The smoldering sun lazily set through the thick mask of dust which sat here and there in the sky. It seemed indecisive with the smear of ash patches which looked like a woman wearing garters in the 60s. Frankly, someone would readily agree that the sky looked seemingly nauseous that day but couldn’t place the actual source. The sun-baked dusts of the Sahara must have, in hand-fulls, swept briskly off the surface in a bid to make the season more pronounced to earth’s inhabitants. In a bid to prove a point, it must have climaxed the orbits of the earth surface to kiss the shady blue skies, leaving a mark to announce its visit.
The herds made their way from different directions through the few grasses that dared to keep the cycle of photosynthesis. Not minding the blades of dry grasses which cut through their ankles and knees, leaving a mark, letting a bug gain a new habitat or share one, some of these green harvests found their way into the omasums of these beasts. Certainly, it was far too late to choose drying up like the many few. They dragged on with the bells that hung on their protruded necks, ringing, in order to announce their near distance and to ward off school kids or bystanders. As they drew by, the menacing flies in the city of Abuja made well to stick to their trails, causing a nuisance to the entire populace.
Their near domestic image drew farther away from the window, and Chijioke’s left eyebrow climbed up the far side of his forehead, only in wonder of how these animals went about their business as though they were never in the way of motorists or by-passers. He was busy finishing off the last knot on his tie when he heard the noise: a short thud followed by a muffled scream. His feet left where it stood, and made straight for their son’s restroom, knowing that such could never come from the neighbours, except from that end of his own side of the house. He could hear his heart beat right outside his chest; getting to his destination seemed like forever. His pores opened up all of a sudden and streams of what seemed like hot sweat proceeded. His ears heard his voice yelling for his wife.
“Okwuchi! Bia! Come!”
They all were preparing to leave for work that morning, but an event of nine years had become so burdensome that they both learned to be prepared for any eventuality at any time. At a point, his wife’s boss gave her one month leave off from work to take care of their ailing son when he was admitted at the Central Hospital’s Intensive Care unit. At times, he wondered why both haven’t been relieved of their duties due to too many absences for nine years, and counting. Maybe it was empathy, or they too knew what it felt like to have a blessing such as Chisimdi.
His head was already tilting backwards, and the white foams spouting from his mouth already covered part of his small face. His pupils were so close to being blank, and his muscles had already contracted. The shower splashed water all over the place and his towel lay in a wet puddle between the bathtub and the toilet seat. His head had missed hitting the toilet seat by just an inch. Chijioke knelt beside him, not minding that his trousers were already drenched; he called out to the only seed which had birth forth from his loins, his voice low and soothing:
A name he was given at the very moment doctors diagnosed him with an incurable brain tumor.
“Nata. Come back to us. We need you. Your…”
His wife’s whimpering behind him dislodged his line of thought. Looking back, her eye pencil strokes and makeup were already washed off by tears. He felt her pains. It was no use taking him back to the hospital; they literally kicked them out after the last visit because the seizures were too consistent that it caused uproar among other patients who felt that doctors in the hospital were incompetent; seeing the boy go through series of attacks really meant bad business for the hospital’s image.
As a result of this, school was a near impossibility because their phones would always rang, requesting them to come for their son: some days, he would fall, convulsing on the assembly ground or during classes. Their whole lives have been put on hold because their Chi decided to bring such a blessing their way.
He raised his form to her level, and when he came close to gather her in a warm embrace, in a gesture to console her, she practically moved back as though he was a plague. It hurts each time she rejected his show of affection, and he didn’t know why. It was obvious that she might commit suicide if anything happened to their son. Chijioke was afraid for her, he loved her so much, and wouldn’t want her to hurt herself, but she refused to let him in for nine years, and counting.
Chijioke bent on all fours, not minding that he had already ruined his office wear, and with a swing, he gathered the limp body of their son off the wet floor. His wife moved ahead to prepare his changing clothes and some blankets on the bed. Immediately he got to his room, she changed him into it, and they tucked him to sleep, hoping he wouldn’t ask them why he couldn’t make it to school the first time that term.
The tray landed with a loud bang, louder than the sound he heard an hour ago when their son fell in the bathtub. Although his stomach groaned out of hunger, he seemed to have lost the yearning for food.
“Aren’t you going to eat?”
He looked up and peered into his wife’s face, which was already devoid of traces of any form of makeup. He frowned and asked:
“Are you not going to work?”
He sounded amazed and worried. They both were supposed to be on their way at that very point in time, but none felt like moving an inch. A swift moment passed in between them. She placed the tray and went to sit farther away. She gave him a blank look, and with a straight face, said:
“I already called in sick. They understand.”
Conversations between them felt like the rainbow that came with the least prediction. Some nights, she blamed herself for their predicaments; other times, she blamed him. It really ate deep into everything that held them bound. It was difficult to recall who she was after ten years of meeting her at a friend’s wedding reception, and too easy to place the difference between the two women.
“Have you given it a thought?”
His voice was downcast, as though he waited to be met by defeat as usual. She got up abruptly and moved to the window like someone who was about to suffocate, at the same spot where he watched the cows pass. The estate was a serene one, but each time those animals made their way through the grasses, he wondered how safe they were living in such a place. They had moved there when the seizures became too much to bear. The location had a close proximity to the hospital, their place of work, and his school. Also, he was sick of waking the neighbours up each night with loud screams from his wife, or having to rush their son to the hospital, or even neighbours knocking on his door, or accosting him on the way just to show their concern about their ailing son. In fact, at a point, he learned to avoid them.
The hour drifted slowly to midday, and the sun cast a drooling shadow over her; it was as though he stared at a cacaos rather than his wife. She had lost those wide hips and chest, and he remembered that she used to be a little chicky than the present, when she rarely looked herself in the mirror. He couldn’t help it the night his executive assistant took a swing at him. Chijioke closed his eyes and bent his head in shame.
Okwuchi wrapped her arms around her thin body. She felt cold right from the inside. Her eyes travelled all the way down to the valley where motorists drove through the Airport road; they looked more like soldier ants rather than humans. From where she stood, she could see the past nine years of her life play before her very eyes.
Chijioke’s voice came again, and pleading with her conscience this time around. She slowly turned to face him, and looking at the tray, she noticed that he hadn’t touched his breakfast. His cheeks which used to be full were now sunken, and his eyes bulged out of their sockets: he was neither sleeping nor eating properly; none of them had been doing so for the past few years. It surprised her how many years had passed and they seem to be at a standstill.
“I wouldn’t know how to cope. What if she decides that she doesn’t want me or like me? After all, she never did?”
Okwuchi asked. Chijioke still had his face to the ground, silent. But speaking, he said:
“And even if, at least at the moment, you two have a common enemy.”
Okwuchi looked at him with a stern glare, and in silence, she walked away towards the direction of a room they once shared.
Okwuchi made her way out of the room they were offered. It took a while before she unpacked everything they came home with. The flight from Abuja to Anambra took a while because of the weather, and she almost got worked up because Chisimdi continuously complained of an ache in his spine; he was not used to sitting for a long time since the seizures would go at length to twist his muscles and limbs, leaving him with chronic body pains. At a point, the air hostess noticed the discomfort on her face and provided her little boy with throw pillows till they got to the airport. She stopped abruptly when she saw them closely knitted on the dining table, and all of a sudden, Chisimdi looked more like his father. He was all chatty as he pressed the molded eba, dipped it into the onugbo soup and threw it right into his mouth; he smacked his lips to emphasize how much he loved what he ate. The dinning light cast a bright shadow on his skin which looked more like burnt ash and now seemed to shine under the rays of the light. His limbs were swift with the food, and his grandmother paid ardent attention to every single thing he said while she wore a broad smile that could break a glass mirror. Her set of gray teeth were still in place, and although her face looked a little bit roughened by age, one would obviously tell she was an ‘agbala nwanyi’ when she was a little bit younger than eighty.
Mama Nnukwu was a school teacher, the best of her kind in Azu, and when she lost her husband to the civil war, then in Enugu, she gathered her kids back home where she took up a teaching job at the community college. Chijioke and his siblings attended a boarding school in the city which their mother paid for with her salary and her earnings from the farm. Okwuchi remembered Chijioke telling her once that he sold Gari from the farm to pay for his university tuition.
Chisimdi screamed, almost out of breath, while he jumped about the room before coming to hug her. All those while, she was lost in thought about him that she didn’t know when he finished with his food. For the first time, their son looked healthy after nine years. She controlled the tears from flooding her face, and through the corners of her eyes, she saw his granny watch her with keen interest. He always looked younger than his age, and as though the sickness stunted his growth.
