My Aunt Mohammed
by Mahluli Vanbarbie Ndlovu
My story at least as much as is relevant begins when I was fourteen. Having done well in my studies father found it fitting that I go on to secondary school, a prospect hardly attractive to most people I knew at the time. He took me to his sister and her husband [bless their deceased souls]. She was a teacher as was my uncle, employed at the same institution. I use the word institution in its fullest sense for that place conjures up the most sordid horrors I choose to quickly forget. I sometimes say prison when I really mean ‘school’, sometimes I liberally call it an asylum for indeed it was nothing short of an ‘institution’.
My uncle taught me all the history I learnt during my time there. There was nothing weird about him except his liberal use of his caning powers. He never allowed anything to interrupt his whippings. Majestic they were, first he would inform you how many lashings the crime merited, then disallow you to let go of the chair while he rhythmically stroked you from behind [that didn’t come out right]. No one dared let go of the chair while he caned, no matter how many strokes he had placed he would start from ‘one’.
Being as it were that we slept under the same roof I got an ample serving because I had figured the dark secret that made him so fierce with the cane. I made out he was trying to shut me up with a foretaste of his wrath should I reveal that in his household he was always on the receiving end.
Auntie could have been a prize fighter had she been a man. Even if they had women’s boxing in those days no sane woman would roll up and face dear Auntie. She could knock any man out. I repeat, ANY man. Maybe I think so because I have never been a good fighter [hence the obsession with writing], but any woman nicknamed ‘Mohammed’ is not one to test in that regard. Now I wonder if she was named after Ali the great or someone rightly reckoned her wrath a jihad. She could really put a foot a backside, or rather a lump to a face. That poor uncle of mine was always blaming ‘uneducated gold panners with more money than sense’ for his cosmetic downgrades. What unsettled me most about the statement was that my father was an indigenous miner and that phrase is what Uncle’s mind recognised where others would have registered ‘in-laws’.
It was common at a certain time of the month for my aunt to pick a fight with him arbitrarily. That time was a few days before payday, when the coffers had been cleaned out and preservation of scarcities was the order of the day. She would make comments so sinister an innocent bystander like me would catch the crossfire. Among her descriptions of genitals I dare not repeat for the dignity of my deceased uncle she would make insensitive comments about Down’s syndrome, knowing very well that her husband was once accused of raping a mentally ailing student. The fool would respond and warrant his beating. He asked for his troubles like one who sews on a weave to complain about its itch.
Auntie often pulled her random stunts when we were in the company of guests. With his inappropriate responses my uncle always managed to convince her he was vying for her throne and she would make certain she remained undisputed. She never waited for them to leave, just let slip the dogs of war and the poor man would try to save his face while threatening her with hell-fire if she didn’t ‘stop it’. What I didn’t understand about this fellow was if he was as dangerous as he wanted his wife to believe, why did he find it useful to communicate it while the thrashings were in session? What is the use of threatening someone who is already beating the threads out of you?
Alcohol always got the best of my uncle. Allow me to rephrase that: drink brought out the fool in my uncle. I am almost certain the first time he got his wounds he had been drinking. He was a man who enjoyed his liquor as much as it enjoyed him as evidenced by his bearing: he was stout, well stuffed with sorghum, hops and barley.
I was in third form on that memorable day. Uncle’s brother had arrived from South Africa. All we knew about him was that he worked there, no one knew what he really did, or rather those who knew chose to neglect the subject altogether. I can still remember the exposed ankle running ‘tubeless’ into his expensive looking shoe [the tag inside said Hush Puppy] casually hung over his knee while he rolled up his cigarette. Of course it wasn’t all tobacco; he had brought with him those immaculate Courtleys, crisp white with a metallic ring where the filter began. Everything about him was classy, his flowery shirt which he promised to leave for me [but never did], his flowing khaki flannels and of course the mullet hairstyle which never went out of fashion for him glittering like jewels.
We were all drinking on that day. When that uncle came over our whole household became as liberal as the French imagined Antoinette’s guillotined head would let them be. That was the first problem. The second was that my uncle always tried to impress his brother by proving he was not ‘square’. He was offered the rolled up cigarette and took it announcing that he does it all the time. I may have been liquored half to death but I still noted that it wasn’t a good idea.
I watched it burn between them, watched their eyes redden and narrow and their speech slur as they became caricatures of the men I knew. My uncle had forgotten his wife’s policy about ‘letting guests smoke indoors’ while my aunt in her drunkenness had forgotten her vow not to beat her husband in the presence of his brother. Wham! That was the first blow.
‘Ungenzi njalo ngizakulimaza!’screamed my uncle assuming his customary role in the domestic feud.
I couldn’t help noticing that this episode seemed more dramatized than the others. And was she a superstar that day, prancing around reciting all her violent titles! As usual my stature and unwritten policy on violence disallowed me to intervene. I kept flipping my gaze between the ‘match’ and the other uncle who was alight with laughter whistling like a schoolboy at a girl he is afraid to approach. Being a bit too feminine I suspect he got more than his fair share of being thumped and was waiting for the day his oppressor would meet his match. It had come; he cheered and jeered while his brother bleated between his elaborate threats.
She really laid it on, put on quite a show for her audience. Her excitement was her undoing. She had been doing fine until she dropped her hands and charged him on his manhood to strike her, something she had never done before. Even I would have taken that opening. He swung once, hooked her in the jaw with the force that hurled Lucifer through the Pearly Gates and she sprawled into a daze, motionless until my uncle decided to discover he had killed her.
‘What have I done? I have killed the mother of my children!’ that statement ran circles around my brain because as far as I knew they didn’t have any. Apparently it was his fault because that’s where the wife got the authority to go toe-to-toe with him.
He panicked, scattered around the house screaming and shouting. The brother sat dumbfounded. Severely liquored I couldn’t have been bothered, I just sat there unsurprised. Besides my drunkenness I had imagined something like this would happen sooner than later, although I must add I always assumed he would be the one nesting flies in his mouth.
Younger Uncle finally emerged from his pensive perch with the definitive word: we would bury her in the bush.
From there everything happened fast. Elder Uncle had to be shaken back to reality and convinced that was the best course of action. Teary eyed he was forced to produce a pick and a shovel then ordered to follow us outside. I was assigned to her ankles. All I recall was that she was heavy, once she twitched and I let her drop. I was reassured when the guy from South Africa told me that freshly killed people often do that.
The hole was dug, the body laid inside and a mock ceremony held. Because he was the one that killed her, we made my uncle carry out the interment. It lasted as long as it took Auntie to resurrect as a soil-caked ghost with eyes as wide as mine when I fell into my mother’s grave and broke the coffin…