Our #WeekendRead is your first chance to read part of Migrations. Enjoy the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Prize winning story, "A Door Ajar".
“There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground; there are a thousand ways to go home again.”– Rumi
She grabbed the wailing infant and threw it against the wall. The newborn died instantly. It was the third one. She needed to find a suitable successor, but it seemed like fate had dealt her the wrong hand. Again.
Sela watched in horrified wonder as the infant lay still on the vinyl-tiled floor. Something moved inside her – a storm far off on the horizon. She looked at her mother, MmaLeru, who was cleaning her up, handling her vulva as though it were a damaged chest of useless memories. MmaLeru, paying no attention to her daughter, moved from thighs to floor like routine, cleaning up the mess as though nothing happened.
MmaLeru had blue-black smooth skin that looked like the finest mineral or coffee. Yes, coffee. The perfect morning fix after a long night. She had thick, hard dreadlocks that kissed her waist, the kind that warriors wore. Her pupils were a calm brown that turned to black when dilated. They had a blue ring around them, and when she gazed into a distance, they looked like cosmic bonfires. She had a small face and a petite body, but her demeanour made her seem larger. Her quick tongue lashed out like lightning, which is how she got her name, but it was her nose that made her seem scary. She had that big fat flat nose shaped like something smelled off.
“ I’ll do it! I’ll do it!” Sela exclaimed. MmaLeru swiftly turned to examine her daughter. “I’ll be your successor...” she sighed.
“You foolish girl, do you think we would be going through all of this if you were worthy?” MmaLeru examined the dead infant roughly for parts that she could use.
It is said that the tradition can only be continued by those who survive the wall. In our small mining town, every second girl child is meant to be part of the tradition. It is said that this bloodshed in the thickness of the night is offered to the one who is not named. It is said that when her thirst is quenched, she will bring back the gold and the mines, and the mines will bring back the town’s livelihood, and the livelihood will bring back the men.
When MmaLeru was born, her mother, Sefako, threw MmaLeru against the wall, and she survived. It is through her that this secret tradition is kept, but no baby girl born to our generation has ever survived.
MmaLeru grabbed a black plastic bag and threw the baby, umbilical cord, and placenta into it before neatly tying it up. With the plastic bag in one hand and a pair of rusted scissors in the other, she looked like a woman who just had stepped out of a war zone. Her black doek was coming undone, covering her forehead. This made her stagger as she left the room.
Sela struggled into a seated position, resting her back against the wall. Her pink continental pillow, which smelled like wet wood, swallowed her back, and for a moment it felt like she’d just dipped her swollen feet in a cool pool. Something inside of her moved again. She studied the drying blood spatters across the wall, the new artwork. It was high art, to watch your child’s blood dry, and do nothing, say nothing. The wall was light yellow and fresh blood in colour. She pulled her bright 1970s-inspired coloured duvet cover over her head and kept still. She didn’t hear her mother come back in.
“Hela, get up! And sit on that bucket!” Mmaleru placed a black bucket in the corner of the bedroom, near the window. Inside it was a solution of hot water, sea salt and aloe.
“I’m not feeling well.”
“Mosadi, woman, I only have six weeks before we can try again.”
“But Mmaleru, I don’t think I want to do this.”
“Watseba, you know, I should have let Sefefo kill you.”
“Get up! Skatana, filth!”
Feeling faint, Sela slowly rose and made her way to the bucket, unaware that she had passed out and that her mother had been gone for hours. The tingly feeling of the rising steam crept up her thighs and vagina, reminding her of the first time it happened.
That night, Mmaleru had come home with a man who used to work for the mines. She helped him to rape Sela, who had rejected the invitation to sleep with him when her mother proposed it.
Nine months later, the wall was full of blood, and a dead newborn lay on the floor. Sela neither ate nor spoke for three weeks afterwards. Then she called me and told me all about it. It was the first time we had spoken for longer than a minute on the phone. First time we had spoken since Sefefo’s funeral.
At the other end of the bedroom, between a rustic 1980s dressing table that Sefefo passed down to her and a three-legged coffee table, held up by a set of old bricks, she watched her mother burn the sun-dried umbilical cord. MmaLeru whispered what seemed to be a prayer. She got up and went to her daughter.
