“When I was young, the world was harder. Much harder,” my grandfather said. His weathered face, so burnt by the sun and eroded by time, broke into a smile. By the gift of his wisdom, my grandfather liked to echo his words into time. “See now, sweet child,” he said, “then, even the winters were colder.”
“But Grandfather,” said Moatshe, my brother, younger by one summer but braver in his conduct with our elders, “the winters are still cold.”
“Ah,” said Grandfather. “Had you lived in the days of Mphoti the lion hunter, your body would not shiver from the languid breeze of these kind years. You would not need the night fire.” He shook his head, maybe at the audacity of the winters to grow warmer with time, maybe at nothing, as he was prone to do.
“Eehe,” said Moatshe. “As we speak, you’re sitting by the night fire with children of these kind years, shivering away the cold of your bones—you, who lived in the days of the lion hunter.”
“Ah,” said Grandfather, laughing. “This strange world now expels me and my foreign bones from its growing strangeness. Time is cruel, I tell you. Time has stolen my strength.”
Three nights after he declared the case of his mortality, my grandfather was stolen into the grave by the coughing disease. And by the same thread of unplanned ceremony, Moatshe visited my hut to declare, “Mmeti, I want to go beyond the mountains to hunt for lions. Will you come with me?”
Sometimes my brother forgot that unlike him, I was a girl. On the morning he proposed this adventure, he had also forgotten that at the ages of fifteen summers for me, and fourteen for him, we were too young to go beyond the mountains alone.
“We can’t go, Moatshe,” I said.
“Who knows what we will find there, heh? You’re a child and I’m a girl. Stop this foolishness. Ao!”
“You call it foolishness, but it’s bravery.”
“Why is it bravery and not foolishness?”
“Because one day a wise man will crouch at the edge of a night fire and sing tales of his youth to his descendants. He will say: ‘When I was young, there was a boy named Moatshe. He was a lion hunter. He was brave. Men were braver in those days.’” He raised his head higher as though, by simply dreaming his dream, by speaking the words into the stream of time, he couldn’t be disputed. “That is why we must go,” he concluded.
“What will this wise man say about me, heh? I’ll tell you what he will say. He will say: ‘When I was young, there was a girl named Mmeti. She was a fool. She dared to walk the paths of men.’” I paused to allow Moatshe time to realise his foolishness. “If you want to hunt lions, hunt them. But leave me out of it. Me, I want to live.”
“You want to be a coward?”
“Yes. Cowards live long.”
“See here,” he clasped his hands and knelt at the edge of my sleeping mat. “See here, this coughing disease has killed thirty of our people in twelve days. By the dawn of the new moon, twenty more will have died. We might be in the twenty. There’s no life to live here.” By the light of the midday sun—drifting through the threshold, softly touching the darkness of Moatshe’s face with its golden rays—I saw fear in my brother’s eyes.
“Mother says enough people have died. The earth has grown too red to want more blood. No one else can die. There is no need for fear.”
“There is always need for fear,” said Moatshe. “There was a child whose mother lives near the mountain foot, near the Ancestors, but the disease didn’t spare the child. There was our grandfather, who was a chief, and wise, but the disease didn’t spare him. This coughing disease will kill us and end our youth.”
“The coughing disease may kill us. But the lions certainly will.”
He nodded, maybe at my words, maybe at nothing. It was becoming his nature to echo his own words into the intermittent silences of conversation, as though affirming a secret knowledge unto himself. I feared that as in the case of our grandfather, Moatshe was prophesying his own tragedy.
“Mercy will come,” I said. “One day you and I will crouch at the edge of the night fire and sing old tales from our youth. We will be old, and they will call us wise for it. There’s no need to seek lions.”
Rising to his feet, lifting his face from the sunlight to the darkness of my hovel, he said, “I pray you’re right.” He retreated to his frivolities for the day, and I to mine.
Near dusk, as the cowherds and shepherds drove their flocks to the kraals, Moatshe dashed into the large eastern hut where the women cooked. I liked to sit there when the air outside grew cold, or when the smell of meat and wild herbs wafted from the hearths to the homestead, announcing the end of day, the promise of relief and supper.
“Mmeti,” he said. “Sellwane has called for us.”
