In partnership with the Commonwealth Writers, Granta publishes the regional winners of the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Rémy Ngamije’s ‘Granddaughter of the Octopus’ is the winning entry from Africa.
My grandmother always reminded me of Ursula, from the Disney version of The Little Mermaid. My sons are watching the VHS cassette – the sea witch’s rumbling buttocks, purple turkey-neck arms, and enveloping bosom dance around the screen as she schemes to steal Ariel’s voice. The sorceress stirs fond memories of the woman who snatched speech and ignorance from men’s throats. She, too, wore black, sported a slash of venomous red lipstick, and kept her hair short. Her imperious size, her bloody lips, and her sombre clothing intimidated people. But so long as you weren’t one of the poor unfortunate souls she considered to be foolish, frivolous, or ‘unfuckable’, she was quite lovely.
As Ariel surrenders her voice I watch Ursula cackle with victory. The sight scares my sons. I smile, looking at this illustrated woman who so reminds me of my grandmother, the woman who had eight sons from eight different men.
These are the characteristics she used to dismiss people, especially men, from her presence.
– Look at this foolish man.
– A frivolous fellow – quite useless.
– That one is truly unfuckable – if I was her I would leave him.
My grandmother was unashamedly indelicate. She’d long lived by herself; her personality and manners were unkempt by the propriety and modesty which defined women in the valley. She had a reputation for being a difficult woman. Years later, when I described her to my eldest son, trying to convey her character to him, he said, ‘Mom, she was a harridan.’
I looked up the word: a strict or belligerent old woman.
It wasn’t her. Even though we lived on a farm with an unending list of chores and duties, she was lenient when the sun was murderous and patient when the rain washed away our best-laid plans.
She had one law: my children, my family, my house, my farm, my land, my body, my mind, my spirit, my rules. Her fierce possession of these things, and her unyielding defence of them, is what made her seem overbearing. She’d never go out of her way to make anyone do anything so long as they didn’t interfere with what was hers. Her ire only came out when she felt attacked. Her cheeks sucked in air, pumping the kind of bust an opera singer would envy, and hurled the blackest curses at any threat – man, woman, child, neighbourhood dog, unscrupulous merchant, or thieving farm worker. Once she doused you with her malison you were marked with Cain-like shame. Only she had the magic words to return you to the world of the living; she was always eager to do so, bearing down on you, squeezing you into a hug, nearly suffocating you in the barely dammed contours of her breasts.
My grandmother couldn’t be commanded. If you wanted to be labelled as foolish you begged favours from her or threatened her beyond the point that she respected you.
This is what happened to the mayor of the town where I grew up.
He was a foolish man.
Three times he’d tried to get her to sell her land, an amalgamation of fields which spread across the valley, to a mining corporation. The first time he came around he’d been turned away at the gate. The second time he’d made it as far as her kitchen door before she shooed him away politely – this meant he was sworn at only once.
For his last pitch my grandmother summoned the whole clan together. All my uncles took leave from their jobs in the city to make the long drive home. Even my father, who I hadn’t seen in years, made the familial hajj. My uncles’ wives were there, as were my cousins who, like me, were all victims of varying degrees of absent husbands or fathers. I always considered this a curious fact: my grandmother knew exactly where her sons were even if their wives didn’t.
That meeting commanded an attendance register even weddings and funerals couldn’t. A message had gone out: something might be done with the land. Everyone’s inheritance was affected, everyone answered the summons.
We were in the open square in front of my grandmother’s house. It had a giant tree growing in the middle of it; the gnarled trunk leaned drunkenly to one side, its boughs spread widely enough to provide a wide circle of dappled shade. My grandmother, my uncles, and their wives sat on wooden stools brought from the house. Everyone else sat on circular log cuttings rolled into place to create an amphitheatre around the mayor, a squat man, who’d come prepared with maps of her territory. He considered the meeting portentous: the whole family must’ve been been gathered to announce alienation of the precious land. Emboldened, he showed us the parcels ripe for prospecting and exploitation. The maps, reduced in scale, couldn’t explain the size of my grandmother’s farm. Even if she only sold a handful of hectares, the mining company’s offer would make the youngest inheritor quite rich. My cousins gasped. The mayor smiled, glad they were impressed. When he finished his presentation they applauded. My uncles and their wives remained silent.
We turned to my grandmother. She’d sat like a supreme and divine judge of appeal, ears turned towards the mayor, listening to his arguments and propositions, and not saying a word. Only her word mattered. She held the land in her own name and took counsel about what to do with it from no one.
My cousins were shocked.
The mayor wiped his brow. He looked at some of my uncles.
– But they made a good offer.
– It is not enough.
– How much would be enough?
– Their acknowledgement that nothing they offer would be enough.
The mayor was angry.
– The fields are not being used to capacity. Your family does not live in the valley any more. Your sons do not even farm. Do they even know the difference between a rainy and dry season? Selling the land would bring business to the valley.
– We have business enough already: the making of our lives.
The mayor’s shoulders slumped. My grandmother carried on:
– In any case, these lands are not mine to give away. They were given to me by my father, and he by his. I hold on to them for my children and their children. What would my parents think of me if I showed up in the afterlife and said I had sold their lives’ works and burial grounds for money? They are in this land, which makes us a part of it too. To sell it would be to sell ourselves. And what will we have then to provide for ourselves?
A cousin, Holy Spirit-heavy and tithe-deep in evangelism spoke up:
– Trust in the Lord, Grandmother.
She turned to him:
– Your grandfather endured worse than your Jesus for this land. When you go back to the city, please take your prayers with you.
A couple of us laughed. My grandmother’s tongue-lashings were legendary.
She turned back to the mayor:
– My answer was no. My answer is no. And tomorrow my answer will still be no. I would also ask you not to speak to my sons as an attempt to get to me again. I saw you looking at them. There is no history of partitioning and there shall be none as long as I am alive. I am finished expressing myself on this matter.
Some of my uncles bowed their heads. My grandmother looked into the distance. The mayor’s audience was over.
She was not a tribal queen. She was not even rural nobility. My grandmother was just a woman with eight sons from eight men who owned lands coveted by a mining corporation. But when she delivered her judgement an edict had been handed down from the heavens. We all felt it: some power which flowed through her – from the first settlers of the valley, the tribal wars fought to protect it, and the marriages that had expanded its fertile borders – coursed through her, giving her the power to bind us with her declaration.
– What do your sons say?
An insult. My grandmother billowed into full fury.
– What man here has a mouth that I did not give to him? If he has one let him speak!
No one did. She turned her attention back to the mayor.
– Foolish man. My children, my family, my house, my farm, my land, my body, my mind, my spirit, my rules!
She got up, walked to her house, scattering the meeting in her wake.
It’d be one of the last times our whole family would be together, to hear her declare that our home would never be sold. This was before her sons’ foolishness took over, when we’d lose the land from squabbles and greed, when our ancestors’ power over us weakened as we strayed further from home.
This is how my grandmother described some of my uncles: they were frivolous when they were young and frivolous when they grew older; they were frivolous in their choice of wives and in their sowing of seeds.
‘Your father,’ my grandmother said of her second son, ‘was frivolous’. He’d gotten my mother pregnant while they were young, robbing her of her college education and her local honour. He’d fled the scene of their romance and the crime of my existence soon after. A young woman with child but no husband was an acute embarrassment: her own family shunned her. My grandmother took her in. She understood what it was like to carry a child no man wanted. My father had been born in a similar fashion. I always wished he’d been different somehow, that he’d been the one snake who didn’t bite his own tail.
When I was born I made my father’s mother a grandmother. Later, she’d joke that I’d fulfilled an old saying which followed her around the valley when she was still husbandless and carrying her third child: she’d become a young grandmother or an old whore.
– I was not insulted. I told everyone I would not mind being both.
Despite my status-changing birth, she accorded me a beautiful name: she who bestows new titles and favours.
If my mother doted on me then her love was marginally eclipsed by my grandmother’s. When my father married, bringing my half-sisters and half-brothers to her for naming, it was clear I was favoured. They were named after clouds, the river, the soil, or the small happenings of our times. But I was she who brought new gifts; I bestowed crowns to lost kingdoms. She was a mother until I turned her into a matriarch.
Our family tree thinned down through the generations to a single point: my grandmother. She sat there like the pinch in an hourglass or the cinch in her dresses when she was younger. From beneath her skirts, and with the passage of time, our family erupted and spread out from her.
This is what my grandmother thought of my first boyfriend.
– He is short. And unfuckable.
– What does that have to do with anything?
– Short men give you short-man problems. Your grandfather was a tall man with all the gifts of such men.
– But he ran off.
– A credit to his long shin bones, which you now possess. Look at you, beautiful and tall. Do you want a man you cannot kiss on tiptoes?
Conversations like these were common. She had a wonderful repertoire of insults she’d hurl at anything that displeased her.
– You are as useless as a discarded foreskin.
– He is as short as a romp.
– You are slower than an erection in cold weather.
If these words caused some childhood trauma, this was somewhat undone by my grandmother being the kindest and funniest woman I knew. She opened her door to any of my uncle’s impregnated mistresses regardless of the truth of their paternity suits, something she disclosed to me towards the end of her life. She allowed satellite families who’d farmed the land in service to our clan to stay rent-free, even permitting them to sell a fair portion of the harvests for their own subsistence. She paid for doctors, attended weddings, and wept sincerely at funerals. Many girls in the valley bore her first name as their spiritual second. When my mother wanted to study further my grandmother banished her from the valley until her studies were completed – she took on the duty of raising me.
Between beating dust out of bedding, cleaning floors, windows, and cupboards, fetching water, lighting fires, cooking with instinct and available necessity, and living according to the rhythm of the rains, I was without want. It’s on my grandmother’s farm that I learned about my family’s history of fuckable and unfuckable men.
The first man: a musician, a drunken charmer. ‘Wayward. Handsome. Very fuckable. I never told him about being pregnant. The man could not choose between his guitars, how was he going to provide for us? No, he loved his music too much. He was not suited for the kind of life being a father entailed. But I knew I could be a mother. I wanted to be one. I let him pluck every string in my body in exchange for letting me take the parts of him I needed – a fair trade. I did not want anything else from him. My father had died and left me with this land. I had the farm to run. The musician could never fit into the life I wanted. Let me say this: you should never be secondary to a man’s art. That is one way of asking to be ignored.’
The second man, my grandfather: ‘Built like a statue, and just as cold. But a man who knew what he was mostly about. I admired that. He knew his limitations and was generous within them, beyond that he was cruel. What? I don’t know where he went – I never looked for him. Yes, he knew I was pregnant. But I was not going to be treated badly. By then I was as you were, in form at least, with a woman’s physique. That is not praise – any girl can have a woman’s body. By your age I had a woman’s mind. Do not get angry. Your breasts are persuasion. Your waist is a promise. Your buttocks are power. But the mind matters most: it controls all the others. You must know which parts of you a man likes, then you will know what he will use to replace you. If you have good breasts he will look for someone younger when they start to sag. Your grandfather liked all of my parts except my mind. It frightened him. It is why I did not chase after him. You do not want to get into the habit of chasing after men – only mindless women do that. If you quietly go about your business a man will find you soon enough, either to distract you from your labours or to help you with them. Only time will tell, and only a mind will listen. Your grandfather, for all of his qualities, was a distraction. We had our time together. And that was that.’
The third man: a farmer’s son. ‘Not so tall, but tall enough to warrant interest. These were tough times to be a woman with two children and no husband. I liked handsome men but I admit I liked him because he was kind to me. It is rare to see that: kindness in a man, especially for a woman with children that are not his. Kindness – only single mothers know the meaning of that word. Him? He died. Sickness. We were supposed to marry. I could see a decent life with him. That is another thing: to see clouds in the sky is not the same as seeing crops growing from the rain. Losing that man drove me to sadness and neglect. I wanted to live long enough to give birth to your uncle and waste away so I could join his father in the afterlife. But I was not ready to meet my ancestors. I did not want to be insignificant in this world and inconsequential in the next. I was going to raise my children and make something of myself. If I died I was going to command power in the spirit world. So your uncle was born and I carried on living.’
The fourth man: a shopkeeper. ‘You must know I was still grieving. This one eyed my fields, counted my workers, and asked how much we made at market. He proposed marriage immediately. I was so desperate to be someone’s wife I nearly accepted his proposal – I was already carrying his child. But I said no. He was angry and hit me. Let me tell you: any man that lets you feel the back of his hand should describe the taste of hot palm oil when you hit him with the pan. We fought. People came running up to the house fearing we were being torn apart by wild dogs. They had to pull me off him. Ha! He was too ashamed to stick around. He closed his shop and left. I will tell you another thing: people will treat you like a hero until you cost them something. Everyone would have been happy with a regular supply of soap in exchange for me being hit every night by that man. I had many enemies when the shopkeeper left. The priest said I had done the right thing. Then he sighed and said he had not had his favourite brand of tea in weeks. What nonsense is that? Foolish man. Him and his religion can go the way of all frivolous men: to Hell.’
The fifth man: a teacher. ‘Smart, funny, highly fuckable. He taught in the village school and could charm milk from a cow. I thought I was immune to men by then. It is clever of this other god to have made women from a man’s ribs. Why? Which woman would feel lonely in a garden of paradise? Anyway, I was lonely. Let me tell you this: be careful with loneliness – it is a leopard emotion hiding in the breakfast you make your sons in the morning, in the quietness of the house when they are at school, and the solitary duties you shoulder when you are a woman doing everything a woman is not allowed to do. It makes your breasts itch for a touch in bed at night. Before you know it you are being foolish and frivolous and walking down dark village paths to chase your sons’ teacher. I know what I said before. I was lonely, not free of fault. When loneliness is done with you it will leave you to slink into the night, ashamed you came to its lair. No, I never told him. I had a reputation as a loose woman. He would claim it was not his. Anyway, he went off to the war. Strange, no? Teachers going to war. What can you possibly learn from dying? The real lessons are in living.’
The sixth man: the soldier. ‘I would have gone with him willingly but he insisted on using force. These were dark times. Most of the men had gone to the war. It was just us women left in the valley with young children. I did not have a man to miss so I took it upon myself to make sure the women did something for themselves. For once it was nice being welcomed by other women – suddenly we were all fatherless or husbandless. We milked the cows, shepherded, sowed and brought in the harvest. We did for each other what the men were not around to do for us. Why are you looking at me like that? There were no men, and women know other pleasures. You are now old enough to hear this: when you choose a man it is best to know what you are giving up. Me, I know. Some women do not. Where was I? The war. We hoped it would not make its way here but it did. The soldiers ran out of food so they came to raid our lands. We were defenceless. They beat us. Raped us. They forgot they had come for food. No, I am not ashamed. What was done to me was not my choosing. He was unfuckable. He had to use force. Those soldiers caused a bigger war when our men returned. How could we explain all the children? Some women were driven from their houses for being taken by force instead of dying. Many came to stay on my land. Maybe you have met them. Maybe you have not. What does it matter? No, your uncle does not know. He knows his mother’s love, not his father’s hate. That is enough.’
The seventh man: the husband. ‘You seem surprised. I was married once. After the war. Not all the men who came back were bad. Some were good. But even they did not know how to fit into our lives. We were used to doing everything by ourselves and they wanted us to be servants. But we also considered ourselves to be soldiers: we had survived the war. Some of our men had not. I ask you: how could we accept for things to go on as they had been when everything had changed? There were arguments in many fields between wives and husbands in those days about the right crop to plant and who dug the best furrows. My husband was one of those who came back. Well, most of him. He never raised his voice and never beat my children. He’s the only one who was around for his child’s birth, the only man I permitted to name his son. We were fine together. Love? I do not know if it was love. I know my husband was quiet. He left me alone when it was what I wanted. He did not care about my six boys. He said seven was a luckier number and got down to the business of making it so. Let me tell you this: my husband knew the counting end of a woman. No, I will not explain it. Him? He killed himself. Even though we had a good time together. Yes, I guess that is kind of running away. But I blame the war, that was the crime. Even now everyone mourns the dead but no one apologises to the survivors. When he died I got his lands too. Big? You think my land is big? In the future everything gets smaller, the only thing that gets bigger is the past. Sometimes I think I am a foolish woman for hanging onto all of this, like I am trying to catch water in my hands. But someday all of this will be gone. Sold or lost, I do not know. Yes, I am certain you would never let this land go. But there are others before you. They have a say in this too, just like I had a say when it was my turn.’
The eighth man: an engineer. ‘After the war came reconstruction. You know how men are: they destroy things and claim the glory of rebuilding. Listen: if one man breaks you do not let the next one fix you. He will hold it over you. This is the truth. If you are broken, mend yourself. Never let a man do it. You do not realise what a bad job they have done of it until later. This man liked restoring things. He thought he would remake the valley and me. He led a fuss of men who measured distances for roads and tested the soil for lord knows what. There was to be a new hospital and school but there was no money for them. That is how the mining and timber companies came. They said they would create work for everyone, they would build everything everyone wanted if all they were given were the land. But the land was everything. Ha! What were they going to do with the old farmers? What would happen when our river was poisoned beyond use? I refused to sell. Do you see the clear sky? Those green fields over there? The river that looks like a green snake? That is because of me. If I sell, all of this will become nothing but dirt. I explained all of this to the eighth. He had arguments: commerce, industry, technology – things people say when their feet are separated from the cold concrete of their city homes by expensive shoes. But we who have walked this land barefoot know these things come at a price. He called my ideas nonsense, but he liked that I argued with him. His city wife never did that. O-ho. Not all men come to you in the way you wish. I did not mind. I was here. She was there. Let me tell you: there are men who can make you divide yourself in two, separate you from what you know to be true and right. He was such a man. It is embarrassing to hear your grandmother speak this way, eh? Then let me tell you, child, bestower of new gifts and titles, I must meet the eighth man in the world beyond this one, even though I am not looking forward to dying. It scares me. I do not want to work hard in this lifetime providing for my family only to die and work overtime in the spirit world too. Can you imagine dealing with the prayers for good rains and harvests or healthy pregnancies? Our ancestors work after hours and after life. It almost makes me wish for the white man’s heaven. Why don’t I want to go there? Child, they never mentioned whether they have fuckable men. Yes, I know. I might go to Hell. The eighth? He left when his work here was done. He worked on the big road leading out of the valley. I was not in need of rebuilding so his nature could not be satisfied with me for long. He tried to keep in touch but I kept my distance. You need to respect another woman’s territory. I had his child. If I had told him he would have left his wife. I am sure of that. But I had enough: my land, my seven healthy boys, and another child on the way. I had friends, my work, and my duty. I let him go. I was ready to grow older. Now I am old. I might not look it, but I am. I am ready for the second part of the village prophecy. I was a young grandmother long ago because of you. Now I would not mind being an old whore. Child, I said I am old, not dead. I carried eight boys who are now men from eight men who were not always men. I have no space for shame. I tell you: shame is how men will control you. And you should not be controlled. Especially by short, unfuckable men. Let me look at your boyfriend again. Ha! He looks foolish and frivolous. You must leave this one.’
In this way I learned my family’s history and my grandmother’s part in it. She was energetic when she recited her stories, raising her voice, lowering it, mimicking pelvic thrusts, or making sensuous winds with her hips. She would even grab my waist and show me how to twist it, telling me such displays were not for men but necessary movements for me to find myself.
In her later years, when she was too old to move, she was wheeled around, directing where she wanted to go in short barks, frustrated as age slowly stole her purchase on earthly citizenship, taking away bits of her at a time: vigour, hearing, movement, sight – ‘And the fire in my loins. Child, you don’t know the cold unless you have felt the heat, I tell you that.’
She liked being left beneath the old tree. From there she could see her farmland from beneath its shady branches. Whenever I climbed the hill to visit her, her wrinkles would crinkle as she smiled, watching me walk towards her.
Ursula swells and attacks the prince’s ship. She is impaled, killed, her body vanishes into the waves. My sons cheer, especially my eldest who reminds me of my grandmother, especially when his will flares up against my rules. He looks at me with eyes that know more than he lets on, eyes that see me even as they hide him away. Even in this far country, far away from the valley of my home, a land he knows nothing about, I sometimes feel her in his ability to hurt with words. He is yet to come to her kindness.
My grandmother was right: everything in the future becomes smaller. Our land was sold off by my father and uncles when she died. The money didn’t last as long as they thought it would.
While I was pregnant with my firstborn I felt some vestige of her power inside me, an invisible tentacle. When he was born I named him in accordance with her last admonition: not to live my life as revenge for the past.
‘The past always wins,’ she said.
I named my son for the future, as best as I could, in the way I think she would have: he is the way, the goal, the destination on the horizon.
And I am the Granddaughter of the Octopus, the bestower of new gifts and titles.
Image © Eric Kilby