Womxn’s History Month Special Issue Fiction Winner: Plumtree

true stories

ANTS

An hour had not yet passed, since Tanaka slept with his neighbor’s wife, when ants squirted out of his manhood. Each time the teenage boy felt the urge to piss, one by one little black ants crawled out from his shaft instead of droplets of urine. They did not come quietly, these ants. They bit into his flesh, tickled his veins with their antennae, and danced their way out of him with each of their six little legs. 

When his balls dropped, Tanaka had made it a habit to sleep with other men’s wives. He liked the power that came with releasing himself in someone who belonged to someone else. How was Tanaka to know that this woman in particular, Kurai’s wife, was fixed? 

He begged the elders for an answer. 

The elders who smoked long pipes, sniffed tobacco, basked in the sun and spoke of things unknown to the younger generation called it kugadzira mukadzi. To fix your wife. They said the words in hushed tones and laughed at Tanaka in-between coughs and blowing smoke rings. They too had once cast spells on their wives’ privates. It was what you did when you married a beautiful woman. If any man but you entered your wife’s sweetness, that intruder would receive a nasty surprise upon pulling out. 

The elders told another story of a man in a faraway town who took another man’s wife from behind like a dog in heat. He never came out. They went everywhere stuck together, the woman walking on all fours with the man above her and inside her. Not even the country’s top surgeon who had successfully separated conjoined twins early that year could separate the man and the woman. 

BASKET WOMEN

I. 

The Wright Brothers were not the first to find flight. There are other histories, other sciences not recorded but in this world when something is not written down, it does not exist. Varoyi have known how to soar since the birth of the cradle of mankind. Varoyi. Naked women, with access to knowledge from the other side, lift off into the night from inside winnowing baskets. What men cannot do or understand is evil. So these naked women have been blamed for sickness and death and their craft, dismissed as witchery not science. 

II. 

Gusheshe, a comedian from a small town in Zimbabwe rose to national fame with her droll skits. As more and more people subscribed to her YouTube channel, her jokes became more daring. High on the euphoria of a million views, she imagined she could be like her South African hero Trevor Noah. Imagining herself hosting a Late Night or a Daily Show in America, she mocked the government. The video was liked and shared and liked and shared. This small town girl’s name travelled from lips to lips until it found itself in a Kill Folder.

The gunmen were swift. Breaking into her house, blindfolding her and shoving her into the back of an isuzu. Neighbors saw the whole thing but who can call the police when the gunmen are the police? After hours of driving, they dropped Gusheshe blindfolded into sewage water. 

“So you think you’re funny?” One of the gunmen screamed at her. He kicked her in the stomach. They stuck her head under the water and brought it back up for air. 

“Since you think you’re funny,” another gunman said. “Make us laugh.” 

She heard six voices in total. Someone kicked her again with a boot. In a country with all-year-round summer, the only people who wore boots were people who had just returned from abroad, police and soldiers. Police wore red boots and soldiers wore black boots. She couldn’t tell the color of the boots from the way they crushed against her skull. 

“Since you think you’re funny,” a gunman said, “drink the water and we will stop hitting you.” 

They forced her mouth open and stuck her head under the water again. She tasted shit in her mouth. Her eyes watered. She retched and was shoved under again. 

“Swallow it, funny bitch,” a gunman said. 

“Gurgle it in your mouth like you are brushing your teeth,” another said. “Like an advert for Colgate.”

They laughed at their own jokes. Torture demands a certain kind of inventiveness. Cruelty turns a jailer into a comedian. 

“Do you know why you are here?” a gunman said. 

“Imagination is my only crime,” Gusheshe replied after swallowing a mouthful of the water. This made the men angry. They kicked and punched her harder. Seeing that their punches did not break her down, they thought of something else. The only way to break a woman. 

“Take off your dress,” one said. 

“Take off your bra and panties,” another said. “Quickly, bitch.” 

Gusheshe complied. Her heart beat fast, she knew she would die and begged her god for a quick end. She shivered and not because she was cold. She flung her underwear away and it must have hit one of the gunmen for he said:

“So you want to hit me with your dirty panties?” 

 She was numb when she blacked out. 

III.

When Gusheshe regained consciousness, she was alone. She removed her blindfold, barely seeing out of her swollen eye. She was at a sewage pump on the outskirts of town. She willed her battered body to crawl through grass and dirt to the main road. She cried out for help but her throat was sore. Finally she heard the voices of passersby and thought of the parable of the Good Samaritan. She was saved. She reached out to them for help. 

They screamed. 

