The city is a snake that swallows and spits. It swallows men with broad shoulders and brimming smiles; the ones who go to the city with promises to come back to the village never come back. The city sucks them in – into sin and immorality; it lures them into dark alleys for a quickie and a disease.
When Motsamai left, his wife, Mmamodiegi, was three months pregnant with their first and only child. He wrote to her when he had reached the city. In his letters, he wrote about how big the city was, that there were so many cars in the city that he, too, would soon have his own. He wrote about how, in the city, even at night people moved about, hustled and tried to make the much-needed money to pay rent. “The city doesn’t sleep, Mmamodiegi. I miss you, Mmamodiegi, bone of my heart.”
When the child was born, she wrote to him. She told him it was a son, and he had been named Monapule because he was born on a rainy summer day. The day he was born, the sun rose just like it rose every morning. The sky was blue and there were no clouds. It was only in the afternoon, after Mmamodiegi’s cramps had started, that the clouds began to gather on the horizon. When her waters broke, heavy rain began to fall. The rain was so strong that day that the ambulance couldn’t even come to her house. She was helped by Mme, her husband’s mother, who had had five children of her own and, because of age, had lost her eyesight.
In the letter she wrote, she didn’t address him as Motsamai anymore. No, now he was ntate wa Monapule. She told him how his son looked like him. “He has your nose, and your smile, and he’s so strong that when he was born, he summoned the clouds and the sky wept for him.”
But he didn’t write back. For twenty years, he never wrote back. He stopped sending money. When his mother passed away, Mmamodiegi wrote to him again, but even then he didn’t come back home. It seemed that he had simply disappeared into a black hole inside a mamba’s tummy.
The city is a snake that swallows and spits. Just like the sea, it spits out what it does not want. It spits out what it deems useless to its glory. It spits out men who it had used to build its mighty buildings and skyscrapers, to construct its bridges and roads, to mine and dig for gold and are now useless because they are frail and sick.
The day he came back from the city the rain fell. He had only one bag, and inside the bag were clothes that he had bought for Monapule twenty years back. He was wearing a navy suit with all the buttons missing.
He knocked at the door. It was Monapule who opened it to find an old, frail, wheelchair-bound, rain-soaked man on the doorstep of his mother’s house.
“Who are you and what do you want?” he asked. The man looked like the vagabonds he passed in town, sniffing glue and sleeping on cardboard with the sky and the stars as a blanket. The city spits out men whose sons cannot recognise them.
The city had swallowed Motsamai. And when it spat him out, he was a useless old man who spent his time drinking beer until he could not even push himself home and Monapule had to go and fetch him. Monapule hated this. He hated him. He hadn’t yet found it in his heart to forgive him for bailing out on them.
There were many things that Monapule hated his father for. He was angry that his father deserted them; that he had gone to the city and stopped sending money. At school, he always felt out of place when they were asked to write Father’s Day cards. On one occasion, he submitted a page coloured all over with a blue crayon and in the middle was a black dot. His English teacher, Mr Jafta, asked him what the picture meant.
“It’s a mystery,” he had responded, “my father, just like the blue sky, is a mystery to me.” Although the teacher didn’t understand what he meant, he just nodded his head and gave him good marks for he was one of his best learners.
He hated his father more especially for leaving him and his mother alone for twenty years, only to come back as a coffin they had to push around whenever he was drunk. How had he allowed the city to swallow him? The city had squashed him and his broad strong shoulders, and when it was done with him, it spat him out. What were they supposed to do with him now?
His mother said, “There is nothing we can do for him but to love him, my son. The city has no love. Your father needs you to love him.” He had shaken his head, as if pitying his mother, and left. He wasn’t prepared to love a man who had brought him to this earth and then run away for twenty years, only to come back with a bag of useless baby clothes.
“I never stopped thinking about you, and about him too,” he had once overheard his father telling his mother. But that didn’t mean anything to him. What’s the use of thinking about me if you don’t care enough to be there for me? His question was rhetorical.
Motsamai, unlike most men who come from the city, didn’t speak too much; he had no tales of glory to narrate. You’d find him sitting alone in his wheel-chair, drinking beer and slowly moving his head or tapping his feet to Sipho Gumede’s Alone in a strange place and smoking cigarettes dreamily. He didn’t talk about what had happened in the city; his misfortune, his foolishness, his embarrassment. These were things he was not prepared to talk about.
He only spoke about it once – the day that he came back. In between wheezing and bouts of coughing, he had told the story of how the women of the city had used muti on him to make him stay with them. Of course, Pule did not buy into that story! It was all a lie, an excuse, but he didn’t say that. He just looked at his father with disappointed eyes and shook his head, as if that simple gesture had the power to make everything OK, and that soon he’d be out of their lives again. Men from the city never stayed long in the villages, and those who did stay died.
The son and the mother were sitting at the dinner table in silence. A paraffin lamp that burned on the table was the only source of light in the room and it added its own shade of gloominess. The mother was wearing a black dress and a black does covered her head; the boy was wearing the only suit his father had brought back from the city. His mother had sewn buttons onto it. It was a few sizes too big for him, but a belt prevented the trousers from falling.
The boy was staring at a picture of his father that hung on the wall. The picture was taken a long time ago. His father looked younger in it: a strong body, a smooth face with no beard, a smile and two legs. This was the father he never knew.
The father he knew was not like this. For the few months that he had known his father, and that was after he came back from the city, he couldn’t recall a time when his father smiled. His body was not strong – he was thin and dying. His hair was falling out but the greying beard was defiantly long. He hardly laughed.
His wife had taken care of him the best way that she could, although sometimes she could be heard cursing the city, saying that it had swallowed her man and what it sent back was a ghost in a wheelchair. Despite this, she cooked for him and bathed him as if he was a child, and on those nights when his nightmares kept him awake, she could be heard singing him a lullaby and stroking his back until he fell asleep.
Today, mother and son sit at the table in uncomfortable silence and stare at their plates. Although they had spent many years together, they could feel the absence of the father. Two weeks ago his heart had stopped pumping blood, and the veins in his body had dried up like the rivers of the village. He was buried – as per his wishes – next to his mother and father.
“This photo, mama,” he said absent-mindedly. His mother looked up from her untouched plate and turned her neck to look at the photo that hung on the wall behind her.
“What about it?” she asked, looking at him now. But he didn’t look at her, his eyes were focused on the picture. “It must go! I don’t like it! I hate it! It burns my eyes when I look at it! It’s like I’m looking at my future self and I’m afraid…”
“Why?” she asked again, her voice almost a whisper. “Why are you scared?”
“I don’t want to be like him, mama, but in this photo I look so much like him. Sometimes, I think it’s me…and that scares me,” his voice quivered.
She stood up from her chair, unhinged the photo frame from the nail it had been hanging from for twenty years, and then went to him. It had collected dust.
“Look,” she said, and placed the photo without the frame in front of him. On the back, the words were written in blue ink: “Every man chooses his destiny. Success, or failure, is not in the genes. It’s not hereditary. It’s a choice.”
“He wrote it. You don’t have to be scared.” Tears fell from his eyes for the first time since his father passed away. She patted him on the back.
“Eat, Pule,” the mother said to her son, “you have to eat.”