I have been seriously missing in action from Naija Stories. I think the last post I made was in early 2010, is I’m not mistaken. Oh well, life has been seriously getting in the way. But, most accurately, I have been cooking. Like, seriously cooking the novel I hope to publish in the nearest future. I never cook am finish, e still remain. But, in the mean time, I see no harm is sharing just a bit of it with you all.
I’d love to hear what you think. Critiques are very welcomed.
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“Your mother is calling you,” said the customer standing before me. She was my friend, a former classmate when we were in secondary school. Today, she was the immediate cause of my agony.
I frowned and squinted, my cue to her to lower her voice; did she think I was deaf?
“Don’t mind her,” I whispered, shaking my head as discreetly as I could so that Nne, who was a foot away from us, would not notice it. In the same breath, I said aloud, “Give me two shillings. You know you won’t get red cocoyam as fat as this anywhere in Orie Agbawka for this amount. You can go, price around and come back, if you doubt me.”
“Please, just answer her, to avoid trouble,” she whispered back.
I glared at her. Why did she think Nne was calling me? If she had not opened her big mouth in my mother’s presence, Nne would have continued to ignore me like she had been doing all week. And I would have had my peace. Just a little bit of it, for heaven’s sake.
“Do you want to buy or not? Ah ah!” I snapped, eyeing her.
How could this one be getting married before me? She was hardly pretty, and in her purple ‘shit-packer-in-training’ uniform, she looked hideous. The shapeless gown was enormous, and unflattering. Hia! Was this not the same girl I had labelled Nurse Eliza when she said she was beginning her apprenticeship under Sister Margaret? Had her now-betrothed been waiting for her to register at the mission hospital before he could propose?
“Osinachi!” Once again, my name boomed through the market. I imagined people looked up to the sky to see if God had resorted to the biblical times of speaking. “Are your ears stuffed full with wax that you cannot answer me when I call you?”
Nne’s voice grated on my nerves, and before I could think through what I was doing, I wheeled round and barked, “I’m coming! Let me finish what I’m doing first.”
Agbawka’s famous drummer, Nwafiri, had his trademark closure played every time he entertained in ceremonies. He liked to hit his last beat with all his might, so that the silence that followed resounds in the ears of his audience. My retort to Nne had the same effect. My words were resonating in my ears; it was all I could hear. Suddenly, Orie Agbawka shut off. The traders and their customers continued haggling over wares, but I could not hear a thing . . . The burly men, who usually disposed of the markets refuse, went about their business gleaming with sweat. The stench that accompanied their passage somehow failed to elicit the usual uproar from grumblers who had their hands cupped over their nostrils and mouth, berating them for doing their work at a time the market was teeming with people. Their voices were muted, as was those of the naked little boys a few meters away who were chasing after a grapefruit they used as football. They were spraying those around them with muddy water polluted with rotting food produce. Why were they not being shouted down as usual, curses rained on their lineage? If anyone was, then I just could not hear a thing. Everything happening around me had been turned off . . . until I saw my mother rise from her stool and, holding a pole she detached from the roof her stall, she crossed the few meters between us and whacked me across the cheek. Wham! I doubled up. The second blow landed on my collar-bone. Tai! I threw my arms around my shoulders to protect myself. Another struck my back.
“Adaigwe! Ozugo! It’s enough!” Nne’s friend, who sold fish in the stall beside hers, shouted.
Then the world came alive again, deafening me with the noise that had never been silenced, customers and traders going about their business, the din of activity drowning out my scream of pain.
“Chifuanu, did you hear how this anuofia answered me now? This idiot was not afraid to talk back at me?” Nne raised her hand again, and brought the pole down on my arm with unabated fervour.
I drew in a sharp breath, holding back a cry. My body shook in rebellion. It wanted to expel its anger. To snatch that pole from Nne and hit her; let her experience how it feels to be humiliated in public.
“That’s how all of them are,” said Nne’s most faithful gossip-mate, who was in actual fact her fiercest rival. They sold the same sort of foodstuff: soup thickeners and vegetables. That woman had never ceased an opportunity to redirect Nne’s patrons to her stall should my mother turn away even for a second. “Was it not yesterday I was telling my own daughter that it looks like she’s coming to that age when the knot in her head starts to loosen?”
“Ehen? If it loosens, you tighten it back!” The pole flew up again, and this time it caught my raised hands when it descended, instead of my head where it was aimed.
“Adaigwe!” De Chifuanu stood up from her stool. “I said it’s enough. Don’t beat her here! When you go home, you can do anything you want. Who do you expect to come for her hand in marriage when they see you correcting her in this way? They’ll say she’s still a child and cannot run a home well.”
Nne turned to her friend, took a minute to ponder her words, and then hissed. She tossed her weapon at my feet, missing my big toe by an inch, and returned to her seat.
“I’m not the one keeping her from marrying,” she said to her chorus girls, panting harder than a dog that had just chased off robbers. “Osinachi’s the one holding herself. Ask her! If her madness will allow her say the truth, you’ll see for yourself that she is doing that all by herself. How many fine young men has she turned away? Eh? How many?”
“Are you serious?” De Chifuanu exclaimed, clapping her hands in bewilderment.
“Ah ah! Haven’t I told you to ask her? If she’s not complaining that the man is too tall, she’ll say he’s too short, too fat, too slim, or that he doesn’t look like someone that will take good care of her. Till today, Okwuoma’s son comes to our house every time he’s in Agbawka. Will this anumanu—this animal—even spare him a glance? No!”
“Hewu! Mbanu! That’s bad,” De Chifuanu said, folding her arms on her chest.
“Very bad! Osinachi, why would you do something like that?”
I sniffled, and looked up to see that Nurse Eliza had disappeared. She probably snuck away while I was being clobbered. She would say that she warned me. She should go to hell, please. As if she was the one who excreted the shit that now smells. If she had not come here to announce her engagement to Nne’s hearing, this would not have happened. Why could she not have pulled me aside to tell me that? Had she forgotten who my mother is?
“You see! I told you she won’t answer you. This girl is as useless as they come!”
“Tsk tsk tsk,” De Chifuanu clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. “There’s no hope for girls of nowadays,” she bemoaned whilst looking my way.
I resisted glowering at her, to ask her what right she had to an opinion about girls of nowadays. Did she not marry well into her twenties? Was I even twenty yet?
“No hope at all. In our time, a woman must be a virgin till the day she marries. But what is happening these days? Even our young men don’t even care anymore. Why will a girl be afraid of being deflowered, when she knows that it doesn’t stop anything?” the other woman added, maybe using more sentences than De Chifuanu so her position as second-in-command was not threatened. “Even upon that, doesn’t Osinachi know that she should be in her husband’s home by now? Occupied with learning the things that please him and managing his money till she’s in the family way?”
“Family way? Who is still talking about family way in this world that has turned upside down? When girls now let a man who hasn’t paid one shilling to her father see her thighs, what else can’t she do? They no longer wait for marriage to be ‘in the family way’. At her age, we had had all our children. In the honourable way! The way that gives a woman pride! See my last child for yourself!” De Chifuanu pushed her chin at her teenage daughter who could have passed for a sculpture for all the emotions she showed.
I sighed. How quickly one forgets their past, I thought and wondered what point De Chifuanu thought she had proved. If she had married when her mates did, the girl should have been her granddaughter.
“So, Adaigwe, anything you can do to marry this one off, do it immediately. You have my full support. Because, the next thing you’ll know, she’ll bring home a pregnancy and complete her disgrace,” continued De Chifuanu. who had utterly outspoken Second-In-Command, evident by the way the woman lowered her head and was giving her the bad eye.
“Bring back what? In the house I’m in? I’ll boil her in oil! She knows she cannot try me in that area.”
“Adaigwe, you talk as if you’ve forgotten that the only thing these children want is to deny you sleep,” said Second-In-Command, who a minute ago had lowered her head and was giving De Chifuanu the bad eye.
“What do I then do, my sisters? I’m tired of talking,” Nne said. Her face fell faster than a lizard, startled out of his sleep, could tumble to the ground. “What excuse will Osinachi say she has, eh? She can’t tell us it’s her older sister she’s waiting for to marry first.”
I stood up from where I crouched. My eyes had dried. The places Nne hit me no longer hurt as much, but I could feel a cut on my cheek. I went to her and knelt down, as I knew she was expecting.
“Nne, I’m sorry,” I repeated, making my voice as contrite as possible. “Forgive me. I won’t do it again.”
She shoved me aside with her feet. I fell on the floor, and in so doing soiled the gown I wore to school and was going to wear again tomorrow. The dress was of dainty lace fabric, soft to touch. I did not have many dresses that were as lovely as it. If I had known the day would end like this, I would have gone home to change before meeting Nne at the market.
Nne saw the stain, but threw her face away. “I’ve been hearing you say you’re sorry for twenty thousand years, Osinachi. ‘I won’t do it again. I won’t do it again.’ But, I give you ten minutes, only ten minutes, and you’ll do the same thing.”
If I returned to kneel before her, maybe grasp her leg with no intention of releasing it, pledge that I would not annoy her or the rest of my life, Nne might accept my act of contrition. But I had no interest in pretending to care for her forgiveness. Look at the way she scourged me like a common thief! Would any stranger watching us imagine I was her child? Her only child at that!
Instead, I winced and clutched my stomach like one in acute pain. “Nne, please can I go home? My flow has started.”
“Since when?” Nne leaped to her feet and came at me as though she was set to beat me again. “Stomach pains did not stop you from working at your hopeless school. It did not stop you from opening your decaying mouth at me. It did not stop you from driving away that beautiful girl who came to buy cocoyam. It’s now that it’ll stop you from being useful to me.”
“Adaigwe, leave her. Let her go,” Second-In-Command shot, beating De Chifuanu to it.
“Yes, she should go. I can’t remember who I was telling, but girls at this her age have demons pushing them. They do things that you know fear would not have allowed their normal selves to do. I’m sure her own ajunmuo possessed her this afternoon. That’s why she talked to you the way she did. If you force her to stay here, it’ll make her do worse things. Especially this one it has entered her stomach.”
“I’ll kill her first!” Nne glared at me, as though willing the ‘demon’ to dare her by showing his face.
“Just let her take it away from here. It spoils market,” sulked second-in-command.
I waited till Nne nodded her consent—a tense minute during which I could not breathe, in terror that she would say no—before I left them. On my long walk home, I let the tears flow unrestrained. I did not acknowledge those who hailed my name. Someone touched my arm, right at the spot Nne’s stick had left my skin sore, and I walked on without turning to see who it was. I arrived at our compound by memory, went straight into my bedroom and cried myself hoarse.