What I’m about to tell you Pastor John doesn’t know. I’ve kept this story even from his God—I fully expect you’ll do the same. I’d witnessed Pastor John resurrect dead souls many times before, so I was sure we had plenty of time before the cursed would be reborn, saved by the blood of Jesus Christ and Pastor John’s pearly beads of sweat. Many improbable transgressions can deaden a man’s soul—improper fornication with your wife, insincere fiduciary responsibility to your tithe, irregular contact with your pastor, and all the other fleshly fixations you already know as sin. The deadened soul that Sunday belonged to a man who had sought consultation with false clairvoyants for his wicked spirit. He confessed to seeing a white shrink, but Pastor John suspected a sangoma 1 was also involved. I figured we had at least till lunch before any miracle was intervened for this sorry wretch.
We was me and the girl. She wasn’t keen on coming at first, but I reassured her that as the preacher’s son, me and Jesus had special relations.
We was me and the girl. She wasn’t keen on coming at first, but I reassured her that as the preacher’s son, me and Jesus had special relations. I also pressed a ring I’d saved from a lucky pack into her palm. It was sweaty, but without Pastor John’s saltiness or smell. Soft. Like when she let me put my long finger inside and it didn’t matter about her pimple breasts or no curves to speak of. I liked her. She was from a good family. Her parents never needed much soul resuscitations. Neither did I. Maybe that’s why they liked me.
Me and her go to the hole Bible Study weeknights. That’s where we were headed, to the hole. She was wearing a white dress with red polka dots. It was a little funny actually—it had a sailor collar that looked like me in an old preschool photo. She’d matched a shiny red belt, tying it around her waist. She wanted to call the hole the “Bible Cave.” I told her Jesus owed me money, so we could drop the Bible bits and just call it the cave, unless you’re guaranteeing his interest? That’s at least two thousand years interest accrued. And I’m still counting.
OK, OK, she said, we’re going to the cave.
I accidentally discovered the cave hiding from a lick. It’s past the rubbish dump area under the electricity towers. You first go up on these little koppies with wild flowers and blackjacks. There’s a red-clay patch ahead, where soccer matches smoke up dust. But if you look under the small hills, before you get to the pitch, you’ll see it. It’s a big ditch carved into the butt of the koppie itself if you know what you’re looking for, but most people walk fast over the rubbish veld, if they can’t avoid it altogether.
I would hop in the cave first and after, she’d climb down. So I got in there and heard my landing echo. Then I heard a snicker, turned around, and saw them. They were older boys from the neighborhood. They knew of me too, but we didn’t know each other. Someone stood up instead of responding Heita to my Hola? I wanted to leave, but just then, she made her way down. They spotted her first. One of them told all of them to sit down. They sit.
They call him Zama. Zama is not like them. He has at least five years on me, but from his body, I am older. You’re welcome here, he says, his face unsaying what he says. He stares squarely at me. I look at her, but she is looking to me. If we leave now, I’ll look like a blixum moegie.2 I won’t get this chance twice. So we sit. Me next to Zama and she next to me.
They relax when beer resurfaces. Wet dog hair, it smells like. Tastes foul, limpens my tongue. I drink more.
Zama says he’s seen me around; don’t I go to Ikageng Primary? We laugh when he e-e-enunciates how the Principal used to s-s-s-ta-ta-stutter during assembly. Still does, I chime. Your cherrie, his raised brow asks? I smile. She’s drinking too, but seems forgotten; maybe I should send her back?
Zama pours her more, tells me about his high school. He’s in eleventh grade with some of these same guys. He shows me his tattoo; can I tell what it is? I can’t say, I say. He promises to tell me one day; one day when it’s time to get mine. My chest swells. I drink more beer.
Zama says she likes it. You’ll have your turn too, he promises, a grip to my shoulder.
The girl is falling asleep. It’s time we go, I start, but Zama stops me, Do you want to be a man? I stand: I’m already a man. He stands also, slightly taller, again staring squarely, burrowing holes beyond my sockets. I look at the others but they’re quiet. Show me, Zama whispers. They snicker. I wonder why my knees loosen? How my jaw knows to slacken so my tongue can recoil, a soundless snail flittering in my throat? Why her voice doesn’t rise as deadened souls shout, I WAS DEAD, BUT NOW I’M REBORN?
