17 December 2009

God Sees Backward by Emmanuel Iduma

They thought his death was the final thing God was to do before he ended the world. So they made mourning faces at the street, their signature of grief everywhere, walls and doors, streets, and even people. This was the weight of grief, that when she heard it her cloth loosened first, then she fell to the floor. And at that point, her nearby son did not care what he saw beneath her cloth, for in grief there is no shame. In essence, there was an impregnable void when they heard of his death, when they heard that he died on a rope and in someone’s mind there was the question, why did he chose a rope and not a gun? The impregnable void had its own images: that he smiled when the rope caught up with his neck. That he made a smiling face at the world, that he was willing to die. People said ah, oh, he has left his family, what a terrible and irresponsible thing for a man to do, and what a terrible way to die.

Ro died in the air. The myth repeated about dying in the air was that it suspended people between heaven and earth; those who died in the air could not remain on earth and neither was heaven possible for them. The third place was hell, which was more reasonable considering what they did, the abomination involved. So Ro died in the air. He died after looking sideways and then upwards, standing on the high stool and then circling his head with the rope. He looked sideways and then upwards again with the rope not fully circling his head. This was the point when he thought his last thoughts. Words that rushed into his head like bubbles, million fragments and journeys of his life until that moment when the rope was around his neck. And just before he knocked the high stool away, he stopped to look at the incision on his wrist. Then he looked away. Just at the moment when he knocked the high stool away he thought he saw the face of his father on the incision.

Ro and his wife had gazed into the river together the night before, gazed at the stars far away, and then at themselves. His wife said, you are not saying anything, you are just looking. In response, he held her hands and let the tears fall, heavy. It fell on her shoulders. Her mouth was parched and heavy, she did not know why, and so she could say nothing. All the years they had been married and they still came to the river before bed and watched it together, like an unending rite. And all the years just this once he had not said anything about the stars.

The same silence with his sons, two sons, that evening. The same silence when he just sat on the high stool and heard the older one say, Papa, you are not going to the family meeting? Both sons were standing on his left and right. He placed his hands on each of them, just a simple touch on their shoulders, a simple touch that lingered. He held back the large waters forming in his eyes. The older son saw the discomposure and held his brother and they walked inside.

Inside the older son said in a whisper, Papa is behaving strange, these days. The younger responded with a nod, and both fell on their bed, tattered with age, and let their thoughts fly.

Earlier that day there had been the final meeting about the land. So many cramped into the court. Ro at a corner with just his wife, just the two of them, in contrast to the myriads of people gathered for the other man, Olisa. Myriads, because all of a sudden it was Ro and his wife on a bench alone. This aloneness, thought Ro, determined everything. The Judge saying, this land does not belong to your family. It belongs to Olisa’s family. And if we see you on it again, we would assume you are looking for trouble because he and his wife were alone, sitting apart from the myriads for Olisa. The court ended and there were still two of them alone, the myriads gone. The people Olisa would have gathered because his money could gather them, money could gather anything. Two of them now alone, silent, the stares and ululating voices that came from Olisa’s victory still plastered on their faces. Olisa had even jeered at him. Ro soon covered his face with his hands, sighing and sighing, and then silent and then standing, then finally walking. His wife stood too and followed her husband. It seemed the silence stayed back on the bench they had sat. But soon the silence was conquered when it began to talk with the mouth of lizards scurrying across the floor.

Only two days ago before the silence talked there was Ro’s family meeting. Family meant those that remained from the major family crowd that had migrated to seek greener lands. Family meant those that could dare belong to the family, because there is something wrong when a family is notorious for its poverty. When elders can only say about the family I knew his grandfather and he was poor. Ha! What a curse? And so in the family meeting, a meeting that an uncle and a nephew and another distant uncle summoned Ro, the oldest uncle said, you are bringing shame to this family. And before it was long the uncle added, see what you have done to the land? See how you have messed up with Olisa. But typical of Ro he soon got tired of the meeting and walked away, not having said anything, not having wanted to say anything.

The family meeting came because there were serious rumours that Olisa was using his large influence to acquire a land that was not his. And everyone that repeated the rumour said we know that this land belongs to Ro’s family. So why is he so stupid to let it go away from him? He is a coward.

Ro’s wife reported what people said about the lingering land case. That was when he told her, in a voice that was she thought did not belong to him: it is better for me to die than to lose that land to Olisa. I cannot fail my sons. We have nothing, and I am sorry for marrying you into my poverty. But I have that land. And nobody is going to take it from me.

What Ro had not told her was that the same day he had met with Olisa very close to the land. Ro was leaving and Olisa was coming with some of his people, for people always followed him, people always followed money. There was an exchange of look by both of them, an exchange that resulted into something like the devil swallowing the cloud one day so that everyone would have full view of heaven. Soon the words came from Olisa, what are you doing in my land? Ro was raged, your land? What makes it your land? Olisa’s people already began to show eagerness to use their fists, but Olisa replied in a voice that even Ro thought was inappropriate, I cannot drag this land with you. But I can kill you and that would end this nonsense. Ro’s great virtue was walking away. So he walked away from Olisa and turned his face just at the moment Olisa was entering the land.

Back there when he was in the land, he looked at his hand and saw the incision. And then he looked up again, to see the land stretch in its fullness, to let it overwhelm him until he could look no longer, until the voice of his father clouded his head like a thousand cobwebs. That day, his father had taken him to the land to see it, to let him know. This land belongs to our family. I don’t know how long I have left with this sickness. So the land has come to you and you must swear you would guard it with your life. Yes, your life. I swore the same too, and I have kept it until now. And the swearing was done right there in the land, blood was involved. Ro’s father showed him his own incision, a testimony of when he swore. You must carry your own mark too. They found a sharp piece of metal and while Ro was biting his lips in pain, his father was saying this land is the only thing we have. There may be no money, no honour. But this land. We must not let it go. All this Ro remembered when he stood on the land again, many years now past, and the last thing he did before moving out was wiping a stubborn tear that fell from his eyes but clustered on his face.

That morning his wife had dreamt that he was walking backwards for a long time and that he could see from his back. Somehow, he was moving forward with his backward movement, such that the back was the front and the front was the back. When she told him this dream, he could only think about his father, and then the land, then his sons, then about God—who knows and sees all the past, especially whether the land belonged to his family or not.

God Sees Backward was written by Emmanuel Iduma.

Copyright Emmanuel Iduma 2009.

Emmanuel Iduma has been published online and in print. His stories have been accepted for two forthcoming anthologies this year, Speaking for the Generation: Contemporary Short Stories from Africa (2009) and World Englishes Literature Nigerian Anthology. While studying for his LL.B. in Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, he is working on a novel.


Myne Whitman said...

This showed a distinctive style but one that almost lost me a few times. I loved the evocative and touching story. well done!

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