(In memoriam Uncle Ifeanyi Ezeanuna)
I am in front of plot 72, Kwame Nkrumah Crescent, Asokoro, Abuja, to evoke Uncle Ifeanyi’s ghost. I look for a sign in the gigantic khaya senegalentis, at the birds in the clear blue sky, in the few cars zooming by. I seek a reason to go home, to just stop! It is 7:30 a.m. My appointment is for eight. The Corrs sing One night in my ears, but all I hear is “…is it all right?” Here I am, waiting to see this woman whose name and location came to me choked in confidentiality. Is it all right? This house, with its high, white walls and pink pillars, is as appealing as a birthday cake. Will I, like Hansel and Gretel, disappear behind it?
Uncle Ifeanyi would have laughed at me. Were he with me, he would knock on this larger-than-life gate and announce his earliness. He would have said My love, life is too short. Seems he sensed his unripe transition to Be mmụọ. I wish I listened. We held hands that evening, taking a stroll along Ahmadu Bello Way, on what became our last walk together. His buttoned-up shirt was midnight blue and his jeans sky blue. The huge trees, lined like queen guards along the tarred pedestrian walkway, had roots so aggressive they cracked earth. I have since come to see my heart bursting that way: with veins of want and regret. It was the last time I saw him: 2015. My marriage was as fresh as hot bread when Uncle Ifeanyi had come visiting from Onitsha, and I came to my parents to see him.
Were we running an errand? I do not remember. But I recall his voice when he spoke about his girlfriends and exes.
“I can buy pad for my girlfriend. I am not ashamed. I am an expert in petting women. Even my last girlfriend still calls me. I am now friends with her husband. Last week, I almost travelled with her family abroad for vacation. But she called me in the dying minute and cancelled. I guess her husband changed his mind. She sent me two hundred thousand naira to pacify me.”
Uncle Ifeanyi talked on end. His stories were musical notes on the staff of his voice.
“I will beat my wife o,” he said. “Like children, women need correction. If she offends me, I will beat her. Then I will buy her something to apologise. But next time, she will not do that again.”
I, a hardcore, placard-carrying feminist, found it offensive that Uncle Ifeanyi planned to beat his wife whom he hadn’t even met! I expressed my disappointment, but he tried to seed his idea in my brain. I stopped talking when I felt choked. I slipped my palm from his and walked faster. He placed an arm around my shoulder as if to reduce my steps, as if to convey his love.
My watch says it’s 7:55 a.m. I drag myself up, unplug my earphones, and slap dust off my blue jeans. Cars zoom by on this street of Asokoro, not minding, not even noticing, that I might be approaching the house where I might simply disappear. The wrought iron gate stands menacing, a giant intent on keeping people out. I knock, not knowing if anyone will even hear. I hear the unlocking of padlocks and undoing of bolts. The pedestrian access pulls in, and out pops the head of a man with the biggest nose I have ever seen.
“Good morning, sir. Please I…”
“You are Ijedimma?” His voice is a bass trumpet.
Of course, he ‘nose’ “Yes, sir.”
He steps aside. My mind is inside that house, my body outside. What if it is a slaughterhouse? The news these days are littered with depressing stories of rape and harvested bodies. Will I be next? He beckons me to enter. Blood washes down my head to my feet, making them distended. I stagger. Swallow. All die na die. I step in, as Mr. Nose bolts and padlocks the gate, assuaging myself that if I die here, at least I will reunite with Uncle Ifeanyi.
“Follow me,” he says, walking towards the house.
The creases on his blue shirt and black trousers juts out like daggers. His legs are as long as measuring tapes. At the door, I imitate him and pull off my shoes. It’s winter in the over-illuminated sitting room. I hug myself. He points to a seat and disappears up a flight of stairs, two at a time. I sit on one of the gold chairs, lush and soft. The TV is a billboard: everything in this house is as big as Mr. Nose’s nose.
What will I even tell Uncle Ifeanyi should this woman succeed in evoking him? What memories will I invoke? I remember dreaming of Uncle Ifeanyi, while his body chilled in the mortuary. In my dreams, he was always in my room, I don’t remember what we talked about, if we talked even.
My eyes brim with tears. I do not cry. I have not cried since I got the news of Uncle Ifeanyi’s demise: the news four, may-God-punish-them, words: Uncle Ifeanyi is dead. I remember being in the kitchen, cutting onion or vegetables when my phone beeped. I saw those words and time… stood. Still. I found a picture of his corpse on my mother’s WhatsApp display picture. He looked fresh, asleep. His skin was the colour of clay. His beard was fresh. The everlasting pimples on his face were prominent. His head had a white bandage on it. No stain of blood. Stitches on his arm. His chest was bare, his nipples standing. The pink lappa on his body looked tossed to the side as if the attendant held the fabric with two fingers when they pinched it away from his face. Plastered on his chest was a masking tape. I zoomed in. It said, Ifeanyi Ezeanuna (1982 – 2020).
