By Marycynthia Chinwe Okafor
The airport in Asaba was more colourful and less crowded than the one you left more than twelve hours ago. Undertones of thick Hausa and boisterous Yoruba could be heard over the prime notes of the airport's automated voice, and it was a welcomed relief to you. But best of all, you could hear the intimate sound of home in the quiet Igbo that rolled out the tongue of most returnees and their families and friends as they embraced.
Smiling widely as embraces turned into long hard squeezes, you turned in a circle and breathed in home. Your smile exploded into a loud laugh when beefy arms snatched you from behind and lifted you off your feet moments before hands grabbed at you and other arms engulfed you.
They laughed with you and spoke over each other an exciting symphony. "Nnoo, welcome. Kedu? How was your trip? Did you ever see snow?" And you tried to answer every one of their questions as cheerfully as they had asked.
The drive—in the bus your family had come to pick you up in—from Asaba to Onitsha was short but not short of excitement. They had since stopped asking questions and were catching you up on recent happenings, ones they had told you about in their steady email to you:
Nnachie's first daughter had gotten pregnant and when she was due, her parents had taken her away only for them to return a week later claiming the child was dead, but everybody knew they had sold him to a wealthy man and his wife; Amaechi had married a third wife who was yet to give him his desired male child, and maybe Ana was punishing him for spilling his brother's blood; Andrew had lost his job in the bank and now lived in the village still looking down his nose at everyone else; Omalicha was dead, and she had died confessing how she took away the destinies of her husband's children, hence the reason they were all useless.
"How's Mama?" You asked of your grandmother before Dozie, your cousin, could launch into another of his stories. You felt guilty for not noticing her absence until Dozie mentioned Omalicha, Mama's childhood friend.
"She's fine. She couldn't make the trip, but she's waiting for you."
And she was waiting for you. She was standing outside, leaning heavily on her walking stick, her favourite chair—the one you presumed she had been sitting on—behind her. You went to her, the biggest smile you had given since the airport on your face. And it was when she wrapped her bony arms around you that you felt you were home. You breathed her in, and in her scent, you smelt the scent of your childhood, youth, and adulthood. She was—had always been—everything home.
When she finally released you, she said, "Nnoo, Adam. Come inside. Today, we'll rejoice with family. Tomorrow, we celebrate with friends."
The celebration came in the form of a welcome home party that seemed more like a traditional wedding party. Mama had had a uniform—an Ankara material—sewn for everybody in your extended family. A different Ankara material with a very long trail was made for you, and because Mama had commissioned it herself, you indulged her. And because you had started indulging her, you let her talk you into putting a safety pin in your braided hair to prevent the pins enemies would throw from penetrating your body.
She sat in her favourite chair, and like a woman receiving suitors for her daughter, she welcomed friends. Friends who had come because of her, the powerful matriarch, and friends who had come because they truly were friends of the family. As many times as she shook hands, she said, "This is my daughter. She's been away in China, where she's part of a team of doctors working on a research topic in Andromeda Research Facility. She's the first-ever in the whole of our hometown to achieve this."
They looked at you and shook your hand with such undisguised awe, and you felt like you could jump off a cliff and fly to the stars; and perhaps, shine more brightly than them. That feeling of euphoria remained in you and the festal spirit in your home—even after you had returned to Enugu—until Mama became ill.
It was on a Sunday—a little over two weeks after your welcome home party. You had just returned from Mass when Mama, who was eating breakfast at the table, broke into a fit of hard coughs. You thought the tea she was drinking had gone down through the wrong way, and you pounded on her back until she thrust forward and vomited.
That night, she developed a fever, so scathing hot your mother claimed she could boil water on Mama's skin. Perhaps because you had never practiced or because she was Mama and never was ever seriously sick—you would never know—you took a cursory glance at her, noted the symptoms, and quoted, "You have malaria, Mama."
"My doctor," Mama moaned to you, "I'm so weak. But I never get sick."
"All those angry and hungry mosquitos in the village is enough to give you malaria. Maybe you have little typhoid too. I wouldn't know until I have you tested."
