Papa's House

How do you survive a holocaust, I remember asking myself. When you see a child, you don't expect them to grow up. You expect them to stay small and ask “why” until you run out of reasons to give them. You expect them to spill milk and cry and you teach them to clean it up. You expect them to be scared of the dark and the boogyman, so you look under the bed and in the closet to show them that there's nothing there. But the child eventually learns how to drink without a sippy cup. And the child stops asking “why” and stops wondering because it knows what curiosity does. And they learn that there are things much scarier than the boogyman and the dark. “Let's go see Papa,” my dad calls from the front door. I grab my sandals and meet him at the bottom of the stairs. We exit the tall iron spiked front gates and begin walking down a dirt road. The air in Nigeria is thick with sand. I cough, struggling to keep up with my dad. He walks two steps ahead, his lungs unfazed. “Edewu,” the villagers greet us as we march. Their igbo dialect rolls off their ounce. The word is one of the very few I've learned during my visit. I think it means ‘blessings.' I return the greeting with a wave and half a smile. My dad leads the way, slipping past the crowds of people and their blessings, sparing no time for friendly small talk. The walk is only but five minutes. A direct path from my dad's house to his dad's house; a lifeline of sorts. My dad is the oldest son of eight children. “Your uncle Charlie lives over there.” He points to the left at a sky blue house hidden behind a collection of palm trees. I nod. I've never seen my uncle Charlie before. His house is a snapshot of sibling rivalry the way his is built one story taller than my dad's three story flat. My dad takes my hand in his and we cross a gravel road. The buzz of mopeds and motorcycles rush past us barely missing our heels. My dad looks to the right at a run down mud house shaded with rusted tin sheets. “Your uncle Sabinus lived here. They murdered him. Poison.” All the houses of my relatives line the dirt path like a museum of his childhood, their houses as empty as skeletons. His tongue doesn't slip when it speaks of poison. He doesn't stutter or cry. He soldiers on ahead to copper gates and thrusts open the doors to his father's compound. A monopoly of mud houses scatter the lot placed so tightly together they nearly stand atop each other. A broken down Mercedes marks the entry way to my dad's childhood home. The first car he ever learned how to drive, a dusty relic of his past. Two graves sit at his feet. Taking a handkerchief from his pocket he wipes down the first. “Mazi Vitalis Nweze Nwocha” the inscription reads. My grandfather. He bows his head in silent prayer. “Your grandfather was a fugitive of the war. They annihilated us. Burned us alive like sacrificial animals.” My dad says “they strapped people to military vehicles while their lower limbs dragged helplessly beneath them. I was only 12 at the time.” I stay silent. He tells me about the Birafian War. How Nigerian soldiers raided houses in the middle of the night with machetes, painting walls scarlet. How as a kid, he built a bunker big enough for nine people in the back of his house to hide his father from being recruited into the Birafian army. My dad is 64 now. He dusts off hid hands and pockets his handkerchief sweeping fours years of bloodshed back under the rug. We turn to leave his compound passing more unmarked graves on the way out. I look at him, realizing for the first time how silent it really is when a heart breaks. As kids we are taught not to cry over spilt milk. The war taught my dad not to cry over blood either.

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