I do not sit in rooms with moldy walls and worn carpeting for nothing. I do not like to explain myself either, but let me tell you, don’t knock on Iweaja’s door if you do not have ogiri to sell. She will drag you into her hut and add you to her bubbling broth. You might be the mysterious flavour in today’s pot of soup. Ji ofe ose.
Do you know that once, maybe six years ago, I ran into her backyard to pick her hibiscuses? In bloom, their blood red leaves were alluring. I couldn’t resist the temptation to pluck a few for tea. But everyone knew better than to knock on her front door. I snuck into the backyard. I’d successfully taken the stalks and had turned to leave when I heard a strange noise from her hut. Strange because her scratchy voice was cooing ever so softly, whispering to a baby. It was the way mother soothed Adanna back to sleep whenever she woke up in the middle of the night. Mother said, “Adanna bu onye na-akwa akwa.” It always made me chuckle because it reminded me of a popular jingle I’d listened to on papa’s radio. It was how mother showed care and delicate love to Adanna, it reminded me of warmth and mother’s sweet soprano tone, not Iweaja’s scratchy notes and wrinkly skin, or her frail figure. It sounded foreign to her personality.
A tiny crack in the wall let me see into Iweaja’s nest. She rocked the baby ever so slowly against her bare, saggy breasts, holding it firmly in her thin arms. Her graying hair wasn’t plaited, and in the dark room, only dimly lit by the red-orange flames licking her firewood hungrily, she looked dissident, like the witch in one of mother’s old tales by the moonlight. The little thing threw its arms around, its toothless mouth wide open and spilling ugly cries that sliced sharply into the quiet compound. It was as I listened that I realized that not even the tiny forest birds were chirping. Everywhere had grown quiet, somewhat dead to touch. I’d jumped when something trickled down the sides of my face. Everything was on a stupid pause. Waiting for her, waiting for her to do what exactly, I wondered. My heart had been racing in my chest; it seemed to be thudding with lust for a scandal.
I didn’t see her mortar on time. I didn’t see her pestle either. I only heard the piercing cries of the baby, Iweaja’s awful singing, and the thick sputters of boiling broth. Into her deep mortar went the baby. The pestle goes up. Then it comes down. Kpom. A louder cry and a crack. No, I didn’t vomit. I was trembling, but I didn’t move. It goes up again—that god-awful pestle, and it lands again. Those cries are choked now, and I hear a crack and a splat this time. Kpom. Kpom. Kpom. Splat. Splat. She pounded and pounded with rigor that no woman her age should’ve had.
After a while, she stopped and laid the pestle gently on the floor. She slowly crouched and dipped a crooked finger into the mortar, then she put the finger in her mouth. A pause. She shut her eyes and hummed in approval. My old blue dress was soaked with perspiration and I was trembling with disgust and fear, my body totally unable to pick. You see, when her eyes slowly flitted over to me twinkling with knowingness, a smug darkness looming behind those steely, cold eyes, as if she knew I’d been there the whole time, I must’ve swallowed my heart because I ran over her low fence. I ran and ran until I was in papa’s compound. I leaned against my father’s mud wall, panting, trembling.
It wasn’t until I looked at my shaking hands that i saw the red stain from when I’d gripped the hibiscuses a tad bit too tightly as I watched. I dropped them when I ran off; I couldn’t make tea.
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