The blue of the water was a bright electric hue.
It made sounds: clapping rain sounds, trickling ice sounds, running water; water running… rushing in cold waves and against river rhythm.
Splash! Spumes exploded. Spit spray. Water breaking on the ceiling shore. The waves blocking out cries from the hose welting rubber into her back, hoarse shouting rattling something free deep inside her ear. The water blocked out the barking. Six policemen with toad screams and erect dog ears howling right into her ears, shooting spittle straight inside:
—Jy sal kak, Girlie! the fat one farted.
—Where is Jappie?
—Where’s your Boesman?
—Sies! Four Eyes spat.
—What would your father say? You fokken motherwhore!
She felt thunder fill the room, but couldn’t hear Colonel McPherson and his men. She was swimming in the ceiling.
The water was warm. Sweet. There was no salt in her mouth from her broken nose bleeding and pores sweating and skin swelling. She had never swam in any ocean. How could it come so easy? Buoyed by big waves. Floating above the swaying room and seeing herself a speck or a spore somewhere down below — suspended between two chairs, hanging like a lemur snatched from the wilderness. A human helicopter.
She didn’t need that swinging body to swim. Still, she felt the water parting under her pressure, and because she wasn’t wearing anything, because they kept her unshod on a gleaming cement floor in that naked room, she was tickled by air bubbles swimming in and out of her, as though another ocean lay corked between her legs. The water was endless. A faraway shoreline. She stroked her arms out and wide like a peacock fanning its feathers. The water made a snowman of her ripples. She was swimming in a daydream. From somewhere beyond seashore came sonic echoes, faint dispatches from a distant land:
—We know everything, they said.
—Everything Everything Everything
And Everyone is talking
They ratting you out
She closed her eyes and swam deeper, to the sea floor. From far, weeping willows swayed with the current. A dense forest of fir firmly rooted, swinging to and fro. Forward and backward. Swaying. Gently. So gracefully. Like little play things dancing with the wind.
As she swam closer, the sea thicket thinned. Those faraway willows revealed themselves: amputated arms with missing forearms and fingers. The playful trees were old men with wispy beards and severed front parts — nothing to cover themselves. She thought she recognized a long dead comrade among the floating forms. Swimming toward her. A growth of strange people carpeted the ceiling sea. Their weight pressed upon her until the forest was dense again and everywhere around her: water. Water everywhere. Choking. Forcing pressure up her nostrils, injecting a sharp sting to her brain.
She could not swim. Since she was a little girl reared on aubergine curries and the bright scent of sugarcane, Krishna could not swim. When she opened her eyes, the sea creature that had turned the ceiling into a burning blue — a violent rush of white waves in which an ocean sprouted, in which she felt herself swimming — was gone.
The floor was cold. Cement, perfectly poured. Her single black braid coiled on the hospital-friendly concrete like a serpent charm. Everything sterile. Shiny. A rubbish bag rustled around her head. It suffocated her screams. Water rushed forward, pressed by firm hands against her face, held tightly in by the plastic hood. So that the water found her open nostrils and screaming mouth. This time, she could hear herself. There was no ocean sound. Her ceiling-sea, gone.
Krishna sang every song in her body. Gauhar Jaan songs she’d hated growing up. Hanuman Chalisa verses Ammachchi pinched her into singing. And Brenda Fassie Zola Budd. And Queen, again and again: Save me, Killer Queen.
When her throat grew hoarse on every chant and lyric she remembered, the thing she tried to muffle washed up afresh:
—What you tell them that for?
—What!?! What did I say?
—About Jappie. You told them about Jappie. And Suliman. You nodded at their photos.
—But I said nothing.
—Right! Didn’t have to. They have eyes and ears everywhere. They know everything.
—Really? You really believe that?
—How else they put it together so fast? About you and Jappie?
—Someone must’ve told them.
—Someone like who?
—Suliman? Jappie? No. But not Jappie. He’s in Africa now.
—So Suliman. He’s talking. Everyone’s talking. And now this Jappie… Poof — Gone!
—What are you trying to say?
