'The Moot Mulatto'- by Taki Scordis
‘Wena, unuka njengomntu omhlophe.’
I didn’t reply. Even if I could speak Xhosa, I wouldn’t have replied because he was right - I was a white man. Not my skin, or my sex, but my smell. It lingered; burnt into my epidermis like a runic cattle brand. No one had ever said that to my face so bluntly, with such ease, but they had thought it. Oh yes, they had thought it - they were always thinking it. It shadowed my walk and loitered around my vague pomposity. I knew what the taxi driver had said without ever having learnt how to click my tongue against my gums and white teeth. I heard those words take on various incarnations my whole life. Knew them intimately, could sense them swirl and shift and change into thoughts when I entered a room with my well-to-do parents.
Who’s the blackie?
Can’t be, can it?
The wife must be barren.
Maybe the mister hasn’t got a shovel for diggin’.
Huh? You mean his dick –
Shut up, man. Here they come.
Then the smiles would appear, stretched into glowing lantern pumpkins and those thoughts, more ancient than Khufu, would hang back like exhaled smoke, drifting and ribboning and encircling.
My real dad had worked for my white dad at one point. He would sit at the back of a bakkie with yellow eyes, hungover, freshly cut grass staining the old rubber on his feet. My real mom worked as a maid in Northcliff, ironing Polo shirts, washing floors, looking after toddlers, changing shit-stained Huggies and vomit-covered bibs. They gave me up after I was born. Real dad had an addiction back then, and they couldn’t feed me because I wouldn’t suck on real mom’s tits. The opportunity to pass up free food was a big no-no. White dad drew up a form, and real dad took it. One condition, though: I must visit my real parents once a year.
I got out on the side of the road and saw the electric cables, hundreds of them, running from street pole to street pole, all snaking back into the township like thin caesarean scars. They were blemishes against the blue sky, reminding me where the world had cut me from. Tyres, no longer good for anything, sat atop corrugated metal roofs, waiting for their photo op with tourists.
I was supposed to message home - let them know I was safe, but not now. Even an old phone was worth something here, among hell’s manna, among the rotten meat and hot fruit shaded under colourful umbrellas. Hordes of people doing nothing, letting their eyes do all the work. Carnal whistles escorted me deeper inside. I knew the way, like a zebra foal finding its harem in the herd. Boys and girls kicked rubbish, actual rubbish, not the kind you would throw away. If it had any kind of primitive use, it was someone’s property.
Real mom was home, scrubbing last night’s supper from a pot, burnt black from fire and steel wool and hard labour. She saw me, wiped the sweat from her top lip, and carried on scrubbing.
She replied with a greeting only the deaf could understand. ‘Your sister is sick again. Did you bring anything?’
I gave her R500 from white dad. The money always felt like a bribe, folded and loose, Mandela looking on. Real mom didn’t count it. There was no need. Not because it was a gift, but because it was always the same amount. She tucked it inside her bra with slippery hands. I was sure no else would know of its existence. My older sister needed money, but she was always sick. Seizures. Fits. Convulsions. Witchcraft was the prevailing theory, so hospitals were avoided, doctors snubbed, medicine grown here and there.
‘Where is she?’
Real mom ignored the question, got back to work. Said: ‘You didn’t bring a bag.’
‘I have to study later, so I can’t stay long.’
‘You’re up to your neck in it?’
‘Something like that.’
‘Your visits are getting shorter.’
I opened my mouth and closed it.
Real mother carried on scrubbing.
‘Can I help with anything?’
Real mom didn’t notice the flies hopping off her skin. They didn’t bug her as much as life did. She finished with the pot and wiped her hands on her skirt. Her skin looked limp in the oily sun, attached loosely to the bone. She was not lean or young or spritely. She was just here. Always here, in the moment, forever in the present, chewed up and rubbed level with the dirt.
A collection of Ricoffy tins decorate the small room. Some harbouring plants, others filled with crumpled tin foil and plastic bags. A kerosene lamp, paintbrush, water bottle, newspaper, and loose stationary rest on a steel table in the middle of the room. A small dog, dead except for its rattle wheeze, sleeps underneath. Real mom keeps him for the rats. He is nameless - a gonzo breed. I sit on a plastic chair with my back to a bed, made more of blankets than wood.
‘Are you hungry?’
I am, but decline food. ‘What is wrong with Kuhle?’
Real mom overturns an empty bucket and takes a seat next to me. ‘The same. Always the same.’
Kuhle is six years older than me, born with a congenital brain defect. It made her shit in school, literally. That’s why she never finished, and probably why she would never marry. My real parents would be looking after her until the day she died. They wouldn’t be passing the buck this time. Let them grow their African dogwood and September bells, let them throw the bones and stones and wood and wool. Let them conjure up the dark majicks. Let them. Theirs was the curse.
‘Maybe you should take her to Charlotte Maxeke.’
Real mom sucks her teeth. The room was hot and sticky. The stench of paraffin sat low in the air, irritating my eyes.
‘You should stay for supper. Your father will be home then. He will want to see you.’
‘I need to get back home.’
‘What are you studying for?’
The words leave her mouth with thin barbs attached. They only scratch at the surface. My scar tissue is leathered and hard, more scute than flesh. ‘A biology exam. An important one. It’s the last exam for the year.’
What then? She knew. She just liked me repeating to it to her. ‘I dunno.’ I caught my reflection in her pupils for the briefest second and it annoyed me. She had no right to it. It didn’t belong to her. I should’ve told her that I was flying out to Italy to spend Christmas in Rome, but this would mean nothing to her. An astronaut may as well be bragging to a prisoner about going into space. ‘Wits next year, mama.’
Real mom smiled. ‘Still going to become a doctor?’
The smile is for her, not me. It’s the same smile every time we discuss this. As though this is a shared effort, a joint sacrifice. She is under the impression that I owe some kind of black tax for sharing her belly and blood, that 12 years of medical school will be nothing but pittance to a much larger mythical debt. ‘Anaesthesiologist,’ I reply.
Her eyes dim as she blinks slowly to this. The last remnants of her humanity succumb to Bovinae for just a moment.
‘Yes, a doctor,’ I add. She does not ask me what an anaesthesiologist is or why this particular field of medicine interests me. Doesn’t cross her mind. This is unimportant; this is just the small print.
‘One day, you’ll help your sister.’
‘You can help her now. You don’t need to wait for me. There are doctors now.’
‘They are not smart like you.’
‘They’re smarter because I’m not a doctor yet.’
‘Please now, let’s talk about something else. You’re upsetting me.’
I am not fooled. Her distress has nothing to do with Kuhle getting the right kind of help. No. I could have told her that I wanted to be a prostitute after school, and that smile would make its way to the surface of her face like a bloated corpse in a river. It was one of her disillusioned fantasies that I would get a job, any job, and look after my sister. You see, Kuhle and I were born as burdens, and we must rid the weight we have placed on our parents' backs. It is not enough that they gave me up when I was three weeks old; it is not enough that I have never needed anything from them; it is not enough that they couldn’t so much as gift me a name. I must still drain the pus from their infected wounds and be thankful for having them let me.
‘I have something for you, mama. But it is not just for you. It is for baba as well, and Kuhle too.’
Before she can ask what it is, I have removed the rectangular plastic and put it in her hands. ‘This is my credit card. It is for emergencies. I want you to go now and draw out R15000 from the ATM. That is my daily limit.’ I stand up and find a pencil on the table. I scribble my pin number on the corner of the newspaper, tear it off and hand it to her. ‘When I get home I will tell them that the card was stolen. They will call the bank and the card will be cancelled.’
‘What is this for?’
‘I told you.’
‘Because this is what you want.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘I’ll be turning 18 soon. I will be an adult then. I will have no obligations to see you or baba or Kuhle, no matter how much you or anyone else wants me too. That will be my right and I will exercise it.’
She looks at the credit card, studies the pin. ‘I don’t want this.’
‘You have never been a mother to me, but you are still a mother. And now, you must do what mothers do. You gave me life and nothing else. I will give you this and nothing else because I have nothing else for you.’
I imagine her fighting for me. I imagine her telling me that she made a mistake, a horrible, selfish mistake, and if she could do it again, she would hold me and never let go. That she is sorry, that she will change, that she has always loved me. I imagine her saying anything that will remove the pebble from my throat.
Instead, my words settle and lie still, fading before disappearing completely. She is wiping tears that do not exist. Her head is slumped. She cannot look at me and yet she gets up from the bucket. She moves past me and hooks a cheap handbag over her shoulder. She says nothing as she leaves because she no longer needs to pretend.
Neither do I.
There is nothing remarkable about winning a competition if you have not experienced the desolate feelings of constant rejection attached to writing. There is no shame in the struggle, the fear, the dismissal of hard labour. These are your badges. Keep them. Wear them with pride. Steinbeck once wrote: ‘What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness’. I can think of no better description for a career in the arts. However, and it should be said, that I have lost this competition multiple times and I can tell you, prospective writer, that winning, like losing, makes no difference. Not the least in anything that really matters.