Guernica Magazine

Mother Tongue

On which stories are whose to tell.
Illustration by Pedro Gomes

A dream is never too dreadful that a child cannot narrate it. Say it just as it is.

—A Yoruba proverb

* * *

Your mother once had a dream that her mother outlived her. In the dream, though your mother is dead and buried, she sits in her favorite armchair, knitting a brightly colored sweater, her mother humming a song whose lyrics your mother didn’t understand. The two women wouldn’t talk to each other, despite the blue and white colors that shine from the sweater being your grandmother’s favorites. Your mother had the dream before you were born, and she never asked what it meant, because your mother’s mother said interpreting a dream means yearning to see it come true. Instead your mother’s mother fasted for three days, fed the homeless, and prayed the dream away. She believed that a good mother wishes that her child would outlive her, that her child’s life would be more worthy than hers.

* * *

The woman had my grandmother’s voice and the face of Mama Chebo, my mother’s best friend. She towered over me, as if from the ceiling, stifling my voice and paralyzing my legs and arms each time she moved or spoke. Half-asleep, I could still sense things in the room: my brother’s loud, jarring snores; the rhythmic movement of his body beside mine; the chilly morning breeze blowing in through the window, opened a crack. But I couldn’t jerk myself wide awake. The woman disappeared as soon as my mother walked in the door and turned on the lights.

“You sure it’s Mama Chebo’s face you saw?” my mother asked. That I’d heard her mother’s voice did not surprise her; my grandmother, who happened to be my favorite person, had recently died.

“Don’t tell anyone about your dream,” she said. “Dreams come true when they are interpreted.”

I had other dreams, which I wasn’t telling my mother, that I wanted to share because I

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