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Patrick Makondo | Dead Cow Tails

As he started for the medicine man’s village, Bonyo reflected on how his life would have turned out had his brother, then bursting with pity and outrage, not shown him this man, this route. Would he be here now, walking as he is, on the brink of a complete renewal, or would they have found him one morning, limp, forlorn, swinging with his neck from that sturdy mopane tree near his house?

Maybe he would have decided not to be found at all, settled on leaving behind a mystery, a puzzle to be worked on; vault off the dam wall in the dead of night, hoping not to drown of course, too drawn out that, but crack his skull on the jagged rocks under the water. Instant oblivion. A quick exit. Maybe again, he would have done neither, simply settled for some more pain and some more humiliation, made it her responsibility to end him: let that kitchen knife perforate him, meet it with an exposed chest: not deflect that rock, let it connect and shatter his skull: not claw at her hands digging into his throat, succumb, fade away, leave her alone with her fury, with the hefty label of man-slayer.

She was built like her father, Bonyo’s wife was. Big. Sturdy. Unpretentious, certainly not fragile. A working village girl.

These words were not for her: beautiful, charismatic or charming. Her endearing qualities were supposed to lie deep within her, nondescript. Waiting for the right suitor to see past the bad facial symmetry and dull pigment.

His parents tried to guide him, stressing to him that sometimes people are beautiful not in looks, not in how they charm or present themselves but in how they are fit for purpose.

“Forget looks, style, fashion, social status. Forget that artificial stuff,” his mother had advised him when they proposed her to him. “What you need here is a wife who will always be yours, only yours, not lusted for by every passing man because of outstanding symmetry.”

Bonyo’s father also chose his words carefully, from one man to another, father to son, pointing out her strong bone structure-the true stuff of industry and mileage. He also included in there, with the facial expressions that are meant to inspire confidence, that she was fiercely loyal, loyal to the family unit, having single-handedly raised and groomed her four siblings from a tender age after her mother succumbed to heatstroke while labouring in the fields. “What could beat that,” he wanted Bonyo to affirm, “certainly not a good cleavage or firm breasts. Those things eventually shrivel in any case. ”

Thank goodness beauty was not a priority to Bonyo.

He had been raised well, you see. He cared more for a stable home, as well as a submissive and functioning baby machine. Someone like his mother or his brother’s wife- rising early to warm his bath water, make his breakfast or polish his work boots. And Hluphe appeared to be all that. He did not see any violence in her then, not on her eyes, none to glean in the few days when they were left alone to bond after being introduced, and none to tease out in the brief stolen moment’s together weeks later.

Perhaps he should have asked more questions when he first saw the family oxen with the strange tails. The stunted tails. Those gruesome tails that could not swish or flick away bugs and flies. Tails like sticks. Dead tails.

It appeared now that this was the only clue nature had conspired to give him and he had completely missed it. A cow’s tail tells a story, who knew?

Had he insisted on knowing what befell the cow’s tails then even though it went against the  grain of fostering kinship, against the decorum of impressing a soon-to-be-wife, maybe his sixth sense  would have prevailed ,warned him  off the whole thing. But that sixth sense, blinded by promises of a settled life, of a submissive wife fussing and tending to his every need, failed to unfurl.

He knew now that the stunted tails were not a genetic condition, definitely not some rare disease as he had politely assumed.

A queer light had appeared in Hluphe’s eyes when she broke the news to him.

It was in strict confidence she said, this revelation, now that they lived together and all.

The disconcerting light had kindled in her eyes and had grown strong as she watched him start and recoil at the news.

That was her father’s handiwork, she affirmed with a tone Bonyo could have mistaken for pride, call it his form of branding. He bit into the tails with his teeth when rock and whip failed to produce the desired response.

She took her time laying out the gory details. Clearly she had a fetish for this sophisticated level of brutality.

He would lodge the plough blade under a formidable  tree root, imprisoning the cows, then seize a tail with both hands and sink his teeth in vampirishly, savagely, bending and twisting, drawing blood, tearing flesh and skin, crushing vertebrae.

She pressed closer to him, intent it seemed, to drive him into a panic.

“Was he even aware of what a tail means to the cow? Did he know that the tail is an extension of the spine, packed with nerves and veins? Without it no balancing, no showing off, no signalling to other cows, no swatting…”

Owning him like this grew on her.

There was indeed a time, shortly after settling down together—just after the eagerness wore off and the foreplay became repetitive –when these horror stories from her past seemed to dominate most of their time together. As they were unpacked to him in that disturbing manner he could not shake off the feeling that something firmly in his grasp, something promised, assured, was slowly but surely slipping away.

Then she had hit him with the grim bit about her Mom…

Bonyo’s line of thought was interrupted by sudden sharp itch on his crotch. He stopped walking. Gingerly, carefully he eased a hand down there and felt around the big circular wound. The blood had caked, no longer sticking to his underwear and he rubbed the top of the wound gently with the tip of his fingers, easing the itch. He smelled his fingers. Not bad at all. The medicine man will be impressed with how he had kept the wound clean, doing it the painfully way, rubbing sea salt down there and dabbing the exposed flesh with a towel soaked in methylated spirit. He resumed walking after carefully adjusting his clothes over the wound.

The official story in the village was her mom had died of heatstroke in the fields. At her funeral grieving relatives mentioned how she had died in her boots, slaving away for her family, and her husband, bent double with grief, spoke about how his life had lost all meaning and purpose now that his pillar of strength had left him.

“You really believe a village woman of forty would suddenly up and die of heatstroke?” She asked him one morning, jarring him to full wakefulness. She did it quickly, breathing heavily, lots of eye movement. This was big for her. “Healthy village women do not randomly overheat like an overworked cheetah, you know”

Heatstroke! She laughed at the village’s naivety and lapped up Bonyo’s sense of foreboding.

No man. That was him again.

And she was there when it happened. Her father sweating, swearing, fighting the plough, struggling to make deep, neat, straight furrows. Shouting at the cows, shouting at her mother who was leading them. The oxen were lagging as usual, their tails already dripping blood but still not working hard enough. She was not walking fast enough as usual, zigzagging, unable to walk a straight line. He could not get her with the whip, and he tried to get her several times. She was just too swift for it, having learnt to skip out of its reach.

The rock he threw got her though, ending her instantly.

The violence was not only in the fields. It was waged at their home with weapons, with words, and limbs.

I have been through the most, she would declare proudly after the climax of each story, visibly drained. I am wounded within.

And did he not know that now!


You are turning into your Father! He had beseeched her, when she descended on him on one occasion. Can you not see my love, you are becoming him?

Those were better days off course, but that was much earlier when she was not yet fully fledged, when she still flinched, when she could still be stopped by pleading, by appeals from strangers and relatives. In those times of hope her own actions appeared to torment her.

Those were the days when she begged him to run and save himself.

But those days were fleeting. She quickly become impenetrable, unreachable, unflinching. To Bonyo it appeared like she suddenly stopped recounting horror stories from her past and reached for him with both hands.

He remembered, many times over, being dragged up by the waistband of his trousers, it didn’t matter were, market, beerhall, church, legs dangling, clawing for balance, the fabric of his trousers digging into his crotch. He remembered dodging missiles-deadly stuff, rocks, knives, flying cats, anything she could lay hands on when rage overtook her. She appeared to Bonyo like a huge robot gone amok, responding to unseen stimuli, testing the limits of his endurance.

There was a trigger sometimes and sometimes there was no trigger at all. Violence could ensue at the drop of a hat. He was her dad’s cow and she had him by the tail.


Is there any love left all after this, his brother had probed, breaking for him. He was the only one he could confide in. An intimacy at all?

How to tell a simple village man that a man could be raped, repeatedly, without upsetting him further? How do violent partners ride those they abuse? In that moment of ecstasy, that point of no return, do they nibble or bite?  Do they suddenly defrost, become malleable, repent?

You do not divulge everything to everyone ever, even those you trust and love, it might overwhelm them.

All she was doing, and Bonyo could read her so well, was being her father. She was taking measures, refusing to be the terrified parent, refusing to be whipped, to be ended with a rock.

She had chosen the higher ground.

“There is a way of life we never had to know about because we are who we are”, his brother said, fingering the cross hanging about his neck. “And there comes a time when we must take a path that is neither safe, familiar, nor popular, but we must take it because we have no choice. There is this medicine man close to the Bemba people…”

He took his brother up on a dare. At this point, at the time of the confession, all was lost. He had practically lost the will to soldier on.


Inside the medicine man’s hut cuts were made on his right hand with a razor, his blood sucked out and mixed with the blood of lions, rhinos, Tasmanian devils-the blood of all the fiercest animals on earth he was told. Some very hot pepper-definitely the hottest in Africa, went in there as well. All was mixed in, spat on, talked to and rubbed back into the cut on his hand. His long dead ancestors were summoned and unseen they came to bear witness. Colourful Strings, laden with spells were tied to his wrist.

Then a simulation was done to test his ability to withstand an attack.

The healer came at him with fists, kicks, a knobkerrie, an axe and even burnt him with a candle. After a few touch ups, minor corrections, an additional string here and there, the tests were declared successful.

“No weapon formed against you would prosper”, the healer declared.

He was invincible.

But Bonyo, a virgin in this whole ritual was not convinced. He had glanced at the treated hand, expecting it to grow, morph, metastasize, into something big and deadly, but nothing of that sort happened. He resolved in the end to view all this with a spiritual eye, like when the man of God dipped him several times in the river and then declared: Go forth my child, you have been baptized by the Holy Ghost and you are now a new person. He had only felt very wet and cold then, absolutely not new.

He did not have to wait long to test his invincibility though, she was triggered the very next day after the ritual.

It is quite possible that something had already set her off on her way back from the village borehole where she had gone to collect water. Hard to tell because people normally do not go berserk over someone deciding to stay in bed for much longer than usual. In fact it could be a cause for concern for an otherwise caring partner. Are you ok? Is everything all right? `

From the bed, a groggy Bonyo heard the water bucket thud to the ground, water sloshing, fast approaching feet, and excited voices rising. He heard her muttering obscenities, breathing heavy, covering ground fast.

“He is still sleeping”, she was hissing through gritted teeth,” he is still sleeping…”

At such moments, when the inevitable was about happen, Bonyo’s mind always panned to his neighbours living spaces. He observed them, in nerve rending slow motion, shedding blankets, pushing away breakfast plates, scrambling to their feet, alarm on some, glee on others, their faces lighting up as the tumult reached them. Sisters, aunts, mothers, fathers, Dogs. Bonyo could see doors opening, curtains parting, kids hailing each other.

Uncle Bonyo was about to get it!

Then she was at the bedroom door.

Beads of sweat had formed on the bridge of her nose. Condensation always formed on her nose when she was in a state, clear colourless dots that stayed put no matter how hard she exerted herself or shook. Bonyo supposed new droplets formed immediately as the other dots combusted, a by-product of the immense rage swirling up within her.

“Why you are still in bed at this hour”, she hissed not caring for an answer as usual.

The seething cloud closed on him, clawing at his throat, choking. He curled into foetal position and drew the blanket tightly around him like a shield.

At that moment, for some reason, his right hand began to throb, sharp jabs, as if the healer was slashing his wrists with the dirty razor again. Maybe it was bleeding afresh. The throbbing grew until he could not stand it anymore. He had to ignore everything and clasp the hand tightly with his other hand while pressing himself down on the bed.

The blankets were ripped off him and the cloud descended.

There is a place of nothingness were people in immense pain escape to, Bonyo desperately tried to find that place now. He had never struggled to find it before. But on that day, the hand would not let him escape. It was on fire as if held over a scorching flame.

Then it broke free.

His body and the whole bed recoiled as if from a mule kick and he almost passed out from the jolt as his palm connected with her left cheek and ear, the impact so solid he feels the imprint of all her cheek bones, her teeth and the soft flesh of her outer ear crumbling inwards.

Her head jerks, maybe broken, and she sails to the far wall. For a moment she is suspended there, held up by the sheer momentum of the strike. Her fingers probe her face for structure, startled eyes beseech him, and then she crumbles lifeless to the floor like a stuffed doll.

Bonyo started, leapt of the bed, carefully skirted the crumpled figure and bolted for the door in his underwear.

“I have killed her”, he declared to the big crowd outside his door, as they parted for him in disbelief. “I have killed the big bitch.”

She had fainted of course, and the village people slapped, watered, coaxed and talked her back into life.


The medicine man led Bonyo on a tour of his formidable arsenal of medicines when he returned the very next day to show his gratitude. Weapons of mass destruction on one wall, strange forked tools that created rain and droughts, some directed thunder and lightning while others unleashed hurricanes. In a big bathtub-like container, Izidliso –harvested from the bodies of bewitched clients. In another container, nails, skin, foreskins, teeth, labia, pubes, hairs-potent stuff. At any other time, Bonyo would have been overwhelmed, recoiled from such, but today the new convict was mesmerised. A new world before him, endless possibilities. There was nothing this healer could not do. He could curse out spiritual vermin, bring back lost lovers, raise the dead, and annihilate enemies with lightning strikes in broad daylight.

The slap had turned Bonyo’s wife’s world upside down. She was no longer coiled or assured. She walked about as if in a daze, sometimes muttering absently to herself. Now and then, she will feel her ear with her hand. It had bled and she had lost hearing on that side. When their eyes met, which was not too often, Bonyo saw confusion-an animal that had misjudged its prey. It was going to take some time for her to find her rhythm Bonyo knew, the rhythm of every self-respecting village wife, God knows the discourse had been too long.

In bed she stared passively at the manhood that she had mangled and belittled, refusing to acknowledge it or feel anything. Nothing the medicine could not fix off course.


He arrived early. There were many people about, many more than usual and when he inquired he was told that the great healer had passed on, succumbed to some yet unknown cause or illness the night before.

“It was sudden my son”, the new widow explained. “He was not sick. There was no reason for him to leave a message. Yesterday he was very much alive like you and me. Today he is cold.”

Bonyo tried to imagine where bits of him could be. The doctor’s hut had many bags of meaty things: the bag with foreskins and bones or the one with teeth and nails? Maybe immersed in a blood syrup somewhere, away from the flies, marinating.

“As per tradition my son”, she continued, in step with his frantic mind, “All his muthi and stuff has been disposed of. We are not allowed to keep it.”

“Burnt”, she assured him with the calm finality of one who grieves bravely, pointing at a smouldering mound next to the medicine hut.

And it made sense to a crushed and dispirited Bonyo, you wouldn’t want to leave weapons of mass destruction lying around for kids to play catch with.

He ignored the nagging itch on his crouch as he walked back. He wondered for the umpteenth time, which final exit was easier, the Mopane tree, the Dam Wall, or give her back her powers and let her end him?


Image: Anna Pixabay (cropped)

Patrick Makondo
Patrick Makondo
Patrick Makondo’s most recent work is in the Bosphorous Review of Books.


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