In the kitchen sits a cooler box. In it, a Fanta.
The Fanta in the cooler box is not mine. Neither is it my grandmother Nkhono’s.
It belongs to my father, Nkhono’s fourth son. And today we will pour it over his grave to quench his thirst.
We were meant to visit him yesterday, but Nkhono said the weather wasn’t good and the winds were too strong. I think she meant he’d enjoy it more on a boiling hot day like today.
It’s always the same at Avalon Cemetery, the red sand, the unkempt weeds that Nkhono concerns herself with, the drinking fountain that promises no water, and the lump that sits in my throat. The walk is always quiet. Only the steady thud of the bag of Fanta bumping against my leg makes a sound. The steady thud reminding me to snap out of it.
‘Surely something like this couldn’t beat me,’ Nkhono says, her hand gesturing to a modest tombstone.
Nkhono hasn’t been able to erect a tombstone for my father.
‘It was never meant to be this way,’ she reminds me as we walk past the more elaborate tombstones. ‘He was meant to bury me.’
Once God grants Nkhono some money, from the scratchcard competitions, the lottery, or horse racing betting, I know she’ll erect something decent for my father. For now, the rough plank above his grave will do.
It’s always the same at Avalon, except today the cemetery is littered.
‘It’s the strong winds that yesterday brought,’ Nkhono says, as the gravediggers pick up the cigarette butts, beverage bottles, dirty diapers , food wrappers and other litter with their shovels.
I’d rather the strong winds with their litter, I think. They’re better than the strong-strong winds which leave you picking up the pieces of your life.
We’ve had some of these strong-strong winds. So strong they destroyed the powerline in our neighbourhood. This is how our fridge stopped working. This is why we borrowed a cooler box. This is why a cooler box sits in the kitchen.
Nkhono always insists on taking a water break at the drinking fountain that promises no water. It’s also here where she eats her boiled eggs before taking her afternoon pills. The blue one for her bones, the yellow for her sugar, and the heart-shaped for her high blood pressure.
Nkhono says her sugar started during Mandela’s presidency.
‘Soon after his release,’ she’d say, ‘several trucks carrying bricks entered our townships, and after these more trucks arrived carrying sugar to stock the shopping malls that the bricks had built.’ But my aunt, Nkhono’s first born, who tells me things young people shouldn’t know, once told me that Nkhono’s sugar started when Nkhono was pregnant with my father. Pregnancy-induced diabetes is how my aunt referred to it.
Nkhono offers me a sip of water before packing the bottle away. I decline because I have watched her mouth cover the entire edge of the bottle as she drank down her pills, and I cannot unsee what I have seen.
Nkhono’s feet bulging through her sandals is another thing that I cannot unsee. I know we’re halfway to my father when this starts to happen. I’ll know we’re closer when her feet start to slow down. I’ll know we’re closest when her feet start to drag, and I’ll know we’re there when her feet stand across a worn plank bearing my father’s name.
‘Is this it?’ I ask Nkhono as we stand across a heap of red sand.
‘I think it is. Although without a plank, hard to say.’
This is true. In Avalon rest hundreds of thousands of graves in different plots, each a grim tale. Plot A-H the story of a black struggle for liberation; Plot I-M the story of a pandemic that took our neighbour away; and Plot N the story of a mother who can’t find her son’s grave.
‘Let’s start again,’ Nkhono says.
I watch her fragile feet manoeuvre the narrow path separating each grave, scrambling across the rocks as she retraces the steps we’ve taken during each visit.
Each attempt leads us to a different grave. Some with planks bearing the names of strangers. Others with no plank at all.
Nkhono has never had to take pills for her mind because she’s sharp and always remembers to pack everything we need: a water bottle for the drinking fountain that promises no water; an empty bag for her egg shells; toilet paper for the exit toilet which has none; and an umbrella to shield us from the sun on our walk home.
‘Must be the strong winds that yesterday brought,’ she says. ‘The same winds that carried the litter must have swept the planks away.’
Nkhono turns towards a different part of the graveyard, widening her search to encompass a different plot.
A crowded funeral brings our search to a stop. We watch the coffin being lowered to the melodic singing of a congregation of women dressed in blue and white church uniforms.
I imagine it to be the funeral of an important person because the coffin is covered in our country’s flag. Either that, or the deceased did well at showing face.
‘This is why it is important to attend the funerals of others,’ Nkhono whispers to me.
She attends at least one funeral each weekend. Says it’s important to show face at others’ funerals, because when you die families will return the favour.
My father’s funeral was empty and on his coffin lay my Sunday dress. Nkhono told me it was empty because my father didn’t show face enough at funerals, but my aunt, who tells me things young people shouldn’t know, disagrees, saying it was empty because people can’t get off work on weekdays.
My father never attended church, though he always encouraged me to attend with his aunt, Nkhono’s sister.
‘Just to be safe,’ he’d say.
The Methodists also wear uniforms. A black skirt, white hat and a red blouse with five buttons. The buttons are a reminder of something I cannot remember, something that happened to Jesus five times.
