Posted in Contemporary, Life commentary, Short story

Fool’s gold

Fool’s gold                

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

Barbara stood in their ultra-modern garage and admired her glistening car. Today, she’d had one of the office boys take the red Ford Kuga for detailing, and it shone like new.

Going through the door that connected the garage to their kitchen, she couldn’t stop smiling. Life was good. She was in line for the top position of her company, just waiting for good old Bob to retire. On days like this, when she was bone-tired from work, she was doubly glad there were no children to demand her attention. And then there was Mike, her husband of many years. She loved him more than a thousand children put together, more than the top dog position of S&L, more than life itself.

Mike, of the gentle disposition. Mike, the humorous. Mike, who loved nothing more than being at home with her. Mike, who’d finally accepted that a child wouldn’t be a part of their lives.

The kitchen was as modern as the garage, every gadget known to man displayed on gleaming surfaces. This was Mike’s territory. As a child, he’d been raised on fast food by a carefree mother and an irresponsible father. As a man, the place he found peace most was in the kitchen. He owned a restaurant downtown and doubled as both manager and head chef. Each evening, he usually had dinner ready for her, heavenly and hot.

But today, there were no smells from the kitchen. No piping garlic smell. No oily smell of frying fish. Nothing.

Suddenly frightened but without knowing why, Barbara dropped her bag on the white counter and stooped to unstrap her high-heeled sandals.

“Mike, I’m home.” The house was silent, eerily so, and her heart began a crazy and uneven race. The living room was dark but a lone light shone from the flight of stairs.

She was on the fourth step when she heard it. The sound of a wardrobe slamming. “Michael.” She ran up the stairs, hitching up her skirt. The door to their room was wide open, the huge bed buried under an avalanche of clothes. On the floor was a huge suitcase.

Michael was pulling out clothes from the walk-in wardrobe, his face contorted in concentration.

“Michael, what’s the matter? Where are you going?”

He looked her way but seemed not to see her but through her. Then he shook his head and returned to his chore.

“What’s happening here?”

When he replied, his voice seemed to come from a faraway place, from within his very soul. “Going away, that’s what I’m doing.”

For a full minute, she stood statue-still, the words refusing to form on her lips.

“Eighteen long years, Barbara. That’s how long we’ve been married. I was barely twenty-three, you twenty-two.” His eyes turned dreamy, as he pulled them both into remembrance. “I wanted a little baby immediately, but you had to go to college. And after college, you wanted to take professional exams…”

She started to interrupt but he held up a hand to cut her off. “And after that, you had to start a career. And after that, you had to establish the career. Honey, it just dawned on me that you never meant to be a mother. And if there’s anything I desire more than life itself, it’s a child. One that we can call our own, one that we can love and give all the privileges we were denied as children.” His eyes glistened with sudden tears.

She struggled to rise from the cobwebby depths to which she had fallen. “But Michael…”

“Forget it. You’d only give more excuses why we should wait. But we’re no longer kids. I’m forty-one, and some men my age are already granddads. I can’t take it anymore.”

A wall of grief sprang up from her stomach, rising to her chest, constricting, cutting off the words she should speak, the pleading she should do. She stood there, arms stiffly at her sides, the tears cascading from her eyes.

She stood there, watched as Michael finished packing, watched as he lugged the suitcase out of the room, and listened as his car purred to life outside.

Then she sank to the floor, still not speaking, but weeping like a dam damaged and untended.

 

Posted in Contemporary, Girls, Life commentary, Short story

Fourteen

fourteen

FOURTEEN

(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan

Fourteen, bedecked with jewellery borrowed from sisters, aunts and cousins; made up with dark kohl and pink lipstick; grim-faced from lack of sleep; my heart everywhere but here.

But I kneel as I have been asked to, kneel in front of my brand newly-minted husband, offering him a drink from the calabash of palm wine. But my eyes are turned away from him, hidden from anyone underneath my veils, and desperately searching the crowd for the love of my life.

But he is not here. How can he be?

The tears come to me then, rising from a deep dark hole in my soul, spilling down my cheeks quietly. They are bitter, salty, corrosive but do nothing to ease the ache in my heart.

The future is doomed, I say to myself, because I cannot imagine a future without Audu, the very best friend I have ever had, the one I daydream waking up besides, the one who knows me best.

But I had known that he wouldn’t be here. We are all wrong for each other, had been from day one, and my mother had always given him the evil eye when she saw us together. But she had been too much of an ally to have revealed our friendship to my father, who would have turned berserk that I, his precious daughter, soon to be married off into wealth, was talking to a boy without his permission, one who was from a chronically poor family as at that.

I was fourteen, more than ripe for marriage by the standards of my people. Audu was fifteen, too young by the same standards to be married. My father was the village chief, very influential, had been on Hajj, drove a Volkswagen Golf. Audu’s father was the village cobbler, the husband of three wives, the father of twenty plus children with no means to care for them. I had been briefly educated in the western way until my father said that the modernization was getting to my head and pulled me out of school. Audu was illiterate; his father couldn’t even afford to send him to the Koran school where boys learned to read Arabic and do minor sums.

But Audu was the love of my life, and he hadn’t seen it fit to come bid me goodbye as I became the wife of another.

