In our village, they say evil waits in the uterus like the night cranes before dawn, like a wound in the earth, lying broad between thighs, dropping things made of sunset, as phrased by my poetic sister, who wholly agrees with this.
“Mara, this is strange. It’s normally the women who die,” my sister whispers, listening to the crime reporting of a thirty-year-old man found dead near the “Fire” church grounds.
“Why do you say that?” I ask with a shaky voice, words naked at her perceptiveness, as we lay atop the rocky surface behind our yard, staring at the night-suffocated sky, strangled with stars.
“Because movies say that, mass media says that, literature says that,” says my film-junkie sister, entering into the dark labyrinth of her imagination as she dons an omniscient narrator’s voice: “In the kingdom of patriarchy, fairytales are tall towers locking away young girls, their box braids, Senegalese braids, their Afro outstretched beyond repair for men to climb, pull at—their pain a prop for their saviours’ vanity and masculinity.” She shakes her head at the disturbing but delicious fantasy she’s concocted, scratching out a word she finds unsatisfying in her frayed notebook. Stories were told around a fire and this writing session circumvents around the outdoor kitchen’s fire.
“That would make an interesting story, nè?” she asks. “That reminds me. Mogapi says there’s not enough seeds for this movie I desperately want. But I’ve already paid, like, with my soul.”
I laugh. “Varsity opens in a week. Allowance should be in by then. Figure you can pay him then.”
Mogapi, who I shared my Form 5 class with last year, was the go-to guy for bootlegged music, movies, games and computer merchandise, who always spat out to his impatient customers, “Ag, there aren’t enough seeds for the download, bra. Just, hold up, a’ight. Unless you got two tigers for me.” Twenty bucks; the latter was meant to fund his smoke-stained fingers with a joint. He was a lucky bastard, because his side-hustle was supported by his father’s business, “A small internet café, which sat like a disgruntled, shiny and untouched foreigner amongst the shacks,” as my sister wrote one day. Mogapi is a bastard because he always charged my sister, even though the two are dating.
“I honestly don’t know what you see in that shady asshole,” I say. “He’s always in some corner smoking motukwane.”
“Mxm, anyway. Last night, I was watching a foreign film,” she adds, “a thriller of sorts, and the scene opened with a pregnant woman being cut into pieces by a male serial killer. Ag, I’m, for real, gatvol of seeing different versions of myself dying in every movie. I wanted to purge all those frustrated feelings of women serving these awful tropes in film culture.” Sisi looks up. “There’s a concept! In the Continent of Film, the serial killer phenomenon is an odd organ, Trope, which only males are born with, a lung to their chest, the testes to their ego, which unlike their appendix, is vital to their survival. A lack of victimizing brings within them claustrophobia, effervescence—no incision or exorcism can enable their cure. The idea that a woman can be born with this organ is taboo. She is prim. She is proper. She doesn’t shit. She doesn’t menstruate. Instead, women are born with organs—Trope, also—that places them in the landlocked country of Victims, bordered nations that only the male has a passport to.”
“And then what happens?” I ask.
“Well, I’m waiting to see,” she says. “It’s based on our village. But the women no longer die, so I don’t know how to work that into the plot.”
“Don’t be a domkop,” I say at her ironic statement, something that I’ve encountered in all my nightmares monopolized by that trope, and she is complaining. “A ‘female’ film director in Botswana?”
She bows her head. “But I don’t want to study medicine.”
“And you think I want to study engineering?”
“Yazi, maybe if I applied for a scholarship to study film, I can find odd jobs overseas and save some of the money. The currencies are stronger than ours, we could—”
I put up my hand, choking some words that wish to be born from her mouth. “Wa dlala nè? The American dream for a Motswana? Sisi, the deal was we get a serious degree that will get us a serious career to make serious money so we get out of this hellhole. Keep your creativity as a hobby.”
Tough love, they called it. Reality has always been our hell, and I had to be the constant reminder that our dreams were nothing but fantasies imprisoned in our minds.
Her fingers run trails through her Afro and she stares at our homestead, the lolwapa that encloses all the divided spaces, in hut form, which we use for sleeping, storage, and fasting separately.
“It’s too late anyway,” I say.
Our acceptance to university arrived a few days ago and it’s been hanging around our neck, turning like a noose. That’s the only free thing we have in this country. I don’t care what I study; I want to be a STEM woman, because the world says they are important and strives are made to support them. Surely that will buy us a lifestyle away from here.
Sisi and I have planned our escape this way.
