Posted in Christian fiction, Girls, Short story

This wish

This one wish
(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan

An achingly cold night. The Harmattan wind buffets my face, stings at the frozen line of tears there. I hurry on, my slippers plat-platting on the sidewalk, my heart beating at the frantic pace it almost always does these days. Mrs. Brown next door had called thirty minutes ago, saying she had to go out, could I come back ASAP?

I stop to catch my breath at the entrance to the apartment. Our tenement is a huge, squalid structure. Populated by more rats and roaches than people, it should have been torn down years ago. But this is home, has been home for two years.

It was to this building that I fled all those months ago. It was here that I clocked eighteen, here that Kate was born. Katie, the unbelievably lovely product of that one night gone wrong.

“Hello there.” Mrs. Brown is dressed, ready to go. The coat she wears was once fashionable. Now it is just old and frayed. Yet, it is still more adequate protection against the cold than my own thin jacket is.

“She’s sleeping. And I’m sorry I had to call you like that, but it is really important that I go out.”

I am not paying her, so what rights do I have to her time, to her help. “Thanks.” I say and put on a smile, so that she will know that I am not mad, even though I am dissapointed

She hands me the key to my room and waves me bye, picking her way through the perpetual flow of garbage in front of room three. I open my door, glad to be somewhere warm for the first time  that evening.

Kate is asleep indeed, curled up on the thin rug in front of the television. She was twenty two months last week, has a heightened sense of observation and has recently taken to the television. I don’t want her to watch so much, but with me working most of the time and Mrs. Brown stepping in as an adopted grandma, there is nothing I can do about it. For now.
It was on the TV that Kate first saw a Christmas tree. At least six feet tall, with gleaming balls and red bows. The presents underneath the tree must have been at least a hundred. Big packages, small packages, tiny packages, all done up in elaborate dressing.

Kate’s eyes had gone wide, then she’d clapped her pudgy little hands together and looked at me with her piercingly dark eyes. “Mama, tree.”

As I watch my little angel sleep, silent tears wash my face. I have been saving for as long as I can remember towards a present, perhaps two for Kate this Christmas season, but not in a million years would I be able to afford a tree.

Pulling off my jacket, I walk over to the far corner where the hot plate and eating bowls are. In one of the bowls, I lift out my egg nest, all of two thousand Naira.

I don’t know what to do. I don’t know if I should pray at a time like this or just give in to the overwhelming emotions and cry. I am only twenty years old. I shouldn’t be saddled with decisions like this. I am a child myself, so how can I be a mother? Why would God entrust me with Kate’s life, her upbringing. Why?

I sink to the floor, desperation clutching at my breast. My daughter is only a little girl, a baby with a past she didn’t create and a future she can’t decide.
An unseasonably warm September night, and I’d been out alone. Running late, I’d cut through the alley, hoping that I’d be home before Dad. The unexpected blow to the back of my head. Two boys with shaven heads and dead eyes. That was the night I lost my virginity.

It took two months to realise I’d lost more than that. I sunk into murky depths. Who would believe that my pregnancy was the fallout of a rape, one I’d never even spoken to anyone about?

No one did, and Dad was very quick to show me the door.

Jagged sobs rouse me out of my reverie and it takes a while to realise they are mine. Kate turns over, a contented snore issuing from between her lips.

I should be able to provide for her, give her the beautiful things she deserves. I should be able to stop the world for her, offer it to her on a platter. Something as little as a Christmas tree shouldn’t be so hard, so unreachable a goal.

There is a very soft knock at the door. Wiping my tears, I stand to open the door. It’s Mrs. Brown.

“Back so early?”

She smiles, a soft motherly smile. “I didn’t go far, just around the corner to the second hand shop. It’s Christmas Eve, and every little girl should get their wish.” With that, she steps aside.

That’s when I see the tree.

It is short, and sporting a few miserly decorations. But to a toddler, it would look like a giant, and a very beautiful one at that.

My vision swims for an instant, and then clears so that I can see the angel in front of me. Hope surges into my chest afresh, lifts me up, envelopes the whole of my being. I look again at the angel sent to me and say the only word I can at this time, “Thanks.”

