Everyone thinks there may be a long break from work, say one week or something slightly more. But we receive an email from HR, and this email says we shall be observing only the nationally declared public holidays: Good Friday and Easter Monday. Work resumes on Tuesday, the email says. I stare at this email, at the simplicity and audacity of it, at how easily the words curl into one another to form something of an order, and when one of my colleagues hisses from his side of the cubicle, I conclude that it must be the email. My excitement of traveling to and spending longer time at Uke – my hometown in Anambra State where my family now resides – is crushed. I decide to go, nonetheless.
…is the day we crucify Christ on the cross, the day I leave Lagos for Uke. It is the day faithful Catholics spend time with Jesus in the church, following him through all the stations of the cross, through his suffering and eventual crucifixion; mourning, re-living those biblical events, mending the torn pieces of their lives. It is a holy day of obligation and my aunty Ugochi has tried to convince me not to travel on such a day. Why? I ask. Because you should be in church, she says, you should be drowning in silence and in Christ’s torments, meditating, sorrowing, following the liturgy.
This Jesus Christ died some twenty centuries ago. Yet, people travel back in time to excavate memories of his death and to immerse themselves in his sufferings. Once on a particular Good Friday, I watched a smallish woman go round the church compound on her knees during the Stations of the Cross. She was weeping fiercely. I wasn’t sure if she was crying because she was remembering Jesus’ suffering and death, or because she was hurting badly, or both. I remember the grave look on her face, how she reminds me of Mary Magdalene. I don’t know how Mary Magdalene looks, but the look on the woman’s face that day must have been Mary Magdalene’s.
I arrive Uke almost at dusk. Even in the hazy glow of the looming darkness, it is clear that the road in front of our family house – the road leading from Ideani junction to Eke Uke, our major market – is not only wider now but tarred. I am not sure what to feel because a part of me seems to have gone with the old road. Something to do with memories and nostalgia, perhaps. I remember how as a child I would stand on the culvert in front of our gate to watch the dancing red dust spiral and whirl and then disappear in an instant. Later, my brother, Etumdi, will tell me about the new prayer ministry in Uke, the Holy Ghost Adoration Ministry, whose officiating charismatic priest is nicknamed Ebube Muonso, as in the Majesty of the Holy Ghost. Etumdi will tell me that the road is tarred because of him, because of the Ministry that is attracting many people seeking healing and deliverance, some of the people mightier than a common person can imagine. And I will say, in this our Uke? And he will say, Yes, in this our Uke. And he will add that even our governor has come twice. I will not know what to think of this new movement, this new brand of Catholicism. At least, the road to our house is tarred.
I know I am home because Etumdi takes my small travelling bag from me, smiling, and he sprinkles our conversation with “Professor”, a word he has picked up from our father who holds a funny prophesy that I would, one day, become a professor. “Professor, nnoo.” “Professor, how was your journey?” “The Prof and Dean!” “Prof-Prof!”
My half-sister Ojiugo, the sassy one, is very dramatic about her welcome greeting: she jumps on me from quite a distance and even though I try to spread my legs a little for balance, I stagger as I catch her mid-air. “Oji, ibuzikwo so agbogho,” I say. She has grown taller and finer, a bolder version of the person I saw three years ago. There’s something about the casual way my other half-sister Nwannem, who is the baby of the house, walks towards me. If she is excited, she does not show it. If she is happy, I do not know. The word “meek” dances in my head for a while, and from the way she stretches out her hands and hugs me sideways, I can tell that adolescence has caught up with her a little too soon. “Nne, please hug me properly,” I say.
Daddy is bathing, I am told. The messenger of this information is my cousin Adachukwu who has been living with us for quite some time now. She is wiping her hands with a towel and smiling. “Ada, kekwanu?” I ask. “Fine,” she says. Later, I will go to the obi to greet father. He will hug me briefly and ask about Lagos and the people I have left behind, and not knowing what else to respond, I will say to him that they are there, fine. This will remind me that people from my father’s time do not only ask about the individual. They ask about your family, about the place you come from, about the people who inhabit the same space with you, because they believe that if those people are fine, you are fine.
This night, my brother and I, we talk into the night. It is about everything. It is about father who we think has changed in many ways unimaginable. It is about stepmother and the fight with father and the dizzying uncertainty of things. It is about mother, about her two huge bags that have remained untouched since breast cancer stole her away. We open these bags in Etumdi’s room, solemn, unsure what to expect, and we are surprised that there are no rats in the bags, no cockroaches. Everything is intact.
We smell dresses that have not been touched or worn in twenty years, neatly folded scarves, jewellery, shoes. We hand old pictures back and forth, diaries back and forth, and as I stare at the writing of the woman who was my mother, I wonder what Teju Cole was thinking when he wrote these words: We experience life as a continuity, and only after it falls away, after it becomes the past, do we see its discontinuities. The past, if there is such a thing, is mostly empty space, great expanses of nothing, in which significant persons and events float.
These words, they shake me. They do something to my body that I am not able to explain. They throw me into depths of thoughts about time, about time’s constant movement, about how elusive and irredeemable it is. There is a journal about me that mother has kept during the period of my birth. This is what takes over the rest of the night, this journal. There, mother writes about my conception and birth with startling clarity.
Reflections from Mom: Treasure from God, but I was for some reasons, not yet prepared. However, the knowledge was welcomed and I started preparing myself for motherhood.
Lessons Learned Waiting For You: That the Lord is good and merciful because despite odds, I passed both examinations for fellowship: West African College of Physicians and National College of Public Health Physicians.
