by Chris Mpofu
The bulls shoveled sand backwards, heads to the ground, eyes locked.
"Sgu-u-u-u-u!" Mexan, thick and squat like the bull he was calling on, crouched beside the animals, his own legs wide apart, hands clasped tight. Khaki shorts torn down the middle, the crack between his buttocks wide open.
Thabo watched the bulls, his eyes wandering from time to time to the tear in Mexan's shorts. The boys exploded in cheers as the bulls clashed, yelling and applauding every time their animal gored the other. As usual, Sgubudu, Mexan's prize bull, triumphed. Thabo watched the defeated bull trudge away, blood dripping down its side. His stomach roiled as he caught sight of Mexan's gloating eyes.
The river made a V-like bend here, its widest point. In the dry season, it was a vast stretch of soft sand, patches of water dotting its width. Tree roots cracked its banks in search of water. The cattle drank and grazed around it, the caress of its cool breeze soft and gentle in the punishing heat.
The boys sought shade under a camel thorn tree, where they played tsoro. The game boards—four rows and seven columns of holes—pockmarked the ground under the tree. Players scooped and shuffled stones furiously from one hole to the next in a bid to capture their opponents' stones. The senior boys played non-stop while the juniors took turns watching the animals. Thabo looked on as Mexan played, cocky after his bullfight victory; hovering over his opponent with arm drawn back as if to land a punch, scorn skinning his lips across his teeth. Mexan would join the army one day, Thabo was sure. Well, maybe he would meet his match there. Get his big testicles crushed under a giant boot. He hadn't looked so cocky a year ago when Gogotook him in, his parents burned to death in their hut. Thabo loved his grandmother, but why did it have to be theirfamily that rescued this baboon? It didn't take long for Mexan to settle in, and he was soon pushing Thabo around. Kicking Thabo's feet away under the blankets at night. Sometimes ripping the blankets away from him. He was strong, and Thabo never challenged him. If only Thabo could share his bedroom with just his little brother Spikili. But Gogo had insisted that he make Mexan feel welcome. Didn't he feel sorry for the poor boy? Both his parents gone just like that? At the river, Mexan maneuvered his way to the senior group of boys. So now he played tsoro while Thabo watched the cattle.
Darkness crept in, time to round the animals up.
"Thabo! Thabo!" The junior boys chanted as they corralled the cattle onto the narrow path. Some patted Thabo on the bum as they jumped up and down, naughty smiles lighting their faces. Thabo kept his head down, home suddenly far away. The narrow path filled with dust as hooves hit the ground, a sense of urgency filling the inexorable march home.
That evening Mexan sat across the fire, prodding groundnuts in the hot ash. His left leg folded underneath him, the right leg forming an inverted L shape above the floor. Thabo could never sit like that—it always hurt his foot. Mexan's eyes were partly shut by the smoke rising up to the thatched roof. When the nuts were roasted he gathered them into a pile, expertly removing the ash.
"Want some?" He extended a handful to Gogo, who reached across and accepted the nuts.
"Thank you, Mexan."
Thabo felt Mexan staring at him, but focused on his own search for nuts.
"You should've seen Sgu today, Gogo!" Mexan crunched his thick fists, holding them up as he stared at Thabo.
Gogo's not interested in bullfights, you asshole!Thabo scratched the ash, collected groundnuts from the fire.
"One day he'll find his match," Gogo said, smiling.
"Not for my Sgu, Gogo." Mexan had his arms folded upwards to imitate a bull's horns, his head dipped towards the fire. "There's no match!"
Gogo held a groundnut suspended in mid-air, her mouth hanging open. She looked like she was going to break into one of her loud cackles that always made her cough. Then, as if she'd suddenly realized that Mexan was just full of himself and didn't need to be encouraged, popped the groundnut into her mouth and chewed it well before speaking. "Anyway, Sgubudu's job is to give us calves."
Just then, Spikili walked in, covered in dust from head to toe. He squatted next to his grandmother. "Where do calves come from, Gogo?"
Spikili, always asking questions.
"Nxa isitshisa, inkomokaz'iyahamba khatshana iyozekwa."When the cow is in heat, it goes away to get fucked.
The firewood crackled in the little hut, groundnuts exploding as they cracked open. Thabo watched Spikili's little face fall in on itself and drive his gaze to the floor, his eyes darting in every direction but Gogo's.
"Ithi nxa isiphenduka iyab'isizithwele."And then it returns pregnant.
"One day Thabo will come back pregnant!" Mexan almost choked on a groundnut as he broke into laughter.
