By Favour Ahuchaogu
There’s no Igbo word for nose mask. At least, no specific word designated for it. Ihe mkpuchi ihu. A covering for the face. Almost a full sentence. That’s what the awareness programs broadcast on the radio would call it.
Before, I had only seen doctors and nurses wear it. The young doctor that removed my appendix when I was six wore one decorated with Tom and Jerry stickers. He told me it was called a surgical mask and that I shouldn’t be afraid of it because it protected him and me from germs. That was what I would remember the first time I covered my nose and mouth with a mask Mama sewed from leftover fabric. We wore it to church. Not a hospital.
Uncle Emeka was wearing a black colored nose mask in February when he called us on WhatsApp. He is Mama’s only sibling, younger than her by a decade and some. The one working in Shanghai. The one that gives us money and cloth gifts any Christmas he visits. Kizito still has a Chinese won he gave him three Christmases ago tucked into his Oxford dictionary.
“Emeka, you work in a hospital now?” Mama asked, peering into the phone’s camera. She was sitting on her favorite couch with her wrapper tied high on her chest. The wrapper with the bottle opener design. Kizito and I were sitting on the arms of the couch even though Mama slapped us on the head whenever we did it. But she never complained when she was on a call with Uncle Emeka. It was a concession she unconsciously made.
“No, Sister. You people have not heard? There’s a deadly virus going around. It’s very bad here in China”
My mother made the sign of the cross.
“God will protect you. Is it like HIV?” “Worse than that, Sister”
“What sickness can be worse than that one?”
“I hate to say it, but this one is and there is no cure yet. Ndi mmadu na-anwu ka ijiji. People are dying like flies. This coronavirus is deadly”
“I si gini? What did you say? Corolla? As in the car brand?”
Uncle Emeka laughed so hard he fell off the camera frame.
“Explain to me, Emy”
“Corona. It makes it hard for someone to breathe and taste…”
It was Mama’s turn to laugh. She laughed so hard her wrapper started to slip down and Kizito had to hold the phone so she could adjust it.
“Emeka, that one is ordinary catarrh and cold na. Cover yourself well at night, inula? You hear?”
Uncle Emeka shrugged and shook his head. But he told Kizito and me to wash our hands regularly and we agreed, Kizito nodding vigorously because he promised him a PS5 on Easter. Mama would later take the phone from Kizito and ask Uncle Emeka if he was coming back on Easter as planned to marry his wife traditionally.
“Let’s see how things go, Sister. The city I live in is currently locked down. I hope all these ends before then”.
Mama assured him that it would and we said our farewells as he ended the call because he had to go back to work. We prayed for him that night, Mama asking Jesus to protect her Emy from “Corolla” and to open the doors of the city so he would come back and marry.
By March, we were familiar with the virus. Our schools were closed and Mama sighed and sucked air between her teeth when it was announced that our church would be closed too. But she pushed out her lower lip and put her hands on her hips when Uncle Emeka called and said the wedding would be held over Zoom.
“What are you even saying, Emeka? Just postpone the wedding. You can do it in December. By then, all these would have ended”
“No, Sister. My schedule wouldn’t be free by then and besides, I have moved the wedding date a lot. Amaka is already getting antsy”
“We will go to her people and tell them…”
Uncle Emeka interrupted Mama. The only time I heard him do it. He looked stressed like Kizito’s dog when it had been in the cage for long. His hair and beard were bushy because his barber was closed.
