The mid day sun had fully taken its position in the sky and the reflection made the river shine. No one was at the river except Obioma and her daughter Adanna. She carried along a raffia basket filled with dirty clothes to the river for washing. As they washed, they sang songs and Obioma told her daughter stories of how they grew up doing chores and fetching water from the same river. Adanna enjoyed the stories and smiled all through. They had their bath afterwards and tied clean wrappers they had brought along as change of cloth. Obioma placed a small pot filled with water on Adanna’s head and was about to lift the basket of washed clothes when Ndukwe her late husband’s brother approached her.
‘Stop farming in that land Obioma!’ Ndukwe thundered as he approached the river bank. ‘I have warned you severally.’
Obioma dropped the basket and turned around to see who it was. She stood there, hands akimbo and watched the ranting Ndukwe.
‘And why is that?’ she pulled her daughter by the shoulder to herself.
‘You thought I didn’t see you yesterday eh, woman?’ he laughed hysterically, stuck his cutlass to the ground and pointed repeatedly at her.
‘I do not know what you are talking about.’ she turned away from him and rolled her eyes.
‘Why will you know? Tell me. Why will you know?’
‘Nna anyi, our father, you are talking in riddles. My daughter has a pot of water on her head, and she is just a child. Her neck will hurt her if we keep standing here. Tell us what the problem is.’ she wiped the sweat that had started gathering on her forehead with her right palm and cleaned it on her wrapper.
‘Anyway, that land you went to yesterday belongs to the men in the kindred, your late husband’s kindred. So, since you have said you will not remarry any of us after your husband’s death, you are no longer part of us. We have done you enough favour by letting you occupy our late brother’s hut, when ordinarily you should have gone back to your parents.’ his Adam’s apple jumped up and down as he spoke and it amused Adanna.
‘That land belongs to me. My late husband left it in my possession. So, I will continue to cultivate there. How will I take care of my child if I don’t farm?
‘That is none of my business. This is the last warning, stay off that land.’ he picked up the matched he had stuck to the ground and turned to leave.
‘I will not! I will not!’ she yelled after him.
‘Really? We shall then know who is who.’ he replied and walked away.
She watched him as he walked away. She lifted the raffia basket and balanced it on her head, took her daughter by the hand and started walking home. Water dripped from the wet pot and dropped on Adanna’s face. She wiped continuously with her palm and cleaned it on her wrapper as her mother would. They had only walked for few minutes when she spotted a python crawling out from the bush into the pathway. Obioma pulled her behind and they waited for the python. She knew better than to drag the pathway with the python or to kill it. They waited patiently for the slow creature to crawl past.
‘Nna anyi deeme o.’ she spoke to the python.
‘Nne I am scared.’ Adanna cried out.
‘It is totally harmless to the Idemmili people as long as you don’t think or act evil towards it.’
She told Adanna stories of how the python saved their land in the past. Therefore, had been conferred the honour of being worshiped as the eke Idemmili. So, it was a great taboo to kill or drag path with the python. She also informed her that her father told her stories as a child, of men who mistakenly killed the animal and how they were mandated to carry our funeral ceremonies in memory of the animal that was the totem of worship of the Idemmili deity.
Adanna didn’t enjoy the stories much as she starred at the, creepy, sluggish and non challant animal in the face. She wished her mother would wait for a better time to tell her such stories. The animal finally crawled into the bush and they walked past. Out of disgust, Adanna jumped the trail it had left and water spilled from her pot as she did.
Obioma remembered the words of Ndukwe her brother in law as they walked. She wished death hadn’t taken her husband away; the same husband who had built a hut and married a wife for Ndukwe when he returned from Atani, after many years he had wasted there in the name of seeking for greener pastures. She wished she could bring back the dead or find a way to make her late husband fight for her from the land of the dead. She dabbed the tears flowing from her eyes with her thumb and wiped it on her wrapper. They asked her to stop using the barn, so the last harvest season was terrible for her. The ground bettles had easy access to the tubers of yam she harvested and stacked behind her hut. No one gave her yam to roast or cocoyam for her soup. Her cassava farm didn’t make it to the harvest season, because Nnakwe and his kinsmen uprooted the produce and cultivated their yam tubers in the same land she fertilized. That same land, he had gone to warn him to stay away from earlier at the river bank.
Adanna complained about being tired and she exchanged the basket of wet clothes with the pot of water she carried.
As they got closer to their compound, she noticed smokes rising to the sky.
‘Nne, something is burning?’ Adanna adjusted the basket on her head.
‘Oh! I remember. Nne Osita made mention of burning her farm land; the one behind our hut. Am sure the smoke must be coming from her farm land. I will beg her to use a small portion for my vegetable beds.’ She motioned Adanna to walk faster.
They got to the junction where three roads met: the road leading to her house, the road to the stream, and the road to the Idemmili shrine. There, she discovered that the smoke was rising from her hut. She pushed off the pot of water she had balanced on her head and ran towards her compound. Her daughter followed her. As Obioma ran closer, she saw three men standing in front of her hut. One of them had a long stick and a small oil jar with him. She ran faster and as the men saw her, they fled through nne Osita’s farmland. Her hut and all it contained had burned halfway down: sacks of grain, jars of palm oil, baskets of wrappers and jigida, and the small raffia waist bag filled with cowries which she discovered in the hut after her husband’s death.
‘Ewooo! Who did I offend? Whose property did I steal? Who did this to me?’ she threw herself down and cried out.
She sighted Adanna running towards her and she stood up. She grabbed and held her so tight and screamed out in terror.
‘Nne, who set our house on fire?’ Adanna asked as she managed to grasp breath.
‘My daughter, your uncles have killed us. They have rendered us homeless. What is my crime?’
‘Nne, is it nna anyi Ndukwe?
