Sunday, 27 January 2019

Scones for Thula

 Image by Sihle Kunene

[Trigger and content warning: mention of death via – anti-LGBTQIA+- hate crime; grief and survivor’s guilt.]
“At this point in my life,
I’d like to live as if only love mattered.
As if redemption was in sight.
As if the search to live honestly,
Was all that anyone needs.
No matter if you find it.” – Tracy Chapman, At this Point in my Life (1995)
December 22nd, 2009
Nearly 30 years since she’d first encountered the house with the white walls and surrounded by dozens of bushes and surreptitious pot plants, Bongiwe entered the home of the woman she had dreamed would one day become her mother-in-law. Mam’Beatrice was seated on a plastic white chair in the backyard of her house; that everyone knew served as the front entrance because she was always there. There were little children running around in the yard. They mostly played amongst themselves; but every once in a while one of them would approach the large old lady to show her something they’d discovered or try include her in the game they were engrossed with.
Bongiwe stood to the side, watching the old woman. Even though her laughter sounded as hearty as it had always been, her smile had lost its zest. She kept patting the inner corners of her eyes with a white handkerchief. Bongiwe’s heart lurched in resonance. She knew all about the relentless tears that weren’t even interrupted by the presence of joyful, adorable young children.
She wondered, yet again, if coming here was a good idea. But it was too late for her to turn away now. If her visit brought the old woman any more sorrow she would make it mercifully short. She only wanted to drop off the scones she had baked and a little money she thought might help her get by.
“Hello sisi!” a little girl with rounded cheeks and very few teeth walked over to Bongiwe and greeted her enthusiastically. Bongiwe granted the child a small, warm smile. Mam’Beatrice turned to look in their direction. Bongiwe felt her hands tremble against the edges of the large Tupperware she was holding.
It had been years since she had stepped into that yard. Years still since she had spoken to the old woman with kind eyes.
“Hi mama,” Bongiwe said softly. She walked towards mam’Beatrice; who looked at her as though she didn’t fully recognize her.
“Hello, my child,” the old woman responded courteously.  She held a hand against her forehead to shield her eyes from the sun and looked intently at the younger woman’s face. Bongiwe took a deep breath and stepped even closer to mam’Beatrice.
“My goodness! Is that you Bongiwe?” the old woman rose out of her chair slightly. Her small eyes widened and she allowed her tears to flow freely down her cheeks. “Come here so I can see you properly!”
Bongiwe stood directly in front of the old woman; felt her soft round knees brush against her long striped dress. Mam’Beatrice shifted in her seat and reached out to touch Bongiwe.
“Here, take this inside,” mam’Beatrice took the large Tupperware from Bongiwe and handed it to the nearest child. She quickly turned her attention back to the small, dark woman standing in front of her.
Bongiwe was just as beautiful as she remembered her. She was still short and slender; with a midsection softened by children and age. Her eyes were still bright and intelligent. And her smile; though never flashed with ease, was every bit as charming as it had been when she was a teenager.
To Bongiwe, mam’Beatrice looked like a much more tender and saddened version of her younger self. The old woman had always been fat; had always had a wide soft face with clear light skin. Her hair used to be full and black but time had lessened it and turned it a pale grey. Her eyes looked reddened and pained. Grief tended to do that to eyes.
“I’m sorry that it took me such a long time to come and see you,” Bongiwe said, fighting back her own tears. Seeing the old woman wear her pain so plainly nearly crushed her resolve to remain strong. She had been concerned about how mam’Beatrice would be affected by her visit but hadn’t considered what seeing the old woman’s grief would do to her.
“Oh my child,” mam’Beatrice began, wiping tears off of her chin, “the fact that you came at all. Thula would be so happy to know that you came to see me.”
That was the second time in the space of four months that another person had mentioned Thula’s name to Bongiwe and it sent her emotions into a tailspin. She bit her bottom lip to try stop it from trembling, but tears spilled out of her eyes anyway. Mam’Beatrice pulled the younger woman onto her lap and held her tightly.
Bongiwe unraveled. She allowed her face to pour out all of the pain she had held in since learning of Thula’s death. She could feel her tears soaking mam’Beatrice’s neck and dress; could feel her nose leaking salty tear-mucus. The old woman held her in her lap as though she were a young child, rubbing her back and rocking her back and forth.
With her eyes shut and her body burrowed into mam’Beatrice’s softness, Bongiwe allowed herself to remember.
January 10th, 1979
They had met just before assembly. Bongiwe was a new pupil and a transplant from Orlando, Soweto. Her family had moved to Alex after her young brother succumbed to injuries incurred during the 1976 uprisings. Her mother’s sister had suggested the move. Alex had its own issues but it at least wouldn’t be heavy with the memories of a sickly and then deceased child. Bongiwe wasn’t adjusting well to the move.
In Soweto she had friends she knew and trusted; a vast geographical terrain she was familiar with and – unlike her mother – she was not interested in escaping memories of Nkosinathi. She walked onto the dusty campus of her new high school in a bit of a sulk.
