By Keletso Mopai
Your name is Koko, the elder, because you came first. Koko, you can recall meeting your mother for the first time. She was terrified, like she hadn’t expected you. Your birth was met with caution. Marah’s arms, your mother, were always filled, not putting you down as if the second she did you would unfold and shatter into pieces. She was always there, moving you about in your bedroom; however, you sensed it in her touch that she wasn’t really paying attention to you. Her eyes and body were always on the other one—the one you came with. It was as if right at the end of the route you had travelled with the other baby there was a stop sign that was meant for you, and you had ignored it. It was as if you were the chauffer, not meant to be in the room, but on the other side waiting for life to come to you properly. Nevertheless, there you were, knowing you weren’t welcome. Koko, you knew you did not look like the other baby. The other baby, your twin, was Sesi, -the sister. Sesi was a screamer; if she was to be placed a few meters from you, she woke up the neighborhood. This did not sit well with Marah, who believed there was something wrong with the child. I mean wasn’t it just the year before that they lost a child? What if something was really wrong? She had loved the child. A piece of her, a limb, was removed when the child just died. She had felt as if someone took a hammer and knocked her legs off. What made it worse was what was happening inside her belly, swirling at every chance—she was pregnant. Marah wasn’t eating. She wasn’t talking. She was nothing. But her stomach grew big, as if air filled it up and could burst if one poked it. What the doctor said to them on their visit will never leave their minds: “Only one baby has a fairer chance of living.” The doctor had started, “The other baby... is too small and not getting enough food.”
Marah felt hazy. “I don’t understand. I’m carrying twins?”
“Oh… yes, apologies for not starting with that. I thought you knew...”
“You thought I knew? You thought I knew?! Because my belly is huge like this, like I am carrying a school-bus of children, that means I should know I am carrying more than one baby?”
“No, I meant…”
“I understand.” Her husband, Lesedi, quickly interjected. “Don’t take to heart what my wife just said, it has been a stressful period, we are both just eager for any good news.” He exhaled, as if he had just poured water on a brewing fire. “Just seven months ago my wife was a pregnant mother of a healthy beautiful girl and celebrating her fifth birthday, then the morning after her birthday party—our little girl was dead, my wife had to continue carrying another child when she was mourning, now you tell us that it’s not just one child but we are having twins, and that the other twin is dying. Doctor, can you see how all this information would make my wife emotional?” They were loud, heavy, hasty tears in his eyes, now running down his cheeks. “Please be gentle, tell us what’s going on, step by step.” He sucked the salty water with his lips and wiped his face quickly. He then held his wife’s hand as if to emphasize what he had just articulated—he was on her side. The doctor informed them that the smaller infant would barely survive outside and inside the womb and that’s why they needed to remove the infant before it affected the other, healthy infant. Lesedi was nodding when Marah said, “No, I can’t let my child die.” The doctor tried reasoning with Marah but she wasn’t having it: “The gods gave me twins and so I will have twins,” she maintained.
It was a miracle, a wonder really, when both twins lived and were healthy like a bowl of leaves. Lesedi and Marah felt the gods were on their side this time, holding their hands firmly against the world.
One rainy afternoon, when their township of Lenyenye was huddled in its houses, the parents of the twins wrapped their babies in soft baby-blue blankets and marched to a close traditional healer at the nearby village, Marumofase. They took off their shoes at the door, spread their legs on the floor, and waited. The room smelled of smoke and dry straws which erected the roof. The healer, a man with protruding swellings on his shoulders, was lying on a mat in front of them with a stick—he pointed at Lesedi and said, “Pick up the bones.” And so he did. The couple had been to other traditional healers before, around the time that their first child died—seeking answers about her sudden death. Lesedi trusted none of them because they told them their child was bewitched, which was page one from a traditional healers textbook they knew. “Witchcraft” was used as a scare tactic to wield money and fear, because no one likes the unknown—the possibility that someone else, some witch, could do anything to you and have no control over it—scares even the biggest and God fearing people. Lesedi called it rubbish when Marah was actually starting to believe that someone killed their child.
“What if it’s true?”
“Who would do such a thing? Who would want to murder a harmless child? Our child died. She just died!”
“No one just dies, not even a baby, you of all people should know better!”
“Well, she did,” he had said, regretting the harshness in his tone immediately, because like Marah, he had been broken, quiet and distant because of the death.
Now, Lesedi shook the skeletal remains in his hands as requested, and threw them on the floor. He and Marah knew the process, at every delivery they would shout, “Siya vuma!” which meant, “We agree and we are with you.”
The healer looked at the visibly dog-tired couple and said, matter-of-factly: “There is a child. She is crying…”
He nudged the smallest bone on the floor, inspecting it. “She is crying all day and night… mmmm.”
