Christopher Mpofu

The soldier, face rubbery with thick black scars like an old mopane tree, brings the axe down, cackling. Blood gushes from Lungile’s father’s neck, splashes Lungile’s clothes, like the time they slaughtered a cow.
Lungile jerks away, eyes squeezed shut. But his mother’s screams pry them open. The head rolls away, eyes surprised. Lungile bolts. Runs till he collapses on the dusty road, red earth clinging to his bloody clothes. Lungile shot from his sleeping mat, his hands clawing at his neck.
Was he late for school? Last time he had the dream, he overslept, and his uncle made him run to school without breakfast.

“Get up!” Uncle S’khwili yelled, banging on Lungile’s door.
“I’m up, Malume.”
“Yaah . . . you’re up!” Uncle S’khwili growled. “Like a donkey’s
Lungile’s eyelids twitched. The ugly soldier flitted across the room,
laughing like a hyena, and faded into the wall.

“Do you think Umama is cooking for the soldiers?” Lungile whispered
to Thole, squeezing milk from her udder. “Or do you think they killed
Sound emptied into silence, the sky staining red. The goat shifted
its hind leg.

“She’ll come back one day.” Lungile pulled hard on Thole’s teats, switching from one to the other, milk splashing into the bucket. He should’ve brought a cup so he could sneak a drink to coat his empty stomach out here where Uncle S’khwili wouldn’t catch him. Thole bleated encouragement, and Lungile, after a glance about, picked up the bucket, slippery from sloshed milk and morning dew, and took a long sip. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and continued milking.

Uncle S’khwili was waiting by the kitchen door. “Your testicles too heavy for you, boy? Walk like a man!” He grabbed Lungile’s ear and cranked it.

Uncle S’khwili’s fingers were like logs of wood—thick, dry, hard, and scratchy. At least he hadn’t smacked Lungile in the face and broken a bone. “Yes, Malume.” Lungile stooped to enter the hut, where a plate of porridge sat steaming on the floor. His stomach roiled at the sight, even as his mouth watered at the thought of hot porridge mixed with Thole’s milk.

“Get your skinny legs to school before the sun goes down!”

The path to school was a hard, earthen cake, the baked surface burning Lungile’s feet. His stomach growled, and he gave it a gentle rub. The sun was only just cresting the horizon, the birds strangely silent. There’d have been plenty of time to eat the porridge and still be on time for school—Uncle S’khwili just wanted it for himself. Or maybe, he was saving it for his whore. Lungile had heard her coughing as she entered Uncle S’khwili’s hut last night. How was Lungile’s father even related to Uncle S’khwili? Lungile’s father, soft-spoken, gentle. A dull ache tapped Lungile’s temples. He’d stop for a drink at the river; that sometimes helped.

As he approached the river, three soldiers sauntered out of the bushes to his left, leaving behind a woman sprawled naked on dry leaves. Lungile recognized one of them and quickly looked away.

His mother lies limp on the floor, blood dripping from the darkness between her thighs. Lungile clutches at the narrow doorway to the hut just as a hand, thick and hard and rough as a mopane tree, grips his shoulder, sending his heart hurtling against his chest. A hoarse voice coughs out words over him. Your father dead, it says, splashing saliva on his neck, wooden fingers digging into the hollow behind his collarbone. He fight for freedom, no? Phlegm rattles in the throat behind Lungile as the man cackles. We take care of Mama now, the man says and shoves Lungile away.

“Go! Big boy!” The sound of coughing laughter chases Lungile. He crouches behind the bush fence and watches, struggling to quiet his breath.

A few minutes later, his mother limps out of the hut, a mountain of a man dressed in brownish-green pants and jacket close behind. Must be the wooden hands—he is tall and thick and rugged as a mopane tree. His mother kneels beside the cooking fire. Every time she falls over, the mopane tree yanks her up, saying words Lungile can’t understand but knows are bad. His mother makes porridge, the mopane tree standing guard throughout. The other soldiers slouch against the hut, lazy smiles tracking Lungile’s mother’s feeble movements. When she finally hands the porridge to the soldiers, they splash it on the ground. “Dance!” the one with the wooden hands orders, pointing to the hot mash. And his mother slips on blistered feet until, face ripping itself apart, she crumbles with the labor of her work. The soldiers drag her across the yard, her body lifeless now, and toss her onto the back of a truck.

“Big boy!” Mr. Mopane called out. He rubbed his genitals, a stupid smile folding his face like an elephant’s ass. “Miss your mommy?”

Bile splashed up Lungile’s throat, filling his mouth with a sour taste. Mr. Mopane’s face ballooned out, zoomed in on Lungile, faded away, and zoomed in again. Laughing through lips thick and pink like a baboon in heat. Scattering leaves from the trees. Lungile bent down, gripped his thighs, and vomited. Thole’s milk came up, then nothing. Just retching. Again and again, until his stomach was in his mouth.

“Go!” the mopane tree said, waving Lungile away.

The ground was soft and moist near the river, cool on the feet. Beyond the bushes, water lapped rocks in the river, a dove cooing its soothing song. When Lungile imitated the cooing of a dove the other day, Uncle S’khwili had smacked him on the head. You think the birds need your help? The day his father taught him to coo like a dove crept back under Lungile’s skin, spreading a soft, fluffy warmth through his body. “Put your hands together. Like this!” When Lungile blew, only air hissed out. And they broke into laughter, the skin around his father’s eyes and cheeks wrinkled with joy.

Zenzo tapped Lungile’s shoulder. “Come outside with us.”

Zenzo’s gang and their stupid jokes! Lungile dumped his math books in his desk drawer. “I’m tired,” he said.

Zenzo shook his head and clucked. He raised his arm to the boys behind him. “Let’s go!”

They ran out laughing. Probably a joke about someone’s mother. Everyone giggling until it was their mother’s turn. No one ever said anything about Zenzo’s mother.

Lungile wished he was sitting by the fire watching his father pick groundnuts from the ashes and give them to his mother. Her face glowing even as the fire died off. Sometimes he even cracked them open for her! Then his father teasing him, “Oh, you want some too?” And giving him a handful.

A paged rustled. Zodwa, standing by her desk. How long had she been there? And why was she reading standing up? Those fingers . . . so long and smooth. And the skin on them. So dark. Like the desk in the headmaster’s office. She looked in his direction, and he shoved the desk drawer shut, catching his hand. He gasped but quickly put his face as straight as he could. He kept his hand hidden inside the desk as if he meant it to be there. When he looked up, she was walking towards the door, and he was sure she was smiling. What a stupid ass he was. She’d never look at him again.

Outside, he sat alone under a thorn tree, watching Zodwa chat with girlfriends. She towered over the group, her legs long and slender and deep brown. He couldn’t take his eyes off them. She was always so calm, just like his mother. Whenever Lungile’s father raged about the killings, his mother would say, “God has a plan. He creates everything, and He brings everything to an end.” And his father would stop complaining. Well, his father’s misery had come to an end. But his mother? Was she a corpse too?

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