The others and I gather in the room of This Man. We watch people file in. They weep. They wipe their eyes. They blow their noses. They look into the box and shake their heads. They file out. Four broad-chested men stand like trees, two on each side of the box. They watch keenly everyone who enters the room. Some of us stand in front of these men and make funny faces. We laugh. We name them Osisi.
This Man, who happens to be the great-grandson of a friend who has crossed over to the other side, stands beside me, unable to tear his eyes away from his earthly form, which is well-dressed as if he’s going for a bank interview. He lies in a lavishly decorated box. His nose and ears are stuffed with cotton wool. He is now one of us. A middle-aged woman with a big stomach, dressed in black like the rest of them, comes in, wailing. Two other women hold her while she counts her steps, dragging her feet as if there is a ripe boil between her legs. The baby in her stomach sucks its fingers and swims. We see these things. This Man’s heart leaps for joy as he pushes his head into the woman’s stomach and tickles the baby. In one quick movement, the woman with child frees herself from her escorts, clings to the box and raises a leg as if she wants to climb in. We laugh. This Man turns to us, forehead creased, eyes wrinkled, lips turned down. We lower our heads and feign sadness. Then he climbs into the box and lies on the body. Again, we burst into laughter. One of us says to him, “Ofeke, fool. No matter how hungry a man is, he cannot eat his own feces.” He sits up on the body, staring at the woman with child until she leaves.
This is when the four men we call Osisi proceed to close the box. As they push down the lid, This Man permeates through it. This Man sits on top of the box, not on the body anymore. Does he not know that no matter how sharp the cutlass is, it cannot sever smoke? That’s what we have become: the four elements. The others go to help Osisi carry the box, leaving only This Man and me. This Man stands there, his shoulder slouched, his head lowered. I go to him and rub his back.
He looks at me. “Why is this happening to me?”
I place my hand across his shoulder and nod my head towards the door. If only he knows how lucky he is.
After placing the box on a bench, we disperse. Some of us sit on the sand and fold our legs. Some hover on trees. Others sit on people’s lap. This Man goes to sit on the box, his eyes on the woman with child. Scent of frying meat and tomato mix with incense. The sympathizers flocking in here do not care about the man they have come to mourn but for the food and drinks that will be shared afterward. We know these things. We see them all the time. Hungry people are everywhere squeezing themselves under the shade of the thick cloth that covers the top of four long poles. Those who see no space there stay under the trees. These humans behave like congealed palm oil. Do they think that they will melt if they stay under the sun?
A man wearing a big cloth — what a waste of fabric! — speaks to the people standing behind a table that has two burning candles on it. His big cloth is the colour of onions, and he always opens his palms right after he says the word “pray.” There is singing, drumming, clapping.
“When a man’s coffin is placed before the altar of God,” he says, “his head is meant to be facing the crowd such that if he sits up, he’s looking at the crowd. But for priests like us, it is the other way round because God is the one to judge priests.”
This Man turns and peeps into the box as if to confirm that. My peers start laughing again. Why are these newcomers always so naïve? Many of us used to be like that. I beckon to him and tap the ground beside me. He shakes his head. So I go and stand beside him.
“How did you die?” he asks me.
I tell him I died during the war. When I died, I sat staring at my body, clueless. Blood flowed from my head, turning the brown earth to dark red. I did not sit all day moping, no. I strolled to the village to see my family. Life was normal with them until I saw one stupid boy in the bush with my teenage daughter, rubbing her thigh. She did not stop him. I slapped his head, but, alas, I’d become like smoke. Not waiting to see if they would do the thing or not, I rushed back to the bush and attempted to revive my body. I looked at the deep gash on my temple that delivered death to me. I figured that since it brought me death, if I fixed it, maybe it would bring me life. But I could not even touch it. I looked at my bound ankles and wrists, swollen from congealed blood and grey from death.
I roamed around and tried to make friends. I met other people, who like me, died in the war. One told me he starved to death. Another told me that she was running from airstrikes when she rushed into a hiding spot. The only other person hiding there did not notice her entrance, and when she tried to touch his stomach her hand came out of his back; panic seized her. Still, to be on the safe side, she waited for the shelling to stop before she crawled out of the hideout. She ran around in the streets in utter denial, but she passed through people instead of bumping into them. Tensed, she retraced her steps backward to all the places she moved past during the shelling until she found her body, blasted to pieces.
There is this one story that made me thank the gods for how I died. The man, unlike the rest of us, said he was captured by the soldiers, gang-raped every night, and made to clean and cook every day. He died the day the soldiers forced his mouth open and another soldier defecated into his mouth. He choked on the shit and died.
I visited the spirits of infants who live in Udala trees. I had a chat with the spirits stationed at every X-junction. I lingered near my home. I did not want to go back to my body.
I consoled myself that I would not be here for long. I hoped to repair my body and go back to my family. Each time I looked at my smashed temple, I remember how the soldier looked into my eyes, as though he were looking at a poisonous reptile. He slammed the butt of his Ak47 into my temple. My head exploded in pain. His ribs were slim and his stomach sagged as if there’s a three-legged pot inside. He raised his hands, thin as stalks, and again pounded the butt of his gun into my temple as if he were pounding palm kernel shells. The last thing I saw before catching death was the flag that promised us freedom, consolation, hope. The red-black-green flag with an illustration of a blazing sun sliced in half.
I roamed the streams, forests, and hills. I visited the spirits of infants who live in Udala trees. I had a chat with the spirits stationed at every X-junction. I lingered near my home. I did not want to go back to my body. I watched my 12-year-old only son go from looking gaunt to becoming a skeleton wearing a thin layer of flesh. His stomach became as big as that of the soldier that killed me.
I saw him run after a cockroach, slap it tenderly, squeeze his eyes shut, raise it to his mouth, and eat it; I ran back to my body. There had to be a way to revive it. When I got there I could not recognize what I saw. My eyes cried maggots. Maggots dripped from my nose as mucus. I did not take a look at my belly. My body had grown too unfit to be willed back to life.
Ala, the goddess of the earth, has had her body opened up, waiting to receive her child back to her belly. I hold the hand of This Man as we escort the box to its new home, beneath the soil, into Ala’s belly. I wonder why they waste so much money on a box when a raffia mat will do—but whether mat or box, Ala never rejects her children.
This Man holds my hand, gawping at the diggers, and says, “That’s the end. I’m gone.”
But it is not the end. I do not tell him this because he is among the lucky ones. He is about to die the good death. We wait until the diggers completely cover the box in a mound of sand and then we leave the grave.
His family puts tubers of yam in the back seat of the prayer man’s car and a hen in his boot. He grins and waves goodbye.
This Man’s brothers drag a goat to an old man.
“You did not even ask me how I died.”
I did not know how to tell This Man that I don’t care about how he died. He’s dead.
“I did not know I will die that day…”
I focus on what the old man is doing. This Man keeps talking to me, never mind that I am not listening. Due to his distractions, I do not hear the best part of every burial, the only prayer every ghost needs: the prayers over the goat. I see an agile man cut the rope on the goat’s neck severing This Man’s ties with the living world. A heavy rush of wind almost throws This Man down. I catch him.
He looks up. “What is happening?”
We see a raging, spinning, upside down pyramid of radiant cloud, like a blinding tornado. It raises so much dust that it could have cloaked us in a sandy, itchy, film. The more the cloud spins, the windier it becomes. This Man is too busy looking at the blinding cloud, so I do not call his attention to the two men carrying the dead goat and trailing blood from its sliced neck to This Man’s grave. As soon as the blood touches his grave, the swirling intensifies in this spinning pyramid of cloud. The swirling begins to form an oval shape like a hollow giant egg. He claps excitedly. “Jesus has come for me! I made it!”
He grabs my hand and points towards the light. “I can see my grandmother.”
I envy his blessing, but I try to be happy for him. He is not the cause of my misfortune.
“There’s my great-great-grandfather. These are my ancestors who died even before I was born. Why are they here?”
He looks at me. I want to cry. Why can’t it ever be me, leaving? But I squeeze his palm and say, “They have come to take you home.”
“To where? Heaven?”
“It should be. But they are taking you home to the land of the ancestors. The blood has opened a path to eternal life for you.”
I point to the trail of blood. His eyes brighten. I can tell he’s happy. He looks at his forefathers, beckoning him to come. He drags my hand, but I pull back.
“Come with me,” he says.
I shake my head. “I hear that a goatskin will be ready for you to sit on when you get there. Go ahead. Don’t keep your family waiting.”
I walk away. I turn back and see him looking at me and then at the light as if he is confused about whom to follow. I move my palms back and forth signalling him to go. I take care not repeat my glance. I focus on the men who are squeezing the dead goat into a basin to carry to the house of the oldest man in the family. I am still looking at them when the light disappears and everywhere becomes tranquil. I go to my peers, whose shoulders are slouched and heads lowered. I tell them to cheer up. They do not say anything to me. They melt away from the funeral. I see the Ụmụada, the married daughters of the land, dancing and singing songs in honour of This Man. Then I see some men lead a cow out of the compound. I know they are taking the cow to where the goat’s body is headed.
As I watch them drag the cow away, I remember when the fattest cow I had ever seen was killed for my uncle, Mazi Awele. His children took the cow to the house of the eldest man in our family. They made a show as they passed through the village so that people could see the honour they were giving to their dead father. People knew that their father would be a big man in the spirit world. When they arrived at the eldest man’s house, they all broke kola nut in thanksgiving. A cow that has been called the name of a dead man must be killed. Because Mazi Awele’s children should not be there when their father is slain, they left. The butchers blindfolded the cow before killing it so that Mazi Awele would not know who killed him the second time.
Watching This Man’s relatives take the cow away from his compound, I know that, like Mazi Awele, This Man is going to be a big man in the land of our forefathers. We can never be like This Man. We know this. It hurts us.
They took our bodies away from us in the most brutal ways. For some of us, our bodies were poured into shallow graves as if they were planting us, not burying us. For some others, like me, we were left to decay on the soil where we bled to death. Stray dogs fed on our bones. Nobody killed a goat for us so that we could join our ancestors. So we hang around, neither dead nor alive. The light eventually came for a few of us. We knew their families had remembered them and done the right thing. Others, like me, have been forgotten, washed away like sore memories.
“No victor, no vanquished” their government said. The joke of it! We are the vanquished. They turn our bodies to the delicacy of worms and food for Ala. Our bodies make their soil fertile for farming. Yet they say no vanquished?
A man in a cave would learn to make fire from stones. We learned how to influence humans. We learned that the access we need to the mind of humans is the hair on their flesh.
A child that says his mother will not sleep should be prepared to stay awake. Since they turned us to the sleepless dead by denying us access to the next life where the dead rests in peace, they too should be prepared to stay restless. We do not allow them find the progress they seek: ever. We don’t just curse them to fail, we enforce the robust failure that we caused. We empty a drum of sand into any effort they make at progress, shattering it before it even has life. Onweghi ebe eji azụ eje, you cannot go anywhere while walking backward.
If one plucks fruits with the intention of filling his sack, he falls to his death under the tree. We drive their leaders to covetousness and watch them kill their country. We prick their leaders’ bodies with illness so that they can squander millions of taxpayers’ money abroad on treatment. We make sure they go abroad. We follow them when they assemble to pass bills into law. We stand close to them and watch them scratch the hair on their skin, beard, or head. We slide into them, through the opening the scratch has created, and confuse their minds. We do not allow them to pass reasonable bills. We are there during the elections. With myriads of us in the room, they do not need that air-puffing-box that they hang on the wall; everywhere becomes cold. They scratch hairs; we slide in and ensure that the elections are rigged. We will not allow them to elect a person with genuine commitment to power. We are in their churches, markets, mosques, prisons, courts, everywhere. They walk through us countless times and all they feel is a tiny chill.
It is true that when a person passes air from the anus and it does not smell, he does not go seeking the help of ogiri. But he can do something about the gas that is still in the stomach. So also, we know there is nothing any of us can do about the past. But they can do something about our future. We will never rest until we find rest on the other side. Ọsọ ndụ anaghi agwụ ike, he who runs for his life never gets tired.
Jee gwa kwa ha!
Author photo credit to Martí Albesa.