Nomsulwa plays with bullets in the alleyway, next to her cousin. He is talking to one of his tsotsi friends, boys who strut in packs around the township pretending to be members of gangs they are too young to join. They stand above her, leaning against the uniform brown of the house next door. Their shoes leave scuff marks in the dirt at their feet. The sun, which will eventually creep into every corner, bouncing off the bright corrugated metal walls and roofs, has not yet reached where the boys stand. Nomsulwa can barely keep track of all the gold and silver pieces under the shadows. “Why do you always have to bring her around?” one friend asks. Nomsulwa’s cousin shrugs, but doesn’t send her away.
“We can’t do anything with her here. Mira, get rid of her.”
“I can’t,” Mira answers. “My mom says I have to take care of her.”
Nomsulwa looks up. Mira’s mother never tells him to do anything. She is busy working and feeding half the neighbourhood, and Mira pretty much does what he wants. He never listens to Nomsulwa even though she’s older than him. She continues playing in the dirt.
The boy next to Mira pulls a gun out of his pants and turns it on Nomsulwa. He cocks the hammer as if to shoot and then relaxes his arm. Nomsulwa watches him as he does this, sees how the head of the gun contains circles surrounded by more circles, huddled around a dark tunnel. She puts out her hand.
“Can I see that?”
The boy looks to Mira.
“It’s okay, it’s not loaded.”
Mira nods and the boy hands the gun over. Nomsulwa feels its weight in her hands. They are small hands and the gun is a big gun. How does the boy point this at anything while keeping it steady? The metal on the handle is thicker than the head. It is silver and bumpy and some parts of the gun are cool even though it is very hot outside.
The boys begin arguing. There is a blast of dust as Mira pushes one of them against the wall and tugs him down into a headlock. Nomsulwa gets up and brings the gun out of the alley into the sunlight. She looks back and sees Mira bent now with his arm pulled behind his back. Across the street there is a dog curled into the curb. His hind legs fall at crooked angles. The bones announce themselves through the skin, a skeleton caked with brown fur. The muscles that may have once padded the dog’s behind are gone. Patches near the belly and where the front legs fade into the chest are bare of fur. There is only brown skin, scabbed and seeping.
Nomsulwa cocks the gun just like she saw the boy do. She presses a dark black button above the fat circle where the bullets are kept. The chamber releases and reveals five empty holes. She takes one of the bullets she had pocketed from the sandy ground, dusts it off on her pants, puts it in the very top hole, and clicks the chamber back into the middle of the gun. Nomsulwa knows the gun is loaded. She has seen this done before.
The dog lifts his head, eyes huge, mouth dripping. His tongue is pink, a healthy, beautiful pink. It hangs out of his mouth, just dabbling in the water collected in the crevices of the street. Nomsulwa checks on the boys behind her once more and then raises the gun and aims. The chamber clicks softly the first two times she pulls the trigger. The third time there is almost too much resistance against her fingers, and then a loud crack, like a thick balloon popping next to Nomsulwa’s ear, sounds out of the gun. Her arm is thrown backwards. The boys run to where she stands.
“Amazing!” the boy who brought the gun exclaims.
“That is so cool.”
Nomsulwa smiles and looks at Mira, seeking approval.
“What did you do?” he asks.
The dog’s body pushes backwards and it turns away from Nomsulwa, looking behind for the source of the noise. Its head sinks slowly, stopping bit by bit as it reaches sand. The tongue hits last, lapping at orange grain instead of brown water. The rib cage opens and closes, then is still. “I think I broke my arm.” Her hand still clutches the grip, but her forearm hangs at a strange angle.
Mira grabs the gun, throws it to the ground, and starts to drag her back into the shadows. A few mamas out on the street have stopped to look at the dog. They glare over at Mira, sucking their teeth. The older boy takes the gun from the sand and begins to run in the opposite direction. He runs fast, scared, but Nomsulwa doesn’t see anyone move to follow him.
An old woman buys three cabbage heads from the stand halfway down the block. A toddler pokes the dog with a stick and then shrieks back to his mother. The pain in Nomsulwa’s arm is just beginning to set in. Her mother is going to kill her for this.
The clinic is at the other end of the sprawling township. It is after midnight by the time Nomsulwa and her mother return home.
“Off to bed.” These are the first words Nomsulwa’s mother has said to her since Mira pulled her through the door and explained that she had fallen while chasing boys through the alley. It is a welcome overture after the tirade that greeted Mira, dragging the sobbing Nomsulwa to her front door. How could they be so irresponsible? Plus, don’t they know that Nomsulwa is too old to still play with boys?
She lays her head down on the pillow her mother has puffed up so it feels like a cloud when she touches it. She squirms and calls out, stopping her mother on her way out the door.
“Mama! Mama, ngicela ungixoxele inganekwana.” I want you to tell me a story.
“Which story, my girl?”
Her mother puts mother hands on Nomsulwa’s forehead and kisses her twice, then she readjusts Nomsulwa’s arm, out of the covers, so the cast won’t go soft in the heat.
It is Nomsulwa’s favourite. “Tell me how blue the Rain God’s skin is. Tell me how he breathes out the smell of morning dew wherever he goes.” It was dry in Africa. The salty sea surrounded the land, mocking it with the folding blue- green of the waves. The people, inching outwards towards the rocky shore, spent days watching the water, praying that it would transform into sweet rain and share itself with the arid earth. They sang beautiful songs, and after the songs they built large fires and killed struggling goats, watching the red blood wet the ground for a moment before disappearing. The Rain God had ignored the prayers of the people, but he could not ignore the smell of a young woman from deep within the village huts. He searched the ground until he spied a girl who was more beautiful than the rain. She had hair as black and shiny as a wet rock, eyes as gold as a soaked field, lips as brilliant red as a berry, and teeth so white you could reach into her mouth with your tongue and lap them up. The Rain God wanted the girl and so he transformed himself into an enormous bull and travelled to earth on a bolt of lightning. That night, a shock of light woke the girl from sleep. She walked to the door of her hut and saw, across the field, a gigantic blue bull in a halo of white. As the animal approached, the mist of his breath filled the hut with the wonderful scent of fresh rain. The bull fell to his knees before the girl, his ears back and tail flat to the ground. The girl could see a man’s desire behind the bull’s eyes. She was frightened and pulled her wrap close around her, but she remembered that any hope of rain must be welcomed with love. So, she took a tuft of his purple hair in her hand and pulled herself onto the bull’s great back. The two left the hut, the smell of rain retreating with them, and trotted across the fields that bordered the village. He went with her to the distant mountains where the rain comes from. As the water holes in the village filled with thanks from the Rain God, the girl’s people sang her praises. She had not angered the Rain God, but had given herself freely in the hope of water for all the villagers to share.
“Kwaphela ngenganekwane, lala manje.”
It’s finished, my baby. Sleep now.
“Sengilele.” I am sleeping, Mama.
Excerpted from The Water Man's Daughter by Emma Ruby-Sachs. Copyright © 2011 by Emma Ruby-Sachs. Excerpted by permission of Emblem Editions, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.