civil conflict, reads them as if for the first time.

We were in our yard when we saw the group coming. We went inside but they broke the windows and climbed inside. They stabbed me three times, on my back, then they threw stones at my wife. They chopped our hands with a bush knife.

Later that night our five-roomed house was burnt down. Our younger sons took the dogs but we don’t know what happened to our pigeons.

This is what we lost in the fire or have left behind:
A truckload of sand and 12 bags of cement to plaster the house
Furniture.
A fridge.
A hi-fi.
An orchard which produced oranges, naartjies, peaches, pears, loquats, grapes, lemons, apples and sugar cane.
A vegetable patch which yielded mealies, potatoes, sweet potatoes and pumpkins.

She remembers her week in that small city. She stayed in a hotel at one end of the street. The Supreme Court was at the other end.

The conflict was between an ethnic political party and the new civic front. The front claimed the ethnic party had the tacit or even active support of the state: their warlords were known to the police but remained free. The civic front brought interdict after interdict against the warlords. But no one was arrested. The warlords remained at large. The conflict raged on.

We had two rondavels and a seven-roomed house of concrete bricks. It was not yet completed. We were just about to put the roof on. The children ask about our three cows, 28 chickens and three dogs. More than anything the older ones want to go back to their school.

She has a vague memory of interviewing refugees in suburban servants’ quarters. Her report says she also interviewed a woman hiding in a church room:

My 70-year-old father was murdered. This happened after he brought an application against warlords who threatened him because my brother supported the civic front. My father’s murderers were the same men he named in his affidavit. They stabbed him to death. They stabbed me twice. The police have arrested no one.

She cannot recall the face of this woman.

She remembers driving out of town. The hills green and dotted with homesteads. Her report has a photograph of a warlord she interviewed. He denied calling for violence at a public meeting. He said members of the civic front had attacked leaders of his ethnic party first. But he added: The police were, however, able to protect us and we reached home safely.

She remembers spending days sifting through affidavits collected by religious groups and human rights lawyers. Her reports contain the names of the priests and attorneys she interviewed. She can’t recall their faces. She can’t remember writing the words she wrote.

She remembers what she didn’t write down.

Her first night in the city. She phones the older brother of a childhood friend. A tall measured man. They speak haltingly over dinner about their jobs and relationships. They sit side by side in a movie theatre while an actress boils her married lover’s pet rabbit in a pot. They part quickly afterwards.

Her last night in the city. Her hot humid hotel room. A ringing phone. A human rights lawyer saying come for supper. She has already eaten. A ringing phone. A lawyer listing the reasons why she should join him and another journalist and another lawyer. A restaurant in an old colonial building. The lawyers are hilarious.

FICTION: Smiley

BY KIMBERLY BETH WATSON

I used to visit her Facebook profile sometimes and shake my head because she’d become a statistic of small town living. You know, married at like 20. Spawned a couple kids. It was always kind of shocking, though. Like she was smart. Definitely smarter than me. She even did a semester at New Mexico State studying biology. But when I ran into her mom, Kathy (who “could have been gay”, my own mother told me), she said it had been “too far away from home”. Home, that illusive concept. Both of ours were somewhere in the litter of houses scattered on the borders of large forests, or along the winding interstate parallel to the Lamoille River. It might have even been picturesque as long as you passed through at 50 miles an hour. When it’s a blur you can’t see the addiction, the bi-weekly visits from child protective services, the well-meaning moms who chain-smoke with their minivan doors rolled up, passing out Capri-suns.

 

I remember an email she wrote to the Hotmail address my mother made for me in our early high school days when we were still kind of in touch. She was writing to say she had “done everything except for vaginal sex” with the older brother of our mutual friend Alicia. Her parents had found out and she was definitely going to get in trouble. The frustration of conservative parents trying to control a girl who has discovered herself was beyond the boundaries of my imagination.  She had been top of her class in bible study. She did that shit out of school, like, on her own free time, voluntarily. Yet she was always kind of wild, in that backwoods eclectic podunk way that lets you have god but also tie-dye everything and country music.

