The Dark, Dank Pit (from Hard Sell)

Alexandra, Johannesburg
November 2025

Life is a Salvador Dali painting. The figures are stretched, pliant and elastic, eyes bulging out of heads far too small to contain them, the hard solidity of reality dripping down the side of a rickety table. Every element is out of place, warping and melting beneath the gaze of observers, shifting to fit into whatever mould is made for it.

Dela Appiah-Wey knows this. It might have taken her three decades to figure it out, but she knows it now for certain. Beneath the shiny candy-wrapper surface is a rainbow-ringed sphere. A planet of players. Everyone’s got an image to protect, a persona to project, a story to sell. No one wants to be seen as foolish, even if it means going against their instincts, so they stretch, and melt, and slip into whatever shape is relevant.

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Dela sits in a concrete sewer-pipe, knees drawn up to her chest. The floor is damp, but she doesn’t notice. She looks out through the round opening at the little country of Alexandra. Alex, like all the world’s players, is in her graffiti-covered, corrugated iron gown, face freshly painted by some well-meaning community group. Alex is almost pretty now, in that “authentic” way that used to be fashionable.

Hidden in this tiny corner of a post-makeover township, Dela reflects on her life thus far. She has made a mistake. A major, monstrous, life-altering mistake. If she were younger, prettier and with longer legs, she might be allowed to get away with it, but in this paper doll universe mistakes are not forgiven. Those tempted to pity her realise quickly that such sympathy is of the devil, and stamp it out before it corrupts them.

Dela asked for it. She knows she did; she has no one to blame but herself. You see, she had it all. She was part of the inner circle and then – sigh! – she took it upon herself to be the kid who tells the emperor he’s walking down the street in his birthday suit. No one likes a know-it-all.

For five years she was allowed to plague her colleagues with her insistence on a certain level of integrity, because it kept them all out of trouble. Dela believed this was her best quality. She has always been reasonably intelligent and capable, but that was nothing compared to her ability to close the gaps. She stood at the gates of the fortress, pen in hand, defending her agency from lawsuits and customer complaints. She was the girl everyone could count on. Until…well, until she wasn’t.

“There you are.” A figure crawls into the pipe and hunches over in a ball beside her. The person’s face is hidden in shadow and Dela decides it can only be her elder brother, TOS.

“Why are you hiding in here?” The voice ricochets off the cold cement walls.

“My life has fallen apart,” Dela moans. “I’ve ruined everything.”

“Are you sure?”

A flame flares with a hiss, and TOS lights a cigarette. This is odd because he doesn’t smoke. Also, he’s dead. Dela may not know much about the afterlife, but she is certain there are no cigarettes.

“I’m sitting in a sewer in the middle of the night, talking to a ghost. Out loud, for that matter. I think we can agree that I’ve hit rock bottom.”

“A ghost, Copycat? What the hell does that mean?”

She turns to him with a start. He’s never called her that before. Come to think of it, TOS was never that slender, and his voice wasn’t that high-pitched. He also looks rather solid for a ghost. The figure grins, smoke curling out from between its teeth.

“You’re not my brother.”

“Uh, no. Do I look like your brother?”

It occurs to Dela then that she should probably be worried. She’s in a sewer-pipe with a stranger. She is heavily intoxicated, and she can’t remember what happened to her shoes. She looks into the thin face and bulging eyes, and recognition sparks. There’s only one person who knows her as Copycat.

“Fence!”

“Good girl.” The shadow named Fence flicks ash from the cigarette and looks at Dela.

“Don’t worry. You’re safe with me.”

Dela leans back into the wall, not quite convinced, but too miserable to care. “I don’t normally drink this much, you know.” She sits up suddenly as a terrible thought strikes her. “Am I slurring my words? In my head I sound perfectly articulate, but if I’m drunk, truly, properly drunk, I can’t be articulate. Right?”

Fence blinks. “I can understand you just fine.”

Although that doesn’t answer the question, Dela resumes her slumped position with a sigh. What does it matter? The only reality she can engage with is the one in her head, anyway. That’s part of the reason she’s in a pipe in Alexandra instead of her flat in Gaborone.

“I’m normally so sensible,” she tells Fence. “I do the right thing.”

“All the time?”

“Most of the time.”

“No one does the right thing most of the time. People can’t even decide what the right thing is.”

“Not me. I know what I’m supposed to do. The path is clear.” Dela points straight ahead. “There’s no room for error. The rules are black and white, and I’m good at following the rules. It was just this one time. This one stupid thing.”

“Elixir?”

A sigh. A nod. A whimper.

“That’s where it all began?”

“Well, no. It was before that. It was TOS’s fault.”

