My black dress itches as I blow phlegm into the soiled white handkerchief that my mother-in-law thrust in my bandaged palms hours ago. Now, I watch as the funeral preparations unfold: the cooking, the spiraling smoke snaking its way to the clouds, the congregation of relatives I barely recognize screaming away about the cost of meat in an unusual Igbo dialect. I’m uninterested. My eyes are hollow, I’m sure, my soul glazed by a chilling bleakness. To love someone is to make them a part of you, it is to be one and whole with them. Therefore, to lose them to the opaqueness of death is to have that part of you violently cut off, and then watch as the chunk is shred into innumerable pieces right in front of you while you bleed out.
The day Chika died with me by his side – the day the car rolled and tumbled over and over and over, endlessly, until I thought my head would detonate from that dizzying plunge down the grassy hill – he’d just been employed by the telecommunications company he’d been applying to since his graduation. He’d groveled and begged; and finally, on the wavering tenets of diminishing hope, he’d cried with knees in the dust as he begged and called the potbellied man in the Human Resources Department ‘Daddy’ in a submissive way that was unlike him. I knew all of this because he’d told me as we drove down to the village from the stultifying traffic of Lagos to tell his mother. My left palm was clasped in his right, which worked the manual gear at regular intervals. In my right palm was the crisp envelope that contained his employment letter. He’d turned briefly to stare at me, his eyes misty with proudly worn affection. I’d squeezed his palms and smiled shyly. He’d moved – one eye still on the undulating road pockmarked with ghastly craters, the other on my face – to kiss me. He’d unknowingly struck the lever that controlled the wipers, and they moved to and fro with a scraping sound on the windscreen that had a crack running from the left end to the right. We’d giggled at fate trying to stop us from moments of brief pleasure when the trailer’s horn hooted deafeningly. It seemed too close, far too close. But Chika, swift as he was, had veered the car off the trailer’s path, and it had skidded off the road and plunged to ghastly somersaults down the hill.
When days later I woke up, a blur of reddish bandages swathed over my arms, palms and right leg, my entire being wracked in a steady, searing pain, I’d called out to Chika. I’d recognized our room, the familiar smell of lavender, the bedsheet with flower prints, the clock with its chipped edge – it’d said a quarter past four, but it looked like nine in the morning. I began to scream, strangled broken sounds that barely carried outside the open door, as reality dawned, as certainty streamed in like the ray of morning sunshine coming through the raised curtains. I remembered Chika’s bloody mass as we tumbled down the hill. I recalled his body being thrown violently forward and shattering the windscreen. I recalled trying valiantly to scream, to do something that would not, as I think about it now, have saved him. The days arrived slowly, each one the same as the previous, no different from the next. The rains came down, ferocious storms that battled with the raging inferno in my soul. I tried to feel, tried to breathe. I wanted to close my eyes and reach out to feel Chika’s being. I needed assurance of his physicality; and then kaleidoscopically, images of the accident seized my senses. I swayed, I fell deep into an abyss of grief. I tried to steady myself, to reclaim my senses. An enveloping lethargy subdued me.
Days to the burial, I was seized by maddening grief. With the strength that arrived with steady recovery, I fought off every hand that tried to restrain me, then made my way towards the well in the backyard. In one fluid movement, I threw off the zinc sheet covering the 15-foot well, and would have thrown myself in but for the commanding voice that bellowed my name just in time.
‘Kachi, are you mad?’ My mother-in-law’s voice rang out, croaked, too tear lined.
I fell to the sandy ground of the backyard, whimpering, shivering. This time, I did not throw off or fight the comforting hands that pulled me up and attempted to ease my grief. I did not hear the intermittent wails from mourners, nor did I see the women who went about serving drinks and Kola nut. I only remember how empty my chest felt, and how heavy my eye lids felt.
