Annabelle Ulaka
​Image by fietzfotos on Pixabay                                                                                          
Annabelle Ulaka is an emerging writer who believes in the magical bond of family. She's a mother to three cats nicknamed Little Tigers. Her greatest aspirations are writing an international bestseller, learning to dance, and knowing the names of one-eighth of the world’s population.
My Grandmother's Feline Soul

The evening before Grandma’s fourth funeral, right when August showers swept the last sympathizers from our compound, I experienced my first panic attack. We were four in that living room. People often said madness and sanity were siblings in an endless tug-of-war. I never believed them. To me, a human’s natural state is insanity. Maintaining levelheadedness is like swimming against a tsunami, emerging so worn-out that we misinterpret unresponsiveness as sanity.

Madam Bianca, our closest neighbor, slammed our front door on her way out. She was an excessive mourner. Anyone who saw her rolling in dirt, screaming in that high-pitched voice, and cursing Grandma’s non-existent enemies, would never have suspected she was present at Grandma’s previous funerals. I released a long breath after watching her leave. These dramatic mourners always left me feeling emotionally clogged, like I’d not cried enough.

 Minutes later, the living room became a graveyard. My younger brother, Junior, was counting our asbestos-filled ceiling tiles. He’d arrived hours ago in a charcoal-black Mercedes Benz, kicked off his shoes, and ignored everyone’s greetings.

On the other side of the room, Brother Thankgod was whistling. He flung his left leg over Grandma’s chair, declaring his position as the newest authority. I almost laughed. If I’d been Grandma’s first grandchild, I’d have sold my birthright.

Reaching for the TV's remote control, I tuned into a news channel. The headlines were so typical. Inflation rate. Fuel subsidy. Workers on strike. Public holiday. Global warming. Elections. People were queuing at petrol stations like normal human beings, while I and my siblings were burying our grandmother for the fourth time.

 During the channel’s third commercial break, the electricity went out. Someone began shuffling a bag. It had to be my sister Endurance; she was the only one sitting in the dining area behind me. Click-clacks of her stilettoes hitting tile echoed around the room. She transported Grandma’s kerosene lantern from a side stool to the center table, pulling out a matchbox.

    “Use my lighter, instead,” Junior said.
    Endurance scoffed. “A thief’s lighter?”

If Grandma were alive, Endurance would never have voiced that thought. Junior was light-fingered, everyone knew.     But Grandma banned the mentioning of it. When things disappeared, Grandma replaced them. After each expulsion, Grandma always found another school. When Junior absconded one morning with all of our jewelry, Grandma said jewelry was replaceable, and her money was everyone’s money. 

    “I don’t need your stupid lamp, anyway,” Junior said, pocketing his lighter.
    Brother Thankgod hissed, “You need Jesus Christ.”

When we were still kids in secondary school, Brother Thankgod became a church prostitute, renouncing our Roman Catholic faith, and forcing everyone to call him “Brother”. He’d stormed into the living room one afternoon when Grandma was embroidering a cross into her favorite skirt. Below Grandma’s chair, Junior had sat like a devoted puppy. Brother Thankgod ran towards Grandma’s seat, emptying a bucket of water onto Junior’s head. He called it holy water. According to him, demonic possessions like kleptomania were exorcised, not condoned. I’d almost clawed Brother Thankgod’s eyes out that afternoon.

    “At least I have a job,” Junior said, facing Brother Thankgod. “What do you have except Jesus Christ?”
    Endurance laughed. “A job? You mean professional shoplifting?”

 My brain was exploding. “Shut up, for God’s sake! What is wrong with all of you? So Junior’s now your problem? Grandma’s a fucking zombie and none of you are talking about it. Take your nonsense outside this house. I’m not listening to any of it.”

Brother Thankgod laughed. “Mummy’s here to save you, Junior. Run to her; monsters are coming.” He jumped up, feigning shock. “Look, Grandma's behind you. Run, run—”

 Junior crashed into Brother Thankgod, sending them both to the floor. There was so much screaming, punching, slapping, and cursing. My stomach was on fire. I saw a full moon somewhere. What was that saying about a full moon after a storm? A king was born? A king was dead? Someone was screaming my name.

    “You’re tearing down the curtain, Victory,” Voice A said. “Unclench your fists.”
    “The moon. The moooooon.”
    “I think she’s gone mad,” Voice B said. “Are you sure Grandma hasn’t woken up again?”
    Voice C hissed. “Do you believe that superstitious nonsense? Help me lift her up. She’ll be fine in the morning.”

I was probably in an ocean now, seeing as I felt weightless and wet. Barefooted people surrounded me. Grandma hated naked legs in her living room—she believed we’d catch pneumonia. Someone was crying; it sounded faraway. The last thing I remembered was a voice saying, “Grandma, don’t do this to us again.”

227 days ago, Grandma died for the first time.

I awoke that morning to Grandma's chickens crowing outside the house. Those chickens—like me—had somehow survived the Christmas festivities. Grandma’s house stood atop a hill. It was the biggest mansion in our village, so secluded that it appeared haunted. Every December, Grandma turned the house into a museum. We’d have guests taking pictures in our bathrooms, picnicking on Grandma’s carpet grasses, plucking fruits from our trees, and stealing our flowers.

One year, I caught a lady snoring in my bed. She'd slept on her back, knees bent, her shoes soiling my sheets. Pulling back the curtains, I’d closed my eyes and prayed sun rays would erase the figure in my bed. She didn’t budge. I untucked the sheet from the bed frame, straightened her legs, wrapped her body like an Egyptian mummy, and rolled her off the edge. The fall almost fractured her right arm. Grandma pushed me onto a stool in our kitchen—the only private room in the house—after massaging the lady's arm. She accused me of having rich kids' syndrome. A baby once slept on her doorstep, she'd said, brown eyes, hungry stomach, like the lady in my bedroom. A little girl in a basket, with no owner. She'd given the child a home because no parent could lose a child up this hill. Nature had gifted her this infant, so Grandma gifted the child a home, naming her Victory. Sometimes, Grandma said, wiping my eyes, simple things like a stranger's bed meant the entire world to some people.

We discovered Grandma’s lifeless body in her garden, arms and feet splayed out in the grass. Kneeling beside her, Brother Thankgod began checking for a pulse. Endurance held my forearm in a death grip. She must have sensed I was near collapsing. When Brother Thankgod stepped away from the corpse, he wouldn’t look at me.

Her funeral was the talk of the town. Rumors had it that the governor was in attendance, overshadowing the presence of other traditional rulers. They shut down all major roads and hotels, slaughtered dozens of cows and chickens, and emptied bags of money on entertainers. I didn’t recall any of this. The bottle of gin under Grandma’s bed erased those memories.

What I remembered clearly was Brother Thankgod tapping me awake the next morning with news of Grandma’s first resurrection. He told everyone that Grandma killed his cat. Milky had been healthy, according to him. When Grandma walked out of her grave, the cat collapsed.

Endurance called Brother Thankgod a dimwit, saying his cat chose death over putting up with him. They stood there arguing for hours. From the doorway, Junior beckoned to me. He pulled me up into a mango tree where we sat watching Grandma trim a hedge of Golden Duranta. She worked liked an ox. Her garden shears combed through the entire compound, scattering chopped flowers around the house like a mini cemetery. That scene reminded me of Auntie Jacinta, Grandma's only child. I pictured her under the sun, hands tight around the garden shears as she destroyed Grandma's flowers one afternoon. Junior had nicknamed her Crackie, though Grandma hated that name. She believed her daughter meant more than a common crackhead. But it was Grandma who disposed of Crackie at last when she grew tired of harboring an addict. She'd slapped the shears out of Auntie Jacinta’s hands that afternoon, dragged her bags through the flower litter, and slammed our gate in her daughter's face. For months, Grandma watched that gate from our balcony, expecting Auntie Jacinta to emerge penniless, contrite, and pregnant with another Junior, Endurance, or Thankgod. 

She never came back.

    “Did we do something wrong, Victory?” Junior said, fisting a leaf. “Was it the grave? Should we have dug it deeper?”
    “I don’t know.”
    Junior sobbed. “I’m losing my mind here.”
    “Me too,” I said, wiping my eyes. “Grandma spent a week in a freezer. A week! She’s a fucking zombie and Brother Thankgod’s talking about his cat?”
    “What do we do now?” Junior said, cringing as Grandma waved at us.
    “We wait,” I replied. “And when the time is right, we add two more feet to Grandma’s grave.”

In mid-April, Grandma died for the second time.

I’d just stepped into my apartment a week after Easter Sunday when Gina, my flatmate, untangled herself from a painful yoga position. She was always exercising. Standing beside her, I looked like a polar bear facing its prey.

    “Your grandmother is dead, Victory,” Gina said, sweat pouring down her face.

My first thought was Grandma is already dead. Then I remembered everything I’d taught myself to forget. Those three months of emotional torture. After Grandma’s first funeral, I never went back home. My nightmares became more frequent. I’d run to Gina’s room at night, showing her Grandma’s missed calls and text messages. She called it a passing phase, saying I was still in shock. Eventually, her diagnosis expired. Gina confiscated my mobile phone, added extra locks to her door, and posted my messages as sticky notes on the fridge.

     “Call your sister,” Gina said.
    “Do you have another sister?”

There were days I refused to call Endurance my flesh and blood. As kids, I’d find a toy frog in my closet, dead rats trapped under my pillow, a red wig in the shower, a skeleton on my bed. Grandma had a theory about pranks. She believed kids were naturally vile, and we’d grow out of that vileness someday. Endurance never grew up.

    Gina threw my mobile phone at me. “Call her back.”
    “I can’t.”
    “So what are you going to do?”
    I began sobbing. “Don’t you understand? I can’t do this again, Gina. If Grandma wakes up, I’ll lose my mind.”

The morning of Grandma’s fourth funeral, Brother Thankgod stood beside me, whistling a strange tune. I’d once begged him to teach me how to whistle. Having no musical skill was a social liability. Not only was I tone deaf, I also couldn’t wiggle my waist without snapping a ligament. Brother Thankgod’s reply had been a throaty laugh. Talents were like human fingers, he’d said; if it wasn’t there, it wasn’t there.

    “I think it’s going to rain,” Brother Thankgod said. “Are you sure you can attend the funeral?”

If only he knew how much I craved a storm. Whenever there was a flood downtown, I’d watch people’s belongings swimming underneath us, thanking the heavens Grandma’s house was on a hill. Grandma nicknamed the mansion Our Little Planet. Up here, she said, biology was just a thing of the mind—no one really needed fathers, mothers, or grandfathers to complete their family trees, damn what the gossips said about us. The others never agreed with this. Junior once asked Grandma, what kind of children just forgot about their mothers? I was familiar with this line of questioning. Though Grandma had forbidden us from mentioning Auntie Jacinta’s name around the house, Junior, Endurance, and Brother Thankgod always found subtle ways to thwart that rule. This time around, It made me angrier than usual. Ungrateful idiot, I said to him. Since you’re so good at stealing people’s things, why don’t you steal back your mother’s love? For weeks, no one talked to me except Grandma. I learnt to combat loneliness by memorizing every crack on our roof, the amount of days it took carpet grasses to grow an inch taller, and the safest tree branches to sit on after school. Ten years later, this place no longer felt like that refuge. I fantasized about sinking it to the ground.

    “I’m fine,” I said to Brother Thankgod. “Stop worrying about me.”
    Endurance sighed behind me. “You should listen to him, Victory. You’re still recovering.”
    One more mention of this nonsense and I might go crazy. “It was just a panic attack, for goodness’s sake. I’m not a fucking champagne glass. I’ll survive.”
    “Why now?” Brother Thankgod asked. “You got drunk at the first funeral. You didn’t attend the second funeral. You didn’t even know there was a third funeral. Why are you suddenly interested in this one?”

I’d witnessed Grandma’s third funeral on the internet, while searching for a music streaming website. The headlines read: local woman resurrects again. Is Jesus Christ a lady? This woman has nine lives. Is she the cure for death? Grandma’s house was almost unrecognizable. Reporters hung at every corner, some climbing our trees. They chased down Brother Thankgod, clawing at his kaftan, and begged for statements.

    “Maybe Grandma’s angry at me,” I said, facing Brother Thankgod. “Maybe it’s the reason she’s coming back to life.”
    Junior appeared out of thin air. “I strongly disagree.”
    “You’re the only one unaffected here, Victory. Think about it. Maybe your absence saved you.”
    “Stop!” Endurance screamed. “What’s all this superstitious nonsense? Sometimes people die and wake up, for God’s sake.”
    Brother Thankgod’s glare burned a hole through Endurance’s head. “Superstition? I lost my cat.” His voice was shaky. “Didn’t you see the autopsy report? She was healthy.”
    “It means nothing,” Endurance said. “It was just a coincidence.”

Considering how Endurance had almost lost it after Grandma’s third resurrection, it surprised me that she was the least superstitious among us. I once believed in coincidences, too. Losing a pet was normal. Junior’s wife’s miscarriage synchronized with Grandma’s second resurrection. That, too, was normal. Endurance’s fashion house burned down. Shit like that happened every day. But there was a limit to certain denials.

    “This will be her last funeral,” I said. “Grandma’s not coming out of that grave today.”
    Endurance backed away from me. “Hell no. I’m not a murderer.”
    “Just shut up for once, Endurance,” Brother Thankgod said, banging his head against the bars on the windows. “No one is forcing you to attend the funeral. If you’re feeling fragile, stay home.”

Indeed, it rained at Grandma’s funeral. There were no drums this time, no chickens, goats, or cows. Only three guests attended. They stood meters away from Grandma’s grave like it was a black hole. Although we’d concealed Grandma’s death from the public, I suddenly wished for flashing cameras. Rain always improved photography. I wanted everyone to see my dress, how it hugged my hips, how deep-necked it was, how my shoes made me taller than Earth. At least they’d have something else to talk about.

    “Open the casket,” I said to the pallbearers. 
    Junior grimaced. “Why?”
    “What if she doesn’t come back, Junior? I’ll never see Grandma again.”
    Brother Thankgod glared at me. “Thirty seconds,” he said.

The pallbearers dumped the casket on a wooden bench, flipping the cover. Grandma’s skin was so pale. Even in death, she wore the cutest smile, though without her famous dimples. I adjusted the brooch on her left breast, parted her hair in the middle—the way she liked—straightened a crease on her dress, and wiped a spot on her shoes. Morticians weren’t always attentive to details. My eyes were leaking. Shit! Where was my hairdryer?

    “What else do you want, Victory?” Brother Thankgod said, startling me. “Do you wish to count her teeth, too?”
    I sniffed. “Grandma’s dead.”
    “That’s not new.”
    “You don’t understand,” I said. “She’s not coming back.”

When the last guest left our compound, Brother Thankgod knelt beside Grandma’s grave, placing his right ear on the bump. The rain had reduced to a drizzle. Every drop sounded like Heaven receiving Grandma’s soul.

    “She’s gone,” Endurance said behind Brother Thankgod. “Even if you listen till tomorrow, she’s not coming back.”

Brother Thankgod ignored Endurance, turning to face me. “What did you do, Victory? Grandma couldn’t have spared you. She stole something from everyone here. What did she steal from you?”

    I thought about Grandma’s first rule, the one she’d always barked at us: if it doesn’t have teeth, it’s harmless. “Maybe Endurance is right,” I said. “People die and wake up sometimes.”
    Junior hissed. “Spare me that nonsense. Have you witnessed a cat being killed before? They don’t just collapse. They fight for their lives.”
    Brother Thankgod sobbed. “Tell them. My Milky was strong.”
    “You had your cat, Brother Thankgod,” I said. “We all know you loved her. Everyone here had something Grandma could steal. What do I have?”
    “Me,” Junior said. “You have me, Victory.” 
    “Then why aren't you dead?”
    Endurance kicked a twig. “Because you loved Grandma more than him. Think about it. If she truly stole things from us, wouldn’t she have taken the best?”

The best? Who could determine what people loved best? Endurance walked through fire to establish her fashion house, Brother Thankgod would sell his soul for Milky's, and Junior almost bankrupted his company trying for a child. But these things deserved love. Just like the taste of midnight coffee, the smell of first rains, the euphoria of drunkenness, and the color of flowers. Was it possible to cherish one above the other? Grandma always preached about true love, how we’d find it only once in life. Worship it, she’d say, because something else will take it from you, eventually. Whenever she made that statement, I’d think about Auntie Jacinta. She was the reason Grandma could not love us enough.

 Suddenly, everything made sense. How much Grandma hated Brother Thankgod’s cat. How she always found faults in Junior’s fiancées. Why she’d refused loaning Endurance capital for her fashion house. How much she hated herself. Mostly, how much she hated love. And love was everywhere—so difficult to steal the right one. Grandma knew this. For this reason, she never called Junior a thief. Thieves were not lazy. They watched, learned, and attacked. They stole that which no one could replace. They left you feeling empty. 

My head was swimming. I stumbled into Junior, gripping him for support and crying into his shirt. A hand patted my back while the other guided me towards Grandma’s grave. Kneeling beside it, I placed my right ear on the bump, just the way Brother Thankgod did earlier. Endurance imitated me, kneeling at the other side. Junior was next. Brother Thankgod, last.

    “Did you hear anything?” Endurance asked Brother Thankgod afterwards, seeing as he was closest to her.
    “What about you, Junior?”
    “Birds were singing,” I said.
    Junior laughed.
    “You’re all deaf,” Endurance said, fighting a smile. “Did you really not hear anything?”
    “We don’t have all day, Endurance.” Brother Thankgod dusted his knees. “What did you hear?”
    She smiled. “Birds were singing.”

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