It was me who found my daddy hanging and I watched the yellow water run down my legs, felt it sting my skin, down to the bare soles of my feet and into the sand.
It was his face that made me do it, all blue like that as if he was still fighting for air, the swollen tongue sticking out. His eyes bulging out at me, as if he had seen something frightening.
I found him turning and twisting there from the only tree in Kusasa township.
He had got there first, fighting for that that small patch of green in the red brown dust. It was right next to that tree that he built his shack.
He told me some story about it, I never believed him, someone like me doesn’t believe in stories, but Daddy, he liked to tell it. He said he pulled the tree out from the earth and carried it over his shoulder, all the way to where it stood, the way I came to know the shady spot as a child. A place to sit under, to find coolness in all that hot weather rising up and getting angry.
He told me its roots were deep and strong, and I should be just like that tree in times of trouble. What kind of trouble?
There are all kinds of trouble in this world, was his reply. You can look up and down and all around you, and you will find it. Like the tree, you must stand. Stand for something.
“Stand for what?”
He would rub his chin, like he liked to do, and he said, “the truth, the truth of things.”
That didn’t mean much to me, truth is what I saw, how it looked when I went outside, when I went inside. The sad, unjust truth of things could be seen in every place and I didn’t want to go standing for it.
Maybe I had gone and mixed up my thoughts, but I didn’t want to tell my father that I wasn’t the kind of person that would stand for the truth. Instead I would make him his tea, and after that, I would sweep the evening’s dust from the floor, out into the yard. Father said I was a good girl and that I made him happy, that I was his only happiness.
When I was much smaller I thought fathers found children under rocks and then they took them home if they wanted to, or they left them there to fend for themselves. Found them in hard places where the sun beat down, grabbing them by the hand, pulling them to even harder places, to the outskirts of cities and towns. Lonely places.
All children had no mothers, is how it all was to me and that is what I thought, till my father told me that mine had run away.
“Where did she go?”
“Don’t ask so many questions.”
My father only liked to answer the questions that suited him, ones that he liked, and they were few, so we didn’t speak much.
On that terrible day, his mule was there too, standing there, next to my father’s slowing turning feet, like it always stood, looking lost. Waiting for a command, for a heavy load to pull, the crack of my father’s whip to come down on its back. The bones of its spine showing when the months were harder.
How it looked to me, how it would have looked to anyone with half an idea in their head, is that he had used the mule to kill himself. He must have sat on it with that scrap of rope around his neck, gone and clicked his tongue, which meant “Go!” to the mule and so the mule went, leaving my father behind, the tips of his toes scrabbling for the ground, for the dust.
He must have had second thoughts as he realised it was too late, grabbing at the rope tight around his neck. Was that the cause of the frightened look that was there on his face? That he could not go back and change it, could not undo what he had done. Standing there, I would have liked to have changed it back to how it was before, to the tea and the stories. Just me and the mule now and what would we do, now that Daddy was gone?
That was not an easy question for a child to answer, but I am not one to lie on the ground and wait. I knew that tears were of no use too, so I left him there and walked to the neighbour with the mule, it was stubborn at first, but when I pulled hard enough it came along. Mules, grey as stones, are more willing than donkeys.
I knocked on the door and the woman with the bent back and milky eyes answered. I could never tell if she was blind or not, she seemed to see through everything, see deep into my insides. I told her in a factual way that my daddy was dead, that he was hanging there from the tree. Then she did a thing I was not expecting and she closed the door, quietly, but it was so loud there in my ears, I felt the whole world turn where I stood. I knocked again, louder, but she didn’t answer. I turned to go, pulling the mule behind me. It made a noise like it was laughing at me, or that it had been hurt, I can never tell with mules. First sound it had made since I found it there next to my father. Poor thing might have been in shock, might have loved my daddy after all.
Daddy had never given him a name, and I had no experience in naming a mule so I went on communicating with him like my father did and said “Hamba,” Go. Walk. I clicked my tongue and pulled on his reins. It felt to me, that day, that Hamba was the only friend I had left on the earth.
I didn’t know what to do about Daddy. Didn’t know where to put him. I was too small to lift him, too small for anything like that, so I stood on one of those plastic chairs so I could reach the rope and I cut him loose, and he dropped and crumpled to the ground. He looked like a pile of rags, just like the things that passed for clothes when I pinned the washing to the wire line.