My new husband is forty years old, husband to three already, father to twelve children, the only other person in our little village apart from my father who owned a car. So, it had been a good match, by my father’s standards. I had pleaded, I had wept, sorrowed, threatened suicide, asked for just one more year before getting married.

“To do what?” He’d asked. “Your mother says you’ve been a woman now for more than two years. You are going past your prime.”

At that moment, I’d wished I’d never seen a period, wished I had been born mentally handicapped like my immediate elder sister was. At least no one was pestering her to get married.

So, get married I am, to a man I have not even exchanged two full sentences with.

I swallow back my tears, hearing my heart crack and break into a thousand shards.

This is my new reality, I tell myself. This is life, and now the tragedy begins.

 

Posted in Contemporary, Girls, Short story

Ablaze

Ablaze

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

You knew you were going to die that day, and you were okay with it.

In fact, you revelled in that knowledge. Your heart soared within its cage, your eyes were alight with a new kind of fire, and there was delight colliding with joy in your heart.

It will all be over. The sleepless nights spent turning and tossing, that slightly acrid taste like the bottom of a two-day-old coffee pot that would not leave your belly. You know that you will no longer feel these things, no longer experience this pain by the time the morning blooms.

It makes you incredibly happy. You are free like you haven’t been since your body started to blossom into that of a young woman. You can catch within your fingers, grasp once again what it felt like to be a young, reckless, rambunctious young girl without a care in the world.

By morning, it will all be over.

You get out of bed, flinch like you always do the time your bare feet grazes the cold linoleum floor. You grab your housecoat, wrap it tightly around yourself, but the cold doesn’t go away. You say hi to yourself in the mirror, watch your breath come out of you in puffs of chilly air.

It is bitterly cold, and you love mornings like this.

By noon, it would be blisteringly hot, and by evening, it would turn cold again.

The harmattan seasons are your best time of the year, the time when you can luxuriate in a warm bath in the morning, cold showers in the afternoon, and yet another warm bath in the night.

You would scrub yourself, standing under the hot shower until your skin turned almost red from the agony of the heat. You would take sponge and soap to your lady parts and scrub until it hurt to walk.

It seems you are trying to scrub the essence of him out of you.

But you don’t succeed.

His face would come to you unbidden. In silent moments, you would feel the coarseness of his beard grazing your face. You would hear his guttural growl as he threatened you to never tell. You would feel the strange heat of his palms. Then you would come awake to your surroundings, realise he is not there, that you are sitting in class, in church, at the playground, that you are somewhere far removed from him.

He haunts your dreams and your waking moments.

The first night he violated you, your mother was away for the weekend with her childhood friends, and you had control of the kitchen. You were delighted, ecstatic even to have been given free rein of what your father and the younger kids ate. You were twelve, Pepto-Bismol bubbly, could talk a mile a minute.

That night, you planned a surprise dinner of sweet potatoes and garden egg sauce for your dad, Bimpe and Anjola. You toiled for long, had to throw away the first pot of sauce as it didn’t turn out as well as you’d expected. But finally, you had the meal you’d first envisaged.

Your sister and brother licked their plates clean, and your dad hugged you thank you. You felt on top of the world, gave your mum a blow by blow account of how the evening had gone over the phone.

When he came in that night on the pretext of still thanking you for a perfect dinner, you didn’t know anything was amiss. He hugged you again, and you hugged right back. After all, he was your father, and you’ve been sharing hugs all your life.

But the hug that night wasn’t just a hug.

He spoke to you about your becoming a woman, and how it was his duty as your father to introduce you to womanhood. When his hands grabbed at your budding breasts, you let out a piercing scream that was cut short by a hard slap across your face. Each time you opened your mouth to scream, he slapped you hard until you were a dizzy mess. You felt close to a precipice of nothingness, of falling into a deep void of which you would never come out of.

You started to plead then because you knew this was wrong.

“Daddy please…please…”

Your pleas earned you only harder slaps, and you went quiet then. When he tore at your panties, you fought back silently. You dug your nails into his flesh, tried to claw at his eyes. But he pinned you down, stuffed a pair of socks down your throat, and slapped you for the last time.

You fainted.

When you came to, he was standing over you, his male member turgid and glistening, a mad look in his eyes.

“If you ever tell, I’d kill you. This is a family thing, a family secret that has been in my family for ages, and damn me if I don’t preserve this tradition. But you tell, you die.”

You felt a dampness in between your thighs, and when you tried to roll over, you realised you were naked and that your privates hurt like a dagger had been there.

“And if not you, it would be Bimpe, trust me.”

Bimpe was your eight-year-old little sister, the one for whom you would gladly lay down your whole life, the one for whom you would fight the whole world.

You went inside yourself, into a deep dark place no one else would ever visit.

The abuse continued. You would stay up in bed every night your mother went on a night shift at the hospital, terrified to fall asleep, collating all your mental power to keep your father in his room and out of yours.

But he would come. He always, always came.

Afterwards, you would stand under the shower, try to wash him out of you. And the tears would fall out of you in waterfall sheets and blind you. You would curl yourself in bed, biting your fingernails, closing your eyes as if to forget.

But you never forgot.

