VISIT AT TEA TIME


I killed a man, she says, her memories hanging

heavy, like long thick black braids from her head

hung low. Her demons have sunk their claws

into her cheeks, her sins trapped in dark bags of pain

hanging beneath her eyes, eyes that look as though

they once knew how to smile.



What are you in for? I’d asked the eighteen-year-old

drowning in her torment and oversized blue uniform

sitting in a Pollsmoor prison cell, her small frame

drawn as tightly into itself as her horror will allow.



My wife was not happy for me to come here, visiting

a murderer. She fired a barrage of fearful questions:

bars, will there be bars or glass between you and her?

Will a guard be present? What if something goes wrong?

Why can’t someone else go? It’s just for a cup of tea

and a prayer, I assured her. There is no safety barrier,

I am sitting face to face with a killer, someone who

has taken a life, broken commandments while

the rest of us broke promises. She doesn’t look like

a murderer, but what face does a murderer wear?



Thou shalt not kill, I remind myself, the words roll

around my mind as I roll the pen around in my pocket,

my weapon of defence in case I need one.

There is never a reason to kill, my morality whispers,

we have given her the justice she deserves.



I stabbed him in the neck, she continues, unprompted,

snapping me back from my righteousness. Her spirit

seems to recoil as she pukes the words; she looks

shocked, as though hearing of her crime anew, like

a young soldier just awaking to her role in an unjust war.

I reported every time, every time I was raped, she sobs.

Everyone knows, she says, with a sadness that makes

my body quake, cold. It happens to all the girls

in the township; even if we report it, even if we scream,

no one helps. When it happened the seventh time,

I killed him, I killed the man who did it.



The seventh time! I scream in silence.



I don’t want to go free, she says softly, after a pause;

someone has to pay for our sins, her hard eyes fixed

intensely on mine. When you’re born in the shadows

you never find light, she says. Who makes the shadows?

her voice tails off. Who makes the shadows? I repeat.



I know who makes the shadows.


Like a hammer to my forehead, chaos explodes. I hear

loud echoes all around, heavy steel smashing against

heavy steel, doors banging, anguished screams, barking

guards. I hear eerie chatter like tree leaves fist-fighting

in the wind, tongues reciting sins. I can’t find comfort

anywhere in my chair. Where’s the tea? It is tea time

dammit, but I’ve got no tea, where’s the fucking tea!

I leave in a hurry,

no time for prayer,

just glad to be outside.

I rush off to find some tea,

or maybe something stronger.



ATHOL WILLIAMS