Burning Low

Mhembeuter Jeremiah Orhemba

“The water” crawls down the length of your arm, and as always, you reach to sweep it off, only to see nothing.

“But it feels wet and cold running down my skin,” so you tell Iorfa, your great grandson, “only I cannot stop it.”

Iorfa smiles. It’s all he does whenever you tell him things, whenever you indulge him with tales and the mundane, such you believe he now knows like the back of his palm. If it irritates him, he doesn’t show it. Everything hides behind his reserved mask, his smiles.

Today, you can feel your blood pulsating. But you don’t tell him this. His mum, your granddaughter Ngodoo, had said you should stop complaining, that did you not know how blessed it must be to still have sharp eyes at this age? That’s why you hardly tell her of aches that come and go in your stomach, and because when you do, she suggests an operation, and for some reason, it sends a sharp pain up your spine.

“No,” you reply her, voice croaked. Good-naturedly though, she places a hand on you and tells you to stop complaining.

You hate the days whenever Iorfa has to go to work, to the learning center where he teaches some kids during the holiday period. Such days wear on a disarming, lethargic quality. Bereft of his audience, life feels more terrible than it already is. Even if it feels like the world sits on your shoulders, airing your mind lifts your soul in a special way, makes you feel whole and alive, even for that fleeting moment; it helps you forget how much your joints feel like jelly, how life has lost his vibrancy, how lonely it feels amongst the young. Audience is something you barely get, not when you were in the village till the Fulani crisis necessitated migration to the family house in town, not in the family house.

It was horror in the family house, being the boring old woman no one wanted to associate with, waiting on when it was desired to be served food, and being shut up anytime you complained that the kids were being beaten too much.

“Is that how the world used to be?” so you usually ask your great grandson, grateful you are now in his house. You don’t expect him to know anything about your time, but anger prods you. The present generation is as silly as silly can be, disrespectful, and reckless, oh, reckless. It is at such times that you place your wrinkled hand over Iorfa and tell him not to join the cultists, that it is absolute stupidity maiming people only to be maimed back. You tell him to marry immediately after school, that children ensure the continuity of a lineage, and that there’s nothing as ‘I am too young for a wife’ when one is done with school.

Iorfa will nod. It irks at times, his reticence, leaving you to wonder if someone cut his tongue.

“Are you hungry?” he asks.

You hesitate a while, and ask “What’s available. Is it beans?”

“Yes. Mum left some for you in the flask.”

“Is there garri? Give me garri. And please, put in a lot of sugar.”

The first time you had emphasized about much sugar being poured in your drink, Iorfa had shaken his head, grinning. His mum had given you a bewildered look.

“Don’t you know you are not supposed to take too much sugar?” she had asked.

You scrunched your lips at her. And then she slid into her annoying praise songs: “Who is as beautiful as Sabo’s beloved bride? Sabo’s bright morning star!”

Even if it tweaked something in your chest, you couldn’t help but laugh. But you don’t laugh on the mornings she barges into your room to lead you in vibrant worship, in prayer. You close your eyes, but with pursed lips, bidding time away quickly.

Iorfa appears with a plate of garri. He stirs it gradually.

“Give it to me,” you say. “I have bones, too, you know.”

He smiles. “Is it sweet enough?”

“Let me taste it.”

You bring a spoonful to your mouth. The garri melts and cools in your mouth.

“Perfect,” you tell your great grandson.

He walks indoors, and as you hear the door close, you know it is going to be long before he comes outside again.

Scrawny, little pup, Dog, is sprawled at your feet. You call her Dog. ‘Snow’ draws on your tongue. So you call the bitch by her generic name: Dog.

The wetness has started to crawl down your arms again. You pick your stool and head into the sun. In its heat, the sun is soothing and warm, the only bliss in the ugly embrace of silence and boredom. You lift up your hand and pull at the sagging skin beneath your arm. It’s you alone, except Dog ambles up to you and settles by your side.

____________

It was Joshua, loquacious Joshua, who asked you why you are not married. Your eyebrows had furrowed in and loosened in amusement. It reminded you of your father, the word marriage, because anytime you heard it, it brought back that memory: father stroking your cheeks, cajoling you to accept that there is something between you and Orpinga, that your eyes lit up whenever Orpinga came around.

You scoffed: “Which girl on earth will have anything to do with that flat nose?”

“Flat nose, eh? Only you are growing older and a woman’s times passes away quickly. Stop whatever games you two are playing and tie the knot. I can’t wait to hold my grandchildren. “

And then your mother’s voice boomed from the kitchen, “Sedoo, will you come here!”

Even if nostalgia hits you hard on this, you laugh replying Joshua.

“I used to be married. My husband is dead,” you reply. On the days you repeat this episode to Iorfa, you still laugh as if it were a fresh joke.

