English, the name Malihu meant Mother of Death.
“Or Ladydeath,” she told me solemnly, as if the choice were up to me.
We were in the girls’ dorm; it was a Friday night and almost time for lights
out, and the girls had grown more intense in their preparations for bed.
No one could keep quiet. Someone was always slamming a locker shut. Girls
ran up and down the aisles, yelled and sang from the toilets, swore across
the room at each other. I noticed that two girls had crawled into bed together,
their heads peeking out from underneath the blanket. I asked why they didn’t
sleep in their own beds.
“We’re too afraid!” they shouted.
Malihu seemed to think this was funny. She laughed and said some things
to them in Sotho. They swore at her and pouted, but she only laughed more
and waved her hand at them in dismissal. She told me then that I would be
sleeping in her bed, which was the top bunk. She would be sleeping in the
bottom bunk with her friend Palesa, she said, to give me “privacy” and show
“respect.” These were her words, and she seemed pleased to have thought
of them. She fluffed my pillow dramatically and made a great show of turning
down the blanket, then tucking it tight between the mattress and the springs.
Then she asked if she could comb my hair, and scraped a red, plastic chair
across the floor. There was a commotion in the toilets; girls ran in and
different ones ran out.
“Sit,” she said imperiously.
I laughed and said, “Bossy girl,” but I sat, and she ran her fingers through
my hair, lifting the strands high and letting them fall in a slow-motion
cascade around my shoulders.
“Beautiful,” she said.
She brushed my hair carefully, ending each stroke with a concentrated flourish.
“You should be a hairdresser,” I said.
She huffed. “I’m going to be a stewardess.” She bent close and giggled near
my ear, in a girlish, unnatural way. “And I’ll fly to America and live with
“That would be great,” I told her. I meant it. She often talked about her
future in America, and I, in turn, would imagine myself her patron, thrilled
by the possibility of what I could do for her. She was sixteen, although
at times she seemed older. I was her English teacher, although at times
felt more like her peer. She had narrow almond-shaped eyes and a large scar
in the shape of an S. The scar measured from her hairline to the bridge
of her nose. She was nonetheless very beautiful. I envied her beauty and
wondered if people who looked like her deserved a better life than the rest
of us. I didn’t really think so. But did she? She seemed to accept my allegiance
with the presumption of someone with a vast and uncompromising sense of
She was leaning over me, parting my hair with the tip of the brush. She
smelled strongly of talcum powder and body odor. She pulled at a knot. She
was softly singing. Then she smoothed my hair with an unexpected tenderness
that filled me with gratitude.
“You must use curlers,” she commanded after a moment and flipped my hair
as though frustrated by the inadequacy of the material at her disposal.
It was October, which meant spring in Africa. There were lightning storms
in the afternoons, occasional warm and windy squalls. The rain fell hard
and briefly. Frogs appeared in the classroom doorways and beneath the
stairwells, bewildered and lost.
I had recently told my students about Halloween.
“We’ve seen it on TV,” said Winnie Masipa haughtily.
There was no Halloween in Africa. But there were witches, and two nights
ago, one had appeared in the girls’ dorm. This was the story at least,
although it had its contradictions. The girls emerged early the next morning,
eyes red-rimmed and strained with fatigue. Some collapsed into giggles.
Some whispered together conspiratorially; others shouted half in English,
half in Sotho, impatient to narrate their versions. The witch had slipped
inside the dorm in the form of a snake, up through the toilets. In the
form of a cat, squeezing through the bars of a window. The witch had floated
from bed to bed like an apparition, sitting on the stomach of one girl,
clawing at the nightgown of another. She had long, stabbing fingernails.
She had no fingers at all. She had snipped the hair from the back of seven
heads. She had held the clumps in her fists. She had stuffed the clumps
down her throat. She had cursed, she had screamed, she was mute. She looked
like an old woman or a young woman. She had vanished into thin air. She
had used the front door.
I saw the girls whose hair had been cut. Indeed, each had a bald spot
at the base of her skull, which she showed me, touching the place tenderly
with her fingers. The job looked to have been a rushed one, uneven at
the edges. The girls told me they were afraid of what would happen to
them next. They covered their heads with their cardigans and looked out
at the rest of us like veiled nuns.
