Tailed

Bongani Sibanda

The tall, thin woman’s tail resembled a monkey’s – long, bushy, and grey. Perhaps it is, Busi thought, watching the woman measure her tail and declare, excitedly, that it was 51 inches, just four inches shy of the 55 she’d aimed for. When she finished, still clapping and smiling, the other ladies turned their eyes to Busi. It was her turn. 

But Busi couldn’t. Ayanda, the woman who’d invited her, who was now sitting across from her, smiling broadly, had said nothing about measuring one’s tail and setting targets. She’d spoken only of a community of tailed women who convened weekly to provide each other comfort. And Busi loved the idea. Felt it expedient to be a part of the community. 

Now, here they were, measuring their despicable tails and squeaking excitedly at their abominable lengths.

Was this really the best way to rebel against the Ministry of Feminism? Accepting and promoting the growth of shame above one’s buttocks? Busi just glared at the ladies, making it clear she wasn’t going to participate in their craziness.

“She’s still new,” Ayanda said, trying and failing to placate the women’s expectant faces.

What did they think? That she’d readily untangle the mass above her bum and measure it? And smile about it? To her credit, Busi had finished girl schooling and university as a virgin in KwaZulu-Natal. She intended to keep it that way, never feeling any desire for men. But years kept piling up. At 25, she got her first job at Milton High School in Johannesburg, still a virgin. Then suddenly, she found herself 28, just months left before she turned 29, and acquired the spinster’s tail, which carried the worst shame. Far bigger than imbokodo. And so dreading this, Busi had eventually dated her colleague, Zakhele Dube, whose courtship had sounded genuine. Only for her worst fear to come true – getting tailed and deserted.

“I just can’t,” she said finally, tears welling up in her eyes.

Her own tail was just 22 inches. Not a terrible size. Not as long as those of the other ladies, most of whom had both imbokodo and spinster’s tails combined into enormous, snake-like things. But it was long enough to have attracted the attention of the HR department at her workplace and gotten her fired. 

The club, so-called Proudly Tailed Sisters, advocated promiscuity in women. Sexual deviance and infidelity were its core values. 

“Once all women have long, stinky tails,  our liberty will come,” Mabatho, the tall, thin woman of the monkey’s tail, had thus opened the meeting to Busi’s disbelief. “Court men, if they stop courting you,” she’d continued, making Busi shake in her buttocks.

When Busi remained unforthcoming, they ignored her and began to talk among themselves, exclaiming at their exploits in the dating game. She could tell they were mostly wealthy victims of the Ministry of Feminism, and they were now asserting their power and presence in a world that sought to cancel them, render their existence null and void, and money was their weapon. It was going to be advantageous for Busi to stick with them. She’d recently lost her job, and she needed both financial and emotional protection – friends and family, too, as she’d lost everything when she rebelled against her father and left KwaZulu-Natal. But try as she did, she couldn’t regard her tail the way they did theirs; she couldn’t go out and court men, intentionally grow the one part she wished to rid herself of more than anything. It was gross. The village girl in her was just too much.

And so, with her pride still intact, Busi answered a fake call, bid the women farewell, and left.

Outside, the sky was still an ash-grey thing, the ground sodden with the sputters of rain that had been teasing Johannesburg for over a week. Assisted by Google Maps, Busi walked down Khaya Drive to the taxi rank. She was disappointed and dejected. She’d expected some decorum from the ladies, anything but an embracing attitude towards tails.

Luckily, she found the taxi half-full, and she boarded and sat next to an elderly woman at the back, who shifted aside graciously before noticing that she’d an imbokodo’s tail. The woman, carrying a large crate of tomatoes, was travelling with a docile-looking old man who could have been her father or husband. When she noticed Busi’s tail, she wrinkled her face visibly, sneered, and shifted in her seat, bending her neck and staring Busi in the eyes. Busi was used to this. And she’d learned the art of disregarding such people. Instead of staring back, she chose to hook her mind back on the freakish sorority. Their intentions were noble; she could give them that. But it was their methods – their philosophy, which involved worshipping one’s vile tail and nurturing it by giving oneself unscrupulously to demonic men she found abhorrent. How was that going to advance women’s cause? According to Busi, tails were disgusting, and women should be allowed to cut them off – married or unmarried. Busi had been raised catholic in a small village in KwaZulu-Natal. She knew everything about self-respect. Dignity. If she ever chose to rebel again, she was going to do it in a self-respecting manner.

