Hana taught me how to feed another human being. Strange that it wasn’t my mother or grannie or even my eldest sister Issie, but it’s true. When I was nine and she was eleven, she led me to her parents’ marble kitchen and propped herself next to the stove with a footstool. She mimed Shush as I angled my toes next to hers and leaned over the hotplate. Her mother had a migraine and was resting in the next room.
“This is how you make noodles,” she mumbled. She wasn’t actually making them. It was a bag of ramen from the corner shop left to simmer too long. But in Hana’s voice, anything could seem real.
We split the slippery noodles and she sprinkled them with Aromat till even the steam grew yellow. Then we went to the back garden and balanced the bowls on our thighs like hot rocks. I felt I was being treated to a secret. Harrie was at a Young Birdwatchers Meeting organised by someone mum worked with at the library – she’d shouted No Fair in the car when told she had to choose between that and joining me. Hana’s sister had gone to a sleepover at a school friend’s.
The slick ramen bounced against my fork. Hana smirked and rubbed warm slime from my chin, then licked the starch off her fingertips. What seemed new and soft and awkward to me, I sensed then, was really her routine. Her mother’s bad mood meant we couldn’t run through the house or between the Buddleias outside her window, but in another way we were completely free.
“Can we play mermaids?” I asked after we’d scraped our bowls with our fingers. It was the game we saved for her house, where there was space to splash and curl on the steps of the pool. We’d lie there and let the water lap over our chins and chests as we braided our hair. Sometimes Hana would go limp while she floated, her eyes glazed by clouds, with water trickling in and out her mouth for so long I’d get scared. But just as I’d cling to her she’d laugh, and start breathing again.
“S’not the same without the others. I can think of something better, Ray.”
I had been hoping we’d swim, just the two of us. That too would be something new. But when she used my nickname she was grinning with that secret look again, muddy irises fixed on mine. I followed her through the kitchen, down the hallway that always smelled like woodsmoke, and past her parents’ room with the evil eye hanging on the door. Hana and Leah’s bedroom was beyond the bathroom and their father’s study. We slid our soles over the creakiest floorboard. She pushed her Harry Potter collection against the door to stop it from swinging open behind us and told me to sit on the lower bunk. Leah’s bed.
With no sound at all, she hoisted herself up so she was hanging from the ladder and angled her mattress out of place. It slid to the floor. Next she tilted the mattress against the wall, so that the spot where her toes went was almost touching the ceiling.
“Today we are squirrels,” Hana announced in a stage whisper. “And this is where we live.”
“You mean that?” I pointed to the upturned mattress. There were more questions waiting, like why animals from England, or why not use the bed frame designed for climbing, but I didn’t want to seem ungrateful. She had promised something better than mermaids, after all.
She nodded and dimmed Leah’s nightlight, then stuffed some pillows in the triangular gap between the wall and the mattress. Next she curled into it as if in a nest. I got on my knees next to her.
“We’re family, you see.”
“Okay,” I responded in what I hoped was a squirrelly way. “Who’s the mummy?”
“Neither of us.”
“Then how will it work? Are we sisters?”
She shook her head to say no. “We’re just family. Like squirrels.” I didn’t know enough about the species to disagree. Harrie was the one who liked to learn the names of snakes and mice. I described creatures by colours: brown bird, red bug. Dark, dark bat. When Hana next spoke it seemed as if she’d reached into my brain and plucked out all these simple words, lining them in a row like Barbie clothes. “What colour is your fur?”
“Can I choose anything?”
“Of course not, silly. Mine is black. Look.”
So she showed me. She didn’t swear me to secrecy but I knew then I was trusted, and I’d keep it between us like a fresh language.
Our mothers met one another at a group called Moms N Tots. Mum had just given birth to me and Leah, Hana’s sister, was a few months from being born. There are no pictures but I imagine them chatting on the outskirts of a circle, both breaking an unspoken dress-code of pastel linen. They only met a few times before mum left the group: someone complained when she advertised her feminist book club. Hana’s mum quit soon after she gave birth, saying she needed more time to work on converting her shed into an art studio. We lived in neighbouring areas and didn’t go to the same school. Still, most Saturdays one of our mothers would drop us off, giving a cheery wave to the other from the driveway.
Hana and Leah’s mum insisted we refer to her as Helen. She also told us to call their father Ben, though this seemed to confuse him when he emerged from his study. Issie was the only other grownup who let us call her by her first name. I liked Helen, even when she shouted at us to keep away from her studio or stared from the shed window, eyebrows knotted behind her sunglasses.
