THERE IS a bridge across the River Niger. A cold, old steel bridge across the long-travelling river. It is to this busy bridge that once the painter came everyday, every evening – oblivious, as one drugged, to the noise of the hawkers around, and the cars behind, her – as she stared into the hurrying water, and tried to exchange her sorrow for joy.
Unfortunately she was rarely ever able to achieve this, but just as she had come with her sorrow, she would depart with it as well.
Life is especially uncomfortable for artists, living as they do in their two worlds – the tangible world we normal people see and the other, invisible, one seemingly perceivable only by the inner eyes of artists. They cannot help it. It is their destiny, their perpetual calling, their fate. It seems as though the Divine has assigned to them the painful task of bridging for mankind groping blindfolded on earth the gap of the river of sightlessness which flows between that which was, that which is and that which will be, the perceived and unseen.This, they say, is why artists suffer, torn in different directions by irrenconciliable forces.
Ijeoma the painter had had quite a happy childhood on the other side of the river, in a small town called Obosi. She played with her brothers and sisters and was all but completely unconscious of the adult life around her. Her most insistent love manifested itself in the urge to gaze upon pictures – in books or in nature or even upon the faces of her fellow human beings. To paint however she had never attempted, never contemplated. Neither the urge nor the idea had ever occurred to her.
Until she became an adolescent and the strange, irresistible longing and pain gripped her and forced her to spread out upon plain, empty waiting sheets the pictures of the secret knowledge which she found that she already, unaccountably, bore inside her mysterious soul. And she painted…
Painting made Ijeoma happy. Gave her release and, simultaneously, gripped her inexorably. A caged, skyfree bird. The bane of artists, their incentive, their riddle, their sorrow, their reward.
But then she fathomed the world no more. And in return the world fathomed her no more too, gradually proceeding to pin such labels upon her as queer… funny… disturbed… unbalanced… mad. She however, she knew that those labels fit not her but the world which sought to stick them on her. Like they also say, in the society of mad people, the sane one becomes crazy.
Ijeoma drew away from people and drew herself into art. Loneliness became her companion. She tried to understand herself. Was her heart a running stream that flowed into the sea? Was her heart a sky upon which angels had painted since forever? Or was it a universe, a meeting place of forces, a tended garden, blended carefully? Or just another ordinary human heart?
Then arrived the time in which she had to begin to fend for herself, for as childhood becomes youth, so becomes youth adulthood. And adulthood must hold its head high, and be self-dependent.
She had learned no other trade but the trade of images, illustrated moods and pictures. So she began to frame and sell her paintings. But nobody bought them; nobody bought these paintings which one day in the future would suddenly become masterpieces. But artists, who see well humanity’s future, are notoriously incapable of seeing their own.
Life became to Ijeoma like an empty desert. If she could eat once a day, she was lucky. She moved to the other side of the river, to a town called Asaba where she lived alone, away from home. But somebody once said that home is inside.
Her family, although they did not understand her, continued to communicate with her every now and then however, as families like to do. And to offer help, if…
She did not always reply, as offsprings and artists are wont to do. But whenever she did she never dwelled upon the fact of her poor financial and living conditions, but deliberately insisted she was fine. Ijeoma sent home tiny pretty parcels every once in a while, parcels she had bought with her few small savings, not because she wanted to buy them, but because her pride would not let her project any other but this picture of herself to those from whom she wanted no pity.
And then things came to a peak. In order to be able to hang on, it turned out that she would have to open her heart to the well-meant charity of a certain man who had met her and who could not help but love her with his whole wide soul.
It was not that she did not want to, or that she felt it would be wrong to do so with regards to this particular man in whose eyes she saw distant, radiant things that made her heart jump, for then her compulsive resistance would have been understandable. It was just that she did not want to let go of her tenacious pride.
She was sad, angry, bewildered and embittered by the fact that her paintings were not loved, sought after, bought. It hurt her deep within her soul.
She took to visiting the bridge across the river every evening, standing on its central spot and staring into the non-chalant waters, like many lonely people do.
