The House of Discarded Dreams
Maya continued her ascent just ahead of Vimbai, her buttocks moving energetically under the jean fabric of her cutoffs. “Neither do I.”
“Then maybe we should go back.”
“Not yet,” Maya said. “Soon. I have to show you something first.”
Vimbai’s words flooded her mouth yet refused to leave it—but how? She wanted to ask. Is she still here, your dead grandmother, not even a proper ghost but an apparition of her dead body, lifeless? What cruelty was this, when even our dreams and wish fulfillments offered not comfort but relived heartbreak? It seemed shockingly unfair.
They arrived at the top, to the small wooden platform mounted on top of the staircase like a crow’s nest. And there was a coffin and garlands of flowers, wreaths and condolences written on ribbons; there was a small dead woman in a coffin, her small face pruned, her black shoes polished to a mirror shine. But worse, so much worse were the traces of life around her—there was a tent built of blankets and couch cushions, a pillow fort children build when they are trapped indoors for too long, some mysterious squiggle in their genes commanding them to convert every blanket and pillow into a den, regressing to the early days of the species’ existence. The dogs were there too, stretched comfortably as if they were home—they were home, Vimbai realized with a trickle of cold sweat between her shoulder blades. There were soda cans and candy wrappers, a small pile of clothes, a book, a flashlight. Maya had moved here from her room, this is where she spent every night and most of her days, climbing here away from Vimbai and Felix, to be next to a small woman in a small coffin, to sleep under the funereal wreaths.
“Oh Maya,” Vimbai whispered with dry lips. Oh, to be so alone—Vimbai could hardly imagine such a thing, such a separation between self and the world that a pack of mutant foxes and a dead body would be desirable company. And it hurt a little, too—she had to admit, to herself if not out loud—that Maya would prefer this to her bedroom, to the kitchen and to Vimbai and Felix and the poor tongueless Peb.
“It’s not that bad,” Maya said, answering not so much Vimbai’s thoughts, which remained unspoken, but her expression. “It’s cozy, even.”
“But . . . ” Vimbai fell silent, unsure how to say what nagged her. The fact that Maya’s grandmother was dead, that she couldn’t dream her alive, would sound too much like an accusation. “Do you think it’s healthy for you?”
“Why not?” Maya shrugged and sat down, her back defiantly propped against the coffin wall. “And even if it’s not, so what? I don’t owe it to anyone to do only what’s healthy for me. Not even to myself.”
Vimbai could not argue with that, and she sat down next to Maya. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to tell you what to do. Do you really think we can hide out here?” She almost kicked herself—her words sounded condescending even to her.
But if Maya noticed, she did not let it show. “Sure,” she said. “As good place as any. And no fish or medical truck could get up here—see, safe.”
Vimbai nodded. “What about Peb? What do we do about his tongue?”
“I don’t know,” Maya said with a hint of irritation. “You can go back to that catfish and ask him. Or you can go chasing after the trucks, anyway if they exist at all. Or go talk to your crabs. I’m staying here. You can stay, or you can go for Felix and the rest. Do what you want, but I’m not leaving.”
Vimbai sat by Maya for a while, until the silence between them acquired the taut quality of stretched fabric, ready to tear any second. Then she stood up. “Thank you for showing me. I hope you’ll be home for dinner.”
Maya made a noncommittal sound and jerked her shoulder.
“In any case, I’ll see you later.”
Maya remained silent, and Vimbai started her lonely descent down the endless stairs and then the rocky hillside, down and away, farther and farther from the dead woman and her coffin and her granddaughter, carrying on the vigil through all the intervening years.
Vimbai’s face grew numb from the cold, and the smell of salt and seaweed assaulted her, making her eyes water—she had been spending so much time indoors that the natural smell of the ocean she used to love felt astringent and too strong. She wrinkled her nose and rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand. “Come on, little horseshoe crabs,” she muttered. “Let’s see how you’re doing.”
The chipoko stood beside her, ready to help and guide and breathe as if one with Vimbai. Her quiet posture and hands, roped with veins, folded in front of her, filled Vimbai’s heart with heavy, regretful blood. There she was, her grandmother who moved and talked, and yet she was as dead as Maya’s. Just a ghost, a dream of a vague memory from many years ago.
“I’m ready, grandma,” Vimbai said, and felt the ghost’s hands fill hers, and her grandmother’s eyes look through Vimbai’s with the wisdom and sadness of too many years. She wanted so bad to be kind to the ghost, even though it was most likely just a product of her imagination; she so wanted to show her kindness—kindness she had been too young and too arrogant to show her in life, her heart hidden away from the old woman by the thin crisscrossing of scars on Vimbai’s mother’s wrists and ankles.
She submerged her face in the stinging, harsh water, sharp little bites of salt pinching her cheeks. She opened her eyes to look at the crabs. Her mouth opened of its own volition, salt flooding her mouth and nostrils, her eyes disbelieving.
The crabs—undead, terrible—stopped their movement and turned as one, looking back at her. She could not see their eyes, hidden deep in the fissures of their shells, but she could feel the age-old fatigue and stone-cold fear, the disappointment and sadness that seared like a knife across an open palm.
You promised us, they whispered. You promised.
“I know,” Vimbai said. “I’m sorry—it was an accident. I tried not to peek, honest.”
And now you see our disgrace and degradation, our soulless shells, our bodies thrown into death so that they could crawl, crawl forever across the sandy ocean bottom, crawl without fatigue or fear or hunger or thirst or lust. And you promised to protect our souls from diminishment.
“They are safe,” Vimbai said. “I saw them—they are safe.”
The crabs seemed to heave a sigh, although Vimbai was not quite sure if such a feat was possible without either lungs or air. Are you sure? We feel uneasy.
“I’m sure,” Vimbai said, the creeping sickness of doubt settling in her stomach. “I’ll check again as soon as I have a chance. But meanwhile, I have a question for you—do you know who could’ve stolen a ghost’s tongue?”
Those who don’t want anyone to speak, those who keep everyone mute. Those who hate life while they vow to protect it.
Vimbai’s lungs felt ready to explode, and she came to the surface with a wracking gasp. Water dripped off her chin, froze in thin icicles in her hair. The vision of the medical trucks and the mute men dressed in surgical scrubs passed before her inner eye. The man-fish splashed in his lake, grinning, his yellow cat eye sly and laughing, cold. The vampires and the stealer of souls, somewhere close. Inside the house, Vimbai almost cried out, inside the house! So close, so ridiculous—like one of those urban legends, she thought, when the victim realizes that the phone calls are coming from inside the house. Ridiculous lies, like the one about a man waking up in a tubful of ice.
She remembered the scar on cousin Roger’s back, and cringed. There was no tub of ice, like there was no phone. And yet, the man-fish, the urban legend of a distant place, laughed and frolicked in his lake, and his gravelly voice rubbed the insides of Vimbai’s ears raw.
“Where’s Felix?” she asked the chipoko as soon as the two of them separated and the ghost stood next to Vimbai once again.
“He went for a walk,” the ghost said. “Come home with me—the baby needs comfort.”
Vimbai felt guilty about forgetting the tongueless Peb’s troubles. She only thought of his misfortune as a mystery to solve, to get to those who would harm the rest of them, and did not consider how he felt, alone and mutilated. “What can I do?”
“Tell him a story,” the ghost said. “Stories always help.”
Vimbai took over the Peb-consoling duties as soon as she entered the house and found Peb curled up in the oven. Peb whimpered, and the ghost nudged Vimbai—she said she had ran out of stories; not entirely, she was quick to mention, just for the time being. Surely, she would be able to think of something later. Meanwhile, she said, would Vimbai think of a story to tell poor Peb?
Vimbai thought of all the fairytales her African babysitters told her—Ghanian and Kenyan tales mixed with each other in her memory, and she felt ashamed that she had become one of the people who so intensely aggravated her mother—people who could not tell one culture apart from another. But Peb cried, and she sighed. All the fairytales, all the Tutuola she had read would have to do, and her mother was not here to criticize the mishmash. Her mind crowded with images of women turned into beasts and the ghosts calling each others on the phone. Vimbai drew a breath and said, “All right, don’t cry and listen. This is a story about a boy named Munashe. His mother turned into a lion one day—or at least, this is what he thought.”