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John Ebute | Penance

It’s been over a year already since you kicked the proverbial bucket– forgive my cowardice in hiding behind an idiom– but the image of you is still as clear in my mind as if I were viewing you under an electron microscope, and the memories shared with you as vividly fresh as if they were only perpetrated a few minutes ago. Do you still remember the day we met? The sun was all golden yellow, submerging the sky and the world below in an ethereal glow of aurora, wonder and beauty. It was as if the sun had morphed into a male peacock, eager to impress an approaching peahen with its extravaganza of fully fanned out plumage. And the sky, as though drunk with the sun’s affectations, shimmered with a perfect cobalt luminosity, unencumbered by clouds.

Perhaps that was where you found your courage – in the spotless clarity of the morning, the glorious serenity of the environment that was so full of promise– to approach me. My friends often said that in those days I was so unapproachable; that the combination of my natural beauty, elegant fashion sense, and the air of sophistication I always wore made me come across as a goddess beyond the reach of mortals. But you defied their theory, broke the status quo, when you walked up to me, a robust smile dancing on your face, a smile that immediately impacted me not so much for its attractiveness as its unabashed confidence.

I remember regarding you with a critical eye, impressed and a little disturbed, that you felt so confident around me; that you didn’t squirm under my hard gaze; that you held my gaze in fact, until I had to surrender by looking away. I wouldn’t say you were the best dresser or the most handsome boy I had ever seen, but there and then you sparked emotions in me that I had never felt before; set my belly on fire with butterflies.

I’m sorry things turned out the way they did. I’ve tried to bury my grief– and above all the guilt– but each time the memories return to haunt me. In the early days when it first happened, I would stay under the shower for hours, hoping I could wash away all the dirt, cleanse my hands and flood the memories away, but blood, as the sages say, is thicker than water. How then could I expect mere water to take away the blood from my hands?

I look back at that strange series of events and shivers run through my spine. Sometimes I wish I had the wherewithal to leapfrog back into time and alter the course of events. How come none of us saw the simple explanation for the mystery? Now in hindsight, it’s ridiculously easy. How could we have missed it?

Mama’s voice, I would never forget, woke me up that morning. I wonder what she had been looking for in my room. It was unlike her to be in my room that early. But I woke up to her shaking me vigorously as if she was trying to raise me from the dead.

“Mama, what’s the problem?” I slurred, still groggy but pretty much perplexed because there was a wildness in her eyes I had never seen before.

“Ebere, you’ve killed me ooo,” she said melodramatically, wringing her hands as if they were hurting her badly.

Now, I was fully awake. “Mama, ogini. What’s going on?”

Tufia,” she spat, circling her head with her fingers and snapping the evil at me. I couldn’t contain my astonishment any longer, but then I could also smell trouble. “Ebere, who got you pregnant?”

Something died inside me on hearing that question. Time seemed to have suddenly been trapped. When I finally found my voice, I asked her quietly, “Pregnant kwa, Mama? What are you talking about?”

“See young girl, you’ll not take me for a fool.” Gradually, her eyes morphed into big balls of fire, the white of her eyes succumbing to the rage steaming inside her, her hands trembling like a leaf waltzing to the music of the wind, which eventually clenched into fists.

I couldn’t be sure if the harsh sounds pouring into my ears at that moment were her teeth gritting, because I was so swallowed up in my perplexity that reality and imagination overlapped in my consciousness and I couldn’t separate one from the other.

“You this useless child. You know my position in the church– a revered deaconess, second to only the G.O.’s wife– and you dare to swing this magnitude of filth on me.”

“But Mama, I’m not preg…”

I didn’t get the chance to complete my sentence. A deft slap from Mama’s slab of a hand quashed the words in my throat.

“You see this”– she pointed to my tummy– “and you dare to lie to my face. The guts!”

But Mama was right. My tummy was unusually big. Since three weeks before, I had been noticing the abnormal shape my abdomen had been taking, the growing concavity of its curvature, and although initially I had been quite disturbed, I later dismissed it as a harmless response of my body to my recent overeating and less exercising. But pregnant! How?

“Now you tell me,” Mama barked, her voice perched on a vicious edge. “When did you last see your period?”

The question set my whole system ablaze. Why didn’t I think of this before now? And yet, just hearing the question from Mama’s lips, I thought it absolutely pertinent.

“I think…it’s…been…two…months…now,” I stuttered.

“Jesus, you’ve finished me. Ebere, so despite all the morals I worked hard to instill in you, you go about spreading your legs open for these hopeless boys, abi? Ah, my God.”

“Mama, I can’t be pregnant. I’m a virgin, I swear.” My voice sounded unconvincing to my own ears as I remembered the other symptoms– the urinary frequency, constipation, fatigue, nausea, and by God, even vomiting. Jesus, indeed I was pregnant. But just how?

