Friday, 14 March 2014 11:58

Tayla Kaplan is the winner of the 2013 Hofmeyr Prize for Fiction


“Maaa? I need help with homework.” A grumbled sound of assent comes from her bedroom. You shuffle in, offering your third grade crudely stapled booklet towards her hand. “It’s a crossword puzzle and we need to find words that have “ape” in them. I found “cape” and “tape” and I found one here but I don’t know if it’s a word or not. Here. R. A. P. E. Is it a word, ma? Is it?”


That interchange is all you can think of. Is it a word, ma? Your nine year old voice rings around your head like a bad radio song. Is it a word, ma? Is it a –a grunt slices your thought off midsentence. You try crush the overwhelming sense of nausea, the kind that makes you want to throw up everything you ever thought you could eat.


Your first time wasn’t special. You didn’t love him, although you certainly thought he was handsome. All height, and grey eyes and dark hair, and a strong, heavy body. You bled that first time. A substantial amount, and you remember the pain. You had anticipated a bursting, like an explosion between your legs. A cherry pops, doesn’t it? That’s what they say. There was no pop, only a stinging, twisting, stretching pain of something too big stuck somewhere too small, like pushing your hand in a jar of pickles. Or like a Chinese bracelet, leaving your wrist welted and angry. It got too much eventually and you asked him to stop. He did. That was nice of him. He didn’t have to.


You are bleeding now. Not your first time, but there is blood. You can’t see it, but a woman is aware of her body in a different way. We know when our menstruation is coming. We know when it has started, even before the blood shows. We know when a cyst bursts in our uterus and we know when it’s just a few cramps. You can feel blood, wetting the dry space between your legs. Maybe that’ll make it easier, you think. You hope.


Another memory springs up, of a boy in the playground, holding your hand with both of his, using his superior eight year old dumb boy strength to push your hand into your tummy again and again and again. “HAHAHA stop hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself! Quit hitting yourself!” he chanted as your hand made contact repeatedly against the soft, squishy flesh of your prepubescent middle.


There was nausea then, too. There was something hitting your soft, squishy flesh now, too. A dull, panging pain in the depths of your stomach. You never were much good at biology, but you think maybe it’s the cervix that is being pressed, that’s causing this feeling. You read once in a Cosmo that that can be painful for some women. But again, you’re probably wrong. You don’t know biology. You bet they don’t either, but they have known enough to get this far.


“Look at the letters here, sweetie. S. C. See? S. C. R. A. P. E. That’s the word you’re looking for. Scrape, like what happened to your knee when you fell through that wendy house. A little blood, some disinfectant that’s burny, burny, burny and then a plaster. Scrape.”


A strangled sound escapes your lips and you’re as mortified as a new school kid who gets yelled at by the librarian. A hot, red flush creeps up your neck and you vow not to make another peep. Silently, of course. This isn’t the time for spoken vows.


You and your friend are waiting your turn in Adventureland. You want to go on the long slide, the one where you have to be tall enough to even get on it. This is the first time you’re tall enough, and it’s special because most of the girls aren’t tall enough so they can’t go on it. A boy from the other class tries to push in the line but the boys in our class don’t let him. “It’s our turn”, they say. Your friend climbs on first. The smiley lady tells her to wait five seconds, and then she can go. She counts them down. Five. Four. Three. Two. “MY TURN!” she squeals, as she throws herself down. You can hear her laughing right until she hits the bottom.


There’s a momentary reprieve of pressure. A body is lifted, another is dumped. You exhale sharply as if winded.


Your little brother and you are watching Scooby Doo. It’s a weekday, so it shouldn’t even be allowed but it’s a treat because it’s your birthday. There’s a ghost, who is obviously a man in a mask. You’re old enough to have realised that that’s what happens every time but you’re still too young to care about silly details that can ruin a good show. Fred announces his customary “Let’s split up, gang!” as he and Daphne head off, and Velma, Scooby and Shaggy go somewhere else. Fred should give Velma a turn to go with him sometime. Sharing is caring.


You’re aware of voices, but it’s a language you don’t understand. Or it’s just noise. Probably noise. Noises of assent. Shadows depart in different directions. One returns. Your body involuntarily coils up, like a snail that has been sprinkled with salt. The shadow bends. Your eyes sprinkle their own salt. The shadow rises again, and slips away.


