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Fear is a Chemical

I remember when I died and rose again that harmattan morning, when you knew me like the tongue knows the refreshing tastelessness of water. We sat on the bank of River Niger, the corner with a view of the bridge, smoking cigarettes, our backs to the fish market where the wind floated with the drone of human voices, the smell of sweat, the metallic tang of clotted fish blood, and chopped seaweed. Fishermen heaved nets of crustaceans from sea to land, their backs sprinkled with sand, like lights in a foreign city. An abandoned canoe destroyed by tide lay overturned by the pathway that led to the waters, wood a base for the mushrooms and mould that grew on it. You sat down first, your flower-patterned skirt an irony against the decaying wood. Your blouse was lacy and beige. Your skin: brown, the afterglow of burnt sugar, like dates I had once handpicked in Kano. The pomade of your hair filled my nostrils—a scent that hovered between orange and spice. I tried not to look at your face, but it was difficult. 

Love has a way of making you silent. Only the eyes speak; a revelation replays in your brain over and over again as you stare at your beloved, unashamed. Some may say it seemed intimate, but for a man like me who has known violence, it was calmingly voyeuristic. I looked at you with the eyes I had as a young boy living with my family in the crowded one-storey building, where people, mine, yours, and others lived like fire ants on an anthill, clustered and hardworking. I saw you with the irises that dilated with curious wonder as you skipped to my mother’s shop that hot October evening. Your hair was longer then, twisted in threaded plaits that curled in a bun at the nape of your neck. I remember how tall and waifish you looked; your gangly legs and knobs for knees walking towards me, your face in a thoughtful frown. You dragged your feet then, raising mini clouds of dust on the tarred street, your feet too small for the blue bathroom slippers you wore. You had on a blue pinafore, your school uniform. You smelled like lemons and something else utterly delicious. I thought of a word and decided on heaven. Only the skies that surrounded the Lord would smell like you. 

Now as we sat here, we barely talked. But what was there to talk about when words were a knife that carved our emotions? I wish I could live less in my mind, but looking at you has brought back memories, gushing like blood from a severed artery. I am doing it again, aren’t I. Thinking of tragedy when I should revel in bliss. This is what terror has done to me. An inner man is tied up in me, countless beads of sweat on his strained back, curls of chains circled on his hands and ankles, tinged with rust. His eyes are bloodshot, raw-rimmed. His teeth rotten. Downward, he may be castrated or he may be whole, because on this side of the planet, a man’s fear is the chainsaw that chops off his manhood. On this side of the planet fear is a chemical, liquid, fast spreading, and it has eaten my flesh clean to the bone.

‘09

I remember the first time I went to the battlefield. I could smell everything. From the antiseptic wash we sprinkled on our faces before wearing our helmets, to the warmth and scent of my freshly-ironed khakis. The overwhelming choke of burning houses to the sweet smell of hydrangeas from a nearby garden beside a house, abandoned by the occupants who had fled earlier. Back and forth it went, tick-tock, the sound of my watch.  Later, the doctor would say that was the day my brain began to deteriorate, because it switched from the pleasant to the unpleasant in fast, pacing seconds. My body was preparing itself for the onslaught that was coming but my mind longed for softness and something humane: you. I recalled you twice while in that hole; surrounded by comrades in green combat, noses nestled against gun heads, eyes narrowed through iron sights, index fingers on triggers. The dirt smelled of blood and death and faecal matter, but I thought about you because when a soldier points a gun in the darkness at shadows he cannot fathom, he thinks of the people he loves and if he will ever see them again. That dusk, I did not think of my parents in their village home of Idemili, my father probably awake and lighting a paraffin lamp, clad in his usual white singlet and an Akwete wrapper tied around his waist. My mother, definitely awake, praying the Creed and seven Hail Marys as she clutched her Rosary, her slick scarf tied on her head, tight enough to cut off circulation. My sister Nwando beside her, crying perhaps, her eyes weary with both tears and drowsiness. I did not think of my family praying for me. I thought about you, because you had shown me how beautiful living had been, and as incredulous as it seemed, I dreaded what dying would be like in a few hours.

‘03

You once said you hardly recognize faces, but somehow you recognized mine that rainy Wednesday evening at a cybercafé in the University of Lagos. The third day in July, my birthday, and after a melancholic afternoon of chain-smoking viciously in my hostel I decided to check emails from family and friends who may still care. My face glowed from the illumination of the greasy computer screen when your hand tapped my shoulder, and when I turned and saw you, the rain drummed louder in my ears.

“Excuse me, I’m sorry but…you look like someone I know.”

We joked later that this was the catch-line for every man who wanted to woo a lady, and the fact that you used it on me first clearly showed who was going to be in charge of our relationship. Ha-ha, I’d laugh, then kissed you until your breath inside me.

But in that cafe I shook my head no because if I had met someone like you, I would never forget.

Your face crumbled in that thoughtful frown again, brows creasing, lips curled to the left. Like light switched on in the dark I instantly knew just as you said, “No I am certain I have seen you before…did you by chance grow up in Enugu at No.15…”

“…Mahadum Close,” I finished. “Yes I did. Ifedi. I remember you.”

I remember you.

‘09

When civilians die, people recall memories of them living. When soldiers die, we remember them dying. At his funeral, people see a body dressed in starched uniforms adored with medals, a trumpet blared in accordance to his ascendance to a final victory. But we the comrades-in-arms see the horror of dying, the terror of a face blown halfway apart by bullets, the trauma of witnessing torsos sliced in half by shrapnel, spilling blood and entrails. I saw this that day I remembered you. The day my face smelled like antiseptic, my ironed khakis floated on my skin, my nostrils stung from the smell of excreta. The day I thought of you when I should have thought of my family praying into the night for my life to extend beyond this battle. As I stared at those trees where the enemy front lines were drawn in darkness, Abel lay beside me, his gun aimed, his eyes on the trees. He had just been assigned as my comrade-in-arms that morning, a young pleasant man with a handsome smile. I watched him. Taped to the handle of his AK-47 was the laminated picture of a woman. She was young and dark in complexion, her skin the smoothness of caramelized honey. Nothing like you. The picture was slightly blurred due to the elements and Sellotape sealed over it, so the woman’s face was unrecognizable. But I could make out her eyes were small; slanted lines drawn by a smile of happiness as she grinned into the camera. She wore a floral frock, her belly swollen with pregnancy.

Abel caught me looking. He smiled, his eyes sparkling as he looked at the handle. “My sweet Ife,” he said. “Our baby comes this July. Doctor said it may be a boy. I hope not because I want a girl.” 

He chuckled, his thumb caressed the picture.

I nodded, then said, “God will not give you what you cannot handle.”

Till date, I do not know why I said this, and I will never know. Because before Abel could reply, the night skies lit up with fire, the air got pierced with the sound of bullets. The enemy was here. Our confusion lived for a nanosecond before survival and adrenaline kicked in. I forgot you, Abel forgot Ife and together we became one man, guns stretched ahead, helmets pulled, the sound of bullets released, men screaming, dying. The world became my oyster, and I shut myself in. The battle was a human flesh, I slashed at its pulse, seeking to cut and end this pain it inflicted on me, taking my privacy, my time with you. I should have been home, searching for you. But with terrorists you do not just fight with guns and technology, you fight with your senses. So when the bomb came whistling through the dark towards us, we took cover at the one place we should not have gone for—the ground and its space.

My beloved, do you know how long it takes for a man to die? Five minutes on a deathbed, two seconds on a battlefield. When Abel fell on me, I knew he was never going to live beyond those two seconds, because his left hand was gone and the other was broken, the bone sticking out like a white foreign object on his bloodied skin. This right hand still clutched his gun, the laminated picture of the pregnant woman in the flowered frock, now stained with tiny splatters of blood like a grisly work of art. His eyes were bulging out of their sockets, red-rimmed and lined with streaks of veins, pupils dilating, staring at me but seeing death instead.

 “Abel, Abel!!” I screamed his name.

He tried to speak but his mouth gurgled up clots of blood. All around us, the world kept burning. Molotov cocktails flew through the air, exploding into bright flames of raging fire. Bullets sizzled through with speed, hitting their targets, trees, houses, men. Screams, guttural and animalistic as both soldiers and rebels fell from mortal wounds. Bodies mangled; twisted, blow apart, dismembered—the horrific smell of burning fleshing and gunpowder. And yet I sat in that hole with Abel, his head cradled against my chest as his body stretched and resisted death. Two seconds went by, and I thought to myself, he may live. But my dearest love, death waits for you to hope so it can snatch it away from you.