‘Ewooo! Ewooo! Ndi be anyi, our people, come oo!’ she released Adanna and ran behind the hut. She ran back to the centre of the compound, and threw her hands on her head. ‘It shall never be well with whoever did this to a poor widow like me.’ She cried harder.
‘Is there nobody seeing this smoke in this community? Have you all died or are your houses on fire too? Nnakwe where are you? I know it is you! Ewooo! My chi has killed me.’ she threw herself on the ground again and Adanna knelt to console her.
‘Nne, stop crying. Everything will be alright.’ she wiped her mother’s tears with the edge of her wrapper and cried because her mother cried.
The sun had gone down and Obioma lay in the middle of the compound. Her eyes were swollen and heavy, and her head ached badly. She mopped continuously at the hut. The thatched roof had burnt completely, leaving the frame for the roofing and few strands of black raffia that once made up the thatching. Her daughter lay beside her fast asleep, her head on her mother’s stomach. Her tears had long dried up and left lines on her innocent face. Obioma stroked her daughters head. As she started singing a sorrowful tune with her cracked voice deep and faint, Adanna stirred a little. She robbed her eyes with her left palm and fell back asleep.
‘Go back to sleep my child, we no longer have a home.’ she laughed and started crying again. The salty liquid flowed into her mouth and she cared less about it.
She heard footsteps approaching and she recognized it. It was nne Osita. She ran to where Obioma and her daughter were and held her. As she led out a loud scream, Adanna woke up.
‘They will not come. I have called and called and called. I have lost my voice even, so don’t bother.’ Obioma laughed again.
‘Who did this? Did you see them?’ nne Osita asked.
‘I saw them but I only recognized Ndukwe. He was still tying the same wrapper. The one he was tying when he came to the river to warn me about my late husband’s farmland.’ She yanked up Adanna. Please give her water to drink.
Nne Osita ran to her hut and came out with a clay bowl filled with water. She positioned Adanna’s mouth to fit the curved part of the bowl and helped her to a long drink. She gave the bowl to Obioma who rejected it and started crying again.
Adanna robbed her eyes and scratched her thighs simultaneously. Obioma stood up suddenly from the ground and pulled her daughter. Nne Osita looked at her with much confusion. She wiped the tears from her eyes and started walking away from the compound. Nne Osita rushed after her to find out where she was going to, but Obioma only kept walking and her pace increased as she walked. She took Adanna along and she followed.
‘Obioma, where are you rushing to?’ nne Osita rushed after her.
‘To the only place where I can sleep and drink water peacefully without Ndukwe complaining or reminding me that everything my late husband worked for belonged to him.’ She increased her pace and adjusted her wrapper, and as she got to the junction where three roads meet, she turned to the one leading to the shrine.
‘Ewooo! Abomination! She is going to Idemmili! Please help me stop her!’ She snatched Adanna from her and pulled her close to herself.
‘Nne Osita, please leave my daughter now or I will scream.’ She grabbed her daughter by the hand and whisked her from nne Osita.
Adanna followed her mother and they both walked fast. A woman who was coming from the road leading to the stream heard nne Osita and ran into the village.
Obioma and her daughter got to the shrine and walked closer to the big iroko tree; the ancient tree she had been told was the source of life to the Idemmili people, the tree of truth. She starred at the shrine in silence. The big human faced totem, carved from an iroko tree stood in the middle of the shrine. Its bulgy eyes staring back at her. It was covered in both stale and fresh blood. Fowl feathers littered everywhere. Lobes of Kaolin were neatly placed in front of the totem and fresh lines drawn with the kaolin were still visible on the floor in front of the totem. A curtain was made round the tree with twisted freshly plucked palm fronds, and beneath the curtain was a small clay pot filled with cowries and coral beads of different colours. Beside the clay pot were six tubers of yam tied together with dried palm fronds. A cock rested on the tubers of yam, its legs were tied tightly together and it failed to neither make any sound nor move as Obioma moved closer.
She knelt down and her daughter knelt with her. Her tears became uncontrollably.
‘Idemmili, they have burnt my hut, alongside my belongings. I am a poor widow and right now, I have nothing to offer you because everything I have is gone. All I have left is my daughter.’ she sniffed hard.
‘Please don’t do it.’ a voice came from behind. It was nne Osita. She ignored the warning and continued.
‘I know you hate it when people come before you empty handed, so I have come with her. Take her, in exchange for this request I am making. I will not leave her here with you though, she will come home with me but she is yours now. We are both yours.’ she helped Adanna up and pushed her forward.
‘Obioma, biko, stop now before it is too late.’ She clasped her breasts.
‘I am leaving. I hope my sacrifice is acceptable and my request not too much. Idemmili fight for your daughter.’ she took her daughter by the hand and walked away.
As they got closer to the junction where three roads met, she sighted the woman who ran into the village as she approached with some men and women. They paused and watched her corner into her compound without speaking a word to anyone. Nne Osita followed her in tears.
It was done. She had given herself and her daughter to the shrine and would thenceforth be regarded as osu, outcast. No free born would marry her daughter when she comes of age, or go to the stream with her, or to the market. She would always be favoured, yet feared by all, to avoid incurring the wrath of the Idemmili deity who had become a special guardian to them. The guardian would thenceforth guard them radically. Ndukwe would finally let her have her farmland and the trio who had burnt her hut alongside her properties will secretly rebuild it even after they must have faced or would face the wrath of the Idemmili deity and the Igwe. That would be the last day she would cry or be oppressed by anyone.
Nne Osita secretly offered her Osita’s hut. He was away in the forest, training with other teenage boys of his age for the coming of age ceremony. She wouldn’t want to be associated with her, lest, she would be called osu as well. After all, she was also seen with Obioma. She offered them food, water and clean wrapper. She also offered to rewash the ones they had gone to the river to wash earlier before the whole incident took place. That night, Obioma slept peacefully, even with the broken heart, for she knew that she would be safe thenceforth; herself and her daughter.
