A child does not die because its mother’s breast is empty of milk.
The man to whom she had finally opened her heart, Ikonne, the doctor, now dominated her thoughts for most of her waking hours. She’d come to agree with many people – her friend Jefa and her mother, mostly – that the way to redeem herself was to find a man who could help her achieve what she essentially needed the most: to forget her dead husband and son, or, at the very least, to relegate them to such a distance in her mind as to defang the memory of them from continually tormenting her. For both of them had become uncontrollable performers who danced immemorially on her mind’s stage every night. Ikonne had shown that he was able to do this. With his wholesome and therapeutic kind of love, he’d become the beast that ate the flesh of her recent history and drank its blood. And whenever she was with him, she felt a wild, outsized peace that often wholly overshadowed the memories of her husband and son.
She was thinking of him while gazing at herself in the large mirror of her bathroom when a human sound from somewhere nearby, perhaps a dry cough, stirred her, and brought her to stillness. Earlier, she’d slunk to the door and listened for her elder son’s snorts, but had heard only his heavy breathing. She’d hoped that Owoh would continue to sleep till she was gone. There was solace in the closure of his eyes, and in the unconsciousness that attended his sleep. It staved off the unbearable guilt that gripped her at the throat upon the thought that she was abandoning him. But the guilt which, in the past, would have nailed her like a calendar to a wall could not stop her this time. Ikonne had hinted that that night would be special, which she had believed to mean that he would propose to her. When Owoh repeated the coughing twice again, and followed it up with a growl, she glanced at the snakeskin leather wristwatch Ikonne had bought her nearly four months before, picked up her handbag, and fled the house.
The night had come down heavy, leaving only a splinter of light across the horizon. Agnes flagged down the first vacant taxi that verged to the end of the road, and throughout the ride she kept thinking about the sound of Owoh’s breathing. It had frightened her husband, Nonso, the first time Owoh made it, and reminded him of his own father on his deathbed. And the last words he’d said that night, I fear it is close, Agnes, had reached out and clung to her, refusing to let go. She’d crawl out of bed later, go into Owoh’s room, and find him wide awake, his prominent eyeballs almost radiant in the stark darkness. But it was not Owoh who would die a few days after that night, it was Nonso himself and Richard, their other son. They were driving back from an excursion to Ibadan when a lorry ferrying timber slammed into their Mercedes, and killed them both on the spot.
Agnes looked up to see that the driver had begun to back the car out of the shoulder of the road. “Thank you,” she said. She let the phone’s green light go off and then looked out the window. Although Nonso had always brought her to this part of Lagos, she could hardly identify most places at night, especially during power outages, when the façades of most buildings were either unlit or dimly lit. But as they drove on, slaloming through clotted traffic, she recognised the big pharmacy her husband often went to. A few blocks down, a clique of bright pole lamps illuminated what she immediately recognised to be the hospital where Owoh had been destroyed.
Nonso and Agnes had taken him for the compulsory child immunisation at the hospital when he was only four months old in 1990. The nurse on duty had become unhinged but had not degenerated to a noticeable level. The nurse had been told a few days earlier by the army that her husband, an ECOMOG soldier, had just been killed in Liberia. As she took little Owoh into the ward, she’d kept on talking about “strength”. When she entered the closed door of the ward she looked into Agnes’s face and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll make him stronger.”
Agnes and her husband had barely sat on the metal benches in the waiting lounge when they began hearing noises from the part of the crowded hospital where the nurse had taken Owoh. One of the nurses had caught the broken nurse injecting Owoh with multiple intravenous injections till Owoh – having cried himself to exhaustion, even though the nurse had taped his mouth with layers of plaster to silence him – was enveloped in a dubious calm. The nurse had, by that time, emptied twenty-two of the small bottles of the intravenous substances into him with the same syringe before she stopped, a dozen more unemptied. She’d done it to make him stronger, she’d reiterated again and again as she was taken away, wearing a wry smile that betrayed the stark fact: that Owoh had been effectively destroyed. For, later, doctors would declare that the overdose of the powerful drugs had not only paralysed Owoh permanently, but caused an irreparable ototoxic damage. Agnes and Nonso would pursue healing with tenacity, yet nothing would help. They stopped trying to cure him when, after nearly twenty hours of marathon medical sessions at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital – one of Nigeria’s best hospitals – the doctors emerged with the verdict that the overdose had collapsed his bones. They added that he had been lucky, that he could have easily become a human “eel” – a complete wreck, with sixty per cent of his organs compromised.
