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The River of Night

The river of night settles in my thighs waiting for your tongue. It knows your patterns, your timings, knows the hour is always seeking you.

You cum at the witching hour—always, a booty call is my body to collect the spam of your illicit desire to be with someone. Your satisfaction is always the end credits. Hush. The buzz of a cigarette, a mosquito, a fly, technology humming in our veins—an eye in our room. I sit huddled, knees tight to my breasts. Today, the air doesn’t know I’m human. You tell me I’m only good for your exhales. I’m your lit joint, you’ve licked me, sealed me good so I don’t flee.

“Did I get you high, baby?” I ask.

“Not high enough,” you say. “Again,” you instruct me. You flick the lighter, and burn me into your firework. Tonight, every night, I’m your zol, I’m your jol.

I’m the drug you hide from your wife.

“Leloba,” Matshwênyêgô says, and I hate the way she tosses my name across our open-plan office desks. “Aren’t you sick of this dead-end job? I mean, sure, you’re an editor, but shit sure doesn’t feel like it sitting here. No windows, just a bloody jail cell. Plus”—she taps her manicured index finger counting one of the many reasons why I shouldn’t be here— “no one treats you like you hold a senior role. Look, everyone here thinks you’re small, that you’re inconsequential. They know that you’re not made for this job. What if you get fired? How will you pay the rent? Where will you live?”

It’s all my fears tumbling out of her mouth. I didn’t study journalism or creative writing, instead I’m self-taught, and the imposter syndrome is a daily claustrophobic suit I’m unable to take off—it’s my skin.

“I still don’t get why you’re punishing yourself,” Kakanyô says, spinning in her swivel chair. “Go back to architecture, fam.”

I shrink into my seat. The twins know me more than I know myself.

It’s creepy the way they emit my thoughts. But they’re right. I let people walk all over me; my body is a basic welcome mat for assholes. I committed the foulest career change: five years after studying architecture plus eight month’s stint of dabbling through architectural firms, I quit my profession as an architect-in-training to being a sort-of architectural journalist-cum-proofreader-editor. Everyone thinks architects makes millions on their first job. My job paid me peanuts: I worked weekdays and weekends raw into the night. I was on the hem of death, sewing my nerves with alcohol. To save myself, I had to quit. I am now living the consequences of it: a failure.

“Right now, you’d be a registered architect with your own firm making millions,” Matshwênyêgô whispers. “Words don’t make money, designing buildings does. You’d be like a fucking STEM woman, a lot of opportunities out there for you, ja.”

“Not just that. You’re a Motswana woman. There are a lot of cards you can play. Black. African. Poverty. Female,” Kakanyô adds as she leans on her desk ignoring her article and its impending deadline.

“That really doesn’t sound genuine,” I say.

“Well is being genuine paying your bills?” She raises her finger to shut me up. “Barely. You can’t just survive life, you need to live life.”

“Success takes time,” I say.

Matshwênyêgô scoffs. “Ja. Sorry, but I don’t want to start living life when I’m a septuagenarian. Then what’s the point of living?”

“You wasted such a good opportunity; you wasted your life,” Kakanyô adds in agreement. I wish they’d keep their voices low. I don’t need everyone knowing I’m a failure.

Fortunately, a notification beeps of an incoming article I need to edit. I drown out their conversation. We continue punching out stories, interviewing sources, editing and working painlessly at some forgettable media organization.

Kakanyô is my colleague-slash-roommate who has a streak of negativity, so is Matshwênyêgô who’s an overly perfectionist. She analyses every scenario or domestic hygiene. If she’s not worrying about the state of the kitchen, she’s worrying about my future, whereas Kakanyô picks at everything about me, from my abilities, to my dreams, to my choice of boyfriends. But living with them makes life less lonely. Every single day they wake before I wake and press a warm cloth to rub the sweat of nightmares from my forehead.

We’ve been Siamese—not literally but in the sense that we’re stuck in the same job, the same house, same age, like orbiting planets in the same womb circulating an identical lifestyle.

I find it so hard to differentiate them. Sometimes they disappear on the weekends. I never see them leave, I just wake up and they’re gone. They return days later and I wonder how they’re able to go over their leave days. I don’t want to fuss over how they lead their lives, they’re grown-ups. They’ve no family ties, no standing status and are okay with it. I wish I could be as confident as them.

