We want to hide them, tuck them away with our guilty conscience. They are the cracks in our flawlessness, evidence of mistakes we made, impulses overtaking our rational minds. A reminder of a time we’d rather forget, a relationship gone sour, a stranger getting too close or health that deteriorated. It is the past reaching it’s shiny, jagged fleshy fingers into the present.
Or we wear them with a quiet pride that speaks for us before we have uttered a word. “Here is one who is strong, who has borne the cruel twists of life and gained a lifelong token to show for it.”
Scars tell the story of trauma, survival and healing all on their own. They appear skin deep, but their roots go so much deeper, far into the recesses of the soul and the mind.
In appreciation of the will of the human body to heal itself, I present three short stories. Each bears a theme of scars either in physical, psychological or emotional types.
They rolled in traffic past an ambulance stuck on the side of the road, steam hissing from under its bonnet. Read full story
“She hurried along, tripping over her own feet. The street noises melted into each other coagulating into one mighty racket.” Read full story
3. Moulded Hearts (emotional scars)
For fifteen years everything was perfect. Perfect and safe. Nothing could go wrong, and nothing ever did. Her life was cast from a flawless mould, with no heartache and few surprises. Until yesterday. Read full story.
The mobile lay on the kitchen counter, the screen light blazing. Then it went off. Zuzannah swallowed down the sour taste rising in the back of her throat. She picked up the phone, swiped the screen and re-read the message.
You don’t belong here.
It was from an unknown number, but she recognised it. It was the same number that sent her a series of hostile messages over the last month. All the messages were listed in conversation mode. At first she ignored it, but it was starting to bug her. She tried to think who it could be, who in her network could have her number. Her stomach twisted at the thought of it being someone she might know. She shook her head to clear her thoughts. She had to stay calm. They, whoever they were, would not get to her.
It could be anyone. Her number was not exactly top-secret. It appeared on notice boards and contact lists of organisations where she volunteered. Her heart sank. She planned on volunteering until she got a job. Despite applying everywhere, job prospects were dismal for people like her. They didn’t say it in so many words, but she understood. The interviewers asked if she would remove her headscarf for the job. Her answer was “No”, and she guessed so was theirs. None of them got back to her.
Katy Perry started singing You held me down, but I got up. Already brushing off the dust. Zuzannah flinched at the sound of her mobile ringing in her hand. She peeped at the screen and smiled.
“Hi Zoë!” A pause. “Oh sorry, I got… delayed. Is it ten o’ clock already?” She glanced at her watch and hopped off the kitchen bar stool. “I’m on my way. Give me five minutes.”
She grabbed her purse off the kitchen counter and jolted out the door. The anonymous messages were getting to her. She had forgotten about their weekly Saturday brunch. Zoë was already at Ethiopia Cafe and she was not happy.
“You know I don’t like waiting!” Zoë threw her hands up in the air when Zuzannah entered the cafe. Parting palm leaf fronds and bead curtains, she made her way to Zoë’s table.
“Yeah, I know. Sorry. I’m here now.” She tried her sweetest smile and patted Zoë’s shoulder.
Zoë rolled her eyes and kissed her friend, once on each cheek and one more, middle-eastern style. She sat down, picked up her cigarette from the ashtray and laid her elbow on the table so that the cigarette rested near her face. She studied Zuzannah with her kohl rimmed eyes.
“You okay?” she took a deep drag. “You look flustered.” She blew out smoke and it hovered like a cloud.
“Do you mind?” Zuzannah waved smoke out of her face. “I’m flustered, because I basically ran all the way here.”
Zoë leaned over the table, and smoothed Zuzannah’s hijab, folding it neatly and tucking stray hairs underneath it. “Now you don’t look like a crazy mad woman.”
Zuzannah bowed her head, hiding the blush rising on her cheeks. She patted her silk hijab, tugging the safety pin under her chin into its proper position. Satisfied it was neat, she sat straighter in her chair. “Thanks.” she mumbled.
A waitress brought a macchiato and a latte. “I took the liberty of ordering for you.”
“I wouldn’t expect anything less from you.” Zuzannah laughed at her audacity and sipped her latte. “Hazelnut?”
