Mothers

Keletso Mopai

“The heart of a hurt child can shrink so that forever afterward it is hard and pitted as the seed of a peach.” – Carson McCullers

Often, a mother looks her new born baby in the eyes and sees endless stars. Sometimes, she rubs her belly and feels empty. Other times, she says to the midwife, “Please take it away.” – this is what Masego said after giving birth. The baby was tangled in Masego’s belly from root to head for nine months, and yet she didn’t want it.

“It’s a boy,” the midwife had murmured, clipping the umbilical cord. “He has your lips.”

Masego said nothing. She closed her eyes and wished she could just sink into the mattress she was lying on. The baby’s cry was deafening, “I didn’t want this.”

“I know.”

“It’s not fair…to him. But I can’t be his mother.”

“I know,” she repeated, cleaning up the baby. “We will take care of it.”

Masego stared at the sun slit through the window, her eyes wounded and blank, wondering what she did to deserve this.

“Where are you taking him?”

“We will find him a place…”

When Masego returned home from medical school with a small bag and a backpack of textbooks, no one questioned her sudden weight gain and pale eyes. Besides, if anything, no one was really paying attention. She was the same Masego – boring and quiet, unlike her sister Basadi, who was lively as pompoms.

Home was a three-bedroom house in Johannesburg CBD, camouflaged by the noisy city and street lights. The colour was white with grey-coloured concrete fence that had protected her childhood against prying neighbours. When she was eight, a small truck driver crashed into it and it left him unscratched but dead; the medics said he died of a heart attack. The only tree in the yard was the lemon tree that her mother once planted, but there were flowers too – yellow, red, orange – that gave a pleasant welcome alongside the narrow passage to the front door. Whenever she arrived home from school she thought the flowers gave a false presentation, the way window shopping false-advertises, because sometimes when you walk inside not only are the mirrors smudged, the residents are barely alive as the flowers outside. The front door was brown and had sticker marks at the bottom that her sister had placed and removed when she was little.

The week before when her sister found out she was carrying, she called Masego to come home so she could tell her the news, and show off her flat soon-to-bulge belly. Masego found her sister giggly and smoother on touch when they hugged. Basadi had a nice turquoise bubble-dress on and every one of her friends and colleagues was invited.

Masego had been caught off-guard, holding the grape-flavoured drink in her sweaty hands, she could feel her knuckles weaken, and so when the drink fell on the floor, she felt exposed.

“I am pregnant!” Basadi had said. Everyone who was invited to her pregnancy announcement stood up cheering and embracing her.

The room sucked Masego into a dark corner. She felt as if she had stolen something and somehow the thing was found and everyone knew she was the thief. “Congratulations!” she finally uttered, her saliva tasting dry at the back of her throat. “I am so happy for you!” And indeed she was happy for her sister, because unlike her, she wanted children.

At some point Basadi believed she couldn’t have them. But now, there she was, pregnant, a dream she was close to giving up on. It was a miracle, when Basadi, out of habit, peed on a pregnancy stick and left it in the bathroom. Knowing the usual result, she had picked it up hours later and threw it in the trash. Something jolted inside her though as soon as she had done that, something felt different – she hadn’t read the stick right, and so she picked it up again. Her jubilation was heard by all her neighbours.

 “How long?” Masego whispered into her sister’s ear.

“Just two weeks. Isn’t it amazing? Peter is already picking baby names, can you imagine?” she said, joy bumping from cheek to cheek. “God finally answered my prayers.”

Tears crept out of her small eyes, Masego caught them, “If there’s anyone, anyone in the world who deserves this, it is you,” and wiped the tears off her sister’s face.

“I’m thinking of Kgadi, Mama’s name,”

Masego swallowed and smiled into her sister’s eyes, “Kgadi is perfect…”

*

Basadi met Peter at work. They were both new in the police force and had been eyeing each other since training together. Peter was slim and dark-skinned, his head a bit big for his neck. He was neat, ironed and proper. His teeth were white and his hair was shaven and even. Basadi and Peter got married within a year. The two planned to have a family as soon as they tied the knot. It didn’t happen. Even after drinking and eating the food that was said would help them. Even after visiting several doctors, who told them the same thing: Basadi couldn’t carry a child.

Masego only discovered how badly her sister was trying to have a child when she found out she was pregnant. It was one of her sister’s big birthday celebrations, and she found herself in the bathroom away from the noise in the house. She was crammed between the wall and the basin when someone entered the room, “Oh sorry,” they apologised for finding her like that, their feet were posed awkwardly between the inside and the outside of the room. She looked up, and it was Basadi. “Let me move out of your way so you can do your business,” Masego said, getting up.

“Don’t be silly. Sit. Keep me company.” Basadi sat by the shower and took out a needle like thing, pressing it on her left arm. Masego was left staring, startled. Before Masego could ask, she said, “I’m trying to get pregnant again…”

“Oh…”

“You thought,” she laughed. “The look on your face. You will never lose me to drugs.”

“I didn’t know you really want to be a mother.”

“I didn’t—”

“What changed?”

She stood up. “I feel ready. I’m twenty-nine, the time is now.”

Masego smiled, “I can see it on your face, and you will be a mother.”

Basadi looked at Masego closely. “What’s wrong? Is it your anxiety? Did you forget your medication?”

Masego wanted to tell her then, that one night with a friend turned to sex and now she was pregnant and that she wanted an abortion, but after hearing and seeing how badly her sister wanted a child, she let the words crumble in the back of her tongue. Instead she said, “The reality that I’m graduating next year is starting to kick in. Can you imagine, me? An orphan with an anxiety disorder is going to be a doctor?”

Basadi laughed. “You were born to be a doctor. You are a genius, and I did a pretty good job raising you.” She bent down to hug her. “Now let’s go back to the party. My guests will think I’m rude.”

“Okay, give me a minute.”

“Sure,” Basadi said, closing the door behind her.

And that was when Masego knew she was not going to terminate it.

*

Things did not abruptly go wrong like in the movies. A seed is planted first – by wind, by weathering, or by a human being whether on purpose or by the sole idea of having something to do – and then it grows steadily or drastically, and this is how Basadi found out Peter was having an affair. It would have been more real if he had brought the woman to their house and fucked her on their bed but instead he hid the act from her. She woke up one late night next to her husband’s snoring and tapped him on the shoulder. He woke, picking his eyes in the dark.

“Who is she?” she muttered.

Even though he was half-asleep, he knew what she was asking, and yet like a killer refusing to come to terms with his crimes, he mumbled, “Who?”

“You want to tell me you spend all your time patrolling the town not coming home after work, and it’s not because of a woman?”

“What are you talking about?”

Basadi uncovered herself, turned the light on, and stood naked before him. “Look at me. Look at me, damn it! I am eight months pregnant. I am heavy, bloated, and sweaty between my legs, carrying your child! And you are going around, cheating on me?”

There was silence, he just shook his head.

“Answer me, Peter. Are you telling me you would do this to me?”

Her screaming was heard by Masego, sleeping in the next room. Masego had expected the quarrel, Basadi had been pouring all her suspicions and frustrations onto her for about a week. The uneasiness was revealed in the way Basadi walked, dragging her feet like they weighed her down, the way she ate as if the food had too much salt in it, the way she spoke with anger sitting on her tongue ready to jump and choke something, and her constant tapping on the floor while waiting on Peter to arrive home, then dishing his dinner when she heard the gate open, but he still wouldn’t touch her as a conciliatory prize for the time she spent worrying over him.

Peter blurted the words, “I don’t want a child!”

Basadi felt her knees buckle. “What did you just say?”

He stood up too, as if he had been waiting for this opportunity. “Basadi, not once did you ask me if I wanted to have this child. You have been so obsessed with having a child ever since we met. And when the doctors kept telling you it’s impossible, I thought: ‘Thank God’…”

Basadi ground her teeth, marched over to him and slapped him.

He lifted his head again, like the act was nothing, like she was a toddler learning to draw. “Did you ask me? Tell me, throughout the doctor appointments, did you ask if I wanted a baby?”

