By Lerato Mensah-Aborampah, Lesotho
It is a good thing it is not winter, or the sun would have set already. But we have to carry on with the walk home before it does get dark.s We start walking away from the ‘morobei bush when Palesa runs back quickly to pull out a rosehip.
“Let me try this ‘morobei actually,” she says, catching up with me, “I will let you in on a big secret-I am so afraid of tasting new things. I would choose familiar food any day over some strange looking foodstuff!”
I laugh quietly, unable to ignore the unmistakable irony of her statement. She has just shared with me the painful secrets of her past –which are anything but little, so that even referring to her fear of tasting new foods as a secret sounds plainly ridiculous.
“My big secret, huh? Yeah right!” she laughs quietly, evidently noticing the irony herself. I laugh when I see a fearful grimace form on her face as she brings the ‘morobei closer to her mouth. Finally, she puts the fruit into her mouth and chews slowly and curiously with wide eyes.
“Eeww!” She shouts, “You didn’t warn me that it has these hairy inside! Ea lometsa!” She turns around quickly and spits it out. And we start laughing hard.
“I will just stick to normal roses, thank you very much! Why bother eating their fruits when you can simply smell the flowers?!” she waves her hand dramatically in the air. “You know, I’ve come to like that cheesy metaphor of roses- the whole every rose has its thorns thing. Maybe because it is almost feels literal for me because I am palesa- a flower, maybe a rose, I don’t know but I do know that I got my own thorns-”
“Ah! What do you know! Do I smell an analogy coming up?!” I tease.
She laughs. “Don’t get your hopes up scientific analogies dude” she rolls her eyes, “you know what I mean!”
“Yes- yes madam,” I laugh, “I do hear you.” And I say this rather solemnly, in light of all she has told me. It is an undeniably accurate metaphor regardless of how it has been overused in centuries of poems and odes. Cliché, yes. But it is true. We all got our thorns. Maybe we aren’t all pretty red roses but we all got our thorns.
We are literally strolling. We cross Lepoqo Road and make our way into the village that is close to the one in which Palesa Tefo lives. She clears her throat and looks at me, smiling knowingly. I immediately figure that she is about to continue: continue letting me into the story of her own thorns.
There is a very distinct reluctance in her movements.
“This is very unlike me, ke u joetse, what I am doing,” she says.
“What? Walking?” I laugh.
“Ha Ha, Funny guy! I mean sharing this part of my story, I have not spoken about it for a long time now. My parents and I don’t talk about it, anymore. We sort of go about our everyday in the house with this lingering knowledge that I am still making my way out of a depression that I had slowly slipped into without realising. We don’t talk about it and I couldn’t probably be able to articulate everything going on in my head anyway. Hai, Rapelang, I don’t know hey, my father’s house is a strange place since we came back-my father is a strange man, who was unfortunate enough to have his forward daughter ruin his career- I was one big inconvenience to his career.”
I sigh silently, unsure of which part of all she has said to respond to. Do I even respond?
“An inconvenience to his career? Why do you say that?” I finally ask.
Palesa does not respond to my question for a while. We walk quietly. The loudest sound to my ear is our school shoes crunching against the dusty gravel road.
“I am determined to not bore you with all the details,” she says suddenly.
“You asked me to listen, didn’t you? I am good at it, don’t worry. Hape it’s Friday so we got the whole weekend,” I say, one of my weak attempts to occasionally drop light-hearted statements, in the face of deep, sensitive conversations. Palesa Tefo smiles.
“Pretend this is me fast-forwarding a long movie scene. When we moved to Gauteng, my father found a job at an Insurance Company. It was not a job he liked though. He had always wanted to do something with his law degree, you know. Something that he would call his own. When my secondary school drama happened, he and his friend had kick-started their own law consultancy firm. And it was going well -they were doing very well. But there I went, breaking down- well, you know the story now, until my parents, like I said, finally found out what had been happening. Then began, my teachers urging my parents to take me to the psychologist and me being put on antidepressants and me not bouncing back quickly enough, meaning my parents spending a lot of money on me. When the psychologist said it would do me good to be in a new place for a while, where I would not be directly confronted with the environment in which these incidents had happened , my father was very desperate to see me get better, he made this sudden big decision that we would move back to Lesotho, back here,”
I am beginning to see where she is headed with this. I swallow hard as I imagine this burden that I think she carries.
“Palesa, you think your father blames you for losing his business, for having had to leave?”
Palesa clears her throat, “Rapelang, I know he does. I know you may not understand and you will try tell me that he is my father and he made the sacrifice for me because he loves me. And I know that. But fathers are human too. Do you know what that business meant to him? And his business partner resents him for having left their firm, and he struggled to run it on his own, so they lost it. Lost clients, lost money-”
“No, Palesa, you can’t carry a burden like that- I’m sure your father-” I interject strongly.
“You do not know my father!” Palesa jumps in, strong emotion in her voice, “ever since we came back, he barely talks to me. And when he does talk to me, he is either abrupt or very angry. And when he is angry, Rapelang, even my mother can’t calm him down. He will be saying things like: The least you can do is pass well! Is that so much to ask? This Seeiso International is a really good school, you know? Expensive too! The daughter of a lawyer with such embarrassing grades! After all you put us through?”
Palesa Tefo stops walking. I swallow hard.
“You see Rapelang, I am not stupid. I can read between the lines-I know that every time he looks at me, he remembers the life he had to leave behind-the dream he had to abandon for me. I know that very well and he makes sure I don’t forget that. And what I have wanted is nothing but to forget and he is not making it any easy for me.”
