“What the Dead Man Said”

Read a new short story about climate change, migration, and family secrets.

GIF of Azuka sitting at the New Biafra bus station near her familial home while it rains.
Franco Zacharzewski

Each month, Future Tense Fiction—a series of short stories from Future Tense and ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives—publishes a story on a theme. The theme for July–September 2019: health.

I suppose you could say that it started with the storm.

I hadn’t seen one like it in 30 years. Not since I moved to Tkaronto, in the Northern Indigenous Zone of Turtle Island—what settler-colonialists still insisted on calling North America. I’d forgotten its raw power: angry thunderclouds that blot out the sun, taking you from noon to evening in an instant, then the water that comes down like fury—like the sky itself wants to hurt you.

As I sat in the empty passenger terminal of the Niger River Harbourfront waiting for the bus, I watched as rain streaked the cobbled walkways in silver, sluicing through the narrow depressions between the solar roadway and the gutter. The ferry was long gone, moving up the river into the heart of Igboland, leaving me stranded in an alien world.

A holographic advertisement for some sort of fertility treatment played out on a viewscreen across the street. It was distorted by the haze of rain, but I made out a plump, impossibly happy woman in a crisp red gele—her skin glowing in the golden light of a computer-generated sun—clutching a newborn baby and dancing toward a household shrine. She was surrounded by celebrating family members, but she stopped before a regal older couple to whom she presented the child. The old man took the child with a benevolent smile, while the woman stretched her hand toward the young mother, who was now kneeling before them, in a benediction. The ad ended with a close-up of the beaming mother and the logo of the fertility treatment company in the corner. I turned away before my ocular implants could sync with the ad’s soundtrack, but I’d already caught the tagline: “Keep New Biafra Alive.”

My A.I. announced that the bus had arrived. Its interface had switched to Igbo as soon as I passed from Nigeria™ into New Biafra, as neither English nor Anishinaabe were recognized languages here. I hadn’t spoken Igbo in decades, but its musicality returned to me with smooth familiarity—as if it had simply been waiting for its turn in the spotlight. I ignored the ping; I wanted to watch the rain a little longer. Perhaps it would somehow wash this reality away and I could return to the quiet life I’d built for myself on the other side of the Atlantic.

You can’t put it off forever.

I frowned, then sighed. The dead man was right. This was like getting a body mod. You’d be a brand-new person when it was over, but in the meantime it was going to hurt like hell. I put up the hood of my hi-dri, shouldered my backpack, and stepped out into the storm.

It really started with the notification two days ago. My father had passed on—as they used to say—but that wasn’t real. At least not yet.

What was real was me here in Onitsha, my hometown. Even though I’d spent my childhood wandering this city’s narrow red streets, as I slumped in the passenger well of the automated minibus, it struck me how foreign the place now seemed. How had I forgotten how compact everything was, as if it had been built to accommodate a mass of people long gone? My grandparents told me that over a century ago, more than half a million people had packed into these pristine streets. Now, it wasn’t even half that.

The minibus glided along Niger Avenue, stopping occasionally to let passengers off or allow pedestrians to cross the road. As we passed Fegge, I caught sight of the neighborhood’s ancient cement family quarters, squat-shouldered and tin-roofed, hulking next to each other like sullen children. Crossing from Main Market, with its workshops and retail outlets, into the quiet residential lanes of American Quarters, I spied children in neat uniforms walking hand-in-hand to their various apprenticeships. Children were rare enough in Tkaronto, and those few who could afford to give birth preferred to cluster in tower communities that would protect their precious progeny from the vicissitudes of life. Apart from major celebrations like Emancipation Day, seeing children in public was unheard of.

Throughout the trip, the lights of the historic Niger Bridge blinked on the horizon. I would have liked to go walking across it like any other tourist, streaming photos of the mighty river for my feed back West. But I’d only packed a change of clothes and some toiletries. The burial rites would begin this evening with the wake-keeping and end on the evening of the next day, after the celebratory second funeral. I had no plans of staying past then.

