Read time: 21 mins

Falling from a Knife Tree

by Matshediso Radebe
21 July 2023

Seven. Ma and Aunt Katlyn cram our lives into fifty-six medium-sized boxes, and we uproot to a town with manicured lawns, night-time joggers and streets named after former National Party members.  Ma stops wearing her ring and starts working at a big white hospital while Aunt pursues an English lit degree online. It is the half-year of talking less and listening more to neighbours we meet in pharmacy parking lots and grocery lines. To polish out the coarse edges of our Cape-Flats accents, we study the ease of their ‘r’s and their butchered pronunciations of simple names like Thabang and Tshepo like it’s the Bible and then recite them to each other at night while Aunt sits with a laptop humming on her lap and Ma runs a comb through my hair, cursing the knots.

Most evenings carry a routine: around 19:26, Aunt and I plunge into the living room couch and eat KFC, exchanging vignettes of our daily highlights. We then hobble into half-assed silence with filler questions tailing our small talk like limp limbs, thwarting the end of the conversation.

Sometimes she recounts Pa’s juvenile misdemeanours with a lightness that sounds like it took her time to find. Pa got kicked out of his grade three soccer team for knocking some boy’s teeth out for accidentally tripping him mid-game. He had his first knife fight at fifteen, came out of it unscathed and spent thirteen months in Drakenstein Correctional Centre. On his twenty-first, he got into a bar brawl and consequently served seven months for aggravated assault which led him to drop out of university. Aunt says he never really cared about school. He’d only enrolled in varsity because he liked the idea of living up to the potential Ma saw in him – the kind of potential that made her spend tireless nights tutoring him in maths and making him take what-career-suits-my-personality quizzes.

At the time of Pa’s third arrest, Ma was pregnant, juggling two part-time jobs and university. She visited regularly and helped smuggle in cigarettes when possible. Ma used to joke about how I’d toss and turn and kick her organs out of place whenever she skipped a weekend’s visitation.

On her days off, I watch as she and Aunt engage in thirty minutes of brisk, wordless, synchronised movements in the kitchen: rattling knife drawers, clanging pots open and shut, peeling carrots, slapping meat – each working on a component of the meal. A meal that seems to have been discussed, deliberated and decided telepathically. Watching them shuffle past each other, I’m mesmerised by how perfectly different they are: Ma’s canine jaw, Aunt’s butterball face; Ma’s raven mane of an afro, Aunt’s chestnut mop chignoned into a careless bun. It’s like watching a dance between two jigsaw puzzles, their complementary loops and knobs always shuffling past each other without ever touching, never close enough to connect but always close enough for you to see they’re a perfect fit anyhow. They’ve known each other since childhood. Aunt insists she adored Ma first, before Ma grew boobs and Pa stopped thinking of her as another little sister. Sometimes I think Aunt Katlyn feels more like Ma’s sibling than Pa’s.

Later, Ma serves up an anecdote about an interesting patient while a plate of lasagne or samp or something meaty steams the dinner table. Aunt then brushes over her latest creative project, before they start asking how my week went, how many friends I made at my new school and how many stars I have in my workbook so far.

On Sundays, Ma shows me how to bash eggs and beat dough while stressing the importance of always carrying pepper spray and knowing which cars to avoid in parking lots. She teaches me how to keep a bonsai tree alive and shows me how tape can be used for the perfect winged eyeline. Pa gave her the bonsai three days after Ouma’s – his mother’s – funeral and their tough conversation about lawyers, custody and splitting furniture.

In church, I try not to point out the irony in Ma telling me never to drag the week’s labour into a Sunday while the antiseptic tang of the hospital is still trapped in her hair. She works as an anaesthesiologist at the local private hospital, ‘putting people to sleep and hoping they wake up later’.

I get into my first fight on the first day of my second term in the new school. Mid-argument over a ruler he swears I broke, I let my Capetonian accent slip, and a white boy named Jay calls me ‘a blackie trying to act coloured’, so I split his lip between my knuckles and pin him down, ripping hard, dead grass and stuffing him like Ma’s Sunday turkey. A teacher with sweet rosary beads spilling out of her purse pulls us apart and takes us to the school foyer, dragging me by the ear with one hand and consoling the boy with the other. We both get suspended for a week.

