Celebrating East African Writing!
Written by Andiswa Onke Maqutu
A pair of lifeless feet peeked around the corner of the bed at the open door.
They were encased in black tekkies. Each shoelace was weaved like many that snaked on each other. Their tails neatly tucked into the insides of the shoes. Just like Sisi had taught her. Nanga knew they were Sisi’s pair.
She cradled the brownie she had bought for Sisi to her chest. Caged anxiety pushed against her chest in heaving breaths. Up and down, mimicking her emotions, it lifted and rested.
She remained stationed at the door.
Sisi would always buy a brownie for them to share secretly on the short drive home. Nanga broke the brownie into two unequal pieces. She intended to give Sisi the bigger piece. Just like Sisi always gave her.
She didn’t want Sisi to be upset about the last time they had spoken.
Days before Sisi had caught a cold and the ambulance had had to take her to the hospital for pneumonia, her mother had said that she and tata could not go to Nanga’s school play because tata had to take an important business trip. Her mother was going to keep him company. But Sisi would go watch her in the play, ‘Grasshopper and the Ant.’
“But mama, everyone else is going to bring their parents. Why do I have to go with Sisi? Its not fair!!”
“Nanga, I called Mrs Peplum and explained the situation to her. She said it’s just fine” her mother responded, pacifying her. Mrs Ndyebo had sunk her body in a cloudy bed of lavender foam bath and her face appeared comically bodiless, sticking out of the foamy bubbles. Her daughter had her mother’s skin, like tan leather, and eyes-they looked like someone had simply cut slits in their foreheads.
“But what if my friends think she is my mother! It’s my first school and everyone will be looking.”
“And what would be wrong with that baby? Sisi is like a mother to you” Mrs Ndyebo pacified her daughter behind closed eyes.
“Can she use one of your perfumes, mama? Like this one”, she held the gold bottle up to her mother’s absent attention. “You never use it. It’s still full and Bronwyn’s mother said she loves this one because it is a rare scent they don’t make anymore. Remember mama?” She sprayed the perfume on her pulse points just like her mother had taught her.
“I remember baby.”
“At least let her borrow one of your dresses, mama. Kagiso’s mother is coming to see her and she is just a tree in the play. I am playing the the lazy grasshopper, she’s the main character.
“That’s wonderful Nanga” her mother responded flatly.
“You know Kagiso’s mother works for Natasha’s parents mama”
“I know Nanga” she replied agitated.
“I don’t want people to think I’m like Kagiso! We’re not those black people mama. I don’t want people to think my mother is a maid!”
“Nanga!” her mother’s anger released a wave of bath water which soared from the tub like a fragile glass sheet that shattered into big puddles on the porcelain floor. Her eyes popped out of their sockets, drawing Nanga’s with a frightening look determined to sustain the delicate silence that flooded the room.
Sisi walked into the bathroom. She was carrying clean towels from the laundry.
“Ndize ne mop auntie?” Sisi asked as she skipped over the water on the floor.
“No Sisi, Nanga will get the mop and clean the floor” her voice severe and her eyes never leaving her daughters.
When Sisi was out of ear range Nanga resumed the conversation.
“Well, what if she wears that apron? Or that brown perfume that stains the clothes she keeps in the suitcase with the smelly white little balls? Natasha said her mother said that maids do that to keep insects out of their clothes. “
“Nanga! What did I say to you about calling Sisi a maid?! Sisi is family, she is from our village eDutywa!”
“Oh mama, it’s just a name! What is the big deal?”
“Ndigqibile nawe Nanga! We are done here”
Nanga stormed out the bathroom steaming. She stomped through a cold draft, which her body quickly adjusted to, down the wooden stairs just the way it annoyed her mother. She found Sisi washing dishes in the kitchen.
She analysed Sisi behind glassy eyes and a flaring nose. Sisi’s skin was like fine cocoa granules, darker than Nanga’s mother’s, but they’re figures were almost the same. Slender and short. She was determined to have Sisi wear her mother’s dress to the play.
