There’s No Home the Dead Do Not Paint Grey
Ekpenyong Kosisochukwu Collins
My father’s death did not destroy me. The world moved its flower beds to another compound the day he died. People wined and dined their sadness. Birds cawed above us. Dogs shat in front of our veranda, while some of us got better at writing poetry.
Grief, I remember the day you visited, that early Harmattan morning when you’d knocked, and my mother screamed. My father’s body was stiff and unmoving in his bedroom. You clung to the people around me, yet I, the one who should have felt you the most, barely noticed you. I used to think I hadn’t understood the concept of death then. This is true, coupled with the fact that he never left me.
‘Maukesie’ is what he always called me. I recall the way his voice would break gently from the corridor, lips dancing to a different kind of music as if he tapped into that particular voice just for me. Calm. An intense desire to scream back, “Yessah.” He never called me Kosi.
I was always this strange bird, this other person I did not know. “Mark Esiere,” he explained to me. I was an extension of his father, my grandfather.
“Let no one touch that child.” He was often overprotective of me. “That boy should not cry for you people!” he’d warn my siblings.
I look back now, trying to fix his smile in my head. I’m redder than I used to be, taller. No one has called me Mark ever since he died. No one dares.
It’s been over ten years now.
2017, I find myself in a new space, a new place. I’m a different kind of bird, learning to cope and navigate the new school environment.
I’m in college. We’re in a class. Several quirky-looking students slouched on seats in the faculty of Arts hall, peering at the man in front of us. On the whiteboard is displayed: Linguistics 141.
The man had asked me to stand. So I’m up, weary in the legs.
The man’s bulging stomach sticks out of his purple long-sleeve shirt, a belt coerced onto his massive hips. He glares at me like he’s seeing someone else.
“What is your name?” he asks, right brow raised.
I look at him, aware my name always elicits an explanation. I brace for it.
The one whose father’s spirit lingers, my name jumps away from me.
There is a small silence. His eyes narrow into slits.
“Do you know me?” he asks.
I don’t. I shake my head to show negative.
“Meet me after class,” he says.
Years ago, as a child, this man had met my father. And would sit, he said, on my father’s lap and listen to him speak. He’s from the same village as my mother. He relays this to her.
“That was your son? Immediately when I saw his face, all I could see was Ette staring back at me.”
That, he says, is why he’d asked me to stand.
This man has been away for years, the reason he’s never met me, isn’t even aware of my father’s death years ago.
I ask Mum if we look alike, Dad and I.
“Maybe it’s his spirit,” she says. The spirit of a father is always with his kids.
When my father died, I did not mourn him. There was no heart-breaking music, no Nathaniel Bassey or Uko Akpan’s ‘yâƙ ǖĵō ıķŵő ämi äde emem emem (let the drumbeats go easy)’ as transcribed by Akpandem James on The Southern Examiner. No Mango tree fell, or firewood axed for breakfast preparations. If for anything, firewood burnt over cooking pots during his wake-keep while women in waist wrappers, sweating and adding cheap perfume to the soup, smacked their lips and talked about the weather at home.
Drunken men spent the night asking for food. Some women called their kids with bowls to take food portions home. The meat was rationed just like the drinks, rare commodities for the dead, were served.
When he was alive, only a select few knew his scent enough to guess him in a pile of moss. Now dead, people crept into our house, most of whom had never visited; carrying fake tears they dropped at the gate once their backs were turned to us. Some may have smiled a little on their way out: mission accomplished.
When he died, I twirled alongside these people.
I had accompanied my cousin to get some embalm leaves from a family in the street. I remember skipping, dancing, and being quite chatty as we climbed the small hill toward our destination.
I was a kid, bad-tempered and selfish. I didn’t understand what it meant then. My mother’s cries were because she wanted to cry. I didn’t realise you were there. You hid so well, I bustled right past you.