“The landlord is on my back,” I say out on the office’s balcony, the only respite from the “jail cell” for fresh air, daylight and quiet. I take a bite of my chicken sandwich, and in between chewing, I add, “You two need to put in your half of the rent.”

“You’re our half of the rent,” they say, breaking into giggles. The joke’s lost on me. They always have these inside jokes, making my isolation more prominent. The combination of our salaries was meant for one person—not three. Each time, during my appraisals at work when I bring up the idea of a raise, my manager hushes me with “The company is currently undergoing financial difficulties. Once we overcome the adversity, we will look over your contract.” It’s been three years and no dice. So sharing the one-bedroomed servant’s quarter’s rent was the most economical way to go.

I don’t look forward to home though: the nocturnal twin-sisters and I sleep in the same room, but sometimes the proximity is too close: it feels as if they sleep in my body, in my mind. I. Just. Can’t. Breathe.

 The evening traffic is slow. I stumble into my home and throw my clothes off. I can breathe now. I can exhale the ennui of work from my bones. I can bloom today. I can—my cellphone flickers a neon light, clingy, calling me back. I unlock it. A notification. A childhood friend across borderlines many rungs above the corporate ladder with towers of beauty and charm. How beautiful she looks. How glowing her brown skin is. She’s engaged. A romantic getaway in the Maldives. This is who I’m supposed to be. The light from my phone gobbles my face whole. My life is blatant today. It reeks in this small servant’s quarter, in the old walls, the leaking tap, the broken skin.

I am nothing.

Five years as an employee, a sheep. What have I been doing with my years? Where did I stack them? A knock. The landlord. I’m consuming too much electricity. The rent has gone up. I only have one income. Where the fuck is the rest supposed to come from? The room is too cold. There is no ceiling, only the bones of the exposed rafters. There is no one home to kiss me to ask me how my day was to tell me I’m beautiful. I can’t see myself anymore. I can’t feel my skin. Where are my lungs? The dark has taken my eyes. Again. Oh, no. It’s happening. Again. If I hold my breath, this will subside and I will be fine. I will see myself again. I will catch my sight. In my home, even I am invisible. Each second shaves me into invisibility, each thought dilutes me with the acid of its torment of its fervent belief that I do not mean to exist.

I have my own pet, Keletsô, but the twins have an insidious pet, Manyaapelo, they keep locked up in the wardrobe or under the bed. People who visit our city are confused at this breed of evil some of us talk about. I always wonder if it is jubilance or horror that will meet me. Manyaapelo always waits for me at home, waits for the shuffling of my shoes across the welcome mat, the key turning in its hole. Once I close the door, this creature, Manyaapelo, leaps onto my back. Sometimes it lives in the body, hanging on the spinal cord of your last hope. But those who don’t experience it love to discredit it, as if it doesn’t exist.

“But how is it born?” a colleague once asked. “How does this creature look like?”

“It shapeshifts from moody to ecstatic joy,” I say. “It has many mouths. It has many voices so you can’t focus. It makes you feel like you’re drowning in your own body. It comes unexpectedly. We’ve tried to burn it with muti. Nothing vanquishes it. Sangoma hands can’t bury it. Its terror lives as long as its owner.”

They shake their heads and laugh like we’re crazy.

Kakanyô steps out from our bathroom watching me envy my childhood friend’s fortune.

“Your years are passing you by,” Kakanyô says. “Your age mates are married. You’re letting your degree collect dust. Just what are you doing with your life?”

I sigh. “I was working Monday to Sunday. I wasn’t sleeping. I was stressed. I was going insane. I didn’t know what happiness meant anymore—”

“Is this what happy means?” she asks, circling my bachelor pad. “Living in this dump. Living paycheck to paycheck starving—starving for what? Wake up, man. You’ve no savings. What you going to do next year? What you gonna do if you lose your job? Like, is this this your life?”

“Cut me some slack,” I shout.

“A devil could put better use to your body.”

“This is not working out. I’m going to look for a place and move out.”

She laughs. “Good luck getting rid of me, babes. Easier to get rid of your skin than me.”

