Owele – CNF by Sihle Ntuli


Owele. Our grandmother never liked for us to play outside. When the time came for us to be like the other children there was an unusually long pause, but eventually she relented. Two wide-mouthed smiles, a race, two boys coming around a corner sprinting in slow motion. Weeks after this my brother is sent to Mgobhozi Road to buy Millie-meal. At the shop he is asked to confirm that he is one half of amawele from down the road. This happened after the shop owner had been staring at him, noticing that his face looked vaguely familiar. After her initial hunch followed by a corroboration, a timid confirmation that it was indeed umzukulu wakaEdna (or Edna’s grandchild), the shop owner insisted that I immediately be summoned from the television. I was not told much other than come to the shop, when I asked why my brother said someone wanted to have a look at us. One of the twins sisters who helped around at the shop would end up giving us the name at this first meeting.  From amawele (or the twins) came  ‘owele’, said in jest as a playful gesture meant to loosen up two nervy boys.  Somehow it spread around the neighbourhood to the bottle store, next door to the butcher and the cobble on the corner shop. Despite being much older they befriended us, we were only children, they were practically adults, still they became like our sisters. I have not yet forgotten about that ritual at the  burial when the first twin died. I have kept it at the back of my mind. Next to it is the small matter of the ever-changing meaning of some fifteen minutes between us. There has been a whole lifetime of arguing about who is the eldest. Our loss comes from the difficulties in translation.

Sunshine.  Small things as big things, the vastness of their meanings, different things to different people. The way soul music goes well with Sundays. The way jazz goes so well with Sundays. Everybody Loves The Sunshine. A dark morning transitions to restoration of natural light, a blinding by the sun rising, all those small spaces in between. The sun as a clock before clocks. Once, time was only the movements of the sun as observed by a naked eye. In silence, the  transition through morning noon & after. Time used to be like a feather. The mechanism of hands moving clockwise, the sound of this and  beneath it all is my voice trying to tell you a small thing. When I look at the word ‘precision’ inside it, I find the word ‘incision’ cutting out any and all imperfection. How do I live up to this. I do not tell you that I suffocate. Nor do I tell you of the hands of time on my neck. I cannot ask you if there is still safety under the sky, I only ask if I could show you a poem.

Clouds.  Following sunshine comes night showers, a flash of lightning foreshadows our war. I have been jealous as well as careless, I have left a thought to wander while the rain is on the verge of coming down. In the past there were times when you would speak for the both of us. In more recent times it is the hands of nature that holds our silences. There are no voices speaking any more, only faint grumblings of a thunder approaching. If you listen closely, there is also the sound of the ever-changing meaning of a mere fifteen minutes between us. In Zulu culture, it has been said that after providing a safe passageway for the first-born, it was the second born twin that is considered the eldest. I have also been told that in our cultures, in the event of twins, it was the second born twin that was killed at birth. There is a possible world where I would not be here. The opening of the clouds, it all begins with a single drop. Silences feel heavy when there are contentions beneath them. My thoughts are running now. I pray the presence of this rain does not lead to severe flooding. 

Mantra.  The human body is mostly water. The swimming versus drowning phenomena or how the water will only allow you to float once you completely let go. Be like water. In a small courtyard I confess to you about my aversion to seawater. I say I envy the ones able to empty their minds and become formless. I have not yet been able to do this. I am still afraid. I have not yet learned the art of dying.   

Reeds. Marley mellow fields of reeds dance with a mild reggaeton sway. The eyes closed,  the tips of my  fingers brushing across the top of a field of reeds. At their source is our home in the soil, it will all lead back here someday. In Egyptian mythology, at the end of one’s lifetime, there is the weighing of a heart to determine whether one’s soul was worthy of paradise. One of the twin sisters died leaving the other alone. At the funeral, there was a ritual performed where the sister left behind simulates a twin burial ; this was done as part of a belief that twin spirits ought to descend together. This was the way of that family’s tradition. I accepted it even though I could not understand it. It all happened at an age when we were much too young.  The sister left lived soulless and after a little while she perished. They would get to walk together in the next life towards a field of reeds. A home in the soil, a sheaf of reeds finely crafted into icansi, weaved reed mat separating bodies from the hard floor. This reed mat is only layer, icansi is by no means soft. A spine would surely be straightened by solid floor. The reed mat as traditional bed, this is how it was once for our ancestors and perhaps the hardness of the ground is a sort of humility. A finality of hard bones on hard floors. I have found that it feels more comfortable on your back with toes pointing upwards, optimism of the eyes looking upwards.  Brother, the dreams even feel firmer on the reed mat, there are no cushioned soft lies here.    