But Mama wouldn't go to the hospital; she wasn't going to allow a needle to be thrust into her, so you treated her at home. You gave her Chloroquine, Panadol tablets, and mineral capsules but her illness seemed to worsen. And on the third day, there were traces of blood in her vomit, and your mother cried while she fed Mama palm oil pressed from ojukwu palm fruits.
"It's that party she insisted on. Now they have put poison in her food. Any poison ingested is bad. I must go and buy a lot of bitter kola for her to eat so the poison would flush from her system." Your mother was agitated, and it was infective.
Yet, Mama still refused to go to the hospital but she allowed you to draw her blood. Without the test, you could think of many other things that could be wrong with her. On the day the Nimble Hospital's courier was supposed to deliver the test results, you opened the living room doors to special cloth-clad people. They looked like people dressed to go to the moon, only they didn't walk funny, they walked with purposeful strides.
"Adaobi Ezeugo?" One asked.
"Who's asking?" Weary, you asked before you could think.
A flurry of activities followed your question before they strode into your house, spraying unpleasant-smelling liquid from giant cans most of them had on their backs. You knew who they were by their attire yet, you stood by the door gaping until a call came from a part of the house you were very familiar with. You hurried to Mama's room. The stranger who had asked for you by name was kneeling beside her bed holding her hand, his white clothing in agreement with the white theme of the room. When you entered, he asked, "Is this Akwanwa Ezeugo's residence?"
You wondered how he knew Mama, but then, everybody knew Mama. You answered, "His son's."
"I'm sorry," he referred to Mama, "but we'll have to shut the house down and quarantine all of you. Is this everybody in residence?"
You understood then and cursed yourself for not understanding at first despite the symptoms. The fever, blood in vomit, and weakness were enough to tell you Mama had Akram virus, the same virus being researched in Andromeda Research Facility. Unknowingly, you had brought home a virus that would take your grandmother away from you. And many other people; people you loved and people who were strangers to you. Akram virus spread easily through contact with bodily fluids, your sweat was enough to transmit it. In only a minute after realization struck, in your mind, you tried to retrace your steps, the airport, the plane, your party, your parish. You remember every member of your family, the embraces—the loving gesture—you had used to send them to very early and very painful graves. Soon—mostly in under two days—they would become symptomatic like Mama.
You looked at your mother who stood at the door looking very scared and you wanted to go to her, wrap your arms around her, but you didn't because you couldn't forget, wouldn't forget your first embrace to her at the airport might be the reason she would die too soon. Though your father and brothers lived in the house too, you replied, "Yes, this is everybody in residence."
In the big tent where they had confined and separated you from Mama and your mother, you paced the room where you were set and wondered how the both of them were faring. You wondered too why you were a carrier as there had never been any recorded human carrier of the virus—wondering and having no answers made you restless. Finally, you whirled, marched to the blue curtains separating your room from the next and came face to face with the stranger who had asked for you by name.
He was a police doctor, the most polite and kind you had ever known. You had come to learn his name was Chidozie, Dozie for short, like your cousin who had been the first to lift you off your feet at the airport and who was now in Lekki Quarantine Centre with his family.
"I need to see my grandmother and my mother." You let him see the anger in your eyes, the stark bitterness of it, and you let it coat your words. But he seemed not to notice or chose not to.
"Please, sit awhile. I have a few questions for you." He spoke to you as he would to an insolent child and the tone grated on your nerves. You didn't sit. You opened your mouth to instruct him again to take you to your mother and grandmother when he said, "We've found the rest of your family."
You sat then. You didn't mistake the rest of your family for any others but your father and brothers. You refused to look at him when you asked, "How did you find them?"
"The police had all the houses your family have watched day and night. They were easy to find. We saw the text you sent to your father." He let it sit before he asked, "Why did you tell them to run?"
