Bree Street smokes with heat from the fires burning at every corner to ward off the oncoming winter. It has a narrow lane filled with people that have burnt-out skins crusading among rows of multi-coloured umbrellas that cover the fruit and vegetables. Bree Street, the theatre of voices that have been cultivated from childhoods spent clamouring in the ghetto streets: alto, bass, soprano, silence – voices as piercing as an untrained orchestra, jostling for attention, holding the mid-day air hostage.
The crazy taxi drivers are hooting and skidding off pavements to please the dying sun – playing mbaqanga, a romantic music that wavers into the air. There are also wealthy looking customers with expensive coats and heavy plastics with food; they are always rushing home to eat and rest where the sun does not shine. Men with red eyes, and small white plastic cups in their outstretched arms, stand patiently for the occasional coin on the street corner: sly eyed, with the smell of dagga weighing heavy on their faded faces. They are the ones who weep until the sky changes its colour. When the day has ended, they pray for the benevolent woman who will crawl to their sleeping rags and whisper – “Keep this, I saw you waiting for the sun to feed you. Take.”
At Bree Street, a hobo’s body rests on the dirty floor, like fruit that has fallen off a tree, near the stalls where buyers rub the expensive fabric between thumb and index finger. The most experienced customer is the loudest. Here at Bree Street only money can discriminate and everything comes at a price.
It is the place where eyebrows rise, lips purse, customers and hips move whilst the sexy bodies of drunk women are prodded for fat and smelt for freshness. The butcheries at Bree Street are places made especially for the strong; you need a nose that is not shy of entering the home of carcass. If you are the bearer of such a nose you may enter the slaughter houses with confidence and resilience since the butchery’s at Bree Street are not suitable for dreamers – splattered eyes, broken stomach, livers, hearts, tongues – all on display for the carnivores of Johannesburg. The crowds bulge and wrestle like a swamp of bees on a hot summer day in a forlorn garden – flies also whisk around resting lightly on the skins of people, dancing in their green dresses, lazily seeking the next adventure. Bree Street smells like shit.
The foreigners who have scattered from all parts of the continent also lurk around with their merchandise and broken languages. There is little time to find out the exact country of every foreigner. Thus, they are all Nigerian. The foreigners sell all sorts of everything: from fruit to electronics, bodies, radio, and other objects more illegal than them. Frequently they hear “Learn Zulu!” from frantic customers – but the money is what matters to the foreigners.
Her story in Johannesburg begins here. At first, she lived in Hillbrow with her people. She occasionally sold clothing at Bree Street, six months in and the effects of migration began to change her. In the year 2008, I find her in a yard that Nomalizo, her friend, has managed to attain in Soweto.
‘Nomalizo,’ her friend explains, is a name she has acquired in the concrete streets of Johannesburg: “Identity does not necessarily mean Identity Document you know.” Nomalizo says this with the vibrancy of this country in the vertebrae of her tongue. Language comes easy to her. There were four women in the house at first, one of them left to live with a newly found Somali husband. ‘Lucky Star’ was the new name they gave her. Now three.
The man was lost at first. Seeking water. A simple nobody. Soon he becomes a regular visitor, like the rest of us, seeking water still. The yard is a field of dust and scattered stones that come in different shapes. It is as if the ancient sculptors who believed that by beating into the stone, the shape of the stone would free itself from within, have freed these stones. Exactly like a butterfly emerging from the chrysalis. That is what Vertigo slowly becomes in Soweto, a sculptor’s semiprecious stone – black opal with passion infused in mindless sex and the loss of heritage. There were too many prostitutes in Hillbrow anyway. In Soweto, she begins to find not her country, but herself. The visitors increase with time, and I, Benjamin, was her personal project. I am a special type of visitor. When I went to see her, I would usually linger for hours by the street corner in deep contemplation. I would also go to the house to find the stones of the yard still scattered, and somehow, multiplying.
“First things first, the river has many secrets and death lurking in the eyes of the invisible crocodile. Prepare yourselves. The river is wild. But the land ahead is even worse,” says the Commander.
