“Loss is a great thing.”
—Shade Mary-Ann Olaoye
I am finding it hard to breathe.
It is as though my lungs are unable to take in enough air lest they burst, and my whole body is beginning to grow faint.
For every bad news I receive, I start to feel my body act out, at least for a few hours. It begins with my heart. My pulse doubles like I have just begun some metre race. I feel the blood course through my body in full speed, threatening to rupture every veins. My legs follow suit, they become wobbly, forcing me to take a seat in order to regain my composure. My brain gets clogged up in inactivity; its constant struggle to send and receive body signals slows down. It puzzles me, how my body is unable to take action in the wake of an unfortunate incidence. How I am required to pause for hours and watch as life lingers around me; people moving about, trees swaying, animals of all sorts alive, awake. How I begin to feel like leaving my own body because I am alarmed at how difficult controlling it has come to be. No matter the severity of the situation, I am still unable to carve out a path to self-redemption. No way to handle grief. No definite routine to keep me living in moments I used to enjoy.
One early morning, after my mum called to say dad had been poisoned, I could not think straight for some days. My sheen of self-possession had failed me as I imagined how it could have happened. Even as she assured me that my dad was getting better, I still panicked and I could barely use my time to do enough school work. Alone, in the silent morning, I felt broken. And my body became a house collapsing on itself.
We both never spoke.
No, not in the way the others did using calculated excitement and overfamiliarity. But we knew each other, because when I had seen her at the Total Filling Station in town one afternoon, she had waved at me with something resembling a smile. The next time, I met her at the market. She was limping under the weight of a bag of foodstuff she supported with her leg. I asked her about her baby; she asked if I had started reading the materials that were recommended for Dr Ahaiwe’s test in Studies in Fiction. The last time I saw her, I was traipsing past Mary Slessor Hostel, the evening breeze on my face, hands folded on my chest, eyes tearing as I thought of the squabble I had earlier on with Essien. I had missed the first ‘hello’, a single word struggling to come out full and direct, and I wished I did not. The second one came out unsure but it was enough for me to turn around and give a slightly aggrieved smile.
Her name was Helen. She had a very remarkable face. She was married, just like most of the girls in my class. Helen had one close friend whose name I never got to know. They were both married, and they were of the same height, skin colour, and physique.
Sometime in March 2019, whilst locked in the arms of my lover, I opened my WhatsApp to find a picture of a bloodied body on everyone’s statuses. This body, in jean trousers and Turquoise blue shirt, was under a Water Truck, the head crushed to a pulp. There was another picture. In this one, Helen was seated under the sickly trees at the court of the G.S Building, cross-legged, in the same clothing as the body. Soon, people made collages of the two pictures. The story was that Helen, who had set out for home having learnt that no classes would be held on that day, was knocked down by a car, and before she could get up, a truck had climbed over her head. Helen’s death was heart-rending, something one could possibly not wish for an enemy. It broke me, showed me how brief life could be. How, one minute, someone could be up and about enjoying life and, the next, he is lying still, dead. That night, I could feel fear everywhere inside my body.
Loving Emmanuel came effortlessly.
It felt like surrendering all doubts for I was sure he would love me defiantly. Emmanuel did not love me in the same way he did others and, even if he did, I knew he showered me extra attention, what no one else asides my best friend, Ebuka, could do. It was in the way Emmanuel lingered around me, the way he held eye contact, how he asked me out for walks. At first, he would show up wherever I went. At The Writers’ Community meetings, in class, at the theatre, at poetry readings, at study groups. I never hugged anyone, but then he came along and taught me how hugging someone could come naturally. I had never felt safer.
For every human connection I build, I do so with the hope that they would last forever, bringing into being certain goodwill. I always strive to make things work out, to appear selfless, even reliable. So, when Emmanuel began to invite me for walks, I gladly availed myself. It started out slow at the beginning. I thought him self-centred, a friend who brought back the topic of discussion back to himself, and it irritated me. Nevertheless, he seemed interesting. A lot of personal details, adventures, romantic stories, all totalling to make up a really quirky human with broad shoulders and a tiny waist.
Emmanuel loved poetry. He loved spoken word too. He introduced me to Button Poetry, sent me a folder containing videos of Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye and Rudy Francisco; some of his favourite Spoken Word artistes. He loved Simi. He loved spaghettis. He loved chanting poetry lines that made him swoon. He loved listening too, because unlike speaking which he did with so much impatience attached, he always wanted to know more about me, like, the things that interest me. Or the ones I was afraid of.