 

***

Whatever your situation at this time may be, I plead with you not to give up hope. God sees it all and answers our prayers, no matter how small (irrelevant) or huge (impossible) they may be.

 

***

And please remember to stay safe. This evil virus too shall pass soon.

 

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 Girls, Life commentary, Short story

Unprepared

young-black-girl-cartoon

(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan

Who knew life could be so chaotic, so fun-filled, so unpredictable, a veritable stretch of parties, of alcohol, of wild boys; of unbridled freedom.

Before now, your life had been extremely sheltered. You were raised on DSTV, chauffeured drives, and overseas summer holidays. There was always a chaperone; at home the house maids and the security men, and the hawk-like ever abiding presence of your mother. And in school, the teachers, the Catholic principal and still the security men.

Before your sixteenth birthday, you’d never even slept someplace without your parents’ knowledge, never even been kissed by a boy.

Now you are seventeen; you are in your first year at the University of Lagos. You live on campus and your wings have been unclipped.

You have not seen so much freedom in your life, and you don’t quite know what to do with it.

So you do what other newly released young girls do. You take an exploratory bite out of everything; Of the night life, of the wild parties, of the free drinks and the subsequent sex. You take a bite of everything because you do not know how to say no.

You are on the cusp of adulthood, and you are totally unprepared.

Posted in Girls, Life commentary, Short story

Feyikemi

Feyikemi

(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan 2020

Arms folded across my chest, seated in a locked and rigid position because my back wouldn’t budge, my heart beating in a pit-a-pat music of anticipation, I await the birth of my seventh child. I am seated on the rock at the far edge of the compound, away and removed from where the action is taking place, but I can still hear every land-shattering scream, every soul-searing cry from my wife.

They say it’s bad luck for a husband to be present as his wife pushes their child into the world, the same way they say it brings bad luck for the woman to cry so much during the painful process of delivery. I am aware that there are hardened leather strips thrust in between Feyikemi’s teeth so that she can bite on them instead of screaming, but I am also aware that my wife has a very low pain threshold.

It is a wonder she has done this six times in the past, is going at it the seventh time. And the stakes this time are much higher for both of us, for my entire family, for the posterity of the Akangbe clan.

“Somebody help her…Somebody, please make this stop…” But there is no one to hear me, no one within miles of where I sit. In this village, childbirth is such a common occurrence that the world does not grind to a halt because of it. My brothers have gone on to the banana farm to put in their daily quota of work, as has my father. I was expected to come along as well, but Feyikemi had woken up this morning with childbirth pains, and I couldn’t for the very life of me go to work.

The wives of the compound have gone about their daily activities too, two of them gone down to the river with the children to wash clothes and cooking utensils. My mother and the last wife are attending to Feyikemi, helping her usher our child into the world.

I bite my fingers down to the quick, cover my face with my palms, pull at the greying strands of hair in my beard, wipe the sweat off my brow that shouldn’t be there because it is a bitterly cold morning.

The stakes are high. This baby is the one to determine the future.

As the eldest son of the family, I was expected to produce the direct heir, the son who would pass on the family name to his own progeny, the chosen one who would keep our family stories and heritage alive. Of course, the sons born to the other brothers would do the same, but my son was to be the focal point, the main one, the first grandson born to the first son.

Only that I have failed so far to produce a male heir. Feyikemi has been with child eight times, brought forth six children alive, all of them females. When our first child entered the world, feet first, head wailing in a cry of indignation, my mother brought her to me wrapped in cocoyam leaves and dripping with the obligatory palm oil. My mother had been full of encouragement, and the sides of her eyes shimmered with tears.

“Next time. Next time, it’ll be a boy.”

She understood well the disappointment of having a girlchild as your first, of burying your disappointment under a well-disguised cloak of excitement.

The second girlchild arrived eleven months after the first, and there were those words of encouragement again. “It will happen, Ayomiposi…it will.”

