Wreaths for Roses
By Isaac Attah Ogezi (Nigeria)
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The winter cold was chilling to the bone despite the shuttered windows and the heavy blanket the two friends covered themselves with, right up to their necks. They had retired to the bed after dinner at a road-side food-seller’s at Super Cinema. A candle, stuck to an upturned iron plate, gave a perfunctory half-dark brilliance to the room, throwing grotesque shadows of a standing-hanger, a bookcase and other items on the walls.
‘Guess who I met in Lagos last week at the Writers’ Conference!’ interjected Ejah, after a brief pause in their discussion that hardly veered away from literature anytime he and his friend Onoja met.
‘Professor Ezeigbo Akachi’, Onoja hazarded a guess.
‘I meant somebody else who is not from University of Lagos’, said Ejah, with a twinge of disappointment. ‘Unilag is her jurisdiction as you lawyers will always say and so you should expect me to meet her there.’
‘No. Let me save you the pain. It was Professor Bodefisan!’
‘Yes. The father of all surprises was that he stood me a drink at the Senior Staff Club of the university after the afternoon plenary session’, continued Ejah.
‘You don’t mean after all that you wrote about his plays? Asked a perplexed Onoja.
‘Why not? True writers don’t take vituperative criticisms of their works personally. If they do, how can they continue to write?’
Onoja could hardly bring himself to accept this new-found camaraderie between the writer and his critics. Not long ago, his friend Ejah had been the talk of the literary community when he decided to wage an open war with the big names in the establishment with his rather polemical essay entitled: ‘How They Killed Our Drama’, where he heaped all the blame of the comatose state of dramatic theatres in Africa on those he referred to as academic playwrights and submitted that until this arena of the once-thriving arts was removed from the ivory towers, no thanks to the stale, academic plays that estranged audiences, and it would finally die. His treatise drew its references largely from what he called ‘the Marxist plays of Bodefisan, bereft as usual, of verisimilitude that drama is noted for … Drama belongs to the people as it is the case in the US, where it thrives more on the Broadway than all the university theatres put together.’ This essay had unarguably attracted more foes than friends for Ejah, and many of his admirers had expressed the fear that, if care was not taken, it might jeopardize his promotion to the chair of professorship as the scholars who would assess his papers belonged to the generation of writers that he had taken a swipe on with such sadistic relish.
‘Well, let’s hope that this criticism will make him improve in his next plays instead of these drab Marxist pamphlets that he calls drama.’
‘That’s left for him. I’ve told him and his fellow pseudo-playwrights what is wrong with their craft. The rest is their headache,’ said Ejah, pulling the blanket to himself. There was a pause as each of them was wrapped in his thoughts.
‘You’ve not said anything about what I told you about Ori’, Onoja said, breaking the silence.
‘What will you have me say? That you should leave her?’ he asked rhetorically. ‘Look, Onoja, I’m afraid to say this but I see you as a tragic hero who is bent on scripting his own tragedy. In life, the choices we make either make or mar us. If we’re not careful, in our craving for true love, we may end up digging our graves. That’s what I see about your relationship with that girl. She’ll disappoint you in the future, which your heart cannot take. This will cause you so much depression that you may take your life. I haven’t told you the story of Ede, have I?’ he asked.
‘This story is not like somebody told me. I witnessed it myself when I was growing up as a child in Agatu.’
‘Ede was a medical doctor in his early forties when he decided to take a wife. At first, we had all thought that he had given up on marriage. Not that he never had young ladies and fellow professionals of the opposite sex visiting him every now and then; the problem was that we never noticed any serious commitment to any of them. They were just casual friends, with no strings attached. Would Ede ever get married? This was the question on everyone’s lips. He was an embodiment of eligibility for bachelors in our little town of Agatu. Not stupendously rich like Aliko Dangote, Ede’s station was beyond the level of peasantry especially in those days where you could count off the number of medical doctors in big towns on your fingers. The four-bedroom bungalow he lived in was directly in front of our ancient, weather-beaten ogre of a house, separated by an untarred street. The Volkswagen he cruised in as at that time was a symbol of the nouveaux rich.
‘You couldn’t imagine our surprise and joy when news filtered through the crevices of his fenced house that Ede was preparing to get married. The magic had happened when he went to his village for the Christmas festivity and fell in love with the only child of a widow. Even as little children, we couldn’t fail to see what love could do in a man’s life. Suddenly, it brought life to Ede’s otherwise dull existence. His slouching movements were replaced with sprightly steps not to mention the sharp, lively glow that came into his eyes. He became more conscious of how he now looked, changed all the over-sized clothes in his wardrobe, and, in fact, cultivated the habit of travelling to the capital fortnightly just for a smart hair-cut in an expensive barbing salon. Little children like me who never existed for him before, had now shed off our invisibility and became flesh-and-blood creatures. He never failed to give caressing pats on our heads any time he saw us playing. As for nursing mother patients who came to his private clinic for treatment, he’d insist he carry the babies in his arms in anticipation of his own.
‘The D-day eventually arrived and we all trooped to the doctor’s house to see his new wife. He had done both the traditional and church rites at his village where most of our parents could not afford to attend. The sitting room was filled with an assortment of presents such that you had to navigate your legs gingerly lest you stumbled over them and fell down. A matronly woman in her middle age, whom we got to know later as his mother-in-law, welcomed us. Some young maidens who were said to be close friends to the bride feted us while we waited for the couple.
‘Our parents discussed desultorily with the mother-in-law and, when we were about to leave, she whispered to one of the maidens who disappeared through one of the curtained doors that led to inner rooms. Presently, Ede emerged hand-in-hand with one of his kid-sisters. She was a young girl in her late teens, with twin moulds of breasts still budding on her chest. Tall, ebony-skinned, and with pointed nose, her beauty and tender youth contrasted sharply with Ede’s hard features. In fact, it was like placing the colour white side by side with black.
‘”On behalf of my beautiful wife here and me, we say thank you very much …’” We couldn’t hear the rest of the introductions owing to our stupefaction. This little girl hardly out of her mother’s napkins - Ede’s wife? Why did he marry her in the first place? In the name of love or was he looking for somebody he would babysit?
‘From that day, the lives of the Edes came under our restless searchlights. We had our ears to the ground to pick the minutest details in this apparently odd union. And it was not long before we began to hear stories in addition to what we could see for ourselves.
‘The first thing we noticed was the gradual disintegration of Ede, day in, day outm as if he had come under an attack of a nameless, cancerous illness. It was obvious that he was pining away without any visible sign of illness. The early days of euphoria, when his wife and her mother came to live with him, had now given way to deep melancholy. He was no longer seen everywhere his wife, Ene, Instead he went as it used to be, which earned him the derogatory nickname ‘woman wrapper.’ This inexplicable change in Ede was infectious in other areas, for no sooner had this unnamable illness come upon him than it began to take its toll on his private medical practice. Many patients whom he had operated upon never survived it in his private clinic. From the scraps of rumours we could gather, piecing them together, we would arrive at the consensus of opinion that he was not happy in the marriage.’
‘I need a drink of water’, said Ejah suddenly, sloughing off the blanket, and got to his feet. He used his cell phone light to guide his way. Onoja lay still as his mind ruminated over the Ede story. He could hear from the bedroom the movements of his friend in the sitting room, the sound of a drink being poured and after a while, the clink of glasses. A brief silence, tailed by sound of approaching footsteps. Ejah entered, yawning.
‘Ah, I don’t know it can be really cold here around this time of year.’
‘Everybody is saying the same thing. It wasn’t like this last year. This year’s is different. Perhaps, there is some truth in this thing they’re saying about global warming’, he opined.
‘Bullshit!’ sneered Ejah. ‘Bullshit! I’m surprised at you Onoja that you can allow yourself to be sold that Western bullshit as a writer. Doesn’t your Bible say that “while the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease?” Or are you now telling me that you don’t believe the Bible any more?’
‘The Bible is never at variance with the effect of global warming, mind you. The seasons of the year will still be the same only that winter may come before its time as we’re experiencing now’, Onoja replied, defensively.
‘Well, that’s their headache’, said Ejah as he returned to the bed, drawing the blanket over himself. A brief pause.
‘So what happened next?’ asked Onoja anxiously.
‘Where did I stop?’
‘After the marriage to the young Ori and how Ede was unhappy in the marriage.’
‘Good’, said Ejah and paused as if to recall something in retrospect. ‘One day, we children witnessed the festering decay in the marriage of the Edes. Our curiosity had gotten the better of us such that we devised a means to feed ourselves with the goings-on in the Edes’ residence. We had made a crack in the backyard fence of the house, big enough for a goat’s head to pass through, and assumed the role of peeing Toms. It was in one of the evenings of our watch that we were rewarded. Ori, draped in a shawl, was seated under a tree-shed in the backyard, sieving some whitish, watery substance into a big container, a picture of calmness, when we heard loud angry voices of a man and a woman engaged in a heated argument from the house, obviously Ede’s and his mother-in-law’s. Presently, it seemed the argument had degenerated into a fist-fight or something close to that when the door flung open and Ede, wearing an ugly mask of anger, made fiercely for Ori, who still remained calm and expressionless. Hot on his heels, came the mother-in-law, a mother-hen after a hawk, in a bid to protect her daughter from Ede.