Zama says she likes it. You’ll have your turn too, he promises, a grip to my shoulder. I shake my head. There’s a lot of blood. I worry about the spilled beer, the smell of it, I mean. Someone helps me; we clean her. Lift her to the koppie. She’s wobbly. I duck under her armpit. Her arm hugs my skinny shoulder. Her dress’s sailor collar tugs my shirt so it looks like I’m wearing it, so I look like me in my preschool photo.
Pastor John is raising the dead. The pre-dead man’s soul shakes the simple Church building without stirring the thick, leaden stillness outside. I tell her parents she felt ill and they thank me for helping her get air. I rush back with keys but she’s already lolling against a tire. I lift and lay her body flat, wipe what blood smeared the car, rub and swipe it in the grass. I close the door and hear Pastor John triumphant over his flock. Death is redeemed, sinner reborn. I look through the window to make sure she’s still sleeping. Her belt is missing. You think she’ll notice it when she wakes? The bells ring loud. Finally, the miracles time out and service ends.
Every Sabbath, Church women compete to add our hunger to their families and set our table just after service. Pastor John even relieves me prayers. I ask can I say grace today? He glares with suspicion but nods OK.
Lord, I begin: BlessThisFoodWeAreAboutToReceive. BlessThisDay. Forgive. Us. Our. Sins. Amen? Amen! Pastor John is staring when I open my eyes—a pastor who doesn’t lower his eyes in prayer. What sorts of Gods are his?
Between me and Pastor John, plates are piled high today. The women take turns outdoing each other but the meal is always the same: roast chicken and rice. Only one time was the bird fried and it looked decidedly KFCish—raised acne skin crunched, succulent innards deboned. Supporting acts to the main headline are recurring interpretations of mashed pumpkin, roasted potatoes, vinegared beetroot, and lettuce, cucumber, tomato salad, or chakalaka3. Plus there’s jelly and custard in the fridge for after.
I like eating meat first but have to fight my spoon today, tearing flesh from bloody bone and cursing the chef under my breath for not cooking this bloody bird through, when the itching begins. It sweeps over me like the rush of piercing air with your legs dangling, swinging in the sky.
Pastor John stands over me as I struggle to still myself, scraping ferociously against the floor. He has a disgusted pain in his face that can’t be said with words.
Pastor John chews. Heaps of mashed potatoes and pumpkin accept their fate on his plate, a conjoined wing-thigh follows suit. I won’t be excused until these mounds disappear, but the itch burning beneath my skin jolts me forward, demands full attention. I hear the clack my spoon smacks against cup and crockery as it falls out of hand, but don’t consider the beating this has already earned me, don’t see Pastor John’s stupefied bewilderment when the table tips, me toppling out of chair, tussling against a tide of prickling tickle, a ravenous swarm itching, crawling over every space of skin, so that I want to lift my encasing open and scratch the sinewy rawness where flesh and fat fold into limb, hand, foot—all the body parts confounding me now.
Pastor John stands over me as I struggle to still myself, scraping ferociously against the floor. He has a disgusted pain in his face that can’t be said with words. He spits at me, at my uncovered flesh, and for that split moment, his moistness quells my sting. He picks his wing-thigh off the linoleum tiles and heads out the kitchen door.
The itch lasted weeks. I learned to sooth my skin with as little clothing as possible and all the Vaseline I could stand. After the beating, Pastor John laughed about the krankrap4, promising to throw me in his rose bushes, where thorns would surely scrap any need to scratch. I shot him that teeth-baring grin he thinks is my laugh, promising myself I’d be gone not too long. In maybe two, three more years, I promised myself, Pastor John would be an erased unmemorable scar.
A couple times after school, I ran into Zama. He said he had a little sister there and sometimes came to see her, but I never saw this sister and didn’t know he had one. Am I still hanging out at the cave, he wanted to know? He told me he had a new kasi, I should check it out. How do you know Zama, my boys wanted to know? Oh, just here and there. I was playing it cool, even if I was disgusted with myself for relishing Zama’s attention. Painfully at first, mustering all the charm I had to swag, me and him became thick as thieves.
