by Malini Mohana
At some point in your early childhood, an adult had given you a little bud. It’s always an adult; always a little bud. They’re often very similar, these buds, but never identical. A small bruised-purple thing at first, tightly wound and intricately layered. As a child, you never really knew what to do with them, so you put them in your back pockets. Some of you were lucky enough to have them wither and die, or perhaps crushed by the boot of a person who cared enough to notice it. Most of you weren’t that fortunate. I know. Most of you held on to them in the hope that they would one day turn into something that would protect you. They never do.
I taught children English in a small farm town, Thandolwam, hidden in the clutches of the Eastern Cape. ‘Off-Drakensburg’, the other teachers would call it. Situated between rolling mountains and grumbling summer rainclouds, the place held a sort of timeless charm. Timeless in the sense that it remained resolutely ignorant to anything occurring outside its 20 km radius – trapped in a looped vortex of unimpressive ideas and unimpressed sheep. So immune was this town to change that it consistently experienced any sort of national progress in a diet-version. Apartheid-Lite. The Light Side of Life. As things slowly started unravelling, or re-ravelling, in the rest of the country, only two types of people remained in the town. Those who didn’t have the resources to leave, and those who didn’t have the resources to stay gone. I fell in the latter group, but for years I lied to myself that it had been my choice to return to Thandolwam after graduating from the University of the Natal.
I taught at a school called St. Hillary – named in the throes of profitable bigotry, the town never quite bothered to change its title after 1994. Democracy-Lite. The demographic was a mixture of the affluent and those who were far from it. Not because we all loved dowsing each other in rainbow-nation confetti, but because there simply wasn’t enough schools to go around. Limited choice, limited privilege. Equality-Lite. For my own selfish purposes, I thought it gave me a chance to fulfil my dream to tame tiny monsters. The way faux-humanitarians dream after graduate school. It’s all bullshit really, but what did I know at the time.
I spent all my days amongst seven to thirteen year olds, each walking through their daydreams with a little flower bud in their pockets. I liked the younger ones whose buds where still tightly shut. They lived in a world where holding hands and kissing and hugging weren’t just fun, but necessary. For them, nothing was yet defined and they were at an age where being undefined was still acceptable. As they grew older I saw their buds become eggs. I saw the egg hatch. I saw a scaled creature step out, lift its gossamer wings and promptly start pattering behind its child owner. Harmless-looking at first; your initial instinct is to ignore these creatures. You talk about them in an indirect way. I made sure never to give them enough attention inadvertently, hoping they’d eventually wander off. It never worked.
Very few of us can see these monsters. Some try to help, others shrug and say “Not in my job description”. I tried as best I could to help. Sometimes it worked, other times it didn’t. I did this for 3 years. In the second half of my career, I managed to teach the kids how to keep the things at bay. They never teach you how to do this when you train as a teacher. No, that’s all about grading and marks and all that other shit that holds some sort of value to someone out there. Dealing with these monsters, that’s just something you’ll pick up on. Partly from experience, mainly from being human.
The hardest time for me was the holiday period, where I couldn’t see the kids for two months. After that break, I would walk to school on a busy January morning, passing houses in all their rich-poor variations, and stalls overflowing with NikNaks and chappies and imitation sunglasses. I’d buy a loose cigarette, watching the little ones walk passed my house in new uniforms and shiny shoes, with freshly braided hair and loud conversation. I dreaded the moment I had to walk back into the class and hear the too-loud laughter of the children. Most of them would be just fine, but some would return with creatures too big to carry. In those two months those creatures were fed with someone else’s throwaway food, enraged by words and noises. A few of them could fly. From their unpredictable position, they’re more demanding, harder to ignore, sometimes even violent. Metallic and angular with gradually growing talons, these creatures become obstinately set in reality. At times, they accidentally drew blood when they play with their owners. This is how children first learn about pain.
Funnily enough, I soon learnt that people actually nurture a strange attraction to pain. We love the feeling of red in anger, the back and forth ripples of sadness, the infected heat of self-loathing. It’s a refined kind of indulgence. We make half arsed attempts to banish these feelings and send them trudging out the door, but when they come back, metallic and well-defined, we cry and we embrace them and sharpen their talons. We cry and embrace them and chain them to our ankles. Our growing buds. Our tiny monsters.
I only ever taught English and I spent my half my days trying to regain my enthusiasm to save the world by reading picture books, and helping the children write their own stories. The other half of my job was spent teaching them how to train the beasts, how to calm them. I mostly succeeded, and I try every day to remember that. But one failure is enough. One failure in this business is like that one time you walked away from a surgery while the patient’s stomach is pinned open. Looking back now, I only ever remembered the name of the child I had failed. Joe Daniso. Happy Joe. Average Joe.
