I don’t like the box they have put Papa in; I would have gotten him the fancy kind with polished wood and golden handles.
Image from Flickr via The World Bank
We are sitting in the sand, in the same spot since morning, behind the mahogany trees, with our clothes dirty from the strong dust-bearing wind. The harmattan started last Tuesday, chapping our lips and cracking the soles of our dry feet, but we do not care. When it is Ato’s turn to spin the top, he clears a sandy patch with his bare palms and then flicks the top; it twirls hard, faster at first and then slower and slower until it stops and falls on its side.
It’s my turn to spin. I hold the plastic top between my thumb and my middle finger, and then, I flick hard, so the smooth pen-cover-turned-top hits the ground and rotates fast, like a whirlwind. A satisfied feeling creeps up my chest, as I look at my handiwork and I flash the boys a sly smile.
They sit with their mouths open as they stare at the blue top, spinning for what seems like an eternity, until it drops onto the sand.
“Best spin of the day,” I announce proudly. “Best spin seven days in a row.”
“You spin so hard,” Ato says. “It’s like you’re angry or something.”
I have been spinning tops with the boys all week. I was spinning a top when the news came last Tuesday, on the quick lips of Aunt Araba. She had let the news tumble out too easily, without the usual heaviness that accompanies such reports.
“Eh!” Ekow exclaims. “How did your spinning get so good?”
I smile and lift my chin up high, trying hard not to laugh at Ekow, whose ears are awake again, sticking out of the sides of his head like they always do when he is surprised.
“You spin so hard,” Ato says. “It’s like you’re angry or something.”
“No! I’m not!” I insist.
Ekow picks up the top and spins again, but it falls flat on its side, because he gets distracted speaking to me.
“How does it feel?”
“Sad, that’s all.”
We hear a soft moan and glance at Ntiriwa, who is crouched in a corner, drawing things in the sand with a stick.
“Why is your sister so quiet?” Ato asks me. “Is she mute?”
My face feels hot, “She is not mute! She has only lost her voice.”
“No, not same! Very different.”
Ntiriwa has not spoken since the news came last Tuesday. She only draws things in the sand with a stick. Before the news came, she used to hold the stick to her mouth like a microphone, pretending to be Agya Koo Nimo, the highlife singer. I am slowly forgetting the squeakiness in her high voice when she speaks or the speed with which she spits out her words.
“What are you hiding underneath that scarf?” Ato points to the bright blue scarf covering my head.
. . . the lump is growing bigger, rising up my throat, right to the base of my chin. It’s been there since last Tuesday.
Ntiriwa is also wearing one of Maame’s old scarves; a lime green one with orange dots.
“Let me see,” Ekow says, trying to pull the scarf off my head, but I move away, holding on to the scarf with one hand.
“You can’t wear that,” Ato tells me. “Blue is too bright. Your Papa just died.”
I wave my hand to show that I don’t care about which colors are right for what, but the lump is growing bigger, rising up my throat, right to the base of my chin. It’s been there since last Tuesday.
I don’t feel like explaining to them that Aunt Araba made me sit between her legs as she shaved my head with a shiny razor. The sharp metal felt cold against my scalp, as her hand moved back and forth, releasing clumps of thick curly hair down my face. The lump in my throat expanded and rose up as my hair fell off. Papa liked my curls. He used to ruffle them whenever he was happy with me.
“It’s a sign of your grief,” Aunt Araba had said sharply when I whined about my roughly shaven head.
I look up at the sky and see the sun peeking out from the clouds, making the chilly harmattan wind suddenly much warmer.
“Let’s go climbing,” I tell the boys.
Ato frowns, “Girls shouldn’t climb. It’s dangerous.”
“Psh! I climb all the time, right Ekow?”
Ekow nods and tells Ato that I’m a good climber, but Ato wouldn’t know that because he just moved here from the city with his mother, after his Papa died a month ago. They live with his grandmother now, on the other side of town, where the houses are smaller and packed tightly together like sardines.
