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Hear M e a lone

Hear Me Alone

Thando Mgqolozana

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The publication of this book would not have been possible without the assistance of the Jacana Literary Foundation (JLF). The Jacana Literary Foundation is dedicated to the advancement of writing and reading in South Africa, and is supported by the Multi-Agency Grants Initiative (MAGI) through whose generous funding the JLF aims to nurture South African literature and bibliodiversity.

First published by Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd in 2011 10 Orange Street Sunnyside Auckland Park 2092 South Africa +2711 628 3200 www.jacana.co.za Š Thando Mgqolozana, 2011 All rights reserved. ISBN 978-1-4314-0249-6 Job No. 001566 Cover design by publicide Edited by Helen Moffett Set in Sabon 10.5/14pt Printed and bound by Ultra Litho (Pty) Limited, Johannesburg See a complete list of Jacana titles at www.jacana.co.za

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Acknowledgements Siphiwo Mahala, Zukiswa Wanner, Pumla Dineo Gqola, Angela Makholwa, Zakes Mda, Cheryl Potgieter, Ndumiso Ngcobo and Helen Moffett: this book would be dedicated to you, for reasons known to me – if it were not dedicated to your children and your kitties, whom I shall name on another day.

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One Dear Theophilus, This is the second and final book I am writing to you. In my first book I told you about all the things The Lamb did and taught from the time he began The Virgin’s work until the day he ascended. Have you received it? Let me know, your Excellency. In that book, I was telling you – I should summarize in case you did not receive the book – that a great many gifted writers, some not so gifted (and why the latter bothered, only The Virgin knows) nonetheless employed their feathers and tried their best to give a detailed account of the things that took place among us. I imagine that when you received my book, if you did indeed receive it, you wondered why I bothered to tell you things you already knew – all that business you are familiar with, about our rejection of certain scribes’ manuscripts in our role as the board responsible for putting together the first Christology: to carry the good news from the beginning of The Virgin’s work all the way to John’s visions of The Lamb, for the purpose of making The Virgin and The Lamb one – so you must have wondered why the tautology, why all the trouble. I proceeded to explain that after studying these matters carefully – and I assured you of this carefulness, as I had done at the assembly – I said that not only had I found these books lacking in substance, that is to say, the depths they went to in presenting the purpose for which The Virgin sent us The Lamb, allowed him to do his work, and took him back the way He did; but they were also disorderly 1

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and a gross misrepresentation of The Lamb’s journey, and thus The Virgin’s will. In the first place, your Excellency, our scribes entirely omit to state that The Lamb was conceived on the same night that Miriam met me, and no other man. There is thus no way The Virgin could be one with The Lamb in this way. I told you that I felt strongly, even more strongly now, as I will show you, that it was thus upon me, Epher, the only learned man who had known The Lamb from conception – and had more credibility to relay these matters than anyone else – to give an orderly account of The Lamb’s journey while on earth – which I then sent to you for your sanction before I submitted it to the board. Though I wish I was not, I am writing about that book I sent you, my friend. There are a number of important facts I need to bring to your attention; and so, in this second and final book, I wish to tell you what happened the night I met Bellewa Miriam. As you will have figured, your Excellency, our lives changed when I met Bellewa Miriam. I mean to say, mine and Bellewa Miriam’s. Our lives changed. It was almost dark in the town of Nazareth. My people called it a “town” when it suited them, and “our small village” when they were out to seek empathy. Flocks of white birds were flying westwards over our small village in their composed V patterns; some Vs longer and narrower, and some others shorter and wider. It was easy to make these soft distinctions because the birds flew against a background of white wool that was the cloud blanketing our small village, so that you could spot one of the last birds overtaking all the rest to assume leadership at the piercing apex of the V, while the former leader would slip peacefully behind, without the V losing form. The birds’ homes were down in the green valley below 2

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the Mountain of Precipitation, where the dam opened to the River of Mirrors, which then opened to the lake down south, on the outskirts of our small village. They lived in large nests made of all manner of debris, hanging riskily above the river in the giant wild willow trees for which our village was famous. When I was a young boy, probably the height of a dog, I used to sight these birds in the mornings as the sun struggled to climb up behind the faraway mountains. They would be flying south-east in mass hurriedness, and if you followed them, you would see that they headed to the big lake to break fast, where there seemed to be a daily bird festival. All manner of birds, big and small, would be tiptoeing with their staccato feet on the banks of the lake, pausing now to yawn and flip wings, and then to idle and walk, leaving footprints of three toes on the wet sand, and again pausing to poke, pick up, and swallow. Some would be ski-ing above the waters, now and again descending in wild sweeps to catch prey on the surface, or others, like the ducks, would be floating about, with their chests opening up water paths that closed swiftly behind. Now and again the ducks would make wild dips with their S-shaped necks beneath the silver sheet of still waters, showing only fluffy white tails and yellow feet pointing heavenwards. The bird noise was always a messy frenzy of sound: the hissing, kwaaking, cooing, all merged into a loud yearning of hunger such as we were accustomed on days of free market at the marketplace in a season of drought. At sundown such as that on the day on which I met Bellewa Miriam, the birds would emerge from the south-east tip of the village like livestock herded back home by their shepherds, in their different species, in an orderliness that caught the eye not only of man, but dog and heavens alike. As the sun made its descent, shadows of khaki sand 3

