CAPE TOWN, 1991 • by Rosemary Harp

(trigger warning for sexual assault involving children/minors)

The ceiling is white, the walls are white, the curtains are white. They swell and recede in unison like lungs. On the breeze, Mina can smell frangipani and chlorine. She is pinned to the sofa beneath her brother Hansie. The fabric of his rugby shorts rasps against her bare leg.

This is their game: he chases her until she collapses, shrieking and laughing. Hansie calls it Terrorist which is also what they call the blacks who want to take over. Mina likes playing at being in danger, likes the running, and the breathless wriggling as she tries to escape from under Hansie’s sweaty bulk, but not what comes afterward. She knows it’s dirty, but not why. She hopes Hansie will be quick because Nofoto will come looking for her soon. Hansie twists his yellow head to check the kitchen door.

“When Mandela comes, they’ll do this to you for real,” he says.

At home they speak Afrikaans. Afrikaans is a warm wind singing across Table Mountain. At school they speak English. English is a window breaking, bits and pieces clattering to the floor. It’s sharp in your mouth. Zulu is like a trotting horse. Nofoto and Thadie speak Zulu in the kitchen when Mina’s mother is out of earshot. Joe-Boy, who cleans the pool, speaks Xhosa. He has another name Mina’s family can’t pronounce. Mandela is Xhosa, too. Mina’s father spits Mandela’s name like a curse word.

Hansie mutters, yanks down his shorts. Mina feels hot skin on her skin and holds still. Nofoto will come soon, to wash and comb her hair with the nit comb. Although Mina goes to a school with computers, Japanese lessons, badminton, girls in pleated uniform skirts ironed knife-sharp by servants at home, at least one of her classmates always has lice. Mina’s mother hates lice more than anything, even the terrorists, so she makes Nofoto do Mina’s hair every evening. The combing is another kind of language. Mina can read Nofoto’s mood by how she tugs. Nofoto’s son is in the ANC and she pulls Mina’s hair harder on nights when they can hear sirens. The nit comb is shiny silver with long pointy teeth designed to grab and drag lice eggs from Mina’s scalp before they can hatch. It has an English name stamped into its black plastic case: The Eradicator. Mina doesn’t know what that word means, but she knows all about lice. They change color to match the hair they’re in. Mina wonders what it would feel like to change color.

Hansie’s breath comes faster. He makes a small, choked sound.

“Mina,” calls Nofoto. Hansie rolls off her, buttons his shorts, disappears into his bedroom. Nofoto stands in the doorway holding The Eradicator. She looks at Mina’s leg, at the pale slick on her thigh. Mina doesn’t know if she should cover it with her hand or wipe it away. She can’t understand what Nofoto’s face is saying.

“Come,” Nofoto finally says in Afrikaans. “Let’s get you clean.”

Rosemary Harp is a Chicago-based writer of fiction and essays. Her work has recently appeared in Electric Lit, Hobart, Atticus Review, and Brain Child, as well as in Mid-American Review and Another Chicago Magazine. When she is not writing, she plays a little ice hockey.

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