Power is a strange thing. There are those who wield it, and wield it well. I am not one of those people. It feels abnormal to me, like it does not quite belong in my body. Though, one could argue that what I have isn’t power, it’s a fluke. And there’s nothing special about that—those are abundant in this place. Jo’burg, South Africa, Earth, whatever. Wherever you go, you are sure to find a collection of flukes and random mutations gone too far, for far too long.
You see I have this power. It’s an inaccurate use of the word if you ask me, but I have struggled to find one that fits. ‘Curse’ is melodramatic, ‘gift’ is an outright lie and ‘ability’ is too underwhelming (you know those days when your fastidiousness flies in the face of your quasi-nihilistic tendencies? I’m having one of those days. I’m always having one of those days). I’m sure you have gleaned it already. There is nothing super about me. I am no hero. I can mute things (tada!), make everything around me go quiet. All I have to do is say it out loud. With time I learned how to shut out specific things, like the strange, robust hum of the wind as it makes its way in and out of buildings or the footsteps of people coming towards me. I can shut out specific people or the entire room or those just outside the room. I can even, when I put some effort into it, control what other people hear. I try to avoid that one though—it exhausts me and I haven’t quite mastered it yet.
I remember the first time I did it. My mother and I were having a fight. It was more a one sided battle, one that was inevitably skewed in her favour due to the fact that I lived under her roof. I was twelve. I was hungry, and I knew that my lunch awaited me at the end of her tirade. She was taking too long to get to her point, and with each shrill word out of her mouth my hunger pangs grew more intolerable.
“Shut up!” I had finally shouted in desperation. Shut up. What self-respecting black child who has known the back of a shoe, the sting of a belt, the wickedness of a slim, innocuous-looking stick, tells their black parent to shut up? I waited with dread for the slap that did not come. Her anger was measured, it continued at the same sustained pace. I then noticed that I couldn’t hear a thing coming out of her mouth. I could see her lips opening and smacking together comically. Her hands were raised, sometimes pointing at the heavens, sometimes slapping against each other. Her facial expressions were sharp, almost hyperbolised by her big, flaring nostrils. I did not know what to think. I did not know how to turn the world on again.
“I can’t hear you, ma!”
“Ma? Say something please.”
And there it was again, her shrill voice. I almost wept, but remembered in time how much my mother disapproves of tears, especially when they appear while I am being scolded. Like I said, I can control what other people hear. It took me a long time to figure out why she could not hear my plea that time, the first time it happened. I was young, new to the power, and had accidentally shut her out.
I am currently in my first year at varsity, and she still does not know. She will never know. I have not told anyone, and am planning on keeping it that way. I do not want people to think that I am out of my mind. I do not want to get accused of witchcraft either. It is a dangerous accusation, one that could even cost me my life. Besides, if anyone found out, they might begin to wonder if I mute them. I probably do.
They are yelling at one another again. I know their rhythm and for a moment enjoy its familiarity; then I shut it off. It is my mother and her boyfriend, Sizwe. She is strident, and he roars over her, desperately attempting to assert his alpha-male dominance in a home that he has no claim over, in a home that was long ago claimed and marked by the a stubborn, unmoving femininity.
I remember when I was young and my mother first introduced these men, these scenes of unbridled verbal violence and anger into our home. I remember praying to God that I could shut it all out. Sometimes I wonder if that is where my power came from. Surely it is not possible. I live in a place whose other inhabitants deal with sounds that are far worse than this on a day-to-day basis. Here, days come to an end in a grinding, clamouring halt. Even in silence, there is threat. Surely someone else is more worthy of this ability? How is it that I get to escape where others must manually turn that everyday cacophony into white noise?
I did not think that God was listening. I did not quite know what to make of him for a long time. Whenever a Jesus Freak approached me with a flyer (they are always enthused about those flyers, as though Jesus himself signed them) I would panic. Not me please, oh God, not me. The girl next to me, she seems like she is into that kind of shit.
It is ironic that in those moments of rejecting him, I inadvertently turn to him. They are good those Jesus Freaks.
Maybe this power is God’s way of making himself known. I do not take him very seriously, and he must be offended, must have wanted to make his mark. Like a jealous boyfriend, his intentions are faulty and his actions are counter-productive. I take him less seriously now, when I decide to give him the time of day. Someone else could have used this. Really.
