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.”

 

 

 

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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.”

Shattered

(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan

You were thirteen when you learned your family’s dark secret, and it just about tore you apart. That hot August afternoon, as you filled forms for the secondary school you would start the next month, you were dismayed when your mother carefully printed your sister’s name where her name should have been.

That evening, over a dinner of salty tears and a broken heart, you learnt that your mother was technically your grandmother; and that your sister, that one with the purple hair gone wild, was actually your biological mom.

You were conceived when she was fifteen, born when she was sixteen, in a place far far away from home, in a strange place where the pregnant girl and her mother had fled to and lived in during the time it took for her belly to swell and the baby to be pushed into the world.

Seven months after they were gone , they returned home…where the news had been carefully planted that your grandmother was unexpectedly pregnant, was going to be a mother again, and at the threshold of menopause too. What a miracle.

They returned with your baby self, whom your sister/mother gladly handed over. A year later while you were still in cotton diapers, she was out of the house, first living with an elder brother, then going off to the Uni.

You were the sixth person to learn the sordid tale. It had been a family secret for years, one that even cousins didn’t know about. The only people who knew the story were the father, the mother, the two elder siblings, and their wild child sister…who was now your mother. And now you.

You slept with the lights on that night, irrationally frightened that now that you knew the truth about who you really were, that you were going to disintegrate in the darkness and get blown away into the four corners of the earth. You curled yourself up in the foetal position, and sucked on your thumb for the first time in five years. You wet the bed.

The following morning, you almost couldn’t get out of bed. You were petrified that you were going to be sent to live with your sister/mother, who at twenty nine was still a wild child. She’d already had two husbands, another child, no job, and an insatiable liking for alcohol. You wondered why you couldn’t have been born to and of the elder sister, who was always crisply dressed, soft-spoken, a woman who was as elegant and as self-possessed as your grandmother was.

But you needn’t have worried. The family tried to keep on as usual, as if they hadn’t just shattered your life with a major secret, one that they fully expected you to now keep with them. They expected you to still call your affectionate grandmother mummy, your gruff grandfather daddy, and your purple-haired biological mother Sister Tobi.

You tried; you tried gamely. Perhaps if you pretended that the story had never been told to you, you wouldn’t continue to feel this tightening in your chest, this shortness of breath that overcame you from time to time.

You did try, but you lost your appetite for food and developed ulcers. Your mother poured gallons of milk down your throat per doctors’ orders and fed you food that was so spice-less it was borderline bland. She monitored your diet and made sure you took your drugs. But it didn’t help at all. The ulcer wouldn’t go away.

Then you developed the shakes as well. You would try to stand still, but you wouldn’t be able to; your hands and legs would shake and vibrate so much you had to find a seat. And even when you did find a seat, you had to sit on your hands to stop the world from seeing what a wreck you’d become.

For four months, you lived in a nebulous land, alternatively hating and loving the only mother you’d ever known, persistently indifferent towards your grandpa/father who’d never really had a use for you, and constantly hating Tobi, the wild child who had started this whole mess.

But thirteen is such a tenuous year on the road to adolescence, and there are far too many new experiences for a teenage girl on the cusp of womanhood to experience that you eventually moved forward with your life. Secondary school was a whirlwind after the ordinariness of primary school, and to your surprise, you fell among the popular group in school. Being popular took so much effort and people skills that you didn’t have the time to be nervous anymore. The trendy clothes helped; you had about a thousand of them, guilt-gifts from Mummy, as you continued to call your grandmother.

That harmattan season, you were distracted by the loud silence of your body. As it had done all your life, it disappointed you yet again. You had always been a late bloomer; late to crawl, to talk, to walk, and to start school. You never thought that your body had the capacity to disappoint anymore, but it obviously did. Your best friend in school resumed school that January wearing a bra, as did several other girls in your group. But there you were, quarter to being fourteen, and yet embarrassingly flat-chested.

Every morning, you would stand naked in front of your bathroom mirror and stare at your chest unceasingly, mentally urging it to do what it was supposed to do. But it didn’t. It would stare back at you, audaciously flat. Your whole life seemed to be collapsing.

