We have suffered from different stages of the same illness, my aunt and I — something akin to fatigue. I was 15, she was 50. We lived and hid in a house so small that we had to choreograph a dance of avoidance, for fear that we might crash and collapse into each other if we spoke about anything.
Where would we even begin? I had just met my illness, she had recently got used to hers.
The good things she wished for me — through gritted teeth — carried the same cadence as a curse. She wanted me to excel at school and leave her house, to stand on my own. She did not want me to be her.
My prayers for her peace sounded like late-night deals with a crossroads demon. I swore I would do anything to make her happy, if it meant that she would leave me alone. I just wanted to be left alone.
I did not want her to see me.
She didn’t want me to know why her thoughts would well up and tumble down her cheeks sometimes, and I did not want her to know how much I thought about screaming but never did, because they had made it hard to breathe and be. They. Them. Whoever was in charge and made an absent father out of God, an estranged lover of my aunt, and an unwanted pregnancy of me.
Honestly, I had never looked at my aunt and sought healing there, just a hiding place.
I learned early on that anything that cut me had impaled her first. Her dry, cracked and discoloured hands (rough to my unintended touch) told of a healing deferred — a lifetime of putting out raging fires with her bare body, a postponed, rescheduled, rain-checked, psychospiritual limp that she thought she would eventually attend to but never quite had the room.
But she eventually would get to it.
She was working like a mule and sleeping in sprints trying to get to that room, to heal. I could hear it in the defiant “Abazoku ndenza nto”, muttered between the sighs from her steam iron, sliding across her paper-white nurse’s uniform. “They will not do anything to me.”
They who had lived vividly, unseen in our four-roomed house for so long. There was barely space for my aunt, my uncle, my cousin and me, but they always found a way to live with us — a body to fill, a thought to occupy
I never wondered what they were. Naming them was not important. But I recognised that sometimes it was their house and we just happened to live there.
They seldom let me sleep.
They would let me know I was scared, then make me ashamed of my fear. Then made me frustrated by my shame. Then angry at my frustration.
Then weak, just weak.
So I knew that they deserved my aunt’s bitter words. Her relentless taunting, her insistence that they were nothing but a figment of the idle imagination. They could do nothing to her. “Abazondenza nto.” She would swear that she defeated them every day without lifting a finger.
My eyes fell into the hot silence of my chest, and from there I watched her swing at them and call them outside of their names.
They were doing plenty to me.
They never talked to me, but I never missed a word. I was never quite sure what I was supposed to know because I was eavesdropping on a consultation between a woman and her ancestors, and the displaced fire of her spirit.
“Yini nkosi yam undi vula ndi be sisi sulu semimoya engendawo?” Oh Lord, why would you leave me vulnerable to these unholy spirits?
I hung my unsure head. Was I the vulnerability? Was I her they? I would try to piece together a narrative from her breaks and the bigger chunks of her history, the ones that would fall from her rants and tumble across the floor for me to pick up and try to understand.
There were beatings. There was a little girl who loved to read and was told “Uzenza cleva”. There was a dream and a reality. There was a long table with an assortment of foods on a Sunday after church, with faces happy to see each other and voices that carried hymns. There was a space between her sleep and her rest where that table, that food, that Sunday, and those voices were real. There was a gap between what life promised her if she behaved and what she was given instead.
For me, there was this word: “dismal”.
There was no way I would attract a husband if I carried on the way I was. There were days when I was too sensitive and days when I was utsotsi. A drug user. A drunk. Days when I was a disappointment, but also the only hope she had. Nights when I could hear her reaching out, trying to touch the hem of His garment. Nights when I knew He wasn’t there.
But I knew nothing and she had seen everything. She found her posture in faith and I would never have the apparatus to build her a new backbone. I needed hers until I found my own.
We kept good things stocked tightly with the bad. One of my failed report cards was kept in the left pocket of her favourite apron — she held death in the right.
Our house was a hall of mirrors.
Behind the door of the room that I slept in lay a heap of silent screams I had hunched over and pushed out one night, after a boy broke my heart and saved my life by sending me abortion money because he couldn’t afford to have two children at the same time.
In the bathroom, a pink plastic basin was the first thing my aunt bought when she moved into the house after her husband tried to kill her. It was an item she loved and could not afford to replace.
On the wall, the only bubblegum allowed in the house held up faded, dog-eared baby pictures of me.
In the kitchen was the corner where we sang all her favourite hymns in harmony. She squealed excitedly that this is why they are after us. Because, given half the chance, we would take over the world.