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mountains growing large, gradually blanketing the village from behind right up to the point where the sun had come, fewer, smaller, quieter and darker species of birds would be chasing westwards in the unhurriedness customary of believers returning from the Synagogue after a session of fellowship. That afternoon then, I had just learned that one of our sheep was missing. Grandmother Kishoma had suggested it might be on the other side of the Synagogue near the River of Mirrors, where the missing ones were usually found still grazing. I had seen the last red stone that had not yet been entered into Kishoma’s leather purse. She counted the sheep that way as they entered through the narrow gate of the sheep-fold. Each stone represented a sheep; that is how it was done every day when they left the fold in the morning, and when they entered again at the day’s end. “One is missing, Epher. Take the servant with you and go and look for the sheep beyond the temple there.” “Can we take the asses with us, Kishoma?” I had asked, trying my luck, as I knew that Grandmother was never going to agree to such a thing. She was particularly sparing in these her last days. She paused then, the crushing iron in her left hand in mid-air before it descended onto the stone where she was crushing corn, and shot a wide gaze at me. “Father of Nazareth!” She let the iron descend with a mighty thud onto the crushing stone. Then, taking her gaze from me and shaking her bandaged head, she said, “Only you know what has entered the head of this child.” I took the servant with me and we hurried off towards the territory of the Synagogue, without the asses. It was beginning to get dark now, dusk was calling, but we could still see the familiar figure of Anna in her white linen wandering outside the Synagogue, as she always did. They said her husband had been locked in the underground 4

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prison of the Synagogue for a crime that nobody ever discussed. It may or may not have been truth – both the issue of the husband, and the existence of a prison. I only remember that as a child my life was about avoiding the path to the Synagogue, except when the Synagogue was transformed into a marketplace on days of free market, when I could go with my grandmother to exchange our caponized roosters for wheat and olive oil. On such days, somehow, all thoughts about the said prison would be erased from my memory. Now I told our servant that we should return home, or else Kishoma would start worrying about us, and would not know what to tell my grandfather when he returned from Bessinia’s compound, where he spent most of his days. “You need nourishment,” said Kush, the servant, as he took out a roasted potato from his sack and thrust it in my hand. It was still warm and soft inside. “Does Kishoma know that you steal her harvest?” “You need nourishment, Epher. They do not feed you at the school.” Our servant, and indeed all my relatives, had this idea that I needed more nourishment because much of the time I was attending school in faraway places, learning human anatomies and foreign laws from the Teachers of the Law in the Roman capital of our province. But the issue with our servant, and I was getting more convinced each time this happened, is that every time I was alone with him, he would simply dig his hand into his sack and come up with a roast vegetable, making a worrying suggestion about my health. He would thrust it into my hand and declare, “Epher, you need nourishment now.” We looked around and did not find the missing sheep. We went beyond the Synagogue and towards the River of Mirrors, but still there was no sign of it; stray asses, and 5

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people herding calves from the fields, but no sheep. The short-boned livestock had to be collected from the fields earlier than the long-boned ones. Kush was looking a far distance beyond the River of Mirrors, and then he waved his open arms. I looked, and saw a man get up and wave his open arms back at us. It was the seer. I saw, now that the seer had gotten up, that he was tending a small fire. The seer had to maintain a small fire to keep warm through the night, but because he stayed with his bees at the hut, he could not make a fire close by. The bees, as you know, my friend, do not mix with smoke. It was said that other shepherds made a smoky fire around beehives to chase the bees away so that they could harvest the honey. But the seer would only return to his hut once the fire was dying and had no smoke in order not to scare his bees away, and he only ever made the fire far from the hut where he kept watch over the bees. “Says there is no short-boned livestock at the riverside,” said Kush after raising his staff at the seer in what I now considered to be acknowledgment for the assistance with information. The seer then sat down beside his fire under the acacia tree, and Kush and I were listless. “Let us look among the asses there,” I suggested to Kush. A great herd of asses had gathered round a tall nut tree, grunting and neighing in idleness as white birds walked freely on their backs, now and again poking their long beaks at ticks that were fattening on the asses’ posteriors. They were Bessinia’s asses. They were always left to wander about. There was nobody looking after them, but there was nobody stealing them or driving them away either. Among other things, Bessinia was reputed as a medicine woman across Nazareth. She was respected for this by everyone, except believers like Kishoma. “She works for the devil,” said her detractors. 6

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Kush looked at me long, and a mischievous smile developed on his face as confusion grew on mine. I knew what the smile meant. My suggestion was stupid for one or other reason. I had known this smile all my life, and all his, until his regrettable demise. It had started when Kush and I had been arguing about the descendants of Adam. We were sitting around a fire roasting maize during the harvest season. Kush was tending my maize on the coals, and it had turned brown and ripe. He retrieved the cob, inspected it, and rolled it in front of me, and then he had given me that piercing stare to warn me not to thank him for small things all the time. He had then gotten back to the story: “So, boy Epher, who did you say Cain went with when he was thrown out of Eden?” “He left alone, of course.” He had shaken his head as he continued to shred columns of roasted maize grains from his cob. He stuffed a handful into his mouth, crushed with his teeth, and then said: “I see. And he married himself and bore his own children?” I had been silent for a while, never having thought about it this way before, and then offered that Cain had obviously married amongst the tribes he met in the place called “Wandering” where he had gone; who else could he have married? I was going on, using the material provided to us young scholars by the Teachers of the Law, until I saw the smile on Kush’s face, and I stopped to enquire about it. “We have been taught that that is what happened. Kush, what are you smiling about?” Kush had smiled his knowing smile, and then told me: “Eat, boy Epher, you need nourishment.” The smile stayed that way for a while. This was the smile I was seeing now, and I knew what it meant. After a brief silence, Kush slid his staff into the curves 7