My mother disappoints me. It is a terrible thing to say, but it is true. I suppose my stubborn yet unsolidified atheism makes me a disappointment to her. Actually, I don’t suppose. She once said:
“You are a disappointment, child.”
Then she puffed away in her garish church ensemble. My mother is a tough woman. Which makes it hard for me to understand this loud, unrelenting battle. The opponents vary but are, in many ways, interchangeable. It is always the same snivelling man, the same insolent, arrogant arse-hole (isn’t that a charming way to say it? Arse-hole). The same damn arse-holes who insist on setting out the parameters within which my mother is allowed to exist in their relationship, in her own home. It’s funny, when I first met Sizwe he was a grinning fool. And now there is violence in his smile. I should have known. I should have seen this coming.
I stare at my bedroom door, and consider banging on it, telling her to quit it. Palm flat against the door, a starfish in protest. This is fucking boring mother. Give it up. Jesus.
I decide to do it. I make sure she does not hear.
I remember a long, elegant staircase. I remember descending it, a little queen singing a queenly song to declare my presence. I remember a pool: huge and empty. That is all. That is all I have of my childhood home. There was a movie theatre, apparently. Something grand and lovely and real. I was young when I lived there. Too young to remember anything of the sort.
I almost cried when my mother told me that it was real. That the big, empty pool that has haunted me for years is a thing of the real world. I didn’t tell her about the empty pool. She probably thinks that I remembered nothing of our old home. It is a strange way to go about parenthood: with the unfounded certainty that children don’t retain memories, and that memories don’t hurt.
I guess the emptiness of the pool that I remember is psychological. All that affluence and an empty pool? Or perhaps there’s another sad story there. The story of a child standing next to her father as their pool is drained and their lives take on a state of disarray that will never quite dislodge itself. Maybe.
So, I can now be certain that I had a home somewhere, before this one. That is, before my family fell apart and my father turned his back slowly, incrementally, until he was too far away for my little fingers to catch.
There’s a logical explanation: it started because my father left. My mother lost her way, fell into the trap that is good-for-nothing men. It disappoints me that she wants to fill his hole with all these feeble, fumbling people. My father was not a small man: not in stature, not in character. He could handle my mother—that is, he did not try to handle her, did not need to win an uncalled for battle of dominance. I wonder why he left us then. He must have been a slut.
When not to mute the world:
- When you are in a lecture. The lecturer might ask you a question, and leave you blank-faced and mortified
- When you are talking to your mother in person. Don’t take chances.
- When you are walking alone on a dark path and your only source of light is a tired, pathetic, blinking streetlight ahead. He will come up behind you without needing to be stealthy. He will press something cold and sharp against your neck (speak!) and demand your phone. He will take it, then press you close to his sickening body for a moment, and walk away unperturbed. You will thank the God that you don’t believe in that that was all he took.
- When you are having sex with your boyfriend. Even though you are restless and stagnation is settling into your body and you don’t want to hear how the divine part of you makes him groan and his hands are annoyingly small and his smile is annoyingly persistent and friends tell you that you are being irrational he is a great guy you are not your mother do not be your mother.
- When you are bound to cross the road. Dude, this is Jo’burg and if you do not hear them coming you will almost get knocked and then you will get sworn at for being in the blerry fucking way.
When to mute the world
- When writing exams. That girl, the one in the row behind you, her flu is none of your business.
- When in the library and some impudent arse-holes think it is a good place to work on their group project and some nonsense woman outside the library is laughing and laughing and laughing. Everybody quiet!
- When studying in your room. Your mother and her men are indiscriminately loud.
- When attempting to meditate. When meditating. See above about loud mother and men.
- When the world becomes too loud and you just want to be alone. Shut it out. Close your eyes. Let the silence and darkness swallow you. Sit in the belly of the beast, then when you are ready, claw your way out.
When I try really hard, I can project any sound I want onto people, so that they think they hear something even though it isn’t there. It is easier to do it with a loud, assertive sound: thunder, car accidents, screams. Sometimes I wonder if I should give the whole superhero thing a try, but then I get stuck on the how. Besides which, I wouldn’t trust this police force to know what to do with me. Incompetent and amoral when they are at their best, immoral and cruel when they are being their usual selves.
