Briskly, filled with the kind of onrush that was neither completely intuitive nor learned, Obakpolor dashed for the cup of water, flinging the gamepad on the ground. Thirty-five thousand naira, flung on the ground, by a hopeless, bourgeois member of society!
He felt the sprain in his left, last toe—even that seemed ominous. The mysterious oddity of how he had heard grandpa’s voice—a voice now fibred with scarcely a filament but frailty and faintness—while playing a PS game, how the call had cracked his enrapture with the startle of a needle heated red, the uncanny firmness of the frailty adding mood to language, language to awakening, and awakening to impulse. They were like steel strands of different strengths clumping together, latching onto him, and pulling.
“O…ba…kpo…lor…wa…ter,” came the call. Each staccato release, fitted around his soul as a tightening noose and a clue to the pull.
Obakpolor’s grandpa had moved into their residence at his daughter’s discretion; she came home after one Sunday mass saying, “Parents were made to enjoy their children o! My case will not be different in Jesus’ name.” Everyone had either peeked into, or, directly x-rayed Francis’ face for an expression. And they all got one—readable frowns that wondered who was going to oppose her if she simply asked, “My husband, can I bring my father home?” But grandpa moved in, and when he did, he came in with all the tangible substances of his daily pleasures—the most reverential being his cooling gourd for water, and because Obakpolor had read of, but never seen one, the instinct to label grandpa anti-twentieth-century smothered. Such were the things that made Esanland preciously mobile to him.
Aching, he kept his foot afloat the air, rocking his toes up-down, listening, feeling. Telling, if he could, the layers of pain, one from the other. He tried to peel the fear of loss away and met the fear of fears-coming-true-due-to-worry. He peeled that off, met with the form of self-pity one lived with only because the limit of self-salvation had been reached, and…
A layer unnameable, with a choking smell of void, an unexpected appearance of unwanted finality, filled his soul. Then he lost the strength to unearth himself any further, unprepared to forswear what the unnameable demanded.
He heard tiny whispers that felt true, how there had been passages of latent words to every moment. Beckoning roars, forced into quasi-subhuman quietude by their persistence with mild compassion.
Had he, they, been mildly compassionate with grandpa? No!
He made the water gush into the mug, afraid his palms clasping the gourd’s throat might crumble it in fear, mix a once potable drink with too much gourd and a brief gust of blood. He wondered if such a potion offered to a desperate call would be forgiven, accepted, and even cherished as an invention of physical pleasure.
But life would often feed you ghosts for no immediate cause; he sped into the bedroom, and almost as frustrated as he was joyful, met a benign grandpa without troubles!
All his rearing fears sunken, he dared to breathe the breath of hope. This is how you know the combustion of hope is complete: The air goes into your lungs as peace and comes out as fulfilment, he had read it somewhere in a West African Poetry Anthology. “Grandpa, are you okay? I heard you ask for water.” He had expected him to leap and latch and lap the whole cup.
Instead, the old man sat up with aged difficulty, eyes alit with the grandeur of an ocean wherein you neither knew if you were lost in its colour or depth! He smirked and said, “What matters is that you heard your name. You heard it before you heard water, abi?”
A long time ago, Obakpolor would have abstractedly nodded in reply, like someone listening to an impervious oracle freeing himself from a monologue of God. Now, he had the sensibility to simply say, “Yes” and attempt matching the drama of a nonagenarian’s wizened lips—twitching in near-periodic rhythm—with the febrile stance of his own score-old pout.
“It was the name of my spirit I heard, not the name of my body.”
Grandpa’s smirk matured into a full smile. “Sobo. Sobo.” He raised his palm up and Obakpolor completed his request for a high-five. A warm interface with a cocooned tremor in the one, and an innocent, naked tickle in the other, they applied themselves to a brief wait for whom it was to first part. And the younger it was; he was less familiar with covert placation and wordless soliciting.
The old man took forever to drop his suspended, lone palm upon the other—lying supine on his lap—knitting them afterwards. He felt a tenacious, thinness at the hinge he had formed between both palms, like the meeting point of a clam’s valves. Obakpolor’s gaze followed his fingers, the careful knitting, and redirecting his gaze with such an importuning spirit he seemed to have bored right into grandpa’s bare soul, he held a look that cried, “Speak about it!” Grandpa swung his head away, fleeing, unspeaking, except that he was not clamming anything he completely understood. He squeezed his palms, keeping whatever precious, little thing had found its way there.
“Is your mother back from work?”
Obakpolor shook his head pensively. “We still have some kolanuts in the kitchen, unless of course you want freshly bought ones.”
“Get me one.” Grandpa watched him exit and tried not to laugh at what he thought an attempt to hide fear: Obakpolor’s first-time failure, or refusal, to steal a glance of the expression on his grandpa’s face before leaving the room. And when he returned, grandpa inspected the kolanut in a way that would pass for smooching. “Perfect. You brought one with just two lobes. Perfect.” Splitting it, he needed not offer before Obakpolor took a portion and made it his. Snatching it like a child who desperately wanted his parent to either giggle or ask, “Who asked you to take it?”
Silence with the tenor of a 6:15a.m before daylight.
Then they became focused bodies, contemplating the wonder of hearing, aloud, the echoes of another’s pulse. Although it was grandpa who audibly proclaimed that the contemplation was possible, saying, “Why are you worried?”
“I don’t know.” Obakpolor shrugged looking away. “I just think I would prefer it if we talked about your things. About the things that bring life into your eyes, igbabonelimin.” He paused, observing that the name of the dance had affected his moods—geared towards reawakening pleasurable memories from his youth.
“How you felt like a god the day you gave my mother out in marriage, how you watched her dance as if marriage was freeing her from something.”
At first grandpa resisted it, the laughter welling up from his belly, but it refused to stay unheard. “My goodness, you remember that story!” His eyes squeezed, revealing the purity of his delight, and Obakpolor felt successful. “She was just dancing as if the something was me. As if she wouldn’t miss her parents and siblings. Your mother is just…”
“A big, big, wonder.” Obakpolor helped him out. Lending his warmth to their screeching laughter.
Season silence with the purity of emotions and it would speak better.
Then they became focused eyes. Obakpolor’s knees were to his grandpa’s gaze as his wrinkled forehead was to Obakpolor—creases of detailed prayers. Grandpa tried to probe for recent ones, “Did you tell Him anything about me last night?”
When Obakpolor frowned, he re-said a “Him” of thick timbre, so that the young man knew who owned the address. With an unfeigned casualness he owned up, took away the colour one obtains by tending hope in the face of unwanted realities, petering out and re-blossoming, every now and then. “I didn’t.” It came out soft, fleecy, two melded words.
“You don’t have to sound sad about it. Some of the times we forget to pray, it is really God telling us that there is nothing more to say. Saying, ‘Be quiet and still.”
“I am still.”
Grandpa shrugged—a watery form of belief. “I would drink the water now, since I have had the kolanut.” He did not stretch his arms to receive it so that Obakpolor felt honoured; he even knelt down to do the service.
Then the door flung open. It was Omomene, Obakpolor’s mother. Her smile said, “Hurray” and her batting eyes said “Don’t I look gorgeous!” Why, she looked more artful than beautiful today wearing her million-dollar-braids, a hairdo so called a million for its attractively copious twists and strands. And because she deemed it necessary to make the new hairdo even more ostentatious, she swept successive lots over her shoulders, traipsed towards the two males, genuflecting in greeting to her father. Of course, making sure some braids splayed on his lap.
“Dijé abe.” Her head was completely abased on his lap. Grandpa tapped her shoulders saying, “God bless you my daughter.” And parents know so much, they really do, for the old man added “The hair is fine!!!”
Masking his countenance of judgement, Obakpolor shrank at seeing how unfailing her jovialness remained upon seeing him bend on one knee, giving grandpa a drink. Is he alright? Why are you helping him? Questions like that were apt for the moment. Instead, for the first time in forever, she exuded that glow which, to a seeing describer, was a band of reverence, delight and satisfaction. As if, such a sight, summed up her life’s purpose!
“Abeg, my daughter prepare me ogbono soup. Na wetin dey hungry me.” Grandpa said, and it was needless to add, “With pounded yam.” The Esan people have a saying: If a man, grown bald from hairs too grey to stay on the scalp, asks for ogbono soup, you must give him the proper accompaniments for him to bless you.
At table grandpa made their eyes flutter questioningly, when he said, “Feel free to give me anyone.” Obakpolor had walked slightly beyond the refrigerator, and pivoting around to ascertain what anyone meant, he both beheld the old man tapping the rim of his mug with his thumb, and an unusual blankness he interpreted and got right.
Water collected from a medium not the gourd!
“Hmmm. Na wa o.” Obakpolor intoned.
At nightfall Omomene called her son aside. “You’ve been acting all too studious today. And worried too. As if your grandpa would die this night. Behave jo!”
“Yes ma.” Obakpolor gave off a smile relatively effete for its sheepishness. Before he slept, he knew his mother was absolutely right; there was going to be another day of bonding complete with the people he loved. A day of love between souls of similar ages. Grandpa! Grandpa! He had originated the saying during some random chitchat.