We were in the heart of winter. Thus, the herbs—plucked from the fields near the end of summer and preserved by first being pickled and then dried in the sun—had acquired a flavour that was rich and succulent and unique to that time. I liked to inhale the aroma as it mingled with the smell of the fire, the tinge of the smoke, and even the fat that hissed and simmered as the meat turned tender.
The hubbub of gossip rose and fell as the various calamities of the village were elaborately narrated by hushed voices. Grandfather had liked to joke that before time unfolded the fates of the village, and maybe of all the world too, it borrowed the seeds then wove the fates from the whispers of the cooking hut. “That large cooking hut is where time begins,” he liked to say.
I told Moatshe: “I don’t want to leave the hut now. Go and tell Sellwane to come here.”
“Eehe,” protested Mamuure, who was my father’s youngest wife, my elder by seven summers, and deeply dedicated to her sardonicism. Still kneeling by the fire, she stopped tending to the meat to place her hands on her hips. “You know, just yesterday I thought to myself: ‘Mamuure, the cooking hut has been growing and growing. By the end of winter, all the women of the village can sit there with their legs stretched.’ You know, I’ve been waiting for the winter to end so I can see this magic conclude.”
The other women laughed. And as Moatshe and I left the hut, the laughter quickly turned into the rumoured tale of a cursed woman who, only the night before, had birthed twin children. Incensed that I would miss the numerous details Mamuure was sure to sow into the tale, I asked Moatshe: “What does Sellwane want with us?”
“I don’t know. There are rumours that she was seen coughing near the river. She has been taken to her hut. Do you think she is afflicted?”
I shook my head. “I think people are now afflicted with fear. You know the way of whispers in Taung; if a man is seen falling, by nightfall it will be told that he was, in fact, crushed by some crumbling mountain. It will not surprise me to find that Sellwane was merely clearing her throat.”
“If you say so.”
“I do.” I broke my pace to face Moatshe. I placed my hand on his shoulder, and he slowed his pace too. “Listen here,” I said. “You can’t allow this disease to arrest all your thoughts. It’s a passing thing, like the drought of three summers ago and the floods that nearly drowned you as a child. These things come and go. Then something else comes, and it goes as well. But we can’t fling ourselves so completely into sorrow; because when new tragedies strike we must mourn them as well then live on, again and again until at last, time relieves us. That is the way it goes.”
His throat bulbed up and down as he swallowed. “Who tells you these things? Why aren’t you afraid?”
I shrugged. “Some things I hear in the cooking hut. Some things our mother tells me before we sleep. She says fear is a thing of childhood. I may as well be a woman now. Soon I will be married. There will be no place for fear in my husband’s homestead. One day you will learn as well.”
The brown of my brother’s eyes was very light. Sometimes, in the dim light of dusk, his eyes glowed like the embers of a dying fire. When he felt pain and his heart couldn’t hide it, his eyes were quick to shine with sadness. He faced the setting sun, so it blazed on his face, and fleetingly, it etched the lines of his face deeper into his skin as though he had lived more summers than his mere fourteen.
“You’re leaving our father’s homestead?” he asked.
“Ao, Moatshe,” I resumed my walk as I exclaimed. “This is the way things go.”
“I know.” He fell in step beside me. “But you’re my sister, the only one I have. I never thought you would leave.”
“We can’t be children forever. Besides, our father has other children. You have other sisters you can pester with your foolishness. Even better than that, you have brothers. They must tell you these things. It isn’t right for me to teach you matters of manhood.”
“Yes. But they’re not you,” he whispered. “They’re not always kind to me.”
I didn’t want to wallow even deeper in Moatshe’s sadness, so we continued walking in silence. On reaching Sellwane’s homestead, we were greeted by her mother. “Calamity has befallen us,” she declared as we sat at the edge of Sellwane’s mat. She shook her head often, as though rejecting the very calamity she had confirmed mere moments ago. Finding that she could neither speak nor simply sit without succumbing to her tears, she quickly left the hut to spread her sorrow elsewhere in the homestead.
Sellwane, who was the afflicted, sat as though only mildly aggrieved by her own tragedy. Before leaving, Sellwane’s mother had suffered the trouble of lighting a fire; by the dim light it produced, I saw that the disease had not yet taken Sellwane’s colour and girth.
Yet, although we were born in the same winter, the disease had given her the eyes of an old woman. Like Moatshe, she was yielding herself to fate, for she didn’t believe her death to be pending, but concluded. I saw then, looking at her, that the disease was killer and thief and ghost, for it killed and stole and haunted, all at once.
“Do you feel pain?” Moatshe asked Sellwane.
“I feel thirst,” she said, punctuating her words with a soft cough. “My head is heavy. My nose is dry and the air I breathe feels harsh. But these things don’t feel like pain. They feel like passing discomforts.”
“Oh, Sellwane,” I said. “It pains me to see you so. I was sure the disease had ebbed from the village at last. We must pray that it passes without taking you from us.”
“Believe me when I say my mother has prayed a thousand prayers since noon.”
“The Ancestors will hear her,” said Moatshe.
“Yes, yes,” said Sellwane. “But I’m tired of weeping women and their prayers. If you have new gossip to share, I would rather hear that.”
“Eehe,” said Moatshe. “Just moments ago when we walked here, Mmeti resigned as a gossipmonger. ‘You must pester other people with these things,’ she said. But who knows, maybe she will relent to you.”
I cast a glare towards Moatshe, to which he gracefully cowered with silence and a bowed head. Sellwane burst into a cough-laughter that ended with her asking for water. I brought a pail to her lips. “See what chaos your foolishness can cause,” I said to Moatshe. “And I don’t see how I’m a gossipmonger.”
When Sellwane had gulped her fill she said, “Unlike me and Moatshe, you’re never chased out of the cooking hut. You hear everything that is said there.”
“I’m never chased out because they want me to do all their heavy chores. And they never speak of things they think I’m too young to hear.”
“You still know more than us,” said Moatshe.
“Well, what I know today is trivial,” I said, reclaiming my seat on the mat and folding my arms over my chest. “Mother spoke about the food rations now that the winter has gotten colder, and about Father’s ascension to the chieftaincy. At the end, Mamuure started the tale of a woman who, only last night, birthed twin children—”
“Yowe!” exclaimed Sellwane. Her voice jolted me and Moatshe from our comfort. “A woman in Taung has birthed twins? Are you sure?”
“Yes,” I said, searching my memory for assurances because I was suddenly unsure of what I had heard. “Why does it worry you?”
Sellwane’s eyes fleeted this way and that, to the threshold, to see if anyone was there, then swiftly back to me. “Mmeti, please make sure there is no one standing outside the hut, then close the door.”
I did as she asked. Then, in a soft-soft whisper, she said: “Do you remember three summers ago, when your uncle was poisoned to death and a drought followed that ordeal?”
“Yes,” said Moatshe. “Our grandfather said the Ancestors had sent the drought as punishment for the death of a royal.”
“True,” agreed Sellwane. “Sometimes the Ancestors send signs when they’ve become displeased. They send abnormal things into the world—a drought or floods or something as unnatural as the birth of twins.” She dropped her voice even lower. “Twins … are just as bad as a two-headed goat. They’ve been sent to foretell calamity.” She nodded emphatically, etching her words into the silence that recited our shock, slowly allowing her wisdom to become ours.
“What does it mean?” asked Moatshe, who, at any time, could be relied on to interrupt the delicate profoundness of such moments.
“We must fear that greater calamity than the disease will befall us,” Sellwane said.
“There’s nothing that can be done to avoid it?” asked Moatshe.
“No,” said Sellwane.
“What will be done with them—the children?”
As though in the time since I closed the door, the secrecy of her hut had been marred by some unseen intruder, Sellwane fleeted her eyes this way and that, and when she was content that no such invader had materialised, she whispered: “One of the children will be taken beyond the mountains and allowed to die. Once that is done, no one must speak of the omen.”
“But the omen will still bring tragedy?” said Moatshe, prodding his head forward and speaking in a whisper too.
“Oh yes,” said Sellwane. “These things can’t be changed. When the—” Before she could finish her thoughts, her mother opened the door.
“Sellwane, the healer has arrived for your cleansing.”
“Must I come now?”
“Yes, you must come now. Death takes no rest.”
Sellwane sighed. “Please promise you will come back in the morning,” she said to me and Moatshe.
“We will,” I said.
We waved goodbye and stepped into the soft darkness of early evening. At first, we walked in silence. Then, faithfully, Moatshe said: “What calamity do you think is being foretold by the twin children?”
“I don’t know. I want to believe that the children’s coming was belated.”
“Yes. Think of it this way: the chief of Taung has died, and with him, other people were stolen by the coughing disease. What can be worse than that?”
“I don’t know. But I don’t want the shadow of these strange times to sweep me into the grave before I’ve lived my dreams.”
“Ao, Moatshe, please don’t start this business again. You’re not going to die. You have many years to live your silliness.”
“What if I don’t, heh? What if I don’t have these many years you speak of?”
Although he couldn’t see it, because the darkness was fast cloaking the village, I shook my head. He had exhausted all my patience. I didn’t know what else to do.
“Tell me,” I said. “What do you know about hunting lions?”
“I’ve hunted bucks with our father. I know how to throw a spear. I’m a fast runner. I’ve hunted.”
“Bucks are not lions. When you try to kill them, lions will try to kill you too.”
“Mphoti killed five lions before he was twenty.”
“And he died before he was twenty. Moatshe, by our Ancestors’ pity, you were the only son born to our mother. You know she hasn’t been a favoured wife. I sleep in a hut alone because my sisters don’t want to share even moments of silence with me. And you, you spend your days trailing behind me, a girl, and not one of our father’s sons. You might think these things are small, but they’re not. Are you listening to me?”
I felt Moatshe’s body move as he nodded.
“If you die,” I continued, “our mother will be the only of our father’s wives without a son. They will not be kind to her.”
“She will have you.”
“I’m a girl. Soon I’ll leave the homestead. She will be childless. Is that what you want?”
“I know that you’re brave, Moatshe. Our mother knows it as well. There is no need to show them—these people who hate us. Please don’t chase your own death.”
We walked the rest of the way in silence. I wondered if he resented me for saying these things so frankly. When we reached home he went to his hut without bidding me a good evening.
After I ate supper I sat outside my hut to see if Moatshe would, as he always did, go to the morula tree near the heart of our homestead. There, our family liked to gather around the night fire to tell old tales and warm ourselves from the winter. He didn’t do so and I, dejected by his obsession with pending doom, and by Sellwane’s illness, went to my hut to sleep.
In the morning my brother didn’t return to my hut to declare another adventure. I heard from our mother that in the night, he had gathered food and water, retrieved his spear, then took the path to the Hill of Ghosts, where, upon turning right and following the star we call Naka, he had vanished into the distance. Beyond the mountains, he went, beyond my eyes and warnings and protection.
“Why did no one stop him?” I asked.
My mother folded her arms, tilted her head, and allowed me time to swallow my insolence. When I had done so and showed as much by bowing my head in shame, she said: “No one saw him. When we woke up, your father saw that Moatshe’s spear was gone. We followed his footprints ’til we reached the hill. I was told to return home. Your father and brothers have gone to find him.”
“Moatshe went alone?”
My legs failed me. I felt my mother catch me in her arms.
“I should have gone with him.”
“They will bring him back, Mmeti.” Her voice quivered with worry. Her eyes were cloaked with the tender touch of fear and sadness and all the things she dared not imagine. “Don’t taint his fate by mourning him while he’s still alive.” She shook her head, as though by doing so, she could reject whatever ill fate awaited my brother.
I nodded, maybe to echo her wishes into time, maybe at nothing, who can know these things. Still, I nodded.
“Come now,” said my mother, guiding me to the cooking hut so we could start our chores. “You need food.”
There was a strong scent of curdled milk in the hut. Mapotu, who was my father’s eldest wife, was showing Mamuure the correct way to separate the curdled mass from the watery rejects, and to decant the latter so they might be flung, without wasting the curd, to the pile of assorted refuse that was bound for the pigsty.
“Here,” said my mother, handing me a bowl of curd. “Eat. When you are finished take food to the pigs and ask one of your brothers to bring more firewood. Make sure he brings dry wood. Yesterday we suffered through the wet wood Matome gave us. We couldn’t breathe through the smoke.”
“Yes, mother,” I said. She looked at me for a while. I surmised it was to measure whether I could be trusted to keep myself from yielding to my sadness. To mollify her, I quickly gobbled my food, drank the water she handed me, then went on to complete my chores.