Zama’s new kasi was a backyard m’khukhu5 a few streets down. He was living with a washerwoman from Lesotho. She had relatives in QwaQwa, and whatever her washing business there, it seemed to take her from the township more often than it let her alone. I never met this woman, but Zama said she was a hippo. He was fed and fucked without fuss; she got her papers fixed. It was a fair arrangement.
The room was a world. Instead of newspapers, Hippo woman had covered it wall-to-wall with a mishmash of famous faces, expensive shoes and swanky clothes, flashy cars next to big houses, happy people eating exotic food, faraway cities with boats at their side, and small sparkling rings and necklaces where space was too tight to park a Hummer. It was dizzying and crammed the sparse room so you felt these people were with you—you could almost get in the boat and sail away with them. You forgot you were only seeing two enamel cups, turned upside down on the same tray where the kettle whispered. The small CD player became its outsized picture portrait peeking from behind, obstructed on the left by a real plasma TV and to the right, when you first walked in, the kitchen cupboard stacked with a pot, a pan, a two-plate stove, and a paraffin tank.
We sat on the bed, its thick wool blanket growing beige flowers along the edges of its frame. A wardrobe with mirrored doors double shifted as the headboard, and on my side of the bed was an empty Coca-Cola crate showing off Hippo woman’s beauty regimen: Palmolive soap, Dawn’s African Marula body lotion, Glycerine, Vaseline, a packet of matches, and the Holy Bible.
When I got home, I was careful to hide it somewhere Pastor John didn’t wonder.
Zama said he had something to show me. He reached under the bed, pulling out a shoebox with worn DVD covers. He pulled one out and slid it in the machine. Most people wouldn’t understand this, he turned around from the T.V., but something tells me you will. I did. It was magic: snow blanketing a white peacock, wistful dancing with fragrant, seductive mist and a glowing mighty ship drifting in the night. I had never seen anything so purely beautiful. Zama had seen it so many times, he could say the entire movie in Italian. He lit us old fags and we watched until the words lived inside me: Dimmi, chi è il padre di questo pezzo di merda—Tell me, who’s the father of this piece of shit? Voglio una donna—I want me a woman. I had to swear on my mother’s grave I’d return the DVD unscathed when I finally convinced him to lend it to me. But secretly, I think he was chaffed how much I got it. And what that said about him.
When I got home, I was careful to hide it somewhere Pastor John didn’t wonder. Not easy. My room was too obvious—subject to random raids and daily inspections before school. Pastor John was a soldier before priesthood; our daily routine followed a different time. So I hid it in plain sight, inside the computer’s CD drive.
The computers were donated to the church a while ago by Americans. They sat in the garage with other mold-growing Church paraphernalia until Pastor John found a traveling salesman who said he’d trade him a new car battery and throw in a flushable indoor toilet for the lot. Pastor John thought he’d made himself a fine deal till the auto mechanic came to take a look and announced the thing a Fong Kong, Banna! I’ve never seen anything like it. This bastard sold you a plastic battery. Sorry for my mouth, Muruti,6 but it’s kak, finish, and klaar. The salesman didn’t even bother coming back for the remaining two computers. Pastor John lost interest and merely grunted when I proposed using one to help Church ladies pay bills online and other little favors. The choirboy altruism was just a cover to surf soccer matches, play video games, and stream the occasional free porn. It worked. But something unexpected also happened—word spread that Muruti John’s son knew computers, first to the Church then to township gossips, who ensured the talk was evenly scattered. Soon, I had a steady drift of clientele who worried about with all manners of queer requests and general inquiries.
Ledwaba was a client. Notably slight, he wore his pants high enough to see an inch of his socks—favoring red against black. He had a cherrie who was on something he called the Book of Faces. A friend of a friend had seen her there advertising her m’khukhu for rent. This probably would have been fine, but the friend also reported a strange ou hugging Ledwaba’s girl in pictures advertising the said shack. The friend had told Ledwaba I had this Book of Faces. Could I look inside it and show him these pictures with his girl and the ou?
