issue 209 - July 1990
Illustration: Alan Hughes
SELLO AND MEDUSA
Elizabeth had never seen a ghost in her life. She was not
given to 'seeing' things. A story by Bessie Head.
Motabeng means the place of sand. It was a village remotely inland, perched on the edge of the Kalahari desert. Seemingly, the only reason for people's settlement there was a good supply of underground water.
It took a stranger some time to fall in love with its harsh outlines and stark, black trees. A fellow-passenger on the train to Botswana had laughingly remarked: 'You're going to Motabeng? It's just a great big village of mud huts!' The preponderance of mud huts with their semi-grey roofs of grass thatching gave it an ashen look during the dry season. During the rainy season, Motabeng was subjected to a type of desert rain. It rained in the sky, in long streaky sheets, but the rain dried up before it reached the ground.
It seemed to Elizabeth that it took people half an hour to greet each other each day. It took so long, they said, because Motabeng was a village of relatives who married relatives, and nearly everyone had about six hundred relatives. People often looked at Elizabeth with a cheated air. A person would actually put out her hand to stay her: 'Wait a bit. Where are you hurrying to?' It was so totally new, so inconceivable, the extreme opposite of 'Hey, Kaffir, get out of the way', the sort of greeting one usually was given in South Africa. Surely there was a flow of feeling here from people to people?
It was barely three months after her arrival in the village when her life began to pitch over from an even keel, and it remained from then onwards at a pitched-over angle. At first she found the pitch-black darkness of the Motabeng night terrifying. She had always lived in a town, with a street light shining outside the window, so the first thing she hastened to buy was a chair on which to place a candle, beside her bed. She kept the candle burning right up to the point where she felt drowsy, then blew it out. Often she fell asleep with the candle still alight. The chair, a bed and a small table were the only pieces of furniture she had in her hut. After a while she became more accustomed to the extreme dark and quite enjoyed blowing out the light and being swallowed up by the billowing darkness.
One night she had just blown out the light when she had the sudden feeling that someone had entered the room. The full impact of it seemed to come from the roof, and was so strong that she jerked up in bed. There was a swift flow of air through the room, and whatever it was moved and sat down on the chair. The chair creaked slightly. Alarmed, she swung around and lit the candle. The chair was empty. She had never seen a ghost in her life. She was not given to 'seeing' things. The world had always been two-dimensional, flat and straight with things she could see and feel.
This recurred for several nights, and she simply reasoned that, whatever it was, it was not a danger to her life. Let it sit if it wanted to. Oh, no; whatever it was wanted to introduce itself at some stage, because one night she was lying staring at the dark when it seemed as though her head simply filled out into a large horizon. It gave her a strange feeling of things being right there inside her and yet projected at the same time at a distance away from her. She was not sure if she were awake or asleep, and often after that the dividing line between dream perceptions and waking reality was to become confused.
The form of a man totally filled the large horizon in front of her. He was sitting sideways. He had an almighty air of calm and assurance about him. He wore the soft, white, flowing robes of a monk, but in a peculiar fashion, with his shoulders hunched forward, as though it were a prison garment. He stared straight at Elizabeth in a friendly way and said, in a voice of quiet affection: 'My friend.'
She stared back, not replying. Then he said: 'Will you stay here for some time?'
A sort of terror gripped her chest. The words were almost jerked out of her mouth: 'No,' she said. 'I'm going to die quite soon.' He kept quiet, except that his look changed from friendliness to seriousness. A name for the monk had instinctively formed itself in her mind. He was... He was... But it was too impossible. A wave of panic made her fling her arms into the air and take a great leap out of the bed. She paced the floor for a while, violently agitated. The abrupt encounter, the strangeness of his question and the equal strangeness of her unpremeditated reply threw her mind into a turmoil. He looked like a man she had seen about the village who drove a green truck, but the name she associated in her mind with the monk-robed man was that of an almost universally adored God.
Then nothing else seemed about to happen, and she eventually calmed down and went to sleep. She was to find out that something would startle her like this and then quieten down to an apparent normality, only to find that she had really been shaken up into accepting an entirely unnatural situation and adapting it to the flow of her life.
There was only one way to explain it. The principal of a school had a teacher on his staff who was fond of brandy. He took a bottle of brandy into the toilet, intending to have a few sips. Well, he kept taking a few sips and peeping around the door to spy out the whereabouts of the principal. Soon he became quite drunk and reversed the activity. He'd open the door, take a few sips, close the door and look for the principal in the toilet.
