Volume 1 Number 3
The road from Limpopo Province is straight and empty on a Sunday morning. The yellow police van rattles through the dusty dry plains of the Bafokeng platinum fields northeast of Pretoria as we head to Pholokwane. Our unit, the Police Band, Soweto, is heading to the annual cultural eisteddfod of the South African Police Services.
Visible in the far distance are a few huts scattered at the base of a rocky outcrop. Each of my colleagues has a different name for the hill.
"Do you see that mountain?" asks Inspector Dube.
"Over there," he jerks his head toward it.
It doesn't look like a mountain to me. I grew up with real mountains in Cape Town, dangerous ones. Our house looks up the back of Table Mountain, the natural monument that commands photographers from around the world, the home of Devil's Peak and Skeleton Gorge where three boys at our school fell to their death one day. From the top of our street, the Hottentot's Holland range is visible, snow-capped in winter where a friend's brother died from hypothermia while hiking.
I point and say, "I see a hill." but Dube slaps my hand away.
He raises a fist in front of my face in a sudden and startling gesture. I wonder which tribal taboo of the tall Ndebele I have unwittingly violated.
"You must never!" he says, eyes wide and white in his dark face. "That place, we say Ntaba Kayikhonjwa. In English, Mountain-of-No-Pointing because when you speak its name, your face changes, your body shakes. You must never point that side; only show your fist if you wish to indicate direction. Otherwise, a terrible will happen."
His words bubble over with a theatrical eye-rolling, lip-wobbling shudder. Everybody in the van laughs heartily. Perhaps they are laughing at me because I am gullible and Dube has just told a preposterous story which I am compelled to believe. Maybe they are laughing because terrifying and mysterious things happen here anyway and are made more bearable with laughter.
"In our culture," says Sergeant Mboweni, "we call it Fist Mountain. You must not stare at that mountain, because if you do, the ancestors will strike you with the fist. They hit you," Mboweni slams a fist into his flattened palm, "or the one you love."
I am astonished. Again, they laugh.
"You do not believe such a thing?"
"I believe, Sergeant, but how do the villagers that live there avoid gazing upwards? How is it possible?"
"No! Is not the really story," interrupts Constable Mokwoena, who comes from the region. His thick accent is not easily understood. "Don't believe the bad story, they the wrong ones. The mountain, we call Modimolle. My grandmother tells me the really story as I'm stilly young. When the father of my grandfather run from the Impis of Shaka Zulu, they hide here."
Mokwoena points out the back window at the hill receding in the distance
"The mountain protect the peoples, so name mean Blessing of the God."
Three days later, we travel back to Johannesburg and my colleagues are asleep in the van. As we pass Fist Mountain, I cannot look away. I stare, riveted. I want to understand the ancient beliefs.
I want to believe now, because Merilyn is in hospital in renal failure. My mother-in-law saw fairies when she was a child, collects miniatures in porcelain and pewter, plants impatiens in the garden for them. Or used to before she got ill.
"They were swathed in bands of colour," she told me, when I sat at her bedside and asked her to tell me the story again. "Such pretty colours too--lilac and mauve, yellow and gold."
"How old were you when you saw them, Mum?" I asked. Her dying has been so slow and painful.
"Oh, I'm sure I was five. Mary was four."
"What do fairies do?" I hate watching her, yellow and bloated, battling for breath.
"They hovered over our heads and waved to us. You know, people still laugh at me when I tell them this, they think I'm joking."
"But you aren't."
"No, I saw those fairies."
If I stare at the mountain, perhaps the fairies (who are surely relations of the ancestors) will fetch her. I will them to call her to the other side. If I point at Fist Mountain, might I persuade the deities that a cross-cultural exchange would be a fair deal?
The road to Limpopo Province is straight and empty on a Sunday morning. It is three weeks since the trip with the band, and I drive alone.
I stop next to a wire fence that keeps cows from wandering onto the road. I remove a china fairy from my bag and place her beside the creosoted post, pointing her serene gaze towards the jagged rock.
The fairy will remind the mountain god of my grateful thanks for opening the hands of the ancestors who took Merilyn home.