I’d wanted a retreat, out in the Highveld of South Africa. I found the single-room cottage just what I needed… though the five curious rules my uncle left for me were a bit of a revelation. I’d never thought my uncle believed in the Tokoloshe.
Table of Contents
Part 1: And Then There Was One
The savannah beauty of the Highveld is breathtaking. Turning off the road onto a narrow track made by nothing more than the indentations of tyres, I watched a single heavily-laden storm cloud roll along the shallow valley ahead of me, shadowing and blurring the space below it with a flash summer storm. Far away, across the grassland dotted by diminutive trees, were mountains in faded blues.
I smiled to myself. This was what I wanted to paint. This was why I’d escaped Johannesburg and reached out to my uncle, asking to borrow his remote holiday cottage for a two-month retreat. I wanted to paint the veld – landscapes in oil paint, grittily layered and scraped away for detailed tall blade of grass after tall blade of grass… Wanted to paint animals: impala hopping along, an advancing herd of elephant, birds in the sky, and, if I was lucky, a lion snoozing under a bush or a white rhino glancing innocently up at me, an ear twitching.
Turning my music up so it blared through the car speakers, I trundled along the little track, headed for the small rondavel currently getting pelted by a 3pm storm. I rolled the windows down in my 4-wheel-drive, just to catch that first scent of the wet earth after the storm.
My uncle’s rondavel, smack in the middle of wild veld, was perfectly rustic, with a few more modern additions. The circular cottage was painted a burnt red, its roof thatch. Tacked on the side was a bathroom, accessible from outside only. A rusted water trough was out the front, left over from some historic herd of cows or sheep. And, round back, a stone shed sported solar panels and a hot water tank on the roof. In there was where my uncle had told me I could find the generator if the solar panels weren’t enough.
The nearest human was likely some twenty kilometres away, and, as far as I could tell, there were no lions ready to ambush me. All the same, I grabbed my 9mm from the glove compartment before hopping out of my car. At home, I felt okay to leave it in a locked drawer of my desk. Out here, a woman alone: no way. It was going in its holster where I could grab it at a moment’s notice.
The rainstorm had passed already. Leaving the numerous provisions I’d brought in the car, I caught up the keys my uncle had given me and headed for the rondavel’s door.
The door unlocked with four separate bolts. Bars on all the windows. Yet my uncle had left it unoccupied for three weeks. I locked my car, stuffed my keys in a pocket, and withdrew my gun before twisting the doorhandle.
I needn’t have worried: nothing jumped out at me. The rondavel was just as I remembered it from the times I’d visited with my family. Consisting of only one circular room, the floor was colourfully tiled, the walls inside painted a cream white and the beams holding up the thatch roof visible above. The side of the bed was pushed up against one curved wall, a small side table crammed in the gap between. There was a cooking area on the other side, made of homemade counters and cabinets, and a wood burning cook-stove I’d have to learn how to use. Paintings adding flair to the walls, large multi-paned windows, and a beautiful specimen of a fruit bowl on the provincial dining table…
It was good. I’d have to hand wash my clothes, and I had no cell service. But it was exactly what I’d wanted: an escape.
Pinned by the fruit bowl, my uncle had left instructions for me. I leant against the table and, finding the instructions covered four separate pages, snickered to myself. My uncle had written everything down, from how to work the generator and stove, through safety notes, to where was the nearest spot to buy food or get phone reception.
On the last page, there was a bulleted list headed by the words “And, Chickie, these are the rules. I tell you, don’t come crying to me if you don’t follow them”.
My eyebrow crept higher and higher up my forehead as a read the “rules”:
- Do not remove the bricks from under the bedposts
- Don’t leave out any food except curdled milk
- Keep a fire lit all night
- At night, hang up the amulet on the hook over the door and put down the trap outside the door. They’re in the left-hand cabinet.
- If you have any problems, wash with the bath salts I left in the bathroom
I put the papers down and went to check the bed, pulling the blankets up to see the bed’s legs. Yup. All four of them were propped up on two bricks each. I let the blankets fall.
My uncle was like anyone’s uncle: he had views I didn’t share. I had not thought, however, that his views extended to believing in the Tokoloshe, of all things. The revelation surprised me into laughter.
Some people – probably many – do believe in the Tokoloshe. For the rest of us, it’s a fun story to tell kids: don’t get out of bed at night or the Tokoloshe will get you! The most fearsome Tokoloshe I’d known had been my neighbour’s guard dog, named after the legendary sprite.
The legend of the Tokoloshe takes on many forms. It may kill you in your sleep or grab your ankles as you get out of bed. Or it may give you wonderful dreams – often sex dreams – though if you don’t drive the Tokoloshe away in time your life will be ruined. It could be mischievous or evil, thought to be created by a witch doctor, and existed as a result of jealousy.
Of all of them, the rule I recognised was to keep the bed up on bricks. The Tokoloshe was too small to reach you in your sleep if you did. Or, at least, that’s what I’d heard, when my parents had joked with me about it when I was a child. They’d just laughed when my childhood self had asked why, then, my bed had never been put up on bricks.
Putting it down to my uncle having spent too much time alone out here, I got up and went to find the gun safe. It was hidden below a counter, behind a draped tea towel. I followed the code my uncle had given me when he’d passed over the keys, punching it into the safe, then swung the door open.
I’d expected it to be empty, ready for my Glock. It wasn’t. I blinked at the gun already in there, then pulled a face.
I see the point in guns. My parents have one. I have one. But there were pistols and shotguns, and then there were notorious assault rifles.
The gun in the safe was a bloody AK-47. At least, I was pretty sure it was. And I was also pretty sure… it wasn’t a gun my uncle was, technically, allowed to have.
I swung the safe door back shut, my Glock still in its holster, and decided I’d come back to the gun safe later.
Bringing my stuff in from the car, I took the opportunity to check out the rest of the place. The shed was likewise heavily locked, and when I finally got the door open, it was to the confronting sight of an array of animal skulls hung from the ceiling to dangle over my head. Antelope, horse, cow; small creatures, massive ones, feline ones… and something I couldn’t quite identify. It looked like, perhaps, a small primate, though its jawbone seemed to have been blown off.
I was learning more and more about my uncle by the minute. And I wasn’t too sure I liked what I was learning.
Beneath this unsettling art installation was the generator. Piled up behind it was a massive stack of ancient farming equipment, and, stuffed in further away from the generator, enough firewood to keep me cooking for months to come. I took in the tools with appreciation, and the wash basin, washboard, and old-school mangle with rather a lot less.
I found the bath salts my uncle had mentioned in the serviceable bathroom. They were in a jar home-labelled “Bath Salts”. And the smell of them when I screwed off the lid… Well, I don’t think it was just salt. Rather than white granules, the mixture in the jar looked like vrot chutney: tarry and gritty, and honking like rotting carrion. I screwed it back shut and stuffed it away under the sink. Whatever weird stuff my uncle believed, there was no way I was washing myself with that.
It was the first of the “rules” I wasn’t going to follow. Between moving my stuff in and working out the stove, I came to sunset sweaty and tired. I’d thrown all the windows open to vent the extra heat the stove created, and was not going to leave the fire lit all night. The summer heat may dissipate overnight, but not enough for that.
I didn’t believe in amulets, and when I found the one in the left-hand cabinet, I didn’t want to hang that up either. It was a collection of animal horns, small bones, dangling metal bits, and hollowed stones strung on a leather thong. The skulls in the shed had made the place feel enough like a poacher’s hideout. I doubted my uncle had some rhino horn trade going on. But poaching and canned hunts were a dark mark on this country, and even just being made to think of it was distasteful to me.
The “trap”, however, wasn’t so offensive. It was made of thorns each as long as my hand, arranged in a spiral and tied together like the world’s least welcoming doormat. Any animal with small feet likely wasn’t about to be deterred, they could just step around the thorns, but I supposed it would cause a bigger creature significant pain if they stepped on it. So, my attitude tolerant, I stuck it outside the rondavel door, and, following another rule, made sure to clear away any food remains.
I wouldn’t take the bed down off its bricks either. As tempting as a great sex dream was, if there was, somehow, a Tokoloshe, having the bed elevated was the most common, and, likely then, effective, rule.
Readying for bed and more reassured by the heavily bolted door and barred windows, I opened the gun safe again and put my gun in. My Glock 17 looked petite beside the AK-47, but I shook it off and shut the safe door. Then I got into the bed-on-bricks and was out almost the moment my head hit the pillow.
In the early morning, needing the loo, I thankfully remembered the nasty welcome mat on my way to the bathroom. I changed where my foot was going a second before I stepped down on massive thorns in bare feet. A hasty hop over the mat, landing on the dirt outside, shocked me awake enough to really appreciate the African sunrise, making the sky glow pink and gold over the mountains. I watched it, feeling how huge and open the sky was out here, for as long a moment as I could before I had to race for the toilet, my bladder fit to burst.
In the morning, my growing misgivings of the previous evening evaporated. There was no way my uncle was hunting endangered animals – he was a staunch hater of poachers. He was just a bit weird, and liked displaying animal skulls he found in the veld.
