The Sangoma

The clapping of their feet on the pavement reached a crescendo as they rushed into the alley where Prince hid. They looked wildly to the right and left. They wailed from deep in their gravel throats, the beads clacking in their hair, on their necks, on their arms.

Prince crouched in the weeds, knowing that her skin could betray her like a beacon in the flat yellow heat. Beyond this, they could divine her hiding place.

Last spring she had suffered the sickness first in her stomach, then in her wrists and ankles. They had called her to them then, to purge her illness of denial.

There was no chance. Her father went to revivalist meetings. He’d drawn her name from a fount of stubborn resignation. At the shop he clasped his hands in front of the white men who were supposed to pay him. Ah, netnou, they said, but they ate his chakalaka anyway.  Her mother made the schawarma in the back, singing I need to lay my feet upon the stone, her voice deep like a man’s. Ya, big Prince the school boys sniggered. Her brother was gone.

Tannie Miriam wasn’t allowed near the shop. Prince had only met Tannie Miriam at her cousin’s house after school, where they sometimes watched fashion shows. Tannie Miriam was never there, except for one time.

Let her throw the bones, Prince’s cousin had said. Tannie Miriam threw them once, twice, three times, and then leaned close to look at Prince. Her breath stank.

You must train, she said finally, or you will always be sick, here. She poked Prince’s stomach.

Prince began following Tannie Miriam to the hut behind Tannie’s madam’s house. Tannie Miriam opened her head with the eggs, steamed her under blankets, made her sniff the fiery powder that made her nose run. Outside, women raked dirt.

Prince began to see her ancestors in her dreams, but they were not friendly. Woman too much of women, we will give you no name, they hissed.

Tannie Miriam sniffed. No, they will come, she said. You are what you are. But you must have a name.

Hau, her friends said. You will have no time for us now.

One day a girl smiled at her in the street. Her head opened, and she saw into the girl’s fragile sternum, where the girl’s breath caught and soaked her body with warmth. Prince gasped, swallowing heat. The girl was the most beautiful thing.

Prince’s ancestors began to come in larger and larger groups, stooping to look at her curiously as she slept. yini le? they asked, what is this?

Pigeons rode the train three stops to Muizenberg. Bottle brush trees sprayed red, undeterred by heat. Her mother turned on the news once when her father was sleeping.  The rebels were killing rangers at Virunga Park. Prince knew her mother had worked there as a teenager, but her mother didn’t look up from the glowing suds in the pots.

Then, the beautiful girl came to see Tannie Miriam. Her boyfriend didn’t love her anymore, she said. Prince grew clumsy, her cheeks red hot, but the girl didn’t recognize Prince and Tannie Miriam sent her away with nothing. She doesn’t believe that I can bring him back, she said when Prince asked why. And so I can’t.

The day before the gathering when she was supposed to drum, Prince stole the bone that had landed closest to her every time Tannie Miriam threw it.  She knew the shades would rain disaster upon her. They would send animals to scratch at the gate of her house.

And when the sangoma finally left Prince’s hiding place their voices took on the dimness of a passing train. She leaned against the dirty white painted brick. We knew where you were, little one, she heard one of them yell. You will always be sick.

1 Comment

  • April H. says:

    I love pointed aural aspects of this, not only in what Prince is experiencing (clapping feet, clacking beads and bones) but the language itself (chakalaka, snigger, raked, stank). I also like the idea that in the end, being “healed” is Prince’s choice, yet also out of her control (at least at this point).

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