Between the Living and the Dead

By Naa Momo

Kwao had never really liked the solemn hymns they sang at funerals, and so the Presbyterian
hymnal remained untouched in front of him. He felt disembodied; unsure of how he was standing,
or how he was even conscious enough to register the worn-down maroon carpeting on the dais, the
cracked black leather on the empty seats against the wall of the sanctum, or the light-yellow
scratches in the warm-tinted wood of the pulpit. His body was present, but the man himself was not.

His sister’s smiling face stared back at him from the banner behind the congregation leaders
on the stage. He stared at the creases in her nose that forever accompanied her giggles, at her
rounded cheeks. He lost himself in her twinkling eyes, waiting for her to climb through the sombre
floral wreath framing her face and over the endless list of whoever the fuck was sad that she’d died,
over the calligraphy depicting her full name and her house name, “Sweetie”. He waited for her to
spring back to life and laugh at how distraught he was at her well-executed prank. He’d been waiting
on it for the past 4 weeks, and with every day that passed, he became more and more despondent in
his realisation that his sister wasn’t coming back. Sweetie was gone from the world, from him.

Someone was wailing in the church hall, and he couldn’t tell who it was. Kwao smiled to
himself, a slight curl of the lip that only his sister would have understood. At their grandmother’s
funeral when they were teenagers, a stranger who claimed to be a distant relative wailed and wailed
for this asafonukpa she barely knew, in the presence of her actual family and friends. Later, they
found out she had only showed up to get food. She was sent off with a pack of jollof, a few balls of
kenkey and some fried fish, . because that’s exactly what Mmaa would have done and the family
knew better than to dishonour their matriarch while they prepared to finally lay her to rest. Mmaa’s
fierce love had taught them how to show up for each other with fervor, and Kwao was absolutely
certain that for him, the fierceness of his fevered anguish was precisely what would kill him.

The wailing continued through the first hymn. In the middle of the second hymn, Kwao
shifted back into his own body and realised he was the source of the anguished wordless pleas. His
attempt at blocking the pain had failed, because he could feel it surging through him right then. . No
matter how distressing, there was no way he could stop himself from coming to terms with the loss –
his body and pain had connected; two faceless figures sitting in Mmaa’s guest parlour, chatting
animatedly over tea and biscuits. He peered at them through the doorway and they looked over
expectantly, waiting for him to walk into the room so the three of them could hold hands and be
one again. He drew her white lace curtain closed, obstructing their view of him so he could
guiltlessly wallow in his unwillingness to face them just yet.

Kwao felt Jerry shift beside him. His eyes roved the room and blurrily registered the
sympathy in the congregation that was struggling to sing over his wails. His knees buckled and his
head fell back, but his best friend locked his arms around his torso, like a harness holding the pieces
of him together.. They’d been together when he’d received the call. She’d been walking just on the
ear of the road to buy some koko when she was barrelled into by one the young boys in the area.
The boy had taken a joyride on his older brother’s motorcycle and lost control. What was supposed
to be secret practice for his dream Suzuki beast had needlessly killed Sweetie, even in the face of his
tearful apologies from his hospital bed, then the loss was too unbelievable for Kwao to do anything
but nod in acknowledgement. .

“Chale, Kwao. Aknor, aknor. You dier, cry.” Jerry was worried. There was no telling if his
friend would ever survive this loss. He knew how close the siblings were. Since he’d met them in
primary school, they had been inseparable. He saw how much more they leaned on each other when
their grandmother died, and realised even then that there were parts of his best friend that he would
never reach because he only gave them to his sister. . It was a struggle for Jerry to comfort his
broken friend who seemed to be so numbed from shock. Everything became a murmur to Kwao as
he retreated into his mind.. His consciousness found comfort in their grandmother’s home– where
they had grown up, and every corner held a memory of them and their bond. Here, things were
untouched, perfect. Far away from the cold hospital morgue, far from the musty church; he could be
a prepubescent troublemaker, plotting innocent mischief with his sister, his favourite co-conspirator.

Sweetie walked out of her room munching on an apple. He looked up at her and smiled as
she joined him at the dining table. At least here, away from the mourners and the reality of life now,
he could give himself the permission to feel something akin to joy.

“Do you want some?” she asked teasingly, extending the half-eaten red orb to him. He
leaned forward to bite, and she withdrew her arm and put the fruit to her own lips. After a satisfying
crunch, she teased, “Sorry.” He couldn’t help but laugh, because who the fuck was he going to do
these silly things with now?

“Oh, Sweetie. So you too, true true, you’ve left me here?” She saddened visibly and lowered
the browning apple core to the table. After chewing the last of it, she reached for his hand.

“I’m sad too, that day I was going to get you extra koose and everything! But think of it like
this; I’m gone so now you can do everything you need to, and you won’t have to worry about me
being alone. And I got to this side first, so I can prepare your room and things for when you get
here too. I’m even going to see Mmaa tomorrow. She was so excited when I spoke to her earlier.”
She paused for a beat, and then encouraged, “It’s not all bad, okay?”

Leave it to her to find the upside for him even when she wasn’t with him anymore. He felt
her tap his hand and push it a little bit. “You have to go back and face the things, babe. I know it’s
hard, but you have to.”

He nodded tearfully in agreement and got up from the table. As he phased out of his mental
sanctum she dissolved into fog, shouting, “Don’t make that face! Ugh, you’re so sappy!” He walked
past the white lace curtain he had drawn, whispering his last direct declaration of love to her as the
organist played the last chords of the third hymn. He felt his body still, and something akin to
peace—or resignation—wash over him.
And then, his wailing stopped, and all was silent.

‘Between the Living and the Dead’ was first published as part of our Balance Anthology, ‘Equanimity’.
Download the full anthology.