This story takes place in 1976, in South Africa. At this time in its history, the country was in the middle of apartheid, a governmental policy that discriminated against non-whites and gave authorities nearly unlimited power to arrest and kill civilians. By 1976, students in the Soweto township were staging protests and uprisings, and a secret guerilla army called the MKs had formed. Rebellion was in the air…
I walked home alone in the reddish dirt, kicking a rock along in front of me.
“Sereto! Get over here, boy!” Mama’s shout rang out across the rows and rows of tin-topped shacks that were the Soweto township.
“Ja, Mama!” I called over the distance, running all the way back to our little hut, where Mama was sweeping the cracked-dirt stoep.
“What’re you doing, hmm? There’s work to be done, water to be fetched. Are the buckets full from the pump? And where’s Ledi?”
I scuffed my toe in the dirt.
“Ledi’s inside, minding the pots, remember, Mama? And keeping an eye on Tustin. I’m gonna go do the buckets now.”
“Where were you all that time, Sereto, hmm?” Mama set the broom aside and looked down at me with a furrowed brow. “I know it’s difficult, and I’m sorry about you not having enough time to play, but with your Pa gone there’s only so much I can do alone.” Her voice was all business, but I knew the sorrow behind it—Pa had died only four months ago, in a riot where the police had open-fired. With Pa gone, everything was floaty and unsettled. It was a struggle just to remember the things that needed doing, like filling the water buckets and fixing meals.
I looked into Mama’s quiet gray eyes and sighed.
“I’m sorry, Mama. I was playing with Billy.” It wasn’t true, of course, but how could I say that her oldest child was giving himself up to the same cause that killed her husband? She couldn’t know that I was secretly taking part in the student uprisings. She couldn’t.
To my surprise, Mama didn’t even seem angry that I had snuck off. She just shook her head sadly.
“Ah, Sereto,” she murmured, “I am sorry things have to be this way.”
“They’ll be better someday, won’t they, Mama? Things are already changing.” I almost bit back the hint at rebellion, but I couldn’t help myself. I wanted her to feel the hope I felt at the rebellion.
“Ja, Sereto,” she said sadly, “but not before many more innocent people are destroyed.”
Then she picked up the broom and hustled off, leaving me standing on the stoep as the sun set behind me. I heard little kids playing and mothers shouting, and I smelled suppers being prepared. The fiery sun sank and sank, lower and lower, and I wondered if I should feel something. Everything was being taken away from me. Pa was gone, and Ledi and Ma and me were overworked. There wasn’t any time to talk anymore, no time to process what had happened. Tori, who was my closest friend except for Billy, had been arrested in the middle of the night, along with her father, and many other students had been arrested, injured, and killed. The riots were no laughing matter, whether they were led by children or adults, and this apartheid was taking everyone I loved away from me.
I stood there, watching the sun sink, so detached that it was as if I looked down at myself from several feet up in the sky. I couldn’t decide how I should react, what I should feel. Then, like a faint tickling that grew steadily in my stomach, a feeling crawled up my throat. Anger. They had taken everything from me. Everything, and yet they could still take more. They could always control me because they could always take more: they could hurt Ledi or Tustin or Mama or Billy, they could arrest me, they could kill me. I remembered something Pa used to say: “That government, those whites—they can do anything they damn please.” I laughed, a bitter, harsh sound in the dusking air, and spat on the dirt, trying to rid my mouth of the sour taste. I spun on my heel to grab the water buckets. And as the last traces of light faded from the sky and I walked towards the water pump, I started to whistle a little tune. It was only when a bird tweeted the last note with me that I realized it was the song we had sung that day at the uprising. I stopped, dead cold. A breeze passed straight through me and a night bird hit one last solemn note. The stars were bright, almost too bright—like a warning. Something was unnatural in the night.
I ran the rest of the way, to shake the eerie feeling, and filled the buckets quickly. On the way back, I talked aloud to calm myself.
“You’re just being jittery for the sake of it because you’re scared, Sereto, and anyone would be. But don’t you go getting all worked up over nothing. Just now, everything’s fine, hmm?” I went on like that in a whisper, not even realizing I was imitating Mama.
My footsteps pressing the earth, I strode back onto our street in Soweto. I stopped, shifting my weight. Every night, even after sunset, the township’s darkness was filled with the clanking of cooking pots and the quiet babble of family conversation. But now there was only silence. The bright stars, the pinprick stars, froze above me. The shacks reminded me of those stars in some odd, disjointed way—too still, too unmoving. Something was wrong, as if the wheels of heaven had stopped turning.
I left the buckets behind a few scraggly bushes and crept around the back of our hut. I heard voices from inside—but they were different. Harsh voices. Male voices. I stiffened.
“We have reasons to believe that your son is one of the leaders of these rebellions.” “Please believe me. Sereto would never endanger himself like that. He’s a good boy!”
“Where is he?”
“I don’t know… don’t know…”
“Where is he?”
“Do you want me to arrest you for being uncooperative?”
“He… he went out a while ago. To visit a friend.”
Mama didn’t respond. The policeman snorted and there was the sound of something being written down.
“Mama!” It was Ledi’s voice, and it was a hopeless wail of grief. My heart went cold.
The door to our shack opened. They’re leaving. They’re leaving. Then I saw Mama stumbling out the door, her hands tied. No. For a moment her eyes passed over the spot where I was hidden, and her eyes met mine briefly. No. Her mouth formed one subtle, barely discernible word.
No! There were tears dripping onto the ground, but I didn’t know where they came from. Then I heard Tustin start to cry and Ledi wail. No no no no no no no they took her away they couldn’t just take Pa they had to take her away too and now we have no one no one and they’ll be back and they’ll take me away and kill me just like they’ll kill her…
I went to leap out of the bushes, to hurt them, to kill them, to somehow stop them from taking her, to tear into them with tiger claws until they couldn’t hurt anyone else. With a numb speed filled with pounding adrenaline and the identical pounding of my heart, I lurched to- wards them, but my shirt caught on the bushes and they held me back. As my fingers worked to free the knot and my Mama vanished into the night, my body shook uncontrollably with some strange, overpowering emotion. I think it was fear. There was nothing I could do to help Mama, nothing at all…
Numbly, I sprinted into our hut. The other shacks remained closed in the darkness, hiding from the shadows. The shadows that had claimed her.
Running inside, I embraced Ledi and Tustin and held them tighter than I ever had before. We cried all together, collapsed on the floor in a shaking, hopeless heap. Eventually, I pulled away, my voice broken with tears.
“Ledi. Pack some things. As much as you can, and for Tustin too. We’ve got to see if Mrs. Pebrele will take you in.”
Mrs. Prebrele had a daughter Ledi’s age, and they had played together for as long as I could remember. If anyone could keep Tustin and Ledi safe, it was her.
“But Reto,” cried Ledi, “where will you go?” I could hear it in her voice, the hollowness, the emptiness. It was the voice of a girl whose heart had been shattered time and time again. Her voice echoed utter defeat.
“I’m not putting anyone else in danger,” I said bitterly as we ran about, trying to pack. “I’m tired of it all—protesting, protesting, none of it did any good, and now everything’s gone and…” I shook my head and my tears ran even harder. “I want to do something. I’ll go to Mozambique, to train with the MKs. I want to fight for this. Besides,” I added with a grim smile, as the separate part of my brain wondered how anything could matter enough to smile anymore, “they said I was a riot leader. So I’ll be a riot leader. They asked for it.” Some part of me recognized the same hollowness in my voice that I heard in hers.
“Ja, Reto. You’ll be the best.” She embraced me tightly, then backed away. “We can get to Mrs. Pebrele’s on our own,” she continued, forcing strength into her too young voice. “If she won’t take us, there are other places. You need to go. They’ll be back, and if they find you…”
I remembered Mama’s last word to me—Go! I nodded and hugged them both one more time.
“I love you,” I whispered. “Stay safe, Ledi, Tustin. Amandla.” I shouldered my pack and left, drawing away from them with this murmured prayer, and I knew that they were looking out past me, Ledi with Tustin on her hip, and I was walking into the night with nothing but one breath after another, deep and sweet, leaving Soweto with the dirt under me and the dark sky above.
And behind me, the tin-roofed huts gleamed with starlight, as if they were their own type of star in their own endless night. Silvery, subtle, and as I walked, looking from the shacks to the sky and back again, I couldn’t help but notice that they both shone unnaturally bright.