Too Late to Die Young – Michigan Quarterly Review

Too Late to Die Young

Published in Spring 2024 Online Folio

The most inconvenient thing a lover can do is die.

Ndumiso looks at his husband Lifa sitting next to him in the doctor’s office; their hands are clasped and clammy, swinging between them. Dr. Dlamini promised to return shortly, but that was two hours ago. The doctor’s lengthened absence amplifies a terror in Ndumiso’s heart, twisting into a smoggy tension that deadens the air in the room. It makes him want to vomit. He feels like vomiting all the time now, his body always ready to purge, even without any food in his stomach. He hates this ugly sensation—the way a rot glazes his mouth and makes him retch, but nothing flows out. He doesn’t know if his worry is real or it’s just his crumbling body, taunting him once more. Ndumiso rubs his thighs, his black jeans almost two sizes bigger now, their washed-out color annoying him. That color, not sure of itself, reminds him of the bucket he carries around the house in case he vomits for real.

Lifa’s unshaking hopefulness about Ndumiso’s plummeting health makes him want to vomit too. Ndumiso briefly lifts his head off Lifa’s shoulder and then lays it back because it feels heavy for his body. Lifa’s shoulder feels strong under his pressed cheek. He feels the ugly sensation again and he knows it’s jealousy. He is jealous of Lifa’s strength, Lifa’s health, something Ndumiso doesn’t have anymore. He lifts his head again and decides to endure the weight of his head rather than be that close to Lifa. Lifa’s free hand caresses his own beard, tugging the hair strands and then wincing when he pulls too hard. Otherwise, Lifa’s face remains sedate and Ndumiso knows it’s a show. Lifa squeezes Ndumiso’s hand tightly, releases it, then squeezes again at a heartbeat’s rate but says nothing

After Lifa woke up this morning, he found Ndumiso naked on the grass, limbs flailing, making angels on the ground as if the erect green blades were snow. Lifa disrobed himself as he rushed to cover Ndumiso with the gown. After bringing Ndumiso inside, Lifa called the doctor to move up their scheduled appointment, while Ndumiso slept on the couch.  

Ndumiso has taken to waking up in that muffled period of the day, that hour when it is both day and night but neither. He hears his heart better at this time of day, his heart’s lub and dub, the drum of his life slipping away. He does things that make him feel more here than a departing thing—like lifting dumbbells to will his muscles back to life or obsessively cleaning their home every morning, like he’s expecting a delegation of guests. But it’s running that he loves the most. He runs until his chest threatens to burst and his legs become limp under his declining weight. When he remembers to take his phone, he calls Lifa to come fetch him from wherever his body ceases. Without his phone, he waits for his body to regain enough strength to walk back home. These days of wild running worry Lifa most because he fears that Ndumiso won’t return, not because of death but because he’ll choose to leave. Ndumiso constantly tries to assure Lifa that he has nowhere else to go. “You’re my made family,” he’ll interject between heaving breaths. Other days, he chooses the grass, the biting itch of blades a reminder that a day is a chance to start again. He secretly hopes this cyclical renewal of day and night, of dewy leaves, can seep into his cells and renew him too. Lifa has probably decided Ndumiso has lost his mind as well. Lifa doesn’t understand how compromised bodies have no regard for the norms of their previous lives before getting sick. Even time warps into both an agonizing long variable and frighteningly short breath. For Ndumiso, the only time is now, but healthy bodies like Lifa’s can consider the future.

An unexpected breeze cracks the door open, eerie and loud, and it makes Lifa jump. Ndumiso laughs quietly as he gets up to shut the door, his labored footsteps softly echoing. The office is bare to a point of being unused. The table is empty, no computer or stationery or pictures of loved ones. Its thick grey steel frame and aggressively wide teak top separate the doctor from the ill, the alive from the nearly dead.

Ndumiso hates the cramped chair, his bony body stabbed by the tired, creaky frame. He shifts again, but can’t seem to settle on a pleasant position. The discomfort is by design; no one is meant to stay here too long. Lifa squeezes his hand again. He wishes Lifa would speak rather than crush his hands, or tap his foot, or hum a song—anything to fill the room. Ndumiso pulls his hand away from Lifa, irritated by the silence and the waiting.  

Lifa called it The Illness; it arrived inside Ndumiso from nowhere. First a bout of severe coughs with chunks of blood and green phlegm. Then his stomach felt like it was burning, infested by a fury of a million ulcers. He lost his appetite; food became maiming rather than nutritious. He started to lose his hair, not only on his head but around his whole body. Ndumiso is now smooth as a baby. After the hair loss came the lesions, a swarm of them—everywhere. The doctors said they couldn’t find anything. Test after test, they found nothing. The doctors drew more blood, Ndumiso thought they might run him dry. Then came the excruciating bone marrow extractions, then scans and more scans. Still, nothing.

