When you got home, there seated, beneath the tree, your father, in his Royal Gown despite the pulsating heat, your mother, Uncle Pitsi and Aunt Kedibone. It was uncommon that your father's siblings visited. They lived far, at Mokwakwaila village, three taxis away from where you lived and at least two hours on the road. Something must be amiss, you suspected. Your father had been home for nearly a month now and his recovery had been promising. He hadn't spoken about Dineo since, and you hoped it stayed that way, though inwardly, you knew it's likely he wanted to focus on his recovery first. The doctors must've ordered him to take it easy, you thought. You hadn't mentioned the topic either, and that made things easier in the royal house. Then, you noticed that Aunt Kedibone was holding a piece of paper, but from the distance you couldn't make out what it was. You shouted your greetings as you made your way into the house, into your room, to change into proper clothes. However, you were barely settled when the door slid open and your mother slipped in -- to summon you.
"You can't marry her, son," your father said condescendingly. "She's a commoner."
"But I love her, father."
"Forget love, think principles."
"My love for her is principled."
"What will people say?"
"I care less about people, this is my life."
"This is my life, too, damn it!" he thundered, gnashed his teeth and thumped his chest with a clenched fist. Then he sprang to his feet. "I will not argue with you about this! There will be no marriage for you with that girl, you hear me? I forbid it!"
And just like that, he stormed out of your room and banged the door shut that the house shook.
Chief Matlala was a bull of a man. A towering figure with an enormous frame, macho, though you could hardly see his charcoal skin, for it was often concealed underneath a floor-length cheetah-coat he had termed his Royal Gown. He had a bald head which always shone like a ruby, and a well-trimmed moustache to compliment his half beard. He had long, bowlegs, with which when he walked, he glided you'd swear he literally walked on air. He was hard-hearted, at least you thought. A tyrant of note. The man was accustomed to dictating those under and around him. When he emerged, heads had to hang and knees kissed the ground. When he spoke, the world lay still. And when he then turned to walk away, palms met with quick, successive clinks. Matter-of-factly, your father thought he was a god. He believed, somehow, that the world was his mansion and everyone else was just living in in it. He felt, and indeed he was, in charge. In control. One word against him and you'd be grounded -- you or your siblings. At times you felt he was harder on you than on the others, though, -- he'd demand of you things he couldn't ask of them. Your mother said it's because you were his only son left. She said he said you were the chosen one, and so he couldn't risk losing you, too.
"Your father was broken when Tefu defied him and gave himself to the world," she'd told you.
From her tone you could tell she, too, was broken. You didn't know Tefu. You'd never seen him -- not that you remembered anyway. They said he left when you were a tot and never returned. All you knew of him was that he's the first of all the nine of you, and the only one to Aunt Selina, just as you were to your mother, and everything else your father had told you, some of which you doubted its validity. The last time they'd heard of him, your mother once confided in you, he was arrested for theft in Johannesburg. Then, you recalled your father telling you how his cows would disappear time after time, and it was later found that Tefu was selling them off to the highest bidders among his fellow herdsboys in the bushes. Perhaps that part was true after all. Your mother said Tefu and your father barely agreed on anything -- no surprises there, you had mouthed. Even though you weren't at all surprised Tefu had had made off, you still felt toward him some bitterness. Some anger. His absence, you thought judiciously, was what meant your oppression. Your mother said your father didn't want you to turn out like your brother; hence he treated you with rigidity.
If it's your mother or your aunts speaking against him, your father would remind them of their place as a woman and wife. You just didn't understand that kind of talk. But his wives did -- well, seemed to. Your father spent much of his time with you and your mother. His first and second wives and their children had their own separate homesteads not very far from yours. He was barely, if not at all, there, and you thought he liked it with you and your mother so he could watch you. Guard you. You hated that. You hated feeling unfree.
As for the workers, the servants, they're "just guards and should obey orders or forfeit the jobs." Before, you'd heard in the neighbourhood, some were fired for asking him for a day-off at least once a fortnight. Total absurdity, you'd thought.
And the neighbours, well, they even barely received your father's greetings. Unless, of course, they saluted him first.