Your grades started to fall, and you found it hard to sit around the dining and across the table from your father as you ate meals as a family. You found it oppressing to get in the same car as he. You didn’t want to breathe his air, be in the same place as he was. You wished he’d go ahead and get himself killed.

The night he took a knife to you because you’d had enough, you did decide that indeed you’d had enough.

The next morning, you watched your mother stumble bleary-eyed home after her night shift as a nurse, and couldn’t bring yourself to tell her. You promised yourself you would talk to her about it in the afternoon.

But you couldn’t bring yourself to speak the words. You couldn’t bear to utter the words that would rip your family right apart.

For three days, you watched your mother out of the corner of your eyes. You wanted so much to approach her, to throw your hands around her and lay bare your heart. You would be quarter way to doing so, and then something would hold you back. It could be your father’s physical appearance or the remembrance of his menacing face.

When he came in to rape you again, you made up your mind finally.

When your mother came in the following morning, you didn’t care that her eyes were bleary, that she was almost falling asleep on her feet. You dragged her by the arm and into your room. Your eyes were already dripping water, and there was an ache in your heart that would take all of eternity to mend.

“He’s been raping me, mom. Six months now.” You blurted out.

She looked at you askance, like you were talking gibberish, like nothing out of your mouth made sense. She finally shook her head and looked at you again.

“Who?”

You took in a shuddery breath, closed your eyes, opened them again. “Daddy. He’s been raping me.”

She didn’t respond immediately, but put her head in between her knees, let out a wail of agony. As she began crying, you put your arms around her. You didn’t know if you were the comforter or the one to be comforted. All you knew was that you needed this woman, that you would give your life to see her stop crying.

“Don’t cry, Mum. I just can’t take it anymore…and he’s been threatening to rape Bimpe too, if I ever told. But tell or not, Mummy, he’s going to do it. He’s going to start to rape her too…and I can’t bear that. I couldn’t live with it…”

She let out another wail, and when she raised her face to face you, it seemed she had aged ten years in five minutes. Her eyes were sunken in, the sleep fled out of them, and her cheeks were hollow and void of colour.

When you tried to touch her again, she flinched. She drew back, like you were made from molten magma…and that was when the wall of separation sprouted up between you too.

That night, you stood in your bedroom, frozen to the ground, listening to the yells and screams coming from your parents’ room. You were unable to move, rooted to the spot, as the sound of breaking glass and hurling shoes reached you.

And you couldn’t sleep, kept watch till day broke, even long after things quieted down some in your parents’ room. You thought about your life. Life had been great until you turned twelve, then your father had snatched life as you knew it from you. For six months, you’d lived like a shadow, lived like a girl condemned to die, lived like you were something less than human.

But that was to end, you were sure. Your mother was going to set things right, see to it that it never happened again. She was going to be the warrior you knew she was deep inside. She was going to throw your father out of the house, report him to the appropriate authorities. Bimpe would never experience the heartache you’ve done.

These thoughts kept you awake, and you were just drifting into dreamland when your mother came into your room. She raised your curtains, and as you watched the early morning sun wash your room with yellow light, you felt hope come alive in your heart.

Your nightmare was about to be over.

“Yinka,” She began. “We are going to keep this in the family.” She cut to the chase like it was a business deal. “You will tell no one of this, not even Bimpe. And we will not speak of this again. Never again. I have spoken to your father, reprimanded him, and he has promised he will never do it again. He claims it was the devil, and I believe him. We will forgive him, forget it happened, and move on with life. Understand?”

You didn’t understand. It had taken all the courage you had to come out into the open, to tell your mother of the horror your father had visited you with, and to be so told to forget it, forgive him and move on with life was something you couldn’t begin to understand.

“Yinka, these things happen. But not everyone goes about washing their dirty clothes in public. This is why I said we’ll treat this as a family secret, between you, your father and me. I trust you’ve not told anyone?”

You were shell-shocked, and you stood with your mouth opened at this stranger who was inhabiting your mother’s body.

“I know it’s tough, and it must have been terrible, but life is terrible…and we all go through terrible things. This is your terrible thing, but its over…it’s over…and that’s all that matters.”

You didn’t speak, didn’t reply, held your body in a rigid position when she made to hug you. When she finally left your room, you drew the curtains and fell into a heap of tears. The sobs rent themselves from you in huge gasps, came out of you in a flood of salty tears, and you felt like you were drowning in a river of misery.

Despite your mother’s promises, he raped you again. And when you spoke to her about it again, all she had to say was that she’d speak to him again.

That was when you knew you were alone.

It was at that point that you knew that your destiny was in your hand, and yours and yours alone. It was up to you to save yourself, to save Bimpe.

You wait. You plan. You strategise.

The weekend you kids are supposed to go visit your maternal grandma, you feigned illness. You curled yourself in bed, stuck fingers down your throat until you threw up. And when your mother loaded Bimpe and your brother into the car, you felt gladness and relief wash over you.

She came back later that evening, made dinner, and you three sat around the table like you were a normal family. The food tasted like sawdust in your mouth, but you shoved it down quickly because you wanted to be away from there as quickly as possible.

That night, you turn on the gas when your parents had gone to bed, shut the kitchen door so that the smell does not fill the house.

