The JRB presents a new short story by Keletso Mopai.
The Boy and Other Disasters
Papa’s face was fat and soft and plain as a well-made vetkoek when he told me that the boy’s name was Solly, and that he would be visiting for the weekend. He is now washing our pavement with a hosepipe, Papa I mean. I watch him from my bedroom window; the pipe wriggles like a black mamba and he chases and holds it down. He cleans the pavement every weekend. People throw all kinds of things there when we are sleeping at night, so he cleans away their evil doings. I once saw a trail of blood just near the grass; when I showed Mama, she said it was chicken blood. We don’t have chickens.
Closing the curtain, I turn and find Solly sitting on the bed, staring at me. He fell off the bed early this morning, and the whole thing seems to have frightened him. He sleeps in my room even though there are spare bedrooms. Mama said it’s because he is not used to sleeping alone. I look at his head; his hair is always uncombed, and he doesn’t want to comb it. When I met him, he smelled of soap and sweat. His skin is yellowish, unlike mine, which is dark, and when he walks, he walks inwards with his knees knocking each other, and he has thin long legs. I don’t share my bath soap, but Solly uses mine anyway. Mama also gave him my morning slippers, the blue ones I really like.
I ask him what caused the fall, and he speaks slowly, the words seem to fight in his mouth, but yesterday, when Mama took us to a restaurant in town for lunch, he ate the chicken so fast as if the food will run away. I was so embarrassed; he even licked his plate. I looked at Mama, disgusted. She shook her head at me, like I was the one licking the dishes, and then made an annoyed face, flustering her eyelashes. When Solly finished eating and gulping his drink, he started chewing the straw as well. Mama asked if we wanted to go outside to the play area, but because Solly didn’t want to she changed her mind and said I shouldn’t go either. ‘But we came here so that I can play after eating, you promised!’ I crossed my arms.
‘Can’t you see that your cousin is tired?’
I screamed, kicking my leg under the table, ‘Then he shouldn’t play, not me!’
‘Moshole, stop it, stop it,’ she hissed, folding the doggie bag with my leftovers. ‘Do you want those white kids to think you are rowdy?’ she said, pointing with her eyes. I gazed over my shoulder at the larger corner table, where kids were mindlessly singing Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you to a red-haired boy who was kneeling on the seat in front of them. He had sparkling things all over his face and he clapped his hands timidly. A man in short khaki trousers, surely the birthday boy’s father, was standing not far from the table, taking photographs. He grinned his teeth and waved at the children. There seemed to be tears in his eyes. I wished Papa loved me enough to cry in front of my friends. There were tears in my eyes, too.
‘Stop acting foolish and act your age. Wipe those tears!’ Mama said. I cleaned my face with my shirt.
Solly tapped Mama on her arm, asking to go to the toilet. ‘Go with him.’ she ordered.
‘But I don’t want to go to the loo,’ I wrinkled my lips. She gave me another look, the same look she gave me a week ago when she found a plate of food under my bed.
‘Nxa!’ she cursed.
I walked towards the door with the ‘Rest Room’ sign above it, Solly behind me.
Solly’s house is far from my house. On our way to fetch him, we drove past trees and trees and more trees—banana trees, litchi trees, orange trees, mango trees, lemon trees, trees, and trees, and trees. We drove and drove into gravel roads that left Papa’s white car red with dust; when I opened the window, the dusty wind outside bit my ears. When we finally arrived we found Solly playing with his friends outside his house, a rondavel with a long roof that almost touched the sky. The yard was all dark green with a cow-dung floor decorated with squares and circles and zigzags. It looked pretty. The house seemed too small with all that yard. When Solly saw Papa, he ran and hugged his legs. I had never met the boy before this, but it seemed he had met Papa many times and was overjoyed by his presence. I was jealous, a big, hard knot in my throat as I stared at them.
Unlike Solly’s house, my house is big. My house is the second biggest in Lenyenye, following our councillor’s. He has five cars while Papa has two and Mama one. My house swallows our yard and towers over our banana trees, standing tall by the brick fence that divides us from our neighbours, the Makwelas, who don’t speak to us even though I feed their skinny dog. Mama told me that Mr Makwela was once a policeman, but he lost his job because he wanted to shoot Papa with his pistol when Papa wanted the money he owed him. Mr Makwela denies this and says it was Papa who wanted to shoot him. Nowadays, when Mrs Makwela passes our house, she looks the other way, and when it’s boiling hot as it often is she tilts her umbrella so that she doesn’t have to greet us. Mama hates her so much, I see it on her face whenever she talks about her. She told one of her friends on the phone the other day that before Mrs Makwela became a witch, she was a good neighbour. They used to talk over the fence for hours, exchange food, go to the same church, and attend community meetings together, but now Mama says Mrs Makwela has turned into ‘a snake in the green grass’, and that she once saw her flying on a broomstick across her bedroom window at night.
