an excerpt from "A Long Story Short", an unpublished novella
It was not always as contaminated, the nature of the resentments that sprouted between Father and me as is the fog of confusion that is Finetown.
1980 I am born on a midnight when all the lamps in Father’s shack refuse to catch the flame of his lighter and so Father ends up collecting wood out in the yard and sets an iridescent brazier down at the centre of the shack floor, smothering us all to near death.
Mother says, It cannot be the ugliness, coughing.
Father has a change of heart, Maybe this way we lose him with enough love to feed on for the both of us.
1984 Mother tells me the episode in all my born-days and when I turn four Father justifies them both: That is all the education you have needed for now. He shoves a battered volume of the King James Version at me, the cover draped in giftwrap, verses upon verses underlined in black pen and indecipherable doodles on the margins. I have all the songs you need son, but first learn these saws so you know what I’m raising you for.
1985 Mother tells me to abandon Khayalethu, the first name she and Father had given me, but recites a replacement to Father and me in a voice meant to communicate despair but reaches my ears as jesting, which is why I clap my hands and holler Mother’s name at the top of my voice and whistle after Mother is done singing, but Father doesn’t.
You will order my killing wena, Mother says with a hint of remorse.
Father says, Ag sies torho, this one? Mice I cannot trust even with a bird’s trap.
1986 An old woman visits us one night and she asks to see the new member in Father’s house.
Father and Mother point at me with their eyes.
The old woman turns her face towards me.
Says, You have a mother of age more eagle-eyed than who you know.
Father says, Well Mother, our debt is only with the others, remember.
Grandmother says, Send him to school first.
Father says, I even bought a cow for the boy and I wash him with its pee all the time to do away with the ticks that eat into his ribs.
Grandmother says, Fight them both, pointing at Mother and Father, if their words clog the blood vessels to your heart.
She plants a wet kiss on my forehead.
1987 Mother and Father build a plank shack on the dull end of our street and Father supplies my name. Sofanguwe Teashop can only be traced through a scrapyard where they take only bicycles, potjies and tableware. I go there every day after school, since no one is at home.
The special dish is a soup of my fingertips suffocated in shrunken pesika leaves.
Father says, We will cook it only when white people whose ancestors have African blood on their hands order it.
Mother thinks something about the promotion aided the ruin of Safanguwe Teashop when it closes three weeks later.
1992 Mother gives birth to my brother Thathanazindoda and on the night of the day my brother is born Father mutters under his breath, This one can’t be the killer Noparty, he is not a girl! so Grandmother walks all the way from kwaNtu and soon as she arrives she heaves herself out the door, delightedly speechless, Thathanazindoda on her back, not even a word of goodbye.
1993 My sister is born on the longest day of the year, but I keep overlooking her real name and each day when it’s lunchtime she howls in pain, but Mother only hums to herself, It might be we have a visitor coming. Father pulls me by the collar and drags me to the backyard to chide me under the ngwenye tree, She loves to suck your nipples and you know how I want your mother’s assassin to be treated well, so don’t pretend you don’t know what to do, son. When Grandmother visits, Grandmother and Father argue all night and the pots with our supper hiss and steam until the vapor escapes through the hole-riddled zinc sheets of our roof, until the food is damp from the night air and frustration in my eyes, until Mother and I go to sleep with grumbling stomachs, until Mother and I wake up in the morning to find Grandmother and Father still arguing, until Grandmother gets to flee with my sister.
1997 On his born-day, Grandmother visits from the villages and leaves the same day with my brother before he is even named. But for once Mother gets to own a new t-shirt and Father a new overall, but to me Grandmother offers a tall mirror and a heavy trunk of newspaper cuttings to read.
Grandmother says, You cannot trust your beauty to blind eyes.
Mother and Father make it customary to stop and stand in front of my mirror before they leave the shack, and in that way I get to burn their looks into my head: the overalls Father rolls at the waist so that he goes everywhere half-naked, exposing his humpback; Mother never runs out of green nail polish, is missing one of her smallest toes because of some ritual that happened long before I was able to pee on my own.
Mother says, We are being good examples to you, that is all.
