The JRB presents a new short story by Zanta Nkumane.
When your father dies on a Friday night, you are choking on a stranger’s dick in the backseat of a car, on a dark road just off 7th in Melville. New feelings dance on your skin, and you want to name them so when they return you can greet them properly, but his moans remind your mouth it can only do one thing at a time. As he thrusts in the back of your throat, the choking emboldens you. If death tastes like black smoke and defecation, then living tastes musty and hard, you decide. You hold onto this life with your tongue, pulsing and phallic, as if you can hear death knocking on the overcast window. When his breathing becomes frantic, you intensify your efforts. Tremors careen through his body and you pull your face away to watch him trickle milky treacle over your hands. You want to lick it, to taste briny life on your tongue, but you don’t want to be too much, too soon. ‘Too Much’ was your father’s other name for you. He collapses against the seat, his body quietening from the stupor. An orgasm is called a small death precisely because you briefly stop existing. He reaches for wet wipes in his cubby, takes your hands and quietly wipes himself off them, a kindness.
‘What’s your name, by the way?’ you ask as the car pulls out of the parking. When he responds you cough and pretend he didn’t just say your father’s name back to you.
The next morning, dread blisters in the air as you roll out of bed. Your bedroom feels small and fills your lungs with cloying humidity. You open the windows. Chirpy avian melodies seep through the gaping glass, as does a surge of new air that makes the curtains unfurl. You settle on the edge of the bed and clink the sleep out of your body while your hangover booms against your head. Today is a different day. Your father is dead and a man with his name sleeps in your bed. You haven’t told him he shares your father’s name, not wanting to scare him off. You look outside at the summer sun, searing colour into the day. Your father always said boys must spend their days outside, getting dirty, being inside was a girl’s business. But you loved being inside, watching your three older sisters cook meals, listening to their stories of being heartbroken by men and triumphing over those men by getting under new men. You sometimes spend winter weekends following the sun’s heat around your apartment, but it’s not the same as being under its direct gaze, rolling in heaps of grass or climbing to the top of your neighbour’s guava tree to catch its twilight farewell. That’s why you can tell the time by looking up to the sky. Right now, the sun’s rays ricochet across the room and everything sparkles, even you, even the sleeping man. Touching something gives sun rays their meaning. Until that moment of contact, they’re just accidental scraps of light falling from the sky. They only become tangible at the moment of touch. Like love. Like death, which only becomes real when it touches your life.
The cold floors are a welcome coolness under your feet as you walk to the kitchen. Sometimes, when it gets too hot and sweat slicks on your skin, you lie on the floor to let the slabs caress your cheek. You pry the fridge door open for some orange juice. You grab the concoction of pills you usually use to quell your hangovers after a night out or after a long call at the hospital. The pills glint in your hand like new coins. One is green, like photosynthesis. The second one a soft pink, like marshmallows. The third, an earnest purple like the jacaranda flower. The rest colourless, like teardrops. This is how life starts today, five little tumours and a sleeping stranger who has your father’s name.
He appears from the bedroom, finds you on the floor, your body rolled into itself like a fist. You watch newborns roll their tiny bodies like this during your paediatrics rotations, so you assume it helps adults too. You feel him take steps towards you, but you can’t bear to sit up, you don’t care if this man you met last night sees you on the floor. He settles next to you and begins to tenderly rub your back. ‘Thula, thula, ncesi’ he chants, like a soft mantra beckoning comfort back into your body, like you are a baby he gathers from the floor after a thudding fall. You remember telling him your father had died but there were no tears then. You repeated the words of the text message from your sister before you passed out next to him after a few sloppy rounds of sex. His back rub makes you want him inside you again. Maybe the heat of his hardness can incinerate the grief in your gut. Under a sheet of your tears, your mouth reaches for his, when you find it he lets you have his tongue because he knows you need it. Because he wants to be of use. He lets you use him to substitute the grief with pleasure, even if it’s momentary. It’s funny how an unrepentant desire in the midst of loss makes being alive so urgent. You pull his briefs down as he tears at yours, your mouths woven together. You are still open from last night. A stream of spit falls onto his hand and he wraps his dick with that wetness. He instructs you to sit on it and you do as he says. He stretches his legs out under you, while you straddle him like he is freedom. He starts swirling in you and your moans bang against your teeth. He grinds at you with too much carefulness, your father is dead, you want to feel pain. You unwrap your legs from behind his back, grind them on either side of his thighs. You instruct him: more, more. He obliges and has at you, like he owes you this act of erotic sympathy, like he is recompensing for some past transgression and each thrust is his redemption. You clench your hands against the fridge at his back, its contents shaking like your own. Up, down, thrust, moan. Up, down, thrust, ah yes. Your orgasm starts to build from your chest, somewhere next to the engorged loss. It bulges, filling your throat, filling the bottom of you. ‘Don’t stop.’ This thrills him, your seemingly immense threshold for pain. His body smashes harder against yours. If death tastes like black smoke and defecation, then living tastes musty and hard, you decide. He grabs your mouth to hush your screams as you briefly pass away, tears still leaking from your eyes. On the kitchen floor, you both die small deaths while your father is dead for real.
