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WE ARE MANY | a short story by Ubong Johnson

Read Time:5 Minute, 46 Second

Where I am from, a corpse’s last task is to remember what it used to be: a coffin is brought into the compound where it would be buried, and its family moves to welcome it. There is silence so tense one can hear footwear slice grass as they approach. Gin feeding the ground, the family chief steps forward and, in bitter incantation, begins to urge the corpse to remember. To find rest, the corpse must remember. It must remember.

*

My granduncle believes my sister’s hallucinations are a result of my father’s failure to remember who he truly was. The girl is eight, and every night, she sleepwalks into my room and calls me father. I heave a bitter sigh each time and pull her into a hug. “I am not daddy. I am your sister.”

But she insists. “You are daddy. Mommy is looking for you.”

Uncle says my face was the last my father recalled, so he is trapped in my body. Which is to say: he has become me.

This is why we will be visiting the village to break the bond as soon as the day breaks.

Just before we step down the few stairs at our door mouth, Mommy asks if I am prepared. She fondles the lock. I nod. I understand my task: to help my father remember, so that he can rest; so that my sister can sleep better. I am to do this by filling my mind with my identity when I lie on that gravestone. This will drive him out; only this can.

Mommy doesn’t let me drive. She insists it’s not fully morning yet, as though a 48-year-old woman has better eyes than a 19-year-old. So I turn around and heave into the backseat to sit with Makamba. I pull her close and begin to ruffle her hair. She never calls me father when she is fully awake. The hallucinations always happen when she is half-asleep. Fully awake, she remembers nothing. Now, for example, she is the eager child we know, itching to see the road, to watch the rising sun chase our car.

*

Three of my uncles are seated on a bench by the front door when we drive into the unfenced compound. Mommy does not make the turn right; one of the car’s tyres almost gets stuck in the angle between the slab and the gutter. It lets out a tearing noise and the car jerks forward. Mommy mumbles thank God. It has been at least three hours spent on the road.

My uncles walk over and welcome us. My mother holds her white gown at the waist with one hand to keep it from touching the wet ground as she steps out of the car. It rained here, it seems, even though the fierce sun makes that hard to believe.

Mommy

wants everything to happen quickly. This is why she hands Uncle Edidem some money just before we enter the house. He is the youngest one of the uncles. He takes the money and, at once, is on his way to get some native eggs and alcohol.

My oldest uncle holds my hand. “Do you know what to do? Has your mother told you?” He looks at me like he did my mother months ago, during the funeral. This look, a blend of pity and hope, draws his eyebrows closer. More than anything, I know he is this way towards us because we have money. Had we been poor, like Ebenezer’s mother, who was asked to return to her father’s house, taking not even a pin with her, we would have been met with bitter hostility each time we visited here.

I nod, again.

“Okay. You are like your mother, a strong girl. I know you can do it.”

*

The sun sets and it is time. I have just changed into a white linen gown. My uncle writes my name on my forehead with white chalk. Beneath it, he writes my father’s name but crosses it with a single line. I stare at my face in the mirror and release a held breath.

My mother and two uncles walk me to my father’s gravestone. Uncle Edidem remains with Makamba, to keep her from coming outside.

I lay flat on my tummy, arms spread out, on my father’s gravestone and close my eyes.

“Who are you?” The incantations begin.

My breathing is heavy and slow as I reach into myself and try to remember. An egg is cracked open and spilled onto my body. And just then, I am somewhere else.

At first, there is nothing here. The bare land stretches to no end. But people and houses soon start to emerge into view. Everyday people, just walking hastily, as though they’re trying to catch up with something.

I stand and glance about, struggling to recall but failing. I can’t tell who I am. Behind my eyelids when I close my eyes, I am a child seated by my mom, watching as she pounds yam. The image flitters past and I am hugging her, preparing to leave home.

A woman walks over and taps me. I jerk out of my vision. “Hey, I know you. What is your name?” This woman looks not less than eighty years old. I look away from her breasts. And I struggle. But still, I do not know. I walk past her.

There is another vision soon after I walk past a leafless tree: in this one, I am yelling at my father, telling him to not marry my mother because she is cursed. He looks into my eyes, sighs, and then walks away. “I am the one who will live with her, not you, Mama.”

But he doesn’t go far. Air snatches him before he is out of my sight.

I open my eyes. A shorter woman is before me now. She is smiling.

“Don’t mind that woman.” This one says. “These old people keep spoiling things here with their tags and names. Don’t try to remember. We don’t have names. We are the same thing. We answer a common name.”

“Thank you,” I say, still confused. “But, please, who am I? I have to help my sister.”

She looks at my forehead, a glint of unwelcome recollection in her eyes. Just before fading away, she says: “You are all of us.”

*

I wake up in the middle of the night to meet the real world: its cricket noises and dim lighting. A candle at the corner of the room fights the breeze for its life. Mother jerks awake the minute I hack a cough. “Ekpoawan, are you okay?” Her voice is tired.

“Yes, Mommy.” I looked about, confused. “Where is Makamba?”

Just then, Makamba comes rushing in. She hugs me: “We have missed you, Grandma.”



Ubong Johnson is a Nigerian writer.