The letter is damp and trembling in Vivian’s hand. Wayde’s key rattles in the front door.
Wayde crosses the threshold and senses the air’s odd weight. Usually when he comes home from school his mother is lounging on the couch blasting Whitney Houston or Brenda Fassie, nursing a mug of milky Ceylon, and soaking her feet in a bowl of saltwater. Today, she stands rigid and silent in the kitchen. They barely greet each other. The only sounds he hears are the chatty schoolchildren outside swarming the street and the cars, blasting speakers, bleating horns. He takes the four steps to their pink-walled kitchen, clutching the rolled copy of the Cape Times that he brings her every day. Mbeki, stern and triumphant, graces the front cover.
What Vivian says next sounds to Wayde like it was scripted, practiced:
“Your father decided he wants to meet you. He sent this letter. It came this morning.”
She waves the envelope for him to see.
Wayde cocks his head. His backpack swings in slow-motion off his shoulder. He makes her repeat herself three more times.
Vivian says, while waving the wilted letter, “He wants you to come spend the summer holiday with him. Up north. In Namaqualand. For three or so weeks. Before Christmas.”
Wayde thinks that Vivian says this as if she is telling her madam that dinner is ready.
He throws his bag on the kitchen floor and moves to take the letter from her hand. She clutches it, leans her broad back against the refrigerator and holds it to her chest like a Bible.
“Let me see,” his voice—usually timid—now pumped with fury and excitement.
“No,” Vivian backs away. “The letter’s not addressed to you. It’s addressed to me.”
“But it’s about me.” Wayde says, smelling the ever-present bleach waft off her uniform.
“I’m telling you what it says! I’m telling you! It says he wants to meet you.”
Wayde stands before her in silence, chewing his bottom lip. He still tastes the vinegar chips from school lunch.
“He wants you. You should go,” Vivian says, with a strange desperation.
Wayde wonders where it comes from. She has never even told him his father’s name. It’s not important. He left. Before you were born. That should tell you everything you need to know.
“You need to meet him,” she says, not looking at him, but beyond his shoulder. Wayde asks again to see the letter, the first his father—a lifelong enigma—has ever sent.
Vivian snatches it from his reach. “I’m telling you what it said!”
Wayde rolls his eyes. He is used to her hysterics, but unfit to argue.
“Elton,” Vivian says, eyeing the cracked tile floor. “That’s his name. You always wanted to know. Now you know.”
Wayde considers this. A seed of excitement burrows in his chest. This day, the one he has longed for since he can remember, has finally come.
“If he finally wants you,” Vivian says. “You should meet him.” This last part Vivian says eyeing the floor. “Plus, I don’t know how I’m gonna feed you over the summer holiday. Since the Van der Merwes cut my pay, it’s been hell. The cow knows I’ve got a child to raise, and she goes and does this.”
Wayde lets the weight of this fact huddle his shoulders.
Vivian puts the letter behind her back, palms gripped as if she’s under arrest. She takes two careful steps toward Wayde and says, gravely, “He’s even sent money for your bus ticket. He’s got money, you know. From his old days in Cape Town, running around on The Flats with that stupid gang. And now, apparently, he does the whole tour guide thing. You’ve got to go. Or else you won’t eat. Even me. Do you know how much of a risk I’m taking doing shit like this?”
She reaches inside the refrigerator for a gallon of milk, the fancy Vitamin D stuff from Woolworth’s, the stuff stolen from Mrs. Van der Merwe’s kitchen. Wayde already knew the whole saga: two months ago, Mrs. Van der Merwe— the woman whose house Vivian cleans—accused Vivian of stealing a fork and subsequently halved her pay.
“I can’t keep this up,” Vivian says, replacing the milk in the refrigerator. “Stealing things to feed you. If I get caught, then we’ll really be out of luck.”
Wayde wants to hug her.
“You’re going,” she says, closing the refrigerator door. “It’s settled.”
Wayde thinks his mother might be right. He thinks so from the dizzying emptiness of his stomach these past two months. The way his clothes are getting looser instead of tighter, as a 14-year-old’s clothes should become. The way they are due for eviction any day now. Black, bulging trash bags clutter the living room; poised for the moment their landlord kicks them out.
“Why does he wanna see me?”
“Because you’re his son.”
“But why now?”
“Because the world’s ending.”
“You really think that?” Wayde asks, feebly.
Vivian has spent the whole year, all of 1999, preparing for the end of the world. Wayde usually puts up with her theories, but not today.
“On New Year’s Eve, it will. Mark my words. We won’t live to see 2000. So we’ve got to do these things before it’s too late. You can’t go to heaven not knowing your father.”
Wayde wants to tell her she’s crazy, but he knows she is completely serious.
“He left before I was even born. What will I say to him? And why do I have to go up there? Why can’t he come down here? I don’t want to go up to his house for three whole weeks. I don’t want to see him.”
“Yes you do, Wayde. You know you want to.”
One week later, December 2nd—the first day of the summer holiday—Vivian and Wayde and his bulging backpack catch a taxi to the Intercape bus station, near the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. Wayde’s eight-hour bus will go from Cape Town to Kamieskroon in Namaqualand—in the Northern Cape.
When they arrive to the bus station, Vivian says goodbye with a sopping kiss and a lingering hug. “Be good,” she says. “And remember, there are two sides to every story.”
The sun sets. In the line to board the bus, Wayde decides that he only wants one thing out of this journey: an apology. That is the only way he will accept his father. Wayde cares about the hunger, true, and the eviction, but he also cares about filling the void his father’s absence has carved in his body. He dreams of his father kissing his feet, ravaged with shame.
The prospect of apology carries Wayde onto the dark, crowded bus packed with babies, mothers, elders, odorous stews and leaking take-out containers. And it twists his stomach as the bus pulls out of the station, winds its way out of the shimmering, seaside city and heads north through the desolate veld.
Seated, he clicks in a scratched CD, flips down his player and snaps on his headphones. The same song over and over again. I ain’t mad at cha . . . I ain’t mad at cha . . .
He looks out the window at how the night-blackened grass looks like lava; how the sky is a boundless abyss; how the fynbos favor aliens; how the mountains resemble black holes in the star-smothered sky. He wonders what the man will look like, if he will like him, why this is all happening now, if he should punch him in the face, what they will talk about, what they will do together, if he will say sorry. He worries for hours and hours. Until it is the middle of the night and he is the only one awake on the bus. He worries until he throws up. Twice. But he does it carefully, soundlessly, into a plastic bag, so as not to disturb the sleeping woman to his right.
Wayde hails a taxi to his father’s house, thirty minutes from the station.
He knocks with a damp palm.
It is seven in the morning. Cold needles prick his chest and face. He nearly caves in with nerves.
The door creaks open. Elton stands before him. Elton wears a timid smile and his arms are anxiously ajar. Wayde is startled: they look exactly alike. Both have sandy skin and dense, brown hair. Both have hazel eyes. Both have big teeth— although Elton’s missing a few. Wayde exhales and steps inside the home: a tiny cottage on a field’s edge.
They hug like winners and losers.
“My seun,” Elton says, patting Wayde’s back over and over. “Yes, you are mine.”
Elton takes Wayde’s trembling hand and leads him inside past a sagging couch, a cluttered table, a TV and stacks of bloated newspapers. Wayde feels awkward because he is taller than Elton. The air reeks of wood chips and dust. Elton lives alone. Wayde wonders what he has been doing here by himself for the past fourteen years.
Like Wayde, Elton is not talkative. Wayde sees him limp. Every step is an interrogation. As he hobbles to the kitchen, Wayde shuffles behind, saying nothing. Their mismatched footsteps slap the brittle wood floor. Wayde feels like he is on another planet. This man is nothing like he envisioned. He is weak. Pitiful, even. Wayde swallows the vigor he had felt on the bus—those intrusive thoughts of pummeling his father, knocking out his teeth, saying, “How could you?”
But this frail man has few teeth and a disarming quietude.
“How was the bus?” Elton croaks in Afrikaans.
“Good,” Wayde’s voice cracks. He clenches his backpack. The only familiar thing in this foreign place.
“It must’ve been boring—” Elton says before devolving into bitter, thunderous coughs. He looks to be wasting away.
Wayde is afraid to breathe. He longs to say more but, as always, chokes on doubt. He curses himself for thinking his quietness would not creep into this moment. Just talk. Wayde always says to himself—at school, with friends—to no avail. Just say something. But words never come easy to Wayde. Especially now.
For their first breakfast they eat polony sandwiches on opposite ends of Elton’s square kitchen table. Wayde hates polony, but is afraid to say.
“You’re tall for your age,” Elton says, with pride, and sits back in his chair.
Sun beams slice Elton’s face. A creek of wrinkles blossoms from the sides of his eyes. Wayde notices Elton’s hands shaking as he brings his sandwich to his lips.
