Father was very particular about his belongings. Take the time when Mama burnt his Che Guevara shirt, the frayed one with a black and white man who looked liked somebody called Bob Marley but without his dreadlocks. You had always thought that shirt was a sweaty-smelly thing because Father wore it only when he went to some place called Jim which made him sweaty-smelly. But the way he smashed Mama’s Philips iron against the wall and screamed What kind of nincompoop destroyed something so revolutionary? made that shirt as good as new. Ever since then Mama had always tried the iron on a cloth first, then carefully pressed his clothes, hesitantly, as though she expected, at any moment, the smell of roasted fabric to waft to her nostrils.
And the time Jabu spilled dye on his trousers. The way Father cupped Jabu’s face and gave him a double clap left your ears ringing and it felt as though it was you he had clapped and not Jabu. When he was gone, you hugged Jabu and you both cried and you told him it was going to be all right. Later, when the bruise at the nape of his neck was just a black patch, you laughed at him and asked him what he had been trying to do, stealing Mama’s dye. Didn’t he know that Jesus didn’t like children stealing? That was when he stuck his tongue out and told you that Jesus was just some story made up to colonise black people’s traditions.
“You don’t even know what the word ‘colonise’ means,” you said.
“Oh yes I do!” he shot back.
“Really? What does it mean?”
He began to stammer, the way he always did when he was lying or nervous or guilty, and you laughed. That was how Jabu always got caught.
“Do you know what it means?” he asked finally.
“Yes I do,” you replied, giving him that what-do-you-expect-look.
“What does it mean?”
“I don’t want to tell you.”
“Ha! There, you don’t know!”
“Yes I do!”
“No you don’t!”
“Yes I do! I just don’t want to tell you.”
“Well, Father said it so it’s true, so there!”
You couldn’t argue with that, so you pushed Jabu and told him again how stupid he had been to steal Mama’s dye. Auntie Tshithsi had said never to argue with Father, he was the head of the family and knew what was best for everyone. Mama had stood up then, lifted her dress and petticoat to show Auntie Tshitshi the blistering red stripes on her thighs.
“Is this what is best for me, eh?” she screamed, tears running down her cheeks. “Answer me! Eh, I ask you, is this what is best for me!”
Auntie Tshitshi looked away and chided Mama for being such a cry baby. “Baba used to beat Mama up and she took it like a woman. It’s a good sign, sis’ wakhe, it shows that he loves you. Look, he disciplines the children, why, because he loves them. Lo yiwo umendo sis’ wakhe.”
“So this is married life,” Mama repeated, shaking her head. “Well, I am thinking that if this is married life then I must take the children and return to my people.”
Auntie Tshitshi threw her hands in the air. “Heh! You forget, don’t you, Grace, the cattle that shrivelled up our herds and fattened yours when you came into this house! You forget your bride price! If you want to shame your people go ahead, but my brother’s seeds shall remain where you bore them, right here, in this house.” She stood up and stomped her feet on the carpet.
“Sisi, please, you are his sister, he may not listen to me but maybe he will listen to you. Talk to him, please, tell him to stop this…” Again she raised her dress “…before he kills us all.” Mama held out her hands.
Auntie Tshitshi snickered. “I have never seen such a woman, honestly! Is it my fault that you do not know how to appease your husband, that you anger him all the time? I will say it again, lo yiwo umendo.”
That was when Mama saw you leaning against the doorframe. She wiped her tears abruptly and ordered you to fetch a glass of water for Auntie Tshitshi.
You only wished Mama wasn’t so careless, that she didn’t make Father so angry all the time. Mama was wasteful, Father always said. People who did not go to work did not appreciate the cost of things, the way he did. You remember he said this sadly, swinging the knobkerrie in his hand as Mama tried to gather the broken glass bowl from the floor. That was when Mama said quietly that it wasn’t her fault that Mrs Sibanda had called them in because you had drawn those pictures.
“After all, you teach your children to tell the truth. Let them speak the truth.”
You began to tremble because you knew that Mama had said too much. Father clutched the knobkerrie so tight that his knuckles shone. His face seemed to be swelling, swelling like it would burst. Any moment now he would do his tantrums. The fist of the knobkerrie would land on Mama in dull thuds, dig black bruises into her skin.
He grabbed the pot on the stove, the huge black one that Mama used to boil water on the coal stove whenever ZESA cut the power and the lights went out. You heard Jabu’s wee-wee splashing on the floor before the water hit Mama. She was doubled over with the glass bowl pieces wrapped in newspaper in her hand, her face tilted towards Father, her eyes wild. The fan sputtering overhead seemed to be spinning very fast now, making your head spin fast too. Mama’s scream made your head spin faster than the whirring blades. It screeched in your ears long after it was gone, diluted the angry whrr-whrr of the blades so that you thought your head was bursting, and haunted you for many months after that. The kitchen was falling. The walls were coming at you. Her cheeks were peeling off, exposing the white inner flesh, the skin peeling off the way skin peels off from potatoes just after you boil them. Jabu buried his face in your neck and you put your arms around him and held on tight.
You wished you hadn’t drawn those pictures, the ones of Mama and Father. Maybe then Mrs Sibanda wouldn’t have frowned the way she did, called Miss Greene to come and see the pictures and, later, Mama and Father. And maybe if Mama hadn’t dropped the glass bowl, Father wouldn’t have burnt her with the water.
And so the day you dropped Father’s beer mug you felt the world stop. He had told you, hadn’t he, to leave it in the sink, but Mama had made him do his tantrums again and you thought you would do something to make him smile. You climbed the chair and put the mug under running water. You marvelled at the way the water made the mug shine. It was so big, made of heavy glass that weighed a tonne in your chubby hands. You ran the soap lovingly over it, your fingers lingering on the bright red label that read ‘CASTLE LAGER’.
You’d seen the label many times on Father’s beer bottles. You were always careful to watch Father. You knew that he drank Ingwebu more than any other beer, but whenever the Pattersons came for a visit Mama would rinse the little glasses and Father would take out the bottle of Jack Daniel’s. You frowned when you remembered that even Mrs Patterson drank Jack Daniel’s. It wasn’t right for a woman to drink. Father had said so. You remember he had been unbuckling his belt as he said so, asking Mama if she thought it was proper for a woman to drink. Mama slowly went down on her knees, saying over and over that she was sorry.
“Do you think it’s proper for a woman to drink?”
“Please Baba, please, you saw how Christine kept shoving the glass to my lips—”
“If a woman must drink what must a man do now, eh? Is she a man now, eh, that she must drink?”
“No no please but you said I could take a sip—”
“So it’s my fault now, eh, that you are loose, heh?”
“No no please please—”
Down the belt went.
“Do you want to be like that stupid woman, eh!”
Like a whip,
“Tottering all over the place like a whore!”
the way you’d seen the cattle boys crack their whips on the donkeys’ backs whenever they pulled the cart too slowly.
“Next you’ll be wearing trousers in my house please like those shebeen whores, eh!”
Mama didn’t go to the doctor. You hid behind the doors and watched as she limped all over the house, a wrapper bunched up around her legs, whiplashes of dry tears zigzagging down her cheeks. And Father was nice after that, the way he always was after he did his tantrums. He brought Mama presents wrapped in nice paper, shiny glittery material with balloon decorations that you would take afterwards to make wedding dresses for your barbie doll.
“It’s your fault,” he said, over and over. “You shouldn’t make me so angry.”
Mama said nothing.
She took the present and still said nothing.
“I love you.”
But she did not smile. She dragged her feet wherever she went. You wished she would smile, wished she would sweep the courtyard with a spring to her step, the way she used to. The house was heavy when she did not smile. She made Father do his tantrums more when she did not smile.
You stood in the shadows of the hallway and watched as she cried, sniffling into the phone over and over that she could not go to the doctor because this time he wouldn’t believe her if she said she had fallen down the stairs.
So you were rinsing the mug and thinking how proud of you Father would be. You should have placed it on the sink then got off the chair, you knew you should have. Instead, you tucked it in the nook of your little arm, thinking how heavy it was and how strong you were, gripped the chair and began to climb down. You felt it slip from your arm, you felt it and your limbs fought with the air. It seemed to fall in the slowest of motion. Then kpa!, the deafening crash and the pieces were skidding across Mama’s tiles, big pieces and little pieces. All you could think of, as you got off the chair, were Father’s burnt shirt and dyed trousers. You were crying as you tried to gather the pieces. You thought if you gathered them all you would piece Father’s beer mug back together. You didn’t hear his footsteps but you saw him there, his huge sandaled feet by the doorway.
You wanted to say sorry but the snot kept choking you, bubbling from your nostrils and popping like little balloons. When you saw the blood on your hands you screamed. It wasn’t so much the pain of the shards digging into your skin as it was the sight of the blood that made you scream. It was just like the blood on Mama’s sarong the day Father kicked her and she lost the baby.
You knew the blows were coming. Father was screaming and you were screaming, then Mama was screaming. You were trying to say sorry, you would find every piece and stick them back together, please. But Father kept on pummelling you, kicking and yelling and swearing.
“You stupid. Your fault. Stupid like your mother. Stupid. You stupid!”
Sharp pain burned you wherever his blows landed.
You saw Mama rushing towards you. Father struck her and she seemed to be flying, flying right across the room. Her head hit the corner of the coal stove and she fell face down, a sick crack crack with each bounce. You could no longer see her, but the blood was following the lines of the tiles, crawling towards you. You screamed but you didn’t, because no sound came from your mouth. Jabu’s wee-wee reached your lips before the blood did, warm against your tongue. Then you tasted Mama’s blood, salty blood that made you want to vomit.
The cemetery is an ugly place for the Jacaranda. You used to associate the Jacaranda with happy times, happy places, because you thought the purple bloom of its leaves in October was such a beautiful colour, better even than the trees with the reddish-orange leaves. Your road is littered with them. There is a huge one next to your gate, its branches are spread out like an umbrella. It used to be nice, pressing your face against the window in Father’s car, taking in the purple blur as you drove past a string of them. You remember how Khulu Mlambo never came to the city when the Jacarandas were in bloom, because they made his eyes watery and his nose run. But he is here now.
You hate the Jacaranda, ever since the morning you saw the Waneka Bird. You heard it warbling beneath the Jacaranda tree by your window, squatting over the jagged pieces of its eggs. Its red fluffy chest was puffed up, the way Jabu’s jaws swelled when he had mumps. It darted about its eggshells, the yolk glazing the purple confetti, flapping its black wings. Its cry was mournful, and when you squinted you thought you saw the glint of jewels in its coal black eyes. It warbled and warbled, pecking the eggshells. When it was gone, you ran out into the cool morning air. The grass wiped its dew onto your feet, making your patapatas muddy. You crouched over the broken eggs, and you felt sorry for the Waneka Bird. Its nest sat skewed on a branch overhead, now empty. You wondered if it had been a Daddy Waneka Bird or a Mummy Waneka Bird, and if the Daddy would beat the Mummy up for the broken eggs. Now you wish you had never touched those broken eggs, surely they were bad luck, because later that day you broke Father’s beer mug.
The man who drove you to the cemetery has a nose just like Father’s. It used to be such fun, sitting cross-legged in front of Father’s sofa, clamping your hand over your mouth so he wouldn’t hear your giggles when he began to snore, because it was funny the way his nostrils blared open each time he snored. You used to stare in wonder at that nose that used to fill up Father’s face, squint at the tufts of hair peeking from those blaring nostrils, and worry that if they continued to grow they would block Father’s nose.
You miss the happy days, the times when Father would sweep you into his arms. It always felt like flying, swinging in those arms. Even when Father made as if to let go you never feared, because those strong arms felt so safe. You would place your little hands on that wide face, place them on Father’s cheeks, and marvel at the leathery feel, the contours that appeared when he smiled. You would look deep into those kola nut laughing eyes, see yourself in them, and begin to chuckle. Round and round you would go, the ribbons in your hair fluttering over your face, the wind lifting your dress and whooshing around your legs and tickling your heart. Then he would put you down and it would be Jabu’s turn.
Mama’s grave is so small. The flowers have shrivelled up and turned an ugly ashy brown. You place your bunch on the mound. The rose is the most beautiful, you think, just like Mama. It’s blushing, the way Mama used to blush whenever Father would tell her how beautiful she is, how her skin made him think of bathing in a stream of coconut milk. The way Jabu blushes whenever anyone pinches his cheeks and smiles that smile that tells him to smile back and fusses over what a pretty boy he is.
It was raining the day they buried Mama. Thick heavy sheets, Jabu says, that soaked him despite the umbrella. It was the same day when the doctor came with the bad men. The same men who came to talk to Father when the Factory Manager reported him, you could tell from their ugly brown uniforms, the shiny badges on their jackets. The government had almost taken Father’s business license then. You had felt sorry for the government. Didn’t they know that if they made Father angry he would do his tantrums, beat them up the way he beat the Factory Manager up?
You thought the doctor was such a nice man, the way he brought you sweets when he came with the bad men. Auntie Tshitshi told you not to tell them anything. She grabbed your hand and said the doctor was bringing bad people to talk to you, that you must say absolutely nothing to them. You nodded vigorously so she would stop squeezing your hand so hard.
You didn’t want to say anything, you really didn’t, but the doctor was so nice, he gave you a sweet and smiled so nicely and asked you what had happened.
First, you said you fell down the stairs. One of the bad men was scribbling furiously on a notepad, the fat one with the wart on his face. When the doctor persisted you asked for your lawyer, the way you’d seen them do on those American movies. He laughed and gave you another sweet and promised you that everything would be all right, just tell him.
You began to cry.
What happened, what happened, the doctor kept on asking.
You didn’t know, please, your head hurt, you wanted to sleep.
Okay, but first, what happened. Don’t be afraid. I’m your friend. What happened.
So you told them. Everything.
The Jacaranda is right next to Mama’s grave. It is crooked, as if someone has twisted it to one side. You hate the way it has sprinkled its purple leaves on Mama’s grave.
You squeeze Jabu’s hand. He is trying to be strong, you can tell. Khulu Mlambo chided him for crying on your way to the cemetery. He said he must not cry, patted his shoulder and smiled that old man’s smile of his that always made you grimace because you would see the yucky green sappy pieces of the medicinal leaves he is always chewing dangling from his brown teeth. He smiled and told Jabu to be strong because he had to be a man now, the one who should look after you. You looked at Jabu and wondered if that meant he had to beat you up too.
His face crumbles. You hold him and tell him that everything is going to be all right.
Don’t cry. Please don’t cry.
You shut your eyes tight and drag the snot back up your nose. Your little face is wet. Because it’s all your fault. Mama wouldn’t have died, and they wouldn’t have taken Father away, if only you hadn’t dropped that beer mug.
Big Pieces, Little Pieces was first published by StoryTime in 2010 in a publication titled African Roar: An Eclectic Anthology of African Authors.
Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, from Zimbabwe, is the author of Shadows (Kwela, South Africa 2013) – a collection of a novella and short stories. Her short fiction has been published in anthologies which include Bed Book of Short Stories (Modjaji Books, South Africa 2010) and Where to Now? Short Stories from Zimbabwe (‘amaBooks, Zimbabwe 2011, Parthian Books, UK 2012). She won the 2009 Yvonne Vera Award, Zimbabwe’s short fiction prize, for her short story You in Paradise. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she is a Maytag Fellow. Visit her online at www.novuyotshuma.com.
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