Much the same applied to her. She began by waking up on the tail-end of absorbing conversations with the white-robed monk who sat on the chair beside her, and it wasn't long before the discussions became a full-time activity. The faint silvery-white outline of his robe and his face were clearly discernible to her at all times, and so overpowering was the experience at first that in the early morning, as she poured out a cup of tea, she would pour a second cup and absentmindedly walk towards the chair and say: 'Here's a cup of tea for you,' and then jolt back to reality, shaking her head: 'Agh, I must be mad! That's just an intangible form.'
Elizabeth calls the man in her vision Sello. He takes different forms but represents love and her own goodness. From this point on, Elizabeth's life becomes a nightmare. She spends some time in a mental hospital. Events build to a fearful climax. Sello vies for control over her with Medusa, who represents evil - in the Greek myth Medusa turned people to stone when she looked at them.
What did mothers, black mothers, say to children whose fathers had been lynched by the Ku Klux Klan in America? She had a picture of a Southern lynch mob, a whole group of white men and women. Two black men hung dead from a tree. The lynchers were smiling. Medusa smiled like that in her mental images, but Medusa was as close as her own breathing, and each night she looked straight into Medusa's powerful black eyes. It was tracing the evil to its roots. The eyes of the lynch mob were uncomprehendingly evil. Medusa's eyes were full of comprehension, bold, conscienceless, deliberate: 'I will it. Nothing withstands my power. I create evil. I revel in it. I know of no other life. From me flows the dark stream of terror and destruction.'
That night Medusa and Sello in the brown suit were engaged in an eager whispering conversation. At one point Medusa turned her head towards Elizabeth and smiled triumphantly. Sello was pointing to the figure of a man in the distance. She overheard him say to Medusa: 'Don't worry, he'll kill her.'
At this Medusa walked up to Elizabeth. She had in her hands one of her bolts. These bolts seemed to ooze out of her hands. She had a way of shaping them into round balls, raising her arms in a wide, swinging movement and hurling them straight at Elizabeth. They exploded against her like lightning bolts. She often slipped into black unconsciousness and awoke later with a roaring headache.
Medusa raised her arms: 'We are,' she said, spelling out the words slowly: 'We are bringing you the real magic, this time.
Elizabeth raised one hand feebly in defence. She said: 'I can't stand any more of this. My health is failing.
Medusa turned her head from side to side, smiling, indicating enchantment: 'Oh, but you will love it,' she said.
Then she shaped her mouth into a yap: 'Here's the last of them,' and the black bolt came hurtling towards Elizabeth. It was about to explode in her face. She put both hands before her and jerked wide awake with a scream. She was trembling so violently that the bed shook. With no clear plan in her head, she pushed her legs out of the bed. As she tried to stand, they wobbled like rubber. She fell down on her knees and began crawling across the floor. The chair on which Sello, the monk, eternally sat, was in her son's room. She crawled to the chair and looked up. She could clearly discern the outline of his form in the white cloth.
'Sello,' she groaned painfully. 'Find another punch-bag for your girl. I'm not her match.'
'All right,' he said, quietly.
She turned to crawl back to her bed. A billowing wave of darkness rose up and sucked her to its depths, and she sank to the floor.
When she opened her eyes it was daylight. Her son was lying on the floor beside her and peering into her face.
'Why are you sleeping on the floor?' he asked seriously.
She couldn't think of anything to say and kept quiet.
'What was you burning last night?' he asked, pointing to her room. 'The floor is full of burnt things.'
She jumped up alarmed. Why, anything could happen in her nightmare. She might have left a cigarette lit. She walked to the door of her bedroom, then froze. There was the drama of a death-throe on the floor. Charcoal-like foot-prints dragged into each other across the floor and in the centre of the room was a heap of charcoal dust. She half muttered aloud to herself:
'Is this the last of Medusa?'
From the room behind her Sello said: 'Yes.'
'What are you saying?' the small boy asked.
'Poetry,' she said. She had found that the word 'poetry' excused any mental ramblings and he understood.
Bessie Head, the South African writer, lived as a refugee in Botswana for 15 years. She died in 1986, aged only 49. This story is an edited extract from her novel A Question of Power, published by Heinemann in their African Writers series. © Bessie Head, 1974.