When You (Don’t) Want to Die
On a cold Saturday morning, many years ago, I woke up and really wanted to die.
Before the thought came to me, I was like every other seven-year-old girl who found delight in wearing patchwork skirts, got scared of turkeys with dangling red wattles, begged storks for white fingernails, thought shooting stars could make wishes come true, and measured her shadow at noon to know how long she would be alive. But those every other days withered and ushered in days of sitting alone, cooking up death-plans, and nights of sleep wiggling around my eyes and scurrying off when I reach out for it.
I first heard of death from Ma Joy. She talked about it with the other matrons after lunch, last Easter Sunday. They clustered around in the basement after sending us outside to play. I stayed back, eavesdropping behind the door. Ma Joy began with reeling out names of people death had taken: Urema, who used to deliver the moi-moi; Uncle Folarin, who used to come fix the pipes; and Aunty Ursula, who used to steal strands of hair from the newborns at Fent Hospital. It was easy to pick up Ma Joy’s high-pitched voice as she described death’s frigid and spidery fingers.
“He curls up on the brick wall of Cathedral and bides his time on a soul,” Ma Joy had said and the other women – NK, Adaku and Ifenne – made whooshing sounds with their lips.
“Aye!” That was Adaku, I could tell from the voice’s feathery brush. “My mother used to say that you could see death catwalking in Cathedral’s garden on the night of the Summer Solstice.”
“Catwalk?” I was lost at whose voice it was, NK’s or Ifenne’s.
“Yes.” Adaku was affirmative.
“Isn’t death a man?” This was certainly Ifenne, the brash tingle of the voice against my ear gave it away.
“No, death is a woman. A fine woman with heavy breasts and tomato-coloured lips,” Adaku said.
The Summer Solstice was two months away from Easter so I blew hot air into the cup of my palms and rubbed the moist warmth all over my face to make time go faster. April’s days fizzled out, leaving behind bouts of flu from the early, dusty rains. May swooped down on us and filled the air with the sanguine voices of children who played Ododo-Miri, a game where children tried running through the rain without being hit by raindrops. Only winged-feet children could play Ododo-Miri and I have to watch them from my window, with envy in my eyes. When I was sure they were not looking, I would fling banana peels at them and wait for the delightful crack of breaking bones as they slip on the peels.
June finally came with the rustling of brown leaves. Each day crawled away, slowly, until it was the night of the Summer Solstice. I scaled the picket fence and bribed Icheoku, the parrot Ma Joy kept at the fence, with a handful of wheat to stop her from waking the whole house.
Cathedral was just across the street. There, I sat beside a gravestone and waited for death to come.
It was now way past midnight and I had not seen a woman with big breasts and tomato-coloured lips catwalking in the garden. The only person in sight was a waif cuddling an electric pole and exhaling green smoke from her nostrils. She couldn’t be death.
“Are you alright, your nostrils are leaking green smoke?” I asked as I walked up to her.
“It comes from exhaustion. The whole world is on my neck for me to take or not to take,” she said in a voice too deep for her tiny-bones-peeping-out-of-the-knuckles look.
“I’m Ora. What is your name?”
“I don’t know. They call me many things.”
“Yes. You are too small to understand these things. Why are you out all by yourself?”
I shrugged and said, “I’m looking for someone called death. They say she is a woman with big breasts and tomato-coloured lips. Have you seen her?”
The waif laughed. “I don’t know her but I’ve heard people talk about her.”
“Why are you also here by yourself?”
“I just escorted an old woman to her grave.”
“Have you… Are you…” I wanted to ask more questions but the waif vanished, leaving behind a milky cloud.
Two weeks later, on the night of my eighth birthday, I scribbled on a notepad:
Why I want to die
- I’m eight and drawing a zero on the top of another just to write eight is exhausting.
- Pita does not talk to me.
- The other children make jest of me.
These were good enough reasons for me. I stashed the notepad under my pillow and tried to sleep.
Breakfast was sweet potatoes and pap. I stared at my plate and struggled not to puke on the peeling Formica surface of the dining table. The other children shoved themselves into groups and chattered about who drooled or snored the most last night. Some of the boys squeezed their potatoes into tiny bullets and hurled them at the cooks who stood behind the food counter. Pita was sitting at the east end of the dining room, alone. He dutifully mashed his potatoes into his pap, with his fingers, and started spooning the mashed pulp into his mouth.
That was when I puked.
My mouth tasted like bile as I sulked off to the dorm after breakfast. Chy-Chy, the girl who had jagged eyebrows, and her six friends were clustered around my bed when I got to the dorm. The girls spoke and giggled in low tones. I shuffled my feet to announce my presence.
