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Maya Fowler

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Archive for the ‘South Africa’ Category

Review: Sister-Sister by Rachel Zadok

I reviewed Rachel Zadok’s brilliant novel Sister-Sister for the Cape Times recently. Here’s the full review text:

Sister-Sister by Rachel Zadok, Kwela Books, 2013

The world has always been fascinated by twins. It is as if people expect that the sharing of a womb leads to a magic lifelong bond, a secret language between two soulmates. And so it is between Thuli and Sindi, until the fateful day on which a stranger arrives on their doorstep. He brings with him what Thuli calls “Something Bad”, although of course these words are not nearly sinister enough for the events he will unleash. But first he opens the eavesdropping Sindi’s eyes to the fact that not everybody views the magic of twins as benevolent. Sindi, the silent one, who got, it seems, the wrong name.

Sister Sister Densely written, rich in symbolism and imagery, Sister-Sister is one of the year’s most important books. It offers a number of heart-wrenching surprises, which make it particularly difficult to review: Simply discussing the most important themes gives away too much of the plot, but rest assured: the themes are relevant and riveting. And what one can say with confidence is that Zadok deftly and sensitively approaches her themes in a spell-binding, original way.

Part speculative fiction, part magic realism, part very much realism, the novel holds up a mirror to harsh social realities, the power of jealousy and the destructiveness of stigma and superstition, as well as illustrating how superstition and religion can be intertwined. The fragmented presentation of time, dream sequences, magical descriptions, stream of consciousness and changes of perspective call for slow, attentive reading, but the patient reader is richly rewarded.

Sister-Sister has a strong South African flavour, and is set in the not too distant future, mostly in Johannesburg with scenes in rural KwaZulu-Natal and Durban. The earth has been ravaged by climate change: the Midlands are in the grip of a devastating drought, while Durban sports a New South Beach due to rising sea levels. An energy crisis has led to the outlawing of petrol cars and a thriving industry in biodiesel, often home-brewed. Yet the TV still runs Omo ads, and the schedule includes current favourites such as Generations, Isidingo and Star Trek, which makes the events that much more discomforting. It’s easy to sit back and read something set so far into the future that you can set your mind at ease that the things on the page will never happen, but the fact is that many of these things are already happening. Once again, this is difficult to discuss without giving away the plot, but the point is that these chilling things are a reality today, it’s widely known that they happen, while no one seems to be able to, or want to, stop them.

Zadok delivers prose of high quality with strikingly original metaphors and images. Her verbs, especially, shine: People “leak” from rooms, dawn “filters through manholes”, sunshine “spotlights” the floor and light “[bleeds] through a crack in the drawn curtain”. At one point the twins’ mother has eyes “like fermented fruit” and someone else paints her toenails “the colour of scabs”. While making for fascinating reading, the language underpins the magic of the story, and the personifying verbs add to the mood of animist realism.

As one of the opening quotes suggests, Ben Okri’s Booker-prize-winning The Famished Road (1991) is an important intertext to Sister-Sister. Zadok pays homage to the Nigerian author in the character of Ben, angel-faced Nigerian worker at Joe’s Pit Stop, who frequently chants his “Emi, oru, abiku, O”. (Spoiler alert: If you’ve not yet read the book, skip the rest of this paragraph.) Zadok deftly handles the narration and perspective of her own abiku, or spirit child, and one of the novel’s strengths is that the very fact that we are seeing through the eyes of the dead remains hidden until late into the text. Of course it makes for an effective surprise, but also allows Thuli as narrator the omnipresence that the average third-person narrator lacks.

In Thuli and Sindi, Zadok has created marvellous, credible characters, children that seem completely real, and for whom you feel tremendous compassion, but also alarm, and, at times, anger. On the one hand they are sweet, vulnerable children, on the other hand little shoplifting scoundrels, Thuli proud and precocious, Sindi jealous and bitter. And then, as writers from William Golding to Ian McEwan and Margaret Atwood have demonstrated about children before, they are capable of truly sinister actions. Even so, the overriding feeling evoked in the reader is that of compassion.

Sister-Sister delves into the issues of shame, blame, stigma, salvation, desperation, afterlives (and/or haunting), the vulnerability of children, their innocence and the tragic consequences of naivety. At the same time, it explores childish cruelty: the fact that they are often not nearly as innocent as we’d like to imagine, yet innocent enough to be swallowed up in the most destructive superstition. It is for the reader to decide where salvation lies.

More about Sister-Sister here.

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Dustbowl revisited: When crazy, mixed-up kids grow up

It’s such a pleasure when a review copy crosses your desk and you turn out to really love the book. This breathtaking read took me by surprise, and days after I finished it it’s still on my mind. Take a look at the brief review I wrote for the Cape Times, below:

Sean, Eddie and Me by Paul Leger, Red Press Publishing, 2013

Nick Theron, salesman, 45, returns to the mining town of his childhood. He is seeking closure on the traumatic events brought about by the sophisticated, manipulative Michael Dempsey thirty years before, in the summer they turned sixteen. Leger has a gift for voice: His dialogue is pitch perfect, allowing him to create stunningly vivid characters. From the start, the sociopathic Michael chills the reader with his speech. His tone is flat but smooth, coolly distant but got-you-by-the-throat present and lacks the wild slang and colloquialisms that pepper the speech of the less worldly Nick, Sean and Eddie. The story is utterly compelling, and strikes the same emotional chords as Ron Irwin’s Flat Water Tuesday and Michiel Heyns’s The Children’s Day, with the same blend of youthful energy (juxtaposed with middle-aged disenchantment or disorientation), pathos and humour.

  • Review as published in the Cape Times, Friday 14 March 2014

Read more here.

Sean, Eddie and Me, a novel by Paul Leger

Sean, Eddie and Me, a novel by Paul Leger

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The kiss of sacrifice: A gripping psychological thriller

Isa Konrad’s Die Soenoffer (“The sacrificial kiss/The kiss of sacrifice”, Lapa, 2011) is the best thriller I’ve read in any language in some time, and if you can even remotely read Afrikaans, I urge you to get your hands on a copy.

The subtitle, “The story of a nine-year-old serial killer” is enough to make anyone sit up and take notice. The world expects children to be innocent, pure, absolutely incapable of killing. Yet you might remember the case of Eric Smith, who murdered four-year-old Derrick Robie in New York at the age of 13 in 1993. Then there were Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who murdered two-year-old James Bulger in Liverpool when they were both just ten years old, also in 1993. Then of course there was Columbine. There was Red Lake, there was Jonesboro, there was Springfield, Oregon. And those are just some of the cases in the English-speaking world where more than a handful lost their lives. Children do kill.