Two days later, my younger brother’s wife delivered twin boys. It was like a blow to my person, an effrontery to my manhood and seniority. And it didn’t help that Mama spent more time in his hut caring for his wife and the boys than she did in mine caring for my new daughter. After all, sons are everything and girls are only good to be raised and sold off into marriage.

From children three to five, Mama lost her encouragement, couldn’t summon the words anymore. She would simply tell me, “It’s a girl” and leave me to my thoughts, to my shame, to my inner turmoil.

Feyikemi begged me then to stop sleeping with her, to quit trying to get her pregnant almost as soon as she is relieved of one child.

“My body is giving out, my love. I can’t do this anymore.” She pleaded.

But she did do it again, because of her love and respect for me, and because she wanted me to be able to hold my head high in my father’s compound once again.

After she pushed our sixth daughter into the world, she had wept disconsolately, her back against the wall, her face haggard and sunken like an old woman’s. Her spirit was broken, her wounds unhealable.

And then Mama and Papa came in that dark night to see us, the lantern they brought with them outshining the one we had hung on our wall. Our daughters, aged one through eight, were all in different stages of sleep, curled up on the mats, one of them sucking hard and furiously on her thumb. The new baby was swaddled against Feyikemi’s bosom, her eyes awake and looking intently at her mother.

“We have to do something to revert this misfortune that has been visiting you and your wife.” Mama began, her eyes huge and white in her dark face.

“There is a traditional way to set things right, a way to give you the son for your progeny.”

My heart sank to the bottom of my feet then, because I knew where she was headed, knew which traditional practice she was about to call upon. I buried my face in between my knees, let out a wail of anguish.

“It must be done.” Papa finally spoke, and I could hear the desperation in his voice. “Tejumade has proven himself to be quite the man. We will speak to him, command him if we have to. And Feyikemi must begin to wean the baby, begin to get herself ready.”

How do you wean a two-week-old just so her mother can get pregnant again as soon as possible? And how do you sit outside your hut, waiting while your little brother went in to your wife? How do you start to process the unfairness of it all?

After they had left, Feyikemi trembled in my arms all night long. She was long past tears, but the heartbrokenness was there in the way her mouth hung agape, in the way her eyes looked like they were a ghost’s, and in the way her hand trembled uncontrollably each time her hand stroked the new baby’s head.

Because it is the way of our people, we did as we had been asked. I never for once sat with Tejumade, the little brother, who had fathered himself four sons by then, to discuss what was to happen and how. And I never spoke about it with Feyikemi again.

Mama made the arrangements, helped wean the new baby until Feyikemi saw her blood again, carted off the children with her and sent me on errands every time Tejumade visited my hut.

I had expected one or two visits, three at the max, but fate has a terrible way of rubbing pepper into your gaping wounds. After each visit, I would watch Feyikemi check herself for signs of pregnancy, listless, trembling, wanting so desperately for the ordeal to be over.

But the blood always came. And the visits continued.

Food started to taste like sawdust in my mouth, and even though I knew Feyikemi detested the process as much as I did, I dragged her into unnecessary fights. And there was tension between Tejumade and me as we worked alongside each other on our family’s banana plantation. The plantation is supposed to become mine, and I am expected to chip off little pieces of land as gifts for my brothers so that they can continue to sustain their families after our father passes. But I might never even come into my ownership, not without a son to pass it all on to.

Tejumade would dip his head in the customary offer of respect he is expected to show me, but the camaraderie we used to have is gone. We are now strangers, linked by blood and a sense of family duty. This is what your brother trying to help you father an heir does to families.

And then Feyikemi gets pregnant.

There is joy because the ordeal of the visits is over, excitement that perhaps this could be the child that changed our lot in life. And there is a fear that permeates the air, a fear that it could have all been for nought.

So here I sit this bitterly cold morning, waiting for news. The frigidness has begun to affect my fingers such that I can no longer feel them. An ant climbs my wrappers and begins a climb up. I watch it, fascinated by its doggedness and determination.

My mind is taking me back towards the birthing hut, and there is panic bubbling somewhere in my heart. But I concentrate on watching the ant, anything to get the mind off of what is happening, of what is to come.

