The children had flung themselves again to my arms. Under them they took protection like chicks to their mother away from predatory claws of a kite. But I was unlike the mother fowl which unleashes aggression to scare away an intruding bird. Here I was frail and docile, looking helpless at some broken bottles which strewed the floor of my room. Scared and threatened, the children clamped to my body like pincers to a nail. I was made immobile with the grip.
They cried under the pavilion having caught a scene horrible for their ages to bear. Pain of knowing what they saw inflated the one crawling in me and troubled me badly. My head was the most hurtful. Some moving sensations crept round inside as if it was filled with water looking for a way out. I was lightheaded and could not think in one direction. The head ached, knocked, pounded like never before. And I imagined myself collapsing. Tears left through the eye ducts and dripped down to my cheeks. Sweats from my brow came down too.
With what they had witnessed and the wet over them, the eyes drooped, making things hazy. I pulled painstakingly the neck of my blouse to stop the moving waters. Wiping them off, I turned the blouse with less attention. What I saw clouded my vision more. A part was coloured with light red. That was blood. Trickling down, it mixed with tears. I traced it and found its source. A cut close to my left eye had been forcing out blood. It first appeared to be sweat. I shot looks contemplatively at myself. I went through my past then the present as well as the future. All seemed totally different. The past was a thought to behold and relive any time. The present already taking place was horrible. The unpredictable future could go either way, good or bad.
Years back I was that young woman who stroked his ego. One who made him complete as a man but now despised and dispensable. Tears and regrets were now servos to my daily life. I could neither change the past nor the present. But the future I could alter. ‘Just leave him’, thought accelerated through me. It was the surest way of changing the future. To the best savour I wanted. ‘But your children, what happens to them?’ Another ferried in a counter.
Back from the considerations, a voice inside acceded to the last thought. Leaving his house seemed delightful and easy in imagination. But it was a hard attempt to make. Leaving my children behind would be more aching than the relief of walking out. I was stuck. Then I recalled mama’s words. ‘No marriage comes with a manual. We bend and mend till we fit in’. They threw me again into dilemma.
‘Mummy, is daddy alright?’ My second child, Ginika, asked. Her name in full Ginikanwa, meaning precious is a reminder of how valuable a child is to the parents. She was really a child, five years of age but her question was of the aged. Every adult would ask the same. But definite answer eluded me. ‘My dear, your father is not himself today’, I offered impulsively. I preferred the attribute father to daddy which the children were used to. The choice, a reflex was vocalised by the rage in me.
‘Who is he today, mum?’ She pressed. Childish it appeared but full of reasoning. He was too strange to define. ‘He is another man today. I can’t tell anything about the man’. The answer came uncensored, directly from the pit of my heart.
Broken bottles and spots of blood littering the floor were unimaginable to say they happened. Hitting me with bare hands or fists is now a regular occurrence. But doing it with a bottle is just rare. As the bottle hit my head and shattered, the bond I built over the years shattered too. Patience with him fled like dust of the air. He had crossed a line. One he cannot reverse. Clearly to me he cannot repent.
But he was not a beast all the time. He was also lovely. Such only happened once in a long time. That was when he needed me intimately. He turned a good man for a while since it was late in the night. No woman was nearby for his desires. He would thaw my frozen heart with smooth words and pleadings. I understood they were just guiles against feminine sophistication. They say every man does it. I submitted not because I wanted to keep him for myself. I did so since his pleas were hard to ignore. Lording myself over him via intimacy would prick my conscience. Again it was in the hope of having another child, a male for him. I had been taunted several times for having females as if I was the giver of children. Birth of our fourth child, a girl was the origin of my trouble. Ever since, I had asked myself ‘what wrong have I done to him?’
The belief that things would go back to normal someday was made a mirage with the mess of the morning. Scar incised on my mind this day would not be wiped away easily. Like every other morning, I woke up first as usual leaving his stertorous bedside for the kitchen. I had to be a wife to him and a mother to our children. I was not aware of how gloomy the day would be. No mortal could as well know if not, I would have acted according to the maxim from mama. A caution meant for us to be wary of friends. Humans are all hard to predict. She would say ‘run when you wake up and observe that your chicken has grown teeth’. Mine had grown teeth the previous night. I was not too intelligent to notice them and they gnawed me.
I boiled yam along with a pot of soup as befit for the family. It tickles the heart if you put smiles on faces by doing what you ought to. Such happy feeling is always contagious_ you smile when the other person does. The children, four of them who were school ready had been served. The sparkles on their faces drew same from mine. I could not hide them. There are no better gifts than children. Seeing them makes me full and gets me inured to life without extravagancies. Most women won’t do such. I channel all the proceeds from work to their welfare in support to his little. My last child was a toddler who glued to her mother’s back except the moment. She was still sleeping. She had gone back to sleep after being given a warm bath. Nobody dares interrupting her when she is in her peak unless the person has enough stamina to stop her cries. My husband, papa Chima as he was warmly called by co-tenants was served too. His left hand firmed the plate with soup while he made mouthfuls. It was his favourite. He started eating without saying the benediction. He tapped his chest lightly three times with fingers. To him it was equal to prayer. Soon the soup was all over his mouth. I informed him of a smudge on his chin which tainted his pruned beards.
