Breathing Under Water

A Short Story

By Nkazimulo Qaaim Moyeni

Photo by David Goldblatt (1972)

They say the sun wore its best clothes that day. Its voice was at the right pitch, not too loud to frighten its audience into their abodes or soft enough to strain the ears of all the planets that danced around it. It was just right, just perfect for God’s announcement. They say even the birds spared the worms that day, even Gogo Mthembu’s back pain took a sabbatical that day. Her pain understood the great task that lay ahead of her, who on that day was not uGogo but rather umbheletisi, the midwife, or perhaps Mama Annie as she was affectionately known as by the many women who have benefited from her services in the land of Johannes.

It’s truly not that difficult a task to find her, her name and her numbers were painted all over the land of Johannes on pieces of paper displayed as murals on many of the walls. There is also no corner that you will not find a patron passionately shoving a pamphlet into your hand, in their efforts to either provide a service or rid their pamphlets. It matters not, we will never know because, in the streets of Johannes, the patrons have no faces- none of us have faces. We are all identical, our stories are all the same; the sons and daughters of Johannes. Though there is one face that tells us the story of hope, the story of the silver lining. This face belongs to a little girl nicknamed Nomakhwezi. We say nickname because in the Mpondo culture only a father or the elders of the family can name a child. Nomakhwezi has no family, nor a home, she belongs to Mama Annie. She belongs to her just like her Nokia 3310 cellphone that functions only to receive calls. Just like her cube-shaped hollow shack made from slates of corrugated iron sheltering her. If it was up to her, she would be housed under a high-roof in a mansion in a suburb in Sandton or even some wendy house for a young rich girl in the corners of Houghton, at least then she wouldn’t have had to attest to the horrors witnessed in this shack, hidden from the public. Nomakhwezi belongs to Mama Annie, like her red coat bedazzled in red and white beads or her black tunic that is just knee high and her crisp faded white beret reserved for Sunday services at the African Methodist Church, which symbolizes her allegiance to the Manyano, the women of the Methodist. One of the many worlds in which she exists. Nomakhwezi belongs to her.

Mama Annie tells us of the story of Nomakhwezi – that she was gifted to her by the odds that favour only those who believe in them. She tells us of a time when on the 1st of July, in the early hours of the night when the sky swallowed the moon, her phone rang. Whenever her phone rang she praised the God of the white man and the ancestors that lived before us, “Ngibonga abaphezulu naba phantsi” for either one of them has favored her. when her phone rings, it’s confirmation of three things: that her phone works, that she is about to receive a brown envelope bearing notes equivalent to R1000 and that she’s about to deliver a soul back to the ancestors that they came from or the heaven of the white man, whichever is the better of the two.

She had answered the phone, an anxious voice crawled right to her ear as if it was pleading to be released. The voice on the other side of the line, usually of a woman panting and struggling to breathe, was that of a man who politely saluted, “Sawubona.” He proceeded to switch to English, with an accent covered in all sorts of trust funds. “ Am I speaking to Mama Annie?” Before she could respond, the voice added, “yes, I found your pamphlet in the CBD and urgently require your assistance. Let’s keep this as discreet as possible please.” Mama Annie composed herself as she woke from her sleep by this call then with her ‘Bantu education sounding’ English laced with bits from soapies like Days of our lives and the Bold and the Beautiful she had responded, “yes this Mama Annie, ngikhuluma nobani, who talking?” The gentleman paused, deliberately ignoring the question. “I need your services, where can I find you? How much do you charge?”  Mama Annie was taken aback by his bad manners, yet understood that the clutches of the land of Johannes are such that anything could cause her to lose business and he may use the services of the other prophets that specializes in this rare skill. She politely responded, “I am in Yeoville, Yeo street flat number 706, please bring R1000 cash.” Silence descended on their conversation as though capturing the space between them. Mama Annie thought her phone might have given up on her, she would swear that the God of the white man has abandoned her quest to attract good fortune. She swore it must be the God of the white man because the ancestors would never abandon her, for they know in that R1000, a few bottles of a cheap brandy will be purchased just to be poured at the throats of their graves as a token of gratitude.

While on the phone with the impolite voice she recalled a scene from Days of our Lives where Samantha was on the phone with Lucas discussing the intricacies of their relationship and Samantha suddenly kept quiet as if ignoring whatever lies Lucas was promising (as you know how all men just lie) and then Lucas constantly repeated the words “Hello, are you there?” in an effort of wooing back his lovers’ attention.