You give it three hours. You sit in your room, contemplating your life, thinking about what had brought you to this point. You laugh, you cry, you pray, you swear all by yourself. You stand in front of the mirror and observe yourself.

You feel a whole bag of emotions; sadness, anxiety, relief and regret, but you don’t know which one to give in to.

At the end of the three hours, you make your way to the kitchen. As you open the door, you are overwhelmed by the stench of liquified natural gas, and you start to cough. You lean against the door, try to catch your breath but you cannot.

Panic engulfs you, and for a minute, you contemplate not going through.

But Bimpe must be saved, and this is the only way you know how.

You sigh, swallow, close your eyes. You say a quick prayer, then reach for the match box.

Your fingers are slippery and the first, second, third, fourth match will not ignite.

You swallow again, wipe your fingers on your nightie, strike the match a fifth time.

The explosion is instantaneous.

The next morning, after the firefighters are done doing their job, there are three dead bodies found under the rubbles.

Yours, your father’s and your mother’s.

 

Posted in Contemporary, Life commentary, Short story

A legacy of unremoved shoes

A legacy of unremoved shoes

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

The day had begun to shorten, the sun slipping behind the mountains of Sopot. Yet, the mourners would not leave. To one side, Djordje and Jovana held hands, forgotten by all.

 

The previous year, they’d lost their father and their lives had suddenly shrunk to the perimeters of their home. In a culture where the whole village was extended family, where there were no differences between sibling and cousin, their mother had begged to differ. And she had made enemies, uncles and aunts only tolerating the family because of Bojan’s goodness.

 

When Bojan died, all pretenses of kindness died. The village could now officially ignore Dejana and her children.

 

Then three months ago, a strange illness took Dejana. It wasted her body, loosened her tongue. Djordje tended her as best as he could, but there is only so much a ten-year-old boy can do. Sometimes, he was assisted by someone bathed afresh in the milk of human kindness. Mostly, he had no help.

 

Then she died.

 

That she had been hugely disliked did not discourage the mourners from coming, did not stop them from spreading salads and roasted meats around the gravestone.

 

Djordje stared at the several dishes of cevapcici lining his mother’s eternal bedplace and felt his stomach rumble. All through his mother’s sickness, he and his sister lived solely on proja and kajmak, the most basic Serbian staples. Delicacies like cevapcici were another matter entirely.

 

He felt a squeeze, turned to face Jovana who was only six, and was jolted by the haggardness of her face. She looked not much different from their mother before she died.

 

“Jovanka,” He said her pet name almost reverently, “Are you okay?”

 

She chewed at a corner of her lip, the way she was wont to do at difficult times. Then she whispered the question that had become lodged in her heart since their Ma was lowered into the ground. “Who will take care of us now?”

 

Reality hit Djordje, settled like bile in his stomach. For want of an answer, he echoed Jovana’s action, biting his lips until he felt the metallic taste of blood.

 

Beside them, two women were talking in earnest, both dressed in the traditional outfit of plain blouse, long black skirt, and head scarf.

 

“You know what I hated most about her. She never removed her shoes when she came to our house.”

 

“And she never chose a kum and kuma for her children. How on earth?”

 

Djordje felt his intestines tighten, pulling his stomach into the worst possible ache. Not for the first time in his life, he wished his mother had been friendlier, more invested in the customs of their people.

 

He took a deep breath, ran his hand over his sister’s tresses, and stood. There was no sense in prolonging the inevitable.

 

Their uncle Andrija was standing at a far corner of the graveyard, sipping from a bottle of brandy. He was the greediest of their relatives, hence the easiest.

 

Djordje sank low to his feet, held onto his uncle’s trousers and said the words he had rehearsed over and over again.

 

“Please let us come and live with you. You can have the house and Pa’s farmland.” When he squeezed his eyes, the required amount of tears leaked out. Inside him, his heart groaned and shattered into a million pieces.

 

Andrija settled his face into a mixture of scorn and pity, then broke out into a large smile. “Of course, of course.”

 

His mission accomplished, Djordje went back to his sister and was surprised to find himself crying. Real tears this time. Tears for his gentle father whose only mistake in life had been to marry a bickerer, tears for his mother whose spirit had finally been broken at the end, tears for his orphaned sister, and finally tears for himself. For having to grow up before his time, for losing his childhood so soon, so brutally.

 

He slipped his hand into his sister’s and answered her question, “We’ll stay with Uncle Andrija, and I’ll take care of you no matter what.”

 

 

 

Cevapcici – Highly-spiced meat patties

Proja – Cornbread

Kajmak – A kind of diary spread

Kum – Godfather

Kuma – Godmother

* Serbia is a landlocked territory in the Balkan Peninsula of Eastern Europe.

 

 

Jer 31:29 – When that time comes, people will no longer say, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, but the children’s teeth have grown numb.’

 

 

Posted in Christian fiction, Contemporary, Short story

Choorile

 

Choorile

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

Sanil sits at the entrance of his home, his eyes turned towards the sky which is dark and low, a sure sign of rain. Absent-mindedly, he wonders if it would actually rain, how long such a rain might last, and he is grateful for the stilts on which his wooden home rests, a protection from the floods that would inevitably follow.

