Psychologists say that there are five stages of grief. I am on the third – bargaining; a life for a life. I have heard people say that if you hold your breath long enough, you will die. This is just one of the many things that science is wrong at because I have held mine for 730 days and have failed at dying. I am convinced in the possibility of holding my breath long enough and exchanging it for my daughter’s in the life market – I assume that one exists.
There are a lot of things that leave a woman who cannot breathe – her husband, her job, and even her parents, but none of them include life, because it cannot be taken away from her twice. My Aminaseleke died two years ago — murdered by a mutual friend of ours. My husband left a year after that, on a sunny April morning just before the rains began. When love leaves you, she takes her companions. We are still not officially divorced – I doubt anyone gets officially divorced here. When your husband remarries, you always get referred to as his first wife. Every remarried divorcee is polygamous by default. I have heard that my husband plans to remarry – or was it something about a girlfriend? My sense of hearing has doubled over these last few years, with me doubting the authenticity of most things. Like how, to this day, I still hear my daughter’s voice in her room.
It is not hard to reconcile death with life; they are after all, two faces of the same coin. No matter who you are or what you do, when you watch someone die, a part of you dies with them — especially when that someone is your daughter.
“…this tragedy. Children are supposed to bury their parents.” I remember the not-too-kind reminder the pastor gave in the sermon he delivered at Amina’s funeral. At that moment, I did not see him. I saw the policeman whose bullet killed my daughter – I saw him point his gun at me and shoot me too. We were returning from an evening outing when it happened. Some say that just before death, we have flashes of all of the moments in our lives. When I get those flashbacks, the moments that surround my daughter’s death are ones that I hope the universe is kind enough to erase.
Through the course of our lives, every one of us experiences near-death moments. I had mine when I was a little over ten. We had been playing ten-ten by the riverbank when bullets started flying. There were so many people running here and there, women abandoning their fishes, and men, their nets that I had wondered how I would find my mother. She had just had my baby sister and had put on a lot of weight at the time and we often joked about her dying when everyone else had to run. The joke did not strike me as funny that day. Her sales spot was around the corner where they sold meat on our street. I sauntered towards it, measuring my steps, stopping to hide behind alcoves of stalls. It would have been useless to run, as I would only have bumped into some angry person or worse, a stray bullet. When I got to my mother’s sales spot, it was a wreck. Deep quagmire-sunken footprints and animal blood – at least I had hoped that was what it was – graphitized the entire place. For a moment, there had been no sign of my mother. Fear gripped me when I realized that there was no sign of anyone else remaining at that part of the street.
“Tubonemi?” I spun behind me and there she was, running back from the river, her eyes red with tears. She hugged me tightly. She smelled of sweat and fear and her hug was suffocating, yet, it was the most comforting feeling I had ever experienced.
“Miebaka.” She whispered to the sky.
I was thankful to God too. I had felt that I was too young to die. My mother had come back for me that day, to save me – something I could not, and did not do for my seven-year-old.
Dying before your time – if such a thing exists, is like being told the most beautiful story you’ve ever heard, up until the climax. You’re left wondering what happens next. You might come up with a bunch of follow-ups, but none could ever complete the story the way the storyteller could have. I wonder all the time about how my life would have turned out if my daughter were still in it. I wonder about my husband. Then I wonder about things before my daughter, my husband, and my marriage. I wonder about Iyango.
They say you do not forget your first. That there is a bond that forms when it happens, and I am no exception to this rule. Iyango was the first of a lot of things. My first what’s-below-your-pants peeking, my first kiss, my first boyfriend, and eventually, the man to whom I had lost my virginity. Iyango likes to say our story ended at the climax, and that, just maybe, we weren’t done yet. For me, it ended before we even got there. I loved him, like all girls love their firsts – until I met Ogonowari, and two months later, I was married to him. To be fair, I had cheated on Iyango with Ogonowari, so maybe I do not deserve that he is here now that my husband has left.
“Tee, you need to find a job.” He says in the most innocent voice I have heard from a man. It annoys me that he thinks I have not been occupied. I lost a child. No amount of occupation can make me forget.
“It’s fine if you are already tired of having to babysit me.”
He makes a face, then catwalks to the bed. No man should be able to move that gracefully.
“You know I do not mean it in that way.” A trace of his cologne wafts into my nose. I almost forget that I am grieving, and I pull him to me. He rescues me from moments like this. See, that is the thing about Iyango. He is righteous. He understands that what I currently need is a friend, not a lover, and so he reins in his emotions, even when I am drunken with mine. He pulls me away from him softly. “I sent your CV to a friend. You will need to call him to schedule a meeting. You can’t keep grieving over your daughter…”
“You should not tell me how to mourn,” I say, and then I agree to go to this meeting. It is all I can do after all he has done for me in the past six months. He bursts with ecstasy when I ask for his phone to schedule the meeting.
I have just returned his phone to the dresser when a text comes in from an unsaved number. The girl is no longer my problem. The first feeling I get is one of jealousy that Iyango might be seeing someone else. I do a double take when I realize the number belongs to Ogonowari – then my jealousy metamorphoses to abandonment. I do not know if I should be grateful to him or blame him for trying to mend things between Ogonowari and me. So much for he and I are not finished yet. He comes out of the shower, and I pretend to have been sitting on the ottoman, brushing my hair.
