LITANY( A SHORT STORY)
I am the broom leaning against the wall; the ladle full of piping hot soup. I am the hands that launder, the sagging breast suckled by many children. I am the worn wrapper smelling of yesterday’s cooking. The eyes that tear as you peel onions. Mine is the skin etched with stretch marks.
But you know, in the eyes of your beloved, stretch marks are life’s beautiful etchings. But when one is unloved, the smell of the wrapper becomes his excuse.
It was the night he wedded his new bride; fresh and succulent like tomatoes from Jos.
“Twenty-five years of my life,” she said, emphasizing with her fingers, “twenty-five years of my life…have I lived them pleasing him and hoping he won’t get up and go. His eyes roved, I know. I was not the only one, this I know. But this blatant disregard, this dishonor for time and the loyalty it nurtured…” She blew her nose with the ear of her wrapper, ignoring the tears. “Twenty-five years of my sweat, my love, my, my, my moans, my tears, my dreams. Twenty-five years of sleep beside him, gone with the wind.”
I am the red dress lying on the bed after she has shed me in despair; the table set for two. The scented candles burning away slowly, the dimly lit room and the exotic cuisines gone cold. I am the red dress she wore for you. Red because that is the color of love, of passion. But you never showed up.
I am the clock she is glancing at time and time again, soliciting sympathy, just like a child showing off bicycle wounds. I wish I could stop to console her but a clock’s destiny is to tick. I am the phone she rushes to; hope deflates, like a punctured tire when the caller isn’t you. Night falls. Crickets and toads begin their out of tune orchestra. Adam, where art thou?
“I had found out about the clandestine affair long before I began hearing the whispering and gossips. Long before I confronted him and he hung his face in shame but before much lying and bluffing.”
She drank from her glass. We were in her living room which reeked of opulence.
“It was when he began preening for too long in front of the mirror, old as he was. When he began wearing a more expensive perfume. It was when he held me in the dead of the night but his heart was lounged far from his chest. It was when he wouldn't brush early because he knew there would not be any good morning kiss. That was when I knew something was amiss.”
You are the face full of welts from last night’s tussle. He has knocked out three different shades of daylight out of her. Hey, don’t think we do not know why your eyes look like they want to jump out of their sockets. We your neighbors are tired of prising you two apart. The sounds of your agony have become part of the nights’ quiet noises.
We look through our windows, see you headed to the market, shopping basket slung over your shoulder like Christ’s cross on his way to Golgotha. We look at you and are overwhelmed by that instinctive feeling of sympathy that makes ‘chai!’ escape our lips. With you, it is a holy command we obey: Regard prisoners as if you were in prison with them. Look on victims of abuse as if what happen to them happened to you.
But what does one do when the victim and prisoner is you? This is what we would say; detach yourself, your soul from your body, act like the blows and the kicks are raining on someone else and you are simply a voyeur to your own misery.
Where we come from, thoughts of suicide are as rare as hailstones. We know they exist but they rarely fall. So you can imagine the shock we experienced when she said she was going to kill herself, that she could not stand one more night’s tussle. We knew that pain was making her hallucinate. Oppression was crossing neurons haphazardly in her head. She wants to kill herself? Ha! But we knew that her hands would be too weak to sharpen the knife that would draw her blood. Where would she buy the rope that would hang her? We do not sell such things in our markets.
Nevertheless, we went over to her house and placed our hands on her heaving shoulders.
“If you die, they would just cry over you for a day, fix a date, and on that day come and eat rice, fufu, goat meat, all at once. Wipe your memory clean as they wipe their mouths. You want to give them that satisfaction, ehn? Let us remind you oh, if you are doing, the Yoruba woman downstairs that gave birth to triplets is having a naming ceremony for her tots, and we know how much you love the firewood flavor in ceremonial rice. Plus the fact that they are Yorubas. You want to miss that? Who will eat your share? Don’t give them that satisfaction, that time of day. If this does not kill you…”
Last year, before my cousin got married, her mother bought her this book, ‘DOMESTIC GODDESS; HOW TO KEEP HIM COMING HOME’.
‘I can’t get my head around this,” she said, flinging the book away.
‘What part?”Her mother asked.
