‘There are only two ways a man can meet death,’ my father once said, ‘either by the derogatory words of another man or by forcefully taking his life away from him.’
Now, sitting on the cold concrete floor of my grandfather’s ozo-obi and watching my mother release her practised tears, I can only tell you that my mother dealt my father a double death.
It all started one hot Friday afternoon in our single-room apartment in Ikeja, an oversized city in Lagos. My mother returned from her local food restaurant to get the purse which she had forgotten that morning before she left for her shop. My father and I sat on the torn lumpy mattress, listening to the scratch-scratch sounds of the radio and waiting for it to come alive with a broadcaster bearing the news at noon.
‘Papa, should I turn the antenna? Maybe that way there would be better reception,’ I asked him, sipping from the cup of kunu I had bought from Madam Faith and absently praying it would not finish soon. My father nodded his weak head.
Though butter and milk and honey had disappeared from the breakfast table, because my father had lost his job some years back and he could no longer afford the kind of luxury life we once relished, I still loved him and I loved the way he would jeer at life and struggle to make something out of it. I once overheard him loudly say one Saturday morning while I washed his clothes outside by our window:
‘My God, what is wrong with these companies? They always put all these age brackets on the jobs they advertise. Do they think competent forty-five year olds like me are not good enough? I will still apply, age barrier or no age barrier?’
I carefully turned the antenna because the radio parts were old and rusty. My eyes went to the newspapers neatly tucked in the cupboard, newspapers whose height mounted and mounted the way a market woman would fill her rice basin to form a mound. My father had malaria and could not find the same strength and eagerness he used to have to read the newspapers, so they just lay there in their virgin state. Because my father could not afford to visit a hospital, I begged Aunty Kate who lived in the room opposite ours for some financial help.
Aunty Kate was the nicest person I’ve met since my family moved into the neighbourhood. She worked as an English teacher in a public secondary school that was two streets away and, whenever the school went on strike because the government would not pay teachers their salaries, she would put up an old poster that displayed different women’s hairstyles and cater to all those customers who appreciated her skill in hair-braiding.
‘Why not open a stall and take up hair-styling as a full-time business? I don’t trust our government. They may wake up one day and choose to sack all the teachers in this country,’ one woman once said as I sat at a corner watching Aunty Kate move the ilari, a wooden comb with four long teeth, through the woman’s stubborn hair, parting the hair into two and muttering under her breath whenever it refused to comply. Aunty Kate now braids hair every weekend and everybody in my street and even beyond comes to her to have their hair fixed. She promised a few days ago to style suku for me – but for my mother, who wouldn’t want me anywhere near her.
While Aunty Kate and I sat on the long bench in front of our fenceless building, watching half-naked children roll black rubber tyres excitedly, momentarily staring pitifully at one man whose car had broken down and talking in gossipy tones about a couple that just moved in and would argue and fight every other night, she patted my long black hair, rolling the mass between her fingers and abruptly interrupting our conversation to tell me how this kind of hairstyle would suit me and how that kind would not showcase my beauty. Mama emerged out of nowhere, her movements quick and brisk. The bitterness in her eyes was now defined by that puzzling kind of hatred that anger brings, even when my father, whose presence alone was the usual cause of this, was not around.
‘I don’t want to see you near that woman again. She looks like one of those witches that have been deported from the River Nile and would seek every opportunity to ruin what is left of us and then drink our blood like a vampire bat,’ my mother warned me later that night in vexed tones.
‘But Mammie, she’s not a witch. She is a nice person and she braids hair perfectly,’ I replied defensively.
Then a deafening slap graced my cheeks as she warned me again not to go anywhere near her.
The radio finally awoke with a start, exactly at the time my mother came in to get her purse. I had left the door open but had the curtains drawn to give our room some privacy. My mother shoved me aside as she searched despairingly for her purse. When she couldn’t find it, she raised her stentorian voice in a powerful bellow.
‘Papa Ngozi, this is your entire fault. Just take a good look at what your lazy and useless life has brought us. All you do is sit around like a hapless old woman listening to meaningless news.’
She walked to the radio and knocked it away, her short-sighted eyes sparkling with unrighteous indignation.
‘You are a very useless man. I am not going to put up with this kind of life until you do what other real men do – make money.’
My mother stormed out of the room, pulling down the curtains from the rail. For a moment, I tried to study the expression on my father’s face but I gave up because I found nothing.
When evening finally came, with loud music emanating from a neighbour’s stereo two rooms away and the crickets chirping underneath our bed, I sat by my father, reading the last chapter of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, while he lay on his back staring at the ceiling, his mind lost in a fog. The palm oil rice which Aunty Kate had generously given us still lay balmy in our protruding stomachs. I was quite certain she overheard my mother’s outburst and so decided to feed us that evening, for which I was heartily grateful.
When I finished the novel, I dropped it on my lap and gasped.
‘Hei! Why did Okonkwo commit suicide? Who would cater for his numerous family members? Who would tend his yam crops? Who would….?’
My father cut in. ‘Okonkwo was not a man.’
‘But Papa, he was. He was strong right from the beginning.’
And that was when my father told me of the ways a man could meet death and that, because Okonkwo had died by hanging himself, he was not fit to be called a man.
I further inquired, ‘How can one die from the derogatory words of another man?’
‘My daughter, there are things of your age you would not understand but, as you grow older, they become fully revealed to you.’
‘Papa, I still don’t understand.’
My eyes blinked in confusion. There was silence. Then the silence grew eerie. When I turned to look at my father, he was already fast asleep. I gently tucked the pillows underneath his head, pulling the ogodo over his shivering body. Then I lay beside him, lost in thoughts of his words.
When morning arrived, bringing its brilliant sunlight along, I got up, stretched myself and gently tapped my father for morning prayers. He would not wake up. I shook and shook and shook him yet he wouldn’t budge or open his eyes. I felt for his heartbeat. It was silent and gone as though embarked on a journey of no-return. At that instant, I knew my father was dead. I screamed frantically and didn’t even know when Aunty Kate was by my side.
My mother is still releasing her practised tears, the dried brown leaves of jacaranda are littered all over the floor and my uncles are hanging their heads and staring blankly into space. I hold the pieces of my father’s broken radio in my hands. I want to tell the mourners that my mother killed my father twice but cannot find the words to use. Perhaps my speech might fail me, I think. I am crying, warm tears flowing like a river from both eyes. I study the rusty metal of the antenna, and then look at my weeping mother who won’t even glance my way. My emotions are in fuzz, my fingers tremble as I allow them to give way for the broken pieces to fall. I am thinking to myself: who will understand this thing my mother has done?
Okafor Emmanuel Tochukwu is a Nigerian writer and was born in Lagos in 1993. He is currently studying electrical and electronic engineering at the University of Benin. His creative writing has appeared in Naija Stories and Uniben Talking Drum, as well as on StoryMondo, and is forthcoming in Aerodrome and the first ArtBeat Afrika short story anthology. He recently concluded an online writing course with the University of Iowa. An active member of the University of Benin Creative Writers’ workshop, Tochukwu is currently working on a full-length debut novel.