Through the Black
Lazarus Panashe Nyagwambo
“There is a certain kind of black, a particularly unbound, untethered absence, the variety of which one’s mind can only wander into and return permanently altered, the kind in which even shadows shudder and the creepy crawlies cower. I have seen it. I have fallen into its depths. And risen anew.” – Anonymous
I opened my eyes slowly.
It was the kind of morning that served as a reminder of the sometimes disremembered fact that I existed; declared it, in fact, in the softness of the light that defined its silhouette and the potency of the petrichor that filled the air, the whispers of a genesis. I was reminded that, for better or worse, other things and beings existed that morning with me. Residues of the previous night’s storm settled on everything like fine dust in an old attic, casting a silver coolness on the room. I exhaled. I looked across to Farai’s side of the room. His bed had been made neatly, but nothing was on it except, oddly, my Liverpool FC drying towel.
Farai swaggered into my life underneath a dreadlocked crown, trailed first and always, by his perpetually growing collection of shoes and a subtle perfume that left fruit-scented thoughts of him lingering in the spaces he vacated long after he was no longer in your presence. His Savannah gold eyes that were specked with something deleterious breached the natural chasm of new acquaintanceship as he shook my hand with fragile wrists and soft palms and announced casually, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, that he did not do awkward silences. He remained true to his word for the three weeks and two days that we have been roommates. Until last night.
With exams coming the following week, it was a fraught Friday at our university, domed over by an angry-looking sky that groaned and rumbled with the burden of a coming tumultuous night. Students hurried about the pavements determinedly, and lecturers’ faces were even more sour than usual. But I am a zealous follower of the rituals of college life, a steadfast believer in the ways of the bright young minds of our future doctors, engineers, lawyers, and leaders. Meat must be burnt before the gods, and alcohol spilled to the ancestors in gratitude for making it through another arduous week of procrastination, missed deadlines, and unattended classes. “We will do better next Monday,” we collectively proclaim amidst sips and chugs, kisses and moans.
Moments was my place of worship ever since the smooth-legged girl with a forked tongue that I found myself coupled with as a freshman took me there one ruinous weekend, only for her to leave me there for a fourth-year student who drove a Honda Fit. Just as well. I have since made it my hunting grounds; it is on its lush lawns and dark hallways that I have hunted and preyed – oh and how I have preyed – over the past three years. And it was on those hallowed grounds that Farai and I lounged bibulously, a cup of some cocktail, the ingredients of which I could no longer remember, perched precariously in my hand, and a bottle of Hunter’s gold sitting tidily in front of him.
“So you saw a dot, so what? It’s probably a cockroach or something. You know how filthy those dorms are.” Farai’s voice wafted across the table and swam into my ears, followed a little later by the words he had spoken. I had been drinking since three, and it was – I checked my watch – almost 6pm.
“Okay, first of all, our room is probably the cleanest place on campus. Doctors could perform surgery in that place…” Farai tilted his head back, and a sound rose from his throat that made either me or the earth spin nauseatingly. I focused on keeping my alcohol inside me as everything gradually came to a slow stop. “And it wasn’t a cockroach, man. It didn’t move. Cockroaches move, man. And it was too…black.” Black was maybe an understatement. It was a positive lack of, a dreadful absence of colour.
Farai looked at me squarely. “So you think there’s something about this dot of yours because it was ‘too black’? What’s in that cup guy?”
He reached across the table and prised my cup out of my hand. I watched him silently as he took a cautious sip. Almost as soon as the cup touched his lips, he grimaced and spat, “What the fuck is this shit! Fuck! Jesus, bruv!” Farai had spent a year studying in England before Zimbabwe’s economy had seen fit to have him return prematurely. The word ‘bruv’ intermittently punctuated his vocabulary whenever he got drunk.
My lips tingled at the corners and spread apart mechanically until my teeth were bared. I felt more like I was sneering than smiling, but Farai didn’t seem to notice. “You don’t wanna know.”
“No wonder you’re spouting this bullshit about a strange spot on the mirror, bruv. And you’ve been drinking since what, like, four? Now a dirty mirror seems somehow unnatural to you.”
“It’s not just the spot…”
“So what is it?”
“It’s like it’s – I swear this isn’t in my head, but it’s growing. And it feels… it feels…”
Alive. The word I couldn’t bring myself to say, that my tongue clung onto like the evidence of a crime I was trying to hide, was ‘alive.’.
I’d first noticed the spot that morning as I passed the half-length mirror in our shared room on my way to the toilet. It was a small dot, barely the size of a human pupil, but there was something about it, something that made me stop in my tracks and beckoned me to look. As I observed it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being observed, that feeling you get when someone is staring at you even before you see them. I remembered the throbbing urgency in my bladder, shrugged, and continued on my way.
