Karen S. Bennett

The Monument

by Karen S. Bennett
Scribble Magazine
Volume 7, Issue 3
Maryland Writer’s Association 2009 – Short Works Contest

“Come along, Grandmama,” the boy called. “I have your rope and your stick. Are you sure you want to go all the way to the village to see the new thing?”

“Yes, of course. When did we ever see such a grand monument for someone from our own village?” The old woman waddled to the table, feet far apart for balance in randomly laced canvas shoes. She untied her damp apron from her waist and looked heavenward with blind eyes. “Banji,” she called. “Banji, will we be passing the clinic in Brittowne today on the way to Joliba’s monument? My eye drop bottle is empty.” She handed the child the small brown bottle.

He squinted at the small numbers and said, “Says 1986. Date’s still good.”

She swung out her hand and sank her fingers in the thickness of the eight-year-old’s brown hair. Her knuckles ran down the brown cheek of her youngest and best grandson, bumping the frames of heavy glasses, held up by his small ears and up-turned nose. “Thank you my little man.” Her hand rand down his thin back over his hand-me-down blue shirt of no discernable specific sport, her fingers brushing the tall number twelve on his back

“Yes, Grandmama, but we need to hurry,” the boy said, eager to be ahead of the throng of people who were certain to be on the road. He yanked up un-matching socks that lapped over the tongues of his canvas shoes.

“You know Banji, long, long ago I worked for Mrs. Joliba. Such a lovely woman she was, and how kind she was to me and the others in her house. She loved her husband, that is a sure thing. And she loved her children.” Grandmama spoke with a wide smile on her face, her untrained eyes rolled up to see nothing.

“Yes, Grandmama, you have told me many times. She was good to you. She loved her husband, but now she is with God, and her husband too, and today we will see his monument,” he recited back to her. “Here, let’s go.” He placed the knotted rope in his grandmother’s dark leathery hand and led their own small train of two, moving slowly among many others on the narrow path, to the proper road and into the valley. Grandmama used her stick for balance and hung on to the rope Banji held, keeping to a few paces behind him. He pushed aside the occasional branch and kicked at stones, clearing his grandmama’s way.

A band of boys ran past Banji and his grandmother, calling over their shoulders, “Banji, are you going to the square in Brittowne? We’ll be there. Right up front. See you there.”

“Yes,” he called, “but first we’re going to Grandmother’s clinic.” Banji’s friends were laughing, not waiting for his answer. Their young soprano voices trailed off as they ran ahead.

Banji led his grandmother, listening again, to her reminiscences about her happy days in the employ of Mrs. Joliba. These were different stories than those he had heard retold by Grandmama to Banji’s father. His were stories of whippings, and accusations of servants stealing food, spoons and brooches, and a story about Mr. Joliba and a pretty lady servant. Banji did not know why the servants did not like Mr. Joliba, especially since he was so nice to the pretty servant.

The square was filling with people moving in and out of store fronts, and standing in little groups waiting for today’s big event. A tall wooden platform, where Mr. Joliba’s son would stand to talk to the audience, dominated the square. Yellow drapery, fluttered from the railing of the platform. A skinny man, with a bandana around his head, and wearing only shorts, crouched next to a hole in the ground in front of the platform. Undistracted by the crowd, he busily stirred concrete and mud.

Arriving in the village, Banji turned to the clinic steps. “Grandmama, do you want to go to the clinic now, or after we have been to the monument? Or …,” he said in a high voice that matched his new thought, “you can go to the clinic and I’ll come back for you.” He was distracted by seeing his friends sprinting and darting among the villagers, and yearned to join them.

“No, no, Banji. Please, my baby, wait with me.”

Banji sighed and led the old lady up three wooden steps, into the coolness of the clinic, a low, brown frame building surrounded on all sides by a roofed porch. Thin partitions, not reaching the ceiling, divided the large room into small clinics, with the perimeter around the examination rooms given over to waiting areas.

 As before, they passed folding chairs that lined the walls, where patients waited for the Club Foot clinic to open. A young women sat watching her three children scampering about, making a game of climbing on the chairs. The youngest of the children, seemingly unaware of her impediment and keeping up with her bigger brothers, limped, turning her brown leather, built-up shoe on her left foot, as she played.

