Desolate Room by Mbanefo Chibuike

We understand hatred for the first time when he puts his cold hands upon the one whom we love. Zikora’s hatred for me began when he found out I was responsible for mother’s death, when father told him he had sold everything he had to keep me alive. Enraged, Zikora cut himself out of the only picture we took with father. The picture usually brings back lots of good memories. But now it holds sway over much of our lives. It does not really look like us. Father says it is as old as the seceding republic, fifteen years old or less.

He had gone with the part containing father and I, as much as he could say. He would remain away indefinitely. He had forbidden himself from returning. A self-exile it was. The frail looking old man had fought to keep him, but once his words broke his back, he let Zikora go. The word was freedom, largely unremarkable.

Usually he would ask if there were more pictures of Zikora for him to see, whenever he missed him so much. It was sadness that made the old man ask, but when his memory came back – it often did anytime he held the torn picture – he would shed tears. “What will become of him?” he would weep.

Every day I walk round the house searching for any of his properties; his books, his clothes, his hunting materials and the rest of his belongings. I want to feel his presence. I want to hold his hands. I want to crack jokes with him, father roaring above his once thick voice. Today is a characteristic rainy day which is almost the same temperature in Enugu, the capital of the South Eastern States. Here, up the hills we have chilly mornings and sweltering nights, memories of what we lost churn in our heads.

I search and search but I find nothing, except starving heaps of earth and broken bamboo bed made by father, his room remaining uninhabited for years, falling apart and looking like lost soul, Zikora’s room is desolate.

Our lives appear like yam barns extending to huts and trees. Looking beyond the raffia palms that once barred it. To the high mountains. One will easily find where our eyes meet the sky – a thick-clouded blue sky, our tears looselyheld in it. Fresh mounds of hope looking like they were put up yesterday and would crumble tomorrow. Father at a distance, those memories in hands, visibly shaking him violently, his words of freedom echoing in his ears, and then our lives becoming dimmer as he moves farther.

When brother was very much younger, before his hatred swallowed our cheers and jeers, he would hang from one of the mango trees at the village square and call me to join in the hide-and-seek game. A fine jumper he was, climbing the hill-high, animal-proof and watertight fence. He preferred to stand on things than to sit on chairs and often times I had seen him with the right leg on the woven wire fence of our neighbour’s orchard, causing it to sag until, usually sooner than later, he would walk right over it.

We remained close as we grew older, he was the one who always called me to join the boys, and he was always checking on me, he was always protecting me. Once he had struck a boy’s jaw because the boy had called me a weakling. He was strong and sometimes out of control.

Zikora had joined father in his carpentry works. He helped him cut down branches of deciduous trees from nearby bushes. He worked with him so we could have enough to eat and to manage my frequent crisis. All that mattered was life, then happiness.

Father raised the idea of sending us to school when they returned from his workplace. Most of our mates had begun some years ago, about three or more. He told us he had been saving for two years and wanted us to become like the other children but we knew he was lying. His eyes betrayed his expressions as he looked pale under the full glare of the moon.

“You two will go to school” he had said ruefully, because he would later come to add “But only for a short while”.

Let Binyelu go to school while I remain in the workplace till there is enough money to train the two of us, he says. I hear the tension in his voice. Tears manage to escape in spite of his blank and emotionless face. Father makes up his mind we will go to school even if he has to borrow. In silence we watch the lurking of animals in dark places and the day unfold.

January 17th, 1964.

School started in earnest as we joined the group of boys who always appeared in white shirts and khaki shorts, leaving their houses before the sun was way up in the sky, having to sit and stand for little or no reason, obeying bell rings and returning home when the mid-day sun was at its peak. It took us a while before we got acquainted to this new way of life. We rather continued this journey silently, the surprises overshadowing the undiluted confusions.

Zikora starts in class two, he is considered too old for class one as many of his age mates are already in classes five and six. I find myself amongst smaller boys in class one. I’m not bothered, the adventure is worth exploring. We interact, we influence each other. We share foods and drinks against father’s words. So in that sense school is entirely purposeful.

As we got familiar with the school environment, we grew into circles, people tended to segregate; the rich and the poor, the boys and the girls, cliques were formed and best friends were picked, but somehow Zikora was above it all. He was in and out of us all. Every circle seemed to welcome him and like time everyone took a piece of him.

The crisis reoccurred when I was in class four; it had come without forewarnings and had left me completely disoriented and unrecognized. This time it had come in the middle of our English class. Later in the day, brother whispered he almost thought I was going to die. It was one of the sad memories I could not lose as much as I tried, other memories having dimmed one after another until our past was completely blurred. The crisis had continued for days, disrupting my schooling. Zikora dropped a class so he could always stay by my side, so he could protect me from my demons.

Father continues with the cooked concoction of leaves from Akirika, the native diviner and medicine man, he is scared to lose faith in him. It remains a thought. He does not want to lose me too, so he continues with his usual sacrifices. There are a handful of others at Akirika’s place. They do not talk. Father, brother, others.

The day of the ritual, people gathered and everyone spoke in a low tone, we did not want to crush the silence that hung over the house, as if we would wake evil spirits. Akirika had dug out a strange black stone beside the hut father slept in. He had told him it was my ‘Iyi Uwa’. He cannot go back… He will live longer than the rest… Father had hugged me so tight, so tight someone must have heard my ribs cracking. His shock of eyes was nested with tears. And like the diviner had predicted, the crises disappeared, as ghosts do, leaving huge voids of the minds.

Five months.