Thabo's nuts slid off his hands and rolled around the fireplace. He jerked his face towards the doorway, then down at the fire, not daring to glance at Mexan. He tried to jump up but his legs wouldn't move. So he fixed his gaze on the fire, its flames spewing smoke into his eyes.
Gogo turned to Mexan, her voice soft. "Hayi Mexan, ungenzi njalo."
"Will Thabo go away like the cow, Gogo?" Spikili asked.
The night's silence flowed in and flooded the hut. Thabo wished for the morning, the distant promise of relief.
Finally, Gogo gathered her blanket, groaning as she got up. "Everyone to sleep, it's late." She laid a gentle hand on Thabo's shoulder on her way out.
Thabo sat by the fire, tears streaming in the smoke.
The village store came into view, and he crouched behind a tree. It was mid-morning, but the sun was already baking, painting mirages in the air. He was sure no one had seen him. All he needed was a quick sprint across the open road and he would be at the back of the store. Zitha, their neighbor, was dragging her little daughter out. When they disappeared out of sight, he dashed across.
Why did Johnson have to be so loud? He was lugging a sack of maize from the storeroom. Thabo caught a glimpse of Mrs. Johnson at the store counter—scrawny and pale despite all the food in the store. He raced up the stairs, and stood finally in the bedroom doorway. The bed could sleep three people, maybe four, even. It was neatly made; the sheets folded back, a perfect white. He imagined Johnson and his wife in the bed, and something in him hurt.
"Like the bed, boy? Madam would shoot me if she caught us in her bed!"
Thabo felt Johnson's hard penis on his bum. He went to get on his knees, but Johnson pulled him back.
"Easy, boy. We take it slow, hey boy?"
Johnson's fingers roamed over Thabo's chest. Thick, hairy stubs. Thabo wondered if all white men were so hairy. Slowly, the fingers came to rest on Thabo's crotch. And then suddenly, Johnson was ripping Thabo's shirt off, forcing him to the floor. Making frantic attempts to unbuckle his belt, panting and wheezing. Thabo's own blood was racing now. He tossed his shorts onto the floor, put his head down, his fingers clawing the carpet.
Later that afternoon, the boys were back at the river, Mexan perched on a little rock, twirling his club in the air. Thabo found a shady spot on the riverbank and sat down. He was tired and wanted to go to sleep, but couldn't; he didn't want to wake up with his shorts missing again. So he lay down, eyes wide open, and studied the clouds. It wasn't long before Mexan was standing over him, club in hand.
"Uyindoda wena?" Are you a man?
The thin clouds melted in the heat, exposing a vast blue sky.
Mexan kicked up some dust. "When are you going to get pregnant?"
Thabo bolted upright. He scooped a handful of sand to throw onto Mexan's face. Too slow. Mexan's thick fingers were around his wrist, his crotch hard on Thabo's back. The sand slid from Thabo's hand onto the riverbank. A scream formed in his throat but remained there. The other boys surrounded them now.
"He says he's a man!" Mexan pointed at Thabo, a sneer on his face. "Ayihlome!"
Before he knew what was happening, the boys had pinned Thabo to the ground, yanked his shorts off. "Big ass!" Bursts of laughter flooded the air and floated over the river.
Thabo didn't see it coming, but when Mexan thrust his club up his rectum, a bolt of lightning seared every inch of his body, bursting his head as blood rushed up. He inhaled sand. Convulsed so hard he yanked his head free and breathed air again.
Laughing faces hovered over him, all teeth and gums, his vision now a blur.
Mexan shoved the club deeper.
Sweat cracked Thabo’s forehead. His body went cold.
Then, one by one, the feet around his face shuffled away, a dove cooing above them.
"Where's your white husband now?" Mexan said.
Thabo caught Mexan's foul breath, the stench of rotten milk.
Mexan ran grubby fingers, hard, down Thabo's back.
Thabo couldn't breathe for the pain.
"In through the back door again tomorrow, huh?" Flashing his evil smile one last time, Mexan ripped his club out, and was gone.
Thabo collected his shorts, rolled himself into a ball, his breaths quick and short. His rectum throbbing. A few minutes later, he struggled onto his hands and knees, shoveled sand backwards, his head to the ground.
The blanket over his head helped to block out the forest sounds—crickets chirping, the sudden ruffling of grass. He tucked the edges of the blanket underneath him to get a good seal. Three nights in the bush now, hiding by day, Thabo had survived on roots. If only the river were full, splashing its swooshing sounds to calm him to sleep, wash away his pain. But this was the dry season.
