Month: December 2022

A Strange History with Cats

October 2012

The first cat was crushed, guts splashed across the driveway, mouth a frozen hiss. Its milky eyes seemed to track Ling as she hefted herself out of the car and waddled over.


That was the word that came to her. In Chinese, a word of raindrop suddenness, a reflex.

“What is it, honey?” Raymond said, rounding from the trunk and surveying the mess. “Oh man. You go on inside. I’ll take care of it.”

In the kitchen, Ling prepared a glass of raspberry leaf tea. By the time it was steeped and aromatic, she heard Raymond entering through the garage, taking the back stairs up to the guest shower.

Lovely, discrete man.

She gazed out the kitchen window into the rolling, wooded yard of their home in Maryland. Deep autumn fire, a sparkling brook—

A kick.

Ling gasped with relief. Sophie had lain still ever since the cat incident.

She blew on her tea, sipped it, supporting her considerable weight against the counter. Sophie turned and kicked again. Ling held her belly, feeling her child’s movements.

I can’t wait to meet you.

Soon she heard the shower, felt a slight tremble from the pipes, and remembered that there had been another cat—with the realization came a wave of panic, and Sophie grew still once more.

Stone Fruit

Most would come into my home only in the summer, when my crooked hands held untold bounty of cherries and apricots and peaches, ripe and dripping with succor, and they would pull at the fruits as if they weren’t parts of my body, as if each pluck didn’t send fire down my nerves. They would stand there and take bites, big sloppy bites, laughing and talking, juice leaking down their hands and chins, and they would reach out and smear the red and orange and yellow liquid with bits of my flesh on the faces of others. There would be laughter and joy, and I would remind myself that every time they carried the stone with them there would be more of me somewhere else, and that, someday, the more of me might meet the flesh of the one I had lost so long ago, the one whom I still crave.

I can feel them again, laughing and kissing and rolling around in the grass, among my bark-covered arms, and every giggle and every sigh reminds me of what I used to be, ages ago, of why I live the way I do, destined to offer and wait and seek and move only by creating multitudes of myself, spreading far and wide, in the hope that somehow, somewhere, there would be peace, or an end, or a point to it all.

Nobody remembers my name, but everyone remembers Johnny Appleseed. When I knew him he was just Johnny, a barefoot kid with crooked teeth and freckles, while I was just a girl with ginger braids, who got in trouble for getting dirty while hunting frogs and climbing trees.

Growing up, the two of us hung out in orchard crowns, him stealing old man Wilkerson’s apples, me gorging on cherries and apricots and peaches. We often fled one of Wilkerson’s large, mean sons, who chased us with a shotgun, yelling and cursing.

“They know it’s you because your shirt is always stained,” said Johnny one day, as we hid in a wild blueberry bush off the road, a Wilkerson running past us.

“So? Yours is, too.” I suddenly felt filthy and small, and would’ve given anything to have the cherry-red fruit chunks magically disappear from my white-and-blue checkered shirt.

“Apples don’t stain.” He nodded toward my shirt. “Not like your stupid drippy stone fruits with all the color.”

“Your apples are stupid!” I jumped to my feet. “Just like you, Johnny Chapman!” I marched away with my chin up, hands balled into fists. My face was on fire.

That night, Johnny threw rocks at my window until I showed up.

“Stop it! You’ll break it,” I said, groggy and annoyed. “What do you want?”

“I wanted to say I’m sorry. I was mean. And cherries aren’t stupid.”

“Well, I still think apples are. Good night.” I shut the window with indignation, but, as my head hit the pillow, I was smiling.

After that night, we spent more time in each other’s trees, tasting each other’s fruits, getting the bits and pieces and all the juices mixed up… Until my belly started to swell and it was my father holding the shotgun, chasing Johnny away.

I never left the house, and I remember pain, so much pain, blood everywhere, the screams, and I remember hearing that the child was stillborn, and I remember the sweetness and the joy and the texture and the fear, and I remember wondering where Johnny was, and if he knew, and if he’d have liked the baby to be called Apple or Cherry or Peaches, and I didn’t even know if it was a boy or a girl, and I remember, oh so clearly remember, the feeling of that very last breath leaving my body…

Then I awoke, and had many more arms and many more hands, and I could feel the dirt and the air, and I could see the sun through the many, so many eyes, and I rejoiced at the rain, but felt confused, until I realized they had buried me in the orchard, for as much shame as I had brought upon the family, they knew who I was and what I liked, and they wanted me to rest where I was happiest…

Only I missed them all and I missed Johnny, but most of all I missed my baby, and I felt devastated because I did not know where they had buried it.

But I will find them both, my Johnny, my baby. Every time I bear fruit, when the juicy flesh gives others joy and they carry the stone seed with them, when they drop it in the grass and a new part of me grows, I get to see more and feel more and learn more, and I have known countless deaths amid my roots, but none of them are my child, and I have known countless loves amid my trees, but none of them Johnny and me, and I have touched and intertwined with countless roots of apple trees, but they were all mute, none of them were Johnny, and I keep searching, keep spreading, because I cannot fathom that I would be living on, all these winters and summers, seasons of barren branches and those so heavy with fruits they almost break, but that he would not, that he was only ever just a man, who lived a man’s life and died a man’s death, and maybe never knew what had become of me, or worse yet, that he knew but didn’t care, and went on eating the boring stupid apples, and lived a boring stupid life, leaving only those tiny seeds behind him, and that he forgot all about the mixing of the juices and colors and textures, and that he forgot all about me.

The Alien in the Attic

There was something under my bed, I was sure of it.

It shuffled and shifted, clawing at the wooden frames and murmuring ever so faintly in the dark. Once, after losing my quilted blanket to a tug-of-war match with it, I ran downstairs and woke up Mummy and her boyfriend. With a flashlight that shone like a little moon, Mummy searched the shadowy space beneath the bed and uncovered a broken toy-rocket, an empty packet of cookies and my crumpled blanket. The floorboards below were loose and damp and I told her how they sometimes creaked when the wind was still, but she didn’t check them.

Annoyed, she locked me in the attic room with that thing.

It’s hard to sleep if your blanket is constantly stolen, so on most nights I stayed up, looking out of the window into the inky-blue sky, glimmering with stars. The air was moist and chilly and I shivered, hugging my pillow to my chest. I could spell “crescent” and “gibbous” correctly and I had a book of constellations that Daddy gifted me last birthday before he left, so the night sky stretched out enticingly before me, like a puzzle to be solved.

Pluto was no longer a planet, which made me rather sad. My classmates thought it was weird that I was hung-up over a “stupid planet” but I suppose they never knew what it felt to be left out of games or have your own family pretend that you weren’t ever there, which is what happened with Daddy. Mummy even took down the family photographs where he was in the frame and I was afraid she’d throw out the book too, so I carried it with me when I went to school.

Soon enough, I was so immersed in mapping Canis Major and Cassiopeia and Cygnus the Swan with my sleep-deprived eyes, that I didn’t mind the presence that sometimes joined me. He- I decided on a whim to think of him as a boy because I didn’t really know what boys were like and the thing looked nothing like the girls from school, although now I cannot remember what he looked like, except as a vague whitish shadow that sometimes glowed- he helped me identify the constellations and explained why the moon wore a different face each night and said that his home was in a star system far away, one that our eyes could not see, a place he could never return to.

“Why?” I asked, curious, offering him a cookie. I sneakily got him cookies and milk every other night. When he licked the milk, he sort of glowed and became more solid-ish. It was all very exciting.

He said his spaceship was destroyed when it landed on earth and all crewmates but him, perished because of something to do with the radiation. I didn’t exactly get it, but it sounded like he’d have died too, had it not been for the warmth of my blanket and that safe space of dust and darkness beneath my bed, like the gap between stars.

On my next birthday, Mummy invited some of my classmates over, but no one showed up. I didn’t mind as long as Daddy turned up. I was sort of hoping that he might sneak in from the window when Mummy was baking. I even kept an eye out for him when we curled up on the threadbare sofa and watched a show about the solar system on Discovery Channel. Apart from the chocolate cake with frosting that looked like tiny stars, I didn’t get any other present. Daddy had promised me a book on the moon and I couldn’t tell Mummy about it because she got sadder whenever Daddy was brought up.

