Don’t speak ill of the dead

Nobody liked my grandpa, but you’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead, so nobody ever mentioned him. Even in my dreams, nobody would pronounce his name. He would sit at a long table, where everybody was talking and eating, and he would bend his head over his food, grateful to be admitted to the table, gulp down his meal then slink away. The first time, I asked who the man was beside Nana. My uncle’s kind eyes fled from his face and little soldiers took their place. “Your nana’s husband,” he spit behind gritted teeth. I was prevented from asking anything else by the mask that had descended on his face and the dread that had filled me. The room was deadly quiet as I considered my options. I was curious to know more but did not want to become a pariah. I sensed this was a pivotal moment. I had to choose my camp. Self-preservation kicked in and I averted my eyes from the old man’s gaze. Conversations resumed, and the moment passed.

It was years later that another dream lent itself to a rapprochement. I was a teenager by then and the dream was a fantastical one, full of adventures and twists. At one point I was falling down off a cliff and I thought, not that I would die if I touched the ground, but that I would die not knowing who my grandpa really was. Then and there my fall slowed down and, as I flapped my arms, I slowly rose and flew to an isolated island where the old man lived. I alighted and stood there watching him. He was tending pigeons with tender care. They were white, I thought they represented peace. My curiosity was intact and we were alone. I uttered his name and the pigeons skittered as though I had thrown gravel in their midst. The man looked at me but he had no mouth. I remember thinking he could not bite me.

I was not yet a man, still foolish and unaware of the ills of the world. I had the sense to approach him as you would a wounded animal. I looked away and made my way softly. There was no hurry in my stride and I did not crowd him. I stopped a few paces away and looked down at my feet. The soil was sandy with grasses bent down by the wind. I could feel the breeze on my cheek, and the sun. I waited. I was hoping he wanted to make my acquaintance. His shadow at my feet, his hand on my shoulder, a soft pressure then nothing. The shadow was gone, the hand, the pressure. I felt a mixture of sadness and hope, those complex emotions that come to you all at once when you’re growing up. I tried to unravel the strings of them, looking at each strand and naming them. Love, and fear, and hope, and curiosity, and impatience, and a sense of injustice.

I scoured the house for photos and pestered my mom with questions. “I burnt all the pictures. Your grandfather was evil.” I told her my dream. “You were lucky he had no mouth. Don’t let him talk to you. Don’t accept anything he gives you. Promise me.” Her tone was at once desperate and firm. I said nothing and turned to leave. Her voice was cold when she repeated, “Promise me.” I promised, seething, my cheeks burning in shame, angry at my cowardice. Of course, I continued thinking of him, but the need was not as urgent as before. We had made contact. I thought of him as my ally. I had been told I looked like him from members outside the family, with a certain reserve. They searched my eyes to probe my soul. They found nothing but solid rock. I disliked porosity and softness. A polished surface with no asperities, casting no shadows, was my ideal. My body was the same, sculpted with hard muscles and an uncompromising stare. Gone were my light boyhood days. I had the seriousness of an adult. I wanted to make weighty decisions and start grappling with the world.

The old man again showed up in a dream, as I was preparing to marry. The lass was a redhead, with shifty eyes and distrustful mouth. I knew in my bones it was a mistake, but she was pregnant and I believed the child was mine. I was ready to do the honourable thing, even if it meant being miserable for the rest of my days. He cast his shadow between us, and everywhere we went his shadow divided us. When I woke up, I walked over to her parent’s house. The sun was not yet up, but I could not wait. I had to share my decision with her. As I approached through the field, I saw a shadow climbing out of her window. It was a man my age, in her circle of friends, always milling about and laughing at her jokes. I caught up with him. He smelled of her and I knew at once the child was his. I went onto the road and blocked his path. “Recognize the child and marry her,” I intimated, “or you will live to regret it.” I could tell he was shocked. His head was still beside hers on her pillow and he could not reconcile the bulk of my formidable presence with her willowy body. He swallowed and shifted on his feet.

We stood apart the length of 30 paces, as though for a duel. He was no match for me. We looked at each other square in the eye. My arms were crossed on my chest. I was blocking his way. Behind me the sun was rising, creating a red halo around my silhouette. Behind him the fields were ablaze in that first light. I had a vision of the fires of hell. He acquiesced. I said, in a threatening voice, “Promise.” He cleared his throat and in a voice he wanted assured said, “I promise.” They were married after the harvest. I never dreamt of my grandfather after that day, nor strove to speak his name again.

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