But yeah, that guy wasn’t the best dude. Once when the bus dropped me off he yelled, “Don’t you live with a bunch of fags?” and I went home and asked what “fags” was. In retrospect, his family had all kinds of their own problems. Alicia told me her step-dad used to, you know, to her and her little sister. She told her mom Helen but the woman stayed with him. I know he’s still on the sex offender registry because I’ve looked. I hear Helen drives the school bus now.

 

There were weird shows her parents wouldn’t let her watch, like CatDog on Nickelodeon. In retrospect I guess it is perverted that an animal has two heads and no ass. When I was 9 her 10-year-old brother asked me out while we were sitting on the couch but when I told her she was grossed out and I broke up with him 5 minutes later. In between her bible study wins and obscure trips, like the time she went to Australia, at least three boys in our school fell in love with her. I remember one of them was literally obsessed with her in the fourth grade. It was even cooler because he was in grade five. That was the year our teacher let us assign our own nicknames he promised to use all year.

“Smiley”, she said.

 

I guess wanting more for someone is kind of selfish. Like having the audacity to “see more” for someone demeans their personal life agenda of important and fulfilling things.

But on the other hand, your life does kind of end when you have a kid young in a small town and also lack higher education, right?

I mean, she works at the village pizza place now. Okay, it’s the co-op local organic Vermont version of pizza, but it’s still in a village.

She’s probably happier than I am. Actually, I can say that for sure. In an organic way, not like in the way that people crop and edit their pictures because she’s not on Facebook that often and doesn’t even care that she has a double chin in her profile picture because she’s just happily laughing with her son. Plus, she’s definitely learned all those things you presumably learn when you become a mother: the innate selflessness, the radiating beauty of creation, the self-sacrifice.

So I guess that’s happiness.

I always felt bad for mauling her with attention when she schlepped all the way to visit me in the city. I was 11 and lonely and didn’t know why my own uprooting happened. But also thank god it did.

Anyway babies are gross or barely tolerable.  We’re not friends on Facebook.

FICTION: Aunty Ose

BY ALUKA IGBOKWE

The memories of Aunty Ose remains, determined to overshadow the the playful recollections of my prepubescent years: war start with street boys, Okoso with neighbours which left our fingers smarting, hide and seek and hopscotch with willing girls.

Aunty Ose or Pepper Aunty. The moniker was not because she sold peppers at main market or because she shared a tender redness with danjarawa peppers. It was because she derived a deep personal happiness from hurting others. Some of us can remember such people: people who kidnapped footballs, who drove us away from play grounds, who reported us to our parents if we climbed guava and mango and orange trees. Aunty Ose was such a person.

Aunty Ose was a stout woman with a reddened skin lined with crooked green veins reaching out like roots – evidence of many years of toning with cheap bleach. She wasn’t married, but it was said that her husband drove her out because she was barren. I wondered what kind of man would marry a woman who wears a frown like a second face and appears to be perpetually smelling the air. Others said she was a witch. I did not know which to believe. I just wanted her to leave our street and let us play until our heads ached, until our throats were parched and our limbs bruised. But she would have none of that.

One day, I was playing football with Confusion, Rubber Boy and Jet Li. We constructed a makeshift field by walking six steps one foot in front of the other and then drove cassava stems into the soil to serve as goal posts. Jet Li and Rubber Boy against me and Confusion. We had been sent home for not paying school fees, so we played during school hours. We liked it each time we were sent home. In fact, most times, whenever Uncle Kalu sauntered into our classroom with that Book of Life of his that is as big as an encyclopedia holding the names of debtors and creditors on separate pages, we would leave before he mentioned our names, even if we had paid.

We like to give ourselves names. It makes us feel important. He was called Confusion because he had a quarter-past-four eye. He would be looking at you and you would think he is looking at another person. If he happened to be looking at another person, it would be like he was staring at you straight in the eyes. I think he enjoyed confusing us.

Rubber Boy was named for his previous life playing rubber bands. Green, red and yellow rubber bands circled his wrists like bracelets – trophies from games with street boys.

Jet Li, at the slightest provocation, would aggressively kick the air this way and that way like an atilogwu dancer, as if he were strong. I could beat him and I’ve beaten him before with all his fake kung-fu.

