CHIKA ONYENEZI - A NEW COUNTRY
Chika Onyenezi is a writer living in United States. Born in Owerri, Nigeria, he holds two degrees, including an MA from European Peace University. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming in Identity Theory, Litro Magazine, Ninth Letter Magazine, and elsewhere. He received Honorable Mention in the 2016 Glimmer Train Fiction Open. He spends most of his time daydreaming, and collecting wish trinket from sea waves.
A New Country
I am a moth, at the end of the world, flying, perching, and flying. Drawing semi-colons in cities I’ve visited, on a map that I bought from an antique shop in Vienna. Semi-colon is beautiful, the way it curves like a bow, and with a dot – they tell me that life isn’t straight, and sometimes I have to risk it all in one pitch.
I first arrived in Italy, they gave me to France, and France gave me to Germany, until I ran away, and found Austria. Now I am in Austria, and my map has a lot of semi-colons. God willing, I will add more.
Back home, I was training to be a pilot, but I didn’t finish. I was dismissed for flying too low, hitting the left wing against a roof, and crashing a plane. It wasn’t my fault; the wind was against me, and the weather forecast was wrong too. I was lucky to be alive, with only a broken rib that healed months after.
Well, the institute had only one plane, they asked me to pay for the damages, but I didn’t have the money, and neither did my parents. The rules were straight: break and pay. So I ran away from home, my country Nigeria. My thoughts are correct, if I go too far, they will not find me.
Well, what else could I have done? Thirty, unloved, without a job, and no future – I wouldn't mind sneaking into a rocket to Mars, provided there was a sign of hope out there. It’s not like I love it here in Europe, no, I have no other option. Europe is a land of opportunities, and I will work hard to make it.
Life is better this way, alone, figuring it out on my own. I live on the kindness of strangers, mostly. First, I make them believe that I am not crazy, and will not hack them to death. This is Europe, everyone is afraid of strangers, especially with the recent rise in suicide bombings, and a deepening Syrian crisis. If they are kind, they let me in for a cup of water, or a plate of food, or bath, which ever works, I am grateful. Then, I find my way again, slowly walking into the unknown, into a future, where there is no future.
I risk it all, like a strong man. I got to Europe on a turtle back. Anyone I tell how I arrived here thinks I am joking, or maybe I don’t explain it well to them. Well, it is easy; the boat that sailed me is called turtle back. It sailed from Somalia to the Island of Lampedusa. The sea is wild. The sea has no friend. The sea took five of us, and chewed them in rage. The sea has a belly that is never full. No matter what I become, I know I will never get off that ship, my soul is trapped there, forever sailing.
The Somali captain lied to us; he said it would only take two hours to get to Europe. But no, it took more than that, days, maybe two. But again, I would still have made the voyage irrespective of how long it would take —what I am running from is bigger than death.
I have been around for a while, taking life easy, and trying to make sense of everything around me. Now, I am a refugee, trying to survive, however I can, honest or not. In Italy, I told them the truth that my country doesn’t care about me. In case they ever come for me, I will be willing to go back. They said I wasn’t telling the truth, and refused my application for a refugee status.
I need love, but I am afraid that no one wants to love me. It is late at night. I put on a winter jacket, and walk into the frosty night. I wander into a night club in the middle of Vienna City. I sit down, alone, hoping that maybe someone will talk to me, or maybe I will meet people to talk to. I buy a glass of beer, the girls giggle past me as if I don’t exist. I am alone, and lonely inside. Maybe it’s because I am not trying. I look around and find a girl, sitting alone, dancing to herself, white. She wears a sleeveless red shirt, short jean pants, and a nice smile. She is a good dancer, the way she is moving her body.
“Hello,” I say.
“Hello,” she smiles at me.
“Can I buy you a drink?”
“Yes, sure, why not,” she says.
I walk over to the barman, and give him five euros for two glasses of beer. I take the drinks, and walk over to our table, and place the glass before her.
“Thank you,” she says, “So where are you from?”
“Nigeria,” I say. She sips her glass of beer, the foam forms on her upper lips, she licks it.
“I study African studies at the University of Vienna,” she says.
I know there is something exceptional about her; I can tell she is diverse with culture. Not everyone around here is jovial like her. Other times I have tried talking to people were met with a rude responds, sometimes even snubbing.
“My name is Charles, by the way,” I say.
“Oh Charles, I am Clara. Nice to meet you,” she says, “And why are you in Vienna?”
This is always the hard part, when people ask me why I am here; it’s like pouring dust into my mouth. It’s like telling me that irrespective of my circumstance that I cannot be here by design. Well, that is what I represent; an accidental thing in Austrian land.
“Well, I sailed on a turtle back,” I say. She laughs like any other person I’ve said the same thing to. It is an easy way to avoid answering her question.
“Wait, you mean, turtle back?”
“Well a boat with the name turtle back,” I say.
“I see. Not an actual turtle. So you are a refugee?”