“Whenever I get the chance to be with a person’s soul I feel like none of my peers has departed from the earth.”
And Omomene, agonizingly shifting on her stool, murmured “Abeg, how do you keep up with intellectualization even at the age of ninety-something? Make I call your grandpikin. Haba! Somebody will be talking about common things in a way that keeps inviting goosebumps! Must you always turn talk into rocket-conversations?”
And when Obakpolor came to her rescue he poured fuel on flaring flames, “I think that he would have put it better by saying, ‘When the souls of people are within my reach I can’t tell their ages anymore.”
At that, Omomene arose from her stool, “Oya, make I kuku give una space. Old grandpa and old grandson. Chai!”
This had transpired a fortnight ago. Two turgid weeks of hope before Obakpolor woke up the next morning, after a rebuke he believed was potent and true. It would seem as though life had been in patient wait for Omomene to attempt positive thinking and in that moment, call her a liar. A sound liar.
Grandpa died in his sleep the next day!
Everyone thought it happened quickly—his burial preparations. In no time, they were three days behind the fixed future of his descent down the dust from which he came.
After the natural and cultural weeping had ebbed, Omomene pierced three more sets of holes in her ears. “If your father had a deeper understanding of the relevance of vanity, I would have had a lip ring by now.” She said to Obakpolor sitting on the cane chair, no longer in Umuahia; they were in their own village—Arue—where grandpa had indeed been all three: Baby, boy and man.
“Yuck! Mama, where did they bring you from? What if daddy hears you?” He, lifted up his head from the picturesque tribute he had been penning down, shot her a playful face of disapproval. But he couldn’t avoid noticing that she looked a picture, donning an Ankara, fitted gown, with hypnotic patterns of deep black set in a lemon-green background.
She laughed, and it had a therapeutic melody, like notes with riffs and runs. “I am a confirmed Ishan babe.”
“Do you see your mates piercing their bodies? Very soon you would not have space on your ears anymore o.” In her eyes, he beheld her evergreen stand that he and his father were punishing themselves with unconscious adherence to unfounded formalism.
Then the wind came in, mighty enough to make them blink, and veer into unlikely perspectives of body jewelleries. “I don’t know how people summon the courage to wear navel rings though; I can’t try that one. I was nine years old when I heard about the navel being the relic of one’s umbilical cord and since then, I have developed the habit of touching my navel to make my mother present. And somehow it appears to work.” Pulling up her blouse in inspection, she rubbed her belly. “My navel, the earliest connection between me and any human being, my mother, I can’t tamper with it or make it less pristine.”
“You know I am a little angry with him. That man knew he was going. He knew it!”
That man… She batted her eyelids, picking her way through reason and memory, and sighed when she arrived at the meaning. Her face grew solemn. “You’re angry he didn’t make his departure more sentimental? Shouldn’t you be more thankful that he openly gestured you to be his favourite friend ever? At least he gave you the hint; I didn’t even have a clue.”
They were warmly quiet until she asked, “Do you believe that everybody we meet leaves a piece of themselves with us whether we admit it or not?”
Obakpolor nodded. “I do.”
“Which of us gets to keep his water gourd?” She had this grin on her face expecting a little tiff. But Obakpolor said, “You.”
If she was aghast or confused she didn’t show it; she just rose up and left when Francis came out of the house. How else was she to sugar the pill?
“My boy, aren’t you coming?” Francis asked Obakpolor, sliding his arms around Omomene’s waist.
“No daddy. I don’t feel like.” He said tersely. Thoughts as precious as purposeful goodness, enwrapped him wholly so that he felt the need to be alone, fixing his gaze on his father’s pigeon-toed feet which Omomene had never grown tired of manicuring and massaging, every time she had the chance. A time was sure to come when he would ask her, “Does massaging his toes give you some form of fetish?”
He watched them both appear compassionate and leave. While they strode off, he couldn’t overcome the ethereality of his father’s chivalry for his mother. Twenty years had passed and he still appeared stridently aglow with the sheen of a man doing the Wodaabe Gerewol dance for a potential spouse—even this was passively contemplated. The deep, deep, burden of peace arose from the unassisted mantra prancing around his mind, twice as swilling as it was chaotic, I would drink the water now, since I have had the kolanut…
He had been a part of the old man’s peace and had been granted the honour of quenching the heat of his life.
Thereafter, he could never knead his sprained toe as a means to expunge the pain in it. He had his own physical relic of a great, great man. Thankful he was twenty already, when the body rejuvenated selectively. And when the blister—which had formed the day he sprained the toe—ruptured, he didn’t clean the fluid. Didn’t touch it. Didn’t try to make it casual.