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Chima Nelson | Baba Bello’s Last Words

If I don’t cry now, una go say na me kill una papa.

I fling myself across the red, huge mound of the man’s fresh grave, biting down the chill that whooshed throughout my body. They’ve covered him well, with such heaps of sand as if they were afraid he’d one day dig himself out. The only unideal thing was the chosen site. He should have been put in the backyard or somewhere invisible, not in front of the house like a monument, a pest. Now I’ll be reminded of him whenever I visit.

The wail that bolts out of my lungs as I crumble is not in any way fake as intended, and I almost laugh when I hear another join me, bringing in their own portion of drama. We were both mourning two different things with the same pitch at the same time except that mine was much more reasonable; I had just realized I was donning one of my favorite black dresses and that there was no redeeming it after this excruciating exercise was over.

The tutorial had not mentioned any rolling but I do it anyway. What was even there to learn from a white woman teaching grief in a typical African setting? What would she know? I do the rolling like it was a course I smashed in school, smearing my arm and sides sufficiently with wet mud before sitting up and proceeding to beat my chest, hack my hair apart and kick up sand with my feet. I scream like I’m deranged, like it’s true, and Wallai! If this isn’t the very height of humiliation, the most degrading thing I’ve ever subjected myself to, but then, there was no going back. The train had already left the station when I stepped into the compound and saw everyone looking half mad, half dead, half stupid. There and then, I had made up my mind to be the overall package. Besides, this was a competition. A stage. And a hundred spectators had already begun watching, waiting for each family member to disgust themselves by participating in this hypocrisy, just like culture demanded. Right now, all eyes were on me.

I feed them more by returning to the pregnant grave. I place my head on it and grope for the mud, calling out Baba Bello’s name while my insides screamed for my Valentino dress. I sing their tribe’s memorial song for the dead, missing not a word or note and I throw in more praise than was required. I do the dirge so well that another breaks out in tears, the intruder’s voice rising and dragging in others until their collective screams have subdued and muffled mine. Idiots!

I feel them the minute I begin to dig into the surface. Hands. They reach for me like a cold net, eager to trap me. Three women grab my arms from each side, the third holding my back as they all lift me to my feet, soothing me with words whispered through cracked lips moist with tears and mucus. I do an inward hiss as I collect their help. What had taken them so long? I’m sure I’ve been on this ground for more than ten minutes. Perhaps they had deliberately delayed to discern the weight of my performance. If it was believable, tasty, and surpassed, measured, or below their own. From the way they pick me up as if I was breakable or rather broken, it is loud that I’ve outdone myself and them. Still, I make myself believe that their aid had come because I was on the verge of unburying the man with my bare hands, ready to undo God’s beautiful work.

I say nothing as we wade through the gathered mess. They immediately make way as they had done upon my arrival. The first time in respect but now in something grander. I keep my head down, remnants of the cry stuck and burning in my throat. I force myself to keep saying Baba’s horrible name in order to achieve more theatric flair, asking him to come back, why he left us, if he’s in peace or, God better help us, in hell. I do not say that last part out, even though I’m certain they would all have chorused a loud ‘Amen’ and thrown in their own curses. The woman holding my right softly hushes me again and says I must retain my strength, what is left of it anyway.

The play had indeed taken its toll. Actors truly do suffer. I now sound like I’m dying. Walk like it. And without seeing my face, I know Baba’s corpse must look better than me in every way. I’m not sure if I would have ever gotten up from there if they hadn’t come to pull me out. It’s the one thing I dreaded when I was organizing all this, that I would be abandoned, scorned but now, as I move with their support, I know I wouldn’t have been able to on my own because of all that energy I had unknowingly exhausted.

