Mise-en-scène. That is; the arrangement of the scenery or props on stage for
Mis-seen. That is; to see incorrectly, misperceive visually, take a wrong
view of, or see in a false or distorted light.
Over Seen. That is; to see too much.
Overseen. That is; to survey, to watch.
In a house on a street filled with eyes - Eyes next door and across the way - Eyes that cut through the sky every time they pray. In this house on this street full of eyes there are lives. Two lives, let’s say: Works of fiction, daughters of today. Where are their mothers? Still wives, let’s say to martyrs and soldiers and askaris and prey. Still wives, they stay in full lives they made from nothing but warm milk and Joko and doyleys on trays. Where are their daughters? Those daughters of today? They are alive. They’re alive in a house on a street filled with eyes.
There’s a kitchen.
There’s a bedroom.
There’s a lounge.
There’s a door.
There’s a stoep with two steps.
There’s tapeti on the floor.
There’s a blue sky too clear for it not to be ominous. There’s a toilet outside
and a gate with no latch on it.
There’s a girl: 17, hanging her panties on the line (there’s chipped red on her nails
and there’s a lot on her mind).
There’s a woman: 36, inside on a sofa – fast asleep (a slight gold chain around her neck –
a child’s blue jersey draped on her feet).
There is no blood between them, there’s a covenant instead: ‘If you guard me while I
fantasize, I will hold you while you rest.’
Now, there are rumours that 36 cannot be trusted worth a damn, and true to a life with no foundation hers unfolds without a plan. Where is her child? She was pregnant. Where is that man that she stole? Her body was built for entertainment. Who granted her anguish? Who said she could toll? What of her father, they said he was absent yet his disorientation is set in her eyes. Why won’t she stay sexy? Why won’t she stay funny? Who taught her resentment? Why will she not cry? She moves like a criminal, her ethics salacious, she seems so wide open, does she know she is watched? There are whispers that she’s dying in plain sight on purpose, so that they cannot wear her carcass and say that she did not. Some eyes say its theatre, they say they’ll believe her if she shows them a story that they recognise. But they watch so closely because they do not believe her and they will not believe her and she must not survive. So she sleeps, on a sofa, gold chain in the sunshine. And onlookers wait for her to conjure ever after while she’s mending, and massage their swollen and aroused attention. And avoid their gaze while bringing them to happy ending. And not only is she capable but she has done it before: She has bought herself rest by charging at the door. And with her bit of rest she has bought a deep sleep; deep enough for her to thrash and for 17 to dream.
But oh! their mothers, still-wives, long whispered shape into their dreams ‘just say no and you’ll stay pure, just say yes and you’ll stay seen’, and their fathers: everywhere and nowhere, martyrs, soldiers, askaris, and prey taught them to fight because nobody really wants daughters anyway.
Maybe the one drinks like a fighter, and the other fucks like a king.
Maybe she’s too young to be drinking and maybe she’s too old to be seen.
Maybe the eyes that peered from one house pitied that 17 was not in school, and loved that she was from a village, but hated her sass and her love for igroove.
Or maybe the eyes that watched the longest watched 36 grow, and then ripe, and then rot, and ogled her flesh and lapped at her lips and drank of her blood and then forgot.
Perhaps 17’s dreams were poisoned when 36 lay beside her thrashing.
Maybe no one is nurtured when all are surviving.
Maybe it’s hard to cum through the flinching and gnashing.
Or maybe it’s easy -
Let’s say that it’s easy. Let’s say 17 is being looked at for that, and so all the eyes search her body for bleeding so the pain that she claims can be taken as a fact. Because she’s a body, recall? She’s a body: She’s hips and she’s tits and she’s black and she’s flesh. She’s all satisfaction and zero desire and it’s when you can taste her that she’s at her best. But she’s meant to be a sweet thing, so why is she bitter? Or is she salty, her flavour’s unclear. She churns in the stomachs of those that consume her so they vomit her out but continue to stare. So why does she dance and laugh so sincerely, it must be psychosis, it must mean she’s trouble. They watch: They want to see her win over adversity, but then disappear under all of its rubble. Buried alive. Dead to the living. Moving and breathing and agile but dead. Made of the gaze and fully in character, hanging her panties, embalmed with unsaids. But what if she does not know that she is a native even though she lives in Native Unit number 6. Because maybe the girl that she kissed made her foreign, even while the soft of her edges made her fit. How is she so moist on her surface? How is she so soft to the touch? Maybe it’s nobody’s fucking business how she is loved so very much. Or is it lust? Was she rushed? Some eyes insist we cannot trust the circumstances and we must remember what she is capable of comprehending which not much. They say she atrophied some time between nine, ten, or eleven. Maybe that’s why she reads like a menace. Kuthiwa into engapheliyo iyahlola so maybe she’s a curse. Maybe she’s penance. 17 could be everything that the eyes may imagine, but 36 knows that what they will imagine will always be bleak, because once she heard them praying and they did not ask to see her better, they only asked that she remain a lesson that they could learn and that they could teach.
- Away away -
17’s mind is busy and far away. Her bare back warms beneath the sun, and her thoughts run far away. She wonders how many times she has stood in flip-flops and some leggings and a vest, in this life and ones before it, will she stand here in the next. She wonders how many times she has stood there, lips all shiny, face all matte. Nowhere to be but reporting for beauty she wonders if they’re giving her credit for that. She knows that she wants them to look at her different, even though 36 said their vision is bleak. The trouble is each time she says “see me differently” all that they hear is “please look at me.”
She watches her kin self-eulogise. She watches her speak like she lives in her ending, like she’d rather try her luck in a world with no eyes. 17 has not told 36 that she’s watching, that she is a coward now because she has seen. That behind all the eyes and the men with their sockets, 36 was all that 17 could see. 17 wants to know if she should tell this story. Or should she call for help, or should she just lie?
She loves 36 and she wants to respect her, but if she looks away which of them will survive.
*This story appears in Centring Silences: The Elusive Photographic Archive of Mabel Cetu edited by Stefanie Jason. Julie Nxadi is a writer and artist from Makhanda and Ngqushwa in the Eastern Cape, currently based in Cape Town. Her current research interest is ‘intimacy and oppression in post ’94 South Africa’, a subject that she is exploring using multiple mediums, writing being just one.