If I ever felt our mother was being mean, I used the name as a weapon. “Helen says it’s Yog-git, not Yo-gert.” “Helen bought us two big Easter eggs each.” Sometimes our mum would laugh and leave the room with a comment I wouldn’t understand, like, “And does she use the whole bottle to cook with?”. Other times she’d yell, “Guess I should have married an accountant, then!”
Whatever stopped our mothers from chatting together, they never spoke poorly of the other’s daughters. When Hana and Leah wrote that they hoped I’d Get Well Soon after tonsil surgery, mum told me, “It’s so special, so nice to have close friends while you’re young.”
“Hana and I are going to be friends forever,” I replied. “Till we die.” Just as it had been scrawled in the card, Leah’s name came second.
“Wait till you’re a teenager.”
“No. We will be. Why?”
“Things might seem different when they leave that feeder school.”
The only threat to our friendship, I believed, was a girl from Hana’s class called Jackie. Jackie had cousins in London. She’d visited them in July and brought back pens that looked like wizards’ wands for Hana and Leah. Sometimes her name came up when we played mermaids. I would sink under the water and hold onto Harrie’s ankles, counting backwards from ten, and if they were still talking about her when I surfaced, then I’d go back under again.
Jackie sounded kooky, different from the girls at my school. They spent lunchtimes listing Christian names and picking which ones to call their future kids. When asked about sons or daughters, I would panic and choose whatever bland fillers came to mind like Mary or John. Someone once caught me out: “I already said that’ll be my husband’s name. Don’t you have names of your own? Do you even want a family?”
From then on I was ready with a list of wish-words. Ben, Helen, Leah. At the base of my tongue I saved Hana.
The crushed petals on baking stones and tree branches, the seawater and chlorine, the pressing sense of skin, the ripe smell of dog shit, the deep stone kitchen sink and the worn terracotta steps where we ate watermelons and popcorn: summer was all extremes of hot & cold and hard & soft and sweet & salt. Once, there was far too much seasoning on scrambled eggs that Helen then insisted I eat. But mostly the days passed through a balance of little adjectives, monosyllables that cut through afternoon thunderstorms.
When I learnt the word humidity, I imagined Hana. She was all water and warm air, the way an Aquarian should be – not like me.
Harrie told me I was being stupid, of course I was Aquarius; my birthday was only a week before Hana’s, after all. I could also be a Gryffindor. The elder sisters competed over finishing each new book in the series and argued over houses. Harrie said Ravenclaw was best; Hana disagreed. I said I wanted to be in her house as well, even though the lion’s face on the illustration looked warped and ugly to me. Leah said she wanted to join Gryffindor too, so we spent a whole afternoon making Slytherins and Hufflepuffs out of dead tree branches, and never got around to our game.
For some reason, Harrie liked looking after Leah, grasping her hand as we crossed rocky streams and rubbing muti she called Monkey Blood over the inevitable cuts on her knees. Leah would get up once she’d finished crying and come sit by me: “Do you want to be on my team, Rachel?”
I, in turn, would look to Hana. Sometimes she would already be climbing a tree with my sister. Other times she’d call, “No, Leah, you go with Harrie.” Those days, I chewed the dried fruits that Helen left us like they were orange jellybeans.
It was soon after the squirrel day, the day Hana showed me how to tend to a human body, that Leah changed everything. We were deciding who should make witch potions together. Hana shrugged and said she didn’t mind. She had already started mixing crushed nasturtium leaves on an indentation in a rock. Harrie looked at Leah, who spread a mishmash of herbs between her thighs and mine. I stood and Leah started to whimper.
“No, no, sorry,” I said, “I just want to be with her for a bit.” Hana shook her head at me as her sister’s sobs grew louder. Tilting my shoulders to her I explained, gentler, “We just haven’t played together since we were squirrels.”
Leah choked out one last cry. She wiped her froggy eyes and asked her sister, while looking at me, “That’s what you play with Jackie, isn’t it?”
Jackie. Now the choice of animals made sense. It also meant – this I realised in a sudden flush, but took years to understand – that Hana had done all of that before. I was not the first. So I sat back down next to Leah and kept my vision fixed on the powdery stamens I’d picked, eyes stinging. We all sat in silence. I could feel Hana looking at me but concentrated on pushing my fingers into the hairy blackblue of an African daisy. She sighed, got up, and beckoned for Harrie to follow her.
Leah nudged my arm as if guiding a dog from licking dried shit and shouted down the garden at them, “Why don’t you ever play squirrels with me? Hey?”
When Hana started wearing red it suited her – she who never had a blemish, not a single crooked tooth. My jealousy wasn’t because I wanted to look like her, though. I admired the way her skin stayed crisp and tan through winter, but was equally pleased with each December’s blessing of freckles on my nose. No: I wanted her to want me. To carry on swimming and stroking my hair. To lay her legs and torso against me as she used to when we were top-to-tail in the upper bunk bed.
