The JRB presents an excerpt from Invisible Strings by Naledi Mashishi.
BlackBird Books, 2021
Read the excerpt:
For the past two years, Kgethi had been drowning in a vast, darkening sea. Above her she saw the light of her pre-pregnancy world rapidly dimming. The colours of her varsity life characterised by late night McDonald’s, cheap fast fashion and rooftop parties receded from her. She watched as her daydreams of being a rich and famous Top Billing presenter staying in world-class hotels, rubbing shoulders with local and international celebrities and following in the footsteps of fashion icon Bonang Matheba floated away. Her pregnancy had formed a ball and chain around her ankles, dragging her towards a life of diaper changes, nighttime feedings, domestic tedium. She found her dreams now locked away in safes with no keys. She entered motherhood with a chest full of water, never quite able to accept that this was it. This was her new life.
The only thing that still connected her to her old life was a delicate gold bracelet with links shaped like palm leaves. It was a cheap costume piece bought from the type of accessory store that sold earrings which turned ears green. But when Kgethi looked at the bracelet, she remembered the day she had walked into a store in Braamfontein, wearing a crop top that showed off her impossibly flat stomach, and spotted it. She remembered how it used to clink against the plastic cups she held as she moved through a crowded dance floor. How she used to play with it when she sat bored in a lecture hall and when she flirted with the cute boys on campus. The bracelet was a lifeline, a final reminder that nearly three years ago she had once been a girl with an enviable, slim body and a real life. She looked at the bracelet and reminded herself of who she used to be.
Naturally, she was furious when the bracelet went missing. She rummaged through her drawers and failed to find it. Her confusion quickly transitioned to annoyance as she realised what must have happened. Valuables in Johannesburg had a tendency to grow legs. They walked out of pockets, bags and through windows silently. If you were particularly unlucky, they were forcibly surrendered by the persuasive power of a loaded gun. Her gold leaf bracelet had vanished. She searched through her wardrobe, then looked under her bed.
‘What’s going on?’ her mother’s voice said.
Kgethi looked up at her doorway. ‘I can’t find my bracelet. The gold leaf one. Have you seen it anywhere?’
‘No,’ she said with an unsympathetic look. ‘Where did you last see it?’
‘I don’t know! I just wore it two days ago!’ she said, cursing loudly again.
‘Well I’m sure it’ll turn up.’
She wasn’t so sure. The missing bracelet soured her mood, which worsened when she was forced to go grocery shopping with her two-year-old daughter. There was nothing that represented the tedium Kgethi’s life had been reduced to more than the strip malls of northern Johannesburg. They were uniform in appearance with the same supermarkets, the same try-hard trendy coffee shops and the same kitschy home stores where suburban white women bought ‘Live Laugh Love’ wall decor. She hated them.
She supposed she should have been grateful Thato didn’t make the whole ordeal harder. Kgethi would watch as other two-year-olds threw tantrums over chocolates, but her child never did. Thato had always been peaceful. As a baby, she hardly cried. She slept through the night from birth, didn’t suffer from colic or diarrhea or any of the other ailments common to babies. She was often so quiet for such long periods of time that it was easy for the residents of the house to forget that she was there.
Kgethi used to watch over that quiet, squishy, powder-scented blob of a human and will herself to feel something. She willed herself to wash the baby, change diapers, breastfeed and carry out all the other duties that came with motherhood, but she only performed them out of obligation. There was a part of her that almost wished Thato would cry more. Or vomit. Or do something that demonstrated that there was a real person with real thoughts and feelings wrapped under the layers of blanket and baby fat. Instead, she felt nothing. ‘You’re lucky, you know,’ her mother once told her. ‘She’s a very easy baby.’
Kgethi said nothing. Thato wasn’t just easy. She was barely human. She was a bundle of flesh that took quietly and gave nothing back. It was as though Thato had sensed that she was unplanned and had resolved to move through life causing as little fuss as possible. She walked quietly next to Kgethi, holding her hand while they approached Woolworths. Kgethi turned around to take out a trolley. When she looked back, Thato was gone. She blinked. ‘Thato?’ Panic set in. She looked around and saw Thato running into a store they had visited the previous week. Oh for fuck’s sake, she thought before setting off after her.
‘Thato! Thato come back here,’ she yelled. She ran into the store after her and grabbed her by the arm. ‘Thato! Why would you run off like that?’ she hissed.
‘Excuse me, Miss,’ the cashier said. As Kgethi looked up at her, a glint of gold caught her eye. She looked closer and there in her hand was the gold leaf bracelet. ‘I think this belongs to you?’ she said. ‘You might have dropped it the last time you were here?’
Kgethi was stunned. She looked from the bracelet to Thato. But … how? She took the bracelet, grabbed Thato’s hand and left. She couldn’t stop thinking about the incident and what it meant. How could Thato have known? Kgethi hadn’t been with her the last time she had visited that shop.
- Naledi Refilwe Mashishi is a journalism and politics student from Rhodes University who is originally from Johannesburg. She writes mainly about issues related to feminism, politics and current affairs.
A spoiled and self-absorbed Mamokgethi Pule’s life is brought to an abrupt halt by an unplanned pregnancy.
As her daughter Thato grows, she begins to develop otherworldly powers ranging from visions, to seeing the dead, to healing by touch. A young pastor, Solomon Khumalo, is desperate to prove himself by preaching the word of God to a large and loyal congregation. When he discovers Thato’s powers, he makes Mamokgethi a tempting offer: in exchange for money, he would pass off Thato’s healing powers as his own.
As the pastor’s popularity and thirst for power grows, Thato finds herself increasingly haunted by the past. The ripples of a family tragedy that happened in the family thirty years ago create a burden on her young shoulders as she tries to solve it.
Invisible Strings is a story about the past bleeding into the present, the living and the dead, and the scourge of charismatic pastors.