Mom’s cravings: Quiet, good food, and exercises for pregnant women
Hardest feats for Mom to accomplish: Washing clothes bending down, taking my daily iron tablets
Our Prayers For You Before Your Birth: That a healthy and normal baby boy be born. That the child grows in the fear of the Lord.
Names “in the running”: Munachimdinma Anene Chukwuemeka
Etumdi and I exchange glances. We do not say anything; only silence. Silence is enough. We are forming impressions about mother, scavenging relics from the past that will become defining themes of the future.
In the middle of the night, when I go downstairs to get some water from the kitchen, cockroaches and rats are holding a small town hall meeting. One of them is an informant standing by the door and as soon as he sees my torchlight, he signals the rest. They all disappear in an instant: fiam-vruum-fiam-vruuuum, pataaa.
We talk away the morning in the parlour, all of us, excluding father. He has gone to see his patients at the clinic. When I take a walk around the compound, I can feel the eyes of the gods on me. Father has brought in more gods, I notice, gods of different shapes and sizes. They are big and small, wooden and metallic, some smiling, some melancholic, some just plain expressionless. Father is not joking with his traditional religion at all.
Later in the afternoon, we are gisting with father about how his interest in traditional music, dance and masquerades may be taking him to America. The Almighty America. Father, our iron man father, has become an entertainer of some sort and his eyes burn with excitement as he tells us about the obunofia masquerade. He now uses words like lyrics, compose, entertainment, ambience with ease. Wow! escapes my mouth a hundred times.
In the evening we head to Aunty Bridget’s place for a family gathering: ewu umunna. A goat is killed for the kinsmen. They gather and share it among themselves according to seniority. I am called to take a portion from the tray because I am now a man, because I now belong to the Umunna. Etumdi takes the smallest portion – he is the youngest male. There is rice and ofeakwu, pounded yam and onugbu soup, kolanut, garden egg, alligator pepper. There is also beer, canned malt, lots and lots of palm wine.
When I ask Aunty Bridget’s son, Buchi, why aunty calls the goat we have just shared ewu ukanne (Goat for Mothers’ Sunday) instead of the usual ewu umunna (Goat for the Kinsmen), he shrugs and says she is a Christian, a Catholic, and does not want it to be said of her that she does traditional things. I do not understand the logic behind giving a traditional ceremony a Christian name, but there is something interesting in Aunty Bridget rechristening a practice that is essentially masculine with the name of a women’s church practice. Why does she not call it ewu ukanna (Goat for Father’s Sunday)? But I do not press to know more.
In the late hours of the evening, back in our sitting room, father finally talks about stepmother. She has changed a lot, he says. She is this and that, he says. I listen and listen. My brother is here, listening, too. He is not saying anything. Nobody is saying anything here. My head is aching. Everybody is tired.
“Is marriage in your plan sef?” father asks suddenly, his gaze fixed on me.
“Why?” I ask.
“Because I don’t understand you. This one you are not even moving your body like somebody who plans to get married. You have not even brought any girl home, asikwam kam juo.”
I am flabbergasted and then grateful because right this very moment, silence walks in and stands between us, and we both seem comfortable in this silence, in this momentary suppression of verbal expression.
Much later, when father has gone to bed, I gather my siblings before my laptop. Ojiugo, Nwannem, Adachukwu, Etumdi, all of us gather before this movie, Pompeii, and we are transported to a film reenactment of 79 AD. We retire hours later talking about how the ending of the movie is unexpected and devastating: the heroic lovers die in the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
Christ has risen from the dead this morning but I do not see him rising. Instead, I see trees. Green everywhere. Bushes surrounding shanty homes. In the sky, the cloud is a war ship and birds are flying and muttering some gibberish I do not understand.
An hour later, father is telling some interesting family history to Etumdi and I in the obi. He shows me something, a wooden stick with feathers and streaks of blood and says it is my agwu, my ‘holy spirit’.
“But father, we talked about this,” I begin to say. “I don’t want you doing these things for me. I’m a Christian.”
“I know, I know. But I have to do it for your progress, nnaa. The spirits said you were in pains. I don’t want you in pains.” He stops and takes a proper look at me and I can sense that he is measuring my apprehension, adding and subtracting my fears. “These things are just sacraments, outward signs of inward grace.”
My eyes are turning, swirling and swirling, and I am seeing only circles and tunnels.
“It’s all in the heart,” he says. “Listen carefully and it will direct you.”
Some visitors interrupt the session then and I go to prepare for Easter Sunday mass which is in Igbo, at St. Dominic’s. Hours later, after mass, after eating the fried rice and chicken prepared by Adachukwu, there’s a trip to Awka to visit my stepmother. There are layers of silence, tears, and lots of tears. Goodbye is difficult to say. It has become a sore.
…is the day I leave for Lagos. It is six-thirty a.m. and I am standing by father’s Sienna, waiting for him. Father is taking me to the park. Ojiugo runs out like someone who has been chased out of a dream into daybreak. She is smiling, but there is something unsettling about this smile. She wraps her arms around me, refuses to let go, and when father finally comes out and she finally pulls away, her eyes are heavy. I’m not sure what to do, not sure what to say. Ojiugo is looking at me, her right hand raised slightly, waving slightly.
“When will you come back again?” she asks, retreating from the car.
Father turns the key in the ignition and the car starts. Silence lingers. I know I have to say something but I do not know what to say because I cannot imagine that I have spent two days at home when it feels like only two hours. Because even more puzzling is the thought that those two days now belong somewhere in the past and I am asked to make a statement about the future over which I have no control. I do not know when I will be home again. It is difficult to say this, but I say it still and look away hoping Ojiugo does not see the tears gathering in my own eyes.
Featured image by Eloghosa Osunde, from her contribution to the Crime Issue.