The JRB presents an excerpt from A Soft Landing, the debut novel by Wisani Mushwana.
A Soft Landing
Pete got up from his chair. He hadn’t finished eating, but he put his plate on the ground, washed his hands in the green bowl and hurried towards the gate. Uncle Sontaga and a few men followed behind him.
In Violet’s bedroom, most of the furniture had been moved, except for the bed whose mattress lay on the floor and carried the weight of an unconscious Violet. The wardrobe had been moved to the corner of the room and the table that had been near the window moved to the sitting room. There was a small mound where the table had occupied space, a small grave where Violet’s baby would be laid to rest. Uncle Sontaga had dug the grave with the help of Andzani and Neo. He had used his leg to determine its depth, and when it got to his knee, he’d resolved it was deep enough. Andzani dug the grave as if he’d taken an oath to do so, as if it were upon him to make his sister’s resting place comfortable. How he trimmed, with a spade, the jagged walls of the grave until they were smooth and even; how he put cement on the floor of the grave, on its insides, sweating and refusing the meals that were prepared for him.
When Violet regained consciousness, the blue shawl around her neck had come undone and her headwrap sat at an awkward position atop her head, the ends loose, falling to her shoulders. Ausi Ketsi sat her up and made her swallow some water. Her face blank, Violet stared straight at the small coffin that lay at the edge of her mattress before crawling towards it, using both hands to steady the mattress so it wouldn’t shift as she moved her hips. When Ausi Ketsi made to help her move, Uncle Sontaga placed his hand on her back—leave her, the hand seemed to say. When Violet reached the coffin, she hugged it. They let her lie there, hugging the small coffin, while waiting for the ceremony to begin. And when the ceremony began, they had to beg her to let go of the coffin. This was before they were forced to unglue her body from it because she refused to let go.
Andzani had stood at the back of his mother’s bedroom closest to the door, behind the chairs his relatives occupied. He stared at the men who had chosen to stand outside, watching through the window because there wasn’t enough room in his parents’ bedroom. He tasted salt, and more salt as tears wet his cheeks and ran down his chin as if racing when the brawl had started—Violet crawling for the coffin and Uncle Sontaga holding her back, saying, ‘Sesi, it’s going to be alright.’ Andzani stood there, not knowing what to do with himself, fidgeting with his fingers as if trying to retain the pain that stung at the corners of his eyes, that made the roots of his hair itchy and the roof of his mouth dry, wanting to escape, to be belched out. Andzani watched Neo standing closest to the hole—everything he wasn’t feeling: calm, upright, with his hands meeting in front of him like the two undertakers present, observant and ready to take action upon Uncle Sontaga’s instructions. Andzani fixed his eyes on Neo, not wanting to look at his mother who now lay on her side, sniffling as Ausi Ketsi tried sitting her up, to watch, watch the gaping hole swallow her child, in her bedroom, where she was to have many more sleeps.
After the ceremony, Violet couldn’t walk, had stopped eating solids, and the skin around her eyes had become taut, perfectly outlining her cheekbones, the ones she had passed on to Andzani. Her eyes were often vacant and they carried longing, and at night Andzani heard her sob, until he could hear her no more because her sobs would be drowned out by his father’s snoring in the sitting room. It was on these nights that Andzani wondered how she felt sleeping next to her child’s grave. Did it give her nightmares, as it had him? The nightmares had caused Andzani to cease entering his mother’s bedroom. After he’d told her about these dreams that kept him awake at night, Violet had shifted the table that had returned to its original position in her bedroom after the funeral and made him lie on top of the grave. The floor had been tiled immediately after the funeral and one wouldn’t suspect a grave in the room unless told.
Andzani had lain with his eyes open, looking at the zinc roofing. He heard a creaking sound as the roof heated up under the scorching sunrays. Then he’d moved his eyes to the timbre poles that ran vertically and horizontally, making square and rectangular shapes beneath the corrugated-iron sheets. He counted the squares, then the rectangles, before he closed his eyes and recalled when Uncle Sontaga had lowered the small coffin, heard the song they’d sung on the day and recollected the pensive faces that kept shifting their gaze from his mother to his father and then to him before bouncing off the small coffin. The grave was going to be there all his life and Violet needed him to be comfortable living with it.
After some time had passed, Violet gave Andzani her hand and helped him up. Briefly, Andzani stood above the grave, as if saying his silent prayers, then helped Violet push the table back into position.
But the dreams didn’t cease immediately, and like a laceration, the wound closed with time.
- Wisani Mushwana is a writer and researcher. He holds a MA in Creative Writing (with distinction) from the University of Cape Town and is currently completing his PhD in English Studies at the same university. A Soft Landing is his first novel.
Andzani and Neo are young and in love. They made a pact to leave their hometown of Mbambamencisi in search of unimpeded freedom. When Neo unexpectedly passes away, Andzani is left with no other choice but to fulfil their dreams alone.
Years later, Mbambamencisi becomes a shadow in Andzani’s Cape Town life, but he carries the unpleasant memories of home within him. The monotony of his accountant job and random Grindr hook-ups offer minimal respite when he meets Yolula. They start spending a lot of time together, but Yolula can tell there’s something—or someone—holding Andzani back.
The past ruptures the present when Andzani receives a phonecall alerting him to his mother’s deteriorating mental health. And on this trip back to Mbambamencisi, as if given a last chance, long-repressed memories of trauma flood his head and force him to reckon with the shadows of his past.
A Soft Landing explores the courage to love and be loved.