I waited for another tree to grow out of him, waited with my knees to my chin on the one concrete step he had built before the door, but nothing like that happened.
Instead he started to change in a way I never thought possible, lying there like that in the hot sun. He started to smell bad, and his body looked as if it was filling up with water or air.
I wanted whatever was happening to him to stop as it made my stomach sick to look at him, made me want to cover him up with sand so that I couldn’t see him.
Then it was that I saw a woman with two men walking down towards me still sitting there on that step.
The woman bent down to my level, brushed my dirty knotted hair from my face, said that someone had called and told her about me. I didn’t believe her, the someone, I guess, told her about the terrible stink that was probably coming through their open windows, under the slits of their doors. Like the dreams of white people, the smell was hard to escape.
I didn’t know anyone anyway, except my father. No one was wondering about me, or calling to tell someone else about me.
I don’t remember much of what she said, except that she would take care of “the body.”
She spoke the truth and did as she said, telling those men in the gloves and white masks around their ears to “get to work.”
They put him in a bag and drove away in a van. The woman, she stayed with me on the step, sat close to me, which felt strange.
Then she started talking about washing me, from head to toe.
“You will feel better.”
No I wouldn’t, but I did as she asked.
She smiled kindly at my change of clothes, those rags and things full of holes, but I always scrubbed them clean.
I worried what was going to happen with me, now that my father had been taken away, and Hamba and I were alone. I imagined I would get on, just as before. I would find something to do for my bread, a girl like me could do many things, most of them weren’t nice, I knew, I know, but that was and is another truth.
Then that woman asked me a question.
“How would you like to stay with a nice lady and her husband in the countryside?”
I didn’t know any nice ladies or husbands, what business did I have there anyway, what would they want a girl like me for?
“To clean, cook maybe, you would have a place to stay, a little money.”
I didn’t know which way to cut the answer, which way to cut my losses.
“Only if Hamba can come with. You can’t make me go anywhere without him.”
She had a look on her face like that wouldn’t be possible at all, and I had seen that look before, my whole life so far. I felt my hands grab at the concrete step, in case she was about to pull me away from it and put me in the same van my father was put in. Then she said, “I will see what I can do.”
I wasn’t going to go anywhere till she saw what she could do and I waited stubbornly with my arms folded.
“I will have to call first. I can’t do that now, you will have to trust me. We can come back for Hamba.”
“No, we won’t. I am staying here till you know. I won’t leave him alone.”
The men in the masks returned with their van without my father, and I could see her thinking that she could get them to drag me away, kicking and screaming. I looked her dead in the eye for as long as she could manage, before she looked away and to the ground.
“All right, I will trust you that you will stay here and not run away.”
Then she left, without knowing my name, leaving me and the mule to think about running away, to anywhere and any place, but there wasn’t anywhere to go. Just like my father, I was old before I was old. Done for before I was done.
That nice lady and husband, they were white, and as far as I knew, white people weren’t nice. You never got to leave white people, they tied you to themselves, to their houses, right until your grave, like they could do nothing without you and then they made you think you could do nothing without them, not even think. I saw it all the time, and it made me feel heavy in my heart, like I would never be lifted up and out to any other place. Was it different somewhere else?
Then she was there again, that woman, sitting all close to me, shaking me awake.
“You can bring your mule. They have space enough, they even sounded happy about it.”
So it was, at 12 years of age that the mule and I moved into the Botha residence, well, not exactly in, when my work was done I had to sleep out back in a room that had a bed and a wash basin. Hamba was kept behind a low wooden fence with chickens and ducks. As it was my job to feed those chickens and to collect their eggs, I got to see Hamba often, which I liked, which helped when there was nothing around to like.
The madam of the house, as I had to call her, she spoke to me how one would speak to a very small child. Explaining to me, as simply as she could, how I was to operate the household appliances. How I was to make the taps shine and dust and polish, how I was to scrub the pans with a soft sponge.
She showed me a sponge and smiled, in case I did not know what a sponge was.
The madam, and her husband, they had a daughter, a couple of years younger than me, and the little miss, she liked me from the beginning. I could tell right away that we would be friends, for she didn’t hide behind her mother’s skirt when I first arrived. She liked me as if she was trying to say sorry for the present, for how it all was. We might have been children but we knew more than we wanted to. I tried not to think about the future, the way I held it tight to myself, wishing.
