I’ve come back from the library at early dusk, as I promised Ntate. I want to know whether we should water today.
Several weeks ago I gave my Ntate seeds for kale, spinach, carrots, tomatoes, zucchini, even pumpkins seeds gifted from the Sisters after I excitedly told them about my new gardening career. He set to work preparing the plots, and hoeing [I tried to help but my hoeing ended up preparing the plots for his hoeing.].
We planted together in the face of a menacing thunderstorm.
"You must put one, one, one," he had demonstrated expertly with the seeds. I watched them fall from his fingers in to their new homes - like a stork delivering babies. He assured me that we had time for one more plot even as I felt the first raindrops. He was right though – the downpour began only as I opened the door to my rondavel with dirt caked fingernails.
But the intervening time refused another drop to our fields, the dirt has begun to crack and the seeds sizzle in their ovens. In the morning, Ntate said that we should water tonight - "Let the water cradle the seeds all night!" he said, so that the morning sun would seem again full of promise.
Here I am to meet him, to water seeds and wish them good night. Ntate meets me with different ideas though. He is wobbling with beer breath, and he holds up a cigarette.
“My baby, borrow me a match!”
“Ntate, you are going to smoke?” I fold my arms across my chest.
“Yes, I am going to smoke.” He is momentarily confused that I need clarity about this.
"Ntate, I will not help you to hurt yourself." I shake my head and look away with a small smile, but genuine disappointment.
He laughs. After a moment, he understands why I've asked. "Yes. I will decrease it little by little."
"Ntate, don't you see you are the grandfather for so many children? They come to you, all of them. You must keep yourself strong for them. You are a grandfather for the whole village. They must see how long life can be."
The last month, every weekend hosted the burial of a woman or man in their 20's. On a recent Saturday, my Ntate had asked me, "Are you going?" He had a joint between his fingers then too, and the smoke curled up and dissipated like released fireflies.
"To the funeral?" I'm sure it is what he has asked, but I say it anyway to fill the lost time.
"No," I say. I look away.
"You are busy." He looks at me, pulls me back into his gaze.
"The DTEP students should be coming to the library to work on their assignments with me." I say it weakly, self conscious of my avoidance and distance.
"Oh." He is disappointed in me.
"There are so many funerals, Ntate. So many funerals."
He looks sharply at me. "People are dying, Aussi." He is finished with my weakness.
"She was young," he continues. "I think 22 or 25. Her mother died in August."
He finished one last pull on the dagga and flicked it away under the tree. Then we both walked away, returning to our separate realities.
And then within a few days a mother and her young daughter appeared on the stoop of the house of my Ntate. The young woman, emaciated, sat with bony arms and legs folded around each other and her feet swabbed in clothing - too swollen to imprison themselves in shoes. Her cheek bones boast forward like a sculpture, her large eyes are bright with pain.
Her daughter, not more than 10, stares at me with her mother's eyes, her small body swimming in a t-shirt and bright pink sweat pants. The pair now stays with us, the daughter asks daily 'Borrow me a skipping rope?' and joins me at the library to try to recover the hours that she is not attending school.
The mother wastes away watching her beautiful daughter play and laugh in the last moments they will share together, and I project her imaginings of the small girl's adolescence and young adulthood with only a distant memory of mothering...
This evening, it is my turn to be disappointed in Ntate. I want him to see himself as I see him, a rare survivor who holds the history of the village and the memories of a full lifetime.
I see now that Ntate has turned back to me with brightened eyes and a dawning smile. He has recognized himself in the mirror I've spoken - Grandfather of the Village seems to be a title he likes.
"Yeah..." he nods, unblinking, one hand on his hip and the other casually beginning to gesture as if ready for his welcoming remarks.
"You must keep yourself well. I will not help you to hurt yourself," I conclude with a more stern reproach, now that I have his attention and his ego. I smile, inviting him to reconsider his original request.
He joins me, and chuckles. "Ok, Aussi." He turns, drops his hands, and begins to walk away. "I'm going to make my tea!" he loudly remarks over his shoulder, his hands nearly shooing me away with backward waving.
Perhaps there is a new seed planted...