While the other girls her age eyed her with open hostility, Thula had approached her with a welcoming smile.
“You’re new,” the short, light skinned girl with a bald head said. Bongiwe had glared at her silently.
“My name is Nokuthula. Everyone calls me Thula,” the other girl said, making her smile broader.
Bongiwe figured there was no real harm in making allies in this strange new place.
“I’m Bongiwe,” she said.
Something about the way the girl called Thula looked at her made her avoid making direct eye contact with her. It wasn’t a normal kind of friendliness. It felt like a deeper, keener interest.
“Where are you from, Bongiwe?” Thula said.
“I’m from Orlando. Soweto. My family moved here after my brother died,’ she didn’t know why she had volunteered such personal information about herself. But in those days, everyone had some kind of horror story to share.
“I’m sorry to hear that. Was he a freedom fighter?” Thula asked, a knowing look in her eyes.
“No. But he was injured in a protest. June 16,” Bongiwe disclosed.
“Eish. A lot of children were hurt on that day.” They shook their heads in unison.
“We were happy that he had survived. But he never really recovered. The bullet went through his lungs. He died in December last year.”
“You’re very strong,” Thula acknowledged in quiet admiration. “I couldn’t talk about it for a very long time after my brother died. He was a freedom fighter.”
“I think we had enough time to get used to the idea of him no longer being with us. He was very sick,” Bongiwe said. “I’m also sorry about your brother.” She added.
She allowed herself to meet Thula’s gaze. She saw something in the other girl’s black eyes that made her feel less alone. It was a feeling she was grateful for; even if it was just momentary.
A manual bell sounded and students started to form lines all around them. A few girls approached them and stood between Thula and Bongiwe. Thula walked away without a word.
“You should stay away from that girl,” someone whispered into Bongiwe’s ear. She turned to face the speaker; recognizing her as one of the girls who had glowered at her as she had entered the school earlier.
“She’s a pervert,” said her shorter companion.
“Yup. She thinks she’s a boy. She likes girls in that way.”
Bongiwe turned away from them and stared at the sand between her school shoes. She couldn’t understand why, but she felt her face burning with shame. Even though the accusation hadn’t been made about her; she felt exposed by it. During the Lord’s Prayer, she turned to look at the back of the row she was in. She caught Thula staring right at her. She had that knowing look in her eyes again, but this time her face carried none of the friendliness she had shared before.
Bongiwe didn’t see Thula the rest of that day, but she kept an eye out for her.
She spotted her in a park after school. She was playing around with a soccer ball; her white shirt was hanging out of the sides of her short black gym dress and her shoes and grey socks were brown with sand. She kept kicking the ball into a net-less goal post and running to retrieve it; only to repeat the exercise once more.
“And it’s a goal!” Bongiwe yelled after watching Thula score for the fifth time in a row. Even though she was playing alone; she made the goals complicated to achieve. She kicked the ball from further and further away from the goal post, from different angles, varying the speeds of her run ups to the ball.
Thula straightened up and placed her hands on her waist. She didn’t hide her surprise at seeing Bongiwe there.
“Teach me,” Bongiwe said, playfully kicking at the ball. She offered Thula one of her more friendly smiles. Thula received it graciously and grinned back at her.
“First of all, you’re kicking it the wrong way,” Thula said, chuckling. “You have to use your foot to direct the ball. You can’t do that if you kick it with the tip of your big toe. You have to kick it from an angle, like this.
Bongiwe watched carefully as the other girl placed the inside of her shoe against the roundness of the ball. Thula looked up suddenly.
“You see that dustbin over there?” she said, pointing at a concrete bin a few meters away from them, to the left. Bongiwe nodded. “I’m going to try get the ball there. So I’m going to have to place my foot against the ball in that direction.”
Thula demonstrated what she intended to do and sent the ball whizzing in the direction of the bin. The ball slammed into the side of the bin and bounced off.
“Okay let me try!” Bongiwe said excitedly. She ran after the ball before Thula could stop her. She was pleased when she felt Thula running behind her. When she reached the ball she felt a surge of inspiration and acted quickly. She grabbed the ball by hand and ran further way from Thula with it.
“Hey!” Thula exclaimed, with laughter bubbling in her throat. Bongiwe was small and fast; but Thula was a seasoned runner, so she caught up to the other girl quickly. When Bongiwe felt Thula nearing she quickly swerved in the other direction. Thula had anticipated this move and dived forward. She wrapped an arm around Bongiwe’s waist and the force of her dive sent them both onto the grass.
Bongiwe refused to relinquish the ball, so Thula decided to tickle her for it. They were laughing so hard it became difficult for either of them to do anything with conviction. Bongiwe’s grasp on the ball weakened and Thula’s tickles became inconsequential. Thula tried to take advantage of that moment but Bongiwe caught her rapid movement out of the corner of her eye and pulled the ball out of Thula’s reach.
Thula sighed in exasperation and fell back on her elbows to look down at Bongiwe, who was lying on her back. Another look passed between them and quieted their laughter.
“You’re different,” Thula said. Bongiwe smiled.
“So are you,” she said.
