The One Who Died With Secrets and Other Forms of Goodness
Favour Iruoma Chukwuemeka
I. CHRISTMAS DAY
All little children brought up in Western Nigeria in the early 2000s must have cherished the idea of having uncles. Especially during festivities, having uncles is of great significance to a middle-class child. These uncles are usually blood-related family members who have accessed a kind of financial stability that our parents are still striving to attain. Often, an uncle could be that bachelor-neighbour, or an old family friend who never stopped visiting in the evenings before dinner. We idolised those moments when an uncle stopped by, bearing sugary bounties from Mr Biggs, lifting us up high in the sky, commenting on how fat or thin we were turning. Unlike parents, this uncle did not scold and even when he appeared to, there was a subtle playful undertone to every command of “sit here! stop that!” such that you felt loved, protected, and not-parented. I loved the idea of those uncles. I never stopped gaining the attention of uncles with my supple baby-face, questioning eyes, and bright caramel skin. During those visits, the older people’s conversations kept us stunned at how adults could spin Igbo sentences so quickly without thinking about it. Usually, one of us was hoisted upon an uncle’s lap, tugging at his ear or picking his ragged beard. Usually, one of us was hoping to get Uncle’s attention. Usually, that one person was me.
Childish lore made my siblings and I tire of staying out with our parents during school holidays. How should we gobble plates of rice, chicken, and salad in our homes on Christmas Day without wearing our Christmas clothes and visiting fine places? Our parents advised us to fall asleep and, later on, eat some more food. We became mad. So, we dragged out the new piles of clothing and shoes and demanded to be taken out. The parents raked, fetched the cane, placated, but desperation was smeared on our drenched foreheads. We were not different from other children who visited the amusement park – even our cousins were going there regularly! Remembering this, I feel our corporate anger was ignited by the fact that each Christmas had never been unique from the last; that we would grow up lacking stories to tell; that the English essay on How You Spent Your Christmas Holiday would always be lies about amusement parks, birthday parties, and cinemas we never attended. That we did not wish for the apex of holidaying to be entertaining uncles in our homes. That even our tiny uneducated souls had begun to dictate how we wanted life to turn out for us: thrilling and full of memories. Our myopic understanding of the workings of the world would not prevent those desires from fulfilment. This was why our parents would telephone an uncle, and in a flash, he would announce he was on his way to take us out.
II. FULL OF FOOD
Childhood is never engaged with precision. There are often too many irregularities to assume that it can be possible to dictate how childhood should go. The bedwetting that lasts longer than it should, our reluctance to attend school or go home at the end of the school day, hatred for meat and love for fish – all things that make good parenting the hardest thing to accomplish. This is how we made an unplanned trip with Uncle enroute to his abode, giggling like the school children we were, excited to finally have a story that did not include rice and stew. We made stops for ice cream and meat pies before reaching his apartment. It was a small apartment, but our smaller selves credited the place as intriguing, with easy access to all the cool gadgets we were barred from at home. Uncle had another uncle with him in the house, a close family member that we had not met. This younger uncle, of average height, kept a clean-shave that made him look older than his age. His eyes were young, voice warm, body vibrant, and I thought he would have been a beautiful female. He engages us again, throwing us up high in the sky, tickling and giggling. He fetches children’s movies, slotting and ejecting one Barney after another and Jerry, until we find our favourite. The thrill doubles, and with so much good feeling now, we can eat more food. We had done the right thing, taken the power from our parents and parented ourselves as they should have. That feeling, in retrospect, is still divine.
It is easier for children to fall asleep when they are full of food. And this is what we do – unprepared for any sleep over, still fully clothed in glittering perfumed Christmas clothes. Nevertheless, we drift off because darkness has taught us to. Because this is what would have happened back home. This home must be a safe haven: an extension of how it felt back home. Until I awake to moving hands, working their way around my body attempting to smoothen my dress, or so I thought. Until my tiny brain puts together that the touch is not an attempt to adjust the dress but to gain passage underneath. Until I comprehend that the touch is foreign no matter how familial the hand is. Until I sense fiery signals indicating I have now caught Uncle’s attention, unsolicited, deep in the dark night, beyond the eyes of onlookers. It is certainly the touch of the younger Uncle. I cannot see his eyes, but I am aware he is afraid because his hands tremble. The fondling continues for a while, and I don’t know when I doze off – another grim consequence of childhood.
Too many things are unclear to children, and we often get caught in this puddle of confusion, especially where right and wrong are not explicitly stated. Where wrong is discussed in hushed tones and in dialects too thick for children to comprehend. This is why I was whipped with the cane for letting a fellow nursery boy touch me under the desk in class. I am unsure how the boy was disciplined, but I resolved never to speak up about such encounters. I was still dealing with how normal it could be for uncles, okada riders, teachers, or fellow classmates to try to do things to my body I felt uncomfortable with, how shameful it felt to report to elders and the punishments that followed such reports. The fear blossomed as a result of the uncertain outcomes: who would be punished and who wouldn’t, how parents would shrink from the paranoia of how many near-sexual encounters their daughter could be getting into. It is unclear how many times I have been molested because I slipped into a state where I suspected every male, young or old. All I am privy to is the starting point, the opener to this world I dread and hate to speak about. Along the line, it felt normal to be wanted or desired in a certain way, but detestable all the same. The opener unlocked two extremes: fear and inquisition. We may never know which prevailed.
He should have returned to the village a day after New Year, with that knowing smile pasted across his face and tender eyes searching us for summarised answers about our growing years. He should have sent fresh loaves of roadside bread from his cubicle, helped cut up the squirrel we hunted down and roasted, but he didn’t come. Two days later, we discover he is dead. His precious blood splattered on the tarred Ore-Benin Expressway, body shipped back home in several squashed pieces. There is much hushed talk among the adults, but this time I understand. The younger Uncle has died in a ghastly motor accident and he is never coming back. From a spiritual angle, opinions sprouted that younger Uncle’s life was snuffed out by greedy uncles who thought he shouldn’t live long. The younger Uncle has a child born out of wedlock. I eat my food that night in a haste, with trembling hands, but I do not shed tears.
Rather, I assume an unlikely cold, impersonal mourning posture. When I lay down to sleep at night, I unpacked the confused feelings I had felt towards this man. I never actually hated the sight of him despite his misdeeds. Instead I treasured the memories – how I had accompanied my family for visits to his place, how we shared laughs and food, how he eventually found love in a person (a young woman, of course) but couldn’t caress it for long because death plucked him off. How during those years when he bought clothes for my stretching teenage self, I was always plagued by his unknown motives for doing so. How still he contributed to my schooling when other uncles disappeared from the radar. How he died with secrets, some uncovered after his death, others never to be discovered. Death should not be his retribution for snatching away my innocence – or should it? So now I believe it is wrong to think of the dead at all. Instead, I mourn that there would be no more uncle support because the others are seemingly useless. Even now, it is like tearing open a sharp wound, letting it bleed out of frustration that it had failed to heal.
Favour Iruoma Chukwuemeka is a creative writer and poet from Eastern Nigeria. Her works have appeared in Afritondo, Conscio, Cypress Journal, The Shallow Tales Review, Kalahari Review, and African Writer. She is an alumnus of the 2021 Creative Writing Cohort with Chigozie Obioma.
*Image by Kreative Kwame on Unsplash