The Illness showed no signs of leaving. Doctors sent him home with nothing but medication for his ulcers and pain. Ndumiso considered going to church for prayers. Maybe something outside the realm of science would help, but he is not a praying man. Only Lifa is fluent in prayer, yet even he strangely suggested finding a sangoma. Ndumniso knows he doesn’t believe in that shit either.

Ndumiso believes in counting and registering the physical things around him. Counting is reliable and fixed. He lost count of the number of doctors he’s seen since the tenth visit and the numerous second opinions of the first second opinion. But he always remembers the number of visits because they measure how his life has changed. This visit to Dr. Dlamini is their twentieth visit in six months.

The door behind them finally yelps open, revealing a flustered Dr. Dlamini holding a large electronic tablet, as a flurry of two nurses and a long line of sick people flicker behind him in the waiting room. Ndumiso is not sure what to make of Dr. Dlamini. He maintains a matter-of-fact style many would consider cold, but in critical moments, he shows an earnest warmth and understanding, offering embraces after delivering bad news. When he sits down, grains of sweat slither down his withdrawn face as he scrolls the tablet.

Searching the doctor’s face for a sign of what his news holds is something Ndumiso abandoned after the fifth visit. It was winter, he remembers, because the cold penetrated so deep, he swore his cells briefly stopped functioning. The doctor’s face didn’t correlate with the contents of the diagnosis, he learned fast. Doctors have mastered the art of the poker face while holding the cards that determine your future close to the chest. Dlamini finally slows down the scrolling, bops his head in agreement with something on the screen.

He clears his throat and simply says, “I am sorry, but we can’t find anything wrong with you again. Our tests show that you are as healthy as any thirty-year-old man on the street. Maybe it’s all in your head?”

The car’s speakers blare out a frantic hymn, a declaring of God’s goodness, “He keeps on doing great things.”Lifa noisily sings along on their drive home, smacking the steering wheel. He seems more hopeful than before, perhaps validated by Dr. Dlamini’s zero change diagnosis. In matters of life and death, sometimes no change is a good outcome. Lifa seems to feel a sunny relief Ndumiso doesn’t. Ndumiso knows The Illness is hiding somewhere Dr. Dlamini’s machines couldn’t find, somewhere behind Ndumiso’s heart, or in the skew crevices between his intestines, or tucked away inside his hair follicles. The menacing weight of The Illness pulses through his body the same way it did yesterday. Anything this hostile doesn’t go away easily. But he decides to let Lifa enjoy his sunny hope, the promise of an alternate future, a future where Ndumiso outlives The Illness.

Briefly, inside the car, Ndumiso considers whether this is a punishment for his past actions. Is his dark past coming back to haunt him, to claim atonement? Ndumiso feels like he might vomit again, but he is not sure if it is the moving car or the insistent gospel songs Lifa is playing.

After they arrive at home, Ndumiso removes his clothes and hurls them into a basket. He always treats his clothes as if the toxicity of every disease in the hospital air somehow clung to the fibers of his garments. On the table lies a neatly folded set of clothes and socks he placed there prior to leaving, the kind of order only jail or boarding school could teach. He quickly slides into them and walks over to the sink to scrub his hands. In the kitchen, in his unchanged clothes, Lifa places two large wine glasses on the counter. The bottle of red wine gurgles as he pours into the two glasses. He hands one of them to Ndumiso and gulps his own halfway down.

“My God, I hate that place.” He pauses and lifts his glass to toast. “Well, here’s to a future without The Illness.”

“Dr. Dlamini would be disappointed. He looks at you like he can’t wait to offer a shoulder to cry on when I die,” Ndumiso replies.

“Who says there’ll be any tears?”

Lifa laughs. His whole body quakes with giggles, the wine already purpling his teeth and tongue. Ndumiso sips suspiciously from his glass, like something within the burgundy pond might jump out. He has drastically reduced his alcohol intake over the past few months—doctor’s orders. His taste buds are distorted. His mouth has blunted into a vessel where everything tastes the same or it always needs more salt. Even Lifa, kissing him earlier, tasted different to Ndumiso—he tasted like mud.

“I’ll start cooking supper, go shower. I know you’re just itching for the water,” Lifa says.

“Yeah, I was already headed there. It’s like the hospital smell gets under your skin more and more. Not sure which is worse between the hospital smell and the jail smell, especially the blankets in jail.”

