The JRB presents an excerpt from ‘The In-laws’, a short story from Niq Mhlongo’s new collection, For You, I’d Steal a Goat.
For You, I’d Steal a Goat
Read the excerpt:
‘Why did it have to come to this?’ Marang murmurs as she climbs the steps to the court to hear the outcome of her case.
‘I hope those are only thoughts and not regrets,’ her mother, Kele, says beside her. ‘You did well to challenge your in-laws in court.’
Marang nods silently, thankful for her mother’s support in accompanying her to court since the whole application started. Her mother and two young children are the only people who have been good to Marang in these difficult times. They have reinforced her in the view that her life—her person—has meaning and value.
‘As a woman, one has to fight,’ her mother continues. ‘It is almost a virtual moral obligation for every oppressed woman. That is the reason I encouraged you to challenge them. And don’t worry, you will win this case.’
Marang is not so sure. She dreads what the day will bring. In the foyer, they find Marang’s in-laws waiting to be let into the courtroom as well. A different case is in session and they all have to wait.
Her brother-in-law, Fakazi, looks at her shiftily, with a mixture of hatred and curiosity. Her eyes meet those of her father-in-law, the old man Ntimani, briefly. He stares at her, then at the inside of the hat in his hand. He taps it, gazes inside again and puts it on his head, his face twisting in a contemptuous scowl. Sadness and resentment rise up in her when she recognises the oversized three-piece navy suit old man Ntimani is wearing. It is the suit that her late husband, Kumani, bought and planned to wear on their wedding day. But he never did because that happy day never happened. She recognises it despite the suit now being shiny from too much ironing. How dare the old man wear it?
Her late husband’s two sisters, Rea and Dineo, are gazing at her derisively. They look her up and down, making her feel naked. Their lips are twisted. ‘Sies, you witch. Today it will be over for you,’ one of the sisters, Rea, says. ‘You will not get away with this.’
‘Don’t bother responding to idiots.’ Marang’s mother, Kele, puts a reassuring arm around her. ‘Their actions are like the last kick of a dying horse.’
Marang keeps quiet and looks ahead stubbornly. She pretends to be unaware of her in-laws’ presence. She is immune to the insults by now. But the knowledge that all four of them detest her still brings her immense pain.
Why did it have to come to this? she asks herself again as she replays in her mind the events since her husband’s death a few short months ago.
Marang had not yet recovered from the shock of her husband’s fatal car accident, of being widowed with two little girls, when she was shaken once again by the sudden realisation that his family had turned on her in her hour of deepest need.
‘We will bury him in Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga,’ her father-in-law informed her over the phone.
‘But he lived in Johannesburg,’ she protested. She wondered why she hadn’t been consulted but knew she had to stay respectful towards her father-in-law as custom and tradition demanded.
‘He will be buried at the family home in Mpumalanga.’
‘But I am also his family. His children are also his family.’
He was silent for a while, then said: ‘You are not his family and you are not our family. You will not join us for the burial on our ancestral land.’
‘But I’m his wife. You all welcomed me when you paid lobolo to my family three years ago. What has changed now?’
He gave a snort. ‘Where have you seen a valid marriage where there is no handover of the bride? You must ask your parents to fill those gaps for you so that you can understand what a wife is. If they know our tradition, which I doubt, they will tell you that the handing over of the bride is the crucial part of our customary marriage. It didn’t happen with you. So, you are not part of the family.’
‘But you paid the lobolo. You were part of the negotiation. I’ve lived in this house with my husband for three years. What about our children?’
‘As far as we’re concerned, the children are born out of wedlock because you and my son were not married. You cannot claim anything here.’
Tears sprang to her eyes when he said this. She never expected to be treated this way. Her father-in-law had always been courteous and kind to her. She was shaking all over. Did one unobserved custom really invalidate all the years she’d spent with Kumani, all of the life they’d built together? Yes, the ceremonial practices for the customary marriage had not been completed, and they were not yet legally married either but they had two children, Tumi and Lindiwe, aged eleven and nine, and they had been living together in the Aspen Hills Nature Estate for years. They were a family.
Her father-in-law was still talking, but all she heard was a ringing in her ears. At last she heard him say, ‘We’ll come by tomorrow. Make sure you are at home.’
When he hung up, she went to the master bedroom that she had shared with Kumani, curled into a ball, pulled the comforter over her and blocked out the world. She cried because she missed him so much, and because she felt utterly alone.