Mama Annie realized that she had been a ‘Lucas’ in this conversation with this stranger and needed to woo her potential client back. She proceeded to gather all the English inside of her and repeated those exact words in the hope that he will be impressed by her English which to her grace, he was. His voice responded with urgency, “Okay, 12’o’clock noon. Bye.” Before she could have returned his greeting, he had hung up.

“Jesu wami” she muttered in excitement, followed by “Yho Nkosi yami” muttered in fear.

Mama Annie failed to return to the land of her dreams where all the pains of this life mean nothing, where all is equal, where stillborn babies have wings and they live and grow to build a world where they are wanted. She knew that sleep would come with all the guilt and second-guessing she would have had in her mission which she didn’t need right now.  She stayed up for the remainder of the night to prepare herself for the greatest ritual known to mankind. The art of giving of life and taking it is quite a gift that is truly reserved for those assigned by the gods themselves. The hands that are able to transcend this world to successfully carry and deliver an announcement of God that comes in a form of a child are truly the one and only true messengers of God and Mama Annie saw herself as one.

They say the time was gracious on that day, dragging its feet with a slow pace; it took its own time. As it empathized with Mama Annie, giving her the time to honour every single thought that ran her way and more than enough time to reconsider. Finally after much despair and procrastination, both the long and the shorthand had met at the hour of 12, confirming to Mama Annie that the time had arrived.

She grew frustrated and impatient not because the gentleman was late but because of the many thoughts that kept presenting themselves to her and offering her anxiety to entertain them. As time went by, each thought came dressed in different clothes a sort of disguise just to get her attention, the thoughts varied from “why did a man call me?” to “why does his voice sound familiar?”, “is it because I didn’t tithe last week, now my luck is gone?”, “who is the woman he will be paying the services for”, “did he change his mind?” and “was my English off?”

All of a sudden, it was as if the very gods she kept on cursing had suddenly turned remorseful – a knock came at her door. It started off gently then increasingly turned into hard bangs that followed each other abruptly.  Mama Annie silently muttered “Yho Nkosi yami.” and proceeded to open her door. To her surprise, a drained woman who carried all the pains of this world on her shoulders and in her belly stood on the opposite end. The woman was visibly tired and draped in a pink nightgown and a makeshift doek wrapped around her head. She carried nothing but a brown envelope and a volcano in her belly waiting to erupt.  The words “Sawubona Ma,” flew toward Mama Annie’s direction and before she could gather herself, a hand strangling the brown envelope was extended to her. Mama Annie has been here before, several times, her floor had swallowed so many tears and blood belonging to innocent women. She knew that hers was simply to ask no questions and she would hear no lies. So she took the envelope from the woman’s hand and lifted up her eyes to search for hers but she was confronted by dark sunglasses protecting the woman’s soul from the world. So she said “ngena” to the woman and closed the door following her entrance. She never opens the envelopes to count the money because she had believed that it attracted all negativity.  She carefully placed the envelope on top of the fridge and asked the woman to follow her to another room. This room was dark with a one rectangular-covered in an old Sowetan newspaper and pockets of lights peeking through the holes of the newspaper as if to satisfy the Sun’s curiosity. The room was furnished with nothing but a flat mattress on the floor, a two-plate stove that is already cooking something; an oval-shaped bucket and a stench of dead meat as if in its previous life, the room was a slaughterhouse. Mama Annie pointed the woman to lie on the mattress.

The dinginess of the room forced the woman to remove her glasses and it was at that moment that Mama Annie witnessed the permanently placed make up that seemed to have been perfectly mounted by the famous female brand called a “man’s fist”. However, Mama Annie had learned to swallow her tongue and jail her words because a messenger’s mission was only to deliver God’s announcement.  The woman reached out for Mama Annie’s hand, held it, kneeled and placed her back on the bed as if she was the sacrificial lamb of Abraham. She submitted herself and spread her legs, laid her head down, eyes shut and her volcano ready to erupt. Mama Annie proceeded to move the white bucket filled with a yellow liquid and water close to her then she gathered all the towels and old clothes that she would need and positioned them all around the woman in a circular form around her legs. Mama Annie pulled a pipe connected to an old dusty vacuum, switching it on. She took a jug filled with a mix of water and herbs that was placed on the stove. As she was beating and mixing it together she kindly tilted the woman’s head and said, “phuza, mntanam, angeke iyehlise ub’hlungu kanye nesikhalo khepha izoyehlisa uvalo.” Drink my child, it won’t help with reducing the pain however it will definitely reduce the fear. The woman drank the mixture and sighed, “Ngiyabonga Ma.”

As Mama Annie proceeded to undress the woman and headed to the meeting of her thighs with the head of the pipe, ready to swallow anything that stood in its way, this is how they killed volcanoes in the land of Johannes. She carefully placed the pipe at the mouth of the woman’s mountain, preparing to suck out all that it carries, surely it was a different pipe that manifested this volcano in the first place, she thought to herself. With her back arched, her knees buried on the floor, one hand balancing on the woman’s’ knee and the other strangling the head of the pipe, Mama Annie performed the ritual. However, the gods have a funny way of dancing to their own music, to Mama Annie’s surprise, the lava flowed right out of the mouth of the mountain. The woman’s water broke and gushed right on the mattress, the woman began to pant, struggling between seeking air and crying, Mama Annie shocked as this wasn’t part of the plan, “ uyabeleta??” You are giving birth, she repeated in English, as if the woman didn’t understand what she had just said while realizing that today in all the worlds she has ever existed in, that today she had to give life instead of taking it. The woman’s cries started to rise and her panting even stronger and aggressive. Amidst all of this, she cried out, “Mama ngiyakucela, mele siyibulale lengane,” Mama please we have to kill the child. Mama Annie proceeded to instruct the woman to push simultaneously with every breath. The woman’s breathing became even more aggressive and in the meeting of her legs, a head emerged. The woman’s body became a seminar where blood, sweat, and tears had gathered to usher the baby to its own funeral, her hands buried deep into the sheet of the mattress, clinging onto blood stains that didn’t even belong to her. There she swam in the blood, the tears and the regrets of her predecessors. There she felt her womb shapeshift into a casket. Mama Annie throttled the pipe as the woman laid there intoxicated by the pain that was marching in her abdomen area, she witnessed the war between the woman’s body and her mind.

Although she had intended to bury a child that day, it seems the gods had different intentions with the child. Her body punished her for this, she felt every single thrust as the baby had left her body. Her rib cage turned into a chainsaw and the bones kept cutting her skin, her joints tangled and her muscles froze, leaving her body baptized in pain. As she pushed, she began cursing any form of higher power that was responsible for burdening a woman with the task of being the channel that births life, she cried out “ Mama ngincede, iNkosi yenu iyang’bulala.” Mama, please help me, your God is killing me. Mama Annie squeezed her hand tightly and gave her a look of reassurance; finally, the crown emerged entirely followed by the body and the hands,

Mama caught the volcano and whispered to herself, “Lomlilo sewuthulile” the fire is quiet now.  It was not her beautiful brown pearls that were placed as eyes that had moved mama Annie, neither her hollow cry that resembled innocence that had touched her. It was the calm she brought. The life she gave to the sun. The voice she gave to the birds. The peace she gave to mama Annie’s heart is what captured her. Mama Annie wrapped her arms around the child as she found herself lost in her presence; normally it was the vacuum that sucked out the fetus, saving Mama the shame of having to see her victim. The woman cried and demanded not to see the child, asked not to see her own soul. Mama Annie was confused by the music played by the gods. Why had they put her in that situation? Was it the tithe she didn’t pay? Was the goat slaughtered last Christmas not enough for the ancestors? She has never been so conflicted. However, in the land of Johannes none of us have faces, Mama Annie remembered that the only God we served in this land was called the Rand, she was paid therefore she had to honour her mission. Mama Annie snipped the cord disconnecting the child from the physical body of her mother, the mother kept her eyes shut with tears crawling down her cheeks, Mama Annie pulled close the oval-shaped bucket filled with yellow liquid with water, placing the baby into it. The newborn swam to the pit of the bucket and mama Annie placed the lid over it. For if it was swimming, that gave the baby life but if it was drowning that would take life away.

All the calmness that the child brought with its birth ceased and suddenly the sun undressed and the worms were massacred by the birds. Mama Annie’s heart was shattered. The air was stolen by words from the woman. She whispered “igama lami uNombuso. Ngiyabonga Ma.” My name is Nombuso, Thank you Ma.