In the shower, he watches the hot water run until a forest-fog fills the bathroom. The water scalds him when he steps under it, and he barely flinches. He finally exhales, as if breathing for the first time that day. He scrubs himself with ferocity, as if to erase his flesh. He scrubs and scrubs until his skin becomes tender and the soap stings. The sting means he is finally clean. But today, he continues beyond the stinging. He wants the soap to cleanse him from the inside. He scrubs his arm, watching the blood wriggle down until the blood is a crimson vortex around him. He knows blood is thicker than water, but his blood refuses to mix with the fast-flowing water. Ndumiso laughs at his blood being so ruined, it even repels water. His laugh is spirited and his body shakes with each chuckle. He stomps and stomps on the blood and water like children stomp in the rain. He smells the blood. Notes of copper and pineapple penetrate his nostrils. He licks it. It tastes like sand and burnt honey. Its swirling red taste confirms he is alive. The Illness makes him feel like he’s already dead.

Out of the shower, he drenches the arm with Dettol from the cabinet; the sizzle of skin makes him smile. He stares in the mirror, judging what’s left of him. His body has become a crow of jutting bones and wilting skin. The eyes have shrivelled deeper into their sockets, wrapped by dark circles. His forehead sits above them like an overhang; he always wears caps when he leaves the house now. He traces his hand over his angular chest and plays his fingers over his exposed ribs as if they were piano keys. The atrophy of his muscles in his legs has left them looking like floating tendrils. Growing up on a farm, to slaughter animals efficiently, one must spear the animal where it will bleed out the quickest, minimizing damage to the muscle, so the animal dies more humanely. Blood decays faster than muscle, that’s why they bleed the kill to prevent the blood from rotting within the meat. But for Ndumiso, all he has left is blood and bone.

 In the living area, Ndumiso finds Lifa already sitting down and waiting for him with a newly opened bottle of wine. Ndumiso settles in front of steamed everything: fish, wild spinach, butternut, and a green salad for variety. At the sight of the food, nausea floods him, but he has not eaten all day and there is nothing for his belly to exhume. Instead of inviting him to eat, it all smells rotten to him.

Sometimes he wonders if his taste buds are really fucked because he’s sick, or if it’s this awful diet Lifa has them on. Ndumiso misses fried everything: beer-battered fish, chicken nuggets, crispy fried calamari. Lifa grabs his hands and bows his head to say grace, but Ndumiso doesn’t close his eyes, waiting for Lifa to finish.

“Heavenly father, thank you for the gift of life. Thank you for the nourishment you carved into this food. Father, may we remain eternally grateful for the provisions you bestow upon our lives. Amen.” Lifa doesn’t need to have this bland food, but he shows his support for Ndumiso by eating the same things.

When he opens his eyes, Lifa asks, “Why do you keep breaking yourself like this?” His hand caresses the inflamed skin on Ndumiso’s arm. Lifa feels like he is touching crushed stone. He traces the grooves as if they are striations a river inflicts upon the land when it flows. He follows them up Ndumiso’s arm like a map, directing him to the heart of his husband’s frustration.

‘“You wouldn’t understand,” Ndumiso says, pulling his arm from under Lifa’s touch and stuffing a piece of fish into his mouth.

“Okay, then,” Lifa says. “It’s just that you carry on like someone who is already dead. It feels like you aren’t fighting to stay.”

There’s the clinking of fork against stoneware. In here, it is the silence that separates. Separating the cared for and the caregiver.

“Look at me, Lifa. What does fighting to stay look like to you? Is it not on my fucking face? Is it not in me waking up every day, even when it’s excruciating to breathe? Help me be less of a ghost, so you can be okay?”

Ndumiso throws his glass of water across the room; the water splatters and glass shatters into a thousand and one.

Before Lifa can say anything, Ndumiso is already shutting the bedroom door behind him.

Moments later, Lifa creeps into the bed, sleeps on the edge, his body on the precipice of falling. He wants to hold Ndumiso, but he knows nearness isn’t allowed anymore. When The Illness arrived, a repulsion to touch bloomed in Ndumiso; Lifa would feel him recoil from a mere caress of their legs while they slept. It has been two years since they last had sex, and Lifa misses not so much the pleasure as the intimacy of their friction, inhaling the camphor scent on Ndumiso’s skin. Death has a smell. Even before it comes, a pungent smell descends on the body. Lifa has never told Ndumiso, but he can smell it sometimes, like Ndumiso’s camphor scent has fermented into a rancid stench of mortal resignation. Yet, Lifa misses him.

He listens to Ndumiso’s labored breathing, and before he falls asleep, Lifa smiles into the dark.

Ten years before The Illness, Lifa doesn’t know whether to take a gun or a Bible. Or both. Read that man a scripture, then put forty-one shots in him.

“We are redefining what justice looks like,” the lady said over the phone. She described a restorative justice program the government was piloting. They hoped he would participate. “Through these facilitated dialogues between victims and perpetrators, we hope to offer some healing.”

Lifa sneered at the mention of healing. He was at work when he received the call, his patience thin. It reminded him of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission they learned about in History once. Truthful disclosure was supposed to bring “healing” but Lifa saw it as a calculated manipulation to placate a wronged people. He found forgiveness absurd; it attempted to force compassion as a reaction to an act of violent transgression. It felt unfair to Lifa, this request. But the lady insisted, promising extensive support.

After he hung up, he told his colleague Moya about it all. She listened attentively, said he felt disrespected because of how terribly he was wronged. But, she said, “You should go, it might be good for you.” She turned back to her cubicle and continued working. Startled by her response, he thought about it all day and on his way home called the lady back. “Sure, I’ll do it. Just to show you all it doesn’t work.”

To get to Sidwashini Correctional Services, Lifa climbs onto the only bus from Simunye to Mbabane. From there, he squeezes into a local kombi headed for Ngwenya. The prison is the fourth stop from the city center. As he gets off the kombi, the prison towers above him like a lion pressing its prey into the ground, before the fatal bite to the back of the throat.

The walls are three colors: what must be the original grey at the bottom now poking through the peeling layers of an ailing mustard and noncommittal blue top layer. A horde of questions that have been running through him over these past few months besiege Lifa: Why her? Are you remorseful? How can you live with yourself? Does she show up in your dreams like she does mine? He knows there won’t be enough time to get all his answers, but he will know when it’s enough.

He passes through the scanners to meet his lawyer and a counselor. They lead him down a musty hallway and into an empty room. Lifa can barely speak, his throat collecting all the words he wants to say. All he can do is nod to their every question.

In the middle of the room, a round office table is encircled by three chairs, one on one side and two on the other side The lines are clear. The broken and the breaker. The killer and the left alive.

After a few moments pass, he hears the clanking of chains sounding louder; he doesn’t know what to expect. He places the Bible in front of him on the table, drawing another clear line—the sinner and the sinned against. Two armed warders walk in before Lifa sees him, sodden in brown overalls. Silence clouds the room except for the percussion of the shackles on the man’s feet and hands.

He sits across from Lifa, keeping his gaze down, his hands entangling themselves. Lifa feels tears and nausea with this man so near. He wants to run and run, unsure where to go except to a time and place she’s alive in. He wants to use a hot blunt knife to peel the man’s skin off; maybe then the killer will know what Lifa’s grief really feels like. His lawyer pats his back, urging Lifa on. He stammers, then takes a deep breath.

“Please describe her face to me,” Lifa asks. “I just want to know if you remember her.”

“I remember her every day. There are no wor. . .”

Lifa interrupts, “Her face, please. Tell me now.”

“Okay.”‘ The killer clears his throat. “I remember her big eyes mostly. It’s like they could see everything. She had a scar below her right eye, a long line all the way down her cheeks. You have her forehead and mouth.”

“You want to know how she got that scar?” Words are coming and coming to Lifa now. “When she was a child, she wanted to impress a boy. A boy who would later be my father. There was a tree in their school that was hard to climb, its branches too scarce. My mother wanted to prove to the boy that she could do something the boys couldn’t. She climbed that tree, all the way to the top. Everyone clapped and cheered. But not the boy. In a huff, she began climbing down, ready to shout at him for not cheering like the others. She lost her footing halfway. During her fall, she scraped her face against one of those branches.” Lifa takes another breath and continues. “She used to say the scar represented everything good about her, but she hated it because it reminded her of her stupidity and love for men.”

“I am so sorry,” the killer says, his voice cracking. “Harming her was not my intention. I panicked and next thing I knew, I had pulled the trigger. I didn’t mean to kill her or anyone. We wanted the money and to get out,” the killer says, through an inlet of his own tears.

Lifa remembers the Bible on the table, and so he places his hands on it, as if praying. He tries to pick it up but his hands are shaking. The book slips out of his grip. The crime scene photos he’d slotted inside slip out and fall from the table along with the Bible.

 He sees his mother’s body, her turquoise doek still tight around her head. The futility of everything he had prepared for this moment swaddles him into a grief so voluminous he howls. There is nothing restorative about this. It would only be restorative if there is something to restore, and that is his mother’s life, which is impossible. He stands up, causing the guards to jump as well. He howls again.

‘“You can hit me,”’ the killer says, “as many times as you want. Maybe it will help.”

“I have dreamed about you dying in a million ways. Even this morning before coming here. But all of it changes nothing. She isn’t coming back, which is the only restorative thing that would matter. Do I want you to suffer? Completely. But your answers will never be enough.” He looks at the counselor and then his lawyer. “I’d like to leave now. This is pointless.”

Before he closes the door behind him, Lifa says, “I hope my mother haunts you until you die, Ndumiso.”

Ndumiso’s mouth is heavy and his bones gravel from fatigue. After their thirtieth hospital visit, he can barely stay upright. An enduring weariness blooms in the air as he settles on the bed. He knows he has grieved himself already, his tarnished skin only sheaths a ghost. Even Lifa’s hope has dwindled. He drinks more wine than before, and his prayers have lost their fervor.

The Illness is alive inside Ndumiso, has moved him inches closer to death. There is nothing that can be done. Even the psychiatric tests Lifa forced him to do have come back normal. After enough time with zero change, death becomes the only solution.

Lifa enters the bedroom and pulls a heavy breathing Ndumiso into an embrace, but Ndumiso tries to shove him off. He pulls Ndumiso in again, harder this time. Clasped in his arms, Lifa feels Ndumiso’s body softening. “Remember how I kept coming back to your prison, almost weekly, because I had more questions?” Lifa murmurs. “Sometimes I’d ask you the same questions over and over.”

“Yeah, it was weird how much time we were spending together. I thought you were fucking crazy.”

“I had no other family to grieve with. My mother’s death bonded us. And you felt like the only person who got it. So, I kept visiting.”

Lifa looks like his mother, her features most pronounced when he is somber and reflective. She really continues to haunt Ndumiso, especially through her son. When Ndumiso got parole for good behavior and community service, Lifa met him outside the prison where they first sat across from each other three years prior. They have been together ever since, amidst the fervid judgement they’ve endured from friends and the world. Being chosen like that, being forgiven like that, rebirths a person, Ndumiso thinks.

“Lifa, I need you to end this,” Ndumiso blurts out now.

Lifa remembers how scared he was sitting in the dark room consulting with the sangoma. He knew he wanted Ndumiso to suffer the moment he left the jail that first day, but he had to be smart about it. The sangoma’s consultation room smelled clean like mint, but also dead like cowhide. A constellation of bones in front of him and a picture of Ndumiso on the grass mat between them. The conjurer and the bereaved. The sangoma told Lifa there was no going back after this, that he had to be sure to see each stage of the ritual through. Once you start, you can’t stop, or the curse turns onto you, the curser.

First, Lifa had to slaughter a chicken, then take the bloody knife and wrap it with black cloth while it was still wet. Together with a piece of Ndumiso’s clothing, he had to bury it by their bedroom window. He had to cook the same chicken and collect the bones for the next ritual. At midnight he had to go to the grave of one of Ndumiso’s dead relatives and collect soil to crush together with ants and the chicken bones, into a fine powder to sprinkle around their house. The final step was to slip a dark mixture into Ndumiso’s food or anything he ingested. Hearing all of this almost made Lifa abandon the whole thing. It went against his Christian beliefs, but so did murder.

After he returned from the consultation with the sangoma, Lifa stirred the pungent black liquid over the heat and added strands of Ndumiso’s hair. On their kitchen counter, he funneled the mixture into an empty brown bottle and added it to the medicine cabinet. Before he was even sick, Ndumiso had a cabinet full of vitamins, herbal remedies, and pills. He never suspected anything when Lifa told him to try the liquid as a supplement. All Lifa had to do after that was play the doting partner and watch him slowly disappear.

This piece is from our Spring 2024 African Writing Online Folio, an online-exclusive extension of our special issue, “African Writing: A Partial Cartography of Provocations,” guest edited by Chris Abani. You can read more from our Spring 2024 issue, available for purchase in print and digital forms here.

Zanta Nkumane is a writer and journalist from Eswatini. His work has appeared in the Mail & GuardianLolweRaceBaitrOkayAfricaThe Johannesburg Review of Books, and The Republic. He is the nonfiction editor at Doek! Literary Magazine, a Short Story Day Africa Inkubator Fellow, and the 2022/23 UEA Booker Prize Scholar. 

lsa logoum logoU-M Privacy StatementAccessibility at U-M