Now, I watch as the priest, a slight man in startlingly white soutane, yells John 11:25. His face is contorted into a tight, vein-filled mass. I’m supposed to whimper as he intones that death is not finality; instead, I walk up to the open coffin and stare through the glass partition. I hear the murmurs and gasps from the bewildered guests, about three hundred of them, many of whom are the usual gossiping market women and farmers, natives of the village. From their expressions, you can tell why each of them is here, seated in their regular nondescript clothes. I stare at each of them passively, unmoved by the fervid shrieks of grief from the women or the despairing snaps of fingers from the men. I run my fingers over the glass shield, looking at Chika’s still body through it. I notice that the sleeves of his white suit, the same one he wore for our wedding in Owerri, are rumpled. I want to run my palms, both now missing a thumb since the accident, over his head glistening with olive oil. The barber, I suddenly notice, has missed several tufts of hair. Now, viewed through the looking glass, several portions on Chika’s head look like they’re painted a lighter shade of brown. His hair is (was) brown. I begin to point and tug at the glass, then start whimpering again. The priest holds me, I shrug free. Only Akunna, Chika’s mother, can pacify me.
Later, I watch passively as the coffin, a deep shade of brown, is lowered steadily, carefully into the 6-foot hole. I’m supposed to weep loudly now at the inevitable finality. I’m supposed to wail and wipe off the streams and streams of tears that pour out. I’m supposed, as wild as it seems, to try to throw myself into the grave as sand is slowly poured in by relatives and as the priest’s solemn voice intones softly. None of these thing happen. As the sky changes from its azure blueness to a foreboding indigo, as the trees and grass in the cemetery sway this way and that, I smile softly. My aching core is suffused with a calming peace. I know my perfect husband is watching me. I also know he’d say something witty and mocking if I jumped into the grave like those silly theatrics of mourning we’ve both jeered at. Once, we’d attended a funeral of a distant uncle with four wives, and we’d giggled with concealed derision at the third wife, a large woman with bleached skin, when she tried to jump into the freshly dug grave.
The memory is luminous, untainted where I’ve kept it. Now, I unfurl my mind, and it’s the first thing I think about, the only thing that swirls in planes of my mind as the tears drop from my eyes.
* * *
It’s a bright Sunday afternoon. The wind is calm, Ikoyi Cemetery is serene. I listen to the punctuating sounds of a police or ambulance van’s siren nearby. I try to imagine the twirling, interchanging color of blues and reds and sometimes green, but cannot. Instead, I’m staring painstakingly at the bunch of Ixora flowers on Chika’s tomb. Normally, I would have weeded the grassy portions around the tomb, sat and crossed my legs as I talked languorously about my activities the week before and ran my fingers through the ‘1972-1998’ inscription chiseled into the tombstone. Now, everything seems hazy. Even the usual green vegetation and the hundreds of tombs scattered around are perplexingly unclear. I pick up the flowers, sniff them knowing there’ll hardly be any fragrance. I wonder if this is some silly joke.
The next Sunday, as I walk through the labyrinths of tombs, an ominous pounding in my chest, I wonder what those flowers the week prior could mean. I wonder how someone else has found out that Chika’s favorite flowers were piercingly pink Ixoras. I’m shattered to see them again lying desolately on the tombstone. I shriek and throw them off, then fall back on the marble tombstone just next to his. I throw pebbles in the air, wondering what I’ve stumbled upon: infidelity?
As I shake my head violently to make that scorching thought vanish, my braids loosen from their weakly tied bun.
Each Sunday comes with the Ixora flowers placed the same way, not an inch different, on Chika’s grave. I’m slapped violently by waves and waves of new grief. My sores are reopened. For a split second, I wonder wildly if it is Akunna doing all of this. But just then, her plump face with its mango coloured skin floats in my mind; I do not think she would do this without letting me know. We both share the grief. Our hearts are torn in the same places. We’ve both shared in Chika’s perfectness.
Finally, I arrive at the cemetery earlier than usual, taking the guard at the gate by surprise. His ‘Good after...’ (he checks his watch) ‘...good morning, madam!’ is forced.