Some days the man would wake up sulkily for no apparent reason, and you'd all have to feel the pinch for it. You'd always thought he was too arrogant to lead people. That his status and affluence had turned him haughty. However, at times you doubted this judgement, for the others seemed to have accepted his ways, making you look like the bad guy.
Your father had enrolled you into a good independent school in Giyani city, and you were grateful for that. You wanted to become a lawyer, a state attorney, an intent with which your teachers concurred. They said you had good communication and reasoning skills. But your father said you didn't need to go to Law school. He claimed your teachers didn't know you better than he did. He insisted he had better plans for you. Inwardly, you knew he wanted to control your career the same way he was your love life. A day barely went by without him reminding you how paramount it was that you learned "the royal ways" for when the reigns would be bestowed upon you. You loathed the idea. The thought of inheriting the chieftaincy, you despised it. Above all, you hated feeling as though you had no control over your life. You wanted another kind of life. A different life. An ordinary life. For you and Dineo. You didn't see yourself carrying yourself like your father was. If that's how Chieftaincy was supposed to be, you would think to yourself whenever you witnessed his horrid treatment of others, you didn't want it.
* * *
"And, how did it go?" It was your mother, settling herself onto the bedside chair pulled up beside the headboard, her face brimming with distraught.
Your mother was short and curvaceous. She had an oval face, sharp nose, thin pinkish lips and sparkling round eyes. Her narrow frame was topped by slightly sloped shoulders. She was bronze-skinned, and her hair was always concealed by a head scarf. Her appearance often commanded sheer wonderment. She was a traditional, yet classy woman. The Queen. Character-wise, a demure and benevolent human, among plenty of the like. When she smiled, the sky lit up as if a flaring moonlight.
Your mother understood you. She had accepted your relationship with Dineo and never tried to talk you out of it. They had twice met on the sly and, although your mother had her concerns at first, she managed to see Dineo beyond her social status at last. She knew, too, of your desire to marry Dineo and never tried to convince you otherwise either. However, she was always caught in the middle of your and your father's disagreements. Arguments. She'd chop and change depending on who she was with at the time. You knew she feared your father. Everybody feared your father. But that's your mother, his wife -- why a woman should fear her husband was to you ludicrous. Chief or no Chief, you thought to yourself, love shouldn't be filled with fear. Once, you broached the subject with her, but she berated you, saying you had no business meddling into elders' affairs. But how could you just twiddle your thumbs, you mused bitterly, while the same "elders' affairs" were denying you a hand for marriage?
"My father won't budge, mma," you replied lifelessly, getting up to sit at the edge of the bed next to her.
"He will come around," she said gravely, "give him time."
"It doesn't look like it. My father is adamant that I must marry from a royal family."
"That's how things are done, Thabo."
"Ke rata Dineo, mma. I may be of royalty, yes, but my love is not royal. I don't want all these royal girls, I want Dineo. My heart chose her. Don't you understand that? Don't you all understand that?"
Your mother dropped her head, and a deathly silence suddenly fell upon you. Tension filled the room. A short while after, she rose heavily to her feet, trudged around the room, her eyes still downcast like she's meditating what to say next. In the midst of this awkwardness, despair and agony in her body language were unmistakable. Then, suddenly, she looked at you, her eyes moist, and briskly, she turned and exited the room without another word.
* * *
The day they brought the girl who was supposedly your suitor, your parents were aptly dressed in their traditional regalia. You'd refused to wear yours, as part of your protestation against the whole thing, and your father was cut up and had threatened to deal with you later on for kicking over the traces.
Chief Tlou Mokwati The Third from Phaphadi, a nearby village, had come with his convoy to demonstrate his daughter to your family, to your father, with the hope that your father would find her suitable for his son, you. Your mother subsequently persuaded you to partake in the gathering, as that was customary. When you walked into the throne room, a stench of incense attacked your nostrils that you felt an impulse to turn back. You knew, however, you had to toughen up. You scanned the room, it was still and quiet, like one which in someone had just passed. Your father, his lips suddenly splitting into a triumphant grin, clutched your arm and boisterously introduced you to his counterpart as his mokgonyana. Then there was praising of clan names, whistling, ululating, and those who could sing and dance did likewise. But you hated it. You hated being there. You felt trapped. You felt you were betraying Dineo. Twice or more you shot your mother a glance, arms folded and brow knitted, signalling your intention to leave. But she pretended not to see -- she just sat there, at her husband's feet, her face decorated by a passionate smile, nodding at everything he said and laughing with everyone who laughed at his outmoded, wearisome jokes. And he, your father, was sunk in his reclined throne, cross-legged, hand rested on the upper knee and the other fanning his jovial face with his brownish cowboy hat, masquerading as an honourable man.
