She turned at her mother’s voice.
“I didn’t hear you come in.” Her mother stood in the kitchen doorway.
“It’s all right. I only just arrived.”
“Take off your shoes. You’ll bring in sand.”
Odinaka looked down at her feet. Her shoes were covered in dust.
“Then you take your bags inside. Let me finish lunch.”
Her mother was gone.
Odinaka sat on the blue sofa and took her shoes off. Think of the bags later. She tilted back and closed her eyes. The yellow clock was louder than she could remember. “It’s talking in its language,” Habs used to tell her, “Every thing you see speaks its language.”
“Everything? Even water?” she asked him then.
“Of course” he had replied. “All the time. It talks as it goes down your throat, boils in a pot, fights with fire—”
“Fight with fire!” She was wide eyed.
“It kills it too. With plenty smoke.”
“But what did the fire do to it?”
At that Habs had laughed and said it was a long story; a secret hidden from the world. But she pressed him till he said, “If you can keep a secret, I will tell you the story of Igwe and Amadioha, two gods sent by Chukwu to cure the earth of evil.”
So one sunny Saturday afternoon, with both their mothers out on their routine Christian Mothers’ meeting, Habs sat on the blue sofa, swinging her on his knee as he told of Amadioha, the god of thunder and lightening, and Igwe, the sky god who both fell in love with Mmir’ugo, a beautiful servant girl. “They fought over Mmir’ugo and forgot all about the work given them by Chukwu. So Chukwu said to himself, ‘I have to do something to stop this madness.’ One day while Mmir’ugo slept, Chukwu split her body in two; one half was turned to water and the other salt. For this reason, both halves of her body melted into each other so that neither Amadioha nor Igwe could have her. The gods seeing this met and agreed that they would have to find a way to make her human again. Amadioha announced he would heat her up with the fire ignited by his lightening and the fire would help make her solid and Igwe agreed to stuff her body with clouds to strengthen her joints. Half way through their work, Amadioha complained that he needed rest and went off to sleep under a tree leaving Igwe to do all the work.”
“Oy! Lazy!” Odinaka said with a slight frown.
Habs continued: “Well, he was still asleep when Igwe finished the work and carried Mmir’ugo off. Amadioha finally woke up, and he sent blazing trails of fire after them in pursuit. Ah! You had to have seen Igwe open the sky and command the clouds to form a wall about him and Mmir’ugo. But the clouds were weak and could not withstand the fire. When Igwe saw that the heat from Amadioha’s fire was too much for the clouds, he sent the rain to help the clouds out. The rain made the battle easier. In fact, the rain put out the fire at once. So Igwe saw that the rain was capable of handling Amadioha’s fire on its own and asked the clouds to return back to the sky. Water was now left to deal with fire. And they have been in battle to this day.”
“So Igwe is still running with Mmir’ugo even now?” Odinaka asked.
Habs just smiled and nodded. “Yes but that’s only the beginning,” he said. Then he asked, “Can you keep another secret?” She said she could and he readjusted her on his knee so that her dress rode up to her waist. As he told the remainder of the tale, he weaved his fingers between her legs. She could never remember that last part of the story. His mouth moved but she heard nothing. He laughed and mimicked voices but she didn’t think she was there. It was just the sound of the yellow clock ticking.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
“That clock is a little too fast isn’t it? It’s almost four and I only just started preparing lunch.”
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Her mother was looking at her. She sat up.
“Were you sleeping?”
“Just a little tired, Mammie.”
“Lunch is almost done.” Mammie turned to go back to the kitchen. “Take your bags and shoe inside.” She returned to her cooking.
Odinaka walked to the curtains and pulled them back. Light streamed in. Through the window she could see her mother’s sliced ginger laid out on sackcloth in the sun. Just ahead some scantily dressed children lined up in front of a running tap, calling out to each other and aiming stones at roaming lizards. A short distance away stood Habs’ house about to cave in on its own weight. Odinaka could remember when she and Habs used to throw stones up that roof and revel in the clattering cascading chorus. An old rusty gate was the only enclosure that held their compound together and stopped the ever-enlarging street market from taking over the front of their houses. Trading on Ishioha Street was just the same, only the sellers had multiplied. They still sold the same stuff and huddled in the same corners. The butchers had their meat lined up on tables, not far from those who sold vegetables, which further down, gave way to trays piled high with smoked fish. Ah, smoked fish. Sele’s delicacy.