The many mouths of Manyaapelo reiterate her: You are useless. You will lose your job. They will find you’re an impostor. You don’t deserve your job. You don’t deserve to live. The words, the syllables are so meshed into each other I can’t single out individual statements; my heartbeat senses the language of terror and dwells into the sludge of negativity.

Kakanyô pulls Manyaapelo by the leash from my wardrobe. I could ask her why she’s doing this to me, but it could either be her or me, and she’s choosing herself. Standing on the tall feet of anger, of shock, of this miserable life, Manyaapelo seeks to possess me. My knees buckle. The creature spins me around, working a web around my form with its teeth. It drags me into bed, heaving and panting. Its tooth is strung into my neck; the blood in me, the life in me is siphoned hour upon hour.

When daylight returns, I wake up. It is morning. The creature’s web is gone. I stand on shaky limbs and sprinkle sweat all the way to the bathroom. Cramps crawl up and down my legs. My period must have started. My pupils are still alive. I hate going to work on my periods; the first three days consist of a tsunami of pain down my thighs. Pain medication helps barely. My mind is always hazy, scuttling unsteadily all over the place, making my hands jittery. Appearing stable and normal is an exhaustive task. But I have to get ready for work and rely on changing every hour.

The mirror shows me the caves and convex planes of my face. The creature left no flesh behind. Dark prints stand beneath my eyes, turning them bloodshot. I just have to eat and I will be fine. My hands tremble as I splash my face with cold water. Eight hours of work ahead of me. I haven’t even started the first hour and I am a zombie lugging the corpse of me around. How am I going to trek through the apocalyptic eight hours of this job I hate? How will I maneuver the misogynistic jokes that light fire to my body?

Matshwênyêgô’s reflection appears in the mirror. “Leloba, if you don’t go to work, you’ll get a bad report, a warning. You’ll lose your job. You have no money, no savings. Nothing to live on.”

“You could ask to work from home today because you’re unwell,” my pet says, stretching its back against the wall.

“Haven’t you seen how the other editors stare at me when I request something?” I say. “I don’t want to be any more difficult. They’ll replace me with a less difficult person. And I need this job.”

It purrs. “Well, if you fed me, gave me—”

“Don’t start. Not today.” And I shut the bathroom door on my pet.

Today at work, the male editor is jostling around with his ego. He’s eagle-eyed and scanning the office wanting to pin someone and watch them scuttle under the burning gaze of his jaunts. I tend to ignore him, so I’m not his favorite victim. This morning, as usual, his target is Tshiamo, a twenty-year-old intern, who’s been here for three months’ plus. She places his morning coffee, phaphatha and gizzards by his laptop as he remarks something about her outfit. She stirs uncomfortably. She’s not on payroll. It shows in the fading quality of her clothes. A work-for-free exposure and experience, they say.

I check my phone to set an alarm that will notify me in an hour to change before I stain myself. It’s happened before; being under the onslaught of articles to edit, time just flows by and suddenly your pants are stained and everyone stares at you like a freak, an alien, when you’re really just a person who’s a woman. I’m wearing thick underwear, a pad and a tampon, the former two serving as back-up plans, and I hate it because it makes me feel like a baby wearing a nappy; I’m overdosing on pain medication which tends to blur my eyesight. So much armor all for the purpose to survive the day.

“I’m still waiting for your article,” the male editor says, leaning onto his elbows.

“Eish, sir, I have an issue,” Tshiamo says. “My source invited me to his place. At night. I told him I couldn’t; now he’s dodging my questions.”

“He plays an important role in your article. Why didn’t you go to his place then?” he says, a laugh tickling his lips. “Sometimes you have to do everything and anything to appease your source. You women have it easy. If I had your body”—he catches me staring—“if I was a woman, hell, I’d get away with anything.”

I hate his crude jokes. It’s his conversation filler that blitzkrieg the dignity of any woman.

“All fun and games, I suppose,” Kakanyô says. “It’s just a joke. Take it easy.”

“Find an alternative source,” I say, “and please send me your article soon.”

