‘Mummy, Adanne is catching cold, serious cold, Mummy.’ Adanne heard Funaya’s voice.
A door creaked open.
‘Mummy, come and see Adanne. She is shaking.’ Her sister’s voice again.
She heard her mother and Funaya running. Her mother called from outside her door: ‘Adanne, Adanne.’
Mottled shadows filled the house. The louvres were cracked and dusty, with words written in the dust by tiny fingers. She knew it was Funaya. She knew the words that were written there: My Pencil. She smiled. Funaya’s head was always full of ideas. Only yesterday she had brought into her room a tin containing soil, damp and richly dark. Loam soil, she had called it. But now that was yesterday– a day when they could all walk in and sit in her bed and weave her hair and look at the pictures in her Fashion Week magazine. A day when she didn’t have to lie to belong with them. A day when this pain was not real.
Her mother’s voice came again: ‘Adanne, open this door! Adanne, open this door. Now!’
She twisted with great pain. She noticed her blood on the bed. It was an accusation. Her hair mixed with her tears stuck to her face. Everything was fading. Sounds were getting lower, and the world was getting slower. ‘Adanne, open this door’. She looked at her rosary crumpled on the bed beside her. She thought of when Father Patrick had blessed it, his black, bony fingers floating over the waxy beads. That man always smelt of oranges, she smiled weakly. There was an orange in her lap in evening mass on Friday. She had been playing with it gingerly in her cream polka-dot blouse when her mother flashed her a look. Her mother’s face was contorted with rebuke.
Footsteps came running towards her door…
Funaya sat very still, quite unsettled by everything around her: the white lights that poured in bright glares from the long glass tubes on the ceiling, the men and women in blue clothes, and the bearded man in glasses whom everyone called ‘Doctor’, who wore a white overall and talked like he had rocks in his throat. Even the smell of antiseptic unsettled her. She could not talk to her mother, as badly as she wanted to. When she had tried, she had been harshly rebuked. ‘Oya, will you sit down. Are you a baby?’ Her mother seemed worried. She looked older than she had ever seen her. Her wrinkles were deeper, and she looked thinner with shadows locked in fleshy depressions in her face and neck.
‘Madam Okolie, please come with me, ‘ the doctor said to Funaya’s mother, turning from a counter where he was speaking to a brown-haired nurse. He then started walking towards a door with a sign: DR. EZEKIEL. As he walked, his shiny brown shoes knocked-knocked down the corridor.
When Mrs. Okolie sat in the office, she tried to feel calm, but she felt tensed, filled with a sense of foreboding. There were tears behind her eyelids.
‘Madam Okolie, ‘ the doctor said, ‘Good morning.’
‘Ehen, Doctor. Thank you. How is my daughter?’
‘She is fine.’
‘Okay. So what’s wrong? What’s wrong with her?’
‘Like I said, she is fine. But, Madam, there is a small problem.’
He took off his eyeglasses and wiped them. Mrs. Okolie shifted in her chair, slightly irritated by the doctor’s delaying.
He raised his head and looked at her.
‘She is pregnant… and she tried to kill the baby.’
‘Chim o.’ My God. She flung her hands to her face and covered her mouth.
The doctor made to say something, but she cut him off.
‘This cannot be… She has always been a good child. No it cannot be.’
Doctor Ezekiel sat and looked at this woman struggling with emotions of shock and fear, of guilt and grief. He tried to reassure her. She would not listen. Then he spoke in a matter-of-fact way.
‘Madam Okolie,’ he said, ‘I am sorry you have to go through this, but your daughter needs serious and urgent medical care. She must stay here with us. Five days at least. We need to monitor her and the baby to ensure they are doing fine.’ He paused.
The woman was solid and fat, willing into herself all the composure she could find within. He could see that feeling; he had seen it three or four times– that feeling of defeat. This woman with her stubby fingers folded firmly on his table and with sweat forming around the neck of her wine-coloured blouse was thinking herself now a miserable failure. And he felt sorry for her.
‘Madam Okolie, you must bring these items with you tomorrow: a towel, tissue paper, Dettol…’ His voice faded in her ears. All she saw was her daughter in a bed, and the blurry image of a wall gecko dancing in her watery eyes.
