My Skin of Glass by Sim Matyobeni

FICTION: My skin of glass

Sim Matyobeni's new story charts a student's ill-starred love affair in the university town of Alice


Grandfather, I come to you in the way of truth. If you should find this a sin, then forgive me son of Xhosa. On the soles of my feet I’ve wiped the patina of your notebook; and I shall carry your confession with me on any expedition. It’s clear to me that I live my life exactly as you lived yours when you were in your prime, and I feel rather oddly that my life is a rerun of yours. And for the life of me I couldn’t shake off the feeling that this is all a spoof. Yet to plug in to this reality, I pray to be blessed with the tongue of a griot as I render in a foreign tongue the contents of your release. I’ve gathered that you poured your heart into the notebook long before your life was on the wane, when you still reckoned on being the salt of the earth and the face of youth on which the world should look. And even though you’ve now come down with the frailties of old age, I can still make out your handsomeness beneath the hard grimace and your cold stare. Many years have passed since you wrote your story; yet it’s not so much your release as it is ours:

‘You see, Noma, when life tried to bear down on me I didn’t flinch,’ I once told my wife.

‘I don’t suppose that’s our brief, to flinch, in this world of prickly sods. We must scramble for what we want all the time; otherwise, why do we break pieces of earth everyday?’ she had replied. It could scarcely be said her responses to my every remark failed to amaze me, even though I hardly believed that how we fare with the world must come from a brief.

This exchange with my wife took place when my days as an out-and-out vagabond, after my varsity years, were over. At university I offered myself to men who were the life of student political movements, at a time when the National Party had a shaky, at times firm, grip on the restive black body. And I had kept a list of the men I had been with, and also of the many women who had also been lucky. I believed I had the impulse of the libertines surging within me. It is a relief to see that the impulse has seeped through into the age of our grandchildren, although we now have the misfortune of many venereal diseases cast upon us.

‘I hate men! I hate men!’ I would say looking in the mirror. The bogeyman in the mirror would say: ‘You lust after them. That’s the truth you can’t face. We haven’t taught you this, you know. You’re ashamed. But you need not be, if you should know. People understand, and if you don’t want them to they’ll pretend not to. Your choice.’ Where I come from we do not take counsel from bogeymen, although we have learnt to keep in with them. They are part of what makes us who we are, and more often than not they hold out to us the various versions of ourselves.

I know that my past of debauchery is still stowed in the hold of my memory like the faces of my children which the years have burnt into my eyes and heart. Today I am beholden to my wife and five kids; two boys and three girls. And I hold my wife in high esteem, as opposed to a time when day in, day out, my soul crackled within the pages of the sea whose words were pieced together by my tears. This was when I was propelled by desires through genie waters upon which I wished for an adventurous sort, a handsome, stout man, preferably, to come sail along with me across the ocean of life; perhaps then I could look to being understood. On what I felt I levelled with nobody and always had my feelings bottled up. Those feelings still remain with me and will most likely stay with me forever, although I have now learnt to love my wife as she has also learnt to put up with my halitosis. Her name is Nomawethu — ‘the woman of my family’. As things stand now in this culture of mine, the wife should respect the husband and the husband must love the wife. But I need not tell my wife that I love her, the elders of the family will do so when necessary.

I was a teacher, and had always wanted to become one. Teaching was also one of the few doors that the government opened to anyone of my kind. I was only eighteen years old when I went to study History at Fort Hare University, in Alice. My father entrusted me to his friend, Sibawu, who would rather have people call him ‘Gadfly’ because he likened himself to Socrates, the teacher whose method was to put questions to inquisitors, instead of answering theirs, to extract from them what they already knew in order to get at an answer. At Sibawu’s house, that four-roomed building with a blotchy cream wall and a chimney whose breathing was sure to tamper with mine, I would wash my feet for the duration of my three-year degree.

