READING

The Thing Called Grief | Ernest O. Ògúnyẹmí

The Thing Called Grief | Ernest O. Ògúnyẹmí

The day Daddy came home with the mirror, we knew it was The Thing. He placed it on the table in the parlour. Carefully, as if it could lose its meaning if dropped otherwise. 

“I can’t let this break. This! Boys! This. This is the Miracle,” Daddy said, a bright smile on his plump face. 

Josiah, my younger brother, and I shared the look: I gave him a side-look and shook my head a little; he did the same. 

“Jeremiah,” Daddy called to me.

“Sir.”

“Come and go and buy nails for me. Or do we have a good one in the house?” He asked.

I found him one, and took it to him in his bedroom. He was standing beside the bed he used to share with Mommy.

I stood there, behind the bed, Josiah beside me, the both of us watching him hit a hammer on the nail, driving it into the wall. After some time, he dropped the hammer. He pulled the nail lightly to be sure it was strong. Then he hung the mirror.

The mirror was almost as tall as Josiah, who was thirteen at the time. It had a wooden frame around it, some designs (they looked like flowers) were chiseled into the frame.

“Yes. Now, the Miracle will happen,” Daddy said, excited.

He never told us what the Miracle was going to be, but we knew it was The Thing that was worrying him.

*

Before Daddy came home with the Mirror, there had been other things. 

A radio. Which he never turned on but placed on his ear, as if it were a phone. He sometimes danced when he placed the radio on his ear. “My wife is singing to me, boys. Wow. Her voice is so beautiful.” Sometimes he sat on the worn couch in the parlour and listened to it. He shook his head as if someone had said something deep. “Boys, your mother says she loves you. She just told me this now. Don’t you love her, too?” We shook our heads. “Yes. They say they love you, too. You know I love you more sha.” He went on, speaking sweet nonsense into the radio. 

One day, a Saturday evening, we met Daddy sitting on the floor in the kitchen. Josiah and I had just returned from the road, where we hawked bottled groundnuts. The radio was on the floor, ruined. “The bird of your mother’s voice was trapped in there. I had to set it free,” Daddy said.

Two days later, Daddy came home with a gown. A soft, red sleeveless gown. He put a white hanger into it and hung it on a nail in the wall. “Can’t you see how beautiful your mother looks in this gown? The colour red always looks so good on her. You know, the first time we met, she was in a red gown just like this one. It was at this Get Together that one of my friends—Bello; you know Bello now? That my schoolmate that lives in London, the one with the big belly?” We shook our heads. “Yes. That one. He was the one who invited me there. I got there and your mother was the first person I saw. She was in a brief red gown, and some nice open heels, too. It was a love at first sight thing, boys. It was. And not just for me, but for her, too. That day I said You look like a tomato. She smiled. Said, I’ve got the sauce.” He turned to the dress. “Deery, isn’t that the truth? Look, she is smiling.” He turned to us, and then back to the dress. “My deer is smiling. Your smile is like the opening of a golden wound, it shines.” He went on and on: adoring the dress, begging it to speak, or hold his hand, or give him a kiss. “A little one, just here, on my forehead.” He pushed his head close to the dress, a little above it where the head of the wearer should be. There were times he sprayed perfume on the dress, buried his nose in it, and said, “You smell so nice, my deer.”

On a Tuesday, we returned from school and met him in the parlour, legs splayed, the dress shredded, all over the green center rug. It looked like many roses. There were scissors in his right hand; on his left hand a finger was bleeding. His face muddy with tears. “She said she doesn’t like this dress anymore, so she took it off. I met it on the floor. It looked like a bad omen. I shredded the dress, since it does not have any other use. I got this cut while shredding it.” He lifted his finger.

“Daddy,” Josiah called him. “You need to stay away from sharp objects,” he said.

“I will. I will.” He began to wipe his eyes.

