By Jimoh Adeiza Abdulrahaman
There's a big void in my family oozing and spreading wide like an epidemic. Everyone has been infected—me, Mummy, Alhaji, his other wives, and even his mansion.
That emptiness made Hajiya Memunat, my mum, cry that day. That day, I came back from school and scurried into Alhaji's mansion—the renowned, ageless Umar's mansion. Alhaji was 67, old but energetic. He had no child until Mum's arrival. Hajiya Sefi, Alhaji's first wife, had lived a five-year barren life: a situation that prompted Alhaji to marry Mum. A year after the union, I reared out my ugly head—my existence, as well as getting infected with the family's emptiness, began. Ten years later, Alhaji became restless: he needed more daughters or, perhaps, a son.
Hajiya's ember eyes met my gaze. Her usual almond-shaped eyes were my weakness: they made my legs weak and my groins wet. At a time, I'd tried revealing these silly thoughts but got severely reprimanded. Her fury that day got me pretty scared. She'd whined and whined on and on, drew my ears through the maroon Hijab unveiling only my face, and shouted her orders, "Stop fantasizing about me. I'm a woman and your mother."
I trashed my school bag somewhere across her bed, opposite her dressing table. With concern, I strode—gently not to make a sound that might piss her—toward her crying figure. I left a few inches between and fearfully muttered, "Hajiya, why are you crying?"
She didn't budge. She just snorted and coughed and cried harder. I covered the inches distance and stood by her right. Fidgeting with my fingers, I fearfully cupped her face. "Mama, what's it?" I asked again.
" Alhaji. He —"
"Yes, mummy," I nudged her.
She stopped crying and looked up at me. Abruptly. Her tears sent volts of painful electric shocks through my caramel skin.
"Alhaji took a new wife," she blurted amid stifled sobs.
That emptiness also made me lonely, shy, and inexpressive. That was the reason I cherished weekends—because I'd be at home and away from my classmates' bullying and name-calling. Weekends were my days. At 5:30 a.m., when I was done with homework in Hajiya's room, I'd pick up my Textbooks, Quran, and Hadiths and ease my figure into the dimly-lighted sitting room to recite them aloud—loud enough to wake the household for Subh prayer.
That Sunday morning, I appeared in the sitting room to begin my weekly routine when I bumped into Sonia, Alhaji's new wife. She was young, 25 at most. Nobody had ever beaten me to the sitting room on weekends until that day.
She perched at the edge of a red couch opposite the sitting room's Plasma television. She clutched a rectangular mirror, the size of my Textbook, in her right hand. A make-up kit lay across her left foot. I murmured greetings as I sat a few inches away from her. She smiled and continued dabbing her face. I couldn't concentrate on reciting my Quran because I often stole glances at her impeccable figure.
She gently combed through her dishevelled, auburn wig and applied lotion on her skin. Her mani-pedi nails glistened, too. She was just too beautiful. I was attracted and wanted to caress her skin and hair. There was an urge to feel her bosoms and caress her back too, but I immediately suppressed it. After all, she's a woman like me, and such thoughts were haram.
Alhaji appeared later. His eyes fed on his new beauty, and I saw the desire in my eyes burning in his, too. I thought Alhaji would scold her to understand the sacredness of nudity and then thrash her makeup kit, but his smiles betrayed my thoughts.
Mum came into the sitting room. Then came Hajiya Sefi, clad in an overall white Hijab and black Niqab. That was how Alhaji would want her daughter and wives to dress, not the 'nonsense' his new wife was conjuring proudly on her face.
"Go and put on Hijab, do ablution, and join us for Solat. This makeup is haram," Mum jeered, obviously disgusted. Or maybe jealous of Alhaji's soft spot for Sonia.
"I'm a Christian, and I'm getting ready for Sunday service. Mallamma, you know the way to the mosque," Sonia countered rudely.
That emptiness made me hover around like a ghost when Mallam Garba visited—it wasn't actually a visit. It was a call out or maybe an attempt to resolve conflict. He sat on the couch closest to the dining while Alhaji depressed his weight on the couch opposite him. I had hidden behind the wall demarcating the sitting room from the dining when I heard the deep voice of Mallam Garba: "Alhaji, I know you're in need of a son, but why would you marry a Munafiq?"
"Mala, did your sister report me to you?" Alhaji asked, gesturing toward Mum's room.
"Even if she did, Alhaji, what you did was wrong. The entire Ummah holds you in high esteem. "
" I love her, and I'm going to convert her. Just give me time. "
"Alhaji, do you know your new wife wears trousers, wigs, and even perfumes, subhanallah?"
Alhaji shook his head, "It's just a matter of time. It would stop. Just tell your sister to accept Sonia just like Hajiya Sefi did. It would help. "
"Alhaji, don't break your home all because you want a son. You already have a daughter. Kajikwo?" Garba advised. Ignoring Alhaji's suggestion, he stood up and bid him farewell. I scampered away from the wall into Hajiya's room lest I'd be caught and named a rebellious child.
