THE SNAKE – HL PEARSON
Damn, it’s cold. Where the hell am I? Looks like some farmer’s field way out in the middle of nowhere. I can see the sun just coming up over the horizon like an angry eye, orange and red.
Oh god, hang on. There’s someone over there, on the ground. She’s just lying there, half hidden by the grass, near the burnt and broken mielie stalks. It’s a girl I think, long hair, I can’t be sure from here. You know what, I don’t want to look. Why am I even out here? I don’t remember any of this. I know I promised mom I would cut back on all the shit that makes me forget my own name, but it looks like I screwed up again. Well done, Ruby.
My name’s Skylar by the way — but everyone calls me Ruby. That’s mom’s fault, always calling me her jewel, her little ‘Ruby Sky’. Who knows where she comes up with this stuff. She says it’s some old time saying to do with the sea, “Ruby sky at night, sailor’s delight…” I’m pretty sure that’s not how it goes but ja, whatever mom.
I should really get out of here, which might be a little easier if I knew exactly where ‘here’ was. I can’t think straight right now, and everything feels strange, but that might be a car over there in the distance. I should go see.
You think I’m a real bitch, right? For not checking to see if that girl’s ok? But, when you live in my world long enough, you learn to keep your head down and not get caught up in anyone else’s drama. I don’t know how she got there any more than I know how the hell I did and I’m not hanging around any longer than I have to. The bitch probably just had too many shooters and a few too many pills and blacked out. If she’s anything like me, she can take care of herself though, so don’t worry.
This kind of thing has been happening a little too much lately, if I’m being honest. I mean, waking up in strange places with no memory of how I got there. I should really know better by now, learn from experience.
One of the first things I remember from when I was really small, is wandering outside our third story flat in Bryanston and toddling down the grimy cement stairs, all the way to the ground floor. That’s where I found mom passed out and slumped in a corner next to the lift doors. I suppose it was just dumb luck finding her there. I remember howling, a face full of hot snot and tears. She eventually came around enough to stumble into the lift. With me tugging on her arm, we made it back up to our flat.
If there is anything my mom has taught me, it’s what not to do.
Ok, look — don’t get me wrong, Sheila’s not a bad mom, I love her. Mostly, she just can’t catch a break. Also, she has this bullshit fantasy that some guy is going to come along and solve all our problems. Like, seriously, come on mom, that’s never going to happen, wake up!
Sheila’s own dad crept into her room at night from the time she was eight till she ran away at fifteen. You think she would have realised back then already that all men are assholes and the only real trick is to use them before they use you.
I was lucky, no dad in the picture, just me and Sheila. There were guys around all the time of course, but mom never let them touch me, she would have killed them first.
Sheila was really hot back then. She made good money when I was a kid. We always had a place to stay, even though we moved from place to place all the time. I guess I learned young that everything is temporary, nothing lasts for too long, so just enjoy it while you have it, because there were tough times too. Times when the money went up Sheila’s nose or in her arm instead of buying things like food, or toilet paper. Sheila’s Nigerian boyfriend and manager then, Abeo, was no help either. He was just as quick to spend the money my mom and the other girls made on booze, drugs and partying.
I started stealing cash from mom when I was still young. At first to make sure the bills were paid but before I was even a teen I’d convinced her to give me all the money left over after Abeo took his cut. I still made sure she had enough for her ‘habits’, which was the trick that made it work. At least that way she wasn’t a total bitch about it.
Abeo was always off his face but he was an ok guy. I tell you what though, I was a better manager than he ever was, even at barely thirteen.
With me in charge of the cashflow, things got a lot easier. No more worrying about when the lights would go off at our place or constantly expecting another surprise visit from the smelly, sweaty thugs hired by the court to repossess our stuff.
I can see that car across the field more clearly now, by the way. Oh damn. That looks like BrightBoy’s ride. Or maybe it’s somebody else’s Audi A6 in policemen-blue. Hell, I can only hope. I’ll be honest, whenever I see a car like that I feel a little sick.
If it does belong to BrightBoy, then I tell you what, I’m in serious trouble. I wish to hell we’d never met the bastard.
When I was about to start high school, mom sobered up long enough to get me into a fancy setup. A private school. One of those expensive, everyone-has-a-cell-phone-and-a-iPad places and all the kids buy food from the Nino’s on campus. No mommy-packed lunches for these brats. My mom always had this fantasy about me finishing matric, getting a degree and ending up as a lawyer or doctor or, for some reason, a news presenter. Maybe she thought I would look good on TV or maybe it was because growing up around all the working ladies, I could already speak four languages including Xhosa and Sotho. Of course, I didn’t want to burst her little dream bubble, but I already had my own plans. Besides, at the time we could afford the fancy education and in just another year, I was pulling in my own cash too. Sheila wasn’t happy with me taking jobs at fourteen, but it was bloody good money and it’s not like I was having actual sex or anything then, just hand stuff, blowjobs and massages — practically money for nothing. By then, we were living and working from some Chinese business man’s mansion outside of Sandton, and things were going great for us. ‘More money and less bullshit’, as Abeo always said.
