Waterlogged

Picture Credits: John Christian Fjellestad

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.

“Hello?”

“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?”

I nodded.

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.

*

1 goat
2 bags of rice
2 crates of Fanta
2 crates of Coke
3 chickens
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.