Read an Excerpt
She Plays with the Darkness
By Zakes Mda
PicadorCopyright © 1995 Zakes Mda
All rights reserved.
Don't be fooled by the sunshine in their faces. They are a sad people inside, tormented by the knowledge that one day the great mist will rise and suffocate them all to death. And no one can do anything about it. The mist has a mind of its own. It does what it wants to do when it wants to do it. No one can stop it. Even those who have the gift of controlling lightning and of sending it to destroy their enemies are powerless against the mist.
Yet they conduct their lives in song and laughter, as if their world will live for ever. In the evenings you can hear the girls singing the songs of the pumpkin. In the olden days these songs were heard only at harvest time. But nowadays the girls — sometimes joined by the lonely young women whose husbands are toiling in the mines a world away — sing them all year round. Even in the middle of winter, when the whole land hibernates under thick layers of snow, they sing and dance to the songs of the pumpkin. The white slush swallows their stamping feet right up to the calves, and then spits them out again in a frenzy. The maidens dance round in circles, to the sucking rhythms of their feet making vengeful love to the holes they have made in the snow.
They sing of lost loves and unfulfilled desires. Of husbands who have been devoured by the city of gold, never to return to their families again. Of young men who have become too big for their gumboots since graduating from looking after cattle at the cattle-posts to ferreting in the bowels of the earth for gold that will never be theirs. A maiden steps into the arena, kicking the mud-soiled snow, and laments in a voice that borrows from the men:
If I were ruling and were in command,
I would instruct that all the mines be closed.
Be closed for all these haughty boys.
They bother the girls with love proposals:
You'll hear them say, 'Nywe, nywe, I love you.'
Come my husband!
As she rhythmically recites her lament, the others clap their hands and punctuate each line with a chanted response. At the end they all shout, 'Come my wife!' and fall into each other's arms laughing, obviously proud of their performance.
They will sing and dance until night falls. Only darkness, and the fear of the things of the night will drive them home. If the moon is full they will carry on as if their sole responsibility in this world is to sing the songs of the pumpkin, until their angry mothers call for them, 'Hey you, lazy girl, who do you think will cook for the family while you are busy kicking your thin legs in the snow?' Indeed, for a reason no one understands, the village of Ha Samane has taken to cooking the evening meal late at night, instead of just before sunset like other villages throughout the land.
Dikosha threw her feet into the dying embers right under the three-legged pot. They were as hard as rock, almost frozen from all that stamping in the snow. Her mother merely glanced at her, and continued to stir the pot of papa, the famous staple of maize meal cooked in boiling water to form hard porridge. She had long given up hoping that Dikosha would one day participate in preparing the family meals. She would rather be out there singing and dancing. She danced so well too, this Dikosha. She moved her emaciated body with a grace that transformed her ragged dress into sheer elegance. And she was beautiful. Yet her beauty was not noisy at all, it did not call attention to itself. It was the grace of her movement that drew everyone's eyes. But as her mother always said, 'No one has ever eaten a dance.'
Her quiet beauty was in keeping with her own silence. She never spoke with anyone, not even with her mother or the girls with whom she sang and danced. They heard her voice only when she sang. She broke her silence only when her twin brother, Radisene, visited from the lowlands. Then she would actually talk, and giggle happily, and ask him all sorts of funny questions about life in the lowland towns where he attended the high school. Since he only came once or twice a year, Dikosha had long periods of silence, broken now and then by outbursts of song.
Radisene and Dikosha were not really twins in the true sense of the word. The people of Ha Samane called them twins because they had been born in the same year, eighteen years before. Radisene had been born first, a bouncy baby boy who was the envy of all the neigbours. When he was only four weeks old his mother left him with his grandmother and went to a night dance. It was at this dance that Dikosha was conceived. After she was born, her mother could be seen with two babies on her back, as though they were twins. The people of the village called her Mother-of-Twins in derision. That became the name that even members of her own family used.
As Dikosha baked her feet, songs were ringing in her head. Songs always rang in her head. Perhaps that is why she did not want to speak, for speaking would interfere with the flow of the songs. Mother-of-Twins dished out papa and boiled cabbage. They ate in silence, rolling the stiff porridge into small balls in their palms, and then scooping up cabbage and shoving it all into their mouths with their fingers.
Dikosha gave the empty plate back to her mother. Then she stood up and walked into the single rondavel that was her home. She selected her blankets from a pile and rolled herself on the floor. Soon she was fast asleep.
In her dreams she saw the new dance steps that she was going to teach the girls the next day. Even when she taught the girls she never spoke: she just danced the new steps and the others followed suit. Her dreams were always rich with new songs and new dances. Her worst nightmare was that some evil people would steal her dreams, and take her dances and her songs away, leaving her as empty as a hollow shell. She feared this as much as she feared the mist.
The next day was quite warm and the snow was melting very fast, turning into slush on the ground. Dikosha sat on the stoep of the rondavel, basking in the sun. From a distance she could hear the songs of girls who were going to draw water from the well or to wash clothes in the icy water of the Black River. These were joyous songs. But she did not want to feel joyous. She held on tightly to the sorrow that was being wrenched away from her by the songs, and nurtured it, and let it grow, until it overwhelmed her. Then she was weighed down by this mammoth grief, and she heaved a heavy sigh, and moaned softly. Passersby stopped to look at her closely, and uttered words of sympathy among themselves, 'Poor Dikosha, it is because she was conceived at a night dance.'
Dikosha's loneliness was self-imposed, for people of the village lived in what appeared to be happy communion. She was happiest in the world of sadness she had created for herself. She felt that if there was neither song nor dance, there was no need to be bothered with people.
She walked among the aloes on the hillside, turning over boulders and rolling them down in search of snakes. She loved snakes and was not afraid of them. She believed that no one had any right to be afraid of beautiful things. So she played with them, she mesmerized them with her dance. She could handle even the most poisonous snakes, like marabe and masumu, although she did not care much for the marabe adder with its dull grey colours. She preferred brightly coloured snakes, the ones of green, and yellow, and blue. She laughed at the hopeless wrath of the masumu cobra.
When she was tired of playing with the snakes she drained the venom out of their long-suffering bodies, skinned them, dug a hole in an anthill and made fire in the hole. Then she roasted the meat in the anthill oven. The wind savoured the aroma and threw it in different directions. The herdboys on distant parts of the hillside or on the veld sniffed, and knew immediately that the girl who never talked was somewhere near. The wind, whining as it pushed its way among the bushes, led them to the girl. They crowded around her, leaving the animals unattended. The girl who never talked shared the meat with them. Sometimes the herdboys would come with potatoes that they had stolen from the fields, and would roast them in the anthill oven together with the meat.
People of the village referred to Dikosha as a lefetwa, a girl who had long passed the age of marriage. After all, she was eighteen years old, and at that age women of the village were either married or at high school somewhere in the lowlands. Even those who were at high school, when they came home during holidays and behaved in the uppity manner of the lowland people, were called spinsters by people of the village. It was supposed to be the worst insult that could be hurled in the direction of any woman.
Yet Dikosha did not mind such labels. She was determined to live her life in her own way. And her way did not include marriage. Boyfriends and courting did not feature in her world. Boys were the mindless creatures with whom she shared snake-meat, and nothing more. They also did not think of her as anything more than the girl who could dance and kill the most dangerous of snakes. Even those who had long since reached puberty, and were already experimenting with sex on goats in the veld and at the cattle-posts, did not have any dirty thoughts about her. She would be alone with them out there on the hillsides, far away from the village, and they would think only of the pleasures of the juicy snake-meat.
Dikosha could have been one of the high-school girls, but after she had completed Standard Seven with a first-class pass her mother was unable to pay the fees. Her twin brother was lucky though, for the Holy Fathers of the church took him under their wings and paid his fees at a Catholic high school in the lowland town of Mafeteng, even though he had received only a third-class pass in Standard Seven. After all Dikosha was a woman, they argued, and bound to find a good man of the church and settle down in blissful matrimony. Radisene, on the other hand, even though he had received an unimpressive pass, showed promise as somebody who could be prepared for the work of the Lord. He was a man.
For a long time Dikosha was angry with the Good Fathers, with her mother, with her twin brother, with herself, with everybody. But many years passed, and she resigned herself to the fact that she would never go to school. She still had fond memories of her schooling. She used to absorb everything the teacher said. It stuck in her mind for ever, and she never had the need to study. When others were swotting for exams, she was playing diketo with a handful of little pebbles. Sometimes the other children joined her for a game of dibeke, which was like rounders, and if someone had a skipping-rope they played kgati. At the end of the year those who had been foolish enough to play with her failed, while she passed with flying colours. Even then she was not much of a talker, but it was obvious that she was happiest at school. Her only regret was that she had never fainted in class, like other children. Almost every day someone would faint at school. No one knew exactly why. Some blamed the sun. But the sun knew otherwise.
At midday Dikosha was still basking herself in the sun, and wrestling with the sorrow that was eager to be dragged away from her by the distant song of the village girls. She was startled by the thunder of an aeroplane flying over her hut. The little children were jumping up and down in all the village compounds, and shouting to the plane, 'U ntlele le dipompong! Please bring me sweets!'
It was Wednesday. Every Wednesday the plane came to Ha Samane from the capital city of Maseru in the lowlands. In the two hours that it took on that route, it flew over great mountain ranges that were capped with snow for the greater part of the year. It flew over rivers and over gorges. Through the windows of the ten-seater Cessna, passengers from time to time saw small villages nestling in the valleys, surrounded on all sides by high mountains. Those were villages that had never seen a car in their lives and could be reached only on horseback. The passengers could see herds of cattle, sheep and goats grazing at the cattle-posts, miles and miles away from the nearest village. All these were the size of ants. The mountains were cheerless and naked, and patches of green were rarely visible in a waste of dull grey and brown.
The excitement caused by the plane did not move Dikosha. It was the same every Wednesday. The plane landed at the airfield, and passengers from the lowlands alighted with their rich baggage. Most of these were the moneyed people — businessmen returning from negotiating deals with wholesalers, nurses coming from complaining in Maseru about the lack of medical supplies at a village clinic, farmers who had recently been paid for the wool of their sheep, extension workers of various government departments. Once in a while there would be a migrant worker from the mines of South Africa who was too impatient to wait for the four-wheel drive vans and trucks that ferried passengers from the lowlands to mountain villages such as Ha Samane. Such vehicles took many days to reach their destinations because the roads were bad. At some places there were no roads at all and the trucks had to negotiate their way on pony-tracks. But even though it took so many days, it was fortunate that the trucks could reach Ha Samane at all. Some villages were completely cut off to vehicles.
Hlong, the club-footed old man who was the manager and the sole employee of the airfield, inspected the tickets of the five new passengers, and then allowed them onto the plane. He pushed a trolley of their baggage and loaded it into the belly of the plane. Soon the propellers were whirling and the plane was speeding along the runway. Hlong watched until it disappeared into the sky. Then he went into the one-roomed building which served as his office, bedroom and kitchen, to chat with some of the passengers who were waiting for their relatives to come and meet them with donkeys to carry their baggage home.
'Ntate Hlong, may I leave this bag of cabbages here? I'll come back with a donkey to fetch it.'
'And who are you? Ah, don't tell me now. You are Radisene, child of Mother-of-Twins. You children stay in the lowlands for such a long time that we tend to forget you. Of course you can leave your bag here.'
Hlong thought that educated young men were really spoilt. He could not understand why this young upstart could not carry a small bag like that on his shoulders, especially since his home was not that far from the airfield. That was the problem with sending children to imbibe dangerous customs in the lowlands.
Radisene walked out into the village. Already a great number of saddled horses were tied to the stumps and poles outside the post office. It was the same every Wednesday. As soon as the plane arrived, people from Ha Samane and from neighbouring villages such as Ha Sache rode their horses to the post office to see if they had received any letters from their husbands, sons, fathers and brothers who worked in the mines. They waited outside while the postmaster and his assistant quickly sorted the letters. Then the assistant would stand at the door of the small building and read out the names on the envelopes or the registered slips. The lucky ones who had received postal orders jumped with joy, while others went home disappointed. But they would be back the next week. Some wives and parents had been coming to the post office every Wednesday for years on end. Their husbands and sons had long been swallowed by the city of gold, and had established new families there. Perhaps the table had fallen on some of them, which meant that they had died underground. Yet their relatives never lost hope. They came every Wednesday.
Dikosha saw a knock-kneed and lanky figure approaching. She knew immediately that it was her twin brother, Radisene. She could never mistake his gait. When they were young she used to tease him that he was a kiss-madolo scarecrow, a reference to the fact that his knees kissed each other when he walked. The figure that was approaching now could not by any stretch of the imagination be called a scarecrow. He looked quite handsome, in a new grey suit. She ran to him and threw herself into his arms.
'You're only carrying a paper bag.'
'Because I'm only staying until the weekend, that's why. The bag contains something for you. I bought you a nice red dress.'
'With what? You are only a student.'
'I finished school last December. I'm a teacher now. Been a teacher for the last six months. I teach at a night school which holds its classes at the high school where I was a student.'
'We don't know anything about that because you never write. It's June now and we haven't seen you since ... long before Christmas.'
'I am here now, am I not? And I brought you a whole bag of cabbage.'
Mother-of-Twins was also very happy to see her son, after almost a year. She was particularly happy about the bag of cabbage. She was going to share it with her friend and neighbour, Mother-of-the-Daughters, and would be stingy to those who had made snide remarks about her and her children behind her back. Cabbage was quite precious at Ha Samane, and indeed in all the villages throughout the land. Together with other vegetables such as spinach, beetroot and carrots, it could only be bought from the lowland towns, which in turn imported it from South Africa. And cabbage was a staple! Yet no one had ever been struck by the bright idea that it was possible to cultivate this vegetable ... to grow it in the very village soil. People of the village grew maize, beans, peas, sorghum, wheat and even potatoes. But never cabbage.
Excerpted from She Plays with the Darkness by Zakes Mda. Copyright © 1995 Zakes Mda. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.