It was the eyes.
I’d always thought it was the distinguishing feature—a growth at the side of my little finger—a sixth finger on each hand that made me different, which took the laughter away. But it had to be more than that, because there was the strangeness that clung to me like a second skin, leaving me hovering between dream and reality. I walked dazedly. Life, a blurred line I could not make sense of anymore.
Then, eyes. Something had escaped from them, something that was supposed not to, that had longed for freedom. It left me gasping, making me realise that there was more about my nature that caused things to go wrong, leaving me in an invisible place where outcasts dwelled, a place of no laughter. It was a time of sadness when I took the tray of food to Mama’s room. It was a time of sadness.
Inside, Mama lay on the bed. Her whimpers filled the room. She cradled the framed picture of Adaeze to her breasts. It was the fourth day in a row she’d lain in that bed, crying; rending tears that came from the pit of her being. Earlier, Azuka, Mama’s sister, had prepared a delicious dinner of orah soup and fufu. Mama’s favourite. There were chunks of smoked fish, the sort brought from Maiduguri, and many medium-sized pieces of beef in the soup. But it was the wrong time to serve such a delicacy.
Nkemjika didn’t touch his plate; he just stared as if expecting something to emerge from it. Ebuka frowned at his. I tried to chew a piece of fish, but it tasted like unwashed onugbu leaf and I spat it out. Then I stared at my plate, as the soup congealed and flies hovered while I swatted them. I was still staring as night came and Azuka called me to take food to Mama.
When I walked into Mama’s room, she lay on the bed, her back to me. The framed picture of Adaeze peeked from the crook of her elbow, and her shoulders shook. I drew up a table for her and placed the plate of fufu and soup, before leaving, soundlessly.
As I came back with a basin of water for hand washing, Mama had stood, looming, in the middle of the room; a strangeness about her. I couldn’t see her face clearly because she was obscured from the light sifting in from the open window. One hand was balanced on her thick waist and the other tightened the old flowered-patterned wrapper wound round her chest. I knew things were about to get bad. And there was nothing I could do about it. Suddenly, the fluorescent light came on and the room took on an eerie white quality.
“Did you put witchcraft in the food?” She demanded, arms akimbo, towering as if she had added extra feet. Her hair was a ruffled bob of savage cotton wool, and her eyes were sucked deep into her skull, seeming like a hollow cave on her unhealthy complexion. My tongue was glued to the roof of my mouth. A cockroach ran across the curtain frame behind her, and a wall gecko slithered from behind it. I wished to turn into a fly, wing into the air and disappear before she pounced, before she squashed me.
“Asim, did you put nsi in my food, the same you used to kill my baby?” She advanced as I took a step backwards; the floor creaking beneath her weight. The bowl of water shook in my hands, spattering drops of water on my leg, and unto the floor.
“I didn’t put anything,” I spluttered.
My leg felt cast in lead. My stomach growled, and I felt the tightness of hot urine threatening to gush out unbidden. I had made it backwards, almost out of the room, when she pounced.
“Ewoo!” The shrill scream left my throat as her heavy fist smashed into my face. I swayed, fell. The pain spread in swift waves, cycling, swallowing.
I tried to run, but her hands were like a vice clipping me to her.
“I will kill you!” She screamed bashing into my skull.
“I will kill you!”
She punched my face, nose, neck, everywhere. I felt her hands on my eyes, as if to squash them, but it was hot peppery syrup that filled my eyes instead. I was on fire; may be in hell.
I struggled. I flailed. I wondered where everyone was. Where was Azuka? Where was Nkemjika? Where was Ebuka? I felt my hair ripped out of my scalp. My nose tickled. Where was everyone?
“Bianu. Help!” I heard a voice that must have been Azuka’s enter the room. They struggled. I struggled. I was dragged here and there. They were shearing me in halves. My ribs hurt and hell was there, engulfing me. I was ripped apart alive as different voices filled the room. I was finally dragged to the floor by someone; the pull very painful. But I didn’t care, I was only afraid of the white light in my head and the hellish pain in my eyes. I heard a rip. My brain kept shaking. A hammer continued on my head, my stomach, and my shoulder.
“Biko, Leave her!” Nkemjika’s voice sifted through. Then, Nkemjika’s hands dragged me outside. I knew it was his.
I was still screaming. “My eyes! I am blind!” I couldn’t open my eyes.
“Njideka, sorry,” Nkemjika said as he covered me with a wrapper.
