Fiction

Time of Petals: A Short Story By Emma Iduma

The younger man followed the older man hesitantly, almost in desperation, along the pathway. The younger man would increase his pace and decrease it almost immediately. That was the hesitation about the following— the increasing and decreasing of the pace. But the younger man followed still. It was the wrong time of the seasons to do such following. There were welted flowers everywhere, from the uncommon ixora to the common hibiscus; the flowers that would fall before the rains. There was wetness, the wetness with its accompanying mud. There were also seriating lines of thin water, flowing in the mud. All these had their presence in cemented floors, which had either become forgotten or lacked the urgency to prompt whoever was in charge to change. All the same, the younger man followed the older man, despite the conditions.

            It was at a door that the pathway led to that the younger man met the older man. It was at the door that the older man knew that he had been followed.

            “What again?” the rusty voice of the older man inquired with an irksome tone.

            “Please sir.”

            “I am not the vice-chancellor. They said you should go.”

            “You can help me beg. I would not do it again.”

The older man took one last look. With the same irksomeness.

            “I can not do anything, young man. You stole a phone and they said you should go. I was only chairman of the disciplinarian committee. I can do nothing. Please, excuse me.”

            The younger man started to exit, wanting to forget that this was where the education had ended— at a door and with a man that said he should go.

There was nowhere else to go. He was returning. There were sounds that heralded him, even from the bus stop. The sounds were without sights. He knew the sights properly and needed no reminder. Who would not have reminiscence for the town of his birth? Even the man who left and would not want to return refused return because he remembered his town. And so he remembered his town; the lack of many telecommunication shops as was in his university, the absence of electricity longer than his university’s absence, the clapping of hands of the children that would be called uncivilized in the university, and all the differences. But the sounds heralded him, because all of a sudden there were a dozen bars and there was loud music of many foreign musicians.

            His mama flung herself at him. Her body, sagging, smelt of smoke. It was at her canteen that he met her. There was a gutter just before the entrance. It was laden with residues, the residues that a six year old poured into the gutter. He had to avoid gazing when he entered. And even to think that his mama had put her leg into the gutter as she washed the goat-meat had even more nausea.

            He held unto her sagging body as she kissed him here and there. He did not know why he was doing it, especially with the goat-meat and smoke smells. But finally, he knew. After his lie.

            “I have graduated, mama.”

            “What does you mean?”

            “I have finished school.”

She danced and danced. She flaunted herself in the canteen and her wrapper uncovered her in the process. Her son closed his eyes. He had seen the brown patches that surrounded her underwear as though it was the map of the world being drawn. She still danced in the process of picking her wrapper. And then she went to her battery-powered cassette player and caused music to fill the room. Chinweike, it sang. He had to remember that it meant ‘God has power.’ He even had to remember that he was Ibo and not Yoruba. And even though he had lied, he still remembered that he had been dismissed from the university.

             He watched his mama’s exultant dance and wished there was something he could do to reverse the lie.

He saw them even before they all sat in the place his mother called parlor. They were six in number. Dressed in their best. They all wore skirts and they all weaved their hair. They all did not perm their hair. They all had blouses covering their navels, even reaching beyond their waists. They all wore single earrings, smaller and he would not put his hands into the earrings if he wanted. They all had fuller bosoms. And most annoyingly, he knew that as they all put their hands between their laps, they all waited for him.

            “Chika, they have come.” It was his mama’s exultant voice. She was almost chirping as a bird would. She had worn two wrappers instead of one and her scarf was tied expertly and she no longer had the goat-meat smell. Her scent was the one Lux, the popular bathing soap, provided.

            “Who are they?”

            “Sixteen-seventeen-eighteen-twenty,” she was trying to swish her waist in the process of her reply. He understood. She was trying to walk in cat-fashion; in the fashion young women were characterized as walking.

            “Mama, I don’t understand.”

She smiled as though she had smiles in a plethora.

            “I told you you should get married. Now you have gaduate. You need wife. Come and see them. Then you can choose anyone you want.”

The girl he chose had too much hair on her legs and hands. She had the teeth that he could write on with a pen. Then her shape was too bogus, too corpulent. But he chose her, because she had a cellphone and because she had the biggest earrings. The girl stayed till late evening and his mama asked her to sleep in their house. He and his mama shared one room. But when it was sleep-time, his mother took their blanket and went to what she called her parlor. The girl was still sitting on the edge of the bed and he was still sitting as far as possible from her.

            His mama returned. This time, it was him she took to her parlor.

            “Chika, you are my only child. And I have find wife for you. Biko, I want grandchildren. That girl is like paw-paw that is just pluck. If you remove her pant, she would even born twins. I want to know if she is ripe. Tell her to remove her pant, you would see, she would even remove her body. Oya, go and tell her to remove her pant.”

            He was not more surprised by the vulgarity of his mama. It was the long homily that she had made.