My sister turns her head upward. “That sky above us, whose womb does it belong to? Won’t give us fulfilled dreams. I’m burning today.” She retreats her sight to her notebook, birthing words onto the page. “One day, all this will mean something,” she says, holding her notebook up. “One day. When dreams are murdered, so are our souls …”
I reluctantly dismiss her dramatic self and the crime reporting leans heavily on our thoughts, our conversation, talking about the victim, the suspect caught. The newsreader says, “This is the most recent death of male victims dying across the village—”
“That’s Rre Mothibe. Wasn’t he just building a semausu for his wife?” my aunt asks, coming to check the cooking. Gossip delivers news faster than anything we know—it is our newspaper.
“Karma. He must have done something to attract this to himself,” I say, fidgeting in the tightly-knit lie. “Victims aren’t all saints.”
“Nxa, are you even my sister’s daughter?” my aunt admonishes.
The newsreader continues, “The father of six often migrated to the city centre for construction work to take care of his family. His belongings were taken, including cash valued at P2,000 …” The radio’s voice coughs into static and dies into disconnection. Power failure from the power we’ve stolen.
“Well, someone pocketed an income last night,” my sister says.
In our village, Bodibelampeng, poverty is our coupon to hatred. It is commonplace. It is all we know so that, without it, we have no identity, no sense of place. We feel naked and unprotected; it’s a bulletproof to something we don’t want to know.
“Feed the dogs before they eat each other,” my aunt says.
The dogs’ growling consumes the night, their teeth knives for flesh. I watch their frenzy, gnawing at each: we’re no different from them. All animals.
When I was fourteen,
the day I started my period—when it all started—my mother, wooden spoon in hand, was mixing bopi jwa mabele into a hot bubble of water in the outdoor cooking area. Next to it, a soot-marked three-legged pot, filled to the rim with rainwater, sat belly-high on a bed of fire, logs partly turned into ash.
My thighs knit together, afraid I’d drip my entirety out, and ashamed, as if this break in me was a sin, I bowed my head at Mama and confessed: “Last night, I had a dream I was a prostitute and someone killed me.” Embarrassed, I raised my panty to her. “And then this happened.” Someone killed me and I naturally bled.
“Nxa.” Mama knocked my head with the wooden spoon, muttering something about my vile wet dream, puberty, and she went on to explain how dangerous sex is now that I bleed. Mama cleaned all the houses in towns and villages like Palapye, Serowe, Mahalapye, but our bellies were still dry and nothing existed to catch things that fell from our wombs. So, with no pads or money, Mama handed me a bucket to fill with the heated water to bathe and gave me snatches of rags and paper handmade into a re-usable pad.
“Go, Nana. Do not come out until it’s over.” Mama placed me in the fasting hut, the most modest construction in our lolwapa, furnished with a menstrual collector to water the earth, for we were godly, potent, and the earth was a hungry god, our blood tithe to the earth; the fasting hut sat like the church of our lolwapa, a bouncer for the goddess inside. For seven days, as pain and cramps kneaded themselves into my thighs, I prostrated, feeding my spirituality to the menstrual rites.
I couldn’t go to school. I thought puberty turned me into a dirty whore. Fearful, I never told Mama about all the other women I became every night: I was the prostitute. I was the young girl walking through dark streets alone. I was the pregnant woman. I was the niece, the daughter, the sister, the mother in seedy hotels, rich houses, back gardens, sewers—meal tickets to sadistic killers. I dreamed of all the girls who died. I never told Mama because I knew she’d start talking about my estranged father. And my sister would go mute and cry in the pit latrine, thinking no one could hear.
When I turned fifteen years old, I was incorrectly diagnosed with chronic pain. So excruciating that every night, when I go to sleep, I die. Excuse me, not every night; this only occurred when I had my periods. Madness, ain’t it? Like, you already can’t just have your periods in freedom, finish and klaar, without the whole society burning your back to hide it. Now this supernatural shit had joined the bandwagon, twisting this plot, this common stigma-shame straight into my bones. I swear, there’s some god laughing his ass off at this paradox he’s placed me in.
So, on those menstruation nights, the chronic pain starts, the nightmares turn and I die. The pain riddled my bones, but Poverty had no money to fix its ailments. I hardly left the house. Light was my enemy. My nerves felt burned. I was drowned in sangoma-lurid prescriptions, but none took the pain and sadness away.