And then there is the shrill cry of a newborn baby.

I bury my head in my hands, petitioning the gods of fertility to look down on me, on us, with eyes of mercy this time. There are tears in my eyes that a man should not be seen shedding, and there is a bitter taste on my tongue.

Then, the hesitant tap of fingers on my back.

I rise slowly, into the dark, bottomless eyes of my mother. Only that these are not eyes that I am familiar with. These eyes are dark, melancholy, full of regret, of pity, of shame. These are the eyes that make your heart burn and explode into flames.

“It’s a girl.” She says simply.

Posted in Girls, Short story

Saving the family

SAVING THE FAMILY

(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan

You’d always known that this day would come. Yet, your knowledge does not equal acceptance, and your knowledge doesn’t stop your heart from threatening to beat out of your chest, neither does it stop you from breaking out in a hard, cold sweat even though the weather is bitingly cold.

It is early in January and the harmattan season has descended with a vengeance. As you rolled out of bed this morning, you shivered as your cold feet made contact with the even colder floor, and it had taken you all of one minute to be done in the bathroom. Because your family cannot afford frivolities like hot water baths, you take cold baths no matter the weather, not even when you are sick. So, you dumped the half bucket of icy water over your head and ran out of the bathroom

You had watched in front of the broken mirror you share with your youngest sister as the breath escaped you in icy vapours, and you had thrown on three layers of clothing.

But you are no longer cold. There is a heat boiling from deep inside you and the only way that your body knows to respond is to break out in sweat.

How could things have turned this sour just a few days after the New Year celebration. On that day, you’d worn your newly purchased second hand gown, but it had felt brand new to you. You’d felt like you were on top of the world, like you were a princess who had the whole world at your beck and call. You guys were a complete family again; your father, your mother, your four sisters and your three brothers.

All had felt right with the world. There wasn’t much to eat in your house, but you’d made the rounds to more prosperous homes with your siblings and had eaten so much you had a tummy ache for days. You had felt like a child again, not like a young woman, not like someone on whose shoulders lay a weight of responsibility. You had been a child again, and now you are to be one no more.

When your mother pushed you out into the world eleven years ago, it was unwritten that you would one day follow in the footsteps of all the women of the family. By the time you were born, your mother had already given up two daughters, already knew what if felt like to send daughters off into modern slavery.

And, she knew, even as she breastfed you and stroked your head, that she would one day give you up too.

You are the last daughter and your mother has already done this four times. What you don’t know is that it has never been easy for her, has not gotten easier with regularity, and that she cries into her pillow almost every night.

“Beatrice, you should be ready. She will be here any time from now, and we don’t want to keep her waiting.” Your mother calls to you from just outside the house, where she is spreading freshly washed clothes on the clothesline.

She is talking about the woman who will convey you to Lagos, the woman who took the last two of your sisters, the one whom you blame for wringing the joy from their eyes. And now, she’s coming to take you.

You feel the tears roll down your cheek, feel the sadness overwhelm you from the inside out and you feel like you are drowning in a sea of misery.

You sigh, rise to your feet and pick up your luggage, a tattered hand me down travel bag that has been used by many siblings before you. You take a last look at your room, the one you share with your littlest brother, the one where you have felt warmth and love and security. Then you close your eyes to your childhood and step out into adulthood.

You are going to the big city to become a house help, just like all four sisters before you have been. Born and raised in the dry arid village, with no viable means to support a family, most families sent their daughters to Lagos, Abuja and other affluent cities to serve as house helps to big madams. Your mother was a house help before you all, came back home when she was eighteen, met and married your father by the time she was nineteen and proceeded to have a whole parcel load of children.

When the rainfall comes, your father’s tiny piece of farmland manages a meagre harvest at best. Your mother had tried not to have to send you to Lagos and had been making do with what she could sell from your father’s land, but then there has been no rainfall in forever, and there is no produce, nothing. Nothing.

So, to Lagos you are headed.

You are next in the long and unending line of daughters sold off into modern slavery as house helps.

