By Chikodili Emelumadu
In one town like this, not too long ago, lived an enterprising young girl. Ugonwoma, her parents called her, as she was the pride of their lives. She was so rich that she built a house in the village for her retired parents before any of her brothers could say taa! and painted it white so that under the sun it was like staring into the flare from a welder’s torch. People would use the house as a landmark in the village: “Take right until you come to the white house,” which made her parents very happy.
Her mother wore the latest cloth in the market and held her head high, for her daughter was young – had just finished university, in fact – and was doing strong things. Her father bought himself an ozo title; one could hear him laughing kwa-kwa-kwa as he sat with his friends on the veranda of his new house, drinking palm wine and eating bush meat, flicking flies with his horsetail whisk. Yes-men and boy-boys would sing his praise names from the compound below and he would get up to spray naira notes on them like manna. Life was good.
In a little while however, people started to whisper about this young woman and by extension, her family.
“Ee-yi,” they said. “They think it is just to have money. Where are her suitors?”
“This one acts as if she is a man. Let us see if wealth will be enough to keep her warm at night.”
“Can wealth compare to children? Will money look after her when she is old?” they asked. Her newlywed mates jiggled their breasts, slapped their newly fleshed-out hips and laughed behind her back.
The young woman heard all this. She tried to ignore them; after all, what was her own? But the gist gathered momentum. Her father could no longer meet her eyes. He grew so taciturn that his jollification friends stopped coming around. He no longer called his daughter Ugonwoma. In fact, he rarely called her anything at all.
Her brothers began to gloat. They knew the oko man could not say anything to their strong sister after he had followed to chop her money so they took up arms on his behalf.
“You won’t go and marry?” they crowed. “Your mates are on their fourth kids and you’re still here, clinging onto your father’s surname!”
“You eat shit,” she retorted. But deep down, the loss of her father’s approval and support wounded her. She gnashed her teeth and said to herself, “He is treating me like an orphan upon I have given him more than all his sons put together.” And she too stopped speaking to her father.
Her mother called her into her room one day and tried to make peace.
“My daughter,” she said. “It’s time to take a husband. Yes, marriage is not beans, but it is like that because the world is not just a playing something. You need someone so that you are not like the lone tree in the path that everyone cleans their machetes on.” She touched her daughter on the arm. “Your father has to be hard or people will think he is encouraging your stubbornness.”
Her daughter scrunched up her face like a latrine newspaper. She took her hand away. “So it’s because of husband that my father refuses to give me mouth?”
The mother rubbed her hands together, pleading. “I have seen things on my knees that you, my daughter, have yet to see standing on your own feet. I am your mother, I will not lead you astray,” she said. “Find someone. If our men are too frightened of your strong chi, there are others. The world was not made yesterday.”
The formerly-young woman picked at her mother’s words like a seed stuck in between her teeth until it was all she could think about. She concluded her mother must be right. One day she went on her usual travels and returned with a foreigner, a man she called “Dalin” whom she said she would marry.
Her mates threw themselves on the floor, laughing. They said “Ewo, this one has gone and bought herself a husband!” But when they saw Dalin; tall as a palm tree, dark, with muscles that resembled tubers of yams, strutting around as if he possessed two penises under his trousers, they ate their words. They were charmed by his open-teeth and the way he spoke English with barely-moving lips as if he was afraid to bruise the words sliding out between them. They envied the way he held his wife’s waist where people could see while their own husbands would only touch them under the cover of darkness. They heard him call her “Honey” without flinching. The woman’s name became Honi to everyone too.
During the igba nkwu, they forgot all the bad things they said about her as they hit spoons on their teeth and swallowed enough fufu to fell a herd of elephants. They drank so much palm wine that even most manly among the men could not find his father’s house afterwards.
Time passed. Honi and Dalin settled down to married life. She still made money by simply pointing at things and he – well, apart from the two-penis matter – nobody seemed to know what he did exactly. It was not important. They were happy.
More time passed and Honi, who had not been so young to begin with, started to worry that she was not pregnant. It would not have worried her so much if she did not know her husband wanted children; but she knew, and he did, and so she worried.
“Don’t stress,” he said to her. “It’s okay if it is me and you. I love you die.”
Honi still worried and worried and her husband caught her fever, especially when his own mother found Facebook and started harassing him every day in front of everyone.
“Come wife, there is one native doctor like that in my village that gives twins,” he said. And they took a bottle of prayer drink Schnapps and some kolanuts and an envelope of crisp naira notes and went to see him.
The native doctor said “Eat this,” and “Drink this,” and gave her a vial of glittery blackish flakes that turned to powder when she rubbed it between her fingers to take home. “That is the menstrual blood of a woman who has borne seventeen children for her husband. Add it to your bathing water. Make sure the water is hot.”
Her husband smiled and produced the gifts they had brought with a flourish. The native doctor blessed them. Honi pinched her nose as she bathed with the pink water that made her smell of a poultry slaughterhouse. Her husband gingered her up. After a month, it became apparent the native doctor’s blessings were working on someone because Dalin got a job out of state. Nobody seemed to know what exactly. He was gone for one day a week. Then two. Then three.
On a hot afternoon as Honi drove home, a neighbour stopped her by the gate of her compound, clapped her hands and said, “Ee-yi, woman, stay there. You don’t know your husband has left you?” and the woman went into her house and noticed the things that were not there that were supposed to be and her life fell apart.
After the woman walked around her house, noticing the gaps where things used to be, she ended up in the kitchen store. Her husband had taken all the sacks of rice and beans, and all the tubers of yam and plantains. He did not leave behind the cornflakes and coffee, salt and sugar. Even ordinary bottled water, he collected. The woman saw he had been in a hurry. A smashed-open gallon of palm oil lay on its side, pouring out congealing orange blood.
The woman slumped on her nwanyinoduluokwu and put her hand under her chin. “So this man not only left me but wants to starve me as well?” and she wept, tears flowing down her cheeks, hanging from her jawline like glass beads, dropping into the palm oil around her feet. For four market days, the woman sat on the kitchen stool crying because she had been fed excrement first by her father, and then her brothers, and now her husband had put pepper into her eyes. She felt the humiliation of the native doctor keenly. For what, kwanu, had she bathed in another woman’s menses-water? There was no baby to show for her efforts.
The next day, she woke up to a new sound. The congealed oil had vanished from the ground and in its place lay the most beautiful baby girl she had ever seen. The baby was fair, had dark curly hair, and dimples in her knees and her elbows. The woman picked her up, wonder all over her face, and held her to her chest.
The baby grabbed at the woman’s hair in closed fists and the woman beamed. She knew the gods had shown her mercy. Here was her chance to do things the right way, a baby made from her own tears and her own sweat. A pure baby. She would raise her to be her own person, to never let anyone make her feel inferior.
“No man will pour san-san in my garri ever again,” she vowed.
At first, the woman did not plan to tell anyone about her good fortune. Which mouth would she have used to explain that kind of a thing? She locked herself away, nursing her baby girl who grew lovelier by the day. But soon the woman’s love grew until her stomach could not contain it. She rang her mother and let some of it spill from her lips.
The old woman was only too happy to come. She left the white, merry house in the village that her daughter had built, which by now was neither white nor merry – not since her husband died and his sons and their wives and children moved in, circling her head like vultures in search of carrion.
They named the baby girl Nmazuruahu and the woman became known as Nne Nma because she was her mother.
The girl was full of beauty! The dimples in her elbows and knees transferred themselves to her cheeks and the small of her back. She had a long neck and breasts that jiggled like agidi on her chest. When she smiled at her grandmother, the old woman’s arthritis seemed to vanish for days.
The women handled her delicately like a fresh egg; Nne Nma gave her the best clothes and latest gadgets. Her mother plaited her long, thick hair into different styles and her grandmother cooked her anything she wanted to eat. Nmazuruahu was not allowed to lift a finger. In spite of this, she did not spoil. She was sunny and respectful and if she wondered why she was never allowed to go out she did not voice it. She waved to school children from her third floor window as they trudged past in their chequered blue uniforms, before going downstairs for lessons with her tutor.
“But what story will you tell her when she becomes older?” asked the grandmother, watching the girl bounce downstairs, plaited hair flying.
“When she gets older, we will decide,” said her mother. “I am not letting her out of my sight.”
The grandmother had been going to put her mouth and say that children were like plants who needed tending, yes, but also space to grow. Instead she swallowed her spittle and shuffled away. Her mothering days were behind her and besides, she still felt guilt at the part she played in her daughter’s failed marriage.
The morning of Nmazuruahu’s sixteenth birthday, harmattan winds blew with anger. Dust swallowed the entire house, making the marbled floors treacherous to walk on. The cleaners scuttled about, fighting the onslaught. When they tried to fill the tanks for the daily mopping, the water pump would not start. One look at the well told them the water levels had dropped.
They called around for a water tanker to come up the hill and when Nmazuruahu saw the vehicle, swaying and groaning its way up the hill, she was seized with an unusual excitement. She followed the men with her eyes as they alighted, especially the dark one who scurried up the outside of the tank-tower with the hose wrapped around his torso. As he reached the roof, his eyes caught sight of Nmazuruahu in her bedroom and he stopped dead.
Nmazuruahu was afraid to open her mouth. Her heart jumped about like a rat that had eaten sugar, her feet felt hammered to the floor. She could feel them sweating. The boy stood on the roof looking at her, forgetting everything but what was in front of his face. Because they were busy eating each other up with their eyes, they did not hear when his colleagues started up the pump. The pressure of the water pushed the man off the roof and he fell, crashing through a nearby guava tree and landing on the ground.
Nmazuruahu ran downstairs. She stood on the back porch and watched as the men hauled him away. He had been knocked out and water twinkled in his bushy afro like stars on a dark night. Nmazuruahu saw he was closer to her own age than she first assumed.
By the time her grandmother woke from her nap and came to find her charge it was too late. Nmazuruahu shivered as if from a malarial chill. No amount of sweet treats could tempt her up from bed.
Nmazuruahu, it seemed, had fallen in love.
Even after the well had been re-dug and the tankers were no longer needed, the boy still came to see Nmazuruahu. He would wait in the bushes behind her mother’s compound for the woman to leave for work and once she was gone, he would scale the fence on nimble feet, through the back door and upstairs to her room. Nmazuruahu’s tutor thought about saying something, but what was her own? Nmazuruahu learned faster than she could teach and had not needed lessons for months now. In fact, the girl was so intelligent that she had even finished materials not on the curriculum. The tutor did not want to do anything to jeopardise her bread and butter. She minded her own business.
As for the grandmother, happiness tickled her belly. She told herself that she had not interfered and so had nothing to feel guilty over. The girl had chosen a mate for herself. Who was she to stand in their way?
So the boy came, bearing two waterproof bags of kuli-kuli and tiger nuts and his flute. He would greet the grandmother on his way up, prostrating. She did not understand his language but good manners know no barrier. Grandmother would sit there tapping her feet to music that came from Nmazuruahu’s room, eventually falling asleep. She was always woke up to make sure that the boy left at the right time.
One day as Nne Nma returned home from work, a neighbour stopped her on the street. “Ee-yi woman, stay there. You don’t know that a boy comes to be with your daughter when you are not around?”
And the woman’s world fell apart a second time.
At first Nne Nma had been going to ignore her daughter. Her shock at having a neighbour poke her nose into her carefully-concealed business jarred, but she was prepared to look the other way. However as Nmazuruahu grew even more beautiful and filled out, her mother started to gnash her teeth. She began to mutter whenever her daughter was within earshot.
“If a man is hungrying you, just say so. I will understand. We can hire someone; men are like sand on the earth. Nothing special.”
Nmazuruahu wrinkled her fine nose. “Mummy, that is disgusting.” She left her food untouched that night and every other day after. Still her skin shone and her eyes twinkled.
“You don’t know what tune the gongs are playing,” said her mother. “The song is beyond your years.” She stopped going to work, determined to catch the boy and twist his ears. He did not show up. After a while she returned to work. When she came back, she could tell from her daughter’s open face that the boy had come around.
“You, what are you doing that someone is taking food from my mouth and eating?” she shouted at her mother. “Is this what you came here to do?”
“I am old, my daughter, I see no one. You know my eyes… and which leg will I use to pursue if there was such a person?” she raised up her wrapper to reveal knees swollen from the arthritis.
Nne Nma huffed. She lay in bed and plotted to send Nmazuruahu away, but to whom? Nowhere was safe from the greedy men with their long throats and big eyes. Nmazuruahu was not only stunning, but smart and clever. She would also be very rich when her mother died. Where on this earth would she be safe? In the end she decided she must send her own mother back to the white house in the village and start a new life somewhere else with Nmazuruahu. She would drug the girl and steal away in the middle of the night, somewhere far, perhaps Hausaland.
“After all, my chi is awake. I can always start afresh elsewhere.” She started to make plans.
But the grandmother knew her own daughter. When extra bags of this and that started to appear in the house she said to herself: “She wants to send me to the village to go and die by myself.” She knew there was a chance she might never see her beloved granddaughter again in this life, so she called her.
“You have to run away, you and that boy. Your mother means to have me out of the way so she can do him harm.”
“But my mother would never do that,” said Nmazuruahu, biting her lips. She began to doubt all she knew. If it had been someone else saying this to her she would have laughed, but her mother’s mother? Perhaps she was right.
“I am only talking my own as your grandmother,” said the old woman, rubbing her hands together. “I want a chance to see my granddaughter happy with the man she loves; I want to live to see my great-grandchildren. If I go back to the village, my daughters-in-law will bury me before I am dead.”
Nmazuruahu was sick with love. She could not imagine being parted from the boy. She started to gather her things a little at a time. But she had no experience with deception and her mother suspected what she was doing when money started to vanish from her handbags. She entered Nmazuruahu’s room as the girl slept, searched her phone and found the proof she needed lurking in Whatsapp, signed with the childish code they too had used in their youth:
3 la4va2 ya45.
3 la4va2 ya45 ta44.
So, this foolish boy is trying to steal my daughter right from under my nose? Nne Nma thought. He thinks he loves my daughter more than I do? She modified her plans.
Nne Nma waited until the morning of the lovers’ rendezvous, went to the police station and bought as many uniforms as her money could buy – which was a lot. Even the ones she did not call followed her for the price of beer.
They swarmed the house like a dark cloud and waited all day in the bushes for the boy to climb back over the fence.
Late in the afternoon, the boy’s bushy head appeared first. He had spread a jute sack on the spikes of the fence so that he would not cut himself. He turned and helped Nmazuruahu up. The woman looked at him. She watched his muscles bunch as he leaned over. They were like cocoyams under his skin. He was darker than night. Even sitting she could see he was tall and carried himself as if he knew all the secrets of the world’s creation. The woman put her hands between her teeth. Her stomach filled with rage.
“Shoot him,” she hissed to the corporal by her right. “You can see him stealing from my house. He is an armed robber.”
The corporal shrugged, took out his gun. They say the corporal had been exhausted from standing all day in the hot sun collecting dash. Some say he had already washed a bottle or two, nobody knows for sure. He took aim, he fired and the bullet flew into Nmazuruahu’s stomach. She tumbled off the wall.
“Nmazuruahu!” her mother shouted. The boy took one look at the policemen emerging from the bushes and picked race. Some policemen gave chase. Others drew slowly away from the scene in front of them. The corporal who fired his gun left behind only his boot prints to show he had been there.
Blood poured out of the girl’s wound. The light from the setting sun pierced through the bushes, turning it the orange of palm oil.
Nobody knows what happened to the woman or the grandmother. Some say she went berserk after her second loss, that you can sometimes find her talking to palm trees, trying to tempt them into giving her some of their juicy nuts. Others say she went ahead with her plan and moved, leaving her house to revert to farmland. But everyone knows where her daughter is.
On the spot where she died a flame tree grew, tipped with blazing orange and red flowers, a thing of such beauty that many forget themselves admiring it.
She stands there till this day waiting in the path that cuts through the bush, her crimson flowers a blanket of colour on the ground.
And whenever labourers finish their work, they wipe their machetes on her trunk.
Chikodili Emelumadu is a Nigerian writer, journalist and broadcaster living in London. She turned down a possible glittering career in medicine for one involving words and penury. She has been published in Luna Station Quarterly, Eclectica and Apex magazines, and the now defunct Running Out of Ink magazine. Check out more of her work (and ramblings)on her blog, igbophilia.wordpress.com.