“‘Wash and wash yourself, no whisper of feminine odor; never let the babies take his place for he might as well pitch his tent. Gym for fitness, let no one believe that new life came through from between you legs. Always spit and polish the house. Drench yourself with perfume always…”
“But it is as clear as day,” her mother replied.
She got married but the book did not arm her with the knowledge of what to do when he began frolicking with their obese neighbor. Working out at the gym had left her masculine and muscular. Does a straight man want another man in his bed? Tell me, does he? She drenches herself with perfume and he comes home wondering if he stumbled into a perfumery. Imagine coming home with your nostrils assailed beyond mercy.
But what in the world did he see in that woman, that BIG woman, we asked in amazement. Then one day I had my eureka moment. I was poring over her wedding pictures, wondering how something that was so sweet had become so rancid. Then it hit me. There in the pictures was one woman, big like two, three elephants. His mother. I understood his predilection.
Soon,Cousin came back one day, with her bags, shoes and certificates. She was not ‘doing’ again.
“You are not marrying again?” her folks asked, in the same vein you would ask a grown up dancing in the rain, are you beside yourself?
The next day, phone calls were made, promises were made, and never to be reneged. Appointments were fixed. She was bundled back. With apologies.
She is the worn leather purse hid under the mattress, bulging with savings, with denied gratifications. In the market, fine, fine things beckon and wink at her but she ignores them. It is her hand that reaches to the other side of the bed and feels its emptiness. His smell still lives in the pillow, on the bed. It still lives in the wardrobe. It is the smell her skin still feels a great nostalgia for. Her kids snore softly in the next room.
The sun still shines; the cock still crows; rain still falls to earth. The birds have not lost their songs; trees still sway to the sensuous music of the wind. Dogs still bark at phantoms at night. Fetus would become infant; infant, adult. The world has refused to come to an end.No matter what happens, who has left has. Life does not wait for you, does not pause for you to drink water and drop cup. She lays awake at night. She must move on….
You are a young city slicker. You are a creature of curiosity seeking significance in every man’s tiny gesture. Why are you so giddy? Because you have seen thirty harmattan seasons? Because you think dust is collecting on you? Mhnn.
You left your father’s house to spend Christmas in another man’s hometown. He had called you earlier, apologizing; he would not be coming back this time around. All flight tickets have been booked. You would have to go all by yourself to his hometown to introduce yourself to his mother.
Off you went. To see his mother and his relatives in his village. Welcome, put your bag there and come over to the kitchen. It is Christmas; extra hands are needed. Ehn, what’s that your name again, his mother would call. Your name hasn't registered in her memory. To her, you are just the daughter of a strange woman and she makes no airs about it. You are not the first stranger to spend Christmas with them. Their son considers it a way to compensate his mother for his persisting absence.
“Where is she?”his mother calls, “come and rekindle this fire for me. Then take the goats for a walk. Draw water from the well and don’t forget to get fodder from the bush. Did you hear?”
This is how you, our city slicker became a goat-herdess, with the smelly, seedy goats ogling you as they chew their cuds with their mouths opened sideways. See how mosquitoes have ravished your skin; your blood has the exotic taste of distant places to them.
There you were bent over, gathering fodder. A mad rabid dog comes behind you unsuspectingly, digs his teeth into your smooth buttocks. Aargh!!!!!
With pain coursing your entire being and your hands clutching the offending spot, you ran to his mother. Mama. Dog. Black. My buttocks.
“What?!” the woman screamed, stepping away from you like she just saw a snake curled round her leg. It was a village superstition that whomever a mad dog bit was an unwelcomed guest. But the woman was kind enough to take you to the medicine woman who gave you a green concoction made from the sap of different herbs and then scraped the wound with an old rust-coated razor blade.
On your way home, the older woman kept snapping her fingers over her head, muttering, "God forbid bad thing. That the child of a strange woman would die in my hands.” She turned to you:
“Nne, what is that your name again? Where did you even say you are from? Who are you?”
We guess it must have been this last question that made you pack your bags that evening and head straight to the motor park. Who are you? Are you not the one that just concluded her MBA exams last month? The one that puts her siblings through school, the one that foots her own bills? Ah ah! What’s a smart girl like you doing in a place like this? Hurry, please hurry out of this place.