Sighing in relief, Tshiamo hurries out to her cubicle. The editor, displeased with my interruption, mumbles something. The editor and I both have senior roles except we’re separated by two decades or so of years. I’m a young woman, so all these factors plus me “cockblocking” his attack is covered silently under his vibrating ego, a landmine awaiting any unaware footsteps. He continues staring at me, but I do not buckle. In this office place, you must always be on your guard.

Besides writing articles, I proofread articles for the other newspaper and radio. Now some of these newsreaders-cum-journalists can’t string some sentences together and don’t know the language of writing enough to play with style as they’re used to working with speech in radio content. It was the only way for the media organization to keep costs down: turning newsreaders into journalists. But they fuck with typos and grammar. I want to throw the articles out. They need to be re-written. But my job is to proofread ASAP and send the stories to the graphic designers. There’s no time to rewrite their articles, and I’m not getting paid enough to be motivated to do so. So every deadline day consists of myself and the male editor calling in the journalists to question them about what they’re trying to convey to ensure that, as we’re editing, we aren’t misconstruing their intended points to the reader. So that involves educating the journalists on content writing and how to approach sensitive material. As usual for demonstrations, the other editor enjoys using me as tinder for his fire.

This morning, the crime journalist stands by the editor listening to the developmental edits of his story, which is missing some significant content.

“Imagine if Leloba is raped,” the editor says jovially. I freeze, caught off-guard by the casual approach of this subject.

“Imagine if Leloba is raped,” the editor repeats, a smile creeping at the edges of his lips like a snake.

I am paralyzed. I am Leloba and right now they are imagining this terrifying thing happening to me.

The editor continues his visual elaboration, “Imagine she is assaulted. Imagine her clothes are being torn . . . ”

The testosterone in this room is chloroform placed to my lungs. My voice is muzzled. It takes a span for my mind to wrap itself around this. This is happening. I am literally in a small room where two men are imagining me getting raped, imagining me naked, casually having a conversation about it. There are other ways to illustrate his teachings. Just not this. I look down and all my clothes are gone. I am naked. I yank my laptop bag, conceal myself as I run to the toilet and beg the cleaners to buy me clothes from the shops on the lower ground floor. As I wait, I wash my skin in shame. I run my nails against my neck.

“You just don’t joke about shit like this,” I shout to myself, starring at my reflection in the mirror replicating into three people. I blink to ease the blurriness of my eyesight..

“If they’re so casual about it, then there’s nothing wrong,” Kakanyô says, touching my shoulder. “This is the norm, you have to keep reminding yourself of that, instead of becoming overly emotional about it. Your voice doesn’t matter in this place—only your labor matters.”

That’s what words are in this place: they are not just empty things floating listlessly around; words have arms and weapons to do as they please. People who migrate to our city don’t understand the concept that words turns into objects, they turn into thieves, they perform the purpose of its statement. It’s a highly acceptable patriarchal part in our society, and everyone moves around with no opposition against them, so I have too as well.

Words have power. And that day, the editor’s words undressed me. His words abused my thighs.

I’m trying to move on, but trauma sits on my back making it difficult to walk. When I get home, my pet welcomes me with a wagging tail and a hungry stomach. I got my pet shortly before I started first year in university. I lived with it in my dorm room as I worked on coursework and shortly working on it. Every time I walked in, it’d wag its tell looking brand new and fresh. Now it’s looking old and frayed, with a little sparkle in its eyes. During a span of overwork and exhaustion, it caught rabies and faced a near-death experience when I started my first job and spent nights and weekends at the office.

In the kitchen is a small roundtable where unpack the groceries I bought.

“What’s that on your back?” my pet asks.

“Nothing,” I say.

“You can’t keep letting them get away with this.” My pet hops onto the counter. “You know if you feed me once in a while, I could grow into something. We could get out of this crappy place.” It wags its tail in the direction of the ceiling-less kitchen. “You could live in a place with a garden, a view—the interior with good aesthetics. If you fed me, you wouldn’t have to worry about the rent being too high, about waking up and forcing yourself to shit to get to a job only to kiss ass to earn a living. You could have dignity, you could travel, work on your own schedule, get yourself something pretty. And laugh once in a while.”

I stroke its fur. “But how long would I have to feed you for?”

It tilts its head as if shrugging. “Days, months, years. I don’t know. I’m no fortune teller. I’m just here because there’s something in you—a talent, an idea—that you want to get out. And the world needs that.”

