are you happy?
The door creaked open, and Nnamdi walked in.
Dr. Nnamdi. Right. My boyfriend turned therapist was insisting on the title.
‘Close your eyes.’
I adjusted on the wooden bed set at the side of the empty room- where we would regularly sneak in to eat the forbidden fruit in my mother’s absence- and closed my eyes.
The sound of Nnamdi sitting down on the only other piece of furniture — a half-eaten sofa and rustling paper, filtered into my ears. Today’s session had started.
‘Tell me about the last time you were happy.’
‘The last time I was-’
‘But I am happy, Nnamdi. I am with you,’ I insisted.
He coughed. ‘Dr Nnamdi. The last time you were truly happy, Joan. You know what I mean. Today I am happy to let you talk without interruption. This will be my only question.’
I sighed. This was one cranky Dr Nnamdi.
‘The year is 59’ and my father is alive. I am happy.’
I opened my eyes slightly to see him reclined back into the chair, eyes closed and facing the ceiling. ‘Are you listening? Where are your notes, Doctor?’
‘I am listening, Joan; it helps the experience. Close your eyes. Continue.’
I rolled my eyes and settled back into the most comfortable position I could conjure on a wooden bed.
‘The year is 59,’ and it is filled with roses. We had a rose garden at the back of our house. The scent was scintillating, therapeutic. We used to sit on the verandah every evening — me on his laps- hoping the wind would waft the roses’ smell into our nostrils as we spoke on everything my 8-year mind could handle. We spoke politics and music, family problems and farming. It was random, but I believe there is no subject we did not touch.
‘After we had exhausted our speaking energy, we would be quiet for the rest of the evening, just staring at the roses and beyond at anything and everything. You see, it was like a rule—no-talking period. I would eventually sleep off, and when it got dark, he would pick me up and go inside. He would lay me on the couch, and when my mother tried to wake me for dinner, he would say, ‘Leave her, she is tired. She will eat, but she has eaten.’ I almost always woke up about 30 minutes later, very hungry.’
‘Sometimes I would come out at night, to use the pit toilet outside, and I would see him in the living room, sitting like a log of wood, without moving. When I was done peeing, I would come back to the living room and tap him. He would lift me into his laps without saying a word and lay my head on his chest, rocking me to sleep. ‘Don’t let them take me, Inem, he would mutter. I never understood what he said; I was only interested in sleeping.’
Joan opened her eyes to look at Nnamdi — whose eyes were transfixed to the ceiling — and coughed. Nnamdi barely responded with a flick of his hand, indicating she continued.
‘On my 15th birthday, there was a knock on our front door, and a giant of a man, about 6’6, came in when I went to answer him. I stared at him dumbly — unable to say a word — till he smiled and asked me where my father was. I promptly left to fetch my father and told him someone was looking for him.
Father stepped into the parlour, and his expression looked as if he had seen a ghost.
‘Ebuzor!’. The giant had made himself comfortable in our living room and now stood to greet my father, who just moped at him. He turned to look at me.
‘How- Who opened the door?’
‘Now, now Ebuzor, nwanem, relax, ehn? Imela gi? It has been long.’ He bared a set of blackened teeth.
My father’s pale expression hadn’t changed. ‘What is it now?’
The giant collapsed back into the sofa, grinning. ‘Is this what we are now, eh Ebuzor? You won’t even offer me kola nut.’
I scampered out of the living room to get it. I needed a reason to leave there. I was done in a few seconds and returned to stand at the kitchen door, peeping.
‘Cut the pleasantries, Okonkwo. What do you want?’
The grin vanished, and he rubbed his hands together. ‘General says you are to resume in the quarters by Friday.’
‘What?!’ It was Tuesday.
‘You know how he is, Ebuzor, impulsive. It’s the war. He’s got worse.’
My father took two weak steps forward. ‘Okonkwo, I’m not going anywhere. I have a family to take care of. I have a daughter. I’m done with the army,
ị ghọtara m?