You are not supposed to know, but you know that your parents have already received the payment for your first year of service, and it was that money that was used to repair the collapsed roof of the house. There had been that initial gush of hope when your sisters made plans to return to their duty posts and had their conveyor come get them two days earlier. You were not included in their travel plans, and for a full day, you’d dared to hope, had dared to exult that you were not going to be called upon to save your family.

But yesterday, Mama had called you into their room, kissed you on both cheeks, held you to her chest and told you were going to leave the following day. She’d smelt of palm oil and freshly fried garri, and you wanted to cling on to her forever, to take in the smell of her and never let it go. You’d wanted to go back to New Year’s Day, to take a stroll through your cold dusty village, to sit in a circle and eat from the same bowl from your siblings.

But as all good things do, your dream is fading, ending, forever gone.

You hold your childhood in your fists one more time, then release it, let it blow into the four corners of the earth.

When you step out of your room, you are ready. You are simply the next girl in the Asiegbe family to go work to feed your family and even though you’d rather not go, duty beckons.

Your tears are gone, your hiccups are gone. And when you face your Mama’s emaciated face, it is with a broad smile on your face. But that smile does not reach all the way down into your belly.

Posted in Girls, Short story

Posterity

african baby

Posterity

(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan

My womb has never cooked babies right.

Three times, it spat them out before they were ready to breathe. They would come, slick with blood, perfect little things, all ten fingers and toes complete, only that they were unable to take a first breath. They would present them to me from a far distance, dark little bodies unwashed, and then they would go bury them. I never even got to hold them.

The one that my womb cooked long enough, she was born unfit for this world. She had the largest head I have ever seen, only one eye and a blank sheet of skin where the other should have been. Her nostrils were impossibly wide, joined to her upper lips in a comedy of errors. I wept and mourned, suffered in silence as she was put in my arms, dead as soon as she was born. I cried as my milk came in and as my breasts became engorged.

I knew then that I was eternally cursed.

You see, a woman is only as good as the number of heirs she can produce. And of the three wives that lived in my father-in-law’s compound, I was the only one who couldn’t birth a child.

I was the wife of the eldest son, the one who was supposed to deliver the heir to carry on the family name, the one on whose shoulders sat the responsibility for family.

He was being relegated to the background when he should have been the voice of the lion in family matters. But what have you when you have no child to carry on your name?

My heart bleeds for Adeoye, this man who married me for love, who shunned his arranged bride for me, who professes heaven and earth not to take another wife after me.

I was sixteen the harmattan season his parents reluctantly knocked on my parents’ door. He was twenty-four, broad-chested, and the sun and the moon and stars rose and set in his dark eyes. My parents were taken aback just as much as his parents had been, because it is the way of our people to have parents choose whom their children marry. In the end, we got our way. The bride price was paid, the wine was drunk, and I was led to my father-in-law’s compound.

It’s been ten years since that day, ten years of love, of forgiveness and of two hearts that beat as one. It’s also been ten years of grief, of hardship and unbelievable heartbreak.

This grey morning, as the cock crows and Adeoye makes to roll out of bed to head to the cocoa farm where the family works, I swallow a huge breath past the constriction in my throat and pull him back.

“My love,” I begin, “I love you, will die for you, will go through another devastating childbirth for you, but my body is giving out. And you need a child, a son to call yours…” My heart is breaking into a thousand pieces, but he needs to know that I won’t hold him back, that he has my blessing to take another woman.

He doesn’t answer, just sits there, rigid like a mountain. I curl my body around his back, trace his muscles with my fingers.

I would die for this man, lay down all the joys in my tomorrow for his.

“Adeoye, please.”

His two younger brothers have parcelloads of children already, and we are preparing to send his mother’s last child, a seventeen-year-old girl to her husband’s house. And the accusations are relentless. The last stillbirth I had, my mother-in-law visited me the next day and told me she was already in talks with a fertile family to get Adeoye another wife.

I would myself have gotten Adeoye a wife since, but he has been adamant, saying that I mean more to him than seven sons would. But for the sake of peace, for the sake of his posterity, Adeoye needs to marry another wife.

