The evening was dim with the sign of rain.
The distance to the big store where kerosene was sold at a good price was a long one.
With James gambolling along at the front, the blue, 1-gallon jerry can clutched firm to his belly, Amaka and Sammy strolled behind.
‘How has motherhood been?’ Sammy asked. ‘Are you enjoying yourself?’
Amaka smiled—sort of. ‘Being a mother is not something you do for fun.’
‘So what is it then? Why do people choose it?’
Amaka shot Sammy a look. ‘That’s a very strange question.’
Sammy kept staring.
‘Having a baby is a woman’s duty,’ Amaka said. ‘It is the reason for our big breasts, and divided private part.’
‘So you feel fulfilled being a mother? Are you happier?’
Amaka gave Sammy another type of look.
‘I need to know all these things, please,’ Sammy said, almost appearing apologetic. ‘Just tell me what you know. You are so young and already a mother and yet you seem so relaxed about the whole thing. Tell me what you know. I want to hear your story.’
Amaka smiled her kind of smile again. She kept her eyes straight and began: ‘When I discovered I was pregnant, I was devastated. I cried all night. I hated myself. I was covered in this sea of bitter emotions that threatened to drown me.’
‘Why?’ Sammy asked. She also wanted to ask her then why her English was so good – though she’d seen on the wood table in her room a great pile of old English novels [George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Achebe’s No Longer at Ease being the most conspicuous], magazines, a big, musty-smelling Oxford Dictionary with half the top gone and several other short books on relationship, marriage and sex.
‘Because I was young,’ Amaka answered. ‘I had just written JAMB the second time and had in fact passed very well, with better chances of getting my preferred course.’
‘Every night,’ Amaka continued, ‘I would look down at my belly and all I could see was a pause button.’
‘Yes. Like my entire life has just been put on hold.’
‘What then happened?’
‘When I told Phillip, he just smiled and asked me to stop teasing him. And when he finally realized I wasn’t, I saw him weaken. That really scared me.’
‘What then happened?’
Amaka licked the inside of her mouth before continuing: ‘I was lucky,’ she said. ‘He is an only child. His late father took it upon himself to arrange a fast marriage. Even before I started showing, we’d already wedded.’
‘You consider yourself lucky because you are married?’
‘Yes, I do. I do.’
‘So marriage and motherhood fulfils you?’
‘We are in a world that can never provide us with all we want. Not because it doesn’t want to, but because it doesn’t have it. It doesn’t have it for all of us.’
Sammy kept her eyes on the girl.
‘You see,’ Amaka continued, turning her eyes straight again, ‘what I did was stupid. Very stupid. And risky too. I do not deny it because it is a fact.’
She glanced at Sammy before continuing. ‘It is true that it is a woman’s job to have a baby, but you have to realize there is time for everything. Not every girl will be as lucky as I am to have the father of the baby even agree he is the person responsible. Not every girl will be as lucky as I am to have an understanding mother-in-law like mine. Even after our marriage, my own mother still never talked to me. She still never got over the shame.’ Amaka gave a slight shake of head. ‘Never will I wish it, even for my enemy, to experience such shame and sadness like I did.’
‘What about Phillip? How did he feel then?’
Amaka’s lips twisted, in a kind of smile. ‘He liked me, quite alright, but he wasn’t ready. We got married because there was nothing else we could do. And that’s the most risky part of the whole thing. Not every boy his age would have agreed, no matter the persuasion from his parents. Not every boy his age would still have remained gentle.’
‘Gentle?’ Sammy said, although she was more perplexed as to why she would refer to Phillip as boy. Even before her time as a student at the Department of Agricultural Economics at OAU, she’d known all along that any male who has become capable of getting a woman pregnant can no longer be called a boy!
Amaka flicked Sammy an incredulous look. ‘There are lots of men out there who vent their anger and frustration on their wives. He has all the strength to do so but has never.’
‘You love him, don’t you?’
‘I was still a virgin when we met and he didn’t rape me.’
Sammy was staring.
‘My pregnancy took away our choices,’ Amaka continued. ‘It changed us. That’s why I will always feel grateful that he stayed. What he did was truly noble.’
‘Why couldn’t you have aborted?’
‘I considered that. In fact I was really going to, but my elder sister blew the whole thing up as soon as I told her. Everybody heard and got involved. I really do not want to remember those days.’
‘What has changed now?’
‘Everything. When James finally came, I cried again, but not of sadness now. I saw in him the little reward for all the trouble and noise and shame I passed through.’
‘Can you have another baby now?’
‘Not sure; Phillip and I yet don’t have enough resources for more children.’
