By Lillian Akampurira Aujo
Mother’s head is shaved. In my early days I longed for the day I would see her face. Now that I can see it, I want to pat my fingers to her lips, and imprint her prayers on my heart before they are swallowed by the passing of events. But I have neither bone nor skin to touch and feel with.
Her eyes are the shape of pain and tears. Every now and then she looks away from the mourners – and straight to me as if she can see where I am. But I know she can’t see the cold breeze that I have become, or that I am trying to glean some warmth from her. Her rueful eyes tell me she thinks I am gone for good.
A white-haired woman with mother’s nose and mouth brings her matooke, liver, offal, and millet porridge. But none of it stays down. It is as if I am still in her belly, churning out whatever I don’t want. For days she eats nothing. The bones at the base of her neck threaten to pierce her red brick skin. Her eyes turn yellow and burrow into her face. Her lips grow deep red cracks that could soak up a river. I can almost see her sinking into the ground.
She shambles away from the group and into the kitchen. I will her to open the fridge. I will her to remember pineapple-sweetness. She strides over and opens it. She reaches in for a white bowl with sliced pieces of pineapple. She eats one, then another, until the bowel is empty. I sigh. At least she can still hear me. She turns to stare at me as if she knows I am there.
When she tires of sitting and staring into me, mother goes to her bedroom and lies on a bed the colour of the sky. She closes her eyes but her eyelids keep fluttering. She tosses, turns, and says a prayer as the thoughts in her head fight each other. She thinks of a man. He is large, very tall. He has a spiky moustache. His eyes, the colour of fire, threaten to burn her.
“It isn’t mine! Get rid of it!” He spits at her in her dreams.
“Who else could have made me pregnant?” Mother’s voice rises.
He slaps her and shoots his knee into her belly. Her face contorts in pain as she lands on her side. I see myself being thrown about, failing to keep from bruising her from within.
When she gets up there is blood on her cream dress. The big man dashes out the door. She cries out, both hands around her belly. She rushes to a small white bathroom and runs the shower. A red stream that is really parts of me flows through the drain. She pats herself dry, wedges a wad of toilet tissue between her legs, and throws on white knickers and a red dress. She rushes out of the room through the same door the big man went through.
Looking at her memories now, I see that that’s when my journey started.
Day and night I stay with her. While everyone else sheds clothing she piles on more. She trembles and shivers like there is no sun in the sky. I know this is because of me – the cold breeze that I am keeps her freezing, but I cannot bear to be far from her.
One time she wanders off and enters a church. It is almost nightfall. She sits on the front pew, mumbling things even I cannot hear. Then she starts sobbing and it sounds like there could be three other women inside her, all sobbing. I move closer to her. She holds her black sweater tighter around her body. The sobbing becomes like the pattering of rain after a downpour. She rocks back and forth like a pawpaw tree in a storm. Looking at her it seems she will buckle under the grief she is wearing.
The next day they are to bury me, or rather what is left of me. I am only lumps of blood caking the sheets; nothing of my earlier self is visible. Only the cord, sac and afterbirth lie in a small basin like goat’s entrails after the slaughter.
I watch as people, an army of sugar ants, weave through the banana plantation to my shallow grave. I comb through the banana plantation thinking of a way to get back into my body. My mother’s silent tears weigh on the wind around me. I crash into the afterbirth, just as they are emptying the small basin into the gaping hole. This is how I get a body the colour of rust. The one I find myself with, in the new world
When my eyes get used to the lack of light, I notice there are spots of shadows darker than their surroundings. They vibrate and stretch towards each other. Sometimes they turn mid way, almost as if what they left behind was calling to them. One comes full speed at me and I duck. It occurs to me then that while I have a soul inside a body, these ones have neither; they are only appendages. I watch as one stumbles into another and they both stop vibrating. Their mourning also ebbs. I watch several mergings before I know how to do it myself.
I work as fast as I can, lumping these dense shades together. I do the same with the light ones. I can feel which ones are peaceful, or happy, or angry. Putting together an angry soul saps energy out of me. I still need food, but the memory of pineapple-sweetness bears no appeal for me. After a time, I feel faint. My colour fades to a see-through brown. I know the other souls could take over me. So I will myself to enter the world I left behind.
