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The International Writers Magazine: Real Life Stories

ECHOES OF A FUNERAL DRUM
Mary Opaluwa


F
our nights ago, Baba and I were at the Lokongoma crossroads to perform the sacrifice which Noka’s life depended on. I was only a carrier of the items required for the occasion and I watched keenly as he slaughtered the white cock with a small shiny knife; collected the blood in a calabash and drew a circle with it at the point of intercession of the tarred roads.

I gave him a small black cellophane bag containing rice, beans and guinea corn. He poured the content into the ring of the blood, pulled out a feather from the dead animal and dipped it into the remnant of the calabash and sprinkled it on the grains, chanting some incantations in which Noka’s name was mentioned intermittently. I felt naked in the gaze of the half moon and my eyes darted in all directions hoping that we would not be identified by whoever may be passing by at that time of the night.
In less than ten minutes, we were through and riding home in his new peugeot 406.

The next day, he had traveled with the firm conviction that Noka’s illness was over, but as the days went by she plunged further into the deep waters of death.
It was Saturday morning. Unlike other Saturdays, silence hung heavily over the house. It bothered me that even my younger siblings acknowledged the mood in the house by keeping quite. “Ibe!” Mama called from the sitting room.
“Ma!” I answered.
“Hurry up with the breakfast.” She said. I hastily arranged the plates I had washed in the dish rack. Amarya came into the kitchen.

Obviously, she just woke up. Her hair was raised and her eyes looked puffier than usual. She wore a blue night gown which appeared shorter at the front because her protruded tummy pushed it up. We exchange greetings. She paused for a while and said, “So in your town young girls don’t kneel to greet elders?” she jibed. Finding it difficult to stoop, she still managed to serve herself some slices of pineapple from the fridge. The twins trailed her and as they left she gave Ejima a whack on the head and mumbled something.
I think he got tangled in her legs. She move snailishly as if it was her tummy that pulled her forward so that her upper body was completely thrown to the back and her footwear swept the floor as she climbed up the stairs.

I doubt if Amarya knows what is going on in the house. She nursed her pregnancy above everything else and for some reason; she had suddenly grown sullen since the past one month or so. I think it has to do with the rumour that Baba was bringing in a new wife, a university undergraduate at that, when she only managed a diploma in mass communication.
“This is the third successive night since the man of the house last came home” mama was saying, as if I didn’t already know that. “It is not like I want to see his face,” she continued “but what about money to take Noka to the hospital? Only God knows where he is”. She concluded, gulping Akamu from a large plastic cup. She finished her meal and dashed out of the house to get money for Noka’s treatment. Usually on Saturdays, she took time off from her stall at the new market in Felele where she sold foodstuffs. Then we had all the time to talk. She would go on and on, inundating me with history on how we used to be a very cute family, stories going round that he was preparing to take a fourth wife in a matter of weeks and stuff like that.

I think mama’s trauma began five years ago when Baba became the speaker of the state House of Assembly, or was it when he married Chide? Whichever, but his marriage to Chide was a consequence of his new found position. It did not end there, three years after, he topped it with Amarya and to think of he was planning on another… I always had the feeling, just a feeling, that if I was more at home, not having to spend most of my hours in school preparing for my SSCE, things would have been better or would not have gone so bad. At least I would have known where he could be. If he was going to the club, he would spend a lot of time dressing up. Then he would emerge in a polo shirt, usually, white and the fragrance of his perfume would consume the entire compound. He preferred using his sleekest cars for such occasions. If he was traveling outside of Lokoja, he would call us all the children into his bedroom. It was a privilege to be in there because it was always under lock whenever he went out. The room had a large bed, blue rug and curtains and a white bed spread. A television, radio and VCD player were on display opposite the bed and his clothes were neatly stacked in his wardrobe. It was an idyllic setting compared to the rest of the house. He would sit an edge of the bed and we would all line up in descending order of birth. We would kneel one after the other and spit into his palm which he rubbed on his head saying a short prayer, more like a blessing. When it came to the twins, they would argue over whom to come first than resolve by kneeling beside themselves and spitting into Baba’s palm simultaneously. Noka was the most dramatic of all, she would summon as much quantity of saliva as possible and pour it into Baba’s palm. He enjoyed her show. He would fondle her hair and hail her, then, she would get all excited, grinning and trying to draw in yellowish green mucus stuck in her nostrils. Sometimes I wonder how she breathes because it had become a permanent feature of her face. Inspite of this, she still looked lovely. She had thin lips, sparse hair and an ethereal look and was extremely lively and smart for a two year old. Baba was particularly fond of her. He needn’t say it. It showed in the way he whisks her of the ground whenever she was in slight. If it is because she is the last child of the family, then her tenure may soon be over.

