A short story
When Auntie died Mama stopped talking to my sister and me, for a week, three days and nine hours. When she heard the news, her phone slid off her slim long fingers and fell into the bowl of carefully chopped spinach that she was going to fry with red onions, garlic and tomatoes. A favourite.
Lulu quickly grabbed the phone, the voice on the other line repeating, ‘Hello? Miriam, are you still there?” But Miriam wasn’t there. She sat on the blue kitchen chair, the one with a shifting seat, and she was gone for a week, three days and nine hours.
Lulu told Uncle that Mama couldn’t come to the phone and promised she would get her to call him back. We don’t know if she heard Lulu tell her to call back, or if she heard us when we spoke to her that evening, the next morning, the whole of the next afternoon, until we gave up in the evening and avoided her silence.
In that week, those three days and nine hours she hardly ate and when we bumped into her and forced to look at her face, we noticed how the bags under her eyes were oppressed by something heavier than grief. If we did happen to lock eyes we saw the accusation, as though we had unknowingly conspired with death to take her sister away.
Each time she came home from the police station without a permit to go bury her sister, the silence took on more flesh, fattened its belly with the awkwardness that stretched its legs in our living room. We weren’t allowed to travel until the end of the Lockdown but the regulations did allow for a few people to travel between provinces for funerals and burials.
There was a time in that week, three days and nine hours when she looked like she was coming around, they had given her hope about the permit. We also felt that hope when for the first time after Auntie died, Mama cleaned the house and cooked a meal that tried. She still didn’t speak but we were hopeful. When she came back the next day, it wasn’t the permit that was the problem anymore and that wall that had slowly started to come down quickly rebuilt, higher and thicker. Only fifty people could attend a funeral and so, we’d find out after two weeks, three days and nine hours, just when Mama was about to get her permit the list of funeral attendees had been filled and submitted. She couldn’t go bury her sister.
Where she was you’d find me. Where she was and I wasn’t, was surely where I’d eventually be. Miriam and Ouma, three years apart but everyone called us twins. Our mother dressed us the same until we sort of became individuals with different shapes and tastes, and one too tall and skinny while the other petite, and so couldn’t always find clothes that matched. Nail on a finger. Tongue and saliva. Heart and blood. We shared trouble as we shared delights. Until she shared too much of my delight, grown women we already were and she took off with Mike who left me with the twins. No, Mike and I never were never married. No, we didn’t live together. Yes, we had only been seeing each other for a few months when I fell pregnant, what’s your point?
When he left I had the queasiness, the thickening waist and my stomach didn’t take too well to the smell of fried fish, cabbage or beer. Ouma said they had history way before we’d met, but I would’ve known because weren’t we as fused as blood and heart, saliva and tongue? I would have known. When I met Mike she was the first person I told and I thought the way she kept on scrubbing the same spot of a burnt porridge pot was only because she had to get it clean before our mother and father came home. When we lay on our thin mattress in the kitchen that night, as I tried to tell her I thought that she really was too tired to keep her eyes open although it was her ears I needed. She said she didn’t know how she could’ve told me when I’d been so excited. And so I didn’t speak to her, for a week, three days and nine hours.
When Auntie died Mama stopped talking to my sister and me, for a week, three days and nine hours. The silence couldn’t grow any further and the day it burst, she found us sitting outside hanging clothes on the line and asked, “How are you hanging so many bloomers at once, have you girls been keeping them in the basket again?” She was back but not fully back. A full return would’ve continued and scolded us, and dished out punishment that would last for a day or two. She quickly forgot about the bloomers and told us to wake her when supper was ready.
So many things had grown in the silence. Sometimes those things would break in through the window while we laughed and talked over a cup of tea or a bag of peanuts, and she’d stop mid-sentence and leave the room, only to return to us hours after we’d accepted she was gone again. Her coldness yo-yoed so much that a year or so that later when it stopped it made us uncomfortable. A year or so later, with neither hint nor warning, she returned to the mother who was chopping spinach which she was going to fry with red onion, garlic and tomatoes, just before that phone call. It made us crawl back into our shield and we avoided her because we didn’t know what to do with that mother. That mother would be followed by a week, three days and nine days of silence, and a year or so of a rickety home. A year or so later, was after we had gone home to visit Auntie’s grave. She’d gone alone ten times before we returned home, and that’s when she chopped spinach again and expected us to welcome its estranged taste.
For twelve years, I fed on the closeness of my daughters to remind me of the taste of what Ouma and I had had before their father left me. For twelve years, I’ve watched them become entwined, stitching into each other’s lives and beings. So, when the phone slid from my hand and fell into the bowl of spinach I’d just chopped, my eyes met them and all I saw was what I had lost, long before today and wouldn’t be able to get back. The fear of having to bear their bond while ours was lost clasped my teeth and neither word nor sound could reach them.
I chewed on so many thoughts from the past and each day I could feel the rotting chunks of if’s and could-haves growing blisters on my tongue. If she hadn’t wasted time chasing after Mike, who eventually left her as he had left me, we would’ve made time to stitch back what was broken. But what if they had loved each other even after he had left? That thought sat in my throat for twelve years and all I could give her was my silence.
When we could finally travel, a year later, I went to see Ouma. There she was choked by the earth that buried her, no fresh flowers on the mountain that blanketed her bones. I went for ten days and each day I told her she needn’t have died for me to forgive her. With permission from time, we would have found our way back to what we had always been. We would have returned to what my girls have.
We’re back home and today I feel the wound accept itself as a wound. A wound I can strap on my back and carry with me wherever I go, and when it hurts a little more, I can rock it, sing a soft lullaby and hush it to sleep. A wound is better, way better than the cavity left behind by loss. A cavity dug by confusion, anger, misunderstanding, denial and all sorts of things the heart feels but doesn’t have names for.
If I carry it long enough it will outgrow the comfort of my back and bosom. So I picked up the chopping board, the knife and the bowl. When I cut up that spinach and asked the girls to bring the red onions, garlic and tomatoes, the wound left and re-invited that cavity. When the girls took steps away from me without moving I knew that while I chased Ouma’s vanishing footprints they had slowly grown tired of waiting for my return. The knife slid from my hand and fell into the bowl of chopped spinach and I knew I’d lost my girls to the silence.