It could be argued that without the Catastrophe, that fraught period between the 2020s and the 2060s that scorched half the world and drowned the rest, New Biafra could never have been born. At the turn of the 22nd century, as people all over were still fleeing inland to escape the rising seas, a group of Igbo separatists took the opportunity to declare their independence from the crumbling colonial creation of Nigeria. The new state called for the return of all its children in diaspora, and my grandparents—engineers eking out a living on the shores of Old New York—were among the thousands who moved to regional cities like Onitsha, Nnewi, Awka, and Aba to answer the call.

We called it the Great Return. Anyone who could prove Igbo ancestry was granted automatic citizenship. Those with coveted skills—geneticists, engineers, and biologists—were given homes, business grants, and lucrative government posts. My grandparents and their generation cleared out the derelict infrastructure of New Biafra’s empty suburbs and towns to make way for the forest lands that now covered nearly 80 percent of the country. They reseeded those forests with bio-engineered plants and wildlife, then built the massive monorail system that connects all our cities to bypass the pristine forests below. But they’d neglected one thing: While they were busy creating our new homeland, they forgot to also raise the massive families that would be needed to keep it solvent and thriving.

As they grew feeble, the burden of caring for them and maintaining the world they’d built fell to us. My agemates, those I kept in touch with after I moved, tell me I was lucky to get out when I did. Leaving New Biafra when I was only 12 meant that I was too young to be tied down by the weight of its social obligations. They complained of having to work long hours to preserve family businesses passed down by aging parents and grandparents. They spoke wistfully of the massive payouts the government awarded to those who could birth three or more children, but few of them could carve out the time needed to cultivate such large families. Though my own life—a spacious apartment in the hills of Highland Crescent, an easygoing art research consultancy—was very different from theirs, I’m not sure I did escape. One cannot cut the invisible threads of familial indebtedness by simply running off to a distant land.

My father certainly fulfilled his filial duty. He became a ranger, protecting the bio-engineered species his parents had introduced in the forests they’d prepared. As his only child, I should have done the same. I’d always liked working with the soil, so it was expected that I would go into agroecology and grow the food that would feed our people. But after what happened with my uncle … I shook my head to ward off the memory.

As the bus pulled up in front of the family home at 142 Old Hospital Rd., I came out of my reverie and noticed that the rain had stopped. The house hadn’t changed since I’d last seen it three decades ago. Hell, it probably hadn’t changed in the 200 years since it had been built in the 1920s.

It was a U-shaped complex with a central bungalow flanked by two-story apartments, one on either side. An open courtyard carpeted with moss grass, fruit trees, and wildflowers filled the space between them. My grandparents had reinforced its walls with permacrete and upgraded its interior to 22nd-century standards, but that’s where the improvements ended. After they died, the house went to my father, who’d never had much interest in technology. In the 20 years he’d lived there, he’d done nothing more than charge its batteries and replace burned-out solar cells.

Traditionally, the oldest members of the family would occupy the bungalow while their children and extended family members crammed into the two warrens of flats. If we’d restricted the apartments to blood family only, as some still did, those buildings would have stood empty. These days relatives were defined less by who’d slept with whom, and more by whose interests and personalities meshed best. I recalled the boisterous couples and polycules who’d lived in the building when I was young—all of them my cousins and uncles and aunties even though we had only marginal blood relationships to each other.

The compound was abuzz with people. Someone had set up a canopy in one corner of the open field where my friends and I had played virtual sports as children. From somewhere in the back the delicate smell of Aba rice and goat stew wafted out, making my mouth water. The building’s families had spared no expense for this event. I tried to slip in quietly, but I was immediately spotted.

“Azuka! Is that you?” screamed a voice from somewhere in the crowd. It was Auntie Chio, a close friend of my grandmother who’d lived in the building for as long as I could remember. I’d been best friends with her two granddaughters, both of whom now lived in the Eko Atlantic megacity. She was one of the few adults who’d kept in touch with me after my mother and I moved to Turtle Island.

I spotted her lithe frame dressed in her usual motley of clashing ankara fabrics as she swept out from the main bungalow. Her unlined face spoke nothing of her nearly 90 years, and before I knew it I was surrounded in her crushing embrace.

I smiled wanly. “Good evening, auntie.”

Ah-ah, when did you come?” She held me at arm’s length, taking me in from head to toe, her eagle-eyed gaze missing nothing.

