It is a Sunday of warm breezes and gentle sunshine when he asks you to accompany him to fetch the sheep from beyond the small forest of white-stemmed thorn trees and umpaki. The invitation comes as a surprise. It’s the first time anybody here invites you to do anything like this, though you have been in KwaZaka, your mother’s village home, for three-or-so months. You don’t have any livestock at home – just you and your mother Novuyo. Nobody expects you to go wandering in the veld looking for any.
You pick up the ball you had been playing with – contrived from plastic wrapped around plastic until it’s round and strong enough to kick around – and throw it inside your yard, next to which you’d been playing. You do not tell your mother where you are going, like she told you to do. At fifteen, you don’t see the need; though you’re new here, it would be hard to get lost. People never get lost in the village.
‘How far?’ you ask him.
‘How far do we have to go?’
He looks at you like one tentatively examining a stranger. Slight confusion in his eyes, his expression unfurls into a brief sneer, then a smirk, then mirthful, like one who can’t believe what he’s hearing. That stings.
From where you walk – nearing the end of the line of homesteads, towards the sloping landscape, to the small stream Nkawukazi (the one you’ll cross) and up to the other side – it is easy to gauge the distance, but for one who’s not intimate with the land, you do not know. It was a genuine question – why did he do that?
‘Not far,’ he says, finally.
He looks at you again as you walk, this time with a smile, and nudges you playfully with his elbow. ‘Look at you, softie,’ he teases, ‘look at you wondering about that. Ulivila, ne? Lazy, lazy, lazy. So soft. Soft as a wet corn flake. Corn-flakes-and-rice-boy!’
What he means, what they all mean when they refer to you as corn flakes and rice boy, in jest, a tease (or outright slight) is that you had grown up elsewhere, in some town or city until now. A happening not of your choosing, but one that tinges your days, follows you wherever you go and becomes a joke where, in another place, it wouldn’t be. Here anyone who did not grow up in the village is a corn flakes and rice person. There are Jo’burg girls and Kaapstad boys, just like you are an East London Boy.
There is a small ravine beyond the little forest. A donga, really, a rift. Neither deep nor shallow. Despite the intermittent spring rains, the clay lining its walls is dry and cracked under the insistent spring sun. A thin, low column of freshwater flows in a gentle gurgle in the middle of it like a spine. Its quietness boasts of a place both of clarity and mystery. On the other side of the little rift, a hundred or so sheep, their heads bent to the ground as if glued to the grass they graze.
He beckons you in there by a jut of his head.
The sheep can wait, he says.
Looking you straight in the eyes, the longest time he’s ever done since meeting you, he asks you if you’ve ever kissed a boy.
The question comes out of no place you can think of. You want to tell him to shut his mouth and stop naming your secrets. ‘What?’ you blurt out. Slowly, you smile back. It happens against the weakness of your will. Your smile is unsure, cautious, but steady. Though his words fall into your ear with a ring, his tone is unthreatening, even gentle. Your smile is as unsure of the question as your heart is because you have seen how people can wear the expression he does now and act in the opposite extreme. You can’t help the curiosity bubbling underneath the fear. If he does something to hurt you here, no one will know but you and him, and yet the other possibility is equally likely.
You take the leap. Lean into your intuition. ‘No,’ you say, and return his look, lest your body language betrays you. You don’t know if he’s ever done it with anyone. For you it stayed an image in your mind. A mistake purported by the heat of your desires. No matter. That isn’t something you spend your days wringing your hands about. For someone who’s never kissed anyone, you know a lot about kissing. Old as you think yourselves, you’re a generation whose parents still shout at you to cover your eyes when a sex scene or a kiss happens on the small black and white TV. You peep in between your fingers, like you did as small children, and know what it means for Ridge’s tongue to probe for secrets in the ridges of Brooke’s mouth. You imagine what it must feel like to be Karabo, held by Mandla like she is the most important person in the world. Passion gleaming in their eyes, locked at the mouth as if vowing to never part. Safe in love’s warm embrace.