The little miss, she would leave sweets at my door, or a book, a book I couldn’t read.
I told her not to be giving me books as I could make no sense of them. Then she started from the beginning with me, with the ABC. Every weekend, when she was home from the boarding school, she would teach me the way of reading English words, recognising the words, putting them together into long and short sentences. I looked through the dictionary for the definitions. Disappointment was defined this way: A sadness caused by unrealised hopes and expectations. Dreams maybe. There were other words too, for this sadness, words like disenchantment and discouragement. Obstacle. Blow. Defeat. Some words were stronger than others.
The little miss, she never made me feel stupid when I had to look up the meaning of the words, and I liked her for that.
I didn’t have much to do with the husband, I don’t remember him ever saying anything to me. Not a word, kind or unkind. He would enter the house from his day outside with the animals and the soil, the cracking of the whip and he would fill the rooms with himself.
I noticed how the the madam became smaller, and unimportant, just like me. Almost invisible. The way he would go stuffing her mouth with his words before she could speak her own. The way he would tell her to do this and to do that, tell her all the business of his day and hear none of hers. The little miss, when she was there, she became quieter too at the family table. I would walk in from the kitchen with some heavy bowl and spoon, ready to serve. The bowl too big for my hands, I was just a child myself. Unsure in my housecoat that reached down to my ankles. Soon, one day, I would fit into it.
That boarding school the little miss went to, it was one of those fancy private schools in the city. Children with skin like me, they could learn there too, just like the white children. Unlike every other public place that reminded us of our place, there, a black child could sit at the same desk and be taught the same things as a white child.
Sometimes I imagined myself there, sitting at one of those desks, learning about some complicated and important thing. One day I would be a judge, a doctor, a writer even, someone or other.
Sometimes my head would fill up with all those daydreams and silly thoughts. Definitions of silly are: foolish, weak in intellect, lack of common sense. It can also mean stunned, you know, if someone punches you and your head spins, or you can also be scared silly.
Either way I found it hard to feel all right, and I would just sit there after my chores talking to Hamba and my dead father. Most of the time I couldn’t find any words at all for all that I saw in the world, and I turned a stone over in my hand. Hard and bitter.
I didn’t expect to be sweet.
Sometimes, the little miss, she would bring home a friend, a friend who was black just like me. The neighbours with their pink faces and white eyelashes, like piglets, they would stick their heads over the wall or through the fence and wonder what that kaffir was doing there, if she wasn’t the maid or the daughter of the maid. The little miss, she sure had a fire inside, her whole face would turn red with a mad looking anger and she would shout back at them, telling them that it was none of their business.
The friend, she looked down at me, with all her fancy ways and her hair in neat rows, her posh accent, like the English Queen. I didn’t know what to think of her, so I brought the tea, like I always did. She asked for more milk and sugar and I brought it to her and from the same jug as the little miss, not from those tin plates and mugs under the sink that I had to use.
It looked like it made her feel good to order me around and to not say thank you. She didn’t even look me in the eye.
The madam, it didn’t look like she minded, that the friend of little miss sat in her chairs and at her table and ate from her best plates. Why couldn’t I? So I tried it once and took a plate out from the cupboard to dish my lunch on. It had pretty flowers on the rim. I knew them well, every detail, I had washed them often enough. Was every day enough? When will I be done?
The madam, she said to me, very quietly, but clearly, when she saw what I had gone and done, “you won’t be doing that again, you know those plates are not for you to use.”
I didn’t let her see my hurt feelings and said “yes, yes madam, I won’t do it again.”
I didn’t understand it. What sense did any of it make that the only body I had and would ever have was unwelcome in the world? Where else could I go, where else could I be but in it? There was nowhere else but in the world and in my skin.
Time went on and time passed and I grew up and grew into my housecoat and the little miss, she went to some university far away and not long after got married. She started her own life, with a husband not much different from the madam’s. A younger, skinnier version of the same thing.
What was that like, starting a new life, having a life that was your own? Would I ever know it for myself?
She hardly visited anymore, she liked to keep her distance. The madam complained that the little miss had become “political.”
“I can’t sleep because of her, who knows what she is getting up to,” the madam, she would confide in me because she had no one else to talk to.
A definition of confide: To have trust. To demonstrate confidence by communicating secrets for others to protect, to take care of. It is like giving of yourself then, handing something precious to another. Is it like that?