But what drives children to commit murder, and, a nine-year-old serial killer? Isn’t that a bit far-fetched, even for a work of fiction? As it turns out, not at all. If you turn to the bibliography, you’ll see the author consulted Gitta Sereny’s The Case of Mary Bell (1972) as well as Cries Unheard: The Story of Mary Bell.

Mary Bell (born 1957), was convicted of manslaughter for strangling to death a four-year-old boy in a derelict house in 1968. Later that year, accompanied by Norma Joyce Bell (aged 13, no relation), she strangled a three-year-old boy, returning to the scene to mutilate his body with a razor.

In Die Soenoffer, Konrad paints the picture of what at first seems a truly evil soul: manipulative, intelligent, a murderer who plans her deeds thoroughly. The reader is filled with horror, but also compassion for a terribly damaged child. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but the parallels with Mary Bell are there. Bell’s mother, for instance, was a prostitute who not only neglected her daughter but forced her from the age of four to engage in sexual acts with her clients. According to the entry on Wikipedia, “Independent accounts from family members strongly suggest that [her mother] had more than once attempted to kill Mary and make her death look accidental during the first few years of her life.”

Mary Bell was convicted for the 1968 murder of two children in the UK. She was aged ten at the time of the first murder.

The novel is set in two time frames: the present day, and the time of the murders. In the present setting, Isobel Swart, convicted of murdering four children at the age of nine, is a young woman. She has been released from prison and is the mother of a little boy of her own. It is clear that the child is more precious to her than anything in the world, and this aspect is clearly and convincingly portrayed – there is nothing and nobody she could ever love more.

At the outset, Isobel approaches wheelchair-bound journalist Wessel Janke, himself a man with a mysterious past, to interview her and tell her story to the world. Their rapport is uneasy at first, but then it appears that Janke, at first suspicious, has fallen for Isobel’s charms …

The twists and turns are brilliant and devastating, and sooner or later the reader starts to speculate with ice in the veins about what exactly the sacrifice mentioned in the title might be.

Konrad has created a chilling masterpiece that evokes in the reader fear, shock, sadness and compassion. It’s dark, compulsive and perfectly paced. And you’ll never look at jacaranda blossoms the same way again.


  • Author Isa Konrad will be taking part in an event at DF Malan High School on Saturday 5 October. See details below. 

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The pistol-whip redux

Please note the words below are by no means my own. They are a cut-and-paste adaptation of a recent post by another blogger. I thought it would be interesting to switch names and gendered pronouns to see what happens. Yes, interesting, but it’s the first time I’ve ever felt queasy about my own blog. I’ve never deleted a post, but this one I might take it away in a day or two.


Copy in italics is the modified original, with ed’s notes in square brackets.


Back in the 20th century it was called a cock-up. A husband would wear the pants and rule the roost, and treat his spouse with a lack of respect that sometimes developed into contempt.


Taken to extremes, a man’s sadistic delight in the humiliation of his wife could lead to murderous consequences. This is what happened to Tammy Taljaard, her husband and their daughter.


[Changed names, pronouns, cut some adjectives]


Tammy looked the part. There was little flesh on her, she suffered from a mild form of spinal curvature, she wore spectacles and developed alopecia, and when she laughed nervously her upper incisors protruded.


[Changed pronouns, cut some adjectives]


Mr Taljaard was the same height as his wife but weighed twice as much. When he raised his voice in order to berate and belittle her, it was always in the same monotone.


[Changed pronouns, cut a bit]


When she was at home, Tammy spent most of her time in the garage sitting in her car looking through the windscreen at the paint that was flaking off the wall. This was preferable to the constant goading she was subjected to the moment she stepped inside the house.


[Cut two words]


This went on for many years until one day it occurred to her that hell couldn’t possibly be worse than purgatory, and she might as well get on over there. That night, when her husband and daughter began rolling on the floor and screaming in agony after eating the meal she had poisoned, she called an ambulance.


[Didn’t change anything other than pronouns, but had a moment’s silence for Ellen Pakkies]


When her tormentors had been carted away she returned to her refuge, fitted a hosepipe to the exhaust, and then got behind the wheel for the last time. It was in the 1980s that this took place.



Nowadays it’s not quite the same. Instead of being slapped around, women get pistol-whipped.


[Modified two verbs]


There’s a difference … It has something to do with social changes that have taken place over the past 30 years.


[No changes. Penciled something about social changes in the margin, but, oh, blast pencil, so vague. Feint.]



[Cut a paragraph. Took two Panados.]


Take what happened to Edie Delikat. Born and raised in a small town, she joined the local municipality and rose to the position of Supervisor in the Water and Sanitation Department … She enjoyed getting drunk in the local bars and was happy to participate in a good brawl. Then, in her late twenties, she met Mike.


Yes, Mike was handsome, but he was also a hard case. Edie only discovered just how hard a case he was once they were married. Her pregnancy was a difficult one but still she was required to so most of the household chores. [Looking for that note I penciled in the margin earlier, but can’t seem to find it now.]


Edie wasn’t particularly suited to domestic service and she often tried to shirk her duties by coming home late after getting drunk with her buddies down at the pub. However, Mike soon put a stop to this.

“If that’s how you want to behave,’ he told her, “Then you can sleep on the couch and keep that thing well away from me.”


In order to get that thing anywhere near her, Edie found it necessary to jump through a whole lot of hoops. Like coming home straight after work, regularly walking the dog, dandling the child on her knee, and putting the rubbish out on a Monday morning.


[Note: Must adapt this into a screenplay. So touching and unbelievable, tragic, really, that a person should be expected to help take care of a child they helped to create. Dandling the child on her knee. The irony. The pathos!]


“We don’t see much of Edie these days,” one of her pals commented. “I think that poor woman is so pistol-whipped by she doesn’t know the difference between a pistol and …”

[Pronouns. Deleted some references to genitalia.]


… Mike used sex as a weapon to bludgeon Edie into fulfilling her obligations as wife and mother…


[Cut some stuff, building the suspense, tried to find a nice cursive font, but made do with the colour pink instead]


He made no bones about it. Behave yourself, or else. Mr Taljaard had probably been playing the same game with Tammy, but the sexual dimension at that time wasn’t out in the open like it is today. That’s the difference between cock-ups and pistol-whipping.


[Cut some more stuff.]


It struck her one day at work that Mike no longer had any hold over her. But sometimes she wonders if it wouldn’t be better for all of them if she’d poisoned him and the kid and then went to gas herself in her car.