Later I told Po (we were discussing Apollo 11 and he nodded gleefully at the second syllable, and that’s how the name stuck) about how I wished to go to the moon like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, rather than to the beach over the holidays, and when Mummy and I returned, suntanned and laden with sea shells, I found a brass handheld telescope sitting on my dusty bed.

For one delightful moment I thought it must’ve been Daddy who came to the house when we’d been gone and had helped himself to all the cookies, but I noticed my missing blanket that I’d neatly folded before we left and was a little disappointed. Then, I started fiddling with the telescope and realized just how powerful its lens was, pinpointing my eyes to the farthest reaches of space, and I felt a rush of gratitude and affection for Po. I was crying even during dinner and Mummy thought I just missed the sea.

Together, each night Po and I wandered among the stars and followed golden-white comets as they streaked from one galaxy to another. I quickly got bored of the moon and her grey shadows and instead was mystified by the iridescent colors that danced on Saturn’s many rings and the glimmering mountains of ice on one of Jupiter’s moons. But Po guided me to distant stars and galaxies that had numbers instead of names, where clouds of gas and lava swirled deliciously in bewitching patterns, where his home lay, a home he dearly missed and longed to return to.

Whenever his home was mentioned, he sort of dimmed, like a star snuffed out. It was a cue for me to get another cookie. At times, he worried that his home may no longer be there as he explained that it took a long time for light from distant galaxies to reach us and when we looked up at the night sky, we saw the universe not as it is but as it had once been. I tried to cheer him up, saying that when I was old enough and got better at math, we’d build a spaceship together and find out for ourselves. To this he’d give a sad nod and patiently teach me how to map the stars. We filled the backs of my notebooks with a dozen charts.

He wasn’t completely hopeless though because he told me once, that after he died, his spirit would soar among those vast stretches of black emptiness, till he found his way home and how if I looked through my telescope carefully, I’d see a new star in one of those distant galaxies, shining brightly than the rest, because he’d remember me and light a beacon.

Even with the cookies, he must’ve known he wouldn’t last long, because barely a week after he said that, he died.

I’d knitted a new blanket for him, as I was tired of sharing and going cold each night, but when I crawled under the bed to surprise him, there lay a pool of milky-white water. I screamed and ran down to fetch Mummy but by the time she came up, there was nothing left but a dark wet stain, as though the universe had soaked it up. She blamed me for spilling water and shut the door.

It never struck me before just how lonely the universe was.

The stain is still there, like an ugly shadow and maybe because it is under my bed no one tried really hard to scrub it clean. I searched the sky each night for his star but there were so many, it was hard to tell them apart, without Po to guide me. In vain, I reread our star-charts and tried to plot new ones, till the math made my head dizzy (Po was the one who did the calculations) and tears blurred my vision.

I asked questions in school about lightspeed and quasars and blackholes, that annoyed my classmates and teachers, but I was determined to not give up. I repeatedly cleaned the glass of the telescope and bought new notebooks that I quickly filled with more maps and equations. By then Mummy had a new boyfriend who got me a library membership and my head was crammed with the names of scientists and astronomers that I found very difficult to pronounce.

Po’s departure had left in my heart a gaping hole, that swallowed everything I put in it.

On sleepless nights, I gazed into the sky imagining how long it would take for a spirit, without a body or a spaceship, to sail from earth, through the silent ocean that glittered darkly with stars and moons, to follow the curve of faraway light-beams, looking for home. I dreamed of building a spaceship that could travel faster than light, putting on an astronaut’s suit and following Po, in a cat-and-mouse chase among the constellations.

It was all that kept me alive, kept me glowing.

Then one night, while fiddling with the brass knobs of the telescope to adjust the distance, I finally saw it. The star, Po’s star, tucked away in a distant galaxy that hadn’t yet been named or numbered- a beacon beckoning to me.


