Fiction

For Both Our Sakes: A Short Story by Nnamdi Oguike

            Munachi had a large heart and humane soul that struck me as amazing in a world where there were men sniffing the villages and the streets, like famished dogs, hungering for girls to hang out with, to sleep with and to later dump. No, Munachi was different. And it was not his noble character alone that drove me so helplessly to him. He had broad shoulders and thick, muscly arms that looked like boughs of obeche; and he looked down divinely on me through eyes that bulged mannishly but harmlessly to say ‘I love you’ or to kiss me on the forehead, his most assuring token of love. He was a very handsome man to me. Bearded but clean-shaven. With thick eyebrows. Craggy Adam’s apple. Thick, hard breasts. I always felt I was enjoying a lovely sculpture when I held him close to my body. Munachi.

            We loved each other in silence. In words. In glances. In letters. In dance. I was a good dancer – I made perfect use of my lissom waist. And Munachi would have fallen for that when I danced healthily in church during thanksgiving.

            As a little girl in the Boys and Girls Brigade, I had noticed Munachi’s charm. Then he was the only Captain in the whole of Obazu. We called him Captain! He was the youthful pride of Holy Trinity Church. And when he was turned out in his dark-blue Boys Brigade cap, white shirt and dark blue trousers, gesturing, walking, staring at people in a very stately manner, I thought he was a true son of Alexander Smith.

            Even then I had been attracted to him.

But he went on to become the organist of Holy Trinity Church, Obazu. And he played the organ very well.

            When he was wooing me and I was proving too slippery to catch, it was his music that had me spread-eagled. Not even his handsomeness. Munachi was very funny. He would carry Holy Trinity’s keyboard to my father’s house and begin playing church hymns. He knew my father liked hymns: so Papa would not give him any opposition. My mother had a suspicious eye.

            ‘Munachi, tell me the truth’, she asked him formidably one day. ‘What is all this organ playing in our house for?’

            ‘Nothing,’ Munachi chuckled. (I was listening amusedly from my room.) ‘Nothing, Ma. Just playing church hymns for Uncle Moses. Uncle Moses likes hymns.’

            ‘For Uncle Moses, eh?’ Mama said, grinning in mock amusement.

            ‘Yes, for Uncle Moses.’

            ‘Well!’ she said indignantly, ‘Uncle Moses has gone for Parochial Church Committee meeting. He is not in to enjoy your organ music.’

            ‘Others can enjoy it, Ma – ’

            ‘Others like who?’

            Munachi was left tongue-tied, chuckling defeatedly, wringing embarrassed fingers.

            ‘Others like who?’ Mama’s voice rose higher.

            I had to interfere.

            Munachi’s music was sweet and intoxicating like wine tapped from the oil-palm tree.

            ‘Mama leave him alone,’ I said. ‘If he has come to play music for us, then there is nothing bad about it. There’s nothing bad about playing church songs in somebody’s house…’

            Right there, Munachi and I connected superbly with his rich smile streaming like the Okitamkwu stream in wet season, rushing through Ubakuru village.

            He was handsome. He was a musician. And I was already in love with him.

            My mother did not stand in our way. She and I had our private discussions in which she said how much she wished a good husband for me. I had finished secondary school. Done a diploma at Alvan Ikoku college of Education and was already a teacher at one secondary school in Obazu. What else would a girl my age be waiting for?

            ‘I do not wish to stand in your way, Ezinne’, Mama said to me. ‘I want a husband for you. A proper husband. Proper in word and deed. Someone who can take care of you, love you, protect you. Someone who will not beat you up. Someone who will not bring shame on you.’

            I was sure Munachi was a man with all those qualities. And even more.

            ‘No, he hasn’t what you think he has,’ Mama said.

            ‘Why?’ I asked.

            ‘That boy has no proper job.’

            ‘But, Mama, it is not right to look down on a man’s little beginnings. He is doing a diploma programme at the college now. Tomorrow may be bright.’

            ‘That boy you want to marry smokes like a devil. It is not right. He may be a good musician, but one who has a smoker husband may be widowed young.’

            ‘Mama, I will make him stop smoking,’ I said. ‘I have already spoken to him about his habit. And he promises to change gradually.’

            ‘Nobody changes a man who smokes.’

            Ah, Mama was wrong this time! I had a surfeit of examples to prove to her how wrong she was. I had names to reel off – names of women whose husbands were chain smokers or drunkards but who changed the habits of their men into sweet testimonies. With the power of love.

            ‘Mama, have you forgotten Mama Chibuzo, Mama Nkiru, Mrs Irene who told his white chainsmoker suitor to give up smoking or she would not marry him? What of Mama Bomboy? Her husband no longer smokes. I have the power of love, Mama.’ I said. ‘And that man will die if he does not marry me.’

            Munachi and I were mad with love for each other. Munachi took me to bars. We ate ugba, fried snails or Congo meat, beef pepper soup – of a kind we called nkwobi. We had beers. He smoked, as usual.

            ‘I’m cutting down on my cigarettes, for your sake’, he would say, letting out his beefy laugh sweet like fresh palm wine.

            And I would argue blithely with him:

            ‘Not for my sake; it is for your sake.’

            ‘Don’t you understand love? I am you and you are me. There is no difference. One plus one is one says the priest!’

            We would argue until we agreed.

            ‘Yes, it is for both our sakes.’

            We did stupid things. Like sleeping in the football field. Under myriads of lamps of stars.

            There we looked at the night sky in admiration. We counted the stars. Munachi said they were our sons and daughters.

            ‘How many sons will you have for me?’ he asked me.

            ‘How many do you want me to? ‘I said, nosing into his gleaming eyes on all fours like a gazelle.

            ‘Let’s count the stars,’ he said.

            ‘One, two, three, four… Ten, eleven…twenty…twenty-five… Do you still want more?’

            ‘Count, count, count,’ he said.

            Munachi’s hand went slithering into my gown like a reptile… and I was enjoying it, although fearfully… and in a brief while I wondered what my mother would think of my rude outings… and I would think also of night thieves, night creatures, a stray torchlight that may find us or the profane mpanaka that billowed out black, rude fumes over its yellow-sad fumes; I would think of the pneumonia-laden cold and the soughing, gossipy harmattan winds that threw dust into our eyes…

            Shooting stars fireworked our nights.

            Munachi liked such nightly beauties, liked the harmattan; he was full of romantic tales, of honeymoons in Africa that could surpass those in America; he said he would love us to get married in a harmattan, that romance was sweetest when near Christmas. I didn’t like the cold and the chapping of lips and heels that attacked me and my mother in the season. We had very vulnerable lips and soles. We avoided talking with our mouths wide open so that our lips would not break. So I blithely whined to Munachi: ‘No, Sweetheart, we won’t get married during the harmattan so that I won’t come out in the photographs, my lips chapped, straining my smiles in pain. No, we can get married during Easter.’

            But Munachi kissed my chapped, reddened lips. He sucked them as if there was ice cream in them. ‘All for both our sakes.’

            He smoked like hell in those nights; I wondered if he was doing any cutting down at all.

            ‘You are smoking too much,’ I would say.

            ‘I’m not smoking too much,’ he would say. ‘I’m cutting down. It’s your mind. I’m cutting down for both our sakes.’

            I began to love to hear him say ‘for both our sakes’. That gave me a clean sense of partnership. I was not alone after all. The perfume from Munachi’s cigarettes scented the darkness, charmed my nightly fears. His muscly body – his artwork body – embraced me, warmed me. Sweet things.

            Sweet things always rose like cigarette smokes in my life.

            Munachi fought with a youth for both our sakes. The boy had unwittingly beamed his torchlight on us while we lay sprawled out like mats on the football field. Then Munachi shot out like a mad dog and unleashed blows on him. The boy flailed helplessly on the field after futile efforts at disentangling his lean body.

            I wailed in the night.

            I bawled at Munachi to stop. ‘Stop beating him, my love – please stop what you are doing!’