Then there was the rabbit. Small and cute. It was white, fluffy. Daddy didn’t always let us touch it; it was always in his arms. But we got our chances on the days he locked himself in the room and cried or recited poetry out loud. Most days it was the same poem over and over. J.P. Clark’s “Olokun”: “I am jealous, like Jehova God of the Jews,” he recited loudly. Some days it was his own poems, written in his earlier days, when he was studying at UI. Most of the poems were dedicated to ex-lovers and always invoked the image of water: “O come out with me, tonight, my deer/ Hand in hand, like tied rivers, let us dance in the Rain.” My favourite was  one he titled “Flowers”, which was about time and the fact that his lover is nothing like a flower, because the beauty of his lover is not as brief as that of a flower: “O, deery, you are something synonymous with sea/ You are not tulip,/ In your belly gardens bloom.” Most times, even when he was in the room, he took the rabbit in with him.

“Her name is Motola,” Daddy said. Our mother’s maiden name was Motola.

Every morning, Daddy bathed the rabbit and fed it; sometimes it was carrots, sometimes it was grass cut from the corner that led into Osipitan, our street. He sat the rabbit on his lap every morning and fed it whatever he had gotten for it. “Eat, Motola. Eat. For my sake. Please,” he said. When the rabbit had eaten the grass, he gave it some water, which he had in a purple bowl. Then he sang. Sometimes he stood and danced while holding two of the rabbit’s front legs. “Your mother is such a good dancer. She has always been a good dancer. Even back then, that day in 1994, when I saw her for the first time—in that stupid red dress that she no longer wants—and she took my hand and we danced to Kollington, she had all the moves. It was that same night that we had that kiss and she turned to water and she said she wanted to go home with me and I let her know that I crash at a friend’s and she asked me to follow her to her place, het parents’ place, and I said I can’t. I was so stupid. You know.” He stopped dancing. Sat down and pulled the rabbit in for a hug. “I’m so sorry I was that stupid that night.”

It was a Sunday. We had just returned from the party where we worked as servers, serving food and drinks and carrying coolers around. Daddy was sitting on the floor. In the parlour. A knife in his hand, blood soaked into the green rug. The rabbit’s belly torn open. The insides scooped out. Dark blood on Daddy’s hands. 

“She said she hated it there, in the rabbit’s body, that she wants another thing to inhabit. I had to send the rabbit to sleep. Did I do well?” Daddy asked.

*

The Thing possessed him when Mommy left the house one morning and in the afternoon someone called to say that she was involved in an accident and didn’t make it. As if an accident were a love affair. As if survival were a contest. They did not bring her home. Two weeks later, they put her in the ground. Daddy did not come for the burial. From the day we received the call, to the day Mommy was buried, he did not leave his room. He did not bathe. He did not eat. He rose from the bed only to use the toilet. People who had come to say their condolences did not see him. We begged him to come out and see the people, but he didn’t even speak to us. He didn’t open his mouth to speak a word for two weeks. Then one day he opened the door to his room and came to the parlour, with a book in his hand. He read out loud a poem by Ben Okri. And then he asked if we were fine. He said Mommy was fine, that she was with the Lord now. 

Daddy stopped going to work. He was a secondary school teacher; he taught Government at Mafoluku Memorial. The day after he came to the parlour and read a poem by Ben Okri, he went to Mafoluku to tender a resignation letter. He didn’t tell us; it was the Principal who told us. The Principal came to our place one evening in his Audi and asked us to beg Daddy to reconsider continuing in the civil service, not because of anyone but because of the two of us—Josiah and myself. “How would the two of you cope if he stops earning?” The Principal asked.

We spoke to Daddy.

“I can’t stand before anyone and teach, boys. If I open my mouth to teach, birds of misery will pour out; and they smell, like rotten things. Because everything inside of me is dead. Dead.”

Daddy’s immediate older sister, Aunty Bisi, came. She was at our place for three days but Daddy didn’t see her, not even once. Later, after he had left the room, three months after Mommy passed, Aunty Bisi came again. This time, not to console him, but to talk to him. Daddy said he heard everything she had said—which included that he return to his job. “When you get busy with work, and you start going out again, you will begin to heal. And, who knows, you could find another beautiful woman,” she said. 

When Aunty Bisi left the next day, on his way back from seeing her off to the park, Daddy bought the radio.

*

In the early days after Mommy passed, Daddy would give us his ATM to go and withdraw money to buy foodstuff. But then the money in his account dried up, and The Thing was killing him. There were nights that he jerked up from sleep and started crying. The next morning, our neighbors asked us what was wrong with him; was he well? They asked us to take him to Yaba; he needed to be hospitalized, they said. But we couldn’t take him. I was only 17; Josiah was 14. And there was no money.

We started hawking things—groundnuts, plantain chips, popcorn, sometimes biscuits—in traffic, and we started following Mr. Sanya to the parties he hosted, serving drinks and food. Just to earn some money to live. Our school fees was not a lot of money, but Daddy could no longer pay because his account balance was flat. Aunty Bisi sent us money sometimes. 

We told her what our neighbors suggested. She said, “Give him time. I believe he will heal.”

But days segued into weeks, weeks slid past like curious animals, and Daddy didn’t heal. However, we let him be because what else could we have done? We hid all the knives and sharp things in the house. Before we left for school in the morning, we made him have his bath. I prepared something for him to eat, Josiah picked clothes for him to wear. And when we came back from school, he was always at home, sometimes asleep, sometimes in his room reciting poems out loud. Sometimes he sat outside watching people go and come. Though our neighbors knew there was something unwell about him, they didn’t see him as a raving lunatic. They greeted him and he returned their greetings. Occasionally, he took walks and we didn’t meet him at home when he returned from school. We met him in the night when we returned from hawking.

*

Every morning, Dad stood before the Mirror, a photograph of Mommy in his hand. In the photograph she is dressed in purple dry lace, and has this big yellow gele on her head. He placed the photograph before the Mirror, moving it this way and that. “You look so beautiful, my deer,” he said. Sometimes it was another photograph. Sometimes he pressed his lips to the mirror, “Kiss me now.” Other times, he stood before the Mirror and danced. And sometimes he recited Soyinka to it.

We were at home on a Saturday evening. Madam Jeje, the woman who supplied us with the things we hawked in traffic told us to stay at home and read. Exams were close. Josiah was writing his last term exam in Jss2; I was going to SS3. We were in the parlour studying when we heard Daddy’s voice. He was reciting Tunbosun: “What have your wild hands not taken, Lord?”

Josiah went to knock on the door. Daddy didn’t answer. He knocked again. This time Daddy answered the door.

“What is the problem?” Daddy asked.

“Come to the parlour, Daddy. We need to talk,” Josiah said. He was the one with the sharp, restless mouth, and the one with the courage to use that mouth. I? I was the other one.

“What do we need to talk about, Boy? Did you forget your pencil in school?” 

Josiah shot me a look; it was the look we gave each other every time Daddy showed tiny signs of insanity. Like once when he called me Marylene, the name of a child Mommy had who didn’t stay; it died a few days after birth. When I told him I wasn’t Marylene, he asked if I was Jide, his childhood friend.

“No, Daddy. I didn’t forget my pencil in school,” Josiah said.

“You forgot your name?”

“Daddy. Just come first. Come.”

Daddy stood, one hand pressed to the doorframe, the other on the doorknob. He blinked and spoke to himself quietly. And then he came out and sat on the worn couch in the parlour. 

We sat on the stools.

Josiah had not had this discussion with me before, and we had many discussions about Daddy. On our way back from school, he started topics and asked me questions. Where is Mommy? What is she doing there? What is wrong with Daddy? One day, when we were done selling, we sat on a concrete platform counting the money we made from sales. “Jeremy,” he called me, tapping my lap. I faced him. “Don’t die, too,” he said. 

“Daddy. Why do you stand before that mirror and do all the things you do in front of it?” Josiah asked.

Daddy thought for a while. “If I do it long enough, one day your mother will appear to me in the Mirror.”