But Leah had found a way to tip the scales, and I was growing too. Now I had a patch of velvet darkness between my legs, though Hana had started changing in the bathroom, so she never saw. Harrie started high school and the girls there liked to roll their skirts at the hips, spitting and singing songs from the radio. Mum brought me along when fetching my sister one day, and the boys jostled one another along the wire fence, just like the scraggy captives at the Lion Park.
Hana’s school was for girls only, but they had what she called a Brother College. I pressed her for names of male friends, waiting for someone to come and ruin it for good. If it was a boy she was texting on her new flip phone, she never mentioned him. She said she spent most of her time with the same classmates from primary school.
The Saturday after I turned eleven was Hana’s birthday party. Harrie and I hung around the crazy paving where we’d spent all our summers, watching teenagers in sparkling two-pieces jump with wild energy. Jackie arranged her long body on a lilo as if it were her own. Something about her smile made me want to splash into the deep end with a roar. Instead I slipped into the shallows and treaded with wide arms as we did when playing Marco Polo. When I got close enough, I took a deep breath and curled my limbs against the smooth fibreglass at the bottom of the pool. Then I spurted up, hands first, tipping the lilo from the left with force.
Jackie was still snivelling when our mum came to fetch us.
“Shame man, I don’t blame them; they just seemed bored,” Helen explained to mum. “I thought this last year too. Maybe it would be easier for everyone if they stuck to their school friends.”
For a while we still spoke on the phone. Then one day I rang and heard Hana ask, when her mother called her to the landline, Rachel Who? It was a slow tilting away, as if we were sunflowers bending into different lights, leaning towards what was always going to come, to be.
By the time I started high school, Harrie had earned a reputation for thinking she was a Clever Shit with all her Latin words – and this, in turn, led me to some trouble. One girl from my Afrikaans class liked to push me against the blackboard after lessons. “Go on then, Kiss Arse,” she’d say, rubbing my blazer against the chalk. “Give us a lekker kissie.” Mum told me to work hard and keep my head down. The first part didn’t help, but the second did.
Harrie got enough points to go to UCT for a science degree, so many that her tuition would have been free, but Mum was helping Issie look after the baby by then and there was still the problem of residence fees. So my sister stayed at home for her studies. When I received a scholarship letter from the arts university Helen had gone to, the offer seemed as if it were addressed to an imposter. Harrie told me to go, said I’d be crazy not to leave. She helped me persuade mum. Even with the full scholarship, we had to draw up a budget. I promised to find a part-time job.
In my mind all the BA students would be like Hana: voices neither too loud nor too quiet, somewhere between irreverent and profound. Some would even part their lips with soft contentment, just like she did, whether in sleep or when speaking to a crowded room.
I didn’t imagine I’d never meet anyone who seemed so comfortable moving with a human body again.
Hana was almost famous for a semester when I started first year. She’d been chosen by a lecturer to act in a play he was directing. There was talk of the circuit in Cape Town, a movie adaptation with English actors. Some big names. When I arrived in O-week, her face was glued onto lamp posts and notice boards with the word TASTE, always in all-capitals. Her steady gaze was frozen ahead, like when she used to play dead in the swimming pool.
The last time I saw her was at the opening of a Zimbabwean art exhibition. Her jawline had grown slim yet defined. She had more generous lips, then, and no need for the kohl around her warm eyes that still looked like puddles. She was wearing a black T-shirt that fitted elegantly, unlike the other drama students’, and I realised all those years apart I’d pictured her in red.
A man with long dreadlocks was talking to her in a corner. I didn’t recognise him at first because of the open way he was looking at her, all wolfish: it was the BComm student from my philosophy class who, up until that point, I’d had a lacklustre crush on. I was about to leave when she spotted me and waved me over.
“Hana! Hi, Tendai.” He nodded at me while sipping from a can.
“I didn’t know you’d moved here! Sho, this’ll make me sound old, but you’ve grown.” I wondered why she’d chosen to say that, of all things. Tendai looked at my chest.
“Well it’s been a long time since we used to skinny-dip,” I replied. “So you too.”
Tendai spilled a little beer down his shirt and stood back, trying to wipe it without either of us seeing. She laughed and made a sound like Uh-Uh but then leaned in for a hug. “Really so lovely to see you. Are you studying too? Let’s hang out properly soon.” For the rest of the night my hair was cloaked in smoky jasmine.
