HOW DO YOU SAVE A LIFE? You go out and buy puff-puff.
It began like this: I was walking towards a house on First Eleven street, where the tick-tock of a woman’s life was almost at its end. This street, like so many in Lagos buzzed with endless activity. A barber’s generator was on, and I could pick out the sound of insults and heavy hip-hop music. Although it was almost 1 pm, a woman I knew as Mama Nafisa still fried akara, while tolerating the harsh sun, which had burnt itself into skin once fair. And even though I could sense a thousand smells—the akara, the smoke, the stench of the gutter—they all smelled the same to me: Life.
The woman, the one who would host me for a while, was called Mrs Ugwu. I knew she thought of herself as Nneka. I also knew she had always wanted a child but that Fate had ignored her wishes. Therefore, instead of children, Nneka had nurtured a few shops in the market into prosperity.
I was almost at her house when a little girl dashed across the road with such life and force; my eyes were compelled to follow her. I was attracted to it the same way your young ones are attracted to ants until they crush the little bastards.
She went into an average provision store, nagged, and nagged, until the shop owner who had planned to leave in an hour, gave her puff-puff with, “Chinenye, just take and go before you kill me abeg.” I suppose if he could see what I could, he would have hugged her and done something terribly grateful. His death, merely two weeks away, moved to June because a girl had asked him for puff-puff.
Although my friend Fate would disagree, the future is a fickle thing.
The little girl, happy at the results of her manipulation, ran off with a smile.
I went to Mrs Uwgu’s home.
That was the first time I met Chinenye. I was curious about this girl, this unintentional meddler but because, like many of you, I had other engagements in 1983, I didn’t pay any attention to her. That, I have been told, is usually a good thing.
But then, how do you end a life?
Oh, humans will tell you a lot. From something as grand as suicide to oddities like coughing the wrong way. But since I am the one burdened by purpose to do the garbage collection—depending on how clean your soul is—allow me to confess that it is usually unimportant how a human dies. It’s the same to me. Birth, life, me. So forgive me if monotony has made me unimpressed.
For Chinenye, however, the end of her life began with the end of another.
I met her again when I came for her mother. She was 16 now, and by your standards, she was beautiful. The curves? Yes. The required sensual lips? Yes. The bust? Not really but close. And her eyes? Little mournful things that some man, fanning his ego, would assume called out to him to rescue her.
Seated beside her dying mother, she tried to be the supportive daughter.
“It’s alright, mama. Mummy it’s alright,” She assured her mum.
Her mother struggled to find words but I had no time to watch her suffer, so I came in, took her soul—a shiny thing—and was about to leave when I heard Chinenye say, “Not like this. I won’t go like this”. I ran off, dropped her mum and came back.
Now, there are three typical reactions to me from your kind. Acceptance, denial and rage. Acceptance is the hardest but rage; I’ve found rage to be the easiest.
Chinenye was experiencing the third. So I wasn’t surprised when she said, “This won’t happen to anyone else. No. Not at all.” And I saw her future change.
Later that night, when her uncles and aunties had left with her mother’s corpse, she wrote in her diary, I have seen the face of death. I am not afraid.
The last time I bothered to look at depictions of me in your art, I looked amusing. A scythe, hooded, hungry and all black. It was very funny—this lessening. You want to know what I truly look like? Look into the part of your heart where the light holds no reign, carve out the darkest thing you’ve done and look at it.
I left Chinenye then. Only seeing her when she became a surgeon and failed to stop me from a soul. Her anger was a pointless, fiery thing.
And the day for me to touch her drew closer.
And then something happened.
I should tell you a story first. During your stressful Biafran war, I met a man forty times. The tease. A certain Kalu Anyanwu. Bullets would miss him by inches; his car would move just seconds before another car crashed into that spot. I swear, each time I left frustrated, I could hear Fate laughing at me.
One day, his four-year old son spilled a glass of milk on the stairs. Kalu slipped.
4 broken ribs. 1 broken neck. 2 broken fingers.
Death by milk.
I remember and tell you this so that you understand—I fear that your kind have a habit of missing the point at the most inconvenient time—a single shift in choice can call me or send me away. That there is nothing like luck. There is only your choice affecting you and others. Again, Fate would probably disagree.
And so it was with Chinenye, that the day I came for her, her salvation came too. This was what should have happened. A patient would die. She would leave work angry and frustrated. She would have an accident, then me.
This was what happened. I came for her patient but when I came back for her, she was talking with a man. He delayed her and everything changed.
She became my tease too. A record 82 times. At the store, during a robbery, she dodged me. When the plane crashed, she pushed me away. Her third labour, my hands had been inches from her face. She looked away.
Overtime, I came, not to take, but to watch.
I would watch and be amused by the difference between the girl who wanted a snack and this woman who hated the idea of domestic help and called her husband, “dude.” I kept my hands away from her.
Not pity. Or favor.
You do not threaten your own entertainment.
Which brings me to you. You who called me and forced me to remember that purpose must be obeyed. You who ripped my entertainment from me.
You were such a clumsy variable; I missed you.
I watched you as you pulled the trigger on her husband. And her. And three children. You heard moans of death; I heard pleas for release. I had to fulfill purpose so I took them away.
When I came back, I was disgusted. There is no perfection to death. No art. But your particular lack of discipline disgusted me. Bodies everywhere. Even Chinenye.
I still see your bullet puncture her heart.
Perhaps, death is an art. But you are a poor artist.
It took you five years to reach out and grab me. An overdose like I’d ever seen. The doctors say you are in a coma. They are wrong. I am keeping you here.
An old man once had a son he loved. One day, a snake bit his little boy, and he died. The man found the snake, but he did a curious thing. He cut a piece of the snake each day. Never enough to kill it, just enough to engrave pain on it.
I strip your mind clean, and I write on it. I give you all the darkness that I have seen. I weave the pain into your mind. But you’ll live.
Live for me.
Image by Ting Him Mak via Flickr
About the Author:
MICHAEL E. UMOH is a graduate of Mass Communication from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. A fan of rock music and most things written, Michael believes his friends are right when they call him “weird”.