When Grandfather died, he died in my arms, not because we were close or because I was his favorite grandson—if he ever had a favorite grandson. It was an unfortunate happenstance. His large, rugged head sprawled haplessly on my shoulders as he collapsed and died while he was trying to teach me a lesson—a lesson about how I shouldn’t talk back whenever he reprimands me—that rebounded on him and took him to the grave. He had asked me to bend down as he fetched his whooping stick. It was certain that my ass was going to get the beating but as he was about striking me, he tripped over the stool at the center of the sitting room that demarcated where he was from where I was and he fell on top of me.
I could not escape him neither could I negotiate his weight from me. I had assumed that it was another of his many styles of punishments. But then I noticed he was not moving, I realized something had gone wrong. So I struggled to free my hand to check his pulse and there it was. He was dead, so very dead like a frozen fish and I liked it. You see, I disliked him and notice why I chose the word ‘dislike’. It is because I think hate is too strong a word; though if I had gotten the chance many years back I would have killed him myself.
Whenever we offended mother as youngsters, my little brother and I—aged five and seven respectively then—would always have to face Grandpa. His punishments were evil like what we see when we watch horror movies. He had punishments of all kinds in his tank to inflict pain. He never got tired when he was disciplining us despite his age. He had a bad back too but that does not deter him from beating us up whenever he wanted to. His bad back came about as a result of a hunting accident that cost him a chunk of his pinky toe and a slipped disk after a wounded buffalo ran him down after it was shot.
Grandpa stubbornly didn’t stay long enough at the hospital to be treated well. Hence the complication that developed on his lower spine and rendered him a convalescent. He became meaner—especially on days when he used his leather clothed whooping stick which he claimed to have been made from the saliva of a dying dragon. He was mother’s foster father but our adopted grandfather and we call him Baba which meant father.
James my little brother had a theory about Baba, which if mother ever knew about; James could lose his second arm for. His good left arm had to be amputated because it got infected after Baba made marks on it with his hunting knife and then rubbed some black powder on the wound while he was reprimanding him for using his left hand to give him his food. James was born leftward but Baba had never really accepted his left-handed-ness and had always forced him to use his right hand to do almost every other thing instead.
Baba believes left handed children are spawns of the devil. In the old days and truly in recent times too, using your left hand is counted as a taboo and also seen as a sign of disrespect for elders. Baba like many other old folks in our village didn’t approve of the use of the left hand to do anything.
Baba wasn’t a generally cruel person; he was just unpleasant to us, his immediate family; at least that was what we’d been made to believe over the years. James thought mother’s story about our father walking out on us because he couldn’t fend for us was bullshit—James swears a lot, something he learnt from Baba. He insists that it was Grandfather that chased him away with his impishness—the same way he had been trying to chase us away despite the fact that we were minors and couldn’t fend for ourselves. I always warn him to keep such thoughts away from his head but the foolish boy won`t listen. He says he would confront mother and ask her these questions, damning the consequences.
Recently, James cooked up another theory about Baba; he said Baba was our real father, that he looked too much like us not to be related to us by blood and that he had read a story similar to ours in a book at the public library. He explained further that we were products of incest which was why we had never met or seen our so called real father or any other person from mother’s family for that matter. I tell him that it was not possible for us to be products of incest. That if his theories were true, he should realize that Baba wasn’t related to mother by blood and if he were to be our real father that it would have been legal, but he wouldn’t listen; I have warned him to keep his head out of reading such terrible books that are giving him all these ideas.
Only James had not met members of mother’s family, maybe that was why he was keen on believing any of the nonsense that his books fed him. I on the other hand had had the misfortune of meeting our aunt Lola, a fairly old spinster that lived in the smelly old cottage built beside the abandoned recreation center in the next village. She was very ugly with sharp features, her saggy breasts looked as though they had been suckled by demons; she’s mother’s elder and only sister and had been raised by another foster family and her demeanor was that of a person that is always angry.
Little wonder she had not gotten married despite the fact that she was approaching her fifties. What type of man would want to marry such a person? She used to beat me up and curse loudly if I dared belch or make any grunting sound while eating. She says that discipline is the way of the lord and she pronounces lord as ‘Load’ which sounds very annoying while she says any child that wants to stay in her house must learn discipline. I had spent seven treacherous days in her house before mother came to pick me up; I was just two years old and mother had gone away to have my little brother.
Everybody else in our village asides us believes Baba is a sweet old man, misunderstood by us of course. Nobody believes my story whenever I tell them that the marks on my back were as a result of what Baba termed as discipline. Instead they say have we not seen you climb trees and play in the bush before? Isn’t that where people get scars? So I shut my mouth and wonder when someone would catch Baba in the act so that they can believe me. Because Baba was a handyman by trade and he helped the folks do jobs that could have cost them a fortune for a little pay and sometimes would decide not to get paid for some of these stuffs; hence he was loved and respected in the community.
On days when he had one of his infamous fights with mother—fights that they usually have when either of the two of them had overdone the local illicit liquor—they would scream at each other endlessly but at the end of the day, Baba would retire to his room and mother to hers like two boxers in a ring. The fight was usually about a perception Baba had about mother, a perception I don’t totally disagree with. He says mother is sleeping around the village like a common dog. This is the only time we ever see mother jumping on the defensive wagon. Other than this moment, she never says anything back at him. Her retorts would edge him on to say more hurtful words about her.
A word he uses usually is “whoring” and he says it with his face screwed up in a frown. Even I raised my nose at the sight of mother; which besides her usual putrid smell was culturally very wrong. No matter what, a child should never raise his nose at any of his parents. Not even if they were first cousins with pigs and they ate dung for breakfast. Baba sounded as though the word ‘whore’ in itself was more aversive a word than it already was. I didn’t fully understand what he meant of course, I simply thought whoring had something to do with the rags that mother wear around. I had never been proud of her—mother with her deranged outlook—her hair always unkempt and scattered as though she was some drug addict, she was just so comfortable with filth; not that she looked any better than Baba who only had two good front teeth that were so brown that you could doubt if they had ever been white.
James and I were lucky, despite the fact that we were ill-treated by Baba and were born and raised by a mother whose general outlook made a pig look neat; we looked decent just like most of the kids that were our age in the village. What baffled me most about mother was the fact that she never stood up for us. No matter how much Baba abused us, mother would just look on forlornly. Her disposition was always distant, never bothered that her foster father was going to kill her children. Even when James was about to lose his arm, it was because Mother had been nonchalant about visiting the health center; maybe because she was afraidof Baba until the arm got infected to the point of amputation. James has never forgiven her, not that she cares anyway.
So when Baba died, I was not shaken. I was surprised if only to put words to how I felt seeing his limp body there on the couch after I managed to disentangle myself from the corpse. The old man who always seemed so larger than life especially whenever he was doing what he knew how to do best, which was to whoop the asses of either James or I or to shower accusations of promiscuity on mother. I felt like defiling him even further, like give him a kick in the head or something. Grab a razor and make designs on his saggy and scrawny skin just like he did to mine. Do something that would help serve as a payback for all the nonsense that he had done to me and my little brother over the years. But, I couldn’t do it, instead I just stared at the limp body. The responsible thing would have been to call an older person, someone to help call the ambulance. But we didn’t have a mobile phone in our house or a terrestrial line because Baba would not have any of those things, devices of the devil he called them.
It was mother that came in first and saw him. I wished it would have been James because I knew he would laugh. He would probably dance and sing praises to his personal god of vengeance—a little wooden sculpture of a man-like creature that he always carried around and prayed to. Sometimes I worry that James might grow up to be like Baba. The semblance was just too much, his skinny body and his big head. And the way he walks like he had a limp, like someone weighed down with baggages of emotions and unresolvable anger.
On seeing Baba on the couch where I left him, Mother screeched like an owl on a hunt for game. It was haunting and deafening at the same time. The screech seemed like a sigh; it also seemed like a screech that had been piled up for years waiting for the day it would be let out. I assumed that the screech would be the beginning of a grief for grandpa, but it was not. Instead she went inside her room, removed her ragged clothes and entered the bathroom—a part of the house that I had never seen her enter. A frown had settled itself in between my eyes as I wondered what she was up to. Since mother didn’t seem like she was ready to do anything substantial yet. I gathered myself and went out to get someone to come help me with Grandfather’s corpse.
I found our next door neighbors at home—a plump man and woman—they were shocked and sad when I informed them of Baba’s death. Pity pitched its tents in their eyes as lines of tears ran down their plump faces. They asked if I was ok and I told them yes wearing a smile and could have jumped up like a football player celebrating a goal were it not for the quizzical looks that my neighbors exchanged. After a moment, they looked at each other and went about their business as they helped to place a call to the ambulance services. I made my way back to the house. Mother had been transformed when I entered the sitting room.
She was repositioning Grandfather’s body on the couch when I saw her; her face seemed so clean and fresh that I could hardly recognize her; I had never seen her like that. She had new clothes on. They looked new probably because I had never seen anything like that on her, even her Sunday dresses looked like rags. She turned as I walked towards her and for the first time in ages, she smiled at me, a full toothed smile that revealed perfect sets of cream colored teeth. I felt like asking her where she borrowed the teeth from but I was too much in shock to find my voice.
“Tunde, everything will be alright from now” she said. I took a long stare at her and heaved deeply as the siren from the ambulance gave a distant signal that it was approaching. And everything has to be alright I muttered to myself, James must have been right on one of those his infamous theories or maybe Baba was too about mother, but what the bloody hell?
This short story originally appeared on Elsewhere Litmag.
Image was culled from Pixabay.