‘The Faraway Things’ was shortlisted for the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
Lesedi knew he wasn’t right in the head. He heard someone say it at least once every day. ‘There goes Mokgadi’s son. Don’t mind him, he’s not right in the head.’
He didn’t understand why his head wasn’t right, nor was he curious enough to ask. Asking would require talking — which he preferred to avoid. According to Mokgadi, it was all just words anyway, and you could choose not to care. So Lesedi dismissed the comments whenever he heard them. He’d grown exceptionally good at dismissing things he didn’t understand.
He made his way down the hill with the village’s eighty four cows ahead of him. Thirty one belonged to the village chief and the rest to various families, including his own. He studied the cattle as they shuffled along. Seven cows had developed a slight flounce on their abdomens instead of the firm round belly he was used to seeing. The cows’ mooing had also reduced steadily over the past few weeks. He was surprised because the rainy season had started up so surely the grass would be better to eat? He shook his head, muttering his speculations for their lack of appetite and wondering what Noni would think of it.
The village wasn’t very far now. About three thousand, eight hundred and fifty four steps more and he was at Mr. Pitsi’s place. The cows were still on his mind when he rang the bell over the farmer’s gate.
‘Are you talking to the cows again, boy?’
Lesedi ignored the question and held out his hand expectantly as Pitsi’s fifteen cattle plodded through the gate. He despised talking since he didn’t understand what people were saying to him half the time anyway. Like how Sarah liked to tell him, ‘Ignore something long enough and it disappears. Imagine something hard enough and it becomes real.’
‘It’s just language,’ Mokgadi had explained when he’d asked her what the old woman meant. That was Mokgadi’s explanation for most of the expressions he couldn’t make sense of. But he didn’t understand what she meant either. Another mystery then — one he wasn’t interested in understanding. ‘All part of the far away things,’ he muttered under his breath.
The only mystery he was willing to entertain was why the cattle had suddenly lost their appetite? For as long as he’d been herding, cows had never tired of chewing. He made a mental note to observe their behaviour after switching to west of the main road. The area he had in mind was an additional two kilometres from his other spots but he liked to rotate grazing locations. He didn’t eat grass but he figured cows also liked variety.
‘I only have two hundred and twenty seven today,’ Mr. Pitsi was saying. Lesedi frowned at the money the man placed in his palm and shook his head. The agreement was two hundred and fifty a week.
‘No,’ Lesedi said. But Mr. Pitsi had already turned around to secure the padlock of the kraal.
‘Two hundred and fifty,’ Lesedi insisted.
‘It’s just twenty three less,’ Mr. Pitsi snapped, striding towards his house. He banged the door close behind him. Lesedi neatly folded the notes around the coins and put the money in his pocket. He delivered the rest of the cows without further incident and arrived home just as Mokgadi was packing the fire pit with logs and sticks.
Their home was a square, three room house along with a circular brick and mud hut with a grass roof. There were two bedrooms and a small kitchen.
Although the kitchen had a two-plate electric stove, Mokgadi did most of the cooking outside in the dug-out fire pit between the hut and the house. The hut served as a kind of shed they used mainly for storage — drumfuls of rain water, garden tools or old furniture. It also served as a bathing room, and sometimes a barn for the cattle if the weather was particularly bad. Otherwise their three cows — aptly named, One, Two and Three by Noni — stayed outside in their small backyard kraal which was little more than the branches of trees placed in a loose circle and held together by rusted barbed wire.
The floor was a packing of soft soil and dried dung. Most people did not like the smell but Lesedi appreciated the familiarity of the strong scent. Sometimes when his head was buzzing, he liked to sit on the rock by the entrance and inhale it. He led the cows there now and made a mental note to milk Two later. It looked like her teats were getting overly full now that Three was grazing more often and probably drinking less milk. Lesedi shook his head at the gangly calf. He was more of a milk person himself. After locking the gate, he walked to the washing line and unclipped the blue, square face cloth.
The zinc tub was already filled with steaming water. He walked over to the left corner of the windowsill and lit the candle there, picking up the bar of soap and washing stone. He walked over to the left corner of the windowsill and lit the candle there, picking up the bar of soap and washing stone. Shedding his clothes, he folded them in a neat pile and placed them on the old radio for Mokgadi to wash on Saturday.
