It was raining the morning they came for me, and I did not want to go.
I had been told a few weeks before that I would be leaving Onitsha for a town in Enugu, where I would live with a couple who needed help with house chores. The same couple Mama met in church the year I was born, who had been sending money for my school fees. I would also go to a good school there, since the schools in Onitsha were not as good as the ones in Enugu. Mama told me about this decision the night we ate garri and ofe ora. There was too much salt in the soup and she complained. I didn’t cook the soup, she did. She cooked it the day before, and Papa said there was no salt in it. So the following day, Mama asked me to add a little salt before heating up the soup on our kerosene stove. Then Papa complained that it was too salty.
I cleared their dishes from the table that night with the briskness of one who had erred. I didn’t want to spend one more second in the room as they argued about my age and the things my age mates were capable of doing. My age mates cut down trees and broke them into pieces for firewood, they were grown enough to make babies, they sold goods at Nkwo market, and did not put too much salt in soup, and even worse, soup they did not cook.
Most of the complaints came from Papa. I could tell that it had to do with my leaving home for Enugu. I was closer to Papa than I was to Mama. He called me his eyes, ofu anya m ji afu uzo.
I always sat on the floor next to him when I served his food and, although he often asked me to go find my mates, I stayed. I would clear his dishes after he finished and return promptly to the floor next to him. If I was lucky, he would tell me the story behind the tortoise’s cracked back. I never tired of listening to him sing the songs that accompanied that tale.
Mama found it amusing how I cuddled beside Papa. She called me Papa’s watchdog. Papa would smile and call her a jealous witch.
The day Papa said he had a meeting with the Traders’ Association very early in the morning, I woke up before him and Mama. I filled his bucket with water in the bathroom, and I served his food. Then I went to their bedroom to remind him about the meeting. He hissed and murmured something about forgetfulness and the need for more sleep. Then he called me his good daughter. Daalu, ezigbo nwa m, that was what he said. His voice was unclear when he said it, as if he had pap in his throat, but it made me smile.
Puff-puff, I told him. The ones that have eggs in them. He laughed and asked how he would know if they had eggs in them. Should I cut each of them open to check? I pondered his question, squinting my eyes and biting my forefinger. He shoved me playfully and said he would ask Nwanyi Ocha for the ones with eggs, and if we found no eggs in them when he returned, we would go for a fight with his cutlass the following day.
When Papa left for his meeting and I went back to bed, thoughts of us marching to the market, cutlass in hand, chanting war hymns, going to fight for the absence of eggs in our puff-puff, made me laugh. Mama said I was laughing in my sleep when she came to my room.
In Mama’s shed at Head Bridge, where she sold yams, the neighbour to our right shared Cabin Biscuits because her daughter had just got married. The women sang and danced as they ate their biscuits. Then they all took turns touching the neighbour’s shoulders and then touching their foreheads. It was a way to show that you appreciated a person’s blessing and would want the same for yourself. Mama told them she would share foreign wines when I got married, and the women laughed and said amen.
I did not eat my Cabin Biscuits. The puff-puff Papa was going to buy for me filled me up, and it was all I could think about. I didn’t want to be full by evening when we went home. Mama insisted I should eat something. She said it was wrong not to have oil in one’s stomach. You will faint on the way home if you don’t eat something, she said.
I smiled and nodded, but I didn’t eat. It was not the first time that I would be starving. I had starved many times at school when I had beans for lunch. People who came to school with beans or moi-moi were mocked during lunch. If there was a foul smell, they would be blamed. I told Mama, but she said that I could not eat rice every day. So I never bothered to eat on those days until I came home. I never fainted on my way home either.
We packed up at the end of the day, and it began to rain. Mama used the tarpaulin sheets to quickly cover her exposed yams. Old yams and water were not good friends. I held the umbrella over her as she bent down to move the yams into the shed. She stood up, forgetting that I was only tall enough to hold the umbrella over her bent frame, and her head sent our umbrella flying across another shed. She laughed as I ran after it. Mama told me to remember that Nwunye Mike owed us for the extra yam she took, and that she owed Mama Obi forty-naira change. I was Mama’s diary and organizer. She said that the beautiful couple in Enugu did not pay so much money to a private school for her to stress her brain remembering things. She was happiest when schools went on break, because she would no longer have to depend on Papa to remind her of anything. She said Papa’s memory was not waterproof like mine.
I could have sworn the man was Papa, except he was lying on the road, dead.
When we walked to the bus stop to get the bus home, we saw a crowd gathered at the junction near Uga Street. I stretched my neck to see if I could make out what was going on, but there were too many people. Mama was not one to stop for such things. She warned me against it too. If the police come to arrest the people there, do you think there will be time for you to explain that you were just observing? Mama would say. More and more people gathered around and I could see a few people leaving the circle with arms folded across their chests, shaking their heads. Some snapped their fingers while others spat on the ground as they left.
Our bus had not arrived yet, so we stood there waiting. Opposite us, the crowd reduced slowly. More people joined in and peeped into the circle, but not as many as the people leaving.
Only God knows who owes who change today, Mama said. It was almost always money that caused people to gather like that, even in the rain. Someone refused to give someone their complete change, or someone caught someone who owed them money but had been avoiding them. They would hold the offender by the neck of his shirt, or by the neck if he had no shirt on, dragging him up and nearly strangling him. People would gather and try to deescalate the tension, in which time pocket pickers picked pockets and hands roamed where they may.
But the gathering opposite us was nothing of the sort. I knew because I could see someone lying in the middle. They were not moving. I thought they had fainted from starvation, but there was blood gushing from their head, mixing with the rain and flowing to the road. They were male, and had Papa’s type of shirt on. I could have sworn the man was Papa, except he was lying on the road, dead. Papa had gone for a meeting, and he would buy me puff-puff when he returned, the one that had eggs in.
I touched Mama’s right wrist lightly, the one she wore her wristwatch on, and startled her. She looked at me, relieved, and I told her that the man lying across the road had Papa’s type of shirt on. Her eyebrows threatened to touch as she frowned. Which shirt? she asked. I told her that Papa wore the yellow floral shirt that morning, the same one the dead man across the road had on.
Mama looked up, and did not stop looking. She was still, like she was trying to remember a name. She suddenly held my hand and crossed the road to the spot where the man lay. The dead man’s hand had been squashed, but he still held on to an equally squashed transparent bag that contained puff-puff. Mama knelt over the body and held his face. It was Papa.
Under all the blood and mud, I could see Papa’s face. When mama turned his face up from the ground, the rain rushed over it and I saw him clearly. He looked alive, like he would wake up and murmur about his meeting. The lines around his mouth gave the impression that he was about to yawn. Mama did not cry, she simply stared, as though waiting for a reaction, as if Papa was merely sleeping and would wake up soon to call her a witch.
When the women from Mama’s shop came to take us home, I thought about the squashed puff-puff. I didn’t see any eggs.
Papa was buried at the back of our house. His burial lasted four days. Four days of people I had never met before, trooping in and out, crying, saying ndo, eating, drinking, complaining about finished meat. I did not understand how people had the appetite to eat at burials. How could one mourn on a full stomach? Mattresses and mats were all people who had full stomachs could think about, that, and Fanta. The woman from Mama’s shed, who collected Cabin Biscuits twice on the day Papa died, came to the burial and did not let me breathe because she wanted Fanta. I brought her Coke, then Sprite, but she rejected them — she only wanted Fanta. I saw one bottle of Fanta left in the store, but I opened it and poured the yellow liquid down the toilet. She complained until she went home.
Mama said I would go to Enugu when we finished mourning Papa. A person in mourning should not be traveling up and down, she said. The couple in Enugu sent us money, gifts and a sympathy card. Mama said that the handwriting on the card looked like the spots on our sandy compound where hens dug and scrambled for food. Nne, you will teach them how to write when you get there, she said. Mama did not lose her sense of humour, even in grief. But she lost many other things. She stopped waking up early, and she rarely went to her shed. She never cried after Papa’s death, but in her sleep, she sobbed and cursed Papa for going away.
In less than three months, Mama had lost so much weight she could no longer move. When she was taken to the hospital, the doctor said she had a stroke. At the hospital, Mama no longer cursed Papa in her sleep, she begged him instead. Come and take me, biazia kpolum, she repeated. I watched Mama, and the stubborn tears that were nowhere when Papa died suddenly could not be contained. I begged Papa, in my heart, to leave Mama for me.
Don’t listen to Mama, listen to me instead. Listen to your eyes, I pleaded.
The couple that sent us money came to visit Mama at the hospital. I didn’t know who sent for them, or how they knew what hospital we were at. But they came, and the woman hugged me for too long. I looked at them and I wondered which of them had written on the sympathy card.
They spoke to the doctor, who asked us to go home and rest. He said Mama’s blood pressure had normalised and that she was stable. I wanted to stay, but the doctor insisted we went home.
The couple drove me home, and the woman asked if I was okay with spending the night on my own. She said I could stay with them in a hotel in town, but I refused. I wanted to stay at home, so I could take Mama’s clothes to her. She forgot her favourite headscarf at home, too. If Mama came to and found that her hair was exposed, she would kill me.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I felt like Papa would listen to Mama if I shut my eyes, so I stayed awake. The shadows cast on our walls by the trees outside looked like giants. I could see their arms and fingers, even their eyes. They moved and I could feel them closing in on me, then I shut my eyes and saw Papa. He had a wheelbarrow filled with puff-puff and when I reached out to take one, he ran away, laughing. I sat there crying, and Papa began to hit his wheelbarrow with a stick. The sound it produced got louder with every hit until I woke up. There was a knock on the door.
The couple came to the house for me. The ride to the hospital was silent. The woman stretched her left hand to the back where I sat and offered me some peppermint. I took it and thanked her.
At the hospital, we were asked to wait a while at the reception. I sat in the wooden chair and I saw Mama in my mind’s eye, sitting on an upside-down mortar at the backyard, telling me how Papa came to her parent’s hut to beg her. How she liked Papa from the first day she met him, and how she liked seeing him beg. She pretended not to be interested in him for nearly one year. Mama and I went close to the kitchen and lay on the mat, and I curled up next to her. The smell of Mama’s hot water and tangerine cough mixture filled me up and burned my eyes.
When the woman touched me and said that Mama had gone to heaven, I coughed. I sipped the water they brought me and I told her that Mama did not go to heaven. Papa took her away.
The following days were filled with silence. Mama was buried beside Papa, and the woman helped me pack all of Mama’s clothes into her trunk. When there was nothing else to do in the house, loss came and wore me like a cloak. I saw Mama everywhere. She was in the kitchen and in the bedroom. She held my hand when I nearly tripped in the bathroom, and when the woman told me it was time to move to Enugu, Mama touched my hair lightly.
My mama says it is wrong for a person in mourning to travel up and down, I said to her. She looked at me as if I were glass that would break if she did not look with care. I could see myself in the water that formed in her eyes, and when she reached out and touched my hair, I knew that Mama was in her.
Nne, no one should grieve alone. Come, let us go, she said. It began to rain and I knew that Papa did not approve of the trip. Or maybe he did because when the woman held my hand and walked to the car, her hand felt familiar.
The morning I started secondary school in Enugu, my oga drove me to school. My classmates laughed every time I told them I was a house girl. Even I laughed at myself sometimes. House helps were outcasts who didn’t deserve anything good, especially an education. They cleaned and lived in the kitchen, and ate leftovers. The woman who lived on the street before ours beat up her house help because she caught her in bed with her husband. She said that the seventeen-year-old girl seduced her husband. She sent the girl back to her village afterwards and brought a different house girl from a different village. My madam said that if we lived in a civilized country, she would have had the man arrested for rape and his wife for battery.
My madam was different from all the madams I had heard about. The moment I walked into her home that morning, many years ago, I felt like a member of the family. She looked at me a little too much, like she was studying me, and when I caught her, she would look away. She said I could do whatever I wanted, as long as I did not disrespect her or her husband. They both worked late every day and had no children. I did not see why they needed help because there was almost nothing to do. When I did their dishes, she would come to the kitchen and rinse them in the second sink. Her husband did the cooking, and my madam and I helped him with little things like salt or pepper. I took my food upstairs to my room to eat the first day, but my madam warned me about eating anywhere else that wasn’t the dining table.
House helps were outcasts who didn’t deserve anything good, especially an education. They cleaned and lived in the kitchen, and ate leftovers.
