‘The Yoruba believe in the doctrine of metempsychosis or transmigration of souls; hence they affirm that after some time, deceased parents are born again into the family of the surviving children. It is from this notion that some children are named “Babatunde,” i.e., the father comes again…’
—The History of the Yorubas by Johnson, Samuel (1901)
“With the way she carries on, you’d think her father’s death doesn’t matter to her.” “Father? You mean her grandfather?”
“Semantics. The man raised her. That’s what matters.”
“I heard he took her in after her parents died in a car accident.”
“You heard right. Now, look at her, she’s not even pretending to be sad.”
“The burial proper is tomorrow?”
“Yes. Are you planning on attending?”
“Of course. I knew the man. He helped me with an issue once.”
“Interesting. What was the—”
“Ah, that’s a story for a different day. Let me only say: without him, I wouldn’t be here today.”
“I wonder how she’s coping?”
“The man’s daughter. The woman over there.”
“She appears fine to me. Unbothered, even…”
Throughout the night, Labake Popoola caught snippets of conversations: some praising her grandfather, others criticizing her dry-eyed countenance. And although the former pleased her, the latter — the disapproving regard of people who held death to be final — only firmed her indifference. If she had her way, the wake would not be taking place, and the people occupying the open space in front of her grandfather’s bungalow would not be there.
In serried rows of plastic chairs, the black-clad mourners were spread under large canopies. They faced a table on which an open ebony coffin rested. Lightbulbs glowing a sickly orange and strung on the metal skeleton of the canopies fought to hold back the night, flickering in time with the distant rumbling of a portable generator.
Labake stood outside the wan lights, a plump figure in a loose multicoloured crepe dress. She watched silently as the crowd — made up of the acquaintances, friends and relatives amassed over the deceased’s lifetime — rose and formed into a line and began circling the coffin that held her grandfather’s remains. Now and again, a poorly disguised sob broke out, followed by heavy sighing. The grief in the air was palpable; a testament to her grandfather’s beneficent legacy. Yet, she, who had been closest to him, did not mourn.
She glanced at her watch and sighed. There was nothing she could do other than be patient. Unsurprisingly, the baby too was restless. She placed a hand on her bulging belly
The day it had happened, she sensed her grandfather’s passing. After the phone call, when he’d pleaded to see her, she was deliberating going to his house when the baby kicked. She knew instantly, ashamed of the relief she felt. It turned out he’d suffered another stroke. When was that? A week ago? A different lifetime —
“Aren’t you going?”
The voice came from behind her. She recognized it as her husband’s. She turned around and faced him. Suspecting what he was about to say, she crossed her arms too.
In a stiff black native, Tunde Popoola looked characteristically sombre. His neatly trimmed moustache imparted a martial bearing that on a different day would have thrilled her.
“Well?” He gestured in the direction of the coffin with his head.
“Tunde,” she said testily.
“What? Labake, we’ve had this conversation before. You must let go.”
“He’s dead, Labake. There. Dead.”
“This,” he placed a hand on her shoulder, “this isn’t helping.”
Moments passed in silence. The space between his brows furrowed. She clenched and unclenched her fists, trembling. The silence stretched on. He opened his mouth as if to speak, then paused.
“Labake, this isn’t helping.”
Finally, composing herself enough to speak, she brushed off his hand.
“I’ll be in the car.”
She did not look back as she walked away.
In the enclosed space of the car, Labake settled her breathing and closed her eyes. Nothing surprised her really; not the mourners, not her husband. She was beyond feeling concern for what they thought. Only one thing mattered. She placed her hands on her belly and smiled as she felt the baby move.
The past beckoned.
She was a child again, waking up from a nightmare. Her grandfather was beside her, holding a cup to her mouth.
“Labake, sip a little, then you can go back to bed.”
She remained still as he coaxed her to drink the herbal tea he’d concocted. It warded off evil spirits — the evil spirits behind bad dreams.
“Are you going to leave too?”
If her abrupt speech startled him, he did not show it.
“Leave?” he asked.
“Like my Mummy and Daddy. Don’t die. Please. Don’t leave. I don’t want to be alone.” She turned her head to the wall nearest to her sleeping mat. The lantern illuminating the bedroom cast morose shadows on it.
“Ah, Labake.” He dropped the cup, and drew her to himself, holding her tight, her head to his chest. She clung back. He smelled like earth and the healing extracts he teased out of plants — rich, complex, a little bitter.
“Ah, Labake,” he repeated.
Up to that moment, she’d regarded him with a little fear. From the periphery of her life, he’d been thrust by a misfortune to occupy its centre stage. Her peremptory, intimidating grandfather. He did not speak, he roared. He never walked, he strode. He bristled with energy. She’d seen him go whole nights without sleep — making the preparations over which he chanted in an arcane tongue that the panoply of people at his door sought — and continue with his customary vigour the next day. The grief that ate at her heart did not faze him.
Or so she’d thought.
When he said her name, the anguish strained his voice such that she had no doubt. He hurt too. She craned her neck, her arms still around him, till the top of her head came to a stop on the underside of his stubble covered chin.
“Ah, Labake,” he said for the third time. “If I’d known earlier—”
He relaxed his hold on her and picked the cup he’d dropped.
“Here, drink first.”
She took the cup from him. The liquid left a ticklish itch in her throat on its way down. She curled on her grandfather, yawning, suddenly sleepy.
“One day, Labake, you’ll understand. There are things you are yet to learn. I’ll teach you. You’re never alone. Even now. You’d be never alone.”
There was knocking on the car window, loud and persistent. The present intruding, asserting itself. Reluctantly, she opened her eyes. Her husband stood outside, motioning for her to wind down the window.