Mammie did not turn when Odinaka entered the kitchen. Hunched over the stove, Odinaka could see the greying roots grazing her mother’s hairline. The piercings in the older woman’s ears had sealed up from disuse. The fabric of her print dress had holes in it. Medani had bought her that dress from Senegal . “Medani nwam- My son-in-law” Mammie had praised him then. Odinaka wondered if it was the Senegal that made her mother unable to discard the dress. The dress clung tightly to the bunched folds of flesh along her sides and the sleeves stopped short of the puffed mass of muscle at her elbows. As she stirred the contents of the pot Odinaka watched the flab on her arm shake to and fro. Her brown complexion was paler, her skin drier. Fifteen months and her mother had aged so much.
“I thought you would not come anymore,” Mammie said stirring the pot. Her back was still to Odinaka. Silence. Then, still stirring: “How is Medani?”
Odinaka did not know what to say. She looked out the window above the sink. Nothing but clouds above the pawpaw leaves that beat against the panes. Above her stood a wooden shelf with well-stacked bottles of her mother’s “Ebube Health Ginger-100 naira only.” Her mother still sold for 100 naira? Dear bottles with their memorable green caps and white labels. She picked one off the shelf and twisted the cap open. She peered into the bottle with an eye shut as she had always done whenever she got home from primary school. She shook the bottle and watched the powder sway from side to side. Then she screwed the bottle shut and placed it back on the shelf. She reached for the tap to wash her hands. The tap was headless. She looked at it seated there on the sink. For a useless tap, it looked clean. Sparkled even. Just the way it did when it had a head and turned out clean water. What happened to Oje the street plumber?
“Pass me a plate,” Mammie said.
“A little more,” Odinaka said. She loved palm-oil rice.
“With all the fat on you, your portion is good as it is.”
They ate in the sitting room opposite the framed family picture, with nothing but the sound of the yellow clock between them. After a third helping, Odinaka stretched and picked her teeth with her fingers. Mammie went to the curtains and drew them. The room was dim again.
“The light hurts my eyes.”
“I thought you said the doctor had looked at them?”
“Jesus has healed me,” Mammie replied and bent to take the plates away.
“Let me do that.” Odinaka tried to take them from her and their fingers brushed. Mammie withdrew and went still. They stared at one another. Mammie moved a step back.
“Has it come to this?” Odinaka’s voice was calm.
Mammie was silent.
“Do you want me to go?”
She still said nothing.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Everything speaks its language . . .
“Odinaka, it’s not natural,” Mammie said finally. In the dimness Odinaka could only make out the faint outline of her face. Those were the same words she had used the last time they’d seen. The last time they’d fought.
It’s not natural.
It was in June. The fight. Medani had sent Odinaka packing and had gone at once to Mammie to ask for a bride price refund. So Mammie sent for her from Lagos. Odinaka had arrived home the next day to find Mammie waiting by the sitting room window as though Lagos was only down the street. Mammie was calm at first at the sight of her. She just asked Odinaka if what Medani said was true. Odinaka said it was and Mammie told her that it was not natural, this thing. “You cannot be my child,” Mammie started weeping. “Tell me what I have done to deserve this. First your father, now you.” Odinaka had watched her mother cry. All she knew was that she felt like a condemned woman with the noose about her neck undone. She felt fresh with her new life away from Medani. She just watched her mother cry. It was when her mother had talked about going to see the Charismatic group coordinator that she felt irritation and said there was nothing wrong with her. “Odinaka you are sick,” Mammie said. “Can’t you see?”
Then Odinaka told Mammie that she was no sicker than her, a woman who had lived a lie with a man who had abandoned his family for her. At that Mammie slapped Odinaka and told her she didn’t want to see her ever again.
That same day, Odinaka went back to Lagos. Back to relief. Back to Sele.