I made myself eggs, luxuriating in the affluent provision of time provided by this being the first full day of my retreat. From the shed, I produced a well-used charcoal barbeque and a folding chair, and sat outside eating my breakfast in the morning wilderness.
I heaved my easel outside to paint what I saw. The barbeque I’d used as a table doubled, once I’d stuck a plywood board on top of it, as a side table for my paints. I’d thought to paint the mountains in the distance, the grassland in the foreground, with the aim to add to it a flash summer storm when one rolled into the valley. Instead, I found my focus captured by the footprints around the water trough, it half-full with collected rain.
My paintbrush sketched out my own footprints, where I’d run right through other tracks on my way to the loo that morning. It wasn’t something I’d noticed then, but the sunlight picked out the impressions of cloven hooves in the dirt: a group of impala having gone to drink from the trough sometime in the night. Without realising it, I’d skidded several of their footprints into obscurity that morning.
I shifted my easel aside to see more of the trough and the earth before it, wondering how best to capture the impressions in the rusty dirt. Doing so revealed another set of footprints. These were shallower, as though made by a lighter creature. Up near the trough, not yet evaporated by the sun, were discs in the sand where droplets of water had fallen around the footprints; the tread marks missing spots where sand would have clung to the creature’s wet feet.
Ostrich, perhaps? I thought, peering at the animal’s tracks. I found it funny to imagine an ostrich, large and stern-looking, having a bath in the rusted water trough; getting out dripping with water and stalking away.
Though I’d wanted to paint the summer storms, I spent that day immortalising the cross section of different footprints before the water trough, lit by the low morning sun; and the next, waiting for the first to dry a bit, painting the rondavel itself.
That first night I’d managed not to step on the thorn trap. The night after I managed it as well. On the third morning, waking up once again at sunrise needing the toilet, I wasn’t so clever.
My expletives broke the dawn quiet. I will swear to my dying day it startled a load of birds into the sky. Groggy and stumbling, grumbling aloud to the lone rondavel about the toilet being accessible only from outside, I’d shoved the door open and landed a bare foot straight onto those thorns.
This time, a quick reposition of my foot did nothing but drag the nasty welcome mat along with it. I could feel it jitter against the sand.
‘No – no – no – no!’ I whined, steadying myself against the doorframe as I cautiously lifted my foot up. The trap came with it for about five inches before finally choosing to part company with my flesh.
My teeth grit, I grimaced as I pulled my foot up so I could see it by the low light of the growing dawn. Two holes. One small, on the edge of my foot. The other deep and welling only slowly with blood.
‘OOOOOWWWW!’ I yelled. The sound seemed to ricochet off the distant mountains. Wobbling on one foot, I bent down, grabbed up that damn trap, and hurled it as far away as I could.
Then, tears filling my eyes, I had to decide whether I’d rather pee first, or dress my foot.
Miserable and hopping, I made it to the loo, and just stuck my foot in the shower.
Bandaged foot flat on the sand outside, I went back to work on my painting of the footprints with only a small photo on my phone to guide me. My hopping that morning had disturbed any footprints the night would have left.
By the time I caught that change in the air that indicated a coming afternoon storm, my foot was aching badly enough that I didn’t want to keep standing on it. Sitting just inside the rondavel door with my easel didn’t make it much better. In fact, I was pretty sure no longer being stood on it made my foot throb worse. I watched the rain come down outside wishing I could appreciate it more.
The storm rumbled and poured overhead, the thatch rattling with it above me. My painting was becoming something I was angry with, the light and shadow of it just not working. And I had no way to make the photo I was using any bigger.
My back ached as I arched up, sat on a kitchen chair, to reach the canvas. I pinched my shoulder blades together, irritated with myself for not enjoying this retreat as much as I wanted to. Irritated with my uncle for being stupid about childhood bedtime stories.
The storm poured, then passed overhead, off to drench another part of the veld. I didn’t try to move back outside. It was wet, and I was sore. I stuck my paintbrush aside, frustrated, and watched the world beyond the door lighten from its warm storm grey.
It took me a couple moments for my ears to tune in and pay attention to the sound of splashing. Slumping in my chair, gazing aimlessly at the wet dirt, I listened to the splashing, not ready to make anything of it yet.
A knock against old metal made a reverberant ruunnnggg. I blinked, and got up, wincing when my sore foot pressed against the tiles. Limping slightly, I approached the open door and looked out.
The splashing stopped. Confused, I looked for what might have made the sound. The wilderness around me, recovering from the deluge, was empty.
But it smelled great. I leant against the doorframe, finding that first ounce of enjoyment I’d been wanting in the afternoon.
A rustling pulled my attention to the side. There was movement: something small and brown. A scuttle forward, then a hasty stop and stare.
I started to breathe more quietly, and took stock of the door, ready to swing it shut. I didn’t want to. I’d rather stand there and watch – take photos for later. Absorb the sight.
But baboons were a big problem if they got inside your house. And it wasn’t just the one. It never was. They moved in groups. I watched two join the first, one with her baby cradled to her chest. Then another three came racing up, slowing to a stop behind the first few; standing watchful, ready to head forward as the rest of the troop caught up, sprinting over the wet grass.
They were clever beasts. Scratching, nattering, blasé, and mischievous little buggers. And as they were darting glances between me and the water trough, I was pretty sure they were after a drink.
As unobtrusively as I could, I reached for my phone. I got my fingers on it as the baboons started forwards, advancing together on the trough.
There – I got one photo of their cautious approach, then another.
With a sudden uproar of screeching, the baboons scattered – nothing more than fleeing hops through the long grass and tails whipping away to indicate they’d ever been there. I lowered my phone, bewildered. I certainly hadn’t scared them away, and I didn’t see what had.
But there was a noise. A low grumble; barely audible. I picked it up more and more. It seemed to rattle at something deep inside me. Like… it had found a thread of memory to rattle.
I was pretty sure I’d heard that sound before. Yet that was all it was: a sense of recognition. I didn’t know what caused the recognition, nor why.
But I heard the splashing again. Splishing and sploshing, like water being luxuriantly swished about inside the trough. There was nothing there. It didn’t matter how long I stared at the trough, I saw nothing that could be causing the sound. But, craning to look over the lip of the trough, I did see the water moving inside it.
The splashing and low grumbling had lasted for a little while, then just gone away. I looked later, when the ground had dried a bit, for a hole in the rusted metal of the trough, thinking perhaps the sounds had been caused by water escaping it. I even looked for some fish that just may have fallen out of the storm cloud. I found neither a miracle fish, nor a hole. The trough was still holding its water, calm and unoccupied.
The grumbling came back to me that night. In my dreamland, it was coming from the generator in my parent’s house, rumbling away to make it through the latest blackout as we laughed and chatted together for a family lunch. I woke up feeling warm and at ease, momentarily forgetting my sore foot and the stiff neck I was developing.
I was reminded of that the moment I got up to go to the loo.
‘This is kak,’ I muttered to myself, hobbling to the door, my foot throbbing badly. ‘It’s just kak.’
The dreams were back that night, and each the nights afterward, always with the low grumble of a generator in the background. Every one seemed a memory, one I’d forgotten or just not thought about for years, until the dreams recalled them like snippets from home videos: waking up early one morning as a child, my parents already awake and cooking breakfast, the generator humming away in the garage down the corridor; my teenage self chatting with a friend out in the garden not far from the garage; laughing with my uncle and aunts on the deck, the generator ensuring our dinner roast kept cooking in the oven…
That I had so many memories of times we’d used that generator said a lot about the sorry state of electricity provision in this country, but I didn’t mind the dreams. In fact, as the days went by, finishing the first week of my retreat and starting into the next, they became something I looked forward to.
It was likely that a part of it was loneliness, though it took me a while to admit that. I’d long thought myself someone who didn’t need as much company as others – who could happily live months out on my own. But there was an undeniable comfort, as the silence and solitude of the lone rondavel in the Highveld went on, in seeing the smiles and hearing the laughter of my friends and family in my dreams.
The other part of it was that being asleep was an escape from the ache-fuelled frustration of my waking hours. That generous provision of time ahead I’d enjoyed on my first day here was already feeling threatened as time went on, days ticking by, with me fighting with every effin’ painting I touched. Nothing looked the way I wanted it to – everything coming out childish, uninspired, drab and clumsy. Even my painting of the footprints before the trough, which had started off so inspired, was something I’d stuck under the bed where I couldn’t see it or punch a hole through the canvas.
And as my foot started, slowly but surely, to heal, the agonizing knots in my back and neck took over. Were I about seven centimetres shorter, my easel would be perfect. Were I painting in the fits and starts I was used to around work and life, it would be fine. But hours after hours stood before that easel was killing my back. I’d started to get nauseous from a neck so stiff I couldn’t move my head out of a hunched position without zings of pain.
Sitting on a chair before it was no better, though it did offer me the chance to strain up instead of hunch down. Plopping the painting flat on the plywood-covered braai outside didn’t do it either, and nor did sitting arse-down on the dirt outside with the canvas propped up on a chair. There was just nothing that felt natural about any of it.