“I’ll never hold it against you, Adeoye, please.”

He turns slowly and envelopes me in a hug so tight my breath runs away.

I am surprised to see two sheets of tears running down his cheeks.

 

In ancient African communities, infertility, miscarriages, and stillbirths were considered the woman’s fault, and the man would marry a new wife to bear him children.

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 Girls, Short story

For her sake

For her sake

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

I am amazed at the radical change in my thought process, at the swiftness with which I cross the moral dilemma that has plagued me for years. Yes, I could kill. And yes, I would kill if I had to.

There is something about newborns; that soft mewling sound which translates into total helplessness, into utter dependence. Ten years ago, I held Sarah in my arms for the first time and vowed to protect her, promised solemnly to die for her, if need be.

This night, I might kill for her.

Sarah’s father did not live long enough to hold her. Two weeks before I pushed her into the world, he was mowed down by a garbage truck. We’d been married all of ten months. I was twenty-one, a widow, a mom. The world came down around my ears and threatened to suffocate me. I would wake up from sleep, my heart heavy like it was weighted down with rocks. I would sit and forget to breathe until hyperventilation set it.

But I held on strong, held on to blind faith because there was nothing else to do. There was no one else that would be there for my new born child.

Somehow, we survived. Somehow, she turned two, then three. And then Matthew came into our lives. He was thirty and though I was much younger than him, only just celebrated my twenty fourth birthday, he seemed kind of childish, a man who was just as content playing dolls with Sarah, as he was doing grown up things with me.

He seemed perfect. Five months after we met him in the park, we were married.

The first year of marriage was uneventful. He worked hard, played even harder with Sarah, hardly had any time for me. When I gave birth to Junior, he seemed disappointed. Later he would tell me he’d have preferred a little girl.

The second year was the year of the trial. On a dark, dark night, I opened the door to police officers, flashing lights and an arrest warrant. Matt was the lead suspect in the rape of a ten-year-old girl. Although he denied vehemently until the last, my heart shattered into a million tiny unredeemable pieces. The trial was a constant thorn in my flesh, a circus that played out for two weeks. When he was acquitted, when he walked into my arms, I shuddered, said a little prayer, hoped I’d never go through the horror again.

I was wrong.

Two years later, we went through the same thing again. Only it was a different courtroom, a different judge, a different prosecutor, a different defense lawyer, a different victim, a nine-year-old.

I put on a good front, said over and over again that my husband was being framed. He loved little girls; how could he sodomize them? But in my heart, in that secret place you can never lie to yourself, I began to doubt. How could he be accused not once, but twice?

I’d look at Sarah, almost eight then, and shudder with revulsion at the thought of a pedophile doing to her the unspeakable things Matt was being accused of. It was at that time that I made a vow to myself. I’d go after the nut myself, wouldn’t wait for a court of law to judge him guilty.

Again, Matthew was acquitted. Again, we went home.

But my heart no longer trusted him. When he touched me at night, my heart could balloon and swell against my chest, and I would feel like I was suffocating, like I was drowning in a black, murky sea. And in the daytime, suspicion dodged each and every one of my waking moments. If he went into Sarah’s room, I was right behind. If he sat to help her with her homework, I hovered nearby.

This night, I hold a sobbing Sarah in my arms. She heaves sob after agonising sob, floods the front of my shirt with warm salty tears.

“He tweaked my breasts…he ran his hand through…through my hair.”

Something breaks loose within me, a consuming rage that sets my stomach afire. “Shh.” I tell her. “It won’t happen again. I’ll see to it it doesn’t.”

She cries harder. My own tears taste funny, like the distillation of several dangerous liquids. I wipe them, determined not to cry. Yet I cry more.

When Sarah is spent, when there are no more tears to cry, I promise her yet again. and mean it with every fibre of my being. “It won’t happen again.”

From my knife rack, I make a selection. The biggest. The sharpest. The shiniest.

I hide the knife in my apron, and wait for Matt to come in.

 

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 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.