Mama, you know there is no one in this world I love more than you.
Head bowed, Nozamile nods, gives Siviwe a sidelong look – urging, cautious – from under the hand whose fingers smoothen the creases on her forehead. The sound of Mongezi’s bated breath betrays his nervousness after the boy’s balking. Mama…rings the boy’s words in his ears, you know… The precarity of the situation hits him all over again. He’d expected this. Still, he’d led with optimism. How else could he have come this far? Propelled as a gust does a leaf, here he had landed. KwaZaka, 23 years later. Much has changed, happened, his disorientation great. Still, he wills himself. Stands first, then sits with composed anticipation.
Ewe, mntwan’ am, she says, I know. I know that.
Please don’t dent that love, then, Siviwe heaves, voice hoarse, eyes dry. Some cracks can easily chasm into canyons, and those are difficult to bridge let alone mend.
Dull scraping sound of wood forcibly pushed back on the mud-lathered-with-cow-dung floor. Siviwe stands on the other side of the table; it shakes from the impact, and Mongezi’s tea spills and pools on the saucer. His mother’s one remains in her hands, exactly like how she’d always held it all these years, in that clasp-cusp grasp.
Get this man away from me, he screams.
Her cup topples over on the edge of the table as she unclasps it in her need to assert herself.
Why is he here? Why did you allow him in here?
Before she can catch him, knocking the man over in her pursuit, Siviwe is already gone. The ‘catch’ was not to admonish him – she sighs – but to be close to him and, yes, beg him to calm down, sit and talk with him. She’d forgotten how he hated being touched, especially when he was angry.
That, too, is why he fled her touch – he knew she would do that.
Mongezi gets up, smooths over creases, real and imagined, on his clothes, his pride – his dignity? His left fingers straddle the edge of the doorway; he balances himself by the press of the hand’s heel, his other a visor.
The boy’s gone.
If the man wouldn’t leave, he would.
Did he say that? Mongezi asks.
No, she says. But I know him. Stubborn as a pig.
He smiles – coy? Wry. Chuckles. Mongezi can’t help but yield himself to the glut of emotion that colours itself in his expressions. The strokes that paint the portrait of the boy’s personality. He knows, as does she, from where he gets his stubborn streak.
From the slew of spears that dart from her eyes from across the room, he pulls the façade closed over his face, over himself, too – the smile vanishes. I am sorry, he pleads.
He wants to know how long it will take the boy to come back – if he comes back.
She looks at him as one might an impertinent child clowning for the eyes of strangers. He withdraws his question by a raise-and-drop of his hand, ingratiating rather than dismissive. Mongezi sinks into his chair, smooths his head where the boy’s chair had hit him, stunned, though he tries to conceal it. No making peace with what has happened with him – Siviwe, he should say.
Why now? The one question Nozamile had resolved to reserve from him. Why now, Mongezi?
He turns to her, face sagging. He’d waited for it, but now that it comes, especially after the boy—
—The “boy’s” name is Siviwe, Mongezi! Siviwe!—
He too cuts her short. A raise of the same hand that had hushed her a minute ago, now more of a shush than an apology. I know that, he says, I know that!
That? His name, that?
Twenty-three years absent, Mongezi. Then you crawl in here sideways like a crab, and you say—!
1980. Exiled in Angola. Two years later, Zambia. Guerrilla enrolment and a descent down to Mozambique a year later. Year by year, the trek throughspace and time towards home, to Zami and the boy, whose birth he’d learned by chance of a reply to a soppy love letter he’d written her a year after he was born. What money he had, went downsouth with the letters to be caught by her hands at Africa’s feet, itching and yearning to hold his hand too, to feel, just one more time the warmth of his body until—
—The letters, then the money, came in trickles—
It was then that Nozamile learned to let his voice dissolve into a gurgle in the background. Siviwe – eight-years-old then.
Through the years her memory cleared itself of him, plunged him to the depths of forgetfulness, where his name, his being, was drenched and blackened in the mud. Like how he must have forgotten about her too. She would dictate letters to her niece, before ‘86, and hoped that they would reach him wherever he went. In the letters, she told him of his son, the one he left her pregnant with. She talked about him a great deal, describing him with as much detail as she could whisper for her niece’s pen to write. How could he not know him now, expect a different personality than the one she told him of all those years ago?
Zami, love, please… Please forgive me.
She pushes in the chair she was about to sit on at the utterance of the claim. How dare he, at this time and circumstance, call her that, own her like that?
She pulls out the chair again. His voice flows into that familiar stream as she sinks into the troubled waters of her own reveries, at the centre of which flows Siviwe, her beautiful son, hope of the future, bristling and brimming with promise and sweet love.
An autumn’s Sunday. Whipping chill of the evening wind. 16-year-old Siviwe, then a Grade 11 scholar, his face, his being, like his voice and word, imbued with a confidence only the gods could bestow. Next to him, her blanket-shrouded legs crossed under the table, Nozamile with the old brown-and-white poncho shielding her from what trickled in of the blowing breeze outside, heralding a winter’s brutality that both had never known. It seemed a curse, to both of them, as if information leaked by an unknown osmotic phenomenon from one to the other, though unknowable from whom to whom…
…but the child.
Putting down the cup on the table, he requested, looking at her with a curious tenderness in his eyes, the story, the reason for the strange phenomenon.
They had both felt it, then. She knew the presence, he didn’t. Until then.
Your younger brother, she told him, died at childbirth.
Half-brother. Not much younger than he, he deduced, for he’d always known of Mongezi, but not the child.
Now, as a hot then ice-cold gust exchange blows into the house, Nozamile leaps up from the table and steps into enkundleni to see if Siviwe is anywhere about.
A child’s anger is a thing never to be awakened – though forgiveness seemingly comes easily to children, it rarely stays, in its ephemeral place are etched scars from whose seams ooze a wrath never to be reckoned with. A child heartbroken about its mother’s compounded heartbreak all the more dangerous.
Of course, how could Mongezi know? The epitome of obliviousness. Yet, what could be said when he genuinely did not know about the child? This one came after his letters stopped coming.
As Siviwe walks in the lick of spring’s descending sun, in multicoloured streaks of lightning flashes the thought: everything was fine, perfectly fine, with just him and his mother before the man came.
Why had Mongezi come – now?
His anger rises, buoys him as a wave would, lands him eye-to-eye with the realisation that he had been calling him the boy all along while he still remembered his name. As his anger flourishes, a pricking desire for confrontation edges in where the anger is, with the result that his chest burns and melts from the heat. He could go back and hurl the confrontation, leave it at their feet and leave the homestead again, for what he had come here for in the beginning – to get away from them, simply, to think.
Mongezi! he’d heard his mother scream as the man fell to the floor while reaching out – to grab him? Then what? And he, Siviwe, kicked the chair, where it missed its place, one leg went nkqo! – he heard and savoured, relished the sound, a sweet click as it collided with Mongezi’s head.
He wouldn’t call him his—
He called him “the boy” instead.
Here trudges the boy, shoes wet with the evening dew, their whiteness indistinguishable from the black of the slush, the cow dung he’d stepped into as he walked. Down along the gravelly descent that is the beginning of the separation of the homesteads of the village and the grazing and planting fields to godknowswhere – even he knows not. Malungeni, the village on the other side of the many fields ahead of him – he’d have to cross two rivers to get there. North-west, the village KwaTenza – he knows nobody there. Further up to his right, closer than the other two, Mabetshe, the most violent of the lot.
At least he knows where to find Aviwe if he goes to Malungeni.
That’d raise questions though. Besides, it is too far to make it now that the sun’s set.
He makes for Mahlungulu, the small stream that comes down from the cracking dongas up the fields and connects with Mdumbi downstream. The ghost stories he’s heard about this place, the rumoured snakes that breathe steam, izithunzela – the zombies – that haunt and roam these fields, never terrified him before, but scare him to the end of his wits now.
I didn’t even get a chance to see him, Nozamile said at the table that Sunday. She’d said this often whenever she told him this story afterwards. I didn’t hear his cry, couldn’t see a trail of his hair. Couldn’t tell you what his face looked like if I tried. All I heard was M’omncinci whispering to the other older women that the baby had to be buried right then because he had come out stillborn. Makaqhutshekwe, she said. Now, me being me – oh, mntwan’ am, we ruined you, your father and I, you inherited all our nonsense – I didn’t want to let them go ahead without seeing my child. How could they? I tried, you hear? Tried telling them, Please, please, if I could hold him for a moment, just to see his face, M’omncinci, to feel him against my body, to know him. But they said, No. Can you imagine, my baby? I hoped so badly that if I could hold him, if he could feel my touch, I mean feel my touch, he would, he could burp into life. I would love him to life, and those women’s questions would go unanswered, because, like I am telling you, I don’t know how, but I felt that if hecould feel my love—
I was too weak to protest and the next thing I knew, it was a new day, whose knowledge was confirmed by the searing pain in the sink of my pelvis. From then, I knew I couldn’t forgive any of them.
I hoped so badly and they took that hope away from me. And by that, my child.
Yes, I digress, but that is why I don’t get along with M’omncinci. I tried, but she, they, said no. She robbed me of something that could never be returned and I will never forgive her for that.
Lone child in the lonely fields.
Their ploughing land sleeps a few kilometres up the steep rise to his right, if he would keep going—
—now that he has come—
Where did Mongezi come from to begin with?
That steep on the hill. Where the baby brother is. In a corner of the field, buried in the cold of moonlight. His grave now a raging wilderness of overgrown grass. She’d shown him. There, he could point to it.
Twinkle, twinkle… that bright blinking light that the boys and girls grew up knowing as the approach of ghosts and zombies in the night.
But the blinking he sees as if of a falling star. One that leaves a trail, as commanding and melodramatic as a comet’s. Could be anything. Not his brother come to talk to him. What does a stillborn baby know about life, anyway? What could it tell him? He didn’t have a name, the baby – a nameless ghost.
Siviwe strides uphill. Stops. Stoops and presses his hands to his knees. Only realises now how fast he’d been walking. Panting from the exertion and speed, he sits on the grass. The cool breeze wafting up from Mahlungulu whips across his face as crisp as a ghost’s slap. Over there where he now faces – from where had come – blink a myriad of electric lights in the dunes of night’s blanket, aglow and boasting, as if in combat with the stars above.
Angola. Zambia. Mozambique.
But now – where did he come from, now? Home, where?
In all her storytelling, after all his questions, there gaped a hole through which that detail leaked from memory and thought, completely receded.
He should ask him.
He’s my only child. You know that, Mongezi.
She glares at him from across the table, having moved when he’d come to sit next to her. She wanted to look him in the eye, to ascertain the truth – once more? – to see it speaking silently from there, defying his attempts at burying it. She doesn’t trust him. What would he say to convince her of the goodness of his intentions? She wants to hear the truth spoken not only from the words he spoke through the phone weeks ago; mysterious in the shadows of the unsaid, as he walked into the house, casting a long shadow.
He had stood for a moment in the doorway, looking at her, oblivious to how his blocking the light took away the sight of him from her and left only a tall imposing presence that, for a moment, frightened her. Hanging from his hand, a white plastic bag with little things that fathers, he’d learned, brought when visiting their children. The boy was too old to bring clothes or toys. So he didn’t buy clothes, though that was part of the plan, should the whole meeting flow as he’d wished. Food then, fruit, yoghurt, chocolates, meat (cooked, uncooked). What do you buy a 23-year-old who is now more-or-less a man of his own, degreed and work-seeking? Biltong was a strange idea; love, a questionable one – wasn’t he the one who’d come seeking it from the boy, from his mother? Or was it forgiveness he sought, reconciliation? Bring the boy questions. Answers. Sugar, though they didn’t need it, a fact confirmed by the three cups of sweet tea Nozamile had prepared, then she called the boy back from the neighbour’s where he was with his friends, doing what young men like him did. She never bothered to ask him, for fear of intrusion.
Siviwe walked in. Greeted the man, a handshake and nods of his head, his voice low and respectful.
Sit, please, his mother said.
Is something the matter, Ma?
Hayi, tu, nondoda, she said. Nothing, nothing at all.
The man smiled.
Siviwe looked away, unsure if he should smile back. In this part of the world, young men looked away when older men smiled at them, for fear of being disrespectful.
Siviwe, this is—
Erm, he cleared his throat, my boy, my name is—
Ma glared at him. He went on.
Mongezi. Your father.
This is when the tea spilled, cupped by the high ridges of the saucer from pouring onto the table.
It went no further than that. Siviwe had stood up in a rush, owing to the reels of heat that unforgivably consumed him whole. With an angry voice, a soul plunged into quiet turbulence, with a calm voice, said, looking away from the man, whose face, upon initial study, boasted its resemblance to him conducted by the music of genetics, Mama, you know there is no one in this world I love more than you.
