Sipho,” Lerato called. She’s sitting at the opposite end of the table, staring at me intently. She had been unusually quiet that morning. I was leafing through a midweek newspaper and I paused to read the vacancy section. I lifted my head and looked at her.
“I can’t keep letting my mother support us and our son with her pension money.” I shifted my eyes back to the newspaper.
Lerato cleared her throat. “You have to find a place to go,” she said before walking to the bedroom. As if on cue, our baby boy Lem started crying, like he knew I was leaving. Things had worsened since I lost my job at ‘Barracuda,’ a sea food restaurant.
I met Lerato at the restaurant where I worked as the manager. She was a cashier and initially things went well between us as our love grew. Little did we know that in eight months, our fortune would drastically change when the owner decided to close the doors of the restaurant. I remember our excitement when we found out she was pregnant with our first born son, Lem. We thought it would be wise for me to give my landlord notice and move in together into her RDP* house. There, we would not pay rent therefore we would better save for our son’s expenses.
I sat still for several minutes, staring blankly at the newspaper. Tears stung my eyes as I looked at the paper. The black and white print blurred and swirled into blank mass as I fought back my tears. I stood up and walked to the bedroom, where I found Lerato sitting at the edge of the bed breastfeeding Lem. He looked at me and smiled playfully. I smiled back at him and he turned away, burying his head in his mother’s breast as he continued feeding. Lerato gazed at me then back to Lem. I removed my bag from the wardrobe and begun packing my clothes. Once I finished, I told Lerato that I would return soon to fetch the rest of my things.
“Please call me first before you come here,” she muttered. I paused at the door with my back to her. I had always thought that we would raise a family together, but now that I had nothing to offer she treated me like a stranger – asking me to call before I returned to collect the rest of my belongings. I walked quietly towards the door and Lem begun crying. I stopped and looked at him.
“Now or later he will cry for you, but he will eventually be quiet,” Lerato said with an air of finality. I proceeded towards the gate. I was sad, confused, and I felt powerless; like a boy who had tried and failed to be a man. As I closed the gate, I saw Lerato standing by the door holding Lem who was now screaming even louder.
I walked down the street, before I took the first turn at Tsamaya Street. I looked back again and I saw them both watching as I drew further away. I turned into the next corner and stepped onto Lover’s street; and disappeared from their view. I thought of Ernest, my older brother. Ernest had refused to see my son when he was born as he never liked Lerato. He always believed that Lerato and I were never meant to be together.
“She is way out of your league, this won’t last” He would say. “I don’t want to be part of your temporary union – I know her kind. You must marry your own type.” I was angry. He spoke to me like I was a scumbag who wanted to marry Miss Universe. We had not spoken for seven months, now he was my only option.
I arrived at Ernest’s place and I knocked on his door. He emerged and stood by the door, smiling wryly. He looked at my bag. “She kicked you out, didn’t she?”
“Yeah,” I said looking down.
He invited me inside and offered me a seat, then he pulled up a stool and sat before me, watching me. He paused briefly, weighing his words. “You must go home Sipho,” he finally said. “It’s been five years now – mother is ill. I will give you bus the fare. Maybe what you are going through now is a curse or bad luck.” I did not know that when things go wrong, it’s called a curse – as if bad things are not supposed to happen to human beings. The next day I was on the bus to Nyati, where I grew up. It was a long, 300-kilometer journey from Bulawayo.
I arrived in Nyati village at 6pm and Sam, my cousin, was sitting by the fire outside. When he noticed me approaching, he stood up and ran towards me. He shook my hand vigorously, took my bag and stood there smiling delightfully. I wished that I had brought him something from the city. Mother emerged from her hut. She was painfully slender and she used a walking stick to support her emaciated frame as she walked towards me.
“Mntanami, my child*!” she gasped, spreading her her slender arms open. I embraced her and felt her comforting squeeze. A mother’s hug was needed – like rain on a wilting flower.
“Mntanami – my eye lids had been twinkling the whole day, and I knew that I was going cry tears of joy.” Tears welled up in her eyes as she smiled. She asked Sam to set the water in the metal pot to boil on the firewood. Minutes later, she ordered Sam to catch a hen from the farm and bring it to her. Sam started chasing one of our hens around the yard, and he returned holding it by the neck – practically chocking it. Mother told me that I must slaughter it.
“The ancestors must know that you are here mntanami.”
I grasped the wriggling hen as Sam entered the hut, and re-emerged with a knife and rope. He tied the hen’s legs and in one rapid move, I took the sharp blade from him and slit the hen’s throat. Within seconds, the hen went from noisily cawing, to gently gurgling and then slumping dead. We watched as the hen’s crimson blood stained the earth.
“How is Bulawayo, my son” Mother asked
“It’s tough mama,” I said. I proceed to tell her all that had happened. Sam fetched the boiling water and brought it before my mother who poured it on the hen.
“Your father once went to the city when you were young,” she said as she began plucking the hen’s feathers. “He came back with a face towel and a bar of soap.”
“Just like me mother, I didn’t bring you anything” I replied, crestfallen. She stopped plucking the chicken and looked and me.
“What do you mean you brought me nothing?” she asked, emphatically pointing at me “You brought my son home!”
The following morning she took me to the family graveyard at the far corner of the cornfield. I parted tall grass that had grown high on either side of the graves.
“Mzilankatha*” She chanted. ”Mzilankatha.” She called our totem and began talking to the graves. She spoke to them, informing them that I had come home. She asked them to look after me when I returned to the city. I did not know that the dead can hear, or help the living, but she deeply believed so.
“My final house will be here” she said, pointing to a spot next to my father’s grave. After we finished a brief prayer, we returned home. She held my hand as we walked, like a mother crossing a busy road with her child.
“If life was always simple, it wouldn’t be worth living mntanami. It is challenges and tough times that determines what kind of people we are,” she reflected.
On the day of my return, mother began coughing. At times her coughs were soft yet incessant, but at other times she burst into a violent coughing fit. I wanted to stay, but she begged me to go assuring me that she will be fine. As I left, she insisted on walking me to the bus stop with Sam.
“When are you coming back home mntanami?” she asked
“I will return soon mother.”
“You will my son, soon,” she affirmed as the bus emerged from a distance. ”Very soon.” She hugged me tightly before standing back to let me board the bus. “Safe journey mntanami”
“Please tell those guys by the graveyard that I will return soon,” I said. As the bus drove off and mother and Sam disappeared behind the dust, every word she had spoken echoed in my mind like sweet melodies.
I found Ernest sitting at the gate in Jabulani, looking somber. He stood up as I approached and grabbed my hand tightly. We then walked into his home. I sat on the stool – the same spot where days earlier, he had convinced me to pay my mother a visit.
“I received a few calls when you were gone – one just over a day ago and the second just a few moments ago and….” he trailed off. He was breathing heavily and his voice cracked. I panicked.
“You don’t have a phone so I wasn’t able to reach you” Ernest paused, looking down. He looked back up at me.
“The first message was from Lerato. She says the restaurant will be re-opening soon, and your boss wants you to come and start working there.”
I breathed a sigh of relieve and burst out laughing – happy that my ancestors had heard mother’s plea for good fortune. I looked at Ernest, wondering why he looked troubled. “What’s wrong my brother?” I asked him, playfully shoving his shoulder. He looked crestfallen. “It’s the second news” he spoke softly. “Just moment ago – Sam called from home. Soon after you left, mama collapsed on the walk home. Sam struggled to get the car to rush them to the nearest hospital on time. By the time they arrived, the medics took one look at her. She had died on the way there.”
I buried my head between my knees and broke down crying. I would be returning to Nyathi much sooner than I had expected. I would be laying my mother next to my father, as she would be joining our ancestors. I hoped that she would hear me when I call her totem at the graveside, chanting: “Ngiyabonga Mancube Mzilankatha. Thank you for everything Mzilankatha.”
* “RDP” means Reconstruction and Development Programme. These are free government-built houses.
* “Mntanami” means means “my child” in Ndebele.
* “Mzilankatha” is derived from the word ”Inkatha” which is a grass or a cloth that African women put on their heads when carrying buckets of water, for padding and comfort. ”Mzilankatha” is an extension of a Ncube surname – with ”Inkatha” as part of its etymology.
Joe Machina (@) born Norman Ncube, is a freelance journalist, a member of’ “Johannesburg writers” and a co-founder of “Write Africa.”
This story was published in collaboration with Bahati Books, an e-book publishing company that aims to bring to global readers captivating and well-written African Literature by African authors.
Related country: Zimbabwe