Your Brief Bio:
Obianuju Ijekpa is currently a Medical student and a writer who lives in the Eastern part of Nigeria.
While yet unpublished, she was nominated Literary blogger of the year in the 2016 Nigerian Writers Award.
Obianuju is currently working on her debut novel and has earmarked 2018 as the publication date.
Tweet-Style Story Summary:
Born into a family where superstitious beliefs reign supreme, Ihuoma is caught between her belief in science and the superstitions held dear by her family.
INSIDE OF US ALL
A SHORT STORY
I was five when I noticed that all the females from my mother’s family had an identical mark on their left cheek. I had one too; it was shaped like a little comma that became a crescent when I smiled and a straight line when I cried. My grandmother, Nnenne m was visiting, she had one too and when I asked her with a curiosity that only a five year old could express, badgering her till she had replied with a story. Her mother was a mammy water, she said, destined to spend a short time on earth and after her time was up, she returned back to the water.
I snuggled close to her, feeling a chill creep into my bones. “I don’t understand,” I whispered. My mind raced as I wondered if it meant that I had mammy water blood coursing in my veins or if I would grow a fish tail when I stepped into water like in the little mermaid cartoon. She put her arm around my shoulders that quaked ever so slightly and drew me into her arms, her voice was melancholic and piercing as she explained it to me.
My great great grandmother had been barren and after many years, she had gone to the village river - Iyi nma, begging Nwanyi mmiri, the river goddess for a child to prove that she wasn’t barren. The night after she made the sacrifices, nwanyi mmiri visited her in a dream, cradling a beautiful baby wrapped up in a blanket made of fish scales. She said to her, ‘This child is a loan; she won’t be yours to keep.’ Just as she handed her the bundle, she woke up.
Moons later, my great grandmother was born. The child grew up very beautiful and very soon suitors were lining up for her hand in marriage. My great grandfather won her heart, they got married and soon after, she popped out eleven children in quick succession, four of whom had died in infancy.
Nnenne m told me how her father would often wake up beside a wife whose body was more fish than human. He had known she was a mammy water but had hoped to hold her down by sheer will. Nnenne m was seven and her little brother was three when her mother began to slip away. She watched her mother slowly fade away like the chalk designs on their hut, only that unlike the hut designs which could be repainted, her mother had no such chance.
It started with little things; slowly trailing off in the middle of a lively conversation, a dazed faraway look replacing her usual animated expression or forgetting the names of people she saw every day. Her mood was like a pendulum with loose screws, she cried and raged in alternating intervals. They had all assumed it was fatigue, or maybe she had ‘iba’ that was somehow resistant to all the herbs she was drinking. She began to wander off, leaving home only to be found miles away from home, totally unaware of how she got there.
According to the oracle consulted, her river family wanted her back. Sacrifices were made to make her stay after which she seemed to get better. The respite was only for a short period. Like land being slowly eroded, piece by piece she slipped away till one day; she went to the stream and never returned. My great grandfather – Dike mgba – began to go from one diviner to the next but all of them confirmed his fears; his wife had returned to the water. He was warned never to allow any of his children near any body of water lest she comes for them. He had loved his wife so much and had pined away, slowly withering away to a husk so fragile that a stiff wind could blow it to smithereens. By the next year, he was dead.
Nnenne m’s voice had become shrouded as though her mouth was a gaping sore stuffed with cotton wool and when I looked up at her face, she had tears in her eyes. The smell of camphor and Stella pomade tickled my nostrils as I threw my pudgy arms around her neck in a hug. Beneath the flesh that had grown soft and wrinkly, the age spots that dotted her once flawless skin, she was still that little girl whose mother had chosen the water over her. When my mother returned from work that evening, I went to her with the story and she confirmed it, although she refused to say more about it.
That night I dreamt of a woman standing by the foot of my bed. Her beauty shone with the radiance of a thousand moons, her hair was long and though there was no wind, it streamed around her as though the wind was a lover, playfully lifting it. Her neck was long and slender, around it was a necklace of fish, joined head to end, her breasts were uncovered, each as big as grapes. She wore a skirt made of fish scales, each scale as wide as my palm and her feet was bare, with a chain of sea shells around each ankle. She stood at the foot of my bed smiling, her necklace of fish staring at me with languorous curiosity. There was something eerily familiar about her and the way she smiled at me. I wanted to scream but my words froze at the back of my tongue.