Croak-croak, call the frogs. Krik-krik, go the insects. Twinkle-twinkle up there – now closer, now far.
He rises. Misses a few steps and falls into the stream. He wades through water, stumbles on little rocks. Grasping a bundle of grass, he hauls himself onto the bank, and walks towards home.
Climbing back up the gravelly rise, he knows that there are two people that await his return. Either the two who have been here for 23 years and some, or the man and the woman—
No. The child could never be with the man. He’s very temperamental to let the man be, just like that.
Just his parents, then, because here the light blinks in front of him as if to guide him as he approaches home. In his bones knocks the knowledge that whatever fight he will have to put on, they will put it on together, he and the little star. The flesh and the silent shadow, Zami’s children, her shield.
Siviwe knows the resentment from the fallen child is much stronger than his. A good fighter, he would’ve been, as he’s shown in his rummages and unmistakable presence in the homestead.
When he reaches home, tormented by the barking of the neighbours’ dogs and the loudness of his own feelings, the glint in front of him is gone.
That is my child out there, Mongezi. I don’t know where he is. I am only trusting in the knowledge that he’ll come back home no matter what happens.
I am sorry, Zami, so sorry. I want to explain. I wish I could explain.
Some things cannot be explained. I lived with that while you were gone, never came back, all those years. Even when other men came back and I hoped that you would too. If not back to us, but to come see us, and you never did. I lived with the never-explained reason for that.
You know, Zimasile, the father of my second child was not always here, until he was here forever. In his damned grave over there! She jabs a thumb behind her.
You had another child?
Yes, she cries. He died inside me.
After three years since you were gone and stopped writing to us, I had to go on with life, Mongezi. What do you think?
Oh, is all he can muster. In his voice rings the sting of hurt and disappointment.
No, Zami, he wipes the tears streaming down his cheeks with the back of his hand. I just didn’t know about the child, that’s all. What happened?
What has happened is that you came in and upended everything. You came to see your child, but for some reason everything came back flooding. If I am being honest, I am angry, Mongezi. So angry at you. Why after all this time? Why now? Why!
The door opens. Bangs against the wall. Closes and opens again; this time remaining open, and through it the rush of a lukewarm wind very unlike the breezes of earlier.
They stare at each other. Nozamile gets up, sits back down. Not moving away from the table in the middle of the room. It is the first time, she realises, that she has felt his presence and didn’t cry. Instead, she is as still as a grave, only her eyes dart around the room to the dark night outside.
Then, Siviwe walks in, soggy as a lamb in the rain, all shivers and chattering teeth. I need to go to sleep. We’ll talk in the morning, Ma, and he hesitates when he looks in Mongezi’s direction, Mo—
Where have you been? she starts towards him. He lets her touch him, cradle him in the bosom of her breast.
I was on my way to – he sighs! – Malungeni, Ma. I couldn’t stay with him here. Not after everything.
Then Siviwe starts to sob. Only now the tears come, and for a long while, they stand in that tear-drenched embrace while Mongezi’s fingers can’t decide what to do with themselves on the tablecloth, his body shifting, fidgeting, as if the chair eats at it.
Mongezi stands. He would go over and wrap his arms around them – but how? He wants to communicate with his touch what his speech can’t – but how?
Slowly, the door closes, comes ajar again.
He stands with his body threatening to keel over, but he steadies himself. Comes to his mind, a realisation as painful as a broken bone, as crushing as heartbreak. That feeling of feeling unwanted.
She sees this. From fatigue and pain, she asks them both if they will eat something, if they will sit down and they will talk it all out. Please, sit, both of you. We must. There’s no other way – we must.
I can’t sleep, Zami, Mongezi sobs. I can’t sleep here, his voice croaks. I am sorry. I have to go. I am so sorry.
Anathi Jongilanga is a teacher, writer and editor from Ngqeleni, South Africa. His work appears in The Kalahari Reviewand Praxis Magazine Online. ‘Go the Way Your Blood Beats: New Fiction from Africa’ published by Brittle Paper, 2019, is his debut work as editor and curator. His other works appear on his Medium page. He is currently working on a collection of stories.
*Image by Kreative Kwame on Unsplash