That godforsaken masking tape and rusted pan on which he lay did me in. He was dead = no heartbeat = inside his body it was as dark as lights out. My heart became a war drum. Dizziness encased me and I fell into the warm cloak of his memories.
I leaned on my red fridge and waited for the tears. They did not drop. But why will they, my chi chided me. When last did I call Uncle Ifeanyi? I did not remember. I grabbed my phone, found his number, and deleted it. It was pointless; he was gone.
I do not feel justified to cry. I took him for granted. He was always there. He was there at my traditional wedding. He was there at my brother’s. He was always visiting Abuja to see us. I never, ever, visited him. I did not call, did not text. Even when he sent me chats, once in a while, my responses neither conveyed excitement nor intimacy. Crying, as far as I am concerned, is self-deceit. But how was I to know that some bastards would chop him to near-death and that he would eventually die on the surgical table? I thought we had time.
I thought we had time.
I shudder. This strange house! The knob of the entrance door pushes up. Is it Mr. Nose or Uncle Ifeanyi?
I jump on my seat. Take Nollywood veteran, Nnenna Nwabueze, make her hair long and woolly, make her an inch shorter. The result will be Ezenwaanyi, the woman before me. She smiles like Liz Benson. Her smile calms my swarming soul. I manage a closed-lip smile and lower my head. It did not occur to me to greet.
“Nwa m, kedụ?”
It’s not a guarantee, but her saying “my child” makes me feel safe. She is still standing as if she expects me to offer her a seat in her own house. Her floral butterfly gown glows as it sweeps the floor. The compassion splotched on her face smears her smiles. My manners return. I stand up, curtsey, and wish her a good morning. She nods and asks me to sit.
She finally sits. “Would you care for a drink?”
I shake my head. Her accent is undiluted American, yet when she speaks Igbo, it is also undiluted. I was briefed by the person who whispered her name to me that Ezenwaanyi is a professor of archaeology, and a strong dibia. She’s sixty-two or thereabout and is a grandmother. But the woman looking at me now, whose real name I was not told, looks forty-two. Her kinky hair is tightly packed and hanging behind her.
“Who died? Your father?” she asks.
Is that knowledge or an honest question? If this dibia, an expert in knowledge and wisdom of divination, tells me my father is dead, then maybe Mr. John is, indeed, dead. But the man I have always known as daddy is still alive. He was the one who erupted like a volcano during an argument with me and spilled that he was not my father. My real father, Daddy said, is Mr. John. I suffered several bouts of depression. Death seemed very appealing. I asked God to give me a reason why I should remain here: traumatised from a failed marriage, hiding in the embrace of my parents, just for Daddy to push me out, rub the misfortunes of my marriage in my face, and deny paternity of me.
I answer with my eyes.
Ezenwaanyi crosses her fingers, turns her lips south. “Are you sure you want to go through with this?”
I look at the white tiles, nodding. I miss Uncle Ifeanyi. Were he alive, he would have gotten to the root of this Mr. John’s matter. He’d have cracked the truth out like the walkways of Ahmadu Bello Way. But I am not here to solicit his help. I am here to apologise. To tell him how much I love him, miss him, how I wish I’d paid more attention while he was here.
Ezenwaanyi looks at me, as if to say whenever you are ready to stop chewing your thoughts, let me know.
“Come and sit here,” she says, tapping the space beside her.
I force my butt up from my seat. Once I settle in beside her, she wraps her arm around my shoulder. She smells like roses. Her breath is steady.
I inhale. “Uncle Ifeanyi is dead,” I say, puking those four, God-punish-them, poisonous words.
She nods. “Is he buried?”
“He died this time last year.”
She nods. “Ndo.”
Ndo might mean sorry, but it punches differently when delivered in Igbo. The comfort ndo brings makes my eyes mist. I do not cry. I should have paid more attention to him when he was alive, not to cry crocodile tears now that he’s dead. I remember how he’d throw his head back when he wanted to laugh, and the laughter came out sounding well-seated. His laugh would make anyone smile. He was charitable, my best uncle. There is no substitute among the living. Now I babysit this grief: wiping it neat every morning, checking to make sure it is healthy, while losing out on time to stuff up my brains with memories of those still here.
