By Ene Ogaba
This is how it starts. An ambulance stops by the side of the road. Its other occupant aside from the driver and the one enclosed in the Ivory casket alight. The inquisitive eyes in the convoy on the way to the village to cover ivory with sand watched as she opened the car door, ran behind the ambulance, and lifted the trunk open. As she was in the mood to open things that should not be opened, she also opened the ivory casket. I was sitting in the backseat of uncle's car with Omeyi strapped in her baby seat, but my eyes caught every movement of the woman as the ambulance stopped just ahead of uncle’s car. “Is it not enough that she killed my brother? Must we all succumb to her madness now!’’ Uncle said between cursing, hissing, and breathing as he descended the car. There she was, standing in front of the casket. I now could see papa's face for the first time since last month. I could see my mother's mouth moving; she was speaking to him, but I couldn't get the words clearly, so I descended the car. I checked to see if Omeyi was asleep. She was.
“Enayi, bring the bowl of water for your mother," Papa called from the kitchen. Welcoming me into the kitchen was Omeyi, stretching her tiny baby hands towards me from Papa's back as though to fly into the bowl of water. Papa wrapped her around his back with mother's wrapper. Ours was no home for a man, or so I’d heard uncle say to papa whenever he visited and saw 'madness,' as he called it. “Oche, your wife has bewitched you!” Aside from being mad, I should tell you that we also practiced sorcery. "Ahhhh!" he would scream to give more bass to his earlier statement. It was like a rehearsed line, as he said the same words whenever he came to the house. The days uncle visited were always the same days he met a different kind of madness in the house. First, it was Papa pounding the pieces of boiled yam mother threw into the mortar when Omeyi was still in mother's body—followed by when he met papa giving Omeyi her morning bath while mother prepared breakfast for us. Another time, the height of it all for uncle was when he met father doing the laundry and spreading mother's wrapper on the lines outside to dry. I must have lost count of the kind of madness uncle had met in the house, but these three stood out.
This evening was unusual; it was not just uncle that had come to the house. Strange faces followed him home too. I could overhear their whispers at the dinner table. “Oche! A man cannot tie a woman's wrapper and still sit among his kin,” one of the men said after a long hiss. Papa, in fact, was wearing the Polo shirt mother got for him last month during his birthday and one of the brown shorts he got from Yousuf, who sells fairly used shorts. I know this because I was sitting on the front porch when he bought those particular shorts. Yousuf always announces his arrival to our house every Friday after he observes the call for prayers from the minaret down the street, “Oga! I don bring my Pine Pine short knicker oo!”I asked Yousuf one evening when he stopped by the house, as usual, to show Papa his new stock of shorts what ‘Pine’means. Papa interjected his response with a chuckle “he means fine shorts.” I giggled at the disparity between what was pronounced and the actual meaning.
Now I wondered why this strange man was oblivious to what papa wore, a Polo shirt and a pair of shorts, not the wrapper of any woman. The familiar husky voice of uncle made me realize that he had brought them to cure the madness he had seen in our house and not to talk about papa's appearance as said by the strange man. “Uhhh...uhmm,” he cleared his throat, yet the huskiness didn't clear with it. “My people, you can see that our brother has been bewitched.” I should tell you that it wasn’t just madness that uncle had brought these strange faces to cure. He also sensed that sorcery was part of the ills to purge from our house. “Even now, when we finished the meal his wife brought, you can see how he, a man like all of us, made to take the empty plates to the kitchen,” he continued. The strange men seemed to have rehearsed their response somehow as they all in unison gave a hiss followed by several "hmmmms," asserting their stance with what uncle had said. It was now I realized mother was standing beside me with omeyi strapped at her back between the curtains of the sitting room and the dining room. Mother and daughter eavesdropping on their guest, it fascinated me that she didn't ask me to leave. Still, as quickly as the thoughts came, she immediately motioned Omeyi towards me, signaling I should carry her.
