The Water Carriers
by Lorraine Nevin
part 1 of 2
I flapped my arms up and down and shouted childish insults at the crows. Thandi did the same, watching me all the while with her big brown eyes. Even with our huge, elongated shadows before us, we were still unable to frighten the black birds away from my father’s maize.
We picked up handfuls of tiny river pebbles and scattered them in circles as we twirled around until we grew dizzy from the spinning. Dust rose up from the dry earth as our feet disturbed it, and caught in our throats and hair.
“I’m hot,” said my sweet little cousin. “Let’s stop for a while.” Her face was caked white with earth, tiny particles of it resting on her eyelashes and giving her a ghostly appearance.
“Race you to the river!” I cried. I gave myself a good head start. We landed skidding on our bottoms in the sudden dampness of the muddy riverbank, giggling, and drank deeply. We filled our pots with as much water as we could carry and placed them on our heads.
The stony track back to the kraal always seemed longer than the rough path we beat through the fields to get to the river, but it wasn’t. The track had been formed by a thousand ancestors’ feet, my uncle Mhalakaza had told us, and was as straight and true as the best warrior’s aim.
He was a respected sangoma; he should know. Still, I liked to walk through the tall corn, ducking behind the plants to hide from Thandi and jumping out at her only when I felt like it. The ancestors’ track offered no opportunity for such mischief.
This was our task at sundown each day, Thandi’s and mine, as our mothers took it in turns to stir the clay pot of maize meal over a sweet smelling wood fire. Our fathers shared a fat round beer pot with the other men in our homestead and talked of the cattle and of politics. All we girls had to do was bring water from the river and wait to grow up.
I wanted to be a painter when I grew up. I had already made a picture of Thandi and me, to sell in the town to the white men. The day the merchant came through our kraal and took it away for sale, my father had him make marks underneath it. The merchant told us it said ‘The Water Carriers’, but how were we to know?
“Come on, hurry up. Nonga. It’s getting dark,” said Thandi.
“Alright, I’m coming,” I snapped.
Thandi was young enough to still be afraid of the dark, but the truth was I didn’t want to walk any faster. I was in no hurry to go home. There was a bad feeling at our kraal. The men no longer became drunk or laughed as loudly as before. Thandi didn’t seem to notice it, but then, I reasoned, she was still but a child.
It was not that I had failed to discuss it with her: “Our fathers haven’t played games in the sand with their sticks for a long time, Thandi,” I said. “And the boys are left to run in the fields. Why are our fathers not teaching them to shoot and hunt? Don’t you see Thandi? Something is going on.” But her attention was concentrated on a fat grasshopper and she showed no interest in my observations.
When we had left the kraal earlier, the talk that escaped our father’s tight circle was urgent and whispered. Eavesdropping, I could gather nothing from their conversation other than that it was about the white men from the west that passed through our land from time to time. Hard as I tried, I could not understand what it was about.
Our fathers seemed frightened but I hardly thought the white men looked dangerous; to me, they simply looked silly, wrapped in so much cloth at this time of year, and sickly, with their pale skins that so easily turned as red as the autumn sunset.
Was it only I that noticed that so few of them smiled? I wondered if it was because they were lacking white women, but it was hard to find out anything from our fathers, and Thandi refused to be interested in them at all.
But what irked me more than all of this seriousness was that our fathers seemed to want us out of the way, Thandi and I, and I knew it was because we were girls and they thought us incapable of serious matters. The boys in the kraal weren’t sent to fetch water or to chase crows; the older boys were allowed to stay and listen to the men.
As I watched my mother with her swollen belly and the youngest children swarming around her legs, I wanted only to be a boy. I told Thandi so and she wiggled her little finger at her groin and laughed and showed me her fat pink tongue.
“Slow down,” I called to Thandi that spring afternoon, my water pot brimful and sloshing, dripping wet spots in between the ones from Thandi’s pot as she walked ahead of me. “Let some of your water out. Your pot is too full. You won’t be able to carry it all the way, silly.”
She stopped and let her pot down, then poured some of the water out into the shallow edge of the river where it gurgled in delight at being reunited with itself. I watched her patiently.
“Nonga!” she said suddenly. Her large eyes widened and she made a sucking sound with her toothless gums. “I think I saw something over there.” She indicated the dark bushes on the far side of the river with a rigid finger. One hand steadying the heavy pot on my head, I sheltered my eyes from the falling sun with the other and peered into the dim dark green. Indeed, there were two shadowy creatures opposite us. One carried a water pot on its head, the other guarded a pot on the ground. Like Thandi and me, they were water carriers, but at the same time they were no more than shadows.
“Ancestors,” I declared, and Thandi stopped breathing. Thandi had always been afraid of ghosts.
“Mama! Tata!” we cried together as we ran into the kraal, panting, scared and shaking, our water pots discarded on the riverbank. “Tata! Mama! We saw the ancestors!”
