The corn earworm patiently clambers out of the cob; it stands some meters away from the narrow tail of the corn, projecting its fragile form to the fullest; lifts its frail forelimb up to feel the air around the field, and slowly makes its way to the floor surrounded by weeds, climbers, and corn husks. It doesn’t succeed any further than a second when a shadow climbs over it and within a blink of an eye, it is about to say its last prayers when a weary voice screams out:
The voice desperately calls out again in the middle of the field enveloped by corn stems.
It comes again. It is my mother calling. She is worried about me. I look around me; it seems as though the stems around had all of a sudden developed eyes and lips; smiling and their eyes making jest of me. I don’t know why. My right foot still hovers over the worm, and it is already gaining away from my wrath. I want to stamp on it so hard but the call means trouble. She must have noticed that I have sneaked out at some point to play. I love to play around the field whenever we come to work: to chase butterflies, to pick on worms; beetles that fly low enough end up in my ant can.
Her voice turns really mean and closer all of a sudden. My heart starts to pound. The last time, she beat me so hard, and I was made to sweep the compound the whole day. I left the worm and started heading back, the same way I came. Before I know it, I am already swimming amid corn stems. A hand grabs my little ankle. I open my eyes to find that I am back with everyone. My elder brother eyes me. He is already hauling the corns in a big basket unto the truck of the big lorry with my father who pays me the least attention.
“Okwuchi! Where did you run off to eh?”
I can’t get myself to look my mother in the eye; they must be spitting fire. I just put my eyes to counting my toes which have turned black from wearing shoes that were too small for me and trekking so long to school which is in the next community.
“Have you grown deaf all of a…”
My mother screams hysterically.
“Leave the child alone. We need to get to the market before the rain comes.”
My father stops her: he is my saving grace. I dare not look up still in fear of some dirty slaps landing right on my face. I know the white hairs on his face and head must be dancing like the snowflakes I see in the books my school mates used to bring to school.
Akaji’s uncle works in the city, and whenever he comes to visit, he usually brings so many goodies for them. She has invited us this weekend because her uncle would be visiting. I haven’t told my mother, brother, or my father, but I know I would be there. My mother doesn’t like her; she refers to her as a loose cannon. I don’t know what that means, and I don’t actually care.
“She is a child, right? All the time, this is what I get when I want to put my daughter aright.”
My mother nags, leaves me where I am, and climbs into the front seat of the yellow Diana truck.
My brother barks. He is already sitting on the baskets of corn and waiting as the car comes alive. I scamper: put my hand on the rail while he draws me all the way. He is stronger, bigger, and taller than I am. The truck drives off, taking us straight to the market. As it makes its way through the narrow bushy path, my mind doesn’t forget the lucky worm that I left behind.
The market feels like a field infested by a swarm of locusts. The sight can make your chest go tukutuku. My father stops right in front of it and traders surround our truck. The bringer of fresh food has arrived. They all know my father as the bringer of fresh food. They cannot wait to lay their hands on our fresh corn, pay my father peanuts and make away with our hard labour to the city where they use a knife to cut the throat of those who buy them; my mother would always say bitterly with a sigh. At times, I wonder why she married my father: they are two different people, in thinking and action. She does not have gray hairs like my father, and neither does it look as though she would have one in a hundred years to come. Her strides are swift and rugged, but my father bends on his waist and walks with a stoop, picking his steps one after the other as though he were too scared to fall.
My brother and I make sure we secure the corns, lest some of them will get missing while our parents put them up for a good bargain. Afterward, when the corn must have been cleared, our parents give us each some money to go for sweets while they go about stocking the truck with household needs. This is our routine each time we come all the way from the village to the market. Father is not too strong to be driving to the market each day. And certainly, he cannot trust any of the farm hands with his car or his family.
The red sweets look more inviting than the purple ones, but the purple ones will last for some weeks before we visit again. I think I will go for them; I chew the decision over in my mind like a piece of gum. I love eating sweets each time I walk home from school.
Someone taps me from the back. I turn and it is a surprise to meet her of all people?
“Akaji, what are you doing here?”
I ask, looking around to know who she has come with this time around. She usually shops with different men.
“My uncle brought us to shop. Are you alone? Do you need a lift?”
She asks while she looks me up and down as though deciding if my appearance matters.
“Yes, we came to sell our corn, and afterward, we head home.”
“Will you be coming on Saturday?”
She asks desperately.
“I hope to sneak out.”
She smiles reassuringly and walks away without saying another word. I know that Akaji is not really my friend, and I wonder why she wants me in her house. I have always loved playing with other kids my age, but because of what Mama used to say about her, I have tried to avoid her each time she invites me over to her place. Her father is the village chief, and her mother heads the women’s meeting. Both are popular because rumor has it that both are notorious for stealing. Also, someone in my class said that the reason why Akaji’s uncle visits often is that he has plans to run for the next village chairmanship. After she walks away, I turn to a different path that leads back to our truck. Even as everyone around me talks, my mind is fixed on the meeting on Saturday.
The road to Chief and Lolo’s house is not narrow as fada used to read from the holy book on Sunday. No! The path is as wide as the road that leads to the market square; it is the only achievement the village chief can boast of for five years in office. Everyone seems satisfied with his leadership or they were all too occupied fetching water from the newly erected borehole by Akaji’s uncle. The road to Akaji’s house is wide, welcoming, and attractive. It is tarred in black, and red hibiscus has been planted on each corner. Some village women have been employed to sweep the road each day and are paid at the end of the month. The last time, I heard something happened and one of the women was sacked. Nobody knew what actually transpired, but I heard it was one of those weekends Akaji’s uncle visited. Most times, while walking back from school, I always come around the beautiful road, the big black gates, and the high walls. I used to wonder how the inside would look like with such high gates and walls. I usually see it as the road to heaven just as the priest calls it during mass.
My feet leave the red dust of the earth, the red clouds of dust that carried me all the way from my father’s house and step on the black wide road that leads all the way to Akaji’s house. The sole of my feet feels hot, although I have in my school sandals because she says that it would be a play day for all children. The heat climbs from the sole of my feet and strolls up to my tiny legs, my laps, my stomach, and as though it fried unele in my head. Unele, those sweet plantains my mother used to fry on Saturdays. The road swallows my small form.
I put one foot in front of the other, and it carries me to the big black ugly gate. I don’t need to knock because it is a little bit open. I put my legs first before my body and find myself inside a big compound with a big brown house. I am surprised because there is no one on the swing by the right or any children playing in the garden. The whole place is as quiet as a grave.
“Okwuchi! You are finally here.”
Akaji says while coming towards me from nowhere. She has on a thin wrapper tied right around her chest. It barely covers her laps. I look away, I know nothing but my own skin, even the sight of my mother adjusting her wrapper scares me. I look around questioningly; even her father’s black Volvo that announces its procession from a distance is not in the compound.
“I thought you said it is a play day?”
I ask confusingly. She doesn’t blink but just said:
“You are early. Others are still on their way. Meanwhile, we have the house to ourselves, my parents traveled.”
She takes me by the hand and leads my foot further into the house; her hand feels cold against mine. We go around to the back of the house; she knocks and pushes a door open. Upon getting inside, the television is on, and this amazes me. The only television I have ever seen work is the one in Sunday school. Ours at home has been decorated with a pile of books that we have forgotten it is there. Akaji picks up the remote; press a button and images come alive on the screen. She coils on the bed and invites me to sit on the narrow bed. When I put my little bottom on the bed, it feels soft. I notice an orange juice on a little table by the corner.
“It’s for you. Drink please.”
My mind starts to wander, my heart begins to beat, as warning bells go off in my ears. I begin to hear my mother’s voice, warning me strictly. But it is only a drink. We are the only ones in the house. Others are still coming, and what harm can she do to me? All these discussions are what I think about when my arm claps the neck of the bottle, opens it, and the bottle touches my mouth. The first gulp goes down my throat and leaves a tingling effect on my inside.
“Okwuchi, someone is at the gate. I am coming.”
Akaji gets up and leaves. I notice she does not bother to wear her cloth or anything. Immediately she shuts the door behind her, it opens again and someone makes their way into the room. I look up from the television and I find a familiar face. He looks more like Akaji’s mother.
“Good afternoon, Sir.”
I greet and my eyes go back to watch the kids play on the television.
“You are Akaji’s school mate?”
He asks and comes to sit beside me. It is as though his form covers the entire space in the room including the bed which shrieks as he sits on it.
I nod without saying a word. Hah, my whole body is doing me somehow. It is as though my bones are turning soft all of a sudden. I feel like lying down. He touches my shoulder and moves his hands down to squeeze my small breasts. My mother used to make fun of me for having baby breasts at twelve. I tried to push his hands away but I noticed that my whole body is so heavy that I cannot even move my head or shoulders. The only thing left to do is to lie down and sleep just a little. Maybe, just maybe I will get up and run. My back hit the bed in no time. I can see him smiling but my eyes are gradually closing, I feel his hands climb up to my laps; he removes my pant, and something shark goes inside me. I want to scream but my throat feels dry. I remember how I sneaked out of the house. How the goats I usually drive in at night met me on the road and called me; two trailed me up to a point, and seeing that I am not bringing any food their way, they went back to join others. I remember all the warnings my mother said to my ears. It is not long, I hear him draw his zip, the clinging of metal buckles sing around my head, but yet I cannot move. I feel something heavy on top of me, the pain in between my legs has gone, but I feel as though someone used a lump of hard meat to rub against my inner thigh, I don’t know why I still feel a harder pain, as a hand goes to my mouth. The bed squeaks again, this time, louder and louder in an adjoining rhythm until my eyes can see no more.
The sun slowly makes its way to Ozo Malika’s house. My father says that he is the first man to erect a house with cement in the village. I wonder if that is the reason the sun sets behind his house. The goats are where I met them in the morning. With one swift shush, they begin clambering back to the house. I try to chase them but I cannot, the flesh in my inner thigh feels so sore and I have to clean blood at each time coming down my legs. I put the goats away as soon as my two feet step into the house. My parents are still away. As I step foot into the house, my brother calls:
I turn and see him looking at me from his side of the house. My father built him a room immediately when he turned fifteen. We used to share the same room. I didn’t turn for him to see the pain in my eyes.
“I went to play.”
“With who, Okwuchi? I came to the village square and you were nowhere to be found? Answer me or mama will hear.”
Hear what? I thought in my mind. Does he know I am coming from Akaji’s house? Did he follow me or did anyone see me? How do I explain myself after mama’s warning and the blood is about to start dropping again. I need to find a way to leave.
“I need to use the bathroom.”
I open the door without his approval and close it behind me. Then I limp some few steps and lay on my bed.
A voice wakes me from sleep. It is as though they have been calling me for long but I have been deep asleep. I try as much as possible to lift myself up and drag myself to the door. I open the door only to see uncle Joseph and my brother. Uncle never comes to the house unless it is time to pay his house rent. Moreover, he does not like our mother. I still don’t know why.
“Okwuchi, we need to go. Papa is calling us.”
Sleep is yet to leave my eyes but I put my legs in my school sandals. The blood I have not cleaned gums to the sole of my feet. Nobody can see it because it is night. I leave my door unlocked and my uncle drives the car.
The hospital smells like the soap we use to wash our toilet. Mama does not joke with housekeeping, and visitors commend her each time we have one come around. Some people are on the corridor, others still walk around even though it is night, and many others lay on the bed as we approach what looks like mama and papa. Mama Chidi, the next-door neighbour, is sitting with her while telling her something nobody can hear. Mama keeps on nodding and cleaning her eyes.
Mama looks up at us and I can see that her eyes are red.
“Okwuchi and Kene, come and say goodbye to your father.”
Kene does not allow the words to finish before he runs to papa’s side and starts wailing and shedding tears. I am confused because by merely looking at his face, he looks peaceful.
The hole is too small for me to see their faces, but my ears are open to their argument. My mother had sent words to her people, and they knocked on our door before the cock crew. When our main guests arrived, my brother and I went around with the bowl for each person to wash his hands. I noticed that my father’s brothers refused to dip their hands inside my brother’s bowl. They rather preferred to wash in mine. This, I do not know why. After the meal: a dish of oha soup served with cornmeal, a crop my father is known for in the entire village. My mother asked that we all go inside and lock our doors. My mother once told me that our father’s cornfield stretched as far as the eyes can see, and we haven’t even farm most of the land left behind by his father because of the lack of farmhands. His father who was once a chief died and left all the land in his care as the first son: this is our village tradition; the first son inherits his father’s wealth for the benefit of other children if the man has any. So, we laboured on behalf of four families, and in the end, my father sends the proceeds to his brothers.
It is never in my nature to nose about people’s business, but once I turned ten and I began to notice the changes in my breasts; the hairs under my armpit, and the way the boys looked at me whenever I passed, I became conscious of my body. Not only that, when people started murmuring each time my family passed or when my brother and I went on an errand together. I started hearing and noticing the movements at home; the way mother used to bark at father at times when she is not happy with a decision, mostly the ones taken without her consent whenever he returns from visiting one of his brothers in the city.
It is nearly a month after Akaji’s uncle touched me, made me lie on his bed, and climbed all over me; it is few weeks gone after papa has been made to rest beneath the wet cold floor inside a white casket, and it is a week gone after I am yet to kill my chicken. I know mama would be expecting me to ask her for tissue or a white cloth but I haven’t. I know she must be looking at me like many mothers would their daughters who now wait by the roadside. I do not want to carry a child yet and stop school. Who told me I would? I feel I need to ask her even if it does not come. Will it still come?
“All we want to tell you is that we cannot be alive and a woman would be the one sharing our father’s proceeds among us.”
My stray mind comes back to the meeting.
“She has a son for him.”
My grandfather says.
“A son? Did I hear you right? A son for our brother or for another man who had her by force?”
Uncle Joseph’s voice rings aloud like my school bell. What is he saying? Is he saying that Kene is not Papa’s child?
“A son is a son. After all, her late husband accepted him?”
My mother’s uncle adds out of anger.
“Do you mean that you want to force a bastard on us? May the gods consume the earth you step on?”
Uncle Godfrey barks.
“You dare not call my son a bastard.”
My mother is already on her feet, quivering, furious with anger. Yes, furious, I once heard that word from mother the day she used it on Papa.
“My daughter is married….”
My grandfather is about to say something but one of the men cut him short.
“Did you say married? Our brother was a lonesome man until your loose daughter ran home with him. We are ever ready to bring back the palm wine he brought on her head.”
Did I hear Uncle Joseph's voice?
“But she has a daughter by him.”
I think my grandmother adds.
“Did she say daughter? Please, we are here to tell you that your daughter should turn over the land. We might be merciful enough to give some parts to her for upkeep or she can as well come home with one of us since it is in her nature to go home with strange men like a stray dog.”
The words were not all out of his mouth when my eyes saw mama pour water on whomever the words were coming from. Before I know it, he jumps up, and when he is about to pounce on my mother who is already waiting to defend herself, his brothers lock his arms around him and drag him to the gate. I didn’t wait to be called, I just let my door open, but Joseph stands gazing into space while mama rolls on the floor, her cries swooning in between the dust which the brothers leave behind.
I woke up one morning to the picture of the man I dread so much boldly pasted on the wall of my house. For the first time, I come face to face with his name after what he did to me, and now, Solomon wants to become our village chairman. It is the holiday and my eyes have not seen Akaji too. I hear she has gone to the city to live with her uncle while he plans his campaign. Well, the elections came and he finally won but she never came home. I walk into the sitting room to meet my mother cleaning some pictures. I walk closer and start to read. These were her school certificates and teaching certificates. Before I can open my mouth to ask, she says to me:
“Your uncles blocked our access into the farm. I have reported to the village chief but he said that I should go and meet Solo. I will be leaving this morning to come back at sundown.”
She said without looking at me.
“I will also try and see if there is anything I can find to do while there. We have not made any harvest for two months. Your uncles have ripped us of our rights, but Solo would know what to do. He was my very good friend and my school mate while in school. He would have been your father if….”
She trails off, and without saying another word, she picks her bag and leaves.
It is not yet sundown when a loud noise wakes me from my bed. I open the door and when I am about to run out, the sight of the red 404 almost makes my heart fall inside my stomach. My heart starts beating. Solomon is helping my mother come out of the car. He is holding her arm like a boy holds the hand of the girl he fancies as I read in the adult books I borrow in school. I cannot forget the face of his beautiful wife during the campaign? Why is mama smiling at him like that? Does she know what he did to me? I step out of the house and they turn my way.
“Solo, this is my daughter, Okwuchi.”
I can see the fear in his eyes.
“Kene, come outside, someone wants to meet you.”
My mother calls my brother who has turned into a loner like my father since the day his brothers visited.
Immediately, he steps out of the house, I look at his face, and then I understood why Solo had come. My brother has his bushy eyebrows and the dimple on each side of his face. My mother signals for him to come closer, and as he does, I run inside the house and bang the door so loud that the house shakes.
“I will go with the boy. He will come home later. I will come and see you tomorrow before leaving.”
Solo says in a hurry as though he cannot wait to leave.
“I understand, dear.”
My mother says like someone who has water in her mouth.
Immediately, the car drives out of our compound, hot tears crawl down the sides of my face.
Loud bangs rouse me up from a deep sleep.
“Eliza! Wake up!”
It is Mmachi’s voice. She is my mother’s best friend. Immediately my mother comes to the door, she says:
“Didn’t you hear the loud wailing coming from the Chief's house?”
The woman asks loudly like a mad cow.
“What is the matter?”
My mother asks, still sleepy.
“Chief’s wife woke to meet her brother hanging under the mango tree in the center of their compound.”
Mother screams like someone who had lost her belongings to a group of highwaymen.
“Come let’s go and see with our eyes.”
Our door bears with the effect of a loud bang followed by hastened footsteps.
It is the last word I hear before sleep comes back to drown me in its arms.
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This book is lovely! Kudos guys.
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