You turned your eyes the girl's way, beside whom you were instructed to sit. She looked lost. Astray. She was curled up in a thick, grey blanket, which enveloped her tiny body whole. Her face hanged unmoved you'd swear she was a statue, and her head was wrapped tightly with a bright reddish scarf. Was she even thrilled, you wondered, to be there? To be your wife. Did she even consent to it? Or was she, as you were, a victim of the so called supremacy? You hoped, somehow, she could answer you. However, you suspected, she was probably ordered to not even breathe.
It was when the girl and you were supposed to hold hands, embrace each other, that you thought enough was enough -- you could have it no more. Your heart leaped to your throat and your body quivered. You gazed at your mother with sheer earnestness, desperate for rescuing, but she paid you no attention. Your father had liked that girl, it seemed obvious, for the ones that had come prior never set foot within your reach. With your mother having left you hanging, impatience subsequently mastered you and, without a warning, you lifted your bony form and ducked out.
"Let him go, mosadi!" From afar, you heard your father roar when your mother attempted to follow you.
You kept walking, your hand elevated to the forehead, blocking the scorching summer sun burning down against your already ablaze face.
When your father was admitted back in hospital, shortly after that encounter, you were made the scapegoat. Your "defiance" of his orders was purported to be the cause. Nobody thought his obsession with you marrying the person you didn't love could've been the reason. They all found it easy to point a finger at you. It was safer for them this way, you thought. When you visited him at Ga-Kgapane hospital, you could only see him through his curtain-less, narrow ward window, intubated in his death bed, for his sentries denied you entrance into the room, citing royal orders.
* * *
"So, what now?" Never before had you seen Dineo so perturbed, her eyes forlorn.
It was just before the day lost its natural shade, the sun slowly burying itself, thus painting the sky orange, when you sat on the high, stretch-stone under the tree at the far corner of Baneng Park, not far from the Z.C.C Star church -- Dineo's church -- where you usually met to hide from your father. Dineo was perched upright at the edge, feet hovering, and you were pressed up close against her back, feeling the comforting heat of her torso. The air was cool but filled with sweat odour courtesy of the children who scattered around. Birds alighted on the branches and sang overhead, ready to take comfort inside their warm nests, and the kids' voices slurred persistently.
You shrugged your shoulders slowly and then cleared your throat. "I don't know, Dinny."
You looked at her, and her eyes narrowed with solemnity as she stared right back into yours. As if challenging you to man up -- to man up and choose; your father or her. You tenaciously took her hand in yours, caressed it, and felt that she's trembling. And at this, you thought she's shuddering owing to her uncertainty of what your answer would be. Her face was now blank and eyes moist. Goodness, she was so beautiful! Even with pain in her eyes, she was still the most beautiful girl you'd ever seen. Her eyes still made stars look like they're not shining. And they, her eyes, suddenly reminded you of the first time you met her, about two years prior. She had sat there, in the front row, neatly dressed in her school uniform -- grey skirt and blue shirt with a maroon jacket and matching tie. Still and focused, and flanked by her two friends, whom you would later come to know as Masetla and Sharon. You had sat right behind her, staring at her tidily cropped red-dyed hair and wishing you could just fondle it at once. You had watched with admiration as she applauded and cheered prize recipients one after another, her infectious laughter bellowing like one of those Kenny G saxophone melodies your father would often play softly in the parlour and, with your mother, you would hum along from the dining room amid supper. And as for her squeals of delight, they were as pealing as a classical violin rendered by a symphony orchestra in an auditorium filled with VIPs. Just sitting next to her, you had felt some type of peace -- perhaps affectionate peace, if there is.
"Your performance was amazing," you had blurted out, reaching over from your seat and tapping her shoulder, "you should win an award too."
