THE MEMORY SNATCHER – a short story by DIRIYE OSMAN
(An exclusive new short story)
There was once a house built out of memories and inside this house lived a woman called The Memory Snatcher. This woman was my Aunt Beydan. She was a sorceress and as a child I feared she would stalk me in my sleep and steal all my memories until I could no longer remember who I was.
She looked like a witch:
red, red hair,
dark, dark skin,
skin dry as bark,
bark bad as bite,
She smelt of camel milk and Camel cigarettes. I couldn’t stand her stench or her stare. She could walk into a room filled with joy and slash the niceness in half. So yes, I detested this Memory Snatcher. But in a small way I saved her life when I was a child. And she returned this favor when I needed it the most as an adult.
Memory Snatchers are demoniacs trapped between the past and the future, between the spirit world and the earth, belonging to themselves neither in soul nor sense. Those are Satan’s keepsakes.
Beydan’s soul was possessed by Satan. So my parents locked her up in the basement and shackled her to her bed. That’s when the beatings began.
Reader, reader, do not get it twisted. I repeat, do not get it twisted. Every fruit, whether ripe or rotten, has its roots. So too does this tale.
Before Beydan became a Memory Snatcher she was a Mother. Before she was a Mother she was a Wife and before she was a Wife she was her Father’s daughter. Her identity was not hers to keep. Her life was a splintered spine, leaves too loose: an illegible manuscript left languishing on the shelf.
She belonged to the men in her family and Satan was now one of them. These men waged war for the rights to her soul using her body as battlefield. In order to punish each other, in order to prove sovereignty over the other, they thrashed Beydan physically and psychically. Satan may have caged her soul but mortal man, armed with sticks and scripture, held her body ransom.
But how did this woman’s life come to this?
When Beydan was her Father’s daughter there was a slice of time that allowed for roaming. These roaming activities included a spell in secondary school. For her two older brothers education was a birthright. For Beydan education was a gift that came wrapped in bespoke paper, and she pursued her studies with the single-mindedness of a monk seeking the Divine. She inhaled Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, Nawal El Saadawi’s Memoirs of a Woman Doctor. She was a spiky teenager rebelling against the soul-suck mirror reflected back at her in her mother’s blank stare, her question mark of a spine. Determined to beat the odds, she completed high school with distinction. But there was a caveat. Beydan was allowed to roam and educate herself – up to a point. On her eighteenth birthday her Father sat her down and held out his Rolexed wrist. Studded with crystals and flecks of diamond, the watch dazzled in the light. All Beydan could hear, however, was tick-tock-tick-tick-tick-tick – time to neatly fold all her hard work, to parcel up her progress, send it to the attic in her subconscious and let dust gather on her dreams. There was a lump in her throat and a stopwatch in her womb.
Her Father introduced her to Rahim.
Rahim wore suede shoes, silk shirts. He was schooled in Homi Bhabha’s theories and spoke in sentences of exquisite gobbledygook.
RAHIM (glancing at BEYDAN’S jeans and T-shirt): As Bhabha might have noted, I feel your accoutrements represent the counterpressure of the diachrony of history.
RAHIM: Your mimicry of western culture figuratively embodies an ironic compromise.
BEYDAN: Who is this Bhabha you speak of? Is he your father?
Despite his penchant for doublespeak, bwoy was sweet like money: relatively debonair, delicately textured hair, a lickle flavor to spare. Beydan accepted his proposal but nonetheless went into marriage with the mindset of someone facing hard time. On her wedding night, as Rahim spread her limbs and fucked her until her eyes rolled back, she placed her hennaed fingertips between his lips. That’s when the image of her body as machinery flashed into her mind. As Rahim worked her side-angles she hung suspended between dread and delight knowing that her body, her brain – every physical, sexual and cognitive capability – was an intricate machine with the capacity to surprise and appall. When she came she shoved Rahim’s face between her thighs and wrapped her legs around his neck until he had licked every inch of her, until he gasped for air. In that moment she understood his fragility and her own strength. She made him put in the work until it was time for breakfast, which she served with relish: poached eggs with salsa, pancakes with butter, spicy tea. She was now a Wife but she tweaked that role to cater to her own appetites.
This is where I come into the narrative.
When Beydan became pregnant I was sent off to help her around the house. It was the spring of ’98 and I was a buck-toothed thirteen-year-old with braids that made my skull resemble a giant onion. My Mother was ruthless when it came to my nappy roots, believing that coconut oil and a tenderly-wielded afro-pick were not enough to expedite appropriate follicular development. So she used muscle for the hustle, a technique that involved elbow grease on her part and much weeping on mine, resulting in braids so tight I couldn’t rest right.
I arrived at Beydan’s house during El Niño. The rains had flooded the streets of Nairobi, there were blackouts, and generators cranked noisily into the night. I feared Nairobi flies, tiny beetles that caused painful pustules when crushed against the skin. They had crawled onto the face of a classmate whilst he was asleep and he had come to school the next day bearing a close facial resemblance to Quasimodo. I started sleeping with towels wrapped around my face.
Nairobi flies and El Niño couldn’t fuck with Beydan’s flow. She was a woman galvanized by impending motherhood. As her body expanded so did her interior landscape. She imagined minarets, skyscrapers, entire cities being constructed inside her. Thighs thickened, belly became basketball-sized, buttocks deepened with dimples. Even her taste-buds shifted, and she held her tongue out for crushed ice, chalk, charcoal.
‘Aunt Beydan, stop eating my stationery!’ I shouted when I noticed her munching her way through my art materials. ‘I can make you a sandwich if you’re that hungry.’
She stopped what she was doing and looked at me. I felt churlish for denying her my charcoal. I relinquished a stick and she relished it, black foam forming at the corners of her mouth. When she had devoured the charcoal she wiped her lips and said, ‘I never thought I would be happy about becoming a mother.’
‘Why?’ I asked.
‘I felt it was a trap. I wanted to go places, pursue a life unhampered by a husband or children. I never thought that being pregnant could give me such pleasure. I laugh at myself sometimes and I wonder if what I’m experiencing is not real happiness but a simulation of happiness.’
I took her hand. ‘What you’re feeling is real.’
‘Give me proof,’ she said with sudden urgency, and her nails bit into my palm.
I shook free of her grip, reached for her round belly and said, ‘Isn’t this proof?’
Beydan gave birth while I was in biology class. My Mother called the school to let me know that the baby had been named Aisha after me. I skipped, hopped, skipped my way home.
I didn’t have any siblings. My Mother nearly died giving birth to me so my parents didn’t try for another child. My childhood consisted of reading, drawing and solo hopscotch, where my imagination had to make giant leaps. My mind was a pop-up book filled with forests, fortresses, dense-dense jungles: complex kingdoms, layer upon layer of imagined realities. In the outer world I was silent and solitary, but I had cultivated a textured, earth-deep interior life.
I was ecstatic about having a younger cousin. The fact that we were namesakes was the icing on a multi-tiered cake. I begged my Father to take me to see Beydan and the baby.
‘Your Aunt is tired,’ he sighed. My Father was Beydan’s older Brother and he was protective of her.
‘Is she okay?’ I asked.
‘Yes, she’s fine,’ he said, but I didn’t believe him.
That night I heard my parents arguing.
‘What do you mean ‘she doesn’t even want to look at the baby’?’ shouted my Father.
‘I don’t know! All Beydan wants to do is sleep. Her breasts are full of milk but she doesn’t want to nurse. She just lies there dead-eyed.’
‘What is Rahim’s reaction?’
‘That fool is so caught up in his studies that he hasn’t noticed something is wrong,’ said my Mother. ‘I think we should bring her here.’
The next day Beydan and baby Aisha were brought to our house. When I saw Beydan I knew something horrific had happened. She had shape-shifted from an exuberant woman into someone who had warmed to the idea of death. Lips dry, bleary-eye: she got out of the car and bolted to my bedroom, visibly shaking. My Mother went and got the baby and brought her in. My parents looked concerned. I kept quiet.
Continue reading The Memory Snatcher here
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