New short fiction: ‘Monkeys’ by Keletso Mopai

The JRB presents a new short story by Keletso Mopai.

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Monkeys

Pa is a farmer. He is also a hunter. That’s why when people come to our farmhouse in Tzaneen, they are welcomed by a bushbuck’s head nailed to the living room wall. The buck’s eyes are always bugged out, staring into nothing. Pa is proud of it. He always shows it to his friends with a wide smile on his face, playing with his long beard. His teeth are always out in the open when he tells them how he shot the buck with the first bullet he ever fired from his tall hunting rifle. That’s how I know he is proud, because Pa rarely reveals his teeth. He never smiles at me or Ma. It is only when he talks about hunting that I notice that his teeth actually exist and that they are as yellow as dark pee.

I was there when he shot it, two years ago. That’s the last and only time he took me hunting with him; I cried that entire afternoon because I heard the buck wail for its Ma and Pa when it fell on the ground.

In his bakkie, with the dead bushbuck lying in the back, Pa scolded me while we were driving home: ‘You must learn to be a true Afrikaner. Jy is ‘n boer, you will always be a boer—hunting is in your blood. So stop crying like a klein meisie. Hoor jy my?‘ I nodded, while sobbing into my trembling hands. He then shouted, ‘I said stop crying, Nicolas!’

There is also a young kudu’s horns and a rhino horn on Pa’s bedroom wall. But he never shows them to anyone. When the police come over, any time the farm workers cause trouble for him, he hides them. There was a time the workers stole his oranges to sell at their homes. Another time they protested for a month and said they wanted a pay increase. Pa covered the horn with a sheet before SAPS arrived. After they left, he complained about the ‘stupid government’ for making poaching illegal.

Today it is 22 March 1996, it is my best friend Kevin’s eleventh birthday. His father will be taking us to Debengeni Waterfall to celebrate. After swimming, he will then take us to Spur. After eating, he will also be taking us to feed monkeys at the Vervet Monkey Foundation shelter, because Kevin loves monkeys. All his stuffed toy collection is monkeys.

When we were five years old, when Pa wasn’t angry all the time and when Ma spoke and laughed more often, we would go to Kevin’s farmhouse. His parents used to throw a braai on the weekends and invite us. When our parents started drinking beer, Kevin and I would chase each other around their farm. We once spotted two monkeys jumping around the banana trees. Kevin cried out loud when they disappeared. His mother had to put him to sleep, she held him on a rocking chair and sang to him until he fell asleep. We went to the same spot each day for the next three days but we couldn’t find them again.

Since today is Friday, our school will be closing early, and Kevin and I will have more time to play together. I hope to see Fingers at the Vervet Monkey Foundation. Fingers is my favourite monkey at the shelter. I gave him the name after the monkey from the movie Monkey Trouble. Kevin named his favourite ‘Baboons’. I think it’s a stupid name, because it’s a monkey, not a baboon. But I haven’t told Kevin that because I don’t want to hurt his feelings.

A couple wearing matching African-print outfits have just arrived to see the house, since Pa is now selling it. I am having strawberry pops at the dining room table before leaving for school when Pa leads the couple into the room. I look up and smile at them. The man smiles back, but the lady doesn’t. Her eyes are skipping from one corner of the room to the other. She doesn’t seem impressed with it.

Before the couple arrived, Ma covered the flag in the dining room, like she always does whenever strangers come to the house. I once asked her why she hides the flag. She said it’s an old South African flag and that some people might not like it if they see it. But Kevin’s father has the same flag nailed at the back of his garage, and he never hides it when people go to their house.

I wait for Pa to introduce me to the couple, except he doesn’t acknowledge me in the room. Ma says its bad manners not to greet visitors when they come to our home. She would say ‘Nico, stop ignoring the visitors, go and say hello.’

Pa once mentioned to Ma that black people in the nearby areas are claiming to own the land we are living on. He said this with so much anger, his veins popped out his eyelids. ‘Who do these people think they are? My grandfather owned this farm!’

Pa said that a certain clan of the Balobedu people has claimed that their ancestors once lived here a long, long time ago.

‘You know, just because Nelson Mandela is now president they think they own everything in this country. They want the land, they want the mines, and now they want our farms. Unbelievable!

‘The entire Natal is owned by the Zulus. But are any whites crying like caged animals about that?’

Pa also told Ma that he will have to shoot someone first before he can give away his grandfather’s farm. I think this is why he is selling.

I ask the couple, ‘You want to buy the house?’ But just when the man opens his mouth to respond, Pa mutters, ‘Shut up, Nicolas.’

When I finish eating, I put the cereal bowl into the sink. I walk to my bedroom and grab my suitcase. I open the case to check I did not forget Kevin’s birthday card. I find it inside my maths exercise book, where I had put it the night before.

I made the card myself a week ago. At first I wanted to buy him one, but like every other year every one of his friends will be giving him a card they bought at CNA. I want to set myself apart this time because Kevin is my beste vriend. On the cover of the card, I drew monkeys dancing and playing musical instruments. One monkey plays a drum, another a guitar, another a flute, while the others dance. I think he will find it funny. He will giggle with his tickly voice and say ‘Dankie, boet.’

