Every time I read about the magnificence of nature in the bible I pictured my village. I remember staring in wonder at the tall palm trees that touched the sky, and yet bent in the wind like a giant invisible weight was pressing them down, the singing birds and crickets of the morning that kept better time than humans. Yes, at some point I had appreciated and marvelled at nature through mortal eyes. I had cherished the cool breeze just before sunrise, just before the day got hotter. And I had also paused to stare at the sunset just when the sky looked like it had been set on fire. I was sent spinning into this daydream just by sighting the Oji (Kolanut) tree on the burial grounds. No one plucked the kolanut from that tree because of where it grew. Someone had swept up all the shed leaves and discarded kolanut. Oji leaves had been on the ground that night as I washed the blood off my body.
I came back to the present when a hymn was started. I had not imagined the turn out at his funeral would be much. But they all came out in their numbers; neighbours, market women even men from the beer parlour. To the outside eye it looked like community support for one who had lost so much. I knew their true intention was to see how I would grieve; to discern if my wails would be real or pretence; to see if I would tear my clothes, roll on the dusty floor and lament to God for taking so much and yet another from me. They came to see if I would throw myself into the grave of my last family member, asking to be buried with Chinasa.
What they did not expect was my quiet composure, dressed appropriately in black but inappropriately not grieving outwardly. My face was an emotionless mask as I chanted and sang along. I felt their eyes on me all through even though my mind wandered to the past and how I got here. They came back to my compound afterwards for the small reception I had organised. I watched them as they gathered in small groups, talking in low tones, and then their sudden quiet as I approached to ask if they were content with the refreshments. It all seemed like a formality with its crude taste of familiarity; it was the 3rd funeral I was organising within a short space of time.
A few faces sent me back into my reverie: Chidera my former classmate from secondary school made as if to hug me but ended up rubbing my back awkwardly. I wondered about the gesture and why she had come since we barely had anything to do with each other anymore. Not since I left for Lagos to have my child with one of my mother’s old friends. She had being what I had called a ‘soul sister’ as we had read in one of our literature books: A friend as close as a sister. I knew she only became my friend because she liked my brother Chizogu. But she found we had so much in common she gave up on trying to use me to get to Chizogu. Or maybe it was because Chizogu treated her with the same disdain he did me because we were so alike.
Chidera had been with me that night. We had finished our SSCE and were training to be apprentices at the tailor’s shop. We didn’t have delusions of going to the university. We just wanted to find good men to marry and open our own shop. That day we had worked late and we had to clean up before we left. We had talked about Uzo my ‘sweetie’ on the way, Chidera’s house was much closer and I was left to walk through a small bushy area alone. I had walked this path so many times before so I had no fear. The sky wasn’t even consistently black, it was still evening. I remember looking at the sky with its unusual purple tint and picturing a dress we had made that day of a similar shade.
Then I heard odd foot falls behind me, it was Madu the crippled madman that danced at the market square. I waved him off and kept walking. In a hazy second I was pulled to the side of the path and thrown on my back. I smelled palm wine on Madu’s breath as he held down my hands. Till today I wonder if Madu’s madness is real or he pretends to be so. He didn’t say a thing that night and had an unusual sparkle in his eye, perhaps of determination, as he satisfied himself. He didn’t even cover my mouth as I screamed and cursed him. When it was over he got up and limped away. It wasn’t until then I realized how few people passed the road at night.
Now Chidera was the only living soul who had surprisingly kept the secret of how Chinasa was conceived. Not a whisper of Madu from any villager. It was no one’s fault that we stopped talking when I came back with a fatherless child from Lagos. I became the Lagos wild girl who had gotten pregnant for a married man and returned to the village to hide the baby. My mother didn’t think of the implication when she made me leave; after all, the scenario is usually the other way around. Being a prisoner of Mama and Chizogu didn’t help. It has been five years and I barely knew Chidera anymore. She could now be the one that conversed loudly with the others in the market on how I had always hated being back in the village. That I was perfectly capable of killing my only relatives left in this world. I wouldn’t blame her if she thought so. Not even now that Uzo was carrying wine to her house.
Uzo my ‘sweetie’ only came to see me once when I got back. No words were exchanged. He stood just outside the perimeter of our compound and saw me sitting in front of the house with my baby. I just saw his head sticking out from behind a bush and he disappeared. He didn’t have to fear been included in the gossip. He was the wronged party and he was spared. Everything was on me. He had moved on and it would be fruitless to wonder why he hadn’t shown up to any of the funerals or in which camp he was with. I wished Chidera and Uzo good luck. Maybe my situation somehow brought them together.
Obiora, the lanky, middle aged, widower who had been my brother, Chizogu’s friend quietly whispered his sympathies at yet another loss. He stared at me with what I thought was a mixture of pity and confusion and then quickly left my side. Was he also a believer of the rumours that I had killed my whole family in the space of 6 months? He was supportive when my mother passed in her sleep. He helped Chizogu in getting the goats and provisions necessary according to traditional custom. Two month later Chizogu was bitten by a snake at the farm and by night fall he died. Obiora handled almost everything at Chizogu’s burial. And now with Chinasa’s death I was left to handle the burial on my own. That was why I decided on a Christian burial only. It still spoke volumes that Obiora didn’t help me this time, even if he wasn’t involved in the gossip.
Mama Stella who sold ice block down the street came to me with an almost sincere look of grief. She offered her condolences over my bereavement. She, I was sure, was the ring leader of the rumour mongering. She was the reason the village was known as a cooking pot of scandals. Anything she heard or saw that was out of the ordinary was like pouring garri into a basket, only that the garri came out with salt added by her. She never only stated facts but her opinion on why anything had happened. And once again I was the centre of her gossip and consequently, village scrutiny. Despite the fact that my son had been playing with neighbourhood children when he died, it had been spurn into my ‘evil luck’. The children had been playing a dare game when he fell out of the tree and broke his neck. But I knew that all the deaths were not being looked at individually but as a whole. Perfectly natural causes but too suspicious in timing.
I had to start going to the market since mama and Chizogu died, so I heard all the tales.
They said I hated my family and used their blood for money; that I had consulted a Dibia who arranged for unknown spirits to cause all their deaths. The mystery surrounding the timing was the only detail they worked with. I was so sure that I would be ostracized for all this. But bless the Parish Priest, Father John. I heard he spoke to everyone during mass one Sunday. He reprimanded everyone for being so negative and believing malicious rumours, couldn’t they see I was in a bad situation that required their support? In six months I had lost my whole family and had no means of taking care of myself. He made them feel outwardly ashamed of claiming to be Christians and then entertaining notions of devilish influences. Perhaps it was that shame and induced guilt that brought them to my family house to ‘pay their respects’.
But I still saw it in their eyes, even if I didn’t hear them, that I was responsible for all the deaths. They would leave today, I was sure, and wait to see if I would die as well. Then I would be vindicated, they would conclude that it was an ancestral curse or a punishment for evil we had done. And if I didn’t die, I would not be entertained as a member of their community anymore. I smiled inside. For all of Father’s preaching, these people could adopt a new religion but never leave their old ways. According to Father John, what would I gain by killing my family?
Everything. Everything I had dreamt of since the night of Madu’s attack. Mama would no longer look at me in shame. I brought home a bastard even though it wasn’t my fault. I was the cause of her being laughed at when she left the house. And to Chibuzor, I wouldn’t be the stupid girl who let a madman corner and rape her. Their shame had deepened when they found out I was pregnant. And no amount of begging made Mama allow me get terminate it. They forced me to Lagos where no one knew me to have the child. I hated Chinasa before he was even born. I hoped and prayed he would die in my belly but he didn’t. He made me suffer 19 horrendous hours of labour, ripping me wide open on the way out. I was barely conscious as the doctor, stitching the tear Chinasa’s big head had caused, announced that I had a healthy baby boy. And to taunt me Mama had named him Chinasa, God’s answer. Is he the answer to my prayers? In my mind I knew something would come out of this hate I felt for these 3 people who had caused me so much pain. I was forced back to the village, my prison. I hated my bastard son, my bullying brother and my shame-filled mother.
All the rumours are true. At least, almost. I did it. I killed the only people holding me back in life. I visited the Dibia to kill them, not for money but for freedom. I cut myself under that same Oji tree at the graveyard to show my commitment to my cause. It took 5 years of planning but I have finally buried the last of my shackles at the price of not living on the same land as my dead son. And early tomorrow morning I leave for Lagos to start a new life.