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Authors: Diane Awerbuck,Louis Greenberg

The Ghost-Eater and Other Stories (2 page)

BOOK: The Ghost-Eater and Other Stories
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– Como se chama?

– Sylvestro.

– Muito obrigado, Sylvestro.

He looks at me. Then he grabs his face and gnashes his teeth in silence, and is gone.

– He'll put the fear of God in you next, says the doctor, and we go inside.

 

*

 

The banda was full of books. Histories, philosophies, collections of feminist theory, medical textbooks in English and Portuguese. We collapsed into that place, sank into its bed and its chairs, and breathed. Four months of movement caught us by the ankles and we lay still, bothered by nothing but mosquitoes. We ate peanut butter and bread with tomatoes, shared on the stoep with the Americans. The water was not far. The doctor talked softly of the problems there, malaria and aids and no schools. A group of children stood some way off and watched us. The doctor called to them and they started laughing and ran off. The lake is so wide and so long that from that shore you can see no other piece of land than Likoma, except on the clearest of days. The knowledge of hills and trees remains, but only just. Mozambique and Malawi mean nothing.

 

In the morning, I swim, and watch the small boy and his brothers and friends as they leap from each other's shoulders. They open their eyes underwater and pull themselves along the sand, legs trailing. One grabs my knees and knocks me over and his friends shout and laugh, then climb onto my shoulders, the better to leap.

 

*

 

That afternoon, we ride into town to get on the bakkie and go south. Negotiations ensue to make sure there is space for the bike – the roads are impassable except by heavy cars. We wait and drink tea and eat the small bananas. People gather slowly around the bakkie, talk to the driver, put bags in the back, take them off. The buildings are wet from rain in the night and, while we wait, it rains again. It is not the kind of rain you can stand under; the streets empty. Afterwards, we sit watching people come out from wherever they found shelter. I look at her where she sits next to me – I think she was reading, though I can't remember what – and things feel as they should. My limbs are loose and the air is not so hot – I can think, and breathe. Her hand is on my knee. I think about where we are going. The Unknown, we call it. I imagine it smiling, not like the Jesus in the
Children's Illustrated Bible,
but like a monkey, or a child that has got hold of her mother's lipstick. Mute and thinking of something delicious.

She looks up, but not at me.

– Hey, check, the bakkie is driving off.

We watch it go down the road toward the doctors' bandas. The grass is taller than the sides of the truck bed.

– It must be going to fetch someone.

– Ja. I wonder when we'll leave. The train leaves Cuamba in two days.

– But if we miss that one we can get the one on Thursday.

She laughs.

– I don't even know what day it is today. Is it Sunday?

– Maybe. I think so? I hope so.

– Either way we'll get the train eventually and end up somewhere eventually too.

– Senhor! Senhora!

The boy, Sylvestro, is running at us, waving. He has a book in his hands. We wave at him and he stops in front us, panting.

– Book, he says, offering it to me. It is something I was reading, about Ethiopia.
A Far Country
.

– Sylvestro, obrigado! I forgot it. Obrigado, amigo.

Like the immigration officer, he clasps his hands on his small belly and, like him, he beams.

– De nada.

Then, though I want to say more, he is off again, mud flicking up from his heels. Her hand tightens on my knee as we watch the boy running off, to the lake, because where else does a boy go on a day like today?

 

Here there should be an interlude: a pause in which we can gather our breaths, make quiet notes about what we see and what we think, how the mud feels inside our sandals, and how the bananas taste. Is the bakkie black, or is it blue? Is the church painted or only burned? Do the women wear wraps or do they wear skirts? How heavy is your backpack? If you were to miss the train would you be happy to wander in a new town until the next one, and if the bakkie breaks down will you be able to help the men fix it? Did the rain clean the dust from the bike? And is there mist, or only the hills? But there is no pause, and none of these things are reliably recorded. I feel for them now in the dark, knowing they are lost to me, they are insects that hit the windscreen and left nothing but a streak of grey shit.
Shit,
I think.

 

And so the bakkie came back into view. It lurched around a corner, up the hill towards the concrete church. But the mud was thick and gritty and the wheels didn't stick and the driver couldn't hold the turn. A woman jumped out of the way, someone shouted, but Sylvestro was running and didn't look up, and the small body collapsed under the truck as though it was on a lever, as though it was a domino. The truck skidded across the place where the roads met and the engine died, but the small body didn't get up and the yellow T-shirt was brown.

– Oh, God, oh, God, she was saying. We were running.

Nothing came to me. No thoughts. I could see a man on a motorbike going fast towards the makeshift hospital. I could see my hands and the mud on them, and I saw the small face and the crocodile teeth, and then the crowd had me out of the way and all was noise and mud and the colours of people's clothes.

And then we are at a bedside in the hospital. He is lying there, and his mother stands by him, silent now. His chest heaves. Her headdress and her wrap are made from fabric printed with Obama's face in yellow and blue and green, Obama smiling black and white. I stare at him. I remember sweet bread rolls sold in Tanzania called Obamas. Obamas, why were they called that, was it a joke or an honour, Obama the Bun? I look up. The doctor stands at the end of the bed gripping the railing there and looking with unfocused eyes at the boy, at Sylvestro. I look, too.

Again, his chest heaves. And then he is still. His mother speaks and even now I cannot say what language she spoke in, or for how long, or what the words sounded like. As she speaks she releases her boy's hand and unwinds her headdress. Fractions of Obama's face become whole Obama faces as she untwists it and unfolds it. Perhaps it takes a minute, perhaps seventeen, perhaps she is still there unwinding her headdress printed with the face of Obama, but it is not Mandela or Nyerere, it is Obama. When it is finished she pulls the cloth over her son and I watch her bare head bow. The boy becomes invisible under the green and blue and black and the thin line of text along its edge: URAFIKI TANZANIA PRINTED KHANGA FTC DES NO. 638.

Talking to Mama Mfundisi
Makhosazana Xaba

 

She walked faster and faster as she turned the corner, her heart needing to escape her chest. When she pressed the buzzer, she noticed that her hands were shaking.

‘Have you just seen a ghost, Sebenzile? What happened?'

Sebenzile swallowed, cleared her throat, tried to utter a word but it got stuck in her throat, looked down and started walking alongside Mrs Ndlovu. Today Mrs Ndlovu looked just like all the women who come to her husband's church; she was wearing her church uniform. A humble woman indeed, Sebenzile thought. She never distinguishes herself as some wives of pastors are known to do. The front door was wide open. Mrs Ndlovu ushered Sebenzile in with her open hands.

‘Let's go to the kitchen and have a cup of tea.'

A much younger woman in familiar domestic workers' clothes appeared from the back door, greeted them and started getting ready to make tea.

‘Thank you, Mama. I'm sorry for coming here so early. I just couldn't sleep so I thought the sooner I came, the better it would be.'

Mrs Ndlovu sat down across the table from Sebenzile and simply looked at her, a gentle smile on her face.

‘Ma Mfundisi, I don't know where to start.'

‘Take your time.'

‘I really don't know how this could have happened.'

‘What happened?'

‘The death.'

‘Whose death?'

‘That little girl, Andiswa, Mama Mfundisi.'

Mrs Ndlovu was used to this, women her age and older calling her mama just because she was married to a pastor. Sebenzile looked definitely younger than her, maybe five years? She liked Sebenzile. She had seen her many times in the church and she stood out because of her commitment to community work outside of the church. She always volunteered and worked hard whenever they had campaigns and big events. She arrived early and left late but Mrs Ndlovu had never had a personal conversation with her.

‘Andiswa who? Do I know her? Sebenzile, why don't you start from the beginning.'

‘Andiswa's mother, Lumka, works for those white people who are always going away. She says they work in other countries a lot so they leave her alone in the house with her daughter Andiswa. She has been thinking of looking for another job now because she is so afraid of being left alone in that big house. But abelungu bakhe were home for Christmas holiday and they stayed for a long time this time. They were planning to start their travels in February.'

The young woman brought a tray and put it on the table. A plate of rusks accompanied the rooibos tea.

‘Siyabonga, Phaphamile.' Phaphamile smiled and turned to leave.

‘Yes, Sebenzile, continue. And help yourself to the tea. I love Ouma rusks. I hope you like them too.'

‘Oh, I do, Ma Mfundisi. I can even bake them. My madam taught me how.'

‘Wow, I am impressed. You need to teach Phaphamile.'

‘I will do that happily, Ma.'

‘Continue.'

‘So on the first day of school, I went with my daughter, Khwezi, as usual to pick up Andiswa and walk them to school. They are in the same class, grade three, this year. Lumka and I always take turns walking the girls to their school, Observatory Girls'. One week on, one week off. We have been doing this since our girls started school.'

‘Oh, that's a supportive system.'

‘On this first day, when Khwezi and I arrived at their gate, there was just chaos. Andiswa was lying down with a blanket over her and Lumka was weeping uncontrollably over her body and her madam and his husband were both on their cellphones. All four dogs were barking and we were just so confused.'

‘No!'

‘Yes, Mama. When Lumka noticed me she started shouting in between her sobs: “The gate! The gate!”'

‘“The gate”? What did she mean?'

‘Oh, I can still hear her now: “The gate! It's the gate! I told them about the gate!”'

Sebenzile started weeping.

Mrs Ndlovu stood up and came around the table to put her arms over Sebenzile and started to pray aloud. Sebenzile cried louder and louder at first and Mrs Ndlovu raised her voice to match Sebenzile's volume and at some point simply repeated the words ‘Yiba nabo, Nkosi' or ‘Hlala nabo, Nkulunkulu waphakade' or ‘Yehlis' umoya wakho, Nkosi yamazulu' or ‘Bafukamele, Jehova.'

Phaphamile, who could hear the conversation from the back veranda, walked into the kitchen when she heard the loud cries and Mama Mfundisi's voice getting louder and louder over the wailing. She had heard about the girl who was killed in her school uniform by a big wrought-iron gate that fell on her. The women in Phaphamile's stokvel had prayed for the girl and her mother. Since she heard the story, she stopped using the big wrought-iron gate at Mama Mfundisi's home. She always used the small wooden, manual pedestrian gate which was locked with a padlock to which she also kept a key. Some Houghton homes have these smaller pedestrian gates just as some have small rooms for security guards. Mrs Ndlovu once said to Phaphamile that she does not ever want to have a security guard looking after their home because that would mean that they do not trust the Almighty.

‘But you have the big wrought-iron gate and a high wall, Mama,' Phaphamile had challenged her employer.

‘We found those here when we moved in. The Lord chose this home for us.'

Phaphamile remembered this conversation as she stood there. She watched the two women and started crying as well. She stepped close to the table, pulled out a chair and sat down to cry. In time Mrs Ndlovu shook Sebenzile's shoulders in a comforting way, put her right cheek over her head, wiped her own tears and came round the table to sit. The three women sat around the table, each crying silently now.

Phaphamile broke the silence. ‘Is it true that abelungu bakhe paid for the funeral and made her go home to Cofimvaba in an aeroplane?'

‘Yes, it's true.'

‘Oh, may the Lord bless them. How many white people can do that?' asked Mrs Ndlovu.

‘Mama Mfundisi, what is the point of flying home to East London when there is no one with money to fetch you from the airport? What is the point of that?' asked Sebenzile, her voice getting louder and louder.

‘Sebenzile, kubongwa okuncane, kubongwe okukhulu. But, you still haven't told me how this accident happened exactly.'

‘The women in my stokvel said the girl was also bitten by the dogs. Is that true?' Phaphamile asked.

‘Oh no, that's a lie.'

‘Tell us the truth, Sebenzile,' Mrs Ndlovu said in an encouraging tone.

‘Mama Mfundisi, what I know is that when I arrived that morning there was just chaos, as I said. Later, when things had calmed down, Lumka told me that Andiswa was so excited about starting grade three that she had been ready long before the time and asked her mother if she could wait for us outside the gate. Lumka gave her permission and as usual Andiswa opened the gate using the remote control button next to the front door inside the house and ran. The next thing Lumka heard were dogs barking. This was unusual because the dogs know Andiswa. They always walk with her to the gate and she plays with them sometimes. So when Lumka heard the barking she went outside to check what was happening. And there she was, Andiswa under this heavy, heavy, gate and the dogs all around, all five of them barking as if they had gone crazy.'

BOOK: The Ghost-Eater and Other Stories
3.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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