A Generation of Fragile Things
Nana Afadua Ofori-Atta
A man is a fragile thing.
Men stopped dying centuries ago, and no one knows why.
They fade now. That is a death too, an elaborate one, but a death all the same. A man’s body is dependent on the respect he receives from the women in his household. Many of them don’t make it once they go on pension – they really are brittle.
The trip to the zoo had been planned for weeks. Lydia had a Polaroid camera in her tote bag; the man at the electronics store assured her it was the best device for developing photographs of a man who was turning transparent. There was a change of clothes for her son because he liked to get his food everywhere. Lydia never scolded him for it, or anything for that matter, which annoyed her husband. His toy train had fallen out of his hands. Through the rear-view mirror Lydia saw him wriggle about in a vain attempt to escape his car seat. She pulled over and fished the toy from under the passenger seat. The five-year-old gave his thanks with a laugh, and Lydia sighed. If only he could stay a child forever; she was not ready for him to disappear. At least with her grandfather Lydia was prepared. The signs had been there for years.
She drove into the neighbourhood she spent most of her childhood in after her mother decided she was too much work. Lydia’s mother would rather gallivant around the world than raise her. Last anyone heard, she was in Cuba with a boyfriend half her age. Secretly, Lydia hoped her mother was making it all up, that she was too ashamed to return home.
The neighbourhood had changed since the last time she visited. The road which went past the veterinary clinic had been laid with asphalt, and there was a new kiosk at the bottom of the hill where her grandparents lived. Lydia blew past it, and as the only house on the hill drew closer, beads of sweat formed across her forehead. Bile rose in her throat and she resisted the urge to turn around. This happened every time she visited them. She glanced back at her son, he looked like his father: dark brown skin and thick hair that she would have to cut next year when he started school. Jason pushed the train along his arm as he made choo choo noises.
A child is a fragile thing.
Lydia’s son was like the white china teapot she received on her wedding day. He was as delicate as the flowers painted on the teapot. The littlest thing could break him, and while she could mend the teapot with glue, never Jason. Lydia dropped her head into her hands. He was not ready to know his life was not his own. How did she explain to her teapot of a son if he did not receive respect from his household he would fade from existence?
She unbuckled Jason and carried him into the house. He was big enough to walk but she liked to carry him, another thing which irked her husband. “You baby him too much. You are trying to compensate,” Sedem said.
“I don’t baby him.” That was always Lydia’s reply. I am not compensating for what my mother did, she wanted to say instead. She would glare at him and continue playing with Jason. She knew Sedem meant no harm.
“I hope you have forgotten all about this ridiculous trip of yours,” Lydia’s grandmother said. Everyone called her Sister Marie because she almost joined a convent. Her hair was pinned back into a bun and a scowl marred her ebony features.
“It’s the zoo, not a vacation trip to Hawaii,” Lydia said in exasperation.
Jason held his hands out for Sister Marie who took him from Lydia and set him on the tiled floor. He clutched her dress and smiled at her. “Are you going with us? Daddy will be there.”
Sister Marie shot her granddaughter a dirty look. “No, but maybe next time.”
Jason looked at his feet for a moment. He let go of Sister Marie’s dress then went in search of Papa. “I take it he doesn’t know what is happening? Have you given any thought of our family’s reputation?”
She did not want to have this conversation with her. “Have you even spoken to Papa since this mess began? This is our fault,” Lydia whispered.
“More yours than mine to be honest.” Sister Marie sneered.
Lydia brushed past her grandmother. The walls of the living room were an album, covered with framed pictures of Lydia at every milestone of her life. All evidence of Papa had been taken down. Sister Marie could have waited a few months; her husband wasn’t dead yet.
“Ready to go?” Lydia found her son in her grandfather’s study. He was standing next to the armchair Papa sat in.
“Do I have a choice in the matter?” Papa asked. He had never been one of those men whose voices commanded attention. It had never been loud or deep but since he began to fade his voice changed along with his body – the more transparent he turned, the more ear splitting his voice became. “Sorry,” Papa said in a small voice. It was still strong enough to push a couple of books off a shelf.
Jason sidestepped the fallen books and cocked his head to the side. “How did you do that?” He walked over to his mother, held his arms out and she picked him up. “Papa is a ghost. Mummy, can I be one?”
“You will be,” Papa said bitterly as he rose from the armchair. He was not far along in terms of his expiration, most of his body was opaque, only his ears and parts of his arms were truly translucent.
Lydia adjusted her son on her hip; he was getting too heavy. She wondered when he would become less of a man in her eyes. Sedem told her it was the worst feeling in the world. As a man, respect is all you have, he always repeated this, and despite her reassurances, Sedem didn’t believe she wouldn’t let him fade.
When they got to the zoo, people stared, people tried to stay out of their way as if Papa was contagious. The men gave him sympathetic looks and the women had looks which ranged from disgust to annoyance. Their words floated around Lydia: useless man, a man who could not control his household. She dug her nails into her palms, it wouldn’t bode well to get into a fight. The zoo was Jason’s happy place and having visited it several times he concluded the crowd parted for his family because Papa had VIP status. He insisted henceforth all their zoo excursions should include Papa. The idea made Lydia’s throat tight. “We will see if he is free,” She told him and Papa made a disapproving sound.
Ravens are an unkindness. Owls cannot move their eyes. Flamingos aren’t really pink, it’s because of their diet. Jason was rattling facts in the Bird House when Sedem slung an arm around his wife’s neck.
“How is the last hurrah going? Is he having a good time?” Sedem asked.
“It’s going fine,” Lydia replied. “Come on, stand by the parrots, let me get a picture of you.”
Her husband did not know how to pose for the picture. He couldn’t just stand there, so he settled for two thumbs up. Lydia showed him the polaroid and he let out a laugh. He was so awkward. There were other pictures in her tote bag: Jason by the giraffes with a goofy look on his face, another with Papa near the lion enclosure. The man at the electronic store had been right; Papa was completely opaque in the photographs.
“Daddy!” Jason said with excitement and hurled himself at Sedem. “You came.”
“Of course, buddy,” Sedem said, bending down and flicking Jason’s nose. “Papa,” he added with a curt nod.
“Lydia said you have a new project,” Papa said, not bothering to hide the disdain in his voice. “The harbour reconstruction, was it?” The birds screeched at his voice and several people turned in their direction. Lydia apologised for her grandfather’s voice. Maybe they shouldn’t have come to such a public place.
“Yes, the breakwaters are going to be expanded so more ships can anchor…” Sedem trailed off. Papa was glaring at him.
“Must be nice to be wanted. And with a housewife, you might actually hit seventy,” Papa said.
Lydia’s eyes widened. The hand clutching her tote bag shook. She wanted to scream at him and tell him he was being irrational but no sound left her lips. Papa was more transparent than he had been when they arrived; parts of his face were now see-through. He had been called useless and for the first time since this whole mess began, she agreed.
“She is trying to do something nice for you,” Sedem said coldly. “We could have just let you disappear.”
“I didn’t ask you to,” Papa said in a small voice.
“Too bad that’s why we are your family,” Lydia said. “It won’t change the outcome but at least you know we cared.” She felt clammy. Those words had not been for her grandfather but for her benefit. Before Papa began to fade, she hadn’t given him much thought; she didn’t visit and he never came over to her house with Sister Marie. In the first month of Papa’s fading she pretended it wasn’t happening. It was easier than going to visit him.
“Thank you.” Papa whispered.
“Can we go see the elephants?” Jason asked, hopping from one foot to the other. Lydia pulled out the camera. Lydia waved the instant photograph in the air. Jason held his arms out to be lifted but Sedem was having none of it.
“You have to walk or your legs are going to stop working,” He told him, and the five-year-old whined.
They made their way out of the Bird House. There were carts selling ice cream and candy floss. A pudgy woman informed them if they turned right when they got to the zebras there were stands set up for face painting. Jason and Sedem got chocolate ice cream and Lydia got candy floss since she was lactose intolerant. Papa got nothing because he was fading into a void and food stopped being a necessity two months ago.
“Can I get any animal I want?” Jason asked as he hauled himself onto the seat in front of the face painter who nodded. “A lion.”
“Do you want me to cover your whole face or just your cheek?”
