The JRB presents a new short story by Jarred Thompson.
The ocean had always been a second skin for me. From my earliest memories of cleaning snoek on the rocks of the Strand beachfront it seemed that I’d been destined for a life on the depthless blue.
‘Water has a way of seeping into your bones,’ Pa would tell me, moving his blade, swift and artful, through silver bodies of fish. I watched him spill their guts into a bucket: white, yellow, maroon jelly-like meat soaked in dark red liquid. It was on one of these occasions that I began to wonder what my guts looked like. That’s when I asked Keano to help me find out.
I gave him a small blade—sterilised of course—and shoved an old towel in my mouth to bite down on. He was scared at first, cutting into me like I was a delicate cucumber, but eventually he got the hang of it, managing to get through several layers of skin with one steady cut.
‘Don’t go too deep bra.’ I pushed him away, gawking at the blood rejoicing at its newfound freedom. Keano hadn’t gone very deep but at least I was able to get a little peek into the layers of meat that made me.
It’s shouldn’t come as a surprise that I got into trouble for this.
‘You can’t cut into yourself like that, Devon. And using poor Keano to do it too. You know that boy has no sense in him. You just lucky he didn’t cut a serious vein. You could have died.’ Ma whacked me over the head with her slipper, looks of bewilderment shooting from her to Pa.
‘But I was just interested in seeing how it looks, Ma.’
‘You can’t see how your insides look, boy,’ Pa said. ‘Not by yourself at least. You need special doctors for that, with special machines. You can’t just gut yourself like that, you’re not a fish. You’re my boy and soon you’ll be a hot-blooded man who’ll have to build a life for yourself.’
With that I was forever cut off from seeing my insides. Sure, I could go to special doctors if I was curious enough, but I knew that that would never happen because we didn’t have special money for doctors with their fancy machines.
I resigned myself to the fact that the only guts I’d ever see would be fish guts. See, there were only ever fishermen in my family and despite the way my parents fought over money I knew the ocean would somehow provide for me. She would provide for me like she did the generations of men that had come before.
Keano and I dropped out of school around the same time that year. I dropped out because dad needed more hands on deck; he couldn’t afford to get extra men on board. Keano dropped out because his brain simply wasn’t made for school. Some people are just made differently like that. Our fathers worked together on a fishing boat that Keano’s dad, Uncle Petrus, had won in a poker game: the infamous poker game where Uncle Petrus lost his left eye.
‘They accused me of cheating, the bloody naaiers. So you know I couldn’t let my name be dragged in the mud like that, Nic, you know mos,’ Uncle Petrus said, relaying the story to dad, Keano and I for the thousandth time.
‘Ja, Petrus, I know. You’re a proud man.’
‘Nothing wrong with being a proud man. My father always told me that proud men make something of themselves. And I wasn’t gonna let Leroy make a poes out of me.’
Uncle Petrus described in detail how four men jumped him in the street after the poker game and how he managed to beat all four of them off him, before Leroy broke a bottle over his head, sending a shard of glass right through his left eye.
‘At least with the looks I get now people know I’ve been round the block once or twice. They know not to fuck with Petrus.’ He laughed, his belly wobbling the way a fish’s body squirms once its yanked out the ocean.
The more I worked on Pa and Uncle Petrus’s fishing boat the more I grew to understand the ocean: the way she rose and quelled to changing phases of the moon, the salty breath she laid over us and her currents that carried fish to the alcoves where us fishermen would bring up loads of glistening meat. The ocean was the perfect lover: giving with such abandoned fervour yet still mysterious enough to earn our respect.
I blame Rufus and his stories for coming between the ocean and I.
Rufus had a mane of hair like I’d never seen before; it was quite a spectacle to watch him free it at the end of a work day. He had a way of shaking his brown locks out, spraying water into the air like a dog. But with Rufus everything had an effortless motion to it: from the way his smile revealed dimples in his cheeks to the way he licked salt off his puckered pink lips. Even the way he’d stretch his hair-band out into a perfect circle, rounding up every unruly strand of brown, curly hair into a tight bun. Despite the fact that he couldn’t swim, Rufus was a man’s man and I wanted to be like him because he had an unnatural power over women. He enjoyed telling Keano and me stories of the women he’d been with while we were out fishing. His stories often left me with an uneasy feeling that I couldn’t place. Yet, at the same time, I was drawn to the stories because I felt they offered a way in to understanding women.
‘So this one girl that’s been eyeing me for a good minute … she comes up to me and whispers in my ear. There down at bra Eddy’s place. You know he has those weekend braais where he invites all the lekker girls from the neighborhood. Now this girl … damn, we talking silky legs all the way up to heaven with a pair of tits that demand a separate “howzit“.’ Rufus helps me haul a net filled with fish on board as he tells us about his latest adventure. In the fishes’ eyes I see his reflection, watching the way he bites and licks his bottom lip with every detail of his story.
‘She whispers in my ear. Oh yeah, she’s ready for me, gents. So I tell her we should go back to my place and … well, you know. Obviously I had a nice taste of everything she had to offer.’ He laughs, egging Keano on to laugh with him.
‘Man, how do you get girls so easily? Have you got some magic between your legs or what?’ I ask, laughing along. Rufus’s face turns solid cold. Then suddenly he breaks out one of his iconic smiles, disarming me.
‘Nah man. I don’t know why I’m so blessed with the ladies. Maybe it’s my hair or the way I smell. Who the hell knows what it is with these girls. They just love me. Even when I mess ’em around. Fuck … they love me even more when I mess ’em around. Women like a man to drive them a lil crazy, you know?’
I looked at my reflection on the folding waves as Rufus and Keano packed the fish on the other side of the boat. Would any girl like my short, rough hair that smelt of fish, or my big nostrils and sunken eyes that gave my face an odd, sad look? I needed to learn from Rufus; I needed to discover the layers beneath his persona, to figure out what made him so irresistible.
Being a virgin at seventeen would drive anyone boy crazy; being a fisherman and a virgin at seventeen was even crazier. That’s because every Friday, after we pulled in our last catches of the day, a bunch of the fishermen from the area would gather at a place we’d come to call Fisher Rock. It was a relatively flat outcrop leading about ten meters into the sea. It was the perfect spot for us to come together to have a lekker jol, high enough to protect us from high tide and secluded enough to deter the police from even thinking of bothering our weekly celebrations. Police often regarded us with a kind of silent respect and even if the guys got out of hand we’d simply make an offer of fresh Yellowtail or Kingklip to get one of our own out the back of a police van.
Every Friday we’d gather, drinking, smoking, talking about everything from gambling to business ventures that’d make us rich if only we had the money. It was when one of the older fishermen, Uncle Davis, started speaking that the conversation turned to the group’s favorite topic: women.
‘Back in our day boys, women weren’t as loose as they are today, you know? You actually had to work for some pussy. Now … now you guys got it so easy, every Mary Jane and Sam wants a stukkie. But me, I got me a good one: cooks, cleans and gives it to me three times a week. What else can a man ask for, huh?’ What else could a man ask for? Certainly Rufus never needed to ask for anything from the girls he picked up, they offered it to him on a platter. Did that make it easier or harder for him to feel anything for the young women he seduced?
I noticed that whenever the topic came to women Pa would sit quietly and listen to each man’s story, never adding any of his own. Was it because I was there? Did he not want me to know about his player days before meeting and marrying Ma? It was a strange thing to consider: that my parents had desires outside of marriage; that their lives didn’t always contain each other or even an idea of me, for that matter.
‘Ouens, I fingered her,’ Keano blurted out, his face turning pink.
‘Fingered who?’ I asked as the rest of the guys cheered, slapping Keano on the back.
‘Erica. You know I’ve been eyeing her for long. I finally got the courage to ask her out and well, she let me finger her behind her uncle’s shed last night.’ The group erupted in laughter.
‘Guys, I got Rufus to thank for that. He talked to Erica for me. Gave me advice too. This guy … hai, he’s a boss with the ladies.’ Keano popped the cap off a bottle of beer and handed it to Rufus.
‘It was nothin’, man. You know boys got to stick together,’ said Rufus, gulping down the beer in one long swoop, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down as if mocking me.
In that moment I felt unworthy to be around them, each one having tasted the secret garden of a woman. Each one having a story to tell except me.
I’m the type of guy who isn’t shy to ask for help when he needs it. Maybe that’s why when I was at school I always got the Most Improved Learner Award at the end of every year. I understood early on in life that I didn’t have all the answers and that there was no such thing as a stupid question. In fact it was asking questions that made me a lot smarter than most guys my age.
