The dead no longer roam in our tales;
they have all seized our pens and papers;
now they are writing themselves to life.
living, dead, all have stories to tell.
STORIES HAVE ENDINGS—UNLESS they aren’t stories. Unless they are never meant to be told. They are like dead men. Women. Children. Once death is come, the end is come. Unless death never really came.
After a long, vain struggle with rheumatic fever, my little brother, Chidi, slept in a coffin yesterday evening, his body dark, rigid, and cold like the iron stake erected outside our house. Our culture doesn’t allow parents to bury their children. It hates the explicit picture of misfortune, so it permitted Uncle Mezi and Aunty Stella to carry Chidi’s body in a solemn farewell—the disposal of the deceased. And they laid him in there, in eternal darkness. They laid him to rest ‘in the Lord’s bosom’. I was there. I watched it all. Papa and Mama couldn’t bear to watch it all like I did. They hunched away, leaning against each other’s age-tested shoulders and dampening them with lots of tears. When he was alive, he’d make them laugh. Now he’s dead, and he makes them cry. The world really is strange.
The iron stake in front of our house has many ribbons tied around it. But they are of three colours: blue, green, and white. When an old person dies in the family, the next older relative travels down here to tie a white ribbon to the stake, for peace and total farewell. When a middle-aged person or a youth dies, we tie a blue ribbon to mark great sadness. And when a child dies, the closest sibling must tie a green ribbon to bid them to return here…. I am holding a white ribbon.
Mama hasn’t come out since yesterday evening. Papa has been sitting in the porch, his scrawny hands on the handrails, weary eyes looking out, far away, over the emptiness strewn over palm trees and cars and sands and passers-by. Chidi used to be the only thing that filled his sight—just like Joseph the dreamer did to Jacob.
Papa shakes his head and nods—maybe at the departing memories—a smile playing on his lips. He raises his hand and waves. Gets up his feet and forces a weak run, for he is hunched over. “Chidi,” he calls in a weak voice, eyes beaming. “Chidi!” Soon he stretches his arms as if waiting to take the imaginary child into his arms.
Mama scuttles out this time almost crashing into the porch railings. “Kedu ebe Chidi no? Where is my Chidi?”
I clutch the white ribbon as I stand before the stake, gazing at them. Mama stands still staring in the direction Papa is pointing at. At once they slow a step forward, their jaws slacked and eyes brimming with what can only look like joy. Joy of a long-sought reunion. I tighten my grip on the white ribbon and my knees shiver beneath me, just for a moment. They keep trudging forward. They keep moving. Till they have come before me. Is old age really like this? Or… is this what trauma does to you?
“Chidi, it is you…Chidi.” Mama grabs my small shoulders, looking up into my eyes. She rubs her hands over my face, mumbling, “Chimo… Chimo…” Papa breathes a laugh at the same time, a happy grin spreading across his mouth. “I thought you were gone,” he says, pointing at the far street end, like one with a wisp of dementia. “So you are here. So you are here…”
I want to protest, scream back at them with my teeth clenched: “Your Chidi is dead! I am not Chidi!” But they don’t look like average people who would like to think twice. They are traumatised old folks who want to revel in an illusion of restoration. Why bask in a mirage when there’s a live alternative? Perhaps I was nothing to begin with. But…Why don’t I just…?
“Mama. Papa,” I call them both and gaze into their eyes. It feels like a trigger, a spell of hypnosis. Their eyes shimmer within their sockets and they grin the more, each oldie taking me by an arm, walking me along, back into the house, singing a familiar folksong they sang days back when Chidi was breathing his last. Back then, they must have thought Chidi would hear the song and become healthy again. Perhaps they are singing it again because… I flatten my lips, a tingling warmth spreading beneath my face. Maybe I can live like Chidi. Even though I’m growing towards adulthood, it isn’t too late to receive love. It isn’t late to enjoy the attention in his place. My arms still locked in theirs, I ease my face back to glance at that iron stake. And I grip the white ribbon tighter so that my untrimmed fingers dig into my palm. Me… the new Chidi.
I can’t sleep. I just keep rolling on the mat. The oil lamp doesn’t flicker its yellow flame. The wind isn’t blowing through the open windows. My room is silent—our room. Chidi is gone. Chidi is here. We are two in here. Two brothers living in a body. I shake my head and get up and snatch the ribbon from the side of my pillow. I don’t bother to tiptoe; I just open the door, walk into the living room, twist the key in the lock, turn the knob clockwise, and step out into the night.
Now the wind begins to blow.
I don’t hate my brother. I never did. He was my little brother who made me smile a lot, and he was my little brother who made me feel unloved. Or was it my parents who did? Was it their old age that threw me off their sight and brought in a younger, cuter son? A flash of lightning casts daylight on my surroundings, especially on the iron stake. I glance at my hands; I can’t see the ribbon in the dark, but I can feel its silkiness against my palm. I stride towards the stake. Chidi, it’s time for you to leave. To leave and never return. I pull at the ribbon with my both hands and press it against the stake; then I knot it tight behind. The lightning flashes again, pulling along a rumble.
Big brother, why white? Why don’t green? I want come back…
The rays of the sun flush through the window, against my face. I snap my eyes open, squinting at the warm beam. The wall clock ticks louder than usual. I glance at it. 11 AM. And no one woke me? I palmed the mat against the floor, trying to get up, but I crash back, my wrist aching and quivering. Sweltering heat courses through me, raging within my abdomen and spreading through my limbs. A mass of fog descends before me, clouding my sight. And the tingling begins. In my head, in my ears. And the pounding and the ramming. My fingers twitch and quiver. Soon it spreads to my legs. And my eyes. And my voice. “Pa… Ma… m…” A weight presses me down, digging right inside me, inside my heart. And it stops. Everything. As though it were a forced illusion.
I try to get up, breathing rapidly. Chidi was like this, a few months ago. He complained of everything that just happened to me. And that was how his illness began. Rheumatic fever? I rush to the window and poke my head across it. A frown tugs hard at my face. On my neck, under my jaw, there’s a swollen lymph node. Chidi had it back then too. It can’t be, right? That I want to live like Chidi doesn’t mean I have to be exactly like him. A shiver slinks up my legs. “Holy shit!” I punch at the mirror, smashing it into splinters, cutting my knuckles.
I rush towards the door and push it open and hurry out of the living room. But I stop at once. Papa and Mama are outside, sitting in the porch. Mama sits arms crossed, a distant look in her eyes as she gazes into who-knows-what. Papa’s hands are on the handrails again. He doesn’t see me. Mama too. “Papa. Mama,” I call, inching towards them. They don’t hear me. Or they do, but deem it useless to reply to me. This can only be one thing. “No…” But yes, this can only be one thing. They no longer see me as Chidi. They no… “Darn!”
Why white? Why don’t green? I want come back!
I look around, eyes widened. I don’t see anyone. The voice isn’t from my head either. I heard it last night. And now? Is that it? He has come to take back his identity?
I scuttle towards the stake. The white ribbon is still there. I take a step back. And another. I caused it all. I should have tied the green. Maybe then he would have merged into my soul and I would have kept him alive—even inside me. And I wouldn’t have to lose… I wouldn’t have had to lose that love again. I look back at Papa and Mama. How? How’s all of this my fault?
Image by PDPics from Pixabay