Obiajulu suns his microphone for the funeral at Amesi. The instrument has grown weightier as if his words form invisible skin layers around it. Its original black colour now fluctuates, pocked in places to reveal a dermis of steel. He likes the windscreen best. It rubs his lips at ceremonies. The grating caress flips Obiajulu’s soul in between worlds and the heavy lull of old wisdom washes over him.
His family has emceed for decades. For centuries, Obiajulu claims when acquainting himself with guests. He remembers being his father’s assistant, clutching his suitcase at a corner while the older man pranced on stage, aweing his audience. Obiajulu watched his father from sunrise until the day faded, until the shine of light bulbs rendered him as thin as a child’s impoverished drawing, as if talking shorn a part of him away. Obiajulu knows their origin of hosting events in slightly altered versions: his grandfather’s version and his father’s version. But Obiajulu’s favorite was the account coined by the townspeople.
Once upon a time, a man famed for this prattling soliloquy fished in the River Niger and supplied his catch to travelers plying the bridge linking Onitsha to Ahaba. One day, something swallowed the tail of his line. His muscles swelled with excitement as he struggled to pull his catch to the surface. The water danced fiercely around the line. This was going to be the catch of the season, he imagined. His mind heaved with suggestions on how he would spend the proceeds from selling such a powerful catch. He could already taste the slap of imperial gin in his mouth—a treat which he had not been able to afford. He kept on pulling. As if nature was militating against his wishes, showing up an hour later was a fish no longer than the length of his foot. The hungry sight of the fish filled the man’s chest with distasteful wonder and disappointment. As he cut up the fish later, he struck an object. In the story, the fish disappeared the moment the man scooped the microphone from its belly, and he heard a whispery voice giving orders and making him promises.
The man in the story was Obi, Obiajulu’s great grandfather. Obi passed the microphone to Obieme who passed it to Obika; and after thousands of events and years of speaking, it landed into Obiajulu’s palm. The mic was to be used at weddings and child naming and birthdays, anything that celebrated the living.
Whoever owned the mic saw beneath things. Obiajulu’s father, Obika, always burst with digestible joy as he moved through their town. He saw fetuses burgeoning and love stories blooming. The townspeople came to quiz him about their children, if there was love yet sprouting in their lives. Obiajulu once saw a woman dragging her daughter into their compound. My daughter has been vomiting. She is only 15. Look at her womb and tell me. When Obiajulu’s father hosted one funeral event, which paid them enough to rebuild the cracked walls of their hut, a different energy curled around him. He began to box the air and duck from unseen punches. Obiajulu’s most vivid memory was of his father huddling in a corner, mud splattered up his arms. His breathing was ragged as if he had been tunneling with wildlings.
Obika’s anger kindled against everything. He resented clients asking for too many services under a low budget. He resented Obiajulu for asking questions about their history. His rage grew pebbles in his gall bladder and stirred blights of bitterness in his spleen. One night while asleep, his soul snuck out of him.
The microphone belongs to Obiajulu now. It feels as though he received it himself from the river. He can almost hear the voice calling out to him as his feet pads on pebbles lying on the shore. He revels in the joy he has brought the people with his words. They come to him with eyes misted over, thanking him for muffling life’s distress and siphoning vigour into them. Obiajulu recalls his events as faint episodes of him saying, Testing the microphone, one, two! Testing the microphone, one, two! Wild applause reaches him, like dry twigs breaking nearby. He sits folded up at a corner of his mind with no memory of any word he says. Only the dry compartments in his throat and the passage of time serve as signs that he has spoken for many hours.
“And why do we put it under the sun?” Obiajulu asked his father once. He’d become a mass server at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church and was embarrassed to learn that microphones were charged with electricity.
“It is an instruction my father passed to me. His own father passed it to him.”
“I put the mission’s mic in the sun,” he said, a part of him blaming his father for not explaining everything in clearer words.
“How can you put theirs in the sun?”
“But we put ours.”
“Ours is different!”
Obiajulu survived the years of being called ‘microphone sunny’ by other children, or ‘mic sunner’ and other embarrassing appellations the incident culled for him. He spun the story into his introductions, flipping emotions until laughter spilled into the air.