We sprint to the mahogany tree that is perfect for climbing, with its heavy trunk and strong branches. Ntiriwa walks slowly behind us, still clutching her stick and kicking the loose sand around with her feet. The harmattan has robbed the tree of all its lush green leaves and the bark is dry and coarse. Ekow climbs first, followed by Ato, who has trouble figuring out where to place his feet. His yellow T-shirt that reads “I Love New York” is caught on the rough bark of the tree, so I help him unhook it and give him a big push up the trunk. All the fancy shirts he brought with him from the city are now wide-necked and the interesting writings have faded.
I tuck my skirt between my legs, wrap my hand around the wide trunk, and pull myself up smoothly, using my bare feet until I reach a thick branch. I lie on my back and hold on to the thick bough with my arms, hugging the tree tightly. I like it when a tree feels so strong and secure, like it’s never going to break; it makes my insides feel as warm as a stream at midday. Ntiriwa just squats at the bottom of the tree and begins to draw in the sand.
We look around, enjoying the view of the red-roofed houses, the bicycles rolling along carrying more people than you would think it possible, and the people trickling down the winding paths. Lately, the paths look emptier, with the city drawing people away like a magnet draws sewing needles to itself. Our Papas, they just sit and drink local gin at the Who Knows Tomorrow Bar, and it comes as no surprise because there is nothing else for them to do.
I want to go down the roads someday, to see the giant glass buildings Ato always talks about; he said some of them go all the way up till they touch the sky and that a few of them are even people’s houses.
The tomato factory is closed, now that most people prefer to buy canned tomato paste from overseas. They come in fancier tins and Maame once explained that they tasted sweeter and you got more soup out of them at the same price. We sometimes sneak in through the broken windows of the abandoned factory to play with the rusty, cobwebbed machines. I like to stand behind them in the darkness of the factory where Papa used to work, trying to imagine what it must have felt like canning boxes and boxes of tomato paste. He always came home with a sore back, and Maame had to rub it with almost half a tin of Robb menthol ointment until it felt better and he could stand up straight again.
From this thick mahogany tree, the sparsely scattered little homes stretch for miles and miles, until all we can see are dusty roads leading into the city. I want to go down the roads someday, to see the giant glass buildings Ato always talks about; he said some of them go all the way up till they touch the sky and that a few of them are even people’s houses. Our house has been falling apart ever since Papa lost his job at the factory. Cracks snake along the red clay walls, and the leaky ceiling makes it impossible to get a good night’s sleep when it rains. It’s to be expected, considering the house has been around since Papa’s grandfather built it many years ago.
Maame has had to use up her savings to fix up the house for tonight, because the family said we had to pay our last respects in good taste. Wofa Ansah came with his paintbrush and some leftover paint from one of his projects to touch up the door and window fittings; he said it was the least he could do for his late friend. The women from Maame’s Women’s Fellowship have also brought by some yams, rice, and fresh fish to help feed the throng of family members staying at our house this week.
I swing my legs back and forth from the bough of this tree. From up here, it feels good, with the fresh breeze blowing against my face, almost threatening to blow of my silk headscarf. Suddenly, there is the shuffling of feet underneath; Mrs. Ashun and her two daughters, all dressed in black, walk quickly past, in the direction of my compound. I stay still and pray they do not notice us because I don’t want them to look at me with those pitiful looks everyone has been giving me since last Tuesday.
They see Ntiriwa though, playing in the sand, and Mrs. Ashun’s oldest daughter clicks her tongue and shakes her head.
“Did you cry when your Papa died?” I ask Ato, who is plucking dried leaves off the tree and throwing them to the wind.
“Oye mobor oh! How is Obiri’s wife going to manage with these children?” She asks her mother and sister, who look at Ntiriwa with sorry expressions, and rush off.
We can see my compound from the tree, with white plastic chairs arranged in tidy rows in the tiny courtyard. I look away from the chairs, focusing my attention on Ntiriwa who looks busy drawing shapes I cannot make out. I pretend she’s drawing a family portrait with Papa in a starch-ironed boubou, Maame in her best kaba and slit, and us, in colorful batik dresses that Maame has handmade. In this portrait, we are all smiling, even though I am having trouble picturing Papa’s smile. Would he smile with his lips set in a long, thin grin, or apart to show his tobacco-stained teeth?