1999 Some morning in the winter Father disappears and for weeks we do not hear from him. Mother is not too worried and I see no reason how to do anything, but one night Father walks through the door and tells the women he has brought with him to gather Mother and me in the courtyard, and in that way introduces me to the aunts – These are educated people, son, you must learn whatever you can from them – and all the women hiccup into their fists, as though it were some respectable way of acknowledging Father’s remark – I will play some music now, people – and Father balls up his hands and bangs and bangs on the walls of our shack so that Mother and I fall asleep lying on the grass while watching Father.
The next morning, Mother whispers to me while hand-washing my underwear, Wonder I, what happened to the church women Father rented.
2001 After Mother gives birth to Sanelisiwenguwe, Father says, Maybe this is the one who knows what foul play means?
Mother says, We must worship them, all dreams I remember.
What is that I smell Noparty, your funeral?
I see you want us to live on food of rubbish.
Father says, Give her here, I’ll raise her on my own and stomps away with my sister curled up on his hairy arms. Father and Sanelisiwenguwe never leave Father and Mother’s bedroom, and Mother keeps an eye on them throughout the day, but later, in the doorway, she takes notice of my dejection and says, Mntanasekhaya just call and she will be juicy company, you will see.
When Grandmother comes to visit later that day, she goes into Father and Mother’s bedroom brandishing a flyswatter and soon as she opens the door Father jumps out in his overall and gumboots, his high-pitched cries rinsing my heart of all the hate I had been carrying.
Grandmother says to me, It’s a riddle, isn’t it, first and only one?
Why I am a mute, born without the gift of speaking my thoughts when I open my mouth?
Why I was taken to a school where all the teachers pity me and the girls fail to read between my hand gestures?
Why Grandmother never takes me to the villages with her?
Why I never see my siblings again after Grandmother leaves with them?
Grandmother says, Be the whole, Sofanguwe.
2003 Father acquires a donkey cart but no donkey. Pulls the cart after him every time he goes on his rounds in town, collecting discarded plastic bottles to resell. Someday he tells me, I only brought you with me today because I want you to read that book I gave you without Mother and her readings making you think less of God. Something in the way he says it makes me understand this business of sabotaging Grandmother won’t last.
2004 Mother tells me, You have another brother coming.
Father only mounts his rocking chair and cries, Where does all the breastmilk go in this house?
Fuming, you see.
2005 Mother flees our home on the day the government men finish building our RDP and Father beats me up all night long asking me to tell him why Mother left, and though he knows I cannot talk back at him he is convinced I am united with Grandmother in a conspiracy to break up the family.
There are streaks of tears down my cheeks.
Father says, Who eats lies in this house and never defecates truth?
I give no answer.
Father towers over me with excited anger while I lie on the kitchen table chest-down, lifting the belt behind me only to rain down his strokes on my naked back.
2007 On a night when all the Somali, Pakistani, Ethiopian spaza-owners are chased out of Finetown and their shops looted, Grandmother knocks on our door and demands to know why the babies have stopped, but all Father can say is there is nothing in the bin to cook us a decent dinner, never mind a baby.
Grandmother says, Prepare to have your heart cut out with broken glass and forced down your throat.
Father says, It’s the new sickness, Mother. This house is missing a fire place for you.
Grandmother says, Then he is ready to come with me!
Pointing at me.
Circumcise him soon.
2008 Mother and I hug as if to make up for her long absence. In the morning, she climbs out through the window and tells me of the love I stand to gain the day I join her.
I don’t ask her whatever happened to the baby in her stomach or where she is living now or why one ear is missing, as though it had been sliced off with a sharp knife.
2009 Mother is wearing a new green coat when she knocks on my window, but I cannot accept any of the jeans she has. They are preparing to kill me, she says. Behind me in the other room, Father is talking with Grandmother, but the she doesn’t recognize Mother’s presence.
2010 Is he a man yet? I hear Grandmother say through the walls.
I suppose Father tells her the truth.
Go on, your daydreaming is waiting!
I hear her bang the door loudly on her way out.
2014 Father begins on the talk about esuthwini, real man this, real man that, again, and at last I relent. Grandmother visits on the day I am bhut’ krwala and her words are enough, You will now become your mother and father’s enemy. Your brothers and sisters are waiting.