I was naked. I cuddled the cold ground, like a foetus. I wished the cold would chase away the hell I felt inside.
“I am blind!”
I hugged myself. I held my face. I didn’t know where to begin. To rub my eyes? Or to run mad? I felt more hands patting me, heard sympathetic whimpers. Ebuka sounded as if he had water in his nose. Nkemjika’s whimpers broke into his words; stressed syllables. Mama’s voice kept ringing out, drowning theirs. She cried that the pastor had confirmed I was a witch.
“I will poison her if she stays here one more night. I will strangle her to death! I swear,” she barked. “Egbue mia! I will kill her!” She swore. “Forgive me, Lord,” she cried loudly. “But she won’t stay here again. Eziokwu m!”
I remained on the ground even as Nkemjika’s hand tugged me to stand up. I didn’t. I couldn’t. Warm tears trickled down my face, into my mouth. He stayed with me for some minutes, crying. Then I felt him walk back into our house, where voices were clashing. Azuka was fighting with Mama. I wished for Papa. I wished for Adaeze. I wished for death. But none of these came.
It was not so many weeks ago when Papa was with us, when Adaeze was still with us. It was all not as Nnem-ochie had said it would be. She had lied. I knew that I was going blind, that I would never see the light again; I would never see the world again. When I couldn’t hear a voice close by, when all footsteps seemed to have gone into the house, I stood up, tottered on my feet, and slumped again. I was determined to escape. I crawled my way out of the compound. I felt my feet around the sandy ground, testing my blind vision in the familiar terrain.
I held unto the lattice fence of ogiris trees and made my way blindly out of the compound, out into the neighbourhood and prayed no one saw me. I willed the tears that scalded my eyes not to run. When the pain didn’t stop, I collapsed to the ground. I lay there, a secluded spot I knew well, a place where I had played hide and seek with Adaeze. I stayed there, for minutes, hours, until the sounds of night life was left in the world. I lay there, remembering how it all started, how easily one’s life could change. My memories flooded with the same sharpness of the cries of the crickets around me.
Papa always rode home in his old Suzuki motorcycle. He would perch on it like a proud king, his hands gripping the handles firmly, and his back straight up as if he had swallowed a flat board. And there was always character in the way he climbed on or out of the motorcycle; one leg raised high and over the seat, like the boys practicing karate at the church, then arching swiftly and landing precisely on the pedal. Then he would turn on the ignition, let it hum for a while before revving it loud enough for the neighbours to hear. And when he drove in at the end of the day, he revved and circled the compound almost in a full circumference before parking it at the stem of the coconut tree.
But when Papa came back from the church without his motorcycle, his brows set in thick furrows and his mouth in a pout, I knew something was wrong, and things were about to take a different turn. His strides were determined and his slippers made slapping sounds under his feet, raising little puffs of dust. I was seated on our veranda tugging my right sixth finger.
“Papa, nno,” I greeted. But Papa didn’t respond.
Papa darted into the sitting room and sat on our armchair.
I peeped from the window, found him sulking, staring angrily at the ceiling. I didn’t know whether to go to him and ask what bothered him, or to go get Mama, who was seated by the side of the house, between the banana and guava trees, with her friend, Ochiora. Their voices flittered from amidst the trees; their discussion was about Mama Ifeoma who just lost her husband.
“I heard she was caught again with Otenkwu in the bush near Eziogo yesterday!” Ochiora squeaked in her thin voice.
“Eziokwu? What were they doing hiding in the bush?” Mama asked.
“I heard he was fondling her breasts!”
“Hee! Hee! Hee!” Mama guffawed.
I’ve always wondered why Mama’s voice sounded so grouchy that even when she laughed, it came out with a raspy lilt.
“Men have no shame. Imagine that irresponsible old fool fondling the sagged breasts of a widow whose husband is still maggot feed six feet below!” Ochiora said.
“Ah! Ah! Stop laying emphasis on those breasts, please,” Mama cackled bashfully.
“Ha pum! Let me say my mind. Or, is it my fault that her breasts are shrivelled like an old man’s testicles?” Ochiora asked.
“Ta! Ochiora, you talk too dirty! Mechie onu! Your mouth needs to be scrubbed clean with an iron sponge,” Mama replied, laughing out loud again.
“Yes now! Didn’t you see how they flapped freely against her chest as she ran to see her husband’s corpse when he fell from that palm tree?”