“I know. But you’re a good kind of different.”
“So are you,” Bongiwe said, firmly.
“I know what those girls told you about me. I’m not really like that. I mean, I’m not sure I’m really like that. They just say I’m like that because I cut my hair and play soccer.”
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being like that,” Bongiwe said softly. They looked at each other intently once more. Thula grinned suddenly.
“I do think there’s something wrong with being like this,” she said and scrambled off the ground and grabbed the ball out of Bongiwe’s hands. Bongiwe laughed in surprise and got up off the ground as well. “If you want me to teach you how to play this game you have to promise not to run off with my ball. Deal?”
Bongiwe smirked. “Okay, deal,” she said, nodding.
“Okay so we’re gonna pass it to each other. I pass it to you and you must try stop it with your foot and kick it back to me. Okay?”
“Okay,” Bongiwe still had a smirk on her face. Thula noticed it and paused.
“Look, don’t try anything funny, okay?” Thula said, although she was giggling as she spoke.
As soon as Thula kicked the ball in Bongiwe’s direction, the other girl bent down and grabbed it into her hands and started running.
After that day, they became inseparable. Fellow students accused them of being a couple; of both being perverted and strange. They were accused of being queer. Thula’s mother, mam’Beatrice, was the only person who trusted the innocence of their friendship. Bongiwe spent almost every day in the big white house with its pot plants and shrubbery. If she and Thula weren’t listening to Thula’s late brother’s music in the dining room; they were helping mam’Beatrice bake in the kitchen. If they weren’t smoking cigarettes on the school grounds, they were skipping classes to go play their unique brand of soccer at the park.
Bongiwe never did learn how to play soccer properly.
When her aunt died and she had to share the responsibility of raising dozens of young children – consisting of her aunt’s children and the children of her mother’s other estranged siblings – with her mother; the only reprieve she had from the growing pains of being a black teenage girl in Apartheid ridden South Africa, was Thula’s friendship.
Initially, their friendship progressed like an ordinary one. They spent a lot of time together; teased each other, got up to generic kinds of mischief with one another. But over time, each girl started developing feelings that didn’t feel very platonic, for the other.
Bongiwe was the first to broach the subject. They were lying on Thula’s bedroom floor listening to Oliver Mtukudzi’s album, Chokwadi Chichabuda. Bongiwe flipped herself over from lying on her back to leaning on her elbows while lying on her stomach. Thula reached up and brushed a strand of hair out of Bongiwe’s face.
“Sometimes, I feel like you would make a really good boyfriend,” Bongiwe said.
“But, I’m not a boy,” Thula said, chuckling.
“I know. But I think I like that. I like that you’re not a boy. But I still want you to be my boyfriend.”
Thula’s face grew concerned. “Are you being serious?” she asked softly.
“Yes. I would never lie to you, Thula.”
“Sometimes I wish I was a boy so I could be your boyfriend,” Thula said. Bongiwe immediately noticed the tears crawling out of the corners of the other girl’s eyes. She leaned forward and planted gentle kisses along the trail of her tears. Thula closed her eyes. Bongiwe shifted so that she was closer to Thula. She took a deep breath and kissed Thula on the mouth.
Thula seemed to exhale before kissing Bongiwe back. They stayed like that for a long time, crying and making out, with Oliver’s distinct tenor crooning in the background.
It didn’t take long for other people to start noticing the shift in their relationship. Rumors made it difficult for them to be around each other without the interruption of judgmental peers and adults alike. Thula was afraid of getting Bongiwe in trouble. She said that, even though that was the first time she had ever admitted to liking a girl in that way, out loud, she was accustomed to the persecution that came with being perceived as a pervert. Bongiwe was determined to love bravely; to remain true to what her heart wanted.
She made the mistake of openly disclosing the nature of her relationship with Thula to her mother, when confronted about it. Her mother sent her away to go live with her paternal relatives in Orlando. She was forbidden from visiting Alexandra or having any contact with Thula.
She had never bothered learning Thula’s address or telephone number – she had never had to because they always found a way to be together – so she had no way of explaining her disappearance to Thula when she left.
It was years before she returned to the township that had changed her life forever. Years before she saw Thula; as a grown self-assured woman, who knew exactly who she was and felt no shame about it.
By the time Bongiwe found her way back to Alex, she had been changed by an overzealously religious old woman’s dogma, an abusive marriage and young motherhood. Alex was the place her family went to, in order to escape their troubles. And while it had been the memory of a dying and then dead child that initially brought them to the eclectic township; Bongiwe’s return was spurred by the threat of a brutally violent ex husband.
She had carried no expectations of ever seeing Thula again, let alone reconciling with her. But when they had seen each other in passing, shortly after her return; the look they exchanged filled her chest with bittersweet joy. Thula had acknowledged the three small children clutching onto Bongiwe; the white and green church uniform and averted gaze whenever she saw the people Thula moved around with.
It was clear that Bongiwe had no way of returning to the truth they had bravely shared as teenagers. But it was also clear that Bongiwe still had those same unwavering feelings for the other woman.
Thula kept a respectful distance; while letting Bongiwe know that she still cared, in quiet but significant ways.
Whenever Bongiwe’s ex husband tracked her down; strangers who claimed to know Thula would help her and her children relocate. There was always a safe new home for them to move into instantly; a little bit of money to get them through the adjustment and rent paid ahead for two or more months.
Bongiwe tried many times to approach Thula in public, to thank her, to let her know that she was grateful but the other woman always shook her head slightly, gifted her a small smile and turned away.
About a month or so before Thula was brutally murdered – for living her truth, till the very end – she visited Bongiwe in the dead of the night. They had stood out in the yard Bongiwe and her children shared with a bunch of other families; silently sharing a cigarette. After a while Bongiwe started remembering the day they had played in the park together for the first time.
Thula noticed her smile before it had fully formed.
“Do you remember?” Bongiwe whispered.
Thula stepped closer to her then, a sad smile on her face. She nodded. Bongiwe started crying. Thula held her in her arms. They stood that way for a long time, wrapped in each other’s arms and precious memories. When it looked as though dawn was approaching, Thula kissed Bongiwe’s forehead and quietly walked out of the yard.
The next time they saw each other was in the street, separated by their differing lifestyles. The smile they shared was tender, and hopeful.
That was the last time Bongiwe had seen Thula alive.
December 22nd, 2009
“See when I touch the sky,
Earth’s gravity is pulling me down.
But now I’ve reconciled,
That in this world,
Birds and angels get no wings to fly.
I can’t believe in this heart of mine,
Oh, if you can give it a try,
Then I’ll reach inside and find and give you all the,
Sweetness that I have.” – Tracy Chapman, At this Point in my Life (1995)
It was night time and all of the small children had left mam’Beatrice’s yard. Bongiwe and the old woman were in her kitchen sharing tearful memories over a pot of tea and the scones Bongiwe had brought.
“I feel like, if I had allowed our friendship to remain just a friendship, things would be different. Thula would still be here,” Bongiwe said softly.
“You think you made Thula a lesbian?” mam’Beatrice said incredulously. Bongiwe was taken aback by the old woman’s easy usage of the word. She had never even used it to describe herself or Thula. But she nodded.
“If there’s anything I learned from Thula and her friends it is that, sexuality is a truth much deeper than influence or peer pressure. They found each other because they were similar; had similar values, not because they recruited each other. I didn’t know that you and Thula were the same, at first. I thought you just cared about my child. You were the first true friend she ever had. But over the years I have met many who are like you. Girls who like make up and dresses and long hair.”
Bongiwe smiled; surprised at how affirming the old woman’s words felt to her.
“I wish I could have taken you in when you came back. But Thula said it wasn’t what you wanted. She said we could find other ways to take care of you. But she didn’t want to bring you back into a life that would be hard for you to live.”
“It wouldn’t have been hard, Ma. If anything it was so hard not to be with her.”
“She didn’t know that, my child. She thought that she had caused the trouble between you and your mother.”
“We both blamed ourselves,” Bongiwe said, fresh tears spilling down her cheeks. “She thought it was her fault that I got sent away. And I thought it was my fault that she became like that for real. And ultimately got killed for it.”
“Oh, my child. Please, if you believe nothing else; please understand that neither of you did anything wrong,” the old woman grasped Bongiwe’s hands in hers. “You did nothing wrong by loving each other, Bongiwe. That was the greatest gift you could have given each other.”
This story is a sequel to Gomorrah is Burning
Mercy Thokozane Minah © The Letter X Publishing House, 2019

Tuesday, 30 October 2018


[‘Log on the Ground’, Ind. X]
[Trigger/content warning: allusion to domestic violence; description of death via domestic violence and death via retribution for said violence.]
“Last night, I heard the screaming;
Loud voices behind the wall.
Another sleepless night for me;
It won’t do no good to call…
The police, always coming late,
If they come at all.” – Tracy Chapman, ‘Behind the Wall’ (1988)
Tuesday, May 20th, 1975
Frida latched onto her grandmother’s skirt as the crowded train swayed from side to side. The 7 year old felt nauseous from constantly lurching forward in the unstable carriage. Beside her, her tall grandmother stood as straight as a rod, her mouth pursed grimly and her eyes staring beyond the windows across the aisle from her. The navy suitcase she held in her other hand hung heavily beside her visible ankles and thick-soled shoes. Frida hadn’t seen what her grandmother had packed into that bag but its contents intrigued her. She knew better than to ask her grandmother outright however; if Ma Agnes didn’t volunteer information, it simply wasn’t for you to know.
So Frida made a game out of studying the compressed bulges in the bag and trying to guess what was in it. She mouthed her guesses and giggled at the really absurd ones; earning a friendly smile from the commuter standing directly opposite her and her grandmother.