My madam even asked me to call her Ndudi, but I could not. She said she did not appreciate anyone calling her madam. I tried, but it was too heavy for my mouth. I would open my mouth, but the name would refuse to come out. My mama would slap my mouth with the back of her hand if she heard me call someone who was reasonably older by their name, let alone my madam. I explained to her why I couldn’t call her Ndudi and she laughed at me. Ngwa, call me aunty Ndudi, she said. Call your oga Uncle Edozie. I told her I would try and she agreed.
When I turned sixteen, just after I finished secondary school, my madam came to my room and gave me a phone. An iPhone. She said she was proud of my performance at school. Then she asked me what I wanted to study at the university and I told her that I had always had an interest in Psychology. She held my hand and I felt Mama. Psychology is perfect, she said.
My Oga came home that day with a huge Psychology Encyclopaedia, and, when he handed it to me, I saw Mama and Papa standing in the hallway, thanking them and clapping their hands.
I read the encyclopaedia every day, except the morning I left for the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where I would be studying for the next four years. I would also live in the school accommodation because, although the University was in Enugu, it was far away from home.
Leaving home for school reminded me of leaving Onitsha for Enugu. My madam dropped me off at the park and continued to ask if I was sure I didn’t want her to take me all the way. It would be fun, she said. I didn’t want it. My madam was everywhere I turned and my body had begun to itch when she was around me. She wanted to know how and what I was doing, where I was going, who I was with. She nearly slapped me the day a boy from church walked me home. She had raised her hand, left it in the air for about five seconds, and then slowly brought it down. She held me by my wrist and dragged me into the house.
Look, pregnancy is not a thing you play with. These boys will get you pregnant and walk away! You will be shamed for it because you’ll carry the evidence around and no one will know his name, she screamed. It was confusing for me, and the liking I felt for my madam began to diminish. I felt slightly terrified, but boldly so. I held back many times from screaming in her face when she asked questions about my life. But I would remember Mama, and I would swallow many times.
So when she wanted to take me to school, I refused, quietly but firmly. And when she hugged me at the park, my nose was forced into her armpit and I could smell her Nivea deodorant. I tried to break away, but she held me there. You have been an amazing help, Ekwutosi, I hope you never forget where you come from, she said.
I arrived at the University and could still smell Nivea deodorant. I briefly wondered why my madam liked to use the masculine ones, and not the feminine ones. I also wondered why deodorants were classified according to gender — did sweat know whether one was male or female?
In my final year at the university, I met Olisa, a boyish boy in second year who I had seen many times in my department, either laughing or being chased around by someone. I had never spoken to him and, being two classes above him, nothing ever made meeting possible. But the morning my dissertation topic was approved, he tapped my shoulder just as I was packing up to leave the faculty. He wanted to know who would be taking over from me as faculty president.
He was tall and kept an afro. I was tempted, while I answered his questions, to dig my fingers into his hair. I also mulled over what it smelled like. He laughed very freely and when he did, his entire body laughed also; his eyes had the spark of an excited child, his nostrils spread out and gave the impression of a twin gong, his lips made way for his well-lined dentition, his cheeks looked like puff-puff. It was difficult not to laugh with him, and in no time, he was sitting next to me, looking through my books and complimenting my handwriting.
We became friends, Olisa and I. He visited me nearly everyday, and in less than one month our bodies knew each other. It was not my first time, but it was the first different one. He didn’t beg me over and over for it; he didn’t pressure me or ask me to let him put the tip only. It happened and it felt right.
I put off going home for many days that slowly crept into months, many months. My madam called every day to ask about my dissertation, and at the end of each call she would linger, breathing into the phone and finally asking, when will you come back? She reminded me that there was a study at home that I could use, and when she ran out of things to say, she reminded me that I was still her house help.
The words fell out of her mouth and broke into pieces on my red carpet, and I imagined that the floor was bleeding from the shards of brokenness. I knew I was a house help, but I had never heard my madam call me that, and with condescension so heavy my hand could no longer hold on to my phone. I felt small and I saw myself disappearing in my room. I would either go back home at once, or never return.
I made up my mind to go home the following weekend, but not before I came down with a fever. Olisa went with me to the medical centre where some tests were conducted. In two days we went back for my test results, and we sat at the waiting area looking at the paper I was given, and words failed us.
An ordinary piece of paper had suddenly become the purveyor of news that sucked up the air from the room and left me gasping, desperate.
I snatched the paper off Olisa’s hand, who had taken it to observe more closely, in case we had seen wrongly the first time. I was going to verify from the nurse who gave me the test results, there might have been a mix up somewhere.
The nurse, who did not look up at me, and whose dedication to the chewing gum in her mouth equalled nothing I had ever seen before, told me that condoms were not mere balloons. You cannot cheat nature, she added. There was a casual drag in the way that she spoke, as if she knew me and had warned me several times against this mistake. The words also came so naturally to her that one could tell that she had said them many times. The clap sounds of her chewing gum made it all the more humiliating. I turned around and as I walked back towards Olisa, I could feel the hot wetness of my own urine, drooling down my legs.
I sat at the waiting room until the medical centre closed. I said nothing; he knew to say nothing too. The days following were the darkest days of my life. I contemplated getting an abortion, but the nightmare I had about never waking up after the anaesthesia shots kept me indoors. I saw Papa many times with a wheelbarrow, but there were no puff-puffs in it. He frowned at me every time, and walked away shaking his head. Mama squeezed her nose and snapped her fingers. She retied her wrapper and rolled her eyes at me. I woke up with a headache every day, unsure of where I was.
I had many questions, and I was irritated by Olisa’s calmness. I wanted him to panic, to stammer and flush. But he simply said things about true love and his pure intentions towards me. His parents were understanding and would totally approve of us marrying, if it came to that.
The things he said went through my right ear and exited from the left one. I could not tell my madam that I had done exactly what she had warned me about. And how could I tell her that a boy two years younger than I was got me pregnant? How did I not know that I was pregnant for so long?
As I walked back towards Olisa, I could feel the hot wetness of my own urine, drooling down my legs
I decided I would tell her about it. I could not hide for ever and she could not be disappointed for ever either. A final meeting with my supervisor became my reason for stalling my trip home, and every time I spoke to my madam, I told her that the meeting was postponed. I made to tell her about the pregnancy at different times, but the fear I felt in my belly crawled up to my throat and curled up there, seizing my voice and crushing it to nothingness.
Olisa had told his parents about it over the phone and while they expressed their displeasure, they also empathised with the situation. They insisted that the first step was to tell my madam about it.
The morning I got ready for Enugu, Olisa prepared also to come with me against my will. He wanted to be there when I told my madam because he wanted to partake in whatever blame I got. I tried to dissuade him from coming, but he would have none of it.
He flagged down a bike and asked me to get on; he would meet me in town on a different bike. As I made my way to the park, the bike man went in on the wrong lane in a bid to reach the bus park faster. I complained but he dismissed me, asking me not to worry. I have been riding bikes before you were even born, he said. And just as he was finishing his sentence, he collided with a wheelbarrow whose owner was about to cross the road, having only looked right. The bike fell, and so did I. The exhaust pipe of the bike pressed on my leg and burned me. I went into shock and the next time I opened my eyes, there was a plain blue curtain drawn round my bed.
Olisa’s hands covered my right hand, and when I opened my eyes, he looked up and laughed. Don’t worry, the baby is all right, he said. I was annoyed by him and immediately withdrew my hand from his. My madam was right, I get to carry the shame around and he gets to laugh, I thought. I looked at him and felt the need to hurt him, to make him feel the fear I was feeling. I hated that his parents were so accepting and that, even in death, mine were disgusted.
I had shut my eyes for a nap when I heard my name in the most unexpected familiar voice. Ekwutosi, what have you done? Four months? What is going on? I had forgotten who was listed as my next of kin. I looked up to my madam standing in front of my bed, beside Olisa. Her delicate rose gold necklace glimmered as she breathed. I saw mama in her face, and tears would not stop coming. She sat in my bed and wiped my eyes with the back of her hand, the same one mama would have slapped my right ear with. She kissed my forehead and asked how I was feeling. He will marry me, I said to her.
Olisa who had stood aside to give us some privacy, moved in closer and greeted her the second time. She hadn’t responded to the first one. My madam looked at him from head to toe, as if sizing him up, and I knew that she could tell that I was older. She looked back at me without saying a word and with her eyes she asked me why.
She took me back to Enugu that day and, as we travelled, she said intermittently, Ekwutosi maka gini, why?
My oga asked about my dissertation first, and then whether my legs hurt, as though he needed the questions for cushioning before asking the actual ones. How old was he, does he love you as much as you love him, are you sure he wants to do this, are you sure you want to do this, a child will change your life forever, you know. My madam sat next to my oga and at the end of our conversation, they asked me to invite Olisa and his parents over.
I developed a cough the morning Olisa and his parents were due to arrive, and there were no tangerines for Mama’s recipe. My madam bought me cough syrup, but I was so overwhelmed by the intensity in the house that I flung the medicine in the dustbin. My oga cooked and set the table, and my madam checked on me in my bedroom so many times that I cried out of frustration. My room had become too small and no matter how many times I went in the bathroom to wash my face, my vision was still foggy. I wanted the day to be over before it even began.
The doorbell rang and my heart pounded in response. I got up, opened my door and peeped to see my madam walking to the front door. She stood there for a while, straightening out her blouse and patting her hair. She opened the door with a practiced cheery smile that immediately disappeared once she saw the guests. I heard Olisa’s voice, greeting my madam and asking her to meet his mum and dad.
My madam staggered backwards as her hands searched blindly for something to hold on to. I immediately ran to her just as my oga came to the sitting room. The guests reached out to her as well, but she fell before any of us could help her. My oga lifted and placed her on the couch, knelt down on the floor next to her and kissed her forehead. Ndudi, honey, it’ll be okay, he said.
Olisa walked over and stood by me, and his parents, who had been looking to see that my madam was all right, excused themselves to step out for a minute. When they came back into the living room, my madam was sitting up with her head leaning on my oga’s shoulder. Tears went freely down her face as she hissed and shifted in her chair.
What have we done, Ebube? What have we done? My madam repeated. I looked around for who she was referring to and thought for a moment that my madam may have had a concussion after her fall. Olisa squeezed my hand and the blankness of his face showed that he was just as confused as I was.
Olisa’s father knelt in front of my madam and oga, murmuring things I did not understand. He suddenly broke down and wailed in our sitting room. His wife held his shoulder so that his head rested on her hip and she rubbed his hair with her right hand. Seeing a grown man cry like that reminded me of Papa lying on the road that evening. The helplessness wrapped itself around my neck, and while my madam cried, and Olisa’s father groaned, I went to the bathroom to throw up. There, I lifted my dress and looked at my belly in the mirror for the first time since I found out. What will I do with you, I thought.
Everyone had sat down when I returned to the living room. The silence was only interrupted by sniffs and sighs and hisses.
My madam avoided my eyes as she held on to my oga’s hands so tightly, like her survival depended on them. She had something to tell me, and she wanted me to know that she did not mean to hurt me in any way. I was strangely calm when she began to narrate this story. What could be worse than being pregnant for a boy in his second year at the university, who was two years younger than me?
My madam knew Olisa’s father, Ebube. They met many years ago in America, where they fell in love and had a baby. They returned to Nigeria and were told they could not be together, as they were cousins. Their love child was given to a childless couple that would take care of the child till they both healed from the disaster that had happened to them. They both moved on and Ebube went on to have a child by another woman two years later. My madam was not psychologically ready for babies, but she lived with her partner, my oga, who loved her and understood what she was going through.
Ekwutosi, biko, gbaghalum, I am sorry, she said.
Olisa looked at his father and then at his mother, his breathing quickening, and just as he got up from the couch where he had been sitting and holding my hand, his father broke down again. I wanted to feel pain but it was far beyond my reach. I was irritated by my own numbness. Olisa paced the room and I saw him quickly wipe the tears off his eyes. If even he felt something, why couldn’t I?
I shut my eyes and saw Papa and Mama. Is this true? I asked. They were silent, and only then did the pain force itself through my eyes.
I will never leave you, Olisa said.
Uzoamaka Doris Aniunoh is an Igbo writer from Nigeria. She draws inspiration from real life experiences and is interested in minor characters and in the little happenings that are often considered irrelevant.
She has a BA in English and History from the University of Nigeria, and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Birmingham.