“That is a lie, Daddy. Mommy is gone. She cannot appear to you anywhere.”

“But it is not a lie. The man who sold it to me said so. He cannot be a liar. He didn’t look like a liar,” Daddy said.

“Daddy. Stop doing all these things you are doing. Get a job. We need you. She was our mother. She means a lot to us, too. But you are here, and we need you. You can’t just go on doing all this nonsense, Daddy.”

I gave him the look. Told him to keep quiet. He was saying too much. But Josiah wouldn’t listen.

“I am tired of all of this. You stay at home crying and reading stupid poems every day and we go to school and work after school to take care of ourselves and you. You are our father. It’s unfair. Even Mommy won’t be happy with you.”

That last sentence ruined the fabric of that moment. Daddy ran to the room. He turned the lock. He didn’t leave that room for three days; every day he cried.

*

It was a cool evening, the sky a neat spread of grey. Earlier, we’d stood in the sun begging people trapped in traffic in Ikosi to buy groundnuts. Going this way and that way, taking the brief spaces between vehicles. Shouting, “Sweet groundnut.” The sale for that day wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t impressive either. We didn’t go to Madam Jeje’s that day; we decided that we would make payment the next day when we came to take fresh goods. On the road Josiah and I talked about this new girl in his class. He asked me what was the surest way to get her attention. I asked him to jump from the second floor of one of the many buildings in his school.

“You are an idiot, Jeremy. A big idiot,” he said.

I laughed.

On the road, we bought two galas, talked about what was best to eat that night. There was still some egusi soup in the house. I prepared it two days before. Josiah suggested that we get fufu. We bought six wraps of fufu at the bus stop; I’d have two, Josi would have two, and Daddy would have two. 

Daddy wasn’t at home when we got home. We found the key under the carpet where he left it when he was going out. We opened the door and lay, for about five minutes, on the cold floor in the parlour. We went to have our baths. Josiah warmed the soup. Daddy had not returned by the time we started eating, around 8:30.

We finished eating and packed up the plates. Josiah washed them. We sat outside the house. Brother Paul’s extra-loud speaker was blaring a song by Mercy Chinwo. Baba Rodiyat rolled his danfo into the hood, revved up the engine. His daughter, Rodiat, ran to him, shouting “Daddy Mi”. Baba Rodiyat came out of the danfo and carried his daughter. “How are you, omo mi?” He asked, his English thick with an Ibadan accent. It was 10:03 and Daddy had not returned. We locked the door and went through Oyenaya and Caleb Fakoya street, Josiah and myself, to see if we could catch sight of him; we didn’t. 

Daddy had not returned when we got back home around 11:30. We knocked on the doors of our neighbors to ask if they had seen Daddy. People came out of their apartments to stand outside with us. Even people from the next house. Soon almost everybody on the street was out. Women kn ankara wrappers and round-neck tops; their children clinging to them or standing behind them. Josi started crying. I held him close. His tears soaked my MTN shirt.

“I see him this morning. Around 10. He going out that time,” Brother Sifau, the brother who sold Ibadan version of Chinese movies and porn CDs at the junction of Oyenaya, said.

“Yes. Me too. I saw him carrying something. I even greeted him. He did not reply, you know the way he is,” Mommy Favour, Street Gossip 1, said.

“The thing was glistening in the sun,” Brother Paul said.

I went inside the house, entered Daddy’s room. The mirror was missing.


Ernest O. Ògunyemi

Ernest O. Ògunyemi is a staff writer at Open Country Mag. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Joyland, Tinderbox, Sierra Nevada Review, Journal Nine, The Indianapolis Review, Down River Road, Capsule Stories, No Tokens, The West Review, The Dark Magazine, Mud Season Review, Agbowó, Isele, and in the anthology 20.35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry III. He is the curator of The Fire That Is Dreamed of: The Young African Poets Anthology.

Twitter is @ErnestOgunyemi, Facebook: Olatunbosun Ogunyemi.

Photo by Kristina Tripkovic on Unsplash


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