He is a bit drunk, wearing a frail yellow t-shirt; he looks nonchalant, as if this is simply an everyday business. Departures are often woven in interminable bags, suitcases and other necessities. But this is different. There is no luggage – only bodies – and the dreadful sound of the artificial Red Sea and where the water parts; I imagine that a golden Pharaoh awaits us with open arms and hymns of repentance. The actual story of my departure is hidden in the scattering stones that lay on the skin of the awakening soil. Maybe it is not even a story, but the losing dream of a girl who has lost her shoes, and has been walking barefooted for miles, searching for her shoes in places where she has never been. The stones of this story have eyes that are downtrodden, seeking refuge in the bosom of the dry earth. Like me. Departure is water, how it gnashes at us with its wild teeth, fooling us, acting as the crocodile when it actually hides the real crocodiles. Water pulls and pushes our bodies. Seizing them and splitting them apart. Sometimes we are floating. Then, I am wet all over, holding a hot stone. The stone is resting with the open sorcery of all silent things on my palms – South Africa – the story my body is telling itself.
The commander’s voice rings in my head. At some point in his homily, he spoke to us, his clients, of war. Little did I know that I was the centrepiece in a board of war games, and war, well; war is the gentle recognition of difference. I hold the stone in both my hands caressing it. War is the buried world of acrimony and the galvanised fire that gathers at the centre of a word and the depth of violence.
It begins when two things have ceased to know each other. “We will wait for nightfall,” the commander had said, delegating the instructions, sensing my nervousness at the absence of the man who promised to come. Banya did not come to the river whose waters knew the secrets of our bodies. I was in love – that mysterious and sweet thing – the sweet fruit whose seed spawned sacrilege unto my wounded tongue. It was in South Africa, right at the moment when I hid my country’s name in the stone that I realised that love is the stupid thing creating the stories our bodies are telling themselves and failing to live up to them. He had lied; I had been stupid enough to believe him.
When the other illegal immigrants and myself had reached the river leading to the land of riches I had a flashlight of remembrance, of a time with Banya and I holding hands like the people in a film we had just seen in the Harare movie house. Seeing the river, I remembered the day as if March 1996, exactly after Election Day, was yesterday – me with stockings stuffed in my new and pink bra, and he with a sprouting beard. Banya and I had been the consequence of that word which lingers at the hearts of any two lovers who have burned together with the agonizing trauma of knowing each other. Love. The distorted labyrinth of senses aborted; the thin consistency between war and peace. Our love was a street paved with the promise of unnamed flowers that are rapturous and hiding away, diligently, from the many truths of their roots.
Dusk descends with the aroma of sweat heavy in the air. There is also dust; dust hanging onto the lace curtains, dust on the small table where her dictionary rests, dust on the mirror, and dust on the red cosmetic bag that is laden with makeup, its contents sprawling across the bedroom floor. Dusk brings with it memories of the river, the sacred scent of dead stone, and dust. I turn over to the other side of the mattress – panting, and satiated. I heave and my chest rises and falls like a dancing mountain. Then I rest on top of her to reach for her ears, I whisper – “I love you”. She rolls over, turning her back against me, and those words. The smell of sex weighs heavy in the dingy room – a squat room, with minimum furniture, and a mattress on the cement floor. I sense her tongue as it multiplies, and then it folds itself like a coiling snake. She does not reply to my monotonous, and predictable, ‘I love you’. Instead, she rests her head on the dirty pillow and ruminates, ignoring me. She is playing the game Nomalizo has taught her so well. The game of South Africa, Johannesburg, the land of milk and honey, of dreams and orgasms, of being used and abused – and she could just experiment. That is what Noma has taught her. She is a slim, long fingered woman, with round tiny breasts that rest on her chest. She has a soft and unruly afro. A protruding nose, thick lips, drooping eyes that open and close as if dancing to a certain tune. She is not beautiful. Vertigo wears silver bangles on her thin arms, and when she is not naked, she is in hipster clothes from the 80s, now cheap at the Johannesburg streets. Her motherland – something she always refers to in the little conversation we have – is the rotting fruit of emancipation in the mouths of killers. It is rotting as slow as the sumptuous summer of her departure when the beginning of history ran into the empty hole of her cascading memories. Let it be known; Vertigo only has two memories – the river and Banya.
Banya – Her Lost Lover, The Caveman Chipmunk, Mr Monkey-See-Monkey-Do. The memories of their love are so fragile they often collapse like empty coke bottles with the loaded barrel of history holding them hostage. She has spoken to me about him once, testing my foolishness. She said she cannot remember the shape of his face, but she is certain that he had a self-conscious and vindictive dignity. That he also laughed a lot; especially when she mentioned she would cross the river of a million crocodiles for a better life in South Africa. She said he had laughed when she taught him with feminine assertiveness that their bodies were actually stars and that the star’s spirits would never leave the earth. A star’s light is memory. She also said, and this is unfortunate, that he howled especially when she mentioned her nickname – Vertigo.
