Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2017  Vol. 16 No. 1
 print preview

At a Stranger's Funeral

“Maybe you should put on that green dress. You know the one I mean. With the long sleeves?”

“With the low neckline? But isn’t that too much?”

“My dear, this day is already miserable enough without drab clothes. Like I always say, life is too sh­—”

“Ma, me nya  . . . ”

The polyester scratches your skin raw in the places where the dress clings closest, but the neon color stands out against your darkness, so you decide it’s not so bad if that’s what it takes to look good. You kiss your mother goodbye, and her small, veined hand squeezes your upper arm so gently that it almost feels like it’s not really there. It’s not really there.

It feels like months since you last ate, and your strength is draining steadily and painfully, your blood inching its way through veins and arteries instead of rushing forcefully between your extremities. It is more likely that your light-headedness is a result of substituting an actual breakfast with a glass of lukewarm water gulped down on your way out of the house. It would never do to be late. You guide your car through the potholes and ditches on the dust road leading away from your house, a legacy of the ravaging of last year’s rainy season and politicians’ fanciful plans to “revamp and renew,” which will not be realized until such time that residents are called upon to be voters. You wait to join the main road, hot air laced with the insults of frustrated drivers flooding through your open window and past your ears.

“Ah! Girl wei paa! Are you foolish? My friend, move from the way if you won’t go fast. Move so we can go!”

Obaa fa driver!”

Radio static.

“Gooooood morning, Accra! It’s 8:15 a.m. and Kwamz is here to get you through that rush hour traffic. Don’t touch that—”

Radio static.

You can feel the bite of the gravel through the soles of your cheap flats as you walk across the car park toward the church. You notice that the white walls of the building have been tinted orange from years of red dust clinging to old whitewash, the omnipresent dust that settles on every hard surface it can find, refusing to be lifted even after a continuous beating by rain and wind and the ends of roller brushes dipped in purifying acrylic. You taste the grit embedded between your teeth and wonder why no one warned you that in grieving, you would find your senses extremely attuned to everything around you. You are moving through the world so rapidly that everything appears paralyzed in time, for you to be able to run your curious fingers across it. Be careful that you do not cut yourself.

The back of the pew is the only thing holding up your spine, and so you bear the discomfort in silence. The sounds of mourning hover around your head like the thicket of hair you chopped off that day you decided you were looking for a reawakening. How does it feel to attend a stranger’s funeral? It feels like someone very close to you died and everyone forgot to tell you, so that when you got home and saw the slippers still perched at the threshold of the door and Our Daily Bread folded on the bedside table you didn’t suspect anything. The deceptive warmth of the mug of coffee in the kitchen and the indent in the cushion on the left side of the sofa led you to believe that this did not happen.

Was it your mother? Possibly. It may also have been your aunt who hid you from the neighborhood bullies in the folds of her wrapper so often that even when you grew up, the smell of fresh bread and Keys soap still brought a sense of calm over you. In any case, you were vaguely aware that you had just suffered a great loss, because that day an unusual quiet seemed to be hanging from the louver blades inside the house, and even the rowdy chickens and the baby who always seemed to have a different grievance to scream about were still. There was a reason why your father’s usual greeting of “Vinye, efͻ a?” cracked in the middle and fell to the floor like chunks of plaster from the ceiling of an old building. The yawning hole at the bottom of your stomach should have alerted you that his casual shrug in response to your frantic “Is something wrong?” was a weak attempt at concealing what you already knew. Your mother and her sister went to Makola to buy some fabric. It was payday and they had money to spare. They parked their car on High Street to avoid traffic. They waited to cross the street next to the lady selling women’s underwear and plastic containers. A truck loaded with goods far past its capacity turned the corner widely, balancing on two wheels, and then not balancing at all. They had just been looking for some fabric to sew new outfits. You already knew that they did not make it back.

A persistent ache has started in your neck. It’s your body’s way of protesting the affected haughtiness in the high carriage of your neck. What do you have to look down on? From the height of your emotional detachment you look around the church, watching the crowd dressed in black and bristling collectively like a swarm of ants attacking an abandoned mango.

“What a shame. So much ahead—”

“Hmmmm. They should be serving some better food after this, oh! See how we are waiting!”

Painful sob.

“Aowww! How could you leave us like this?”

“I hear she did it to herself, ooh. She couldn’t take it after her mother and aunty . . . Big problems for one small person!”

Painful sob.

Someone taps you on the shoulder, kissing their teeth and mumbling impatiently to their neighbor, just loud enough for you to hear how much of a nuisance you are being.

“Ah! Why is she wasting time? My friend, get up! It’s time to file past, move and let’s go!”

You join the line of attendees, hired mourners wailing to a disinterested sky that has seen all it could possibly see since the birth of time: young people shivering with the fear of this-could-be-you, old people clucking with the knowledge of this-is-going-to-be-all-of-us. The line snakes through the aisles of the church and makes its way to the front, heaving with the voyeuristic desire to get a final glimpse of the life it indirectly helped to take, through neglect and dismissal.

“Don’t mind her, she just wants attention!”

“Mtchew. After all, what kraaa? Is she the only one who has lost someone before?”

Eventually you reach the altar, with an incongruous glint on the candle, the communion goblet, and even on the surface of the wine, such disrespectful brilliance considering this untimely loss of a young life. You wonder when your thoughts started sounding like an obituary writer’s first draft. You look down into the coffin, and somewhere between the pristine layers of white lace, you see a face and a body that much resembles your own. Thick, black curls arranged on the pillow, same delicate eyes and nostrils carved into a dark face, the reason your mother always teased, “Ah, are you sure you can smell properly? See your small nose!” You examine the details: same scar to the left of your upper lip, same two piercings on both earlobes. You discover you are a guest at your own funeral; you are reveling in the final celebration of a life that you found you could no longer sustain without your mother and your aunt pushing you from behind. Your mother was right, that bright green looks good against your skin. This is most definitely you, wasn’t it? Except it’s you in the same distorted way your smudged reflection glares back from a mirror in a steam-filled bathroom. An eerie imitation with no soul shining from your eyes. In any case, your eyes are closed. You must be feeling a little tired after all that you have seen.

You walk past your father on the way back to your seat. He is surprisingly calm considering the circumstances. But when you look closely, you see that all the tears he has cried have etched their way into the clan markings that already adorn his cheekbones; they have formed new tracks along which you can trace his suffering. You think about stopping and wiping his face with the edge of your sleeve, like you did the last time you were here. The difference is that the last time, you were sitting side by side and it was two sisters lying on display for the congregation to look over and bid their last farewell. You thought about stopping, you really did, but ultimately decided that it might be a little disconcerting to rise from the dead to comfort someone for having lost you. So you walk past, heading in the general direction of your pew, but your step stutters and comes to a halt when you are halfway there. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to return to your place at the altar? Would you draw too much attention if you climbed in and lay down next to yourself? You cannot make up your mind, and you are now being shoved to take your seat because it is time for the tributes to be read.

“We will begin with the tribute from the father.”

Your father makes his way to the pulpit, the droop in his shoulders matching the one in the lower end of his face. You hold yourself in your seat, tensing your body so much that the imprint of the edge of your seat on your thighs is still visible right now if you look closely enough. You are expecting the usual stream of praise interspersed with painful intakes of breath, laced with guilt and the regret of hindsight. ­­

“My daughter. How do I even begin­—”

All you are able to hear is a hollow drone, like the white noise that buzzes in your ears when the TV signal is cut off in a heavy storm. You slap your hands on either side of your head, but the unpleasant hum seeps between your fingers. Your eardrums vibrate with it. It is oppressive. It is as though you are lying on the ground surrounded by strangers whispering anxiously. Maybe you have been hurt in an accident, and the sound you are hearing is the chorus of sirens, car horns, and concerned bystanders, because in Accra the people on the street are never passive witnesses but eager participants.

Ewurade! Poor girl!”

“She looks so young.”

“Poor girl? The whole family!”

“What is the fire service even doing? Where is the emergency? Not one ambulance poh!”

This is what it feels like to attend a stranger’s funeral. It’s something like waking up in a hospital bed and reaching to scratch an itch on your leg only to snag your nails on a threadbare bedsheet. It could just be that you shifted in your sleep and your leg is now curled up underneath its twin and not stretching straight ahead of you where you last saw it. When did you last see it?

It might have been when you slipped your slim feet into the sensible shoes (your mother’s words, not yours) you bought for work which squeaked their leathery newness and pinched your toes. You needed these sturdy shoes to walk right into your future filled with pay rises and business trips. You are sure your leg was still intact when you shuffled into your boss’s office, reluctance lingering in every step you took. It was even there when you stamped your foot in futile defiance:

“This ends now! I don’t care what the consequences will be! I’m reporting—”

Clammy hand sliding down your right thigh.

“Is that really what’s best for both of us? It wasn’t harassment when I approved your promotion . . . ”

Clammy hand sliding down your right thigh.

You are certain you walked out of the office building with both legs intact. Unlike your pride, which you now carried with you in your leather briefcase, your right leg was definitely attached to your body where it should have been. You are convinced this is true because you can still feel the part of your thigh he touched; it stings as if you have scratched an ant bite there, as if a colony of ants has burrowed into your flesh and is currently setting up base between your veins. Your right leg was still there when you waited to cross the road, and you gritted your teeth, clenched your fists and tucked them in your pockets to keep from ripping at the burning skin on your thigh. You remember stepping on the pelican crossing, right, then left. You made it as far as the car park and even managed to find your car. You took your leg home with you; you would soak it in salt water and rub it with shea butter.

Since you have felt the confusion of reaching for something that is supposedly permanent, such as your leg, only to clutch at emptiness, you understand what it’s like to attend a stranger’s funeral. You will wonder how it is that you came to be there, especially when you cannot quite recognize the face of the person being mourned. Your search for clarity and understanding, much like the fruitlessness of reaching for your phantom leg, will end in further confusion and ultimately, devastation.

It could also be that you have lost everything in a fire, the same kind of blaze that occurred when electricity struck oil and your mother and aunt did not make it back from town. What if you actually lost them that day? The day you finally returned after the longest of car rides, the infected area of your thigh still throbbing as though it had acquired a pulse of its own somewhere between your office and Adenta. Before you threw your weight against the metal gate to force it open, the smell of burning plastic and flesh (surely not flesh?) invaded your nostrils. You realized that your dusty cul-de-sac was experiencing heavier traffic than usual: some trucks, men in uniform, the nameless neighborhood children who always seemed to be trailing a stick and tire behind themselves for one of their games. Even Auntie Philo who sold pineapples at the junction had abandoned her post and her goods to come and watch. You remarked how awkward it was to see her standing this far down the road and not where she should be, behind that rickety table where you always saw her, swatting flies and distributing gossip with every sale. You were so busy thinking about how tall she actually was when she wasn’t seated, that you were completely oblivious to the column of smoke rising above your house. Your head jerked up to look at it, and you regretted it almost immediately because you saw that the familiar rusty roofing sheets were missing from the skyline, the smoke hanging thickly in the airspace they should have occupied. Someone was tugging your arm behind you, and it hurt to the point that you forgot about the contamination you were nursing on your right leg. They were pulling you back as you would someone who has committed a crime and needs to be taken to face justice, or someone who is standing on the crumbling precipice of hysteria, tempting one more rock to break loose. You did not even look back to see who was manhandling your arm, so focused were you on what was behind the gate and how the smog was so thick that it was actually able to obscure your view of the house. The house, you were sure, was still there. You heard a voice that was attempting to calm you down, but it sounded empty and distant, as though it were being transmitted through an empty PVC pipe, or a tunnel.

“Madam! Madam, it’s not safe. Please. Come this way and someone can explain—”

Crunch of wood collapsing.

“Madam! Pl–”

Crunch of wood collapsing.

You have heard of people gaining superhuman strength in moments when it is required of them to protect themselves or someone dear to them. You did not feel superhuman, how could you, when parts of you were burning to ashes inside your home. You wrenched your arm from the faceless, uniformed man and run toward the furnace that is somehow standing in front of the flowerbeds your father just filled with hibiscus—bissap juice was your father’s absolute favorite and you were getting ready to pluck the flowers ready to make it—in front of the porch with the torn mosquito netting that somehow everyone kept forgetting to fix, in front of the modest 1980s bungalow with bougainvillea trained across the walls. It is very possible that you lost everything in a fire. Including your leg. It could have been eaten away from the rot your boss introduced earlier that morning when he attempted to buy your flesh in exchange for a guaranteed ascension into professional success. It is also likely that you lost it when you fought your way close enough to the furnace to recognize the rocking chair your mother always sat in to watch the 8 p.m. news, twisting and morphing in a sick parody of the calming back-and-forth rhythm it had kept for years. You were too close to avoid the falling beam that landed on top of you, trapping your leg in a grip you were sure was inescapable. At least it was the right leg.

“Please, nurse, restrain her. She is going to end up doing more damage to herself if we are not careful.”

What does it feel like to attend a stranger’s funeral? It’s a hazy sort of feeling, really. You think that you may have lost everything and everyone that is important to you, but the edges of your grief have been blurred, softened by denial. It can’t be, because you are cradling an armful of your grandmother’s faded photo albums, and your mother is smiling at you from a sepia-tinted frame, and so are your aunts and uncles, and your father is calling you to sit on his lap and tell him what you learned at school today. So the smell scratching the walls of your lungs must be the egg you left on the stove because you had your face buried in a novel. You did not just come back from a long day spent in traffic, and your house is still upright and not crushing you under its ruins. Your leg is still there, and so is your dignity, and so is the armful of rubble that you insist on calling your memories.

And the edge of the pew is digging into your thighs, but it is actually the side of your bathtub. You are now standing behind yourself, looking over your shoulder. You rub your eyes with hands that don’t look quite like they belong to your body. It is 1 a.m. and you are in your apartment, far away from Adenta, from limbs that appear and disappear at will, from people who promise to never forsake you but do, from predators that value a pound of flesh more highly than a master’s degree. Your place is empty of everything but an overnight bag and the comforter that has been passing as your bed.

“You must be crazy. Seriously, have you considered asking for help? Like from an expert?”

“Noooo listen! Let me explain again. It’s like you’re outside yourself. It’s like you’re watching yourself but you can’t quite recognize that it’s you, and—”

You supposedly have “amazing things” ahead of you. You are growing. You are moving to a nicer neighborhood. You are getting help for your “issues.” But right now, all that exists is your naked self shivering since the towel dropped to the floor about four wails ago, and your phone won’t stop vibrating and lighting up. You don’t pick up because you have run out of ways to steady the wobble in your voice, and even your closest confidants no longer know how to smooth the wrinkles in your spirit. You will still try to reach for their arm, or your leg, or that one treasured pile of ash that used to be a family portrait. You are not really here and everything is as it should be.  

return to top