By Frances Ogamba
He saw her nose first. Her skin was redder than he remembered, translucent, and green veins burst to the fore like road maps. It was the seventh year since Mechi was lowered into the ground, yet here she was at the holy mass in Saint Mary’s, a Catholic parish in Choba town where Obi worked. The puffed flesh of her cheeks was as familiar to him as the black wart on his own chest. Her face remained fixed in one position for some time, before it swivelled, an axle on rotation. He tried to refocus his eyes, but she was plastered on every inch of the church walls. They smiled, all her features in the wall collage. They were striking, like the white fires of a dawn-littered sky. She was seated four rows away from him, yet he could smell her hair cream and her perfume. He imagined he could hear her, though it didn’t look like her lips moved. She stood, and his heart stopped. Three children who shared her nose and complexion bounded after her. His dead relative was floating about in the church and touching everything with her dead hands. Obi began to feel a numb ache in his head.
The church was heaped up with cold breezes when she marched back from the offering basket placed at the centre, where the church’s aisles intersect, the army of three children right behind her. Obi couldn’t stare at them when they drew up close, but he could still discern the children’s genders: two older girls, the boy – the youngest. They all inherited the same arc of her features: the burrows around her nose and chin, the sharp lifting of her cheekbones and large bean-shaped eyes. She still had the same stature, but slouched a little, and had many wrinkles around her mouth. Obi left after the blessing of the chalice because the clarity unsettled him.
The skies gaped right through the nearby trees as if stealing a last look at Mechi’s body. She was draped in white lace, and her cheekbones glistened with bronzer powder, like she was set for an ongoing pageantry in the land of the dead. The compound rocked with groans, hisses, and wails. It was a bad omen to die during childbirth, to die at thirty.
Obi heard someone say that her strength failed while she pushed forth the child. Another argued that she had the child many hours before her body gnarled and spurted blood until the parchment of her heart lost warmth and let go of the thoughts of her newborn. Obi was late to the burial. He only glimpsed her as the head panel of the casket thudded against the lower panel. It was the last time Obi saw her, until that morning at the mass.
He caught a taxi to Neighbourhood, a compact area where the sun didn’t shine, where he lived and shared a room with Nel, his friend who worked in a graphics factory. The houses stood too close to each other, and their zinc roofs held hands. There was also a flood of children – fully clad, half-clad, and naked, and there was a generous chance that you’d step on child’s poop on the way out or in. The windows in Neighbourhood seemed to always hang open, and breaths, coughs, and gossip, even when toned low, filtered in. And because Nel couldn’t experience a minute without lighting a cigarette, the mothers always planted themselves at their door to give warnings. There were no compound walls to shield things from spilling into the next property.
Nel was sprawled on the bed when Obi kicked his shoes off at the door and walked in. He breathed in the flavour of jollof rice, and of something else.
“Guy, how far?” Nel asked without tearing his eyes away from his phone screen.
“Fine o. Did you smoke?” Obi asked, glancing around, sniffing. It was a joke they shared even when Nel hadn’t touched a cigarette in hours.
“Idiot!” Nel said and glanced at him, “You didn’t perceive the aroma of the rice, but you caught the whiff of the smoke.”
Obi laughed and reached underneath one of their two pillows to fetch his phone. He tried to steady his hands, tried to throw more jokes at Nel. He tried to laugh some more to look calm, to stay calm. The memory shots of Mechi whispered past his ears and he struggled to shut them out. Yet, they lingered close. Nel left to dish out their food. He returned seconds later with a steaming platter of jollof rice. Two spoons were plunged in at the sides.
“Guy, are you okay?” Nel asked, sitting on the floor. Obi sometimes wished he were free in the ways that Nel was ― how he never asked for anything, didn’t worry about anything, didn’t believe in anything, only trudged on in hushed hope.
“Obi,” Nel’s voice droned, “Did your pastor speak to your demons today?”
“Priests or Reverend Fathers. Not pastors.”
“Shut up, idiot.”
Only Nel spoke this way, to him, to everyone. Obi didn’t know how to begin. He worried that Nel would not believe him.
“I saw someone today, someone I believe is dead. I was at her burial,” Obi snapped his fingers to indicate the time span, “seven years ago.”
Nel dropped his spoon and it clanked against the steel of the plate. Obi stopped eating also. A strange wind whined against the houses and windows banged shut and reopened. The two young men exchanged looks. Nel gulped some water from one of the cups he’d placed beside them.
“You knew this person when she was alive?”
“She was my cousin! We grew up together.”
“Calm down. Why I’m asking is because people sometimes look like other people,” Nel said.
Obi felt a rush of rage rise in him. It branched from his spinal column and spread into his heart.
“Nel, I am certain that the woman I saw today was my cousin.” His voice surprised him. There was no stuttering, no shrillness.
“I don’t believe that story.”
Obi felt his lungs constrict, he lost his appetite and stepped out of the room. If Nel called out to him, he didn’t hear.
He called his mother late in the evening. She was returning from a prayer meeting and the roads were too busy, too noisy to get her to hear him.
“Who did you say you saw?” his mother asked.
“Mechi, Bertha’s second daughter, the very light-skinned one.”
Was that the sound of laughter? Was his mother laughing?
“Obi, what have you been drinking?”
“Mama, this is not a joke and I don’t like that you are laughing.”
“Don’t tell me you mean this thing you are telling me.” His mother had stopped walking. He could hear the sounds from the road teeming around her. Someone called out to a sachet water vendor, and cussed the vendor seconds later for ignoring the call.
“I am serious."
“I remember Mechi. Did you say you saw her with children?”
“Yes. Three of them.”
Both of them said nothing for a while. Obi didn’t know what to say to crack the stillness. He heard a thin trickle of water from somewhere, it could be from his Neighbourhood or from his mother’s surroundings; it seemed mostly to belong in between. His mother ruptured the silence first.
“Mechi had three children but none of them lived. She first had a female child, which died a few hours after birth. The second baby arrived dead. We took turns at slapping her buttocks but nothing could revive her. The last baby she had was a boy, the one she died while having. But the boy also died a few days after Mechi.”
Obi’s throat suddenly grew parched. He tried to articulate words, but there was no saliva to help wet the dry fields of his throat.
“Mama,” he managed at last, “I saw Mechi today.”
Obi’s temperature rose the following day, and his skin crumpled under the hotness. He was too sick to use the bathroom, or to climb on the toilet seat, or to go to the shoe factory at Owhipa where he worked. He lay in shivers underneath piles of sheets. He could not tell whether it was in a dream that Nel placed a plate of rice beside the bed for him.
“Idiot,” he heard Nel say, “You went to church yesterday and transported an evil spirit into our small house. You brought a dead woman back with you.” He heard Nel laugh, saw him strap his watch to his wrist, and watched him leave.
“Fool,” Obi tried to say, but his voice was too wobbly to spin words, or to hold laughter. His teeth clattered and the cold rocked his body. He slipped into a troubled sleep, unaware of time.
Mechi walked into the room, drew up a stool and sat beside the bed. Obi saw her touch the plate of rice but it wasn’t clear what she did with it. Then she glared at his sleeping form, and left the way she came.
When Obi was jolted awake, their room door was ajar. The noon sun already streamed in through the windows. The room was swollen with the sweltering heat. He threw off the blankets over his body and dropped his eyes on the plate of food perched at the bedside. There were grains of rice littered on the floor. His heartbeats increased in rhythm. He knew it hadn’t been a dream. Mechi had visited him. His heart was lit with fear. He needed to leave the room. He’d go to work, catch some fresh air, instead of lying stretched out in the room and seeking out the cobwebs on their ceiling.
At work, he sewed absent-mindedly, and had to redo most of his stitches.
The fever returned the next dawn, and the dawn after, and always left at midday after dampening him. Mechi came once more; she hovered at the door until Obi woke up. He didn’t mention any of her visits to Nel.
Obi’s lungs and throat burned the entire week. He did not prepare for that Sunday’s mass, and could not admit that he was scared when Nel teased him.
“You are afraid of going to worship God because you imagine you saw a dead woman?” Nel asked in between chuckles.
“I did not imagine it. I saw her.”
Nel offered to follow Obi to church to witness the woman, and sauntered towards the wall hanger to select an outfit. Obi stared at him, saw his brows and how they tacked together, and knew that he meant his words. He’d peeled off the faded pair of trousers which he wore at home and was putting on newer ones. Obi ignored the papery feeling in his head and got up to prepare, too.