[Probably a realistic place to end.]


I suspect the writer of the original post won’t praise me for this, but that doesn’t matter. I suspect he doesn’t like … certain people. Imagine if you know somebody strongly dislikes, say, surrealism, and you present them with a Dalí print. They’ll tell you they don’t like it one bit. You’ll say it doesn’t matter, because we all know you hate this kind of thing anyway. Same-same. No different.

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MML winner on Pinterest

Join me on another visual journey. My latest Pinterest board is filled with images of the Karoo, the setting for Om op eiers te dans (“Dancing on eggshells”). This YA novel won the Maskew Miller Longman prize for youth literature in 2011. To see the board, click here. Looking forward to your feedback!



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More YA inspiration on Pinterest

Recently I posted the link to my pinboard for The Elephant in the Room, but today I’m sharing As jy ‘n ster sien verskiet. Click here to take a look. Readers who want to know more about landscapes, images and objects that inspired me during the writing are welcome to browse the board and post feedback!

The image below is an example of what you’ll find there. It’s a picture of a cactus plant I took just outside of Graaff-Reinet one January.



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Izak’s blue dress, for Women’s Day

Sometimes you find a short story so brilliant, so shocking, but so true, so full of compassion and so heart-wrenching that you need to share it with the rest of the world. Izak de Vries’s “Die blou rok” (“The Blue Dress”), from his 1998 anthology Kom slag ‘n bees (Tafelberg Publishers; ISBN 0 624 03671 5) is such a story. Today, on the eve of Women’s Day, I translated it because I believe in it and I wanted to make it accessible to people who can’t read the original.

This is because Women’s Day is not about buying a new pair of shoes, nor indeed a dress. Although dresses matter, as you’ll see.

The Blue Dress

Izak de Vries

Translation: Maya Fowler


I couldn’t ask Ma for a new dress. It was hard, because my church dress was getting all worn and I’d long outgrown it.

Ma always told us to pray. She said it was fine to pray for material things too, because the Our Father talks about our daily bread. I prayed, but always quietly. I couldn’t say this thing during our evening prayers, because then Ma’d hear. And I couldn’t tell Magda or Ronnie anything, because what if they told on me? That’s why I’d pray quietly.

Some days I’d really wonder if Jesus ever heard me. I know it’s bad, but Ma was always praying for Dad. Often, at evening prayers, Magda and Ronnie and I also prayed that Jesus would put an end to the devil’s hold on Dad, the spell of drink. Ma taught us to pray like that. She’d always say you must respect your parents, even if they drink like Dad. Ma also said that one of the best ways you can show your respect for someone is by praying for them.

It’s easy to respect Ma. She’s kind and always talks nicely to us, and she buys food with her money. But it’s hard respecting Dad. Especially when the other kids started talking about confirmation dresses, which in our church happens around the last year of high school.

Liezl’s dad phoned Tant Bessie and told her to go ahead, charge it to the account. Liezl could ask for any kind of dress.

Annelise’s dad took her and her mom to Worcester to go choose the prettiest dress. Whatever she wanted, that’s what he said.

Marlene said her dad just gave her mom some money and told her to go buy. His little girl had to look good on her big day. When it came to dresses, he just didn’t know though, that was girls’ stuff.

Annelise let us know that her shoes alone cost over a hundred. She said we had to see the dress first, then we could guess how much it cost, but we should just know it was a lot. And it was lilac, she said.

Then one day Ma said: We need to get you a dress for two weeks’ time. You can’t go in that one.

My heart got going. When can we go buy, Ma? I asked.

No, Ma said, buying is too expensive. But Mr Bruyns had told her she could get some material at cost: less than half the price. And the cotton and buttons Ma could have for free, he said.

When can we go buy the material, Ma? I asked.

End of the week, when I get paid.

But then Ronnie fell and there was the doctor, and the medicine, and we’d already run up an account at the pharmacy, so Ma couldn’t buy on credit. So when the end of the week came, Ma had no money. So all weekend we had to eat potatoes, the ones Magda and Ronnie and I planted, because Ma didn’t buy any other food. She bought Sunlight soap, because, Ma says, a person can have it bad, but your body and your hair and your clothes must be clean.

The Monday morning Ma went to Mr Bruyns to ask him for a little advance on Dad’s pay. The rest he could pay out when Dad got back.

Mr Bruyns wasn’t there, but he phoned Ma at the co-op later to tell her she could come fetch it after work, but wasn’t she scared?

Ma said no, my girl needs this dress, Mr Bruyns, and then he said OK. This is what Ma told me.

Mr Bruyns is good to us. He’s the one that asked Ma to take the job at the co-op so she could earn a little something for us. Mr Bruyns is Dad’s boss, too. He’s the one that owns the big lorry. Mr Bruyns has told Dad before that he’ll fire him if he doesn’t stop his drinking, but he won’t, because when Dad sits at home, then he really gets drinking. And at least he and his friends don’t drink it all away: he always holds onto a bit. And when Dad isn’t at home, it’s actually quite nice, even though Ma says it’s not respectful to say so. And sometimes Dad tells us sorry. Then he’s really nice for a few days. Then we never know quite how to speak to him.

And Mr Bruyns has told Ma many times that Dad never drinks out on the road. He’s definitely the best driver he’s ever had. He’s tried to catch him out, even told his agents in Johannesburg to keep an eye on him, but no-one could ever, not once, catch a trace of liquor on his breath while he was working.

It’s the devil’s evil hold, Ma would always say. The man I married wasn’t like that. It’s the devil that does this thing to him.

Unfortunately Dad got home that same night, because the Laingsburg cargo was arriving later only. Which meant that he didn’t have to spend the night there. When he got home, he shouted at Ma: Where’s my money? When Ma didn’t answer, he gave her a smack and tore her dress apart completely. He yanked her bra off, because he knows that’s where she hides her money.

No Dad, no, Ronnie screamed, but Dad just took the money and left.

Ma said we’d just have to wait for the weekend of my confirmation. She’d work all night long, and we knew that Dad had to leave again on the Friday. Johannesburg, Durban, Johannesburg, Richard’s Bay. It was going to be a long shift. He’d only be back in ten days.

But that Thursday morning Magda’s first period arrived. There was a lot of blood. Ma and I also bleed like that, and so Ma had to go ask Mr Bruyns for an advance, because we’d run out of pads. Magda couldn’t even go to school that day. All morning she sat there with a piece of cloth to keep the bed from getting stained, until Ma got home at lunchtime. The two of us share a bed. First she used to sleep on the floor, while Ronnie shared with me, but a few months ago Ma said Ronnie was getting too big for that. Now us two girls have the bed, and he gets the floor.