I do not want to share my name because I am ashamed and I do not want you to start laughing at me.

When Aunty Ose returned from where ever she went, we knew that trouble loomed. She refused our greetings, which was not unusual, but we didn’t care, so we continued playing. When she came out again, we knew she was coming to pierce our hearts with her assegai and beat our bodies into shape with her knobkerrie. She called Confusion over. Their lips moved and we couldn’t make out what they were saying. He returned and said she asked us to leave her house front, and that she wanted to sleep. I confirmed she was really a witch – who else would sleep at noon so as to be awake and fly in the night.

It’s not that we didn’t agree to leave. We planned on leaving, except that Rubber Boy committed a foul before she came out to tell us to leave, so we wanted to play it out before we moved elsewhere. Since Jet Li is the goalkeeper on their side and Confusion is the goalkeeper on my side and Rubber Boy committed the foul, I was the one to take it. I was glad I didn’t acquiesce to becoming the goalkeeper. I would have missed this golden opportunity to prove to Jet Li that I am a great footballer and not the ‘JB’ he always called me.

I bent over and positioned the ball at the spot the foul was committed. I scooped warm soil round the ball because it was always rolling over. Satisfied that the ball was firmly in place, I stepped back and locked eyes with Jet Li. Jet Li squatted into an imaginary chair, waiting for my kick. I looked back at Confusion to give me that go-ahead look but he gave me that be-fast look. I rolled my eyes and sucked my teeth.

I muttered a word of prayer and looked around at imaginary spectators. I saw them waving at me with permanent smiles on their faces. I drew my foot backwards and released it so the ball could curve outwards. The white ball stiff with trapped air was making a smooth journey, but instead of moving in the direction it had been shot, it took a sharp turn as if it had suddenly developed a mind of its own, as if something was playing sweet ogene for it. It was heading directly at Aunty Ose’s louvres, bent on shattering them.

It slammed into them and the louvres chased each other towards the ground. They covered the cement floor with uneven shards. For a moment, the wind paused and the trees quieted as if in solidarity. Silence enveloped us. We stood unflinching, unmoving, stoic. I think we were all thinking the same thing as we dashed off at once to hide behind the oil palm tree.

Stooped behind the oil palm tree like harried dogs, we feared for our lives. If Aunty Ose was really a witch, she would surely come in the night and drink our blood and eat our flesh and fly away with our skeletons. If she reported us to our parents as usual, it could be worse. It is like killing us and calling back our spirits and killing us again.

Aunty Ose rushed forward through her back door, her wax wrapper loosely wound around her chest, screaming, “Chim o, umuaka a egbugom o!” My God, these children have killed me!

“We should go and tell her sorry” Rubber Boy said, his voice light and feathery.

“Shhh. Do you want to die?” Confusion said, “Haven’t you heard she is a witch? Have you forgotten what she did to Yahoo Yahoo the last time?”

“What if she finds us?” I croaked, choking back tears.

“Shut up! She will find us if you continue this way. Let her find us and I will show her some skills” Jet Li said, wringing his hands like two entwined snakes.

I shot him fierce eyes and said “Onye ara, madman, you’re the one that’ll make the first run if she…”

“Will you two kom-kombilities just shut your stinking buccal cavities?” Confusion interjected harshly, his voice high. I do not like Confusion, he feels because he can speak big big English and because his father is a lecturer at the University College, he had somehow become a lord over us.

By this time, Aunty Ose had stopped wailing. She had reemerged from her house fully clad. She peered around, sniffing like a dog, as though certain we were hiding somewhere nearby. When her search proved futile she made for the exit. We did not need a soothsayer to tell us where she was going. Tonight, we are going to be killed and have our spirits called back again to be killed all over.

There is this myth that if as a child, you tie a knot at the tip of ashara tea before your assailant reached your home, your parents would forget everything they heard. Just like that, amnesia. Buoyed up by this myth, we searched frantically for the nearest ashara tea to make a knot. If we must escape the wrath of our parents and not have our buttocks tender and swollen as retribution from papa’s cowhide, we have to make a knot at the tip of ashara before Aunty Ose reached our homes.

