For I Refuse to Believe Birds Die
I have always wanted to learn the names of birds. Many months back – I like to imagine, for I cannot be too sure if I did or didn’t – I bought a notebook to write their names, blue birds and black birds, seabirds and tree birds, flightless birds and flying birds. Although I like to imagine it, it is very true to me, very much like a memory, my book of bird names.
I imagine sitting and writing their names: swift, swallow, wren, magpie, cuckoo, kiwi, robin… And I imagine, as I wrote, wings appearing on the paper, colors filling these wings, and songs bursting forth, and nests forming, and trees sprouting. And this imagining, this remembering became my memory of a book, so much that one morning, beneath a cherry tree alive with the twittering of weaver birds in ceaseless dance, I typed these words on my notepad: My book is singing a song of birds….
One time I found children bent around a bird on a cold pavement. I drew closer. It was a weaver bird, bright yellow breast and black-flecked head. Its wing was bleeding, some of its feathers had been plucked out, and weakly, very weakly it was flapping the injured wing. The bird was opening its mouth and closing it, swallowing air, holding on, gasping, somewhat as if searching for a song that would never come.
The bird died as I knew it would, and as I watched it, I wished, as I often do, that I were God, only this time I wished it more deeply.
When a beautiful thing dies, something shifts in the universe. And when that thing is a thing of songs, then the loss is a gulf of boundless grief.
This moment I have lost a friend, and it aches as the death of a bird – and ours was a bird full of songs. I sit sometimes in a room darkened with hanging clothes and curtain-draped windows, and I fill with questions. I become uncertain of many things, of whether I lost his suit with which he trusted me, or whether it was stolen or exchanged or whether it is still the very one I claim is hanging in my room. I take the black suit in my hands and look it over. It surely looks like it. Label and all. But his words on the phone, his betrayed look at the cafeteria, the insufficiency of sorrys on that cold morning when he had just returned from Aba with the suit rolled up in his school bag, these things questioned my truth, and our friendship faltered.
“You embarrassed me, betrayed my trust, and over the phone you still tried to make me look stupid by claiming I was mistaken…. The world is not as you think it, let me tell you,” he said. “If it were someone else it would have gone different for you. The world is too deep, but you don’t know.”
I sat in self-recriminating silence, my tongue too limp for words. He was hurt, very, and I put aside my own claims to justification, put aside my small offense at the wreckless dismissal of my deep remorse and genuine stupefaction at all of these.
Some moments are just bigger than you, and sorry is never enough.
I met my friend in 100 level, in a dim room full of students, all boys, reading. I met him solving some calculus, holding his pencil delicately between his thumb and forefinger, the other fingers lifted off the paper like things about to take flight. He solved so swiftly and so fluidly, mathematics, to him, like music; he was enraptured in it, completely entranced and drugged. In his eyes, there was the look of a man in deep enjoyment. I would not forget that image of him, a smallish man with tiny fingers, holding his pencil with the most precious delicateness, solving his mathematics, two of them swaddled in a love they had not come to admit to each other. Indeed I cannot forget that image of him, and maybe I have come to romanticize it, as we romanticize beautiful things in memory, adorning them with the air of the divine. Maybe.
Our time in university was spent as time in university is spent – as time in life is spent – doing things: talking, laughing, studying, eating, playing, walking, groaning, things that gathered significance with the passing years, things that, with the passing of months, became monuments. I look on the postered walls of where we had walked, Faculty, Law, Agric, Basement, Engineering and he feels so long ago. I look at the posters, some peeled, some old, some stained, and most striking, some pasted on top of others in what, in such uncanny moments of remembering, can seem like a season plastered over a season, like a memory blotting out a memory. In such moments, I feel the pang of loss, feel myself stretching out for a time that is receding, like a man on the ground backpedalling away at the sight of an outstretched hand, in a slighting gesture of distrust or outright contempt. I see this is how it must feel when love unclasps its self from around your body, this must be the pain of its roots pulling out. I reach out and want to cry out after something, after someone running and running away from me in a place of rain and dark skies.