Aunt picks me up from school, redolent of the cheap spirits she and Pa used to sneak-drink back when Ma was still considering Muslimism. On the freeway, tuning the radio, she calls me a ‘true Stuurman’ for standing up for myself. ‘Shit, you really are your father’s daughter – anger management issues and all’, she laughs.

I later have the school counsellor explain anger management issues and conclude to myself that Aunt was wrong. Pa never had anger management issues: he managed it very well. He knew who to show it to, when to hide it, when to hit, when to stop. If the teacher hadn’t yanked me off that boy, I think I’d still be on top of him, hitting like I wanted my knuckles to rip until so much of my blood tangled with his that you couldn’t tell where my bloodline started or where his ended.

The next morning, I wake up to the 6am ritual of shuffling, scrambling of eggs, slicing of polonies, toasting of bread and wordless half-cold coffee sipping. Sunlight streaming through the square kitchen window saturates everything on the sepia table so richly one could taste the cornflakes, jam and apple juice just by looking. Buttering her bread, Ma mentions we’ll be going to Jay’s to apologise, as if casually reminding me to rinse a dirty dish. Aunt half-halts while draining the apple juice in her glass but says nothing. A lump of jam falls out of my sandwich and dribbles down my hand like chunky blood, so I rush to lick it before it hits my plate.

‘God, you eat like your father’, Ma says.

Jay lives two blocks away. When we walk, Ma holds my hand like a grudge as if nervous I might flee. Amid the sizzle of the heat, I feel our palms sweat into each other, or is it hers sweating into mine?

She plucks my chin up when she catches me studying Jay’s sister’s legs as I apologise instead of looking him in the eye. Summer, who is a year younger, sports nude ballet pumps and has extraordinarily clear knees. She looks like a collectable porcelain doll from a glass container, taken out for dusting and impressing guests. I’ve seen her around school, coasting with three blonde doppelgangers, all primed with perky pigtails and stiff collars. For some reason, it’s always agitated me – the cleanliness of those girls.

Jay accepts my apology and says he hopes God can forgive me too. For a moment, I think his father is about to tell him to apologise too, but instead, he holds his hand out and calls Ma an upstanding parent. She shakes the hand, grinning like a pauper at an RDP ribbon-cutting ceremony.

I’m supposed to be asleep later that night when I overhear Aunt Katlyn call Ma poes’ and a bad mother for making me apologise at which Ma hollers, ‘At least I’m not in jail being someone’s bitch!’

The next morning, through the rectangular sliver of their bedroom door, I watch Ma plant dabs of her foundation on Aunt like kisses while Aunt massages ointment on Ma’s lip. Their voices are calm and kind like they lived through an alternative version of last night, a version that didn’t end with violent thuds and shattering glass, a version that didn’t involve them plunging daggers of words back and forth, the vulgar edges of their Afrikaans on full display. Now, they speak like neighbours exchanging gardening tips or Christmas lunch recipes.

The trick is to dab, not rub…I learned to do this the first month I married your brother.

There’s not a cut this ointment can’t fix…borrowed it from some girl’s purse.


Seventeen. Ma splits our Decembers into two now. It’s been like that since Pa’s arrest ten years ago. I visited once, but we haven’t spoken since, and it’s all her fault. She used to get these bizarre calls for a week after that visit. The calls would always end with ‘Sorry. Wrong number.’ Once, the call came in while she was out of the room, and I answered. Radio silence. I figured it was Pa and that he must’ve been calling for me for so long he’d started accepting that we’d never speak again.  I think hearing my voice then shocked the words right out of him.

Ma still swears up and down that it wasn’t him, but she’s a liar. She joined a ‘vegan club’ once and complained about the ‘ridiculously restrictive’ meal plans while gobbling a cheesecake. And once, someone at a church lunch pointed out a bruise slipping up her dress, and she broke down crying and told them that her incarcerated then soon-to-be-ex-husband had done it. Okay, I guess that part wasn’t a complete lie, but she left out the part where she threw a vase at him and almost clawed his eye out. Half-truths qualify as full lies, don’t they?

The first half of December is usually spent watching Ma’s uncles slaughter cows to appease the ancestors and travelling back and forth in hundred-degree weather to buy grocery items one-by-one because only when you come back from the shops with the fifteenth ‘one more thing’ do adults remember they need to send you back for one more thing.

My nine cousins and I share the living room floor at night, lying on mattresses and daring each other to steal sips of the umqombothi fermenting in the large black container in the kitchen. On cool nights, we have pillow fights and play hide-and-seek until we’re cowed to bed by a drunk aunt with a bark that cracks the air like a whip.

It’s Christmas with the Stuurmans when Pa calls to say happy birthday. He’s a week late, and I’m in his brother’s bathroom, a shattered mirror matted with fingerprints and toothpaste specks splitting me into a warped mosaic: a Ma and Pa hybrid.

Last we spoke was through a glass and telephone. Ma was parked outside, probably flirting with a guard. At this point, I’d read the articles and knew what he was in for. It lingered between us like an uncomfortable question. I thought of cracking a joke about how one journalist called him sloppy for ‘getting high on your own supply’ but didn’t.

On the three-hour drive back home, Ma explained the impracticality of regular visits, and I threatened to jump out of the car.

My name foaming at the corners of her mouth, she jabbed, ‘He chose a stupid couch over you, for fuck’s sake!’

The corners of my eyes stung then. Not wanting to give her the satisfaction, I swallowed and bit the insides of my cheeks until that blood and pang was all I could think about.

For the next few months, every distant, caramel-shade man was the spitting image of him. And every masculine voice hushing through every stranger’s speakerphone sounded like him. I worried I was going crazy.

But now I barely see Pa anywhere, not even in my dreams. In the replays of my childhood, his role gets smaller and smaller: he’s becoming less of a main character and more of an      uncredited extra.

‘Can’t talk long…eighteen’s a big one…don’t drink too much, Soetjie…I guess it’s Kearabetswe now, huh?’ he chuckles. I used to go by Soetjie Stuurman, but Ma and Aunt started calling me Kearabetswe after we moved. I’m registered as Kearabetswe Mothibi at school too.

‘Well, happy birthday, Kea. Say hi to Mommy and Katlyn.’ And he hangs up.

I only have five cousins from Pa’s side, so instead of sharing a carpeted floor, in the Stuurman home we each get a bed with our parents. I used to share with Ma and Pa, but it’s Aunt Katlyn and Ma now.

My cousins and I relish peach sunsets with strolls to the local park, passing beige and maroon matchbox houses with rusted fences and pink alopecic dogs along the way.

‘My mom says they get like that when they’re fed pilchards. But they are quite harmless. Just victims of terribly poor owners’, Omphile would say. She only ever wears overalls and sundresses with white t-shirts underneath, and her white socks lack the tint brought by regular washing. Ma says it makes sense for Omphile to say what she does since she’s from a world where it’s normal to pet stray dogs and cats and buy them premium Nutribyte but absurd to give a beggar money since ‘they’d just use it to overdose on drugs’.

I don’t like Omphile, but every December she shows up with two iPhones: the latest and the one she will be giving away to whoever sucks up to her the most. So I tolerate her. My other cousins are fine, I suppose. They could have personalities outside of sucking up to Omphile and talking shit about their paternal families, but I wouldn’t know.

Most nights, I play crazy eights with Justice in his room while the shut door and Brenda Fassie’s looped Weekend Special muffles all the babble and laughter outside into the faint hush of a dead TV channel. Although the lack of ventilation in the single-windowed room beads my forehead with sweat and I’m pretty sure I’m due for lung cancer from all the second-hand cigarette smoke I inhale, I wouldn’t spend my nights any other way.

On the wooden candlewax-stained table between us lies a fresh stack of cards, my R10 note and his crumpled R50. Justice peels off his check shirt and his mamba tattoo snarls at me, slithering up his arm to the knife scar on his bicep, reminding me of just how far away from my father he is. Pa hates tattoos and barely has any scars. It makes him look pure, like a virgin, Justice could say after enough rum. Justice looks like he has a criminal record or a high body count even though he’s never so much as touched a cell bar and Pa’s won more fist fights than him.