That emptiness pushed me into the whims of Sonia. Though she was getting infected, too, it seems she has an antinode somewhere. I was there that day in Sonia's room, playing a game on her phone. Mum forbade our booming relationship and sometimes rebuffed me. She'd stand akimbo, nose flaring, face scowling, drawing my ears sideways and saying, " I don't want you near that woman. Kajikwo?" Hajiya hated Sonia; it was obvious. But the reason was obscure: maybe her religion and ethnicity were the problems. Whatever it was, Sonia and I were fast becoming inseparable.
"Sonia, you've got a call." I sprang up and hurriedly passed the phone into her hands. As it brushed against hers, a chill went down my spine. She didn't feel that, and I was grateful. She limped toward a corner with her phone pressed firmly on her left ear. She talked with the caller in a hushed tone, and I could barely hear her several "it's okay," "don't worry," "tomorrow" replies.
She turned back, threw me the phone, and said, "Continue your game; don't pick up any call from him again."
I nodded. I had barely picked it up when she came again, stretching her hands, "In fact, give me. I'd put it on Airplane mode. "
"Your hands are beautiful," I said, giving back the phone.
She was done. "Thank you. You're more beautiful."
She smiled. "But stop hiding it under Hijabs."
"Should I remove it?" I asked, awaiting her thoughts.
She shrugged, "Panwa, if you want to. "
I fidgeted. The situation was awkward. I'd never shown my skin to anyone except Hajiya. It was an abomination. I looked around, and we were alone. I might just flunk the rules once, I thought. Slowly, I lifted my Hijab until it came off.
"Woah!" Sonia exclaimed. "You're so beautiful, I feel like kissing you."
I blushed shyly. With a grin plastered on my face, I said seriously, slowly but shyly, "Me too."
It was heaven for the minutes we shared that awkward kiss.
That emptiness attracted those thieves who broke into Alhaji's Mansion the night before Eid Ul-Fitr.. Two young men in masks, one so familiar: tall, athletic, fair. The other: short, rude, and gripping hard on a club. They asked for money, foodstuffs, and jewelry. The rude one pressed hard on our backs, so hard that our chests kissed the cold ceramic tiles. Alhaji wasn't at home; only the three wives were.
The tall one dragged Sonia into Alhaji's room. Probably, for ten minutes, they were there alone. My ears picked up Sonia's muffled moans. I was furious and wanted to save her, but the rude thief pressed harder on my back.
They left after the tall thief reappeared where we lay. He tossed a bag toward his comrade. And they disappeared afterward into the night. They disappeared with mum and Hajiya Sefi's golds. When I realized they were gone, I rose and dashed into Alhaji's room. Sonia was curled up on the floor, weeping. Her fists curled harder around an object in her palm.
I don't know what had happened or have any words to soothe her pain. I just rubbed her back, squeezing it gently. "What's that?" I asked, looking at her closed fists. She slowly unclenched her fists, and I saw a blue ID card, a UNIJOS student ID card.
That emptiness thickened more after Sonia was raped and the provisions made for Ed Ul- Fitr were carted away by two miscreants. I was there in Alhaji's Peugeot when he met with Inspector Ali. That day, I could no longer bear the heavy sadness enshrouding Alhaji's mansion, so I pleaded to be with him. Alhaji met Inspector Ali in a local food joint. They sat on one of a group of long benches, forming an aisle sideways, while I sat across them, three benches away. Ali stylishly jingled his car keys while clutching a plastic card—the UNIJOS ID card.
I was almost away from their earshot, so I could barely make up anything from their discourse. But I do notice Alhaji's frequent stolen glances at me. There was a time we locked gazes; his was fiery, while mine was forlorn. The battle of who would look away first ensued—I finally had a chance to have fun, so I wasn't ready to lose the simple battle. Alhaji finally succumbed and melted under my warm gaze. He looked away and focused on Inspector Ali, who was whispering something—where I sat, I studied his lip movement and deciphered his last word to be HOT-PETER.
"Is that the name of one of the miscreants?" I thought.
That emptiness also cajoled me into spending my weekend evenings with Alhaji. On that Saturday evening, when I was braiding my hair, he offered to help with combing. It was odd—Alhaji is not the type to waste precious time by doing what he usually termed "ladies' work." But I was happy; he had become sweeter after that unfortunate incident. Though inspector Ali has reportedly nabbed one of the culprits with the help of the UNIJOS ID card, the search for the other was still fruitless as the unfortunate one had refused to give out his companion.
On Sunday evening, during a random tour around the town with Alhaji, he suddenly pulled up outside the gates of Bubu Clinic and Maternity—a renowned private hospital in Jos. A gasp escaped my lips, not for fear but surprise.
"Dad, are you ill?" I inquired.
He shook his head, opened the car door, and said, "No, I'm not. Just wait. I won't be long." And off he disappeared into the building.
He reappeared later, about ten minutes, with a colored sheet in hand, eyes burning, and face squeezed like crumpled papers. He was back on the wheels, gently maneuvering the car toward home. His face was still squeezed, and his fists curled harder on the steering wheel. His sighs were deafening too. And his hisses blared out, overshadowing his car honks, which were a result of his occasional spankings of the steering wheel. Then, a tear swam down his face and disappeared in his beard.
