How can I forget to remember that you are six feet down in this red soil where these green grasses are waving merrily in the wind like a thousand tiny flags around your tombstone?
I am on my knees at your grave. I am surrounded by thunder and lightning. I am surrounded by burning red candles. I am surrounded by humming mosquitoes. I am surrounded by the hoots of owls and meows of cats. I am surrounded by everything eerie except the pink roses in my trembling hands. I don’t know the time, but I am certain it’s past midnight. Eerie midnight, Chima, but I am on my knees at your grave. What would the villagers say if they discovered that you were not actually killed by armed robbers? What will our departed Father think of us if the angels disclosed to him how you came to lie in this grave? What would Mother do if she heard the unexpected name of your murderer?
“Innocent, you and Chima are half-brothers and yet you blokes get along very well,” Miss Jane, our English teacher at Merchants of Light School, Oba, would say in her comic ‘British’ accent. Do you remember her, Chima? She is dead and buried like you, but that’s not the point. Do you recollect how she envied our well-ironed friendship? Do you recollect how the students clapped as we dribbled our opponents from Nnewi in our famous school field and scored sensational goals and danced and jumped and somersaulted?
On one occasion – our Graduation Ceremony at Merchants, perhaps – you played Romeo, and I played Juliet. How the Principal clapped afterwards! How thrilled students carried us on their shoulders and sang heroic songs round the school, their black sandals raising clouds of dust that danced to the sky. Do you remember Mallam Kamba, our gateman, saying that our friendship as brothers was perfectly crisp like a starched shirt ironed by an adroit laundryman?
Chima, oh my dear Chima, that friendship has rumpled, stumbled, crumpled. And here I am on my knees at your grave. You were my half-brother, my friend, my role model, my muse, my everything. The things we did together as a team sailed smoothly like a canoe on a calm river until we graduated from the university and you landed a job at Nwafor Orizu College of Education, Nsugbe, and I couldn’t secure any job. You were a lecturer in the Department of English, and I was an inconsequential man in Bet9ja and Nairabet centres in our hometown of Oba. I ended up in these places because I am not bright, I must concede. And you were deservedly assimilated into the academic world because you were particularly brilliant on campus. It was this, your enviable fortune, that crumbled all the perks of friendship and they rolled downhill. I am not flinging the blame at you for my indolence, ineptitude, very poor, hilarious grades, and destitution. I put the blame on myself. I put the blame on my obnoxious allies. I put the blame on Mother. For everything that went wrong.
“Innocent my son, follow me into my room,” Mother said to me, when she gleaned that you were employed in the college to lecture in the English Department.
Chima, I reluctantly exited Nairabet website, my favourite website, and followed Mother, wondering what was amiss.
Mother’s room usually fills our nostrils with the nauseating smells of olive oil and incense, but today the odour of the room is alien – it stinks of putrid beans and choking jealousy and envy. Needless to bore you describing this room because you already know that it is always littered with church bulletins and gallons of holy water and olive oil and colourful crusade banners and a gargantuan portrait of Christ. We used to kneel before this likeness of Our Saviour and wince as Mother inadvertently tormented us with her perpetual, monotonous prayers. But now I am on my knees at your grave.
As I was saying, I lumbered into Mother’s room and I lowered myself down on the creaking spring bed and enquired what the matter was.
“Innocent my son, my dearest son, do you love me?” she asked, fighting back melodramatic tears.
“Mum, please be succinct because I am in haste. My customers are waiting for me in my Nairabet shop. John…You know John, the dwarf that won 1.2 million naira? He phoned to tell me that Chelsea lost, as usual, and obliterated his coupon. Now he wants to ‘play’ Manchester United for him. The odd is over 2.5, perhaps because Wayne Rooney is back…Wow! And United is at home. Rooney will trouble the defence of…”
“Oh, Innocent, how you prattle like a year old Chinese imbecile,” Mother said, and shook her big head gloomily. “Chima your half-brother is now a lecturer and you are here in the village pontificating about betting and your bloody Wayne Looney!”
“Mummy, his name is not Looney. It is Rooney.”
Mother looked as if I had just forced her to swallow a lemon. “Who is this Wayne Loo–Rooney, a friend of yours? Run to his parents’ house this evening and tell that boy that I said he should leave my son alone or I shall arrest him with the Police or the Awkuzu SARS!”
“Mummy, how can you throw Wayne Rooney into the Police Station or into the SARS cell at Awkuzu when he is overseas? He’s an English footballer and he’s in England. A prolific Manchester United striker. Well, you can call him a midfielder, if you like. Rooney was signed from Everton when he was only seventeen. Imagine! Ikenna my sibling is now seventeen and yet he cannot chest a ball. Ikenna can’t even trap. Have you seen him play, Mother?”
“Oh God of Abraham! Look, Innocent! You are a fool! A thirty-year old fool with a long beard. A bearded fool! Don’t dare stand up! Sit down, Innocent! Are you frowning at me? Is that a frown? Oh! May God strike you and that bloody Nairabet dead and break Looney’s left and right legs, if you don’t sellotape those dark lips of yours and listen while I talk sense into your coconut skull!”
Chima, my dear brother, I wrinkled my aquiline nose in mounting irritation and resolved to let her buzz and buzz like a housefly while I pondered solemnly on the odds on the uncountable Nairabet coupons stuffed in the pockets of my beer-stained trousers.
“Innocent, my innocent?” She said, her tone low and effable.
“Do you know why Chima is employed and you are unemployed?”
I sat up, unable to cloak my curiosity. “What, mum? What, mum?”
“Your late dad married me because Chima’s mother, his first wife was nefarious. She was a horrible cook, a minx, an alcoholic and…and she was a witch. God punished her with a car accident. And your father married me. Very good!”
I was mystified, Chima. I told Mother that I couldn’t decipher where the conversation was heading; that she should stop unearthing gloomy memories of your mother, my stepmother.
“Why shouldn’t I talk about your bloody stepmother?” she shouted at me, Chima. “Don’t you know that prior to her death she consulted a native doctor who helped her lock all your spiritual doors and opened her son’s?”
I asked her who told her all this, and she said, “Pastor Elijah. After the last crusade. God is speaking through that man…Oh thank you, Jesus! My dear son, Pastor Elijah will visit us tomorrow with his prayer warriors to break all the yokes and send all the ill wishes of Chima’s mum, back to the foe, her son.”
As she said, the next day, obese Pastor Elijah and his prayer warriors invaded our house smelling of incense and olive oil and cologne and affluence. Pastor Elijah’s pointy, shiny shoes squeaking on our turquoise carpet and his funny long beard quivering in the morning breeze. My eyes were riveted on his protruding stomach as he and his warriors prayed and prayed and jumped and jumped and clapped and clapped and spoke in tongues and clapped some more and prayed some more. They bound you and tossed into the sea, Chima; they sent consuming fire to your office in the university to raze down everything. They covered me and my mother and our father and the house with the Blood of Jesus. They covered the doors with the blood of Jesus. In fact, everything was covered with the Blood of Jesus, including our TV. In the end, Pastor Elijah wiped his sweaty face with an impeccable white hanky and said to me in English: “Always pepper the enemies of progress with rambunctious prayers. Suffer not the witch to live, sayeth the Scripture. Chima and her mother bottled your bright future and buried it somewhere in this compound. We’ve burnt the charms with prayers. Praise God! But don’t eat with him. Beware of Chima, your half-brother.”
I told him that I love you, Chima; that we are great friends. I told him that we’re both Manchester United fans and therefore could not envy each other. The prayer warriors looked at me when I said this as if I was a complete idiot.
“Innocent Okoye, the Lord revealed something to me while we were praying,” Pastor Elijah went on. “He asked me to tell you this: your brother Chima will kill you and own this compound.”
Silence dropped down on the floor like a rock tossed from heaven. Chima, the man of God stated that you wanted to kill me and inherit this compound! Oh, that shocked me into histrionic actions. I leapt to my feet and I tore down the photos of you and I in a green field and I screamed with fury and thirst for blood. This man of God is renowned in Anambra State and even beyond. People buzzed that he saw visions and disclosed his revelations, and performed miracles like Jesus. No one could doubt or question the prophesies of Pastor Elijah. We all believed in him and copied his lifestyle. My hair was subsequently curly because Pastor Elijah’s was curly. Chima, the man of God warned me against you. Why did you want to take away my poor life? I often wondered. I yearned to chop off your head, Chima, before you could chop off mine. I stopped phoning you and I stopped taking your calls. I even deleted your texts unread. I declared you a foe. Then what happened next was tragic and that is why I am on my knees at your grave: you came back to Oba from Nsugbe campus and strolled round our deceased father’s bungalow with Obiageli your fiancée. She said she liked the building. She said she would take the first room. She said she would repaint the veranda. She said she would furnish the parlour with bookshelves and periwinkle flower – her favourite flower.
Your actions and her actions were suspicious, Chima; that way went Obiageli plucking my guavas; this way went you removing my odoriferous football boots from the balustre; that way went your chauffeur crushing our roses with the tyres of your Murano jeep; this way went your dogs gobbling my leftover beans. That said it all, I thought: the man of God is right; you wanted me dead and you wanted Daddy’s house. I shouted recriminations and obscenities at you for the first time in ages and asked your fiancée to get out of our compound. You stared at me, stunned and speechless. I shouted at you again. I shouted at her. Then you slapped me across the face and asked me to go to hell.
That fueled my anger, Chima. I dashed into the barn and reemerged with a cutlass. The man of God said you would kill me, so I had to kill you first. I cut you down with the machete. I cut your woman down. Her corpse was crammed into one of those Samsung TV cartons. At night, I took it to the abandoned Oba Airport and dumped it in the bush.
“What killed Chima, Innocent?” People asked me every day.
“Armed robbers” was my simple, but convincing answer.
I would not venture to describe your funeral, Chima, because perhaps the ghosts of the dead attend their funerals. Did you see how I cried and shuddered and the women rolled on the leaf-strewn ground like balls and cried and cried, refusing to be consoled? Didn’t you see how people prattled about Mother’s indifference to your demise? Didn’t you observe that the officiating priest, Reverend Ifenna Okeke, talked about the futility of life, about materialism, about armed robbery, about corruption? He said, “All is vanity. What shall it profit the armed robbers who stole Chima’s money and sliced him to death? What shall it profit me to gain all the money in the Church and lose my soul?”
Then Reverend Ifenna shook his head and told your mourners, Chima, that the man of God, Pastor Elijah, was now on a cross-country run for allegedly burying a human head in his Church. That was when I realized that I had made a mistake, a grave mistake. And that is why I am on my knees at your grave. Please forgive me, Chima. The candles are melting quickly. The moon is brightening. The owls have ceased hooting. The mosquitoes have stopped humming. Even the soft rain and the lightening have stopped. But my tears haven’t – they flow in torrents.
Chima, I’ll remain on my knees at your grave crying, pleading, until your ghost appears with a smile and asks me to rise.