“How could you say that, Peter? Are you saying I forced you? You were the one who encouraged me to try, and keep trying! You are the one that was picking baby names when I told you I was pregnant! You are the one who slid inside me every night!”

“I did not think it would come true. I loved you so much that I could do anything to make you happy. But now, here you are in my face, every day with a big belly. I panicked, and unfortunately it led me to love someone else, who is not you.”

It sucked. She had heard such things, vicious things people did to other people, but she never thought it could happen to her. It wasn’t the look in his eyes that hurt her, it was that he made her seem like the villain in the story.

“Don’t worry, I’ll be gone by tomorrow,” he said, leaving the room.

By the time Kgadi was pushed into the world, the damage was done. Even Kgadi did not want to suck Basadi’s breast. Kgadi screamed day and night and wouldn’t stop even when Basadi held her to her soothing chest. Tears were bursting out of mother and daughter and none of them knew what was happening yet.

“Just give it time,” Masego said to her sister, watching her struggle to nurse her baby.

“I don’t know what I am doing. Why can’t she stop crying? I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do! Oh Masego, I wish Mama was here. No one would teach me.” Her eyes were now red and swollen, she hadn’t slept in three days.

“You need to rest, you are going to drop her. Give her some space.” She regretted the words immediately when she said them.

“Give her some space? This is my child, Masego. She needs her mother, I can’t sleep when she’s crying like this.”

“Let me hold her then, I don’t understand why you won’t let me hold her,” she pleaded. “Give her to me, please, don’t do this to yourself.”

Basadi looked at her baby and sighed, and as if yielding a battle, she slowly lifted her into Masego’s arms.

“Oh my word, she’s such a beauty. She looks so much like you.”

“I thought she looked like mama, and then you at some point. As good-looking as Peter is, I’m glad she doesn’t have his features.”

“Now sleep, maybe she’s crying because she feels her mother is tired.”

Masego went to the baby’s room, all coloured in yellow and blue skies on the ceiling. She stood there staring, mulling over the past months, and wondering about the baby she gave away. She started humming, her tears tasting bitter in her mouth. There was a sense of loss, and then shame; here she was holding someone else’s baby and yet she couldn’t even look at the one she gave birth to. The shame stirred in her neck. Kgadi was now quiet, she wasn’t crying anymore. Masego smiled, and whispered softly, wiping the tears off her face, “Your mother wouldn’t believe it if I told her. But let’s not wake her up, okay?”

A day later, when Basadi was awake, after sleeping longer than she had planned, she wouldn’t hold her baby. “She will never forgive me,” she said, lying on the bed, half-staring at Masego sitting beside the bed.

“Who?”

“I had such a strange dream, Masego. Mama was staring at me. I could see her so well, I even touched her hair.”

“And what’s strange about that?”

“She was holding a baby. She was holding me in her arms, and I was happy,”

Even though Masego was frightened by what her sister just said to her and even though she wondered if she had gone mad, she assured her: “It was just a dream. You are not a baby. You are a woman who just gave birth to a beautiful girl. She will grow up to love you like any child would love a mother. She will grow into a strong woman, just like you. You are the bravest person I know. Unlike the coward that is her father, your daughter would cherish you knowing the lengths you had gone to have her. She will worship you Basadi.” She was beaming as she said this, but Basadi didn’t even lift an eye.

Basadi wore death like winter clothes. It showed in her size, and the colourlessness of her eyes – as if life bored her to death. She knew how she was going to die, she just didn’t know when. When depression comes, it lingers a little longer, pokes you in vulnerable places until you set a room for it to lie in, feed it if you will or not, but nonetheless it will be there to wear you down. Sadness sat in Basadi’s bedroom for months. It closed the windows, dampened the air, and it scared everyone around, including the baby.

*

When people went to Basadi’s funeral, staring at her coffin in front of them, some wondered if she wanted to be buried like this. Would she have wanted her remains burnt like imphepho or would she have wanted her body lying in a box? She never discussed this with Masego. Perhaps she didn’t care. But why does no one ever ask that?