I groaned low and irritated, and glowered at my painting. The chair made it too high as well, and my knees were still protesting from when I’d tried to sit on my heels to reach. On top of that, the baboons I’d painted looked like stuffed toys.
Cursing, I flopped onto my back in the rusty dirt and shut my eyes against the midday sun. Maybe I should just change my reason for being out here. Tell people instead of coming to paint, my aim was simply to get a deep tan. I could succeed at that one, at least.
The distant sound of movement in long grass had me opening my eyes and, slowly and carefully, looking over. I froze, barely daring to move lest I scared it off, and watched the zebra plod slowly up to the washing line, my drying clothes flapping lightly in the breeze.
The sun beating down from above, its light a pinkish orange – the juxtaposition of wild and manmade – it stirred that inspiration I’d thought was dying an infuriating death inside me. Trying hard not to startle the beast, I got a wealth of photos captured on my phone, then snuck into the rondavel to fetch a fresh canvas.
For the time the zebra was there, munching grass around the washing line, I barely felt the knots in my back and neck, my paintbrush flying over the canvas, catching the pose of the zebra before it moved, splashing paint onto the fabric to capture the colours.
But it did move off, and when I remembered my aches, it took a lot of courage to straighten my back again and raise my head.
I pinched an eye shut, my teeth clenched, as the mad zings of pain rocketed down my spine. Dumping my brush aside, I stepped back, pinching my neck muscles with vengeful fingers.
‘Owwww….’ I grumbled, and, moving my neck cautiously, eyed the bed.
It was the logical option. I could try to prop the easel up on firewood, but then it’d wobble. Bricks were the best option. And they were each about seven centimetres high.
It’d just be one layer of bricks, I told myself. And I could put them back before I left, so my uncle would never know.
I did take the bricks. And that one layer of bricks, stuck under the easel, made all the difference in the world.
And once I’d done it, the other four bricks under the bed felt like fair game when, that evening, I got tired of standing before the easel. So I pinched those too, shifted the easel off its makeshift stand, and piled them up two bricks high under a chair. That worked a dream, and, for the first night in a while, I smiled happily as I painted, loving the genteel face of the zebra appearing under my paintbrush.
I went to bed that night cheerful and satisfied in that way you can be when you left, up on the easel, something you’d smiled at before sticking your paintbrush in the terps for the night.
I languored in the feeling of my luck changing, and got into a position on the bed that would hopefully ease the knots in my neck and back. Comfortable enough, I shut my eyes and saw my painting behind my eyelids, picking out where to add to it, what I wanted where…
The windows had bars and fly screens over them. I’d left all of them open in the rondavel. Drifting in on a gentle zephyr were the quiet sounds of splashing. I wasn’t interested in getting up to see what was causing it this time, so I just let my sleepy mind absorb it like a memory of having a luxuriant bath.
The bath moved to a bedtime, cosy and warm in fresh sheets.
Thula thul, thula baba, thula sana,
Tul’ubab ‘uzobuya ekuseni
Thula thul, thula baba, thula sana,
Tul’ubab ‘uzobuya ekuseni
My small body curled around the fluffy cheetah I slept with. I rubbed my face against the little toy, revelling in the comforting feeling of its fur against my lips and forehead. The lullaby being sung to me, its tone gentle and loving, made me think of playing in open fields – hide and seek with my cousins, homemade doughnuts in the shade of a tree –
Much bigger and in rather a lot of pain, I jolted awake in the rondavel bed. Disorientated, I thought I heard a scuffle over the tiles as I launched for the bedside lamp and flicked it on.
Nothing there. The rondavel was locked, barred, and fly-screened against anything that may want to come in. Or go out.
But that didn’t stop me feeling like something was there. Like something wasn’t right. And I had a strong sense that… if I stepped out of bed something would grab my ankles.
Taking the bricks away had put Tokoloshe on my brain, I told myself. I was being stupid. Just a scared child in the night.
And that was exactly how I felt: like the child I once had been, my parents having fun at my expense as they told me spooky stories about the Tokoloshe before laughing when I, way back then, believed them.
Yet those stories had included tales about having good dreams when a Tokoloshe was targeting you. And I’d been getting good dreams – they weren’t the sex dreams you usually heard whispered about with the Tokoloshe, but they were good. They were dreams of things that felt like memories – that otherwise I couldn’t possibly have recalled. That dream had made me feel like I was three years old!
Jittering slightly, I got out of bed by hopping clear away from it and the treacherous gap of darkness underneath, took a breath to steady my nerves, and got down on hands and knees to look under the bed.
Nothing. Just the painting I’d shoved under there. A sense of something behind me had me whipping around, but there was nothing there either.
All the same, sleep felt, in the middle of that night, like it was off the table for at least a good few hours. So I fetched my gun out of the safe, wanting it like the child I had once been had wanted the security of my cheetah toy, put on some music, and went back to painting.
It was only late the next day that I noticed a small scratch on the side of my big toe. If I’d felt the sting before then, it hadn’t registered between the pain in my back and the single-minded focus I had on my painting.
I only noticed it when I went to change the bandage on my foot that evening. Unwinding the old bandage, stained with dirt on the bottom, my foot up in the kitchen sink, it took me then even a few moments to notice the scratch on my toe. I washed it off, checked how deep it was, and decided it wasn’t a big deal.
The scratch was shallow. I didn’t know when I’d acquired it, but that wasn’t surprising. Walking around barefoot outside, what I was surprised about was that I hadn’t scratched up my feet more.
Yet there was a niggling worry about the scratch in the back of my head. A niggling worry I dismissed. I hadn’t thought of last night’s fright at all that day, having woken up late and slept a dreamless sleep once I’d gone back to bed. I’d kept my gun on me, but just gotten down to my painting, watching it take shape before me as the Kongos drowned out the silence with their dulcet tones and driving drumbeats. I saw no new animals that day, likely driven away by the music blaring from my Bluetooth speakers. It couldn’t have been helped: I’d needed the silence gone that day, and had sung along as I painted.
But, with that first night, I’d set a precedent with waking in fear from good dreams. I woke with a start the next night too, the moment my unconscious recognised that I was enjoying the memory of the holiday in Namibia I’d taken some four years ago. It had been a raucous good time with two four wheel drives and six friends from university.
The next night wasn’t any better, nor the night after that, or the one after that. As much as I tried to talk myself down, explain aloud to myself that I was inventing a fear of good dreams, it didn’t stop me waking scared and jittery from them. I ran the battery on my Bluetooth speakers down listening to music or podcasts I had saved on my phone in an attempt to fall back asleep. And when the speakers died halfway through podcasters reading me fun facts, I switched off my phone, tucked my gun under the covers beside me, and started singing Thula Baba to myself.
That worked. Apparently, that lullaby still held sway over me – it had always worked when I was a kid. Over the next few nights, between not hearing any more scuttling in the night and using that song, I became desensitised to the fear of good dreams. Two and a half weeks into my retreat, two good paintings drying against the wall and five terrible ones hidden under the bed (partly in an attempt to stop anything nefarious hiding under there) I slept through the night and woke up without any memory of a dream.
I’d stopped playing music through the day. My speakers and phone charging from the solar panels, I sat that afternoon in the doorway of the rondavel happy as my third good painting took shape under my brush:
I had finally managed to paint the rain. Thick paint dressed the canvas, skidded along the fabric in a gritty cross hatching of brushstrokes – something I’d never done before, but gave a sense of the beautiful power of the storm that was pattering overhead; featured that burnt orange grey that was storm light… mixed just right on my palette.
Humid air blew in at me through the open door, making my hair tousle. I put my brush down, and glanced from outside to the canvas, wondering what I wanted to add to the painting. The thought that occurred to me instead was that I wanted a glass of wine.
A celebration. In the form of cracking open a bottle of chenin blanc.
‘Standing on the earth,’ I sang as the rain came down outside, ‘the sky is leaving… leaving us behind!’
I hummed to the pattering of raindrops, wineglass in one hand, paintbrush in the other. My back didn’t hurt anymore, and I bounced along to the song that felt heavenly inside my head.
‘Made our hearts feel as strong, as the African day!’ I may be a terrible singer, but there was no one around to hear as the storm cloud passed overhead and I belted, ‘Bye bye December African rain!’
It made me laugh with giddy glee, and I refilled my wineglass before returning to my painting.
I had no normal dinner that night. I trusted myself to paint tipsy. I didn’t trust myself to use the cook-stove tipsy. So I nibbled on bread dipped in olive oil and dukkah, and, when that was finished, dabbled in a plate of soft cheese and crackers.
Days of poor sleep and wine had me sleepy well before my usual bedtime. I closed and locked the door, put my finished painting safely away on a shelf, and crawled into bed.
The splashing in the trough outside was back as I lay there. I tuned it out, singing my lullaby to myself, and was soon off to sleep.
It wasn’t into a dreamless sleep that I slipped this time. But it wasn’t a normal memory either. Rather… it was a memory of a dream I’d had so long ago I’d forgotten it completely.
