Growing up I found heaven nestled in between the warm Benguela currents of the Indian Ocean and the dry, unchanging land of the Orange Free State. It is Africa’s best-kept secret, KwaZulu Natal. With its rivers unfailingly wide with fish and its temperate climate, the Zulu believe that the ancestors gave them this land as a gift. It is no mistake that the word KwaZulu means ‘home of the Heavens’. To me KwaZulu Natal was more than a province with ten million people and pristine beaches. It was home.
We lived in Pongola, a small agricultural community on the North Coast of South Africa. Like most of the men in our community, my father was a farmer. He was a simple speaking, rugby watching man with his feet as firmly rooted into the land as his crops were. The Zulu, the natives who worked for my father, ignored the blond curls that tried to free themselves from the constraints of his cap, and allowed for themselves to trust him. He was not a stranger, but rather one of their own. In a traditional ceremony they named him Sizwe, a name that he embraced and wore with pride. It means one with the power to lead a nation and it could not be a better description of my father and the tenacity with which he ran the farm. He was loyal and understanding both at work with the Zulu and at home with Kyle, my mother and me. He was never like my mother, cold and hardened from years of disappointment and that is probably why he reacted the way he did when Kyle died. Kyle is my older brother. He was two when I was born and sixteen when he died.
It was an early morning in June, probably one of the coldest days we had ever seen in Pongola. The mist was holding our farmhouse as though it was afraid it would run, like a child, into the open road. It was Saturday and Kyle was home from boarding school in the city. It had changed him. His brown unruly hair had been replaced with a conservative box cut, his bare legs with bland gray trousers and his feet, usually painted black with dirt, were covered by square toed lace-up shoes. He no longer spoke isiZulu with conviction but rather ashamedly and timidly.
My father woke him early to help on the farm, like he did every morning before Kyle moved to boarding school. The first rays of sunlight hadn’t reached the beaded blinds in my window when I heard father walk past my door and enter Kyle’s room. The fire season had begun early this year and already two fires had started a race in the mountains that threatened the livelihood of the sugar cane farmers of Pongola. Even though he was home for only two days, Kyle was expected to lend a hand and help the men burn firebreaks on the mountain that overlooked our farm. They left together on our old green Caterpillar tractor. I listened to the tractor cough and spit to life; Dad rode in the front, Kyle in the back. I saw them leaving through the small crack in my closed blinds, “hamba kahle," I whispered. “Go well.”
Nothing was special about that Saturday morning. We spent it like we spent all of them in Pongola. Kyle and my father tended to something of importance on the farm and my mother and I occupied ourselves with small tasks around the house. It was hardly a fairytale existence, but it was a safe one and none of us ever complained. Kyle had brought some fresh fruit with him from the city and my mother was in the kitchen sterilizing bottles and halving peaches. I busied myself with the dusting on the other side of the house. I had just finished lifting the dust off the surface of my desk when I heard the scream.
“Kyle, No!” My mother’s voice pierced through our house abruptly. I heard her bare feet run across the dining room from the kitchen and towards the front door. Her footsteps were accompanied by the sound of dishes breaking. “Kyle, Kyle, Kyle!” the urgency had increased. I looked over my desk and through the window at the driveway, but I saw nothing. Five farm workers and a red Toyota buckie I did not recognize were obstructing my view of the driveway. It was 12:02pm. The mist had cleared.
“Mom, Mom!” I called out without expecting to be answered. I ran past the living room and into the kitchen. “Kyle?” I knew he was home; Mom had called out to him. “Dad?” There was nothing. The hysteria that had filled the house a second ago had subsided.
I observed the scene when I got to the door. I saw the top of my father’s golden hair sticking out from his cap, towering above the heads of the Zulu that surrounded him. He was tall; I called him the big friendly giant when I was younger. He had read me the story one night before bed and a thousand times after that. It had become my favorite. My mother was still screaming, her voice now hoarse and tired. The Zulu spoke in hushed tones and although I was proficient in their language, it seemed as though they were speaking in a series of clicks. Father was silent.
“Kyle, Kyle?” I knew deep down that he wouldn’t respond. I knew that I needed to leave my post at the doorframe and walk towards my family. I knew what had happened. I saw the red streaks that colored the pale whites of all the eyes in the driveway and the stained handkerchiefs that hung from the Zulu’s hands. I saw my mother on her knees, inaudible with emotion; my father with his head bowed and Kyle with his silence. I had seen it before when Jabulani died on the farm and the workers came to the farmhouse in search of my father. Kyle and I were still young then and my mother didn’t like for the workers to come up to our farmhouse without my father. I never understood why. Jabulani had died falling from the back of one of the farm vehicles. I cried every night for two weeks when I realized that he wouldn’t be able to play with us anymore. I had seen it all before yet for some reason now, even though I thought my tear ducts where as dry as the Kalahari, I couldn’t leave the doorframe. “Kyle,” my voice was weak, “Kyle!” I turned into the kitchen and threw up in the sink.
The day of the funeral, the inside of our house looked like it always did. Empty. The curtains had been lying on a large pile on the kitchen table since my mother washed them two weeks ago, before the accident. There were no dishes in the sink but the rubbish bin was overflowing with fly seducing leftovers. Kyle was the one who took the bins out and when he went to boarding school I took up the chore. Now I forced myself ignore the pile and the stench, like I had been doing for the last fortnight, and walked to my bathroom.
I used to share this bathroom with Kyle. My parents designed it in such a way that the bathroom joins our bedrooms together. Kind of like a suite. I used to hate the way Kyle felt a need to resurface our floor whenever he was home with a new layer of his clothing, but now I wished my fluffy pink mats had his plaid flannel to keep them company. I turned on the shower but I didn’t have the energy to get in. Steam filled the bathroom and I stared at my reflection in the mirror until I couldn’t see myself anymore. The steam held me like the mist had held our house that day Kyle died in my father’s arms.
For two weeks our lives were chaotic and crowded as though we belonged to the cast of a film set on a busy street in Beirut. All the farm workers came and sang their songs of mourning. Our family came from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe and Johannesburg, and Kyle’s friends came from school. When he was safely in his box in the ground and the flowers died on the counter, everyone’s lives seemed to go back to normal. My father put on his cap every morning and rode the old tractor to work on the fields and my mother focused on one of her unending list of philanthropic projects. No one cried and none of us spoke about Kyle. Even the sun continued to rise and set. It seemed to me as though nobody’s routine skipped a beat. Nobody’s except mine. Kyle wasn’t here. He wasn’t here to take out the trash, or to phone my mom everyday at five from the call box at school, or to speak to dad about the rugby. He wasn’t there to tell me he loved me. Kyle was gone and I missed him and I resented everyone, especially Mom, for moving on and acting like she didn’t miss him too.
“Louise darling you need to start going to school again. You are missing a lot of work.” My mother’s long, slender fingers ran through my head of thick, uncombed hair as she spoke. “Don’t you miss your friends?” Her voice was sweet but her grey eyes where cold and emotionless.
“I do miss my friends but I miss my brother more. Why can’t you just allow me to feel like that?” Tears were streaming down my face like they had been for the last fortnight. “Just be there, don’t ask questions!” Even though I was yelling, my head was buried in the warmth of my mother’s chest.
“Louise, I am here. I’m here now.” Although her voice was comforting it was clear that she was distracted. She had been this way since before Kyle had died. “I’m just trying to be strong for us all.”
My mother was the Chief Executive Officer of an NGO that focuses on child headed homes in Eastern Africa, mainly Kenya and Tanzania. She was born and raised in Johannesburg and found living on the farm a reality worse than death. She spent roughly half the year travelling and raising funds for the organization. I went to one of the presentations after Kyle had died and I can’t pretend I wasn’t impressed with the Oscar worthy performance she put on. Her slide show contained the perfect amount of poor African children, with swollen bellies and stagnant water surrounding their feet and clean Africans with smiles on their faces post donation to make all of those wealthy people feel like they were changing a life with every check they signed. “Siyabonga kakhulu,” she would say after every presentation, “the children of Kenya thank you.”
“I hate what you’re doing.” I rested my feet on the coarse grey dashboard while she drove. The presentation had taken longer than my mother had expected and it was dark. I didn’t recognize the stretch of road but it was clear that we were somewhere in between Durban and Pongola.
“What do you mean you ‘hate what I do’? It’s charity work Louise. Nothing is wrong with wanting to change the lives of some people less fortunate than ourselves. How would you feel if you had no parents?” She spoke as though she were reciting the words of a monologue. Her long platinum blond hair cascaded down her back with precision as though a professional had crafted each individual curl by hand in some overpriced salon. It was what made her stand out the most. My mother and her Hollywood hair married to a cap wearing father. There was no emotion in her voice, nor was there a change in her body language. Her fingers turned white under her tight grip on the steering wheel, her grey eyes burnt holes in the dark road in front of the car.
“It’s not like I have a mother.” As soon as the words left my mouth, I wished that I could go and take every single one of them back.
“Excuse me?” She was annoyed; I could tell by the way she bit her lower lip before she answered. The year we were forced to move to Pongola, after my father lost his position managing a farm in Bulawayo, my mother had a constant open sore on her lower lip. My father said it was her way of relieving frustration. Kyle and I knew it as an indication to back off and apologize.
“Excuse me, Louise, would you like to repeat that?” She made it seem as though there was an option but I knew there wasn’t.
“It’s nothing.” It was something but I couldn’t admit to that. I felt that she had abandoned me and given up on our family. My father could not forgive himself for what he did and she had left him to run on autopilot, to become an emotionless robot before our eyes. More importantly she had left me, to feed myself, feel emotions for my father and miss my brother all by myself while she diligently worked on rebuilding the lives of some children she had never met. I could never tell her this. Not now, not in this way.
“You have been so unfair, Louise,” she spoke in a shrill voice that sent shivers down my spine. “You have been punishing me since Kyle died and it’s just so unfair!” She avoided eye contact with me but her voice broke and her sadness revealed itself.
“I don’t want to talk about this now.” I couldn’t bear her anymore. We sat in silence the whole way home. I tried to focus my attention on the bright lights that belonged to the array of ships waiting to enter the harbor. A cocktail of colors were being reflected onto the quivering waves of the Indian Ocean as we drove along the N1. It was difficult to pretend that I wasn’t looking at her. She cried silent tears that glistened under the glow of the passing streetlights.
Weeks passed as we rolled into September and it seemed as though only the calendar acknowledged that the season had changed. The heat had begun to dry the soil and the longer we waited for rain the less my father left the house.
“You need to work or else we will be forced to relive what happened during the drought in Bulawayo all over again. I cannot deal with that right now, especially after what has just happened to Kyle.” My mother coldly addressed my father. Even though the conversation between my parents was taking place behind their bedroom door, I could hear them clearly from where I sat on the floor outside their room. My mother was shouting. “Are you going to just sit there? It has taken me years come to terms with the fact that I live in this god forsaken town and you are going to tell me that you want to ruin my happiness again?” I had never heard my mother speak like this. She was usually calm and composed, almost wooden. From my position on the other side of the door I could hear her pacing. “Answer me dammit.”
“What do you want me to say Rachel? Tell me and I’ll say it.” My father’s voice sounded like it had for the last couple of weeks. Tired and disinterested.
“I can’t believe you are sitting there and allowing for them to do this. So it’s up to me to save this farm? I thought I was nothing more than the bimbo from Johannesburg?”
“Rachel I can’t change the fact that it hasn’t rained. I know it is bad timing but what do you want me to do? Yes, our son is dead and yes we are losing our farm but what do you expect me to do? I can’t change their decision and god knows I can’t will the rain to fall.” My father spoke in his usual even tone. It surprised me that he seemed so composed.
“You need to get out there and help the workers. You owe them that much.” My mother’s voice was suddenly sympathetic.
“What’s the point?” My father seemed done, defeated.
It was then that I realized that my shirt was damp with the residue of fallen tears.
We got kicked off the farm nine days after I overheard my parents’ late night altercation. Even though my father was a farmer, we were only tenants on our farm. My father worked for the Hullets Sugar Company. When he stopped tending to the farm and the rain refused to fall, we stopped making sugar cane. The Zulu did all they could to keep us afloat but they couldn’t perform a miracle. He cried when he got the letter that we had to leave. The farm had been everything to us, our income and my childhood, but he was hardly surprised when the news came. He hadn’t really left our yard since Kyle died.
“I’m going to miss this place.” I tried to seem composed but my throat was dry and my saliva felt like sandpaper against the back of my throat.
“It will always be a part of you. Always.” My mother’s hair was slicked back in a tight ponytail and her face was free from her usual thick makeup. All the Zulu had turned up to wish us farewell. They lined our long gravel driveway dressed in the bright beads that make up their traditional attire. Today they sang a different song to the one that filled this space not to long ago. “Uvulekile amasango. Hamba kahle abangane bakhe.” God has opened his gates for you. Travel safely our friends.
Even my mother joined in by shaking her petite frame to the rhythm of their words. At this point I couldn’t hide my tears. I wet the chests of all the Zulu as I hugged them goodbye. My father didn’t look back when we loaded the last moving truck, waved our final farewells and drove up and out of the valley for the last time.
The six-hour journey from Pongola to Johannesburg was the longest journey of my life. The lush green landscape and the thick humid air were slowly being replaced with the nosebleed inducing, dry air that characterized the High Veld. The rolling hills had been traded in for flat plains and as we approached the city and the first skyscraper became visible, my bare feet and rugby shorts became the only part of Natal that I had left.
“Isn’t this nice?” My mother spoke to dead ears. My father hadn’t opened his eyes since we left the farm.
“Why are we here?” I knew why we were here but I wanted her to tell me the truth.
“To start again Lu-Lu, to start again.” She hadn’t called me Lu-Lu since I was younger; Kyle had called me that before he could say Louise.
“Mom, do you miss Kyle?” It wasn’t the right time to ask this question and I knew that.
“Of course I miss him.” Her neck tensed as she said the words and her tired eyes, intense with emotion, looked straight onto the road ahead.
“Why can’t you just say it? Just say his name.” I didn’t know how that would change anything. We were over five hundred kilometers away from Pongola and nothing would bring my brother back. But I just wanted to know that she cared more about our family than she did about those children, with the extended bellies, she raised money for.
“Lulu, I miss Kyle. I miss him with every fissure in my body. I wish that I could go back to that morning in June and hug him. I wish that I could tell him that I missed him every day while he was at boarding school, but I can’t.” She was crying now “I missed watching the two of you grow up because I was travelling and now Kyle is dead thinking that I sent him to boarding school because I didn’t love him.” We had stopped moving a long time ago. Our old white station wagon was parked in front of an unfamiliar driveway. The house at the end of the short concrete drive was white with a red tin roof. “I love him, Louise. I always did and I always will.” I smiled, even though it wasn’t the right thing to do but because it was what I needed to hear all along. Her teeth removed themselves from their position on her lower lip and she held my hand over my white rugby shorts and exposed thighs. She smiled and for the first time in a while, the seemingly unending expanse of grey that filled her eyes narrowed in. She was smiling, giggling slightly, through the salty tears that had made their home one her cheeks.
We were in Parkhurst, a small suburb in the Northern Suburbs of Johannesburg, and that white house with the tin roof was our new home. The avenues that held our houses were wide and lined with the pale barks of tall Jacaranda Trees. There was no space. Our houses where packed into tight rows like sardines in a can and apart from the color of our front door and roof all of our houses where exactly the same. We had a small garden, a koi pond and a large patio. There was no space to run around, I had no one to interact with and we hadn’t met our neighbors yet. Behind our kempt garden and concrete driveway I was suffocating and I knew that no one would understand why I couldn’t allow myself to leave our can and find friends.
“Your dad is going to love this Lu-Lu.” My mother spoke as she piled the last bits of sand into the small vegetable patch in the corner of the yard. “It’s like a mini Pongola.” She smiled a half smile. It was nothing like Pongola but I knew that she was trying her best to make my father feel himself again. He hadn’t spoken much or left the house since we moved to Johannesburg. It was clear that he missed Kyle but I knew that he missed the farm too. He didn’t even watch the rugby anymore.
“It’s nice. I think he’ll like it.” I knew he wouldn’t but I didn’t want to disappoint her.
“It’s a start. Soon he will back to normal.”
“I hope so.” I missed the comfort of his strong arms, his friendly demeanor and his gentle words. “I hope so.”
I pushed through the tight circle that the Zulu had made around my father and I looked over my slumped mother. “Kyle!” I was screaming and I couldn’t stop myself. “Kyle wake up, wake up Kyle!” Themba, my father’s farm manager pulled me from Kyle. I had latched myself onto his lifeless body and my father, unable to carry the weight of both of his children, had dropped him onto the cool gravel driveway beneath us. “Kyle don’t leave me. Please Kyle just wake up—Please.” My screams had become pleas. Themba held me close as I cried, punched and kicked. “Why!” he didn’t answer and that was okay because I wasn’t looking for an answer from him.
“Thula tu, thula umtwana, thula sana. Ubhuti uzobuya ekuseni…” Themba sang in my ear while I cried. “Hush, hush my child please hush my baby. Your brother will come back in the morning.” My mother was still on her knees, face down and shaking on the ground below me. My father stood in the center of the circle with his shirt stained red with blood and I stood holding Kyle, while Themba held me. Sobbing.
I started school at St. Mary’s School the following month and my mother continued to work for her NGO, but my father was still not back to normal. However I saw more of my mother now that she worked closer to where we lived and for the most part I liked it. Life seemed to finally start again. I was getting used to Johannesburg, though I can’t say that I had fallen in love with it. I started playing field hockey and when I made the first team squad my mother took a day off work to watch our first game. Even my father had stopped running on autopilot like he had been ever since we left Pongola, and he started speaking to us, taking jogs and driving me to school a few days out of the week.
“Louise, I can never be one of them, you know the city slickers, but I think I’m less of an accident waiting to happen now.” I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I hoped it meant that he was starting to become happy in our new environment. He had never forgiven himself for what he did and my mother was struggling to make ends meet alone. He hadn’t been himself since that day in June and my mother seemed to have come to terms with the fact that a part of my father had died with Kyle that day in June.
It was December now and the summer thunderstorms had begun their daily routine. I went to sleep with the window open that night so I could smell the rain. Unlike in KwaZulu Natal, the rain in Johannesburg makes itself known to your nose first and then to your eyes. My room changed colors with each strike of lightning and as the first drops of rain began to beat down on our thirsty tin roof, I imagined it let out a sigh of grateful relief. My mother was renting this house from an elderly lady whose children had moved her into an old age home. It was the only house with a tin roof in our whole neighborhood. She never admitted to it, but I feel my mother chose this house because the roof reminded her of our farmhouse in Pongola. The familiar staccato sound of the raindrops on the roof lulled me to sleep.
The shrill unlubricated bolts of the chest in my parent’s room woke me suddenly. I had hoped it was Mom taking her clothes out of the chest but it was 3:30am and I knew she wasn’t leaving for her trip to Kenya until the following day. It was my father. He was leaving. Even though he was making progress, it was obvious that he felt out of place in the city, he was a farmer and that’s all he could do. He didn’t see the fun in golf and he couldn’t find joy attending to the small vegetable patch my mother had started for him not too long after we moved to the city.
“What happened Dorian?” Dorian is my father’s first name. I didn’t hear it being used often. The undertakers had just come to take Kyle’s body. My mother made us dinner and we sat at the table. None of us ate.
“I was driving the Caterpillar up the first hill, the one outside the Van Rooyen’s farm.” He spoke in a forgiving tone; it seemed as though even his blond curls had given up trying to escape from his cap. “I went over a bump, I didn’t notice the bloody stump with all the mist around us.” He looked at my mother, waiting for her to reply but she gave him nothing. “He didn’t make a sound. I would have stopped if he did.”
“When did you realize he wasn’t on the back of the tractor anymore.” She seemed oddly calm, not hysterical like she had been only hours before.
“When I spoke about rugby and I didn’t hear a response.” He looked at me with apologetic eyes. “I ran down the hill Lu-Lu, I went back immediately.” He turned his explanation to me because unlike my mother, I was crying.
“Dorian, I don’t understand what happened?” She rubbed her slender fingers across her forehead repeatedly. Even though she seemed composed her voice was frazzled and uneasy.
“Dammit, Rachel. When I went over that stump Kyle fell off the back of the tractor and onto the ground, in the space between the front and back tyres of the tractor. I didn’t realize that he had fallen off so I kept on going, Rachel. I kept trodding up that hill, while the green caterpillar tractor struggled in the mist.” He slammed his hands against the table rhythmically while he spoke. His voice was angry and it terrified me, my father seldom lost his composure.
“You mean you…” I didn’t know how to finish that sentence. My eyes continued to fill up with tears but I didn’t allow for myself to blink.
“Yes, Louise, yes. I ran Kyle over with the back tyres of the tractor and I didn’t hear him screaming over the sound of the old machine.” He was shouting now.
“You killed my son?” my mother’s eyes where dry and her voice was emotionless.
“Yes, I killed our son, it was an accident.” His face was bowed down, his eyes starring at the green beans and mashed potatoes on his plate. “I don’t know how I will ever live with myself for it.”
The rain was beating down more intensely than it had been less than an hour ago. I overheard him on the phone in the hallway outside my door. I assumed he didn’t want to wake my mother. “I’m on the 5:30am flight to Durban, I’ll be in Pongola by 10:00am.” He spoke in a loud whisper, the kind that comes out more audibly than a normal speaking voice. “She will understand eventually.” He hung up while he opened my door. He lingered in the doorway for a while before he placed an envelope on my side table and then turned and walked out. I heard the front door slam over the sound of the rain. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I was awake.
I didn’t wait to hear the engine of the old station wagon roar to life before I ran to my side table. The envelope that he left was stuffed full with what appeared to be a hand written letter and a glossy ticket. I hit the lights on with my left hand, opened the envelope with my right and walked towards my bed with the letter and ticket in hand. The old hardwood floors creaked beneath my weight.
My Dearest Louise.
My father’s penmanship was as wild as his hair and I struggled to make out the slanted figures on the page.
I’m sorry for what I did to Kyle, I know how hard it has been for you to not have your brother around. I’ve watched you grow these last couple of months and I am proud of the woman you are becoming. I wish that I could be more of a father to you but I can’t, not in this way. The men that wear the ties at the Hullets Sugar Company have given me my job back and I’m going back to Pongola. It all happened really quickly but I wanted to make sure that you heard it from me and not your mother. I hope that you will come back and see me. Your mother thinks it would be better for you to stay in Johannesburg, she hasn’t opened it up to discussion but I want you to know that the decision is up to you. You’re a good kid Lu-Lu. I want you to always remember that.
Love, your father, the Big Friendly Giant
I sat holding the letter for a while and then ran to my window and peered out onto our driveway. The white station wagon was sitting in its usual place on our driveway. I ran back to the warm spot on the bed and opened the envelope again. I lifted the glossy ticket towards my face and read the printed figures. It was a one-way ticket to Durban. It was my ticket home. I looked at the clock on my bedside table—it was 4:49am. I picked up my white Blackberry curve and dialed my father’s number.
“Hello?” He sounded confused, the way he always did when someone called him on his cellphone but I knew he was expecting me to call.
“Dad, it’s Louise.” I articulated every syllable of those three words as if it was the first time I had ever said them.
“Hey Lulu. How are you?” He sounded cheerful. It was almost unrecognizable.
“Dad?” I held my hair in a loose chignon with my left hand while I spoke into the receiver and walked back to my window and its view of the driveway.
“I want to go with you.”