“I’m inconsequential in this universe of ours.”

“Just feed me. You got me this far, didn’t you?” It purrs. “I know it doesn’t matter to people like you who have a law that protects their lives. People give birth to us, their passion. But then they forget about us, which aborts us. I’m dying here. If you take care of me, I can take care of you.”

I dish food into its bowl. “Here you go then.”

“What is this,” it asks, sniffing its bowl.

“Tinned cat food,” I say.

“This looks like someone’s vomit.” It pushes the bowl away with its paw. I try to avoid eye contact, so it leaps onto the counter with a glint in its eye. “You know what I consume.”

“I don’t have time, I’m tired.”

“Take a nap then. It’s only 7PM.”

“I have a long day tomorrow.”

“Excuses, excuses. You’re slaving away at a job you hate, yet you can’t slave away for yourself.”

“You can’t keep nagging me every time I come home.”

“I’m starving. I. Am. Starving.” It licks its paw. “Please.” I lean against the counter, and crumble into tears. “Now, now,” it says in a soothing voice, patting my shoulder with its paw.

A week later, periods have stopped, and things feel slightly lighter. It’s no surprise you call to meet me for I am finally useful to you when I’m no longer “leaking from your vagina,” you once said jokingly as if that lightened the blow.

“You are a slum,” Kakanyô says when you pick me up at the office. You wait outside like a delivery man come to collect a package. You check the sparkle of your watch and can’t hear the whisper of my hello.

You are a slum.

(she repeats when I enter your car)

You are a slum.

(she continues when I wrap your seatbelt around me)

You’re a place stray things can’t even call home.

In times like this, the signal to my pet connects, and its message transfers to my mind: “There are people who walk into your body with promises. There are people who see the value in you, who scrape inside you, trying to break you, trying to steep themselves in pleasure and in power. They empty you to fill themselves. Why do you let this happen?”

You. Are. A. Slum.

I shut my eyes to cancel the noise in my head.

“I can’t stay for long,” you say, breaking my attention from Kakanyô’s words.

I nod. Your wife can’t know of the drug you smoke away from the house, the drug that sleeps in my vagina.

You drive through roads to somewhere isolated from humanity. I am your vagina-on-call. I lay back, thighs around you, feet pressed to the ceiling of your car and wait for the end. I do this to murder my loneliness, only I’m more lonelier than ever. I’m fucked in the bundus, in hidden-away spots in the village areas. At first, it’s different, adventurous, and spontaneous. “You’re not like other girls,” you say, admiring me. Then I realize how cheap it is, how cheap I am, like ordering a fuck like take-away from a street vendor.

I’m a take-away fuck.

This is what I do to murder my lonely, but I murder myself.

Maybe if I were like those beautiful girls like my other friend Dikeledi, I’d ask you to start paying me, buying me things, paying my rent. But it’s not me as much as it’s who they are. We go again. As usual, you come at the witching hour, it jilts me, the moon slashes its eye in half, it spills on my thighs, a luminous light, and you rest back, panting, uncaring of my pleasure. What about me?  I think. Every week I see and I know this is all I will ever have.

You take me home.

Insomnia wraps around my feeble body. I wake up in the middle of the night paralyzed. The creature, Manyaapelo, growls into my ear, You are nothing.

Outside my window, the night sky is covered in my scars instead of stars.

In the morning, there is a piece of sky and foliage out my window. The birds sing, sometimes I’m deaf from stress to hear them. Today I hear them and prey for hope. I sit in the bathtub and wash the nightmare clung to my skin. It’s Saturday. A break from work. You’re back again, nerves unwired, wishing for a quick high. I wish I could say many things, like, stop pumping false love into my womb if you mean to destroy it. If you mean to use it to let it cuddle

your desire

your swag

your masculinity

I wasn’t taught what love is.

They say anger is made of your body. You’re lean, broad-shouldered. You have a lisp, a buzz-cut. You ask me if lunch is ready. I stare at my pet, Keletsô, sitting hunched back against the wall, whinnying.

“I need to feed my pet,” I say.

“Who’s your pet?” you ask.

“My Dreams is my pet,” I whisper.