“I wonder why they don’t get married, these young women of today?” the old woman finally said as the taxi departed the rank, now staring straight ahead, pretending to be referring to no one in particular. “Tails smell, damn it! Why kill us with the stench when you could find a good man and get married.” 

Two young men sitting just in front of Busi simultaneously glanced back at her and turned their faces away quickly. The woman’s husband coughed lightly and tried to dissuade her with his eyes. Nobody responded; nobody said anything for a long time. The taxi picked up speed as it passed Majazana; the atmosphere remained tense throughout the journey.

Busi alighted at Orange Farm Bus Stop, stepping out carefully to ensure the enormous bundle that was her thick, hairless tail wrapped up tightly by an elastic cloth, did not get undone and bring her more eyes.

It was a combination of intolerance and tactlessness, she thought, as she navigated pools of water along the potholed street on the way to her shack in Mkokotlong. The elderly woman’s words stung. They stung even though she always had a good defence against such intolerance: “Just because you were lucky to find a good man who married you doesn’t mean those of us unlucky should be derided.” Busi had never said this out loud, but it was her source of strength; it reminded her of her innocence in the formulation of her misery. 

Last month, in The Journal of Extraordinary Happenings, Busi read an article about a teenage girl, a child really, who had committed suicide after her father raped her and gave her a tail. It wasn’t new. Busi had grown up seeing a lot of it; the difference is that this happened in the city, where such cases were rare. At her girl school in KwaZulu-Natal, more than a dozen of her classmates had committed suicide after getting tails from their uncles and fathers. The sad thing wasn’t that the tailgivers were jailed and paroled after a few years. Nor was it the victim’s expulsion from girl school. No. It was the fact that once you stepped out with your incestuous father’s tail, nobody could tell the difference. To the world, you were just another dirty child who couldn’t keep her body clean until the right time. Busi wondered what the opinionated tomato lady would say in such cases.

Busi detoured a little – entering Mkhabela Butchery to buy meat for supper. A group of young men stood at the entrance. Some were sitting on stools from the bottle store, which was adjacent to the butchery. Since she was a kid, Busi had always hated walking past a group of men. It’s the way they leered at her, which they did now, that she disliked. It was worse now that she had an imbokodo’s tail. Her self-consciousness had increased tenfold.

“What do you think is her body count, Tom?” Busi heard one of them whisper behind her when she entered the butchery. 

“That tail is huge, man! I’d say a hundred or more,” whispered another.

Busi pretended not to hear them. “One kg of stew beef, please,” she said to the old man behind the counter, handing him a 200 rand note. The old man lifted the money and squinted at it before putting the meat on the scale.

Did he think she carried a fake note?

When she exited, she noticed that they’d all gone silent and were now staring at her with renewed interest, intending to figure out exactly how long her tail was. Overwhelmed by self-consciousness, Busi missed the edge of the veranda’s slab and almost tumbled to the ground.

Was this how she was going to be treated every time she walked on the street? Discussed so brazenly? Leered at?

It was when she finally arrived in her shack on the last street and laid down in her single bed that Busi thought about the trajectory her once perfect life had taken. She had once been a happy woman, she recalled, an object of every man’s passion. Well-raised, Busi had not hurried into finding a man, waiting until she finished girl schooling and university. Even after, she hadn’t rushed. She’d found a job as a teacher and worked hard, resisting courtships from the hundreds of men who begged her as though their lives depended on her love. But the years didn’t wait. They piled up. And soon she realised she would acquire the most dreaded tail – the spinster’s – which developed at 29 and was smellier and longer than imbokodo’s. And that’s how she’d finally dated Zakhele Dube, her colleague.

Zakhele Dube had promised her marriage. He’d promised her a peaceful life of love and joy. An eternity of loyalty. And she’d given herself over, hopeful. Yet, as it turned out, he was cut from the same branch as every other man; his tongue was forked. And they hadn’t seen each other for more than four months when he started acting up. At first, Busi had begged, hoping, believing that she was at fault. But it was a fruitless effort. He’d gotten what he had sought. He’d conquered her, destroyed her.

Facing the possibility of acquiring two tails – the spinster’s and imbokodo’s – Busi had accepted another man, a poor Kombi driver, who had the innocence of a keeper. And this time, desperate to make things work, she’d gone out of her way to show him her value and moral excellence – even paying his sick mother’s hospital bills, offering to pay her own bride prize, while remaining subservient as custom required. But that still proved insufficient. The man did her and ran.