“My whole face,” He replied, pretending to roar. Papa repeated the words and it produced the desired effect and the sheer force of his voice broke a glass that held a bunch of paintbrushes. Jason laughed. Papa tried not to laugh again. One of the painters said he would have to pay for anything he broke but he was trying not to laugh too.
Sedem pulled Lydia away from their family. She hadn’t been paying attention before but now she saw his eyes were puffy. “Jason—”
“He will be fine. You have got to stop babying him. He starts school soon.”
Sedem didn’t understand. He spent so many hours at work, it was easier for him to do that. All Lydia had done since her son was born was attend to his every whim. “Did something happen at work?” Sedem rubbed his eyes. “I shouldn’t have mentioned the harbour. It’s just you were so happy about it and I—”
“It’s not the harbour,” Sedem said in a gentle voice. “They like my work.”
“What is it then?”
He rubbed the back of his neck. “Remember Mr. Asante?” Of course, Lydia remembered him. When Sedem first landed the job at the firm, he talked about two things: his desire to work on the iron wrought bridge over the Pra and Mr. Asante. Depending on the day, Mr. Asante was either his mentor or the devil incarnate. “He faded.”
Lydia let out a gasp. “How? His wife…they didn’t come across as that kind of couple.”
“Do they ever?” Sedem said, harshly.
“I am sorry.”
“Should have known when he stopped coming into the office,” Sedem said. “We have been so swamped I assumed he was on site somewhere. I had so much to learn but she ruined it.”
“Now that’s not fair.”
“How is it not? All she had to do was be there for him.”
Lydia touched his arm and rubbed little circles on it. “Maybe he wasn’t a good person at home. I don’t know, maybe he spent more time with his buildings than with her.”
“We are not like that,” Sedem said. “We are not like that, are we?” He repeated, his lips quivering.
“That’s not what I meant. We are fine,” She said in frustration. “I am sorry I don’t have the right words.”
“I want you to tell me that will never happen to me.”
“You should already know that.”
“Bet that’s what Papa thought too.” He glared.
“No, no, you don’t get to say that. There is nothing there. I don’t think there ever was.” She snapped. She didn’t add she felt as if everyone was judging her as much as they did Papa. How could she let something like that happen?
“I am scared.” Sedem whispered.
“You’ll be fine, think about how nice it will be to die together.”
He was not amused. “Not being responsible for your own life, you can’t fathom what that does to you. I am only as alive as my family decides. Does that seem fair to you?”
“Why do you want to die so badly?”
Papa presented a lion-faced Jason before Sedem could answer the question. The painter had done an excellent job. Lydia took another photograph of her son and grandfather.
“Papa told me about Spain,” Jason said, “and the cathedral.” He moved his hands outwards from his body to show just how big the Sagrada Familia was. “Have you seen it?”
“No,” Lydia replied.
“Didn’t Papa take you there? He said he would take me.”
The last thing she needed was for her grandfather to make promises. He would not be present to explain why he couldn’t fulfil them. Sedem would be at work as usual and she would have to explain a phenomenon she didn’t understand. Lydia was not prepared for any of that; she wanted her son to stay a baby. “Spain is quite far away. When you are older, we can go see it,” Lydia told him and hoped he would drop the topic.
Jason deemed the answer satisfactory but then asked another question which reduced her to a state of incoherence; “Why is Papa like that?”
“Buddy, let’s go see the elephants,” Sedem said. Jason asked the question again but he was ignored so he settled for walking next to Papa when he realised holding his hand was impossible. “He asks too many questions,” He whispered to Lydia.
“He is your child after all.”
“I don’t want to die. I was only pointing out how unfair it is.” The camera hung from Lydia’s neck and she fidgeted with the strap. She didn’t know why she was hurt. It wasn’t the first time Sedem had said something remotely morbid to her. She always brushed it off as a joke. Perhaps, she didn’t want to hear how his mortality was tied to hers anymore. “I am sorry, Lyds.”
“Well, you think I am going to let you fade, and sorry isn’t going to change that.”
Fun Fact: Elephants have burial rituals.
The guide in front of the elephant enclosure told them that sometimes the herd stood over a deceased member for days. They covered the body with leaves. They maintained the bones of their dead family. Lydia wondered how that worked. The elephants did not carry the bones on their migrations but they did return to the places where their dead lay, for some reason the concept of an elephant graveyard was oddly comforting. Animals cared enough to remember their lost ones but a man was never to be spoken of once he faded. At that moment, Lydia decided that when Papa was gone, she would find a way to mourn him.