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of his elbows and locked his hands together on his chest so that he, with the staff that way, formed a miniature cross. Staring at me in the face now with the smile still there, he said, “It is probably that one-eye-giant that has not returned home.” “How do you know, Kush?” “It is the mating season, what do you think? That ram is at a level all of its own with appetite. It probably strayed with the tender ewe whose posterior it had been sniffing all day.” “So why did you let us come here when you knew this?” “Boy Epher, is it not my job to come here and look for lost sheep?” There was silence. In the far distance, the seer got up carrying a hardened platter with live coals towards his hut. I suggested to Kush that we should return home and offer his thoughts about the ram as an explanation. We would then promise Kishoma that the ram would be among our flock the following day. Kush listened to me with what I can describe as undivided attention. He sometimes did this, especially when, like now, I had just returned from school in the capital of our province after several months. He said he liked the stories of hear me alones that I brought with me from the capital, except that some parts were laughable. His own father, who had not been through any schooling, as he had not himself, had taught him well. This is the only time, ever, that Kush made reference to any member of his family. He was a wanderer whom my family had adopted as a servant. His life, like that of a true wanderer, would end in wandering without his ever talking about his relatives. He would then conclude, “The truth of a hear me alone remains with a person, boy Epher.” A confusing summation to me then, but through his questioning of 8

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our scholarship and the alternative explanations that he offered, I had found more than a grain of truth in it. But he listened with great interest, without interrupting, as he did now while I suggested we return home. “Kishoma might stop thinking about the missing sheep and start worrying about us,” I motivated, “and she will not know what to tell my grandfather when he returns from Bessinia’s place.” “Let me go speak to the seer. He might tell me in whose flock the one-eye-giant can be found tomorrow,” he said as he began to walk away. “Wait,” I said, “have you any of those roasts with you to offer the seer?” It was the ritual, Kush had once told me, that the person who went to the seer’s hut for assistance took a small offering in the form of food or coin. Or it could be a short-boned animal if the matter involved the finding of a lost relative. That is how the seer survived, and that is where Nazareth sought counsel. “Do not be troubled,” Kush replied. “A shepherd will always find his master’s livestock, no matter what it takes. Meanwhile, see if you can make up your own image at the mirrors while there is still some daylight left. Maybe it is your turn to meet the seraph, boy Epher.” And he laughed out too loudly. Kush never admitted to having any coins, food or medicine in his sack. But you always had the distinct feeling that he rather had a lot of it at any random minute. Now he walked away and I made for the River of Mirrors. I could not go with him because, as you know, my friend, in that era prophets only saw one wanderer at a time. I took the potato from the outside pocket of my clothing and began to peel the roast skin, exposing the yellow mush of starch, and I ate while walking towards the River of Mirrors. 9

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There were two versions of why the river was called that. The one version suggested that the matter was all literal, and the other held that it was but a manner of speaking. Believers like Kishoma, and indeed the Teachers of the Law, explained that the River of Mirrors came to be known as such because it was where the favoured hear me alone of The Virgin, Gabria, summoned those of The Virgin’s persuasion who lived in Nazareth to give them messages from above. Gabria, it was said, called you to take the sandals off your feet and sit near the waters so that your image appeared. Since the river was wide and deep, the waters were still, and so one’s image appeared. It would be from a person’s image that Gabria materialized and spoke. It had happened to Daniel in Babylonia at the River of Ulai. But that was one version. Those who were not of The Virgin’s persuasion, and you know there were many, held that they had named the river simply because it had still waters on which one’s image reflected as if in a mirror. I was still descending towards the river, only past one acacia tree, when I saw what looked like a human being approaching from the direction from which we had come. It was darker now and I could not easily make out what I was seeing. Kush had disappeared into the barley field on his way to the seer’s hut. I took a few steps backwards, and looked more intently. I must admit here – and why shouldn’t I? – that I was afraid of seeing unusual characters in the river at that time. The River of Mirrors was not known for pure things alone. It was a young girl, clutching her linen above the knees as she hurried towards the seer’s hut beyond the barley fields. I stopped and watched in shock, for women and children were not allowed near the seer’s hut. She was running now, and the next minute she tripped and fell. I imagined her 10

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groaning at the pain in her knees, not screaming, because she was too determined to care. She did not even pause to pick out the thorns or dust off her clothes or examine the bruises that I imagined were on her knees. She gathered herself up and started running again. She was closer now, running towards the seer’s hut, oblivious to everything except her rage or whatever it was that was persecuting her. Though it was darker now, she was closer and I thought, with shock, I could make out who it was. “Miriam!” I called out, “Bellewa Miriam, wait!” I realized I was running when I stumbled, and had to calm myself down to collect my thoughts. Miriam did not stop or look up, she continued running like a mother going to retrieve her only child from a fire. I went for her and as she was coming closer, I saw that she was weeping. “Wait,” I said, throwing my staff down and lifting up my hands, “Wait, Miriam.” She did not. She made a ducking motion, trying to go past me, and I reached for her and caught her by the shoulders. She struggled against me, punching and shoving. Her face was wet and she had locked her lip inside so that her front teeth were on her chin bone. Her hair had come undone, and she was swinging. I struggled with her and thought about bringing her down. “Miriam, my dove,” I said, wishing she would just listen. She did not. She raged, she huffed, and I held. Her dress had patches of dust and rips at the bottom. And her yellow feet were bare. She continued trying to wrench herself free from me. I held on tight until I had completely engulfed her, lifting her off the ground. She heaved against my chest and beat the air with her fists and kicked. I held on. “Miriam, listen to me, my dove.” She did not. 11

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Through a knot of groan and grunt, she said, “Let me go at once, boy Epher.” And then, as though speaking had extinguished the burning inside her, she collapsed in my arms, and I kept holding her. “Don’t cry, Miriam. It is alright. Everything will be alright,” I was moved to say and I believed what I said with all my might. I held her, more lightly now, and began to tug back her long hair to reveal her face. I could only see her ear, and I closed my eyes. Hers were pouring with tears. I felt them wet my clothing, my chest. Bellewa Miriam was in sorrow, your Excellency.

