Writings / Fiction

Pounding Peppers

Ifesinachi Okoli

Onitsha had not changed in the six years that she had been away. The first glimpse she had of her hometown was from Asaba as they neared the Niger Bridge that linked both towns. She gazed at the large expanse of water stretched on either side of the bridge with canoes in the distance that looked like floating logs. The islands seemed smaller though, Uloma thought with a distracted frown.

They used to be wider, large enough to hold the castle she and her sister Echi had planned to build when they were children. Now, they seemed barely able to contain their maze of trees let alone grasp the canoes that bobbed by their shores. The bridge gave way with an abruptness that opened up to the Onitsha town and a traffic that did not seem to have a beginning or an end. She had expected the influx of people this time of the year. Uloma watched as young hawkers with trays of bananas, groundnuts, breadfruit and bread balanced expertly on their heads, weaved their way in and out of the queue of cars. A hawker with a red Santa Claus hat on his head held up several identical hats by the side of her window. Chimezie, who had been sitting still while they crossed over the River Niger jumped on his seat and pressed his palms to the window.

“Mummy, mummy, I wanna be Santa,” he cried.

“Madam, no open the window,” the driver warned. “I don lock the doors. This is Onitsha. Plenty plenty thief dey here.” He went on to inform her that there were many desperate kidnappers who would be very happy to take any fine looking woman like herself and her child for as little as five thousand naira or phone recharge cards. The youths were hungry, the driver said, and the business was gaining popularity.

Uloma dragged Chimezie to her body as if to shield him from the eyes of any lurking kidnapper and cautioned him to be quiet. The child looked up at her with tears in his eyes, popped his thumb into his mouth and began sucking as if he realised that his mother was in no mood for his tantrums. The hawker displayed more toys with red and green lights mouthing words that she could not hear. Sweat dripped down his burnt brown face and disappeared into his grey singlet staining it a darker shade. Then he moved on to the next car. Uloma felt a twinge of remorse. She should have bought something for Chimezie, something that he could take back home to show his friends. Since he had been told of the journey to Nigeria, he had been excited about seeing grandma and the much talked about home his mother came from where tortoises and bats could talk, about eating as many garden egg fruits as he wanted with the tiny white seeds scattered all over his mouth and stuck between his teeth. He loved garden eggs and he hated that he got them to eat only when Aunty Echi or anyone else came back from Nigeria. As the car got close to the Police check-point where Mobile Policemen stood guard with large guns slung across their shoulders, another hawker appeared in front of the window bearing garden eggs. Chimezie looked from the oval yellow-white fruits to his mother’s blank face but he remained quiet, his eyes following the garden egg hawker until he disappeared behind them.

As they entered the town, Uloma marvelled at how unchanged it remained, the way every inch seemed to be covered with humans. They were everywhere – walking, sitting, begging. There was this avalanche of people, animals and goods that made Onitsha market overwhelming in its fame as one of the largest in West Africa. She remembered her mother taking her and Echi to the market to buy provisions for school and the way she would hold her mother’s hand tightly for fear that she would be swept away in the tide of people. She remembered the heat, the damp bodies pressed on either side of her, hands groping at hers urging her to come this way or that and check out the latest school sandals and materials for bed sheets; the drowning feeling that engulfed her when her mother stopped in the midst of the crowd to bargain prices with a trader by the side of the road. The rainy season was the worst time of the year for her because the slimy mud would stain her well polished Kito sandals dotting her fair legs with brown mottles which would take her a while to scrub off when they got back to the car. Echi used to tease her that she was so proper. Echi had loved going to the market. Uloma could not count the number of times her mother got alarmed when Echi wandered off. She would always return with mischief twinkling in her eyes, her legs dirty with mud stains, clutching a new clothing item that she bought with the money she had begged off Uloma.

“Madam, which house?” the driver asked cutting into her thoughts. She snapped back from her reverie. Chimezie was lying with his head on her laps, his thumb in his mouth and his eyes half closed showing only the whites. She lifted him and he woke up with a whine. “That house there. Number six,” she replied pointing.

The driver honked and a gateman opened the gate to let them through. Uloma paid the cabman and got out of the car with Chimezie.

“Are we there yet?” Chimezie asked as the driver brought out their bags. He rubbed his eyes.