I recognised that near instantly, like smelling something you knew, before you worked out why. I was aware enough in the dream to choose to pay attention to the sense of undeniable familiarity – the Deja-Vu, even as dream me revolved on the spot, my white skirts billowing out around me, a circlet of flowers in my hair; a goddess in a field of flowers.
There was a man – long dark hair, leather jacket – walking up the field toward me. He split into a broad smile, and then I was running through a jungle – swinging on a vine just like Jane in Tarzan. I let go and my skirts flew up around me as I fell, my stomach full of butterflies – graceful and airborne until I wasn’t any longer; until I slipped gently into a crystalline pool, bordered on both sides by steep jungle rock.
He was there, stood in what was suddenly shallow waters, smiling and topless.
And I knew what this dream was. I knew where it was going – and I knew who I’d been when last I’d had it: thirteen and sure this was how love worked. I knew I was dreaming. I tried to wake – to shoot upright in bed. But it didn’t work.
I was running, in the dream. Or trying to. Fighting against what hadn’t been a strong current before, but was now, the pool a swift river, rushing against me as I tried to flee; flinging myself into it and trying to swim instead. Every move was slow, like trying to move in treacle.
And then something grabbed my ankle. Sharp teeth bit into my foot, and I was up, awake, and screeching in the midnight rondavel.
Something else startled at the foot of my bed. I’d kicked out. And now I flew onto my knees, staring into the dark as something – something – went scuttling away, not quite visible, but distorting the air around it as it moved.
‘OOOWWW!’ seemed to be what my mind came up with to scream. It was another couple heartbeats before I launched over to flick on the light.
I stared around – I even hung down to look under the bed – but whatever had been there wasn’t any longer.
So I freed my legs from the bedclothes and took a look at my foot. Not the bandaged one, this time. The other one. My previously unblemished foot sported three deep scores in the top of it, like claws had dug into my flesh and just pulled.
It was a couple hours still, after searching the rondavel with my gun cocked and ready, and, when I found nothing, dressing my foot in the sink, that I thought to pull out the paintings under the bed. I’d had that sense before that something was hiding under there, however wrong that sense had proved. I’d lain the paintings side-by-side, taking up all the room under the bed. And the oil paint on those I’d stacked on the top wasn’t fully dry yet.
I no longer thought that sense I’d had was wrong. I sat back on my heels, staring at the three paintings I had before me.
Across all three of them were footprints, sunken into the half-dry paint. Ones you could mistake for a young ostrich’s: some light spots able to be guessed were toes, the rest of the foot a lumpy indent. Only, there was no ostrich with feet that big that was fitting under the bed.
I waited out the unnerving darkness with my speakers and the first painting I’d tried, dry now, of the footprints before the trough. Somehow, painting into that the tracks I could see marched into three canvases helped me feel less freaked out about it all.
It was in the light of day that I noticed the plate, bearing nothing more than small crumbs now, left on the dining table. My cheese and crackers from the previous night. If I remembered correctly, I’d eaten almost all of the cheese, only one piece of it and some crackers left.
The last rule on my uncle’s list: “don’t leave out any food but curdled milk”.
I shuddered. With daylight to see by, I bent down, unwrapped the bandage around my foot, and stared at the three deep scores on it.
It wasn’t only the fresh cuts on my foot, though. I turned my foot to the side, and looked at my ankle. Those ones were faint, there: two faded scars I hadn’t thought about for nearly two decades. Scars that had just become… marks of childhood misadventure. All those times I’d run around in shorts and barefoot, needing to be patched up by my mother and her bottle of outdated mercurochrome…
I pulled up the jean cuff on my other leg. On my shin were three more scratches, long healed and nothing more than white lines now.
Part 2: A Childhood Nightmare
I couldn’t bring myself to wash in the “bath salts” my uncle had left in the bathroom. The longer I considered it, standing in that consummately normal bathroom, smelling the disgusting concoction, the more I felt silly for even considering it. And the more I was sure I wouldn’t be able to eat a thing with the smell that goo would leave on my skin. If I tried to smear that all over myself, I’d probably be back in here within two hours trying to scrub off the lingering scent with sandpaper.
I did look for the thorn trap, however. I didn’t remember where, exactly, I’d thrown it into the tall and yellowed grass, but I combed the area around the front of the rondavel for a solid half hour, searching for it. I didn’t find it.
So… I decided I’d just follow the other rules. After all, I hadn’t had problems until recently, even without following all five of them.
And then I felt stupid for thinking even that.
But as the sun slowly set outside, I put the amulet up on the hook over the door, its bones, horns, stones, and bits of metal knocking lightly against the wood of the door when I hooked up the leather thong. I made sure to tidy up all my dinner. And I shifted all of the bricks back under the bed’s legs.
I didn’t add more wood to the fireplace, though I didn’t smother it either. I let the embers that were left shine.
There was no breeze tonight, and the rondavel was stinking hot with the added warmth of those coals as I climbed on top of the bedsheets, my gun beside me. It would cool down, I knew. Give it a few hours and it’d be more comfortable in here.
The scratches on the top of my foot didn’t hurt as much as the deep hole the thorn had left in my sole. All the same, I was acutely aware of their presence.
For the scratches that had long been nothing more than old scars, I had no idea how I’d gotten them. It was like trying to remember a time when you were in nappies: it was memory that just didn’t exist. I don’t even remember speculating about those scratches.
I did speculate then, though, lying on the bed by the light of the lamp with my mind unable to focus on anything else. I dug and dug and dug, attempting to unearth the depths of my memory to no avail.
For all cognitive dissonance had me second guessing my own fear, I was wary of falling asleep, tired as I was. Every time I started to drift I’d jerk awake, my eyes glancing over to check the amulet was still hung above the door, the coals still aglow…
But having barely slept the night before, the drifting kept happening. I dozed, and the darkness behind my eyes wished and washed with stray thoughts, until it settled on an image.
It felt like my eyes were open, staring at the base of the bed. Only it wasn’t the bed I knew I was sleeping in. I recognised the pile of stuffed toys I’d always slept with near my feet as a kid. But the bed wasn’t my childhood bed. It was a low and narrow bunk set under a window.
I assumed the fuzzy brown thing by my feet was just another toy. It didn’t startle me at first. I just looked at it, my head peacefully foggy.
It dawned on me only slowly that it wasn’t one of my toys. That realisation clicked about two seconds before the thing started to move.
There was no sound in my throat. I went to scream but nothing came out. I just started backing up, squirming over the bed, as the thing sidled up towards me on bent legs. Its eyes, close set and bugging out, glared at me, beetle black and glinting in the shine from some low light somewhere. Its arms, skinny and with only three fingers and a weirdly long thumb, were topped by claws that dug into my blankets.
It squatted on legs five times larger and more powerful than its arms, clawed toes curling, and its lips split open. Jagged teeth grinned back at me in a neat row, and my lungs finally filled with air.
Though I was screaming in my dream, I came awake with just a gasp. I shoved up onto my elbows and stared down at the foot of the bed. Nothing. I looked around, crawling backwards to sit up against the headboard. Empty. Or… to my eyes at least.
Only children can see the Tokoloshe.
I don’t know who told me that, or when. But it was there in my head, a half-forgotten snippet.
A shiver went down my spine. I’d like to think it was just a dream, made up by an exhausted imagination. But I knew it wasn’t.
If I’d been asked even the second before I’d fallen asleep, I’d have said I had no memory of that. But now I’d relived it, I couldn’t deny it. Where I’d been – where that narrow bed was – I couldn’t remember. But I knew, many years ago, I’d seen that thing at the base of it.
A splashing outside had me clamming up, every muscle in my body going taught. It didn’t matter that I knew I wouldn’t see anything, I was afraid to look.
But then, if it was outside… It wasn’t in the room with me.
I took a deep breath, and looked out the window. I could see the water trough. And… it wasn’t as though there was nothing there. There was something: like a hazy distortion in the air.
Only children could see it. Yet it had been becoming more visible to me.
I took a steadier breath, and started to sing quietly. It was just an idea: Thula Baba had always reminded me of being a child. I sang it to the sounds of splashing coming from outside, my voice slowly growing stronger even as my idea proved correct: it took a few renditions of the song, but it was as though being able to see it more made it exponentially easier to focus on.
And my singing made the creature in the water trough look over at me. My voice died away when the thing was clear enough for me to see its eyes. Beetle black and bugging out.
But this wasn’t the same creature as the one I remembered. Or, at least, it didn’t look the same. This one was near hairless, its skin looking scarred and scabby, just some fluff left over in patches. And, in the centre of its forehead, there was a… It looked like a hole that had healed over. A deep hole. The skin puckered around it. As though someone had shot the thing right through the head and it hadn’t died.
If that was the case… I had my gun right next to me. And I’d been thinking to go grab that AK47 and try to pick the creature off at more of a distance. But if that was a gunshot wound, in the head of a legendary sprite, then… I hadn’t high hopes of either weapon being of any use.