And then the place where the bra cut Ma’s breast got infected and she had to go off to the doctor again, and the medicine cost so much, Ma couldn’t even get the whole prescription.

Ma still said: I don’t know why it’s gone infected, because I kept it so nice and clean. Every morning, every evening I wash it with Sunlight soap.

So Ma got here on the Friday evening without any material. But then she said to me: As God is my witness tonight, my daughter’s confirmation is more important than a drunk man’s chickens!

And off she went to catch Dad’s three show Leghorns, and next she sold them to Oom Dolla. He’d told Dad many times, if ever he wanted to sell …

Oom Dolla felt sorry for Ma, and gave her much more than she asked. Far more even than they were worth, Ma said.

So the Saturday afternoon, Ma got going. These days she works with a needle and thread, because one day Dad went and sold her Singer. He’s said he was sorry, he’d buy another one. But he hasn’t yet.

And I bought a bar of Lux soap. Thalitha, tomorrow morning I’ll go milk the cow, then you sleep in. Magda, you go chop the firewood and make us a nice fire. Ronnie, you’re big enough. You need to make sure there’s enough water in here, so that you and Magda can heat a big tub of water for Thalitha. Then the two of you can also wash with the Lux afterwards. Now Thalitha, you need to wash nicely tomorrow. And then you go use some of the Impulse spray you’ll find in my cupboard. And your hair, wash well. Lux isn’t as strong as Sunlight. Your hair should look good after that. Then, when you’re finished, but now remember, you’re not rushing, tomorrow’s your day, when you’re finished, you get into your bra and panties, and you come sit on the porch. Brush your hair till it’s dry. Then we can eat. I’ve bought special Oats porridge. I know you like it. We even have some of that honey that Oom Karel brought us left. Then I’ll brush your hair nicely. Once everything’s done, you put on your dress. My girl is going to look very pretty for the Lord. I’ve polished your shoes already, nice and shiny.

Those were my school shoes Ma polished like that. Ma does so much for us. I can’t tell her that Annelise started laughing when she heard I wash my hair with soap. Annelise said she uses shampoo and conditioner, which costs more than eighty rand altogether. That’s more than half of what Ma earns at the co-op every week.

Just before I left to go deliver the milk, Ma got me to try it on. The dress wasn’t done yet. No, Ma said, I know my girl’s body. I’m the one that carried her. Just one fitting and all the seams will be right. Tomorrow morning just before church she’ll put it on, finished.

Then I set off for the parsonage. As long as there’s a cow with milk, we always deliver some for Sundays’ tea after church. When I got to the house, the minister’s wife, we call her Mevrou Dominee, opened the door.

Suddenly Mevrou said: I was still meaning to ask you, but it really slipped my mind, I’m sorry. Do you have a dress for tomorrow? You know, I’m sorry, I have a beautiful white dress upstairs, and we’re about the same size. I’m sure it would fit.

And I said no, my mother’s making me one, and she said sure, but don’t you just want to try it on? So I said yes. But I shouldn’t have. I just wanted to see myself in a beautiful dress so badly. And white, too. Ma had said herself it was such a pity she couldn’t make a white dress, but it just wouldn’t be right.

That Friday Annelise, under the shower after PT, still ran her hands over her body and sighed. Oh, to have this old body showing up at the altar in lilac. A disgrace!

Liezl, who was standing next to her, choked and said: Why do you think I chose black?

Everyone stood in the shower laughing. I was done showering, and wanted to get into my panties in a hurry, because they already had a little hole showing.

Marlene, who was also done showering, just pulled up her nose and said, Well, I’m going to be standing there in white, because I deserve it.

Benita shouted: Snob! And everyone laughed some more. Benita was still a virgin too, but she said cream is more sophisticated. She’d save white for her wedding, one day.

I still remember when Annelise told us last year how Johan had asked her to sleep with him that weekend. She’d said yes. Johan was headboy then. He’d said it was his first time too, she told us. Everyone was jealous.

How big is his dick? asked one of the matrics. She’d had a huge crush on Johan. Ma says we mustn’t talk dirty like that. We must say thingy, but at school they don’t say it that way.

This big, Annelise explained, from the tips of her fingers up to her wrist. Marlene took a ruler and measured, 18 cm.

I’ve had bigger, Liezl said. Liezl was terribly jealous of Annelise.

Yes, but you sleep around like a whore, bitched Annelise. Then Liezl scratched Annelise in the eye. If you look carefully, you’ll still see the mark. These days they’re great pals.

Look, says Mevrou next to me. Don’t you think it’s pretty? Don’t you want to try it on?

She went out and let me try on the dress.

After a while she came back and handed me some matching lace gloves. I’d never looked so pretty.

If you want it, I’ll give you shoes and stockings to match. I’m sorry. Last week I was so busy, I clean forgot.

I must have spent a long time looking at myself in the mirror, because after a while she left.

Just let me know when you’re done, she said. The dress was terribly pretty. She was right. We’re the same size. But I was thinking of Ma, with the three Leghorns under her arm. And there she was at that very moment, sitting on the porch with the old reading glasses, working away at the blue dress I was only allowed to see the next day, when it was done.

I couldn’t do it to Ma.

So I took off the dress, folded it neatly, put the little gloves beside it and told Mevrou thanks, but my mom was making me a dress.

On the way home I kicked a stone so hard it made my toe bleed.

Back home, Ma and Magda were busy peeling potatoes. The dress must have been done, or Ma would finish it by candlelight later.

That night I lay there thinking of my confirmation, how I had to answer yes when the minister asked, and what I’d look like next to Annelise. We’re next to each other, alphabetically. At school too.

I wondered what the dress Ma was making would have looked like in white – if I’d still been a virgin. Ma says I mustn’t think about that day too much, but I can’t really forget.


I was thirteen, and had just finished standard five. Dad and his friends were here to see in the new year. He sent me to go get some more brandy. When I got back, he was taking a slash with a few other guys and told me to go wait under the canopy of his bakkie so long. That was before Dad sold the old pick-up truck.

When I got there, there were two other men sitting inside, paging through a Scope magazine. They opened the door so that they could see better.

I wish they weren’t covered in stars, said the one.

I went to wait in the back of the truck.

Well, you could show us what a girl looks like without little stars, said the other one.

Yes, how about a full frontal, said the first one.

They said I had to take off my dress. I didn’t want to, but then one of them said he’d give me a smack if I didn’t.

I took off my dress.

Come sit here in front, between us, said one.