            Munachi yelled back at me: ‘SHUT UP, YOU IDIOT. WHAT DO YOU KNOW?’

            I cried and cried and cried…

 

            Munachi was dismissed from Holy Trinity Church choir because he nearly killed the boy that night. The news spread quickly through the village like those fires people set on dry fields in December to prepare for the next planting season.

            The world about Munachi and me became warped like plywood in the harmattan. He seldom said things were ‘for both our sakes’. But he still loved me. And I loved him more and more, as if the unhappiness of one’s lover were an ingredient for one’s weedy growth of love. Now I thought more and more of Munachi, thought about him as if my head were the second hand of Papa’s Grandfather’s clock that went tick-tock, tick-tock through the cycles of time.

            I supported Munachi with my salary from the secondary school before he found another church to play for. Out in the field, I tried to relive the past. I talked of the stars, the shooting stars –

            ‘The stars are for both our sakes,’ I said.

            He was silent.

            I began to count the stars.

            I counted them in a very hollow way – as through each phosphorescent spot in the sky was a hole into nothing.

            ‘Nne, look, look, look,’ Munachi said to me in an indignant voice. ‘There are no stars in the night of a man whose girlfriend gives him money.’

            We quarrelled that night. How could he say that? I loved him and that was enough. Love without money was not enough, he said. I loved him even though he was without money, I said. I did not know what I was saying, he said.

            We quarrelled and quarrelled in the broadness of the night until he ended our row with a slap on my face!

            I staggered heavily to my father’s house; yet I loved him. I wouldn’t eat. I wouldn’t even sleep. I thought about Munachi. I wept in the night for Munachi. Nothing could erase his face from my head for a minute. The next morning when I shamefully looked myself in the mirror, I saw that my eyes had become red like like tatashi pepper. I wondered frightfully what had happened to me.

            Munachi came begging that morning. He, too, could not sleep the night before. I looked at my man: he was big and muscly, with eyes red like ripe, chewable ojukwu palm fruits. He had not slept a wink since last night, he said. He had been thinking about me all along. ‘Forgive me, Nne. Please forgive me.’ How could I say no to him when my heart had been hooked like a fish?

            I followed him to his house.

We sealed up our love with blood. Munachi got a razor and with it he made incisions into our thumbs. We pressed our thumbs together to let our bloods fuse. It was a ritual for both our sakes, we said. It didn’t seem painful to me, for the soothing herbs and fat of love had deadened all my fears and pain in that moment of bleeding.

And Munachi went on to cook a delicious meal for us to eat. It was ukwa, or breadfruit. Behind Munachi’s family house were gigantic trees that people never dared to sit under for fear of being smashed to death by the heavy breasts of breadfruit that hung ominously on them as if biding their time, waiting for who to fall upon. But those heavy green ukwa balls provided Munachi with food.  

           

Now those things come to me like mere memories. Munachi now says he shouldn’t have married me in the first place. He says things like: ‘I was warned not to marry you. Your palm wine spilled on the way. Yet I continued foolishly. I hate you! I hate you!’

            When he says he hates me I wonder what has happened to him. I wonder what has happened to me. What has happened for both our sakes.

            He did not give up smoking after all. Now he smoked packet after packet, as if in contest. When he came back from his drunken alliances with the bar and harlots, our house smouldered like a fire half-killed, half-quenched with water or sand, mourning silently and smelling badly.

            I could not sleep with him on the same bed. His body reeked. It was full of harlots’ kisses and hugs. His sweat was slime. Harlots’ slime.

            My Munachi! Yes, he often said I was a jealous crab and an insufferable scorpion because I would speak my mind for both our sakes and would never hide it like many old women in our village who tie the end of their wrappas round their smelly money and hide it in the bulging folds at their waists.

            When I looked at the manly body that was sweetly mine under the night sky in the football field, I questioned my memory.

            I questioned that we ever sat in the night counting our sons and daughters in the stars. Now we hadn’t got the stars. Not even one. In seven long years.

            And Munachi soured like soup. His words to me were hideous. ‘Worthless woman, you can’t cook! You can’t love. Prostitutes are better than you. Pack your things and go! I have no need of you!’

            He said that many times and beat me up; yet I felt my love for him held me from fighting back. I only cried like a child. ‘My Munachi! What have I done to you?’

            Then I began to decay myself. And I could not believe what I had done to his colour TV one day. I snatched a hammer from under my bed. Hmm! Straight at his TV. ‘For both our sakes.’

            He beat me thoroughly. He beat and slapped and kicked and boxed. He manhandled me until he was tired of his brutish discipline.

            I came out of that beating like an ancestral ghost. But with each blow from his muscly hand, he had fashioned out a defiant spirit in me. He had made me bloody and bold. Had made me more unwilling to think in terms of stars. Had made me more unattractive to himself and made me spurn every bulge of muscle on his sculpted body. Everything he did now, he did for both our sakes.

            Munachi’s parents and my parents became bitter with each other. My father said Munachi should not have ruined my beauty in – because my face was broken up and my eyes were swollen up like boils. Munachi’s father blamed me for smashing his son’s TV.

            ‘My son is ill,’ he said to me, ‘and you know it. You should be making him more relaxed like a good wife should do and not be destroying his things like a woman without home training.’

            Truly, Munachi’s health was ebbing. It was his lungs. The doctor said he must give up smoking or his emphysema would kill him.

            Munachi tried.

            But he smoked furtively in his own bedroom – we no longer slept in the same room – and the cigarette smell betrayed his secrecy.

            When I put in a word of the doctor’s warning, war broke out in our house again.

            I felt deeply guilty for smashing our TV. He would have been relaxing more frequently at home now watching CNN, soap operas, movies and the like. He stayed longer outside and it pained me greatly. I felt like a scorpion tortured by her burden of venom!

            A group of boys from our neighbourhood picked him up from a gutter after one of his obscene dealings in a bar. The bar was now where much of the money he made from his musical concerts in Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt; from his few tours with his chorale outside the country.

            The morning after the boys brought him home, I went to his room.

            ‘Did you see the boys before they left?’ I asked cryptically.

            He was writing something. It was one of those scribbles he was fond of making at uninterrupted hours – composing. And I had interrupted the process unwittingly.

            ‘What boys?’ he grunted.

            ‘So you did not see them? They brought you here yesterday. They found you in a gutter and picked you up. When they brought you, you were grimy. I had to take off your greasy clothes and cover you with neat ones – the pyjamas that you are wearing now…’

            Now he had stopped writing down those curly, lovely symbols that when sung out or played by him became sweet sounds that lifted the soul into heaven, sounds that brought me back memories of him sitting on a low stool in my father’s yard, a keyboard before him, playing Papa’s favourite hymns and bits of Handel’s Messiah.

            He stopped writing and in perfect stillness placed on me a piercing, cursing, shameful stare that could have lasted more than a minute.

            ‘The kindly boys brought back your car,’ I continued. ‘This is the key. (I shook it before him as if to dispel his doubts.) Thank God you didn’t drive. Things could have been very bad.’ And when I said ‘Things could have been very bad’ I actually meant that he might not have been alive now composing that masterpiece sprawling out before him.

            His stare lasted longer as if to take all of me into those big eyes, which once were round gates through which his love beamed into my soul.

            ‘Your hot water is ready for your bath,’ I dropped at him, frustrating wistful remembrances rushing curiously like journalists to a scene of scandal. ‘Your breakfast is ready, too –’

            I was going to add ‘It’s akara and akamu, your best meal’ before I saw myself striving to stand from the blood-red rug of his bedroom.

            A portrait of Beethoven hanging peevishly on the wall glowered at me. It seemed to be shrieking: NOW I’M GOING TO FINISH YOU OFF TODAY.

            The rug also connived with the rippling ceiling and walls into a shaking, sinking pool of blood. I found myself gasping, entreating frantically: ‘Munachi, Munachi – please, please, please…’, my arms folded over my face.