“I want to sleep,” I said no one in particular. The girls looked up and burst into laughter.
Chy-Chy was the first to talk. She tilted her head and began, “Why I want to die.” Her fingers, all ten of them, were wrapped around my notepad. I tried to snatch it from Chy-Chy but the other girls pinned me against the wall. The next thing I remembered was Chy-Chy’s face on the floor and the shredded pieces of my notepad scattered in the air. Ma Joy rushed into the dorm and dragged me to Penance Lake where I plunged my legs until midnight, begging Olisa to soften my heart.
Life continued at Ma Joy’s Home for Children as if a child was not planning to die.
In November, when the clouds hung so low that I could touch them if I stood on the tip of my feet, Ma Joy grouped us into classes. The palmists, the dreamcatchers, the broom-pilots, the winged-feet children, and the plain ones, like myself, who had no special talent. Chy-Chy was among the broom-pilots and she would spit on my hair anytime I walked past Aerodrome Square, where the broom-pilots took their lessons.
For days, I toyed with the idea of telling Pita to talk to me before it was too late and warning the other children who smeared chilli sauce on my pillow to be good because it was only a matter of time before I will die and they would have to find another child to pick on. I wanted so many things to happen – the sun to nest beside my window, the walls to crumble, the sky to cave, something that will tell the world that I was about to die. Nothing happened. The days continued to slide past, smoothly, without bumps.
Before January, the urge of dying became unattractive because I could not figure out how to die. I thought of lying under the sun, hoping to smoulder into flakes of charred flesh, but that would require me climbing far up into the sky, where the sun shone the most. I thought of jabbing a blunt knife in my chest, but that would hurt real bad. So, I decided to ask Ma Joy how my real mother died. It was on a Saturday morning and I was helping her spread the laundry in the backyard.
Ma Joy was the chief matron and owner of Ma Joy’s Home for Children. She was rotund, and had flabby arms that swung like tennis balls when she clapped during morning prayers. They said she used to be married until her husband joined the nightcrawlers. After her marriage ended, she built the home and dedicated her life to taking care of children whom the world did not really want or plan for.
“Ma Joy, how did my mother die?” I asked.
“Are you not supposed to be with the other children? Go and play Ora!” Ma Joy said as she sorted the socks according to their colours.
“They don’t like playing with me. They say I smell really bad, like rotten sardine.”
“Poor girl.” Ma Joy drew me to her bosom and tugged at my cheeks. “You don’t smell that bad. You children smell the same. You all smell of Ma Joy’s love. I’ll try and get you scented soap. Do you want Lux or Eva?”
“I don’t need any scented soap, I want to know how my mother died.”
“Tiny devil,” she cursed under her breath. “I am telling you nothing.”
“The other children have stories of how their Ma and Pa died. I don’t have any story. That’s why they don’t play with me, they say I’m different.”
“You will know when you will know. Who even told you that your mother is dead?”
A week later, I stumbled on a yellow book with ripped middle and dog-eared pages. The spine was stained with ink so I could not see the title. The book told the story of a man who died by jumping into a river with a stone tied around his neck. This is it, I thought to myself, I have finally found a way to die.
I sneaked out of the house and went to River Bambu the next day. When I got to the riverside, I realized that I forgot to bring along a rope and stone. So, instead of dying, I stared at the vast expanse of the river. A little fish that was washed ashore on the river’s bank wriggled on the sand, struggling for the same life I wanted to end. I threw the fish back into the river and headed home.
Pita was in the playroom, gaping at the painting on the wall, the one with warring horsemen carrying bronze tridents, when I got back. He sat cross-legged on the linoleum. Dried spittle caked the corners of his lips. Chy-Chy was doing tap-dance at the veranda, Ezinne, the girl who pulls at my hair on nights when Ojuju Calabar visits, was knitting a sweater, and the other children were playing hula-hoops in front of the tap. Nobody noticed or seemed to care that I had gone to the river to die.
“Gather around children!” Ma Joy hollered at us after lunch. “We need to tidy up the house and dress up because we are expecting some important guests.”
Important guests visit us from time to time. Some of them are interested in taking pictures of themselves donating food to us, pictures that would later appear on the front page of the copies of Saturday Moon Ma Joy stashed on top of the shelf. Others came with coconut chips and tried to cajole us into gifting them some of our goodness for their children at home. The rest came to take some of us away. I never liked the show we pulled at our important guests; singing and answering silly questions like “What is your favourite colour?”, “Can you spell onomatopoeia?”, “Do you like dogs more than cats?”.
I sneaked up off the dorm and hid under my bed until the important guests left.