“You’re a virgin, ehn? Look here, child, your name is Ebere not Mary. And in case you’ve forgotten, we’re in Awka and not Nazareth. Now, I need a name. Tell me who did this to you?”

My mind went immediately to you, I must confess. But then, who else could I think of? I mean you’re my first and only boyfriend. It’s true that I never allowed you to touch me, that the highest thing we had gone in our exploration was a passionate kiss that lasted probably three minutes or less, but if I was truly pregnant, it had to be by you because you were the only person I had shared the closest intimacies with. And let’s face it, many a time you had come too strong on me and had I not held my ground, we would have drunk from the forbidden stream.

It was in the light of these that my mind went to you when Mama asked who was responsible for my pregnancy. But that wasn’t the only reason why I mentioned your name. I suddenly remembered that two months before, at your birthday party I’d had so much to drink that I couldn’t account for most of the time I had been at your place. So when Mama looked me straight in the eye, her features calcified with fury, and demanded a name, I was convinced it had to be you. It all fit. It all made sense. I was drunk at your party, zonked out, and you saw your chance. How else could I be pregnant? Who else wanted me so badly?

Mama and I stormed your house that evening. Mama eyed you, naked contempt bouncing off her rigid frame. “Ebere, is it this lenge-lenge boy that got you pregnant? If you must turn your back on my teachings, couldn’t you find a more worthy partner?”

At the word “pregnant,” I watched fear, an emotion so alien and unnatural to you, distort your fine features into a hideous mask. Your voice was barely a whisper when you asked, “Pregnant?”

Then you went on swearing, calling on the deadliest gods of your people, that you know nothing about it. At the time, I found your swearing too exaggerated, a little too drawn out, the way guilty people were wont to denying their guilt. And Mama confirmed that I was right when she told me that she might have believed you if you didn’t go the exaggerated lengths you went to show your innocence.

I was so mad at you. I felt so betrayed. I trusted you with all my heart, but you played games with me, having your way with me when I was unconscious. You later tried to reach out to me. Finally, I gave you audience. You spent a great deal of time attempting to persuade me that you had nothing to do with my pregnancy, but all through that time I could see through you– you were so transparent I was sure you were lying. However, I didn’t let you know what I was thinking. I even cooked for you as I had always done.

I was so absorbed, so immersed in my own plight that I didn’t visit you when you fell ill briefly before finally kicking the bucket– again, you must pardon my idiomatic cowardice. I’m sorry that I didn’t mourn you, didn’t show up for your funeral. Your death just didn’t pull any weight.

It was really a stroke of luck that I attended the seminar my friend had invited me to. The guest speaker was this lovely doctor who had a large chunk of that gift they call oratory. You needed to see the way she wielded words as if they were pliable tools in her dexterous tongue, the passion in her voice as she talked about the disturbing statistics: did we know that cancer was the second leading cause of death all around the world according to a 2020 report from WHO? In many African countries, cancer is diagnosed at a more advanced stage, making treatment more difficult and reducing the chances of survival? In Africa, cancer is often associated with curses and spiritual attacks?

The most shocking part of the session was when she mentioned certain cancers that mimic pregnancy symptoms – ovarian cancer, cervical cancer, germ cell tumor, etc. My mouth hung agape as she explained some of the symptoms these cancers leave on their victims, symptoms uncannily similar to pregnancy: abdominal swelling and/or bloating, abnormalities in menstruation, nausea, fatigue, vomiting, pelvic discomfort, among others.

Even before the test results were out, I knew with a full-fledged certainty that I had cancer and not pregnancy. Only then did I know that you were innocent. That was when the guilt came upon me, tearing my heart into bits of pain, regret and emptiness. As the doctor talked about my third stage ovarian cancer, and how it was quite a late discovery but nonetheless chemotherapy and hysterectomy could still work, I was barely listening to her because all I was thinking about was how to fulfill my penance. The guilt was so strong that I made a few attempts to take my life– but none was successful.

Mama never understood my suicide attempts; she thought I was consumed by my fears and insecurities of having cancer, and so she took me to a therapist. But the therapist never understood that my cross wasn’t fear but guilt. How could he know that I poisoned that last meal I cooked for you? That I was so embittered that you pulled a fast one on me– or so I had erroneously concluded– that I took the option of revenge. Why didn’t I believe you when you said you had no hand in my pregnancy.

Please help me outgrow this burden. Give me a sign; show me something to assure me you’re not mad at me.


Image: MS Co-Pilot AI

John Ebute
John Ebute
John Ebute is a medical student at Bayero University, Kano. His works have appeared in Kalahari Review, World Voices Magazine, Arts Lounge Magazine, Ta Adesa, Joints anthology and elsewhere. Recently, he emerged winner in RIEC essay contest, TWEIN Recreate Contest 2024, and first runner-up in the Paradise Gate House Poetry Contest. Find him on Instagram @ d-penwielder | Facebook: John Ebute

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