The men looked up at the commotion and silence fell on their circle. Then my father stood up and came towards us. He put his hand on my shoulder. It was warm and firm and the solidness of it gave me the courage to continue.
“There’s... a... message!” Thandi’s voice was high pitched as she tried to speak.
I gave her a puzzled look and then changed my expression to silence her and, still hardly able to control my breath, I told my father what we had seen. “Two spirits... water carriers... the ancestors... the ancestors are coming to send the white men away... back into the sea that brought them...” I stopped and sipped from the gourd my mother handed me.
My father crouched down and I could smell the beer on his breath. I hadn’t been this close to him for a long time.
“They said they could only speak to the water carriers,” I explained.
“Is it true, Thandi, did you also see these things?” my father asked the little girl hiding her face behind the strands of my skirt.
She moved her mouth but no sound emerged; it was as if words refused to obey her.
My father looked to me, puzzled. “Nonga?”
My father’s face grew long and he first chided me for telling stories of the ancestors that, as a girl, I had no right to tell. But Thandi’s sudden and strange inability to speak, her tears and the sudden onset of febrile shaking seemed to convince him.
He called my uncle Mhalakaza, the famous sangoma, to come to our house and had me repeat what I had seen and heard. Mhalakaza was silent except for the rattling of the white beads around his ankles and the bone necklace around his neck. His face crumpled under his feathered headdress and I thought he looked like the rooster my mother was fattening up for my sister’s wedding feast.
“I have waited a lifetime to be visited by the ancestors,” he said quietly. “Why would they appear to you? Are you sure you weren’t imagining it?” he insisted. “It was hot today. Perhaps the heat...?”
He examined Thandi’s mouth for a reason for her silence, found none and, after giving my mother a handful of herbs from his skin purse for a speech-restoring potion, took me to one side.
“Are you playing games, Nonga?”
“No, uncle. I am afraid of the ancestors, uncle. I am not playing games.” He made me repeat it three times.
“I will come to the river with you,” he decided at last, when he had heard my story for the twentieth time, “to meet these ancestors myself.”
The following dusk, my uncle Mhalakaza, Thandi and I waited in the deepening blue shadows for the ancestors to return and repeat their message to him, for clearly it was he who should rightly have heard it in the first place. The souls of the ancestors in their disguise as stars shone against the black velvet sky as we waited and the evening grew cold.
I pulled the woollen blanket around Thandi and me. Thandi shook uncontrollably and made my own teeth shake from her silly shivering. Eventually, we heard a faint sound, like the sound of a wounded animal in the bush.
“Can you hear something?” my uncle asked.
“Yes, uncle, I can hear something,” I answered. Thandi stiffened against me.
“What is it? Is it the ancestors?”
“The ancestors? Yes, uncle. I think it is. I can hear them very faintly.” I didn’t want to disappoint him.
“What are they saying? I can’t understand them. Translate for me child.”
I was tired and cold and a little afraid, and I wondered what to say. It was while I was musing that Thandi spoke.
“They’re saying we have to kill our cattle and burn our crops, uncle. They’re saying that they’ll send the white men back to the sea if we do this,” she said quietly in a voice that was full of sadness and despair. “And we are not to plant any more corn until they come.”
I found myself looking at my cousin with my mouth, nostrils and eyes wide.
“Thandi!” I exclaimed.
Mhalakaza looked at her and a dark shadow crossed his face. After a moment or two, Thandi looked up at him and said seriously, “They say you must take this message to the Chief of Chiefs and all the other Xhosa chiefs.”
She dropped her head and put her thumb into her mouth, which I had not seen her do for two winters. I snatched the blanket from her shoulders and pulled it tightly around my own, leaving her to tremble even more. I wished I had heard the message on the night breeze and it had found its way onto the tip of my own tongue. But it hadn’t.
Mhalakaza stood up from his crouching position and took a deep breath.
“Then we must do as the ancestors bid us. Come, Thandi. You have done well. Nonga, let us go.”
My uncle slaughtered the first of his cows the following morning. Thandi and I looked on. We flashed furtive glances to each other as he drew the blade across the animal’s neck. Usually when an animal was slaughtered it was to the shrill ululating of the women and drunken laughter of the men for it was in recognition of a marriage or a funeral. This time, it was done in silence.
Killing one animal each day, he worked his way through his entire herd over the following weeks. The message of the ancestors was disseminated with each spurt of blood carefully collected in a bowl beneath the animal’s jugular. Prayers were offered up. The blood was wasted, the meat discarded. The people looked on, not understanding, silenced.
“Should there not be a sign? Will the moon not fall from the sky? A swarm of locusts perhaps?” they asked. “The ancestors always send a sign.”
Mhalakaza only shook his head. “This is a different message,” he explained, “One that will test our people without physical proof. It is a silent message. It is the final message. If we do not obey the ancestors, we will die at the hands of the white man.”
Copyright © 2009 by Lorraine Nevin