Clients queue up in his schedule. From towns near his—Osumenyi, Unubi, Nnewi, and from towns so distant his tongue cannot wrap around their names. He approves some, and tells his assistant, Chike, a young man who also shares his passion for hosting to cancel the rest. More than half of the requests are for funerals, which he turns down. Obieme, his grandfather was the first to break the rule. He hosted many funerals because they paid him more. The pain of loss was blinding. The microphone was needed to lap up every soreness in grieving hearts. The story of Obieme’s end floated to Obiajulu through whispers that dimmed once he made an appearance. His father frothed with fury when Obiajulu asked him the consequences of breaking the mic’s rule. Obiajulu then settled with the snippets. Obieme burst like a balloon in the market. His innards were on everyone’s face. When he disappeared, he still talked. People could still hear him over the winds emceeing.
The funeral at Amesi is for Chief Ome-ego, the wealthiest man in the ancient Akalabo kingdom. He died at fifty, after series of strokes that happened overnight. His aged parents were inconsolable. Everyone recommended Obiajulu’s microphone. The family was ready to hire him at ten times his usual rates.
The night before the funeral, a man with white feathery hair appeared to Obiajulu in a dream. On the man’s face, Obiajulu saw a slow transmogrification of himself. All his fathers’ faces fused onto a canvass.
“Great grandfather!” Obiajulu hailed him. But the man shushed him with his words,
Do you know what became of the foolish animal that touched a dead lion’s tail? Or the stubborn fly that followed a corpse to its grave? You can still retrace your steps. Whenever a person begins, it becomes their morning. You have some hours left!
A wiry old man appeared next. Obiajulu recognized the jaded, dark dip of his eyes. His grandfather, Obieme. They both stood under the shifting shades of a blue and black sky.
Weddings cannot rouse your soul in the way that funerals do. Weddings are routine. Think of the shallow questions they make you ask. Who asked the other out? Who cooks better? Who loves the other more? And how much do they pay you? For how long will you remain in that hut our fathers built?
Obieme’s argument doused the effect of the great grandfather’s words in Obiajulu. Death indeed has many faces, endless doors opening to dissimilar endings. An accident. A long-term ailment. A mere headache. Generator fumes. Pancreatic cancer. Slipping on a tiled floor. A building collapse. A heart attack while asleep. Suicide. He died four days after. She died holding on to her newborn. Obiajulu could paw open mourners’ minds through these backstories. He could brighten the arena, blending skill and intuition. He could sharpen every edge with the comfort of his words. He could instill hope.
At the entrance of the chief’s compound, a dizzying crowd snatches almost every puff of air. Obiajulu and Chike, donning matching black outfits, wait for the ritual at the graveside to be over. Obiajulu gawks at the brazen display of wealth all over the compound. Seven houses, he counts. As tall as trees. The grasses, too green to entertain any feet.
He takes in the photo of the chief hanging down a banner pinned to the compound gate and merges the chief’s features in his head to create an intimate combination. He throws in bits of the people he knows, including his late father. An array of the chief’s possible pasts brews inside of him. Voices steam in his head. He carefully sifts out the ugly, kneading the chief into beautiful shapes.
“Chief Ome-ego shared sacks of food to his townspeople, not because he had the means, but because a man who loves his people shows them love through food. This was what Chief did all his life,” Obiajulu begins and a small wind pries him away from himself. Faces light up and eyes glint with agreement. Heads nod. He speaks until chairs empty and electric lights flood the compound; until the energy rippling through him dissolves to exhaustion so strong he almost crumples to the floor. Hands pat his back as he staggers.
“Good job, man! You are truly called for this thing!”
“Our own MC! The master of ceremonies!”
He hovers on the surface in his sleep, not comprehending why his fatigue does not tuck him further into the land of dreams. He wakes to knocks on his door. A beam of light flutters in through the crack underneath his door. Then it dims. Then it dies.
“Who is there?” Obiajulu slurs.
“It is me,” a hoarse male voice says.
He stares warily at his door, a thin demarcation between him and the visitor.
“You said who?”
“Open the door and see,” the voice said, almost crisp, almost rippling with pleasure. No tenseness.
“Who did you say you are?”
“Who are work people please?”
“Your customers. People you worked for.”
“You say people? How many of you are there?”