As I stared at her, my shock giving way to a mixture of amazement and fear, her face morphed; all at once, she was my grandmother and each of her sisters – the ones I knew, then she was my mother and my aunts, her face changing in rapid flashes as she became all my female cousins from the maternal axis of my family; she became my elder sister and then she was me.
I stood at the foot of the bed, the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, beckoning to the five year old me on the bed. I was her and she was me. I wanted to be with her. I tried to get up from the bed but my body seemed weighted down with lead. The more I struggled to go to her, the more I felt like someone fighting against water currents. I woke up shivering but covered with sweat.
When I was ten, I visited Nnenne m at the village. It had been a family tradition for as long as I could remember for all the grandchildren to spend a part of their long vacation with her in the village. I remember that morning and even years later despite the soothing effect of time, it remained with me like a drawing impression on an erased art work, leaving an almost indelible memory.
It was a beautiful morning, the sun was slowly making its appearance and it seemed to smile down on us. I remember thinking how much I loved the soft caressing rays of the sun on my back as we harvested the cocoyam. At first Nnenne m sang while the birds in the trees whistled and chirped as if they were providing accompanying notes, then we- the five grandchildren that followed her to the farm that morning - joined in a snug melody that filled the silent forest but afterwards, we lapsed into a comfortable silence with only the relentless chirping of the birds for company.
“Who called me?” she asked, stopping suddenly.
Nobody called her and we hadn’t heard anything, we assured her.
We continued in a silence now as thick as a wedge of shea butter. Everything seemed still, even the air felt hard and uncomfortable passing through my nose, almost as though it was reluctant. The birds with their endless chirping were silent, it almost seemed like they were listening and waiting.
The silence was interrupted a few minutes later by a scream so loud that I could hear the birds in the nearby trees screeching in alarm as they fled. We turned to find Nnenne m rolling on the ground, with her palm cupping her cheek.
Someone had slapped her, she said in a voice that seemed to have forced its way out of her throat. She was screaming and thrashing, her eyes rolled back till only the whites showed, then she went very still. We all seemed to freeze at the same time; then we started screaming.
The last words Nnenne m ever said was ‘Someone slapped me’. Someone no other person saw. The Doctor said it was a stroke. She lived the rest of her life as a bedridden old woman who only communicated by means of grunts and loud screams, having to be fed and taken care of by caregivers. She died five years later.
By the time I was twenty one, I had heard the story more than a dozen times from different aunts. My mother’s eldest sister, Aunt Nma had already told me the story about four times and each time, I felt that same chill creep into my bones. It scared and intrigued me at the same time.
I was at twenty one, a fourth year medical student and an unwavering skeptic when I had a lecture on Alzheimer’s disease. Days later, the lecture remained with me, gnawing away at my brain cells with each research paper I read about it, calling to mind the story my family had seemingly force fed me over the years. I was almost sure that my great grandmother had died from early onset Alzheimer’s disease. She had obviously exhibited some symptoms – her slowly progressive forgetfulness and her tendency to wander off. The more I thought of it, the more I believed it. Flashes of the dream I had when I was five came screaming back, tormenting my every waking moment. I could remember her face switching like a fast playing slide show as it became every woman in my family. The slide show was a cryptic message that I decoded years later.
I was twenty three when I had the dream again. She stood by the door, watching me while I slept. She was my Nnenne, my aunt Nma and every female in the family, then she was my aunt Nma again. Aunt Nma stared at me with doleful eyes and when I tried to talk to her, my words were obscured by a persistent noise.
I woke up to the incessant ringing of my phone – Aunt Nma was missing. She was visiting her youngest daughter who had just given birth in Lagos for Omugwo. The youngest daughter, Nneka, lived at Maryland and the day before, she had gone to see her second daughter, Olunma at Bariga. By evening, Olunma called her sister to know if their mother had returned safely only to be told that she wasn’t home yet. By nightfall, the entire family was thrown into panic, and by morning, the police was informed.