I gripped my gun all the same, and I probably would have shot right through the fly screen if it had come running toward me. But it didn’t. It just started producing that low grumbling noise again, like a running generator, and stared back at me for a while longer, before returning to its bath.
Though it looked up at me time and time again, evaluating me from the trough, it didn’t come at me even when it was done its bath. It hopped out on the side facing away from the rondavel and scuttled off into the grass.
For a solid while after it had left, I sat on the bed wandering what to do. My fingers had gripped around the handle of my gun, but I was far from convinced about using it.
It didn’t actually matter whether that hole in the creature’s forehead was a survived headshot or not. Unless I was completely losing my marbles, I was thinking of defending myself against a thing that could be invisible and make you have great sex dreams with a gun. I didn’t need the fact that my uncle had resorted to witch doctor bath salts to tell me he hadn’t found the AK47 in the gun safe a very effective weapon against it.
The gun was a last resort, then, I decided. I’d survived the thing – a Tokoloshe – when I was a kid. I was pretty sure, now, it had left the scars on my legs. But I hadn’t died, had I? So…
The amulet was hanging over the door, the bed was up on bricks, and there were still red coals in the fireplace. Maybe…
I got out of bed and opened the little fridge.
Don’t leave out any food but curdled milk. Well, the closest I had to curdled milk was cheese. I deliberated for a few minutes longer before deciding on it and pulling out a block of cheddar.
A peace offering, perhaps? If I put out cheese for it, maybe it’d chill out. Maybe it was attracted to this place because it had once been a dairy farm or something, I thought, talking myself into it. Maybe the Tokoloshe liked milk products and would be kinder to me if I gave it some.
Fairly sure I was just making things up to soothe myself, I chopped up some cheddar all the same, put it on a plate, and stuck it just outside the door. There, I thought, shutting the door, now the creature wouldn’t even feel the need to come inside the rondavel.
I didn’t believe myself much. But I did think it was worth a try when I was up against… something I’d long thought was merely a scary bedtime story for children.
I put on a podcast, and, with every passing hour of nothing happening, no sometimes-invisible demon sprite appearing, and the people on my podcast laughing with each other, I started to feel silly for worrying again.
I fell asleep eventually, and woke, after a long and dreamless sleep, in the bright light of late morning.
Those first few moments of waking were blissfully free of my night-time worries. But it didn’t last.
I noticed something was strewn over the blankets as I went to get up to use the loo. I stalled, then retracted my legs only slowly from the lower half of the bed.
Small bones, animal horns with holes bored into their bases, metal disks, and stones turned into beads… They were scattered, as though carefully placed evenly apart, around where my legs had lain while I’d slept.
I shot a look at where I’d left the amulet hanging. The hook was still there above the locked door. Nothing dangled from it. I found the leather thong, snapped in half, draped over the pillow where my head had been moments before.
A shudder ran down my spine and my eyes prickled with tears.
That scabby, scarred and sharp-toothed creature… had been on my bed last night. Placing, carefully around me, the bits of the broken amulet I’d hung up to keep it out.
I shuddered again and leapt out of the bed, turning to stare at the scene with my arms crossed tightly across my chest.
What did it mean? Why would it do that? Was it a warning? Would it strangle me with the leather cord if I hung the amulet up again?
Well I certainly wasn’t going to hang it up again. That amulet had obviously done sweet fuck all to keep the Tokoloshe out.
It was only once I’d gathered my wits in the shower that I had the nerve to tidy the broken amulet away. And once I’d done that, I noticed what else the Tokoloshe had turned its hand to while I’d been sleeping.
The plate I’d put cheese on had been moved from outside the door to the dining table, all the cheese I’d left on it gone. And my painting of the footprints before the trough… had been added to.
I’d checked my feet and legs. The creature hadn’t scratched me again. It had put its claws to other uses, though. I had to sit down and stare at my painting for a long few moments, bewildered.
I’d been scraping away paint over the grass to detail single blades. I’d only done some of it by the time I’d gone to bed the previous night. It looked like something with lengthy claws had… helped me out. Many new blades of grass had been detailed. And it looked good.
Not only that. Into the footprints I’d originally thought ostrich, the Tokoloshe had added faint claw marks. By pressing some into the paint. And it hadn’t done it to ruin the painting either. It looked a lot more like… it just wanted the footprints to be a better representation, and so had added imprints from its toenails to it.
The broken amulet… Adding claw marks to a painting of its own footprints… It said one thing to me, and begged a worrying question: this creature had human-like intelligence, and was it threatening me?
I swallowed hard and looked out the open rondavel door. There was nothing there, but… The plate hadn’t been damaged. It had just been put on the table. No cheese was flung about outside. I hadn’t been harmed in the night…
Maybe, a truce?
‘So you like cheese?’ I called to the empty African landscape.
I spent the day listening to music and podcasts, keeping my mind occupied with the sounds of human voices. Trying, I suppose, to keep my sanity. And when both my phone and speakers ran out of battery and it was a little while before they charged enough to wake up again, I sang aloud to myself as I painted.
I hadn’t gotten rid of the Tokoloshe’s claw marks. Maybe, in part, I was scared to, in case it offended the creature. But that wasn’t the only reason. The other side of it was that I kind of liked its additions to the painting.
So I added to them, giving the claw marks light and shadow. I left the painting there, not all of the grass detailed the way I’d planned to make it, and put it aside, on the floor and leant up against a wall where, if the Tokoloshe wanted to – as mad as that sounded – it could add a bit more. Then, Tokoloshe on the brain, I started painting a small creature squatted on the base of a bed, the soft glow of night lighting it from the side.
It was a strange thing to do, to paint a creature from your nightmares – stranger still to find I was approaching doing so in a way that didn’t depict the Tokoloshe as just a terrifying demon. I’d set out to make it a demon, but when I tried it, it came out derivative and boring. In an attempt to make it more interesting, I found my memory of first thinking it a stuffed toy a great source of inspiration: adding a sweet fluffiness to the creature, to jar with the frightening teeth, and softening the eyes of the bizarre beast squatting on large legs, its clawed toes sunk into the blankets and its short and skinny arms curled to its chest.
I’d shut the broken amulet back away in the cabinet and left the coals burning after dinner. Once I was done painting for the night, I moved the bricks back under the legs of the bed – though, considering where the amulet pieces had ended up the previous night, I no longer had high hopes of the Tokoloshe being too short to climb up.
And, once again, I cut up some cheese to leave out. This time, though, I just put it on the table where the creature had left the plate when it was done. If all the cheese was gone in morning… then it was definitely a mythical sprite that could get into a locked rondavel, not any other creature, that was eating it.
I knew, doing all this, I was finding ways to settle myself, telling myself all this would work. But doing that was working. Using the refreshed battery life of my phone, I fell asleep to what was fast proving a limited store of podcasts. The last thought in my head before I was out like a light was that I may have to start re-listening to some of them.
This time, there were no amulet pieces scattered around the bed when I woke. I sat up looking for things odd and out of place, and saw nothing like that.
The plate on the table was empty of cheese, as I’d rather expected it to be. And, from the bed, that was all I saw that was different.
I got up and checked myself over. No scratches. Then I checked the painting I’d left on the floor.
Maybe it was a heartening sign, maybe not, but more blades of grass had been scraped into the paint. Quite a few of them, added to my painting in an artistic array.
Feeling validated in my new approach, I took myself to the bathroom with a spring in my step as the copper sun rose over the mountains, shooting the huge sky with pink and gold. I hadn’t even had a single dream.
I listened to music, painting the mystery that was the Tokoloshe, until my devices ran out of battery again. Hooking them up to the single outlet by the bed, I poured a glass of wine and hummed quietly to myself just inside the door as I painted, the sky outside growing beautifully gloomy with another afternoon storm.
I’d lost track of humming, focused on painting detail into the Tokoloshe’s face. Hearing humming, leant in close and adding shine to the eyes, it took me a solid moment to realise… it wasn’t me who was making it.
I straightened up only slowly, my paintbrush drooping in my fingers, listening hard. The storm had passed away overhead, outside quiet but for the blades of grass, laden with raindrops, easing back up to stand upright.
And the humming.
I could have sung along. I knew the song. Knew it very well, as it was one I’d hummed or sang to myself frequently as the summer storms had rained down on the thatch rondavel.
‘’Till I stood lost upon that shore…’ I more mouthed than sang, staring out at the nothing outside. ‘Naked and alone… Bye bye December African Rain…’
I thought I knew what might be humming. The same thing that could replicate the sound of a running generator as it had a bath in a rusted old water trough.
But I didn’t see the Tokoloshe. The humming faded away into the distance, left like a drift on the light breeze.
Part 3: No One Likes Blue Cheese
I didn’t put the bricks back under the bed that night. I didn’t see the point, and I wanted to test, to the next level, that my strategy was working. I put out cheese in the same place as the previous night, and went to sleep with the only light in the rondavel the glowing coals in the stove, and the only sound the splashing in the trough outside.
And I dreamed of nothing. I woke comfortable and without pain, to the sight of the plate once again empty. And when I sat to my painting, I noticed it, rather than the one still on the floor, had been added to.