And when Betsy flounced to school the valentine weekend of February and confided to you that she had seen her first period, you were so jealous of her, and so mad at the traitor of a body you called your own.

Then there was the drama that Easter holiday.  Tobi came home for the Easter break, accompanied by her three year old son and the third fiancé she would bring home in six years. Considering that the first two marriages had been failures, Mummy wasn’t in the least bit pleased and made her displeasure known in very strong words. Mummy wouldn’t let them into the house at first, but when the neighbours started to stare from their windows, she acquiesced and opened the door.

It didn’t help any that fiancé number three was easily fifteen years older than Tobi, also had an ongoing love affair with booze, was equally unemployed.

For the next four days, there were periods of stony silence followed by drawn out verbal wars between the two women. The man of the house was careful to keep out of the way with his numerous town and business meetings. He had never been one to stay at home, but he went out even more that Easter period. Fiancé number three also disappeared often, would return in the evenings with the smell of menthol trying unsuccessfully to mask the odour of booze.

You wondered what on earth he was doing there. You wondered what in the heavens Tobi was doing there. But you loved having Yomi around. You had always thought that he was your nephew, but now that you knew he was your brother, you searched for similarities between the two of you. You both had Tobi’s lopsided smile, and the three of you had lazy left eyes that followed the right ones only reluctantly. And with a pang, you realised that you were the luckier of the two. All your life, you’d had the stable comforting presence of Mummy and all he’d ever had was Tobi and her crazy ways.

You didn’t like Tobi one bit, and your animosity grew when she didn’t show the affection or remorse you expected she would after the secret was no longer a secret to you. She simply carried on as usual, walking around like she owned the whole world.

When she mistakenly splashed water on you as you sat at the dinning table one morning, you exploded. All your anger, all your frustration, all your sadness mixed up within you and erupted into a violence you didn’t know you had in you. You sprang to your feet and attacked her with spit and nails. And you had the element of surprise, so all she could do was cower and roll herself into a ball as you raked her back and spat at her.

“Animal…” You shouted and kept on shouting. Even when your father’s strong arms pulled you back and your mummy ran in askance, her voice high and shrill and questioning, you couldn’t stop screaming, couldn’t stop lashing out.

Somehow they subdued you, looking at you all the while like a wire had gone loose upstairs, like you had gone crazy without warning.

Tobi gave you a wide berth after that, and you were keen, uncharacteristically keen for another show down with her. But the chance never came, not even when you called a family meeting and demanded why your real parentage had been kept a secret from you. All Mummy kept saying was that it had seemed the best idea at the time.

They wouldn’t tell who your biological father was. They kept saying they didn’t know, that Tobi had been with so many boys that there was never any chance of knowing who it had been. In their eyes, you saw the lies. They were lying, and they knew it, and now you knew it. But they wouldn’t give you what you wanted. No one had the guts to tell you.

“Is it Uncle Jide?” You asked. He was your older brother, the only boy of the family, and the one that was desperately trying to distance himself from the mess that was this family. He rarely came for visits and called only once in a while. It didn’t help that his wife was from another ethnic group and didn’t like how loud you people could get in the Yoruba language.

They quickly denied it, all of them.

In the sanctuary of your room, you turned it over and over in your mind. The facts seemed to fit. If an older brother gets his younger sister pregnant, it is a thing of irredeemable shame. That had to be the reason why the secret had been kept for so long, and was perhaps the reason he didn’t come around so often. Perhaps he was embarrassed by you, ultimately reminded of his transgressions each time he laid eyes on you.

A week after they arrived, Tobi left with her crew. School resumed activities, and life struggled to return to normal.

Your body finally flowered. You woke one morning and your green bed sheet was stained a garish shade of red. Your undies and nightdress were soaked through as well. You let out a whoop of joy, of exhilaration. Finally, finally. You told Betsy first, then your mummy later that day.

Life had finally become kind to you, you thought, because your breasts started to bud shortly afterwards. Finally, at age fourteen, after having almost given up hope, you were blossoming into a woman.

