Fiction

Stifling Embrace: Fiction by Jennifer Mbunabo

Pixabay.com

Pixabay.com

A mountain of dark clouds descended upon the horizon, its crevices gleaming with a golden sheen. Heaven seemed so close to earth. Shadowed leaves on pendulous branches of coconut trees wavered beside towering houses. Tendrils of the bougainvillea and creeping plants spiralled the moist trunks of the felled trees that lined both sides of a loamy narrow path, leading to Kiru’s hut; the hut with a pointed thatch roof and clay walls. It stood, elevated from the white sand by carved pillars. Polished mahogany banisters accompanied the wooden staircase to its glass doors. Its wide zinc eaves gave shade to a balcony around it, floored with planks. And at its four edges, clay planters sprout fresh fern flowers. The choppy ocean opposite glittered, bursting ripples and encircling a horde of feet on its shores. At the right and left end of the shore stood a row of sheds bulwarked by short bamboo poles with a netting of palm fronds between them. Peals of laughter rose to a crescendo from the shed where a group of men sat in a semi-circle downing palm wine and spooning steamy pepper soup. Clattering plates rang out from another shed, where complete families; the young and aged ate with relish, talking in low tones as spoons scooped rice from plates. Others munched Ofada rice from banana leaves and the rest ate nkwobi holding their calabashes to their mouths. The lights flickered and iridescent bulbs dangled. There was a frenzy of activity as some people rode on horses and kids ran across the tents, their parents’ warning trailing behind them. The air held an alloy of different aromas; the ocean, breeze, food, drinks, roast meat and perfumes. Some people lay prostrate watching the sky in all its beauty. Photographers stooped, taking pictures. Another section had a cast of musicians shooting videos. Loud music and noise screamed in the air. The security man stood with a broad smile, opening and closing the gates as his hands were more than often loaded with benefits.

 

Kiru lay on the string bed, cuddled in a wrapper watching a movie in the elevated hut. The room was cold and the split AC intensified it. She was too engrossed in the movie to walk across the vaulted room and pick up the remote laden on the dressing table. She laughed and threw into her mouth thimbles of fried groundnuts. The movie seemingly provoked laughter but that alone did not account for the happiness she exuded. The Coco Beach did. After many court battles, she had it to herself, all of it. Her father had willed it to her before his demise. After his burial, the family contested the Will. Her father was a wealthy Ijebu man who had the liberty to marry as many wives as he possibly could and disperse mistresses round his numerous houses. He had five wives, three mistresses and a band of twenty five children, including the illegitimate ones. Fifteen lived in the main house, the others were scattered. She did not know all her siblings. Her mother was Ibo and had three children. She was his first wife. When Kiru was younger, she had asked her mother why she did not sue her father for bigamy. Her mother had said, “Bigamy does not work here. This is Nigeria. Many of the Judges are polygamous.” The house never knew lack for her father provided everything. There was food, clothing and money. Only peace was lacking in the great abundance of jealousy and spite. The wives fought one another and instigated their children to do same. The spite heightened whenever her father requested his meals from only one wife for two weeks. He transferred the affection too on the wife’s children. When Kiru was a child, she followed her father everywhere; to the beach, Owambe parties and fuelled his desire to buy the Coco Beach from its initial owners. When her father acquired the beach, she helped him manage it. She loved the coolness of the milieu. It was a place of repose from the academic work and the war front at home. She put her mind into the business of managing and worked tirelessly with her father till they fell out on each other a few years before he died. Her mother tried to make peace between them but Kiru never budged. Her stubbornness was too great. She did not visit him in the hospital after he slumped in his Ikoyi mansion and did not attend his burial. She travelled to the States and told her mother and the relatives who questioned her that she was unable to get a ticket on time. The Will was read and her father willed the Coco Beach to her, she was told. There would not have been a better person to manage it because she loved it even more than the profits it generated. She concluded that he obviously wanted to make peace with her in his death. She could not have refused it, even if she wanted to. It would be a source of livelihood for her. It would secure Coco’s future – her daughter, the reason for the estrangement from her father. The reason she could not forgive him years ago, even after his death. She looked across the room. There, beneath the dressing table she had cried and bruised. Her eyes soaked and her face swelled. She smiled ruefully as she remembered. Did he feel guilty? If he did, he very well concealed it. Was that the reason he willed it to her? Nobody knew. Her blood induced him or perhaps he felt he owed it to his blood. She remembered the night vividly. This time she did not feel shame. She did not feel the hurt she felt many years ago.