In the centre of the Tokoloshe’s brown fuzz forehead was a clumsy circle of cross-hatched black paint. In the leftover dollop of black on my palette were the marks of claws, and I found black paint likewise left in smudges on the cheese plate, a chair, and the floor beside my easel.
Oil paint was a pain not to get everywhere, I thought, rather sympathetically. Thankfully, it was also easy to wipe off varnished wood, ceramic, and tiles.
But, despite the Tokoloshe getting paint on those surfaces, it appeared to have been careful with my painting. The only black was in that circle on the squatted creature’s forehead.
It reminded me of my thoughts of gunshot wounds. Reminded me of how my first sighting of the sprite, all those years ago, had been of a creature that could look cute… if it wasn’t scratching you or bearing its teeth.
I picked up my paintbrush, and scooped off the excess black paint. In its stead, I painted in the puckered scar, emerging from the fur of the beast’s forehead.
My speakers and phone gave out halfway through detailing the scar. And when I plugged them in, this time they only charged for a minute before the symbol on my phone disappeared.
Solar powered battery drained, I assumed. It wasn’t wholly surprising. I’d been drawing more power recently, running audio all day long.
I considered doing without music for the rest of the day. But the rest of the day was almost all of it, and, admittedly, I’d grown increasingly sensitive to silence the longer I’d been out here. A part of me – a part larger than I’d expected it to be – craved human voices. Craved them enough to accept that the wildlife I wanted to paint would be scared off by them.
Plus, the power was off in the fridge as well.
‘Right,’ I said, speaking aloud to myself to add a human voice to the quiet, ‘generator it is, then.’
I bowed my head the moment I entered the shed, looking to not let any part of my hair touch the dangling animal skulls. The generator wasn’t the same make as the one I’d grown up with, but my uncle’s notes had been clear, and I found the pull cord start quickly. Just like starting a petrol lawnmower, my uncle had advised. Well, I knew how to do that. So I grabbed the toggle, and yanked the string.
The generator whirred to life, chewing up diesel to power my devices. I had just a second to feel bad about that.
There was an abrupt whack and clatter from behind the generator. I startled, smacking my head on a skull. And stared, the skull bouncing back and forth against my head.
Something had upset an ancient pail from the stack of old farming equipment. I watched it skitter across the floor, a pitchfork tipping and landing next to it.
‘Ow…’ I said belatedly, ducking again and rubbing my head where I’d knocked it on the creepy skull.
Then I dropped my hand. There’d been a twitch of movement behind the stack of farm tools. I stared, seeing, emerging from behind it, first what I thought was a bent leg, scabby and furless, then, popping out to peek at me for only a second, a face with big bugging black eyes.
The thing disappeared the moment I saw those eyes. I breathed quickly and quietly, but I wasn’t really afraid. Not when I’d seen the other creature seem scared. Like realising the spider was more scared of you than you were of it, my fear dimmed, replaced by mere wariness. I took stock of the gun in my holster. But if I shot any living creature tonight, it would be the first time in my life.
Over the generator’s spluttering start, working up to a grinding grumble, I cleared my throat, then began to hum.
Thula Baba was the song I began with. That was what had let me see the Tokoloshe the last time. I grew doubtful, as I went on, that this time I wasn’t seeing the creature because it was usually invisible to adults. I’d seen the leg. I’d seen the face.
Maybe… the small sprite was just hiding.
I changed tack, starting to hum December African Rain instead. Not trying to make myself look with child eyes, but trying, fuelled by some inexplicable curiosity, to encourage the beast to let me see it.
Rounding the generator, walking in quiet paces, I hummed the song it had hummed back at me. I edged nearer the stack of farming equipment, my head dipping in an attempt to see around it.
Nothing, nothing… I got a peek near the wall, and saw the farming tools were right up against it, no room for the Tokoloshe to hide.
My humming faltered. Was… I actually just losing it, alone out here? Like I’d thought my uncle had been?
A noise behind me made me stiffen, though only momentarily. I turned around, moving slowly, and looked.
The farm tools might be shoved up against the wall, but the firewood was contained in a rack. There was a dark gap, smaller than I’d thought the creature could fit in, between wall and firewood. And peering back at me were beetle black eyes that shined brighter than the darkness that surrounded it.
I swallowed, and restarted my humming. It was my way of saying “Hi there, Mr Tokoloshe. Please don’t gouge out my eyeballs. I actually really don’t want to shoot something that I think can survive a headshot. That’d probably just piss you off, and I don’t know how to use the bigger gun… that probably wouldn’t kill you either.”
I had a chance to try to say all of that with my humming, at times the pitch of it racking up as the eyes shifted position, unnerving and still staring back at me. The creature wasn’t keen on relaxing, and I felt more and more like I was in a wary standoff, neither of us quite trusting each other.
It made me relax just a bit. Made me relax for about two seconds before the thing suddenly scuttled forward into the light, walking on what seemed to be permanently squatted legs. I squeaked, and jumped a little, but that didn’t seem to startle the Tokoloshe any more than to make it freeze in place. It stared back at me, lit by the light from the open door, as I forced myself to go back to humming.
The creature’s skin seemed to have lost even more fur – or, perhaps, in the daylight from outside, I could just see it better. For the first time, I noticed ears that flopped like a Labrador dog’s, covered in awful looking yellowish scabs. I saw a section of raw pink skin near that unsettling healed hole in the creature’s forehead.
The one I’d seen as a child had been furry. I was sure of that. Soft-looking brown fur. Enough like a toy that I’d mistaken it for one.
Mange, I wondered. Did the Tokoloshe… just have mange?
I opened my mouth, maybe to say that aloud to the creature like I might to a stray dog – but I choked back the word. The Tokoloshe, incredibly fast on its squat legs and able to fit into narrower gaps than it should, had disappeared – retreated in the blink of an eye back behind the firewood. I couldn’t even see its eyes anymore.
I didn’t find the creature after that, though I tried my humming for a while longer. On my way out, my eyes latched onto the skull I’d smacked my head on. It was the one that I’d thought a small primate, with the missing jaw.
On closer inspection, I was pretty sure the jaw had been blown off, perhaps by a gunshot. There were marks on the rest of the skull that made me think it wasn’t just decomposition that had separated mandible from cranium.
There was no sign of a hole on the forehead of that skull. But looking at it with a more informed gaze… It was about the right size and shape to be the same sort of creature as the one I’d just hummed to.
I finished my painting of the Tokoloshe I remembered from my childhood with music playing, hoping the human voices would offer a bit of rationality if I was starting to imagine things. It didn’t, and when I finished the painting, I switched off the music and considered what I’d painted. Then I picked the painting up and put it on the floor beside the one of the creature’s footprints.
That night, I cut up and plated the last of the cheese, and went to bed with my gun not beside me, but locked in the safe.
There were no changes to either painting when I awoke, but outside there was the sound of splashing.
I was out of cheese, the Tokoloshe having eaten the last of it in the night. And I wanted to buy more than just cheese. I started up my car the moment the Tokoloshe finished its morning bath and scurried off into the grass, and drove away from the rondavel for the first time in what was now weeks.
I drove further than I’d need to if I was only looking to buy food, finding cell service first, then the nearest town with a veterinarian.
‘Why don’t you bring it in?’ the vet asked me, when I stepped into a last-minute appointment with no pet in tow. ‘I’ll have a look and see if it’s mange.’
‘I can’t,’ I said, feeling awkward. How often did people go to vets with a request for Tokoloshe mange ointment? ‘It’s not mine… A stray dog,’ I decided, as the vet frowned at me. ‘What’s the best way of treating it then? It’s a bit skittish.’
Next to never, was the answer to how often people asked a vet for stray dog mange treatment. I’d imagine, then, that for a Tokoloshe the answer was a consummate never. But I got what I was after, and picked up a lot of cheese on my way home.
Something called a “dip” and a pill: that was what would treat mange in a stray dog. I eyed the trough, the bottle containing the dip concentrate in my hand. I wasn’t at all sure the Tokoloshe would climb into the trough when it stank like the stuff in the bottle – and I was a bit worried it might think I was trying to poison it. But, thinking I’d put out more cheese than usual tonight, I threw caution to the wind and poured an estimated amount of the concentrate into the trough. And then I pulled the wash basin out of the shed, rinsed it out really well, filled it with fresh bore water, and stuck it right next to the stinky trough. There was no way I was depriving the wild animals out here of their drinking water, and maybe the Tokoloshe would recognise I wasn’t trying to poison it if I put nice water out as well.
Then I picked up my paintbrush, more to pass the time before the Tokoloshe might appear than any real interest in painting something in particular.
The morning, out in the bustle of human company, had made my afternoon back in the quiet solitude of the rondavel seem a stark contrast. But I didn’t put on my music, and I didn’t play a podcast. Not today. Maybe it seemed easier because I’d gotten a small social fill that morning. In larger part, it was easier because I didn’t want to scare anything off today.