The restaurant was packed full when she got there. Ceiling fans with fancy light bulbs swirled overhead, their rattling sound mixing with music from a nearby boom box and the chatter of people seated at the tables. Agnes entered, her body quietening again: a feeling that came upon her every time she was on the cusp of meeting a man. Ikonne sat near a big oil-on-canvas painting of a woman with a calabash. He rose swiftly and hugged her.
“Oh, Agnes. I could have, you know, picked you up.”
Agnes drew a smile from a well that was now almost dry, but which, before the many adversities that had befallen her, used to overflow with laughter. It didn’t take him long to fall into a deep, passionate discussion on the state of the nation. She laughed quietly at how he’d waxed theatrical when complaining about the inadequacies of things in Nigeria. When one of the servers brought the menu, Ikonne plunged into the laminated pages. Even though they’d been dating for about three months now and had known each other for a little more than that, he was still often visibly nervous around her. But his shyness was one of the reasons she was drawn to him. Although she perceived that men like him were often sincere in character, he seemed to have cultivated his own character with more delicate care, so that he came across as graciously pure – unalloyed, even though the version of his history she knew of was a tainted one. He’d lived for many years in the United States, married an American, and fled the country after he lost his job due to an exchange with a co-worker, what the Americans deemed “workplace violence”, which got his licence temporarily revoked, and ended his marriage. With what remained of his once substantial savings, he opened a clinic in Lagos.
He spoke on while they ate the food – fried rice and plantain with chunks of deep-fried meat – raging against what he thought had been responsible for the incessant corruption in Nigeria: successive military rule. He wished Nigeria would some day become like other right-thinking nations and stamp out corruption as this present leader, Obasanjo, had been trying to do since his election. Agnes was startled when he interrupted his speech, reached out and held her hand. “I’m in love with you, Agnes,” he said. “I want to marry you.”
Although she’d been expecting him to say this, Agnes looked up at him and, for a moment, she felt something leave her body. She fell silent, unable – even though she was willing – to speak.
“What, why are you not saying anything?” he said, waited, and repeated it. His hand seemed to move restlessly on the table, touching the cup, without lifting it. Then, lifting it to his mouth without sipping from it, he asked again and again if she’d heard him. She nodded. “Then, why, what happened?” he said. “Did I offend, darling?”
He took her hands, but she did not stir. When she remained silent, he started to apologise. In the unexplainable haze, Agnes did not speak.
“It is too early, I know, too early to ask you this. I’m so sorry, you know? We should leave now, you think?”
She nodded, took her bag and they left the restaurant.
He did not mention the incident for the next few days when they talked on the phone. It was Agnes who, having recovered only after feeling guilty about her response to his proposal, felt the need to bring it up.
“I’m sorry for the other day,” she said, as softly as she could, setting the words down on tiptoes so that they accrued a certain heaviness.
“No, no, it was my fault, you know? I just, you know, think —”
She sensed confusion in his delayed response. “No, Ikonne, it wasn’t your fault. It was mine. You did nothing wrong.”
“Well, it’s OK. Should I pick you up tonight? I miss you.”
They met at a restaurant on Victoria Island beside a massive construction site for what the project sign had boasted would be a Trade Centre, both of them watching the cranes dipping around and lifting objects with their machinery limbs. They were finishing their meal when he asked her again what she thought of his proposal. Although she believed she’d considered it during the intervening days and had carefully prepared her response, she found herself strangely unable to speak again. Then, fearing she’d been silent for much longer than she should, she laid down her grievance with the verbal equivalent of an explosion.