I considered explaining how Facebook works, that I wasn’t friends with his cherrie and might not be able see the pictures. Instead, I Googled “Rent M’khukhu”: Nothing. M’khukhu for lease: Niks. M’khukhu for hire: Bingo! “M’khukhu for hire: R600. Single healthy mens only. No parking. No car. With rules and shared yard chores. One year contract. Contact Isabella.”
I read the phone number out loud. His head was now in his hands. As for the incriminating picture, the girl was lying in the arms of the strange ou, a man a little under my weight on a bed with beige flowers in a crazy busy room. I didn’t flinch pressing escape, telling Ledwaba, his face still buried in his small hands, that there were no pictures. But why would he make up stories about your girl? I asked. Maybe it’s your friend you should worry about, heh? Ledwaba wasn’t easily persuaded, but I won him over. When he got up to leave, I snuck a peek at his socks—purple today. Purple has always been my lucky color.
I went looking for Zama the very next day. Of course, I knocked on Hippo woman’s corrugated iron door. It sounded hollow, an absent space. A perfectly ugly man with a badly bashed puza-face formed out of the door. His shoulders were hangers, thin wiry frames suspending a golf shirt: pewter, collared, with a baby crocodile suckling its left nipple—Lacoste. He was blind in one eye, the fleshy bits turned inside out. I wondered how he got his eye like that. Did he just flip it inside out or had he always been that way? Stuck? I made up some stupid story about the washerwoman and a load I was sent for. Luckily, Hippo woman was in QwaQwa.
I was practicing flipping my eyes inside out like that puza-face on the street and running late for supper. I scurried past Pholas and the cornerman shoemaker. Quarter past five. I had to have dinner ready by half past five. Shit! What could I possibly make in fifteen minutes? Sour milk with brown bread, but there wasn’t any iNkomasi and getting to the spaza-shop would take too long. OK, then what about Lucky Star Glenryck with pap and gravy? I could heat Sunday’s gravy and the pap would be ready in five. Mara Eish! The last time I made that fish Pastor John got sick and broke my nose, guaranteeing he’d never vomit from eating my cooking again. That left loaf brown with butter and jam and tea. Just as I was going through this list, I bumped into Zama and his crew.
The shit I was burying myself under was so high, I was better off concentrating on this spliff, not thinking where I was supposed to be.
Zama laughed so hard about Ledwaba and his girl in the Book of Faces—Kwaaa! The girl wasn’t even tight m’fanam! Are you sure it was me in that picture? Kwaaa! More side splits and whoops. How had I missed the humor in this story? I laughed a little. I was nervous now. It was past late but I had to keep my cool. What would I look like rushing home to play house in aprons, cooking dinners? I mean, I never wore an apron, but you get the picture. They were off someplace. Zama promised it would be worth my while, Come on, Boss. Arevaye. So I went. The whole crew followed.
We made a double up through Walter Sisulu Square. The shit I was burying myself under was so high, I was better off concentrating on this spliff, not thinking where I was supposed to be. But my heart pounded all through the Square. The first time I’d been here was with Pastor John. He would be sitting at the dining room table now, fists clenched, empty belly roaring.
Pastor John made me put on a suit with one of his ties the day many important people came to make speeches in Kliptown for the Square. I was very young, but I remember Pastor John saluting someone who came to the back, the very back back, where we were squished in with many others, all far beyond the VIP rope.
Pastor John’s eyes were filled with tears when the man shook his hand. He didn’t ask if the struggle was fought for stones in a square, he didn’t point out that even workers laying those freedom stones didn’t make enough to feed their right hand. Pastor John was shaking. It was the first time I heard anyone call him MK; the first time I realized that before he was my father, Pastor John was another man.
The train station was packed. Riff-raff riding back from Jozzie, girls in short school uniforms behind girls with even larger ezzies sticking out. It was the usual suspects, commuting life away. Zama and the boys held back, willing the train to leave. That’s when I got what he’d wanted to show me—these fuckers were playing Spider-man! The engine’s sound was their wind, making them chase metal grinding forward. I was running, running on a trembling platform, the train sounding heavier, my feet feeling lighter, mind faster…running out of platform, when Zama grabbed my flailing hand, stretched me into the car, pushing us into each other. I felt him. Doors shut behind us. Can still feel him. The car was loud. My blood alive. I looked at him. I could hear his breathing between closed lips; feel his eyes studying my mouth.