“Did you cry when your Papa died?” I ask Ato, who is plucking dried leaves off the tree and throwing them to the wind.
“Not even a tear?”
“My uncle says real men don’t cry. Strong people control themselves.”
“I haven’t cried too since my Papa died,” I tell Ato, sitting up against the thick tree branch. “It won’t come even if I try.”
“I think it’s strange not to cry when your father dies,” Ekow says, but I ignore him because his Papa is not dead. In fact, he does not even know where his Papa is, because he has never met him.
“Why did your Papa die?” I ask Ato, shifting around to face him.
“He drank too much.”
I start to whistle my Papa’s favorite song without telling the boys that he also drank too much gin. My whistling is strong and smooth, almost like the singing of a bird. Ato turns to look at me, perhaps because he cannot believe that a girl with a small mouth like mine can whistle so well. I learned to from Papa; I used to listen to him intently whenever he whistled from his lazy chair, studying the rounding of his lips and the intervals at which he sucked in the air. He whistled the same song every day, smoking his tobacco in the same lazy chair, in the same gray shorts that had recently become very oversized. When I finally mastered the art of whistling, and placed myself a few meters from his chair to show him, he looked impressed and ran his fingers playfully through my hair.
The sky has turned reddish orange, and the paths are emptying out so there is not much to see from the tree anymore. There are no women returning from their farms with their baskets today, because it’s a Tuesday, and no one goes to the farm on Tuesdays. Maame said Tuesdays are sacred days, the day of the earth god, and anyone who visits their farm will not return home. I wonder if Papa went to a farm last Tuesday.
A small crowd of people rush by our tree, all headed to my house, and the lump comes back, heavier and hotter. We have never had this many people at our house before; we hardly ever have any guests, and I am not sure what we would give them to drink even if they came. We never have any bottled fizzy cola or Fanta to serve on a plastic tray with a packet of straws on the side, like Aunt Araba does at her house.
For today though, the uncles have brought several crates of drinks to serve to the guests, and Aunt Araba has spent the whole morning cooking large pots of rice and chicken. Ntiriwa had rubbed her stomach in excitement earlier because we only have rice and chicken at Christmas, but Aunt Araba shooed us away from the wooden stove.
“Your sister wants to go home now,” Ekow says to me, waving his hand in my face to catch my attention.
Ntiriwa has stopped drawing in the sand, and is making soft sounds, motioning in the direction of our house.
“It’s not dark yet,” I respond, ignoring my sister’s whimpers. “We can play some more.”
“But you have to go now,” Ato says.
I know he is right, but I would rather just stay up in this tree or spend the rest of the day spinning the plastic top in the sand.
Our compound is slowly filling up with a crowd, mostly women, wailing with their hands gathered on top of their heads. I look around, trying to figure out if I know any of them, but a good number of them look unfamiliar, with their eyes shut tightly, as if to squeeze the tears out.
“Should I come with you?” Ekow asks me, observing that my face looks a little different.
“No, I’ll be fine. You should come by later for some rice and chicken. There’ll be plenty.”
I climb down carefully, while the boys stay up the tree, watching as my sister and I walk back to our compound. I am sure they will be watching everything tonight from this tree.
Maame is sitting outside on the front porch, staring straight ahead with her chin resting in her palm; she has been in that position since last Tuesday. The black cloth she is wearing looks good against her light brown skin in a funny kind of way because black cloth is never supposed to look pretty. She looks up at Ntiriwa and I, and smiles tightly, waving for us to come and sit next to her on the narrow bench. I know the way Maame used to smile, wide and bright, with some of her teeth peeking from between her lips; this smile is someone else’s.
Our compound is slowly filling up with a crowd, mostly women, wailing with their hands gathered on top of their heads. I look around, trying to figure out if I know any of them, but a good number of them look unfamiliar, with their eyes shut tightly, as if to squeeze the tears out. I wonder if a few of them had also called my Papa names, kissing their teeth loudly whenever he stumbled past them on his way back from Who Knows Tomorrow Bar.
