I had told many half-truths before, but those little lies were cute compared to this, the first time I told a big lie. A lie so big, its effects rippled on for weeks. It was the kind of lie you watch run far ahead of you, marking places you never intended as targets. Maybe it outlived that day in 1998. It might have lived on for years. I would not know because nine-year-old Naledi was too scared to ask, and the adult me has always been too ashamed to find out.
As always happens when cats are away, my grandmother’s absence set things in motion. She had gone away for a week, to put in seasonal work harvesting grapes on the wine farms in Paarl. It wasn’t the first time she had done this. Unlike in the past, for some reason this time my teenage aunts would not be taking care of me. Instead, grandmother had arranged for me to stay with a friend of hers whose home was a few streets away from ours in Site C, Khayelitsha.
I didn’t mind because her family lived very comfortably, in a beautiful six-room shack with two telephone lines and bedrooms for each family member. They were so well off they had different kinds of jam in their refrigerator and I remember thinking how wild it was that jam could be a color than red – the color of the free jam we received at school.
My only problem was that they loved to sleep.
I suppose it had to do with their each having separate rooms, but I had never been around people who slept as much. Come weekend their house was dark and silent well past noon. Saturday mornings featured me, bored to lethargy, waiting on the family to wake up. I was forced to strictly observe their rules, one of which was that I was not allowed to go outside without saying goodbye or to make breakfast without supervision.
It was on one such morning of tedium that I came upon my first big lie.
I had wandered towards the kitchen and poked my head into the refrigerator to finally taste all the colors of jam. Just as I finished working my way through the jars (fig being my least favorite), my eyes came to rest on the thing that would be my downfall. A big roll of polony sat plump and ripe red just behind the skhaftin of leftovers. It was as though I was Eve and this was my proverbial apple. Encased in its trademark red, the polony looked to have only been disturbed once or twice before. I did not hesitate. I grabbed a knife from the table.
I sliced deep into the thickness and came away with a hunk much too big to call a slice. I excised a brick of polony. I carefully hid the evidence of my crime, stuffing the remains back in the refrigerator. Then I tiptoed out into the back yard. I hid just behind the shack and gorged myself.
Every desire I had ever nursed rose to the surface and demanded that I give it its fill. I chomped into all the things I wanted but knew I would never get; gulping and then almost gagging on the fantasies of a home with a rainbow of jars. It was exhilarating, exactly how I had always imagined the feeling of having more than you need.
Later my grandmother’s friend would find the severely mutilated polony. She would ask who was responsible for butchering the cold meat. It would come to me right then how I had often heard adults complain about Uncle Zuko who stole small change and smoked dagga with his wayward friends. I gave an innocent shrug and told grandmother’s friend quite flatly, that I had seen Uncle Zuko snooping around in the fridge earlier. I finished off with “uyamazi unjani” — the signature end to all adult conversations about Uncle Zuko.
I know she did not believe me. Still, the polony sat there like an exposed wound reminding her of all the other times the boy had left her feeling raw. How many times had that boy cut her?
When Uncle Zuko returned at the end of the weekend, he found his bags packed and lonely at the entrance. Grandmother’s friend would not let him through the door. I stood next to her, terrified but not crying, afraid that if I opened my mouth wide enough to bawl and loosen the guilt that threatened to clog my throat, she just might catch a whiff of my secret.