Tokoloshe by Hannah Green
I never meant to hurt Amy; let’s make that clear from the start.
I did what I thought was best for my child. Isn’t that what we all try to do? And if it doesn’t work out the way we planned, well, can we be the ones to blame?
Four months ago, Amy and I left the harsh, fast-paced city of Johannesburg for the promises and potential that Durban held. It was hard to leave our home but there were too many memories and too few jobs for me to stay. Within a week of being retrenched, my disillusioned wife kicked us out. Amy’s mother would fight to keep the house, but she wanted little to do with her eleven year old daughter. That’s when I made the decision to move on.
With Amy in mind, I phoned my uncle Koos, reminded him of various favours owed and organized a new job and a place to stay before we arrived in Durban. The garden cottage I was promised turned out to be a hastily renovated domestic workers quarter from the pre-Apartheid era. The two bedrooms, bathroom and open plan kitchen-living area were so dark and cramped that a fresh coat of paint and a couple of rugs couldn’t hide the harsh concrete beneath. I was disappointed, but I couldn’t afford better so we tried to make it work.
I’m not sure when the trouble began. In hindsight, the warning signs were there from the start. A vicious, rusted knife had been hammered through the top of the front door. The beds were raised off the ground by old paint tins. Strange bundles of dried plants and animal hair were lashed to the burglar bars. I recognized them for what they were, Zulu charms to ward off evil spirits, but I had no place in my life for superstition.
The first month passed us by in a whirl of hard work and new worries. Amy’s moods fluctuated between childhood excitement and sadness, but this was to be expected after her abrupt uprooting. She was at that tender age where she could see the facts for what they were yet she still struggled to understand them.
Amy and I slowly made the house our own. Over the weeks I took the beds off their paint tins, pried the knife from the door and repainted Amy’s room. We soon settled into our new lives and, despite the chaotic upheaval that we had been through, Amy and I still found happiness in one another’s company.
I did not realize that as we drifted along the tide of life, darkness swirled beneath us.
Strange things happened in that house, little things that seemed trivial at first but gained sinister undertones in their continuity. I could never find anything where I’d left it: cigarette lighters, the TV remote, pens, my cell phone. Fruit and vegetables bruised and seldom tasted fresh, food spoiled and rotted over night. My sleep was interrupted by disconcerting noises: the squeal of a door hinge, the creak of a window, stifled thuds and bumps.
I kept hearing footsteps in and around the house and worried about Amy, but when I’d get up to check on her she would be fast asleep. These things concerned me in an offhand way but when I heard Amy talking to herself late at night, I began to get nervous.
I would sneak to her bedroom door and listen to her muffled voice, sometimes sounding serious, sometimes she giggled. In the mornings Amy would seem her normal self and my fears would fade until night came again. I wondered if I had made the right choice in moving Amy to Durban, perhaps it was too much too soon.
A week’s leave in December made me realize how odd things were, how being in that house all day made me feel uncomfortable, almost unclean. I began to dread those sleepless hours in the dark with their creaks and rattles, scrapes and thumps. I feared robbers and vandals, but could find no signs of foul play.
That Saturday I tried to talk to Amy. As I sat at the kitchen table I watched her out the corner of my eye. She seemed okay, but the dark rings under her eyes made me ask: “Everything okay, love?”
“Yes. Why?” Her big, blue eyes made my heart twinge with guilt. I didn’t know how to tell her that I’d been spying on her, that I’d her seen talking to herself in the dark of night.
“Well… You look a little tired. You sleeping okay?”
“Yup…” The silence that followed felt weighted with the thick Durban heat. “What’s a ticklish, Daddy?”
“A ticklish? Something can be ticklish, love, but there isn’t anything called a ‘ticklish’.”
“But there is. Phineas told me.”
“Phineas the gardener?”
“He told you there’s a ‘ticklish’? I think he’s just telling you stories.”
“No, he was being true, Daddy. He said there’s a ticklish in our house.”
“In our house?” A terrifying suspicion began to grow in my mind; I felt it swell like a Highveld thunder storm, crackling and booming with fear. “Was Phineas in our house, Amy? Was he tickling you”
“Because you know no one’s meant to touch you, right?”
“And if that guy …” Horrid thoughts stampeded through my mind, they bounced off one another and spiralled into depravity.
“No one’s been touching me. They teach us that at school.”
“Okay, honey.” I wanted to believe.
“But he said there is a ticklish. In our house. He said that that was the reason bad stuff keeps happening.”
“What bad stuff?”
“You know… those things.”
“Things like why you can’t sleep so well. Why can’t ever find anything, why food goes bad so quick.”
“Oh.” I was taken aback. I hadn’t realized that Amy was so perceptive, but I knew then what Phineas had been getting at. “I think Phineas is talking about a Tokoloshe. Like ticklish but with o’s instead of i’s.”
“Okay, but he thinks that’s what our problem is.”
“And why does he think that?”
“He told me about the knives in the door, and how we should’ve left them there.”
“Honey, Phineas is just having you on, trying to scare you.”
“No he’s not!”
“Yes, he is, love.”
“Of course. There’s no Tokoloshe causing problems. There are no problems to be caused. We’re just adjusting to a new home and we’re both stressed. Nothing to worry about.”
That was where our conversation ended.
I tried to keep myself busy that day, pottering around the house, cleaning and making repairs. My conversation with Amy kept playing through my mind and it disturbed me in a way I couldn’t understand. We both needed to get out the house so I took her out for lunch and we rented some DVDs. Neither of us paid much attention to the movies, I think we were both submerged in our own thoughts. Amy was fast asleep by eight so I scooped my girl into my arms and carried her to bed, closing an open window and tucking her in tight beneath the covers.
With the house quiet and knowing that sleep was far away, I was forced to consider my conversation with Amy. As I settled myself at the kitchen table with a bottle of brandy and a box of cigarettes, vague memories of South African culture crept into my mind. I remembered the story of the Tokoloshe. It was a devious creature summoned by witches, like a familiar. It could do what it was told or be left to cause chaos on its own. Its description varied, but the most feared aspect of the Tokoloshe, especially for women, was that it could sneak into their rooms at night and impregnate young girls. I had no doubt in my mind that these things were not real. Every culture has their demons; this was just another myth, a fable for children.
The longer I sat drinking and thinking that night, the more tired I became. I folded my arms on the table and soon drifted off into that precarious space between waking and sleep, that no man’s land where your thoughts run free with the lucid quality of dreams.
A creak of a door hinge raised my head with a start. I scanned the room and saw nothing. I took a deep breath and told myself to relax. My eyes were closing again when I heard a deep throated chuckle. The sound was close, inside the house. It crept across my skin like hundreds of spider legs. I opened my eyes. I saw movement in the passage, a shadow fluttered across the floor but nothing was there. I raised my head, inch by inch, and saw a shape materialize in the gloom.
The Tokoloshe. Less than a meter tall, its arms and legs looked emaciated compared to its bulging belly. Its skin was mottled brown and leathery, pulled taught over its body. It swayed as it grinned from a malevolent face. My eyes were drawn towards its waist, and it was then that my mind was jolted from its solid foundation, because there, between its legs stood a large, swollen penis. It was huge, a grown man’s penis, not in proportion with the rest of its body, and even in that dim light the tip sparkled with spent seed.
In that instant my heart knew the horrific truth. I wanted to scream, to squirm and swat it away like the vile thing that it was. My body wouldn’t move it only let loose a flood of piss down my leg. I felt soiled by shame as I sat in terror looking at the Tokoloshe that I did not, could not, believe in.
As it staggered towards me my nose was battered by the smell of animalistic corruption. I wanted to puke, to clench my rigid fists against my eyes and scream until it all went away. I was transfixed by its eyes, its jagged teeth peeking out from taught lips that stretched in a mocking smile. It reached out a mummified hand and showed me a smooth, gray pebble. In one swift motion it gobbled the pebble and vanished. I heard that chuckle again, a phlegmy, rasping sound that came from an empty space in my kitchen.
I don’t know how long I sat here.
I tried to breathe as my heart battered my lungs with its furious beating. I crept into Amy’s room and found her sound asleep as I had left her. But the window was open again. I tiptoed across her room on jellied legs and closed it.
Somehow I made it back to my own bed. I crawled under the covers like a frightened child and gripped a pillow over my head. I closed my eyes, clenched my teeth, and listened to the low keening sound that came from my body as my soul withered to a bitter husk.
The next morning Amy seemed fine; she ate breakfast then trotted down the road to a friend’s house. It took an hour for me to work up the courage to go into her room. I ripped the sheets off the bed and emptied her laundry basket; I shoved the laundry into the washing machine, threw in as much detergent as I could, and made it to the bathroom just in time to vomit.
You see, if I’d had any doubts about what I thought had happened, the evidence was there. On her sheets. On her nightie. On her panties.
That night I once again packed our bags. We have to keep moving on. How would I explain? If I took her to a doctor or stayed in that house there would be too many questions, they would take my girl away from me. You see, that night took place three months ago and her belly has begun to swell with child.
So now we keep moving. Every day we’re on the move so no one will see her. And every minute of every day I ask myself the same sickening question: What will she give birth to?
Bio for Hannah Green
Last year I came across an advert for the SAWC 2010 Writing competition, but I didn’t enter. I spent months working on my entry which changed and evolved and returned to the original, only to be changed again, until the submission date passed me by. I was disappointed that had I allowed life to get in the way of my dream and shortly thereafter I forced myself to decide if I wanted writing to be my hobby or my career.
I enrolled in the SAWC’s Short Story Writing Course a month later, and haven’t looked back since. After six years of studying English Literature, getting my BA from Wits and my HonsBA from Unisa, I knew too much about the theory and not enough about the practical aspects, the sweat and tears, of writing my own stories. When I made tha decision to become a Writer (not just a writer) a new door opened. Ginny Swart and the SAWC gave me the advice and confidence to commit to my writing and to take it seriously. The result? This winning story for the SAWC 2011 competition!
With a passion for the macabre mixed with fervour for the lesser told stories of South Africa, you can be sure that I’ll be writing more of the same...
Hannah receiving her iPad2 from Incredible Connection branch manager Simon Mokoena.