“Yes darling.”

The house was fenced around with jagged ends of broken bottles lining the top to keep burglars away. The white fence now had fingerprints all over them and green slime slithered up the walls. The bungalow looked like it had just been painted with streaks of two different shades of orange that seemed as if the painter must have been colour blind. In the garage, a red Toyota car was parked covered in dust with PLEASE WASH ME and I AM DIRTY written on its windscreen in a childlike scrawl. Uloma felt something warm in her eyes before she looked away. From the neighbouring compound there were screams of little children. She set Chimezie on his feet and allowed him roam around, the soles of his sneakers blinking with different colours.

“Uloma!”

Her mother burst out of the house dancing. She was dressed in a black blouse and wrapper. She put her arms around her mother appreciating the smell of meat and onions that teased her nostrils. Uloma’s stomach boiled in hunger. She remembered that she had not eaten in almost two days. When her mother pulled back, Uloma studied her and was not aware of the frown that drew her brows together until her mother smoothed the wrinkles on her forehead. She smiled.

Nne-oh, welcome,” she said in Igbo, “but you are too thin. Have you not been eating well in America?”

“Mummy I have,” she replied.

“All those your vegetables without leaves and cornflakes,” she grumbled. “Ah-ah, is Orji not complaining that there is no more waist for him to hold again?”

Her mother bent to pick up Chimezie who was staring at her with wide eyes, his head cocked to one side. “Eh, see Orji oh, oyirinnaya!” She turned to Uloma and said, “Chimezie has grown to look like his father since the last time I saw him. How is your husband, Orji? I thought you said he was coming.” She peered into the taxi as if Orji was hiding in the shadows of its interior.

“He changed his mind,” she replied and waved at the cabman as he drove off. The gateman stood looking at her, his mouth split in a silly grin. He said, “madam welcome.” Uloma waved at him.

“Won’t you greet grandma?” she said to Chimezie. The child buried his face in his grandmother’s shoulder and mumbled something. Her mother laughed and balanced him on her ample hips then she told the gateman to carry the bags into the house. Uloma followed behind noting the silver strands of hair that seemed to cover her mother’s full dark hair.

She was glad when Chimezie fell asleep on the couch in the sitting room. He had quickly got over his initial shyness and started talking so fast that he would start coughing when the words got clogged in his little throat. Then his grandma had brought out bowls of garden eggs she had kept for him in the fridge and he had dove into it. Few of them remained in the bowl on his stomach and the seeds were everywhere. Uloma set the bowl on the centre table and gently turned him on his stomach. She would clean him up later. There was no electricity and the room felt stuffy. She opened the windows to let in fresh air and sunlight. The room came alive with a jumble of colours leaping out from every corner of the room. The sitting room like every other room in the house was not well decorated but there was a certain charm that the discordant colours of the settees, window blinds and rugs brought. The walls were covered with pictures, memories of a life that made Uloma smile in melancholy. There was the picture of her in her graduation gown when she graduated from Federal Government Girls College, Onitsha. There was also a similar one of Echi. Then there was one of her parents looking into the distance away from the camera with reluctant smiles tugging at their lips holding the hands of their four and five year old children clothed in identical yellow dresses. There were several other pictures. The most recent were the ones taken on her wedding day. Her sister was her bridesmaid and was clad a white dress similar to Uloma’s simple cut gown. Echi had chosen it herself. Her father was absent in them. Uloma hugged herself then she turned and went into the kitchen.

Her mother was pounding yam in the mortar; the contact of the pestle in the large wooden mortar made hollow sounds. The sticky yam clung to the pestle and she occasionally dipped the end in a bowl of hot water beside her before returning to the task. With each blow she delivered, she grunted and her chest rose and fell. Sweat dripped into the pasty yam. She used the end of her wrapper to wipe her face.

“Now that you’re here,” she said still pounding, “I will feed you with our correct food. Let me see if that your small waist will not look like a woman’s when you go back to your husband.”

On the stove, wisps of steam escaped from a boiling pot filling the air with the aroma of goat meat and spices. Saliva filled Uloma’s mouth. It had been so long since she ate pounded yam and nsala soup which judging by the utazi leaves in a bowl on the table, she knew her mother was preparing yet she stood still by the kitchen door allowing the heat wrap itself around her. She marvelled at the strength with which her mother raised and brought the pestle down into the mortar. She wished she were strong like her. She hated being in the kitchen. Her first kitchen task had been when she was six. Her mother had asked her to grind peppers in the mortar. Uloma had only struck the mortar twice when bits of pepper flew into her eyes. Long after washing her eyes, they stung and for hours her red eyes had been a reminder of the power of a few pepper seeds. Yet her mother had made her return again and again throughout the years to pounding peppers.

“Mummy, where is Akunne? You shouldn’t be doing this,” she said. Akunne was the house girl that had been sent to live with her mother when her father left. That was one period when she had seen her mother weak, lying in bed staring into nothing as if someone had turned off the light in her life and all she could see was darkness.

“I sent her to see her people for a few days. She will return after the Christmas,” she replied between pounds.

She watched her mother for sometime wondering how she had managed it all – the heat, the work, the discovery that her husband of seventeen years had another family, the loneliness when her children had left home – she, to her husband’s house before moving to the States and Echi, to pursue her medical education in a university in the U.S. She wondered how her mother could mourn a man that had chosen his sons over her own children. Uloma wanted to shake her mother, to snap her out of her calm sufferance but a band of failure and shame tightened her throat. It was just too much for her. And then she burst into tears.

She heard the clatter of a pestle on the ground before she felt her mother’s arms around her. She felt like she was going to drown in her tears; they just seemed to be rushing out like a broken dam. Her body trembled against her mother who steered her into her bedroom. Uloma sank into her mother’s bed.

Nne, what is it? Talk to me now,” her mother cajoled rubbing her palm on her back in circular motions the way she would whenever Chimezie launched into a coughing fit. She started to talk but the words fell over each other in a rush and she had to stop. Then she blurted, “Orji is sleeping with another woman.”

She felt her mother’s palm pause at her back then fall away.

“God forbid!” She snapped her fingers in the air and passed it over her head to ward off the evil Uloma had spoken aloud. Uloma wanted to tell her that the action would not stop the evil from entering her home as it had already walked in.

“Are you sure? How do you know? How long?”

“I’ve known for two weeks.”

She told her mother how she had found a parcel in the visitors’ room of their home. It was signed ‘Can’t wait to see you in this, OJ’ in her husband’s handwriting. It turned out to be a set of a lacy red bra and matching panties. Her mother looked at her expecting her to say more but that was all.

“Ehen? Didn’t you ask Orji? He must have got the present for you now,” she finally said.

Uloma shook her head. Her mother did not understand; she never would. She had approached her husband about it and he had told her that it was a surprise gift he had got for her and that she had ruined his surprise. He was smiling as he said it. His left eye was twitching. He pulled her into his arms and began nibbling on her neck. She smelt his sweat in the cool room.

“Mummy, don’t you see? Orji knows that I never wear red. He knows,” she cried.

She remembered when he had asked her why she hated the colour red. They had been sitting in his car parked beside the River Niger watching what seemed like floating clumps of plants swim past them. Some fishermen had just returned in a canoe with a net filled with many quivering fish. The air had been cold and she had been wrapped in Orji’s arms, her head resting on his chest. It was the day he had proposed to her.

“It’s what the other woman liked to wear,” she had replied.

She had met the ‘other’ woman twice, the woman who had borne her father’s sons. The first time she met her, it was her father that had taken her to visit calling her a family friend. Why he had chosen to do that, she would never know. Perhaps it was his way of trying to reconcile his guilt with the family he had wronged. She remembered the way she had marvelled at the plush cushions in the mistress’s sitting room; the way it sank beneath her buttocks unlike the one in their home that refused to yield even when she jumped on it. She remembered that the house had a flowery scent that enticed her and encouraged her to take a short nap on the plush seats. She remembered meeting the woman and her first son, the twins had come two years later. They smelled of baby powder and even though she had just given birth, her cashew nut skin shone with a healthy glow. She had been dressed in a red long gown. Uloma had thought her the most beautiful woman she had ever seen and had played with the baby not knowing that the child was her half brother. Later, she would despise them for making a fool of her. She would come to hate the smell of baby powder and the colour red.

