That was all Eki could say. Her bag fell from her hand and its contents—boxers, singlets, wristwatch, Adidas shoes—clattered on the tiles. Eghonghon shifted to the armrest and continued. Valentine, if you really traced its history, was an ungodly celebration. It was developed long after St Valentinus’ death to legalise fornication. Just like Christ never authorised Christians to celebrate his birthday (whose date they didn’t know, anyway), St Valentinus didn’t ask lovers lost in feral fantasies to celebrate his chivalry.
Eki studied Eghonghon, watched the tiny mouth from which the words slipped. She was nothing close to Jonas. Not in appearance. Not in behaviour. Months ago, Jonas had told her, “My elder sister has finally left her husband. She’s in my house now. You’ll like her energy.” And in her dimly lit room, Eki had imagined Jonas’ sister a powerhouse—a woman who carried the moon in clenched fists, who sprayed confetti on tawny grass, who walked into a room and lit up its darkest corners.
But she shook her head now. Eghonghon was rather a woman who stormed into a room and everyone held their breath. Eki didn’t like her person, let alone her energy, whatever the fuck Jonas meant by energy. She wore a lanyard proclaiming her membership of The Golgotha Daughters. Her gown, with its flappy bodice, humorously emphasised her thin body. Her eyes were chestnut-coloured. She was like the thin black woman Eki’s mother teased, called Fulani-miss-road, implored to marry her son and give her fine-fine grandchildren. But, inside, Eghonghon was as ugly as a decorated scarecrow.
Jonas came and sat beside Eki. “At least, give Eki breathing space,” he told Eghonghon. “She’s just coming.”
“Earlier the better o,” Eghonghon said. “My future sister-in-law must be equipped in the ways of the Lord before anything else.”
“Yes, madam.” Jonas threw his hands in the air.
“So dear, don’t mind me o. I only correct people I love. If I meet you at the ATM wearing pants and I don’t know you, what’s my business?”
“I understand,” Eki said.
“And you look so beautiful. You have a fine shape and fine face. This is the type they call baby face o, eh, Jonah?”
“You don’t need all this makeup, my dear. In short, they’re making you look like chimpanzee when you’re like Cinderella. Why do girls even use makeup? Sebi to attract men? And you have Jonas already, abi are you trying to attract more Jonases?”
Eki flattened her hand over her chest and laughed. She wished, though, that the fan would droop and whir off Eghonghon’s neck and spill her blood.
“Besides, I hear that they make them from harmful chemicals. And for all these wigs and weave-ons and whatever they call them, I hear they’re from cowskin and sheep coats and dog furs. Imagine, a fine lady stepping out of her posh car, carrying dog fur on her head.”
Jonas giggled again. This time, it was with a lurch. He brushed the glass on the stool and it toppled and Fanta froths avalanched to the ground.
In the silence that followed, Eki said, “Please Jonas, show me to my room.”
Jonas said it was their room—his and Eki’s. On the moccasin walls hung framed photographs, mostly monochromes, of people in ankara. A fragrance reminiscent of crushed lilies and talc saturated the afternoon air. Eki lodged her bags into the wardrobe, ran her hand down the sandpapered oak. Instead of sitting on the bed, with its springy mattress and Ben10 bedspreads, she slipped to the rug and traced each filament.
Yesterday morning, she’d twirled around the mirror at the tailor’s, fingering the pleats on her sheath dress. Then, she’d chartered a keke to town where she sat two hours while four girls pulled and twisted and burned her hair. She went to the supermarket with Ikhayere. Its workers wore white-and-red suits that presented them too formal, borderline curt. “Happy Valentine’s,” they sang. Ikhayere brushed them aside. “Abegi,” she said. “That one with kolanut teeth tried to toast me once.” Eki laughed, even though she felt vertiginous for no discernible reason. She laughed when Ikhayere picked a set of boxers because they had allowance that could hold Jonas’ thing well. She laughed when the cashier held her debit card to the light and Ikhayere asked if he needed glasses. She laughed when she groped for a seat at the lobby, when she told Ikhayere the world was spinning, when Ikhayere asked if Jonas could score virtual goals.
In the evening, she was fastening her holdall velcro and listening to Davido.