—Be reasonable, Krish. Give them something. Anything. A small bone. It’s been three days already.
—Three? What you mean three? I crossed off seven. Look, here…
—Does it matter? Don’t be stupid, Krish. You want to be the next Indian who couldn’t fly out of the tenth floor?
—No! They would never do that! I know nothing.
—And what? Ahmed Timol knew something? Everyone else who fell out of that window or slipped on some soap or drowned in the toilet knew something? Wake up, Krish. You better start thinking. Think of something.
—Like Jappie. Where’s Jappie? This whole revolutionary act was his fucking thing. And I warned you. Now where is he?
—Shut up! Krishna screamed, out loud, for the whole John Vorster Square to hear
—J U S T! S H U T! UP!
She shut her eyes to block the voice. To drown it. To hum a hymn that swelled the cell.
The flat was quiet when she returned even though signs of a raid betrayed the room. But she found the spilled bookcase and torn pages anchored her. Somehow, the human remains of McPherson and his men in the room — red hair in a teacup and handprints on the window — somehow this tethered her to the cold cleanliness of that cell; to its sterile wall color of young grass sprouting poison leaves. She wanted so desperately to erase its taste and feel, but knew its memory bound her in some irrevocable way she couldn’t explain, to Jappie.
She stood with her back to the window and yanked the curtains down. She’d made them by hand. They’d needed something to cover the windows, and why not Ammachchi’s sari? She clutched the silk to her nose and, smelling the spritz Jappie sprayed into his afro, tasting the cardamom she’d milked into their last chai together, she wept.
The flat was not safe. Tarred. Like the darkening sky. She felt a heavy fatigue demand her. It seemed to sap the fiber of her blood and extinguish every electric current in her mind. She shut her eyes to use the last of her strength to tug the second curtain free. The sari had always been frail, with loose silk threads along its seams and a dull yellowing where the sun washed out the dye. It puddled around her like a moat. She slept in its softness. Below the bare window, facing the door and empty mattress. McPherson’s men had stabbed the bed’s gut open. Its vomit was a cotton flower-looking foam the color of beach sand.
At Grootboom’s, there were cold beers and peanuts on the small coffee table. Plus a two-liter Fanta Orange for Krishna. Nobody touched the nuts. The men clutched their beers, the lagers’ froth fizzing into soured water. There was also the strong smell of meat losing muscle in the kitchen. Krish knew from before that there’d be a small pot of greens and mashed potatoes for her on the only other burner, maybe also pumpkin with brown sugar and butter. Picturing the food filling a plate made Krishna belch involuntarily. It was a low and ugly sound, different from the high gas burped from a fizzy drink. She covered her mouth and lowered her eyes but the others kept talking without pause.
It was the home of Phelonious Grootboom and his wife. She was a chatty woman whose conversation seldom drew Krishna in. And Phelonious was now — as ever — talking. He was a top editor where Jappie jobbed now and then, The World. She’d teased Jappie about that name. What world? she’d asked. How can a narrow regional tabloid claim itself The World?
—If we don’t provide full coverage, we are culpable.
Phelonious straightened his tie as he spoke. It was a hot Saturday afternoon but the man was dressed in his full Monday morning uniform. Shoes gleaming and cuff links ivory.
—But Grootboom, Zakes responded. This full coverage business is costing us lives. Your whole Current Affairs department is rotting in John Vorster Square. Right now.
Zakes tapped his beer bottle against the table, making his point.
—Or they’re playing black mampatile with BOSS — where do you think all this hide and seek from apartheid’s gestapo will lead? When does this kak stop? You know it’s just a matter of time before their next roundup…
—So we must just sit on our hands because you’re afraid to go to jail? Ehn Zakes?
Mosela was speaking now:
—We must just sit like nesting hens. Afraid? Even though we know we’ll be arrested anyways. Your grand plan is, Let’s sit with our tails tucked between our legs? Like little schoolgirls?
Mosela always sided with Phelonious. Jappie called him Yebo Baas behind his back. Everyone else called him Mos.
