The Gift – Pearl Matsebula

Almost everyone I came across looked or smelled like an object. One season my eldest sister smelled like mangoes. She gave me a blank stare. Who would use mango flavoured perfume? Her reactions stated and validated my insanity. The family thought it funny and never gave it much thought. Three months later I got a harsh rebuke from Ma for not realising when a joke had run its course. With every passing month the smell got intense. This woman smelled like a fresh ripe mango! And I felt like celebrating every time I was around her. Twelve months later she got married, after six long years of singlehood. The smell stopped on her wedding day.

Not forgetting the guy who lived opposite my house that was covered with what looked like burn scars, so severe they gripped my guts. There was nothing strange about him except the burn scars no one else could see except me. Where is he burned? How can you see the wounds under all that clothing? He looks pain free. Those are the responses I got from people. Soon we learnt he was from prison for killing one of his mates during a fight, and had tried committing suicide several times. I felt an embrace from fear. Not over the things I saw but being the only one who saw them. I eventually stopped telling people, especially my family. “Uyabona, yabo iTV yenzani?” – See what television does? That was the usual response. Except for my uncle. His eyes were like spades forcefully digging to discover what lay behind them. I think he’s the only one who could also see the things I saw. Like the time he touched my shoulder to stop me from touching the little bright creatures his three month old daughter kept flapping her hands to while everyone went about their business, chatting and enjoying their meals. His stare assured me he saw what was happening. I never missed a family gathering after that, just to see him. For some strange reason I always felt he was avoiding me. A few months later we attended his funeral.

I continued seeing things throughout primary school, some gave me sleepless nights and I never understood the meaning behind most of them. I thought them to be literal day dreams, it eased my fear. They occurred less through high school, and eventually stopped. Then I stumbled on Billie.

I wipe the Fixer, Hypo and water stains on the sink. Take one good look at the line of pegged pictures hanging on a string and shut the darkroom. I carefully place Billie in the safe, lock the room and amble the lonely passages, scribbling on my notepad for today’s signature. Perhaps a twist to the T of my surname, Thwala. I could create a new font! I throw the exciting thought in my Idea Lists of graphics, lyrics, beats, dance moves… He hands me the register. Carefully I d-rrr-aaaaaaa-w a line, t-w-iiiiiiiiiiiii-s-t the end, but selfish Mr Security Guard grabs the register right before I crack the font. It’s become our game which he always wins, and all I manage is a skew T. Tomorrow is still another day! I clock out.

Hooting cars, flashing robots, vendors pulling carts with heavy goods, beggars laying their bedding on the pavements and doors locked with huge locks alert me to prepare armour: I pull my hoodie over my head, plant every valuable in the inside pockets, cling tightly to my sling bag and maintain a relaxed demeanour.

I’ve walked these busy streets for three years. The myriad of people and dirt is what struck me at first. Communities of hobos, restaurants inches away from leaking drains, abandoned buildings, rags hanging on broken windows, people shouting, laughter, dodgy transactions on street corners, pushing and shoving in passages… It has all became a norm. Even the body has unconsciously learned to adjust its senses from the peculiar smells and atmosphere of every corner. But today feels different.

The dirt is beyond what meets eye and nose. I stop and look back. I find myself in awe when I see an opening in the sky. I blink. Another opening appears. The one above me looks wider. I rub my eyes but the holes are still there. I look around and it seems I’m the only one seeing what’s happening. Flashback, eight years later it’s happening again. While trying to understand what might have triggered it and trying to make it stop, I hear an orchestra of broken instruments. The sounds send vibrations through my body worse than those produced by Tibetan Bowls. They pierce every part of me, it feels like torture.  I hold my stomach but I can’t feel my flesh. I don’t have a body but all my senses are functioning.  A dark smoky creature with moles and yellow eyes appears from the opening, looks around and flies straight through the guy a few steps from me. He begins to nimble, puts on his hat and takes it off again. The creature returns to the opening. The sky is flooded by other strange flying creatures of different shapes and sizes. They each locate a person and do some strange activity to them, smearing strange liquids, whispering things… Like the lady who keeps calling women so she could do their hair. Her nails look like steel, long and curled at the tips. Two creatures are filing them and pouring slimy green liquid in them. Her nails release a drop of the liquid every time she touches someone’s hair.