“Mummy, can I go out and play?”
Chisimdi could see fear mixed with surprise in his mother’s eyes, and this made him retrace his steps. Back at home, he never got the opportunity of being a normal kid: he never had friends, was never invited for parties, nobody visited him, and he never for once cared or asked to go out and play. It was as though he accepted his condition in good faith even for a boy his age. Okwuchi was caught unaware.
“Darling… I don’t think it’s a good idea; maybe you need to take your drugs and rest. We’ve had a long journey…”
She stopped when she saw the disappointment written deep in his sunken eyes due to a lack of appetite for food; the doctors warned them it would happen when he started taking his medication, but she never knew it would be that bad. Her boy was as good as a skeleton.
“But what I only wanted was to be a normal child.”
The tears came without pausing.
“Let him go out and get some fresh air.”
His granny spoke from the dining area where she hadn’t moved from since the discussion started.
“Now, don’t give him those drugs anymore. You are only killing him.”
Okwuchi turned to face his granny because she could not believe what she said.
“Nne,” as she fondly called her, “What did you say? That I poison my own son?”
At this, Chisimdi rushed out of the house through the door; he could not wait to have a taste of freedom.
Mama Nnukwu groaned, got up from her chair, picked up her plate, and said:
“That child only needs attention to live for the number of years ahead of him. Due to the demands of city life, it is obvious that he lacks both ways.”
Okwuchi’s mouth instantly ran dry of any intended utterance. She knew the truth was a bitter pill to swallow.
The loud pounding reverberated around the bungalow: everyone in the neighbourhood knew that Mama Nnukwu was preparing dinner, and soon, some would definitely make their way to her doorstep. It surprised Okwuchi the first time she saw the giant mortar and pestle which lay conspicuously by the corner of the large kitchen, and the big pot for soup or stew. Sooner that she thought, she got used to their neighbours making rounds at sun down to eat granny’s dinner. Also, some lads made it a point of duty to help out with the pounding, and in the end, they were always rewarded with a sizeable portion of the meal. Afterwards, the two women left the hot kitchen and made for the udara tress in order to get some fresh air while they supervised the cooking from afar.
“He would die if he leaves him.”
Okwuchi started to speak. They busily watched the kids play around the compound, Chismdi was among them. It was as though a dark shadow cast over Okwuchi’s face; she was the one who would be greatly pained if anything happened, granny thought.
“Tell me, what are you scared of?”
Mama Nnukwu asked; she seemed worried for one of the two most important people in her life. There were pains, and there were pains, too. She couldn’t imagine what they had gone through as a young couple.
Okwuchi looked beyond the hills as though she sought refuge beyond them. She cast her mind back to how happy they used to be as a couple, and how loveless their marriage had become since Chisimdi arrived.
“I can’t even bear his touch or his stare. I feel so cursed. I feel as though another go at it will make things worse. I feel bad and evil… Maybe I wasn’t the right person for him after all! Maybe we were never destined to be together. I have watched him suffer helplessly and have done absolutely nothing to help ease his pain.”
She felt a hand on her shoulder, and turned, it was granny, and with a reassuring smile, she said:
“Why don’t you have another go at it?”
“But what if…?”
Okwuchi trailed off…
“When I lost Ikem, I was pregnant with your husband. I nearly killed myself with grief. It was better to die, but who would I have left the kids with? My people sent for me, and I had to go home to a safe haven, and so many years later, I am here to tell the story. Remember, the tide must take its course.”
She patted Okwuchi on the back reassuringly. Both women within a short frame of time have turned to understand each other. They had no choice, and as Chijioke said, both had a common enemy.
The udara tree was planted the day Chijioke was born; it was in remembrance of his late father who shared the same birth date with his last son. After so many years, it became a place of refuge for pigeons which granny believed were her ancestors who came to keep her company after the loss of her husband. That morning, the pigeons arrived earlier than usual, and started their morning ritual with a display of their flight prowls; it was obviously their mating season and soon, some would spend the season without any mate by their side. All of a sudden, a loud outcry swept the birds off their feet and they all dispersed in different directions.
“Nne! O nabago! Mother! He is far gone!”
The outcry turned into a loud wail, and then a continuous sub.
“Chisimdi! Wake up! You promised to stay!”
A woman’s wailing voice was heard in the far distance; it reverberated round the hills, and clung to the whispering breeze, causing a fracture on the back of floating firmaments.
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