Clothes and fruits; or loaves of bread and goat meat? The strange shapes within the bag made her assume they were carrying a large amount of food with them. That and her ferocious, insatiable appetite. Her grandmother seemed to sense that she was thinking about food again. Her grandmother was always sensing things she thought or felt without her ever having to verbalize them. Agnes reached into one of the deep pockets of her thick black coat and retrieved a handkerchief filled with sweet scones that she had baked earlier that week. Frida gratefully accepted them with the hand that wasn’t latched onto her grandmother’s skirt and shoved them into her own coat pocket. From there she pulled out the fat pale cakes and sunk her small bright teeth into them.
A cold reptilian voice slid into Frida’s head as she chewed. I hope this child doesn’t figure out that her father is in here before we’ve returned him to his people. The voice sounded a lot like her grandmother’s; except it was filled with a rage she had never known the elderly woman to possess. Frida stopped chewing and looked up at her grandmother. Her face was still and showed no signs that she had spoken at all. The child slowly resumed her chewing.
How am I going to tell her that her mother is gone? How do you explain such a thing to a child? Even one as bright as Frida. This time Frida looked up at her grandmother’s mouth as the icy voice slithered around her brain. Once again she found the old woman grim faced and quiet. A cold dread settled in her small stomach. Something was wrong. She was hearing her grandmother talking while the old woman was dead quiet and the words her grandmother – or at least her voice – was saying were alarming. Where were her parents?
The little girl peeked from around her grandmother’s wide, long legs and tried to see if any of the many adults on the train were her parents. Was her father on the train with them? Were they playing some type of game with him?
None of the hundreds of dark faces on the train resembled either of her parents. She tried to quiet her thoughts to see if the voice that sounded like her grandmother would say anything again. She had heard it over the racket the train and its commuters made, but she wanted to make extra sure that she didn’t miss it this time. Her mind remained un-invaded.
She didn’t feel hungry anymore.
She didn’t feel like playing the game she had been playing just a few minutes before; a silly childish game, she now realized.
She should have known something was wrong when her grandmother woke her up while it was still dark and bathed and dressed her and departed with her before she could say goodbye to her parents. She always said goodbye to her parents when she and her grandmother went on their little trips. Her mother always helped her get ready, too. But this time she hadn’t even seen her mother before her uncharacteristically quiet grandmother marched her towards the train station.
Frida had only ever been on the train twice before. To go see her father’s people.
Her paternal aunts, uncles and grandparents were a small and mean spirited group of people. They were much more well off than any of the people in the township Frida and her parents lived in, but they weren’t nearly as generous. Frida could remember her paternal grandmother pinching her when she had reached for another helping of dumplings at the dinner table. She hadn’t said explicitly that the little girl couldn’t eat any more than what was already on her plate; but her vice-like finger tips and bug-eyed glare drove the message home.
Frida had decided not to tell her maternal grandmother about what had happened, but she politely declined the next few times her father had asked if she wanted to accompany him to see his people.
Ma Agnes had looked up at the child suspiciously but not said anything.
The second visit had been unavoidable. Her father’s father had died and their whole family had to travel by train to attend the funeral. This time Ma Agnes made sure that she kept a close watch over Frida and didn’t leave her alone with any of her paternal relatives. Her father had sulked the entire ride home and her mother had begged Ma Agnes to apologize; but the old woman ignored them both. The next few times her father visited his family, he traveled alone.
One time he returned with baked goodies he claimed his younger sister had prepared for Frida. The look on Ma Agnes’s face made the young girl graciously accept them from him before burying them in the sand behind their house without eating a single one. After that her father came back from his visits empty handed.
Frida’s mother was a soft spoken, demure woman; very different from her own mother and Frida herself. Frida was big boned and big mouthed like her grandmother. She was a precocious child who spoke her mind and loudly expressed her feelings. It sometimes seemed that her mother was overwhelmed by the bright little girl, but Frida had no doubt in her mind that her mother loved her dearly.
Her father, on the other hand, seemed to resent everyone around him. Despite having chosen Frida’s mother out of a township almost disproportionately full of women; he behaved as though he had been forced into his marriage. He flirted with other women openly, came home late and sometimes not at all and drank beyond reason. He was a mean man who seemed to enjoy tormenting his long suffering and loyal wife and resented his overly intelligent daughter.
He often joked, quite maliciously, that a two month or longer stay with his people would sort Frida out. But everyone knew that Ma Agnes would never allow such a thing to happen. Frida, who had always felt annoyed by her father, more than anything else, was grateful for her grandmother’s discerning protection.
She felt uneasy, now, recognizing the familiar landscapes through the train windows; that led to her father’s people. She hoped against hope that they weren’t headed where it felt like they were headed. But she knew better than to express this to her grandmother. She wondered once again whether the voice she had heard earlier had been real. Whether, her grandmother had spoken into her head, in a sort of inversion of her uncanny ability to discern what Frida was feeling and thinking. For as long as she had been aware that she had internal dialogues that communicated her thoughts and feelings; she had known that her grandmother had an access to them that no one else seemed to.
Her mother often gazed at her in awe and worry when she spoke about feelings and thoughts as though they were concepts she fully grasped at 7 years of age. But her grandmother took her extremely seriously and usually answered the questions the little girl asked. Some questions – like, whether or not she could access Frida’s thoughts and feelings – she promised to answer when Frida was older. Or, most annoyingly, when the time was right. Frida hated feeling there was some big mystery about her life and because of this, she was grateful for her mother’s predictable straight forwardness and simplicity.