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Two My friend, I have never told these things to anyone before. That night, I did not tell Kush about Bellewa Miriam, but I would find out that he had known. Even so, I do not need to put it to you, my friend, that knowing and telling are two separate affairs. You will let me know if this be error on my part. Kush knew. There was no doubt, and I should have known he did. Those of his profession at the time, and the times before him, had been known for knowing. The best among them must have been the man said, in some heretic texts, to be the great-grandfather of The Lamb himself, the king who was shepherd and catapulted Goliath to the ground with a piece of stone. Against all doubts and urges, and shields of leather or iron, the puny shepherd had known. What I would find out later is just how much Kush had known. We entered our house together that night, but that is just about where we met: at the entrance of the yard. He had arrived first and found that I was yet to arrive. I had accompanied Bellewa Miriam back to her home; Kush had stayed with the seer. He was waiting with Omen, the dog, at the gate, and did not ask questions. Instead, he stunned me with his reportage: “The ram is in the fold, boy Epher.” “It is?” “Listen,” he had said, and stood still, and I imagined he held out an ear in the dark to show me, “can you hear it?” There was the usual sniffing and snorting that rams made when they were courting a ewe on heat. The ewe would 13

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be running around, ducking and dodging the ram’s violent advances. Inside a packed sheep-fold such as ours, this caused great discomfort among the other sheep, probably grandmothers and cousins of the ewe. If there was another ram, a strong one that had been eyeing the ewe, and in our flock there was only one-eye-giant, it would have protested and dissuaded the other ram from its pursuit. Now the fold was in chaos, as though there was a wolf among the sheep. I imagined the cousins shifting around and making way as the ram pursued, and the riot only stopped when the ram managed to corner the ewe. And then he climbed on her, and there was silence. “In the fold, boy Epher,” Kush repeated with glad satisfaction and we walked towards my grandmother’s compound. The oil lamp was alight. There was a yellow line at the foot of the door where Omen now stood. I asked if he had brought the ram in, and he kept telling me it was in the fold. “Is that what we will tell the parents?” I had enquired because this was not exactly what I had been thinking would be the explanation, that the lost sheep was suddenly in the fold, without us having let it in there. In fact, the lost sheep had slipped completely from my attention. There were far greater matters on which I had been concentrating in the preceding while. I will not lie to you, my friend, I cannot feather down as matter of fact what Kush said in response – and there are many things I cannot account for that took place that night, and that is not by desire. Actually, the finality with which Kush confirmed the presence of the ram – the words he chose to use – could have been a confirmation of many things that had taken place earlier that night. I remember though that, trying to recover from my own oblivion, I had asked Kush, “Is that what the seer 14

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told you?” And almost immediately, since my mind was returning to the present, “Do you think he is in?” I was asking about my grandfather, Zach. There were times when – I am ashamed to admit – he did not return home from Bessinia’s house. It troubled Kishoma. She kept on waiting, hoping, only to be let down. But when he did return, he was hard on our servant. He said there were stories in the village about the frivolous habits of our servant, that one day he would solve it all with his staff. He promised. But nothing had happened yet on that front, and – I should tell you – nothing should have, either. “Boy Epher has returned; Father must be home.” When we entered Kishoma’s compound, we found her sitting alone at the table reserved for eating feast meals, and for hosting guests or wanderers. The era was one of wanderers. A person who was overtaken by sundown and came to seek shelter at a house was not considered a stranger, but rather a fellow traveller in the motion of this life. He would be treated with great kindness by his host, and that is how the Nazarenes built relations with people from places of unpronounceable names. The table was important then, and it was the pride of every household. Many houses had one or another version of this same wood carving, and it was from the same merchant, Joseph. I must admit, my friend, Joseph was rather good with handwork. He was Nazareth’s most distinguished woodwork merchant. He did this sort of work for a living, for he did not own a large number of livestock. His herds had dwindled since his wife had passed on a few years before. Kishoma was sitting at this table, piecing together pieces of linen for a new robe. I imagined that she had been humming the haunting hymn she liked to sing while listening to her hear me alone: 15

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This hope of mine I will ascend with this hope of mine Till I enter the place of psalms The place of psalms. As soon as we entered the house, Kishoma stowed her sewing utensils in her headscarf, dropped both her hands onto the table-top and clasped them. She looked at us, and she was not smiling. My grandmother always welcomed me with a smile that stretched her face. At least on the days following my return from the capital of our province, and the opposite was true when I was about to leave for a long time. I saw the one red stone next to her clasped hands, and it said it all: the sheep. And the fact that she was sitting at this table was further evidence that she had not intended to sleep until we had returned. “Father of Nazareth!” exclaimed Kishoma, and she kept quiet for a short while, her eyes darting from Kush to me and back. She seemed to be searching for the right words to tell us of a delicate matter that had been eating her while we were gone. It seemed there was something more commoving than our coming home late. Had Zach returned and said hurtful things? Had a relative passed on? The dogs were wailing outside as they did when there was a matter of sorrow in the village. What was the matter? My grandmother let her hands sink onto the mass of cloth on her lap, and she looked me straight in the eye. Kush said a greeting, which she ignored. Instead, she declared, “You are here at last, my child. Nazareth is calling you.” That is what she said, my friend: Nazareth is calling you. I turned to look at Kush; perhaps I had heard wrong. He had let me enter first, and was now staring down behind me with his staff in front of him. I had lost mine earlier. 16

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Had I heard properly? “You have heard right, boy Epher, the ram is in the fold,” he seemed to be saying. But my mind resisted acknowledging as fact what Kishoma had just said. Nazareth did not yet believe in the work I was doing, so Nazareth could not be calling me. Then she lost all coherence: “Hurry off to cousin’s house. There is an issue there. You arrive at the heels of the wives. The matter is drying on their hands. They say it has sunk.” She was soon joined by Kush: “Let us make haste, boy Epher, like Mother says.” “There, you can have your bread when you return, my child. Help me, Epher; this Miriam they are talking about is my child too.” It would have made more sense if Kishoma had been telling me that Judea had finally laid its hands on the Apostle’s head. That they had slain him and let his head fall on the ground and begun kicking it about like a melon. That the sound I was hearing in my ears was not the village dogs, but the fellowship women lamenting the sudden passing of their teacher. But to suggest to me, at that moment, that there was in fact a sunken issue with Bellewa Miriam was as unlikely as the sun ascending at midnight. There was silence. I found my eyes fixed on the oil lamp before Kishoma. A golden emit of tame flame leached up out of it, burning thinly bright, making a weak oval discharge that had a sharp black tail at the top; it separated from the flame and went up to disappear above Kishoma’s head. The weariness of the flame burning for no reason of its own made a certain tiredness weigh in on my shoulders. “You say Bellewa Miriam, ’shoma?” I had asked, going to take a seat on the stool opposite my grandmother. She watched me like I was a rat and she was a cat, and I was running towards my rat-hole. I needed to get this right. 17

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As far as I was concerned, every Nazarene was a cousin to Kishoma, and there were a number of Miriams in the village. Which Miriam was this? It could not be Bellewa Miriam. I had been with Bellewa Miriam only minutes ago; I had held her and felt her. It could not be. She had told me what the matter was with her, and though hers was – by any measure – the heaviest, more so after tonight, it was not a sinking issue. Of that I was certain. But what was my grandmother talking about? Both my companions attacked the matter now: “Yes, boy Eph…” “Sometimes I…” Kush stepped back and cast his eyes down. My grandmother took it up again. She began by summoning The Virgin’s aid before she explained, “I forget that you might not be abreast with Nazareth’s goings-on.” She went on to clarify that some months ago, the wives had come to announce the issue with Syeda Miriam, her maternal cousin’s daughter-in-law, the wife of our oil presser. “Oh hurry Epher, I beg of you. Hurry you both, people of The Virgin.” I felt what I can now describe as a shameful pang of relief knocking inside my chest, my friend. Shameful, I must explain, because it was not Bellewa Miriam who was in question here, although it was still one of The Virgin’s people; a relative, in fact. I got up and took the goat milk and wheat bread from the smaller table at the far corner of the house and gave them to Kush. He tugged his staff under one arm and accepted with both hands. “Epher?” he whispered in thanks, his eyes glancing over my shoulder. Kishoma cooked only for me and Zach. Kush made his own food outside, or ate wherever the other shepherds got their meals. When I was home, he knew that Zach’s share came to him, but was not 18

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comfortable with it. It was one of the things Zach called a frivolous habit. My grandmother’s eyes followed me as I went to take the food I knew she had prepared for Zach. I accidentally knocked the lid off the tray, and the reverberating ting of its echo was the only sound to be heard in the house. Kishoma waited for it to fade, and then sighed loudly and continued searching for her sewing utensils in her headscarf. “We will report to you in the morning, ’shoma,” I offered, and Kush was reminded to say, “Sleep well, Mother.” Reply came there none. We went to our compound to leave the food, and for me to pick up my shoulder bag, and on our way out, Kush said, “Let me see if I can pull a dry twig that we can take to the presser’s house.” “What for?” “I am a shepherd, boy Epher. I will only take you up to the door.” He let me work out on my own that he was going to make a fire for himself outside while waiting for me to do what I could to help Syeda during the night. He did not want to trouble the presser – who was already troubled – with firewood and trivialities like that. “Hurry!” It was me who was overtaken by anxiousness now. The image of a sunken issue was a ghastly one in my mind. And though Kishoma did not give details, she had said that the matter was drying on the wives’ hands. That could mean Syeda had been in seclusion all through the day, or, The Virgin knew, even longer. I went to open the gate to allow Kush out with the thorn branch he was dragging along. I unhooked the gate, opening a little passageway, and waited. Kush did not move. I thought maybe I had not opened the gate wide enough for his liking; perhaps he was pulling a bigger 19