We searched until we came upon a cluster of green lemon grass shaped like broken knife blades. We took our positions and faced our chosen stems. We each chose the greenest we could find. We called her name thrice: “Aunty Ose! Aunty Ose! Aunty Ose!” and tied our knots slowly so that the grass would not snap. That done, we were certain our parents would forget whatever Aunty Ose had come to tell them and come to receive us prodigal sons with arms spread apart whenever we returned.

FICTION: to the mexican i met in maputo

BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS

the wine is finished and our friends have gone to bed and now it is just us seventeen floors above maputo on a balcony it doesn’t matter what we’re talking about i’m just thinking about how i want us to kiss you mention your haircut and i brush the side of your head as if i’m critiquing it and this is somehow a sign we both narrow the gap between us and are kissing now and huddled against each other like we’re battling a storm together eyes closed the city is silent and black my eyes open and i ask you if you want to take me home and you say there’s a spare bedroom here so i say whatever suits and you say actually yes you would like to take me home you tell me you knew this would happen the moment you saw my veldskoene which are just like yours even though yours are from buenos aires and mine were made in ottery we plunge down to earth in the rattling lift and drive through the quiet streets and you ask if i have my passport in case the police stop us i do and they don’t and ten minutes later we are climbing staircases and you’re leading me through a dark lounge apologising for your messy bedroom i tell you not to worry inside you put the light on and we are on your bed kissing again softly and slowly the strip-duet till we are both naked and in each other’s mouths and i’m nuzzling your balls and neatly shaved pubes we jerk each other off i marvel at the sheer effort of this am i lazy perhaps yes you shove a finger in my ass the look of concentration as you do this is quite beautiful the dry force of the finger a little brutal and i am wondering what do you like do you want me to fuck you do you want me to finger you is what you’re doing to me a mirror of your own desires and are my own attempts at pleasuring you working shit we are dancers that know the sequence of the steps but not the rhythm the spit has helped and i am coming and you are sitting on my thighs gripping your dick asking if you can come i am surprised you felt you had to ask i say yes the spattering pearls my tummy mixing with my own cum i try to make sure it doesn’t rivulet down onto the sheets you get up and go to the bathroom you’re there forever but eventually you return with not enough toilet paper and i mop myself up now here is what seems so elusive and fading the slight tenderness did we kiss goodnight when the light went off there must’ve been please just a kiss on the lips i think you asked how i was and i grinned and said i was fine because i really was although i ached for a cuddle and now we’re in the dark and you are lying next to me and i want to hold you but i’m worried that’s invasive somehow i keep to my side of the bed sleep takes me finally i wake up occasionally and then about half past five i’m fully alert and can hear the voices and the cars from the street seeping through the curtain you are still asleep though later on you will wake up and turn over and return to sleep and this repeats itself as i lie next to you bored craving not more sex but a fucking cuddle at eight i kiss your shoulder and chest and you sleepily smile and we kiss each other on the lips good morning and you cat-stretch your way to standing and go to shower while i read emails on my phone on our way out of the apartment your french flatmate is sitting in the lounge i wave at him sheepishly i wonder if he’s used to this we stutter between txopelas and taxis and onto kenneth kaunda not saying quite enough to fill the emptiness between us you drop me off at the roundabout next to the hotel and extend your hand and i shake it and tell you to let me know if you want to do that dinner tonight and you tell me you’re probably working late with your boss who’s in town and when i’m outside striding through the glare i smile at this old cliché and i cringe at the handshake a fucking handshake eight hours after i had your penis in my mouth and i wonder between that moment and now where the hell i went wrong

FICTION: Funky House Won’t Save Your Life

BY LAILA LE GUEN

“Finally! I’ve been trying to reach you since eight! Are you OK?”

Joyce’s voice sounded strained on the other end of the line.

“I’m so sorry! I’m on my way. I wasn’t feeling too well this morning but I’ll be there within the next hour.”

Joyce would know what “not feeling too well” meant. She would understand. Though what if she didn’t?

Stop this train of thought. Now. Take a deep breath, don’t let the tears roll out. Deep breath in…and out, just like in the YouTube yoga videos.