Tobi, questions about your paternity, and the whole family drama receded into the far corner of your mind. Your body preoccupied you. You bought a bra with savings without Mummy’s knowledge because she’d said several times that you were not yet ready for a bra.

But your classmates wore bras, and it was the ultimate sign of maturity for a girl’s bra strap to peek through the collar of her uniform once in a while. So you bought a bra, a pink one. You hid it in your school bag at home and wore it in the girls’ bathroom in school every morning. Then you took it off before you returned home every day.

And suddenly, the first year of secondary school was over. Your obsession with your body seemed to pay off, because you soon really needed bras. And with the bras came the boys. They seemed to materialise out of nowhere. They asked you out. They gave you their phone numbers which you hid from your mother.

Then something strange happened. Your father took his annual leave, and instead of travelling to the village like he usually did, he stayed back. He was home more than he was out, which was infinitely strange. You’d never been close, never sat in the same room together alone before. You couldn’t remember ever having been bounced on his knees, or your cries soothed by his ministrations. Your life had never really entwined with his, and now you had an explanation for it. He wasn’t really your father; he was just a reluctant grandfather trying to keep his distance.

And suddenly he was there, seemed to be, and all the time too. He didn’t say much at first, but he was there. He bought you chocolates and cookies, and barbecued Suya, which he instructed you not to show Mummy because of the strict diet you were supposed to be on.

And so, some sort of secret relationship began between you and your father. When Mummy was around, he was as gruff and distant as he had always been. But when it was just the two of you, he mellowed, became softer somewhat, told you stories of when he was a child growing up in the village.

You actually started to like him. He wasn’t too bad for a reluctant grandpa.

The Saturday he attacked you, it was totally unexpected. You were still in bed, your blanket pulled up to your chins, awake but not, treading that shadowy state between dreaming and wakefulness.

You felt hands on your breasts, big warm hands that somehow transmitted their heat even through the blanket. You jumped out of bed, out of your skin when you saw him.

Your father stank of bourbon and sweat. His eyes were red, unfocused; and he looked like he had gone off the deep end. Fear ran amuck in your body, your adrenalin level shooting so high so suddenly your vision clouded and you almost passed out.

Then you hit him. With all the indignation of youth, you hit him. You whacked him across the face one, two, three times. And then you ran out of the room, screaming for Mummy, only to realise that Mummy wasn’t in, wasn’t supposed to be in. She had gone for a vigil at church and had planned to stay a few hours afterwards to help clean up the sanctuary.

You fled outside, into the coldness of the morning, into refuge.

Mummy found you there two hours later, with the sun now out and shining brightly on your half naked body. But you were shivering. Despite the warmth of the sun, you were shivering.

And you couldn’t, wouldn’t talk. At least not at first. Mummy carried you inside, wrapped you in your blanket and forced a mug of tea into you. When you were sufficiently thawed, you started to cry. The sobs came from somewhere deep in your belly and exploded out of you in huge gulps. You felt like you were underwater, that you were going to drown, that you were going to die.

But you didn’t die. You finally began to describe the horror of the dawn.

Your mother sat with her head in between her knees, and she seemed to want to disappear inside of herself. With a fresh wave of panic, you realised that she was crying. She’d always seemed like a fortress of strength, and to your knowledge fortresses simply didn’t cry. But she cried. She wept silently, her body shaking and quivering like she was exorcising a demon from within.

When she finally got up to go check, your father was gone.

The two of you curled up in your bed, both crying, both grieving, both distraught. Then she shattered your world yet again. With seven short words, quietly spoken, she shattered your world again; this time irrevocably.

“He is your biological father, you know.”

 

 

 

 

Two worlds

Two worlds

(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

The air felt deliciously warm, and my skin began to burn, a sensation I’d not felt in six years. In my country, it was always hot, seldom cold, and never freezing. Unlike Idaho where I was coming from.

 

I stepped into the arrival lounge, into the cool world of air conditioners and felt temporary relief. I was surprised that I had forgotten how it felt to be hot, sweaty, miserable.

