‘We Ate His Bowels First’
by Gabisile Shabangu
We ate his bowels first. Snarling and gnashing at the still-warm entrails. Slathering and weeping as we licked blood from the soft ridges where his life used to be. Salt and iron. It was a birthing: reminiscent of how we came and how we would leave. The sinew and muscle we swallowed in deep, guttural sighs sowed themselves down our throats and back into our flesh inside. Blood for blood. We had lost so much when we writhed on the ground expelling dead matter from our wombs, blood dancing in stinging rivulets down our thighs. Salt and iron as we screamed. It had to happen like this.
We did not move in the dark this time. We did not conceal ourselves in the crevice of unknowing. We appeared like sun rays over the mountain, after the coolness of dawn. A promise. And like the sun, we touched everything, devouring it in our path to make up for what had been lost as we arrived. We ate his bowels first. Hooking our fingers to look between the muscle: searching through tendons and veins for his absolution. Something to round out the blood, make the flesh worth tasting, even though we ate it regardless. Your guts for ours, no matter how putrid yours might be. We ate his bowels first.
Before, when we bore our vocation in the dark, we ate with our eyes closed. Shame and foreboding had tied themselves into neat bows at the base of our lungs. We did not breathe for fear someone would find us out: send us back to the bedlam from which we had come. But, when we saw her running down the campus street, toga clutched desperately between her hands, Afro crushed by the indent of a pillow, we found ourselves reaching to catch up behind her. She looked like us. We could not reach her from the shadows. So we stepped forward into the flickering street lights of the small town. She looked like us. Then looked at us. We knew we had arrived before she even welcomed us.
We flexed inside her only with her permission. In the growling darkness of her soul we warmed ourselves. She let us establish a home on the border of her memory and the violation she acknowledged only before she slept. That subtle violence that retched her out into the streetlights, hair and body crushed from the outside in. From here we fed. Nourishing ourselves on the shame and foreboding that had settled like weeds between her lungs and gut. As she breathed, we gorged ourselves, becoming fuller and more flexible. We moved in silence. Growing. Until she bled. It was not a letting we could remember, although it was familiar. Her body pulsed and removed itself from itself. Leaking slowly in dancing rivulets. We stilled our feeding, made curious by the sudden change in the rhythm of her pain. It was an undulation she could bear.
As we turned inward, ready to eat yet more, she whispered gently, ‘This is my offering. You can nourish yourself on my blood if you replace it.’ We understood the solemn agreement that had been made between us. Blood for blood. And so she gave us eyes.
We grew together. She fragmented herself and reattached the parts that worked to make space for us. Before, we slipped between hosts. Asking quietly in dreams if we could enter. Never settling, always displaced. It is why we could not abandon the darkness we had made our home: it engulfed us when we became estranged from the bodies that kept us briefly rooted. As we floated, we fought chaos, and the amalgam of grief that gave us whispered form tore our bodies open. Each day was a coming together and falling apart.
You only live once when you are made of shadows. With her, we could live a thousand times in a single breath. Our sorrow solidified, became tangible, something we could kiss. Our presence made her bloom. Every morning we stared back at one another through shadowy eyes: eyes that held so much disillusion in a face that had only orbited the sun twenty-one times. As we grew within her and she morphed to accommodate us, her eyes darkened, and we curled our lips every time we greeted each other in the bathroom mirror. She looked at us, and we stared back.
On the outside, she played at life in a manner that made us gleam for its deceit. Her body still held the same shape. But there was violence on her lips and at the back of her throat. We tasted it in her blood. The discreet violence that unsheathed itself into her while she slept in an acquaintance’s dorm left opaque scars that she could not see. We traced our fingers across them every day. No one would anticipate the fury behind her grin. Her rage contracted. Every month came the letting, and she repeated the terms of our bond.
‘Slowly, child,’ we cooed, ‘you will soon lick your revenge clean off its bones.’
‘But I’m hungry,’ she said. We know.
It surprised us that she did not shrink in the way we were accustomed. She was deliberate in what she wanted. We basked in her certainty. She gave us life and eyes and now she would give us intentional bloodshed. She sharpened our resolve. Our hunger increased with her determination, and she allowed us to feed until we caught up with her. The next letting she changed the terms of our agreement.
‘It is time to replace what you have taken,’ she said. We stung with delight.
We were not familiar with hunting so unconcealed. She coaxed us from our shyness, nudging us forward into the streetlights and back over the tarmac where we met. Her rage and grief bolstered us: they seared white hot marks on the inside of her veins, warming us.
‘Where are we going?’ we sighed. She answered simply by dragging steadily on a Marlboro Gold as she navigated the pavement. We swallowed air and tobacco and the last remnants of our disquiet. We had never been so bold.
She stalked into the bar. We held our breath as she snaked through the crowd and haze. Who was it, we wondered? Which one had done it? But as we moved, we saw and saw and saw. It could have been them all. Her blood swelled thick and warm as the memory of what drove her hunger swirled in ugly wisps behind her eyes. We were overstimulated: the recollection of our own writhing and running brought forward by the flashing teeth leering behind half-filled glasses. Which one had done it, we wondered, to ourselves and to her? We felt ourselves fragmenting. We had never hunted this unconcealed. We promised blood for blood, but what of our own letting? She hesitated in the panic. Briefly, we became unmoored. And then she saw him. The hunger returned seven-fold, and we knew we would feast. It had to happen this way.
He had no suspicions when she took his hand and led him out the bar. The entire night she danced a deceit while she swallowed bile. We watched him from behind as they walked: saw the teeth glistening and the swell of his appetite. We were hungry too. She led him slowly, making him take in the shape of her body, the fullness of her Afro and the steadiness of her backbone. We saw right through the skin on his face. He wanted to crush that backbone into the base of his mattress: start what he could not finish when she woke up, before we found her running in the streets, toga clutched desperately between her hands, tears stinging cold shame into her cheeks.
He had no suspicions as they walked past the mini shopping mall; then left past the bottle store that sold wine and beer at 10% less. Then straight up past the Italian restaurant with an open gutter running next to it, which she had fallen into once on the way home from a friend’s birthday party in town. Still straight on past the neatly packed guesthouses in which neatly packed guests slept; and still straight on past the shared lawn of the all-women’s residences, one of which she used to live in. He had no suspicions as she led him through the entrance of the park that was closed after sunset but still accessible in the dark. We watched from behind, saw straight through the fucking skin on his face, at how he wanted to crush her backbone into his mattress while she slept. Our hunger burned welts into the roof of her palate.
He had no suspicions. And so, when she turned, wrapped her hands around his shoulders and stared measuredly through the skin on his face, he did not blink when her teeth parted and sank into his throat. We tasted his surprise. It warmed our teeth and tickled our lips. She tore through his scream, and we swallowed that too. Blood for blood. His flesh did not part willingly; it clung to his bones with an impressive obstinance. So we bit down into the memory of the dishevelled toga, the almost crushed backbone, and draped her jaw in the armour of that fury. She would make his skin part the same way he had hers. He looked at us and we looked back. We ripped and tugged at his gurgling cry until he drooped in our arms. His knees buckled and he folded into her mouth. We fell with him. Blood and tears streamed down her chest, her heaving breath beat life against the gargled moan thrumming in his.
‘It had to happen like this,’ we panted. He twitched slightly. His arms sagged around her sides and his head hung heavy in the nook of her neck. She wrapped her arms around his shoulder and deposited him on the ground. We heard him splutter for his mother. He shuddered meekly, still not blinking. We felt a warm stinging on our cheeks.
‘It had to happen like this,’ she said simply. We ate his bowels first.
Gabisile Shabangu is a budding South African speculative fiction storyteller. She is the winner of the SAWC Annual Short Story Competition for 2021. She has an Honours degree in English Literature and is currently completing the Literary Short & Flash Fiction online writing course with SAWC.