She lies on a mattress near the door of our hut; a tiny figure humped under layers of warmth. It’s strange to have her back with me, but comforting and somehow right. She was only gone a few days, but it was a foretaste of what is to come; the loneliness and silence that will soon descend.
I push the thoughts away, for today she is still here. I watch the blankets rise and fall and decide it is safe to leave her for a while. Outside, the morning air is laden with smoke as village women cook and exchange gossip over large black pots. My neighbour sees me and lifts a bowl, offering me some porridge. I shake my head for my appetite is gone. Instead, I ask her to watch Zola for a half hour.
The mission church is a squat white building, marked by a cross that stands tall above the gables. It is echoed by dozens of smaller crosses in the burial area. To a stranger, the cemetery would appear as a grid of sameness, but I know exactly where to go; to the far back corner where two graves lie side by side. I kneel in the empty space next to them and close my eyes. I know these graves well for I dug them myself and crafted the wooden crosses. My sisters’ names are inscribed in black permanent marker. Lindiwe Gwala, died 12/09/05 and Ayanda Gwala died 28/06/07. Soon I will be digging a third grave and inscribing a third cross.
Zola is awake when I return and whimpers softly. The clinic sister left her drip attached and showed me how to change the bag. “Take her home.” she advised me. “There’s nothing else I can do for her. She’ll be happier at home.”
“I’m here, Zola.” She is almost weightless as I lift her into my arms; a feather swaddled in an old faded blanket. Her eyes flutter and she moans again. “Thula sana, hush little one.” I murmur. She used to be plump and wriggly like a stout mopane worm but now she is frail like a dried out chrysalis. I rock her gently, tears running down my cheeks onto hers.
“It’s alright.” I tell her. “Soon you’ll be with Lindiwe and Ayanda.” A faint smile touches her lips and I continue rocking as memories overtake me. I think of the terrible day my father was diagnosed with Aids; the horror that followed when my mother was given the same verdict and my three little sisters tested HIV+. Within six months my parents were gone and I was left to head up the family. I was sixteen, shunned by relatives, unable to find employment and too young to be a father.
I dropped out of school and tried my best but it wasn’t enough. Eventually, I walked down to the mission church and asked for help. I remember that day clearly. An icy winter morning when the three girls were huddled on a mattress; starving, frozen and sharing one blanket. I had sold everything else to survive.
The church became my new family. They taught me how to care for my sisters and supported me with food and a little cash. In exchange, I kept the church clean and worked as their gardener. In the evenings, a teacher would bring me school work and helped me to keep up my studies. I’m twenty now and studying by correspondence to become a teacher myself.
Zola begins to cough and I comfort her as spasms wrack her body. “It’s alright, Zola. I’m here with you.” She relaxes again and my thoughts drift to Lindiwe and Ayanda. The three of us had wonderful times together and I treasure the memories. “Remember the days we splashed in the river, Zola? Your older sisters would gang up on you and you would squeal like Mr Dube’s pig. And remember when we all rolled in the mud and it took us days to get clean?”
She nods weakly and knowing she is listening, I become more serious. “I’m going to miss you, Zola. I love you so very much.” I kiss her gently and try to capture each moment, each breath, each emotion for I know the end is near. I will not leave her now and like Lindiwe and Ayanda she will pass straight from my arms to the arms of Jesus.
Only then will I go and dig the third grave.
There are 13 millions Aids orphans in Africa and many children of 12 or younger are trying to parent younger siblings.
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