 

After the call, Rebecca leaned against the wall in the entrance hall, her palms flat on the cold surface. She looked down at the pointed high heel shoes that were already pinching her toes and distractedly straightened up the pencil skirt she had selected to match with her purple headdress.

She closed her eyes to visualise the journey to All Saints Cathedral, a trick her therapist had suggested at their last session. Exit Ngumo estate, take Mbagathi Way, go straight on at the Kenyatta Hospital roundabout, drive all the way down Valley Road and take a right to enter the church’s parking lot.

Breathe in, breathe out.

It wasn’t working. She could feel her heart fluttering in her chest as she pictured horrible images of drive by shootings and falling trees and a chandelier crashing over Joyce’s radiant smile. Great, now she was shaking.

Time to go, shaking or no shaking. She picked up the pastry box from the kitchen counter and rearranged the pink ribbon that had been artfully wrapped around it; that was an image to hold on to. Traffic was dense but nothing unusual for lunchtime on a Saturday. She played an upbeat funky house mix in the car, the kind of music that usually lifted her spirits, but today the mist that was hanging over her head wouldn’t dissolve so easily. The cake was nestled in the passenger seat like an accusatory sign.

It was meant to be her home-baked, personalised wedding gift to Joyce and Patrick. The night before, she had carefully traced the initials J + P in chocolate sauce on top of the perfect vanilla frosting. When she was done, she had cocked her head with a smile of satisfaction. But right now, she had a sinking feeling that something was going to go wrong.

What if Joyce didn’t like the cake and suddenly decided that they couldn’t be friends anymore, that she didn’t need all this inexplicable drama Rebecca always brought into her life?  That would be such a disaster.

Keep your eyes on the road. Eyes on the road!

 

Her internal monologue didn’t let up until after the ceremony, when the emotion of seeing two of her best friends married submerged her. At least her teary eyes weren’t out of place here among the crowd of friends, relatives and colleagues assembled to celebrate the union.

 

The music was blasting in Joyce’s mum’s living room, the reception now in full swing after a heavy meal of lamb pilau and the obligatory series of tedious speeches. Joyce had insisted on having the reception at home in Kilimani, partly to save money, partly to craft an intimate gathering rather than a show of married bliss at some fancy resort.

Rebecca imagined floating in a sea of velvet. She danced furiously to extirpate the destructive thoughts out of her body.

The December holidays were around the corner, which meant facing long weeks of solitary lesson planning for the following semester. She tried to imagine what her students were doing but she had a hard time picturing what their homes looked like or where they might be going during the holidays. Joyce was going to be away in the Seychelles on her honeymoon and Nairobi would be at its quietest.

Everything faded at the end of the year, the litany of “It’s December” ringing in everybody’s ears as a shorthand for “Let’s get away and forget about work until next year”. She should get away too, forget about it all.

 

Over the eight years of their friendship, Rebecca had wondered many times about the nature of her feelings for Joyce. They had once taken a trip to Nakuru together, a “girls’ weekend out” as they called it, and in the spartan hotel room, Rebecca had flashes of what their lives would be like if they were to move in together. As Joyce was tying her headscarf for the night, Rebecca had wanted to stroke her cheek, place her hand in the small of her back and pull her into an embrace. Instead, she made a lame joke about the receptionist’s thick accent.

 

She caught Patrick’s eye at the drinks table. She could see that he was feeling hyper, high on life and a little booze. Joyce was chatting with a group of her mum’s friends, flailing her arms in the air in a familiar gesture of excitement. Maybe she was telling them about their honeymoon plans.

The emotions were threatening to bubble to the surface again so Rebecca went to the bathroom and sat on the toilet seat, staring at her Twitter feed without taking anything in. When she looked up, she saw the nail scissors by the sink. Tuft by tuft, she started cutting her hair in front of the mirror, and it fell down in little bundles on the bathroom floor until half of her head was free.

In a few hours, the house would be silent, emptied of its guests, with the paper plates in the bin and the leftover wine in the fridge the only signs of their passage. And she, Rebecca, would be on her way to a new life.