The buildings and the streets are covered in splashes of thick brownish blood that looks like its boiling and spreading like roots. I feel paralyzed. All I can move are my eyes. The creature that went through the guy with the hat goes through him again, with seven other creatures this time around. He looks ready to attack someone. The people are going about their business, almost all of them have one or more of the creatures doing something to them or things in their bags, grocery bags, pockets, shoes, jewellery…  And the baby who’s wailing, the creatures are pulling and pinching the baby’s toes. I want to close my ears, shut my eyes and run but I can’t. I try to scream but nothing comes out. The number of openings multiplies. The sky is clothed with vicious, fierce eyed contorted bodied creatures.

Growing up I was told of cannibals, tokoloshes and of Pinky-Pinky ,the ghost said to live in the girls toilets. I’d never seen them but I was terrified. But these creatures… The broken orchestra gets louder, the creatures are looking more diabolic. Every passing moment seems to reap my absent body apart. My eyes land on a different opening. They suddenly shut, all of them.

The sky is blue again. I can feel my body. I’m back. I’m real. I touch my face, hair, stomach… I look around, the hat guy is scratching his head, looking confused. The hair lady is still calling ladies for a hair do, her nails look normal. The mother of the crying baby tries to breastfeed him, gives him chips, juice, but he won’t stop crying. I lean on a wall and try to understand what just happened. I touch my throat and greet five strangers just to be sure I’m real and that I still have a voice, two of them respond surprised and the others are not trying to lose their possessions by talking to a stranger. I search my pockets for some change and buy an orange, I need assurance that everything in my body functions, so much that I’m even eating the peels. I walk the road to the taxi rank and I sense what some people are struggling with. Headache, pregnancy, burdened, happy, lost… I don’t want this. I don’t’ want to know all this!

The knowledge is like an invasion to my perfect life. I don’t want to know about people’s secrets. A secret is a burden to be broken in half and handed over to a particular person hoping they don’t break it in half and hand it over to another particular person.

Billie! Billie can keep secrets. He’s the only one capable of understanding my secrets, and makes it even better by sharing his with me. But can I tell him this one, will he able to understand?

Then, fair skin, “long” hair, olive green dress, there is no eye that misses her. Every tongue utters words of admiration, eyes gorged with envy. But I quickly cover my nose as she passes and wonder where the smell comes from. Like the creature that kept going through the hat guy, these ones, two, look like they are guarding her but they keep smashing themselves on her. Every time they do, a green smoky bad odour is released that momentarily deludes the people. I follow her. It seems nobody can smell the odour. I need to see where she’s going, maybe she’ll lead me to the place where these things live. I stop walking. The openings are back, with different ones this time around. Like the one I saw right before the sky turned blue again. The creatures in them look different, like shining birds or little winged creatures. Carrying different coloured boxes and placing them around the stomach areas of people. Others are rubbing clear shiny liquid on different parts of the people’s bodies. Some of the people smile, others don’t react, some of their breath look like white shiny dust, there’s also what looks like a string of beautifully decorated alphabets coming out from some of the people’s bellies floating towards the openings.

The sky is looking like a warehouse with winged creatures taking things in and out of the openings. But there seems to be a battle of some sort going on as well. Some of the vicious creatures grab the little boxes from the winged creatures and try to pollute or destroy the boxes.

The sky closes again. I’m not freaked out like the last time but I feel quiet. Like there’s nothing inside me. Serene. Yes, I think serene is the word.

I’m at the taxi rank. I don’t quite remember how I got here. Everything seems different but still the same, like if I’ve just been relieved from something, yet given another to deal with. Am I ready though? Billie crosses my mind. I’ve got to share this with him.

Photo: Botswele Mogotlane

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