The Things That Bury Us

Let’s take a moment to talk about Nnamdi Odimegwu, whose father when he was alive was called Jonas Odimegwu—a man full of himself and full of life, who stayed mostly at home on weekdays, went out in the evenings to down bottles of beer with his friends, and came home sometimes drunk, sometimes clearheaded, to grab his wife by the waist and sing her an old, tired song, a bulky man, close to the ground, who made his wife laugh with his theatrics half the time—and his wife, Nwoye Odimegwu, a no-nonsense school principal who had grown up Catholic and had been a member of the Mary League and Charismatic, had loved God fiercely all her life, whose only criteria when at thirty-seven Jonas came for her was that the man who would marry her had to fear God as fiercely as she did, because any other cross—drunkenness, joblessness, laziness—was a small thing compared to a lack of faith, and so when he came to whisk her into matrimonial life, he himself nearing forty, brandishing the kind of faith she wanted in a man, a mass goer, a communicant, a devoted member of the Catholic youth organization, she did not have any misgivings about the life ahead of them, did not doubt once that they would be happy, and so said yes I do and till death do us part as they were joined in holy matrimony at the cathedral, in the presence of bishops and priests and church groups who prayed for them and sang for them and gave them shiny wedding gifts, their marriage a bittersweet thing in those early years, for he was devoted in his love of God and the Catholic church, and he made her laugh with his jokes and silliness half the time, and sometimes he brought her grilled bushmeat from evening outings with friends, regaled her with stories, sang Celestine Ukwu to her with a sweet croaky voice, sometimes Oliver De Coque, sometimes Bright Chimezie, while she, Nwoye Odimegwu, danced to the sound of his voice, moved her body to the rhythm dictated to her by the man she loved, yet sometimes she stood in front of him and told him he had to change, when he drank too much and came home a terrible mess, when he stayed in bed and missed the day’s holy mass, when instead of helping out with the chores he walked around the house in his wrapper like an overgrown baby or sat at his desk staring morosely at his books, told him to stop lazying around and make himself useful in the house, to grow up and start being a man like his mates, but he cajoled her every single time, reached for her waist, planted a kiss on her cheek, told her she would see, change was coming, and Nwoye, who was not unused to waiting, who had waited patiently for a Godfearing man to come into her life, indulged this man, her husband, let Jonas woo her with his big smile and swagger, his charm that endeared her and the small town of Ifite-Awka to him, a blessing to have a Godfearing man who was not a complete ignoramus, a man who could make you laugh, make you feel like you mattered, and Nwoye told herself she would wait—for the Lord is faithful and does his thing in his own time—all of this before their baby boy arrived, a hope, a prayer, a thing she loved with a ferocious love, and it marveled her what this child did to Jonas, Jonas who from the day the child was born did not go out in the evenings to drink, Jonas who stayed beside the cradle all day watching the child, Jonas who changed napkins and washed dishes, as though a spirit had come into the house with the child and possessed him, and a few years went by as the baby morphed into a full person before their very eyes, went to kindergarten and nursery and primary school, and took his first holy communion when he was nine, during which he was selected to take the first reading at mass, walk all the way to the pulpit and bellow those words out of the Bible like a prophet, so eloquent, so confident, so full of himself like his father, which filled Nwoye with joy unfathomable, her son standing there on the holy altar in his glorious white shirt and shorts, her son letting out those words from the Bible without once biting his tongue, and she loved him (and loved him!), the boy who at nine could read anything in English and in Igbo, just give him anything and watch the boy devour it, and she told God this, told God she would offer Nnamdi to him, for everything she had in the world belonged to him—her house, her family, her job, her son—and so every morning she took Nnamdi to the holy mass, took him to afternoon choir rehearsals that stretched into long nights, to Block Rosary meetings where children gathered in front of the grotto like the three children of Fatima kneeling before the Blessed Virgin, all the while whispering a prayer in her heart to God: that this boy, with all his heart, with everything in his being, would know God deeply, would seek God and serve him all the days of his life.

Which was why, channeling her focus to the boy, loving him, she had not seen it coming, her husband who stopped going to daily mass, who started sitting back in the pew when it was time for communion on Sundays, who said it was nothing when she asked what was going on, left her to hack her mind out of her head, try to connect the dots, was he cheating on her, was he doing something ungodly, until she saw them, the books, returned from school one day and saw those books from the pit of hell lying there so casually on his bookshelf, and even before she asked him anything felt her world caving in, this man she married but did not really know, which was the thought that came into her head as she flipped open the books, because who was this man who was reading about Eckankar, what in the holy God’s name was her husband doing reading about this secret cult, this diabolic group of people who no one knew what God they worshipped, no one knew what God they believed in, no one knew what they did when they gathered themselves wherever they convened, and not once did she think a book about them would one day make its way into her own house, yet there in her house the books were, before her very eyes, right under the roof that was her home, and what in God’s name was Jonas doing reading those books, what on earth was he thinking, where did he even get them from, which was what she asked when he came home that evening, “What are you doing with these books, Jonas? Why did you bring them into my house?” and the man looked at her, tried to get to her, to reach for her waist, but she pushed him away, folded her arms across her chest and told him to answer the question, his answer that he was just reading about the group, that it was nothing serious, that there was nothing to be afraid of or worry about, but she indeed was afraid of the books, afraid of the cult, for she had heard things about them—those mysterious men who gathered in secret places and chanted nonsensical balderdash and used human beings for rituals—and she told him she did not want to see any of those books in her home, “Please take them out, Jonas. Please take them out,” but Jonas did not take those books out, did not tell her what he had hidden from her for many years, that his faith had been spiraling downward, his faith not as clear-cut and as solid as hers, he who sometimes doubted the teachings of the Catholic church, he who sometimes questioned the existence of a God, he who sometimes wondered what he was doing in this miserable place called the world, so when his friend told him about them, when he followed his friend to that small room on Ifite Road just to see, just to have a taste of something different, and he watched grown men like him moving around the room quietly, gently, then sitting around on the floor and singing HU with their eyes closed, he felt for the first time that he was in a space where he could float, felt himself transcend, and it was a mighty powerful feeling, a feeling of rising above the world’s misery, but he did not tell this to Nwoye, dared not breathe a word of it to her, for he knew too well the woman he married wouldn’t care for anything he had to say that did not involve mass, that did not glorify her God, yet hoped she would one day understand, or at the very least let him do his thing without making a mountain out of it, but why would she let him when her husband had lost his conviction, joined a mysterious group of people who did not believe in God, did not believe in Jesus Christ, did not go to mass, did not read the Bible—because what are you if you don’t believe in God? Who are you if you don’t believe God sent his beloved son Jesus to die for the world?—and the words on her lips, in her heart, my son, my son, thought this every time she saw those books on the bookshelf, my son, those occultic books Jonas refused to take out of her house, those demonic books he sat at his desk reading late into the night, and sometimes she came home from morning mass to see Jonas sitting on the floor, in the center of the living room, eyes shut, humming a strange esoteric song, huuuuuuuuu, huuuuuuuuu, and she watched him and watched him, Nnamdi standing beside her, her hand spread out in front of his eyes, “Close your eyes before you see evil,” but soon enough it became clear to her this thing that was snuck into her home was not going away, Jonas was not taking this thing away, and so it was her duty to face it, face it with all the holy fire in her, and she packed up all those books from the shelf one evening and took them to the backyard, tore off their pages and dumped them into a heap, sprinkled kerosene on them and threw a matchstick into the heap, and then the fire, the smoke, the smell, all like a peace offering, filled her with sweet triumph as she watched those books burn, back to the pit of hell where they came from because it was over her dead body they would take over her home, God forbid it, Almighty God forbid it, but later that night Jonas was screaming her name, running around in the living room like a wounded animal and screaming her name, “Where are my books, Nwoye? Where are all my books?” and slowly Nwoye emerged from their bedroom in her faded white nightgown which stopped just below her knees, rosary beads in her right hand, left hand on her waist, saying this to him, looking him directly in the eyes and saying to him, “I burned them. Can we have peace in this house now?” and how very mad this made him, how so very mad, so that he leaped at her like a wild dog and grabbed her neck, “And why will you do that? Why on earth will you do that???” shaking her, shaking her violently, shrieking, shrieking and then groaning, and soon finding himself on the floor, her own hands around his bare neck, just really holding it tight there, “Let this be the first and last you try this, ịna anụ, Jonas? Let this be the first and last, because if you ever touch me again, I swear to God I will bury you,” and the boy waking up in his room to the sound of people screaming and the sound of furniture screeching, the boy hearing a ferocious rumble of words travel through the night, could not move from behind the bedroom door where he went to stand, hands trembling, ear pressed against the door, which he did not open, did not touch with his hand, just stood there, tears coming into his eyes, and there was the sound of his mother stomping into her bedroom and banging the door shut, and the sound of his father walking out the front door and screaming into the night.

But Jonas Odimegwu did not stop sitting on the floor of the living room singing that strange esoteric song, and he did not stop bringing those occultic books that upset Nwoye into their home, said to Nwoye, “If indeed your name is Nwoye, if you say your name is Nwoye, go ahead and touch my books again and see if I am not the son of Ezekiel Odimegwu,” in his eyes a glint of fire, a man ready to bulldoze anything and anyone who stood in his way, so Nwoye decided there and then that her fight with Jonas was between her and God, no more shouting, no more burning, no more grasping, no more pushing, just simply took her husband’s name to God, lay in front of the blessed sacrament in the chapel and told God to do his thing, and at mass when the priest lifted the eucharist in consecration, when the priest raised the wine in the chalice and said, “This is my blood given up for you,” Nwoye said quietly in her heart, are you no longer my God, a supplication from deep inside her soul, a plea to God for her child and herself, because the priest told her she was living with a heathen, told her she had to keep herself and her son away from Jonas, holy and sanctified, pleasing always to God, but Nwoye did not have to do anything at all because she returned home from school one day and Jonas was gone, an emptiness and goneness inhabiting her house, a house once full of books, once full of clothes, once full of a man’s belongings carelessly tossed here and there, now bereft, left Nwoye hovering, left her soothing her son, who wouldn’t stop asking what happened to his father, where did his father go, and months later when the news came—Jonas died on a Sunday morning with eyes gazing upward, was buried in his father’s compound in Abagana the next day without a proper requiem mass—a quiet wave of terror went through Nwoye, why did they not tell her, how did she not know, but why would Jonas’s family tell her when it was clear to them she had killed their brother, and so on a summer afternoon so bizarrely and endlessly hot Nwoye opened all the windows and turned the ceiling fan to the highest while watching Nnamdi do his homework at the dining table, Jonas’s brother and Jonas’s brother’s wife and Jonas’s cousins landed in front of her gate, howling, Jonas’s brother Ikemefuna, the one who ran a spare parts business in Oye Abagana, the one who called her Egovin Nwa yet told Jonas behind her back his wife was full of pious shit, banging on the gate and shaking it violently, yelling “Open this gate now before we break it down,” and Nwoye stood in front of her house, on the other side of the fence, and watched Jonas’s family jump up and down like rabid dogs, did not go to the gate, did not utter a word, even as they called her names—witch, amosu, husband eater, akwụnakwụna—even as they accused her of killing her husband, promised to unravel her in public so everyone would see her filth, “Ifite-Awka will hear our voice today. All of Ifite-Awka will hear our voice today,” not one word came out of her mouth even as the crowd began to gather, men and women and children convening at her gate to see what the racket was about, though soon enough Jonas’s people exhausted themselves with the hullabaloo, saw that the mountain they had hoped to overrun would not cave for them and so dragged themselves back down the same dirt road they came, behind them a gush of silence, a stunned crowd, and Nwoye, turning to go back inside, caught a glimpse of her little boy gazing at her from behind the curtain, her boy meeting her stare with his own cold stare, and she went in and pulled him to her, gathered her little boy in her arms, planted kisses on his forehead and told him they would be fine, but in the days that followed, when suddenly a chill would go through her body, when she heard that nonsensical song everywhere she went, when in her dream one night she was running and running, holding her boy’s hand and fleeing from a dangerous masquerade, Nwoye was not fine, so she reported this to the parish priest, who told her not to fret because the worst was over, Jonas was gone, walked around the house and sprinkled holy water on everything, marked her forehead with blessed Goya oil, told her the Blessed Virgin would be by her side, yet when the man left Nwoye did not stop smelling Jonas in the house, did not stop hearing huuuuuuu everywhere she went, and then Jonas himself appeared one night to her, lit red candles by the fence, walked around their compound in a red satin gown whispering gibberish, his face and eyelids marked with nzu, his eyes bloodshot, and this baffled Nwoye, terrified her—because why was Jonas following her? what did the man want?!—and so waking up that night with that dream, waking up with that song ringing loudly in her ears, Nwoye dashed into her son’s room and dragged the poor boy outside, made the boy kneel on sand, pushed two thin white candles into his hands, and then tore open more packets of candles and walked around the entire compound pushing candles into sand, lighting them, so that the house was engulfed all round in a circle of candlelight, a majestic thing to behold, and Nwoye started with the rosary and then switched into tongues, walked up and down the compound in quick steps as though wrestling the night, her boy crying, candles burning in his hands, her boy begging softly, “Mummy please, Mummy please,” and Nwoye heard the child begin to cry, Nwoye saw the boy’s hands begin to shake, but instead of blowing out the candles and putting them away, instead of leading them into the house, away from the night, Nwoye sank to her knees on the sand in front of the boy, held her dearly beloved son with both her hands, and called down the heavens as the candles burned and burned and burned.

And now, at thirty, he won’t go back to Ifite-Awka, won’t visit his mother, who calls often to ask how he’s doing, asks when he plans to come home, asks when he plans to get married, asks if he still goes to church—“Ị ka na ejezịkwa ụka?”—and he lies and tells her yes he still goes, not knowing why he needs to lie to her at this age, why he cares about how she would feel if he told her the truth, which is that he stopped going because he could no longer go to church without seeing his mother traveling round the compound on her knees, in the middle of the night, between lighted candles and the walls of the house, a woman in anguish, a woman gone, her body present and singing and speaking in tongues, her spirit gone, and all of this he had to watch kneeling outside with her, enduring cold, holding candles until they burned his palms, and he could not forget any of this, could not forget those nights even after so many years, years of living what he would call his own life now, working in marketing, writing copy, falling recklessly in and out of love, hurting and being hurt—and what a dubious thing life was, what a cruel thing—the one who started off all those years in church, on the altar, in the choir, beside his mother, the most brilliant boy in class, the pride of his mother, now almost nobody, worked for a small start-up during the week and crawled around in his studio apartment during the weekends, flirted with men on weekdays and on Sundays tried to stop himself from thinking about God, yet wouldn’t stop thinking about the Bible which gave his mother the ammunition to soldier on in her resolutely devout life, the same Bible that excluded people like him, relegated them to the shadows—for this was the life Nnamdi lived from the moment he came to the awareness of himself, the truth about who he really was kept safely from his mother and his friends—and to think he had given his childhood and teenage years to the Catholic church, those people that decreed he and his kind unwelcome, sat with his mother all those years in the choir singing “Nearer my God to thee” like one who belonged, only to finally grow up and face the damning truth, that he had spent all those times trying to love a God he knew absolutely nothing about, that audacious, ominous, incomprehensible being who created men and watched them dilly-dally in their quest to love him, all their lives lived not fully knowing, not fully grasping what it was this God wanted from them, which was why Nnamdi now understood his father, felt even closer to him, his father who at some point could no longer endure the routine of going to church and pretending he had the faintest idea who this God was, his father who had ventured out with a group of people who did not make him feel like the world had ended because he did not say five decades of the rosary or go to daily mass, all of this gradually making sense to Nnamdi as his own life took its twists and turns, before that awkward phone conversation with his mother who said to him, “I know. I know, Nnamdi, and please don’t lie to me again,” a little surprise for the man but also a huge relief, because he was tired of lying to his mother, and he was tired of running from her, so he let out a deep sigh and closed his eyes and listened to his mother say she wanted to tell him something, say she learned this from the homily a few weeks ago and now believed it to be true, that sometimes people had questions, sometimes people doubted, and they wandered, but it did not mean they were evil, just the wind of life blowing them here and there as it forever does, and she paused after saying this, took a slow deep breath, a long time passing before she said anything again, Nnamdi thinking, “Who is this woman?” just as she was saying, “Come and see your mother before she dies, ịnụ?” which caused a ripple to go through Nnamdi, an understanding that his mother, whose sun was now setting, who was trudging down the mountain of her own life, was perhaps seeing the stretch of her bygone life, and suddenly before Nnamdi was a memory from his childhood: the little garden behind his room back home in which his mother planted corn, vegetables, and yams, set hoe to the soil and made mounds, thrust sticks into the ground to hold yam tendrils, and then came rain, which came down graciously and blessed the earth, fed the earth and the plants drank their fill, and afterward he and his mother went into the garden with baskets, singing and whistling and chanting the hymn back and forth—all good gifts around us / are sent from heaven above / then thank the Lord, oh thank the Lord / for all his love—and mother and son plucked corn from stalk, mother and son snapped vegetables off the soil, sang and dug into the earth and pulled out tubers of yam, while Jonas lounged inside the house staring morosely at his books, and how oblivious they were to what lay in the road ahead of them, how blind to what stretched out in front of them, waiting.


Munachim Amah is a writer and academic from Nigeria. He is the winner of the 2017 Writivism Short Story Prize and a doctoral candidate at the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication.