An obsidian stream slowly meandered to meet the tip of her shoe.
She would know it was blood, with or without its telltale hue. It’s stained every event of her life, just as it does now – a love letter of coal turned crimson, drafted in the dust.
It wasn’t always like this. The world used to look as if it were ablaze, then drenched in wine and left to rust, only to catch fire once more at dawn. But the dull edge of a titanium rod, and the sharper edge of her father’s temper, robbed her of it.
And so the scarlet milestones of womanhood moved past her in a brown and black haze.
Her first period. An sable smear in the gusset of her underwear.
Her first valentine’s day card. Heart you, love Scott, scrawled in sludge-coloured crayon.
Her first bra. A dusky beige, with a delicate ebony bow.
Then one night her stepfather stumbled into the house, wrapped in a smoggy garland of brandy and cigarettes. He was still wore the Santa outfit from his day job at the at the mall – setting little children upon his cheaply upholstered knee and asking them what they wanted for Christmas.
But what about what he wanted for Christmas? He deserved nice things too. And didn’t she want to be a good girl and help him? Good girls get what they want for Christmas; he had confirmed this with Santa himself. She’ll have to keep it a secret, though. He doesn’t want the other kids knowing that he and Santa have done her a favor, paid her extra special attention.
It was then, as he slid himself between her twelve-year-old thighs, that his mahogany Santa suit burst into a dazzling display of red. Her eyes widened, taking in every abrasive polyester thread that she could. He mistook her awe for pleasure, quickening his thrusts, as she stared, transfixed, on his shuddering, saturated shoulder.
Afterward, she stood in the bathroom staring at the ruby rivulets of blood running down her thighs. She marveled at them for hours, hypnotized by the bright smears, as they slowly turned back into soot.
A few bleak months passed, until she was at a friend’s house. Her mother never allowed her to attend sleepovers. You just didn’t know who the father was she said, clutching her stepfather’s arm as she said it. Her motherly concerns rose and fell flat between them, twitching on the living room floor. But she was with her father for the weekend. And his worries began and ended with how much whiskey was left in the ornate bottle in the kitchen.
The sleepover was wonderful. A forbidden treat. She fell asleep with her new friend between shared giggles and secrets, her first real experience of sisterhood.
In the morning they sat in on the couch, eating scrambled eggs on toast. Her friend’s father was in a towel, sitting opposite her, his wispy grey hair suspended just above his shoulders. He looked at her and then pulled his eye-line downward, as he opened his legs. She followed his gaze and it fell directly on to his exposed penis, lulling against his thigh. Suddenly, his towel burst into a vivid burgundy. He managed a semi in response to her bewilderment – his wife busy plating his breakfast behind him in the kitchen. She looked down at her eggs to see the tawny squiggle of ketchup become inflamed – it’s blazing tomato peaks and dips keeping time with the throbbing in her ears. It was then that the pounding of her pulse began to forge a carmine key to the dim, insipid door of her existence.
She starts by knocking on stranger’s doors, hiding in their gardens amidst proteas and profanities, but the landscape remains a sepia snapshot of her ocular inadequacy. She sneaks a bottle of rosé from her mother’s liquor cabinet, but it just makes her tipsy and tired. She dozes off staring at the fawn bottle and wakes up to her mother’s fists and screams of betrayal. She knew her daughter would turn out to be just like her daddy.
She tries shoplifting. She pockets a lipstick, Vermillion Vixen, and surreptitiously slips out of the store. She rips open the plastic seal and turns it till the entire creamy tube is exposed. She watches it change from pitch to the provocative promise on the label – her first sub rosa victory, won behind a dumpster at the back of the mall.
She becomes opportunistic, coating her world in a rouge lacquer when she can. She takes her neighbour’s car for a joyride, when she notices the elderly resident keeps forgetting their keys in the ignition. It’s a murky VW Golf turned garnet, that she stalls and abandons at the end of the road. She watches every horror movie possible, though she quickly realises that the thrills of the genre are far and few between.
On her 18th birthday she asks to go paragliding. It’s a raven’s flight from Signal Hill into a radiant, reddening dusk. She sits on the promenade and watches until the night puts out the last of the vermillion embers – happy birthday to me.
