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Winter 2015

Emke

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Imbolo Mbue

It is a disease of the blood, the doctors told him.

He didn’t ask many questions—he knew about the disease more than some who came in to treat him. He knew that blood is the river of the body and with his being contaminated, his body might soon shrivel up and die like plants on a dried river bank. He knew this truth and yet he showed no great sorrow at the news, only a frail optimism. Bolow and I stayed by his side in those first days, watching as esteemed experts came in pairs and threes and sometimes enough to form a half moon around him. They asked him questions about his appetite, his sleep, his excrements. They read notes in his chart, listened to the beatings of his body, whispered to each other, and left the room with their heads down. The medicine, which the nurses put in through veins in his arm and back, made him drowsy but his sleep was light, ending when he awakened hot and sweaty from nightmares fueled by too many chemicals pumped into his body. After he had toweled off, he would tell us about the nightmares. In one, he was given a glass of blood by a hand without a body, and asked by a baby’s voice to drink it all in one sip. In another, he saw his head on a tray, laughing at him. Over the course of a few weeks, he became lean, then skeletal. His friends filed in and kept his spirits high and he kept theirs high too. When we left his presence we cried, for we saw on that bed a man whose mind and soul were well but whose body appeared to have lost half its contents.

He made a rule for all who came to visit him: no crying. What are you crying for, he would ask us with a short laugh. Yes, what are we crying for, we would ask ourselves. This, after all, was Emke. He was going to be a healer of others. Why would he not heal himself? He wanted to become a doctor because he was certain that to give a man good health was to give him a life worth continuing. Good health for all, he always said, is what Africa most needs. The talk about the future of Africa resting on the institution of exemplary democracies amused him. Such fancy Western ideologies will never take root among our people, he often said. To him, all men were not equal and so all votes should not carry equal weight. Because the old are wiser than the young, their votes had to be given greater weight. Because the rich are more powerful than the poor, their votes had to be seen as mightier. Shouldn’t all this be admitted and tabulated, he always argued. And what about the tribal lines that run across African countries too small to bear them all? Such lines push voters to choose candidates not on the merit of their intellect but on the belief that having a leader from one’s tribe was a sure way of getting the roads to ancestral villages tarred, and who wouldn’t want that? The hypocrisy of the West, he would scoff. In what planet are all men equal? Even in America, this great country, this perfectly democratic nation, the rich are elevated over the poor and youth is celebrated over age. So no, he would say, what we need back at home isn’t some absurd imported idea of government but a chance to live in good health and govern ourselves as we see fit.

Ah, Emke. Marvelous Emke.

We will not soon know life without him, we told ourselves. We convinced each other that his disease was only a passing aberration, and he convinced his parents likewise. He told them to stay home and wait for he would be coming to visit soon after his release from the hospital. Perhaps out of the hope which only parents have, the hope that their offspring will outlive them, or perhaps because they trusted him, they stayed in Africa and missed their chance to watch him battle that despicable illness.

But I couldn’t miss any chance.

I was with him every free hour I had. I sat on the chair to his left and stared at him as he slept, waiting for his eyes to open again. When they opened, I told him who had come to see him, and what wishes and gifts they’d brought for him. Most times he simply nodded and went back to sleep, back to the place of the bloodcurdling dreams. On the days when he stayed awake, we spoke in whispers about flimsy subjects: the purple shoes one doctor was wearing, the tastelessness of the hospital food, Bolow’s new haircut. His disease sat between us, like an August forest fire, burning away. With every glance at him my heart enlarged, overcome at the beauty he was even in his state of ugliness. I longed to grab him and hold him and ask him to take me with him if he must go. Other times I yearned to run off with his shrinking body, and heal him in a way I believed only I could. Always, I wished he could see me sitting by his bed and feel something different towards me—something close to what I felt towards him—but I could see even on his closed eyes that it was not there. I had no claim to him. The woman who could claim him as her own could only sit in Sierra Leone and wait for news of his recovery.

There would be no such news for he died in his sleep on a rainy night.

I had awoken that morning shivering from a dream I’ll never remember. On the bus ride from school to work and from work to the hospital, I watched the rain coming down, content with itself. When I entered his room, he was not there. For a brief moment I thought I saw him floating over his bed, but the next second he was there no more. As I was walking towards the nurses’ station to ask someone where he might be, I saw Bolow running down the corridor, his hands on his head, his mouth wide open.

Gone! Gone!

What? What do you mean, Bolow?

Emke has left us! Emke is gone!

A year later and I still see him in my dreams, telling me what I wished he’d told me in life; holding me the way I wished he’d held me. At the end of every dream he leaves to start a journey towards a country where everything is made of water. I see the country in a distance, flowing eternally. I run after him but he turns into water and is swallowed by the country. I wake up from these dreams and my bed is wet. I cry but the tears are not as raw as the ones I cried on the day I saw him in an unadorned casket at a funeral home in Harlem. That was my last chance to hold him but all I could do was fall on my knees.

His father came to take his body to his ancestral village fifty miles outside Freetown. Bolow and I went with him to the airport. In the back of the funeral-home car, Emke lay frozen with a grin, wearing a suit he would never have chosen for himself, packed in an ice box for the five-legged journey. I wanted to grab Bolow’s hand and sob into it whenever we drove past a place he and I had visited with Emke, but all I could do was wipe my eyes and nose with the hem of my jacket. To my right, Emke’s father sat looking as lost as my grandfather had looked that day by the ocean when we buried my uncle. I wanted to tell Emke’s father about my grandfather, that he had survived burying his only son. I wanted to tell him that surely he too will survive Emke’s death, but I didn’t. The heart fractures in many different ways and the method of healing differs from human to human. Sometimes it is not possible to survive a suffering such as this.



Imbolo Mbue is a Cameroonian writer living in New York City. This story is her first published work. Her debut novel, The Longings of Jende Jonga, will be out from Random House in early 2016.
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