As soon as your young aunty called your name, and you raised your head above the clusters of brown grasses which flanked the Church way to recognize her standing beside a bike near the tarred road, you knew your mother had come for you at last. You knew certainly she would come, but you wondered within you why it had taken this long. You wondered too why she had not undermined the consequences to come when the last brother you had died or when your father was laid to rest in his shallow grave beside the sweet-smelling Frangipani at the back of your house. Yet you bore no hatred against her for all these.
Your aunty called you again and you answered, walking towards her as if there was no strength inside you. In the twilight, you saw that there was a man on the bike, bent over to rest his head on the speedometer and that your aunty was dressed like those Fulani women who sold herbs in transparent cans. Her gaze was shattered even as she examined you.
‘Ohiozio, your mother said I should bring you,’ she said to you in a low tone.
‘Then I should take my clothes at home first,’ you said.
‘No,’ she replied. ‘Your mother has bought new ones for you over there. We must be going now.’
You did not hesitate, although you were sure that there were no new ones over there waiting for you. You knew your mother had planned it this way so that your exit would not cause rancour in the village. The bikeman raised his head up and aunty Amina helped you to his back before she climbed and then shielded you as if you were cold. The rancid smell from the bikeman’s black raincoat almost suffocated you. You struggled to pull out your face so you could get the fresh air of the evening. He started the ignition and allowed the bike to roll down the slope towards Afuze.
‘You should speed past this village please,’ your aunty told the bikeman, but he said or changed nothing. You felt aunty Amina’s heart pounding fast on your back. Sweat covered her hands which touched your hands.
You had seen aunty Amina once in your life – about five years ago when you were still ten. Yet her face had not changed, the V-shape which looked like your mother’s – the same face you took. Your mother had taken you to Agenebode after your third term exams in August that year. You spent three weeks there – three memorable weeks of your life. On one occasion, you remembered now, that Amina had taken you to see the large River Niger. She took you there because you begged her; because you knelt down and fell before her as though she were a queen. The day you went there, your mother did not know because she would have frowned if she had been told. While your mother and your uncles spoke outside, your aunty pulled you from your mud play at the backyard near the makeshift kitchen. She whispered into your ears that you would be visiting River Niger. As if she knew you would scream excitedly and tears would well up in your eyes, she held your mouth tight with her palm so that what left it was a muffled noise.
‘Fool!’ She said to you in a low tone. ‘You want to scream so that Sista would know I am taking you to River Niger.’ Aunty Amina called your mother, Sista. It dawned on you then how foolish you were to scream. Your aunty saw deep remorse on your face and soothed your cornrows. Then she started off through the bush path at the back of the house. She did not beckon on you to follow her, but you followed her anyway. The path was blind; elephant grasses grew taller than you at both sides. They bent across the path and twisted themselves like braids. But you didn’t care. You were prepared to walk deadlier paths with thorns if only that would lead you to River Niger. When your aunty saw how the straws of the elephant grasses made you scratch your forehead, she lifted you up to her shoulders as if you were a piece of foam. It did not bother you how she was able to do that because she was quite older than you: about twenty then.
River Niger was larger than any River you had ever seen; wider than Owan River near your Father’s cocoa farm which was rumoured could swallow a village and still remain the same. You doubted that rumour instantly when you saw how wide River Niger was. You loved the wide shore and children who swam near the bank. You wished you could join them but dared not tell your aunty. You finally had the opportunity to join them when your aunty left you to talk with a tall young man. You dashed into the deep river and at once you gasped for breath. You made an attempt to shout but you gulped in water. Someone made an alarm and you were dragged out almost unconscious. Your aunty rushed down and kept wailing how God had rescued her from Sista’s wrath. You sat confused on the shore and looked at River Niger with awe.
This night, as the bike glided down near the end of the village, you wondered if your aunty remembered that day at River Niger and if, like you, felt shock travel through her body at the thought of you drowning. Her hands continued to feel sweaty. Streaks of sweat dripped down from them. Her heart beat faster. She was scared she would be caught stealing you away. You knew this.
Dusk had conquered fully and where you turned your head towards the East, you saw the full moon rising. It was deep orange in colour; you loved how it emerged above the shadows of tall trees. When you were young, you had this unusual fondness for the moon. When the moon rose, your happiness rose. You loved it more when the moon was full like this night. Most times, you stood beside the Frangipani with its sweet-smelling purple-white petals and watched the full moon rise at dusk over the great trees at the tail of the street. It was around this time you nursed a childish desire. This desire was that one day, a year would be so kind to allow full moon appear at dusk during Christmas and Passover service on New Year Eve. You cherished this desire and longed for it in secret like a golden dream. This night, as the bikeman accelerated past the last mud house in Ovbiowun, you knew that that dream and so many other dreams had died. Childhood had gone. Ovbiowun was that childhood. You were heartbroken.
Your aunty’s temperature had reduced. You noticed this as soon as you passed the last mud house of the village. You wondered if you would ever return here again. It hurt you. You hid in this shell of unhappiness, so that you felt intense heat at once despite the strong wind you travelled against that made your eyes run.