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branch than I had estimated, and needed the gate to open wider. So I opened the gateway some more. Kush did not move. He stood and stared down, holding his staff with one hand and the branch with the other, as if debating an idea of great magnitude with his hear me alone. You would not believe what Kush was doing, my friend. I did not either. “In the fold, boy Epher,” he said, and then began pulling out his branch. I would never have thought that our servant was standing there honing his ear into the sheep-fold to hear if the ram was still making demands. I knew he thought the one-eye-giant a creature of somewhat unquenchable thirst, but this was absurd even by beast standards. Now he declared, and I could not tell whether it was true or not. He was the shepherd, he knew better. We walked in silence, together penetrating the gather of darkness that wrapped up the world, each listening to his hear me alone. It was dark in the usual way, so that you only saw when you drew closer whether an oil lamp was alight within a house. But you knew there was life around you, not only because of the glitter that was the sky, but because the dogs lamented. From a distance, each dog made a long, cold, hollow wailing that altered your mood. It was as though the dogs were messengers of sadness. They wailed and wailed. A wail of loneliness and mourning, now and again interrupted by an ill-informed cock-crow. Cocks were not supposed to crow at night, in the same way that hens were not supposed to cackle unless there was trouble or they were reporting an egg that had been laid. The younger roosters who were beginning to fall in love with their own breaking voices crowed even in broad daylight. But Nazareth was no cock’s fool; my people knew a cock from a rooster drunk on its own airs. 20

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There was no mistaking the life inside Bessinia’s house, though. Her house, I am sure, must have been thought to be perpetually on fire by people from our neighbouring villages, for the luminosity that always came from there in the dimness of the night. There was always an unattended fire outside Bessinia’s house. Her patrons made the fire outside to avoid smoke, and then the charcoal would be taken and deposited inside the house to provide warmth for the patrons through the night. Now and again someone, a man, would come out to observe the progress of the fire, and to fetch in more coals. When asked, and most times out of her own reckoning, often to conclude a conversation with her hear me alone as she went about her chores, Kishoma would remark that Zach was busy putting out fires at Bessinia’s compound. You could not mistake the life inside the house; you did not need to go inside to know that life happened in there while Nazareth survived her tribulations. We were going past Bessinia’s house now, and that is when Kush said: “Could that be Father?” It was the singing. Now has come the time, young man Gather yourself together Tighten your sandals, and up; Home you go then, young man Home you go. And it was my grandfather. This was the same song that Zach would sing every time he did actually come home. We would hear him from a distance. You could tell when he was going past our neighbour’s house on his way home. The voice would drown, for Lazuro’s big unfinished house had towering walls that almost hid our own house. After Lazuro’s house, the singing would be louder, closer. When 21

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he was opening our gate, there would be silence; when he was leaning on our sheep-fold, passing water, the song would have sudden pauses and starts, starts and pauses. And then coming nearer to Kishoma’s compound, with loud rhythmless footsteps, he would be singing the last verse, but it came out as a regret, “Home you go, young man.” Irritated, I upped our pace to rush past this foolishness. I did not want to be thinking about the state of my grandfather. There were other important matters to attend to. Kush left me to my peace. After a long while of quiet, as we were about to enter the presser’s house, I asked Kush about Syeda’s situation: “Have you always known about Miriam?” As soon as I asked this question, the anxiety for the mammoth task that lay ahead enveloped me. And Kush’s response did not help my general trepidation about the things that were happening to us that night. I realized that night that Kush’s health was not up to standard. When you are a surgeon, your Excellency, there is hardly any moment when you are not making diagnoses. People might be killing each other, but your foremost concern will be that one fighter seems to be short of breath, which is why he cannot raise his spear. Kush was panting like a dog. He said, “I wanted to inform you earlier, boy Epher,” and kept quiet while I opened the gate at the presser’s house. The gate must have recently been made anew, for its ties were very tight. “I should have prepared you for your encounter this afternoon, boy Epher, but I did not want to descend on your head with such news. Forgive me, boy Epher.” “Come out of the sheep-wool, Kush.” “I am talking about Bellewa Miriam. It has been months now since she has been promised to the woodwork merchant. I could not have foreseen the encounter at the 22

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River of Mirrors this afternoon, boy Epher. But I was intending to tell you.” “I was asking about Syeda, Kush.” “And Bellewa? What about her?” There was silence, your Excellency.

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Three My dear Theophilus, My mind was in twirls and knots when I entered Syeda’s compound. The greetings with the presser and the fathers in the front compound were done with absentmindedness, for to be reminded of what Bellewa Miriam had told me earlier, about Joseph, reduced my heart to the size of a clot. But there was the question of Syeda’s issue to be dealt with now, which needed a bigger heart than I had entered with; for, first of all, there were still doubts in the Empire about our abilities, that is to say those of us who were trained by the Teachers of the Law. There had not been a precedent, and my people, they wanted a precedent! I tell you, my friend. Syeda’s mothers were gathered around her elevated bed made of wood and the flat straw that grew tall at the foot of the Mountain of Precipitation. It was covered with dyed linen, perhaps a dye of rotting pomegranates to give it its colour of concentrated wine. The woodwork that appeared on the sides was brown. Her husband was an oil presser; he must have oiled this frame well to seal the cracks of the maturing acacia wood. Syeda lay on her back in it, with her knees up. Her headscarf had come undone and her long hair lay in disarray, like the tail of a dead bull, each hairstrip seemingly at its wit’s end as it held onto the yellow scalp; her whole face wood-dry save for the wet eyebrows. “I greet the mothers in the name of The Virgin,” I said, and then realized that at that moment, spitting on their 24