The train seemed to stretch horizontally, as it slowly ground to a halt at the familiar old station.
Frida and her grandmother swayed one last time before walking towards the open carriage doors. The tall old woman turned to face her granddaughter as they disembarked; holding her small hands as she jumped down from the train and onto the concrete platform of the station. Outside, the familiar dust of the only place Frida dreaded more than the bad places in her sleep, stung her eyes. Her grandmother placed the bulging suitcase down for the first time on their journey and reached into her coat pockets once more.
She pulled out a pale pink handkerchief Frida recognized as belonging to her mother.
She moved forward to tie the cloth over the child’s mouth but Frida pulled her head away. She looked up at her grandmother angrily. None of this made any sense. Where were her parents? Why was she being brought to her father’s people? Without having been consulted about whether or not she wanted to go? Why was her mother’s handkerchief in her grandmother’s pockets?
“Please, Frida, we can’t hang around the station for too long. Let us just go, please.” The old woman said. She spoke strangely; in a lowered voice and with her mouth not fully opening to form words. Frida scowled and folded her arms over her chest, planting her feet on the ground and standing more resolutely. She felt embarrassed for sulking in such a childish way; but she couldn’t hide her frustration. And fear.
They were far away from home, in the middle of an eerie, dusty train station with a few mean looking people standing about and staring at them suspiciously. But Ma Agnes gathered the sides of her skirt into her large hands and crouched in front of her granddaughter.
“I promise you, it will all make sense in a moment. Trust me,” she whispered, lowering the smoldering anger in her eyes and placing a hand on the child’s chin.
Frida blinked a few times, suddenly overcome with inexplicable sadness. She didn’t know what had made her sad. She only knew that it was a deeper sadness than any she had ever felt before. Gazing into her grandmother’s sharp black eyes; she saw that the old woman seemed to be feeling the exact same kind of grief.
The little girl allowed Ma Agnes to tie the kerchief around the lower half of her face; shielding her nose and mouth from the red dust that raged in the wind around them. She latched onto her grandmother’s free hand and thought no more about the suitcase they had come with.
Ma Agnes tried to keep her trembling under control. She knew that her height and weight would draw attention towards her and Frida. But she also hoped that her stony expression would make her appear too intimidating to anyone who felt inclined to approach them. She met and held the icy gazes of two white men in police uniforms puffing on pungent cigars near the station’s exit. They frowned at her in open hatred, but said nothing to her as she and Frida walked passed.
She hoped Frida couldn’t sense her fear, and walked briskly to distract her body from its stubborn trembling as they walked.
The walk to the dirty old house was tedious and long. Usually, Frida’s father’s people arranged for a car to collect visitors from the station; but it didn’t seem as though anyone was expecting them today. The heaviness in both Frida and Ma Agnes’s hearts was lifted by the stunning scenery they walked past. There seemed to be a great many wealthy people in this small town. They walked past plenty of big brightly colored houses with huge, lush front lawns. They saw well dressed black servants moving about and carrying out their duties with straightened backs and amicable facial expressions.
The dirty old house they were headed to was on the rear of a big school that was attended by the children of all the black servants who worked and lived in that town. The people who lived there, Frida’s father’s people, were the only black people who lived in a big house they owned. They were the only black people who had servants, too. Frida remembered this being another thing she had not enjoyed about them. In their township, everybody played a role in keeping things together. There were no people designated to do certain kinds of labor while others lazed about or ordered them around. She had felt sorry for the young woman she had seen cleaning her paternal grandmother’s home. Dark bruises on the girl’s arms told her all she needed to know about how her paternal grandmother maintained her authority over her. An older woman worked unhappily in the kitchen and an old man – who was allegedly Frida’s late paternal grandfather’s old friend – tended to the garden.
He was weeding some bushes when they arrived.
He struggled to straighten up to look at them; his back was so accustomed to being bent it seemed to have settled into a permanent bow with his old age. But he lifted his hat to Ma Agnes all the same. She nodded curtly in his direction. Something in her eyes made him stare after her as she and the little girl walked down the long driveway to the house. He sensed trouble.
Frida felt a similar dread as they neared the peeling white front door. The house had once been a vibrant pale turquoise but now looked a tired lime green under years of grime. Frida paused in front of the front door, assuming that her grandmother was about to do the same. But instead of knocking the old woman twisted the door knob and pushed the door inward. In the garden, the old man removed his hat from his head once more and clutched it to his chest.
The first person they saw was a short man who looked a lot like Frida’s father. He had the same pointy, bug-eyed face and big ears. But where Frida’s father had a head full of tightly curly black hair; this man had a badly receding hairline and mostly grey hair.
“Ah, John’s people! What are you doing here?” he asked rudely. The chattering they could hear coming from other rooms in the house quieted suddenly.
“Absalom? Who are you talking to out there?” Frida bristled at the sound of her paternal grandmother’s voice. It was a high nasal sound; heavy with cruelty and a nasty sense of humor.
Before allowing him a chance to announce their presence, Ma Agnes followed the sound of the other old woman’s voice, dragging her granddaughter and heavy suitcase beside her.
“Hey! You can’t just barge into our house like this!” Absalom was behind them, practically screaming in indignation.
Agnes walked down the hallway with its dirty, splintered wooden floors. She walked passed a room filled with dirty looking children; fighting over far too many toys. Frida kept her eyes to the ground and followed her grandmother silently; jogging a little in order to keep up with the tall old woman. They walked passed another room that was partially closed, but whose inhabitants peered at them through the door. Agnes’s thick shoes thudded over the wooden floors and drowned out the small patter made by Frida’s and the soft bump of the suitcase hitting the walls as they walked.
The room they were headed towards was the filthiest. Plates with unfinished food and glasses half filled with red and brown drink were lying all over the place. Not just on the dinner table which looked like a big party had been held on it, but on the cabinets and coffee table in front of the sofa. A film of dust covered the large framed photographs of the family that hung along all four walls. And seated on a high backed arm chair, with a blanket covering her legs and a glass of red drink in her hand, was the mean old woman Frida remembered all too well. Seated on the sofas around her were equally mean eyed replicas of her.
“Agnes.” The woman sneered.
“Gloria.” There was no love lost between the two old women.
“I see you brought the child,” Frida could tell the old woman remembered the day she had pinched her at the dinner table; and the fact that she hadn’t been given an opportunity to do so ever again.
“I had no choice. There was no one left at home who could take care of her,” Agnes said, her voice vibrating with emotion.
“And where are her parents?” the other old woman asked, shifting her legs underneath the old mink blanket covering them.
“That is why I am here.” Agnes said. “I have come to bring your son back home.” The people in front of her shifted and cast their eyes beyond Agnes and her granddaughter, confusion creasing each of their brows.
Agnes suddenly released Frida’s hand and with a rapid movement swooped down and pushed the coffee table away from the center of the lounge before tossing the navy suitcase onto the floor. It landed with a skid in front of Gloria’s blanket covered feet.
“I’m very sure my son has more possessions than this,” the old woman said, not bothering to look at the discarded bag.
“I brought your son and nothing else.” Agnes said coldly. Her voice sounded very much like the invasive voice that had curled around Frida’s brain on the train. But this time, the little girl could see the old woman’s mouth moving.
“Absalom, open this bag!” Gloria yelled, her already big eyes bulging in rage.
The short, balding, grey haired version of Frida’s father stumbled around Agnes and roughly pulled the suitcase towards him.
Gloria and the children and grandchildren seated around her shifted to the edges of their seats, all straining to see what Absalom would reveal to be inside the suitcase.
He unzipped it with an exasperated eye roll and flung it open.
What appeared to be a dirty folded blanket tumbled out onto the floor. It smelled and looked burned. Everyone in the room, save for Agnes and Frida, leaned forward to get a closer look.
Gloria pulled her eye glasses from on top of her white hair and pushed them onto her pointy big nose. She gasped at the exact same moment Absalom frowned at the fallen blanket before jumping back so abruptly that he fell flat on his bottom.
Frida stared in horrified fascination. What had at first appeared to be an old, burned and smelly blanket; was in fact a badly burned person curled into a ball so they could fit into the suitcase. Their skin was mostly a crinkled navy-black and bright reddish-pink in some parts. Their blackened jaw looked open, as though they had been screaming. And the only item of clothing they appeared to have been wearing before being set alight, was a pair of white underwear. Frida knew, without being told that she was looking at what was left of her father.
Slowly the same realization came to each of his people who were in the room. They all gasped or screamed in horror; looking conflicted about whether to reach out and touch him or run from the room.
“He was a terrible husband to my child. But she stuck with him. She loved him in a way he didn’t deserve. Last night, not for the first time, he put his hands on her. But this time, he was so drunk, or enraged that he did not stop. He knew that me and the other women of our township were… busy. So he thought he could get away with it. Unfortunately I was so far away that I arrived when it was too late. I had felt it in my bones when my child’s soul left her body. Did you feel it too, Gloria?” Agnes spoke in a voice filled with so much hatred that it made the other old woman recoil from her in fear.
“Did you? Could you feel it when your son screamed his last breath from within our big fire?” Frida looked up at her grandmother then; sensing the cruelty beneath her words, willing her to retreat. Gloria choked on her grief, causing her children and grandchildren to focus all their attention on her. The old woman’s health had been failing for some time.
Agnes took a hold of her granddaughter’s hand and led the little girl out of the house.
They heard running behind them. A young woman who looked a lot like Frida’s dead father came rushing towards them as they stepped outside.
“What! What do you call this? How could you do such a thing, you wicked old witch?” she screamed, tears glistening on her cheeks and chin. She moved as though to grab a hold of Agnes but stopped at the looks both her and the little girl gave her.
“I call it justice.” Agnes said simply. The fire had gone out in her anger. She felt only a hollow grief, now. For the first time in 7 years, Frida felt unable to access her own feelings. She understood, at last, what had happened; but couldn’t seem to feel anything about it. Aside from the sadness she had felt when they had arrived. Which she now knew was because her heart had known that her beloved mother was no more.
Later that week, 1975
They waited five days to see if any of John’s people would come, but they never did. Agnes had had a hard time eating and sleeping, despite the close knit cluster of women she lived with doing everything they could to take care of her and Frida. They prepared their meals and bathed them; arranged and carried out Frida’s mother’s funeral, dressed Agnes and Frida and allowed them to lie in bed for as long as they needed to. Frida had never spent the night in the big house her grandmother and her friends lived in. And in spite of her grief, she felt intrigued by the elderly women around her. They were loud and intense women. They were women who wore trousers and smoked cigars and drank strange smelling drinks and seemed to harbor a great distaste towards men.
Frida noticed that a few of them seemed to be more affectionate towards one another than they were towards any of the others. She caught the subtle glances and hands discreetly placed on the small of the back; the kisses on the mouth and frequent, random hugs.
She had never noticed it before, but their township was filled, almost predominantly with women. Particularly women who were her grandmother’s age and older. Women her mother’s age seemed to be the only ones with men in their lives; and very few of them at that. She wondered if this was coincidental or by design. She wondered if other men had been here before; if they had been sent back to their people, the way her father had been. She knew better than to ask, but questions swarmed around her head.
She was woken in the middle of the night by a cool, soft hand on her cheek. She couldn’t make out the face of the person bending over her but something about them made her instantly afraid. Still, she sat up and took a hold of their outstretched hand and allowed them to lead her out of the room. She tried to look back to see if her grandmother was still in the bed but the person was moving too fast and they had already left the room.
They walked briskly and an eerie breeze moved against their skin. Frida tried to look up at the person leading her outside but they seemed larger than life, too big for her to scrutinize from her small height.
There was a fire burning outside. The sight of it made Frida stop dead in her tracks. She thought about her father. In a strange, far away kind of way, but still enough to make her apprehensive. A voice curled around her brain. Don’t be afraid, child. Everything will be alright. She took a tentative step forward. Her companion waited patiently beside her, still holding her hand. When she felt ready, Frida allowed herself to be led towards the fire outside.
A small group of people stood around it. They appeared to be naked. She couldn’t seem to see any of their faces or even their bodies clearly but she sensed that she knew them. And that – in spite of her confusion and alarm – she was safe with them. The one who had fetched her stepped forward, nearing the fire. They let go of Frida’s hand and continued to walk towards the flames.
Frida felt herself flinch as they stepped into the bright, hot yellow-orange tongues. She waited for them to scream, to jump up and away from the heat but they turned around slowly, seemingly unaffected by the flames. They beckoned towards Frida. The child took a step backwards, suddenly afraid.
Another voice slithered into her mind, cold, like a draft. Don’t be afraid, my child. Go inside. It’s for your own good. Frida tried to look into the faces of the people around her; tried to determine who had spoken but they were all a dazzling blur.
Frida. This time, she recognized the voice. Her grandmother was with her. Step inside the fire my child. Step inside the fire so you can understand. A familiar large hand wrapped itself around hers. I will walk with you. Do not be afraid. Frida felt a cool calm settle over her and walked alongside the person who possessed her grandmother’s voice, into the fire.
The fire didn’t feel very much different from the cool night air they had been standing in just moments before. It was there, visible, crackling and bright. But other than that there was no evidence that it was even real. Frida felt rather than saw the others joining them in the flames. The fire had been quite large; but not big enough to accommodate them all. And yet they stood in its center, ample room between each of them.
Are you sure about this, Mary? Frida recognized her grandmother’s voice once more. But she didn’t recognize the uncertainty weighing it down. Her grandmother was never unsure about anything.
Yes. It is the only way to save her life, Mary responded. We have lost so many of our daughters. We cannot keep returning these men to their people. Times are different now, she continued. Frida sensed the others nodding. But what are we going to do to protect the child? We can’t stop her from being attracted to whoever she is attracted to, another voice said.
Yes, but we can stop them from marrying her, Mary answered. Frida didn’t feel particularly upset about this idea. She had seen how unhappy marriage had made her mother; and had seen the perverse joy her father had gotten out of his wife’s unhappiness. She certainly did not want such a fate for herself. The happiest women in their township were the women who had no men in their lives. The older women; particularly the strange coven who lived with her grandmother.
Fine. Let us do what we have to do, Agnes said decisively. Make sure that any man who loves Frida, or causes Frida to love him, will be destroyed, another voice said. Make him rot! Someone else exclaimed. Frida felt a warmth envelop her, as though the fire was finally starting to burn her. But she didn’t burn. The warmth traveled from the top of her head, down to the soles of her feet, filling her up until she could feel it pressing against her finger tips and knees. May she never have to make the kinds of sacrifices we have had to make, Agnes whispered. May she never know unhappiness or sorrow at the hands of a man, said another. May she never know even a hint of distaste, said Mary.

Mercy Thokozane Minah © The Letter X Publishing House, 2018

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