Maybe she would have been saved if the female body were not a terrifying thing.  When the passersby, men and women alike, saw a naked woman crawling through the grass they were ashamed first and afraid second. They did not see her bruises. They saw a muroyi. Everyone knew that witches who flew for too long fell out of their winnowing baskets when day broke. The sunlight was said to starve them of their power. 

“A witch has fallen from her basket!” a child announced, pointing. 

And that was her death sentence before the first rock from the growing mob hit her. 

ORANGE & EGG

Which came first—the orange or the egg? In eSwatini, the egg comes first. A young woman lies on her back with her legs spread out. The examiner, an old lady with dirty fingernails and a hard look about her, shoves an egg in-between the girl’s legs. If the egg goes in, she is not pure and her family will be fined a cow by the chief for not keeping a better eye on their daughter. The young woman closes her eyes and says a prayer. Her boyfriend is big but not that big. Perhaps the egg will crack. 

The examiner wastes no time trying to make the girl comfortable, this isn’t a gynecologist’s office after all and the examiner has a line of other girls and families waiting for the test. The old lady shoves with all her might, the girl winces and yelps and is ignored. The egg of a purest white ruptures into egg yolk yellow. 

The girl has passed the test. 

She is rewarded with an orange. When she leaves, she parades the fruit around the village for everyone to see. Bear witness to the fruits of my virtue her wide smile says. Everyone must see the honor she has brought to her family.

SPIRIT HUSBAND 

If your brother kills another man, you must pay for the crime. That’s what sisters are for right? Currency to bargain with. Your drunkard brother breaks a bottle on a man’s head during a fight at a bar. For a week, the man from the bar fights on in a poorly staffed hospital. One night during a powercut the hospital generator, devoid of fuel, fails to kick in and the machines he is hooked onto pause their one job. He dies while the doctors are occupied operating on another patient by candlelight. 

His family has agreed not to press charges. 

His family is reasonable, they do things the old way. 

You, sister of a murderer, are to be married off to the dead man from the bar. 

Yes, you are. 

Crying won’t help. The elders have decided. 

The dead man from the bar died without taking a wife. A man who is slaughtered before he knows the comforts of marriage becomes ngozi. 

An avenging spirit, do they not teach you anything at school anymore? To appease the ngozi, you must be his wife. 

He will be your spiritual husband. 

On the day of the funeral, your mother packs your things. Pink shirts with Hannah Montana’s face on it and some jeans. You are to live with the dead’s man’s family now. 

Don’t sulk. 

You are helping your brother, otherwise he and the children he will beget will be haunted by the ngozi for eternity. 

Do you want the family line to be cursed? 

No. So be a big girl. You are married now. 

You have to be a wife until you die of course. 

Forget school. From now on you will clean the dead man’s mom’s house, cook the sadza, hand wash the clothes, dust the furniture, rotate between members of his extended family’s homes for someone always needs an extra pair of hands and wear black for you are a widow now.

And then when you die, another girl from your family has to take your place. You are thirteen.

SOFT HANDS 

A good wife works. Not in an office, for that is unthinkable, but with her hands down a sink, gripping a gardening hoe, scrubbing floors and bearing children. 

Boyfriend and girlfriend hold hands and walk down a Bulawayo city street. They must be careful for public display of affection is still a crime, an officer could walk up to them and arrest girlfriend for prostitution. Boyfriend tenderly strokes her palm. Girlfriend smiles up at him. Soon he will be going to university to study actuarial science. She is lucky to have him, everyone reminds her. He frowns at her hands. 

“What’s wrong?” girlfriend asks.

“Your hands are still soft,” boyfriend says. “And your knees are still brown, almost yellow.”

Girlfriend keeps her eyes on the ground. 

“Your hands should be hard and your knees dark,” he says. “This just tells me you don’t do work. Girls that scrub floors and peka isitshwala have dark knees and hard hands.” 

Girlfriend laughs awkwardly. 

“When you’re an actuarial scientist and we are married, you will buy me a vacuum cleaner, a washing machine and a dishwasher so that I don’t have to have rough hands.”

Boyfriend’s frown deepens. 

“To buy a washing machine and a dishwasher is to spoil a woman,” he says. “She will forget her place.” He lets go of her hands. They walk in silence the rest of the way. 

CLOSED CASKET 

It’s not only men who can fix their partners. Women can too. A woman barred from working by her husband (for working women are wayward) finds much time during the day to sit and stew. Her husband, whose children have broken and bloated her body until her beauty faded, tells her she has let herself go. She turns over that phrase this way and that like a dirty doormat. Let herself go. As if she has anywhere to go, she snorts, her life is one of chains lived behind the bars of a respectable household. 