He entered the tub and started to bathe, making sure to especially scrub his armpits and feet. He lathered his head and washed his hair thoroughly. Mokgadi had shown him how to wash but she occasionally scrubbed his back for him. Always on Fridays.
‘I’m coming in!’ Mokgadi announced before entering the shed. She was holding a fresh set of clothes. She placed the small bundle on the radio and put the dirty clothes in the laundry basket. She walked to the windowsill and emptied the can, counting the notes inside. ‘Pitsi did not pay the full amount again?’ she guessed.
‘Yes,’ he replied.
‘I thought so. There’s a city company interested in buying some of the lands east of the river. The chief says everyone in the village would benefit. Pitsi was one of the loudest supporters. He suffered a poor harvest this year. Belinda at the supermarket said he’s been betting the lotto almost every day now.’
Lesedi nodded even though he didn’t much care for whatever the rest of the villagers were doing. Mokgadi had taught him that nodding was the acceptable reaction, even if he wasn’t interested in the conversation.
She laughed at something and he frowned at her. Did she say a joke? ‘What is making you laugh?’
She placed the money in the pocket of her skirt and walked towards him. ‘Sometimes I just like to laugh,’ she said. He took her word for it. ‘Do you want me to scrub your back?’
He shook his head. ‘It is Thursday,’ he reminded her.
She nodded. ‘Don’t mind Pitsi too much. I am keeping a tally of his debt. I told the chief about it already. Maybe one of these days he will win the lotto. He bets so many tickets he is probably close to winning.’
‘The odds don’t change,’ Lesedi told her. ‘Each ticket is new and does not draw on the past. Whether he bets ten times or a thousand times, the chances of him winning remain the same.’
Mokgadi scratched his head fondly. ‘Join me outside when you’re done.’
Lesedi nodded again.
Once he’d dried himself he rubbed on a layer of Vaseline and put on the clean clothes she’d laid out. He went to pick up the leftover money on the windowsill and realised that she’d left more than usual. He placed the single fifty rand note in his pocket and walked out with the rest of the coins clasped in his hand.
Mokgadi was busy roasting nuts in a shallow pan. He loved roasted nuts. He quickly made a makeshift chair with a few bricks on top of each other and positioned it just on the shy side of dangerous. Mokgadi frequently made him move further back, scolding him over the tiger stripes that would develop on his legs. But he enjoyed the contrast of the cold on his back and the heat on his front.
‘Move back, Les,’ she reprimanded without looking up. She was dishing out pap and stir-fried cabbage — one plate for herself and two for him. He never had his starch and radish on the same plate. It was messy and he didn’t like messy.
Lesedi mumbled and moved a few millimetres away from the fire. He savoured the smell of the nuts and tried to remind himself that he would be having them in seventeen minutes. That was normally how long it took him and Mokgadi to eat their main meal, regardless of what it was.
Once he finished eating, he stacked his empty dishes together and packed them in the washing bowl. He patiently waited for Mokgadi to finish.
‘You can start eating the nuts,’ she said. They were now cooling in the zinc plate on the ground. Lesedi preferred them hot. He liked it when they burned his fingers and tongue. But we always eat the nuts together. ‘I will wait,’ he said.
He reached on the ground beside him for the coins he’d put there, then held them out for Mokgadi. ‘You left more,’ he told her.
She shook her head. ‘Keep it. It is a promotion.’
‘What is a promotion?’
‘It is when you earn more because you do good work.’
Lesedi frowned. ‘But I worked the same as yesterday,’ he said.
‘Well yes. But a promotion is something you get over time for doing consistently good work.’
‘Consistent?’ he repeated. He didn’t know a lot of big words but he understood that one. And he liked how it sounded when Mokgadi said it. He also liked what it stood for: Staying the same, or following the same pattern.
Lesedi treasured sameness. ‘Okay,’ he finally agreed. He counted the coins. Three one rand coins and a two rand. Five rand more. He would have to think about what to do with it. Noni always complained that he didn’t buy her enough sweets.
‘Have some nuts,’ Mokgadi pointed at the warm pan between them. Lesedi quickly shoved the coins in a pocket separate from his fifty rand and started on the roasted nuts. They were just the right amount of saltiness, he thought contentedly. They were delicious but always made him thirsty. Mokgadi offered him a mug of water. He took it and sipped gratefully. He’d once asked how she could anticipate his needs and she’d told him that ‘a mother knows’. Most of her answers were vague, if she answered at all, but he’d grown used to it. Besides, she was specific when specifics were required, so he wasn’t bothered by her occasional strangeness. After all, most people considered him strange too.