Now you do not have to imagine it anymore.
when you and Azola kiss it is sloppy tonguey messy
for the chaos of the moment
a flicker of something
a tingle from somewhere
in the shift of your diaphragm
a kindle of nascent embers
difficult to explain
‘Did you like that,’ he asks.
‘Yes,’ you say, nodding, as though words alone are not enough to carry your conviction, to harbour the truth of the feeling. Quietly, privately, you steady yourself from the high of it. ‘Yes, yes, I did. Did you like it?’
He laughs, a nervous chuckle. When he speaks again, it is with the boldness he’d exuded all along. ‘Your first time?’
‘Yes,’ you say, embarrassed. Is it his? You laugh, relieved, when he tells you it’s his first time too. Seated on the dry clay, you put your arm over your knees and draw your legs close to your chest so that your hand covers the crotch of your jeans.
Neither of you talks about it after that.
Days grow into months, years, and so does your desire for, and interest in, each other’s bodies. Your hands meander into parts you believed were kept only for one’s own. By the time you are eighteen years old, you know each other as intimately as you possibly could. Kissing each other does not happen many times after that first time.
It becomes easy for you to canoodle and feel, touch and love, to be, as the years wear on since that first day. Except for the risky secrecy, what you grow to know as your tryst, your own bedrooms, yours in particular, receive you both like they’ve been patiently waiting to witness your togetherness.
You do not develop a language to give life to the feelings inside. Your hands become vessels of communication, your eyes conduits. A code is born, to speak of your wish to see each other later in the school day, when you do not go beyond the little forest. It makes you wonder, sometimes, if the speed with which you got close to each other is what disguises you as friends to everybody else.
can everybody else
it does not occur (perhaps it does)
that maybe nobody
between the walls of that donga
you for who you are
The absence of a girl in the picture – neither of you have a girlfriend – brings no whispered suspicions, yet the what-ifs stick to you like a plaster: a paranoia that stays with you. You never speak of it to him.
Until the last minute.
You don’t hear your mother’s voice calling out your name on the Thursday evening when it happens. The music in your room is louder than you would have it play on any other day. Bongo Maffin bumping on; the song: The Way Kungakhona. What made you more careless is the distance between your room on the eastern side of the homestead and the main house, the furthest rondavel to the west, towards the gate, where your mother sleeps.
So reckless, you had forgotten to lock the door like you always did. The next thing you hear is your name shrouded in the thicket of her screams. Her voice cuts through the music that distends the room, coinciding with the meeting of the tough sole of her shoe against your knuckles, which are on his back.
On your knees, startled, you freeze. Good aim, you think to yourself later.
‘Milani! Milani!’ Her voice is distant and immediate at the same time.
She swishes into the room like a gust of late winter’s wind. Cold and blowing, a witch spitting chill-fury. You don’t know when she took off the other slipper. It missiles across the room to meet the boy’s head with a dull, loud thwack. Her mouth is a well of words cursing him out of her yard forever. Her feet work at your clothes on the floor, such that he takes your vest as he darts for the door, ducking a slap but catching the next one.
On the floor, you stay kneeling as if possessed.
From this moment you know everything has changed. A hard, cold fact slowly takes shape in your mind. Stuck and struck into the chaos of this happening, any departure your life takes from here is now determined, thoroughly, by the fact that you have been seen. By her!
anger boils inside
you like magma
how dare she insinuate herself
twinned with the anger
fear creeps in the shadows
remnants of a nightmare
reeking, dizzying fear
heavy as stone
threatening as a wave
What happened to the boys who went on their knees to savour the muskiness of another boy, the melting feeling as it slipped off the tongue?
There was no one to do the chasing away of your village boy, but your mother.
Father? In East London. Of course. The one who’d sent you to stay with your mother here. Then seemed to have forgotten about you because the boy is too soft, Novuyo. Too soft. It makes me scared for him. It might do him good to be with, you know, boys from the village, with you over there. You know, straighten him up a bit.
She looks at you as if she could send you reeling in the boy’s footsteps.
‘Stand up! Why are you on the floor like that? Get up!’
You fall from your knees and sit on the cold floor.
‘Pull your head up and look at me when I am talking to you.’
Still, you do not move.
‘Get up! Get up and put your clothes on, she pants. Disgrace!’
Only now your mind wakes to the reality of your nakedness, with only your trousers and socks to cover against the shame that washes over you.
She stands glowering and doesn’t say anything. She watches you as you sit on the bed and finish buttoning up your shirt. She looks confused when you spy, from the corner of your eye, her posture akimbo. Is this really her son, she seems to be asking. That’s the question her mouth spits out when eventually she speaks, on the brink of hot tears. It comes out like a statement, a claim.
This time the shame comes as a tide. It leaves you heaving, your head bowed as you sit on the bed, unable to let go of the buttons of your shirt as if thence shall come your salvation: the air you need to survive the next second, then the next and the next.
She leaves the room without another word. The music blares, blurring your thoughts. For a moment, a deep sense of loss settles in the pit of your stomach, at that place where the heat of your first kiss came.
The hue of the night breeze
through the open window behind you
brings you back to
the moment for the first time
of many nights alone
in this room the cold
the trickle of salt water
down your cheeks.
He saw you in one way, and has seen you in a myriad of others, after he followed the meaning of your first meeting, asking you that question which changed everything.
She sees you in another way, different from how she’s seen you before her eyes happened upon the scene.
What do you see?
You begin to feel the weight of other people’s definitions. To ease this weight, you make a decision. It hurts to know that what you have decided won’t happen now.
So, you are not surprised when that is not the only thing that takes its time to happen from that night, that almost a month passes before you can allow yourself to go with him beyond the little forest, back to the beginning.
He tells you how much he’s missed you. You don’t believe him. Me too, you say, the lie grating as it leaves your throat. He detects it, says nothing. You sit side by side in a silence that pushes you both apart.
Then, because he can’t help it, and though you can’t help but want it too, he touches your thigh, reaches for a kiss, fumbles for the button of your pants. Not now, you say, not here.
‘When, then? Why not here? Then where?’
‘I said not here. You almost shout at him.’
‘Not here, where we began?’
‘Oh, don’t be foolish. This is not the time for that sentimental nonsense.’
‘Why did you come, then?’
You pluck a stick of green grass and chew on the sweet lower stem.
(Why come? For this? For him. To see him again, here – like this?)
It is the school holidays, easy to steal this moment without being asked where you have been, or with whom, like your mother has done since that time on your knees. You had to spend every afterschool at home, sick of the questions and deciding to curb them before they came. For a boy as grown as you it is the weirdest thing. As if you had killed someone. A distasteful phrase – as if you had killed someone – it makes you think that you have killed someone. Yourself?
You do not tell her this. You do not tell him this. You try not to tell yourself this.
‘So, it is the time to be scared, then?’ he spits the question with a vicious touch in his voice. Cower behind fear? His brow is the shape of furrows and the black, gleaming colour of anger.
‘How are you not scared?’
‘Four whole years and no one has ever seen us here, and—’
‘Here, yes. But my house? By my mother? Are you insane?’
‘Barely a month. Two, is it?’
‘Listen to yourself!’
He looks at you, eyes full of disbelief, as if accusing you of hating him. He rises and stands in front of you, his face an unreadable orange paint of the late afternoon sun. ‘Talk to me!’ He kicks you on the shin and you almost fall on your back. The sun is slow in its descent, going cool, but not as cool as the ice in his voice, too cold to thaw now, as he prods you again, gently this time, ‘Talk to me, please. Talk to me you fool!’
‘Just look at you, panting like a frog.’
‘Why are you such a coward, Milani?’
‘You may be feeling whatever you are feeling, but you don’t get to call me a fool. Let alone a coward. I am braver than all of you, combined! For knowing exactly who I am. Exactly how and when to act.’
‘What are you even saying? Speak up, I can’t hear you!’ He brings his face close, turning his ear to you, so mocking you can’t miss the meaning.
‘Shut up. Just shut up. You are acting as if the sky is caving. Everything is okay, fine, okay? We just can’t go on. We can’t.’ Tears pool in your eyes. ‘I am sorry, but we can’t go on as before. I can’t go on like this. I hate this. I hate you. I hate this place. I hate everything!’
‘Even yourself?’ he asks.
He stands staring at you, his eyes spitting rage and wicked love. He looks so confused, so pathetic you want to slap him. It is that kind of self-righteousness and entitlement that disgusts you. You’ve always known that he is stubborn and you know that, to him, whatever you say doesn’t make any sense because only he can be right in a disagreement. Conflict drives him mad because it means that he doesn’t always get his way.
It drives you mad that he won’t even try to see things from where you stand.
A loud thwack rings as your hand meets his face. He brushes his cheek, and in a second throws one back and you struggle to breathe, your neck in the tight grip of his arm. You tumble to the ground by the kick of your foot on his shin. Turning and turning and turning – his breath heavy on your neck, revolting to your nose, ears. Heavy words saying nothing, but the truth come from his mouth as you tussle on the ground.
‘I love you. You silly boy, I love you.’
In – from? – the violence erupts a passion you can’t explain. In the nests of your loins, rise things that had brought you here in the first place, had led you to this moment: the conduits of your desire communicating something much deeper than the superficial expression of the protrusions themselves. It is more than physical.
He pins you to the dry, grating ground. You let him, no longer fighting. Since what has happened has happened, the shift from fighting to this other thing you can’t name, for the first time in months, you let him touch you in ways you had thought you would never want again. You want him to touch you like he wants you again. Even though he has told you this many times this afternoon, has begged you with what conviction there could be, fought you for it. Yes, you know love can never be shown that way, but you make your allowances, for him.
you grab and pull his head close to your face with both of your hands he hesitates shakes his head pulls back escaping the gentle cradle of your hands while keeping his position on top of you.
then as if missing something he brings his head back down to meet yours
forehead to forehead your lips touch slightly as if scared should the touch be close it would be too personal and you’d both
His hand reaches for the button of your jeans.
He shakes his head, face contorted in an expression of distance and confusion.
Maybe it is the thought of intimacy, given everything around the moment.
Maybe he is starting to understand what you have been saying all along.
Realising that you could not go on like you used to any longer.
You try and find the words to name this, whatever this is.
he proves you wrong pushing his loose jeans down his legs you and he both get ready for what you have never done before for, as long you have been seeing each other, for as long as you did things that you both never thought you could allow yourselves to do you have never allowed yourselves to get to this part
it hits like an instinct you allow everything to happen.
Desire, the deep blue of the sky behind his head, big and beautiful, and looking as if it could swallow you whole. Passion, the striking purple and mauve colours of sunsets you have spent here together. Fear, red as the tearing of dawn through clouds, though you both know that the beginning is far gone and this, this act is the end.
It is in your movements, the way you hold on to his back as you strip yourself, as if you are scared he might vanish into the afternoon air – a complacent witness. It is in the way you long to kiss his lips again, your chest pangs at his continual refusal, a refusal you do not understand because
he had told you that your lips are the only ones he would kiss his whole life if he had to, sweet and beautiful who would say no to them?
‘Give me your spit, baby,’ he says, his hand before your face, his eyes soft as a dream, filled with melancholy that you cannot bear to at look for two seconds at a time—
his lips meet yours for the first time in a long
when he breaks your virginity
you make a sound
to the pain, but
his greedy tongue
swallows it all.
It is your mother’s brooding that drives you over. She never voices it, but you feel it
in her movements, tense.
in her eyes, red glow.
in her words, putrescent.
There are times when the mother-son bond bends to a breaking point, when the woman realises that she can no longer have the boy to herself. Many of these relationships survive such disturbances, and if lucky, get stronger, finer.
Some do not.
Yours falls into the latter category.
Nothing will ever be the same again. She isn’t of an agile mind and easy conscience. She will take her time to come around, and even when she does, the cracks will still be there, ready to deepen at the slightest provocation. What will be the final push for her before she snaps and you are back here again: where you would have started. This poor semblance of the ghost of what you once were?
