The following excerpt comes from The Reactive‘s brief prologue. In it, Ntshanga introduces the reader to the voice of Nathi, the novel’s protagonist, and sets into motion the background pieces that thrum throughout the novel: the death of Luthando, the commitment to Bhut’ Vuyo, and Nathi’s unforgiving conscious. Overall, it’s a gripping opening to a powerful book. — Benjamin Woodard
Ten years ago, I helped a handful of men take my little brother’s life. I wasn’t there when it happened, but I told Luthando where to find them. Earlier that year, my brother and I had made a pact to combine our initiation ceremonies.
This was back in 1993.
LT was only seventeen then. He was broad of shoulder, but known as a wimp at Ngangelizwe High. My brother was good-looking in a funny way that never helped him any, and, like me, he was often called ibhari, or useless, by the older guys in the neighborhood. LT was bad with girls, too; most of them had decided against us pretty early. I don’t know; maybe it’s strange that I remember that about him most of all. I suppose my brother was handed the lousy luck of every guy in our family except our dad, who’d thrown us into different wombs one year after the other. We had cousins like that, too, all of them dealt a similar hand. In the end, it was winter when Luthando went to the hills to set things straight for himself. He went up thinking I would follow behind him.
It was raining when the bakkie took him on its back and drove him up the dirt trail. Inside the camp, they put him in line with a set of boys he shared a classroom with. Then they took out their blades. Afterwards, they nursed him for a week, and he kicked and swore at them for another two. They called him The Screamer, they told us later, when we gathered to put him inside the earth. Maybe it was meant with tenderness, I thought, the kind of tenderness men could keep between themselves in the hills.
One morning, they said, my brother had failed to make the sounds they’d come to know him for. Luthando wasn’t due out for another two days. The sky had been an empty blue expanse, easy on their duties around eziko, and they’d missed his peculiar fussiness. When they walked into his hut, one after the other, they found a memory instead of the man they were out to make. That was my little brother, LT, dead at seventeen, and I’ve never forgotten it was me who put him there.
I never went back home after we buried him. This isn’t a story about me and my brother from the Transkei, about the Mda boys from eMthatha or the village of Qokolweni, where my grandmother’s bones lie polished and buried next to her Ma’s. Instead, I want to tell you about what happened to me in Cape Town after Luthando had taken his death. It’s where I went to school and tried to make something of myself. It’s also where I began to reconsider what my hands had made, and my telling of how it broke won’t take us very long.
I went to college two times in my life. I might as well begin with how things went for me there. I first attended the university in Rondebosch, just up the road from the main strip, and when I’d dropped out of my journalism degree I enrolled at the technikon in town, where I got my science diploma and my sickness. I had an equity scholarship—there had been plenty of those to go around for whoever looked the way I did, back then. I got through on mostly average grades, too, like most of the guys in my class. When the year came to an end, there was a bunch of us who’d file into the Fees Office again to fill out all the forms required of boys who shared my skin tone. It didn’t take much to go to school for free, in those days, or rather to trade on the pigment we were given to carry. I think I did alright, if you consider everything else, and I graduated with an upper-second-class pass in the end. I still have that diploma sitting somewhere in my at in Observatory.
Now what else? In between university and Tech, I spent close to half a year at Bhut’ Vuyo’s place. Two weeks after dropping out of the university, I tried to go home, but I couldn’t set foot inside my mother’s house. The home I’d known since I was a child was barred to me. There could’ve been a tapestry of fire that owed over each of our walls that day. In fact, thinking about it now, even that feels like an understatement.
My mother felt disgraced by my decision to leave the university and my bachelor’s degree behind me in Rondebosch. It was too soon, she complained, first over the phone and then again in person. For a few moments, she even refused to turn her face up towards me. Instead, Ma arranged for me to enter the home of a relative.
Bhut’ Vuyo was known as a great mechanic, a recovering alcoholic, and someone who’d been a doting stepfather to the little brother I’d helped to kill. He’d met my aunt, Sis’ Funeka, when Luthando was only ten years old, and before then, sticking his hands into rusting bonnets had taken Bhut’ Vuyo to Okinawa as a man of barely twenty. Pushed forward by the locomotive of a lucrative Toyota scholarship, he’d gone to the city of Kyoto at the age of twenty-four, before coming back and accepting too many drinks on the house in a tavern called Silver’s. That was in Bisho, during the decline of the homeland years, and they’d served him on a cloth-covered tray every morning after he’d taken his table. It was no more than a month, people said, before my uncle was undone. There were decades that would nearly fell him after that: Bhut’ Vuyo barely standing on his two feet around the neighborhood, and Bhut’ Vuyo tottering on street corners next to the highway in Mdantsane. He was often seen with his toes busting out through the smiles on his black-and-blue gumboots, his head lolling as wispy as an old hornet’s nest over his shoulders.
Now, my mother told me, having wrung himself dry, and maybe for good this time, Bhut’ Vuyo lived with his second wife in Du Noon. They had two small children and her older son from a previous marriage, all of them born with bright eyes and strong teeth and each glowing with the promise of long-lasting health. For her part, my aunt had passed away shortly after we’d buried her son. Sis’ Funeka had had a cancer eating away at her throat, and I suppose it had grown too impatient with the rigorous hold of her grief.
In the end, it had been a punishment for me to be sent to Du Noon, I had known that even then, but thinking of my little brother, of Luthando, I’d made myself accept the idea. And so I went to Du Noon like my mother wanted me to and ended up staying there for six months. I suppose some things happened when I was out there, too, and I drew close to those folks who’d taken me in. The subject of Luthando came up, as I thought it would, and in my gratitude to them, I made a promise to Bhut’ Vuyo and his household.
Now, close to eight years later, I receive a text message from my uncle that reminds me of the words we shared back then, and of the promise I made, on a night so long ago I can hardly put it together from memory.
— Masande Ntshanga
Excerpted with permission of Two Dollar Radio. (c) 2016 by Masande Ntshanga
Masande Ntshanga is the winner of the 2013 PEN International New Voices Award, as well as a Finalist for the 2015 Caine Prize for African Writing. He was born in East London in 1986 and graduated with a degree in Film and Media and an Honours degree in English Studies from UCT, where he became a creative writing fellow, completing his Masters in Creative Writing under the Mellon Mays Foundation. He received a Fulbright Award and an NRF Freestanding Masters scholarship. His stories have appeared in Laugh It Off, itch, Imago and Habitat. He has also written for Rolling Stone magazine.