Ikhide R. Ikheloa
We sit around this fireplace
in the sky that never goes out.
We are staring at each other
and these words
are like the firewood that stokes the fire-of-many-faces.
We sit around this fireplace but we are cold.
Here take my firewood it burns bright
it burns long it burns hard.
Take my firewood and we will be warm.
In my dream I fled America, the land of large people that know no hunger, sad people that will never know the joy of feeding a pain because they are never hungry. In my dream, I landed in Nigeria on my father’s favorite palm tree drinking palm wine and eating the meal-that-satisfies-the-belly that I had stolen from my mother’s earthen pots. In my dream, my mother’s voice, strong voice of steel, rose up, sonorous in sorrow, beautiful in sadness, rose up to rebuke me for raiding her cooking pots. In my dream, my mother cursed me with the breasts that gave me life and succor. It was a beautiful curse, the rendering of it. It traveled through rivers of tribulation and rank disappointments and hit me smack in my conscience’s face:
“Your children will be aliens in the land of your birth. They will know prosperity all their lives, and in knowing wealth they will live with the poverty of prosperity all their lives. The joy of satisfying a hunger will elude them with the swiftness with which you have stolen from my pots. Their cooking tripods will always quake on two legs, because, you my son, you have made me a two-legged tripod in my old age.”
In my dream, I laughed hard and loud at the effete curses coming from my mother, this shriveled old lady perched at the foot of my father’s favorite palm tree. I shivered with sheer joy and satisfaction as my father’s palm wine and my mother’s cooking raced through me, thrilling my hunger cells with the sheer pleasure of good wine and real cooking.
Soon the voice called, called me, looking for her husband. I listened to the ululation of she-who-must-find-her-husband, and the tremors of the voice felled me from my father’s palm tree and I woke up in the bosom of a new day, staring at dew-drop dawn in America.
“Father, of my children, it is morning. Did you sleep well?”
“Mother of my children, it is morning indeed. I slept well.”
Good morning, America. My eyes rise, lift themselves up from the icy ashes of my condition, and wag their sassy tails at life. Good morning, America. Life goes on, but this is not how the antelope planned the trip to the market place. In the antelope’s dreams, he was at the market place all decked out in the best suit the tailors of Italy could put together, his princely hooves wearing shoes made from supple soft Italian leather. When the antelope woke up, ye gods, he was all naked and tied up, and who is this filthy vermin offering him for sale to peasants? I am the antelope, and this is not how I planned this, this trip to the market place. But life goes on. Time cracks her whip. I flinch, lean out the drive-thru window into the arctic blast of winter in America and I ask the question on my master’s script: “Do you want fries to go with this ma’am?” Good morning, America. Life goes on.
This is where the cold stream froze
snap-crackle in the middle of nothingness.
This is where the cold frozen river
dragged the iroko tree by her hair to plant
The warrior sails from hair to feet of the iroko tree
and everywhere is the same
everywhere is frozen.
Sitting cold by this river of glass
watching my rabbit prepare for dusk
closing the shutters on dawn’s window.
Africa calls me with the smell
of warm ashes softening my maize and my heart.
I must go to the phone lines and talk to you
Izuma-of-the-great-plains listen to me.
Izuma-of-the-rugged-stout-bush hear me sing.
Summer slinks out of the swimming pool, waves goodbye to my children and their friend the ice cream truck, and goes back to bed with the ground hog. Good night summer, see you next year. We wake up in America reincarnated from the wet depths of winter. In America, our days do not morph into nights. The days clash into them and the explosions send us shell-shocked into the bosom of tired gods. Dawn comes with the rude roar of the bugler’s trumpet. And the cycle continues every morning. Come Spring, ice cakes flee America and slink back, into a thousand little streams to return as rock solid goddesses of the sea.
Another morning in America and like the morning before her, I fight my way out of our house, past my children’s needs, past her nostalgia for a simple place to rest from this thing called marriage. Miracles of all miracles, my jalopy wails to a start. I attack the ice on the windshield, the snow on the roof and the cold in my heart and in my bones with all the tools and strength at my disposal. The journey down the road to work is long; there are not enough roads for all the cars that the money in America has bought. We have too much and everywhere we go we take with us what our money has bought. And now the roads look like gigantic pythons suffering from indigestion. The ice crackles, breaks off and scampers off of my windshield and I join the motor lines of the new slaves going to the salt-mines of the west. And like frozen gods, the trees line either side of the boulevard to nowhere, guarding the snake lines of overweight cars as they wind through the path to the pantheon of the dollar-gods.