 

Pat and Kiru did not need to meet for the first time in a formal gathering. They had known each other since childhood. Their fathers were partners in a conglomerate on Broad Street in Lagos, and so every weekend after the close of Sunday service, Kiru’s father would drive his family, his only wife and three daughters at the time, to Pat’s father’s place, who on the other hand had a wife and three sons. It was perfect, as the children would play on the balcony, throwing balls and riding bicycles. The following week would be Kiru’s family’s turn to reciprocate the gesture. This ritual stopped when her father married his other wives and the children grew into adolescents. Pat was in his fourth year in medical school and Kiru had just graduated from secondary school when she became conscious of his masculinity.  When he appeared before her doorstep that cold harmattan morning, she nearly wet herself. He was not the boy she had always thought him to be even when he was four years older than she was. Her eyes ran down his neatly ironed short sleeve shirt. His cologne, fresh and light with a tinge of cockiness saturated the ambience and suffocated the aroma of the food she was microwaving. He had developed a mustache and his sideburns were carved with such accuracy and attention to detail that it was impossible to not notice. What she saw standing in front of her was not the scruffy boy that used to play about in his underpants hanging low and shirt stained with oil from the food he ate. What stood in her presence was someone aware of himself. They stared at each other for a long time.  He was taking in all of her because she had changed too. She donned a knee length sleeveless yellow gown that accentuated her trim waist and voluptuous hips. Her chubby cheek had been suppressed and a molded chiseled arc of smooth cheekbones stood in its place. Her rounded face had grown oval diminishing that cheeky look typical of children.  And she had in place of her usual matted hair, a wavy weave that fell on her shoulders, the side fringe covering her left eye, which she spasmodically tucked behind her ears every now and then. She had bloomed in a few years, discarding her lanky stature. He must have been surprised because he opened his mouth for a while then told her she looked really nice. She always seemed to be the quiet one, even though she was the youngest of her mother’s children. But why had she refused to reveal the identity of the baby’s father? They exchanged numbers and visits and an unsoiled friendship began. They developed a forbidden likeness, afraid to display it publicly. There was the affection of best friends and the care for a sibling. It could have been mistaken for romance between two lovers. But in the real sense, it was affection between two friends that denied whatever feeling that might have surfaced or was buried beneath their consciousness. After a few years they were both still submerged in their own deceit, afraid of what may have developed between them and afraid to reach out to it. They lived different lives, separate from each other yet connected in an uncanny fashion. Pat had romantic relationships but remained a best friend and strong fortitude for Kiru. Kiru could ask of nothing more because he performed the duties of a father to Coco. And Coco’s first words were directed at him. She had called him ‘dad’. The only secret Kiru kept was the identity of Coco’s father. Over the years she worried that Pat even though accepted the responsibility with gladness, was entitled to know. He was entitled to know the person whose responsibility he had taken upon his shoulders. But she did not tell him, even when they became lovers.

 

Kiru lifted herself from the bed to the dressing table, picked the remote and turned down the volume of the Television. She ambled to the balcony and held the railings, admiring the beauty of the earth, the long marching procession of the undulating clouds brushing past each other and the croaking thunder ripping the tanned leaves off the slender branches of the pawpaw tree into shreds, floating in the air, falling on the sands. Kiru’s ears twitched at the crispiness of the trampled leaves as men and women hurried to their various routes, jostling and rubbing their flanks against each other. She squinted at the sight of the dim spark of lightning that interrupted a section of the procession and the smell of scorching dry loamy soil diffused with drops of rain wafted through her nose.

At a certain time, reflection was the only luxury she could afford. What would have happened if Pat had not walked back to her life? She may have turned out a Sadist or mutated to an abnormal being. She remembered when Coco took her first steps in Pat’s apartment. They had been there for a month. His apartment was her second home. On that morning, Kiru was in the kitchen making pap when she heard the constant tumbling of toys. She called out to Pat and when she got no response, walked into the bedroom only to see Pat’s fingers on his lips hushing her to be quiet. Her eyes trailed his to Coco lifting one leg after the other. Kiru tried hard not to scream, so as not to scare her child. She smiled in gratitude, happy that Pat recorded this.

Thinking of Coco, Kiru gripped the balcony. She had not seen her since she had lunch after returning from school. Pat had dashed off with her. She may be on the horse. Coco loved to ride horses especially her favourite, Whitey. Kiru stood for a while till she saw Coco leaning on Whitey and Pat’s arms firmly around her. Her throat constricted, but then again relaxed. After all these years, she should not be feeling this way. He is a responsible man that loves her and her daughter. Yes, she was sure, almost certain of his love for her. It must be really deep for him to transfer the love to her daughter. But her own father loved her too, even this much and more, but still hurt her, still violated her. Could the pure love have culminated into epic love? Was it possible for agape love to grow so much to the point of being satisfied in bed? Was that the climax of true love between a father and child? Well, maybe her case was different. She shrugged. She had watched Pat on numerous occasions and he had never done anything inappropriate. To be sure, she had taught Coco to recite and identify the names of her body parts.

Pat saw the glimmer in Kiru’s eyes and smiled. The day Kiru turned 24 and Coco 7, he had asked her to marry him. They were sitting on the shore admiring the glistening ocean. He did not know how to start. He did not know if she would say yes. They were not dating officially. She was not exclusively his. It was more like an open relationship. They were free to see anyone they wanted. He started out with younger ladies and then switched to older ones. He could not find satisfaction. But whenever he came to Kiru’s house and she let him take all of her, he got satisfied. She was not experienced or knew all the remarkable styles and positions. But whatever her body came forth with was enough for him. After years of reflection, he decided she was the right one for him. He wanted to officially adopt Coco, wanted her to bear his last name and drop her mother’s maiden name. He did not care anymore that she had refused to reveal the identity of Coco’s father. For all the world knew, he was her father. While all these thoughts seeped through his mind, he made a conscious effort to remove every doubt.