Growing up, people couldn’t believe they were related, let alone twins. Tattoos and scars aside, from the shrill jaw to the expressionless eyes, Justice has naturally always looked more complicit than Pa. It’s a big reason he got more beatings as a child and why he almost skipped Ouma’s funeral because she had laughed at his demanding an apology for the mental breakdown she caused by hitting him over the head with a broom over money Pa stole when they were fifteen. But we won’t get into that. None of it matters anyway because he did show up to the funeral, and he cried harder than anyone else there.

Justice says Pa’s only called him once since his arrest – to ask him to sneak in some alcohol – which neither shocked nor insulted him. They’ve always had a transactional relationship: Pa would threaten Justice’s bullies, and Justice would give him half his lunch money twice a week; Justice would talk Ma into forgiving him, and Pa would help him with taxes. Moreover, their priorities have always been night and day. While Uncle Justice was moving up the ranks in his high school choir and debate team, Pa was jumping fences to skip class and play pool with fifty-year-olds who killed time bickering at snooker and catcalling teenagers.

‘You’re not here.’ He fishes a card from the stack and stubs his cigarette out in a repurposed Kiwi polish tin, ashy inside.

‘I am’, I lie, rereading the text from Celia. She and Jay are dating now.

Lmfao not you forgetting what he did to me, I text.

Lol that was forever ago tho, she immediately responds.

‘Spades.’ I drop an eight of spades.

I type out fuck you, then but decide to wait out the animated grey dots as they disappear and reappear on my screen.  Justice drops three spade cards before I run out and have to go fish.

Idk what to tell you, Kea, my phone beams. Learn to share. And forgive. And stop making everything about you.

I turn the phone on its face and take a hard swig of the lukewarm Red Bull on the table.

My history with Jay stretches beyond that first playground fight – the one where I punched him and fed him grass. In Grade 7, he chased me around the netball field with a lighter, threatening to set my afro ablaze. In Grade 9 English class, he squeezed my ass, turned to his friend and snickered, ‘Huh. Maybe I should go black, Chris. I hear you never go back.’ I got suspended for a week for emptying a half-full dustbin on his head and chipping his front tooth with a chalkboard eraser; granted, I didn’t press charges or report to Black Twitter. Ma made me apologise each time. Celia and I made a pact to hate him forever.

Justice drops a J and a seven of hearts.

‘Check.’ He triumphantly slips my R10 note into his peeled wallet and grins boastfully like he’s just beaten a pro which I guess I am in his eyes since I’ve never lost a game to Pa and he’s never won one against him.


Twenty. Pa sits on a vandalised bench, his cigarette sweltering a satisfying auburn, gritted between his lips. He spots me, crushes the cig under his brogue Doc Marten and blows the smoke out hastily as if it’s getting in the way. I assume he’ll say something, but he doesn’t. He just gapes for a few moments, smiles and slings my duffle bag onto his shoulder. The leather briefcase and navy two-piece make him look like he has a corner office with an oblong view of contemporary architecture and an affair with his secretary, I remark. He laughs, and we make small talk about nothing on our walk to the Blue Train. A scruffy beard in its infancy shadows his cheeks and migrates down his neck, eclipsing a scar that seeps into a dimple whenever he smiles or laughs.

He was released last year. We’ve kept in touch over my past three years at UP, mostly through overdue birthday wishes and random just checking on yous. He got a degree in prison and now works at an accounting firm, negotiating agreements and maintaining financial reports. Once, I asked him how he managed to land such a job with his criminal record, and he said, ‘I made good friends’ and left it at that.

The train’s lounge is mahogany with a bar serving drinks in strange bottles, making the liquor cabinet look like an alchemist’s potion shelf.  Pa gets himself a whisky with ice and for me, a glass of coke. Settling into opposing lounge chairs, we quietly swipe our phones and click our laptops until the familiar scenery of Pretoria train station morphs into a panorama of grey sky and parched plains zooming past.   

I plug my earphones in and play Ma’s WhatsApp voice note. Aunt just sold her first short story to a big-time magazine called The New Yorker, and there’s a link to her interview with News24. They’re throwing a party to celebrate. Next weekend. Come. If you can. 

