Fiction

A Box of Atonement: A Short Story by Emma Iduma

I

Sonto liked the newness in his veins because it was not every time newness came to him. He could not define it, but he knew he was feeling it, and that he wanted it to last without end.

            Newness began from the door, when he realized that it was his son he had come to see. There was something different about his feeling for his son, he knew, and it came to nothing of importance how the son came. There was a son, however the son came. And that was what he began to meditate on when he was inside. He sat on the creaking chair she had offered. He saw that the chairs had not changed much— if there was any change at all. The same chairs that he had met when he came there for the first time, the time that he had performed the unbecoming act that resulted in the son he came to see. The woman that offered him the chair had also not changed. She wore the same looks that marked her beauty, the same hairstyle— an awkwardly knotted ponytail— that attracted him.

            And she still walked in the same cat-fashion when she came to drop the soft drink that was not cool. She still smiled with half the length of her mouth and she still looked at him in that uncanny, mischievous and exhilarated manner.

            “Why are you bothering? I had something in the office,” he protested against her drink that was not cool.

            “You are not serious. I should apologize that it is not cold. An electric pole fell some weeks ago and there has been no electricity.”

            Her voice was still the same. The voice that had a certain lightness about it. He remembered that it had also drawn him to her. Whilst he drank and remembered, she sat down beside him. And he flinched because she had sat too close. He moved from her and when he looked at her, he saw that she was smiling, in her own élan.

            “Tell me, how is your work?”

            “Fine.”

            “Just ‘fine’?”

            “Yes.”

He saw that she had not expected his monosyllabic replies; that she wanted details.

            “There is nothing to say about my work. You know everything.”

            “Everything? I know nothing. I have stopped wanting to know.”

He saw that she had become lost somewhere and he guessed that it was in the sea that existed within her, a sea that she could only swim.

            “Tell me what you are thinking,” he said.

            “I am thinking about you. When are you going to get married? I don’t really want to know. I am just curious.”

            He felt ashamed, in some way, that it was her that asked. Her, to whom he had once bestowed love. Her, to whom he had once sworn ‘till death do me part.’ And now she was the one asking for when he was going to get married.

            “Why do you ask?”

            “Curiosity.”

            “I once married. It did not end well.”

She recoiled to her sea again. He did not feel happy that she was feeling remorse; he hated the fact that she had recoiled, somewhat away from his grasp.

            “You gave me no reason. You just took him and left. We never quarreled, never had a fight. Yet, you left. And now you ask me when I would get married. Again.”

            She remained in her sea.

The sound of the returning bus aroused them both. And he remembered his purpose—to see his son. It was Monday, his ritual-day for visiting his son. His ritual-day for seeing the woman who said single parenting was better. And who never said whether she still loved him, or whether love had made her marry him.

            The dirt-smell of his son dispelled every other presence. The son jumbled into the father and they both existed alone, together.

***

He began to find love elsewhere, and not where he expected. She was still in Law School and she said she was unready for anything called marriage. She said she loved him, especially his perceivable diligence, but she was unready. He said he would wait for her to even start practicing her law, she said he should not bother. She did not know if she would be ready, then.

            “When are you going to be ready, then?”

            “When I understand the workings of love. Its mannerisms.”

He was at her single-room apartment building, where she hung enlarged photographs of nearly all the political women he had known. She even had a copy of Mona Lisa, and she wrote beneath it:
FOR GIVING ME THE INSPIRATION TO NEVER SMILE.

            “You are trying to understand nothing. Don’t be foolish. Do you think I am a brute? Do you think I would make you a punching machine? I love you. I have never loved anyone more.”

            She took long seconds in looking at him. She even touched his chin gently. Her looking was the reverse of his ex-wife’s; hard, piercing and within its range, determined.

            “Love is not white,” she said, not facing him.

            “What do you mean?” he did not understand.

            “I cannot trust love. I cannot trust your love,” she hesitantly replied.

That was when he turned away from her room. Though still loving her, he was having a hot madness in him. But he knew she had said the rampant truth; there was so many loves that could not be trusted. And he began to fear if his could be trusted. And he began to ask why his ex-wife would leave if she trusted his love.

***

The two men, Sonto and Adisa, laughed with no gauge.

            “My God, I would not believe this,” Sonto said with regained sensibility, away from the distraction the laughter permitted.

            “You don’t need to. I saw it all these years. They have always been tribal. They should have done this many years ago.”

            They reflected on the truth. There were so many things, they knew, that came between reality and falsehood. This one was the divergence in the tribes in their workplace. There were also the effects of that divergence.

            “I see betterment,” Adisa said. That was the poetic endearment in him—when his head tilted above in sudden reflection and ponder. And that was what Sonto liked. He liked the poetry, the ability to become deeper.

            “What betterment?”

            “This whole mess would end. There would be appointments by merit, not by knowledge of one fat boss somewhere. Just like it has happened for you, my man.”

            “Mine is no promotion. Just an award. Story writer of the year is no promotion. There is not even any money. Just a plaque.”

            They laughed again, and without gauge.

When their no-gauge laughter was finally ended, Sonto was in his car, a red outdated Chevrolet that whined at slighted touches for movement. He sped away, oblivious of his cars’ condition, aware of his destination. To save petrol, he would switch the engine off and let the car roll. There was no deterring, though. And even though the movement was a risk, now that he could queue and queue and get no petrol, he was dogged to make the movement to his destination.

            His destination had a closed door and an absent hostess. He stamped his foot, he chewed his gums in disgust, and he even called her name in frustration. There was still the closed door staring at his face.

            He went to the next door and knocked. A sleepy feminine voice responded. There was considerable time between when he knocked and when the feminine face emerged. She was clad in her negligee, and facially painted with ointments that would relieve the acne and giant pimples that corroded her outlook.

            “Good evening,” the gruff voice said.

            “Please, I am very sorry to disturb you—”

            “Don’t worry. What do you want?”

            “Do you know where Sisi went to?”

            “She left very early this morning. She didn’t say.”

            “Thank you.”

The sleepy figure nodded and disappeared.

His rest became the stony concrete frontage of his absent hostess. He lay there, not understanding his zest for her, not understanding what love had become for him. Yet, he liked the concrete for two reasons. One, he was aware of the pain from it that relayed the pain she made him feel. Two, sleep had met him there and he wanted to sleep. So he slept.

            There was nothing spectacular about the return of his hostess. There was only a song, Satan You Cannot Have My Life, which he heard faintly. In his transposition from sleepiness to awakening, he thought she was saying ‘Sonto You Cannot Have My Life.’ So he awoke with the mad feeling in himself.

            “Sonto!” she gasped, almost like a chant. “What are you doing here? Why did you lie like that?”

            “I was waiting for you. I wanted to share some news.”

            “Whatever that news was, it could wait till tomorrow.”

            “And you do not bother how long I have been waiting? You did not bother that I spent petrol to come here? What do you bother about? What is in your head?”

            He did not mind if he was screaming or not. He saw that she was mute when he screamed. Then she found her key and pushed the door open. He followed her inside and he put his leg on the wall like the boss he was not. He watched her sit on the bed and cover her head with her hands.

            “Tell me, what do you bother about? I have tried to make you bother about love, about something as honorable as it, and you have refused. Surely, you bother about something. Tell me.”

            “Can I have some rest? I have had a long day.”

He became madder; angry at her flimsiness, frustrated at her listlessness.

            “Don’t you care how much I love you? Are you human?”

            “I need some rest. You are packing so many things into my head. I need rest. I need you to leave, please.”

            That was where surprise became part of the drama.

            “What did you say?”

            “You need to leave, please.”

            “It is almost midnight and you say I should leave? I came here to see you, to tell you that I have received an award, to invite you for the award night, and you say I should leave? Why are you inhuman?”

            “Please, Sonto. You cannot sleep in this room. I cannot sleep on a bed with a man I am not married to. I am a Christian. You know, don’t you?”

            That was the part of the unfolding that he termed dumbness and inertia. He could not speak and he could walk away from her room.

In the end, daylight met him asleep in his car.

In the end, also, there was no lady on his table in the award night. Then, he knew; he existed in a pair—himself and his son.

***

He saw her before she entered his office. So he comported himself, trying to conceal his exhilaration that she had come. He saw her gait. He identified a certain conquered submissiveness about it. She entered whilst he still dwelt on the submissive conquer.

            She sat down quietly and did not look at him. Her hands moved nervously and she stared without focus.

            “Sisi,” he intoned, forgiving her that instant for her absence at the award night and his sleeping in his car. He asked himself if love did not require forgiveness.

            “I have agreed. I agree to marry you,” she said.

His next disposition was loss of senses. She looked at him that instant and he saw that after all, she had no rigidity in her gaze. There was the needfulness, the wanting. He wanted to call it love and he could not.

            “Do you love me?” he asked her because he wanted to name her acceptance. But she took many seconds, even minutes, in responding.

            “You are too concerned about love. I decided to agree when I saw your face that night I asked you to leave.”

            “Do you think you love me? Do you think you can trust me?”

            “I have said I would marry you. Is that not enough? Are you trying to test your skills as a journalist?”

            She laughed at her joke. It was no joke for him because there had been a female who said yes to his proposal and would not stay.

He quivered and quavered on the seat that she had left. He held the letter and hissed and hissed and sighed. He thought about its contents and the newness it mandated. He also thought about her and her acceptance. Then, he began to think of the two themes—the letter and the woman.

            Another paper was folded atop the other. Not exactly as conventional as the first, it was from Adisa. He unfolded it and read again because maybe it could make him think better about the two themes—the letter and the woman.

                        Sonto,

            I told you there would be betterment. I also told you things would change. But I did not tell you how important it is that you become a hero. So I am telling it to you now, be a hero. And the North is just one place to be a hero. I cannot face you and say this. I have no guts. You have guts.

                        Adisa.

In the end, he bowed his head on his table and was unable to think about the two themes—the letter and the woman.

II

It is the next day after he heard about his promotion as North Bureau chief of the newspaper he works for. He is driving his old Chevrolet and it is not a problem of petrol anymore. It is already evening and he wants to reach her house in time so that he would not think of sleeping there. He remembers the last embarrassment not with a smile.

            He has finally parked his old Chevrolet and he is knocking at her door. She opens and he looks at her as she looks at him. He sees that she has become younger and that her age seems like an unending flowing stream and that she is without wrinkles of any kind. She lets him in after their looking is over and silence ensues between them.

            “How are you?” it is her that asks and he begins to understand that there is something that can bother her, that she is really human.

            “I am fine.”

            “You are disturbed.”

            “Why do you say so?”

            “I am not usually the starter of the conversation.”

She laughs at what she thinks is a yarn. He does not laugh because he knows it is a fact. With his no-laughter, she comes to where he is sitting on a chair in her room and sits beside him, rubbing his head with gentility.

            “What is wrong?”

He takes his time calculating the words that would be best to use.

            “I have been reassigned to the North. I am now North Bureau Chief.”

She takes her time in swallowing his missal. It is a missal because she gets up and packs her whole garment of hair backwards. She moves up from beside him and goes to her bed and sits. She stares away from him.

            “You see why I said love is not white? You can never predict it. What do you want to do?”

            “That is what I do not know.”

They continue in their silent dialogue, if there was any dialogue.

            “I cannot marry you if you chose to go to the north. I cannot live in the north. There is too much danger.”

            He understands at this point—it is a choice. The choice between the two themes.

            “I want to go to the north. And I want to marry you.”

            “You cannot have both. They hate you and that is why they want you there. They know you would write something that shows you are angry with religious extremism. I cannot place my life on a risk.”

            “I want to go to the north.”

            “Then forget about me.”

He stands and makes his way for his car. He does not look at her and he knows she is not looking at him. He does not know why he made the choice and he does not want to remember the letter Adisa gave him.

            “Do you want to sleep here? I can make a bed for you on the floor.”

He turns to her and nods in the negative. He cannot sleep in her room with the knowledge that she chose pleasure above his love and the pain it might bring.

***

In the north, he has a big office with big furniture and a working telephone. He has already stayed for two months and he has started to forget about her. But he has not seen his son for many months and he is beginning to think that fatherhood would punish him.

He is knocking on the door that belongs to his ex-wife. When she opens, she gasps and he is already noticing something different. He enters, and it is not the usual chairs that he sees. There are more beautiful ones and he also sees a wedding picture. Not the one that was photographed when she entered the marriage she did not stay in. It was a newer one.

            “Sonto,” she said, with a tint of resignation in her voice. There was not the usual liveliness.

            “Ada, you are married.”

His reply was intoned, whispered. He does not have any spectacular feeling, not anger, not hate, not exhilaration. She does not reply.

            “You said you never wanted marriage. And you have married. Did I not love you enough? Did I ever show you I was not trustworthy?”

            “I never said I did not want marriage. We are no longer married. I have a right to get married if I want.”

            “Where is my son?”

She says he is with a relative of hers in another part of the town and he walks away because he has no more strength to argue.

A hotel is where he takes residence that night. Then he calls Adisa to tell him he is in town. He sleeps early because he would take his son and return to the north the next day, where he would be far away from the Herculean invention called marriage.

***

Her casual entry as he holds his hotel door reminds of when she said yes to his proposal.

            “Sisi! How did you find me here?”

            “I asked Adisa. I have been trying to get to you. Adisa said your phone was disconnected. I want to apologize.”

            “For what?”

That is where she is dumb.

            “Why do you want to apologize?”

            “I don’t know. I feel I have wronged you, that I have done something bad. I cannot say what it is. I think it is because I showed reluctance. I don’t know.”

            “Would you come with me?”

            “Is there any other option?”

            “No.”

            “I don’t know.”

            “Tell me what you know.”

She sits down on his hotel bed. There is a petrified insolence about her sitting.

            “I know how unsafe the North is. They are doing Jihad. They are killing Christians. You are a Christian. I saw what you wrote against them. I heard they burnt your Bureau office because of it. They can kill you. They can do anything for their god.”

            He is shushed until her words end.

            “I would still go back there. I cannot leave when it is hottest there. It would be cowardice.”

            “You chose heroism to love, eh?”

He begins to pack his baggage. He wants her words to leave him. She has started sniffing, as if in an appeal.

            And he walks out of the hotel room, away to his son. She has stopped sniffing. She is out of the hotel room when he closes the door and withdraws its key. And she does not have any utterance. When they leave the hotel-room door, there is pace between her and him. He thinks she is walking away from heroism and that he is walking away from love.

***

Where he has now been reassigned to is Kaduna, another part of Northern Nigeria.

            He is walking with his son on the dusty road, parched and devoid of greenness.

            “Where are we going?” his son inquires.

            “The post office.”

            “What are we going to do in a post office?”

            “I want to send a letter.”

The letter he has addressed is to Adisa. But there is another letter in the envelope that contains Adisa’s letter. It is for her, the one that defied heroism. It is unfussy and it reads,

                                                Sisi,

                                    Would you ever forgive me?

                                                Sonto.

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