On the day he gave me his suit, there were dark skies. I had just come from his house in the depths of Ekosodin, a small student community outside of campus, where he had changed out of the suit, the excitement of his project defence still all over him, the blue copies of his work still on the bed, something on saloon effluent water treatment. “Standard, Joseph. That work was standard. My supervisor – oh no that woman, no, that woman too try, that woman good. She gave us what we needed. From day 1, we were in communication, constant communication,” he said, in a voice that packed more energy than his small frame suggested. That project is an A, he said over and over again. The next day was to be my own project defense; that was why I had come, to discuss it with him, and to borrow his suit. He handed it to me neatly packed in its plastic bag, and we both left his room. I held the suit against my chest. We walked the long way back, he pointing out landmarks and signposts on the road for me to remember the place, laying foundations for another visit; he showing me a woman in a wrapper and a blouse who had just lost her son who had been a vigilante chief in the community, me thinking how quietly she wore her grief, how decently, as though grief had to be something that announced itself, as though grief had to be a noisy thing with flailing hands.
On the road from Faculty to Maingate, the bus we had entered broke down. We were still far from Maingate, and the sky was darkening above us, so the driver began pleading with us to push the bus with him. He was the first to start pushing, my friend. I joined in with one hand, the suit – the hanger holding it hooked on the index finger of the other and draped down my back. Together with a few men on the bus we pushed, but the orange-and-red bus only sputtered, jolted, moved a little further up the road, let out a metallic grunt and stopped. Everyone scattered on the curb and complained, worried aloud if they’d get another bus, paced about the sidewalk in mild impatience and confusion. Each lamented the coming rain. We, my friend and I, chose to walk the rest of the way to Maingate, trusting that the rain would not fall.
The morning I saw him and he gave me back the suit which I was no longer sure was his was a morning of dark skies. Thick clouds gathered over us, letting through only a little sunlight, never letting down the rain. He sat opposite me, and offered to buy me a drink, which I refused. Even in the midst of great disappointment and hurt, he was still a man to be kind. He sat and drank alone, speaking every now and then, finding the words to articulate his pain, telling me, with characteristic honesty and forthrightness, how disappointed he was in me, how betrayed he felt, how things could never be the same again between us. He sat there, a man building coffins, his grief locked up in the bulge of muscles, his pain blotted out by the blows of hammer on nails. Sitting there, beneath the corrugated tin roof of the cafeteria, I saw our bird being tucked in, its last feathers being pushed out of sight under the lid of its grave.
One evening, possessed with the need to repair a broken friendship, I sent him a message on WhatsApp. Nwannem: My Brother, I typed, and typed a string of other words asking about his well-being and his journey. My heart beat as I sent the message. As I typed and sent him the message, I felt the weight of the words Nwannem. My Brother. Words I had used recklessly with him only a few months back, words I had never one day paused to examine, words I had never thought to censor for their appropriateness with regard to him. Nwannem. My brother, two simple words in the warmth and comfort of which I had basked only a few months back. Now they accused me. My friend’s reply came an evening later, clinical and straight to the point: Do not use those words cos you don’t understand them, an angry-faced emoji attached, and behind those a string of other words that spoke about a door slamming shut. When I read them, something gave inside me, something that left grief in its place. He was not the kind of person who would send such a message. That has been our last conversation, these many months now.
Sometimes a separation drags on too long it becomes cemented in place. It can grow so violently like a hardy weed around two people, grow so much that it chokes out their memories, chokes out all their shared years, so much that it becomes the only thing that they have left of each other. When I think of my friend, I think now only of the huge gulf that has fallen between us, I cannot recall his laughter with the simple decent enjoyment of a man recalling his friend; every recollection, every memory is encumbered by my guilt and my remorse, by my wishing to undo a series of days. Sometimes I cannot muster up enough courage to look at the suit where it hangs, sealed off by other clothes, in a corner of my room. Sometimes when others touch it or pull it down as sometimes happens, I snap at them, tell them to put it back; they cannot understand that pulling it into the light and caressing it causes my muscles to constrict and brings me again into contact with my carelessness and my loss. They cannot understand that their pulling it out jabs at me with fresh guilt. Put it back, I say. The suit has become like an effigy, a dark, frightening object with a power of its own, commanding its own sacred space in my room.
Some evenings, in the hours when I can be bold, when I can afford to be broken down without the worry that it would affect some other plan slated for later, I toy with the idea of calling him, my fingers hover over the phone dialer so long I begin to feel like a fool for my indecision. I itch to call him, long to hear his voice, and ask how he’s doing, to ask about his work and his plans, to ask the ordinary things that friends ask friends when they are still friends, the ordinary things that severed ties reveal to be really extraordinary.
I imagine as I write this that, perhaps, he is in Onitsha or Aba or Enugu or some other Eastern city, laughing, drinking, making new friends, quietly coming to the realization that I had never been a good friend, that I am just another tragic case of the unreliability of human beings. I imagine how slowly I would be fading away from his mind, replaced by truer and surer things.
Thinking about these things, I find that to forget is about the easiest thing in the world.
I go walking some days and see fatigued birds on electric wires, preening themselves and fluffing out their feathers, trying to be sure of their presence in the world even in the tepidity of flightlessness. On such mornings, I feel something, as if like telegrams in the air which I cannot read.
On some evenings, in brief moments, I think of him. Maybe the image of morning and the thought at evening share a connection. Maybe.
He was a man who believed in human virtue, extolled goodness over godliness, believed that the Divine took flesh with every deed of kindness. He’d often say: Be good because it is good to be good, not because God said you should be good or because it is written in some Holy Book that you should be good. He bought me meals more times than I can remember, he taught his friends mathematics and physics and engineering. And he laughed easily, especially among friends. His joviality quickly hardened, however, into severity when he perceived injustice, or sensed foul play. He was acutely conscious of being good, of being principled, my friend, and he wanted others to know this and respect him for it. We’d sit, after hours of reading, outside Agric, under the almond tree in front of the fluorescent lights that lit the yellow and green walls of the Faculty entrance, and we’d talk about many things. We usually spoke about serious things, about graduating, about finding our feet in life, about God and morality, about the responsibility of human goodness, about the subjectivity of faith, about academic excellence in a system that hardly rewarded it, about the frivolity of youth.
We would speak until it was time to go to our rooms in the hostel, or we would speak as we walked to study or back to our rooms. He walked with giant, firm strides, his head held high, his arms slightly aloft, a way of walking that was born from a consciousness of himself, of his principle, of his dignity as a man. This consciousness of himself as a man with firm principles, with a strong moral centre was so deep it had sent roots out into every aspect of his life, roots so deep they perhaps made it impossible for him to remain friends with anyone who could not fully appreciate what it meant for a man to call another his friend. I remember his words: I gave you that suit out of trust, out of trust… But you betrayed my trust, and you made me look like a fool… And you say sorry. Well, I have heard, and I hold nothing against you, but things can’t remain the same between us. I just can’t lie to you.
There is a way words come at you, and you feel gagged. You look up and around as if for something to take your side, to plead in your behalf, but you just feel gagged, shamed, and utterly abandoned. That was how I felt on the morning I sat with my friend in that cafeteria, he drinking a Sprite and airing his feelings, me sputtering up sorrys that could do little to bridge the gulf that had fallen between us.
Sometimes anger bubbles up in me. Why can’t he just toss the whole thing and forgive? I ask myself. Our friendship should be stronger than any carelessness on my part, I reason. But the anger sinks back into the pit of my stomach as quickly as it had bubbled forth, and in its place comes that wearying feeling of helplessness and loss. With each passing minute, it becomes more and more difficult to reach out and say, Sorry, and Please, can we begin again?
I can no longer find my book of birds, can no longer remember if I ever had it, but these do not take away the truth of my writing it.
Events from every day press around me, and they bear the colors of that wounded bird from months ago. I see things broken and wounded, things aching and gasping, beyond the help of a resuscitator. I yearn to reach out and restore, a fractured wing, a broken beak, a muted song, but some gulfs are too boundless – at least this is how I feel when standing on the edge.
So I lie beneath a window, in my head a misty memory of variegated plants and hummingbirds dipping, in my hand the power of a weakling: words, and something shaped like sadness, like loss, like grief, and I begin slowly again to make my book of birds. This book is different: the birds come in names that defy words, and they are silent and heavy, for they heave with the spirit of the first birds, for I refuse to believe birds die. I cannot believe our bird has died, my friend’s and mine. One day it would remember its song again and swirl to life. I say this even though I know life not to offer easy resolutions. I say this because there’s place for a prayer.
Ndukwu Joseph Omoh is a Nigerian writer living in Lagos. His work has been published in Saraba, Expound, the Kalahari Review, Brittle Paper, and elsewhere. He tweets @Joseph_Omoh.