The Burden of Loss

Nzube Ifechukwu

22 July, 2014

I came in with Olisa that evening, a rucksack strapped to his back, to find Ọlụa on the phone, pacing up and down. From the inflections of his voice and his choice of words I could tell it was a family member on the other end. I sensed it was bad news. At first I thought he was speaking to our brother, Arinze – his immediate younger, my immediate elder – and my mind ran over the name Udoka, our youngest brother, whose good sense I wasn’t always sure of, wishing him safety. I asked Olisa to sit, drawing a plastic stool towards his hulky figure towering by the door, and stood with arms akimbo, awaiting the end of the call. At last, Ọlụa put the phone down to say: “Nnaa, that Arinze was hit by a stray bullet.” He hung his head.

“Ha, what kind of news is this?” I felt my chest tauten, bloated by morbid thoughts. “Udoka told you this?”

“He had called earlier, while I was still up-school coming back. It seems Arinze has harboured the bullet in his belly for days now, and it has begun to react, disturbing him.” In the lull before he continued, I looked around and saw Olisa – his rucksack clutched to his laps, his eyes owlish behind his thick glasses, his ears pricked up. “I called Dad, he was furious. They had lied to him – that Arinze had an accident, a rod pierced his side – and only opened up yesterday.”

“Even Dad! So who did they tell?”

“It seems they were pitying the poor man. Doctors are on strike, and the private hospital they went to asked for a deposit of 200,000 naira before they would touch him. It appears Arinze had asked Udo not to call family yet, let them see if they could raise the money. You know, borrow from friends. They are on their way home now, seems like the strike is more serious there than here…I had asked to speak with Arinze, to be sure he still breathed, and he could only manage to say ‘Ọlụa.’”

I sighed, in a bid to puff out the fear that had gripped my heart, and crouched to gather my Advanced Engineering Mathematics and other stuff I would need for the night. I was bent on still going for night class – my going or not wouldn’t change anything. And Olisa was here already – I wouldn’t want to disappoint him. Of course he would have understood – he even suggested we shouldn’t go again: “Odogwu, are you sure you can still go?”

In the pall cast over the room, the rustle of my study materials sounded like death, the tick of the clock like a countdown to the inevitable. I sighed again, trying to shut out such sinister thoughts. When I’d stuffed my schoolbag with the things I would need, I groped around the bedhead for my rosary beads.

“Let’s go,” I said to Olisa.

Ọlụa, already in bed, rolled over and asked if we were about to leave, his voice freighted with his own anxiety, and I wondered if he was afraid of spending the night alone.

Out in the darkness, the landscape was denuded of outline. Along the Father’s Podium, I rang Udo. He confirmed what Ọlụa had said – they were on their way to the East that night. I suggested that they waited till morning, it was already late, but Arinze disagreed – “Arinze doesn’t agree oo,” Udo said.

“Does Mum know about this?” I asked.

“No.”

“OK. Just don’t tell her yet.”

Olisa and I walked almost the rest of the way in silence. Never before had I said as many Hail Marys as I said that night, trampling the tarmacked roads and mumbling the prayer in the turbulence of my heart. My heart throbbed with the words: Nothing will happen to Arinze. God dey. Along Chitis Road, Olisa poked the silence:

“Odogwu nawa oo. Talk naa. Your brother never die.”

In the third-year microbiology classroom at Jimbaz, Olisa and I sat on separate pews, a strategy to keep us from chattering when we should be studying, a strategy very unnecessary that night. I opened my book to read, but all I could see was Arinze Arinze Arinze…in a crabbed version of his handwriting. I strained every nerve to see through the names, but with every effort I made my energy continued to drain like water through a gauze. At last I gave up and brought out my rosary. I said five decades, adding Holy Maria, pray for Arinze at the end of each. After the Memoraé, I concluded with five more Hail Marys, specially for him. Then I trundled to where Olisa sat and told him to wake me up when he was ready to go.

My sleep was fitful, broken by my burdened heart and posture of bending over on the desk.

*

23 July, 2014

I woke up the next morning in bed beside Ọlụa. He was answering a call. He put the phone down to say: “They didn’t leave again last night. They’re on their way now.”

I rolled out of bed. I drew the curtains and the dawn-light flooded in through the translucent glass louvres, blinding me. I blinked and took the toothpaste and my toothbrush. As I brushed my teeth, thoughts zigzagged in my head, colliding with one another. I came in and Ọlụa went out. I called Udo.

“We will send you the two hundred thousand before you get to Onitsha.”

“We already have eighty thousand.”

“It doesn’t matter. Ọlụa and I will try and send up to that two hundred. The doctor may request more at Onitsha.”

“We might as well linger here till you send the money. We already filled a form at a hospital, so it may be more reasonable staying back. Instead of starting all over at Onitsha.”

“Do you think that is better?”

“Arinze says no. He’s asking the driver to take us to East.”

“OK. Safe journey.”

Ọlụa screeched the door open.

“Call Kenechi, tell him the situation,” I said. “Ask him if he can lend you two hundred thousand. Or any amount he has. I’ll go to Olisa’s place this morning, let me see if I can borrow from him. Let’s call Mum too and ask her for a good hospital they can go to in Onitsha. Getting Dad involved now will stall everything. And we don’t have time.”

I called Udoka again. “Hello, Udo. Send an account number.” There was a brief hush, and I had to repeat: “Hello, hello,” to make sure the line wasn’t dead.

His voice came, calm and collected: “Nzube.” I sensed it and braced myself. “It is late.”

Still the impact shook me and I broadcast to the winds: “Arinze is dead?!” Without waiting for an answer I ended the call and slumped, landing on the bed on my seat, a drop of tear trailing down each cheek. Ọlụa stood stock-still.

“Money, money,” I cried, yet to come to terms with the death.

“This is not money’s fault,” Ọlụa cut me short, standing and staring at nothing. “They delayed.”

I called Udo. “Call Dad. Tell him what has happened.”

Ọlụa walked towards the wardrobe to put on his clothes. “Let me see Sister. There’s something I have to explain to her.” And he left.

I scrambled up and got ready for school. I wasn’t exactly sure what I felt, how I felt. When he was still alive, I had made up my mind to forfeit school that day, to devote the day to making sure the two hundred thousand was raised. Now, he was dead, and skipping school to stay back and mourn wouldn’t raise him.

As I had my bath, as I combed my hair and put on my clothes, for the rest of the day and beyond, I tended to forget, to be absentminded. Till, shocked afresh by the awareness, my heart would exclaim in hushed bewilderment: Arinze is gone, gone for good! Arinze is gone, gone for good? I had never given any serious thought to the possibility of the death of someone very dear to me. Death was what happened to others, to strangers, at worst to mere acquaintances and distant relatives.

When I got to the venue of the lecture, students formed small phalanxes of chatterboxes. My eyes swept the whole place, looking for Olisa. I saw him and beckoned to him and left for a secluded corner of the surroundings. When I got to the corner and turned, he was coming up behind.

“We lost the guy.”

“Chineke!” His mouth hung open. He said no more, could say no more, but I saw the compassion in his eyes, behind those gold-rimmed thick glasses.

The lecture, a general class, eventually didn’t hold, and we proceeded to our classroom, my mates and I, for the next lecture. As we laughed away time, awaiting the lecturer, Aunt Agatha called. Has she heard already? I thought, and picked up.

“Nzubechukwu, what are you still doing at school? Didn’t you hear what’s raging?”

I was confused, but I still managed to say “I heard.” A strange thought crossed my mind: Perhaps she wished I hadn’t heard, perhaps she yearned to be the harbinger of the bad news. “But he just died.”

“OK. I’m in Ichi. Everyone is here, even your mother. I wanted to be sure you’ve heard what has happened.”

She hung up, and I thought: What if everyone was told, gathered as they were now, when he battled the bullet?

I decided now to call Mother. After a few buzzes, indicating her phone was ringing, she picked up and said, “Hello.” Her voice was tranquil as ever, not choked by tears.