‘You think raising a child is easy?’
‘Yes,’ Amaka said, ‘but if I ever got pregnant again now, it won’t be like the first.’
‘What would have changed?’
‘I won’t be so scared. I won’t cry.’ She produced a faint smile. ‘I won’t start looking for clothes that would hide my bulging belly. I will carry the pregnancy with great pride. I can even do like all those women in fancy magazines that expose their big bellies and take pictures.’
Sammy smiled. With this story, she felt some gratitude that she hadn’t gotten pregnant ever. She might not have been that patient to carry a child all the way through. She might not have survived the entire process at all. But still, now, her curiosity about the issue continued to soar.
‘What about you?’ Amaka’s voice jolted her back to reality. ‘Have you ever gotten pregnant before?’
Sammy shook her head. ‘No. And I don’t think I ever will.’
‘Why? Are you barren?’
‘Oh no. I just don’t fancy the whole baby thing.’
‘That’s what you think.’
‘I can imagine what you feel. But I will tell you, once that little boy or girl drops out from your stretched vagina, your entire life— thoughts, emotions and all— will change. You will become a whole new individual.’
‘Tell me, how has motherhood changed you?’
‘I can’t explain it. The closest thing I can say is imagining yourself split into two, the baby part getting a bigger portion of you. You will discover a new kind of strength, and also a new kind of weakness. A new kind of patience, and then impatience. And most importantly a new kind of worry. And that’s why it is always a blessing if you have someone to share this worry with.’ She glanced at Sammy. ‘I mean a husband.’
Sammy nodded, though might not be entirely from agreement. ‘So by your book every woman needs a husband?’ she said.
Amaka smiled. ‘I don’t have a book, and who am I to say what every woman needs?’
Sammy looked amused now too. Her eyes didn’t yet leave Amaka.
‘All I’m saying,’ Amaka went on, ‘is that it is a good thing to have someone by your side as you go through the struggle of raising a child. But it’s still not something one can be entirely certain of though. After all, not every man with a long penis dangling between his thighs can be a husband and a father.’
‘You mean impotent men?’
A sudden surprised look fell on Amaka. ‘What, no! I mean men without father genes in them.’
Sammy turned away with a fading smile. She had seen mothers without mother genes too. Whatever such genes mean anyway; wherever this girl without any university education learned such a word from!
‘How old are you?’ she asked Amaka.
‘Yet you sound so old.’
Amaka grinned. ‘That’s one of the things motherhood does.’
A brief silence passed.
‘What if he never comes back?’ Sammy said.
Amaka pretended not to hear her.
‘I mean Phillip,’ Sammy repeated. ‘What if he never returned to you?’
‘He will,’ Amaka said. ‘I have what will bring him back.’
Amaka pointed at James at the front.
‘He left you for another woman, yet you still talk so nicely of him.’
‘I slapped him.’
‘Is that enough reason?’
‘No, but once a child is involved, you learn sacrifices too.’
‘Yes.’ Amaka released a sigh, her arms swaying. ‘And that’s my story. When are you going to tell me yours?’
‘I can start now if you want.’
Amaka smiled. ‘Alright. But first tell me about your relationship with Chibuzo.’
‘Your husband, oh.’
‘We are just friends.’
Before Amaka’s suspicious glance, Sammy added: ‘I know you think we’ve slept, don’t you?’
‘Why do you think I will think that?’
‘I don’t know, most wives think that way.’
Amaka looked amused.
‘Well, we never,’ Sammy said. ‘The only intimate thing I know about him is that he’s got a big one.’
‘He showed you?’
‘No! But he can be careless. Once, he was sitting on the bed and the big, black thing poked out from a side of his boxers. Since it was that big and still in the limp state, I just imagined—’
A low rumble came from the sky, interrupting the two gossiping women.
James swung back, shouting and pointing up, ‘Mummy, rain!’
At the shop where they ran into, seeking shelter from the rain, a little incident occurred.
A woman, tall, middle-aged, furious-looking and almost wet, stormed into the place.
‘Get up from there and go home!’ she screamed at a man at one of the tables.
‘Am I not talking to you? Get up and let’s go!’ She held the man to draw him up.
‘Don’t touch me!’ the man growled. ‘Did I come here with you?’
The woman still drew him up from the chair and pushed him into the rain.
‘Make sure you pay them o,’ the man mumbled, pointing a spindly finger. He appeared to be enjoying the touch of the rain as he began staggering down the road.
Sammy and Amaka watched.
The woman paid for the beer, and as she was leaving, she just halted and turned back, like someone who had forgotten something.
She carried the bottle of beer on the table where her husband once sat, poured the remaining content into the glass cup and downed it down.
The rich aroma of Chinelo’s bitter leaf soup filled the air, nearly choking it.
Beside the kitchen shed, Amaka battled to get the fufu in the mortar soft and smooth.
Sammy sat aside on a stool, watching.
Night birds sang from the trees at the back. The waxing moon cast dim marks of white all over the compound.
This might not be the America she had always dreamed of, but Sammy found a new kind of peace in this serene environment. And just like what America might have been like, she was learning new things from these people too. Most importantly she was free, and for once in her life, things seemed slow.
Like she would age a lot more slowly if she remained here. And time does not seem to mean a lot, all her failures no longer spelt out to her every single minute.
Sammy was discovering a new sense of self.
Slowly she was beginning to understand that happiness might not be so conditions-dependent after all. That it is much more than all she previously thought it were…
She looked down—James had fallen asleep on her, his head resting on one of her thighs, the fine hairs on his cheek tickling her knee.
Glimpsing the sleeping boy, Chinelo called Amaka. ‘Nwamaka, drop that thing and carry him inside,’ Chinelo said. ‘When the food is done, you can now wake him up.’
‘She should wake him now,’ Amaka objected. ‘If he keeps sleeping now, he will remain awake all night.’
‘Go and carry the boy inside,’ Chinelo said. ‘He is free to sleep or remain awake anytime he likes.’
Amaka dropped the pestle. Reaching to carry James from Sammy, Sammy asked her: ‘What do you want to do?’
‘I want to carry him inside.’
‘Let me carry him myself,’ Sammy offered, gently lifting the boy.
When Sammy came out again, now free of James, Uzoma was with them at the kitchen area now.
Uzoma glanced at her again and then turned back to Chinelo with a suspecting look. ‘Amamia? Do I know her?’ she said.
‘No,’ Chinelo answered. ‘She is Chibuzo’s friend in Lagos.’
‘Oh,’ Uzoma said. ‘Kwamkwulu kitaa na odi ka fa. I said it now that she looks like them.’
Sammy was staring at Uzoma.
‘Nne, Lagos emekwalunu ayaa?’ Uzoma asked her. ‘How is Lagos?’
Sammy said nothing.
‘She asked — “How is Lagos?”’ Amaka said.
Sammy smiled now. ‘Lagos is fine, Mama.’
‘And your people?’ Uzoma said.
‘She is asking about your people,’ Amaka explained.
‘Oh, they are not in Lagos, Mama,’ Sammy answered. ‘I am not from Lagos.’
Uzoma looked at Amaka with a funny frown. ‘Oshi nni?’
‘She said she only lives in Lagos,’ Amaka explained, ‘that she is not from there.’
‘Oh.’ Uzoma’s face straightened out. Turning back to Sammy, she blundered, ‘Where is you from come goo-goo?’
‘Osun State,’ Sammy answered.
‘Oshu?’ Uzoma turned to Chinelo with her frown again. ‘O si oshu? Oshu, o nke eji ete ofe?’
Amaka started to laugh, Sammy smiling awkwardly.
‘Osun is the state where she was born,’ Amaka explained.
‘Ohoo,’ Uzoma said. Turning back to Sammy: ‘Nne, nnoo.’
Sammy nodded again.
Chinelo stood to go and bring her what she’d come for.
‘Erm, in that your place, do they have cocoyam?’ Uzoma asked Sammy.
‘Yes, we have cocoa.’
Uzoma’s frown returned. ‘Cocoa mji eme gini? I said cocoyam.’
Sammy turned to Amaka, waiting for her to explain.
‘They don’t have,’ Amaka said to Uzoma.
Chinelo came out then and handed Uzoma a crumb of trona. ‘Hope it will be enough?’
Uzoma nodded, collecting the hard piece. ‘Nwa obele abacha m choro igwo.’
Before leaving, she looked at Sammy again and then murmured to herself: ‘A place without cocoyam, how do they survive?’
After dinner, Sammy washed her hands and thanked her host.
Amaka was packing away the plates when she said to her, ‘I’ll be right back, let me catch some air outside.’
‘Where are you going?’ Amaka asked her.
‘Outside the gate, I will be back shortly.’
‘It’s dark, do not go far.’
‘Do you need a torch?’
‘No, my phone has one.’ She looked up. ‘The moon is quite bright too.’
She kept smelling her fingers as she strolled away.
She liked the soup, with all the many lumps of fish and meat Chinelo had used, but not so much this after-smell on her fingers. Just like she disliked her grandmother always preparing efo with a cupful of iru.
She was turning to head back to the house when she heard footsteps and turned back.
She waited till Ejike approached further and then said ‘Hi.’
‘Who are you?’ Ejike said, halting.
Sammy recognized his voice. ‘I am your cousin’s friend.’
‘What are you doing outside?’
‘Came out for some air. Where are you coming back from?’
Ejike gave her a look. ‘Went to a friend’s.’
‘My name is Samantha, I know your name already.’
‘What is my name?’
Ejike looked at her face again. ‘Good night.’ He started away.
Ejike halted and turned.
‘Are you married?’ Sammy asked him.
‘Why are you asking?’
‘Well, your cousin is, and I heard you two are almost the same age.’
‘I am not married,’ Ejike said. ‘And Chibuzo and I are not mates. I am three years older than him.’
‘Oh okay. So do you have a girlfriend?’
‘I used to.’
Ejike took a step closer to her. ‘Tell me why you are interested to know.’ A new depth came into his voice now.
Ejike took another step closer. Sammy did not move back.
Another step, and yet Sammy didn’t move.
‘Why are you here? Why have you come?’
Sammy said nothing. She had not enough space to say anything now.
Ejike held her, at the arms. ‘What did you say your name is again?’
Sammy released a slow breath. ‘I do not say my name to a man twice.’
She twisted out of Ejike’s grip. ‘Good night.’ She turned, starting to walk away.
Ejike reached and drew her back. Folding her together, he planted a kiss on her lips. ‘Sleep on that tonight,’ he said, ‘and if by tomorrow you decide you want some more, meet me here again.’ He glanced up at the moon. ‘At this exact time.’ He turned into the adjacent path through the side of the wall, the small track that led into their own compound.
Sammy licked her lips, nearly smiling.
Ejike entered their sitting room to meet his father. ‘You called me,’ he muttered.
‘Sit down,’ Onyemaechi said to him.
Ejike sat on one of the back chairs.
‘How much did you say you need?’
‘I don’t have that amount.’
‘Sell another land then.’
‘Which land will I sell?’
Ejike was quiet.
‘The five hundred thousand that was given to you last year what did you do with it?’ Onyemaechi asked him.
‘It is finished.’
‘What of the business you started?’
‘Which business? Did I not tell you that that amount is not enough for anything?’
Onyemaechi stared at his son. ‘Well, I don’t have any one million to give to you.’
‘Sell another land!’
‘Tell me which one.’
Ejike said nothing, Onyemaechi staring. ‘Talk!’
Ejike stood. ‘Papa, I don’t know, sell any one you like! Go and meet that your friend that usually finds the buyers. He will tell you the one that will fetch a good amount.’ At the door, he halted and turned back. ‘And better be fast about it; I don’t have time.’ He disappeared through the door.
The next morning, at the back of their house, Onyemaechi called his wife and gave her something to give to her son. A tiny bottle with a rubber stopper that contained a brown liquid.
‘Again?’ Uzoma said, looking slow. ‘Papa Ejike, again?’
‘We don’t have a choice,’ Onyemaechi said.
Uzoma steadied her eyes on her husband.
‘He is not the one,’ Onyemaechi said. ‘He has no crown for us.’
‘How do you know that?’ Uzoma said. ‘He is still a boy. He still has time.’
‘He has nothing to offer us. He has no crown to confer on us. We don’t have a choice. We have to do this now before he exposes and disgraces us.’
Uzoma shook her head. ‘There is still time for him.’
‘He may have all the time in the world, but how much time do we ourselves have?’
Uzoma continued to stare at her husband.
‘Take,’ Onyemaechi said, extending the bottle again.
Uzoma made no attempt to collect the bottle. ‘Tell me why, Papa Ejike,’ she said. ‘Tell me why we need to do this.’
Onyemaechi heaved a sigh. ‘Listen, when that boy was born, all I ever wanted was for him to be like me. To carry on my legacy. But right now, even as I am discovering that my prayers are being answered, that thought has changed. He has no crown for us. He will suck us dry and dead, and then destroy his brother’s chances too.’
Uzoma’s eyes remained on her husband.
‘I am not a man a son should emulate, I know. I am not someone somebody should look up to, you don’t need to say it.’ He extended the bottle to Uzoma again. ‘Take this from me. Take it and save your other son before it is too late. Take.’
Uzoma shook her head.
‘Take it, woman, we don’t have a choice!’
Uzoma finally collected the bottle from him. She tied it in one end of her wrapper and walked slowly away.
But in her mind, she knew that even though her husband might not have a choice, that she herself does…