‘Tell me how you do it, man. How do you get these girls on their knees so easily?’ I asked Rufus as we sat on the pavement outside Uncle Mohammad’s butchery. It was a hot Sunday afternoon, the time of day when everything took on a hazy aura of laziness. I’d started consciously spending more time with Rufus, going out with him to malls and parties to try and decipher his technique for picking up women. But a lot of the time I’d lose him in a crowd because he was so popular and everyone seemed to want him shining his smile their way. Even the guys at parties took on a respectful posture when he walked into the room: clearly prowess with women earned a guy an honoured place in the hearts of men. I wasn’t sure whether Rufus actually enjoyed my company; if he did he never made it clear to me. Perhaps he just enjoyed having a sidekick when Keano wasn’t around to sing his praises, which he always did, with a nervous energy that made his voice sound like an excited little bird. I found their friendship annoying and I avoided hanging out with them together.
‘It’s a numbers game, Devon. You think I’m able to get every nice ass I meet? It’s all about having thick skin that can take rejection and keep on going. See, at the end of the day, guys don’t count the girls that reject you, they count the ones you bag.’ Rufus rolled a fat joint at lightning speed, the fastest I’ve ever seen someone do it. ‘Here, take a pull. It’ll give you courage. See those two girls over there? I’m gonna walk up to the one and you gonna chat up the other.’
‘But I’m not even sure if I like that girl.’
‘What did I say? It’s not about liking. You’re building up your numbers. And if you get with her, well fuck, then you got a story to tell.’ He winked at me as if he could smell the burning thoughts behind my eyes; as if he’d been smelling it ever since we met.
I lit the joint, pulled on it three times, got up off the pavement and handed it back to Rufus. The two girls Rufus pointed out were sitting on the front wall of their yard. One of them held a small, purple hookah pipe while the other smoked from it. As Rufus and I walked over to them I released the smoke from my lungs, feeling the kush pulse through every cranny of my head.
‘Hey hey. What you two up to? Mind if we smoke with you guys? I got some weed,’ Rufus said, striding right ahead of me toward the girl he wanted to bag.
‘Yeah sure. Give that here,’ the girl with the red bandana replied, taking the joint from Rufus and giving her friend a secret look.
I introduced myself with an outstretched hand, an overly polite gesture that apparently girls find weird. After the initial awkwardness faded, we learned their names: Ashley and Carmen.
Ashley had a smaller build than her friend but you could see by her muscular legs that she was an athlete or something like that.
‘So, you run?’ I asked her.
After a pause she nodded, pulling on the hookah pipe. She blew out a cloud of smoke, staring at it as if she wanted to disappear into it. She was quieter than Carmen. Just my luck to get the quiet one, I thought, leaning against the wall on which they sat. The joint and hookah pipe passed between the four of us in a quick rhythm. It didn’t take long before Rufus and the Carmen excused themselves, walking down the street to the corner store, Rufus offering to buy his new fling an ice cream.
‘You wanna go inside? There isn’t anyone at home,’ Ashley said at last, her voice a striking baritone that took me by surprise.
‘Sure, let’s go.’ I tried to appear nonchalant about the prospect of finally having a story to tell the guys, but the excitement grew to a screaming pitch inside of me, hardening my body into a blunt nail. The weed had made me unthinkably horny; how was I going to control myself now?
It seemed a twist of fate that I didn’t need to, because the moment we entered the house—a faint smell of jasmine incense entering my nostrils—Ashley pounced on me, pushing against me with such force that I almost fell over. Her lips tasted of cherry but her body smelt of something stranger, I didn’t recognise what it was at first. Our kisses were frantic, laced with a kind of selfishness that turned each of us into layers of meat for the skewering. Ashley had me pinned up against a wall on which hung a family photograph, but in the midst of all the kissing I couldn’t make out the faces. It freaked me out how strong she was for someone with her frame but eventually I got the better of her in our lustful tussle, manhandling her by cupping her tight ass with my hands and lifting her up against my crotch. She let out a whimper, a puppy-like yelp, before pushing me away and leading me to what I assumed was her bedroom.
That’s where she went down on me and I began to draw nearer to what each man on Fisher Rock spoke about: that undeniable power living between my legs. I wanted that power inside of Ashley; I wanted her to sing along with it as it chimed, whistled, hummed and roared. So I put her on the bed and was unbuttoning her jeans when a large, fleshy, fish-like thing popped out from her zipper. It took me several seconds to realise what I was looking at. The dick flopped—glistening with sweat—onto Ashley’s stomach. Instinctively I wanted to gut it; to remove its insides as I’d done to hundreds of fish before.
‘Are you okay?’ she asked, looking down at herself and then up to me. Before I could reply to her question I was beating her, plunging my fists into every part of her body I could find. I didn’t stop, not even when the body cried, begged and pleaded, not even when blood began to drip onto her dick. I was filled with the power and virility of a million men: I could feel their voices swirling in my testes and more and more blood pumping into the shaft of my dick. I stayed erect the entire time.
The annoying thing about Cape Town summer is the late time the sun sets. Because when you’re running from police and trying to hide, night cover can offer easy solutions. I managed to wash the blood off my hands in the water that lapped up against Fisher Rock. My feet had carried me there, but I couldn’t stay for long. It was one of the places people would surely come looking for me. I wanted to know what had happened to me, faced with Ashley’s dick wobbling in front of me. The thought disgusted me. I went over all the conversations I had overheard on Fisher Rock, along with every detail of the last couple of hours. But nothing made sense, there was no forewarning, and no indication as to what I would become now that I’d kissed Ashley and undone her pants.
As nighttime expanded over the Cape I decided I wouldn’t go home that night. I snuck onto Pa’s boat and hid in one of the side compartments where Uncle Petrus stored his nets. I settled into the nets, fashioning them into a kind of bed that offered small comfort. The night ocean wheezed around me like a sick dragon. The sound poured into my ears and, thankfully, allowed me to sleep.
Muffled voices woke me; light had begun arching its back over the horizon. I needed to get off the boat before the early morning fishing started. Ma and Pa were probably worried out of their minds. Had the police contacted them yet? Was I going to Pollsmoor?
‘Come here. Turn around,’ a voice said. I crept out the compartment, and in the half-light I saw Rufus, his pants around his ankles, thrusting, behind the large crates we kept fish in. I couldn’t see who he was thrusting into and I didn’t want to. But the creaking floorboards of the boat alerted him to my presence, and before I could get away his mane of hair thrashed round to face me head on. His expression turned cold; a face I’d seen him make before. He fumbled with his pants, finally drawing them up, and darted toward me. I could tell he wanted to hurt me. I could see it in his eyes. But I didn’t understand why, until I saw Keano’s face rise from behind the crates and ogle at me like a fish deprived of oxygen.
I turned and ran. Knowing that Rufus could not swim I lunged into the icy water, every muscle in my body pulling against itself, clinging to my bones. I didn’t look back; I just kept swimming: riding every wave and current that carried me further along the beachfront. When I emerged from the water my skin felt tight and course from the salt of the ocean sticking to me. I fell onto the sand and waited there for the sun’s heat to soak into me. I had no words for what I done to Ashley or what I had seen Rufus doing. Who was I to be if I couldn’t be Rufus; if I could beat up a complete stranger without any second thought?
That entire day I spent walking the streets, painfully aware of everything banging into my senses: the exhaust fumes of cars, coughing of babies, laughing of school children, patterns of shadow on cracked walls and pavements, vague graffiti scribbles on signs, vibrating bass of car radios, shuffling of feet in sandals, mute shivering hunger trickling along every nerve, strangers holding hands, teeth biting into hotdogs, puddles of water everywhere: in cups, in drains, along highways, dripping down billboards, gushing out of taps and hoses and, of course, that depthless blue surrounding it all.
The more I wandered the harder it got to avoid my own reflection. When I had had enough of aimless walking I went home, too tired to think about what would be coming. It was early evening when I turned the corner onto our street. Thankfully, there weren’t any police cars outside our home. As I walked into our yard I noticed the front door was unlocked. There were sounds of soccer commentary coming from the lounge.
‘Do you really have to watch this right now? We don’t know where Devon could be,’ I heard Ma say.
‘The boy will be fine, just relax.’
‘Relax? The police are then looking for him, how can I relax?’
‘Rufus said he saw him this morning. He must have slept out there by the boat last night. He’ll come home and explain everything. I’m sure this whole thing wasn’t even his fault.’ I was surprised at the amount of faith Pa seemed to have in me; he’d never shown it before.
I walked into the lounge as their conversation ended. Pa and Ma looked at me with that dead look a fish gives once its insides have been removed.
‘Pa,’ I said, rip-currents tearing through my body, drawing me to an unknown place. Pa got up from the couch, that dead-fish look cut into his face. I collapsed into his arms, the sudden weight of me knocking him to the ground.
- Jarred Thompson graduated from Alabama State University with a degree in English. He has been published in Typecast Literary Magazine, Type House Literary Magazine, The Best New African Poets Anthology of 2016 and New Contrast Literary Journal; placed second in the Fitzgerald Museum Short Story Contest; and was longlisted for the Sol Plaatje EU Poetry Award. He is currently at work on his Masters degree at the University of Johannesburg.