Everyone claims ancestral royalty. Even slaves. No one imagines their beginning as damned or marred by mediocrity. No. The likely telling is of glory. Of kings and paramount chiefs prostrating themselves like bush rabbits in fear of our fathers, those fearsome foxes. Of queen mothers throwing their first-born daughters into our bloodstream like eager spawn sifting salt water for sperm.

— Our star was born long-tailed, the old man liked to say. We were kingmakers and twin sires. Even our cows came in pairs. We made rain fall in Great Zimbabwe.

No one asks him, How then, did the Boers and the British happen? How did such a strong and certain seed turn slave in its ancestral land?

So much of who we are is fiction. The old man’s wife used to tell him that. That only Woman could be God. Only Woman – who takes heat, sweat and sin and turns it into flesh; into sacred being. Carrying life teaches you that, she’d say. Maybe that’s why history forgets our grandmothers. They are written in the womb.

The morning the old man died, his firstborn heard him rise. Early. Said she could hear his mattress slump, fatigued. It was his heart that did him. Naledi woke before him, before the sun. Thought nothing of the laden quiet entering the house with first light as she filled the kettle, eager water hissing in a narrow stream.

The old man sat on his bed, hand to heart.

He knew so many things about the heart. He knew the shape and smell of the organ lying in a cardboard box at the slaughterhouse. The boxes went for nothing in the beginning, when he first started peddling unwanted dog meat earmarked for the dump. But then the abattoir figured if a muscled-up and capable darkie was willing to wait religiously for butcher-block dregs week after week, there was obviously some kaffir market out there worth cashing in on. Price tags latched onto the boxes. Soon, picking out the right bin without finding something spoiling at the bottom became Ntatemogolo’s point of pride.

To pick the right heart, the old man said, you had to look for depth in the ruby, to prize a raw intensity of colour and a bright gold fat blanketing the angry muscle. He tried passing this along to his one son and double daughters. But they were repelled by his trade, wounded by its poverty. So he kept his motherwit to himself until the younger lot, the great-grandchildren especially, wanted to know what Ntatemogolo remembered. Was it true his grandfathers’ grandfathers enkindled rainfall for the royal crops in Great Zimbabwe? That they burst clouds open merely by chanting their clan’s praise names? Was it true Ntatemogolo could still coax a heart from its secret cavity and hold it in his hand so it throbbed like a newborn? Yes! Ntatemogolo would beam, Yes, it’s true! You have to cradle it so its blood becomes your blood. So its arteries feel like they’re pumping through your valves, like fresh blood is still brewing in its deepest heart of hearts.

It wasn’t hard for his great-grandchildren to picture this. Until the day he died, their Ntatemogolo sold innards – beastly bits of waste food no one wanted. Pork fatback and leaf lard. Sheep guts and wormy kidney. Chicken feet. Beef tongue. Bird brain and beak and vulval-pink sweetbreads Ntatemogolo claimed could power unthinkable virility. He wedged his wares into a shabby bicycle basket that doubled as wandering butchery for the poorest among an already impoverished underclass – old women who picked out fleas and stray hairs from his newspapered packages; already tar-toothed man-children afraid of losing another limb to the mines. Flies loved the old man, sampled everything in his path and buzzed excitedly about his balding hairline, his pungent overalls and weathered veldskoens.

He wore a daily uniform that hadn’t changed in over forty years: blue overalls, white undershirt and a brown wool balaclava for the meanest days. He bought a new pair of overalls for each weekday after his son started working, and only because that son, Modise, burned his first pair. Modise would’ve burned the old man’s bicycle too, had it not been for Naledi.

She’d hobbled towards Modise and body-slammed the full force of her limp dead weight against his narrow frame. Into the bicycle they crashed, Modise more bewildered than beaten. Still, he paid with sixteen stitches across his temple and a whole week’s pay for five new overalls. No one made him buy all five, but the sting of a woman beating him in broad daylight, and a crippled one at that – and maybe even the raging shame that chafed him into ransacking their father’s business in the first place – it all drove Modise to replace the one worn overalls with five. The bicycle he left alone. Besides, it still worked, and the old man was attached to it, even if it wobbled and threatened to flatten everything in sight.

It was born rusty, Ntatemogolo’s bike. Part of Modise’s shame. Bombed-out metallic debris on wood wagon wheels with a ramshackle kind of rust. Made in England. Probably in Coventry, back when Europe was a Chinese factory floor and the colonies supplied a hungry market for every imperial reject the mother country spawned. No one could have predicted the old man’s fate back then: death after a desperate century eking out an unyielding life, canned grief following four stillborns and the internal inferno of having failed the three who somehow survived. And then the end – a dry-throated longing for a dead wife, not the two passionate love affairs he’d piously nursed and coddled in the thick of his marriage.

He was a child when the bike was assembled. A herdboy who learned his numbers counting cows. Five hundred and ninety-five cattle. Sheep, goats and fowl besides. His job was tallying every cow with every sunset and knowing which was who by name. It was the beginning of the Great Wars. Ntatemogolo was barefoot and still teething; General Jan Smuts a conniving double-dealer rallying his reluctant Boer brethren to fight for king and country. The same king and country Smuts had taken on in not one, but two bloody Anglo-Boer wars. You can forget it, the hardliners told him. But Smuts was a clever Boer. He flushed out his fellow Afrikaners’ pro-German anti-Brit rebellion and sold it back to them as good politics – after all, what’s a little filth to fine fellows? Of course, in Ntatemogolo’s family compound and cosmos, all that seemed far away. As if the Boers and coming wars would never touch them. As if another country, another manhood lay very close ahead – someplace inevitable for this black herdboy. Rainmaking and black kings reigning – all that still seemed wildly possible.

But by the end of both Great Wars, Elias, as Ntatemogolo was known back then, had lost everything. His father, a menial soldier digging trenches for king and country – a glorified war mule in the South African Native Labour Corps – did not return from France. The family farm, a plump parcel on rich red earth, never stood a chance against the kleptocratic claws of Afrikaner power that soon clutched the country. The father who never returned, who fought for the British believing their promises of Native advancement after the war, his absence was all the state needed to declare his land unoccupied – fallow and fertile land fit for white occupation. They gave his wife twenty-one days to cease and desist. Of course she could keep her cows, they scoffed. Five hundred and ninety-five cattle. Three hundred sheep. Forty-two lambs and ninety-eight goats. What woman could possibly manage all that? But either for native stubbornness or new-found grief, she marched those beasts across stolen farms. Somehow, Elias’s mother corralled the herd to a faraway uncle who promised protection and freedom. But very soon, as soon as the last hoof crossed into his kraal, that uncle counted every horned head and twin calves – every single beast – a new debt the young widow owed.

One hundred years later, the herdboy’s heart stops. He feels its murmur slurring as he sits up, hand to chest, Naledi humming in the kitchen.

If anyone knew what signs to look for, if the line and land between his forebears and children remained unbroken, unstolen, someone would’ve heard the stars piercing sky the night before. They would’ve begun preparations for the old man’s passing the way his own mother had known to tend to her affairs a distant century earlier, long before word reached that her husband would never return. They would’ve understood that long-tailed stars don’t weep across the sky for celestial vanity. That the stars were mourning their blood.

But Ntatemogolo’s children are scattered across oceans. They’ve long lost their ties to the shallow grave dug after Ntatemogolo’s birth. To the clumps of soil, gravel and clay entombing his umbilical cord. To the earth tethering his creation to his mother’s, whose birth rope is also buried in that pit, connecting every strain of blood coursing between generations . . . all the way back to that first ancestral womb.

But none of them can read the signs. Few understand how a shabby man in shabby overalls bicycling his stinky business around dusty streets could possibly be chosen. Chosen? Naledi would have snorted. Chosen for what?, her mind already unravelling the dirt-poor youth it had squirrelled away. None of Ntatemogolo’s children could smell the iron stars smelted into their blood. And so, when Naledi limps into the room, her dead foot brushing broom-like across the floor, all she sees is her father seated on the bed.

The Spread
The Line