The card is not the first drawing I have done of monkeys. The other one is of a black and white monkey swinging on a thin tree branch with one hand. Ma likes it. She was so proud that she pasted it on my bedroom wall and said I am ‘gifted’. She showed it to Pa, but he didn’t seem proud at all, because he didn’t even reveal a single tooth.

The couple is on their way out when I go into the living room to wait for Ma to take me to school. I watch Pa as he leads them to the back door.

Sometimes I think Pa hates me. He is mean to me. I also think he doesn’t love Ma because he always calls her ugly names. Last night, he yelled at her and called her a ‘stupid blonde’ when we were watching a documentary on tigers on 50/50 on SABC 2. He screamed at her until his face was red just because Ma said something to him during the programme. She did not yell back, though, she never does. She just keeps quiet or walks away.

I wish she would say something, or grab his beard when he hits her in their bedroom. When he hits her, Ma will cry quietly and say nothing.

Maluka, one of Pa’s farm workers and our security guard who sleeps in the back room, will sometimes knock on the front door when Pa gets too loud. Maluka is a Molobedu man from Modjadji village, just outside Tzaneen town. He has been working here since he was a little boy with his mother, who was my Ma and Pa’s housemaid. He and I only hear by stuff banging on their bedroom floor and Pa’s loud, husky voice that he is hitting her again. When this happens, I go into the backyard and play with the ducks in the pond.

Four days ago, when Pa was beating Ma up, I found Maluka smoking by the pond in the dark. He was wearing red corduroy pants with no shirt on, showing his firm looking belly. He also had a white hat on his head, which was all cut in the middle, revealing his rough hair.

I walked up to him and he asked me, ‘You can’t sleep, Nicolas?’

‘It’s the noise,’ I replied.

‘Ek weet,’ he said, lighting a cigarette. He then inhaled the smoke and sucked his teeth. ‘I am scared that your big father might kill Madam one day, just like my mother was killed.’

He then shook his head, ‘My father … he was not a good man. I was just a boy like you when it happened.

‘Does your father scare you?’ he asked, looking at me. I looked down at the ground.

‘He does, ek is so bang vir hom.’

Maluka stepped closer to me, brushed my back and hugged me with his left arm. His trousers smelled of smoke and Sunlight bar soap.

‘I am sorry.’ He released me and blew smoke out of his nose.

He then said, ‘Madam is n’ goeie vrou. It is sad. Very sad.’

When the noise stopped, I said goodnight to Maluka and went back into the house.

I hate hearing Pa do that to Ma. I hate seeing bruises on her face and neck the next day; they always look like she was attacked by a wild animal, like a cheetah. I hate it. I wish I could help her.

*

Kevin’s father is an Afrikaans musician. His parents are now divorced, so his mother stays in Hendrina in Mpumalanga, while Kevin stays with his father. Because Kevin’s father is famous, everyone wants to be Kevin’s friend. So his other friends are also coming with us to celebrate his birthday. It will be me, Kevin, Lovely, Machimane, Sam, Kevin’s three cousins Piet, Coco and Daniel, and then Sherry.

Sherry is new in our group. I don’t like her. She always tries to impress Kevin. That’s why she gave him a white sparkling watch as a birthday present. When we sit together at lunch break at school, she always wants to sit next to Kevin. Machimane says Sherry wants Kevin to be her boyfriend.

We are all already wearing our swimming costumes when we arrive at Debengeni Waterfall in Kevin’s father’s Mercedes. Kevin’s father sits with a ranger by the waterfall, watching us. When everyone else jumps in, Sherry doesn’t. Instead, she just stands there by the water, shivering in her pink bathing suit.

She opens her mouth, ‘I can’t swim, Kevin.’ We all look at her. She was all excited in the car, now she says she can’t swim.

‘Liar, liar, get in!’ Machimane exclaims, splashing water at her.

Then Piet says to Machimane, ‘Look at her, she’s shaking like a leaf, she’s not lying,’

‘Get in, Sherry, I will teach you,’ Kevin says.

Instead of enjoying his birthday, Kevin will be teaching Sherry how to swim. I notice I am not the only one irritated by her stunt. Kevin’s cousin Coco rolls her eyes and then swims towards me.

Coco is chatty, but not like Sherry—I like her. She has short blonde hair like Ma and she has deep dimples on her round, chubby cheeks. She lifts her legs under the water and lays over on her back—cornering me.

‘Are you worried she is going to steal Kevin from you?’ she says.

‘No, why should I be worried?’

‘Well, you should be careful of this one.’

I laugh, trying to conceal the jealousy bubbling in my throat, and say, ‘Sy is ‘n meisie.’

‘Ja, and you are a boy.’

‘What is that supposed to mean?’ She doesn’t answer. Instead, she dips her head beneath the water. As she comes up, she smiles with her cheeks, her dimples appearing deeper.

‘Nicolas, you can’t even hide it. You like him. It’s okay, jy weet?’