No one wanted to go back to the dorm. The witch would return, said the
girls, and all day they talked of nothing else. I asked them again what
she looked like. They shrugged—sometimes you couldn’t see her at all,
only what she left behind.
What she left behind?
They shrugged again.
Tracks. Feces. Fingernails. Those kinds of things.
That night the girls refused to return to the dorm after study. They gathered
in the quad outside and staged an insurrection. The place was a zoo. The
boys lingered on the stairwells to watch. It was dark, but the quad was
lit up like a stadium. The night was strangely humid, and the veldt was
like a enormous shadow in the distance. The older girls were trying to
keep things organized. They wanted everyone to sit on the ground. They
ran around shouting instructions. One group was squabbling. Another seemed
to be playing a game of tag.
I had been supervising the Standard Nines. At first I watched from the
classroom doorway, then moved into the quad for a better look. A few girls
cheered when they saw me. They seemed to think I was showing my solidarity.
I didn’t want to give them the wrong idea, so I found refuge beneath a
potted tree, which was badly in need of watering. Someone had gone to
fetch Brother Richard. I could see him hurrying down the dirt road from
the brothers’ house; he looked like he’d been asleep. The girls became
hysterical at the sight of him. They raised their fists and shouted, and
a few began to toi-toy, as though a gesture of political defiance was
exactly what the situation called for.
One of them came over and clung to me. She said she didn’t want to die.
There seemed no other way to respond to this than to say she wouldn’t.
Brother Richard took the stage, and for a split-second it was perfectly
quiet. Then a classroom door slammed, and I recognized the sound of jackals
barking in the veldt. A feeling of loneliness crept up on me. It had nothing
to do with what was happening and everything to do with the place itself.
I looked around. Several of the African teachers were gathered across
the quad, but I couldn’t see their faces enough to guess what they were
For a long time, Brother Richard didn’t say anything. He just stood there
on the stage as if enjoying the view. I admired his strategy. Brother
Gerald and Sister Vinny joined me beneath my tree. We whispered hello.
Sister Vinny asked me if I could pinpoint who among the girls had started
things. I said that they all looked to be in charge. Brother Gerald whispered
that no matter how much of God you brought to Africa, you could never
really flush out the Devil.
We waited. The stage, which had been built in 1986, was three feet off
the ground. It was made of cement. It was used mostly for announcements
at morning assembly. Sometimes it was used for a student performance or
guest speaker. Once or twice it had been used for a funeral.
Brother Richard was standing at its center. He crossed his hands behind
his back and leaned slightly forward. He looked like he had lost himself
in some kind of dramatic pause. I wondered if he’d ever done any acting.
Beside me, Sister Vinny seemed to be holding her breath.
“ANYONE WHO DOESN’T WANT TO SLEEP IN THE DORM,” Brother Richard said,
“IS WELCOME TO SLEEP RIGHT HERE.”
“Unfair!” screamed the girls. “BROTHER, UNFAIR!”
Brother Gerald was galvanized into action. “Show’s over!” he shouted,
wielding a stick that seemed to come from nowhere. He slashed it through
Girls scattered. Some ran back to the dorm, wailing. Sister Vinny prodded
others along like hens, pulling at shirtsleeves.
I saw Malihu then; she ran up and linked her arm in mine.
“How can you help us?” she said breathlessly. She pulled on my arm, pulling
me down the stairwell.
I laughed. “It’s not my jurisdiction,”
I said. I threw up my arms, as if to say, What can I do?
“Show’s over!” Brother Gerald continued to shout. He saw us and shook
his stick. He seemed to have forgotten who I was.
Malihu ignored him. She stared at me fiercely, and after a moment, she
dropped my arm.
“Aie, wena!” she said, and flounced away. I watched her go, feeling miserable.
The Northern Transvaal of South Africa was said to be the witchcraft
capital of the continent. In the last year, a poor government school had
lost eight students in as many weeks. The students had died.
