FlairNarrative Writing

When strong trees fall

Story by: Innocent Madzhoni

Van Morrison – Sometimes we cry

 

Unfortunately, and I have struggled with this for years, nothing brings me peace. And if nothing brings me peace, what exactly would peace look like if it were to come running, like a passionate lover after nights of longing, desire, and loneliness, in my direction? Well, a thoughtless brain. I think that’s what peace will be to me. Any slight chance at a thought soaring through my mind, peace is gone. This is because my thoughts are never pure—in a sense, they never reflect the goodness and happiness of the world, it’s always the anger, gloomy nights, dark regrets, and purging, pervasive sadness. I am always on my toes, looking for something wrong, something terrible and my fragile heart gives in whenever I find it. 

After receiving the news that my maternal grandmother passed away, I am trying to calm myself with music. It’s not working. Marley suggested that when music hits you, you feel no pain. Ah, not with me. Yes, I don’t feel pain, yet I don’t feel the opposite of it, maybe something beneath pain: a bittersweet, regret-overflowing, overwhelming anguish; a terrible desire to be at a place I once was, even though I know there will always be a longing even if I were to go back to that place repeatedly. With music, I feel aware. I am awake. And this wokeness takes me to places of deep emotions, emotions I can barely control or even articulate with palpable precision if I were to try.

Nothing brings me peace. 

Friday. 2 p.m. 

The sun. 

‘She’s in a better place,’ someone in the car softly says.

I sigh and nod. 

Death.

Blacks. We never die. It’s sad if you ask me. We live in dark spaces, in the morbid air, everywhere—demanding, giving, instructing, protecting, and not dying. Not only do we not die but we are thrusted with more responsibilities upon transition; unlike here, the responsibilities deepen: it is no longer ducking bullets, dodging earthly death, it is actually the protection of those who are still existing and escaping their own traumas and bullets. Blacks. 

I think once you realise that even your grave is a place where lives cast their burdens and aspirations; when you learn that what’s heavy is not what’s inside the grave hole or the sand on top of it or the tombstone (if it was afforded) but what’s actually about and around the grave—the snuff, dry whisky, and people’s dreams. All these simple facts bring one conclusion, it’s hard being black—dead, alive, existing but dead, or whatever state you’re in. One, who is black, can’t wish death upon themselves when death signifies nothing but a few tears coupled with beer for those left existing.

Could this be the ultimate purpose of our dreadful existence? I don’t know. 

Life is such a loose concept with regards to meaningfulness; but as loose as it is, death is even more traumatising: we can’t grapple with why we are born, and we certainly can’t fathom why we die. What’s the purpose of being born? Could it be the purpose of dying? We are born to die and in-between we are tasked with the sad responsibility of asking ourselves why this happens; it’s actually funny. 

As limited as my relationship was with my grandmother, she always greeted me with a hug and a kiss on the cheek; and asked, sincerely, ‘How are you doing?’ Grandma understood that the whole purpose was, maybe, to tell the next person that it’s okay, we are okay, we will be okay, because we are here together. And now when I reflect, I think maybe we are here to be with each other and we also die to be with each other, because human relations are such a profound concept; we are, indeed, never alone, even when we are ‘alone.’ Or maybe, as I often plunge in this act whenever things get dark, I am distorting my thoughts to suit my own logic—there are some people I still want to meet beneath the grave. 

Thoughts linger. 

Tom Rosenthal – Go Solo

5:45 p.m. 

The sun is about to set soon but we can’t see it because of all the trees and mountains, but I think what’s more distracting are holes that are as deep as graves on the road that paves itself towards home:

Ha-muila,

Dekeruku,

Ha-mulima,

And, finally, home, Ha-Lambani: 

Because we are basically on a mountain, the main road, which is surrounded by houses on both sides, is dangerously inclined and curvy; countless accidents have occurred here. It’s a road any driver avoids when it rains or when there’s a fog. 