Krish looked away from the men and the smoke rising with their temperature. Phelonious’s wife would be in any moment now with a deep dish of soapy water and a cloth for Phelonious’s guests to wash their hands. She’d kneel beside Krish last, after serving the men. Krish was tempted to get up and feign playing help. This conversation was a haggard spiderweb: once caught in its tentacles, there was little escape.
She took in the room. The cream crocheted doilies covering the maroon sofa’s headrests. Phelonious splayed out on the sofa, manning enough room for three. The wood dining room chairs crowded around the low coffee table; how high they seemed to sit above the Fanta Orange and Castle Lagers. The spent stumps and stuffed ashtrays. And then the leafy plants standing on repurposed Coca-Cola crates, straddling the record player. Phelonious’s wife nursed the plants. She once told Krish, responding to a compliment, that the secret to healthy houseplants was furniture spray. She polished and rubbed them down the same way she did her dining chairs. The plants gleamed unnaturally.
Krish had been here only a handful of times. And always with Jappie. Jappie! Where was Jappie now? She’d come to Phelo’s to suss this out.
There’d always been the eventuality of exile. Traveling from Jo’Burg to friends in Mamelodi wouldn’t’ve raised much suspicion. From Mamelodi, he could easily claim himself another migrant, heading home to Mmabatho. And from Mmabatho, Botswana could be taken by foot. If Jappie made it that far, freedom lay beyond. Waiting.
She imagined that broad northern swath of backwardness her parents warned against, and thought of Jappie’s afro bobbing along its open street markets and mangled jungles like a disco ball flashing light. Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Angola — these names promised something but she couldn’t say exactly what, couldn’t penetrate their meaning on a map or see their precise intersections as real corners where people gathered and gossiped and traffic slowed. She couldn’t hear their neighborhood sounds — a salesman’s song or a housewife’s haggle. The names were emptied of mooring. She grasped none of the People’s Power Jappie’s pamphlets advertised, clutched from these lands.
—So, Phelonious grinned.
—My sister. You are now officially part of the struggle, ehn?
Krishna squirmed, Phelo regarding her. She tried to smile, to disguise the wreck of her broken nose and tender bruises, but the suffocating smell of food made the effort harder.
—It’s sink or swim after Special Branch baptizes you, isn’t it?
Nobody responded. Phelonious seemed the only one who found himself funny.
—So you want to follow Jappie? he asked. Does anyone know your intentions?
Krishna nodded, followed by shaking her head no.
—Good. I’ll sort you out myself. We have a trusty contact heading to Mmabatho tomorrow. Tonight you’ll stay at our safe house. Not far. Mos will take you.
His wife came in, clearing the ashtrays and pouring more beer. Everyone clinked glasses. Krishna lifted her Fanta Orange but was disturbed by the high-pitched clap the glasses made, kissing.
—Cheers! Phelonious grinned.
The men crowded around Krishna with raised arms and threatening shadows.
—Cheers! they barked back, in unison.
The tinkle and chime of their glasses clinking lingered in Krishna’s ear and pierced a siren song. She heard McPherson talking to her:
—Would you like a cigarette? McPherson asked, suddenly standing too close.
She could use a smoke. She shook her head no, but he’d already stuffed a fresh one between her lips. Reflexively, she cocked her head toward him, leaning her body in to draw his fire.
—Feels good, ne? he asked.
She only inhaled. Deeply. Deeper than a single breath could bear.
—Thanks, she exhaled.
McPherson turned away from her. To a small desk in the corner. There were only a few papers on it. Very neatly stacked. And something cylindrical holding pencils. An old Koo can maybe, with wild freely formed scribble tacked to its ribbed belly. Somewhere in the world, beyond these walls, a child was growing tall and drawing portraits of McPherson in purple crayon and yellow polka dots. He pulled out a chair and gestured to Krish with his hand. He sat on the other side of the desk. Krishna was shaking. Her hair had thinned but she swept it forward. Its stickiness covering her nipples. She crossed her bare legs. Her body — loose grains of sand — shuddering with invisible wind.
McPherson stroked her skin with his eyes.
—The thing about you is, you’re a good girl. Aren’t you? I can tell.
Krishna pulled herself more tightly in, wondering if her exposed body was saying things she wasn’t.
—And the thing about this country is, there aren’t enough good volk, you know? Trust me. In my line of work, I see every sort.
McPherson leaned back in his chair now, one leg folded across the other into the number four.
—And look. I’m not saying we’re innocents.
He motioned at we with his smoke — a wand waved for emphasis.
—But the thing you have to understand is that we are the ones keeping the law. Someone has to be the law. And what we’re doing is holding things together. For everyone. The blacks. The Coloreds. Europeans, Indians. Everyone.
—You’re not stupid, Krish. You’ve seen the mayhem, the protests. They burn their own schools to smite us! What kind of black power is that? They even burn their own! We got more blacks dying from black on black in this country than from anything else. Believe you me!
McPherson’s voice flooded with feeling, but his face registered nothing. As if he spoke from a separate, unseen self. He got up, rounding the table.
—Who’s going to keep the order? You understand?
Krishna trained her eyes straight ahead, as if McPherson were still seated opposite. She felt the weight of his being fill the cramped hold. He stood behind her, still preaching, then finally sat down. Next to her. Dragging the chair from behind the desk, scraping the floor, positioning himself close, so close she could feel the words escape his breath.
—Look at you, he purred.
—A good girl. From a good family. A Indian girl… You can’t tell me you don’t see these commies is just using you?
The shaking hadn’t stopped when McPherson spoke from the other side of the desk, but at least her cigarette hadn’t been gyrating stupidly between her fingers. She tried to steady herself, tilting her body away from his. McPherson edged forward, subtly, almost imperceptibly, but for the broad chest and shoulders that crowded her space without touch. A near graceful move. Her cigarette dropped to the floor. Krishna could no longer hold her own hands in her lap, much less the smoke. Her fingers turned into quake scales, shaking with sudden heat. McPherson reached his whole torso over, past her breasts and tender belly flesh that was smooth and soft, suggesting skin unruffled by silver stretch marks. He bent his body, so agile, just nearly brushing her sweaty hair, just nearly grazing her nipples. He picked up her fallen cigarette stompie, flicking off the floor’s nonexistent dirt, slipping the smoke back between Krishna’s lips and holding it there with the care of a wet nurse. All the while, speaking. Soft as breath. As if he were not feeding her, holding nicotine nectar for her, between her labored inhalations. As if he were not feeling heat escape her mouth and cool his fingers.
—How long before they spit you out? Like gum? Hmmn?
—You need to think, Krish. Be reasonable. We could help each other. You and me. You’re a clever girl. Be reasonable. You and me — we both want the same things.
Krishna had tried to lose herself in the fumes, to be like the smoke — an amorphous and impenetrable white cloud evaporating into some mysterious essence of dust.
And as she’d willed this, one of McPherson’s men had entered the room without her attention. The redhead. He held two short glasses in his hands, filled full with whiskey or with brandy or rum. He’d handed one to McPherson and the two of them clinked glasses. McPherson, lifting his to Krishna.
—Cheers! McPherson had grinned.
Then he got up. Letting the redhead fling an oversize print into the now-empty chair beside Krishna.
—Sorry, Krish. McPherson said.
—You’ll have to excuse me. The boys take club drinks upstairs quite seriously. I have to run. But I leave you in good hands.
McPherson gestured to the redhead — already unbuttoning his shirt collar, already loosening the thick girth of his stiff neck.
Of course, her eyes followed the trail to the photo now in the chair next to hers. In it, a group of men grinned at her. They stood in a half moon, looking into the moon’s shadow, beyond the photograph. Behind them, a long wooden bar and otherwise empty room. Krishna recognized two of them. There was Four Eyes or De la Rey as McPherson called him, wearing the same spectacles he was always adjusting. And also the redhead. They were smiling. All of them, showing neat rows of Special Branch teeth and clinking glasses. Friday night at the club. It didn’t take long for Krishna to see him. Standing among them, like one of them. His nappy halo giving him fake height, the fresh crease she’d ironed into his bellbottoms that very morning as sharp as a knife.