In my sleep, my nightmares—where I shared the body with the victims—were visions of crimes as they happened:
It is 03:15 a.m. in Bodibelampeng. Dream shapes moon into a half-eye, afraid, but curious to see. Dream tells me I need to leave soon, the night is weaving dark, the dark is a thick fabric becoming impermeable to light, to time, to morality. Dream tells me the minutes are weak labours to hold the mounting pressure. Air is no longer mute, a thin transparent layer. A cramp, a thickness in Air, crackles my skin. Black Label is a swarm in my gut. My body stands. “I need to go,” my voice says for me. My body sways. “I’ll take you,” Tuelo says, standing. “No, my house is nearby, just by the corner,” my voice says. Dream tugs my feet, shifts me from the Shisa Nyama hangout, where me and my choms chill by. Street is waiting for me, unusually quiet, fondled on the sides by a vulture of bushes, home to a figure that jumps out. Street catches my back when I fall. She’s harder than I thought. Figure is all over my skin, making holes in my skin. Dragging me. Soon fire touches me. Fire is painful. I pray to Fire. I pray to Sky. Land and Society nip and tuck me, my blood paint for their brushstrokes. Crime arranges my body. The job is done. I am char. I am taboo. I am gone.
When I woke up, I cried like the villagers when we found the soot-coloured body of the same girl in a sugar-cane field. For days, my skin bore the pain of burning.
“No one understands me,” I confessed to Sisi. “I feel everything. I see everything. I feel the victim’s pain, the killer’s joy, so seductive. But I’m exhausted of seeing, being different versions of me—slim, sexy, fat—lying plain, breasts opened, our vaginas as storages and hospices for silly paraphernalia, and being cut to pieces. I’m the cryptic killer’s Barbie.”
Because every morning when I woke up, the girl who died in my dreams was slovenly splashed across all news outlets. She was nothing but a mangled body poised for the scandal, that juicy byline for a writer seeking journalistic stardom, and she, poised like a model for the camera, the story in aesthetics. Her blood like lipstick across her body, nothing but a prop, murder dressing her as an exotic corpse. That was it. She was nothing but a catalyst for the only human in the room crying his eyes out, waiting to live his vengeance. But she had a story. She had a name. She had a soul, more than we could ever have. “But she was me. And I was her. Don’t you get that?” I shouted at Sisi, shoving the newspaper into her eyes. “I felt how she died last night. I was burned!”
I was sixteen at this time, and the trope of women dying hung me dry. That’s probably why Sisi repeated those words relentlessly. She must have known. But I had to stop it. Motives, I guess, evolve over time, hormones growing them into fussy-versioned teenagers of evil.
Once my periods ended, days would pass, and the fasting hut would grow ominous, awaiting my visit, and I’d feel edgy in my thighs, and my moods would twist. One day, I couldn’t hold it in any longer. “I don’t want to die anymore,” I cried. My sister jumped at my rupture, not realising its confession. “My … period’s about to start. Asseblief, tell it to stop.”
She shook her head at my nonsense. “Did you try the sangoma’s prescription?”
I turned away. “It makes me sick, like Mama, that’s why she won’t visit anymore.”
She sighed. “Then don’t sleep. The nightmares won’t come if you don’t sleep.”
But my seven-day-long period outlasted my ability to maintain insomnia.
“Have you ever wondered why you have these dreams?” my sister asked in Setswana.
I shook my head, crippling the memory of Mama admonishing me.
“Maybe you should get an MRI, you know, maybe some knot is forming up there,” she said, pointing to my Afroed head.
“I don’t have the luxury to have a sickness,” I say. “Yazi, poor people like us, we’ve no business in getting sick. How the fuck we supposed to pay for that? You don’t think life is an illness to us? We’re already paying for it by trying to survive.”
But I was useless, too late to be her Samaritan.
Sisi tried to hug me, but I threw her back. “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t!” I said, making the curse worse. Because the next month, as periods tied my body, the next victim was Mama; the killer, my estranged father. It hit me so hard, Amnesia tucked me far away that by the time I woke up days later, my relatives attempted to regurgitate exactly what happened, but the words pushed back like bile and sullied their guts. Nothing nourished them for days.
The only thing I knew was that my father was already buried. The only thing I saw was Mama, forlorn and surrounded by villagers, her Afro slick-shaved off her head, her knees dusty, her skin pressed with white ash. Then she was gone from our lives, as if she evaporated from air, from time.
Distant relatives then called a holy “medicine” man, who brought something wrapped in plastic that they had to bury in our yard to chase her away, her spirit. I could feel and sense Mama’s pallid form, unlike others whose eyes were unable to see spirits in our landscape. Mama screamed until her knees busted. The shaman continued until the time spoke her inexistence. I ran that night, farther than I could. The shaman killed Mama completely with his stupid exorcism. In my dreams, Mama told me why she couldn’t visit us anymore: “Nana, I hate the smell of the incense they burned.” She said the smell stayed in her throat and tried to erase her and disembowel her until all there was left was air and nothing else. I remember her holding her stomach as if in preparation for its combustion. But sometimes, unsleeping, I see ghost-Mama at the fringes of the cemetery that ostracises her, as if it’s a gateway to utopia.
