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Gone by Kenneth Nwabuisi


James sits by the river bank and listens. He hears the seagulls cawing. The birds, whistling. The waters dancing to the surface of the seashores. He shuts his eyes so his soul can know peace, his upper eyelids tight against his lower eyelids. His chest is vibrating, trembling. He wants to listen to the water, to the gurgling sound it makes. He wants to hear, once more, the cacophony of Ify’s laughter, but he is troubled by the shuffling sounds the water makes. Ify was his younger sister, and it annoys him that he’s remembering his one and only sister in this way — in a sordid, past tense. He opens his his eyes again and watches as the water trundles, pushing against a huge white stone.

This white stone is familiar to him. He can remember it vividly now. The memory of that beautiful, sunny day comes to him like an uninvited guest. It is the surface of this stone that once bore traces of lines from Ify’s tiny fingers. Now, with his eyes closed, he hears from a distance, amid the caterwauling of the waves, a loud scream; that extended piece of cry that had made him bolt from the seashore where he crouched.

They visited the water in that morning. Their father, Mr. David, a tall man with bulgy eyes had driven them from their tall bungalow in independence layout Enugu to Akwuke beach. It was supposed to be a fun-filled day. Mr. David had bought the idea of driving them to the water park so he could take the kids away from the boredom and melancholy that was bequeathed on them by the sudden demise of his wife. It was a holiday, and the vacation was a relief from the children’s overwhelming curricular activities.

On that afternoon, Ify and James were seated in the back seat, Mr. David riding ahead. It was a slow, bumpy ride. There were moments when James would shout heavily after Mr. David’s car hit a hard surface of the ruddy, tarred road, or when a trailer glided past them. James would close his eyes and clutch his father’s headrest.

“Daddy!” he would shout, his head slanted to his father’s bosom.

The sun was a ball in the sky as they wallowed into the water. Shadows of strangers who were also on tour trickled around as the scene bustled. Crickets chirped from far and near. At first, the water was tranquil. Mr David pulled down his long trousers to his feet. James did the same. Ify dragged her gown above her head so that what remained of her chest were her pair of brown breasts like mould clay.

“Ify, don’t enter inside the water o. You’re not strong enough for it yet,” Mr. David warned. Ify tightened her jaw. James regarded Ify with supercilious eyes before he stretched his hands and took a dive inside the water. Mr. David climbed a huge tree a few feet away, plucking some dogonyaro leaves for some herbal medicine.

Soon, the water was crowded with many people that James never knew. Their figure perched around the surface of the water like fireflies. Ify, out of defiance, dived into the water. She swam and swam until the water carried her, pulling her slender body. Water was Ify’s enemy. Mr. David’s early warning was owing to the fact that Ify was sickler. A sick child who came to the world with a body filled with sickness. Mr. David and James knew she could die at any moment. They both carried the awareness of that fact like a heavy sack. Even Ify, herself, bore the same fear.

Two years before, Ify had slumped by the staircase leading to Mr. David’s living room. James had screamed loudly. As usual, Mr. David gathered her into his Toyota Camry and drove them to the hospital. On the way, James told his father how Ify had complained that her hands were burning. Later at the hospital ward that reeked heavily of antiseptics, the doctor, a tall, bald man, confirmed that Ify had been swarmed with many activities and that her sickly condition was approaching its terminal stage.

Ify lay on the bed, tears dripping from the corners of her eyes. She fought the tears by dabbing them with the hem of folded sheets.

“Ify, did you hear what the doctor said? He said you’re going to die soon. You’ll leave your brother and me, the way your mother did.” Mr. David let his fears echo, his words falling like shattered glassware on the tiled floor, moving in circles until they encompassed Ify’s fears.

Since that incident, Ify had often been left out in every activity at home. Many times, she had bemoaned her burgeoning feeling of worthlessness. One morning, after Mr. David had disembarked them at their school gate. Mr. Okafor, their school principal, stopped them both and inquired why they came late. And, knowing she was sick, he punished James alone and ordered Ify inside the classroom.

“But, I can help my brother. We both came late, didn’t we?” Ify cried.

Diving into the water was a getaway for all the numbness Ify had often felt. Even though she had feared her death, she also knew that that single act of letting herself be carried by water would forever bring her peace. At least, in all her feelings of worthlessness and inconsequential, she was glad to find solace in something so free and cold, like water, like the kind of life she was impelled to live — cold and silent.

In school, James was her mouth, her hand, her legs. James fought for her when her bones were too frail to move. James spoke for her when silence was all that her gagged lips produced. Even in her inability to walk, James lent her his shoulder. James didn’t believe his eyes when he looked at the exact point Ify stood and saw emptiness. He didn’t scream. He thought a wayfarer might have carted away with his sister. He thrashed his head into the water and swam ahead to the seashore where Ify was standing a few minutes earlier. Then, his ears heard sounds, and screams: “She’s dying!” “Somebody help her!”

Now, in this moment, James can’t bring himself to believe what he had heard. His sister dying? He is afraid to think, to understand why death could make one so recalcitrant. He sits now, cross-legged. He visits here as often as he can, he sits while listening to the birds, gazing at the waters, watching the imprint his sister’s fingers made on the stone and hoping to hear the cacophony of his sister’s laughter.

He listens. He hopes. He takes countless shaky breaths.

He feels a certain heaviness in his chest and clutches it. Somewhere inside him, the fear of not seeing his sister again rears its head.

So, he cries.

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