 

Of course no one was waiting for me; no one knew I was arriving. For a minute or so, I lounged against a wall, watching the comings and goings around me, drinking in the scenery.

 

Even while I had been in Nigeria, it hadn’t been my scene. I hadn’t been rich enough to hobnob with the cream of the society, had never boarded a plane until that sunny day six years ago, had never even been to Lagos, the commercial nerve-centre of my country before then.

 

It began almost like a joke.

 

Walking the dusty road home from school, telling not-so-funny jokes to Bade, my best friend, I’d stepped on a floating piece of paper. Then I’d crumpled it to give it better weight and had kicked it the rest of the way home.

 

Later in the evening, as my mother fried gaari in the kitchen and my father sat in the low parlour with his drinking buddies, I’d searched for what to read in vain.

 

Our house contained no reading surprises. I didn’t have textbooks for school; I was lucky enough to even be in school. I was the first child, the only boy, and my father farmed extra hard, slaved all week long to send me to school.

 

I had a sharp mind, one that constantly agitated over what books to read, novels where I was swept to distant lands I’d never been, that I might never go physically. In the books that I borrowed from our meagre school library, I traveled to the prairie lands of the old USA, to Canadian canyons, to the Australian outback, to English castles and glades.

 

That evening, I stepped outside my room and immediately came upon the paper I’d kicked all the way home. I stooped, picked it up, unwrapped it.

 

It was a cutting from a week-old newspaper.

 

Students all over my state were invited to send in articles about the United States, the aim of the exercise being to examine how well read secondary school students were and how knowledgeable we were about other countries.

 

For the very first time in my life, I wrote an article, not because I at that time knew the prize involved, but because it felt liberating to commit knowledge to paper, to test the boundaries of my imagination.

 

I wrote late into the night, by candle light, the words tumbling out of places I never knew even existed.

 

The following day, I walked to Ilesha, the town nearest to us, the one that boasted a post office. When I slid my enveloped entry into the receiving tray, I felt free, unchained.

 

Four months to the day, a postman brought the letter that would change my life.

 

I was the winner of the competition, was invited to a dinner with the state governor in Osogbo at which ceremony I would be able to choose at which US University I intended to study.

 

A two-year long preparation, waiting to finish my secondary education, applying to schools that taught writing, being accepted at Idaho State University, buying clothes, attending press conferences with the governor who was determined to show the world the difference he was making in the life of an ordinary village boy with the aid of his wife who was a born American.

 

And then that day.

 

I waved goodbye to my parents and sisters in the village, travelled to Osogbo where I slept in the governor’s lodge and was presented with my passport and visa. The following day, I was driven to Lagos, put aboard a plane.

 

I arrived Idaho in December, in the deadest of winters, the land completely obscured by snow. I was cold, chilled to my bones, as I would be for the next six years. Despite winter coats, despite electric fires, despite everything. I guess I was too much of an African to be used to anything but the yellow sun.

 

Shaking my head as if to clear it of cobwebby thoughts, I drew myself back to the present. I must have been standing in the same spot for more than ten minutes. Because a man was staring strangely at me, shaking his head.

 

I picked up my box and stepped outside, into the waiting area of taxis.

 

“The airport hotel.” I said to a driver whose cap was pulled low over his head and who appeared to want nothing more than just sit where he was, doing nothing.

 

“A thousand Naira.”

 

Incredulity coloured the whites of my eyes. A thousand naira? Then I remembered he was not talking in dollars. One thousand Naira was only $8.33.

 

At the hotel, I gave him ten dollars, signed in at the concierge’s, and finally sank into the warm softness of the hotel bed.

 

I woke up the next morning to a yellow sky and a dish of white rice and palm oil soup. It was good to be home.

 

*

 

Six years in a foreign land where things worked as they should had wisened me. I looked at my village with new eyes. Dusty roads, more mud houses than concrete, little children that ran about naked or almost so.

 

The taxi stopped in front of my father’s house and I stepped out, paid the fare and walked hesitantly towards the front porch.

 

An old man sat there, cleaning his teeth with a piece of chewing stick, spitting at a dog that lay at his feet and refused to budge despite the missiles.

 

“Excuse me…” I began to say before I realised that the old man was not an old man at all; it was my father gone to seed.

 

“Baba?”

 

He looked up and squinted uncomprehendingly at me for a bit. Then his face blossomed into a large smile, full of yellow teeth.

 

“Gboyega?” He asked.

 

I hadn’t been called Gboyega in five years. One year of students and lecturers alike tripping their tongues all over my name at Idaho State had necessitated a change. To George.

 

“Yes Baba.”

 

He grabbed me around the waist and I was about to hug him back when I remembered that in Africa, in my village, children prostrate to their parents, not hug them.

 

I dropped to my knees, genuflected and allowed myself to be lifted up.

 

“You’ve grown so big. How are you? You never even said you were coming? You…Come, your mother is in the backyard.”

 

As usual, Mama was frying gaari, huge beads of sweat glistening on her dark face. When she saw me, she turned the shade of a colour hard to define, closed her eyes, opened then again, and asked, “Gboyega?”

 

Again I prostrated, again I was pulled up, again I was pulled into a warm embrace, one that smelled of cassava and sweat.

 

“Good God, see how you’ve grown.”

 

I’d not eaten gaari in all the time I’d been gone, and the smell of the one frying taunted my nostrils. I took some from the huge frying pan, transferred it to my mouth and ruminated on how heavenly it was to be home, even if it was for s short while.

 

*

 

It was no longer fun to be home. The relentless heat (and our house had no air conditioner, only the parlour had a rickety ceiling fan) was unbearable, and so was the tiny grits of sand that found their way everywhere; into my nostrils, underneath my clothing, in between my teeth and onto my tongue, into my hair.

 

Then there was the business of passing waste. I’d been born , twenty-five years ago, to the knowledge of our pit latrine, to the drone of flies as one did one’s business. Six years ago, I started unlearning my intimacy with the pit latrine. Got used to the water system.

 

The first day after I returned, using the pit latrine was an adventure. Two days later, it was an inconvenience. By the fourth day, it was a major irritation.

 

Our one TV, the one Baba bought after I left for the US, was black and white and had to be slapped severally before the picture would stop jumping.

 

In ten days, I wished I had not planned to stay for a month, was longing for the coldness and starkness of Idaho streets, the warmth of my bed-sit, the intellectuality of my fellow writing students.

 

On the eleventh day, Baba and I had a serious talk. He was the first to knock on my door in the morning, his perpetual chewing stick stuck in his mouth.

 

“Oluwagboyega.” He called me by my full name as I staggered awake. “I’ve been meaning to have this talk with you for a while.” He said as he lowered his body onto my childhood bed.

 

“Good morning Baba.” I managed to say as I sat up.

 

“I’ve been meaning to ask you. Are you planning to come and stay back in the village after you finish from school?”

 

I would finish school the coming year, was vacillating between staying back in Idaho and coming back to Nigeria. But never, not once had I considered coming back to the village. If I ever came back, it would be to Lagos. For heaven’s sake, what would a dramatic writer do in a village that seldom got newspapers?

 

I weighed my answer carefully. Coming back or not depended on many things that I could not yet tell Baba, one of which was Valerie. To a white, pampered girl, even Lagos would be a jungle. How could I bring her to Iperindo?

 

“I am still thinking about it, Baba.”

 

He scratched his head, cleared his voice and said the most unimaginable thing. “Because I was thinking if you were planning to move back here, you would have to pull down this house and build a more befitting one.”

 

I bit back on what would have been an abrasive reply and nodded in agreement, too sleepy to even contemplate argument.

 

*

 

I never stayed the whole month I’d intended to. Much as I loved my parents and my siblings, there was an unease that constantly sat on my shoulders. Of not fitting in, of not remembering the customs I was supposed to.

 

Twenty days after I arrived, I was on another plane headed towards the US, towards Valerie, towards life as I had come to know it.

 

 

 

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.

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.

 

God’s girls – Short story

God’s Girls

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

Seven girls. Stair-step look-alike sisters, with the same enormous eyes, pink lips, and black hair. My daughters.

 

“Mommee, can we eat now?” Yemi asks, already reaching for the simple fare on the table.

 

“We always pray before we eat.” Funmi, the youngest of the triplets by two minutes replies, looking to me for affirmation.

 

“That’s right, girls. Now, who’ll like to bless the food?”

 

“Me, mommee.”

 

“Me.”

 

“No, it’s me…Mommee, remember you promised me. See, I’ve even learnt how to pray.”

 

I smile at Funke and nod my head. “Go ahead.”

 

She smiles back, “thank you Jesus for our food. Bless the hands that cooked it…and bless all of us too…”

 

Soon, they are lost in their food. My eyes travel over all of them, from Lucy, the eldest at ten to Funmi, the youngest at three. I try to look over them as dispassionately as a stranger would. Threadbare, passed-down clothes. Thin, but well-scrubbed faces.

 

Sighing, I return to my food. It’s little and can’t fill my rumbling stomach, but it’s all that’s left after dishing the girls’ food.

 

My thoughts turn to the girls’ father and his crooked grin. He’d smiled once and I’d fallen, heels over heads in love.

 

I’ve always wanted three kids. One girl and two boys. He’d told me on our wedding night.

We’ll try just once more. Maybe we’ll be lucky this time.  He’d said after the fourth girl was born.

 

Then the triplets. James came once to the hospital and that was the last I saw of him.

 

It’s as if he never even existed. He’d taken every scrap of his and moved out to God knows where. The older girls are beginning to forget him, and there’s not even a single picture of him to remind them. But I still remember him, his larger than life approach, his smiles…and the beatings…

 

Lucy’s voice startles me to the present.

 

“Take…” she says as she pushes her plates towards Funke. “I’m filled up.”

 

Before I can say a word, Funke quickly dumps the contents of her sister’s plate on hers.

 

“Lucy?”

 

“Honest, mum. I’m filled.” She starts to protest.

 

“But you had no lunch in school?”

 

“I’m okay…really.”

 

While cooking, I’d caught Lucy dropping something into my bag. It was the fifty Naira note I’d given her for her midday snacks. I wasn’t hungry, she’d said.

 

But I know she is hungry. I push my plate towards her. “Eat my food. I don’t feel like.”

 

“But mum…”

 

“No buts. Eat.”

 

Watching her devour the food, I know she’s starved. Only that she puts the needs of others ahead of hers.

 

I make my way to the kitchen, calculating how much we would need to get through tomorrow. My job as a seamstress pays very little, but I need to stay at home to take care of the children. But we’ll make do. My mother sent us four tubers of yam last week, and I still have some cans of soup, so food’s taken care of. There’s three hundred Naira in my purse…now three-fifty counting Lucy’s addition.

 

It seems I spend every minute sighing, because I do so now. The girls’ voice come to me faintly.

 

“We are all going to help mummy, Okay?” Funke says. “Tomorrow morning, it’s my turn and Yinka’s to say we aren’t hungry. Lucy, y’re supposed to help her in the kitchen…”

 

The tears I’ve been trying to stem all day now threaten to spill out of my eyes. Such precious kids. And who had taught them sacrificial living?

 

“James, you don’t know what you’re missing. They might be mere girls, as you used to say, but they are God’s girls.” I say softly to the almost bare kitchen. For the first time in three years, I am not angry at James. Instead, I pity him.

 

He is missing the warm embrace of our daughters. He is missing watching them grow in God’s fear. He is missing life at its finest.

 

“We might lack a lot of things, but we’re not poor.” I tell God, resting my back on the kitchen wall. “You’ve given me these wonderful girls and I’m going to spend my life loving them, mothering them, and pouring the abundance of your love into them.”

 

Tomorrow will come with its problems; unpaid school fees, unwholesome meals, and patched clothing, but we will make it. Resting on God’s arms just like we have always done.

 

In the meantime, I will be grateful for being mother to God’s girls.