Last Evening’s Call with Mother by Melusi Nkomo
Shortlisted for the Wasafiri New Writing Prize 2018
I’m having a drink on my balcony. The lights from Zürich and surrounding villages coruscate a prism of dreamy colors on the lake. The air is still and there’s no wind. If I weren’t used to this kind of stillness, a stillness that engulfs the villages every evening, I would be scared. It bullies the place into an ever-thinning, low murmur. A passing car, the pubescent laughter from the teenagers next door, once in a while disturbs the calm.
A fat evening-jogger chugs up a steep path nearby. It’s a hard slog – I can still hear his deep heaving meters later, as he struggles up the road, Dickermannstrasse, and down towards the shore. I’m not sure if it’s the drinks or the music. But with each of the jogger’s tortuous snorts, my mind also trudges back to 1994, sometimes 1995, 1996 and 2000, in Amaveni, my birthplace in Zimbabwe. It’s a maudlin, biting, and occasionally harrowing nostalgia. It’s my third glass of schnapps, and the music, Lucky Dube, continues playing at low volume, on a loop.
You left for the city many years ago
Promised to come back
And take care of us
Many years have gone by now
Still no sign of you Daddy.
My late cousin, Sizwe, used to play the vinyl nonstop every weekend and I named one of my mongrels after the album, Prisoner. Prisoner, Stranger, Born-Born and Spotty, all met tragic ends to their township lives. Prisoner, beautiful unto death. What remained of her was stuck on top of a gate, spikes sticking through the left hip. Drained dry from the gaping wounds, blood formed a mahogany-colored dollop on the concrete slab below her. It was a tragic end to an unsuccessful bid to break free, to go for her nightly dustbin errands. And Stranger. I don’t remember ever being drenched in so much grief than when I picked him from a muddy ditch behind the shops. For a whole bitterly cold night he had yelped, I was told by the night watchman. A steel bolt, definitely from a catapult, ripped open, but still remained lodged at the base of his skull. His tail was also missing.
The night watchman later said it was Dagi, the stone sculptor who did it. We knew that Dagi moved around with a tuckable catapult holster and an Okapi hunter’s knife. Without even trying, he killed people’s pets, and threatened humans. We knew that under cover of darkness he hurt many an unsuspecting drunkard, on their way home from the beerhalls, for fun. He landed the shot that snuffed out the life of a mother vervet monkey. We watched him drag her away by the tail, eyes still wide open, rolling, rolling, and rolling. Her blood soaked into the brown earth and left a trail on the path to Dagi’s house. I don’t know what became of the infant, which, I suppose, was barely one month old. Joao, the old Mozambican, I remember, had smiled as he dangled it, screeching and scratching, to his shack where we heard its shrieks later that evening. My mother said it was Joao preparing his supper.
How the mother monkey got herself into that deathtrap, on the branches of a lone tree in the middle of a crowded township, remains a mystery. Perhaps she couldn’t beat daybreak? Or maybe, it was just a sign of the times? Across the country, men, women and children were jogging and singing triumphantly toward white farmers’ gates. The president had signaled that land lost during colonial rule could now be repossessed. Scared and sobbing farmers’ wives appeared on television, arms tightly wrapped around screaming children. Pets hacked down, carnations fields slashed and gazebos razed to the ground. Troops of chacma baboons quit the farms and descended, night after night, into our township. We stoned them, but they wouldn’t stop until old Joao poisoned them with pieces of bread laced with cyanide. He disemboweled many, threw away the entrails, salted and smoked the rest for biltong. Rains refused to fall that year.
I was twelve when Prisoner was impaled and Stranger catapulted. Each time I tearfully prayed for Jesus to resurrect them, just like he did with Lazarus. It was an absurd prayer that went unanswered. Each time I wrapped the corpse in a jute sack and took it to the edge of our township cemetery, iconoclastically very close to humans. After the burial, I climbed the fence into the graveyard and spent the afternoon strolling among the epitaphed headstones. The stillness of the place, and the sadness I felt, became a fetish. I would repeat it, again and again, ever Sunday afterwards. If I hadn’t known the person occupying a grave, I tried a mental reconstruction of how they probably looked like before their departure. I succumbed to an intense sorrow after coming across names of people I had known, many of them who wouldn’t have been more than a decade (or half that) older than me. ‘Tears may dry, but memories will never fade away’, ‘Here lies xxxx, Born xxxx, Died xxxx’. So went the monotony, interchangeably, from one mound to the other. God, many things happened those days – the accidental, the viral, the brutal and the inevitable.
Poverty stalked many, even six-feet under and stuck onto them like an annoying leech. Their graves were just mounds of barren red earth, marked by rusting, poorly scribbled iron markers, wreaths of cheap plastic flowers, broken clay pots, or old perforated saucepans. A few had found a more dignified interment. For hours I would stare at beautiful headstones, finials, and obelisks. They had sculptures of miniature and naked angels, miniature Jesuses, miniature Marias, or anything else that testified to deathbed piety. Weeds snaked up some of the markers, a sight I found elegantly spooky and matching the experiences of watching a well-made horror movie.
My cellphone’s screen brightens, and it vibrates. It abruptly cuts the thought odyssey. I want to let it ring itself to exhaustion. I do it often these days, or sometimes I just put it on silent. It shines and vibrates again, this time determined. I plop down into my bamboo garden chair, which squeaks in protest. It’s a chair that is very far in years. I rescued it from outside an old couple’s house down the street. It was abandoned with a slip written in hand, ‘GRATIS’, for free. I wedge the phone between my ear and shoulder, leaving hands free to open another beer can.
‘Who is it?’ I ask, somewhat tersely. It’s my mother.
‘Hello, since when do you talk to me in English?’ She demands.
I apologize and tell her that I receive many calls from many people, of late, since I joined WhatsApp. Strangers, former schoolmates, and relatives, they all call to accuse or pester me, of anything and anyhow, I say.
‘What time is it over there?’ she starts. It’s now her ritual whenever she calls. Always a question about time. I almost expect it. I reply that it’s 6:20 in the evening and add that Europe is entering winter. The sun has long gone back into its mother’s womb.
‘We have just finished eating supper,’ she says. ‘I cooked some mushrooms, we have many in the bush this year,’ she continues almost as if she has forgotten about the other question she just asked. She doesn’t return to the matter of time.
She pulls out another theme. Last night she dreamt of me riding a strange winged and breathing machine that she can’t put a name on. In the dream my late father was screaming that I should jump off, she says. Today she might go to bed early because the dream shook her awoke and she prayed until daybreak. ‘You’re not home, you live alone in faraway countries, and you need prayers, for your safety’ she pleads. I should also do it for myself, she reminds me.
Praying for myself, now, is a tricky proposition, but I’m not going to tell her loudly. I haven’t winked, or even whispered once since I set foot on European shores ten years ago. The mention of it only reminds me of the distance that now exists between me and God. My childhood God, from the Anglican priests and American Protestants, I’m afraid to tell Mother, abdicated and quickly left me during the first few months in Cologne. I started to dance, imbibe, hallucinate and make love, even with married women, and for weeks-on-end. My mother is, surely, talking to another me, godless, libidinous, high and full of booze.
The call is crackling, and the line is breaking up. Mother’s voice sounds distant, almost inaudible. After a few mumbles, she shouts, ‘Hallloooo? Aaah maybe his phone ran out of money?’ She is talking to someone else where she is, perhaps one of my many cousins who recently came to stay with her.
‘Try getting closer to the door, there is usually network over there,’ a boyish voice in the background replies. A dog hollers.
‘I can hear you now. Who are you talking to?’ I ask.
‘It’s your cousin Godfrey, he just kicked my dog for licking his plate,’ Mother replies. I laugh and the alcohol I’m pouring into a mug for a kaffeeschnaps spills onto my lap. I’m irritated. I prepare myself a shot instead, which I swiftly toss, deliberately aiming for that dangly flesh in the back of the throat. It is, indeed, a strong drink. I cough maniacally, beat my chest like a silverback, to quicken its descent. It’s incinerating, and I feel it slowly going down my esophageal tract. Tears squirt from my squished eyes and pins of sweat crowd on my crumpled nose.
‘Are you okay?’ mother asks, in a voice inflected with concern. She heard the struggle in my throat.
‘I’m fine. It’s just a glass of wine,’ I lie. I seize a desperate crane fly from the window, slowly and pleasurably squash it between my thumb and index finger.
“’m I phoning you all the time when your lips are on the bottle?’ She barks.
‘Not at all mama,’ I say, and I don’t wait for her response. ‘Who died by the way?’ I try to quickly divert the subject. I do that all the time. There’s usually a funeral, somewhere, among her neighbors.
‘It’s Dagi, your friend, Skero’s brother, the stone-sculptor, dread-man. We buried him last month.’ She also says it without breathing. ‘They say he died in Jo’burg after finishing bottles of strong-stuff alone. We just came from his burial,’ she adds.
It’s as if she is deliberately picking up Dagi’s case, as an example, of what will become of me if I continue ‘holding on to the bottle’. I snigger, but it’s lachrymose. A sincere and unexpected tear-blob rushes down and disappears into the tufts of beard growing around my chin.
I do remember Dagi, I tell her after a seemingly interminable quietness. What a coincidence, I say, that Dagi crossed my thoughts a few moments before her call. I remember him well, the township bully who killed pets, who later married a white woman and they eloped to South Africa.
‘Yes, South Africa wasn’t easy for Dagi,’ mother continues. ‘His relatives struggled to bring his body home for burial, and his tongue, eyes, and member were missing.’
‘Who told you that?’ I’m getting more curious and reduce the volume on my boombox.
‘It’s people in the township. You know how stories blow like the winds here, fe-fe-fe-’, she replies but doesn’t get specific.
I picture the most violent of Dagi’s last moments. Giant monster rats in Johannesburg – the ones that sniff out landmines in Angola – a mischief of them sneaking up on his motionless body in a dark alley; savage squeals and scrabbles, and a fight over pieces of his flesh.
Mother continues, ‘they say he was now homeless after his wife left him’. She went back to her people’. She lets out a deep sigh which thumps my eardrums.
I do remember his wife too. The Afro-dancing and artist daughter of farmer Brodie. Freckled, blonde and jolly. As a small child, she came to our weekend vegetable market with her father. She helped him lay out his produce for sale – melons, mealies, tomatoes, carrots, king onions, eggs, sometimes chicken heads and feet. She became a township regular as a teenager, driving her cream Nissan-sunny to join other teenagers who were making music and practicing dance at the youth center. That was years ago, before their farm was seized for reallocation. Long before farmer Brodie mysteriously drowned in one of the many fish-ponds at his farm. Long before Mrs. Brodie, her mother, died with a heart that dripped of great sorrow.
Those many summers ago, as a young woman, she also danced at the full-moon festival at the grounds in front of the shopping center. We all thought it a weird spectacle when she entered the arena and pulled Dagi into the arena. She gracefully flipped her hips, left and right, up and down, among other things, and pressed her buttocks, now and again, firmly against Dagi’s quivering groin. She thrust her firm bosom, first back and then forth, in staccato bursts, hands stretched out like the statue of Cristo-Redentor. She tapped the ground, nimbly, with her small feet, raising whiffs of dust which swirled high up into the air and embraced the musicians’ chants. Her long golden locks swung wildly like a magic wand, casting a spell on the audience. One after the other, the musicians fell under the spell. A drummer looked like he couldn’t feel his hands anymore. He landed vengeful, plangent whams on the drum. His naked, sinewy chest gushed into many rivulets of sweat that sparkled in the silvery moonlight.
Old Joao was there too. He blew a police whistle. It sounded magical as it blended with the drumming, creating an air so that it dazzled every one of us. An mbira player tilted his chin upwards and closed his eyes – he couldn’t tame the pulsating veins that crawled up his wrinkled neck and depressed temples. The clinking from his instrument turned random, violently obsessive even. The blades peeled his fingertips, and they bled. He wouldn’t stop. Christen – for that is what the blonde girl was called – danced until she collapsed, her body locked in a trance. Someone sprinkled her with brandy, and she resurrected, heaving and roaring like a he-lion. A stunned silence engulfed the air before it was broken by two old women who shrilled their tongues loudly, in a perfect, sibylline rhythm.
That day, even the most accomplished township dancers were shamed numb. Christen earned herself enemies among her age-mates. A group of young dancers left the arena earlier than they had planned to. Some did not join in the ovations – begrudgingly sucking teeth and spitting. She was on everyone’s lips – some said she had desecrated a sacred festival with her lewd gyrations. Young men said that she slithered like a beautiful rock python. Slither she did, and coiled tightly around Dagi, around his heart. Later that year, they had left the country. The night watchman saw them board a border-bound bus to Beitbridge in the wee hours of the morning, Dagi carrying a massive black trunk and she, a satchel.
‘They picked up Dagi’s corpse from the streets in Jo’burg, next to empty bottles of strong stuff,’ mother says. ‘But at least his mother saw his body. He truly fought, even in death, to be buried among his people.’ She coughs and clears a phlegmy throat. Her sentences are now agonizingly breaking with each cough.
She has had a cough since I was a teenager. I don’t go back to Dagi’s story. She clears her throat again. I promptly ask if she has been to the doctor recently. ‘No,’ she says. ‘I’m doing better.’ The reply is searing in my heart as if a whole ladle of molten iron has been emptied within me. Uncle Sampi, I remember well, was also recovering from a cough when he suddenly lost it. He got worse during a wet May and still said it was just a cold, nothing to do with what the clinic people found in him.
It is like we both notice a profound sadness in the silence that follows. I’m not sure if mother also hears the swishy-splashy sound on the line – the waves-like sound that I imagine is from the ocean between us.
There’s a beep and the line cut off. Probably her battery is dead. I look out again to the lake. A small boat with a blue light is slowly drifting on the lake, towards Zürich. It’s the Seepolizei, I suppose, from the Canton police on their evening patrol. I’m going back into the house to get myself some more drinks.