“Who?”

“TOS. I mean Kwabena.”

“The dead brother.”

“Yes. He led me down the wrong path.”

There’s a long pause. “The dead brother?”

“Yes! He was always there, hovering, worse than Mummy. He was the devil and Mummy was the angel, and then they switched places. I got confused.”

“Everyone gets confused sometimes.”

“You don’t understand. My life was perfect!”

Fence’s chuckle is dry and breathy. “I doubt that. Tell me what happened.”

Dela feels quite gauche suddenly, a middle class girl lost in the township, wallowing in her bourgeois problems. “No, it’s OK. It’s not important.”

“Ja?” Fence blows a stream of smoke into Dela’s face, making her splutter. “You got something better to do?”

There are a thousand excuses on the tip of Dela’s tongue. She realises, with a sudden gaping hollow in her belly, that none of the excuses are valid. She has nothing to do. Nowhere to be. She has nothing but time.

There are no tears yet, just the faint prickly threat of them, but despair descends without warning. Dela’s frantic flight to Johannesburg didn’t keep it at bay, after all. Seeking out Fence didn’t, either, and the alcohol… Oh, the alcohol. After all those years of watching her friend Cy down shot after shot and emerge in a haze of bliss, Dela was convinced drinking to excess would chase the bad things away. Isn’t that why people do it?

“Copycat.” Fence taps a finger against Dela’s cheek. It’s an oddly comforting gesture. “Start talking. Talking helps. Isn’t that what all the smart people say?”

Dela wants to tell her story. She’s a wordsmith, and she has been reconstructing and rehashing it in her head in an attempt to figure out exactly where she went wrong. Perhaps telling it to Fence makes more sense than telling it to herself.

“Come on.” Fence stubs out her cigarette. “Your life was perfect, yadda, yadda.” Her long fingers reach up under her beanie and scratch thoughtfully. “Hey, this might take a while, né?”

Dela’s head bobs in a rueful nod.

“OK.” Fence reaches into the pocket of her hoodie. “I’m gonna need more cigarettes.”

Scarlett

SCARLETT’S BOARD

I knew it would end the way it did. I knew it from the moment we met. He was lust personified, all that was wrong with the world, fire and rage and deep, dark corners. I could smell it on him. Rot. As if the grave was open and beckoning. And there I was, damaged and desperate, so how could I resist?

My eyes were open. I knew there would be blood. Looking back through the veil, I see that there had always been blood, small, secret stains that foreshadowed what was to come. There had always been choking pleas, flailing, eyes seeing stars. There had always been frantic, clawing attempts to breathe, and then…relief.

How else could it have ended? I set the tone. I had been gasping all my life.

Selah

SELAH’S BOARD

My earliest memory is of my mother lying dead in the bathtub, covered in blood.

I was five, maybe six. I had woken up in the night and walked across the corridor from my bedroom to the bathroom to get a drink of water. The door was closed. I opened it, stepped inside, wondered why the light was already on. The tiles were cold. I remember that. It’s funny how details like that stick in your head. Cold tiles, soft light, silence.

I went straight to the basin. Reached for the tap. Glanced in the mirror and saw her. Mummy. Naked in the tub, water reaching only to her navel. Still. Eyes closed. Bleeding. I screamed.

Her eyes opened, because of course she wasn’t dead. I kept on screaming as she got up, splashing red-tinged water on the floor, grabbed her robe and pattered across the tiles to slam and lock the door. And then I stopped screaming, because logic kicked in. Mummy was alive and well and looked somewhat annoyed that I had interrupted her bloody bath and then screamed blue murder in the middle of the night.

She shushed me, knelt down, still pulling the robe over her nakedness, but not quickly enough to prevent me seeing the gashes on her upper arms, her thighs, her sides. Like she was a chicken breast someone had carved up, ready to soak in the seasoning.

I babbled. I was scared. Confused. What had happened? Why was she using this bathroom instead of her own? Who had hurt her? Why was she so calm?

Someone pounded on the door. My father. Sleepy and irritable, demanding to know what the problem was.

Nothing, Mummy told him. Just one of Selah’s monsters.

He left us, grumbling under his breath. I looked at my mother, waiting for her to explain. She did. She told me a story, as colourful as the folktales of our homeland, with their anthropomorphised animals and trickster gods. But this was a different story, about a god who never smiled, a god of steel and stone and cold sidelong glances. A god of knives and wounds and blood, and redemption, a god they called Aran.

