Some of the most miserable people in life are often the ones who spend all their time waiting for the downfall of others. Leda was such a person. If you shared with her news of a job promotion, she’d point out the long hours, lack of free time to socialize and pressure before begrudgingly congratulating you. Tell her about a new relationship and she’d make it her business to remind you of disastrous past ones while highlighting your role in the perishing of it– before once again wishing you luck, her face reminiscent of someone who had swallowed vinegar. Relay to her the birth of a friend or family member's baby and she’d fall into an endless monologue on the perils of raising children.
Where there was gossip you’d find her. At the forefront. Listening, keeping score, sneering, pontificating, predicting and alas, awaiting disaster and downfall. Like an army general leading her regimen to a battlefield, she led her army of provincial followers without care for the consequences, without a thought as to the destruction their sharp tongues could cause. Leaving in their wake broken relationships, discord, vicious arguments, unsettled minds, and perpetually nervous folks who had not the intelligence or gall to question them.
Lately the thorn in Leda’s flesh was her neighbour who had moved in the previous summer with her teenage daughter. The source of Leda’s aversion was not because the woman and her daughter were difficult to have around—on the contrary, they were polite, quiet, and obliging. What ruffled Leda’s feathers was their refined intelligence and easy sophistication. Two qualities that sought only to remind her of her own mediocrity. And what further embittered Leda was the fact that neither the woman nor her daughter had one supercilious bone in their bodies. She would watch them from behind her old-fashioned lace curtains and fantasize about some tragedy or other befalling them while at night she would be plagued by nightmares in which the neighbour became the town mayor and her captivating daughter, the new beauty pageant winner.
One day Leda came home from work to find the neighbour frantically digging in her backyard. So engrossed was she that she failed hearing Leda’s false greeting and blatant curious glance over the fence. Leda entered her house, her mind aflame with curiosity, and as she cooked dinner that evening, she kept peering through her kitchen window hoping to spot why and what the neighbour was digging for. Even more compelling was when night had fallen, and she’d retired to bed, she awoke long after midnight to find the neighbour still digging while her daughter stood watch next to her holding a lantern.
She emerged from her house on the Saturday morning determined to have a chat with her neighbour about the purpose of the mysterious hole. With coffee in hand, she subsequently took a seat on the back patio hoping to catch a glimpse of her. An hour and three coffees later she gave up and went back inside. After getting washed and dressed, she was ready for her Saturday morning trip to town for groceries. She had just locked her patio door when she saw the woman appear in the next-door kitchen window. Her hand froze in a mid-air wave when she noticed that the woman appeared to be engaged in animated conversation. With flailing hands and a rapidly moving mouth she was talking to someone hidden from view. Her uncombed hair and creased clothes made her look dishevelled, something Leda found surprising and pleasing in equal measure.
Who is she talking to? Her daughter? And how is it that she hasn’t noticed me? Leda leaned to the left as far as possible but couldn’t see who the polemicist in her neighbour’s house was. After realising she would be late for her hair salon appointment, she rushed from the house, telling herself to visit her neighbour upon her return. She arrived at the salon just on time, grateful that she would have the undivided attention of the lead stylist whose talents were regionally praised. She said her hellos to the sea of familiar faces, paid her rehearsed compliments and listened with half an ear to discussions about the church bazaar. The salon was full, and after getting her hair washed and taking a seat for her haircut, she strained her ears for the latest gossip.
“I hear Lulu left her husband.” The speaker, one of Leda’s biggest supporters, was having her purple hair coloured and waited for the shocked what? from the audience before continuing her narrative with a lopsided smile.
“Yes, I heard from Ans. As the wife of the vicar, she knows everything. Apparently, Lulu’s been cheating with that foreigner who runs the art gallery. He…”
A blazing hairdryer interrupted her and before the thread could be recovered another woman was telling, with great vigour, about her brother-in-law whose company had gone bankrupt. Leda shook her head and smiled to herself. She had neither husband nor child to steal her joy and she was glad of it. The stylist was doing a great job and Leda complimented her.
“Thanks Missy. I have been meaning to ask you. How’s that neighbour of yours? Seems like a decent type. Is it true that she moved here from Cape Town? Why anyone would want to move here is beyond me.”
It was common knowledge in town that the stylist harboured dreams of one day opening a salon in the mother city, and travelled there every summer. Every January she would lock the salon for a month, leaving the ladies who were desperate for her artistic styling destitute. She would then return two shades browner, her skin radiant, her eyes alight full of appraisal for a city she loved. It was also common knowledge that her continuous cooing over the beachside city irritated many of her clients, who were too desperate for her services to vocalize their annoyance.