I sat on a sofa in the living room trying Baba’s number. I hate to hear that voice: ‘the number you have dialed is not available at the moment, please try again later… the number you have dialed…’ I tried later and later, no way! Chide had Noka fastened on her back with a large shawl. She paced up and down the room fiddling with the tip of her blouse while I kept at my task of getting through to Baba. I was interrupted by Mama’s call. She asked Chide to take Noka to the federal medical center and promised to join them in a short while.

The day was no longer young when Mama returned from the market. She heaved herself on the sofa beside me, dug her hand beneath her wrapper into her ugbur and emerged with crumpled Naira notes. She placed them on her lap and sought them out quickly. Minutes later, she joined Chide in the hospital. After a meal of garri with sugar and groundnut, I took it upon myself to search for Baba at the Confluence Beach Hotel: It was his usual spot. I had twenty Naira which could only take me there. If I did not find him there, I risked trekking back alone in the night.

The Confluence Beach Hotel was situated at the muddy bank of river Niger overlooking the Confluence of the Niger and Benue rivers. It had chalets, supermarket, restaurant bar, and other attractions. I walked through the lawns looking out for Baba. The place was rather quiet except for the chatters from the bar. I was too shy to go in there. I recognized his friend’s car amidst the array of cars. I sat on the bonnet from where I could view the Confluence and some fishermen relaxing on the island. I flinched as my eyes came in contact with his friend. He came out immediately with a green bottle in his hand. He told me Baba left the hotel yesterday for an official meeting at Abuja.

Thank God! I still had my N20. He offered to take me home but I refused because the last time he gave me a ride from school he said something really nasty. I did not tell Baba because I did not know how to begin and I have not learnt how since then.
“Here, for transport,” he said, handing me some clean Naira notes”. “No thank you sir.” I said with a curtsy. He tucked the money in my chest pocket so that his hand slapped my breast. Waves of embarrassment surged through me. I disappeared without a good bye.

As I got out of sight, I brought out the money. Good God! There were fix pieces of N500 notes. I put the money back in place and began to envisage my budget as I hopped home. I will by sanitary pad… recharge card, cake powder, make my hair… I heard footsteps trudging behind me. I quickly removed the money and put it in my skirt pocket. I peeped through the corner of my eyes, behold, there was nobody. As I made to go back to my line of thought, it struck me that we may need the money to settle Noka’s hospital bills. I had even forgotten to board a taxi. I raced the rest of my way home.

Later in the night, Baba drove in and parked his car at the garage. He usually took the rear entrance whenever he came from one of his trips in order to avoid the cursing murmurs of his wives. The kids as soon as they heard him honk would race through the courtyard to the back door to welcome him enthusiastically and shouting Baba! Baba!

Mama who had been home earlier to prepare rice for Chide in the hospital would have the privilege of being driven to the hospital by Baba since the chauffeurs have all gone home for the day.
The kids were overfed after eating the Eba and Egusi soup Amarya made for dinner and topping it with an extra portion of Mama’s rice so that they lay around the living room like poisoned cockroaches. Someone woke up with a loud cry displaying a bright patch on the knee like the surface of a sliced watermelon.
Whoever it was that bruised the face of his wound was oblivious of his or her sin. The victim picked on Ejima whom he suspected to be cause of his woe and a fight ensued. I pretended to be asleep as the episode unwound.

On Sunday morning, I was on the corridors of the Federal Medical Centre searching for the children’s ward. I dreaded asking the nurses that strolled past: most of them were fat and carried a frighting countenance.
“I beg, where children’s ward dey?” I asked in pidgin.
The peasant lying on the bare floor just pointed ahead of me.

The nurses were all over Noka’s bed. I think it had to do with Baba’s status, but if her situation was the cause of their fuss, then, it was justified. Her condition had significantly deteriorated. She puked constantly, her fingernails blackened and she had sores on her stomach and round about her back. The nurses sat her up to take her drugs. The blue bed cover glued to her back with the aid of the puss from her sores. On seeing this, Chide let out a loud cry, shaking the bed vigorously. Amarya and a nurse took her outside the ward and other patient looked on forgetting their sorrows momentarily. I could hear faintly the song Chide composed spontaneously. Ojo…Noka... Don’t leave meeeee………” she drawled, then charge the key “Baby don’t go”. Reduced her pitch and continued amidst sobs.

