Henna
Image by Madhurima Handa from Pixabay

Abdulquadri Saka-Bolanta: Hmmm

“Everyone in the room is battling a tear. Their wet eyes are poring over me, digging deep into my skin…”

Atanda and I are sitting side by side on my three-seater couch, listening to a piece of syrupy music on my stereo cassette deck. My skin is crawling at the song’s sleep-inducing rhythm, and I slide into his arm for an embrace.

“What do you say we get married now?” Atanda asks pulling me closer to himself.

“Hmmm,” I hum.

I knew he was going to ask me to marry him, again. He has been about it in his subtle, unobtrusive manner for some time now. Just the other day, he called me ‘my wife’ while complimenting my new hairstyle and mentioned in passing earlier today that, ‘this is how it would be every day when we are married,’ the minute I rested my head on his lap.  It couldn’t have been more than six months ago that I requested some time to think over his first proposal. Now, he’s here with another.

“Don’t you wish we got married soon?” he pesters.

I position my head on his chest, rub my palm on his flat stomach and again reply, “Hmmm.”

There is something about that guttural, uninflected sound that posits me on no particular side of the argument. It is as if I agree with nothing and everything at the same time.

“You’re not quite serious with me in this relationship,” he says, breaking off our embrace. “What’s the point in all of this if we do not get to be together…do you even love me?”

Growing concern spreads across his face and I stare at him. My lips twitch. I realize my little trick to avoid a definite reply would hold no further and I rummage my mind for an answer—any answer to keep him reassured without falsifying how I truly feel. But when I finally speak, again it is guttural and uninflected: “Hmmm.”

Atanda bolts from the couch and makes for the door. I hurry after him.

“Please give me some more time to think this over,” I plead.

“More time? It has been over seven months now since you’ve been thinking about whether or not to be my wife and now you’re asking for more time?”

“I’m sorry. I don’t know it’s been that long. Will you at least stay the night and let’s talk this over?”

“Oh, I get it,” he says, “all you want from me is to keep you warm, isn’t it?” He stands at the threshold and gives me a long dismal stare before walking out of the room. The door slams shut at his heels.

I slump on the couch and imagine how lonely my evening is about to become.

It is true what he said, that I want him to keep me warm. Perhaps not always, but at least, tonight because it is cold and about to rain and because the music has set me in the mood. However, it is not for this reason only that I spend time with him.

Atanda is every woman’s dream—he’s brilliant, jovial, fit and rich—and I am not an exception. He is handsome too–save for his occiput that is a tad elongated—and there is no one I would rather spend my time with other than him. However, not marriage-like. I never truly understand why people enforce compulsory cohabitation on one another in the name of love. I’ve always wondered how couples including my parents cope with their differences; how they could resign to just one another; and how they must struggle on a daily basis not to renege on sacred vows. It’s an embodiment of responsibilities, one I’m particularly not interested in shouldering.

The music from the deck plays on and its lyrics echo in my mind.

After a while, I retire to my bed with a pillow tucked between my arms and chest. I lay tossing and turning, fantasizing an ideal Friday evening where Atanda was still here fondling my hair and caressing my earlobe as I call at him softly, almost like a whisper, until I fall asleep.

II

Something is humming at a distance. I can hear it whirring within my head, ramming against my skull. It stops and then picks up again determinedly and I groan awake. Then I see it: my phone, buzzing on the bedside stool at an incoming call from an unknown number.

I assume who the caller is and answer, “Hello, Atanda.”

A barrage of pleasantries pelts my ear from the person on the other end of the phone and my head throbs at the disappointing voice of the caller—Mama. She always calls either too early or too late; she believes whatever conversation a person has in the dead of night sticks better on the mind. And I wonder what it is she wants to talk about now.

“Mama, it’s late, why have you called?” I ask, after grumbling a few replies to her greetings. “And what time is it please?”

“It’s good news my dear. It’s only a few minutes past twelve.”

“Midnight, mama?”

“Yes. I didn’t know it’s that late until you answered the phone.”

“I didn’t pick up on the first ring mama. Anyway, why have you called? I need to go back to sleep.”

“I call to tell you about my new phone number, this one that I am calling you with right now. Every recharge comes with lots of awuff and—”

“Mama!” I snap, “Is this why you truly called?”

“No, my dear,” she pauses. “I call to tell you that Sabitu is getting married later today.”

“Sabitu? Who is Sabitu?”

“It’s your father’s half-sister’s daughter’s daughter.”

“Ah. What has this got to do with me, mama? I don’t even know her.”

“I’m sure you’ll get the chance when the sun rises.”

“But—”

“Your father and I also want to see you.”

“It’s a bit of a short notice.”