“No, Sister. We will do it over Zoom. I have already told Amaka’s brother how to go about it”
Mama pushed out her lower lip as far as it could go after the call but that April, a week before Easter, we went to Amaka’s family house for the traditional wedding. She is a beautiful, light-skinned lady and she didn’t seem to mind that the wedding was uncommon. Uncle Emeka had sent her money for a new outfit and she went all out. She was just happy to be finally married to her “abroad fiance”, virtual wedding or not. The wedding was done in her father’s sitting room. There were drinks, a small cooler of jollof rice, and of course, fufu with ofe onugbu and ofe uha. The few friends and relatives present sat some in the sitting room and others on the verandah (because someone said something about “sosha distancing”) with their nose masks under their jaws. It looked like someone had shrunk the regular, rambunctious ceremony and forced it into a sitting room with faded pictures of Amaka’s parents hanging on the walls. When it was time to give her husband palm wine, she knelt in front of the laptop, and Uncle Emeka smiled and nodded his head. He was wearing a red outfit like his bride and surrounded by some of his friends, Nigerian guys he had met in China. He drank from a glass Kizito suspected was full of beer. He had to remind Amaka’s brother to unmute the device ten times. I counted. Everyone laughed at the unusualness of the whole thing and the older relatives talked about how such a thing would not have even been imagined in their day and how “coloniavilus” and technology had turned the world upside down. Amaka’s mother took Mama aside after almost everyone had left and asked her if Uncle Emeka was going to start working on Amaka’s visa as soon as possible.
“My inlaw, Emeka doesn’t have the key to the locked borders, the embassy, or wherever it is they issue travel documents. Let’s be content with this wedding. Left for me…”
And I pinched her because I knew what she was going to say.
By May, the travel ban had still not been lifted and Uncle Emeka called us less and less because as Mama put it, “he was a married man with a wife to talk to”. Kizito begged her to call him and ask if he could send the money equivalent of the game console. Mama stubbornly refused because she still bore a grudge over the “very weird wedding that did not give her room to shine as ada, first and only sister of the groom” (she sucked her teeth after saying it).
So we were quite surprised when a foreign number called Mama by midnight on a Tuesday in June. Kizito picked the call because he thought it was Uncle Emeka calling with regards to his gift. With halting English and an accent, the caller explained that he was calling from a hospital whose name I am sure we have all forgotten. Kizito’s eyes went wild and he ran to wake Mama. She woke up, one hand outstretched for the phone and the other holding her wrapper. She put the phone to her ear, scrunched up her face in concentration, and then let out a scream.
“Emeka, nwanne m o! Emeka, my brother!”
We sat around her as she screamed more and more. I picked up the phone she had dropped on the bed (because her hands were on her head). The caller was still speaking.
“You there? Are you there? We are very sorry…”
Later, we gathered that Uncle Emeka had contracted the virus from one of his friends that came to give him support during his wedding. We also learned that Mama was his emergency contact and the health workers had dialed “Sister” thinking she lived in China too. We finally gathered that he could have called us but he was lying in a hospital bed hooked to a respirator. The guilt tore Mama apart and she kept saying, “I would have called him. I would have called my brother but I was angry and now he’s dead”. Relatives trooped in, all safety measures thrown out of the window. But I’ll never forget the way Amaka cried. She screamed from the gate, her hair and clothes disheveled, and threw herself on the floor in front of Mama mumbling “my husband,
Emeka my husband”. Mama shoved her and shouted that it was her desperation that killed her baby brother. If the wedding had not happened, his friends would not have come over. That was the same thing she told his friends over the phone when they called. When one of them, Tunde I think, asked if the family wanted to discuss burial arrangements, Mama jumped off the floor and her wrapper slipped to the floor revealing the nightgown she had been wearing for a week.
She shouted into the phone like the caller’s ear was right next to her mouth and she wanted to deafen him.
“Murderers! Which one of you infected my brother? How am I even sure that it is that nonsense virus that killed him? What if this is a conspiracy? I wish I could fly to China right now. Let me go and see with my two koro koro eyes. Emeka has had malaria and cold before na. How can common catarrh snuff Emy’s life?”
By August, Uncle Emeka had rested in the ground for over a month. He was buried in July. After a series of extended family meetings, Mama agreed that he should be buried there. Flying a corpse from one continent to another was expensive. And near impossible with the lockdowns. His friends held his funeral over Zoom. We joined, sitting on the arms of the couch beside Mama. The priest said he was survived by his widow, his nephew and niece, and his only sister.
2ND PRIZE – ALITFEST21 PRIZE FOR SHORT STORIES
Favour Ezienyi Ahuchaogu is an avid reader. When you do not find her with her nose in a book, you will find her sleeping and dreaming of places she has visited in her imagination. She is a graduate of English and Literary Studies from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. She currently works as a freelance writer and editor.