Well, these things happened before a woman visited the home and said she was my mother. Ma Joy took her upstairs where they talked in hushed whispers for hours on end. It happened so fast and before I could say twitch, I was en route to a new life. I only had the chance to say goodbye to Pita. His back was slouched against the staircase’s banister. I grabbed his face, made pyout-pyout sounds on his lips with my own lips, hurried downstairs and left with Rose.
My mother’s name is Rose, at least that was what she told me. We lived on the top floor of an old apartment at Forlorn Avenue. Our home smelt of nail polish in the day and tobacco at night. Rose never left the house during the day. She folded herself into a ball, sat by the window, polished her nails and sang away the day into darkness.
“How are my nails? Tell me Ora, how are they?” Rose asked one afternoon.
“They look nice, like red rose.”
“I don’t want nice. Now wait, pretend you are a man. See these nails with manly eyes.”
I feigned a masculine voice. “Damn babe, you can wake a man in life-support.”
“Life-support? You are drab, just like your father, Ibeh. Go boil some noodles for us. I am so tired.”
The nightcrawlers Rose brings home every night, from the bar down the street, and not polishing her nails all day, is what tires her out. The nightcrawlers come in different shades; nightcrawlers with names and nightcrawlers without names, nightcrawlers who wore wedding rings and nightcrawlers who did not wear wedding rings, nightcrawlers with warts on their nose and nightcrawlers without warts on their nose, nightcrawlers who came in snakeskin-shoes and nightcrawlers who wore shoes with gaping soles, tall, fair and old nightcrawlers, and short, dark and young nightcrawlers.
Every Saturday, I would sneak out of the house to Ma Joy’s Home for Children to see Pita. He, Pita, had not started talking and still gaped at that painting of warring horsemen in the playroom. I was fifteen now, old enough to know that the unshed tears strung up Pita’s eyebrows as he mashed the ugba and okpa I brought during my visits meant that he was between worlds.
“I have had kids like him, but they all got better. They learnt how to talk. His own is different.” Ma Joy would say.
A few weeks after I turned twenty, a nightcrawler knocked on our door.
“Hey, you Rose’s girl?” he asked as I opened the door.
“Yes. She’s putting on some clothes.”
“Tough. I love girls like you. How about I do you? I’ll pay you twice what I pay your mom.”
His hands edged closer and nudged my breast. I shoved him and slammed the door on his face.
“Where is Nedu?” Rose asked when she came out of her room. “I heard his voice just now.” She opened the front door. “Nedu.”
“He left. I slammed the door on his…”
“You what?” Rose grabbed my left arm and twisted it.
“He tried to touch me.”
“I told you my customers are never wrong.”
“He tried to touch me.”
“He tried to touch me.” Rose’s mimicry was stinging. “What do you think they do to me? That’s how I get money put warm food on the table. So, my customers can touch you if they want to.”
“I am not you,” I said with all the rage I could muster. My voice rang false because I knew that plain girls like Rose and me, who could not fly or read palms or become witches, end like you.
“You dare judge me, you silly imp. Damn it, Ibeh! You’re just like Ibeh, a bag of biting judgment.”
“Since you talk so much about me resembling this man Ibeh, why don’t you take me to him?”
“Why should I?”
“I’m going to find him.”
“You will never find him.”
Our house became tinged with unsaid words after that night. Rose still sat by the window, polishing her nails all day, and I still cooked noodles for lunch. It was how the nightcrawlers visited that changed. They stopped knocking on the front door and started throwing pebbles on Rose’s window. I moved out of Forlorn Avenue a month later into a cabin at Mushroom Groove. Rose made sure I visited all the neighbours before leaving.
“You must make them understand that I did not throw you out,” Rose had said, “that you left on your own terms.”
A week after I moved out, I got a job at Akwa’s Place, a small shop where memories are mended. Akwa had looked at me during the interview and said, “Girls like you, plain girls who don’t have magic, don’t do this type of work. But I like your spirit, you will learn.” Two days after the interview, I found a tiny envelope saying I could begin work the next day.
Akwa’s Place is at the edge of Ré Valley. The shop looked like an abandoned granary. Peeling paint and monstrous machines with little or no use pressed against the crumbling walls. The customers wanted different things; a potbellied man needed a few stitches here and there so that he could forget that his wife cheated on him, a woman with owlish eyes wanted all the memories she shared with her dead husband to be cut out. And each memory came with a different texture. Memories that came in silk, cotton and wool were the easiest to fix. Gossamer memories were slippery and, if one was not careful, could be marred forever. Ankara memories were the hardest; the intricately patterned colours sliding into themselves flooded one’s eyes.
