The three women in the kitchen of the large Phakalane home did not look much alike, but they were sisters. Their unlikeness extended to their demeanors—the bearing in their shoulders, the timbre of their laughter, how they looked at one another. They had gathered on a Sunday, a day replete with sun and the bright heat of a Gaborone summer. The youngest sister, Sedilame, straddled the lemon-yellow barstool at the kitchen counter, hunched over her phone. Her legs were a deep brown and seemed impossibly long and sullen as she dragged her feet on the floor. She was ignoring the blackened pot next to her on the counter, its handles melted down to a nub. Her back was turned toward her sisters, who were laughing and chattering on, adding to the national inventory of complaints about the heat. These two—the oldest and the middle—were closer in age and affection, and on this particular afternoon they appraised each other with fondness and the blunt meanness of women sure of their place in each other’s lives.
Boitumelo, the middle sister, kneaded at the soreness in her sister Lebogang’s bare yellow back. Boitumelo was the shortest of the three, her body trim from predawn kickboxing classes she took at a studio in BBS mall. She had clawed her way to a top position in the communications department of a bank, and now crammed her days with the mollifying tedium of work. She had been the last to arrive here at Lebogang’s home, radiating her typically nervous energy. After greeting their mother and her nine-year-old nephew, she’d shepherded her sisters into the kitchen, where she lacked the patience, or grace, to stand still. She paced around, sniffing at the rancid odor of burned plastic that lingered in the air, opening cupboard doors, picking up the blackened pot—the evidence of their mother’s condition—and putting it down, knocking her knuckles on the three watermelons on the counter. She was the one who looked most like their mother. On her desk at work was a picture of their mother outside Teacher Training College, just twenty-four, in a denim miniskirt and black leatherette boots, her face forthright (or defiant?) staring down at the camera. Her colleagues teased her about making that same expression.
“Do you even look at yourself anymore?” Boitumelo asked her sister, smoothing the gather of jowls under Lebogang’s chin. Lebogang laughed, dabbing at her face, her neck, her décolletage with a dishcloth filled with ice cubes. This was her home, the kitchen counter where her sons had their lunches during the week and where they confided in the maid about their day and the small, unforgivable betrayals of friends. Her sisters still called her by her first name even though she had been a mother for eighteen years. She had quit her teaching job after the birth of her second child to sell dresses, weaves, and shoes from her car boot and, increasingly, through Facebook. She wore one of those dresses now—a maxi dress, its spaghetti straps unhooked and laying limp on her bosom. She was so light-skinned that, in her wavy Brazilian weaves, she was often mistaken for Coloured and, once, as the daughter of a wealthy cattle rancher from someplace deep in Kgalagadi. She sat at the other end of the counter, closest to the living-room door, and could hear her son, Leruo, just nine, in conversation with her mother. He sounded exasperated.
“Mme, have you forgotten already?” he said. “I just told you Papa is not here.”
Their mother was surprised. “Ehe? I asked you already? Ijoo, sorry, my baby.”
“Leruo, manners,” Lebogang called, in English. She and her sisters would never talk to an elder the way her sons, lacking patience and discipline, often talked to her mother.
What the three sisters did have in common were the manners they had learnt growing up in the same house in Serowe, with a woman quick to pluck a mulberry branch to strike their bare legs. They knew to refer to their elders formally, in the plural, even after so many years in the south, in Gaborone, where younger people called to their elders in the naked, combative singular. They knew to never inquire after an elder’s health, lest they constrain that elder between a lie and embarrassment. They knew that difficult conversations were more palatable face-to-face, which was why they had gathered in Lebogang’s kitchen. Out in the world, they defended each other as only sisters could. But on the occasions when they fought, when they were bewildered by each other’s miserliness or moroseness or impatience, they would each wonder, maliciously, if the miserliness or the impatience or the moroseness on display was a trait inherited from a father.
They were sisters, but each had a different father. Each had, at some point of their adolescence, gone through her own private anguish of asking her mother for a name (oh, who but these sisters could understand the terrifying curiosity, the guilt of asking their mother to ransack her heart and memory for—to put it plainly—the names of the men she had slept with; to insinuate that she, a respectable woman, an elder, once smoldered with desire?).
