By Lauri Kubuitsile (Botswana)
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She wakes with a start from a cruel dream. Mphoentle is running across a thornless field, dotted with yellow pansies and purple wood violets. The bottoms of her bare feet and her stick-thin legs are spotted with dirt and her hair flies wild in all directions, decorated with leaves and broken twigs. She is laughing under the sky- blue sky of a world far away from the one she was born into. A world where the sun holds Mphoentle in its warm, kind hands and the wind caresses her smooth cheek with a gentle touch; she is in a place where she is adored.
In the dream, she watches her daughter running away and she is screaming as loud as she can, trapped in the cement boots planted in the real world of sharp thorns and harsh, merciless sun. She doesn’t care that her daughter is happy and free where she is. She wants Mphoentle with her; where shoes bind feet and hair is pulled tightly into plaits. It’s selfish she knows, but she wants it like a child begging to eat the whole bowl of sugar though a stomach ache is assured. And she screams and screams until she wakes up to the real-world words she will wake up to until she is finally released- Mphoentle is dead.
It is Valentine’s Day, the day of love. Afternoon and the road ahead is quivering against the heat. She searches in her bag for lip balm, though afterwards she never tells anyone that. When she looks up, she sees a small black girl in the road. She presses the brakes but it is too late. There is a thud and the car stops and then there is a thick dense silence. She turns off the engine, afraid to move. Kids are crowding at the front of the car looking down at what she has done but she sits still and quiet.
She phones her husband. “I’ve hit a child. You must come.” Her voice is calm and even. She puts the phone in her bag and time is passing and passing and she can’t seem to understand what to do.
She opens the door and a wall of heat brings with it a tagalong of reality that hits her after the fairyland insulation of the air conditioned car. There are children, all in the same green uniform; she decides that they must be from the same school. Some are screaming, some crying, one comes forward. ”You have killed Mphoentle,” he says in carefully pronounced English. He is not accusing, only stating a fact. Yes, she says to herself as she looks down at the tiny girl on the hot melting tarmac, her head split in two. Yes, I have killed Mphoentle.
The policeman snatches her passport from her hand. “You’ll not be going anywhere anytime soon,” he snarls at her. She tells him a story that puts her in the best light, no searching for lip balm in hand bags, but still he’s not happy.
“So you say you were going 40?” he asks, one side of his lip rose in disgust. She was a Boer, same as all of them. He hates her just as she expects him to.
She doesn’t hear him at first; she is watching another police officer lift the tiny body, now covered with a sheet onto the back of the bakkie. Only her small feet hang out. She wears the clunky black school shoes and white ankle socks of all of the school girls. Her mind drifts to her own daughter safely at school wearing the same shoes, the same socks. But then she thinks- even this girl’s mother believes that her daughter is safely at school. She has faith that all is well. A faith that will mock her with her ignorance when she finds out the truth in the matter.
Her husband, Johanne, comes up. “So are we done then, Boss?” his booming voice tampers down the policeman’s authority.
“Yes, she can go. But I’m keeping the passport. Don’t go anywhere.” He is not happy; the game is over too soon for his appetite.
They climb into the vehicle and they turn towards home. “Bloody Kaffir!” her husband spits. “Stupid picaninny jumps in the road and they want to blame you! Who the hell does he think he is? Just shows what idiots they are.” He looks at his wife staring blankly out the window and he becomes quiet. “Are you okay? “ He rubs her thigh with his big, red hand.
“I’m fine. I want to lie down, that’s all.” She smiles back weakly.
“You have nothing to worry about. You did nothing wrong. Bloody picanninies always jumping in the road like a pack a’ goats. You did nothing wrong.”
His words sit heavy in her mind. From the time she can remember she’d been told in words and actions that blacks were not like her. They were different. They felt things differently, did things differently. Maybe Johanne was right. They knew no better than to jump in the road, how could she be blamed for that? She did everything within her power to stop, but it had failed. It was as simple as that. They should know better, she told herself. She just about had her mind sorted around the new idea, she was pulling and stretching it and forcing it to fit. She must get her mind to believe that a dead black child was not really her problem, it couldn’t be. She was white and sensible. Killing a child was something she didn’t do.
In the silence of the car, the wheels turn and, though she tries her best to ignore it, she can hear them sticking slightly on each rotation. The coagulated blood from the girl is trying to hold them to the tarmac, imprison them for her crime. But the engine is strong and the tyres too big and only the slight tick, tick, tick, on each cycle lets her know that there is a struggle at all. The patches of a small black girl’s blood on the rubber haven’t a chance against them; even so, at the edge of her hearing the sound persists.
She is sitting under the yellow umbrella, waiting for passers-by at the bus rank; people who need to call someone. All day in the hot sun selling phone calls to bus riders. She is helping one woman, a middle aged woman, fat and sweating in the late afternoon sun. She is calling a reluctant husband, telling him he must come to collect her. He’s refusing and she’s beginning to get annoyed. She watches the customer from the shade of her umbrella hoping the fight will last long enough for the metre on the phone to click over to P5. She wants to buy meat for dinner when she knocks off.
From nowhere a boy runs up. He is breathless. “MmaMphoentle! MmaMphoentle!”
She turns to him and thinks what a rude boy some mother has raised. Can’t he see she’s with a customer? She scowls at him to keep him quiet, but it’s too late. The shouting has distracted the wife. She hangs up at P3.20, not enough for meat for five. The fat woman pays and walks off and she turns to the boy. “What is it you want? Didn’t your mother teach you not to interrupt your elders?”
“Excuse me, Mma, but the big Boer lady has killed Mphoentle with her vehicle.”
She grabs him by the shoulders and shakes him hard. “Don’t tell stories you silly boy! Why do you come and lie to me?” Her voice has risen and the people around look at her.
He lifts up his hand and in it is Mpoentle’s pink school bag. She lets go of the boy’s shoulders and he flees the crazy phone woman. On one side, the bag is soaked through with blood. She doesn’t know why, but she brings it to her nose and smells. Is it Mphoentle’s blood?
She looks around at the big smoky busses pulling out into the road. The Bazezuru women in their white dresses come back to the shade of the tree with their big enamel bowls on their heads filled with groundnuts and frozen bottles of water and everything is just as it should be. She knows then that the boy was playing jokes. Everything is normal. Everything is fine. She will find Mphoentle at home, doing her homework at the wobbly metal table with the paraffin lamp in the middle, just as she always does.
But then, something catches the corner of her eye. Something out of the ordinary. It is her husband, Thabo. He is with her mother and his brother and they are coming towards her. When she sees them she knows that the liars are the busses and the Bazezuru ladies, not the boy. She turns to the white clad women next to her and asks, “Why did you lie?”
They answer with eyes to the ground; they know bad news is coming.
Johanne opens the security gate and they drive through. People have arrived to help her, news travels fast in an isolated community in a village in Africa. She sees Father LeRoux’s car. She is annoyed, she only wants to climb into bed and be left alone.
They crowd around with their words, words, words. They fear for themselves, that is evident. A white woman killing a black child may not turn out well for them. It must be handled delicately. They talk but she doesn’t really hear them, they are far away in a thick, wet fog. She has tea and Johanne tells them what happened. She thinks about the summer her brother drowned in the dam. Then, like now, she wonders why people need to repeat tragedies over and over. She doesn’t want to hear anything else. She gets up and walks to the bedroom without any word. The room becomes quiet and knowing eyes that know nothing at all follow her out.
Lying down, she lets the cold air from the air conditioner high on the wall blow on her until her skin is goose flesh but the coldness can’t reach her. She wants to feel something, anything. It seems it has all stopped working. She got shut off when the car cracked the little girl’s head. She tells herself- I have killed a little girl. She is someone’s daughter. Someone’s sister. She is dead. She is dead. But nothing gets through. She doesn’t feel sadness. She looks through her mind for the image of the girl laying there, her skull open, a pool of blood, pieces of brain on her face, on the collar of her white blouse. She can’t feel sickened, no matter how she tries to imagine it. Is it because it is only a black child? One among thousands, millions, one less that will make no difference? She decides maybe that is it. Would it be different if it were a white child? A dog? She can’t find the answers though she looks and looks for them.
He knocks at the door and enters though she has not given him permission to do so. It is Father LeRoux. He is young, younger than her. Tall and thin with a head too large and a bottom lip that hangs loose when he forgets to hold it in place. Scars on his face show the acne that might have driven him to the church at such a young age. Few choices in life for such an ugly boy.
“Sister Adele can we talk?” She says nothing but turns to him.
“You know that God is with you, he has a plan for all of us. It is not by chance that this happened.” He takes her hand in his moist one. The hand is making her feel ill and she wants to pull away, but she doesn’t. “Today was this child’s day to die. God sent you to do his work. You are only God’s messenger.”
She sits up. “What?” she asks too sharply and he pulls back a bit, like anyone he is frightened of madness.
“I’m saying that God chooses when we die, no one else. Today was that girl’s time. None of us could have done anything to stop it. God had already mapped out the events. “
“So I was God’s messenger to kill that girl?” she asks him. He is pleased with his reasoning; she can see it in his revolting face. He is proud of himself; proud that he can offer up such wise words of comfort at a difficult time. She knows she really shouldn’t blame him because he has convinced himself that what he is saying is the truth handed to him through his divine communication channel with God.
“Yes, don’t question His plan for you, Sister Adele,” he says leaning in to hold her. She can smell a faint sour scent of sweat covered ineffectively by a cheap brand of cologne and she feels his hands moving up and down her back in a way not quite appropriate for the circumstances. None of it moves her, she has been chosen she tells herself. It was, apparently, out of her hands.
She was at God’s command. She was God’s hired killer.
She and Thabo had two children already that cold July day when the nurse confirmed that she was pregnant yet again. She was only 20. The age when life should be carefree and fun, but not for her. That was a storybook life for the girls at the secondary school where she did not go. Girls whose main concerns were which shade of lipstick suited them best or whether they would pass their physics exams, not how they were going to feed three children without any income.
She hid in the alley between two buildings, not from the cold, because it was almost a wind tunnel, but from the eyes of others. She beat at her womb with tight hard fists. “Get out of me!” she shouted at the unborn child. “Get out!” Then she slumped to the ground surrounded by rubbish smelling of urine and cried as the cold wind beat against her bare arms. She begged God for his help. “Merciful God, kill one of us,” she had pleaded into the rank, biting wind.
As she lies on the mattress on the floor, surrounded by old women silently keeping vigil for the dead one, she thinks of that day. She decides that there must be a God after all. She’d given up hope after years of searching for the answers to her nightly prayers. But God was there. He had watched her that wintry day so long ago, beating at the few cells that were to become Mphoentle, begging Him to kill her. He had acquiesced. He had granted her wish. She should be happy, praising Him, telling others of the miracle He had bestowed onto her. God; he indeed existed. Merciful, was a bold faced lie.
It was as if she had taken a break from her life. And in that break, people came and dug a hole in the hard, dry soil and put Mphoentle inside. They covered her up and now it was done. Mphoentle was under the ground and it was time to come back to her table under the barely alive syringa tree. Back to the phone calls and bus exhaust, back to the Bazezuru women who greet her and say nothing. It is easier for everyone to pretend it never happened.
Pretend, pretend, pretend. She can do it, she discovers. She’s decided to take the role of strong, Motswana woman. She is believable and no one sees that she is merely an actress playing a role played by so many before her. She decides that this is how life will be now and accepts it as a way to go forward. It keeps people with kind words; she finds that they are the worst, at bay. Their words are not needed in the presence of such strength. The uncomfortables calm down when she plays the role and they too can go forward. Thabo is happy with the performance. He was never strong enough to bear difficulty, he only followed her lead. They will live like that now. She will hide her real self inside, in a small place, perhaps under her liver or between her vertebrae where no one will think to look, if they even had the inclination to do so. The public side will be the role that all will follow to a place that is as fictitious as their leader, but it will be a slow, soft walk and no one will complain nor scratch below any surfaces. They will not realise the betrayal until very late and by then they will have committed too much and will likely ignore the discovery for their own selfish interests. She doesn’t mind as long as they leave her real self alone in her hidden place. She will play the role to the passing world to smooth the way for everyone around her, but in turn they must let her have her one concession, this is all she asks for; to keep her real self hidden in her small space where she can be free to fall into the infinite black hole of her loss unhindered by niceties.
Months have passed for others, but she is exactly where she was. When the switch fell down on feeling, it appears to have fallen down on time as well. After a week, they stopped mentioning it. The policeman came once, but Johanne took him in the back room to receive his stack of money and then it was over. The case gone. She felt angry about that but said nothing. She had been looking forward to a trial and punishment. She thought maybe that would let her out, turn everything back on, explain to her how she was meant to behave. But it didn’t happen.
She goes to the office. She cooks for Johanne and her children. She talks and smiles in the direction of her friends. But always she is sitting in the coolness of her car covered in silence and a crowd of black children are looking down at the child God sent her to kill. That is where she is night and day, hour after hour, week after week.
She wanders down the road. She’s meant to go to the shop nearby, that’s why she walked instead of taking the car, but somehow she passes it and she continues to walk. She finds herself at the bus rank and there the mother sits behind a plastic table with a mobile pay phone on it. She walks to her, through the dust and the buses, the crowds of people on their way. She wants to tell her that she is the one, to present herself to her. She hopes that she will rage. That is what she is looking for. Fury and rage, sharp as razors, which tear into her skin pulling it wide open exposing flesh and bones, allowing her blood to finally flow freely and let life inside once again.
She is helping a man, giving him change and doesn’t see her at first. “Ke a leboga,” she says handing the money to the old man. Then she looks up and her eyes show that she recognises her.
She steps forward. “I am the one who killed Mphoentle.” She stands with her arms at her side waiting for whatever will come.
“This I know.” Short, small words to stop conversation are all that she is offering.
They wait. They both hold tight to what they want. “I ran your daughter over with my car.”
“I know this. What do you want from me?” she asks looking her full in the eyes. She is brave, this woman.
“Aren’t you angry? Don’t you want to make me pay for what I have done to you?” she encourages her with words that sound useless and weak to her ears. She hopes that she’ll not have to go into detail about what she is looking for.
She looks down and fiddles with the phone. “No. It’s too late for that. All I want is to be left alone. I can’t help you.” She shakes her head and turns away, ignoring her in a hope that she’ll disappear.
She hesitates for a moment. She recognizes something in this black woman’s eyes, something familiar and horrifying. A flat deadness has taken up residence. The eyes for the living have retreated for protection. She knows those left-behind eyes, she sees them every morning. Hesitating, she wants to reach out because she realizes now that their salvation can only be found in that untread no man’s land between them. One of them must take a step forward so that they both can find salvation, but from where they are the strength to move has already dissipated. The strong boundary of colour and pain keep them at their stipulated distance. She realizes that this woman is right, she cannot help her, it is far too late for that.
She turns and stumbles through the dust in the direction of her home as she sits in the coolness of her car, watching the green uniformed children surround her, and she listens as a girl’s blood drips, drips, drips onto the melting black tarmac trapping them forever in the scene of the fulfilment of God’s command.