Izunna turned his body in Adaugo’s direction, raised his right arm and pointed his extended forefinger at her. “My elders, this woman is as stubborn as a mule. She blatantly refused to accede to our request that she provides proof of our brother’s financial position at the time of his death. When we insisted, she chased us from Obiora’s house and threatened us with the police.”
Adaugo’s plans for the burial had met with great resistance from her husband’s family. She had still not agreed to relinquish all the documents for her husband’s investments to them so they were bent on making her miserable.
She had been informed that Obiora needed a ‘befitting’ burial and his extended family insisted that she foot all the bills for his funeral. Their argument had been that he had been a wealthy man and should be buried in a lavish ceremony. She had argued that Obiora had been a simple man who wouldn’t have wanted all that fuss but they had insisted that he must not be buried like a chicken. When she had asked them to contribute financially for such an elaborate ceremony, they all had refused because, in their opinion, his bank accounts had more than enough money to take care of the incurred expenses. For the sake of peace, she had no choice but to acquiesce to most of their demands.
In the weeks since Obiora’s death, Izunna had spoken to some of the elders of the family and had got them on his side. This morning, three days after Obiora’s burial, his late father’s three brothers had summoned Adaugo to a family meeting.
He turned back to his uncles, spread both arms and shook his head twice, as if in confusion. “Adaugo is still young and would most likely re-marry. What would become of Obiora’s properties, then? Should she be allowed to deprive our family of everything my brother worked for?”
He paused now and brought his hands down. Then he raised his right forefinger. “Obiora built a big house in Lagos.”
His middle finger joined the other. “He had two cars.”
His ring finger came up as well. “I’m sure he had a lot of money in his bank accounts because they lived very well and his children went to expensive schools.”
He made a slash in the air with his palm facing upwards and all fingers extended. “Is it right that Adaugo inherits all of that? Obiora took care of all of us when he was alive. Why should his death change that when there’s enough for all of us? Adaugo refuses to share because she simply wants it all for herself.”
Abruptly, he ended his speech, turned away from his uncles and went back to his seat. In the ensuing silence, Mazi Eche nodded his head vigorously, while Adaugo stood to her feet. “Izunna, you are fighting for property you know nothing about,” she said, with a dismissive wave of a hand. “Extracting a palm nut is exactly that and nothing more; but, to take the entire bunch of palm nuts is stealing. The story I will tell you now is none of your business but maybe, it just might disabuse your mind of some notions you obviously have. Almost…”
Izunna sprang to his feet and moved towards her, causing her to pause. Mazi Izukanne raised his right hand, his palm facing forward. “Halt, Izunna!”
He stopped in his tracks, chest heaving and eyes blazing as he turned to his uncle. “Nna anyi, this is not the first time this woman is referring to me as a thief and I will not take it any longer. I will…”
“Calm down, my son,” Mazi Ukandu said. “This meeting was summoned to make peace. Our family has suffered a huge blow and we cannot afford to tear at each other.”
Izunna stood for a while looking at her and snapped his fingers once, in her direction, before returning to his seat. Mazi Ukandu turned to her then and spoke sharply, “Nne, your elders are here. Be mindful of that as you speak.”
She knelt and pleaded with the three men sitting side by side on a long couch. “I’m sorry, nna anyi Ukandu.” When she turned her eyes on Mazi Izukanne and Mazi Eche and proffered the same apology, they looked away, without a word.
“You may stand, my daughter. We are interested in what you have to say.”
“Thank you, nna anyi Ukandu.” She stood, facing the three men. “Almost immediately after our marriage, Obiora and I took personal loans from our respective banks. With that money, we bought a lot of shares in various companies and over the years, we watched our investment grow. Luckily for us, just before the stock market crashed three years ago, we cashed in on some of those share certificates and paid off what was left of both loans.”
She took a glance at Izunna who was sitting on her right, two chairs away from hers. He sat with his legs apart, tapping his feet on the floor. She turned her attention on the elders again. “My elders, the house Izunna talks about was then built, from the proceeds of that sale, on a piece of land Obiora bought before we got married. Their title deeds are in both our names. He also talked about cars. When Obiora sold his old car last year, he bought a new one with a loan from the bank he worked in. He hadn’t even paid half of that off before his demise. Izunna wants the car, obviously. Is he willing to pay off that debt? The second car is my car and has always been in my name. It is not Izunna’s business how much my husband left in his bank accounts. It is also not his business the school our children attend. I don’t buy his excuse about needing to know our financial position so that he would take care of his niece and nephew. I am their mother and will certainly take care of my children.”
Mazi Izukanne brought his hands together to form a steeple. Moving his palms away while his fingertips remained touching, he leaned back on his chair and smiled sardonically. “My daughter, you speak very eloquently and you seem to have facts and figures. But, in all you have said, there is no mention of our tradition. If this had happened when I was a boy, Izunna, as your husband’s immediate younger brother, would have inherited you as his second wife and you would not have had a say in the matter. “
“No say at all!” Mazi Eche interjected, nodding his head. “These children have no respect for the customs and traditions of our land. Tufiakwa!” He started coughing.
Mazi Izukanne glanced at his brother and when he stopped coughing, he continued, “However, time and the coming of Christianity altered some of our customs. So, while Izunna may not marry you, because of his position in your husband’s family, he has rights to Obiora’s estate since your only son is a mere boy. We may all be educated men but our traditions hold sway over our lives.”
When he fell silent, Mazi Ukandu gently said, “Adaugo, nwanyi oma, your husband always spoke highly of you. He was a generous man and anytime I thanked him for any favour he had done me, he was always quick to let me know that he was able to do so much for everyone because he had married a good woman. If Obiora didn’t have enough, he wouldn’t have had any to spare. I appeal to your good judgment, my daughter. All your husband’s family needs is a continuation of his legacy of giving. He would have wanted his family to still benefit from all his wealth. I nugo?”
“Nna anyi Ukandu, how can you appeal to her? She is a woman of this family and should be made to obey our traditions. She may be very educated, as we all are, but she is a woman, nonetheless. Rather than appealing to her, I suggest that the elders give her an ultimatum so that things are done right immediately. Someone needs to let this woman know that the grasshopper that runs into the midst of fowls ends up in the land of spirits.”
“Izunna, you have always been a hot-head. Some things are better handled diplomatically…”
Uzoamaka rushed to her feet. “Nna anyi Ukandu, diplomacy would get us nowhere in this matter! Adaugo informed my mother that she would be leaving for Lagos tomorrow. This is against the orders of the umuada, who have instructed her to stay a full month in the village before returning to Lagos. She insists that there is nothing for her to do here any longer. She also insists that her children have to resume school while she goes back to the running of her business. She has not mourned my brother in any way, yet she is intent on resuming her life. That is preposterous!”
Mazi Izukanne frowned and slapped his right hand on his right thigh. “That is completely unheard of! Listen, woman, there are rules you must obey. You are a woman and when the umuada speak, you must obey. It’s as simple as that.”
“Tell her, nna anyi. If the coroner’s report had not ruled that Obiora had died as a result of a massive heart attack, I would have said that she killed him.”
Adaugo gasped at that and started sobbing gently. Turning to her left to face Ijeamaka, she said, “Ije, I did not need to wail as many times as the umuada forced me to, over these past days, to show that I mourn my husband. I was made to wear filthy rags to emphasize that I was in mourning. Ijeamaka, you stood over me yesterday as my head was shaved with a sharp razor. You kept telling those women to cut off my hair, as I had no need for it anymore. When one of them said that I was lucky that it was a razor and not a broken bottle that had been the tool of choice, you laughed heartily.”
She removed the black scarf on her clean-shaven head and bowed her head. “I have cuts on my head to show just how brutally they cut my hair off. It didn’t occur to you that the scars Obiora’s death left me with are deeper than your eyes can see, did it?”
She placed her right hand on her left breast and raised her head to look at her sister-in-law. “He was your brother but he was my husband. I saw him everyday and we shared a life. It’s been six weeks since he died but I’ve cried myself to sleep every night. I’m filled with guilt that he must have died while I slept right beside him. I keep asking myself if I could have done anything to save his life had I been awake. How can you even suspect for a second that I would kill my husband?”
Ijeamaka looked away from her unflinching gaze and sat. “All these are stories that are supposed to touch the heart. They’re not working, though.”
Adaugo spread both arms to her sides, then brought her hands together to the middle of her chest. “Why have you turned on me in this manner, Ije? I was married to your brother for eight years and you saw first-hand how close we were. Your brother was the love of my life and I never hid it from anyone. Obiora loved me very much too so why would I want him dead? Why would I deprive my children of their father? Ijeamaka, you are a woman. How would you like it if you were in my shoes?”
“Alu! Abomination!” Mazi Eche, yelled, spitting on the tiled floor. “Do you wish Ijeamaka’s husband dead, then?”
Izunna snapped his fingers thrice. “God forbid! She will not succeed in killing another person.”
“Nna anyi Eche, I do not wish Nnanyelugo dead. I only asked Ijeamaka to think about what pain I must be feeling now. Izunna, I didn’t kill Obiora and you know that.”
“I know no such thing, Adaugo!” Izunna countered, amidst murmuring from the rest of the group. “Obiora was hardly ever ill all his life. How come he suddenly died? There are poisons that induce heart attacks, you know. I’ve done a thorough research.”
Nodding her head in agreement, Ijeamaka folded her arms on her chest, extended her legs in front of her and crossed her feet at the ankles. “Why exactly are you in a hurry to get back to Lagos? Do you not know the meaning of that black dress you wear? Our tradition states that you have to be in seclusion for one month to mourn your husband. What better place to do that than the village? Don’t blame anyone who thinks you killed Obiora. You have blatantly refused to state exactly what he owned before he died. That shows you have no intention of sharing them with us. You must have killed him to have all he owns to yourself.”
At a loss for words, Adaugo started crying harder.
Izunna sneered. “Please, quit being so melodramatic, Adaugo. You haven’t started crying. You are only warming up for the torrent of tears you will shed. I warned you not to cross me, didn’t I? Hand over my brother’s estate and be on your merry way.”
Adaugo remembered now when she had been conflicted about resigning from her bank job to start a business two years ago. She had wanted to have more time to devote to her family but had been worried that the business might not be a successful venture. She had also thought then that resigning from the bank would result in the loss of a good and regular income. She had worked for a long time and was used to the financial independence she had. One day, while expressing her fears to Obiora, he had listened to her in that quiet way that he had.
After she was done speaking he had said firmly, “You are one of the strongest people I know, Ada. When you start your own business, it will be a success because you will not let your dream die. You are doing it for the right reasons so I know that you will put in your best to make it work. I want you to soar like an eagle, sweetie. Don’t ever listen to anybody who says you should flap your wings about like a chicken. You will rise above adversity and you will succeed.”
She thought she could hear him say that to her now and smiled as she realized that he had been right. She was happy that he had been alive to see her little gift shop become a viable business that now regularly supplied corporate gifts to various establishments. It had been hard work, establishing a good brand, but she had done it.
She dried her tears now with the black scarf in her right hand. She blew her nose in it and bunched it up in a fist. When she looked round the room, she found each of them looking at her strangely. “I told Mama this morning that I would be leaving tomorrow but I have changed my mind as I see that I’m no longer welcome here. I will leave for my own village this morning with my children.”
“You are a joker, really. You must be under some sort of delusion if you think that we’ll let you leave here with our brother’s children and property.”
Adaugo laughed dryly. “The joke is on you, Ijeamaka. Before coming for this meeting, I called my elder brother, Nduka, because I had anticipated a charade such as this. He’s on his way from my village with other members of my family, as well as members of the police force. They should be here soon. Let’s see which of you would stand in our way, as my children and I leave here.”
There was a stunned silence for a little while till, standing up to leave, Mazi Izukanne said, “This is a family matter, woman! There was no need involving outsiders. I have always known that ‘over-educated’ women were nothing but trouble. Marry a humble woman from the village. Mba.” He hissed and shuffled out of the room.
Mazi Ukandu slowly picked his walking stick from where it leaned on the chair and stood to leave too. “I told you all that this could have been settled more amicably. Our people say that it is the head that disturbs the hornet’s nest that the hornet stings.”
Shaking his head and without uttering a word, Mazi Eche left the room with his two brothers.
When the tapping of Mazi Ukandu’s walking stick had grown faint, Adaugo tried to leave the room to start with her packing and to say goodbye to her mother-in-law; but, a livid Izunna stood and pulled her arm, “This is not over yet.”
Adaugo yanked her hand away and looked from Izunna to Ijeamaka and replied. “Oh, it is.”
Just before Adaugo entered her brother’s car, Obiora’s mother, Theresa, called her to hug her one more time. “Please forgive my children. They were blinded by greed and refused to listen to my advice. They chose, instead, to add to the grief in my heart by trying to destroy the family my son had cherished so much. My daughter, your children are as much a part of this family as their late father was. You are also still my beloved daughter even though Obiora is no more. Please do not deny us the joy of you all because of the foolishness of my children. Don’t throw away the baby with the bath water. I nugo,nwa m?”
Adaugo was crying as she hugged her mother-in-law again. “Mama, you are my mother just as you were Obi’s; so, it would be an abomination for me to forget that. I will continue doing for you all that Obiora did for you. I promise you that. I have to go now, Mama. As soon as you think you can travel, please come to Lagos. My home has always been your home and that will never change.”
“He looks so much like his father,” Theresa said, with tears in her eyes.
“That was also my first thought, as soon as I set my eyes on him. If I had ever feared that I would forget what my Obi looked like, I don’t anymore,” Adaugo replied cradling her two-day old son.
She had found out a week after Obiora had been laid to rest that she was going to have another baby. His death and all the events after then had put her through a lot of stress so she hadn’t paid attention to her body earlier. By then, she had been over two months pregnant. That had been a bitter-sweet discovery for her. She was sad that Obiora had not known about the baby before he died but she had been ecstatic that he had given her this final gift. For that she was very grateful.
“Here, Mama. I know you’re itching to hold him.”
When the baby was settled comfortably in the crook of Theresa’s left elbow, Adaugo leaned over and dried the tears on her mother-in-law’s face with the palm of her right hand.
First published on Golden thoughts