Fiction

Orji Victor Ebubechukwu: Bodied in Emptiness

Photo by Johnny Cohen on Unsplash (modified)

*In memory of Late Sir Gilbert Anazodo Orji (aka Ichie Maka Jesus!), my stainless uncle*

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It is not that it is empty of organs or tissues or cells or food, even: it is that a body becomes empty when the spirit that’d lived it disappears. Believe this, the spirit is the entirety of a body, it is the essence of a body. If in doubt, take away your spirit, if you can, and see what your body becomes.

For your information, only a few things happen to an empty body.

 

  1. It is covered in a cloth and taken to a morgue where it’s embalmed until it’s ready to be returned to Mother Earth.

There’s an empty body lying on a narrow bed in one of the private wards of St. Paul’s Hospital. A nurse is pulling up a white cloth over it. A woman with a naked face—that’s what the face of a woman wearing no makeup is called here—wet with both sweat and tears and exhaustion is being withdrawn from the ward by two other nurses. She’s refusing to leave, and the nurses are trying at their best to pull her out. Her hands are reaching forward, fingers shuddering, to grasp the now emptied body of her beloved, to yank him back into life, perhaps, or to join him wherever he’s gone to. But the nurses are banging the door to her face now that her feet touch the balcony floor.

This emptied body belongs to Onyekwere.

 

  1. It is mourned over and over by its beloved.

That is why Onyekwere’s yard is crowded with mourners from different parts of the world. Their mournful howl is what saturates the yard and the presence of sorrow babes the atmosphere. His wife Njideka, the same woman in the hospital ward, howls the most. She’s lost her voice from the loud wailing long ago, but it seems like losing it is a way of getting tenfold more of a spurious one. Her eyes are heavier than five thousand sacks of gravel, but she doesn’t feel it. She wishes for more even, to happen. Once, she runs outside the yard, the earth staggering at the impact of the pounce of her body against it, to the main road made of coal and gravel. She sits at the centre of the road which glisters of unkind sunrays so that a coming vehicle will spew her bones into the thick bushes around, for what will life mean again if her other half is gone? Gone? Like really gone?

The realisation of this weakens her so much more. It encourages her strength to dissolve into faintness so that her body remains planted on the hot tarred ground. But the women who are present, with red wet eyes too, run after her. They pick her, which is much of a struggle, and lead her back to Onyekwere’s yard.

Onyeka, their first son isn’t crying. He’s been called dimkpa, and dimkpas don’t cry when someone decides to walk past the world, no matter how dear the person must have been. It’s only a passage, one in which the person is transmuted into something else. Onyeka has the thought that Onyekwere, his father, isn’t dead, no human at all dies, to sum it, for death is a seizure from one’s own existence. Onyekwere, like every other emptied bodies, has only left his clay form, he’s something else in the new world he’s passed to. His existence is still certain, so he isn’t dead. He is very much still in being, not only in their memories, but in a world, too.

Adanne, like her mother, wails copiously. Her friends from the university are holding her down, which, you know, is a normal thing to do for a grieved person. They are repeatedly telling her to stop crying, that everything is going to be alright.

“You’re such a lucky girl, Ada,” one of her friends, Bolanle, says. “You’re lucky to have ever loved truly, for grief is a product of losing love.”

Adanne looks at Bolanle a long while, trying to put up words together for her friend, words to say a simple thank you, but she does not just seem to gather herself into doing so. She will later rethink these words and they will be the little glue for her fractured memories, they will make so much sense.

 

  1. It is adorned with beautiful songs and flowers.

They don’t mind if the body had been worn by a bad chi or a good chi, they just adorn it with songs. One of the final respects, they call it. But Onyekwere’s body wasn’t worn by a bad chi—everybody can testify to this. He was a good man. With this in mind, it has to be adorned with pure, quality songs and the finest flowers.