The row Obi sat in the week before was already filled up, so he and Nel settled in another row that Obi wasn’t sure could afford them a view of Mechi. Artificial air trailed from the industrial fans oscillating on the walls, blew air in their faces, and drowned some words of the priest. The choir sang: Heavens came down and glory filled my soul, when on the cross the saviour made me whole. A solemn power descended on all corners.
Then she rose like a billow of smoke. She moved, spreading like liquid, staining every cranny. Her feet didn’t seem to engage in walking, it seemed only the will to move propelled her forward. The congregants, heads bent forward as they knelt to bless the Holy Communion, appeared oblivious of the moment. Obi saw her, and how her head pivoted to a certain angle and wheeled back. The colours in her eyes could not be put in words. They were blank hues of green or maroon. They were glassy and appeared to capture nothing. The last detail Obi took note of before tearing his eyes away from her was the deep gash at the end of her right brow. He remembered that artful signature. He tapped Nel and indicated Mechi with a nod as she walked by their row.
When Nel turned to look at Mechi, she stopped moving for a heartbeat, threw her head halfway towards their direction and then continued on her way.
When they walked outside, Nel didn’t look well.
“I don’t like the feeling I’m getting from all of this. I still don’t believe she’s anything. She may be playing tricks with you.”
“Let’s go home,” was all Obi said.
Obi thought about the gash on her eyebrow. It was familiar, like a line he drew by himself or had watched someone draw.
Their room was humid so they threw open the windows. Nel was too drained to cook. They bought some bread and brewed cold tea. They ate in silence, and afterwards Nel fell asleep.
“Mama, did Onyemechi have a scar on her eyebrow?”
“Does the woman you see have a scar?”
“Mama, on the same spot where I think Mechi had hers.”
Obi heard his mother sigh. He imagined her folding her one arm across her chest as was her habit, to support her breasts. Silence wafted in between them, and in that duration, the universes they occupied fused. Obi heard some pounding in a mortar coming from his mother’s house, and he was sure his mother caught Nel’s snore. When she spoke next, her voice started out calmly, and then rose like a clap of drums.
“You were both toddlers when she got that wound. You were fighting over a stick and then it pierced her brow. We often felt that the accident sealed your friendship with her, because it seemed you kept asking her for forgiveness with your kindness.”
A memory unpeeled itself for Obi. In that moment, he was three, standing in a guava orchard, pulling a smooth brown stick from one end while Mechi pulled from the other end. Someone screamed like an angry animal, and there was blood on Obi’s palms. There was another scream, a question, an expression of shock, and then another scream. His mother had taken him to a tap to rinse his hands while slapping him at the back of his head. Obi and Mechi’s friendship was closely knitted until the year she started to grow breasts. Other boys came in between them and seemed to have more interesting things to say to her.
In their teenage years, Obi’s mother often reminded him in a sly manner while they worked in the kitchen, “You know that Onyemechi is your cousin, right?”
In the early hours of the following day, Nel was locked in a struggle for air while asleep. He threw up his hands and his legs thrashed about their bed. Obi roused him by pulling him up.
“I saw a woman. She was here. She was standing right there, see, right there,” Nel stuttered.
“That was Mechi. She visits often.”
“What do you mean by often? Stop saying that please.”
“Every time I sleep she eases into this room and sits on the mattress.”
Nel jumped off the bed when Obi pointed to where Mechi usually sat in his dreams, and Obi laughed. He enjoyed watching Nel scare.
Nel talked about a spiritual doctor who lived at Rumuokoro, who could help them detect if the woman was indeed Obi’s dead cousin. As Nel spoke, his eyes widened, and the skin around them was taut. Obi half-listened to him while floating in his mind. In just two weeks, the tectonic plates on which his life lay had been steered in another direction. Once, shoe-making and meeting deadlines for his clientele were all that mattered. Now, it felt more exciting to hunt a ghost, to unveil a living dead.
His younger sisters, Ego and Nne, called him often. Their voices dribbled into his reality, with much enthusiasm. They wished to know what the Mechi he saw looked like, if he could take a picture of her from his seat on one of the Sundays. They suggested that he should follow her and find out the route she took, and see if she would dissipate into nothing when she reached a turn.
Obi wondered about the children. They appeared dorky, as though some fragments were missing in their composition. It could be his imagination. He found the whole picture faulty. He also wondered whether Mechi had them with a human father. Was she repeating an unfinished circle of life by bringing her dead children back into the universe? Obi lost his taste for sleep over these thoughts.
He’d heard one such story when he was a child. It was about a popular grain seller in his town whom everyone called Joe. Someone had seen him from a taxi and announced that he’d been dead for ten years, and that his real name was Emmanuel. Obi often imagined the criticism that must have trailed that claim, the arguing, and the concerned voices that rose against the defamation of Joe, a grain seller so well-loved. Did Joe or Emmanuel ever glimpse a crowd milling about? Did his instincts warn him to melt away because his time on earth was about to run out? According to the story, the man who claimed that Joe was dead walked towards the grain shop. It was the beginning of the harmattan season. Thick dust rose up as a small crowd gathered to watch. Joe was attending to a customer when the man set his other name free,
Obi often toyed with the idea of calling the woman ‘Mechi’ right there in church, but he knew it was an impotent choice. The church space was too compact for everyone to see the drama unfurl. She’d melt away and nobody would notice.
Joe or Emmanuel faded out alongside his goods after the stranger called out to him. Obi found himself imagining the panic that all versions of the story never failed to capture ― the haste with which people dispersed in all directions, running, falling and screaming.
He also wondered why human beings were preoccupied with sanitizing the universe of things and bodies deemed unwanted. This act of pruning preoccupied him as much it did Nel, who’d already contacted the spiritual doctor at Rumuokoro and scheduled a time for their visit.
The doctor was young, perhaps in his early forties. He sat on a chair and pointed them to a bench. His eyes stayed shut while he listened to Nel, and he swatted at flies and trapped them without opening his eyes. His balcony was kept clean. Flower pots lined the rails. There was no sign that he lived with a wife or children.
He handed Obi a transparent nylon sachet containing some sand. It was black and shone like pebbles. Bullets, he called them. The special kind.
Some of Obi’s aunties and uncles called him, too. They all asked Obi about his job, even when many of them didn’t know what he did for a living, and then asked about the woman he saw in church. What did she look like? Could he speak to her to learn if she remembered anything from her past? Mechi had become something binding, a beacon that everyone shone their eyes on.
In the weeks the world waited for Obi to unearth Mechi, he discovered a void in him that merely staring at her filled up. Her appearance compressed him like an accordion and splashed a gentle glow of light on a part of him that would otherwise be dim. He postponed sprinkling the sand. The pressure from his sisters, his aunts and uncles, and Nel mounted.
Have you tried to follow her?
Have you spoken to her?
Have you sprayed her with the sand?
Then he decided to use the sand. He planned it out in his head. He’d catch her on one of her trips outside the church. He didn’t tell Nel. He didn’t want his company. He hovered in the church premises, just between the main door and the gate. If she appeared right then, he’d sprinkle the sand about her and she’d thin out like she was never there.
Some yards away from Obi, a little boy struggled with his fly. He looked three years old or thereabouts. Obi moved towards him on impulse and freed the stuck fly. A grateful stream of urine pumped out of the boy’s penis, and he observed Obi with a half-smile. When he finished, Obi zipped the boy up, and he ran to join two other little girls with whom he shared the same features. They leaped around a woman, their mother, Mechi.
Obi’s smile died. He couldn’t do this. He knew. Not in the eyes of her children. Not anywhere else. The realization came with unwinding ease. He could not allow this tragedy, especially since human resources to spin a new existence were quite limited. If he erased Mechi, he’d be denying her children the warmth that motherhood provided, and her little son would have to rely on strangers to zip his fly for a long time. He wanted her to go on living freely, and loving too, if she was capable of it.
“Did you do it?” Nel asked once he stepped into the room.
“Yes. But nothing happened. It wasn’t her.”
When the world fell quiet, Obi dozed off and saw Mechi looking back at him in the poor light. Her voice stretched out across time waves. Thank you, she said, or was saying.
Frances Ogamba is the winner of the 2020 Inaugural 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 the 2019 Brittle Paper Awards for short fiction. Her fiction appears or is forthcoming in Chestnut Review, CRAFT, The Dark Magazine, Jalada Africa, New Weather for MEDIA, Munyori Literary Journal, Arts and Africa and Rewrite Reads. She is an alumna of the Purple Hibiscus Creative Writing Workshop taught by Chimamanda Adichie.