She got up and left the office. She took funaya’s hand and both of them went outside the door and walked to the main road where they boarded a tricycle ‘keke-napep’. As the tarmac flashed by, she noticed Funaya had become less alert, no longer drawing patterns on her wrapper with her fingers. She drew the girl closer and rested her head in her lap. A tear slipped from the corner of her eye and trickled down her cheek. Was it this closeness with her daughter?
When they got off the keke-napep, Funaya was quite surprised at how quickly her mother walked. Her footsteps seemed angry and impatient. There was no dust today, Funaya liked it very much. She liked the footprints impressed in the wet brown sand. The footprints made her feel the people who had walked here had not completely left, as if they had left a piece of themselves for her. She felt like she had a memory of each of them, like she could go where they had all been and be with them.
‘Good morning, Ma,’ some children greeted, running past and wheeling plastic circles with a thin metal rod they had bent into shape for that purpose.
She knew one of them. He didn’t go to school and he seemed to like it. His name was Timo. She knew him because whenever she was going to school, she would find him running down the street, wheeling the plastic circle which he had cut out of paint-bucket covers, calling over at her, ‘Yellow paw-paw, I like your shiny shiny shoe.’ But today she had not gone to school, and she had no shiny shoes on. But she was not as happy as Timo was. Maybe it was because of her mother, and her sister too. She ran forward to catch up with her mother who was walking towards a woman, Mama Gladys, who sold smoked fish in a shed whose thoroughly leaking roof was held up by smoke-blackened tree branches. The woman always called her mother ‘my customer’, smiling very graciously whenever she did.
Her mother stopped at the shed and both women greeted. She could hear the loud voice of Mama Gladys, a voice rich with laughter.
When she reached her mother, she had almost finished buying. Mama Gladys was trying to make small talk with her mother.
‘Mam Funaya. How na? I no see you for Charismatic.’
‘Something make me no fit come.’
‘Okay.’ She smiled and looked down at Funaya. ‘Funaya, how are you? You are on mid-term break, not so?’
‘So Monday now you go back to school. That is good. Read ya books o.’ She smiled again and plucked Funaya’s cheek. ‘This one is going to become a doctor, ‘ she said, turning to Mrs. Okolie.
‘Amen o,’ Mrs. Okolie replied with a flat face.
‘Mam Funaya, sure everything fine?’
‘God is in control.’
‘What of Adanne? She too dey on mid-term, abi?’
‘I carry Adanne go hospital.’
‘Ah, wetin dey do my pikin?’
‘Mama Gladys, abegi, problem dey ever finish for this life? I go see you for mass on Sunday,’ Mrs. Okolie said in a voice that sounded tired, taking Funaya by the hand and turning to go.
‘Okay o. Bye-bye,’ Mama Gladys waved in a voice tainted with curiosity and dissatisfaction.
Both started to walk home.
When they reached home, Mrs. Okolie made okra soup with the fish and served out a small portion for Funaya. She ate alone on the floor and talked to herself. The sun was hot, so flies just flew lazily about, perching on the table, the floor, on Funaya’s hair and on her food. Whenever they did, she waved them off distractedly. Everything seemed uninteresting. There were no sounds just the distant cries of goats in the streets, and the call of hawkers. It all seemed lifeless and unreal.
She picked her plate. She no longer wanted to eat the food. It had already grown cold, so she took it to the kitchen and placed a smaller bowl over it and left it by the stove.
Entering the living room, she lifted her head to the wall. Studying the hands of the clock carefully, she nodded to herself, realizing that the time was twenty-five minutes past three. Why had her mother not come outside? She went to her room door and peeped in. Her mother was not sleeping as she had thought. She was just stretched out on the bed, looking at the ceiling with vacant eyes that she knew saw nothing. Hmm, she breathed, a gesture that showed this was beyond her.
The day went on like that– silent– till the next day.