When I was done I followed the path to the Hill of Ghosts to wait for the men who had gone in search of my brother. Only Potu, my eldest brother, returned that day. I trailed behind him as he refused to tell me anything before telling the elders.
“We found his trail,” he said, kneeling before my mother. “He was always a fast runner. It might take two, three more days to find him.”
“Mm, mm,” nodded my mother.
I didn’t sleep that night. I sat outside my hut and watched the morula tree where, not even a moon ago, Moatshe had challenged our grandfather on such frivolous troubles as the coldness of winters. That boy had dreamt such a silly thing. Like a god, he wanted to tame a lion, to be a story his descendants would tell each other. That boy could not be gone. He was my brother, so sweet and gentle and foolish. So loving. He couldn't be gone.
But you know, victory is a strange thing.
You see, by the will of his fate, and by his own resolve, Moatshe had at last met with a lion. He emerged from the entanglement victorious. He had forgotten that lions hunt in prides. I hadn’t reminded him. So after his victory, the pride had avenged their fallen kin and left only bones for my mother to bury. That was how he was found—caught in the embrace of the prey he had killed, the foe he had sought.
Mapotu narrated the ordeal. She had submitted her shoulder to my mother’s weary head. The rest of my father’s wives watched the sacrifice with great admiration, and often, when not lamenting the general injustice of young lives taken too soon, they begged Mapotu for the wisdom she had acquired through her life. Mapotu began her parables with a heavy sigh and the preamble of her reluctance in spreading old sorrows.
“The hard things of life are best left in the hard times,” she said.
“Mapotu,” said Mamuure, “if you deny us your wisdom, who will teach us?”
And so, with another sigh, Mapotu said: “We should have culled the omen as soon as its head sprouted, when it was whispered that a woman had birthed the unspeakable. But alas, we were slow and our dear Moatshe was taken.”
The women nodded their heads gravely; some, maybe to mourn their error in having delayed their diligence in the matter, shook their heads instead and echoed Mapotu’s sighs with more of their own.
“That is the way it was done in my youth,” continued Mapotu. “The boy would have lived. Oh, and what a man he would have been. How brave he was, even as a boy. Imagine him as a man.”
“He was very brave,” said Mamuure. Her lament was carried by the soft hubbub that followed, every voice affirming, without deviation, Moatshe’s bravery.
“But alas,” said Mapotu, unceremoniously interrupting the harmonious mingling of the bereaved, “the boy is gone.”
It seemed apt that Mapotu’s wisdom be followed by grave silence; for then—as the chill of winter lifted itself from our bones and the finality of my brother’s death completed itself—was when such things as heartache thawed themselves into my bones. It was irreversible. Moatshe had gone without me, left me to mourn him. He had gone and left me alone.
I felt small, faint, and as though the folds of my being were unfolding themselves and fluttering away, then seeping, irretrievably, into the unknowable stuff of life. I didn’t call the tears that sprung to my eyes, nor the breathlessness that overtook me, but I welcomed them, because what else was left to do if not succumb to my helplessness.
I felt as though I couldn’t breathe. I said: “These times are hard.” But I was a junior member of the clan, and female on top of that. When the summer dawned I would leave the homestead to be married. My sorrow was unimportant. Thus, I was seated so far from Mapotu and my mother and all the women whose importance and sorrow were indicated by their closeness to the hearth. And Moatshe, who could be relied on to interrupt the profoundness of such moments, was not there. No one heard me. I had to echo myself.
But I was so far from the heart of the clan. And so still, no one heard me.
I felt as though I couldn’t breathe. I said: “These times are hard.” But I was a junior member of the clan, and female on top of that. When the summer dawned I would leave the homestead to be married. My sorrow was unimportant.
With pursed lips, Olanna returns into view. She kills the music and snatches the lace curtains closed. She loves to peel back the curtains. She does the tango with the breeze.
“With your porcupine teeth, you could even be a cashile.… enhe. What Chief would you be with that enormous nose that is good for smelling dung, utShaka?” they would scorn.
She sees Ofodile taking pictures of the baby as his mother threw their baby up in the air, saying gwam as she caught the baby. Her baby laughed, showing his pink gums, blabbing.
“But caution, always,” he added. “For some days I doubt the river’s friendship.”