Fiction

Bibiana Ossai: Once We Were

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Image: Pixabay modified

27th January 2002

My grandmother, Ma Nedu’s small stature cricketed from side to side as she stirred the big pot of tomato stew that sizzled into the morning air. She came to our home the previous morning to assist my mom in managing the supermarket. It was just the two of us in the kitchen. Her pink lace material wrapped her wide waist and flowed all the way to her ankle. I watched her use the deep curved stainless spoon to put a big drop of stew on her palm to taste before she called me to also taste it. It melted on my tongue and I sucked all the seasoning from it. On the other side of the gas cooker, the down part of the white crackled so I turned it off.

Ma Nedu looked rather young to be a grandmother with her butter skin glowing in    the morning sun. Her natural gray and black hair drooped on her shoulder with the rhinestones around the neckline of her blouse reflecting on her chin. Once she finished making the food, she told me to dish it. “Adamma, put the rice and stew in separate bowls then bring out the plates we will use to eat. I have reduced the work for you this morning.”

“Thank you, Mama. I know. Please, don’t forget to tell mommy that I helped cook    the food. If not, I will be in trouble.” I told her with a big smile on my face to which she succumbed.

“Don’t worry. There is nothing that can happen as long as I am here. You are a child. Your mom should know that you will grow someday but not now. You know your    mom is living for two people.” We laughed at the sound of that.

“I know,” I responded with an eye roll after I turned my face from Ma Nedu.

We ate that morning together as one big family. My dad fed my mom from his own plate and my grandmother teased them about it. They laughed and I joined them. My brothers drew a map with their grains of rice that fell onto the table while I listened to mom ask dad to pick Ma Nedu from the supermarket.

In the afternoon, my brothers and I played soccer in the garden, the way we did during whatever break we had. I was the goalkeeper and the two of them were the shooters or maybe I was just the anchor in case any storm brewed between them. But they were not the ones who stirred the storm, the ones who drummed thunder in the stone-gray sky, it was aunty Ginika. She paced with her hands firmly gripping her waist in her flared black pants and big brown t-shirt outside the backyard kitchen door that faced the direction of the garden as she shouted my mom’s name, “Olama! Olama!!”

I watched her with unease and my loose black short swayed in the breeze’s heaviness. I could not help but wonder why she paced outside instead of entering. It was so very unlike how she always barged into our house like she owned it. I ran toward her confused by her action. But when I got there, we heard the dragging sound of my mom’s feet in the kitchen. She opened the door with one of her hands placed like she caressed her gravid abdomen.

“Sorry, Ginika. I just came out of the bathroom. Hope no problem?” Mom apologized to aunty Ginika, whose body fidgeted.

Beads of sweat positioned themselves around aunty Ginika’s philtrum, “Have you not heard about the explosion at the military cantonment?” The words erupted out of her mouth like volcanic lava in a befuddled state.

When I heard aunty Ginika talk about the bombing, I tossed my face to both of them. I did not understand immediately what they were talking about. I am sure it is nothing serious. I did not want to believe aunty Ginika’s wild claim because I knew how well she loved to exaggerate her stories. But my mom’s golden cheeks flushed red, and she staggered to the back of the kitchen where she grabbed her phone to call dad. It was mom’s disconcerted look that made me worry. The wind gushed on our skins and my mind skirted from dad to grandma who left for our supermarket close to the bombing scene earlier in the day.

I watched my mom’s lips break apart. Her fingers trembled as she cackled my dad’s number; there was no answer. She slammed the phone back on the table and walked away in small steps into the living room. I caught a glance of tears that flipped down my mom’s cheeks. Aunty Ginika and I followed her into the living room where she turned on the television for news updates, but there were no reports being aired about the bomb blast.

“Call your brothers inside,” she ordered me in a vexing tone that sounded nothing like her.

