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Love for Ashes

The tippet you left dangling the clothes line disturbed more than the abandoned earthenware pots, which crumbled over time at the corner where you made them. The piece of fabric―grey, alive―gleamed in the morning light, swinging back and forth as if a finger agitated it. It was the second week since you died.

The phone rang unending from the dining table, but I ignored the quirky tones spilling into the clear morning, the white skies promising a hot, typical dry-season-day. Unsaved numbers speckled my phone’s screen to inform me that the rot in my mother’s breast had killed her; to bemoan the loss of my parents in such a short time; to reiterate the burial customs I must pay heed.

I mourned you instead as the hours stacked next to hours. I watched the plantain leaves quiver and tear underneath the wind’s thick fingers. The trees clung to one another in the grove: five clannish trunks and a fat little sucker in the middle. You did not like to go near the grove, and I knew why. So it was pointless to poke an awareness twice.

We did not like the same things, and we lived wholeheartedly in our differences. At every dawn we would dig into ourselves anew, marked by our discoveries of each other, losing and finding hallways we didn’t know existed. You did not take cornmeal and milk because they softened your bowel. You did not chew nuts because they dislodged your dentures. You hated to ride in my Nissan Sony, the old jalopy I owned proudly. You detested meals made from plantain. Again, I knew why.

The swarthy sand of the compound shone in the sun. The pebbles stuck out against the brownness exactly as they did the day you bathed your hands with them, making peace with the earth and a life with me. It was the first time you said my name, “Okey,” and the birds twittering on the nearby trees took up the chant. Later that day, you fled the rain’s touch, squealing as it pattered down like a child’s feet. In your eyes, I saw a mixture of fascination and dread, and I ticked rain off your preference list. At first, you struggled with language. Your fingers always pointed to the opposite direction of the things you meant. I understood you meaning in that reverse and began to see an upended world that was quite beautiful.

You had a liking for the minutiae of everyday life—the orange light tearing through the sky at dawn, the unruffled stillness just before the shouts of children and the world’s hubbub took over, the fowl’s cackle as it called out to family—and you dunked yourself as if in communion with these sights and sounds and feelings, just as you closed your eyes while gumming the orange pulp of the icheku fruits as if trying to scrub them clean of essence.

On my way home, once, I saw your brown hand hovering on the branches of an icheku tree which stood about a mile distance from our house. You wore the floral dress you loved so much, and your grizzled hair took a lot of sun. Your bare feet rested on the hot tars of the road without feeling. I wondered if I imagined you. The front door of our house was unlocked when I got home; you were at the dining table, and my body was taken by fear.

“Was it you?” I made to ask, then you turned to face me, your cheeks scrubby from the icheku you were eating.

In those first weeks of our marriage, I returned home to find the compound littered with the carcasses of beheaded chickens. Dread spread through me as I sidestepped them and reached the veranda. Was something going wrong with you? You answered the door, your face now full of colour, your neck turning smoothly. Your skin was a river of fine creases. I understood at that moment your need to renew yourself, and to oil the dried hinges in your body. By morning, you looked bloated and the compound had been swept clean. The bird population was culled by the need to refill a famished body.

It was after the chicken episode that I learnt of your unbridled love for the sun’s heat. You sunned yourself in the open yard, a menacing huge python, and your small triangular head dipped in and out of the sand like a fish surfing water. Your tongue flicked out to taste the air. I tried to flee but the task was beyond me. When the life in my legs returned, I ran to my car. I could not go on with the day’s work. I parked the car at a roadside and shivered until my body was fagged out. Your mortal form would welcome me later that day, and no words would ever be said about the python.

We walked to Afor-Uzo, the town market, instead of driving, because my car held the cold reminder of your first tragedy. People’s eyes feasted on us all the way, their faces making ugly expressions. Their curiosity must have been stirred by the way you propelled your stiff joints forward, and your bare feet, and your fingers, which curved like the hocks of a dead fowl. Maybe, they envied our closely-knit relationship, close as an eye and its socket.

We avoided the mirrors at Afor-Uzo. We bought your dresses from only the shops without mirrors. You did not need unveiling.

“Is she feeling well?” a cloth seller asked me, one hand shielding her words. You were standing motionless as though in a trance.

“Is who feeling well?” I retorted.

“I don’t mean to—, oh! So sorry. I was only concerned.”