The choir from Upward Christian Fellowship strain their voices as they sing sad hymns from a hymnal. Their voices, in their different parts, glide into a harmonious combo. There is a special canopy for them in Onyekwere’s yard where his wake-keep happens this night. It’s not the first one, anyways, but Njideka had asked that he be adorned again with songs in the village this time. A wake-keep had been held for him in the estate in Lagos where Onyekwere had lived and died. It’d been done in a classic English style there, where everyone had appeared in a dress code and asked to walk into the decorated hall which had memories of Onyekwere spited all around in form of his framed photos in a particular manner. Here in Azia, Onyekwere’s ancestral town, it is done in the traditional style.

Canopies, like is assigned to the Upward Christian Fellowship Choir, are also assigned to several other groups. Cardboard papers bearing names of whichever group had been invited hang on each of the canopies to identify which canopy belongs to which group: Umuada, Ukposi, Mbosi, Umunna, Ndi-ogor, Balm of Gilead Ministries, Staff of the Danco Inspection Services Ltd…

Njideka is almost tranquil all through like some spirits called Solitude possesses the whole of her. She doesn’t recognise the singing choir, doesn’t recognise the preaching pastor, doesn’t recognise the faces with eyes covered in black sunshield belonging to so many people dressed in black. She’s too still to notice that they look as saddened as she is.

Soon, the pastor calls on the bereaved family of Onyekwere for some prayers. They stand in some sort of manner, like it’s a lot of work actually standing, as they walk toward the elevated pew, atop which the pastor communicates with the audience. Njideka’s children are standing beside her: Adanne on the left and Onyeka on the right. Aunty Esther, Njideka’s eldest sister, and Kpako, Onyekwere’s eldest first cousin removed, who is a ‘champion’ in the village, is behind them. The pastor prays for them, and immediately he asks that the people say “a louder Amen” and drops the microphone, the choir picks a song.

When peace like a river attendeth my way…

It is this song that reminds Njideka that she’s lost her Di, her Sunshine, her Heart, a large part of herself, Onyekwere, forever. FOREVER! She’s almost sinking her kneels into the ground as they return to their seats after the pastor’s prayers, but Onyeka and Adanne prevent her from doing so. The village women in one of the canopies send their “Chai!,” “Uwa-ya!,” “Oh!,” “Poor widow!,” mutters to her. Njideka’s mind is too busy to pay an attention, and Adanne who is attempting between keeping her sunglasses in their place (her eyes) and keeping her mother from falling is grateful her mother doesn’t hear any of that. She doesn’t behave, at least, like she’s hearing anything. Njideka relaxes on Onyeka’s arm for so long, standing there, in the centre of the compound, until she’s able to move again.

 

  1. A special Church Service is held in its behalf.

It’s a Friday. Upward Christian Fellowship, the only Pentecostal Church in the entirety of Azia, doesn’t have any church activity on a Friday, but for the sake of Onyekwere, the man who’d single-handedly sponsored the church building, the man who’d always made sure the pastor is paid hugely every month. He rests in his coffin while the pastor talks to the congregation about his goodness and kind-heartedness and of how God had used him (Onyekwere) to elevate the church.

“Onyekwere, onye ike, ozubo mmadu.” The pastor says. “Is there any of you who can testify that Onyekwere had done them bad?”

“No, Mba,” the congregation answers.

“Onyekwere, I’m sure, has gone to be with the Saviour.” The pastor says.

“Yes,” the congregation chatters.

“Praise God!” The pastor calls.

“Amen!” The people say.

“Onyekwere hadn’t died an empty man, and that is what is most important for a dying man. What do you leave behind? What can people testify to that you’d achieved when you eventually die? It is not how much wealth he’d acquired before his death that I speak of, even if it is one to speak of. It is his children that I talk about. Look at them—beautiful legacy.”

The congregation makes various reverberations to accept this testimony of the pastor, and a handful of them applaud the said Onyekwere’s achievements. Njideka needs to smile to this, to all that her husband had left, most notably the babies they’d made together, which today are a gentleman and a lady, but she doesn’t smile. It is also one of the few hours in the day she doesn’t cry. Maybe now in her head, she’s smiling.