The girl said she was a virgin and that her mother said she should not sleep with any man until her wedding night. She even started sniffing. But she told him that if it was just her pants he wanted to see, she could show him.

            “What is your name?”

            “Obiageli.”

            “I don’t want to see your pant. I don’t even want to get married. I don’t even want to stay in this place.”

            She sniffed the more after he made his remark. That she did not want him to go anywhere. That, was he annoyed because she did not agree to sleep with him? If it was what made him annoyed, then she could do it. But please, let him not go. He was a handsome man and he was educated. He was the man of her dreams and there were so many ‘bush’ men in this town. Please, she would not only show him her pant but everything.

            He stood up from her sniffing and went to pack his clothes.

____________________________

He found a hotel that would collect hundred naira every night on the condition that he showed up at the bar each night. He wanted to call it a hotel so that it could appear more dignified than it looked. He was in Onitsha, where he had escaped to from his town. The room he was given had no doors but a curtain that was patched with an unprofessional method of sewing. He had a bed almost without springs and it was too metallic and pained his back because the mattress was also thin. And he was desperately in need of a job.

            So he went to Main Market, the one they said was the largest in West Africa. He wanted to be a sales-boy, a shop-sweeper, a hawker, a load-carrier, anything. The people he met laughed and said there was no job, that they had taken all the miscreants they wanted. And even if he wanted to be a load-carrier, he did not have a thousand naira to buy a wheel-barrow. But he kept going to Main Market, because it was large and because he did not see the same faces everyday. By now, he owed the hotel a week’s arrears.

            The day of his breakthrough was the day he met a man strapped with rat-poison for sales. It was the man’s lunch period. He was eating thin slices of cassava mixed with garden egg and other things he couldn’t name; it was what they called abacha.

            “I want a job.” It was the height of frustration— the expression.

            “Gini?” what, the man had asked.

            “I want job.”

The man swallowed all his abacha, rinsed his mouth with a sachet of sold water, before he took another look at him.

            “Can you sell rat-poison?”

            “Yes. I can do anything.”

The man told him to follow. He did, escorting his benefactor throughout the circuit Main Market could provide. It was a tiring work, but he concluded it was worth it. He would become rat-poison retailer.

He did become rat-poison retailer. He even extended his area of coverage to the environs of Main Market. He would jump from bus to bus, he would stand on the motley road, and he would meet pedestrians on their trip to wherever; in all, he knew that many people wanted rat-poison. That many people had rat-troubles. He still lived in that hotel and he no longer owed them arrears. He still communicated with his benefactor. They usually met at the warehouse of the rat-poison manufacturers and they had become friends. The name of his benefactor was also Chika. So his benefactor called him ‘name-sake’ with the deep presence of the Ibo-tonality.

            It was during one of his circuits beyond Main Market that he met Obiageli. She was less corpulent and bogus now, and she had shaved the hair on her legs. He could see the absence of hair because she was not wearing the long skirt she wore on the eve of his escape. She was wearing a less-naïve one and her earrings were bigger and his hands could pass through it if he tried.

            “Chika,” it was her that exclaimed. She was in the midst of a queue, almost the last member of the queue. His droning of ‘buy good rat-poison’ lessened its volume as he recollected. Her mascara prolonged the process.

            “Obiageli,” he muttered. He was ashamed of his bogus trousers that did not reach his ankle and the sleeveless shirt that exposed little muscle and the unshaved beard he bore.

When he noticed that she bore no ashamedness for him, he talked freely. Now they had excused themselves from the noise; she stood where she could watch her queue. He could not sell, though.

            “What are you doing here?” it was her that asked first.

            “Selling rat-poison.” He was still ashamed.

            “I’m waiting to collect my father’s pension. He sent me on his behalf. He is sick. I live with my mother now. Here in Onitsha. I left there when you could not marry me.”

            He laughed, with scorn. What he admired was her refinement. Her new air.

            “My mother was crazy. I could not marry then. I did not even have any certificate. I was dismissed from school. And everyone thought I was a rich man that had come to get married.”

            Obiageli did not respond. He stared at his rat-poison and he remembered his dismissal. She stared at her queue. The queue had trickled.

            “Where do you live? I want to visit you.”

            “Ifesinachi Hotel. Ask for the rat-seller.”

Obiageli did not say anything before she went to her queue and before he started shouting his requiem— buy good rat-poison.

Obiageli helped him carry his baggage to his new room. It was not too distant from the hotel. His room was fifth on a row of a dozen rooms, having termite-ridden doors and stickers that bore divergent doctrines and beliefs. ‘God will make a way,’ ‘I will make it in Jesus name,’ ‘Brotherhood of the Cross and Star,’ ‘My enemies would live long and see what I would become.’ His own door had no sticker, because he had removed it and because it had read ‘Things do come together. Even the ant would become soldier-ant one day.’

            Obiageli stayed till dark, just as she had stayed when she wanted him to marry him. She helped him arrange his new room. She was wearing trouser jeans that tight-fitted her and blouse that showed the line of her cleavage-cover and her flabby navel. She slept on the single mattress after she had drunk the malt he gave her. And she snored. Even though he hated the snore, he watched her sleeping figure because her blouse had exposed beyond her flabby navel.

He watched her until she awoke. She re-made her blouse into rightness. Then, she looked around and hissed when she discovered it was darker.

            “You can sleep here till tomorrow.”

            “Mama would be worried. I told her I would not be late.”

            “You should not take the risk. You know how armed robbers fill the streets. And you could get raped.”

            Obiageli looked at him. There was some distantness about her gaze. As though she was a priestess that saw a new hallucination.

            “Why do you care? Why do you care if I get raped?”

            “I don’t know.”

            “You love me, don’t you?”

            “I don’t know.”

            “I know. You love me. You chose me out of many girls. You love me.”

            “I said I don’t know. I don’t know what love is. I only know that it is more fake than real. I don’t know if I love you.”

            In the end, they slept together on the mattress that was made for one person. She kept repeating ‘I love you,’ even sleep-talking.

Two Saturdays later, while he did his laundry at the backyard of his room, he heard the door creak, as usual, lazily. He curiously went to see. It was Obiageli, accompanied by a bag that was bulky from its contents.

            “What is the meaning of—”

            “I had a quarrel with mama. And I promised I would not return to her house. And I had no where to go.”

            He knew it was falsehood. But he let her find a corner for her bag before he confronted the falsehood.

            “Tell me the truth. Why did you come?”

She let the question linger in the air, her silence made it linger.

            “I came because I wanted you to marry me. I told you I love you and I want you to marry me.”

            His agape mouth did not show the flabbergasted feeling that whelmed him. She was a woman, asking him, the man, to marry her. He would curse anyone who said the world had not changed.

________________________

Marriage was a different lifestyle. They shared the bed. She cooked and he brought his daily profit as if she was the tax-collector. The room was tidier. He would not sleep with her on the first night. When he finally did, he hated the accomplished look she had on her face. She had brought her cassette player along and she played many songs. Usually, she used her large comb as a microphone when she accompanied the singing that came from her cassette player.

            Their good time came when they sang together, or the times she composed a love song and added his name to it. He would hold her from her behind and she would rhythm her waist to the songs.

            Soon, the hair on her legs began to reappear and she no longer kept the room tidy. But she still listened to her cassette player and she still composed songs. He confronted her.

            “I don’t like the job you are doing.”

            “What does the job I am doing have to do with keeping the room tidy?”

            “It is my own way of protest.”

            “Was it not you that said you wanted to get married? Didn’t you know that I sold rat-poison before you got married to me? Now you are protesting.”

            Obiageli protested further. She inserted a tape into the cassette player and started to hum its output. He felt insulted and so he used his fists to smash away the cassette player. Obiageli looked at him with amazement and she protested further when she lay down on the bed and sulked. That moment, he remembered that Obiageli had said she would turn twenty-one that year. He understood why she sulked.

Her sulking lasted for two more days, during which she did not say a word to him. She bought a new cassette player and danced. She would swish her waist in his face, and again, he remembered that she was protesting. He would not apologize, because it was her that said she wanted to get married and he would not apologize when her marriage was failing. After two days, she disappeared.

            He came back from his rat-poison circuit to discover that only his baggage remained. He did not feel sorry. It was relief that came. Relief mixed with anger, because he had deflowered himself with a woman that proposed marriage and would not stay.

__________________________

The nagging woman said she was Obiageli’s mama.

            “Where have you taken my daughter to?”

            “Your daughter left herself. She came here by herself. And she left by herself.”

            “It is a lie. You used juju to charm her and she came here and lived as your wife. Now you have used her for blood money. You would see, I would call police for you.”

            “Madam,” he was gaining the guts from an unknown source, “I don’t care if you call the president. I don’t know where your daughter is. She left of her own volition.”

            The woman panted and panted with hands akimbo. Then she left, after showing infuriation that he spoke too much grammar and promising to return. He watched her leave, and he saw the flowery design on her jaded Ankara. He saw that the petals in her flowery ankara enclosed each other, came together. He wanted a coming together like that.

Weeks later, he saw Obiageli on the Television in the room next door. She had been chosen for Idols, a singing competition. He saw that she was totally non-corpulent when she was being interviewed.

            “What is your greatest regret in life?” the interviewer asked her.

            “Leaving the man I loved because I wanted to sing.”

            “Would you want to return to him?”

            “Yes.”

And tear drops accompanied her regret.

He still did not find any feeling for her. Even if he found a feeling for her, he would not wait. He had decided to return to his town, because the rat-poison warehouse had run short of supply and because he wanted to go and tell his mama the truth.

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