Sitting on the patio, busy with her crochet work, Mihloti presented a picture of quiet domesticity, but her heart was aching. She had been gravely ill but that wasn’t it. It was her husband, Robert. The day they took her to the hospital, he saw it. Robert, sitting under the tree on the lawn, saw James and Mary carrying her to the car. James, he hold me. He put me in the car. He (Robert) was only sitting at the shadow under the tree. He didn’t say one word. He didn’t ask, ‘How are you? Where are you going?’ Sick as she was, she knew that he had only come there for money and wasn’t interested in what was happening to her.
Robert had not been near her when she was in the hospital and hadn’t come even now she was back and recuperating. He was her husband but he wasn’t taking care of her. He was leaving it all to James and Mary. And he shouldn’t do that. They were not family. They treated her like family but she was their helper. They were from Cape Town and had been here only three years. Why should they look after her? I have a husband . . . But men, they can’t look after a woman. They think, ‘I am a man, you are a woman, so be down.’ But not if you love someone. I can’t be down. Sitting there, working on her crochet, she made up her mind. I’ll forget him.
In Johannesburg, where they had met, he had been a good man, a soft man. He had come to the house, where she was a domestic, looking for work and her madam had employed him as a gardener. He came there two, three times a week and she had to give him his tea and lunch. They became friendly and she could see that he was interested in her. Her madam disapproved, “I don’t want to see you with that man.’ But she knew he loved her very much and she loved him very much. So they decided to get married and go back to his village in the homeland.
When they arrived at Sekhunyane Village, she was shocked to find that he already had a wife and children. When she had confronted him, he had simply shrugged it off, A man can have many wives. How could he think that? He was a Christian! Mihloti was ashamed and hurt. She had immediately thought of divorce. Zodwa, his first wife, had tried to comfort her, ‘No problem, it’s Okay. Don’t worry. Here at Gazankulu we do that.’ Mihloti was horrified but Robert ignored her feelings and set her up in her own rooms, opposite Zodwa’s hut. She didn’t know what to do. She had left her job and family in Johannesburg and had no one up here. She was trapped. What could she do? God had given her this cross to bear. So she stayed, became the second wife and bore his children.
Ashley, James and Mary’s two-and-a-half year old, jumped into her lap and brought her back to the present quite abruptly. He had fallen off his tricycle and needed comforting. She cradled him in her arms for a few minutes and then he was off again to conquer the world. This was a happy home, not like hers.
Though it was over twenty years ago, Mihloti still couldn’t wipe out the shame of her marriage and she had never made friends with Zodwa, who was a constant reminder of her disgrace. Robert knew the women didn’t get on but he didn’t care. At first, Mihloti, who had committed herself to him, had not been able to understand how he could love two women. It was only after she found a job at the campus that she came to understand that he didn’t love her. When she began earning, he gave up all responsibility for her and she couldn’t ask him for anything. He would say, ‘I have no money now. You work, use your money.’ So she had furnished her rooms from her wages. All the stuff in her house at Sekhunyane was hers. He had given her nothing. Finally she understood; he had married her so she would support him. Still, she stayed with him. She had children to take care of and to provide for until they were old enough to take care of themselves and go their own ways.
When she started working for James and Mary, they offered her a room in their house and she came to live on the college campus. Robert took to visiting her there, always for money. He came two or three times a week. When she became ill, he stopped coming so regularly. Just before she went to hospital, he told her he was tired of her being sick. He didn’t want a woman who was sick all the time.
But it was unusual for Mihloti to be ill. She was a robust and active woman and this illness had taken her by surprise. At first she had simply dismissed it and even though she looked and felt awful, had insisted on getting on with her duties. But the pain in her stomach had become more than she could bear and she was forced to seek medical aid. She went from doctor to doctor in the township and came away each time with pills that had no effect on her whatever. Not even the inyanga was able to help her.
When her condition continued to deteriorate, James and Mary’s concern grew into alarm. Little Ashley, who called her Toto, he couldn’t say Gogo, also knew that something was wrong. When he was not able to share her bed anymore, he became naughty and difficult to control. Then came the morning when she could not get out of bed and Ashley, who was always up first, came in and found her lying there, unable to speak. The little boy got a terrible fright and ran off to his mother, shouting, “Mani (Shangaan for Mummy), Mani, Toto, Toto.”
After a few minutes, Mary came into her room, took one look at her and ran out again. When she came back, James was with her. She didn’t have the strength to protest when they wrapped her in a blanket and carried her out to the car. They were surprised to see Robert in the garden. They greeted him and after they put her in the car, James went over to tell him that they were taking Mihloti to the doctor. When James came back to the car, she could see that Robert had said nothing. James moved Ashley, who was banging on the hooter, into the passenger’s seat, and they had to endure his screaming as he fought with his father who was struggling to buckle him up. Ashley usually sat in the back with Mihloti but Mary had got in with her and was holding her. They drove off leaving Robert smoking silently under the tree.
James and Mary took Mihloti to Dr. Schoeman from their church. But like Dr Khosa, Dr. Shimati and others, he simply found that she had an upset tummy and dispensed the usual pills. When they came out of the surgery, James looked at Mary and shook his head. Mihloti tried to tell them to take her home; there was nothing more they could do but she was too weak and they weren’t listening.
“This won’t do. We’ve been hearing this same story for weeks now.”
Mary was frowning. “Well, we could take her to Duiwelskloof. You know, Shanta is always raving about her doctor at the private medical centre there.” Mihloti knew Shanta. She was a lecturer too and often came to visit them.
James nodded, “Let’s do it.”