“Mama says you have to come watch my play at school next week” Nanga announced as she climbed on the granite kitchen counter to get a glass from the cupboard to pour a glass of cranberry juice.
“Yes, it will be nice neh? Kunini, I’ve been helping you do your lines” Sisi said excited. Her voice was horse as though her throat was lined with gravel. Sisi coughed.
Nanga gave her a grim smile and dropped her empty glass into the clean sink.
“Nanga, I just finished washing dishes. Rinse the glass and put it in the cupboard. You know mos.”
“But it’s your job.” The words were out of her mouth before she could grab them back. Nanga struggled to find a suitable apology.
Sisi just stared at her shocked. The words hung like cold stalactites between them. Glasses of tears formed on Sisi’s eyes and the words stung at them until they cracked into tears down her face.
A pungent stench brought Nanga back to the room with the feet.
Pastor Ephraim sat on the edge of the bed facing the window with his back to the door. He had nestled his bulk between the two humps it had created on a grudging and struggling bed. He looked down at the body that belonged to the feet.
“In the name of Jesus, be healed!” a woman’s voice scolded a sickness.
Nanga moved deeper into the room. She wanted to give the voice an owner.
Her eyes confirmed that the voice belonged to Mam’ Hlabane, pastor Ephraim’s wife. Mam’ Hlabane was an imposing woman even in the corner of the room where she had offloaded herself. She poured out of her own red wrap-around dress in a way that made her oily face look inflated and uncomfortable. As she sat there, commanding sickness to leave, she looked down at the body below her.
Between intermittent sobs that raced out of her chest to fuel Mrs Ndyebo’s anger, Sisi said that she felt like everyone looked down on her because she was a domestic worker. The words returned to Nanga burdened with the guilt of that day.
Nanga remembered how Mam’ Hlabane used to pinch her in the soft skin of her armpit when she would stumble over the order of the books of the Old Testament in Sunday school before Sisi had helped her remember them. She imagined how the nails would sink into her soft skin attempting to puncture it. The pain would have Nanga writhing like a distressed worm between Mam’ Hlabane’s fingers, screaming what ever order her adrenaline charged body could think of.
“Genesis, Ex-O-dah, Lee-vee-tee-cahs, Numbahs, Dee-u-to-ro-nom…”
They hadn’t noticed her exploring the contents of the room.
“Jo-sh-oo-wah, Jaa-jiz, Rooth…”
Pastor Ephraim began sternly muttering a prayer in a language that couldn’t have been from this earth.
“Fest Saa-moo-el, Se-cond Saa-moo-el…”
The language stumbled off his tongue with his familiar tenor staccato. But it thumped in alien words at Nanga’s eardrums.
“Fest Kings, Se-cond Kings…”
He spoke this language when the occasion warranted a prayer that spoke directly to God.
“Fest Kro-nee-kes, Se-cond Kro-nee-kes…”
At least that’s what her mother had told her.
Nanga continued to survey the room. The feet extended onto a fair pair of legs.
They lay clumsily apart like a broken pair of wooden pegs.
Then, something that sounded like a clogged drain, reluctantly gurgling oily water, startled Nanga. She dropped the brownie on the floor.
Sisi lay on the floor, below Mam’ Hlabane and Pastor Ephraim.
She cradled a bucket to her face with stick hands. She purged blood with a force that lifted her whole body. The blood crashed against the walls of the bucket with a flushing sound. Nanga wondered if Sisi had anything left inside her body. The smell was unbearable.
But it was nothing like watching Sisi pour out the life from within her.
Between intermittent sobs that raced out of her chest to fuel Mrs Ndyebo’s anger, Sisi had said, that she didn’t want to work for them anymore because of how Nanga had spoken to her.
Nanga had said to Sisi between intermittent sobs that raced out of her chest that she loved her very much.
“Okay Nanga” Sisi whispered as she folded Mr and Mrs Ndyebo’s undergarments.