She adds, ‘I think you might be like my oldest brother, Jimmy. You know him right? He likes boys too. He’s living with one in Australia in his big-big house. It has a tennis court, tall-tall pine trees, and a huge pool. Huge, Nicolas. This big …’ She widens her arms.

She continues, ‘Ma isn’t happy about it though. I think that’s why Jimmy doesn’t talk to her anymore.’

I don’t say anything back. I try to think about what she said and then pick my eyes with my right hand when the bright sun suddenly hits my face.

Finally I say, ‘Kevin is my best friend, of course I like him.’

‘That card you made for him? Telling him you love him?’ She smirks, looking me in the eyes as if searching for lies. Or for the truth. She doesn’t seem convinced with what I said.

She shrugs, ‘Anyway, it doesn’t matter anymore.’ She looks at Kevin holding Sherry’s arms, giving her a swimming lesson. ‘As you can see, Kevin’s now taken.’

*

The mood in the car on the way home is sombre. Kevin won’t stop crying, no matter how many tissues we give him. It is quiet in the car, his sobs are all we listen to. I don’t know how to make him feel better. When we arrived at the monkey shelter, we found out that Baboons has died. The nice Indian lady who always gives us licorice sweets said he had a ‘short illness’ and died just a few hours before we arrived. I am sad for Kevin. I wish I could give him Baboons back.

I am sadder that we didn’t even get to feed the monkeys. The bananas we had brought lay at our feet in the back of the car. I didn’t go to see Fingers either because I didn’t want to make Kevin cry even louder, since my monkey is still alive while his died on his birthday.

Sherry told Kevin to pick another monkey and name him Baboons. This made him angry. ‘I can’t just replace him, I loved him!’ he shouted. Since then he never said a word to her, even when we dropped her at her house.

In the car now it’s just me, Kevin and Machimane. After leaving Machimane in front of his gate at Nkowankowa township, we pass through another township.

When we enter the area, the dark green welcome board, which is scratched and knocked with stones, reads: ‘Welcome to Levenve’. The name is actually Lenyenye; the Y tails have been washed off. There is also a huge sewage lake not far from the main road, and birds are feeding off the waste.

The main road has a lot of potholes, so Kevin’s father keeps shouting ‘Dammit man, these roads are a mess!’

We also pass a tavern, and I notice a thin-shiny black dog, which at first glance looks like a skinny goat, licking a braai-stand outside. I see people dancing, jolly, and talking and drinking. They are playing house music. I know it is house because Maluka always plays it in his room when Pa is not around. I sometimes watch him whistle, spin with his toes and lift his arms in air, then squat and quickly rise up, as if the floor is a jumping castle.

On one of the streets, out of the blue, four boys with legs that look as if they were playing in cement run after our car, waving their hands at Kevin’s father.

‘They want something,’ he tells us. ‘They often do this when I pass in these areas.’

Kevin lifts his head, it seems he isn’t crying anymore. ‘Pa, we still have the bananas.’

Without waiting for a response, Kevin opens his window to give the boys the bananas. Seeing his change of mood, I stick out my head as well so I can see them. The fastest one, leading the pack, is wearing a ripped T-shirt and khaki shorts with small scattered holes. I feel sad inside, like when we found out about Baboons’s sudden death. They all seem so poor and hungry.

*

It is around 7 pm when Kevin’s dad drops me off, and we find two police vans and an ambulance flashing their lights outside the house. This is not the first time I’ve seen a police van parked in our yard, but it is the first time I see an ambulance. Many of Pa’s workers are talking and shouting in the yard, shaking their heads, some clapping their hands together.

‘Stay in the car, Nicolas,’ Kevin’s father says. ‘I will go and check what’s happening. It’s probably just a small issue with the farm.’

I say, ‘No, I want to see. Did someone get hurt?’

‘Both of you should stay in the car,’ he says, and closes the car door.

Kevin looks at me. ‘It’s okay, Nicolas, maybe it’s nothing.’ He grabs my hand, moving his fingers against mine.

Ja, maybe it’s nothing.’ I say.

But when I look out through the window, I see two men in red uniforms carrying something out of the house on a stretcher.

My chest jumps up and down. ‘Something is wrong, Kevin,’ I say, removing my hand from his grasp and opening the door.

‘But Pa said we should stay in the car,’ Kevin says, but I’m running inside.

I see Kevin’s father coming out of the house when I get near to the ambulance. ‘Nicolas.’ He stares at me like my appearance has frightened him. He doesn’t move, he just looks at me, not saying anything. Like that bushbuck.

I then see Ma coming out of the house, and I almost trip running into her arms. Her face is blackened on the right side of her nose. Her tiny pink lips are bruised, showing red skin underneath. She has scratches on her forehead and neck. Her golden hair is messy, as if a chick has been dancing in it. Her eyes are filled with tears.

A black policeman exits the house with Pa. His hands are cuffed on his back. Ma says to me, ‘Ek is baie jammer.’
 

  • Keletso Mopai is a storyteller and a qualified geologist. She was longlisted for the 2017 Writivism Short Story Prize and was a finalist for the 2018 Africa Book Club Competition. Her debut collection of short stories is forthcoming from BlackBird Books in 2019. Follow her on Twitter.

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