Less than two weeks later, Hana was dead. The manager of the bar where I worked said she’d been sitting in the front with a drunk driver; the car had flipped. It happened on the road to Kenton: uneven tar, tapering bends through pineapple fields and koppies of sweet thorn. Somehow that detail stung more than hearing week after week, from the Jo’burgers I served Black Label and buffalo wings, how much they loved and would miss her. For a few months people still rushed to say they knew her, but then they’d tilt their heads and stub out their cigarettes, looking around as if they’d sworn in church. And then the fame that had eclipsed both sides of a car crash came to an end.
When I started third year, the editor of a student newspaper leaned over the bar and shouted to my co-worker, “You remember that drama student who died? Ja, her sister is here. And jirre, sy’s skraal.”
Had Helen really sent her youngest daughter to the same town from where her eldest had never returned? Surely not, I thought. Then I remembered: this was her alma mater. So I asked the pushy Capetonian to tell us what she knew. At the end of my shift, I went to search the smoking room.
“Ray–Rachel. Look at you.” Leah drew out the vowels, Luuuhk at Yooouu, as if she was high. Everything about her really was diminutive, except her eyes; they’d grown beyond creaturely, underlined by fleshy rings. I sized up the people she was with: smudged makeup, braids in top-knots, breasts poking out light tank tops. It wasn’t clear if they were more out of place in the karaoke bar, or she was.
When she turned to get a drink, the closest woman took my elbow and confessed as if I’d asked, “We prefer dubstep. We don’t really know her. She lives in our res, Beit. Can you make sure she gets back there?”
They told Leah they were leaving so she could catch up with her Old Friend. For a while I asked the expected questions about gap years and dream jobs – she’d had two of each. We did not say the names of our home town or old schools, and when she asked about Harrie, I elaborated on the ethics of dissecting green mambas to avoid what we both were thinking, what we shared but she carried.
It was easy to pretend it was last rounds two hours before closing time, leading her by the hand all the way up to campus. I felt the tense ligaments sitting right below her skin. She blew on her finger pads so they’d be picked up by the print scanner at the front of her res.
“I’m fine really,” she said, staggering against the door frame. A woman standing on the veranda laughed out her cigarette smoke, misinterpreting her clumsiness, our clasped hands. Leah started giggling too and I used the light air to say I could use some water. She led me to a room with an empty oak dresser and a narrow bed covered in blankets that looked grey and scratchy as carpets.
“Not had time to unpack,” she mumbled. I wanted to scoop her fledgling limbs in mine and feed her rusks, dipping them first into rooibos and then her swollen, unhappy mouth.
I leaned against the dresser and said, “Old Beit House, hey,” putting on a bright Sandton accent. “I slept with someone here long ago. You know what they say is true: Beit girls do bite back.”
She didn’t seem to register the second sentence. Or, if she did, it lay untouched. She wiped her nose with her palm and said she didn’t like Beit. She had wanted to be in Olive Schreiner House. Schreiner was why she’d chosen to study English, she said, as if it had now been ruined. She poured us each a glass of water from a five litre bottle. Then she pressed a twig-like hand to her breastbone and said, “The professor touched me here, after class yesterday, when he found out who I was. D’you believe it? He said, Oh, your sister was Hana. And then he said, How’s your heart.”
“God. There are lots of creeps here, you must be careful.” I’d heard stories about lecturers before and had lived through my own with a tutor, but didn’t want to wind her up. From conversations with others I knew to ask more another time, in morning hours, over coffee and condensed milk. “Let’s eat something before you go to bed. Is there a vending machine in your res?”
“I was always scared people liked her more than me. It felt like you did.”
“Shit, Leah.” She’d said it with no malice but it was clear she wanted a no, or a yes; there was surely an artful way to reply, but I was loosened and tired by white wine. “I think I loved her. Like…” Her eyes widened even further and whirred around the room as my earlier comments sunk in. “Maybe things could have been different. If I’d made more of an effort.”
“Bullshit man,” she snapped in a coastal voice, sandblasted as her mother’s. “It all happened, Rachel. And it always would have happened. She woulda come here. And me. S’not about you.”
“Well – I guess that’s true.” Just before leaving, I tried one last joke, though I knew it was cruel. “And yet here I am at Rhodes, too. Talking to you.”
Caitlin Stobie is a Wellcome Trust ISSF postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Leeds, where she is working as a commissioned artist in the Leeds Creative Labs: Bragg Edition. Her poems and short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Tears in the Fence, Poetry & Audience, The Stockholm Review of Literature, Kalahari Review, New Coin, New Contrast, and elsewhere. Her debut poetry manuscript has been shortlisted for the Melita Hume Poetry Prize (2017) and the RædLeaf International Poetry Award (2016). She is a Visiting Lecturer in Creative Writing at Leeds Arts University and an editorial assistant at Stand magazine.
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