Intwasa Short Story Competition 2019 – Naming Shadows by Priority Lungelo Ndlovu (2nd Place)
Nene ran her bloody fingers through the thick curls that made her hair. Something was in the crown of her head. A louse. A fat louse in its teens. She was going to kill it .She was a very capable being with an immortal soul. And she knew her body fed from it. Her soul. Her body sat on the laps of her goddess soul and suckled for its dear life. She could see the purple lakes turn into a dark hue that slides into a beautiful harmony with the rest of her skin. Her fingers searched in vain like dogs that sniff the ground for a snake that hangs from a tree’s branch right above them. It lived, the teenager lived. And if Nene was not careful it would become an overweight grandfather. The thought sent her into a rage. Her hands left her hair and pulled a pot of water from the old stove. The scalding water ran across the kitchen’s floor towards the pot-bellied fridge. The brave fat fridge did not run. Her father did not move too. He was a strong man. His strength went beyond times and had no respect for all ages of life; Nene would always remember that. She heard her mother cry from the other side of the door.
Her mother prayed for life today like she was running out of it. She asked for Nene. She asked for her husband. She pleaded for Mona’s return. She prayed for understanding .She screamed at the people who came asking her if she had a TV and /or radio. She told them they could buy the watcher’s license for her while she prayed for her family. Her voice then grew hoarse .She started to sob for all the things she had been asking God to give to her.
”Life .Life Abba Father! All that we have lost give it back to us!”
For her twelfth birthday Nene got a fully furnished bedroom .From the bed with the sturdy legs and the firm mattress to the cushioned couch that her older sister’s aching eyes took in the little girl stared in wonder.”You will not bolt from this one, right?” asked Nene’s mother. Her aunts and cousins burst into laughter.”She will do no such thing Mona’s mother; no one makes up bad stories about heaven. Hoho! ,” her youngest aunt successfully made the small crowd laugh a little longer. They all marveled the rich pink and the softer shades of blue. Her father would come in later and she would thank him for the gift. “You have grown Nelisiwe,” he would hold his princess’ hands and his grateful look would show he thanked God for that. Isn’t the growth and success of a man measured by the growth of that which belongs to him? He would leave her without having to turn his head to see how grown her daughter was. And she would stare at the clear vision of the back of his head with a beautiful pair of huge, dry eyes.
Five years later Nene would spend an entire day working tirelessly to replace the colours of her room with shades of brown and beige. She would not come out of her room nor eat. She hung frames of brown skinned girls on her wall. Her disturbed mother stormed into her room in a fit of rage. Nene did not look at her instead she reached for her gown and planted her hands and arms mid-arm deep into its pockets. Her mother would not move; she waved a wooden cooking stick at her daughter’s face.”You cannot wait for your father to go back to work after he has stayed longer than he usually does so you can harass me Nelisiwe. I have not seen this in a while , and you cannot bring it back into my life again, ” pleaded Nene’s mother. Nene did not say a word so her mother began to look for God in the white ceiling .All she could see were the blurry images of her younger daughter fleeing a shadow since the age of five.”You still do not see its face Nene?” A moment turned into minutes and Nene’s mother pulled the cushioned chair so she could sit down and wait for an answer. Nene shook her head and walked towards her mother. She knelt at her feet and rested her head on her huge laps and broke down into a tearful tired heap of burnt out flesh. “The louse also, it will not stop growing Mother,” she wept. “Isn’t it in your head my child?” Nene’s mother asked . “I use shampoo and conditioner on my hair Mother.” Her mother listened to her sobs and forgave her for being quite a load to carry for the umpteenth time .She was her mother after all and had to replenish her life every time she ran out of it.
Nene’s grandmother walked into the room. She was a plump woman, with gigantic breasts that she beat when she got upset. Her tongue was as sharp as the sickle that the clasped with her left hand. She sat on the floor and talked about how she had exclaimed from one price to the other for a 5L tin of groundnuts at the rank.” Shame on them! How do I welcome my son without a pan of roasted nuts?” her fat hands reached for her breasts. Nene’s heart sank. She grumbled about how she saw the Sihube bus leave before she could give the conductor Granny Mathanda’s sickle. It took her time to sense the atmosphere that sometimes welcomed her every time she walked into her granddaughter’s room. She gave both mother and daughter a warning look,”I told you .I told you she has to dance. For God’s sake she is turning eighteen next month; initiation school will not kill her.” Nene’s mother looked away in disgust and tightened her grip on Nene’s hand.”You will cut out the blood to that tiny hand MaTshazi just like you are doing with the rest of the girl’s life ,” the older woman spoke above the drumming of her own chest ,”I wonder whose hand you will hold when her older self resents you for the choices you are making for her.” Nene’s mother did not respond to this, she left the room and headed to the kitchen where her mother-in- law’s groundnuts waited for her .She picked them up from the sink and headed to the guava tree where she could shell them a good distance away from Nene’s room and MaZondo’s voice that filled the room and even spilled over through the fully opened windows.” Woman, be brave,” said the voice. MaTshazi could not lose Nene. It had been three years since Monalisa had left home. She had yanked herself out of her embrace and ran for her life. She had never seen her older daughter that frightened. Fright was Nene’s. But on that fateful morning Mona looked like she had also seen the shadow that haunted her younger sister .She remembered her two peas fighting over how Mona thought Nene just needed a shadow to exist so she escape the beatings she got for her bedwetting habits. Then there was the summer when Mona dragged soot covered seven year old Nene into the kitchen.”Mother she said she wanted to look like us,” Mona’s laughter had rung in Nene’s little head till she burst into tears.