“Yeah, what do you think?”
“Not bad.” It tasted good. Sweet and mildly nutty. She stifled a giggle. A bit like Zoë.
Zoë leaned back in her chair and grinned. She flipped her hair to one side, revealing a side-shaved hairstyle. Zuzannah smiled. People were always surprised they were friends let alone besties. She appeared so conservative, and Zoë so free-spirited.
Katy Perry sang again. Zuzannah reached into her purse for her phone, was about to answer, then stopped. Unknown number. She stiffened. She threw it back in her purse.
“You’re not going to get that?” Zoë raised an eyebrow.
“I don’t want to.”
“What? Why? It might be important. It might be a guy.” She lingered on the word guy and gave a lopsided smile.
“I doubt it. If it is a guy he needs to work on his pick up lines. Malice isn’t very attractive.” Zuzannah exhaled, relieved to finally tell someone about the disturbing messages.
Zoë frowned. “What do you mean?”
Zuzannah sighed, took her phone out of her purse and showed Zoë the series of messages.
Go back to your country, you filthy rotten scum.
We won’t let you take over our country with your backward cult.
Take that rag off your head. Or I’ll do it for you.
There were others, with foul tasting language. She spared Zoë the distastefulness.
Zoë clasped her hand over her mouth. Her eyes grew wide and wet. “Zuzannah…” Then a tear rolled down her cheek, and she went over to her, pulled her close in an embrace. Zoë might appear tough, but she had a soft heart.
Zuzannah buried her face in her hair, her chest growing tight, holding back her own tears. She held onto Zoë.
When they let go, Zoë kept one arm around her shoulder. “How long have you been getting these?”
“For about a month.” Zuzannah’s voice sounded small to her ears.
“A month?! And you didn’t tell me? Have you told the police?”
“What can the police do?” She shrugged, “And I didn’t want to bother you. It didn’t seem important, at first.”
“The police can trace the number, you know, do detective stuff!”
“Maybe… I just want it to stop.” She didn’t think the police could help her. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know who was behind it either. What if it was someone she volunteered with? An acquaintance? A friend? A sour taste rose in her throat. She coughed and swallowed to clear it. She just wanted it to stop. It had to.
The train steered around a bend and the passengers swayed with it. Zuzannah was on her way to the mall. Zoë left for a family gathering where there would be extended family, baklava and barbecue, and lots of nieces and nephews running around. She insisted Zuzannah join them, but she wasn’t in the mood for socialising. Lately, she preferred to stay away from such gatherings where she’d have to force herself to smile and make small talk. A couple of hours at the mall for some lone retail therapy was more appealing. There was this pair of studded ankle boots she had her eye on. It would go perfectly with her skinny jeans.
The feeling gripped her suddenly. She couldn’t explain it, but she felt the odd sensation that she was being watched. Followed. She glanced around at the other passengers. They were all engrossed in their own bubble lives. Some were reading, others were asleep and swaying with the train. A man and a woman deep in conversation. She was about to look away, when they looked at her. Their lips curled in a sneer. Zuzannah felt very aware of her hijab, the silk scraping her cheeks, the safety pin tightening underneath her chin. She offered a shaky smile. The couple turned their backs to her.
I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter, dancing through the – Zuzannah reached into her purse and before taking it out, rejected the call. She swiped the screen to see whose call she cut short. Unknown number. Her pulse quickened. She squeezed her eyes shut, opened them and looked again. Unknown number. Leave me alone! Her heart beat at her ribcage, begging to be noticed. She wanted to disappear. She leaned back in her seat, trying to appear relaxed. She fought the urge to run out of the still moving train. She should have stayed with Zoë.
The train stopped and the doors slid open. She rose and made for the exit, steering well clear of the couple. On the platform, she kept her eyes in front of her and she was carried out of the underground with the wave of rushing commuters. The street was busy, horns blaring, people shouting. A man in a black jacket and baseball cap moved toward her. She ducked into the nearest store. A bookstore. She peered from behind the book displays at the strange man. He walked over to another man, and they fist bumped and half hugged in greeting. She breathed a sigh of relief. He wasn’t coming for her. She left the bookstore and scurried to the mall.
