With this story by Teboho Mohlomi, we continue our series of original fiction or poetry by writers who either published their first book at 40 or after, or who have yet to publish a book. Writers interested in submitting work should see our guidelines.
The smoke filled the hut. Thick, blue. Mama tossed another cake of dry cow dung into the mbawula, an enamel bucket riddled with holes, to augment the heat. One of many made by tata over the years, for these extremely cold nights, when wind whistled over the thatched roof, exposing any holes that lurked unseen.
“We will have to close that before I go,” Tata would always say to me. Mama did her best to seal whatever holes developed when he was away. Slits where the frail window frame was lodged into the mud wall. Sometimes I would hold the lower door of the main rondavel in place, while mama hammered a nail to keep it in position. Tata was always away in the big city. This is why most of the work was done by mama, while he sent her money to fix this, rebuild that, plough maize, and pumpkins in between maize stalks in summer.
Then when he returned home and never went back to the city, she still had to continue doing it.
Another piece of dung in the mbawula. From across the hut, through the smoke, I could see mama glancing over her shoulder at the bed with a steel frame, on which tata lay. We could see clearly through the room divider made of cloth, that she had erected when he stopped getting up regularly. She did not ignore any of his coughs. My older sister Qwathikazi always told stories around the fire. All lies. Others revolting. Mama would always warn her about exaggerating her stories. But this evening mama did not have any words of admonition. She allowed us to argue till our voices were loud enough to drown out tata’s coughs.
Another cough, another glance.
“Listen! Listen!” Qwathikazi began another incredible story. “The dog and the cat were arguing about who is faster. All the animals said the dog was faster, but the cat insisted that it was the fastest animal of all of them, and that they had never seen it race because it always sneaked up quietly on its prey. Pig said, you may be right there, but do you think any of us could be used to hunt? Because we do not possess the speed that is required. Like me, I can sprint, but you know I don’t have stamina, I will tire quickly, and whatever I catch I will probably eat it by the time my master catches up.” She grunted the last parts.
Behind us, another cough. And another. Mama turning her head slowly. Even sliding her hand through the dividing cloth.
“So they organized a race day…”
Another cough, as tata ’s head moved. The next cough was longer, deeper, and forced what sounded like a gargle out of him. Even Qwathikazi paused. Mama’s head remained fixed on tata.
“So the race day was a Sunday. It was winter, like it is outside, because they wanted to use the garden because it wasn’t ploughed and was clear and ready to host the race.”
“I think you must go to your hut to sleep, it’s late.” Mama spoke softly. “You can continue the story tomorrow.”
“But mama…I was about to finish.” Qwathikazi was relentless.
“You can continue tomorrow. It’s late.” Mama’s tone was still subdued but a little sterner this time. Their eyes met briefly before mama rose from her chair and moved towards the bed where tata had stopped coughing. Hastily, she lifted the mbawula and carried it towards our rondavel, which was always colder than the one in which tata slept. Its handle never seemed to burn her hands like it did ours.
Qwathikazi remained behind. I’d later learn that she had volunteered to run next door to call our neighbour, Mr Butyobo, while mama closed tata’s eyes.
Teboho Mohlomi was born 50 years ago in Mthatha, in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. He was a high school English teacher in the 1990’s after which he stumbled into the world of broadcasting, working as a presenter on East Coast Radio and KayaFM while a television news anchor for ENews and Enca in Durban and Johannesburg. During this time he was using the pseudonym Jeff Moloi. Mohlomi now resides in the small coastal city of East London, teaching Broadcasting to Journalism students at the Walter Sisulu University. He has a Masters Degree in Creative Writing from Rhodes