"Dad?" I called. "You're crying."
"Leave me alone!" he snapped.
That emptiness tore the family apart when we least expected it. It was during an impromptu get-together orchestrated by Alhaji a week after our unplanned visitation to that clinic. His parents, wives, and even wives' parents were in attendance. Inspector Ali and Mallam Garba were in attendance, too. They sat side by side on one of the couches. I was made to stand in the center of a circle formed by the attendees by Alhaji. His deep, thunderous voice sent shivers down my spine, so I dared not disobey. He had been in what seemed like a bad mood since we left that hospital. He refused to mingle with his wives —Sonia too, his favorite—and he hasn't smiled nor eaten his food. My legs were throbbing, I'd be standing for hours. It seems the gathering needed the presence of an important figure yet to show, hence the wait and Alhaji's frequent glances at his wristwatch and the door.
"Umaru, where is the Doctor?" Mallam Garba questioned Alhaji.
"He is coming…" The creaking of a door stopped Dad's speech. A handsome young man poked in his head. He then fully entered the sitting room and beamed a smile. "Sorry for keeping y'all waiting. It was work," he apologized.
"It's okay," everyone murmured almost at the same time.
"We would start then," Alhaji said, walking and standing beside me, in the middle of the little crowd. "I hate to do this, but I just want everyone here to assist in forcing my wives to answer my questions."
Mum, Hajiya Sefi, and Sonia exchanged glances; surprise etched on their faces.
Alhaji turned to his first wife, Hajiya Sefi, and asked: "Hajiya, how is Ibrahim, your son?"
A gasp escaped my lips. The crowd jolted in shock too. Wasn't she barren? Hajiya Sefi moped lazily at Dad. Guilt was visible in her expression.
As if not expecting a reply, Alhaji took his eyes off Sefi toward Sonia. He hiccuped and swallowed saliva thrice. I could see how hard he was holding back his tears. As if in haste, he chartered loudly: "Do you know your boyfriend, who you asked to raid my house, is a friend to Ibrahim?"
Inspector Ali stood and stepped out.
Alhaji wiped the sweat off his forehead and continued, "The gold and money they stole are with you, aren't they?"
Silence. Sonia was silent.
"You intentionally planted that UNIJOS ID card to mislead us, didn't you? huh?"
Then Inspector Ali sauntered in with two figures. I remembered them: the tall thief who had dragged Sonia into Alhaji's room. And the rude one who had pressed hard on our back that day. They were in cuffs now, and there were no masks, so their faces were bare and visible. I peered at Sonia with questioning eyes. She was looking down, fidgeting like a child. I focused on the tall thief. I'd seen him some time ago. Sonia had met and spoken with him months ago during one of our strolls. Immediately, I realized why he had looked familiar that day.
Alhaji gave no room for contributions from others present. It seemed he had a lot planned out, a lot on his chest that must be poured out. He turned to mum and zipped toward her. I was anxious. What secret could Mum have? Alhaji dipped his hands in his breast pocket and brought out two sheets—one looked like the one he held at Bubu Clinic and Maternity.
He gave her the first sheet and waited for her to read the content. While waiting, he frequently glanced at the young man who had come late as if awaiting his orders. Nevertheless, his eyes settled back on Mum. "That's Panwa's DNA test result. So, who is Panwa's father?" he asked, pointing at me.
"What!" Mallam Garba was the first to exclaim before others followed.
But Alhaji was unperturbed. He passed Mum the second sheet and stylishly lowered his voice, but still audible enough, "Don't deny it because I now know that I can't even father a Child. I want to know whose child I've been living with."
Mum said nothing. She merely folded the sheets and avoided eye contact with Alhaji.
I puffed out a sigh, a sigh of disappointment. What is this all about? Alhaji is not my father? DNA test? When did that happen? Oh, my hair! The combing! Alhaji used my hair for the…
"What emptiness is this?"Alhaji lamented, jolting me back to reality.
"Dad, I'm your daughter, your blood. " I assured, fearfully.
He looked at me with bloodshot eyes and said: "But I'm not your father. Only your mum knows how she'd deceived me. And this deception is going to be her last. Trust me."
He walked away from Mum about a few inches and suddenly brandished a pistol. Before Inspector Ali was up from his seat, Alhaji already fired four shots—leaving me to drown in the gun's loud bangs, blocking my ears and shutting my eyes tightly.
I sat on the bench while Dad stood in the dock, in a courtroom, both awaiting the Judge's verdict. My mind was foggy: Dad's emptiness had made me motherless, had made me do sacrilegious things with Sonia, and was about to make me lose a father, too. But was this all about his emptiness alone? I swear, I swear, I don't know. But I know I've fallen in love with women because they are full of life and devoid of emptiness.
Jimoh Adeiza Abdulrahaman is an Ebira by tribe and resides in the central part of Nigeria, precisely Kogi state. He's a writer and an essayist whose two flash fictions, "Innocent but Guilty" and "Her Bloody Wish," have consecutively been certified "silver" in the Fifwa Writing Challenge. He's also a lover of mathematics.
If he is not writing, he's solving some equations.