I knew it was time to go As I made for the bedroom through the sitting room where they have now convened to perform their exorcism on papa, uncle's eyes met with mine. He let out a smirk and pointed his finger at me, "as you can see, she doesn't even know a woman should not look in the direction of the gathering of elderly men." What did uncle mean? I was still a girl and mother alone to be a woman, or so I had thought. Thirteen years of childhood vanished in an instant. I dared to look at the hallowed gathering of men. Then I thought, “Why can't I choose to look wherever my eyes wandered?” This question rebelled inside me and I would have asked uncle if he thought me already to be a woman. In school, we were taught that women have children. Does that mean I could now have children even if my cycle, as taught in school makes reproduction in women possible, is yet to usher itself in my first year of being a teenager? I also wanted to ask uncle if I could become a woman just by staring at the hallowed gathering of him and strange men, but the warmth of the bedroom and the scent of the canfor mother recently placed in the room to keep cockroaches away welcomed me in.
Even in the room's silence, their voices escaped through the walls into my ears. Mother was summoned to their hallowed midst; they threw questions at her that didn’t require her to answer them, but it ended with uncle clearing his throat again and telling her to carry out her motherly duties and let father do his too. I heard their footsteps as they were leaving and mother’s voice asking them to visit often. Was this part of her motherly duties? A show of kindness and another visitation where they could devour her sumptuous offering of pounded yam and egusi soup again without letting a simple “Thanks for the meal” cross their lips? I thought silently. That night I realized madness could not easily be cured, and this is why. I have known Danbaba, the madman, since we moved to Apa City, never has he failed in chasing children that cross his path. When the Government attempted to get madmen off the streets of Apa. We were told Danbaba escaped the psychiatric hospital five times in three months. His last break out from the Psych ward left a Nurse impaired as he pierced her eyes with the sedative she meant to inject him with. After that, he became untouchable and the hospital resorted to letting him roam the streets freely. Maybe the madness Uncle brought those strange men to cure cannot easily be cured like that of Danbaba as the very night they left, Papa still strapped Omeyi to his back with mothers’ wrapper for most of the night while he scored the examination papers, he brought home from school while Mother slept soundly with a snore.
Uncle motioned to one of the strange faces that had followed him to the house that unusual evening in the cars behind to come forward as they walked towards mother. I don't know why nobody saw me walk past them, or maybe they were more concerned about mother's display of madness. “Oche, Ocheeee! Answer me! Who would take care of us?” mother cried. The silence that enveloped the air was a signal no response was coming to her question. Now I could see Papa clearly; his nostrils had white wool buds. He wore a white suit and looked content with the box he was placed in as he made no move to step out of it. Motionless, he laid there just like the day I found him. I tried to speak to him, but even mother's words got no response. It was now Aunty Ori rushed and wrapped her hands around my eyes and screamed at the top of her lungs, “ahhhhh, it has finally happened oo.” Uncle lifted me from the ground and swiftly made for his car. Has he spoken? What has finally happened and why was this woman we call aunty, although she was neither a sister to mother nor father, think something has happened. Uncle kept chanting some words in Idoma I couldn't quite understand as he ran with me to his car. At the safety of his car, I saw mother rolling on the tarred road, her cries loud enough to awaken the dead. Will father choose to hear and step out of his box now? He did not.
This is why aunty screamed, “it has happened.” Mother had opened the casket of the dead and a child of the deceased who is not yet tied to a man in marriage cannot see another man’s corpse and live beyond five days to tell the tale; this was tradition according to Uncle. This is what happened, a grieving wife chose to speak to the dead and death spoke back through the eyes of her daughter and is coming to claim her in days unless I get married to a man under traditional rite before Papa is laid in the ground to rest. What kind of rest will he find if he comes to snatch my body as he let death do his? This is what happens when the living chooses to commune with the dead.
They had gathered under the Dogoyaro tree when mother called me. Her hands locked with mine. The sweat in her palm melted into mine; we had not spoken since we left home. Not even when she stopped the ambulance and let death claim me. Her silence and the sweat in her palm were the only way I knew the pain her lips couldn't let out.
On the other hand, Uncle seemed to be having the time of his life. Underneath all those eyes staring at me as though they had seen a walking corpse, his were no different from the look he wore the day he called me a woman from looking in the direction of the gathering of men. A smirk and the look of disappointment at the disgrace of a daughter his brother had raised. Two men motioned mother towards them and I was left in the center of what seemed to be a circle their sitting position formed. "Let our children not inherit the fate of our fathers before,” one of the men said, only the women raised their voices in unison and answered, "Amii oo." I had been so far in thought while mother and I walked towards the gathering that I didn't realize I was standing beside father's dug grave. It was empty, though, yet to embrace Ivory. The earthy smell of the freshly dug-out sand melted into my nostrils, and I savored it. “Let the dead witness the union between man and woman and let us not see death,” the man said again. Another chorused, “amii ooo!” resounded from the women. “Enayi, sit down on the mat beside you,” uncle said. They didn't know I had seen death already. All these eyes didn't know I saw death before any of them did. There I was, sitting on the mat beside where ivory and earth will feast in days. A boy who, by appearance, should be about my age or just a year older than I walked towards me and sat facing me on the mat. He smiled sheepishly at me. Is this my husband? I thought silently.
How did his death knock? Was it through the front door? Or it came when no one was at home? It must have sneaked in through the window. By the time she came home and tried putting her keys in the keyhole, unaware of the unwelcomed visitor that crept into her house, it was too late to chase out the intruder. I was in school when this happened and Omeyi had gone with Mother to the hospital. Her body had grown so hot that our bed felt like it was thrown into a pot of boiling water and her cries were ceaseless through the night. Did she sense the arrival of death like they say babies and dogs do? or was it just a wild superstition? Mother called father on the school’s telephone line but none of the numbers connected, so she bitterly resolved she would take Omeyi to the hospital herself by the morning. I was the one who found him, but I gave up the credit for that find. I returned home from school and met him motionless on the floor beside the burnt electric socket. I could have called him but my throat was dry and I just stared at Father; his eyes stricken by death were fixated on the rolling blades of the ceiling fan, which seemed to be dispersing hot air as trickles of sweat formed under my chin and ran down my thighs.
The sound of mother's voice exchanging pleasantries with the neighbor made me decide she deserves to see father first. So, I walked outside and sat on the staircase "My dear, I'm sorry, I forgot to drop the keys under the foot mat," she said as she drew close. My heart skipped a beat when I heard her keys clink as she made for the keyhole. "Ahn ahn Enayi, but the door is open na," she paused after trying to get the keys into the keyhole, but the door waved itself open for her. "Did you check at all? Your father must be home," she continued. I bent down and deliberately delayed getting my sandals off, long enough to act unaware of my father’s body lying cold on the ground. I waited till I heard the expected, a loud cry, louder than the Jumaat call for prayers from the minaret down the street where Yousuf prays. Her cries drew the inquisitive neighbor she had just exchanged pleasantries with and asked her to stop me from coming into the house. The lady obliged immediately and stood as a barricade between me and the door of our house as though she had longed to do that while greeting mother.
I had stared directly at a body claimed by death, and I lived for Thirty days more, long enough to join the convoy to bury father in the village. No one knows this unless the death-stricken eyes of Papa I saw that day. My soon-to-be husband still wore that sheepish smile, maybe this was a ceremonial display for him, but I knew my lips had to be sealed to cure the madness in our house once and for all. This ceremony meant I became a woman in all capacities, according to what aunty Ori said to me the night before. I will miss being a girl who dances without a shirt in the rain and plays football with the children in our neighborhood back in Apa city. My feet tingled and my tummy tugged. The thought of no more street football with my friends back at home, dancing in the rain or singing songs to Danbaba, the madman, so he could chase us, wore its weight on my legs. Uncle brought a rope and knotted it around my arms and the elbow of the boy sitting in front of me, “Ori!” He called me for the first time since we arrived home, “you are now betrothed to this boy; this is now your husband for when your cycle comes knocking.”
From that day, I dreaded the arrival of this mysterious bloody visitor that sought to rob me of my childhood. The day it came, it was mother who witnessed its arrival. I woke up in the middle of the night with a tug of war rumbling in my lower abdomen when mother heard my painful sigh, she stood up and put on the light, it was there she saw the littering red spot on my pajamas, we stared at each other while the tears formed in our eyes as the first tear rolled down her eyes, so did mine.
Ene Ogaba is a contemporary storyteller, poet, and creative idea developer. Her short story was shortlisted in the 2017 maiden edition of the Kreative Diadem Annual Prize. She was selected as a participant at the 2019 Lines and Spaces Tour, an International Creative Writing workshop facilitated by the University of Iowa, the Abuja Literary Society, and the United States of America Embassy in Nigeria. Her work has appeared in the Annual Journal of the Open Society Initiative in Southern Africa (OSISA), published in April 2020. Her work was recently published in the maiden anthology of the Writers Space Africa-Nigeria (WSA-N) in August 2021.