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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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.

Perfect

For all the little girls growing up in today’s world. And especially for my daughter who is beautiful just as she is, and who should never conform to anyone’s standard of beauty

 

Let’s count the many ways that you are perfect

Your hair, halfway between brown and black

Your eyebrows, thick and full

Your eyes, wide and full and filled with light

Your nose, a little too wide, just like your mother’s

Your lips, pink and tiny and a shape never before seen

Your cheeks, full and chubby, ideal contours

Your hue, the shade of a half ripe mango

Your arms and fists, uniquely freckled

Your legs, long and lean and endless

Your feet, huge like your dad’s, yet graceful

 

Now let’s count the real ways that you are perfect

Your genuine smile, soul-lifting and freely shared

The delight that you find in simple pleasures

Your knack for asking soul searching questions

Your helping hand, always willingly offered

Your sense of family, of togetherness

Your empathy for the underprivileged

Your hard work ethic and tenacity of purpose

Your discerning and probing spirit

Your artistic beautiful soul

And the generosity of your spirit

 

Daughter of my womb

Apple of my eyes

You have a beautiful container of a body

It might never conform to everyone’s standard

But it is beautiful because it is yours

And better still, your content is perfect

It will never conform to everyone’s expectation

But it is perfect because it is you

You, forged by a perfect God

 

Alone

open hands

January 4 1905

Oyo, Nigeria

 

She was pushed from a safe and dark warm place into coldness, into the waiting arms of the nearly exhausted midwife. They’d been waiting on her, been desperate for her arrival for more than three days.

 

For those three days, the cries of Kikelomo, her mother could be heard in the neighboring farm. The days were colder than usual and at night, her five older children could be heard speaking in low tones outside the delivery room. They were petrified that their mother would die, were shaken each time her screams rent the still night air, only went to bed when the last candle was put out.

 

On the third day, on a surprisingly warm Sunday afternoon, Bose was born. She was wrinkled, bald and her eyes were strangely bright, brighter than that of any baby the midwife had ever delivered.

 

She was an accident. Her father had wanted no more children yet couldn’t forgo intimacy with his wife. When she’d told him she was expecting a child, he’d smiled grimly and spat out the kola nut in his mouth. That was all he needed to do for her to know he wouldn’t care for the baby.

 

She was the fourth girl. Had she been a boy, her father might have viewed her birth differently, might have been glad to have two sons rather than one. But since she was a girl, he ignored her thoroughly, went out of his way to do so.

 

The day after her birth, her mother was back in the kitchen pounding yam and sweating over a pot of Egusi soup.

 

 

*

 

June 14 2008

Lagos, Nigeria

 

Exhausted from the walk from the bedroom to the living room, Bose holds on to the walls for support. She is slower than ever yet insists on walking by herself.

 

She settles her 103 year old frame onto her grandson’s sofa and clicks on the TV remote. TVs have ceased to be a source of amazement to her, for her daughter had bought one as soon as they were mass-produced. Today, Bose is consternated by DVDs, TiVos, and android phones.

 

“Mama?”

 

She turns at the approach of Maureen, her six-year-old great-granddaughter. Maureen is a striking image of Bose when she’d been a child growing up on her father’s yam farm. There is a bond between the two of them, an unspoken emotion that connects them in a way that no one else understands.

 

“Your legs are shaking, Mama.” Maureen folds herself into a chair opposite Bose and stares at her questioningly.

 

For the first time, Bose becomes aware that she is cold and that her sight is more blurred than usual.

 

“Perhaps I need to lie down awhile.”

 

This time she gladly receives Maureen’s help in returning to her room because she realises that she needs it. She leans heavily on the little girl and both of them slip at one time that Maureen misses her step.

 

In the room that now smells perpetually of an old person’s dying flesh, Maureen buries Bose underneath an avalanche of blankets. Yet the old woman cannot stop shivering.

 

“Are you sure you’re okay, Mama?”

 

When Bose’s nod gets lost in an onset of tremors, Maureen races out of the room, yells for her mother.

 

Bose jerks uncontrollably for a while, until the tremors fade, then stop. Her life flashes before her in cinematic blur. Being raised by an indifferent father, sold off into marriage at 15, the loneliness of her marriage, the redemption she’d found in her children, her husband’s death, her children’s marriages, her grandchildren’s birth, then the birth of her great grandchildren.

 

Suddenly, the images freeze.

 

She dies as she had been born.

 

Alone.

Shame-stripped

young-black-girl-cartoon

You fell into your present profession by mistake, and in the beginning, your stomach would coil and roil and recoil with shame and disgust and trepidation and fear. But two years doing the same job, earning more than enough to keep body and soul together and a little extra to send home to the family every month has stripped you of shame. Or of disgust, or of fear.