I went to sit there.

Then they said: Nice. That looks very good, and you don’t even have stars.

One touched my chest. Kiss me, he said.

I’d often kissed uncles and so on, on Ma’s side of the family, to say hello, and so I kissed him that way.

No, he said. Make it longer, a much longer kiss. And open your mouth. His mouth tasted like brandy and he pushed his tongue far back into mine. The whole time he was touching my chest.

Come, let’s take of her panties, said one. She’s got hair under her arms already.

He used both hands to pull off my panties. Come, lift that pretty little arse.

The gear lever got in his way, and he said some bad things. Don’t be difficult, he said.

I lifted my feet so that he could take off my panties. I sat there in the bakkie between them, naked. The one who took off my panties pushed his finger up my froggie. He pushed up and down. I know at school they call it something else, but Ma says we mustn’t use dirty language. We must say froggie, and Ronnie has a thingy. Otherwise ma says just plain dingaling.

The other one kissed me again, one of those long kisses.

Quick, let her lie down, said the one who took off my panties.

They got up. Both of them came to stand on the passenger side. They made me lie down on the seat.

Open your legs, girlie, said the one that took off my panties.

Do you think Gert will mind if we screw his daughter? asked the one who kissed me.

He’s so drunk he won’t even know, said the other one.

Who’s first? asked the other one.

The first one out of his pants, said the other one, who’d taken off my panties.

He was clever, because the whole time he’d been wearing just a pair of tackies and tracksuit pants. He fell over his own feet and landed on top of me.

His thingy was very big and thick and stood right up. He pulled me over to him so that my bum was on the edge of the seat, and he pushed his thingy all the way into my froggie. It was sore and I must have screamed, because then the other one covered my mouth with his hand. His hand tasted bad. The other one carried on pushing his thingy into my froggie and pulling it out again. It was very sore and I was sure he was pushing it right into my tummy.

After a while, he said: I’m coming.

About time, said the other one. Then the one who pulled my panties off groaned.

It was sticky.

Keep her mouth shut so that I can get a turn, said the other one.

The one who pulled off my panties climbed over me and came to sit on my face. His thingy was full of blood.

Come on, he said, lick it clean. This is your blood.

I started to cry.

If you make a racket, I’ll bash your teeth in tonight, he said.

The other one pushed my knees apart and it started again. I had to bite down on my teeth to not make a sound.

Suddenly Ma was there. She always says we mustn’t use bad language, but that night she screamed and swore terribly. She hit the two men and threatened to phone the police.

Then Dad told everyone to go. The two of them fought for a long time, right there next to the bakkie.

Ma shouted. Dad begged. Usually it’s the other way around.

Eventually Ma got me out of the bakkie and washed me.

The next day we went to the doctor. He looked me over a few times after that, and the Welfare came to speak to me, but Ma and Dad both said: No police. Then we’ll deny it. And we’ll tell her too, to say it never happened.

Dad’s friends never came drinking at our house again.


The morning of my confirmation Magda was annoyed when Ma told her to get up while I was allowed to lie in. She went out just like that, in her nightie, to go and chop wood and make a fire.

Ronnie went to fetch water from the pump and by the time Ma was done milking, there was a big tub of hot water in the kitchen.

Now we’re going to see my girl enjoying her wash, she said.

I took off my nightshirt, one of Dad’s old, tattered ones, and went to stand in the tub.

Ma poured the hot water over me carefully. Then she took the bar of Lux out of her apron pocket and gave it to Magda to open.

Ronnie sat there wide-eyed, watching me wash.

Carefully, Magda opened it and handed the soap to me.

Ronnie, said Ma. Come sit here in front of Thalitha and hold the soap for her. Magda, come and pour the water. I’m going to finish making the porridge.

I soaped my hair and my body. Magda was still annoyed, but poured the water over me quite merrily. Ronnie was more than happy to hold the soap and then hand it back again.

Liezl had said she was going to tell everyone to use her mom and dad’s bathroom that morning. She wanted to lie and soak for an hour.

Marlene has her own bathroom. No-one besides her ever takes a bath there, except when she has friends staying over. I’ve been there, but I’ve never slept over.

I’d only ever had one bath. We went to Cape Town on tour and stayed in a big university res. That time I stayed up late one night, drew a bath full of water and lay there for a long while.

As I soaped my froggie, I suddenly wondered what the dress would have looked like if it had been white. If it had been allowed to be white.

I must have been dreaming, because all of a sudden Magda, all pert, said: You can’t stand there fingering yourself like that on the Sabbath.

Ronnie wanted to kill himself laughing, because he’d been there when I showed Magda one evening how to do it. The kids at school had been talking about it.

Magda is still a virgin. Maybe one day she’ll wear a white confirmation dress.

Done with my bath, I went to comb my hair.

We ate, Ma combed my hair some more and said: And now! And she went to fetch the dress.

It looked like a little sundress, just a bit longer, and with sleeves.

First I put on the dress, then my socks and my shoes, all polished.

Ma said: You have rings under your eyes. Didn’t you sleep well? It’s a pity I couldn’t buy any make-up.

She took me to their room and let me take a look in the full-length wardrobe mirror.

I couldn’t help it. I burst into tears when I saw myself. It was so common, compared to Mevrou’s dress.

But I couldn’t tell Ma that.

What’s wrong? Ma wanted to know.

O, Ma, it’s so beautiful, I lied.

Ma brushed my hair once more, and we walked to church. At the door, Ma said to me: Now remember, say yes nice and loudly. You’re not ashamed in front of the Lord.

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The Elephant in the Room on Pinterest: A Visual Journey

Last year I started creating mood boards or inspiration boards on Pinterest for all my books. They’re a work in progress, but you’ll be able to see what things looked like in my mind as I was writing. You’ll see places, like Kalk Bay, and the Overberg, and more ethereal things, like deconstructed butterflies. I’ve provided captions, like “Lily wants”, “Lily dreams”, “The attitude, age 15″, and “Healing broken butterflies”.

Take a look and see some of the physical and mental spaces Lily inhabits: and let me know what you think!

Lily and Grace

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Translation for the virgin poet: Ingrid Jonker

Recently it occurred to me that translation is a good exercise for the young poet. Find poetry you like and submit yourself to the rigours of putting the words into another language. You’ll learn about rhyme and metre, and you’ll find your mind breaking open with possiblities like a ripe pomegranate.*

And so, rather than turning to writing poetry, I’ve been playing with translation as an intellectual exercise, something to build new synapses in my brain, hopefully enriching my prose.