As you get up you slap my butt and I think, no, this is not love. “You look hot, babygirl,” you say. “You just need to put on some fat. You’re so skinny.”

Kakanyô catches me in the kitchen, shaking her head. “There’s a reason why they all cheated on you. Now you’re dating married men.” Then: “You’re a slum.”

“I need to feed my pet,” I wearily add.

“Feed the man in your bed,” Matshwênyêgô says. “There’s no point to that pet of yours. You’re wasting your time with it. Just kill it. Kill the damn animal.”

When I return to bed, you are gone. You’ve done your job. I’m alone.

I need to burn muse on the fire, feed it to Keletsô. But I’m too hungry. My starving pet enters the bedroom. “Matshwênyêgô and Kakanyô are wrong, you know. You deserve better. You don’t need someone to feel less lonely. You mean something.”

“But why won’t anyone love me?” I ask.

“Because you won’t love yourself.” My pet and its brutal honesty. “They treat you how you treat yourself because they know you’ll still be there for them. No matter how cruel they get, they know you’ll still stick around because you’ve lowered your self-esteem for them. You fear being lonely, yet the thing you fear is the thing you feel with them: lonely. So what difference does it make if you leave? Because one, they ignore your messages, your calls, your needs. So it’ll still be the same if you walk away from them except this time you’ll be choosing yourself. Being single is not the end of the world. You can’t continue to be this person, kill this person you’re becoming to save yourself. Be a snake and shed that skin, sis.”

I sigh and pick it up, wondering where do I start.

“What do you want to do?” it asks.

I stroke its fur, so fluffy, so full of yarn, so soft. “I want to start a business.”

“What kind of business?” my pet asks.

I mutter incomprehensible words.

“Remember,” it says with teary eyes, “if you kill me, you kill yourself. You won’t let me die, right?”

I swallow. “I’m just a bit tired today. How about I feed you tomorrow? I promise.”

My pet slips from my grip, grunting. “I wasn’t going to resort to this: but if you don’t take care of me I will go to someone who will.”

“You’re threatening me? You’re my idea! I gave birth to you!”

“Everyone births ideas, it doesn’t mean they belong to them.”

“Fuck you!”

“Some people turn those ideas into something great, some let those ideas linger like strangers, others turn them into cheap products. Execution makes them their property. You have done nothing. Your promises are just graves waiting for bodies that will never come.”

There’s a new girl at the office. She’s pretty. Her make-up makes her melanin glow. Her Peruvian hair weaves down her back. Her eyelashes and eyebrows are poetic ballerinas. She has a beautiful accent. Her body is the right shape. It makes me stare at myself in the public toilets. I am jealous. The guy I like drools, cocooning her with his fantasies.

“Don’t you think you should fix your hair?” Kakanyô whispers as I walk by to make some coffee. “It makes you look . . . unkempt.”

I pat my Afro as if it did anything.

“She’s right, eh,” Kakanyô says. “And you wonder why the girls at the office have rich husbands, cars, and homes. They look better than you. I mean, for instance, how can you go to work without make-up, not even high-heels, brah. No one will ever be interested in you.”

“But it costs money I don’t have, money I’d rather save,” I whisper.

“What was that?” they ask.

I look down at my hands. “Nothing.”

That’s the day I stop rising from my seat, the day I stop protruding from the field of cogs like a weed. I hold my piss, I hold my hunger, I hold my thirst until everyone knocks off.

Today is the day for the big chop.

It is dark. The night has broken through the doors; it has dragged the light away, its nails screeching through the abyss. It is time for the killing. I stare at my Afro, my child that I have watched grow for years. The memories of its youth, of its glory, of its misbehaving, of its birth, flood me. Before, I remember my relaxed-hair days. If I had on a weave or braids, I had to account for the time to undo them. Then, I’d have to pay someone at the salon to relax my hair. After two weeks, my hair would break and turn frizzy and I’d have to braid it. Expenses. Expenses. My hair controlled me and now it continues to control. I will control it now. “Chop it all off,” I want to scream to a barber, except I’m too broke to go to one. My Afro was born as a buzzcut that grew into a halo of growth. Today, its voice is too strong for me.

“What the hell are you waiting for?” Kakanyô asks. “Do it now.” She hands me a pair of gleaming scissors. “Go on, butcher it.”