Now fifteen months later she was back in the same sitting room. Mammie had sent for her again. This time to meet with her father. The man people said she took her high forehead and large jaw from. She didn’t know why the features faithfully stuck through the years of absence. She felt like she was the betrayer herself, refusing to let go of a father who had moved on. He was going to be with his genuine family he said. The family he had before he met Mammie. Twenty two years now. What did the bastard want? She wanted to look into his eyes and ask him that. You are worse than Medani she would say. Your gender is a mutation from hell –
“When is he coming?”
“If you call him that.”
Mammie ignored that and clasped her hands in her lap. “He said this evening.”
Odinaka looked at the framed picture on the opposite wall. She was a little over two, sandwiched between both parents who smiled into the camera. She could see their flashing teeth in the dimness. Over the years she had watched that picture undergo colour changes from the original sepia to a dull yellow. Now it just hung on the wall with dried watermarks and splotches of white where cockroaches had laid their eggs. Her mother had refused to take that picture down. That and the wedding picture. The yellow clock stood with an air of authority between both pictures. It had done a better job at aging than the pictures had.
“What does he look like now?” Odinaka asked.
“You’ll see him.”
Odinaka looked at her mother and thought she saw a look of nostalgia in her face.
“I haven’t seen him myself.” Mammie explained.
Outside a car revved and hooted. Then there was a babble of voices.
“Is that him?”
“Habs? He’s home?”
“He’s been living with his mother for two years now. His wife ran off with his two daughters after that bad story about him in the papers. Ran off and took all his money.”
“Just like father did to us.”
“Your father left us, but he didn’t steal our money.”
“He didn’t have to. He was the money.”
Mammie said nothing.
Odinaka went over and peered through the curtain. A man was just disappearing into the neighbouring house with the rusted zinc roof. He wore oversized jeans that sagged at his hips. His car stereo was blasting Timaya’s True story. Behind him, a burly woman moved food items from the raised boot of the car and called out to someone to check the food on the fire. It was Habs’ mother. Odinaka thought she hadn’t changed at all. She had the same strong voice she’d had when she shouted at her and Habs to stop throwing stones on the roof. She dropped the items into the basin and a young girl came out and carried the loaded basin indoors. Some yams were left on the floor and Habs’ mother hoisted them on both arms and headed towards their house.
“She’s coming this way,” Odinaka said.
Mammie held open the back door for Habs’ mother. Both women laughed and greeted.
“Ebube,” Habs’ mother said to Mammie. “Ohabuike came back with some yams. These ones are for you.”
The moment the woman’s eyes got used to the poor lighting indoors, they narrowed in recognition.
She looked at Mammie, “Ebube, you did not tell me Odinaka was back.”
“She is only just returning,” Mammie said briskly.
Odinaka greeted. Habs’ mother looked her up and down. “You look well Odinaka. How is your husband?”
Odinaka smiled and said he was in God’s hands.
Habs’ mother made as if to say more, then smiled stiffly and said a few things to her mother. Then she was gone.
Odinaka felt her stomach heave. Habs’ mother knew as well. She turned to the window again. The sun was beginning to set and smouldered in a gold haze in the horizon. The street market was rowdier. A man hawked cigarettes and sweets near the rusty gate and from the angle at which he stood with his back to the rest of the world, Odinaka saw him scratch his bottom and when it didn’t seem to help, lean against the fence and grate the buttocks furiously, his face contorted with the relief of release. Sele used to have that look sometimes – the stick and the banana. Perfect, pure release.
Mammie was taking the sackcloth and dried ginger inside. The clouds were turning a sick grey. The house was quite dark now. Odinaka found a candle and lit it. She stood and watched a fly murmur around the flame. It danced around till it grew weary. Then like a magnet, the flame drew it, tickled its wings and sucked it in. She watched it fall into the pool of wax at the base of the wick. It struggled a little, and then lay still. It was now a shriveled black mass.
“You know I love black Odinaka…be nice eh? Get into that black lace for me…”
Medani was smiling, breath heavy with alcohol; his hands at his leather belt ready to pull at the slightest reluctance from her. After three miscarriages from his belt, she had learnt.
You don’t refuse, you can’t refuse. “You must protect your marriage at all costs” her mother told her when she cried that she was fed up with Medani. “Don’t be a failure like me. Jisie nke gi ike. You’re a true Igbo woman and your value is your man. You must hold.” You must hold. You must hold. Her mother’s language. Tick. Tick. Tick.
And so she tried not to cry when she pounded yam for Medani’s dinner dressed in the black 50,000-Naira lace from Holland . She held her head high as she presented him his food, trying to balance the matching sophisticated head tie on her head. She smiled when he asked her to lay out a red carpet reception for him with her clothes from Dubai. “O egom k’ineri… oh it’s my money” he would gush. “Worship me with it.”
But then dressing up for him was better than having him on top of her, his breath bearing down like a foul outpouring of stale palm wine, the bristles on his chest like an old toothbrush scraping her breasts. She died each time he touched her. Then one day he just stopped. Her body now reminded him of a sack of fermenting cassava, he said. Her relief was bottomless. She knew he saw other women but she was not upset. He knew she knew he had other women. But he did not know she was not bothered. Till he caught her in bed with Sele, their heads between each other’s valleys.
Perfect, pure release.
“Odinaka, you must really take your bags and shoe in. Your father hates litter.”
Odinaka looked at her mother. She was laying out the ginger in a corner of the room. She returned her gaze to the candle and saw that another fly was buzzing around the flame.
“Am I talking to myself or what?” Mammie was glaring at her.
“Is that what he told you to tell me after twenty two years?” Odinaka did not turn. Mammie was silent.
The fly buzzed around the flame. Danced and twirled. Odinaka’s eyes moved with the insect, her mind in a muddle.
“What did he say he wanted?” she asked.
“Your father is welcome in this house anytime and you know it.”
“It does not count? What he did to us all these years?”
“We are all prodigals.”
The fly was buzzing louder now. The flame was licking its wings. It twirled in the sweet heat, and then fell into the wax. It swam and struggled. Odinaka turned to her mother.
“Is that what I am too? A prodigal?”
Mammie did not look at her. In the silence, it was just the Tick, Tick, Tick and the dying insect buzzing its last. Soon it turned a charred black and there was only the Tick, Tick, Tick. Her mind. Her muddle. She wanted Sele.
She thought she heard footsteps. Her father. She went to the door. Nobody.
Mammie was sitting on the blue sofa, watching her. When Odinaka returned her gaze Mammie turned and studied the tear in the fabric of the sofa. Where the blood stain had been.
“I am going to rest,” Odinaka said to her.
In the bedroom, she sat on the well-known lumpy mattress and ran her hand over the surface. The lumps were harder than she remembered them. Full, hard beads. Like Sele’s breasts. The calendar with a picture of the weeping Christ with a head full of thorns was still at the bed post. His blood shot eyes were turned to the heavens, his arms outstretched. As Odinaka sat looking up into those eyes, she felt like a believer in need of a miracle. She squeezed the full hard beads. The wardrobe gave off a cloud of dust when she dropped her bags in them. The bags had been gifts from Sele. They were coffee coloured. Like your eyes, Sele had said. Odinaka thought they were rather the shade of Sele’s nipples and told her so. Sele just smiled and said “Let’s dance. It’s such a happy evening.” Over the stereo, Ayo sang “Down on my knees, I’m begging you . . .”
“I am going just down the street,” her father had told her that morning, dressed in his shirt and tie. Her mother was asleep in the next room and five-year-old Odinaka wondered why she was not up making his usual morning akara. “I left your mammie a note,” her father explained.
“I want plenty mangoes,” she’d told him and he just nodded and was gone. He had a small pack with him. When her mother woke up, Odinaka watched her cry with the note in her hand. She couldn’t understand it. But she sat and waited at the front steps for her father to come home with plenty mangoes.
There was a tap on the window. She turned and stared, thinking she had heard something else. The bloody eyes of the Christ were still turned heavenwards but for a moment, she thought they looked straight at her. The tap on the window again. She walked over and poked out her head. A man stood there.
He smiled slowly. “Mother said you were home.”
“Why didn’t you come through the front door?” She noticed he wore cornrows.
“I just wanted to call you out. Like in the past.”
She smiled. The first since that day.
They walked through the crowded street outside, past the provision kiosks and fruit vendors. Okadas sped past, weaving their way through call centre booths and suya stands. Cars honked and sputtered. Some yards away the chaos abated and the air seemed less burdened. The noise of the street behind them, they turned into a corner and found their spot on an old concrete slab, part of the remains of the foundations of a house that never was. They sat and said nothing to one another at first. She studied the clouds as they floated by. He brought out a cigarette and lit it. After a few drags, she asked him,
“So you still smoke?”
“Till my dying day.” He chuckled and blew a stream of smoke. She studied the wafts of smoke and the cursive patterns they made as they drifted into the breeze.
“Now you look just like your mother. Flesh and flab everywhere” he said. “Too large for your 28 years.”
Odinaka laughed. “I’ve always been plump.”
“I’m not talking about plump. You are more than plump now.” He tugged at her double chin.
“At least it’s better than the ridiculous cornrows you have on your head” she said.
“What better way to feel young?” He smiled.
“You’re not that old” she said.
“At 40?” He chuckled.
“Life begins at . . .”
“I know, I know.”
They sat and talked about growing during the past nine years they’d last seen each other. She noticed he had dyed his hair jet black as well. The back of his hands showed more veins than she last remembered; his fingers were darker from tobacco stains. His chin sagged a bit. She told him about her job as a Laboratory Scientist in Lagos, running a diagnostic lab with a former class mate in UNEC, churning out test result after test result. Malaria plasmodium, pregnancy, Syphilis, HIV. Everyday she would watch faces tense with the anticipation of waiting, watch them blur with the knowledge of the likelihood of their chances at beating the test. She said nothing of Medani.
“Don’t you ever get offered money to switch test results?” Habs asked.
“Sometimes. I don’t accept them.”
“You’re a fool.”
“You would accept money to help destroy their lives?”
He smiled. “What am I a story teller for?”
Then he told about life in Abuja as a journalist, of fat envelopes given by the big politicians to tell shit stories about their enemies. He told of slipping money through back doors to dig out medical records and dirty secrets: the child born of incest, the old flame in a far-away land, the cultic affiliations.
“Dog chop dog. These politicians. We only help them.” Habs dragged the last of his cigarette and crushed it under his feet.
Odinaka watched him and knew his life was the way it presently was because he had been caught in the chop web. “And who dug out your own story?” she asked.
He pulled out another stick of cigarette, a smile on his lips.
“Mammie told me of your wife” Odinaka said slowly, not sure if she was to say what she was saying.
He said nothing.
“It’s a pity there are no stars in the sky today.”
She looked at him. Then at the sky. “There are always stars in the sky. They might be invisible sometimes, but they are always there.”
“It’s a shame isn’t it?” He blew a cloud of smoke. “A hiding star.”
Odinaka watched the cigarette in his hand give off a trail of smoke. His fingers shook. She reached out and took the cigarette then took a drag herself. He looked at her with a lift of his brows. She winked and gave it back. Then she started coughing and stopped.
“A hiding star? Is that what you are, Habs?”
“What do you want to hear, Odinaka?”
“That you did not do it.”
“I did not do it.”
A vein was throbbing in his temple. “You choose to believe what they say in the papers about me?”
“You lifted that child’s skirt.”
“I only looked.”
“Like you looked at mine that day when I was six and sitting in your lap as you told me of Amadioha and Igwe?”
Habs looked straight ahead of him. “I was an experimenting teenager of eighteen...”
“Do you remember the blood on the sofa afterwards?”
“Your mother cut those stains out of the fabric” His nostrils flared. “Yes I remember.”
“The child you were with bled as well.”
He kept staring ahead. A dog barked in the distance.
“It was just my little finger. She wasn’t meant to bleed.” His voice was a whisper.
Odinaka could see a star or two in the sky now. She watched them.
He said, “My wife wasn’t supposed to leave me. I promised her I would change. I promised. I promised—” His fingers lost their grip on the cigarette and it fell to the grass. He bent to pick it but couldn’t grasp it. He clutched wildly at it. His fingers refused to come together in a grip. They were trembling.
He leaned over and kept trying to pick up the cigarette. Then he started grunting.
He started spluttering.
He jumped up from the concrete slab shouting, “Gone! Gone! It’s all gone! I can’t hold! I can’t hold! I canccc . . .”
You must hold. You must hold.
Odinaka held him. His body twitched and grew hot. His saggy jeans rode down his thighs. He started muttering into her neck, “Me loser, me loser . . .”
Odinaka managed to get him home on the back seat of an okada. At home, Habs’ mother, a retired nurse gave him a shot of a drug that calmed him and sent him to sleep. As Habs slept, Odinaka thought how he looked like an old man who had lived all his life dreaming. Of happiness, of love, of identity. His fingers twitched even in sleep.
“Odinaka did you ask him about his wife?” His mother was looking at her.
“No.” Odinaka returned her look. “Not at all.”
Habs’ mother’s eyes narrowed. She pursed her lips as though she had something to say, then she turned away and swathed her son in a blanket.
Odinaka bade her goodnight and left.
Mammie was reading her Bible out aloud under a dim light bulb when Odinaka entered the house.
“When did you leave the house?” Mammie took off her reading glasses to look at her.
Odinaka shrugged. “I was with Habs,”
Mammie shook her head. “His wife. He has remembered her.” She placed back her glasses and held up her Bible again.
“You shouldn’t be reading under light as bad as this. You’ll only weaken your eyes further.”
“It’s the best we can get from NEPA after four days of darkness.” Mammie continued reading, “Jesus spake unto them, saying, all power is given unto me in heaven and on – ”
Odinaka turned to go inside. “Goodnight.”
Mammie paused. She looked uncomfortable. “I will wait for your father,” she said her eyes on the ginger in the corner.
Father. Odinaka couldn’t remember how it felt to ever call any body that. She nodded at her mother and went in. Mammie’s voice followed her above the ticking of the yellow clock.
“Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father – ”
She shut the door after her once she was back in the room and sat on the lumpy mattress. She undressed and checked her phone. Forty-eight missed calls. Sele. Odinaka dialed her back. The operator’s voice came at her. Sele’s phone was switched off.
She lay on the mattress facing the picture of Jesus with the crown of thorns. She closed her eyes and ran her hands over the lumps. She saw herself watching the sun again. She was five and waiting for her father to come home. Plenty mangoes, ripe and yellow…she was eating them, consuming Sele’s pulsing breasts. Juice ran down her hands. The taste of salt swelled in her. Sele smiled at her. I’ll never leave you no matter what they say. She tasted her, ate her . . . burrowing her tongue in her depths. Sweet mangoes.
Hold my mangoes. Hold my mangoes. You must hold.
The sun came up over Ishioha Street and spread its golden tentacles over the empty kiosks and beer joints. It polished the rusty zinc roofs and from where she sat by the window, Odinaka could see the rainbow haze forming over puddles of water in the road. September and the rainy season was yet to retreat.
Habs slept behind her. His light snores mingled with the zoom of cars and the chatter of children walking past with buckets of water on their heads. He had slept peacefully through the night his mother said. Now she was preparing nsala soup for him and Odinaka could hear her moving around in the kitchen, singing “Amara gi kamma, o diwenu--” Odinaka wondered if Mammie would have done such things for her if had been an only male child like Habs; watch over her and wrap her in blankets and mop her sweat. My child, I love you the way you are, nwam.
From the window she watched the pawpaw tree behind her mother’s kitchen sway in the breeze, causing the withered leaves to drop from the budded trunk with light cackling sounds. The brown leaves were like arms stretched out in plea, worshipping the earth.
“Lovely sunny day isn’t it?”
Odinaka turned to see Habs sitting up. The blanket was bunched about his middle. Someone had loosened his cornrows while he slept. Now he had an afro. He looked old.
“Pity you didn’t watch the sun come up,” she said.
He stretched. “Where is mother?”
“Fixing you something to eat.”
He looked lost, like he was floating. Odinaka thought of leaving.
“I’ll tell your mother you’re awake.” She rose.
“No please sit.”
“I’m sorry about yesterday,” he said.
“Why don’t you tell your mother?” Odinaka asked.
“It isn’t serious. Just a few sniffs when I need to forget.”
“Well, those things don’t make you forget that long,” she paused. “Which is it?”
He lay back on the pillow. “China white.”
She watched him close his eyes and breathe deep and long. She looked away. Again, she thought of leaving.
He tried to stand and the blanket slid down his hips. He caught it in time but Odinaka had seen the tuft of hair below his navel. His eyes flicked to her and their gazes locked. Then they broke out laughing.
“It’s like the afro on your head.” She said.
“It doesn’t bother you?”
“What? The afro?”
“What you saw.”
Odinaka looked at him and thought what man it was that could ever bother her now.
She looked away.
“So it’s true then.” Habs’ voice was calm.
“What is true?” She asked. She knew what he was going to say.
“You now live with a woman.”
She watched the street. A little boy with a bucket on his head came in through the rusty compound gate and walked to their house. It was the boy her mother had sent to grind ginger. She saw him knock and wait. Then her mother came out and helped him lower the bucket to the ground. She gave him something and the boy ran off in excitement. Mammie took the bucket into the house and shut the door after her.
“Are you going to start avoiding me too?” She said.
“Odinaka it’s not natural.”
“And yours is?”
He said nothing. He just sat there breathing hard.
“My mother treats me like a leper for it.”
“Is that why you left Medani?”
“Medani came in one day to see us together. I was out of his house the next day.”
Habs was silent. Odinaka could feel his confused eyes on her back. Like Medani’s eyes on that day. “To think that I have been married to a man all along,” was all Medani had said later.
“Your partner. Is she . . . ?”
“Her name’s Sele. We run the diagnostic lab together. The one I told you about.”
Habs’ mother came in then and Odinaka sat and waited for him to eat. His mother glanced her way once in a while and Odinaka understood why the woman would not say a word to her.
When Habs was done with eating he saw Odinaka to the door. His mother was watching them.
“There’s something . . .”Odinaka said to Habs. “One question.”
Habs inclined his head.
“Did Igwe and Mmir’ugo ever get to the finishing line?”
A smile played on his lips. “Do you think Amadioha ever gave up the chase?”
She shook her head in reply. “The best story tellers never untie the knot, I see.”
He caught her elbow when she turned to go.
“A weakness is like a tunnel. It keeps sucking you in. Find a way out when you still can.”
“Our destinies are similar then” she said and was gone.
Mammie was seated in the kitchen, a heaped bowl of ground ginger on a low table to her right and a stack of empty bottles to her left. The white labels were to the side of the bottles, along with an old tin of Evostick. She was spooning ginger into the bottles and humming a song to herself. Odinaka remembered the routine from when she was ten. She sat by her mother.
“Habs is feeling better” Odinaka said.
“Jesus always heals his own.” Mammie continued humming.
Odinaka glued a label to a filled bottle of ginger. The labels still felt the same. Odinaka saw herself, ten again, sticking labels on the bottles after her mother had filled them up. Then she would take the filled bottles to Mama Eze down the road, who sold them for Mammie and took a personal commission. Now they worked in silence. Thunder rolled in the distance. Outside the window, Odinaka could see clouds forming like grey cowpats in a field. A gust of wind blew and the windowpane squeaked on its hinges.
Odinaka watched the rain begin to drizzle. She stood and drew the window close. The rain droplets pattered around the window sill. Odinaka thought it made an odd rhythm. Like fingers on the edge of a table. Mammie was looking out of the space created by the half shut window. She had stopped scooping ginger into the bottles. Her eyes were soft, dreamy.
“Your father isn’t coming anymore.” She said. Her voice was hardly audible above the patter of rain drops but Odinaka heard her.
“Why do you say that?” She asked Mammie.
“He said he wouldn’t come if it rained.”
Odinaka glued on a label. Then put down the bottle.
“I see” she said.
Her mother looked up at her now. “What do you see?” Her eyes were glazed.
“That it had to take you this long to realize that he would never come.”
Her mother went back to scooping. “You don’t have to stay any longer.”
“I know.” Odinaka glued on another label. She watched the rain as she waited for her mother to fill another bottle. She watched her mother’s hands, worn from years and age like the yellow clock, the blue sofa and the family pictures. She tried to count the fine lines around her knuckles. They were interwoven, like whorls and loops on fingerprint samples in her lab. They were dusted with ginger powder and at a point she gave up trying to count.
“I’m a failure,” her mother whispered. “And all I did was pass it on to you.”
“A man can never be a measure of your achievements Mammie.”
Her mother shook her head. “A man is a woman’s crown. She must hold it or it falls.”
“If an unworthy man were your crown, he would never sit well on the head.”
Her mother stopped scooping.
“I have waited for your father all my life.”
“He is with his family. He will never come to us.”
“He would have come to us today.”
The aroma of ginger filled Odinaka’s head.
Her mother said, “I told him of you and your eh— problem through his brother. It was then he sent a message that he would like to talk to you.”
“How did I give birth to you?” Mammie was looking at her.
“I am still human.”
“There is nothing human about the life you live.”
I love those who ought to be loved. That’s human, Odinaka wanted to say but instead she said: “You did nothing to save me from Medani when he abused me for nine years.”
“It was your cross from the Lord.”
“And I was to die with it? Like Jesus?”
“I will die with mine.”
“Which is waiting for father to come home?”
“Waiting to hold my crown.”
“We must learn to hold only the things that matter.”
“And for you it’s the woman you live with?”
“Not just her. But she matters.”
“Stand up, pack your bags and leave. Now.”
Odinaka stood and walked out of the kitchen. Mammie got up and watched her go. As she was about to make a turn into the bedroom Odinaka stopped and looked back. Mammie was still watching her. She was stock-still. Then the spoon and half-filled bottle of ginger clattered to the floor.
She was on the floor when Odinaka got to her, her eyes rolled to the roof. Odinaka began to scream.
“It’s a stroke.” Habs’ mother told her minutes later. They had laid Mammie out on the blue sofa. Habs had left to bring his car so they could hurry to hospital. Odinaka had her mother’s head in her lap. Her heart would not stop beating madly. Her mother. Her crown. She must hold.
Habs’ mother yelled at Habs to hurry with the car. When Habs started yelling back that the car had ran out of fuel the previous day, she decided to go hail a taxi instead. She gave some hasty instructions to Odinaka and rushed out, but Odinaka did not hear what she said. Her eyes looked around the room and stopped at the family picture. Odinaka stared at it and felt the images of her parents begin to dissolve. Hers was the only face she saw in between two round halos. Mangoes?
She was waiting for the mangoes again, singing to herself and swinging her legs at the front steps. She was five, then six and staring at the blood between her legs, on Habs’ fingers, on the fabric of the blue sofa. She watched her mother cut out the fabric, the piece of sin. Now she saw Habs sniffing over a pile of coke, sniffing on her shoulders, up the little girl’s legs. Up, up, up. More blood. Now she cradled her mother’s head and held it close. She must hold. She was holding. She was holding Medani again, digging her fingers into his back, wearing his black lace, lying for him to walk over her, lashing her body with his belt, and then she could not hold, would not hold his baby. She opened her mouth and started to sing a song. It didn’t sound like one. It sounded like a note on her tongue, tasting of ginger; ginger on fish just the way Sele liked it. They ate one another like they ate fish. She saw Sele’s face dance before her. Then it was gone. Odinaka did not call out to the face. She held her mother instead. Don’t leave me now Mammie. It’s you I’m holding. Her face felt wet like the rained-on window pane outside. She looked at her mother’s face. It was calm. It was furrowed and dark. Dark from years of waiting, of longing to continue a life of adultery. She looked 70. Seventeen years older. No crown in sight. But there were mangoes. Or were there? Mammie? Mammie there are mangoes. Our crowns. Hold them for me. For us. Someone’s taking them.
No God, no.
She thought she shouted. She looked around. No one was around. No one heard.
It was just the sound of the yellow clock ticking in the dim room.
Onyinye Ihezukwu was a participant of the just concluded Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop organised by Chimamanda Adichie in Lagos. Apart from writing, she has a passion for acting and debating developmental issues on Africa. She works as a broadcaster with the Voice of Nigeria, Lagos.