Ikhayere was crunching chin-chin. “We that don’t have boyfriends to invite us over for Valentine weekend nko? What should we now do? Hug transformer?”
“Hug your pillow.” Eki laughed.
“Ehen, Babes.” Ikhayere sat up. “As a friend concern o, take that Baba stuff with you o. You know—”
“You’re mad. You’re very mad. Did I not tell you that’s past tense? Babes, forget o, this is what Tuface called true love.”
“And Kelly Hansome.”
“That kain thing.”
“But I was just saying o. This one his sister is around—”
“Babes, abeg mind your business. No pour san-san inside my garri.”
Both of them laughed. Eki placed the holdall on top of her portmanteau, to keep the bottom clean.
“But babes, hope he won’t find out about Nora?”
“Seriously, Ikhayere, which kain yeye question you dey ask? I’m running this game this time. If I no marry next year, my mama no born me well—”
“Sha no let dick sweet you reach o—”
“Seriously, abeg, stop.” Eki stomped out in annoyance. She returned with her nightgowns, all silky and pink; she tucked them into the side of the holdall. She hummed to the Sauti Sol playing now.
“So, you don vex?” Ikhayere said.
She continued humming.
“Sha no turn orobo before you come back. Come see me off abeg. I no fit shout.”
Eki dozed off on the rug. It was Jonas who nudged her awake minutes later. He cupped her bun and kissed her. Then he held her back, gripping her shoulders, examining her face for details different from what he’d seen on his phone screen. Eki held her breath. Would he spot the clutch of skin at the sides of her eyes? Would he flinch at her abnormally deepened philtrum? Would he notice the slope to her breasts, the way her nipples stared down her belly, instead of at him? Would he squint at the stretch-marks striped over her skin? Would he even want to run his finger around the belly when he discovered it wasn’t flat, when he poked at the pouch of flesh?
“Tell me you love me,” she said, throwing her arms around him. “Tell me, Jonas. Say it. I love you, Eki.”
“I don’t,” he said.
“I invited you here after we met online months ago. I didn’t just jump into sexual talk. Instead, I dedicated three months to learning about you.” He leaned close for another kiss. “So, I don’t love you.”
They kissed again. Eki was about loosening his buttons when he nodded towards the door. “My sister. You’ll have to put up with her. You know, she didn’t mean the gifts were outright bad. She was just talking about the occasion. Like, must we always wait for festive seasons to show love?”
“So, I never showed you love until today?”
“Bring your voice down! What do you want Eghonghon to think of you?”
“Seriously?” Eki took her hands off his shirt. “Jonas, seriously?”
“Yes, seriously. Eghonghon has been through a lot, you know. Her husband, that abusive bastard. He beat off her baby from her womb. She kept enduring him ever since because church says this, church says that. I had to go drag her here myself, when he nearly sliced off her ears because of one cheap olosho in Bariga.”
“Seriously, how does it connect?”
“Please be patient with her. She could be suffering from post-traumatic—”
“You’ve not even seen other sides of her, and—”
“Abeg, let me rest. Benin to Lagos isn’t bedroom to parlour.”
Later in the evening, they went out. Between the grin-grin of a roulette wheel at the corner and a Wizkid thrumming on the dancefloor, Jonas explained why he seemed protective of Eghonghon. He wasn’t afraid of her, he said. It was just that, he pestered her to marry David. Their mother, alive then, was no longer okay with the prophecies of her ideal man, riding on a horse to her like Jesus triumphantly entering Jerusalem. Instead of this ideal man her pastor saw in his visions, David came. He came at the right time, with his rotund belly and cologne and glistening Gucci shoes.
Eight years reeled by. No child. David called Eghonghon a dry stick before everyone in their neighbourhood. He brought in a new woman. Eghobghon cried to the church in which they’d first kissed and held hands. Her pastor blubbered in tongues. He subjected her to fourteen days of dry fasting and convulsive prayers. Then he had a talk with David and told Eghonghon later that she wasn’t fulfilling her wifely duties. Two years later, when she finally fell pregnant, David wrenched her fetus off her. “That thing your sister was carrying wasn’t mine,” he told Jonas, “because I can’t remember the last time I dug my rod into her smelly-smelly hole.”
It was Jonas’ fault too that she left the marriage bare; when she’d insisted on a court wedding, he’d cajoled her into letting it go, especially now that there was a man willing to marry her. She returned to his house with a khaki satchel and tote bags made of starched canvas. Kitchenware poked out between the zippers.
“It’s okay.” Eki traced the veins on Jonas’ hand. “I understand now.”
Eki was the one who wanted to settle down. She was the one who wanted to prove to her mother that despite all that had happened to her, she could still bring a man home. Her mother ruined her life; but of course, it’s abominable to say your mother, who carried you inside her for nine months, who sucked your catarrh with her mouth, who wiped your faeces and still ate with same fingers, ruined your life. So, you just told the story and feigned fatigue when you approached the ruining part.
Here’s Eki’s story. Her mother found her a private tutor when she was sixteen. After the lessons, she allowed her to accompany him to the junction where he bought her maize and pear. Eki brought them to her mother. Her mother gathered her wrapper between her legs and laughed and laughed. He did it with Eki on her mother’s bed the first day. Then Eki accompanied him home, where he stripped her and increased the TV volume. He did her every evening, and sent her home with a bottle of chilled Coke. Her mother drank and laughed. “By the time you’re twenty,” she said, “you’ll be feeding us all in this house.”
Then she got pregnant and the boy cleared his room and left the keys. She stopped school. She ran into the plantain farm whenever she saw her classmates. Her mother said her father would have taught her a lesson if he was alive. She gave birth to a girl that was as tiny as a rabbit, pale-skinned as a rabbit. She wished the child would die, but she bubbled through infanthood. And now, Eki was thirty-three and Nora, her daughter, was eighteen.
All the men Eki had dated regarded Nora as her sister. It was her mother’s idea: girls who’d had children found it hard finding husbands. But, along the line, something always happened. The men always shuffled away. Always blocked her number. Always let their wives reply the Facebook messages she sent. The last one, Osaro, found out the truth. “At least, you should have told me,” he said. “But it’s too late. I can’t marry a pretender.”
“You have destroyed your life,” her mother said. “Now you can never find a man.”
The word ‘never’ left echoes in Eki’s head. She kept hearing it each morning she set eyes on her mother. Then she started to see it scrawled over her growing paunch, folded between the crinkles at her forehead, eating into her hair so that it fell in wooly clumps at her temples. Then she had a marriage dream. Nora held her wedding gown. Ikhayere was her chief bridesmaid. A scud of cloud sheathed her groom’s face. He danced inches from her. His hug was brief, stiff, as if his chest would hurt if he pressed too hard. But she was happy. At least, he was a husband. Then she woke up. A pool of astringent liquid filled her mouth. Her head throbbed. She told her mother she was the one who ruined her life. Her mother screamed, bolted outside, and threw herself on the sand. People surrounded her. Later, the elders fined Eki a goat for insulting her mother.
She left her mother’s house that day. She stayed a week at Ikhayere’s. That was where, one evening, the sky puce with impending rain, a man named Jonas Facebooked her. By the time she’d secured a flat on Sapele Road, she’d said yes to Jonas. Their love, the spluttering growth of it, terrified her, made her feel too sluggish, too left behind. She stared at Ikhayere long after she suggested a love potion. Then she nodded, picked up her bag, and followed her. At the Baba’s shrine, she dropped a cowrie in an aluminum bowl and said, “His name is Jonas. I don’t want to lose him.”
She woke up early because all night, thoughts of losing Jonas haunted her. She found her way to the kitchen. It was raining, tubular silvers slapping at the windowpanes, blurring her view of the outside. She found egusi soup, warmed it, and made eba. Jonas and his sister were praying when she took the food to the dining room.
She went to make the bed, tuck the lacy hems under the mattress. She found a mop in the corridor and drove the thrums over the floors until they squealed and shone. She sat before the mirror and fiddled with Jonas’ lanyard before digging a comb into her hair and pulling hard. Afterwards, she took a shower, squirming under the icy caress of water; changed into an orange gown Eghonghon would approve: a prosaic jabot clutching at her throat, sleeves flapping like vulture wings. They were still praying when she returned, so she washed her hands and started to eat. When they finally joined her, Eghonghon asked if she prayed.
