CW: Minor self harm
The night sky blares white. Skirts flap and rise. The couples groping in the tall corn ignore the pre-storm warnings.
My friends disappear into the beer-soaked swamp of high school kids in a farmer’s field. A brown-eyed boy offers me shebeen whiskey. We lie back in the spiky grass.
The field is thick with ticks, but that’s not the danger of Johannesburg. The danger of Johannesburg vibrates through the growing crowd. Boys die young in this country. Drunk driving. Suicide. Fights. Detained in prison without cause, where they die without reason. In the townships–– the terror of necklacing.
The brown-eyed boy wants to touch me and I want to bring him joy.
I’ve been raised to be polite. To go along with things. When I was little, Dad told me my ancestor was beheaded for betraying his king. I clutched my neck. Became a people-pleaser.
We’re too drunk to make-out, so we talk about his rottweiler, Laika, who is dying. How she’s his best friend. As he describes her dusk eyes, he traces my collarbone with a weed he plucked from the field.
When the sky unleashes, we race past slippery bodies and cram into a Chevy. Somebody’s older sister drives us towards another party, giggling on the dark, curving country roads, until she squeals to a hard brake behind a stopped station wagon.
A moan rides the air. Shattered red glass blooms on the dirt road. A sangoma’s legs, half-covered by orange robes, stick through the station wagon’s front window, his head and torso inside the car.
Don’t look, the teenage driver of the station wagon says, crying. The guy was in the road, collecting plants maybe. I didn’t see him.
The older sister with the Chevy drives me and my brown-eyed boy to a farmhouse with a steel green roof. An Afrikaans lady opens the door and pulls us into a kitchen simmering with the scent of cinnamon and wet dogs. Offers us sugared-fruit and points the boy to the phone. He calls 999.
What colour is the patient who was run over?
Why do you need to know that? I’m not telling.
We have to know which hospital to send him to.
What will you do if he’s not white?
We’ll send an ambulance either way, but not until you tell me.
OK, he’s a black guy. A sangoma. Please hurry.
Ja, OK. Got it.
When I get home at dawn, I climb into the dry bathtub. With my Mom’s tweezers, I tug gently on a hair growing from my calf, without pulling it out. I dig into the flesh around it; scrape out a small hole until it’s pulpy and pink. Slowly pulling the single strand of hair out through inflamed skin floods my body with sweetness. I do the same with another hair. Dark dots are left in their wake. I shiver, washing my treasonous DNA down the event horizon of the bath drain.
Fourteen years later in Canada, after clutching my stomach on my way to work, I will learn I have a dermoid cyst. The doctor will tell me– as if it’s a fun fact– that if this cyst were in my brain, it would be called a tumour. Mine sits on my ovaries. The cyst will be removed. Hair and teeth scraped out of my pelvis and thrown away. After the operation, the doctor will hold the cyst’s contents to me in a tiny glass jar as if impressed by how much hair she pulled from my body.
Towards the end of my father’s life, when he has forgotten his own address and calls me by his sister’s name, he teaches me how to weed. To dig all around the root and make sure nothing is left; not even a tendril. To carry a small bucket for the weeds so they don’t reroot in the coming rain.
Lisa Alletson grew up in South Africa and the UK, and now lives in Toronto. Her writing is forthcoming or published in New Ohio Review, Anti-Heroin Chic, The Lumiere Review, Trouvaille Review, among others. She writes on Twitter @LotusTongue.