The wind rustled the hair on the nape of my neck like it wanted to discuss the clouds and the rain threatening in the sky. The smell of onion still lingered on my fingers from the previous night’s cooking. I looked over at where father was stooped over yam heaps and then sniffed at my fingers again. My nose scrunched up after every sniff yet I didn’t stop. I hate when my fingers stink like rotten Suya—a particular stench that comes with having roast beef pieces stuck in between your teeth all night. I hate the rotten morning breath just as much as I hated Aunty Chigozie and her hovering presence.
“Stop that!” Aunty Chigozie snapped. She slapped my hands away from my nose.
I turned in my chair as the wet grass brushed against my naked feet. I shrugged. Maybe next time, I would use salt to wash my hands so they don’t repulse me so much.
There was something about the evening air that unsettled my stomach. I could hear the growling in my tummy, but I waved it away. I pleaded the blood of Jesus as Papa had taught us to do when we felt the devil and his demons were in the atmosphere seeking who to devour.
“Baby, come. Don’t soil your new clothes. Baby now…” I appealed to my little sister. “You know Grandpa does not like naughty,” I continued to plead. The little girl was totally oblivious to my efforts. I think that day she felt the tranquility of the cool evening was an invitation from the crickets and jumping hoppers calling her to play.
We called him grandpa, father. Chinaza would have grown up to call him grandpa as well. The day Aunty Chigozie arrived from Nnewi, she had heard me calling for Papa and had given me a knock on the head. “How will you explain to this infant that her mother is dead? You are her mother from today and your Papa is her grandpa!” she said with a big scowl on her face.
Aunty Chigozie liked rules. She told me what time to go to bed, how to dress like a woman, how to smile and respect people that were older than me and how not to make boys think I was cheap.
Also, I wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend, even though Usman gave me goosebumps when he smiled at me. I hated thinking about Usman because he made me want to do things that horrified me. I had been reading a lot of the crusty brown old scraps of romance novels Usman brought for me. He couldn’t read but the puppy look in his eyes when I screamed excitedly at his little gifts, was almost as fulfilling as the wetness I felt between my thighs while I lay in my bed with a torch under my blanket.
I asked father why Aunty Chigozie had come to live with us. I didn’t like how she smelt, or how she spoke to me like she was now in charge around the house. Father said it was tradition that when a woman passed, someone had to come take care of the baby from the man’s family. I asked him why I could not take care of my sister while he farmed and went to his meetings at the local parish. “We all need help sometimes”, he said.
I knew that it was because I was not of much use in my wheelchair, that’s what everyone said at the family meetings. I overheard them deciding who would come back home with us. I hated that father would let them talk about Mother like she was just some piece of history that needed remedying.
Aunty Chigozie had a rather mean face, she spoke with a cold drawl that would leave you with a shiver even on a hot day. Her eyes were almost slits and she was always square-shouldered like a soldier. She didn’t look agreeable. She didn’t look like someone you’d love to wake up next to or cuddle with on rainy days. She was a misfit in most places that required soft and tender touches. How she was meant to love and care for two children and father left me puzzled. Sometimes I wondered what father and his brothers were thinking.
I was just by the doorway when she arrived. I could see her face from where I sat. It looked like the thought of sour grapes.
“I didn’t know I was coming to clean shit for two babies,” she yelled, making the Ghana Must Go sac on her head wobble dangerously, but it stayed balanced. Chinaza had been throwing food at me earlier, we soon got into a food fight where I was winning. We had rice grains all over the front porch.
“Aunty, nobody said you should come biko,” I replied in the most discourteous way I could muster. It was two hurt and broken people crossing paths by no choice of theirs and we were drawing daggers. She coming from the pain of being the grey spinster who had never found a man to honour her and I, the cripple that no one had any use for. Everyone had agreed that since she had no husband, she had to take care of my father until he finds a wife to replace mother. I didn’t want my mother replaced but women don’t have a say in these things, not when they are dead, without a husband or buried.
Father’s sisters and brothers never masked their hatred for my mother. They said Yoruba women stink like garlic and rotten tomatoes. That their brother must have been charmed by a juju man from Ijebu land.
They tolerated me because I had my father’s blood but again what was the use of the blood if it couldn’t make my legs work? Some of them were certain I got the cripple from my mother’s family.
Every December family meeting I could remember was about some family feud, drama or witch-hunt. Aunty Chigozie had never spoken to me at any of the family meetings. She was always the last order of business. I still have memories of her standing in the center of grandpa’s living room while everyone discussed her like she was not there.
