Issue Nº 11 - The Chain

of male

A story by Inigo Laguda
Drawings by Moriz Oberberger
In the evening lull that fairy tales were fantasised to fill, Bediako Blacksmith delivered the same message to his son every night. “Kwame,” he’d rumble softly, “You must be by the window. Even on the day I die. Even on the day you bury me.” Back then, Kwame’s admiration transcended the superhero-worship boys typically adorn their fathers with. Bediako stirred everyone. A purposeful glow radiated from him — concentrating in the crescent of his smile and glinting from the ravine of his eyes. Now, Kwame stood in the navel of the room, looking out the window from a mischievous distance, wondering if people were going to mourn the man or his light. 

The cemetery’s address awaited confirmation in his phone’s Uber app. Kwame imagined the rows of glares and breath-buried whispers he’d pass if he arrived late. He also thought about the gymnastic routine inside his father’s grave were he to arrive without being by the window for, at least, a spell. The door let out an oakish purr as he shuffled back to lounge on it, electing to let the wishes of the dead supersede the indignation of the living. 

Introspection blurred his view of the outside. He steadied his eyes to focus on the four neighbouring trees that descended in size, from left to right, at the foot of the Blacksmith family garden. The swaying branches of the grandest tree caressed the crown of the littler tree beside it, and the breeze wafted another reminder of his father from the cache of his memories: 
“When your great, great grandfather Kwami decided to build this house, he said that he’d only be tough about having two things. One: Walls and foundations that must stand time’s wiliest tests. Two: A room for a window like a door. For everything else, he was willing to be swayed.”
Kwame unlocked his phone and, as if she were watching over him, immediately received a message from his sister. How long you gonna be, bro? He rummaged around the onscreen keyboard for a diplomatic response that would balance Afua’s expectations and looked up to the window in muddied thought. A blur of white hovered outside. He peeled from the door. The blur came closer. He darted across the room. The blur grew bigger. He opened the window. Within seconds, a paper aeroplane swanned in and coasted along the wooden floor until its tip gingerly hit the door. Kwame picked up the paper plane, unfolded it into a flat sheet, skimmed over it and refolded the page into a bizarrely neat rectangle. He clamped the paper with his incisors and left the room, fumbling around his suit’s seemingly endless number and depth of pockets for the warded key that he kept meaning to get a ring for.  He locked the door behind him, confirmed the Uber and backspaced the filibustering message he was about to send to his sister.
Kwame checked the paper one last time before he hit send on a bulk message. The Uber trickled to a stop in the empty car park and he slid the paper into his inside pocket. The acoustics of Afua’s car arrived before her red Honda chugged up the cemetery’s driveway. The Uber driver, who’d been sombre the entire ride, wished him a cheery good luck. 

“Yeah man, you too.”

By the time Kwame realized his response was an ill-fitting puzzle piece to their casual exchange, the driver had already pulled away. He tried to fan away the humidity of embarrassment with his hand and approached his sister’s car to see their mother, Gabrielle, perched on the backseat and leaning forward to murmur in Afua’s ear. His sister rolled her eyes in the same melodramatic arc that she’d perfected when they were children. Seeing it comforted him. When he was young, their mother joked that her real daughter had been abducted by aliens and replaced with a well-behaved clone whenever Afua did something nice. This planted a curious anxiety in him. Whenever they spent time apart, he’d fret that his sister was being replaced by a doppelgänger in his absence. When they’d see each other again, the only way he could tell it was her was to observe the trajectory of her eyes. There was a flavour to how she rolled them that was inimitably hers. 
He tapped on the window with the axle of his finger. Afua staggered the window’s descent.

“I’ll have a six chicken nugget meal and throw in some sweet chilli sauce if you can, big mana.”

“Ha-ha. We early? What’s going on?”

“Nothing.” Their mother’s reply, unleashed a fraction of a second too hastily, had a timbre at odds with her answer. Kwame helped her out of the car. Afua zipped her hoodie up and swung her feet out, revealing a pair of weathered black Air Forces (complete with obligatory vamp creases) that Kwame had gifted her three Christmases ago. The informality of her outfit provoked a dull scorn in him that was tempered by the airy touch of their mother, who coaxed his arm to link with hers, before it bubbled off his tongue. He took the lead, ambling towards the chapel.

“Not that way.” 

Because Gabrielle’s voice was blessed with an inalienable soothingness, she’d had to master decorating her words with her truth, and today, all her words had a slight snap to them. She tugged his arm like reins and steered them towards the graveyard.
In Loving Memory of Bediako Blacksmith.
Beloved father of Afua and Kwame
and a comfort to countless many. 
He’s a beacon who’ll be truly missed.
Afua looked at Kwame, who stared at Gabrielle, who peered into the soil of her ex-husband’s grave. The standoff didn’t last long before Kwame cracked open the air between them.

“You could’ve told me that you already had the ceremony.” 

Kwame wasn’t sure whether he was talking to Afua (who he suspected was a passenger of their mother’s whim) or Gabrielle (who was undoubtedly the pilot). It was the pilot who responded.

“You’re a 35-year-old man, my dear.” She spoke with gulps of honey and a prick of apitoxin. “You’re big enough and beautiful enough that, if you really felt to know, you would’ve known.”

A rug of bouquets, all held in their flower bunches by wrapped chains, lay on the grave’s tilled earth. Gabrielle shuffled between her children and picked up one of the more elaborate bunches.

“Besides, this isn’t where he is anyway.”
“I told you not to tell her.” Kwame whisper-hissed alongside the gushing tap water. He rinsed the plate and passed it to Afua. Although their mother was rising the stairs and heading to Afua’s guest room, the weight of parenthood remained in the kitchen, pressing her son’s voice into susurration.

“She’s old, not stupid.” His sister’s voice was its normal volume but her words were slushed by her enthusiastic chewing of a chicken goujon.

“Why does she even care where he’s buried? She left him years ago.”

Afua’s tongue jerked forward like a knee. However, when she realized she didn’t have the patience to explain how legal separation isn’t always enough to abolish the vagaries of romantic love to her workaholic brother, she trapped her rant in her throat and dried the plate he’d handed her.

“You got a plane today?” She said instead. “ What was on it?”

“Just a 2015. Dick Cheney made money off the Iraq War.”

“Shit, I owe mama some money. I thought it’d be a scripture today. You sent it out yet?” Kwame lifted the dish towel from her, dried his hands and bobbed his head up and down. She dropped from the counter with an impish grin and began frisking his trousers with damp hands.

“Can I see it?”

Kwame hopped back. The dish towel became nunchucks in his hands. She weaved and pounced towards his pockets again and he snapped the towel near her face as friendly fire. Astoundment pried her mouth open. They both knew it was manufactured astoundment — a smokescreen of theatrical outrage that’d give Afua just enough time to consider other potential ways to annoy her brother. He stayed ready, maintaining the stance of a martial artist. Unable to come up with a satisfying impromptu act to pester him, she decided not to dwell on the pursuit of originality when repetition would achieve similar results. She pounced towards him again and a tempest of thuds rained from the ceiling. Their mother’s heel banging down on the bedroom floor was a cautionary dialect that siblings spoke fluently. They froze like predators near suspecting prey and the air gradually congealed into sorrowful remembrance.

“You know, she’s not angry at you,” Afua mumbled. “She’s just scared.”

“I’m not like him.”

“She ain’t scared you’re like him, dummy. She’s afraid you’re trying so hard not to be him that you’re missing out on being you.”

Kwame shimmied up to his sister, bent down and rested his head on her shoulder for her to cradle. She stroked his neck a few times and he sighed.

“You were his favourite, you know.” 

“I sure as hell wasn’t,” Afua snapped. When she realized her brother’s words were not marred by passive aggression or fishing for protest, she mellowed and continued.

“He’d always talk about work. He was so proud of this calling he had. That you have. But he never showed me anything. He stashed away the planes. He locked the office door behind him. He never let me into the room. He was a lovely dad. He was there. But there’s room-sized pieces of who he was that I have no idea about.”

Kwame raised his head and opened his arms for her. She nestled her shoulder under his arm and seeped into his chest. His voice rumbled softly through her body.

“When I was 4 or something, we were getting supplies for the office. Dad started talking to the man behind us in the queue. I kept telling him that I wanted to go home. Mum was there pregnant with you and I wanted to make sure she was okay. Plus, my feet were paining me. But dad and this man just kept chatting. Next thing I know, the guy was in our house and they were drinking and laughing on the sofa. Dad… had this way. He could make lifelong friends in the blink of an eye. And I kinda hated it.”

Kwame peeled away from Afua to look at her.

“This joy he had, it felt like so much of it was reserved for you. I never got that. I just got the weight.”

A fog had followed her brother for as long as she could remember and, under the dutiful guard of their father, she felt helpless as it densened. But, looking at each other now, she could see parts of the fog breaking off and evanescing. She threw her arms around him, hoping that her hug could suffocate the rest away.

“Maybe neither of us got the short end of the stick,” Afua’s words muffled in his chest.“Maybe it’s just a fucking stick.”
The sun was dangling over the horizon by the time Afua pulled up to the Blacksmith family home. Gabrielle held the elaborate bouquet of flowers close to her midriff in the back seat. She let a stream of breath seep from her and it tingled the back of Kwame’s neck. He got out to open the door for her and they linked arms. Afua got out and held open the gate to the garden. Together, they swanned towards the row of trees. Each tree had a small plaque, suspended in the air by a wooden stake in front of it and the family bowed their heads at each tree before moving to the next.
(1860 – 1929)
“Sway when you need to. Toughen what you have to.”

(1889 – 1930)
“Only paths that aren’t traversed are cursed”

(1923 – 1998)
“There’s no pleasure as incorrigible as the pleasure of duty”

(1950 – 2022)
“I hope I go to wherever they fly from”

Gabrielle stood between her children, in front of the thin tree that Kwame had planted over his father’s grave.

“When I met your father and he told me what he did, he made it sound biblical. These daily messages from the sky that only he could put out into the world. I was really in awe of it. He became the love of my life.”

She approached the memorial stake like a podium.

“Always boasting about the tantalizing secrets you couldn’t share.”

She broke away from Kwame’s arm and ran her fingers over Bediako’s plaque.

“I wasn’t surprised when Afua told me you were already buried here. I always knew where you wanted to end up. And I know you told Kwame to put you here. But you probably didn’t tell him to hide it from me — from us — to shovel you here in the middle of the night alone. It hurt. It felt like you’d manage to hide one final chip off of my heart.”

Afua kept her eyes fixed forward. She could feel Kwame looking over at her. And she knew how tears would flow if she looked back at him. Their mother exhaled in a way that sounded somewhere between a breath of weariness and a sigh of relief.

“The funeral, though. Goodness, Bedi. You know so many people! There were folks from every walk of life. All there for you. And you weren’t even there to feel all that love.” Gabrielle began to bend. Kwame jerked forward to help her but Afua extended her hand as a fence. Their mother placed the chain-wrapped bouquet of flowers on their father’s resting place.

“But it was quite fitting really. You were so great at connecting with people. But horrible at being there for them.”

She laughed and stepped back. Without looking at him, she took Kwame’s hand.

“Please, be there.”

Kwame hugged her. He struggled to recall a time she’d just spoken her mind, not fretting about the frill or niceness of her words. Or a time when she asked something of him that wasn’t lifting a shelf or getting a daddy long legs that had frantically found its way into her room. She was someone who never asked, or maybe, never needed to. Whenever she’d walk, her children would naturally gravitate to her arms, link them, and scaffold her. Her desire for him to be there wasn’t a corporal one. She was asking for something deeper than attendance. And Kwame wanted to reach deeper and pull out whatever he found from there. He peeled away and looked at his mother and his sister.

“Would you two like to see the room?”
Kwame fumbled in his pocket for the key. He could feel Gabrielle and Afua vibrating with anticipation behind him. He unlocked the door and turned back to them to grin, before swinging the door open and stepping aside for them to enter first. 
The window was a single pane of glass that was the same width and height of the door and positioned in perfect contrariety to it. There was nothing idle between them. No furniture, no photos on the walls, no light on the ceiling or rug on the floor. There wasn’t even a balcony. The room was so bare that if you burst into it with enough ferocity, within a couple of yards you’d clatter through the glass pane and plunge two storeys into the bushes below. 
Afua ushered her mother in first and stepped in behind her. Kwame waited in the doorway as they frisked the walls for booby traps and secret passages. They found nothing. Just the window. 

He held his breath for their awe to scuttle into something more pessimistic. He waited for Afua to fly into a rage — realizing that their father had hidden a monument of nothingness from her. He waited for a wash of despondence from his mother, whose relationship with the love of her life had decayed over an empty bedroom. Neither a flight nor an eddy ever came. Mother and daughter just twirled, light glinting from the ravine of their eyes, and imbibed the acquaintance of the room. 

Kwame noticed the familiar blur of white. He rushed past them to slide open the window. Afua caught the paper aeroplane mid-flight and took a second to experience it in her hands. It was made from antiquated paper and heavier than she expected. She caressed its folds and flattened parts, soaking up the eerie precision of the geometric structure, marvelling at its simplicity as a basic dart paper plane that somehow felt like it carried both the majesty of natural life and the melancholy of a tomb. Breaking from her mesmer, his sister looked from the plane towards Kwame. Her eyes tried to corral his permission. Their mother, who had not stopped wandering around in curiosity, came back to stand with her daughter. Kwame held his hand out and Afua passed the plane to him with a clenched fist. Not just yet, he thought as he unfolded it in front of her. He scanned the parchment’s page and smiled. Gabrielle peered over Afua’s shoulder and Kwame handed the open paper to his sister:
1. Lorenzo Lotto, Family Portrait, 1524. Courtesy Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
1. Lorenzo Lotto, Family Portrait, 1524. Courtesy Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
3. Bhojraj, Portrait of Prince Muhammad Buland Akhtar at Prayer, c. 1700 –1750. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
7. Philip Henry Delamotte, Alhambra and Court of Lions, Crystal Palace, Sydenham, c. 1859. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
10. Niche ‘Bellini’ Carpet, Anatolia, late 16th century, 177 × 134 cm. Zaleski Collection. Courtesy of Moshe Tabibnia Gallery, Milan
19. Taj Mahal Mosque Interior, Uttar Pradesh, India. Photo Alamy
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