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My mother chose the most inconvenient time of the year to die and I am 99% sure she did it out of spite. If you knew Mama the way I knew her, you would think the same thing too. I mean, how else can you explain the fact that just the day before she departed this earth she left a six-minute voicemail telling me all the ways I was a disappointment? She always did like having the last word.
When I left Nigeria, I was determined to leave everything behind. My mother unfortunately refused to let go. I don’t know how she did it but she always managed to find me. So I compromised and spoke to her once a year, on her birthday. Though that didn’t stop her from calling me every few months and cursing me in two languages.
The day after she left her colourful voicemail, I woke up to twenty-two missed calls from an unfamiliar +234 number. Normally, I ignored calls from numbers I didn’t recognize but twenty-two missed calls in the span of an hour was worrisome. I called the number back, bracing myself for whoever was on the line but nothing could have prepared me for the ear splitting noise that shook my skull.
“They have done it!” a voiced wailed in lieu of greeting.
“They have done it! The witches and wizards have finally done it!” the voice sobbed.
I closed my eyes and took a calming breath. It had been ten years since I spoke to her and it seemed Aunty Ebi had still not mastered the fine art of getting to the point.
“Aunty Ebi, who has done what?”
“They have taken my sister. They have killed her, oh!” she lamented. I heard voices in the background, some crying, some murmuring words of comfort.
“Who has killed who?”
“My sister. Your mother. Our enemies have finally succeeded. They have finally killed her!”
It took some time but her words finally sunk in. After the call, I sat on my orange couch staring at a muted Judge Judy wondering what was the right thing to do or feel. I called Papa, curious to know if anyone had told him his ex-wife had died.
“Tari! My beautiful girl. How are things?” Papa said, his mouth smacking. He was always eating something.
“Papa, have you heard about Mama?”
“What has that woman done now?” The words came out in a huff but I could hear the underlying glee. Mama was Papa’s favourite subject. He could spend hours talking about everything that was wrong with her.
“Mama has died,” I said.
There was silence. Then a gurgling sound came down the line. Soft at first, before gaining momentum and shifting into a deep belly laugh. “I told you! I told you I serve a living God. No weapon fashioned against me shall prosper. I knew Jehovah would deal with my enemies.”
Why these enemies could not have waited a little bit longer, I did not know. It was tax season, the busiest season at my accounting firm and I knew asking for time off was going to hurt my chances of getting the promotion I had been eyeing.
I contemplated not going back home. I took the time to make a list of the pros and cons of attending Mama’s funeral. In the end, I had eight bullet points for the cons and zero for the pros.
Still, I found myself packing my bags and booking a ticket. Familial bonds always have a way of finding you and dragging you back home.
Hopelessness was odourless but it had a physical presence. It got under your skin, invaded your senses and weighed you down. I learnt that as a child and I learnt it again standing in the morgue holding a lantern over Mama’s dead body. The morgue was in a windowless room at the back of a small crumbling brown building behind the main hospital. The walls, painted a doleful shade of beige, were scuffed and peeling. It was obvious I was in death’s home.
I peered down at Mama’s lifeless body. They said it was a cardiac arrest in the middle of the night. Her body was found the next morning when a curious Aunty Ebi went to find out why her sister had not made it to their church meeting. Mama left this earth alone and probably terrified. Did she know she was about to die? Did she have any regrets in her last moments? Did she think about me? Out of all the questions I had, it was the last one that kept me up at night.
Death was a strange thing. Mama had been so alive, so full of fire and vitriol. Her emotions rolled off her, heavy and uncontainable. Whatever she felt, everyone in her vicinity felt too. Now everything that made Mama Mama was gone. All that life, reduced to a still mass of flesh. The lines on Mama’s face didn’t seem as rigid and as uncompromising as they did when she was alive. She didn’t even look that dead. Yes, she was extremely pale and she had two cotton balls stuffed up her nostrils but she didn’t look dead dead. Her dull skin made her round nose, full lips and wide forehead look even more prominent. I knew that now when I dreamt of her, I would see this pale face and I had never been more grateful that I looked like Papa. Mama had a frown I thought death would have smoothed out, but it appeared I was wrong. Even in death she looked angry. Mama was always angry. Angry at me, angry at Papa, angry at her in-laws, angry at the market women. I never bothered to figure out the source of her anger. I spent a good part of my life running away from it. Until I got to a certain age and decided to turn around and face it head on. I looked it in the face and prodded it, taunting its volatility. I hadn’t cared to understand Mama and now I never could. I wasn’t deeply troubled about that and I couldn’t help but wonder if I should be.