‘Please come with me to my father’s funeral next week,’ you ask in the sweaty, breathy afterglow.
‘I’ve never been to a funeral as a first date. That strangely sounds intimate. I hope you know that I am a gentleman—I don’t fuck on the first date.’
‘But you fuck on the first night? Classy.’
All your three older sisters have boy’s names. Your father wanted a son so desperately he named you three times before you arrived. His stubbornness has three names and perseveres whenever they are spoken. Your oldest sister, Menzi, is the one who instructs, like God, but unlike God she doesn’t need worship to feel good about herself. You are not that close, but she is the one who messaged you about your father’s death, because it was her duty. Like a first born son without the privileges. Sabelo is the one who sacrifices; she always does more than she should, like Jesus, but unlike Jesus she wants to know why she has to do it. You enjoy her spirit of fun, she slipped you your first drink at sixteen during her lobola ceremony, and how you passed out on the veranda, where your father found you, after one bottle of Smirnoff Storm, remains her favourite story to tell. But you really don’t know her beyond memories of parties, dancing or sending you money during varsity. Mqondisi is the one who is silent, quiet to the point of not being there, but weighty in her presence, like the Holy Spirit, but unlike the Holy Spirit she is more tangible of heart. She is the one you are close to, your father said it was the lower age difference, but you know it is because she treats you as an equal and not a baby brother. When she calls you the morning after your father’s death, you remember why she is your favourite. I know you’re not okay. What do you need from me? Her own grief clanging over the phone. She always knows how to be granular and doesn’t care about the fluff of things or the obvious. I’m fine. I’m with someone, you say, like someone means a magic that will conjure your father back, back to his unwanted trinity of daughters. Yet he loved them as if he had wanted them, even if their names bore his true desires. If Menzi needed school shoes, your father would buy Sabelo and Mqondisi something new too, be it underwear or a T-shirt, no one ever felt unconsidered. When Sabelo told the family that her husband had lost their house because of his gambling habit, your father sat in their matrimonial bedroom, Sabelo curled on his shoulder, while Menzi and Mqondisi packed up her life. (She went back two months later, much to everyone’s disapproval, even yours.) Even in their difference, your sisters move with the emotional synchronicity of one, like a coven of witches, because your father carved each of them into his likeness.
But, you, the wanted one. The one he waited for. The one he named three times before you came. There was something about you that refused to swing with his stride, how your form didn’t chip under his chisel. When you refused to attend the university he had attended, as did your sisters, you unleash a flood of unkindness he flings back to you.
‘Why is everything work with you?’ he yells. On the television, a football match between a yellow team and one in black is on. The derby.
‘I feel like I won’t be happy there,’ you explain, hoping it is enough.
‘It’s always feelings with you! Last week you didn’t feel like going to church, another time you didn’t feel well enough for rugby practice, now this. When do you ever feel willing to work with me? You are just like your mother. Your sisters never gave me this kind of nonsense and there were three of them!’ His yellow team misses a shot and he grimaces. He still doesn’t look at you.
‘I’m normal. I am sorry you couldn’t choose a better son, but I am all the son you will get right now. It’s your sad spirit that can’t handle me, no wonder mom left us.’
‘She should have taken you with her then because you’re too much for me. I’m also the only parent you’ll get right now—you’re going, that’s final. As if it’s not enough I have to see her face every time I look at you!’
It’s been four days since your father died, two days before his funeral. You have masturbated five times today and your dick throbs from overuse. You shower after each time and hope the water will take the shame with it down the drain. By midday, you have smoked a whole pack of Marlboro Gold and you have just opened a second box, your lungs heave from misuse. You have somehow only listened to Peter Tosh all day. Your father had an ear for him, Marley and Lucky Dube, there was a rebelliousness he related to. You wonder if your father ever smoked weed, and try to imagine him high, but no image materialises. You never knew him well enough. When a virus infiltrates a host cell, the host cell is unaware of the virus’ impending duplicity. The process whereby substances are brought into a cell is called endocytosis. That’s how your grief feels, like an infection your body can’t fight off. And like madness. Everyone has a madness about them, we all abandon a bit of our sanity when we reckon with how much pain it requires to stay alive. You miss your father’s madness today because it made you, but you know it is tucked somewhere in the cupboard or under the mirror or behind your eyes. You know this is true because you laugh alone and talk to the ants scuttling along your window sill. You ash them with your cigarette when they don’t respond, their insect forms sizzling under your insanity.
The funeral is in two days, it’s been four nights since your father died. You are waiting to go home till the last minute, much to Menzi’s annoyance. You better be here to help dig your father’s grave, you’re his only son! she instructs over the phone one night, after sharing the funeral duties in the family WhatsApp group. Out of your three sisters, she is most like your father. Even her voice jumps from her throat with the same force as his used to—and she hasn’t looked at you in years either. As the only son, you are expected to be seen, to perform certain things, like announcing your father’s arrival to the ancestors in the family kraal, and your name has to hang at the bottom of the funeral announcement in the newspaper. Announcement by his son Sifiso Fakudze on behalf of the Fakudze family, it reads. Menzi feels she has earned these things. But culture was not on her side.
That evening finds him holding your hand as you walk back to your apartment after dinner, a plastic bag carving into your other hand, bottles of wine clanking inside. You move at the pace of lovers in a park, savouring the breeze. He insists on taking the long way home, he says it’s good to get out from under the rafters of your grief-bent house, but all you can think of is him folding you to the command of his hardness again. For someone as sad as he seems to be, he is fascinatingly buoyant. Some would call him unhappy but that is a misnomer. Unhappy suggests the knowledge or the experience of happiness. There is no trace of it in him. Sad people like to be of use, as you know. That’s why you became a doctor. Saving lives channels your sadness into something important, morphs it into healing, even if that healing is not your own. He is a man of minimal words, he somehow articulates himself fully using the smallest amount of them. An economical speaker. You enjoy that about him most because it reminds you of Mqondisi. When you tell him this, he says he enjoys your unnecessary thoughts and the words that flow out of you like a burst water pipe.
‘Fuck off.’ Your voice warps with misplaced defensiveness. ‘You don’t know me like that. All my thoughts are necessary, and my words.’
‘See how tender the most vulgar of words sound when you say them? You like to pretend you are tough. Who taught you that shame?’ he responds.
‘My father,’ you say.
Plot 140. Mangwaneni Cemetery. That’s your father’s final address. The cemetery is just outside of Mbabane, on a hill overlooking the city, near a power station. The graves swoop in and out of view as if they are riding a wave. Some hang dangerously on the edge of the hill, holding on for dear life. Some have tombstones and others are heaps of rocks. It feels colder up here. You are not sure if it’s because of the height or the congregation of icy bodies underneath the ground. The vegetation is oddly lush. You are with the other men in your family, but you are standing watching them carve the soil into your father’s final bed because there aren’t enough tools to dig. You are here because Menzi instructed you to go straight to the cemetery, before you even walk into the house or greet anyone. You are also here because it’s outside, and digging graves is what men do, you imagine your father saying. Your companion watches from the car, you found it too bizarre to ask him to join you. His support is yet to fray. It is strange to bring someone you barely know to your father’s funeral, but funerals are strange themselves. They are a celebration of life that can’t be too celebratory, a farewell with no return, and one of the only places crying is the expected, most appropriate reaction. Your cousins and uncles trample on the neighbouring graves like it’s a construction site. One of your cousins even keeps his beer on the tombstone behind him, a catacomb coaster. You start apologising profusely to the earth under your breath every time you see someone stomp on a grave with no regard. It strikes you how casual they are, how normal it all seems. When someone dies in the hospital, after you call the time of death, you have a moment of silence. Most times you have to rush off to attend something else, and it becomes just a murmur. But it is a moment nonetheless.
‘yeMsa wami,’ your uncle calls, from the bottom of the unfinished grave, a milk stout bottle dangling from his hand. ‘Sondzela la.’ You walk carefully between two graves towards him. ‘I’m happy to see you, it’s been years since you were home. Akulungi Ntolo, you are ours too. Home is home, there is nothing you can do to change that,’ he says. The use of your clan name is purposeful, a reinforcement that you are theirs, they live alongside you in your surname.
You nod. It’s not necessarily in agreement. You want him to feel he isn’t alone in the conversation. He is your father’s younger brother and the last of his generation now, the heaviness of that responsibility is palpable in him like the red in his eyes and the sudden creases on his face. He steals a glance at your car then looks at you, his eyebrows raised.
‘He is just a friend, please do not make it more awkward than it already is, Babe Lomncane.’
‘A friend who keeps guard like that? In my time, I only gave the gift of such inconvenience to girls I really loved.’
You sneak into the house because you want to show him your bedroom. You also want to shield yourselves from further questions—especially about his name. Your bedroom remains untouched, except for the walls. When you lived in it, you remember choosing the colour because you liked the idea of waking up to a burning sky. After you left for university, your father painted them beige. Your small desk is still in the corner, empty of the books that used to congest it. You are both sitting on the double bed, taking in the room like you have never been there before.
