How does a plane disappear? The question Neria wishes the barrage of messages clogging her phone would answer. The vibrations, powered by the turmoil between her relief, guilt, and anger, are relentless but unhelpful. Memes, GIFs, and jokes with no balm of resolution.
😂😂😂First they make millions of relief funds disappear and now a whole plane. Your people have gone too far this time cc @Neria #FlightSA147
Eh Neria is this not your childhood sweetheart on that flight?
@Neria check this out. See you should have hit the streets with us #FlightSA147.
Aargh! There are only so many memes you can do with #FlightSA147.
Neria is playing with fire. She is one vibration away from her landlord wrenching the lumpy parts of herself out of the sunken armchair downstairs to stomp her way up the once-cream stairs. One vibration away from the landlord bursting into Neria’s room and threatening to kick Neria out, again. Just one more vibration but Neria does not have the energy to reach over and slide the phone into mute, in spite of her fear of confrontation.
Neria takes the moment to appreciate God’s sense of humour.
“Is this a divine intervention?”
She wonders, pushing her spectacles up the bridge of her nose she stares past the news on her laptop into a mix of scenarios she can expect.
On a plane from South Africa. Oliver. Where did you get the money? Drugs? Hacking? Sugar mama? 419 scams maybe? Maybe you are a human trafficker? Do African Social Media managers even get paid enough for international flights?
Oliver, who she has not seen in seven years, is on that flight. Oliver, the childhood sweetheart who lost in the weighing of scales to an all-expenses-paid scholarship to study at Trinity College. Oliver, who called her yesterday to say he was on his way to see her so they could talk.
Why now? Or… Maybe you hope I will be your ‘in’. Oliver, are you still as smooth? What’s your game plan, Oliver?
As the scenarios play out, one sticks out, the most probable — he is going to declare his love, then will overstay, then marriage will be the proposed solution.
Oliver belongs in Neria’s past. But she also knows that she is not supposed to feel so relieved that the teenage boy Neria dreamed would be her husband was one of the disappeared. That shy, awkward teenage girl that no one else bothered to look at would never have believed it. She would have never fathomed a reality where her heart would not be jumping at the thought of seeing the suave Oliver ‘Snap’ Ncube.
Neria’s back hunches forward, weighed down by the guilt. She wonders if the ash-faced blonde behind the screen is telling the truth. Has the plane really just vanished off the radar, a couple of hours within the start of the flight?
Cape Town to Addis Ababa for a quick stop, then Barcelona, ending in Dublin. That would have been the itinerary had the flight not disappeared somewhere between Johannesburg and Addis Ababa. If it had not disappeared, now, twenty-three hours from its takeoff in Cape Town, Oliver would have sauntered through the arrival gate at Dublin Airport, terminal B with their unresolved baggage in tow. She had already imagined his gangly legs threatening to knock anything in their way down as he beelined for her to declare his apparent undying love. Now, with this ‘disappearance’, she is stuck in her room with her mess of feelings, wondering how a whole American engineered Boeing aeroplane just disappears. She wonders why of all the half-hearted prayers to the god who had betrayed her too many times before, this would be the one answered.
The flight has not quite disappeared. If any of those who are running from or to trouble via the South African and Zimbabwean border looked up into the sky and squinted a bit to focus, hands over their eyes to block the blazing sun, they would have seen it. It would have appeared to be hanging on a string. If they dared to not blink, their bloodshot eyes would have seen the massive Boeing dangling, so slightly. But because no one wants to stand out, no one dares to look up. So there the flight dangles, lost, ‘disappeared’, stuck between two worlds.
Inside Flight SA147, it is dark. Every window shade is down. It is surprising that it does not falter, sink a foot or two, weighed down by the ferment of sleep. The plane would have been dead quiet too were it not for the fanatical whispering of the older woman sitting next to Oliver, Ma Khune.
Oliver winced when he walked down the aisle and spotted his appointed travel companion, a praying Ma Khune. He gawked at the tiny head, bent down. All the hair follicles on this tiny woman’s head seemed to be fleeing the hairline, heading to the centre where they congested as if also joined in prayer. Oliver imagined the derisive chuckles she must have drawn when she broke into her fevered prayer just after boarding. He put his best smile on and crouched over the seat next to her:
“First time flying Mama?”
