The Smell of Bread Forms a Map of a Life
Sometimes the eye reaches for its object through the span of another eye, and what is looked at is seen from an angle unaccounted for by light or distance. At once irredeemably far and terribly near. Which is to say that when my mother, as a girl, watches her father rise in the early days of the bombardment, it is not her eye that searches his face but my own.
The drills, with their exacting routine, help reaffirm the value of collective effort in the face of the unimaginable. Everyone who can stand is expected to. They gather in a large school yard which, just a few months into the war, had lost all resemblance to its original function.
A premonition in the face of the unimaginable: A woman lets out a great wail long before she receives news of her husband’s death. When the body is shown to her, the messenger is told that his news is no longer news, and asked if he has brought anything else.
The sick and dying are laid in neat rows of six beds to the left and to the right. When the door is shut, the room’s only source of light is three short windows along the left wall, seven or eight inches above where a patient’s head would be. In daylight, both rows are easy enough to see but as sunlight wanes, it is harder to make out any shapes. Only sudden movement—the shifting of a body’s weight, a cough, or the strong smell of waste—alerts a visitor to the presence of the infirm.
It is in moments like this, in cramped spaces, among unfamiliar bodies, that darkness again reminds us of the power it wielded over our earliest ancestors before mankind harnessed the movement of electrons. A power potent not because it is absolute but because it is limited. The enemy who springs at night is a creature of extraordinary patience and desperation. It bides its time and knows its window of opportunity is short. In such darkness, every shadow hides a quick and devious imagination. In such darkness, many wake too late to run.
There are stories of many who, tired of walking, simply stop.
What is given, what is disclosed, what is offered in the gaze shared between two people who have in common the lives they have failed to save? It is easier, when greeting, to avoid the eyes.
As they flee Lagos, my grandfather’s grey Opel has the dull gleam of bone. They have heard that some do not make it past the checkpoints. My mother, a girl, is young but not the youngest. The baby, everyone remembers, stayed calm through it all.
Whose is the greater burden, the messenger who knows the gravity of the message he is asked to deliver or the messenger who delivers a message the import of which he knows nothing? In wartime, it is dangerous to travel, worse yet to travel with words. But young men must play their part.
Earlier in “With the Mist So Dense on the Bridge,” when Mahmoud Darwish writes “In the blue dawn, the smell of bread / forms a map of a life,” I am looking through my grandfather’s eyes at the bloated bellies of his children.
Days after Owerri falls, again, to the federal army, essentially crushing what’s left of the Biafran cause, the English reporter interviews the colonel whose soldiers garrison the city. He is, the reporter observes, “resplendent in his superbly polished boots.” When asked about allegations of looting and sexual violence, the soldier says, “this is customary in any war.”
Passing through Orlu and Okigwe, those who have nowhere to go are asked what they’ve seen. They give what answers they have.
What is rarely remarked upon is the quiet, sometimes, between salvos. In Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, one might be pointed to the gravestone of the composer Alfred Schnittke. On the slab there is an inscription of a fermata over a whole rest in triple forte. Were this notation to be played, it would be the sound of a prolonged and deafening silence.
My grandfather is born, not long before Schnittke, at the peak of one of Owerri’s great festivals. He is given two names, and then a third: Nzuegbu. Noise does not kill.