 

For flood is a common occurrence in the Rupununi grasslands where he had been born, where he had been married, where he yet lives with his four sons and one daughter.

 

His spirit weighs heavily within him, his eyes filling with tears a man should not be seeing shedding.

 

It had been on such a night like this, a rainy stormy night, that Indira was born, that Nalini was lost, that his life went from familiar to strange.

 

Suddenly, the dark night is torn by a low mournful cry, not unlike someone in agony. The cry stops almost as soon as it starts, and just like it has happened for three days in a row, three-month-old Indira starts to cry. Sanil envisions his aged mother rousing, shhing her granddaughter, waving the palm fronds she’d procured from the herbalist to fend off spirits.

 

His Nalini’s spirit. His unbelievably beautiful, tender wife’s spirit.

 

As a young Christian, Sanil is torn between the age-long belief system of his Indian-Guyanese heritage and the truth he knows the Bible teaches.

 

This is the third night he would hear the mourning spirit, the choorile everyone says is the spirit of Nalini. For she had perished in childbirth, leaving a daughter alive. And according to the Guyanese folklore of jumbees, she would forever be restless, roaming at night, crying mournfully.

 

Pastor Mark, new to the village from Georgetown, says it is a lie. Nalini had been a Christian, her spirit had moved from earthly realms, she was in the arms of the Father.

 

With his head, Sanil believes this. With his heart, he believes in the choorile.

 

Sighing, he heaves to his feet and moves into the candlelit bowels of his home. The smells of their eaten supper yet lingers; Cassava, dasheen and crab soup. And spilt coconut milk.

 

In one room, his four sons are in various stages of sleep and the smacking sound of two-year-old Rajiv sucking his thumb makes his heart ache. Nalini would have gently pulled the thumb out of his mouth but as Sanil stands there, he doesn’t have the heart to do it. The child is motherless; all he could do was allow him this last vestige of comfort.

 

Because it is frowned upon for husband and wife to share a room, Nalini had had her own room. Even though his ma has since moved into it to care for Indira, he still thinks of it as Nalini’s room.

 

He hears the rustle of the palm fronds, his daughter mewling, his mother urging her back to sleep.

 

Finally, garnering strength from within, he knocks softly and pushes open the door.

 

“Ma,” he whispers, “Can I hold Indira for a while?”

 

Ma looks at him strangely but has known not to argue. She wraps the baby in soft sheets and places her in his arms.

 

She smells of palm oil, rubbed carefully into her skin by Ma to prevent infections.

 

She is warm and her soft body presses into his. Innocence, fragility, beauty. Solemnly, Sanil vows to protect her with all that he has, even his life.

 

He carries his daughter in his arms, shuts the door behind him, returns to the doorway. Rain has started to fall, pelting the soft sand around the house.

 

“I don’t know what to believe, Lord.” He says into the darkness. “But I do believe you, and I know children are good gifts from you. Choorile or not, Indira is your gift to me. Keep her safe, please.”

 

When he looks down at his daughter’s face, the tears quietly streaming down his face, he is surprised that she has her thumb in her mouth like Rajiv. She is sleeping yet there is a soft smile curved around her lips.

 

He smiles back and feels warmth begin to burn in his heart. Again.

 

 

 

Choorile – Spirit of a woman who dies in childbirth, leaving her baby alive.

Jumbee – Name given to a host of spirits and demons of Guyanese folklore

*Guyana is on the northeastern shoulder of South America, bounded by the Atlantic Ocean, Suriname, Venezuela and Brazil.

Posted in Contemporary, Girls, Short story

Preparations

Preparations

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

“A woman that can master the tea pouring ceremony has proven herself to be a good wife. You will learn to pour, even if it kills you.” For the past year, this has been the mantra in Nagomi’s home.

It is not enough that she cooks perfect meals, that she has learnt how to manage a home, that she has practiced child rearing with her elder brother’s children. It doesn’t matter that Yaotsu is a semi city, nor does it matter that people have abandoned the old ways for the modern.

Her mother wanted her to learn the tea pouring art, so she learnt.

Yesterday, Nagomi had done the final rehearsal, her mother acting as the guest.

Today, there would be four guests to attend to.

In the tea room, Nagomi fills a stone basin with fresh water and purifies her hands and mouth. Even though her heart is threatening to beat out through her chest, she proceeds calmly to the middle gate. Mahito is already waiting, his parents in tow. The father is as tall as he is, with the same broad face, slanted eyes, and button nose. The mother is buxom, her face filled out into a cheery roundness that eases some of the anxiety in Nagomi’s chest. Nagomi’s father rounds up the number of guests.

Nagomi bows to her guests, and they bow back. No words are spoken as Nagomi’s mother, today acting as the assistant host, then Mahito, then his father, then his mother, then Nagomi’s mother make their way through the chumon.

At the stone basin, the guests and host’s assistant purify themselves and enter the teahouse through a sliding door that is just three feet high. To enter, everyone has to bow, and this signifies that all are equal regardless of status or social position.