You wake up in the middle night with stomach cramps so agonising that you awoke screaming. You are vaguely aware of calling your parents using your cell phone because the pain won’t let you use your diaphragm to get the volume needed to shout for them. The pain is crippling, causing you to shrivel up while they frantically try figure out what is wrong. You get sent for tests. It’s a rare stomach bacteria. The doctors give you some pills. In a week, it’s gone. But that memory of waking up and praying for death becomes familiar.


You lie there, listening to your breathing wetting the plastic around you. The oxygen will probably run out soon. You think of that optimistically. You think of anything actually, anything to keep your mind off the fact that you were scraped. Scraped. Scraped, scraped, scraped. Scraped. Is that a word, ma? Is it?


You hate playing hide and seek in this house. There are no good hiding places. Behind a curtain is so obvious. Same with hiding under a bed. One day we decide on new rules. We can hide in the garden too. You hide behind some tall cactus looking plants. It takes a whole ten minutes for him to find you. “I found you!” he yelps with excitement. “Yeah, yeah, what took you so long?” you smile at him.


The bin bag is pulled off your head. You lie there and wait, tasting air that isn’t stale. You’re lifted. You try to speak, to jokingly congratulate whoever was able to hoist your bulk off the ground. You can’t really find a way to articulate the words. Also, the words would be silly. You weigh nothing. You’re practically floating.


The important thing about using a toilet, you remember your ma explaining, is that you have to wipe from the front to the back, never from the back to the front.


The nurses at the hospital know that rule too. Every orifice is cleaned, front to back, and then put in plastic bags. Someone arrives with what looks like a manicure kit. They clean your nails. You try to thank them but you’re not talking just yet. Someone tells you that that’s normal and to be expected. You want to ask them what is expected. A woman arrives, who takes your hand and talks to you. You watch her mouth move around and watch her fingers stroking your palm. It feels nice for around 30 seconds and eventually the slight tickling becomes painful. You pull your hands away, and someone sends the woman away. You don’t know why.


You remember doing a project for life orientation in school. It was about crime in South Africa. South Africa, you realised, doesn’t have statistics for nice things, but Norway does. They have things like best standard of living, high life expectancy and free healthcare. You didn’t do so well in that project. You weren’t good at biology, and you weren’t good at life orientation. You’re okay at maths though, you manage fine with numbers.


Now you get to make up a statistic because you have a case number with the police and plastic bags with things from your body in them. 1 of 3600. 3600 every day. Part of the daily number. You wonder if you’ll make up another statistic, a different one, but apparently that we can only test in a few weeks. In the mean time, you swallow a lot of pills. Anti-retros and morning-afters. You know what they are but they somehow sound like rave drugs from the 60s. Free love on the streets. Streets full of free love.


You make headlines. That’s what happens when you’re young and beautiful. Maybe people care less if you’re old and ugly. Or at least your article is a little smaller and there are less people who want to ask you questions, less people who get frustrated when you don’t talk. A lot of people wail about the state of the country, the state of our women, the state of the state of the state. A lot of them smile at you with what they think probably looks like kindness but has the stale look of pity and relief. “Thank God it didn’t happen to me.” “Thank God it wasn’t my daughter, my sister, my mother.” You don’t’ have anyone to thank. Actually you do. Or a lot of people think you do. “Thank God they left you alive.” So that’s who you’re meant to thank. You’re alive. Yes, thank God. God is with you because he loves you.


Also, thank God that someone found you, behind those plants. God knows you could have lain there for ages.

Imagine if it had taken days instead of a few hours.

Imagine if it had been ten, instead of five, like what happened to that poor girl down in that other province.

Your parents thank God that their little girl is okay. Your father swears to God that he will find them and kill them. God will condone that sort of killing apparently. The police swear to God that they’re doing everything they can.

God knows they’re doing everything they can. You find yourself thanking God too, because that’s what everyone seems to think is the appropriate response, and really, what else are you meant to do?


It’s half-hearted though. Your thanks carry as much meaning as a child who thanks her auntie for a present she hates on her birthday. But you had a lot of time with God.


When two of them appeared around the building.

Oh, God, no.

When you turned to run.

Please, God, let me get away.

When there were more behind you.

Please, God, help me escape.

When your head was bin-bagged, like yesterday’s trash.

Please, God, help.

When your jeans were yanked off.

Please, God, this can’t be happening.

After the first.

Please, God.

After the second.

Please, God.

The third.





Please, God, let me die. Please, please, please, let me die.

But God is good. There is no sixth. He does not let you die, though.

No, he loves you far too much for that.