“Will you marry me?” He asked.

“Are you sure about this?” was her reply.

Why in the world would she ask this? Couldn’t she just say yes like every normal lady?

“Don’t you want to spend the rest of your life with me?”

Kiru knew she could not avoid this. But what about Coco? She did not want to change her last name. She did not want Coco to rely on any man throughout her life time. She wanted to set an example. She wanted to be free and not committed to any man. And then again she thought of all Pat had done for them. He deserved a ‘yes’ from her.

“Yes. But I want a Court wedding. Small and quiet.”

“I know.”

No family members. Just a few friends. That was how Kiru wanted it. That was what she got. After a year, Kiru wasn’t ready to have a child with him. Pat waited. He prayed and hoped. Little did he know that Kiru was on birth control. She did not want to carry a child. It was not because she feared that she would go out of shape. She had not quite decided on what really troubled her soul. She was ambivalent about having his child.

 

Two years into their marriage, and Pat had come to terms with the fact that he could no longer stand their boring sex life. When they engaged in petting she was never stimulated, never wet and so could not thrust it in for fear of friction and injury. His friends recommended some runs girls but he continued to decline the invitations. He could not bring himself to pay for sex. He could not go to a Counselor also because Kiru would never approve. All she seemed to care about was Coco. Coco this…. Coco that. She prepared his meal, did his laundry all right. But at night, she never did it right. And because he was ashamed of condescending to a whore he resorted to masturbation and pornography. At least they made him come. He kept up the show.

 

Kiru walked back into the room, increased the volume of the Television and closed her eyes. She heard the familiar swooshing of water. Could there be another whale washed ashore? The constant jubilation relaxed her nerves, reminding her it was all normal. Too much fighting had turned the slightest indication of merriment into a cause for alarm. But then again she heard the ripples and then calm. Everything became silent. Was it all in her head? Was she going berserk, or were all these things really taking place? She turned down the volume of the Television. Then she realized it was neither her head nor the sound of the Television. There was a real life situation. Her hut had begun to shake. She could literally feel the bamboo sticks supporting the hut sink in. She ambled to the balcony and felt the splashes of salt water on her face and the itchiness it caused. Her eyes could not stand the ruin that stood in place of her bliss. In the moment of briefness the water had left the ocean and was running, chasing the customers; the folks that laughed a while ago. The water ambushed and carried struggling bodies to the ocean and floated the ones that had given up. She held on to the railings. The labour pains she went through during the birth of Coco tormented her. Splashes of images carrying Coco’s smile splattered her memory. Where could she be? The last she knew, Coco was riding Whitey with Pat. Pat would keep her safe. He was her angel. He had always kept her safe. The thought of something terrible happening to Coco drained the strength in her. But she struggled to live, to fight to be alive for Coco. The water gushed towards her. Kiru lifted her gown and upon realizing that the weight could pull her back, took it off completely. She was supposed to call the Government. She dialled her phone but the emergency number was unavailable. She wanted to believe that the Security man had done that already. She wanted to believe that the Lagos Government already knew what was happening and was coming with help. She wanted to believe in anything that would give her hope.

 

Pat saw the water running towards him before he fell. He heard the scream of anguish in the tears of Coco as she struggled to swim, to be alive, to catch up with him. He was running for safety, telling himself that he was running to clear the coast for Coco, to discover dry ground, to see what remained of Kiru’s hut. But he was running towards the gate. When he saw nothing was left of the hut he decided to run back and fetch Coco. As he ran, the water galloped behind him. Back and forth it collided, reinforcing itself to drown more people. He saw Coco swim and struggle to stay afloat. He felt a gripping hand beside him, gasping for breath. He took a second glance at the hand and concluded it was alright to steal his life jacket because he was out of danger.  He swam towards Coco, pushing away the flashes of the past, the unconditional love a mother had for a daughter, the fact that Coco inadvertently stole Kiru’s affection. He tried to stifle it, the rage of jealousy, by focusing on the issue at hand and he did not see the water come. He did not see it swallowing the life he came back to save. He was consumed by the thought of regaining all of Kiru’s love. He wanted to be the only love of her life. He wanted to share a baby with her, wanted to be the only one to fix her life. He wanted so many things.  Just so she would feel indebted and be loyal to him. In that moment, he realized he didn’t want Coco in their lives. He opened his eyes to the reality; Coco, crying out to him. “Dad, save me!” He saw her but did nothing. He told himself he could do nothing, the margin was wide and the ocean had wrapped itself around her, but he knew deep inside that if he hadn’t lent time to the flashbacks and imaginations, if he hadn’t entertained all the horrendous thoughts, Coco would have been saved.

 

He woke up on moist white sand, with faces peering above him. Kiru had given him the kiss of life. And her sad eyes asked of only one thing. Coco. Her eyes blamed and questioned him. Why didn’t he save her? He said he was too late. She believed him. He was incapable of hurting her little girl.

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Image: Pixabay.com

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