I was hardly sixteen when Abeo got himself killed. He was caught in the crossfire between warring taxi ranks while he was out looking for fresh young runaways and pretty girls to bring home to us. Dumb way to die. Somehow, I always thought he’d be taken out for skimming a little too much of the girls earnings or just another drug overdose.
If I’d been a little older, maybe I would have packed up our stuff then and there and left. I mean, if I could manage the cashflow, why not the whole damn business? With me taking over the marketing — everything’s online these days, right? — as well as Sheila’s bookings and mine, I probably could have doubled our earnings.
But that’s when BrightBoy came into the picture and everything changed. Abeo had his issues and his vices but he mostly looked after us girls. BrightBoy was a different story. What he really liked to do most, was hurt people. He had been sent to manage the house after Abeo died and our new house manager was a cold, cruel snake. In fact, that was his nickname, whispered among some of the girls, ‘inyoka’, Xhosa for ‘snake’.
He had no problem beating the ladies, and sometimes worse things. He never needed a reason, that’s just the way the inyoka was. He was still good at his job though — he always made sure the girls were able to work and bring in money, despite the scars and bruises. I suppose I’m lucky in a way, he hasn’t tried that bullshit with me yet, I earn too much.
BrightBoy was the one who sold my ‘virginity’ to some loaded businessman out from Dehli when I was sixteen. I didn’t tell the inyoka that I’d had been having tons of sex with my boyfriend from school for the past year already. He probably would have raped me and smacked me blind for that.
Anyway, a few years under the thumb of BrightBoy and even my mom was ready to listen to my plans of getting away.
Sheila was tired. The years had been rough on her, and the money she could pull in wasn’t that great anymore, even if she was an mlungu. White ladies can usually charge more but mom was getting way too old now. She’d seen the end of BrightBoy’s fist a few too many times already.
I had already been working my angle, saving up the money and soon, I was sure we would have enough. In fact, I’m hoping that a few of the girls will agree to come with us. We could set up in a new town, new names and mom and I would run our own house. I’d take care of the women, make sure their clients never hurt them and we’d make a ton more than we do now.
Except…I can’t remember how I got in this fucking field and I need to get home. Shit! I’m closer now and that blue Audi does belong to BrightBoy. He’s sitting in the driver’s seat with one leg out the car, looking at his phone. I have to make sure he doesn’t see me.
He puts the cell to his ear and I hear him say, “Hello? Let me speak to the Captain.” There is a long silence before he speaks again, “Bala, howzit. Ja, we’ve got a problem.” He leans back casually in the car seat and idly fingers the sun visor, while he listens to the voice on the other end of the phone. Eventually, the inyoka speaks again, “Yes, always problems I know, I know. This one we must fix together Bala, or things will be bad for us.”
I know that name. Bala. The ‘Bo4’ or police, are some of our best customers but Captain Bala Govender is not a client, he’s more like hired help. For the right amount of cash, Bala will make sure things are taken care of. He’s like bleach, he makes all the blood and kak disappear. He’s been taking a cut of our money for so long now he’s practically a silent partner. And as long as he’s around, it’s always business as usual and the cops don’t mess with us no matter what goes down.
I hear BrightBoy speaking again, “I will tell you where I am, but you must come now with petrol and also with something so that we can dig a hole.” He’s quiet for a moment and then replies, “No, I can’t leave now. That white bitch is dead, what if someone comes to this place and sees?”
What has he done? Is that girl dead? Did he kill her? Oh my god, oh my god — I have to get away from here.
BrightBoy is still talking to Bala “Yes, she was making us lots of money, I understand, but also, that one was a snake. I told you. That bitch was going to run away and take our cash and business with her.”
I don’t want to hear any more, I want to close my eyes and shut my ears and be far away from here. But it’s as if the cold from the ground has seeped into my bones and I’m frozen in place. I hear his voice again, “Bala, no more talking, just come now,” he growls, “the sun is already out, and I can’t hide this one in my car, there is too much blood.” He stands up and out of the car, the phone cradled against his ear. The last thing he says before he ends the call is, “Because what do you do with a snake that is a problem, my friend? You cut off its head.”
I’m numb, but I can’t let him see me, I have to go. Then, without warning, I’m back where I started, across the field alongside the blackened stalks of abandoned wheat grass that reeks of smoke — and no memory of even moving.
I’m here, standing over the body of the girl sprawled in the long grass. Strands of her long, brown hair are black with blood, pressed against the gaping slash across her throat. Her pale skin is ghostly in the rose blush of morning light and her blue eyes stare up, dull and sightless at the ruby sky and clouds above. As I look down at her, finally it all comes in to focus and I realise something profound. What I realise just then, is that my mom is really going to miss me. Because I am the one BrightBoy has murdered. The ‘snake’ lying there in the long, wet grass — is me.