Ezenwaanyi rubs my hand. “I am ready when you are.”
“I am ready,” I say hastily before I get cold feet.
She stands. “Follow me.” She walks away.
I follow her. God forbid that Uncle Ifeanyi’s ghost finds me alone in this house. The staircase leads underground into a narrow, sparkling corridor with wooden floors, white walls, and blinding lights. There are only two doors: one to the right and the second, a few feet further, to the left. She knocks kindly on the first door and it opens. She nods at Holy-Spirit-knows-who and walks in. I see no one. I stand outside drenched in terror. She turns, as if she knows I’m no longer following her, and beckons me to come in. I’m relieved when I step in and see someone behind the door, her face buttered in a smile. She looks like a character from a royal, Nollywood movie. She has a small, long nose and small lips. Her breasts, the size of oroma, are covered with a slim piece of white fabric fastened at her back. The next covering starts at her waist and ends above her knees: another white lappa. Her hair is covered. Her escape-from-albino-coloured skin is a drawing board for nsibidi. On her chest are three white drawings of teardrops one inch apart. On her forehead, and this is the one that scares me because it looks like extra pair of crying eyes, is a drawing like this.
“Nrioma, ngwa,” Ezenwaanyi says, snapping me from my rude stare.
I blink and shake my head. I’m in a room that is as wide as it is long. Its paint is oily black. The air conditioner is in full swing, making the room eerie. In the middle of the room is a black cast aluminum patio furniture with four matching chairs. Sculptures line the base of the walls. There is a bell and a gong.
Ezenwaanyi backs up to the wall, muttering things to her sculptures. Nrioma carries a small white basin of water to Ezenwaanyi. A white towel hangs on her wrist. Ezenwaanyi washes and wipes her hands. They bow to each other, and Nrioma walks away. I am reminded of the Catholic ritual, the offering and presentation of bread and wine, during Mass. Ezenwaanyi rings her bell and mutters some more. She swirls on her feet. I see she has bathed her left eye in nzu. Her voice gets louder from there asshe speaks Afa, a version of Igbo I recognise but do not understand. Nrioma busies herself getting items I do not see from a large clay pot and giving them to Ezenwaanyi.
Nrioma brings a basin of water to me. She says nothing as if she is not permitted to speak. She looks at my hands and at the basin. I wash my hands. She leaves. Next, she carries a smaller clay pot to Ezenwaanyi who lights a match and drops it into the pot. Controlled fire erupts inside the pot. I shudder and move back but Nrioma, who is holding, the pot is unshaken. Ezenwaanyi picks a rectangular bowl and spoons its contents into the pot. Gunpowder takes over the scent of the room. She picks a folded white lappa, unfolds it, and ties it around her chest. It drapes down to her legs. She collects the pot from Nrioma and circles the room, swaying the pot in a circular manner. Nrioma follows behind. Ezenwaanyi extols God in Igbo.
“Chukwu abiama. Anyanwụ na ụbọchị. Eke. Oye. Afor. Nkwo. Ahịa naanọ na ụbọchị naanọ. Olise ebili ụwa!”
I cannot keep up with the exultations. She returns to the spot where she started. She gives the pot to Nrioma, opens her palm as if she is in surrender, and says, “Nekwa aka m, na ọ dị ọcha.”
After saying this, she walks toward me. Though gripped with fear, I stand. She takes my hands and looks at my palms as if to check if they are clean as well. She nods and invites me to sit. I wobble to the table. She looks at me, waiting for me to sit first. I drag the chair out.
I jump and let go of the seat.
“Stop dragging that chair as if it is less than a human being,” she says.
But is chair no longer chair?
“It has a chi just like you. Treat it with respect. This is how you people are destroying the earth, cutting trees, urinating in rivers, disrespecting the spirits of non-living things.”
My diagnosis: “transfer of aggression” because was it these small hands that cut down a full-blown tree?
I lift the chair kindly and sit, not placing my entire weight on it so that its chi does not feel overlaboured. I feel as though I am sitting on a living chair.
She sits. “Nnọọ.” She welcomes me as though it is her first time seeing me.
“Mmekpe aka gị jiri ọnụ gị kwuo ihe kpatara ọbibịa gị.”
I open my palms and say the reason for my visit aloud.
“Aha ya bụ gịnị?”
“His name is Ifeanyi Ezeanuna,” I respond.
If she wants his date of birth and death, I know those by heart. But she does not ask. She turns to Nrioma and nods. Nrioma comes with nzu.
“Tụọ nzu,” Ezenwaanyi says.
