The sun is sinking into the horizon as our steam train, its whistle blowing, enters Kroonstad. Mom stands up. Carefully, she buttons her wool sweater, brushes it, and moves close to the door. I remove our luggage from the shelf above our seats, and just as I’m taking the last cardboard box, the train stops. Mom gets off and I pass her our luggage through the window. I check if we’ve collected all our belongings, then elbow my way out of the packed third-class coach. We head for the waiting room at the back of the first platform.
Mom and I started this journey two years ago.
“We have to find your father,” she’d said.>
She’s never received any money from Dad, who’s supposed to be at the Welkom mines, and the boxes which contain most of our belongings have got lighter and lighter. We can’t afford to buy anything.
“Let’s first find the waiting room, then we can rest.”
“Rest? We are a long way from that.” I turn to her and add, “Anyway, I no longer know what rest means.”
We walk past a boy selling peanuts. Mom shakes her head as another boy tries to sell us a bottle of orange juice. We hurry past three white policemen. Farther down, the first platform is crowded with Blacks. A preacher yells the name of Jesus and waves a Bible in the air. Again, we pick up our pace as we pass two Christian men who stop random passengers. They could be real Christians spreading the word of God, or criminals disguised as Christians, but whoever they are, we do not want to talk to them. We go around a corner into a narrow street. At the end of the block, we reach a room marked with a figure of a person painted in black, and big letters saying, “Non-Whites.” A little distance away, three men are sitting on bricks and smoking cigarettes. I remind Mom that I have to watch our boxes the whole night.
She stops and says, “My child, the gods will never turn away from us.”
I show her into the room without saying a word. Before Dad disappeared, she used to say, “God, our Heavenly Father,” instead of “the gods.” But when we prayed, with the help of our Protestant priest, and God didn’t answer our prayer for Dad to write us, she stopped saying “God.” She said, “Jesus, the way, the truth, and the light is the only one who will redeem us.” At that time, she had joined The Church of Christ, and as they say, she was “born-again and saved.” But she wasn’t really saved — Dad didn’t call or write — and we were running out of the savings we had from the last money that he sent. Mom was carrying the Bible wherever she went. She tried to “save” me but I refused. The money I made from tending people’s gardens wasn’t enough for me to pay the church dues.
A spiritual healer pitched her tent in town and all the neighbours sent their sick to be cured by her holy water. The healer cured the bleeding disorder that my cousin, Mpho, had, so Mom decided to try her. Drinking the healer’s water was supposed to cleanse Mom so that Dad could be enchanted, and return home. Mom finished ten gallons in a month but Dad didn’t come home. I drank the water once when I was too lazy to go to the only tap that supplied my street. Mom was happy about it and she saw the spiritual healer the next day. Later she gave up drinking the water.
Then she was back to saying her old line, “God, the Heavenly Father,” because the Catholic priest, once my high school teacher, had asked her to go to Mass. He met Mom and me at the church’s used-clothes sale and told her that the cheap clothes we bought were a gift from God.
“God cares for all his children, especially the poor,” he said.
Mom got a Rosary and prayed for the help of Holy Mary. Her line changed to, “Holy Mary, mother of God.” But that didn’t last too long. Our food ran out. The garage manager had fired me from my job as a gas attendant and the wealthy people in the neighbourhood stopped hiring Mom to do their laundry. On our third day without food, Granny came to visit us. Granny, who believes in African medicine, took off the poster of Holy Mary in my mother’s room. She had just received her monthly senior’s pension so Mom and I listened to her. She gave Mom some money for food and said that the next day we should wake up before sunrise because she was going to take us to an African medicine man.
“I arranged for you a good marriage with a man from a nice family so that my grandchildren would never starve. But I think somebody put a bad curse on you, my child. There is a dark cloud sitting above this house and until we call on our gods to bring strong winds to blow the cloud away, your child will stay hungry,” Granny said. Mom took the money from Granny and said we would be up early the next day.
We did see the medicine man before we left on our journey. And now here we are entering a dimly lit waiting room. An intense smell of stale urine stings my nose. Mom goes around a puddle of water on the floor. A group of miners drink beer in a circle. We jump a drunkard stretched out on the floor and sit in a corner across from the miners. I know they are miners because they have their mining identification numbers marked on their wrist straps. Most of them are wearing Union shirts that say, A Living Wage For All Workers.
“When did they last repair this waiting room? Look at all the paint peeling off the walls,” a miner says.
“Yes, we have to piss outside because the pipes of the toilet in here have never been fixed. It’s like at the mines, the Blacks’ toilets are always in a horrible state,” another miner says, scratching his bald head.
“What are you guys complaining about? You know that you are the ones who dirty the toilets and break everything. Look up at those two lights without bulbs. I bet that someone is selling them somewhere in the streets.”
“Do you remember how you lost your upper teeth? If you keep talking badly about your own, we’ll have to call Skip to knock out your lower teeth too. You know he cannot stand any attacks on Blacks.” The bald miner slaps him on the leg.
The miner falls silent and takes a big puff from his pipe. He deals cards to the other miners and they go on with their game. Mother is snoring next to me. Now and then, I fix the travelling-shawl around her neck, to remind the miners that I’m here and will not let anyone tamper with her. One of the women in the room keeps walking around to quiet the baby she’s carrying on her back. When the baby stops crying, she sits down and starts knitting something in the colours of the banned African National Congress. If the police caught her, she could be arrested. She seems to be worried only about her kerchief, which she keeps tying and untying on her head. The other woman in the room, who’s young and slim, keeps frowning as the miners compliment her on her legs. Unlike my mother and the knitting woman, she is wearing high-heel shoes, a short skirt, and has nothing on her head. She pulls a magazine out of her bag and hides her heavily made-up face. A miner with an earring in his ear sits down next to her and hugs her.
“Get away from me. I’m a married woman, with two kids.” “I don’t see the ring.”
“Rings are for Whites. My husband, like my forefathers, paid the lobola. That was my wedding ring. It’s none of your business anyway; just get away from me.” She moves away from him.
“Don’t be rude, woman. I’m talking nicely to you.”
“You don’t have to hug me to talk to me; you’re the one teaching me to be rude.”
“Guys, did you hear that? She says she’s too good for us to touch her.” Again, he tries to hug her. She takes her bag and leaves the waiting room.
“Don’t worry man, you will find your wife waiting for you when you get home. Besides, you made money in the mines so you could get more women in your village,” the bald miner says.
“How can you say that in front of the women here?” the knitting woman asks in shock.
“It’s a slip of the tongue. I’m sorry,” he says respectfully.
I think the miners respect this woman because she shows her association with the banned political movement; she must be the wife of a political prisoner. They don’t harass her, but they might latch on to my mother. One of them moves close to her. I pull my hat deeper to hide my boyish face and try to look like the rough guys in my town. Once again, I fix the shawl around my mother’s neck, then turn around so that the man sees the scar on my left cheek. Most boys get such from knife cuts in street fights; he will not guess I got mine from a pan my mother had once thrown at me. After a little while, the man moves away from us.
As my mother cuddles and snores beside me, I, now her guard, remember how hard she raised me. Once, when I was hungry, she refused to give me one of the two slices of bread left in the house. I started crying and she beat me with a slipper. When I didn’t stop, she pinched my thighs until they were pale and then sent me outside. It was dark. With my eyes full of tears, the starry sky looked pretty, but dusty winds blew into my eyes and I hated being outside. The dust came into my ears, nose, and mouth. I had been swallowing my spit to forget my hunger, but now my mouth was full of dust. I sat on our stoop thinking I would die. Stray dogs growled around the corner. Mom called me back in the house long after the dogs had stopped growling. She usually made me wash myself but that night she washed me and let me sleep on her bed and not on my spot on the floor. The next day she gave me all the bread. Then there was no food in the house for two days until Dad came home. Although I’m taking care of her tonight, I know that she’s my mother, who has been in charge of me and caring for me for as far back as I can remember.
The miners’ talk about women reminds me of a fight that Mom and Dad once had. He came home drunk and they started arguing. It was about Dad not bringing enough money home and about him sharing blankets with other men. Mom said the women in our neighbourhood talked about miners doing it with other men when they live far away from home in their all-male hostels. She said she was scared of Dad being involved with those men, and maybe bringing sickness home. Mom kept yelling at him because he was too drunk to say anything. Then he slapped her. She banged him on the head with a pan. I asked her to stop and she threw the pan at me. That’s how I got this scar. The cut wouldn’t stop bleeding. She took me to the township clinic. The nurse tended to me before taking care of the two women ahead of me. When we got home, Mom asked me to help her put Dad in bed, then she rubbed my head until I fell asleep. I remember I was eight then because she told me that the next day was my ninth birthday. I wasn’t the only kid who got beaten by his mother. I remember when Tebogo’s mother beat him and Thabo.
“Are you boys dogs? Talk to me,” Tebogo’s mother yelled as she beat them. “Why are you two eating each other? Talk to me,” she yelled in between the whipping.
I had heard older boys talking about the joys of eating girls with good legs and backsides so I didn’t understand why Tebogo’s mother was beating these two boys for having fun. But I was happy I didn’t eat other boys because the next year Tebogo died and Mom told me that if I ate other boys, I too would die. Then, another time, I got angry with a girl down my street. I pinned her to the ground. As I sat on her about to slap her, all the big boys laughed so I just left her alone. When Mom heard about it she beat me. She said fighting a girl to the ground is as bad as eating other boys. I think about these things as I watch how all these miners cannot wait to meet their women. I picture my father as one of those going home, perhaps after sharing blankets with other miners. If Dad did go to bed with them, he could have ended up like Tebogo. Although I don’t understand how a boy can die from sharing a bed with another boy, I still believe it is true because Mom told me so. I understand why Mom was so mad when she fought Dad. People say alcohol kills so that night Dad was guilty of harming himself in two ways.
The wind is blowing through the cracked windows. The bare cement floor feels cold. All the miners, except two who have not been drinking, are crouching on the wooden seats. I put my cold feet under my mother’s shawl. She pulls them close to her. The clock strikes four.
“Three hours until the next train.”
“You’re as muscular as your father was when I met him.” She rubs my calf.
“I don’t know if I can take three more hours, but I’ll rest my head on the boxes so that if I fall asleep, no one will steal them,” I say, ignoring her comment. I don’t really like to be compared to my father, whom the mines have kept from raising me and loving my mother.
“We’re in the guidance of our gods,” she says.
She reminds me of the morning when Granny took us to the medicine man. We left home around five o’clock. Men who were not working at the mines were waiting in long lines to catch the buses to the factories in town. We arrived at the village just before sunrise. Little clouds of dust rose above the ground as women and young girls swept their yards. In the yard of the medicine man, a woman directed us around the swept part into a hut where the medicine man sat blowing a horn. His heels were hard and cracked, as if he never wore shoes. Everything about him was big, even his eyelashes. He rose and asked us to sit down.
“Mrs Mothudi, you are the one who has been preventing my snake from resting,” he said to my mother. We all laughed.
“I could tell that someone was on the way here. Has every morning been fine?” He looked as old as my father.
“It is not only your snake but also my daughter who has not been resting,” Granny said.
“What unpleasant words,” he said, opening a leather pouch with bones.
He took off his hat. His uncombed hair was bushy, but clean. He took the bones, held them out to Mom, and asked her to blow into them. He then hit his hands against my knees and threw the bones on the floor. “The lion’s canine fell on its root. The monkey’s nail is down. And do you see the man’s vertebra?” he asked, pointing at a bone a little smaller than half of my fist.
“That vertebra travels alone. What did you do to your husband?” “We are here because he hasn’t returned home.”
“Pick up the bones and throw them.”
Shaking, my mother’s thin hands picked up one bone at a time. I looked up at the roof and for the first time noticed the crocodile skin. The skins of wild cats hung on the walls to my right and quills of all kinds of birds to my left. Dried plants covered the wall in front of me. The medicine man sat on fresh branches.
“Use both hands to pick the bones. Now blow and throw them. Talk to them as you throw them. Say what you want from them.” He followed Mom’s fingers as she picked up the bones.
“The bones, our link to our ancestors, talk to us. I cannot see his exact location. The tail of the wild pig is in the air. He’s inside the earth at this very moment.”
“I couldn’t hear a word you said,” my mother stammered.
“Your husband works in the mines, right? All that the bones tell me is that he’s inside the earth; I do not know how long he’s been there, and if he’s alive. But, when the wild pig raises his tail into the air, there is trouble.”
“If he’s dead, we should at least bury his body in his hometown,” Granny said. “A person, even if his soul and body have been sucked by the forces of this earth, cannot be deserted.”
This was when Mom said, “We have to find your father.”
Over two years of searching, I’ve grown more determined to find him, though mother now thinks, if we find anything of Dad on this earth, it will not be his healthy youth, but his wrecked body.
At seven, we climb into the train to Welkom. The train puffs smoke and chips of coal into the air. A man sitting across from us looks out the window and a coal chip gets in his eye. Tears fill his blinking eye. Mom opens it with her fingers. She tests her blowing on her hand, and then blows into the man’s eye.
“Is it out?” she asks. “No.”
“Open your eye again,” she says. She opens it wider with her fingers.
“Now it must be out,” he says.
Mom takes a bottle of water from our box. She wets a clean cloth and
places it on the man’s eye.
“Thanks. I don’t know what I would have done without you. Where are you going?”
“We are going to Welkom to find his father,” Mom says, pointing at me.
“I work at one of the mines there. What is his name?”
“Mothudi. His first name is Modiri.”
“I was thinking that this boy looks like someone I knew.”
There is a moment of silence. Then the man clears his throat.
“Your father is down in the mines. The work ate his soul. He sat late at night thinking about your mother. He started drinking and then mixing with prostitutes. He couldn’t send money because he had to pay his drinking bills and the women. But he did talk about your mother. His body couldn’t hold him anymore and he slipped into an acid dam deep in the bowels of the earth. The mine swallowed and digested him.” He tells us this in a single breath.
“Are you talking about Mothudi who worked there for about twenty years? Yes, twenty. He started working in the mine when this boy was born.”
“No, he worked there for seventeen years,” he says. “I’m seventeen now, Mom.”
Mom doesn’t say anything. Two months ago, she gave me a goodnight kiss and reminded me that the next day was my seventeenth birthday. At the next stop, she puts on her sweater and says we should get off. But then I notice that she’s wearing her sweater inside out. I take a breath and ask, “Where are we going?”
“This world has turned inside out without warning. I do not know.” She pauses. Looking into the distance, she shrugs her shoulders and repeats, “I do not know. I have always followed a man.”
Artwork by Greatjoy Ndlovu