‘Here son of Mthimkhulu, I give you my son. He’ll serve you well,’ my father said. Although that left me nonplussed, it was obvious to me that I had to learn to negotiate the bends of life in the new place, and so live out its highs and lows. Sibawu was standing at the doorway of his house when my father addressed him upon our arrival. He was facing west, and as the sun was going down its rays had fallen upon him. While they danced furiously about him he kept a tight rein on them; and then the sun shone fiercely at that moment before it bowed out. No sooner had I seen Sibawu than I realised that he was one of the most attractive men who had quenched my greyness. Plus, he was going to be my mentor; I would be bathed in his aura. In my village all the boys were told to look up to men like Sibawu who had already worked out how to negotiate their way in the world.

‘Our future looks bright. I’m happy to see that young people are keen to take the baton from us, the old dogs that no longer have teeth,’ Sibawu said as he shook my hand. His hand was soft, and I imagined how a hot slap from such a hand must feel. In response to his remark all I could do was laugh. His beauty had violently burst in my face. And I noticed that when he spoke he would tilt his head slightly to the right, and his smile could move mountains to worship, seas to applaud, and the ground to turn into a canvas on which the beasts of the earth would print hosanna with proud hooves. He was spruce and this punctuated his godliness. Had I the gift of tailoring words to the needs of the soul, I would have sung praises on that fair specimen. But praises never touched my tongue in those years.

Days later he would reach down to cup my manliness bulge in his hand, and then his fingers would slither underneath my underwear and prowl through the hairs that are sitting mournfully around my genitalia. An intense foreplay would then follow, and then he would exert his hold on my body. As I clutched the doorstop in the kitchen the baobab root would stride into the mouth of mollusc, and I would fancy the baobab leaves were cheering as he made his way inside. It was after such episodes with Sibawu that I began to feel anxious whenever I had to share a bed with male friends. The first episode is from a period when his wife and kids were away to pay his wife’s family a visit. We were all from Qumbu. And yes, the man was married and had two children. This fact never worried me and even the fact of his age- that he was far older than I was- did not make me falter. I was in love with that man, and knew that those who brought me into this world, and even my ‘people’, would never reckon with that kind of love. 

‘Upon your return from your initiation school I was present,’ Sibawu began, ‘and I saw you standing stark naked by the river uNkcwe.’

‘That most painful moment when I had to live through the flame of those men’s eyes; my person exposed. Couldn’t we do it any other way? That was embarrassing,’ I said.

‘We are born naked. So when we are born anew we must still appear naked, and we shall be so when we leave this earth. Surely you’ve heard of Job,’ Sibawu said.

‘Oh, yes, yes. How could anyone miss that? I understand these things when other people do them. I don’t really take kindly to them, I’m afraid.’

‘They must be done. Some of these things give us purpose even when it doesn’t seem like they do.’

‘And some of them kill us but we still hold on to them.’

‘Well, we all know that it’s what we love the most that kills us. History has taught us this. Izithandwa zabumini. Doesn’t Mqhayi say so? It’s all a charade.’

‘I guess so. But I feel it should not be so. Why must we love if it leads us to our death?’

‘Some people ask why must we live if we must also die. Many poets have died asking this question. Loving is just one of the ways of tapping into the core of why we are here. We need no reason for it. Reason is so powerful and elusive that it will reason itself out of life, and before you know it you will have gone gaga.’


Sibawu then told me that he thought I was still as attractive as I was when I returned from the initiation school. He said there were many like me in the village; many beautiful young men.

‘You know how these things work,’ he said, ‘you see a beautiful boy and then you suffer day after day without being able to tell anybody. Story of my life. You know, Zilindile, I hate the toy word “handsome”. It irritates me. It makes us think of our beauty as sweat and suffering, and I don’t agree. Your lips. . . God! These lips kill me.” He moved his soft forefinger on my lips, and then with his thumb he stroked my forehead. It was as if he was drawing the outline of my face in his mind. And then he chuckled as he always did when he caressed my face. Perhaps he was not blind to the oddness of that moment as I also felt awkward whenever he did such things.

‘The things you do to me, young man,’ he said, ‘Your lips are unlike those of many folks I know; the worn out lips which are eaten into by strong spirits; the kind of lips which may just fall off the owner’s face and leave an eternal non-contagious smile; the kind of lips on which curious crèche kids may model their clay person’s lips when they first encounter the magic of clay.’