We still anticipated the result of the medical examination conducted last night. The doctor approached Baba from the walk way with his hands in the pocket of his robe. He was smiling furiously and it annoyed me how he managed to smile in this kind of situation. He engaged Baba in a conversation. His nose appeared too close to his lips so that they flared as he spoke. Through out the discussion, Baba just folded his hands across his chest, leaning on the wall. The doctor led him towards his office holding his hand like a baby. Chide having finished her show outside came back pacified. She watched sternly as a nurse injected Noka intravenously.

The nurses asked us to go out, saying her bedside was crowded. We stayed in the car waiting for Baba Amarya and I occupied the back seat while Mama sat in front with the doors flanked open. I got out and sat on the bonnet. The heat of the sun was so intense; it was like hell was leaking. Shortly, a piercing scream from Chide sent goose pimples all over me. She yanked herself oaway from the nurses that led her towards the car and knelt before mama. “Can you see what God has done to me?” she asked rhetorically. “What did I do to God? Somebody tells me now o… Are my sins too many that he cannot forgive me?” As she spoke, torrent of tears drenched my skirt.

At home, Baba barely spoke with his friends and colleagues who paid him condolence visit. He had been more of a man after the death of Eke (mama’s last child) a year ago. Eke too had rashes all over him so it was believed to be poison or spiritual manipulation by his political enemies. She was taken straight to Baba’s favourite native doctor. The one who said he had lived in times past but re-incarnated to solve the problems of the sons of men. He was the same one Baba brought home some months prior to his election: the one who made everybody in the house eat a spoon of pepper mixed with some whitish stuff. It was meant, to make us immune to evil, so we took it with the zeal to live. Even when we all fell seriously ill in succession afterwards we were not scared of dying.

Later in the day, when the callers began to leave, Baba called Mama and Amarya into his bedroom. I tiptoed and squatted behind the window that opened to the courtyard to eavesdrop on their conservation. I heard him give a lecture on how he felt they should know this and that and in fact, know it now… he went on and on, my thighs were beginning to ache. As I was about to leave, Amarya exploded into a shout. I missed the bomb Baba dropped. I think I heard AIDS. Yes, he said it again. Noka had died of AIDS. The test result proved it. I raised my head a bit in order to capture Mama’s face. She was so calm her eyes darted from Baba to Amarya. She looked like she had never heard the word in her entire life and was waiting for them to explain to her why they are so sorrowful, after all, they were the ones that were educated. Baba opened the bathroom door and slammed it hard behind him. Mama fixed her gaze on Amarya contemplating whether to join in her demented state or not. I wandered out of the house. I cannot remember the streets I passed through because a lot of things raced through my mind: the various campaigns against HIV/AIDS. The “zip up” advertisement, the billboards with skull and cross-bones, and the uncountable seminars held in our school hall. It really got me thinking.

When I got home at about 6.00pm, the house was quieter than I had left it. Only a few female sympathizers stayed with Chide in the living room. She was longer crying but her eyes seemed larger and silvery with pools of tears simmering in them and threatening to run down her cheek which had already been washed clean by tears. As I got close to the dining room, Baba stood up and walked towards his bedroom. The kids swiftly pursued him hovering around him like the overflowing attires of fabulous politicians. They were amused having him at home for hours. I hauled myself on a dining chair to register my presence, else, I know those women-the sympathizers-would go bearing tales that Chide’s step daughter was not even sympathetic and was strolling to and fro the house. Young, married and jobless women were prone to poke-nosing.

The room I shared with my sibling was dark when I got in. I groped for the switch and clicked it then the room appeared darker because I had expected light on. I did not know what to do next: no match box at hand, no candle, no lamp, I dreaded going downstairs to get light else I tripped over someone so I chose to watch the moon dance as it appeared and retreated behind the cloud.

When the house was well lit, I ran down to get a candle for myself. I lay on my rug beside the candle which I mounted on an empty peak milk container. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead because of the intensity of the heat exuded from the candle light. I began to caress the dripping wax along the body of the candle, saviouring the warm sensation until it fell and hot, wax splashed on my hand and solidified immediately so that I looked like a priestess prepared to hear from an oracle.
Suddenly, my head came alive with a bang as if a troupe performed Agbaka in it. Events of the past couple of hours began to spin in it and it was accomplished by what sounded like the reverberation of dirge music from a neighbouring land.

© Mary Opaluwa June 2006
maryopaluwa@yahoo.co.uk

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