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HOW DO PEOPLE DIE? - By Awe Ogon

There was no sun in the sky, it was a dark and gloomy day, though light shone from above. It seemed there was an eclipse of reasoning in my mind. It was just a moment ago we stood there laughing and talking. Those words I spoke to you were not the last words I spoke. I said so many things to you after that, but you could not hear me. There was still more in my heart to say. Like ‘I love you’ and ‘you mean a lot to me.’ But you were so strong and bereft of any ill health, so I saved the words for later.

I remember our growing days. I was the playful one and always full of life with no concern for the cares around. I laughed at everything you said, and you always took everything serious with a taint of happiness and smiles. Yours was a generous soul. Do you remember when we were kids and travelled once to the village? Oh that was mostly where you stayed. People often thought we were sisters, we bore the same surname. I often got confused myself. We were of the same age, our heights held no difference. I was beautiful, a beauty you claimed also. When I smiled people said it was charming. Sounds crazy because I thought you had an amazing smile. Why were you called ‘Philomena?’ That was the name of my father’s late wife. I thought it strange because you also bore my surname.

We never lived in the same house, still our houses were in the same street, in the village that is. In the city, my mind cannot remember the places you stayed. Was the village not where descendants of a family emerged from? Maybe you were my sister or a cousin. I cannot say, for I still do not know the lineage you belonged to. You were surely not me.

When we walked the streets of our village it was like a parade of beauty. Though the villagers may have been too local then to grant us a pageantry title, but we were both queens. You know it and I know same. Did we ever contest our beauty? Maybe our hearts did. I always said I was prettier than you, and you would laugh away. Though I will gladly give you the beauty crown now, if that will return your beauty to the body that lay before me. By some stroke of luck the crown may carry some magical powers of transforming looks.

Christmas was always a time to look forward to. It was the time we literally roamed the village streets with the best of our looks as innocent as it was, dressed in our regalia that we would now consider mundane. We felt like angels, were angels without wings. But you were the better angel, the one that fell down to earth before me. I never accorded you this glory to your hearing, I hope you hear me now. It was a thing considered impossible in my heart for me to walk past your house which was up the road from mine. If I even tried to hide in haste and cross the hurdle of stopping by to see you, I will hear that tiny voice of yours screaming my name in full from your window. You always called my name with my father’s name attached. I cannot say if you just liked the sound of your surname when you called it out to me, or if you just wanted to remind me that you thought my father was yours.

Your father was sick mostly. If my mind tried to remember what sickness it was, I will shut it down myself. For I do remember he was mostly in a dark room, with a dark skin – my father has a dark skin too. Your father always sat on a slim bed, which barely would hold my fleshy bosom. But your father barely had any flesh left to his skin. I think he felt one with the bed. It scared me a lot to see him, which I had to do every time I stopped by to see you. It was respect, to greet even the dead. – Our community valued morals.

Then it got worse, when you became adopted as a slave girl by your mother, who always had a smile on her face. I often wondered if she was happy your father was sick, I feared her even more. I was certain you inherited your smiles from your father before he went sick. Because I never desired to see your mother’s smile, and she always wore it. Whenever I stopped by your house for our usual girls outing to the village streets, I found you working. You cared for your father so well death tarried for a long time, waiting for the day you will get tired and stop. But you never did, so death took your father anyways.

I stopped dropping by to see you, for fear of either seeing your sick father or your scary mother. Maybe just the fact that I did not want to give a helping hand with your chores, which were quite numerous when it was free time from my own house.  So I passed by your house silently and branched off the next house where Omuaku lived. Unfortunately, Omuaku would say we should stop by and check on you before beginning our village street roaming – she was your friend too, and I hate to think she loved you more. We both loved you well, I just hated chores and seeing dying people. We were little growing girls.

I recall the day your father died, because it was during the holiday period, and holiday meant being in the village. I had been at your house the evening before and I saw your father, as village morals demanded. When I woke up the next morning, I overheard my father discussing with friends the death of your father. I wondered, how do people die? So we mourned with you and buried your father, and consoled you. It was such a sorrowful relief.

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Then we grew, at least I did. We saw less because I went on to higher education and it was far away, in a city distant from yours. I always thought we would all have the same educational opportunities, it was what my little mind conceived. But our families were not the same, though our fathers bore the same parental names. I remember my first holiday in the village as a university student, I was excited to see you and tell you about it all. So I stopped by your house that morning. Your father was dead, which meant the chores will be few and you will have time to accord my tales. I stepped into the cube-shaped compound hoping to hear your tiny voice scream my name in full as you always did. I silently prayed though that your mother would have gone to the market. She was the reason I never ate in your house. I felt she was a smiling witch and would have poisoned me, for no reason that I could fathom. How could she smile always without reason.

So I stepped in excited and fearful, but that was okay for there was no one in the compound. It was not empty, but it had no one in it, it was deserted. So I became frightful, my childhood friend had been taken away. Omuaku later took me to where you now stayed – your mother’s house. I went there only twice, on that day and when you became sick.  It was in the same street as my mother’s house, so I found another route to reach my mother’s house. I feigned happiness at seeing you, no, that’s untrue. I was happy to see you, I feigned my smile for what I wanted to do was cry, I wanted to cry for you. It seemed your father took your beauty – the one I always contested, to the grave, or maybe your mother ate it up. She seemed fresher than when your father lived, and she smiled even now.

You didn’t grow tall along with Omuaku and I. Your frame was tinier than little, your skin looked like you were a citizen of various continents, it was white, brown, dark and red. I grew scared but I smiled at you, because in all you lost, you retained your smile – the smile I secretly thought was more charming than mine. I think you patented your smile, for it never left you. I was afraid to ask what was wrong, I did not know if I could take the answer. But in your cheerfulness you announced your sickness. You said ‘look at me o, I’m dying and I don’t know what’s wrong with me.’ It was your mother I concluded in my head, I could not have said that loud, for she stood by us smiling. She was just a witch - a smiling witch.

The amazing thing was your loyalty to your mother. I wanted to squeeze it out of you if I could, but I could not. Loyalty was in your blood, running through your veins. Squeezing it out meant ending your life, and I needed you alive. This sickness which we called ‘unknown’ started when your mother moved you along with her to her own family compound. You were the only one living with her, your elder ones went away, this was what you said. You had also started tertiary institution but it was difficult to keep up, because this ‘unknown’ sickness ravaged you. But I’ve never seen someone so determined to live. You fought hard and graduated through school, though later than we all did.

The next I heard from you, was the call you put through. You were in the city so I made the short trip to your house where your uncle lived with his wife and children. It was on the way to the church, the one we all attended. I was really glad to see you, because you had added some color and your skin now belonged to one continent, so your weight returned, your cheeks blossomed with red. At this point I no longer secretly admired your smile. I told you it was beautiful and you laughed with your tiny voice – that one I can still hear. I was glad you were well and my boldness returned to question what happened. You were generous to tell me the story, a mixed story of which my end joy was that you were well.

You had been taken to a ‘muom bekal’ place – a medicine man. Some other persons may call him a herbalist, but herbalists to me where partially possessed with certain demons who gave what you needed and took what you needed, herbalists to me where known to give poisons to people to kill their enemies. This ‘muom bekal’ had treated you with all kinds of traditional medicines. You stayed there for months getting treated for this ‘unknown’ disease. You got better, I did not want to know the procedures this ‘muom bekal’ used, I saved myself such gory details and did not ask. Then you went back home to your mother, and after a few months, very few months you became ill again. I would have said a few weeks to portray the potency of your mother’s witchcraft. Her powers seemed to work when you were within her jurisdiction.

Then your eldest sister took you to the hospital where they still could not find out what plagued you and took away your beauty. It was scary as it was unbelievable, but the doctors never found anything wrong with you, the different hospitals you were taken to, in case the previous one was not qualified to diagnose the sickness. Nothing was found, not through the numerous tests you did, and the x-rays. It was just nothing, your immune system had no idea what it was fighting or why it should fight. So the doctors put you on drugs. I think the drugs were just general – If only it had the power to kill witches. Your whole body could testify of having been touched by syringes and drips. You were a survivor, so you got well, the hospital was far away from your mother’s jurisdiction. But you went back home after you got well, and got sick again.

This time you were taken to a church against your mother’s will. It was more like you were abducted. This you refused to tell me, as I sat here listening to you but I heard anyways, because I donated money along with Omuaku and our common friends for you to be taken to the church. So our common friends told me your mother had resisted. But we had you checked into a church for months, many months. Now you sat in front of me with full cheeks and a glowing smile, telling me the tale and thanking me for the support we gave. How I loved you.

Life seemed to drift us physically apart as my career took me away often and you had to go back to school. But you kept in touch through the phone. You completed your schooling when some of us had long forgotten about it. I remember like a picture standing before me when you called me from the national youth service camp. It was a great deal to you that you survived and beat that ‘unknown’ disease all the way. Life seemed normal again, it was great to have you back. I could sit all day watching you smile, something I considered a reflection of my own smile. How I wished you stayed that way forever, happy, joyful, giving help to others when you needed help the most. I cannot bring to mind from the time we were children to this time, if I ever saw you sad or complain, you took everything with smiles. You were always the better one, I’d love to admit. You were the one who never withheld good from anyone even when it was to your detriment. So it pains me as I stand by your coffin stroking your natural curly hair and wishing you would smile up to me as you did last night and show me your dimples. Which I did not add in this story about your smile, to make mine more admirable.

It was not the sickness, you recovered. It was our grandmother who died. How do we have the same grandmother? Well she died, full of age and we buried her, all of us, in the village. You were there too, for we had the same grandmother, the one whom I was named after. Father just liked to name us after people dear to his heart. So we buried our grandmother and went dancing with father in the village square where everyone gathered to watch us. Our family was a dynasty built by father.

Dusk came like a sudden hurricane as we stood there, playing pranks and talking about everything and nothing to note. Though you did mention you should get married before the year ends. This was May, there was ample time for a marriage to be conducted, we all laughed. That was when the village photographer came with a few pictures of us. You were not in the pictures, I wonder why, because you were missing in every picture we took starting from a week before to that day the photographer followed me like a leech one had to attend to immediately. My purse was far away, that was when I spoke my last words to you. If the village photographer had not leeched around me, I may have said something wonderful for you to take on your journey instead of the words of me asking you to lend me a little money to pay off the village photographer and claim my pictures, the ones you missed. In spite of everyone around, it was you I asked for the little loan, because you never said no. I promised to pay you back, I was sure I was going to later in the night or maybe the next day, because that ‘unknown’ disease that plagued you for twelve years had been beaten by you, so you were never going to die.

But your mother needed a ride home from grandmother’s funeral and I remember watching you take the car keys from father. That was the last I saw you walking or speaking. Though nicely dressed now, you look less damaged in your coffin than the car in the accident. It was a short drive, it was less than ten minutes.


ABOUT THE WRITER 

Awe Ogon is a lawyer, a writer with published novels and a screenplay writer.

Help her win the the short story contest by voting in the comment section below. 

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