The language of kindness

The language of kindness

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

The glass plate slipped from his hands, impacting the ground with a sharp sound that seemed to drag the breath out of Luke. He stood at the sink, frozen in place, his eight year old face a mask of terror. His hands trembled slightly and he stared up at me with huge brown eyes.

 

I wanted to hug him, to kiss the terror off his face, to hold him close to my breast. But I did not. Yes, he was my son. But he’d been my son for only a month. And in the emotional state which he yet inhabited, he was still Liz’s son.

 

Liz had been my only sister, separated by nine years, separated much more by our lifestyles. We’d both been born and raised in the church with five brothers. Six of us kids stayed within the Christian community. Liz had other ideas. She first ran away at twelve. By then, I was already on my own, had received a frantic call from Mother one late night. Liz hadn’t returned home after school. She came back two days later, unrepentant, letting everyone know that she wouldn’t have returned if not that it’d been near impossible to get food to eat.

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A second chance

A second chance

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

I was determined not to be like my mother.

Knocked up at age seventeen, foolish enough to keep the pregnancy even though the guy responsible quickly delegated his responsibility, then escape into a loveless marriage at age twenty.

I would not be like that.

Then I met Steven. Yes, I was sixteen. Yes, we were sleeping together. Yes, I was on the pills. And yes, I got pregnant. But there’s nothing wrong with being pregnant at sixteen if the guy loved you and you loved him back. Love is always the answer, right?

I got educated real fast. Steven shook his head, bit his lips so hard that a mustache of blood appeared, then pointed me out of his parents’ house. How could I be so stupid? Didn’t I know enough to use the right contraceptives?

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Two times over

Two times over
© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

Her heart is a giant vise in her chest, pumping so hard she will not be surprised if it caves a hole through her stomach. Her mouth is dry, her breath coming in puffs that evaporate right in front of her.

Julie holds the home kit up, counting off the seconds. When the blue line appears, she begins to weep, a jagged broken sound that comes from deep inside her belly.

When she is done, she looks at herself in the mirror. There are no changes yet, but she knows there will be plenty in the coming month. She hopes she’s sick a lot. She hopes she spits disgustingly, and blows up. She wants everyone to know she’s pregnant.

At thirty-nine, nine of which she’s been married to Ubong, being with child, and naturally at that, is an amazement, a miracle, a misnomer.

Opening the bathroom door quietly, she heads for their room at the end of the hallway. Ubong is still sleeping, oblivious to the news she’s going to share, to the joy that is bubbling in her heart.

“Sleepyhead.” She yanks the blanket off his head and begins to tickle him. He bolts out of sleep laughing but trying to look stern.

“What is it now, Julie? I expect you’d grow up by the time you’re sixty.”

“Actually I get to grow up now, seeing that I will soon be a mother. And you, daddy had better get up and get ready for the day.”

He stares at her, his mouth slightly opened. Then he pulls his lips shut and smiles a broad smile, one that is almost as wide and as warm as the rising sun.

“They called?” He asks as he gets off the bed. She can see his heart beating a staccato through his thin pajamas top. “We got through?”

“No, they didn’t call.”

The disappointment is a tangible thing in his eyes, clouding them so completely they turn almost black. He’s about to reprimand her about the costliness of her joke when it hits him.

“They didn’t call?”

“They didn’t.” She replies softly, the tears flooding her eyes again.

They was the orphanage. For eighteen months, they’d been on the waiting list to adopt, the decision made and sealed when a gynecologist told them they would never have children of their own. Three months ago, they’d moved to the top of the list, waiting with bated breath each day, wondering if that would be the day they got to be parents.

The nursery is ready, done in different shades of brown, as they are unsure what sex of child they would get. Julie’d wanted to use purple but Ubong said it was too loud. The brown was actually very nice and Julie spent several hours each day there re-arranging things, wondering, imagining what it felt like to be a mother, how it would feel to nurture a child.

“I bought a pregnancy kit yesterday.”

Ubong blinks and swallows hard. “I asked you to see a doctor. I thought you were ill or something.”

“So did I. Then the doctor asked if I might be pregnant. Didn’t want to face the embarrassment of hearing negative again from the lab, so I bought the kit.”