I prayed to the sea of desire to calm that beautiful man who had sprung from its foam; I wanted to regain my senses. That man had driven me mad in a violently mad society. And whenever I thought of Sibawu, my gadfly, I always imagined a tumultuous sea where those who had gone to sea were weaving tales of horror:

In a place where our love is a sham;
Though the sky’s beam goads us to fly
Into nests of caresses in this supple clam,
Our society. We thrill to gay nights which sigh
When I whisper delights into his soul’s tram;
When we recline on the carpeted floors of the sky.
And I love him as I love the sky’s tears of joy;
His sweetness shall stay with me and never cloy.

I emerged from the mountain with my stride of manliness which could be checked by no one. I knew I was a man. Amen. I had first seen a really attractive man when I was umkhwetha at the initiation school; and I doted on him. He knew about it because I told him. He got mad at me, but continued to keep in with me after his disappointment had worn off. That maybe he was also in love with me, and that he might have wished for permission to love me back, was a thought that rippled through my brain. That is all I yearned for everyday: to be allowed to embrace my ‘man’. I was denied the opportunity to be with the master thief who had stolen my heart. His name was Thando. I had once gone with him to gather kindling when he asked if the white-ochre which we had on our bodies and faces had not wrinkled his face, and I replied, ‘You’re beautiful’. I wanted to say he was fine, although this would not iron out my homoerotic creases.

Both Sibawu and his wife taught English. Sibawu was also a football coach. I once saw in one of his notebooks, when I was cleaning up his car, an acrostic poem written to one Matlapeng. The poem was titled “The Scream”. It read:

My eyes have seen serenity rap on beauty,
As a lad danced on the pitch for eternities;
The man of Edvard Munch must be fidgety;
Lo and behold he is clinging to infinities.
A boy loved once must be many times flowered;
Paedophilia tantrums may, however, not be thrown;
Entrapped in the love pit I am never empowered,
New izibongo will speak to the love that has flown;
Give umnweba to the one who gets the boy.

I never had until then taken Sibawu for a poet. It should stick in his craw to know that someone had looked in his book of intimacy, so I never mentioned Matlapeng lest I should be rammed into the rocks of raging intimacy. Matlapeng: on the rocks, I believe. Sibawu took pains to never come off as an equivocal sort and believed he left no spoor where he trod; and that is what he believed in spite of his noted foppery and, I suspect, buggery.

Weziwe, Sibawu’s wife, was like my mother in character: strong-willed, kind, and rough sometimes. She once told me in confidence that she was suspicious of her husband’s ways with young men. Not a bit farfetched, I thought. When we sat on the veranda and saw young men from our vicinity walking across the street, some greeting and enquiring after “sir’s” health, I could not help but imagine those fellows being fondled by the fop that always sat next to me. Indeed most young men looked up to this man who always said no to clumsiness, although he only looked at those young men whose buttocks he wanted to hold in his hands. He told me that he enjoyed frolicking with young men, and that whenever he was with a young man he felt as though he were given a new lease of life. Without doubt he thrilled to sex with young men. This I knew and was not fazed by it; it only got me involved with other young men.

‘What a bite!’ Weziwe cried. We were relaxing in the parlour of her house after Sunday lunch-hour radio news. She had been railing against what she saw as the foolishness of the state which was pitting whites against blacks. She was visibly cross.

‘Such pain caused by this man who stamped his name on my womb. Rumour has it that he really does things with boys. I don’t want to believe it; and this is not the kind of truth I want to live and with which I should want to live. Boys! Boys!’ She choked on the word. I was like a mannequin; soulless, speechless, clueless.

‘Where does this put me, huh? I can only compete with other women, if need be. This I can’t do. How must I live with this kind of humiliation and embarrassment? Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me the mawkish wife I never thought I’d become.’

She also agonized over what shape skindering by other women on her plight would take; that she had been made to lick the dust. She said, with her head leaning against her clenched hand, ‘I am not at ease’. Yet she dared not confront her husband with the rumour lest she should be swept up in the vortex of his anger, but only told him to remove his footprints where he treads in the dead of night because the trail had been followed. Sibawu buttoned up and left in a huff. Personally, I felt that she should have called forth the sword of dishonour with which Sibawu would disembowel himself; and her role would only be to cut off his head and then take care ofthe funeral obsequies. Yet here it is not the blood of man that propitiates the dead who live vicariously off the undead, but that of animals. And thus we must sacrifice the bull of love whose horns rise with the dawn of misery; our misery. This fact never eluded us; all of us.

‘We do all that lovers do but we may never be lovers,’ Sibawu said.

‘What we do is seen as not African,’ I said.

‘Well, young man, we have yet to decide what is and what is not African. The minute you said ‘African’ proudly I wanted to pounce and pommel you.”

‘But it’s what the people say and that is what will go, because in these parts we want to put issues of sex under geographical location and that other thing that we must first agree on: culture.’

‘Don’t you feel that the word ‘African’ is an abyss, young man? Right now it’s looking into us, and laughing at us. We’re still defining ourselves against the abyss of foreign intrusion. It’s always putting us under its gaze because we’re always looking at it.’ He said our problem is beauty. If I reckon there is no beauty in what you do, I will want you to stop it, or even stop being who you are. It is that simple, he said.

‘There is too much noise about beauty in the world. And I have seen too much beauty, so much so that I have heart problems. But beauty must be enjoyed while it lasts, because the beautiful ones will think of it when they are on the scrapheap. You know, in this life we are either told lies or made to lie, and whatever the case may be we’re all bound to lose something we hold dear. You’re still a beautiful young man charged with dynamite and light. Use them before they go out. Look to the libertines for inspiration. They knew one or two things about the senses and life.’ He then cleared his throat as if feeling for the right words to say. He looked round the room and pointed me to books that were stacked up on his desk. He then mumbled something. ‘De Sade, de Sade, de Sade,’ I think he must have said, because he had a collection of the Marquis de Sade’s work.

‘I believe that life is about breasts, vaginas, penises and anuses. Living is to negotiate who should lay claim to these. But beauty must beat them all,’ he said finally.

I once slept with a man, a High School principal who as I learned later was also Sibawu’s friend, who brought his sjambok to bear on me. Welts sat on my skin like freckles for a month. He was doing me when his temper frayed on realising that it would take him an eternity to finally come. I suggested Onan’s fall but he screamed: ‘Interrupted intercourse!’. He then let rip what disgust had already welled up inside him. Each lash came to me like the report of a gun. I am not certain as to how many times I apologised. My face was bloated. I wondered what I would say about the bloody embroidery on my skin when Sibawu asked. Fortunately, my bruises kept him at bay. A few days later I visited the local tavern, MaBlues’. As I rose to leave I was tackled to the ground. A young man loomed over me like a mountain at whose foot I had slept in one of my dreams. ‘Matlapeng! Matlapeng!’ I heard the onlookers holler at my attacker as his foot dug into my ribs and belly, and then, as if to glean knowledge on agony from my face, he squatted and tilted down his head. ‘Nc-nc-nc-nc!’ he said and spat on me. ‘Leave our fathers alone,’ he then said just before he disappeared amongst the spectators. It transpired that Matlapeng was the principal’s eldest son, and I was a year older than him. I wanted to scream; perhaps my scream would be better than Sibawu’s.

Weziwe finally squared up to me on what she called my ‘nancying’ around her husband, and told me to steer clear of him. She told me that there were rumours about my torrid affair with her husband, and that she was going to tell my parents about it. This was love. It dawned on me in those days that love is violence, for Weziwe’s gaze was an inferno I had to brave until I left her house. In that house everything became cold, and I squirmed in that chill. Yet my escapades with Sibawu never ceased. In the small hours of one Sunday I sliced off Weziwe’s breasts and tried to wear them as earrings. I had also thought of making them into biltong. She was the face of society; of cruelty. She was the face of strange love, just as I think I also was; and that kind of face has hate and bloodthirstiness written over it. With the smile of violence flitting across my face I flayed Sibawu. I wanted to place a tyre around his neck and set it alight, so that the flame might burn off that beauty which was not and never going to be within my grasp. He had betrayed his wife and would also inevitably betray me.He must burn, because in this country we burn such people; I know many beautiful men and women who have perished in the fire of love. Those who break laws of love should be hanged; and sure enough our gallows tree is still standing. All this only happened in my mind.