Hei, Zama! Stoksweets! It was Bin Laden—hanging out of the train window, legs swinging, each foot shod in a different shoe—coming up? It was scary at first, but you got used to that. All I could brave was standing, but some of these cats had mad style. Bin Laden was the wildest. He dip-dive-ducked, danced under bridges, bowing backward below power cables. He rode the train’s back on intuitive timing, flicking double-watched wrists to raw electricity. I couldn’t watch. Kids ran bluffs alongside the train, hollering applause, whistling these cheezboys on. Bulala m’fana! Bulala!7 And kill them he did, with his kamikaze-stunting and car-straddling craze. Zama shuffled a little sbhujwa jive, first shining his shoes with the tap of deft hands, next slow-motion ball kicking—it must have been caught in the bluff, where their shouting lifted us, sealed us impenetrable with megawatt love.
Zama wanted to leave Bin Laden and them in deep Soweto. Said they were just off to pour ultramel on each other, watch Bin Laden stomp his Fong Kong Rolexes, maybe burn money they didn’t have then pat each other like moegies, Ja ja. Sure, Boss! Sure. You saw it like it is—amaBlack Diamonds, Soweto’s number one Izikhothane crew. Shit is wek, he said, Let’s park off, Boss.
It was late when we arrived. Zama obviously knew this place. Yeoville. I’d heard about it, but now I was in the back of a bar with my spottie pulled low over my eyes. It was crazy inside. Nothing but bourgie Madam-type girls with fat cats rolling out of tight whips. So much straight up mangamla and black boy whites, I doubted this was any real kind of party. But Zama said we must stay, the Blk Jks are coming, I just peeped their tweet. He bought us beers before deciding it was only right to take a few more to teach them: what do they expect charging R20 a bottle?
The DJ wasn’t bad. Zama did his sbhujwa thing. When the Blk Jks finally pounced the stage, even the bourgies lost control. It wasn’t kwaito. Not even hip-hop. I never knew what hit me, but Molalatladi was a song for catching lightning rods. Was it the acid guitar wailing and scratching its body against tonight? Was it the concentrated husk of black males in chorus or the urgent howling for their dead? Did it even matter when me and Zama disappeared into each other, when we danced a flutter that faded us, rubbed our skins into one coating?
The train was alone traveling home. Quiet. Calm. We got on the roof and sat next to each other, blackened shadows kissing. The sky was a big empty land. A sweet wind carried lust in its chase, longing for the slow rising sun. The sun was only a promise, the same seedling of light Zama came to be in my heart. I sank back into this newness, marveled at seeing myself for the first time, discovering a labyrinth of private rooms I didn’t know I had in me. I looked over at Zama. His yawning mouth was swallowing my sun.
Pastor John was a forgotten past until I unlocked and lifted the church gate’s latch with the most exacting, tender care. He rose with the sun so I suspected he may have heard me, but my plan wasn’t to avoid confrontation, it was to postpone it until at least early evening, after school and after Bible Study, when I’d return and tell him a sound story whose details I’d work out all day. I used the church gate so my sounds would be softer and worked my way through the grass, past the path to the house and around the back. My room was on the other side of the kitchen through the passage. I’d be home free if I could make it in quietly. The kitchen door was always stubborn, so I uncoupled its key from the others and had some luck not fighting the lock too much. Slowly, stealthily, I worked my way in the dark.
I knew to avoid the table in the center with matching yellow plastic chairs tucked into its legs. I leaned on the old coal stove we kept in case of blackouts instead of the cupboards—they were a leaner steel that liked to squeak at slightest touch. I hugged my shoes to my chest and tried to use them as magic heart pacifiers. The trick worked. I made it to my room and changed silently into a fresh set of uniform— white long sleeved shirt, gray shorts, belt, burgundy socks, black oxfords, and blazer. I stuffed the tie in my suitcase and double-checked to make sure I had the right books corresponding with today’s subjects—nearly there. Deep inside my mattress, I kept a growing fund for that one day when I’d finally leave Pastor John. I grabbed a few emergency rand for tuck—my hunger from last night was itself a movable feast, I’d need a monster kota with slap chips and atchar, with ma-russian and extra cheese. Two fried eggs on top.