—Jappie, she mouthed.
Her Jappie. Special Branch agent Jappie Erasmus Basters.
—Cigarette, Krish? Phelonious shook her, lightly.
—Krish, he repeated. Commanding, more than offering, a cigarette.
He held the packet too close to her face, she thought, feeling their eyes on her, seeing their chicken-oiled hands pretend interest in their plates. She was shaking again. The doctor said to expect this for the first three days. Something about her nerves and spinal shock. But today was her seventh night outside.
—We should get moving. Mos said, already on his feet.
The beetroot juice on Krishna’s plate ran thoughtlessly into her rice — the white completely erased, soaked in beetblood.
The drive was calming. Mos opened the windows and offered her another smoke. Fresh night air filtered in. She couldn’t say how long they’d driven or if it was sleep she’d dozed into, but when the car stopped, her head felt clearer, her shaking soft, like the internal vibration of a low hum. There was nothing she recognized around her, except that they were still in Soweto, and that night had grown thick. Mos killed the ignition but they remained sitting in the car. Krishna questioned her sanity — alone in the dead of night with a man Jappie scarcely trusted, Yebo Baas Jappie called Mos. But wasn’t Jappie himself an askari? What should she make of anything he’d told her? And yet. Was it wise, putting herself at the mercy of Mos’s lead in a labyrinth place she couldn’t unpuzzle?
She used the silence to catalogue Mos, to unpack what little she remembered of him. A preacher’s son. Strike Number One, Jappie would say. An educated man. You mean for a kaffir, Jappie would add. Mosotho, from the mountain Kingdom of Lesotho. A nationalist: Africa for the African. A rumored Communist. How does an Africanist have so many Russians squatting in his head? Jappie had mocked.
Mos once snuck onto a sugar farm, not far from Krishna’s birthplace, and exposed an open secret about what was really sweetening Natal’s sugar fields. Six-, five- and nine-year-olds working the farms. He’d estimated their ages. Most of them born into sugarbush, no record of their existence. All of them forced fieldhands. He did a brief stint when those photos made the lead story in Drum. Detention without trial. For questioning.
—This is my sister’s house. Mos finally spoke.
—Oh, Krish sighed, relieved.
—So Bra Phelo’s safe house is your sister’s then? Krish asked.
Mos turned from the steering wheel to look at her. It was a studied look, searching, as if weighing the veracity of what lay beyond his viewfinder. Even under cover of dark, it made Krish uncomfortable. The engine, long idle, suddenly stopped humming.
—Krishna, he began.
—Look, Krish. There’s some things it’s better you don’t know.
The shaking again, and the promise of brain pain concentrating now gifted her. She reached for another cigarette.
—There’s things that just don’t add up. Why did Special Branch come after you? We’ve all had snafus with them. All of The World. But… never our wives.
Krish did not know what to feel. Where was Jappie when she needed him most? She didn’t even register being called his wife.
—I want you to stay with my sister. Until things shake out. She won’t ask any questions and no one knows to look for you here.
Mos looked away. What was he hiding?
—Well… Mos began, halting. That’s just the thing. I can’t prove it, but I have every reason to believe Jappie was at Bra Phelo’s safe house. Before being disappeared I mean. Phelo’s place is exposed, Krish… so… Phelonious? I just don’t know about Bra Phelo.
They parked the car two streets over, Mos leading Krishna into the blooming dark. She could make out figures here and there, people rushing through the street, the many rows of identical houses — a low fence lining one property, a lone deserted tree hovering over another. And she could hear a dog bark loud from someone’s yard. Mos’s sister’s house was a neat matchbox with two large windows facing the road, a small stoep at the mouth of her kitchen backdoor.
The sister turned out to be Mos’s mother’s brother’s wife. An old woman who lost her husband young but remained close to her husband’s family. Mos called her veldskoeMme.
Dumela Ousie Mme, Krishna greeted her the next day, asking how she could help around the house. But the old woman just laughed, seemingly so amused she didn’t worry about her gummy grin, didn’t laugh with sealed lips, the way Krishna’s ammachchi, her grandmother, laughed. But with mouth wide open — her two front teeth guarding an otherwise gaping canyon. After two cups of loose-leaf rooibos with frothy milk and thick slices of leftover sweet potatoes, Krishna finally understood the relation.
—You see that one? Ousie Mme began, pointing to the emptiness that had swallowed Mos.
—That one is my late husband’s son.
—Yes, Auntie. Krish nodded.
—So you’re Mos’s stepmother? Krishna asked.
—No! The fenceless canyon opened, Ousie Mme laughing so heartily Krish felt her own face widen.
—No, no, no! Mosela is my late husband’s son. Because Mosela’s mother is my late husband’s sister.
—Ahhh! Mos’s mom? And your husband? Brother and sister?
—Yesss! A victory clap.
—Yes! Now you see. So when Mosela looked at my late husband, he was looking at his maternal father.
—Mnh? Krish laughed, confused.
—Yes! And when he sees me, he sees another mother. That’s why he’s calling me Mme — Mother. And then older sister, Ousie. So Ousie Mme. It started when he was too small, this name.
Krishna finished her tea. The potatoes’ buttercream sweetness lingered on her tongue. It was the first solid thing she’d eaten since before.
—Yes, Auntie, Krishna said, smiling.
—Ousie Mme Auntie, Krishna added.
The two women laughed like little girls sharing something soft and sticky and sweet.
Slowly, in that first month after release, Krishna’s senses unclogged to the masked memory of breathing. First came taste, silently restoring her tongue, like rushing water flushing fresh-cut flowers. Next, a lightness returned to her limbs. She found she could stand long enough to wash their dinner dishes. Then she could do a little more, until she was carrying in Ousie Mme’s large water bucket from the outside tap without spilling everywhere.
The fatigue sloughed like a slug, leaving a knotty fist of worry in the pit of her stomach. She carried that worry like a woman with child. Nursing its hunger — listening after quiet footsteps, keeping doors shut, never venturing beyond Ousie Mme’s backyard. Imagining the worry alive — was Jappie lying face down somewhere, a bullet in his head? Should she really trust Mos and the things he said? Maybe that picture of Jappie jolling with McPherson and Special Branch was a lie? Maybe they staged it? Was Jappie really an agent of apartheid? Did he send the redhead? She prayed, clasping this worry like mala beads, skinning its hide in sacrifice. Repudiating its grip then embracing it. And as the fatigue wore off, the worry seemed to swell her belly. Jappie became the very name of her fear.
Six weeks out and Mos returned. Early. So early he woke the birds, who sang a determined dawn chorus calling him into their flock. He returned with news. Forty-two days and still no Jappie. He was now a wanted person. By the state officially; and by the movement, quietly. Mos learned through back channels and bribes that Jappie was in fact part of a high-command detail the movement had sent in; in response to Sharpeville, clandestine units deployed to burn Boer crops and bomb their power plants. That was seven years ago, 1961. Jappie — Danny “Schoolboy” Griqua to the movement — had been incommunicado since early ’63. The movement’s attention was swallowed by the Rivonia Treason Trial the whole of ’63. But even after, when the few remaining were forced underground or into exile, nothing from Comrade Schoolboy. If not dead, he’d turned. That’s what Mos was told. There was news of Suliman also.
—He got out, Mos said.
—After you. But it’s bad with Suliman. Very bad. He’s not talking, Krish. They wiped that man away. Whatever’s left, it’s not Suliman.
Still, Suliman confirmed Jappie was with him at Phelonious’s the night one of them got arrested and the other disappeared.
Krishna took in Mos’s news. She thought of their flat for whatever reason, a gentle breeze blowing the curtains into kites, late lazy light flooding inside.
Everything was normal. Like before. The evening call to prayer wailed in a distance that echoed also of chanting frogs and the newspaper boy singing the same song he’d sing tomorrow, no matter the world’s news.