She told me of times long past, before doctors in spotless wards, before potions and techno tricks and manipulative magic, when people treated their ailments through trial and error. Times of cutting and leeching to purify the blood. She told me of an angel coming to her in a dream with a message from Aran, a message she had no choice but to heed. To follow in the footsteps of those who went before, to bleed to heal what ailed her.

But we don’t believe in angels, I said, or in the god Aran. Daddy doesn’t like us to talk of gods.

She shushed me again, and told me Daddy didn’t like a lot of things. Kareaan believes, she said. Isn’t that enough?

And I nodded because I loved Kareaan, my paternal grandmother, and didn’t want to shame her by disparaging her faith. But I didn’t understand. I was too young, my soul too dappled with rainbow prisms. I held onto my mother and pretended to agree, to believe her, because she needed me to. But I knew she had lied. There was no angel, no message. She had decided to bleed all on her own.

Did it work? I asked her. Are you healed now?

She held me tight against her and said, Yes.

But that was a lie, too.

The Shimmer

It happened one afternoon, when I was walking through the packed parking lot of a shopping mall, with you at my side. We were nearly clear of the many, many cars, giant beetles in their assortment of bright colours, sunlight glinting off their metal backs.

My foot rested on the cement walkway. I lifted myself up off the tarred road, and then I saw it. It was strange, because my back was turned to it, and yet I saw it all before I even turned around, before my feet found the tar again and rested there, uncertain.

Two dogs, apparently without owners, passed each other as they ran across the road. The air shifted. Reality shimmered, blurred out of focus and then snapped right back. A moment later both dogs whirled around, ears pricked, teeth bared. Each had just noticed the other, and their behaviour was so odd that I said to you, in a wary whisper, “That’s strange. Look!”

The dogs snarled at each other, poised to pounce, looking almost like mirror images. A funny shiver started at the base of my spine. There was something so human about the pair of them. It disturbed me. I felt a brief flash of panic; I didn’t want to see them fight, and I wondered what I could do to stop them.

Then their owners appeared. One was a woman, dressed absurdly in layers upon layers of clothing despite the sweltering heat. She lunged at her dog, burying her pale, pasty face in its side, her long, unruly black curls falling over its dirty back. She screamed, and her words were unintelligible.

The other was a man, tall, so tall, with broad shoulders and a filthy corduroy jacket. He grabbed his dog around the middle and pulled it away, then he and the woman glared at each other, continuing the altercation in silence.

The woman was alone, but the man had reinforcements. A woman appeared behind him, gently touching his back. His wife, I presumed. She wore a ridiculous billowing coat. Behind her was a little boy in a striped red and white t-shirt.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the spectacle. It was bizarre – dirty, poor white people in the middle of Gaborone, fighting over dogs – or for dogs – or against them. It was difficult to tell. The man and his family glared at the lone woman and spoke to her in hushed tones, in that broken, battered tongue of theirs that sounded less like a language the more of it I heard.

The woman backed away, defeated, and returned to her car – an ancient white truck. Her dog was still gnashing its teeth, transformed from a mild-mannered mongrel to a rabid beast in her arms. It had grown to twice its size now, and she struggled to push it into the truck. Its hair had grown long and matted, its eyes wild.

I turned my gaze to the other dog, and noted, with a shiver of revulsion, that it, too had changed, and resembled the other one exactly. I didn’t know what to make of this. I closed my mind before the possibilities could come streaming in. I didn’t want to think about it. I didn’t want to know. And yet I couldn’t stop watching.

I looked at the woman again. She hesitated at the door of the truck, as if she wasn’t ready to surrender just yet. But her enemies were not having it. The other woman opened her long, dust-covered coat, and something small tumbled out of it. The object rolled across the parking lot and came to a stop at the lone woman’s feet.

She leapt back with a terrified cry, and I saw what it was. A bundle of straw, fashioned into the shape of a doll. It wore small, dainty clothes; khaki trousers, a white shirt and a blue hat.

I frowned, puzzled. The lone woman, though, understood the significance of the doll all too clearly. She kicked it away, leapt into her truck and drove off in a cloud of dust, her dog yapping madly all the way.

The dust cleared, and I watched the small family move slowly towards the fallen doll. The mother stooped to pick it up, her coat sweeping the floor, and when she rose….ah, it sounds like madness, even to me, but when she rose, the doll was gone. In its place was a little girl, no older than six, dressed in a white shirt and khaki trousers, with a blue denim hat in her hand.

Before my head could wrap itself around what my eyes had seen, the boy came to me, hands outstretched.

“Please,” he whispered.

I shook my head. “Sorry.”

He persisted. He came right up to where I stood rooted to the ground, and ran his rough, cold little fingers across my arm. His eyes were dark, almost black, and piercing. His lips were so chapped I was afraid they would split apart and spill thick, dark blood on the ground, blood as dark and fathomless as his eyes.

“Please,” he asked again, in his lilting voice. “Please, please. Please? Give us. Give us.”

The words sounded uncomfortable on his lips, not as if he were foreign, but as if he weren’t used to talking at all. I shoved my hands into my pockets and withdrew them, empty with the exception of a few pitiful coins. “I’m sorry. That’s all I have.”

He showed no interest in the money. His gaze passed over the coins and returned to my face, pleading. “Give us…give us. Give us the…”

“The what?”

But he was already moving on to the next person, a dreamy expression on his little face, a weary sigh on his lips as they formed the request again. “Please? Please? Give us.”

The parents watched me warily, as if afraid I might run off with their son. The girl stood in the road, staring at nothing, her dark eyes lowered. I offered them a smile. They didn’t return it.

They were all so lost, utterly out of place in that dusty, crowded mall, with their matted dog, furtive eyes and clothes that hung off their backs. They looked alike, and possessed a certain appeal, but they fell just short of any kind of beauty. The mother and daughter had delicate papery skin that seemed as if it would turn to ash at the slightest touch. Their hair was too fine, too wispy – it caught in the almost negligible breeze, picked up static and clung to their skin.

The father and son had the same thick, dirty hair that looked as if it had once been blond but had since been soaked in oil and grime. Their skin was tough, thick like pigskin and just as unyielding. They were different, and yet exactly the same in their awkward looks, features pleasant, but too strange, too unsettling to be admired.

The parents looked around them, only now becoming aware of the little drama they were starring in, and the curious glances they had attracted. Immediately they drew together, the two of them and their dog, and started to retreat towards their unwieldy vehicle.

There was something sad about their shiftiness, as if too much attention could wither them up like broken leaves left to the elements. I pitied them, and yet…and yet.

“That was a marvellous trick,” I ventured, indicating the girl.

The child looked up at me, her eyes wide with fear.

“It’s not a trick,” her brother declared from behind me.

The words sent the girl fleeing into her mother’s cloak, where she remained, partially hidden in the swirls of fabric.

The woman gave me a strained smile. “Don’t mind him.” Her voice was weak, the voice of a straggler in the aftermath of war. “He’s not…quite…right, you know.” She held a hand out to the boy and he ran forward and grasped it.

“Please?” he went on. “Please give us…”

There was a trace of doubt in his voice, as if he didn’t really know what he was meant to be asking for, and for a moment I believed his mother. Perhaps he wasn’t quite right, after all. But his eyes flickered to mine, holding my gaze for a full minute, and he seemed perfectly right then. Horribly, unnaturally right, like rain that soaks you through before it hits, or night sweats and fever, or an open window that you could have sworn you closed.

They didn’t walk away. They fell back, a retreating army, like the tide, and swept towards their mud-spattered bakkie. As they left, I realised that their dog was missing. I saw it a moment later, barking from the back of the bakkie, a rope tied round its collar, holding it securely to the vehicle. It was a tame mongrel again, nondescript, friendly. Of course.

The boy shrank into his mother’s hand, years running down his shirt like melting ice cream, until she had to lift him in her arms and carry him because he was too small to walk. Her cloak blew around her tiny frame, and her hair blew around her pale, papery face.

The man mumbled something garbled as he climbed into the car, too tall, much too tall to fit, yet fitting anyway. In response, the woman whispered to the little girl still hidden in her cloak, and I saw a small white hand reach up and deposit the denim hat on the dark head.

And then… and then the girl was gone. The bakkie pulled out of the parking lot, and the boy, grown again, sat in the back, stroking the dog. The last thing I saw before they vanished into the distance was the little girl, sitting beside her brother, holding in her hand the hat that was the key to her enchantment.

My feet came unstuck from the tar and turned towards you. “Did you see that?” My voice cracked with awe.

You glanced over your shoulder. “See what, dear?”

And I knew then that I had stumbled onto something I was never meant to see, because no one else seemed to have seen it. Because the mall was just a mall again, the breeze was dry and crackly, and the heat bent the air around us into vague apparitions. Because in the gap between turning around on the walkway and turning back to you, no time had passed at all. You didn’t see me stop. You never even realised I was no longer at your side.

The air sighed softly as I took that step again. My right foot landed on the cement, and a moment later my left foot followed.

“Never mind,” I said, linking my arm through yours. “I thought I saw something.”

“You must have imagined it.” There was laughter in your voice.

“I must have,” I agreed, and we walked on, my secret drifting away, slipping from my mind until I no longer remembered seeing anything.

Of course, that must have been what they had intended all along.