They refused to let us take your body, Izu. They said you are now a “government corpse”. We are sitting inside the cramped, airless office of the Police DPO with its dirt-strewn wall, the yellow painting already fading. Cobwebs dangled from the ceiling while some clung onto the edges of the wall. A wall gecko crawled slowly around the off-white ceiling. I stared at the dirty wall and cobwebs, counting the cockroaches scuttling into crevices because I don’t want to see the contempt and anger furrowing the brows of the DPO or hear the disgust sitting thickly inside his viscid voice, slowly trickling out as he spoke about you and about the bad, cult boys terrorizing the streets. It annoys me that he thought so little of you and that he categorized you with those other bad boys. You were nothing like the boys who pranced the streets in red and black clothes and bandannas claiming to be cult boys. You were nothing like the ones who start fights in football viewing centers, stabbing each other with broken bottles and marked streets as their territories.
“He was good, you know. He was not like them. He was just unlucky. His only crime was that he was at the wrong place at the wrong time but for the right reason,” my lips were moving on their own accord, speaking the words that swirled inside my head. I could hear my own voice ringing out, the words bouncing off the walls and falling with a faint sonorous clang. The clammy coldness made the hairs on my skin prickly. The DPO looked at me with a glint of rage flashing in his eyes, his thin lips curled upward as if he wanted to say something but thought better of it, as if I was unworthy of his response. Mummy sat slouched on the wooden chair directly facing the DPO, rocking herself back and forth, her cheeks wet. I don’t know which one is it, is she crying because of you or because this is the loudest my voice has ever sounded since it happened?
The acrid taste of grief lodged underneath my tongue since you became just another bloody, lifeless body and story told in the streets. It tautened my tongue and weighed on my throat so that speaking became a chore for me. The DPO sent me another glance and in his eyes swam rivulets of hate, disdain. Or both. He turned to Mummy and continued speaking. Once in a while, his tight lips uncurls, makes a small path and spit dances out and lands on the desk in front of him. The desk looks as if it’d collapse if a single paper is dropped on it. Its front edges unpleasantly chipped away is home to hundreds of tiny ants crawling around it.
I’ve known loneliness. I know what it can do to a person; how it can make one feel as if one’s soul is eating itself. I’ve known grief in many of its forms and shapes– how losing someone you deeply cared about can slowly and painfully drain life out of a person. First, it creeps in quietly and saps joy out of you. It digs up memories so they become ghosts haunting you. I know how grief kills something inside a person and no matter how long it’s been since one lost someone they love, there will always be a dull ache and a sense of loss living inside them. I’ve tasted sadness – its vile, bitter taste tautening my tongue. I’ve known pain and loss.
And I’ve known happiness, too. I’ve felt its powerful arms embrace me; its fresh breath tingling my skin. I’ve felt it bursting through my chest encompassing my entire body, spreading in from the windows of my dreams to the core of my soul seeping into my body and settling under my skin. But, there’s this new feeling that presses down on my chest at night. It constricts my heart, forcing air out. It’s as if I’m drowning on dry land. I want to drown. Curling into myself, I try to picture it all playing out in an entirely different way. Instead of you, I am the one – the bloody, mangled, bullet-ridden body. Instead of you, I am the lifeless and still one. Ijeoma said it must be guilt. She said I must be feeling guilty. The feeling is heavier, stronger and weightier than fear, or loss, or pain, or grief, or sadness. Sometimes at night, I dream about it all again – the sharp, rattling sound of the gunshots drumming inside my head, the sight of you running and screaming, scattering the big bowls of rice, stew, plantains, yam, the dark-skinned guy with dada hair positioned and opening fire, the bullets pumping into your body. I can hear myself screaming your name and the guy with dada cradling his rickety gun almost preciously. In the dreams, I can feel myself cradling your bloody body with the eyes wide open and your lips as open as they were when you were yelling your innocence. I could feel the sudden stab of pain and agony shoot through my body and see the meshed rice soaked in the stew on the muddy ground all perfectly ground together by hurrying feet. When I start screaming out loud, my shrill voice piercing through the still night, Mummy will wake me up and slowly wipe the sweat drenching my body away. Sometimes, her cheeks glistened with tears. She doesn’t know how to help me when she can’t really help herself; when she’s still dealing with her own grief. All she can do is cry and wipe mine silently. We’ve not spoken about it really – we’ve just been mourning privately and quietly, each of us bearing our own personal grief and lacking the strength to invade the space of the other.
