Challenging conventions and rebirthing Jesus
Thando Mgqolonza’s new novel, Hear Me Alone (Jacana), turns the Nativity upside down in what Nadine Gordimer describes as “a daring, highly original alternative to the fable of the virgin birth”. This is an edited extract.
“The castrator was meticulous and swift. Some testicles were more slippery than others, and some were larger than others as well, but the castrator adjusted perfectly to whatever the condition, size or position of the testicles. He said very little, especially at the beginning, but his bloodied hands did a lot. After a few castrations, maybe three, I found myself wondering if, like me, he was concerned about Miriam; if he ever was, your Excellency, concerned to the same depth as me. What had she told them? How had it happened that she had been sent away? How had she travelled with those thorns in her feet? And why was she being sent away? In fact, why was she being married to a widower in the first place?
Why was she being married at all? It was not as if the castrator needed the wooden merchandise for survival, so why was he doing this to his only daughter, at her age as well? Did this man really know his daughter? Did he care to?
This was one of those moments that I decided that men could not be trusted with human life. The Virgin must have had a valid reason not to let it be a business of men to carry children. The castrator, for example, was more suited to tearing off bird testicles than getting to know the contents of a human heart. Knowledge of the content of a heart required sensibility, and as far as I was concerned, no man I knew was gifted this unique sense.
If Miriam had had plans to visit Elizabeth, surely I, more than anyone else, would have known about it. On my back last night she had told me about her fears, her helplessness, but visiting Elizabeth was not a matter she had raised, and I believe she would have, or at the least she would have found a way to let me know that this was the new plan. I could not, at the time, imagine how in her state she might have conjured up the hill country and got endorsement for it from the castrator. It had not come up in our conversation, and she had said many things.
‘I just want to die.’ She had said this, for example, after asking me how the prayer with the woodwork merchant would be for her, which resulted in her tears wetting my back, her arms strangling my neck as we entered the village from the direction of the River of Mirrors. I was carrying her, and at least for now she had stopped beating my back with fists. Prayer, for my people, was a metaphoric phrase for consummation in matrimony.
‘It won’t happen,’ I had said, surprising even myself with the thought that if the two of us left Nazareth, her fears wouldn’t be necessary. She said, ‘Put me down! Leave me alone!’ I stood and adjusted her better on my back and continued walking. The lower end of my back, where her groin was, was warm to the point that I developed a throbbing hardness that, in broad daylight, would have looked like a blunt spear under my robes. I told her that there was a way, but she had to agree to it first. She said again that it would be better to die.
‘I will not allow that, my dove.’ I wanted to tell her that the only person she would be praying with was me. The idea was swelling rapidly in my mind, and so was the fever that resulted from this thought: the palms, the sweating, the shortness of breath, and I could feel a rising pressure around my groin. I wanted to ask her at that moment if that was what she wanted. We had never spoken, out and out, about being husband and wife. And never had we ever discussed the question of praying in this way, that is to say, applying it to ourselves; and of course, neither of us had ever prayed before, but my whole life I had thought we would pray together, for each other.
She started beating my back with weak fists again, weakening as she beat some more. I would pause to balance her on my back again as I carried her, and then continue walking. She was talking. I was listening. Such was the nature of our conversation last night, and although that was not all, I am certain no hill country came up.
Now when the castrator did speak, your Excellency, his words were of great concern to me. That was after maybe 17 completed castrations. He rubbed his bloodied fingers, one after the other, on the fluffy tail of the rooster I was about to deposit into the chicken shed; then he said, ‘This cannot be too different from retrieving issues from wombs.’
He just said that.”