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Michael Emeka: Bush Baby

The pathway along which we trod was wide and flanked by bushes. As it was night, the bushes were dark and thick with the chirruping of insects. Rays of moonlight lanced their way through the overhanging branches above and brightened sections of both the bush and the path.

There were seven of us, within the ages of six and seven, except for three-year-old Nnam, sleeping on the back of his sibling Obi, who was backing him. We were dirty, covered from head to toe in sand and dust. At Dan’s house, where we had gone to watch TV, his wife had made certain none of us sat on their luxurious, cream-coloured sofas. She’d shepherded us to the part of the floor not covered by their Arabian rug and there we’d ranged ourselves, dust and dirt and all, and fed our eyes on the colourful actions on their gigantic TV screen.

As we trudged along now, we paid no heed to our dusty bodies, the sweat-smelling, ill-fitting attire we wore, and our dirty, bare feet. The movie we’d watched at Dan’s place—The Hard Way, The Only Way—had captivated us a great deal we’d busied ourselves discussing its highlights. Nearing the village playground, we stopped to take a leak. Moving to one side of the pathway, we ranged ourselves shoulder to shoulder, facing the bush, drew out our small phalluses and sprayed hot urine onto the bush.

‘Ah!’ Okey sighed with relief.

‘Chei!’ Ugo exclaimed.

Obi squatted. ‘Come down and pee,’ he told the drowsy Nnam on his back. Nnam, displeased by the suggestion, started flicking his head from side to side. ‘Don’t you want to ease yourself? If you don’t want to, fine. Come down, let me ease myself.’ Nnam climbed reluctantly down from his back. ‘Bring out your thing and pee,’ Obi told the little boy before joining us.

Urine splashed down on the broad leaves of cocoyam plants. The urine was almost silvery in the moonlight. Ugo jerked his manhood up suddenly and sent a jet of urine over the plants and deeper into the bushes. ‘Hey! Can anybody do this?’ he shrieked with excitement. Following his lead, we began making efforts, albeit futilely, to fire ours as high and as far as Ugo’s had gone. We stuck out our crotch and grunted with effort, but none of us could hit the mark. Even little Nnam, whose dusty face looked like a masquerade’s mask, joined in the game. But for all his effort, he ended up peeing on Emeka’s foot.

‘Yei!’ Emeka squealed. ‘Nnam, why did you pee on my foot?’

‘Ndo. Sorry.’ Nnam looked drowsily contrite.

Emeka, still reeling from being peed on, burrowed the urine-stained foot into the soft sandy earth. He withdrew it after a few seconds and, using the sole of the other foot, rubbed off the sand.

Done with easing ourselves, we started up again towards home. But no sooner had we gone a few paces than we started hearing noises in the bushes. Obi, who was walking faster than the rest of us because of the weight on his back, heard the noises first. He came to an immediate halt, shushing us up.

I moved closer to him. ‘What is it?’

‘Emenike, shhhhhhh,’ he whispered to me. We gathered around him in the middle of the pathway and listened. At first, we heard nothing besides the chirping of insects and the occasional call of a night bird. But just as we gave up and started again towards home, it came all at once, riding on the gentle breeze blowing: two distinct voices, a man’s and a woman’s.

‘Nonso, stop this,’ the female voice was saying. ‘Stop! I said I don’t want to do. I’m not in the mood.’

‘But I’m in the mood,’ Nonso replied. ‘Spread your legs. Spread-spread your legs. I’ll be quick. Spread-your-legs,’ the man groaned, as if he was trying to help the girl spread her legs.

A smile broke out slowly on Amandi’s face, revealing his white set of teeth.

Obi looked at him. ‘Why are you smiling? He’s probably raping her while you’re here, smiling like a twit.’

‘He’s not raping her,’ Amandi replied offhandedly.

I looked at Amandi. ‘How do you know?’

‘How do you not know?’ He hissed.

As one, we fell silent again, listening keenly. We heard scuffling noises punctuated by grunted, monosyllabic words.

‘Mmm. Open… open… now. O-p-e-n.’

‘I… Chineke! I… Stop. Nonso…’

Amandi threw his hands in the air in frustration. ‘Don’t you see he’s not raping her? They know each other.’

‘But he’s forcing her,’ Obi said. ‘That’s still rape, even if he knows her.’

‘They’re just doing something,’ Emeka remarked.

‘What?’ two or three people asked him at once.

‘Something.’ He curled the fingers of his left hand into a fist and poked his right index finger through it a few times, grinning.

‘Enough of this.’ Obi turned his back to me. ‘Please take my brother. Let me go call someone.’

 

#

Moments later, he returned with three young men: Chika and his brothers, Ebuka and Abuchi. Chika held a lantern in his left hand. As they came and joined us on the edge of the bush, they spread out and entered the bush from different directions, hoping to converge at the foot of the udara tree.