With the new Flinch&Wince™ integrated tech, the Aesthesian2040i reacts just like a real person! With over 1000 screams, cries, moans and groans in the sound library, you can fully customize your Aesthesian’s responses to any and all sensation. Our standard model now also cries tears at only the touch of a button. Want them to bruise? Want them to bleed? For only a little bit extra…

“Bleeding? Sounds a bit messy doesn’t it,” Wilmien said, cutting her gaze toward her husband. He was the anal one when it came to cleanliness, applying the same meticulousness to the sanitation of his house as he did to his court cases. Hannes glanced back at her, his brows puckered in their customary frown. Twenty years ago she hadn’t been able to look away from his wide and easy smile and the divots it left in his cheeks. Now she couldn’t bear to make more than a few seconds of eye contact. It wasn’t the beginnings of the beer-boep straining the buttons of his shirt, the bald patch no amount of comb-over could hide, or the fact turning forty had instantly transformed him into his father. None of those were the reason Wilmien cursed herself for not getting out sooner, for not having the courage to be honest with herself before she invested soul and emotion in a relationship to make others happy.

“Our compounds are all vegan and organic.” The salesdroid flashed a set of even, if too-small, teeth. The name on its badge read ‘Max-4,’ the generic moniker for all such bots. “The excretions wash out of most fabrics and off most surfaces with warm, soapy water.”

“And the rate of regeneration?” Hannes asked.

“That depends on the extent of the damage,” Max-4 said with annoyingly perfect diction. “All our models come with an extensive breakdown of recovery times.” The droid produced a glossy pamphlet and passed it to Hannes. “Basic fist-induced damage, for example the equivalent of a heavy session with a traditional punching bag, will take less than three hours to fully heal.”

“What about bullets?” Hannes asked and Wilmien stiffened.

Max-4’s eyes quivered for a moment as it processed the request. Wilmien tensed, half-expecting even a droid to stand in judgment, but Max-4’s face remained inscrutable. No, she was projecting again. Droids like this weren’t capable of expressing emotion.

“Getting hit with a round of twenty-two at about a hundred meters would take approximately an hour,” Max-4 said, words delivered matter-of-factly yet still landing like a fist in Wilmien’s gut. “A nine-mil slug to the head point blank could take anywhere between twelve and twenty-four hours to fully regenerate. Not that we recommend shooting your Aesthesian in the head,” Max-4 added, lips twitching in an ersatz grin. Wilmien might’ve missed it if she hadn’t been staring at the droid’s lips, if she hadn’t been imagining what it would feel like being kissed by smooth silicon. Would those lips taste of plastic? High-end Aesthesian mouths could be flavored.

“The standard warranty doesn’t cover deliberately induced head trauma,” Max-4 continued. “And should you wish to terminate your contract with Aesthesis Inc. pick-up can be arranged at no extra cost. All parts of the Aesthesian are recyclable.”

Wilmien narrowed her gaze at the droid and Max-4 seemed to notice, pale eyes flicking between her and Hannes. Whatever Max-4 parsed from her expression it caused the droid to correct its own. Its quirked lips smoothed into blank docility. Wilmien wondered how sharp Max’s teeth were. Would they nibble; would they bite and leave her bloody?

She coughed and turned away, letting her gaze rove over the rows of racked Aesthesians. They came in an array of skin tones with various hairstyles. Some were dressed in company-standard gray jumpsuits while others were garbed like fashion house mannequins. Most stood with their heads bowed and eyes closed. A few stared straight ahead, unblinking. Awake, but seemingly unaware.

Gender expression ranged from the traditional binary to complete androgyny, and biological attributes were fully customizable. For quite a bit extra, Wilmien could even have the android custom-sculpted. Previously, it’d been possible to have an Aesthesian modeled after celebrities, but that caused one too many social media fiascoes and expensive lawsuits. Options had since become more limited and ethical. At the moment, the trend—in certain circles—involved replacing a dead partner with an Aesthesian facsimile.

Tantamount to taxidermy. Wilmien glanced at Hannes, imagining having a droid in his stead. Didn’t she deserve an upgrade in the spousal department? In the dark and quiet of 4am, forced awake by Hannes’s whiskey-induced snoring and her own squirming thoughts, in those moments she plucked the truth from her heart and held it in the gentle cage of her fingers, letting its fragile wings flutter against her palms.

She never should’ve married a man—let alone this one. But he was safe and came with the stamp of family approval.

While Hannes continued to discuss various specifications with the salesdroid, Wilmien wandered closer to the inert Aesthesians. One caught her attention, beautiful even in standby. Something in the face, the bow of the sultry lips and the wide-set eyes reminded her of the girl she’d known when she was sixteen, the girl she’d spent two years dreaming of undressing; the girl who’d gone with Wilmien’s older brother to his Matric dance.

