Read an Excerpt
My family lived in a very nice house, on a very nice street in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. It would be easy to get carried away about how nice it all was. If one isn’t careful one might easily sound nostalgic. During the hot afternoons the maids and gardeners sat beneath the trees, chatting in their native tongues. Some had babies strapped to their backs with blankets. The child would lean its head against its mother and doze while she drank a mug of tea or ate mealie meal piled on a plastic plate. Most families in Linden had maids and most of the maids lived in small rooms or cottages built in the backyard. “A dishwashing machine,” a housewife might say. “What would I need with one of those? All you need is a little black magic.”
The dispositions of the maids were as varied as the families they worked for. There were fat Xhosa maids who laughed easily and chatted throughout the day with their friends across six-foot walls. There were skinny Zulu maids, who regarded the Xhosas with suspicion, befriended the Ndebele women and were strict with their spoiled white charges. There were Sotho maids and Venda maids, Tswana maids and Tsonga maids. One by one they disappeared behind high walls and high gates to finish the ironing, make sandwiches for the children returning from school, and start preparing the evening meal.
Of course I don’t mean to suggest that the whole of Johannesburg was nice. It was the northern suburbs, a semi-circular fringe around the city, that were so very nice. The best areas were those that were close to the city center, but not within a drunken stroll of it. The southern suburbs, which completed the circle south of the city, were not very nice at all. They were poor and rough. Least nice, surrounding Johannesburg, were the giant townships where the blacks lived.
In the mapping of the degree and spread of niceness across Johannesburg, one cannot omit seedy Hillbrow in the city center, which offered a small glimpse of what an African city could be. There was a famous record shop that sold banned albums and a famous bookshop that sold banned books. There were prostitutes there too and rent boys. Best of all was Fontana, the greatest food shop in the world. Some enterprising man had created a little of what makes America the most miraculous, wonderful place on earth, for this was the only store open seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, and served to reassure the good citizens of Johannesburg that should they, at three o’clock on a Wednesday morning, develop an insatiable desire for a chocolate éclair, there was one place, even in dull provincial South Africa, they could go, because even in dull provincial South Africa we needed a sense of possibility. My father used to torture us late at night by saying, “We could drive to Fontana and buy a chocolate éclair,” before sinking back into his chair. The journey into the center of town at this late hour was as ludicrous to contemplate as a trip across the Atlantic.
The only things that seemed ominous in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg were the violent thunderstorms. Anyone who spent a summer there learned to recognize the sudden and oppressive heat that brought about a drowsy listlessness, before the earth darkened and it rained, so heavily, so hard, that brown rivulets formed in the streets as the storm-water drains overflowed. The rainwater soaked our uniforms and schoolbooks and schoolbags. It was glorious to be walking down the street, as if you had jumped into a swimming pool, because it didn’t matter. Within minutes it would be cool and bright and soon the school fields and pavements would be dry. Everything seemed mild and temperate and comfortable. There was an easy rhythm to the comings and goings of our families who had long grown accustomed to a wealth, which, neither spectacular nor extravagant, was sufficient for a comfortable existence replete with bicycles for younger children and cars for older ones, swimming pools and the occasional tennis court.
On Saturday evenings, friends and families gathered around the braai while we did cartwheels and handstands in the pool, before huddling before the open fire with towels draped around our shoulders, picking at the sizzling meat and stuffing handfuls of crisps into our mouths. Then we returned to the dark water illuminated by a submerged light, ignoring our mothers’ pleas not to swim on a full stomach. Our cries and laughter, the splashing and giggling, the smell of meat, the sudden guffaw of adults, might rise up from one property and mingle with the smells and sounds of the houses farther down the road, giving each weekend a celebratory air, the anesthesia of a comfort there for the taking; and though our parents talked about the civil war—“It will happen,” they said; “it is inevitable”—I’m not so sure they ever really believed it, as if by recognizing a thing, by naming it, their prescience would dispel its possibility. And so eleven-year-olds didn’t really believe it either and there was little to dispel the general niceness of it all.
