The JRB presents a new short story by Keletso Mopai.
In 2004, we hugged our daughters and clenched our lips when tragedy reached our homes uninvited, when we had just eaten our supper, when our backs were still heavy from working all day, and when we were looking forward to what the following day would bring. Of course, other terrible things had happened that year. We had lost Brenda Fassie and Phaswane Mpe. We recall how we mournfully played Fassie’s music and lamented Mpe, singing and reading them as loudly as we could, until we tasted blood in our teeth—as if that way they would perhaps come back to us. In 2004, mothers threw away their babies in the bushes, fathers hung themselves in their bedrooms, and children played outside.
They said the first girl had cried, the full one who carried around a plastic-knitted bag her mother had made for her. She was the one who said it first. The one who didn’t like her mother touching her. She was the one who said she was ‘not feeling too good’. Her mother pressed.
It was her mother who informed the second girl’s mother about what had happened to their daughters. The second girl’s mother then went house-to-house to ask if anyone had seen anything or heard any screams, because the two girls said they had screamed.
We whisked our daughters away from the boys and the men in the house, and asked our own girls, with muffled voices, if anyone had touched them the ‘wrong way’. When they looked away with discomfiture, we opened and raised their legs and inspected them ourselves. The fear in our eyes was more frightening than the answer we didn’t want. When we had seen what we needed to see, some of us dabbed the sweat from our own foreheads with relief, while others put arms over their heads. It was on those house-to-house visits that the first girl and the second girl found out it wasn’t just the two of them, there were other girls too.
There’s a strange thing about tragedy. When it isn’t just you, the heart’s beat stays on the right pace. For a little while, the body stops shaking in your sleep. Their story wasn’t just theirs, they were now six. It felt like a million painful hugs enclosed in a circle. However, when the girls saw each other together in the counsellors’ office for the first time, sitting there like a needle was about to be injected into them, there were no hugs—only shame. For a while there was silence between them, each of them wishing they weren’t one of the six, just ordinary children with ordinary stories instead. And what had been the secret between two best friends soon jumped through hoops and mud and ended on everyone’s ears.
You mustn’t pay attention to the man, this story isn’t about him. Don’t allow him in. They don’t want him in their story.
There are things about the girls that you must know. The oldest one was nineteen, the rest of them were between eight and ten. The oldest was by the soccer field, like any of the other girls, they learned, when her story shook out of her. At least that’s what she told them. She also told them that when the red thing trickles down to your underwear for the first time it is menstruation but in her case it was because she couldn’t take what had happened to her. Her eyes became smaller when she said this, and the eight-year-old stared down at her feet. She was a pretty thing, the oldest one, even her sad eyes couldn’t hinder her looks. She would have preferred sympathy from the girls or a tissue for her tears but instead she got admiration. How brave, how mature, how articulate she was about what she was feeling. Not the mothers, they murmured in their corners about how ‘grown’ she was, ‘too old to let the rape happen’. They felt her case was weaker and she shouldn’t have been given the same attention as their daughters. Besides, they said, she was already having sex and was in a relationship when it happened. The oldest knew how the mothers felt about her but it didn’t seem like she cared much.
On Main Street, when our children played outside too long, we became agitated, ‘Come inside, le a tseba gore gone le sekata bana akere?! Don’t you get raped!’ we yelled, as if rape was a thing that came flying at you, and you may dodge it or let it hit you.
At the girls’ homes, the siblings started to annoy the mothers whenever they went away at random hours with that one daughter. They would ask their mothers, ‘Where are you going? Can I come too?’ and the mothers shushed them away like they were dogs that needed to know their place.
When they played with our children, they would ask among themselves if they’d heard about the man that raped six girls on their street. Which among them knew who the girls were? The siblings did not ask their sisters, they rather kept their questions inside. When they slept at night, they pondered in the dusk if the girls slept at all, and did they know they were being watched?
We never saw the fathers, but we heard them shout at the top of their throats behind closed doors, their anger broiling in their big fists but never put to use. When the families ate together, an elephant rocked below the ceiling, back and forth, back and forth, taunting them, but neither of the parents gave into it, neither said anything. As long as the roof stayed intact everyone else pretended nothing was happening, that the whole neighbourhood had not heard about the serial rapist who had touched one of their daughters.
