When Chike read in the magazine, Nature, that frogs abandon their offspring in the water, he became angry with frogs and with his mother.
“Pastor, is it right for a mother to leave her children?” Chike had asked after the Sunday service.
The pastor responded with a glint of surprise in his eyes;: “No, son. Children deserve the love of their mothers. Every living thing, even chicken, deserves the love of their mothers.”
“And even frogs?”
“Yes, son. Is anything the matter?”
“Not really, pastor. I want you to pray for my family.”
“It is alright. Let us pray right away.” Chike closed his eyes while the pastor placed his hand on his shoulder and prayed with him.
The next day, a Monday, Chike went to school. As a junior in high school, Rudimentary Biology was one of the subjects he took. Being an avid reader and listener, he would borrow books from the library after class, especially after Rudimentary Biology class. He was learning new things, and he loved every bit of the process. On the pages of the Science books, he drowned himself in the drawings and illustrations. He was learning fast about the peck order of birds, breeding of amphibians, metamorphosis of insects, and everything in between. At home, he seldom played. His father, on observing this, felt it was a good thing – at least he won’t be breaking things anymore, he thought.
During Break Time, he stepped out of his class with a bottle of drink in his hand. While he was sipping the content with a straw, Dike called out. Chike saw the ever-happy boy waving at him. He went to meet him.
“Chi-bobo!” Chi-bobo was the sobriquet his class gave him. “Have you solved the Simultaneous Equation?”
“No.” Chike replied matter-of-factly.
“You see, I told you it was hard for me…”
“I haven’t tried it yet. I will try it at home.” He balanced himself on the swing seat next to Dike and sucked the content of his bottle vigorously.
Dike, swinging slowly and steadily, asked his friend, “You don’t look happy. What’s the matter?”
“Nothing. Nothing that matters to you. I will be fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I will be fine.”
The discussion died instantly and they found unbridled interest in the swing exercise. Their school shirts puffed with air as they went back and forth through the airstream. They talked about how people appeared double in their eyes, and later focused on sky patterns. When the school bell rang, they were already too cloudy-eyed to find their way back immediately.
On a breezy Friday afternoon, Mr. Okonkwo was returning home with his kids Chike and Ozioma. He had gone to bring them back from school. He did not go with his expensive red car, because the thing had developed a major problem two days before. As the three turned into an adjacent road, a man began to call.
“Hey! Hey, Emma. Emmanuel Okonkwo!”
He pushed the children to his right side and gently turned back. He saw a man grinning from ear to ear trying to cross the road. He searched his memory as he waited.
“Emma, just look at you! Man, where have you been?”
Mr. Okonkwo squinted in an attempt to recollect and suddenly said: “James?”
“Yes? That’s me, from high school.”
“Wow!” Mr. Okonkwo exclaimed and hugged him. “Look at you!”
“Yeah, I finally grew a beard.”
Mr. Okonkwo laughed. “Yes, I noticed. We used to make jest of you then. Wow, the young shall grow.”
“You can say that again,” James laughed. His eyes settled on the two children. “Who are the kids? You are married?”
“Yes, for some years now.” The reply was a lacklustre one.
“Ah, it seems getting married early is in vogue. Hope you found happiness. How’s wifey?”
“She’s fine. See, James, why don’t you give me a call. Here’s my business card. Maybe we can hang out sometime.”
“Oh, that’s cool!” He took the card. “Sure, I will call you.”
“Good. I have to go now. Make sure you call me.”
“It’s no problem. Just take care of the kids.”
Mr. Okonkwo took his kids and went homeward, without looking back.
Saturdays meant a lot to Chike and his sister. It was the day their father usually spent time with them. He was the founder and CEO of a company, and that meant he could afford not to go to work on a Saturday. Apart from playing soccer with their dad, they enjoyed the breakfast they always had together on Saturdays – fried plantain, fried eggs, bread, and tea. They had just finished breakfast when Ozioma picked a certain dress from the pile of dirty clothes ready for laundry.
“Dad, when next are we going shopping?”
Mr. Okonkwo lifted his head from the Newspaper he was reading and looked at his daughter jumping from one corner of the sitting room to another. “I don’t know. Maybe next month.”
“Okay, daddy. I’d like you to buy me a nice red gown.”
“Don’t you have one?” Chike asked.
“I do, but it is not so good on me… I mean it does not fit me well. Will you get it for me, dad?”
“There is no problem, I will.” Mr. Okonkwo replied and went back to his Newspaper.
“What do you need that for?” Chike asked dryly.
“Yes, I am a girl. You see, I want to have hips and walk like my favourite actress. You just wait; soon I will be like her.”
“Hips?” Chike asked with a childish smile.
“Don’t worry, the Lord will provide.” Chike said. Mr. Okonkwo held his ribs and laughed. He could not stop himself from laughing at his son’s deadpan humour. Ozioma frowned, the way only small girls could, and ran to her father.
Mr. Okonkwo suddenly drifted away into memory lane. He remembered how he and Zara used to hang out at the park even after they had Chike and Ozioma. How they lovingly fed the pigeons that walked and fluttered all over the place. He even remembered how Zara unintentionally brought him down because she was happy and wanted to jump on him and cross her hands and legs around his neck and waist respectively – he had bought her a car even when he had none. There were really fond memories, but years go by and memories, sometimes, also go by and never return. Minutes later, he returned to reality and saw his son lying on the sofa with a book he was reading. He wondered if he still had his proposal in mind. Once, Chike begged him to marry his Mathematics teacher. According to him, she was beautiful, good, caring, and intelligent. “That’s the kind of mother we need,” he had concluded.
His mind drifted again and he remembered, just as it happens when things go wrong, how his mother had warned him about Zara. He remembered how his mother told him in Igbo, “Nwantakiri nwanyi a na acha anya ke ke, o wu onye ichoro ilu?” – this lady that has ravenous eyes for men, is she who you want to marry? But he had told his mother that Zara was not who she appeared to be, and that she should not judge a book by its cover. He wondered if his mother was still blaming him for his failed marriage. He wondered how he would have been able to take care of the children without the help of the nanny he hired. His neighbour, the woman next yard, had always been good to him — thrice she had invited him over for dinner, but he had declined on all occasions. He was a decent and principled man and, somehow, knew where such kindnesss would lead him. Somehow, somewhere in his heart, he began to consider the Mathematics teacher. He gasped when Ozioma tapped his hand.
“Daddy, I think the laundry man is here? He must be the one at the door.”
Mr. Okonkwo stood up and went for the door.
At school, Chike continued to visit the library. He would borrow just any size of book — from pamphlets to medium-sized books to tomes. As a result of his burgeoning greed for knowledge, his grammar improved tremendously. His classmates dubbed him “The Young Professor”, and he liked the nickname even though he pretended not to. Once during Spelling Bee, he had stunned the judges by spelling a word they considered too technical and big for the mind of any child his age. Chike, too, was impressed by his performance. His father congratulated him, but there was no mother to kiss him on the forehead – just no mother! In school during Fine and Creative Arts, they had produced a male and female puppet and Chike took out the head of the female puppet. His father had to go to the school and apologise for his son’s action, and equally paid a fine for such insufferable behaviour. Chike’s relationship with girls was also noticeably affected. He just would not sit close to a girl in class. Teachers complained and complained, but Chike would not change. But when Miss Fatimah, the Mathematics teacher, complained and asked him to bring his father to school, his heart pumped and shook with excitement. When he returned from school that day, he lost his appetite. His happiness was so satisfying and satiating he would not just eat. When his father returned home, he grabbed his briefcase from him and began to tell the news in crystal-clear language. He even told him how to behave when with Miss Fatimah. His happiness was beyond limit. Mr. Okonkwo nodded his head and told him he would meet his Mathematics teacher, his Miss Fatimah, the next day. Chike thanked his father and anticipated.
It was a Saturday morning when a seemingly unwanted visitor reached Acacia Gardens. She took out her high-heeled shoes and began to bang on a door. She wore an eye patch. As soon as the occupant opened the door, the visitor pushed him out of the way and went in. As soon as she entered, the drama unfolded.
“You? What are you doing here? What… who gave you the address?”
“Don’t ask me that. Where are my kids? Where are they?”
“You must be sick. Zara, you are sick!”
“Ah, I am sick? Well, we will find out later who’s sick. Chike! Ozioma!”
The children answered to their names and began to run down the stairs of the duplex.
“Just what do you think you are doing?”
“What should I do? I am here for my kids!”
“You are here for your kids? Now you are here for your kids? You just appear from the blues and say you are here for the kids? Oh, you are a joker!”
Just then the two children appeared.
“Oh, my cute children! Come, come to mama.”
Ozioma hesitated and then, suddenly, walked to where she stood. Chike did not move.
“Zara, please stay away from my children. Just stay away from them!” Mr. Okonkwo said and grabbed the outstretched arm of his son.
“They are my children too! You can’t take them away from me, not even that Fatimah!” She caught her falling scarf mid-air.
Suddenly, the truth presented itself. She was in their house out of jealousy! But how did she know about Fatimah? Who could have told her?
“Oh, so that’s why you came? So that’s why they are now your kids?”
Ozioma intercepted whatever reply she had. “What happened to your eyes?” she asked, like any caring little girl would.
“Oh, dear, mama had a fall. Thank you, your daddy didn’t even ask. Good girl!”
“Zara, you need to leave now! You hear me? Just leave my house!”
“They are my children, Emma. They are my children! You can’t take them away from me…”
“Where were you all these years I struggled to raise them? Tell me. Oh, you were busy living life with your numerous men and catching fun in any way possible! Isn’t it? Just return to wherever you came from before I lose my cool!”
“I am going to get custody of these kids! You hear me! I am going to get them!”
“You are just a fool! Leave my house!”
She opened the door. “I will get them, just watch and see!” She turned swiftly away from the outside door and walked into the road. But alas! She got knocked down by a speeding bicycle. The kids heard her scream and ran to the window. She staggered up, cursing the rider who was apologising fervently.
“You two should go inside,” Mr. Okonkwo said. As the kids stepped away, he watched his wife stagger to a taxi cab. He shook his head and closed the curtains of the window.
As days passed, Chike feared his unacknowledged mother might take him away from his dear father. He was not going to let her take him away from his ever-present father – not for all the tea in China! However, he made plans on how to deal with her should his wish fall through. At the backyard of their house one Sunday afternoon he sat, close to the beautiful Japanese bonsai tree his father bought last Christmas, brooding. He watched the butterflies perch and take flight and wondered why his life was not as beautiful and simple as that. He wished for better days but did not know how soon these days would come. He heard that court cases were a thing for people with strong hearts and wondered if his heart was strong enough for the custody fight about to begin between his parents. Miss Fatimah, whom he knew, did not give birth to him. But what’s the point in giving birth to a child and abandoning him later? He was still deep in his worries when Ozioma came out through the door, begging him to help her tie the belt of her gown behind her and to help tie every bit of her pitch-black hair into a chignon.
Before the battle for custody began, Mr. Okonkwo’s posts on Facebook were often seen accompanied by #MyLifeAndMyWife, and he always hid the truth from anyone (especially those who did not know he was separated) who cared to ask if things were well with his family by saying, “What is a man without a woman?” The people who received this reply would either comment, “Nothing” or “I don’t know, o!” However, despite the trouble creeping into his life, he enjoyed the time he spent with Fatimah on the weekends. She started visiting him at his house, and was once the victim of his neighbour’s jealousy. His neighbour, the woman next yard, that Saturday evening had seen Fatimah pressing Mr. Okonkwo’s doorbell. She went into her kitchen and came out with a bowl of fish water she was yet to discard, and ran to where Fatimah stood and emptied its God-forbidden contents on her head. It took a serious plea from Mr. Okonkwo for Fatimah to continue visiting him.
When Zara lost the case, there was celebration and jubilation at Mr. Okonkwo’s house. Fatimah was there, and so Mr. Okonkwo did not dance alone. Chike and Ozioma were also very happy, but equally wished their mother well. They did not hate her; they only wished she lived together with their father. The celebration and jubilation continued until somebody came in through the unlocked door.
“So you think you can take my husband and children away from me? Abi? Oh, I am going to show you the stuff I am made of.”
“Zara, put that metal down!” Mr. Okonkwo said.
“And if I don’t, what will happen?”
“Nothing, just nothing. Please, drop the metal so nobody gets hurt.” Mr. Okonkwo said pleadingly.
“So you husband-snatcher think you can just take my children away from me? So you want to have children without going into labour, eh?”
“Madam, please, I am no husband-snatcher. Mind the way you use words.”
“Oh, you even have the effrontery to talk to me, eh? So you have muscles? So you are a super woman?” She began to approach Fatimah.
Fatimah moved quickly and stood behind Mr. Okonkwo.
“Oh, Zara, you can visit the kids anytime! Was that not what was decided in court?”
“Don’t tell me that nonsense! So you think you’re are a better parent than me? Is that what you think?”
“So you think this woman can be a mother to my own kids, eh kwa? Is that what you are trying to tell me? So I went to hospital to have them just to give them to another woman, right?” She seemed to be in tears.
“We don’t need this drama, Zara.”
She tossed her hair and approached Mr. Okonkwo. “What drama? Emma, what drama?!”
“See, I was given custody because I have been their primary caretaker and you know that! Stop all these unnecessary drama at once!”
“I want my kids! Give me my kids!”
“That won’t work, Zara. At least for now. The only things you can get, once the divorce procedures are met, are shares of my properties and alimony. That’s all, nothing else!”
“I want my kids! I just want my kids!” She began to approach them with the metal raised above her head. The kids immediately moved to their father.
“Zara, drop that metal! I don’t want anybody to get hurt.”
“Come out and fight, husband-snatcher! Come out, if you are a woman. Come, I said come and fight me!”
“I don’t want any problem, madam. Just drop the weapon.”
“Give me my children!” she shouted and grabbed Ozioma by the hand. The little girl held onto her father’s trousers as her mother tried to draw her away. Fatimah stepped out from behind Mr. Okonkwo and tried to collect the weapon from Zara. A quick lunge by Zara to hit Fatimah and the metal dropped from her hand, landing on Ozioma’s head. The little girl slumped to the floor.
“Zara, Zara! What have you done? What have you done, Zara?” Mr. Okonkwo screamed and raised his bleeding unconscious daughter.
Chike started crying and shouting. Mr. Okonkwo carried his little angel in his arms, while every other person followed him as he rushed for the door. Outside, they wailed and tried to find a taxi.