When Your Father Dies
Sídí hurries up the narrow footpath leading to the stream. She only pays fleeting attention to the things around her. The yelping of nude children. The smell of cassava. The voices of two women debating whom to spend the night with their husband, whose right it is to roast the yam. If Sídí weren’t running, if it was a normal day, she’d have stopped to watch the women. Naked. Wrappers stripped off. Chairoscuros markings on their scarred faces. But it’s not the right time for her. A minute’s delay will spell doom for poor Sídí.
Her father is struggling with his last breath.
And this might be her golden chance to prove her worth.
Òsúnfúnmibí sent her on this mission:
“Run to the end of the stream! Run! Don’t look back! Run! Bring back Ewé Ìràpadà, the leaves of survival! He may be restored back to us if you’re fast!
“Run, my daughter, for his soul is still here with us, eyeing the physical remnant of itself! The leaves will call him back, and he will heed!”
That night, Sídí’s father returned from the forest with a red deer. Its round horns were circling his neck, gushing out blood incessantly. He had told Mother to pound yam, and prepare Ègúsí for the feast of the night. It was the celebration of his unequalled victory having hunted the forest for three decades. He’d never had a scratch. Or a bruise. Or any sickly feeling. He returned that night with drums, music from harps and recorders from experts, and also with the deer. It was a merry night; all well wishers hopped in and out holding smiles on their faces.
Sídí sat outside studying the strangers who’d come from faraway to celebrate with her father. One of them must be the Woman. The Woman who had his sons. The Woman he returned to on some nights. The Woman he couldn’t bring under his roof because he kept it a secret.
Yet, Mother knew. And it made Mother frown at Sídí more. If she’d come a boy, there wouldn’t have been a Woman outside, who bore sons.
Sons Sídí’s mother couldn’t bear. Not even one. Or a deformed one. Or even a dead one.
Mother prepared the oil lamp. It sat obediently on the wooden table at the center of the living room. Fireflies twinkled outside. Toads croaked as never before. The clouds were heavy, and cold air blew the curtains. It seemed nature could smell it, feel it, far before it would happen.
Sídí’s father woke with a start, long after the guests left. He was panting, and his head was throbbing. He woke Mother up immediately. “I smell perdition, and the things that come with it,” he said.
Mother’s eyes were red. Her body was weary. She’d spent the earlier part of the night entertaining his guests. Now that she tried to sleep, here he was again, pulling her awake. She sat up and placed her hand on her chin and listened.
“I feel I’m no longer here. A dying dog keeps barking, and you know…”
“You just want herbs again,” Mother said. “I’ll bring Ewe Tea in the morning. Just relax.”
“Does this sound like a plea for medicines and herbs? I said I no longer feel my presence here and you’re telling me stories! It’s time for me to go home, I guess. It’s time, and you’re not even seeing anything…”
“Please stop telling me these things…”
It continued like that, the arguments, the fights, until he slept that night and died when the oil in the lamp dried off, before dawn the next day.
And there came Òsúnfúnmibí, the medicine man, the next day. He felt Sídí’s father’s chest and sighed. “We can still restore him,” he said. “Sídí! Come here at once!”
Reaching the river, Sídí forgets to pay homage to Òsun. You pay homage by bowing to the river maiden’s wooden image carved by the first wood carver the village produced. The people believe Òsun is the source of their wealth, their existence on earth, and even the gifts of love and unity they all share.
Sídí runs tirelessly, panting like a cheetah chasing a prey. Her hands grab a big leaf she is sure will bring her father back to life. She is to fetch nine different useful ones. She continues plucking. She doesn’t care that the leaves are rumpled, and might thwart her father’s chances. The stems from which the leaves are being pulled off are bleeding. White blood, she reasons. On a normal day, she’d put her hands on her chest and laugh. But not today.
Voices are screaming from the back of her head.
You’re not fast enough, the voices scream. You’re sluggish. Your father will die because of you. And he’ll never ever forgive you. And everyday of Mother’s life, you shall be a reminder of her misery…
Her father was a brave hunter. He was brave and bold, unlike her. He never returned home without a game. Once, he had hung a live cobra around his neck. He’d dined with buffalos. He’d raced with cheetahs. He named himself the king of the forest. “I command the animal world,” he sang. “All the animals fall in obeisance to the sound of my gun, to the gait of my legs, and to the scent of my powerful bullet!”
He was a fierce consumer too. He emptied kegs of palm wine in one sitting. He conquered mountains of Iyán and bowls of pepper soup at Àjíún’s corner, where he and his friends ate. Their meetings were often enlivened with jokes. They talked trivia, like how big their manhoods looked. In some occasions, they would argue about who commanded his wife’s bosom on the afternoon bed, how strong their libido was, and how long they could stay in their wives. They would even boast of marrying many wives after the first three. Who were the wives to say fem? They should consider themselves lucky their husbands still wanted to keep them. Their breasts were dry and their wrinkles were coming out. They were of no use anymore. Indeed, they should really consider themselves fortunate.
The men laughed and slapped hands. More wives, everflowing libido. They believed potency was measured by how many you could marry, how many boys you could bear.
Sídí always sensed her father’s frown. Why didn’t he just bring in the Woman and her sons? At least, whenever the men talked male children, he too could say something.
Those days are gone. Life is like a barrack. It remains where it is. It is us, humans, that are the soldiers of this barrack. We come and go, like soldiers. Sídí’s father—is he truly going? She shakes her head.
The leaves are complete in her hands. She bolts off, only stopping at her father’s house.
Òsúnfúnmibí points at the thickest leaf among the herbs Sídí caught. “Soak that in water for hours…”
In hours? But her father is dying! How can his life linger for thirty minutes, let alone hours?
But who is Sídí to question the great Òsúnfúnmibí?
“…he shall drink it after the water has savoured the nutrients in it…”
Mother looks restless too. Her breath held, she looks like a badly knitted material. Sídí puts her hand on her shoulder. The poor woman looks at it, squints in disbelief, and shifts. Sídí’s hand falls to her knee. Up till this moment, Mother’s stay in Sídí’s father’s house is not balanced. Because Sídí chose to come to the world a woman.
“After everything, if he comes back to life, we will give all glories to Òsun, and if the other way round…”
The other way round???
Why does Mother not react to this? Or is she dying too, seated there, her gaze fixed in the distance?
There’s an ‘other way round’ and this man made Sídí run her breath and hopes out?
“…we have to accept our fate. The tortoise accepted his fate when he turned into a bearer of cracked shells…”
Sídí’s lips are moving, but she’s not saying anything. She’s sure she’s not even thinking about anything. Her mind is empty, like a burnt down forest. She doesn’t feel like crying. Why doesn’t she feel like crying?
One’s parent is one’s joy, and one’s joy is the future one hopes for. Her father had been a man, a father, a husband. Everything. Everything she had always been proud to talk of. He had been a man all men wanted to be like. She had worshipped him all her life. Because he reminded her all that she was battling to become.
Her herbs should save him. They better do. If it happens that way, then her father would know.
He would accept that she could be fast and smart too. That she could save a soul too. That she wasn’t slow and sluggish.
Hours later, Òsúnfúnmibí pours the liquid soaked in herbs into her father’s mouth.
Time is ticking fast.
Sídí’s hands feel numb. She turns away, afraid of what happens next.
There he lies, like a log of wood fetched for night meal.
There is no response.
Everywhere is tense, silent. Sídí can only hear the rhythm of the wind’s songs. And distant dogs barking. And more of the wind’s singing.
Then, Òsúnfúnmibí rises and puts the herbs away. He says nothing. He only shakes his head and walks away. The liquid is trickling down Sídí’s father’s mouth. His eyes are clear white.
That night, Mother holds Sídí in her arms for the first time. “You tried your best,” she says. “Will you forgive me? And him?”
SHITTA FARUQ ADÉMÓLÁ is a young Nigerian poet and writer who has published work in Nanty Greens, Parousia Magazine, Eboquills, Communicators League, Mad Swirl, Ngiga Review and elsewhere. He also has work forthcoming in Libretto and The Trouvaille Journal. You can say hi to him on Twitter: @shittafaruqademola.