Shevani. The name was a thorn catching at the fraying tapestry of her memory, a soul-scouring what if.

She reached out a tentative hand and touched the arm hanging slack in its socket. It was oddly warm, soft to the touch and dusted with fine, dark hairs. She squeezed a little harder, digging her purple nails into the synthetic flesh. Its eyes opened, pupils constricting. It tilted its head to focus on her. The eyes were a shade too light, the hair chestnut instead of mahogany, but the rest was uncanny. Some people sold their faces to companies like Aesthesis Inc. especially young students always desperate for cash.

Tingles laced up Wilmien’s spine and a welcome if unfamiliar ache began between her legs. The crescent marks her nails had made were slowly fading. She swallowed and licked her lips. As much as she might want to deny it, her daughter’s proclivities certainly hadn’t been inherited from Hannes.

This is for Crystal, she reminded herself, trying to ignore the bayonet of jealousy skewering her ribs. For the child she’d never really wanted but felt obliged to beget. For the little girl that had torn screaming into Wilmien’s world and demanded love she didn’t even know she had to give, needed to give. Motherhood had been all-consuming, suffocating at times, and yet a welcome reprieve from the marriage she already regretted.

Was Crystal’s disposition Wilmien’s fault? Didn’t every parent blame themselves for the failings of their children. Not Hannes, he refused to believe his child might harbour darker tendencies. Sullen, withdrawn, and prone to violent outbursts, that’s how Crystal had been described by the doctor Wilmien had taken her to—before Hannes put a stop to the visits. Wilmien understood only too well. Crystal was a mirror, the reflection cracked and tarnished. It was one Wilmien didn’t like looking at now that the corners of Crystal’s cupid-bow mouth were snagged with a familiar cruelty. All the “I hate yous” and “leave me alones” punctuated by slamming doors left Wilmien bruised and exhausted. At least with this purchase, Crystal would have a more resilient target for what Hannes had decided was teenage angst.

But there was no reason the Aesthesian couldn’t provide catharsis for more than one family member, surely? The thought eased the envy prodding at Wilmien’s heart.All our models are sex-capable. The words from the brochure scorched a trail through her mind before Hannes’s grumbling drew her attention.

“…for a little bit extra, no doubt,” Hannes said with a harrumph.

“You get what you pay for, sir,” the droid said. “The Aesthesian range is state-of-the-art synthetic tech. Of course, if finances are a concern we do offer payment plans for—”

“That won’t be necessary.” Hannes puffed out his chest, oblivious to how easily he was falling for the sale’s pitch.

Wilmien glanced back at the Shevani lookalike. It was still looking at her; the marks she’d left on its arm mere memory. Her heart hammered a little faster in her chest as she imagined the patterns her teeth could make on a canvas so easily renewed.

“I’ll give you a moment to decide,” Max-4 said.

“We’ll take one like that.” Wilmien pointed to the droid. Its eyes had closed again. “But with darker hair and eyes to match, please. I think Crystal would prefer it,” she added when Hannes squinted at her with eyes like a highveld winter sky. His hair—what was left of it—was a near translucent blond. When they had sex—not for months now—it was long, black hair Wilmien imagined knotted in her fingers.

“An excellent choice,” Max-4 said after a moment’s hesitation. “I’ll have one customized and delivered within three work days. Now, if you’ll come this way, we can discuss the details of your package.” Max-4 gestured toward a private cubicle. There were several others sat at similar partitions with their Maxes, all identical and smiling while the humans signed contracts and even wiped an occasional tear from leaking eyes.

Wilmien held her breath while Hannes scoured the fine print in the contract with his attorney’s gaze. She exhaled only when the delivery date had been secured.

The car started for home on autopilot—easier to let the AI navigate five ‘o clock Joburg traffic—as she scanned the papers Hannes handed her. He seemed content to stare across the vehicles trundling bumper to bumper toward the northern suburbs. Wilmien searched the manual until she found what she was looking for. She crossed her legs, tight, grateful for the rigid seams of her jeans, and memorized the requisite code.