Her hand trembled as she pushed aside the rain-drenched hibiscus stalk blocking her view. She could see the house properly now. It had a deserted look about it in the gathering night, that unlived in appearance of lavishly under-utilized houses of the super rich.
There was a light in the window. More light spilled out from beneath a door hidden far back on the verandah, flanked by ill-tended but rare species of potted plants; cheerful red slowly acquiring a brood, blazing yellow losing its scream, a cool green just a shade darker than the coating of the bungalow…
Dede’s hand shook where she knelt on the wet lawn, her eyes glistening with tears dangerously close to bursting their dam. Through a blur, she could just discern the outline of the foot mat on the verandah. She knew it had WELCOME scrawled on it. She knew because she had placed him, wrapped in her mother’s frayed yellow shawl, on that same mat four days ago…
He was missing now.
The clouds had been warning of rain for the past few days, but had unleashed none. A monster cold had instead been unshackled to feast on those foolish enough to stay out long in the open, especially on a night like this. Some religious leaders had been moved to pray for rain because “little rain in its season meant drought and destruction of crops at a later date.”
Dede’s bones had gone to sleep. She knew it wasn’t the weather that made her so cold. Her chill had its source deep inside her heart. Her cold was the worst kind, the numbing kind; the kind brought on by dread…
He was missing!
She released the branch abruptly, watching, mesmerized by its jerky motion. Dede squatted on the grass, hidden from the house by the waist-high row of shrubs in the garden. She breathed deeply of the faintly perfumed air to steady her nerves. The night buzzed wearily with the distant hoots and revs of homeward bound cars out on the main street.
Go now, Dede mentally ordered her reluctant limbs. Move!
She shot up to her feet, jerked two hesitant steps in the direction of the house, and collapsed with a moan, a tree suddenly deprived of its fibrous base. “Oh God!” she chided the impotent fear that had paralyzed her resolve, “God… help me please!”
Anxiety dug in deeper, making itself more comfortable in her heart. Dede glanced up and muttered thanks to the heavens again for the unusual unguarded nature of the house. A rich man’s residence without an army of security operatives? That woman she met at the party had said something about it being a transit house. It boasted temporal activity only when the Chief came from his Abuja base to do business in Lagos. Maybe that had something to do with it. Maybe that had everything to do with it.
The Chief was inside now. His silver Volvo 760 was in the driveway.
Dede’s mind screamed silently in its cocoon. Why in Heaven’s name had she done it? What fleeting insanity could have prompted such a despicable sacrifice? Survival…when restless thoughts fluttered like frightened bats in the dead night of her mind? The abortionist would have been a better choice: ripped right out and flushed down the grinding gullet of some strange toilet? Why had she borne, nurtured, peered into the fathomless innocence of those sparkling eyes…and then denounced?
Uche had rejected her. God in Heaven, how Uche had cracked the sorry illusion of her world. The moment she informed him, he’d cast her aside like a toy irreparably damaged…a dog riddled with some catching disease.
“Wetin you talk?” he’d barked, his eyes smoldering with the limpid fire of watered-down gin, “you pregnant? Who ask you to pregnant? Oho, you think say I never hear the thing you dey do when I no dey? Na for my head you want put your bastard? No way!”
That was all the response shock and fear had granted her voice to utter as he raged out. They had had a thing going for three years; one of those nameless things a girl sometimes had with a man, usually the wrong man. Dede had dropped out of school to share his single room in the filthy interior of Ajegunle where only the dregs of the earth, like him, resided.
On good nights, they had spoken of love, that nebulous concept that could mean anything from intense physical attraction to emotional enslavement. Marriage had even surfaced once like an extremely self-conscious third party. Uche had shelved the issue of introducing her to his old mother. “Na this bus driver work person go die dey do?” he’d said.
Dede had continued to believe she would one day be properly wedded to this gruff impatient man. Not that marriage mattered much anyway. Where had it taken her parents?
Their relationship was a grinding uphill trip half the time. Uche depended too much on cheap alcohol. Ever so often, he used his belt on her. Dede knew some other couples in the neighborhood had it worse. And the few good times always made up for the aches. Sex with him had always been with total abandon, wild, exhaustive, and daringly adventurous. Uche occasionally used the rubber he obtained from his friend who worked as a messenger at the Family Planning place. But on the other nights – it was always at night – he would return, gin sloshing in his brain, and pounce on her, brutal and giddy with lust. Those times had thrilled in a perverse way. And luck had continued to favor them.
Until that last night.
She vividly remembered the night because he hadn’t been drunk. He came home angry. He arrived about midnight, reeking of petrol, exhaust fumes and the sweat of hours wrenching the giant wheel of the chaotic Molue bus. A vehicle inspection officer had detained the bus for two hours during the rush. It was with that anger that Uche had refused the food she’d left in the corner for him, choosing to devour her instead. One month later, a cycle that had been as regular as the ticking fingers of a clock missed a beat. “I don get belle,” Dede told herself. “No, I never get. Some people miss period and dem no get anything. E go still come.”
Fear and excitement kept her from telling him until it was three months gone: Fear because she didn’t know how he would react, and excitement because it had struck her that she wanted a child. Uche’s child. She was three months sure.
Dede chose a night to inform him. Instincts strongly urged her to prepare carefully, so she cooked his favorite meal, garri and egusi soup. Then she scrubbed up and made herself as inviting as the food.
When Uche came home, as usual, a little woozy, Dede’s heart brightened. She thought he would be softened, likely to receive the news in a better frame of mind. The opposite happened. He cut her to shreds in drink-fuelled rage.
It might have been understandable if he had only taken the pregnancy as her way of trapping him, making him marry her. Instead, his charge of promiscuity shattered her. Pain and humiliation overruled common sense as she gathered the crumbs of her dignity, wrapped them up in her few clothes, and moved in with a friend down the street, hoping Uche would seek her out when his liquor-befuddled brain cleared.
He did not come that day.
Or the next.
And the next…
A week dragged its tortured bulk into the shadow of memory.
Dede returned home.
There was another woman there; a dumpling thing that looked like she’d already expired on some other man’s shelf.
“Who you be? Whey Uche?”
The fat woman refused Dede entry, and a struggle ensued that attracted biting comments from the neighbors. Dede sat beside the door and waited for Uche’s arrival, convinced he would mend her wounded pride.
Dede’s humiliation turned to shame at midnight when uche returned, tipsy as always. “You don go sleep with your boyfriend finish? Why you come back now? Ashawo, waka-about!” The unholy tag team formed by him and the other woman dragged her in slime under the stars…
Dede crawled back to her friend where she stayed several nights, folded like a fetus on a mat that, like her, had seen better days. Her thoughts were of the futility of a woman’s existence. Do wrong, you lose. Do the right thing and it’s you who still weeps. In the depths of her sorrow, she faded out the loud creaks of the bed two feet away as strange men with strange desires, reeking of stale sweat and cheap cigarettes mauled her friend, tossing precious Naira notes at her nakedness after their hunger had been fed. Dede lulled herself to dream-disturbed sleep those first few nights of total aloneness. Her mind soon expanded enough to adjust to her condition. Her friend strongly urged her to abort.
The pregnancy matured.
A local midwife delivered the baby.
Dede made sure word got back to Uche about the baby and how much he resembled him. The word didn’t return with the hope she’d nurtured. It came back cold, dead.
Dede called him Oritseundede. Dede Jr. God knows everything. She hoped God would do everything…anything! She knew her prayers didn’t get to God.
The baby came two months earlier than expected, thin and dry-skinned and so so delicate. Every waking cockcrow heralded a new ailment; cough, cold, fever, measles… and all the medicines prescribed by the backyard midwife never seemed to work. He cried…ceaselessly. He grew thinner, weaker. It broke her heart, but Dede had to agree with her friend that she lacked the wherewithal to raise such a problem child. The miserable income she earned per night doing “body work” would never dent the wall of her burdens.
One night, her friend, exasperated, shouted “do something about this ya pickin o. Dem take am cause una, abi person fit see fire go nack hand inside? I tell you before say make you remove am. You listen to me? Na so-so cry-cry. Mama go cry. Pickin go cry. All the noise una dey make for night dey spoil business for me o!”
Dede sensed ejection would follow if she didn’t act. She couldn’t return to Uche. And her parents had shut and bolted the door after her when she defied them to follow ‘her man.’ She ransacked her mind for what to do.
The Chief came into the murky picture one night as Dede returned from a long wait at the midwife’s. She became a gawking spectator at a lavish open-air party where she saw the man pasting the faces and breasts of high society whores with bank-stiff bills.
“Na Chief be dat o,” another spectator, a woman, informed Dede without being asked. She seemed to be trying to impress someone that it didn’t matter if she was poor. She still knew who the rich man was. “The man dey take money do toilet paper for him house.”
A N50 note fluttered to the ground from the wad in the Chief’s grip. In Dede’s mind, she calculated the numerous uses she could put such an amount to. One of the laughing girls, somewhere in her mid-twenties, stooped to pick it, neatly truncating Dede’s fantasies. She glanced at the woman beside her and realized the woman had also been targeting the money.
“Dem say e no dey spend small small money because he go insult am,” continued the woman. “E get house efrywhere and na efryday e dey marry new wife. Dat one wey pick the money, na the wife wey he bring come the party be dat. She be number five for Lagos. Money good o.”
The Chief dug into his bulbous agbada and produced another pack of fifties. This time, he turned to the juju musician whose praise singing became a fawning plea under the onslaught of Naira.
“The man no get pickin sha o. God don yab am with all him money. Na so e dey go London go ‘Merica go see doctor whey no fit helep. E don adopt pickin o, but na him own blood pickin he dey find. Person no fit get efrything true true.”
The woman had unknowingly won Dede’s full attention when she started talking about children. “How you sabi all dis thing about the man?”