‘Did you have a bad dream? Is that why you fell?’ I ask Solly. He shakes his head. ‘Did I push you?’ Another head shake. ‘Then how did you fall?’
‘The bed is too high.’
Mama shouts from the kitchen, ‘Moshole, Solly, come and eat before we leave!’
‘We are coming!’
Solly adds to what he was saying, ‘We sleep on the floor at home’
‘You and who?’
‘Me and my aunt, when my brother isn’t home,’
‘Where is your brother now?’
‘Work, at an orange farm in Tzaneen.’
‘Are we cousins, like cousins?’
He squints his eyes, and replies, ‘Yes, didn’t Uncle tell you? Your father was my mother’s cousin.’ I consider what he said. ‘And he said I can visit any time.’
‘Where’s your father?’
He makes a swift mark across his neck with his finger, turning his face away.
‘He’s dead?’ I ask him.
He makes the sign again.
‘Moshole!’ Mama calls again.
Solly follows me to the dining room. It is sad he doesn’t have his father and mother, maybe that’s why he can’t sleep. We sit at the table beside each other. Papa walks in, his shirt wet around his big stomach. When people make fun of him, they say his belly is like that because he drinks too much beer.
‘Do you want juice?’ Mama asks Solly, who shakes his head.
‘I will make you some tea.’
Solly smiles without showing any teeth. Papa sits on the head chair and clears his throat.
There is an eye exchange between him and Mama.
‘I want cereals,’ I say.
‘I know,’ Mama responds, without looking at me.
‘Where are we going?’
‘We are going to pick up more of Solly’s clothes from his house, he will be living with us for a while longer,’ she says, still not looking at me.
Papa grasps his glass of apple juice and takes a sip. He doesn’t talk a lot, especially at the table. When Mama told him about the food under my bed, he whipped my back, seven times, saying nothing. When he hits me, whenever I’ve done something stupid, I agree with the kids who call him a monster. A killer. I think they are right not to want to be friends with me. That I shouldn’t play with anyone at all. That when they throw ball on the street, I should watch from my window and cry. But then, when the whipping and weeping is over and Papa gives me fifty rand the next morning for school, I wish they knew who he really was. I wish the kids would stop throwing things on our pavement claiming he threatened their parents. I once asked Mama why Papa had driven to the old woman’s house at the corner of the street, kicked in her front door and taken her television, her couch, her mattress, the tomato sauce in her fridge, even her walking cane, and Mama responded, ‘Would they ever pay him back what they owe him? What will you eat or wear if they never pay back his money? When they come here to borrow money with tears in their eyes, as if he is the only loan shark in this township, do they call him a killer then? Do they? Moshole, people are hypocrites!’ The old lady’s things were returned that same night, after she finally paid what she owed.
Mama asks Solly, ‘Is your food enough, do you want more bread?’ There is something on Mama’s face that she is trying to hide, I can’t tell what it is.
‘No, ghe’ dya di slice dje three fela,’ Solly replies, with his deep Khelobedu accent. I have to replay the sound of his voice in my head to understand what he is saying: he only eats three slices.
‘Eat, we should be going now,’ Mama says to no one in particular. I raise the cereal bowl to my face and drink the milk left inside, and burp. I laugh, hoping Mama will scold me, but she doesn’t. However, Solly is laughing too—it’s the first time I’ve heard his laughter. He doesn’t laugh with his mouth open, he giggles with his cheeks, you can tell his insides are tickling him.
‘Go and open the gate, Moshole,’
I run outside and roll the wheeled gate. There is a man standing on the pavement, looking lost, a newspaper under his right arm. He looks at me up and down. ‘Mama!’ I call out, eyeing the stranger.
‘Moshole, how you’ve grown,’ he says. My mother hasn’t responded.
‘Can I help you?’
‘I’m here to see your parents, and I will be going with you to GaModjadji,’
I hate this. I hate people who ask for lifts so much. They make me uneasy, stealing the privacy in our car—and sometimes money when we aren’t looking. I remember the nice looking lady Mama gave a lift a year ago who not only talked too much but stole too much, all Mama’s cash from her wallet, her cards, her computer and the peanuts she always kept beside her seat.
The man follows me to the house. There is no one in the dining room now. ‘Mama, a man is calling for you!’
She doesn’t reply but comes down the stairs. I notice that her eyes are a little red, which isn’t her usual colour, hers are brown and white with small spots as if someone had taken a sharp crayon and poked them. She notices my stare and orders me to the bedroom, but I barely move. My mother and the man begin whispering, then hold hands together as if in prayer. The newspaper the man is holding falls to the floor. I read the headline on the front page: ‘Local White Farmer Shoots Black Worker’.
I open my bedroom door and find Solly and Papa sitting on my bed. Solly’s small head is on Papa’s lap, his back heaving and shaking. Papa looks at me and mouths: ‘His brother has passed away.’
The first words he has said to me today.
They say it was murder, but the farmer says it was an accident. They say the white man had a gun, but the white man claims Solly’s brother had the gun. At the funeral, people look at Solly with pitiful eyes, I see them mumbling to each other. It is rumoured that Solly’s brother was killed for sleeping with his white boss’s wife. Others say he was shot because he was defending the wife from the white man, who was abusing her. A few others I hear at the cemetery, hardly opening their lips, suggest that the white man was defending his wife from Solly, who was trying to rape her. It’s a disaster. No one knows the real truth, especially when the woman hasn’t said anything.
The night following the burial, my mother, my father, Solly, and I watch the news on our television, because of the protest outside the farmer’s house. There is a lot of shouting and anger. The white man was given bail. The woman talking to the camera walks to one of the protesters, a man with uncombed hair like Solly’s, and he says the word ‘racism’ a lot. I don’t know what it means, but it sounds terrible because the man is angry when he says it: racism, racism, racism, racism. The people behind him start singing and the man rejoins them. As they sing, some find their way to the farm, and we watch as they climb trees and pluck oranges, folding them in their shirts and running away. Others stomp the road holding placards and blocking cars from passing. All four of us watch, quietly, not saying anything.
The next day, strange men come to our house in groups to see my father. When they arrive, Papa gives me a sharp stare that says: go away. The men are unlike the people who usually come to loan money, mothers with babies on their backs, old men with scruffy legs, young men who need money for beer and money to spoil their girlfriends. But these men look like they do bad things, especially the one with a scar across his left eyebrow, a matchstick at the corner of his mouth. He is very light in colour, like Solly, and his eyes tell me he has seen things that keep him up at night. I leave the room without my ears, leaning against the wall so that I won’t fall. I hear them, something about covering something’s head with a sack. Something about dragging that something across the road behind Papa’s van. Something about leaving the thing at the dumping site in Slurban. Someone taps me on the shoulder, startling me. I almost hit his face. ‘Solly, you scared me.’
‘There’s a girl outside, calling for you.’
‘Is she your girlfriend?’
‘What does she look like?’
‘Big eyes … pretty. Chocolate.’
‘Her name is Ntsiki, and no, she’s not my girlfriend.’
‘Okay, she’s waiting.’
He follows me outside, and I find Ntsiki sitting on the porch. She smiles shyly when she sees me, then looks away when she notices Solly watching us. She will be too ashamed to ask for something to eat now. She is always hungry, her family is poor. And, like Solly, she doesn’t have parents. I put my hands in my pockets and make a face, like my stomach is growling. ‘Let me go and make a sandwich.’ Solly looks at me confused, we have just eaten.
‘Do you want it as well, Ntsiki?’ She nods slowly.
Solly glances at the girl’s hair, then her dry lips, and says to me, ‘Let me come with you. I am hungry too.’
We play a video game in my room. Ntsiki doesn’t call Solly by his name, as if she’s afraid she’ll say it wrong. I can tell she is uncomfortable around him, usually by now she would be sitting on my bed, eating and going through my old photo albums.
Solly falls again that night, making a painful thump on the floor. I look down at him in the dark, and he doesn’t move, searching with his small eyes in draining sleep. I throw him his pillow and blanket, and go back to sleep.
The next day Ntsiki comes early to my house, and she calls Solly by name and isn’t scared to show off her dimples to him. We play Kgati on the street, me and Solly holding the rope and Ntsiki skipping like the pro she is. We don’t take turns because she’s the only one among us good at this game. We don’t stop even when my wrist is starting to tire, because Solly and me enjoy her giggles as she jumps in the air, spinning, turning her head, twisting her waist, her braids rising and falling. We start giggling too. Other kids from my street start coming out of their houses because of our loud giggles. We all race each other up the hill and down our street. They ask me who the fast one is. I tell them he’s my cousin. I don’t tell them about what happened to his family. I don’t tell them about his nightmares. I don’t tell them either that it was my father who avenged his brother’s murder. For once, just today, I don’t want to be the killer’s son.
- Keletso Mopai is the author of the acclaimed short story collection If You Keep Digging. Her work can be found in The JRB, Catapult, Imbiza Journal, Lolwe, Brittle Paper, and various other publications.