I spent most of my childhood looking at my father, but I never really looked him in the eye. Our eyes often met from time to time, but his eyes never stayed long enough to commune with mine. His eyes always bore a shadow that looked like worry, and they wandered away easily, away from mine, away to wherever the worry swung them. But mother’s eyes were different. They both bore a mild flame that burned all the time, and she, as though she knew she could share the warmth in her eyes, often left them in mine a little longer on those cold, rainy mornings, until my heart was warm enough.
I grew up in a tiny neighbourhood where love was enough to go round. Our fathers plied the same trade, but they knew each other’s villages, and they always ran around together, scratching the earth, to save any child that was struck by misfortune. Our mothers could scold any child in the open, as though the child were theirs. And they gave us fruits if we greeted them at the right time, or helped them carry their Bagco bags home whenever they were returning from the market. It was love, a love I grew up to know as communal love; love gathered and shared in unequal portions. Being children, we inherited this thing that tied our parents together, and weaved them into a community. We all hated our school together, a wrinkled building bending over the road that led out of our neighbourhood. Each morning, we would trek to school in the mist that hung in the air, with sullen faces, and broken spirits until we got to the mouth of our street where women sit on wooden stools, and fry ground beans in pans of oil until they turn into golden-brown balls of akara. But, on the days we didn’t go to school, our street would brim with life. As our parents opened their shops, with silent prayers rising from their hearts like the steam of a gently boiled food, we would divide ourselves into sets, and play football on the pavements along the road. We barely stopped playing until it was time for lunch, or until someone kicks the ball waywardly and it gets stuck underneath a car. Or until someone kicks the ball too hard and it flies into the meek skies, forgetting its trajectory and lands inside someone’s compound.
But the thing with love is that it fails most of the time, and when this kind of love fails, it decays into hate, a hatred that is shared in unequal portions. And being children, we would inherit this decayed love too, which is why the other children in the neighbourhood never picked me on their team whenever father had gotten into fights with their fathers. I usually stayed at home any day father quarrels at the shop, but sometimes I would go to Angela’s house and we would play.
An airplane always flew past our neighbourhood by noon. Angela and I would wait for it, until it comes droning in the sky, and we would run after it, waving the big white bird in the sky, and telling it to buy us loaves of fine bread on its way back.
“This morning, I told my father that I want to go to a boarding school when I finish primary six and he agreed. “Angela said to me after we had run after one of those big white birds. Her face was gleaming like an old fire left in the open.
“God forbid for me to go to a boarding school.” I said. “I heard that in boarding schools seniors will take your things, and then beat you. And that even if you report them, nothing will happen to them, and they will still beat you on top.”
“But it’s still better than seeing coffins every day of your life.”
“Wait, what?” I asked in amusement. “What do you mean by it’s still better?”
“I mean I prefer to get beaten every time than to keep seeing what reminds me of death every time.”
“So you are scared of coffins?”
She didn’t say anything. But her eyes softened, until she was only staring at the earth.
“But there’s nothing inside them now. They’re always empty until our parents sell them.” I kicked a used tin of milk lying on the road.
“I know they’re empty. But whenever I see them in my dreams I see our fathers inside them. I have even seen myself inside one before.”
“Stop thinking too much and there will be peace in this your big head.”
“See who is calling my head big. You that everybody calls headmaster at school.” She laughed, and her cheeks swelled like balls of dough.
My father’s coffin shop was the biggest coffin shop in our neighbourhood, and it had huge glass doors through which everyone could see the gold and silver and wooden coffins stacked inside. “Your father is the reason our street’s name was changed from Sunshine Street to Coffin Street.” My mother once told us with a tinge of pride peppering her soft voice. “He started this coffin selling thing with nothing, and now, he has made it a big deal in this place.”
Mama made fufu and egusi soup that evening. She had made the egusi soup with fresh vegetables, so they lay in the soup nonchalantly, while two chunks of meat floated in the soup, halfway buried, as though they were sinking ships.
“This year has been really good to me. It’s only June, and we’ve sold more coffins than we did last year. I’m even considering expanding the shop now.” My father said, moulding the fufu into a fine morsel the size of a tangerine. He dipped it into his soup for a moment, scooped some soup along with it, and swallowed it. “I pray God brings more sales.”
