His mother was on the phone again, for the fifth time that day since John began counting. She received the calls at several places in the house but she always came to the sitting room to speak. Ironically, speaking she did not do. She only folded one arm across her chest, or hung it on the peeling black burglary proof, the other hand placing the phone firmly in her ear. John always listened, tried to know exactly what it was these people were saying. It was about his brother, most definitely. His mother dropped her arms during the call, nodded gently, shook. Then she cried. The house was silent; too silent. It was Thursday evening, and Chi should be playing with his friend, Michael, not lying in a mortuary. His mother dropped her hand from her ear and held unto her phone loosely, then she screamed- a high pitched scream. Truthfully, John didn’t see why she should scream- he was the only one in the room. He found it hard that his mother could truly grieve for his brother; he repudiated the idea of it, and so her ululation vexed him. He went into his room, but even that did not help.
His mother had called him four days ago to inform him of Chi’s death. Not really. The first time she called, she said she’d just wanted to know how he was doing. He said he was fine. She called again, a few seconds after, and asked why he didn’t ask of his brothers. Before he answered, she cut the call, her voice quavering. When she called again, he asked her if there was anything wrong and she said Chi had a leg infection and he needed to return soon. She still hadn’t told him that his brother was dead but she made allusions to it. One didn’t need to be smart to surmise what was unsaid. He was right; Chi had died of a leg infection. And now, he found it hard to believe his mother didn’t want all of them gone. She’d said it herself a few weeks back that they were a mistake and that they’d ruined her life. How long did it take for the leg to get infected? For how long had his mother left the wound untreated?
John, almost incapable of disliking anyone now found himself increasingly hating his mother. He didn’t want to think this, to blame it on this: her bisexuality; but he found it hard not to paint her as guilty.
She came into his room, used her wrapper to clean her eyes.
“That was your father.” She said. Her voice broke, sweat formed lines around her neck and chest; beads on her forehead. Her eyes were pink from the crying- or of squeezing her eyes shut too tight, John thought. “He said they have agree for your brother to be buried next weekend.” He noted her blunder. She sat down on a black traveling box. “He wanted to speak to you but I told him you were still in shock.”
“Why am I here?” John asked his mother, and then repeated the question loudly, this time to himself. He told himself it was because he thought that was what Chi would have wanted, but even in his worst delusions, he knew that was a lie. The reason for his staying here was bigger than Chi, bigger than his hate for his mother; a love for her, perhaps? A fear of losing her too?
“John… I don’t- Look, I’m trying hard to keep myself together, to be able to speak to you now and I don’t need us opening old wounds again. Your father and I are not in the best position to bury anybody and we’re thinking about money. Last week, I went to the leader of the women’s contribution for a loan and she said she will need to think about some things and then call me on Sunday. Sunday! That means I have to keep worrying till Sunday.”
“How is that my problem?” John sounded strangely like Winner, his other brother.
“I can see you’re still sad. When you’re okay we will talk.”
“I am never going to talk to you. This is all your fault- you always pressured him-”
“How does pressure create a leg wound?” His mother stood and began crying. John turned his face. “It is his stupid somersaults and backflits that I warned him to stop that did this. Don’t put the blame on me, John.”
He knew she had told him that after the injury. He bit his lip, shut his eyes tight and laid on the bed.
He woke up with clamminess in his mouth and ardor in his heart. For the first time in four days, John had smiled. He had dreamt of Chi. He couldn’t remember what it was he had dreamt about that but it made him gay for a while then he became awash with an even greater sadness: that he may never have the dream again.
It was dark all around him and he wished, prayed- whatever it was he did- that Chi’s ghost would appear to him then. Only me, John thought. Only me. But no one appeared and he smiled a frustrated smile.
He heard voices from the sitting room and wondered if they had visitors. They almost always had visitors these days; people from his mother’s school to her church to Chi’s classmates’ parents to neighbors who had never uttered a word to their family besides welcome and good day- and some nothing at all. They were all sad in that sympathetic thank God it’s not me way because they couldn’t imagine losing any of their children and they couldn’t imagine also, how one must feel to lose a child. The idea of it choked them; John faced the reality. And it made him mad.
