By: Pat Spencer
Security at our school was not good—no gates, alarms, or play yard monitors. Soweto could be a dangerous place for a child. Yet, the teachers didn’t care where we went or what we did once we left their classrooms.
My name is Eshile. When Bini, my best friend for life, and I were ten, we did the same thing every day after school. We walked straight to George’s neighborhood grocery store. For most, his prices were higher than at the SuperMart. But for me, ole George always had a special treat.
At least once a week, George visited my grandfather at his international imports shop in Johannesburg. They stood close and talked so no one else could hear. They were making deals. Whenever I came near, my grandfather raised his voice. “George, let’s finish this tomorrow.” I didn’t know what their business was, and I didn’t care. I only cared about the special favors ole George allowed me.
A large thermometer hung outside ole George’s store. The red line moved up two degrees while Bini and I fanned ourselves before we went inside. Ole George smiled as if he’d been waiting just for me. “Eshile, my favorite little girl, what can I do for you?”
That first day of school, I selected an icy root beer from the cooler. Then I fluttered my eyelashes and asked how much I owed ole George. He laughed and handed us each a pink sweet wrapped in wax paper. “I will charge it to your wealthy grandfather. He owes me anyway.”
At the door, we waved goodbye. I called out, “Thank you, George.” I wanted to remain his favorite.
Sweat ran down the sides of my face. I pressed the cold drink against my cheek, then gave the can to Bini. We passed it back and forth as we walked toward home. I unwrapped my sweet and plunked it in my mouth. “Better eat it now, Bini, so we won’t have to share with Onele.”
I stopped in my tracks and grabbed Bini’s arm. “We have to go back.”
“For more sweets?”
“No, I made a big mistake.”
I turned and ran. Bini caught up and gasped, “What are you doing?”
I shook my head and ran faster. From the moment of her birth, I loved my baby sister, so I couldn’t understand how I let this happen.
My legs burned. My workbook slipped from between my arm and chest. I left it on the ground. Memories flashed. I saw my mother press her hands to her back and complain of how it hurt. Then Umama smiled and rubbed her stomach, called the baby growing inside “our gift.”
Anyone in town who had ears had heard that my birth was hard on Umama. Unlike my baby sister who slipped out like a greasy sausage, I ripped up some stuff. Only a week ago, I had to listen to the entire story again after dropping Umama’s large serving plate, shattering it to bits.
Before I picked up a single piece, Umama stood over me, hands on her hips. “May the ancestors send me relief. Will there ever be an end to the pain you cause me?”
I knew I was in for the full-length version but tried to save myself by saying, “It had a big crack.”
Umama’s eyebrow shot high. I said no more. Looking as pathetic as possible, I gathered up the pieces and listened again to how I must have been carrying a baby-sized machete when I came out. “No other way to explain the damage you did.”
Four years passed after my birth, and still Umama did not become pregnant again. My grandmother, Hulu, along with my aunties, claimed this was also my fault. But after Umama vomited every morning for a week, she counted the days and realized she hadn’t bled in three months.
I was forgiven.
This made me happy, yet the whole time Onele was in Umama’s belly, I worried.
Hulu said the way Umama’s swelling poked straight out meant this child was a boy. Even though my father avoided agreeing with any woman, he claimed the ancestors told him in a dream that Hulu was right. He would get his son.
Bini’s younger brother was three and the greatest embarrassment of our lives. He loved to strip naked. This wasn’t so bad when we were inside their house, but out-of-doors, where everyone could watch his little ipeni flapping in the air, this was more than we could bear.
So I was nervous when taken to Umama’s bedside to look upon the baby’s face. It was as brown and wrinkled as a walnut. The yellowish spit bubbling between her lip repulsed me.
Then Umama told me this baby was a girl, and her name was Onele. I fell in love.
Bini screamed, “Wait, Eshile! Where are you going? Wait for me.”
We passed the burned-down house, a trash dump for everyone who went by. Bini and I usually pinched our noses, but this day I rounded the corner of Ngobse Street so fast that there was no need. Our school was only two blocks away. I stumbled and almost fell.
We ran past a mother with a baby in her arms. A boy I recognized from Onele’s class pulled a rickety wooden wagon three paces behind. He lifted his hand to greet me, but I kept running. Halfway up the block, a beast of a dog charged me. The chain-link fence vibrated when he hit the end of his rope. Ears flattened against his head, lips curled back, slobber sprayed from between his glistening tyrannosaurus teeth. I swerved.
Bini squealed. “Stop!” She pointed to a blue wreck of a car in the middle of the street. An enormous man grabbed Onele by the arm.
“No, Onele,” I yelled.
Onele shrieked my name. Fear paralyzed my legs.
The man, as big and dark as a rhinoceros, tossed Onele into the backseat like she was a toy doll. Bini shouted, “Let her go, you tsotsi.” Bini bolted, banged into my shoulder, broke my trance. As I caught up, she seized the man’s sleeve. He lifted her off the ground and shook his arm. Bini hung on and kicked him so hard her shoe flew off.
I pounded my fists into his lower back but hesitated when the driver opened his door. His frizzy oiled hair rose above the roof. He was shorter but just as scary. Twice as wide as Rhino Man, his scarred and fleshy face was blotchy with pus-filled scabs. Nostrils flared with anger, Scarface headed toward us as Bini landed a foot on Rhino Man’s crotch. He howled and knocked Bini off his arm, into the dirt.
“Get out, Onele.” I hunkered, then bashed into Rhino Man’s knees. Onele yelped when Rhino Man shoved her, flattened her little body in the center of the backseat. Then he took a swing at me. I ducked but his knuckles caught the side of my face. My ear ripped. I screamed.
Bini tucked her shoulder and rammed Rhino Man in the hip. He picked her up and threw her against the front fender of the car. She hit with a loud thunk and crumpled to the ground.
Scarface was so fat he had just come around to the passenger side. He swirled a baseball bat over his head.
I hollered. “Onele, get out now!” She howled like a wild dog and thrashed her feet. I reached into the backseat and seized her leg. Eyes pinched tight, she kicked my hand away. I grabbed again and yanked her from the car.
“Get up, Bini. Hamba, go, go.” I shouted but didn’t wait. Clutching Onele to my chest, I ran into the school and through the hallway. Behind me, metal clanged against the wall. I turned. Bini crashed through the door. We raced toward the principal’s office.
My math teacher stepped into the corridor and spread his arms. I zagged around him. The office was at the far end of the hall. My lungs burned. My legs quivered, but I did not stop. I tightened my grip on Onele. The door was shut. Panting like a wild dog, Bini ran up behind me, gripped the doorknob, and flung it open.
The school secretary jumped. Her chair fell backward and hit the wall.
“Help!” I screamed, “Don’t let them in.”
“Mr. Walker,” shouted the secretary. “I need you out here now.” She slammed the door and braced her legs, put her considerable weight against it to keep out whatever was after us.
Mr. Walker, our principal, stepped out of his office and stared wide-eyed. Bini kneeled on the floor, heaved to catch her breath. I trembled, almost dropped Onele. Tears trailed down her dirty face. Mr. Walker tried to take Onele from me, but I did not let go.
The secretary wrapped her arms around Onele and me. We burrowed in between her mushy breasts. My stomach rolled at the scent of sweat and baby powder.
“You’re safe now, Eshile,” the secretary whispered in my ear. “Give me your sister. I won’t allow anything happen to either of you.”
I released my grip and let her take Onele. My tired arms fell heavy to my sides. The secretary laid Onele on the worn couch where children usually sit and wait for their “talking to” from Mr. Walker.
“Two men,” I gasped. “They tried to kidnap Onele.”
Onele clasped her knees to her chest. When she whimpered, the secretary slipped off her sweater and tucked it around my sister.
“What men?” asked the principal.
“In the street.”
The secretary riffled through a folder in her filing cabinet, then turned to me. “The only number I have for your mother is at her work. A Mrs. Cromwell. Is that right?”
“Yes. Our mother cleans her house.”
The secretary lifted the phone and punched the numbers. I heard ringing, but nobody answered. Onele was still curled into a ball. I sat so close that my thigh touched her feet and little butt. I wrapped one hand around her ankle and held tight. With the other, I wiped the blood from my ear.
Mr. Walker took the phone from the secretary and called the police. We knew they wouldn’t rush right over. Could be an hour before an officer arrived. Black kids were low on their priority list.
I listened to every word Mr. Walker said. If he told the police this was my fault, they probably wouldn’t come. Umama’s voice filled my head. Be careful. Watch out for your baby sister. Evil men take the boys to work in the diamond mines, but girls as beautiful as you and your sister, they sell to dirty old men.
The principal and secretary, heads together, whispered in the corner. Several people entered the office and spoke to them. I should have been able to tell what they were saying, but I couldn’t. A dull buzz in my head drowned out their words.
Bini sat beside me and rested her arm across my shoulders. I closed my eyes. She whispered, “What about your grandmother?”
I started to ask the secretary to please call. Then the office door opened. I pulled Onele into my lap. The doorway filled with two uniformed black men.
“Officers, thank goodness,” said the secretary. “Some men chased these girls.”
The larger officer, a jagged scar beneath his eye, bent onto one knee. His face was close, his breath hot and smoky. “I’d rather hear it from her.”
Without looking away, I told him every detail. When I finished, the shorter, pudgier officer, the one with the soft kind expression, extended his wrinkled hand. “Come with me, girls. We’ll take you home.”
“No thank you, sir.” I blinked to hold back my tears. “We will stay here.”
The principal shook his head. “Go with the police. They know what to do.”
With Onele in my arms, I struggled to stand. My knees buckled. I thought I might fall. I sat my sister on the floor but gripped her hand.
The secretary wiped my tears with her thumbs. “It’s okay, Eshile. I have the address where your mother works. I’ll go get her myself.”
The pudgy officer nudged me toward the hallway. I looked back at the secretary and begged her with my eyes to let us stay, but she wasn’t looking at me. She was digging in her desk drawer. As she pulled out her cracked and peeling patent leather purse, I turned to follow Bini down the hall.
