Vuyelwa Maluleke’s “The Thing in the Blood” is taken from Go the Way Your Blood Beats: New Short Fiction from Africa (Brittle Paper, April 2019). Edited by the South African writer Anathi Jongilanga, and with an introduction by the Somali writer and visual artist Diriye Osman, the anthology, which centers queer lives, also features work by Innocent Immaculate Acan, Odah Brian, Tsholofelo Wesi, Mercy Wandera, Fiske Serah Nyirongo, Riley Hlatshwayo, Penninah Wanjiru, Dennis Mugaa, Thato Patrick Tsotetsi, Karin Henriques, and Agajem Jemima Japhet.
THE WOMEN IN your mother, those before her, consume the first child.
“Like the women in me,” says your aunt K.
She is sitting on top of the carpet which lays flat on top of the red step outside her kitchen door. Her legs open to house between them the foamy waskom – big enough to fit a fat adult. The carpet is placed under her to protect her church body from the hardness of the red stoep while she washes your cousin Lefa’s white school shirts.
Since your mother died you are a child with many mothers.
“It has always been that way,” Aunt K. says, breaking through the loneliness.
Your aunt lives on old things like hard work. Which is to say that she does not believe anything good can come or be reached without sweat and struggle. Which is to say that she trusts the fire in her body more than she does a machine. She refuses to put Lefa’s white school shirts in the washing machine and instead washes them by hand to keep them white.
Every Friday, after Lefa has returned from school, she sits on the stoep facing the high grey wall, a song in her mouth as she soaps, rinses and hangs her daughter’s white school shirts. You notice that your aunt has softened all over. The austerity which would not allow her to let her sister’s only child rot under her roof has softened. The strictness she always maintained was what your mother would have wanted her to give to you has softened. It is not that she was unkind, it is that she was so rigid there was no space to bend, the kind of bending that loving a daughter would require. The kind of bending she was doing now over the waskom, for Lefa, who now at sixteen was old enough to wash her own school shirts but instead was out at the movies with friends.
YOU HAVE COME home for the weekend; you do this once a month. Present yourself and whatever you have managed to collect for the family that has made your life so full that the longing into which you were born rarely visits. When you come home you make sure to return with something in your hands. You have the house keys so you did not need anyone to welcome you in. This is home.
Aunt K. knew that you were coming but did not hear you drive in. You met each other in the kitchen. You were carrying three plastic bags of groceries from the car. She was collecting Lefa’s school shirts into the waskom when she saw you and went towards you for a hug. She did not wait for you to put the bags of groceries down.
“Dumelang bo’Mma,” you said, trying to lower the bags and keep yourself in the hug. Your aunt released you and held you a little away from her, to examine your health.
“Are you eating?”
“Yes, Ma,” you said and rolled your eyes. You were a teenager again.
“The frozen food in the car will melt,” you said, as if to turn away from her but she pulled you back into her gaze.
“Is there a boyfriend?” she asked.
“In the car? No, I ate him,” you said, and you both laughed as she released you.
You left the kitchen to fetch what remained in the car. Your aunt followed you and offered her help. You stopped her and told her to sit down. She was grateful but, like a mother, she expected your kindness.
When you were done transporting and packing the groceries into the kitchen cupboards you returned to the car to fetch the gift you had brought her, a glamour that was hers, one that she would not share with the house or your uncle. You returned to the kitchen and handed her the material you bought from a market in Ghana, when you were performing at the Sabolai Music Festival with Lulama. Lulama is a singer and you do background vocals for her.
Her excitement embraced the material, then you. “My child, thank you!” she said. “Where did you buy it?”
“Ghana,” you answered. “I was there for work.”
“Mildred will not believe me when I tell her that my child got this for me in Ghana,” she said, making an expensive and airy shape with her mouth on the word ‘Ghana’.
Your aunt is not a woman who is conquered by excitement. Her life has taught her to come to pleasure slowly, without announcements. A trepidation that it would soon be taken from her. Like her sister and her first born child were taken.
“Thank you,” she said again. “I will make a dress and a matching head wrap.” She examined the material and then with her hands showed you on her body how she would shape it.
She told you that she would make it soon and wait for Mother’s Day to show it off at church. Church women love beautiful things, they love more than anything to show them off to each other. “I will show them that I too am a loved thing,” she said, and you laughed, pleased to know that the pride in her was about you.