I groaned as I took my brothers to wash their bodies before taking my bath. I wanted to know more about what was happening. Was it the same as the movies my brothers and I had watched on MITV? I brushed this worrying thought away when I remembered that it was my responsibility to wear the big pants so my brothers could remain in their glee. Plus, mom seemed preoccupied with her worries.

My brothers and I returned to the living room to find mom and aunty Ginika seated in the dining room with bowls of white rice and vegetable stew served on the table. Mom excused herself when our telephone rang. It was my dad.

“Obinna?” She spoke softly into the phone. My brothers and I gathered around where she sat next to the telephone placed on a low table. We pressed our ears close to the telephone. The sound was dull, but we could still hear our dad’s voice.

“Hello, Ola. I am sorry for not calling you since. Ma Nedu and I are at the hospital. I found her unconscious by the roadside. She is in a coma…” his voice trailed.  Then we heard nothing as mom placed the phone on her other ear to stop us from eavesdropping.

After the call ended, mom broke down in tears. Realizing once again that my siblings and I were next to her, she bit her lower lip to stop herself from crying. “Take care of yourself and my mom. The children are greeting you too. I love you, Obi.” Mom ended the call and we went back to the dining table. Mom, aunty Ginika, and myself pecked at our foods. The air in the house was different from what I was used to.

After dinner, I took the boys to their room. I watched them climb their bunk bed before turning off the light. I returned to the living room where aunty Ginika received a call from her husband, Fred. She flinched.

“Hello,” aunty Ginika spoke into the phone and then she listened to her husband on the other side of the line. Her jaw grew rigid by the second. She brought her thighs together and gulped down a mountain of saliva before chipping in again, “Don’t stop checking.”

After the call, aunty Ginika turned to us “Uchendu is nowhere to be found.” She fell onto the floor with her legs stretched outward and wept. “They have taken my son away from me. The government has taken my womb, ah! Olama. My enemies have wiped my story from the face of this earth.”

While she cried, my mom escorted me to my room. She tucked me under my aquatic blue quilt. She was about to leave, but I held her back by the wrist and asked: “Mommy, why is aunty Ginika saying the world has taken her womb? Is it because of Uchendu? He will be found, won’t he?”

She took my palms in hers, rubbed them, and said, “Go to bed, Ada. Let the adults worry about this. You worry about your brothers.” She turned off the light and left me alone.

I could not sleep so I went in search of my mom. I traced her voice to the kitchen, where I heard her crying on the phone as she tried to console her younger brother, uncle Chima. I had never heard her cry the way that she did. I peeped through the door and found my mom seated on the floor with her legs sprawled. After the call, she dropped her palms on the floor and turned to face the window that gave way to the starry night sky. I heard her cry again and rushed to her side. She pulled me in for a tight embrace and whispered, “It will be fine, Gozi m.” But the words only made my heart heavier, and I prayed the morning sun took back its place in the sky.

 

28th January 2002

Mom and I were asleep in the kitchen and our arms were linked. My head was buried under her chin before we awoke to the sound of the television in the living room. In a mixture of British and Igbo accent, a newscaster reported, “Because of the storage of expired military weapons in an armory in the barracks, an explosion occurred at Ikeja cantonment …” her voice tuned out into the weightless morning. We joined aunty Ginika in the living room on the long black sofa, where she paid close attention to the news report. As we watched the news, I chewed down on my fingernails. All the things that could go wrong overwhelmed me more than the things that could go right.

At noon, after aunty Ginika had left for her own home, my mom asked me to prepare lunch for my brothers while she remained fixated on the news report that followed. I set the boiled white African yam in a China bowl on the dining table with cups of water. I called the boys from their room and we ate before I joined my mom on the sofa that had various shapes of buttocks imprinted on it. After the news ended, mom went to take her bath. I turned off the television.

I listened to the harmonic tweeting of birds outside the house in the evening, while I washed the plates in the kitchen sink. At intervals, I glanced at the deep blue sky through the open window in admiration of the birds that glided it. On the other side of our home, my brothers belched out loud, and tickled each other’s tummies. They also made funny sounds using their armpits. This went on for quite some time until they fell asleep on the rugged floor at the center of the living room.

When I returned to the sitting room, I found the boys on the floor with their feet locked together and their hands raised above their heads. I moved on to pluck Things Fall Apart from the bookshelf in our family study to read in an isolated corner next to the sliding door that led to the veranda.

I was entranced by the book’s plot; unaware the sun had yielded the sky for a crescent-shaped moon till I heard the feeble steps of my mom approaching. I dropped the book back on the shelf. My mom asked me to put on the television, which I did. She sat with her wrapper tucked between her thighs for comfort. Ten minutes later, aunty Ginika joined us.

My mind wandered to the day mom picked up my brothers and I from school–one week before the incident. The memory gave me a soft burn in the chest and a tugging urge to cry. Still, my eyes remained a dry land, even as I remembered Uchendu had stayed back in school for science prep classes.

The moon owned its place in the sky when I was in the kitchen using a wooden spoon to make yellow garri. I heard repetitive knocks on the kitchen door over the sound of our generator. I abandoned what I was doing to open the door, and there he was. My lanky father with gray hair in his dusty long sleeve pink shirt and blue jeans. I was taken aback by his appearance until he called out my name. I ran into his arms, hugged him, and cried, “Daddy I am so happy to see you.” Tears peeled around the edge of my lashes and I pecked him on his moist bearded cheek.

Mom walked into the kitchen, where she met Dad and I; astonished by the scene, she remained where she was with wet eyes until Dad saw her. He untangled himself from me and raced towards mom to hug her. She hit him on the chest with soft punches while saying, “You had me worried, Obi.” He smiled, briefly showing his white teeth, and replied, “I know. I missed you too.” Then he pulled her in again for a lingering embrace.

Dad went to shower while I finished preparing dinner, hot spicy Okra soup with local grilled catfish and fresh pounded yam in the kitchen. I went to wake up the boys after I served the food on the dining table. They followed me out of their room to the dining area languidly. My brothers noticed our dad seated with Mom and aunty Ginika. They chanted, “Daddy! Daddy!!”

He got up from his chair, crouched, and beseeched the boys with outstretched arms. Dad lifted them up in unison, spun them around, and kissed them on their cheeks before dropping them back onto the floor. We went to sit on our chairs around the table and waited for Dad to lead the Lord’s prayer before eating.

I watched the boys stain their corners of the table with droplets of Okra soup while mom’s hands swirled in circles as she tried to put pounded yam and soup into her mouth. From the chair adjacent to mine, aunty Ginika teased my mom – whose face lit up every time she glanced at my dad.

Nwanyi oma, what can you do without your husband?” She spoke.

After eating, we went to the living room where Dad narrated what happened on the incident day. The boys played at the back of the long sofa with their remote-control cars and teddy bears.

“I was at the office where I had my interview when I heard the news. So, I rushed to the shop at the cantonment area to pick up Ma Nedu. But it was pure chaos. People ran with blood-stained cloth, concrete dust on their chest, and opened wounds towards Ikorodu road. I had to push my way through the panicking crowd to reach the shop, which was already destroyed by the time I got there. I searched around till I found Ma Nedu’s unconscious body trapped under rubbles of collapsed buildings. When we arrived at the emergency ward at Lagoon hospital, there were a lot of victims –”

“Why didn’t you ask for Dr. Mike?” Mom interjected. “I did. That was our saving grace.”

“So, how is my mother doing?” Mom asked with her buttocks adjusted forward, her eyes narrowed, and her sweaty palms that rubbed against each other.

Dad looked at her, “She is still in a coma. The doctor said we have to wait to see if she wakes up.”

Mom’s emotions were ravaged. She shook her head, sobbed in her palms, and mumbled, “I asked her not to come. She shouldn’t have. And now this — this happens? What am I going to do if something worse happens?” Crumbled tears drooped on her face like overripe fruits. Her eyes shifted from Dad to aunty Ginika as though searching for answers.

Aunty Ginika excused herself to the visitor’s restroom. I saw how teary and red her eyes were when she passed by where I sat, close to the restroom’s door. I listened to her weep against the sound of rushing water, and the pacing of her feet. She came out with a wet face and swollen eyes.

When everything got quiet, I went to my room. My eyes were fixated on the reflection of the full moon next to the ceiling fan before I curled sideways to sleep. My eyes caught sight of my close friend, Adesokan’s textbook. Her name reminded of the words she used to fondly say after each class, “body no be firewood.”

 

29th January 2002

I led the prayer before we had lunch that crisp morning. After eating, my dad, mom, aunty Ginika, and the boys went out to the garden while I stayed back to wash the used plates. I joined them once I was done with the dishes. Outside, the boys chased after a night sky butterfly that perched on the flowers. Our parents and aunty Ginika sat on the white plastic chairs around a table to sip cold ice tea from their cups.

We were soaking up the heat in our separate ways when we heard a loud bang on the gate; dad went to check who it was. It was uncle Fred, and they came to the garden together. Uncle Fred looked frail, his beer belly looked flattened, and his ebony skin was darker. Around his eyes were crow’s feet.

At my mom’s request, I left before they reached the table to warm her honeyed jollof rice and goat meat pepper soup to give uncle Fred along with Raspberry juice. When I served his food, he prayed for me as he accepted it. I tried to imagine the hell he went through in search of Uchendu. Has Uchendu been found. Was he at the hospital? Is that why uncle Fred is here? Thinking about this possibility gave me a shred of hope. But there was a solemn change in his facial expression. He tapped his hands in nervous movements on the white table so, mom signaled me this time around to go inside with my brothers.

I went into the kitchen to warm Fufu and palm kernel soup. I heard the cracker voice of Fred, who carefully chose his words, “Thank you, Olama and Obi, for the meal. It has been a long day.” He paused then went on to say while holding back his tears, “You know, I went to the various rescue centers as directed by the school principal, who informed me that the surviving students had been transferred there. Regretfully, Uchendu was not there. I asked the officials present and they told me that if he wasn’t there then he is still missing.”

Aunty Ginika screamed, “What if he is waiting for us, for someone to find him? How can they just give up like that? It’s only been a couple of days!”

“I am sorry, Ginikamma. They said there is nothing they can do for now” uncle Fred consoled her in a hollow tone.

Aunty Ginika wailed into the cloudy sky that late afternoon until her body collapsed to the grass like the felling of a mango tree.

From the kitchen window that faced the garden, I watched everything that transpired. The burnt smell of the Fufu wafted into the air. My body felt like its insides were the ones on fire. There was a rush of noise in my head I recognized as one of Uchendu’s favorite songs. We had listened to it the previous summer in his bedroom, Lean on Me by Bill Withers on his father’s turntable. He screamed at the top of his lungs, jumped around his room like a Rockstar. I stared out of the window and saw my parents rush to the aid of uncle Fred and aunty Ginika. Then like a ray of sunlight, a vivid image of Uchendu in his Pokémon short and white socks popped up in front of me. He stopped and said with a thumbs up, “I like you, Gozi. You are my badass type of weird.” As soon as the image dissipated, the song lyrics jammed in my head. It made my emotions desire to run wild and free, but I tamed them in hushed woeful tears. By the time, I realized the food was burning; I turned off the gas and went to a dark lit corner in the kitchen where I struggled with the fact that my friend was one of the missing victims. I could not wrap my head around it. I wished to talk to someone about how I felt drained; how tiring it was to get through each day but I had to be strong.

 

2nd February 2002

Mom woke up with a nagging hunger. She complained about everything–Dad’s dress sense, the scattering of the boys’ toys that could potentially trip anyone, and the unwashed plates in the kitchen. It was about past eight in the morning when mom asked me to clean the dishes and make bean pudding for breakfast. Be as it may, my head was still drowned by sleep, so I remained motionless in front of the kitchen with a grumpy expression.

“Are you still standing there, Gozi? Didn’t you hear me say you should make breakfast?” Mom repeated in her roaring tone from the living room.

It awoke me and I slapped my slippers hard on the floor as I entered the kitchen. I blended washed beans out of the fridge, habanero pepper bells, diced onions, and crayfish in the highest whirring sound. I warmed milk for my brothers and served green tea for my parents and I.

Two spoons into the food, mom spat out her chewed bean pudding. She retched at the spicy taste of the food. She excused herself to use the restroom. On her way, her water broke. With a painless voice she called out, “Obi, Obi, come and take me to the hospital.”

When I went to help lead her by the waist into the car, I noticed her fist clenched in response to the waves of contractions. Dad swiped his key from a hook, and they drove off to the hospital. I stayed back with the boys to arrange the clothing items mom   had bought for the baby.

In the evening, Dad picked us up, and we went to meet mom in her ward. As we walked down the hospital aisle, we heard shrieks of babies. My brothers ran to hold our dad’s hands.

Aje sir,” Mom greeted dad as soon as we entered her private ward. Smile lines were reflected on her blanched caramel skin.

De le?” Dad responded, and he carried my baby sister from my mom.

My brothers and I echoed, “O to fe, mommy.” We watched our sister gently thud dad’s body with her tiny feet. She was swaddled in a blue and cream garment. I sat on one of the room chairs and asked dad to allow me carry her. Dad placed my left hand at the back of my baby sister’s head, and she stretched to touch my face. When I tickled her stomach, she shrunk, and bubbles of saliva formed on the edge of her mouth. The boys also gathered around to massage her chin and cheeks before our dad took her back to our mom.

“What is her name?” I asked our parents, and they responded with, “Um … we have not thought about that yet.”

“Nkiruka is a beautiful name,” I said again out loud without thinking. “Where did you hear that name?” Mom asked in a stunned voice.

“A TV show on AIT. The girl my age was beautiful, and her family was happy to have her. I am happy to have a sister too.”

“That is so sweet, Gozi. I am sure Nkiruka is happy to have you too. We will go with the name you have chosen, my sweet child.”

At that moment, my dad’s phone rang. He picked it up, and after some time, his broad smile curled into a frown. The call ended. Dad asked me to give mom a bottle of Eva water before going to her side, where he stroked her arm and said, “I am sorry, Ola. The doctor just said there is nothing more they can do for Ma Nedu. She is not responding to treatments anymore.”

Mom poured out a low guttural moan from her mouth with Nkiruka pressed on her chest. I took the boys to the corner of the room to watch the television to distract them. In tears, mom said to Dad, “I have to see her first before we decide to do anything. One last time please. I have to say goodbye before they take her off the monitor and oxygen.”

I sat with the boys where I pretended to watch the TV with them even though I cried. Everything was happening so fast that I found it hard to breath. Ma Nedu meant a lot to our family. My brothers who sat on both my sides wrapped their palms around mine with their minds engrossed in what they watched. Their palms felt warm and held me together. I wiped my face and squeezed their palms. From the corner of my eyes, I watched dad console mom.

 

10th February 2002

Birds chirped that sunny morning. Mom sorted out Ma Nedu’s funeral plans with Uncle Chima before our village journey at noon. I lurked around the kitchen until she covered the speaker of her cell phone and asked me to check if Nkiruka was awake.