“Stop shaking,” the old man who was slicing Mama open said.
I gritted my teeth and stopped myself from saying something. I was too jet-lagged and I didn’t want to get into an argument with the man who was currently embalming my mother’s body. The hospital staff were on strike and that included the mortician. My relatives had arranged for the old man from the village to embalm Mama’s body the traditional way and get her ready for transport. I volunteered to point out Mama’s body, thinking it would be a quick detour away from my relative’s judgmental eyes, but the hospital had no light and the morgue had no windows and that was how I found myself holding up a lantern so the old man with yellow teeth and a missing ear could do whatever it was that dead bodies required.
I hadn’t planned on standing over Mama’s body. If I had known, I would not have stuffed my face with puff puff that Aunty Ebi had made, because now that puff puff was churning in my belly, trying to find its way up my throat. I just wanted a reason to get away from the scrutiny of the relatives that I hadn’t seen in years. They had all looked at me with either curiosity or scorn, because I was the girl who betrayed her mother by choosing to live with her father. It wasn’t my fault Papa caught Mama cheating on him in their marital bed. It wasn’t my fault Papa had thrown Mama out of the house and promptly married his mistress. I was nine years old and clueless about the details of their broken marriage. I didn’t understand the intricate family politics involved or the effects my choice would have. Though, if I did, I probably would have still chosen Papa, simply because Papa was easier to live with.
My arm shook and I shifted the lantern to my other hand. “How long is this going to take?” I asked the old man. He frowned at me but said nothing. I wasn’t even sure if we were allowed to be here but the security guard at the gate hadn’t said anything when we walked in.
I looked away from Mama’s body, but there was no safe place to rest my eyes. Death was everywhere. The morgue was overflowing; bodies were piled on top of other bodies. Bags of melting ice had been placed on and around the bodies and I hoped whoever placed them there would remember to come back and replace it.
“You want groundnut?” Mr Oke asked, pouring a handful of groundnut unto his palm and holding it out to me.
I looked down at his hands, the same hands that had held his penis just moments before and I couldn’t suppress a shudder. “No, thank you.”
He shrugged before tossing the groundnut into his mouth. Mr Oke was a wiry man with a patchy beard. He smelled like baby powder and hummed in tune to the radio as he drove. He didn’t make unnecessary small talk or play obnoxiously loud music. You would think all this would add up to a good road trip. It was anything but. I looked down at my watch and barely restrained myself from banging my head against the dashboard. Mr Oke looked like he was in his forties but apparently he had the bladder of a man in his nineties. In two hours we had stopped eleven times, so he could relieve himself on the side of the road. Two of the eleven times, he went deeper into the bush and was gone for a while, so I suspected he did more than take a piss. I tried not to think about the fact that he didn’t take tissue paper with him.
Things were not going how I expected. I should have asked questions before I got on the plane. I should have reminded myself that things never go according to plan when family is involved. Apparently, Mama told Aunty Ebi she wanted to be buried in her village, the place she was born, instead of the city where she spent most of her life. Even in death, Mama had to be difficult.
It was the peak of rainy season. Driving from Port Harcourt to Bayelsa on muddy, potholed roads while sporadic thunderstorms battered the rusty hearse was not an ideal situation. I leaned my head against the window, trying not to think of Mama’s body bouncing around in the coffin at the back of the hearse.
Somehow, I was once again stuck with Mama’s body. It was as if her soul was trying to taunt me. I was being forced to spend time with her that I had denied her when she was alive. Aunty Ebi had guilt tripped me into accompanying the corpse. Since you are not involved in the planning, the least you can do for the mother who brought you into this world is escort her body to its final resting place, she’d said. How could I argue with that without lowering the already low opinion they had of me? They were already upset with me for coming back from America empty handed. You would think that my mother dying would be a good enough excuse as to why I forgot to bring gifts, but apparently it wasn’t.
“We’re here,” Mr Oke said, five hours into our journey.
“What?” I asked, looking out the window. We were parked a few feet from a small wooden dock that was so withered it was a wonder the storms hadn’t washed it away. Canoes, rowboats and motorboats, all in various states of disrepair, littered the river bank.
Mr Oke pointed to the row of rickety boats. “The main road is underwater. You have to use the river.”
