A policeman rapped at my college bedsit door. A neighbour had been murdered: an old woman. Perhaps I'd known her? My mind's eye did that thing it does: Old Woman: sort by title. My grandmother, wisp hair and granny glasses, dowdy cardigan, rose out of a family biscuit tin. Old, the way old people used to be. That shabbiness they exuded, as if their skip dive of an era— world wars, race-hatreds, penury— had mildewed the soul and the flesh of them. She'd been bludgeoned to death, a month before, he said, and the authorities wondered where I was at the time. Sure, just a routine inquiry, but it unnerved me— my memory's a feckless little bugger. "At my friend Rich's? Watching the rugby?" "Mmh," he said, annotating it, in spider squiggle. Next morning, I peered into her windows' bedroom eyes. Rapt; raptorial; I bowed under their lace weight. On her deathbed, my grandmother—forgive me, my memory's a starlight-on-the-waters storyteller; it flits, and flecks— propped, let's picture her, on hospital pillows; chrysanthemums crimsoning on the night stand; her face blotted in shadow where the wall lamps fail— whispered to my father bent to hear that she wasn't the woman he thought her: that she was the child not of her poppy but some darker man. She essayed a revelatory mumble; she died. Our breed being of every hue under the South African sun, our branch begotten of a pus of lies and concealments, our sprig re-rooting in the English rain, the trail led nowhere we could follow. (But what shame there is in being who we are! Telling the nicer half-tale. Covering our innocent, exposed backs.) "Sure, if he says he was," said Rich. "Mmh," said the officer, squiggling. So we sat our exams; we went off into the world. And who knew if they caught the villain or the poor daft sod who done it. How still less curious I was about my grandmother! Enough to tweeze, from my memory's scrounge, just splinters. Her hoisting me into a sink to scour the snot from me. At almost seven! Squalling and indignant. In the tins there's a pic with her three fairer sisters— pretty enough, but the odd brown duck out. How the truth why must have bludgeoned her! Her poppy himself, perhaps, brandishing its scandal at her? Vera, I am not your father. It's late. He leans into the oil lamp's glow and hisses it. She smells the drink on him, the too long-pent resentments. Here. He fires some beribboned letters at her pillow, pow. How she frets at and butterfingers them, how they spill scattershot to her floor. No! she says, as I conjure her— this poor, dead, blood-of-my-blood woman, who shared a corner of our house once, who (so old, so worn to her nub I sequestered her in the sock drawer of my love) I barely saw. As in comes the constable of my conscience: to jot and ponder the skinny poetries of my evidence. At the yard tap, barefoot in the grass, dark trees praying twitch-limbed over her, stars petalling the leaves, she scrubs at her hands, her face, her nose's snivel, at the scent of her secret name on the pages of the wind, until the water silvers them away: this lie of her, this truth, these unsung griefs… Well, back in the tin with her; I wasn't there, not my concern, I didn't know— our elders' lives, their lost breaths, their deaths, no more real, really, than anyone's but ours. (Nor ours, sighs a wisp of me, from the brown earth.)
DEREK KANNEMEYER was born (brown) in Cape Town, raised (as an immigrant) in London, and has spent most of his adult (expatriate) life in Richmond, Virginia. His writing has appeared in publications from Fiction International to Rolling Stone. Recent books include The Play of Gilgamesh, the poetry collection Mutt Spirituals, and the non-fiction Unsay Their Names, about the demise of Richmond’s Lost Cause statuary. Its photographs are on 2021 display at Richmond’s Black History Museum.