You looked at him as if he had asked if, as a child, you had a pet viper with its poison sac intact for a birthday gift. You curbed the urge to ask him if he wouldn't have done the same thing in your shoes. Would he have allowed any member of his family to be put in a place like this with all the stink and chill and mosquitos that could kill you long before your illness could? Had your family not been found out, they would have had each other for company, to lean on before death came.
"You took an oath. When you told them to run, you broke that oath, and you put the safety of the entire public at risk."
"They wouldn't have done that. They would have isolated when they saw the news." You fell silent for a while and then added, "They would have suffered either way but they would have had each other."
"Still," he said.
You both sat in companionable silence until a thought that had eluded you occurred to you. "How did you find me?"
"When it became obvious to the Chinese government that some lab workers had been exposed to the virus, they contacted the governments of all who worked in Andromeda. They sent us your file."
"You know then?"
He nodded. "Only a few persons know how limited your involvement was." You nodded back. You didn't talk but you let him see the gratitude in your eyes. "Tell me about Akram. Everything you know." When you hesitated, he added. "You have nothing to lose now."
A lot of what you told him was general knowledge in the world of medicine. When you stopped talking, he snapped his notebook shut and stood up to go. You called after him, "Please, let me see her."
He motioned for you to follow him as he went out through the curtains. It was the first time you had been outside the room since you were moved in two days ago. He took you through a series of white passages and blue curtained spaces.
It was white and regal, a replica of Mama's room at home, only she wasn't sitting or standing in it holding court as she usually did. Instead, she was lying down, looking like she had seen and battled death countless times.
When you called her "Mama," she opened her eyes, smiled widely and reached out her hand for yours. Before you could reach her, her hands dropped back onto the bed that had been fashioned for comfort. Even in government isolation, Mama still had her ways. You took her hand and sat.
"Leave us." Though she spoke to Chidozie, her eyes were steady on yours. "Give up the long face; they are fine."
You started to say "what" when she reached—with some difficulty—under her pillow and removed her cell phone. How she grew seamlessly with technology always amazed you.
"They let you keep it?" You asked. She nodded, and you both shared a laugh.
"I have three nurses and a doctor who grudgingly give me day-by-day updates. I have never been baffled by how people feel intimidated by me. What baffles me now is why you aren't in a lab working to find a solution to this."
"I can't, Mama."
"You can't?" She was exasperated. You can't because you signed a gag order or because you worked not as a researcher but as a cleaner in Andromeda."
Your mouth dropped open while Mama behaved as if she hadn't just blurted out a secret you had kept close to your heart, especially from your family.
"Shut your mouth, Adaobi. I knew the moment you accepted the job. You could have worked anywhere here when you finished school in America, but you chose to run away from your name, to go where the Ezeugo name meant nothing. So, I let you and I didn't intervene. Your resume was excellent but your citizenship wasn't. So, when you applied as a doctor, you were employed as a cleaner.
"But you didn't stay a cleaner, did you?"
Mama laughed, and it was weak like her voice. "I didn't raise an idiot. You may be timid, but you're smart. I know you observed and learnt, didn't you?"
"Then find a solution to this. We—" she waited so she knew you understood, "depend on you. Not that there are not others more experienced who have the mind to do it, but information reaching me is that most had sold their services to the highest bidders. You wouldn't. Find a solution and save people. It may be too late for me—my immune system has aged with me—but for a lot of others—including you parents—it may not be."
You squeezed her hand, she squeezed back, then released you. Finally, she turned away and closed her eyes.
"I'll rest now." You knew a dismissal when you heard one. You turned and started to leave. Mama called after you, "Adaobi." You turned back and hurried to her bedside, but she didn't reach out her hand for yours. "When I come back, I'll come back as one of your children and you can come back as one of my grandchildren."
Marycynthia Chinwe Okafor is Igbo. She has her nest in Enugu, where she tries—often futilely—to create on paper worlds that exist in her head. A Nommo Award nominee, she has pieces published or forthcoming in Brittle Paper, Writefluence, Black Skin, No Mask, Kalahari Review, Afreecan Read, Omenana, and elsewhere.
She can be reached via Twitter: @Marycynthia600.