By Cat Hellisen
At seventeen, Elsie de Jager suffered a gum infection and the dentist had to pull every single tooth out of her head, collapsing her mouth before it ever had the chance to bloom. Of course, Dokter Marais had said there was nothing else for it, that there was no saving the teeth, and everyone in Flora agreed that it was a terrible thing, a terrible thing to happen to a young girl, and she’d been so pretty before that, they said. But Elsie knew it wasn’t disease that took her teeth.
When she was seven, she’d baited one of Ouma’s wood-and-steel traps with a little ivory point of a baby tooth, like a tiny fat dagger, and placed it under her narrow bed. When the crack had come, deep in the middle of the Free State night, she’d heard the scream as it died—a thin, vicious squeal.
Elsie had buried the dead tooth mouse. Not in Ma’s barren yard, where the red-brown dust was swept smooth every morning under the sawing teeth of the outside broom. Instead she’d carried the little body wrapped in an old cotton handkerchief of her father’s, and taken it out of the town, to where those English sisters lived, and buried it under a wiry tussock by their mailbox. It was a game the children played—primitive wardings to keep the English witches’ eyes from them, to keep them safe.
One of the boys in her class claimed to have buried a stillborn sheep by the box, but Elsie didn’t believe him. Her fingers turned the hard red dirt, easing a space between the grass roots for the little body. There was nothing buried there that she could see. No cats' bones or fragile corpses. She patted the soil down, and felt a tremor under her palms. Elsie pulled her hands away and glanced fearfully at the cottage. The air hummed around her as the bees from the sisters’ hive watched, and Elsie had hurried back home as quickly as she could.
In Flora, everyone spoke Afrikaans, even the black labourers. When Elsie did hear the sisters speak in town sometimes, it made her prick her ears—such a slippery, trickster language, full of stolen sounds and mismatched vowels. And, of course, the English were evil. They’d stolen the land, and the gold and the freedom. They’d built concentration camps for women and children, and put glass in the porridge of infants. It made complete sense to Elsie that English was the language of witchcraft. Of evil. What else would it be?
But now she was eighteen, and she’d been to boarding school and she could speak accented English through her neat and painful vulcanite teeth, and give people neat and painful smiles. It was almost like she was English herself. The man she’d married wasn’t. Elsie wondered if she’d been cursed. Living in a town with an English name, when the dusty, empty Orange Free State was loosely scattered with towns with real names, proper names, commemorating the fallen dead. Strong names, farmer’s names, where they had slowed their wagons and loosed their oxen.
It was a trial then, to grow up in Flora and to be almost-but-not-quite Afrikaans, and be married at eighteen with no teeth to an almost-but-not-quite farmer. Elsie knew this, and at night, after wiping herself clean of her husband’s needs, she fumbled her dentures out in the tiny bathroom and cleaned them with her special brush and paste then left them in a clear tumbler, where they grinned at her like imbecilic reminders of her ill-luckkk.
She would wake every morning at four so that she could set her teeth back in and make strong black coffee on the stove, and drink two cups before the man woke. Elsie was bleary-eyed, jaw-aching as the teeth settled (they never did, truly.) Instead they remained a constant vice-like ache, biting into her gums in punishment for that broken back, that last gasp of merde!)
Or perhaps the mouse had screamed murder. Elsie didn’t know anymore. Perhaps the mouse had never screamed at all. The sun was just beginning to drizzle through the net curtains and, in the dawn light, Elsie saw there was still blood on the kitchen floor, caught in the little channels between the big raw-red tiles.
She looked to the closed kitchen door; it hadn’t moved, so Gideon was still asleep. She had time. With a damp rag clutched in her bony fingers, Elsie got down on her knees and scrubbed at the flaking dried blood. Here and there little beads of it had gathered stickily in the corners, but soon they were also washed away, and the night’s offering vanished.
If her kitchen floor had become the altar where nightly Gideon bled himself for his god, Elsie was no priestess. The kitchen was a violated shrine. It should have been offerings of malva-pudding and steaming maize porridge with cream and butter, or tripe cooked slow with beans and tomatoes, for some fat and happy goddess.
Not human blood. Not Gideon screaming and crying and telling her that they would starve, that he was going to lose this job too.
The god of Kerkstraat wasn’t listening. Last night had been worse than normal—Gideon asking her what would she do without him. That if he went, there would be no one to take care of her. Cutting his arms to show how he suffered, like a glimpse into the hell the dominee told them was waiting for them if they strayed from godliness to sin.
One day, Elsie thought, one day he would cut too deep, and when they took his corpse, everyone would know that he wasn’t fit for Heaven. Elsie rolled the kitchen knives away in a chequered dishcloth, and put them in her outside bag. Then she went to the bathroom, and took the Mercurochrome bottle from the medicine cabinet and made sure its lid was screwed on tight, before adding that to her bag. Gideon’s razor was resting on one of the narrow glass shelves in the cabinet, next to his shaving brush and his shaving bowl with its sliver of soap cradled like a natal scrap. She could have taken the razor too, of course, but that would have pointed a mocking finger at his terror. Elsie had grown up knowing that men did not like to have their flaws recognised, especially the flaws they thought were womanly and hysterical, bloody like monthly flow and filled with salt-sick tears.
The coffee Elsie left for him on the stove.
Her heart was fluttering with something that veered between fear and excitement. She was turning her back on God, she knew, by going to witches. They were abominations, they should be stones, be beaten and burned. But they were women, and they were fat with women’s secrets, like spiders in their webs. It didn’t take long to reach the English sisters’ house. Flora was a small town, neatly bisected by Kerkstraat, dividing the godly from the ungodly. The sisters lived on the side of sin, with the shops and the butchers and the women who sewed all through the night.
Elsie walked with her head held high, though it was early, and only a few old ladies had ventured out to sweep their empty front yards emptier in case the dominee should pass. It was a Sunday, so people would be getting ready to eat a full breakfast and suit themselves into their smart clothes. Then, with heads bowed and pious faces empty and barren as their dirt yards, they would walk down to the end of Kerkstraat, file into that dark building and begin to pray.
Elsie surprised a small flock of scavenging bosveldfisant, and the francolins ran off ahead of her, kraaaing like fat old ladies shocked by something vulgar. The air was clear and cold, morning air before morning had fully woken, and Elsie breathed in deep with each swing of her arms. She wanted her lungs to be full, as if she was about to hold her head underwater.
The sisters’ house came into view. It was smaller than she remembered as a child, a little tin-roof box with a garden kept clipped and green. Waste of water, Elsie thought. There were roses, fat-headed and drooping, and they smelled like Tannie Issie’s perfumed Sunday best, and Elsie felt a prick in the corners of her eyes, like bees had stung her blind. It took her a moment before she could walk on, past the little chicken-fence gate. More flowers were growing between the rose bushes. Elsie didn’t know what they were called, most of them.
She stood on their stoep, assaulted by the sweetness of the English garden, and covered her mouth with one hand, her tongue pressing at the backs of her dentures, until she was certain everything was straight, before she knocked at the door. Her shoes were small and pointed, and made her feet hurt, church best against the ragged stoep paint, and Elsie stared at them until the door creaked open, and a round-faced woman peered blearily out at her. Elsie wasn’t sure which one this was, Catherine or Elizabeth.
When Elsie was seven, the sisters had seemed severe and ancient. Now, at eighteen, she realised this one, at least, was small and soft, and only about fifteen years older than she was.
“Elsie de Jager,” the woman said without surprise, as if she were used to strangers arriving unannounced on her stoep at five on a Sunday morning.
“Snyman,” Elsie said automatically. “It’s Elsie Snyman now. I married Hendrik Snyman’s son.”
“Gideon or Theunis?” the woman asked. Then she closed her eyes. “What does it matter, Elizabeth? Stop talking nonsense and let the poor girl in.” She opened her eyes again, wide and startled like a little witkoluil, and stepped back to beckon Elsie into her house. Even the way she bobbed her head reminded Elsie of an owl.
Elsie murmured her thanks, and put one foot firmly over the threshold. She wasn’t sure what she expected in a house of English witches, but the sisters’ little cottage was neat and simple, and there were handmade doilies on the small couch, just like in her own house. Elsie felt a little disappointed. A round-bellied black stove sulked in the corner, but it was too small to burn a child in, unless perhaps they squeezed a newborn into that little mouth. Perhaps there were tiny bones in the ash they scraped out. They had a wall full of books, so that at least was different.
“Catherine, dear,” Elizabeth called. “We’ve a visitor.” She turned back to Elsie. “Sit down, Miss de Jager, and I’ll bring you some tea.”
She wanted to point out (again) that she was married now, with a married woman’s stamp of authority, and that she preferred coffee, because that was a real drink. It put hairs on your chest. Elsie swallowed the words like a mouthful of bees, and surprisingly, she felt better for it. They warmed up her stomach.
The other sister appeared from the back of the house. She was older and taller than Elizabeth, and it gave her a more stately look—a goshawk to her sister’s owl. Her hair was greying and pinned back neatly in careful curves. It looked like she’d been up and dressed since before the moon had set, and Elsie wondered if they’d been awake all night, chanting and dancing, leaving sacrifices to English gods they’d brought with them in their trunks. Celtic goddesses they’d wrapped in the broken wings of fairies, garlanded with flowers that wouldn’t grow here in this arid place.
“It’s not often we get visitors,” said Catherine, coolly. “To what do we owe such an honour?”
“Oh for heaven’s sake, Catherine, stop being such an immense drip. It’s obvious the poor girl’s been shaken up by something. And she wouldn’t come to us unless it were a secret.” Elizabeth bustled back into the front room, and set out a tray of pretty little cups and saucers, and a steaming pot of tea clad in a voluminous cosy. “You can tell us, dear,” she said to Elsie. “We’re used to it. We hear it all. The little secrets and the big ones.”
Elsie swallowed. “What do you mean?” She’d thought her English remarkably good, but now here, against their shatter-bright tones, her words felt clipped at the edges, so that they came out the wrong shape, flattened and dull.
“They wouldn’t be secrets if we told you,” snapped Catherine, who Elsie was beginning to dislike in a fearful sort of way—the kind of dislike that was gilded with guilty admiration. She wanted to be sharp and snippy too. A falcon instead of a little dog with no teeth.
Elizabeth poured tea and milk for her, and stirred in sugar when Elsie asked. Finally, when all the three women had their porcelain shields in place, Elizabeth smiled at her, sipped once, and said, “You may begin. Elsie, dear.”
Where did she start, Elsie thought. What could she say that didn’t make a small thing sound bigger than it was? And it was a small thing, really, in the grand scheme of the world and the universe. “I think my husband is going to murder himself,” she said.
Elizabeth set down her tea, and glanced at her older sister.
Catherine sighed. Finally she spoke. “Why do you think that?” Her voice had changed from beak and talon sharp. It was a careful voice now, one that was unpicking knots in silk.
Elsie cleared her throat with an embarrassed cough, and fumbled in her bag for the kitchen knives. She unrolled the dishcloth, and displayed the knives on the sisters’ ornate table. “He uses these,” she said, without looking up. The blades were old, but sharp. They had been her ouma’s, given to her after the funeral. Some were so well used that the blades had become sickle smiles, almost thin enough to see through. “He uses these,” she said to the grinning silver. “Nightly, in the kitchen, and he cries for the Lord, but I do not think the Lord is listening.”
A very long silence was punctuated by the long slow tick of the clock on the wall, and the faint drone of the bees as they worked the flowers outside the window.
“He will kill himself, eventually, yes,” said Catherine. “And he will blame you for it, like men always blame their weaknesses on women. You will try stop him, playing your part of dutiful wife, and he will leave scars on your arms, and guilt in your heart.”
Elsie shivered and bowed her head closer to her chest, trying not to cry in front of these Englishwomen. They were witches, seeing her future laid out like a poor man’s feast—gristle and bone and empty dishes.
“What do you want us to do?” Elizabeth said kindly. “We cannot stop him.”
“No,” said Catherine, and Elsie looked up into her amber eyes. “I’m afraid that we cannot change what must be. We cannot avert the deaths to come, or change the shape of the heart.”
Elizabeth nodded. “We cannot make love grow, and we cannot rip death out by the root. We cannot change one flower into another, not forever, anyway.”
“Then what can you do?” said Elsie. “What use are you?”
Catherine stood. “We can save you from wasted time.” She went to the long bookcase, and opened one of the leaded-glass doors to take out a small box, like a cigar case. She brought the little case back to the table and handed it to Elsie, who took it, her eyebrows raised. “What is this thing?”
“Open it,” said Catherine.
The box was small enough to balance easily on the palm of her hand. Faded lettering was inked on the top. It was tin, the corners rusted, brown earth dry as old breadcrumbs caught in the hinges. Elsie struggled to open it, but finally the lid snapped back, and inside was small roll of cotton, carefully wrapped around a desiccated bundle of bones and skin.
“You left it for us,” said Elizabeth, from the couch. She blinked once, slowly. “A powerful token. You must have had some natural skill. Oh, what we could have done with you if you’d been ours. What we could have taught you.”
The mouse was ten years dead, held together by dust. Elsie pressed her tongue against her false teeth and swallowed. She closed the tin carefully. “What—what must I do with this?”
“Your man eats, doesn’t he?” said Elizabeth, and Elsie was reminded then that as round-faced and owl-eyed as she was, owls were still killers, breakers of bones, silent hunters. “Gideon or Theunis or whatever son he is, they all eat. They never cook. Cooking is the witchcraft of women.” She leaned forward and tapped the edge of the tin with one oval nail. “Grind it into his food.”
* * * *
Back at the house, Gideon was awake, drinking his coffee sweetened with condensed milk. “Where were you?” he said.
Elsie’s heart shivered like a mouse before a cat pounced, and she smiled her neat and painful smile, her gums aching. “I needed antiseptic. We’d run out.” She fished in her bag, careful not to touch the wrapped blades or the little tin mouse coffin, and drew out a glass bottle. “I got some Mercurochrome from Sanet—”
“You didn’t say what it was for,” he said, his voice hard and scared and angry.