“I have told you about him before. I have told you that he is a disabled, crippled
deaf-mute, and everything! You hear that? He is —” She heard the things she’d said as if through the noise of a ricochet, and it silenced her. She dropped her head, fighting the urge to break down. “Look, if you want me, eh, you must accept and want him, too.”
Of all the men she’d tried to date in the three years since her husband’s death, he was the one she’d warmed to the most. Although she had developed feelings for one of them, and had come close to having a relationship with him, he’d bowed out because of Owoh. It had shocked her. After he’d come to her house and had seen Owoh, he’d said he could not take him in with them. He wanted to have his own children, he’d said, and it was in their best interest to simply put Owoh away at a care centre rather than keep him. The next man she’d dated, a pastor whose wife had deserted him for a younger man, had, upon seeing Owoh, offered to take him to a prayer house where he could be healed. This had killed her. For after the bones of her hope had been broken in the early days of Owoh’s travails, Agnes had taken him from one church to another until she’d visited almost all the miracle-working churches in Lagos. She instantly saw the pastor’s offer as a bad sign. After he left her house, she sent him a text requesting that he should never contact her again.
Ikonne released his hands from her grip and nodded slowly. “I see what you say. And, of course – if you marry me, you know? – your son can come live with me.” He nodded again, and she followed his eyes to a group that had just arrived at a table next to theirs, a couple with a child who must have been Richard’s age when he died – eight or nine. The child, a very light-skinned girl with a long, rich mass of trailing hair, stuck out her half-green tongue at him and lolled it left and right. As she watched the girl, Agnes felt her loss grip like an unseen hand. The sight of living children often caused this.
Ikonne returned his attention to Agnes with faltering laughter. “I have told you time and again, darling, that I’m fine with him. Not a big deal, Agnes, you know?”
She could not go back to eating. The power of her loss had taken rein, turning the food before her into a forbidden thing. She sensed that he might want to hold her hand again, so she held her drink. She’d ordered a beer, which she now drank so much and so frequently that it would have surprised anyone to know that she’d never had a sip before her husband and child died. She’d drunk so much one night two months earlier that she’d woken up on the floor of Owoh’s room. She couldn’t remember much, except that she’d been out for a full day and realised she hadn’t fed him. She’d returned to find him asleep, and so had left the food by his side. Owoh had been seated, and his head – the only thing that seemed to grow with his age – hung limply against his disproportionately sized body. Beside him on the shrunken chaise had sat the plate of food, almost untouched, gathering flies. The toy truck Ikonne had bought him was on the old leather stool near the wall to his right, a cockroach in the blue seat, its antennae curled up against the windscreen.
Although she had very little recollection of that night, it haunted her. But most of all, that incident had opened to her the extent of Owoh’s powerlessness – the sense that he could do nothing without her. He could not even eat food placed an inch from his hands. Yet, it occurred to her, as she started stinging him with angry words that morning, that this same helpless son of hers had saved her life. Had he not taken ill that week, excreting almost hourly into the plastic bowl she had placed beneath him, she would have travelled with Nonso and Richard, and would have been killed, too.
She drank more as Ikonne talked about his clinic and the different people he’d met there. He seemed to pause in between deep thoughts, shake himself, and then dive, birdlike, into another topic. From an indiscernible psychological distance, Agnes observed that she was slowly beginning to love him. She imagined him in his hospital gown working through the wound of a twelve-year-old girl who’d stepped on a nail. She imagined him operating on people who, like her, were all sufferers. Something in the grace of his hands felt needful to her, as if she herself was one of his patients. Later, she could not tell why she’d grabbed his hands and held them, tightly, asking, in a voice that was barely over a whisper, for him to take her to his home. After they’d driven to his house, and he’d stripped her bare, she knew what she had felt: a desperate need for him.
