By Ejikem Mazpa
“. . . Suffering is one very long moment. We cannot divide it by seasons. We can only record its moods, and chronicle their return.”
Oscar Wilde, De Profundis
If your husband, Uzoechina, wakes up right now and walks into the sitting room, he will find your naked body standing in warm sunlight — a slice of dawn that cuts through the curtains and leaves your skin gleaming brown. He will see that your arms are wrapped around your breasts as though you are cold, your gaze fixed at nothing. But what he will not know is that now, you feel a bit lighter, a bit freer, a bit readier to move out of this apartment, because yesterday, while he was out for some beer, you assembled everything that belonged to your son and you set them on fire. You rummaged through the closets and cupboards, your nose leaking mucus, your eyes heavy with tears, gathering the things that smelled of him and dumped them before the low, mossed fence at the backyard. Then you emptied a bottle of kerosene into the heap and threw a lit matchstick into it. You hoped he would not catch you stoking the fire, watching the flames lick through your son’s knickers and napkins and stockings, listening as it crackled while chewing on his feeding bottles and hair combs; as you witnessed the transformation into soft ash and goo. Now, standing there in the nude, unaware of the chattering of voices outside, the barking dogs in the distance, the occasional zoom of dashing motorcycles, you are lost in the awareness of your son’s presence, your caramel-skinned, wide- eyed, sparkling son, because even as you have burnt everything that was his and hurled the ash into a nearby thicket, you can still smell him through the brisk cold air of the harmattan, all of him. And you turn to the TV on which a dusty photograph of him still sits. You take him into your hands, in that wood-framed grayscale picture of him smiling and showing two white teeth in front. You rub your thumb over the glass, wiping off the thin layer of dirt that it has gathered over time, then you call him by his name: Ifeakandu, and you think you saw him blink.
Yesterday, over breakfast of sizzling akamu and akara, Uzoechina told you that he’d found a nice place in Umuojima Town and that he’d like you both to move out of this house. But you’d come to love this place; you loved how it rested on the far end of the long street away from all the city noise so that a peaceful quiet always prevailed; how it was the first place you’d been together as a couple, the first place you’d welcomed Ifeakandu. So, surprised, you asked, ‘why? Why are we moving?’ And Uzoechina, reaching for your hand, said that this house was not allowing you heal, that it was important for you both to relocate, to start afresh. But you shook your head in refusal, ‘I don’t want to go anywhere,’ you said, ‘I don’t want to start afresh, biko’.
‘Why?’ Uzoechina asked, puzzled, squeezing your hand gently in his, ‘why do you want to stay here and keep feeling terrible? See, you haven’t gone to work for over a year now; you haven’t taken care of yourself. Look at you, Onyi, how long more will you grieve him?’
‘For as long as he wants me to!’ you cut in. ‘I cannot…’ you sobbed. And he stood from where he sat and put his arm round you, pressing your head against his belly, telling you that it would be okay, that if you moved you’d feel better. Then you looked up at him, unsure of how to explain to him that your son is still here in this house and you still hear him giggle from time to time. You wondered if he did not perceive all his scents the way you did. The other day, you’d forgotten about the porridge cooking on the stove because you’d been carried away at the veranda, listening as your son gurgled, bubbles rippling from his mouth, only realizing that he was not really there when the thick smoke filled the house and sent you into a frenzy of cough. Many nights you’d wake up, climb out of bed only to sniff your son here and there, a reminder that he still lingers in imperceptible cracks in the walls, looking at you, reaching for you.
Uzoechina would call you crazy, you thought, so you remained silent, soaking his shirt in tears while he stroked your hair. And right there, you swore to get rid of everything that was once Ifeakandu’s, to burn them all, so that if you must go, if you must turn your back on this house where he was torn away from you, you will not carry the guilt of leaving him behind, not even a whiff of him.