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faces would have been a better salutation. “Heee! Wives, wake the bones of my fathers to witness this eyesore!” said Zirpho, one of the younger wives, slapping her hands as if to end a final negotiation. I knew about Zirpho’s tongue, so I resolved to keep my eyes on Syeda. She did not move. Her face looked older than I knew her to be. I imagined she was either asleep, her chest rising slowly and falling with rapidity, or she was listening to her hear me alone. A painful thing, I thought, that in a full house, one was so lonely as to be listening to a hear me alone. “We have resolved on this, wives of my children, have we not? Indeed we have, if I recall properly. We went to cousin’s house for help, knowing who they were. We cannot now be tearing scarves from our heads as if we are little girls who have been caught by naughty shepherds while bathing at the River of Mirrors.” The presser’s mother spoke with finality, and she went on to emphasize their resolution in calling for my help, regardless of what I believed in. She ended: “We greet you, Epher, son of our cousin.” “Epher, we greet you,” the others added. “Be well, Epher, and let these wives hear it.” “I am well, Mother. We thank The Virgin for this day. I trust that the mothers are hidden well under The Virgin’s wing also.” “Is our cousin sound too? Let us hear of her.” “She was when I left her a short while ago,” I said, now demonstrating the wit for which my people were known in their greetings. You had to play along when you were invited to do so in greetings like this, or you risked being regarded as immature. You had to play with the truth. I had not had the chance to do so with the fathers when I greeted them. In a different context, I would have had to mention 25

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to the fathers that my penis still had the habit of hardening itself, to indicate that I was still well as a man. And they would each have had to confirm this about theirs. Folklore had it that women had their own banters, which, as the story went, were mostly about their bedroom activities. A woman would, for example, report that Nazareth was as dry as desert land, or thank her ancestors for the recent rainfall in Nazareth, or – this was said to be the most common banter – that the rains that fell in Nazareth these days were as insignificant as fly spit. But such bantering was for days with lighter clouds than this. Now I told the mothers: “What I cannot confirm is whether your cousin will still be sound when I return.” “What you say is healthy, Epher. It does not require to be smeared with oil. On our side, let me mention, apart from the issue that refuses to stare us in the eye, that we can say that we rise, relative of ours. We do,” she looked around at the other women, “Am I speaking for the wives?” “You are, our mother.” “There it is, relative. These wives say it is well.” “Thank you, my mothers, may you be blessed,” I said, now moving away from them as they balanced their backs on the wall at the foot of the bed, agreeing now that the question of my faith was not to be debated at present. Zirpho continued to make a cancellation movement with her hands. The mothers were sitting at the bottom of Syeda’s bed as though the issue was going to jump out and escape to the ocean. I took off my top garment and shoulder bag and laid them beside the bed. I was left with my full-length undergarment and sandals. I tightened my dyed belt and made sure not to look in the direction of the mothers to save everyone from embarrassment. My arms were now revealed, and so was my head. I went to cup Syeda’s hand in mine. Her small finger twitched and then 26

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collapsed in my palm. She did not open her eyes, and she did not move her head to my side. Only now when I turned to look at the mothers, about to make enquiries, did I notice the senior midwife sitting silently among the wives; the same midwife who had presided over my very own birth, which took my mother’s life. My heart began to leap faster, and it felt like a block of white myrrh was drying inside my windpipe. There was silence. The room was warm, although there was no fire in it. The three palm-oil lamps provided both luminosity and warmth. Now it felt like we were closed within a furnace. A brown linen sheet hung on Syeda’s knees to cover the bridge made by her knees. I quickly observed her breathing from the distance of her arm. Her chest was still rising and falling, her veins knocking with palpable power against my palm. Or, perhaps at this point, it was mine that pumped with vigour against hers. “So, are you going to stand there and admire this wife of my brother? Wives, I said, wake the bones of my fathers!” Nazareth knew Zirpho for her wicked tongue. She was the one who invented all the stories about the seer’s penis. She was not shy about suggesting despicable scenarios concerning Zach’s visits to Bessinia’s compound. Whenever I returned home, one of the ways in which Kishoma described the continued absence of my grandfather was to say that he had not yet tired of feeding the lecherous tongues of heathens of the order of Zirpho. Still holding the hand of Syeda, goaded by the remarks of Zirpho that everyone else was ignoring, and intimidated by the presence of the senior midwife, I found my hand adjusting the brown cloth that hung over Syeda’s knees. The veil fell to the one side, and Zirpho screamed and collapsed on the floor. There was nothing else covering Syeda’s 27

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bottom. Her dress was rolled up above the bulge of her stomach. I let go of Syeda’s hand and used both my hands to cover her again, trying to muster what little calmness that remained in me. Meanwhile, Zirpho was twitching on the floor, clapping her hands. She had knocked over an oil lamp, and a fire was beginning to catch at the leak. The wives were trying to get her onto her legs, stamping out the fire, and then suddenly Syeda spoke, “Save me this child, boy Epher.” At once there was silence. Syeda had returned to the wake. She started breathing through her mouth now, clutching the sides of the bed and pressing forwards. “Listen to me, Syeda Miriam, will you? Will you?” “Boy Epher, I am trying.” “That is good, trying is very good.” I removed the veil now, and nudged Syeda’s legs wider and backwards. “You will listen to me now, Syeda.” “I am trying, boy Epher.” “Mother,” I was glad to see the senior midwife coming to the fore, “I will need your help.” She did not reply. I went to take the blade from my shoulder bag and oiled it with the thick olive oil I kept, and then I rubbed it on my hands and up my arms. “It is coming … it is coming,” Syeda was crying. I looked and saw that it was not yet coming as she claimed. I went towards her head and began stroking her arm as I spoke to her. “You will press when I tell you to, are you listening to me, Syeda? Only when I tell you to do so.” “Get it out. It has come with the head now.” This came from the senior midwife, and threw my mind momentarily into chaos. I had not yet even found out what the matter was. The fathers had not been given the details. They never were on such matters. I was meant to receive the brief from the wives when I met them. But things had been fiery 28