‘Have you eaten today?’ Your aunty asked you.
‘I ate in the morning,’ you said faintly. The wind carried your words, and like smoke curled up against the sky, they died just as they left your mouth.
‘What did you say?’
‘I ate this morning!’ You screamed. You were irritated. The scream lightened you, shook off the frost of depression which walled the inside of your heart. And because of this inner weightlessness, you dared to spread your wings and fly off to that place where your dreams spread out layer by layer, for you to lie upon.
She felt the frustration which coiled like springs around your scream. She was silent for a while, perhaps calculating what next she would say to you. When at last she exhaled, she said: ‘Don’t worry, we will eat something when we get to Auchi.’
Her voice was soothing; the same voice you wished you heard that evening your mother packed out of the house in the grimmest circumstance; when the village people called your mother’s people to tell them their daughter had brought shame to them. You wished now, that when your Uncle came with his red Passat, aunty Amina followed him and then stayed behind when your mother was taken away. She would have consoled you, your brother and father; she would have cooked good meals for you and borne your mother’s burden. Perhaps, your brother would not have died that early and your father would not have followed suit.
As your mind reeled over these possibilities of what could have been, you felt bloated and heavy again; felt pumped, not with air but with utter frustration and disappointment at what had been lost to faded times. The bikeman sped on the undulating road which climbed and descended hills. Because the harmattan was severe, you embraced yourself, the same way the choir master had embraced you in the church just now, crushing your breasts. He had been having undying interest in your curvy hip and your pointed breasts which appeared like apples mounted on a flat slate, with a little gap between. He didn’t approach you directly, you knew from his ribald words. Now, as the harmattan became more severe and gave you goose-bumps, you wished he were here, not only to crush those apples on your chest, but to bite them with his teeth.
‘You are cold, aren’t you?’ Aunty Amina asked.
You shook your head, because if you said anything, your teeth would rattle like the loosed bonnet of an old car. Not long, she handed a wrapper to you and as it shook vigorously in the travelling wind, you carefully spread it; first across your shoulders and then partly over your nose because you still perceived the irritating smell of the rider’s raincoat.
This night was familiar to that night fate began to dig off the earth which made your feet sturdy like an Iroko tree. Perhaps, the crumbling of your home had not come forcefully, had come gradual, manifesting itself through your two brothers, becoming lame, through your eldest brother’s sudden death, through the hardship which insulated your home and locked you up in a shell you found difficult to escape from. But that night actually shook the wonky structure of your home; set it on a resonating vibration that sent it crashing, spilling onto the dirty ground its debris.
You did not blame your mother for what she started that night because you were wide awake to hear your parents’ conversation; their groans, your father’s supplication in a low tone– the agony making his words thick like condensed pap. That day had been a market day in early December and like all market days, your father did not go to his cocoa farm. He sat on the raised veranda of your house sheathed in gloominess, which had been his identity since that evening your eldest brother died because his illness had worsened. Your mother went to the market and returned early to prepare the evening meal in the makeshift kitchen beside the Frangipani and its sweet-smelling petals like her body cream. It was in this kitchen that the sacrilege would later be done, that your father’s shallow grave would be dug.
When the sun fell with its red ball swallowed like a stone diminishing into the sea, you saw Brother Friyo with your father on the veranda, talking. He was the village welder, and because of his overwhelming success in his trade, he had become wiser and older in demeanour. You knew his farmland near your father’s own farm; it was so wide that when you stood on the small hill across which it spread, it was difficult for you to see the end.
Your mother brought food for them on a tray. She did not greet Friyo as she would usually do if she had just seen him. She dropped the tray on the bare floor of the veranda, went inside to take a stool and then placed the tray on the stool with shivering hands. Then you knew the sky was heavy with clouds and it might rain sooner.
After the meal, Friyo stayed till night, till when your mother spread your mat, placed your elder brother on it to sleep and then instructed you to go and lie beside the lame soul. You did not sleep because puzzlement kept your eyes still. But you pretended to be asleep. Friyo was outside while your parents spoke in low voices; loud enough for you to hear where you slept.
‘Loveth,’ your father called your mother calmly, ‘you should allow this man.’
‘It’s not right,’ your mother replied tearfully, as if fighting her own conviction.
‘What’s not right? Tell me. I am the one giving you out, Loveth. I am dead down here and you are still young.’
Your mother was silent. There was a perfect silence which settled your curiosity and kept your heart calm, as if it were no longer beating. And because you thought of your heart still, you gasped for breath. You did not understand their argument, you did not have the slightest clue what the fight was about, but you knew it clothed them with cobwebs of gloominess.
When your father called Friyo in; when he joined your mother’s hand with that of Friyo; when the three of them journeyed to the backyard through the back door, you were wide awake. You stood up swiftly because you thought something weird was going to happen at the back which your presence could halt. Before you got to the back, you saw the shadows of Friyo and your mother under the Frangipani. Your father stood on the threshold of the back door gazing in their direction. It struck you that when he noticed you by his side, he wasn’t stunned. Instead, he rubbed your cornrows. The night was cold and still, as if aware of the sacrilege it shielded. The moon rose boldly, partly shaded by the great tree eastward.