“When did I work for you?”
“I worked for Chief Ome-ego today.”
“I am from the family. I brought a message.”
“At this hour?” No response.
Obiajulu is not sure why he is worked up. He glances at the clock on the wall of his room and realizes that the night is not so old. 8pm. He must have gone to bed too early. He still hears the bustle of the houses standing close to his, and the town’s beating heart not yet slowed under the night.
He turns the key in the lock. A costly mistake, he considers. He thinks of what people will say afterwards, and the how this moment will feed hundred other moments, steering the rest of his life into a bottomless canal.
The night is cold and pitch-black. His compound looks like the gaping mouth of an animal. He sees no one at his door, but he hears some whispering a little distance away from where he stands. Something moves. Something murmurs. The wind maybe, or a bowl of mist. There is a faint whiff of smoke. Then the figure of an unfamiliar man strides towards him and Obiajulu shivers from the strands of his hair to his heels. He does not see the man’s face, and it is too late to lunge back into his room and pick his torch. The man opens his mouth to speak and the smell of smoke that lingered since he appeared intensifies. Obiajulu is not sure how to hold his gaze because on the man’s face is a mere dash of black.
“Sorry, my brother, for calling on you this late. The news of your brilliant handling of the microphone is all over town.”
Obiajulu nods, not sure why the man could not wait until daybreak.
“Thank you for speaking so knowingly today. Ah! Such great times this man had! You captured small details that had even escaped the family. Your voice had such comforting effect on everyone. Your talent is legendary.”
His praise thaws Obiajulu’s discomfort. His body crackles with pride. The man goes on speaking. Obiajulu smiles and smiles, holding in his breath to stop himself from bursting into laughter. He does not yet see the man’s face but he can picture the furrows on his forehead and his flaring nose. The man’s voice gives Obiajulu further perspective. Brown eyes, a wart sticking out on his eye bags. Bushy eye brows. Clean shaven jaw. The man’s features flood into his head. A face stung by large pores. Few grey hairs. The man seems to grow every inch like Obiajulu imagines him.
“Thank you,” the man says again, “for speaking so well of me.”
Obiajulu sees the man’s mouth move now. He is satisfied with the work his mind has done. Then fear stops his thoughts.
“You say what? What did you say? For speaking well of who?”
Obiajulu’s question clinches a chuckle out of the man. “Forget what you heard, my brother. You remind me of what it means to be truly alive. Ah! This life! One minute, you are alive and well. The next minute, you are on this side.”
“What side are you, sir?” Obiajulu manages to ask, careful not to trigger the man’s malice. The fear in his heart makes him feel mangled, as if a car has run him over. He does not know if he stands or ducks in this moment.
“Give me a handshake, Obiajulu,” the man says in a forceful tone, as if a new strength gushes into him, “You are a true brother! Shake my hand!” The man holds out his right hand to Obiajulu and continues speaking even when Obiajulu does not accept his offer. The whole picture twirls and comes together in Obiajulu’s eyes. The photograph on the banner at Chief Ome-ego’s funeral is standing right before him. The buttoned-up suit. The shiny forehead and the grin that furrowed his cheeks. The staff he held on the left hand. The right hand that was held upwards in the picture, lifted years before, now completing its downward arc by offering Obiajulu a handshake. The same chief!
Obiajulu remembers his father being taunted by hallucinations and the grind of the older man’s voice calling for his father, Obieme o! There was calm on his father’s face afterwards as if the name of a dead patriarch smudged the visions.
“Obika o! Obika!” Obiajulu calls out to his late father. He pushes his door. It remains jammed. He pushes again with all his strength. It does not budge. Obiajulu flies off his veranda and escapes to his backyard. Then, afraid of being too in the open, he crawls into their old kitchen and fits himself into a large cooking pot.
Chike’s voice rouses him at dawn. They have a wedding to host. He hears the younger man pound on his front door, listing all the things they have to get in place for the event. Obiajulu struggles to reconnect with the world. Something cracks the darkness and he falls into a bright light that hurts his eyes. He climbs out of the pot and hobbles to his front door. The cramped space in the pot seems to have dislodged the bones in his body.
“Obi, good morning! What happened to you? You don’t look well.”
He tries to speak, but discovers that his voice needs some clearing. He simply nods at Chike and disappears into the house.
At the wedding ceremony, he puts on a joyous mood. He makes new jokes and reinvents old ones. He paints happy pictures into the excited guests. But the darkness he feels is expansive. The more he pushes back, the more it tugs at him. His life has skidded off-course from its safe little track. For a moment, while speaking, he disconnects from his microphone suddenly. He cannot feel his hands. The numb travels through his whole body, putting out every light until the boundary between the inside and the outside is blurred. The wedding arena transforms into a sepia-tone picture looking back at him. It is the aftermath of a heavy rain. Children screech from crumbled houses. Running shapes of adults hover about the rubble. A group of forlorn-looking people capture his eyes. They lug buckets of dirty water, frustration creasing their pallid faces. Someone at the end of the queue is familiar. Chike? Is it?
“Testing the microphone. One! Two! Testing the microphone. One! Two!”
Chike’s voice fills Obiajulu’s ears when the trance melts away. He is surprised that he is seated. Questioning eyes of the guests impale him. He stares at his feet, embarrassed. He cannot tell what happened. When Chike rounds off the ceremony, he hastens to Obiajulu’s side, his voice tottering between chastisement and worry.
“What is happening to you, Obi? Should we go to the hospital?”
“What happened?” Obiajulu says with effort, his throat parched as the sun itself.
“You were speaking, then you just switched off.”
“What do you mean by switched off? Did I fall?”
“No. You just stared at nothing. I can’t even explain it. I am worried.”
“Did people notice?”
“The story will fade off in a couple of days.”
What pricks Obiajulu is finding Chike at the tail of that strange queue. He does not know how to tell him or if such visions should be taken seriously. Slowly, as the guests disperse, he recognizes some of the people he saw in the trance. Mama Samson. The chubby woman who hawks tea in the mornings. Eucharia. A school headmistress. Cyprian. A clan chief. Njideka. Amaoge. Boniface.
That night, he doesn’t sleep. He waits, unsure what to expect. Excitement and fear tickle his chest as the night dips lower and lower. Soon, he hears footsteps approaching. Voices of women and men. They brag and lament and laugh. A child whines. They grow from under the cement floor. Are you here, brother? One of them asks. Obiajulu does not move from where he sits. The wall of his house partly dissolves. He sees them as they were in the trance, though the weight that sat earlier on their faces has now shifted.
“We came to ask for a favour,” a man who resembles Cyprian, the clan chief, says. We need your services at our funerals, he says. We cannot afford your charges.
“We want to know if there could be discounts. We saw what you did for Chief Ome-ego.”
“I don’t want high-life music at mine. You know Chinyere Udoma? Play her songs for me,” says a woman who turns out to be Mama Samson.
Behind them is a long rickety bus, which they all clamber into as their voices jostle to outshine the other. The young man seated in the front of the bus bears an uncanny resemblance to Chike. He appears very sad.
In the morning, Chike brings the news to Obiajulu’s porch. Cyprian, the clan chief is dead. He died in his sleep.
“He was at the wedding yesterday! He was the one telling me to take over from you quickly until you regain strength. Just some ten hours ago. Ah! No! no!”
Obiajulu gropes for the lone chair on his veranda and sits. Deaths are not new in the town. But he is now interloped with them, yoked by how much time people have and who the next victim will be. The young man who looks like Chike stands near the lime tree at the edge of Obiajulu’s compound. The slits of his eyes glow like little arms of lightening.
“Chike, there is something I need to tell you.”
Obiajulu wants him to sire a child that his old parents will take comfort in, to stop bothering about new outfits that will end up not worn. But his tongue folds against the roof of his mouth before the words hatch.
“You will host most of our events now. I think you have learned enough,” he says instead.
“Thank you, Obi. Thank you, sir!”
“We will get you a new microphone.”
Obiajulu walks to a roadside market one afternoon of bright dust. People throw him greetings from windows of houses, from container shops where the heated steel gives off steam, from wine bars roofed with straw; where men’s tongues are let loose over frothing mugs. He inhales his town’s comforting smell: cow dung, fermented cassava, ogiri flavor. Something else wafts in from his surroundings. The town is crawling with them: two forms of each person. One, alive, while the other is taciturn and pared down to its existence. It is like a human shadow pulled outside of a living person and given a limp curve of a body. Some follow their owners bumpily while some give a little distance. The children he encounters on his way, only one or two have the strange form lurking around them. Needles jab at his heart. He walks faster to lose them. But he runs into more people and into more of their shadowy versions. He buys things in haste at the market, overpricing mostly everything so that he can leave. He buys tomatoes from a woman who greets most of his words with laughter, whose second form sits right by her.
On his way home, he runs into Mama Samson and throws her a curt greeting. He is afraid to slow down and acknowledge the other creature hanging close to her. They do not know each other well, Obiajulu and Mama Samson, apart from the routine greets.
“Wait, my brother!” the woman’s voice calls out. Obiajulu knows the one calling. There is a thrill of black in her chest region, a possible heart attack brewing. “Look, it’s in two days o! You remember what I told you? What are you saying about the discount?”
The voice slithers up to him, badgering him even when he has slid into a footpath and has lost Mama Samson and her other.
A thick weight presses on his tongue every time he considers warning people about their alarming proximity to death. He wills them to live their last days happy; to let themselves go untethered into bliss. Yet, he cannot say these things even when he wants to.
Now, they flutter around him, unhurried. They sit in trees and in the clump of grasses dividing a pathway. They scamper the sand. When one of them dies, Obiajulu’s feet attends the burial against his will, and speaks without remembering. He sits farther and farther away from himself at each funeral.
“Obi,” Chike says one evening as darkness steals upon them, “I want to go Abuja. I have a comedy show to host. Luckily, we have no jobs here for now.”
Chike’s other form is wrapped in a mist and stands right behind Chike. Obiajulu knows now that his friend’s end has been set on course. An accident maybe? Will he be poisoned? The hundreds of moments he has spent working with Chike spread before him in a scroll. Look at them dancing. Look at them singing. Look at them ribbing each other until laughter pushes the guests off their seats. Obiajulu tries to dissuade him from travelling. Chike’s shadow frowns. But Obiajulu is determined.
“Chike, go well,” he says instead. A farewell wish. All the words he wishes to say jammed forever against his palate.
Obiajulu sets out at dawn while the town slumbers. The misery of watching stones pile up in kidneys drains him. He has seen livers shrivel, watched breast tumors set out like trivial boils until they became a scabbed mess of flesh. He is tired of exchanging pleasantries with a kinsman while witnessing an enlarged scrotum or a worm-sized penis in the kinsman’s second self. Obiajulu treks down to Oye-Uga where he takes a commercial bus.
“How do I get to River Niger?” he asks a driver.
“You have to get to Onitsha first.” Then the driver’s eyes runs over Obiajulu, slit with suspicion. The journey takes about 90 minutes, and when it ends, the day has not yet cracked open. Obiajulu moves through a dense crowd mixing up in their sweat and early morning sour breaths. Street lamps blaze the streets. Road tars are lit with shouts and car horns and the hum of the living. He is almost ecstatic to witness the city’s heaving this early. Soon, the horde multiplies. Obiajulu blinks against the apparitions.
At the River Niger, he squats at the shore.
“Thank you for feeding my family for four generations. It’s yours. Take it,” he swings the microphone around his head and casts it into the river. A light breeze brushes his chest and he considers this an acceptance.
He sleeps most of the journey back home, waking at intervals to watch towns flit past. He feels a gentle hand welcome him back home as he alights from the bus.
There is a movement, spectral and sudden as he walks into his compound. They wake from the soil like weeds. A whirlpool of new shadows looking weary as if craving for a wailing finality.
“Obika o!” Obiajulu cries for his father as he fumbles through his bag. His hand finds it before his eyes do. The microphone. Peeled skin and gaping holes of steel. Black or used to be. Wet as if freshly scooped from the river.
Before Obiajulu breaks into a run of sheer terror, which will last until the last inch of time; before he deserts a family history already thumbed in the sand of him, his eyes strike his own shadow in the new pack. They both share beards that grow like patches of moss. They both wear his favorite black outfit. They both scream “Obika o!” Obiajulu wonders, very briefly, how many gulfs he has already crossed and how long ago this departure began.