“Is this why you do not come home often?” she asked, lowering the material to search your face for an acknowledgement of the question. You did not understand what she meant.
“You think you cannot come home if you do not have gifts for us?” she asked.
You lowered your eyes.
“Keabetswe?” she said, her hurt tearing softly through your name.
“I do not want to come home with empty hands, Mama.”
“My child, you are my gift given to me through my sister’s grave. I do not need more, I have you,” she said. And you knew what you have always known, the fear was lying, you belong here.
AUNT K. PUTS away her gift and you lend her your hands to help with the rinsing of Lefa’s school shirts. Each time she finishes with a shirt she passes it over to you to rinse in the bucket of Sta-soft you squat over as you listen to her tell you about the thing you are now old enough to hear. Your bucket moves much more slowly than hers as you try to listen and rinse. You think she is better at this because she has spent a lot more time handwashing laundry, and not that you are lazy- which makes you slow at all house chores.
In the Jo’burg apartment you share with Lulama, your friend of three years, you do not wash your laundry by hand, you do not even clean the place yourself. You hired a helper, who comes once a week to do what you cannot make time for. You cannot tell Aunt K. that you and Lu pay someone to do what she has taught you to do yourself. You cannot tell her that the fear she had throughout your teenage years repeated is finally true: You are rotting.
Aunt K. rubs a shirt at the armpits first. She says, “Her armpits are stronger than her father’s.” And you laugh remembering that she used to say the same about yours.
Why did she expect girls to smell like roses on the hottest days in summer?
“Do they need a doctor, like mine did?” you ask.
“Two,” she says, and rubs until she is satisfied that she has pushed the smell off the shirt. She moves then to the collar of the shirt, changing the speed between fast and slow to concentrate on the sweat that maps a brown line along the neck of its wearer.
“Lefa greases her hair too much,” you say, watching her working on the stain. “It is why her collars are always so brown.”
You have told Lefa to use the MPL hair oil sparingly, “once a week is enough,” you advise because you are a big sister.
“Lefa is sixteen now and should be washing her own school shirts. It is the only way she will learn how much MPL hair oil is too much,” you say, perhaps afraid, like your aunt was for you, that she will rot.
Aunt K. says that you are right.
“You did not let me get away with things like this,” you say, your hands rinsing a second shirt.
“I was practicing with you, Kea,” she says.
“You made me a mother. Lefa gave me”—you wait for her to name your lack—“she put the feathers in my body, here and here and here,” she touches under her arms, her belly, her hips, her face.
“She made you soft,” you say and clear another shirt out of the bucket.
The jealousy in you could heat the water. You have loved and unloved, you know that all love burns hot, but not in the same way or in the same place. Loves are not equal or comparable. To measure them against each other is to kill the futures in both.
“It suits us that she is not here. I need to talk to you,” Aunt K. says. Trying to pour water into the need she sees in you.
“The women in your mother and before consume the first child. Like the women in me,” says Aunt K., picking up another shirt by the armpits. “Your grandmother learnt from her mother how to stop the body from taking like this; setting the blood on fire. And we learnt from her. But not before all the loss.”
“Is it in my blood too?” you ask clearing another shirt. She nods, making a sound that travels between fear and agreement.
It is because a nose can be passed down through the blood that this ghoulish thirst can be passed on through the blood too. This blood, like your face, is a hunger that comes with all of the women in your family. You are made in unison with your mother’s sisters, waiting, sleeping through the years when you are not born. You have a nose like your mother and her sisters. It sits like an old button, not round or small, a shape remembered by the blood. It is not what your father would call ‘a White woman’s nose’. Your father who loves White women and marries Black women. And leaves Black women. Your father who disappeared after your mother’s funeral.
Aunt K. says, “Before your grandmother died she would come upon the evil herself.”
After her first miscarriage she named the second child who came into her body after her loneliness, after a lake that no one and nothing would want to look back at, take, or rummage through. She named her Kenosi and tore into the child’s face a line running from the outer corner of her left eye to the corner of her left mouth. It scarred into the shape of a sickle, and made her look dangerous. You had to stare at her a little longer to see that she was, like the rest of her sisters, beautiful. Aunt K. is that little girl.
“I was only a year old when your grandmother called another child into her body, and your aunt Ontlametse was born.”
To make sure that the blood has stopped taking your grandmother called another, who would be your mother Barulaganye.
“We are made from prayer and old magic,” your aunt says.
“Do we only make girls here?” you ask her.
And ‘girls’ sounds like loss as she passes you a shirt to rinse in the bucket of spring fresh Sta-soft.
And though you know that it is the men who decide gender, you do not tell her that you think that it is the men who bring the thing into the blood. You are convinced that something that is not love is choosing the men for the women; it is choosing men who can make the inside of your body a loss. You do not know if it is a punishment or a test. You do not know if your kind of love will make the same curse.
You remember your grandmother’s Saturday rituals. How she would dress in white, turn herself into a devoted appeal, demand that all the lights be switched off as well as all the electrical appliances and pray all day. You heard her beg and call to God from her bedroom. After she died, Aunt K., the oldest, took up the appeal, and the white. The kneeling and punishment contributed to her softness.
“She was begging back all the children after the first,” says Aunt K.
“Is it a curse?”
“A sickness,” your aunt corrects.
“What kind of God lets a sickness live in the blood this long?” you ask, to confirm what you are hearing.
“It could be that your mother has healed it for you,” she says, rubbing the collar of the last shirt in the waskom.
“By making sure you lived. By pushing her life into yours. You are the only first born alive,” she says.
Lefa, who has a boy’s name – Kgalefa – has a scar running from the outer corner of her left eye to the corner of her left mouth. She is your aunt’s second child. You could not meet the first.
“It is good then that I do not fall in love with men,” you say.
Aunt K. lets out a chuckle and says: “No one really does. Have you seen your uncle’s toenails?”
“I mean, that there is no sickness that can choose love for me.” You are finished rinsing the shirts now. They hang on the line like people waiting to be filled.
Your aunt pushes the waskom away and gets up in stages. She bends over the waskom to pick it up.
“I can choose my children myself,” you say, standing too.
“Are you a witch?” she asks, and with her hands she splashes you with the water, as if to purify you.
“I can choose them with Lulama,” you say, carefully.
It is not an accident. It is fear and courage that allow the confession. You have been waiting for a way to tell her about yourself. Each time you come home, you promise Lu that this is the weekend you will come out to your parents.
“You want to have children with your friend?” she says, pouring the water in the waskom out into the drain next to the stoep.
“My partner. Mma, I’m a lesbian.”
The words struggle like an old car out of you. They burn through her like a hymn sung too long in the chest.
“This is why you do not come home?” she says, putting the empty waskom down.
“I was afraid. . . .” you say, and the shame eats your eyes until they start to water.
“My child,” Aunt K. blows into the air between you, injured by the sound of your sudden tenderness.
“. . . of what you believe,” you sob.
She moves towards you, softly, so as not to scare you.
You had heard of friends whose coming out prompted prayer circles and exorcisms, because their families believed that being gay was brought by a spirit that needed to be pulled out. Some were killed. Those who could not kill starved, ignored, punished with silences, accused their children of letting white people things too close into themselves, or disowned them without long arguments. When those you love will not say your name, you walk around hungry until you rename yourself or forget them. This is why you were afraid. A girl born into losses avoids loss.
“I love you and so what I believe must make room for you,” says Aunt K., and holds you and the sobbing towards her body – the house of her God.
The warmth of her body swallows your fear. She rubs the fear and the shame out of you. She does not let go until your body feels hers say I have heard you and nothing has changed, this is where you will always belong. You are home.
About the Writer
Vuyelwa Maluleke is a Performance Poet, Scriptwriter and Actor, who holds a Bachelor of Arts in Dramatic Arts from the University of Witwatersrand. Shortlisted for the Brunel University African Poetry Prize in 2014, she is the author of the chapbook THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE. A slam champion of the Word and Sound 2015 Poetry league competition with an essay in Selves: An Afro Anthology of Creative Nonfiction, Maluleke, who is also a Co-creator of the choreopoem “NO ONE WANTS A BLACK WOMAN WITH A MOUTH” (2016), describes her work as an attempt to archive, retell, and give names to the personal experience of Blackness, Girlhood, and Womanhood. She is currently a Masters in Creative Writing candidate at the University currently known as Rhodes.