Ocean. Salt water loosens a thread. A dormant thought held firmly at the back of my mind slowly begins to unravel. There are some things that can be held back but only for so long.  The shore has not yet been reached. It is not yet time to wonder out aloud, now is still the time to feel the thought moving along inside me, now is still the time to hold it back with questions. Like why do small thoughts open us whole and down to our bare essences? Why does salt water seep outwards from the eyes in the ways that it does? How does one survive all this?

Crustacea. Brother, while we should not utter the old aged adage of ‘born alone &  die alone’  I have also begun to wonder about the true depths of my own shallowness. In Arundhati Roy’s ‘God of Small Things’  the decision to separate the twins comes much too swiftly. In effect, it becomes the pillar on which the grief and brokenness of the twins rests. Their only sin being born fraternal rather than identical.  I have my grandmother’s head, I have my mothers eyes, the couch my second skin. Knocks on the door routinely interrupt my meditative silences, someone is always looking for you, I always have to tell them that you are not home. Ways of the Crustacea or the crux of a crab mentality, if I attempt to keep your love for myself then our bond becomes like a prison. I have not told you how hard it is for me to say the word ‘Love’. I have not told you that I do understand the word ‘love’. Your face resembles our father’s face and even some of your mannerisms are reminiscent of him. Like the way that your pinky finger points upwards when you hold a cup of tea, even your love for tea. Though the only real difference between you and him is that when you leave you still manage to find your way home. 

Sunset. All this time I have misunderstood the sunsets. I used to think of them as a little death when I should have been considering them as a brief hiatus. There is much to be said about the moments when the sun turns it back on us, the moon is directly facing us. A dramatic entrance into the realms of the artificial, bold floodlights fill in for the sun and leave blind spots unattended. The mood changes at night. The world will still turn and time still will leave another small mark, to add to all the other marks accumulated by age.

Shadows. One thought continuously unravelling. The fluidity of water to calm us down. Those fifteen minutes that separate us have established our positions. One of us the speaker and the other one the listener. I have always been the one more silent, when the identical twin sisters befriended us it was because they gravitated more towards you. It was your charm, your charisma. One could have used a forearm as a shield, but it would have all been in vain. There was sunshine and then there was also you. Quite often I would look on helplessly, you had this ability to alter and augment an entire room, in this regard you were truly gifted. There were years lost battling for a mother’s love, till I gave in, I was tired of losing.  I closed my eyes and spread my arms apart for a trust-fall onto your shadow. Ways of the Crustacea or the crux of a crab mentality,  you had been yearning for a life of your own, in recent times it seemed to me that this yearning became louder. We lived harmoniously for a long time though there was still that thought held firmly on the back of my mind. There is the small matter of my unhealthy aversion to salt water. The sea is raging, the waves colliding violently against each other.

Sink. A  traditional healer cradles a head and lowers it deeper into a river, a body emerges from the water cleansed. There is not much difference to this than baptism. All of this is no different to a controlled drowning. Freudian down below, a coiling thread unravels and slips towards sinking. Only one of us knew how to stay afloat, the other one was learning how not to breathe underwater. In an outer body experience, I witness a young boy beating the water trying to hold himself up. Could you believe that in all the commotion I thought about that ritual with the last remaining twin sister? All these thought while I was going down. In an attempt to breathe I swallow a mouthful of Durban’s Beach Front pool, a strong taste of salt as the water entered my O-open mouth.  This was a mounting of trouble on the back of my mind, running my fingers  I could feel swelling. It became like a reminder of a moment when salt water almost made a river out of me.

Photo of author

Sihle Ntuli is a South African poet and classicist living in Durban. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Classical Civilisations and has previously lectured at the University of the Free State. His poetry was short listed for the DALRO Poetry Prize in 2017. He most recently became the author of a poetry chapbook Rumblin in 2020. He has had work published in South Africa and across the African continent on notable journals such as Lolwe, Down River Road & The Johannesburg Review of books. Tweets: @sihlexntuli

Banner: Landscape/Memory #5. Digital art by Robert Frede Kenter (c) 2021. Tweets: @frede_kenter

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