“Yeah, I’m fourteen. I’ll be fifteen in February,” Wayde says. He’s always hated recalling his age. Birthdays, too. Just one more year Elton hadn’t bothered to call.
He has our number. Vivian lamented for years. He has our flipping number and still does nothing, I swear you’re just better off without him. She’d say this as if trying to convince Wayde.
“Ja,” Elton agrees, eyeing the window. “I know how old you are. Well, now.”
Wayde searches Elton’s line of sight. Outside the sky is blue. The nearest house is a quarter mile down the road. Land abounds. The road is scarcely occupied by cars. Fleshy polony lines Wayde’s tongue. Rank, metallic.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Elton says.
Wayde perks up. Good, some remorse. Acknowledgment. True, it is the first day, but why not get it out of the way?
Elton says, “You’re probably thinking, ‘what’s there to do out here in the doldrums?’”
“Well,” Elton continues, not sensing Wayde’s disappointment. “I take care of my garden. I retired early. Had to. I’m getting old. I used to work on a farm. But those days are over. Now, I just garden. During the tourist season, I put on a nice shirt and give tours of the flower route. That pays well. The Germans, they tip a lot. But my god, you should see the Namaqua Daisies! You’ve never seen the color orange until you’ve seen that flower. But off season, I keep my own garden. Well, I try. It’s a hobby, really. Meant to be fun. Haven’t been able much lately,” Elton pauses for a few seconds, then restarts, stuttering a bit. “And, well, since you’re here, I was hoping you could join me? We could maybe garden together. It’s only flowers, succulents. It’s tending and watering, but mostly weeding.”
Wayde sets his sandwich down and burrows his bare chin in his fist. He had thought they would do the kind of father-son things he’d seen on television, like fix bikes or build model cars. Not garden.
Elton goes on looking out the window, seeming to talk at the world, “We can even start tomorrow? After we eat these,” he points to their sandwiches, “you must go and sleep. Take the day to rest. You must be tired from the ride. But, tomorrow, we can start.”
Wayde offers a mechanical smile. He has always preferred to stay indoors, huddled inside his shell. Can he say no? Is there a bus back to Cape Town now? Wayde has no money. And he already bragged to both of his friends about how he was spending the summer with his dad. Your dad? You have a dad? They revered him after they found out he belonged to another man. They themselves did not and had, too, fantasized about what it must be like to be someone else’s. Wayde did not want that reverence to end.
Seconds pass. Wind sifts through the window above the kitchen sink, fluttering curtains. Elton stares at Wayde. Elton’s face glows with hope.
“Well, seun. What do you think?”
Trapped, Wayde nods.
Maybe, he thinks, it will be good to garden with my father. I will get my apology. With all the time spent side by side, it is bound to happen. Yes, we will garden together. Father and son.
They go out to the garden around the back of the house the next morning. The garden itself extends twenty feet from the back door. Wayde sees a semi-enclosed plot haphazardly filled with shrubs and an assortment of flowers barely clinging to life. Elton points and names them all for Wayde: birds of paradise, white lilies, vygies, bush lilies, red hot pokers.
The flowers are divided into separate plots in the garden. They are beautiful, but look tired. The petals sway listlessly in the wind. Beyond the garden, the backyard consists of a massive, unfenced field full of tall, billowing grass. Wayde surveys the shrill green, the nauseating blue of the sky. The full sun is obscenely orange. Beyond: rolling, grassy hills, small houses. Wayde wonders how the earth can be any bigger. How he survived so long in the clutter of Cape Town. He breathes in the air and it is so light, so sweet, so easy to swallow.
Wayde crouches alongside the garden. Upon close inspection, he can see that it is in a state of complete disarray. The green coating on the bottom, surrounding most flowers’ stems, is not some kind of endearing moss. They are just weeds; an impossible number of weeds. The weeds grow flatly on the ground. The spiked leaves cling to the soil with a kind of clairvoyant resignation. They know they will be plucked soon, anyway. There is no sense in ascending.
“Our goal,” Elton says, “is to weed this whole plot. By the time your three weeks is up.”
Elton removes his sweat-soaked t-shirt. Tattoos litter his wrinkled torso and sun-leathered back. They are crude, black hieroglyphics that Wayde cannot decipher.
Elton guides Wayde through the garden’s narrow pathways.
“If you came to Namaqualand during September,” Elton mops his brow, “you’d see flowers all over. Wild ones. It’s the most beautiful thing.”
