Lucky Were The Bodies

Armed soldiers were stationed here and there. Grannies wondered why we remained in the north. We should come home.

I want to remember. No. I don’t want to keep remembering. But shouldn’t I? His face keeps popping up here and there, in my dreams, in my wakefulness, inciting me with his smile to come and play, as if he were here.

I want to ask him if he is fine, as we were when dawn fed us chants of cockerels, muezzins, and preachers. When our shadows grew shorter, like dots under our feet as the bright lone eye of the cloudless sky moved to the center, inviting our stomachs to cry for food. When the lone eye went to sleep, its mild colleague crept in to usher our game-tired bodies home.

On weekends we were fed with Indian films. We crowded a tiny parlor belonging to the only owner of a twelve-inch black-and-white screen. Or we huddled outside and struggled for space to look through a glint in the window. Or we passed broomsticks through the open window to part the curtains for our yearning eyes to see.

We fought wars, reenacting the Indian films we watched. Our regalia were green leaves from mango trees. Our swords — maize stalks — were sharp with playfulness. Our guns shot bullets of sound, torrents of our shrieks. We killed. We died and were resurrected with laughter.

Then we couldn’t leave our rooms. Or dream with closed eyes. For the next couple of days, the most popular phrase was “Sharia law.” Why should we stay at home because of some law? Clouds of smoke wrapped up neighboring communities, as if in reply. All of our men — fathers and boys armed with machetes, bows and arrows, sticks and spears — spread out in groups to defend the town, their faces darkened with soot. Some, including Tema, went off to the border. Mama wouldn’t allow me to go. But I had no liter of courage either. And then the army came.

Tema’s catapult always hung around his neck. When we went hunting for tswi-tswi in the fields, he was accurate with his target. I was never his match. Once, I struck and missed, scaring the bird away; despite the fury boiling in Tema’s eyes, a stream of chuckles cracked his face. They say he had a smiling face.

I saw him. He saw me. He smiled. I smiled back. The group marched away.

In February 2000, Kaduna was awakening from the rubble of religious crisis. Malali, one of its towns, was a swelling of people who had run away like an endangered species — from burnings, from lynchings common as air, escaping, if luck embraced you, from attacks by the burners and killers lusting over our end.

Everybody now belonged to a body of tribal consciousness — of identities as Christians and Muslims, southerners and northerners, natives and non-natives, pagans and believers. Words were tied like nooses around our necks.

People died. Friends, relatives, fathers, mothers, babies — dead. Families were charred to black ash. Bodies were lost. The dead were buried in graves, real or imaginary. Lucky were the bodies recovered and recognized, luckier still if given burial.

Fear hung in the air like a bad omen. Movement was regulated with a dusk-to-dawn curfew. Armed soldiers were stationed here and there. Trespassers didn’t wake up at dawn. The order was: gun them down. Vengeance for this, vengeance for that, was mused. Paranoid was the air we breathed. Relatives and friends in other parts of the country kept asking us to leave the state. Grannies wondered why we remained in the north. We should come home.

No more street play, hide-and-seek, card games, moonlight tales, aimless scampering about. No more Tema?

Like most families from the southern part of the country, we succumbed. The red sand and soft green trees of Nsukka welcomed us to the southeast. We stayed at our grandparents’ place, with a twelve-inch black-and-white TV. The wall clock still ticked, ageless. Framed photos hung on the walls. One of Grandpa’s large faces stared like it was daring you to do something silly. Seats were set around the spacious parlor — a door that led into Grandpa’s room inches away. It was always ajar. On windy days, the house howled through its roof.

Everything seemed as familiar as when I lived there years back. We had traveled home for Christmas. Grandma had requested that I be brought to stay with them. Three or four years old, I was driven in a Volkswagen by their neighbor from my own father’s house. Grandpa was lying down in a camp bed in front of the house, reading a newspaper — or was it a book? He didn’t move or say a word to me, though I was still crying.

Now, having spent much of my life growing up in the north, my Hausa was fluent. Better than my Igbo. Though we spoke Igbo at home, it was an exclusive preserve of communication with my parents, especially Papa, who would never want me to speak anything else. Igbo was my mother tongue; Hausa was not. He thought I should be a master of my mother tongue. He wanted me to be good at English too.

In the village, there was only Igbo, which limited me to just a few utterances. The words felt heavy on my lips. They sounded like I was learning the language anew. I listened more than I spoke. I didn’t want to be laughed at, let alone rebuked by Grandma, when I pronounced the words wrong. When I didn’t know which Igbo words to use — the appropriate words — I’d utter the Hausa or English equivalents. They came easily.

Once or twice, I went to Grandma for soap to wash the plates. The word had skipped me. I didn’t say ncha. Instead, I said sabulu. She said she didn’t understand. She continued stitching our torn clothes. My cousin told Grandma what I needed. I was relieved but disappointed. Grandma’s knowing smile stirred a growing feeling that had crept into me — that the whole world was staring at me, at my every deed, expecting me to be flawless, and I responded by coiling back into myself. I heard it said that I was quiet and shy.

The room I occupied was Grandpa’s. He had passed away a few years back after complaining of chest pain. There was a cupboard of books, a table by the window. From the window I could see flowers at the entrance to the front door and the wide path that met our colonial heritage, the market road whose asphalt surface had thinned away into patches here and there. One end led to the University of Nigeria, and the major town of Nsukka, while the other led to Nkwo market. On market days, Nkwo especially, the road was busy with people avoiding police checkpoints on other roads.

