I am worn out from my day of rest. My two sisters, their husbands, and five children just left my tiny house. With Umama’s passing, I became the matriarch. Even though I am seventy-three, I conduct every Sunday as if mother is still here.
My family gathers at the neighborhood Xhosa church. After three hours of clapping hands, singing hymns in our native tongue, and dancing in the isles to give praise to uThixo,we leave Soweto and bounce along potholed streets in an old Kombito the Catholic church in Johannesburg. Then after singing sad songs about all Jesus has done for us, we ride to my home on Tulip Street.
Today is my birthday so dinner is on the scale of Christmas. So is the devastation. Industrious by nature, the children create a special performance and sing and dance their way across my living room. Two drinks spill. As the room quiets, my younger sister rips into her husband for forgetting to put my gift in his truck.
When I have my house back to myself, I pull a family album off the shelf and lower my aching bones into my recliner. The crinkled portrait of my sisters and me causes me to think about how old I am. I sigh and let my thoughts drift to a younger day.
Baby sister Onele and I look like our mother and the man she married at age fifteen. Our older sister, Ngaliswa, is the product of a blue-eyed Dutchman who disappeared before any of us were born.
Ngaliswa’s paleness is a free pass to special favors. Most upsetting is that Ngaliswa spends the week with our grandparents in Johannesburg and attends a school for whites that everybody knows is better than any school in Soweto.
Umama says Ngaliswa’s hair is apricot. Truthfully, my sister’s hair is as orange as a ripe horned melon. Why this qualifies her for special treatment is beyond me. Bini claims it’s because of the pencil test. For us, a pencil stuck in our hair stays where put. In Ngaliswa’s hair, it slides as easy as a knife through our grandmother Hulu’s hand-churned butter.
Still, this doesn’t explain why Ngaliswa gets to sleep in Hulu’s pink guestroom four nights a week. Or why she rides in a yellow school bus while Bini, my best friend for life, Onele, and I walk dusty roads to get to school. However unfair, this special treatment is why Ngaliswa is at our grandparents’ rather than home.
Umama heats her black frypan on the hot plate. The cooking oil crackles and pops, then she adds chopped potatoes and morogo, the flowering African spinach we grow in our small yard. After we eat, we fill our bellies with water because we won’t eat again until Umama returns from work.
For dinner, Umama prepares a pot of umngqusho from beans, potatoes, onions, and samp. We are fortunate Umama cleans house for a family that refuses to eat chicken feet. This addition to our porridge makes us the envy of the neighbors. Our grandmother also helps.
Every Sunday we are up at dawn for church services. Umama fills her woven bag with newspaper and places the Bible on top. At the large white tent that is our Xhosa church, she sets the bag at her feet and adjusts the newsprint to cover the Bible. We do not want to offend uThixo.
Three hours later, we offer a final prayer. Umama throws the bag over her shoulder and leads us to the dirt road. We catch an old Kombi for blacks and coloreds only and ride to the Catholic service in Johannesburg, the only church that welcomes both whites and blacks.
Unlike the big white canvas tent that moves in the breeze as if it has a life of its own, the Catholic church is as stiff as its cinderblock walls. To each side of the double doors stands giant statues of white men with wings. Umama says they are saints who protect the church and the sinners who come to pray.
Like the church, the saints stand stone-cold still. I stop to rub one shiny white leg. Umama nearly rips my arm from its socket and propels me toward the wooden pews.
I slide in and shape my hands into a triangle that covers my lips and nose the way the missionaries taught me. “Thank you, Jesus, for making white church last only one hour.”
The Catholic priest is calm. His voice, like a motorcar, drones on and on. I sink against Ngaliswa’s shoulder until our mother notices and slaps my knee. When the altar boy snuffs the candles, we gather our belongings and wait at the side of the road for the Kombi that will take us to Hulu’s house.
Our grandfather Umkhulu sits at the head of the dinner table. He tells my father of a lawyer who came into Kapitans where my grandfather eats lunch with his friends. “That young man says we blacks have to join forces and rule ourselves.”
Umama ignores the men’s conversation and points at me. “Look at those bellies. Little piglets.” I sit up straight, pull in my tummy even though her smile means she is teasing. “Thank your grandmother for her generosity. Without her, you would be twigs.”
When we leave Hulu’s house, Umama tucks the Bible under her arm. The newspaper is in our grandmother’s kitchen trash, and the handwoven bag is stuffed to its brim. We don’t talk about how our father must notice we have extra food. He spends most of his earnings at the shebeen, drinking and gambling with the neighbor men.
Our participation in this charade protects his false pride, allows him to brag. “I am a good father. My girls are never hungry.”
Umkhulu is the only person who does not suspect. He wouldn’t think of entering the kitchen or carrying a shopping sack, considers it woman’s work. The closest we ever came to getting caught was once when Umkhulu leaned in the door and growled, “Where is my dessert?”
We are poor but with Hulu’s secret care package, we have more fruits and vegetables than our neighbors. Compared to other children, we are rarely sick. So, when Onele first complains of a swollen throat, no one worries. We are protected by our grandmother and two gods mother swears will defy even Umkhulu on our behalf.
The next morning, Umama touches Onele’s forehead. She takes a piece of galangal root from a rusty tin and pounds into powder. When it dissolves, Umama dips a washcloth in the solution and drapes it around Onele’s neck. “Only a sore throat. Should be well tomorrow but no school today.”
Onele coughs up a slimy ball.
Umama frowns. “Eshile, you must stay home from school.”
“But, Umama, every Monday teacher reads from David Copperfield. Today we find out if David’s mother lets her new husband send him away to boarding school. Or does she love him more than this horrible man and keep David home with her?”
Umama raises one eyebrow. I abandon my protest.
Occupied with the consequences of continuing my argument, I am distracted as Umama lays out instructions of how I should care for Onele while she is at work. She makes a dipping, then a wringing motion with her hands. While her words do not register, I think this pantomime means that when the cloth gets warm, I should dip in in the cool mixture again and wrap it around Onele’s neck.
“I am sorry, Eshile.” Umama leads with guilt to prevent me from voicing the protest I am practicing in my head. “You love going to school, but I know you love your baby sister more.”
My mother walks out the door. I am doomed to spend the day with Onele. The thought that Bini will come over and tell me of David Copperfield’s fate brings little comfort.
“It’s not the same as being there to hear the words,” I say to my sister’s sleeping back and resign myself to checking on her every hour.
The third time I go to Onele, tears are leaking from the corners of her eyes. I heard her whimper earlier but pretended I did not and continued to reread my battered copy of Treasure Island.
As I kneel, Onele whimpers. “My jaw hurts.”
I slide my hand underneath her shoulders and raise her to offer a drink. Her sleeping mat is cold and wet. Wetter than it should be from the damp cloth. She has been crying for a while. Her cough sounds like a barking dog. I put the cup to her mouth. She struggles to swallow. Water dribbles onto the mat.
Umama will bring Auntie Grace when she gets off work. Auntie will have more alpinia galangal to grind in with the other infection curing herbs she grows in pots.
I wonder if I should ask the old lady next door help me carry Onele to the clinic. Umama swears missionary doctors don’t take an oath to make blacks well the way they do for whites.
I know the neighbor will help me. She claims my mother is wrong, that the clinic has real doctors and medicines and they never use witch doctor potions like Auntie Grace. She says this because when her oldest daughter gave birth, Auntie’s mixtures, chants, and burning leaves didn’t stop her daughter’s screams.
Her son ran to the clinic for a white doctor. He said they waited too long. The baby twisted inside and wrapped a cord around its tiny neck. Now the old lady next door won’t let Auntie Grace treat any of her children, calls her an evil witch doctor.
Our neighbor is the one who’s wrong. My auntie is a healer. Hulu says she has a special grace and power that explains why the ancestors compelled her in a dream to name this daughter Grace. Auntie also trained for five years before the elders allowed her to wear the mantle of a sangoma.
The sun is sinking. Umama won’t be home until after dark. It’s up to me to do what she would want and carry Onele to Auntie Grace.
Onele is heavy. I struggle to stand. Her skin is hot, yet she shivers when I pick her up.
Every day, Auntie Grace carries a big black pot to where my father and other men wait for a ride to the maize fields. Most of the men left their families behind in their tribal villages to find work. Eager for a home-cooked meal, the men bring their own dented metal cups to dip into the warm pot of mieliepap. They pay her well.