“Just now. I had to finish some work before I could travel.”

She nodded and gave me a look that was skeptical but sympathetic. She opened her mouth to say more, but her cry had attracted others and soon I was surrounded by people.

“Azu-nne, welcome! See how big you’ve grown, eh! So tall!”

“Come, you don’t remember me, do you? You were so small when last I saw you.”

“My condolences, my dear. It is well with you.”

I tried to respond to each comment and query with as many smiles and few words as possible, and soon I was ushered into the main house. It wasn’t until later that I realized one thing in the compound had changed: The small guardhouse that used to sit just inside the front gate was gone.

That evening at the wake-keeping, Auntie Chio and I sat in the living room next to the biodegradable pod where my father’s body lay, its feet facing the entryway. Earlier, she’d welcomed the community into the home as tradition dictated, presenting kola nuts and palm wine as an offering to the household gods. Another of my elder aunts—I forget how we’re related—led the prayers, pouring libation to beckon the ancestral spirits into our home and escort my father’s spirit to the land of the dead.

This was the night of mourning and I wished I was somewhere, anywhere, else. But as my father’s only biological child, I had to stay by his body and receive mourners until dawn. Then, a government representative would show up to sound an ogene and officially alert the neighborhood of the death. The body would then be interred with its own tree in the front compound. My grandfather told me that when he’d visit Onitsha as a child, this alert would be done by gunshot. After New Biafra banned guns at the turn of the 2140s, we turned to gongs—something he’d much preferred.

It was one of the many stories my grandparents told me about why they chose to return to Onitsha from Turtle Island, after Old New York drowned in the Catastrophe. As a child, I often joined my grandparents—Mama and Papa, as I called them—when they sat trading memories on the veranda at twilight. I would climb into my grandmother’s lap and lean into her chest, savoring the vibrations of her voice as she spoke.

“It’s a shame your father never got to see any grandchild from you.” My Auntie Chio’s voice jolted me into the present. “But we are glad that we will see them on his behalf, now that you have come home.”

I looked askance at her but said nothing. I didn’t need to be reminded that I’d failed to birth our family’s next generation. She must have caught something in my look because her voice dropped to a reassuring register. “You don’t have to marry anyone: We can get a surrogate, if you like. There’s even a government program that could help.”

“Auntie, is this really the best time to talk about this?”

“But of course! The ending of one life is the beginning of the next.” She shifted to face me, and I couldn’t avoid her intense gaze. “My dear, have you forgotten our saying: ‘To have a child is to have treasure’? That is more important today than ever before.

“Look at our history. If it wasn’t for our children, how would we have survived the Civil War, when Nigeria wanted to see us all dead? And those in the western lands who laughed at us when they stopped having even one child after the Catastrophe, look at them now. Are they not the ones scooping us up to feed their hungry economies? Just look at the brokers who helped you and your mother resettle in the West—what didn’t they offer you to come? They have always known the value of our bodies. Before, they packed us away by force in the bottoms of slave ships, now they lure us with sweet songs of success.

“Azuka, do you know how quickly a people can disappear if they fail to value their children? It does not take centuries. Your grandparents understood this—that’s why we all came home. We wanted to bring our wealth back where it would do the most good. You are part of our legacy.”

I broke away from her gaze, a wave of grief welling up in my chest. How could I tell her that my father’s line would die with me because I still recoiled at any sort of sexual contact? Or that the thought of having a child sent me into a paroxysm of panic because I was convinced that what had happened to me would also happen to them? My grief began to curdle into anger. No. This was no longer my legacy. A family that had essentially abandoned me when I needed them most did not get to decide what I did with my life.

Auntie Chio reached out and placed a gentle hand under my chin, lifting my head up to hers. “I will be honest with you, I never thought I would see you again—not after what happened. But I am glad you have come home, and I hope, for all our sakes, that you will find it in your heart to stay.” With that, she got up and left, leaving me alone with my thoughts.

I sighed, my anger dissipating as quickly as it had come. After we moved, my mother turned her back on Onitsha—and all of New Biafra by extension—with a certainty that never wavered. As far as I know, she never spoke with anyone from my father’s side of the family ever again. I hadn’t been able to do the same, even though I had more cause than anyone to shake the red dust of this city from my feet.

My mother had scoffed when I told her I was coming down for the funeral. I hadn’t returned when my grandparents died, why was this burial so much more important? I couldn’t explain it. I’d always felt that I left New Biafra before I could take up my true purpose. That my life in Tkaronto was a shadow of what it could be. Perhaps I’d returned to bury more than my father.

I looked up and two women I’d never seen before were leaning into the pod, wailing and calling the dead man’s name, asking rhetorically why he had left them. I wondered how much of their performance was obscure cultural theater and how much was genuine grief.

Their wailing increased, and I wished I’d been allowed to bring my A.I. That, however, would have been considered an insult to the body, like looking into the eyes of an elder while you were being scolded. I’d forgotten how quickly my people whitewash the truth about our dead. We fear that speaking ill of them will invite death on ourselves as well.

One of the women stopped in front of me, sniffling into an old cloth kerchief. She looked to be in her mid-40s—about my age.

“Your father was a good man,” she said, reaching for my hands. I slid them into my pockets, just out of her reach, and she made do with patting my leg.

“Was he?” I tried for a tone of genuine curiosity, not the cynicism I actually felt.

“I wouldn’t be here today, if it wasn’t for him.”

I nodded, unsure of what to say. My father had been famously generous: Everyone I’d met so far had a story of how he’d stepped in at just the right moment to change their lives. I didn’t know what to do with these tales. I suppose it was easier to give money to strangers than to give of yourself to the people closest to you.

After an awkward pause, she continued, speaking quickly as if to get the words out before her courage failed her. “You know, after I was raped 10 years ago, nobody wanted to help me.” I stiffened, tightening my hands into fists in my pockets. “Not my family, not the government, nobody. Only your father. He brought me into this house and allowed me to stay here for free until I found a place. He even paid for my marriage and my son’s apprenticeship. Me and my wife, we’re just so grateful to him.”

She pointed to the other woman, who had gone to stand by the door with a child of about 10 years. He had soft brown eyes and a head of unruly curls, and he wore a miniature version of the ranger’s uniform that the dead man in the pod was wearing. I didn’t tell her about the same dead man’s reaction to my own rape 33 years ago—23 years before her own. Instead, I smiled tightly.

“I’m glad that it turned out so well for you.”

That’s when I saw the dead man’s shadow materialize in the corner of the room. I didn’t tell her about that, either.

The dead man appeared again sometime during the night.

I had just struggled out of a dream. I was back in the guardhouse, its small high windows streaming an uncertain gray light into the room. Then, hundreds of disembodied hands reached out of the ground to grab at me. They held me down, their fingers clutching, probing, and rubbing. I bit and clawed and slashed, but for every hand whose finger I tore off, for every palm I gouged and wounded, a new hand sprang up in its place.

It was an old nightmare, one I hadn’t had in over 30 years. When we moved to Turtle Island, my mother and our relocation broker made sure I received all the necessary therapies to deal with my trauma, but being here where it all happened seemed to have dredged everything back up.

I lay on the living room couch drenched in sweat and blinked into the semi-darkness before I saw him sitting on the armrest by my feet. In the light of the bioluminescent trees that lined the street by the back window, he looked real enough. When I sat up and turned on the lights, he was gone.

I should have been frightened, but I wasn’t. I knew he’d show up again. He and I had unfinished business.

He returned the next morning as I sat beneath the neem tree in the back garden, trying to hide from the unrelenting regard of the crowd of mourners inside the main house. The body was due to be interred with its tree in the front compound, and the place was choked with well-wishers.
They spilled out onto the walkway beyond the house’s hedgerow fence and into the road. I was agitated, but instead of tuning into the nature sounds queued up on my A.I., I listened to the weaver birds screeching to each other in the branches above me.

I never noticed how loud those birds are.

The dead man looked up at the tree’s slim branches, weighed down by the birds’ basket-like nests. This time, I decided to respond directly.

“You never did notice much beyond your own interests.”

I expected him to come back with an attack that cut to my deepest insecurities. It was a talent he had, and he had often used it to great effect when he was alive, but he didn’t. He just nodded sadly and put his hands in his pockets.

I suppose I deserve that.