“You’re…are you…” He gulps, unable to complete his question.

“Yes. Yes. Yeah.”

He wraps her in something tighter than a bear hug, his eyes leaking, his mouth unable to close. Then he pushes her away. “The baby. I don’t want to hurt it.”

She rubs a hand over her belly. For two years, she’s given up the hope of being a natural mother, of ever suckling a child. Now…

The phone rings suddenly, a shrill sound that snaps her out of introspection. Ubong reaches for the receiver, says hello and listens intently, a look of complete stupefaction on his face. When the conversation is over, he faces Julie.

“The orphanage. There’s a baby girl, two weeks old. She’s ready to go. They want us to come for her today.”

“Jesus. Jesus!” Julie does not understand, cannot process what is happening.

“Our baby girl is waiting, Julie.”

Joy, chased by laughter, finally bubbles out of her throat. Suddenly she is racing out of the room. “I’ll get the baby’s things. You get the car.”

 

 

 

What’s in a name?

Today, Stephanie sheds the surname we’ve shared for twenty-three years. The surname that was originally, rightfully hers. The one I was given out of love.

She dances with her brand new husband; a dancing style that hasn’t yet been invented, for they are as close as two humans can ever hope to get. She is practically standing on his legs; they are barely moving, lost in a new world they’re about to explore together.

There’s a burning sensation behind my eyelids, tears I dare not release. I tell myself I’m not losing my sister, assure myself that a name change wouldn’t stop Stephanie from being the intimate sister I’ve always had.

What’s in a name anyway?

In my short life, I’ve had two last names. And in two weeks, I’d have a new one as well.

For a day, my surname was Brown, etched in calligraphy on the birth certificate the government hospital automatically issues.

A lot can happen in twenty-four hours. The day after I was born, my mother went home to be with the angels. For four months, she’d borne the weight of her pregnancy alone, had wept every night into her pillow, was practically heartbroken. Because her husband, the man that was my biological father, had been snatched from her in a car accident that made less and less sense as the days passed.

My mother had gotten pregnant with me in the same month that her sister, Aunty Mariah, became pregnant with Stephanie. Stephanie had arrived ten days before me.

Heartbroken, almost disconsolate at the loss of her sister, Mariah was desperate to have the last thing her sister had left behind.

So I came home to my family. I became Stephanie’s sister rather than her cousin. We suckled at the same breast, shared the same nursery, were dressed identically. Many a times, we were mistaken for twins.

When I was a year old, I legally became Catherine Agbaje.

“Are you all right?”

The memories dissipate behind my eyelids at the sound of our daddy’s voice. Over the years, he’s become mellow and sweet in that way only age can bring about. His hair is now more gray than black, and there’s a faint network of wrinkles at the sides of his eyes.

“Oh dad. It’s so hard to watch Stephanie go. I miss her so much already.”

He smiles his expansive smile. “You’ve always been the tender one. Of course you’ll miss her. It’s only natural you feel that way about a sister who’s shared your whole life with you.”

I turn to him and grasp his hand in mine. “How’re you and Mum going to cope when I leave too?”

A cloud seems to birth in his eyes. He blinks it away and leads me to a seat before he speaks. “It’s only natural for children to grow up and leave their parents. That’s how it works. I admit it won’t be easy but we’ll cope. We will cope.” He suddenly chuckles, “But you girls are sure funny. Your sister came to us ten days before you did. Now, she’s leaving two weeks before you. Aren’t you guys something?”

I blink back the rows of teardrops behind my eyelids. “Yes we are. And you guys are the best parents two girls could ever wish for. By the way, where’s Mum?”

“Doing what she knows how best to do.”

I laugh, a delicious sound. “In the kitchen, bossing the caterers around.”

We laugh together, quietly, companionably; the father of the bride, and the sister of the bride.

“Excuse me, but may I have this dance?”

I look up into the brown eyes of Sam, the man whose wife I’ll become in two weeks. I smile at him. “Of course.”

Undue Influence

influence

Undue influence
© Folakemi Emem-Akpan
“Are you okay?” She asked him for the umpteenth time that evening. He was going through the motions of dinner, demolishing his food into bit-sized pieces, stuffing the morsels into his mouth, chewing. But there was something wrong with him, she could swear, a cloak of depression that seemed to ensnare him.