Mummy is still sitting slump-shouldered sadly against the wooden chair. These past few weeks, she has aged so much. Wisps of white hairs stuck out of the blue head-tie falling across her face. You’d remember it, the one you bought for her on Easter. It’s not her favorite head-tie because the material is too slippery and that makes knotting difficult but I think she chose to wear it today to remember you. Maybe just like me, she is trying to hold onto the smallest things, scared that you’d slip away if we don’t, still believing that we can bring you back if we remember the tiniest things about you. I am wearing your black sweater. The early morning weather is clammy but not too cold. I am wearing it because I want to feel you inside it; to smell your scent. I am wearing it because the Goosebumps that invaded my body and settled under my skin since the day it happened has refused to go away. It grows stronger when I think about you and what happened that day. The shivers wash across my body, itching. Sometimes, it makes me long for a sharp knife—to scrape open my skin and let it all out. Sometimes, I try not to think about you; to make all the crushing feeling go away. But then shame, in its full and blatant form swoons upon me. Shame that I am already forgetting you. Shame that I want to forget you. Shame at how hard I push back the memories of you that swirls in my mind.
Outside the police compound, a high-pitched voice ran out. “Oroma chara acha”, the orange seller’s sweet sing-song voice chanted. She’d tried pressing her peeled orange into our hands when we entered the police station earlier that morning smiling as if we were going for a happy event. I wanted to pull her by her braided hair and wipe that smile off her face. It annoys me that people are smiling, eating, dancing and life generally is still going on as usual while you lay lifeless in a morgue, cold. It makes me so mad and want to rage at the world, at the sad fact that people die and the world keeps on with its activities as if death and loss means nothing.
The sing-song voice was still ringing out and I tried to imagine what you’d say if you were here. If this were a different circumstance and you were here with me, you’d have turned to me and given me a short lecture on your endless rules of hawking. I still remember all our lectures under the stunted guava tree near our compound gate. You’d be dangling from the nearest branch with a book in your hand teaching me the rules of hawking: Never appear dirty, there’s a greater chance customer will patronize you and treat you well if you’re neatly dressed. I know that hawking entails you trekking for long hours through every nook and cranny of Aba and that can make one dirty and sweaty but don’t forget to stop occasionally and wash off the mud your feet and toes might have accumulated. Keep yourself tidy. Rule two: never force your goods/wares on people. It’s not only irritating them and pushing them away from you, it’ll make your customers see you as desperate and offer whatever they feel like for your goods. Make yourself essential.
You liked giving me these small lectures, I think it’s your own way of feeling self-important. As we matured, we had very little to bond over unlike our childhood. The time we spent under the guava tree was one of the few cherished moments I shared with you. Sometimes, I drew while you spoke. I have many rough, pencil pictures of you dangling from a branch of the guava tree with a book in your hand and earpiece hanging around your neck. Mummy found the drawing book inside my school bag. She thought giving it to me will help ease the pain, she wanted me to draw my pain out like I always do. Flipping through the pages of the book, I found you again in paper and pencil. I found you laughing, I found you reading Ferdinand Oyono’s houseboy, I found you telling us stories, I found you in the open kitchen inside our small, fenced compound where Mummy prepared the food we sold daily, frying plantains, washing beans and stirring pots of stew. Your back and forehead slick with sweat. In some of the drawings, you were wiping your brows and in some of them you were rubbing your eyes, slightly bent over as you try moving away from the ring of smoke encircling around you. You were shirtless in most pictures with Daddy’s blue wrapper around your waist.
I remember the other grainy picture, the one you were laying crouched on the damp sand near the guava tree. Your hands curled protectively around Daddy’s waist as a bulky army man’s thick twine rope landed on both you and Daddy. That was the last picture I drew in that book. It was about three years ago. I remember the day vividly. I was twelve years old when the army men in their uniforms and boots kicked down our old, squeaky gate and dragged Daddy out of the room with his one-piece wrapper loosely tied around his waist, his chest bare. It was an early, overcast morning. The birds were still chirping noisily. A gentle breeze swayed the trees. From our house, we could hear the voice of the mad man living in the native Ngwa compound few yards away screaming in the morning like he does every day; his early morning theatrics are often our wake-up call. His name is Abuchi. Sometimes, the street children threw stones at him, so he could chase them around. Sometimes, they bribed him with sweets and biscuits so he can dance for them. He can shake his small waist vigorously to the songs of Osadebe, Chinedu Eke and Chinyere Udoma. He could move his entire body as if he were possessed. People often lured him to events to dance in exchange for food served in a “special” plate that was always discarded so that no one else will use it.
…To be continued