Zulu, zulu hamba! Buya buya langa!
We wanted to sing at the top of our voices. We wanted to sing and dance round and round in circles, tongues out to catch the rain which we were singing away. Barefoot whilst the rain soaked earth squished between our toes red and gloopy, dusty heat no more. We wanted to sing and laugh and spin until we felt dizzy with the delicious smell of the rain on the hot hotness of the summer.
Lately though, we had begun to think that as long as they were around we never would. We had to be quiet.
This is what had happened only days ago when Bigbrain had forgotten about being quiet:
‘You!’ slap ‘Will!’ slap ‘Respect!’ slap ‘Your!’ slap ‘Neighbours!’slap ‘Grief!’
He had been reading one of his comics in our bedroom and had laughed too loud for mother’s liking. She had called him into the kitchen to play a quick slap-slap tune on the tight drum skin of his head.
Bigbrain had cowered in a corner on the floor, hands over his freshly slapped, freshly shaved head. He shoved me away when I shuffled over to console him, hurt that I had seen his hurt.
So we grew afraid and came up here to the top of the hill. Bigbrain, little Jonas and me. We have been coming up here for years, but now we come here every day to escape from laughing behind our hands like Sakhile did the day she got married. As if anyone believed she was shy.
We can see our row of houses from up here. Ours is in the middle of the row and it’s stuck to the neighbours’. One house, two different doors and a fence in the middle. We come up here to escape, and to think of ways to get rid of them.
Jonas squats a little way away. Blue shorts and an unbuttoned checked shirt , covered in mud. There’s snot running down his nose. There always is. He looks over his shoulder and smiles at me, licks the snot off and goes back to his mud people. He is four years old and we are his ten and eleven year old babysitters.
‘You know that family on Third Street? The one where the mother slept while someone stole her baby in a handbag?’
Bigbrain is talking nonsense. Sakhile’s little sister told me the story, they stole the handbag for money and then they just took the baby.
‘It wasn’t in a handbag silly.’
‘How do you know? Were you there? You weren’t even there!’
‘Neither were you, Sakhile’s sister said-‘
‘Haha, MaDu? She talks kaka that one.’
‘Anyway why are we even talking about that? I am not stealing any babies!’
‘Shut up, they don’t have a baby anymore, idiot.’
He adds a shove to his ‘shut up’ that nearly sends me rolling down the hill head over bum. I get up just in time and grab onto a hanging branch on the Marula tree that we’re sitting under. I glare and he laughs.
I hate him sometimes. Then I go to the Church of the Second Coming every Sunday and pray to God to forgive me. But it’s Tuesday, a whole week of hating him is ahead of me, like having pocket money on a Monday morning, hours before lunchtime.
‘I know that, you’re the one who started talking about it.’
I am curious though.
‘What’s your point anyway?’
He is clever and maybe that’s why I hate him a little. I would be cleverest if it wasn’t for him, and father would give me the box of Lobel’s biscuits all wrapped up in their cellophane. I would share them and decide which ones to keep for myself and I would feel magmanimous. I think that’s what it’s called. Special anyway.
‘I bet we could convince them that the house is bewitched, and that will make them move.’
‘We could! Steal stuff from their house and bang things in the night and other stuff.’
‘That would take forever, and the summer’s nearly through.’
‘Summer? You think that’s all we have to worry about? Did you see Shingi’s face? She will be sad forever and ever and I will get hit every time I laugh. You too probably.’
‘All that baby did was cry and cry. At least now she doesn’t have to deal with the crying.’
That sounds like something to be sorry for thinking. I wonder if he will pray to God to forgive him for thinking that.
‘And how would we do it anyway? I’m not sneaking out in the middle of the night!’
I am looking at him, pale brown skin almost as pale as my hand, the palm side up. Like mother’s. There’s a dried trail of sweat on the side of his face.
‘Why not? Scared of tokoloshis? Big baby!’