Like a street carnival centred on one family, that’s how the day felt to me. Like the days my dad would have me call street kids and slaughter a local fowl for his saraka ritual. People strolled in that day, screaming out their lungs, trying to tell us how to, in their words, ‘move on.’
I don’t recall telling anyone in school when I resumed the following week. I think I might have told my closest friend Chisom. Memory is foggy. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand that Mathew Cosmas Mark Ekpenyong was dead. That the man, who’d always send me on countless trips to the bank manager’s wife’s store to buy snuff for him, is gone. That the man everyone, including his best friend, called ‘Ette Calabar’ or ‘Ette Mbakara’ is no longer with us. I will no longer be seeing his short frame lounging on that plastic chair in the corridor where he’d sit, a pro-landlord, taking note of things in his environment, who said what, who touched his flowers without his consent, or whose child’s feet dared climb our mango tree.
“Your dad was one kind man like that,” my friend Chekwube tells me. “With his slingshot, he’d shoot anybody who dares come close to the tree. Remember the day he shot Obi Lejja? Obi jumped down the tree and fled for his life.”
I don’t recall this memory, but I remember that slingshot, a y-curved stick with two rubber strips coming to meet at the end – a curved rectangular bed. Asking me to pick small pebbles, my dad would sit with his slingshot, waiting for those neighbourhood or school kids who were often hanging around our mango tree.
“My dad is around,” I’d tell whoever asks to come and pluck those red and yellowing fruits. “Come later.”
Today, that mango tree is gone, not because the owner is dead, but because his sons had wanted to erect a fence, and the tree stood in their way.
The yellow trumpet, aka Costus Spectabilis, blooms of red hibiscuses, and the crotons planted on the stony path leading up to our inner yard gate are gone. The two orange trees beside our compound have disappeared too. Now, bushes and stalks of banana trees stand in their wake.
Kids have turned into men sporting beasts while Ette, my Ette, is nowhere to be seen.
My dad grew up in Idu, a quiet smoky village in Uruan, Akwa Ibom state. Children here are free to roam about with their tiny bodies bare in the wind, their lungs coaching a language so skin-deep it takes a stranger to corrupt.
The people greet each other with music on their cheeks.
I remember a woman saying, “Na Ette’s children be this? Una welcome oh?” the day we brought him back home.
We were foreigners in our father’s land, standing on soil our father must have stood on, stomped on, and probably ignored. And now we were back to bury him underneath it. Ette was home in an inner room, in a casket too big for his cold slender body, in a town too small to openly grieve his departure.
“Daddy loved home more than anything,” Uncle Asuquo says.
Akwa Ibom seizes my breath. A place has never made me feel so welcomed – nostalgic. Burial is in effect, but my mind is far into the soil to notice. I’m more interested in staring at the people’s oblong faces, the sleek cocoa bean trees, and the colour of the sun when it finally settles, a startling yellow. I know why my dad liked it here. I can feel it. Here was home to him. You can take the (Grief, you know where I’m going with this).
Days after our arrival, women circle my uncle’s kitchen to cook Afan soup. I’ve had to wash in his snail-floored bathroom with zinc fences, with multiple dead snail shells watching me bathe. I’ve had to breathe the serene air, thinking this is what those in villages usually miss when they get to the city: the smell of unadulterated air. Smells like peace. Feels like peace. Takes your breath and warms it till you’re giggling for no reason but just ‘cuz.
My cousins, Aniefon and Okon, tell me about the fish-filled stream in the village. I’m suddenly animated. I want to see the stream, and I want to breathe the whole village air. If possible, I’d like to stay back. Nsukka hasn’t clothed me with such inner peace. Some family members visit the newly elected stadium in town without me. I am mad as a gun. I want to be everywhere at the same time. The whole of Akwa Ibom feels like Diet Coke to me. I’ll be mad if I sip gently.
But then we have to go, and the stay is abruptly cut short.
What is it about this place that feeds me nostalgia?
Why am I indifferent to what is going on?