            But he was kicking and swearing and smiling and pummeling and frothing at the mouth. Muscular words flexed out of his mouth execrably. Words like: ‘I AM GOING TO KILL YOU NOW LIKE A RAT, YOU WHORE.’

            I flailed and clung to his car key as a last hope of deliverance. Stings of newly-broken flesh throbbed all over my body like stars in the night sky. Blood was leaving my body, dribbling down my forearm, down my thighs. I could feel the warm flow of it down my cool ankle. The rug concealed the brutality of his beating, united its own redness with mine in plush wedlock.

            Munachi unbound from me with a last heavy kick. He clutched his manuscripts and tore out of his room like an assassin escaping from the scene of murder. Perhaps he had seen the enormity of the work of his own hands, the same hands that had crept stealthily and craftily from under my skirt in those crazy nights full of stars and shooting stars and an astounding constellation of chirrupping crickets; the very gifted hands that were secure and fluid when he played on the piano, working out the nuances of his own compositions that had taken his name beyond the borders of Nigeria. Yes, those hands.

            And I, too, had seen my new image looming, doddering, fat-eyed, fat-lipped and bathed in palm oil, in his standing mirror.

            No, it was not me. It could not be me.

It could not be Ezinne. Ezinne that my mother fondly called African beauty. She once said to me: ‘Ezinne, you are the reincarnation of my grandmother. She was so beautiful our people used her name to tell proverbs. Even in her old age, she shimmered with beauty. You have her nose, her gapped teeth, her sunrise eyes, her long neck. Nobody in our extended family resembles her as closely as you do.’

            Was it now my grandmother looming out large with ageing fat in the mirror in this way? In rejection to the corrupt suggestion of Munachi’s mirror, I tottered up, my tacky palms publishing my fingerprints redly on Munachi’s walls.

            It pained to move. It pained to touch things, to breathe, to see. The world mourned glassily, looking out of my eyes. But –

            I was up on my feet again.

            And I was waiting for Munachi to finish me off for bringing him his key and waking up very early this morning to make him his breakfast and for talking to him about last night’s shamefulness for both our sakes.

            Munachi must be very sad. The piano –

            He had bought a handsome piano. From those successful concerts in Los Angeles, London, Munich… The piano was the finest and most comforting thing in the loneliness of our big house. My fingers usually galloped out of it confused sounds and chords and chaotic arpeggios. But not so when Munachi’s gifted hands lifted forgiveness and sorrow and complexity out of the dark rooms of the piano.

            Now Munachi was playing something new on the piano.

But now as I heard the chords and cadences, they dropped on my battered body like stars falling into a vast ocean of silence. In my mouth, the music tasted like salt. Like blood.

            Leaning on the jamb of the door leading into our living room where Munachi was pounding away on his piano, I could see the boys that had picked him up from the gutter huddled up behind him. Smiling. Clapping. Tapping their feet on the ground. Munachi played out his new composition to them.

       Perhaps the boys had heard my yelps and had come to our house to rescue me.

            Now they sang around Munachi.

            And I could hear Munachi telling them to sing like Africans, not like Italians. The piece was an African masterpiece. It would be played accompanied by tom-toms, rattles, slit drums, water pots, udu. And in their next superb concert in London, the chorale would be donned out in ancient African clothing.  The sopranos and altos would wear cowries and beads and smoked raffia skirts and ankle rattles and their exposed bellies and thighs and faces would be painted with uli. The drummers and the lot of male singers would wear eagle feathers and smoked raffia skirts like ancestral warriors. The white people in London would be thrilled at the rich cultural heritage coming right from the African heartland…

            And the boys, enthralled, laughed loudly and merrily at another prospect of traveling to London. They seemed to have forgotten all else, forgotten the night before. Perhaps forgotten my yelps today, too.

            They clapped, cheered, praised, danced, ran scales on the piano. They made such a blissful world around the piano with their rejoicing it seemed nothing untoward had happened since the world began.

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