Masego could not quite remember the first time she realised she was losing her sister. Perhaps it was the day she found her sleeping in the kitchen while the baby’s water bottle boiled on the stove? Or was it when she found Kgadi wailing at the corner of the room unfed? By the end, when nothing felt worth anything, Basadi climbed into a hot tub, submerged her body under the water until her heart stopped. She had written a note, creased at the edges as if it was written a long time ago. “I am so sorry Masego. Please take care of her. I know you will.”

Masego hated her sister for this. Not the act itself but how she did it. It was unoriginal, she did what their mother did years ago. Their mother drowned herself in a bathtub while Masego, then a baby of ten days, slept in the other room. It was Basadi returning home from school who discovered their mother’s body. If it broke her sister and made her loath their mother for years before ultimately forgiving her, why would she do the same to her?

*

It was Peter who showed up at Masego’s door a month after Basadi’s burial, with a woman holding a purse to her stomach. She let them in, assessing them as they walked into her apartment, and they took a seat on the sofa. Masego recognised the woman because her sister made sure she knew who she was. One afternoon, two weeks before her death, Basadi had pointed at her as if she wasn’t afraid of being noticed, with the kind of carelessness one has when they have nothing to lose. The woman was working as a pharmacist in Sandton city, had box-braids that were neatly folded in a bun. She wasn’t exactly beautiful but she was clean in her white coat, the kind of tidiness one has when they don’t have children, marital problems, or debt. She was in her early thirties, Basadi had said, how she knew that Masego never asked. Masego had walked up to her with a prescription from her doctor that she didn’t even need at the time. The woman was confident and poised as she looked for her anxiety medication and counted the pills like nothing in her life felt wrong, that the guilt of sleeping with a married man did not choke her in the middle of the night.

But now, she looked different, she stared at her feet while Peter playfully wrung his car keys around his middle finger. Masego wondered what Peter had told her and if it was the entire story, from beginning to end, if whether she recognised her, that’s if she memorised everyone who regularly walked into her pharmacy; after Basadi passed, wanting to place the blame on someone else and not postpartum depression like Basadi’s doctor had said she suffered from, Masego drove to the pharmacy to despise the woman even more, to look at her and feel her body temperature rise from her feet to her face as she handed her the life she needed after losing her sister. Masego believed Basadi had postpartum depression, but she also believed that what contributed to her sister’s death was the affair – all factors were heated in one big pot and only the one that’s more vulnerable burned the house down.

Masego asked the visitors if they needed anything to drink. Both said no. She gazed at the woman, now with kind eyes, and wondered if she knew that Basadi knew her, stared at her photographs on social media and racked her brain constantly about what she had that she herself lacked. Was it because she had no broken family? Was it because of her oval-shaped head and well-coordinated makeup, or was it her browner face, unlike hers that sometimes leaned towards yellow no matter how much foundation she used?

Puseletso was no match for Peter but on the outside they looked good together, like Barbie and Ken. She can recall how her sister had said her name, desperately wanting it to sound ugly in her mouth as she pronounced the ‘P’ like a fart. Watching the couple together, she believed Puseletso deserved better, just like her sister did. Peter was good-looking, but beneath that there was uncertainty, and uncertainty can turn anyone unattractive if one paid attention. Any human being living with doubt is like a limp penis, there, you can see their potential but they may never show up no matter how much you love them.

Masego regretted letting them in as soon as Peter opened his mouth.

“We think it would be best if the child lives with us.”

Masego bowed her head slowly, with the hope that they would have gone by the time she lifted it again. She then chuckled, because it must have been a joke. She indulged him, “The child has a name that her mother had given her. Her name is Kgadi –” Peter didn’t say anything. “– And who is ‘we’?”

He cleared his throat. “Me and my fiancée.”

Masego shook her head. “Peter, when my sister told me you cheated on her while she was eight months pregnant because you claimed you didn’t want a child, I thought what a coward you are, but you know what? I didn’t hate you. But today, you come here with the woman you cheated on my sister with when my sister’s body hasn’t even lured earthworms yet, and you didn’t even attend her funeral. Now you have the audacity to say you think that her child, the one you didn’t want, should live with you?”