The okada stopped in front of a small red bungalow with a green corrugated roof. I had never been to my grandfather’s house but I knew I was in the right place because I could hear Aunty Ebi shouting. The okada man set my hand luggage on the ground. I would have been impressed that he had driven a motorbike while balancing luggage between his chest and the handlebars, but I had once seen a man riding an okada with two goats strapped to his body. I paid him and watched him drive off, a part of me wishing I could hop back on and drive off with him. I dragged my hand luggage on the wet ground, past the point of caring about the mud that splattered against the wheels and speckled the hem of my jeans.
The sun had retired and only the soft glow of a lantern highlighted the face of a young girl who sat by a tree in front of the bungalow. A silver tray was balanced on her knees and she hummed to herself as she sorted beans. She didn’t look up as I approached.
“Why are they shouting?” I asked the girl. I wasn’t sure who she was but if she was on my family’s property she was probably related to me in some way.
“They’re making arrangements for the burial rites,” she said, her eyes still focused on the beans.
“Jesus Christ. I can’t wait for this burial, so I can go home,” I said, more to myself than to her. I was cold, my clothes were damp and my skin felt sticky. It had not been a good day.
The girl finally looked up at me. “You’re Auntie’s daughter? The one that lives in America?”
She frowned. “You’re going to be here for the next month?”
“No. I’m leaving once the burial is over.”
Her eyebrows pulled together and lines that were too deep for someone her age appeared on her forehead. “It’s rainy season. The soil is too soft and waterlogged. Nothing can be buried for at least the next month.”
My legs almost gave out. “Next month? Why didn’t anybody tell me that? What am I here for?”
She shrugged and went back to sorting her beans.
I felt the change happen. I felt the frustration that bubbled under my skin boil over and turn to anger. There was only so much a person could be expected to endure. After waiting for thirty minutes for a boat big enough to carry a coffin to arrive at the dock, Mother Nature decided to be a bitch and open up the sky. I spent the entire boat ride scooping rainwater out of the boat so we wouldn’t sink. That was soon followed by an hour haggling with two men over keeping the coffin in the village mortuary. One of the idiots actually suggested I take the coffin home with me, since the body was already embalmed. I had never been so close to slapping a person.
I was tired, wet and I could swear the smell of death had slid under my skin and taken residence in my soul. All that wahala for a burial that wasn’t even happening for another month. I marched towards to house, indignation propelling my feet, rage directing my movement. I slammed the door open, “Aunty Ebi, why—”
A hand snatched my wrist, distracting me from my mission and cutting me off.
“This child came all the way from America to bury her mother, you will refuse her?” Aunty Ebi cried out, wrapping her arms around me. “Has this orphan not suffered enough?”
I stared at Aunty Ebi, both impressed with her theatrics and extremely confused.
“Ebi, we have told you. Things have to be done a certain way. You cannot just come from the city and demand our land,” an elderly woman said.
I was in a small living room, surrounded by weathered faces and wrinkled skin. Three men and one woman who looked like their days were numbered sat on a tattered floral sectional that was in serious need of reupholstering.
“My sister’s last wish was to be buried with her parents. Uncle Peter, are you going to deny your niece her final resting place?”
The man she called Uncle Peter sighed. It seemed he was impervious to the guilt trip that worked so well on me. They spoke in Izon. It had been years since I had spoken the language, so there was a bit of a delay as my brain tried to translate but I got the gist of it.
As I watched the back and forth, my anger shrivelled and burnt out and in its place a bone-deep weariness took hold.
“What do you need from us?” I finally asked. My words unfurling haltingly in my mother tongue. I had been gone for some time but I still knew how these things worked. We wanted something from them and they wanted something from us in return.
Aunty Ebi pinched me slyly. I stepped away from her. If we did things her way, we would argue until the sun rose, then set, then rose again.
“We will give you a list,” Uncle Peter said.
“Okay. I’ll go back into town and get everything tomorrow,” I said.
2 bags of rice
2 crates of Fanta
2 crates of Coke
4 crates of eggs
10 bottles of hot drinks
20 tubers of yam
I adjusted the travel pillow around my neck and shifted in my seat, trying to get comfortable. Reading the list one more time, I wondered how they had come up with it, how all these items equaled a hole in the ground for Mama’s body. I reached for my bag and put my phone on airplane mode, ignoring the fourteen missed calls from Aunty Ebi. In a day or two they would realize that I wasn’t coming back and maybe the calls would stop. They could bury Mama by themselves.