“Bomma, chop-chop! The day is almost done,” Boitumelo said, clapping her hands like a PE teacher. “I am here. We are all here now, even your friend over there, always on her phone. Heela, mosadi, your phone is not going anywhere!”
“Boitumelo, no,” Lebogang protested weakly. Boitumelo had inherited her mother’s face and her capacity to work from sunrise to sundown, but this abrasive manner she must have picked up elsewhere. Lebogang feared this abrasiveness when she saw it deployed against Sedilame. She always felt the need to protect her youn-gest sister, although she was never sure what exactly she needed protection from. Even as a child, Sedilame had always harbored sorrows Lebogang could neither divine nor ameliorate. Sedilame had had better opportunities than her sisters; back when the government sponsored everyone’s university studies, she had left for England to study mining engineering, and returned a year later, pro-Black and Pan-Africanist, but degreeless. Sedilame was born to a mother wearied by the world, one who doted on her youngest more than her other daughters. Lebogang often found herself angry at Sedilame for the guilt and pity she elicited, for her shyness, which Lebogang interpreted as victimhood, for her sensitivity, which Lebogang found naive. She was impatient with Sedilame’s habit of dissolving into tears at any moment, like white women on TV. Is it blood or water you are shedding? their mother used to ask, sometimes angrily, sometimes tenderly. Yet, at funerals, Sedilame still wailed along with the children at the accumulation of red earth over a casket, over the body of an uncle or a grandmother.
The sisters were forty-eight and forty-three and thirty-five. Each had, in adulthood, suffered the anguish of searching for her father, with results so different they hardly ever talked about them. Boitumelo had found her father retired and living in his home village of Nlakhwane, a man who still fondly asked after her mother. He had introduced her to his other children and to his wife. Boitumelo was in that family’s WhatsApp group now; she showed up in wedding photos on Facebook with people her sisters knew nothing about. Sedilame had waited for years before searching, with some vague, romantic conviction that her father would find her and claim her. At twenty-nine, she had pored over the phone directory, called each Maun landline listed under her father’s surname. At the only meeting they ever had, at a food stall in the Gaborone taxi rank, her father had clasped her hands in his and prayed quietly, fervently, and Sedilame had the distinct sensation that he was ashamed. Lebogang had been too late; all she could do was weep into the overgrowth covering a grave.
Lebogang was anxious now about how her youngest sister would take their conversation. It was for Sedilame’s benefit that she still had not broached the reason for their gathering, why she searched for, picking and abandoning, more palatable ways to say what needed to be said, when what she really wanted to say was so ugly and direct: Since the break-in at their childhood home in Serowe, their mother could no longer live on her own—but Lebogang could not keep her in her home any longer. The burned pot was proof, a minor disaster that could have been much worse. Surely, Lebogang had done her part. It was those words—doing her part—that she balked at. She was the oldest and knew her obligations as a daughter, obligations that mirrored those she had taken on as a wife and that had come with being a mother. Her enduring dutifulness was her love. But her duty had reached its limit.
Lebogang glanced at Sedilame, who was gazing dreamily out the window, her face childlike, absorbed in whatever phantoms Lebogang was too sensible to see.
“Sedi,” Lebogang said gently to her sister, “are we together?”
Sedi turned from the window and looked at her phone. “I am here, aren’t I?”
“Ah, I haven’t seen Rraagwe-Pako all day,” their mother said from the living room. “Where is your father? Is he at work?”
“Yes, he is in Kampala,” Leruo said. “I just now told you. Don’t you remember?”
“You told me?” their mother said. “You are lying. Naare o hapaane? Don’t lie to your grandmother. Look at me when I am talking to you! Don’t you know it’s wrong to lie to your elders? Marete a gago!”
Boitumelo could only stare in astonishment. When did their mother start using profanity? It was disorienting, that the woman who looked and sounded like their mother could act in ways so foreign. Over Christmastime in Serowe, she had startled them when she had asked for her brother, who had died two years before. Mme, Uncle Modise is not here, Sedi had said. Old woman, you were there when we buried him, Boitumelo had said. Their mother simply laughed away her embarrassment. Now, Boitumelo watched her older sister as she twisted the wedding ring that pinched her heat-swollen finger. Lebogang spoke, her words hemmed in by a hesitant formality.
She said, “Though I am tall, I will keep my words today short. We are women now. We have sight. We do not need a prophet to reveal to us that the woman in there who raised us is no longer the woman she used to be. We all know what happened in Serowe in July—the break-in, and now, last night, as you can see, the meat forgotten on the stove. It’s only with God’s mercy that my oldest boy came downstairs and turned the stove off. We could be talking something different. Those are my words. I think you hear me.”
“I think we can all agree that Mme can no longer live by herself,” Boitumelo said. “She is at risk of thieves who know she lives alone. And she is a danger to herself. One of us has to take her. Somebody who can take good care of her. We can’t just leave her. My mother is not going to be one of those old women wandering the village muttering to herself. She is not going to be accused of witchcraft.”
The oldest sisters nodded at each other.
“What does she want to do?” Sedilame asked.
“What do you mean?” Boitumelo asked.
“Have you asked her what she wants to do?”
Boitumelo was incensed. “You know what she is going to say. She is going to want to live in her own house, where she can go to her church and see people she has known her whole life. But we can’t just let her. Did you hear what Lebo just said? She almost burnt the house down.”
“We are talking about my children, here,” Lebogang said, fighting her own anger down.
“Are you listening?” Boitumelo said to Sedilame.
“In Serowe, she lost her bag,” Lebogang said, “all her documents in there. She went to the bank and forgot her handbag in a taxi.”
“You know I can’t take her,” Boitumelo said, addressing only Lebogang. “I am always at work. And I don’t even have the space.” Her house was her house, and it reflected the treasured ethos of her life: her daily striving, goals met, days slayed from her first swallow of an apple-
cider-vinegar shot in her unlit kitchen, kickboxing on an empty stomach, even surreptitious Kegels at her work desk, all ways to reassure the body of its aliveness.
“Sedi—” Lebogang began.
“Sedi has three roommates,” Boitumelo interrupted.
“Come on,” Lebogang pleaded. “You know I can’t. It wouldn’t be fair on Rraagwe-Pako. What would he even say about my mother living here full-time? She has been here for months. And his sisters! Who knows what else they would accuse me of?”
“Why do you care what those witches think about you?” Boitumelo asked.
“I have to come right out and say it,” Lebogang said. “She has to be out of my house by the time Rraagwe-Pako returns from his trip. She cannot be here when he learns his house almost burnt down with his children in it. She can’t be here. I want her out.”
Now it was out in the open. The sisters fell quiet. Sedilame was angry that Lebogang would chase her own mother out, like a street dog. Boitumelo wished an old-age home was an option, like she’d seen on TV; how clean and efficient that could be.
“Maybe we should just hire a maid for her,” Lebogang said. “For the house in Serowe.”
“Are we all going to pay for it?” Boitumelo said. “I know some of you would always be crying about the money.”
“Boitumelo—” Lebogang started.
“Am I lying? Besides, I don’t know if we could trust a maid so far away, unsupervised. That would be as good as throwing Mme away. You hear all these stories, these maids feeding the elders in their care pus from their wounds or menstrual blood. Or! Or they become violent toward them. I just don’t know if we can trust them.”
As she spoke, Boitumelo became aware of Sedilame’s trembling shoulders, her head dipped into her chest. “She is crying. Are you crying? Why are you crying?”
“I just meant that you shouldn’t treat Mme like a child,” Sedilame said. But really, she had just remembered when she was young and her mother used to bathe her. In the bathtub, she would tuck her hands into her armpits, flare her arms into wings and her mother would press her fingers down the curve of her spine, counting her vertebrae to predict the number of children Sedilame would have. Some days it was nine, some days thirteen.
“Sedi, nobody is treating her like a child,” Lebogang said. She looked at Boitumelo, who was chugging from her water bottle and shooting daggers at Sedilame, who was still sobbing.
“Remember your watermelon in that combi?”
The older sisters laughed. Their lives were different now, but they shared a repository of childhood memories—of carrying firewood and little mesh bags of concrete to school, of buying half loaves on credit from Reka-Reka tuckshop, of buying groceries with stamps from the cooperative, of splitting a watermelon while carrying it home in a combi. All that humiliation was in the rearview, and they could laugh about it as an ordeal they had escaped.
Outside, the air hung heavy and still. It was one of those days that stretched on and on: the sun early to rise, by midday lulling everything catatonic, slow to set. The jacaranda tree in the backyard had shed all over the pool. Its lilac flowers stuck to Lebogang’s oldest son as he dipped his body in and out of the water. None of the sisters could swim. The pool was mostly for the benefit of Lebogang’s sons and their friends, who had taken swimming lessons at the private schools they went to.
Their mother lay prone on the patio. Her feet were bare, her head too. Her blouse was open and fanned out on either side of her. She pressed the flesh of her stomach and chest into the coolness of the tiles. Sedilame lay next to her, gazing at the wisps of clouds above. She wanted to lie out on the lawn and feel the sun on her face. But it was the kind of brutally hot day where the sun shone with a blinding brightness, its rays razors, a certain pressure in the atmosphere that usually portended rain, though the rains had been scant that season.
“Mme, I need you to help me undo my hair,” Sedilame said.
Her mother pushed Sedilame’s head away from her. “It’s too hot.”
She had this tendency, Sedilame did, of needing her mother’s hands on her. To undo her braids or oil her scalp. Even on that day, when she arrived at the house, she had playfully sat on their mother’s lap, and laughed at her nephews’ consternation. She knew the embarrassment her family felt on her behalf, that her life had not turned out as her performance at school had led them all to believe. The thick of that shame had never left her; she waded in it every day, when she had to tell her mother that she had quit yet another job. Often, she avoided her primary-school friends, her relatives from Serowe, the group of students she’d left with for England (most returned, working for Debswana). She avoided her sisters too. It was only because Lebogang had coerced their mother into making the call herself that Sedilame had shown up.
“Let your sisters do it,” her mother said.
Lebogang sat on a patio chair across from them. She was balancing a tray on her knees, slicing a watermelon, her face knitted in concentration. Boitumelo paced at the edge of the pool, laughing into her cell phone, toe dipped into the water.
“You have the sweetest hands,” Sedilame said. She poked the side of her mother’s stomach. “Mme, I am asking. I am begging you.”
Her mother sat up. “What’s wrong with this girl?”
Boitumelo walked over to them and bent down to pull the flaps of her mother’s blouse closed. “Button your shirt, old woman,” she said gently.
“Maybe what we need is someone with some kind of medical training,” Boitumelo said to Lebogang. “Not quite a nurse, but something like that. A professional.”
“Mme is sitting right here,” Sedilame said, staring up at her sister.
“Sedi, I can’t be here the whole day,” Boitumelo said.
“And waste the day?”
Sedilame blinked slowly. “We don’t have to decide today.”
“When do you propose we decide?” Boitumelo asked. “Seriously, Sedi, when are you going to stop crying so we can make a decision? You are not a baby.”
Sedilame stared up at her sister. From where had she inherited such unpleasantness?
“Sedi, you are making this difficult. We don’t have time.” Boitumelo saw her sister flinch. “Maybe you should move to Serowe. What are you really doing in Gabs? Like, really? What are you doing here?”
Some months, when she could not cobble together enough money from her piece jobs, Sedilame fantasized about escaping to Serowe. She dreamt about waking up in her childhood bed, a daily breakfast of porridge and milk, gossiping with her mother in the cool breeze beneath the mulberry tree. But her mother was no longer her mother, thus home was no longer home. Their mother was seventy-seven. She had never been married. There was a time Sedilame admired her for it, found her an unwitting feminist model, one who had decentered men from her life once she had exhausted their uses. Now, she dreaded her mother’s loneliness and disappointments. Days wide and silent as the sky. Sedilame was repulsed by her mother’s new mysteries, the way she bent over a plate with singular focus, eating with the intensity of a child, her guileless blinking as she emerged from whatever crevices of her mind to ask the same question that she had posed just minutes before; her retreat into some unearthly place to which Sedilame could not follow.
“I would have been shocked,” Sedilame said, “if Boitumelo, our boss, had not shown up to decide everybody’s life.”
Once, Sedilame had thought about going to spend time in Serowe, to learn about the expansive and disparate seasons of her mother’s life. She had thought she could study her mother with anthropological seriousness, absorb her stories by osmosis, discover the cosmology for her own life. That had been when she, childishly, thought her mother would always be around. But her mother’s collage of Tupperware and dinnerware, sets of Encyclopaedia Britannica, the old hand-wound SINGER sewing machine, photos and academic certificates, the large enamel bowls, shoes and berets, dresses, doeks, winter coats, raincoats, duvets, and satin pillowcases were losing the weight of their meaning by the day.
“Sedi, just answer that one question for me,” Boitumelo said. “What are you doing in Gaborone?”
“Everybody calm down,” Lebogang said. “Here is some watermelon.” She passed the tray of watermelon around and they each took a slice. Lebogang waved the tray in the general direction of the pool and called to her nine-year-old, who was still playing whatever games kept him so occupied.
The watermelon was beautiful: pink, firm, and sweet. She devoured one cooling slice and took another. In her childhood, they used to drink watermelon; she and her brother Modise dipping their hands in a cut half, dipping their hands to tear the flesh, then sharing the shell to slurp up the juice. Once in a while, she was astonished at how much of life had changed. With tender affection, she remembered the girl she had been, who had been fierce and loud at all the games of batho safe and skonti ball, dress tucked into her panties. Days spent outside, undeterred by the heat. Her grandsons were indoor creatures, scuttling over phones and television games. Now and then she tried to trace the meaning of her life. She had spent most of it working, fifty years as a teacher. In Serowe, still today, wherever she went, her students rushed to greet her and talked wistfully about the sharp sting of her stick on their shins. But it wasn’t just Serowe. All over the country, she had worked. She had left Makalamabedi after ten years, a wealthy woman, gifted cattle and goats by the villagers. In Mmadinare, in Francistown and Maun, she had met the fathers of her girls. Twice she had been fervently in love with the men. Only once had she immediately fallen in love with the swaddled baby the nurse had handed her. Once she fantasized about leaving the baby on the hospital bed and disappearing. Some days she remembered the boys who had broken into the house, their loud spurts of breath in the lonesome silence of her bedroom. Had she not been so frightened she might have recognized them; she might have connected faces to mothers. These days, she got mired in her thoughts. Her memories were like the known forests of her girlhood, in the summer months they spent harvesting phane in the bush; then, all the girls knew not to call each other’s names out loud; the forest could echo an unfortunate girl’s name, drawing her deeper and deeper into its recesses. So many of those girls of her youth were gone now. Those surviving were scattered all over the country, in the meager care of their children. Some days she could only remember the survivors by their ailments: Boitshoko with the swollen knees, Kesolofetse bedridden somewhere in this same Gaborone, Bakgobi with the trembling hands and fainting spells when she missed her pills, Kgomotsego with her lost eyesight, confined to the darkness of her yard, shouting eager greetings to any voices passing by. There was something she needed to do, something she needed to tell her son-in-law. Her girls often talked about her as though she were not sitting right next to them. On the phone she had heard her oldest girl lie about her, telling someone on the other end that she had almost burnt the house down. She seemed to remember the meat on the stove, the smoke billowing in the kitchen. Routine for a woman such as herself who had never enjoyed cooking. In all the days of her life, she had never enjoyed cooking. In all the days of her life, she had never worn a pair of trousers. In all the days of her life, she had never ridden a train, even though she used to dream of it, of embarking in Palapye at night and waking in an entirely new town. She hadn’t seen her daughter’s husband all weekend, and there was something that she needed to tell him. She needed to say…she wanted to say…. Mostly, she was embarrassed. The world was moving on. With her oldest she would have family around her, her impatient grandsons, a chasm separating them from her, their cell phones and violent games and the maid they preferred to talk to. With her middle daughter, there would be shouting, fights every night, just like when she was a teenager, impatient for the world. With her youngest she would feel most like a burden; the end of her days written plainly in the sorrow on her youngest’s face, and it might fortify her, that palpable script of her ending, to face it with dignity. I wonder if it will rain before winter, she heard her daughter saying, her youngest, her light.