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Unname Me at the Altar

By Ashaye Brown | https://www.khoreomag.com/author/ashaye-brown/ | Ashaye Brown
Edited by Kanika Agrawal || Narrated by Ashaye Brown || Produced by Lian Xia Rose
Death of a grandparent, references to war and mass killing
2800 words

Bamidele’s family introduced themselves to each other every morning. It was an unquestioned part of their routine, as expected as bowing at the threshold of the house or cutting locks of their hair and tying them to their bedposts at the end of every month to tether their sleeping spirits. When they woke and came to the table, before anyone touched the food, each of the three of them would place a hand on their chest and meet each other’s gaze. Bamidele, as the youngest, always went first.

“Well rested. I am Bamidele.”

Next was Bamidele’s parent, Chifundo. 

“Well rested. I am Chifundo.”

The ritual was not for either of their benefits; their names never changed. It was Bamidele’s grandparent, Chifundo’s parent, who always closed their eyes at this point, thinking; remembering, Bamidele would say, the believer; inventing, Chifundo would say, the sceptic.

“Well rested.” Bamidele’s grandparent would speak at last. “I am—”

And each day, they would say a new name.

And on the days when they said their name was Tebogo, Bamidele would stand up at the table and pick up the spoon from the pot of beans and say, “Grandparent Tebogo, may I serve you?” 

And on the days when they said their name was Lishan, Bamidele would stand up at the table and pick up the spoon from the pot of beans and say, “Grandparent Lishan, may I serve you?” 

And on the days when they said their name was Ime, Bamidele would stand up at the table and pick up the spoon from the pot of beans and say, “Grandparent Ime, may I serve you?” 

Some names came around more often than others, and though Bamidele was always happy to hear them, like running into an old friend, what truly delighted them was the new names, the rare names, the names that were only whispered once and then never again. 

Bamidele was keeping a list of all the names hidden behind a panel of peeled wallpaper in their room. It wasn’t exactly a secret since they didn’t think anyone would care if they found out. Grandparent might shake their head and tell Bamidele to burn the list, but really, they would be pleased. Chifundo might tut and tell Bamidele not to play too much into Grandparent’s foolishness, but they would never take the list away. But Bamidele liked knowing that the list was hidden in the wall anyway, the names holding the house up the same way Grandparent always held their back up straight, pushing their chest out like they were bracing for something.

Bamidele hadn’t been there when Grandparent’s first house had been burned down by the soldiers. They couldn’t have been there, because they were yet to be born. Even Chifundo was yet to be born. Grandparent was only a young child themself when it happened, and back then, they only had one name. But the soldiers came and looked at their small, crooked village      and came and looked at their small, crooked house and came inside and found Grandparent kneeling by the small, crooked altar of their ancestors, whispering all of their names in a litany. The soldiers slaughtered all of Grandparent’s living family, but it was the names of their long-gone ancestors that lingered on the winds that led Grandparent out of the back of the village, to a boat, to this new land that would become the only place Bamidele ever knew as home.

“They are still grieving,” Chifundo said.

“How long?” Bamidele asked.

Chifundo sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe when they feel like they have spoken all the names. Maybe soon. Maybe never. I think they must feel guilty for leaving the ancestors behind. They couldn’t have done anything to save their family, but they didn’t take anything from the altar, either. Those names are the only things they have left with them.”

That wasn’t completely true. Bamidele knew that just like they had their list of names hidden in the wall, Grandparent had a secret in their room. It was in the bottom drawer of a busted dresser, and once, Bamidele spied on Grandparent (who was Grandparent Adedayo that day) taking it out when they thought they were in the house alone. Bamidele didn’t know what voice had called them to come home early from where they had been out playing by the lake with their friends, but the same voice told them to step inside quietly, to not slam the gate, and then to just stand and watch Grandparent Adedayo from the open doorway, staying as still as possible.

Grandparent Adedayo’s knees squeaked as they bent down, and the dresser’s hinges squeaked as the drawer was pulled open, like the two rusted old things, bone and metal, were locked in conversation. All Bamidele could glimpse at first was a flash of red in Grandparent Adedayo’s hands, but when they raised the item to their nose, its full shape was revealed. It was a threadbare cloth handkerchief that bulged vaguely around the shape of whatever it held.      Grandparent Adedayo closed their eyes and took deep breaths like they were only now inhaling for the first time.

“What is it?” Bamidele asked.

Grandparent Adedayo jumped, their grip on the handkerchief tightening.

“Boy!” they snapped reproachfully. “You want to give me a heart attack!”     

They called Bamidele “boy” because Ancestor Adedayo had only had sons. When they used the name of an ancestor with daughters, then they would call Bamidele and Chifundo “     girl.” If the ancestor had both sons and daughters or children that were neither, then Grandparent would just call them “child.” Bamidele didn’t mind any of the three.

“What is it?” Bamidele repeated, never taking their eyes off the red cloth.

Grandparent Adedayo considered them for a moment before beckoning them to come forwards into the room. With heart-thumping delight, Bamidele entered; they were not usually allowed in their grandparent’s room since it was known that only a child could carry Death and Grief past the protections of an old person’s threshold. 

Grandparent Adedayo sat down on the bed and let Bamidele sit next to them even though they were still in their outside clothes. A lock of Grandparent’s grey hair dangled in a plait from the bedpost.

The cloth had been folded over again to hide its contents. 

“What is it?” Bamidele asked for the final time. 

Once for death, twice for failure, three times for joy.

Grandparent Adedayo unfolded the cloth. It was filled with a mound of little brown specks; it was dirt. It wasn’t what Bamidele had been expecting, but they weren’t disappointed yet. This was Grandparent’s secret dirt, which already made it infinitely more interesting than any dirt they might find outside.

“This is from my home,” Grandparent Adedayo said. “After I left my village, but before I got on that boat, I reached my hand into the earth and took this. I’ve kept it all these years. It reminds me who I am. Smell it.”     

It smelled like Grandparent: ancient and foreign and like it had once been a part of a place where things could grow.

“Will this be mine when you die?” Bamidele asked. They were greedy, still young enough to be interested in the idea of owning the world.

“If you want it, you can have it,” Grandparent Adedayo said. “But it will only be dirt then.”     

Bamidele lost interest.

It was much later, when Grandparent started forgetting, when they started taking too long to introduce themself in the morning ritual, that Bamidele remembered the dirt. 

“Well rested. I am… I am… Uh…”     

Chifundo quickly lost patience and served themself with the spoon from the pot of beans, but Bamidele refused to take a bite. They waited until their parent left the house, leaving Grandparent and themself alone, then they tiptoed to Grandparent’s bedroom. They bowed at the door like they always did at the house’s front door, hoping that would be good enough to take the place of Grandparent’s invitation to enter. 

Bamidele found the cloth-wrapped dirt in the same drawer as last time, and gently, reverently, took it from its resting place and carried it to Grandparent, still at the kitchen table. They used the front of their own shirt to wipe from Grandparent’s eyes the tears that hadn’t stopped falling since they hadn’t been able to find their name. Then Bamidele opened the handkerchief and held it up under Grandparent’s nose.

Grandparent inhaled. They blinked twice. They took another breath. Their eyes swivelled over and found Bamidele.

“I am Katlego.”     

Bamidele smiled and picked up the spoon from the cold pot of beans that Chifundo hadn’t bothered to put away.

“Grandparent Katlego, may I serve you?”     

The forgettings came more frequently, until every other day there was a blank in the space where a memory should have been. By unspoken agreement, Grandparent and Bamidele decided not to tell Chifundo about the dirt or how they used it to bring the names back. The two of them didn’t even speak about it when they were alone, but Grandparent started calling Bamidele to come and sit with them in their bedroom more often. They spoke gently to their grandchild, and they spoke only of home.

Bamidele began to feel a nostalgia for the place they had never known. They dreamed about the village where the stars were closer to the earth and where a child’s heart could grow ten times larger than anywhere else—and break ten times faster, too. 

One morning, after the dirt was waved under Grandparent’s nose and they remembered to introduce themself as Uche, Bamidele felt brave enough to ask them about the altar.

“The ancestors lived there?”

“No. When they pass on, the ancestors don’t live anywhere. They go where they please. But we must keep a space for them, like a spare bedroom that you keep clean in case of visitors. The ancestors must never feel unwelcome in a home as long as they have descendants still living there.”

“Were they mad at you for leaving them behind?”

“What!” Grandparent Uche jumped to their feet. “Who told you that I left the ancestors behind? It was Chifundo who told you!”

“Well, the altar was burnt, wasn’t it? When the soldiers came?”

“The candles were burnt and the pictures and the clay figures and the flowers and the prayers and the offerings, but I took the altar with me. Here,” Grandparent Uche said, tapping the side of their head.

Bamidele thought for a moment. “So when you die, the altar will die too.”

Grandparent Uche said nothing. They sat back down next to Bamidele on the bed and let out a heavy sigh.

The next morning, they forgot their name again. Bamidele retrieved the dirt and unwrapped it but hesitated as they looked inside. The dirt must have somehow got wet, as it clumped together in little mud piles. Bamidele checked Grandparent’s dresser drawer for a spill or a leak but found only dry wood.

A loud noise awoke Bamidele late at night. It sounded like something falling, but when they listened closer, they could hear a voice. It was Grandparent, cursing. Bamidele threw off their bedsheets and rushed out to Grandparent’s room in case they needed help.

They found them kneeling by their dresser, the bottom drawer hanging open, and a handful of dirt scattered across the floorboards.

Grandparent didn’t look up at Bamidele’s approach. Instead, they let out an inhuman moan that made Bamidele flinch.

“Grandparent?”

“All gone! All gone! All gone!”

Grandparent wouldn’t stop repeating themself even when Bamidele took them by the shoulders and gently lifted them from the ground and led them back into bed. Then, with Grandparent still moaning behind them, Bamidele gathered the dirt and tried not to let it slip between their fingers as they returned it to the red handkerchief. Then Bamidele ran back to their room and, a moment later, returned with something grasped in their hand. Grandparent stopped moaning and immediately surrendered to the clutches of sleep at the same moment that Bamidele tucked their list of names in with the bundle of dirt and firmly closed the dresser drawer.

For many days after that, Grandparent didn’t forget. Farai, then Mudiwa, then Desta, then Oluwaseyi, then Mudiwa again, then Adedayo returned for a few days in a row, then Pilirani, then Anan, then Enitan. The ancestors were content, and even someone as oblivious as Chifundo could note the difference. 

“You have more names than ever, Parent Zola,” they said.

For several weeks, Grandparent didn’t hesitate to say their name. Months passed. One whole year, and Bamidele had no need to bring out the red cloth bundle again.

Bamidele came home later than they should have. The moon was already reflecting in the lake by the time they left their friends. Chifundo would’ve been angry if they had caught them, but luckily for Bamidele, their parent was away this week. It was only Bamidele and Grandparent (who was Grandparent Rudo on that day), and they wouldn’t care what time Bamidele returned. Still, Bamidele entered the house quietly because it seemed like the right thing to do. They bowed at the threshold and then took gentle steps forward in a straight line to the kitchen. At first, all they could see clearly in the dark room was the slightly ajar back door and the silhouette of Grandparent Rudo seated at the table.

Bamidele didn’t walk closer but saw that Grandparent Rudo seemed to have fallen asleep. Their chin rested against their chest and their eyes were closed.

Bamidele should have woken them. Bamidele should have asked if they needed anything, if they had eaten already. Bamidele should have taken them by the hand and led them to bed.

Bamidele did none of these things. They simply continued to stand at the threshold and look.

They didn’t know how long they were standing there, but at some point, it became obvious that Grandparent Rudo wasn’t breathing. 

Bamidele shed no tears, not yet. But a moment later, they felt something brush against their leg as it walked past them into the kitchen. 

Bamidele’s eyes, adjusted to the dark by now, could make out perfectly the shape of the little mud figure in the red cloak that climbed up Grandparent’s chair and onto the table in front of them. It stared at them for a moment, silently and appraisingly, with thumbprint hollows where its eyes should have been. Then the figure lurched untidily across the kitchen table and got to work.

It collected candles twice as large as its own body, and with minimal effort placed them in Grandparent’s lap and balanced them on their shoulders and feet. It went outside and pulled flowers from the soil in the garden, then began weaving them, weeds and all, into Grandparent’s hair and twisting the stems in a chain around their fingers and wrists. It brought in family portraits; it took cold food from the pantry; it scribbled prayers on scraps of paper and placed everything it had collected on Grandparent’s cold body. Once the candles were lit, the little figure stepped forward for the last time and sat down in the last remaining space in Grandparent’s lap. It curled up there like a full-bellied child wearied from recent feasting. Then, as Bamidele watched, the little figure dried from moulded mud back into dirt. Its cloth cloak fell from its body. Two or three seconds passed before it was nothing more than a mound of dirt in the middle of a red handkerchief on Grandparent’s lap.

Bamidele felt a releasing in their body as the ancestors freed them from bearing witness to the creation of their new home. Bamidele took several halting steps forwards, and still the tears did not fall, even as they looked upon the cold body of their grandparent and the altar it had become. It was only when Bamidele got close enough to pick a piece of paper from their grandparent’s lap, to read the names that were scribbled there in their own handwriting—the familiar names from countless breakfast introductions, and then in much messier handwriting, as though written by a little mud hand, twice as many new names that Grandparent had never got to and would never have a chance to get to now—it was only when Bamidele got to the bottom of that list and found only a smear of dirt where a new addition should be, that they finally fell to their knees, wailing in mourning for the grandparent who’d had to carry every name but couldn’t keep their own.

Ashaye Brown is a British speculative fiction writer of Caribbean descent. Her debut novel 'Dream Country' is the first installment of a Young Adult Fantasy series, which incorporates elements of Kenyan, Brazilian, and Jamaican mythology. Her stories often explore the multi-faceted experience of inhabiting an African diasporic identity. Ashaye is currently studying for a Master's degree in Comparative Literature in order to further explore storytelling from different cultures.
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