Now, I mention his name so casually in conversations for the simple reason that I am trying to eternalise him, to keep the memories of him alive and breathing in me. Of course, whenever I say, ‘Emmanuel used to bring me here’ or ‘He liked this or that’, I could tell that the person I am talking with will think of him right away. I keep telling them how funny I thought he was, how kind, how interesting, and later, the silence would sit coldly between the two of us until a new topic is brought up.
The weeks that followed his death were full of raw, harsh grief. I remember how blurry everything went. The fear, the anger, the loss of appetite. The pity on everyone’s faces, the struggle to concentrate on my books since his death happened on the day before my degree exams would kick off. The calls. Trying not to cry publicly. The judging comments everyone made on social media. The senseless, insensitive humour they were all trying to make with the manner in which he died. It was really a hard time.
A month later, anything that looked like excitement disappeared so abruptly that I did not notice. Life seemed bleak, and the times I scampered around the grief, trying so hard not to poke at it lest I fall into a pervasive ennui, I wondered if I were ever going to get better. The grief lingered with such intensity, surprising me with its different stages. Overwhelming sadness, deep thoughts, irritability, the need to be with people, the need to be alone, and the courage to remain strong. One night in June, while spending the first semester break at an uncle’s house in Nsugbe, I had walked into the sitting room to find a viral picture of Emmanuel on NTA. It was like opening a healing wound, and that night, the tears flowed nonstop. I had never sobbed so uncontrollably, so painfully, for so long. It gradually dawned on me; the fact that my own life became open and appeared to be solely defined by the tragedy of losing him, and nothing could have prepared me for the parameters of such loss.
Her name was Shimmer.
Chizaram had named her for the reason that he thought she shimmered, and since I was yet to find a suitable name after finding her at my doorstep, he gave her the name he had been saving for a pet. This happened minutes before he had said she was the ghost of an old lady from my village who had come to distract me from my books, and I thought he was being ridiculous.
Ever since I was a child, I have always fancied owning a pet. It was like one of those dreams my siblings and I still share and we would all spend time discussing our undying love for small animals, how beautiful it would be, having to care for something much smaller than each of us. But my parents would never hear of it, particularly my mum who has a stubborn fear for animals that are not chickens or turkeys. I would go on to staunchly harbour that love for pets because meeting Serena, my uncle’s German Shepherd; Cynthia, his male cat; my landlady’s female cats, Jennifer and Jessica and her unnamed rabbits, strengthened the desire even more.
Cats have always been my favourite, those sweet, majestic felines with subtle ways of pulling at my heartstrings. They act independent, carving out their own territories, affording me enough time to do without them. And, whenever they crave my attention, or return home to me, I am forced to feel lucky that they even consider me. The unconditional love of a pet was what Shimmer gave me. But then, the facts that she was not exactly mine, and that she could one day disappear made me love her with caution.
One evening in July 2019, as I washed my clothes, it dawned on me that it had been exactly three days since I saw Shimmer. Her disappearance felt odd. The small compound was empty without her usual ‘welcome home’ strut every evening. The purring and late night meows at my window or the feel of fur curling at my feet were no longer there. For some fleeting seconds, I began to grow upset. I tried making a mental list of the number of neighbours who were never cool with her, people who I suspected might have done something awful to her. Then the possibility that she might have wandered off or her real owner had come to take her crossed my mind. But no, I would rather not think that way.
It was only after I had finished washing that the smell became strong, or maybe that was the first time I noticed it. I had thought it was coming from one of the dead mice Shimmer occasionally gifted me, so I moved to look for the body. The search was quite fruitless, and each time I thought I was getting close to locating where the smell was coming from, I would be mistaken. One last check under my outdoor cupboard took me to Shimmer. There she was, curled up in an unnatural angle, eyes slightly open but unseeing. It was as though someone had tossed her aside like an unwanted toy. She almost did look inanimate. One side of her stomach was open and large worms crawled in and out of it; an obvious picture of death staring boldly at me.
In my room that night, I sobbed the weight of all my losses. For the first time in years, I was reminded of all the people I lost, all the good things I was never able to keep, and it hurt me deeply.
Everything seemed normal at the start of the session.
ASUU had just called off the five months strike in February and, as the university community busied itself with semester work, there were assignments and tests to write, schemes of work to catch up on, and some crazy lecturers had begun making life difficult for some unlucky few.
But indeed life was already difficult for those of us in our finals. While many battled with poor grades, others had financial issues, or were having a hard time collaborating with their supervisors over their project thesis. Twice in a week or so, the course representative would stand in front of my class to make an obituary announcement. It was always about a parent of my course mates. Gradually, the announcements became too much until I lost count for there were too many people to commiserate with and not enough money to contribute for condolence visits. It saddened everyone that the deaths were happening when emotional support from family was greatly needed.