‘Oh you think you’re so brave? Maybe you’ve forgotten about mother’s hand playing a tune on your bald head last Saturday’
He picks up a small stone and throws it at my head. I duck.
‘Bigbrain! I’m telling.’
It’s the rule, you don’t throw stones. I think it’s a bit like how mother never hits you with a closed hand.
‘Okay, fine, sorry!’
We’ve been up here for most of the morning. Mother left early this morning, and went into the city at the same time as when father went to work. It’s big market day, and she won’t be back until after lunch. So after breakfast we came up here. Now the sun is getting really hot and I am getting thirsty.
‘What did the baby die of?’ He laughs and answers himself ‘Crying, maybe it cried itself to death.’
Shingi’s baby didn’t die of crying of course, he died of the sickness (the walls are thin and mother talks to father a lot at night) so that means his mother has it too. I don’t know where she got it from. It can’t have been from her mother, she’s old and Shingi is not a baby. What I mean is Shingi would have died as a baby if she had got the sickness from her own mother, because that’s what happens.
Every time I see the neighbours in their black clothes, my chest feels heavy and I want to be somewhere else. Like when Bigbrain and me fight and he wins and sits on my chest and farts in my face -I can’t breathe and I can’t escape.
In the Church of the Second Coming, in Sunday school, Ms Mthethwa in her pencil skirt and high collared white shirt, says that only the best children get to go to heaven. I sit and mostly watch her skirt, and wonder why it is necessary to push your legs together so tight that you take tiny little steps when you walk. Is it to make sure your legs stay closed? Mother says a lady has to sit properly with her legs closed. I don’t always sit with my legs closed, I can’t help it, my thighs sweat if I sit with them touching for too long. So what will happen to me when I die? I think about that every time I see the neighbours in their black clothes.
‘Bet you wouldn’t do it?’
‘You weren’t even listening to me!’
‘You talk a lot, it’s boring.’
‘Dad says that’s why you aren’t better at school, you don’t listen!’
I stick my tongue out at him, ‘Bet I couldn’t do what?’
‘Set their house on fire’
He says it just like that and then sits looking at me, daring me with his eyes.
‘Are you mad? I’m not killing anyone!’
‘No dunderhead, I mean when they are not there.’
‘Dunderhead and a coward.’
‘Your idea, you do it!’
‘No one would think it was you. Me? They’d know!’
He looks at me and quickly looks away. Like a skimming stone bouncing on water and bouncing away again.
Bigbrain is not really my brother, he is my cousin. His mother and my mother were sisters. That was before the burnt down home, and the sound of corn popping in the fierce, fierce fire, lit with government issued matches while no dogs barked. That was before the neighbours from the village brought him to the city and he stared for days and wouldn’t speak. Not during the day anyway. At night lying on our pallets on the floor, side by side, he spoke to me in whispers.
He told me of the day the men with the guns and red berets came, and how neither of his dogs, Lucky and Bodo, barked. He said one of the men in the red berets was chewing on a match, all the while turning the box over and over in his hands, that’s how Bigbrain knew they were not Lion Brand ones from the shops. The man had a shiny star on his beret and he dragged Bigbrain’s mother into the kitchen hut and told her to sit. He came out again and shouted at Bigbrain to run, and his mother shouted from inside the hut for him to run.
All he had on were his shorts, no shoes. He said he thought of asking his mother if he could go in and get his shoes, but when he looked at the guns on the two men at the door, he said his words wouldn’t come out.
So he ran, through the compound gate, past his two dogs lying with foam around their mouths into the field of corn, and kept running until he got to the big Mnyiyi tree. I asked him to tell me about the tree and he said it had big wide branches like open arms, and that’s why it was easy to climb. He said that’s how he saw the smoke, from up in the tree, the flames already high up on the end hut, the grain silo. He told me in whispers how he could hear the corn popping like when you put it in a pan to make maputi.
Pop! Pop! Pop!
I always thought of the delicious smell of popping corn when he told me that part. I couldn’t help it.