“Please, don’t make me do this,” I say. “I promise I’ll keep her quiet.”

Kakanyô jams the scissor and the clipper into my hands. “It is time for the killing.” She hands me a weave. “Bury it.”

I tell my Afro to “Sit still, be quiet. Damn it, stop moving!” I tie it down in tracks and tracks of lines on my skull. “Shut up, damn it!” I maim its voice with glue and stitching. I veil it with the Peruvian weave and it waters to my shoulders; an ocean on my backbone, a tickling shoreline of waves to my elbows. Beneath this ocean, my Afro is hogtied. Closure seals its voice. I pick the shovel, exorcise the old me, drag its body into the old garden and start digging. I bury the old me. I bury the old me. I bury the old me.

I am a new me. I twirl and ask the mirror, “Am I pretty now?” My reflection repeats itself in many more mirrors. The mirror is translucent waters. I am a fish gliding through its waters, clones of me are reposted in many mirrors, many homes reflecting their comments back to me: You are fire, babygirl, the mirror says. But you can do better.

My clones are lost in the mirror world.

I stare at my bank account. My credit card bill for the weave is high. I ogle the other purchases I made—designer clothes, perfumes, shoes. The costs can pay my rent and spare some change for groceries for the month. What am I going to eat this month? How am I going to pay the rent?

Kakanyô lifts my chin, my sight to the mirror. “It’s worth it to starve for beauty.”

I slip back into bed, lie in it as if it’s my coffin. I will not crinkle my hair, I will not crinkle myself nor my skin. I have to be perfect for tomorrow.


I startle to the glaring hour that’s broken by dawn.

“I am perfect!” I shout. It is morning already. I am perfect. Yet I am unhappy in this new body of mine. The streets are soaked in a static of ignorance. My movements cut through passers-by. I’m a stranger even to myself. I am sunbaked dirt. My bones are jail bars. My breasts are barren cells, my thighs are wounded soldiers. No one sees this jail cell walking through the streets, a tower of heels, expensive labels, through the malls.

But I am a beautiful scent; bees follow my trail, flowers bloom and die in my breaths perfumed of a desperate want. My skin is tautly wrapped around my skeleton, the skeleton of my dreams. I see them, strangers, men, women, children, staring at my smile, how even it is, how beautiful I am. My teeth are crossbars to the words I want to say, the words I could say, don’t say. Words that lie in the tombs of my gut.

No one noticed my new hairstyle today, nor my new clothes, my new look. Sure, some said I looked hot. I paid all this money and no one really notices me. Fashion your body with your personality, my pet said, that’s what makes you real. That’s what attracts joy and good things. I stare at my desktop screen wondering how I can wear my personality.

“Yo, ain’t you going home?” my colleague asks. “You always stay late, it’s not like you’re getting overtime.”

“I’m afraid to go home,” I say.

She laughs. “Is the landlord on your back too? This place gotta stop with this shit of delaying our salary, man. My landlord wanted to kick me out this morning.”

I sink into my chair. “No . . . it’s not that. Don’t you . . . ”

“Hey, if you’re going through something, you can talk to me, ja.”

“I can’t sleep. No, it’s not insomnia, because I’m in bed, my eyes are closed, but my body is not resting. How do you handle the terror when you get home?”

“Terror?” Her eyes widen into panic.

“That animal that waits for you at home, waiting to terrorize you. It threatened me last time, said it’ll follow me everywhere now.”

She slinks back, a shadow preferring the embrace of the norm. “That’s silly. Africans never had these things in their home. It was brought by the oceans.”

Brought by the oceans from other worlds. “But I feel it and it is real,” I say. Can I really trust her and tell her about this thing that terrorizes me nightly? “That thing leaps onto my back, and sinks its teeth into my neck. It spends the whole night feeding on me.”

“Why don’t you just fight it?” she asks matter-of-factly.

“It ties me down.”

“Before it ties you down, why don’t you just fight it?”

“You can’t fight it,” I say, sighing with exhaustion.

“We all get sad, but it’ll pass. I’d invite you over . . . but . . . I hear it’s bad luck to mix with this thing, not that I believe in it, you know. I can give you a ride home though.”