This terrified the girls. If anything, they would have wanted their fathers to see their tears or wipe them off, but all they got was pitiful faraway gazes and intense anger, of which, in the one whose mother was a housewife’s case, the fair skinned girl—her father rather expressed his rage drinking Gordons. Which in turn hurt her because he would insult her mother, he would ask her why she couldn’t fulfil a simple task, such as looking out for their daughter. If she had looked after her and not gone to do her hair like the useless women with no jobs maybe the rape wouldn’t have happened, he said to her. He blamed her mother. She blamed herself.
The housewife was the one who had brought her daughter to the police station. The girl didn’t want to be there. By the third day of counselling, her absence was very obvious because her doll, which each girl was given by the counsellors, lay by itself, no one to play with it. The next day she wasn’t there either. When they went to court they asked the housewife why she hadn’t brought her daughter to the counselling sessions. She said she didn’t feel like it, and she laughed nervously as she said this. But who would want to admit right away that their daughter had been raped?
Rape. What is this word anyway? Why those letters and in that order? Swop out the ‘a’ and it could have easily been ripe instead. English is an easy, weak language, and that is why when the first girl’s mother asked her ‘ba o katile?’ in Sepedi and not in the layman’s language, she had cried, a cry so loud her mother regretted opening her mouth. ‘Katile’ sounds lethal. ‘Molestation’ rather, sounds like the most suitable word for it. What happened to the girls was a molestation.
When we saw the man’s face in the newspaper and realised he was one of us and had truly lived among us, we started doubting the final number of girls who were molested, whether they could be more, whether our children and little sisters had told us the truth. We also wondered if the six girls knew how sorry we felt, that we knew him, or that we knew them by name and peeked at them when the protests started. We wanted them in the frontline, to be a face to the tragedy that had befallen our children. But the girls said little, like they were unaware we were doing it for them. The whole thing seemed to have silenced them and their families. Their dead relatives probably had more to say in their graves than them. Nonetheless, we held our placards high up in the air for God to see our rage: ‘No bail! No Bail for the Rapist!’ ‘Rape Is Murder!’ ‘She Is Eight Years Old!’
In front of us in all our protests was Mam’ Tsoko in her black dress, shining in the sunlight, chanting up and down holding a stick. Mam’ Tsoko was fifty-five years old with long greying hair, a hoarse voice and big words, she reminded all of us of the fearless women who threw stones at the policemen during apartheid. We wanted to be her and yet were afraid for her. How dangerous the world is for women like her; you are seen as a threat and you are the first casualty.
The first time the six girls saw Mam’ Tsoko was on television, she was talking to the news reporter about their case, requesting that the perpetrator, whom we wish you can ignore, should be denied bail. She was stern and firm, her years as an activist surely working well for the girl’s case, it seemed. When he was denied bail and the girls met her, she was a complete opposite of the woman on TV. Her tone was motherly. The girls loved her instantly. Mam’ Tsoko would often invite the girls to her house, set a lunch table and open gifts. This was a way to open up the girl’s mouths wider, tell her all their troubles.
Mam’ Tsoko was the one who asked the girls if they were threatened. The girls mentioned a knife. A pocket knife, the oldest had described it. It was wooden at the end and was held like a play thing, like a toy gun to shoot at birds. The first and the second girl, because they were molested together, had a bit of a misunderstanding. The second girl saw the knife while the other girl did not. The second one was annoyed that her friend didn’t see it as she recalled how the girl flinched as the weapon was waved across her face.
When the case finally went to court, the mothers coached the girls, on which truth to omit and which to keep. And if they had had the chance to coach the nineteen year old, they would have asked her not to tell the court that she had dated the molester prior to the molestation. According to the mothers, in between mumbling inaudibly, the girl was going to make them lose the case. None of them had known that she had a romantic relationship with him. In her defence, the girl said it was irrelevant as she had since not been in contact with him and that she was involved with him when she was only fifteen and vulnerable after losing her mother. But the rest of the girls pulled away from her anyway. It was no longer the six girls, it was now the five. The oldest was alone, and if it wasn’t for Mam’ Tsoko they would have asked her to get her own lawyer. Mam’ Tsoko argued that the girl was a victim like any of the girls and that she would not let her down.
You also don’t know that the perpetrator’s mother always greeted the girls, like she wanted them to like her, and them liking her would mean something. We don’t know why she had shrieked noisily at the bail hearing, making everyone in the room shift in their seats. No one likes hearing a grown woman cry.
One afternoon, before the man was sentenced, when some of us in the township bustled out into the sunlight, one of the mothers poured juice over the woman and yelled: ‘Don’t you ever look at our kids again, you devil’s mother! Your son is Satan!’ She pulled up the windows and sped off with her car, her tyres loud as she’d been. Those of us who saw the incident stared at the woman with mouths agape—all soaked in orange liquid, humiliated, unable to look at us. We watched her as she ran to her house, her shoes almost tripped her at her gate. That was the last time we ever saw her that year. Even at court she didn’t show up again, or so we thought, because there were those among us that said they spotted her wearing a black scarf over her head and black shades to hide her eyes, sitting oddly at the back of the courtroom. ‘How could anyone miss those big hips?’ they said. Whether it was truly her, nobody really knows. We would ask ourselves decades after the case was closed, if that was one of our sons who had done what he had done, would we show our faces?
There was the father, an old man with a bad left leg. He sat in their house all day and watched television. It was on the news that he saw his only son with a leather jacket around his face, cameras all over him. For whatever reason he knew it was him. The next morning we had shifted our curtains having noticed the ambulance parked at their gate. What it was doing there we may never know. Some of us believe the old man’s shame had given his weak heart a stabbing so hard it knocked him to the floor.
There are other things you still do not know. Like how the first two girls don’t speak anymore. A rape couldn’t make them best friends forever. There were good memories after the molestation, like when they went to Meropa Casino together after their matriculation. Or when the second girl got baptised in her church. Or the time the first girl won a scholarship to study animal biology at the University of Cape Town. The rape seemed to have made them one entity for a while, especially when life carried on and other bad things descended and happened to them. Losing both their fathers within three years of each other was one, and the second girl being diagnosed with OCD was another. The last time the two girls spoke, the second one was about to give birth while the first girl was finalising her master’s thesis. The second girl expressed how she now had nightmares about what happened to them back then, that she thought of the incident more often when she became pregnant. She asked in a troubled tone, what if the other had ran and called for help while the other was pinned down? What if they did not speak to the man when he approached them? When the first girl said she didn’t think of the past at all, the second girl asked why not. ‘I don’t know, it feels like such a long time ago. And if I think about it, It would make me sad,’ she replied. The second girl, after she gave birth, changed her number and never spoke to her friend again. The first girl never asked after her or went to see her daughter. Perhaps she preferred it this way too, we thought.
During that period, the first girl went to the internet and searched for their case. After multiple keyword attempts, what she found was a small article, only a few sentences: six girls were playing near their township soccer field and were lured into rape, it said. The girls were between the ages of eight and nineteen. The accused had been identified and held in custody. That was all. She stared at the article for twenty minutes, shocked that it existed and also the reality that such a thing truly happened. She stored it in her phone, then deleted it the next day.
Years later, the one who sucked her thumb more often than normal, the one with a striking dark face, would see the youngest one in another city and would not exchange any words with her, yet she would feel that she knew too much about her, it was like having unintentionally seen a stranger fully naked.
None of this would really matter later when the oldest, on her return home from work, would see her molester sitting in front in the minibus. It had been raining with a bit of thunder that day, like the gods knew something was wrong. She had looked at him as she entered the bus, then folded and unfolded the umbrella in her hands, her skin cold and numb against her bones. He had not looked at her back. He had not acknowledged her. Or had he forgotten what he’d done?
When she arrived home, she walked at a fast pace, feeling his footsteps behind her but not looking back, straight to her front door. She locked it and shut all the windows in her house.
She found out from the nearby shop, where we often huddled to buy small items like milk, sugar, bread, eggs, that her molester had been released from prison the week before.
What we imagine, when we sit together over a crate of beer, is that when the oldest returned to her house that day, she sat down on her kitchen floor, her chest probably jumping in her throat, that she took out her phone out of her pocket to call Mam’ Tsoko, but that number, according to the white woman on the line, no longer existed.
- Keletso Mopai is an author of the acclaimed short story collection If You Keep Digging. She was selected as one of the 2020 Mail & Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans. Her stories are published in numerous publications and are shortlisted for various literary prizes. Her short story ‘Monkeys’; published by The Johannesburg Review of Books, was shortlisted for the 2019 Brittle Paper Award for Fiction.