Seemingly no one could figure out the cause. Of course, the whites had
one theory, the blacks another. The headline for “The Star” was Health
Hazard in Village School; they blamed the way the chicken was being
cooked. The headline for “The Sowetan” was Witchcraft in Thoyandou
Runs Rampant; they blamed a witch, a gogo, an unknown assailant
who appeared—now quoting the survivors— “in the form of a bird, cat, or
The morning after the girls had refused to return to the dorm, I was surprised
to see that Malihu had done herself up for class. She was still in uniform
but had embellished the look with mascara and eye shadow and small hoop
earrings. She had also straightened her hair, which she usually wore in
a tight afro. The make-up and jewelry were against the rules, and I wondered
how long she would last before Sister Peg, who hated adornments of any
kind, chased her back to the dorm.
When I smiled at her, she looked at me indifferently. It crossed my mind
that I should have sent her back to the dorm myself. Instead, I decided
to ignore her. She ignored me back. I was shaky throughout the lesson
and tried not to look at her. When the bell rang, she suggested a truce
by offering to clap the blackboard erasers.
“I’m not mad anymore,” she said.
I asked about the night before.
“Nothing happened,” she said.
I smiled. “I could have told you that.”
She smiled back, slyly. “Oh, we’re still waiting.”
She told me that some of the girls were writing letters home so that their
parents would come and get them. A lot of them had slept with their flashlights
on and cried through the night like “children.”
“You look to have gotten plenty
of sleep,” I said.
She shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not.”
“You look like you did. And you’re all dressed up,” I pointed out.
She beamed. “I did it for you.”
“Sure you did,” I said, laughing.
She sulked for a moment. Then she brightened.
“I have an idea,” she said.
“Come spend the night in the dorm.”
“Me?” I said. “An entire night?”
I shook my head. I’d been inside the dorm once before. It was the most
unsanitary place on earth.
“Why would I want to do that?”
Malihu looked sulky again. “They don’t
believe us,” she said. “But they’ll believe you.”
By “they,” I assumed she meant the missionaries, who were ultimately in
charge. And what about the African teachers? Whose side were they on?
I’d once heard that Africans spend a lot of money on spells, which worked
preemptively. They hired witchdoctors for protection. There was even a
I stalled for time. “Where would I sleep?”
“Someone will give up her bed.”
“And what if the witch never comes?”
I shook my head, hoping I looked regretful.
“I don’t think so, Malihu. I don’t think
I’m even allowed to.”
Malihu smirked. She looked at her watch, a gesture that struck me as completely
un-African. The watch was slim and silver. I wondered who’d given it to
“I have to do this now,” she said abruptly, holding up the erasers, and
she went outside and banged them against the bricks.
I listened for a minute or two, thinking. Was it really such a bad idea?
What harm could it do? I didn’t believe in witches, but I did believe
in the possibility that my friendship meant something to her. Whatever
she hoped to show me—no more, perhaps, than what the passage of night
was like for her—was it something I could afford to refuse?
Several girls were watching Malihu jealously. She was concentrating on
the right side of my head, brushing with a kind of exalted consideration,
hunched over and peering at my hair. I smiled at our audience, which crept
closer, with little, hesitant grins. They, too, had brushes and combs
which they suddenly revealed, crowding around and securing whatever strands
of hair they could reach. These they held against the palms of their hands
and brushed with a delicate caution. When the crowd grew too large, three
girls were ejected; they resigned themselves to the floor at my feet and
inspected my fingers, turned over my hands. They chattered in Sotho, a
language I didn’t speak. Occasionally I heard my name, the sound of which
filled me with uneasiness. I hadn’t learned nearly as much of the language
as I’d meant to. But the girls were excited by my presence; they viewed
me in a romantic light and scrutinized me with and without compassion.
It was often hard to tell. A few stood on the periphery of the group,
staring. I smiled at them, and they turned away as though embarrassed.
Malihu wearied of the crowd around me and drifted away. I couldn’t easily
move my head but kept her within my sights out of the corner of my eye.
She had thrown herself on Palesa’s bed and was lying on her side with
a bored, careless expression. I secretly called her “drama queen.” In
my English class, she was always waiting for me to notice her, and when
I did, she smiled coyly and ducked her head and sighed.