Meters before home, there’s a tree on the right side of the road: muri u sina dzina, it is called; ‘a nameless tree.’ I assume it is called that because it bears no fruit or anything at all. It has been there ever since. I haven’t asked how old it is but most certainly more than a century. When I was growing up, we would play soccer with a plastic-and-a-little-bit-of-rocks-filled ball, and we used the tree as shield after playing. And everyone from this small village has stood under its shade at one point or another. But now, it is falling apart, it is leafless, it is old and giving up. Even its presence is absent.

I am home. 

There is always an unexplainable disconnection with this place. This predicament, whenever I visit home, makes me stay up all night in despair, because I just don’t grasp how home cannot be a place of peace. This is the same feeling the township gives me. An alienation from every place I visit, an alienation from every person I meet. 

6:35 p.m. 

Song, prayer:
they don’t stop. It’s like that’s the last thing the deceased hears and understands.  

The church is small. The mood is tense. I feel tense myself. The earth is here, standing still.

Song.

My thoughts are still. I am trying to pay attention. Candles are burning, surrounding the coffin. White church clothes illuminate the place, as the light bulb is a little murky. I can hear the people talking one at a time, but I can’t hear what they are saying. Thoughts are quiet, the heart is heavy. The songs are not that foreign. I clear my throat; I slowly join in but with a rather low tone. I suddenly stop and sigh. This whole thing feels strange. 

Prayer.

I can barely concentrate on anything. I want to connect with the songs and prayer, I want to understand why we die as I look at the coffin, I want to cry too, but I am not achieving anything at this moment…  I look outside the window, it’s dark and quiet. I think this could be the first time I am at a place and I am really there, so much so that nothing else is penetrating my mind but everything happening here: my eyes on the coffin and the burning candles. Death is a strange thing; I keep telling myself. 

I don’t know the time now. I don’t care for it. 

The coffin is taken through to the hearse. It is always carried by the women, in their church attire. I respect this tradition: women carry each other every day in our churches, families, and it is only fair if women finish that duty of carrying one of their own on days where carrying will be required for the last time.

Song and Bible verses are louder than the darkness. Grandma is going to her second home: home. Church was her first home. I choose to walk. As disturbing and dehumanising as my thoughts are, I somewhat prefer to be with them over people; and sometimes I think it’s sad to be disturbed and lonely amongst people. I am the last person behind; people are walking next to the hearse. Songs have not dried up. The well from which they are pulled is as fresh as our tears and internal screams. Cries are songs without the melody and all.  

I used to walk on this road as a young boy going to church. And each step came with my eyes trying to see if there’s a car coming; people here don’t mind giving you a lift. Sometimes we would get home without any car passing by or a car passing by, leaving us with a pile of dust on our beautiful sunday clothes. 

I spot someone. I walk faster; yes, me, walking towards another person. It’s my cousin. Countless phone calls and texts had assured us that the first time we meet it will be at goldreef city or something like that, not when we have to throw a pile of dirt in the ground. As dark as it is, I can certainly see the anguish in her eyes and voice. We both read the room: we don’t say, ‘it will be okay’ to the other, instead we simultaneously hold hands, like how grandma greeted: with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Words sometimes mean less. 

Grandma gets home for the last time. 

I am standing under a small tree. When I look up, I see the moon through the branches. It hears our songs and prayers. It is listening, even though we don’t know what it is saying. It is closely watching, even though we don’t know what it wants to see. Inside the house, women are praying. Everyone else is singing outside. And because I am calmer now, I can hear the words. ‘tsiwana di rabelele, (orphan pray for yourself)’ this song repeatedly says. It’s painful yet insightful. I think that’s if you are not taking ‘pray’ to be literal. I apologize that I distorted the song to something like, ‘tsiwana di vhofolole, (orphan free yourself).’ And isn’t that black people are orphans? 

‘My mom says she wants to see you.’ 

My cousin’s whisper takes me out of the rhythmic pattern I had created with the legs of the boys who were humming and dancing in the middle of the yard. We walk to the front of the yard. There is another small tree. There are people sitting there, and I don’t recognise them. But, even though it has been many years, I see my mother and myself when I look at the only woman present. I assume it is genetic, because she doesn’t ask how I am doing, instead she extends her hand. 

‘Would you love to read the eulogy?’ she asks minutes later.

Instinctively, I profusely shake my head. An ‘it’s okay’ smile surfaces on her face. 

Parts of the tree touch the wall of the house and shade the light bulb above the window. One of the men asks me if I can torch the piece of paper on his lap as he finishes putting the final touches on the funeral’s program. Well, moments later, I freely decide that I will be honoured to read the eulogy. I just feel that I have to do it. 

Because everyone around knew grandma very well, we write the eulogy on the spot. The man lends me a book and pen. ‘You write as we tell you her life,’ he says. I look at him. I look at the book and pen. ‘You have a better handwriting, I would appreciate it if you wrote,’ I say. I am terrible at writing Tshivenda on the spot. I struggle with separating words. I write and get back to something days after. Here, there’s no getting back. I have such a palate of how this man flows on paper with a language I am attempting to use to translate literary works into somewhere in the unknown, but, for a black person, precisely predictable future. Perhaps, this is the disconnection, alienation I was talking about: not being able to strongly connect with what I assume to be important to me. 

11:27 p.m. 

When I had talked about my dissatisfaction with how certain words sound when I read them, I was giving the reigns to make as many changes as possible because my auntie told on me: ‘He writes,’ she said. 

I am sitting making changes. I intertwine everything written on paper with apartheid and oppression. She had her teen years at the start of apartheid, her womanhood at the peak of apartheid… I have to insert all this and boldly read it tomorrow. 

Saturday. 3 a.m. 

Tossing and trembling in bed. I can’t sleep. There are noises, I don’t know if outside or inside my mind.  

I walk towards the window. It’s dark. Through the light bulb outside, I see the dog lying peacefully in the middle of the yard. It barks at nothing and goes back to its position. Behind the lonely rondavel, the tired cock crows. Flying insects encircle the light bulb, making all types of noise. 

I decide to grab a pen and paper: 

1.

I will now drink beer
and throw the bottles to your fancy houses
I will pee on your buildings
paint unattractive shit on your walls
I will insult you
when you walk down the street
and raise the middle finger
I will laugh at everything you say
and before you call the police
I will click my tongue
slap you on your fragile face
those books
which you say are for my own good,
I will burn them
throw the ashes in your universities
I will walk naked
in your restaurants and spit on your meals
and I know you’ll pull me aside
‘you’re mentally incapacitated’
you’ll say, undecided
because my screams are like that of a cockroach:
they don’t empathetically evoke enough emotion on the human
to stop the foot from stomping.
a cockroach that just wanted to live. 

2.

I am black, blank
and,
I am at a point where I have to die,
because if I don’t die,
I will live to a point,
of acute anxiety,
and ultimately,
my death will be my brain,
eating itself like a snake on its tail.  

5:40 a.m. 

The sun coming out means different things to people. To those whose lives are lively, the sun represents a fresh day to explore what the world has to offer; a chance to smell the coffee and roses, a chance to snuggle someone they love, a chance to say, ‘happiness is a choice,’ or to say, as they step out of the newly purchased merc, giving the nyaope-filled, hopeless boy R2, ‘if you leave nyaope and work hard, kid, you can make it.’ To those whose life, every day, is like endless childbirth; the sun represents exhaustion, pain, humourlessness, and death. To me, on this day and many other days under post-apartheid South Africa, the sun represents nothing. I don’t see its value. It is just there as it should be, but it means nothing to me. 

I look through the window. The cows bellow standing in the middle of the road. The road is barren. A handful of people walk in different directions. I look at the three copies of eulogies in front of me. I sigh. I pick the original. I don’t think I have the strength to talk about apartheid today. I am tired. I am sad. I am wearing black, and:

I am going to bury my grandmother; she leaves for home today. I wish her home is a place unknown, because if it is known, we already know of its constraints!

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