A BLANKET OF ROACHES
BY MAKENA ONJERIKA
Grandmother has been dead thirty odd years when I spot her at the shopping centre near my house. The only surviving photo of her lives in a tattered and much thumbed album I once unearthed in a storage room at my Uncle’s. In it, Grandfather is in the middle of a large laugh while Grandmother stares intently – to me she seems afraid of the contraption. This is the uptight version of her standing outside the shopping centre, wearing a hair kerchief and a long dress gathered minimally at the waist. I see her decide that I could be no relation of hers. In a blink, she becomes a twenty-something-year-old in an enveloping Somali Dera, a body so slender space seems to bend to cradle its fragility.
I am not fragile; my breakdown is without elegance.
Grandmother’s death was the slow but steady evaporation of a seasonal pond: cancer digested her from the bones out. She left us tadpoles flopping in thick mud and then dearth: Grandfather’s tea bushes have known more blight and disease than green leaf since, and any Friesian cows he breeds produce only half as much milk as Grandmother ever coaxed out of an udder. They say this was her revenge for twenty-five years of marriage.
Two days after the shopping center, I find her in my kitchen lifting lids off sufurias, opening and scrutinizing my cabinets and sniffing the leftovers in my fridge like a lewd cat. This woman who cooked in a sooty den her whole life, tearing up at the sting of wood smoke and cauterizing her hands on hot stainless steel sufurias, sneers and makes me ashamed of the two-day-old dishes in my sink.
She invades my office. She spies over my shoulder as I type reports, rotates in a swivel chair as my boss yells and rummages waste paper baskets. I corner her in the women’s bathroom, between the shards of an afternoon.
“This is not your place, Grandmother.”
She collects scathing words in her throat and spits: “Is this how a daughter of mine has chosen to live?”
“You are just a ghost,” I say.
“And you are just a repetition.”
She leans back against the door of the toilet cubicle, watching me let down piss, and hums a lullaby I had forgotten.
Grandmother cover me with a blanket of bedbugs and roaches
Hide me from worldly troubles in rat holes
When the termites swarm, I promise to catch you a sackful.
My therapist insists I have been torn asunder. In her soft office of periwinkle walls, of disillusionment and failed recollection, I am an old dress patched too many times. I imagine her sewing me back together with yellow thread and disguising the repairs under tidy herringbone stitches.
Grandmother has absconded her eternal peace because I am a sinner. I have refused to pour libations to all who have come before me. I have instead opened the windows of the house called good behavior and allowed all the caged birds their freedom.
He is a foot taller than I, rotund and from the wrong tribe. I do not love him. It is the pounding I come for, to be suffocated under his obesity. To feel, for endless minutes, that I am dying, that I am no more than a piece of soggy existence, while he shouts, “I’m fucking you. I’m fucking you.”
Grandmother watches us with pursed lips. “Do you think you are doing anything new?” she asks, broken along the cracks in the mirror hanging behind the door of our illicit room. She was Grandfather’s third wife, married two months after he laid his second under the Eucaplytus trees in the corner of his homestead. She inherited seven teenage children and endured eight miscarriages to birth Mother. Grandfather never walked her down the aisle in white to the envy of whichever friends she had.
“Would you have liked that?” I ask her, as my lover climaxes in an ugly crescendo. “Would it have made you feel better about what came after?”
He is married, my lover. To a good woman, I believe. The kind who rouses herself in the dark to heat his bathing water and make his breakfast, who takes his shoes and socks off when he returns to their cage. Or, as he claims, she is a list of conditions and expectations and has felled his ego, making him a phantom of the man he could have been. I have no pity for my lover; he deserves none.
“There was joy in my life,” Grandmother insists.
As there is in mine, Grandmother. I just want to be flatter, to spread as thin as I will go. Don’t you understand?
This is how she tells my story:
There once lived a girl so beautiful, the trees would stop their chattering and murmuring and turn their branches when she passed, and in the night, crickets gave up their song to listen to her soothing her brothers and sisters to sleep.
So beautiful was she that when the time came for our girl to get married, she found fault in every suitor who came to her father’s homestead. This one was too short. This one was too tall. This one’s mouth smelt. And on and on, for months. Even the chief’s son came with one hundred cows, long-horned Zebus, their bells clanking, their mouths absently chewing curd, and their fresh dung making the earth richer. They could be heard mooing from several hills away. But the girl rejected him too.
Her father was livid and threatened to beat her, but he beat her mother instead for fear of damaging his daughter’s precious beauty. It was in vain; the girl was not moved by her own mother’s tribulations. She refused even better suitors.
Then one day, the most handsome man who ever lived appeared in the homestead. He brought no cows, and he came with no entourage of warriors in large feather masks and bodies oiled head to toe in butter and ochre. But he walked right into the compound and planted his spear before the girl’s mother’s hut. When the girl caught a glimpse of him, she jumped, and without waiting at least half a morning, she went out and pulled his spear from the earth.
Her father beat her mother again as the girl had lost him the chance to negotiate a large bride price. He and the girl’s menfolk drank and spat bitter brew to the ground. What an ungrateful child, they said.
But the beautiful girl was not one to be perturbed by disapproval. After the necessary ceremonies, she set off with her new husband to her marital home. Looking at him, she knew she had chosen well.
They walked half a day, then at the great river East of her village, he stopped and said he would be just a moment; he needed to return something to a dear friend. But when he reappeared, he looked a little different, not as handsome. And again he stopped at the warthog’s den. And again at an ant hill. On and on until, at last, he stood before her as himself, unembellished by the talents of other creatures: the ugliest man who ever lived.
“And the girl began laughing,” I say. “And she laughed and laughed until she was a hole and she fell through.”
“That is not how the story ends,” protests Grandmother.
My lover is spear-eagled and flaccid on the bed now. His semen is rancid between my legs; I want to rip off and throw away bits of my body – but which are mine and which are borrowed?
“Listen,” Grandmother says.
But I will not. She does not know that I have been to that small, forgotten day, that evaporating morning of mist and cock crows and cows mooing impatiently at the press of heavy udders and of hens pecking the ground for worms. A morning yawning, stretching and scratching itself like any other, unaware that behind closed doors Grandmother has just leapt for her life. She has pulled open the bedroom door. She has gained the living room and accidentally swiped the radio she bought only four months ago off its stool. See her trying to free the house’s main door of its latch. She has not screamed. She will never accord this moment its terror. No, she cannot allow herself to be called a terrified woman, even though the latch is stuck.
And he comes.
Listen to my Grandfather’s calm steps.
He comes with his fists. “Today, you will know that I am the bull in this house,” he says.
My therapist wipes tears off my face that only she sees. “We just need to find the faultline along which you broke,” she says.
She has patiently re-assembled my parts these last five months, but I have not told her about the married man. I enjoy her scurrying about, trying to pin down the thing that is liquifying me. One day, I will let myself melt into her floor just to hear her scream and scream. Under her manicured human hair and uptight suits, I am certain she contains a good, piercing scream. She must, because look at what is happening to us.
“This is what is wrong with you,” says Grandmother as I lather the married man off my skin. “You are looking for unhappiness under every chair and in every gourd.”
She holds me while I cry, but nothing is resolved between us. She does not understand that I must grind myself to fine powder, because before the married man was another man. The one my therapist is trying to cure me of. He was taller, the holder of an MBA and an annual gym membership, and his dick was the tower of Babel upon which I lost God and the Word. But he is not important now, not really, Grandmother.
“When will you stop dying?” she says.
“What do you know of living?”
See my fastidious Grandfather wandering his tea farm in his fedora hat and leather shoes, inspecting his cattle at pasture and the rows his workers are ploughing. A gentleman farmer, exemplar of the guidelines provided by the Ministry of Agriculture. After twenty-five years, Grandmother was a thermometer to his moods. She spoke only words dipped in honey. She allowed no other hands to set food before him. She sat on the floor at his feet while he ate. She kept oaths she had never sworn – for rich or for poor, in sickness and in health.
But five days before her heart stopped, Grandfather would not help her clean when her bowels let loose in bed. I have seen her brittle with pain and shame. Her bones are a cage, and the room of her death has one pitiful square of a window. Grandfather’s cigarette smoke clings to their clothes, their blankets, to her. Everything belongs to him.
“There is no one here but you,” she says to him. “For all that I have been to you, NtoImanyara, I beg you. Just this one time.”
“Woman, your daughters will be here soon.”
To serve her would diminish him.
I pull out of her embrace. “What for, Grandmother? For what did you suffer?”
Her slaps come fast. “You ungrateful little bitch. You think you made this world for yourself? We…” She clutches her fallen breasts. “…we paid for it with innumerable lives.”
She pursues me with a cane through the dry season of our lives. Vultures and Maribou storks descend on the widely strewn carcasses of memory, but my tears are not enough to restore these plains: whistling grass that once camouflaged predators stalking prey and in which tongues of wind went frolicking. The air sung and the rains came, coaxing bright green shoots out of the soil; living was living and dying was living again.
We stumble upon the moment of my undoing suddenly. Grandmother’s laughter echoes against the escarpments corridoring our narrow history. She has found better punishment than a cane: “So this is it? This small thing?”
Her words fold me fetal. My therapist has warned me: “The biggest danger is self pity. It will strangle you.”
I have a story too, Grandmother:
A girl wore her newest calfskin dress and a veil of bead strings and went to the village dance. The elders of that village pretended that the dance did not exist and instead told the village children stories of ghosts and ogres descending on the field at the edge of the village, whenever the moon showed its whole face.
The girl had been to the dance many times, having first snuck there as a child to watch her older sister succumb. But after so many years, the girl was bored. The dance had little passion and too much order. There were moments when one was meant to step forward towards her partner, and they would stare at each other shaking their heads and shoulders. Then the man would put his hands on her waist and guide her body by his rhythm and step on her toes, and she was to look starlit and enchanted, like mummified happiness. Then there were moments for separation and longing, and the girl was supposed to spin round and round as the drummers slapped the tight goat skins harder and harder. Then she was to fall down, and the dance would begin again. The girl thought it all stupid.
In truth, her attitude was the fault of those who had named her. They had paid no attention to a short, almost inaudible syllable at the middle of her name; it meant chaos.
At this dance, she stayed in the shadows watching the coming together and parting of bodies, waiting for something different. Then she noticed a tall man who stood separate from the crowd. The ugliest man she had ever seen. No girl would dance with him. But he was not bowed by rejection. In his stillness, he was vibrating with the music. The girl pitied him – the one thing all the passed down wisdom of her Ancestresses had told her never to do for a man.
She went up to him. They danced. They caused a scandal with their jerking limbs and guttural emissions. But they did not care. The man then invited the girl to dance with him in the bush. This was something she had done before with other men. It was the nature of the dance. She went into the bush.
But what she did not know was that the elders told some truths about the dance, after all. Ogres and ghosts did sometimes descend upon the field at the edge of the village.
“You are free. Eeh, I see how free you are.” Grandmother tears and reconstitutes herself around the sharp barks of her laughter. “You silly child. Did you think he was a dress or a shoe you owned?”
I am gentle because she paid my way through womanhood. I am kind because for all her strength, she rises only to my shoulder. I am tender because she refuses to see her own hurt. This is the only balm I can give her. I say it quietly:
“Grandmother, you are dead.”
Makena Onjerika won the 2018 Caine Prize for African Writing, was shortlisted for the 2020 Bristol Prize and is a 2020 Best of the Net nominee. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Granta, Johannesburg Review of Books, Fireside Quarterly, Wasafiri, Waxwing, Jalada, New Daughters of Africa, Doek!, DRR and others. She teaches at the Nairobi Fiction Writing Workshop. Find her on twitter as @onjerika.
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