“Mummy, good morning.” Silence. I was at a loss what to say again, how to proceed. At last: “You see what has happened to us?”

“You know, all these things they’re talking, I’m still watching, all eyes. I don’t believe anything yet.”

“Well, it is what it is. Arinze is dead.”

There was a cluck at her end. I imagined Dad sensed it was one of us, the children, and snatched the phone from her, because his voice came next:

“Onye Army, no need to panic. Concentrate on whatever you’re doing at school. When it’s time to come home, I’ll tell you.”

The lecturer didn’t turn up too, and Olisa went with me to my place. Ọlụa wasn’t around, but the door was unlocked – our sister, Afọma, had come from her hostel. She lay on the mattress, her feet peeking out at the edge, and didn’t so much as stir when we came in. Her face was buried in the cosy cushion of the bed and the room vibrated with her sobs and the heave of her chest. We let her cry. When she eventually rolled over, her former spot was a wet patch and her eyes were red and swollen. Olisa consoled her before taking his leave.

I typed on my phone – My brother Arinze is dead. Please don’t ask how cos I can’t talk now. – and sent to a few special friends: Kaka, Kene, Celine. Then I snuggled in bed beside Afọma, envying her the ability to cry so easily.

If heads are what we think with, then all my body parts became heads, throbbing with thoughts. So this is what those who lose someone dear to them feel? How could I have been aloof, heartless, never understanding their pains?

I got up and went up-school to see Celine. Arinze is gone, gone for good! Arinze is gone, gone for good? As I told Celine the much I knew, she groaned in sympathy.

“So Arinze died in an alien land?” she said when I finished.

Immediately, my mind made the connection between what she said and Arinze demanding to be taken to “East.” As I took leave of her and went in search of Mike, I prayed Arinze found rest, even if he had died in “an alien land.”

By evening, Afọma’s swollen red eyes had betrayed the news and lodge mates and mutual friends became fingers poking mouths, seeking not so much to commiserate as to feed their ears.

*

24 July, 2014

Why do our loved ones have to live, only for them to lose their lives at last, before us, and leave us bereaved? Isn’t God such a busybody, restless fingers fiddling with things just because they possessed the dexterity? Why such bonds that provoke pain at a loss? Why not be parents to ourselves, everyone their own offspring, so we just die and no one would feel any pain? Why do we have to die at all?

So I would be mired in thoughts, until my phone rang, jostling me into consciousness. I began to be irritable, impatient, with my callers, shouting at them, especially those insincere ones who only wished to slake their curiosities.

The burden of loss. Aren’t we, our hearts, supposed to feel lighter from shedding a love, a burden? What then is this taut heaviness I feel on my chest, suffocating me?

Ọlụa and I left for Ichi the following evening – he had received a call from Udoka that he was on his way home with the corpse.

Home in Ichi, the story added flesh: it wasn’t really a stray bullet, the police had actually opened fire on him and a friend, he bore the bullet in his belly for six days. Though it was already night, our house was filled by a modest number of relatives. 

Aunt Nw’amaka said: “If to live is determined by strength, Arinze wouldn’t have died.”

“Arinze was a strong young man,” Uncle Emma concurred.

“Forget all these things you’re saying,” I cut in. “They made a big mistake. How could you bear a bullet in your body for days? He’s strong,” I muttered in disdain.

“No, tell them he’s Kiliwii,” Dad said. “This is what I call foolishness. Something like this happened, you couldn’t open up to someone you called your father. Bullet that you know is death. Once it enters your body, the state of your body keeps deteriorating until the bullet is removed. The food and water you even take now become tinsel for the fire of your death.”

Edu came to call me; Brother Emeka wanted to see me. When I got to where Emeka lounged in front of their old building, he said: “There’s something I want you to do tomorrow. Someone who has died has died, isn’t it?”

I felt bad – felt like punching him in the face – at how easily the last statement fell out of his lips without even a semblance of pity. But I said “It is” and even forced a smile.

“There’s a reason why I call you when some things come up – you’re wiser than Ọlụchukwu. As sympathisers come for burial, you’ll stay at the high table with an exercise book and a pen. I’ve told your father, but you know what a disorganised man he is. He said there would be no tables, no canopies, no record-keeping. But this family is a reputable family, well known in this entire Ichi, forget that things are somehow now. So tomorrow you sit at the table and write the names of whoever comes for burial and whatever they come with. After, bring all the money to me. The canopies and chairs and tables for the burial will be hired by me, your father doesn’t care. I’ll use the money to offset some of the bills.”

But I thought he just wanted to cash in on the situation. I made up my mind: I would seek Dad’s consent before I carried out the assignment. Just as I thought about Dad, he called: “Onye Army!”

“Daddy!” I left immediately.

“No high table tomorrow, no record-keeping,” he said, his voice raised so everyone would hear. “Whoever chooses to hire canopies and chairs should pay. If any little money comes out of the burial, I’ll use it to pay Afọma’s school fees next session. I cannot be cowered into spending money on the funeral of a kid who had nothing. Then after the funeral I can’t feed my family again, can’t pay my children’s school fees.”

Later, he called us, Ọlụa and me. “Let’s stroll to Site, Udoka is already approaching Ọba Junction.”

“Won’t Uncle Emma come with us?”

“I don’t need Emma’s company; he’s a blabbermouth and they’re bringing Arinze home stark naked. Emma will tell the whole Ichi they brought home my son naked…. I want us to use these clothes to cover him for lying in state tomorrow.” He showed us his silk agbada inside a bucket dangling from his hand. “Hold it.” He gave Ọlụa the bucket and took out the clothes to show us. He spread the top – the back half had been cut out at the seams and only the front remained – and then the trousers, which were still whole.

On the way, he told us not to touch Udo when he arrived, not to hug him yet, till he had “bathed” him. Udo had borne a dead body; Arinze died in his arms. “But not as though any ill fortune will befall the family in this case. He was your brother, and Udoka did what he was supposed to do for a brother.”

No sooner had we arrived at Site than a bus tootled in.

“Seems like it’s them.”

The door opened and Udo alighted and headed towards me, even though I had borne Dad’s advice in mind and stepped back. As he clasped my hand in a shake, very happy to see me again after seven months, I let my arm move up and down and wondered whether Dad saw, whether to tell him so he would bathe me too.

Dad grabbed Udo by the wrist. “It shall be well with you, my son. It’s a brother’s journey you went on. Go to the front yard. You’ll see an open stall. Go in and shed your clothes. Then wait for me.” He produced a shrivelled pod of alligator pepper and kola nut from his pocket and half-filled the bucket with water and followed Udo to the front yard.

Meanwhile, the driver and one plump hulky man had alighted from the bus. Dad and Udoka soon resurfaced, Udo dripping wet and wearing only his boxers, his shirt and singlet and trousers clutched to his bosom.

“In-law,” the plump man said, shaking Dad’s hand.

“Pastor,” Dad said, “thank you. Welcome.”

The driver asked “his” name. 

We told him.

“Arinze,” he said, with a Hausa accent, and continued in Igbo, “you are home in your father’s house. Welcome.” As he talked, he poured kai-kai on the coffin. “Bring him down,” he instructed.

We brought the coffin down and placed it on the sewage pit. Dad swung open the lid and we saw that the corpse’s whole body was swaddled in white.

“OK,” Dad said, bending over. “You wrapped him?”

“Yes,” Pastor said. “This morning when I met Udoka at the mortuary, he said he forgot to come with any clothes, so we had to buy this white cloth.”

“You tried very well, my in-law. When Udoka called me that he had no clothes to clothe Arinze, I asked him to just bring me back his corpse naked, since it would be put in a coffin.”

“No, we bought a cloth,” Pastor said again.

Dad tugged at the white cloth.

“See his head here,” Udoka said and pointed at the other end.

Dad tugged at that end, unfurling rolls and rolls of cloth until the whole of Arinze’s head peeked out, in full glare. His lips were stretched in a rictus and his chin was black, unshaved.

“He is smiling his little smile,” Dad said, and it seemed something clutched at his throat.

“See where the bullet hit him,” Udoka said and pointed at one side in the coffin.

Dad pulled the cloth at that side. Ọlụa helped him, until the bare side could be seen, but no mark.

“It’s almost at his lower back,” Udo explained, and Dad shone his torch nearer till we saw the mark, midway between his side and back, shallow in his stiffened body. “Someone said we shouldn’t bury him without removing the bullet,” Udo continued. “That if we do, the bullet would be rooted in our family and members of the family would continue to die by bullets.”

Dad poked at the hollow mark, and I thought: how is he going to bring out the bullet now? 

Just then he retreated his bowed torso and said, “I don’t believe in such rubbish!”

Everybody uttered their sentiments, as though they’d been waiting for who would speak up first.

“It’s what someone believes that comes to them,” Pastor said.

“Yeeess!” Dad said.

“That’s a silly talk,” Ọlụa said.

“I don’t believe it either,” Udoka said. “I just thought I should tell you.”

Dad covered the corpse’s side again. Then he took the clothes we had come with and spread them over the white cloth, the front top over the torso and the trousers over the lower part. Pastor and the driver conferred briefly, in whispers. Then Pastor told Dad something and Dad dug out a wad of money from his pocket, counted out some notes and handed it to the driver. The driver recounted the notes and looked up at Pastor. They whispered again.

Someone asked if the corpse would be left out there and Dad said: “Nothing will happen to it. Unless you two are not leaving this night then we’d have to carry it back into the bus.” 

I saw the driver shake his head, slowly and firmly. 

“Because the bus won’t be here and the corpse will be left out,” Dad continued.

The driver walked away, towards the front yard, and Pastor followed him. Next, they were back and the driver got in behind the wheel and started the engine. Pastor explained: “He has rather decided to leave this night,” and got in beside the driver.

When they backed out in the dark, Dad told us that Pastor was Aunt Agatha’s husband’s brother. Later, I would learn why the driver had to leave that way. For the many years he had been into this business of conveying corpses, he had stuck to one policy: a corpse never returned back into his vehicle once it had been brought down at its destination.

*

25 July, 2014

Lying in state, mourners and sympathisers went in in a single file to see his corpse, with Dad at the lead. Mum tailed him and the rest of us, his sister and brothers, followed immediately. The sympathisers told us sorry and looked us deep in the eyes, to see if we cried.

The affectations of some of the sympathisers marvelled and annoyed me. Ikenna took pictures of the corpse, lying in the coffin. One moment, Ijeọma and Aṅụlị were chatting away, laughing. The next moment, on the doorway to enter and see the corpse, they twisted their countenances in bogus mournfulness, crying with precious voices:

“Arinze, Arinze, why did you leave us, why…” till the voices tailed off.

When they came out, I saw that their act was successful – their eyes misted.

But I was grateful they all came, the sympathisers, and I expressed my appreciation personally to a good number of them.

When the coffin was already lowered in the ground and shovelfuls of red earth hit the top with hard thuds, Udoka’s control was unhinged. He thrashed and wailed and kicked till he was dragged away from the spot by a group of young men.

Dad cried when we were back from Site, from the interment, there in front of everyone who had come for the burial. As he gnawed away like a goat at a garden egg, hot tears scalded down his cheeks in profuse streams. As for Mum, she just sat motionless in black, a figure cast in stone.

Emeka came again when I was with friends. “My friend had died in my arms in Ugwu Hausa when I was on apprenticeship,” he stopped to say to the group. “That’s why nothing ever moves me again.” And he walked on to their kitchen, while I wondered if his intention was to downplay the gravity of Arinze’s death, the bereavement of those who mourned.

I went inside my room shortly and saw that I had missed some calls from a number I didn’t know. I returned the call.

“Nzube, where are you?” the voice asked.

“Who are you?”

“It’s Somtoo.” The voice was testy.

“I’m in Ichi. My brother died.”

“Did you tell me?” My mind added the next question: have I become that unimportant?

“I told your sister, Kaka,” I said, as if that could pass for a plausible defence.

“I just logged in on Facebook and saw some pictures and thought: is he not Nzube’s brother? So I decided to call. When are you returning to school?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe on Sunday.”

Then she hung up, while I felt like she called just to confirm the news.

Days later, I saw on Facebook that Ikenna had uploaded the pictures, with a gushing write-up about pain and feeling pain. The ever-lengthening thread of comments reeked of plastic compassion, vultures feasting on a carcass. My heart burned with anger, and I left a comment asking him in the gentlest of tones to please pull down the pictures.

*

After 25 July, 2014

We survived. My sorrow took a fearful turn. I feared for my brothers and sister. I wanted them to be near, wherever I was, yearned to clutch them to the snug safety of my bosom. When I learned that Udo had returned to Abuja, weeks after I went back to school, I had to call Dad. The unspoken understanding had been that he wasn’t going to go back, or that he would go only to pick up his effects and come back. Why then had he gone back there to stay? Were they doing well and didn’t have 200,000 naira to save Arinze?

“I’m the one who asked him to return,” Dad said. “I know why I asked him to. It’s not what we’ll discuss on phone. December, he’ll return for good.”

It turned out, at last, that Dad was just putting an undeserved blame on himself, like he was wont to do with all of us, his children. Udoka had insisted on going back and Ọlụa had supported him – “What would he stay back in Ichi to do?” So Dad was left with little options than to bless him and let him, an adult son, do his wish.

Around August, Ọlụa left for Youth Service in Akwa Ibom. From there, he filled the blue of Facebook with poems about Arinze’s death. I missed them a lot, Ọlụa and Udo, and prayed always, in my trembling heart, for their safety.

For a week or two, I used Arinze’s pictures as the desktop background of my laptop. I had intended to use the pictures for the purpose for the entire traditional six months of mourning. But the pictures welled up tears in my eyes each time I booted my PC, and I gave up after just one or two weeks. I unfriended him on Facebook, because his birthday was in September, and I didn’t want Facebook to excoriate the scab by reminding me. Later, I sent him a friend request.

He came often. Hunched over my white desk striving to see through his name to the words and equations on the pages, I would be overwhelmed by another presence in the room. Sometimes we talked, with our hearts, nostalgic reminiscences of our childhood. Till he was gone and I would be aware of the smile lingering on my lips. He inundated my dreams too. About the dreams, my memory tends to fail me, but I remember one, probably the very first in the series. We were at a natural setting, a wood perhaps, and he gave me a wad of naira notes and turned and walked away. I ran after him, yanking at his arm, but he didn’t budge, didn’t turn, didn’t speak. My yank didn’t even slow him down. Afọma, who began to stay with me then as exams were fast approaching, said I often called his name in my sleep.

I told Mum about the encounters, and she said I should ask him to stop coming, or he would take me with him. Then she asked: “Did you pour sand into his grave?”

“No. Besides you and Dad, only Ọlụchukwu did.”

“You all should have poured sand into his grave. That way, he can’t take any of you with him….He knows how broken I am, that’s why he never wants to show me his face. All these while you people say he comes, he has run far away from me.”

One sunny afternoon in 2015, during lunch, Mum suddenly said: “Just one stupid phenomenon called death…” Just those words, hanging precariously in the air, like a fowl perched on a clothesline. Then she stood and left. When she came back, her eyes were a watery gloss.

My own tears came, an uncontrollable deluge, the day I told Charles how it happened. It was on WhatsApp, and as my fingers hovered over the virtual keyboard, I felt the tears course down my face.

Nzube Ifechukwu is a native of Nigeria. He grew up in Onitsha, where he was born on May 25, 1992, and Ichi, his father’s hometown. He studied electrical engineering at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. His work has appeared in Brittle Paper and Jalada Africa. He was shortlisted for the 2017 Brittle Paper Literary Awards.

 

*Image by Namnso Ukpanah on Unsplash.