She asked again if he was okay. For the umpteenth time, he nodded yes. Pushing her food about in her plate, she decided she wasn’t going to question him again. If there was anything she’d come to learn in the past year, it was that Richard was no longer the same man she’d been married to for three years. Since he started at his new job, he’d become temperamental, given to mood swings, lashing out at her, at their toddler, retreating into the television whenever he was home.

It was their third anniversary, and if not for the fact that she’d been planning this dinner for more than two months, he wouldn’t have come.

“Perhaps we should go home.” She suggested. There was no use pretending, and she wasn’t eating anything either. As it was, they were going to pay for two plates of food none of them had bothered to eat.

As they made their way out of the restaurant, Lara pulled her overcoat tighter around her. The night was blustery, and they had a ways to walk.

“Hey. One moment please.” Richard said to her, already trotting after an impeccably dressed man who had come out of the restaurant at the same time they did. She watched him catch up, watched him strike a conversation, watched his face show the first signs of animation that day, and suddenly understood.

The man he was speaking with could be none other than William, his co-worker at the office. He was the only person Richard spoke about with enthusiasm nowadays. It was always William this, William that.

For ten minutes, Lara stood in the cold and wondered what kind of person William was to have such a hold on her husband. She almost did not notice that the two men had approached her.

“Lara, this is William.”

She shook a hand that was as cold as her freezer and gazed up into glacial eyes. A tremor ran through her and for the first time since she became a Christian, she had not a doubt that she was in the presence of evil.

All of a sudden, she understood why Richard had become the way he was. He was a Christian too, but had never been as strong as she was. And now, William had a hold on him. A hold whose effects were mood swings and a disinterest in anything familial.

When they got home, she discharged the babysitter and tucked her son into bed. When she returned to their bedroom, Richard was already asleep. She sat beside him and ran her fingers along his jaws.

He was basically a good man, under undue influence. If she didn’t do something drastic, William’s hold on him was only going to get stronger, and Richard’s relationship with his family only worse.

She began to pray in the Spirit, perspiring so profusely it was like she had been drenched by a bucket of water. For an hour, she was that way, slightly bent at the waist, her hand on Richard’s.

Then she had a shower and climbed into bed beside her husband of three years.

*

“You know, I’ve been thinking.” Richard announced over breakfast the next morning. For the first time in six months, he’d risen early that morning to have morning devotions with her, then he’d played with their son in his room for a while.

“What’s that?” She asked as she poured milk over Great’s cereal.

“Maybe I should stop working at Mark’s and take that job I was offered last month. I heard it’s still open.”

The new job he was talking about was owned by an elder in their church and she’d pressed him to take it at that time. But he’d been adamant, refusing to even consider it.

Joy surged in Lara’s heart, and hope blossomed as well. Things were going to be all right.

“Would you like that?” she asked.

“The pay’s good, and I’ll have more free time. I’d like to spend more time with you and Great. Or what do you think?”

She nodded briskly and he didn’t see the tears that rolled down her cheeks.

Glass Panes

 

Glass panes

(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan

At first, she seemed to be all glass panes and sharp edges. She was caustic, sarcastic, and yet seemed brittle all at once, like if you came too close or pressed too hard, she would fall apart, disintegrate, get blown into the four corners of the earth.

She was a walking contradiction.

But she was a contradiction that he liked, even when her sharp edges seemed to cut him, even when her words sliced his skin and made contact with the broken edges of his own psyche.

The evening he saw her crying, her fists pressed into her eyes, her body shaking with the sobs she tried to suppress, his heart broke within him. He approached with trepidation, but when he held her, she collapsed into him, seemed to want to disappear inside of him.

Turned out she’d just gotten news of her father’s death. And like the contradiction that she was, she was both distressed and relieved at the bad news. Saddened because he was her father, and relieved because her abuser, the one who’d raped her from the time she was six till she was fifteen, was gone from this life and she could be free at last.

Her sharp edges made sense at last. And as she wept in his arms and told this story of her life, he felt a shift in his core, a revelation that this was where he was supposed to be at this point in his life.

We are all broken, he realized at last. And when you find the one whose brokenness matched yours, the one whose jigsaw puzzle of a life corresponded with yours, it had to be a sign that you were meant to be together, to help each other find your way in life, to be the anchor the other needed.

“I am here.” He simply said. It seemed to be all that was needed to be said.

Help, I have chargiamania

Help, I have chargiamania

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

I have chargiamania. Now, don’t go in search of your Thesaurus or dictionary. These outdated publications couldn’t possibly have my kind of disease listed in them. Let me explain in a layman’s language, the type you would understand.

I love to be in absolute charge of my life.

Might sound like a pretty good thing, but my family is going crazy watching me try to run everybody’s life. I plan my husband’s day meticulously, haranguing him on what tie best matches his polka dotted shirt. Last Monday, I wept for hours after he left the house in anger when I suggested the yellow shirt went better with the red trousers on the brown shoes.

I’m in my mid twenties but I have already begun to plan for my great-grandchildren (Failing to plan is planning to fail, they say). The first one would be an astronaut, fulfilling my dreams of doing something out of this world. The second one would be a doctor, helping to cure humanity of its self-induced ailments. I wouldn’t mind one of them being a writer (In case I fail to have my name on the covers of books as an author, at least my posterity would).

I’m positive my younger brother would do better as a chemical engineer but he doesn’t even want to hear about it. He prefers to study computer engineering at the university. Oh, the folly of youth!

Well, as for God…He likes to be in charge too, so we happen to quarrel a lot. Like the time he wanted me to leave my job and be a stay-at-home mom. Who has ever heard of that kind of crap? A twenty-four year-old stay-at-home mom when my whole life was stretched in front of me? (Well, God won that case because my husband supported Him).

Or the time He started pressuring me to eat more healthily. But who eats healthily these days when hysteria-inducing chocolate and pastries dripping with ketchup announce their presence at every corner?

Yesterday, we had a serious quarrel. I wanted to wear my tight pink skirt for that interview I’ve been praying and fasting for now that my baby is two and old enough to be left at the daycare. Perhaps it would clinch me the job (They requested for a smart, career woman in the ad), but God had a different idea.

“Why are you wearing that terrible thing?” My husband questioned as I made a mad dash for the car. I was already running late.

“What thing?” I snapped, even though I knew well enough what he was referring to. “It makes me look smart.”

“Not smart, just cheap. Would you give yourself a job if you came in for an interview like this?”

“I don’t want to quarrel this morning.” I straightened the incriminating skirt and settled into the car.

“Do you think God would be proud of this outfit?”

“Albert?”

“We’re supposed to allow Him run our lives as Christians, remember?”

“Why are you all bent on controlling people’s lives?”  I was beginning to get mad. “You, God, the church?”

“Because when we allow God absolute control over our lives, we are better able to function as humans.”

I gave him an evil eye. “Are you saying I don’t allow him enough control?”

“That’s right.”

I knew he was right but I wasn’t in the mood for a sermon. “We’ll talk about it when I get back from the interview.”

“You aren’t going to change?”

“No. I’ll be late.”

“No, you won’t. You’ll be there in plenty of time.” He made no move to start the car, just sat down there, waiting.

“Albert?” I made his name sound like it was dirt in my mouth.

“Sorry.” He said as he finally shifted the car into gear.

 “Stand ye still…” *

“Did you say something?” I turned to ask Albert.

“Nope.” He concentrated on maneuvering the car into the street.

 “For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft…” +

“Al, what did you say?”

“Me? Nothing?”

I was beginning to feel funny, and my insides had begun to tremble. “Stop the car!”

“What?”

“I want to go back home now.”

“You aren’t going for the interview again?”

“I’m not.”

Of course God won that battle. He always seems to win without any apparent effort on His part. Meanwhile, I struggle daily, trying to make sense of His leadings. Why do they have to be so ridiculous most of the time? Even my pastor agrees but he also says we have to follow God’s leading for maximum results, even when we don’t understand. I hope he’s right. I really hope he is.

 

* II Chronicles 20:17

+ I Samuel 15:23 KJV