Mama Annie shot her eyes back to the woman – Nombuso just broke the code. Mama Annie usually doesn’t converse with her clients; this is how the service was delivered. They were both in mourning, mourning the death of their own consciences. Nombuso, as if stating her case to mitigate the sentencing by her conscience, she proceeded to explain, “Mama, Bab’ Mthembu is a good man, Mama. He loves God, he made a mistake.” Mama Annie reached for Nombuso’s face touching her wounds; Nombuso cries and struggles to stand as she listened to the pain of her battle scars she repeated in a loud hysterical cry, “Mama, Bab Mthembu is a good man, madam wouldn’t have forgiven him.” Then Nombuso, out of frustration, began to dress up and proceeded to prepare herself to leave. Mama Annie walked her out, still holding back her tongue. The sun had set early that day. Perhaps it felt ashamed of what it had attested to.

A BMW X5 was parked outside and a gentleman was waiting in the car. Nombuso, who was leaning on Mama Annie, pointed towards the car and they headed towards it. She had opened the door and was met by the face of the gentleman; frantically he asked “is it done?” Mama Annie immediately shot her eyes towards the gentleman realizing that she had heard that voice before; she had heard in a world beyond the one we all existed in, she knew its warmth and smoothness was familiar to her. It was in a way that lovers had recognized each other’s voice in a sea full of voices. More than that, she had realized that this face, this spirit, the jittery and his demeanor was all too familiar to her. Nombuso entered the car and once again thanked Mama Annie; Mama Annie’s eyes and soul were still locked onto this gentleman, who seemed like she had known all her life. Then Nombuso turned to the gentleman and uttered, “Khwezi, asambe.” Let’s go Khwezi. When Mama Annie heard the name, her heart jumped, her eyes screamed and the stream of eyes marched right from them, before she could utter anything else the car drove away. The familiar black pear-shaped eyes, the perky nose on those wide nostrils, the wide shoulders and curly hair; this was all too familiar to her. You see there are a lot of things that once belonged to Mama Annie but there is only one that had ever owned her heart, it also came as a volcano that was carried in her mountain, she called it Khwezi. Khwezi Mthembu.

Mama Annie gathered herself and rushed back to the room as the gods were still playing their music. Something in her spoke, maybe it was young Lindiwe Mthembu who had sacrificed her own bundle of fury to protect Baas Piet’s pride in the little town of Petit. You see old white man were known to rape their helpers as a pass time, it was a sport in that town. You didn’t know leisure if you hadn’t had a cold craft beer coupled with biltong and a fat black woman’s thighs to wash all of it down in. The more they resisted, the more challenging the sport became. That’s the story of Petit. The story of the daughters of Johannes, the story of those with no faces. Something moved Gog’ Mthembu that day, maybe it was Nombuso’s tears but whatever it was, it told her to open the bucket.

There they were, the gods, swaying their hips, stumping their feet and drunk in their own odds- dancing. There in that bucket, the bucket that had carried the temples of so many innocent souls. The souls that knew the taste of their own blood before they knew the taste of their mother’s breast milk. Those whose mother’s wombs turned into their own caskets, those who had learned to drown before they could even learn to walk. Those who learned to die before they could even know what life meant.

There, in that bucket, we had lost presidents, healers, prophets and scientists. There, where our heroes had died before they could be given a chance to be-come. There in that mass grave, lay the messiah of all unwanted souls, the Lazarus of those who had forsaken life to save their shame. There she was breathing. Breathing under water.

The lovers of justice say a life for a life. They are right, for every death, a piece of us dies inside. For every life, a whole part of us comes alive. As on that day, two lives were born and two lives were saved. Nomakhwezi and Gogo Mthembu.

They say the sun wore its best clothes that day. Its voice was at the right pitch, not too loud to frighten its audience into their abodes or soft enough to strain the ears of all the planets that danced around it. It was just right, just perfect for God’s announcement. They say even the birds spared the worms that day, even Gogo Mthembu’s back pain took a sabbatical that day. Her pain understood the great task that lay ahead of her, who on that day was not uGogo but rather umbheletisi, the midwife, or perhaps Mama Annie as she was affectionately known as by the many women who have benefited from her services in the land of Johannes.