Seconds later, Chika was holding up the amber light of the lantern against the dark faces of the couple in whose path Abuchi and Ebuka now stood. The flickering light described the smooth, round face of Chikaodi, my elder sister, and the scowling, sweaty one of Nonso’s, Chikwelu’s son.

‘Chikaodi!’ Chika, Abuchi and Ebuka exclaimed simultaneously in disbelief. They had at various times tried to woo Chikaodi and failed.

‘Eh.’

Chika leaned forward. ‘What are you doing here?’

‘Nothing. We’re j-just passing time.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes.’

‘Okay. Abuchi, Ebuka…’ The brothers started casually out of the bush, picking their way gingerly. As they emerged onto the road, they told us, ‘You can go home now. We’ve seen the people.’

Obi hitched up Nnam on his back. ‘Who are they?’

The brothers halted. Chika motioned with his jaw towards me. ‘It’s Emenike’s sister.’ And then they departed. For a while after the news broke, none of my friends stirred. But as soon as Chika and his brothers were out of earshot, they roared with laughter.

‘So it’s your sister!’ Amandi laughed hysterically.

‘She’s going to give birth to a bush baby,’ Emeka interjected. And they shrieked with more laughter. Even I found that funny. I chuckled and tried to blink back the tears pooling in my eyes.

‘Who are those people?’ Nonso’s baritone voice cut through my friends’ laughter, silencing them. He stepped out of the bush, pulling my sister along. ‘I know every one of you.’ Nonso squinted into our faces. ‘If I hear pim of anything you witnessed this night in any part of this village, I’ll track you boys down one by one and deal with you. Do you understand me?’

‘Yes, Brother,’ we answered.

Chikaodi and Nonso exchanged good nights and Nonso went his way.

‘Shall we?’ Chikaodi started towards home. We followed her in total silence. Though the incident in the bush was uppermost in everyone’s mind, nobody dared risk Chikaodi’s ire by laughing at her in her presence. So, we kept mum. At the entrance to our compound, Chikaodi and I exchanged good nights with my friends. But no sooner were we out of sight than I heard them scream with laughter.

‘She will give birth to a bush baby!’ someone shrilled, and the others responded with uproarious laughter.

‘Bush baby, bush baby, bush baby!’ The incident was already being turned into a song.

Chikaodi hung her head as we moved towards the inner compound.

‘Please, don’t tell anyone what happened. Do you understand?’

‘Yes.’

 

#

Early the next morning, Mama rushed out. She returned two hours later and told us, full of excitement, ‘Do you know one foolish girl went and sold herself for a penny to a certain boy, Nonso, in the bush yesterday?’

‘No, ma, we don’t know.’ Chikaodi shook her head. Her gaze slipped from Mama to me. She impaled me with her eyes.

Mama gestured towards Chikaodi. ‘They said the girl is your age.’

‘My age?’ Chikaodi looked genuinely flabbergasted. ‘I don’t understand.’

‘It doesn’t mean you’re the one. It means the girl’s a teenager, just like you.’

Chikaodi sighed. ‘Now I understand.’

Throughout these exchanges, my eyes were on Chikaodi, watching the nuances of her face as she navigated this delicate conversation with Mama.

‘Some people even said the boy raped her,’ Mama added. ‘But what I can’t understand is how a man could have been raping a girl so close to home and she wouldn’t shout for help.’

‘Maybe she didn’t want to shout,’ I ventured. I looked at Mama first, before moving my gaze to Chikaodi. We held eyes for a few seconds. She tried to cow me with her stare, but I refused to be cowed.

Mama shrugged. ‘I wonder what the world is coming to.’

Few hours later, after she’d taken her bath, Mama changed and left for the market. As soon as Mama was gone, Chikaodi rose, stomped over to where I sat, grabbed me by the lapels and yanked me off my feet. She bent towards me until we were eyeball to eyeball, then she snarled, ‘How dare you!’

Chikaodi was nine years my senior. Our parents stopped bearing children after she was born. And then, like a bolt out of the blue, I arrived. They said I was born by accident. How does a child get born by accident? Here now, with nine years’ advantage over me, she had me by the lapels so tightly I almost fainted.

‘How dare you!’ Her eyes were enormous on her face. ‘Are you mad?’

‘I… I didn’t say you were the one.’

‘You said I didn’t want to shout.’

‘Yes. Maybe.’

Chikaodi unhanded me and I dropped painfully back on the wooden stool.

 

#

Mama returned from the market at late afternoon enraged. Stepping into the inner compound where Chikaodi and I sat on a long bench, peeling cassava, she handed me her bag of groceries, walked over to Chikaodi and dealt her a blinding slap.

‘Mama!’ Chikaodi held her face, her expression anguished.

‘You’re the one. Or am I lying?’ Mama towered over Chikaodi, looking fierce. ‘You’re the one who went and sold herself for a penny to that worthless boy, Nonso.’

Chikaodi, too stunned to answer, just glared at our mother.

‘Answer me, you foolish girl!’ Mama lifted her hand again and Chikaodi grudgingly muttered, ‘Yes.’

Mama slumped on the bench and burst into tears. ‘Ewo! Chineke, what have I done wrong?’

‘What is it?’ Papa emerged from the main house. He was thin and stooping, and wore only a wrapper around his waist, knotted thickly at the crotch. ‘What’s going on?’

Mama pointed at Chikaodi. ‘That girl I told you about…’

‘The one that was raped or used in the bushes?’

Mama nodded. ‘Yes.’

‘So?’

‘There she is.’

Papa’s deep-set eyes zeroed in on Chikaodi. ‘Gi? You? It was you?’

Chikaodi’s mouth stayed sealed.

‘I asked you a question.’

Chikaodi nodded.

‘Why? How? Why… why would you do such a thing?’ Papa started looking around. Chikaodi, suspicious of his motives, bolted like a frightened rabbit. She stopped on the periphery of the inner compound and hung there, staring at Papa and wringing her hands fearfully.

‘Why would you degrade yourself in such a manner?’

‘Did he rape you?’ Mama asked.

‘No.’

‘But the children said they heard you crying.’

Chikaodi gave no answer.

Papa and Mama exchanged glances. At once, Papa went inside, changed, and left the house.

Later that night, I learnt Papa had gone to the head of our kindred, Nwigwe, to report the matter. Without consulting Mama, he had gone and claimed Nonso raped and deflowered Chikaodi. His evidence was that she’d cried after the act such that children passing by the road had heard her. He requested Nonso and his people pay reparation for the damage done to his daughter.

The whole thing seemed outrageous to me because I wasn’t even sure Chikaodi was still a virgin. It outraged Mama, too. She was angry Papa had not consulted her. And when she asked him to withdraw the request, Papa refused, adamant the meeting must go ahead.

When everyone had assembled on the appointed day of the meeting, Papa, scowling, rose and began addressing the people.

‘We are here on account of your son, Nonso, raping and deflowering my daughter.’ He directed his gaze towards Nonso’s father, Mazi Chikwelu, and his people seated on long wooden benches opposite us. ‘Yes, my daughter might claim it was consensual, but what woman cries after an act of consensual sex? Do your wives weep at night after you’ve had consensual sex with them?

‘We are here because Nonso must make reparations for these heinous acts otherwise, I’ll take it your kindred has declared war on my family and my people.’ With that, Papa sat down.

Contrary to many people’s expectations, Nonso’s father, Mazi Chikwelu, didn’t spring to his feet immediately to defend his son and his actions. Instead, it was Okereke Eze, the oldest man of Umuagu kindred, who rose.

‘My people, I greet you.’ Okereke Eze leaned heavily on his walking stick. He adjusted the wrapper wound around his gaunt frame. ‘Our son, Nonso, is anything but a rapist,’ he went on. ‘And I’m happy Chikaodi, supposedly raped and deflowered, is here as well. Chikaodi, my daughter, I want to ask you a simple question.’ He looked towards Chikaodi, sandwiched between Mama and me. ‘Did Nonso rape you?’

Chikaodi rose. For a while, she uttered no words. Then she breathed a sigh. ‘No. He didn’t rape me.’ Papa looked like he would kill someone at any moment.

Okereke Eze nodded his grizzled head of hair. ‘Thank you, my daughter. So we strike out rape. Going to the next item, which is that she’d cried so much the children passing by the road heard her. My people, if a woman cries during or after consensual sex, then it must be from ecstasy. Pure ecstasy.’ The place erupted in laughter. When the laughter died down, Okereke Eze continued. ‘As for deflowering Chikaodi, for a woman to be deflowered, mustn’t she be a virgin first?’ A ripple of laughter passed through the assembly. ‘Or am I wrong?’

‘You’re not!’ the assembly chorused. ‘Ride on!’

‘Nnabugwu,’ Okereke Eze called Papa. ‘I know you’re a good father, but sometimes there are things even the best of fathers may not know about their teenage daughters. Without meaning to denigrate your daughter, Chikaodi here is a long commissioned federal highway.’ The place erupted in noise. While some people fell off their benches and rolled on the ground in laughter, Papa and some of our people charged to their feet and raved at the old man. Voices overrode one another. Abuse went back and forth. Accusations and counter accusations clashed in the hot air.

Papa jabbed a finger in Okereke Eze’s direction. ‘How dare you speak that way against my daughter!’