Mrs. Okolie woke quite early and went into the kitchen with only a small rechargeable light to show the way. She was humming a song: ‘Rock of ages cleft for me…’ Her song was heavy as it came out of her, as if they settled like dense black clouds, suffocating her. She bent and struck a match. The yellow light fanned across the small kitchen walls. There were many images coming to life and dying out in the faint glow that bathed the kitchen as she touched the flaming match-stick to the wicks of the kerosene stove. When the fire settled to a gentle, deep blue, she placed a big pot of water over the stove and went in to wake Funaya.
The girl woke with a slight murmur, chewing her mouth sleepily, and tugging her arms free from her mother’s grip so as to sleep again.
‘Wake up, will you,’ her mother yanked her arm with delicate sternness.
Funaya’s eyes opened and she greeted: ‘Good morning, Mummy.’
‘Morning. Now come, wake up. It’s time for prayer.
Funaya wished she could beg for more time. Why did prayer have to come when sleep was sweetest?
She took Funaya’s hand in hers, and both of them entered the parlour. They settled in the old couch, faint light coming through the curtain. Funaya took her rosary from about her neck and her mother retrieved hers from a stool.
‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,’ her mother began to recite the rosary, both of them slipping the waxy beads between their fingers. As they said the Hail Marys, Funaya imagined the Immaculate Mother sitting peacefully by the window in her white and blue flowing down to her ankles in rich heavenly folds. She imagined she might even have a small smile on her face as she listened to them pray.
As her mother continued to pray, the house felt empty, too empty. And in her ears, their voices seemed to belong to strangers. They finished praying the rosary, and her mother moved on to some other earnest prayer of her own. She petitioned God for strength, for wisdom, for power. She asked God to take control. ‘Father Lord Jesus, take control. Take control in Adanne’s case,’ she repeatedly prayed. Her voice was shaking and her arms were trembling– Funaya could feel it. Funaya could also feel that her mother was about to cry, and that she was also trying to conceal it.
It was then Funaya really began to miss her sister, to feel her absence in the echoing spaces that grew around her. She began to fear that something serious had happened to Adanne. ‘What was Adanne’s case?’ She found herself constantly asking. The way her mother prayed telling God about ‘Adanne’s case’, it made it sound ominous, like something filled with an unutterable evil. Cold creeped up Funaya’s toes and up through her entire body, and hid in every space under her skin. Ugly thoughts began to form in her head, building themselves from the words of prayer her mother was muttering.
She pressed her eyelids hard on each other to drive these thoughts away, and then she too prayed for Adanne, her arms trembling like her mother’s.
When a week had passed and Adanne had not come back, God became a more insistent presence in the house. Funaya could feel him in the small things and the big things: in how firmly she tied her headscarf, in the way her mother listened so raptly it seemed she had stopped blinking, in the way she shook when she prayed, in how visitors came and went, in how regularly they went to church, such that the neighbours didn’t have to guess very hard when they returned in the evening, all of them asking: ‘how church?’
Church was always the same. The marble crucifix between the stained glass, with Jesus looking as pale and thin as he always looked. The men, women and children always came in, rippling the air with the loud shuffling of their many feet. They would sit and rise as they did every time, and bow their heads and raise their hands, and clap and sing with fervour, and sometimes with cool, solemn reverence. Father Patrick would give the homily and the communion. Whenever it was time for communion, Mama Gladys would climb up the altar and announce in her voice that sounded like laughter. ‘It is time for Holy Communion.’ Then, everyone would stand up, and her mother too would stand, her fingers clasped over her belly, and her face bearing a look of holy serenity. Sometimes she would flash Funaya a look that said: are you not going for communion? whenever Funaya didn’t get up as quickly. Everything was so routine, so ordinary.
Charismatic Renewal meetings too were always the same. They always had their meetings in the evening, by six o’clock on Thursday, and her mother was a member. This Friday, however, Funaya had not seen her mother’s fervour as she always had on other evenings when she would, along with the rest, cry out long prayers to God, and shake her head and her whole body violently. She had prayed and sung today like she had just realized that prayers and singing should only be a matter of lips, not a violent, body-quaking affair. With every movement of her lips in that assembly of prayer, Funaya saw how strong she was and how tired. Her prayer that evening sounded as if she was unsure, unsure of where God was.
