Watch Andre Trantraal read an excerpt from his fiction “The Wind Blows Where It Wishes and You Hear Its Sound,” in the original Kaaps.
The deafening ascent of a passenger jet, like an argument heard in passing, fills the early evening air. Bishop Lavis Township is a stone’s throw from D. F. Malan airport. Seven-year-old James—a slender brown hatstand—his mother, older sister Augustine, and baby brother Stephen are ensconced in the living room, watching an episode of an Afrikaans drama series on television. When they are not idling in the bedroom that they share they usually spend their evenings camped out in front of the television set. There is little else to do.
He does not know where his father is but on a Friday evening it would not be the unlikeliest thing in the world to find him gambling or drinking or both in a gray sandy weedy backyard in the vicinity. His father will be away well into the small hours, as will several of the various relations who also live in the house.
In the bedroom that she shares with an alcoholic husband and an adult son, his grandmother sings and prepares for church. His grandfather, for his part, is a beneficiary of the blissful sleep conferred by cheap wine. Earlier this day he stood in the middle of the bedroom and put away an entire bottle of Oom Tas in one long uninterrupted swig; his head tilted back, his Adam’s apple pulsating obscenely, his eyes meeting James’s for a brief moment as the boy stood in the doorway, watching.
He often drinks when he comes home from work in the evenings, two, up to three bottles at a time. By the time his wife comes home from church he will have finished another bottle, will be ready to put her faith to the test. He will do his utmost to hurt and humiliate and provoke and enrage. There will be profanity, virtuoso swearing, and accusations of infidelity; accusations no less demeaning for their absurdity and patent falseness. He will fitfully spew invective for hours until he finally falls asleep, a tired-out aggressive wind.
Tomorrow he will be surly, quiet and reserved.
James, go get done for church. You know you must walk with Mainie, says his mother.
He gives no reply.
His grandmother is attending the “big tent” this evening. That is what everyone he knows who is a Pentecostal Christian calls these things: popular public church services held inside large canvas tents around the Cape Flats. She expects, as ever, that James will go with her; as usual, he is not too keen to oblige. He hates church, even if he will admit it to no one, including himself, but faithfully attends the weekly service (held in a classroom, with the permission of the relevant authorities, at John Ramsay High). His sister follows the example set by the less pious older members of the household and simply refuses to go to church, while his brother is exempted from attending on account of being a fidget of note. Every Sunday morning James sits by his grandmother’s side through nearly four hours of koortjies and testimony and sermons and prayer, a reluctant but uncomplaining and steadfast companion. He hates every eternal minute of it but he wants—and needs—his grandmother’s approval more. He is certain he desires God’s approval as well but in simple terms of incentive it is easier to tell if his grandmother is pleased with him.
Before he started school he would also go to morning prayers with her—intimate, less formal get-togethers, held every once in a while. The services would take place in the homes of friends: fellow suffering sisters in Christ, fellow housewives and mothers and grandmothers. Sometimes it would just be one other person present, along with James and his grandmother. They would pray in living rooms, curtains fully drawn. The prayers would begin low and quiet and gradually build toward a frenzied wailing climax that dissolved into a bittersweet diminuendo where everyone seemed slowly to become fully aware of themselves and everybody else present again by softly praising God.
* * *
His grandmother is ready to depart.
She wears a dress that kisses her ankles, a colorful silk scarf covers her head; in her right hand she wields a big black Bible.
James, so you don’t want to go to church? Get done!
She had asked him the same question a few minutes earlier from inside the kitchen, over the din of the television set, before swallowing a headache powder with a glass of water. He pretended not to hear. It should be patently obvious to anyone but the most resolutely blind that he is not aching with impatience to go to the house of the Lord. He is still wearing tracksuit pants and a cotton vest, not his Sunday best.
James! she says, her voice rising sharply in disbelief. She is amazed that he is ignoring her.
He can only manage a kind of odd whining sound in response. He stares sulkily ahead at the screen, avoids eye contact with her.
Die Duiwel is wee in jou gat op venaan. You’ve got the Devil up your arse again.
Regret corners him before she even closes the door.
He has disappointed her.
He has not behaved the way a good young Christian should.
He ponders these indictments for a few seconds; then, with studied casualness, he gets up. It is only once he is inside the room where he sleeps that he gives full expression to his desperation by frantically changing into his church clothes. There is still time to make things like they were before, still time to make amends.
He flies through the living room, embarrassed by the eyes that follow him out the front door (he wishes that someone would laugh, it would lighten the moment and spare his blushes, but no one does), and dashes down the street as fast as his thin legs will allow. His grandmother is about to vanish around a corner. He wants to shout, ask her to slow down or wait for him, but it would not be right somehow. He finally catches up to her, slows down and falls into step beside her. His chest burns, his breath is spent. He wants her to smile down at him so he will know that everything is still the same between them, but she just stares ahead, remains silent, and keeps on walking in the falling darkness.
“Die Wind Wai Soes Hy Wil” © Andre Trantraal. Translation © 2021 by Andre Trantraal. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.