Desolation on the road to manhood

2011-02-05 09:32

It was the coldest day of the year and I could not believe my eyes. My uncle stood there, tall and imposing, and insisted that this was the day.I turned to the other side of the room and all I could see was our thin peach tree, bare and desolate.

In the dying instant of time, my uncle had sat at the end of the bed. He bowed his head and held his rosary in his hand, and I wondered if he would ask me to pray with him.Winter is an unpleasant season. It has a ring to it of coldness, an icy whiff that freezes the brightest day.

My grandmother though believes that pains heal quicker when it is cold. I thought of my biology teacher and what she would say.

I tossed with the thought for a while and realised that my teacher might know more than my grandmother.

But I love my grandmother more than I love my teacher. This thought made me think of Palesa. She broke my heart once or twice and I almost broke her nose.

Not that her father, Whitey, would let me live to tell another day. I met Palesa during our winter holidays and we became very close.

In fact, when it was really cold and our tree seemed to shiver more than a tree is allowed to, I imagined us together, lying in bed, tighter than the gap that lets the cold wind in my window. I loved Palesa and she never said much of my love for her, except that she wanted to marry a real man.

My uncle closed the door. He moved towards me in that walk of his, steady and bold. My moments with Palesa seemed like a distant dream now, and he removed the first blanket, the same way I had seen my grandmother peel away the skin of onion with her teary eyes.

My fears were here and my tears would not work now. I thought of the many times I spoke with my friend Ndi.

During the warmer days of winter, we would sit on my grandmother’s stoep for hours on end.

We spoke of what would happen when the big day came. Ndi thought long about it and often remarked that he would not be caught dead on those lonesome hills in his quest to become a man.

He boasted that if they caught him and forced him to go, he would never forgive his family. He had a sad glint in his eyes when he spoke of this looming chapter of his life.

Life has been hard for Ndi. His family is as big as his fear of a chapter, whose name shall not be mentioned.

I suppose it will not be a bad thing if their house was as big. But this house of theirs can literally fit into the palm of my hand, not that ours is any bigger, just a bit more comfortable.

My grandmother always complained about the noise from Ndi’s house. She often remarked that Ndi’s mother was as irresponsible as our teachers.

Now our teachers had just gone on strike. I always wondered why my grandmother liked making comparisons.

For instance, the other day she shouted at my uncle, saying that if he is not careful, he would turn out just like my grandfather.

My grandfather was an alcoholic. Now sober from my uncle’s presence, I realised that I could not run away from the inevitable. I could not hide in my thoughts any more.

My fate seemed sealed and I had to accept it for what it was. I woke up, remembering a poem from our English class. The first stanza described a soldier, facing his final battle, the very one that would separate him from his family, his last frontier.

Mine stood next to it, and my family cared less of our separation. The saddest thing about winter, apart from the early sunsets and the pain of Palesa, was sitting on our chicken coop and hoping that I would see my father’s sudden entrance.

I grew up separated from my father and his family. My uncle became a father figure of some sort. I did not just want any sort of replacement, you must understand, it just worked that way.

My father always promised that he would return. He never did. Time moved on and our separation stayed in my heart.

It often felt like I was hanging on to the faded seams of a deferred dream.Often when I sat on the chicken coop, I imagined my father’s brave walk.

He had a solid chest, and his legs never gave in to the ground. My grandmother always said Xhosa men were built like that. I must admit that I stopped listening to my grandmother. I hear what she says, but do not listen.

Sometimes she just speaks. Words have nothing if they do not mean anything. My father spoke a lot about coming, but never meant it. 

I was now destined for the hills, although I was not sure if I would see any waterfalls.

In silence, I washed.

In my house, our doors do not have keys. My body then was up for sharing. Just like Ndi shares his house with a family bigger than my imagination.

Although one must add that winter would have been warmer if Palesa shared her body with me. I have always known that this day was going to come.

I just hoped that when it did, my mind would have been prepared for it. Even so, there is only so much a man can prepare for. Although my grandmother always said I was only a boy, she sometimes said I must act like a man.So there I was, in my finest hour, a cross between a man and a boy. Staring at the cross of my journey, I knew that tougher times lay ahead.

How did Christ do it? I suppose it helped to have God as your father. My ungodly hour stood between me and time, and my father, as usual, was nowhere to be seen.

I was alone and felt like no one cared. My journey began as swiftly as my will to become a man wilted. What kind of a man am I going to be who shies away from the whip of pain?

I thought of all the men in my life. I thought of Ndi’s father. He never spoke much to his children, although he would sit on the stoep, dressed in his battered suit, and watch the world go by.

He wore his suit like the days of winter wore on us, dry cracking lips, sunburnt from too much useless sunlight.

Was this the meaning of manhood? I did not want to wear a battered suit, reminding me of rivers I should have crossed, or forests I should have triumphed over.

I doubt if Palesa likes old men in dying suits. Ndi looked out of his window. His dirty nose pressed against it. His eyes were swollen with worry.

Was he next? We walked past Mabina’s house. Their dirty stoep would have made my grandmother sad. My uncle cleared his throat. He spoke to me as if he was whispering.

That my uncle could be so gentle and quiet when sober, yet raucous and unruly when drunk, hurt me a great deal. Could he not have the best of both worlds?

I thought it sad that men must use violence to articulate their deepest needs. Even so, I thought it better that a man must know how to use other words and ways. My English teacher used to say that we must read to improve our vocabulary. I think a man must rid himself of violent vowels, even if they will do little to his vocabulary.

And what about my uncle’s wife? Will she keep up with the fury of my uncle’s fists, the very hands holding me on this voyage of necessary pain?

My uncle’s wife deserved more, and perhaps my uncle was less, useless and old-fashioned. I held still now to the warmth of my bed. The pain was unbearable. I felt too cold, so I asked for another blanket.

My grandmother walked in and threw it gently on my bed. She muttered something under her breath and waltzed away. The symphony of the slightly warmer wind played. Ndi’s voice rang outside. As I closed my eyes to bide my pain, I too felt empty. What will fill my spirit?

The ways of the world are harsh for me. I wish for more and better so that I do not die here where the wind blows away at poor, thin trees.

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