“And to think of it, Otenkwu was her husband’s best friend. They tapped wine together as teenagers. Hey, women, we will never cease to shock the world,” Mama said.
“I even heard that she has been messing around with that Otenkwu a long time ago before her husband’s death,” Ochiora confided.
“Inukwa! Are you sure?”
“How can you ask if I am sure? Have you not heard that he had been bedding her early in her marriage and her always drunken husband never knew?”
“But if this is really true, then Otenkwu has set out a deadly path for himself. When the dead remember him, he will wish never to have been born!”
“I even heard Mama Ifeoma’s brother came all the way from Nimo, to warn him just early in this New Year. But he is headstrong! He even says he will marry her!”
“Chi m! While she still mourns her husband…? When death comes to kill the dog, it will not even let it perceive the smell of faeces,” Mama intoned.
“Do you pity him? Let him continue. “Anyone who is being treated for a deadly illness, but keeps having an erection, should be left to die,” Ochiora said. Mama gave a short laugh.
“Yes! He should be left to die since he wishes to shag with ghosts!”
They both laughed louder; the sound rumbled around the compound.
It was surprising that Mama stuck to a friend whose every other sentence was always peppered with words meant only for adult ears. Perhaps, Mama secretly liked gutter language. Ochiora was not a born again Christian as Mama. Sometimes I felt that through Ochiora, Mama allowed herself to live the life that otherwise only existed for her as a subconscious experience.
I peeked again through the window netting, to see Papa still looking downcast and alone.
Mama’s laughter died in her throat when Papa bellowed in a lusty “Mama Nkemjika! Come here!”
She scurried from the backyard and passed a glance at me, at how I swung my leg from the veranda, before darting into the house, saying, “Papa Nkemjika, what is it that got you upset this afternoon? When did you ride in?”
“My motorcycle has been stolen!” Papa cried out like a child.
I peeped from the window to see as Mama’s hands flew to her chest, like one with a sudden heart attack, before she cried “Obala Jesus, Blood of Jesus!” She had her back to me, and she towered over Papa.
Ochiora dashed into the room then as Mama screamed. “What happened, Papa Nkemjika?”
“His motorcycle was stolen!” Mama responded.
“Ewoo! Who stole it? Where? When?” Ochiora asked as she came to sit beside Papa. Mama didn’t sit down; she loomed in front of Papa, as if she wished to beat the story out of him.
“Who stole it? Ehn? Who stole it?” Mama asked in that tone that sounded as if she had bought the motorcycle with her own money. “Who stole it?”
Papa sighed; his jaw nestled in his palms. He started, “It was after service that I went to greet the vicar, to thank him for a prayer well said on behalf of all the unpaid civil servants in our state. He had prayed that the hands that dangled our civil rights above our heads, far beyond our reach, would weaken; resulting in our freedom.
“Ehen? And what happened?” Mama asked.
“He even gave the special adviser to the governor, who had come for a thanksgiving service held by one of his cohorts, the tongue-lashing of his life. The honourable vicar openly scolded him for misleading the governor. You should have seen the fat fool trying to hide his mammoth head in between his fat shoulders! Even his enormous gut wouldn’t let him bend his head.”
“Papa Nkemjika, and what happened to the motorcycle?” Mama pestered.
“I am coming to that,” Papa replied, “So, after the wonderful service, I went to the vicar, to thank him for preaching the truth. You know, every other priest in the state has either pretended all is well, or has refused to talk about our troubles. They all shy away from the topic, as if they cannot see the sufferings of our people. Some cowardly ones even pray for the governor just to gain recognition.”
Mama sat back on the chair, realizing it would not do to rush Papa. Papa loved taking his time to tell a story, as if he really wanted you to see this picture through his own eyes.
“So, nwuyem, my wife,” Papa said forlornly, “I talked at length with the vicar and he asked me to come with him to his quarters for a short prayer. It was much later that I remembered that those boys who stole the church’s fans might still be lounging around. I hastened back to where I had parked my motorcycle to find it was still safely tethered to the Ukwa tree.”
“It was there, still tied to the tree?” Mama asked.
“Yes, it was. I danced to the altar, to thank the Lord for this safe keeping. I didn’t spend more than ten minutes of thanksgiving. When I came out again, my motorcycle was no longer there!”
“Hey! Just like that?” Ochiora asked.
But Mama had a different look on her face, the kind you have after eating a spoonful of soured egusi soup. “So, you found the motorcycle safe and you still went in to give thanks? After the church was dismissed? You didn’t deem it fit to give thanks in your heart?” Mama asked angrily.
“But I had to thank God for the safe keeping,” Papa said.
“And what happened afterwards? Eh? You got it stolen then!” Mama cried.
I sat back on the veranda while Mama grumbled and Ochiora cooed. It was all so familiar, and at times like that I worried why Papa tolerated Mama talking down at him. I wanted him to be a tad hard and strong-minded. But he always waved away her nagging. Papa was quiet throughout dinner that night. He only paid attention to Adaeze, feeding her small moulds of the fufu which he dipped first into the tasty onugbu soup. Adaeze muttered “water” after a few swallows. Mama pushed a small plastic cup of water to her. Mama didn’t talk to Papa. A frown creased her forehead as she nibbled at a piece of meat, her gaze focused intently on the grey images on the television. I felt she missed the motorcycle—our pride and joy in a clan where most men rode on old bicycles.
I sat behind our chair, where I always sat during dinner, and picked at my food. Mama gobbled down her food, her munching mixing with the noise of our television. It was our turn to have electricity, as it said in the time-table which the men from the NEPA office at Awka had drawn up for us. We enjoyed electricity rarely, just three times a week – and that, too, only if it came on – while the other neighbourhood had it the next three days. At seventeen, Nkemjika still shared a plate with Ebuka, who was seven years younger. Ebuka’s eyes were, as usual, glued to the wrestling match on the TV screen. He would linger at moulding his fufu when any of the wrestlers made an acrobatic tumble and landed on their opponent’s body. Ebuka would then smile and hail the wrestler with words like “idi too much!” or, “Nwoke ike! Strong man!” This was his third day in a row watching the same clip.
Nkemjika switched to the network at 9pm. Nkemjika never missed the national news and that night, the UN was making peace in far away Sudan. I sat at my position and watched Papa’s face as it creased in disgust at the hero worship offered to the UN soldiers. There was something there that had my stomach in tight knots when his gaze settled on me. After I had stared at him longer than it would have taken me to eat my meal, I stood up with my plates and said, “Thank you, Sir,” to him, and “Thank you, Ma,” to Mama before disappearing outside, to sit on the veranda and watch insects bop their heads against the fluorescent lamp.
Papa’s comment about the United Nations rose above Nkemjika’s responses. The UN, he said, does not care about Africa, was not meant for Africans.
“They don’t care if we slaughter our neighbours. They will troop in here all dressed up in fancy camouflage and boots and guns in the name of fighting for peace, but use that opportunity to loot whatever they can lay their hands on. They don’t care for black men. To them, we are a bunch of barbarians,” he said.
“But we Africans slaughter our neighbours, Papa. We are barbarians,” Nkemjika countered. “We fight our neighbouring communities.”
“Oh forget that! It is the UN inciting community clashes over diamonds, gold, or oil. They supply rival clans with machetes and guns in exchange for diamonds, gold, or oil.”
“They work on our psyche, Papa. They know we are greedy, so they use it to turn us against our neighbours.” Nkemjika’s tone was patronising, meant to goad Papa. And Papa fell for it. He went into his famous speech about how the British ruined Nigeria, how they amalgamated people with different beliefs and thinking, then they discovered that the Igboman was smart and made sure he would never succeed in politics. Then Papa launched into the war stories.
It was always that way with Papa. His famous talk about how Nigeria used genocide and starvation to wipe out the Biafra nation bored Mama to tears. She and Nkemjika knew never to interrupt him when he went into the Biafran mode. They listened; else his anger for our failed Nigeria would be vented on them. His voice wafted over to me through the open window. I would have seen him boiling in restrained anger had I peeped through the old mosquito netting. But I sat there, alone and bemused, in the quiet starless night, with hundreds of questions flitting through my mind, questions that I never gave voice to. Dark images flapped webbed wings around the compound. I was not scared. I sat there, knees close to my chest, enveloped by the chirping of night insects until a strange thud began to thrum in my chest. I felt slow drips of sweat start to pool under my arms, and my eye brows twitched.
“Isele,” whispered an amplified female voice so close to my right ear and everywhere. “Isele, it is beginning.”
I snapped my head, to my right.
No one was there.
I felt a sudden coldness, a distinct shift in the temperature. Something crawled under my skin, something eerie and scary. I jumped up and dashed back into the house.