We got accustomed to each other and soon had our territories marked out. Aunty Chigozie was oddly attentive. She knew when anything would go wrong. If we were going down with a flu, she knew to get drugs from the pharmacy. If father was tired, she’d have a warm bath waiting. When it came to order, the house lacked nothing.
“Eneh! See!” Chinaza’s bright eyes twinkled as she called my attention to her prize. She had a handful of dark loamy soil. A worm wiggled in her palms. She was fascinated by the creature. She showed me by pointing her tiny baby fingers at the head of her captive, and then she giggled at Aunty, making me furious. I didn’t even want my sister to give our sour-faced Aunty any attention.
“Baby, better leave aunty alone, her face like stale akpu.”
“It’s not your fault, if not for your father, ichoro Ekwensu to eat that your smart mouth today!”
Her arms folded across her chest as if grabbing her breasts. Aunty Chigozie snarled and cursed like that for a few minutes. Then turned to carry baby in her arms. I watched her rock the little girl through the corner of my eyes. In that moment, there was a semblance of softness around the edges of her face.
We waited outside on the porch while father worked. We sat in silence and exchanged glares or stared at the rows of cassava heaps.
The grass was wet and soft under the feet that day. Aunty Chigozie started to hum a tune. It was “Jesus loves the little children”, a tune that I had started to forget since mother wasn’t around to take us to church anymore. Baby was happy. I giggled at Chinaza who was wriggling like an earthworm as Aunty Chigozie tickled her. For a second there, we were all happy.
The clouds gathered like it would rain soon.
Baby was back on the ground and she had the earthworm now securely wrapped in her tiny palm.
“Babbyyy. You want the snake to bite you?” I asked. I stretched out my open palm to her hoping she’d give away the clump of earth in her hand. She refused to release her captive.
Her little brown face squeezed up for a second and she quizzed mine to check if I meant what I had just said about a snake. As little as she was, Chinaza could very quickly associate the mention of snakes to danger. She looked at the worm again, her lips squeezed together in a pout as she scrutinized it.
“No snake. Lemme Ene! Bad! Bad!” she sternly rebuked me for lying. She had learned to mimic my gestures, even the one I used to reprimand her.
I looked across the cassava mounds at Papa who was just about the size of a moving speck. His bare back shone with sweat. He had set out to make a hundred ridges before nightfall. The planting season had been tough on him because we had to sell one of his plots to get seed. Every day he had to look at that fence cutting off the portion that once was ours. I knew if he had his way, he would go back to refund the money just so he could get his land back.
You could see him sometimes stand arms akimbo, shake his head as if he was thinking about something. He would then bend over again and immediately return to working the farm.
It killed him to sell that piece of land. That plot had been earmarked for the Plantain farm but we had to sell it before we could harvest any of them.
The night he got the money for the land, he sat next to me and told me stories of how his grandfather had earned the land from the village chiefs after moving to Gboko from Nnewi. People from the east were not much loved by the locals, and it didn’t matter that they were some of the most successful merchants in the region.
“Land is power, and heritage,” papa reminded me that night. He wanted me to grow up to be a trader’s wife. He said that once I was of age, he would give me my own piece of land and that any man that asked for my hand must be ready to work hard. Grandpa had worked on the King’s farms, become successful, and was soon offered some land on the outskirt of the village. No one expected that he would succeed but he did. He only returned to Nnewi with his family when he was too old to keep the farm. Then he willed the farm to my father, the black sheep who had married ndị ofe mmanụ, a dirty Yoruba woman.
The man who bought the plantain farm and his lawyer came walking through the farm earlier that day, marching irreverently through and crushing some of the cassava stalks. I had parked my “vehicle” as baby called my wheelchair, at the doorpost. Aunty Chigozie had warned me that when I didn’t know how to address an elder, I should rather shut my mouth. These were two elderly men who didn’t have the sense to walk between the ridges. I wished one of the grasscutter traps would set off and crush their legs. I couldn’t bear to talk to them so I turned to my phone as they approached.
I was flipping through the new games Usman had installed. The mobile phone also had some books I wanted to read but I was torn between reading and just playing the snake game that I liked the most. I only looked up again when the two men finally stood over me. There was something about them that felt out of place. The lawyer had dark eyes and a moustache that looked like he had a furry animal somewhere in his lineage.
“Ene!!! You are so busy pressing that plastic thing to notice the two of us. Go and tell your father that barrister is here with me, his neighbour,” Engineer Dan scowled at me.
I grudgingly navigated my way into the house, announced the visitors and retired to my former position outside. I still wanted them to be struck by lightening for walking all over the farm like it was their father’s property.
“Engineer! This is a ridiculous amount you have offered me. We both know you can give me this loan without taking my land,” Papa’s voice rose from inside the living room. Engineer had come determined to take advantage of our situation. He was called “Engineer” because of how he bought off farmlands and built huge empty buildings on them. Father says nobody can afford to pay rent these days, that young boys are living on the streets and going for job interviews from shacks. So why is Engineer buying all this land and building all these giant buildings?
He had offered to buy the small plot of land after father refused to sell the whole farmland. Papa’s farm was prize land as it was frequently irrigated by the nearby stream. Father said Engineer did not care about farming and so he could never understand the miracles of land and water, and the seeds that grow from them.
They haggled back and forth till late evening. Engineer clapped in excitement as the lawyer handed him the Deed for the plot papa agreed to sell. One never would have thought that an adult could be such a baby. I couldn’t think of anyone more undeserving of our land. I spat in disgust when he and his lawyer had walked some distance away from the house.
I prayed silently to Jesus that the land would soon be overgrown with weeds. Imagine the audacity of the man, saying that he would be back for the rest of the land as soon as father’s farm failed.
“It is you that will fail!” father yelled while he ushered the men out of the house.
That day I confirmed what people often said about this man called “Engineer,” he was not a farmer at all, he simply relocated from Kaduna to make quick money from the people’s misfortune. He would never take no for an answer if he wanted a piece of property. There was something dark and sinister about him that even Aunty Chigozie couldn’t help but say. We talked about his visit for weeks. We prayed that he would never have a reason to come back. Papa worked harder every day. His sleep was uneasy and laboured. I could hear him tossing and turning from my room.
A lot of father’s friends were selling their lands for cheap bargains because of the frequent raids by Fulani herdsmen but he was determined to stay on his farm.
I could feel the last rays of the Sun caress my forehead as it broke through some clouds. I closed my eyes and embraced the brief warmth as it hit my face. There was nothing more beautiful than watching my family on the farm. Everything I cared about in the world was there on the farm, I called out to baby who had started to crawl away again, she turned and flashed me a mischievous grin. My stomach growled.
One minute father was there in the distance waving at us, and the next minute chaos had descended on our farmland.
“Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar!” the men chanted.
“Allahu Akbar!” the one man who led the pack growled. Gunshots rang through the darkening skies.
Aunty Chigozie rushed over to grab a hold of baby, flung her in my lap and started to roll my chair into the bush behind the house. The cold wind howled in my ears.
Father had struck the ground after a shot went off from the pack leader’s hands. Two men descend on him with daggers.
They tore at his clothes and I saw from the corner of my eyes his flailing arms.
My growling stomach had not prepared me for the onslaught of murderers. The farm was overrun with their shouting. We ran.
“Don’t scream Ene. Don’t cry…” Aunty Chigozie whispered. I nodded. We could hear the whistles and the gunshots.
I glanced back briefly to see some man dragging father—what was left of him, by the heels. The house was up in flames. Aunty Chigozie continued to push the chair even though we were stuck in dark lumps of soil and leaves. Tears started to flow, fresh tears, down my face but Aunty Chigozie had finally got the wheels dislodged. I had my right palm clasped over Chinaza’s mouth and my left arm wrapped around her body. We ran even though we knew it was just a matter of time.
How would a woman, a cripple and baby outrun this bloodlust?
The sky had become darker with clouds, we continued to roll through the bushes. In the distance, I saw Engineer and his lawyer friend standing as if in conference. They kept watch as the house burnt. They even waved at us as we ran. It made sense then to me that the land which father thought he his father earned was only a loan that was to be paid back in blood.
“Ene, take your sister and swim,” Aunty Chigozie said. Her chest heaved up and down as she cast furtive glances here and there. Her eyes were not soft but they were fierce. I knew she would give her life before anything happened to me and Chinaza. We were by the river bank that had no bridge. Our lives hung on a balance. The sound of pounding feet and rustling grass continued to follow us. Aunty Chigozie turned around and faced the direction from which we had been running and then she ran causing a diversion. I watched from where we hid, I heard the running and the shouting. I heard everything go quiet.
“Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar!” the men chanted from a distance. The river continued to flow and splash at my wheels.
The sky gave way to heavy torrents of rain. I rolled my chair gently. It was either the river or the dagger. Chinaza was wailing. She couldn’t stop. The river swept off my chair. We crashed into the river, my arms still wrapped around Chinaza. Everything went dark.
Image by Pech Frantisek from Pixabay (modified)