Wayde wants to say, “Then why do you have a flower garden?” But he bites his tongue and nods with false wonder. A plump bee lumbers through the air. Wayde notices dozens more and grows mesmerized. They pace through petals in peace. Wayde has never really considered flowers. Yes, Vivian loved when Mrs. Van der Merwe let her take home arrangements after her little parties in Hout Bay, but that is the extent of his knowledge.
“Lots of weeds,” Wayde blurts, trying to make small talk. Maybe, Wayde thinks, he just needs to get more comfortable around me. Then he will explain himself. Wayde regrets it instantly; it sounded too much like an insult. He braces himself for Elton’s response.
“Ja,” Elton says, then coughs and spits grainy phlegm. “I haven’t been able to get out much. I haven’t been feel—no. Never mind.”
He trails off with what looks like a nervous smile. Wayde smiles, too, not knowing what else to do.
Hands on their hips, they stare out at the labyrinth of stems and vines, tangles of pollen and petals. Alongside one another, taking in the botanic scent and assessing their daunting task, Wayde considers inventing a fake pollen allergy. How could Elton even know he was lying? It’s not like he had been around. Right then, Wayde is accosted by an urge to ask him why he left. But he can’t. He can’t bring himself to do it. Maybe Elton will bring it up first?
Without gloves or kneepads, they work.
“Let’s just focus on getting these weeds out,” Elton says and points to a section.
“We could use trowels, but it’s best really to use your hands. You’ve got to get these things out by the root. Have you ever weeded?”
“Look,” Elton fondles a weed’s sharp tentacles. He gingerly rips it from the earth, then jiggles the soil-clogged root. Dirt rains. “You have to get to the root,” Elton says, shaking the black lumps. “You can’t leave a trace in the soil.”
What’s left looks like the sketch of the nervous system Wayde once drew in science class.
“Like that,” Elton says, proudly. “Do it just like that and this place will be weed-free in no time.”
They eat breakfast together each morning. Elton fries salty eggs and Wayde sets thick oats on the stovetop. Elton likes his oats plain. Wayde prefers them with milk and cinnamon. Every morning, they chew in tender silence and go to the garden around ten o’ clock.
Wayde has thought of Elton and his absence every day, ever since he can remember. Yet in the garden, Elton acts like nothing is wrong and no time has passed. He acknowledges nothing. He doesn’t say sorry. Wayde thinks maybe this man really is the source of his silence—this man who is too timid to even explain himself. If Wayde had a son he had not seen for fourteen years, the first thing out of his mouth would be sorry. He would explain himself. He would beg for forgiveness. Most importantly, he would not ask him to weed his stupid garden.
Every day, they pull weeds until one o’clock, then eat polony sandwiches for lunch. There is a lady that comes down the road selling vetkoek and glossy koeksisters. Sometimes they buy these. Then, they return to the garden and work for a few more hours.
On Wayde’s fifth day, they sit at the kitchen table and eat vetkoek. Oil slickens their lips. Wayde’s knees throb with bruises. His shoulders ache. He watches Elton chew with his mouth open and feels a pang of disgust. Nothing. Still no sorry. Just lazy chatter, shared meals, mutual tans. Elton, out of nowhere, rises from the table. Wayde exhales. Elton limps to the side of the sink, to the wall-anchored telephone. He dials, then coils the cord around his finger. Wayde notices his foot tapping.
“Who are you ca—”
“Here! Come!” Elton rips the phone from his ear and holds it out to Wayde, who, bewildered, rises and runs to it. Elton smushes it to Wayde’s ear, then returns to his spot at the table.
Wayde gives a disoriented greeting. “Hello? Who is it?”
“It’s me! Your mother. Why didn’t you call? I was worried you—”
“Thank God your father had the wit to ring me. Has he,” Vivian lowers her voice, “said anything?”
“What do you mea—”
“Nothing! Be good and have fun. I’m almost out of minutes. I love you and I’m sorry.”
Before he can ask her what for, she hangs up.
Wayde hooks the phone to the wall, turns and eyes Elton. Elton studies his hands.
During work, between stems, they talk loosely. Their conversations are never serious, but they do trade opinions on a variety of topics. Today—their seventh in the garden—Elton quizzes Wayde like a game show host. They kneel three feet from the other, backs hunched over weeds, tugging and casting them aside. The sun bakes their necks deep shades of brown. Birds soar overhead. The cinnamon from this morning’s oatmeal still lines Wayde’s tongue.
“Favorite soccer team?” Elton asks.
“I like basketball better.”
“Really? I love the Pirates. They’re my team. Have you got a girl?”
“There is,” Wayde stalls, “this girl in grade nine I like. But—I don’t know. I don’t know what to say to her.”
“Hold off on that,” Elton tugs a root. “I haven’t had a woman in years. Too much trouble.”
“Favorite flower?” Elton beams. Sunlight filters through the gaps in his teeth. “Mine’s the protea. Yours?”
“Mom brought these ones home once, from her job. They only opened in the morning.”
“Morning glories. Good choice.” Wayde watches the lines fanning Elton’s eyes bunch together with his smile. “Is it true?” Elton’s smile fades. “Is it true they halved her pay?”
“How do you know that?”
“It’s not important,” Elton cowers. “School. Let’s talk school. Do you like it?”
“Don’t quit. Or else you’ll end up like me. I wish I would have stayed.”
Elton wipes his forehead free of sweat. A smear of dirt spreads over his brow. Wayde tries to control the shaking of his hands. He clutches a thick bunch of leaves, braces himself.
“And your mother,” Elton says without looking at Wayde. “Is she okay?”
“She does her best.”
“We’re just—” Elton sighs. “Different. She and I are just very different.”
Their garden conversations mostly only skim the surface. Wayde is desperate to pivot them. If he could summon the courage, he would ask Elton just one question: Why?
All Wayde ever knew about his father’s absence came from his mother, who, when Wayde was six and she tired of him constantly asking where his father was, said that he “just left Cape Town.” The reasons were never specified. From then on, Wayde assumed that Elton was not there because he was compelled to go elsewhere. Well, then why couldn’t he come back? Vivian never had an answer for this. Only a smack of the lips and a rush out the room.
Every day between weeds, Wayde studies Elton for signs of remorse.
On the ninth day in the garden—the 12th of December—Wayde studies the curve of Elton’s neck as he stoops over a weed patch. The sun lights him from behind, turning him into a silhouette. Elton cranes left, toward Wayde. Sweat pools his brow.
“I can’t believe,” he grunts. “That we’re going to see a new millennium.”
“It’s crazy. Mom thinks the world is gonna end. She swears it’ll—”
Elton erupts in wild laughter. He cocks his head back, mouth agape at the sun, and howls. Wayde sees all the broken teeth; the soft gaps of gum where some teeth are missing. And Wayde is plagued with a violent desire. He contorts Elton’s mouth into an apology. He imagines Elton pleading; his nose mashing the soil.
Elton sighs, composes himself. Wayde forces the fantasy from his mind.
“That is something she would believe. She used to say that, you know? Even back in the 80s, she used to say we couldn’t make it past ’99. She’s always been into conspiracies. I don’t think she’s ever been a big fan of the trut—” he shakes his head. “No, never mind. Forget I said that.”
Wayde squints. Elton avoids his eyes. Seconds pass. They continue working.
“Hold on,” Elton pauses, claps his hands free of dirt. “You don’t believe that, do you? You don’t think the world will really end, right?”
“No, I don’t.”
“But I don’t have the heart to tell her.”
After work each day, Elton cooks a meaty stew or roasts a chicken for dinner. Every night they eat together on the living room couch and watch Noot vir Noot reruns and dubbed soap operas—Isidingo being Elton’s favorite. Then, they go to bed in their separate rooms.
Tonight—Wayde’s eleventh here—Elton prepares a lamb curry. The little house clouds with steam, garlic and onion. Tonight, like the last ten, they sit side by side on the couch before the TV, balance plates on bruised knees and watch television. Noot vir Noot blasts from the little screen. Wayde stares down into his rust-colored curry. Creaks of oil pool in the center. He bites the soft, fatty lamb and lets it melt in his mouth.
“We worked hard today,” Elton says, chewing.
Wayde nods and swallows.
“You have this way about you, ”Elton sets down his fork. “It’s like you’re holding something in you.”
Wayde forces a lamb chunk into his mouth. He wishes Elton would just bring it up first. His years of absence hang like mildew in the air. Nearly two weeks have passed. And still no sorry in sight.
“It’s nothing,” Wayde says, cloaking his annoyance with a shrug. “I’m just tired.”
Elton studies him for a few more seconds. Wayde feels his eyes drill his cheeks. Wayde keeps glaring at the television. Elton, seeming to resign to something, shifts his gaze and stabs at his plate.