I breeze into the convent. The air is suffused with the scent of night rose. I kiss the white and purple petals and inhale. I tuck the memory into myself. I spiral into the upturned bell of an orange canna lily – there’s something quaint about being in a cupped space – it tickles too, I giggle. I run through the whorls of a red African hibiscus, like a pebble rippling the surface of a placid well. When the last wave stills, I float from the flower garden and into the chapel. Its double doors flung open are the arms of a homely woman waiting to embrace me. I fall into her bosom.
The nuns kneeling down, with their heads bowed, their white veils – creaseless – folded along the same lines, are like white knights on a giant chessboard. Parts of me think if I moved just one of them the rest would tumble. Other parts think that their prayers – strings – would suspend them in midair, like puppets dangling in a ventriloquist’s hand, and the show would go on. The priest, his litany as fluid as a river, intones.
My soul snags earnest prayers from the altar. I wonder if God would have heard them had I not eaten them. I wonder if He has a chest of unanswered prayers, if He rummages through it sometimes, to answer prayers on a whim. Mine would be to have an eternal hail of prayers, to keep me from dying a second time. I roll myself in the swirls of incense and seep out through the latticed ventilators. There’s a lot to be gained in being a breeze.
Jazzy teaches me that there’s more than one meaning to light. She is the next one after me that knows things. The day she joins my new world, the light keeps swelling in whiteness like it could shatter us to beyond existence. The tremor that runs through me is like thunder splitting the sky. Still, I hold out my hands of rust.
I step out of my skin of shadows and into the spot of light. Whatever falls will land squarely in my hands. There’s a pop, a whoosh, then a heaviness in my arms, and above me the light is sealing off, screwing up like the surface of a flat navel.
Flesh as pink as a tongue is squirming in my hold. I can tell it’s a she because of the softness of her yolk-yellow soul. She shakes faster and faster. I struggle to hold her together, so that nothing of her wastes in spillage. She turns, seeking out my eyes. Usually, baby souls don’t know what they are searching for when they look for your eyes. But this one wears the sense of inborn enlightenment, of knowing I have a soul and where to look for it.
She is entering into me now, touching my soul with the nimble fingers of her own yolk-yellow one. My early days unravel before her. This is how I know she is the soul catcher.
When she closes her eyes I feel her back peddling out of my soul.
“None of the others can do that.”
“See me, touch me like that.”
“There are others here–?” Her words hang in the semi-light, not quite a question, a statement or an answer, but like she is confirming something she was already wondering about.
“Yes, many others, but I couldn’t catch them.”
“Yet you managed to catch me.”
“You made it easy. You’re almost whole. You smell of fresh iron.” I don’t add that the rest are fragments, dismembered souls mingling with bodies that are not their own, all fused together by the smell of old rust.
“What’s that sound?” She asks, as if she can see the thoughts I haven’t spoken.
“It’s the mourning wind. Heavy with the bewilderment of lost, mixed-up souls. What else can such a wind do?”
“It could sing. Form a choir. An orchestra even.”
“A choir of moaning wind … What are you? A jazz maestro? ”
“You tell me. Aren’t you the name giver?”
I sweep in through her eyes and into her yolk-yellow soul.
In Jazzy’s early days there is a man perched on a wooden chair with a guitar in his lap. Her mother, glowing and round-bellied, is facing him. He is strumming and singing, and her mother is smiling and swaying with her eyes closed. In her warm darkness Jazzy is moulded into a complete circle surrounded by love. The mother smiles and closes her eyes as the man sings.
My princess is coming
I am a simple man, I don’t deny
Kings so far high know not that I walk this earth
But even a simple man can father a princess
If love is true, who am I to say this isn’t possible?
My princess is coming
When the song ends both their eyes are wells of happy tears. He leans the guitar in a corner of the room and she takes its place in his hands.
The next day, there’s a blotch of red on the mother’s side of the bed and on her white nightgown. Her hands fly to her stomach and she lets out a muffled cry. Her hollowed out eyes meet the man’s, which are now filled with fear as dark as a rain cloud. That is when Jazzy begins to see the white light.
A man in a white coat runs his hands over her mother’s belly. He squeezes jelly on it, and spreads it with the white probe. After some time he shakes his head.
There are wails, like the sort that the mourning wind makes in our world. This is how Jazzy leaves them and comes falling through the navel of light into my arms.
“I can’t remember a time when they didn’t sing to me,” Jazzy says.
“Remembering will keep us alive, I suppose –”
“Sometimes I see mother standing in front of many children. She is telling them stories from a book. They are smiling and asking her questions. Sometimes I see her reading those books in the night. Her heart beats faster as she turns the pages. I get curious with her. I follow the word her eyes have left. She loves the stories. I love the stories with her.”
“What kind of stories are they?”
“All sorts, I suppose. Happy, sad, good, bad …”
“Do you remember all of them?”
“Not all at once. They come to me as they please.”
“Do you think we shall ever return?”
“Hope is still hope. But at times I wonder what hope there is in returning to a first dying.” Jazzy looks into my eyes and this time I don’t begrudge her entering my soul.
“Going back is a sweet pain. Who knows, maybe with time we shall find a way not to.” I turn to Jazzy as she retreats from my soul.
“What do you mean? I thought you only go back when you remember.”
“Not only then, I also go back when the prayers run out. They are what we feed on.”
“What happens if we don’t feed?”
“We waste away, piece by piece. Catching souls one can only save so much – when souls waste away they begin to wail. Their wails join the mourning wind and the mourning wind eats out what’s left. Then we are no more.”
“How do you know that?”
“I just know it. Some things you get to know with time. ”
“We must need many prayers then. Where do you find them?”
“The convents are the best, I breeze in empty but breeze out full. Who knows? Maybe one day we shall eat enough prayers to reach God. Or maybe we have already reached Him. Or maybe this is where the nuns pray us to.”
“Do you think it’s the same place our mothers pray us to?”
Her words shoot a star in me. But the feeling is so brief that I think I imagined it.
I feed Jazzy her first prayer. She takes it in morsel by morsel as if she is intoning a few words herself. No new soul before Jazzy has eaten a prayer like a ritual. This is the thing that I love best about Jazzy.
After she’s eaten, I lead her through the semi-darkness, and where the shadows are deeper, we pause. Her soul becomes a magnet that draws the other souls out. They attach to hers, diluting the yolk-yellow. When their mould is complete, she shrinks them off, like the wings of a dandelion fruit dropping a seed. For a moment I think she will dissolve into the gloom about us, but her colour deepens and blows out her body; I know what to do with wasting souls, I think, but I wouldn’t know how to deal with shrunken souls.
Then we watch as their bodies materialise from the semi darkness, as the souls find their way into the bodies. When that is done I bore into their early days and I know how to name them.
Our time is marked by the umbilical-light splitting open and sealing off, by new souls dropping into our semi-darkness. Jazzy knows when to be light, dark, or deep to catch a soul.
It depends on how strong or weak, how angry or happy, or sad the souls are. I notice the paling before she knows what is happening to her.
“What’s happening to my colour?”
“Don’t worry, do you feel okay?”
“I think I am going to die. Again,” she adds in a wry voice.
“You aren’t dying. Just getting weaker. You need to feed.”
“But you haven’t gone to the convent in a while.”
“True, but I saved some prayers for you.”
I blow out some fervent prayers into my hands. I offer them to her. She slurps them up, and we return to the business of catching and naming souls.
We stop in front of a shadow that feels like fire. Jazzy’s soul begins to sear and my eyes tear. We try to turn but the hot shadow finds our eyes. We try to shut it out but we find our souls have been bored into by two others, both the colour of a raging forest fire. The two souls fade their burning as they let us into their early days.
“Agony is a joke if you are jerked out.”
“A forked hand reaching in.”
“Cold metal searing warm darkness.”
“Being ripped apart.”
“Like they need to feed you to many dogs.”
“Human flesh feeds them – satisfies their cravings – we lay there in the cold – watching the fangs tear us to pieces – they tore off my hand – my head – my arms – they dug out my eyes – my tongue – they mangled my heart – his heart – our souls – we refused to be swallowed – we collected all the pieces.”
“I put him back together – he put me back together.”
“As best as we could – as best as we could.”
“Then we went back and burnt them – then we went back and burnt them.”
“Then we saw the light – then we saw the light.”
“Now who are you cold and mellow one – now who are you cold and mellow one?”
They let go of us suddenly. We recoil in the darkness. When our souls return to our bodies, we face two creatures. Their fire red souls, different shades, are patched onto each other. Each has a white eye and a black eye. One has a hand with two thumbs sticking out of his ear and one hand with three middle fingers. The other has two index fingers on one hand attached to his stomach and one hand with four and half fingers. I have never seen souls so ugly.
They look the way I imagined Frankenstein to have looked. Mother read the book a lot in my early days. That’s how I name them Jagenstein and Pokenstein.
Jagenstein and Pokenstein are like constantly brewing storms. Their souls fight to put themselves back together. Their bodies fight to rearrange each other. When they have almost got it right, they start all over again. Sometimes Jazzy has to scoop up their pieces and separate them after they have muddled into each other. From this we learn that Jazzy’s other undoing is separating angry souls. She pales faster and shrinks until I shove prayers into her mouth. In such moments, she needs more and more to stay alive.
Between the two of them, Jagenstein and Pokenstein consume more prayers than fifty souls would. My visits to the convent increase. Shuffling from body to breeze and back taxes my soul. If I didn’t have Jazzy, I would have wasted away.
“I wish we could let these ones go,” I sigh.
“We could, right?”
“Yes, but I have a feeling they would take the rest of us with them.”
“I know; the anger they harbour is more than all our lifetimes.”
“And our deaths,” I add.
“I guess they are right to be angry. I mean, they didn’t … come here like us.” Jazzy falters.
“You mean ‘die like us’? You can say it, it’s not like something worse will happen to us.”
“You know what I mean, their mothers didn’t want them; they got rid of them.”
“Does it matter? We all ended up in the same place.”
“Our mothers wanted us. Maybe that’s why we are whole.”
“Whole! She says ‘whole’! Like we can breathe, eat normal food. Feel our mother’s warmth!”
“At least we can think. Can you imagine dying in eternal ignorance?”
“I would be too ignorant to care that I am ignorant. So it wouldn’t matter.”
I leave Jazzy staring after me. I wish I could escape this gloom.
When I feel calmer I look for her again. I find her slumped in another dark corner, beginning to pale. I gather her in my arms, and we return to the other world to gather prayers.
We blow wider. We blow further. We comb through stadiums of overnight congregations. We sift through the noises to find the prayers. We lay traps in hearts and minds, as we convince bereaved mothers to sit in sofas, and wring their hearts to people they pay by the hour. The sessions usually end in prayer, and we scoop up verse after verse as they are mumbled from trembling lips.
We enter homes, we look through doors and closets and cupboards, we go up to ceilings to see what prayers might have hidden there. We tuck them into ourselves and thank God we don’t have to knock on doors to be let in. There’s a lot to be gained in being a breeze.
We check under pillows, fluff out dreams to shake the prayers loose, we scoop up even the ones left in the drool; sometimes prayers are mumbled in sleep. We enter cisterns, we snake down drains to retrieve those flushed away.
We catch tunes too. Jazzy also feeds on music. She won’t complain if we go back tuneless but after a day her guava pink skin will tinge into a dirty brown. So we have learnt to intercept radio waves to catch the one station that plays soul music. If it is Thursday we go to a club where her favourite band plays. The singer is a woman with lots of honey and a little gravel in her voice. When we take her tunes Jazzy becomes pink to the point of a newborn baby. She laughs like wind chimes then, and even Jagenstein and Pokenstein try to smile.
It is a day like any other for prayer gathering. Jazzy and I start at the convent. The habited nuns are having communion. We are floating in the centre aisle. The last takes her bread. She turns to return to her seat. Her face is dark. But her mouth and chin are the colour of naked flesh, of healing burns. Jazzy and I see the priest’s hands at the same time. They are the same colour. “Then we went back and burnt them – then we went back and burnt them,” Jazzy and I remember our first encounter with Jagenstein and Pokenstein and their raging anger. We stare at the altar and wonder where God is, if He catches our prayers, if their parents’ burns are enough punishment. We return to our new world, not with prayers, but with a kind of fire in our eyes.