The heat rises from my feet and tucks me into my solitude; respite from that which chases me daily. And soon Africa comes calling to me, as she rises from deep inside the white man’s ilo* that resides in vinyl discs. Strong voices of my ancestors, indignant messengers of a constant condition, chase the drummers’ solo chant. And the rocking and wailing of horns cannot drown the beauty of our sisters’ insistent chorus. And one by one, my ancestors rise up from my windshield and remind me of the beginning of this journey that knows no end. And now I am the sum of my experiences. When I turned the corner of my mother’s favorite path, I came to this land that was like no other. Here there are no men and there are no women, there are persons. The people, they stopped going to the farm a thousand moons ago, but they still eat like famished farmers. For the food keeps coming in huge silos straight into their gullets. The people know no hunger but they hunger for the beauty that the goddess of hunger bestows on her faithful. There is no hunger in this land; even the poor know no hunger. And now there is a new hunger of the spirit that is born from prosperity. It is a hunger of the spirit. In this land called America, we have everything but we have nothing. The gods are punishing us. The gods that put hunger on this earth are angry with mere mortals for multiplying loaves of everything in their engineering labs. We were never meant to be content all the time. And now we know it.
We are never hungry. We eat when the time says we should be hungry. We went to the chicken place to get lunch, me and my mother, Izuma-of-the-restless-path. At the drive-thru, I punched the button for help and the voice called as if from the skies. The voice offered us a thousand combinations of a thousand offerings of a thousand choices that we do not need. I pine for my mother’s plate of steaming hot white rice and goat meat stew but it is not one of the thousand choices. I make a choice. I look behind me and the lines of the not-really hungry snake into the road, all staring at the drive-thru like a malevolent beast they would love to devour. Izuma watches me, her son, eyes welling with awe at the audacity and my mastery of the white man’s witchcraft. The voice asks me for money and I give the hole in the wall the plastic that gives birth to money. The hole in the wall gives me my receipt and a chute comes as if from the skies bearing our lunch. I give Izuma her lunch:
“My son, this is food from alien gods. How can I eat what the gods cooked?”
“Mama, please eat! It is food; human beings that you do not see cooked the meals.”
“How do you know this? I see no one. And you did not pay for this thing! Will they not be angry with us?”
I show Izuma my credit card and I try to explain the miracle of the plastic to her. She holds her box of chicken and after a long silence my mother’s voice delivers the verdict that flogs my dignity each time:
“The white man is amazing. He knows where God is but he will not tell us black people because if we know where he is, we will kill him!”
We will die and return in a thousand moons and there will be no nations as we know them. All these structures, all these walls, they will be gone, sold on eBay, wretched souvenirs of a time long gone. The walls of our Jericho will melt into vapor, victims of the wrath of the bugler’s horn. Think about this: These new wires in the sky that we can’t see, this thing that we can’t touch called the Internet; it is like a revolution that came, like the thief in the night. My friend the computer genius bought a big house and now he has no job. His job fled through the Internet to India where young people with accents tell you in America how to fix what ails your computer. In the bazaars of Mumbai, the food vendor sells fried potato cakes at dawn and sells computer help to the Americans come dusk. For every dollar my friend was making in America, they pay the Indians pennies. The Indians are happy, but my friend is miserable. The bank sold my friend his dream house. He bought a nightmare. Change is not coming, change has come. And why are my feet cemented to the tracks of a coming train?
Smell the ashes
swirling up from the ashes
dancing dizzy into the eaves
of the hut of happy memories.
Smell the maize
roasting merry on your fire log.
Take the maize, tongue
and this pear, tongue.
The chemist does not need your pipette
I am back from chasing mangoes in the mad man’s guava grove and my feet land in Nigeria, the land that houses my umbilical cord. The ashes of my childhood warm my pear and my memories. And my maize is done. Nothing has changed. Do you hear the beautiful wailing of horns? The sage Christopher Okigbo is leaning hard on his sorrows, trapped in a Fanta bottle of ogogoro,** watching his words morph into the reality that Nigeria has become. The warrior, Isaac Adaka Boro stalks the dark, dank oil polluted Niger delta in his water taxi, refusing to be consoled. The bard Celestine Ukwu has been drinking non-stop in the tombo bar wailing inconsolably for the return of Rex Lawson. And Kongi ,*** angry wise bard, offspring of the loin of the fearless gazelle, he roams the land warning of the coming inferno. Our story teller Hubert Ogunde is back, telling the deaf of yet another conflagration. Nigeria Ronu!****
It is not evening yet, but all is dark because the myrmidons of darkness have descended on our land like a swarm of locusts. My uncle Diesel is dead and our village is dying, felled by change. Death is not permanent, for the good death nurtures a rebirth. We shall see. Villages are dying in Nigeria, felled by change. Villages are dying in America, felled by the gods of Wal-Mart. But all is well. Everything is as it should be. Death is not permanent, for the good death nurtures a rebirth. Good night, uncle. Good night Diesel.
And darkness descends
wet blanket on a forlorn land
and we are touched dew-wet
and as one we have sinned…
What have we done?