Well, there isn’t any need to lie, or try to make myself sound better. First, I pretend as if I don't hear her properly. I nod to the sound of the music serenading the room, and it isn’t enough to hide me.
“Yes,” I say, with heaviness in my throat. I hate that word, refugee. I hate being referred to as that. I hate the fact that people want to see me as a refugee, even though I am a human being.
“Honestly, I have been looking for someone like you for my term paper,” she says.
I am shocked to hear that. I stand up, and walk into the night. My heart begins to ache. I didn’t say any word to her. She runs after me for a few blocks, explaining why she said it.
“Is alright, I am not angry, but I think I don’t want to know you,” I say.
“I respect that,” she says, and disappears into the night.
The night is calling my name; I am walking into it, like an astronaut in space, weightless. I feel empty, and unloved. I feel like I am just an experiment. The city spit me out each time I try to embrace it. The people see nothing else in me except a walking lab specimen. I amble towards Unterre Donaustrasse from Nestroyplatz. I want to see the water, I like the breeze there, and it makes me feel alive.
I think about other things I can do with my life to make money. I need money; I need to get my own place, my own life, and peace of mind. I know there is no way I can have that now, not now. I have no work papers.
I am a dove, I am kind. I wake up every morning to fly, to try my luck, and believe that God will provide for me like any other bird of the air. I live with a kind man from Senegal; he has helped me a lot since I arrived here, Andrew is his name. Andrew speaks the language of my fathers; he speaks like a wise man, like he has seen it all here, like he is not afraid of anything. He has mastered how to use proverbs and idioms so effectively that he never says most things straight. He has his own reasons for being here, but I know his childhood was rough, and he is ready to break out from the chains of poverty too. I help him run errands in the morning, like going to African stores, delivering parceled messages, looking after his mixed-race five year old boy whenever it is his turn for custody. I see him leave every night, and come back in the morning with so much money. I really want to make that kind of money. For the first time, tonight, I am following him to work.
If I get that money, I will save it. I will call my parents, and ask them what is going on. I will tell them I am alive and trying to make it out here. I will send some money to my brother so that he can go back to school, with luck he will find a job afterwards. I will send some money to my mother; the government hasn’t paid their pension for two years. It is their savings that they used to send me to pilot school. The disgrace I brought them is unbearable, that is why I never went back home. I know certainly that if the debt collectors can’t find me, they will not bother my parents. I will buy a car for my father at least; he has lived almost all his life without one. I will not forget Aunty Monica, she is sick, she has no child, no income, unpaid salaries, and the medical centers in Nigeria barely functions. I will at least make sure she dies with dignity, not in discomfort.
Whenever I wake, home crawls up to me and bite me. Homes squeeze my head under his armpit and knock me. Home keeps coming for me, throwing punches, and I cannot evade it. I can’t go back home empty handed too. Do you know what it is like to go home empty handed? It’s like you are worthless before man and God. Not just that, it is personal also. After waking in sea tempests, I will do anything for money, for my dignity, and the dignity of loved ones. Just show me what will give me money now, and I will do it. I feel depressed again.
Whenever I am depressed, I look at my map. I mark where I want to go next when I have money. America is beautiful they say. In America, I can have a big car, a big house, work in a car plant, get married and have children. I can see them running to my SUV like nightingales, calling me “daddy”. I want to be called “daddy” one day. These days, I daydream a lot; it is the only way to escape the reality that I am here, and that I am a refugee. No matter what, I try to keep my head above the water.
Andrew comes in with a bag in his hand. He throws the content on the bed, cocaine, wrapped in thick white plastics, with brown tapes around it. He looks meaner than ever, like a gangster in a movie, ready to pull his trigger. It is true, a man has many faces.
“Are you ready?” he asks.
“Yes, I am,” I say. I don’t know what he is thinking, maybe that I am not ready. I wasn’t afraid of a sea that can eat me whole, then why should I be afraid of a police that will keep me alive? No need for fear, indeed.
“Now, be on the lookout. From this point, right now, if we are arrested, you are going to jail as much as me. I will take you to your post; you will stand there with me for tonight and see how things are done. In the future, you will man this post,” he says.
“Thank you,” I answer.
He puts his hand into another bag lying on the bed, and pulls out a pistol.
“Now, this is a pistol, have you ever handled a firearm before?” he asks.
“You see, this is the difference between life and death. You can kill yourself with it; you can also kill someone with it. These are split second choices, or mistakes. There are other gangs operating within this area, and they are ready to gun you down too. So listen, pull the safety, point, and shoot. Hold with two hands,” he says and demonstrates. He hands it to me. I take the gun, point, and click the unloaded gun while holding onto it firmly, with both hands.
“Good, I will load it now. Remember, pull the gun, point, unclip safety and shoot. Don’t hit me by mistake. Never point a gun at something you don’t wish to target,” he says.
He shows me a few more tricks, about loading, and shooting. It is a crash course, but it’s enough to get me through the night.
The night is cold again. I have my jacket on, and a pistol tucked into my trouser. We walk to the train station, languidly, waiting for the night to get deeper. He says that the trick is to never look suspicious, be as normal as possible, even when you have kilos of cocaine tucked under your jacket. We sit in the train station; in front of me is an old lady. I don’t like how she is looking at me, so I turn the other way, facing the young lads. They are jollying, probably on their way to a night club.
We get off the train, and walk to the street corner. The street has its own eyes, and its own mind, to survive, you read them. I stand beside a two story unpainted building, with Andrew, watching. The buyers already know him. They walk up to him smartly, and tuck the Euros in his palm. He introduces me to them, and they walk away.
“If you see the police, walk this way,” he points between two apartments, “Never make the mistake of running in either direction of this street. I have seen too many bursts, believe me, you will be caught,” he says.
We stand there, like eagles, looking out, making money, watching the street. Sometimes the street watches us too; some men seem to be monitoring us.
“That is the Crackers, they are our enemies, and they can’t act now because we have a truce on how the streets of Vienna should be controlled. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to be careful, never let your guard down. If anyone comes for your head, smoke him out,” he says, points his fingers into the air like an actual gun, “I hope you understand?”
“Yes, I do,” I answer.
For everyone that I love that cannot help themselves, I will do anything for them. That is what I am doing now, taking euros all night through. Around five o’ clocks, with a bag full of money, we head back home.
For the first night, I made two thousand euros. I place them on the bed, for two hours, I keep looking at them. Two thousand euros can change my community. It can help a lot of people. I dance in the room, laugh, alone, but happy. I start to drink wine. I drink and drink until I can’t stand anymore. I fall down and sleep.
In my dream, everywhere is burning back home. The Igbos declared a nation again. A young man has risen to take the mantle of leadership, brushed through Northern Nigeria with a rag-tag army well skilled in guerilla warfare. A new government is instituted immediately in the eastern region of Nigeria. The Nigeria government starts fighting back, fiercely, and soon begins to gain ground. Their air support is so powerful, that for the Biafra state to survive, they need pilots to fly their newly acquired plans.
The newly appointed Ambassador of Biafra to Austria comes to my house, knocking, early in the morning.
“Ambassador Okwu,” he says, I shake his hand firmly, “Your country needs you Charles, will you fight for it?” he asks.
“Come in,” I say.
Okwu is a tall man, who speaks with a heavy baritone. He comes in and sits down.
“Yes, I saw the news three weeks ago, Biafra has been declared again,” I say, scratch my head and continues, “but how can I help, I am not a soldier?”
“Your name came up on the list of those training to be a pilot at Fly Die Institute. I took it upon myself to locate everyone. I must say that yours is difficult because there is no record of your present location. But, I am here, that means that it has taken me a lot to find you. This is a new country Okwu, not like the former one, Nigeria. In Biafra, we care about every one of us, all citizens are equal before the law, but we must all fight for it. We want you to fly a fighter jet for us, fly for your mother, for your father, for your sisters,” he says with a clinched fist.
“I will, there is no greater call than to help preserve one's fatherland,” I say, “But where do I go from here? I don’t even have a legal status to board an airplane back; I will be more trouble for you than a solution.”
“As long as you are with us, your country will do everything for you,” he says.
A few days after, we are at the airport, Okwu made all the arrangements. He puts me on handcuff as his prisoner; he says that is the only way to take me back home. Like that, they give us a free pass. We land in Akwa city, under a heavy fire that lasts for an hour.
Days after, I am flying a McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle for my country. My first raid is in Kaduna, I run over it twice, dropping bombs on military targets. Soon, I receive a promotion, to train other pilots.
Then I wake up. It’s all a dream. It’s all a fantasy playing in my mind. I checked my cash, it is still complete. I put it under my box. I walk to the restroom to ease myself. I stand before the mirror, looking at my face. The dream is so vivid that I can still see myself wearing all that military gear, and fighting for my country.
In the past, a man once asked me if I believed in Nigeria, and I said no. I feel nothing for Nigeria. I am Igbo, the son of Ogwu, Ogwu, the son Mgbali, and so my lineage goes on. I always dreamed of, everything new about Nigeria, and the leaders listening to the masses, but it’s just a dream. I don’t feel like I have anything to offer in Nigeria.
If the new country is born, and they ever come for me, I will do anything to build it. I will work my ass off for it, as long as it will know my name, as long as it will recognize my effort, and honour my bravery. In case I die, I want a grave with marbles, a headstone with my name on it. I want my country to strive for greatness; I want my leaders to reach out for greatness. I want them to inspire generations to come.
And if that country ever comes alive, tell them that I am here, in Austria, hiding during the day, and getting through the night. I am here trying to make friends, trying to get accepted, trying to find love. No one will love me, because they know I am a refugee.
I clean my face with a towel, dress up, and walk in the cold morning, the sun is shining, bright. This is my life, and I am getting used to it.