“But… but, she isn’t feeling any pain. She is throwing a tantrum, this child, mmmm!”
“She is throwing a tantrum and you aren’t hearing her! Mmmm, this child.”
“This child is stubborn, stubborn, stubborn, jjijijji, she will not stop crying until you give her wants she wants.”
“She is screaming, she won’t keep quiet, shhhhhh….shhhhh…”
“She is crying for a name. A name!”
“Siya vuma!” They knew this was the final vuma and that he’d said his delivery.
Marah then opened her mouth: “But she has a name.”
He said, “It’s your turn.”
And so Marah picked up the bones, shook them in her hands and threw them on the floor, the bigger bone making a thud. The healer shuddered and roughly shook his head. He gawked at the small bone again as if it were narrating ghost stories to him.
“A wounded child!”
“She chooses you. She chooses you. Mmmm!”
“You are her mother. You are her father. And that’s final.”
He shook his head and made pity sounds with his tongue. There was concern on his face. He asked the couple, “Do you have someone recently deceased in your family?”
Marah and Lesedi looked at each other. “Yes, yes, our daughter passed a year ago in her sleep,” replied Lesedi.
“What was her name?”
“Naré, after her uncle.” The man strangely smiled at the frightened couple. “This is not Sesi,” he announced, pointing at the baby accusingly. “This is Naré. Call her Naré.”
Koko, even when Sesi became Naré, and had stopped crying her lungs out, you were still treated differently, weren’t you? Because every time your mother held you in her arms, you felt her embrace felt incomplete. She wasn’t holding you closely to her bosom enough, feeding you enough, and loving you enough. But the other one, called Sesi and then Naré, wanted you like a parasite and you fed off her. You held onto her, following her everywhere. Everything she did, you mimicked her. When she stood up one late afternoon on the verandah and took a step, you watched intently and did the same. When she spoke for the first time and said, “Baba,” to the short man with crossed-hairs on his chin, you too had mouthed and hummed the syllables. Baba was a happy man. He danced for you all the time, twisting his body in your bedroom and tickling you. Your mother would laugh, and for a brief moment when you glanced over— you knew she was happy too.
You learned that your Baba was a fisherman by the time you turned three. But before he was a fisherman, he was a boy. He was one of the only two boys in a family of eight children (six girls). Prior to his birth, his Baba had wanted a male child, and so by the fifth turn of procreation, he got his wish—your Baba was born. He named your Baba, Lesedi, which meant “light” in English. Lesedi was a clear favourite and the girls were jealous, wanting a piece of their father that was never going to be shared, if occasionally or at all. What made things annoying was when Lesedi became good in most things. He could run, he was first in class, he was strong, and
Lesedi was a beautiful boy. The throne was erected and the boy sat on it with his legs crossed, until one day.
At nine, he was with his friends playing football when his youngest sister, of four years old then, ran past him to their house shouting excitedly; he did not read into this and continued playing. When it was time to depart, for everyone needed to go home, Lesedi walked straight home, bouncing and spinning the white ball in his hands. He entered the house and found his family in the living room, huddled together in a circle. When he entered, no one batted an eye. Usually, his father would acknowledge him with a greeting, “My boy, you are back…” But that day his father was mum. He found him holding something wrapped in a thin blanket and making funny faces to the thing in the blanket. He stepped closer, wanting to see the thing that was grasping everyone’s attention so much.
“His name is Naré,” his father announced to him as he became apparent in the room, smiling brightly, holding the boy like he was glass. Lesedi looked at the baby, too small to be called anything really. He felt if he touched him, he would cry, and so he held his hands on his back, feeling the dirt in his nails: ugly and sticky for the baby.
“Do you want to hold him?” his mother asked. “I can see how you are looking at him. Take him, hold him,”
“No,” he said rather hastily, stepping back as if the baby would bite. “I will break him, he’s so small.”
The room laughed. “He is my last, no more after this,” his mother said to no one in particular. Lesedi then looked at his mother accusingly, and then at her stomach. He didn’t even know she was pregnant, but there he was, Naré, with his baby smell and baby silence. Where did he come from?
Lesedi and Naré were not going to be best of friends, especially when Lesedi was ten years older than Naré. What they became, unexpectedly—was brothers. If brothers meant that when Naré threw his legs in the air, demanding to be carried, that Lesedi should place him on his shoulders, then they were brothers. If brothers meant that if they passed by a spaza shop and Naré radiated a scream off his mouth with mucus coming out of his nose, wanting a lollipop—and Lesedi bought him one—then they were brothers. If it was after crèche and Naré needed to be picked up, Lesedi was there. If Naré wanted to play football with Lesedi’s friends and Lesedi let him play—then they were brothers. Lesedi fell in love with his little brother, mainly because he was older than him. He could order him around and offer him things if he felt like it. He liked being the older one, someone to be depended on. And that’s why when he heard about the kids who went to fish at Mashobane Lake, he tagged Naré along.
