We used to sit around the fire, my sister and Ma and my father and all the other children, when my father and our uncles came home from hunting. The corners of his mouth always pointed south like someone who had eaten sieketroos, after these trips because he didn’t like killing anything, he used to say my mother should’ve been born with a stick between her legs because everyone knew she didn’t mind whipping one out. But that’s not how things worked, we knew that. Ma would be roasting the xaba bread on the open fire and our tummies would dance and dance from the smell. My father would always tell the stories because he’s such a clever man, my pa. He would point his knobkierie up at the sky and say “Look, if you connect all those stars you can see a man with a full round tummy like it’s full of child, that’s my father”. I could never really see it, but I pretended I could because my sister could always see everything and sometimes I just wanted to see it too. Then he would catch a star and throw it into our eyes because the world falls flat on its back if a |gôas doesn’t have a star in her eyes.
So even before they came, a stampede of large pale men who would surely bump their heads against the heavens if they jumped, with whips and ropes and eyes of fire, we knew. Ever since the first one came and said that if we eat the words from his book we would never go hungry again. My mother grabbed the book out of his hands and tore out the pages. She ate and ate and ate, but she was still hungry. “Maybe they mistook the book for Hoodia, stupid people” she said. And ever since the first pale man came, all the men stopped looking us in the eye. No more stories, no more stars. It was as if our fathers and uncles had become a mass of teeth and arms and fingernails, the muscles on their faces palsied, as they went about gathering, preparing for winter.
“What do you think is going on?” I asked my sister although I secretly hoped she wouldn’t have an answer. See, Dina once dreamt of a cobra, black as the night, hissing at my father, the day before he found one in the xuboevy bush behind our hut. If anyone would know it would be her. She didn’t look up from where she was drawing circles into the whirling dust with her fingertip. “I don’t want to dream anymore”, she barked at me.
I don’t really know why she would not want to dream. My father took pride in her gift. She can dream what nature and the gods want to tell us. Sometimes when he wants to know about the rain or the wind or where to go next, he burns kraalbossie and the scent opens the heavens, then my sister sees. Ever since the last time she saw, my father has become less keen on her dreaming. My aunt was hitting hard on the drum with a flat palm, the rhythm increasing, our hearts racing. Then they came, the gods, my sister shaking, foaming at the mouth, her eyes rolling back. A swarm of honey bees were making their nest in a strong and sturdy tree. The bees knew about God’s mercy in the belly of the earth and used it to make honey. It was beautiful. Then came along a big hornet with a huge and shiny stinger, alone and far away from its own nest. They pitied him, as no one should ever be alone in a strange place. So, they invited him in to drink off the dust of his travels. The honey bee boiled water in the round sand oven while his wife was roasting xaba bread on the open fire. They shared their pale beer with the hornet and danced for the moon to be merciful on his travels back home and he humbly thanked them with a bow of the head because he couldn’t zoom like the honey bee could. But the next day he came back, with an army of hornets spraying their poison all over the nest to make the honey bees drunk, ate the honey bees’ eggs and took their honey. I don’t know what any of this means but no one said anything when the gods finally brought my sister back.
Mies Gertie teaches us the counting of things. She places stones on the ground in rows in front of me and my sister and then she teaches us what we should say for each stone. Sometimes my jaw gets so sore from all the funny sounds but I keep going because I already know all the colours and I’m getting very smart. Soon when I’m big I can go help her in the house with the important things like the washing. Mies doesn’t like Ma so much and I can understand why, because Ma never listens to anyone no matter how much you whip her. I have to learn to count first, so I can count all the things and then no one can steal any of Mies’ nice things.
I wish I knew alI the words like Mies. I don’t know many words like my father either. He knows all the secrets of the tongue, how to make it tsiek and klak and qcock, but lately he’s been stingy with his words and only mumbles them here and there. I try to pick them up. Walk with my ear against the ground. I run to there, look down to the hardened brown earth under my feet but they’re always gone by the time I get there, somehow floating over the old rust-smelling kraal, over the high pigeon wired fence into a big open sky.
I haven’t learned to count further than disi, ten in Mies’ mouth, because my father doesn’t think I have to. I think he’s maybe very scared. Or ashamed. Like the time I lied to my mother that it was my sister who fell asleep on the mat and wetted it. My mother listened to the whole story and afterwards told me that she had sent Lien to my Nana’s to fetch a thicker blanket. I was really embarrassed and so I know how my father felt that day.
He had perhaps looked too far over the fence and had forgotten where he was. He had perhaps forgotten the big farmhouse with its long windows, a candle flickering as they sat at a large table, that we longingly looked through, he forgot that we couldn’t go any further than the dam, the kraal and the grazing veld. And you should know, my father hates confined spaces. I once thought it would be nice to let the old goat sleep with me in the hut. He came inside, saw the goat laying in the corner, went outside to pluck a stick from the \\Noenie tree and whipped me until I was blue all over my back.
He maybe for a second laid the memory to rest of my mother, teary-eyed, scrubbing at the missus’ bloodstained cotton rags while she watched over my mother like a god watching over the foolish. And for a moment we were back home in the open, arid land where prickly-pear cactuses stood proud as soldiers, ready to give us water in drought, where we could say hello to the sun and kiss the rain. He jumped off the cart yelling “ǃGâi tsēs“, to the sun. Our master, baas, looked like he was about to burst. He had gone all pink in the face, his nostrils flaring, went up to my father pinched his ear and said, “Hotnot jy praat nie weer daai skindertaal nie hoor jy!” because saying good morning to the sun is gossiping if the white man doesn’t understand you. My father’s tiny frame looked even smaller and when he saw me standing there, he didn’t meet my gaze. And so, the master is wringing the language out of my father like my mother wrings the water out of his wife’s bloody rags.
The day Ma started to gather our things, we weren’t surprised. We heard about the others who were captured and took to the pale men’s farms. I wanted to run. Ma ran but came back again. I asked my sister, she just shrugged her shoulders bitterly because she went to the moon for the first time and Ma didn’t hok her in the women’s hut, where no one is allowed to go until the moon brings the blood between your legs, and cook meat for her. Our uncles and fathers were too busy to brew beer. Our mothers too anxious to gather young men. So, no one knew that our flower was ready to be eaten and no young men cut off strands of their hair to give to our fathers to bury at their next hunting trip. And the earth wasn’t paid its respects and it grew hard under our feet.
Before we were all placed on the cart, my father and his brother tied to the front with ropes, their skin red and chafed under the weight, I asked my father if I can say ǃHaese mûgus, which means “I’ll see you soon”, to our sands because we always come back, he said no. So, I said ǃGâise ǃgû re, goodbye, because at my grandmother’s burial my mother sat me and my sister down and said every Khoe has to go to the stars to negotiate our fates and when they go we say goodbye to them. But my father seemed to anger, “sê totsiens!” he said. I didn’t want to say it, it sounded like tot-tot-tot-tot, like a cricket keeping you out of your sleep, like something I had no desire to wrap my tongue around, then he got angry and grabbed me by the ear and, mimicking his master, said “You are a hotnot and from now on you say ‘tot siens!’” The corners of my mother’s mouth pointed south, but there was not even bitter sieketroos to console.
Sisca Julius is a 23 year-old South African student, doing a Bachelor of Arts at Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley, South Africa. Her majors are Afrikaans, Creative Writing, Anthropology and Heritage Studies. She writes in Afrikaans and English.