Okonkwo sighed and scratched an ear. ‘General will not hear of this. You already know what he will do.’
‘Yes. Your wife. Dead. Your child. Prison.’
I released a gasp, and my father whirled around to see me standing with the plate of kola nut.
Okonkwo stood up. ‘I’ll be expecting you.’ He let himself out.
Friday came, and my father packed his bags. We said our solemn goodbyes, and when it was my turn to hug him, the tears spilled. I held him tightly and kept crying.
My father held me and kissed my head. ‘I will come back, Inem.’
He would come back. So we waited.
We moped around the house in the weeks following his leave. Waiting. Our ritual was the same. There were house chores, and then there was my mother sitting in the living room, staring at the door intently, as if someone would walk through there any moment. I cried every day in my room.
We waited. We waited 3 weeks.
Then it was time for him to come back. I joined her in the parlour, holding hands. They had sent a messenger on Sunday to say he would return before the next market day. And we waited.
We were in the parlour every day, hoping, waiting, crying. And looking at the door like someone would walk in any moment.
Nobody did. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday.
Thursday. Friday. Saturday.
Saturday, there was banging on the gate. I tapped my sleeping mother and led her by the hand to the gate. It was the giant. His eyes were red. My mother gripped his singlet weakly. ‘Where is my husband?’
He was silent. Then he turned around and walked. We chased him, teary and blurry-eyed, confused, till he turned the corner. There were roughly a hundred men gathered there, heads bowed.
Okonkwo turned to us. ‘The war was a disaster. They had help, allies from outside the country. The first battalion went down, and then they riddled us with bullets.’
He lifted his singlet, and there was a large gauze plastered over his stomach, soaked in blood. He had been shot. ‘I’m a dying man. I will be gone by Monday.’
He dropped it. ‘Ebuzor was in the third battalion. It was bombed. Then they raided it for survivors.’
He choked, hardly able to continue. ‘They beat them and cut their throats. I watched in hiding, injured and unable to move. Ebuzor was the last to die. They bashed his brains out.’
My mother and I moped at him, shivering, shaking. My head was pounding, and bright flashes of light momentarily blinded my vision.
He turned to where everybody stood. There was a table with boxes atop them. ‘Please. Don’t go there.’
His eyes rolled to the back of his head, staggered, and then dropped to his knees, holding his stomach. Blood gushed out around him, and about ten people gathered around him immediately.
I was still shaking, looking at my mother and back to Okonkwo dying in our front. Her eyes were glazed over, and she said nothing. Then she dropped.
I lay down beside her, shaking her head. ‘Mama! Mama, wake up! Nooooooo!’ Someone lifted me from her while others crowded her and covered her from my view. I couldn’t believe that any of this was happening.
I shook the person off. I was dizzy. Everywhere was turning. I turned for a couple of seconds and held my head to make it stop. My eyes landed on the boxes Okonkwo had pointed to earlier.
I walked towards them with intent. Nobody paid attention to me: two dead people were sucking it up.
I reached into the boxes and grappled with the lid of the first one. It didn’t budge, and then I saw there was a name labelled on it. Isaac. They were all labelled. My eyes ran over the rest and landed on one.
Ebuzor. Everything was moving faster now.
I allowed my legs to carry me to it, and I lifted the lid. Then I saw it.
One side of my father’s head was open, with maggot-infested squished brain falling out of it. Worms and flies covered the rest.
And it stank.
I dropped the lid back carefully and stepped back. Slowly.
Then everywhere went black.
‘1959 was the year roses grew. 1959 I was young. 1959 my father was alive.’ I sniffled.
I heard the chair creaking. Then Nnamdi was beside me.
‘There is nothing I want more than for the smell of roses to take me where my father is. There is nothing that would make me happy anymore. I’m tired.’
He put a hand around me and pulled me in, running nose and eyes, and held me tightly. His free hand ran over my hair, and he said nothing. It was all I needed.