“She’s my daughter…”

“Who you left!”

“You can’t take care of her!” And bitterly, he added, “Your mother killed herself. Your sister killed herself. Who says this disease doesn’t run in your family? Who says you aren’t next?”

Even Puseletso, who seemed embarrassed to have tagged along in the first place, wore a woeful face. That made Masego even angrier. Who was she to feel sorry for her?

“Please Peter, let’s go,” Puseletso begged.

“At least let me see her.”

Masego kept quiet, walked to Kgadi’s bedroom and locked it. She covered her mouth with Kgadi’s blanket and screamed into it.

Kgadi was a good baby, she didn’t deserve any of this. The kind of baby that made a mess but didn’t cry. Masego saw the similarity between the two of them; she saw her for who she was – the child whose mother drowned herself. This scared her. When they lay in bed together, she saw Kgadi’s life unfold into a hundred films; there was chaos, happiness, chaos and more chaos as if her breathing provoked the universe. She believed Kgadi’s life would be filled with loss because it happened to her. When she held her, she didn’t really like the smile Kgadi formed on her face, the giggle she made when she played with her. She also disliked her naivety because she knew every child needs their mother. She wanted her to cry, wake her up at midnight and let everyone who could hear know that her life has changed in seven months.

Masego waited until she heard the front door shut, and when she was certain that the couple had left – she sunk to her knees and clasped Kgadi’s bed. Her hands were unsteady and her stomach kept turning; this usually happened when she had done something she was ashamed of. That kick in the pit of the stomach, the needles in her cheeks, and her mind playing the event over and over and over until she hated herself. Masego had received a visitor the day before at a time like this. She hadn’t recognised her at first, the woman looked different when she wasn’t in her uniform.

She uttered when she sat down in the living room, “I’d hoped you would remember me, Masego, but the look on your face tells me you don’t,”

Masego stammered, “I’m sorry, I—”

“My name is Magdalene,” she started. “I’m the midwife who delivered your baby.”

Masego felt her entire body quiver.

“I’m sorry to show up like this as you told me directly that you wanted nothing to do with the child.”

Masego still hadn’t found words to say to her, she just very uncomfortably patted the child on her shoulder, and in doing that she felt like the most horrible human being on the planet.

“Is that your baby?”

“Oh, oh no, this is my sister’s daughter.” Masego didn’t like the response she gave, it sounded like an apology.

“She’s beautiful.”

The midwife observed her. “Are you okay? Did I come at a bad time? You seem restless –” She looked around the room. “– Are you living alone?” She wanted to find the reason behind the dirt on Masego’s face. Masego, not knowing what to say, resorted to an uncomfortable silence. The woman exhaled before saying, “I’m afraid I’ve come with terrible news, Masego. I am sorry to say the boy died. We discovered that he had a tumour in his brain, the family who had wanted him didn’t even get to hold him. I thought you should know. I think you have the right to know what happened to your son.”

Masego looked at her blurrily. She felt as if the words had killed her.

“I’m so sorry,” the woman apologised once again.

Masego nodded slowly, her eyes fixed on the wall. She then murmured, rather inaudibly, “Can you help me?” Realizing the woman didn’t hear her, she asked again, now looking in the midwife’s eyes: “Can you help me?”

“Help you?”

“I can’t…I can’t. Please take her.”

The woman’s eyes widened.

“Please.” Masego scooped Kgadi into her arms. “I can’t be her mother.”

The midwife stared down at the baby on her lap – brown eyes, curly hair, soft skin, small toes. After what seemed like a decade, she mumbled: “I will take care of it.”

Keletso Mopai is a South African storyteller, qualified geologist, and author of the short story collection ‘If You Keep Digging’. Her works are published in numerous publications including Catapult, The Johannesburg Review of Books, Ake Review, Omenana Magazine, Brittle Paper, and The Kalahari Review. Her short stories have made finalists for the Brittle Paper Award for Fiction, The Writivism Short Story Prize, The Nommo Awards for Speculative Fiction, and The Africa Book Club Competition. She is currently working on her first novel. You can read more of her work on her website

 

*Image by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash.