Chundung didn’t need grammar to know that she was fired. When Aunty Patience gave her those few rolled up notes and made as if she was trying to draw out the air around her, she knew. She went back to the room, picked her gunny sack and was never seen again.
“I don’t even know how I’m going to tell this to your father,” Aunty Patience was talking to her victimized daughter Shalom.
Shalom’s eyes were plastered on her bandaged right hand.
“Kai, I don’t know why we’re not lucky with these house helps. See this one that was at least doing work, she just had to go and be a witch on top,” she rested an open palm on Shalom’s temple.
“It’s okay, Mummy,” Shalom said at last.
“It is well,” Aunty Patience nodded. “Nobody can take away the gift of God.”
Boy G was in the hospital still, admitted for pneumonia, and Aunty Patience needed to be with her little boy. Her husband didn’t know all these things – that Gyang, his son, ill and Shalom, his daughter was almost killed right in her own bedroom. He was still at Bauchi, working on an important project.
“How is Boy G?” Shalom tried to distract her mother’s attention from her bandaged hand.
“He’s getting better now,” Aunty Patience said in a hollow voice. “I think they should discharge him tomorrow or so.”
“Thank God.” Shalom shut her eyes and readjusted her lying position. Her mother thought she needed to sleep so she left her for a while.
Everyone was carrying the story about that Chundung had tried to kill her. Aunty Patience had struck drum beats on the girl, ranting in a loud, outraged voice.
“So you came to this house to kill somebody, ehn? You that everybody is pitying; you that everybody is trying to help,” angry tears had stood in Aunty Patience’s eyes and her voice had been shrill from unnatural anger.
Chundung was crying too, almost without sound, even though her pain had been deathly quiet. After she’d received all the beating Aunty Patience’s scared and heartbroken temper could manage, she’d come into the room she shared with Shalom to gather her few things. Shalom had tried not to look at her, but before she left the older girl touched her on the shoulder and whispered, “sei jeng.” Goodbye.
Shalom hadn’t answered. She’d shut her eyes because for some strange reason, she didn’t want to see Chundung go, but she knew when the door closed between them forever.
When Chundung was first brought to the house by her father four months ago, Shalom had taken to the older girl. Nothing could excite her as much for days to come – Chundung was round and heavy for a seventeen year old, even Aunty Patience said she was more than seventeen, more like twenty-something since these village people didn’t know their age and tended to get younger in their count every succeeding year.
“There’s one girl in my mother’s village then that never got older than fifteen,” Aunty Patience had said.
“How is that possible?” Boy G was also as intrigued as his older sister.
“If you met her one year and she was fourteen, the next year she’d be thirteen, then fourteen again and thirteen again. And if you try to remind her that last year she was fourteen, she’d just laugh and tell you that she forgot and that she was fifteen. It was very funny. I was twelve years old when I noticed that thing and it got to a point that when I was fifteen, the girl was thirteen,” Aunty Patience had laughed at the memory. “It’s very confusing, my dear,” she rubbed her hands over Boy G’s head fondly, “but people like Chundung, one day you’ll be older than her.”
Boy G found it very funny. “I’m eleven years old, Mummy!” he had laughed his custom-version cackle which Shalom hated so much because he got it from an annoying cartoon character.
“Stop laughing like that, old man!” she chided.
“It’s you that’s old woman,” Boy G retaliated in a hardened voice, “you’ll soon be older than Chundung!”
That annoyed her so much she tried to slap him, but he ran away laughing even louder.
“Mummy, tell Gyang o!” she turned to Aunty Patience, pointing an angry index finger in the direction of Boy G’s exit.
It was when she’d tried to ask her over and over and had gotten no response that she came to discover that Chundung spoke neither English nor Hausa. When she’d reported her finding to the rest of the family, only their father wasn’t surprised.
“She’ll learn from you guys,” he said.