Now, you stand with your son’s photograph against your chest, close to your heart, when you decide to clean this house thoroughly; since the burning would not purge this house of every smell, you will wash his scents off the floors, the surfaces, the walls, everything. So you gather yourself together, throw a wrapper around your body and march over to Ma Petu’s shop which is just across from your house. There, Ma Petu is dressed in a gown garnished with many faces of The Blessed Iwene Tansi, a white handkerchief tied around her nostrils. She is in high spirits, dusting the shelves and singing a song about her enemies burning in hell.
‘Ma Petu good morning o!’ you greet and she turns to look at you, ‘Onyinye isala chi, kedu?’ You tell her you are fine in between sneezes – the air is heavy with dust. She apologizes, looks at your face intently and asks why your eyes are swollen, if Uzoechina did not allow you sleep. She laughs, and you force your lips into a smile, a courteous gesture, and lie that it was the mosquitoes that kept you up all night. And Ma Petu drops her duster, dramatically, like one who was just informed of a near-death experience, and recommends an insecticide. ‘This one is very good’ she says, reaching across the refrigerator for a canister of Raid, ‘that is what I use now; o na egbu fa pieces!’ You take it from her, squint at the price tag that reads N450, and hand it back to her with the promise that you will come back for it.
‘Odimma nwanyi oma. Ngwanu what do you want to buy?’ she asks.
‘Do you have Omo, the small one?’
‘Yes.’ She replies, moving to the other end of the large cupboard. ‘How many do you want?’
You lift two fingers in the air, ‘I want two, how much?’ ‘Hundred’ she said.
But you do not have enough money so you hand her a wrinkled fifty-naira note and tell he you would pay the remainder tomorrow. Ma Petu reminds you that credit sales this early would spoil the day’s market, but she obliges anyway and hands you the plastic bag because ‘you know you are my special customer’. You give her another forced smile, turn around and walk away while she continues to sing and smack the surfaces.
The day your son died, you did not cry. It was just before his first birthday. Just when you had begun to get used to the pitter-patter of little feet around the house. It did not make any sense. The night before, he’d been as strong as an ox. You’d fed him mashed potatoes and milk. There were no signs, no fever, no fast breathing, no nothing. So when you went over to his cot that morning to find his body as stiff as a rock, stretched hard by the frightening absence of life, you stood shocked for a long moment, mouth agape, refusing to believe that your Ifeakandu was dead. With trembling hands, you scooped him into your arms and watched closely for chest movements or a twitch of muscle or a flicker of eyelids; something to tell you that you were dreaming, but there was nothing. And you suddenly felt a warmth rush through your body, a heaviness settling in your chest, your heart beating in your belly. You placed him back in his cot with a gentleness of a mother putting a sleeping child to bed, picked up your phone and called Uzoechina who had been away for a job in Umuahia. First it wasn’t reachable; you wanted to wring the life out of the female voice that told you so. Then you dialed again and his voice came on.
You were silent, undecided on how you’d say it to him. You part your lips and then put them back together. Silence.
‘Onyi? Are you there?’ he inquired. ‘Yes’
‘He is no longer breathing, Uzoechina’. You said, your voice taut like the body of your son.
‘What?’ Uzoechina asked, ‘What are you talking about, Onyi?’ You could feel worry and pressure collide in his voice. You did not say anything. ‘I don’t understand you, kedu ife I n’ekwu? Who is no longer breathing?’
‘Ifeakandu’ you said, holding back the tears that welled up the back of your eyes. ‘Ifeakandu. His chest is not moving. Come home.’
And you hung up and sank into nothingness. He called back, you didn’t pick. He called again, you killed it. You stood there over your son, your sweet, sweet son and you wanted to scream the world to destruction, but when you opened your mouth no sound came forth. And still, you did not cry, you did not throw your arms this way and that way, you did not crumple into the ground as you’d seen other women do. Your wrapper was still tied around your breasts, your hair was still intact, shawled under an old cloth. In that instant, it seemed like the world had stopped moving and you had to stop with it.
