Edited by Niq Mhlongo
Jacana Media, 2021
Read the excerpt:
My father told me if you dodge your death enough times, fate stops trying to find you. Your body becomes confined to the world so that fate sighs, ‘Ah, but I tried to keep the stream of time true. His life is not my fault.’ By my count, I had dodged death five times. That month, when this story started, for ten nights in a row I had a dream in which my mother fed me a man’s shadow. Interpreting dreams is a tricky thing, as you know. I was in Potgietersrus at the time, so I went to the shaman who lived behind the hostel just off Mokaba Road. He agreed that the dream was a bad omen; death didn’t yet see fit to leave me alone. ‘If you set foot in that village you call home, you will be carried out in a coffin,’ said the shaman.
This prophecy sounded accurate. You can’t nearly die five times for no reason. Someone was trying to kill me. I had long known those witches I called my mother’s family bayed for my blood. They never loved me. They wanted to kill me the same way they killed my brother. Ah! But now they would never even catch me breathing the air of that place. I smacked my hands three times and spit on the ground.
The shaman threw his bones again, and with his sceptre, he pointed at the lion tooth in the middle and said, ‘But this is troubling news.’ His body shook in spasms, uncontrollably, as the spirits entered his body, he chanted the totems of his forefathers. Then the trance passed. ‘Do you know where you were born?’ he asked.
I started to doubt him. After all, what kind of shaman lived in a brick house with a corrugated iron roof and wore denim trousers and even worked as a miner as his second job? Surely the ancestors could have divined a more spiritual man as their medium. ‘Of course I know where I was born.’
The shaman shook his head. ‘Your ancestors are denying this. You don’t know where your birth cord was buried.’ He brandished his sceptre and leaned in close to inspect the lion tooth again. ‘No, no, you don’t know. I see here that you don’t know the woman who birthed you.’
My heartbeat quickened. You have to realise that I didn’t believe the shaman at that point. Certain things you just don’t say with my people. For example, when I was a child there was a family that lived two homesteads away from my grandfather’s; the eldest boy was lighter than all his siblings. Sometimes we teased him about his skin, which turned red as he blushed, then we called him a tomato and laughed at him.
When you’re a child you don’t think deeply about these things. Years after the family had moved away, someone suddenly mentioned them and when we reminisced about calling that boy a tomato, it turned out he had had a different father. And even then, all those years later, it was something that was whispered to us as taboo. You can’t just go around accusing an elder of having children by different men.
As far as I knew, my mother was my mother. But now this shaman was shaking his head at this fact. Something like that can make you feel like your blood is boiling in your veins, like you can’t breathe.
‘This doesn’t sound right,’ I said.
‘No,’ said the shaman. ‘But see here,’ he returned to the lion tooth, ‘You have never seen your mother’s face. The woman who raised you didn’t birth you. You have to find your mother, the first one. But you must not stumble into this matter. See here,’ now he pointed at a bone I didn’t recognise, ‘eh? See here? You will not find her alive. So you must start by finding where she died. Carry her spirit home. She will protect you. Else, if you set foot in your village, you will be carried out without your spirit.’ This was not the first time I had consulted a medium. It was my diligence in these matters that had diverted me from death’s path once, twice, five times before. After I queried the spiritual necessities for this latest assignment, and after the shaman had dispensed his wisdom, I nodded. ‘I will set my fate right.’
The shaman repeated that the matter was not to be rushed. But again, this would not be the first time I would defy death. What kind of shaman said, ‘Death is coming for you, but you must wait for it, eh. Wait for it to catch up with you.’ Now I had to sit under some shade and fold my arms and say, ‘I know death is coming, but the medium said I must wait.’ What kind of nonsense is that? And so here, my doubt in the shaman swelled to an irreversible state. Yet even though I doubted him, I needed to know the truth as soon as possible. I couldn’t just live my life not knowing who I was. That sort of thing can muddle your fate, you know. And it wasn’t the sort of thing I could confirm with a phone call or letter. If death was chasing me, there was no time to be wasted. I needed to go home.
I rushed back to my own hostel. By the time I got there it was around eight in the evening. I folded two shirts and a pair of trousers into a rucksack. I took a belt too; I’d been losing weight. Often, my clothes looked like they were hanging on me. Ah! It made sense, those witches were diluting me bit by bit, sieving the life right from my bones. My eyes had reddened, my skin was sallow.
To avoid the curse of stepping into my village without the shaman’s prescribed protection, I planned to go to Mamaila. My father had relatives there. My plan was that once I got there, I would request an elder to go to Jamela, my village, to ask that my father meet me in Mamaila. There, I would interrogate this matter, then we could set the plan for collecting my mother’s spirit from her village. All in all, the errand would take three-or-so days. I would worry about work when I returned to Potgietersrus, when I could be sure my life was not in danger. Working in that complicated place with all those machines, heat and chemicals, anything could happen.
I’ll concede that maybe if I had waited a day or two, the whole affair might have been avoided. And maybe, if the month had ended and I had my pay, things might have ended differently. But as it stood, I only had R100; I couldn’t afford to fork out the full fare for the bus going home, nor the fare for the long-distance taxi. The best I could do was go to the filling station near Parliament Street and hope that as sometimes happened, in these lean days of the month, someone headed north would need a few people to fill up his car for the trip.
One had to be careful about these things though. If the taxi drivers suspected we were avoiding the rank and their fares, and that private citizens were transporting us for the leavings in our pockets, a war could erupt, complete with guns and several bloody tragedies. Only a few drivers knew how to look for us. We huddled like commuters on a rest, depleted by the road, unwilling to carry on—like foreigners—lost. No one wanted to deal with a lost pauper. And these northbound travellers, desperate in their own way, paid for the petrol with the last coins in their pockets and drove some distance into the general mass of the road. If they were lucky, we successfully memorised their cars, and they thanked us by taking us north, home.
It was an exchange that bent us so extremely out of our humanity. I remember once, December of 2018, I didn’t dare go to the toilet for eight hours because there were so many of us idling around the station, each of us afraid that if we took even a minute to relieve ourselves, we would miss the cars. My throat was so dry from thirst, my stomach so tired from digesting itself, that when I finally ate, some eighteen hours later, I cried without meaning to.
On that day, as I rushed to find my mother’s spirit, maybe if the car had been a different colour, not so vividly yellow, the whole affair might have ended there. But as it happened, it was so easy for me to find it, parked under a tree just beyond the robots at the corner. What surprised me, however, was that when I sat in the passenger seat and closed the door, I found that I was the only one who had run to the car. The man who drove it greeted me with a nod. ‘I’m Samson,’ he said.
- Rešoketšwe Manenzhe’s short stories and poems have appeared in the Kalahari Review, Fireside Fiction, Lolwe, FIYAH, and the 2017 Sol Plaatjie European Union Anthology, among others. She has won the 2019 Writivism Short Story Prize, the 2020 Dinaane Debut Fiction Award, the 2021 Akuko Short Story Competition and the 2021 IHSS Award for Best Fiction. Her debut novel, Scatterlings, was published in 2020.
A thrilling array of Southern African writers, including Fred Khumalo, Sibongile Fisher, Lucas Ledwaba, Vonani Bila, Lynn Joffe and Christopher Mlalazi, tell surprising and unnerving tales in this collection of commissioned stories from the master of narrative writing, Niq Mhlongo.
These stories give answers to the question: what does being haunted and hauntings mean in our Southern African world, in the past, the present and the future.
About the editor
Niq Mhlongo is an award-winning, bestselling, master storyteller. His collection of short stories Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree won the Herman Charles Bosman Prize and the Nadine Gordimer Short Story Award in 2019. His edited collections Black Tax (2019) and the award-winning Joburg Noir (2020) signalled the way for new South African writing. He is the founding City Editor of The JRB.