On Saturday, they had gone to the hospital. The room Adanne was smelt of oranges, and she was awake. There were many beds with patients, some talking, some quiet. Some had visitors, and some did not. She looked thinner, her hair was the colour of rust. Although her eyes held a smile, her face was frighteningly pale. She tried to speak, but her voice came out weakly. She managed a small greeting: ‘Mummy, good morning.’
Mrs. Okolie just sat and didn’t speak. She just looked in her daughter’s face, trying to understand.
‘How are you?’ she then asked.
Adanne nodded, and it seemed her whole body shook in the loose white gown she wore.
There was silence.
Mrs. Okolie was wrestling with a question.
‘Please, Funaya, go to where the fair nurse is and wait for me.’
Funaya walked out, looking back briefly at the door.
‘Now, how old are you?’ Mrs. Okolie asked Adanne.
‘Just answer me. I know you can talk.’
‘Fifteen. And you have started to meet with a man.’ She looked at her daughter, and a tear slipped from her eyes. ‘Who did it?’
There was no answer.
‘Who? Tell me.’
A brief pause.
The name swung like a heavy pendulum. Mrs. Okolie began to feel sweat break out on her palms.
‘Nne, why did you let this happen? What did he give to you?’
‘And you tried to kill it. Look at you. You almost killed yourself.’ She blinked back a tear.
‘I am sorry.’
Sorry was the only thing she could think to say. It was the easiest thing– just roll it out numbly. It was a very small price to pay for acting for the first time the way she wanted, the way she felt like. She felt no sadness, no deep remorse, no jabbing guilt. What she felt was a bitter condemnation, and that was the only thing that was real about it all. It was the only frame she could put around this foggy photograph her life was becoming. She felt condemnation not so much for her actions as for her inaction. She felt condemnation for her being unable to be one thing and one thing completely. She had failed at not getting pregnant. She had failed at getting rid of a pregnancy. Now as she lay here, she knew she had failed at giving life to this baby that was growing inside of her; and this was the strongest condemnation: that she had failed to be a mother. She couldn’t see the distant future, but she knew that every tomorrow that she could see and lumber into with this new life would be a failure that would never grow out. It was these failures, this helplessness in the face of futility that filled her with this condemnation that nibbled at her soul like rats, slowly but ever so steadily. This feeling did not roar or bark at her, or maybe she was too weak to indulge the forces of her spirit. It came as whispers, slow and soft like waters lapping the stones of shore, but with knife-like insistence.
Everything came as a haze, swirling in the fragrance of oranges. The nurses were a haze, especially the one with a gold hair who she remembered had said, ‘Eyah small girl’ with a tone that sounded like pity and disgust at the same time. The patients who sat with tired eyes on their blue beds were a haze. The doctor with his big head and his eyeglasses hanging limply on his hard nose, who floated about from bed to bed, was a haze. Each time he came to her bed and touched her head with his damp fingers and said, ‘Her temperature is fine,’ she thought of sweet-smelling smoke and orange flames. Maybe it was his perfume, or his voice, always sounding like a lover’s, like Aboy’s when he wanted to come inside her. Aboy too was a haze. Much as she wanted to see his solid form, all she saw were quick movements, sweat, breath, and haze.
Had he meant anything to her? She couldn’t tell for sure. She just knew that it was first out of rebellion, something to crush her mother’s sanctimonious and annoying religious lecturing. At first it had been to quell her mother’s ceaseless advice that assumed and judged on those evenings. But when he had touched her, she didn’t know why she did it anymore. She just went. And she felt only one thing: him inside her. That was all she felt of him, and that was all she craved from him. That was all she knew of him. She didn’t feel betrayed or used. She only felt her failure and her condemnation, and something that bothered on fondness.
This fondness was for her baby. He was beginning to feel like her own. The doctor had said he was a boy. She could even hear him inside of her, like a second heartbeat. Although she didn’t know Aboy too deeply, or how much he had loved her, she somehow felt he had shared in giving her this gift, and in her heart, she felt a small gratefulness. And this tenderness was the only source of whatever guilt she felt. She felt as if she had betrayed her son. She had never felt ashamed of him. She had only felt fear, fear at new and uncertain possibilities, at unplanned life twists. It was fear that made her take those pills, not shame. She wished she could tell him this. Every minute, she wished she had been dragged to Aboy’s door with her bulging stomach like she had seen other girls dragged by their mothers. It would have been atonement, her sacrifice, her entitlement to have him and love him.