The paddock was the biggest one of any of the animals they had seen so far. It had a pool. The sign in front of the enclosure stated the zoo had three elephants, – a male and two females, – but only one stood in the paddock. It stood behind the guide who announced anyone could come forward and feed the giant. “Bonnie is very gentle,” She assured the crowd but the hesitation persisted.
“I will go,” Papa said. The guide looked uncomfortable as a man in Papa’s condition was not meant to be in public. “I can’t hold the food but maybe I could touch her?” He sounded like a child. Lydia readied the camera.
Bonnie didn’t seem to mind that the person touching her was half dead. She raised her trunk and touched the solid parts of Papa. She made a sound that made Papa smile and his eyes glowed in a way they hadn’t in months. He seemed almost happy.
“Mummy,” Jason tugged on her jeans. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“Don’t you want to feed Bonnie too? I thought you wanted to see the elephants.”
“But I want to be a ghost too,” He replied.
Lydia’s throat tightened. She turned to ask Sedem what to do, but he was not paying attention to them. She picked Jason up and balanced him on her hip. Lydia had never been good at talks whether she was the one giving them or receiving them.
“You know how we love Daddy?” Jason nodded. “We love Papa too, you understand that, right? You see if you don’t love a boy enough…” Lydia’s voice cracked over the words.
“Daddy,” Jason said, wiggling out of his mother’s arms so he could pull on his father’s shirt. “Mummy’s not okay.”
“Fading. Telling him about fading.” She choked out.
“Now?” Sedem said, a little louder than normal. “The last hurrah is going great and you decide to do it now?”
“He wouldn’t stop asking about it.”
“Should I tell him or you want to continue?”
Lydia wanted to tell him to do it. She wanted to tell him for once he should be present in his son’s life. He missed his first steps, he missed Jason’s first word, which had been “dada.” None of those words were spoken as her husband insisted they talk about it later. Lydia hesitated before she said, “You know you are supposed to respect your elders?”
“Greet and say please and thank you,” Jason said.
“Exactly.” She gave him a hug, one last hug before she informed him of how brittle he was. “But boys need respect to grow or they become like Papa. They disappear.”
Jason knitted his eyebrows together then let out a laugh. “They go poof? Like magic?”
Lydia’s heart shattered. “No, buddy…not like magic.They never come back. You don’t get to see them again.” Best to rip off the band aid fast. She watched in horror as the realisation dawned on her son and he began to cry.
“He can’t go away. He is Papa,”He yelled.
“It is not enough. He needs Grandma…me to respect him and it’s too late.” Lydia replied
Jason jerked away from her, and she set him on his feet. He moved towards Papa as fast as his little legs would take him. Lydia trailed behind him. “Papa…Papa…Please don’t go. Please.”
“I wouldn’t if I had a choice.”
Lydia grimaced. She imagined the teapot she received as her wedding present falling from the shelf. It was in tiny fragments just like her son. Lydia lifted her hand towards the polaroid camera.
A photograph of two people she broke. She stuffed it into her pocket.
A month after the trip to the zoo, Papa faded into nothing. He was talking to Jason one moment, the next moment he was gone. It gave Jason nightmares for days. The harbour project meant Sedem came home exhausted, but she never expected him to help with their son’s nightmares. After Papa faded, Lydia began to wear an old locket he had given her; it held one of the pictures from the trip to the zoo. She fingered the gilded necklace several times a day and pretended she had been a good granddaughter, and that Papa was alive across town. Since Papa faded, Jason decided he hated the zoo. Lydia decided she loved the place.
Lydia smiled at the guide. Bonnie stood at the fence and let out a soft sound at the sight of her most frequent visitor. Lydia liked to believe that was her way of saying hello.
“I heard you have a calf now,” She said, placing a hand on Bonnie’s trunk. “You take good care of her. I can’t protect mine anymore.”
A woman is a fragile thing.
Nana Afadua Ofori-Atta is a Ghanaian fiction writer and poet who lives in Takoradi, Ghana. Her writing has appeared in AFREADA and Kalahari Review.