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before there were photographs, there were dreams

Everything turned out alright
(don’t forget my name) […]
in another life,
please come and say hi. – Boom, Ngaiire.




one evening, I am walking along a sandy beach, one that inclines steeply towards the land. ahead of me, two boys, not more than seven years old, are playing with their puppy, going up and down the slope. then, they are running, running straight along the sand, puppy at their heels. the silence and solemnity of this moment, one folded into several shades of twilight blues, reminds me of a dream.

––

I never got a chance to meet my maternal grandparents. They died early in my mother’s life. Growing up, all I saw of them was a black and white photograph that my mother and her siblings have held onto, one that they have made multiple duplicates of, framed, and shared with each other. It’s a portrait of my grandmother and grandfather; in it, I have always loved the half-smile that plays on both their faces. From it, I can see how much my favourite aunt looks like my grandmother. Behind her stands my grandfather, who, head tilted, stares into the camera, a serious tie around his neck.  

There’s a certain weight a sentimental photo carries, perhaps that of being a kind of euphemism for emotions that are sometimes too big, too unpleasantly big: anger, sadness, fear, hope. Love. A photograph represents a fragment; what escapes in the unbreakable time-bond of life – that continuous, limber line with nowhere to stop, nowhere to go – is captured in the image; half of half of half of a second, and further halved, still – down to what cannot be broken any further. And yet in that image, fractionated as it may be, within that fragment, what is too large to be disintegrated can rest, comfortably.

I lost a friend, once. I spent the next couple of weeks looking for photographs of my friend from wherever I could find them online. I’d like to have a record of every moment, even those I was not a part of. The weighted presence of the images, on the best of days, is mingled with the chaotic lightheartedness of the rare good moments they capture. The rest of the time, they become a continuous reminder of my residence in the endless after-days of loss, tethered tenuously onto those limited, fickle records of the past. 

(and there were none of us together: no photographs that I could LAY all that was unfinished, and now, unfinishable, on. The questions: where was he? And what was he doing? And was he thinking of me? If we were to meet again, would he remember my name? But it did not stop me, not at all, from imagining, and in my sleep, in my dreams––

before there were photographs, there were dreams

––we are together again. He hands me a sheet of paper, words written on it in a language I could not understand, but that I know, without any doubt, bears my name.)

A dream is a photograph, a painting – a picture – held up at an angle, tilted towards the future. Dreams — visions: what the future looks like. A dream is the gossamer tangle of timelines that tells you what you see is also what you hope to see. 

There is a deadly connection to the last image you see. After all, at death, life “flashes before one’s eyes” – what I’ve always imagined to be an extended, dancing photo of your life. The less I look at the photos of my friend, he is gone a little bit further, letting go of the rope I cling to at its other end. There is a day, long ago, that I looked at that collection of photos for the last time— 

—until the next time I go back. This bland, unceremonial act of resurrection.

As I grow older, there’s a strange fear I have of taking photos with people who I love. Terrifying, perhaps, is the unrelenting timbre of nostalgia that photography vibrates with, one that becomes more unbearable, more unavoidable with their loss, or non-existence: either of the photos, or of the people in them.

The first time my friend and I held hands, it didn’t feel like a problem that needed to be solved – it never felt like an equation hanging on a blackboard half-finished. There was no hurrah, no exclamation. It was just a passing action, one that didn’t interrupt any other, one that had nothing to say, nothing to ask. It came with no overbearing acknowledgements, no surprises, no questions. It was the ease of that act, it’s indecipherable simplicity, that left indelible lines which trace their circuit through every groove of longing since we parted ways. Holding hands, since that moment, has borne the undifferentiated weight of intimacy for me, and makes a shimmering banality out of the multiple phylogenies of friendship and the emotional landscapes they traverse. 

I dream about my friend and I, walking around a city. We walk and walk and walk, in circles, in squares. In no shape at all. That’s it. There’s colour everywhere, and a superb lightness to the sky, and to the earth beneath our feet. 

in it, we are holding hands. 

In many ways, the photograph is the portal to the dream. From my grandparent’s photo, I try to imagine what my grandmother’s hair looks like beneath her scarf. My mother says it was long, beautiful, healthy hair. I see the rosary hanging gently around her neck, and imagine what her fingers would look like, clasping it in prayer, or weaving a basket, something she was good at. I imagine them in matching outfits of blue and gold. Dreams bring people back, like how they allow me another moment holding my friend’s hand. But dreams also do something else. They give us a more expansive imagining of things we may not be able to hold in memory,or in our hands. They set the objects within them in the direction of our love, of our hate, of our longing, constantly reconstructing the past.