Inside the stone house, Nagomi sits, the guests sit and greetings are finally exchanged. After this, Nagomi brings in the tea bowl that holds the chasen, the chakin and the chashaku. She places the tea bowl next to the water jar. She bows and stands again to go to the preparation room. When she returns, it is with the waste water bowl, a bamboo water ladle and a green bamboo rest for the kettle lid.

In silence, her heart going pit-a-pat, she purifies the tea container and tea scoop with a fine silk cloth, fills the bowl with hot water and rinses the whisk. She then empties the tea bowl and wipes with a tea towel.

For a terrifying moment, she forgets what the next step is, feels a searing heat begin to burn in her face. Then she remembers and peace steals into her heart.

She lifts the tea scoop and container and places three scoops of tea per guest into the tea bowl, ladling enough hot water from the kettle into the tea bowl and using the whisk to make a thin paste. When she’s done, she passes the tea bowl to Mahito who bows and accepts it. As tradition demands, he admires the bowl by raising and rotating it. He then drinks some of the tea, wipes the rim of the bowl, and passes it to his father who does the same thing.

When everyone has tasted the tea, the bowl is returned to Nagomi who rinses it, and cleans the scoop and container. She offers the cleaned scoop and container to the guests for examination.

Everybody seems to breathe a collective sigh of relief that the ceremony has gone well. Nagomi catches her mother’s eyes and sees fierce pride in the older woman’s eyes. The roar of fear in Nagomi’s heart finally quiets. She’s done it. She’s proved to her fiancé and his parents that she has the patience to be a good wife and mother.

Mahito is smiling at her as she rises with the utensils and heads for the preparation room. When she returns, they can all relax and talk about the wedding preparations.

 

Chumon – Middle gate

Chasen – Tea whisk

Chakin – Tea cloth

Chashaku – Tea scoop

The tea ceremony, known in Japan as chanoyo or sado, is unique to Japan and is one of the country’s most famous cultural traditions. The strict rules of tea ceremony etiquette, which at first glance may appear burdensome and meticulous, are in fact carefully calculated to achieve the highest possible economy of movement.

 

 

Posted in Christian fiction, Contemporary, Short story

A white day

A white day

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

I should have known, should have prepared myself for the happenings of the day.

 

Yi never wore white, yet he went to work that morning wearing white shoes, a white cap pulled low over his head.

 

I stood at the doorway, fought the melancholic pull in my stomach, waved goodbye to the man I’d called husband for five years.

 

Fighting the unease that churned my belly, I swung my mind to happier thoughts. Yi’s company had just promoted him and my seamstress business was growing daily. And we’d finally decided to try for another child, perhaps a brother for Ming.

 

Of course we’d pay a yearly penalty for as long as the baby was a minority, because we’d in essence be breaking the law of one child per couple. But I longed for the easy camaraderie of siblings that had existed between my two brothers and I, and it was unfair, government or not, to deny Ming such a pleasure.

 

Three-year-old Ming was still sleeping, the two braids I’d pulled her hair into before going to bed last night coming unraveled.

 

Standing at the door to her room, I felt my mind fill with pride, my heart with joy. Yes, she was a girl, and most women I knew had quietly aborted their pregnancies when they realized the only child the government allowed them would be a female. But I loved my daughter, reveled in her powdery smell and chubby arms, basked in the glow of her affection for me.

 

That morning I stood in the doorway, happiness slowly gaining ground on my agitation.

 

Until I saw the opened window…and the white feather.

 

Pigeons usually patrolled our neighborhood and sometimes settled on the windowsills, but I’d never before found telltale signs of a shed feather. And a white one at that.

 

Panic bubbled out of my heart, flowed into my fingers. I strode to where Ming lay sleeping, snatched her off the bed and woke her in the process.

 

Her face scrunched up and she let out a long winding cry. Placing her on my hip in the hopes of soothing her, I made my way to the kitchen.

 

I sat her down, gave her a shrimp to nibble on, and set to cook.

 

By the time I finished cooking the fresh mushrooms in oyster sauce and walnuts in butter soup, it was afternoon and my heart had become calmer. Not entirely calm, but much calmer.

 

I’d just finished putting Ming to bed for her afternoon nap, was digging in the store for an old dress I wanted to remake when I felt the first rumble.

 

Then that deafening roar that burst my eardrums. The building tottered like an infant learning how to walk and I felt myself sliding. I struggled to stay upright, grabbed at a box only to find it sliding with me, down, down, down.

 

All of a sudden, the noise and the movement ceased. I sprang to my feet, realized the room was slanted, clawed my way out of there, my head filled only with thoughts of Ming.

 

When I got to the doorway, I saw that the passageway was no longer there. In its stead, a cloud of dust, thick and blinding rose to torment me.

 

Then the second rumble. The plastered ceiling rained down on me, the floor on which I stood gave way, an iron rod caught me squarely on the forehead, and I sank into the waiting arms of darkness.

 

*

 

I woke up in a hospital in Shaanxi, haunted by dreams of a certain man in white with a smile as wide as the heavens. Though no one told it to me, I knew his name was Jesus.

 

When I opened my eyes, his image yet burned behind my eyelids.

 

Blinking my eyes, I turned to the nurse and learnt the truth.

 

An earthquake of incredible proportions, more than 70,000 people killed, a whole lot more injured, several missing. I’d been in a coma for five days.