I am the big belly she does not want. She grabs at me in the bathroom and amidst silent tears and cries, Begone! Out of me! But I keep growing. One moment they lay together in bed in unbridled passion. The next moment, a swollen stomach, result of the unbridled passion. Help me tell her that, grab me as much as she wants, I am bent on living.
It was love at first sight, a rather unhealthy release of pheromones. Only that this type flowed in one direction, not the equal mingling of the emotions of two people. Did we not warn her to never feel too close to Man, especially this type, until there is a ring on the finger and a priest before you and a bunch of gay witnesses. Of course we warned her, tugging at our earlobes. See what has happened to her now.
Where we grew up, if you found something growing on you inside, something kicking softly and there is no golden band adorning your finger, then you were in quite a mess. Girls here escape single motherhood through the gates of premature and often sad matrimony. It is almost like a sentence that destroys one’s destiny, that is if you let it. Here single motherhood is no tea party.
When she put to bed, her family and friends advised her. "Don’t let that child call you mummy. You are still a young girl. Don’t destroy your chances.”
Things got rough for her. With no money to fend for herself and her new baby, she straddled the baby to her back and went to fetch its father. He was at the construction site, puffing cigarettes, bellowing at laborers. She asked for whatever pittance he had for the baby, their baby.
“Do I owe you? Did you give me any money to keep for you?” He asked.
“But this is our child.”
“I owe you no farthing,” he puffed the cigarette. “I owe you nothing, shi-shi, not even a kobo with a hole drilled in it.”
“So what happens to our child?”
“'Our'? Go to hell!”
“Me? Nkem, me?”Her voice quivered. How fickle human love can be, she thought.
“Go to hell, get a plot, build a house on it and put a not for sale sign on it!” He turned his back and strode away.
And this is a bedtime story. Listen. There was a girl, very beautiful. Her beauty to the eye was like Vaseline to the lips on a harmattan morning. But many good things in life eluded her. Her family was poor and nonchalant. Her dreams were ten times her size but where was the environment to bring them to fruition?
Then there was this good man, a chemist at Onitsha Main Market. Very hard working, that man. He married her, to the relief of her folks; he loved her and lay with her. Nine months later and we began to hear the cries of a tiny one. But the child’s sonorous calls made the mother loathe her life some more. She wore a very long face, making uncomfortable those who trooped in to see the new arrival.
“Every little thing, she will just hiss and squeeze her face like shit. This has gone beyond baby blues.” The people complained.
While she cooked, bathed or when her baby suckled her, she would keep muttering to herself, This is not the type of life I bargained. This is not the life that I want. When he slobbered over her at night, writhing in untrammeled passion, she still muttered, This is not the type of life I want.
Yet he remained a kind man. In the morning he would say, here, take money for your hair and baby’s food. Here take money for your soap and body cream. Take money for this, money for that. He was a good man, but good was not enough. He bought rolls of Ankara in twos and on Sundays they would wear ‘to-match’ to church. Ah, Is this your wife? She is so gorgeous! Man, you have eyes for good thing!
To her, her life was a bland tragedy but tragedy did strike when in March 2007, NAFDAC stormed Onitsha Main Market. His shops did not survive. As the fire licked up the fake drugs, many intangible things were gutted; years of supposed hard work, relationships, family ties, things only a trader’s heart could understand.
The man and his bride mourned. But do not forget he was a hard worker; they did not remain in the rut so long.But they were not exactly the same. They ate rice so much because it was the only affordable meal. They ate rice so much till it began to taste like rubber in their mouth. When the meat in the stew wouldn't go round she would eat the meat while he would eat the bone.
And it was at this period when they were sentenced to rations of rice and stew that something entered her head, something like a fly, constantly buzzing. It kept her at the window, seeing things the optical eyes could not see.
One night she could not contain the buzzing. Like a rustler about to grab the fattest rooster in the pen, she opened the door s-t-e-a-l-t-h-i-l-y, her chest heavy and redolent with breast milk, milk her baby would be needing by morning. She walked into the welcoming darkness, with no fear in her eyes. She kept on walking.
Someone said they saw her in Sapele, haggling with the fish sellers. Another said she saw her in Lagos, having a nice time. Another Abuja, looking young again. A new city, a new home. But for how long would she hide. Three years later, a knock on her door. Madam, a letter for you.
Uche Omar. - ©May 2012
(First appeared in www.africanwriter.com)