Four hours later, Uzoechina was home, and before nightfall, family and close friends were informed and every foot that heard marched towards your house. With arms clasped behind their backs, bowed heads and drooping shoulders, they dropped their condolences at your feet, telling you to take heart, that God knows best, that everything good will come again. And one of the men, a distant uncle of Uzoechina’s whom you’d never met before that day held you tenderly and whispered with the well-meaning tone of an elder, ‘it is only a child, our wife, you will have another one in not time, inugo?’ And when you heard these words, your first instinct was to slap him hard across his wrinkled face until his nose bled. How dare he call your Ifeakandu ‘only a child’? Did he not know that every child is special to its mother?
And through these moments, even as you wondered how you were going to fill the space that formed in your chest, the space that Ifeakandu’s laughter once occupied, you did not cry, you refused to cry, because onye kwe, chi ya ekwe, and you refused to believe that your son was dead. You think back to the seven long years of your marriage to Uzoechina, every single day of which you’d waited for a child. Every time your husband planted a seed in you, you’d felt a baby form, but they never stayed. They would fizzle out in weeks and your happiness would disappear in a gush of darkened blood. But your Ifeakandu was different. It was he who chose to stay, to be born and be cradled in the crook of your arms; to look up at your face and smile. And so you realize that it is impossible to fill that space left by loss; you realize that it only gets wider and wider until it swallows you like a hungry river.
When you return from Ma Petu’s, you choose to begin at the beginning. It is easier that way; to start first at the origin of a road and then follow through till the end. To flow like a river charting its course, retracing your steps so you could figure out where it all went wrong. So you start by cleaning the empty floor in front of the TV stand; it is where Ifeakandu was conceived. Right there on that wide patch of faded terrazzo on a slightly boring Saturday afternoon when the sky was a crisp uncluttered sheet of blue and most people hid behind closed doors. That day, you were alone when the knock came. It could have been Uzoechina as he’d left that morning for an engagement in a the neigbouring town, but when you opened the door, you were greeted by a dark-skinned clean-shaven unfamiliar man. He was dressed in a loose auburn kaftan and had a steak-coloured cross-body leather bag slung lazily over his shoulder. You told him to return tomorrow because your husband was not around, but he told you he did not come to see your husband, that he was Bro. Johnpaul of the Jehovah’s Witness and that he’d brought the word of God with him and would love to share with you. He’d said this like the word in question were a piece of cake too large to be consumed alone. You were not interested; you never have been.
But when you’ve been married for seven years without a child, you learn to try things you ordinarily wouldn’t, because who knows what part of the scripture might open your womb and make it a conducive nidus for a growing baby? So you stepped aside and watched him walk gingerly to take a seat, and as soon as you sat across from him, he handed you a copy of the Watchtower magazine. It read: Why Must We Have Faith? You listened as he preached, a liveliness growing in his voice, a touch of certitude and clarity. And for a fleeting moment, you thought he was attractive — athletic, much taller than Uzoechina, a lot more masculine. And so you paid no attention when he said, ‘please sister, could you read from the book of Hebrews, chapter eleven verse one to three?’ offering you his bible. And you were startled. ‘What?’ you’d asked, not sure of what you were meant to do. But he stood up and came over to the sofa where you sat, flipped open the book and said, ‘here’ his index finger pointing at a corner of the page, ‘Hebrews eleven one…’
You do not remember how you moved from sharing the word of God to sharing your bodies, but it was he who first turned to you, leaned forward and brushed his lips against yours. You were too stunned to move. Then, as though taking your silence as consent, he held your face and kissed you deeply. His breath was clean, his lips tasteless, and you kissed him back. Then he cupped your breast in one hand, and let the other wander lazily towards your thighs, attempting to prod in-between, but you pulled away from him and asked him to stop. To pack his things and leave the house. But before you could repeat yourself he had thrown you to the ground. And on your back, you kicked and fought, but you were overcome by his strength, a hand firmly pinning your hands against the floor, another covering your mouth, until he was lodged between your legs, thrusting away like an animal.
When he’d emptied himself inside you, he quickly rolled off your body, pulled up his pair of trousers, wiped the sweat off his face with your clothes and gathered his books into his bag. You watched as he walked towards the door, cursing under your breath until he disappeared into the street. And now, you remember how you felt so dirty, so disgusted, and you began to cry.