“Well, it’s over,” he said, leaning on the car door. “This part, at least. After tomorrow there’d be nothing left to do…” he trailed off, inviting her to speak. When she did not, he frowned and then sighed.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry about earlier, about everything. But you worry me.
“I know I said I was going to keep an open mind but I can’t stand seeing you like this. Is it so hard to let go, Labake? Is it? This reincarnation talk has gone on too long. You’re using it as a crutch when you should know better. The sooner you face—”
Without meaning to, she tuned him out. He kept talking, a faraway look on his face, but the words did not reach her.
“Maybe, we’re both stressed. We should take time off. The baby won’t be due for another month—”
Her thoughts turned back to her grandfather. The memories surged again — in the garden at the back of the house, learning the secrets of plants and the language of nature from him; on a mat, under a starry night sky, enraptured as he spoke of Orun, where souls originate and return to at their end to prepare to begin the cycle anew; how people never truly died but were born and born again — and at the cusp of whelming her, she felt a light touch on her face.
“Are you still angry, my love?”
She managed a smile, warmed from her reminiscing.
“No. No, I’m not.”
“So, after tomorrow, we’ll put this behind us?”
Strong and persistent, her labour contractions began as the coffin was lowered into the earth. She signalled her husband to let him know, realizing there was not enough time to get to a hospital. Her delivery room was going to be the sequestered space between two vehicles. Strangers milled about. “It will not be an easy birth,” some muttered knowingly,
She clenched her teeth and pushed, letting out a sharp cry. Her husband knelt beside her, grasping her hand. Between her legs, a family friend serving as the midwife cooed reassuringly. As the last clods of earth were thrown on her grandfather’s coffin, as if waiting for that very moment, the baby slipped out without fuss.
She cradled it close to her bosom, teardrops snaking down her face. The baby had the same dagger-shaped birthmark on its temple as her grandfather had. He had returned. Like he promised. She whispered in the baby’s ear. “Welcome, Babatunde…”
She nudged her husband, triumphant.
“See the scar, Tunde. My grandfather’s scar. The same.”
He squinted, adjusting his glasses. “Scar? There’s no scar, Labake.”
Waking up at dawn, Labake felt almost immaterial, like a mote of light, the embers of a vague dream flickering out. At her insistence, she’d passed the night in her late grandfather’s bedroom while her husband returned to their apartment alone. A few relatives protested, but she’d had her way.
Nothing could have stopped her penance.
Through a gap between the curtains, the rising sun washed the room in pastel colours, making the air dreamlike. Her gaze flitted to and fro the room seeking purchase in reality; the linoleum covered floor; an upturned mortar in a corner with a pestle next to it; the small TV set she’d bought that he never used; the clothing rack full of his clothes, no one had packed away yet; her grandfather’s fetish covered medicine bag hanging incongruously next to a large wooden crucifix. She paused on the rood, wincing. She still was not sure how he’d gotten it. But then, towards the end, there were many things she’d not known about her grandfather.
An ache flared in her belly, radiating upwards, then downwards and upwards again, before continuing with the same rhythm.
Her grandfather in decline. The image sprang into her mind unbidden. Milky irises. Slow doddering steps. Slurry speech. Loose skin hanging from his flesh as his very substance whittled away. The slacked expression. The church visits. After the stroke, he was never the same person.
Oh, Grandpa. Forgive me for not being there.
She eased herself off the bed and drifted to the window, drawing the curtains open. There were people about already, arranging things for the day ahead. At the edge of the compound, the open grave, with its freshly painted tombstone, waited for the coffin. She gritted her teeth as the throbbing ache in her belly became more acute. But with it came a sense of anticipation, of a second chance offering itself.
It was late afternoon when they gathered at the gravesite. Labake stood with the bevy of mourners, among but apart from them. Under purple-tinged skies, she watched, unable to shake off the déjà vu, the pallbearers lower the coffin to its final resting place. Her husband reached for and squeezed her hand.
A short heavily bearded man stepped forward to speak. He wore a white robe and held a battered-looking bible. She recognized him. One of the ‘holy men’ from the church her grandfather had turned to, seeking hope. As the man intoned about salvation and an eventual reunion in Heaven, Labake felt the ache in her belly ratchet up. She bit her lips to stop from laughing.
Yes, she thought. Now.
But as suddenly as it flared up, the ache subsided, leaving in its place, disquiet and a hollowness that grew till she feared she would swoon. A fine sheen of sweat formed on her forehead. Tunde tugged her hand.
She realized the bearded man had finished his exhortation. Around the grave, fixed stares regarded her. Someone, a distant cousin, held a shovel carrying a load of sand at her.
What was she to do?
“Take it,” her husband whispered.
She took the shovel. It was heavy in her hands. The dried cement coating the shovel chafed her palms. She struggled not to drop it.
“Throw the dirt. The grave. Throw the dirt in it.”
She did, letting the shovel dip. The sand particles hit the coffin with a grating hiss. She heard a bell ring. The crowd began dispersing. Her husband led her away from the grave. She glanced back. A group of men had begun filling it in. She stopped walking.
There was a blackbird perched on the tombstone. It had its head buried under one wing. The bird looked up, turned in her direction, fluttered its wings and flew away.
Grandpa has died.
She mulled the thought calmly for a moment, then collapsed, shrieking. There was a keening sound in her head drowning out all others.
Her grandfather was dead.
‘Kunmi Olamiju lives in Lagos, Nigeria. He wants you to know he doesn’t particularly enjoy writing, but he finds himself doing so, again and again. It’s a compulsion he blames his artistic soul and need of creative outlet for. You can send existential jokes to his e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.