Across the road was the primary school where Grandpa had taught. As a teacher, he was nicknamed Masquerade. His moral strength, they said, scared away its offhand neighbor. If Grandpa had been loose, his mud house would have been a mansion, and his family would be living off the cake of his millions by now, but his pupils wouldn’t have grown into credible men and women. Mama said she was his pupil at some point. She made a face to indicate that the privilege hadn’t spared her anything. My last encounter with him was a hard thrashing I received for not feeding the goats. The night whined of their hunger.

The cupboard of books in Grandpa’s room was made of redwood. It was taller and bigger and housed more books than my father’s. If my appreciation for books and reading had so far been a hidden trait, the books in Grandpa’s cupboard baited it out. The meeting was irresistible. And the books were good company. I took solace in them. They saved me the discomfort of facing people, speaking to them, speaking Igbo to them, or being accused of avoiding them.

Some books I read willingly. Others, I felt, were very deep. I left these to read later. When I read Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind, I didn’t understand anything. But I read it anyway. When I became a philosophy major at the University of Nigeria years later, I was intrigued by his famous “ghost in the machine” metaphor — a critique of Cartesian dualism. But I liked Descartes’s dualism, not so much because of his subtle approval of modern science but because of his style of writing. And the famous “cogito, ergo sum” was a dictum I personalized in other ways. I sleep, therefore I am. I read, therefore I am. I write, therefore I am.

The cupboard was dusty for lack of use since its owner had gone. I would take out the books and beat off the dust or blow it away. I liked the smell — their musty perfume. When I flipped through their pages, the buzzing rustle tickled my ears. Sometimes I would hold a book in my hand just to enjoy the feel of its weight.

The ones that tickled me were The River Between and Weep Not, Child by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Mission to Kala by Mongo Beti, The White Man of God by Kenjo Jumbam, Chike and the River by Chinua Achebe, The African Child by Camara Laye, Zambia Shall Be Free by Kenneth Kaunda, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwe Armah, Toads for Supper by Chukwuemeka Ike, A Fresh Start by Helen Ovbiagele, Sammy Going South by W. H. Canaway, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, The Dignity of Man by Russell W. Davenport, Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot, and Remove the Heart of Stone by Donal Dorr. Most of the books presented me with a world similar to the one I lived in — dirt roads, cornrowed hair, black skins, and straw beds.

I was hungry for more books. I would strip the cupboard of all the books just to find something new to read. Some books had lost pages or even covers. I read them like that. A copy of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was falling apart. There was James Hadley Chase’s Tiger by the Tail and, under the pen name Raymond Marshall, You Find Him, I’ll Fix Him. I read Grandpa’s lesson notes and letters and marveled at his handwriting, at the old black-and-white photos of his not-quite-younger years.

I learned new words and expressions, which I wrote down on sheets of paper and later transferred into a notebook. I became obsessed with the dictionary. An old Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary was handy. I wanted to know every word. I thought I could. But there was always something new. One new word. Two more. A dozen more. In senior secondary, my classmates would call me Dictionary. I was at ease with words and their meanings, and it was an honor to be looked up to in class or approached to explain the meanings of new or unfamiliar words.

Chores kept me briefly away from reading. Every day after morning prayers, I swept the compound with a broom made of palm fronds and washed the plates before and after meals. We went to the farm on Saturdays. It was a new experience: tilling the soil, weeding, making ridges. Afterward, we gathered firewood and brought it home.

In the fields, I looked forward to reading, so much that I remained locked up within myself, digesting words, sounds, and voices, replaying them in my mind, rolling over new words — Igbo words too — in quiet dialogue with myself.

While Grandpa’s books fed me, the news from Kaduna was that life was getting back to normal. Business was beginning to bubble. People who had left now returned, Christians among Christians, Muslims among Muslims. But I was excited. I hoped Tema had returned — from wherever. I wanted to go back, to be with my friend, to laugh, to play on the streets, to hold hands, to behold the city again, to bask under her sky without fear. We would make traps. We would go hunting. My trap would catch nothing. His would catch a dozen bush rats. We would make kites and fly them. They would take our dreams to the sky. His would fly higher than mine. We would slice empty tins and make miniatures of our dream cars.

And I would tell him of the books I had read, of the new words I had learned. I would show him my notebook with many words. He would nod at my accomplishment.

I wondered what he could have been up to. Reading like me, perhaps, or going to the farm. Hunting? When our teacher, Mr. John, had asked us what we wanted to be in the future, Tema had always said he wanted to play. I didn’t know what I wanted either. Playing seemed the most feasible thing to do.

“Happy birthday,” Mama said. It was November 23.

But it was immaterial. Tema didn’t return. He was never found.

Ifeanyichukwu Eze studied philosophy at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He explores survival as it reveals layers of being, the utopia of place, and the intersections between faith, identity, mental health, and death. His work has appeared in Adda, The Offing, The Temz, The Dark, Agbowo, Akuko, and a few other places. A fellow of the Ebedi International Writers Residency, Eze was longlisted for the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and won second prize in the inaugural Akuko Writers’ Prize, 2020.