A few people have lined up for food and drinks on the other end of the compound, and some are lined up to shake Maame’s hands, but she looks tired and uninterested. Almost as tired as she was when the uncles sat down for a meeting with her to discuss what they had called Papa’s estate; not that Papa had much to begin with, but I had overheard them say it was what custom demanded. They agreed on a date to share papa’s belongings among the family, and requested that Maame get everything organized and packed up by the set day. Maame had looked on silently, with her eyebrows raised, perhaps because it was merely two days after last Tuesday.
Today, the uncles are all huddled in one corner, their heavy funeral cloths wrapped loosely around their waists. They pass around a glass of clear liquid, pour a few drops on the ground, and take quick swigs, pounding their chests hard as the liquid goes down. I am surprised to see Wofa Diewuo though; he was never around much when Papa was alive. He owns a big electrical shop in town, and Aunt Araba has been bragging that he has contributed the most money towards the funeral.
They have brought Papa in a plain plywood box, set in the center of the compound. The lump in my throat swells, bigger, heavier, until my throat feels like it is going to burst. I don’t like the box they have put Papa in; I would have gotten him the fancy kind with polished wood and golden handles.
Tsotsoo, the big-toothed dirge singer, is circling the box, moaning some sad song with her hands flapping wildly beside her.
“Death! You have stolen a precious jewel from us,” she half sings, half moans, with tears streaming down her face. “Wofa Obiri! Why did you have to leave us so soon?”
I doubt she personally knew my Papa.
People begin to gather around the lightwood box. Aunt Araba walks up to Ntiriwa and I taking us by the hands. “Come say goodbye to your Papa.”
We both shake our heads; I already told Ntiriwa last night that we do not want to see our Papa in a box.
I used to pray three times a day, so Papa would stop drinking gin and find a new job, but now that he is no longer here, I am not too sure what to pray about.
Father Joseph comes around in his white robe and waves an orb of incense over Papa’s box. I wonder if Papa would like that, because he didn’t go to church like Maame did every Sunday. Instead, he sat in his lazy-chair, with his bottle of local gin by his side, and complained that Maame had been putting all our money in the offering plate.
Father Joseph is still praying. He is asking God to take Papa’s spirit into heaven, and pleads that he may rest in peace. I squeeze my eyes shut and say the same prayer because I am not sure if men who hit their wives go to heaven. I hope God hears me, although I have not spoken to Him since the news came last Tuesday. I used to pray three times a day, so Papa would stop drinking gin and find a new job, but now that he is no longer here, I am not too sure what to pray about.
Father Joseph’s incense makes my eyes sting, and all the wailing makes my head pound, so I walk off to Maame and Papa’s room and sit on the hard bed, sniffing around, hoping to still smell Papa’s tobacco. The tobacco smell is gone but the gray shorts he always wore are still hanging on a plastic hanger suspended on a rusty nail in the wall. I wonder what Maame had them dress him up in. She probably gave him the expensive-looking Kente cloth I had never seen him wear, the one with the blue, green and orange patterns he had inherited from his father and kept in the cupboard. He always said there was no point in ruining a perfectly sellable piece of cloth by wearing it to useless social events, when he could save it for a rainy day. If anyone had asked me what I thought, I would have told them he would prefer to lie in the box wearing his baggy gray shorts.
I catch my reflection in the decorated dark wood mirror Papa had bought Maame, back when he still had a job at the factory. The blue scarf on my head makes me look older, so I slip it off my head and study my face carefully. Even in the recent cracks of the mirror, I notice for the first time that without my hair, I have my Papa’s round face, his broad nose, and the bright pink lips that Aunt Araba jokes are our family’s signature.
I squint at the eerily familiar face staring back at me and the lump in my throat starts to grow again. It expands and climbs up my throat until I choke; I am coughing, sputtering and gasping for air and then, the lump disappears. My throat feels empty now, free almost, but my chest swells with anger because now I know that Ato has lied to me. I touch my wet face: no matter how strong you are and no matter what kind of person your Papa is, when he dies, your face becomes a waterfall.
Aba A. Asibon is a Ghanaian whose work has been published or is forthcoming in The University of Chester’s Flash Magazine, The Sentinel Literary Quarterly, Sentinel Annual Literature Anthology and African Roar. She lives in New York, and is currently working on her
debut novel, Kalabule Villa.