And here, perhaps better than the photos we take are the photos we do not take, but that, like many other photos, are kept somewhere, framed somewhere, more fluid and enduring in their form – like dreams. This for me is the image of a friend, years ago in high school, kneeling on the cold, rough corridor outside the senior classes as a form of interim punishment. The apparent slight warranted something bigger, it seemed, something that was slow and distant in arrival. It was a cold July day, and the sun as it streamed down in oddly bright shafts from the sky seemed delicate enough to be broken. Maybe this scene is unremarkable, but what isn’t is how in the weeks that followed, something between my friend and I was ground up, reduced to a discordant, reluctant togetherness and flat stares, unanchored by any discernible feeling. For some reason, this strange shift in the friendship seems to radiate from that scene looked at from where I stood on a staircase, the sun drawing a line between time, between us, burning away the distinction between helplessness and unwillingness. Like a character both within and outside of the script, instead, I witness a first loss unknowingly. And what I don’t remember is the image on it’s own, not really, but what I am truly left with, then, but also now: the panic, the shame, of beauty unacknowledged, scrambling, with hope of another chance in many of the multiple, unobtrusive ways we hope to be seen and to see one another: a favourite snack left on a desk somewhere, freshly changed sheets, a gift of fresh fruit, or of earrings, or of books; a timely hug, a timely cup of tea. Or, the simple welcome that is a swept landing, the floor gleaming in the spaces between the pots and mat outside your door. This is the reconstruction, sticky as cliche, refusing to let you feel fully the feeling of being left – or of leaving.

(years and years later, the reconciliation, it happens in a dream. We stand face to face for the first time – maybe the first time ever – and in her hand, palm open to the sky, are rings: one for each promise made, unkept, but here again, a complete circle, glimmering in that selfsame sunshine from years ago.)

The things that have happened are impossible to change. Staring at a photograph of people lost won’t bring them back, in much the same way that dreaming about them won’t. What they do, however, is to create a liminal reality, one that is as fluid as it is boundless. A photograph and a dream do not just exist in the moment of their occurrence, but stretch back and forth along time. The memories they string along and amplify, in this elasticity, cannot be limited to any particular realm. This is their magic – or perhaps an elaborate gimmick which appears to delete boundaries of existence, of time. In this shattering, I am allowed to imagine that my grandparents, they exist in there, the colour of their clothes casting that world in shades of blue, shades of gold. I am allowed to think that my friend won’t forget my name in our new existence across time, that we can still hold hands.

I have never spoken much about my grandparents with my mother. It does not stop me from thinking about how it must have been to grow up around them, or what it would be if they were still alive. I’ve dreamt up stories, bound to a soundtrack from the music I imagine might have been present in their household – perhaps a mix of Catholic hymns and rhumba – of what it was like to bring up my mother and my uncles and aunts against the backdrop of a freshly independent country; the bold optimism difficult to ignore in the rhythms of the days, of the years. 

and this is the recurring dream. these split the photograph in half, along it’s negligible thickness. it does this multiple times, tosses each piece into my memory. photographs made immaterial, they land where they will, vespertine, creeping along the grey latitudes of evening. this dream allows for a removal of the fear of loss, a temporary hold on the dread that surpasses, in it’s vigour, any that you’d expect from reality. it says: you won’t look at this image for the last time. you can trust it to return on its own. perhaps, there is something of what is lost that will stay with you, forever. 

This playful yet pensive interference with time that dreams embody has lent to my memory a disdain for the strictures of history. This is how I ask, and answer, the question of intimacy without nearness. Tomas Tranströmer, in his poem Answers to Letters, writes: “Sometimes an abyss opens between Tuesday and Wednesday but twenty-six years could pass in a moment. Time is not a straight line, it’s more of a labyrinth, and if you press close to the wall at the right place you can hear the hurrying steps and the voices, you can hear yourself walking past on the other’s side.” And who was I, in the past, if not my grandparents? What is the dream, if not this labyrinth? It’s there in sleep, in wakefulness, and even after death, there it is, crossing realms. Carrying me along.

(with an absurd sense of care, doing what the photographs can’t in their manner of stilling life infinitely, the dream wraps these thoughts that perhaps can’t find room elsewhere, their precarious, dual possibility and impossibility rendering them too amorphous for the structures of conscious memory we have. The dream carries them away quietly. It allows them to expand. And without any cloying attachment, reverent, releases them into the night)

––


I go back to that same sandy strip again and again, but the two boys, their puppy, the late light they brought with them I never see again. The sun sets. I imagine the trio running around several other beaches in several other places – both those we can and cannot see.

Michelle K. Angwenyi

Michelle K. Angwenyi is a writer from Nairobi, Kenya. Her current literary engagements lie at the intersection of her background in biology and her explorations of time and memory. She was shortlisted for the 2018 Brunel Africa International Poetry Prize, and for the 2017 Short Story Day Africa Prize. Michelle has a chapbook, Grey Latitudes, which is out now from the African Poetry Book Fund and Akashic Books.