To know the man you love, he must die.
I think that is why Papa died. Everyone says it was a car accident that killed him; that he was driving too fast for three am. He was returning from a funeral in Zeerust when he bumped into a bull that was so angry at him for killing it, it put one of its horns through his neck to kill him back. Death attacks the dying and the ones they leave behind.
Since papa was a mangled face, the police found his name and our home between his things. Our telephone number written into a small black book Papa kept in his cubbyhole for emergencies. When they called Mama, she did not make the animal in her body howl; or grow teeth; or disfigure her animal by throwing it at the loss. She rose from the phone after she had said many broken yes’s and a thank you; and called out to my brother, Tlali, and I.
We climbed down from our rooms-black marbles thrown from a rootless hand, down the stairs, and into the dining room. Into the bad luck. Mama did not turn to look at us, She sat like a pink diamond at the table. Her dress stole the light in the room and returned it to us, shimmering. It did this again and again until she looked like she was spinning in the chair, all the while never looking away from the white wall- washed once a week by one of the two helpers who were on duty that week.
Tlali pushed past me to sit on my left. I sat next to him, but kept the chair between us open because we always needed an empty space between us. We sat at the table across from mama, watching her dress eat the light and spit it back out. A festival feeding on the house and feeding the house. Mama looked as fragile as powder, so fine, so beautiful.
She leaned further back into the chair, put her arms under the table as if to run from the light or give the news more room. It is only an elders’ mouth that can digest death, halve it and share it between people, over and over again.
“Your father” she swallowed, perhaps to delay the dead father we would have to carry in our bodies forever. She must have known that once you have been visited by loss, it is difficult to keep the body loose enough for love.
“Your father,” she said again and continued spinning, except this time her mouth faced us to speak, it did not split from the air.
“They said it was an accident. he’s dead.” She handed us our dead father
“I mean passed on,” she corrected, passing the words to the empty chair between Tlali and I.
“Gone,” as if ‘gone’ was further away than ‘dead’ or ‘passed on’.
I threw my animal at the white wall, lost my shape to the spinning and the constant stealing of the light.
“No,no,no,no” I kept repeating, casting a come back spell
Tlali, still in his chair, took his pain into his body-crying without sound or breath.He lifted the maroon neck of his t-shirt and wiped the dying boy on his face.
“No, no, no…”
Mama did not cry.
“…Why him and not you?”
Mama got up from her chair and came to meet me with her arms. “Come,” she said, opening to me. Her arms closed around me like a metal clamp.
Mama is the kind of person who cannot keep warmth, she cannot borrow it from touching or being with other people. Her arms opened wider, calling Tlali in too. She bolted herself around us for duty; but duty is not love. It cannot be heated, nor does it need love to cause it. But children need to feel loved to know what to call the compassions between people. Mama held us like she had held us in pictures when we were younger, with as little of her body and hands as possible. And like the people in the pictures we were all startled by the touching-which was always moving away, or counting down when it could leave for someplace else.
It is not a secret that mama never wanted children. She may have wanted a husband, and luxury holidays, and dresses whose names she’d pronounce wrong the first time. She knew that if she decided on a husband she would have to accept that a husband did not come without a home, and a home would need to be filled. So when Papa needed filling, she filled him. She had Tlali and then she had me, to keep him and her home-which was two storey’s high. It was the only house of its size in our street. She loved how it spread and lengthened over our neighbours, mirroring her own prideful shape.
Reader, although I am sixteen and only a girl, I have read a lot of books and I have been watching the adults long enough to know that people are formed in one of two ways: some people grow from the heart out, and others grow from the bones in-they begin hard and must choose softness, everyday. Mama must have grown from the bones in. It is why she is beautiful but a person like that cannot be soft too long. It hurts them. So when mama let go of Tlali and I, tearing quickly up the stairs, I understood.