When the Frangipani began to shake; your mother’s shadow and that of Friyo shaking frantically in the dark in harmony; your mother’s soft moan reaching you like a scorn – moans which woke you up in the past and with equal power stiffened you on the mat you slept – you realized what all the friction since the start of that day had meant. When your father grabbed your hand, shaking and sobbing silently, you did not pity him; you wriggled your hand off his and went back to your mat disappointed, sleeping beyond all reproach.
The next morning, your mother couldn’t look you in the face, although you looked her straight in the face with disgust. You knew that with the rhythmical twiddle and the soft moans, that it was a pleasure she had missed and longed for, and that her rejection at first was normal feminine coyness. You hated her for this prior pretense the same way you hated the Frangipani which housed the sacrilege. When Friyo visited at sunset, you wished you could bury a dagger inside his muscular chest. But when it happened again that night, a night after that and so many nights which followed that, you shrugged off your annoyance and wore this new coat designed for your household without complaint. Your stiff hatred for your mother began to dissolve into flakes of pity. You felt immense pity for her for this dirty pool nature had dipped her into. Your hatred for the Frangipani dissolved too, but you still didn’t go near it because you feared that being under it alone would bare to the world’s derision the shameful secret of your home.
So when your father became seriously ill months later, when he became gloomy and would not speak (he actually lost his voice that night), when herbs and then drugs failed to salvage his condition, your kinsmen gathered in your raised veranda one evening when the sun had not properly set, and forced your mother to confess all the atrocities she had been doing in the dark which had caused their ancestors to unleash their wrath on their brother.
You saw the fear form in your mother’s eyes. You pitied her when she said: ‘I have been seeing another man.’ And after minutes of silence, added: ‘Your brother, because he has become unable, gave me out to another man.’
‘Which man?’ The leader of the emissary asked. They knew the man already, you knew this. They knew it was Friyo; the whole village knew – the night could not shield the shameful secret.
‘Friyo,’ your mother mumbled.
‘Even if your husband, our brother, did that as you claim,’ the leader said, ‘it was not the proper way. We should have been present during the ceremony. Kolanut would have been broken and we would have handed you over to Friyo as tradition demands. But what you have done now is not proper, it is called adultery.’ The old man said ‘adultery’ with a sudden high pitch. Perhaps it was what attracted the crowd before the sun set properly. It was one of your speechless father’s kinsmen who called your mother’s brother to tell him how your mother had disgraced their family.
The bikeman began to speed when he passed Afuze. He had not spoken still, and deep in your sadness, you feared if the bikeman was human; if this lady in hijab behind you was actually your aunty Amina. They might have come to kidnap you. After all, you still wondered how she knew exactly where to meet you at Ovbiowun; how she knew you would be at the choir practice, rehearsing for the Annual Thanksgiving which Pastor Joshua had so much anticipated; the one in which he had banned his members from using garri for thanksgiving because he was tired of it.
The morning your last brother died, Pastor Joshua had come. He was of moderate height, but he had a slight stoop which you would never notice if you looked at him with distraction. His countenance was sour when your brother’s corpse was taken away, wrapped with your old bedspread, so that it appeared like a lump of dry wood sagging below the strong stick it was tied to at both edges, which two men held to their shoulders, as they led the way to the village cemetery. You did not cry because you wished him dead to ease the pain he had borne in his final days – being unable to sit nor sleep. Your dumb father cried as he watched his last son go. His cry was not boisterous; it was calm – tears gushed down his cheeks freely. You caught rivulets of tears trickle down Pastor Joshua’s eyes as he watched your father cry. Your father’s tears must have induced his. Pastor Joshua wiped off the tears frantically as if he had committed sacrilege by doing that; mumbled ‘God’s in control’ loudly as he went off. You believed his word that God would be in control in your home; you believed He would heal your father of his dumbness; bring your mother back home and shield your dreams from ever drying. But when your father died a few weeks later, you were yet again disappointed and you wondered if Pastor Joshua’s ‘God’s in Control’ meant your father would die. It baffled you greatly just like this night when your thought had suddenly become bitter. You knew it was your exit from Ovbiowun that had opened wounds which pretended to be healed.
At Auchi, when aunty Amina instructed the bikeman to stop at AP filling station so she could get something for you to eat, you told the bikeman to journey on, that you were not hungry. But you didn’t tell her your stomach was stacked with bitterness, pressed into it layer by layer; you could not belch.
The night became even colder, because the bikeman sped even in valleys. The moon had reached the peak of the sky by the time you got to your house at Agenebode. Your mother was alone standing close to the only pillar at the edge of the veranda when aunty Amina helped you down from the bike. Your mother moved closer and spread her arms for an embrace, sobbing silently: sobbing which at first sounded to you like hiccups. You ran into that embrace without hesitation and felt warm. You cried loudly because you wanted to. And the bitterness in your stomach disappeared as you cried. You became light and hungry. The warmth of your mother’s embrace had melted the ice of bitterness stuffed into your stomach, layer by layer, and in place of this, new dreams were incubated by this warmth. You cried more because you preferred lightness.