In the afternoon, we waited for the bus driver to arrive after ensuring all our stuff was ready because dad would accompany Ma Nedu’s casket the following day. Dad paced back and forth in the living room – checked his wristwatch perturbed by the bus’s delay. Several minutes later, the blaring sound of a trumpet horn and the swerve of tires were heard. He ran to open the gate for the driver to park the car. The bus driver helped us load our luggage in the boot.

“I love you,” mom said to dad before she kissed him on the lips. Nkiruka, wrapped in a yellow cotton cloth, slept in her arms. She entered the bus. The boys’ stomachs growled even though they ate a mountain of sandwich and custard. They allowed their robot toys dangle mid-air as they went to sit next to Mom.

Before going to the bus, I hugged dad with my face buried in his chest. He kissed the top of my head and tousled my braided hair, then said, “Gozi, listen to your mom, okay? And make sure you take care of your brothers and sister. Now go join them. It is late already.” We watched our father on the kitchen step with his hands folded inside—out through the rear window. We waved at him until we could see him no more.

 

11th February 2002

“Hello! Obi, are you almost here?” Mom spoke, with the call on loudspeaker in case I wanted to speak with him too.

“Good evening, Madam. This is sergeant Mayo.” She switched off the speaker as   soon as the officer introduced himself.

“Yes? Why are you on his phone?” Mom asked in a panicked breath.

“We found this number as the emergency contact for Obinna Nsukka. I am sorry to inform you that your husband was found dead at a crash site near Sagamu border this evening …” mom collapsed. I called uncle Chima to bring a bowl of water to splash    on her face while I removed her flamboyant headgear.

Once she awoke, she grabbed me for an embrace and I felt her hot tears trickle down my spine. Then, she told uncle Chima to leave the room. “Mommy, are you alright? What happened?” I spoke in an exaggerated hushed tone.

Mom cupped my face in her hands. She wiped her tears and forced a smile, “You are such a brave girl. We are so proud of you, more than you know. What are we going to do, eh?”

I pushed away from her and I stuttered every syllable: “Did something happen to dad?” She said nothing and pushed her face to the side before bobbing her head. I knew immediately that my dad was no more. Memories danced and swirled in front of me just like a movie. Each remembrance tore itself across the floor, “I still saw dad yesterday, hours ago. How can he be gone?” I asked no one in particular before my memories of him began to float away like paper trails.

Mom kneaded my face again. I pushed her palms away. While I waited for the tears to bloom on my cheeks, my body felt like a milked Cow. A plant without water. There was warmth in my stomach. An overwhelming rage that formed a lump in my throat. I buried my fingers into the arms of my mom and gritted my teeth to inflict pain onto myself. The deaths piled up in my head. I remained on the floor as I stared blankly at the teal painted wall. Mom’s wailing faded into the background.

I looked into the sea of my mom’s eyes, there was nothing to be done. Nothing I could do anymore. The room felt both big and small at the same time, like it could swallow and spit me out. My shoulders were heavy. They were tired of everything and wanted to breathe. Before I knew it, my mouth blurted out what was in my head: “I am tired of everything, mommy. Even daddy is gone and I am tired of this growing pain. I don’t know what to do with it. I am afraid, mommy. What are we going to do now?”

Through my deflated body, I knew it was the end of my rope, my last straw and the last blow. I left my mom where she was and chuckled my way of the room. People’s voices brushed past me. There was no candle to burn in my body.

———————

Image: Pixabay modified

About the author

Bibiana Ossai

Bibiana Ossai is a Nigerian writer and a Ph.D. Fiction student at Texas Tech University. She lives, writes, and teaches First-Year writing at Texas Tech University. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Long Island University Brooklyn Campus, where she received the Marilyn Boutwell Graduate Award in Fiction. Bibiana won the Idyllwild Arts Writers Week 2020 Fiction fellowship and the Equinox Journal 2019 Poetry Contest. Her works appear in The River, The Book Smuggler's Den, Refractions (iō literary online journal), Sad Girls Literary Blog, Landing Zone, and Flash Fiction Magazine.

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