For the following two days, she struggled to keep up with giving care to her son. Twice, after she made him food but could not bring herself to feed him, she left the food on the kitchen table until the pablum went cold and congealed into a wrinkled goo. To her, Owoh’s room had become a restricted area where she was too afraid to set foot. After preparing his meal on the second occasion, she went and sat in the garden, which she had not cultivated in the three years since her second son and husband died, except to weed it. She stayed there all morning as the sun rose fiercely. Agnes saw the heat as a reprieve from the harmattan wind, which had arrived a few weeks earlier and toughened the air as if the year was already dead, its last days like the setting in of rigor mortis.
She sat in the garden after making the food and allowed herself to sift through deliberations, weighing what was continuing to haunt her. She convinced herself that she had not intended to hurt Owoh. She was merely trying to redeem herself, to live again. But the thought continued to torment her, until, unable to remain in the house in that state or bring herself to feed him, and unable to fend off the smarting, persistent thought that she was letting him starve, she went to Jefa’s hair salon at the end of the district.
Jefa’s salon had no power and so they sat on plastic chairs outside. Jefa tried to convince her, as she’d always done, that Ikonne was her best shot at salvation. “You have to save yourself from it,” she said. “You are too young. You’re too beautiful, Aggi.” Her words shook Agnes. And Jefa, who had always been the bigger, stronger, louder woman of the two from their primary school days, pressed harder. “Yes, he is your son, I know, but really, what can you do? You’re not his chi who let this happen to him. You have done your best. This is your chance. In fact, see it this way: this is your chance to have a real child again. Time is running out, don’t you even see it? You can’t afford to lose this man, this Ikonne – he’s a good man. This is you trying to live again after your first life died.”
Agnes left Jefa’s salon that evening with her resolve toughened and headed to Ikonne’s house where he took her straight to his bed. She had spent the rest of the day away from her house, away from Owoh, fighting as much as she could to hold off the concerns about not having fed, washed and attended to him, so that they stood waiting behind the bedroom door like a raucous crowd of journalists at a celebrity’s gate. But as time passed, their voices had become louder, their beckoning fiercer. When she arrived home that night she found Owoh asleep, his head tilted sideways across his shoulder, his mouth slightly agape. She searched his face for anything unusual until she was satisfied that he was merely reposed in a restful sleep. She made him a pablum while still in her gown, the one Nonso had bought her from Italy a few months before his death. Sitting on the dining-room chair close to the door of Owoh’s room, she listened above the constant hum of the refrigerator for any sound of him, until she fell asleep.
When she woke, it was nearly midnight – about three hours after she had returned and made the food that had now gone cold. Owoh was still asleep and there had been a power outage. She reached for the kerosene lanterns and lit two of them. She placed one by her door and the other by the dining table, making sure not to get it even an inch within the threshold of his room. One of the great trials of Owoh’s life had been the impact of light on him. Seven years earlier, after she and Nonso had decided to remove him from their room and put him in his own, at eight years old, he had started making strange noises, mostly at dawn. Like a rooster, he’d wake up crying and screaming as if his spirit, having long suffered, had started to revolt. Agnes soon found out that it was not the light itself that affected him, but the effect of the light. She observed that, whenever lit, the lantern soon became covered in a muck of insects. The insects would then spread from the bulb and chimney and scatter across the room, crawling and perching all over Owoh, who could only wriggle his unsteady neck in protest and yelp helplessly. Some of the apteral ones would sometimes crawl into his mouth while he slept and he would often wake with dead insects in his mouth. Many times, Agnes would first remove dead insects from his mouth before feeding him. One night, Nonso had been in the room searching for an old briefcase when Owoh, awakened by his father’s presence, began making an unusual sound and moving his whole body in an attempt to gesture at something. Following his suffering son’s eyes, Nonso had realised that Owoh had been looking at the moon. It was then that he’d had the idea of the skylight, and once it was installed, they’d removed the bulb in his room and stopped allowing any kind of light except that which came from the skylight.
Owoh did not wake up until the following morning. Agnes fed him before going out to work but stayed away all day, so that by nightfall a spell of guilt had clouded her heart. She hadn’t intended to stay out late, but midway through the day it had become suddenly momentous when Ikonne’s brother called from the US to announce that his former workplace had decided to reinstate him. The news transformed Ikonne into a bowlful of confetti, floating in the air. He proposed to Agnes again, pleading with her to return with him to the US for a new beginning. Agnes said “yes”. They made fierce love afterwards, the way she couldn’t remember ever experiencing, even though it unnerved her.
Later, while Ikonne called his brother back, the feeling that she was torturing her son returned. Wasn’t this why she’d agreed to leave with her new lover? Would they move to a new country with her son, an invalid? Surely not; she was disposing of her son in order to have a new life. True, Owoh was perhaps dying; his hands, she’d observed, had felt almost weightless in her grip that morning. It was immediately clear, as she touched him, that he’d emaciated drastically. His collarbones stuck out and when he breathed deeply – as he often did – his flesh seemed to bloat, then deflate and reveal a mere skeleton.
It struck her now that she was killing him – a soft, slight killing. She’d indeed hearkened to the collective voices that had been speaking to her and was now disposing of him, not by taking him to the specialist’s hospital that offered to buy all of his functioning organs for a little over half a million naira, but by her own hand. She was paying him back for saving her life with his own death. And now, even worse, she’d agreed to move overseas. In that afflicting moment, all that had been planted into her as firm possibilities now swerved around and bared their hitherto occluded truths like a set of strange teeth: Was Ikonne sincere in saying that he would welcome Owoh? Would he accept to take Owoh to America? Would he not be bothered by the inconvenience of transporting an invalid? What if she agreed and he took them there, and then decided that he no longer wanted him – what would she do, then?
Even many years later, whenever memories of that evening drop into her mind like fruit from a rattled tree branch, the haste with which she’d rushed out of the house into the noisy night would always stun her. She gently closed the door of the living room so that Ikonne, who was still speaking with his brother on the phone in the other room, could not hear her. Then she ran up the edge of the street to where a major road tracked back into the town, weeping, until she found a taxi. She sat huddled in it, all to one side, as jaunty Lagos buzzed all around. She closed her eyes until the taxi pulled up outside the gate of her house, which she and Nonso had bought in their first year of marriage. It stood silent, grave-like, and luminescent against the moonlight.
She was surprised that she had not noticed the moon until she got near the house. It was almost full, with slight blushes on its bright bulb. It was the kind that Richard had once called the Midnight Sun. She often recalled the night he had first gotten the idea: one of only two times in her memory when Owoh had made a sound that had come close to decipherable human speech. Richard had entered Owoh’s room and found him staring at the moon, which had clothed the room in a bruised turquoise light. Richard had moved to the centre of the room and had stood in the brace of the fixed shower of moonlight, his mind trying to make sense of what he was seeing until the words formed between his lips: It is like the sun at night. It is the sun, a kind of sun at night. A midnight sun. For the first time in many years, as Richard spoke, Owoh moved his head, which was placed perpetually on two pillows while the rest of his body was propped against the wall – a position in which Agnes often left him after he’d eaten, in order to ease digestion. His face lit, and incurvatures formed around his brows in what Richard came to understand as Owoh’s own version of a smile. Then his lips began moving as he let out loud, piercing cries. Richard, awed and moved by this transitory peace on his older brother’s face, had cried for him.
Now, although her hands trembled while she typed the message to Ikonne, she felt wholly relieved after it was delivered. Her words had been strong, firm and resolute: there would be no going back. He was not to stay back on account of her, no. He must return to the States and his family, reclaim what was his, and live his life. Her own life was here.
She put the phone in her bag and stood still to watch the moon. It lightened her, relieving the burden she’d carried for many weeks. She found her son’s room full of moonlight, all the glory of the midnight sun showering – in a screen of sharp grey – through the skylight. She found Owoh seated in his part of the world, in that decaying chair in which he was confined, staring at it with a kind of silence that only he, a small man of sorrow, possessed.
“The Fishermen” by Chigozie Obioma is published in both hardback and paperback by One, an imprint of Pushkin Press
This article appears in the 10 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, From the Somme to lraq