WHISPERING TREES AT THE CEMETERY
by Chinweokwu Ukwueze
It was mid-year in Nsukka when the clouds merged with the earth to become one. The brown soil of Nsukka had become muddy and clumpy, sticking to the shoes. During this period of the year, the skies were always pregnant with rain. Women carried umbrellas in their bags and the men’s eyes followed the clouds in search for signs of rain. The leaves dripped with water constantly and dampness thickened the air like cocoyam thickened onugbu soup. The cold was the sort that possessed the body making people shake like there was an evil spirit within them.
The mourners in the Public Cemetery, Nsukka, didn’t allow this to deter them on that third Friday of June. The large cemetery was partly filled up. Middle-aged men shook their heads as they stood in groups, conversing. Women wailed, sobbed and sighed as they looked up to the sky. The young men shook their heads, beat their chest and bit their fingers. The whistling pine trees that surrounded the cemetery, standing beside its unpainted walls were silent. Except for occassional wails of ‘eewoo’, ‘chai’, ‘Chineke’ here and there by male and female alike, the cemetery was quiet and cool.
Ebuka stood close to the unpainted walls of the cemetery and whistling pines trees. He was a young man in his early twenties. He was in a white T-shirt, black trousers, and black sandals. He watched the water drip from the leaves. He didn’t want it to give him the feeling it always had. He’d have taken a deep breath, and the scent of the new rain on the ground and leaves would have excited him. He did not want to stop the intake of a deep breath. He did not want the sweet liquid that would fill his heart. He didn’t want to feel all these on this Friday in June. He felt as though two strong men were pulling his heart apart, shredding and then setting it on fire.
“Why?” Ebuka cried. “Why does this have to happen to us?” He closed his eyes and he felt two streams of coldness running down his cheeks. He sniffled. He opened his eyes and stared at the whistling pine trees. When he was in primary school, he’d branch off by the cemetery and as he waited, he hoped that the breeze would blow and make the whistling pines whistle. On a rainy day, the trees whistled louder than a hundred coaches. As he stood now, he wished they’d whistle and fill up the hollow space in him a little. He also wanted them to whisper to him that all was well. He cried softly then laughed at himself. He knew that he was a man, and men did not cry like women. He wiped his eyes with the back of his palms. He heard the loud murmur and he turned to look.
A tall, slim young man walked into the cemetery through the rusting metal gates of the cemetery. He was draped in black clothes and black boots. He walked like the male models Ebuka had seen on TV. His eyes always seemed to be looking at something just ahead, his shoulders were raised, and he often adjusted his dark eyeglasses. The eyeglasses were supposed to be sun shades, but Ebuka guessed he wore it because he didn’t want his tear filled eyes to be seen. The people at the cemetery looked at him and murmured as he walked through the cemetery to where the white plastic seats were arranged for the funeral mass. When he sat down, people looked at him for a short time before they looked away.
Ebuka looked at him longer than the others. The young man looked rich and he was the only one in the cemetery in the complete attire of mourning. Ebuka had graver issues to worry about, although they seemed a million miles away as he stared at the young man. Ebuka squatted and watched some earthworms moving on the surface of the ground. They’d be part of the things that would devour his brother. He closed his eyes, and his mind moved to a thousand places at the same time. His family was very religious, and never forgot to keep any commandment of God, he was sure of that. But trouble and calamity had taken some rooms in their house. He inhaled and exhaled.
“Good morning,” a voice said behind him. He turned. The young man was standing there without his shades. “I am Diddy. I was your brother’s close friend.” He spoke with a forced accent. Although he tried well to sound as British as possible, he still mispronounced some words. Ebuka stood up. “It’s a pity that you lost your brother at such an early age. I offer my condolence. Take heart, my dear.”
“Thank you,” Ebuka said. “My name is Ebuka.” He offered his hand to Diddy for a handshake. Diddy didn’t take the hand. Ebuka dropped his hands, slowly. “How do you know me?”
“As I said, your brother was my very close friend. We knew each other to our wardrobes and cupboards in our different homes.” He laughed lightly. “He was the best person I’ve ever met. You were lucky to have had such a nice brother. It’s a big loss.” He took out a white handkerchief from his trouser pocket and wiped his eyes.
“I also offer my condolence to you since you were so close to him like that,” Ebuka said.
“Thank you, bro. You should take it easy with your grieving. I’ll only be around for a short time because I cannot stay until the end of the funeral mass. I sincerely offer my condolence” Diddy said. Ebuka nodded but said nothing. Diddy picked his eyeglasses from his pocket and wore it. He bowed again and walked away. Ebuka watched his model-like strut until he sat on one of the white plastic seats.