I once tried to project sounds onto my boyfriend. He was pontificating. It was painful. I was bored. I made him think that it was raining outside, even though there was no physical evidence of rain. It was exhausting but well worth it. He balked, thought he was hallucinating (ganja, baby), and went to sleep soon after. I felt bad. I promise you I did. Really, really bad. That is until I heard his stupid snoring and he did that annoying twitching thing that he does with his stupidly small hands. I watched him for a little bit, and felt my irritation turn to fury.
“You hear screaming. Someone is screaming, baby. Can you hear it? Is it raw?” The next morning, he told me about the screaming in his nightmare, how it continued on until the light of the morning saved him. Shame. I should break up with that poor boy.
I am clearly not fit to be anyone’s hero. I don’t have the stomach for loving, never mind saving.
I had to fight with my mother to get the address of this place. She harboured it like some politician’s whore harbouring their secrets (I wonder how much South African politicians pay their whores. Do they pay them in rands? It would be a shame if they did. Those people deserve euros).
It turns out my childhood home is breath-taking. I wonder how we could ever afford to live here. The neighbourhood is still quite lovely, tidy. Each house competes with the other, and further along the road something impossibly gigantean wins. I suppose the white people refused to be pushed out of this neighbourhood. They keep walking by and carelessly throw condescending smiles at me. I do not smile back—my resting bitch face is squarely in place. (I just stepped out of a taxi mother-fuckers. Don’t mess with me).
What happened to us? How did my mother and I lose all of this? Why has she never told me what went down? I feel ridiculous, but I can’t help the tears that come. In this moment, my father is a person again and not the abstract thing I have turned him into for the sake of my emotional wellbeing. We had so much. And now, what do we have?
A blonde woman looks up. She is inside, on the other side of the gate, chopping at something as though it matters. She is wearing a wide hat and gardening gloves. I think her lips move. Maybe her condescending smile has gone spastic, I don’t know. I don’t care to hear her, the woman who treads daily on stairs that witnessed my childhood. I shut her out quickly. She gestures: come here. She wants me to go closer to the gate, I think. More mouthing. She puts her tools down and swiftly walks up the gate. Agh. I have no choice but to switch her on again.
“Hello dear. Oh my. Are you okay? Would you like some…water?” Her voice is annoying.
“Sure,” I say with a meek smile. It makes people feel better about themselves if they are helpful in the event of tears. I turn away from her and analyse the other houses. Across the road, two huge poodles stride passed, a woman in tow. I am surprised when the gate opens with a quiet whirr. I thought she was going to go to her kitchen and pass the water through a slightly open gate. That’s what I would have done. I would not have invited a total stranger into my home.
“Come on in dear.”
“I could be here to rob you,” I say with a laugh. I make sure she does not hear. She smiles at me, thinking she has already cheered me up.
I tell her I used to live here. To her credit, she does not blink. She gives me a tour. Her kitchen is exquisite. Her bathroom has a floor that I would eat off of. It’s a little startling though—pristine, stark, as though all the bits of colour in it are an afterthought. Their dining room is something out of a magazine, and that bothers me. It is too well-orchestrated. I cannot imagine real people spilling wine there, wiping their lips clean after bits of food spew out of their laughing mouths. The TV in their lounge is colossal. I ask her about the movie theatre (not that they need one). She says there was no theatre when they first moved in, that many of the rooms have been converted many times over.
The staircase is not as grand as I remember, but my heart does not scoff at the exaggeration of memory. There is still a tinge of hurt. There are many rooms upstairs. We don’t enter all of them. She tells me that most of the rooms have heated floors. And air-conditioning, of course. She shows me her husband’s office. There is a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf. Most of the books flopping against each other look old. It is at odds with the rest of the crisp room.
“He is on a business trip,” she says in response to a question I did not ask.
I nod and smile. When we are downstairs again, she wants me to see her backyard. But I can see the pool through her glass doors. It is bigger than I thought it would be. It is full to the brim, and speaks nothing of my excavated past. I can tell that it does not remember me. We don’t go outside. It’s too much for me. I am exhausted, and she can tell.
“Wine?” she asks mercifully.
“Red or white?”
Her lounge is the warmest room of all—there are signs of life in it. While she is in the kitchen, I walk up to the dormant fireplace. There are photo frames squashed onto the mantel. There are too many of them and it is not very elegant. But she is blonde—that ironed-straight-with-no-hair-out-of-place-even-when-loose kind of blonde. And she is feeding me alcohol. So I suppose she can get away with inelegance. The first few photos are of her on a horse. In some photos, her arms are wrapped around some poor mutt’s neck. I wonder where the dog is, but am grateful that I did not have to paste a smile on my face to humour an overly excited hound. My favourite photos are the ones of her with a dark-haired man. Their wedding photo is gorgeous. In it her cheeks are flushed, her hair is longer and slightly wavy.