I will fix him, she swears on her portrait of a bloody Jesus Christ bearing a crown of thorns. She hung the portrait in the living room the day they moved in as newlyweds. Jesus take the wheel and protect my marriage, she prays to the picture every morning.

While she implores Jesus to take the wheel, her husband comes home later and later until he barely shows up at all. He takes up with a slay queen. Her own daughter shows her the social media photographs of the slay queen on a shopping trip in Dubai. All paid for by the wife’s husband of course. 

I will fix her, she said. I will fix her good.

Jesus is too slow in intervening so the wife turns to other vengeful gods. African gods who dispense wrath quicker than vending machines. The wife visits a muroyi and the muroyi does what muroyis are said to do. 

The vengeful gods are swift. As soon as the husband pulls out of the slay queen, her womanhood moves from its spot in between her legs to her forehead like a third eye. The man screams and runs aways, scared of the thing he licked only moments ago.

After a month of penitence he can’t help himself and takes up with another slay queen. Slay Queen Number Two’s skin has a transcendent shine to it. The wife begrudges her that skin, that skin that makes men weak at the legs. Slay Queen Number Two, the wife is sure of it, will convince the husband to move out of the house. So the wife prays to bloody Jesus in the morning but at night under the cover of darkness she seeks out the vengeful gods. 

Slay Queen Number Two is found dead the next day. Her once beautiful body flayed. Her once beautiful skin is nowhere to be seen. It is as if it has been burned in some damnable pot that can fry a grown woman. They bury her in a closed casket. 

RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS

The first flow of blood never announces itself, it arrives an unwanted guest that promises to drop in every month. The first visitation is catastrophe, a gong sounding the doom of womanhood. At exactly noon a gong sounded for her a girl in Harare. It is too shameful to tell her mother that the time to dance to the music has come so she walks all the way to her aunt’s house. Look, what I have done, she says taking off her blood stained underwear, holding it, head hung towards her aunt. 

Her aunt escorts her back to her mother’s house. It is the aunt who explains to the mother that her daughter can finally hear the chords and has joined the dance. The mother leads the girl to the bathroom and teaches her how to wash off the blood. As the girl dries off, her mother tells her to lean back against the tub with her legs open. The mother rubs chili peppers in-between the girls legs. 

“Now that you are a woman,” she says. “This is what happens if you open your legs.” 

The peppers sting. The girl cries out—an overplayed melody. 

She always sits with her legs closed tightly now. It could be worse, her mother told her. Across the ocean, in Nepal girls with blood are forbidden from sleeping inside the house so a shed, akin to a dog’s kennel, is built for them outside. Sometimes in the winter, the girls are dragged away by Himalayan wolves. 

DRY

It is nothing new for a woman in a relationship to try something daring to keep the interests of her men. If we lie down like logs, we tell ourselves, he will get bored and look for another woman who can please him. We scan blogs, buy books, listen around campfires for tips and tricks. Even when most of our partners cannot be bothered to bring us to climax, we search the web and unpack old wives tales for how to deepen his pleasure. One such tale that women whisper to each other after church and tea parties finds our ears one day. 

Men prefer it dry. 

Our wetness is like sandpaper to them. We must start drinking a potion that makes it dry. 

We quickly hunt down where to find this magic potion that makes it dry. In the public toilets near Bulawayo City Hall, a woman sells the potion we need. We know those toilets. No running water has flowed through those taps. Kombi and bus drivers shit on the floors because the toilet bowls are already piled up. The floors overflow with piss. 

But if the potion will make him quicken to pleasure, we will walk through a public toilet for him. 

We walk past the women’s clinic in the direction of city hall, ignoring the posters tacked to the clinic’s walls warning of the growing number of women diagnosed with cervical cancer in the region.  Surely enough, we find the woman in the public toilet. The potion we buy from her is even smellier than the toilet. Later that night after a bath, we rub it onto our womanhood and pray it makes us drier.  

HOLE 

Which came first—the orange or the egg? Sometimes oranges turn into holes. 

After the big white wedding, the groom’s mother lays down a bleached white sheet on the marriage bed. Girls these days aren’t like my generation, the mother-in-law thinks, they are crafty little things that can cheat even the sure science of an egg test. 

The newlyweds are to honey and moon under the parents’ roof. In the morning, the groom’s mother inspects the sheet. It is still white. She snatches the sheet from the bed and cuts a circle, a gaping hole, into the sheet. She parades the sheet to the guests inside the house, outside to the neighbors, to the street vendors selling overripe fruit, to anyone with ears to listen. She marches with the sheet to the bride’s parents house, an excited mob growing and trailing behind her.

When she reaches their gates, she holds up the sheet like a trophy. 

