The other side – Pearl Matsebula

Yilili,” the little girls ululated and danced around, covering one of them with a white table cloth while their mothers did the laundry by the stream. “Woo this dress!” The short one’s face beamed as she fanned the end of the cloth. “Who will be the groom?” They all frowned, then stared at Linki. “He! I won’t. I was the groom yesterday, even today? He!” she dropped her behind on the rocks. “I’ll be the groom tomorrow…” The bride uncovered her face and gestured her to come. ”You said the same thing yesterday,” she frowned and drew distorted figures on the rocks. ”I didn’t say that, she did.” They quarrelled amongst themselves.   “Hey, bring that cloth here!” The mother shouted and prepared to wash it. With the wedding ceremony over, they unwrapped the corn cobs from their backs and went back to breast feeding them, bragging about the length of the tails of their wedding dresses when they get married.

All the young girls seemed to have been born with an innate desire for marriage and motherhood. Stealing their mothers’ night creams and powders, walking around the house bent-knee in high heels when they were not around, preparing mud as food in fish cans for their husbands, nursing corn cobs and old shoes as babies because they didn’t have dolls… One wondered how they knew about it and what attracted them to it. The other side.

The other side, for others, it looked like an unending sweet adventure, or a prison cage. Others concluded it came with luck after their tried and failed formulas which never seemed to particularly work for them. To survive the other side the old women sat you down and told you the do’s and don’ts. Follow them and you’ll be happy, they assured. And the ones who failed to follow them did not return through the same gate. But seem to have climbed over barbwire fences. They vow never to walk through the gate again, but encouraged the ones still waiting and hoping to cross over.

Belina observed the girls, envying them, longing to get married just like they could whenever they desired. It has been six years. Waiting. Hoping to be found. But nothing. She wondered what was wrong with her? Why she had not been seen by someone. She had done everything right; finished school, worked as a cashier at the supermarket, went to church, cooked, cleaned, kept herself together… Her plumpness and flat bum couldn’t be the reason why she was still single. Although for a long time she thought it was. God willed face but self willed body, her classmates would say back in high school. She released her frustration on her pile of laundry, next to the other women who eventually stopped asking when would she cross over to the other side. “You know, get married.” One of the newlyweds once asked. Encoding the code when she saw she couldn’t understand. All her rehearsed responses; at the right time or, when he finds me or when I’m ready, had lost their significance. “I’ll let you know once I’ve decide,” her cheeks burned.                        “Woo! We were at Evelyn’s lobola settlement party last week, she looked stunning.” Nobeauty announced and shot a gaze at Belina. “When are we coming to yours Beli?” She had the gift of finding humour in everything, and a gentle hand at rubbing salt on open wounds. “To my what? Club of sagged boobs and headwraps, nose dripping kids and husbands who remembers you as his wife only when he wants a plate of food and your body?” The women shrunk to their laundry except Nobeauty.

Nobeauty had crossed over eight years ago. Always at the river talking about her experiences. Among her clique, she had been on the other side the longest, and had a solution to all the other women’s problems. Most times, their consolation came from knowing they were not the only ones suffering the same ordeal. “I dodged a plate today,” Nobeauty said  with humour all the woman laughed. Her  troubles were always coated with humour, the women would forgot the severity of the issue. After they dried their eyes from laughter, Nobeauty hid her face and fiddled in her pile of laundry.                                           Their eyes met. Her tears had swiftly transformed to fear. Belina stared at her a while when she understood what they meant, and it felt like a burden had been lifted off her shoulders.

She was finally avenged. Four years of bullying by Nobeauty. Always reminding her she wasn’t getting any younger and her eggs were drying up. And when she eventually had babies, they would all be disabled. Once, she announced, her voice soft and mocking, “I know of a prophet who specialises in bad luck deliverance.” Her secret was out and it felt good to have something she could use against her ‘perfect’ marriage to the other women. After a while her conscience began eating away her satisfaction. Especially after she saw her at the supermarket with a scarf around her neck on a scorching day, telling everyone she had twisted her neck, but forgot to feel the pain when she turned her neck to her husband’s friend’s greeting. The dislike between them never stopped but the bullying did.

Nobeauty’s situation terrified her but it did not lessen her desire for the other side. Every time  she was at the river she never stopped fantasizing about how it would be like to wash his shirts, socks, bogarts… And would always feel a rush of hope. The patience to wait for him-whoever he was- would be stirred. There were only a few remaining from her age group, and they were starting to stand out. All desperate for that one thing. So desperate, one of her friend’s fought another young woman over a man at the supermarket. She had to lend her money to pay back the stock that was damaged. It was rough.                                                                                                                                                                      Every man that now approached her seemed to have potential to cross over with. Liking things she hated because the man pursuing her liked them. But things would never work out.  Could she have missed her sunrise? That season when she was ripe and all the men wanted a bite of her?  Everything was still in place. The hills on her chest, her crown was always sparkling…  The waiting was getting unbearable, especially with the battle in her mind over Nobeauty’s words about her eggs drying up and having disabled babies as she witnessed a few cases from some women who also had babies at an older age with the baby either disabled or slightly deformed, and everyone said it was because their women eggs had expired.

And so the waiting continued. It had become second nature. The waiting was like going through initiation again, which she passed excellently-waking up before the cock crows and sweeping the yard, ploughing, piles of laundry, cooking etc.  Others have become skeletons waiting for that particular person to find them, hold their hand so they may cross over. Others shifted their eyes from the other side’s gate to other gates, but always kept watch on the other side’s. Strangely, the ones who failed the initiation hardly waited the longest to cross over. In fact, they seemed like the lucky ones. They were the ones who got the nice looking men, the rich men, the decent men…

Until you crossed over you were labelled as ‘still training’. Did that mean Mam’Maphanga was still training, even at 58? She had no children or that particular someone who would hold her hand to cross over. She unsettled Belina. What if she ended up like her? 58, no children, or husband, but lots of pigs and chickens. When she asked her aunt about Mam’Maphanga situation she said, “She’s was too picky, that’s why she’s mothering chickens and pigs now.” But, among all the women she knew, she seemed the happiest, and the lady who worked at the spaza who’s husband fetched her every afternoon. Sometimes he’d come by the supermarket and buy her red cake before he fetched her, and they would walk hand in hand laughing all the way home. Perhaps she could be happy like them, especially the spaza lady.

Everywhere she went people her age had crossed over and they would always ask about her. It seemed wrong to them to be her age and still be waiting to cross over and she was starting to feel wrong as well. Like a hole had been uncovered in her soul, she once said to her supermarket fighter friend. And the desperation caught up with her when she remembered a conversation she once had with her aunt about second chances. And Walter came to mind.  Her ex who always  smelt of cow dung because of his cow management job and never since stopped asking for love backs. Maybe he was the one. She condemned herself for the thought and quickly dismissed thoughts of him. She couldn’t be seen with him. He was not on her level. But as  the days passed she found herself thinking about him. She could clean him up and make him decent she thought. He was after all, a good man. She readied herself the following day and went to his workplace. She had a solution for the permanent cow dung smell, but she wasn’t sure about the second thing she disliked about him, and she saw and heard it the moment he opened his mouth when he saw her: he was still too soft. And she did not want to deal with that again.

And so the initiation continued.

Photo: Hazel Fasaha Tobo

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