The fifteen-year-old boy, Junior, defying the eyes of onlookers all around, continues to wheel his grandfather, a wrinkle-faced, old man wearing a brown shirt on black jeans, and a sprinkle of curly, winter-white hair plastered on his head. The boy clings tautly to the book—Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie—under his arm. The heat of the midday sun bites his scalp.
He pauses at a junction, on a muddled pathway, and allows the kekes and motorcycles to zoom past before crossing over to the other side with his grandfather—the old man.
He halts under an Ube tree. The wheels squeal as he lets go of the handles and stands beside it. Taking out his handkerchief from his trouser pocket, he wipes the sweat from his forehead and the face of the old man who looks like a sweltering cavern. The old man mutters his thank you immediately the boy finishes.
Junior stares at the giant tree as though combing for something. The tree looks like a well-fed child; the compound leaves and yellow flowers and fruits hanging from stalks adorn its fat, gnarled branches. Much of the sunlight is kept at bay at the top of the tree so that they sweat less.
Although this is not his first time out here in Abba, his maternal home, in the open square where kekes and motorcycles speed past the potholed, muddy road, Junior feels like he is seeing everything for the first time —the mountains dotted by green grass, the big white St Peter’s Catholic church, other buildings with their peeling walls.
The old man sighs as he looks around, sweeping the entire vista with a practiced eye.
Junior looks at the old man’s face for a sign: maybe sadness as usual, or tears.
Oh no, not tears! It would be lethal for him, Junior thinks. Not after his grandfather had cried himself at the gravestone of his grandmother some moments ago; he couldn’t bear to see him cry again.
But he finds a complete impassiveness on the old man’s face.
A bird flies from nowhere and lands on a low branch and begins to peck at the dark- blue, ellipsoidal fruit. As though rehearsed or something, the eyes of both the old man and his grandson travel upwards; they rest on the feeding bird. The boy stares at the bird which, having devoured the skin and green flesh of the fruit, starts to peck at the seed in a bid to crack it. It’s a village weaver, he reasons. He thinks he has seen the bird before, somewhere, on the National Geographic—a TV documentary.
Yeah, it’s really a village weaver, he assures himself as he examines it again. It has a stocky build, a yellow head with an olive crown, grey upperparts, and dark underparts. The yellow and black wings are perfectly blended into each other.
Soon, many of the bird’s kind arrive on the tree, singing and pecking their way up, from one branch to another. A gentle wind sweeps through the tree as it staggers like a drunk, from side to side. The fruits fall, hit the ground, and get squashed. Some leaves drop at once to the ground while others drag on a snail’s pace before kissing the ground. The old man’s gaze falls and then rises, his head turning west. Junior’s eyes follow him. They both stare at a large church building with a huge cross planted on top of its roof, the white painted walls gleaming in the sun.
For the first time since they drove away from the cemetery, the old man speaks.
‘Back in our time, during the war, that church was a complete ruin,’ he says. ‘How time flies. Now, it’s all big and brand new as if nothing ever happened to it.’
He pauses, bows his head, and then raises it up quickly as if feeling the thrust of memory. ‘There!’ He points to an old building standing a few meters away from the church and Junior’s eyes scamper quickly in the direction of his hand. It’s a school; the green and white patterned flag is mounted on a giant pole beside the gate, which bears the bold inscription, Old Grammar School, Abba, Since 1948. It’s Saturday, and as such the school looks empty, except for a man, the security guard, in grey shirt and black trousers, sitting outside the school gate, wielding a baton.
‘That was my secondary school. During the heat of the war, we were forced, at some point, to take shelter there.’ The old man shuts his eyes briefly as he remembers how he, his wife, Nwakego, and their daughter, had lain on the cold bare floor of a classroom, squeezed in together with a handful of the people who had fled Nsukka for Abba, during the air raids; and he barely slept those nights because the smell of body heat, the high-pitched snores and the incessant buzzing of biting mosquitoes rose in the air around him like a threat, even a death sentence.