So I sang and hummed, returning to December African Rain time after time as I painted. And what was taking shape under my brush wasn’t any painting I’d catalogue in my body of work.
I’d painted each of the cheeses I’d bought, put side-by-side like a menu of six different choices. I knew I was doing it for the Tokoloshe when I started, and it still didn’t seem like too stupid idea by the time I put the painting down on the floor, leant against the wall, for the night. The creature was smart. Why couldn’t they tell me which cheese they preferred?
On a plate, I arranged each of the cheese options like a slightly peculiar cheese board at a function: brie, cottage (it seemed like curdled milk to me), cheddar, Havarti, mozzarella, and blue. And into the cheddar and brie, taking an uneducated guess as to which it might eat first, I stuck each of the two halves of the anti-mange tablet.
‘You’d so better exist!’ I called out the window to the Tokoloshe as I set the plate on the table.
I lay down to sleep, the lamp out, but my ears were open, waiting – or hoping – for the sound of splashing.
I must have dozed off twice by the time I heard something outside the window. It wasn’t splashing, but it had me sitting up in bed and leaning to see out.
It was the low grumbling of a generator. And the generator wasn’t running. It took me a moment to spot it, but the Tokoloshe was there, standing on squatted legs, a short distance from the trough.
What I wanted to say was that it was okay. That I was trying to help it. So I attempted that, by singing, loudly enough for it to hear.
‘Bye bye December African rain! The long gone summer has passed and I hear the elves calling my name…’
The Tokoloshe had looked over at me, those black eyes like deep empty pools in its face, surrounded by painful-looking skin. I kept at it, singing to the creature, trying to tell it I really, honestly, wasn’t trying to poison it.
And it worked. It took a good while, but it worked. And I kept on singing as the Tokoloshe slouched over to the wash basin, took a sniff of it, then shuffled over to the trough. I watched – realising just why putting a bed up on only two bricks did a lot less than I’d been assured – as those powerful back legs extended and the Tokoloshe grabbed the top of the trough. It climbed, pulling itself into the mange dip I’d filled the water with.
It bathed, sploshing the treated water over itself, and I sang. And sang. To the only creature in the world that actually appeared to appreciate my terrible singing.
And when the Tokoloshe got out, it hopped itself straight into the wash basin of clean water. Tired and wary as I was, I could’ve laughed aloud.
‘Well there goes my plans for leaving out clean water,’ I told the sprite, and it seemed to listen, staring back at me. ‘I’ll just refill it in the morning,’ I assured the Tokoloshe, and, lying down in bed, went back to my singing.
For the first time in a few days, this night I dreamed. I dreamed of the grass and small trees of the veld; felt myself running with my two cousins – heard a call for doughnuts.
But this time, the dream didn’t end at eating them in the shade. This time a much younger me was brought a glass of milk by my mother, her carrying it out of a caravan for me. A caravan that was parked right next to a rusty red rondavel in the middle of a broad valley surrounded by mountains; a bathroom tacked on the side and an old water trough out the front.
My mother laughed to my aunt about how much I loved milk. But I knew I didn’t just want the milk for me. I wanted it for the furry animal I’d seen in the grass while I’d been playing. My cousins had started squabbling with each other. Not interested in the fight, I walked over to where I’d seen the fuzzy thing.
It was tucked behind a tree. I sung out to it, soothing the timid creature with the lullaby I’d been soothed with time after time. The day was hot, baking under a summer sun, and the milk was cold. The creature stayed, staring up at me with big black eyes, as I hunkered down and offered it the milk.
I woke with a start, the light of early dawn just starting to filter into the rondavel. My shin stung, but when I ran my fingers over it, it didn’t seem I’d been badly scratched.
I hadn’t. By the light of the bathroom, I saw a single pink line on my skin, nothing more. Standing just outside the bathroom, I watched the sunrise as I considered.
That dream had been another forgotten memory, I was sure. And it explained a lot. The low and narrow bed, filled with my childhood toys – I was certain now that had been in the caravan. Parked right here, on the grass before the rondavel.
For the rest of it, I wasn’t sure. It was old and well buried memories, all of it. But it had me wondering.
I hurried back into the rondavel. The cheese plate I’d left out was nearly empty. What was left was most of the blue cheese, only a bite by sharp teeth taken out of that one. And beside the plate were two halves of a tablet, cleaned of cheese and spat out.
On the floor I saw paint in tracks from where I’d left my palette to where I’d propped up my menu painting of cheese.
Five of the six cheeses had been left as I’d painted them. Into the blue cheese, the Tokoloshe had drawn a simple cylinder in black paint. It was a little wider at the top, and around the centre of it, the paint I’d used for the cheese had been scratched back to only an impression of itself.
What it looked like to me was a glass of milk. I figured I got the message.
‘Okay,’ I called out the open door. ‘You can have some milk! Donno who’s going to eat the blue cheese then,’ I added, more to myself. ‘I don’t like it either. And you need to eat the pill!’ I said, as an afterthought called out the door again. ‘It’s for the mange!’
Getting an idea, I grabbed a fresh canvas and started yet another painting. On one side I painted the Tokoloshe as it was now, scabby and sore. I made it look sad. On the other side, I painted a furry Tokoloshe, a pill on one side of it and a trough on the other. I made that one look happy.
And I think the little creature understood that. As it scratched out the first Tokoloshe that night.
It ate every pill I gave it after that – or, at least, they weren’t spat out on the table when I woke up. When I refilled the trough with the second dose of mange dip a week later, the Tokoloshe hopped up into it and had a bath barely an hour after I went back into the rondavel to wait.
I didn’t put my music on again, but I would hum and sing to myself at times. And sometimes the Tokoloshe hummed back. It learned a few more tunes, and I even heard it humming Thula Baba to me as I went off to sleep one night. But its favourite was still December African Rain, and I’d snicker to myself and sing along every time I heard the humming emerge from the grass.
It became a bit like having a companion, just one that hid if I got close.
‘Do you ever sleep?’ I asked, standing outside and finishing my painting of the herd of impala I’d seen the previous morning.
I was pretty sure, as intelligent as the Tokoloshe was, human speech was a bit beyond it. It responded with a tune I recognised as a Kongos song. I picked out where it was in the grass, some several meters away from me, crouched and hiding. From what I could see, its skin was looking better.
That night, I was woken by a piercing scream. I shot straight upright in bed, eyes wide and listening out.
Coming through the window was a sound like a low whine. Then, much louder and sounding scarily like my own voice, a scream of ‘OOOOOWWWWW!’
I flew out of bed and scrabbled with the locks, rushing to get it open. A crescent moon was out, casting the veld in low light. I scanned the grass, searching.
‘Where are you?’ I called.
I caught the lingering train of a whine, but couldn’t tell where it was coming from. I started singing, making it as reassuring as possible.
There. I followed the sound, hurrying over as I kept up my singing. I trudged into the long grass, it scraping my feet and tickling my knees. I heard a shuffling up ahead, and headed for it, slowing down as I got closer.
The Tokoloshe was there, its head up and staring at me as I approached. Not scuttling away, but waiting for me, making its low whine. I hunched down, keeping eye contact and just edging now, and parted the grass before it.
One of its large, clawed feet was stuck on something. I saw the leg extended, as though it had tried to pull away. Singing my reassurance, I pushed away grass lower down, looking for the source of its pain.
I spotted the rest of the thorns first, poking up and treacherous through the grass. It filled me with a deep guilt, and I swallowed, briefly lapsing my singing.
I’d forgotten about the thorn trap I’d gooied into the grass.
The Tokoloshe picked up where I’d left off. As though it knew I was there to help, it had stopped whining. Instead, it hummed back at me, singing a song about wishing the summer rains a fond farewell.
Reassured it wasn’t going to flip if I got closer, I eased down into a squat and reached out a gentle hand. The Tokoloshe’s leg was warm and soft with the light fuzz of regrowing fur. It jerked a little when I touched it, but otherwise stayed still, watching me closely with those big eyes. Eyes that looked, now, far from creepy and bugging. They looked warmer, like how I’d painted them from my childhood memory. Its ears gave a nervous twitch.
‘It’s okay, Tokkie,’ I said softly. ‘You know I’m helping… I’ll give you extra cheese too. The brie one you like… And a dish of milk.’
It was only one thorn in the Tokoloshe’s foot, but it had gone deep. I could see the end poking just out of the top of its foot.
For a creature I was decently sure was at least as old as I was, ran about barefoot, and who I still suspected had survived a headshot, the Tokoloshe’s feet were surprisingly soft-skinned between the roughened patches.
Reaching carefully, I grabbed the thorn trap below its foot. Humming along with Tokkie, I eased its foot up. Its own humming cut off in a low cry, its teeth flashing in a pained grimace.
I sung on, easing further until, finally, Tokkie’s foot came free. The sprite sprang back, then yelped another ‘Ow!’ as it landed on that foot.
‘Ooh… I know, little one,’ I said, guilty. I stood up slowly, the trap in one hand, and grimaced. ‘Sorry, Tokkie… that was my fault…’
I’d half expected the Tokoloshe to run off. But it didn’t. Maybe it was too sore to. Or maybe this spoke of a new breakthrough in trust.