She saw Jappie. He was sitting on the bed the way they did when people came over. Smoking. A Sunday languor in how he held the cigarette, how he suckled the tobacco and allowed the ash to grow fat and long at the tip of his smoke. Without words, Krish motioned to the walls that weren’t the color of their flat, but another color she could feel more than name. Young grass growing in spring. Poison grass. Jappie smiled, responding. A new smile Krishna had never known.
Suliman died the day before Mos fetched her. Heart failure. It was night when Mos arrived. They were already asleep but Krish felt something strange move inside her. Jappie. Mos waited till daybreak for Krishna to gather her things and say goodbye. Ousie Mme Auntie kissed her. It was the last time she saw either one of them.
She was already showing when her parents convinced Naicker. He was a trader from nowhere; an unknown nobody whose uncertain caste made him an expensive gamble to any other family. When it came, its starwhite skin pleased black-as-blue Naicker and confounded rumors about Krishna — about how she’d known strange men, about how a Colored (of everything!) had fathered her shame. Naicker named the baby Amra. Amra Naicker.
The milk bottle’s nipple was too large for baby Amra, who came too quick and gained weight too slow, so Krishna fed her through tiny openings pierced with a needle into plastic sandwich bags. Nothing about this child was hers. Besides fairer skin, Amra was also born with long slender fingers that seemed to reach beyond her small shadow. Her hair grew thick in curly waves. No one remembered a baby with more hair. And no one seemed to have anything else to say than how strange it was, the bright red bush sprouting like wildfire on Amra’s head.
Amra asked only to be fed, burped, changed and bathed. It was from Krishna’s grandmother, Krishna’s ammachchi, that Amra knew the sound of her own name, the tickle of a shared laugh. It was also Ammachchi who sang for Amra, the same songs Krishna had soothed herself singing in that cell, after a whole ocean abandoned her. But there was one song, Krishna thought, catching Ammachchi’s coo, that I haven’t heard since I was four. I’d repeat it with childish innocence. Ammachchi would look at me with her faraway eyes that long ago refused to cross the Indian Ocean with the rest of her body. She’d smile and kiss my forehead; but always, after, found something else to sing, forgot which song I meant or switched games entirely. Until I forgot the tune myself, but not the feeling of the song — the long string of loneliness unspooling from Ammachchi’s throat.
I don’t care to hear it now. My body understands its meaning the way hidden moons know the night. I wonder, why does an old woman sing such a song to a child? Did Ammachchi’s grandmother also torture her with this song?
I used to picture Ammachchi coming here, so young. And alone. Worse off, a woman. I used to picture her boarding that ship in Kolkata. The Jason. She knew how to say it in English, even if her idea of the thing and its actual sound were as far apart as Durban from Kolkata.
Her emigration certificate from that trip is the only thing Ammachchi still has from India. A piece of paper with her name and her father’s name, the way the names would’ve sounded to a low-ranking British clerk, himself just grasping the spelling of ordinary things like “apel” and “sahree.”
He must’ve guessed her age. Not by asking the girl in front of him, but by imagining what her tender breasts told. Fifteen, he scribbled. There was also room for her caste and kin, her village and who she was married to. Ammachchi’s certificate — or the young British officer — say that the girl was unmarried and from a village near Kolkata. But Ammachchi remembers boarding the Jason with heavy wedding bangles. And the husband? I’ve asked. They burned everything we had at Port Natal, she’d tell me, skipping over my question. Everything. Cholera. Then they gave us white cotton saris and this paper with our names and colonial number. Which she still knows only in English. And by heart. One. Eight. Three. Two. Four. Nine.
The young Brit must have seen hundreds like Ammachchi. Turned away scores. So what was it about this one girl that tempted him? Her henna, maybe? Telling him that she’d already been had, that his markings would go undetected — that she might even like it. Or was it the clapping-chatter of her endless bangles that excited him, their unbroken song cheering him on as he pinned Ammachchi down? Manli hands, he wrote under the Notes section of her certificate: 183249. Ilitarite Coolie girl. Manli hands.
I said all of this, one time — to Jappie. It was after we made love. After one of his endless trips. I never asked Jappie about those trips. Or questioned his evasive answers. The struggle demands sacrifices — that was Jappie’s favorite line returning from unknown missions, from unpeopled places with nameless men and unsayable stories, “for your own protection,” as he’d always say.
What was it about me that willed me to believe Jappie’s lies? What was it that made me draw the curtains Ammachchi’s sari became and undress, in response to those lies? I’d swallow him. My hair back then was long and I’d loosen it into a feral blanket around us as I sank myself low, straddling Jappie, my lips’ fleshy muscles clamming around his thick throatshaft like steel clamps. We’d tell stories after, about make-believe places and who we’d be if we could come back to earth as a goat or a bird or bubble fish.
—One eight three two four nine, I said, giving Jappie the whole backstory.
—Oh. He responded.
—But swannetjie, you know you can’t rape your own slave? And that your ammachchi was basically a Brit-branded slave?
That word cut deep. Caught something swimming in the bloodstream of my memory. We were not slaves, we told ourselves. Could not be slaves. Not like them. We weren’t kaffirs, after all; we were better than that. Better than them — God! Where did that come from?
I know now why Jappie cut deeper than diamonds, why the sheen of that word — slave — had all the dull brilliance of a rough coveted stone mired in dirt: because it’s true. We were slaves. No better than them. Maybe even worse. After he said this, I was angry. But really, I was angry with myself. What else did I believe, that was premised on a lie? That one simple truth shattered me open. I couldn’t go back to pretending. I started to see things for what they really were.
Even Jappie, who inadvertently opened my eyes. How he leaned on certain words — The movement. The people. The struggle. How I felt his unspoken uncertainty in my body — his returns hungrier, angrier — as though gunfire would explode from his girth.
I knew something was off. They beat him, I know that. They beat a weak limp into his left leg then gave him anti-clotting medication. His handler survived three heart attacks himself, he was not about to witness a fourth. No martyrdom for Jappie. No front-page splash catching his body from another open window on the tenth floor.
Indians can’t fly, they told me. And it’s true, we don’t fly. But we swim. Oh, how we can swim! Across whole oceans. To faraway lands. Like Ammachchi. My grandmother, who was raped before she learned how to swim. Who believes so fiercely that Amra will pull me out from sea. Will fish me whole, return me to myself the way my mother hunted Ammachchi from troubled waters.
I know he turned. I know he led them to Suliman. Over drinks, maybe. Upstairs at their club. Was he up there? Listening? The redhead handling me? You can’t rape your own slave, he once said. Or did he turn on them too? WANTED, as they declared?
He writes, sometimes. To Miss Krishna Naidoo c/o Kitty’s Studio, Pietermaritzburg. On thin envelopes people send into wars.
—Mos is dead.
—Suliman is dead.
—Bra Phelo exiled.
My swan, he writes. My swan! The letters are for Amra, I tell myself. One day she will read them and know her mother was alive. Not imagined. But a real thing. A beating heart and labyrinth mind that tried to hold on to something pure and true. I tried, Amra, Krishna wants to write. To make you out of love.
Krishna wades into the water, the ocean around her neck. Her voice breaks on the waves and clashes with the wind.
—“From the full comes the full,” she sings, heading farther into full ocean.
—“Remove the full from the full and what remains?” The water rushes in to swallow her. Still, Krishna keeps singing.
—“What remains?” she sings, saltwater stinging her nose.
She never could swim, Krish. Sand sifts and shifts under weight of her body. “From the full comes the full.” Her body sways, lilts just so — a volley caught and kicked by playful waves not meaning much harm. Arms, hands and legs liquefying into ocean. This is full, Krishna thinks, the Indian Ocean’s whole body shouting prayers over her water-laden lungs.
—I am full.
Magogodi oaMphela Makhene has been published in Guernica, Ploughshares, Harvard Review, and Granta. An Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate, she is a MacDowell Fellow, as well as a Rona Jaffe Award and a Caine Prize honoree. Makhene leads Love as a Kind of Cure, a social enterprise working to dismantle white supremacy. She lives in New York.