After the Kombi driver, Busi’s tail grew tenfold. Even beyond her wildest imagination. Clearly, the man was a womaniser, if only she’d known. Busi knew, as everyone did, that the length and smell of a woman’s tail was directly proportional to the number of men she’d slept with, and the number of women the men she’d slept with had slept with. Some girls were able to take chances, sleep with two or three men, find the right one, and get married before their tails became too long. But the very opposite happened in unlucky circumstances. It was all a gamble. You met a womaniser, and you were done for.

Busi was in her office marking a test when she received a call from the school principal, inviting her to his office. With accuracy, she’d guessed what was on the agenda.

“We’re terminating your contract,” the principal, a stooped, bespectacled little man with a finely chiselled forehead, had said. “You must realise,” he’d continued, speaking in low tones, “That we can’t allow you to continue working here. You do your job well. We value you. But your tail is too long now. We can’t afford to be seen that way. As if we condone… the… you know. Lest our girls think it’s in fashion. I’m sorry.” 

And that’s how her career ended. Years and years of hard work, gone. Just because of an encounter with two men. Two adult men who had their minds and chose to use them to deceive her. Shouldn’t deception of this kind be penalised? Unable to pay her expensive apartment rentals in downtown Johannesburg, Busi moved to Mkokotlong, where she now lives.

How was a woman expected to enjoy life in a world like this? A world that assailed her sexual freedom. Tails naturally developed and grew in women after every sexual encounter. It’s the way God created it. One had just to nip off the stinky little thing with a sharp razor, and no one would know she had ever slept with any man before. But now, suddenly, this right, this personal freedom, was reserved only for married women. Unmarried women like Busi were forced to go around dragging the evidence of the number of men they’d slept with. And this had been touted as something for their own good by the Ministry of Feminism. Clearly, the assault here was the woman’s liberty. No, not just her liberty, but her happiness. Suddenly, Busi realised that tears were welling up in her eyes again. And this time, she did not try to stop them. She wept. Three months were left before she turned 29. Just three. And she’d have the tail as long as that of Ms. Mabatho, the leader of the Proudly Tailed Sisters.

Busi had first heard of the Proudly Tailed Sisters from Ayanda, who was her colleague and one of the few married members of the group. She’d searched for their page on Facebook and found them. They replied within minutes. And they gave her directions and told her about their meeting times. Nothing was said about their true practices, the measuring and nurturing of tails. And feeling confident, as though she’d found a new calling in her life, Busi had visited them.

But as desperately as she needed their protection, Busi couldn’t bring herself to agree with their depraved philosophy.

And now, here she was, sad, alone, and hopeless! Her 29th birthday was only three months away. And unless she found a man, married him quickly, got that prized marriage certificate that gave a woman the right to cut their tail and remain clean and fresh, she’d have no choice but to return to KwaZulu-Natal and beg her father to rearrange the marriage she’d rejected many years ago.

And so in the following weeks, dragging her imbokodo’s tail and roaming Mkokotlong Township as though it were her native village, Busi gave chances to men she’d never have glanced at if she had a choice – wizened bricklayers and foul-smelling road construction workers; cocky loafers and big-mouthed drunkards – she really tried, calling all that scum “sweetheart”, “future-hubby”, and even “fiancé”. Washing and cooking for them. But nothing worked. It was as if they were sharks and could feel her wound, the smell of blood. They were more virulent in using her, no one lasting beyond the first intercourse.

Her father had wanted her to marry Phiri, a man older than himself and already equipped with two wives.

“They are keepers, old men,” her father had once said. “They won’t hurt you and leave you with a stinking tail. Plus, you’ll have the benefit of the widow’s tail if he dies.”

It was true. If a woman’s husband died, a widow’s tail is what they got, which was dignified. And it could either be kept to maintain dignity or cut altogether, so one could start afresh. Clean. Akin to a virgin. But advantageous as it may, Busi couldn’t imagine herself marrying an old, wrinkled man who was her father’s age. She was confident she would find a man her age and marry not for convenience but for love. She’d been wilful, hungry for life.

But here she was now, tailed, jobless, and miserable. What could she do? Go and complain to the HR department at her former workplace? Sue the department? To whom? There was a time to rebel. And this certainly wasn’t one. The best option, as far as she could tell, was folding the little pieces left of herself, and taking a bus back to KwaZulu-Natal. She’d have to apologise to her father, claim youth made her disobedient, and agree to marry any man he suggested. Life, she’d learned, wasn’t about getting everything one wanted. 

There wasn’t much preparation to do, just washing the few clothes she was left with after selling almost everything to make ends meet, jamming them into her small trunk, and calling her landlady to tell her she was leaving.