Above the desk of the River Blindness clinic, hung a sign of a cartooned Simulium Black Fly surrounded by a circle with a diagonal line across it, denoting the universal sign of ‘NO’.

“We’re here,” Banji said as he backed his grandmother into a chair.

Grandmama sat, and smiled, turning her head from side to side, absent mindedly bumping her stick on the floor in a rhythmic pattern. “Any new information today, Banji?”

Banji scanned the wall looking over tattered yellowed signs. Some showed evidence of being stapled to a wall then removed and rehung. “Here’s the same old one from 1974. Says… ‘spraying of fast-flowing rivers to control Sim…Simul… s-i-m-u-l-i-u-m populations…’” He broke off. “That sign’s already eleven years old. Like me!” As his finger ran down a new pink poster he read silently moving his lips. He turned to his grandmamma and called, “Oh look. A pill is coming soon. I can’t pronounce it, but it says, ‘take a single pill twice a year.’ Boy, that’s good.”

A tall white lady, whom Banji had seen many times, came around the desk, and stroked Grandmama’s face and hand. She handed the grandmother’s damp knotted end of the rope to Banji.

“Mrs. Abdoulaye, did you come all this way today to see the monument? Well, I’m awfully glad you came. You are my only visitor today. I guess my other patients are in the square.”

Grandmama nodded enthusiastically. The lady continued, “Our shipment of eye drops arrived yesterday. Good thing too, because here you are to receive them.” She opened a deep drawer in her desk and fingered through brown paper bags. She handed a bag to Banji.

“Banji, isn’t it?”

“Yes ma’am,” Banji answered, twirling his glasses by their frame and swinging his feet in a wide arc from his chair.

“Well, Mr. Banji, your grandmama will need to put one drop in each eye, every morning and night. I know I can count on you. You’re a very smart young man. I saw you reading the poster to your grandmamma. You know, I have trouble pronouncing the medicine name too.”

 “Yes ma’am.” He looked to the floor embarrassed at the attention.

 “You need to insist that she uses the medicine. Do you understand?”

Banji understood that his grandmother would never recover her vision. The eye drops would not fix her, but were to help and soothe. He was her vision. Today he would “see” the perfect monument for her.

While the white lady talked to Grandmama, a noise grew outside like the winds in the treetops before a big storm. Banji jumped up, stuffed the rolled-up bag and the rope into Grandmama’s fist, yelled goodbye, and dragged her out to the square.

Small clouds of brown dust were kicked up from shod and bare feet as the crowd scuffled across sparse plugs of green and yellow grass that survived in the dry earth. Excited speculations were exchanged about what the monument would look like. Conversations grew louder and small bursts of laughter broke from the crowd. No one could remember such a celebration in the village. The sun teased the crowd by dipping behind a heavy gray cloud. Within a minute the clouds thinned to strands to brag a brilliant blue sky.

Mr. Joliba’s son, no longer young, climbed the platform’s steps and walked to the railing. He squinted in the bright light to look at the hundred or so locals squinting back at him. The sound of the loud wagon coming around the bend of the road became louder, an echo in reverse. Everyone looked with anticipation in the direction of the increasing sound.

A sudden blessing of twenty, dazzling white birds came from the sky in a celebration of their own. The birds were as one body, turning and spiraling together as if they arrived simply entertain the crowd. They swirled in a white, twisting, ascending cloud. Where had these birds come from? They circled the square and retreated to the trees beyond the dirt road.

A harpist playing glissandi could be the only music to describe the twirling and beauty of the birds.

Mr. Joliba’s son bent to the crowd, “People of Brittowne, we are here today to pay our respect to our own people. The Imperial rulers have gone from our village. Today we celebrate the life of one of our own, my father, your benefactor.” A small, dark murmur passed through the people.

“Neighbors, thank you for coming to view ‘Spirit Ascending’.” A few clapped their hands then abruptly ceased. Perhaps it was not polite to clap for a man so recently dead.

“This monument to my father will show his loving spirit living among you, long after he has gone to God. The many sided pillar reminds us of my father’s generosity to the people of the village.” 

The people murmured more loudly.

Young Joliba suffered with the wind whipping at his script. He stopped at intervals to clear his voice and to increase his volume. “Friends, I shall describe to you the sculpture.” Breaking from his magnanimity he indicated the road to his left, swinging out his hand. “You there, please step aside. Be quick.” He indicated with large gestures. “Give the wagon room to get through. Move to the side.” He frowned at the ragged group.

Four large brown horses, rented from the wealthy Englishman’s farm were led into the square. The brown beasts twitched their ears. Their heads bobbed, lifting their honey colored manes in the breeze.

The people said, “aaahhh” and “oooooo” when the matching horses came into view. Grandmother heard the leather straps and buckles of the bridles and the heard the reins squeak and clink as the horses slowly clopped into the town square. She smiled, and inhaled deeply. “Banji, do I see horses?”

Banji was straining, stretching to his full height to see over the shoulders of the adults in front of him. “I see four wonderful horses, only larger than any other horses in the world. They have white faces and they are all saying, ‘yes,’ ‘yes,’ together. They look proud and happy to be here. The monument looks like a long pole, all wrapped in some stiff cloth, tied around and around on the back of the wagon.”

Grandmama approved, showing all of her teeth in a wide smile. Banji continued, “No oxen, Grandmama, but horses! Wow.”

Mr. Joliba’s paper threatened to blow out of his hands. Wind blew his words in and out. The wagon stopped. Five barefooted men with scarves tied around their necks, quickly unhitched the horses, then circled them around to the side of the monument. Whistling and clucking, the men coaxed the horses to back up to the platform, where they were re-hitched to straps. Other workers untied ropes and quickly rolled the protective cloth away from the monument. More straps and long ropes were pitched over the arms of a ‘Y’ shaped structure erected behind Mr. Joliba. As ropes threatened to slap into Mr. Joliba, he mumbled some apology and moved to the back of the platform to safely watch the righting of the pillar.

With a signal, the animals strained, and in unison, walked away from the platform sending the monolith to an upright position, bumping into the prepared hole in the ground. Wet concrete and mud splashed up and loud cheers arose. Banji jumped and sang, “Wowie, wowie, Grandmama.”

Grandmama reached for Banji’s thin shoulder. “My Angel, what is the hammering sound? Why are we all so happy and clapping?”

Banji reported in a high excited voice, “Oh, the horses have made the pillar stand up tall. Men are hammering to make it stand straight. I am so glad we came today.” He jumped around continuing to hold on to Grandmama’s rope. 

Mr. Joliba walked to the front of the platform. He smiled and again consulted his script. He was seeing the monument for the first time, himself. “The top band of this monument is of sculpted men and women, showing the love God has for his beautiful people.” The breeze stole his words away from the ears of the people.

“Banji, what do you see?”

Banji turned. “I cannot see from here. Stand still and lean on your stick. I’ll be right back.” He scooted through the legs of those standing between him and the monument. He examined the carving and ran straight back to his grandmother. 

“I see ladies and men’s bodies, all in two’s, Grandmama. Their arms and legs are wrapped around each other, like they’re wrestling. There are also men and boys playing together. Everything is smooth and shined. Also, there is a very large woman with, with, …” he broke off to giggle, “… with huge… Grandmama, I am embarrassed to tell you.”

“Yes, yes, go on Banji. Tell me. Tell me.” She continued to rock back and forth on her old uneven legs.

“Well, the biggest lady is holding a stalk of corn and has her other hand on her big round belly. Anyway, the naked men all have very, very big…Grandmama, I cannot say it to you. Mr. Joliba is saying something about fertility.” His covered his mouth with his hand and laughed.

The crowd quieted as the people gawked at the display of money spent, when they did not have money for clothes or school for their children. People murmured about the wanton use of money to purchase a meaningless monument of death, when not one in the crowd could afford a proper burial. A casket for these people was a thin box decorated with leaves and flowers. Faces were no longer smiling. Grandmama feared that she, too, would soon be going to the next world, and without a monument.

“Banji, What is it? Why has the noise gone away? I can still feel people all around me. What has happened?” Grandmama’s smile disappeared in the question.

“I don’t know. But now he’s telling about the next higher circle carving. It’s a boat on water, he said.”

 Mr. Joliba’s voice was true again with no breeze to disturb his words. “The next circle represents my father and his oneness with the people, as we all are one with the waters, like a boat on the water. The blue waters of the Volta River are streams of our lives, bearing boats, keeping fish, giving us fertile riverbeds … .”

A rotund woman erupted to those crowded near her, “Blue water? We go to the well and place buckets of brown water on our strong daughters’ shoulders. Good for Mr. Joliba.”

Mingling with the agreement of, ‘here, here,’ the flock of white birds returned, swooping in a flurry of visual wonderment. The birds created an ascending cumulus tower, soothing the two hundred eyes with a salve of pure heavenliness.

“Oh, Grandmama, the flock of birds are circling again. Do you hear them calling?”

Banji’s tangle of friends ran close and called, “Hey, Banj, did you see those huge tits carved on that pillar?”

Banji’s eyebrows shot up. He pointed to his ears and indicated his grandmother standing next to him. The boys hollared and dashed off to have a closer look at the horses.

“Grandmama, let’s go home now. It will take us almost an hour, and it’s mostly up hill. Shall we get started?”

“Oh, no, my little tiger cub, your words must show me everything today.” Grandmama pulled her grandson close to her body and kissed the top of his head.

Mr. Joliba’s son paused and cleared his throat. No one applauded. None who had been hired by old Mr. Joliba felt he was ‘one’ with the people, like the boat on the water. The man behind Banji said as much. Banji noticed frowns, smirks and the suggested sarcasm of eye-rolling, and wondered why the party had begun to turn into an unhappy event. Mr. Joliba’s son continued to read.

“See the glass, like a sparkling jewel, topping his polished monument. Do you see a tear of joy, or a droplet of water perched delicately on the skin of a fresh fruit before it is cut?”

He smiled and pointed toward the sculpture. Oblique cuts and bevels were carved into the surface of the glass causing glittering sunbursts. The play of the sun on the surfaces caused the on-lookers to cover their eyes from the almost blinding reflection of light.

Mr. Joliba’s son called above the stirring breeze, “This apparition of air and light is the earthly symbol of my father’s pure soul… .”

The breeze became a squall. Dust blew up from the ground. The birds were blown from the trees and circled the sky, curling into the square and flew near the heads of the crowd. Town’s people protected their eyes from the stinging dust.

Voices called out in horror and disbelief as the strong wind flung the white birds into the glass of the airy sparkling monument. Delicate yellow beaks cracked into the glass with the sound of breaking twigs or dried bones. Many birds were momentarily held in place; then slid to the stone-strewn dry earth. Their little legs clawed at the air from the ground. Delicate white wings, stained with bright red blood, jutted up at broken angles from flattened, still bodies in the weedy grasses. The pitiful chirping was drowned by the gasps of disbelief and the people calling, “No, no.”

Those closest to the monument hurried away from the scene. Little children hid their faces in their parents’ necks and cried. Adults’ hands covered the eyes of the bigger children. Families retreated through the square, dispersing to villages and onto the paths to their homes.

 Grandmama called, “Banji, what has happened?” She held the rope to her quivering lips.

“Grandmama, we must go. The show is over. The great winds have come before the season for rain. The wind was very sudden and even Mr. Joliba’s son has run away. There is no more show for us. The horses are gone. The yellow banners on the stage are blown away like rags. Old Mr. Joliba has gone to God in great beauty.”

Banji was grateful his grandmother could not experience the shock and death of the unearthly beautiful birds. He turned the old woman toward the path to their own home.

“You know, Mr. Joliba did not love his wife as she loved him. He was not a good husband to her,” Grandmama said. “I know because I was a pretty young girl once and Mr. Joliba was kind to me as he should have been to his gentle wife. You are not big enough to know how men are, or how you might become.” Grandmama said, “Come, I have seen enough. I must put drops in my eyes.”

Banji listened. He kicked some stones from his grandmama’s path and walked with his lower lip pouted out.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *