Daddy was sitting inside the dark, fusty living room with all the windows and curtains drawn and the mosquito nets still down. He was listening to Pacesetter FM’s morning news, his face set in a serious, concentrated mien, his forehead furrowed so hard all the wrinkle lines showed. The radio’s volume was low because he had forgotten to change the battery or maybe because he had no money to buy new batteries. He held the radio close to his ears and listened to the female newscaster’s voice. Whenever Daddy listened to the news, there was no disturbing him even when he screamed or muttered to himself about the things happening in this country. We left him alone to scream and mutter to himself and to his radio, he shared a personal relationship with that radio the rest of us couldn’t understand.
So, there he was sitting on his personal cane chair, holding his personal radio to his ears with his forehead furrowed in deep concentration when the big man in a Mercedes led the army men who kicked down our gates and filed into the compound. They dragged Daddy out of the room. He was screaming, Mummy was screaming, I was screaming, you were screaming. Later, I will remember how Daddy’s radio fell from his hand and broke into a clean half. Later I will remember how the crowd gathered in front of our house watching sadly and shaking their heads in despair but didn’t do anything to help. Later, I will remember how the entire world stopped at that moment; how I couldn’t breathe anymore; how Daddy’s wrapper drooped from his waist exposing his thick, hairy thighs. Later, I will remember how you lurched at the bulky army man with the rope trying to wrench the twine rope from him, I remember how he kicked you to the ground and you curled around Daddy protectively taking in all the blows. I could feel on my skin every single blow that landed on you and Daddy. I winced each time the rope landed on both of you.
Later, I will remember how Daddy’s wrapper was caked with the damp mud and Mummy was on her knees shrieking and begging the big man inside the Mercedes, tears streaming down her cheeks while he kept his stoic face straight ignoring her. Later, the army men will throw you and Daddy into their van and drive off and Mummy will run along shrieking with nothing on but her black shimmy torn at many places pulled up across her chest. Her breasts flapping against her body as she ran. Later, the sound of the gate breaking down and the sight of you and Daddy on the floor curled around each other will haunt me as I try to capture all of that on paper with a pencil.
I stayed with our neighbor Chisom that day until Mummy returned with a crazed glint in her eyes and a deliberate slowness and sadness to her gait. When she thought I wasn’t looking, tears ran down her cheeks. She panicked, called everyone she knew and ignored me when I asked her what Daddy did to the big man in Mercedes. Silence swooned upon us.
And then, our things started disappearing.
Our old Toshiba TV set – the one you’d hit and hit before it comes on and images flash on the screen– was the first to disappear. Mummy went out and returned with a man in tattered, oily work clothes. He unplugged the TV set with the DVD player and carried them away. I watched them silently from a corner. Then, the noisy refrigerator balanced against the outside window of the living room, the same one Mummy stores bags of sachet water she sold to the hawkers who milled into our compound to buy them, the whirling ceiling fan and standing fan inside the living room and bedroom disappeared, too. When your father returns, he will buy new ones, Mummy said, apologetically.
But of course, none of those things were ever replaced. We kept on selling and selling because the father who came back returned with mélange of sicknesses. Sadness, quiet and sickness crept in and unpacked inside our little home, encroaching every space and corner of the house. Daddy was broken, he often spat out bloody phlegm and vomit that thickly curdled together. The pungent and sometimes rancid smell of herbal medicines invaded the air and our nostrils overpowering every other thing. We breathed it all in somehow hoping that it would cure us too of the sickness inside us that doctors could not diagnose; the sickness that had no diagnosis, yet we knew we carried inside us.
For you, the sickness took up your tongue and tied it tightly together. You’d curl into yourself, tuck your legs in and stare at the ceiling. You stopped playing with me and stopped teasing me because words were no longer of any use to you. Yet somehow, the silence drew us closer. We spoke the silent language of our spirits. We asked and answered questions with our eyes while our lips were clamped still.
You allowed me to treat the blotches on your skin with the ointment Mummy bought. You’d lie on the floor silently and let me rub the ointment into your body, tears welling up in my eyes. I would rummage through your bags of old paperbacks and find the books you loved most. It became our silent ritual. I would place an old book near you and squat next to you drawing as you read silently. The world outside passed quickly by like this.
Your class friends came to visit you, you sat quietly with them under the guava tree while they berated the army men viciously. They could talk because their bodies didn’t feel all yours did. They could talk and curse the soldiers because their lips were not clamped shut with pain and humiliation like yours did after all you’ve been through. They couldn’t understand, so you sat with them and listened without saying anything.
Some thieves were caught and burnt alive at Ohanku road. You refused to go but I went down there with Chisom and Ijeoma to watch when we heard that thieves were caught. We hung around Ijeoma’s house watching from behind the gate. When I returned, I drew the pictures for you. I captured the five bodies on fire stumbling around, pushing into everything in their bid to ease their pain. One of the bodies fell into the nearby gutter and became instantly still. The others pushed around despite the tyres firmly slung onto their waists until they became just transubstantiated, burnt, black, mangled bodies on a pile of ashes. The smell of searing flesh pervaded the air. Just as the fire smoldered, an older woman with a faded head-tie tied across her head flapping in the air arrived at the scene wailing loudly. “Aba egbuom oh. Unu egbuola otu nwa nwoke m oh. My only son”, she wailed. I drew her sitting on the pile of ashes, cradling one of the bodies – the one with the teeth bared, white against the black of its burnt body. The woman’s loud wails and curses sliced through the air. Sometimes her voice was loud, other times it became just a low-pitched rasp. She sat on the pile of black soot trying to stick her right nipple into the lips of the body she cradled. Her head-tie slipped from her head and rested on the black body. We stood behind the gate, watching her. I titled the drawing, “Another shape of grief”. When I handed you the paper, you studied it intently and shook your head sadly. “She wasn’t there when the bodies were set aflame. How did she know which body was her son’s?” was all you said.
You were sixteen when Daddy died. He died on a quiet Tuesday. Mummy found his cold body. Surprisingly, none of us cried. Maybe because we’ve exhausted all the tears we had inside us. Maybe because we all were really tired. Mummy simply covered his body with a long wrapper and told you to call his relatives. De Chika arrived first. “Izunna, ndi ohe ono?” he asked you. You pointed silently towards the bedroom where the dead body of our father lay. Uncle Chika took over from there.
Daddy’s burial was nothing like the funerals we’ve went to in the village. It was just a small gathering of his extended family members. Two canopies were erected outside the compound, the old men and women who arrived shook their heads sadly but none of them wailed for Daddy the way I had seen them wail at the other funerals we’ve been to. They dug a small grave in front of the village house just next to Daddy’s room window and lowered his body in there. I watched the ground swallow the body of our father and clung onto you for support. You watched unflinchingly but when you were asked to throw some sand into the grave before they cover him up, I watched your hand tremble with heavy grief. None of us wept at the funeral but we all bore the heavy weight of loss on our shoulders.
After the burial, you grabbed my hand and steered me into Daddy’s bedroom in the village. It was a small, cramped room with faded colored curtains and rough, cemented floor that our feet couldn’t glide smoothly over when we walked. We started clearing the room quietly. I found an old album filled with pictures of Daddy in his youth, we sat down and stared at the pictures for a long time. “I always thought he’d live forever, you know. He was so invincible despite everything that has happened to him”, you said. I was shocked for a while that all I did was stare at you. It was as if whatever it was that held your tongue finally loosened it. I sat and listened to you talk and talk until Mummy came to find us. “We have to be strong for Mummy now that Daddy has left us”, you said to me as we walked out of the room. Daddy has left us. I thought about those words, they sounded hopeful; as if Daddy traveled and will be back soon. I wanted to believe it.
I was still lying crouched on the ground with my hands over your bloody lifeless body when Mummy arrived there. People were gathered, looking at me but I couldn’t see them or hear what they were saying because the sound of the gunshots still rang in my ears. I became you when you curled protectively around Daddy that year when the army men kicked down our gate, only this time I couldn’t save you, I couldn’t take the bullets with you. I was still holding onto your body when the policemen arrived and took your body away. We’ve heard stories of the cult boys killing each other. You were the one who told me when Chiboy stabbed Ifeanyi to death at the betting center weeks ago. I never thought that one day you’d become part of the story; that one day you’d become just another story told in the streets. I never thought that one day we’d be sitting inside the cramped office of a mean-faced police officer explaining to him that you were not one of the cult boys.
He was still talking to Mummy when I noticed the birds perched on the ledge of the office window begin to fly away. One by one, they flew off. First, Daddy left. Then, you followed. The orange seller was still chanting, Mummy was still sitting slump-shouldered as the last bird flew off.