It was Saturday today. That meant Lesedi had to pick up Noni before heading to the mountains. Noni’s mother, Tshiamo, worked in town cleaning houses. And since Noni was only five years old, she couldn’t stay home alone. Tshiamo said the owners came home early on Saturdays so she couldn’t take Noni with her because they wouldn’t like it. Lesedi thought it was strange that anyone wouldn’t like Noni; he liked spending time with her. Nothing Noni said ever confused him.
Noni and Tshiamo lived in a two-room house. They had one mango tree in the small yard — a patch of ground that was always occupied with either mielie plants, cabbage or other greens, depending on the season. Tshiamo had discovered him and Noni perched in the mango tree once, and had warned them never to climb it again. Now, they were careful to only climb it when she wasn’t around.
Lesedi went through the barbed wire gate and into the front yard. ‘Ntaoo!’ he called.
‘Come in, Lesedi,’ Tshiamo said.
There was a bowl of soapy water on the floor; and next to it, a big tub of baby petroleum jelly. Tshiamo was hurriedly tying pink ribbons over Noni’s afro pigtails. Noni’s shiny face stretched into a grin when she saw him. ‘Finish, Mama! Les is here!’ She danced excitedly, waving frantically at her friend.
‘I’m almost done, Nonhle. Hold still! You can sit down, Lesedi.’
Lesedi sat down on the single chair and waited patiently while Tshiamo covered Noni’s tiny feet with clean socks.
‘How is your mother doing, Lesedi? I haven’t seen her in a while.’
She always asked the exact same question, but he didn’t bother pointing out that his house was just four doors down if she really wanted to see his mother. He had long realised that Tshiamo spoke to him more out of politeness than any real need for information. Mokgadi had told him that people often did that because “small talk” was more polite than silence.
Mokgadi had also taught him that it was considered polite to return the question on such occasions. ‘‘My mother is fine. How is your mother?’ he asked.
Tshiamo paused briefly, then continued to tie Noni’s shoelaces into bow ties. The left loop on one shoe was bigger than the right loop, Lesedi noticed with a frown. He would have to fix it for Noni later.
‘My mother passed away a few years ago, Lesedi.’ She threw a small smile over her shoulder at him. ‘But you would’ve liked her. She was very friendly.’
Lesedi doubted that. He didn’t like most people. ‘Okay,’ he replied.
‘Okay, Nonhle you’re all ready now.’ Tshiamo pushed a pink little sun hat over Noni’s head and stepped back. The little girl hopped from the crate to the floor.
To Lesedi, Tshiamo said, ‘Don’t worry. She’ll be starting school next year and won’t need to tag along so much.’
Lesedi frowned at that. He didn’t like school. If it were up to him, Noni would never attend either. What if she became mean and laughed at him like the other kids in the village? Then he would lose his only friend. ‘Okay,’ he replied.
Noni ran to him and grabbed his hand, already tugging him towards the door. ‘Come come,’she demanded. ‘One, Two and Three are waiting!’
Tshiamo quickly handed him Noni’s backpack before they could exit the house. Lesedi swung a single strap over his shoulder and walked side by side with his friend.
‘Where are we going today?’ Noni wanted to know.
‘We are going to south of the hill, close to the old river.’
‘Why so far?’ But she didn’t seem to mind. She was hopping excitedly as they walked.
‘The cows are not eating a lot. I want to see if it is the same there too.’
‘We will buy sweets and chips?’
‘Yes. I have more money now.’
‘Yay! And flavoured ice? I want the orange one!’
They went to the hawkers across the big supermarket and bought a plastic full of corn chips, lollipops and biscuits. They ate the flavoured, frozen ice blocks along the way. They started gathering the cattle, beginning with his own family and then Old Sarah’s single cow next door. About an hour later, they were trailing behind the cows as they made their way to the grazing land. They sang and danced as they walked, pointing out the village houses that got smaller and smaller the further they went
When they finally made it to the big Marula tree, they put their bags down. As always, Lesedi first checked the area for any dangers, starting with their own camp spot. Once satisfied, he checked the surrounding area, his slingshot already loaded with a small, round pebble. There were not a lot of trees around this area but wild dogs could still hide the tall grass. He shot a few rocks in the surrounding grass to scare away any snakes that might be in the vicinity. He made sure all the cattle didn’t go beyond the riverbed and inspected them thoroughly for physical discomforts, removing only a few big thorns stuck in the hooves. Again, he frowned at their loss of belly fat. This grazing land was full of good grass so he hoped they ate a lot today.
‘Three is growing big,’ Noni remarked when he joined her under the tree. She was already on her second packet of chips. Lesedi opted for the spicy tomato flavour.
‘Do you think if I eat grass I will grow big too?’
Lesedi gave serious thought to the question. ‘No. People do not eat grass.’
‘I don’t know. But grass makes you chew all day. And it doesn’t look tasty.’ He popped more chips in his mouth.
Noni pulled a clump of the grass from where they were sitting. She held it up to her face and blew off the soil. She picked out the cleanest bits and carefully put them in her mouth. She began chewing with a look of increasing disgust on her face.
‘How does it taste?’ Lesedi asked.
Noni spat out the green lump, making a show of wiping off her tongue with the sleeve of her shirt. Lesedi laughed at her antics.
‘Bad, bad, bad!’
Lesedi frowned and looked at the cattle in the distance. Some were grazing but many were just standing and mooing moodily. He stood up.
‘Yay! We’re playing hide and seek!’ Noni shrieked. Laughing, she got up and stepped back from him. ‘I hide, you look for me first okay?’
He looked at the cows, but… Noni had a temper on her. ‘Okay.’
She giggled. ‘Count to twenty. No skipping!’
Lesedi shook his head at her. She was the one that skipped numbers. He closed his eyes and leaned against the trunk. He made sure to count very loudly so that Noni wouldn’t accuse him of cheating. As he counted, his minded drifted again to why the cattle weren’t grazing anymore. He ought to tell his mother and she would let the villagers know.
Turning, he looked around him. There really weren’t many places to hide. But Noni was short, and there were a few bushes that could make a handy hiding spot.
Lesedi smiled, knowing that his friend had the tendency to giggle. He could almost hear it now…but it was just the wind whistling… and a cough?
He started towards the bushes closest to him. He was sure he saw some movement there. Nothing. He searched the next bush, and the next, and another after that. Finally, he stopped and turned a slow circle, looking closely at the grass around him.
‘Noni!’ he called, going further down the hill. How far could she have gone in the twenty seconds he’d looked away?
Khookh khookh khookh. That coughing sound again. More comprehensible now. It wasn’t a person’s cough, Lesedi realized. It was an old truck driving away in the distance.
‘Noni!’ he called, feeling the panic sweep through him. ‘Noni, you win! You can come out!’
He started running down the hill, looking around him frantically. Where is she?
He wanted Mokgadi. ‘Noni!’ But all he saw was the cattle staring blankly and not eating; and the swaying grass, making the hill look sinister was undulating underground.. And the truck. Where had it come from?
Lesedi started down again until he reached the farther side of the barely wet ground but… He frowned in confusion at the patches of dark ground on the red riverbed.
He stopped and bent down to examine the wet area. He scooped up a handful of mud and studied it. It felt greasy. He brought his hand closer to his nose, grimacing at the odour. He used his other hand to remove the empty packet of chips from his back pocket. Kneeling, he carefully filled it with the strange mud. He retraced his steps until he found tyre tracks and began to follow them. Sweat was flowing down from his head now, creating shadows on his shirt. Noni… Where is she?
He quickened his pace until he reached the old stone bridge. Not a bridge really but a collection of heavy stones packed together to create a higher, lumpy surface that the villagers used to cross the river. It was too high for any vehicle to drive over. So the truck must have stopped here. Lesedi bent down to study the ground next to where the vehicle must’ve stood. He could see traces of the strange substance that had clotted in the river bed. He spotted a metal lid, also coated with the stuff. He picked it up. It occurred to him that the gooey bluish substance must have flowed down from the hill. Clumps of it had collected, visible now on the soon-to-be-filled riverbed. If left here, it would contaminate the water when it rained. He was contemplating this when he spotted the tiny footprint beside a pair of much larger ones.
Lesedi didn’t realise he was racing after the truck until he felt his hat fly off his head. The sun was blinding him, and sweat stung his eyes but still he ran, following the fading tracks until they disappeared completely.
‘What’s wrong, Lesedi?!’
It was Mokgadi running towards him. He hadn’t even realised he’d been calling her name. The tracks. Where were the tracks? He couldn’t tell now that it seemed the truck had gone on the main road.
‘Baby you’re not making sense,’ Mokgadi was saying. She was trying to hold his head still. ‘Calm down. Tell me from the beginning,’ she cooed, her back turned to the gathering crowd of curious villagers.
‘I must find Noni. I think the truck took her.’
‘Lesedi look at me. Breathe. What are you’re holding in your hands?’
The tin lid! He hadn’t thrown it away. He quickly pulled out the packet of dirt from his pocket and showed her. That’s right — he would need evidence of what he’d seen in order to help Noni.
Another hand — Thabiseng, one of the chief’s sons — took the lid and studied the label.
‘Lesedi where did you find this?’ he asked.
Lesedi whimpered, huddling into Mokgadi’s arms. Noni. How was he going to find Noni?
‘He’s been eating grass, just like the cows he talks to,’ someone said.
‘Give him a chance,’ Mokgadi said. Her voice sounded faraway.
He mumbled words over and over, hoping that they could understand him, and they must have because blurry figures started in the direction he’d come from. Mokgadi’s face started to blur.
‘It’s okay, baby. Let’s go home.’ Why is Mokgadi crying? He wanted to tell her that her tears were falling on him and he didn’t like it. But he couldn’t seem to make his voice work and then his eyes started to close.
When Lesedi woke up, the first thing he saw was the sunlight filtering through the thatched roof. He was in the hut then; he would have to fix the roof soon. It was the beginning of the heavy rains.He heard the door open and sat up slowly.
Mokgadi walked in holding a plate. He smelled roasted nuts. He frowned because they hadn’t had supper. But his grumbling stomach contradicted the protest. Mokgadi placed the hot treat beside the mat he’d been lying on.
‘You must be hungry. I haven’t cooked yet.’
She must’ve been at kgorong. Mokgadi always cooked on time unless her presence was required by the chief.
‘The city company has been dumping chemical waste on the unoccupied land,’ she told him. ‘Since the rains are starting, the chemicals must have been carried with the rain water to the old river. The company was trying to cover it up by removing heavy areas of contaminated soil, but they couldn’t get to it all. A lot of the chemicals got absorbed into the farm land. That must be why the harvest has been so poor.’
She looked at her unresponsive son. ‘Lesedi, the chief asked me to especially thank you for finding the evidence. Everyone will get compensated with far more than the company was willing to buy the land for. The police and court people are involved.’
Lesedi nodded; he wasn’t interested.
Mokgadi took his hand. ‘Why were you eating grass?’
‘Noni tasted the grass, not me.’
‘Baby, Noni has been dead for two years. She was a sick little girl.’
The world was turning in half circles until Mokgadi held his head that was shaking in denial.
‘Noni is not gone,’ he said. ‘I was with her. She was just hiding. And I couldn’t find her.’
‘How old is Noni, Lesedi?’
Too young. Too young to be gone. She was his only friend. ‘Five. We must find her.’
‘Okay. Breathe. And how old were you when Noni started coming with you to the mountains?’
‘Thirteen.’ Because five was too young to attend school or stay home alone. She’d been five then…like she was now.
‘Baby, you’re sixteen. She can’t still be five. She would’ve been eight now. And Tshiamo moved away after the funeral.’
‘I don’t understand,’ Lesedi admitted. Mokgadi lay down beside him. He didn’t like it but he didn’t protest today.
‘Is that why I’m not right in the head?’ he finally asked, ‘because I still see Noni when everyone else doesn’t?’
‘No. There’s nothing wrong with your head. After all, you’re the only one that noticed the cows were behaving strangely. You’re a bright boy, just like your name says. Sometimes, your heart doesn’t allow your head to be right.’
‘What happened to the cows?’ He started to get up but Mokgadi held him down, shaking her head. ‘Don’t worry. Thabiseng will send someone for them. Just rest.’
He wanted to get up. He wasn’t convinced that Noni was really gone. Old people died, like old Sarah’s husband. Dying meant leaving and never coming back. But Noni hadn’t even started school yet. Just like Three, she wasn’t finished growing so she had to be alive.
‘I don’t understand, Mokgadi,’ he said aloud.
‘I know, baby. And what do we do with things we don’t understand?’
They don’t matter, Lesedi thought. ‘We let them go,’ he murmured, doing just that.
‘Exactly. Sometimes things are beyond our capacity to understand them. They’re just part of the far away things.’
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