The waitress eyed him. Deathly stare and furrowed brow. “Are you ordering anything?”
September ordered chips. She sneered at him, it reminded him of the way his grandfather Ezekiel looked at him over his glasses. The old man did it whenever he sensed what he called “traces of idiotism” in his grandson. September was absent-minded at times. He took after his grandfather’s youngest brother, Josef.
“Only chips.” The words were foreign to her.
Like in most Namibian towns where everyone knew each other, there was an indifference towards those who didn’t reside there. Sticking out was a serious crime: anyone who didn’t belong had to wait until Jesus returned for decent customer service.
She handed him his change and scoffed at the absurdity of it all.
Who came to KFC to order chips?
September sampled the chips, they were soft. Just like his sister preferred them. He asked for an extra sachet of tomato sauce.
His sister, December, was the last born until he came along. Older by two years, December tended to her mother’s vegetable garden and her brother when they were still too small to join their siblings working in the mahangu field. There was a mishap.
The incident was minor but stories sound better when exaggerated. The accepted version is this: four year-old September liked hiding; he hid between tomato plants while his sister was weeding with a hoe. He sprung up while she was in mid-swing. The impact opened a small but deep gash on the side of his head. She ripped up half her t-shirt to stem the bleeding – it had been a gift from their British volunteer kindergarten teacher. When he returned from the hospital with a bandaged head, she nursed him back to health.
December didn’t eat chicken. Not because she was allergic, but for reasons his grandfather never clearly explained. Every time September asked the old man about his sister’s dietary oddity he would say: “That’s how things are.” December knew better than to question traditions. The old ways existed for a reason, even if that reason wasn’t explained.
September suspected that his grandfather was hiding something.
“Where are you going?” The security guard at the hospital entrance confronted him. The setting sun signaled to the ladies who sold mealies and vetkoeks that it was time to go home. They packed their wares as the guard continued her inquisition. “Anditi, owati oto yi peni?”
He was going to the psychiatric ward.
She asked for his identity card and muttered something over the two-way radio. She asked him to open his bag and scanned a few items, eyes flitting back and forth.
“September Shikongo.” She flipped the blue card between her fingers. He expected to be asked, “Are you who-who’s son?” Shikongo was a common surname. The security guard didn’t ask. Instead, she handed him his ID card and he went his way.
Silas Shikongo, bless his soul, had a taste for the unconventional. He named his last four children after the month in which they were conceived. It was rebellious if you asked his friends in public, and it was utterly stupid if you asked them in his absence. They thought him a fool. Maybe he was. His own father had been against it, afraid his son’s idiotism would rub off on his grandchildren. There was only one problem with Silas’s naming convention: December was born in September, and September was born in July. Silas and the concept of time were on divergent paths.
The hospital had been renovated twice since last he had been there. And yet, the sign in front of the casualty ward was already missing two letters—at least the turquoise and green paint still looked fresh. Some things had changed. He didn’t need directions to the psychiatric ward. He knew the shortcut: a narrow path between pediatrics and the pharmacy. Some things had remained the same.
As he approached the ward, he noticed the bars on the windows had been reinforced.
Something had definitely changed.
December unraveled the way a thread comes loose: in parts and then all at once. One minute she was having problems with her classmates, cat fights and name-calling, the next she was walking half naked through the streets talking to herself. September didn’t understand it. People didn’t go crazy overnight, there had to be a plausible explanation.
What angered him even more was his grandfather’s insistence that his sister was bewitched. Ezekiel’s belief was fueled by what happened to his younger brother Josef. Josef started to lose track of time in his teens, days of the week were a blur to him. Ezekiel called it idiotism. He said he was teasing. He thought it would pass. It didn’t. It got worse. Josef would eventually lose himself. He was lost for a month.
To Ezekiel, December’s descent from being a stellar student to a psychiatric patient was too abrupt. This inexplicable misfortune had befallen his favourite granddaughter just when she was so close to success: December’s affliction started a few months before she was to finish secondary school and enroll at the Teachers Training College to pursue her dream. Ezekiel believed there were other forces at work.
The ward had a garden outside, nothing big, just three beds of yellow irises. It was where he used to sit with his sister when she was first admitted. Their visits followed the same pattern: he’d bring food—beef or mutton, never chicken; he would ask how she was; and her response was always “Fine.”
Then she’d plead with him: “Onda vulwa mo mu!”
“I know you’re tired of this place,” he replied.
September never knew if she was talking about her mind or the hospital.
“Onda hala okuya kegumbo.”
He knew she wanted to go home.
September would open his mouth but swallow his words. He didn’t want to make a promise he’d break.
September walked in through the new glass doors—a modern change. He greeted the nurse sorting paperwork at her desk.
“What do you want?” she shouted.
“I’m here to visit my sister,” September said.
Her curved eyebrows pointed him to the wall, where the clock and the chart for visiting times said that he was thirty minutes too late.
September tried flashing a smile. He believed courteousness would spare him indifference. The nurse rolled her eyes. “Kamatyona, you’re late!” He was wrong.
Sincerity and charm had failed. He sat down on the grey waiting benches, making friends with posters of venereal diseases plastered on the walls. Two giants dressed in navy blue uniforms and a smaller man in a white shirt appeared. The nurse had called security on him. September shifted uncomfortably, pulling his backpack closer to him.
The nurse and the white-shirted man approached.
“Is this him?” The supervisor asked, almost jokingly. September faced him. A familiar smiling face: Tshuuveni.
Tshuuveni was one of several boys who’d pursued December when she was younger. Puberty had brought womanhood much too early to December, like unexpected rain, making men forget they were men, and that she was still, in fact, a girl. Tshuuveni was the reason September had gotten a puppy named Kali that would, in a few months, hound Tshuuveni whenever he came near the Shikongo homestead.
September and Tshuuveni embraced, much to the nurse’s annoyance.
“You know this guy?” The nurse looked at Tshuuveni in confusion.
“Know him?” Tshuuveni laughed. “If things had been different, we’d have been brothers-in-law. How’s Kali?”
“Old. But he can still catch you.”
“That damned dog. Okanima kafa ashike ha ka lyi aantu.”
“Do you work here? I thought you’d be a police sergeant by now?”
Tshuuveni pointed to the embroidery on his breast pocket: Emvula Security Services. “Private security pays more,” he said.
Tshuuveni sent the giants away. September asked about Tshuuveni’s father, whose knees had given in to arthritis. Tshuuveni filled him in on who had gotten married since the last time they chatted. He asked September if he was bringing home an oshitenya from overseas, September shook his head, “I still haven’t found the right girl.”
A call came in on the two-way radio on Tshuuveni’s hip summoning him to the control room. He excused himself and left.
“Who do you want to see so badly?” The nurse was back.
The nurse raised her curved eyebrows. “Are you family?”
“I’m her brother.”
“December doesn’t have a brother.”.
“Are you saying I’m a ghost?”
There was silence for a while.
“There is no brother listed in her file,” the nurse said. “Only a grandfather.”
When September broke the news to his grandfather that he was going to study abroad two and a half years earlier, Ezekiel had been happy. September had cried. “My sister.”
The old man reassured him. “I will take care of her.”
September handed the nurse his identity card and a picture of him and December.
“She’s been here for six months. Why didn’t you come to visit her?”
December showed her his student card. “I’m a student. I flew in three days ago from the UK.”
The nurse softened a bit. “I’ll get her. But you only get 20 minutes.”
September sat back on the bench.
“Ka Brother!” December shouted. Little Brother. December’s favourite greeting.
The hair on December’s head was scattered like patchy Kaokoveld grass. Her eyes shone. She was gaunt. Her lips were swollen—she’d probably walked into a wall again. September had only seen his sister look this thin once: his grandfather had taken her to a healer and brought her back looking skeletal, as if the healer had tried starving out the voices in her head.
A month after Josef had gone missing, Ezekiel had a dream of a pond, where leopards drank. Josef was seated on the edge, eating. A search party was sent and Josef was found at the exact place in Ezekiel’s dream.
September wanted to say something but his mouth held the words captive. All he managed was a meek “How are you?”
“Fine,” December replied. “How is school?” In the past, September and December had two things in common: huge heads and academic excellence.
“Are you passing your modules?”
September laughed. “Me? Owushindje ngaa ngweye?”
December laughed. “Yes, I know who you are.” They shared a smile. “What did you bring me?”
September unzipped his backpack and gave her a jersey. She unfolded the grey hoodie and ran her hand over the logo embroidered on the front.
“Thank you, this place is always cold.”
September reached into his bag again and pulled out a pen and a book full of puzzles. She ruffled through the pages and sighed.
“You’ve taken half the fun out of it.” September had already filled some of them in.
“I’ve left you all the good ones.”
“You mean the ones you can’t solve.”
“You know me too well.”
He reached into his bag one last time and pulled out a t-shirt: simple, navy blue, with the Union Jack on it. Exactly the same as the one December had ripped up all those years before to stem his bleeding.
December turned to show the nurse. “Look what my brother got me.” The nurse forced a smile.
“You still have the scar.” She looked at her brother.
September rubbed his head. “Where would it go?”
Besides their grandfather’s insistence she was bewitched, their mother’s broken heart—her daughter’s sickness had aged her, faster than her husband’s untimely demise—what hurt September the most was how December had been stolen from herself. He was angry. Life had moved on, December was left on pause.
“Tatekulu hasn’t been here in a while.”
September nodded his head. Their grandfather had not been able to come. It pained him to have to tell her why he had really returned home. So he didn’t. Instead he handed her the chips.
She ate her chips, “These are nice.”
“Soft, just how you like them.” September said, rubbing the tomato sauce off her lips gently.
The nurse returned.
December had to be pried out of her brother’s arms. The nurse comforted her, “Ngula nalyo esiku.” Tomorrow is also a day.
September slung his bag over his shoulder and made to leave.
“Come on time tomorrow.” December shouted. “You know the visiting hours.”
September said he would. He knew he wouldn’t make it.
The next day, September buried his grandfather next to his father in the village graveyard. The heavens threatened to pour down the whole day but they waited until Ezekiel Shikongo’s coffin was lowered into the ground.
It was October.
When Josef was found, the elders sought help, Josef okwa falwa paantu. Ezekiel was also summoned and asked what his brother was eating in his dream.
When September first left for the UK, Ezekiel wanted to tell him the story, to explain why he forbade December from eating chicken after the mishap in the garden. He didn’t, it paralyzed him, and that was a secret he took to the grave.
Filemon Iiyambo is a Namibian writer and former newspaper columnist for the Namibian Sun Newspaper. He has also contributed social commentary articles for the New Era Newspaper. A qualified geologist, he is now an educator. His work was included in Erotic Africa, an anthology of short stories published by Brittle Paper in December, 2018. He is currently working on a novel.
Cover Image: December, 2020. ©Inger Junge.
Inger Ama Junge is a Berlin-based Namibian illustrator who studied visual art in both Germany and Malaysia. They draw comics and illustrations which explore identity and self-expression.