When silence returned to the assembly, Okereke Eze carried on in his calm but determined voice.

‘Nnabugwu, I apologize for my bluntness. But you must understand. If you’re being followed by a swarm of flies, you don’t need to ask from whom is the funny smell coming.

‘I rest my case.’

The meeting ended on that note. Nonso’s people left, full of joy and pride, while my family and relatives remained seated long after everyone else had gone, seething. We all felt betrayed by Chikaodi.

 

#

Feeling betrayed, Papa barred Chikaodi from sleeping under his roof from that day onward. Chikaodi packed her things and, incidentally, moved into Nonso’s house. Mama pleaded with Papa to forgive her, but Papa wouldn’t hear of it. Two weeks would go by before Papa finally caved in to Mama’s demands. But by that time, it was already too late.

A few days after Papa forgave Chikaodi and allowed her back into the house, she started acting funny. First, she started waking up late, puffy-faced and complaining of exhaustion. The chores she normally performed for Mama in the morning, she started doing sloppily. Or stopped doing altogether. And then she began throwing up.

One morning, Mama Agunta, an elderly neighbour of ours, visited us. She saw Chikaodi emptying the contents of her guts and said to Mama, ‘I hope you know who the father is.’

‘What?’

‘Your daughter, Chikaodi. Or haven’t you noticed she’s pregnant?’

Mama stopped in her tracks and swung her eyes in Chikaodi’s direction. ‘It has crossed my mind. But is there a chance she might not be?’

‘I doubt so. But there’s something we can do to be absolutely sure.’

‘What?’

‘Let’s go inside.’

The two women went inside and joined Papa, seated alone in our sparsely furnished living room. Papa and Mama Agunta exchanged pleasantries. Then the women told him what they wanted to do. Papa gave them his blessing with an indifferent wave of the hand.

‘Call her.’ Mama did as bidden and in a short while, Chikaodi joined them. She perched on the chair they showed her.

‘Chikaodi…’

‘Ma.’

‘Are you pregnant?’

Like pepper spray to the eyes, Chikaodi’s eyes filled with tears.

‘Is that a yes?’ Mama Agunta peered at her. ‘That you’re pregnant?’

‘I’ve not seen my period.’

Tears welled in Mama’s eyes. ‘Who impregnated you?’ Everyone waited for an answer. Nonso’s name was on everyone’s lips. But Chikaodi began counting her fingers, refusing to answer.

‘Chikaodi, who impregnated you?’

Silence. Sniffles from Mama and Chikaodi filled the quiet. Mama Agunta, experienced in these matters, chuckled.

‘Chikaodi, how many men did you sleep with this past one month?’

Mama flashed the old woman an incredulous look.

‘Apart from Nonso, who else…?’

Chikaodi looked at Mama and then at Mama Agunta. ‘Ebuka.’

Mama tried to rise from her chair, but Mama Agunta held her down.

‘Who else, Chikaodi?’

Tears cascading down her cheeks, she mumbled, ‘And his brother, Chika.’

Mama burst into fresh tears. ‘Ewo! Chineke mu o! Who did I offend? Have they placed her under sex enchantment?’

‘Nwanne, take it easy.’ Mama Agunta patted Mama’s hand. ‘We’re not done here o. Let her finish.

‘Who else?’

‘His brother…’

Papa sat up. ‘Whose brother again?’

‘Ebuka’s brother, Abuchi.’

This was too much for Papa. He shook his head and rested his chin on his fisted right hand. ‘You slept with three brothers in one month?’

Mama Agunta gave him a reproachful look. ‘Continue.’ She turned towards Chikaodi.

‘And Elochukwu, Ugwuorji’s son,’ Chikaodi concluded.

Deep silence enveloped the living room. Papa scratched his head; Mama adjusted, stretched out her legs and crossed them; Mama Agunta coughed; each sound amplified by the silence.

Mama leaned forward. ‘Whose child are you carrying, then? Since you’ve degraded yourself to the extent of sleeping with five men in one month, tell me whose child you’re carrying.’

Chikaodi made no reply.

Mama Agunta rose. ‘We’ll know whose child she’s carrying in nine months.’

At the end of nine months, Chikaodi bore a son, a replica of what Nonso might have looked at that age. I was overjoyed. She had borne me a nephew. Perhaps a bastard one. But he was definitely not a bush baby.

———-

Image: Joel Filipe on Unsplash (remixed)

Michael Emeka
Michael Emeka
Michael Emeka is a teacher and nature lover. His works have appeared in Volney Road Review, Potato Soup Journal, Kalahari Review, Decomp Journal, Aromatica Poetica, Eboquills, Adelaide Literary Magazine and in a few other magazines. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria, and can be found on Twitter @michael64639151.

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