In the quest for self-assertion, two brothers’ relationship goes sour when one tries to kill the other.
For three reasons, Okwy doubted Ify would poison him. One, he did not believe in coincidence. What were the odds that at the same time he climbed the septic tank slab under the kitchen window to inspect a tear in the window’s netting, he would catch Ify squeezing drops of something thick and black from a tiny bottle into the bowl of soup he had asked Ify to dish out for him? Two – and this reason was the obvious one – Ify was his brother; he would never contemplate such a thing! When had they quarrelled? Had it not been the two of them watching an early Chelsea-Madrid match this morning, and arguing madly afterwards because Ify had lost their bet over the match’s results? Was that a quarrel?
The third reason Okwy did not believe what he had seen was: He simply chose not to.
Thankfully night had fallen. Okwy had been forgetting to fix the security light in the back of the house, so although Ify had had his side facing the window he had not seen Okwy.
Okwy gently stepped down the slab, and seconds later made a lot of noise getting back into the house, switching on the TV and shouting a question to Ify from the parlour about the previous episode of Super Story. He had to act normal – as normal as the cream-and-brown rug which had covered the parlour’s floor since June of two years ago.
Ify came into the parlour to announce that food was on the dining table, Okwy said, ‘I’ll eat in my room. Could you take it there for me? Thanks.’ He avoided Ify’s gaze as he spoke.
He entered his room just as Ify was leaving it, locked the door, and allowed some time to pass before carrying the tray of food into the adjoining toilet.
Three hours had passed since Okwy shuffled out of his bedroom, clutching his stomach. Ify had quickly helped him into the backseat of the Nissan, and run round to get into the driver’s side. The tyres screeched as he backed out into the dirt road that led into the major street. The car jerked. Okwy rolled off the seat to the floor. He groaned but did not comment on his brother’s driving.
He was in the hospital now, sitting up on a hard bed covered in blue sheets. A drip needle was stuck in his arm. He was still groggy from the injections he’d been given when he was rushed in, and his head was thumping with the force of a pestle attacking a mortar. The drugs had made him sick; he didn’t have to act any longer.
So he had miraculously escaped death.
It was not often Okwy used the word ‘miracle.’ In fact he detested it, did not believe in it. There had been no miracles when he and his four siblings had eaten soaked garri with palm kernels morning, afternoon and night. The miracles hadn’t been anywhere they could see when his father had been falsely accused of theft and dismissed from the Ministry where he worked as a labourer. The amount they had said he stole was ridiculously paltry and yet was beyond what his father could afford anyway had he had the option of repaying it. Right now, he was not expecting any miracle that would enable him carry drinks to his fiancée Matilda’s people this December; whatever part of his finances hadn’t gone into buying medicine for his father’s stroke had gone into paying the fees of his sisters Cheta and Uju who were in their final years in the university.
He hoped Matilda could wait.
‘What’s the matter?’
Okwy raised his head.
A nurse stood at the head of his bed. She yawned and retied the wrapper she wore over her white uniform.
Okwy shook his head. Nothing. ‘What’s the time?’
‘Did you see my – brother?’
The nurse raised her eyebrows.
‘My brother – the person who brought me here.’
‘Oh. Okay. He left about an hour ago. Said he will be back soon.’
‘Okay, thanks.’ He looked down at the drip needle in his arm. ‘Please, could you remove this? I feel like vomiting, let me stay outside for a while.’
The nurse disconnected the tube from the needle, but left the needle in his arm.
Okwy left the ward, bypassed the nurses’ station and went out through a door that opened out of the children’s ward into the night. He went down the walkway, taking the appropriate turns until he got to the white stone that welcomed people to Healing Hands Hospital in blue lettering.
‘Goodnight,’ he called to the gatemen.
Outside the gates he yanked the green-headed needle from his arm, and flagged down a taxi.
There were things Okwy could explain to anybody, questions he could answer easily even if he was drunk. If he was asked how he got the scar under his right eye, he would talk about a certain Borah family in Owerri whom his parents had sent him to, to scrub their tiled floors until he could eat off them, and wash their mountain of dirty clothes until the fresh bar of green soap dissolved to a size no bigger than a short slice of plantain. It was Mrs Borah who had hit him on the face with a frying pan. His crime, he forgot to iron her wrappers. Of course, several lashes of her whip had followed on his back. Today his back was a different complexion from the rest of his fair skin because over the three years he served the Borahs, the whip marks had melded into one another until they became one big, black patch.
He could also explain – without shame – why of all his father’s children he was the only one who had not attended university. He had left school at fifteen to find work in Owerri. His parents needed all the support they could get.
He could explain all these. But what Okwy could not explain to anybody was why his brother wanted him dead. He also could not explain why he thought the only solution was to kill Ify when he got home.
Okwy was a mild-tempered man – one of those people who flashed rage once in thirty years – and he was thirty-nine years old. His experiences in hardship had taught him patience, endurance, never to snap. Once he had walked in on Ify, in the parlour, squeezing a girl’s breasts when he should have been reading for his first semester exams which was weeks away. Okwy hadn’t said anything – just gone into his room as if he hadn’t seen them in the first place. It was not that he wasn’t angry; he just did not show it. He ignored Ify for a week, after which he said to him in a voice as calm as a praying nun’s, ‘If you fail Year One, you can forget about university, unless there is somebody else paying for it.’ When their sister Uloma had spent all her pocket money on a dress, he hadn’t said anything to her either. He’d simply collected the dress from her and put it in a biscuit carton which was half-filled with clothes. It was Lent, and for countless Sundays Father Barnabas had been nagging everyone in church sick about the old clothes they were to donate for the poor.
Tonight, however, Okwy had snapped. And it showed.
The taxi dropped him along Mbaise Road. A few blocks down, the street where he lived branched off this road, and it was a long walk to his apartment in the middle of Tetlow Road. He had requested that the driver drop him this far off his street; he needed plenty of time to think. He hoped he wouldn’t miss Ify by the time he got home.
He knocked on the door. Twice. Each knock separated by a second’s interval.
Ify opened at once.
The blow that hit his chest sent him staggering back into the house. His leg buckled and he landed flat on his buttocks.
Okwy advanced until he stood above him. ‘Get up.’
Ify scrambled to his feet and took several steps backwards in the same movement.
Okwy did not move any further. He eyed his brother, trying to decide how to begin. He wasn’t about to whip up a pity fest. Ify already knew how Okwy had left home again a week after running away from the Borahs to find work in Owerri; how he had bought himself a wheelbarrow from the last of the money he’d stolen from Mr Borah a month before he ran away, and wheeled it through the markets of Amakohia and Eke Onuwa, hunting for shoppers heaving under the burden of their merchandise; how at night he’d slept in the vacated stalls with other homeless people like himself amidst the smells of dried fish, and nearly-rotten tomatoes which the traders had sworn in the day were the freshest in the world. Ify also knew when Okwy had gotten the cleaning job at the hospital, and he must remember the ‘messages’ Okwy used to send home every month-end through their townsman Dee Romanus. He knew how Okwy eventually borrowed money from a friend to start a motor spare parts shop, which he later abandoned for the bookshop business. There was no need to repeat the stories or demand thanks from anyone for spending the last twenty-four years of his life slaving away for his family and not being able to afford a car better than the tatty Nissan, or build a decent house in his father’s compound.
‘Let’s get one thing clear, Ify. I will call the police’ – That’s if I don’t kill you first – ‘since I can no longer sleep with my two eyes closed without worrying that I might not wake up the next morning. So start explaining yourself.’
Ify shut his eyes, sighed, ground his teeth. It seemed he only now understood the reason for his brother’s assault.
‘I was not trying to kill you,’ he said.
‘Yes, you were putting spice in my food!’
Ify did not reply.
‘Enyi, you had better start talking, because it’s me and you this night.’
A dining chair was beside where Ify stood. He sat on it, placed his palms flat on his thighs. He had a faraway look in his eyes. ‘When I was fresh from youth service and needed a job, you took my CV one morning on your way to work. The following week I had a job. Just like that. When I got admission into university Papa sent for you to come home and accompany me to resume, upon all I told him that I was big enough, I could find my way to Zaria. Mama said, “Fool, what do you know? You are looking for how to get lost, eh?” Early this year you sent Uloma money for God-knows-what. Uloma that is in her husband’s house –’
Okwy frowned. ‘What nonsense are you talking about?’
‘You’ve made us impotent, Okwy. Especially me. You did everything for us. To everyone we are still “Okwy’s younger ones” who haven’t actually grown. Wow, this night was the first time you didn’t ask if I could handle your car. Can you imagine Mama asking me to thank you for money I sent her last two months? For God’s sake, didn’t anybody tell our mother I work now? That I now have a job and earn a salary?’
‘And this is all my fault?’
Ify did not reply.
‘You’re an excuse for that man you desperately claim to be!’
‘I am a man, whether you think so or not,’ Ify roared. He had shot out of the chair and taken two quick steps forward. Towards Okwy.
‘Oh, you want to fight me now? I choro ilusa m ogu? Haha!’ Okwy raised his eyes to heaven, his lips set in a dry grin. ‘God, I’ve eaten shit.’
‘The poison was not meant to kill you, but make you very sick for a long time,’ Ify said, as though he had not heard Okwy. His usually thick bass had faded to hoarseness. He stared at the floor as he spoke. ‘I’m sorry. It was a mistake. Forgive me.’ He turned and disappeared behind the curtain leading to the bedrooms corridor.
Outside, the harmattan chill gathered. A blob of sweat dropped off Okwy’s nose, and exploded in a spray as it hit his toe.
Ify moved out the next morning. He packed everything he owned in the house including three shaving sticks. Okwy had come out of his own room into the linking corridor at six a.m. to see Ify struggling to make a compact bundle of some shoes stuffed in a backpack. Okwy had meant to go on into the parlour to watch TV for some minutes before preparing to leave for the bookshop but changed his mind and re-entered his room. He went into the bathroom, brushed, shaved, showered, combed his hair, and picked a shirt to wear. Normal activities of his mornings. As though nothing unusual was happening in the next room. He could hear the sounds – now the rustle of a polythene bag then the thud of something against the floor, most likely a holdall packed to bursting.
He was not going to ask Ify where he was going – or any other questions for that matter. At least now he could be certain that nothing going into his stomach might render him bedridden while somebody else went about proving himself a man in the crisis. It would take a long time – very likely, years – before he and Ify got back to what they used to be. Okwy promised himself not to lose sleep over the matter. Meanwhile they were to maintain something a little nicer than cold civility; the rest of the family must not learn of last night. Ever. He would call Ify later to make that clear. No, he bore no grudge; Ify was right. He had been so caught up in being there for all of them – Mama, Papa, Uju, Ify, Cheta, Uloma – he hadn’t noticed them grow up. He hadn’t pictured a life where he would not – should not – bear them like eggs anymore.
He put on leather slippers and was going over to the chest of drawers to get his wristwatch when it dawned on him that the sounds from the next room had stopped. He paused to listen. They had indeed stopped. Buried in his thoughts he had not heard Ify leave. He hunched over the chest, allowing the moment wash over him. Riding on the silence was the message that haunted him for several days afterwards, that at last, his brother had gone away to become a capable man. ■