 

When they brought the list of dead people, Hwong Yi was number 34,200. Hwong Ming was number 63,212.

 

The tears would not come. The grief settled into a hard ball in my stomach. I closed my eyes and saw the man called Jesus yet again.

 

 

 

 

*The Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008 affected more than 45.5 million people in 10 provinces and regions in China.

* In China, colour white is associated with death and mourning.

 

Posted in Contemporary, Life commentary, Short story

Not anymore

Not anymore

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

I stepped into the cool foyer, relieved to be home after a very long day of negotiations and tantrums. I could hear the faint whisper of a TV set, the dull roar of a toilet flushing, and Melinda’s snores.

 

These were the sounds of home, the sounds that I loved so much it made my heart ache. In the living room, George was multitasking as usual, watching the TV, facebooking, doing his homework. He waved to me from his seat and went back to his chores.

 

My heart froze inside of me, like it did every night. There was a time he’d be flying across the room, a time when he would entwine his skinny arms around my neck and pepper my face with sweet little kisses. Not anymore.

 

In the hallway, I cracked open the door to Melinda’s room. She was fast asleep, curled in the fetal position, her mouth slightly open, the room awash with the pings and pongs of her snoring. There was a time she’d stay awake till I returned from work, her hair smelling of fruity shampoo, her mouth of toothpaste. The smell of girly innocence. Not anymore.

 

In our room, my wife came out of the bathroom when she heard the door. Her face was scrubbed clean of make-up, her hair pulled back into a ponytail, her body in a modest nightie. In the past, she would be wearing fresh make-up, would be wearing a see-through negligee, would be waiting with a chilled glass of wine. Not anymore.

 

The sad truth I had to live with was that it was all my fault.

 

“Hi there.” Betsy reached up on her tippy toes and planted a chaste kiss on my cheek. I wanted to hold her close, to lose myself in her, to be one with her as before. Instead, I replied with a hi of my own and dropped my suitcase on the floor. As I loosened my tie, she told me my dinner was sitting in the oven, could she warm it up for me?

 

Betsy still did all the things a wife should, only that they were now empty chores. She cooked, she cleaned, she listened when I spoke, and we still had a sex life albeit a sporadic one. Everything was there. Everything but joy.

 

I couldn’t remember when the process started, but it must have been when I got the promotion three years ago. I was working hard, then harder, then hardest than I had ever done in my lifetime. Motivated by thoughts of being able to provide my family with all that they desired, I took on more responsibility than I was assigned, got home later and later, was too tired to sit up with my children, too tired to listen to them, too tired to appreciate Betsy, too tired to be a family man.

 

They tried really hard. The children were extra careful not to fray my already frayed nerves, Betsy gave me rub-downs to ease the tension in my back and forearms. I receded further and further into myself.

 

They got the message. The children found lives separate from their father’s, my wife’s bubble laugher finally faded into nothingness. I buried myself up to the neck in work.

 

The food was served, the water was poured. Betsy slipped under the covers, her back unconsciously turned to me. I ate slowly, not because I was savouring the meal but because my mind was a whirlpool of thoughts. I wished I could turn back time. Yes I would still have taken the promotion. But no, I wouldn’t have allowed my job to consume me. I wouldn’t have pushed my family away. I wouldn’t have.

 

I cleared the plate without even tasting its content, washed the plate and tray with warm water, finally climbed into bed beside my wife.

 

Even though she was asleep, I held her and promised that I would change things.

 

She did not hear me. And perhaps she wouldn’t have cared.

Posted in Contemporary, Girls, Short story

Healing

Healing

(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan
Smells and sounds. The cloying odour of disinfectant just applied. The mewling sound that starts from the throat of one canine until it is repeated, echoed, chanted from every dog in the enclosure, until the sound is a boomerang in my ears.

“They know we’ve got visitors. That’s how they behave when.” The vet explains.

I watch Caroline, try to gauge her reaction. Her face is set in the kind of concentration only an eight-year-old can master. Today, she’s done her hair into two pigtails. The pigtails are held in place by barrettes; hot-pink barrettes Mark bought her not quite two years ago.

A constriction rises to my throat but I swallow it, send it to my stomach where it sits like a truck of sand. I follow my daughter to a cage set apart from the rest. This dog has not joined the chorus. It lies on its front paws, liquid brown eyes staring at Caroline, one ear cocked as if it hears something we cannot.

“Is it a boy dog?” Caroline asks the vet.

“He is, but I’m not sure you’ll be wanting him.”

“Why?” She sounds so grown I have a difficult time believing she’s only eight. Her missing front teeth however, make a mockery of her grown-upness.

“His hind legs are crushed from an accident. We picked him off the streets. Come take a look at this one. He’s so cute.” He’s already moving away, steering Caroline towards another cage.

“He’s the one I want. I’m going to call him Pickles. Mum, can I?”

The psychologist had set me in the direction of getting a pet for Caroline. Will give her something to do, help her cope with her grief, he’d said. What he’d not said was that she would choose something sick, perhaps dying.

The answer to my daughter’s question lies thick and fuzzy somewhere deep in my throat. My memories take me back despite myself. Caroline at the kitchen table, hurriedly doing her homework so she could be allowed, be free to sit with her dad.