“No blood on the sheet,” she shouts to the bride’s parents. “You gave us a girl that is a hole.”  

And now the parents must give the mob their daughter’s head. 

PLUMTREE

Amarulas and wild plums grow abundantly in Plumtree, a small town whose only elegant feature is the main road that runs through it, connecting the border town to Botswana. A young woman from the big city marries a boy from this small town. The newlyweds pay the parents a visit as is customary after a white wedding. The couple enjoys dinner and conversation with the groom’s parents. They are good, humble people these parents. The bride already feels welcomed into the family.  When the last drop of okra soup is cleaned away by a ball of sadza, the mother-in-law exclaims that they did not have dessert prepared. The father-in-law tells his son to drive to the nearest store, along the main road, to get them something sweet. 

When the son leaves, the mother with a kind smile on her face asks her new daughter-in-law to go grab a shawl from a closet in her bedroom. 

I get the shivers at night, mother-in-law says. 

The bride, a good daughter-in-law, dutifully goes to her in-laws bedroom to retrieve the shawl. As soon as she steps into the bedroom, the door shuts behind her. Her father-in-law is behind her. 

“This is our tradition, city girl,” the father said. “I must test you out before my son can have you.” 

“I don’t understand,” is the last thing she says before the test.  

The son returns. What he carries away from his parents’ home is not what walked in just a few hours before.  

“I didn’t know of it,” he says in the car. He had been educated in the city and received a scholarship to go study abroad. He was never around Plumtree long enough to know of these things. Never bothered to ask his married sisters, his married girl best friends, his exes, his mother, his cousins, his aunties, the lady selling mangos at the street corner, that woman on the bus with a headscarf on her head and her eyes on the ground, the cashier at TM Supermarket, the bank teller at Standard Bank, the news anchor on ZBC News, the girl he sat next to in the lecture hall, the girl he tried to sleep with in the dorms but she refused because it would mean her head and he got angry and called her an “African prude,” the girl he whistled at with his guffawing group of friends as she walked alone and frightened to the shops, the girl he chided for having soft hands and light knees, the girl he told “I will be gentle” and never texted back who ended up dead on the news.

A year later, when the couple’s first child is born, he holds the baby still slimy with birth blood in his hands. 

I don’t know if this child is my son or my little brother, he thinks.  

BY THE BOTTLE  

I.

There is an old lady in a forest who sells lightning by the bottle. Drop five dollars and you can strike whoever you choose. If the men in parliament had any sense, they would abandon their futile plans of trying to make the country a nuclear power by 2030. America will never allow it. If the men in parliament had any sense they would send a delegation to the forest, they would remove their shoes at the door, cross a threshold of salt and come out with lightning for the army.

II.

A pregnant woman cries all night looking at an image of an ultrasound. Those patches of black and white pronounce a life sentence. 

“Where is a son?”

“Where is a son?” she screams at the doctors. 

She cries not because she wants a son but because she doesn’t want a daughter. Soon a daughter will be born and someone will tell her that her hands are soft and rub chilli peppers on her as if dressing a wound and she will learn that eggs are not only for cooking and she will go to Plumtree like her mother before her and come back a dead thing. 

The pregnant woman burns the ultrasound and remembers the way to an old lady in a forest.

“I need protection for my daughter,” the pregnant woman says to the old lady. 

“From what?” The old lady in the forest asks.

“Everything.” 

The old lady smiles a knowing smile. Out of her bag, she takes out a clear jar that must have housed jam in the past. Inside the jar the sparks dance in a zigzag. The pregnant woman holds a storm in her hands. 

“It is bottomless,” the old lady says. “Give it to her at first blood.” 

III.

When the daughter’s breasts bud, an uncle does what uncles do and reaches to pluck a flower before the bloom. It is dark, the government has cut the lights for 12 hours again, but white light surrounds the uncle and flames erupt from his chest. Three times someone tries to beat the flames with a blanket. Three times the flame reignites. An autopsy is conducted. 

Cause of death: electrocution. Deceased probably put his finger on a light socket.

There is an old lady in the forest who sells lightning by the bottle. 

About the author

Yvette Lisa Ndlovu is a Zimbabwean sarungano (storyteller). She is pursuing her MFA at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where she teaches in the Writing Program. She earned her BA at Cornell University and was a finalist for a Tin House Young Adult Writer of Color Scholarship. A 2020 National Juror for the Scholastic Arts & Writing Awards, she received the George Harmon Coxe Award for Poetry selected by Sally Wen Mao and is a 2020 New York State Summer Writers Institute Scholarship recipient. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Columbia Journal, the Huffington Post, Adolphus Press, and Kalahari Review.

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