“Your phone buzzed about a minute ago,” I say, in a voice so light I can barely hear myself, but Iyango understands me. He picks up the phone and sighs. Work. He mouths. This lie piques my curiosity. If Iyango is telling me lies about his conversation with Ogonowari, then he is serious about leaving me. I decide to get that job after all. Nothing is worse than a lonely woman, aside from a lonely woman without a job.
If you are familiar with the resurrection story of Jesus Christ, then you might already have a shock absorber. I am not, and I do not have one. There came a day when I thought I saw my daughter waiting tables at a buka in Borikiri. I ran outside and dug up a palm full of sand and threw it at her. I have heard that it works to trap spirits that roam the earth, change locations and go on with their lives like they had none before. Did I not matter that much to my daughter?
“What are you throwing sand at my girl for?” An angry woman bellows from behind the kitchen door. The girl stares at me but doesn’t come to me. I see several colors of fear in her eyes. This is the climax of my story, the one of me dying before my time. The woman comes out from the kitchen. She is huge for her small sized hands. I imagine those hands stirring thin soup over a large, unsteady coal tripod and Aminaseleke providing support. I believe this is how my daughter ended up with some of the scars she now has. She still looks seven, like no time has passed. The woman moves towards Amina, and just like that she spreads her fingers and they land on my daughter’s face.
“What are you standing around being lazy for?”
This is when it hits me; this is real, my daughter is not dead, and just like that, I start to breathe.
“Madam, leave my shop before I call police give you.” The woman says, retying her wrapper in preparation for a fight. As I back away, I do not pretend not to know why this has happened. I know why and I know who I have wronged. I need answers, and I know who I must seek them from. The girl is no longer my problem.
I meet him at the door. He has a bag in his hand – behind him are a bunch of other bags and some furniture he’d brought with him. He is leaving me – the coward could not wait until I had gotten home.
“We need to talk,” I say.
His jaw clenches. “There is nothing to talk about now.”
“I have something important to say.” I insist. “When did you find out that my daughter was alive?”
He scrunches his nose like the words I just said have an odor that infuriates him. “We should have had this talk when you cheated on me with Ogonowari.” He speaks calmly, too calmly and it relaxes his face.
“Did you always know that she was alive?”
“Your daughter is not my business.” He pushes me aside, pulling one of the bags with him. I follow him slowly. It has begun to drizzle. He throws the bags into the boot of his car and rushes back to the verandah to pick some more of his things.
Our daughter. I blink. “Our daughter,” I say, finding my voice. He stops short.
“Playing your tricks again?”
I used to be the only one who knew this, aside from my doctor. I knew I was pregnant when I married Ogonowari, but I did not know how far into the pregnancy I had gone until I had an ultrasound. Three months, instead of two. Amina was a sworn secret-keeper. She came three weeks after her due date and saved me.
“She is not Ogonowari’s, she is yours.” He lets go of the stool in his hand, and it falls with a thud against the cemented floor.
“What are you talking about?” And then I tell him. Amidst a face full of tears, I say everything that I have kept inside for ten years, and then he cries with me.
“Why did you hide this from me? If you had told me, then I would not have let him sell…”
“You sold our daughter?”
“She hasn’t been sold yet. We lent her to this lady who is helping us get a buyer.” He pauses, studying my face. “Look, Ogonowari came to me. He was devastated. He said you had cheated on him with some man and we had to teach you a lesson. Maybe he knew she was mine.”
Joke’s on you, I think. I do not ask what I did to deserve the punishment. I know — I am a mother who has failed her child; a wife who has failed her husband, and an ex who has killed the man Iyango used to be. I had seen my daughter die, I watched Ogonowari lift the body away from me. I do not know what to believe.
“Whose body was it that we buried?”
“Some dead child that Ogonowari found.” He shrugs.
I wonder what the universe was like before the Big Bang. I imagine that light would have travelled faster than anyone has ever measured it to – doesn’t the earth lose some of its potentials as we go on living? This is how I lost the potential to watch my daughter grow – as fast as light traveling. I still do not understand how they were able to pull the whole thing off. Ogonowari is smart, but not that smart.
Pain is a strong bond. It is what Iyango and Ogonowari had in common – men deceived. It is what pushed them to sell my daughter. It is also the thing that Iyango and I share now, though a different kind – the pain of losing what used to be. Us. Our daughter.
“He will pay when we find him, madam.” The man at the police station where we filed the complaint had said. But justice is slow revenge. Pain demands that revenge be now.
As I stand before the grave that I realized only two months ago did not belong to my daughter, I reach out for hope. I wonder whose daughter lies there, and I come to the realization that today, another mother cannot find her daughter. I know that Ogonowari will pay someday, just as I have. It is not knowing when that hurts. I do not know if I will see my daughter again. The lady at the buka moved the day after I saw Aminaseleke. I pick up a chisel and start to wipe “Aminaseleke” off the gravestone. Today, my daughter is alive somewhere – she is not underneath this soil. Tomorrow, she will have a grave that might resemble this one – if they are kind enough to give her a burial. It starts to rain, and Iyango runs to me with an umbrella. I ignore him and sink in the dirt instead, chiseling away. For there is life, that is worse than death. ✚
Ibiwari-Ikiriko is a contributing writer to The Question Marker. She received a first class degree at the University of Port Harcourt for studying biology education and loves to explore educational systems around the world