I paid for the clothes that would fix your frowsy look and we left. No one else would understand the dark alleys you had sailed through, nor the number of times you were broken to fit the trip. People who had been through nothing concerned themselves with perfection: flawless limbs and hazel hair, and a body so nimble it could trace every direction.

We met my colleagues at the car park. They asked about you, their words stumbling out of their cigarette-burnt lips like staccato chirps.

“Hey, is this the woman now? I heard.”

“Okey, let’s hang out sometime. Bring your new woman along.”

“Ha! So Okey got married and hid the news?”

“He is not married. Our friend here is cohabiting with this fine woman and eating the thing for free.”

They slapped one another’s backs and laughter racked their bodies until their eyes brimmed with tears. I didn’t let their mockery bite through the shield I wore since you arrived. A clump of drunken men who resorted to smokes and the bottles and their women’s vaginas at the end of day’s toil. What did they know?

Our lives began to fall apart when our small space slackened and took one more body than it could contain. My mother called with a small bag that caused rocks to pile in my throat. She had taken a four-hour bus ride from Akpo to Oba because she was worried I was not taking her calls. She had then called someone who lived nearby and was told.

“Who did you call? What were you told?” I almost asked, but was restrained by the sudden whip of her head as she peered to where you stood.

“Jesus! Who is this?” she screamed, backing away. Your smile died. It must have been at that moment that you began to hate her.

“My woman,” I remember saying.

“What woman? Where did you pick this thing from?”

When I glanced where you stood, perhaps to borrow words from your capsized language bank, you had disappeared. The few days she spent with us, she planted her eyes on you, tailing your gait and expression. She was aging, I realised as I gazed at this spiteful version of her. Wrinkles pitted deep into her jaw, and her eyebrows shrank away from the lines. She carried the weight of everything she’d lived: mother to five stillbirths until I came, the rainbow child.

“That woman does not talk?” she asked me once.

“Her name is Nkoli. She talks.”

“So why is she not talking?”

“She talks when she wants to.”

“There are always reasons to say something, yet she never says anything. Okey, are you sure your head is functioning well? Why can’t you see what I’m seeing in that woman?”

It shocked me that she asked this. It shocked me because I did not understand why she could not see what I saw in you.

The woman that lived in the flat next to ours trotted in often to keep my mother company, an extra weight on our space. Their eyes danced as they whispered. The curt flicker of their glances spelt out the things they questioned: why did your gaze glue to rooftops while you walked? Why were your eyes empty, the balls largely absent? It was hard to tell the effect the conjectures had on you. You never spoke of them. You clung only to your gestures and your laughter, which was mostly stirred by nothing.

My mother left and our life returned to what it used to be. But her visit drew probing from our neighbours―eyes and ears yearning to see and hear of some strange occurrence. We always found the crown of someone’s head at the low wall that circled the compound.

My father sent messages: The woman I hear you live with, who is she? We can at least meet with her people and make arrangements. I showed you the message but doubted if you could read, if your mouth had ever strung English letters into words. You surprised me when you shook your head.

“Very funny,” you said and went back to pottery, an activity that began to occupy your hours. I watched as you tirelessly compacted the mud, bending it into rounded walls. Your palms moved with the art of a drummer as you slapped them into the most beautiful earthenware pots I’d ever seen.

“We can sell them,” I teased.

“Sell them?”

“Yes. The pots.”

Your face twisted with what I understood as fright. You did not want to be seen. You preferred to be aligned with absence, with emptiness—hidden in spaces where only I could find you. So too, you thought of your creations.

“No selling,” you said and your hands balled into fists as you struggled for more words. “They are for here.”

I nodded.

My father had suddenly gone missing, and my mother, while grappling with her new loss, was struck down in the open yard and could no longer move her body. I’d run the roads from Oba to Onitsha and no passenger would board my vehicle. It was Ezinne, the seer at Obosi, who led me to you. I watched Ezinne’s pupils recede like calmed waters as she burrowed into the inner recesses of the ether, perhaps swirling through sticky bodies to find you. She said you were an errant soul, lost and broken. She said you sought home in everything.

“She is set to destroy you and everything you value,” Ezinne prophesied as she invoked the long-forgotten-day into a mirror she placed it in front of me. Her talent for the supernatural had trapped the memory of the ordeal so sharply.