At the door, I’d listen, irrationally afraid to go in, scared that Caroline would literarily fall apart if she ever saw the jelly I was reduced to at the sight of her dying father. I’d hear her reading to him from one of her numerous storybooks.

Inevitably, I’d hear the sobs. The sobs of a seven-year-old who couldn’t understand why her father couldn’t talk back to her, couldn’t hear her. I myself didn’t know how to explain, because I had my own questions. How could a thirty-seven year old man, so full of life and vitality one day, be struck down by a massive stroke the following, reduced to a specimen until a kind doctor told me to take him home to die in peace?

“Mummy, can I have him?”

I shake my head to clear my cobwebby thoughts. “Why don’t we look at other dogs?”

“But I like this one. I promise I’ll take good care of him. I’ll even clean his poop.” For the first time since Mark died, her eyes are aglow with light, with life.

How can I deny her? It is one dog after all. When I nod yes, light bursts from her eyes and she grabs me in a hug, one so warm and tight it forces the breath from my mouth.

**
Two bodies, same bed. Both asleep, both snoring. A half smile pulls Caroline’s lips slightly apart. Her arms are around Pickles, whose breath keeps puffing the thin blanket.

I put out the light, and let out a sigh as I close the door. For four nights, since the day Pickles came to stay, there’d been no scream from Caroline’s room in the middle of the night, no terrifying nightmare that made her leap from her bed, drenched in sweat, crying out for me. For her daddy.

My room, the room that used to be mine and Mark’s, is still brightly lit. I shrug off my housecoat and slip into the covers of my blanket. Sleep doesn’t come easy – for several months now, it hasn’t – but there’s a lightness of heart, an ease of burden I can’t quite explain.

I finally fall asleep, thinking of the last vacation we had as a family.

 

 

 

Posted in Contemporary, Life commentary, Short story

Natural surrogates

(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan

I stepped into the cool foyer, glad to be home, yet wary of the conversation that was bound to be.

The pit-pat of soft shoes from the staircase made me look up. There she was, her eyes shining with something that was between gladness and sadness. For as long as I’d known her, all of my sixteen years, she’d always been like that. When she looked at me, I could feel her tenderness, all of her love and something much more. Perhaps it was because of the uncanny resemblance between me and Danny, the man who was my brother yet my father.

“Hi there young man.” Mama stopped at the foot of the stairs and held out her arms. “Been expecting you quite a while. Thought you’d be earlier than this.”

“Had to meet up with some friends at the mall.” As I enveloped the soft little woman in my arms, a wave of tenderness tore through me. And despite where I’d been for the past five days, peace stole over me. Quietly, quickly.

“Come into the kitchen. Your pa’s making sandwiches.”

I knew there would be more than sandwiches and cold tea waiting in the kitchen. They would expect to hear all about Danny and his family. His pretty wife and his rambunctious twin boys. But most of all, they would want to hear about how it had gone between me and Danny this time.

Pa was sitting at the dinning table, stuffing bread into his mouth. Mama shot him a disapproving glance, to which he paid no mind. But he beamed at the sight of me. “Hello boy. Back too soon. I told your mother not to expect you for another hour or so. I knew you’d be at the mall.”

I dropped a quick kiss on his leathery cheek. He was sixty-one and Mama only fifty-nine, but life had not been very kind to them. High school sweethearts, they’d gotten married before they were barely out of their teens, before they’d had a taste of life’s difficulties. Then they’d waited more than half a decade to be parents. A mother at twenty-six, Mama quit work and devoted her life to training Daniel.

A quiet introspective boy, given to mood swings but never anger, it was a surprise when he came home one day from school, weeping like his heart had been blown to smithereens. His girlfriend had just told him she was two months pregnant and that under no circumstance would she attempt abortion. She also let him know that she wasn’t interested in mothering. She would have the baby and give it to him. He could do with it as he pleased.

A few days to his seventeenth birthday, Danny became a father. Tara was true to her word. Barely two weeks after delivery, her family moved away to start a new life. The new baby became the ward of Danny’s parents. Danny never held him, never spoke to him except it was absolutely necessary. When he turned twenty, Danny moved out and started a new life, one that did not revolve around his parents and his son.

“How’s your father?”

I did not reply. Rather I settled myself into a chair opposite Pa and got hold of a sandwich. Danny might be my natural father but that was about all. All my life, my grandfather had been my Pa, my grandma my Ma. With them, my life was just as it should be; quiet, secure. There were no great or wondrous adventures but at the same time no danger of emotional collapse.

Life was uncomplicated until I turned thirteen, until Danny’s wife decided I had to spend some of my holiday time with them. Thus, three times a year, I left the comfort of my home, traveled upstate to spend a hellish week with people I neither loved nor hated.

I kept my voice as bland as I could. “I saw Danny only once. He had several meetings. Aunty Becca and the twins said to say hello.”

I saw Mama’s eyes fill with tears. Things had not changed. Danny neither loved nor hated me. He was merely indifferent, couldn’t care less if I came to visit or not. But at least I knew him. What about the mother I’d never known.

“Welcome home, Son.” Mama said.

I nodded and blinked back tears.