One evening, Iorfa told his mother—in coded English—about how you repeat tales over and over, but you pretended as if you did not understand. Living amongst English speaking townspeople had acquainted you with some words. A ruthless rage boiled in your chest at Iorfa and for the next two days, you replied him in monosyllables, spoke to him in quick, curt sentences.

“It is old age,” his mum had said and Joshua laughed his piping laughter.

“I want to grow old like you, grandma,” Joshua said. Iorfa interpreted it for you in Tiv.

Now you wonder if old age is the reason you crave death like never before. You bring a hand to your face and wipe your face.

To your left, Iorfa is hanging clothes on the line, shouting “stop” to Joshua who naughtily says “no” and continues squeezing the wet wrapper of water.

“You can’t do it!” Iorfa thunders.

“I want to help.”

“No! I’ll slap you.”

“No!”

“Now give that to me.”

Joshua breaks into tears, stomping his feet. You love him because he is loud and blunt, but when it comes to this side of him, you’ll pick a stick and whip his buttocks. But you are weak and old. You call him to come. He shouts at you and air becomes fire under your nostrils.

“Help me with water in this cup,” you tell Iorfa.

At night, after Ngodoo has done her traditional night prayers with you, you mumble your words to the Creator, “Today, Lord. Today, Lord.”

In your dream, Iorfa is your uncle who brings home a man for marriage. Your grandparents are disappointed. In two days, his lover is drowned at “The River of Men” and that evening, Iorfa’s body is found hanging dead from a branch that hovers over the river.

You wake with a gasp. It is like a spear has been thrust through your back to your chest. You realize how much Iorfa is to you, how all your descendants mean to you, even the ill-behaved ones.

The next morning, you grab Iorfa’s hand tight, afraid that letting go would be losing him forever.

____________

It is every mother’s desire to see her children faring well. It slays your heart looking down on a grunting Ngodoo, body buried and shuddering under a patterned wrapper, whimpering. The ailment has brought her down for days. Despite the herbs and medications, it has only deteriorated.

You lift yourself from the plastic chair, hold your wrapper from falling off, and make feeble steps towards Ngodoo. Air blows through your lips as you lower at her feet. You try all not to wince, but as you wriggle into a comfortable posture, it escapes you. Lips pursed, you brace in patience for the ache in your waist to pass.

“Ngodoo dear, I pray every day. It distresses my heart, seeing you in bad health. How are you feeling now?”

“Mama, please,” Ngodoo snaps impatiently, “how many times do I need to tell you? My head throbs and I’m cold, that’s all. I’m on the way to recovery.”

Her dismissal, brash and cutting, draws blood from your heart. Months back, Terfa’s wife had cut you short that you were a disturbing old woman full of unending, silly questions. Tears had come to your eyes that day. It does so now, too. You bid yourself up—bent— and struggle your way out of her room. Yet, in bed at night, you will still disturb God. You will call all the names of your descendants and you will commit them to God. And you wouldn’t forget the most important one, “Tonight, Lord. Take me tonight.”

As you close your eyes to sleep, Joshua’s childish voice will startle you. “Grandma! Why were you beating me in my dream?”

Joshua never ceases to amuse you.

____________

Iorfa repeatedly calls you.

“Grandmother?”

“Grandmother?”

“Grandmother?”

He moves closer, taps you frantically. You don’t react. Your eyes are fixed on the form of the early morning sun.

Iorfa taps you again, twice. Joshua screams into your face. “Grand…. ma?”

The intensity of his scream pulls you back to reality. Like pins, it pricks the walls of your head. Consciousness dawns on you. Iorfa stares worryingly into your face.

“Are you alright?”

Joshua chips in. “Iorfa has been calling you and you’ve been sitting here like a moron.”

What does he mean by moron, you wonder.

A tired breath escapes you. “I’m sorry, Iorfa. Sometimes I’m just lost in thoughts.”

“You scared me, grandma.”

You sigh. “You remember the candle you lit for me the night of the day I first came here, how it flickered and went off continuously and how relentless you were in lighting it again for me?”

Iorfa blinks his eyes. “I recall.”

“I’m like that candle now, son. I’m burning low. It’s like I carry the world on my shoulders and I’m so tired, so tired.”

A tear falls out of your eye. Iorfa grabs your frail hands. Joshua stands there, eyes darting from you to Iorfa, as if he cannot decipher both of you.

Mhembeuter Jeremiah Orhemba is Nigerian. A 2021 ARTmosterrific artist-in-residence and a finalist for the 2021 Kreative Diadem contest, his works have found home in FictionWrit Magazine, The Shallow Tales Review, Arts Lounge, Eboquills and The Muse Journal. An Editor at FictionWrit Magazine, he wishes to attain the peaceful serenity of water, and enjoys watching TK and Carlos kiss.