The only time his good hand left the gun was at the fourth second. It went upward, bloodied and clumpy with sand, and he gripped the collar of my uniform. “Fff…ffind…”he croaked, teeth red with blood. 

His voice was hollow, straining with gasps.

Then he heaved and collapsed, his head lolling to the right. This time, I knew he was gone. 

The world still burned.

‘06

I stopped believing in God because you left me on a Sunday morning. My love was a a gaping mouth, hungry for your approval, but you had begun to starve me. So I went to God and asked His Priest what oil to rekindle your flames for me. He pointed to my hand and said, “Give her a ring.”

I should have known that religious men betrothed to God are the worst to give advice. After all to them, love is carnal, pleasures of the flesh.

When I returned from church that day and went on my left knee with the ring on my hand, you looked at me with that thoughtful face but with tears brimming fast at the corners of your eyes. “You just had to ruin it, didn’t you?” you whispered, tears soaking your voice.

My heartbeat went from joyous to palpitating dread. “What? You don’t like it?”

“No, I am leaving you, Kenendu,” You gasped something between a laugh and scoff, but I was too blindsided to know what it was. “You should have known. I gave you hints for weeks; this relationship is just not working. You don’t have a job. I have needs. So I found someone else who would do these things for me.”

My hands began to tremble and the ring fell to the floor, rolling under the wooden bed. It seemed like it wanted to escape this, to exit this space that was beginning to close in, sucking out air for my lungs to breathe. Sweat popped up on my temples, my hands clammed up, became cold to touch. I tried to stand but I fell to the floor, my legs heavy like I had just been saved from drowning. You began to reach for me.

“Kenendu, please. Biko…”

“Okay,” I blurted out.

I remember you looked startled. Your arms stopped midway. “Okay?” It was not a question, but it was a question.

I looked up to the ceiling of my room. The old ceiling of the house of Baba Saddiq, my landlord, a Benue man with a wispy, dehydrated beard stained with red henna. I had rented it at a miserly twenty-thousand naira per year, and what I paid for was what I got. An unhealthy environment where people defecated in outhouses or in black plastic bags they flung into the bush. Concrete walls blackened with mould, stained with maps of urine. Cemented floors slimy with algae, broken louvered windows stuffed with newspapers to keep out cold and mosquitoes, and never succeeded to. Rancid smells of the compound’s occupants, from unwashed bodies due to hard work, sex with prostitutes, drugs and outright filthiness. The ceiling was currently being eaten away by a brown stain caused by the acidity of rainwater leaking through the rusting roof. Beside it was a large spread of cobwebs with a spider eating a fly. I watched the spider, its legs kicking rapidly as it consumed its prey.

I said again, “Okay.”

You did not say anything else as you left me forever. I guess there was nothing to say to a man whose heart has stopped beating. But I remember the door closing behind you, a gentle squeak that ended in one sound. I carried it for years; that sound, like a closed prayerbook after a litany. I sang it the next week I walked to the barracks and enrolled to join the Military. I whispered it as I packed up my things and traveled to camp where I punished my body with tasks that crushed its spirits. I swallowed it whole at nights when I sunk my teeth in the flesh of my hand as I remembered you. Squeak, squeak, squeak…

I was dead as much as I stayed alive.

‘09

They made me fly with Abel’s corpse back to the city. They made me sit outside the mortuary where his remains contained in a black body bag lay on a slab of cement in a freezing room. I held the gun with the laminated picture, still marked with his bloodstains. They were brown now, smelled a little, the smell of decay. They had completely covered the pregnant woman’s face, obliterated her identity from human to a stain. I planned to give it to her, to tell her to wash it if she wanted. I wanted to tell her that even in death Abel had asked me to find her, to give her this gun because it was the last thing he had touched. I wanted her to find peace for a pain I had felt a thousand times, the pain of eternal loss.

But when the car arrived, no female was amongst the family. The small group consisted of just his father, some uncles and old men. They wailed in unison when they saw the mutilated body of their young son, and I squeezed my eyes shut. We send the young to wars to die, and cry when they do. What did the world expect; that death has the knowledge of youth when it seeks to swing its sickle? I gripped Abel’s gun tightly and would have shot myself if it was loaded. Unfortunately, it was not.

Bile in my mouth, I stood up. The wailings followed me to the door as I left the room. The gun was heavy in my hand as I walked to the veranda, crouching as I heaved my breakfast into the sand. The sun burned the nape of my neck, sweat dripped from my hair down to my chin. The sound of an approaching car, but I could not look up because I felt sick. The sound of shoes crunching against gravel, getting louder as they came near. Instinct made me look up, and your face floated before my eyes. You were here, you were alive.

You were…pregnant?

“Kenendu?” You say, your shock as gallant as mine.

I placed my chin slowly on the barrel of the gun.

Fear is a chemical…

This morning, when I dressed up in a white shirt and brown corduroy jeans, I knew that the time would come when I would see you again. You would be dressed in a lace blouse and patterned skirt, multi-coloured petals that blossomed on cotton. Your hands would be small, two fingers holding a slim stick of cigarette. Your feet would be in white platform sandals. Your hair would be natural and curly, pushed upward in a pineapple bun atop your head. Your neck would be graced with a necklace of fake ivory petals. Blue weeping willows would dangle from your ears. Your eyelashes wet with tears, your eyes red. Your lips softened as you licked them. You would smell of mango body butter, your perfume like a sweet spice. I knew you would be this way you are right now with me, sitting on the decaying canoe on the bank of River Niger, our backs against the voices of the traders of the fish market. 

I just did not know you would be wearing a wedding ring. Abel’s wedding ring. Abel, your husband who had died in my arms at the forests of Sambisa, fighting against the terrorists called Boko Haram. I did not know you would be Ife—Ifedi—the woman in the laminated picture, wearing a flowered frock, your face hidden behind a splatter of bloodstains.

I know best not to look at you, but I cannot stop. I want to hate you, but my love is so fickle, it swings from adoration to intense irritation in seconds. I hate that you have wrecked me this way.

“Stop staring,” you say quietly.

I obey and look down to my shoes, to Abel’s unloaded gun hidden away in a brown duffel bag beside my feet. I had brought it to give it to you, after the funeral, after the baby.

The riverbed was at peace now, the fishermen were heading home. Seagulls circled the air, calling to each other over a purple-pink sky. Dragonflies buzzed around our knees. Cars drove across the bridge, interrupting the quietness with their honks. I looked at you again, I could not help it.

You were looking back at me, but with tears streaming down your cheeks. Your cigarette had been crushed into the sand, a crumbling curve of tobacco ash. “Did he say anything b—before?” Your voice crumbled.

I nodded. “He told me to find you.”

“And?”

I picked up the bag; it was heavier than I remembered. “I think he wanted me to give you this, his gun. He taped your picture to it. It was the last physical thing he held as he died in my arms.”

You nodded, looking at the bag but making no move to touch it. My breath felt hot as I placed it back at my feet.

“I’m sorry Ifedi.” I say.

You sniffle into a handkerchief, nodding. “I am sorry, too.” You say, looking at me and saying what I wanted you to say but did not want to hear.  Your eyes were bloodshot now, swollen from crying. I wanted to hold your hand, but I grabbed a pebble instead and circled my fingers against it.

Storm quietens when rage is gone. For now, I felt nothing but love for you; love indescribable, a way to shed my weight like a man eclipsed with disease. But now the sun smiled at us, the skies hummed, the river danced to shore, water caressing pebbles, soaking our feet. The elements washed away our sins. And as it cleansed my spirits, it healed me again. I have done all I was required to do for you, for Abel. My mission was done. And as I stood up and you looked up to me, I was certain once again, that I was free.

“I will always love you,” I say. Then I turn my back away from you, from Abel’s unloaded gun and begin to walk to where my life waited for me. 

“Wait.” I heard you say. 

But this time, I did not stop.

Amara Okolo

Amara Okolo is the author of Black Sparkle Romance, Son of Man and Daughters of Salt. She is an Honorary Fellow of the International Writing Programme (IWP 2018) from the University of Iowa, and City of Asylum Residency, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. Her writing has appeared on Catapult, Panorama Journal of Intelligent Travel, Commonwealth Writers, Hunger Mountain Magazine, and WeTransfer. Reference to her work have been made on The Guardian, Aljazeera, Radio France International. She is the 2019 Emerging Writer Scholar at the MFA programme in Writing and Publishing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

She currently lives in Vermont, where she is working on her first and second novels.