The violence of love turnedme into a lunatic. I think love thrives on torture, and indeed it thrust stakes into my behind. I only wanted a man I could love and who could also love me. Sibawu had become the master who thought of me as a comrade. He taught me ways of love and always insisted that I live my life with an acute awareness of the ramifications of my every enterprise. This was the same master who felt that his sjambok must sniff at the buttocks of the young men he taught. He acknowledged that this smacked of perversion.

On the eve of my return to Qumbu, when I had already finished my degree, Sibawu staggered home sloshed in the evening. He found us having supper in the dining room, and we had not waited for him before we started to eat. He was furious. He reminded us that we were in his house. For some time he considered my presence without saying a word. I shrank in my chair. For three years Sibawu and I were having fun and whenever one of us brought up the fact of what we were doing, we always skated over it. Hindsight has eased me into the thought that he had looked into the future and had seen my departure, the moment he should dread the most, and had nothing but vitriol to scream through the scrim of longing. He wanted me to stay. O! Stay and hear; your true love’s coming. He slapped me for being, he claimed, a mollycoddle. I punched him and a clumsy tussle ensued whereupon he took his gun out and shot once at me, but the bullet only grazed my arm. The wife and the children had cowered under the kitchen table. That was one spectacular performance of love and no romantic could have done it better.

‘What do you people want from me?’ he shouted, ‘Have I not coddled you enough? Have I not given you all the love I have? Village boy, I’m talking. I bring you into my home, and now you want to show me that you have a big chip on your shoulder.’ I could not tell where all that came from. I was startled and could not summon up any words to soothe him. Had I said I loved him he would have put a bullet through my brain, for in these parts we do not tell our fathers, the Sibawu’s of this earth, that we love them. We say it is unbecoming, yet this deliberate omission eats into our flesh like sulphuric acid. When I left Sibawu’s house I left him a note:

I have a river of mine;
It attracted me from afar,
I arrived to find it dry.

As I have said I am married now.I was told that a woman had to crack the glass-skin within which I was confined, but pieces of my flesh will remain peeling off forever. I feel that even though I still push boulders of desire up the hill I may never reach the top. And I also feel that should a boy have designs on my boys I shall show him my girls and if he is incorrigible, I will pray that he be turned into a pillar of salt. Only then will he indeed be the salt of this earth.

My grandfather, oh my grandfather. I can still remember what you did when my sisters told you about some men, shepherds from the neighbouring village, they’d seen having sex at the river bank. When those men were identified and brought before the headman of our village you spoke fervently against what they’d done, and suggested that they be severely beaten. You also spoke obscurely about the end of the world, saying that all these wars, famine and diseases were caused by such men.

‘It’s because of such men that we‘ve incurred the wrath of the ancestors and the Almighty, and that’s why my cattle are dying of hunger. There’s ‘drought’,’ you said. I don’t suppose your ‘drought’ should disadvantage other people, grandfather. If that’s the case then I should forget all that you’ve taught us; it’s empty. You’ve always said people lead different lives and as long as my life doesn’t impinge on somebody else’s then it’s all good.  

You’re now just like my high school friends who’d wantedto shallow everything about meninto homosexual stereotyping; and who’d always wanted to validate themselves to people who hardly looked on them. To them, unless proven otherwise, all men were gay. And they also claimed that only their fathers were straight men. If I had your story at my disposal then I’d have been quick to call their claims bluff.

Through my twitter account I have magnetised hordes of men, and my inbox overflows with messages whose nuances sweep over the old tongue of our forebears who made possible the language of homoeroticism. If I were to ask you to have a joint coming out session with me you would strangle and drown me, and then pay for the funeral. You would be probably hailed as ‘The Kindly Murderer’. That’s how desperate our society has become. As I write this, the time is six in the morning. You’re in the garden with grandmother. I can see you through the window. You’re always laughing when you’re together. I think it comes as a matter of course that my favourite quote is: ‘May you live in interesting times.’



One Comment

  1. Unati mbana says:

    nice one cuzz really you’re good

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