“Wahala dey!” Boy G quoted a popular song, putting in some dramatic hip-hop antics that just grated on Shalom’s nerves.
“But nobody speaks Berom in this house,” Shalom had complained.
“Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” the father scoffed. “You better sit down and learn it. You can’t be carrying a Berom name up and down and you don’t even speak the language. If somebody somewhere wants to help you because you’re Berom like them, how will they feel to know that you cannot speak the language?”
Every time her father talked like that, Shalom cast her gaze down – Aunty Patience had taught her that it was rude to look at elders when they were scolding.
He was only around for one weekend from Thursday to Sunday when he brought Chundung to the house. Aunty Patience had been complaining that the housework was becoming overbearing. She ran a beauty salon and her children went to school, somebody had to help around the house. So when her husband had gone to the village to see his parents, he’d asked and his mother had readily offered Chundung; she was a good girl and would do a good job.
As soon as they’d set eyes on her, Shalom and Boy G took to teasing the plump, clueless seventeen year old in over-scrubbed bathroom slippers, her body shining from an excess of petroleum jelly. She’d looked so embarrassed and self-conscious then that Shalom found it hard to believe she didn’t know any Hausa or English; she’d visibly reacted to their verbal mischief.
“Stop it, both of you,” their father had said in a stern voice. “She’s your elder sister now.”
Boy G stuck out his tongue at Shalom. “Daddy, so she’s like the first born now?” he’d asked just to be double sure.
“Yes,” their father had said. “Shalom, she’ll use the extra bed in your room. Take her there.”
That Sunday after Mass, Aunty Patience had taken Chundung to see the priest for a blessing while the rest of the family waited in the car. Father Edward had been kind to the young girl, telling her many things Aunty Patience couldn’t understand because she wasn’t Berom. The girl had never looked so animated since she was brought to them. Father Edward gave her a rosary, which she quickly slid over her head.
“When you go now, how are we going to be talking to this girl?” Aunty Patience had asked her husband, shaking a frustrated head.
Their father had called Chundung and said something in rapid Berom to her, to which she’d nodded and curtsied throughout.
“Don’t worry,” he’d told them. “You’ll learn Berom and she’ll learn English. No more Hausa business in this house, or these children will forget that they’re Berom people.”
That was four months ago. It was Aunty Patience that made the most progress learning Berom because of Chundung.
“Nong meh,” she’d say when she wanted something brought to her and then make demonstrations and signs suggestive of what she was referring to. “Meh simi,” she’d say to indicate she wanted or liked something and “ba meh simi ba,” when she didn’t want something or was displeased by it. Everyone else took after Aunty Patience, limiting their talks to Chundung only to those times it was absolutely necessary.
“You’re trying, abeg,” Blessing, Shalom’s best friend assessed the situation one time.
“There is nothing anybody can do. Daddy is the one that brought her and she doesn’t really have any wahala – she can do all the work without complaining or reporting somebody,” Shalom told the other girl.
“That’s because she doesn’t know how to report yet,” Blessing shrugged. “I’m sure she’s just storing everything until your mother can finish learning Berom!”
Blessing had laughed hard at her own surmise, but Shalom’s young heart couldn’t stop dwelling on the issue. Aunty Patience and Chundung could be said to have developed a kind of friendship. When they made soup in the kitchen, Chundung would tell her madam the name of everything they used in Berom. A basket was shap, pepper was shong’o, palm oil was nyei saran but strangely enough Maggi was still just Maggi. What if her mother was learning fast and the girl would tell her that Shalom didn’t wash the dishes when it was her turn, or that she didn’t sweep the compound Saturday mornings anymore, or that she slid her lunch plates under her bed and left them there for days until Chundung found them, or that she locked herself in the bathroom for hours and wouldn’t open when anyone knocked until she felt like it?
“Haba! Chundung is not like that,” she laughed. But she knew the fear had already clouded everything; there was no conviction in what she said.