She stopped praying, turned to look up, her eyes burning through him. One eye slightly drooped, the other like a typical moody, cloudy Cape Town autumn day. She nodded. She then turned, staring at her seat again, head down, hands in a fist close to her chest, and began praying again. Her words were barely audible but snatches of her sentences flickered around like light lashes through the air. Oliver swallowed any other small talk scripts he had prepared, losing even the voice to tell her she had taken his window seat.
Oliver told himself he did not need to sit by the window, his vlog did not need to share cliché moments like all the other less talented influencers. Grateful for the near-empty flight, he relished the opportunity to stretch his long legs down the aisle. As they waited for everyone else to board, he felt his left leg begin to bounce up and down – his nervous tic. Not because of the flight, but because of Neria and the letters she sent him in her first years in Dublin, heavy in his bag. Flings, relationships, one-night stands with AFDA film students, Long Street huns and Cape Town models had done nothing to remove her from the tamarind sweet section of his memories and being. Her lopsided smile was all he saw once he opened his eyes after kissing a new prospect. Her laugh, soft but infectious, haunted him like his photography did when he was supposed to be creating content for likes and retweets.
“Neria, you have put a spell on me,” he often cursed.
He thought they no longer had anything in common but the trip was the only way to exorcise her from his head, memories, and being, he reasoned. “And maybe,” the whispering optimist at the tiny corner of his brain chirped, “Maybe it will end with kisses and kids.”
He did not have a plan for what he would say, he hoped that he would be guided by her letters once he read them, only after they had passed Barcelona. His nerves would not let him think of what seeing her would be like. An Instagram stalk revealed that her spectacles were gone. Now blinding and obtrusive, was the beauty that for a long time he had been the only one to appreciate. Her nuanced witty Facebook posts suggested that gone too, was the girl so awkward, she had been unable to hold simple conversations with his boys. His entire festival budget had gone to this trip, maybe they would go to a concert in Dublin together, reliving those days listening to the latest jams under a tree. He had little spare money left, the exchange rate squandered any savings made from booking the cheapest flights and accommodation. Oliver hoped he would not have to sleep in the backpacker he booked online. It looked worse than the dormitory where he spent his high school years back in Bulawayo.
Oliver was rattled. The boarding process at Cape Town international departures had been more complicated than he had thought it would be. The metal detector beeped nonstop as he walked through security clearance. He flung off the studded belt he got at a Zara sale, throwing it into the orange tray. Across the coffin-shaped box, he had gone, facing the growing line, and then tiptoed across the detector again.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
Red lights flashed.
The smirking security guard gestured at his heeled shoes; another Zara find. Like the belt, they were bought to impress Neria.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
Mocking red lights flashed.
At that moment Ma Khune passed the grumbling Oliver who was now going through his pockets taking out coins, keys, pens, his GoPro and a metal Vaseline tub, trying to keep track of all his belongings. Unlike him, Ma Khune had no worries, she was not stopped, nothing beeped, nothing flashed. But as she packed her coin purse and passport back into her grass handcrafted bag, a small brown bottle rolled out of her bag to join Oliver’s growing pile. Oliver, free of all his extra bits, finally passed through the detector with no more beeps or flashing lights.
“They should have better markings of these things.”
He stuffed his belongings along with Ma Khune’s brown bottle into his pockets and bag.
Oliver was convinced that he would be better prepared at the next boarding gate. Looking at the still, praying old woman beside him, he shook his head. He swiped through his on-flight entertainment menu and chose a Nduduzo Makathini album. The woman’s prayers were soon overpowered by Nduduzo’s delicate devotion, and he felt himself surrendering to sleep.
Now as the plane stalls, dangling over Beit Bridge, Oliver wakes up and stretches. His sleep had been satisfying. His headphones tangled on the floor. It is dark. He blinks, trying to configure himself. He sniffs, the flight is stuffy. He tries to not think of the germs that are circulating. The flight, silent; except for the lashes from the little old woman on the left beside him. She is still at it. It feels like she is at war. He tries to not stare. Back where he was born, anyone with eyes and intensity like that would be branded a witch.
Hands on the armrest, he half-stands up, surveying the darkness. There is no movement. He has an unexplainable urge to reach for his bag, to get the Bible his housemate had thrust into his hands as he headed out to the airport. He tries to switch on the overhead lights but cannot make the knobs work, so he goes into his pockets and takes out his phone. Once it beeps, he puts the flashlight on. He staggers up, shaking his legs awake and takes his backpack down from the overhead bin. As he sits with his bag on his lap, he hears a whirring sound. The lights in the plane begin to flicker on from the front down. People are stirring. The old woman releases a heavy sigh and raising her head, stops praying.
“This is your captain speaking. Please wear your seatbelts as we descend. Cabin crew, please stay seated.”
Oliver, squinting to get accustomed to the light, looks around the plane. The couple sitting in the middle row of seats next to him looks like they are still waking up.
He looks at Ma Khune.
“They say we are landing.”
She has the beginnings of a smile around her lips. She scares him. But he also wants to know about her story and what she has seen with those eyes that has shrunk her so. Her smallness has an unnatural awkwardness to it. Her face finally breaks into a smile, large with a few gaps in her teeth, and another sigh passes through her tiny body.
“We’ve finally crossed the South African border” she smiles.
“No,” he looks at his phone. “It is 9 pm, we should be landing in Dublin now.”
Silent, she shrugs, eyes still stuck on the seat in front of her.
The speakers crackle again.
“This is your captain speaking. We are taking an unscheduled stop in Bulawayo, please be patient with us. Everything is under control. If you have used your personal device such as a cell phone or laptop please switch it off for landing. Those who feel the need to stretch their legs are welcome to walk down the aisles once we land but no one will be allowed to leave the plane for security reasons.”
“Dublin, ehh,” the old woman chuckles. Oliver stares at her, speechless. He switches off his phone and drops it into his bag. The plane slides down onto the tarmac and after a few bumps, it slows into a stop. His ears feel like they are about to implode. The aeroplane slowly comes to life with gasps and sighs. He closes his eyes and wills himself to take a deep breath. He realises that his jaws are clenched shut and he has been grinding his teeth. He should have chewed some gum as they descended, a travel blog tip he read and forgot to use. Stretching his mouth open, he turns to find the eyes of the peculiar woman stuck on him. She opened the window shutter allowing the lights from the airport building in, the stars and full moon wink down upon them.
“Neria must be worried about me,” he mutters.
He breaks free from her stare to search through his bag, looking for his phone. He thinks he hears the old woman grunt; he ignores her. Like a blindfolded game show host trying to find a ticket from a hat at a badly attended show, he scrambles through his bag unable to feel the reassuring coldness of his phone. Taking a few more breaths, he goes into the side pocket and begins to pull things out. Keys, a black ballpoint pen, hand cream, his business cards, the GoPro, a metal Vaseline tub, the still unopened pack of chewing gum and a small brown bottle he has never seen before, but no phone. Head skewed, he examines the small bottle between his thumb and index finger. If the bottle had been bigger, he would have expected it to host some hipster made Cape Town peppermint-infused craft gin or rum. It even has that signature cork stopper. With a sniff, he takes the bottle into his left hand, but before his right hand is up to pop the cork off the bottle is snatched out of his hands. Face scowled; mouth open he turns to find Ma Khune holding the bottle to her chest with her eyes closed.
Her eyes stay closed, her arms do not move. He taps her bony shoulder.
“Mama, that is mine”.
“Ma! It’s mine, it was in my bag”.
“Uh uh.” She grunts.
“Sorry Mama, give it back. It’s mine.”
“Shhhhhhh,” a collective hiss from the flight.
“Mfana,” she whispers, without moving a muscle. “You and going after what you know is not yours.” She chuckles. “If you had not taken what was not yours, Ciphius would have not had a chance.”
“Huh?” he replies.
“If it was yours, why did you take the wrong seat?”
“Um I umm was umm being…”
“Polite?” She cuts his stammering. “Your seat is four rows down,” she chuckles.
He goes through his pockets again and finds his ticket stub. Seat 19A. He looks up. 14C. Oliver winces.
“uGogo Ndlovu made this bottle just for me. It was always going to come back to me.”
“The story of the brown bottle is a long one,” Ma Khune whispers.
“Well, we are not going anywhere for a while, Ma.” Oliver shrugs looking around the hushed aeroplane. Bending down, he whispers, “I also wanna know more about this, I think someone has done something…”
He gestures with his hands hoping she understands.
“The Neria you cry of?”
Oliver nods, hoping she will feel sorry for him.
“Mmmxim,” she chuckles again, “that’s your ego. If only my problem was as basic. If it had been, I would never have needed this bottle in the first place and you would already be on your way back from your Dublin.”
The scowl growing on his face is stopped by Ma Khune’s smile and she softly elbows him.
Ma Khune was meant to never set foot outside of Dzaka village, in the northern region of Limpopo. She had spent forty-seven years of her life, in Dzaka village, married to a Ciphius Khune. A lifetime ago, her, a trembling sixteen-year-old, had been given to the forever smirking, balding Ciphius as a wife. Ciphius saw the looks in the community’s eyes. They thought she was too beautiful for an ugly old miser like him. The whispers were loud, various bets were out on when she would run away. The majority bet on the first chance she got — when he travelled to Joburg to buy stock for his shop. Ciphius consulted the strongest inyanga in the surrounding villages for a powerful binding spell. He refused to be the village laughingstock. To him, his neighbours were stupid people who laughed and gossiped about him. Yet it was with those same tongues that they would come to his shop every week begging for bread on discount. Ciphius wanted to show everyone that he was better and smarter than them, and that Ma Khune would never leave.
As soon as she arrived, he named her Ma Khune, not wanting to waste his energy twisting his tongue to say whatever name she had come with. Ma Khune, though she never birthed any children of her own. Some in the village joked that it was only by the grace of God that Ciphius was impotent, not even Ma Khune’s beauty would have had a fighting chance against his ugliness. As the scars of time and her husband’s cruelty marked Ma Khune, Ciphius and his ugliness were unchanged.
Ciphius was a man with little imagination, he would pummel his wife with a beating whenever he heard another snide comment about not deserving her beauty or sweetness. After each beating, she would attempt to leave. In a plastic bag, she would pack what she came with. She would then sneak away while he was doing stocktaking at the back of his shop. But, as soon as she tried to pass Dzaka Comprehensive Primary School, she would hit an invisible wall that she was unable to go round, under, or over. The school kids would laugh whenever they saw Ma Khune approach, the meaner old ones would run to meet her and walk beside her. As she hit that barrier they would laugh, walk over her given barrier, and offer to hold her hand. They would pull it, even though they knew that no matter how hard they pulled or pushed, her feet would never be able to move beyond that point.
She tried different routes. She tried every single dusty path that led out of the village, but an invisible wall appeared anytime she walked eight kilometres away from Ciphius’ house. School kids would become adults and the cycle continued. Each new group of children learned of the legend. They would all wait for the moment she would try to leave, and it always came. Ciphius was uglier inside than he was out.
One of those school kids, Salamina, grew up and went to Johannesburg. But Salamina could not get the image of the imprisoned Ma Khune out of her head. As soon as she could, she returned in a maroon Toyota Cressida that made all the dust and sand in Dzaka village rise as if in awe of the car’s beauty. The eyes in the community bulged. Every bum wanted to feel what the fancy seats in the Cressida felt like, but this grown-up kid was back only for Ma Khune. Salamina remembered how Ma Khune would slip loaves of bread, polony, and atchaar to her when no one was looking, the only food her mother and brothers would have for days. Salamina was sure that Ciphius’ spell was no match for the Toyota technology. One evening when Ciphius was drinking in his shop with the undiscerning village drunks, Ma Khune slipped into Salamina’s car. Lights off, they slowly drove out into the night, with the lights of the car off. As the Cressida approached the school, with the foot on the accelerator, Salamina and Ma Khune prepared to break through. A deafening bang rang through the village, the Cressida’s hood crumpled back, and the car bounced a few feet away from the barrier. Both women were flung out the windscreen, landing on the ground. The village came running out, rubbing eyes and groins.
Ma Khune woke up to Ciphius’ cruel cackle. “You’re mine. Stupid woman, when will you get that.”
But Salamina, haunted by Ma Khune’s grief, did not give up. Fresh scars accumulated on Ma Khune’s body, telling tales of the many ways they had failed to cheat Ciphius’ spell. In a dream someone whispered to Ma Khune: “Fight fire with fire.”
Ma Khune and Salamina needed to go beyond the barrier to find an inyanga that Ciphius had not bought. Many inyangas tried but Ciphius’ spell, maturing with the years, was untouchable.
Then forty-seven years after the spell had been cast, a barefoot traveller arrived in the village. She had her locs in a bun, skin blessed by the gods, wearing a cloth around her waist and another around her shoulders that reminded Ma Khune of a home she had left decades ago. The barefoot stranger set up under the Baobab tree. Starting with the bolder men and women, the villagers went to consult her. Ma Khune felt a connection to the stranger but did not want to bear Ciphius’ smirk if he saw her talking to another inyanga. But as the sun climbed into the horizon, she caught the euphoria of boldness and snuck off to the tree.
Ma Khune’s face lights up, she looks up at Oliver as she comes to the end of her story.
“Using the essence of my being, Gogo Ndlovu made this bottle for me. She called my ancestors from the depths of Kenya from where they had taken me when I was just sixteen. Then using the herbs she carried, the songs she had been given, and the many prayers l had swallowed – she made this concoction. Life beyond the eight kilometres I had known for so many years is amazing. It is beyond any of my boldest dreams. First, Salamina and I drove to Joburg. Then I took a Greyhound bus to travel to the Free State, Gqeberha, then Cape Town. But my plans to see the world were overshadowed by the need to be back with my people in Kenya. Gogo Ndlovu said I would be fine as long as I kept this bottle close to me. Everything was going well. Until that moment when I was getting into the plane, I felt it, that familiar grip on my spirit. I realised I could not find the bottle. I kept reciting the prayers I had resurrected. The prayers were in a war against his spells. The prayers and I had overcome the reign of that sad man’s powerful spell so we could cross the border.”
Oliver stares at Ma Khune, dumbstruck, he does not know what to say. The plane begins to lift off and neither he nor Ma Khune say a word. They sit in silence. Her eyes focus ahead, the bottle clasped in the fist against her chest. He tries to remember to take deep breaths and not clench his jaws.
The speakers crackle.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. In my twenty years of flying, I have never encountered anything like this but, I am proud to say we are making our first scheduled stop at Addis Airport. Thank you for your patience. For passengers who are disembarking at this airport, please follow the stewards who will lead you to our special lounge where you will be taken care of. Please fasten your seatbelts as we prepare to land.”
The speakers crackle. Oliver takes out a pack of gum, he takes one, and offers the pack to Ma Khune. She shakes her head.
‘Ma? By the way, what’s your name?” He asks, staring down at her.
“Ma Khuu….” She stops, smiles — “Ohhh my name is Zawadi.”
Oliver replies, “that is not that hard to say.”
She smiles at him. Seeing the glint in her eye, he drops his head.
Flight SA147 finally arrives at Addis Airport. Packs of camera crews from all over the world lie in wait, hoping to get the story. Oliver switches his phone on. Messages from his family, housemate, and friends flood in.
“Hey, you fine?” — Neria. That is all.
From the corner of his eye, Oliver spots Ma Zawadi rummaging through her bag.
“Everything fine, Ma?”
She smiles, showing him a feature phone — bubbling plastic protection still hugging the screen.
“I was looking for my Tielielie.”
Quietly, she looks through her phone.
“Heeeeee,” she exclaims. She claps her hand once.
Oliver peeks at the phone. The quietly chuckling Ma Zawadi notes his curiosity.
“Message from Salamina,” Ma Zawadi whispers. “Ciphius died a couple of hours ago.” She claps her hand again. “Tjo”.
“Wait,” Oliver whispers, “oohhhh. So that is why he wanted you around.”
Ma Zawadi replies with a smirk.
“Tjo! If it was me, then I would have treated you like a precious diamond.”
Ma Zawadi shrugs and gathers her things.
Oliver, replaying her story, is reeling. He again peeks at her, she sits quiet, no sign of the turbulence, violence and joy she has lived through. He grins.
“Tjo Ma. It will be magical. I can only imagine what your people will say when they first see you.”
Ma Zawadi smiles.
“Hope someone videos it all so we can see,” he adds.
“Maybe we need someone with skills like you,” she winks.
He smiles, struggling to maintain eye contact with her.
He glances up again. She nods.
“Thank you so much,” Oliver whispers, packing his things into his bag.
“Thought you would never ask. We both need to be free of our past, neh?” Ma Zawadi smiles. “Just not with those shoes.” He looks down at the Zara shoes that have been hurting his toes and heels.
“They will slow us down,” she shrugs.
As he wiggles his toes, he also laughs.
Gogo Ndlovu’s spell must have made her psychic.
Ma Zawadi chuckles; she feels her trampled spirit growing even bigger, taking up the space it had been forced to relinquish.
About the Author:
Mabel Mnensa is an avid reader, writer, poet, and a knowledge curator. She published her debut children’s picture book, ‘Kantiga Finds the Perfect Name,’ in 2020, and has since then created children’s stories in collaboration with South African literacy organisations. Mabel’s prose can be found in short story anthologies. She is currently completing a novel.
She is based in Cape Town, and you can find her on Instagram at @MabelThandi.
Feature image by blauthbianca/ Pixabay