SHALLOW GRAVE
 

We dig a grave in her little garden behind the house and bury her, the woman who killed a god.

I don’t think of this, spending the Christmas at a grave and drinking my head off after, when I wake up. Don’t think I am going there with a large wreath for my father.

As usual, I start the day with a smoke. I enjoy smoking in bed first thing in the morning, just lying in a relaxed posture hissing smoke deep down in my lungs while thinking of the day ahead. If I am not in the mood for work and I have some money, I will lie in bed smoking and listening to music on my radio. In the afternoon, I will go out boozing to Mama Obodo’s. But if I don’t have money I will be the first to show up at Ogbo Mmanu and I will carry shit in a cesspool so long as someone will hire me.

I smoke my last stick of Benson & Hedges while I contemplate Christmas without beer and cigarette. An oil lamp turned low, daylight stealing itself in through a door, and a bird singing at a window above other unknown dawn racketing have become familiar to me.

At last, I climb out of bed. It’s actually a naked mattress on a cold cement floor. I can hear the sound of emptiness echoing though the house. Everyone is gone home for Christmas. I have lived with these other guys in this uncompleted house for two years. The owner of the house doesn’t charge a dime for a rent so long as we keep the place clean and weed the grass that grows in the compound in wanton profusion.

I step outside and hug a draft. The morning is the colour of white dyed a partial blue and the bird at my window has a yellow chest. A weaver bird or something. I walk into the pit latrine without cigarette, but I enjoy latrine fumes that warm my anus.

 

I dress up in my rags and hit the road with my spade after washing my face and cleaning my teeth with a bitter leaf stalk.

The scent of Christmas combs the street intertwining with the harmattan haze coating Adazi. The road is busy with adults and children going to church in their Christmas clothes. Mama Obodo’s kiosk is open. I branch and request a stick of cigarette. Two men in dirty shorts and singlet, Mgbodo and Nwude, are nursing a shot of dry gin each. They look like they woke up with a hangover. One is a mason, the other a carpenter. We live on the same street.

‘Happy Christmas,’ I say to them.

‘Happy Christmas,’ they return, their voices gone husky with hangover. They both have a sagged face.

‘I am not going to begin the morning of a Christmas day with credit,’ Mama Obodo says. I had told her I would pay for the cigarette in the evening when I return from work. She is leaning her fat arms on the counter on which stand a bottle of Schnapps, a squat porcelain shot, two packets of Gold Leaf and Marlboro, and a transistor radio playing a Christmas carol. ‘I wonder who hires a labourer on a Christmas day anyway,’ she says.

I want to tell her: it’s also not right to look thick in a matron gown on a Christmas day. And she has a big, flat nose. She has rheum in her eyes or something. It sort of sickens me up.      

‘Give him a shot and a stick of cigarette and add it to my bill,’ Mgbodo, the carpenter, says with a patronizing look and scratched his fat nose.

I thank him and walk away with my spade after swallowing the drink and lighting the cigarette.

 

At end of the street the St Emmanuel Anglican Church, resounding with a Christmas hymn, is festooned with decorations: Christmas tree, balloons and all. The congregation straggles to the premises. The spire stands proud and tall with the birth of Jesus Christ.

My mother would be in the local Protestant church in my small town of Uwal singing hymns and speaking in tongues; asking God to bless me, Odo, his only son. She left the Catholic Church because the God there refused to prosper me. Now she wears a lemon apron and wanders off for days with a Bible.

Every once in a while I still send a little something home for their upkeep, my mother and five sisters. I still wake up with a hangover every morning. I still have a piece of my ear bitten off by a madman I was paid to catch. I am still bald lifting cement and blocks and concrete up a flight of stairs. I still have a tooth knocked out after I slipped on the bucket of a Tipper. I still dig laterite at the quarry even after it caved in and buried Maduka, my friend, alive.

 

Ogbo Mmanu, lying in a triangle beside the market, is quiet and deserted. On ordinary days it swarms with people, labourers who jostle for work when they sight a contractor or a Tipper.  A boy my age and size (I am eighteen) is leaning on a spade beside a locked provision store. He looks hungry and broke. I wonder if he has a hangover. Maybe they don’t sell things to him too if he can’t pay for them. I am tempted to cross over and ask him for a stick of cigarette.

I sit on the paving of a locked grocery shop, instead, and rest my chin on the spade. I know I am just a fool sitting here waiting for work on Christmas day, but I can’t stand the loneliness of my cold, cheerless room.

I wonder if I should go talk to the boy and ask for a stick of cigarette. We seem to share something in common. He looks like he is an Izza boy. We always regard the Izza boys as inferior. The Agbenu townspeople here regard us visitors generally as inferior, not necessarily because of the work we do; they think they are the real Igbo over us who are the Wawas. Money swells their heads. We the Wawas here think it is the Izza boys who are the pariahs. They speak a dialect that is filthy and all.

Should I honour him with a chat? I walk over to where he is seated.

‘We seem to be the only two here,’ I say keeping my voice low and casual, the way we do when we address them, the classless Izza boys.

‘Yeah,’ he says looking like a rabbit. They always are wary and intimidated when we talk to them.

‘You have a cigarette there, eeh?’ I say looking away in the distance. The road is coated with harmattan haze. The market and its lock-up shops look very strange.

He fumbles in his shabby trousers’ pocket and comes out with a squeezed packet of Three Rings.

‘I don’t smoke this,’ I say making a face, ‘but the shops are closed for Christmas.’ I pluck two out of the four sticks in the pack and light one taking a long, famished draw. ‘Everyone gone home for Christmas,’ I say, by way of gratitude, tossing the other stick into my pocket. We don’t say thank you directly when we are dealing with these Izza boys. ‘You didn’t go home. Why?’

‘No money,’ he says.

‘Money is not my problem,’ I say. I needed to let him know we were not on the same level. ‘I just didn’t feel like going home. I will be bored sitting back in the house, that’s why I am here.’

He says nothing and I wonder if he knows I lied.     

 

The road gets busy again towards midmorning, with people driving or walking home from church. Noon gets thickly perfumed with spices that wake a hunger pang in me. Now the road is full of boys with fried hair and perforated ears driving around in SUVs.

A car stops. A fat hand beckons me over. The hairs on my body raise themselves to their full height with hope as I hurry across the road to the big man on the wheels. The Izza boy drags himself behind at a respectful distance.

‘We need a grave, and some people to help us bury a dead person,’ says the big man with a crew cut and a plain black T-shirt. He has a smaller man for a companion. His companion is wearing a starched green shirt.

This is not a regular job, like loading a Tipper or serving masons in a building site. It sounds frightening but I know we can get a good bargain.

Striking a bargain for five thousand naira we enter the car and get whisked away with our diggers and spades. The drive to the place is a silent one. I am seated at the back with the Izza boy in quiet contemplation. The Christmas masquerades are now out on the road.

 

We arrive in a sleepy little village and stop outside a small cement house with a rusty tin roof. The house is enveloped in a mournful silence. A small group of mourners is sitting aloofly outside. We come down with our tools and are led into the house past the mourners dressed like a church congregation.

At the door, a revolting smell hits us. They have let the corpse slide into a terrible state of decay. With a face bruised by death, a face taut in the agony of death, I don’t decipher the sex of the small body lying on a soiled mattress like a swollen dead monkey in one of the cold, unpainted rooms. My feeling is that it still lays in the same way it had died untouched. On the cement floor by the bed is a roughly made wooden coffin.

I wasn’t expecting to see a corpse swaddled in crisply laundered sheets or lying in a pitch pine varnished coffin, though.

The man in the black T-shirt takes us to the back of the house and points to a small garden where a grave will be dug. He returns to join the mourners. There’s a small courtyard and a thatch kitchen. A low shrub fence separates the compound with another compound in which stands a mud house.

I notice children living in the next compound peeping at us through the fence while we are digging the grave. We work without cigarettes, in silence, after we share the Izza boy’s last stick. He is a human excavator, the Izza boy. I watch him dig, his body dark and shiny; pure wire-hard muscle.

My wandering eyes meet the eyes of a boy younger than I am standing in the neighbouring compound. I wave at him and walk to the shrub fence to meet him while the Izza boy digs alone.

‘We were hired to dig this grave and bury a corpse, who is he?’ I say to the boy.

‘She killed a sacred tortoise. She’s an osu,’ he says and walks away.

Shocked, the memory of my eldest sister, Okike, flashes back in my head again. She killed herself on the eve of a Palm Sunday because Inyinya, the teacher who wrote hymns for the village church, refused to marry her. Our great-grandfather was an osu.

I sit back on a heap of sand thrown out of the grave, as the Izza boy shovels the last sand out, and watch a white-chested bird perching on a shrub at the head of the garden, as it suckles at a flower, beaking some grey insects to death.

‘Is the depth okay now?’ he says wanting to know if he should stop digging.

Acting like a supervisor, I walk round inspecting the grave. ‘Yeah. Okay,’ I say.  

  

Elizabeth-Marie, the woman we come to bury, founded Jehovah Kingdom Mission in the town of Achalla in 1981 and died childless at age 90. Laying her in her coffin is an ordeal that leaves my hands oily with her fluids.

The slow nasal hymn of her small congregation, singing with a wrinkled nose, escorts her to the grave:

Not a burden we bear

Not a sorrow we share

But our toil he doth richly repay

Not a grief or a loss

Not a frown or a cross

But is blest if we trust and obey

 

My hands are still sodden with her fluids even after washing them with hot water and detergent. My memory holds nothing and my eyes see nothing again but her bloated figure even after smoking a litany of cigarettes and downing several bottles of beer at Mama Obodo’s. 

Uchenna Awoke