Whenever Ekwutosi carries her child to the market, she lifts her face up to the sky as if she is sniffing God as she walks. It is her way of shielding herself from the piercing stares, the murmurs, the laughter of her colleagues at the market, those who mock her. As she opens her stall, she says a little prayer before displaying her tomatoes, vegetables, stock fishes to the eyes of other people. Sometimes, when she breastfeeds her child it is with tears of what could have been. Her fellow market women will come pretending to look for change to give to customers when they just want to have a closer look at the child since Ekwutosi hides the child from their roving eyes. There are times Ekwutosi wants to shout at them, tell them all the times she has seen them under the bodies of good for nothing men in the bushes and also tell them that it is only a matter of time before they too toddle the market, carrying the weight of babies whose fathers they would be too ashamed to voice. Or more importantly, yelp barren and jealous at them but tiredness is always at the verges of her mind in those times so she just glowers and says, ‘no change,’ to the women as they come one after the other, identical in their market attire like houseflies.
It was a moment of weakness for Uncle Chike who insisted Ekwutosi led him to sin, that is how Ekwutosi remembers it. Of course it had to be, do men ever think for themselves? That day, her wrapper with the yellow of spoiled milk had fallen to the ground like an empty nylon and Uncle Chike, who was just stretching his dizziness, padded into the room to witness all her full glory of breasts and hips and pretty face. Ekwutosi was quick to pick up her wrapper and fling it around her body in one magical swing but the eyes had seen what they shouldn’t have seen and the message had already been registered to the brain. That night, a knock came to the door and Ekwutosi, terrified of what she might have done this time to her Madam, forgot how to walk. The knock came again, a soft tap-tap, like a plea. The other night, she forgot to warm the soup because she was washing the clothes of her Madam’s relatives. The night before that one, she had burnt the yam because she was helping the children with their assignments. So, that night, as she sauntered to the door she muttered some prayers under her breath. With Uncle Chike looking at her, weighing her like a customer would weigh a chunk of meat as she decides whether or not to buy it, her insides quivered. Was it that bad that the Madam had to send her husband? He pushed her inside, locked the room and the act was one without struggles. The Madam kept beating her as usual over slight mistakes with the husband wearing a blind eye to the act as though the maltreatment wasn’t happening in the house, covering his face with a Newspaper or surrendering his focus to the news on the television. But when the Madam started to notice that Ekwutosi’s breasts were getting fuller, her skin lusher and her belly bigger, she began to ask questions about the frequent vomiting and fever. When Ekwutosi said she was pregnant by Uncle Chike, he sprang from his chair and rebuked her like an evil spirit. He spoke so fast that one would think his tongue produced words and all Ekwutosi could see, with frozen eyes, was his chapped lips with spittle congregating in the corners. He promised her a house here, a business there and a good life in between each time he came to Ekwutosi at night. All men do is lie, Ekwutosi spat as she left the Madam’s house with her clothes wrapped in a wide linen wrapper. The Madam sent an army of curse after her as she walked away: the baby will die before it is born, if the baby is born it will not bring happiness to her, the baby will eventually die because she trusts her God.