Though she didn’t want her parents to find out about all the little infringements of duty she’d been guilty of, she wasn’t so afraid that the very possibility made her do her share of the chores. She dreaded the coming of a day of reckoning and was shocked to discover that it had stolen up on her so fast. She had forgotten her Civic Education assignment at home and had taken permission from the duty master to go back when she caught Chundung doing the unspeakable.
The girl was kneeling at her bedpost, elbows propped on a pillow, eyes shut tight, her rosary in her hands and her lips fluently, accurately saying the Hail Mary in Hausa.
Agaishe ki Mariya, ke da kika sami Alheri, Ubangiji na tare da ke, mai albarka kike cikin mata, abin haihuwan cikinki kuma mai albarka ne Yesu…
Shalom had wanted to interrupt and accuse her of playing dumb around other people when there was a language they could all speak, but she just went straight to the table, picked her notebook and ran back to school. She didn’t have the time just yet. She told Blessing during break time about what she’d seen Chundung doing.
“And are you surprised?” Blessing had spruced up her face in a peculiar expression of something Shalom was sure wasn’t a feeling at all, she must have been practicing a look she’d seen on TV somewhere.
“Why won’t I be surprised? See how Mummy is suffering to talk to this girl fa, and all this time she can even ma speak Hausa. Imagine o,” Shalom was scandalized.
After school, Blessing asked Shalom to wait for her before calling out Chundung on all her lies.
“At least if anyone tries to say that you were lying, I can tell them that I was there,” Blessing reasoned.
But when Shalom returned, Chundung was nowhere to be found. Boy G was on the floor, staring intently at the TV, watching Avatar.
“Do you want to enter inside the television ne?” she said in a bossy voice.
“It’s not your problem,” he answered in an equally strong voice of his own, but went to the couch and bounced on it.
“Ehen, break the chair, cartoon boy,” she scolded some more.
He made a face at her and turned up the volume of the TV.
“They’ll soon start Top Ten Countdown and I’ll change the channel,” she folded her arms and looked at his splayed figure on the couch.
“Ehen? Let them show Top Hundred Countdown now, what’s my own? I’m watching Avatar and they have to finish before anybody can change any channel.” He didn’t even look at her.
They were in the middle of fighting for the remote when Blessing came in.
“Where is Chundung?” Blessing asked.
“She went to the salon to give Mummy lunch,” Boy G answered in a nonchalant voice.
The girls were in Shalom’s room when Chundung came back. They had talked about how they planned to confront her, checking the effect of each possible method, and had moved on to more interesting discussions before she walked in on them – two girls standing in front of the bathroom mirror, chests bared, talking and giggling when a sound by the door caused Shalom to turn and her eyes fell on Chundung’s hard faced expression. They’d quickly grabbed their shirts and clutched them over their budding breasts. Shalom’s heart was thumping in her chest and it seemed like the moment would never end. They stood, two scared thirteen year olds caught staring at their bodies; she stood, the seventeen but most likely twenty-something year old who might or might not know a language she could use to describe what she’d seen.
It was Blessing that broke the spell. She sighed, peeled off her chemise from her shirt and wore it over her head while Chundung stared. Unlike Shalom, her mother hadn’t bought her a bra yet though she kept nagging for one, and unlike Shalom she wasn’t really scared that someone had seen them like that. Shalom was still hugging her shirt to her front when Blessing wore hers and straightened her looks at the mirror.
“Ashe kin iya Hausa.” Blessing had turned to face Chundung, the full force of a serious accusation written all over her face. So you speak Hausa.
Chundung didn’t back down from the look. Her eyes peeled off Blessing and she concentrated a very angry, disappointed expression on Shalom.
“Ba meh simi ba,” she said at last in affronted Berom. “Dagwi wokwon bok!” Lord have mercy!
Before Blessing went back home, she tried to lighten up her friend but Shalom was scared.
“Don’t worry,” Blessing had said. “Even if she reports call me, I’ll explain very well to your mother. And the Chundung ma we’ll start checking her very very well, when we know her boyfriend we’ll make it difficult for her.” She’d laughed.
“Which her boyfriend? The girl doesn’t go anywhere,” Shalom sounded defeated.
“Hah! Is it not her that I didn’t come to meet in this house? You think she went straight to the salon and came back straight home? We need to investigate her. Don’t worry, we’ll find something.” Blessing was unfazed.
Shalom tried to be reassured by everything Blessing had said, but when Aunty Patience came back home, her heart was doing raggedy acoustics. She waited through the rest of the day for her mother to call her and punish her, but nothing of the sort happened. That night, she barely slept; she was up fidgeting while on the bed next to hers Chundung snored. At the crack of dawn, she rushed to Aunty Patience’s door and knocked before they were called for morning rosary.
“I had a bad dream, Mummy,” she explained in a shaky voice. “Chundung was standing close to my head and looking down at me with very big eyes.”
“Holy Ghost fire!” Aunty Patience had exclaimed.
When they’d all gone to school, Aunty Patience had come back from the salon with her friend, Mrs. Bot, and they had driven Chundung to Bukuru for prayers. After school, Shalom came home to the usual scene of Boy G in front of the TV.
“Where’s Chundung?” She’d tried to sound casual.
“I dunno.” He didn’t even look at her.
“Is there food?” she asked.
“Will you eat Indomie?”
“Anything. Whatever,” he answered, trying to mask the hope in his voice.
She did her homework and waited for Aunty Patience to come and explain what happened to Chundung. She’d felt guilty about that lie she told all day, but somehow she knew that she couldn’t recall it. Maybe Chundung hadn’t reported yesterday because she didn’t intend to tell anyone at all, and she’d rushed into spoiling everything with that unnecessary lie.
“I’ve called your father and told him everything,” Aunty Patience said later that night when she came home. “The woman of God told us that Chundung is a witch. She came to this house to kill somebody.”
“She’s a witch?” Boy G’s eyes were round like ripe mangoes.
“Hmm,” Aunty Patience responded. “Your daddy said we should just wait until he comes back. But next tomorrow I’ll go and bring her back home. They’d have finished her deliverance by then.”
Shalom felt a little nauseous with guilt. After the three days had passed, Mrs. Bot accompanied Aunty Patience to bring the girl back home. At first, Boy G teased her, but when their father came home for a short weekend, he ended the whole witchcraft business: it was unfair that people held such low views of poor and underprivileged girls like Chundung. And who was Mrs. Bot, by the way, to offer any commentary or consultation on the matter? Wasn’t she that unkempt woman that insisted on embodying her disgust of earthly things, not caring to notice that she had become disgusting herself? He laughed the whole thing to silence.
Though Shalom often wondered about the time she saw Chundung praying the rosary in Hausa, she couldn’t ask her mother. It wasn’t until Aunty Patience herself asked the girl to lead one time at morning rosary that she got to know that at Chakarum, where Chundung and her father traced their roots, children were taught their prayers in Hausa because many things hadn’t yet been translated into Berom. So though she could say many prayers in the language, Chundung struggled with the simplest Hausa words in spontaneous speech.
This caused fresh tears to stand in her eyes when she was telling Blessing about the new discovery.
“Hmmm,” Blessing had said, as amazed as her friend when she got the gist of it. “Thank God we decided to wait and see before anything fa.”
“Yeah,” Shalom had said slowly. She hadn’t told Blessing about her preemptive little trick.
Chundung had begun to pick a few English words here and there and Boy G’s favorite indoor activity when he wasn’t hoarding the remote was talking to her. He loved to laugh at the way she pronounced her English. Everyone had forgotten the unpleasantness and they were steadily becoming a family again.
Then it happened.