We resume school; we are allowed to continue from the class we have stopped. Father takes us to school with his bicycle. A 1949 Flying Scot ‘continental’ Tandem. I infrequently have fever, abdominal pains and jaundice. Nights eclipse the days; weeks pass and make everything normal once again.

In early November there is a heavy rain. For the first time after long break. The harmattan is about to begin. There is a longer night. The medical team from the District Office arrive our school in the New Nigeria Health Act. They come to check the pulse rate, genotype, and blood group and to conduct eye tests on the class six pupils. A needle breaks in one of the terrified boy’s vein. He takes off at the sight of blood. The incident disrupts further tests as the boy is rushed to the village maternity. The results of the pupils tested are sent to their parents who could neither read nor write while others wait till their next visitation.

Things fell apart the day we were chased away from school, and a lot of Zikora went missing. It was before our standard six exams; the soon-to-retire headmaster could not hold on any longer. Father owed him, Aunty Nneka and some of our class teachers. He had lost his workplace and bicycle to debts too. Our neighbours and relations were not left out, he had also borrowed from them – his entire credit was ruined.

People come to check on us before setting off. They always find excuses to chat with us, are you not Ekwueme’s son? They ask. He avoids them or shortens their discussion. Is it not said that the old woman becomes uneasy when dry bones are mentioned in conversations? He owes them, they look slightly at themselves. A piercing silence ensues. Threats follow afterwards. Akirika is one out of the lot. He threatens to reverse his treatments if father fails to pay him. The medical report is translated by Aunty Nneka. It indicates there is no satisfactory treatment to his frequent crisis… It means the white man cannot help him… There is a very high case of infant mortality… This adds to his unending chain of worries.

When he could not clear his debts – which he seldom did – his creditors took our lands and economic trees which he had used as collateral.

Zikora accuses father of failing in his parental duties. He blames him for not wanting me to work, being partial in his judgment. A bruise of hurts wheels high above. Father draws his three-legged chair leaving a distance of two steps, he tells him everything he needs to know – mother had died while giving birth to me, I was suffering from what Aunty Nneka called sickle-cell anaemia, he spent most of his fortunes treating me – already he has said too much.

Father hated himself for crushing my brother with these confessions that would not ease his pains, but he was tired of shouldering the weight alone. If he wanted every single detail, he was sure to get it. There’s a new sway of mood, Zikora’s eyes is redressed in red, and he looks with fury. A fluttering of messages, with wit, I puzzle out the meaning of the stares. The cause of all the family’s problems had been established, he would be better off gone. Here, his hatred began. I cried all night, he was the one I loved most, the one who was always protecting me. The wild rustlings of leaves had faded to whisperings. From afar the fires from lampstands stood out like fireflies, dancing to my cryings.

The following evening Zikora leaves. He talks about taking his mother first and then his father. I offer a subtle explanation that is not quite an explanation. How it is beyond my control… I have been desperately unlucky… Incredibly luckless I should say. It is the day after he cuts himself out of the picture we snapped with father, just before he promises never to return.

That night as the rain fell, as father laid the finishing touches on an already-paid customer’s table, the cluster of mud houses stretching away into the dimness was frightening in the waning crescent and the hidden figure of Zikora waking on the houses seemed like creatures surfacing out of my regular nightmares. He was drenched to the skin, looking tired yet relentless, I longed for him but I could not call him.

I met his gaze without flinching.

A mud house stands before him. A newly fired clay that looks like squat cement blocks. It must have been built by one of the business men who recently returned from Onitsha. I flick my torch to push darkness back, the house being all I can see, it appears to be floating with its stilts cut off below the stairs. I’m getting disoriented and forgetful – there is no such house – I now doubt if there is ever a figure.

I see his figure reappear in the dark. From an elevated angle it cannot be any man. East of the Anglican Church. To where it arced with our school. I reminisce October 1973. It is independence in Northern Nigeria. The Southerners remain rebellious. Our teachers say we were robbed; we would not join the celebration. I’m surprised; then repulsed; then struck by my very own awe, there is this slight conviction I have robbed the once hidden figure.

I saw Zikora walk past, I say to him that night.

Where?

I feel his fervour, close by my face.

In front of the house, he was carrying his bags.

I need to find him.

Yes.

He has no place to sleep.

He scratches at the insect bites on his arm. He is all bones.

I’m going in search of him. He continues.

You mean I can come along? I can help look for him?

He yawns and scratches his chin this time.

No. it is not good for your health. Take the table in, I’ll be back with him in a short while.

The old man went under the rains to look for him. He combed the clump of bushes, making his way with his long, heavy and single-edged machete when creepers like barbed wire fenced him in, shouting his name as he ran; his tears fell like the rains.

It has been roughly seven years.

When I go to sleep, lying side by side with father – before darkness comes and makes me whole – I wonder how my brother is doing. Taking a new turn for the worse, I wonder if he is safe knowing where he will be. I wonder if he still hates me. He understands my condition but does not forgive me. The thought of seeing him spells doom, I may hurt him again.

He is fine, I say to myself. I try to conceal my nervousness as I sit ensconced in good memories lost.

Father advised me to stop searching, to live with my time and folks, to lose sight of the things we lost, and to forget Zikora’s desolate room. Yet I found myself still drawn to him, and her, each day for them – him and mother. I feel each day like a lost soul without the spirits, to guide me through my new world; a world I dare to call him brother.

 

 

Footnote

Iyi Uwa – Earthly Oath

Mbanefo Chibuike is a final year student of Federal University of Technology Owerri, Imo State. He hails from Abatete in Anambra State, South Eastern Nigeria. He loves writing at his leisure time and has had his poem published in Poets In Nigeria Journal issue 7 and an online prose published at the crow prose contest page.

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