by Hlengiwe Mnguni
When he was young, he was always trying to get in between the legs of women, in between their thighs. As though, if they let him, he’d go inside and end up where he began, in the womb.
At first they all laughed. “Ei, this one, just like his father.” The uncles laughed and winked knowingly at each other. But as he grew bigger, the gesture became less cause for laughter and grew more grotesque. It embarrassed his mother, who bore the burden of guilt quietly and penitently. It angered the men, greatly. Because it became clear, as he grew bigger, even to the dullest, profound as it was, that here was a boy, who needed to escape life, but was afraid of death, preferred unbirth. There are certain things you can beat out of a child. His father, Mabena, beat it out of him, so that at the sight of a woman he cowered and disappeared.
So it came as a surprise to all the neighbours when at first he bowed to her in acknowledgement as she walked past, instead of shrinking into the background.
“What do you want?” she asked, angry that she should have to negotiate.
“I want a baby” he says slowly, decisively, not looking at her.
In the distance she can hear a baby wailing, its screams blending in with the deafening January swealter. She puts her hand just above her eyes and considers him from beneath it. There would not be much wrong with him, if it was June. Underneath the long coat, pants and sneakers he seems oblivious to the heat. He isn’t even sweating. Just looking at him makes her feel hotter. In the beginning she would laugh about it when her aunt or anyone else teased her about it. Somehow she felt flattered, because don’t we all have the silent conviction that there is something extraordinary about a woman who is loved by a madman? Hadn’t she become an instant wonder among her new neighbours when they all saw how Ngwako would insist on carrying for her whatever parcels she would be carrying back from work or the store. When there were no parcels to carry, he’d follow her everywhere, silently, while she pretended not to notice. Though Mabena was worried (because why did it have to be that woman out of all the others?) it came as a relief to him that he hadn’t killed that all-important instinct. And once again, everyone laughed and winked knowingly.
But today Ngwako had crossed a line, lines actually. He was seeking from her things that no madman should even consider asking a sane woman, and he was being serious about it. He was assuming that their lives were governed by the same rules. All feelings of flattery disappeared. She was offended, angry at being reminded by him of all people.
He rummages among loose sheets of handwritten paper and barely-held-together notebooks in a bag slung over his shoulder and extracts a large apple tinged with pink, which he offers to her. It is an apology. Because despite what he knows about her, perhaps because of it, he isn’t sure, he loves her. He places the surprisingly cold apple in one of her limp hands and keeps his hand on the apple. He waits for her to look at him and speaks: “If I told you a secret story would you promise not to repeat it even when in the dark by your lonesome? Would you keep it to yourself if I told you that I had been in the apple out of which the first bite was taken by Eve? I was the core, in the beginning. That apple that fell on the fluffy head of Newton? Guess what? I was in there too, driving that apple towards earth. I am gravity. When Snow White took that temporarily fatal bite, tainted by evil as that apple was, I was in there too. I am omnipresent. I am gravity. I am the core. I am an ageless fairytale threatening, promising to come true. I am eternal. I will keep your secrets”. He says it all in one flowing stream. With one finger on his lips he turns his back and leaves Thembi leaning heavily on her Aunts gate, still oblivious to the things he knows about her. To him it is no secret that for six months Mabena and she were lovers. That he’d hear the voice of Mabena pronounce lovingly “Apples for my love” and see through a hole her legs spread while his father’s head disappeared in the darkness of her thighs; that for two months she carried in her belly a baby for Mabena. And that in a long and painful instant on a bed at the local clinic, she rid herself of the baby that had made it to where he was beginning to think he could never be.