And one day as she stood there, under a humid sun, a lurid idea with which she had long toyed gripped her anew with near ineludible force.
Her head swam, she became dizzy. She was aware of herself toppling over the railing into the river of blindness, but she made no effort to arrest her fall; silently she gave herself up to that fate which she had decided would be hers. The water rushed up fast.
She fell voluntarily into the river and drowned and died so that everything would at last come to an end…
And this is where the story begins. I have spoken to many a native who hawks upon this bridge or casts the net from his fishing boat into the waters of River Niger, and they all swear that this is true.
Ijeoma was very surprised, after she dumped herself into the river, to experience that everything did not come to an end. Although her body died, she herself continued to drown in the watching water, drown but not die, drown and yet not die, unremittingly.
Meanwhile Okeke, that man with the distant, radiant things in his eyes who loved her more than he had ever believed one human being could love another, came to look for her at the old bridge, her bridge of sighs, seized of a sudden and inexplicable apprehension. Amidst the agitation of the crowd that had gathered on the bridge, pointing in consternation into the river, he saw her scarf hanging from the railing, but her he saw no more…
Decades later, Ijeoma watches an old man emerge from a parked car by the side of the road and slowly limp his way up the bridge. The hawkers, peddling everything from smart phones to impotency-curing ointments, seem to know him well, they make way for him. He takes no notice of them, or of the hustle and bustle of traffic and trade, the stench of sweat and exhaust fumes. In one hand he holds a scarf, faded yellow, with his other hand he rubs his tired old eyes wearily. Finally he gets to where Ijeoma is standing, in the middle of the bridge, peers briefly at her with a confused, introspective look in his eyes, blinks, then turns and stares quietly down into the river.
Standing beside him, she watches him, says nothing, so as not to disturb the solemnity of this ever-recurring magic moment. She drinks in the love that emanates like waves with his thoughts. After a while, he lets out a soft long sigh, straightens up, rubs his thigh where the old shrapnel is still embedded, and looks at the sky. This is her cue; she decides to try again. Taking a deep breath, she raises her hand, places it on his shoulder and says gently:
He does not stir, does not react.
She shakes his shoulder again, and again; her voice is laced with resignation as she utters his name. She knows he will not hear, yet she can’t help but try. Each time. Each evening. The same words…
“Okeke… thank you… but move on. My burden is mine alone to bear… to make good.”
… she reads in his thoughts that the few finished works she left behind on earth are now masterpieces. In his heart she sees his memories of a proud and beautiful eighteen year old lady from decades ago when he was just a young eager man of twenty.
Before he walks away, he looks at the river again, an introspective, philosophic look on his face, softening the longing in his eyes. As always the last thing he does before he goes is to whisper her name…
“Ijeoma…” Safe journey.
Then he turns and limps away, a phlegmatic old man. With tears in her eyes, she watches him walk away, wants to follow, to try one more time. In vain she looks around again for the invisible chain that holds her to this spot, this spot to which she has cumbersomely dragged herself after decades of struggle, of laboriously climbing out of the water and struggling up the bridge.
They have been decades of cavernous emotion. Unnoticed by any, she watched the civil war that brought down the old bridge and catapulted the souls of the many massacred out of the realm of flesh and bone. She was there when the bridge was rebuilt and the war survivors, walking reservoirs of devastated trust and defiant hope, slowly repopulated the bridge.
And still, the longing to fulfil her art burns in her heart. Often has she tried to turn around and return to some distant luminous home… but she cannot. She is held here as by an invisible chain. Destiny unfulfilled, she must cross the bridge again, one day.
And soon she will be born anew into the earth as a baby. She will grow into a deep dreamy teenager and then mature into a restless and intense artist. Perhaps she will cross your path. Attract you with her art, intrigue you with her nature and remain incomprehensible. If she does, do meet her with understanding. She is a bridge. She paints for you and me.
– Che Chidi Chukwumerije
For more stories and thoughts that touch on the deeper threads that run through our lives, read my book “There Is Always Something More”.