I shake my head quietly, not trusting myself to say anything.
“I really hadn’t thought that the whole cyberbullying incidents would leave me at the brink of myself. I scared my parents so much, you see. Apparently that’s what those were- cyberbullying.”
At the brink of oneself. I roll this statement over and over in my mind.
“At the brink of yourself,” I mutter, and I hadn’t expect that she would hear me.
Palesa Tefo looks intently at me.
“When you are at the brink of yourself, you are at that deadly point of the cliff, where your entire life is based on whether your fingers will be strong enough to grip; and hold on to that little root emerging from the ground,”
My mind immediately appreciates this image. In my head, I picture this ridiculously high, grotesque cliff. I see Palesa’s desperate eyes as she is holding on to a frail root, her fingers slowly weakening and losing their attempt at gripping.
“Like how you said your capacity for handling the pressure was stretched,” I say quietly.
Palesa’s face warms up a bit, perhaps surprised that I recall what she said weeks back. She nods.
“Yeah, it is desperation more than anything. At the brink of yourself, you realise that no one ever teaches us how to catch ourselves so that we don’t fall,” she pauses and keeps silent, “it is funny if you think about it, that in all the intelligent things we can do as people, we can never be enough to help ourselves when we need us the most,”
I see her swallow hard and I imagine she is strongly holding back tears. “Like, why can’t I catch myself so that I don’t fall?”
I shake my head. “No, Palesa, I think you are wrong. Maybe that’s why you aren’t the only person in the planet,” I laugh uneasily, “mohlomong, people are for catching people, you had Simphiwe for example, she was there too, at that cliff, with you,”
She laughs rather brutally, clearly unconvinced.
“But at the edge of a cliff, there are no people Rapelang. Just a dangling, helpless you and the poor root that was never meant to hold down the weight of a person.”
I keep silent. I am not sure if I know what it means to be at the brink of oneself. The image of Palesa Tefo holding onto a root and dangling from a cliff stings me. Sometimes I hate the way my mind grasps firmly to images. Almost absentmindedly, we start walking slowly along, as if for both of us, merely standing still is too suffocating.
“There is one afternoon,” Palesa Tefo says, fixing her eyes on the path before us, “when we were still in Gauteng, I came home from school to an empty house. I usually did because my parents arrived home late from work. I had decided to go school even though I had been told to stay home for a while. I remember wanting to prove that I was not weak and that bo-Kevin had not stopped me from living,” she takes a deep breath, “but that day at school was unbearable. And so that afternoon, when I got home, the house was emptier, you know, it felt emptier.”
I see her swallowing hard. She suddenly stops walking and turns to face me. I see the tremble of her lower lip so clearly.
“My father kept a gun. He bought it soon after we arrived in Gauteng. He would be like, ‘Hela! Ke Gauteng mona! The boys here will rob you in daylight.’ He was very paranoid in Gauteng.”
I feel a weight drop in my stomach. I tighten my jaws.
“So that afternoon, Rapelang, I thought about it. Ending it. Ending me.”
“Palesa,” I saying, shaking my head in shock. There is now a lump of pain on my throat. I picture this afternoon that Palesa speaks of. It is gloomy. It is empty. And my mind cannot seem to add any colour to it. Everything is in black and white.
“I started crying because the thought would not go away. I washed a pile of dishes from our last dinner to occupy my mind. I swept our kitchen. I even cleaned my room! Rapelang, I never cleaned my room!” she breaks into a weak laughter that is combined with a trembling, choky voice, “the thought would not go away Rapelang. I did so many things to pass time but my parents were not arriving and in that aloneness, my contemplation of bringing an end to myself was- I don’t know, it seemed like the only way to bring an end to how miserable I was-”
She is speaking very quickly, almost with an urgency that reflects this afternoon that she speaks of.
“And I swear it felt like the house was caving me in. And it made me feel more alone that I had ever felt. Remember I said that the loneliness was the worst part throughout this messed up chaos? Well, on this particular afternoon I am telling you about – it was worse, this was-” her voice fails her and then the tears start streaming down her face. Palesa does not brush them away, instead she bends her head.
I watch her quietly and I am surprised when I feel tears escape my eyes. I quickly remove them with my hand.
“Hey Palesa. You don’t have to tell me this. It is fine. Let’s just walk. Let’s go home,” I say desperately, with as much gentleness as I can.
She continues like she did not hear anything I said.
“So I went to their bedroom. I knew where he kept it. The bottom drawer of their wardrobe. He had told me, just in case SOMETHING happened when they were not around and I had to protect myself. Well, SOMETHING was happening and they were not around, so-”
My fists are clenched as if in fearful anticipation of what will happen, even though it is clear that here is Palesa Tefo before me. She never pulled that trigger. I may not have known her then, but I would not have wanted her to pull that trigger.
“When I finally felt it with my fingers, I was so afraid. Letsoalo la ntlhaba! I pulled it out and my hands were shaking so much. Rapelang, they were shaking as I raised it to my head. I clearly remember thinking, what the hell am I doing? And then I dropped it. And I lay there on the carpet and cried silently until night came and my parents found me sleeping there, by my father’s gun.”
I see more tears stream down Palesa Tefo’s face. And out helplessness, I step closer to her and place my hand gently on her arm.
“Phephi,” is all I say, over and over again. Sorry. What do you even say to the reality of a new friend’s thorns? Well, nothing. You just be there. And you just listen. I think that sometimes that’s all we can do.
“So yeah, Rapelang, do you have any scientific analogy for this?” she manages a little laugh as we start walking. The sun will set soon.
“No,” I reply.