Read pt1 here.
“Ngoba,” she said at last, “why do you ask?” A bubble of soreness burst in her throat.
That was the only word she could muster.
“Why do you ask” she answered us with a question. She gulped. Swallowing her voice.
Her very children were pulling clogged nets from her spirit. Awakening demons she had laid to rest. The day he passed, she had vowed to herself to remember him in secrecy. She quietly shelved their precious memories, chewed her tongue and said to herself, “hide this.”
end of Pt 1.
The mother who chewed her tongue Pt2
Flashback a few months ago…
Pelisa is driving us. We are going back home now.
Mama is looking out the front window taking pictures of the rows of faded grass sprawling over the winding land on the roadside. My fingertips gripping on the stick, pulling out my sucker from Zweli’s mouth. He clenches his front teeth making a g’dlhe sound. I raise my eyebrows, mildly agitated by his excessive suckling and the thought of his moisture-laden tongue surfing on my stock-sweet. I blink then look up and catch sight of ma as she reviews her amateur images. She’s hoping to find a colorful capture.
But..we already know there is none to be found.
Not only owing to her photo taking skills, but also ’cause no orange buttery sunset or thin silver twilight will suddenly stretch over the bland rows of grass to melt into the horizon of her images.’
Her back is hunched in with her head bowed slightly low. An unusual deportment compared to her general posture. Her right thumb is plodding over the review button. The faded grass she is gazing into is a mirror of the sterile silence that gnaws through her veins. I choose to not ponder about ma, her well-being or the mild lonesomeness that flashes across her face. I Instead listen to the background radio playing a song by the Soil. My eldest sister Pelisa turns up the volume and we sing along: “Thula ndivile, ndibuyele khaya, ndibuyele ekhaya.” I, holding the white stick of the sucker in front of makazi like a microphone and then in front of Zweli and then we all at the same time belt off singing “su-ss-e-e-e-nn“ (hands clicking) “Zundikhumbule-eee-eee” (feet rhythmically tapping). Our shoulders waggling from left to right like dense dust on a windy day.
“What’s the Capital of Liberia?” I ask.
“Botswana,” Makazi confidently answers. I slickly close my mouth, inhibiting the smear of surprise that would have shaped my jaw drop.
“The capital of Zimbabwe?”
Silence and then in unison, they shout.
“Awesome, the, the-the capital of Tunisia?”
“Addis Ababa!” Zweli shouts.
I smile. Amused.
We squeeze in a short cackle.
No haze of humiliation, or need to twitch the mouth leftwards, belching out wordless mumbles to mark embarrassment. Ample years of breathing the same air, homing together waded out the tiny muscle of humiliation that would’ve otherwise knuckled, tightening each of our stomachs by the end of the Capitals game.
Today is the second Saturday in December; the first hour I am spending with the family upon my abrupt return from my semester abroad.
I spent an explosive three months gamboling and exploring the outdoors of Laos. It feels wonderful to be home, laughing, smiling. I have bags of cliché stories and fresh tales, but I wait. I’ll tell them more once they ask.
I should have been coming home in two weeks only. Not now, not for this, I would have hoped.
Ma’s message brought me home in 4 days. It read;
“Zinqi come home if you can sisi, Bume is late.”
When evening came that day, I sat and I wrote:
“Tonight I fear to go to bed. I am afraid my heart will break in my sleep, into small bits and pieces”. What began as a journal entry turned into a letter to Bume, ending with the words
“Oh you gallant spirit, I did not know you could die. I did not know that you would muster the same gusto and spirit to walk into the endless corridor of stillness as you did when you first walked into our home. But then again what is death to a man who could selflessly love children born of another seed as though they were his own. “
Bume walked into our lives in my 11th year. He carried with him a sheer constantness, a variation-lessness. Year on year he poured his commitment out and out. He often came home with raisin bread, Christmas cake and 2% low-fat milk. In the mornings, he would ring the doorbell at 11:13 am for a bowl of hot porridge then later in the evening for a full meal; peas, beetroot, chicken. On special days like Sundays, he particularly enjoyed the rice that twinkled, dusted with mixed vegetables and spice for rice.
Routinely, around 8:35 pm in the evening, he would nip from his cup of boiling hot milk and at 9 pm he would finally nest into the couch, with his arms folded across his plump belly. He would then start his commentating on the most sordid characters and scandalous scenes on Muvhango, offering more palatable story lines and less contentious endings.
When trodding back home, sometimes by the doorway, he’d finally give in and offer me a wet peck for a goodbye. I linger as I remember that bird like poke of a kiss from his aged supple lips. He never had to say it, we understood his fondness for each of us. It ran deep. Consistent.
Fatigued by smelly feet he once came home with a Checkers plastic bag, full of green colored foot spray bottles.
“Kaloku kuyanuka apha, he said, the boys feet are smelling, cause they don’t wash.“
His statements were always round and conclusive, absolute. No sickle-space for a perhaps or a maybe. “The boy’s feet are smelling, Cause they don’t wash.” That was the kind of thing he would say.
Bume’s home was decorated with aging furniture and glimmering ornaments, placed in the same position he first put them after buying them in the late 80’s. He always sat by the small table directly facing the passage lined to the front door. The table with the little lace mats and the out of service Telkom telephone. The ridge of his hand would lightly lean on the arm chair and he would use his right hand to point and turn the pages of his Daily Dispatch newspaper.
If one moved further into the house, further than the ending of that small table he would unblinkingly say “ungabi ke apha, do not steal.” Regardless myself and Zweli would slowly, then nimbly move towards the passage into the rooms to scuffle for nothing. The two dim bathrooms in his home always carried the soft scent of savlon mingled with red Lifebuoy soap.
I enjoyed muddling with his warm, tender hands, lolling my palms on his willowy fingers. After cupping his hands to mine I would often instruct him to affirm his love for me. “Bume, say I love you Zinqi, come Bum-e-ee sa-y-yy ittt, say I love you Zinqi.”
Some days he would abide and do as told.
So when I read that text from ma, warm tears dropped from my eyes, streaming down my chest, between my breasts, flowing into my belly. It wasn’t that deep sharp spring of pain. But it was a knowing. A deep knowing that I had lost much. I had no words to explain this. I just knew it.
Lately, when I listen to the songs they magnificently sang (full baritones interlaced with soft harmonies, and sweet sopranos) at his funeral, my senses are suddenly sharpened with a hurtful clarity. Mixed with his memory, I become aware of the gaping holes, the void places that have made a home in my heart. Then tears grow and shimmer in my eyes, impatiently forming glimmering octagon shapes that resemble bee homesteads. The tears gather and thump to the ground. Hounding the earth. Water and salt. Dust to ashes.
At Bume’s funeral, I tracked ma from the corner of my eye. Her orange lace doek flapping back and forth from the light wind. She stood stock, stiffening her toes, lifting her neck high, stretching her upper body long to see over the rails of people who circled the rectangular pit. She was trying to catch a glimpse of the wooden coffin as it descended to the basement of the earth. I stared at her. She looked older than usual. Her skin ruffled, blemished by pokes of open pores, with dark hues hovering over her cheek bones in the shapes of oceans as drawn on world maps. The years of silence had beaten her skin unconscious. Yet she stood. Placidly. Strong. I moved closer to her. She had catapulted herself into a Phoenix. Unbreakable. Glorified in strength. Expected to rise. Ready to move on.
The melancholy reminded me of that day when I was 6 when I found her in that unusual room after searching for her with Zandi. Her hip taped to the floor. With dark skinned, thin eyed elderly women sitting around her to ease the brutality of loss. Like that day, she lifted her arm and softly placed her hand on my back.
Her mouth opened softly ajar. As if she was about to say “it will be okay.”
If she knew how to speak, she would have said those words.
I looked up.
Her tongue was gone.
She had chewed her own tongue. Befuddled by this sight my eyes widened, creased with concern. Before I could say something, a disturbing scream rang in the crowd. All eyes peered, darting to find the screamer. An old rumpled woman had found her way to the top of the rectangular pit that held the descending coffin. Her cry bellowed from the ends of her lungs. The feeling from her cry splashed the air, permeating the space like the sound of angry waves. She flailed her arms in the air and genuflected to the ground. Screaming, “ndiyawa bayi’ntoni engasekho uBume, whom will I be now that Bume is gone?“
If she could have, my twice-widowed mother would have screamed the same words. Only that her’s would have only hovered and yelped at the roof of her mouth. A woman without a tongue, one with censored utterings can only be a mute.
Ma’s silence is a castle. Wordlessness presides there. Forgotten stories and memories are boxed in gelid storage rooms. Unuttered. Long rooms, some unused remain sealed with knobs of gold silence. A signpost hangs on the door knob and it reads, ‘keep closed
hide this.’ Even in speech, her words are sometimes narrowed. Whether they fizzle with a sting, or burn with hurt, or rouse with anger, they stay walled. On the roof of her mouth.
With Bume though, a scream was impermissible.
She and Bume were only friends. She could spend her energies, shift his tables, wash his clothes and curtains. But she was to remember to never make a home for him or his possessions. She could know of his whereabouts, care for him when ill, prepare his boiling white porridge, yet she knew he was not her’s. And she was his.
As I thought of the many doors in her castle and the creeping silence that struts on the lines of the windows seals, I wished to ask her.
What do you do when you are alone ma?
When no one sees?
Do you pull out your tongue, to brush and wash off the wounds?
Do you apologize, apologize frantically to yourself for chewing your own flesh.
Do you bellow and cry to break the silence? To wade through the melancholy?
I wished to ask her.
What does it feel like ma? To have to collapse and then stand up in the sea of your own silence?
What is it like, to be a widow? (Illegitimately) twice-widowed?
To raise the fatherless? To belong to your children. To belong to the tangled home where your children outsourced their last name.
To belong to all yet to never be your own?