‘Milk?’ I suggested, and mimed drinking a glass.
Tokkie just stared back at me. The look wasn’t accusatory, so, humming our song, I led the way back to the rondavel, taking the thorn trap with me. I didn’t want anything else to step on the bloody thing.
It was limping steps that started after me. I glanced back, and smiled at the sight of the little beast coming with.
I thought trying to dress its foot might be a step too far, and it seemed I wouldn’t need to. Tokkie had its own idea of what to do for it. While I went back into the rondavel and stuffed the trap away in the cabinet, the Tokoloshe climbed itself gingerly into the water trough. It was just clean water in there now, and I watched it wash its foot carefully as I fetched out a bowl and the milk.
Leaving the dish on the table with the cheese plate (two more lumps of brie added to it) I locked up and got back into bed. I didn’t need to leave the door open for the Tokoloshe, and it knew that.
Through the window near the bed, I watched it start licking its sore foot with a surprisingly long, cute, and pink tongue. That seemed to offer it some relief, as when it climbed out of the trough and made its way over to the rondavel, it wasn’t limping as badly as before. I lost sight of it before I heard its quiet footsteps on the tile floor.
‘Still have no idea how you do that,’ I whispered to the little creature.
Its footsteps paused, but it wasn’t put off. I watched it climb onto a chair by its midnight meal. It seemed to eat the firmer bits of cheese with its fingers, and softer ones by just leaning down and biting it up. I chuckled a little, watching that pink tongue start lapping up the residue on the plate. It glanced at me then, and chuckled right back – which was a bit unnerving, coming from that sharp-toothed mouth, but I was sure it was a friendly gesture.
The Tokoloshe was no stranger after that. And it got bolder and bolder as the days marched on. Headed for my usual early morning trip to the bathroom, I got out of bed sleepy and grumbling – and just about screamed all the animals out of the Highveld when long fingers wrapped around my ankle and hung on.
From under the bed, sounding very much like my own voice, the Tokoloshe chuckled.
It had released my ankle. Getting down on all fours, I glared under the bed at it. It grinned its sharp teeth back at me.
‘No milk for you tonight,’ I threatened.
I got another chuckle as a response.
I didn’t make good on that threat, and it wasn’t the last time Tokkie did that. It became something I, very slowly, got used to.
During the day, the Tokoloshe would come back from what I’d started calling “its wanders” to sit beside me as I painted. I was pretty sure it knew what I was trying to do, and found that confirmed on a day in the second last week of my retreat.
There hadn’t been many animals around lately, so I’d been trying to paint a heard of elephant from imagination. The elephant under my brush was a mess I’d largely just scraped back, but the sunset of the landscape around it made the Highveld a glorious spectacle of colour in reds, golds, and that salmon pink glow that added warmth to the long yellow grass.
It wasn’t the shuffling or hopping of a small animal that had me looking over. Not this time. This time it was the sound of numerous much larger feet stamping in the distance.
I stared, flummoxed, at the sight. I hadn’t seen a single elephant out here in six weeks, and had written it off as a pipe dream. But there they were, far away though coming closer in a grudging plod: four elephants, one a little baby one.
And they came up close too. Not so close that I ran with my painting into the rondavel for shelter, but certainly close enough to paint and photograph easily.
The grass rustled next to me. I knew it was Tokkie before I looked over, recognising the sound of its squatted walk.
The Tokoloshe came right over and stretched up its legs to see my painting. I’d gotten a gesture of one elephant’s face brushed onto the canvas. Tokkie considered it, chuckled, and dropped back into its squat.
I eyed the little beast.
‘Was this your doing?’ I asked.
It looked up at me, its floppy ears twitching, looking silky with a fresh coat of fur covering them. I pointed to the elephant now scratching its back on a tree.
‘Did you bring them?’
The Tokoloshe opened its mouth, and produced a very comprehensive and believable impression of a large vehicle trundling over the veld.
Surprised, I laughed. I hadn’t heard Tokkie make that sound before.
‘Did you herd them?’ I said, rather believing the Tokoloshe had. ‘By pretending to be a car?’
Tokkie gave me a grin. Then stretched a clawed hand behind its head and gave itself a cursory scratch with its talons.
Snickering, I leant down and scratched Tokkie’s head with my blunter fingernails. Its big black eyes lapsed slightly shut, it leaning into my hand and directing me to scratch down its stubby neck.
The Tokoloshe was looking much better. I was happy to see it. Its fur was nearly back, now, to how I remembered seeing it as a child. Its foot, too, was much better, Tokkie walking on it without problem. The one thing that couldn’t be completely fixed or hidden by the new fur was that scar in the middle of its forehead. It didn’t seem to hurt Tokkie, though, the creature not flinching at all as I gave its forehead a light rub with my thumb.
I had only one and a half weeks left of my retreat, and the looming end had me smiling sadly as the Tokoloshe sat on the ruddy dirt by my feet. I’d just about decided on trying to take Tokkie home with me when I finally had to leave. I could suggest it in a painting… Maybe Tokkie would understand and choose to come with. There was a good chance no visitors I had over would be able to see the little sprite anyway.
I had doubts that would work. Take a wild sprite away for a car trip to the city? But I wanted to hope. And I really, really didn’t want to drive away as Tokkie stared after me.
‘Where did the time go,’ I sang our song quietly. ‘Can you tell me where did the time go?’
I finished the elephant painting two days later. And, rather than in the rear view mirror of my car, that day was the last I saw the Tokoloshe.
It had sat before the painting, where I’d placed it leant against the wall next to one I’d done of it. Tokkie leaned in close, inspecting the elephants, then stepped back and fluffed itself up, looking satisfied. It shifted over, and considered the likeness of itself. This painting was one I’d finished a few days before. In it, Tokkie was sat right on top of the table, its fuzzy head leant down so it could lap milk straight out of the bowl, a lump of mozzarella between two of its claws, ready for consumption.
Tokkie extended a single claw, and scraped it over the painted depiction of its own claws, scoring a highlight through the paint. And, apparently, with that, Tokkie was happy with the painting. It went over to the cheese plate on the table and picked the cheddar first this time.
That night it left to do its own thing, and didn’t come back. I postponed leaving my uncle’s rondavel by a couple days, hoping I’d see Tokkie one last time before having to get back to my job. But even then, the sprite didn’t show.
I like to think Tokkie’s fine. That it’s having a good life with no scared person trying to harm it. That it just… had somewhere else to go now. Maybe it had adventures to go on, and had been hanging around here just until it was healed up enough for them. Maybe the Tokoloshe have some mating tradition it had to go off to.
Or maybe it just wanted to make the goodbye easier for me. Make it so that I didn’t have to be the one to leave it.
I don’t know. Even for just the one I met, I never really learned much about it. What I did learn was that its favourite cheeses were mozzarella and brie, that it really didn’t appear to sleep, and that it was much happier when, at its pointing, I took the skull with the missing jawbone down from the shed and placed it, instead, at the foot of the water trough. Why it wanted that done, I don’t know, but Tokkie liked it that way.
I couldn’t postpone my leaving any longer than that last weekend. But, having locked up the rondavel, I stood by my loaded car and surveyed the Highveld beauty one last time, hoping to spot a furry little sprite waddling through the grass towards me.
‘Tokkie?’ I called, far from the first time. ‘You there Tokkie?’
I waited, but there was nothing. I pulled a sad smile.
‘The long gone summer has passed and I hear the elves calling my name,’ I sang softly, getting into my car. ‘It’s so hard to say goodbye to eyes as old as yours my friend…’
I could sense the coming of an afternoon storm, and rolled down my car windows as I put the car in gear.
‘Bye bye December African rain…’
I put the rondavel in my rear view mirror, driving away along the narrow track. In that small cottage, I’d left two of my paintings, the one of Tokkie’s cheese menu and the one detailing mange treatment, the healthy version of Tokkie touched up with detail. I’d smashed up the thorn trap with a hammer, and buried it. And under the fruit bowl on the table, I’d left my uncle a list of my own rules:
If Tokkie ever comes back –
- Do not shoot at it, put out traps, hang up that amulet, or wash with whatever is in those bath salts. Tokkie doesn’t seem to care one way or another if there’s a fire in the stove
- It likes milk and cheese, but not blue cheese
- You can communicate with it through pictures and singing. It particularly likes Johnny Clegg songs. It’ll start to trust you if you sing December African Rain to it
- Two bricks just makes it a little more of a climb for Tokkie to get onto the bed
- Don’t get rid of the water trough. It bathes in there
- Leave the skull by the trough. Tokkie likes it there
- And it likes head scratches. I don’t know if you can see Tokkie, but I’ve left a painting for reference
Thula Baba is a beautiful Zulu lullaby my mother sang to me as a child.
December African Rain is a 1983 song by Juluka, a band headed by well-loved Johnny Clegg, may he rest in peace. For me, this is one of those songs you grow up with that never quite leave you. Every time I hear it I think of afternoon summer thunderstorms.