Her mobile’s tune was muffled in the noise of the street. She opened her purse and it belted out, ‘Cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar. Unknown number. She wanted to throw her phone away. Why won’t they leave me alone?
She switched her phone to silent and decided to go home. Shopping lost its lustre now. She felt exhausted. The long months of job hunting, the malicious messages, the couple on the train, it all drained her. After living her whole life in this city, it had succeeded in making her feel like a foreigner. Worse. A foreigner could still be a tourist eager to spend much wanted money. Zuzannah realised she was far worse. She was an outcast. Hated. The enemy. She hadn’t done anything wrong, but the facts didn’t make a difference anymore.
She hurried along, tripping over her feet. The street noises melted into one another coagulating into one mighty racket. The fact was she could remove her scarf for regulations or malevolent stalkers, but it wouldn’t stop her wanting to wear it. She could change her appearance to meet their expectations, but it wouldn’t change who she was or what she stood for. Her heart beat unusually, her breath came in short gasps. A roaring begun in her ears, the street noises receding beyond it. Another disturbing fact glared at her, like a lion eyes its prey with a deadly stare, chasing it then trapping it, blotting out any shadow of hope with its fearsome form : It could get worse.
Mr Jeremy Gould put the receiver down. He pursed his lips and frowned. He had tried calling Zuzannah Rashid many times, but each time there was no answer. He planned to double-check her number with her colleague at The United Mission. They had recommended her for this job and she seemed to have all the qualifications. Exactly what he was looking for. He tapped his forefinger on his desk. Now, if only he could get hold of her.
Photo credit © Fatima Fakier Deria
Dan rolled up his car windows and turned on the aircon. Usually he wouldn’t dare, it used up too much petrol. He was glad he was submitting a fuel claim for this particular trip. He turned it up a notch, cool air swooshed towards him.
They rolled in traffic past an ambulance stuck on the side of the road, steam hissed from under its bonnet. Capetonians were not used to the forty degree weather, and neither were their vehicles. The weather forecast predicted the heatwave would last till the end of the week. Dan hoped the evening would be cooler when his band held their practice session.
“Roll down your window.” Mike piped in the passenger seat. His name was Mikail, but everyone called him Mike. He leaned over and shouted at the ambulance driver above the hum of car engines. “Are you guys alright over there?”
The driver smiled and gave a thumbs up. “We’re fine. We were out on a response call, but broke down. The tow truck is on its way. Another ambulance has been sent out for the call. Thanks anyway.”
Mike returned the thumbs up and leaned back in his seat.
“Well it’s not like we had time anyway, to stop and help.” Dan reminded Mike of their schedule. They were out to pick up supplies and had to be back at head office for the next volunteer training session. He shook his head at the thought of the volunteers. Men and women eager to risk their lives. They must have no life, otherwise why enter a war zone?
“The turnout of volunteers is massive this year.” Mike whistled thoroughly impressed. “Best thing is, we have a lot of them with a medical background.”
“Ja, like you.”
Mike was a nurse by profession. He grinned and nodded.
Dan thought he’d just come out and say it. “I don’t get it. I mean I understand helping people… I don’t get the risking your own lives part.”
Mike looked out his window. “It is scary, you know. And the conflict is just getting worse.” He turned to look at Dan. “But that’s just why we need to go. There are kids who had their limbs blown off, without access to treatment. If not for anyone else, but the kids.”
His stomach lurched at the mention of limbs being blown off. There was also something else too, a peculiar sadness that washed over him.
“I couldn’t do it. That’s all.” he tapped the steering wheel with his thumb.
Mike punched him on his shoulder, “C’mon! Of course you can’t. We need you here at home base. Doing all this.” He spread his hands out as if all that Dan did was laid out in front of him.
Dan turned on the radio and they went over everything needed to be done to prepare for the relief mission. The aid organisation, Giving Hands, would be sending out the first group of volunteers and supplies in a few weeks. There was much to do.
Later, he met up with his bandmates in a borrowed studio. The new drummer Cyril turned out to be a killer lyricist. He wrote songs of heartache, mistakes and redemption that people loved. And he had a network that fed the fan base and gig bookings.