Dear Grief, I watched my father get entombed without much of a tear. My brothers Okoneyo and Aniefon were crying, and I remember thinking, Why, though? Why are they crying?
I watched my sisters fall apart from too much or too little sadness. Our mum seemed to collapse inside herself the very day he died. Yet I was detached.
All I wanted to do then was visit the stream or go down the nearby Idu market again. You missed me. Some would say I was the dead thing there you could not see.
Finally, we leave. I lose my eyes outside the vehicle as it plunges through tracks, manoeuvres through dirt and gravel, dust and all things green and cloudy. Nsukka welcomes me with a shrug. I pretend I don’t notice.
Life moves on. Events feel like a stranger who comes to stay the night but is gone the next day. I enter SS1, floating through crowds. Ette stays dead, at least in my mind, until I go to college and realise I need him, and he’s been here with me the whole time.
My father’s death did not destroy me. You failed.
I’m stomping on gravel after my last class for the day, trekking to the UNN gate where I’m to board a taxi or flag down a bike. My thoughts are not mine. What this means is I can’t remember what I was thinking. I recall my eyes trailing after the vehicles bustling past me like their wind game is strong. A motorcyclist speeds past, and you drop into my thoughts. Wait, does this mean I’ll never see Ette again?
This is years after his burial. This is me experiencing you for the first time. I don’t know what to do with this feeling. It came out of nowhere. I have this strange urge to talk to him, smile at his face. Ask him what he thinks of the weight I have lost over the years. What about my new height? I want to ask if he knows my department is close to his former workplace. Would anyone in that Works Department still remember him?
Grief, this is the first time you’ve come to me, and I’m unprepared. I slow down in my walk, take deep breaths. There’s no one to talk to. It’s just me and my thoughts trying to drown each other. I turn to every stranger’s face, hoping I’ll see him there, a resemblance maybe. But I don’t. He’s gone. And all you do is remind me of what I’ve lost.
My dad used to sit in front of the corridor in his red or blue shorts, always shorts. He’d have his bifocals on, peering at you through the glasses. Sometimes he’d have his shirt on and buttoned up, but other times, he would go shirtless, his hands fighting off bloodthirsty mosquitoes. I used to sit with him and ask him questions, questions he’d laugh at or try to explain, like how I got my native name, Mark Esiere.
One night when Mum had gone out, Dad and I were home alone. There was no soup. I decided to cook. Okro and Ogbono were readily available, so I decided to make that. My first attempt at proper cooking. When I brought it to him, he tasted the slimy stuff, smiled, and pushed the plate away.
“Too sweet,” he said, smiling through his teeth. “It’s too sweet.”
I had used an unhealthy amount of seasoning cubes.
Grief, my father was everything to me. My siblings would talk about how he was strict and cruel. They said he had personal spoons and plates no one else dared use. Everyone was on tiptoes around him. You dared not show up in his presence with some parts of you dirty.
“We waited for him to come back to take our baths,” my siblings would tell me. “Once you hear the throttle of his bicycle, you ran home to have a bath or else.”
Whenever they talk about him, I wonder if we’re talking about the same man. It’s like he was two different people. The brutal self-centred dad at his young age and the ever-loving dad who could not stomach seeing me cry. I don’t know how to reconcile the two.
But that doesn’t matter because he’s gone. And I miss him. It’s hard talking to spirits. Ask anyone.
Grief, I get to the school gate, wave down a motorbike. How I got home, who I met at home, or the events that followed are gone from my memory. All I recall is your visit. And that is that.
Akpandem, James. “Uko Akpan: The Eclipse of an Iconic Bard.” The Southern Examiner, 2021, https://thesouthernexaminer.com/uko-akpan-the-eclipse-of-an-iconic-bard-p4681-203.htm.
Ekpenyong Kosisochukwu Collins is from Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria. A graduate of English and Literary Studies from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, his work has been published in 20.35 Africa, An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, and in the Nigerian Students Poetry Prize anthology “Deep Dreams.”
*Image by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash