His Eyes Were Shining, Like A Child
By Zina Saro-Wiwa
Chikwe had never felt more alive. The heaviness that had always been there, that heaviness in the head, was gone. Brightness seemed to rejoice around him.
He wanted to dance. He felt, so light. Nothing held him back now.
He tipped backwards and let the brilliance shimmer through him and over him.
Never had he experienced light like this before.
Its power and intensity so extraordinary. So very unexpected.
A troubled darkness hung in the bedroom of Stella Birabi. Her breathing, a series of heavy sighs. Like melancholy bellows. For one second, as she drew breath, there was complete stillness… The night was suddenly severed when her mobile phone began clattering menacingly on her bedside table. Stella’s long, slumbering body, loosely sprawled over her bed, stiffened as it registered the disturbance. Something wanted her attention. She remained rigid, her eyes welded shut. What was happening? Stella opened her eyes slightly and located the direction of the green mist and the calamitous ring tone. “Shit,” she whispered blinking hard to clear the sleep in her eyes and the fog in her brain. Phone calls in the middle of the night meant only bad things. She grasped clumsily at the loud, vibrating light source on her nightstand, desperate to put it out of its and her misery. Knocking over an old mug in the process, she pushed any button and said: “Hello?”
There was no sound.
“Hello!” she insisted more urgently.
The silence of someone too dismayed to spit out what had happened?
The aching silence, perhaps, of the freshly-bereaved that would give way to a sobbing that sounded like bitter and sarcastic laughter…
“Hello!” Angry and scared now, she sat up. Her heart was thumping, she had to know right away who else was dead.
Finally, a beep.
“Please, who is this?”
As if in response a shrill, distressed sound rang in her ear… A fax machine? Stella swore, threw her mobile to the floor and dropped back heavily onto her bed, glaring at the phone that now lay, blameless, in the corner. She had a tension headache and her body was hot and throbbing. What was this? Some sort of sick joke? Whoever the culprit was did not know what they had done. This had been the first time she’d dropped off so effortlessly in three whole months. The first time sleep had come without her eyes hurting from forcing them shut as she pleaded with her brain to let go. The blithe culprit did not know that she couldn’t cope with more bad news. They didn’t know that unexpected phone calls in the middle of the night dismantled her delicate negotiation with Death’s attentions, plunging her into paranoia. He might strike again. As the green light from her mobile began to fade and her room darkened once more, Stella glimpsed that it was still only 1am. She thought she’d been asleep for hours. It would be another five hours before the sun came up.
Stella’s recently acquired insomnia had felt like some sort of sentence. She marvelled sourly at how people managed to slide so effortlessly into that illusive state of absence. She lay shell-shocked in the dark. The physical pain in her head began to subside, giving way to the emotional pain she so dreaded. Night-time invaded her being, making her thoughts almost comically negative and full of grotesque imaginings. She longed for the sobering clarity of daytime. Where was sleep to save her from herself? The one thought she had been desperate to keep at bay was that of the death. But her father’s murder stubbornly resisted burial and clung to life in Stella’s worn-out brain. It had only been three months after all. So Stella allowed the night to have its way and let the screams, the incredulity and the knives enter her. There were so many ways her father could have gone. Surely this was the worst? Stella wondered whether she would she have handled a slow death by sickness better. Or, perhaps, a plane crash?
Mother and daughter had haunted the dining room where he lay in state, staring down disbelievingly at the figure that had united them. It had been hard to connect the grey/brown waxwork figure on the table with the tall, dark, sinewy man, with active eyes, always alive to the threat of armed robbery. The almost maternal entrepreneur, so scrupulous and obsessively protective about the bits of Nigeria he’d imagined, moulded then breathed life into. No. He hadn’t looked ‘peaceful’ or ‘asleep’. Just gone. Hands obediently by his side. An unasked for silence in place of his hilarious laugh and quick fury; an unasked for stillness instead of blinking eyes. At least his unfriendly face was unmarked. The rest of his body had been attacked badly. Why had he tried to fight? Her mother had, rather morbidly, pulled up his blue agbada to see, once again, the damage for herself. To really believe it. Stella had turned away. She didn’t want to love this dead body.
Chikwe was being imagined and conjured. He could feel it.
“Is this what it means to be alive in people’s thoughts?”
All the voice on the phone had said at first was: “there’s been a robbery”. So it finally happened, Stella had thought wryly to herself. Her customary sarcasm an instant salve to her unwelcome, involuntary concern. She remembered the ugly steel bars on the windows and the exhaustive precautions taken to protect the house in Enugu. She also remembered the Hausa nightwatch man who she suspected couldn’t have stayed awake all night because she saw him reading and praying in the boy’s quarters during the day. She was about to ask what had happened to old Ibrahim when the words “He’s dead” were issued.
“Who’s dead?” she had asked, taken aback.
“Your Papa” the voice had replied shakily.
Dead? Stella very nearly laughed but it had turned into a scream.
She’d felt mad. Who? Who had gone?
But now in her bedroom she was mostly angry at the manner in which the news had been imparted. ‘Dead’ they’d said. The way you are told affects the way you heal, surely? ‘Dead’ was too final a word to use. ‘Has Died’, ‘Didn’t Make It’ or ‘Was Killed’ would have been kinder and would not have created the same blunt reverberation. Dead. She was sure that this word was the machete that had hacked her from her moorings and caused her insomniac drift.
Stella turned over and lay on her back staring up at the ceiling with the cracks in it. She could not tell whether the cracks were caused by the train tremors of the railway behind her flat, or the noisy restless neighbours that trod up and down incessantly above her. Silenced at last. How could he, the bane of her life, no longer be there? Was he really gone? Where was that tall old man with the wide mouth, full lips and heavy, berating tongue that never tired of telling her how he had “gone regularly to market aged 10, looked after his entire family and so who was she to complain that she hadn’t enough parental support at school? Who was she to complain about being the only pupil left behind on school trips? Didn’t she know where she really belonged? Where did he disappear to, that man with the menacingly cheerful batik shirt set off against black, black skin who seemed to have been handed a noble path from birth? What kind of end was this?
She’d never liked him. He’d pumped her with guilt from a young age about her apparent laziness, her un-Africanness and her masculine physique. “You will never marry and you will always be miserable,” he would pronounce, daring her to defy him. She had not seen him in five years. Perhaps because she’d lived up to his predictions by neither marrying, nor having children, nor returning to live in Nigeria to put that expensive education to work. Instead, Stella had nursed depression for most of her adult life. To her uncomprehending father, she had become a victim, the kind of black Westerner he despised. She heard his educated African-tones muttered loudly to himself for her benefit: “a lily-livered ‘black’ floating around in the West that had no responsibility apart from to her own emotional turmoil, her own imagined denigration. You call this trouble? No, I should have left her in the village. What use was that expensive education? Better to have elevated a stranger.”
The energetic, high-achieving, post-colonial zeal that was his birthright had died in his daughter. Somewhere he did love her. Stella was so like his own mother who had the same sad eyes and tired demeanour he could do nothing about. But he had not really forgiven either of the women for being such faint and incapable forces in his life. Stella felt that he failed to recognise that she had, in fact, inherited much from him. Not just his muscular, long-limbed looks, but also his defiance. She defied him by protecting the fragility that so irritated him. She galled him with her silences (he needed words so badly). But Stella now wondered what would become of the family without his demands, his tireless activity and his angry optimism…
“People live on in other people. Through their actions and words.
Each person is an imprint of those around them. A thousand internal and external reflections.
We should be careful of the words we use, you know…”
She had been the one to break the news to her mother. Mrs Birabi happened to have been in London and might have been harmed too were she in the house in Enugu. (Or might she have prevented the catastrophe?). Stella had realised how hard it was to break this sort of news properly. Should she ask her to sit down because she had ‘bad news’, totally freaking the old woman out in the process? Or break down and cry in front of her till she telepathically guessed the dead family member correctly? Stella wasn’t going to, but she really wanted to tell her mother that Birabi had “died of himself” as they both quietly suspected he always would. Too angry… Too much the warrior… His own fault really… He had it coming.
Mrs Ngozi Birabi’s reaction to the news had been strange. She’d wandered round their North London home whimpering and methodically taking down each and every picture that bore his image. Like putting chess pieces away after a game; it was over and she wanted no pictures or objects to taunt her at this time. Stella was quietly impressed at her mother’s spontaneous death ritual. It was an honest ritual. Not a preserved performance of grief that had been handed down unquestioningly over the generations. Every picture and object had been placed carefully into Stella’s old suitcase and left behind at her only daughter’s flat before their dismayed pilgrimage back to Nigeria. The suitcase had remained untouched in the corner of Stella’s bedroom. Even on her return from the funeral in the village, she had not wanted to open it. The photographs of him as a proud student, a young father, a jaunty holiday-maker would only mock her. She was not ready to gaze upon the one-dimensional capture of his essence; the only paltry evidence that he ever really existed; such diabolically meagre consolation. Stella stared blankly at her baby-blue Seventies suitcase. The suitcase that had been her enemy. The leather behemoth she had been forced to lug through cold British airports and hot sweaty Nigerian ones on school holidays. No wheels. No assistance from her father who strode ahead of her through immigration. Filled with everyday Western goods for the warm but calculating strangers that claimed her as family. Just enough space for a few remnants of her English life that would help her face the loneliness of Enugu. Help her remember who she thought she was. It now looked so small and apologetic as it meekly gestated her new history. His suitcase now. Stella stared at it till her vision blurred and it didn’t exist.
“They wonder where we go. They put us in a place they can return to. Or avoid.
But really, it is not their business. Funerals are for the living.”
1.21am, the tired daughter noted painfully. 4 hours and 39 minutes till daybreak. Quiet hell. Stella gazed at the mug on the floor that she had knocked over earlier. The treacly dregs of hot chocolate had reached the edge, but miraculously stayed within the confines of the mug. Her carpet was safe and she didn’t have to deal with it. Death duties. How she had hated the funeral. All that inappropriate propriety. How much more honest it would be to wail, tear one’s clothes and beat one’s breast. The circumstances of his death had prevented one of those manically beatific African funerals taking place. The mood in the village that day was black and so too had the sky been. There was no gently ironic sunshine and soft breeze to sweeten the pain and remind you that the world was still beautiful. No. That day, nature was sorry too.
The only thing that had kept her screaming locked on the inside was her cousin’s baby girl. So sweet with those big, soft cheeks and large, curious eyes. Stella lived her own bewilderment through the little girl’s cheerful innocence. Who knew that a child could be such a tonic at a burial? Her heart was quiet only when she held the eighteen month old. From that moment on Stella understood something: we reproduce to save us from ourselves. But now she was 41 and more alone than ever before. It had been her choice. She had committed herself to childlessness, focusing instead on the anger and misery that was her comfort. Inseminated by her father’s taunts she’d become pregnant with protest. Her silent fury the baby she nurtured with a sour tenderness. But what use was this anger now? This unkind child? What she needed was life. New life.
Stella felt physically cold as she contemplated the chasm that was her life without its rebellion. She had wasted so much time. Her father hadn’t, in fact, deserved to die both disappointed in her and in such terrified pain. But now she would never, as his only child, be able to show her father his longed-for grandchild. She would never have the chance to demonstrate the right way to care for a child. She could no longer defy his poisonous predictions with love instead of this Phyrric vengeance. And she would never have the chance to make him understand that being a proud and fulfilled African in the circumstances he had placed her made her a warrior too. Damn Him.
From nowhere, a sharp pain pierced the back of Stella’s eyeballs. Her mouth gaped open and she began to do something she had not done since her father’s death: she cried. It happened too quickly for her to stop it. Normally she would cover her mouth till she swallowed the urge and the crying would go away – so afraid was she that she might never stop if she started. She didn’t curl up into a protective foetal ball or stifle her tears in her pillow. No, this was the kind of grief that recognised that there was no hope. Stella cried on her back, like a child having a tantrum against fate. In that position the hot, painful tears rolled down the sides of her face into her ears. She bawled, allowing herself an unembarrassed abandon and she didn’t care who heard. She wailed, clenched her fists and grit her teeth as she gave birth to her outrage. She cried for the baby she longed for and the father she would never be able to forgive in person. She cried because God was not listening and never did. She cried till she forgot what it was that had brought her here.
After 10 minutes, Stella stopped. Her head hurt and she lay whimpering on her bed. All settled into stillness. Then a fresh trainload of unresolved anger arrived and transported her to the next level of pain. And the tears and the shuddering began again. It just wouldn’t stop. She tossed and turned, on her left side then her right. Could she cry any more than this? She didn’t know. But she didn’t have a choice. The pain came from a myriad unremembered places. The effort exhausted her so her body gave in.
Was it his thought or someone else’s that had brought Chikwe to this oppressive room?
It is messy with a mug on the floor, clothes everywhere. “An untidy mind” he thinks.
Chikwe looks at the woman lying in the bed that he is sitting at the end of.
He does not smile. He’d always found the sight of sleeping people terribly melancholic.
There was an awful innocence about it. It didn’t matter if they were happy people, lazy people
or bad people, he pitied them all as they lay unprotected. He could tell that the long woman on
the bed was unhappy; he could just smell it. Her breathing, like melancholy bellows,
(a good metaphor, he thought) emitted defeat. He knows why he is here.
Not to say sorry – the time for that had passed – but to tell her:
“you do not own the dead. Nobody, in fact, belongs to anyone.
But if it helps to think that the dead are happy or sad or miss you – then so be it.
But know that they ‘live’ only because you give them life.”
Chikwe stares at the woman for many hours. He smiles now.
He feels, so light. He swings his short legs childishly as he perches.
Stella feels the warm sun on her skin before she opens her eyes to fully experience it. Her head is light. Where has she been? She feels like her insides are smiling. Was it simply the crying, the new sunshine or the deep sleep that had done this? Whatever it is she feels a certain triumph. Her sentence is over. She could rejoin the masses. Stella could do that thing that most human beings did every night without trying.
Then she remembers her dream. The little boy perching at the end of her bed…
He had come silently from the ceiling. Tripping down an invisible path. Was it a boy or a thing? It didn’t look like anyone she recognised but at the same time, she knew it was him. Her little father had seemed… cleansed. Free at last from the anger that had always possessed him. And his eyes! His eyes were shining, like a child. Eyes that were worlds that knew too much. She might have been scared of this creature but she knew it was her father, so she had no fear. He had looked delighted about something. But said nothing. He simply sat there for a minute or two staring at her, smiling. Impish and knowing. Stella had remained still, watching, drinking those eyes. Then she’d woken up and it was over. Her dreams were always too short. But she often felt transformed afterwards, even when she didn’t understand them…
Stella was curled up in a comfortable ball under her duvet. Things seemed to have fallen into place. She wasn’t happy as such, she just felt sort of put-back-together in an orderly fashion. The noise, that eternal voice that was always there – like a quiet pedantic radio contradicting her – was now totally silent. That mess that confused her and made her head hurt, gone. Depression was just mess, really. All that needed to happen was some straightening out. Some cleaning. An untidy room betrayed an untidy mind she remembered her father always saying. She got up and stretched. A somewhat familiar heaviness nestled in her belly as she exhaled. But it was a heaviness that grounded her instead of troubled her. She could not see tomorrow, just the sun-filled room around her. Such extraordinary light this morning. So very unexpected.
Stella scours the familiar mess that is her bedroom lingering momentarily at the old blue 70s suitcase. Wondering where to pounce first, she attacks the floor area, picking up the mug on the floor and setting it on her dressing table. Then she stops. Her gaze is drawn back to the suitcase and she decides to sit down in front of it. She feels tired all of a sudden when she does so. As she opens the case, Nigeria and its mothball memories summon her. She hauls out a plastic supermarket bag filled with picture frames and old packs of torn Kodak envelopes. She begins to sift through the black and white photos that smell of mothball-scented African cloth. She gazes over images of Nigerians she does not recognise with shining cheeks and well-pressed outfits. VW beetles and fierce side-partings.
It is the top photo in the second Kodak envelope that transports her. The photo is small and so old it looks like it has been dipped in coffee. Stella has never seen it before and has to lean forward to take in the tiny dark faces. They all look very similar, she hated to admit. She stops at the little boy at the end of the front row. He is small and thin with a wide mouth and full lips. The picture has been taken as his mouth has fallen open in a worried manner. He looks wide-eyed, caught off-guard. “Birabi?” she says aloud to herself. All the boys in his class have a similar wide-eyed look but there is humour and a different sort of hunger behind their energetic gazes. They crowd the frame smiling or scowling boyishly at the lens. Closing in on the new country that they will find themselves in charge of. Ogas of the future. He was so clever he had been placed two years ahead of his real class. He was also distinguished by the fact he was the thinnest because there was so little food at home. She recalled him saying this and believed him now. He had not been exaggerating about that. Stella stares at the image of the skinny little boy. She wants to lift her young father onto her lap, rub his back and let him cry. She wants to wipe his tears, hold his ears to her lips and say words he almost certainly never heard: You have done well, Chikwe. You have done well.
Instead she whispers: “I’m so sorry”
at the picture of the boy whose lonely eyes
are so hungry and so full of innocent hope.
Zina Saro-Wiwa is a writer, BBC broadcaster and film-maker. Nigerian-born and British bred, she recently founded AfricaLab a production company dedicated to changing the way the world sees Africa. Zina’s AfricaLab film This Is My Africa, won Best Documentary Short at the International Black Docufest 2008 and is being shown in festivals around the world. Her story ‘His Eyes Were Shining, Like A Child‘ is her first foray into the world of fiction. To read more of Zina’s fiction visit the Riflemaker Gallery website: www.riflemaker.org