By Nakhane Touré (@nakhanetoure)
It was winter and the streets of Cape Town were cold and grey. In the tiny room she rented Esther had just told Jeremiah her news, trembling like a blade of grass. They were in love. He laughed to himself while he paced the room, more a little snigger than a laugh, which she thought was cruel. For Jeremiah the room had suddenly become unbearably hot. He removed his coat and flung it next to her on her bed. “It’s itchy,” he said, flaring his nostrils, excusing himself like a schoolboy.
She watched her hands and asked, biding her time: “Itchy?” She had nothing else to say. He nodded his head, still pacing the room. He loosened his tie. Something in his mind had begun to take shape. An idea was being knit. He had made the same mistake twice. Twice! he thought, not daring to say it to Esther. He was elated, though, for this time it was with a woman he loved. Thank God! He stopped pacing and smiled at her.
She considered him suspiciously. He told her about a plot of not so modest land he had waiting for him to build on in a small town in the Ciskei called Alice. They would, he said, if they could not take the city any longer, move to the countryside. She could give birth there, and he would tend to the field. He was quixotic, Esther’s Jeremiah.
“Like Adam and Eve!” he said excitedly after she had agreed to go with him. “Adam and Eve?” she smiled.
The baby in her belly was growing.
“We’ll elope!” He was seized with a young lover’s bliss.
The idea, corrupt, yet repeated throughout history, presented itself to him as an adventure. He had read about it in literature, and even though he had often felt the characters were foolish for leaving behind the comforts of what they knew, he also felt a distant pang of longing for their danger. He was prudent enough to know not to ever share those feelings with Esther. She was less excited, but not unyielding.
He sent the necessary telegrams to his cousin to start bordering his land. He sent another to his father in the Transkei, briefly notifying him of his decision. His father replied: “Do what you need to do. You’re a man. Just remember that there is a way of doing these things.” There was a postscript: “Your wife has gone mad.”
He read the telegram and crumpled it in his fist, assuaging the unpleasant knowledge of his abandoned wife and son with the still fresh joy of his new family with Esther. “In my own land, with a woman I love!”
He would not be derailed. He would not shrug off his responsibility to his new family. When they arrived in Alice it was spring. Jeremiah and Esther moved into their single-roomed house which they christened Four Corner. As they settled, his cousin, rural, with fists on his waist asked: “Will this be all right for now, blood of my blood?”
Jeremiah scooped him in his arms and kissed him conspicuously on the mouth. His cousin straightened his shirt, mortified, and cleared his throat loudly. Esther amusedly watched Jeremiah’s cousin wipe spittle off his lip while she sat on one of the two single beds. After his cousin had left, glad that he had caused them joy, Jeremiah sighed, then spoke after a long moment of considered silence.
“A land of milk and honey … and corn and cattle and sheep and goats.” He laughed.
“And our baby.” He ran to Esther and rubbed her belly. She chuckled.
“Our own Canaan,” he beamed. “Can you believe it?” He shook his head, tears in his eyes.
The house was an unconventional rondavel. Where others were round and thatched, this one was square and roofed with corrugated iron. The plot of land was at the bottom of the valley. The only obstacle between it and the river was a graveyard for members of the village who did not belong to the M. family. Jeremiah had plans. He and Esther were clean slates, blank canvases begging for paint. With the move final and unchanging, they became wilfully syncretistic, vowing also to give their children only Xhosa names.
Though they were men of blood, shield and spear, it has been known that the M. men could never stomach the bloody bearing of their spawn. Ask all who knew them. Ask all who told tales about them, whether malign or benign. The scenes throughout their history portrayed men who ran, tripping over stones and their own feet, to fetch midwives to relieve them of their screaming wives.
It is said that M., the progenitor, after leaving his wife in the capable hands of several midwives, ran to his tribe’s chief to speak, at random and without coherence, about the deploying of troops (this was after the Mfengu tribe had settled) until young men came running to announce the birth of the first of his sons.
Although he was no novice to the anguishes of childbirth, Jeremiah M., like his forefather, still floundered at the deep end of his anxiety the day his son was born. He ran up the hill like an untethered horse, ignoring his new neighbours’ calls and greetings, to beg for the assistance of his cousin’s wife. When they drove back down to his land, he was beating the back of the driver’s seat with the impatience of a spoiled child.
Esther’s shrieks welcomed them into the yard and he mopped his brow as they stepped out of the car, having lost his impatience.
“Are you coming in?” his cousin’s wife asked as Jeremiah lingered by the door. Her husband laughed knowingly.
“Ah. Yes,” she confirmed and conveyed her understanding with the slant of her pursed lips and climbed up the three stairs into Four Corner.
After she had closed the door, the two men exchanged disparate looks: Jeremiah’s face expressed panicked consternation with bewildered, darting eyes, exacerbated by his cousin’s teasing smile. Jeremiah folded in his lips and stormed out to the temporary zinc shed he had built to keep his gardening tools. His cousin followed him silently, taking care not to speak a word until Jeremiah required him to.
He stood with his head bent while he listened to the sharp and blunt sounds of metal and wood falling on each other and the floor. Jeremiah exited the shed fuelled by the desire to work. He concerned himself now and until the shrieking ceased with all things terranean.
He laid the tools on the floor: a spade, a scythe, a rake and a fork, and turned to his cousin sharply. “Are you going to help me with this?” he said belligerently, picking up the spade.
Mute and compassionate (for he was no different from other M. men), his cousin picked up the fork and they both stepped on the upper edges of their tools, driving them into the ground to turn soil.
After a while of this, Jeremiah, unable to endure his wife’s cries, walked back to his shed and returned with a rootstock. He was unsure where exactly he wanted to plant it, so he surveyed his land and began to walk. When he came to the edge of the plot, he stopped and started to dig. After he had smoothed over the surface soil, he trudged back to his cousin, and they silently waited for the news.
Esther gave birth to her first son – Jeremiah’s second – and they named him Ndod’enkulu M. His umbilical cord was buried in the kraal Jeremiah had built with his own two hands and the help of his more capable cousin. They slaughtered a goat for him to present him to their ancestors. A week later, on a Sunday, they were at the Presbyterian Church baptising and introducing him to the holy trinity of their missionary station’s youth.