Fiction

The Final Song: A Short Story by Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema

Image: Bigstock.com remixed

Image: Bigstock.com remixed

They say music has power, enormous power. As a professional I wholeheartedly subscribed to that view; even taught it to my students in class and could easily cite the Biblical story of how David’s harp-induced rhapsodies calmed King Saul’s demented mind.

But the day I experienced, actually saw the power of music in full-fledged, one-hundred karat, unalloyed action, dear God! Just recollecting the whole episode gives me the jitters.

I better start from the beginning so that this stranger-than-fiction but blood-chillingly real account will make sense.

Tania Bassey (nee Odogwu) and I are close friends. Scratch that, please: the bond between us is closer than that of soul sisters. Perhaps only the friendship between David and Jonathan rivaled ours. The funny thing is: we set our eyes on each other for the first time as freshmen – oops, freshwomen – at the Abraka campus of Delta State University during registration formalities. I was studying for a B.A. in Music while Tania’s major was English Language and Literature. I briefly kept her position in the queue while she went to wee-wee. Not an easy task in the face of impatient guys and girls bent on barging into the Registration Office, even if it meant jumping the queue. Tania and I were among the first twenty.

Our friendship took off like a rollercoaster and never stopped. We have a lot in common. Like Tania, I have both Igbo and Yoruba backgrounds in my family and can speak both languages fluently. We are both Catholics, though of a liberal disposition. We are moderately tall and well endowed in all aspects of the feminine anatomy that qualify a woman to be adjudged beautiful. Frankly, I used to wonder how people concluded both of us were beautiful whenever we stepped out together. Candidly, I rated myself merely attractive or at most, pretty, beside Tania whose comeliness was just outstanding. You will think I would be envious of her flawless complexion; her arrogantly firm breasts; her sky-bright smile; her well-sculpted fanny, and her dangerously sexy legs. Not with Tania. She radiates such humor and earthiness which makes it silly to think such crap about her.

We shared digs off campus till we graduated. We shared a lot of stuff without the kind of hassle common to girls. We even shared a few boyfriends and ate the sweet apple with the same guy, the hunkiest hunk in the Arts Faculty. Thanks be to the ancestors, it was just a one-night stand. That adventure made me rather nervous but Tania’s remarkable sang froid over the episode helped me get over it.

Tania’s unadulterated love and knowledge of music always amazed me. One evening, in our third year, I told her:

“Girl, you are in the wrong department.”

“Why?” Her perfectly formed eyebrows arched mischievously as she continued to flip through the pages of Peter Abraham’s Tell Freedom, a novel she must have read at least fifty times.

“Come on, my dear, your knowledge of music is simply wow. Eziokwu, you will pull off a first-class if you were in our department. And to think you did not study Music at secondary school. Where did you get such a musical soul?”

“From the bedroom.” Tania can be so wacky at times. When we finally got a grip on our laughter she took my right hand. Her face became serene as she spoke softly, almost reflectively.

“Nneka, it’s a long, long story and I have never told it outside family circles.”

I took a deep breath and sat closer, sensing a soul-binding confession.

“When I was in JSS 2, Dad’s only sister, Janice, fell seriously ill. It was clear she was going to die. It was the first time in my life I saw Dad cry. He loved his sister so; all of us loved her. Maybe the bond was so strong because we were the only family she had. Her husband died in a car accident just two months after their wedding and she never remarried.  Heard he was the only guy who could convince her to give up her almost achieved dream of becoming a Reverend Sister. Her congregation would not take her back now she was a childless widow.

“Well, Aunt Janice was just a borderline away from death and it was up to the Almighty to decide. That day, oh God, Dad could not take it. He had exhausted all the prayers, all the tears, all the appeals. He simply knelt beside Janice’s bed and…” A lump caught in her throat. Tears brightened her eyes at the memory. My heart lurched. I bit my lips to hold back my own tears. Tania took a deep breath and continued.

“He just started singing. Dad should have taken to Music instead of Accounting. As you know, he is the choir director in our home parish at Asaba.”

“What was he singing?” I almost whispered.

“‘Pass me not, o gentle savior. Hear my humble cry.’ When he got to the line where he sang ‘Saviour; Saviour; Saviour, hear my humble cry,’ you could feel the brokenness; the total surrender. It was as if he was before the heavenly court begging for Janice’s life. All of us present froze. Instinctively I knew this was it. God just had to hear this man.”

My curiosity got the better of my good manners.

“What happened?”

“Janice opened her eyes. The first time since she went into a coma two weeks ago. She gasped. Dad lay flat on the floor and continued singing till the doctors freed Auntie from the oxygen apparatus. As I speak to you, Auntie is alive and well.”

She paused to wipe her tears.

“So you can see how and where I got my musical soul,” she concluded with her usual impish smile.

I just sat there, staring at her. For the first time in my life I realized that I was unfit to untie Tania’s sandal straps, musically. Never mind I got an A1 in Music in my School Certificate; never mind my CGPA indicated that I was on my way to a solid Second Class Upper; never mind I thought I loved Music. Who was I to speak, a naïve theorist who lived on trumpet and saxophone?

Tania seemed to read my mind.  She waved her fingers in front of my face.

“Come back to earth, you pretty serpent.” She loved calling me Nneka the Pretty Serpent after a character in an old-time Nollywood film.

“Na you be serpent, were,” I replied with a grin.

“That’s better. Now let us check out the kitchen.”

***********

Life and our friendship rolled on. We graduated. Tania got a first-class and was retained as a graduate assistant. Although I pulled off a ‘2’1 as expected I was not the best student in my class. That did not bother me; I was glad with my grade and the fact that I ranked sixth out of my set’s top ten.

Youth service separated us. I was posted to the Army Secondary School in Jos while Tania went to Lagos. For a while she dabbled in modeling and even got a contract. I joined a pop group in Jos as a back-up singer. We shot a few videos but eventually Tania and I found our real passions. Tania knew she was born to be an academic in spite of her knockout figure. As for me, show biz was not as alluring as teaching youngsters sol-fa notes.

Guys gave us sweet hell. James Bassey, a lawyer, forgot his turn to go to the offertory the first time he saw Tania at the Holy Cross Cathedral. Henry Louis, a guy whose voice resembled a frog’s croak, joined my church choir the day he saw me teaching his cousin and other kids Efik tunes in preparation for the children’s harvest funfair.

We noticed both men. We loved them. We married them. Tania’s wedding took place two months before service ended. Mine was six months later. Our husbands soon became great pals. James whose chambers were in Lagos could not get his hands off Tania. Since he would rather die than kill his wife’s dreams he enrolled her in a doctorate degree programme at the University of Lagos. The University snapped her up after she beat other applicants hands and feet down in a rigorous test conducted for potential graduate assistants.

Henry and I lived in Jos for a couple of years before his company transferred him to Lagos. I got a job as a Music and Drama teacher at Sherwood Academy, Lekki.

Six months later the rollercoaster hit an express train and the world burst apart like a punctured balloon.

Tania came home from lectures one afternoon. As she opened her refrigerator for a bottle of water her head seemed to split into two. The pain did not even allow her scream. She collapsed in a sofa and was dead before her maid could rush to her aid.

***********

“Tell me how am I supposed to live without you?”

Michael Bolton’s song kept ringing in my head right from the moment I learnt about Tania’s death. Amazingly, in their grief and pain, James and Henry first thought about me. Many of our loved ones initially worried about me.

But I did not go gaga as expected.  Apart from the first screams, once it dawned on me that Tania was dead, I became like a bomb that was defused at the last moment. I do not remember exactly when I took to repeatedly playing Bolton’s classic. Henry who had wooed me with the song got sick of it but once he saw the deluge pouring from my eyes he could not summon the heart to destroy the CD.

As the funeral drew near I realized I could not go on. I knew in my heart that my death was only a matter of time once Tania’s coffin was lowered. No counselling; no prayer warriors; no doctors; no psychologists or babalawos could change that.

A couple of days before the funeral I had a few minutes to myself in the chapel at St. Dominic’s Catholic Church, Yaba. I had taken to going there since my world stopped turning.

“What can I do?” I wailed unashamedly, staring accusingly at the face of Jesus Christ engraved on the wall. Not even my mother’s death during the service year had rocked me like this. Tania’s father had also gone the way of all flesh within the same period. But all that pale now as my entire being rejected life without Tania.

“Lord, I can’t be any good to anyone like this! Help me or kill me!” Totally bereft, completely ignoring other chapel users, I keened. Other worshippers looked at me pitifully.  I was displaying that kind of pathos that can move mountains.

Suddenly, as if from a heavenly balm, Tania’s melodious voice filled my heart:

Pass me not, o gentle savior

Hear my humble cry

While on others Thou are calling

Do not pass me by.

At once I knew what I had to do. I smiled at Christ’s face and left the chapel.

***********

The voice only I could hear told me to wait until it was my turn to make a short speech before the coffin was lowered. That aspect of the funeral programme was exclusively mine. I obeyed, hard though it was.

Now I stood before the beautiful mahogany coffin, staring at an enlarged photograph of Tania looking resplendent in a red and black dress with matching shoes. I had the same attire.

“Please open the coffin.” My voice was calm, my bearing authoritative.

Faces looked askance at each other. Pa Shokoya Odogwu, the head of the Odogwu family and Chief Sam Bassey, Tania’s father-in-law, looked at me understandingly. The patriarchs sensed my desire that my soul sister hear me for the last time. They nodded and the casket was opened. Tania looked so alive in a simple but elegant blue dress. She seemed sweetly asleep.

I took the microphone. At once hot hands of fear, doubt and an awful realization of what I was about to do seized my throat. A film of tears blinded me.

Everyone thought grief had overwhelmed me. Henry was already on his feet to shepherd me away but I shook my head. With an effort I began to speak.

“Tania, my sister, wherever you are now, hear this final song from me.”

You could hear the silence that followed. I began to sing. My voice was no longer my own. I lost all sense of mortality. I was in a realm nobody, not even me, could see. Till I die I will never again be capable of such a performance. Even as heavy tears fell from my eyes, even as I fell to my knees, my voice kept ringing out clearly, crisply, flawlessly. Like that of an angelic choirmaster.

“…DO NOT PASS ME BY!” My face sank to the ground as I came to the end of the song.

For a second I heard absolutely nothing except my sobs. Then a formidable roar forced me to raise my head.

Tania sat up, sneezing out the special wool plugged into her nose as part of the preparation of her corpse at the mortuary. She opened her eyes, astonished as confusion came in person among the mourners.

***********

I never sang again. In fact I quit music and everything associated with it.

Tania is beside me as I write this. We now fear music and its powers even in the celestial realms.

THE END

***********

(This story is dedicated to Kemi and Danlami, the best Music teachers I ever met).

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Image: Bigstock.com remixed

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