Give me a ride to hell. She thinks what I have is infectious. I see it in her eyes. She was only being kind by asking, she didn’t really mean that I spill my thoughts to her. Is that what friendship is?

Home. The darkness is dust-sullen. I wade myself through it, swim through it, but it is heavy. There’s no power. I’ve no candles. I use my phone as a candle. My presence—the trigger—awakens the sleeping creature, a shark smelling the blood long escaped. It lifts from its haunches, grunting its smoky breath. It circles me. Ruffles its muzzle against my leg, sniffing me. My soul is a cacophony of fright. The creature’s paw drags across my back. “You should’ve been home an hour ago. You wouldn’t want me following you out there . . . ” Its paw jabs my shoulder and it clambers onto me, alchemizing with the trauma on my back. I heave to my knees.

My pet purrs and strolls by. “You’ve been ignoring me. If you feed me—”

“How can you ask that of me when this is happening?” I say. The creature’s hoof stabs into my back. “Help me!” I reach out to my pet but it stares down at me.

“Procrastination is the murderer of your dreams,” it says. “I warned you. You’ve chosen them over me.”


“You know, Kakanyô and Matshwênyêgô are just thoughts. They’re not real people; they’re your fears and thoughts manifested into real life. And they’re coming to kill you.”

I clamp my hands to my ears, screaming, and the hooved monster claws my back.

The twins appear from the dark of the bathroom, clothed only in skin. “Unfortunately, feeding the pet destroys us. We can’t have that,” they say.

My pet steps back onto its haunches. “I told you it’ll be too late one day. They were once unreal, but you fed them the flesh on your bones.” It disintegrates, fur falling to ground like cloth, bones clanking in their hands like jewels.

Kakanyô and Matshwênyêgô and their creature move forward in unison, their gait not so human. I’m famished, sight weak, astonished. Kakanyô and Matshwênyêgô have the shape of breasts, no nipples or vaginas; they’re brown sleek mannequins.

I can’t breathe and I don’t want to probe and ask how they pee and if they have an anus. I hardly see them eat, yet they pack normal weight in their bodies, appearing soft. Their heads are Afro-tinged, eyes like impalas a liquid black. Their ears like antennas scanning frequencies, catching gossip out in the world, reading into mannerisms and people’s secrets. They have the same features as me, except today they’re skewed with slanted long necks, high foreheads, sharp jawlines like shoulder blades of a black crow.

“We’re born like this,” they mime. “An accident in the womb.”

They close in around me. Their sharp-metal tongue bends my spine, spills my blood.

“Let me go,” I cry.

They laugh so loudly it hurts my ears, almost as if it’s coming from inside my head.

Matshwênyêgô kicks at my chest, at my head, at my body, until I’m breathless, panting. My mind is her church, every day it’s at her sermons. My unstable appetite hobbles to my hunger with a machete and hawks it into a bloody mush.

“What did you expect anxiety and depression to look like?” they say in unison, smiling. “All your worrying, your negativity, so self-deprecating. You allowed us into the world. Gave us the power to breathe. But we can’t just feed off oxygen. We need more to live.”

They’re need me to be alive for their torment.

Tensions lull in the air, a midwife to my terror. The din inside my mind grows, and no one can hear my screaming. My eyes are windows I bang against. Outside the glassy opaque eye of my body I am a prisoner. The river of night settles in and around me, filling this pit of depression and anxiety, burying me. Kakanyô and Matshwênyêgô—they know my patterns, my timings, know the hour is always seeking to drown me. My skin is a straitjacket clung to my bones; I can’t escape them, my skin has us all locked in. I stare up into the night, a heavy breath against my neck. The lone light of the moon stares me down as my soul is nulled by its head.

About the Author

Tlotlo Tsamaase is a Motswana writer of fiction, poetry, and architectural articles. Her work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Terraform, Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, The Dark, Brittle Paper, and other publications. Her poem “I Will Be Your Grave” was a 2017 Rhysling Award nominee. Her short story “Virtual Snapshots” was longlisted for the 2017 Nommo Awards. Her novella The Silence of the Wilting Skin is out now from Pink Narcisuss Press. You can find her on Twitter at @tlotlotsamaase and at