I was not, as a child, entirely satisfied with the composition of my family. I had an English mother and an Afrikaans father. It would have been simpler, I thought, to be one thing or the other, so that when my English friends said something mean about Afrikaners I could join in without feeling guilty and without feeling shame that I was doing it for all the wrong reasons. Similarly, in the company of hardened Afrikaners, I would not have to convince them that I was as much a Boer as any of them, that my blood was not tainted by a trace of those English poofdas.
Also I thought it unfortunate that I had two sisters. One would have been tolerable, but two was an extravagance on my mother’s part. I arrived in the world with a sister in place who assumed—for she had an imperious nature—her seniority and superiority in all matters. Older brothers were glamorous, far more capable of inducting me into the world of men than my haughty sister Lisa. As I watched my mother’s belly swell month by month, I thought the whole situation might be rectified with the arrival of a younger brother. The only thing better than having an object of veneration was being an object of veneration. I could be the inductor rather than the inductee. As things stood I was a loss to the world of brotherhood. By the age of nine, I had discovered masturbation without the aid of any instruction; none of my friends had—a fact I confirmed with them in adolescence when these things were more freely spoken about—even Aaron, to whom arbitrary nature had gifted a generously proportioned man dick, only started jacking off at fourteen and then only when we told him what to do, told him to persist, “until something happens, Aaron.” After that he progressed quickly and was soon proselytizing the joy of sticking your thumb up your arse—a regular little Jack Horner—but still. This proved, surely, that I was instinctively primed to lead in the way of masculinity. Older brothers intuited the necessary information and passed it on. I knew I would make a very superior sort of older brother. I mean superior to other older brothers, not necessarily superior to my imaginary sibling—for in my mind, brothers were simply younger or older versions of myself. Perfect, I thought, in every way. So Rachel’s arrival in the world was a blow. Rachel was imperfect in almost every way. I even checked again when my mother brought her home, in case she’d been mistaken; perhaps the crucial appendage had become lodged in her not inconsiderable rolls of fat; perhaps it was inverted and would, much to everyone’s relief, eventually pop out.
My older sister, Lisa, had a horsey-faced friend called Nicola, who slapped me around quite a lot—she was mean because she had an ugly birthmark on the side of her face from which sprouted coarse black hairs, and because her parents were alcoholics in the hysterical sense (English alcoholics), which meant a lot of screaming and shouting and bad behavior and divorce. And my younger sister had a posh little friend called Julia—pronounced Joo-leee-aah—who said “couch” instead of “settee,” as in “Come here and sit on the cowch,” and lived in Westcliffe, toward which all the old money gravitated, as opposed to Sandton, which was for the Jews. Not all the Jews, of course; the kugels mainly and their bagel husbands. The moderate Jews lived in Greenside and the real Jews, the Orthodox ones, the-ringlets-and-hats-and-not-switching-on-lights-on-the-Sabbath Jews, lived in Yeoville and marched in mournful procession to synagogue.
Julia’s arrival caused some consternation in the Viljee household because she used words that my mother, inexplicably, did not approve of. For instance, when Julia asked to use the “loo,” my sister reported the matter to my mother who had to perform a prompt about-face to conceal her irrational abhorrence for the word. “Don’t be so silly. There is nothing wrong with the word ‘loo,’” she said to my bemused younger sister. There were a great many words my mother disapproved of. People did pees and poos in toilets. They most certainly did not do number ones or twos in the lav or the WC. A person might be excused for making a bripsy, but never a fart. Boys had penises and girls had vaginas. Both boys and girls had bottoms. Only people who lived in Brixton or Mayfair had fannies, piels, butts, bums, totties, or asses.
I guess around eleven we all thought that to coax our dicks out of hibernation we should stop calling them “willies” and start referring to them as “cocks,” but my mother detested this word almost as much as the Afrikaans equivalent, voël, which means “bird.” Calling your cock a voël was a very Afrikaans and manly thing to do. It was enough to make my willy look bigger and my voice sound deeper. The odd thing about my mother’s aversion to certain innocuous words is that my father had a filthy mouth. His favorite words were “fuck-face” and “cunt.” Prolonged exposure to my father’s foul language led my younger sister to coin the phrase “vagina-face.” Etymologically and biologically speaking we thought this a good insult; good insults should make reference to the sexual organs and surely nothing could be as bad has having a face that looked like a vagina.
Blaspheming was absolutely verboten. Nobody ever said “God” or “God damn” unless somebody died, in which case you were permitted to say “Oh my God” but not, of course, “God damn” and then only if the death was unexpected; and the only thing worse than saying “Jesus” or “Christ” was saying them in combination. Even the corrupted forms were frowned upon. For instance, “jissie” was considered unacceptable by my family. The only word not offensive from a religious point of view was “jislaaik,” but it was considered unsophisticated (as in “Jislaaik, this thing is expensive, hey!”) and vulgar (as in “Jislaaik, she has big tits”). Even though I grew up in a family of atheists I never used the words “God” or “Jesus” or “Jesus Christ” and certainly not “Jesus fucking Christ.”
It was accepted in my family that Rachel was my father’s favorite and both my siblings maintained that I was my mother’s favorite, which was possibly true. But my mother’s preference for me (if this was so, of which I am not fully convinced) was less of a betrayal, for she had only one son, and mothers are supposed to prefer their sons. Not that I think my older sister minded. She knew that she was the most willful and the most difficult. People said my older sister could be very prickly. Even my parents said that: “Your sister can be very prickly”—a quality she inherited from our father. She had a habit of saying certain penetrating things that others thought best left unsaid. They were not merely tactless things; there is no skill in saying what is merely tactless. They were things that everyone had a vague sense of, that flittered on the periphery of the subconscious, but had not quite shaped into a clear thought until they found a willing medium in the mouth of my sister, the family oracle.
Sometimes we forgot that Lisa had feelings. Once, when she came back from the hairdresser with a bad perm, I laughed and said to her, “You look like a poodle.” She started crying and ran to her room. I felt bad because I knew my sister didn’t have many friends. My parents sometimes tried to talk to her about this. They said, “Lisa, sometimes you can be very strident.” Those were the two words for my sister: “strident” and “prickly.” I didn’t know what strident meant and assumed it had something to do with the way she walked. Rachel and I knew that Lisa had a harder time than us growing up. My parents were poor when Lisa was born so she didn’t have many toys and they lived in a house without an indoor toilet. And when she was young she was a bit fat and was teased at school. Her favorite activity in the world was Brownies. She was, if you were to look at the photographs, the proudest and most devoted Brownie that ever there was, but when my parents moved she had to leave the Brownies behind. Sometimes when she got home from her not very nice school, she would change into her Brownie uniform and make cookies with Susie, which was just about the saddest thing I ever saw. Whenever I thought about my sister, trying to re-create her Brownie group because she didn’t have many friends and because the people at school called her “fatty,” I felt bad about the mean things I said to her, especially the day I said she looked like a poodle, because one tended to forget that even though she wasn’t fat any more, even though she was strident and prickly, she was sensitive too.
In the year I turned eleven my sister went off to university to earn her degree, returning on weekends to tell me about the Milgram experiment and show me Rorschach cards. “Don’t ever say, I just see a black mass,” she advised, “it reveals pathological tendencies,” or “You’re far too in thrall to authority figures, Jack. You’d make a good Nazi, though. Maybe you should join the army.”
My younger sister was focusing all her energies on being adorable—at which she was remarkably successful. She was achingly adorable. I understood that expression used by adults: “You’re so cute, I could just eat you up.” She was like a fat, chocolate-covered doughnut and our affection manifested itself in cannibalistic longing. I would not have been surprised if my mother served roast baby sister for Christmas lunch. She became a first-class swimmer and went on to graduate in law. Lisa and I later agreed that the twenty-one-year streak of adorableness wore thin, but when I was eleven my sister was only six and this impressive trajectory was not yet evident. We regarded her as sweet, but dim. With any luck, we thought, she had inherited all the family’s fat genes, and our propensity to slight chunkiness could find full expression in just one obese sibling.
My parents stopped with my younger sister; this was as many children as they could decently have had. Any more and we would have begun to resemble Afrikaners or white trash. I don’t think anyone would ever have mistaken us for Catholics. Only the Portuguese and the Lebanese were Catholics. My older sister was schooled entirely in Afrikaans, my younger sister entirely in English. If you were to put us in a line, most Afrikaans at one end and most English at the other, my mother and Rachel would be the English pole, my father and Lisa the Afrikaans pole, and I would be dead center, aligning myself with whomever I preferred at any given time.
Susie Mafisa had worked for my family since I was born. She was a large woman with ample breasts. Her skin was dark, but not so dark that you might think she originally came from northern Africa. She wore baby-blue or mint-green overalls bought from the OK Bazaar on Seventh Street. She covered her head with a kopdoek, a headscarf, which together with the apron was included in the Domestic’s Pack. Instead of putting the soles of her feet into her faded gray tekkies, she stood on top of them, crushing the fabric of the sneakers to reveal the pinkbrown soles of her feet. Susie had rigid opinions on almost every matter, which she shared with me while doing the ironing as I ate my sandwiches after school.
“The Zulus are very dangerous people. Sophie, she’s a nice Zulu, but the Zulus have a big temper, even Sophie, she has a big temper. That is why the Zulus are always fighting. You must watch out for them. But Sophie, she is nice.” (Sophie worked for our next-door neighbors. They had four sons, aged ten to eighteen, who all lived in a large room laid out like a dormitory, with a bed and desk for each child. I wasn’t friends with them, though I was jealous of the youngest because he had three older brothers.) Susie sipped her tea and said, “The Zulus are like the Boers, very dangerous. Your uncles and your aunties, they are real Boers—am I right? That time they come here I see them. They look and they see me. They see I call your daddy by his name. They think, this ousie, she’s very cheeky. Am I right? Your granny she say to me—Jack, I laugh when I think this—she say to me, ‘Susie, if you were working for me, you would call me Madam.’ Ha ha! But I like your granny. I like Ouma so much.”
She filled the iron and reached for another shirt.
“I never see Ouma anymore. You must tell her I pray for her. On Sunday, I give fifty cents the church must pray for her. You see, she will get better. Jack! You mustn’t leave your glass there. I will hit you. Wha! Wha!” She threw her head back and laughed. Susie’s mind was, in certain respects, peculiar. There was something unnerving to the swings, not in mood, but tone. I can only imagine that she foresaw an avalanche of mess should she stop even for a moment the monitoring of the household’s cleanliness, so that while one part of her brain was commiserating with your dead or dying granny, another was on the constant lookout for stray crumbs, dirty dishes, and wet towels.
“You are so naughty, you! But I love you—you are my baby. Shaya wena, Jack! You know this? Shaya wena— it’s Zulu—it means I will hit you. Wha! Wha!”
She also believed violence, of the non-disfiguring variety, was a healthy and unambivalent form of affection, hence the not infrequent expression, “I love you so much. I will hit you.”
When Susie was really angry she would invoke Matthew—the son of her former employer. “Matt he love me,” she would say. “Matt was a nice nice boy—so nice. Not like you. Matt he never make mess. Matt was such a handsome boy. Every day he come to me and say, “I love you, Mama Susie.” Not like you and your sisters. You don’t love me. If you love me you wouldn’t make a mess. I tell your daddy—you and your sisters are so spoiled. I wish you were like Matthew.”
I loathed Matthew from the moment Susie first mentioned him. I was a jealous and possessive child. The thought of Susie’s divided affections was intolerable to me. Deep down I couldn’t be sure that Susie didn’t really prefer Matt, and that he wasn’t nicer and more handsome. When she mentioned him I would lash out.
“Well—why don’t you go and work for Matthew, then,” I would say, “if you like him so much?”
“Jack—you are not a nice boy when you say this thing. You don’t know how lucky you are. You have a nice mother. You have a nice father. But you! You are too spoiled! You! You are not a nice boy. If you talk like this I go to your mom and I take my severance and I retire. I say I am finish with Jack.”
This was enough to do the trick; it was enough to make me sweet and contrite and lovable for the rest of the day, and I would pick up my clothes and wash the dishes and make sweet tea whenever Susie asked.
Susie used to walk me to nursery school in the mornings and walk me home in the afternoons. Sometimes, when it rained, she called her friend Alfred to pick us up in his car so we wouldn’t get soaked. She made my breakfast and prepared my school lunches. She made my bed every morning, tidied my room, and washed my clothes. After every meal she washed the dishes, except the supper dishes that could wait until morning. She lived in a cottage at the back of the house. It was tidy, with a small garden and a stoop that overlooked the swimming pool. In the summer Susie would sit on the stoop and watch me swim while she sunned her legs.
“Come on, Susie! Come and swim!”
“I don’t swim. I don’t like it.”
“Come put your feet in the water.”
If it was hot enough, she could be tempted to remove her tekkies and dangle her feet in the shallow end of the pool while I did somersaults and handstands.
“You are a good swimmer,” Susie said, as she laughed, “but I don’t like swimming.”
I splashed water at her.
“Jack—I am your mother. Don’t do it.”
I am your mother: a curious phrase, but it made me happy. Both my parents had had occasion to say to me, “Susie is not your slave,” and yet I loved Susie with the same possessive intensity that I loved my mother. Afterward, after I betrayed her, I didn’t like to hear that phrase anymore. I didn’t like it when she said, “I am your mother.” Betraying someone is bad, of course, yet we all do it from time to time. But people don’t betray their mothers.
I could not quite imagine how life would be possible without two mothers. There was so much that had to be done. Someone had to be home to greet me when I came back from school and someone had to listen and nod politely as I recounted the minutiae of my school day: “Pietie was talking in class but Miss thought it was me and she told me to stand up and I said to her, “It wasn’t me, Miss, it was Pietie.” And then she said, “Don’t be a tattletale. No one likes a tattletale.” But I wasn’t. And then she hit me on the hand with the ruler, Susie. Like this. Five times. And Pietie, I saw him, he laughed.” And then Susie would say, “Mmm that’s nice, my baby.”
Someone had to make my bed and make me lunch. Someone had to tell the gardener what to do and make him lunch, and someone had to iron the sheets. But mothers also needed to go out and work and have adventures and do exciting things in the world so that you didn’t have to say that your mother was a housewife. It was embarrassing to say your mother was a housewife. Why, Thomas’s mother was a radio personality and Emmanuel’s mother was an accountant and Jürgen’s mother had to run the family factory. My mother used to teach at the Hope School, which was for handicapped children, but she had a terrible row with the principal after my mother told a girl in a wheelchair that she was too dumb to go to university, and the principal said my mother was “prejudiced.” So now she taught English in an Afrikaans school instead.
But these were not the sorts of mothers that you wanted at home all the time. Nobody wanted an accountant overseeing how you spent your pocket money, or a teacher overseeing you do your homework. We needed mothers when we came home from school, but not mothers who took too keen an interest in what it was we did. We needed second-in-command mothers who could be told, “It’s OK, my mom said I’m allowed.” I liked having a mother who was warm and affectionate, who mollycoddled me, who gave me hugs all the time and told me how handsome I was and how clever I was and how sweet I was, but could also be asked to keep her distance. I don’t like to think too much about what this excess of affection did to us as children—that is, in addition to the unwarranted esteem of our biological parents. But there must have been precious few hours in our young lives when there wasn’t a maternal presence of one kind or another.
I didn’t have many chores, and those I did have, I got my sister Rachel to take on by bribing her with a game of Hi Ho! Cherry-O. That Hi Ho! Cherry-O happened to be the most enduring pleasure of my sister’s childhood was propitious, for it also happened to be the singularly most monotonous game known to humankind. My sister loved it because it required no skill and the duplicity of older brothers would have no bearing on the outcome. A spinner in the center of the board determined the number of cherries you could remove from your tree and deposit in a little plastic bucket. If you were the first to pick all your cherries, you were required to jump up, twirl like a ballerina, and shout, “Hi Ho! Cherry-O!” You could not just say, “I won,” for my sister’s insistence on strict adherence to the rules would deny a win to the would-be victor if this final act of humiliation was not performed.
“You have to do it, Jack, otherwise you have to put all your cherries back on the tree and we start again.”
Root canal would be preferable to Hi Ho! Cherry-O. The merest hint that someone, anyone, my mother, my father, Lisa, Susie, Nicola, anyone, might relent to a game of Hi Ho! Cherry-O would cause much excitement and delight.
“Rachel, do you feel like a game of Hi Ho! Cherry-O?” I would ask.
“Oh yes please!” she’d say.
“Take the washing off the line.”
“Can we play Hi Ho! Cherry-O now, Jack?”
“Pick up the dog poops.”
“Can we play Hi Ho! Cherry-O now, Jack?”
“Feed the cats.”
“Can we play Hi Ho! Cherry-O now, Jack?”
“Never, Rachel. I will never, ever play that game with you. Ever.”
“But I took the washing off the line and I picked up the dog poops and I fed the cats.”
“But you said! You promised!”
“I didn’t say I would play Hi Ho! Cherry-O, I just asked if you felt like playing.”
My sister quickly learned that not only is the world cruel and unfair but also that things are worse, that when you are six and your most enduring pleasure is a game of Hi Ho! Cherry-O the source of the cruelty and the unfairness is none other than your older brother, your hero, your protector. This realization revealed itself in the sharp intake of breath at the moment of betrayal, the stuttered words, “but…but…but…,” the insufferable sniffing, “you…you…you…,” immediately followed by my failed intervention, “Shut up, Rachel!” in the hope that you can avoid the piercing wail…“But youuuuu saiiiiidddd” that would summon Susie to the site of injustice.
“Jack—what you do to Rachel?” she asked.
“Rachel—what your brother do to you?”
“He…he…he made me pick up the dog poops and he…he…he made me take the washing off the line and he made me feed the cats and he promised to…to…to play Hi Ho! Cherry-O…”
“This is not right. You are not fair. Your baby sister—she is so sweet. Why you do this thing? I see Rachel is picking up the dog poops—this little girl— and I think—why Rachel is doing this? I know your mommy say you must do this thing. Jack, this is not fair. You want me to tell your mother? I say to her, ‘Ruth, Jack, your son, is lazy. He is a lazy boy and he’s not nice to his sister.’ Shame, Jack, she’s a little girl.”
“Do you want to play with us, Susie?” I asked innocently.
“I am very busy.”
“Please, Susie, it will be fun,” I said with a smile.
My sister joins in. “P—please…please, Su—Susie…”
“Jack, I hit you. Play with Rachel.”
Chastised, I said, “All right—where’s the board?”
“In my…my…bedroom. I put out all the cherries already, Jack. If you play with me you can be any color—I promise, Jack. Except purple is my most favorite color.” She wiped her nose on her pinafore. “What color do you want to be, Jack?” she asked brightly.
Sometimes, I would make two mugs of sweet tea and we would sit on her stoop while Susie told me about her childhood in Kabalazani, a small village outside of Pretoria, where she and her cousin Michael were raised by their grandmother. Kabalazani was a village, Susie told me, not a township. It wasn’t like Mamelodi or Soweto. These were townships and they were rough. And Kabalazani didn’t have any shacks; there were no squatter camps in Kabalazani. Most of the houses had running water and many had electricity too. In Kabalazani people weren’t interested in politics. They were interested in their gardens.
“One Christmas my granny she buys me a present. The next one she buys Michael a present. We were too poor, Jack. My mother she never give my granny money for me and my cousin. One Christmas my granny she buy me a dress. I love that dress, Jack. It was too beautiful. But Michael, that one, he was so jealous of me. You know what he does, Jack? I laugh. He take the dress and he cut it like this. He cut it up with the scissor. Yo yo yo! Jack, my heart was so sore when I see he do this thing. I was crying and crying and crying. That dress was so beautiful. I never have a dress like this one. I couldn’t believe he would do this thing. And my granny, Jack—she was so mad. My granny—she is like your father—she has a big temper. She has a very big temper. She is so angry—she take Michael and she hit him.”
Susie could no longer contain her mirth and burst out laughing.
“She hit him, Jack, like this. Wha! Wha! Wha! On his face, on his ear, and Michael he cries and he screams. I say, ‘Yes, Granny, you must hit this boy!’ I say, ‘Hit him, Granny, hit him! He is a very bad boy!’ And he cries, Jack! Michael, he cries and he says, ‘No, Granny, it wasn’t me! Granny it wasn’t me, it was…it was’”—she gasped for breath, bent double from laughter—“‘it was the tokoloshe, Granny!’”
Tears ran down her cheeks, which she wiped away with the back of her hand.
“Jack, I never saw my granny hit anyone like she hit Michael. She was so mad with this one. One day you must meet Michael and you must ask him about this thing. Yo yo yo, Jack, he will laugh if you ask him about this thing. He will remember. You must ask him about this thing. Michael—he was a very naughty boy. But he makes me laugh.”
I was not exactly sure what it was that Susie found so funny about this; the fact that she didn’t really believe in the tokoloshe or that Michael would be so foolish as to invoke the wrath of the tokoloshe for something the creature was not responsible for. When I first asked about the tokoloshe—I couldn’t have been older than five or six—Susie said, “It’s…a monster. He’s a small monster—an evil spirit.”
“Like a ghost?”
“No, not like a ghost. Like a monster. In the village, the old people put their bed on bricks so the tokoloshe can’t get them when they sleep.”
“Is it for real?” I asked.
“What you mean?”
“The tokoloshe—is he for real?”
“The people say so.”
“Does he attack people?”
“Yes, he eat your face.”
“Really?” I said.
“Does he eat white people’s faces?”
“Ha ha—you scared of the tokoloshe, my baby?”
“No…but is he for real, for real, Susie?”
“That’s what the people say.”
“Can’t people catch him?”
“But you can shoot him with a gun. My friend’s father has a gun. If he saw the tokoloshe he would shoot him. You can even kill an elephant with a gun but not a .22.”
“He’s too powerful that one. Too too powerful.”
“Do you really believe in the tokoloshe, Susie?”
“That’s what people say.”
“Don’t tease me. Should we put some bricks under my bed?”
“Jack,” she snapped, “if you make mess in your bedroom I will hit you!”
Everything Susie said seemed foreign to me and must have laid the foundation of my prejudiced belief that all black people are afflicted by the certain tragedy of their fates. How terrible to be separated from your mother, to live with a tyrannical grandmother in a house with cow-dung floors. I thought, too, what I might have done, were I there when Michael ruined Susie’s Christmas; the mean-spiritedness of the whole thing enraged me. Blessed with foreknowledge, I would have followed Michael into the room and caught him red-handed. I would have said, “Michael, what are you doing with Susie’s dress?” and punched him for good measure. Michael would have been scared of me and done anything I told him to, because I was white and Michael was black. And sometimes, though it might have been terrible in ways I did not grasp, being powerful for no reason was a good thing.
It also occurred to me, much later, after I had heard this story many times, that there were other ways to right this injustice, to intervene before the calamitous event that would spoil Christmas for a poor little black girl living in a house with dung floors. I could take my money and buy Michael a present, perhaps a toy car or a gun. Not only could I buy him a present but also, believing myself a sensitive and considerate child, I could give the present to his grandmother so that Michael would never know that I had interceded on his behalf and saved him from his most disgraceful impulses. And Susie’s grandmother would say, “Thank you, Jack, you are a good boy. You are so nice to the black people. You love the black people too much. Thank you, Jack. God loves you.” And while I thought about these things, Susie fished in her overalls for her snuffbox. Snuff was her only guilty habit that I knew of, though as unpleasant habits go, it was pretty revolting. “Snuff is too bad,” she would say, “but I have a big headache.”
THE DUBIOUS SALVATION OF JACK V. Copyright © 2011 by Jacques Strauss