Looking for — for what? — I found this, written December 1 2008, a month after my grandmother died. As I remember it, it was supposed to be a fragment of fiction.
In the house of dreaming, people would dream even in the eight nights after a death, when the dead one roamed, watchful, and the living stayed awake. They rolled dice and played cards, they laughed as though they themselves were the ghosts their wakefulness was meant to convince to go away. They slept in snatches, awaiting their turn at a game, or on their way back from the outhouse. They fought, cheated at cards, wore fresh clothes brought by the dhoby and ate food delivered in steels canisters in turns; they could not even boil their own water. And still, they dreamed. The dead roamed restless and the living, wide awake, dreamed.
In the house of dreaming, death was always preceded by a scent. Sometimes, it varied — twice in the weeks before the old matriarch died, the large shallow pot of flowers floating on water on their doorstep stank of old urine. Confronted by the stench for the second time, having ignored it the first, one of the daughters of the house lined up all the boys who could have done the deed — it could not have been the girls — and smacked them. No one confessed. The night before the dowager died, the rooms were rank with something that seemed to have been boiled.
After a death came the smell of jasmines.
The few — and in houses like this one there were always a few — who came back from the afterworld would vomit spinach and rice, in thick, pulpy clumps. They would vomit huge amounts, startling those surrounding what had been a corpse, decked out for rites. They would wake up in the midst of prayers, or on the way to the burial ground, a small screeching black chicken tied to the front of the bed of branches the dead one lay on if they died on a Saturday. The family would stop the procession, take the revived man or woman home, and feast on the funeral lunch.
No matter how many times these things happened, they were always startling. They would have it no other way, its inhabitants with their ghost stories, forever embroidering their exaggerations just a little more with each telling, so that what began as a white lie wound up as undisputed historical fact. In the house of dreaming, they all secretly loved death. They all secretly loved how it scared them, how it made them feel alive.
I wasn’t born in the house of dreaming, although I should have been.
In the house of dreaming, the dreams in the week of mourning all involved the same things: reincarnation, retribution, and reprimanding (never to the dreamer). People dreamed of consanguine connections that stretched back to a time when they were their own ancestors, and the parents they knew them as now were born to them as their own offspring. They dreamed of old scores put to bed, orders from the departed that forced resolutions which could suture old ruptures into a semblance of settlement. They dreamed of being told they were forgiven, of being touched to the top of the head with holy water or holy ash. They dreamed of being scolded or laughed at by their irritated mothers and grandmothers, kept out of the light because of the earthly bondage of the dreamer’s tears. Oddly, they never seemed to dream about the splitting of inheritances. Stories, after all, cannot be spun from mere gold.
They burned my grandmother. But she is buried in the loose red soil, the bloodlike ochre, of my heart.
And then there were the moths.
The house of dreaming had, like all houses of that place and time, backyards full of animals. These are the kinds of houses that no longer exist. These were not pleasant animals: raucous roosters and stupid hens, stray cats, a goat or two. But in the months after a death, and only then, the moths would come. One by one. Frequently in the beginning, and then less and less so until the last time one had been seen would be forgotten. More than one person, on some other cold continent years later, would find one sitting at their window on a city bus, curled inside a mug early in a mid-winter morning in their kitchen. They believed it was the same one. They had to. Years and years later, a hundred lives, it sometimes felt like, from the years in the house of dreaming, these moths would come. They would stay until they were touched. And then they would take flight.
I have never seen the house of dreaming. Yet when I close my eyes, I see its porch. The trellis of bougainvillea around the rafters. The palm trees. The acres of plantation behind it, past the chicken coop and the mission school with its orphans who play with the children of our own house. The women carrying loads on their heads who come from the market in the evenings and have tea in our kitchen, bringing the bread they bought from their daily earnings.
All of this is ours. But none of us, none of us who remain, who came later, who did not already die, will die here. Thirty years into the new century, before the house can be built, a man will tell a boy, stretch your arm across the horizon. This is our empire. It is yours. The boy will take this literally. He does not know then that the dynasty begins and ends with him.
I cannot go back to the house of dreaming. I can only dream of it. I have never been there. I will spend the rest of my life trying to go back.
The one thing that really frightened the people of the house of dreaming was nightmares. The living dead, grandfathers smoking cheroots on rocking chairs six years later and unnamed entities howling from trees, they could deal with. The loving dead, in dreams, were welcome. But that which came in their sleep, that which neither lived nor loved ever, they could not bear. They would wake screaming, run through the house, trip over visitors lying in the inner courtyard. Someone would grab them, sit them down, slap them, splash water on their faces. Someone else would reheat crab soup, and whoever felt like it would eat. You could eat at any time in the house of the dreaming. There were just too many people to count.
Drinking was strictly forbidden, and cousins found coming home riding a high would be scrubbed down with lemon by the sisters, their little pounding hearts terrified of the beatings they would all — innocents, accomplices, and egg-on-ers — would get if caught. But these rules tended to change. Prayer was strictly forbidden once. The man and the woman fought bitterly over it. The man demanded that meat be cooked in the house during the holy week of fasting. He loved his politics, his power, his place in the world. And his woman, she loved his depression, his motherless sulk, his dependence, his voice. His voice. And so she complied.
The house of dreaming was really just that: a house. It was real: brick, mortar, memory. People lived in it, and some died in it. Babies were brought into the world in it. Some of them never stopped being babies. They appeared in the dreams of their parents: precious, speaking, calling them by terms of endearments; some would inform their mothers that they had to go now, they would not appear in her dreams anymore, then never would again (the people of that house tended to keep their promises). They died of fevers and illnesses of the stomach, the things that killed babies in that time. The ones that lived wore black marks made from camphor on their cheeks to ward off evil. They grew up. They would leave.
A real house, with real noises creaking in the night. A real roof, a real back door. Real stairs made of concrete. Real balconies on which girls sat with their chins in their palms, real ceiling fans that whirred the heat around and around until it shuddered and relented. Real walls and floors against which beatings would occur, the women’s hair pulled, the children made to kneel on raw rice until they learnt their lessons. Real beds on which love — and children — were made.
The monsters only came in later, less dreamt-of houses.
There’s an architecture to these things. It is nothing special. It is not an ancient house, the house of dreams and the dreaming. But there are things within it that are. They flutter in the night. They breathe.
There are secret architectures of the heart. Some people spend their whole lives wandering its chambers, believing nothing to be more sacred than blood. I belong to the house of the dreaming. On seamless nights I walk on water. I sing. I go slow, using my own bones as oars. I trust in the tide, that which fills my arteries now as it did in other, older bodies I have inhabited. I trust it as though my pittance of experience could link me to brave women and men who swam upriver with jewels in their mouths, their own hearts between their teeth. I hang by my mother tongue, echoed in whispers and laughter through a house once lived in, forever longed for.