“No,” she said.
“Because I didn’t.”
“Please, drop the eba and close your eyes.”
She dropped the eba and left the table. Later, Jonas told her she should have said yes she prayed.
“No,” she said. “It would have sounded like I was giving in.”
“Is it your house or hers?”
Jonas kissed her on the forehead and left the room. Eki could hear him mumbling outside. She dashed to the door, opened it a little. Eghonghon was shelling melon seeds on the corridor while Jonas stood awkwardly like a boy being admonished by his mother.
“Just marry her if you want to,” Eghonghon said. “All this you people are doing is fornication.”
Jonas laughed. It sounded like a loud, feral cough. Eki had heard him laugh that way before. Perhaps she was too forward, but she’d asked him in their fifth month when he’d marry her. He laughed that way and said his house hadn’t reached completion yet. Or would she prefer squatting with him in a rented apartment? She shook her head as if a fly was encircling it.
Now he had a house, yet he was still laughing that same way. Something was underneath. For an itchy moment, she wished she’d brought the potion. She wanted to call Ikhayere to send it through DHL. But it was ridiculous, wasn’t it, to send a parcel of dried leaves and ground alligator pepper and scrambled obeche from Benin City to Lagos?
Eki told Eghonghon she wouldn’t wear those skirts to church or anywhere else—couldn’t she see they were too flared? —still, Eghonghon left them on the bed. Eki moved away from them as if they were the sponges of cobwebs clustered in her room back in Benin City. Of course, they were brand new. Of course, Eghonghon had spent a fortune buying them. But, just as she told Ikhayere on phone, did she ask her to buy them? Would anyone in their right senses accuse you of ingratitude when someone bought you something you didn’t like and didn’t ask them to buy? Ikhayere had told her to chill, at least for the time being; she could show her true colours when she’d married Jonas. And that pissed her off, the phrase ‘show your true colours’. It meant she was bad, and couldn’t she just hide her bad side until after her wedding? She told Ikhayere to kiss her ass and she hung up.
She didn’t reach for her phone when it rang later because she thought it was Ikhayere calling back. The phone rang again. And again. Then she heard the beep of an SMS. Ikhayere never sent messages; she’d rather drop a VN on WhatsApp or keep calling until your battery died. Eki ignored it still. It could be persistent messages from MTN, or from the bank.
She checked only when she woke minutes later. Nora had called her five times. She’d texted too: I knw d truth dat ure my mum & ure hiding it bcaz ure ashamed of me. Another message followed: did I ask 2 b born u cld hv aborted me!!! I hate u!!!!
Nora didn’t take her calls. Her mother was at the milling house, so the engine crunched over her voice when she picked. She called Ikhayere. Ikhayere said some bastard who knew her well must have told her in school. But today was Saturday, Eki said, not a school day. Ikhayere clicked her tongue and promised to check on Nora. Eki took out a shard of mirror and cotton wool touched in dusting powder from her bag. She turned to the mirror and started to burst her pimples.
Eghonghon eased the door open. “Lunch is ready, Eki.”
She continued pressing the mirror against the pimples and dabbing the blood with cotton wool.
“Is something wrong?”
“Leave me alone, please.”
“Oh, are you still upset about the skirts?”
“Including you.” She brandished the shard of mirror like a machete. “So, get out.”
“We can talk about it, Eki.”
Eki sprang up and rushed to the door. She’d meant to shut it in Eghonghon’s face, but as Eghonghon leant on it, she used it to shove her against the opposite wall. Eghonghon jerked forward and fell. Variegated lines of blood ran down her leg. Eki stepped into the corridor and pressed a cotton wool to the wound. Eghonghon smiled. She quoted some Scripture on forgiveness and controlling your temper.
“See why I urge you to be spiritual?” she said. “A spiritual person is never angry. But don’t worry, Jonas won’t find out.”
“Find out what?” Jonas said as he opened the main door. He was holding Mr Biggs bags, bulging with fruits and cans. He approached the women cautiously, as if they were spies he’d caught in their game. “What happened to your leg, Sister?”