The setting of the sun made no difference to the temperature. The ground released the heat it absorbed during the day. We always played without our shirts, we could really let loose that way. Cyril never took his off.
Perhaps he succumbed to the thirty eight degree heat, but he took his shirt off too. For a few seconds no one said anything.
Circular welts peppered his torso, shiny and tight. Two were on his left shoulder, one on his lower abdomen. He saw us staring and he turned around to reveal the exit scars, only one on the shoulder and one on the back, a little higher than the front.
“Dude, what happened to you?” our lead guitarist broke the silence.
“Oh, this was years ago.” Cyril shrugged the seriousness away. We were not one to let go. We assaulted him with questions till he gave in.
“I used to be in a gang.”
Cyril told us he grew up in the Cape Flats, the part of Cape Town rife with gangsterism. Once the gang warfare got so bad, the army stepped in and locked down entire neighbourhoods.
They were out patrolling the streets for rival gangs trying to invade their territory. A thirteen year old boy walked out of a house, gun pointed towards them. He never spoke. He fired shot after shot, emptied his magazine, picked up another loaded gun and fired some more. Cyril’s entire posse fell to the tarmac. Some died on the scene, some on the way to hospital, only Cyril survived.
He quit after that. He still receives death threats from his old gang. “It was clearly an ambush. I’ll never go back, I have a son now and I don’t want that for him.”
It is said that we earn our scars. Dan never understood that. Those jagged, lumpy pieces of flesh appeared as a body’s poor attempt of joining muscle and skin, and more a sign of an ineptitude than of any ability. Sometimes they are tight, sleek and shiny attempting a badge of honour, yet still, never returning the skin to it’s smooth flawlessness.
He couldn’t help thinking that if Mike returned from the relief mission all scarred up, which was possible, that it would somehow be different than Cyril’s. The bullet scars marked a life of asserting power over others. Mike’s would mark a life the complete polar opposite: giving power and life back to those who lost everything.
Ja – (Yah) localised version of the word ‘yes’.
Cape Town gangsterism and drug rings are a huge social and criminal problem. At one point, the Premier pleaded with government to involve South African Defense Force. I don’t think the army lockdown happened, but included it in my story.
When he came into her hotel room, Petra already knew it was not to tell her of a party that evening or a networking event the next day. David was always in desperate need of an ego boost. He had accompanied her to the conference like a protective chaperone of whom her husband approved. He trusted David, though clearly he shouldn’t.
David walked in, one hand in his pocket, the other holding a bottle of champagne. Still holding the doorknob, Petra glanced at the bottle and asked, “Celebrating something?”
“No, yes.. maybe.” He shifted his weight from one leg to the other. Before he averted his gaze away from her face, she thought she saw a strange look in his eyes. She was used to seeing vulnerability in other men, but David never showed it. She watched as he made his way slowly to the small desk against the wall, where he set down the champagne bottle.
“Close the door, will you?” David didn’t know how to talk without issuing commands.
She loathed it. She loathed him. Nevertheless, she shut the door and walked towards him. She felt a small thrill as he looked at her. She knew he was always attracted to her, catching him staring at her many times before, always trying to impress her with his swagger and wit. She never responded to any of it before, though sometimes she felt she wanted to stroke his biceps mid-conversation just to watch him drop that awful facade in awe of her.
He had that look of awe on his face now. Cruelly, she came right up to him as if to deliver his every fantasy, then pivoted slightly walking right past him at the last second. She thought she could almost hear him exhale that last breath he had been holding in. She smiled. A small victory, but still a victory.
Petra sat in a single armchair by the large glass sliding doors and looked outside.
“It’s raining.” Talking about the weather will make him feel insignificant, she relished the thought. He always inspired this cruel, almost evil side of her. Because he is so full of it. A burning sensation flickered in her chest.
David came over to her, ignoring the identical single chair opposite hers, and perched on the armrest beside her. His thigh brushed her forearm, and she fought the urge to pull it away. Or was she fighting the urge to put her hand on his thigh? Her arm burned at the spot where their bodies touched.
“I want to show you something.” He took out his phone with the big touchscreen. Leaning closer to her still, he held up the phone so she could see the picture on its screen. She didn’t know much about boats or sailing, but with its wood panelling and polished chrome trim it looked expensive. It even had a jacuzzi on the upper deck. A yacht! How rich was he really to afford a yacht? He had money, but not this much. She touched her chest where that burning sensation swelled once more. He was such an arse. He doesn’t even sail. Why on earth would he buy a yacht? Does his extravagance know no limits?
She managed a small smile, “It looks pricey.”
Getting up from her chair, she stood by the edge of the curtains as if to stare out the glass doors. Instead, she turned to face him forcing a smile on her face. For a second, she caught that same look on his face again. Her smile softened. “Only a small fortune.” He shrugged. He looked disappointed and he failed to hide it. He walked over to the desk where the champagne stood getting warm without a bucket of ice.
“I should have called room service to ice this thing. Let me do that right now.” He picked up the phone and asked for room service to bring up a wine cooler and champagne glasses.
When he put the receiver down, he seemed to have retrieved some of his courage, standing taller and reaching into his jacket pocket. “I also got you something.” He pulled out a blue velvet box. Too large for a ring, but too small for a jewellery set. What was it? Her curiosity was piqued. And she couldn’t help herself.
He walked toward her. He seemed taller. She felt smaller, and clenched her jaw. But the blue velvet box in his hand caught her eye, and she stared hard at it trying to sense its contents.
“Open it.” It was almost a whisper.
She took it from his outstretched palm, hesitated, then snatched it and flipped the lid open. Her breath caught in her throat. The flash of platinum links caught her eye first, and then the diamonds. It was a watch. An expensive one at that. All platinum links and pearlescent face. Tiny diamonds marked the time intervals instead of numbers.
“Do you like it?”
She did. “Huh? Yes, it’s lovely.” She traced each delicate link with her finger and bit her lip.
She shouldn’t accept this gift, she knew. Not just because it was inappropriate as they were both married, but this would give him momentary power over her. She would feel indebted to him. It was so lovely. She could picture it on her fine wrist.
She felt his hand on her elbow. The room spun a little. Did they have any champagne yet? She spied it on the table beside them, still without the cooler, and realised she was already losing the game. She shook her head to clear it. Looking up at him to tell him she couldn’t accept this gift, she saw him gazing fondly at her. A mixture of that same vulnerability and awe, and she realised she had him under her power. He had finally dropped that facade. She noticed it as he spoke softly, even warmly to her.
“I’ve always liked you, you know. You’re beautiful.”
She swallowed hard. He still held her elbow and now he moved upwards, stroking her arms.
Don’t. You’ll regret this. You don’t want to sleep with this man Petra, you don’t. It’ll be a one time fling for him, like all the other women, and you’ll have to face him everyday after this.
Still, she let him stroke her arms then her back until she was caught in his embrace. David’s expression was soft and his eyes told her he meant every word.
“It’s okay” he said, and leaned in to kiss her mouth. She kissed him back with more urgency than she intended. Her body burned with that familiar resentment and then with desire. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she pressed her body to his. He nudged her gently backwards onto the bed, and laid on top of her.
Room service never came. Or perhaps they didn’t hear it in the midst of their passion. She wished they came to interrupt last night’s madness. David left soon after they did… it.
She wondered what that meant. He didn’t stay to cuddle or to talk or even to sleep like most men did after intercourse. Her chest tightened. Was it a mistake? Did he pull one over her?
She felt sick at the possibility of falling prey to him. Could he have planned all of that, just to have the upper hand? Having a one night stand with him, would give him total, complete power over her. Threats of blackmail and complete subordination loomed over her. Quickly, she checked her nightstand. The watch was gone too.
She didn’t see David until that evening at dinner in the hotel restaurant. He was with another pretty woman that she didn’t know. Probably he met her that day. She walked up to their table. “Hi David.”
“Hi Petra. How are you?” He smiled, but the warmth from last night was gone. “This is Michelle.”
The young blonde smiled politely. She sipped some wine from her glass. On the woman’s dainty wrist was the diamond encrusted platinum watch David presented her with only last night. Petra turned cold. Without another word, or thoughts about her next move, she spun on her heels and walked away. She took deep breaths, but it did nothing to stop the burning feeling that bloomed in her chest.