“No.” Elsie set the small dark glass bottle down on the table, her hands shaking. “Of course not. I’ll just get some bandages and we can clean you up properly before church. You don’t want infection setting in.” As though the cuts along his arms were accidents, a slip, it could happen to anyone.
When he was stained and covered, Elsie made breakfast. Porridge, milky and sweet, the oats soaked overnight, heated slow and sticky, smoothed out with salted butter and the cream from the top of the milk. The mouse she ground down in her herb mortar, and Elsie stirred the dust of its bones into his bowl, before sprinkling a crust of brown sugar over. She brought him his breakfast in the dining room, and they ate in silence, heads bowed before the grace of God.
That night, after Elsie had taken out her teeth and polished them and scoured every line and dip, and drowned them in cold water, she tiptoed to bed in the dark, her mouth sunken and soft. She lay straight as a new sapling next to Gideon, and listened to him sleep. The sounds he made were soft and furry, and Elsie put one hand to her breast and felt her heart beating under her palm, until the sound of it filled her ears and her skull and pulsed her bones like a drum. She wanted to dance to that beat, to shake off her nightdress and run naked through the night, taste the stars like white bees. Swallow mouthfuls of them until she was stung back to life. Instead, she kept stiller than still, and fell asleep, her skin shrouded in thick flannel.
In her dreams, she walked the passage of the house Gideon Snyman had bought her with his share of the Snyman inheritance. He’d given up his claim to the farm in order to have a share of the money early. He’d wanted to impress his bride, the most beautiful girl in Flora—or she would have been, if her teeth hadn’t all been pulled out.
The floors were dark beneath her bare feet, and Elsie looked down at the smooth, silky wood in surprise. She never walked barefoot, that freedom lost to childhood. But there were her feet, white and plain. She’d never had pretty feet, just solid, peasant ones. Boere-feet. Feet that could walk for miles, feet that were narrowed by shoes so that they would look neater, adult and proper. Her toes lengthened, the nails turning into sharp claws that tacked along the wood. Elsie the dog with no teeth. She growled, and the dreaming Elsie turned over in her sleep and pressed one hand against her husband’s spine.
Head down, Elsie sniffed along the edges of the passage, nosing the trail of twisting scents that zipped and zagged and jumped and popped along the skirting boards. Mice. The house had never had mice before, and the little terrier wagged the stump of its tail in delight, ready for a hunt.
It didn’t take long for the trail to lead her to the mouse. It sat on its back legs, blatant and uncaring, on the dinner table, stuffing its bewhiskered face with food. There were dishes all over the table, left uncleared, the food half-eaten, and the gravy congealing in oily lumps. Elsie leapt up onto one of the chairs, and placed her front paws on the table.
The mouse paused, and looked once at the terrier, before resuming its gluttony.
“You should be scared of me,” Elsie said.
“Scared?” The mouse threw down the maize kernel it had been nibbling. “Of a little dog with no teeth? I don’t think so.”
And Elsie knew it was right, could feel the useless slobbery gums that were all she had. She couldn’t eat the softest food without pain. How was she to snap up this little intruder?
She whined softly and sunk her head onto the table.
Her jaw ached.
In her marital bed, Elsie twisted, turned away from her husband and curled up, her knees against her stomach. She pressed her hands against her empty mouth and wept in her sleep, soaking the pillows with salt.
On the dining room table, the terrier ground its jaws, feeling the splinter sharp pain as new teeth, fat and pointed, tore through the soft gums.
The mouse froze.
* * * *
Upstairs, Elsie overslept. She slept through the rising sun and the bells from the distant station. She slept through the milk van, and the clatter of hooves as one of the labourers drove his cart through the town main road.
She slept curled up around herself, while at her back, her husband cooled.
It was near noon when she woke. Gideon didn’t stir, though Elsie watched him for a long time. In a daze, she dressed, and walked to the police station, her tongue pressed against the tiny ivory pegs in her mouth. She spoke to the constable dully.
“He was like that when I woke.”
“No, I don’t know what happened.”
When she got back home, late, so late in the afternoon that the sun was turning the few trees on the road into red sentinels, Elsie stared at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. They had taken the body away, made notes of the cuts on his arms.
“Woodworking accident,” Elsie had told them.
Her vulcanite dentures grinned at her from their tumbler, like exhibits in a museum.
Elsie de Jager bared her teeth in the mirror. They were small and fat and new. Children’s teeth.
Tomorrow she would catch a train to Bloemfontein, and from there to Cape Town. She would learn English properly, and to play tennis, and to drink lemon-tea and gin, and the names of flowers, and how to use mouse bones for magic, and she would call herself Elizabeth.