They finish eating and then, like every night, go to bed in their separate rooms.
This is every night.
Every night except the next night—December 15th—when Wayde tells Elton he will no longer help in the garden.
Wayde diagnoses himself with a mysterious illness that he swears forces him to stay in bed.
“I’m in a lot of pain,” he tells Elton after dinner—leftover lamb from the prior night. “I need a few day’s rest.”
Elton is sympathetic. He brings Wayde sugar-thick rooibos tea and vanilla rusks. He rises and brings him breakfast. He toils in the garden alone.
But by the third sick day, Elton is impatient.
“Come,” he nudges Wayde’s lying body. “Let’s do this together. It’s no fun alone.”
Wayde grunts, “Please—”
Wayde doesn’t call Elton dad. He can’t bring himself to do it. Like someone who’s forgotten a newcomer’s name and is too embarrassed to ask for it again, he doesn’t call Elton anything.
“What’s wrong, really?” Elton asks Wayde, sitting on the edge of his bed. Elton rests his hand on Wayde’s foot and pinches his big toe twice. Wayde feels his heart flutter.
What’s wrong? You are pretending like everything is fine and it’s not. You are acting like nothing ever happened. You have not explained yourself once. I can’t go on pretending. That’s what’s wrong.
“My throat,” Wayde says, coughing for emphasis.
“You’re going to leave me all alone?” Elton says, amused. “We’ve only got four days left. I would like to spend some time with you, you know?”
Oh, you don’t like being alone? Wayde thinks. I can’t imagine what that feels like! Really! It must truly suck!
Even though the cramped bedroom is hot and sweat slinks the wallpaper, Wayde burrows deeper under his blanket. A damp heat swells his chest. Dust clogs his nose.
Elton walks back to the garden, scratching his head.
On the fourth sick day, Elton wakes Wayde. Wayde rubs his eyes and frowns.
“My back,” Wayde groans. “It hurts. I’ll need to rest again today. Maybe the rest of the trip.”
Elton’s hands drop from his hips on his way back outside to the garden. Wayde has just three days left in Kamieskroon and they still have to finish weeding a third of the garden.
After Elton leaves, Wayde creeps to the back window and peeks out the lace curtains. He sees Elton on his knees tugging weeds, pouring sweat. Alone, Wayde thinks. Serves him right.
On the fifth day of rest, Elton realizes that he has really just got two more days with his boy, so he better do whatever it takes to get him out of bed. He, too, has noticed the odd switching of Wayde’s symptoms. Today, Elton wakes Wayde and the affliction-of-the-day is his shoulders.
“They’re sore,” Wayde points behind his back.
“Your shoulders?” Elton raises an eyebrow.
“Ja,” Wayde grunts, wallowing in the bed, looking wide-eyed up at Elton.
Elton limps away. Wayde digs himself deeper into the mattress.
Elton returns to the bedside with a bottle of Jergen’s lotion.
Elton pulls the covers off, turning Wayde into a defenseless worm. Wayde shivers.
“Lift up,” Elton commands, clinically. “Take your shirt off.”
Wayde moves slowly, stunted by doubt.
Elton points, “Go on. Sit on the edge.”
Shirtless, Wayde crawls to the foot of the creaking bed. With a great struggle, Elton swings his aching body around Wayde until he straddles Wayde’s scrawny back.
“Relax your shoulders,” Elton says before squirting lavender lotion on his cracked palms. He pats it onto Wayde’s skin. Slightly red, still soft. The cold lotion initially stings. But as Elton massages it in with tiny circles, Wayde’s muscles slacken and warm. He shuts his eyes and feels his father’s rough hands knead his shoulders. Wayde sways back and forth with each touch. Elton’s fingers are concentrated, delicate. His touch is deep, deliberate. He focuses on each imaginary knot for a while before moving on to the next.
Wayde wants to tell him he’s good with his hands, but doesn’t, for fear of ruining the moment.
Elton wants to tell him it’s easy to tend to him as tenderly as he does his garden, because he loves them both, but doesn’t, for fear of ruining the moment.
“Fine,” Wayde says to Elton after the massage, as he slips on his shirt. “I’ll come now.”
The first click is harsh. Wayde’s eyes rip out their sockets.
“I forgot to turn off the flash,” Wayde curses himself. “Here, try again.”
Elton hops giddily around the Polaroid.
“Good,” Elton says, wheezing. “Because I need a picture with my boy on his last day.”
Wayde will leave tomorrow. Still, Elton has not answered the question. Still, Wayde wants Elton to acknowledge his absence And, perhaps, most tragically still, Wayde has a curious desire to stay in Namaqualand. He would never do it; his mother would die. He feels he has to go back. He has to find a way to help her—maybe find a job of his own. But the thought crosses his mind.
They spend this final workday extracting the last of the weeds. Wayde cannot believe it is nearly done. The first day, he thought the weeds could never be eradicated. But now they are almost gone. The flowers have returned to elegance. The lilies are velvety white. The birds of paradise are soaring ornaments.
Christmas is in four days. “How will you spend it?” Wayde asks Elton, who pockets the camera.
“Here,” Elton shrugs. “Where else? I’ll take the day off.”
The two never mention the massage from yesterday, but on this last full day Elton asks many questions. He trips over his words—acts like he will never see Wayde again. They even joke with one another. He asks about school, his friends, if he’s ever smoked dagga. Wayde answers with the honesty reserved only for farewells. It’s boring. Only have two. Not yet.
For lunch, Elton bakes a fragrant bobotie and even whips up a milk tart. The dense, cinnamon-streaked custard drips from Wayde’s mouth on his way back to the garden for their final afternoon of weeding, of being together. Terror seizes Wayde. He wonders if he can go back to being the hollow boy he was before. Or, maybe, if he will go back to Cape Town as a boy fully sketched in, fully claimed.
Before they head back outside after lunch, Elton makes a pitstop in his bedroom nightstand, withdraws a Rand-stuffed envelope and hands it to Wayde.
“Give this to your mother when you get back.”
Back in the garden, the atmosphere is cheery and open. Levees have broken. They crouch in the farthest corner of the plot, alongside one another, breathing, pulling, shaking, casting aside. They are intoxicated. With labor, with love, with impending loss.
In the distance chimes the aching bleat of a collared dove. And like elbows maneuvering into a shirt, the question still tugs in Wayde’s mind. No matter how lovely their day, the question climbs his throat like bile, disintegrating everything.
They have already shared so much today, this last day. Elton revealed how he met Vivian (at the clinic) and stitched fragments of his own life (raised in Mitchells Plain. Yeah, you heard right boy, Mitchells Plain). Still, Wayde wants more. And the way their final day is going, full of revelation, full of intimacy—the kind that means you will have to stay in touch now that you’ve shared so much—Wayde cannot help himself. There, in the garden, ripping the final weed, he turns to his father, who observes a passing horde of larks with an impossible, approachable innocence. The question swells like a bloated root. It stumbles and tugs from the wet fury of Wayde’s mouth:
“How come you left Cape Town?”
Wayde throws his hand over his lips.
Elton glances at Wayde, then buries his head in his hands. Dirt crumbles along his palms and cheeks.
Wayde wants to be buried.
“I’m not well,” Elton says, finally, lifting his head. Soil smears his chin. “Have you heard my coughing?”
Wayde nods, trembling.
“The truth is I’m not well.”
“But why?” Wayde presses. “Mom says you left right before I was born. She says you never called, wrote. Nothing!” Wayde burns with this sudden eruption. The anger is a dagger in his chest. He cries fat, astonished tears.
Wayde sees Elton sink in the soil. His skin melts off his bones. The birds caw overhead.
Wayde rises an octave, his voice a quivering tightrope. “Why?”
Elton is still.
A cloud covers the sun. The shade is cool and tinged with grief.
“Because I didn’t know!” Elton dredges the words from his gut. “I didn’t know about you until two months ago!”
Wayde freezes. Blood pricks his veins. The flowers stand paralyzed in the wind.
Elton rises, “I have the letter she wrote right in my nightstand! Just two months ago she wrote me, begging for money, apologizing, saying she made a mistake to hide you all these years.”
“To hide me?”
“I left Cape Town fourteen years ago. In ’85. I came up here because otherwise I would have been killed. Things were different then,” Elton pauses, tries to collect himself. “Wayde, I didn’t leave because of you. I didn’t even know about you.”
“She never told me about you. She hated me for leaving, she took it personal and, because of it, never told me she had fallen pregnant. I would have come back for you. Had I known. And then she sends me a letter asking for money.”
“I don’t understa—”
“She sent pictures. That’s how I knew. I told her I would only send money if she put you on a bus to me. Look. I can’t travel far with my condition. And I haven’t—” his voice goes ragged. “I haven’t got much time.”