“Siddon chop bottle,” the woman replied, “you no dey read Vintage People magazine? Abi you no fit read English sef?” She laughed to show she meant no harm.
An idea took root on the desperation-fertilized soil of Dede’s mind. Getting a description of the Chief’s Lagos residence from the woman was easy. Dede left for home, now bearing a double burden.
The next night, she wrapped her son in the shawl and carried him to the dead-end street where the Chief had a house. The gate was locked, so she scaled the fence and placed her son on the soft foot mat in the disapproving glare of lights flooding the compound. Dede kissed his forehead. It was hot…still feverish. She banged thrice on the door, startling the baby who began to cry in a frail voice.
Then she ran. She ran because she didn’t want to look back. If she did, agony would turn her into salt and freeze her in place until the world appeared to jab accusing fingers in her face. She ran to fight the compelling urge to dash back and retrieve her bundle of sorrow, bundle of joy…and continue to watch helplessly as his health deteriorated… Dede ran staggering with the force of her sobs…
She’d jumped the fence again tonight, four days later. And she wanted him back. She had reflected on her course of action, and although a part of her was convinced she’d done the right thing, Dede still wanted him back. Her son, she craved the pleasant tickle of his tender gums on her nipples, the bell-tinkle of his ever-so-rare laughter, the trust mirrored in the deep pools of his sparkling eyes…
She wanted her son back!
She rose. Now was the time to do what had to be done. Not later. She would never be able to summon the courage to move later. Now was the time.
It took all of Dede’s will-power to move one leg after the other, crushing grass, taking her closer to the house… to her son! Her body shivered. She got on the verandah.
Welcome, the mat whispered.
Dede squeezed her hands into fists and slammed them on the door. She didn’t knock. She hammered. Again and again and again…
“Hold on! I’m coming!” a cultured female voice answered from somewhere within. Dede pictured the wife seen at the party.
She looked back at the gate. It was still unguarded. It wasn’t right. It was… dangerous! Anyone could just walk in and…She felt eyes on her. Dede turned to face the door. There was an eye pinned to the peephole.
“Who are you?” the voice asked, “We’re not buying? Go away.”
“I no dey sell anyting,” Dede calmly replied. Her nerves were steady now, under control now. She only felt like crying now. She was oh so so so sorry now…
“What do you want? How did you get to the door anyway? Couldn’t you use the intercom at the gate?”
“I beg…I beg please open door.”
The eye assessed her for a moment. It withdrew. Bolts were shifted. A double click. The door swung open a few inches. A silver chain held it in place. A face peered through the opening. A beautiful face even without make-up. “What can I do for you?”
The moment of truth. A tear crawled out of Dede’s left eye and traced a wet track down her face until it hung delicately at the chin, waiting to be dislodged by the slightest movement. “I…I…” Words had become elusive. “I…I beg…I wan take my son.”
The tear dropped.
The mat welcomed it.
Surprise. Concern. Pain. All expressions swapped places on the woman’s face in the space of a heartbeat. “You’re the mother of that poor little thing.” She unhooked the chain and stepped out.
Dede was sobbing happily now. “I take God beg you, I sorry for the trouble I cause. Make you just bring am come, I beg please.”
The lady gently touched Dede’s arm, anticipating hostility, sudden withdrawal. None. She patted the arm.
“I beg… I beg… I beg…”
“Ssssh, don’t let Chief hear you, my dear. He might come out to investigate. He’s very sore with you for what you did.”
“I know e bad. I beg, just give am back. I go go away. I no go come back again…”
Concern had aged the lady. “I am sorry my dear, but he’s not here.”
Dede drew back now. “Where e dey? I go go carry am, where e dey?”
“Maybe I should just call Chief-”
“I no wan see Chief. Where e dey?” Panic.
“He…” The lady hesitated, looking for the right words. “We haven’t been in the country, my dear. We went shopping in Paris four days ago and only returned this afternoon. The house was locked up. There was nobody around.”
Oh God…Oh God, no! No! She was lying! Lying! Lights had been on inside and outside the house! The lights had been on!
“Your light dey on. I see the light. Una dey inside!”
That pained smile. “No, my dear. I mean yes, we left the lights on and no we were not at home. We were not in the country.”
“Your ma’guard…Your ma’guard go don carry am. Whey your security?”
“I’m sorry, but we don’t have a security man right now. Chief is just confirming arrangements with a new outfit… The last ones robbed us.”
Thoughts became scattered…staccatoish.
Sound. She’d heard a sound. She’d heard someone moving to open the door…
“Whey my son?” Dede asked lamely. She knew the answer, but she had to hear. She had to be sure.
A male voice…calling… “What’s going on out there?”
“I’m sorry, my dear – ”
“WHEY MY PICKIN?”
The lady flinched, stepping back into the doorway as the Chief appeared. “He…he’s dead. He died before we got back. I’m sorry…”
Dede heard no more.
© Sola Osofisan
(An extract from Darkvisions, co-winner 1992 ANA Prose Prize, published by Malthouse Press Ltd. in 2001)