Papa had abandoned our I-pass-my-nebor generator at the backyard. He had sent it to the mechanic many times, but it always returned the same way it left, as if the mechanic had a way of setting it so that it would work in his shop, and then work in our house for a few days and get spoilt again. He said he was going to get a new one, a big one that matches his status. But he hadn’t had time to do that, and we had to spend another night in darkness.
The moon was already hanging in the sky like something spread in the open to dry out by the time we finished eating. It sprinkled its silvery paleness through the criss-cross of my window that was left open. I lay on my bed staring at the silver rays it splayed in my room, and I remembered the time Mr. Sylva got into a fight with my father and called my father a death merchant who could drag money out of the clenched fist of a dead body.
“Now I know you’ve been jealous of me all this while.” My father said that day, smiling as though he were a tickled squirrel, with his kolanut-stained teeth peeping out of his mouth. And when he returned home that evening, he called himself “the death merchant” using Mr. Sylva’s Nsukka accent, and then laughed into the air. While my mother’s gloomy face crumbled and the corners of her mouth ran up in thin smiles that meant she was on father’s side, that whatever people said about father’s trade never really bothered her.
But mother’s smiles were strokes of love. She was only taking sides with love, with the husband she loved. One Saturday morning, I overhead mother telling father that the business was eating him up. “I will not lie to you Nkem, this business is not an honourable one.” She said.
“Says who?” Father asked, raising his voice. “Says who?”
“If you can’t hear what people are saying, me I can hear it o.”
“What is it that people saying?”
“I don’t know, but my own is that it is becoming too much. Me and the children barely see you these days, eh. This business is eating you up, biko. It is becoming too much, biko. Slow down.”
I didn’t know what my mother really meant but in my head, I saw many coffins with shark teeth eating my father up.
As we ate deeper into the heart of the year, father had begun to come home very late. He would stagger lightly, and climb the stairs as though he would topple over if the slightest breeze blew against his face. But mother wouldn’t say anything. I barely saw her talking with father anymore. She had quit her job at the Federal Ministry of Works about a month and three weeks now, and she stayed home all the time. She would cook, and serve our meals without shouting our names. She would come to our rooms, and call on us softly. And when we ate, she spent more time looking at us. Sometimes, my eyes would catch hers and she would smile weakly, her eyes now sat coldly in their sockets like balls of melting ice.
It was a warm Tuesday, and we were about to taste our chin-chin in the Home Economics laboratory when our headmistress and Uncle Ebuka walked in. She called me outside and told me that my uncle had come to pick me up.
“But ma, it is not yet time for dismissal.” I said, not because I was a good student, but because I wanted to eat the chin-chin so bad.
“I know.” She said, and folded her arms. “But I have already given him permission to take you home.”
“Uncle Fred just came back from Australia, and he’s sharing gifts for everybody.” My uncle cut-in, his lips twitching behind the smile he wore.
“Are you serious?”
“Wait till you see what he brought for you.”
My mind blew up into tiny stars, the size of chin-chin, and then the stars began to congeal, into the shapes of gifts that can only come from Australia.
So, I followed him.
But when I got home, I saw a handful of women crying in our compound. Mr. Sylva and some men wearing sad faces stood there with their arms clasped around themselves. While my elder sister sat on the veranda shuddering with sobs.
With each step I took, I felt something crawl under my skin. I knew something was wrong. But I didn’t want to guess what it was. The concrete stairs that rose from the ground to our veranda no longer looked like themselves. Now, they looked like something that led up to heaven, to a different place, a place where I would be handed a numbing verdict on a platter.
My sister raised her face, and then burst into a bout of tears.
“Mama’s dead.” She cried, her lips quivering as though she were a convulsing abiku.
“It’s a lie.” I said, turning round to look at the women who were crying. “Mama can’t be dead.” I ran inside. Father sat on the sofa staring into the air. His shoulders hung down limply, and the usually faint wrinkles that hid between little folds of skin on his face had become conspicuous, like lines doodled on the ground with a dry stick. He looked at me and nodded his head. His eyelids were puffy like puff-puff. I felt my heart melt in pain. So, I ran out of the house into the woods, to where I often went to pluck ripe mangoes, and cried till evening.
But, on the day of my mother’s burial, I didn’t cry, I was stolid. I wanted to cry and pour out my heart for one last time but I couldn’t push a single tear down my eyes; my eyes were shut, as though it were a rich man’s gate.
For the first time, I saw a coffin for what it was; a coffin. I did not see mother lying dead in a golden box, but I saw memories wrapped, and bundled into a box, memories that will fade with time. I wondered if the coffin was from father’s shop. But, somehow I felt it was time he paid for a coffin too. He had been trading with the dead. It was time they traded with him.
Weeks after my mother’s burial I began to feel a strange coldness hanging over our neighbourhood. The coldness was stale, and it seemed to have been there all the while, but I had only begun to notice it.
Each time I saw father, I heard what I had heard mother say to him that day all over again. I would remember how he started coming home late when mama stopped talking much, and only looked at us while we ate. And I would break into a thousand pieces.
It was almost noon when a few lumps of clouds spread their arms, and hung themselves just beneath the sun. I felt their shade descend on me, calmly, like the soothing darkness that a closed eye brings to a tired body. But I knew better. I knew that those lumps of cloud would soon let go of themselves, and allow the wind to carry them on its back, to wherever it wished, leaving me with the sun.
It was almost a week now that my elder sister phoned me, crying, that our father had been admitted into the hospital for a sickness whose name I had never heard.
“Papa has been asking of you Onyeka. He wants to see you.” My elder sister said. But, I chuckled gently, and promised her I would soon come.
“This is the hundredth time you’re telling me you will soon come. What did the old man do to you that you can’t forgive him? O gini? Please come home, and see your father before he dies a sad man, biko.”
“I will soon come.” I said again. But, I knew I wouldn’t go.
It was almost twenty-six years now when I first left home. It was a year after mother’s death, and the heaviness in my chest had begun to pull my heart into the depth of my stomach. So, I left home on a chilly night in August, and made it to the capital after two nights on the road.
I returned to Coffin Street when I was twenty years. But I didn’t go home. I only waited at the mouth of our street at midnight as I had planned with Angela months before, and we drove off in a rented caravan down the road that snaked out of our town.
We got married in a tiny, old chapel along the road whose walls smelled of aging holiness, and whose stained glasses were like the paintings of a gifted child.
“It’s not wise to spend your first night together on the road.” The old priest said to us as we prepared to leave.
“We won’t spend it on the road, father. We’ll park somewhere, and continue in the morning.” I said.
“We’ve got a guest room. It’s quite out of shape, but, I think it’s better than sleeping on the road.” He smiled, and his tanned pale skin broke into wrinkles around his lips. “What do you say?”
“Whatever you say, father.”
“Follow me then.”
He took limp steps ahead of us, while we walked behind him, watching his cape rise and fall as the breeze blew gently against us. We got to the tiny neat room at the end of the father’s house, and then he gave us a key. “I hope you find the room good enough.”
“It’s more than good enough.” I said. “Thank you.”
“Okay then. See you tomorrow. Mass is by six o’clock in the morning.” He said, turning away.
A boy whose face had the worry lines of someone who had spent his entire life in the kitchen trying to compensate the yearning tongue of a Spanish priest with overcooked meals came to the room carrying a tray and a tiny basket.
“Fr. Esteban said I should give you this.” He said, dropping the tray on the wooden coffee table. The tray had plates of curry-scented fried rice carefully arranged in its bowel. And, in the basket lay a bottle of wine with two glass cups.
“Tell him I said gracias.” I smiled.
We bathed in an antique bathtub in the bathroom, and then took forever to eat our food. We spoke of everything we could remember until rain came falling from the heavens like grains poured from on high to husk in the swollen air. The smell of rain mooched through the windows and filled the tiny room, leaving a sultry air hanging over our heads. And we made love till it stopped raining.
“Excuse me sir.” I felt a hand tap me.
“Yes?” I turned to see who it was. A young man stood there, with a bouquet of flower in his hands.
“Sorry to disturb you, sir. Please, have you seen any tall, fair lady stop by, and wait around here within the last, say fifteen minutes?”
“No.” I said, casting a soft glance at his face. His beard was like a raven-coloured plant growing out of a fertile, loamy soil; trimmed the same way flowers at the entrance of a state capital would be pruned on the eve of a presidential visit.
“Can I sit here and wait?”
“Off course, sit down.” I pointed at the remaining part of the wooden street bench.
“My girlfriend’s coming to town.” He said as he sat. I smiled, and adjusted my woollen Gatsby cap even though it was sitting properly on my head. “I just can’t wait to see her.” He blushed even though he was dark skinned.
“It’s almost seventeen years now that I saw my wife last.” I said, bringing out my pipe, and lighter from my pocket.
“Goodness. Seventeen years? What happened?”
“What do you think?” I smiled at him, and then lit my pipe.
“Yes. She left.”
I drew a puff from the pipe, and began to stare into the distance, at the bus conductors hanging out of the mouth of molue buses like something about to be vomited; screaming the names of their bus stops as though they were possessed souls who had lost some syllables during their last exorcism. I drew another puff and let the smoke swim into the air before me. It swirled and whorled in the air until Angela’s face was etched in the paleness of the smoke.
“Can I see that, sir?” The young man asked, pointing at the locket dangling out of my left hand.
“No.” I cupped my hand, burying the locket away from his sight.
A yellow taxi with two blue stripes running around its belly stopped by the roadside.
“She’s here.” He said, getting up quickly. His eyes were alive now; they were like coals burning with the fire of happiness. He walked towards the taxi as though he wanted to run, but couldn’t for reasons only he knew.
He was about three steps away from the taxi when the door flung open. I saw a tall, fair girl come out of the taxi, slowly, as though she were the Queen of the world, with her hair flowing downwards like a waterfall of darkness.
She was a shade taller than the young man as soon as they embraced. He seemed to have shrunk as she wrapped her arms around him. But he was back to normal as soon as she let go. I watched the young man say some things to her, bringing the flowers he held behind him forward, to his chest, where his heart was buried. He held them firmly in his hand as he spoke, bit by bit, as if he was afraid his words would bruise the petals of the flower, and render them useless. The girl stood there, just away from him, not saying a word; she only smiled, and her eyes twinkled like stars in the night sky.
I looked away, and began to uncup my palm. The locket lay within it like an abandoned child longing for its mother. I opened it, and slowly scrubbed the picture buried in it.
I heard a rumble roar from behind the clouds. I closed the locket, and looked up. The clouds had changed their clothing, from gray to black, staining the sky.
The girl was holding the flowers now. And the young man was by her side, waiting to cross the road. There was a soft smile sewn on his face as he held hands with the girl.
The fire in my pipe had gone out. So, I brought out my lighter to set it on fire again. I tilted my lighter, and scrubbed its round head until it birthed a yellow tongue of flame. I drew a long puff, and closed my eyes to savour it. Then, I heard a screech, and then a bang.
“Obara Jesus!” I heard the woman selling okirika by the roadside scream.
I opened my eyes.
There on the road lay the young man, and the tall, fair girl in the pool of their blood. A car had hit them in the middle of the road.
I got up, picking my crutches, and walked to where they lay. A number of people had gathered around them.
“Oh my God, look at her flower.” A woman cried, pointing at the red-stained flower still stuck in the tall, fair girl’s lifeless hand.
I looked up to see if the heavens were seeing the tragedy that lay beneath them. If the lumps of clouds had begun to climb on the back of the winds, and go their separate ways as if nothing happened. But they didn’t budge, for they too were heavy with tears.
I looked on as the boy and the girl lay on road like nubile fruits squashed by another’s recklessness. In the redness of their blood that was spread everywhere, I knew that they had loved each other. I knew their story, a little, a little more than everyone else gathered around.
As we waited for the ambulance, the winds came down from the skies angry, and began to run helter-skelter on the ground, picking whatever it could carry. The skies roared a few times, and the clouds began to cry. A few people ran away as it rained, but I stood there. I opened my locket, and scrubbed Angela’s face one last time, and closed it.
I had never understood death, and I still never did. But at that point, I had that little belief that it was a compulsory evil that had to happen at one point in life. It was never anybody’s fault. It was never any coffin seller’s fault.
I dropped the locket in the young man’s palm, and closed his hands.
I began to see that morning when we left our guest room again. After morning mass, Fr. Esteban blessed us and gave us a gold-painted rosary. I told him I would name our first son Esteban, and he smiled. We got into the caravan, and started the engine. But he still stood there in his milk alb waving at us, watching us go. And then, just before we would crawl into the highway, a truck rammed into us, shattering our body and spirit, our present and future.
The rains had already snuffed out my pipe when the ambulance came. And, I wasn’t sure if I was crying for the young lovers lying dead on the road, or for my wife Angela who had died in that accident, or for myself who never remained the same after my mother’s death. But, I was sure of one thing, that when the last raindrop falls from the womb of the sky, I would be on my way to the hospital where my father was dying.