800 Grandmothers Are Pinching Me
The Oyisis were having a family meeting, at the prodding of Grandmother, when death walked in. Picture a man, a dreadful black hat, clear fatal eyes, grey knee-length coat missing pockets, lace-up toe-pointed gentleman shoes shimmering with polish, and a screaming silence attached to chain smoker lips.
Now, had he made an appearance in this manner elsewhere, he would have been treated with respect, even discussed. The problem was that he had appeared in the home of the Oyisis, and the Oyisis had a peculiar way of dealing with odd situations: they did not. This was why, for instance, it required the intervention of the visiting Grandmother to call this meeting, rather than the father or mother under whose nose small thefts had been occurring.
They had all lost things. Mr. Oyisi had lost two fancy watches; Mrs. Oyisi a box of earrings; Mercy, their first daughter, lost some money when she had visited; her maid who came with her claimed to have lost her maidenhood; Simpa lost designer shoes. Avosuahi hadn’t lost anything, but they all suspected she was next. Oricha, the last born, had lost his precious FUBU shirt. They had all lost things, but for one curious exception. Cousin Tafa, whom they all deeply respected, had lost nothing. In truth, he had come to the house with nothing. But this deep respect, due him for his age and position in the family tree, was gradually branching into suspicion with equally deep roots.
Cousin Tafa didn’t have a job. And he was searching in a way that everyone agreed he didn’t really mean to find one. He lived on government checks which came abruptly and barely supported him for half the month. On top of that he had a girlfriend, a vain, soulless Igbo girl who regarded nobody and walked with the irritating limp of a ‘70s rapper. Nobody liked Uju. Not even the person she came to the house to visit. Cousin Tafa hoped to secure a job through her connected lawyer father, who, if fate allowed, was hoping to secure an early husband for his daughter, an obstinate only child.
Uju spent the weekends at the Oyisis. Avosuahi, whose room she shared, considered weekends ugly. Mrs. Oyisi roomed them because they both belonged in that hurricane category of university graduate women: Home, Waiting for a Job or Husband, Whichever Tragedy Showed up First. And because of this, there hung between them a cloud of constant intolerance — a brittle mix of jealousy and competition — because each girl felt superior in some area. Uju felt she had a good life coming, whether Cousin Tafa succeeded or not, and he was someone she could introduce as a husband-to-be. Avosuahi had a boyfriend who had a job. And although this boyfriend did not see a ring in her future, as he reminded her often, she let the rest of her family, and Uju, continue to believe in this relationship, which, going eight months strong, they all willed towards the altar. This boyfriend visited the house sometimes. But nobody suspected Jeff. He had a job.
So when I say there was a family meeting, understand that all these people were present in one room, but whatever it was that held families in place was not.
When Mr. Oyisi’s mother visited a week ago, this fragility was the first thing she noticed. How the house lived a broken, separate life from the humans within it. Abigail, the house girl to whom Mercy’s maid claimed to have lost her maidenhood, did all the chores and cooking. Mrs. Oyisi, when not at her bedside mirror or reading fancy subscription magazines, attended to her husband. Mr. Oyisi took long walks with strange friends who never stepped inside his house. Cousin Tafa slept all morning, smoked all afternoon, and made Uju scream the walls off all night. Simpa studied basketball videos and mimicked YouTube rappers. Oricha went from room to room looking for life. He got some attention when Grandmother arrived, but she fell short of his other desires. Grandmother’s cobwebbed brain was no match for his philosophical questions. Why do some people die? Why do others live? Who makes this decision? Who decides when? His appetite for these questions was only improved by Abigail’s threat to make him die if he told anyone about the many occasions he had discovered her half-naked and whimpering with torn pages of his mother’s magazines above her face. It was strange that the same magazine his mother read with joy in the open caused Abigail so much pain in secret.
Grandmother told him no one could make another person die and he shrieked delightfully. She was glad. She liked to put things where they belonged — toys in the basement, brooms under the stairs, knives, forks, and plates in their sections. Family, for instance, belonged together.
When she left a plate of dodo on the gas, returned to find it gone and nobody had seen it, she howled. She raised alarm about her food, which no one took seriously at first considering the other things that had gone missing. But this was new. Not once before had anyone alerted the entire house to the fact that they had had something of theirs stolen, so that with Grandmother’s announcement they all naturally fell under suspicion. When Oricha, unasked, revealed that it was not the first time somebody had lost something to an anonymous thief in the house, a resolved Grandmother succumbed to the maternal instinct to fix. So she sought a forum to address the unfamilial design of her son’s household.
She went to great lengths to procure the meeting. She prevented Mr. Oyisi from leaving the house, smashed Mrs. Oyisi’s bedside mirror, swore to throw Cousin Tafa out of the house herself if it was the last thing she did, and told the girls she had discovered the thief. Simpa and Oricha came for the sight. The two absent members of the household were Avosuahi’s boyfriend, Jeff, who had risen early for work and was already asleep, and Abigail, who was cleaning in the kitchen. The meeting was about to begin when death strode in. And because the Oyisis had a timid way with strange developments, nobody questioned the intrusion. Not even Grandmother. In fact if she had not needed to make space on the sofa, Grandmother wouldn’t have moved at all when death came in. It was as though he was long expected and that the meeting had been delayed for his arrival, and since he had finally come they were eager to just get on with it.
The clock on the wall gave the time as 10:30 PM. Oricha, dressed in purple patterned pajamas, was restless, making faces and trying his utmost to set the mood for the meeting, which everybody could now see for what it was: a drab, pointless event which held no prospect of turning up anything useful and would last well into the early hours of the next day. Many of the family members had found positions in which sleep might easily find them. Mr. Oyisi, arms around his wife, spoke the first words.
“Sit down at once, Oricha.”
The boy appealed to his mother. Still grieving her mirror, she took her husband’s side and sent him to sit between Uju and Simpa. Sniffing, Oricha squeezed between Grandmother and the stranger, whose vivid eyes warmed to every inch of the expansive living room. The sofas were brown and huge and spaced so carelessly that every inch of the parlor was busy. In the middle, a bright bear rug hosted the center table. Family pictures dotted the walls like a museum of joy. The faces, younger and full of simpering smiles, accused the strangers in the room of resisting a happy past. From the kitchen came the tchiri-tchiri of plates shrugging off tap water and the tortured quietude of great care notable around fragile places.
“Good evening, all,” Grandmother said, turning her neck with some effort. “Something is wrong in this house. And you’re all part of this something.”
Somebody laughed a childish laugh, childish because a child had laughed it. “Your speech is funny, grandma,” Oricha said.
Because his father hushed him and his mother approved, Oricha’s cheeks grew pale. His eyes sought support from anywhere. The stranger acquiesced and rubbed the child’s head.
“Don’t touch my child,” his mother said.
Because Mrs. Oyisi rarely disapproved of anyone, they all looked at her before observing the guest whose careless kindness had drawn this rebuke.
“Don’t touch my grandchild,” Grandmother said, shooting the stranger a look they all feared was capable of unsettling the hat.
“Don’t touch my brother,” Avosuahi said. She had her head tilted backwards, body buried deep in the sofa, so that it appeared like she was addressing the ceiling.
“Don’t touch my brother,” Simpa said, rising and making a fist.
“Sit down, kid. Yeah, don’t touch my nephew,” Cousin Tafa said in his smoker voice, gruff and emotionless.
Simpa sat down. Uju sat up, adjusted her wide hips, and chewed a fingernail.
“Yeah, keep your dirty hands off my brother-in-law.” She actually laughed as she said this, so that her own sentence, saying nothing new, drew grumbling and soft cursing.
“I’m still talking,” Grandmother said, eyeing Uju. “At six this evening I made myself a plate of dodo. Thirty minutes later I returned to the kitchen and I couldn’t find it. And none of you saw it?”
Grandmother was trying to resume captaincy of the room but now all eyes were fixed on the stranger, whose presence they had now acknowledged.
“We’ve all lost things.”
It was he who had lost nothing who made this declaration. Eyes and tongues panned quickly to burn Cousin Tafa. If he wasn’t taller and stronger than everyone present, a family member might have tackled him.
“And yet,” the stranger said, twirling his hat like an entitled cowboy. “The loss you need, the loss that sews, you’re yet to experience. This I have brought.”
And now the Oyisis found accord in their disgust with the two men. Mr. Oyisi, surprising even himself, decided to lead.
“And who sent you here to bring anything? Who invited you into my house?”
Death laughed and the house shivered to its foundation. This laughter had effects on things outside the room. There was a brief patter on the roof, like it was going to rain. It did not. Abigail dropped a plate. Mrs. Oyisi shot forward to shout the girl’s head off. Uju suppressed a laugh as Mrs. Oyisi tripped on Grandmother’s outstretched legs. Her husband rallied to gather her and they shambled back to their position on the sofa where Mrs. Oyisi reclined his arms. Nobody offered sorry. Not even Grandmother. Fully accepting of the idea that this hatted stranger had derailed the meeting and made it about him, Grandmother bought a ticket and decided to hop his train.
“Let me tell you something,” she said. “If I get hold of that hat and I throw both of you, they will find your body somewhere far from this house. My son asked you a question. What are you doing in this house?”
The stranger no longer responded with earth-shaking laughter.
“I’m here for one of you,” he said, tapping his hat.
The gravitas which escorted this sentence made it successful. Though they were yet to identify the information giver or even identify the family member he had come to collect, snow cones of fear melted down their backs. Grandmother coughed. Mrs. Oyisi took her husband’s arms and wove them around her neck. Uju pressed her knees together. Avosuahi shivered. Cousin Tafa started to walk away.
“Actually,” the stranger said, lifting a ringed half-finger, “I’m here for one of you and somebody in the next house.”
The fucking baritone of this second sentence gave impetus to the first. It forced Cousin Tafa to a halt the same way many of them had stopped breathing. He propped himself against the nearest wall.
“This is ridiculous!” he said. “People get killed for less. Who the hell are you?” Cousin Tafa was loud, as if his new position empowered him to make these enquiries on behalf of the family.
The stranger tipped his hat to Cousin Tafa. “Bold question.”
“Yes, bold question, but who are you, sir?” The soft, sleepy voice Oricha summoned to ask this question created a deep, bottomless hollow in room into which all of their previous sentences were tossed.
“I am Umanji, the bringer of death,” he said.
Whether it was the gravity of the idea that a finite human family could host the continuous non-finitiveness of death or its agent, or even the quiet indignation that this hatted stranger would only respond directly to the youngest person in the room — any of these things could have been responsible for the great quiet which followed. The only sounds were of a broom scraping against the kitchen floor. Mrs. Oyisi considered rising to stop Abigail, but she was chained to her seat by the force of the bottomless hollow. The only person who had been spared the heaviness of that last sentence was Oricha, and perhaps feeling obligated to use this advantage for the benefit of his stunned family, threw another question.
“So, who are you here for Mr. Death? And who sent you?”
Mrs. Oyisi, energized by the consequences of the expected answer, leapt off her seat. “Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare!”
And, as if she had been possessed of external forces to perform this single action, she flopped down into her husband’s arms.
The silence hurt. It hurt so much. Even the sound of scraping in the kitchen would’ve been pleasant. But Abigail had finished for the day and was now preparing her bed under the staircase. Simpa had started to snore. On either side of him, Uju and Avosuahi exchanged puzzled looks. Their eyes retained coldness, but they recognized the situation required some form of cooperation, although they hadn’t decided who was going to offer it.
Mr. Oyisi saw the situation clearly. Death had escorted his mother from the village to his home with the singular objective of taking her and, to publicize the hopeless affair, had made a point of appearing in person. To complete the horror, this tragedy was to occur in front of his children. Observing Simpa trumpet, he remembered they were young adults who must be familiar with this final paralysis, which was truly universal and not a specific failure of his fathering.
He felt horrible for thinking little of his mother, his dear dear mother. But the memory that brought light to his face was replaying his wife’s command that had prevented death from naming his mother. He loved these two women equally but they had hated each other since the first day of his marriage. He had often tried to convince his mother of the kindness in his wife, and now she had deftly spared his mother, and him, from the discomfort of learning precisely who was going to die.
“So you always visit people, like this?” Oricha said.
“No. People think — assume — that I do. I never visit. I never leave.”
“I don’t understand sir.”
“Oh, it’s simple. When you eat, when you’re filled up — “ death rubbed his tummy, which made Oricha squirm with joy, “ — you think hunger is gone, finished. But it doesn’t leave. It is just defeated, briefly, by the food you have eaten. Sometimes, when this food is not enough, the victory is incomplete and you still feel hungry.”
“True!” Oricha declared with a howl of joy, rising. Grandmother stirred. Mr. Oyisi groaned.
There was a knock on the door. The Oyisis, together, glanced up at the wall. It was a few minutes past midnight. Cousin Tafa, needing to dismiss the pressure which had gathered inside his lower body, drew near the door.
Everybody watched him leave. The looks on their faces betrayed neither their deep suspicion of him, nor their irritation with his girlfriend. Actually, an extra body was now required, especially if death intended to subtract upon leaving. The door shut and Cousin Tafa returned to the living room, hands gridlocked above his head, whispering, “Our neighbor’s wife. Her husband just…”
He stood some distance from the rest of them.
Suddenly, the stranger’s presence ruled the room. The prevailing debate was no longer about his identity; it was firmly determining which Oyisi he had come for. With Grandmother asleep, it was okay to stare sadly and confirm their suspicions of her candidacy for the dying that was now near. Grief entered their teeth and forbade speech. But Oricha’s tongue was alive.
“So, you are here to make Grandmother die, sir?”
Mr. Oyisi yelled, “SHUT UP. SHUT UP FOR ONCE, ORICHA. SOMEBODY IS DEAD IN THE NEXT HOUSE. DEAD IN THE…”
Mr. Oyisi started to cry. Oricha started to cry. Uju smacked Simpa straight in the head. He woke with a low protest. Uju turned to Avosuahi.
“You should go wake your man up,” she said.
Avosuahi’s eyes widened, bright and bursting with panic. “I think it’s him. Oh my God. I think Jeff is going to die.”
Uju extended an arm behind Simpa’s back. Avosuahi accepted.
“Mba,” Uju said. “When that one is still alive?” She hiked her nose in her boyfriend’s direction.
Cousin Tafa, still probing the unexpected fatality of everything, was struck by Uju’s gesture. This new position allowed him to observe the Oyisises from above. Mr. Oyisi’s head was in his wife’s thighs. She was trying and failing to keep his sniffs from reaching the rest of them. Simpa stared blankly. Behind him, Uju’s and Avosuahi’s hands were still locked. Oricha had dropped into the stranger’s lap and death had his hands over the boy’s head.
This is how a proper family might grieve, Cousin Tafa thought. Now somebody had to call Mercy, who was always traveling somewhere. Since the other adults had been made immobile by grief, Cousin Tafa brought out his phone. A sliver of the receding moon entered the room and rested on the pictures hanging on the wall. All was quiet. Abigail’s snore was a dreadful hymn.