* * *
Adanna buried her mother as a young teenager and had attended nne Osita’s funeral as well. The farming year after the deaths, the white men entered Idemmili from Onicha. Osita didn’t like the white men, so, he didn’t accept the opportunities which came at his early adulthood, when the white men entered Idemmili. He refused their way of life and thought it was funny and senseless. His peers went for special trainings as adults and got menial jobs as court clerks, messengers, house keepers and office assistants in different locations. They received salaries from the government and bought wooden doors for their huts.
Adanna on the other hand joined the white men who accepted her irrespective of her social status. She sat alongside other osu girls on the long chairs made with bamboo sticks in class. Parents then believed that female children were only meant to marry and bear children. So, only the male children were allowed to go to school. She also attended church alongside other osu converts from their village. She grew up to become a beautiful young woman.
Regions were created in the country and the Idemmili people fell under the Eastern region. The state creation processes took place and they were called Enugwu state.
Having been nominated as the most brilliant child in the community, the state government awarded Adanna scholarship to study in the Queen’s College, Lagos and University College of Ibadan. Upon her graduation, she made distinction in journalism. She was offered a job in the state broadcasting services in Enugwu city where she worked as a news editor.
One Monday afternoon at her office, a news reporter presented her with a file containing the news headlines which she was meant to edit for the evening broadcast. The headline read thus:
“WE ARE ALL EQUAL, FREEBORN OR OSU.”
It got to her notice, that at a seating in the Eastern Region House of Assembly on that day March 20, 1956, the house had deliberated on the osu caste system that segregated and practically promoted discrimination against people in the Igbo land. Therefore, they had collaborated and sponsored a bill to abolish the devilish cultural practice in the geo political zone; stating that it runs against the provisions of the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights of the United Nations General Assembly, which guarantees human rights and freedom from any form discrimination.
The headline caught her attention and she had to listen further to both news on the radio and also bought newspaper from the vendor who had a stand at the office gate. She rejoiced, knowing that that she would go home to her Idemmili people as a non osu.
She travelled home months later as a free woman. As she walked into her father’s compound, she spotted Osita’s wife coming out from their newly renovated hut. As their eyes met, she ran inside and shut the wooden door. The act didn’t surprise Adanna. She had been treated like that in the past by Osita’s wife, who didn’t have the opportunity to go to school because she was a girl child. She had ended up in Osita’s house to practice all she had been thought in his kitchen.
‘Osita! It is I Adanna. I just came back from the city. Are you home?’ she called as she walked closer to his hut.
‘Ada, welcome. I hope you journey was smooth.’ Osita replied from behind.
‘Where are you?’
‘I am working in my barn. I am very dirty. I will see you later.’
She was about entering her house which had been finished with rusted corrugated iron sheet, when Osita’s sons came back from school.
‘Nnoonu, Welcome.’ She greeted them. They all ignored her and ran into their mother’s hut. The last son stood there admiring her high heeled shoes, and in a flash, his mother rushed out and whisked him away.
Adanna couldn’t believe it. They haven’t heard that the caste system had been abolished and that had made her equals with them. She never saw Osita or his family any more until she traveled back to the city. She learnt from her colleague who came from the same village with her that she Adanna had a suitor, a medical doctor from their neighbouring village who returned from the United Kingdom after years of study. She made her colleague understand that she wasn’t sure of what she was saying, because she had traveled to the village and had spent the whole weekend without meeting any suitor or being told about it.
‘From what I heard, he spotted you at the motor park and traced you to your compound later.’ Her colleague narrated.
‘I see. But I didn’t meet him.’
‘That was because he wasn’t successful enough to get to your compound.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘He was informed that you are an osu. So his father discouraged him from going any further.’
‘What? I thought you said he was a medical doctor who studied abroad. I am very sure he knew better than to segregate. That is breaking the law.’ she paced back and forth in her office.
‘My mother said he is a medical Dr. His name is Ndubuisi or something like that. I heard his father, one of the new warrant chiefs threatened that he would disown him if he went ahead to marry you or any other osu, educated or not.’ she hissed. ‘Illiteracy and ignorance is bad I must tell you.’
‘But, the government has passed the bill.’ She sat down.
‘My dear, the government might have it on paper, but not in the minds of the greater part of the Igbo populace who already have the segregation deep in their heads. I just feel for you. You just have to pray you marry a man who won’t care so much about your social status. Most of the osu girls have turned to prostitutes in this city, because no man would marry them.’ she sighed. ‘It shall be well.’ She excused herself and left the room.
Adanna bent her head on the table and remembered all she and her mother had passed through while she was growing up. She thought of the children she would give birth to, if ever she will meet a man who would disregard her social status to marry her. She thought it would be necessary to tell her children, and those that would come after them the story of her life. She hoped that one day, her child or her descendant would correlate the whole story and talk about how finally the system was abolished from the minds of people, and that the word osu went extinct, and was only used when teaching history subjects in schools. She picked up her pen and a paper to write and her telephone rang. It was the receptionist.
‘Hello Nneka, how may I help you this afternoon?’
‘Miss Adanna, there is a man here to see you. His name is Dr. Ndubuisi from Idemmili. Do you have an appointment with him?’ The voice came from the other end of the line.
‘It is okay. Tell him to wait there in the lobby. I will come and meet him.’ She smiled and dropped the telephone receiver. She thought she would start writing her story later or perhaps, tell it to the children verbally.
I was vehement enough with the boulders in the yard, two weeks after Mama’s discharge from the hospital; lumps that had vowed to defy the strength of two men and a jug. Nana was watching me. I tried to twist the ankles of one of the large stones, noting how I would possibly break my back if I tried lifting. Troops of sweat slid down my spine brook. The other fellows were watching me. I lent my face one palm, which I used to swipe across my forehead, ready to burrow sideways. I was as well praying. Praying that the boulder would not toss me across the street to the area where the girls packed up grass into wheel barrows, which the younger fellows would then convey to the NO PARKING ZONE, where the public service trash van would find them.
As I stayed still, ramming into as many calculations as my brain could manage, someone approached me from behind. Now was my only chance to prove my ability, otherwise, if another shadow fell over the boulder, I would later be said to have been helped. I tugged at the stone, pressure overwhelming me. My head felt hot like the lid of a boiling pot. I tugged again. Sweat oiled the feeble hairs that sprung from my arm. Then, spreading my legs as far apart as they could go, I lifted waiting for the snap. It did not come. Instead, I was overcome by glee, hoping Nana had not averted her eyes. I did not mind the pool of sweat pouring into and smarting my eyeballs. I burrowed the boulder sideways. Surprisingly, it moved. The half moon grass underlying the stone had turned to the colour of earth as I pushed. Now, I could hear Nana’s voice, although unable to make out her words from the sweat gushing into my ears. She sounded frightened, and I knew she was still watching me, her knees clenched and eyes pent up.
Nana was yellow and prim all the time. She had a dark, tall mother. Her father was late five years after Nana was born. Many said he was yellower than Nana, with a golden hair and ash teeth. Although Nana had only been five when her father passed away, she spoke of him as though she had spent a lot of time with him, as though he were still with her. When she spoke about him and I looked at her, I could tell that she still missed him. The other fellows and I never saw her in the mornings. She was always indoors with her mother and a little, old maid, Sera.
I was heaving non stop now, as I had to guide the boulder if I did not want to lose the tips of my fingers. Although I willed, I could not burrow further. I had only to mark time before dropping. The spreading of my legs had reached its limit. When this happened, I remembered that I had had nothing to eat yet. The other fellows too; probably why they stood watching me. I took in enough air through my mouth, bloated my chin and let the air roam the inside of my mouth. My sweat was now as thick as blood, I could nearly hear the thuds against the earth. Securing the safety of my toes by shaking my legs and looking over to see their position, I dropped the boulder. I could do this again. I could do it till the boulders all around got to the fence, three yards away.
When I looked up, however, I was shocked at what I saw. My chest was heaving greatly and I was not sure whether all that effort was commensurate with the half moon of earth I had secured. The older fellows were lifting the boulders, two by two, like they were merely air bags. I was nearly, however, going to congratulate myself for burrowing mine a half moon closer to the fence alone when I looked beside me and saw Odera. He was touching his knees, and doing some sort of waist exercise. Before looking at Nana, I had to be sure whether he was the reason I had lifted the boulder. He winked at me.
“Ariel and seven other good spirits are inside this one,” he chimed. “Look at how our fathers are carrying theirs.”
I nodded quietly and looked away. My neck could not help me locate Nana’s eyes now. I imagined how silly she must’ve thought we were; two fellows lifting the youngest boulder with such difficulty. Even the tortoise would have hit the fence earlier than we had secured the half moon of earth.
Odera had lately begun to attract my senses. When his family arrived two years ago, I could worry less about him and pleasing the girls. He had been short and small by the arms; it had never mattered to me what good face he had until he finally outgrew me. One could not find a fault with him though. He was plain and funny and sensitive. He was also good with himself, as though he were maximizing the use of an affordable product he had purchased with his own money. He visited everyone equally, and worked nights to find everyone a nickname which he felt they would enjoy. Only lately had he begun to step beyond my boundaries. Boundaries I had recently readjusted without informing him.
He was looking at me for a while, waiting for a reply. I did not want to look at him. I did not want to look at anybody. I wished Papa were there. I reasoned that if he had participated in the lifting as did other fathers, he would wipe the shame off my face. At least, Nana would know that when I grew up to be like him, I would be able to lift a boulder way past a half moon of earth.
“Do you see what Nana is doing?” Odera asked, and I did not realize he had abandoned his patience for my reply. “She is trying to lift one of the boulders. Do you think she can do it?”
I glanced at Nana. She was laughing with the other fellows across the street, her flay skirt dancing with the comely breeze. Her spotted legs were hidden in a pink hose. As her eyes averted towards us, I swept my eyes away.
“Sure,” I said, folding my arms.
Before we all went upstairs after the Sanitation, the fathers bought us okpa, wrapped in hot banana leaves. Odera sat on one of the boulders as he ate, wagging his chin in reaction to the hotness of the meal. I opened my wrap, contemplating on whether to eat it downstairs or upstairs. I watched as smoke sprayed my eyes and the aroma of the meal leapt out. The mothers were already calling my fellows in to bathe and to eat proper food. One of the mothers, Mama Kamsi unfolded the hems of her wrapper as she got to where I was.
“Okigbo,” she said, “Your mother wants you now.”
I looked up. “Good morning, ma.”
Then, I closed my wrap and ran into the yard, upstairs to meet my mother. As I ran, I imagined I was in a lot of trouble although it was out of place to think so. I imagined she was disappointed in my inability to move the boulder to the fence. Disappointed in the manner I had responded to Odera, and in the manner I had envied the fathers. I did not know what she would say about the okpa I had received but although I had enough time to hide it in my pocket as I knocked, it could not leave my palm.
She looked at my face as she opened the door. The old electricity bills pasted on our door made our house too familiar to me. Most times, we found geckos hiding behind the papers. I had been pursuing them for years now.
“Nno, welcome,” she said, “Did you find the work too hard?”
I shook my head quickly and entered the house, quietly placing my slippers under the wooden structure supporting our fridge. The kitchen had been swept. The curtains had been held aside, and the lights turned off. As I walked into the dining to have breakfast, she touched my arm.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“Okpa.” I laid the wrap on the table and waited for her sentence.
“Who gave you?” she went, watching the wrap as one would a blue moon. Then, as if to lend the moment entrance, a ray of sun glided across the dining table and landed on the wrap.
“The men bought it for us. I received mine directly from the seller,” I explained.
She looked at me again. “A random seller?”
“I wouldn’t know, mama,” I responded.
She looked at me again, longer than the first time although I had until then failed to record her eyes avert from me for once. She then leaned forward and touched the wrap as if by touching it she could detect the randomness of the seller.
“Throw it away,” she said, “Eat your food and go and bathe.”
I could not argue with her, and I could not vouch for the random seller because if I did, she would attribute my utterance to my being a gourmand. I dropped the wrap in the waste bin in the kitchen, pulled out my chair and sat down. My spoon was laid out neatly beside my plate, on the tray. Mama was still watching me as I picked it up and plunged it into my rice. I knew why she was watching me. She was watching me to know if I had appetite for the food, in order to be able to tell if I had somehow eaten outside. Mama never gave me money. She always gave me enough to eat and enough water to drink. Those were my major needs according to her. She bought me every other thing based on her discretion. Those other things were tagged, wants.
I was still thinking about the okpa, which I had been ordered to throw away. My nose had imbibed the aroma of the meal. Mama did not make okpa at home. She only bought me some when we went to the market at the end of the month and could not get home early. The last okpa I had tasted had been ready in my presence. Mama never bought edibles from people she knew with the slightest string. This, I thought, prevented her from making new friends or continuing with the old ones.
I hurried through the first five spoons as she stood watching. Although I was hungry, I had no appetite for rice and stew on a Saturday morning. However, I never complained as other children did. I never protested when she laid out my clothes. I never complained when there was too little salt in the food.
“What happened downstairs?” she asked, pulling out a chair to sit beside me.
I gulped some whole rice in order not to look like I was hesitating.
“We cut grass and moved boulders to support the fence,” I said. I drank some water, waiting for her reply.
“Your grandmother is doing better now,” she said quickly as though she had been waiting for me to finish my statement.
I looked at her, gulping some more whole rice. She had a strange look on her face, as if she was neither happy nor sad. As if she did not know what she said.
“Oh,” I said, “Very good, mama. Very good.”
She crossed her fingers on the table. “Yes. I appreciate God.”
After breakfast, I took my bath in our creamy bath tub, put on the clean clothes she had laid out for me on my bed, and lay down. I thought about the fathers downstairs. How they laughed when I could not use the cutlass. I thought about how the little girls sat on their laps, reaching down to the ground with a stick, while the men prevented them from falling or hurting themselves. The fathers of our yard were mostly young. They came out very early in the mornings to jug and smoke cigarettes, their calves jutting out like split coconuts were stored in them. On Saturday mornings, they went down the street to have palm wine at Omasili’s restaurant. I admired them walking together, especially when they invited their young sons to join them. They had invited me once but Mama had thanked them on my behalf, while I was taking a nap.
Mama came into my room while I was falling asleep. The sound of her feet jolted me fully awake. They were strong and firm like that of a man. She sat on my bed and asked whether I was still awake.
“No, Mama.” I looked up. There were traces of tears on her face. I wanted to ask but I knew she would say nothing reasonable to me. However, I knew what must have been the cause. It was either Papa had refused to pay my tuition fees or that someone had reported his activities to her. The last time, M’moge had told Mama that she had seen Papa with a beautiful recent widow. He had dropped by at her house with loads of beverage provisions. The sound of Mama’s catching throat that evening stayed impressed in my heart. She told M’moge that I had no beverage provisions at home. Every morning, I went out to buy sachets of powdered milk and choco.
As I looked on at Mama, I imagined Papa’s prayer had worked. I imagined that Mama were dead. I imagined what I would be doing if Papa was planning her burial. I imagined he would invite those strange women into our house to replace Mama. I could recall vividly how he had looked over Mama’s bed in the hospital when she regained consciousness and prayed that she would die so that he could use some freedom.
Later that evening, Nana sat close by me at Prof’s house. She smelled of soft, milky lotions mingled with light dust. I saw her as a statue with that smell. She came by Prof’s house every week last year. Early this year, she began to come every day. Prof said she was at a stage when most girls did not know how to sing well, so, the slightest chance Nana got, she sang down buildings. Her tiny voice was not swell or even well mannered. In fact, she smote keys, knocking them together, then raised them on G flat, her usual way.
The manner at which I fool myself by believing I can tell music notes apart is the manner at which Nana believed she could sing. I had heard her sing so much that after three full months, I could not tell if she had improved or whether I had simply got used to her singing. I had learned to nod in the light manner in which Prof did. However, my nod, however light I stream lined it to be, could not carry as much glory as Prof’s did. It could not make one shudder at the volumes of books I must’ve read. Books as heavy as pregnant goats. It could not make one imagine the level of authority I had in English Language. Prof did not speak like us Nigerians; neither did he speak in the accent of the Whiteman. He was of a strange breed; the well educated breed. Watching him speak gave me a strange sense of satisfaction, and although he employed bogus words sometimes, the context in which he used them gave me clear understanding of what they could mean. Yet, when I think of it, it’s possible that when he spoke, the manner at which he pampered and cushioned words made them sound bogus. I would rewind my brain, overturn those words, weigh them, and then understand them.
Prof was often free at 10am everyday including Sundays, as he did not attend service except on Christmas day. He had a little maid, Oruoma, who swept the house, bought him newspapers and local drinks, and grinded tobacco for him.
As the early sun rose every day, he sat in his comfortable chair, lodged beside aloe Vera plants on his veranda, with his pipe, newspaper on his lap and a local drink by his side. With every puff of smoke into the fresh air, he took in deep breaths and then beamed of satisfaction.
In the evenings, he spent time with the children living around us, who like me, enjoyed the movement of his head and the manner at which he seemed to drift to sleep at the most interesting point of his stories. When he came all awake all of a sudden, he claimed to have risen from the dead again. Because of this, we thought he not just had authority here on earth but even more hereafter.
I wanted to rest my chin on Nana’s shoulders as the sun fell. She was looking out into the yard. For several moments, she seemed lost on the spot where a mother hen was scratching out her last meal while her chicks squeaked, ready for the last dose of the day. I had often laid down, pictured Nana and I looking over Prof’s veranda, at the sunset. Each time I thought about this, I could feel her warmth; Nana’s soft breath stroking my neck as she leaned on my left shoulder. I hoped that she would sing, while I backed her up no matter how badly or sadly we did so. Yet, no matter how hard I tried, Nana only knew me as the boy with the poorly matched rubber slippers. She would watch my feet when the other boys made fun of me, with no emotion. I knew the boy she liked; Okigbo. She never sat next to him or the other boys. And when Prof asked us to choose partners for an English game; only then did she notice me. She would then trail her left palm over my khaki shorts like I was something she held down while she sought what she wanted.
“Why do your preachers say, Jehovah overdo?” started Prof, watching me. He had had his third drink for the evening. The one he claimed gave him a good night sleep. Sometimes, he spoke to us in the manner of someone who was only speaking because he had to.
I moved my lips and held them shut, staring back at him. I did not know why our preachers said Jehovah overdo. I had never even heard them say so. Besides, if I thought long enough, nodding internally, Prof would turn to someone else as he mostly did; slowly and with an edgy smile on his face.
“I want answers because I’m worried,” continued Prof, still watching me. I stared further, counting the veins on his forehead, wishing to be one of them so that he will not have to look at me till he brought a mirror to himself. “Has God erased something out of His good conscience, only to bring it back to life?”
Prof’s stare was daunting, disrobing. Whenever he watched me, I felt like a city set on a hill, and my body burned with a slight fever.
“I think our preachers mean to say God does more than we ask of him,” Okigbo said from far behind. He was in the company of the boys who sat next to the railing.
“You know why I ask?” Prof began again. “You Nigerians rely on God for everything.”
Okay, first; Prof was a Nigerian. Again, it was the instruction the Bible gave us. I leaned closer to hear him defend his assertion. He laughed when he saw me leaning closer.
“See? This is the problem. We Nigerians have itching ears. We go about listening, looking for the truth whereas the truth lies within. Have you tried connecting with this truth? This truth may be of a different opinion from what the general public holds to be true. But then, that’s why we are individuals. And if at all the truth we tell ourselves turns out to be a lie, then, we can still rejoice,” Prof said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because you have made use of yourself. The precious brain that God has given you. He wants you to make use of it. It’s not just for collection of data…”
When we retired for the night, Nana could not leave my mind. I knew that if I told her of my feelings for her, Mama would kill me. Her mother would kill me. I had a lot to talk about but no one to listen. I pulled my notebook to myself. In it, I sketch my mind and initialled all the data it had collected; from Papa to Nana; from Nana to Mama.
Soon, I was writing. For a moment, I looked up. No one was judging me for the things I said. And I felt a lot lighter like one of the boulders had been removed from me. I wrote about the things I wanted. I wrote about how many children Nana and I would bear. Till I was ready to be listened to, I slid that notebook under my dresser. It became my best friend. It knew me.
“Father bless me for I have sinned against you, my last good confession was yesterday. I have sinned before heaven and earth, and my sins grow heavy on me and burden my heart. I come forward this day to ask for God’s forgiveness and these are my sins.”
Father Patrick frowned, he recognized the voice and he knew what was coming next. He however made no attempt to stop her.
“I tried to forget Mama.” A pause.
“I have been writing in my diary, and I wrote that Mama is a horrible person for leaving, for making me suffer so much.”
“I still hate Mama Dubem.” Another pause.
“These are my sins.”
The priest sighed. He could feel, rather than hear her crying.
It was the 10th time that she had come forward to make the exact same confession. And he had tried to talk her out of her grief. He had told her that the true pathway to peace was through forgiveness, that Mama probably hurt her by dying, but that she should forgive her.
After the confession, the priest came out hurriedly to meet Ann before she skipped off to God knows where.
“Ann!” He called as she crossed the wooden door at the end of the Central Isle.
“How are you today?”
“I am fine father.”
“How is your father?”
“He is very well, father.”
“And your Stepmother?”
“She is fine.” She said finally.
He laid a hand on her head, she looked up.
“I hope to see you tomorrow after morning mass, I have a story I will like to share with you.” Her face brightened.
Alright then, send my regards to your father.
“I will father.”
11th September, 2010
The world was pretty and colorful, full of love and peace. There was laughter, and there was joy. Then, all I felt like doing was laugh and smile. To take in as much as I could of the bliss all around me. Mama was in the centre, dishing out dishes of love like a goddess of festivity and stirring and stirring the deep broth of happiness. Papa was a jolly partaker, just as I, in the times before there was darkness.
I want Mama back. Even though right now I don’t know how I feel about her, but if she were here it will all be alright. I wish sometimes I was there, on that day Papa and Mama went to visit Aunt Amaka. Maybe she would still be here.
I wish I was there when the accident happened, when Papa somehow came out alive and left Mama behind, to die.
I see her everywhere, in my dreams, in the faces of people I see in the street, on the face of my teachers and in the mirror when I go to the bathroom. Am I wrong to want her back? Am I wrong to wish that the last thing I told her was not that I hate her, for not letting me come? Does God really care? Father Patrick promised he loved me. Did he love me enough and yet let Mama die? Did I do something so wrong, this had to be my punishment?
I wish I have been dreaming since last year. That Mama Dubem, Dubem and Kenneth are not real and that Papa has not changed.
Ann flipped a page of her text book idly. Her mind was wandering, from school to the loads of chores Mama Dubem had given her and the fact that the boys got to sit around and watch TV while she did their laundry, cleaned the house and did the dishes. She flipped the second page, something about calligraphy and many artistic letters that she was supposed to imitate in the next class.
She sighed and closed the book. She then pulled out her diary from underneath her pillow. She went to the door and peeped to be sure no one was coming, then she settled down to write.
September 15th ,2010
Today is the day Mama died a year ago.
I remember the beeping sound of the machines I pleaded with to keep Mama alive. They kept their words for 2 months, though she never actually woke up. I remember that Papa was not his cheery old self. That his clothes were ruffled and because he was always in the hospital, praying and holding Mama’s hand, he exuded a stale sweaty odor that made the nurse that was assigned to Mama cringe her nose whenever she saw him, disgust written all over her face. I recall how dispirited Papa was, when the Machine betrayed us, and stopped beeping. How lifeless Papa looked kneeling at Mama’s bedside, too astounded, too surprised to cry.
Father Patrick sat across the room from Ann. She was holding her knees and watching him expectantly.
“How was your night, hope you slept well?”
“No bad dreams?”
“No father.” He raised an eye brow. “No bad dreams.” she insisted. She had complained of bad dreams in the past, dreams in which she was been pursued by a faceless person.
“Ok. So, today I want to tell you a personal story.”
“Of course you know I was a boy once, as young as you?” She nodded twice.
“When I was young, nine years to be precise, I lost my father.”
There was silence.
“I am sorry for your loss father.”
“No need for that, you see it was all part of God’s plan.”
She looked down, she didn’t seem to agree.
“Yes, it was.” He insisted. “If my father had not died then, my mother would never have sent me to live with Father Christian. I would never have become a priest.”
“So, God killed your father to make you his lifelong servant?”
“That is not what I said.”
“I meant that his dying was because it was his time, but God works in mysterious ways. It was that string of event that eventually led me here to this place, this day, here with you.”
“Father, who decides when it is a person’s time to die?”
He thought about it for a while and then said;
“God ultimately does my dear.”
“Father did God decide that Mama had to die?”
“Good Lord, No! Why would you think such a thing? God is not a killer.”
“What I mean is that every time a person comes across a life threatening situation, if their purpose is not yet fulfilled, God often saves them. If not, he allows events to run their course.”
Then she spoke up;
“Father is that the story you wanted to tell me?”
“No, not at all.”
“Are you ready for the story?”
“Ok, here it goes.” He cleared his throat dramatically and she laughed, this made him smile.
“A long time ago when I was just in seminary, in my third year if I can recall correctly, there was a boy that every one hated because he was strong. He could bully and beat up anyone who got in his way and he was often in a lot of trouble because of his behavior. We used to call him bulldozer. He had earned the nick name after he had been accosted by a senior seminarian during assembly for flying out his shirt. He had continued to walk forward even though he was been called, to go to the back and await punishment. When the seminarian accosted him and attempted to force him to the back as instructed. He then thrust his leg behind the seminarian and tackled him to the ground. He was Bull dozer ever since. He had bull dozed the formidable seminarian to the ground. As was customary, when the session ended we were instructed to write the names of people we felt were no longer fit for the program, and as was expected, we all wrote his name. But in the night of the last day of the term before vacation, the rector’s house was set ablaze by unidentified persons. No one was brave enough to try and save him. Seminarians were busy rallying students about to fetch water to quench the thirsty fire, Bull dozer however, ran straight into the burning house and came out some minutes later with the unconscious body of the rector. Today, Bull dozer is a priest, just like me”
Her eyes widened in amazement.
“Now, what lesson did you learn from this story.”
“That bad people can be good”
“Well, yes and?”
“That sometimes, some things need to happen for the good in people to come out.”
“No! That is not it.”
“Do you want to try again?”
“Are you sure?” He said looking in the direction of the bowel of sweets he always kept for the occasion.
The lesson is forgiveness. Bulldozer was already on his way out of the school. He was not going to return for the next session. He was done with the seminary and it was the rector that sanctioned it. But when the rector was in danger, Bull dozer came to the rescue. If he had not forgiven earlier, he would never have been moved to help at all.
But there is also something else I must tell you
“Do you want to know what it is?”
“Do you remember the part in the bible that says; love your neighbor as yourself.”
“Good, very good.”
“Forgiveness also works the same way.”
“If you carry anger or hatred in you, your heart never truly knows peace. But when you forgive those who have offended you, your heart is freed and the burden of hatred and anger is gone. But sometimes, we start to feel bad for having not forgiven all those times. It brings sadness. For instance, a father who is angry with his son and later forgives and reconciles with him is often sad that he held unto that anger for so long. Even if he has eventually forgiven his son, he did not forgive himself. It is therefore important that as we forgive others, we should also learn to forgive ourselves and accept the things we cannot change.”
Ann came home one evening to see her diary on the floor of the living room. Dubem and Kenneth were still both watching Tv. They didn’t even hear her come in.
“Ann!” Mama Dubem shouted.
“Ann!” She shouted again, before Ann replied.
“You are back, good. Here” She said, giving her some money. “Run downstairs and buy maggi cubes from Mama Kosy.”
By the time Ann came back, she could not find her diary.
“Dubem!” She shouted to draw his attention. “Where is my diary?”
“How am I supposed to know he retorted, slightly irritated.”
“I saw it on the floor when I came in.”
“Then get it from there then.”
“Did you hear me, I said I saw it on the floor. How did it get there?”
“How am I supposed to know?!” He said, this time loud enough to attract the attention of his mother
“Aunty” She started when the woman demanded an explanation. She never called her Mother or anything of the sorts.
“I can’t find my diary.”
“Please, I can’t find my diary”
“So because you can’t find your wretched book we can’t have peace in this house again.”