Mihloti tried to protest but Mary hushed her and they drove off. Mihloti didn’t want them to make her their responsibility. They were Coloured people and they weren’t rich. They had come to work in Giyani and had inherited her with the house. She had worked for the lecturers who had occupied the house before them. James and Mary were very good people and Mihloti was happy with them. Then Ashley was born. Mary had told her she couldn’t have children but within a year of being in Giyani, she had fallen pregnant. Mihloti could see she was shocked. She and James were studying for some high degree and they hadn’t put away money for children. But Mary was so happy. Mihloti was happy too: a woman isn’t a woman without children. She immediately began knitting baby clothes and Mary had laughed saying, “You are going to spoil this child.” Mihloti had replied, “I’m his Gogo. I must look after him.” From that time, she knew that they had to be very careful with their money. So she didn’t want to be a burden on them.
But when she fell sick they took charge of her without any hesitation - just like family. They rushed her to Duiwelskloof, to the medical centre there and asked for Dr De Villiers. They did not have to wait long and when the doctor came, he took one look at Mihloti and ushered her into his rooms right away. While he was examining her, she could see from his face that it was something bad. Then he went out to talk to James and Mary. Mihloti tried to get up to tell them not to worry, she would manage, but the pain was so bad that she just collapsed on the examination table.
When she opened her eyes, she found Dr de Villiers trying to wake her up to tell her she had to go for an operation right away and before she knew what was happening they were wheeling her to the theatre. Afterwards Mary told her it was an ectopic pregnancy. She didn’t know what that was and Mary had explained that the baby, foetus she called it, had got stuck in the fallopian tube and was dead and decomposing. Such a horrible thing! How she had cried. And she didn’t know how James and Mary were going to manage; they had signed for everything and that meant they had to pay. She prayed to God to help them. They were good people; they went to church every Sunday, so they were not alone. God was with them.
But it broke her heart to think about Robert. He had been a good man - really a very good man. It was when he got the bakkie that he came to no good. He started coming home late, started shouting at her and demanding money. It was that bakkie. He couldn’t stay in one place; he had to be moving all the time. And he started looking for other women.
She examined the pattern of her crochet work and shook her head. Just as she had denied her illness, she had also denied his neglect and philandering. But his indifference - he hadn’t visited her once in the three weeks that she was in hospital - finally broke something inside her and as traditional respect for him as a husband began to dissipate, she felt herself falling into an abyss. No longer bound by a sense of loyalty, negative thoughts took free rein and she became unhappier than she had ever been.
She hated herself for all her excuses, for tolerating the first wife and ignoring the fact that he had a girlfriend, a Zimbabwean, who lived in Kremetart. The affair had been going on for a long time but she had persistently looked the other way even though she knew he was taking money from her for his girlfriend. How could she have ended up in a marriage like this? Just like her mother? She had promised herself it would never happen to her. Her daddy had had another woman. When he died, they got nothing - all the furniture, all the money, went to the other woman. And here she was, even worse off than her mother.
Soon after she had moved into her room at James’ house, Robert started taking his girlfriend to Sekhunyane. Early one morning, when Mihloti went to the village to fetch some of her things, she found them there; he was sleeping with this woman on her bed, in her house. Choking with fury and disgust, she had wanted to divorce him on the spot. Instead, she had confronted the woman; asked her why she hadn’t taken him to her place. The woman had laughed in her face. She was an older woman but she had money. So he was happy with her and when Mihloti was in hospital, this woman took him on a visit to Zimbabwe.
After her discharge from the hospital, Mihloti had insisted that James send for Robert. He worked as a driver in one of the government departments and she wanted him to pay the medical bills. When Robert eventually came, he paid a cursory visit to tell Mihloti he couldn’t help out; he had no money. Mihloti knew he was lying; he had been paid the day before. His money was probably going to the girlfriend; she knew Zodwa wasn’t getting anything. She never got anything; she always went to her mother for money. When she came back, Robert would accuse her of having a boyfriend. Then he would beat her up so badly that she couldn’t go anywhere because she looked a sight. Mihloti couldn’t understand why Zodwa always came back to Robert. Why did she stay? Why did she stay? Why did she stay? The question buzzed around in her head like a mosquito.
Mihloti put her work down. She didn’t want to think about this anymore. She looked up and watched Ashley, who had abandoned his tricycle and was chasing barbets on the lawn. But the buzzing in her head wouldn’t stop.
At Mihloti’s final check-up, Dr De Villiers, who had guessed at James and Mary’s financial situation, told James not to worry - the centre had found a way to absorb the costs. That was good news and Mihloti had felt great relief. Though she was very grateful to Mary, James and the doctor, they were not family; there was no vital connection to them. The connection had been to Robert. And what had he given her? A dead baby that had become rotten inside of her. He had given her a dead, rotting baby! That was his gift to her. She would have died if it had not been for James and Mary. Why had she stayed, and stayed and stayed? She was no better than Zodwa. She had to forget him.
She sat there for a long time staring into the distance. Then quietly and deliberately, she conjured up Robert’s image and strangled it until it became a dead, rotting thing. Then she tore it out of her system; tore it out by the roots and left a chasm inside where her traditional beliefs had been. She had cut herself loose and was floating free. She was free now, free - without a family. And the pain she felt was worse than the sickness that had been inside her. Without family she was nothing A person is a person through other people; she was no longer a person. When she died, she would join the walking dead. She stared with blank eyes at the abyss of meaninglessness that life had become.
Suddenly Ashley was in her lap again. “Toto, Toto, come and see. Mopani worms. Pretty! Come, come.” And as she walked with him, his little hand in hers, she began to laugh. What a fool she was. She had not been a person with Robert. With Robert, she had walked among the dead. But here, she was Ashley’s Toto.