During the night of that same day, the shadow came and Nene was brave. She handled it like a bad dream. She woke up in the morning, bathed and made breakfast for her parents and her grandmother. She sang a song she had never heard before. It got so beautiful and she started to whistle the tune.”Shame on you Nelisiwe Thebe! This is out of tune. and you are going to wake your father from his sleep or is this how you greet people you have not seen in months in this house, “ her grandmother announced her presence. “ He came in the early hours of the morning, yes you were fast asleep but girls should not whistle in the first place. I could hear you clearly from my room.” Nene never got the chance to have breakfast with her family. Her friend popped into her house and helped her pack her clothes for a youth camp.
Three days later Nene stared at a very apologetic pair of eyes that belonged to an old lady. Her father’s death was unexpected. “The heart,” mourned the old lady, “the heart my grandchild.” What about the heart? Nene’s mind ran through pictures of her father effortlessly completing three rounds under a starry –summer sky. She saw his dark skin glistening with sweat and his hand reaching for a glass of water. She saw him head to her mother after he had showered because she openly did not like the smell of sweat. She took in his laughing stomach ,how his umbilicus stayed neutral every time he separately promised to bring Nene and her mother skipping ropes from one of his long regional trips.
“You did not even get to see him,” her grandmother wept when she met her by the French door. “Tell her Mona’s mother .Tell the girl that her father looked well but he will be going back to the same dust that made him tomorrow morning.” Nene’s aunt tried to put her hand over her grandmother’s mouth, “Mother!” she screamed. “A clot,” her grandmother managed to push daughter’s hand away, “a clot dear MaThebe .Right from his foot to his chest.”Nene’s mother sat on her mattress and mourned her husband while her older sisters rubbed the thick blanket that hung on her shoulders. It could only be the very thick blanket that their hands could have an effect on. Nene realised that everyone had found a way to react to this. Her grandmother alternated between sitting next to her daughter –in –law and pacing up and down the sitting room. She beat her chest here and there .Her mother sobbed quietly. Her mother’s sisters wore solemnity and dutifully rubbed her mother’s thick blanket. The men sat under a tree talking in very low voices. Her father’s sisters screamed at God and at their mother when she needed to be reminded that Nene was watching her. Nene headed to her bedroom with her bag .She eaves dropped the neighbours talking about how reality was taking its time with her.”Yes, a few do not cry but everyone has to grieve. Tears are therapeutic,” a nasal voice gave the conclusion. On the following day Nene could not imagine their disbelief and sympathy when none of the expected feelings of grief could be evoked from her. She just did not know how to feel about any of that. It felt like a dream.
Two years later, Nene could not decide how she felt about helping her mother prepare for her father’s tombstone unveiling ceremony. This offended MaTshazi. Nene listened to her movements as she moved in the kitchen until she dozed off. In the morning she jumped out of her bed and startled her mother who had been watching her sleep. Her mother looked tired in her loosely tied apron. “Did you see it?” “No mother, it was a different dream,” replied Nene.” Have you been saying anything?”. Her mother gaped, “silly, I have just been watching my daughter .I have also been thinking about your father and Mona; replaying a lot of the good times in my head.” Her selfless mother looked her in the eyes. “Tell me about the dream,” she suggested. Nene said her mother had been chasing away “the license people” and that she had darker shin. The older woman laughed and Nene joined her. “You once came into the house covered in soot when you were seven. What about the shadow? It still has no face ?Grandmother said we could know their name if it had a face,” her mother tactically asked her daughter during the light moment. Her mother had been seriously entertaining MaZondo’s advice because Nene’s school performance was on its knees. Nene did not fall for the trap, “it remains faceless mother,” she chose to be sympathetic, “remember it does not even have a skin colour. Keep on praying for me.” “You never stopped suckling, did you? One day I will just run out of air and pass out with you kneeling at my feet,” the laughter only got louder. The two women made the bed and left for the kitchen where Nene toiled for both her sister and herself.
Exactly two years after her father’s death, Nene gave a short speech next to her father’s grave .Everyone nodded at every sentence that came out of her mouth. Her grandmother told her she was doing fine after she was done; she told her Dingani was so proud of her. MaZondo inquired about her dreams.”It still has no face grandmother,” Nene responded.”It is okay my flower although you look like you just show the shadow walk past us. Hahaha. You are doing fine anyway. It has been a lovely day,” her grandmother continued to refer to Nene’s speech as a state of doing fine.
At home, Nene agreed to repeat her second year. Her mother was over the moon and so was her mentor when she agreed to see a counsellor. She went into that air conditioned room and named the shadow in front of a bespectacled middle aged stranger with a fringe .She talked about how she felt like she had to name her battles in order to conquer them. And how she felt that the names of battles did not have to be known by everyone . Mrs Mpofu nodded when she said that there were instances she would wish she was dark as her. “It’s like I was this ripe pear that Father could always pick. And yes on the day Mona caught his hand at it she lost her mind.” In her head she could see the last breaths of the louse whose life she was cutting short .She imagined time giving her a new life and victorious races while her prayerful mother sat by the terrace and cheered her on with a first aid kit .She could peep into dreams were she was not looking for a louse in her hair and scratching her scalp till it bled. She could smell the fresh scent of Easy Wave’s conditioner in her hair.