She and her friends had then turned round in unison, Sharon giving you a sharp look that seemed to yell, "Hey, stranger, lay off my friend if you know what's good for you!" Everyone around you had suddenly twisted and stared, whispering behind their hands and giggling at your stupidity. You had then withdrawn your hand instantly, bowing your head and stroking your chiskop sheepishly.
Dineo had earlier rendered a resounding poem about her upbringing, and you thought it was top-notch -- best of the lot. It was titled "My Upbringing," and was about how her parents had raised her with love and respect, and allowed her freedom to explore her dreams and make her own choices, and how they'd supported her all her life. It had felt so real, the poem, -- so personal. Anyway, you hadn't spoken to Dineo before, or to her friends, with whom she looked a finger and a nail, and so that surely felt a sheer awkward encounter there. Nonetheless, as if validating you to feel good about yourself and shame the enemy, she had abruptly dropped you a wide smile, her pure white teeth twinkling like pearls under the sunlight.
When Dineo's name was eventually announced, you had jumped with a scream and applause, drawing to yourself an unwanted attention, particularly from the fellas. "I told you! I told you!" Your voice had drowned the audience's, who chortled at you, but then stood, too, to extend her a standing ovation. And, already halfway, Dineo had looked back at the sea of faces in the crowd -- or maybe at you -- over her shoulder with a little, grateful grin, before returning to the podium. Listening to her speech was like listening to Barack Obama's on his inauguration day as President of the United States -- eloquent and firm and bold. Perhaps hers even sexy. And later on, when she had sauntered over to you on her way away, alone this time, everyone scattered and dashing to their respective transports, you and your friends awaiting yours, which was running late, you'd heard, and said, smiling from one ear to the other, little dimples adorning her cheeks, "Thank you so much," and then strolled away at once, you knew there and then, she was the one.
"You have to know, Thabo." Dineo's face suddenly turned red. She pulled her hand instantly, sliding it into the pocket of her hoodie -- joining it with the other that's been tucked in there forever.
She was right, you knew, you had to know. You had to screw your courage to the sticking place, and prove the man you claimed you were. You loved your father, but you loved Dineo, too. Dineo was your girlfriend and you'd marry her when you came of age. When you finished school the following year and then reached independence. Your father had to think better of this matter, you thought wishfully. But he had to heal first, you thought again, as if to rectify the former.
"The doctors say he has not much time left." You heaved a sigh full of lifelessness.
"Oh!" She's at a loss for words, her face shrouded with perplexity.
"They say six months will be luck."
Silence swallowed the moment. Dark silence. Dineo's eyes dropped to the ground, and you could hear her inhaling and exhaling a breaking breath. You saw a tear fall from her eyes, and then she threw her face into the palms of her hands and began snorting. Then you thought she thought she knew what you were going to say -- to decide.
"I have to go." Without a warning, she stormed away, leaving you open-mouthed and dumb.
Your heart ached to run after her, but your body somehow remained clipped to the hard seat, numb. You couldn't even call after her, for your throat had suddenly gone as dry as a pond deprived of water for decades, as if you'd just run a hundred kilometres in a sweltering daylight. And you had no words for her -- words to calm her. You had no words for yourself, too.
* * *
"Your father is getting worse," your mother gasped, her face in the mould of suffering. Anguished from all the toing and froing between home and the hospital.
"Has he asked about me?" you asked her, almost rhetorically.
She swallowed hard. Then she looked at you, groaned and shook her head somewhat compassionately.
"The doctors say they can't find a match." Her voice was devoid of emotion.
"I may be a match, Ma."
"He wants nothing to do with you, Thabo. Mofe nako."
"He hasn't much of that left, has he? Please talk to him."
"Don't you think I've tried that already?" Tears suddenly visit her eyes, but she manages to keep hold of them. "You know your father," she continues solemnly. "He says to tell you that if you want to make things right with him before he ... departs. That you must grant him his last wish on earth. You've embarrassed him."
She said that last sentence in a way that sounded like she agreed. Like she, too, suddenly blamed you for it all. That tingled you, and you wanted to confront it, but you decided against it. It wouldn't help, you thought, but only make the bad situation worse. You wanted to make things right with your father. You had to. But you loved Dineo. Dearly. Why was that so hard for your father to understand?
* * *
It had been weeks now you hadn't seen Dineo. Your calls and texts to her went unreplied, and her family and friends wouldn't help either. Of course you suspected they knew something -- her whereabouts -- , but you could do nothing about their stillness. The situation with your father hadn't changed one bit, and so hadn't his condition, you'd heard.
When you returned home from the bush with the cattle, one late afternoon, there gathered many people in a circle under the mulberry tree at the side of the house, carrying cartons of the sorghum beer your mother brewed whenever visitors came about. Among them were Uncle Jeffrey, Uncle Pitsi and Aunt Kedibone. With your father in hospital, your mind went wild at this sight. Why would everyone be here without your father? You wondered, your body shaking and your heart palpitating. But as your eyes wandered further, they bumped into your mother talking and laughing with other women from the neighbourhood. This sight eased your emotions. You then knew it couldn't be. So you went ahead and locked the cattle in the cowshed, and then walked straight to your room.
"Thabo, they have found a match!" It was your mother after barging into the room through the half-opened door, her voice sparkling with life. "Your father will live!"
Then there was a momentary, tense pause, save for the worn wooden wall-clock now throbbing overhead. Speechless, your brain quickened with vague thoughts. It had been over a month your father was lying in hospital, and there had been hearsay of his chances being least if not zero. Your mother had all but lost hope, and so had you.
"Ke mang, mma?" Your voice quaked with a meld of puzzle and eagerness.
"Ga ke tsebe." She looked to the heavens, her hands raised to chest level, palms against each other. "Nobody knows. The operation is in two days' time. They sped it up because of his standing in society." She paused awhile, and then concluded, "Ngwanaka, this is a miracle!"
You hadn't seen your mother in such jubilation for some time. So alive. Since your father had been away, she barely ate, went anywhere except to the hospital, or even made time for you -- particularly to assist with your school work, like old times. Sorrow had literally wrapped over her, turned her into the shadow of her former self. Abruptly, she exited the room, leaving you to pick up your jaw. Then, thoughts of your father flooded through your head. Thoughts about how your relationship would be when he returned and found you hadn't ended things with Dineo. You tried to abandon them, the unpleasant thoughts, for they wouldn't help but only take away the joy of the glad tidings. You knew, though, that your father would be happy to find that his cattle had been well fed and taken care of, for that man would kill anyone who denied his livestock a snack. "This is your legacy," he'd say whenever he was jovial, "your children's and their children's legacy. You must look after it."
This is a miracle, you grinned and threw yourself on your bed as your mother's words echoed in your head.
You hardly slept that night, thinking about how you were going to share with Dineo the news, and imagining her reaction. You hadn't seen nor talked to her in nearly two months now, and so you thought that was just the news you needed to make up. And so after herding the cattle to the bush in the morning, you went past her house, but, again, she "wasn't home" and nobody would tell her whereabouts.
* * *
The day the letter came, you'd already taken the cattle to the river for their morning quench. On your return, as it had become a norm of late, you took a detour at Dineo's house. But, as it had become a norm, too, Dineo was nowhere to be found.
"Who have you told of your father's illness?" Uncle Pitsi asked you boldly after you'd perched yourself on the grass mat beside your mother, leg atop another.
Puzzled, thoughts raced through your mind like a cat pursuing a rat. You sat still, frantically pondering the question. You glanced at all of them, the elders, singly, not once but twice, searching their faces, and then slowly dropped your eyes. However, you thought you'd noticed something about their faces -- they looked easy, contrary to the tone Uncle Pitsi had used. Then you scanned your brain, trying to work out where the question might've birthed, but your mind was empty. You'd only told one person of your father's sickness, you remembered. But how could they have known? While you were still cracking your head, and losing the battle dismally, Aunt Kedibone, extricating you, handed you the paper she was holding in her hand.
"Ke lengwalo," she said, "le bule."
"And read it out loud," Uncle Pitsi added.
The letter was thumbed and shrunk for it had been in a few hands already, and so you put it on your thigh and levelled it out with your palms, your hands trembling with uncertainty. You looked up and saw Uncle Pitsi looking down at you from the high, flat bench he shared with your father, wearing a small smile. Then you glanced at everyone again and noticed they were smiling too, except your father, who was just, only just almost smiling. Hayi, that man! All the same, you still felt the urge to smile too, as you unrolled and began to read the letter:
To The Honourable Chief Matlala
My name is Johannes Matloga, a proud citizen of yours in the village of Mamaila. I write this letter with utmost respect, but also fear, for this is not a normal thing to do.