Every day, in this long room of beds, she saw the faces of love and pain, how entwined the two were. Life was a struggle against pain, a struggle to hold on to the reasons for love. She saw this struggle in the sickle-cell woman who screamed with pain in her bed. It was in the face of the black woman who peeled oranges every day and sucked them slowly without speaking. Perhaps it was what she saw traces of in her mother whenever she came to visit.
That evening, there were fierce noises in the backyard. Funaya stood on the fringe of the gathering crowd and watched as her mother sprang on Uncle Aboy. She screamed in his face and pulled at his collar. ‘You are a bastard! You are a shameless bastard!’ She was screaming with fury. She slapped him and punched him. Uncle Aboy did not fight back or scream back. He was paralysed with shame, as even the neighbours were hurling insults at him.
Her mother let go of his shirt, too weak to fight anymore, too weak even for tears. She walked into the house like someone drunk, supported by Mama Femi who held her around the back. She sat in the old couch and the neighbours filled the parlour, all of them talking. Their voices filled the dark house like rumbling clouds. Many of them said sorry. They told her to take it easy that God would take control. Funaya looked at her mother where she sat, her head thrown back and resting on the couch. She was tired. The neighbours continued to talk well into the evening, and they started to go out. As they went, their voices sounded like vague murmurings, and their words swam after them like the decaying wings of dragonflies.
Funaya was sitting by her mother on the bed, folding the clothes they had brought in from the line. Dust particles swam in the sunlight. There were questions in her mind.
‘Mummy, is Adanne going to have a baby? Is it Uncle Aboy?’ She asked in Igbo.
‘Look I am tired biko.’ Her voice was harsher than she had planned. She immediately felt sorry that the girl had to witness all this ugliness.
Funaya looked down at the faded blue dungarees in her lap. She had been wearing it for four years now, since she was five. Now it was too small for her, but she still liked it and still squeezed herself into it. She folded it and placed it on the neat pile beside her, and took another clothe and folded it, and picked another.
No words were exchanged between mother and daughter. The silence was getting uncomfortable for Mrs. Okolie.
‘Nne,’ she called Funaya.
‘Ma.’ Funaya wiped her wet eyes and lifted her head.
‘Nne, have I been a bad mother?’ she asked, ignoring the tears that she noticed in Funaya’s eyes.
Funaya was slightly taken aback by the question.
‘No,’ she answered.
‘What job do I do to take care of you people, eh, Funaya?’
‘You are a tailor, Mummy.’
‘Do I deprive you girls of anything?’
‘No, Mummy.’ The questions were uncomfortable.
‘God is my witness. Whatever I have, I give to you children. Two weeks ago, I had to go to your school to beg your headmaster not to send you home for school fees and last week I went to pay, am I lying?’
‘So why has Adanne done this to me? I give everything for you girls. I try my best to bring you both up in a Godly way, yet it seems I am not doing anything. Despite my efforts, Adanne has turned into a wayward girl.’
Funaya looked down at her thighs, not knowing what to make of the conversation. The place suddenly became hot and stuffy, and she became restless, itching to go outside to the veranda.
Her mother’s voice again. ‘I will tell you. You are not a baby anymore. Yes, your sister is pregnant. She is pregnant for Aboy.’
They both fell silent, both of them contemplating this new door that had opened in their lives. They both felt fear and unease. They felt naked, stripped by the words that still had lingering echoes behind their ears.
Her mother folded the last few clothes on the bed, while she fumbled with a singlet.
Her mother’s voice came, distant and weightless: ‘Nne, fold that thing fast and put it with the rest in the drawer.’
She then rose and went to the Mirror and took up her wallet and removed a fifty-naira note from it.
‘When you are done, go and fetch some water before Mama Femi says she has stopped selling. Take the fifty naira on the mirror shelf.’
And her mother went out. Her fingers suddenly felt stiff.