Nwanne sat on the floor with her legs curled in front of her like a Fulani beggar. At intervals, she looked up at her father Etee Kalu as he ate his dinner of akpu and onugbu soup. Her throat region jerked severally as she swallowed thick lumps of foamy saliva watching her father munch a mouth full of pork meat. She looked up at her step mother thinking that she had heard the sound of the movement of the saliva as it forced its way down her throat. Their eyes met and she quickly buried her face on the floor. She was shy. The expression on Nwunyediya’s face was blank. Nwunyediya, Nwanne’s step mother was sitting by the right, adjacent the short kitchen stool on which the food lay, waiting for her husband to finish so that she could clear the table. That was the custom in Etee Kalu’s house – the wife that prepared the food must be seated beside the man and wait till he was done. Nwanne was drooling and waiting to take the left over. She was her father’s favourite daughter. Nwunyediya handed Etee Kalu a cup of water as he coughed furiously beating his chest. “Maybe pepper has entered the wrong path” she said as she stood up and gave him several tender pats at the back while he drank some water slowly. Nwanne dashed into the kitchen and reappeared with another cup of water.
“kaa pa” she said in want of words as she handed her father the cup of water and placed her tiny left hand on her father’s shoulder. “Take it easy” nwunyediya added watching her husband with a show of care and love. Etee Kalu looked up at her and his face creased in a smile. She smiled back and recoiled to her seat.
“Nwanne!” Came Igbeneche’s laud voice from the inner room. Igbeneche was Nwanne’s biological mother and Etee Kalu’s second wife. Nwanne stood up hesitantly and sauntered uneasily into the room to answer her mother. She knew why she was being called. Her mother had warned her several times to stop milling around her father whenever he was eating especially when the food was prepared by another woman.
“Onye ukpa, longer throat. Sit down here and don’t say a word if u don’t want me to kill you” her mother snarled in a very low hoarse voice such that neither her husband nor any of her co-wives could hear her. She dare not beat Nwanne when her father was at home. She had once received a nasty slap on her face for lifting a finger on the girl. “If u dare beat my daughter again, I will show u that I carried palm wine for your head”, her husband had warned and that was final warning. Etee Kalu was a no nonsense man. He had a long thick leather belt with which he flogged his wives whenever they went against his dictates. His first wife could not take such treatments, so one day she ran away from the house with her only daughter to where nobody knew.
“Nwanne!” Rang Etee Kalu’s deep voice from outside. He had finished eating and wanted Nwanne to come and eat the left over before Nwunyediya cleared the table. Nwanne made to answer the call but her mother held her back and pressed an index finger on her puckered pouted thick lips. She couldn’t control the tears that trickled down her chubby cheeks. Nwanne wondered why her mother could deny her of the food and felt much pains inside of her. “I must tell my father what happened” she concluded silently in her mind.
“Nwannediya!” Etee Kalu called a second time, spelling out the full name. There was no answer but he heard some little movements in the inner room. “Ogbuefi, I’ve sent her on an errand.” Igbeneche lied. Etee kalu’s wives addressed him by his title name “Ogbuefi”. Etee Kalu knew that it was a lie; he made to stand up and felt some pains in his stomach. He held his belly and sat back sharply and looked up accusingly at Nwunyediya who was waiting for an order to clear the table. Nwunyediya looked surprised. Etee Kalu made to say something and fell backwards from the chair. His legs tossed up and kicked the near empty plates of food in the air and the food spilled all over the floor. He started shaking convulsively saying things nobody around could understand. Nwunyediya screamed and tried to hold him up. Her wrapper nearly went off untied. She readjusted it immediately and knotted the ends firmly with her hair scarf. The other two co-wives dashed out of their rooms screaming on top of their voices as they saw their husband battling for life on the floor. They carried him up gingerly, fidgeting as they called for help from the neighbours. There was no vehicle to convey him to the hospital. Oga Jude the taxi driver next door had gone out early in the morning. Igbeneche gave him a piggy back and the other wives held him on Igbeneche’s back as they ran to the hospital with his legs dangling limply behind and nearly touching the ground. Their children; all came out too. Nwanne, leaned on the wall with her legs crossed and her right hand crossed over her belly held her left elbow while her left palm supported her head. She was crying laud now; not for her father’s uncertain condition, but for the food she saw spilled on the ground. The stream of hot tears raining from her eyes could not allow her see clearly when some fowls came picking the food. She felt like shooing them off but held back herself.
Etee Kalu was very heavy on Igbeneche’s back. She stopped and transferred him on Nwunyediya’s back. His bulgy belly quivered like a bag of sachet water as Nwunyediya trotted on with increased agility like a wounded horse. Etee Kalu discharged his last breath with his eyes open as they stepped on the hospital pavement. The three women lowered the heavy body gently on the pavement and started wailing uncontrollably. Neighbours trickled out one by one like termites after a chilly rain; in a twinkle of an eye the hospital premises was full of onlookers and sympathizers. Igbeneche was astonished. She never knew anything could kill a man this fast without symptoms; without ailment. She wasn’t sure if these were happening in a dream or in real life. It was like what she used to see on the Nollywood movies she had always criticized. Tears ran down the corners of her eyes. She didn’t know how to start crying like the other women.
The three women made arrangement to deposit their husband’s corpse in the morgue but the doctor, a tall dark man with uneven white beards refused and said a man has to be around. “No women, this should be done by a man no matter how old or young. Is there no man in the family?” the doctor had asked removing his glasses to look into the women’s faces one after the other. It was then that Akudiya, the last wife realized what was about to happen to them. She broke out again in a high pitched wail and threw herself on the grown, kicking generously in the air like a cyclist. Her only son was just three years old. He can’t be brought to represent the family in the morgue. She jerked up from the ground and started running home. Somebody made to stop her but she pushed the person away and tore through the crowd into the street. The other wives knew what she was going to do. They too dashed out running after her. The big tree had fallen and the birds had to scatter. On her way home Igbeneche dashed into an electronics mechanic shop. The electrician a tall dark young man with hideous scar across his forehead was soldering something on an open radio. He was the man that always came to look for Igbeneche at her fruit shop along Ngwa road. The man Nwanne had learned to call uncle whenever her father was not in town. He was the Uncle that bought Nwanne the t-shirt that had the inscription: Aba noo ji. Igbeneche greeted him amid sobs and ran the back of her left hand across her nostrils to clear the nose that had started running. She bent low to the electrician’s ears and whispered something. Immediately he dropped his soldering iron, unplugged it from the wall socket, carried an old nonfunctional black and white television and followed Igbeneche.
It was bedlam at home as everybody wailed from one corner of the house to the other. Igbeneche led the electrician to the sitting room where he laid down the old damaged television and stealthily carried the new coloured TV away through the back yard. Nwanne could not understand what was going on. She sat there on the floor hugging her knees to her chin and rocking childishly to and fro as she cried like the other kids. She saw Akudiya surreptitiously moving a box through the back yard. Most of the valuables in the house left just the same way within a space of minutes. Some disappeared totally without a replacement while some others where swapped with either rickety irreparable one or an inferior good-for-nothing equivalent. The women removed whatever they valued most; their jewelries, wrappers, clothes and electronics. These they would have done in a better way only if the death had given a little sign; if it had not come this sudden. None of the women wanted to put a call through to Etee Kalu’s people with their phones. They wanted to take care of things first. Words had been sent to Etee Kalu’s people through a little kid and they were expected to arrive soon.
“Nda ife obu? What is it?” Etee Mba asked directly to nobody as he dashed into the yard filed with the noise of the wailing women. Etee Ndukwo the deaf and dumb was with him. They were the first among the relatives to arrive. They made straight into the sitting room where the three women performed different wailing patterns. Akudiya’s voice was the loudest. She could not rest on a place. She threw herself on the floor and landed with her buttocks with her two hands on her head. She stood up and flung herself into the upholstery and lay limply there. Her wrapper was undone and she didn’t seem to notice that. She was wearing a white pant with every other part of her body left bare. Mama Ada, the fat woman that sold Akara in the neighbourhood was trying to hold her still. To the left, beside the entrance door leaned Nwunyediya sobbing in a loud voice and stamping her feet on the ground in a matching fashion. Igbeneche lay on the floor sobbing gently. Mama obi her friend was attending to her. “Please stop doing this to yourselves biko nu” Mama Obi said aloud tapping Igbenche gently at the back. As the three women saw Etee Mba and Etee Ndukwo, they raised their voices the more. It was like a crying competition. Etee Mba whispered something into Mama Ada’s ears and she stood up and picked the wrapper on the floor and help Akudiya cover herself.
“iya, come and show me, come and show me” Etee Mba said to Igbeneche as if in a hurry and made some signs to Etee Ndukwo. As the oldest wife Igbeneche had to go with the men. Mama Obi helped her up and she wiped the tears on her face with the back of her palms and readjusted her wrapper. She raised the tail end of her wrapper and blew her nose into it. She didn’t care that the men were watching as the raised wrapper exposed the “V” end of her fleshy thighs. She readjusted her wrapper once again. She untied her hair scarf and tied it to her waist to hold her wrapper firm and followed the men out of the room leaning on Mama Obi’s shoulder. Outside’ the children had resumed playing once again. They didn’t know what was going on. Nwanne did not play. She sat alone beside the door to the sitting room still hugging her knees to her chin and rocking back and forth. As Igbeneche came out from the sitting room, she saw Nwanne and their eyes met and Nwanne looked away without a word as if she just saw an enemy. There were whitish sketches of dried tears on her chins. Igbeneche thought something about telling Nwanne to go and play with other children but held back her tongue. She also wondered if Nwanne was suspecting anything but jettisoned the thought and moved on. At the gate, they met three other relatives and together they all walked down the street to the hospital