The lounge is flooded with bodies in pastel two-pieces, padded blazers and different variations of the same cocktail dress. I feel like I’m in uniform. Pa pulls a cigarette and a white lighter out of the inside of his jacket and asks about varsity life. 

‘It’s great. I have a cool roommate. Karabo. She’s into accounting too…taught me everything I know about budgeting.’ 

Celia and I were a week away from moving when she told me she was rejecting her offer from UP and accepting the one from UCT. Ma and Aunt were out buying groceries, and we were in my room, surrounded by tiny boxes labelled KITCHEN STUFF, CELIA’S BOOKS, ROOM STUFF – FRAGILE 

‘Jay found a nice flat literally five minutes away from Rondebosch – and it’s super affordable’, she gleamed. ‘Best friends go to separate schools all the time; we’ll be fine. I promise.’ 

Weeks prior, she’d hovered over my shoulder and said nothing while I typed out an email rejecting an offer from Wits who’d rejected her. I brought this up, and she said she never asked me to do that, so I threw a stiletto at her, but she ducked. It dented the wall. She called me crazy and slammed the door so hard that the Bonsai winced on my bookshelf, almost leaping. 

We haven’t spoken since, but she hasn’t blocked me on social media, so I’m guessing she doesn’t hate me as much as I’d assumed. 

Standing in a slow grocery line or yawning through a boring lecture or in a bathroom break from a Tinder date, I catch myself snarling at Instagram pictures of her with girls she used to call stuck up. They conspire about dismantling patriarchies and drink Savannas at dive bars with dim neon lighting, probably tittering over how crazy it is that they let a little thing like me keep them from being friends. We should’ve hung out more in high school…You’re so much more fun than Kea…All she ever did was bitch about her mom and make everything about her.  

A butler, who sounds like he’s holding in a long, thick drag of marijuana, brings two plates of English breakfast and insists on helping me scrape the black pudding into Pa’s plate instead of letting me do it myself. When he’s gone, Pa gobbles it like a child and slides me a cobalt lock-blade knife.  

‘I used to watch you try to open mine all the time when you were younger. I always said I’d get you one when you were old enough, and I’m a man of my word.’ 

Aunt once said our family tree grows knives, and I never found the joke funny until now. At the time, she was recovering from her tenth submission rejection with a bottle of Barlow clenched between her thighs and mascara tears blemishing her cheeks. Ma was out with a physiotherapist named John. ‘But that Celia friend of yours’, Aunt said, between belches, ‘her family tree looks like they grow apples – red Junes to be specific.’  

Township Child by Sipho Hotstix Mabuse soundtracks, in changing tempo, Pa’s recounts of his prison days. I stare intently as if his eyes are a projector or a gateway to this intriguing, formidable world he keeps building between drags of his cigarette. 

He had a cellmate called Hendrick who committed tax fraud and beat his wife half to death. Hendrick got along especially well with this particular guard when Pa got there. Hendrick and the guard would spend hours chopping it up over prison gossip and the guard’s family life. They were close, not quite crossing the line between prisoner/guard and friend, but rather comfortably tiptoeing along it. The guard liked Hendrick because he was one of only ten white prisoners and he was a good listener. Pa didn’t like Hendrick because he was a pacifist Catholic. 

One day, Hendrick began wetting and moulding pieces of newspaper he’d stockpiled from the guard until he had this weird-looking tube-like thing. Hendrick would spend three nights staring at the seemingly useless contraption, maybe in admiration, maybe in awe at his own foolishness. Pa didn’t know it at the time, but this was what they called a Millwall brick. 

And then one day, there he was: bashing this guy Arnold’s head in with the thing. Pa snaps his fingers to the tempo of the play-by-play of the attack, adjusting facial expressions and mimicking the cries for security and the Die poppe sal dans, Hennys that followed Hendrick all the way to solitary confinement. Pa never saw him again. 

Arnold’s guys must’ve gotten to him. Dis ‘n feit soos ‘n koei. He tenses his face, letting the Balvenie strangle down his throat. But I respect the bloke. Arnold might have taken him for a poes, but he had the last word there.  

Pa has this thing where his ‘r’s rattle off his tongue so viscerally you can almost feel the percussion between his tongue and the roof of his mouth when he pronounces it. It’s a gentle reminder that underneath all that Dior Sauvage lies the same mucky little boy pushing a loose tire over littering Simba snack wrappers and Coca-Cola caps in dusty Bishop Lavis streets, the same little boy framed in Ma’s living room and my phone background.  

The air in his apartment is thick with the sour tinge of the pilchard cans stuffed with onion peels on the kitchen counter. He tosses my bag on the floor next to the fridge and hands me a Red Bull. 

‘So, what’s that for?’ I nod at the shiny pistol sticking out of his waistband like a broken bone poking out of skin. I caught a peek when he slung my bag over his shoulder at the station, but in all the forty-eight hours spent on the train and the twenty minutes in the Uber, there never seemed to be an appropriate moment to ask. 

‘Force of habit’, he says. ‘What’s with the pepper spray in your purse?’ 

Last time I went out without it, a grubby man with siren eyes tried to mug me, and he almost got away with it.   

‘Force of habit’, I reply. 

He peels his jacket off, rests the unloaded handgun on the counter and discards the foul cans. The silver pistol winks at the sunlight slipping through a curtain crack or at me.  

Piled like dirty dishes atop the seal-grey kast in the corner of his living room are green beer bottles and playful pictures of him and strange men with numbers, animals and people’s faces tattooed on their torsos and arms. It almost looks like a shrine. He says they’re old friends: some he met in prison when he was fifteen; some he grew up with; most are dead.  

He tunes into the MMA channel and lights a cigarette, sinking into the couch I was born on and chugging a Red Bull. His selective sentimentalism puzzles me. Ouma used to nag him to burn the thing, but he never budged. He still hides the giant stain with the same shabby blanket that reeks of old dust and hints of placenta. Ma says the second he walked through the door after being released, I couldn’t wait to tear out of her. 

‘Didn’t even let me finish my sandwich. Selfish and impatient, just like your daddy’, she’d say, tenderly tracing Soetjie on my spine with the rough tip of her finger – a gesture that helped me find sleep during those first few difficult months after we moved. 


I picked Ma up from the airport last night. We shared my bed, and I let her soak me in the antiseptic tang of her hair and cocoon me in cashmere cuddles. On the drive to the clinic, she held my hand like it was a promise, smiling tenderly as the sunrise vivified the hazel in her eyes. There’s an ingenue essence to her. Like she ages backwards. Boys I liked in high school would ask me for her number after seeing her drop me off and mistaking her for my sister. I’d resented her for it.  

The receptionist hands me forms to sign, smiling plainly as if the sight is commonplace: a fidgety twenty-year-old who needs Mommy to hold her hand through an abortion.  

When I told her I was pregnant, Ma stopped breathing.

‘Ma?’ I called out, worried she’d collapsed. The telephone line buzzed like neon.

‘So, what are you gonna do?’ she asked. 

The father was a thirty-five-year-old atheist who worked at Virgin Active and was too loyal to divorce his wife. I had the desire to tell her this. Maybe for transparency’s sake. Maybe to piss her off. Maybe to hear her laugh and say no, you wouldn’t do that, so I knew the version of myself that wasn’t so stupid and cliché existed somewhere out there in someone’s mind. But I didn’t. Maybe out of fear that that wouldn’t be her reaction. Maybe because she didn’t sound as interested in the details surrounding the problem as she was in its solution.  

The crucifix on the dainty nurse gawks at me accusatorily as she explains how quick and painless the sedative makes it. Ma says to count backwards while the nurse swabs the bend of my elbow. I wince and squeeze Ma’s hand when needle meets skin. She reciprocates gently as if to say, I’m here all the way. I feel myself sink into the bed like spilt milk soaking into a sponge. The ceiling light gets bigger and bigger as the numbers get smaller, slurping everything and everyone into a blank. God, my mother is beautiful.

About the Author

Matshediso Radebe

Matshediso Radebe is a South African fiction writer. Born in 2000, Matshediso enjoys writing character-based stories and troubled characters with interesting relationships and compelling dynamics drive her storytelling. Matshediso won the SA Writers College Short Story Competition in 2022. @Khantri_xo @Khantri_xo