He wasn’t trying to impress anyone, not even me. Like even if I wasn’t there he would have kept whispering his story to get it out of him. That’s what it was like; the story seeped out of him like sap out of a cut tree. And once it was out it hardened and became a real thing. I know the story is true.
So before all this, his mother and my mother were sisters, and now his mother is dead. Are they still sisters if she’s dead? Anyway, mother says to call him brother because otherwise people ask questions. The neighbours don’t ask questions anymore, but their eyes look from me to him and back again every time they see us together.
Bigbrain is pulling up little clumps of grass from the patch he is sitting on, knees raised, head down so I can’t see his face.
‘Dad said it was their people that burnt our home.’
I can’t see his face so I march over to him and fold my arms across my chest.
‘You’re lying; you’re just saying that to make me do it.’
‘No I’m not! Their people go to the rallies and sing about chasing us out of the country!’
Mother says never ever to let anyone hear us talking about such things, and he’s not even whispering,
‘And now their baby is dead and I get hit for laughing and we have to be quiet all the time? Because of them!’
He gets up, picks up a stone and throws it towards their house. Them!
It’s a small stone and we’re too far away. The hill -father says that’s where they put the earth they dug away in giant diggers so they could build our homes-is easy to climb and you can walk to the top without stopping for a rest, but you couldn’t run all the way to the top, we’ve tried.
He is staring at the house and his mouth has turned into a puckered up thing like a dog’s bum hole. I am thinking this but I don’t feel like laughing. There’s something about the way he is looking at the house that is frightening me.
‘Mother hit you, not them so how is it their fault?’
I still want them to go. I just don’t want to burn their house down. High collared white shirts and pencil skirts. There’d definitely be no heaven then.
He shouts ‘I am tired of being quiet for them and I don’t care about their dead baby. Dead people don’t care what you do and being quiet doesn’t bring them back either.’
And then he takes off running down the hill. He is already a good way away before I start after him.
‘Bigbrain, where are you going?’ I shout after him.
I stop at the sound behind me. Jonas.
Halfway down now, Bigbrain’s unbuttoned shirt is flying behind him.
I go to grab Jonas.
‘Come on, let’s go.’ I am dragging his little arm up.
He begins to wail, he doesn’t want to leave his mud family.
‘We need to go.’
Bigbrain is already too far to catch up with. I just walk as quickly as I can. Jonas is still wailing.
We reach the bottom, where the hill meets the back fence of the end house in our street, I let go of Jonas’ hand. We have to walk one foot in front of the other because the path is so narrow. At the end of the path I wait, Jonas is pretending to walk a tightrope slowly. Right foot. Left foot. Arms spread out.
‘Jonas come on!’
I grab him and walk fast around the side of the house to the front of the street. The sun is high in the sky now. No dogs bark. I run.
Behind me Jonas is running and wailing and trying to breathe at the same time. He sounds like a siren.
The blue door swings open at my touch, and cold air rushes up to cool my sweaty face. The two front rooms are empty.
The back room on the right is my parents’ bedroom, we are not allowed in there. I run into our bedroom. Its dark, my eyes are blind from the sun.
The shapes begin to put themselves together like a picture from long ago coming back to full brightness.
He is not there.
I feel it before I hear it, it’s like someone just punched me right in the middle of my chest. It’s loud and it’s near. It makes my heart beat so fast I can hear it, too. I turn and run towards the noise.
Bigbrain is standing in my parents’ room with his back to the door. Thin spindly arms lifted high. Like he is the captain of the winning football team. Except he has a ghetto blaster for a trophy and he is holding it as close as he can to the wall that we share with Shingi and her mother. I open the door wider and it’s the light that makes him turn his head over his shoulder. His mouth doesn’t look like a dog’s bum anymore. And from the speakers, Brenda Fassie is blasting out;
‘Come to me, come to me, baby, baby!’
And then we are dancing and laughing, laughing and dancing. Jonas is jumping up and down on the bed and we all sing at the top of our voices as we dance.
We dance and dance, we are free.
Related country: Zimbabwe
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