She was wearing a loose tank top with wide armholes and no bra. You could
see her breasts, which were small and brown. She either didn’t know or
One of the girls combing my hair was named Mavis; she leaned over and
looked me in the face. She was an ugly girl: a whitish birthmark covered
half her neck, and her eyes were small and jaundiced.
“You are lovers,” she said to me, and indicated Malihu with her brush.
To my horror, I blushed. It was a preposterous accusation, but I blushed
Mavis was looking at me steadily, her face inches from mine. She was trying,
unsuccessfully, not to smile. She looked mildly sinister. I wanted to
appear good-natured. I wanted to slap her face.
“Aiwa,” I said.
It was one of the few words I knew in Sotho. It meant no. The girls around
me dissolved into laughter.
“Aiwa!” I said again. The girls doubled over.
“You know Sotho!” someone said, impressed.
“Of course!” I agreed, happy to make them laugh. They clustered more tightly
around me, feeling intimate.
But Mavis shook her head and tsked.
“You are lovers,” she said vehemently,
and resumed brushing.
I didn’t argue.
I wanted to tell her: “Don’t look at me.
It’s your culture.”
My defensiveness notwithstanding, I was
right about one thing: Americans didn’t behave this way. Again and again
I had written home about how innocent Africans were, how openhearted and
ingenuous. Grown men held the hands of other grown men.
When a boy liked a girl, he proposed love.
Friends and family had written back: Really? How refreshing.
The girls in particular were ardent in
their affections, which they professed by daily presenting me with little
gifts: sweets or greeting cards in which they wrote, My darling. Please
remember me in your dreams.
But Malihu was different. She was neither earnest nor shy. She was direct
and purposeful and seemed to take for granted that I would like her above
all others. It was for this reason that I sometimes didn’t like her at
all. But she was hard to rebuff. She would ask me to visit her at her
home during the holidays; she would frequently remind me that when I returned
to America, she would write me letters and that I should be sure to write
her letters back. She often hugged me and stared at length into my face.
She sighed over my clothes, telling me I had a body the shape of a coca-cola
bottle. She confided to me about her boyfriend Chembry; he was not, she
insisted, so kind and good as I. Often she wrote me notes during study
while I supervised, sitting at a desk in front of the blackboard; she
wrote, “You are playing with your hair. You are too busy daydreaming!”
She wrote, “If I were a boy, I would propose love to you everyday.”
At first Malihu sat in my class without uttering a word. I would have
assumed that she didn’t know much English had it not been for the strength
of her writing. I suspected, in fact, that she was one of the best writers
in the class, if not the most fluent. Her compositions, however, were
perfunctory pieces in which she invested little time. I wrote comments
like “Can you expand on this?” or “Say more!” But her compositions didn’t
Then, in August, after the student deaths at Thoyandou, I assigned an
essay topic on witchcraft. The students loved it and filled the lines
of their notebooks with cautionary tales and prophetic advice.
To protect yourself from a witch, you
must see and pay a witchdoctor.
See a witch and you will at once have trouble!
I will hunt any witch down with the stones
I find on the ground.
Malihu turned in a single paragraph. Her handwriting was round and neat;
she pressed lightly on the page with a blue pen. On the front cover of
her notebook, she had written I love Chembry; she regularly filled the
margins with thick hearts and tall-growing flowers. This time she didn’t
doodle. She wrote:
I was not raised by my father to believe
in witchcraft. He is an educated man from the city. My mother is old-fashioned,
she believes in traditional ways but keeps quiet about them around my
father. Last year they separated because my father has left with another
woman named Millicent. My mother believes that my father has been bewitched
because of his success and the success of his children, especially me.
There are jealous neighbors, and they have been to a witch and bewitched
my father into loving Millicent, a younger woman from teacher’s college.