When I arrive at the tomb, and even before I see the woman – dark skinned and of average height – beating her palms on the tombstone, I just know. My heart has contracted with foreknowledge. She’s startled when she realizes my presence. Streams of dried tears do little to mar her dainty beauty. Her hair is sectioned into tiny plaits just like Chika had liked them. I pull her up and shake her shoulders. She wrenches free.
As she starts to run, her card falls out of her black bag. She hardly notices. I pick up the card and stare into it. ‘Grace Cole’ and a home address somewhere in Surulere. Rage snakes its way around my heart. Fury sheathes my senses.
* * *
It was never preconceived, but now I knew I had to kill her. I just had to. I’d just gotten off the phone with her, and we’d planned to meet up. She’d promised in between whimpers and croaking that she’d tell me the truth. I’d remained calm, controlled by the flaming intent in my heart.
The house she lives in, a three-storey apartment complex with peeling brown paint, has television aerials sticking out of every veranda. Telephone lines crisscross and intertwine with those for electricity, making me wonder how electricians can tell them apart. I walk up the darkened stairway, breathing calmly. When I reach her flat, the very last, I’m glad. She lives alone, seems lonely, and it’ll be difficult to find her dead. At least, no one will make the discovery soon enough. She opens the wooden door with a carving of Jesus Christ etched into it, and manages a tight smile.
Later, I listen as she talks. My eyes roam around, imagining Chika here with her, their bodies close, their legs entwined as they make love on the sofa or perhaps in one of the rooms down the hallway or on this table that separates us right now. I watch her carefully, and can see just how she enthralled and entrapped my Chika – her birdlike voice and easy, unperturbed aura. I cry softly as she traces Chika’s perfectness, which is not difficult to do. It is innate, those sparkling attributes of his. With his childlike earnestness, the way his eyes sparkled and crinkled at the sides when he smiled, his almost raucous laughter, his entire being was nearly perfect. And just then, I decide I’ve heard enough. She cannot possibly know that I cry every night wishing I’d died instead of my husband. She cannot know that we’d been destined, Chika and I, by God himself, and that our love stemmed from the tiniest of coincidences; even unscrambling his name could form mine. I stand up abruptly, pushing the table over. I watch as her eyes widen at my sudden violent outburst, watch as her breathing quickens. I lunge towards her, she swerves, and I fall. She tries to run, and I pull her, ripping her blouse. There’s a sudden jerk of my biceps, an influx of adrenaline coursing through my veins. She falls and gets impaled to the leg of the overturned table. I hear her subdued yelps, I watch the sputtering blood and step back. The push, more violent than I’d planned, kills her. I’m frighteningly satisfied by the gruesomeness of the whole process.
I wipe my face with the same handkerchief my mother-in-law gave me at the burial, straighten my blouse, and adjust my braids. As I walk out of the building, I hardly hear the screams of playing children in the yard or those of their mothers warning them to steer clear of the uncovered septic tank somewhere in the backyard. The sun is luminously yellow, the sky a soothing shade of blue. As I sit in a crowded bus on my way home, I smile smugly. I’m not bothered by the dozing man, a sweaty mess, whose head intermittently falls and wets my sleeves. Even the preaching woman wearing an unnervingly bright yellow turban does not bother me, neither does her continuous echoing of ‘the wages of sin is death!’ The woman seated in front of me has a beautiful baby strapped to her back. I run my hands over the boy’s plump cheeks, and he yelps enthusiastically. I’m convinced the light in the baby’s eyes is an assurance from God himself that I’ve done the right thing: I’ve set the world right and given only the deserving people, not some unknown mistress, the right to mourn Chika.
I arrive at the cemetery the next Sunday in my favorite print dress, the one Chika said made me look dangerously beautiful; and right there, on Chika’s tombstone, is the same bunch of Ixora flowers.
About the author
Cole Olasubomi is a 20-year-old upcoming writer. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria, with his parents and little sister. He loves to write, sing, read and dream. He believes stories make the world a better place. He is presently studying dentistry at the Lagos state university college of medicine.