But those were not the only deaths that happened. The ones that followed rocked the whole school, puzzled everyone, made every Tom, Dick, and Harry see the irrelevance of the school’s security system. The most surprising fact was that these deaths, with other unfortunate events, happened within the month of August, each heralding the occurrence of the next one.
It first started with the robbery at the Brotherly Supermarkets at Hilltop. The thieves had come on two consecutive nights and carted away wares as if they had been paid to do so. Later, they waylaid innocent students coming back from morning mass and robbed them with locally made guns. Infamous for the robberies that used to take place in the past, Hilltop was considered an unsafe place for any student looking for accommodation outside the university’s hostels.
Next was the news of girl who bled to death after an abortion. It was all over the campus and the judging comments from every mouth flowed like water. That same week, there was also a report that one final-year student of Public Administration had been stabbed on the neck by a neighbour over N100 electricity bill. He did not survive the injury. Then the following week, the thieves came again. This time, they went to a lodge at Hilltop, robbed the tenants, raped some girls, and mutilated the head of a boy. Soon, it was as though the thieves were not just thieves. Because the next time they struck, they came for a young boy who was believed to be a cultist. The following morning, pictures of the body lying in the pool of blood circled everywhere on WhatsApp.
But the violence did not stop even as security men paraded the campus. Another person was killed at Beach, the area students lodge after the school’s second gate, and there were other series of rapes happening. Before long, people were afraid to leave their houses for lectures.
In all of these I felt vulnerable and afraid; hoping that no day would see the end of me. It bothered me and, even though I acted as if I did not, I knew within me I had never known fear this strong, this bold. I decided to take extra measures in existing because it had never been that tasking and I was never going to be reckless, not when I had few months before I left school. The early morning gunshots reminded me of the lurking thieves. The street harassments from members of the SARS group provoked me. The gossips shared amongst my course mates in hushed tones irked me. But surviving was my utmost expectation, something possible.
Dera was everyone’s friend.
She was the sister-in-law to my landlady’s daughter and she was also a tenant living in my lodge. During the period she first came to the lodge, I tried to avoid her, to give her that space I normally give strangers. But her warm spirit would always pull me and, within seconds, I would be laughing so hard to any of her jokes.
There are the fondest memories I have of her though. Like when she would always tease me and call me the greatest male chef in the lodge because my Jollof rice smelled tasty. Or the times when she called me the Godfather of her unborn child. Or when I and Chibuike had gone to return her laptop at the house that belonged to her department, and she had welcomed us both and given us milk cookies and fruit salad and a native dish from Nsukka. Or the memory I have of her washing her clothes and telling one of my neighbours about the things someone could eat to stop diarrhoea. All of these memories still haunt me.
In September 2019, most departments in the school were beginning to hold their degree examinations and the excitement all the final year students had was boundless. As it has always been, on the day of the last paper, the final-year students would wear white shirts and the undergraduates would sign on them. Then they would go on to drench the final-year students with water. On the night of 26th, I had joined my lodge mates to pour water on my next-door neighbour and Dera was there, with her bulging stomach. As the whole event happened, she mentioned that my last paper was on the 28th and that I should get ready to be baptised by her. But that was the last time I would see her.
After writing my last degree exam, Chigozie and I had set out for home only to find the entire compound disturbingly calm. For a moment I began to suspect that something awful had happened. The dread of something unfortunate was what I hated, the feeling that grief is probably lurking around, waiting to materialise, waiting to haunt me. And so, something terrible had happened after all. Because when I decided to go to my Landlady’s to greet her, all I could find were people sauntering about with gloomy faces. There was a baby boy at a corner and no mother was in sight. And the sudden realisation that Dera had passed away while I danced all around campus jubilantly hit me with an unimaginable force.
In all my life, 2019 was the most tragic.
And yes, I have to always remind myself that I owe my being the truth— to possess it, to live in it. I have to reassure myself that all open wounds heal, that being vulnerable can be another kind of strength, that I am capable of taking up the duty of reassembling my selves in this body.
I am the draftsman of my being, a painter hurling colours at a canvas, making into existence something oddly beautiful.
Ohia, Ernest Chigaemezu
Ohia, Ernest Chigaemezu is a 21-year old Nigerian writer. He graduated from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka with a B.A. in English and a minor in History and International Studies. He has works in Eunoia Review, Nantygreens, The Muse, Rigorous and elsewhere.
This entry appeared in The Memory Issue