The rain hailed down hard. I circled the junction where the towns of Uke and Ojoto met. The sky gurgled, painting hazy pictures out of trees and houses. The road was buried under large puddles as I revved the engine, aiming to manoeuvre through the flood’s wave. I swerved the car into a single carriageway, evading an open ditch that I thought was drilled at the edge of the road, but now brimmed with rainwater. Someone screamed. The sound arrived at my ears smothered, as if the storm was merely trilling in the distance. I glanced towards the waterlogged drainages, and my eyes caught a pile of clothing lying at the corner as if it had always been there. I braked afterwards, some sixty yards from where my car had hit her. The empty fog filled the mirror, fringed by the grey light of a dying day.

Something swelled inside me after seeing the events of that day. I felt the birth of a river with prickly hands coursing through me, pouring into gaps I didn’t know existed. It slapped around in my chest as gusts of a cold gale, made my body shiver and twitch from the effect. The floral clothing I saw in the mirror etched itself in my head, filling my head with buzzes of recollection.

Ezinne’s eyes impaled mine. “Only a marriage with her can calm her rage,” she said.

We reached your ancestral home in the quiet of the night, the seer and I. Your house was soaked in shadows. The chirps of the night creatures clouded the air.

Your mother boiled with rage. Her hands scrabbled at my chest until the bubble of her anger burst. She spoke to me in a distressing bawl.

“You waited for two months to come! Two whole months! Look at her lying there! A beautiful young woman in her prime! You cut her down! You killed her! Talk to her! Don’t talk to me!”

You lay beside your father, your grave marked with a shriveled wreath. It reminded me of the floral clothing I’d seen in Ezinne’s mirror, a lifeless chunk of you I wilfully ignored. Your mother’s words filled me with regret and a strange longing to fix the past.

It was unceremonious, our union. It held on your grave. Your father’s spirit must have witnessed it too, alongside your mother who kept looking away. She berated me anew; she had waited for me to come on the day of the rain itself. The ceremony might have been more cosmic then with your death so newly written into existence. But I had neglected my duty to you and you were forced to swallow my father into mystery and paralyse my mother. Thus, I had found Ezinne who now renamed you Nkoli, a mask over the former names you bore and everything you had been.

The following night, I heard the rustle of leaves as if a whirlwind was breaking across the compound. Colours and light merged in my eyes and I saw your newly grown form rise from the heart of the plantain grove, a muddied naked woman springing from the soil. I teetered on the edge of dismissing it as a dream until you reached my veranda in the gloaming, just as the land birds gleaned the soil for food, wrapped in the floral gown you wore the day I killed you. Clotted blood streaked your temple. Hairs stood at the back of my neck while I cleaned you, soaking myself in your forgiveness, going over the task I should have carried out two months earlier.

My head must have been shuttered tight against the things I knew. I’d only narrowed your fears to some meals and the rain and the car and other people that I forgot to make room for more, for other bodies that could drown you.

You were blooming and more life was creeping into your eyes, skin, and hair. It seemed you were letting go of your liminal status and was slowly embracing the new sphere you occupied. I could almost touch the drumming of your heart behind the walls of your chest, a heart you suffered to keep warm. Your gestures began to say what they meant, and you fashioned more words from your lips once pale, now crimson.

You spoke of an offspring, a little human who would carry the imprints of our souls and bodies. I had never touched you until the night your hand crept across my body in the stifling heat. I had been afraid all along, terrified of shattering something too fragile, made perhaps from clay. Your hands were bold. Your body wrapped me snugly, pulling me through the farthest layers of the earth, to yourself. My penis found you wet and ready and I unfolded inside of you, every part of me bursting like a new spring. Then it came, the drowning I did not foresee.

You tore away from me and your body went into spasms. There was rattling outside. Something was here to take you. I pulled on a pair of trousers and ran to the window. Through the louvres my eyes fell on a stout woman. A scarf was wrapped around her head. It was my mother. The bare-chested man with her circled the compound, chanting: a dibia. A white cloth clung to his waist. His face was concealed by the curtains of early dawn.

When I turned around, I saw a very frightening version of you. Not a python. Not a bird-eating monster. You had returned to being completely pale and your temple trickled with blood. Your skin was sprayed with new holes, open wounds that deepened infinitely. They grew in number at the incensed chants of my mother and the dibia. I wanted to fling myself at the duo and strangle them into silence but I wanted to stay and protect you, though I was also afraid you would transmute into a new creature right before my eyes.

You still shivered hours after they left, even with the duvets I heaped on you. I watched your body rise and fall like a riptide. Small pools of blood coagulated in your eyes. Was this not meant to be the most magical of all our nights spent together? Were we not just spinning our bodies into an aching creation of beauty?

The compound peaked with the haunting chill of a crime scene. Candles that had burnt half of their lifespan away stood in small circles of five. An uncorked bottle. Uma leaves plucked in their bloom. The dark red of animal blood. The earth you dipped into for renewal now carried bold marks of your erasure.

I watched you wilt, and your skin turned on you, reeking of decay. You shed your husk all over the house. Bloody mud trailed your movement. You became too frail to crawl back to the sand for healing.

“The earth was poisoned by the dibia’s god,” Ezinne told me, and she could not undo it. The dibia’s rituals were slowly unearthing everything you carried. I saw a whole universe as you bled—the making of worlds and magic, the making of humans and ire.

You grew larger, sometimes riding through different forms. I would stumble on a hefty serpent, or a fat earthworm, or a skink, or you, your eyes, unchanging, nestled in the beastly faces of all these forms.

Your existence had long patched the rips your fury created. It was your heartbeat that brought my father back home from his wanderings, and breathed life into my mother’s muscles. You fetched me luck, caused my driving job to garner more customers. Your dawn suppressed our many horrors. But as soon as your erasure began, the tribulations returned. My father was found at the edge of a pathway, abandoned just as you were months earlier, his eyelids pressed together, shutting away life’s niceties.

Then your limbs melted into the fine sand that littered our bedroom floor. They were the first body parts you acquired on your journey here. Your thighs dislodged next. There was flesh and bone littered on the whole floor. Your entrails were bared and a tang of putrefaction sank into the walls. It gouged me open to see you in that state: a dismembered torso.

I received a call for my mother. A rot had crept into her breasts and was eating them up.

“Could you come?” some of our relatives asked.

No, I could not. I was tending to my woman, I replied.

You requested to be taken into the open air. You hadn’t been in the sun for days. I was afraid someone would walk in on us and witness your handicap. What if they still watched from the wall?

But you were rotting away and I was more afraid of losing you, so I obliged. When your forehead finally touched the hot sand, you slithered towards the grove, your skin glimmering in the daylight. There, you lay motionless for long, I thought, but I still hoped that this would fetch you some healing. Oh, you crumbled instead, and the earth sucked you in. No last words. No trail of memory to mark the end.

I knew why my phone rattled days later, and whose memory had been knelled to a close. The cancer was quick in taking my mother.

We are so sorry for your loss. Your parents watch over you now, a text message read.

You were their only child. Come home and plan the burial rites, read another.

Ezinne warned me not to attend my parents’ funerals. Ihe onye metere, o were isi ya buru. May the curse follow whoever provoked it She washed my palms off my mother’s crime at the Idemili River. Ocho ihe ukwu ga ahu agba ehi. May the trouble-seeker be visited with that which she hunts. She washed my face and disentangled me from your wrath.

The weather skipped in-between seasons, often ushering the rain in the middle of a sunny afternoon. The sun’s warmth appeared inessential since you weren’t here. The rain grew heavy, then fizzled to mild torrents. It all meant nothing. Your lustrous eyes and scaly skin had silenced so many parts of me.

I would never speak of you to anyone, never tell of the red earth that flowed through your veins, never tell of the life forms you assumed with ease, never tell of how we gobbled up each other, and how you left behind the flaccid thing at the base of my thighs that had refused to rise for weeks.

I watched your scarf swing to the wind’s push and listened to the phone ring, everything trembling and merging with the grey skies and the horizon, lighting an unwelcome memory wick, throbbing with the promise of another lifetime with you.

About the Author

Frances Ogamba is a 2022 CLA fellow. She is the winner of the 2020 Kalahari Short Story Competition and the 2019 Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction. She is also a finalist for the 2019 Writivism Short Story Prize and 2019 Brittle Paper Awards for short fiction. Her fiction appears or is forthcoming on Chestnut Review, CRAFT, New Orleans Review, The Dark Magazine, midnight & indigo, Jalada Africa, Cinnabar Moth, Dappled Things, The /tƐmz/ Review, in The Best of World SF and elsewhere. She is an alumna of the Purple Hibiscus Creative Writing Workshop taught by Chimamanda Adichie.