I spot another rip in the lower part of my dress and whimper. Who would believe it cost hundreds of thousands of naira? Talk about the literal sense of going from riches to rags. The gown had been badly soiled and ripped, with patches of mud everywhere. The woman on my right immediately spurts a litany of condolence, mistaking my despair like everyone else. I recognize her voice now, my husband’s last sibling, a petite young lady called Aisha. I hold up my head to make sure it’s her. She’s the first family member I’m seeing. My precious son and simple-minded husband have been nowhere to be found. They must be in the family house, receiving the rest of the guests. I had let them go on without me, something about looking for a head tie, while I rehearsed my role and rewatched that tutorial.

When I’m sure it’s Aisha through my tear-blurred vision, I lean more onto her. And then it strikes me. My shades! Where is it? Of course, I must have knocked it down when I was in character. I immediately twist my neck backwards in search. For all of three people walking a single person, we’ve taken no more than four steps. The path was still wide open, all the way to the back so I can properly scan the stage for my belongings. Again, they mistake this act as a longing for the dead and let me be. At this point, any emotion I show or display after all that mudding would be justifiable. I was, after all, the grief-stricken daughter-in-law. My shades were not to be found anywhere.

I ball my fists in fury. These thieves! Even before a grave, it still had not deterred someone from kicking the stuff into their pocket. Thank God I hadn’t donned that my wig, cause ehh, it wouldn’t have been only Baba’s corpse that would’ve been buried today. Come what may.

Now agitated, I drag my helpers forward, gathering both my strength and theirs. Why have we yet to reach the front door? I understand that I should be treated with care and that people were always stopping us to say something sticky to me but this pace is killing me. I want to be removed from here, this burial ground, these clothes, this skin, and I want it all to happen now and at once. I’ve had enough of the drama, the spectacle, of everyone acting like they loved Baba, like he was a saint worth mourning, a human being in the least. I’m sick of the lies on their faces, the black fabric everywhere, the silence and the uproar, the said and the unsaid. I’m sick of it all. Sick- Sick-Sick.

Baba deserved worse. A man that treated his wives and children like trash. Forcing his judgment on everyone’s neck, his unfinished dreams, and sins. Who was Baba to reject me as his son’s wife, reject my son, deny him of his place and secretly threaten to oust my husband from the inheritance because he kept us and chose his own happiness unlike that his other olodo brother who took that illiterate Baba had picked for him? They are even well-matched; two olodos. If only they’d give us a break and stopped dragging everyone into their quarrelsome marital life constantly.

Who was Baba to also force Aisha to study Medicine? Was he that blind to see the girl’s talent lay flat in painting and that that was all she cared about and wanted to pursue? Who was he sef to lock in my mothers-in-law like slaves, flogging them with belts in the absence of their children? I don’t even know why they hide those atrocities of his from the world like that. Why we all have to pretend like it’s some sort of sexual gratification, duty or family norm; another thing every household passes through. All it has done is make me pissed and wonder: Who the hell was Baba to do anything in fact?

When my husband, Ayo, had picked me against his wish, openly defying Baba and his useless reason that my tribe was polluted with bad-blooded lineages, I had sworn to always love and uplift him. I love Ayo so much that I feel indebted. No man has ever gone to such lengths for me in the name of love. It wasn’t until we were married and had our first child that Baba softened, just a little bit to assure you he wouldn’t bite deep. He only came to our wedding and my son’s naming because he didn’t want to lose face, because he heard the minister might be there or that a senator was in seat. Coming into the family, I had decided that I would play by his rules, along that thin, naked line of love and hate, friends in the light and enemies in the dark. And he had loathed me secretly and deeply because of it. The hate I had brought upon myself did not spare my son and his father. Every time, when they both mutter, especially seven-year-old Tunde, why Baba was always so indifferent towards them, I threw my face away and lied.

Na me. Na me oo. But I don’t say it out.

If I was to list Baba’s admirable qualities, I would submit a blank sheet and still ace everything. Okay, he was generous. And so? What else? You’re now looking at me like a lost chicken. Something is now wrong with your voice abii? He..he..he what? Let me help you since you can’t help yourself. Listen, because he gave you a bag of rice does not make Baba wicked small. Baba was evil. Spawn of the lowest devil. He was a thorn in the flesh, if not in yours, then in mine. He does not show much of it outside because he knows you will talk and tell others to spread it. Oya, swear he wasn’t looking at you somehow when he dashed you the rice like you were robbing him in broad day, with that his plastic sincerity, that scarecrow pat on your back. You can’t swear shey. You’re now scratching your neck, now doing ehmm this, ehmm that. Swear it now let Ogun strike you dead.

The immediate flash of Baba’s smirking face angers me so much that I propel my companions forward. Again, how long are we going to take to reach this one door that I’m seeing? How long before we start popping champagne and putting on good music to dance? How long before all of una commot this una yeye black attires? I’m so pissed that I attempt to rush back and undo every show I’ve put on, to spit on his grave and curse out loud but again, these dimwits hold me back and think it’s the grief toiling with my mind. Thankfully the act yields more speed; I have to be placed in safety, away from the source or symbol of my pain. I’m beginning to get sick of these their caring attitudes toward my real intentions. How can you people be this blind?

Not all people are masking theirs though. Through little peeps, I see them, actors like me, everyone pretending and pretending and some not even trying at all, busily staring at the food preparations and drinks with open shamelessness. Some stay strongly true to their feelings, their eyes closing in boredom and mouths stretched in long, airless hisses. I’m sure if I press closer, I would hear the curses being whispered, exchanged out of both fear and freedom. Quite alright, not everyone will like you but it becomes a major problem when your family is among those people. If not, why else would they rush to put him in the ground immediately after he was verified no more, before most of his family have even arrived like they were afraid the man would change his mind and wake up, everyone claiming it was his dying wish to be buried this way, in the ground first before the rites? I can assure you that this is ridiculously false. The dead man never ever said such a thing.

Why is Aisha even in trousers? She’s quick, this one. To start donning wears her late father would slap her eye for and I’m sure her mothers have not said anything against it.

As we get to the door, we collide with my olodo brother-in-law and as we exchange a few numb greetings, I catch the walking cane in his hand. Baba’s. Olodo moves away with it like he’s owned and used it all his life towards a couple of sour-faced men beckoning at him by the corner. Dey don dey carry the man property, already? Ah, ah! I think of Baba’s face if he could see his forbidden cane used anyhow now, and his twisted expression, mixed with anguish because he’s dead and can’t do anything to the living makes me  openly laugh. Everyone pardons my grief again.

My mothers-in-law all rise to welcome me, their faces bright from hidden relief. A hidden glow. Although, none of them remains uptight afterwards around the numerous guests filled in the living room and outside because they’re allowed some respite after they’ve openly mourned. Just like I would be after I’ve washed up and changed. I sight some familiar, notable faces. My son rushes at me while Ayo tips his head before being dragged away by the elderlies. Not every family member is yet present. It’s noon. Some are still on their way. No, imagine that.

After I’ve washed, I join my mothers-in-law and the rest of our families in the living room, accepting condolences. I’m only able to achieve this much comport because of the shots I’ve taken in my bedroom. It’s cleared up my head, restored my vigor, and prepared me to help see that Baba arrives safely in that burning pit.

Then I see his portrait, placed upright on the table, directly facing where I was sitting. His expression has always been the same, in picture and in life and certainly in his coffin; all tight, wrinkled and grim. You’re better off with a glare than a grin cause the former is less scary, less suspicious. That dark side of him had darkened more with age, darkened to the point of no redemption.

I had first ignored the portrait but now, as I stare, his sleeping face, hear his silent breathing, and then his muffled screams as I pressed the pillow over his face.

You see, Baba Bello never really had any last words.

————

Image: kalhh via Pixabay

Chima Nelson
Chima Nelson
Chima Nelson was born and raised in a small village in Enugu, Nigeria. Because he took ill often as a child, he was home-schooled by his grandmother who was a retired teacher in the community school. Chima enjoys the rurality of his surroundings as much as he fancies the wild city life and loves learning about different cultures. He plans to study Business in the University. ‘Baba Bello's Last Words’ is his first short story. | Twitter; @boneflair

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