It happens on the second Monday that follows your last time with him in the little ravine. Sun hot, wind still, soil vibrant with the sun’s energy, burning under the soles of your shoes, the dust soiling the shoe fabric, brown as desert sand. The rains haven’t come for two weeks.
You ask him to walk with you to the spaza shop up the village, the one in front of the stop, by the gravel road that leads to Ngqeleni. You know what he is capable of, now. He could cause a scene and attract unwanted eyes, most of all your mother’s. So, you ask him to walk with you.
He does the opposite of what you expected. ‘Please don’t go. Baby, please don’t go,’ he says.
‘Don’t call me that.’ You push him off, a little harder than you had intended. ‘What are people going to say?’
‘I don’t care what people think, Mil. I don’t care about any of them anymore.’ His voice breaks.
Oh, God! You sigh. Why! ‘Why are you crying?!’ You’re so incensed by his manipulation you could slap him. In his eyes there’s a glint of pain like the roving flash of a lighthouse behind the fog.
He opens his mouth to speak, out comes a sob. ‘I’m trying, man. I’m really trying.’
‘Just stop. Let’s go!’
It is to your fortune that it is not, at least today, a busy road, though it cuts in between the homesteads. You’ll reach the shop soon. He is wiping tears with the back of his hand. To your far right, a thick cloud of dust rises, a cape over the earth, signalling the coming of a van, a car, anything to hop into on the way to town.
‘This is exactly why I have to go. I can’t breathe here. You need to let me go.’ You hold tears back.
‘There is no one like you here, Milani,’ he cries. ‘Baby, please. Mil, man, please. Please don’t go.’
‘I told you everything. I told you the last time we were together. I just told you now. You think this is the kind of place that someone like me can live in? With everyone – here?’
‘But I am someone like you.’
‘With my mother?’
‘I am you.’
‘No, you’re not.’
He looks at you, astonished.
‘I couldn’t. Never. If I did, only my flesh and bones would live, but my soul would be dead. That’s not the kind of death I ever want to experience. I choose my life, Azola. I choose myself. I have died in this place, and to live again I must go elsewhere. I have to go back.’
You can’t help the tears. They stream down your cheeks like witnesses, into your mouth and you taste the salt of your own words.
‘Where will you go?’
‘Where I came from.’
‘I’ll find my way.’
‘How am I to live, now, without you?’
‘Come with me, Azola.’
‘You know I can’t go. I can’t.’
You look at him for the last time. You will never see each other again. His brown eyes confirm the feeling. The roundness of his face rolls with a new innocence; one, you realise, had been taken for granted all this time: the thing that has always made him so beautiful.
The point of no return. You could break your heart in two and leave one half with him, but you wouldn’t do that. To live, you have to leave whole. Still, there are many parts of you that stay with him.
Not a complete loss.
A white van appears from the thicket of dust like a ghost through a storm.
Face wet, hands insufficient to wipe away the spectacle.
From across the road a group of boys your age approach, as many to make a soccer team, carrying three buckets that no doubt contains umqombothi, bought from MaNyawuza’s, the fiercest brewer in the whole of the two villages.
‘I love you.’ For the first time since meeting, since touching, wanting, yes, loving each other, you hear yourself say those words.
You and Azola lock in a hug before the eyes of other people.
the boys holler and snigger
curse, hurl insults like stones
you kiss a tear-drenched wet and salty kiss
even more crudely
are so stunned
they stand, watch
In that warm embrace you know the love he feels for you. In the stolen, rushed moments you shared, hugs fell through and weren’t a frequent way of expressing affection. It is this that assures you he will be alright, that he means it when he says he’ll be alright. He meant it when he said he didn’t care what people thought.
‘Go well,’ he says, letting go.
Anathi Jongilanga is from Ngqeleni, South Africa. His work, as writer and editor, appears at Praxis Magazine Online, The Kalahari Review, Brittle Paper, Lolwe and Transition. He tweets at @anathijay.
Image (c) Brandon Bean/Unsplash