The rats scurried in the ceiling as if lost in an intense Olympic hurdle.
Atop the trees, the birds sang almost in unison, some leading the varied birdsongs and others responding. It all seemed the feverish but bittersweet preparations of the last two weeks had come to a head and the birds were ever ready to herald the much-awaited day. Even the lizards seemed to share the sounds of the day, their quick bursts of run making sweet skittering sounds on the fence and on the ground.
I looked at my cup of Lipton tea perched atop the white plastic table and even it seemed to be in the spirit of the land of ancient spirits. The teabag lost inside the blue breakable cup threw out its strand and lapel in an almost flirtatious way. The steam moved skyward and seemed to be engaged in dancing and vanishing acts. Maybe these inanimate things had their own special sounds; silent to us, deafening to them. Even the trees with their leaves usually so easily ruffled by the romantic morning wind stood eerily silent as if in homage to some unseen deity.
Even the wind, usually so eager to unleash its lullaby in wooing the trees and shrubs every morning was romantically restrained, as if acting out some devised script.
The trip from Jagindi-Tasha had offered a remarkably different cacophony from the one that now held the reins here. The chaos was rendered complete by the waves and droves of people who indulged in almost desperate bargains to land enough buys and still retain enough naira for the long-anticipated date with the unborn. Like ants frenzied on their anthill, many more were either coming or going, their frantic but strangely restrained hurry seeming like they were on their way to answer summons from a much loved but unpredictable deity.
Chioma awoke with a start and the way my name escaped gutturally but sleepily from her voice emergent from a difficult tussle with sleep told me her mood was teetering on the edge of a razor blade. Though I had whispered a prayer seeking to wield some control over my emotions and seeking strength for her to do same to hers, I had been cautiously confident. The way my name echoed portended that my prayers had been rebuffed and the doubts it seemed would taint this one. She called again and it seemed razor blades flew in the super sonic speed of her voice to make little, bloodless cuts in my heart so smitten by the many gentle sounds of this morning. I rose and tried to steady myself on my way to face her customary avalanche of words and emotions, all coming in profoundly difficult moments of throes and pangs. I let the Lipton warm my lips, tongue and heart, praying the warmth would somehow find itself to the cockles of Chioma`s heart that had become an isle of ice in the past one year and was dishing out the icicles on this controlled but melodically majestic morning. I slid my feet into the shoes of my pyjamas that I had rejected in a moment of seduction by the morning and shuffled unsteadily to make my dreaded journey to her lair. I counted the seconds as I moved, determined to let the mental wheels whirl out relaxation and control as I prepared for the unpredictable spontaneity that assailed her on most mornings. I let a word of prayer slip out as I continued to desperately seek for anchors in this sea of turbulence that had roared for as long as the breaths took to finally forsake Somayina and had remained interminable. I looked into my room, mercifully located before hers; Sombili, lost in the arms of Morpheus, slept soundlessly, sweetly: the child of my many comforts. The one who remained to provide some sort of plug for the yawning, voidless gap that would have swallowed us.
`Anayo!’ Chioma barked again irritably, my hesitation fuelling her irritation. I quickened my steps like one would hurry across a fire to safety if an all consuming flood was chasing. I was stepping into a tidal wave of uncertainty and I knew it. But it was still a trickle and I knew that my clay feet could pry loose a wedge on the flood`s lips and let loose an all-consuming torrent. I did not want the sparks to fly; I did not want Sombili`s rarely restful sleep interrupted and seared by the early morning staccato of wild emotions.
I drew the expensively aesthetic curtain aside and my frightful eyes fell on the woman I had gratefully called `my Elysia’ on our second date two years ago. A pregnant name that had held and nursed its child until the difficult birth had become still.
Chioma looked at me and her eyes were blank and blazing. Blazing not with fire but with an indescribable sight, as if they held within them the visions of countless utopias. She was sitting on the bed, her legs pulled together in the shape of twin Vs, joined to each other at the feet. She seemed to be lost in some ritual, her earlier guttural cries of my name seeming prefatory ritualistic invocations. I doubted if she had really seen me. Her face remained inscrutable and expressionless, her eyes blankly staring at places I have never been to, seeing people I had never seen and conversing with those I had never seen. I wondered for a moment if she was the one who had hoarsely and irritably barked my name and I doubted no more. Though she was as still as a statuette I knew her heart was bleeding afresh.
I edged closer to the bed, each step seeming more wooden than the last; a hesitant journey into an unwanted morning encounter with a cauldron of boiling emotions. My hesitation struck me as ironic. Here was I filled with dread about the unsavoury prospect of drawing too close to Chioma. It was the one place I first got a taste of heaven. The second had been on that cloud-darkened morning that I had looked into the newly-born, radiant faces of Sombili and Somayina and felt the world would never end. When our love was still new, Chioma`s open legs had been heaven`s gates for me, her full breasts seeming like empyreal towers. I had come to dread these early morning encounters and countless nights had been punctuated by nightmares of them, and here was I on this beautiful morning of seasonal sounds faced with one which held very dark promises of being the worst yet.
I dropped into a squatting position and laid a hand on the bed, the other hand balled into a fist as if I could pump some light and strength into this early morning darkness. On the bed, my shivering right hand seemed to send a vibration through the bed sheets. I was that nervous. Chioma held her position and her posture, seemingly oblivious of my presence and great trepidation in her presence. That presence that had been so welcoming and warm over two blissful years suddenly seemed to hold a fire that seared both its source and suppliants. As if sensing my deathly discomfiture, a weaver bird, in search of twigs and grass for its elaborate nest in the palm tree outside, perched on the window ledge outside and let out a piercing cry. It at once proved an ululation and a lamentation. An elegy and a eulogy to the death that had killed off our marriage and the dying efforts I was making to gather the shattered pieces. Yet, Chioma remained unmoved, her strange gaze peering at unseen places and into distant lands remained unflinching.
Now that I was on the edge of the precipice and as the sweltering anxiety, punctuated only by my tight left fist and the weaver bird`s guttural cry, swirled around me, I was increasingly uncertain of how to proceed; the best course of action to smother the silently kindling fire and stanch the raging storm that was beginning in a trickle. I thought of Sombili, so peaceful in sleep and silently prayed he slept even deeper, but not like Somayina had slept and taken the soul of our family away. I seemed like a suppliant in my squatting position, unsure of how to begin my supplications to a highly unpredictable and temperamental deity, who could as easily swat me aside in fit of rage as he could let me swim in his sea of endless providence.
The wheels in my mind were spinning almost to a state of flying loose. Added to my mounting anxiety, I was almost sweating in spite of the fact that it was a gloriously cool morning. I decided to sing. Music was a universal language and the family lyrics and lullaby had been unwittingly enriched by the fact that it had fallen my duty to comfort and rock to sleep an otherwise peacefully quiescent Sombili whenever sleep proved a difficult commodity. I decided upon a line Chioma had enjoyed during our dates and one we had sung together to rock Sombili and Somayina and ourselves to sleep when the core of our cradle was unbroken and inviolate. I sang on:
`Obi moo, obi moo…Anssyele o
Somayina still sleeps o…Anssyele o
But Sombili is awake o…Anssyele o
They are calling for us o…Anssyele o
Give me your hands let us go…Anssyele o
As if on cue, a weaver bird let out another piercing cry. I was sure it was the same one of a few minutes ago, one I had named `Ibem’ for I considered it a partner in this dark emotional dungeon. With the last line of my song fading into the season, my hand moved from the sheets to lie on the right knee of the woman I had loved with my entire being. The birds sang on. A woman who had been my first love. Yet she remained unstirred. I repeated the song again and again. The words took on new meanings and depth with each repetition as the familial memories came crashing down. My eyelids soon burned with unshed tears and they soon overflowed. I bowed slightly and stanched them with my left hand. When I looked again into Ebele’s face, tears were tracing their wet lines.
What came next both surprised and shocked me by the simplicity of its childlikeness and the crudeness of its rawness. Ebele’s interminably blank eyes and unflinching gaze silently loosened from its fascination and refocused on my tear-streaked face. They fastened on me as she straightened her legs and, unclasped her hands and gently moved a hand to my left cheek which she cupped before using her thumb to swipe my left eye in an ostensibly consolatory gesture. The moment was not lost on me and for a sweetly brief moment, I was convinced I had found triumph against the odds of this painfully anxious moment. She held the loving gesture for a minute that seemed endless before she violently shoved me away. It was unexpected and her touch had rendered my usually high guard around her impotent. I fell backward and crashed into the wall.
My head impacted upon the wall forcefully with a grotesque sound but I did not lose consciousness. Under different circumstances, perhaps I would have slipped into sweet oblivion but I had learnt not to lose it at home. The strength that kept me alert at home had always sprang from the certainty that I was the last sane line of safety for both Chioma and Sombili. Once when she had in a fit of rage crashed a heavy pressing iron into my head, thoughts of Sombili’s safety had kept me conscious. I had snatched Sombili on my way to driving to the hospital with a badly gashed and bleeding head. The matronly nurse who had bandaged the bleeding head, had gently cuddled Sombili and had inquired into the family’s safety as if she had more than a slight hint of the dangers that lurked at home, in spite of the fact that I had done my best to lie to her that I had been wounded while trying to separate two fighting neighbours. She had genuinely feared for the safety of the child and whoever else was at home.
As I was reeling from the impact of the crash and feeling dizzy Chioma looked at me and a thinly-veiled smile cut a corner of her lips. I was shocked but not angry. The incident with the pressing iron I had understood, maybe because there was no smile but only unbridled rage, for which I was not principally the target. Then she had shed tears of helplessness.
But here there was a smile and a hint of perfect premeditation and intent. But I was not angry. I was not angry because I knew that something in Chioma was broken at the core, something in her had been uprooted at the roots and replaced by pain and impulsion.
As she held my gaze like a serpent hypnotizing its prey, she began to rise as gracefully as a cat. One body part placed before the other in a rising motion. Though I was smarting from her vicious shove and my resultant crash against the wall, a new sense of dread lanced through me. I was suddenly alarmed by the coldness of her movements. Like those of a snake falling upon its prey. But the alarm was not for my hide and life. It was for Sombili. Sweet, sweet Sombili.
As she was on the verge of completing her slow graceful rise, a renewed strength coursed through me and in a minute I was up and through the door, in a panicked flight, all my thoughts on Sombili. As I turned the corner to enter the room, I saw Chioma coming out of the room from the corner of my eye and she seemed to be holding something. She suddenly seemed like a spectre stalking its prey. I tore open the curtain and rushed towards the bed where Sombili still slept, so peacefully. I snatched the child from the bed and my car key from the side stool. I was out of the door in a minute as Chioma – still maintaining her slow graceful, menacing strides was half way to the door. I descended the stair case and fled to the car.
Sombili who had earlier been too startled by the abrupt wake to react at all was suddenly crying, his voice rising with each passing moment. I was already by the car when I heard the first crash. It was a goblet flung down the balcony. I looked up and Chioma’s face still held her strange smile. Salisu, the gateman I had brought with me from Jagindi-Tasha looked at the crashed goblet, then at the balcony and at me, uncertainty and dread etched into his features. It was apparent he thought it was too early and out of place on such a beautiful day to experience the crisis that was now brewing. Another goblet crashed to the floor followed by a china plate.
`Oga, wetin dey happen to Madam?’ He asked me. `Why she dey throway things like that?’ I was on the verge of forming an answer to his question when a glass jug crashed to the floor. The answer died on my lips as I saw Chioma begin to mount the balcony rail and I knew what was coming unless we acted fast. I shouted Salisu’s name and he understood. I opened the car and shoved Sombili inside while I rushed to stand beneath the balcony, determined to break Chioma’s fall, no matter the cost to my own life. Salisu understood and came and stood beside me as he had done so many times in the past especially on that eternally dark night when the monsters had broken into our house and broken our lives and our hearts irreparably. Chioma looked down and as if our presence was an immovable barrier to what she wanted to do, she withdrew from the rail and disappeared inside. I remained there with Salisu, sensing that her withdrawal from the rail and her disappearance into the house was a gimmick to get us off our guard and jump to her death. We were still waiting patiently, allowing the minutes to tick anxiously by, letting our eyes dart around. We were like preys in holes with multiple entrances, surrounded by predators, not knowing through which opening they will launch their assault.
What came next surprised us. In one of those moments when our eyes flicked away from the balcony to the door, half expecting her to run out through the door with some dangerous weapon, water cascaded down on us from the balcony, poured from a bucket, like a water fall. I swiped my eyes and looked up; Chioma held the bucket and her gaze bore into us, into me in particular. Then came the wracking sobs as she withdrew from our view and disappeared inside. I knew that one of her worst episodes yet was all over. Experience gave me that sweet knowledge and with it came the even sweeter relief that the chaos of that early morning was over. I thought of rushing to her room to take her into my arms and console her as I always did after each painfully exhausting encounter with the demons that had slipped from that unforgettable night into each waking moment of our day and I remembered that I had shut Sombili in the car.
I rushed to the car and opened the door. The child, exhausted from crying, had fallen into a restless sleep. I carefully took him in my arms. Someday he would grow to understand, though I wished with all my heart that this nightmare would give way to the effulgent light of the day before he is wise enough. Salisu had begun picking the shattered pieces of the glass cups. The symbolics hit me immediately. A stranger picking up the shattered pieces of glass cups shattered by a woman whose life had been shattered by monstrous strangers. Maybe a stranger was on his way, I thought. Maybe a stranger was to bring healing as strangers had brought wounds and indelible tears. I hoped as I had hoped for the past one year.
I began to head for the door and on instinct, I invited Salisu to join me. Though I was convinced that the darkest period of an otherwise cloudless and musical morning was over, I needed Salisu in case things got ugly out of nowhere as that grotesque knock by fingers from hell on our door on that cheerless night had precipitated and the gun shot that had eternally silenced sweet Somayina and sent his mother into a private hell had signaled. Though experience suggested otherwise, I knew I could never be too careful. I walked into the house, Salisu on my tail. I could tell he was anxious and heavy with a lot of questions, but a loyalty to my family which had proved unflinching, even on the darkest familial night propelled him after me, keeping a tight lid on all his questions and on mine too.
I knew that someday, Sombili would find the answers.
`Send Sombili to steal Somayina from those who stole him’
`Anayo send Sombili to steal Somayina from those who stole him’
`Salisu send Sombili to steal Somayina from those who stole him’
She repeated the pleas through heart-wringing sobs. She was sitting on the floor, her legs held out in front of her, her head bent and tears gradually forming a puddle on the floor. I stood there for a moment, transfixed by the sight. Sombili gently slept with his head rested on my shoulder. Salisu stared blankly, wordlessly. I gently handed him the child who gratefully continued his blissfully oblivious sleep and I gently walked to Chioma and dropped into a squat by her as I had done before her vicious shove and sudden attack had forced me downstairs with Sombili. When she felt me squatting by her, she sobbed louder and seemed to convulse on her sobs. I gently held her hair and kissed her forehead. I took her into my arms. Now crying even loudly, she clung to me and as we had done on that morning after the robbers broke into the house and the bullets meant for Chioma shattered Somayina’s head, we let our hearts cling to each other for comfort and strength. The living nightmares had crept in day after day until it had built formidable weaponry. I knew it would take years and a miracle to repair what was damaged and dismantle the arsenal. I hoped that someday the seasonal sounds would change from those of pain to those of joy and excitement like the singing birds, like the scurrying rats, like those of Somayina and Sombili before the monsters came and before Sombili would find the answers.
Image: Pixabay.com remixed