The beards this time were seriously different. When they had new growths, they nearly turned his face to a troll’s seen in fairy movies with resemblance of an unattended bush. At such stage I disliked their sight. But such detest was not too good to be considered or stir a change. Only his friends or female lovers could influence him. He looked better a human with the beards trimmed, upping the intent to glance at him.
My concern seemed not strong to attract thanks from him. He waved it aside nonchalantly with a low sigh. That was prescient enough to what was to happen next but my ignorance was my undoing. I was after his happiness and replaced his cup of water. He flaunts his masculine ego all time and it blinds him over his faults. Or maybe, it happens only at home, between us.
He was obsessed with eating that the children waiting inches away for him were unnoticed. The day before, a paper with writings was stuck on one of their school uniforms. It was a reminder for us to pay a fee of five hundred naira or risk sending them back to us. The write-up specified the aim for the money, a defrayal for the books given to them weeks ago. I sent the children to him on purpose. Payments in the previous terms were made by me. It meant to tell him so. Receiving accolades over a worthy performance is what every flesh and blood wishes. Mine is not different.
But rather than having one, I was admonished seriously as if I was caught with another man. First he sent for me with a gesture. I perched at his corner with full glare and good hearing to receive for the first time, a compliment from him. A mere reasoning would have told him that past payments were made by me. Those books were never withdrawn out of sight. And no one asked him for their money.
I had made a sign of the cross as he called, anticipating his first words to be ‘I am proud of you’. Even as my feet squelched over the floor, ears interpreted the sounds to be his praises. The heart was already frothing with undefined excitement.
But it was a wishful thinking. ‘Ego, what is this. What is this ego?’ His voice heightened in what looked like a call in one ear and a roar to the other. It was hard defining the sound. His message was either distorted by the slim gap between us or improperly decoded by me. I got what he said but not what he meant. My mind was crafty with illusion and played it successfully on me. It raised itself in conflict to the meaning of what was said. And since I could not rely on either of them, the mind or the ears, I switched to gazing. A good and vigilant gaze was the moment the most reliable. It could prise answers out of his face.
Suddenly, his face swelled and the ferocious attacks from his eyes gave insight of the giant size of the anger in him. ‘Ego, Ego!’ His voice chimed and tore the air apart calling my name. Still I could not fathom out the reason for his state of mind. I was stood still by the unknown. ‘Ego, look at this p…l…a…t…e’, the anger ruptured his words like that of a stutterer. I was looking. I toured from his hand making caricature in a stainless steel plate to the plate itself and back to his face. ‘Look at what you gave me in the name of soup, a complete plate of water. You did not even pity me to add something to slow the running movement…’ He pouted a loud hiss but he had not finished. Then I took over from him, responding only to his last comment. The first needed no reply. It was wrong vilifying me after drying the soup of its contents. After thundering satisfactorily along the throat and belching crudely into the clean air.
‘I used fresh fish instead. The meat will be used tonight…’ Words were still on their way when he stopped me with a loud slap that sounded like a heavy clap on a wall. I was nearly blinded by it but squinted and recovered therein. Veins were woken from slumber with the turmoil in him. His chest jumped violently up and down like a see-saw in motion. Such rage could make blood viscous and impassable through vessels. Also it could thump the heart to fail. My stare was now reduced to glances, cautious to alert me of another offensive. The children were watching just like me. I knew the food was not the irritant rather something else.
Two days before I lent him some money after seeking help from me. He accepted the help reluctantly, calling it a meagre amount. Since the day he had ruined and loathed every benevolent action towards him. If good food was really a way to a man’s heart, I would have gone beyond it to his soul. I was not a greenhorn in cooking. Helping mama to run a local restaurant (mama put) was of great advantage. It helped tutored and acquainted me with cooking skills. Our services were often required at ceremonies at prices determined by me. Later I proceeded to a school of household management where I perfected my skills. I went into hair styling after graduation to fend for myself and family as filial obligation.
We were four in the family, three girls and a boy. I was the eldest and first daughter too. The boy, Chika was the last child and fourteen years of age. He came to the family when hope of having a male child was almost lost. He is the heartbeat of our mother and you cannot separate a heart from its beat. After my birth, our parents waited for years before having other children. So, there was a huge gap in age between me and others. I got married at the age of eighteen. Like a fruit, young and striking to pluck, I received many offers for marriage. Though I needed time to mature, my parents were berserk over glances men threw at me. They were afraid I might lose my virginity to an undesirable man and gave me away. It was almost an abomination questioning such decision or putting up an objection. Silence and obedience were the rules. To them, marriage at my age was a pre-emptive measure and my husband the best for it. Mama now regrets it and Papa is no more to put out the smouldering heat eating me up.
‘I gave you money for meat and you gave me nothing’, he shouted with an open sternness. He was ready to take his money back, maybe by beating me again. The possibility was there, his face suggested it. Our home was always in dim colours of his censorious nature but I was used to the clime. I would not argue with him even when he was mistaken.