Here I’ve approached a poem called “Puberteit” (“Puberty”) by Ingrid Jonker. Jonker’s work has been translated before, by distinguished poets including Jack Cope, William Plomer, Antjie Krog and André Brink. I have chosen, while busying myself with this exercise, to remain ignorant of these texts to see what I might achieve in blind translation. This is notebook work, thus, but perhaps the translations might carry a spark of my own creativity. To this end I have allowed myself to stray freely in places, to create a slightly different atmosphere. Translations of this kind I intend for the bilingual reader who may indulge in a side-by-side comparison. See this at work in option 2, where I’ve chosen free interpretation.

Note these five-minute efforts (exercises) are still very rough. Never the less, please let me know which one you prefer!

Here’s the original:


Die kind in my het stil gesterf
verwaarloos, blind en onbederf

in ‘n klein poel stadig weggesink
en iewers in die duisternis verdrink

toe jy onwetend soos ‘n dier
nog laggend jou fiesta vier.

Jy het nie met die ru gebaar
die dood voorspel of die gevaar

maar in my slaap sien ek klein hande
en snags die wit vuur van jou tande:

Wonder ek sidderend oor en oor
Het jy die kind in my vermoor…?


Translation 1 (more “true”)

The child in me died silently

neglected, blind and fetter-free


sunken slowly in a little pond

drowned somewhere in the dark beyond


while you oblivious as a beast

with mirth continued at your feast.


Not with crude gesture did your warn

of death or danger in the morn


but in my sleep I see small fingers

the flare of  your teeth at night still lingers:


repeatedly I shiver and wonder

did you kill the child, put it asunder?


Option 2

The child in me died silently

neglected, blind and fetter-free


slowly submerged in a little pool

drowned somewhere in the dusky ghoul


while you oblivious as a beast

with mirth continued at your feast.


Not with crude gesture did your warn

of death or danger in the morn


but in my sleep I see the wrenches

the nightly flare of your dentures:


repeatedly I shiver and wonder

did you kill the child, put her asunder?


These poems are from Jonker’s Versamelde werke, published by Human & Rousseau.


*The pomegranate is one of my favourite Jonker images. Take a look:

As jy lag

Jou lag is ’n oopgebreekte granaat

Lag weer

dat ek kan hoor hoe lag die granate


When you laugh

Your laugh is a pomegranate split open

Laugh again

so I can hear the laughter of pomegranates

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Murder: my first attempt

A new short story. Let me know what you think!


Shadows around her, the mountain draped in a blanket; she knows she should hurry on through the lane. The last security guards, keen to catch late rush-hour trains out of the city, left hours before. She lurches when she hears rustling behind her, but releases the tension in her shoulders in an exhalation when she sees the homeless woman working her way through the garbage can.

She lowers the knitted cap over her ears and presses on but slacks off when she sees an albino squirrel darting across the path. Another hovers on an oak trunk, legs and tail spread wide, nose and whiskers twitching, tail flicking.

More rustling follows in the ivy ahead of her, approximately where the white squirrel had darted a moment ago. Forgetting the darkness pushing in on her like a narrowing tunnel, she leans over the flowerbed, parting the leaves with the hope of smoothing her hand over soft squirrel fur, but the cold, smooth surface, sturdy but rippling, jolts her and sets her running.

Beyond the war monument, on the dirt path leading to the shul, she notices two figures, one marginally shorter than the other. She hurries on past but glimpses the shorter figure trying to shove the other aside.



Linda licked her lips and tugged at her sweater, which had suddenly started feeling hot and restrictive around her neck. The surgical mask hung from her throat like a bib and she yanked at that too. She cradled the cold receiver against her cheek and flinched against the sharp metal pinching into the soft flesh behind her ear. She’d bought the cheapskate earrings after the robbery and now they were a sharp reminder.

Life clicked into place on the other side of the line. That gruff voice.

“Right. You know that snake you sent up from Gardens?” Pause. Irritating phone. Change sides. “Python, yes. Well.”

She licked her lips again and coughed.

“Really. I thought I’d seen it all, but I think you’d better come take a look at this.” Pause. “Well, you wanted us to find out what it’s been living on, right?”

As she talked, she twirled her hair around her finger but stopped, pulled her back straight and wiped her hand on her lab coat when she realised what she was doing.

“You saw the shape this thing was in, I mean, the shape …”

But police stations are busy places. No time for chit-chat. Click.

Linda pushed the phone across her desk, watching the tightly coiled cord curl and twist over itself. She shuddered. A dog, he’d said, of course it’s swallowed a dog. He didn’t really want anything to do with it. The only reason someone had called the police in the first place is because they have guns, and the logical conclusion when one sees a snake is that it has to be shot. Yet when they discovered just what it was, Nathan gave the bullet his blessing and Constable Twala potted the thing neatly in the head. Not even a lot of blood or anything, Nathan had told her, as if she didn’t have eyes herself.

Last Thursday’s paper was resting underneath three coffee mugs. She swept them away to open up to page five. On page two she glossed over a picture of an ex-lover who had taken part in some charity cycle race. Just the week before she’d bumped into him in Kloof Street Checkers. It irritated her about Cape Town that the place was so damn small, that you kept blundering into the same people over and over.

She hadn’t read the article properly on the day and was pleased for a change that she had a habit of not tossing out useless and expired things.

“City senior fined: Exotic python released in Company Gardens.” The article detailed how police had been alerted when a homeless woman was found shrieking in the vicinity of the Iziko museum after she saw a man releasing a large snake into a swathe of ivy groundcover. She had reported that the snake was “at least 30 foot long, just like the one that took Amos”, but the man, an avid birder, whose name was known to the paper, had told police that it was closer to fifteen foot, approximately four metres.

“Just like the one that took Amos.” The report suggested that the police regarded the woman a ranter, mentally ill, and no further mention was made of a potential missing person by that name.

Linda stroked her fingers as she read, another old habit, but flinched when she squeezed her left ring finger too hard. The negative space always still surprised her, but worse at the moment was the physical pain in the stump. It had been hot, that evening, a bit more than a year before; Linda had always been prone to swelling in the heat. The man had been carrying a knife. It was a big diamond.

She continued reading. Police spent a number of days looking for the snake, which the man confessed he had bought from a snake dealer to deal with what he called the “squirrel infestation of the Company Gardens.” Squirrels, he said, decimate birds’ nests and displace indigenous species. Police said that the man, initially reticent, had become increasingly talkative during questioning, and boasted that he had released another python in the gardens two years previously. “The police search continues.”

Not anymore. Linda turned her head to get another look at the creature laid out on its back on her stainless steel cutting table. Its tongue had fallen out of its mouth and its head was surprisingly, endearingly, diamond-shaped and sturdy, she found.


With the salty-bitter silt of another black coffee raking her throat, Linda snapped on a new pair of latex gloves, secured the mask and shoved the door open with her shoulder. Nathan (to her, Inspector Venter to other people) had phoned back, tipped off to the whereabouts of a suspected kidnapper. He wouldn’t be attending any snake viewings that afternoon.

Of course she’d taken some pictures, but what’s a picture, compared to real life? You’d have to see it with your own eyes to appreciate the swollen, distorted form, and that tremendous lump, right there, and the width of it, as wide as … well, not a dog.

Her colleagues had been bemused, but not altogether interested. They were into observing and conserving local fauna, not investigating exotic species, although Linda argued that dissection would reveal its eating habits, and therefore the impact it had on its foreign environment. They wished her well, but returned to their western leopard toads and dwarf chameleons. She was surprised nobody was taken aback by the size and shape of the creature, until one of them reminded her that a month or two earlier a five-foot Burmese python had been killed in Florida with eighty-seven, eighty-seven, he said, eggs inside. And they weren’t gecko eggs. So she shrugged and got on with it.

The smell slapped her, worse than she remembered. And it wasn’t the snake, or its light pink flesh, but what lay inside. Not eggs. Not that stomach dissections are ever pleasant, but this was something on a grander scale than she’d ever experienced.

She blocked her nose to sigh and picked up the scalpel, setting off from where she’d left. She’d stopped the incision a metre from where she’d started, at the throat, when she discovered it. A shoe. That’s when she’d called Nathan. Now she slid the scalpel further down the belly, and the sudden release of pressure made the body pop out so that she jumped back, clutching at her chest with her left hand to leave a bloody glove print on her white coat.

Knowing what she’d find, after the shock of that shoe (firmly and definitely attached to flesh) hadn’t prepared her for the moment. While she believed she’d steadied her nerves with breathing, coffee and a non-starter phone call, she’d only just lulled herself into temporary numbness.

The man, or what seemed like man (hard to tell, with his head still covered) was short and compact. His skin was bloated and bleached white. The closest reference Linda had was skin that had spent several days under a plaster. She stood back from the table, trying to steady her breath, when she saw it. She felt lightheaded. Her jaw began to ache and her heart fluttered around her collarbones. On his right pinkie finger, unaffected by mucus or gastric juices, was a diamond ring. One that she knew very well.


Elaine dropped behind the steering wheel when she saw the curtain flicker, but it was just the wind. She sat up and pushed her sunglasses higher on the bridge of her nose. Another glance told her the bitch was still firmly ensconced in the flat. That little love-nest of theirs. She lit a cigarette, always good for passing the time, but it didn’t keep her mind from whirring so she took out her cellphone to see what was new online.

She tipped her ash out of the window and scrolled. The little button irritated her, sitting between screen and keyboard. It made reading hard work. Seeing the Facebook icon she sucked through her teeth. She had a fake profile on there, but hadn’t had cause to use it since Harry had gone. Nevertheless she opened it and went through the newsfeed, absorbing the baby pics, inspirational messages and jokes normal people could post. She didn’t have babies, she snorted at the idea of her inspiring anyone, and she didn’t have anything to laugh about either.

The second-floor door opened, and there she was, straight, dark hair down her back, good legs, great. No tits, though, Elaine was pleased to observe. She arched an eyebrow. The woman was moulded into a bright floral Spandex dress. She walked up straight and tossed her hair. Her phone rang, she answered, smiled, laughed, paused, scowled, shook her head and rolled her eyes, paused, laughed again. She was in no way behaving like a woman who had headed for a tryst in a park only to find her lover with a hole in the head.

She thought of him again, lying there like a drowned rat, those little hands of his drawn up and curled like a rodent’s, the thick, matted hair on his head and neck, and back, if you’d cared to lift his shirt. It was raining hard by the time she fired the shot. She wanted to blast a whole round on him, but the rain had pissed on those plans. The first shot, however, did the job. And she could thank the rain for clearing away the blood. Any that might have remained would have looked like the result of a late-night brawl, nothing more. He’d fallen right into the ivy, which drained the blood into a hard-to-spot area in any case.

It had taken her a long time, after all, to work up the nerve to pull the trigger. All the while they’d argued, as the gardens emptied of walkers, commuters, security guards and, it seemed, even homeless people. He slapped her when she screamed at him that she knew about his bitch in Myrtle Street. The ring had swivelled so that the stone was on his palm side and it cut her face. It made her laugh. There she was, angry at being double-crossed by this man, a full head shorter than her, his bald patch covered in the remarkably thick mat that still grew on the sides, and lately dyed black. Small fingers he had, like a woman, and then he insisted on wearing that ring. It drew looks, always, but he liked that, and whenever he saw question marks in people’s eyes he’d guffaw and slap her on the arse with that bejewelled hand. That always made people look away.

Mixing business with pleasure, that had been her mistake. Although looking at him like that, she was alarmed that she’d ever found pleasure there. Yet she hadn’t been the first, and obviously not the last. It had stung when she’d pieced together the late-night texts, cryptic emails, long black hairs on her pillow. But what had smarted most of all was realising that once again, it was a business-and-pleasure mix, and the thought of being replaced on two fronts was what made a bubbling tide of red wash up inside her mind, clouding over her vision.

Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth as she thought about that ring again. They’d acquired it together. He never would have gotten hold of that woman by himself. She remembered how skittish she’d been when she saw Harry. She’d picked up her pace across the parking lot. But women always trusted Elaine, especially when she pretended to be lost in the dark. She’d screamed so, that woman. She promised him anything if he’d just spare her the ring. It was her mother’s, she’d cried. Anything, he cackled with rising intonation. No, no, she squirmed and sobbed. It took him a long time to get that ring off, but he did, and when he heard campus security coming, he yanked at the chain on her neck, snapping one of the links, but gold is gold and anything can be sold. That’s what he always said.

But the ring. Elaine looked down at her naked ring finger. She played with it sometimes. She’d never seen such a big diamond in real life. It wasn’t an Elizabeth Taylor piece or anything, but it was unusual, and the way it glimmered mesmerised her like nothing else in this world could anymore. And he’d promised her. He’d always said it would be hers, he’d slip it on for her one day and she’d be his, but first she just had to do this, had to do that. The date kept moving. And then this other woman appeared.

As she marched down the stairs in her floral dress, Elaine ducked under the steering wheel again, bumping into the phone and bringing it to life. The news site drew her attention and when she read the headline she felt the prickling of sweat in her armpits and the jolt of blood to her head.


She hadn’t thought things through as well as she thought she had. Yes, that woman of Harry’s was supposed to find him there, they’d set up a meeting after all, but then what?  Once the job was done, Elaine panicked. She wanted to grab the ring, but the thudding of her own blood in her ears confused her. She was struggling, suddenly, to balance, and then she heard sirens, or thought she heard sirens. Blue light swept across the grass, and she ran.


“Hell, you could blind a person with that thing.”

Nathan whistled. Linda felt a rash of heat rising up her neck but smiled as she rested her hand on the ring where it hung against her breastbone from a cheap silver chain.

“You entertaining offers from some other guy?” he asked.

She swatted the air with a limp wrist and clicked her tongue.

“Don’t be ridiculous, man.”

But he kept looking at her. She had to say something.

“It reminded me of my mother’s one, OK?”

She hoped that by putting a question mark in the air, she’d put an end to his queries, and it worked. He shrugged and went to stand behind the table at the photographer’s request.

The snake, opened up from head to tip, was still on its back, but now minus its gruesome last meal. Linda joined Nathan. She screwed her eyes shut against the flash.

“OK. Let’s see if it works,” Nathan said as the photographer zipped up his camera bag. Linda swallowed.

“So, still, nobody’s come forward? How can someone just be lying dead inside a snake without being reported missing?”

“Exactly. Anyway, between your estimate and the pathologist’s findings, at least we can feed the papers a murder date. And sometimes people start remembering things they’ve heard or seen, when they suddenly have a date.”

After he left, she washed her hands three times in a row, all the while looking at herself in the mirror and wondering why she felt guilty wearing something that had been hers all along.



Piles of dirty plates, takeaway containers and clean, dry but un-ironed clothing littered Elaine’s flat, in which she’d been pacing like a caged tiger for two days. She slammed her arms over her ears to block out the rattle of the train rushing past, but once it had gone she picked up the TV remote. She didn’t mind what was on, as long as it wasn’t silence.

She walked over to the kitchen. Still not hungry, but the idea of coffee was appealing, and she grabbed the tin of Frisco from the cupboard. But when she opened the fridge, she found the milk bottle empty between two furry tomatoes, a carton of eggs and a tub of margarine. She slammed the door shut and turned her head from the yellowed paper attached with magnets. The shaky wax-crayon lines formed the outline of what looked like a pink rhino. “Unicorn”, a teacher had written below it. In the right-hand corner the child had written her own name. “Shelley (5)”. Elaine pressed her fingers to the writing for the thousandth time and closed her eyes.

The interruption of her vigil in Myrtle Street had left her with a time vacuum. Clueless idiot, she thought of the woman in her tight little dress as she sat on her couch, shaking her knees at a rate of about three beats a second. She gathered her thick red curls behind her head and let out a devoiced scream. She picked up her phone again, looked at the new picture.

Then she whispered the words to herself: the same words she’d been repeating for two days. The words that had been floating through her brain for at least a year before, without coagulating into a concrete thought until now. It was mine, mine all along, I helped to get it, I deserved it over and over, it was promised to me. It belongs to me.



Elaine sat in the Tazz with her sunglasses on her head, in the dark spot midway between two streetlamps, thinking of the picture she’d seen in the paper, with Linda, and the name of the university printed clear as anything. That thing, glittering at her throat.

She couldn’t remember when last she’d been to the southern suburbs. She listened to the sibilant hiss of a sprinkler system coming to life; the verge was covered in lawn, for crying out loud. She thought back to a time long ago when instead of stalking people and staking out their houses, waiting for something to crack or become crackable, she’d sat in her car in front of schools, just waiting for a bell to ring. She floated away on the thought of a sunny afternoon for a moment, but opening her eyes to the dark street ahead of her, noticing the silhouette of a tricycle lying on its side on the grass, it just solidified her reality; justified her cause.

The wall was rough under her hands, but the texture gave her grip under her sneakers. She waited until she heard the sound of a motorcycle passing on the next block before she dropped into the flowerbed.

The lights were off, as she knew they’d be. Since Elaine had followed Linda home from campus three nights before, she’d been observing her routine. During the day she’d snooped around the house. She knew where to get in. But more importantly, she knew to look for a glass cabinet on the central island in the kitchen.

The sound of that sprinkler, she thought, was what was really turning her palms sweaty. It was louder here, at the back door, an insistent sibilant staccato. The job itself didn’t worry her much, there where she stood with screwdriver in hand. Harry had taught her well. Picking locks, fiddling alarms. It was her job. She was good at it.

Yet there’d always be something unexpected to make your blood turn to ice, and this time it was the creak of a door in need of oil. Always something unknown, unaccounted for. Elaine bit her lip and dug her nails into the wood. Four breaths, five breaths, nothing. She hadn’t woken her. She let her shoulders drop.

And then she saw it, where she knew it was, but also, bizarrely, there was a spotlight shining onto a corner of it. Elaine snuck up to the glass panel. Her sneakers squeaked ever so slightly on the linoleum, but she didn’t stop. The cabinet, she realised, had a heavy glass top, but it was unlocked. She put her face against the glass, feeling the cool of it on her forehead, watching the it fog up and clear under her nostrils, fog up and clear. The spotlight blinded her. It obscured much of what was in the cabinet, but it did light up the one thing she was looking for, and it was shining, brilliant as ever. It was still attached to the chain, and hung from a twig in the cabinet.

As she lifted the cover, with difficulty, because of the weight and because she couldn’t afford to have it crashing to pieces on the floor, Elaine realised the twig was more than some kind of nature display. There were a number of plants in the glass box, and soil, and rocks. She stuck in her hand to reach for the ring and drew her breath in sharply when she felt the chain, but it was just too far, and instead of grabbing it, she knocked it off and it slithered to the soil, where it landed with a light metallic “crink”. She took a deep breath and reached in further. It wasn’t as easy as just diving in with the other arm. There were plants in the way, she couldn’t see, and all the time she needed to keep an eye on the passage and the stairs beyond. She kept reaching, her fingers stretching, seeking, searching.

And there, she had it, she’d slipped it onto her finger, no less. Her heart lifted. But as she drew her hand back, she felt a prick, short and sharp. She gasped, an inward shriek, as her circulation turned on her and washed the icy blood up her arm across her heart and pulsed through her head.

Something crashed when she staggered backwards, and as she fell onto the floor with a drumbeat in her ears, she thought she heard the muffled slithering over glass of something less domestic than a sprinkler system.

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