“Close!” She slapped Sela’s thighs.
“It should burn. That useless hell-hole should burn!”
There was a heavy silence in the room. Above the bed was a small print of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”, the only feature on the wall apart from the blood. It was given to MmaLeru by a Catholic lover; after the man left unannounced for Spain, she gave it to Sela.
Sela got to her feet, banging against the wall. Her body, a lighter shade than her mother’s, and more frail, looked like an empty island waiting to be claimed, with dead fish at its shores. MmaLeru flung her daughter across the room. They were now both on the floor, their wilted bodies spread across the bloody site where no more than five hours ago, an infant, the
last of three, met her death. After an unchoreographed wrestling match, the women lay, one against the foot of the bed, the other on the floor, like laundry wrung dry. They broke into a disturbing and robust laughter that lasted a long time.
Afterwards, MmaLeru helped her daughter up and sat her on the edge of the bed. She used the water solution in the bucket to bathe Sela. Then left and came back with a plate of pap and cabbage. Sela ate in silence as her mother cleansed the floor.
The two women were in the backyard. It had not changed much over the years, and this always brought about a feeling of nostalgia. Sela was sitting on the small stoep that led to the outside tap. MmaLeru was kneeling over a tin basin of wet clothes balanced on top of an old beer crate. A concrete slab covered most of the backyard; it used to be the floor of a shack.
“I could have been in Spain you know—” MmaLeru paused and coughed, “playing wife to a man whose heart belongs to a white God.” She burst into laughter.
“Then what happened?”
“Then what, Mmaleru?”
MmaLeru ignored her daughter and continued to hang up their laundry.
Sela got up and fetched a wash basin. She was wearing black tights and an oversized T-shirt, one of those that are worth your vote. She must have gotten it from a political rally somewhere. She loved politics. She was twenty- six years old, but looked thirty-five; poverty has a way of taking its toll on a human body. She slanted the basin underneath the tap. In the corner near her bedroom window, ash and burnt wood. She knelt on the ground. The last three years of her life had been something straight out of a horror movie, the kind that plays around ten at night on SABC. She doodled with her finger in the ash. MmaLeru pulled her up and pushed her. Sela had no fight in her. She helped her mother find her balance, and the two women took down the laundry and went inside the house.
Mmaleru’s health had been deteriorating over the past three weeks. Last night, Sela found her lying like a wet dog outside the front door; she was shivering and her words made no sense. MmaLeru didn’t believe in doctors and refused to go see one. What they didn’t know, and what I found out from her eyes a few weeks later, was that she had pneumonia.
Every Wednesday and Saturday night, part of the secret tradition, the women gathered to skinny-dip in the river that ran through the town. It was the winter solstice and the frost had worked its way inland. Sela wondered how she did it, MmaLeru. How did she go on like nothing ever happened? Like the evil didn’t exist.
She missed her grandmother. Sefefo was an old woman with a bent back, who always mocked her own stature: “I grow old like a tree, hellbound. Instead of upright to heaven, I am on my way to kissing the ground.” Something about her kept the neighbours away. Many called her a witch, but besides her suspicious rituals, she was as normal as the African sun. Well to Sela and I, that is, until the week before her death.
That week, a sandstorm of great weight had hit our township, covering everything in dust. Sefefo was in a feverish state of dementia: she kept talking about flying, shadow men, and pacts. She was in and out of earth, throwing toddler tantrums, growing newborn. Sela and I were passionate teens, too young to understand. Besides, Alzheimer’s does not visit this
kind of town. No one here has ever heard of it, and no one cares much about it. The township folk say if a black person goes mad, then witchcraft is the cause.
Unlike MmaLeru, who was jealous of Jesus and swore off Christianity, calling it “the devil’s tool to keep lovers apart”, Sefefo loved the Bible. That whole week, Sela read it to her like an avid reader reading a sweet-lipped novel.