The pastor, after his preaching, anoints the coffin and the family members of Onyekwere, beginning from Njideka.

 

  1. A funeral is bequeathed to it

That is what happens today. Funerals here are exalted ceremonies where people mourn quarterly and later fight over drinks and food like the food and drinks were the right they deserved for mourning earlier. In Onyekwere’s case, there’s an overflow of both food and drinks, so the people don’t fight so hard, even if they do fight.

“My husband is a great man—Odogwu. He deserves to be buried as one.” Njideka says during the preparation of the funeral, when they are discussing what will be and what will not be served to the people that’ll be coming to mourn with them. Deserves to be buried as one means people need not to fight for food. Deserves to be buried as one means the mourners are provided with hand-outs, too. Deserves to be buried as one means Onyekwere is laid in a coffin made of gold. Because Onyekwere was a very wealthy man, it doesn’t take a struggle to find all these through.

Before Onyekwere is laid in the ditch, gossips buzz past Njideka’s ears that someone had found a ring in one of his fingers.

“What ring?” curious, agonised Njideka asks.

“I don’t know-o. It was Ekemma that said that she heard Chizara say that to Oriaku.” Grace, the one who blows the gossip out to Njideka tells her.

“How did Chizara see it?” Njideka enquires.

“I don’t know-o.” Grace tells her.

Njideka is not one to believe what Grace tells her. Previously, ages now, the whole village had heard what Grace had said about Chief Ugwu’s wealth. “He is an occultic man,” she’d said. “Don’t you see the lion he moulded in the centre of his yard? It is that lion that vomits all the money he has. Consider that his mother died and the next year he became rich, three years later he became a chief. He must only be occultic.”

Grace had been so stupid to have leaked this piece of information to Ngozi, of all people, who, just like her, had not learned to tame her tongue. To this day, Grace blames herself for telling ‘that senseless woman’ such a thing. Ngozi had gone to inquire from Chief himself: “Grace said the lion in the centre of your compound vomits the money you have. How come you became rich when you lost your mother a year ago? Eh, nnam?”

Then soon, it spread around the village what Grace had said, and every blessed day in that year, Grace prayed that the ground widely open to swallow her, but it never did. And today she’s back to being who she is.

Knowing all these however, Njideka decides that her heart wants to know if the ring Chizara had found in her husband’s finger is there or not. She has entered the room where Onyekwere lay in his gold coffin which is now open for ndi ezi na’ulo to wish him farewell into the other land for the very last time, but she enters again. Adanne tries to stop her from entering, but she hushes her. Because Adanne cannot control her mother now, she just follows her into the room decorated with white and purple clothes, as though it is a couple’s chamber. Adanne stands beside her mother as she gawps so closely into Onyekwere’s face through the transparent barrier between the inside of the coffin and its surroundings. She doesn’t look at his finger. What her vision is captivated by is his swollen achy face.

She remembers taking off the pulses from pimples this face had sampled. She remembers kissing his cheek occasionally. She remembers the face smiling, the gap tooth that reveals with the smile. She remembers staring into those beautiful eyes of his’ on their wedding night with some sort of mixed feelings in her heart. She hadn’t been sure marrying a man she’d just been introduced to by her Aunty Mag two months before, who only told her that he needed a serious relationship not a child’s play, was a right choice. But over the years, as they continually met intimately, as she conceived and delivered of their two children, one of whom is now a civil engineer working in a big construction company in Lagos (Onyeka) and the other a final year student of Pharmacy in University of Port Harcourt (Adanne), she found her soul twining with his. She found that they had both become one, inseparable, and Onyekwere was the best thing that’d ever happened to her. She had never felt this way for any other person, and because it was a beautiful feeling, she called it love.

Thinking of Onyekwere in the past tense, as was, as had been, dissociates her own very existence.

“Mum, we have to go now.” Adanne whispers to her mother. This whisper awakens Njideka, whose face now is wet with tears, and eyes the formal red.