I would have to make do with that. Even in death, he couldn’t apologize. A group of three men around the dead man’s age filtered out onto the back veranda. They joked nervously with each other, as if their laughter would somehow keep the shadow of death from falling on them too. Two of them, both dressed in the dark high-collared tunics of Biafran government salarymen, discussed the finer points of spiritual salvation in Yoruba-inflected Igbo. I itched for something to read.

“Why are you even here?”

He shrugged, petulant. I just wanted to see you.

I rolled my eyes. He’d only been dead a few days. He’d always been impatient, demanding that I work at his relentless pace no matter how I felt. Now, he couldn’t even wait to be missed before showing up again.

“Really? So that you can tell me how selfish I am because I’m not sitting inside being the center of everyone’s grief? Or do you also want to remind me that I’m going to destroy our family line if I don’t have a child?”

I realized I sounded like a child myself, but I couldn’t help it. Being in his presence made me feel that I’d gone back in time and was an angry teenager again.

No. His voice had a wistful quality—like someone looking back at the folly of his youth. You were never selfish, you know. I was.

I looked at him sharply; this didn’t sound like him at all. As if reading my thoughts, he smiled.

That’s one thing dying does—it changes you.

He certainly looked dead. His skin was gray and waxy like a mannequin. His shoulders had a stiff quality that made his dark ranger uniform fit him perfectly in a way it had never done in life.

“Am I to believe that dying has made you a different person?”

Look, he said in that chiding tone I hated, you can’t fault people for their weaknesses. You’ll only be left with bitterness if you do. You have to find a way to let go. That’s what I came to tell you.

I sighed. In death, as in life, he had nothing but easy philosophies for me. They’d made for exciting debates when I was young but served as cold comfort for grief. I wanted to get up and walk away, but I didn’t. I never could.

“Just leave me alone.”

I turned on my A.I. It synced with the implant at the base of my skull that monitored my neural and physical activity. Reading my increased agitation, it cued the soothing whale songs that worked best to bring my signals within normal range. I leaned back against the tree and closed my eyes as the sounds poured into my aural inputs, imagining what those long-extinct creatures might have looked like.

Above me, the dead man and the weaver birds chirped on.

He didn’t show up again until evening, when the second burial was in full swing. By then, the sapling that would biodegrade his pod had joined the other ancestral trees in the front yard. The necessary prayers had been said, the tree’s ritual first watering completed. The time for mourning the loss was over and it was now time to celebrate the life lived. At 80, the dead man was considered fairly young; he’d been expected to live for at least another 20 years. But in my culture, venerated old age began at 60—probably a holdover from when most people didn’t live past their 50s.

I watched the revelry from the open window of the guest room. I’d been allowed this short time to myself only after pleading exhaustion from the long journey. It was only a matter of time before I’d be called out to join the dancing.

The music—a blend of ogenes, ichakas, and udus, cut through by the sweet, sharp tones of the aja—stirred something deep inside me. I pressed my hand to the center of my chest where a phantom pain stabbed through me.

It is good to be remembered. That is the true joy of legacy.

The dead man was sitting next to me on the bed, surveying the mass of people dancing and drinking in the yard.

“Too bad they didn’t remember you half as well when we needed their help.”

When my uncle was arrested, they led him out of the compound in chains to show how serious his crime was. My family—once one of the most prominent in the city—was quietly ostracized. Most of my friends stopped coming over. When relatives and agemates stopped by, it was only to whisper at the door or drop off food and drinks. No one wanted to stay and visit. My own education effectively ended—my uncle had been my teacher, after all. It broke Mama and Papa—my grandparents—to lose one of their sons like that. My grandmother fell ill soon after and my grandfather withdrew to care for her. As for my father? Well … he disappeared too, in his own way.

They all had their own problems; they didn’t owe me anything.

I hissed in contempt, but said nothing. He must have mistaken my silence, because he continued earnestly.

You have to find it in your heart to forgive them. In the end, all that matters are the memories of the people who knew you. Especially your children.

“And how do you think I’ll remember you?”

He went quiet at that. We both looked through the window toward the empty space where the guardhouse once stood.

I didn’t know.

“How couldn’t you have known? Every day after our lessons, right there in the guardhouse. What were you doing the whole time? Sleeping?”

I was working, he snapped. Don’t you think I would have done something if I had known? We acted as soon as we found out.

“And after that, when you stopped talking to me, was that also because you were working?”

Silence.

“You know, for years I thought it was my fault. I believed that I was the one who destroyed our family. Uncle went to prison, Mama got sick, and you … you couldn’t even look at me. Even after we left, if I didn’t call you, I didn’t hear from you.”

I still remembered those video calls, stilted conversations on birthdays and holidays. In them, he always seemed too tired or too busy to talk properly.

“I spent years waiting for you … I waited, and I waited, and I waited.”

The tears rose unbidden and I wiped at my face, angry at my own weakness. I’d sworn long ago that I would never cry in front of him. The dead man stood and walked to the window, his back to me. He stared out for a long moment before speaking.

I didn’t know what to say to you. His voice was so soft I could barely hear it over the noise outside. As if he was talking to himself. When I looked at you all I could see was my own failure: I was your father and I couldn’t protect you. I hated myself for it and I took that out on you—and for that, I’ll never forgive myself.

“Good. Because I won’t ever forgive you either.”

He turned back to me and I watched the slow realization work itself across his face.

You are still angry at me, he said, finally. Sadly.

“You let me down so many times.” Tears sprang to my eyes again, lending a quaver to my voice. “I don’t know how to stop being angry at you.”

I wish I could make it up to you.

“Well, it’s too late for that.” For the first time in 30 years, I looked my father in the eyes as I spoke. “Did you honestly think that by coming here and chanting your empty platitudes, you could undo all those years of pain? You said you came back to warn me, but this isn’t about me. This is about you getting your last moment of absolution.”

I am so sorry. For everything.

“It doesn’t matter anymore.” I was suddenly tired. “Go. Find your salvation somewhere else.”

Thunder boomed from somewhere in the distance, sending a ripple of unease through the crowd. The wind picked up, skittering debris across the yard. As the fat, heavy rainclouds rolled in, the party outside began to pack up. Families in the building fled to their flats while those who had too far to go clustered under the canvas canopies to wait out the storm.

I picked up my backpack and looked around, but the dead man was gone.

Outside, a flood of mourners streamed out from the gate, breaking up into little rivulets of people eager to leave before the rain started. I joined them and headed for the bus shelter. Just as I reached it, the sky opened up and wept.

Inside the shelter, I wedged myself into a small space in the back and tugged the hood of my hi-dri up to hide my face. I didn’t want to explain my sudden departure to any mourners who might recognize me. I was staring into the haze of the rain, my mind blank with grief, when I felt a familiar hand on my shoulder.

“So you would have just left us like that, eh?” Auntie Chio’s voice was sad. I tensed involuntarily as I turned to her, but her expression bore an unexpected understanding.

Before I could speak, she wrapped me in a warm embrace. For a moment, I wanted to fight off her kindness. My rage was an invisible load I’d been carrying for so long that I didn’t know how to put it down. Instead, I returned her hug with a fierceness I didn’t realize I had, and finally, I let my tears flow. This time I didn’t bother to wipe them away. There was no one left to see me cry.

The storm passed quickly, and I decided to forego the bus and walk back to the Harbourfront. On foot, I was able to look more closely at the city around me. Though the main roadways were well-maintained, I noted buckled panels and weedy gardens in the side streets. I passed rows of empty homes kept ready for returnees, but underneath their neat government-issued paint jobs the brickwork was crumbling. Eventually, they too would have to be razed and converted into parkland.

I arrived at the Harbourfront just as the sun was setting behind the Niger Bridge, highlighting its rusted pylons. My city, like the rest of the world, was disintegrating. The realization relieved me, in an odd way. I wondered if too many of us were trying to return to who we imagined we were before the Catastrophe broke us. Maybe what we needed was to learn to live with the world, and ourselves, as it was now. Perhaps our salvation lay in the broken spaces inside us all.

Thanks to Amarachi Utah-Adjibola, Megan Costa, and Paul Hirt for sharing their expertise on demographics, migration, and environmental history.

Read a response essay by Valeria Fernández, a journalist who reports on immigration.

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