Joe was the boy who laughed too strangely, chewed too loudly, skipped too confidently into classrooms. He wore his socks pulled up past his knees and wrote letters in the dust on his shoes. He’d start humming tunes at the oddest moments - during tests, discussions, assembly. He was the child who had no idea that his content oblivion was attracting spite and ridicule from those around him. We all know a Joe. Friendless, he’d sit under the shade of peach trees during breaks, singing softly and reading books, watching his classmates organically separate into historically set tribes. His unremarkable booksmarts, and his more than unremarkable detention record, made him the pleasant child. And if I’ve learnt anything in my life, it’s that nobody pays attention to pleasant people. Not even teachers. By virtue of his polite reticence, we all decided he was the boy who wouldn’t do tic in the bathrooms, wouldn’t impregnate anyone, wouldn’t rob a store. He never did any of those things, little Joe. Looking back, I wish he had.
“Joe, she’s calling you”, hissed the curly redhead next to him, knocking him with her pencil before putting it back in her hair. Joe looked up, unaffected.
“What’s the answer to question five?”, I ask, more tired than impatient. He was never one of those infuriating children. In fact, his face, round with protruding almond shaped eyes, had the opposite effect on teachers. He almost made sympathy feel physically painful, as though it was burrowing into your diaphragm.
“You’re not paying attention”, I say, watching him watch his monster scratch its neck. Lately he spent most of his lessons staring at it. I know everything about that monster. Long before I even knew Joe, I suppose. It was smaller than average, with clipped hardened wings, and unusual bottle green eyes. I suppose if any of us looked a little harder, we would have seen that his monster too, was quiet. Complacent.
“Did you hear me?”, I ask.
“Nothing”, Joe says, mumbling as the other kids turned around to giggle at him.
It’s a strange phenomenon, that giggle. The ones edged with just a little bit of acid. It falls like a cotton blanket over the beasts. The monster of every laughing child would sit down, slumped, and yawn. The victim’s beast would start edging closer to that madness I know so well. It would either scream deafeningly, crooning into its wing for hours, sometimes even tear at the leg of a chair. The strangest thing about Joe was that his beast never made a noise. Ever. Even now, as his peers started whispering and leering, the monster remained still, sitting upright, looking calmly about. I should have known then that something wasn’t right.
“Stay behind after everyone leaves”, I say curtly and ask the redhead and her ridiculous pencil antenna for the answer to number five.
I sat opposite Joe. Neither of us said a word. I was marking papers; Joe was looking at his monster; his monster looking over my shoulder.
“I named him”, said Joe softly.
“You should never name them”, I said, cautious.
“Without a name he seems lost. People said they could be with us for a long time, so maybe a name would make him happier”, whispered the child.
“Who’s people?”, I ask.
“Ma told me”, said the little boy with protruding eyes and the pull-up socks. I wanted to tell him that sometimes it’s ok not to listen to ma. Sometimes, ma is the problem.
How do you tell a child that?
“I don’t think that’s a very good idea, Joe.”
“Well what’s going to happen when you grow up? He’ll have to leave, but he won’t want to do that if you name him”.
“Will he leave?”
“I’m sure he will.”
You lie to a child, that’s how you tell them.
Joe looked up at me for a second. Brown eyes on brown eyes. Hope on fear. Teachers are not supposed to have favourites, but he was mine. The boy with the long socks and the brown eyes and the wan smile. The pup in the litter that simply wasn’t special, or beautiful or damaged enough to warrant a home. I saw that he had combed his little Afro back and felt a tug of love for him.
“What did you name him?”, I ask.
“Thixo”, he whispered.
“Why?”, I am alarmed.
“Because why Joe?”
The monster was growling and hissing now and Joe started to play with his shoelaces.
“Because ma said that’s what happens to naughty children”
After working for a few months with some children, their monsters slowly start shedding, losing their scales and their talons until they’re just about dead. They’d walk behind their owners like naked featherless chickens, occasionally squawking. I’d like to say that my talent for spotting tiny monsters was unusual. My speciality was angry children. The unruly ones with the truthful tantrums and the amplified cries for help. I held some pride in being able to stop those small 13 year old time bombs who yelled their deactivation pin at you. Easy. But my problem was the quiet children. They were unpredictable. In their clawing aloneness, they were unable to ask for help, so they settled for the next best option; they learnt how to adapt to the monster, how to control them. They learnt to be just self-aware enough to manipulate them. I couldn’t tell what their monsters’ nature was, and because of that, I could never interact with it. I never did manage to change Joe’s monster.
Three months had passed and Joe had gotten into a fight with a boy from an older class. I knew my Joe by then so I called him after class, sat him opposite me and said nothing. He had a tear in his lip, dust on his face, his big eyes were bloodshot, mouth resolutely shut.
“Hi JoJo”, I said softly.
“Hi”, he whispered. Suddenly it felt as though my chest was being compressed by something heavy and soaking.
“He kicked me”
“Why do you think he did that?”
“Because he’s a bastard”
“That’s a bad word, Joe. You shouldn’t use that word.”
“My uncle says its fine”
“I didn’t know you had one. Where does your uncle stay?”
“With ma and me”
“The other day he came to stay with us.”
After a bout of silence, I continued marking my papers hoping to give the boy enough space to talk if he wanted. His beast started crooning into his leg and I could see him shaking.
“Do you love your uncle?”, I ask, looking up. I don’t know why I asked.
Silence. Joe is picking scabs off his knees.
I don’t know what made me worry about him the way I did. My colleagues thought he was simply slow, and other children just thought he was strange. But everything about him after that day made me nervous. I tried often to speak with him, to engage with him. But as the months went by, Joe got quieter and quieter. His monster, for the first time in a year started to make a lot more noise. I simply assumed that Joe wasn’t handling schoolwork too well. No one else cared, and the only one who did decided to assume.
He left my class at the end of the term and it would be another year until the incident. The man Joe had called uncle had died. Suicide, the report said. Thinking back, I could have done more for him. I could have sat him down, hired a psychologist who would consider driving into Langa. I could have hugged him, and bought him NikNaks and pried the information out of him. I didn’t. Looking back, I guess I know why. So I did my usual one-on-one sessions in the hope that he would open up, perhaps express his grief. Anything to shut that monster up.
Unbeknownst to anyone else, it had become a little dragon. I could feel its hot breath every time the boy walked across the field, I could see it smouldering every day. And Joe remained quiet. On the morning of the twenty seventh of November, Joe walked into my classroom after school. I remember every part of that day. I remember that the 47 desks were packed as tightly as possible toward the end of the classroom, I remember that the words “Thandi walked to school/ Thandi is walking to school/ Thandi is going to walk to school” was written on the blackboard. I remember the air was stuffy and that the workers were drilling into the building next door and the dirty curtains with the stripes were clinging to the window sill. Children moved up and down outside my window like blurry wasps on a hot day.
Joe sat down opposite me and started filling out a crossword puzzle. I smiled and continued my marking, enjoying the familiarity of the boy’s company. When he was done, he looked up at me. His face, still round, had grown into his eyes in the past few months, skin richly brown and dust glowing in his hair.
“I killed him”, he said.
“What?”, I look up.
“I killed him. Two weeks ago.”
The only thing I could hear was his monster’s groans, rolling over each other like the thunder in a bruised storm cloud. I stand up to shut the door, not for fear of someone overhearing but because I didn’t want him to see my face. I had known, I had known what was happening. I had known.
“What did he do to you?”, I turn around.
“Nothing”, he said, looking at his hands.
There are losses in life that don’t take anything away from you.
“When did it start happening?”
“Two years ago”.
Instead, they leave you with a new creature, a heavy sentient being that won’t leave.
“For how long?”
When it happens, that space that was once comfortably occupied becomes full. Like an unpleasant roommate putting up décor in your lounge. The presence is overwhelming so you don’t visit often and you soon you start locking the door with them in.
“Who have you told?”
Sometimes you hear them knock to open up but you block out the shouting. Months have passed and still you haven’t opened it until one day, something happens that forces you to look in. The way Joe just forced me to look in. So you open that door, except it doesn’t open all the way and the lights have stopped working and all you hear are swarming flies and the crunch of a maggot as you step back. Joe and I shut the door abruptly.
“Don’t tell anyone else”, I whisper. He nods.
I stared at my Joe then; my Joe with the round face and the dusty shoes and the pull-up socks, and I saw his eyes turn bottle green and I suddenly realised his monster was no longer with him. I learnt at that point, in a small farm town, that you can kill tiny monsters for a price. I guess we could all kill them, but we don’t want to. Instead, we give them a name and we walk with them. We stay awake at all hours of the evening stroking them, cooing gently until they’re lightly asleep so we can have a moment’s peace. But they’ll always wake up with us. Eventually they’ll start to drive us crazy – we can’t be in public, we don’t want to be alone. They’re always there, just a layer of skin away. And still, we won’t kill them. One day, many of us may do what Joe did. We’ll kill those tiny monsters ourselves. We rip off their skin, fluids dripping thickly off the scales and use it to keep us warm. Sometimes we’ll feel the little horns cut through the soft membrane of our inner thighs, our back, our neck, until our movement becomes restricted by scars and keloids and coagulated blood. Some of it from the monster; some of it ours. By then, we’re never recovered. Diet Redemption.
I started crying, and Joe stood up to leave.
“I want you to talk to me if you need anything ok?”, I tell him as he picked up his bag.
“Ok”, he said. He never did.
As he threw his bag over his shoulder, he looked back at me.
“Your monster”, he said, looking just over my shoulder.
“It looks like mine.”
Work in progress.