Mama. She was the first woman who gave birth to me, and who I birthed death to. And it pains me that I will never know why.
Nowadays, the serial-killer act reincarnates itself in any woman,
the girl is pregnant with it, blind with fury; their bodies, wombs to bear murder. Born this way.
Sisi noticed the change in our village. “So, you don’t feel pain anymore when the victim is an mfetu—a guy?” she asked.
“I no longer suffer from pain because I no longer die in my dreams,” I confessed. Time passed. We tried to excavate the loss of our parents from our hearts, but it was threaded in our bones, mourning during our inhales and exhales.
“Revenge,” Sisi whispered, “is a grave we’re all born in. We won’t leave it.”
The next culprit, who was interviewed on their motive, bluntly responded: “I know it’s a sick way to think. I’m supposed to be ladylike, timid—that’s exactly why I shoved his nuts down his throat and asked him, does he like how he tastes? Because I certainly won’t. He shouldn’t try to make me taste him. My résumé doesn’t list me as a blowjob-giver.”
I shared art class with the murderer, but she always looked innocent. Sisi was right: we’d made a home of revenge.
Normally, for some time, it was the women who usually died. But not anymore. It seems the way of things where I live, in the rural backwater of Bodibelampeng, a northern-province in Botswana. Our village is small, with a population of 1,200, nestled by the hills with one rusted church, a school from pre-school to secondary level, and an ill-equipped police station. Old shebeens are oft-stuffed with old men and old women mixing tales, and a forest thick with morula trees. One would assume this a nice, peaceful and ordinary village, save for the murders. Murder is common here, taken as a monthly occurrence, the village’s menstrual cycle. Bodibelampeng is the accomplice. Its tools, the forest, the lake, the paths that become skew, turning lonesome strangers into hogtied victims.
Tonight, after Anaemia has forced me out of the fasting hut to eat supper with my aunt, uncle and sister, and my sister’s recognition that normally women used to die, we turn in to bed. Sisi is still packing her clothes, for we leave this damned village for varsity in three days. Her phone vibrates. Her boyfriend. It’s close to midnight. She promises me she’ll be back soon. The last thing I see of her as she sneaks out the window is her feeble body made of brown, her hair made of Afro, her sight made of hope.
I turn to my side, haemorrhaging into my bed. At least this is happening before we transit to the city. Perhaps once I leave this village, it will all stop. But tonight, the chronic nightmare wrecks me and slips me into the next episode of Every Night I See How They Die. I’m the director, the producer, the victim.
In last season’s episode, I was the woman who died because—it doesn’t matter. It never matters, as long as it serves the plot.
Hours pass. In my bed, the nightmare’s pacing has turned to the climax of Every Night I See How They Die, its lens focusing on the victim: The skin is tied to culture, the skin is tied to family, but the culprit’s been peeling him so thinly, as if trying to peel the brown off him instead of his skin; we take in the victim’s statuesque face, coughing blood, as he runs through the ploughing fields. The moon is a lonely half-eye, the stars gone, death waiting to catch his breath. No one is around. He stumbles, weeps to God. The wind is the score of his horrific tale.
The culprit appears; Afro, a sponge of blood in the cold, high heels stabbing the earth. She grabs at his neck. The girl drags the wailing boy—knees crushed. He’s gone, sight leapt to sky.
I flee through home, the dark night an ocean of frightful things. Snatches of muthi lie around each shack, the hope to stave off the next killer-gene, the possession. But I have to save her before she’s gone, before she’s committed the kill. She must not kill him.
I’m too late. She’s ripped him apart. His organs are scattered like seeds across the partly-barren field, awaiting the ploughing season. Her soul is a pyre for this disease.
But in this nightmare life, I grip her. “If we don’t leave, you’re going to kill someone. Assablief, let’s leave.”
But I was too late to stop you.
“I’m sorry,” she says in Setswana. “I’m sorry I became like Mama.”
In this dream, time can moonwalk, taking us to our freedom away from the wasteland reality that is neither mother nor father, and only wishes to force us curdled fate from its scorching breasts.
It ends like all my dreams, breathe reality, real-time: a grimy night, thick with secrecy.
As dawn trickles through, a smell leads a group of primary-school-level students near the cornfield, but across it to the forest-cum-crime scene. A decomposing body. Male. A girl-child in beaded, mushroom-plait braids, points. “His penis,” she shrieks. “His—” She faints. Her friends, lollipops still breeding nursery rhymes of sweetness into their tongues, notice a witness, hugging her knees with fear-lit eyes. Today, I’m not asleep. I’m the witness. I stare again: bugs of all sorts make his skin.