‘Onyi, what are you doing?’ Uzoechina asks, walking into the sitting room and standing over you like a tower. ‘What is wrong with you?’
And as though he is not there you, you wipe your tears with the back of your hand and continue to wash the floor, not looking at him, not speaking to him, just scrubbing. With each stroke of brush against the floor, you feel an intense wave of guilt strike you like a blow. You think it was all your fault. After all, you’d let that man into your house, you’d listened to him, you’d allowed him mount you like a dog on heat and you didn’t fight him well enough. And you think, also, that you should have tried a little harder to get rid of the thing that grew inside you once you missed your monthly flow, maybe visited Mama Kaswa the famous abortionist rather than depend on burying your perineum in a bowl of warm water. And most of all you should have told Uzoechina the truth.
You start to weep, silently. And Uzoechina comes to kneel beside you, rocking you gently and you feel the tension start to come loose. You turn to look at him, to his long face and bold forehead; his thin lips and dreamy eyes; and you think he looks like a grown Ifeakandu. You bury your head in the crook of his neck and let the tears break free.
Uzoechina pats your back and says ‘it is well’, that ‘our son will come back to us, one way or another’. But suddenly, as though stung by a wasp, you pull away from him, steady your hands on the bucket and say, ‘he is not your son, Uzo’. You say this slowly, expecting a reaction. An outburst of rage. A ferocity, whatever. But his face is as blank as Ifeakandu’s the day he died. Maybe he doesn’t understand so you blow your nose into the bucket of water and your voice croaks again, ‘Ifeakandu. Is. Not. Your. Son…’ and before you could tell him of the preacher with a bible and the rape on the floor on which you now kneel, Uzoechina reaches out for you and holds you to himself, tighter than ever before and you feel small. Then he whispers with a wet, nasal tone, ‘I know, Onyi, I know.’
You have learnt that humans can never be fully known. In this world and in many worlds to come, you could never have imagined that your Uzoechina, the man whom you’d loved and respected could send a stranger to violate your body, his wife’s body. And when he tells you this, when he says it was out of a desperation to make you happy because he’d seen how badly you wanted a child (like he didn’t want one too); how many prayers you left at the Sacrament every Sunday; the herbal concoctions you’d drunk to tighten your cervix; you are livid. You cannot believe your ears. He even adds that the man wasn’t meant to rape you; that he just had to get you to sleep with him; that he is very sorry. And you turn to him in disbelief, spit a large plop of saliva in his face, and watch in utter disappointment as he walks out of the house.
And, as though nothing has just happened, you move to the bedroom to continue your work, to clean and scrub, to wipe off every trace of Ifeakandu. You do it until Uzoechina staggers through the door, the evening wind carrying after him the smell of alcohol and tobacco smoke. And yet through the pungent odour you can still perceive your son. All his scents: the palm-kernel oil you smeared into his curly hair; the lotion you put on his supple skin, the talcum you showered over his back after every bath; the soft smell of baby soap; the poo that sits in his napkin. Everything has come back to you and your stomach tightens in a knot of sadness. You watch your husband fall to the bed and sleeps off immediately. You rip off the wrapper from your body so that you are naked again. You start to fold the cloth into a baby, your baby. You fold, and look, and it is not quite him. So you unfold it and start all over again. And it is still not your Ifeakandu. But you keep trying, through the darkness that falls across the room, through the sounds of chirping crickets in the grass outside, through the golden yellow of the moon that casts shadows upon the walls. You do not stop until you are holding your son in your arms, softly rocking him and waiting for him to fall asleep.
1ST PRIZE – ALITFEST21 PRIZE FOR SHORT STORIES
Mazpa Ejikem is a physician and writer who survives in Nigeria and has received several accolades for fiction and poetry. When Mazpa isn’t writing or ‘doctoring’ he is talking and laughing and loving, and enjoying good, good conversations. He describes himself as ‘unapologetically content’ and ‘willfully childish’ and believes everyone should aspire only to true happiness.