Me, I didn’t confide in the madam and that distance of the little miss, it was something I understood. I would have done the same if I had got to leave. I would have liked being political too. I wouldn’t have wanted to visit for tea either. Still, I missed her, still, I longed to hear all her news of the city, of all the things going on. There must have been things going on, I was sure of that.
Madam, her hair went grey when the husband died suddenly, right next to her in his sleep. His heart had been weak. I heard her screaming from the bedroom, and I went running to her from my bed in my nightdress. I found him lying there with his mouth open, his face almost as white as the pillow. He looked relieved, almost happy. The madam was holding his hand, her face full of tears.
I brought her a cup of tea and she grabbed at my dress, wailing, demanding answers, cursing God, cursing the country. She went on and on till the morning, and I just stood there, rooted, watching the sky change colour.
I became older too, old enough for my grave I thought, by now. Surely. When? But I kept on going. Hamba, he kept going too, shaky on his legs as he came up to meet me at the fence, looking for sugar, and we would have our long talks.
Then there was the news that was everywhere on the television, even all over the world, the madam told me, “you can vote now.”
The madam told me to come and look, to see for myself and we sat in the living room where I was never allowed to sit, watching the news. Freedom really had come, there it was all over the news in colour.
Where it was in my life, I didn’t know, it wasn’t something I could pick up and put in a bag, or look at like a picture on the wall. I went out to see what it meant, and I sat on benches where I couldn’t before. I took a ride in first class. I even sat in the front and no one chased me away or told me to get up and leave. I relieved myself in the former whites only lavatory. No one shook me around or grabbed me by the collar. No one set their dogs upon me.
The whites, they weren’t allowed to call me kaffir anymore. All that was against the law now. How long would the civility last? This euphoria. I looked it up, as the word was being said often enough, to describe the mood. An intense feeling of joy, of self-confidence. Exaggerated elation. A person is said to be flooded with euphoria.
The madam, wondering how to respond, took out one of her pretty plates from the cupboard, threw away the ones under the sink that she had kept there, just for me, for all the years. Sometimes she would even bring the tea to me. It was as simple as that for her. Making it all good again, sweeping the past away. Then there were still all those things I wanted to say to the madam, to that dead husband of hers too. Sometimes the violence burned inside of me, so strong and hot like the water in the pots when it boiled and I never said a word. I never struck the madam, I never put a sharp knife to her throat.
Did I think about it? Did I want to? I don’t know. Sometimes.
I felt my fists clench, felt my nails scratch at the soft parts of my hands, wanting to draw blood, wanting to open it all.
At night I ground my teeth thinking about it. How easily it had happened, with hardly a fuss, hardly a cruel word.
The whole thing confused me. It was one day this, the next day that. All that sadness, all that furious anger must have gone somewhere. I couldn’t believe it would just vanish into thin air, like breath.
If that anger were me, I would have pushed myself deep into the ground. Waited. Waited for my day to come.
I wondered what my father would have thought about all that, this freedom. Even if I had gone up to heaven myself and told him that South Africa now had a black man for a president, and all the world loved him, he would never have believed me. I didn’t really believe it either and I kept going out and testing it. This love. This miracle.
A profound tenderness for another. An extraordinary event that brings favourable and welcome consequences.
As things do, it went a different way to the way we wanted. What I wanted. I don’t know how anyone else wants it go. I don’t want to speak for anyone else.
Either way, these words are still around. I see them often in the papers. In the news that pits us against each other. Hatred. Racism. Poverty. Privilege. Corruption. I could go on and on, and I could draw it out, but I don’t want to get lost in that, in all those words.
There are the beautiful words, still.
Love, I have heard.
Here, in my room out back with its bed and wash basin, and the madam grown frail and she never once said sorry, I am putting words together. Fashioning a truth with needle and thread, my very own. Of how it all came too late for me.
I can reach down to find the dark, slippery words of my guts, I can bring them out from my mouth, all the stillborn waste that was my life. If it is fury you want to see. It is quieter than you think. It hardly makes a sound.
The night, it drags on and I wanted, too, to see the day break, to feel that sun on my face.
Even with hope in my breast I walk around in darkness. In questions. In my brown skin.
While the madam sleeps I cut myself loose and go out into the unknown, into the hum of insects and their small bodies. My hands brushing against transparent wings.
It was easier than I thought. Walking away. Leaving it all behind. Leaving her behind. Her life bleeding out.