“Oh well, she’s alright. But last night I…”
A hairdryer being turned on full blast broke her off, and she shifted in her chair hoping to get a chance to talk about the events from the night before. Just then the neighbour’s daughter strolled through the salon doors. All heads turned towards her. She greeted and sat herself down with a friendly hello. Leda studied her in the mirror. The girl had a vacant beauty about her. Her face didn’t reveal much and the few times she had caught her eyes, they appeared to be veiled. Even when she smiled her eyes were guarded, with no indication of what she thought or felt. She became aware of Leda’s gaze on her and looked up. She smiled. Her straight white teeth shone like porcelain and Leda felt a chill run down her spine. Her eyes were different now. There was an overt challenge in them, the hazel depths maliciously sparkling. The girl held her gaze and Leda suddenly felt a stabbing ache in her head. She tore her eyes away.
By the time she got home, her feet and head were having a contest in the ‘who can hurt more’ department and she stumbled into her house, leaving the shopping in the foyer. After taking an aspirin she sat herself down and poured a chilled glass of white wine. She had taken two gulps when her doorbell rang. Lazily getting up, she sipped the last of the wine as she opened the door. In front of her stood the neighbour. Cleaned up and fresh faced, not a hair out of place.
“Leda, forgive the intrusion. I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind joining my daughter and I for a few sundowners. I realise that we haven’t really seen much of each other the last few days.”
About to decline, Leda changed her mind when reminded of the hole in the garden.
“That would be lovely. Just let me put my shopping away and I’ll be right over.”
Twenty minutes later she knocked on the door of the next-door residence and was led to the lounge. As usual she looked around, scanning every drape, pillowcase, chair, and ornament. Wine in hand, she traipsed the length of the room looking at a series of pictures on the walls. The neighbour had gone to the kitchen to fix some snacks and she had ample time to quell her curiosity. She came to a standstill in front of one picture, mouth agape. Depicted was a barren moonlit landscape, with a big goat sitting in the middle. All around the goat were haggard women, young and old, looking at it with reverence. Some of them had infants in their hands which they appeared to be offering whilst the corpses of three dead infants hung from a stake. She shivered.
“That picture is my favourite.”
“Oh God Cordelia! You scared me.”
When the neighbour’s daughter appeared she couldn’t say, but the girl now stood behind her, her dark hair blending in with the black dress she had on.
“I am sorry Leda. I didn’t mean to. That picture you were looking at is my favourite.”
“But it’s awful! How can anyone like it? It’s simply…”
Again, the girl smiled, again the sight of her teeth was distressing, wolf-like. But Leda stood rooted until the neighbour appeared with a tray of snacks. Yes, she’ll have another drink.
“Mother, Leda doesn’t like your picture.”
“Oh, but Leda, that’s my pièce de résistance. Of course, nowhere near the original. But it’s a wonderful copy of it.”
It was after the third glass of wine that she started feeling ill. A menacing headache made her lean forward, resting her head in her hands.
“What’s the matter dear Leda?”
“I am sorry I feel awful all of a sudden. Would you happen to have an aspirin and some water?”
“Cordelia, would you mind getting Leda something?”
Cordelia left the room and returned with a tall glass of water and an aspirin. Moments later she was feeling better and decided to ask about the hole. Mother and daughter cast each other a conspiratorial look.
“We thought you’d never ask. Come with us.”
They took hold on either side of her and laughed; she joined them. Before she knew it, they were outside. The moon was full and high, with not a breeze disturbing the evening silence. It felt strangely ominous. The hole seemed to be lit within.
“Wow, it’s huge. But what’s its purpose?”
Realising that they had let go of her hands she turned to look at them and drew in a sharp breath. As the moonlight cast on their faces, a maddening panic rose in her chest as she observed their sharp, blackened teeth, hollow cheeks, grey hair, and fingernails like talons. She wanted to scream but couldn’t, her lips seemingly glued or sewn together. Cordelia leaned forward, her eyes filled with malice, her breath reeking of rot.
“Dear Leda, there’s no point screaming. Nobody can hear you. You are a disease, Leda. Your tongue has done more damage than you could begin to imagine. So, my sister and I were sent here to make you stop.”
“Don’t look so surprised. Yes, I’m Lilith, Cordelia’s sister, not her mother. Your bitterness, envy and awful nature is like a plague. A pestilence. And now, you will meet your downfall. Down you go. He’s waiting for you.”
Her feet moved of their own accord. Blinded by tears,her arms and legs propelled her forward like she was a great marionette in the hands of an expert puppeteer. The last thing Leda recalled was the sound of her own screams vibrating and echoing in her head, unable to escape through sealed lips. And the unbearable reality of soil drowning her, the moonlight fading as cackled laugher reached her ears.
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