Aunt Nma had lived in Lagos for almost thirty years before returning to Owerri to retire. She spoke fluent Yoruba, there was no way she would have lost her way; the only alternative was that she was kidnapped.
Dawn crept into dusk, days turned into weeks. Tension mounted and stretched so taut that the wrong words could cut it. We waited, scattered as we were in different parts of the country for the call that would never come.
Doubts crept in; if she was actually kidnapped for money, the kidnappers would have already started calling for ransom negotiations, maybe she was kidnapped for ritual purposes, maybe as we sat around holding our cheeks in our palms she was being slowly dismembered or maybe she was already somewhere vomiting crisp naira notes. Each time an unidentified dead body was discovered in Lagos or its environs, the nearest family member raced to the location to identify the corpse, returning each time with a gossamer-thin robe of relief and fresh hope.
The police were slow and almost noncommittal in their investigations and soon, friends and well wishers began to bring up other options – prayer houses. My cousins visited all prayer houses recommended and they had almost the same thing to say, ‘She had links with the marine world and they wanted her back’ or ‘Marine powers had kept her’ or ‘Marine people want to take her but because of her will power, they have not been able to.’ The revelations went on and on, the family was asked to fast and pray for her release. Spirituality became a massive cloak in which we all hid our anxiety and we held on to it, the straw to which all of us clung to in that churning ocean of fear.
New knowledge began to come to light when I started asking questions; Aunt Nma had begun to show some symptoms a year ago; forgetfulness, irritability and mood changes. She was about fifty seven years old and everyone agreed it was old age, menopause and its associated wahala. She rambled when she talked and once, she had gone to buy bread from a kiosk two poles away and had wandered into the next street. She had roamed around for almost an hour before finding her way home.
I went to mother with my theory and at first, she listened, then she said dismissively; ‘Ihuoma, being a final year medical student doesn’t mean you know everything.’
Six weeks later, I got another call – Aunt Nma had been found.
A neighbor was driving along the third mainland bridge; the go-slow was a long monstrous snake, taking its time to bask in the sun while making its way slowly to the mainland. He was looking out of the window, contemplating the seemingly endless stretch of water punctuated by large clumps of unsightly weeds when he caught sight of her. She was standing on the pedestrian way, her face an empty mask as she watched the cars drive by. He recognized her and quickly placed a call to my cousin Nneka, his neighbor.
A week later, I visited Lagos for the thanksgiving service in church. The prophets all said the same thing, ‘the marine people released her because of the family’s relentless prayers.’ She had lost weight but my cousins reassured me that she was worse when they had found her. Aunt Nma had no memories of the past six weeks, she had no memories of me and for the five days I spent in Lagos, I had to explain who I was not less than five times daily. At the thanksgiving service in church, she thought it was a wedding. I was sitting beside her and she turned to me, ‘Are you for the bride or groom?’
I took her hands in mine - they felt unusually cold against mine, I explained to her what the thanksgiving was for. I was still explaining when she burst into tears.
“What is wrong with me?” she whispered. Each sob was a wave, crashing into her with a force that left her shaking. She felt so small as I held her close, muttering consolations to her till her sob slowly gave way to sniffles.
Afterwards, the family would decide that she was better off in the village with a trained care giver. Aunt Nma didn’t get better, she got worse. She was an impertinent toddler, soiling herself, throwing tantrums and wandering away when no one was looking. I tried to convince my family that she needed to be taken to the hospital, but my words were lost. I was the lone voice in the wilderness, crying out words my family perceived as foolish. They insisted that it was a spiritual thing. You don’t expect someone who was held by the marine people for over six weeks to be normal immediately, they said. It would surely take time for her to return to her former self.
The word Alzheimer’s was obviously not something they were ready to entertain, nor accept.
I was twenty five the next time I had the dream. I was visiting my fiancé and after hours of energetic sex, we drifted off in each other’s arms, a tangle of limbs and discarded clothing. When I woke up, I was alone in the darkness but she was there, standing by my bedside, just an arm’s length away. She became my Nnenne, then my Aunt Nma, her face lingered as Aunt Nma for a short while, then she became my mother. As my mother, she smiled at me, then reached out to stroke my cheeks when I screamed.
In the morning I got another call – Aunt Nma was dead. She had choked to death on her dinner.