My father tells me it isn’t true. I love my father too much. (I crossed
out “too” and wrote “very?”). I tell myself, How could he have done
this thing? If I love my father like that then isn’t it that I must believe
I read her composition again. I was fascinated
by the psychology behind the question; Malihu was smart enough to recognize
what she was asking—but how often do we seek answers that are more comforting
than they are true? Isn’t it that I must believe my mother? she
asked. It was wonderful and utterly incongruous. I wondered if Malihu
felt abandoned by her parents—devastated by her father’s betrayal, disgusted
by her mother’s passivity—how to respect either? I thought long and hard
about what to tell her. I felt excited by the responsibility. (It never
occurred to me that the question might be rhetorical.) I wrote with a
red pen on the bottom of the page: This essay is too short, Malihu.
But I appreciate your honesty and willingness to share your personal thoughts.
In answer to your question: Perhaps you can believe your mother “figuratively”
instead of “literally.” That is to say, your father may not have been
bewitched by a witch, but it is possible that he was bewitched by his
own emotions, which sometimes we humans beings cannot help. I think you
don’t have to believe in witches in order to forgive him.
I read over my response and felt pleased.
The day I handed the essay back, Malihu waited for me after class. She
sat patiently at her desk until the other students had gone, and then,
when I asked her if there was anything I could do for her, she asked me
in a prim, unabashed voice if I had a boyfriend.
“No, no boyfriend,” I said. Questions like this embarrassed me, usually
because the answers made me feel inadequate. But for whatever reason,
I was always willing to give away the truth about myself, as if my honesty
would make people feel closer to me.
Malihu smiled. “I thought so,” she said. I wondered if I should have felt
She got up from her desk. “I will be your boyfriend,” she announced.
I laughed. “But you’re a girl.”
She shrugged. “Then I will be your girlfriend.”
I didn’t know exactly how to respond. Was she serious? I didn’t want to
encourage her, but I also didn’t want to make a fool of myself by presuming
that she really meant what she said.
I took an ironic tone, just to be safe. “Okay,” I said. “But I’m very
She shrugged again. “It’s no problem,” she said. She practically skipped
out the door. “Bye bye, baby!”
Apparently I had just accepted my first proposal of love.
Proposals like this were not unusual, it turned out, between girls. Malihu
got the word out fast. What did it all mean? Malihu was now my “special
friend,” and I, hers.
“How long do special friends last?” I asked the girls.
“Until you die.”
“And what are my duties?”
“To buy her things!”
None of this information was wholly accurate, however. You were supposed
to have only one special friend but, of course, jealousies arose and betrayals
quickly followed. Special friends were traded or ditched altogether. Nor
was the exchange of gifts particularly equitable—Malihu demanded my walkman
after presenting me with a large plastic jug of orange concentrate.
I questioned the rules. (It seemed, after all, the idea teachable moment.)
“What if I don’t want one special friend? What if I want all of you to
be my friends?”
“No, no,” they insisted, “Malihu is your favorite.” And when I quickly
replied that I didn’t have any favorites, that they were all my favorites,
they looked at me as if surprised that I would tell such a lie.
Someone rang the cowbell. The girls went away at once with their brushes
and combs, and I stood up and looked at Malihu, who had rolled onto her
back and had her hands inside her shirt, cupping her breasts and pushing
them up and down.
“You must wash,” she said, and pointed to the toilets. I took my toiletry
bag and squeezed down the aisle.
The dorm was two warehouse-sized rooms in the shape of an L. It was a
hideous place, with rows of white-sheeted iron bunk beds and single yellow
bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Between the beds were pairs of metal lockers—tall,
narrow, industrial—the kind that are better set standing in a row than
left alone and pitiless. The walls were yellow and red brickwork; the
floor, cold cement—there was no heat in the winter or cooling fans in
the summer. The dorm itself smelled like the toilets; the toilets smelled
like urine and sweat.
The dorm mistress was an African woman in her seventies. She locked the
girls in at night and freed them in the morning. Otherwise the girls generally
supervised themselves. They made erratic, perfunctory efforts at cleanliness
by pushing long-handled mops and flat-head brooms across the floor, scattering
bits of colored cereal and bread and hair into wayward piles. When it
came to personal hygiene, they were much more fastidious and even ironed
their underwear and jeans. They walked around naked, grooming themselves
without self-consciousness. They slapped talcum powder beneath their armpits
and pulled the hairs out of their nipples. On Fridays, they washed their
clothes, which they pinned to droopy ropes behind the dorm, and hosed
down their suitcases, which lay drying, like well-glazed hippos, in the
Inside the bathroom, three girls were brushing their teeth; they looked
at me, and one said, “Ahé, Miss!” and sped past me. The other two
continued brushing. They asked if they could try my toothpaste, which
they didn’t like, and said some things in Sotho and left.
