Humphrey Mass

Folding At Dawn

She felt listening to the Gregorian would flush out her hurt; the deep agony even that music which itself seemed to be sang for pain could not heal. She still felt it creeping up her throat within slowly biting every sense of comfort and dimming her hope and as every second ticked on seemingly reverberating with her heartbeat, the cold hand of death could be seen, drawing closer with the tides of morning.

“I’ll like to talk with him.” A faint whisper heavy with the pain and hurt of fast-approaching death came like a soft breeze billowing dry leaves of autumn.

“You mean?” she asked scared somewhat.

“Ty…” the old woman groaned, her voice becoming fainter as though the words were said with her last shred of strength. The faintness was one that could only come from someone who is living on recollections and who had not wasted her speech for several days, her face folding slowly into some kind of ghostliness.

“We can’t get Tyrone now.” She said, a tear speeding down her pale left cheek and then almost immediately, a larger bubble tracing slowly down the right. “I tried calling him all night but his phone was switched off.” This was a half-truth she wished to employ to dissuade her from insisting on having Tyrone summoned to her dying bedside. Death, sometimes wishes for many things especially a large mournership or just family; a thing which few people get these days.

“I want to talk with him…” the old woman said softly in agony, the words sinking into the silence of her soul, her face shrinking in the flash of her agony, and her eyes moving slowly as though her heart was going to drop like a withered rose into her stomach.

There was a queer silence, all the moment, the old woman’s eyes still as if she was staring at death at the far right wall of the small hospital room. She bent forward, held her right hand that felt strangely cold like that of a resuscitated bier, and spoke in a voice that struggled in pains to express feelings that are fonder that love.

“Mom,” she blinked in an effort to control the tears that were surging in them, “I and Tyrone…” she could not find any words that were less severe and more comforting to express this than what it actually was, “I…” she sighed, then as if overtaken by fits of emotion that cramped her senses, she sobbed. Then afraid that her pain would shock her dying mother and may be rob her of a few hours she desperately e needed to brave the events and find comfort in approaching death, she quickly kissed her hand and dried her face roughly with the back of her hand trying to give a dry smile of shallow confidence. “Just…” it was harder than her smile could make it seem, “its barely day break, mom.”

The old woman wagged her head slowly in a vague expression of her belief that she had not spoken the truth and then finding it more comforting accepting to go fetch Tyrone than have the woman know the truth, she stood up struggling to broaden a smile which was just an inch from sobbing.

“Okay.” She nodded, “I’ll go to his house.” She seemed not to catch the expression on the old woman’s face, it was obvious she wanted to know the truth than have her leave in pretence all was alright. She had already had an apprehension of what it was she had been hiding from her for the several weeks she had been lying there watching the sun rise shining in through the right window and disappear behind the hills on the left and dusk close on and death approach. She had wondered why Tyrone wasn’t coming to see her even in her last moments when it was becoming truer that she was slipping into the silent night through the dark side of terminal cancer. She wished she could speak and as her daughter walked out through the door, she wished she could yell and have her come back. Though from behind, it was easy to tell without seeing her face that she was sobbing right at that door even as it slowly closed behind her ushering in the total silence and loneliness of death.

For all the while she was gone, the old woman was enrapt in imaginations of the feelings of death, trying to figure out which was real; heaven, karma, hell or just passing into nothingness. It ran through her mind with such aching and maddening speed that the agony and confusion of her lone daughter was lost in it all as though it was another episode in the sad stories of leaving behind a world of warm people and descending into a lonely grave and perishing slowly even if to live again in spirit. She was becoming wishful in a childish way and tried to turn her hopes into a belief she could lean on as she sank into what seemed in her dying mind a dreamlike world of shadows. Her breath rustling softly through her nostrils, she seemed to be groaning a prayer.

As she walked slowly through the endless veranda consistently punctuated with doors leading into wards of departments and then outside into the yard and through to the street; all the while not feeling the rippling coldness and hurting dampness of early harmattan morning. Her mother’s entire life rolled on in her clouded mind like episodes in an old classic movie; coming in faint pictures of old grey, somewhat pixilating every moment, faded with the incongruities of its imperfect narrations and flaws in her understanding of every event like the recollections she would have of the details in a story she reads when she is just about to unveil the suspense at the end.

What now looked like an old artefact mistreated by time, constantly battled by the indescribable agony of leukaemia and fourth degree Alzheimer, wrought impetuously by frustration and folded in the dark shade of inevitable death was once an upbeat woman; a good height for a model, with what she was told by yearning admirers were warm bright eyes diming behind long lashes, and with ice clean teeth fitted into brown gums which looked like solid pieces of chocolate bars, giving a perfect fit behind her cake-brown face projected meekly on a long stiff neck. Just looking at her, one could tell she had a warm soul and it was confessed by all who had only conversed with her that she was rich at heart. She loved to grin even in great bitterness or even strong pain, and was known to make good for a rewarding conversation. Lewd men were always ready to make good offers, sometimes the best in their lifetime and would willingly leave it to her discretion and would be glad to know her cares if she wanted to throw away a good moment but these were not to her a least fair part of her own story.

She did not look like any part of her past to her daughter, and as she narrated her story, carefully knitting the details but trying hard to cut out the guilt of the people, and like some painter, was rather using them like her colours and words only as the brush with which the painting was made on the clear mirror of her recollections; telling the truth but all the while avoiding to be judgmental. Her daughter felt the hurt of tragedies the woman had walked over, the difficult tight ropes of her growing up though surprisingly she had kept her cheer and still was able to cope with them_ the bitter episodes__ like she was just a passive figure in the general drama of her own life.

“I did not attend any school.” She had introduced her bitter childhood with the courage of familiarity.

She seemed to only have faint recollections of everything, though it is clear this kind of memories never fade. She had grown up without any clear memories of her parents__ her father died in a liberation war a few months before she was born and her mother a year after and like it just was going to be, she was given to the only known living relative; her uncle, Billy__ a man about whom untold stories lingered. Uncle Billy was spending his last moments of little cheer, sucking smoke from an aged pipe, in a small mountain village, Bome__ a few hundred miles from the Atlantic Coastline.

He had worked all his youth and adulthood in the wharves as a carrier, and his built, the hardness of his emotionless face, his flaring temper, and his coarse palms said a lot about the hell it was pulling goods off anchoring ships year after year, under the hotness and blinding mirroring of the red African sun on the sea and even through cold nights. Uncle Billy was yet single; a thing that seemed to justify his inability to discipline his appetites or control his temper and moods, though he had a son with whom he occupied a small bungalow in the slums of dirty town Bome; a small town marked in history as a slave deposit in the days of the practice that dishonourable trade__ and at the time, littered with shreds of every tribe.

Uncle Billy had moved to Bome after being spent by the hard life of working in the wharves, spending his last days tending his epileptic son whose mother he had never told anybody about. Uncle Billy could not afford white education for his niece and she chose to learn a cheap trade and before long, she was the warrior, battling hunger in a small family of an old wharf- retiree, an epileptic fisherman and an orphan girl herself.

Then, after the great tragedy, Uncle Billy died. A few months after his son drowned in the sea. She remained all alone in the small house; representing the last crisp of a family she knew very little about in the old bungalow a quarter of whose walls had collapsed like her own hope. About furniture, Uncle Billy had left behind, a single easy chair and a large European cupboard__ one probably abandoned at the wharves by someone who had found it too heavy to take away. She could only remember ever seeing Uncle Billy’s smile from a lone black and white photograph dotted with parches of mould, hanging in the sitting room but falling anytime there was a slight breeze, framed in what looked like an old wall clock whose covering glass had long shattered, perpetually exposing the picture to spiders and geckos who went across the wall on their routine hunt for insects. Of everything, the meaningful piece left behind was Uncle Billy’s soul__ the pipe with its stale smell of tobacco and unwashed lips. The mystery about it was how Billy revered the thing, for most of his life. It was a real piece of artefact; covered with the rare design of little images of life which looking at the thing seemed to open itself like a spiritual book in one’s mind. He had some peace smoking from it with relish, each time looking calmer and sober__ at peace with himself as he carried it up to his lips and then his face, soon seemingly going to vanish into the cloud of rings of spouts of smoke that he slowly flushed as he breathed.

When he died, she turned the precious thing over to a museum in her own vague yearning to give a measure of value to Billy’s life. She was surprised the collectors had accepted to add it to their display, she had insisted Billy’s full name be inscribed on it before display, a thing the collectors accepted almost without consideration perhaps because they saw the value of the pipe in how it looked__ the strangeness of the rare design of a crown and the sun, a river and a boatman paddling towards the crown. They had felt it had a soul.

“We’re glad you are donating something as precious as this.” One of the collector’s had congratulated her, perhaps more glad she wasn’t auctioning the thing. “You can’t understand what this is.” The collector had smiled as though he was unravelling the mystery behind the solace and comfort Billy had derived from the object in his life of great regret and painful solitude.

The girl had gone to the museum a few months after, to meet in spirit, her grand uncle; her only known other relative.

“Here’s the precious pipe of a man who had experienced true peace in his agony in life.” The museum agent who was showing her around read the wordings of a note that introduced people to the pipe breathing almost hastily with a kind smile of personal appreciation on his face.

“I came here to see it.” She said.

“Oh, you heard about it?” the lean man asked, pleased the item was bringing business, “Thousands of people flock into this place every year to see this pipe. Some even say they have had miraculous encounters with it. That is why we’ve decided to put it in that box and we are considering vanishing it with gold.”

“You don’t mean that!”

“Of course I mean it,” the lean fellow smiled confidently, “I have no personal testimonies though, but many say the thing has some mystic about it. A researcher who came here last year has written an article about it in a journal, I can show you if you’ll want to see it…” Then as if after profound meditation, he looked piercingly into the girl’s eyes and asked, “Would you want to have an experience with it?”

“I don’t know.” She answered hastily first feeling, vaguely, that it wasn’t a good idea. “I’ll like to have a try.” She smiled nodding to indicate that her mind was indeed made up about it.

“You will have to pay a little extra for that. Just a few dollars, I mean…” The fellow said giving added value to the thing and noticing the show of resentment on the lady’s face, he shrugged apologetically. “It’s the business. Many pay gladly for it.”

“Pay extra gladly to have a feel my own grand uncle’s old pipe?” she asked queerly. “For Heaven’s sakes, that thing was freely donated to this museum by my mother. C’mon!” her voice rising in a steady expression of disbelief, breaking the peace of the large exhibition saloon. In that brief moment, a subtle pride grew up in her then soon whistling strongly; leaving her seeing some value in what was a long story of genetic frustration. Everyone in the large hall froze and stared. The lean fellow, putting a hollow look of reverence on his face tried to give a dry smile in unease. Few moments after, a group of tourists, museum attendants and the collectors’ child who was now running the museum circled her, requesting pictures and autographs; glad she was benign. A small boy who introduced himself as a student on research on antiquities asked difficult questions__ variously about Uncle Billy and her mother, about the pipe and its story. She told the listeners all she knew and the assumptions she had made; embellishing a little, mystifying somewhat, discreetly carving out the truth to exclude the gruesomeness of Uncle Billy, his attitudes, and the pipe as an expression of the man’s deepest frustration. All the while, her pride seethed confidence from the smiles she was getting at an undeserved price.

Before she left, the man who was tending the museum; a tall mulato with a firm stature and good cheers, sounding single, had invited her to visit the museum another time. She left; still feeling the warmth from the handshakes and smiles of her admirers, she knew she had felt the only value of her mother’s entire past and the thought that despite the sorrow that clouded it all, a faint lining made it so meaningful still.

She always smiled contentedly or even unconsciously, like now, when she thought of that day but the story of after Uncle Billy seemed to always cut the smile sharply before she could relish the feeling. The reason was clear, the twist in the narrative had a personal meaning to her and seemed to force itself each time she thought of anything about her mother’s past which forces itself into her own life, childhood and growing up, in a way that it is obvious, she would live with the curves it had made to her upbringing. Boziana. The man who written the last part of the trilogy.

Her mother had been recommended to Boziana by a local pastor who respected her sense of values. The pastor had done everything, fixing the small wedding which came in a flash of a strange rush with two weeks of intermittent courtship that seemed not to have been fond__ a matter of a few conversations the lengthiest lasting between seven o’clock and ten one night in the second week when strangely the courtship turned from cold to tropical and then to intimate, commemorating the physical expression of the desire of the couple to walk down the aisle.

After marriage, the child came in to disrupt the patterns of the couple’s youthful life and Boziana was clear he wasn’t ready to shed his ambitions and dreams of going back to school to expand his prospects and make better of his life, to walk into the endless burdensome season of nursing an uninvited child. Even that, he concealed his true feelings from her and the world_ he wasn’t ready to give up the huge unfinished pleasures of his youth for fatherhood.

He’d left after she insisted it wasn’t Christian to coerce the baby into nothingness, and to wait to feel good comfort before nursing children like he said the city women would, to save their marriages; letting their husbands savour the last bits of whatever delicacies they still had on their single men’s plates. One night, he disappeared into the faintness of the shafts of faraway bright summer moonlight. Then, she was only a few weeks old a few months younger than the marriage itself. She realised as the years went slowly by, that she was wrong when she thought he couldn’t just walk over his past like that; avoiding the hurting memories of it. He was able to completely and softly cut off his haunting past and go into the unknown of that night to emerge somewhere under the newness of promising sunrise.

The woman was hurt for a long time because she was sure he wasn’t coming back because he didn’t say goodbye in walking away.

In this small town, many of the men were doing that; the hit-and-run father’s thing; walking away and never looking back and so, many children grew up through the shoals of their adolescence without the male parent, always taking them for dead or just conjuring up enough courage to accept that they are collaterals of abandonment.

The woman had stayed in the same small apartment he’d left her somewhere down street Ring Way; where gangs fought their battles at night and children got hurt by pieces of broken bottles or bullet shells as they rode their bicycle or played with their friends down street; till the girl left college__ the woman felt she kept him alive within her, not fleeing from the danger of staying there with the same furniture and collection of pictures, paintings, flower vases, and books in a small shelve, all arranged in the same pattern as it was when the first occupied the place after their wedding.

“Who are you?” the girl asked.

“Me?” the man looked a little baffled by her rudeness, and calm alarm. He smiled and chuckled coldly; “You mean you don’t know me Miriane?” He asked his eyes glittering with surprise.

“You very well could know my name no doubt.” She said employing restraint, “But may I ask you, what can I do for you?”

“Definitely nothing! I want to see Uris.” the man made a cold sound of pent-up pain and then raising his head that looked like something unreal in the shading cloudy darkness of early evening, he heaved a sigh and added. “Is she in?”

“She’s not in.” She looked soberer. “But…” her voice quaking with unease.

“May be I should come in first. I’ll tell you.” He assured.

She walked back a few steps and the man walked up the steps, in, and straight over to the couch sinking into it with uncouth ease unexpected of a total stranger. “Miriane, you’ve grown into a big woman now.” He mumbled and gave a smile of tender familiarity.

“Are you telling me who you are?” she had exhausted the patience of a long questioning stare.

The man was silent for a few moments, closed his eyes as if he was going to give up his last breath, he leaned backwards and relaxed hiding the determination to be stubborn. Realising that he wasn’t yielding she went over to the door and peered outside into the dreadful darkness, imagining what could happen if she made the choice of solving the risk of a gang visit by locking herself up in the house with a stranger she couldn’t trust.

When she could hear the faint approaching echo of her mother’s voice as she spoke with a neighbour, she tried to peer into the man’s face to read the note on it, but it was just blank and vague and it seemed in the brief while to look like the face of someone who died a long time ago. He could not recognise the voice; its coarseness and heaviness. Its age. It had lost the tenderness it once had, almost a quarter of a century ago.

“That is him!” she exclaimed, trying to whisper faintly her eyes twinkling in the dark like two bright stars. “That is your father, Boziana.” Her voice trembling with concealed excitement such that it almost came like a joy cry.

“I don’t…” the expression on her face said it all; how stupefied she was. For a moment, she imagined him as a nightmare and the feeling of screaming out of the present overtook her for a while though not strong enough for it. She was seeing him in the rare-view mirror of life: that though he was just lying there, present, it occurred to her as if he had only been imagined sitting there many years ago.

Boziana had lost a lot; the dreams he’d set out to make had done him unclassifiable damage, the fire in his soul had completely quenched and age and frustration had ruined his good looks and disrupted his cheer. He was now HIV positive and was looking at the inevitable end. He looked to the girl like the shameful version of the man she’d grown up to know in a colour blind photograph that hung boldly in that sitting room all twenty-three years she had spent trying to ignore it.

The woman received the man as though all she could remember were those few years they’d spent together here; laughing, walking hand in hand along the beach and down the quiet streets under the moonlight of early evening, attending church together and dancing rumba at the downtown club hub. Years which seemed to have vanished swiftly into the breeze of time and which she felt clout some pain in the guise of love.

She had neatly folded and kept these fond memories as if she was waiting for the man’s dying days to clothe him with them. She rescheduled her work making out time to cook his meals exactly the way she could remember he like it, reading the bible to him as he lay in bed withering day after day, and sit with him by the window watching the moon fade into the darkness of late nights in summer evenings. They seemed to just have found each other again.

Miriane was hurt with the ease the woman had forgiven a man who had terribly wronged her; she tried to throw light unto her soul in vain and it seemed her feelings were leaving her reeling in the drowsiness of the memories. When he died, the woman went into a dissociative state for several months walking at the edge of losing her mind. Doctors were making their predictions on her going to suffer a grave mental alteration that might shatter her sanity completely. Here, Tyrone walked in almost stealthily.

“Driver” a crooked voice heavy with pain and long silence emerged from somewhere deep down the lady, driving itself all from behind, breaking through the tightness of crude country music, hitting the taxi driver with the mild stench of unpolished morning breath, “Lontel Junction please.” The last word almost inaudible.

The bumper of the small car went in an unsteady movement of nodding to the steam of the slowing engine and then she hurried down and off, drowned in the deep blue of her imaginations of the encounter and old wounds seemed to hurt as fresh. Down through a series of yards and houses of small gates and neat gardens silent like the old church cemetery up Doweway she walked fast short steps. She could hear her heartbeat hitting in firm painful pulses as her palms sweated and her breath became increasingly warmer and almost hot as it rustled through her nostrils. She felt something well up inside her and then forced its way in an unthought-of sneeze. She cleaned her nostrils with the back of her hand and swiftly trudged the clenched fist into her warm overcoat.

The thumb was suspended in the midair of the bell button near the door just when a pale shadow crossed a full arc, through the window in a long pale shaft and then stretched out in a clearly recognisable form. She walked to the window pushed by the strong stench of her curiosity which had been stirred by the promise of the glimpse of what was betrayed by the window from within the walls. Her steps were slow, almost rehearsed and soft enough to be said to be careful and even thought-out. At the window, she squinted, her vision almost blurring. A swift shudder went down her spine as and her muscles went numb; a hot tear running a full course down through the funnel of her overcoat making for her chest in a hot heavy drop.

A hand slid from the left cheek of a head that looked like some motionless perfect sculpture of a roman soldier, then slowly in a tense smooth flow down a strong neck, a heavy breast built like a strong breastplate and then down waves of a stomach, the fingers taking the hand down further the abyss of short knickers. The movement was too coy to be believed in the speed of the instant; the two sharp nostril of the men bypassing in the warmth of passion, the ears brushing the cheeks and rough whiskers, as the lips went for the ears beneath short blond hairs and then coming slowing back to be stuck.

She held her breath.

When she first learnt that Tyrone had served an entire year of 2001 in a jail in Britain for his sexual orientation, she’d simply not believed anything in the heat of passions; when she was lured by the flames that bristled behind his eyes and the constant yearning she saw, concealed behind the scales of his pupils. Even though she had not heard anything from him for several years until she received a mail from him in autumn of 2004, she cast all the news away, staying true to believing Tyrone. He’d had a union with a Russian billionaire and they had moved to England where they were thrown in jail for their sin before the man died and Tyrone inherited his fortune. And when she had first seen him, several months before her mother sank into the bleakness of Alzheimer, he’d lied; “it was not actually it. It was a money game sweetheart.” a thing he convinced her was for nothing canal.

The initial betrayal she’d felt when she learnt it, had vanished with the awfulness of the taste of the feeling but it seemed, she had only vomited to come to it someday.

The ticking sound of her cell phone had a strange effect on the activity she was silently watching, struggling to hold back crude tears and fast heartbeats. It had a cut effect on what seemed in the moment to be the performance of banal blue. She withdrew, made a few short fast steps down the through the lawn and to the roadside pavement completely deaf to the humming of early morning car engines and the irksomeness of hoots.

“St. Stephens hospital…” a rowdy male voice mixing in strange ticks and ringing phones, and grinding in the breaking of the lines “Miss Boziana?”

“Sure” her heart beat faster, thumbing in her chest, her breath stuffed in the instant as she almost gasped like a soldier wounded in her neck.

The screech of a door followed her, the sound sinking both in the distance and in the cold voice that came after it; “Miriane”, the voice carried the humidness of fresh guilt “hey! Wait! C’mon”

She gave fast steps urged by the pressure to disappear. Then the door seemed to withdraw its screech in the world behind her back and then without any words, a bang that was just a few inches short of hard followed like the sound of the final nailing on her own coffin. Her cell phone rang as she brushed her way through three thin girls careless giving up the belches of last night alcohol as they struggled in near comatose to wave to a stop a cab. She raised her phone in almost reflex unconsciously ignoring the hails of insults that shot towards her from the three freaks behind.

“Damn you bitch!” the faintness of their voices quickly swallowed by the sound of the busy street.

“Mrs Boziana Ulris…dead!” the Chinese accent mixing in the hysteria and fear. Though cold, the last word resounded in what seemed a new rendition of an old song.

Her legs went weak, her vision was blurred, and her hands came down with the phone sliding straight down onto the tarmac of the road. Her knees became unable to hold her small weight of a few pounds upright. The soft sound of a shutting door followed, disappearing in the hollow faintness of the world all around. She felt a strong pain pierce into her chest like a poisoned sword. She went down in a soft movement, taking another deep breath and the pain deep down her welled up in a breath that seemed was going to be the last. She straightened up, her body twisting to the position of an unconscious ashana; as though she was in a beneficial yoga practise but for her, the world was folding faster than the creeping dawn. Something sank within her__ the weight pressing too hardly as if she wouldn’t survive the hurt. She knew she was bleeding inside.

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