Two weeks ago, Boy G took ill. They all thought it was the usual malaria so Aunty Patience gave him medicine without batting an eyelid. But when after three days of ACT anti-malarial medication, he didn’t get any better, she advised herself and took him to Plateau Specialist Hospital where they wasted no time in giving him a bed. He had acute pneumonia. The whole thing worried Aunty Patience; she was not a careless parent.
It wasn’t until Mrs. Bot came around and reminded her that there was a witch in the house, after all, that she began to have serious fears again. She pestered the doctors and she stayed at Boy G’s bed side as much as she could.
“You know, even after deliverance some of them go back,” Mrs. Bot whispered to her friend outside Boy G’s ward. “And this girl cannot even read. She does not know the word of God.”
Aunty Patience was afraid for Shalom because she had to spend so much time with Chundung. But over the past few weeks she had grown to like the girl. She didn’t believe she was a witch. She was a nice girl. Still, when Mrs. Bot brought her a plastic bottle of “Stop Evil” perfume, she sprayed it all over the house until Chundung sneezed many times.
This Saturday morning lashed the final stroke.
Shalom was undressed from her waist down, and she was leaning her weight on one hand while the other hand held a small mirror with which she was scanning the interior parts of her vagina when Chundung walked in on her. She was so engrossed in spying out the secrets of her body that she didn’t know someone else was in the room until the mirror clattered to the floor and broke into eight different pieces.
It was the first time Chundung had struck her.
She rose to her feet, rattled, and yanking her skirt from where she’d dropped it on her pillow, she quickly wiggled into it.
They stared at each other, neither one sure of what to do or say next, until Chundung picked a piece of the broken mirror and considered it for a moment. Then her eyes flew to Shalom’s face with a searching and desperate confusion.
“Love,” she said, placing both hands on her plump bosom. It was a new English word she had acquired.
Later on, Shalom would always wonder about that moment, about what Chundung had meant and what she had understood; for she had nodded and it had been as though the older girl had passed a secret to her, a secret that was true.
When Chundung had signaled for her hand, she had given it, and she had watched as the girl scraped off the flesh from her fingers, one by one, from her cuticles to her knuckles. When the first started bleeding, she’d squeezed her eyes shut so hard that she saw yellow blazes.
Chundung had started on the thumb of her left hand when Aunty Patience came home. They both heard her call for Chundung. Both went to her, Chundung to see what her madam needed and Shalom to face whatever might come this time, without any lies or tricks. Yes, she’d been caught naked with a mirror, looking at herself down there. When Shalom came into view, Aunty Patience was describing something to Chundung, using all her hand signals and facial expressions in a way that would, under different circumstances, have been funny indeed.
The woman was arrested half-way into demonstrating a motion that could have been the last piece of the puzzle to Chundung when she saw her daughter looking like a washed out ghost. She was about to ask what was the matter when her sight fell on the girl’s flayed fingers.
“Jesus Christ!” she screamed. “What happened? Who did this to you?”
Chundung had tried to explain in rapid Berom but Aunty Patience didn’t want to hear anything. She rushed Shalom to a nearby chemist’s where her hand was properly dressed and bandaged and she was given a TT shot.
Despite what everyone liked to believe about that morning, Shalom knew it wasn’t Chundung’s witch powers that kept her from screaming for help or trying to run away. There was no witchcraft in her offering her fingers to be skinned, they were naughty, errant things that needed to be taught the lesson; it was an abomination to insist on knowing things that have been designed to be secreted away, never seen, never mentioned aloud, never talked about. She wouldn’t be bothering her body anymore.
And when Mrs. Bot came and made Aunty Patience take Shalom to Bukuru for prayers and her prayer warrior spiritual mother had said that Chundung was performing in the open a ritual she failed at in the ether and that it was the “Stop Evil” perfume that had drawn Aunty Patience home to intercept the girl, Shalom was relieved at the woman’s surmise. She had feared that the woman would take one look at her and see the true story, but right then she knew that no one would ever know.