‘I’ll teach her a lesson not to ever do that to me again’, he fumed.
‘Don’t dare lift a finger against my daughter, Ede. After all, I warned you from the beginning of the relationship that she never loved you. But you insisted!’, she said accusingly. That appeared to have a great effect on Ede, as he stopped stock-still in his tracks, undecided. He turned back to the house, defeated, leaving mother and daughter to console one another. The mother went and cuddled her daughter, drawing her into her arms.
‘But when we came away from our watch that evening, an unasked questioned lingered on in our minds: what was Ede’s wife doing to him that he didn’t want her to ever do to him again? We could decipher even as little children that what was wrong with their marriage was a pure case of unrequited love which could kill a spouse slowly like cancer. Ede had loved this young girl to distraction, that was as crystal-clear as daylight, but he could as well be dead to her. And what was more, the mother-in-law was not helping matters in the relationship by always flinging it at his face that her daughter never loved him. We knew that that family was sitting on a time-bomb, but how it would end, we never could tell. Was Ede’s wife cheating on him?’
‘A week later, the tragedy struck. The entire Agatu town was plunged into a bottomless depth of great mourning. Mothers wept, fathers wept, and, of course, we little children too were not left out of this theatre of tears. Death was not kind to us and had never been known to be kind to anybody. But who could have believed that it would swoop so soon on our doctor? The story had it that he was returning from a neighbouring town when his Volkswagen was involved in a fatal head-on collision with a trailer that claimed his life on the spot. This tragedy opened our eyes to the other side of Ene, Ede’s wife, which we never thought existed. Strong hands had to restrain her from taking her life. The mother too ululated throughout the night.
‘After the requiem mass at the Catholic Diocese of Agatu, his remains were conveyed to his village. More facts were to emerge surrounding his death, unravelled by the car insurance agent when the Ede family made a claim. A wiry old man with sparse twigs of hair on his head, he brought out a sheaf of papers clipped together from his old briefcase, and brandished it before mother and daughter in the sitting room. I was there with one or two children of my age but in the world of adults, children are invisible and inconsequential like eunuchs in royal bedchambers.
‘”I’ve damning reports of how the accident happened that could frustrate your claim’, said the old insurance man. ‘But what do I stand to benefit?’ He paused dramatically. ‘It was a single-lane road. Dr. Ede was driving on one side of the road while the trailer carrying lead was coming on the opposite direction. What could have swerved his car so suddenly to the other side? I have the evidence of the driver of the trailer which he made in his statement to the police, how he nearly plummeted into a ditch to avoid a head-on collision with your husband’s car bent on hitting his trailer. Our field detectives who visited the scene and checked the battered car are ready to swear on their fathers’ graves that nothing was wrong mechanically with your husband’s car. But what do I stand to gain by robbing the food from a young widow’s mouth? Not on my life. In any case, I could be made to shut my mouth if you and your mother are ready to co-operate’, he concluded rather greedily. The rest was in hushed voices, almost in a pantomime. The insurance man quickly brought out a form and mother and daughter signed, to the nodding approval of the wiry old man. He put it back in the briefcase lest they changed their minds, shut it closed, and was gone in a moment, albeit with a brisk gaiety that must have deserted him several years ago.
‘The lawyer’s arrival some hours later sealed the entire deal. Ede, in his testamentary deposition, had willed all his earthly assets to his young wife including the clinic and the house. In death, he had left her richer. The mother couldn’t restrain herself. Turning to her daughter, she said: ‘Even in the grave, he still loves you.’
‘Yes. May his gentle soul rest in perfect peace with the Lord’, prayed Ene, her eyes betraying some traces of tears.’
There was a funereal silence after Ejah had ended his narration.
‘Where is Ene now?’ asked Onoja in an emotion-laden voice.
‘How would I know? This thing happened several years ago’, replied his friend. ‘She must have soldiered on with her life, married a man of her love’, he added.
‘I see’, was all that Onoja could bring himself to say, overcome by sadness.
‘I’ve always said it that only fools fall in love’, he smirked, and then suddenly, ‘I don’t like to sleep with lights on. Do you mind if I blow off the candlelight?’
‘It’s okay by me.’
Ejah got up to his feet and put off the candlelight, plunging the room into a total, eerie darkness.