No one makes sheba sauce as delicious as Auntie Grace. I help her, so I know her secret. I grind the peanuts and chop the chilies, tomatoes, and green vegetables.
My memory conjures the rich aroma. Just last night, my father ate the last bowl of mieliepap, a helping that was my payment for working long hours over an open fire. A second reason to feel sorry for myself.
This late in the day the men have bought all of Auntie Grace’s mieliepap. She may be on her way home. But when Onele mumbles and her eyeballs roll, I decide I should not wait.
Before I reach the door, Onele falls asleep in my arms. I stop, wonder what to do. Her face is smooth. The pain must be gone if she can doze off so easily. I return to the family sleeping room and place her on my dry mat.
I carry her wet sleeping mat to the eating table and drape it across the wooden chair. The weight pulls the chair backward, crashing to the dirt floor. The dust that catches between the fibers turns into mud.
Onele cries out in her sleep. I mutter, “UThixo, Jesus, are either of you around?” I look up but don’t see a sign. “If you help, I promise, never again will I want Onele’s chicken feet for myself.” I listen.
“And I’ll never again be so evil as to resent her. If you cure my baby sister, never again will I make her cry.”
As I offer these promises, it occurs to me both uThixo and Jesus must know while my sisters and I profess undying love, our loyalty depends upon which church Umama has dragged us to. Surely, they think we are two-faced.
Fear moves me to action. I grab the scrub brush from the metal pail and clean Onele’s mat. This time when I hang it to dry, I lean the chair against the wall.
I sit by Onele, wondering if the noise of my carelessness disturbed her sleep. Her breath is rough, like Bini’s cat when a furball catches in his throat. I renew my prayers, first to uThixobecause I believe his strength is greatest.
I finish my plea and open my eyes. Nothing has changed. I turn my prayers toward Jesus and whisper “Father, Son, Holy Spirit,” then freeze. I have done it wrong, didn’t touch my chest when I said Son. “Sorry, Jesus.” I start again.
“Jesus, you may not know it yet, but when Onele hid the scarf I always wear to Sunday dinners at Hulu’s house, I wished blisters upon her tongue so she could not eat the sweets grandmother makes.” I put my hands together. “Dear Jesus, Umama is right. I am a foolish child. Please, I take it back.”
My heart is breaking. My sins may be too great to be forgiven by offering a single prayer. “Jesus, I confess my faults, and they are many.” A gurgling in Onele’s throat halts my whispered confession.
When I speak again, the fringe of curly hair on Onele’s face shimmies from the force. “Jesus, I also confess that even though the priest calls on us to pray for each other, my prayers have been for myself.”
Onele groans. My heart skips a beat.
“Jesus, I promise I shall never again ask for her to go away, or fall in a ditch, or get eaten by a lion.” I lay down so close I am breathing Onele’s hot breath. For an instant, I wish for a washrag to place between my face and the earth floor, but I catch myself. “Forgive me, Jesus. There is nothing I need. I pray only for Onele, ask only that you heal her.”
The rising and sinking of Onele’s ribcage increases, quick as a swallow’s breast. She places her sweaty hand on my chest. I reach out to her and feel the crazy beat of her heart beneath my palm.
As we lie, face-to-face, touching each other’s chests, I inhale deep and slow. A sense of power flows over me. I count. One… two… three. Her hand twitches. I hold it tight against my heart. Four… five… six. Our breathing synchronizes. I am flooded with relief. The rhythm lulls me to sleep.
I still hold Onele’s hand against my chest, when Hulu shakes my shoulder. “Eshile, what is wrong with your baby sister?”
“Hulu, you came. I prayed someone would.”
“Ngaliswa and I went to the market. I bought fresh vegetables black Yoruban soap for Onele’s itchy rash.”
Anything that steals Hulu’s attention away from me feels like a thorny stick poking in my neck. But I just promised both my gods I would take care of Onele if only they make her well, so I say, “She will be happy not to scratch so much.”
Onele’s eyes flicker. “There’s my baby girl.” Hulu presses her hand against Onele’s forehead. “Hot. Eshile, get cold damp rags.”
The night before, I hauled a plastic bucket of water from the hydrant at the end of our street. I dampen Umama’s only kitchen towel.
“Ngaliswa, Eshile, sit beside your baby sister. Wipe her down. Don’t quit until her body feels cool to your touch.”
I cry out, “Hulu, please don’t go.”
She stops at the doorway. “Big sister will stay with you. Must get your Auntie Grace.”
Onele is still asleep when Hulu returns with Auntie Grace. “Thank the ancestors, we are not too late.”
Auntie Grace shuffles her feet and circles Onele. She chants and rocks her head forward and back. Hulu, Ngaliswa, and I step out of the circle and lean against the wall. We don’t move or make a sound.
Auntie Grace opens her red cloth sack. She stretches the opening and shakes the sack upside down. Animal bones tumble to the floor. Fingers in constant motion, she rubs and rearranges while talking softly to the bones until they are arranged to her satisfaction.
Then Auntie Grace removes a leather strap from around her neck. Between her hands, she rolls the amulet that had hung between her breasts. The feathers flare. Beads, chards of colored glass, and miniature animal bones bounce off each other to make a tapping sound. She swirls and sways. A shiver creeps down her spine and runs out her arms.
Sweat glistens on my auntie’s brow. A moan escapes from deep inside her chest. This is not the first time I have seen her eyes darken from brown to this glassy black.
“Your baby sister’s body is infected.” Auntie Grace kneels and wraps her large hands around Onele’s throat.
Onele’s body tenses. Her chest doesn’t rise or fall.
“Stop!” I pull on Auntie Grace’s arm. “Don’t do it, Auntie Grace.”
Hulu pulls me away. “Let her go, Eshile. She must treat the wound before it ignores the medicine. Only then will theprunus tea release its power.
Auntie Grace reaches into her goatskin bag. “Eshile, take this yellow justice. Boil it in two cups of water, then add these dried stinkwood leaves until they are soft.”
I heat the yellow justice and water on our hotplate. When I sprinkle the stinkwood leaves on top, they dance among the bubbles and give out a scent similar to the roasted almonds our neighbor sells at the open-air market. I empty the steaming liquid into our only cup that has no cracks.
Auntie Grace chants faster, with more energy. Her glance darts from Onele’s legs to her head.
Onele’s eyelids flutter. Hulu slides her arm under my sister, holds her like a baby, and pours the healing potion in her mouth. Onele sputters and spits.
Hulu puts her lips to Onele’s ear and whispers, “Drink, baby girl. You must drink.”
Onele’s eyes beg Hulu to pull the cup away. When she doesn’t, Onele takes a sip.
I jump when Auntie Grace barks. “Eshile, don’t just stand there. Fill a pan. Boil the umhlabangubo root until half the water’s gone.”
I pour more water from the plastic bucket into the metal pan, turn the hot plate to high, and wait.
When the water boils, I drop in the root. It tumbles and rolls, then floats to the top. The stale air becomes fragrant with the earthy scents of eucalyptus, soil, nuts, and bark.
“What do I do next?”
Auntie Grace stands and holds out the rags.
“Soak these in the umhlabangubo juice. Then wash the bose geeste off. Don’t miss a single spot. Those evil spirits can hide in the smallest fold of her skin.”
Hulu and I cover Onele’s arms and legs with steaming towels. We are cleaning my sister’s body when in walks Umama. She rushes over and lifts Onele in her arms.
“Leave her be. Let her rest,” says Auntie Grace.
“Feel her forehead,” says Hulu. “The evil spirits have let go. Grace took care of that.”
I look toward a drumming on the roof. I pray the bose geeste are departing, but it’s only rain. The air is hot and muggy, yet I shiver.
Umama says the ancestors weep because we rarely have enough to eat. We should be grateful they are watering our garden. But all I see is gray storm clouds.
I lower the footrest on the recliner and turn to the next page of the album. Now I understand why as a child, gray clouds were all I could see. Many in this album have passed on, but the rest found their way. I smile at the thought of future photo albums to be passed on to the members of our tribe yet to be born.
I need worry no longer. Onele’s oldest will rise to the role of matriarch and the ancestors will serve her as they have me. Sending warnings and never leaving her side.
Dr. Pat Spencer’s short story, Oceanside: A Healing Place won the fiction category for the 2019 Oceanside, Write On! Literary Festival.Story of a Stolen Girl is her first novel. Her other publications include a textbook, newspaper and magazine columns, and trade and scholarly articles. She is now writing her second novel,Sticks in a Bundle.