After that, she takes up skydiving, leaping into muted murals that are set alight, as she falls, and then floats into its kaleidoscopic embrace. But it gradually becomes harder and harder to reach her chromatic climax. After a while even bungy jumping, a steady favourite, won’t do the trick. She used to watch the cord that connected her to the bridge turn luminescent, as she hung upside down, a speck in the Bloukrans valley. Now it remained a dull brown. A desiccated umbilical cord to her optical stillbirth.
A few months go by and she’s still unable to get it back. Her world remains a suffocated spectrum of shit and ash. She begins to cut herself. Tracing the lines of her pigmented prison into subdued muddy pleas. She thinks back to that first night. The holy night of blood and silence.
That’s how she finds herself in a dive bar, ordering a vodka cranberry the colour of cocoa, with a charcoal cherry, suspended like a black period to some invisible sentence. They make it too easy she thinks as a greasy middle-aged man slides into the seat next to her, enquiring about the taste of her pussy. ‘Why don’t you taste it and tell me yourself?’ she asks, standing up and walking out of the door.
He follows her, like a dog at dinner time, the scent of fresh meat hanging in the air. He pushes her into the nearest wall in the alley, running his tongue along her ear. ‘Beg for my cock, you filthy whore,’ he says, flinging spit and entitlement. ‘I want it,’ she whispers, eyes widening as he slides down onto his knees in front of her, lifting her dress. ‘I want it more than anything else in the whole world.’ Her words tumble down alongside the knife, now in her hand, to meet the side of his neck.
He flings himself backward, eyes filling with fear and confusion. She can hardly hear him gurgle over the loud purring in her ears. A playful, homicidal kitten, pawing at the strings of her heart. This is it. She feels it coursing through her. She waits for him to stop moving and walks back into the bar to finish her glistening fuschia vodka cranberry, punctuated with a lush maraschino cherry – just the way she likes it. It stays with her for a few more hours before retreating back into the shadows of the night.
His death didn’t even make the national news. There was a 300 word article in the local paper, page four. His pathetic, pixelated face stares back at her, sober and hopeful. He will be missed, or so it says.
It becomes easier now that she has its scarlet scent. She casts her net wider, waiting for the tug and pull of her next catch.
It’s two in morning as she swipes left on Tinder, a succession of chestnut NOPEs sliding off the edge of her screen. Then, she sees him. A sliver of a man. His bio says that he’s a passionate redhead, who’s fire doesn’t stop at his hairline. She imagines her fingers outlining each salmon freckle on his translucent skin. She swipes right and they match.
She suggests they go for a hike up Skeleton Gorge, a hiking trail at the back of Table Mountain. She shops online for a new pair of rose-colored tights, making sure she’s ticked the red checkbox, twice. They appear before her in obscure shades – she can’t wait to see what they look like.
The pair meet six in the morning at Kirstenbosch gardens, and make their way up the ravine of boulders, moss and rotting wood. He points out a wild orchid – it’s pink he says. He plucks it for her and she tucks it behind her ear, securing it with a bobby pin.
They make it to a plateau at the back of the mountain, where a path of fine sand leads them to a large reservoir. She knows the water is as she sees it – the colour of cola. A natural magic trick caused by the tannins from the surrounding flora.
They settle on the side of the dam, and he rolls over onto her once he quenches his thirst, looking to sate the other. She’s just no match for his his charm, she says, as she slips the cable tie over his head. Then she pulls it tight with the fevered violence of a lioness in the final sprint of the hunt. He squeaks as his airway shuts, face turning from amber to onyx.
She squats a few meters away, as his flailing legs kick up clouds of sand.
His hair starts to turn first, a strawberry tint. He falls unconscious, his body still pulsating with the intensity of the struggle. She straddles her prize, sliding a knife across his throat and down the line of his speckled chest. Ruby waves, flecks and smudges appear, decorating his glowing torso.
After a while, she carries his light, pale frame deep into the thick fynbos and places the now glaringly pink wild orchid on his shredded chest. She reluctantly covers the blood-soaked sand with the darker, damper offerings hidden just beneath its beach-like surface.
After a brief swim, she dries off and descends down the mountain, taking in ever shudder of her scarlet-covered thighs, watching as the red leeches from them in gradual increments. When she reaches the summit, she unmatches him on Tinder, their brief digital entanglement forever erased. She makes her way to a bustling Long street, throwing his backpack, into one of the dustbins.