‘This is where the “self-magic” used to happen,’ you tease.
‘Who did you fantasise about then?’ he asks.
‘Many, many boys. But there was this boy in my class, Phila. He wore these thick glasses, always sat in the front, but he was big and tall, and teachers moved him to the back, near my friends and me. He sat alone during lunch and it never looked awkward, you know? I found that so attractive. One day he sat next to me during prep and our legs kept brushing against each other. Everything tingled and I was embarrassingly hard. At some point, I put my hand in his shorts and he didn’t move it—he was also hard.’
‘Did anything else ever happen between you two?’
‘No, just that day, then he avoided me until we left school. Anyways, after that, every time I wanked I would imagine Phila and his warm dick and how much I wanted him on top of me right here.’ You tap the bed.
‘Like this?’ he presses you down onto the bed and his whole weight is suddenly surrounding you. You kiss him and scramble to unbutton his shirt. He shakes his head and says, ‘There’s no time for that.’
He unbuckles your pants and flips you over, your body malleable. He kisses the back of your neck and pulls your pants down to expose half your buttocks. His own buckle clinks and you spread your legs for his entry. Your pants constrain the radius of your spread, which only heightens the delight. Without warning he is inside you and a loud gasp escapes you and meets his now familiar grunt above you. His thrusts are fast and frustrated. His arm wraps under your neck, choking you, exerting his power, to bring you close to death and draw you back with desire. His arm flexes tighter against your throat and the pressure on your breathing scares and excites you at the same time. If death tastes like black smoke and defecation, then living tastes musty and hard, you decide. He curves his torso over and to the right of you, so that his face is near your face. You taste chardonnay, soil and sweat on his breath. His eyes glare a whole universe at you while he plunges a bit of that universe inside you. You have never had sex in your room before and something about that makes this moment daring, even though now there isn’t a father to catch you. The noise of funeral preparations below suddenly rises, you can hear clanking pots, boiling rice, your family’s heartbeat. You know your father would find this infinitely disrespectful and that arouses you more. Doing something forbidden always feels like you are finally doing what you actually want. He interlocks his hands with yours. His grunts begin to soar faster and you close your eyes to feel it all. You think about your mother, who left because her husband forgot to love her until she gave him a son but by then it was too late.
‘When were you going to tell me your father and I have the same name?’ He chucks the question at you as buckles and pants are shifting back into place.
‘I don’t know. All I know is it felt deeply uncomfortable to say, “Hey Lwandle, you know my dead father? His name was also Lwandle” after sucking your dick.’
‘At least it would have prepared me for the awkward stares everyone gives me when I introduce myself.’
‘I’m sorry. If you knew, would you have still come?’
‘Maybe. But would you go somewhere where your name makes everyone want to cry?’
The funeral service of Lwandle Fakudze begins at 4 a.m., after a night vigil. By tradition, he has to be buried before the sun comes up to have a full day of light to travel the final stretch home. Multitudes of people fill the cemetery. Your father’s popularity is unexpected but you understand that a person can be a different experience for everyone.
Your sisters sit in order of birth in the small tent. You are standing with the men around the coffin. This is the last time you will be this close to your father. The coffin is covered with a thick blanket, to keep him warm. You are not sure when mourning starts and when it ends. As they lower his casket into the ground, you wonder if the parts a person contributes to you die with them too. Maybe that’s why it feels like a part of you disappears. The procession to sprinkle a handful of earth on the coffin begins with your family. Sabelo and Mqondisi hold Menzi up, her body flickering away. They lean over the grave like they will all jump in. You’ve heard this happens at many funerals. But they don’t. You search for the alive Lwandle, you see his shiny head move in and out of sight as he helps collect the funeral programmes that go into the grave before they cover it. Your father was an ocean when he was alive, exactly like his name. He drowned and was cleansed. Now that ocean rests beneath you while another ocean will sleep next to you tonight.
You look up at the sky, it’s 5.15 a.m.
- Zanta Nkumane is a writer, journalist and ex-scientist. His work has appeared on Okay Africa, ThisIsAfrica, Mail & Guardian, Racebaitr, Kalahari Review, City Press, Arts 24, New Frame, Amaka Studio, Doek, Lolwe, Olongo Africa, The Republic & The New York Times. He Contributed essays to queer anthologies We’re F**king Here (2021) & Touch: Sex, Sexuality and Sensuality (2021). Zanta is the non-fiction editor at Doek!
One thought on “[Fiction Issue] ‘Petite Mort’, a new short story by Zanta Nkumane”
This is hauntingly beautiful.