When Ebuka turned to look at the whistling pine trees, he smiled. He never knew anyone could say such good things about his brother. His brother was a good man, but he was often quiet and alone, and because of this, he lacked friends. Ebuka remembered that Chidera gave him his toy for Christmas when Ebuka was five. Their parents had bought a toy for Chidera only, because he took the first position in his class. Chidera was seven then. He’d given Ebuka the toy airplane controlled with remote, smiling. Since then until his death, Chidera was always nice to him and everyone else. His quiet nature made other the children of the neighborhood (and later youths) loathe him. Ebuka smiled. He had respected his brother very well, but after the talk with Diddy, he respected him even more. The whistling pine trees whispered to him in their calmness that his brother was already in heaven, at the right hand side of the almighty, and he heaved a sigh of relief.
There was a caravan of cars led by the ambulance that stopped in front of the cemetery’s gates. The crying in the cemetery had increased. Ebuka saw his mother wailing and collapsing on the ambulance. The other women around held her back and consoled her, but she persisted in it. He saw his father remove his traditional cap and hold it to his stomach. He was a man; he didn’t need any serious consolation, he could bear the loss of his favorite son alone. In the caravan of cars that stopped in front of the cemetery, there was the officiating priest’s jeep and a bus filled with young men who worked with Chidera when he was alive. These young men held bright green leaves and sang mourning songs.
The tortuous noise that took over the cemetery stopped totally when the priest began the burial mass. The mourners sat on the plastic seats. They heard the priest’s voice as it moved around calmly. Ebuka looked around for Diddy, but he couldn’t see him again. He focused and listened to the priest’s sermon that was pineapple in the midst of lime. The priest, who was the parish priest at the nearby Catholic parish, spoke about the good kingdom after earth. A kingdom where there is no sorrow and suffering. Chidera was a good young man in all his ways, so he’ll be in heaven, and at the right hand of God. This kingdom is what mattered most, and not the short time on earth. If he is in heaven, we’ve to cry no more and rejoice for his reunion with the father. Ebuka nodded solemnly to the priest’s sermon.
While the priest was consecrating the sacrament, a loud scream pierced through the somber occasion. On investigation the scream was that of a little girl. The priest stopped the consecration. Some men moved to the direction of the little girl’s scream. Ebuka moved with them.
Ebuka got to the girl first. She wasn’t more than six. She was sitting alone, surrounded by empty plastic seats, and Ebuka wondered who she had come with. Ebuka looked at her, seeking what might be wrong with her. The other men gathered around Ebuka. Ebuka looked at the men before he fixed his eyes on little girl. “What is wrong? Did you see a snake?” Ebuka asked. The girl shook her head. He looked at her carefully and noticed her eyes opened widely like someone who’d experienced a murder scene or seen a ghost. “Did you fall?” She shook her head again.
“She must have been frightened by the casket and the entire funeral,” a middle-aged man in a brown tunic said. “Who brought a little girl to a funeral? This must have been a horror to her.”
“She’s fine. She was playing around when I saw her,” a young man in jeans and a green T-shirt said. Ebuka looked at him longer than he’d looked at the middle-aged man. The young man had a scar near his dark lips. “I think she played from where she was sitting with her mother to this place.”
“Then, what is wrong with her?” the middle-age man asked again, fixing a frightening quizzing look at the girl. The look would frighten the girl more than the funeral he claimed frightened her.
Ebuka walked closer to the girl and squatted. He held her small arm. “Omalicha, what is wrong?” he asked.
The girl turned her face slowly to the left and pointed to what looked like some white papers on the ground. Ebuka stood, walked to where the papers were and stared at them. “Omalicha, I think these are pictures. Did they make you scream?” he asked. She nodded. He picked the pictures. He walked towards the men. He smiled. “Pictures made the girl scream.”
When he got to the men, he opened the pictures for all to see. A man snapped his fingers and shouted, “Tufiakwa! Evil!”
Ebuka finally looked at the pictures; the horror in them shook him and crippled his breath. He shook his head, and he willed it to be false. He wanted it to be that his brother was not naked in the picture with Diddy, allowing Diddy to suck him up like a mother sucking the runny nose of a child. He wanted the other to be false, too. Diddy bent down, his palms on his elbows as Chidera drilled him. Many things ran through him mind and had serious commotion that weighed him down. He tore the pictures. He tore them into tiny pieces.
The funeral mass never remained the same again. People murmured as the priest tried to finish the mass. Ebuka sat down, shocked. Diddy was evil, the whispering trees had lied, and his brother had deceived them all. After the mass, the priest rushed out. Other mourners left the cemetery, silently, until the family was left alone with the casket. His father spat on the casket and left with his mother. Ebuka stared at the casket for a long time before he dragged it and buried it in the already dug grave, cursing that third Friday of June.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chinweokwu Ukwueze is a Nigerian writer born in Nsukka, Nigeria. He lives in Lagos. He studies at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he is studying for a degree in English and Literature. He is serving as the editor of The Muse Journal, 46. He believes art is human and free.