There were toilet stalls behind me and showers in a row to the left. Water
dripped endlessly from the showerheads; fluorescent tubes flickered weakly;
the toilet stalls were without doors. A girl came in and pulled her skirt
up and sat on the toilet, where she watched me from her hunched position
with frank, unwavering eyes. I brushed my teeth and took the stall next
to hers. I changed quickly into light-blue cotton pajamas; the girl peeked
her head around and reached out to touch my sleeve.
I returned to Malihu’s bed. My pajamas were a hit. Malihu seemed especially
pleased by my appearance and fingered the material admiringly.
“You’ll give these to me when you go home?” she said.
I laughed. “Then what will I wear?”
She dismissed this. “You will buy another one.”
She sat on the bottom bunk next to Palesa, and for several minutes, they
worked on each other’s hair simultaneously, creating a mass of tight,
little braids. I stood nearby, unsure what to do next.
It was almost ten. Malihu and Palesa finished their grooming and turned
down the blanket on the bottom bunk. I climbed up to the top bunk, and
a few of the girls nearby giggled and whistled. Someone made kissing noises.
“Vootsek!” Malihu shouted at them, swearing in Afrikaans, and glared menacingly.
The kissing noises stopped. Then she looked at me and shrugged.
“These guys,” she said, in a put-on American
accent. “These blacks.” She climbed into bed with Palesa, and
they curled around each other under the blanket.
Then the lights went out. Some of the girls were still in the toilets
or rummaging through their lockers; they screamed and cursed, and several
flashlights clicked on. Malihu and Palesa wished me good night: “Night
night! Sleep tight! And don’t let the bedbugs bite!” they whispered, and
giggled in each other’s arms.
They were silent for a moment; then, Malihu whispered up to me, “Don’t
I lay on my back. At first, I couldn’t see anything—nighttime in Africa
is one darkness inside another—and waited anxiously for my eyes to adjust.
I could hear light snoring all around me. It was impossible to tell from
which direction any one noise was coming.
I closed my eyes and waited to fall asleep. I thought about Malihu—youthful
and extravagant, smart and unpredictable—and I realized that everything
was going to look different in the morning and that Malihu and I would
start to forget why our friendship had once mattered, as if the night
had simply been a means to an end, a culmination of our need to be one
of many, many things to each other.
The truth was, I had never intended to refuse her the things she asked
for. I’d have given her my clothes, paid her airfare to the States, tried
to improve her life. I would even agree to spend a night in the dorm;
I’d waited all afternoon for her to ask me again, as I knew she would.
She was there when I returned from a walk.
“I have something to tell you,” she said happily. Three girls I didn’t
know waited nearby, their arms around each other’s shoulders. Malihu had
a large, ripe mango in her hand; she bent back the skin and pulled at
the strings of fruit with her teeth. She offered me a piece, which I took
and held between my fingers.
“I am very sad,” she said.
“It is too difficult to explain. My English is not so good as when I went
to multiracial school. Here I speak English and the girls tell me I am
trying to be clever. They talk bad things about me.”
“Your English is very good,” I told her.
“Thank you.” She smiled and bowed her head slightly. She glanced at her
friends. Then she frowned and looked away.
“But I am sad. I want to be adopted. I want to be far from this place.
Blacks do bad things. There is too much witchcraft in the girls’ dorm,”
she whispered. “We hear babies crying in the night and we are very afraid.”
“There aren’t any babies,” I said. “Those are probably cats. Or jackals.”
“We hear them,” she said, and
her friends giggled.
“There aren’t any witches,” I said, irritated. “You know it as well as
She smiled broadly. “Aie! Of course! But these blacks are always believing.
Whites are better,” she said. “You must adopt me then.”
I laughed uncertainly.