“Accident. Eki pushed me by mistake.”
Eki returned to the room. Jonas joined her later. He was screaming. His chest heaved. Sweat caught up in the folds of his forehead. “That’s my elder sister, Eki! My elder sister! What’s wrong with you?”
“You people should leave me alone! Is it too much to ask?”
“Don’t make me regret inviting you. Don’t.” He stormed out of the room.
Eki dialled Nora again. Still, no answer. Jonas met her in this position later: seated, facing the mirror, dialling Nora. He unzipped his trousers and took her hand inside his boxers. As they lay in bed, gasping, Eki imagined Nora texting her, imagined someone like Ikhayere or her mother telling her the truth, imagined Nora picking her things and running away.
She drifted into sleep and dreamt about Nora vomiting blood. The bangs on the door woke her. “I had a bad dream!” Eghonghon cried from outside. “We need to pray now!”
“Don’t go,” Eki told Jonas.
“We need prayers, Eki. I expect you to join us.”
She followed him. She bowed her head, while Eghonghon sprayed saliva. She imagined stuffing sand into Eghonghon’s mouth, imagined cutting her fingers into cubes.
The next day being Sunday, Eki woke up early, but she could hear Eghonghon singing in the kitchen already. She pulled on a polo and wound a wrapper around her waist. She joined Eghonghon in the kitchen. It was toast and egg for breakfast. While Eghonghon spread browning on the bread slices and slid them into the toaster, Eki smashed the eggs against the wall and slipped their contents onto the frying pan. She hated frying eggs because they were slimy, because slimy yellow things reminded her of catarrh.
“You will follow us to church today o,” Eghonghon said. “I know you don’t like those skirts, but manage one. I think that one with lace—”
“Yes, yes. That one is nice.”
Eghonghon spread margarine on a slice of bread, spread it out with a knife, and glued another slice to it. “You know, David had a brother who smoked like mad. He was friending a mad dog who could even smoke fuel too. I said to myself, ‘God forgive me, but these two are meant for each other’. But guess what, when it was time for him to marry, he went for a village girl who didn’t even know what’s-up.”
“Jeez,” Eki said.
“Moral of the story? Men can flirt, God forgive me, with glamour babes and the likes. They can even buy iPhone for them and refurbish their fathers’ bungalows. But when it comes to marriage, they often look for virtuous women who can hold down the home. So, my dear, you better learn from this story.”
“I understand,” Eki said, and because she felt defeated, added, “though you don’t expect everybody to be acting churchy-churchy up and down. Like you.”
“I know I’m not perfect. I’m not even trying to be because, God forgive me, it will be like trying to outdo God. But do you understand the implication of what you’re saying?”
Eki flipped the egg, now flappy like ham, brown at the edges. The oil hissed out a small fountain of magma. She rolled it onto the spoon and dumped it in the sieve.
“By saying everybody cannot be like me,” Eghonghon continued, “you’re implying that Jesus didn’t die for everybody.”
Eki didn’t utter a word. She bottled her fury, pursed her lips, dropped more fried eggs into more sieves. Eghonghon talked and talked. Jesus even died for Muslims, for atheists, for yahoo-yahoos, for the aje and oso, for homosexuals; if only they repented and saw the radiance of God’s love for them.
Her phone rang as they drove to church. It was her mother. She was running out of breath. “Nora swallowed two sachets of diazepam! Her eyes are not opening and she’s doing wobo-wobo inside the ambulance o! St Patrick Hospital, that’s where we’re going!”
“Stop the car,” Eki said calmly. “Jonas, I said stop the car.”
“Are you okay?” Eghonghon asked from behind.
“My daughter. My daughter.”
Jonas screeched to a stop. “You have a daughter?”
Eki unbuckled her seatbelt and opened the door. She picked up her bag. Then she stepped out of the car and ran across the road. Before Jonas could reverse, could reach her where she was flagging down kekes, she’d climbed into one. Jonas followed the keke while Eghonghon dialled Eki’s number. Eki kept diverting the calls. Jonas drove and drove until the particular keke blended into a phalanx of yellows: danfos, church buses, other kekes.
Image by congerdesign from Pixabay (modified)