Why do you want to test me, he pricked, sliding a hand from under the table onto the Formica surface where a metallic luster now glistened. I’d seen Pastor John’s gun in his room when I was cleaning.
I was stepping out of the kitchen door when he flicked the light on without rising from the chair. Pastor John was a big man. His shoulders extended beyond the girth of the kitchen table, legs wrapping around the furniture and room as easily as an octopus. His enormous feet were inches from mine. Going somewhere? Pastor John spoke in questions when angry, relying on the awkward silence they prodded to surprise his enemy. Where have you been? eThekwini Baba, visiting Uncle Victor. Visiting Uncle Victor? He knocked his head back and laughed. Why don’t you think about what lies like that do to this family? I never understood this line in all the years I’d heard it—were we two a family? I said nothing. Pastor John only got angrier. I considered running out the door. I could be free.
Why do you want to test me, he pricked, sliding a hand from under the table onto the Formica surface where a metallic luster now glistened. I’d seen Pastor John’s gun in his room when I was cleaning. It was small, with funny inscriptions on the side in words I couldn’t understand. I really didn’t understand. Pastor John asked if I wanted him to finish me. Oh, I see—he was laughing again— You want to finish me. Because you’re a Big Man, aren’t you? OK, let’s see what you’ve got, Big Man. He pushed the gun toward me. I started to cry. The table’s chrome frame gagged the gun from falling. Pastor John stood, edged toward me. Me or You? Another question. You want to be the man or what? He goaded its metal to my temple. I tried to stop crying, to be silent, to be good. But Pastor John knew I was a deadened soul. He made me watch him cock the gun, forever forcing his memory on me. He made me witness him swallow a flash from the muzzle. He knew nothing could save me, not even him.
When they arrived, they found pieces of Pastor John where I had cooked food, where corn flour, water, and salt had congealed on so many nights into a bread of life, where, the morning after, I’d sprinkle sugar grains and milk into the pap to start another life. They came to try and resurrect my soul—paramedics carted him away with a crisp white sheet pulled over his face; neighbors cleaned paintings staining ivory cupboards and dotting the white fridge door; church women prayed me a song. I let them alone, stepping outside his house.
I retraced early morning footsteps, past the now peopled path leading to the house, into grassland narrowing toward the back of the Church and around the building, to the small gate I’d invested so much entering. I opened it again, stepping through, walking to become myself, treading tenderly into a clear wild chaos where I would remake myself. I saw me finally walk away from Pastor John’s house, a broken soul that wanted to shout—I’ve been reborn.
1. A kaffir doctor, as Pastor John likes to say.
2. A motherfuckin’ mutt, just like my man in Goodfellas knew, You, you fucking piece of shit!
3. Mine I make with fried carrots and onions in Rajah Mild & Spicy and a skotlolo full of pickled mango atchar. Ah, now you want to know what’s a skotlolo? Damn, haven’t you heard of Google?
4. Your monkey scratch, he jabbed.
5. m’Khukhu. Zozo. Shanty. Squatter camp—what makes our poverty a tourist attraction.
6. The smarmy fool apologizing to his Muruti John. Pastor John? The same Pastor John who spoke more shit out his mouth than anything a grown man could pile up in a week?
7. They could have been dirty DRC kids chanting their war anthem, Ali Bomaye! I mean, it’s all African. We already all look alike, why not sound alike?
Magogodi oaMphela Makhene is a Soweto-born social entrepreneur and writer. She has been published in An Ethical Compass: Coming of Age in the 21st Century, an anthology by Elie Weisel. She cofounded Zenzele Circle in 2009. Zenzele unlocks Africa’s growth potential by partnering with world class African entrepreneurs whose businesses help solve systemic social problems. She lives in New York but her heart is buried in Diepkloof, Zone 2.