A short story by CHIMALUM NWANKWO
As soon as I read your words, our Hall of Residence at the University heaved and swung into sight in my mind‘s eye; it shifted and loomed like some dreadful boulder from outer space into my view. I remembered you and how you read the world. Each time I think about you, I also remember elementary school days in colonial Nigeria, and that silly rhyme about three green bottles sitting on the wall. Looks now like among the three of us, you are the only bottle standing or sitting on the wall. Of course, I am not surprised. As room mates I always knew that if any one among the three of us would make it through the forest of life, it would be you. You always had the knack of standing outside things, supreme outsider, an alien all-knowing spy watching the rest of us in detached amusement. Yes, outside the perimeters of winning or losing, with your supercilious smile draping your face like a shroud on a dead clown’s face. Frankly, today, in the loneliness of this dank and narrow prison cell called a room, I wish I had bought your philosophy of there being nothing like winning or losing, and there being just life… I know that I have acted exactly like a loser, but that is okay.
When Our room mate hanged himself on the weekend of our country’s independence anniversary eve, September 1971, and broke the news, I remember you falling back on your bed and laughing as if it was one great exquisite construction, a new gem of a hilarious joke. When I nearly descended on you trying to decide whether to punch your teeth into your mouth or to kick the hell out of what I thought was your silly callous guts, you even laughed more raucously inviting me to go ahead and kill you.
At that point, I stopped reading, leaned back from my laptop to recall the event.
Have you heard?
Our room mate is not coming back.
He hanged himself over the weekend in his elder brother’s house at Enugu.
He hanged himself…
That’s the news all over the campus.
Then, I remember, I could not hold back any more. Laughter contorted my whole being and body, till I sank back in my bed in strange exhaustion. I recall his bearing down on me, his stopping suddenly with a murderous look on his surprised face, changing his mind before the conversation.
You are not moved?
Moved by what?
Our room mate’s death.
What makes you think so?
Your idiotic laughter, he said venomously.
My idiotic laughter, I repeated as if he spoke in a foreign tongue.
We are second year students, Right?
Right, he snapped.
We have been room mates for twelve months now. Right?
Right. What are you driving at? he pursued in impatience and irritation.
Look, you and I? how many times have we had a row in this room?
How about our room mate?
He has come close to blows with each of us at least twice.
True or false?
True, he admitted reluctantly
Why and over what?
Let me remind you, since your memory appears to be tricking you at the moment. He wanted all things proper and square. If his pillow shifted in his absence, he was mad. If his sheets had the slightest of wrinkles, he was mad. If his little mirror or the comb changed spaces on the desk, he threatened hell and brimstone. Is that the way life works? What do you think?
Life is more raggedy than that. If you do not think so, you are in error. Be careful, my friend, because you will be setting your self up out there for either murder or suicide, unless you can see how raggedy life is.
It is strange that I should today, nearly thirty years after our undergraduate school days, be admitting that perhaps you were right. But even at that, some thing inside me beyond the laws and courts of human society keep telling me that I was right in what I did. I do not need anybody’s mercy or pity. Perhaps what I need is some kind of understanding. Your poem hurts me. I knew Dr. Maduora. He was a man of peace. But in crisis and war all kinds of people are always casualties in the cross-fire… old folks, women and children, people in so-called wrong places at the wrong time. Am I really a coward? Am I a greedy person? Do I really cut it in your imagination as a criminal, a possible murderer? Think hard my friend; we were room mates for four years. I love your ideas about our being caught in deep night winds in life. That’s indeed what it was for me. Deep night winds. You were also on the money about the presence of the devil inside those deep night winds… But I tell you my friend, what I have been through is more like your burning shores. I am truly the starved lion. For what, I do not know. What did I do? Or what did I not try to do to make my own garden of flowers and life beautiful?
I looked over the poem again wondering whether he was reading too much into what I was trying to say. I was quite impressed by his closeness to the atmospherics of my lament.
I killed her because from the woman I respected, admired, and loved, she turned into a soulless bitch. How could she forget everything? When she started making money here, all that mattered became her family. Not mine. I am the one who made all things possible, from her jewellery and expensive taste for clothes to the grand SUV she drove. I married her back in Africa, found her a visa to get her over to the USA, spent all my money, and ruined my credit to pay for her education in America. I rescued her from the poverty of her village and family and helped her to become a high-flying pharmacist logging in over one hundred thousand dollars annually. Am I not entitled to some kind of reward or compensation for all this? What people just see about me is that I am a cab driver. All cab drivers are flunkies. Why am I a cab driver with a Master’s level education in English and a doctorate degree in Educational Administration? Nobody wants to talk about that, about our plight as foreigners in America plagued by our accents and our loneliness, tormented by the guilt of living far away from home in exile, afraid to go back home with nothing to show for our long sojourn abroad. Nobody wants to talk about that. I have to fit into a world which matches the popular imagination.
