I count the wooden steps. I am wondering how many years each one represents. How much is each one worth. What is the unit of memory?
They take me to when she wore bungalow skirts and skyscraper clogs, and shoved four naughty mice to bed.
I step through. Through the doorway. Through a time capsule. I add fingerprints to the soot that wallpapers the dimly lit room smelling of old age. I add my fingerprints to join the legacy of the ancients. Do I need to seek permission. No. It is a duty. My duty. My sons will one day find space on this walls to squeeze in their own.
Then the windows.
The windows catch my attention. Countless. Dusty. Full of oldness, like a tree that has borne its fruits for ages, striving to keep them from rotting, still hoping the gardener will soon wake up from his grave somewhere ‘neath its roots.
The windows open out on still, black-and-white scenery, frozen in time like a carving knife in a steaming turkey’s breast. Looking through them, nothing moves. Except a spider or two, going about his lawful duties. The world in the windows is under the spell of the Witch. (They were probably next on her list after Sleeping Beauty’s christening.) And only fifty years have yet passed.
It seems the Witch has changed her modus operandi. She puts you to a waking sleep these days. For the folks behind those windows have their eyes wide open and their smiles peek behind black-and-white curtains of teeth.
Everything is black-and-white.
Their smiles. Clothes. Dreams. Trees. Morals. Conscience. Everything.
There’s grandma’s wedding. Every old woman was once a young sparkling maiden whose grace and ways defied philosophy. Young men just fell in love without knowing why, without even knowing what was happening. The Spell of a Maiden.
Oh dear. Gladys will one day become an old drooping hag. Will she still make my heart beat fast. Will her eyes still stir storms in me…
Grandma never throws anything away. Never.
Tins, bottles, church pamphlets, funeral programmes of childhood friends, memories.
She never lost a child. Which is remarkable if you consider that back then you planned for maybe ten kids, so you could be sure of at least four remaining by the time measles n polio n the Depression n stuff like that creamed off their choices. But she kept all.
There she comes. Peering from behind her oversized coca-cola bottom spectacles. She would love to do without them, I’m certain. Her great-grandmother “lived to be 120 without her sight waning”. But then, that isn’t odd considering the fact that her great-grandmother probably was Moses’ classmate at Pyramid University. He must have shared some secrets with her.
I prostrate. She picks me up, examines me like a puppy who strayed for a few hours and then sauntered home almost dead of hunger. I am almost twice her height. Yet she doesn’t hesitate before examining me. I almost get the feeling she’s looking for a wound I’m trying to hide. For goodness sake Ma’m, I am twenty one!
I am now a controversial civil servant facing parliamentary quizzing. A one-man, sorry, one-woman quizzing.
I hear grandpa bellow from his bunker. He’s been holed up there for like two years now, since not long after his eightieth birthday. Now he’s eighty two.
His voice is unusually strong. And urgent. He is calling his wife. Two minutes later I have to interrupt her and remind her he’s still calling. She pauses for a while – I’m sure it’s to remember where she stopped –
Don’t mind him, she says, finally. He’s been misbehaving lately. Disturbs the hell out of me so I can get out of the house and leave him alone. The devil.
Doesn’t make much sense, I think to myself. Can I see him, I plead. Reluctantly she agrees. We wade into a room carpeted with old newspapers and curtained with the billowing smell and swell of urine. There he is, looking like a cloth dangling from a bone- hangar. His penis is ensconced in a plastic urine bag – It dawns on me – that’s where I came from. My origin. I bow and pay homage.
He doesn’t recognize me. Probably thinks I’m the new physiotherapist, or his wife’s new lover. She’s abandoned him for fresh blood. He’ll get her in his will. It’s in a cupboard somewhere, if the rats haven’t been there.
He wants to know today’s date. I roll my eyes around in my head as I try to retrieve the date.
Don’t tell him, she orders. What does he want to do with it. Let him check the newspaper he’s been reading all morning.
Silver and gold have I none, I think. But what I have – the date – gladly give I unto you, Papa… But she has dragged me out of the room.
I’m suddenly curious. I want to ask her if it’s true the manuscript of her funeral programme is ready, lying in one of those dust-soaked vaults (that reduce the capacity of the house by half), just awaiting publishing. Is it true she’s chosen her shroud – the aso oke she wore for her twenty first birthday.
She’s not like my other granny. If you buried Mama Ibadan in anything other than the latest waxprint or lace, she’d resurrect “instanta” and punish you by being around for another half dozen years. And then, you’d be stuck with changing her wardrobe every three months.
Grandpa bellows again. His wife doesn’t hear him. She’s busy telling me of the four funerals she has to attend this weekend. And, yes, she remembers to tell me to steer clear of cults, and to beware of girls, whose tongues are “honeycombs that lead down to Sheol”, and whose laps are “cradles of sulphur and brimstone”.