That day began like any other day for you. You rose early, you bathed, you got dressed. Then you made your way from Igando, the Lagos suburbs where you live to Ikeja, its mainland. You waited in line for your interview, same as you have done for the past year. You waited in frustration, and in hope, and in distress, and in anticipation.

By the time you were done, you were sure you were not going to get the job, just like you didn’t get the job the last fourteen times. And by then, the heavens opened and rain fell in torrents, leaving you drenched and all the more miserable.

As Lagos commercial drivers are wont to do on rainy days, they hiked the bus fare. And you stood under the grey clouds, totally bereft, not knowing how you’d get back home. Because all that you had left in your purse was N150.

Ordinarily, it would have been enough to get you home, but not that day.

You waited for a miracle to happen, but after thirty minutes of shivering and being miserable, you had to act. The first person you approached for help was very helpful after you explained that you’d been for an interview and was stranded and couldn’t get back home. He handed you a crisp N500 note, and your eyes filled with tears of gratitude. The N500 was enough to get you home and get you dinner even.

Because it was so easy, and because you needed to attend another interview the following day, you approached someone else with the same story, then another person, then another yet. You were not always successful, but in one hour, you’d collected enough money to live on for three days.

You vowed never to do it again.

But you did do it, because it is temptingly and overwhelmingly easy to do. You’d take a bus away from the suburbs, and into the jungle heartland of Lagos where you were less likely to run into someone you knew. You always made sure to be well dressed, your hair perfectly groomed, your clothes perfectly ironed, your nails exquisitely polished. You always dressed well, and you always spoke impeccable English. You are always the picture of a polite young lady momentarily down on her luck.

In the beginning, your heart would thunder in your ears, and your stomach would knot up something awful. But after a while, you got over yourself. You got relaxed. You knew who to approach and who to not.

You’ve become a professional.

You hadn’t stopped applying for new jobs, and no one was more surprised than you when you did get a job. You’d attended that interview like you did the others, half heartedly and with no hope. But you got an offer letter and you began work the next month.

You worked at your job for two months, but the pay was meager, and couldn’t even begin to cover the most basic of your needs. You tried so hard, you wanted so badly to be legitimate; you needed to be successful at your job, build a career, go places in the corporate world.

But you always came back to the pay. It was too paltry. When you’d been a professional hustler, telling exaggerated tales of how you couldn’t get back home from an interview because of hiked transport costs, you’d made at least four times your present salary every month. And you’d had full control of your time. When you’d been a hustler, you’d not needed to get up as early as five in the morning and be out of the house by six, and not come back until night.

You tried so hard, but the lack of sleep and the demanding hours and the little salary finally got to you.

You stopped going to work. By the fourth month, you’d returned to the streets.

And now, you’re shame-stripped, shame-cured, completely shameless. Your rationale; one has to keep body and soul together somehow. You are aware that you cannot live like this forever, but you are prepared to milk the cow for as long as you possibly can.

This is your second year on the streets, and nobody but you knows. Your neighbours assume that you have a job you go to everyday, although the job must be so flexible for you to sleep in most days.  Your family at Ilesha thinks you’re employed, and you even manage to send something home once in a while. Not that your parents need any support from you, but because you want to.

This morning, the clock strikes nine. It is a bitterly cold and wet June morning, but you are warm. In front of your cable TV, you snuggle under mounds of thick blanket and warm yourself from within with a steaming cup of cocoa. You will stay indoors today, because it is wet and miserable, and you raked in enough funds yesterday to last a week.

You change the channel to African Magic. It is good to be alive.

 

**I was stopped once by a well dressed young man with tales of how he’d gone for an interview and needed the bus fare back home. I gave him more than he asked for and walked past him, but had to come back that way in ten minutes. Forgetting my face, he approached me with the same story still. This fiction piece is inspired by him, and others like him.

Susceptibility

(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan

I don’t love easily and I don’t scare easily, thanks to a childhood filled with torment at the hands of permanently drunk parents who showed love to each other and to me with numerous ear cuffings and head knocks.

I was forty when I got married; it’d taken me that long to find someone I could be myself with. Maureen was twenty-eight, so petite her shape was almost like a child’s, with eyes so round and wide she seemed to be in a permanent state of wonder. But under that fragile exterior lay a woman of steel, a woman of strong and final decisions.

For the first time in my life, I understood what love was. I felt what love was. I breathed was love was.

I was forty-three when I became a father. Sarah has eyes as big as her mother’s, huge round dimples that are made for kisses. The first time I held her in my arms, I fell in love again. And I swore I would protect this little girl of mine with my life if need be.

For four years, I kept that promise. For four years, we lived a wondrous, tension-free, joy-filled life, all three of us.

Until that day.

For days, Sarah had been complaining of a full tummy, headaches and knee pain. She’d been throwing up her meals and there were purple marks all over her body. Her pediatrician sent us home with antibiotics which did not help at all. By the time we took her back to the doctor, she’d started to break out in night sweats and could not retain any meal that was not liquid in composition.

The diagnosis at the specialist’s numbed me to the very core. Leukemia. Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia. The fan in the room seemed to stop spinning, the clock seemed to stop ticking, the floor started to rotate. The doctor’s voice seemed to come from far away.

I had learnt love from Maureen and Sarah. Now, I was to learn fear.

As they dripped the poison which was to kill the bad white blood cells in her system, fear consumed me. What if she didn’t make it? How do you learn to unlove a child you’ve loved for four years?

As my baby lost her hair and even more of her appetite, as she lost her laughter and her Sarahness; as Maureen lost her wit and her wonder; I died a little each day.

I went through the motions. I was with Sarah each day as she underwent chemotherapy. I held her teddy to her chest when she was too weak to hold it herself. I peppered her feverish forehead with kisses.

In the dead of the night, I held Maureen as her body shook with uncontrollable sobs. I brushed her thick black hair. I made breakfast so she could rest.

And inside, I died a little each day.

In those terrible months, it came to me why some people choose to live lonely lives, why some people choose to die as old maids and old codgers.

It is because love is sometimes a burden too great to bear.

And then Sarah started to get better. The purplish marks faded and disappeared, the headaches lessened in intensity, she started to eat better. A month later, she was allowed to come home. Two months later, they could not find the cancer cells in her blood anymore.

Sarah’s hair grew back, although fluffier and not as dark. Life reverted to normal, almost.

It’s been two years now. Sarah is still in remission, but I have not lost my fear completely. I am always checking her skin for the telltale sign, always second-guessing myself when she does not clear her plate.

And now that we are expecting our second child, I worry about Maureen. I worry about pre-eclampsia, breech birth, post-partum depression.

Love, I say, is a burden, but a delightsome one and the only way to go.

 

Scorned

african baby

When your water breaks, you feel a dull roar of panic. You are not afraid of the delivery or scared for the baby. You’ve put to bed five times, and this pregnancy never gave you problems.

It is the scorn on their faces that you fear. It is the snorts and hmphs of ridicule. What makes your heart contract in fear is the fact that the birth of this baby could mean the final lid in the coffin of your condemnation.

From the day your belly started to swell, you suspected that it would be a girl. Again. Just like the others, this baby sat very high in your womb, close to your breasts in that delightful way girls are wont to do.

Soon your contractions are fast and furious and you send for your mother-in-law in the next hut. When she appears at your door, it is with a scowl on her face. This woman has single-handedly run her family for twenty-eight years. Widowed at an early age with four sons and a daughter to care for, she drew on an inner strength no one knew she had, raised her sons to be good farmers, selected wives for each of them, filled her late husband’s compound with dozens of grandchildren, majority of which are boys.

You are the only wife yet to produce an heir for the lineage.

When you got swollen with child this last time, your mother-in-law paid you a midnight visit and laid down the ultimatum. A boy or another wife for dear Leke.

That night, you cried yourself to sleep, your husband’s back turned to you. You don’t blame him. You don’t blame your mother-in-law. It is the way of your people to care for sons more than they do daughters.

Sons carry on the family name. Sons contribute to the family wealth by farming the cocoa plantations. Sons are an honor.

Two of the other wives arrive to help. Soon you are on your back, the leather tong clenched in between your teeth. Screaming during delivery brings bad luck to one’s husband so you bite hard each time the pain hits.

Your legs are held apart, your wrapper discarded as the women probe and prod you. You are instructed to push and you do so with all of your might. You push a second time, a third time.

The wail of a newborn rends the air. The three women fall absolutely silent.

You are exhausted but anxious and ask to see your baby. They don’t show you the face; rather your mother-in-law almost shoves the genitals in your face.

You’ve had a sixth girl.

But instead of the panic that plagued you all through the pregnancy, you suddenly feel a sense of calm. Love washes over you.

It doesn’t matter if you are scorned. It doesn’t matter that Leke will be given a second wife. It doesn’t matter if all your children are girls.

What does matter is that you are a good mother. There is tremendous love in your heart for this little baby just as there is for her siblings.

You cuddle your baby and look up into the eyes of your mother-in-law. She frowns. You smile. She shakes her head. You nod yours.

She walks out of the hut.

 

***In most African communities, male children are preferred above females and a woman who produces only girls is often ridiculed.