“You must,” she said again, and
threw the mango skin to the ground. I looked at it. If she was joking,
I really couldn’t tell.
“I can’t adopt you, Malihu.”
She wiped her fingers on the tops of her legs. She turned away, as though
to move toward her friends.
“Then you can’t,” she said, turning back, and her eyes filled with tears.
She bowed her head and looked up at me through her eyelashes.
“We are awake all the night,” she said, her English suddenly deteriorating.
“We are too much scared. Last night I see shoes walking across the floor.”
I had the urge to laugh; I smiled an agonized smile, trying not to, and
she shot me a look, her eyes narrowed.
I tried to sound earnest. “You didn’t tell me this before.”
She looked stricken. “I couldn’t. You didn’t want to hear.”
She whispered. “There was no body
I bit back the impulse of telling her that she was being ridiculous. I
wanted to be sensitive. I suggested quietly that perhaps she was so tired
her mind was playing tricks on her.
“Half the dorm saw it too.” She turned toward the other girls, who said
some things in Sotho. They started to walk away and seemed to want Malihu
to go with them.
I ignored them. I took Malihu by the elbow.
“Malihu,” I said. “There are no witches. You don’t believe in witches.”
I felt tense and laughed awkwardly. I realized that I sounded angry and
impatient. I was bullying her. I wanted to bully her into rational thinking.
Malihu! I wanted to yell.
“I do believe,” she whispered.
Her whisper was heavy with grief and premonition, and for a moment, I
She looked very beautiful, then: the tears, the frown, even her scar,
darker than the rest of her skin. I felt terrible. “How did you get your
scar?” I asked. It was rude, but she didn’t look surprised.
“It was a car accident,” she said, “when I was five,” and using her thumbs
in the manner of one splitting open a piece of fruit, she demonstrated
in the air how the loose pieces of skin from her forehead had peeled backwards
like large exotic leaves curling in the heat.
“I’ll do it,” I said.
“You will?” She shrieked and hugged me hard. She turned to her friends.
“See? I said she would!”
“But what should I bring?”
“Clothes to sleep in! A toothbrush!”
(Several days later, I would sit next to Sister Vinny at tea-time and
she would ask me how things were going and I would tell her about the
night I had slept in the dorm and I would explain how I had wanted to
prove to the girls that there was no such thing as witches so that they
never be afraid again. And even as I spoke, I would recognize in my voice
something haughty and self-congratulatory, as if I were trying to present
myself as an aberration, as incautious and singular as a heroine.
“You poor girl,” Sister Vinny would say,
and to Brother Richard beside her, she would add, “They are manipulative
creatures, aren’t they?” to which Brother Richard would snort and reply,
Sometime in the middle of the night, I woke. There was a scream close
by. I was confused and still half-asleep. I felt around for my flashlight
but couldn’t find it. Several shouts followed; there were grunts and the
sound of rustling. Someone seemed to be making her way across the room;
I could hear footsteps but no voices. There was another single shout and
then Malihu’s voice in my ear, “She’s here.”
I couldn’t see Malihu but knew that her face was inches away from mine.
My heart hammered inside my chest. I could feel her breath. I could smell
her. She was so close that I could have kissed her.
I sat up and peered into the darkness. Malihu was gone. No one was moving
or making a sound.
There was no witch. The girls might have believed in the possibility of
one, but she wasn’t there now. The girls were pretending and I knew they
were, and they knew that I knew.
But we held our breath as though there was one. I could see the bars on
the windows and a tiny sliver of moon. I could hear the faint sound of
water dripping in one of the showers. I held my breath and waited.
Someone hissed my name.
Very slowly my blanket was being pulled from my bed. I gripped onto it.
I felt irrationally frightened, although not at the thought of a witch.
Of what? Of nothing tangible, nothing I could so plainly describe.
Blood rushed to my face.
Where was Malihu? I peered into the dark. I saw nothing. Could anyone
see me? I thought of Mavis, who had called us lovers, and of the embarrassment
I blushed deeply, but no longer felt afraid. Whatever Malihu imagined
about me, I wanted her to know at least this.
The blanket moved again.
“Stop it,” I said, and someone, laughing,