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since I entered the compound. What the midwife said now puzzled me. I realized things might be more complex than I anticipated. How had the issue presented itself earlier if she said “with the head now”? I weighed my thoughts and decided to find out for myself. “Do not press yet, Syeda,” I told her once I had lubricated my hands some more. It was the first issue for her, and it showed. Then I went in past the head of the baby. I had just felt something around the neck when Syeda announced that she was tired. “Do not press yet, Syeda.” At once I felt the danger. The umbilical cord was tightly wrapped around the baby’s neck. “Not yet, Syeda.” I went to wipe my hands with my own top cloth, and then told Syeda, once again, not to press. “I need to speak to the presser.” The midwife shook her head sideways, and I could have used my oiled blade to cut the shock in the room into pieces. I left them to their confusion, with Syeda crying for my help. I knew that the eyes of the fathers would never burst out of their sockets when they did not as I entered their compound with haste and sweating. “Father,” I spoke to the presser, “seclusion needs thick oil.” “You say oil did what?” It was the older presser, our presser’s father. “The mothers require oil that is thick, Father,” I turned my head from the old man to address the presser: “It is needed at seclusion.” “Thick?” One of the men said, “He said thick, son of the sand.” As we exited the compound with the presser, his father said of me, “He needs to learn to be clear, does he not?” I could be wrong, but I suspect the other men agreed with this suggestion, and perhaps added other things they thought I still needed to develop, of which I was oblivious. 29

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I followed the presser to the pressing compound in which, by day, you could see silver containers and drums of cooling oil. Now that I had managed to get him out of the house, I did not know how to ask him for what I really needed. I was still following him, and we were approaching Kush’s fire. “Father,” I held him by the shoulder, “I need the oil of the fathers.” The presser paused abruptly. “You said thick oil, did you not? Now what is this?” He lowered his voice when he saw Kush lift up his head from the fire, and whispered, “We do not keep such a thing in this house.” Kush cleared his throat as though to say “What a load of manure!” Now he sat looking intently up at the sky, at the side that had no cloud but a scatter of sparkling stars. Our servant claimed to have the ability to read stars. So far there had been no reason to believe him. Or perhaps, my most Excellent friend, I should be saying there had not been a reason to doubt his claims. “Father,” I needed to get the oil of the fathers, “have you finished that which you kept when you met Syeda, the girl? I need it for,” I showed my hands, “I need to get the baby out, Father.” He leaned on the wall now, shaking, his face losing colour and becoming like that of people near Pharaoh’s land. Kush stood again, and this time did not hide the fact that he was listening. I saw the presser’s servant coming out of the compound with silver containers of cooling oil. He went to join Kush at the fire, and they each lit their rolled herb sticks, which made them cough, Kush more than the presser’s servant. The moon was high in the sky and a solid cloud of mist had formed above the lake down south. Cock-crow was not far off. I lowered my voice: “Father, we do not want to resort to sharps.” At that, the presser reached deep into the sewn-in sack of his undergarment 30

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and fished out a small container. He did not look at me, and I did not bother to enquire about this inconsistency. I opened the bottle and found that there was more than enough still left in it. I closed my palm and went to attend to Syeda. The oil of the fathers did the wonders for which it was reckoned, and I could find the cord with ease. It was wrapped around the neck only once, but very tightly, so that with every single forward push it was squeezing the life out of the baby. I asked the senior midwife to hold the one side of the cord. “Do not release, Mother.” She nodded reluctantly, but took the cord with her trembling hands. “Let us work together, Mother,” I said. She did not reply, she held, which was all I needed her to do. I measured a small gap on the cord and held the other side. Syeda’s next pressing came right then. I used the oiled blade to cut the cord near Syeda’s groin. The midwife and I held our separate cuttings of the cord to prevent the spillage of blood. “Now, Syeda, at once a strong press, young Mother,” I said, and – my friend – I learned the importance of gaining the trust of the mother with Syeda. Throughout my practice, I would remember this night. My instructions to her were now falling on sober ears. It was as though she had been through this before, and yet she had not. But it seemed she placed all of her trust in me, like she was doing it to save me from disgrace. Syeda nudged her baby forwards once, and I turned the head. “I am thirsty.” I told her to press some more, aunt Zirpho was going to get her water. “Is it not so, aunt Zirpho?” She did not respond; she left the room. Syeda pressed hard the second time and the shoulder appeared; on the last press, the baby was out with folded fists, tiredlooking, silent, purple. He came on the side of the senior 31

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midwife’s cord. She knew what to do, and I manoeuvred the afterbirth out of Syeda with relative ease. Zirpho returned with the water bowl, which I suspected Syeda was no longer interested in. No matter, Zirpho dropped it on the floor when she saw the baby in the midwife’s hands. “You are such a lazy boy, you. You tire your mother? You wear out Syeda like this? You torture your own mother? You say yes, Epher? Is not your name young Epher? Our own boy Epher.” It was difficult to match these words with the mouth they came out from: Zirpho’s. If it had not been for Herod’s order in a few months’ time, to kill all boys of two years and younger, Syeda’s child would have lived, your Excellency.

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Other Jacana Literary Foundation Titles

Planet Savage

African Delights

Tuelo Gabonewe

Siphiwo Mahala

The Zombie and the Moon Peter Merrington 132

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