I pick up the chalk and throw it. Ezenwaanyi facepalms and shakes her head. Nrioma sighs, picks up the chalk, and returns it to Ezenwaanyi. What’s going on here? Is “tụọ nzu” no longer “throw chalk”? Ezenwaanyi drops the chalk in front of me and repeats herself. I look at Nriọma. She points at her palm. I pick up the chalk and make a line each on the back of my palms. Ezenwaanyi shrugs as though what I’ve done is insufficient, but will do.
Nrioma leaves and returns with two calabashes.
Ezenwaanyi asks me in Igbo if I want her to invoke my uncle’s spirit into Nrioma or if I’d rather meet with the spirit. Nrioma stands there staring at nothing, not feeling perturbed. I imagine she must be used to this. I did not prepare for this tantalising option of using a medium. I tell her I want to see him.
Ezenwaanyi calls out the items in the calabashes one after the other as though calling their names makes them potent. From one of the calabashes, she pulls out four strings of four ugili seeds each. She casts them and mutters. Then she laughs. Dread turns to urine and stampedes toward the doors of my urethra. I press my legs.
While she calls out incantations, Nrioma brings back the pot with fire in it. She drops the pot on the table and stands aside, holding a cup of gunpowder. Ezenwaanyi keeps singing. At some point, Nrioma pours some gunpowder into the fire. Then one by one, she drops the items from the calabash into the fire.
I zone out when I hear Ezenwaanyi say something along the lines of “I am calling on the spirit of Ifeanyi Ezeanuna.”
I imagine Uncle Ifeanyi among a horde of spirits trying to get past and come here. I imagine the spirits milling around in the spirit village, living ordinary lives. Then Ezenwaanyi’s voice rings out, like a flight announcer, asking for Uncle Ifeanyi. Uncle Ifeanyi rises, laughs, maybe pats his friend on the shoulder, and comes.
I am, by this time, soaked in sweat. The fire on the table does not help with the heat. My hands tremble. Uncle Ifeanyi’s ghost is coming. What will I tell him? How will I stand him? I distract myself by rehearsing my short speech where I’ll tell him how much I love and miss him. How sorry I am for ignoring him when he was alive and…
“Ifeanyi!” Ezenwaanyi screams. “Ifeanyi! Odogwu! Dike! Nwoke na mma! Bịa ba! Gaba n’iru! Bịa ba!”
Where is he and why does he need prodding to proceed? I am shivering. I step on my left foot. Uncle Ifeanyi is here. Jesus! Uncle Ifeanyi is here!
I tight my eyes shut. My heartbeat drowns Ezenwaanyi’s voice. I don’t how long until a sweaty palm touches me. I shudder, too afraid to open my eyes.
“Mmepe anya gị!” Ezenwaanyi shouts.
I do not obey her. I keep my eyes closed.
“Mmepe anya gị, ngị bụ nwa, tupu anya gị akpọ.”
I do not want her to cast blindness on me as she threatens. I slowly open my eyes. Uncle Ifeanyi is there, a gaseous human, sitting right opposite me. He is looking at me with fixated eyes. His buttoned-up shirt is midnight blue, the same one he wore the last time I saw him. His hands are on his lap. There is no sign of life in him. He is like a dead man with opened eyes.
“There is your uncle. Say what you have called him here to say,” Ezenwaanyi says.
Everything I plan to say swims in my head. Uncle Ifeanyi’s beard is still there, and his pimpled face is constant. I miss you, Uncle Ifeanyi. I’m so sorry for not keeping in touch. You’re my best uncle, and in my next life, you will be my best uncle. These words stay choked in my heart. Coldness rests on my right palm; it’s surreal because nobody is touching me, but I feel the squeeze on my palm. Uncle Ifeanyi’s eyes, once dead, now floods with compassion and love just as I remember them. This strand of life is so thin that I would miss it had I blinked. He dissolves into smoke and sinks into the pot of fire. Helplessly, I watch this, knowing I can do nothing to keep him.
Tears drop, heavy as building blocks. I know, while sitting there, crying, Ezenwaanyi and her protégé watching me, that I will delete the picture of Uncle Ifeanyi’s corpse from my phone when I get home.
I am free!
Kasimma is the author of All Shades of Iberibe and the 2021 Nikky Finney Fellow. Her stories/poems appear on Guernica, LitHub, Afreecan Read, and elsewhere. She was awarded writers’ residencies and workshops across Africa, Asia, and Europe.
Kasimma is from Igboland—obodo ndị dike—and would like to acknowledge J.A Umeh’s After God is Dibia as the brainchild behind the Igbo cosmological details in this story.
Image: (c) Erik Kroon/Unsplash