Koko, later, if your Baba had looked back at his life, he would have said this was the day things started going left, not in the direction the gods had intended; a curve that was meant to make a 360°, perhaps, broke into half and never turned back. You see, Koko, Naré would have become Baba to someone else at some point, but he couldn’t, only because he tripped. See, your Baba was just fifteen years old when it happened. Because he too had wanted to know the wonders of fishing, when he realized how good he was at it, he stopped paying anything else attention. And so he didn’t see his little brother attempt to hold up the fishing rod some girl had given to him, his feet swaying on the wooden platform. Koko, a few things played a part in that incident: the girl that gave him the rod, the wet wood under his feet, his small feet, his small size in comparison with the big fishing rod, and so he tripped, too close to the water, and he fell into the lake.
They buried Naré, they mourned Naré, others recovered and others didn’t, but Naré was still dead. When Lesedi had heard the screaming, he had run towards the sound like every other teenager at the lake that day. When he saw that it was his brother, eyes wide, struggling to stay afloat, for a second he thought he would make it. I mean, why wouldn’t he? And so it took him a little while to realise his brother could not swim, and so when they jumped in to save him, he was already gone.
Koko, as you grew older, you always felt envy growing in your throat, something was blocking your lungs and you couldn’t breathe properly whenever Naré was in the same room as you and your parents. You had known Naré was a favourite for reasons you understood—she was the dead child that came back. You were told about the first child and had seen her photos. Yes, Naré and Naré looked the same but you were Naré’s twin, which made you one person—a union. That’s why one time when you were playing together under the bed covers, you found matching heart-shaped birthmarks on your necks. And yet, Koko, something on your face showed you were nothing like the other Naré. You saw the way your mother looked at Naré. Sometimes she would stare for minutes, as if solving a puzzle. That’s how you began to know and understand spirits. You had seen the girl before, the one who died, when you were a baby. You had seen her running around the bedroom as if flying a kite, and sometimes she would pinch Naré to get her attention. But the second Marah moved Naré closer to you, she left the room in a puff of smoke.
Koko, one morning, when you were five, Baba took both you and your twin Naré with him to the nearby river where he often went to fish alone in the dusk of dawn every day. You sat in his boat excitedly and screamed with frantic joy when he caught a fish. You liked how sitting in the boat with you and Naré, pulling fish out of the water, lit up your father’s face. Unlike you, your twin Naré didn’t like fishing, you learnt that day; the sea filled her mouth with vomit and harbored her body with sweat. That night she died. After you buried her, your mother seemed no longer delighted by your presence and you felt the same. Every scent of your twin was removed from the house; her clothes were given away, her photographs were stuffed away in a box, and her name was no longer spoken or whispered in the house; it was as if she never existed.
When you turned ten, came Buti. Buti was born quiet and had a sad smile on his pale face. He didn’t cause any fuss when he came out. Like he knew what was what. He entered the room and didn’t seem to care whether or not you wanted him. When your mother leaned down and placed him in your arms like life had now promised her something eternal, and whispered softly to you, “This is your brother,” you thought he was a bit lighter than he should have been. Fatter than he should have been. More annoying than he should have been.
But Baba loved him the moment he laid his eyes on him; his face would change form whenever he looked at the boy. When you watched them together you even believed he loved him more than he had loved Naré. Soon, Buti tailed you around like a thread on a needle when you played with your friends and he cried mournfully when he didn’t get his way. You wanted him to be Naré, imperfectly-perfect like she was.
One chilly afternoon, when you were fifteen and taller, you managed to steal your father’s fishing equipment and ran to the river, but you didn’t see Buti following you. That’s why when he fell on his back and into the lake, you stared, stood, not knowing what limb of your body to move. You couldn’t swim, Buti couldn’t swim, and that’s why his grave was marked right next to Naré’s. You can recall that when Buti’s lifeless body was pulled out of the water, you had looked at it carefully for first time. When you slanted your head slightly, you realised the tiny black spot on his neck, when you looked at it upside down—it was shaped like a heart.
At his funeral, you were not kicking your legs on the ground because Buti was dead, you felt like your guts were getting pulled out because Buti was Naré and you hadn’t known. Perhaps, just perhaps—you could have tried to save him.
Keletso Mopai is South African storyteller and author of the short story collection If You Keep Digging. Her works are shortlisted for various literary contests and appear in Catapult, The Johannesburg Review of Books, Ake Review, Lolwe, Omenana, Brittle Paper, amongst other places. Her website is www.keletsomopai.com.