I am a father to a 16 year old girl named Dineo. Dineo came to and told me of her undying love for the son of the Honourable Chief Matlala, Mokete Matlala. This not being a respectful thing to do by a child as young according to our custom, I gave the girl the rough side of my tongue. This, though, was until she revealed something bitter to me, and therefore left me with no choice but to lend her an ear. She revealed how the Honourable Chief Matlala was fighting for his life in hospital, and how I might be the only one to save him.
Without beating around the bush, my daughter insistently requested me to donate my kidney for the Honourable Chief Matlala, provided I was a match, for the Honourable Chief was the father of the love of her life. With no hesitation, I went for the test and found that indeed I was a match. Anonymously, as this too was requested by her, I had the operation and indeed donated my kidney for the Honourable Chief Matlala. This I did not only for the Honourable Chief to live longer but also because of how much it meant for the little girl that the father of the love of her life lived longer to bless if not witness the marriage she so strongly felt about. Although the doctors highlighted that my kidney wasn't strong and healthy enough, owing to my old age and existing medical conditions, I still have hope that it'll keep alive the Honourable Chief long enough.
With this gesture, I ask the Honourable Chief Matlala to let love prevail. I know, understand and respect the royal ways, but I humbly request the Honourable Chief to leastways consider putting love first, just this one time, for love is beautiful, love is innocent, love breaks all barriers and love conquers all. With all due respect.
* * *
Your mother and Dineo's sitting side by side, conversing and grinning like equals, your siblings, including Tefu -- whom you had to use your professional expertise to have released from prison so he could witness the best day of your life -- , cheering, Dineo's uncle, Thapudi, holding Dineo's hand and walking her down the aisle to hand her over to you -- to be your wife. How everyone wished her father was still there to do the honours! And then your Dineo, standing right next to you and looking as utterly remarkable as ever. Those tiny and mushy and adorable hands of hers firmly in yours, those tiny lips splitting into the captivating smile that formed shallow and cute dimples on her cheeks, and those big and round, yet shy eyes of hers gleaming like evening stars, and glittering with affection and excitement. With all these before your eyes, you just couldn't conclude which sight fascinated you most.
Suddenly, in the midst of it all, thoughts of your father came flooding into your head. You caught yourself absorbed into memories of him. You knew he was looking down at you and smiling at this moment -- proud of the person, and of the man, you had become. Subconsciously, your lips curved into your own smile, reciprocating the pleasing picture in your head.
You knew you had big shoes to fill, and they were ones you were willing to put on with pride for so long as you lived. How you would juggle that with your occupation was still a mystery, but you knew you were that much indebted to your father.
While you were lost deep in the contemplation, you felt a slight pinch on your finger -- Dineo, and everyone, had noticed your abstraction. You winced, and the crowd chuckled. Then you looked up at the pastor, almost in the embarrassment of being scatter-brained at the nuptial that was your own, and he smiled and shook his head amusedly at your reveries.
"Do you, Thabo Matlala, take this woman, Dineo Matloga, to be your lawfully wedded wife, to love her, to honour her, to cherish her from this day on, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health?"
You gazed into the eyes of the woman who was to be your wife, and they had suddenly turned shy. Shy with love and joy. Then you flashed a look sideways, at your mother and then your siblings, and they all had their hands covering their widely-opened mouths -- suspenseful of your response. Then you turned to the minister, and he returned the look unblinkingly over his glasses, which were lowered to and trapped by the peak of his nose. Before long, you looked back at your wife, bit your lower lip with fulfilment, and then thought to yourself, what a rhetorical question!
- mma -- mother
- Ke rata Dineo -- I love Dineo
- mokgonyana -- son in law
- mosadi -- wife/ woman
- chiskop -- bald head
- Mofe nako -- give him time
- Ke mang? -- who is it?
- Ga ke tsebe -- I don't know
- Ngwanaka -- my child
- Ke lengwalo -- it's a letter
- le bule -- open it