She caught the 2pm bus, aiming to arrive in KwaZulu-Natal at twilight. 

Her mother was excited to see her and hugged her warmly. Her father looked at her coldly, scanning the tail as though it was the transparent stomach of someone pregnant with a mountain cat. 

A cock was slaughtered to welcome her back.

“Father, I’ve come back. I’m going to marry Old Phiri,” she said at dinner, sitting on a reed mat, her tail folded between her legs, the silence a behemoth in the rondavel.

“If he’ll still be interested,” her father replied coldly, keeping his eyes on his plate of food. “Remember, you had no tail when you left. You could still be untailed.”

To cut a tail while unmarried – tailicide – and leaving it lying in the bushes, or dumping it in a pit somewhere, was punishable by mutilation of the hand that committed the crime. You could be certain the Ministry of Feminism would find you, and you’d tell the truth. They had a way. Whether it was the tailgivers doing the ratting or the Ministry of Feminism having some sophisticated surveillance methods, nobody knew. But intelligent people like Busi knew the truth invariably came out and didn’t bother.

Six months before, Busi had attended the trial of a teenage girl who had cut her tail and thrown it into a pit latrine. The rare incident had occurred in rural Nyamayendlovu, and the girl’s trial was referred to the regional court.

“Why did you cut the tail?” the prosecutor, a good-looking man she could have loved but for his line of work, had asked of the girl. The girl stood silent like a rock. Such trials were a mere formality, meant to degrade women, Busi knew; the verdict – guilt, punishment, mutilation – were predetermined. Defence was not allowed. The accused was required to incriminate herself by asking for forgiveness throughout the proceedings – forgiveness invariably declined, but nonetheless requested so the court would let you decide which hand you preferred mutilated. It was always the left hand mutilated from the right-handed offender and the right hand if the offender were left-handed, and this was presented as a goodwill gesture from the Ministry of Feminism. But if you were stubborn, you ended up losing your primary hand. 

The magistrate, a paunchy old man who could have been the Minister of Feminism’s brother if sizes of stomachs determined kinship, had a pained expression on his face as he asked: “So, you cut your tail, and you just threw it away, and you didn’t even wait to see when it stopped wriggling. Or whether it wriggled at all? My child, are you aware that there is an intrinsic consciousness in tails? That they can feel, they can see, they can think? Are you…are you aware of that?”

Later, Busi found out that the girl had been raped by her visiting cousin.

Busi’s little brother, Mbuso, was now at the Maphisa University of Technology studying mechanical engineering. They had once been close, Busi and Mbuso, but his support of the marriage to Old Phiri had created a rift between them. A rift that never got patched up. He was her father’s favourite, and even now, at 28, the vestiges of childhood resentment still clung to her.

“Tail, tail, tail,” Busi had shouted before she left the village for Johannesburg. “I don’t care about the tail. I want the man I want. Why is my brother allowed to choose the girl he likes and I’m not?”

“Because he is a boy,” her father had said coldly, and the statement still rang in her ears even now.

“It’s tail cleaning ceremony this Sunday,” her mother said to dispel the tension. They’d just finished dinner, and Busi was kneeling beside the hearth, washing dishes and thinking about many years ago. “Perhaps you might want to come. Old Phiri would see you there. He has six wives now, though. You’ll be the seventh if he takes you. You don’t mind, I hope?”

Busi looked at her mother and felt sorry she’d disappointed her. Her mother had secretly supported her decision to leave for Johannesburg. That’s where Busi had gotten her strength and confidence. They’d both been aware it was a gamble, but they had been hoping things might turn out well. They hadn’t, and yet her mother still had her back. 

“I won’t,” she said softly. “I can’t go and embarrass myself.”

“See,” her father burst out. “Green as bile with disrespect. Who would want to marry that?”

“If Old Phiri still wants to marry me, he can come and marry me. I wouldn’t turn him down,” Busi replied, trying to sound calm in the midst of her father’s tantrum. 

“You’ve got a tail now, Busisiwe,” her father burst out again.

“Yes, and tail-cleaning ceremonies are a disgusting way to demean tailed women even further. You all pretend it’s our fault men give us tails and desert us.”

Busi participated in the tail cleaning ceremony, not because of the cold stare from her father, but because the days were moving, edging towards her 29th birthday. The day she dreaded more than anything.