Wayde is too frozen to swallow. Cold saliva pools under his tongue.
“Now come,” Elton bursts, clad in anger and embarrassment, and rises to walk back to the house. He’s revealed far more than he promised he ever would. After all, Elton thinks, Wayde still has to go back to his mother—a mother who, Elton swallows, will soon be all he has.
Elton stomps unevenly toward the house.
Wayde trails him like a duckling, wondering what the letter contained. How his mother brought herself to write it. If what she did was the most sincere act of love ever shown, or the most selfish denial a mother could give a child. He wonders how he can ever look her in the eye again. He wonders if she, too, will say sorry.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” Wayde still cries. “Why didn’t you tell me what she did?”
“It’s not my place,” Elton says, his hand on the door handle. “And you have to go back to her. No,” he repeats, shaking his head. “This is why I didn’t bring it up. It’s just not my place.”
Wayde starts to say something, but doesn’t. He has had enough of words for the day.
“I know she feels guilty. She has to. I know your mother very well. Well, knew her.”
“Why would she lie about th—”
“We’re finished,” Elton bellows, still facing the door. “So, let us go inside and prepare a nice goodbye dinner. Okay? Let us have a braai. I’ll even let you drink a beer.”
Wayde folds his arms, waiting for Elton to open the door.
Elton sighs deeply, then turns around to face Wayde.
“And let me explain to you,” Elton says, panting. “Let me tell you why—why your poor mother probably had the right. I’m not innocent. Not all the way. Didn’t you hear where I was from? I wasn’t. I—” Elton grows flustered. “Fine. All of this, why I had to leave Cape Town, why I came here, I’ll tell you tonight. You’re a man, right? Can you handle the truth? Of the kind of person I am?” Elton points to the lopsided skull etched into his stomach.
Wayde nods and wipes his cheeks. He feels as bruised—as tender—as a petal.
Elton looks up at the sky, shielding his eyes.
“And, seun, before you leave tomorrow,” Elton swings open the door and again looks Wayde in the eye. They glisten hazel at each other. Elton is startled for a second at the honeyed glint, the shared magnificence of it. Then, he finishes his sentence: “Remind me to give you some seeds.”
Vivian meets Wayde at the Intercape Bus Station three days before Christmas. A scorching rain pelts hulking busses and slickens the streets. The mountains weep. The sea swells.
Wayde steps off the packed, foggy bus and is met by his mother’s face. His jaw, clenched the entire ride, constricts somehow further. He’d had visions of violence. Of accusation. But he studies her face, cowering beneath a broken umbrella, and thinks she looks fatigued. Dark bags like udders swing below her eyes. She smiles at him, a little too sweetly than normal, and he sees—through the veil of rain, the gasps of passing tires, the heaving chug of engines—that her teeth are much greyer than he ever recalled. She looks so shrunken, so undone, that he decides against it.
He fetches his bag from underneath the bus and she motions for him to join her side under the umbrella. She struggles to lift the handle higher, to accompany his height. He watches her toy with it, clicking and flipping. A rip leaks rain onto his head. The chill shivers his spine. He watches her struggle and grimace against the wind until he takes the handle from her and raises it high. It covers both of them. She looks at him and her body caves in with relief. A kind of shame lingers in her eyes.
They fetch a taxi home.
They sit in the first row of a Volkswagen Kombi. Behind them sit other passengers from Wayde’s bus, belongings stacked on their laps. The driver shuts his door. Vivian and Wayde stare ahead out the wide windshield into the wet fog of night. Blurred city lights speckle red and green. The taxi speeds ahead.
Vivian asks no questions.
“It was good,” Wayde fills in the blank. “I didn’t want to leave. I wanted—”
Wayde turns to face her. The lights cut her profile. She cracks her knuckles. “Okay? I am sorry.”
Wayde studies her hands in her lap. They are so snaked by veins. So ashen. So cracked by chemicals. So worn from toiling, for years, for him. He wants to take those hands in his. He wants to nurse them back to life.
“Do you still think,” Wayde says as the taxi nears the V&A Waterfront, where Christmas décor brightens the horizon. “That the world will end?”
She looks at him, her eyes glossed and trembling, and shrugs. She twists her fingers into a knot.
“I hope not,” she says, into her lap.
The taxi surges east. On their way home they pass Observatory, Table Mountain, the sea, the swaying veld. They jerk while passing a pothole. The seeds dance in Wayde’s pocket.