“Here is your wine.”
“Thank you. You have a beautiful home.”
“I know. I am very lucky.”
I am tipsy by the time I get home. Something is wrong.
“Go to your room Bathabile.”
Whatever lady. She and her man-toy resume yelling at each other. For some reason I do not turn it off. Something is wrong. He did not grin at me, Sizwe. This is how it is supposed to go: I usually crash into the house in medias res. He gives me his stupid grin. He pauses whatever fight he is having with my mother, and asks me about my day. I think, in part, it is to infuriate my mother more. In part, it is a feeble attempt to gain an ally in me (as if). Today no smile, no pause. Maybe it is my fault. I walked in politely. My mother still gets weird about me drinking alcohol. It doesn’t stop me, but I try to contain myself around her when I am inebriated. It is becoming the norm—having to contain my godless, whitewashed, whore-self around my mother. So, no crash no pause? That might be it.
“That is my money and you know it.” Something is wrong.
“GIVE ME MY MONEY WOMAN.” Something crashes against the wall. A plate, I think. I sigh: it is one of those fights. I have had to call the police in the past. I am annoyed with my mother that it is one of those fights. The neighbours might call the police. Or they might call my mother to complain. God. Give it up woman, Jesus. I hear the door banging shut. I open my door and walk towards the kitchen.
“Ma…” I whine, and am stopped short by the look on her face. Something is wrong.
“Bathabile not now. Not now ngwana ka. Please, ke a o kopa?”
“Is something wrong?”
“No Bathabile hle. Nothing is wrong.”
I roll my eyes. I walk towards my room and slam the door. Fuck it. Fuck her. Fuck this house. I can’t wait to leave it. The door opens. Sizwe is back. His footsteps are loud. Then, my mother starts screaming. She is yelling at him: a banshee whose only weapon is her strident voice. She has never been this hysterical in the past. Or maybe she has slowly been working towards this with each fight that I deftly shut out. Maybe I have missed the progression to this painful din. Maybe I am being paranoid. Or maybe something is wrong.
“Why would you bring that into my home? Why? Lord, Jesus!” She starts praying. My heart slams itself against my chest, as though it is trying to escape through the door of my ribs. I open my mouth as to say something. Everybody quiet. It is painful. It is all I can manage.
I get it now. I was never meant to use my power to protect others. I was always meant to use it to save myself. From hearing the shot, from hearing my mother’s scream, and whatever other sounds accompanied the pandemonium.
I look at my bedroom door. It is hard to know exactly what is happening on the other side of it. I hear nothing. Come to think of it, without the screaming behind it, the door looks quite ordinary. Not like a shield from the gratuitous violence, but like any other door. I want to open it. I do. I walk towards him and wonder if he will do to me what he did to my mother. I don’t think I would mind. Being alive is so much work.
I have turned everything on again. There are sirens in the distance (that cannot be for us. It is too soon). The neighbours are shouting. Dogs bark, cars speed by, somewhere a door opens and closes. We are at days’ end, and this is not what I expected the clamouring, screeching halt to sound like. When I get to the kitchen, my mother’s bloody body does not grab me. It is in my periphery begging for acknowledgement, but I give it none.
It is his face that grabs me. His shaking hand. The gun in his mouth. I decide to make him relive my mother’s screams. I probably don’t have the screams quite right, but this is all I can do. This is the only way I will know vengeance. I know that he can hear them—it is taking everything I have to create an unrelenting roar in his head. I must be a frightful sight. We are terrifying to look at. I soon tire of it. I tire of his face. His petrifying eyes exhaust me. His death is almost comically drawn out. I do not care to hear his graphic end, so that the words spill out of me again.
“Everybody quiet,” I shut my eyes, sink onto the floor. I crawl into the belly of the beast. It is just for a little while, just to rest my tired head. I will claw my way out. I will.
Manthipe Moila was born in Johannesburg and is currently studying in the Eastern Cape. She is a third year student at Rhodes University. She is studying towards a BA in English Literature and Law. She is a fledgling writer, who abandoned journalistic writing for poetry and prose.