A girl, reading a thick forensic book, bumps into her peers. Her expression is set maturely with studious light brown eyes that excavates the outer parts of you straight to your soul. Her aura is bewitching. She’s a kid you wouldn’t want to meet alone, at night, on a stray path. Cocking her head to the side like a bird, she pulls out her lollipop and peers at the naked corpse, wondering aloud, “I always wondered what it felt like to forensically dissect dead bodies.”
She walks forth, maturity burning her eyes with the strange curiosity unknown to children her age. But nowadays, kids are older than we used to be, knowing things that our similar ages couldn’t fathom, way-back-when.
“Gomolemo, don’t!” Her friend tugs on her book bag, but Gomolemo’s fingers leech onto the wings of a blow fly. “Calliphoridae, always the first vulture to our villagers, turned dead,” she whispers, exposing her observation of the murders, probing the body with a stick. “The blow flies’ eggs have hatched into first-stage maggots. This person has been dead for at least twenty-four hours. Except … blow flies can’t exist in this habitat.” Her sight skims the cornfields and the open field scattered with warm temperatures and sunlight. Deadpan, her eyes rest on me. “This body was moved.” She unsnaps her fingers, freeing the insect into a glass jar she’s produced from her bag, as if it’s a firefly. “But I could be wrong.” She opens her forensic book and resumes reading, as well as her walk to the nearby school.
Uncanny intellect reeks from her pores. Maybe one day, her womb will be ready to bear murder.
In Bodibelampeng, they say, evil waits in the uterus like the night cranes before dawn …
Rain whips the air outside
a barren police station. Cells are filled with coughing women, the killer bundled in handcuffs. I sit aside, awaiting to give my statement.
“The patterns of these murders imply that it’s one person committing them, their modus operandi,” the female police says. “All past killers are women ranging from ages nine to sixty years old. The victims are all male, killed at night.”
“This is some fucked-up village,” her partner, the policeman, says. “What kind of asshole kills someone like that?” He notices me now. “Who’s that?”
“A witness. Found her half-buried by the cornfield,” says the policewoman.
“I thought, if I saved him, then I wouldn’t be next,” I whisper, staring into my knotted fingers.
“Kid, superstition isn’t an alibi,” he says, referring to the villager’s belief in this repeating curse. “It’s just bait, a scapegoat for the sick-minded. We have a motive—”
“Do we really?” the policewoman asks.
All the victims had lives I wished to have, to live.
“Ain’t that hard to come up with one,” the policeman says. “The man is a druggie netizen who’s ripped people off for bootlegged material. Possibly sold himself to buy drugs. Who doesn’t have anything against a prostitute? You ever heard of a man who buys a kid for the night with sweets? That’s the mother of the child. Choose one.”
My sister, call her by her true name, Same Tladi, not the fake synopsis of her life, I want to say. “Mogapi. He was her boyfriend,” I whisper instead.
Their eyes ricochet silly summaries of a burdened dream. “How do you know?”
Tears have no birthrite on my face. “The killer … she’s my sister … Same.”
Like dominoes, these villagers are, murder collapsing into the next gene.
After I’ve given my statement, I see Sisi one last time before they will transport her to the city for judgement. Behind the bars, she’s a stranger.
“The woman eventually dies,” she says.
Confused, I stare at her. “What?”
“You asked what happens next,” she says. “In the Continent of Film, the country of victims, the woman was turned by the man into him. Eventually she died, metaphorically; no matter what, she carries the plague everywhere she goes. The plague rests in her body.”
“Honestly, this is not the time,” I say.
“You moved the body,” she whispers.
“I hoped they wouldn’t find it, but—he was cold, rigid. My fear became my shame.” Time is abstinent from our breaths. “What happened to the promises we made?”
“I tried to fight it,” she says, eyes away from mine.
“I couldn’t fight it,” she says. “I had to kill him. But …” Shame bends her neck forward. “The village, it picks the murderer, the victim … and—we didn’t even know this—it even picks the witness.” She looks up at me, her brown eyes glittery with tears, with pain, her Afro untouched by style. “Ironic, huh. It picked two sisters, one to play the killer, one to be the witness. As if it knew we wanted to run away.”
“But why!” I shout. “Why is this happening to us? Did our ancestors do something so bad that we live this way? So what? Is this theory of yours saying that it picks all these people because they were rebels? That it triggers them, possesses them? We always have the culprit’s motives, but what is this village’s motive?”
“You’re going to go crazy treating this place like a person.”
“It’s the only way. Maybe we’re sleeping, maybe all we need to do is wake up,” I say.
“Woke as we are, Sisi?” she says, scratching her palm. “Become the architect of the plot. Someone has to die, someone has to witness, and someone has to murder.”
“Can’t I destroy the formula?” I ask.