She sees a flash of his story, while scrolling through her feeds three days later. His bland but lively face is one of a missing son, beloved brother, and adored friend. He went for a hike but that’s the last they’ve heard. They search Table Mountain and find nothing. It’s not unusual they say. Many hikers go missing and succumb to the elements. No mention of her. No mention of a date. Secured by his insecurity.
Next she meets a Brazilian. He’s staying in Cape Town for a few months, while he learns English. He’s a teacher he tells her in his thick Portuguese accent. She asks him if he’s seen the wildflowers bloom on the Western coast. They flower once in spring for a short period, a dramatic display not to be missed. He hasn’t so she offers to take him, leaning into the crook of his neck. She takes his flesh in between her teeth, and feels his pulse quicken against her enamel embrace.
They drive along the coast, the cool breeze from the Atlantic whipping into the car, until they arrive at the national park. They dip into valleys and rise over ridges amidst a sea of Namaqualand daisies and newly hatched caterpillars. They appear as solid sheets of yellow, white and orange, with furry black specks. She takes him to the outermost point that overlooks the ocean, penguins slicing in and out of the waves below them.
It’s almost closing time for the park, and the last of the cars are making their way toward the exit. Just a little longer she says as she clings to him, tongue tracing the line of his lips. She wants to take a photograph of him, a keepsake of their trip, of their love affair. She asks him to turn around, his back toward her.
He regards the sublime scene in a pensive performance, unaware of the cable tie and knife behind him. She slips his plastic noose in place. The cable tie whirs – series of synthetic clicks that cut off his airway. He squeals like a pig in an abattoir, and runs towards her. She easily moves out of the way, side stepping his panic. She crouches in the daisies, watching him slowly lose consciousness. Then, she drags his body into the flowers and pushes the knife into his belly, until half the hilt has disappeared into his soft, shuddering flesh.
A chocolate squirt splashes against the flowers. A septic dessert for one. Her heartbeat increases because of the effort of the kill, but everything stays the same. The flowers remain unchanged. She remains unchanged. She stabs him again. And again. And again. The knife breaks off in his eye socket, now a mess of jelly with cinnamon swirls.
She gathers herself, rinses off with a five litre water bottle she placed in the boot, and changes into the red dress she had picked out for the occasion. It remains as dark and deep as her disappointment.
They find his body five weeks later, empty silk cocoons hanging off the decaying shreds of his corpse.
Drab months drag by. She dreams in red, and wakes up in a lackluster sweat. She goes for walks amongst the yellow, browns and blacks of an infinite sun-bleached autumn. She passes a primary school. Children run out in across the street in front of a speeding truck. For a second, so quick she almost thinks she’s imagined it, their uniforms burst into a brief coral mist. The truck screeches to stop, with grinding metal gasp and the children stagger off in hysterical fits of laughter.
She quietly starts to unravel. A junky in an iridescent withdrawal. It’s becoming harder to blend into society’s palette. She needs a change of pace, in place of the change she can’t have.
She takes a road trip inland into the desolate dusty bowl of the Karoo, where the bright hues of the city can’t mock her crippled sight.
She passes a tiny child on the side of an isolated dirt road. He’s holding a stick as tall as himself, transcribing the secrets of his youth and isolation into the cracked soil. She stops the car and reverses, turning into the road that leads to the farm house, to the boy.
She slips the knife that she keeps in the side of the car door into her pocket, and walks towards him. He ignores her, his focus firmly fixed on dislodging a stubborn piece of gravel.
‘Anyone home?’ she asks.
He regards her indignantly for the first time, ‘Piss off.’ His prepubescent mouth can hardly handle the words he flings at her. A practiced tirade passed from father to son.
She starts to notice his edges of his shorts turning a deep, sandy red. A bloodshot siren, basking in the morning sun. She grabs the stick from the boy and flings it aside. His bravado crumbles before her as her fingers tighten around the collar of his shirt, and her blade circles to the front of his neck.
The driveway becomes awash in the most brilliant red she has ever seen, redder than the redhead on the mountain. Redder than Santa on Christmas. It’s a river of blood so vast and opalescent, it’s almost biblical.
A shrill scream pierces the arid air, and a few sheep scatter in a pen nearby, kicking up dirt and rock. She doesn’t see the two older boys running towards her from the farm house a short distance away.
It really is the most beautiful she’s ever seen, she thinks to herself, as a sanguine tributary branches off towards her, cutting its own path in the dry earth. She continues to watch it as it slowly encircles her shoes in a warm, blushing embrace.