Fiction Friday: Read a short story featured in 'If You Keep Digging'

New collection explores the daily lives of marginalised people who may otherwise be forgotten or dismissed

07 June 2019 - 11:00 By keletso mopai
'If You Keep Digging' highlights marginalised identities and looks at the daily lives of people who may otherwise be forgotten or dismissed.
'If You Keep Digging' highlights marginalised identities and looks at the daily lives of people who may otherwise be forgotten or dismissed.
Image: Jacana Media

If You Keep Digging is a moving collection of short stories that will resonate with a South African audience.

The selection highlights marginalised identities and looks at the daily lives of people who may otherwise be forgotten or dismissed.

The collection is also deeply concerned with covering the early post-democracy years in South Africa. Each of the characters deals with questions around the “new” country.

The book implores one to think about diverse topics and perspectives, difficult family relationships, abandonment, social and class issues, power dynamics at school and at work, mental illness, witchcraft, sexuality, domestic abuse and the ancestral realm, among other things.

The following is an extract from Growing Caterpillars, which explores the intricate relationship between sexuality, race and traditional values:

Thuso stands in the middle of the living room. Keke’s fiancé’s freshly trimmed beard reveals a neatly oval head – but his face is distorted, screaming desperation.

Keke glances at the white couch behind him. Did it happen there? Is that couch, which they’ve shared for years, also where he and his lover devoured each other?

“I’ve come for my stuff. I’m moving back to my old flat.” She can feel her lips trembling with fury.

“Look, Keke, I’m –”

Before Thuso can finish his sentence, she’s already in their bedroom. She doesn’t want to hear it.

Thuso waits in the living room until she comes back, struggling with a suitcase and her handbag.

“So you’re gay now?” she snaps.

“Please…”

“Six years thrown away!”

“Keke, please, sit. I have to explain … You never gave me a chance last night.”

“No,” she says, dragging her suitcase across the room. At the front door, she turns. “Has our relationship been a lie all along? Was it all pretence?”

“No. I love you.”

“But not the way you love him, right? How exactly do you love me, Thuso? I keep asking myself, did you have to spit to clear your mouth every time, after sleeping with me?”

“Keke, no…”

“Explain to me, how do you have sex with somebody you’re not sexually attracted to, for years, and not hate it?”

“It’s not like that, and this is not about sex!”

“Have you slept with him? Then how is this not about sex?”

Thuso looks down. “I’m sorry.”

“I don’t need your apology!”

“Then what do you want? I’ll give you whatever you want at this point. Is this because it’s a man?”

“Of course it is!”

She throws her handbag at him, and it lands at his feet. At least it’s not a vase, like the one she threw last night. She watches him quietly pick up the bag and place it on top of her suitcase.

“If it was a woman, if you were bisexual, at least I’d know … I’d know that everything we shared together meant something. That perhaps we stood a chance. But now, I don’t have ‘us’, and I never stood a chance. It’s like … like interviewing for a job that’s already been promised to someone else.”

“So I wasted your time.”

“Yes, you wasted my time!” She still cannot fathom how he could just walk in last night, drunk, and tell her he’s in love with someone else. That he wants to end their engagement. She couldn’t bear to be in the same room; she’d stormed out and ignored all his calls.

He sits down and scratches his left palm. “I waited. It’s unfair to you, I know that. But I was scared. My mother … my mother would have detested me. People say: live your life, don’t care what anybody else thinks or says, but of course I care. She raised me, and loved me dearly. But this, she would have detested, I know it in my gut.

"You know, I often watched TV shows with her when I was young, and she winced at the gay people she saw on those shows. Something as small as that … but it terrified me. I was so afraid she would hate me the way she hated those people on TV.

"Imagine, the only person you’ve known your whole life hating you for something you have no control over …”

He stares up at her. “And then she died last year. Keke, my mother’s death was my freedom.”

Keke glares at him, stone-faced.

“The sad thing is,” he continues, “before she died, I’d often just lie on the bed, close my eyes and imagine that she’d vanished. Then I’d cry, because what would I do without my mother? How could I wish death on someone I didn’t want to lose?”

“What do you want from me?” Keke finally asks.

“I need you to know that this is as difficult for me as it is for you. I do not want to lose you too.”

“Did you wish death on me as well?”

He laughs. “God, no. You’re the most understanding person I know. I imagined you throwing things around … but in the end, I knew you’d understand. I believe you know that I love you. It might not be the kind of romantic love people claim to have for one another, but it’s love. The kind of love I’d jump in front of a train for.”

There’s a long silence while Keke contemplates him. Then she sits on the arm of the couch. “Do you remember how we met?” she asks. “I thought, this guy’s going to be the love of my life, for sure. It’s something I felt when I looked into your eyes. I remember I was sitting in the varsity library, and –”

“Yeah, there was no space and you had one of the few huge desks.”

“You asked to sit with me. I looked around and saw every other seat was taken. So I shifted my books and laptop and created some space for you. And then you took out James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room …”

And you smiled. Keke, I’ll never forget that smile. You had the exact same book in your bag. You took it out and put it on the table. We both laughed so much!”

She was smiling sadly now, too.

“I bring this up because I’m thinking, maybe this was a sign of how our relationship would play out. That this is all a joke the gods are playing on me. In the book, David is in love with Giovanni but doesn’t have the guts to leave his fiancée. I found David cruel and manipulative – we both resented him. Whenever we discussed the novel, you said he was the worst protagonist you’d ever encountered, do you remember?”

“Are you saying I’m David?”

“Yes, you strung me along for years … not once did you tell me about your sexuality. You think I’ll understand now because you know I’m not homophobic. But you used me!”

“Keke...”

“I know you can’t tell a stranger all your secrets, but maybe that day we met, you could’ve just said to me: ‘I love this book because I am gay too.’ Do you think I would have judged you for a second?”

“No.”

“So today, I don’t want to hear some sob story about how your mother had an arrow aimed at your dick.”

“You didn’t know her well enough...”

“She was way better than my mother. My mother showed me from an early age that she disliked me. My skin. My beliefs. If we have to make a list of horrible mothers we know, yours wouldn’t make the cut. Do you know my own mother would look at me and tell me how ugly I was?”

“You’ve told me.”

“Yes, because that’s the kind of thing you share with someone when you believe you can tell them anything. But apparently you couldn’t bring yourself to...”

She stops herself short, and sighs. “How long have you known?”

“My whole life.”

“And how long have you been seeing this person?”

He hesitates.

“A year.”

Keke’s tears sting her eyelids. She shakes her head, grasps her suitcase handle and walks out.

It is Sunday morning, the day after her breakup with Thuso. She’s back at her old flat, sitting on the balcony with her laptop on her lap, dressed in only a bra and shorts. The cool morning breeze blows against her cheeks.

Her phone vibrates in her hand. She looks at it, falters before answering.

“Hello, Mama,” she says, her tone already dampened.

“Keke, I just spoke to your sister. She said she knows a neighbour’s friend’s younger sister, who is a wonderful wedding planner.”

Keke exhales sharply. Karabo’s always been the golden sister. Even though Keke was the one who passed her matric with distinctions, who won every essay competition – who even earned two degrees, both cum laude. Her mother has attempted in every way possible to make Keke jealous: to loathe Karabo for her yellow skin, and for her marriage to a rich man. But instead of being jealous of her sister, Keke now just pities her.

She wants to say that Karabo shouldn’t be making any wedding plans, seeing as she herself is married to a total Casanova; but she doesn’t. She doesn’t have the energy. Instead she mumbles, “She shouldn’t bother. The wedding’s off.”

“Eng?”

“I said the wedding is off.”

“What happened?”

“People break up, Mama. I didn’t want to get married in the first place.”

Ever since Karabo’s, years ago, Keke has hated weddings. She was 16 years old then, Karabo 19. Everyone was so excited that day – Keke knew the groom was from a rich family, because everyone said so – and she wanted to be happy for her sister. When she gazed at Karabo in that creamy white dress shipped all the way from London, she tried to imagine wearing it too, having strangers hug her and whisper in her ear that she looked exquisite. She couldn’t do it.

In later years, Keke convinced herself that she’d felt like that because the marriage happened too soon; her sister was still growing. Since the day she was born, when people laid eyes on Karabo, they saw only a pretty girl whom they called all kinds of lovely names, nothing more. Keke told herself she didn’t enjoy the wedding because Karabo was robbed of her life before she could discover her true self.

“So you called it off?” her mother asks bitterly. “You know, I’ve never understood you.” There’s anger in her voice; an abrupt anger that has always startled Keke.

“What did you do?”

Keke feels like hanging up the phone. Of course her mother faults her. Even if she told her that Thuso prefers men, her mother would find something in the rubble to blame on her.

“Mama, I am very busy right now.”

“You don’t sound busy.”

“I am. I’m busy with research for my thesis. I’m doing my master’s, remember?”

“Everyone knows that, dear. Your ‘master’s in sociology’. But how long have you been seeing this man? Six years? Is that master’s of yours going to marry you? He proposed! Keke ngwanaka, you are very stubborn, always have been.”

You are very stubborn … The words echo in her head. Keke’s heard them before.

Her mother said them to her when she was heading to university. She’d placed a skin cream on Keke’s bed, something said to make one’s skin lighter. When Keke informed her she wouldn’t be using any bleaching products, not after they burnt one of her high school classmates’ face, her mother called her arrogant and stubborn.

She’d said the words again when Keke told her that she’d refused Thuso’s marriage proposal. Keke had stared at the diamond he’d given her, not putting it on. For three nights in a row, before going to sleep, she’d looked at the ring with its taunting, round shape, as if it would speak to her. On the fourth night, she finally placed it on her finger.

The next day, Thuso spun her in his arms when he saw it glittering on her hand.

“Where is Papa?” Keke changes the subject.

Her father’s voice immediately erupts in her ear: “Hello, my girl!” – of course he’d been on speaker, listening the entire time.

Her father tells her how much he misses her and wishes she’d come home. She doesn’t hear him, though. The memory of Karabo’s wedding still hangs over her head.

That was the day she truly came to believe she was unattractive. She remembers carrying a bucket of drinks to where relatives were seated in a circle, appraising the wedding’s impressive size and the in-laws’ expensive cars. An old friend said to her mother in a drunken voice: “I’ve always said to you, it’s either you marry a white man or a light-skinned man, otherwise you’ll have ugly children, my friend … thank God for your husband!”

The woman cackled, then added: “Now, see, your daughter got herself a wealthy man. Imagine if she had that skin. Rich men wouldn’t give a second look!”

Everyone who was drinking with her laughed, including Keke’s mother.

Later that day, Keke sat in front of the mirror and cried. Unlike Karabo, she looked exactly like her mother. From her dark skin and coarse hair, to her small eyes and tiny lips. People often looked at her sister, then at her and said, “Wena, you have your mother’s colour. How unfortunate.”

Although she didn’t hear this anymore, not since her mother started bleaching her own skin, setting her melanin on fire.

“Have you spoken to Karabo?” Her father asks. “She said you don’t pick up her calls. Are you two fighting?”

“No, Papa.”

“Keke…”

“I’ve just been busy. I’m under a lot of pressure.”

“Talk to your sister.”

She sighs, “OK, I will.”

Just as she’s about to end the call, her father murmurs, “And I’m sorry your relationship didn’t work out, my girl.”

She goes quiet. She doesn’t know how to respond to him. For the first time in her life, she feels as if she’s failed at something. She finally says, “Thank you, Papa.” And then hangs up.

The truth is, she hasn’t seen Karabo in years, and doesn’t really miss her. Once, when Keke’s phone rang while she was in the bathroom, Thuso picked up – and was confused when the lady on the line said she’d like to speak to her sister.

“Sister?”

“Yes. This is Keke’s number, right?”

He was dumbfounded; Keke had told him she was an only child.

Nevertheless, now she picks up her phone again and browses through her messages. There are tons of unread texts from Karabo.

Keke types, “Hello, my sister from another mother...”

As she puts the phone down, a reply comes through. “Keke, should I drop dead first before you pick up your damn phone? I need a place to stay.”

Keke waits for an explanation before replying. The next message says, “I’m divorcing my husband. May I come and live with you for a while, please?”

And then Karabo quickly adds: “But don’t tell Mom.”

  • Extract provided by BlackBird books, an imprint of Jacana Media.

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