On the day of the funeral, the sandstorm worsened. The dust nearly buried the township. Everything was brown and dry. Only three people besides the Apostolic priest, myself, Sela and Mmaleru, attended the funeral. Pule, the drunkard from across the street, who attends every funeral in the township, was wearing his infamous baggy suit. Partly sober, he sang out of tune,
swallowing all the other voices in the tent. Maseloane, their neighbour, was present, but later confessed to other neighbours that she only attended to make sure that the old witch was dead. There was also a woman whose identity is still not known to this day. She wore ropes around her ankles and hands, the same kind that Sefefo used to wear. She began every hymn and sang like a morning bird until Pule’s voice took over. At the gravesite after the sermon, she spat around Sefefo’s grave before disappearing into the distance. She didn’t go back to the house for food and other pleasantries.
It was only on the Sunday that people gathered in our back yard to drink bojwala ba Sesotho and motoho o ritetsweng. The ants and dust made their way into the leftover food, making it inedible. MmaLeru had to throw it all away. It was Sefefo’s vengeance on the vultures who had the audacity to miss her funeral but crave her food. This broke MmaLeru’s heart. That Sunday
night she decided to cut ties with the township folk.
I didn’t stay long either. I arrived the day that Sefefo died and did not wish to stay a day longer than I had to. The clouds had gathered. It was about to rain, that thick, dark, hard rain which stings when you dance in it. Something about the rain, thunder, and lightning seemed to calm MmaLeru. On the day of her tsosetso, an awakening by young girls into womanhood usually held between the ages of twenty-five and thirty, it rained so hard and fast that it flooded the small mining town.
Home had formed a lump in my throat. It had become a faraway noose, a suicide note always written for tomorrow. It was now a twisted secret gathering dust in the back of my mind. I hadn’t been there in nine years. The last time I was there, it was to bid my grandmother farewell. After Sefefo’s funeral, I went back to my “home”, the City.
This city has fallen to its knees at the sight of my beauty. There is no building I have not had sex in, besides the office parks with prudish security guards.
I’m watching him lay like an island off the grid, dead fish at his shores. Last night was great, and I think I like him. I don’t bother to take a shower. I smell of alcohol, cigarettes, and good sex. I slip into yesterday’s clothes and quietly search his pockets. I find a couple of hundreds in his wallet and a few coins on the coffee table. This is a refined antique, nothing like the one that Sela owns, a modernised version intended to exist in this new millennia. On it, there is a pile of books; one is titled Eight Days in September by Frank Chikane, and another Dinner with Mugabe by Heidi Holland. There are others that read like a revolution always coming or long gone, like home. This man is a politician of some sort. Beneath the box of cigarettes there is a
well-handled Quran that hasn’t been opened in months; you can tell by the light dust that has gathered on its cover.
I honestly thought that this man was Christian: there is a cross hanging on the wall above his bed, for Christ’s sake, and a palm cross on the door. There is something about men who seek Christ that warms my blood. Sometimes before the sex, I make them recite the Hail Mary or the Apostles’ Creed.
At one end of his bachelor flat, there are remnants of a burnt bundle of sage. I am wearing my leather boots, and the one seems to not fit me as well as it did yesterday. I light a cigarette and watch over him like a Madonna. I’ve only known him for a night, but I have a feeling we will meet again. I should have been out by now, but I’m stalling. I don’t want to go home. I’d rather nurse this hangover right here, between the wretched sheets of this stranger, but I promised Sela I would come.
She sent me a Whatsapp telling me that death was imminent: MmaLeru was fading rapidly. I feel nothing, but a promise is a promise. I stuff a sandwich into my already full handbag and leave the door slightly open. He will wake up soon and realise that I am gone. I hope he doesn’t come after me. I might wish it, but they never do anyway.
Outside the block of flats is a Palestinian shop and pavement vendors with all kinds of fruits and veggies. I make my way to the taxi rank. The taxis there are tired horses that loathe their owners. It’s the way the doors keep falling off that gives the feeling we are not welcomed.
“Sanbonani.” I greet the people in the taxi, expecting the silence that has become tradition. I find a seat in the first row in the corner behind the driver and pass out.
We are halfway across the country when I wake up. There is a child crying, and another stuffing his face with an overripe banana. Their mother wears the tired face of an underappreciated priest. The taxi driver is lost in translation. We go on for a while, and I start running out of things to think of.
I feel like an immigrant being forced to leave home and go “home”. It’s happened before: I am a darker shade of blue-black, silver-black, and it is this attention-seeking complexion of mine that always gives me away. We were visiting a friend in a township near the city when we were approached by a group of men determined to send all amakwerekwere back to where they came from. They were pulling at me like a parcel while my friend was helplessly fighting them off, four men all wanting me at the same time, ready to courier me “home”. Luckily I had my ID that day; when you live in the city, you carry your ID with you everywhere you go. It is your pass book, your entry into buildings and apartments.
I can feel time unwind as we enter our hometown. On my left, there is a big welcome sign about to fall down; it hangs against a backdrop of a sea of sunflowers stretching as far as the eye can see. Something moves inside me – a storm far off on the horizon.
The children beside me are now fast asleep, one on their mother’s lap and the other safely squashed between us. I stare at the mother for a while and realise that we could be the same age. She must be in her late twenties, old enough to pass off as an adult and young enough to still eat at the sun. She must have recently had her tsosetso. I hope they named her Lerwele;
she is sun dust and more. Her face is wrinkling before time but its grace is stark, hard to ignore. She reminds me of a young Sefefo.
Earlier, she had insisted the man seated next to her to open the window, and since then, there has been a mixture of fresh air and something stale. It must be the smell of yesterday’s alcohol on my skin, fermenting in the sun. “It smells like rubbish,” she whispered to the man, who seemed like he was forced to be in this taxi, going home.
Home – here, men are the ones who always leave, never the women and that is why we never call them by their names. We call them by their roles, and if you don’t know, you always refer to him as monna, which simply means man. The women are never called by their roles. Every woman who undergoes tsosetso is called by her name. This is what makes her stay, her real name. It is said that the town in which you are named is where you will be bound by spirit to live out the rest of your days. When a girl child is born, she is named after her most prominent feature, and it is only after she undergoes tsosetso that her real name is chosen, by her and those who know her.
My mother’s name Tselane came as a result of her big feet. She left for the city a week after I was born. Sefefo used to joke that I had my mother’s road-like heart, and that one day I would follow her. She came to visit us once, and it is true, she had big feet. I remember wearing her yellow heels and parading around the house the way she did.
My mother was beautiful. She had dark skin a lighter shade than mine, Sela’s shade, and plump lips that let secrets slip with a honeyed voice that surely swallowed all the men in the city and our hometown. A tall woman with wide hips and a small waist, she was the total opposite of MmaLeru, and it was her body that was the source of their sibling rivalry. The day she
left, I stood by the gate and smiled. Everyone was surprised that I wasn’t pulling at her pencil skirt or tugging at her ankles, crying, asking her to stay.
We reach the taxi rank at our destination, and the driver, still lost in translation, begins to come alive. There are vendors selling everything they bought in the city as though it was manufactured in their own houses, in a back room of magic.
I watch the woman struggle with the two children before offering to help. We are going in the same direction. I later find out that she is an old childhood friend of mine, Mela, now named Tsebo. I wonder if I still smelllike rubbish now that she knows we grew up together. I light a cigarette. The children are in awe of a woman smoking, as though it’s forbidden.
We reach a fork in the dirt road and go our separate ways. On the left, there is an old butchery that is only open because faith allows it. And on the right, a Methodist church is kept alive by the few who still believe in Christ. Only the main roads are made of tar. When the mines closed, we watched the town’s livelihood fade, one day at a time into myth. The men left and never came back, and those who stayed are always in the pits of a beer bottle somewhere.
I look around and take a deep breath. I’m surrounded by a community of forgotten people wasting away in mundane poverty. I hate this place. I pass a group of women playing cards on the stoep of one house, then a group of boys playing soccer in the dirt. I can see home draw nearer with every stride. There is a chorus of whispers and dancing curtains. I can feel
the eyes watching me strut my stuff. I am home. The fence is about to fallover. I choke.
Sela is hanging laundry in the back. She turns around and screams. I think she is happy to see me. She gives me a long-awaited hug, and pulls the boat to shore. I’m home. The weather changes, and I help her take the laundry inside.