“What happens if you do? Does someone else become the womb of this curse? What if that person has no moral obligations? The flow of direction will steer elsewhere. Nothing disappears, it transforms. But …” She steers her eyes elsewhere, her loyalty elsewhere. “But you see everything. It started when you were born.”
My thighs tremble. “What are you trying to say, heh?”
“I’ve been stuck in this cell for twenty-eight hours. I haven’t slept, I smell like shit, and I’ve been fucked up for my meals. In here, we look like animals.” She turns to face the other women, picked for unusual trysts. “But we’re not. My mind keeps going over and over how this started when you were born. That’s what Auntie said, but I refused to believe her. I shouldn’t be in here.” Her hands grip the bars. “How did it feel, killing through me? You dreamed of me last night, didn’t you? That’s what triggered you to be a witness, to end up there. You confessed to me how delirious it is to be in the killer’s shoes. Did you enjoy stabbing him with the knife, did you enjoy strangling him? You’re making us kill all these people, but you’re out there free! There’s something wrong with you. You killed Papa. You killed Mama. Look what you’ve done to me. Look what you’ve done to our family.”
Her desperate, ugly side wanes, lit by sun-hot betrayal. Tears wash my face with guilt. Someone should kill me. Who will save anyone, even myself, from me?
“But it’s also happening to me,” I say. “Do you think I want to have these dreams?”
“When you changed the plot, you changed me into a killer,” she shouts.
“If I hadn’t changed the plot, you would be dead. Isn’t it better to be the killer than dead? I saved you.”
“Then you stay in this fucking cell,” she shouts. She turns her back to me, weeping. We fought, just never like this. “You’re my sister. I still love you, but … seeing you sickens me. You want me to be there for you but I can barely be there for myself. Don’t be selfish. Never see me. Never talk me. Go live your life. Run before this village devours you.”
I turn, tears burning my face. Why was I born with this?
Now my sister is gone. I hardly see the sky, remember the colour of the sun, and how the stars feel when they peer through sky’s skin.
Compassion lies not in this land of bleak. One day, the formula will change, when all the men are done and gone, and we’ll be the only flesh and meal.
I’m made of seams, and regret and loss are bursting from them. In this land, tragedy is the end. In this region, violence is our religion. Its god is as anonymous as any deity. I’ve seen people die. But this time, I’ve seen my hand turning the crime thick, birthing it into its new rite. Like my sister, like Mama, I’m next. I won’t be like them, disease streaming through my blood, my genes.
Most would say I’m running away,
but I beg to differ. Somewhere in my body lies a metaphorical womb, waiting for the seed of murder; the fallopian, a passage of rite. But what have I done wrong that I don’t know of? Will an exorcism exercise a vasectomy on this evil that impregnates us with gory deeds? I could be free, live like a normal girl. Leaving Bodibelampeng is the only contraception I know from its evil.
I will not be a statistic. I will not be a victim.
Everyone goes to the city to look for freedom: for work, for refuge, for a life they see in the movies. The city is big, with girls who wear long, straight hair to their waists, lips painted with blood. I look different from everyone else. I’m what they say has been touched too much by the sun. My hair looks rough. I must fix my accent. That’s the one thing I’m proud of: I adapted my accent to match all the actresses I’ve watched from Mogapi’s bootlegged films.
I flee through the forest, a thicket of trappings, away from Bodibelampeng; a patchwork of muddy alleyways, a bundle of shacks huddled against each other like a bunch of trash cans.
A lone, stormy cloud hovers above the village, nowhere else. I look back, thinking that someone is calling me. My mind is dense, tired, like it’s blocking something, like a radio trying to catch a signal and all you hear are spurts of a conversation until it snatches into the dead zone. Sometimes I wish we could switch our minds, the thoughts, the voices off.
The sun is the only siren of heat in the horizon.
I’m sitting on a crumpled, old bus shelter, twelve kilometres away, surrounded by nothing but the wisp of ploughing fields, hills and a lone, mirage-glittering road. No buses thread their way to our village, in fear of the myth, our village, the serial killer. For citizens not native to Bodibelampeng, the symptoms first experienced once entering its borders are temporary blindness, disability, purging, death—until you rewind your coordinates to stand outside its skin. And, as I stand outside its skin, my soles are burning from the tar, my sight turning dark. My stomach clenches, tightens my oesophagus. My mouth yells open, spraying vomit. “God,” I cry. “Help me!”
I try to postpone my pain, but it washes over me like a shoreline reaching out to its brown. I know it’s there. Hope. God. Faith. Something.
But I was born here, Bodibelampeng.
I’m sweat and desperation as I witness, finally, a bus, coughing smoke and trembling its way toward me, lowered by luggage on its head.
The girl I sit next to—everything about her is long: her nails, her straight, waist-length hair, her eyelashes, her scent, which has travelled lonely, dark roads, reeks of what it snatched along the way. She smells of wars. She smells like my mother used to, but now she’s just an old ghost, insanity circuiting her mind. I sometimes wonder what it feels like for most girls with mothers, if my life would have been different if I was born elsewhere, what my sister could have been, where we would have been by now.
“Oh, damn, do you come from that possessed mokhukhu village, Bodibelampeng?” the girl asks.
“Is that what people think about it?” I say.
“That place is snaks, man. What does the name mean, anyway?”
“Maragana teng a bana ba mpa ga a tsenwe,” I say. The girl looks at me, dazed, mother tongue never born, muzzled. “Conflicts of siblings is best left to them,” I explain. “The village internalizes.”
My chest sinks in, my tears reverse, flooding my soul.
The bus takes roughly five hours to arrive in Gaborone, my new home. It’s near-dark, the bus rank is empty, foreign, a fearsome creature.
“What’s wrong?” the girl asks, watching me stand with one bag, the conductor yanking me back.
“I lost my money,” I tell him. “Please, I will pay this week. I’m here for undergrad study.”
The girl gives him the fare. He mutters an insult in Setswana.
“Has your allowance come in yet?” I ask.
She shakes her head.
“I’ve no place to stay,” I say. “The news reported there will be a delay in our allowance.”
“Such a fucked-up country. Where the hell do they expect this influx of freshmen to sleep without money?” she says. “Didn’t you apply for on-campus accommodation?”
I nod. “But it was already full. I guess I’ll sneak into the university toilets, sleep in there until allowance comes through. Can you give me directions to the university?”
“Don’t be dom.” She pulls me by the arm, dragging me into a taxi. “You’ll stay with me.”
She lives in the central business district, a modern apartment in the tallest building in the country, with a view to the entire city. I gape, dropping my bags in the open-kitchen plan lounge. I steer clear of everything; my clothes smell like smoke that often wafted into our washing line from outdoor cooking areas in Bodibelampeng.
I’m just a girl, an innocent face hiding terrible secrets. She can’t see the past I have, the things that have happened. And she’s let me into her own home based on her obscured perception of me.
She strides across the warmth of her furry carpet. “I came here about three weeks ago, to prepare before varsity started. Didn’t look much different from you.” Her eyes weigh too heavily on me. I cover my body with my arms, feeling like a loose, misplaced furniture. “I found myself some desperate assholes. I have one paying my rent, one paying me a monthly allowance, and a third funding my entertainment.” She laughs when sees my expression. “Yazi, your hymen won’t last in this place. It’s the city, babes, anything goes here. Commercialism lives in our vaginas. Mara, you can be the exception; no sexual returns, no tax returns—ha! Jokes, nè?”
Some things are acceptable and some aren’t, but I come from the village where murder was the highway. I’ve no right to preach. She seems like a no-give-a-shit woman, whose audacity is an alchemy of animal and spirit concocting honeyed beauty, so luscious as if it oozes the melanin set on her bones.
“What’s your name?” I ask, unsure where to place myself.
“Naledi,” she whispers. “Mama said she picked me from the sky. Shem skepsel, she thinks I’m meant to be a star. I wish I could believe in dreams.” For a second, she’s soft and painful, a whisper of something that could have been.
“Well, only in dreams are we ever stars of the world,” I whisper. “My name is Game.”
Same and Game, meaning “mine.” My sister and I always belonged to someone, never ourselves.
[A male was discovered last night, hogtied, strangulation marks networked around his neck, signs of rape …] I panic at the voice pouring into my head, prediction on high. I’m a radio station, catching signals from Bodibelampeng. Always. This village won’t leave me. Its wavelengths breathe crime languages into my head.
How do I escape?
It’s the first hour I cry in the city.
Naledi stares at me like I’m an insect vomiting a disease. “Uhu, you alright?”
The flow of my blood is urgent, my desperation is urgent. “I need to stop my periods,” I say.
“Oh?” she asks, eyes flitting to the time, suspicious, as if I’ve asked for a gun.
“I’m about to start soon,” I lie.
“Oh.” She fetches her bag, yanks out a white sachet of pills. “Tranexamic acid. Slows down the fuckery out of my periods.”
“Can you translate what you just said?”
“I have heavy flows, which fucks me into anaemia-land. So my gynae prescribed these to reduce my flow.”
I can stop the murders? “Can you stop periods completely?”
Naledi notices my eagerness and seems to find it strange. “I’ll connect you to her and she might prescribe something. You on medical aid? Because her fees are on steroids.”
“I don’t have medical aid,” I say. “I’ll use the clinic.”