Okwudili came to mend his memories on the night Amuma, the mad soothsayer, broke his chains and went up the hills to spell doom on the whole town. I was the only one in the shop when he came in. Akwa and the other three girls had gone home. I loved staying after work to listen to the unwanted memories of customers conversing in the dustbin. Okwudili’s memory came in a flimsy rayon rag. It was the first synthetic memory I have ever seen. He said he wanted to mend his memory but he had no memory to mend because his was an entangled mass of other people’s memories.
“This is strange. I have never worked on anything like this before.” My voice sailed through the room.
“I am a gravedigger.” Okwudili said. “The ghosts are our only memory.” He let out a strange laugh.
“I’m sorry I can’t mend this. But check back tomorrow morning and show it to my boss.”
Although I could not mend his memory, Okwudili volunteered to walk me home. I declined at first but finally accepted the offer. I invited him in when we got to my house, offered him roasted coffee beans for the long night ahead of him and let him wash himself in my bathroom. At midnight, he slung his tool bag across his shoulder and left for the cemetery.
“I met someone. His name is Okwudili. He is a gravedigger,” I whispered to Pita when I visited him the next Saturday. “I know, a gravedigger is not something to make a fuss about but I think I like him.”
Pita’s eyes remained glued to the painting on the wall.
Okwudili agreed to move in with me after a month. We would take long walks along Vicissitude Bridge in the evenings and talk about our dead hopes and dreams. He wanted to be an alchemist and I wanted to be a broom-pilot. We decided to get married two months after he moved in. At night, when Okwudili pulled off his skin to scrub off the souls of dead people that clung to it, I counted his ribs and checked if his heartbeats were real, to be sure, to make sense of everything.
“Do you think I deserve happiness?” I asked Pita on my next visit after the wedding. He looked up from the painting and started crying.
But happiness came. Happiness packaged in crinkling paper. I became pregnant.
“I’m pregnant, Pita. A little something is growing inside me.”
During lunch breaks I would tell Akwa that I wanted something terrible to happen to me. Something, like her sacking me, or me losing the baby, that would jeer me back to the hurtful reality I was used to. For days, I waited for my nightmares to come true but what came was bone-splitting labour pain.
We have a son, Okwudili. He has your nose.
This was the line I memorized to tell Okwudili when he came back from work. But Okwudili did not come back in the morning after the baby was born or in all the mornings that will follow. They said he died in a ghost-fight. A ghost sank its fangs into Okwudili’s heart. I was not allowed to see his body. They buried him beside the ghost that killed him.
My neighbours tried to reach Rose but she was out of town. They finally reached Ma Joy who promised to come over the next day. The pale, blue postnatal gown continued to burn irritation into my skin and my son’s cries sounded like the wailing of poached dragons.
Ma Joy came to the next day. And while she mopped the floor, bathed my son and washed all the dirty clothes, I lay flat on my belly, polishing my nails.
“You have to pull yourself together. You have a son now,” Ma Joy told me on her fourth day of stay.
“I’m going to take him to the home. Ma Joy, you can take care of him.”
“You would do no such thing! You want to be like your mother.”
“Yes. Throw your child into a home when you lose your husband.”
“My father is not dead. His name is Ibeh. Rose just does not want to tell me where he is.”
“You want your son to end up like you. One minute he is in Ma Joy’s Home for Children and the next minute he is in your house where you lie to him about his father.”
The baby, as if sensing that we were talking about him, cooed and started kicking the air with his legs. I edged closer to his cot.
“He has Okwudili’s eyes and his nose,” I gasped. “I will call him Okwudili. He will become my new husband.” I laughed, as much from exhaustion as joy.
“I guess my work here is done. Ora, the children at the home need me.”
“Don’t go, I might do something crazy to myself.”
“No you won’t.”
I resumed work at Akwa’s Place after I weaned the baby. Akwa and the other girls bleeped out death and husband when they talked to me. I was given less work and allowed to go home earlier than usual.
On Friday, two skinny boys, Ake and Eke, came to mend their memories. Eke had forgotten to invite Ake for Jollof rice, last Sunday. They wanted to cut out the event and pretend it never happened. I wound the scissors around the silk material of their memories, and was done in no time. I went back home in the evening filled with thoughts of how some memories could not be cut out.
“Look. Baby. Ora bring baby to the house!” Pita screamed the instant I walked in with little Okwudili. Everyone stood still. Pita talked. I rushed to his side and hugged him. Ma Joy hurried out of the kitchen, wiping her palms on the apron tied around her waist.
“He talked! Ma Joy, Pita talked!”
I told Ma Joy to take care of Okwudili while Pita and I took a walk.
“I like Ora,” Pita whispered into my ears as we went outside.
“Ora likes you too,” I replied.
Pita and I, continued our journey to River Bambu, where I had gone to die many years ago.