I know that one of my victims was a man with a golden heart, a man of peace who always had a smile on his face. I regret all that. Perhaps it was my envy and jealousy and frustration which transmuted Dr. Maduora, from a family friend who loved my kids and tried some times to help my wife during our estrangement to a rival lover. I do not know. I know I am in for capital punishment but nothing matters now or will matter any more. I am at peace with my fate, whatever happens…Did my wife play any role in tipping my senses over – by her refusal to contribute meaningfully to my efforts to prepare our three children for their future, while taking care of my poor extended family back home in Africa? Nobody wants to think about that. My wife flirted all over town with all sorts of men; and her comings and goings and her shifts as a Pharmacist were one combined enterprise in which I had no say. Nobody wants to talk about that. In her eyes, clearly, I had changed from the man who loved her to something no better than a room mate. I know what people now think about me, but that is okay. Each man to his own fate and destiny…
Here is a typical conversation with my wife in bed from one Sunday night.
I had just tried as gently as possible to make love overtures.
What are you trying to do ?
Would you please leave me alone? I am tired…
I know, but it is now over three weeks since we…
Look. Leave me alone. I am tired.
Control yourself or I will call the police… You are not an animal…
There are several variations of this kind of bedtime dialogue. Some ended with my being lectured about not being tired of having sex which I began having as a teenager. How many husbands out there will tolerate all these? I am now an insane monster to everybody. I shot Dr. Maduora and my wife and attempted to take my own life. That is the story. Now, my friend, look at your poem again. It jabs at my tortured spirit mercilessly. You forget the Okere you knew as your room mate.
I must admit that I felt a little bit guilty here because Okere is very good-looking. Nearly six feet tall, probably no more than 175 lbs, light in complexion, with hair so full and soft that I always felt tempted to ask him if he was mixed. Girls always wanted him in those undergraduate school days but he was either too shy to respond or too busy with academics to find the time. He always wore a purposeful and determined look, though a little bit menace there when he is angry.
I am simply the epitome of evil, an insane monster, a mad lion preying on innocent deer…I have spawned a jungle of evil to sully our world of angels.
I actually picked up a copy of the poem again and started studying my words as if somebody else wrote it…
The Worlds We Make
(For Dr. Chuma Maduora)
The worlds we make and what we do
The greed and cowardice and failed dices
Will give earth the ears she does not deserve
Innocent blood which the goddess does not want
The words of the good will ever live there
With weeds of evil where flowers grow
My garden has learnt to endure like a mule
Where the life-giving dew is small and light
Like the little things which one in want knows
Because of the well of light in us
Holding firm against the deep night winds
Against the storm between blood and air
What ears will ever hear those words
Without a blast in its passageways
The devil walked there into this man’s heart
Pitched a tent of cactus and bramble
And poor Chuma whose golden heart
Always thirsts for love and fun and peace
And a world where smiles will rule all hearts
Walked into that realm of death by fire
The tale of evil will always sail there
From waters conjured by our strange passions
To the burning shores of all desert dreams
Where our madness stoops to drink like lions
Whose preys the day has already made
With the thundering hoofs of a hapless deer…
Now, I am no longer sure about this whole thing. I got up, stretched, and with a yawn, walked into my room, rummaged through my travel bag and fished out the Burlington Daily Comet to read the news all over…
“GRISLY MURDER NEAR ST. MICHAEL’S CHURCH
An African immigrant cab driver, Noli Okere, 45, was arrested this Sunday morning for the cold-blooded murder of his wife, Pat Okere, 39, a Pharmacist at Lion Crest Pharmacy on Leesville Crossings and a Carnegie Research Fellow, Dr Chuma Maduora, 51, attached to the Institute of Peace in Burlington. Burlington city police are still talking to the African immigrant community as they try to make sense of the strange Sunday morning killings. There is a flood of information flowing in from immigrants, and police are trying to piece the details together.
All that is known for now is that Mr. Okere brought his wife to Burlington several years ago, put her through school where she qualified as a Pharmacist. Mr. Okere and his wife separated last year because, according to immigrant community sources, the wife was not cooperating with him over family responsibilities and so forth. Dr. Maduora was a family friend before the separation and shared the friendship and goodwill of the couple because they all came from the same part of Africa. He is survived by his wife and four children who are back in Africa to give him a one year breather to pursue his research under a Carnegie Fellowship at the Peace Institute. The murder may have been driven by jealousy because after the separation, Dr. Maduora still retained the friendship of either party.
Apparently, he was lured out from his house by Mr. Okere’s invitation to join him and his wife for Thanksgiving at St. Michael’s. When the surprised Dr. Maduora said his car was in bad shape, Mr. Okere volunteered to pick him up. He agreed to follow to what became the scene of tragedy impelled by both curiosity and his good nature.