I have been home for a few days and the rain has not stopped. It is evening, and the wind is saying something. We are in Mmaleru’s bedroom, which reads like an occult cathedral; the curtains are a deep blue that gives the walls their shadowy shade at noon. The vinyl tile flooring is a mockery of wooden flooring.
Her single bed is in the corner facing west, just like the graves. She rearranged it a week before her untimely sickness kicked in. It’s been six weeks. She was supposed to be searching for a suitable lover to father Sela’s fourth child. But here she lies, in sickness and disgust, with the threat of the tradition ending here, with her.
At one end of the room, there is a small table with bags underneath it. There is no other furniture in the room, just the words “Die already” racing in our minds. We sit by her bedside and watch her fade. We are happy that she is dying: Sela, because she will no longer fuck for the love of superstition and I because I will no longer be haunted by my first lover.
That is how I came to leave home. I was twelve when we started, but fifteen when we got caught. My lover and I. He was older, in his thirties, I think. He was also MmaLeru’s lover and she was jealous of our Bible study sessions. Over the years, they had become more frequent, and he started ignoring her.
On the night it happened, she found my lover and me at the feet of Christ. I was on top of him and he was lying there, just right. Sefefo was still alive then. She protected me from Mmaleru’s rage. The lover moved to Spain, and on countless nights afterwards, she tried to kill me. I decided to leave home. To go searching for my mother in the city, but when I got there I found something better: city men who love Christ.
I still think about her – my mother. Watching MmaLeru fade, I wish she was present to bid her sister farewell. Sela and I are sisters, fathered by the same man. Sefefo said that my mother had slept with MmaLeru’s first lover, days after Sela was conceived, and that is how I came to be. Because it was unspoken of then, for women to wed men in beds spoken for, Sefofo asked
my mother to leave town after giving birth to me.
She feared for my mother’s life. She had slept with many men in our hometown, and when MmaLeru waged war against her, the other women were ready to light their torches and burn her. And that is how she came to leave. My mother, like me, is at sea –but what really broke MmaLeru’s heart was that Sefefo hadn’t a care in the world. “He is going to leave anyway,” she said.
I want to tell Sela about all of this. It’s as though MmaLeru is reading my mind. “You are sisters. Your father is her father.” The words escape her mouth. I expect Sela to throw a fit, but instead she smiles. “I know,” she whispers.
It is raining a baptism of demons outside. We can hear the water rise. There is thunder and lightning and the lightbulb keeps flickering.
“Please fetch me that bag.” MmaLeru’s crooked fingers point to the table. Reluctantly, I fetch it.
“Open it and break off a piece of the wood. Chew it every night and spit
on your pillow before you sleep.”
“Because you are carrying my successor.”
“I’m not pregnant.”
“You are. A couple of days only, but you’re definitely carrying a girl child.”
“You are sick. You don’t know what you are talking about.”
“Chew the wood. When she is born, throw her against the wall. I’ll be
waiting for her on the other end.”
“No. I won’t. This girl will live.”
I think of her father, the man in the city, whose name I don’t know. Who probably won’t want to see me again. I think of his body, a remote island with dead fish at its shores. I think of the money I stole, of the dusty Quran and the palm cross. I think of the political books on his antique coffee table. I think of the door ajar and why I left it open, why I wished he’d follow me. I am stalling again.
MmaLeru fades. Just like that, she is no more. The rain hardens, then starts to calm. Sela stares at her mother in contempt. I am at sea again. My witchcraft is between my thighs, in the city.
Sela knows she has to come with me. She has to leave home. I am with child. I am child.
We leave MmaLeru’s eyes open and start to burn everything in the room. There isn’t much, but the vinyl tiles catch fire quickly and the flames spread. The storm inside of us calms. We are moved. We are warm. We are outside in the soft rain, smoke escaping from the window. We sit on the concrete slab where once, a shack rested and my lover and I nested. There my sister and I watch home burn, and before the people of the town gather, my sister and I promise each other never to speak of home again.
Migrations is available now in all good bookstores in South Africa. They will be happy to order it for you if they don't have it on the shelves yet. It will be published in the US and UK in September, and will be available as an eBook in all African territories in April.