The next evening, a Sunday, her father-in-law showed up with her brother-in-law, Fakazi, to collect some of her husband’s clothes for the burial rituals. They gave themselves a free pass to go upstairs to the master bedroom and rummage through the closets.
She kept quiet because the children were already asleep in the next rooms and she didn’t want to wake them with raised voices.
It was then that they pulled the three-piece navy suit from a hanger. The one Kumani would have worn on their wedding day if he hadn’t been taken from her so prematurely. ‘This will do,’ her father-in-law said with his bony curled fingers rubbing the material.
She thought he wanted it to bury her husband in it. If she only knew then that old man Ntimani planned to take the suit for himself, she would not have left them alone to continue their task while she went downstairs to wipe her eyes and blow her nose.
When the men eventually came down, she saw that Fakazi’s arms were loaded with her late husband’s clothes—more than they could ever need for any rituals. They had also helped themselves to other possessions of Kumani’s, such as a laptop, slung over her father-in-law’s shoulder, and a stereo, which he clutched with both arms.
‘Where are you taking these things?’ she demanded, casting off any semblance of respect for the supposed men of the family.
Old man Ntimani sniffed indignantly. His lips were right underneath his nose, very close to it—so close, in fact, he could easily sniff along his upper lip. ‘These things belonged to my son. You have no claim on them, just as you had no claim on him.’
‘This is outrageous! I have to ask you to put down those possessions and leave this house immediately.’
‘We will not put them down. But we will leave … For now …’ the old man said as they exited. Fakazi looked her briefly in the eyes as they left, then looked away. He had a childlike face, covered in sweat, with big eyes that gazed at her with a challenge in them. She was most surprised at him. Marang shuddered when she thought of how close she had been to Fakazi when his brother was still alive. Then, her brother-in-law had been a placid, slightly withdrawn character. She recalled, with dull sadness but without bitterness, how attentive Fakazi had been towards her. It was almost unbelievable to Marang how brutal some people could be, and how the most refined manners often concealed savage coarseness.
Marang did not attend the burial of her husband, not willing to make a scene or face the hostile in-laws, not willing to subject her children to that.
She was disappointed in herself that she had accepted their marginalisation of her from the burial and hadn’t acted more decisively when they pilfered her husband’s possessions. She was still confined to the silences that culture and patriarchy prescribed. Deep down, she was devastated by the weight of her in-laws’ rejection. Not even Kumani’s sisters, Rea and Dineo, had reached out to her.
A month later, one Saturday morning, old man Ntimani and Fakazi showed up again. She sent the children to go play in the back garden and ordered them not to disturb the grown-ups’ discussion in the living room.
As she took her seat, she fixed her gaze on old man Ntimani, who was sitting straight-backed, a few metres in front of her. Fakazi was sitting silently to the side. Ntimani’s face and body looked small and shrunken in on itself. It was all bones, veins, skin and muscle, with not a single scrap of fat. His skull was stripped of hair by mange and old age.
Her father-in-law grinned maliciously at her, revealing a mouthful of rotting teeth. ‘We came here to tell you that you have to leave and go back to your people by next week,’ he said. ‘You can’t live here any more.’
‘With all due respect, Papa Ntimane, this is my house.’
‘My son built this house, and you are not a Ntimani.’
‘I built it together with my husband. And what about my children? Are they no longer part of this Ntimani family either? They are Kumani’s daughters and this is their family.’
‘You should have thought about that when you killed my son.’
- Niq Mhlongo is the City Editor (on hiatus). He was born in Soweto. He has a BA from Wits University, majoring in African Literature and Political Studies. He published four novels, Dog Eat Dog, After Tears, Way Back Home and Paradise in Gaza, and two short story collections, Affluenza and Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree. The Spanish translation of Dog Eat Dog won the Mar de Letras prize.
In For You, I’d Steal a Goat, award-winning writer Niq Mhlongo presents masterfully told stories rooted in South African life. With his characteristic keen observations and insights into human nature, he explores the things people do for each other, but also to each other.
Injustice, corruption, betrayal, jealousy, love, desire and loyalty are just some of the aspects of human interaction that feature in these stories.
Memorable characters and intriguing plots abound: A family refuses to leave when the bank repossesses their house; stalking has an unexpected outcome; a desensitised morgue manager gets spooked; in-laws are taken to court; South Africans trapped in Germany want to appease the ancestors with a goat; and more.
For You, I’d Steal a Goat is a collection filled with piercing poignancy,
humour and twist endings that you won’t forget.