About fifty yards or so to the portals of St. Michael’s, Mr. Okere suddenly stopped, pulled out a hand-gun from the folds of his big African robes and in a flash pumped bullets into Dr. Maduora who was sitting in the rear. He next turned to his obviously surprised wife and did the same before turning the gun to himself. He probably would have killed himself successfully but there was apparently only one bullet left in the magazine. That one bullet passed through his neck. clean. By the time trooper James Gantt pulled up beside the vehicle, Mr. Okere had slumped unto the steering wheel, unconscious. He is in the ICU of Burlington’s Thompson Memorial Hospital on Westphalia Drive in critical but stable condition…”
The first time I received this paper several weeks ago, and read this news, I had flung the newspaper aside in disgust. This time, I placed it on the reading desk like a sacred object, overcome by what I could not exactly tell. From what vantage point do I begin to contemplate the strange undulations of this thing called life? I wondered. Now, can you believe that many years after our undergraduate years at the University, I ran into our room mate’s elder brother. He remembered me because he used to take us out for chats and drinks when he came to visit his brother during his leave in those days. Do you know what he told me in the course of our conversation? Our room mate hanged himself because he refused to give him enough pocket money to accommodate his membership in the Alpha Fraternity, a pretentious undergraduate campus club which claimed they were the “best”. Best in what I could never tell. And here now is the second green bottle on the wall. He is in jail for murder. And here I am, the last green bottle, 55 years old, a somewhat complacent and taciturn bachelor, living as if life has no terminus. I always jokingly tell my friends that Journalism is in my DNA with a mad rider on a bucking nomadic beast as its dynamo… Strange harmony there, is it not? I assume I know but do not really ever know where I am headed. Deep night winds and the horizon remain my sweet sirens.
I arrived in Florida on leave from Enugu Daily Bubble, a national newspaper in Eastern Nigeria,where I have been working since graduation as Features Editor. I won a one year Fellowship at the South East Florida University Writer’s Workshop. I had to drive up to Burlington, about three hours from my campus when I heard about the killings from a friend. I am not very much of a poet even though two anthologies of African writing have featured six of my poems. I wrote this poem riding on a monster wave of violent passion of unknown origin. I submitted the poem, with little revision, “The Worlds We Make”, to the African Catholic, a kind of monthly bulletin published by the African immigrant community in Burlington. Even though the poem was published with my name and address, I do not know how it got to Okere or how he found the facility to write back to me from prison. I did not even know he had recovered from the self-inflicted bullet wound reported in the newspaper. His letter came with some real surprise. I had thought the name was a coincidence. I wrote the poem without any idea that he was my old room mate from under-graduate school ! The confluence of actors and the merging of stage is becoming too much for me.
Until I got his reply, I was not part of the drama. Neither was he as somebody I knew. Almost everybody in our generation knew Dr. Maduora. He graduated while we were freshmen. And he did not just graduate. He graduated with First Class Honors and was the recipient of the National Union of Journalists coveted prize for the best Journalism graduate that year. He was a role model to so may of us whether or not you were in his discipline or associated areas. From then on, he was always in the news. He did graduate work in Philosophy and Peace Studies with, I think , the Fulbright-Hayes fellowship. I am not sure. On his return to the alma mater as Professor of Philosophy, he became affiliated to the Africa Center Human Rights Watch shuttling always between the University and Lagos especially during national crises. The day I got the letter from Okere was the same day I got the email directive from the Managing Editor ofEnugu Daily Bubble to do this story for the newspaper. It should educate our people back home about the plight of those who go overseas for further studies, claimed the Managing Editor. Perhaps he was right. There were before this tragedy a thousand and one bizarre stories out there on spousal violence and brutality in the African immigrant community in the United States. I never ever imagined I would find myself in the center of one of them.
As I paced up and down my room wondering about point-of-view and objectivity, my phone rang. I looked at it with some hesitation and inexplicable trepidation. I picked it up. It was the friend out in Waycross near Burlington, who suggested a hotel to me because of its location near the tenement called The Loft, and a host of apartments teeming with African presence in Burlington. While we chatted about this whole thing, I told him that for me to write objectively about this story I needed access to Okere to know how he really feels. His children…Dr. Maduora’s family back home and all sorts of questions about life, beyond what he wrote to me, other feelings…I would love to see him especially since we have never seen each other since graduation. How did my supercilious smile come across like a shroud on a dead clown’s face? That was a tough one…something incongruous here with anger and the morbid probably getting the better part of him. I would like to have all kinds of trivia in that letter and indeed from that troubled mind in the penitentiary explained…
How are you and your sleuthing?
I am trying.
Have you been able to find out how to gain access to the prison to see Okere?
Well. You don’t have to worry any more.
Why not. Do you have a solution?
Well…We just heard that Okere is dead.
He hanged himself in his prison cell last night! SLQ
“Deep Night Winds” was first published in Sentinel Literary Quarterly in Vol.4. No.1., October 2010
CHIMALUM NWANKWO is a Professor of English at North Carolina A&T State University, Greensboro. His books include the poetry collections: Feet of the Limping Dancers (1987),Toward the Aerial Zone (1988), Voices from the Deep Water (1997), and The Womb in the Heart (2002). He has also published a critical study; Toward the Kingdom of Woman and Man: The Works of Ngugi wa Thiongo (1992) and The Trumpet Parable – a play (1988). A two-time winner (1988 and 2002) of the Association of Nigerian Authors Poetry Prize, Professor Nwankwo was awarded the senior Fullbright Fellowship for scholarly research and teaching in Nigeria.