So when Ekwutosi returns to Nnewi, she tells herself she must now live for her child and God, especially with the condition of the child. This is after some men have come to knock on her door and discovers that she has no one who they can give drinks or answer to in order to claim her as their own. Some even ask her if she can just rent some elders who will stand for her. Others did not care until some rumour begin to develop wings and fly to perch on the television in their sitting rooms as they watch football matches or the news. The rumour continues to fly until it is tired and stops to drink water in Ekwutosi’s kitchen. They said she tried to snatch her Madam’s husband like a piece of toy but the God of her Madam is not sleeping on duty and so it did not fully work, only a pregnancy could come out of the failed snatching. Ndubisi, Udenna, Ikenna, all of them dusted their feet, revved their cars in unspoken impatience and drove out of Ekwutosi’s life, spitting out smoke from their cars and leaving clouds of dust that will disturb her eyes and tongue for sometime. So Ekwutosi swears never to listen to any man, promised to be independent, not expecting any help from anyone and to be self-sufficient even in her misery. Whenever men stop her, whether in their car or while they are walking, she contorts her face in disgust and watch them hopelessly struggle to mouth the words that cling to their throats, she mocks the sense of failure that envelopes them, one that swoops on them not because they did not know how to articulate their proposals to her but because they did not know how to articulate it while she stares with her hands akimbo. They end up driving or walking away. And this is how she starts to attend the Roman Catholic Church close to her house, the one that has a white man for a Parish Priest, the one that is usually dim, full of echoes and mysteries and the faint scent of candles. The first time she goes for confession, it is to pour out everything that happened in her Madam’s house. The Priest tells her, in an accent that seems like he is singing, to say ten Hail Marys and Our Fathers. So Ekwutosi is now a new creature, she has changed in the way only grief and shame can change people. She now lives her life for Christ as the Parish Priest tells her it is why we exist – for Christ. She also covers her hair often now and prays as if prayer is a pugilistic exercise – walking around and covering things with the blood of Jesus, binding and casting demons into the seas while her hands sway this way and that way. After Mass each Sunday, she rushes to the statue of Mother Mary holding baby Jesus at the entrance of the church, kneels there and prays for purification and sanctification because, even though she went to confession last week, she believes she cannot be without sin so she begs Mother Mary to intercede for her. And sometimes, in the middle of a Hail Mary, there is an outpouring of incomprehensible words but the Priest says it is speaking in tongues and that it means she is now getting closer to God. Ekwutosi smiles.
When the girl starts to grow, her beauty begins to carve out the way teeth is formed in a baby’s mouth – skin the colour of the inside of ripe paw-paw, neck the slender of a groundnut bottle, perfect C-cup breasts that stand like attention, a basket of braided hair on the top of her head and a face reserved for models on television. The girl is a miracle of beauty made in flesh. So, the first thing her mother teaches her is to avoid men and to do this successfully, she must avoid spending forever before a mirror. The mother also tells her to avoid friends who cake their faces or coat their eyes until they become masquerades. So the girl starts to attend Catechism classes. It is in one of those classes she meets Febechi. They walk home together and go to Catechism classes together, their hands locked into each other. The mother likes Febechi because she stays away from boys and covers her hair and because she never fails to greet her every time their eyes meet. So, one Sunday afternoon when the mother’s hands are buried into the docile curls of the girl’s hair as she tames them into fat braids, she says in measured tones, that the girl must make Febechi her best friend. The mother says it is good for her because to survive in this world, one must have one who gives her good advice inside the house and outside the house. So the girl and Febechi become inseparable, like nail and cuticle.
But the girl cannot understand why the mother forces strange syrups down her throat every morning and evening ever since she has known herself, why there are some food she can eat and others she can’t eat, why there are some things she can do and others she shouldn’t do. The mother always tells her it is for her own good so she nods her head and obeys, unresisting as a corpse. When she turns twelve, in her junior school, she comes back home burning with fever. The mother runs out and comes in with a man. The man looks over the girl, touches her forehead and shakes his head. He scribbles something on a piece of paper and gives the mother.
‘But doctor I bought this one before she turned one and her coughs and loud cries stopped,’ the mother’s voice shakes.
‘This is another stage and she will need that medicine. Just get them.’
The girl sits up to look at the mother for answers but the mother is quiet. The silence deranges the girl with rage, impatience and even more fever because she hits the ottoman close to her bed with a smack so loud it travelled.
‘Nne!’ the girl screams, broiling, ‘what wrong is with me?’
‘What?’ the mother says, frozen.
The tone shifts back to the girl’s advantage as the mother is sheepish, and the doctor looks at the girl as if he is trying to inherit her exasperation, cranes his neck toward the mother’s ear and whispers something inaudible before he turns to the girl, bends to meet her eyes properly and says, beaming, ‘My dear, you have sickle cell anaemia but you will be fine.’
But the girl did not get fine because this strange sickness with a foreign name follows her everywhere like a retinue following a King; the bathroom, the kitchen, the school, the church, her mother’s stall and even the food she tries to eat – everywhere. She finds the meaning in a dictionary but cannot understand it fully so she asks Febechi who equally does not know anything about it, in fact it is the first time Febechi is learning of the name. So she asks Nchedo, the brightest student in the class whose father is a doctor. Nchedo tells her it is a deadly condition that is usually treated but can never be cured, says it is a shortage of red blood cells and with each red blood cells that die, there is a blockage of blood flow which causes pain. She draws a half moon on her book to show the girl what a sickle cell looks like. That night at home, the girl does not eat, she does not go to her Catechism class where she is to be Confirmed soon, she blocks her ears to her mother’s shouts and Febechi’s knocks. And for the first time since she becomes old enough to talk, the girl cries. She cries so loud her mother forces the door open and rushes to hug her. She is a ball of repressed pain so she does not resist her mother’s hug, she is too weak to reject it so she slumps into the mother’s arms and tries to hug her back, their arms holding tight to the each other’s body, lending the other a shoulder of both grief and support and they both let their tears fall on it, fat balls of teardrop hitting their clavicles.
The next day, the girl goes to apologise to Febechi who shrugs at the beginning but loosen into something like confusion and pity and a small horror runs across her eyes when she learns about the girl’s ailment. It is the month of her thirteenth birthday and with an awkward silence heavy in Febechi’s room, they can hear the man selling rat poison shouting and making his jokes of how the smell of his poison can kill a rat from a very far distance even the pregnant ones so they squeal with uninhibited laughter. And because the girl has no sibling to talk to, it is inevitable that she will spend more time with Febechi, watching her talk with pure adoration while the mother searches for her like a missing pin amongst a sea of pins. Between them, there is a steady friendship despite the mother’s new resistance to keep them apart and the girl is now endeared to Febechi’s easiness, openness, and the ductility of her temper. She gets to know a little more about Febechi, the brilliant girl who not only lives on her street and attends her school but miraculously becomes talkative around her, which the girl likes so much because on her thirteenth birthday, when the girl comes to tell her the doctor says she is doing very fine and will live for a long, long time, Febechi the shy, brilliant girl with heart soft like butter flings herself at the girl and kisses her and the girl kisses her back as they both hoot with joy. The girl will feel more joy as she dances back home, joy moving in her veins, pleasantly tingling her fingertips, transporting her to another realm before bringing her home to tell the mother she went to complete an assignment.
The Mother and The Girl
The days run ahead almost flying, like they are being chased by someone with a machete and those days build a room for the mother and the girl to bond. They bond over food, the mother telling the girl how vegetables are good for her and how food containing fats will ruin her system. They also bond over prayers, the mother shouting and shouting with her face upward as if she is mates with God. So it is natural, in one of those days, that the girl asks who her father is or was. The mother is shock, the way one is when a baby begins to speak at birth. But she regains herself and tells the girl that he is probably dead or something like that. The girl does not understand, tries to press further but the mother wears the irritated look of one not ready to entertain anymore questions so she looks away and begins to sing one of the songs she learns at church.
The mother says things will have to change and so the girl doesn’t follow Febechi to school or church anymore because the mother now takes her by herself, the mother says she doesn’t trust that Febechi girl anymore, says the girl behaves somehow whenever Febechi is around. At school, the mother squeezes some wads of naira into Miss Ezinne the English teacher, whispering into her ears like a shrine priest. The mother tells her to protect the girl from hard chores or from bullies or anything else that requires sweating or pain, the money means she is buying protection for the girl. The teacher smiles unctuously and nods, ‘Ralindu is my daughter too, Ma.’
Sometimes the fever becomes too much and the girl doesn’t go to school, she lays on the mother’s lap and open her ears to stories from the past as the mother tries to warm her to sleep. When she returns to school after some weeks away, the mother will tell them it is her brother’s wife funeral. But it is becoming too much and the mother is running out of excuses. The Principal has to know what exactly is going on if they are to help but the mother’s mouth is sealed like a new product. The girl eventually stops going to school. That day, the fever has eaten so deep into her that it is shaking her as if it wants to throw her somewhere but something is stopping it so it has to continue shaking her, making her teeth chatter like car tyres spinning on gravel. The mother has forced spoons and spoons of syrups into her but it is not changing anything. She looks at her wardrobe, at the empty space that used to be her wrappers and clothes, all that have now been sold to keep her daughter alive and in school.
The mother lifts the girl to the hospital and they said they will give her some treatment but they first need some amount to be deposited. The mother gives them some money and runs around like a mad woman to get some more because she knows they are in the hospital to spend. When she returns, the girl is stable and smiling a smile that does not reach the corner of her lips and this forces the mother to smile and throw herself around her. She takes the girl’s face into her hands and, through the mist in her eyes, tells her she will live by the special grace of God ignoring the air of the hospital that is thick with iodine scent and exhausted breaths. The mother opens the nylon she comes with and brings out Peak Milk and Blue Band and Value Bread. The girl is excited and sits up so fast you will think the fever is not real. But when the girl talks, she grapples for breath, fights for it and this covers the mother’s face with worry. When the mother confronts the doctor, he says they will have to place the girl on painkillers because it is now complicated as her bones are weakened like those of an octogenarian. The mother says she wants to hope and even when the doctor says it is difficult, the mother still says she will clutch tight to the hope and the doctor shakes his head. The mother puts her head on her laps and begins to sob fearful that all that is left of the fleshy composition of her hope is just vapour and she begins to pray before bursting into a full wail and goes back to the girl who is deep in sleep and whispers feverishly to her, ‘Please, stay with me.’ So they stay in the hospital until they cannot afford to stay any longer.
At home, it seems like all is well but the girl is still not allowed to go out and play and since there is no money for school, she stays home when her mates are in school. This worries the girl. She looks through the window and sees Febechi and other girls giggling and eating akara in their pinafore as they walk uniformly to school and her face tightens into a frown. The mother, with her terrified eyeballs following the girl, understands the girl’s needs and tries to keep her busy with stories but that does not work. She tries to teach her to knit and sew and make hair but the girl says she wants to be like normal people.
‘But you are not normal!’ the mother doesn’t know when she growls, and the girl begins to cry. That night, the fever comes again. This time, it is followed by families and friends because the girl is vomiting and writhing in pain like an earthworm in a mud of salt. The girl says there is something like a lump in her throat, a knot in her stomach and a burning sensation in her eyes like fire. She cries so loud, for life. The mother tries everything the doctor advises and it is dark and raining outside, huge balls of raindrop ring out harmonious melodies as they hammer on the zinc roofs, a pitter-patter that fills the darkness. It is dead around them. So the mother begins to pray for morning with panic blooming in her eyes but when morning comes, the girl did not see it. The mother has cried her eyes out and tells the stiff girl that she is coming to join her. So that morning, she just quietly knocks on her neighbour’s door, asks for twenty Naira with a tone of urgency and goes to the Mallam’s store at the street’s entrance to buy otapiapia. She enters her room, weeping in a more restrained fashion, and closes her door.
Onuchukwu Joseph Chimezie is a short story writer. He is currently an engineering student in a Nigerian University. He has been published on Africanwriter, Praxis Magazine and other literary publications. When he isn’t writing, he either argues football with his best friend or chats endlessly with the love of his life. You can follow him on Twitter as @OnuchukwuJosep3 or Facebook as Onuchukwu Joseph Chimezie.