The Things They Lost – Pearl Matsebula

The excitement was gone. The curiosity to discover exhausted. The freedom was too much. The different masks she learned to put on in order to blend in were cracking. She looked at herself in the mirror and sobbed. Wondering what was wrong with her.
Her eyes landed on her thumb as she cupped her face. The thumb that placed her on a secret pedestal of ridicule. The thumb that everyone was more interested to hear about before her. The thumb that bound her by day and let her loose her by night. She sobbed bitterly. She put on her nail polish and hid her left thumb under steel.Home, she thought. Home. She shoved her clothes in her suitcases, put on her cap and shades, left the key with the security guard downstairs and headed to the bus station.


She woke up four hours later from the countless speed bumps they drove over. She was almost home. Relief rushed through her.She brushed her hair and powdered her face. When the emotions of earlier cooled off, anxiety built up. She realized she had not been home in two years…She felt a little headache. When she arrived in town she went all out: muffins, KFC, sweets, clothes and toys for her nieces and nephews, a tie for her father, shawl for her mother, biltong for her grandfather and a bottle of brandy for her grandfather’s brother which had to be wrapped with an olive-green ribbon, those were his instructions the last time she was home.
Something always happened to someone when the bus drove down the steep to Ekupheleni, especially those who had abandoned their home land and moved to different cities and countries in search of a better life. For Nomalanga, going home used to be exciting, especially in her first year of varsity as her family wanted to know everything about life over there. But after a while, varsity and the city grew more exciting. Her stomach suddenly felt light over how she would explain her absence, and missing her older brother’s funeral. She replaced the thought withall the goodies she bought her family and anticipated their excitement. She had explained to her father over the phone why she could not come, but she knew her parents would expect a better explanation when she arrived home, especially her mother. She hoped the goodies would be enough to silence them and her guilt.
Just as expected, her niece and nephew were waiting for her at the bus stop. The first things they noticed was her long hair with matching eyelashes. They screamed and shouted like she was one from television.“That’s Sisi, Bongi’s child,” her niece said as Nomalanga reached out to hold her. All her efforts at baby-talking were reciprocated with a surprised stare from her big brown eyes focused on her eyelashes, which she attempted to pull several times. How come nobody told her that Bongiwas pregnant, again? Not that she would have personally told her, the only reason they spoke was the womb they shared at the same time, otherwise they barely spoke to each other. Not because they hated each other, but because they shared a bond of silence. There were no people who were comfortable and content in each other’s silence like they were. Nomalanga was what her grandfather’s brother called the house slave and Bongi he called the field slave. He explained every situation through what he had read or seen during his prime.
Everything seemed different, smaller, as they drew closer to home. All the faces she grew up around looked tired and pale. Happy to see her of course. “What are you trying to tell us with this hair, you’re Indian now?” One of her old class mates laughed and slapped her shoulder, and ran her hands through the hair. She had heard that a million times but it was the first time anybody ever said it directly to her. More than anything, she hated how her mate related to her like they were still friends, which they never were in the first place. Ignorance was bliss to Nomalanga when it came to her style.
Almost everyone she bumped into on the way home, after talking about her hair and eyelashes, reminded her of her thumb sucking habit. She felt a lump on her throat.After she got to varsity she later learned it was an addiction. One she prayed she’d stop doing and that the people at home would stop bringing it up every time they saw her. Didn’t people perceive when something was no longer relevant? She’d roll her eyes. But they were right. She was still thumb sucking. She wanted to stop but she couldn’t. Sometimes she cried herself to sleep because she could not stop. Some nights she’d wake up in the middle of the night and find herself thumb sucking. It was ok back then to talk and joke about it, but not anymore.When those she met brought it up, she felt naked. Everyone could see her nakedness, even through her masks.
It was hugs and laughter when she got home but something was off. She knew her parents would still be upset over the fact that she hadn’t been home for two years, but she thought it not a big issue, she was home after all, safe and sound, with a big bag of goodies for them. But it was not enough to carry the weight of the underlying tension between her and her mother for staying away for so long.She went straight to the bedroom she shared with her sister. It was still the same, except her bed was now Sisi’s wardrobe. No longer Bongi’s first born child’s bed who was taken away by the father because she was trying to hold on to him through the baby.Bongi still had her ex-boyfriend’s picture pasted on the door.