He turns to Junior. ‘My boy!’ he calls him. He never calls him Junior.
‘Yes, Grandpa.’ Junior’s face lights up with interest.
Ever since he started coming to this place with his grandfather this is the first time the old man actually talks about anything around here. In those times, both of them sat beside each other, the frozen silence between them, staring in the far distance.
‘Do you know that this place is where it all happened? Right from that church,’ he adds.
Junior bends a little low, titling his head to one side, as if to urge him on, to tell him that he shouldn’t stop talking.
But suddenly, the old man becomes quiet as if waiting for the zoom zoom sound of the keke and motorcycle to die out before continuing.
Junior turns around as though checking if their black jeep and driver were still in place; he had heard stories from his classmates in school, especially from those that lived around Abba, of young boys who came out to snatch people’s cars from them at gun point.
But the driver, who looks well and unharmed, flashes a smile at him and waves his hand. Junior also smiles as he returns his gaze to the church.
Asking his grandfather what had happened at the church would have been the right question, but he knows better. He has been told the story multiple times so that it stuck with him.
Junior closes his eyes and for that moment, in the landscape of his mind, he imagines everything: the air raids, the bombs raining down from the sky, people dashing out of the church in panic in a bid to take cover. At some corner, he sees two houses which had collapsed into dusty rubble and some men digging frantically through the jumbled cement, shouting, ‘Did you hear that cry? Did you hear that cry?’ And at another angle a car is roasting in yellow flames, a cloud of grey smoke curling up into the air. Then he notices the body of a woman lying next to the burning car, her clothes burnt off—flecks of pink all over her blackened skin and almost at the same time, tears start to snake down his eyes. He sees his grandmother trying to run out of the collapsing church building, screaming, just as his grandfather had put it in his story. She tries to run out like his grandfather and their daughter—his mother—and others had done but she’s unable to do so.
It had happened on a Sunday when they all gathered for mass. November 16,1967. Nobody had anticipated the air raid, even Radio Biafra did not carry the news of an impending attack; and so everyone went on with the business of the day until it came like the wind and swept away almost everything and everyone in its way.
But Junior attempts to change his grandfather’s story by creating his own version of it. He conjures up scenarios that never occurred. He sees his grandfather running back to rescue his wife, trapped in a heap of mangled metal. He sees him being able to successfully untangle her from the shards of glass and wood and metals lodged into her body before the next series of explosions shook the sky. He imagines the tree trunk that had fallen and hit his grandfather’s legs had, in fact, been propelled in a different direction, by an imaginary hand, so that it crashed against something else; at least, that way, his grandfather wouldn’t be in this wheelchair.
Yet, painfully, he knows all of these are in his head. His grandmother, whom he never knew, is long dead and isn’t coming back, not now and never.
The zooming of motorcycles and keke jolts him out of his thoughts. He wipes his teary face with the handkerchief and lowers his eyes on the book in his right hand. He seems to have, suddenly, become aware of its presence. Walking his fingers up the yellow-and-green cover of the book, he examines the texture. It feels good to his touch. He recalls the first time he saw it the day his mother brought it home and placed it on his palm, a gift for topping his class; the joy that filled his insides. It had been his one persistent request of her, this book. He had thanked and hugged her and later, in the quietness of his room, sniffed through the pages, breathing in the distinct flavouring scent that accompanied newly printed books. He remembers reading it from cover to cover, again and again, far too greedily and fast, and at some points letting the tears flow unhindered from his eyes because the turn of events was unexpected, shockingly captivating, and yet bearing a weight of so much inexplicable emotions.
Now, the book looks dirty, maybe as a result of undue handling by many hands.
‘Half of a Yellow Sun!’ the old man says, taking a cursory glance at the book in the boy’s hand. He has read the book before. He thinks the author did a nice job in trying to describe the war—such a historic event—on the pages of a book. But he believes no amount of words could ever describe the extent of the pain, or tears, or hunger experienced during and after the war; no amount of words, spoken or written, could bring back those that had died.
‘Where’s the other half of a yellow sun? Ebe ko di? Where is it?’ the old man insists.
‘Sir?’ the boy says, wearing his confusion on his face. ‘You wanna read for yourself?’
‘No! You read for me, instead.’
‘Where, Grandpa?’ The boy immediately flips through the pages, squinting his eyes as though searching for something.
Adjusting his shirt by pulling the sides the old man says, ‘Any page you think is worthy of this moment.’
After flipping through for a while, wondering what page to read from, Junior stops, clears his throat, tilts his head slightly, and raises the book placed on his palms to his chest.
Page 261, chapter 25.
He reads out loud with a near-perfect American accent. He was born in America. Ten years of his life had been sown on American soil as he had integrated with the people and imbibed their way of life. And then his mother decided, upon his father’s demise, that it was time for them to move out of America and return to Nigeria so he could be closer to home to learn more about his culture; and more importantly she needed to look after her father who had finally arrived at that door of senescence and was in dire need of an extra pair of hands to lead him on gracefully.
Olanna jumped each time she heard the thunder. She imagined another air raid, bombs rolling out of a plane and exploding in the compound before she and…
His voice trails off as the old man shushes him.
‘Did you hear that?’
Junior’s eyebrows furrow: they always do that each time he is confused or frowning. But now he is confused. ‘What is it, Grandpa?’
‘Her voice. She’s singing. My Nwakego is singing. Her voice is so beautiful.’
Junior doesn’t hear anything, yet he doesn’t disagree with his grandfather. These days the old man talked about hearing the voices of the dead, especially his Nwakego. Once, he had told his daughter about hearing her mother’s voice, but she had chided him and threatened to take him to the doctor if he didn’t stop saying such things. And then he stopped confiding in her about such matters, deciding, rather to tell his grandson who always gave him a listening ear. Junior does not think his grandfather is mad, and he tells him; he only sees him as an old man burdened with the weight of loss.
Junior smiles and says with interest, ‘What is she saying, Grandpa?’
But the old man’s forehead tightens with a seriousness that startles Junior. ‘Continue, my boy,’ he says instead.
The boy continues to read then stops again upon hearing the old man’s voice.
‘Ozugo! It’s enough! Thank you.’
He pauses before raising his voice. ‘But where’s the other half of a yellow sun? Two halves of a yellow sun are supposed to make a whole sun.’ He turns to the boy, who looks on with a flustered expression on his face. ‘Then, where’s the other half? It’s missing, obviously.’
‘My boy,’ he calls again. Junior answers. ‘Yes, Grandpa.’
‘Ge nti ofuma, listen to me very well. I have seen a lot in this my life. But one thing I know is a good woman is hard, I mean very hard to find. She’s like pure gold if you find her. Your Grandma, my Nwakego was, in addition to being so beautiful, a good woman; she was kind to all and respectful.
Junior listens with so much keenness in his eyes.
At this moment, he wishes he had brought his new diary along so he could take down notes; last week his mother had bought it for him since the old one he had was already used up, crammed with his handwriting—those big letters italicized in blue ink. He always penciled down every new word, phrase, proverb, idiom, learned and pondered thoroughly on them. So much wisdom gushing out of this old man they would become waste, he thinks. Still, he must scoop the ones that could be scooped and guard them jealously in his heart.
‘Oh, how I miss my Nwakego.’ Slowly the old man shakes his head, balanced in his right hand. Suddenly he straightens up, his head held up straight, and both hands tucked in his shirt. Now, he talks about her face and dimples, and Junior smiles as he listens. He had been told this story about his grandmother before, especially about her dimples.
His grandmother, Nwakego, was a lecturer just like his grandfather before the war. She was, according to him, a spotless chocolate-skinned beauty with a face finely shaped to give room for her pointed nose and a pair of beautiful eyes and full lips. But it was the dimples like small, shallow wells, plastered on each side of her cheeks, that he talked mostly about each time he described her visage to Junior; the war had destroyed almost everything: his house, books, pictures held in frames, anything to remember. Yet, in his heart, are the memories that lived on.
‘It was those beautiful dimples that first attracted me to her,’ the old man says with what seems to be a ‘finality’ in his tone, and Junior is taken aback.
‘My boy, what does the sun mean to you?’
The boy looks quickly at the sun gradually submerged in the horizon as the nimbus clouds strike the sky with broad brushes of gloom, perhaps the answer to the question dwells there. Still his face drops in disappointment. ‘I don’t know, Grandpa. Please, tell me now.’
The old man continues, instead of an answer, decides to bombard the boy with more questions. ‘Does the half of a yellow sun mean that our happiness has been sliced into two? If this is the case, what about the missing half? Would it ever be found?’
A woman with a baby strapped to her back interrupts shortly; she flicks a hand and mutters her greeting as she strolls past. ‘Ndewo nuo o, well-done o.’
‘Ehe, nne, ndewo!’ the old man answers. Junior’s gaze lingers momentarily at the woman’s blue blouse and worn black wrapper used to wrap the sleeping baby. She smiles at him as she walks away. For a moment there he contemplates, wonders how to say his good evening in Igbo because he usually has difficulty speaking the language although he understands it if spoken to him. So, he says instead, Ndewo ma, which sounds more like English to him.
Then the old man proceeds.
‘Is our happiness going to be complete again? What is there for the future? What hope lies ahead?’
‘Grandpa, I’m so confused here. I don’t understand.’ Junior cries. These questions sound strange to him. He had never thought of them since he had only read the book from that poignant standpoint and the need to be entertained. Not to be probed with such deep, philosophical questions.
‘Don’t be, my boy, don’t be. Agha di njo, war is a terrible thing! Tufiakwa!’ The old man snaps his fingers, shakes his head, and continues to stare in the far distance, humming a tune under his breath.
Junior looks at his grandfather briefly, amazed at his wisdom, then he turns his gaze in the same direction.
The zooming sound has died; in its place the singing of birds and chirping of crickets fill the air. Instantly, Junior feels the phone humming in his pocket and takes it out to check. Before he answers the call ends.
Five missed calls. All from his mother.
Then a message reads: Son, please call me. I have been calling your line and Grandpa’s but neither of you is answering the call. How are you and your Grandpa? It’s late already. He’s shocked that all the while, his phone has been on silence.
‘Okwa mama gi kporo? Is it your mother that called?’ the old man asks, with a voice almost a whisper.
‘Adaora!’ he mutters Junior’s mother’s name, his daughter. ‘Always worrying, like her mother.’
Junior’s lips curve in a smile as he hears his mother’s middle name slip out of the old man’s cracked lips; her name, wrapped in the old man’s thick masculine voice, comes out like a sweet sound reaching Junior’s ears. Each time the old man called the name, the boy’s ears stood at attention as though it were he not her that was being called.
Now, he wonders why each time he asks his mother to give an account of the war and how it had affected her, she always said little, holding tautly to her chest as if the words nestled in there; as if the war was a dark secret, too dark to be allowed to see the light of day.
She only told him that the war stole everything from her without really mentioning those stolen things, insisting that it was best not to remember it, to leave it where it belonged. In the past.
Still, he senses the war had affected his mother in unexplainable ways. Once he had seen her, the tears pouring from her eyes, as she watched the therapist who came around to massage the old man’s legs. In the silence of her heart, Adaora wished she could take back everything; if it were within her powers, she would give him back his legs.
As he wheels the old man to the car and the driver leaning against it, waiting, the questions keep swirling around in his mind as he wonders what they mean, what the old man thought of before throwing them at him.
Image by monicore from Pixabay (modified)