And then I came back. I couldn’t be sure, the difference was marginal, but I could tell something had changed. It was that phantom feeling of knowing without knowing, without the adequate empirical confirmation to smoothen the rough edges of suspicion into absolute certainty, marginal enough that I could convince myself that it was all in my imagination. But I could have come very close to swearing that the spot was bigger somehow. My skin felt like an itchy jersey. I dabbed some saliva onto my index finger and wiped it off. I’m sure I wiped it off. That much, I’m sure of. My memory of yesterday is hazy, and I have been having a hard time making sense of things, but I remember I wiped that spot off. Yet, when I came back from breakfast to pick up my laptop, not only was the spot there, but it was also about the size of a small coin; perfectly round, perfectly black, and perfectly fucking terrifying.
As a black man and connoisseur of the horror movie genre, I did what any reasonable man would do when confronted with such a situation. What you do not do when there’s something strange, potentially supernatural, or alien present in your room is sit around being curious. That’s how the black guy dies first. I grabbed my bag and ran out, only sparing enough time to grab my drying towel and throw it over the mirror.
“Oh, so that’s what that was about.”
“The towel on the mirror.”
“You saw it?” The world steadied itself. “What did you do?”
“Uhhh…yeah. I just folded it and put it on my bed. And before you ask, there was no freaky venom goo underneath. At least not that I saw.”
“You’re –” There was a flash of lightning in the distance. Even though the sky above us was still reasonably clear – at least enough for another beer or two – a greyness had vignetted the horizon that had started to blow a steadily strengthening wind in our direction. I shivered and rubbed my arms. Farai seemed impervious to the coolness. “Are you saying I’m lying?”
Farai’s lips moved, but his words were drowned out by the music strewn about in the wind. I could only make out the word ‘drink.’.
He looked at me, his brow knit in contemplation, and seemed to hesitate briefly. Then he grabbed his bottle from the table, stood up, and walked over to my side. He sat down next to me, so close that I could smell his perfume mixed with the sweet, pungent earthy aroma of coming rainfall.
He leaned towards me and said, “I said maybe you’ve had a little too much to drink, and we should head back to the dorm. It’s about to pour anyway.”
His voice felt moist in my ear, like warm water on sensitive parts of the body. I could feel the warmth of his breath on my face. I swallowed hard. Thunder rumbled somewhere between us, and in that moment, I wanted to tear off my skin.
The first time I kissed another man was in grade six. It was a boy named Liberty behind the church where we attended our Sunday School. St Theresa, I think it was called. He’d seen it on TV, he said. Wanted to try it, he said. Oh shit, Sister Rosemary is coming, he said. The ancient tree spotted us and told us we would burn in hell if we did not confess to Father Roland the following Friday before our baptism. The second time I kissed a man was in grade seven. It was Father Roland, and he told me afterwards that if I ever told anyone, I would burn in hell.
I stood up quickly and felt the delicate fragility of Farai’s hand wrap around my wrist. Liberty’s lips had felt warm and soft. Father Roland’s beard had tickled my nose. His hands had threatened to shatter my wrists. There was nothing delicate about the way he held me. I looked down at Farai, into his eyes that had darkened to an ominous dark brown, and all I could think of was that spot on the mirror.
…seen it on TV…
…go to hell…
I felt something pull me down, and I couldn’t tell whether it was Farai or something less tangible. There was another clap of thunder. Somewhere between Liberty and Father Roland and Farai, the clouds had gathered above us. There was a flash. I felt something give under my feet and stumbled. Farai’s lips felt soft and warm against mine.
“What the…” Farai mumbled into my mouth.
I swivelled around blindly before I felt flesh under my palm. Farai’s hand uncoiled from my wrist, as if he had touched hot metal, and rose to his cheek. Without looking at him, I stumbled away, my eyes still closed. I heard his voice try to come after me, but it got drowned out by the thunder and the beating of my heart. It started to rain.
When I reached our room, I found my Liverpool FC drying towel folded on his bed. I stood for as long as I could with my back to the mirror, frozen, listening to the storm. I felt like I was being watched, and whatever it was could see beneath my skin. I turned around slowly, the motion dizzying me. A heavy foot lifted from the ground and planted itself in front of me. And then another one followed, and another, until I was less than a foot away from the mirror. I took a deep breath to steady myself.
I opened my eyes slowly.
Lazarus Panashe Nyagwambo is a Zimbabwean writer and editor. His short stories have previously appeared in AFREADA, Omenana, The Kalahari Review, The Shallow Tales Review, Munyori Literary Journal, and in the anthology ‘Brilliance of Hope.’ He has a short story collection, A Hole in the Air (Carnelian Heart 2022), which is available on Amazon. He writes and edits from Harare, Zimbabwe, where he occasionally has acute roasted maize cravings.
*Image by Marquise Kamanke on Unsplash