The officer opened the police car door. The stench of vomit and stale body oil hit my nose. A sour taste rose in my throat. Onele climbed into the backseat. Bini and I slipped in, one on each side of her.
As we approached the street where we lived, the neighbors came out and gawked. Bini and I slid down in the seat to hide our faces.
The pudgy officer followed us into our shanty. I expected him to stay, make sure those horrible men wouldn’t find us here, but he patted me on the head, spun on one heel, and walked out.
I laid Onele on her sleeping mat.
“Sit by her,” said Bini.
I rubbed my nose on my sleeve. Our shanty was just one small room. I turned to see Bini plug in the hotplate and pour water from the plastic jug into our only saucepan. Neither of us spoke as the water warmed.
I bit my lower lip as my best friend dipped a rag into the water and wiped my forehead. Then she dampened it again and handed it to me.
I cleaned the sweaty streaks from Onele’s face, murmured over and over, “I am so sorry, baby girl.” I pulled off her tee-shirt and wiped her clammy back and chest, then slipped a nightgown over her head and sang softly until she fell asleep.
Bini refilled the pan and set it on the hotplate. While we waited for the water to boil, it occurred to me that Bini and I deserved a treat for all we suffered through that day. As I reached up to the top shelf to get a tea bag and the jar containing the last bit of honey, Umama crashed through the doorway.
“Where is she?” Before I could answer, Umama said, “What the hell have you done with my baby girl?”
The stinky sweat in my armpits turned cold. Like a green tree frog, Bini’s eyes popped out. Surely, she could see by the terror on my face I wanted her to save me from my mother’s anger, but Bini clamped her lips tight and stared at her scuffed brown shoes.
I pointed toward Onele asleep on her mat while sounding a quick request to the ancestors above. Great Grandmother Haile, please help me. I am too young to die. I sucked in all the air my lungs would hold, fortified myself, and gave Umama the shortest version I could devise.
My mother cut me off. “Your baby sister’s first day of school, and you forget to bring her home?”
I thought Umama would sink her hand deep into my curls and rip off my head. “I remembered her after only a little while…”
“After a little while?” Her jaw twitched. “The secretary said you left her there to be kidnapped.”
“No, Umama. I wouldn’t do that.”
“But you did. She said the men grabbed Onele and threw her in the backseat of a big car.” Umama soothed Onele’s sleepy eyes, still red and swollen, while muttering at me through gritted teeth. “One second more, she would have been gone.”
“I am sorry, Umama. I promise I will never forget her again.”
“I’ll never trust you again.”
For the next month, I stayed close to Onele, so close she became irritated and told me to back away. But I intended to keep my pledge. I swore to the ancestors, not ever again would I put my baby sister at risk. I prayed for them to help me watch over her and remind me never to leave Onele alone. But being a child myself, I lost interest in following her around.
I released myself from the responsibility. My pledge no longer was important to me. I thought Onele was old enough to take care of herself.
My sister and I slept side-by-side on grass mats on the dirt floor of our shanty. As the years passed, I knew Onele’s nightmares were of Rhino Man and his big blue car, but they were only dreams. Then Umama said, “Even though your sister is now ten, she is small for her age. Those men could come back and snatch her up in an instant.” So I renewed my efforts to watch over her. Temporarily. Like a week or so.
We settled into a routine of school, church, and cozy evenings as a family. After dinner, we played Mancala as late as Umama would let us stay up. We laughed and teased Onele when she cheated by moving her stones from one cup to the end of the board when she thought we were not looking.
By my last year of high school, I made no attempt to track Onele’s every move, and she was glad to be rid of me. But each time we grew comfortable in our separate lives, Umama reminded me of my isibambiso, my pledge to keep my younger sister safe from harm.
My family’s religion was a mix of Xhosa and Catholicism. Every time Umama laid guilt on me, I remade my broken promise and sought help from my ancestors and the white man who died on a cross to save my soul. Yet my prayers appeared to be going nowhere.
Now that I am fifty-seven, these remembrances of our childhood drift in my brain. I can’t always find them when I want, but the warmth of my sister’s love, encased in my guilt, lives heavy in my soul.
I was only ten the first time I put Onele at risk. More worried about a cold drink than my baby sister, I almost lost her to kidnapers. I should have kept her from harm.
Umama’s words are never far. “A pledge to the ancestors is for life. Break your promise and your circumstances will change.”
In the end, I failed to honor my isibambisoto keep my sister safe. I lost the person I loved more than any other to a cause I deemed greater than my pledge.
Onele was strong, made her own commitment, but it was my idea for us to join those who took to the streets of Soweto in protest of apartheid. I screamed when she fell into my arms.
Now her silence wakes me up at night.
My short story, A Healing Place, won the 2019 Oceanside Literary Festival, and Passing On was published in the November issue of Potato Soup Journal. My textbook was published with Centage Publishing. I also authored articles and a monthly column for the Inland Empire Magazine; a weekly column for the Press-Enterprise; and scholarly articles inducted into the Department of Education’s Educational Resources Information Center. I self-published my first novel, Story of a Stolen Girl, in 2018.