She whistles. “They’re just going to give you Panado.” She pulls out her purse. “Here’s a grand. I’m sure it’ll take care of the bill.”
“Why are you helping me so much?” I ask, crying at such kindness.
“I’m allergic to pity,” she says. “Helping you is my cure.”
Weeks later, I realized why she was helping me: she wanted to be my oasis. Some people can’t bear to be alone. Someone is always near her fountain, a bunch of friends, a new guy, a new girl. The boundaries of who she is, is marked by those who drink from the elixir set in her thighs. The elixir that depletes her ocean, setting her jaws taut, her eyes bright, fear-lit, seeking, seeking, seeking a place with no horizon. If you really listen to the lies and lulls in her breaths, you can feel her blunt statements are orphans seeking parents. Maybe I wish for that elixir to enter my teeth and fill my mouth, a waterfall to my gut. We will be moons and wombs to each other, waning and cycling this elixir between us.
“Askies, it’s been a long day,” I say. “I lost my family.” Naledi’s sight swallows me, pays attention to me. “I, uh … bathroom?” I ask.
When she directs me to the shower, I’m apologetic about my smell, noticing its sudden, blunt presence next to her beauty. I must carry the stink of rural in this place. As much as I scrub, I smell clumps of it stuck in my armpits, my pubic hair, my breath.
[In the edges of the village, a wife will be stabbed by her husband, the scene drenched in blood …] I break down, crying again. The shower is warm, sprouting from a port in the wall, unlike the bucket-and-metal-bath we cleansed ourselves in. Water carries away with it dirt and sin accumulated on our skins, and in its place the clouds of ourselves retreat back into space, as if now there is suddenly memory-space to accommodate new ones.
When I return in my old pyjamas, Naledi hands me leftover food. She brings out a tinged bottle of something.
“Want some?” she asks.
“Wine …” She pauses. “You never heard of it?”
“From where I come from, the only alcohol we had was Chibuku or Black Label,” I say.
She laughs. “Try this. Dry red. You’ll love it.” She tosses her head back against the couch pillows, the skyline her backdrop. “Choms, take a picture. Tonight we sleep with dinaledi.” Stars.
“But we have orientation tomorrow,” I say.
She moves to her music system, fiddles with it until a wondrous sound breaks through. She jives to the Afro tunes of Taolo’s “Freedom.” The beats meld sky and land into the same skin, the milky lane into our universe; for that moment, it does truly feel like freedom. I can’t even believe it’s me.
“Who the hell in this day attends orientation?” she asks, laughing. “I’m sleeping in tomorrow.” She pulls me by the arms, trying to make me dance.
It’s like having a radio and finally catching a signal, catching something meaningful to connect and realising you’re not so alone in the world anymore. Naledi makes me feel comfortable in the skin I thought I betrayed, given the family I’ve betrayed, the things I’ve done in my nightmares. Who will forgive me for what I’ve done?
We’re just two ordinary girls in a city bludgeoned by its state, modernity submerged in technology stabbing the stars with pollution and nonsensical dreams. I’ve escaped, for now. Maybe I won’t kill again. Maybe I will be the woman I want to be.
I weep for my sister, the women, the men. I still dream of those past murders, so noir yet so poetic, the film quality in my dreamscape lapsed with a nameless plot. In them, we look similar, this killer and I, nothing distinct.
My old life is gone, and in this, now, I live in a house with separate spaces for lounging, cooking, eating, bathing and sleeping. The city comfort provides me with medication for period pains, medication to stop those periods and funds for sanitary pads. I get to go places, see people and still have money to do things I never knew existed. I never thought this life would come. I never thought that once I got it, I’d want more, more, more.
Bodibelampeng is an eclipse of what the city used to be, sloping hills as naked as the expansive sky; I miss Mama. I miss my sister. I miss someone taking care of my burned hands, of the sickness frothing in my chest.
I return to the fasting hut once. It is desolate, the ornate embellishment on its muddy façade faintly there like a memory watching you bluntly, telling you what you don’t want to know.
Yazi, I heard somewhere that once put out into the universe, thoughts can be tangible items. Stones, weapons, tools are all tangible. Envy is a dangerous alchemy that turns thoughts into weapons of murder, leaving the conceiver’s hands bloodless. That’s my vice—I envied too much. I stare at my hands: narrow brown fingers with a burn scar, so ordinary that no one would think of them as evil. My face, too, so small, so dry-skinned, with baby fat; for some, their faces tell dark stories. It makes sense only now that evil obscures evil to maintain its lifespan. I am the gravesite of the many women and men. I am the warzone. Evil has its own god. Death is the true birth. Evil waits in the uterus because someone buried it there.