The second time she met the woman was years later when her mother found out. Her mother was livid and there was a fight. The mistress came later in the day to beg for forgiveness, for her mother to accept them into the family. She said that she had been approached by her husband’s mother to give the family sons because her mother was not able to. Her mother had asked her father to choose between both families. She could not bear the thought of the betrayal. That night, her father packed his things and left the house. They had watched him walk away to meet the woman in the red dress.

Her mother looked at her now with a mixture of pity and concern; her brows furrowed. She wanted to ask her mother why she had let her father go just like that, why she had not done something to stop him, why she had stayed back in this house with its pleasant and awful memories but she did not. She was surprised when her mother said, “you want to know why I did not leave Onitsha when you and Echi left.”

Uloma nodded. Her mother sighed. She closed her eyes as if she wanted to shut off the memories and Uloma saw a rueful smile on her face that made her look older. Uloma imagined that she was transported to that year when Uloma was sixteen and Echi, fifteen. It was the period when they took turns sitting on her father’s favourite chair facing the television imagining that he was the one on the chair eating white-yellow garden eggs from the large bowl on the centre table and not playing with the other woman’s children.

“If I had left,” her mother said, “I would have been defeated. Everybody would have thought I had done something bad not the other way round. I had to protect my dignity.”

“But you mourn him like he was a part of this family, like he was there when we needed him,” she cried. It was her father’s weakness that had driven her to a man thirteen years her senior. She had been eighteen when she married Orji. She had wanted to run away, to leave everything about the house with the mismatched settees behind, to embrace a new world where she would not have to watch her mother pretend to be strong. Her father had not been invited for the wedding. He knew about it, had collected her bride price as custom demanded but he had been kind enough to stay away when she told him to. Then Orji had got the job in the States and she had not hesitated to leave Nigeria behind. She left her mother and her sister behind without looking back. Echi had got the admission into school later. Her mother had visited just once after Chimezie’s birth.

“He was this family, nne,” she said looking off into the distance. “No matter what he did, he was this family - your father and my husband. His weakness did not change that. Besides I wanted a home you and Echi could always come back to.”

Uloma wanted to deny it, wanted to pour her soul out to her mother, to tell her that she had felt like a failure when her father walked out; how for years she blamed herself for not fighting the woman when she had the chance, how she blamed her mother for allowing another woman steal him from them, how she felt so weak and ashamed when she left her mother and sister behind. It was why she tried so hard to please Orji, why she put up with his exorbitant sexual drive and even tried to outdo him. Then the parcel had turned up in her home and she found herself back in Onitsha watching her mother staring up at the ceiling like it was made of gold.

“I can’t say if I made the right choices or not but I know that Orji is a good man, nne,” her mother said. “I am not even sure if what you accused him of is true but whatever the problem, think of your son Chimezie and what is best for him. Whatever you decide to do, I will be here waiting for you. Oh?”

She hugged her then left the room. The mirror where Echi played dress-up with her mother’s clothes and her father’s shoes stood facing her, a reminder of years she had kept buried in the deepest part of her heart. It was the same mirror she had stood beside Echi in her wedding dress and wondered if it was a coincidence that her sister had got a similar gown.

She wondered if her mother had ever felt the way she had felt in the past two weeks; if her mother ever imagined her father and the other woman snuggled in together on their bed while she lay on hers alone waiting for morning to come.

Uloma felt the way Chimezie must have felt when he was pressed to the window watching a toy he desperately wanted slip past him. She felt like an outsider peering into a crystal ball where she was watching her life unfold like the petals of a rose flower. She had not told her mother the whole story.

She wondered what her mother would say if she told her that she had found the parcel shortly after Echi’s short visit from school; that she had found it in the room Echi occupied whenever she came to visit, hidden between two leather bound books in her travelling bag where she kept the books she did not need for the semester. And that the set of matching red bra and panties had been in Echi’s exact size.

About The Author

Author

Ifesinachi Okoli is a writer with a self-published novel that was written when she was a teenager. She has several of her short stories published in online journals and anthologies. With a passion for arts and creativity, she hopes to carve a unique niche for herself in the literary world. She was a participant of the British Council Radiophonics’ workshop, the BBC World Service Trust Workshop and the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop. She is currently working on a full length novel alongside pursuing a career in media/brand management. She lives in Nigeria.

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