She heard her sister come in and she went to the kitchen to see her. When she appeared by the door she saw her looking in the goodie bag, “Mmmh,” she said. “Hello” said Nomalanga. She greeted her back and didn’t bother to unpack the bag like she normally would have. Not even her mother unpacked it. The usual excitement about the goodie bag was missing, and she felt like she was walking on eggshells. It couldn’t have only been about her staying away from home, there was something else, she felt. Now she waited anxiously for her father to arrive home so she could be reprimanded and relieved from her case.
When her father arrived home from herding the cowshed went straight for the KFC, “We thought you had died,” he took a small bite.And that was it. The matter was settled. No more awkward uncertain feelings from her side. She knew her father well enough to understand he spoke the right words like most wise parents did, but his tone expressed his true feelings and thoughts. And the way he said ‘died’ evoked something in all of them.
After the goodies had been consumed and the old jokes exhausted, mostly told by his father, there fell a silence in the room. She knew things were not right with her mom. Before she came home she had a dream about her mom scolding her for missing her older brother’s funeral. She was still waiting for it to happen, but it didn’t. There was the unspoken need to explain to herthe fifth time why she couldn’t miss her exam during his funeral. Maybe she would eventually live up to her words of how she understood her reason for missing the funeral and treat her like her daughter, instead of her daughter who missed her son’s- brother’s- funeral. Everyone was too consumed in what she had brought them to notice the wall between her and her mom. She never even asked how school was, how she was doing… out of everything she brought, her mom only had a small piece of chicken from Sisi’s mouth. “Thank you for the shawl my child,”she said later on. She said all the right things but none of them silenced this new unease she felt. Everyone related to each other like they lived in different rooms but in the same house.
That night she hoped a miracle would happen, the power said to be in homes would be gracious to her and release her from this addiction. The following morning she was not sure whether she sucked or not. She woke up and went to the rock where she and her friends had their houses, church and sometimes a stage. Most of them now had real human dolls. She longed to live on this rock again…
She looked around and everything was still the same but felt different. The huts and houses now looked smaller, but they were still the same. Her neighbours’ children, the younger versions of the ones she grew up with, were still chewing on their t-shirts with their youngest siblings on their backs with running noses, walking barefoot to the station after their granny swears at them and tells them to go to the bus station and wait for their mother who left for town to go buy bread and peanut butter but later called and said she would be back the following Friday, four years later she’s still buying the bread and peanut butter.
She quickly ran to the house to fetch her grandfather’s brother’s brandy wrapped with an olive-green ribbon. He was trapped between two worlds and kept a close watch to everything he owned. Everyone called him Sir Gentleman after he returned from Kenya driving a maroon Mercedes Benz with a white woman. Nomalanga was still young when Linda, the white woman, came. But she remembers a white woman in an olive green dress with a doek in their yard and that she took her grandfather’s brother’s smile with her when she left. Her mother said Linda’s father took her away when they were just about to get married in court. He stopped doing a lot of things after that from fear of losing them.He even stopped driving his car.The older he got the more quiet he became. Every morning he’d put on his brown shoes, maroon blazer, brown hat with a feather, sit on his low bench and watch the sun while the one legged lion, her grandfather, spent most of his days in his hut store room fixing things, but secretly stared at the bones of his leg hanging on the roof.
Nomalanga gave his grandfather’s brother the brandy and in his gratitude he uttered,“Kenya.” She smiled sensing his heartfelt gratitude. “Linda,” he said softly when she left him to enjoy the brandy and went to her grandfather. His face lit up when he saw the Biltong that he started speaking Afrikaans. For a while all felt well,but before the end of the day they were back to their everyday state, mourning and waiting for something, someone.
Nomalanga returned to the rock in the afternoon and cried, fighting the edge not to suck her thumb. She observed the wrinkles on her thumb and tried to find some meaning in them but she did not. On her way back to the house she picked two periperi sprouts, broke and rubbed them on her thumb.

Photo: Hazel Fasaha Tobo

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