“Then I suggest you book a flight after this call.” She sounds tense and authoritative.

“Mama is everyth—”

“Everything is fine. Come tomorrow, we’ll be expecting you at 10.” She terminates the call.

It’s unlike mama to end a phone call without having made a succession of prayers and whined about how time is no longer on my side at twenty-three. Like Atanda, she has been persistent with talks of matrimony of late and now that she hangs up abruptly, I cannot help but think that something is wrong.

I try to call her back but the machine says her number is switched off. Then, I go back to sleep.

III

It is believed that a woman’s childbearing age runs out quickly like salt through a caster.  And so, it is an extant tradition that young ladies marry early among my people. Once a woman has reached the age of twenty, her countdown has begun. At this age, she is expected to have entered a relationship with a ready-man—a man who is usually far older than her, employed, financially stable, and also willing to get married soon.

I was in my second year at the university when Mama first asked if I had a boyfriend. I told her that I wasn’t in any relationship yet, but that there was a boy who was showing interest in me.

Mama told me not to entertain boys, that the chance of things ever working out with them is thin. ‘They are spontaneous, young and full of exuberance,’ she said, and encouraged me to be welcoming to ready-men.

In my second year at the university, she matchmade me with Tobi, a thirty-five-year-old medical doctor. At the time, Biomedical Engineering was proving to be a tough choice for me and my priority was to salvage my dwindling grades. So, I shunned him. But Mama took this as mere disinterest on my part. She said I probably didn’t like him because he was hairy and then matchmade me with another ready-man—Aminu—that same year. Meanwhile, I was nineteen years old.

Aminu was a thirty-two-year-old accountant whom I entertained for a while. He was quite smart, however overbearing. He often made interjections such as, when I was your age at my every attempt to establish an argument with him. And when I told mama about it, she was unfazed; she said, ‘that’s what men are.’

I realized then that to be in a relationship meant to submit to another person’s will at the expense of mine and put up with inconveniences in the name of love. I told mama that I did not subscribe to that idea and she replied that I better do, if I cared to secure my future. By this, I thought she meant becoming successful. Yet, now, even as a certified engineer, I was still deemed incomplete in her eyes.

IV

I arrive at my family house to a convivial gathering of distant relations and forgotten acquaintances.

The air is filled with the usual extravagance of marriage festivity that often manifests in matching Ankara outfits and stubborn noise pollution. I drape a veil over my head, its helm resting just above my eyelashes as I walk furtively about the people into my grandfather’s quarters.

In the cozy room sit my mother and father, a few close relations and unknown faces, and a cleric on whose head is wound a length of cloth. He is sitting with his legs crossed, thumbing a prayer bead.

I say my greetings to them quietly and move to my parents.

Mama’s face is ashen with excessive make-up and she smiles ear to ear as I approach her and father.

The cleric clears his throat, says a prayer and begins.

“We appreciate the Almighty Allah for making us witness this day,” the cleric says, “the wedding of our dearest daughter and our beloved son.” He wanders his gaze about the room but holds it a bit longer on me.  “The products of the finest families, both of whom are of exceptional character,” he motions his hand to my parents and to another body of people in the room.

And my eyes trail his gesture.

Behind mama is a young lady with henna-tattooed hands smiling sheepishly. I think she is Sabitu. And when I look at the other body of people the cleric motions to, I notice a man adorned in starch-stiffened white embroidered agbada. His head is a bit extended at the back, forcing his fila to sit only gingerly on it. Then, I recognize him: Atanda.

I startle to my feet. “What are you doing here?” I ask.

“It’s my wedding, I have as much right to be here as anyone else,” Atanda replies.

“Your wedding!” I exclaim, my face contorting into folds of skin.

Did I hear him right? I couldn’t possibly have.

“Look, I can explain everything.” He stands and inches toward me. And as he gets closer, he further says, “I am sorry.”

And my legs quiver.

Atanda and I have been in a romantic relationship for over two years now and not once have we had an unresolved disagreement. The only notable bump in our love affair is his recent insistence on marrying me this year, about which I have requested that he give me some more time. Have I asked for too much?

My temple throbs.

“What do you mean you’re sorry?” I ask.

Atanda motions his hands gently up and down at breast level.

“How dare you tell me to calm down! We had a disagreement yesterday, and today, you’re getting married?”

I must have sounded strange or gestured irrationally because now quizzical faces are beginning to inch closer to me. Maybe they think I am running mad.

Mama and father position themselves on my sides. They hold my hands and plead that I hear Atanda out. I wonder if they know what is going on here—that my boyfriend is about to become my cousin’s husband.

Atanda begins talking rapidly. He reminds me of how much he loves me and says that his marrying today is because of my unwillingness to ever do the same. He mentions something about Sabitu and I shudder. Goosebumps envelop my skin.

I no longer comprehend what he is saying; I doubt I am even half-listening and I struggle to get loose from the gripping hands of my parents that hold ever so tightly, to no avail. I yell that I will not let this marriage continue and my parents again plead that I hear Atanda out.

It is at this moment that Atanda says that he is not here to marry my cousin but me; that he loves me far too much to betray my trust; that his recent tantrum and mama’s late-night call is all a ruse to leave me unsuspecting of the wedding—my wedding, that is being planned behind my back.

Confused and with my mouth agape, I tilt my head sideways as if to find the angle of reality. I glance at mama and she nods gently in the affirmative.

For a moment, my nerve quietens. I feel relieved to know that Sabitu is a mere fabricated character to leave me unaware. But even in my calm and ease, the reality of what is happening and that which is about to happen throb at the corners of my mind. I am about to be wedded without my volition and consent.

My parents let go of me and quizzical faces recede to their seats.

The cleric whose face has vanished since the mild uproar began reappears and without further ado, continues the proceeding.

“Today, we unite these two,” he says, motioning to Atanda and me.

And my heart pounds.

My parents and Atanda’s connivance to see me wedded feels utterly ridiculous but at this moment I cannot find the strength to voice discontent.

The cleric asks if Atanda and I truly love each other and are willing to make the union and Atanda replies quickly in the affirmative. He turns his gaze to me.

My endless worries about marriage amass to a lump and hangs tightly in my throat. What happens if the feeling dies? How do I meet up the moral standard that is expected to defy whatever circumstance that may arise when one does? What happens if I am vulnerable and weak?

Expectant eyes meet with mine as I ponder on, and before I can still my thought on a conclusion, the cleric pronounces Atanda and me a couple.

I swallow the lump in my throat and blurt, “Nooo!”

“Stop this, child!” mama blurts back at me. “Today is the day you get married whether you like it or not!”

Tears gather at the corners of my eyes. “Where is this ever done?”

Mama breaks into her own sob. She recounts the many good men I could have settled down with but turned down. She afterward breaks into the history of her lineage and how good a daughter she is to her parents. She says she agreed to marry father despite her earlier doubts in him all because her parents asked her to and then asks no one in particular why her own child would not confer the same honour on her.

Everyone in the room is battling a tear. Their wet eyes are poring over me, digging deep into my skin to find a shred of heart that will humour their appeal. But they find none. And so their frustration and grief roll into a ball and hang loosely on their tongues, threatening to get loosed like a stone in a pulled slingshot. And then I give in; I consent to be wedded to Atanda.

V

Dressed in a wedding gown, with a beautiful henna skin decoration on my hands, I take a look at myself at the hall’s glass entrance and confess not to have looked this gorgeous in a long time.  It has been a day since my sudden in-house wedding with Atanda and now we are at the reception. Somehow I have grown accustomed to being called a bride and maybe looking forward to married life. But, as I approach the hall, I feel uneasy and the thought of submitting myself to a lifelong union again creeps into my mind.

I envision the unwieldy burden of loyalty that I’m about to carry and my stomach churns. I scamper for the restroom but before I get there, my throat gives way and I puke all over my dress.

Atanda rushes up to me, his face taut with worry.

A handful of guests gather around us hissing and showering us with unsolicited attention. Atanda offers some suggestions on how I should get cleaned up and manage my anxiety, and I agree to them. But when I make it to my feet, I hoist my gown from below the waist, ease myself out of my shoes and run in the direction I came.

Several feet tramp at my heels, yet I keep running, not looking back until I lose my footing and fall face flat on the floor. An excruciating pain surges through my body and I close my eyes. I wriggle at the thought of the trailing footfalls catching up to me and open my eyes again with a growl. As I do, I find myself on my three-seater couch, tucked in Atanda’s arm. Everything seems the same as the last time Atanda was here, save for a different track playing on my stereo deck. The pain I felt when I fell is also gone.

“Did you dream about us getting married?” Atanda teases and I stare at him.

I realize much hasn’t changed because I had only fallen asleep and dreamt.

“Is that a yes?” he pesters with a smile.

I flash an impassive grin and reply, “Hmmm.”

——————–

Image by Madhurima Handa from Pixabay (Modified)

Written by
Abdulquadri Saka-Bolanta

Abdulquadri Saka-Bolanta is an art enthusiast who writes from North Central Nigeria. His works revolve around culture and existentialism among other things. You can find him on twitter at @sakaBolanta.

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Written by Abdulquadri Saka-Bolanta

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