In the morning he rolled his blanket, tucked it under his arm. He buried his tools by the tree and, his plan finalized, set off for home. When he entered the yard Gogo was sweeping the hut. He stood in the doorway and watched her. She wasn't humming her usual song, her sweeping strokes halting, almost breaking the grass broom. When she saw him the broom slid off her hands. She stood silent, her skin furrowed. Then, the tension draining from her face, she approached him. Slowly. Deliberately. Tears snaking down her rugged cheeks. She hugged him tightly, breaking into sobs.
Thabo clung on to her, convulsing hard. Until finally, they parted.
"Sit down," Gogo whispered, making for the door. She returned with a plate of sweet potatoes, a welcome break from the amadumbehe'd survived on in the bush.
When he was done eating, Thabo got up and went to the boys' hut.
His blankets formed a small mound next to Spikili, who was still sleeping, the stench of urine rising from his blankets. Mexan's blankets were strewn on the floor, his naked body stretching as he yawned.
"Haaa!" Mexan leaned in to inspect Thabo's tummy. "Are you pregnant now? You must be, after three whole days of it."
Thabo walked past him, picked up a bucket. He washed, changed into a clean pair of shorts and t-shirt. Then he went out to milk the cows. He loved milking the cows; he could talk to them, tell them his secrets, anything. They never laughed at him, never hurt him.
The river was particularly dry that afternoon, forcing the boys to dig deep in the sand to get water to drink . Thabo had brought his club, something he hadn't done for a while. He sat on a soft patch of grass in the shade and watched the animals.
"Iph'indoda?" Where is the man? Mexan, having sneaked up from nowhere, dancing a war dance, waving his club.
Thabo watched in silence, keeping his own club close by. Mexan danced towards him, kicking dust into the air. He hit the ground in front of Thabo with his club, a direct challenge to battle. Thabo stayed put. The boys gathered, laughing.
An explosion of laughter ripped the air. Thabo felt the skin on his back split. Slowly, he rose from the ground. Shook sand off his body, broke into a dance of his own. He swung his club, throwing it in the air, catching it. And finally, struck the ground beside Mexan's feet.
A sudden quiet fell on the riverside; even the doves stopped cooing. The boys stood still, their jeering moves paralyzed, sneers frozen on their faces. Mexan was no longer dancing, his club held stiffly down his side. Thabo feigned an attack, and Mexan ducked. As he rose, Thabo struck. Squarely on the head, sending him sprawling to the ground. Thabo dragged the limp body to a tree, dug up his rope and knife from the ground. No boy stopped him. In fast jerky movements, he tied Mexan's arms and legs up, then tied them to a tree. Next, he ripped Mexan's shorts off and knelt beside his limp body. Then he snatched Mexan's penis in his hand, regarded it for a moment, and looked up at the boys. They stood in shock.
"Iph'indoda?"Where is the man? Thabo’s voice filled the air, searching the sky.
The crowd stared, unmoving.
Thabo wiped the sand stuck from his knife onto Mexan's shorts. "This is what you've made me do." He shifted gaze from one face to another, knife firmly in hand.
Mexan stirred again. Briefly. Then fell back again, limp as a dead frog.
"This is what you think makes a man?" Thabo stretched Mexan's penis. "Well, heis not a man anymore!"
He slit across Mexan's penis.
An ejaculate of blood gushed out. Splashed on the ground. Cries of shock wailed from the crowd. The boys fell on Thabo, pinned him down. Thabo dropped the penis, now just hanging on by a sliver of skin.
Gogo extended a hand through the metal bars to greet him. "I talked to the police," she said.
Thabo felt nothing. He stared past her. What would talking to the police help? He had told them everything. Admitted everything. There was nothing to discover.
"I told them how…" Gogo was saying. "I told them how he longed for you."
Thabo's eyes fastened on her. Longed? Mexan? What was Gogo talking about?
"He loved you, Thabo, couldn't you see?"
Where's your white husband now?
Mexan? "No!" Thabo roared, shaking the prison bars, making Gogo jump.
"He couldn't take it that you gave to Mr. Johnson and not him."
Thabo stared into her kind, rheumy eyes.
"He shamed me." Tears streamed down his cheeks. "He hurt…"
Gogo stroked his hand. "He didn't know how to tell you."
Outside, darkness fell on the river, and Thabo sat alone in the stifling prison, his isolation complete. Maybe, just maybe, there was another boy out there. Maybe one day they would talk. Sit by the river's edge, listen to its secrets. And maybe, with the ancestors’ blessing, the river would flow again, wash away his shame.
Chris is an emerging writer who was born in Zimbabwe and lives in Canada. He has had a short story long listed for the CBC Short Story competition, and another shortlisted for the Writers’ Union of Canada Annual Short Prose Competition. He is currently working on a novel that explores the experiences of those who have left their countries of origin to settle elsewhere.