“They said there is a ring in his finger. What does that mean?” Njideka sobs, looking into Adanne’s eyes.

“Mom, there’s no ring. See.” Adanne says, gesturing her fingers to Onyekwere’s still body, made visible through the glass barrier covering the coffin.

“They said there is a ring.” Njideka sobs harder.

Adanne says, “There’s no ring, mom. Please, let’s go.”

But Njideka’s feet is planted. It cannot move. She wants to move, but she cannot move. She rests on the coffin, looking into the sleeping face of her husband, crying, “Why now, Onyekwere? Eh, dim? Why did you decide to leave me now?”

Adanne tries her very best to pull her mother off, but Njideka is so much mass to pull up. Aunty Esther, Njideka’s elder sister is the one who helps her up. Aunty Esther is double Njideka’s mass and height, so it’s not so hard for her to lift the woman up. Aunty Esther drags her to her room, and Adanne follows them, holding Aunty Esther’s purse made of expensive beads in her hand.

 

  1. The family members shave their hair for it.

Njideka thinks it fetish that hair be shaved clean for her dead husband, even if she’d loved him so much, sorry, still loves him madly, and that’s why by the time the umuada come with a blade to begin shaving her hair, she tells them brazenly that that custom is not for her and her family. In Lagos, she and Onyekwere had been very committed members of a Pentecostal church, The Balm of Gilead Ministries, and one of the doctrines the Church stood against was shaving one’s hair for a dead person.

“Do you know what will happen if you refuse to be shaved?” the eldest woman asks her.

“I do not want to know,” Njideka says to her.

The women don’t persuade her so much. They just suck their teeth and let her be in her mourning seat, where many of the funeral guests come to present gifts of many kinds to her. You cannot force a horse to drink, isn’t that one of the wise sayings of their fathers? Njideka thinks only briefly about the question the women had just asked her. She remembers what had happened to Christopher’s family after he’d died. She remembers that his entire family had refused to have their hair shaved because, “How would you put a fucking pair of scissors in my lock, mehn, in my natural hair? Damn your fucking traditions!” Christopher’s family had returned from Atlanta where he’d passed out after having lived for twenty-seven years there, to have him buried in his compound because his wife had seriously been warned by their relatives never to bury her husband in America. It was like purposely losing him to a foreign land, and, “Nwa Igbo adi-eh fu na ala ozo.” They’d all ended their lives too in the crash that’d had the wife of the then president of Nigeria killed too, and the villagers, when the news got to them, argued that they’d been so unfortunate because they’d disregarded tradition. Njideka now fears that this might be her own story in some sort, but then she forgets thinking about it, and just then, the thought of the ring in Onyekwere’s finger returns to her. By this time, Onyekwere is already laid in the ground. She’d, like the rest of the family members, thrown a shovelful of sand into the pit. She would have thrown her own self, too, into the ditch, but the men around did not let her do so.

Even into the night, the sound of music, both traditional and western, doesn’t cease from the compound. The gunman still ignites his earth-quivering bomb because Onyekwere was such a great man, and this is another way to have him honoured.

 

  1. A Thanksgiving service, to thank God for a successful burial of it is held.

The thanksgiving is on Sunday. The entire family blaze in white lace. Njideka will have to wear this lace for six months, and during the E-hipu akwa uju ceremony, she’ll take them off. The other family members and a few of Adanne’s stylish friends too, rock nicely patterned Ankara dresses.

For the thanksgiving, Njideka arranges for a cow and some gifts to offer to God. She also arranges a few things (even if it’s so much more than to be called a few) for the pastor. It is a beautiful thanksgiving, one that leaves Njideka thinking why giving thanks when someone is lost?

 

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Photo by Johnny Cohen on Unsplash (modified)

About the author

Orji Victor Ebubechukwu

Orji Victor Ebubechukwu lives in Nigeria, where he’s currently undergoing a Degree programme in Microbiology.

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