Red Roses and Chameleons
I am in a garden. It is not like any garden I have ever seen. It is all fleshy succulents and green prickliness. A cactus garden. There are no trees or shrubs to break the monotonous landscape of stubby plants. I am all alone, and as I walk, I become aware that I am looking for something. I am not scared. Just calm and determined. There are no birds in this garden, no scurrying of small animals, or the sharp rustle of grass. There is nothing to distract me, and I am hypnotized into a trance-like state by the mantra that is this infinite field of cacti. The path I walk on appears as I move—each step forward producing a slab of concrete after it—and it stops when I halt. Strange, but I am neither perturbed nor surprised by this; the fact that aside from a lone slab that my feet are planted on, all is cactus. Above me is clear, blue sky and the stoic sun. I wake up.
Busi and I have been together for nine years. We met in secondary school under rather unusual circumstances. We were both fifteen at the time and in the same class, but had never interacted outside of the formal study times. We were both boarders and shared the same dormitory along with the other Form 3 students at Moleli Girls High. I was the first to walk to the dorm that day. The afternoon study session was over, and I hurried to the dorm so I could change my sanitary pad with some modicum of privacy before all the other girls came in to get ready for supper.
There she was, crouched in a corner in the corridor leading to the dorm. She was surrounded by a pack of hyena-like Form 6 girls, hands on hips and bristling for blood. At first, I could not recognize her in the dim light because the passage had no windows, so the only light coming through was from the open door. Tino stood over her pointing down like some self-appointed deity issuing a holy command.
“If you dare tell anyone about this incident, there will be more, and it will be worse. Do you hear me?”
Busi nodded, her eyes glistening with unshed tears. Her hands had gathered her blue uniform skirt and bunched it up between her legs. She winced, struggling hard not to show any pain, though it emanated in relentless waves from her whole body. Her eyes flickered past the pack of bullies to me. Chanda followed Busi’s gaze and whipped her head round. We locked eyes and I saw panic. She tapped Tino on the shoulder.
“What? Let me deal with this idiot.”
Chanda tapped her again, more urgently. Tino spun ‘round and saw me. She stared me up and down, her body bristling with a challenge, menacing and scary. Maybe to someone else but certainly not to me.
“Leave her alone. Pick on people your own age.”
I spoke clearly with a softness to my voice that lent it the weight of authority I did not feel. Then I pretended to search for my cell phone in my book bag, mumbling about evidence, social media, and the press. Chanda, Tino, Lihlo, and Pumi looked me over in a futile attempt to reassert their control over the situation, but I could smell the fear. I stood there engaged in a battle of wills with them until they slithered away, making fists and flipping birdies, and left the dorm.
I got close to Busi and gave her my hand to help her onto her feet.
Her voice trembled, face swollen with tears. But they did not fall. She winced slightly as she fixed her uniform, now wrinkled as though it had just been chewed by a donkey.
“Are you OK?”
“Yes, I am fine. Thanks for stepping in.”
“What was that all about?”
“It was nothing, just a squabble.”
There was something that compelled me to persist.
“Well you might want to fight with people your own age next time. What did they do to you?”
Busi took a few wobbly breaths before she spoke.
“They dragged me to the back of the school just before study, and they ripped my panty off and sat me on an ant nest.”
I was stunned, cold seeping into my core.
“They sat on me so I could not move, and those red ants just tore my backside up. I tried to fight them off, but six of them? I had no chance.”
“I felt every single one of those thousands of bites, but not once did I scream. Just look at this.”
Busi got up, turned around and pulled her uniform up to her waist. Her buttocks were pockmarked by ferocious-looking red welts. But it also looked like there was a redness that spread from the thousands of tiny wounds up her back and down her thighs. Little did I know at the time that Busi was having an allergic reaction to the ant bites. She ended up in the infirmary that night after she started throwing up violently and panting for breathe like a dog.
She told the school administration what had happened to her and who had done it, and Tino and her stooges were expelled. Strangely, this story never made it out into the student body the way most dramatic stories of expulsions, newly discovered pregnancies, and attempts to sneak boys into the dorms usually did. Tino and company simply vanished, and after a few days in the infirmary Busi was back in class with the rest of us. No one made the connection between the expulsion and Busi’s sudden illness.
A year later, during the two-week intense study period before our O-level exams, Busi brought up Tino and her gang. We were sitting on my bed, and she had just finished braiding my hair into a pretty cornrow pattern.
“Do you know Tino and I come from the same village, Ntuli?”
I looked up from examining my new hairdo in the hand mirror, surprised.
“No way! That means you see her during the holidays then?”
“No. Not really. But let me tell you why she sat me on that ant nest.”
I could not think of any sensible reason why Tino and her friends had been so cruel, but I was curious.
Busi lay back on my bed, hands behind her head face up to the ceiling. I did the same, but I closed my eyes and listened.
“I went to Masuku Girls Primary School with Tino’s younger sister, Vuyo. We were both borders. The school is quite far from Ntuli, but I was happy to be leaving home anyway.”
“Mina, I can’t imagine being a border at seven years old. I would cry every night for my mother; they would send me home after a week.”
I opened my eyes to look at Busi, but she did not react.
“So we had been at school about two weeks when this girl Luba asked me if my mother was coming to the special Mother’s Day celebration held every year in May. I told her my mom died when I was a baby so she would not be able to make it.”
“Oh Busi, I am so sorry.”
I thought about how I would be devastated if my mother were dead. I sat up and looked at Busi, who remained in the same position. She looked sad, wistful almost. Sad and beautiful. She has skin that looks polished, copper-toned, and plump. I am light-skinned also, but I can only achieve her natural look with the help of make-up. She is about the same height as me, tall, and has eyes like black quartz, shiny with unshed tears when she is hurt and smoldering when she is angry. I stared at her slim waist, which fanned out dramatically into voluptuous hips. I felt sad for her.
“It’s fine, Ludo. My mother is not dead.”
She turned her head to look at me, a curt smile crossing her face. She turned her gaze back to the ceiling. I wondered briefly if there was a particular spot she was focused on. I lay back down, confused but curious.
“So when I told Luba that my mother was dead, motor-mouth-Vuyo heard me and she yelled out for everyone to hear: ‘Lies, lies! your mother is not dead! Your father chased her away because she is a witch!’ The whole class started laughing and jeering at me. I lost it with Vuyo for telling my family’s business like that.”
“Yoh! Busi what did you do?”
“Before I could think, I flew across the room hauled back and socked her in the jaw. I decked her, then sat on her and gave her a thorough dusting. All the while the others chanted Mthakathi-mthakathi-mthakathi, and being called a witch like that just fueled my fists. I beat her so bad I broke her nose. By the time Miss Nleya rushed into the classroom there was blood everywhere. Everyone was now quiet, accusing eyes boring holes into me. Of course Vuyo milked it for all it was worth, sobbing and wailing like someone had died. Maximum sympathy for her, maximum condemnation for me. I was punished of course, and Vuyo became the most popular girl in our grade. I was the lone leper roaming the playground. Any group I tried to join would scatter like they feared getting infected.”
We lay there in silence for a while. I did not know what to say or whether I was to say anything at all. I wanted to know more, but something made me hold back the questions that I knew would come flooding from my mouth if I started talking. There was something about Busi that compelled me to stay still and wait.
“The others will be coming soon.”
Her voice broke into my meandering thoughts.
“Let’s get ready for supper. I will tell you the rest another time. Ludo, thanks for being my friend. I have never had a real friend before.”
I smiled back at her.