“It was in my room when I left, but when I came back it was in the living room, on the floor.”
“And so what.”
“After I came back from the running the errand you sent me on, I came back and now I can’t find it.”
“I really couldn’t care less about your suspicious diary. All I know is that you will not disturb my peace in this house over some nonsense diary.”
Silence, even the TV seemed to have taken the cue.
“Do you hear me?”
“Now go and get a broom and sweep this house. Your father is about to come home and God knows he hates an untidy house.”
1st November, 2010
Maybe Father Patrick does not understand. How do you forgive a person that does not want to be forgiven?
Ann was sitting at her table writing. She had found the diary after three uneventful weeks in a pile of laundry in Dubem’s room. At the time she had felt many things; anger, pain and relief but now, she was simply grateful. Papa had been in the room earlier, he had complained of being called by Mrs. Pet, Ann’s form teacher and told that she was performing poorly, in comparison to last year. He had taken one look at her diary and started; that spent all her time writing on it than studying and how much of a bad daughter she was becoming.
She had not been able to concentrate since he left. Each time she opened her books; the pages swam into one another, and often turned a bright creamy colour – the colour of her mother’s coffin. She only ever read after she had written on the diary to her satisfaction and there was no emotion left to tell. She ever so wished the diary would not ever go missing again. And Seeing Papa yell at her like that reminded her of the things she could not have, an understanding mother that took time to find out what the problem was before laying blames.
In the evening, she went for choir practice at St Gregory. Father Patrick had finally convinced her that she could serve God better that way, and that he who sings well, prayed twice. At first it was a drag having to learn solfa notes that sounded like a bunch of organized noise. With time , she came to enjoy the labour of learning the notes, in other to get the songs right, with a conscious musical precision. She found that each time she sang, a part of her was lifted and united with God. Her smile grew wider and her demeanor brightened.
Mama Dubem forbade her ever sing in the house, as though to ensure that the gloom she escaped every Monday and Thursday evening still remained. She would later tell Father Patrick about it and he would tell her that happiness was not something people could give and take, that only a person could decide whether or not to he wanted be happy.
16th May 2010
Papa is getting married. I have no say in this but I know this is a betrayal to Mama. I cannot understand how Papa intends to replace her. I have refused to go along with it, even though he has come to tell me and introduce me to the new wife. The wife has two children. Kenneth, a six year old boy and his brother Dubem, aged seven. They look like we will never get along. I wish Papa had other siblings, I would have told him I want to stay with one of them. I am stuck; I have nowhere to go, no choice, no hope. I have not even been given enough time to mourn Mama. Papa has said he is only doing it for me, but I don’t understand him. I don’t believe him. This is going to create a rift between us, I do not know whether I will ever forgive him for this
Father Patrick drove silently to Parklane hospital. He had earlier received a call from Ann; she had said her father was in the hospital and that he had been involved in an accident. He was not used to running to the aid of every single person that called in the middle of the night, but this was Ann and her father’s life was in possible danger. They last saw each other just this evening, right before choir rehearsal. And as he drove, he tried to recollect exactly what she had said. He recalled her saying, that she was finally ready to forgive Papa. It came as a surprise to him; he had always known how strongly she resented her father for marrying Mama Dubem. But then she had explained that Papa had come very early this morning and sat at her bedside as she slept. When she had woken, she was shocked to see him but he had said he had something he had to tell her. He recalled how she couldn’t continue because she kept crying in between words. He had told her to take her time; that she didn’t have to tell him then. She had however motioned to her diary, a little red book she seemed to carry everywhere. He had been hesitant, a diary was thoroughly personal. He even suspected an entry describing him as a glorified servant, with inferiority complex incapable of logical reasoning unconnected with faith. She had however turned some pages in the book and stopped at one and given him to read. It read;
1st December 2010,
Papa came today and sat on my bed as I slept. I know this because when I woke up he was there staring down at me. I was confused. And when I greeted him, he barely nodded in reply. Annabel, he had called me. No one called me that since Mama’s death. In the times before her death, I remember being called Annabel for a treat, or a reminder that tomorrow was someone’s birthday, or to try on a new cloth, or any other good thing possible. Always something good and it was always Mama. He told me that he loved me. He said that he was sorry for everything that happened and that he wished he had told me then, but he was too consumed in his grief that he never really came around to doing that. He said that he loved Mama very much and would have done anything in his power to save her. I was mad at him for saying that. How could he say that, how could he, when all he had done was stay silent and tell me that he was going to marry Mama Dubem. But he told me that when Mama was in comatose, that he was in dire need of money. That after he sold his car and his properties, we still didn’t have enough money to pay for Mama’s hospital bills. He was desperate, the doctor threatened to pull the plug and we were up to our neck in debts. That was when Mama Dubem had come into the picture; she had come bearing Greek gifts. She was Papa’s one time love in the past and was eager to help. She paid every bill that came afterwards, down to the day Mama died.
As he drove, he hoped that Ann’s father lived, after what had happened, he was certain if he didn’t she may in the end never forgive herself.
1st December, 2010
I do not know at this point exactly how am feeling. I have been sitting silently in this room beside Papa and holding his hands, urging him to live – for me.
Father Patrick, Mama Dubem and her children are all here. And their presence gives his silence a certain finality.
I wish I had more time before it was time for school this morning to tell Papa how I felt, how trapped I was in my grief, and how sad I had felt when streaks of happiness seeped into my being – betraying Mama’s memory. I wish I had told him this morning how much I loved him; of the deep seated emotions I have harbored these past few months, of how difficult it was for me, to want to cry but know that it was futile, of running into a void that seemed to harness and amplify all the emotions I detested, of hope and of despair. I wish I had known all these while, that he did what he could and understood his sacrifice.
And even though I am not certain of many things, I am certain of just one thing; I will wait.