She hadn’t looked at her tail for weeks, and so she shut herself in her bedroom before heading to the ceremony on the morning of the day, untied the bundle behind her, and looked on passively as the enormous, snake-like thing uncoiled, ringed from the pinch of the elastic tighteners. She knew the questions, having grown up attending as a spectator, and she prepared accordingly, measuring the tail and recording the length in her head.

The tail cleaning ceremony was a huge attraction in KwaZulu-Natal, drawing in old wealthy polygamists who arrived in flashy cars, ready to bid anything on young, tailed girls. It was about redemption, giving these otherwise doomed poor souls a second shot at life. 

There were only 17 of them today, a very low figure compared to what Busi was used to seeing as a kid. The tail-cleaning grandmother was still MaMnyoni, a woman whose age seemed to have frozen at some point as Busi had known her all her life looking the way she looked now – old, wrinkled, but agile.

“How long is your tail?” she shouted after Busi had stepped forward and knelt beside the ceremonial dish.

“Forty-two inches,” Busi replied. She could feel every part of her body burn as spectators shrieked in dismay. Busi was beautiful. And her beauty, which she was aware of, was above average. But no beauty could save you from the shame of the tail, she knew. And as she knelt facing away from the dish, she felt the full horror of her situation. If she’d had the guts, she’d have stood up and ran. Ran so far, no one would ever see her again. But she needed a husband. She needed that elusive certificate that carried the tail-cutting rights. So she knelt still as Grandmother MaMnyoni scrubbed her tail.

“Who tailed you?” the questioning continued.

“My ex-boyfriends tailed me.” Busi answered.

“Who are they?”

She named them, starting with Zakhele Dube, followed by the Kombi driver, and all bums she’d found at Mkokotlong. How could she forget them?

“Why did they tail you?” Grandmother MaMnyoni continued, scrubbing the tail with the flat stone.

“Because I am a fool.”

“What do tails do?”

“They stink and rob girls like me of the chance of getting a good husband?”

“What do you want now?”

“I want to be cleaned and made ready for my prospective husband.”

“Who are you going to marry?”

“Anyone who will send cows to my father first.”

“Why?”

“Because I’ve learned the biggest truth in life.”

“What is the truth?”

“A woman marries not the man she loves but the man who loves her.”

It was demeaning and simplistic dogma, especially for someone of Busi’s intellectual capacity. And even though she’d sung the words as a child, play-acting the exchange with friends, she felt horrible for allowing herself to go through it. 

“Here she is,” Grandmother MaMnyoni shouted to the cheering masses once they were through. “I present to you, Busisiwe Ngwenya, Amos Ngwenya’s daughter, clean and ready, and anyone willing to claim her and make a respectable woman out of her, this is your chance.”

There was a momentary silence. Then Busi’s father stepped up as custom required. He announced his bride prize and waited, roving his eyes across the horde of old wealthy polygamists ready to bid.

A small dark man with half-burned lips stood up, his right hand lifted. It was Old Phiri. 

Busi’s father increased the bride prize almost instantly and waited, roving his eyes about again.

“She’s mine, Amos,” Old Phiri said. “She’s mine,” he repeated. “Just give me your craziest prize, and I’ll go to the bank. Been watching her since she was a toddler,” he laughed. And Busi noticed, his teeth were as red as his lips. Or was it the gums? Hadn’t she seen well? Be that as it may, she dreaded the possibility of kissing that mouth.

Only two other men stood up, their hands lifted. It was no surprise that so few wanted Busi. Most of the girls were younger and had shorter tails. And everyone was focused on them.

Busi’s father gave another figure and waited. Again Old Phiri’s hand shot up, and now it was his only.

And just as Old Phiri celebrated his victory with her father, calling the moment legendary, it crossed Busi’s mind to do something that had never happened before. To stand up and announce her dislike for Phiri. 

“I’d never marry this old man,” she formed the words but fell short of spitting them out.

Two weeks later, the wedding occurred. Conducted like a funeral procession, as was customary of the weddings of women with imbokodo’s tails, it was officiated by the local pastor, a catholic friend of Busi’s father. The program was divided into three parts – the actual wedding, followed by the ceremonial cutting of the tail. And then lastly, the part where Busi was led to stand beside the inferno where her tail burned while she inhaled the smoke, meant to cure any adultery potential in her.

Bongani Sibanda is a Zimbabwean writer. An alumnus of the Caine Prize workshop, his short stories have appeared in Kalahari Review, New Contrast Magazine, Munyori Literary Journal, and two of Weaver Press’ Literary collections. In 2015, he was longlisted for the ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. He is now trying to find a publisher for his young adult afrofuturist novel.

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