Banya thought she was crazy, not only that, but in love with him, and thus would never leave the country whose name she hid inside the first stone she found lying in a riverbed full of the continent’s secrets. The memories of her one true love are vaporous, always adding a touch of discomfort to her temperament. Now me, with my chest full of I-Love-Yous. This? I am a whimpering fool with money that reeks of democracy, and Soweto, constantly diminishing the metaphoric significance of Vertigo. This woman, who has susurrated her nation’s name, and what was left of her love, into the stone. She must have shuddered when the element of a song in the tongues of her people folded itself, neatly, into her skin. I am a fool, and have been since childhood, but I know that every woman is naked to herself at least once in a lifetime.
Currently, we are on the mattress that keeps silence and turns it into music. I remain quiet, noticing that she is no longer in the room. I know she thinks me a fool when I choose to keep her silence for her, watching her, seeing her when she becomes the most beautiful, at least to me, in the moments when she becomes lost and pregnant with her own thoughts.
I slide off the mattress.
I want to tell her that I know she is at war, that I am not an ugly fool, that I am Benjamin, and God, I know she hates me. I want her to know that I know nothing about this war. The war she is a casualty in. I want to tell her that I know that war is not an unfriendly smile or a shove or even a smile but the sick scent of everything that is beautiful, everything that is beginning to recognise itself, shattering the thin walls of innocence. And that is not a fight between two, but one.
I stand by the door, my pants are on by now and I have my shirt in my hands. I leave the required sum of money on the small table near the door. She has warned me against tipping her. I look at her now, admiring her silence. I know it is time to leave.
This war she is in is the kind that grows like the roots of silenced forests.
“Dear stone,” I muttered, caressing the fragile stone in my shaking hands. “Keep this for me. It is the name of the country I never wish to forget”.
It was a Tuesday morning. Nomalizo, Gertrude and I were enjoying the morning sun when a group of Zulu men holding whips emerged from the corner. There were about ten of them. We knew these men. Their bare chests were oiled by rage and hatred, not the everyday sycophantic caresses of horniness. The dictionary says the word for this thing in men is ‘testosterone’. They stood surrounding the fence – one of them shouted “Yenina! Zifebe! Makwerekwere!”. Hey you! Bitches! Foreigners!
He rattles the fence with his hands and drops the weapon. The rest are laughing, cursing at us with their fingers, which twist and turn in the same way our bodies have contorted for them. These men are war fighters. They have come here to kill us, to dissemble the body. When I see them and their whips my limbs set off fighting themselves in a battle against the river of crocodiles all over again. Only this time, there is no fear, just talent. The sisters and I stare back and do not move. Our eyes become so glaring, projecting stillness.
Nomalizo makes a sound, she sounds like a cat, not a frightened one, but one that has reached the peak of orgasm. What makes these men halt without attack is the way our breasts pervade the atmosphere, pumping blood, and not milk. One of the men throws a stone, the stone shatters one of the windows. Gertrude jumps and screams, she makes to run away but Noma holds her. I remain silent reminiscing on wetness, the element that had for so many nights coiled in the insides of their many generosities, their educated hands, and dismissals of patience as they washed themselves into the boldness of my dancing nudity.
To see Benjamin, who like an apprentice painter in the midst of inspiration has touched and almost tasted the sick and broken, scattering and arrogant, division of dawn and morning on my skin. He was not there with them. Nonetheless, he is one of them. He and this land of milk and honey have taught me too many things about myself; about fear, war, and love. Some of the men also throw small stones at us; we stare back at their trivial attempts at scaring us.
My skin is a stone, the eye of a stone, rolling. My tongue can wrestle with jazz in the tower of Babel. Vertigo – I am – the place where two become one, with the wreath of ignorance gathering like the fallen leaves of a morning breeze. I am a walk taken, forgotten, and remembered later in the many places and sorrows they go to when they cannot breathe –
“Banya, I am going to cross the river, come with me.” – and he, with his nationalistic tyranny, his dignified laugh had thought I was making some sort of play with stones too big for my fragile hands.
I pick up a stone and throw it back with the vengeance of a soldier who has lost his gun. I have been loved before. The men scatter and curse. The leader says, “Leave. Soon. We will come back, and we will kill.” I pick up another stone. This one I throw for the shame they expect from us. This time I scream. I do this repeatedly until the brown bodies of the hateful men disappear from my sight.
Noma and Gertrude go inside the house, leaving me to my madness. Gertrude is shaken; she had taken to drinking alcohol excessively. Noma prepared a drink for her whilst I threw stones in my rage at anything and everything. In my childhood, I remember it had seemed that the stones we used to play with could trespass time; that they could and simultaneously could not fly like birds do; yet in their stillness, a stillness that imitated the dead, they kept memories locked inside where even some sculptors could not beat hard enough. In times of war and starvation, stones are used as weapons of the weak, and that is what I am – a stone hurling itself against the tyranny of history.
Thursday morning, I arrived to find them packing like hunted prey, exiting yet another war zone. From her face as she helps with the packing, I can see that Soweto is no longer a paradise of the morning sunshine that she had begun to fall in love with; but a war zone of crippling foreign bodies. Nomalizo tells me they have decided that another city, maybe even a country will do. She looks at me as if I am mad for not taking what she says, I stare back, searching Vertigo’s face, looking for a sign of the compassion I know she has. Vertigo ignores me. Is this where her story is supposed to end? With her embracing the sacred scent of dead stone? I asked what I would do without her. Told her she could come live with me, that I would gladly keep her in hiding.
Vertigo says she has never been afraid of the dark. She says she sort-of misses her innocence, and him; but always quickly shuns her own guilt and her memory, and always, ends up seeing Banya for the fool he was; and love as just that; something distorted, a half- truth.
She resembles water. She is slippery and wet. I long to tell her that to me, her body has become a house – dzimba dza mabwe – a house of stones and dancing spirits. Vertigo’s stone house – something I actually visualise, is in a prairie where the forlorn flowers of paradise grow and are smothered with the ancient blood of her ancestors.
I loved her.
Writing a telepathic love letter to Vertigo is a current mood that constantly shifts me between one beer, the next, with gusts of bipolar and a lingering depression. The mood is one of a love lost, spent in remembering love songs. Love songs. In the ghetto, we would surrender to Metro FM only to lose ourselves. The gaping hearts of our mothers would be left open after Shado Twala had played us into her corroding heart – Whitney Houston, Miriam Makeba, The Manhattans – all would take shape in our mouths and we would howl, mimicking our mothers, whose lovers ushered out on a cold Sunday, a drunk Wednesday, a Hungry life. Love songs in the ghetto are scribbled in notebooks since the urgency of memorizing the lines is too great. We sing them to the girls we admire only that we do this when we are alone. We imagine ourselves on huge stages – “Yoooou make meeee whooooole…” – And when we sing, the longing in our eyes is bigger than the colour of love. It becomes more than a love song to a girl you like; it becomes a song of pain, loss, dust and above all, nostalgia. Nostalgia becomes a thing.
Of course, I love Vertigo. She is the reason why I am cold, clutching, and searching for warmth in beer bottles. Yet I hate her and the torrent of pain she sporadically sends across the rooms of my now barren heart. I have only met her once, twice, or even on more occasions but something about her silence is so reflecting it matches mine. I do not really know this woman, and yet I know that it is not insanity that brings her to me, she is real. Almost tangible. I met her already with the eyes of a prostitute and what was her girlhood was lost and vanished in an abyss of confusion – about her – Vertigo. And since a prostitute is a woman shared by an amalgamation of men whose souls are not fit enough to become decomposing bodies in the tombs that the earth keeps for us, I guess she – or rather a lost sense of herself – left herself there, in those deep oceanic, lost, certain, and brown eyes.
I met all three of them together. The three prostitutes, Nigerian, simmering under the suns skin, waiting –
One: standing under the Sun, lazing around, hoping, her bare feet touch the dusty earth and send a mirage into the barren still air. Her legs are dark and long, with the whites of her feet starched in comparison to the blue shine of her skin. Her shirt is brown, vintage, creased and unwashed. One is tall and always her men see her as a pyramid of Egypt. Her name, Nomalizo, reminds them of the deep oasis that makes whoredom a fundamental part of human life. Her dirt is to them eternal, sanctifying them, and they watch with wonder as infinity warps itself around her cold and impressive smile. Her men – usually the lazy and unoriginal type, fall in love with the way her body seems to fall with sexual ecstasy that reaches the peak of corporeal madness as if she has gone mad and not them, as if they had given her something. Her falling and heavy breasts and kneaded toes.
Two: She was wearing a purple tight dress sitting on a red stoep with her leg sticking out. Gertrude was beautiful, and bored. Her oval face ornamented with a longing against restraint. Her purple dress makes the stoep redder than it usually is – which is her secret power – enhancement. The stoep was painted red in the blooming years, not a well-kept polished red, but red, still. Her relaxed hair is forced into cooperation with Vaseline that glimmers like the lost sons of Cairo, her fingers are always playing, her eyes gleaming with all sorts of colour. She is a lover lost, a woman who wanted something and seems to have forgotten what it is. South Africa to her is a paradise for lost dreamers. She wants everything. Her lips are bigger than her breasts and all ordinary men assume she is a good singer. Now if a woman looks like a good singer, clearly she can fuck. Her eyes are the wonder, they shine, despite her dirt. Her small and dark hands are fiddling and her bare feet are filthy and this is because, really, shoes are for a special occasion. She has no bra on.
Three: standing with her back leaning against a wall, looking nowhere but looking, tight jeans, a head wrapped scalp, clean face and scorching lips, coral…Vertigo is her name. She loved lipstick, bright red, no matter how dirty she was. She exudes emptiness; an abyss of secret histories and divine revelations that make us, men, weep with the fervent mirth of the ageless sin – just sex. Belonging, Vertigo was belonging. She was not beautiful; in fact, she looked as if she had never been beautiful. She is the oldest of the three, and purest, and I am a purist. I never thought I would fall for anything like her. Especially a foreigner playing hide and seek in the blood red streets of xenophobic Soweto. However, the way in which she –
Vertigo, her sisters called her Vivi, and I had no idea where she had gotten her nickname from but that was until, an incident from my occasional visits, I saw the worn out dictionary on her drawers. Vivi and her sisters were the beaded warriors adorned with blood stained skirts of a fervent mirth. The howling ghosts of wrath sat on their skin. Black power. Their lips were rounded and full, painted with the ancient tragedies of woman. Eyes woven with the archaic prophecy of their kind, a God was lurking in their eyes. The word ‘beautiful’ is too simple; they looked like masquerading Abyssinian Empresses – dangerous, wretched, knowing, hurt, hot.
They did not look beautiful because they were clean; they looked beautiful because they were dirty, and not ashamed. They stared back at the stillness of life with a vivid indifference, a vivid indifference to both pride and shame. They knew something. Their divinity was scorching, blatant, too honest for the eyes of open men. Their inability to grasp the language became attractive. Their super black skin and open poverty. Their pride. Those whom allowed desire to drive the forsaken nature of need into desperation were deceived of all the signs of difference. They may have looked the same: Black, Poor, and Rouged.
Vertigo and her sisters, after their departure, become something of a fantasy; right now they are made of dust. Their bodies have no shapes, they are amorphous. And I guess it is also so for the cheating men who have been captivated by the wretchedness of these whores; men that have made homes and succumbed into the wombs of these women only to birth themselves. We bought them beer, clothes, nail polish, shoes, magazines – all the assumed paraphernalia of a feminine cuisine. Yet, the women stared back with a vivid indifference. They remained dirty and unfurnished by choice. Their hair was a crown of kaffir – unrelaxed – like the souls within their bodies.
I remember that they were sitting outside when I first met them; the house had a fence around it that was broken. The earth is dusty and quick to jump, and there is no gate. One of those houses made by the Boer government when it had been faced with the problem of landless and houseless Africans, when some of these Africans of Soweto saw the first visions of freedom they got better houses and rented these out to the incoming flow of foreigners. The door of the house is a fading pink. The house is not really a house, but a two-roomed brick thing with a fading red stoep at the front. The whole yard is surrounded by dust that does not settle. In August, when there is wind, the house is eaten by a tornado of debris and dust, and still, you would always see the three Nigerian prostitutes with rouged lips. The dust still hangs in the eyes of many who had paid visits to the house. It is a sad lingering dust. The toes of the three Nigerian prostitutes had been wrapped in it, unable to breath.
The prostitutes had owned the house and it seems that the history of their presence in the house will last for centuries. Even though Nigerians are not allowed to own anything in South Africa, the three harridans had inherited this house and all its secrets. I, Benjamin still pay my visit to the house, I am a fool in love with a ghost with the stones of violence locked under her scorched tongue.
About the Writer:
Mapule Mohulatsi is a South African reader and writer. Her work appears in the Kalahari Review, Itch Magazine, This is Africa, and Black Letter Media’s The Short Story is Dead, Long Live the Short Story. She has recently been longlisted for the Short Sharp Stories award.