They came alone, each one- John thought- somewhat more histrionic than the last. He didn’t doubt the genuineness of their sympathy, but the extent of it; the amiable way they spoke, how perfectly they cried, how easily they told his mother to “take care”, to “not be sad”, to “trust in God”. One such visitor, Mr Bankole from three houses away, a short middle aged man had fatuously asked that his mother marry him after the burial; it was a blessing in disguise from God, he’d argued. She was beautiful, he’d added, and he had an eight year old son (Chi was ten) and a lot of money, they could work. His mother had smiled and said she’d think about it. The man had left smiling.
That was why John did not trust her; part of it anyways. How could someone so grievous smilingly say a thing like that, make a promise like that? It scattered his thoughts, disarranged his mind. Five times in four days, he thought he’d lost acuity. He became abstemious; he cut his afro very low; he wouldn’t watch TV; he cried to sleep. And most of all, he wished he could die too.
There was something about the village, like a pacifying spirit hovering about. It was Wednesday and since Sunday, John had made it a habit to sit under a large mango tree that stopped bearing fruit a long time ago. The village brought about an ease in him that almost translated to nonchalance: he left water boiling on the stove till the kettle was dry and he filled it again. It was a conscious ease, a sad ease. A loneliness.
He had not wanted to make a friend, although almost everyone he saw looked like good friend material. Again, he felt out of place. The boys here, like Chi and his friend, Michael, occupied a space he couldn’t exist in, partly because he didn’t want to; he felt he’d ruin things, and partly because he felt they didn’t need him. So he just sits under the mango tree and watches. The days are repetitive and he has purposely lost track of what day it is, although he believes if he sits down to think about it, he’d remember.
His mother had become more and more cheerful. Every day, several women poured into the house to see her, and offer, with their condolences, money. When the umuada had given her fifty thousand naira, she’d told him she’d changed her mind and would continue attending their church in Lagos although the head of the women’s contribution had not given her the loan. He smiled and told her it was a good thing that she changed her mind.
His father, however, did not have the gratefulness of his mother, or his ease to just watch things as they passed by. He was always in his room, reading his bible. Whenever John entered- he never knocked, and his father always forgot to lock the door- he would quickly close his bible and say he was preparing for his burial sermon. There would be no demonic music and dancing at my son’s burial. John saw in his father, a pastor with no church, an overbearing guilt. It was good-everything was good- that his father blamed himself- it made him pray more fervently.
The days rolled and John knew it was Friday because he saw a large tray filled with puff-puff dough for the family meeting that night, and he ran to his room. However he tried, he could not bring himself to tears. It had been so easy days before; why was it so hard now? His heart ached, squeezed like a hand was in his body, crushing it. He took air in calculated gaps, afraid of taking too much. He had hoped on his friendship with Chi as a means of re-uniting his divided family. Winner, as always, cared not about anything; his mother and father were not divorced but didn’t live together; his mother was something he didn’t want to remember. All these things: a desire for the perfect family, his ardor for Chi, and the realization that nothing he ever wanted went well, all these things were what squeezed his heart. For the first time, lying on his bed, his throat and eyes dry, he feared he might die of a heart attack. For the first time since Chi died, he realized he didn’t want to die.
John woke up from his bed the way he had laid on it the night before. There had been no dream, but thankfully, his heart was free. It was without alacrity that he got out of bed and prayed. An ardent Christian, John found it appalling that he didn’t want to pray. He tried though. It began as a formal prayer, then a more intimate one but they both felt empty, like he was speaking not even to himself but to the air. He decided to read his bible but he found he read ten or so verses without knowing what they spoke of and then he would go back and start again. At the end, he said, “Father, thank you for today.” And he left his room.
Outside, the loss of ability to pray morphed into a sort of agnosia. People’s faces were blurry, indistinct. Four shirtless men were setting up a canopy in front of the compound. He could see one of them sagging, and wondered what his father thought of them. From behind him, he could perceive the strong aroma of nearly done jollof rice and recalled he had not eaten since the night before.
“John,” his father called. He blinked, shook his head. “Why don’t you help them?”
He could feel their eyes on him. He wondered what they said about him. He had not spoken to any of his relations since he arrived, hadn’t greeted elderly people that passed him under the mango tree. He was disrespectful they’d say, spoilt weak. No they shouldn’t- couldn’t- call him weak. The blur came again, and he sat on one of the steps.
The church service felt dour and empty. John had managed to go out in a suit; Winner had chosen a more flippant top and trouser and throughout the service, as the pastor said what he said, and the people sang what they sang, John checked Winner’s face for a sign of sadness but none showed. Perhaps John didn’t remember the service because he didn’t want to. Early on, before the pews were filled, before his mother had made that shrill cry on entering the church, he had seen the back of a boy, the same height with chi, and he had gone, in a dazed, optimistic manner, to see if it could be Chi. It was not, and the amount of disappointment he felt surprised him because it meant he still had hope but sadly, hope was not faith. The young boy had smiled at him and greeted him and when he left to meet his family, he left John feeling his most poignant.
After what seemed like an eternity, the church service ended and everyone rushed out of the church. It appalled him that people would dress so happily and so nicely to a burial; he entertained no recollections of his doing so. Watching them, all he wanted- whether they sympathized with him or not- was to remove the mirth that enveloped them and replace it with grief and pensiveness. Sadly, this is not a thing he could do. He remembered (this memory evaded his evasions) how he used to look forward to burials because people always sprayed money on cute children dancing, or cute teenagers not thinking highly of themselves. Before he entered the white church bus he had come in, he decided there would be no dancing. No one was getting happy at Chi’s burial.
They were already, to his dismay. All the rice had been cooked and everyone- a lot of people- that had not attended the church service were already eating. John saw, refused to think about it and went into his room. It wasn’t long before Winner came in. For a while, they said nothing to each other, removing their clothes and shoes and lying in bed watching a movie on John’s laptop. Winner paused it and John tensed. He never liked anyone pausing what they were watching; it made him feel what they were going to say was undoubtedly dreadful.
Winner put his hands in his green and yellow floral boxers and scratched unabashedly, then asked, “So what are you feeling about Chi?”
John looked at him incredulously, and then realized it was Winner, after all, that he was talking to. “How do you expect me to feel? I’m sad. Terribly sad.” John had always been vocal about his feelings, even though at eighteen, he was supposed to have absorbed all the teachings on the art of being “manly”.
“I’m not that sad. You won’t be if you see it the way I see it.” John knew this was an invitation. He accepted, because Winner never gave out invitations like these, never opened up. Winner was the true, no, stereotypical, male
“How do you see it?”
Winner removed his hands from his boxers and sat up. “Well, Chi might have gone on to be a terrorist, or an evil president, or someone in his generation could have started a third world war.” He lowered his voice. “Or he could be gay.”
John felt anger rise, but smiled. Let go, he thought, don’t be mad. “That is a sad way to look at life.”
“It’s the only happy way to look at death.” John stared at him, and thought that for the first time, he was seeing the vulnerability in Winner he always knew was there, until Winner said, “It’s like those gay people from last two weeks in Orlando. The world is better with fifty less faggots and God knows. Who knows if they’d have come to corrupt Nigerian youth.”
The details of what had happened, and how it had happened, are now vague to John, but he had pushed Winner to the ground then, and punched him intermittently until Winner rolled him over and stood. John wasn’t fighting for these gay men he did not know, or the nonchalant way Winner addressed Chi’s death; he was fighting what Winner stood for. This was a fight he had only restricted for so long. John stood and pushed him to the door. He had never fought before. “No one,” he said, leaving Winner and panting, “no matter how strongly you hate, no matter how ardently you believe homosexuals are evil, should ever say a thing like that about their dead brother. Don’t be sad, think what you want. Fuck you.”
It’s his first time using the f word too.
He hears Winner mutter faggot but he’s too exhausted to say anything. The punches came surprisingly- one to the back of his head and the other to his stomach. He heard the door open and slam shut. Then, in the pain, he felt déjà vu, and then dismissed it. He had dreamt, after all, and in his dream was Chi, dressed in white and effulgent and smiling, on bright clouds, a wooden door behind him. He waved his hand and entered the door, still smiling. John rushed out of the room, his stomach in pain, to find Winner. He found him in front of one of the many yellow walled bungalows that filled the compound.
“Chi is in heaven.” He said. “I saw him! I dreamt it.” He didn’t care if they had just finished fighting, seeing Chi gave him joy.
“Good for you.”
“Okay. See you later.”
Despite Winner’s cavalier attitude, John determined he would enjoy the arduous burial. Chi was in heaven and that was what mattered. Now he could live with himself.
The burial proved not to be as dour as the church service. John even sprayed money- ten naira notes- on some children. At the end of the day, he recalled all his memories of Chi, and despite knowing (he knew, with certainty) that Chi was in heaven, he yearned for their moments again. Perhaps that was the joy of heaven, of eternity: it was a time so vast the past becomes more and more compressed into nothingness. Plus, John believed if he asked God, he could be making multiple trips across time.
They returned to Lagos on Monday, and John would be returning to the university that weekend. It was the first time he was feeling truly happy- without forcing it. Michael came the day after looking solemn. John wondered if he had wanted to come for the burial and asked him but he said “No.” “Lie go where?” John asked; it had been Chi and Michael’s favorite expression. “It is now defunct.” Michael replied in his smart ass way. “I turned eleven last week Friday and he wanted to-” He shut his eyes tight and began to cry. John told him he had seen Chi in heaven but Michael did not stop crying. John held him there for a long time.
When Michael left, John apologized to Winner. “I’m sorry,” he said. “But the flagrant way these men were killed, it’s not acceptable.”
“I know.” John thought Winner looked alack since the burial.
“Then why did you say what you said?”
“I told you, it’s the only happy-“
“No. What you said about- don’t worry. I don’t know why I flipped out about that; it’s not like it’s my business but it was horrible and Chi…”
“I am sorry.”
Feeling lucky, John went to his parents to see if they would now begin living together. He could not avoid thinking his father was going to be a replacement for Chi. He met only his mother.
“Good evening.’ He said.
“Good evening.” His mother answered, backing him.
“I forgot to tell you in Nnewi but I saw Chi’s body; I dreamt of him in heaven.”
“Yes. Seriously, he was smiling and happy.”
“Yes. Where’s daddy?”
She turned and he saw she had been crying. “I lied, John. It wasn’t the infection… I found a note, and some… Chi had killed himself.”
John sat slowly on the bed. “He… He…”
“John he said we forced him to.”
“You forced him!” Anger came more naturally now that the jar had been broken with Winner. “Don’t say we.’ His head felt heavy, his eyes tingling.
“It was rat poison. No blood. Died before he woke up.” His mother sounded like she was delivering news on the television.
The tears came spilling. “How can you say this? Doesn’t it terrify you and”- he tried to stand, and failed- “my dream- he can’t be in heaven if he committed suicide. He’s in-” The hand came again, squeezing, pressing, juicing.
“No, John. I was afraid. I wanted to be seen as a good mother. With the infection, I was an incompetent one. With the suicide, I would be seen as evil.”
“Where’s the note?” John managed to say. “I want to see what he said.”
“I can’t, and I’m sorry.” She was crying in that cloying way again. John stood, knocked the table that contained all her creams and perfumes and jewelry over. He opened her bags, poured out the contents. He rummaged the room but found nothing.
“Where is it?” He screamed. He began moving towards her. He was going to strip her if he needed to.
“John!” it was Winner, then Chi. The hand stopped squeezing. “Let go, John, forget about it all, there’s no point. Let go, let go.” He felt his heart was now limp, beating too softly. His head was hot and stretched taut, his eyes closing. A sharp pain lacerated his heart but he didn’t shout. He was letting go.