Nkhono says church uniforms are a waste of money. But Nkhono’s sister says church uniforms are important in order for differences in clothing to be hidden, so that the rich and poor can look the same. Makes me wonder why Avalon hasn’t learnt this, whether the graves of all deceased should be dressed with tombstones so that the rich and poor can look the same.
A backhoe interrupts, making the singing of the congregation faint against its beeping sounds.
It took a dozen gravediggers and I to cover my father’s coffin. They scooped up the sand with their shovels and I my hands. Repeatedly. Half-conscious until a belly of sand protruded from the spine of the grave. It should take only a few more scoops for the man on the backhoe to finish.
We watch the machine’s long arm reach for the ground, tossing the sand into the burial hole until Nkhono jumps at the sight of a plank being dropped into the hole.
‘Wait!’ Nkhono yells, her voice drowning in the rattling metal of the backhoe. She pushes her way through the crowd and stands at the edge of the grave, ‘Wait!’
The engine stops. The singing dies. The weeping I hadn’t noticed before now audible.
‘My granddaughter and I have travelled from far to quench my son’s thirst,’ Nkhono gestures at the bag of Fanta in my hand, ‘However, the plank that marks his grave seems to be missing and we have spent the afternoon searching for his grave.’
The mourners shake their heads in sorrow, releasing long and heartfelt moans of despair.
‘So what would you have us do, Ma?’ yells a man I cannot see in the crowd.
The mourners gradually become quiet as they listen attentively to Nkhono.
‘While the tractor was pouring sand into the grave, I noticed it pick up a plank and toss it into the hole…’
‘…If only one of you could climb down into the hole and fetch the plank for me.’
‘It would help me verify if it’s my son’s plank!’ Nkhono cries out.
‘Quiet down, quiet down believers!’ The pastor interrupts, thrusting his walking stick in the air. I notice that the pastor’s belly sags over his pants, and I wonder if he chose to wear a vertical striped shirt to make himself look lean. ‘What does the word say, but to fear not anything and everything, including this harmless hole in the ground,’ he says. The pastors words are met by the respectful yet disapproving glances from the believers. ‘Now which one of you will help this mother?’ He asks.
‘I’ll fetch it,’ the backhoe driver says, climbing down from the vehicle.
With no delay he leaps into the hole. The congregation quickly close-in and look over. The driver digs his hands into the sand, searching. He stops and pulls out the plank Nkhono saw, dusting it against his trousers.
I breathe short breaths, while Nkhono’s only deepen and lengthen.
‘Eh…’ he says, glancing up from the hole, ‘The paint has rubbed away a little, Ma, but from what I can read, this person was born sometime August, 1971, born again on the 8th of March, 2019 and died 11 March, 2019’.
‘Thank you,’ Nkhono says, ‘My son was born only once.’
We sit under a Knob Thorn tree on an open plot soon to be another letter of the alphabet. A gentle wind cools us down.
Nkhono speaks a great deal about the changes in the wind, measuring its frequency and intensity by the dust it leaves on the countertops. ‘When I was young,’ she often tells me as I routinely wipe down the counters, ‘One thorough dusting a week was enough.’ But my aunt, who tells me things young people shouldn’t know, once pointed out that Nkhono speaks of the dust the winds have brought when she cannot speak of the grief the winds have caused.
As I rest my back against the bark looking across the open space, I wonder if one day this plot will tell the grim tale of even more lives taken by the strong-strong winds.
Nkhono’s hands find themselves in the soil, unconsciously plucking at the weeds. She collects the weeds in the plastic bag with the eggshells. ‘Have you seen him?’ She asks the ants that emerge from the soil, ‘A fourth deceased son? A man with an uneven hip, one leg shorter than the other?’
I remember wishing Papa would walk like the other fathers. That his limp wouldn’t stand out as much. Even in his coffin he lay in a suit that fit one side better than the other.
‘It’s what makes me special,’ he would say.
Today I only wish that he would stand out. That something special would set him apart from the scattered heaps of sand with no plank.
The congregation of women in blue and white pass us. Their work is done. Not ours.
‘Have you found the grave you were searching for, Ma?’ a member asks.
‘Not yet, my child,’ Nkhono says.
‘You should enquire at the cemetery offices, they should be able to help you find it.’
The congregation of women murmur in agreement.
‘What time do they close and where do we find these offices?’
‘At the entrance,’ she says, pointing to the gates of the cemetery, ‘but you can follow us there.’
Nkhono opens her umbrella, and shields us from the sun as we walk alongside the religious women. Some speak whilst others chant hymns. Nkhono stopped attending church because she says the Methodists sing like goats. But my aunt, who tells me things young people shouldn’t know, once said Nkhono doesn’t attend church because church uniforms are reserved for first wives. And Nkhono, apparently, is a second wife.
A member walking next to me nudges my shoulder.
‘Take,’ she says, handing me a box of some leftover Eet-sum-mors,’to have with that drink of yours.’
I politely nod, though I know we won’t because the Fanta in the bag is not ours.
We reach the exit of the cemetery.
‘That room over there, Ma.’
A member points to a mustard coloured room attached to the toilets by the exit. I always imagined the toilet paper to be kept in this room – stacks of toilet paper that someone has failed to carry over to the toilet.
‘Speak to the man in charge,’ one member shouts.
‘All he’ll need is your son’s surname!’ a second cuts in.
‘Mm, ask him for the grave number!’ a third replies.
‘Yes, from there you should find your son!’ another adds.
‘Good luck!’ a final one concludes.
What I know is that all these women were simply showing face, because when it’s your father or son you’ve just buried, you don’t have much to add.
We stand at the door of a cluttered small room. Nkhono softly knocks and a middle-aged man with a smirk on his face looks up from his desk.
‘What can I help you with, Ma?’ he asks.
‘Good afternoon, my son. Eh, we are looking for the in-charge of this cemetery.’
‘I am the person in charge, Ma. Please, what can I help you with?’
‘I’m here with regards to the strong winds from yesterday and the harm they have caused me.’
‘Did you lose a loved one?’
‘Then what can I help you with?’
‘The marker that stood above my son’s grave has been carried away by the strong winds that yesterday brought, and we’re here to request his grave number so we can locate him.’
‘Are you sure it was the wind? I don’t recall it being that strong. Our trees are still in the ground and the roof to my office intact, so yesterday’s winds were definitely not that strong.’
I realise that perhaps it’s not by its strength that Nkhono should refer to yesterday’s winds, but by its nerve.
‘His grave was marked by a plank and, like many others, his has been blown away.’
‘The planks we supply were never meant to be a long-term fixture. Only a placeholder until families can erect something more permanent.’
I wait for Nkhono to explain her unpreparedness – that mothers aren’t supposed to bury their children – only she remains looking down.
‘You actually caught me in the middle of working on some exciting new offers we have for our grievers.’
He stands up from his chair while Nkhono and I settle across the table from him.
I place my father’s Fanta on the table and Nkhono places the bag of weeds and cracked eggshells on her lap.
‘For example, we’ve recently added a backhoe to our funeral cover, and soon we’ll be offering white doves at funeral processions,’ he says, beating his hand against an empty cage on the wall. ‘We’ll also offer a trumpet player and bottled water to quench the thirst of our grievers.’
‘Speaking of, may I?’ he asks, pointing at the Fanta on the table. I expect Nkhono to say no, but again she chooses silence.
The in-charge pulls a tray of mugs from the tea station in the corner of his room. He places the stained mugs before us and reaches for the Fanta. I quickly shut my eyes, but the fssst I hear only confirms my fears. He pours some into each of our mugs, leaving the bottle empty.
‘Now mother,’ he says as he takes a sip, ‘What did you say your son’s name was?’
By now I expect Nkhono to choose silence again, but she speaks.
‘His name was Kelebogile Lehlohonolo Mokoena.’
‘And which year did he die?’
‘Two, O, one, six,’ Nkhono says as her finger traces a 2-O-1- 6 in the air. ‘June,’ finger tracing a 9.
‘9 June 2016?’
‘Yes,’ she says, her nod a beat behind.
The in-charge’s eyes search through a stack of books below the dove cage. He blows off the dust to reveal labels on the spine of each.
‘There you have it,’ he says picking up a book so heavy you would think it carried the weight of each of the deceased bodies. He flicks through each page, his fingers scrolling through all the names.
‘Mokoena, Mokoena, Mokoena,’ he murmurs, before his finger docks on one of them.
His eyes are hard to read, but I can read what’s in the book. I can tell the Mokoena his finger rests on died the year I was born. I know this because it’s written 2-0-0-7. But Nkhono cannot read this because she didn’t go to school. She cannot even tell you the date she was born. Says back then, no one kept a good record of birth dates.
The same way the in-charge hasn’t kept a good record of my father’s burial date it seems.
He searches through a new stack of books. This stack is placed on top of a dozen toilet rolls lined up in a row. He pulls out a book, beginning the process again.
‘Mokoena, Mokoena, Mokoena,’ he murmurs, before his finger docks on another incorrect Mokoena.
‘But you know, Ma,’ he says, his back to us as he searches through another stack, ‘These winds are only warning of the end days. The coming of Jehovah Jireh. My only question to humankind is when will we start paying attention?’
He pulls out another book from the stack, beginning the same process we’ve watched him repeat countless times.
‘Mokoena, Mokoena, Mokoena,’ he murmurs, ‘Ehe, here we go. Kelebogile Lehlohonolo Mokoena, 9 June 2016. Plot N, grave number KLM 993678.’
Nkhono looks at me. I nod, reassuring her that I have noted the grave number in my head.
‘Thank you,’ Nkhono says, as we stand from our chairs to leave.
‘Any time Ma, but please, before you leave,’ he says, pushing the tray of Fanta closer to us, ‘Drink.’
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