Before you begin, be informed this story was written over two weeks past, entered for an impromptu competition which it won. It’s the last story I’ve written. When you are done, kindly read the postscript. Gracias.
“He’s dead,” Kemi says.
We take even strides, kicking dust and disproportioned stones, noting the houses with mallams and the ones secured by German Shepherds, counting the palm trees sprouting along the road, saying a thousand things without saying anything. Gray clouds scud along the sky.
“What does it feel like to die?” Kemi asks.
I stop and look up just as the sun reveals itself.
She angles her view.
“What do you see?”
“Look at it, whatever you see,” I say. I watch as her eyes twitch at the heat. “How does it feel?”
“Like embers,” she says. “Like pepper and fire.” She looks away. “What was that for?”
I start walking. “That’s what it feels like to die. Like pepper and fire. Peppery fire.”
She spots a stone sends it sailing down the road. We arrive at the house, typical to all the other big houses in the street. A black gate, coiled wire chiseled into the fence, a guard with accent as thick as suya, tiles running up to the entrance, a woolen carpet with an animal stitched into it – this one’s lion.
Kemi taps me. She points her gaze to a stool, a wooden stool with a framed picture, a note with two pages open, a flower vase, a pen. I stare at the flowers stuck into the vase, at the dried up petals. Sometimes recently, the flower was vibrant and drew butterflies. It was alive. Breathing.
It is dead now.
I tell Kemi I do not want to write my name. I idle at the entrance till she’s done and we step in. Inside, a woman slouches on the largest sofa, her arms set on her thighs in a way that makes me wonder if the arms have blood in them. Her eyes are closed, her lips sag below her jaw. She’s flanked by two women. They wear black too. Their eyes are partly open like they’re afraid a kid would sneak in and pilfer money off the bowl on the center table.
“Good afternoon ma,” I say.
“We are sorry about the loss,” Kemi says. Her voice cracks as if she’s afraid of pressing further, as if the tiles on which she stands have suddenly become ice and an extra syllable would cave her in.
The woman, Jide’s mother, nods. She does not see us. One of the women calls Jide’s brother.
A minute later, we stand in the compound. I look at Martin and he looks at me and we begin to cry. I look at Kemi and she looks at me and she joins. Soft balls of tears travel down our faces, towards our lips, staining our shirts. I reach for Martin’s palm and press. Kemi takes the other.
“He shouldn’t have,” Martin says. His voice is blunt, like the blades of a machete from the Civil War. “He wouldn’t have died if we’d left,” Martin says.
I nod and Kemi nods because we know what he means. Martin nods along, and his neck bobs as if it would rather be severed. And then, I remember Jide and his severed arm and cry again.
This is how Jide died. The eyewitness – a man who wore kaftan seven days a week, whose beard was long enough to sweep the street – said Jide was returning with a friend, a backpack on his bag. They were talking and laughing with their lips curved. He heard them make comments about the Social Studies assignment and how they didn’t care if Nigeria was celebrating independence or if the President wasn’t in the country and how the teacher was simply punishing them.
The murderers came from nowhere, Eyewitness told us. E be like those things for naija movies, he said, wey person go just appear. Jide’s friend saw them first. He’d yelled before he ran. He hadn’t been too fast, Eyewitness said, not fast enough for him to escape anyway, but the murderers had not come from him. They cornered Jide to a dustbin, said something in thick Hausa, and swung the cutlass.
The Eyewitness recalled seeing the arm fly away like a limb snagged off by a ferocious lion. He was running before his legs lifted.
“I don’t believe it,” Kemi says. The gates shut behind us. “The eyewitness account.”
We start walking again. The sun settles on the house, and for a moment, I imagine it spitting fire at the occupants, at Martin and at Jide’s mother and at the two women who came to mourn. I imagine the flowers cracking up in intense heat, imagine Jide’s picture weeping as it was reduced to ashes.
He was in jeans in the picture, Jide. I was there then. I, Kemi, Martin, Jide, and a few other friends, teasing the sands bordering a beach, throwing handful of sands at one another, laughing at the funny lines the writer in me conjured about our visit to the beach.
“Say cheese,” Martin had said, just as Jide lunged himself at me. Later, Martin told me, “He’s a naughty boy.”
I imagine now, how Martin would say, “He was a naughty boy.”
Holding back the urge to cry, I fumble for Kemi’s arms, link fingers with her, ignoring her surprise.
“Would you write about it?” Kemi asks.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I don’t know what I want to do or what I feel right now.”
“I do,” she says.
I let her hand slip away. Her face twitches in a frown.
“You are angry now. I can’t say, ‘I know how you feel when your boyfriend stops holding you.’ I’m not you. I can’t be you. I can’t have your experiences or feel your pain.”
We link fingers.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
“Jide. Was one good chap. Clean ambitions. Gentle kid. Loved Port Harcourt. Do you know he was the first person I heard use the word, pogrom? He was reading up the Civil War and spotted it. Pogrom.”
Kemi nods. She knows, of course. I’ve told the story before. Only then, I said, “Jide is a good chap.”
A bicycle trots past us. A scar curves towards the rider’s left chin. I nod at him and he dips his head and in the brief moment, I feel a spark, a strange familiarity, like he’s Jide’s reincarnation and the scar on his face means he survived.
“He’s going to pay his condolence,” Kemi says.
“They were friends.”
“The rider’s over forty years.”
“They were friends,” Kemi says again. “Used to tell Jide about the war and about the fact that the Igbos attacked first, killing five leaders, known as the Coup of the Five Majors. Most of it was second-hand memory though. Things his parents had told him, told he Jide.”
“He would have been a kid then,” I say.
“No wonder Martin always thought another war was impending and that it was better for them to leave Port Harcourt.”
“It’s too late now,” Kemi says.
And because I am in complete agreement, I say nothing.
At home, I listen to Yanni’s tracks. Nightingale. I search Civil War on Google and read the Wikipedia account. Twice, I cough and make mental notes. Under a section, Persecution of Igbos, one Charles Keil recounts – Col. Gowon could be heard over the radio issuing ‘guarantees of safety’ to all Easterners, all citizens of Nigeria.
I push the chair back and walk to the door, phone in hand. Guarantees of safety. Suddenly, I feel a twitch in my stomach, as if by blaming the Igbos for starting the war, I joined in the emboweling of the tribe. As if I once lifted a cutlass too. As if my name, Demola, means – come with a sword. As if Jide’s massacre is justifiable action.
I pick my phone and dial Kemi.
“Go outside,” I say.
“I’m outside,” she snaps back.
“Look at the sun. Please.”
I hear a heave, static air filling the background. I lift the phone off my face and stare at the sun.
“How does it feel?”
“Hot. Blandly hot,” she says.
“That’s how it feels when someone dies.” I tell her about Civil War – “No, it’s not Captain America’s Civil War” – and how it’s easy to identify with the death of the Majors because of tribal relations and silently approve the death of the Igbos and how it is all mistakes.
“So, no one knows,” she says.
“No one knows how death feels.”
“I’m sorry,” she says. I know she means the deaths. Jide’s. The Majors. Everyone.
“I’m sorry too,” I say.
We begin to cry.
P.S: What do you think about the story? The dialogue, pace, setting, and the story itself. Writing that was a bit tedious because the plot had to grow from real life events and had to be as living as possible, hence the pidgin English. Did I try? Did I not? Thank you for reading.