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 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 Christian fiction, Life commentary, Short story

Into God’s Kingdom

Into God’s kingdom

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

It is a decision no man should have to make.

 

Twenty minutes seems so trivial in the detritus of daily life. It is all that is required to take a bath, finish a meal, make a phone call.

 

It was also all that was needed to bring us to this point, to this decision.

 

Underneath the profusion of life support machines, she is pale, perfectly still, her stomach pushing through the blanket. I hold her limp hands in mine, rub them vigorously as if that would call back life into them, falter at the unbearableness of the situation.

 

“Are you ready?”

 

It takes the weight of the doctor’s hands on my back for me to jerk out of the hopelessness. His eyes are rimmed with compassion, yet I know he is just doing his job. Today, it is my family’s tragedy, tomorrow it would be another’s.

 

“No.” My voice comes out hoarse, scratchy, dead. “Give me a couple of minutes.”

 

He eases out of the room. I’m sure he will pass through the throng of family members that have come today. Mima’s parents, the sister who flew in from London, the other sister who has not left the hospital for more than two hours since all this began.

 

Mima, sweet Mima. Mima of the twinkling black eyes, infectious smile, gregarious personality.

 

Life goes fast when you’re with the woman you desperately love. Two years of courtship, five years of marriage. One evening, I came home to soft music, dinner by candle light, and exciting news. We would be parents at last.

 

She practically blossomed during the pregnancy. Her eternally thin frame took on a robustness that was endearing, her cheeks were infused with color, and her delight was contagious.

 

Until that evening.

 

Watching a football match in the den, I suddenly became aware of a silence that should not be. Jemima had gone into the bathroom for a shower for over ten minutes yet there was no sound of water. Easing myself off the couch, I went in search of her.

 

She was naked, bluish, crumpled haphazardly on the tiled floor. A knot the size of an egg was on her forehead.

 

Fifteen minutes later, the ambulance came. I realized I must have called them, must have wrapped Mima in a blanket, must have lifted her off the floor and cradled her in my arms. I was numb with a cold that seemed to originate from my heart, yet my face was flushed with sweat.

 

They hooked her to an oxygen mask, ran a battery of tests all night long, brought me the news the following morning as I warmed my cold hands with a cup of coffee in the reception.

 

Mima was brain dead. The fall had rendered her unconscious and her brain had been denied of oxygen for too long. There was nothing they could do.

 

At five months, the fetus was too young to survive, the neurologist said, but they could keep Mima on life support long enough for the baby to have a fighting chance. Even then, there was no telling if the baby wouldn’t be damaged. For it had partaken of the deprivation of oxygen with his mother.

 

For a week, I hovered in the twilight of grief and despair. Surrounded by family members, I felt alone and raw. I slept in the same room as Mima, prayed endlessly for a miracle, was horrified at the prospect of delegating her to the position of a womb just so our son could be born, didn’t know what to do.

 

Sighing, I release my wife’s hands, rise to my feet and run my hand through my hair. Cracking open the door just a little bit, I call for Dr. Richard.

 

“I’m ready.” I say quietly, not knowing if my decision is right or wrong, but intent on giving my wife and son the freedom they should have.

 

When the doctor nods, I walk over to the life support machine, hesitate for the briefest of moments, and flick the switch just as I’d been shown.

 

I release my wife and son into the kingdom of God.

 

 

 

*Luke 13:29 Then people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and take their places at the banquet table in the kingdom of God.

 

 

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 Life commentary, Short story

Losing myself

losing self

Losing myself

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

As I do every morning, I leave the little boy behind in bed. He is a persistent little bugger, the little dude is, and would come in to me every night, climb into bed beside me, wrap around me those long-forgotten dreams, aspirations, and hopes.

He would talk to me all night. He would besiege me with ideas and visions of what could be, what I should be doing, how I should be planning.

But I always left him behind in bed in the mornings, because he has no place in real life, no place in my everyday hustle.

Life is not for dreamers, I have since realised, it is for people who would hold their lives in their hands to put food on the table.

A long time ago, almost so long I have difficulty remembering it, I had been a dreamer. I had looked at the world with huge white eyes, had believed wholeheartedly that I just had to keep doing what I was doing for victory to come.

As a child, I’d loved to draw. It came to me naturally, and my fingers always flew over paper whether I was using a pen, a pencil, a piece of charcoal. I would look at an image, and it was like my fingers had a brain of their own, because they would remember and render back that image in an eerie likeness. I had entered several competitions as a child, had been lucky to win one of them aged twelve.

And that winning had been the cause of my sorrows, because it had filled my head my head with dreams of one day becoming a professional illustrator. I entered several competitions after that, lost every one of them, but I was firm, almost pig-headed, in my belief that there was a pot of gold on the other side of the rainbow.

And then life and reality set in.

I got my girlfriend pregnant. We were both only 20, and we thought we were going to have a go at it, be fantastic parents, take the world by the horns, be able to provide for this child while still having great lives ourselves.

One thing they don’t teach you early enough is that parenthood is a long, arduous journey and that your middle name becomes sacrifice after you’ve had a child. We were both still schooling, both working at low-income jobs, and we tried so hard to save, tried so hard to make a better life for our son.

We scraped by, we managed. I dropped several courses at school, spread my coursework so that I would eventually spend five years instead of three in school, just so that I could have time to work more. I worked and was so bone tired at the end of the days that I didn’t touch my sketch pad. On days when I didn’t go to work or go to school, I was still so fatigued I didn’t have the patience or the inspiration to put pen to paper.

And then Mariah fell pregnant again. We hadn’t planned it, just like we hadn’t planned the first one. Life became even harder, working to keep a family of four together on minimum wage, while still paying for school.

My dreams went adrift just a little further.

In four years, we had three babies. I dropped out of school so I could concentrate on work and keeping body and soul together. Mariah did the same. We didn’t tell ourselves we had quit school. Instead, we told ourselves we were postponing our education.

And postpone we did. For one year, for two years, for three years.

And then Mariah fell ill.

She’d been complaining that her bones ached for a while. She would come back from work and picking the kids from day care and would literally collapse onto the sofa, unable to bear her own weight anymore. She would cook in the kitchen, her body leaned against the wall, her breath coming in gasps.

I encouraged her to go to the doctor’s, but she didn’t want to.

“It’s just stress.”

I knew it wasn’t stress and I pressured her day after day to go to the hospital. But she wouldn’t, and I knew she didn’t want to go because it was going to cost us money that we didn’t have.

I blame myself till tomorrow that I didn’t insist, that I didn’t bundle her to the hospital myself, that I didn’t drag her kicking and screaming to go get checked out.

She collapsed on the kitchen floor one blustery cold night, and I didn’t find her until thirty minutes after she had fallen into that heap. By the time we got to the emergency room, we were four months too late. She had bone cancer, and it had progressively eaten at her bones for months undetected. By the time she started to feel weak in the knees, she was already at the tail end of things.

They gave her six months to live, and she didn’t even last that long. Two months after we got the prognosis, she gave up the ghost. It had been two months of agony, of soul-searing pain, of nights spent crying silently into my pillow, of mornings spent putting on a brave face for the world.

We buried her on an impossible hot afternoon, left her in the cemetery, and went home to echoing walls and empty dreams.

I was twenty-six, halfway educated, father of three, an unskilled worker, a widower, and I was lost. I would roam the little apartment at night, stroking the kids head, searching for Mariah’s shadow. I would soothe the kids as they shot out of bed with nightmares, but there was no one to soothe mine, no one to tell me that it would be okay.

So, I worked hard. By then, I had become a manager at the shop where I’d once been a salesperson, was earning better pay, but it all disappeared in the face of diapers, baby formula, and daycare. Family pitched in, helped where they could with money, time and kind words, but there was a gaping hole in my heart that no one but Mariah could fill. But Mariah was gone.

And because dreams are only dreams, I now know there would never be a professional illustrator me. There are bills to be paid, children to be cared for, and life to battle.

So, as I do every morning, I leave the little boy behind in bed. He is a persistent little bugger, the little dude is, and would come in to me every night, climb into bed beside me, wrap around me those long-forgotten dreams, aspirations, and hopes.

He would talk to me all night. He would besiege me with ideas and visions of what could be, what I should be doing, how I should be planning.

This morning, I sight the easel pushed into a far corner of our room, shake my head at the ridiculousness of it all.

I know I am losing myself, one piece at a time, but I do not care.

Life is for realists, not dreamers.

 

 

NB: I believe in dreams, no matter how hard or far off they may seem. I am a dreamer. and I encourage you not to give up on yours, no matter your circumstances right now.

Posted in Life commentary, Short story

Early

Early

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

Four weeks doesn’t seem like much. For heaven’s sake, it is only but a full moon. You can’t build a house in four weeks. You cannot sow and reap in four weeks. You don’t grow much in the space of four weeks.

 

But your life can take a dip in four weeks. In four weeks, you can lose the hope you held onto for eight long months.

 

Experience has taught me to take it slowly, to sit in front of the hut in the evenings with my feet propped up, sipping the bitter juice of the isesi leaves that theoretically delays labour. Experience however, has not taught me to cope with the loss.

 

The first contraction is mild, rippling my swollen belly gently. I prop my feet higher, and try to push panic away from my heart. The next contraction takes its time in arriving, but it is with a little more kick. Terror floods my heart.

 

Five times I’ve been with child. Five times I’ve knelt at the birthing bed four or five weeks too early. And five times I’ve been handed dead children, fragile babies that do not have the ability to suck life-giving air into their lungs.

 

At the third contraction, I hasten off the chair, into my mother-in-law’s hut. Over a slow fire, she is roasting groundnuts, her feet tapping to a song she hums gently.

 

“Mama…the baby.”

 

At the sound of my voice, she turns. Her face is brown and perfectly wrinkled, her eyes deep set and knowledgeable. This evening, they are twin pools of sorrow.

 

“Now?” She asks, rising to her feet.

 

I nod and turn to go out of the hut. She follows immediately and soon catches up with me.

 

“Perhaps the baby will live.” She says.

 

I want to keep hope alive. I desperately want to hold my own child in my arms, not because arrangements are already being made for Soji to marry another woman, one that will bear him living heirs. Not because it is extremely shameful for a woman to be besieged by series of stillbirths.

 

I want a child I can love. I want this extension of me. I want this validation that I am a whole woman.

 

“Go on inside. I will get the midwife.” Mama says at the entrance to my hut. As she hurries away, another contraction hits me right in the middle of my stomach. The pain roots me to the spot. My feet tremble as a sudden cold descends on me.

 

As the contraction eases, I realize that I am sobbing, praying, pleading.

 

“Oh God, oh God. Let this baby live. Please…please, oh God.”

 

In a raffia basket near the bed, the birthing equipment are ready. A dull knife, a sharp knife, a clamping cord, coarse soap, palm oil for the baby’s skin. In another raffia basket are baby clothes, hand stitched the first time I got pregnant.

 

I’d been wild with joy, thrilled at the honour of becoming pregnant only one month after we were married. At the village market, I’d purchased yards and yards of good material, had laboured for months, stitching together beautiful garments, waiting for the birth of my first child.

 

That baby came six weeks early, had not even drawn a single breath before she was laid into the ground.

 

The sobs rend themselves from my throat, exploding from me not unlike a burst of gunfire.

 

I sit on the edge of the bed, awaiting the midwife’s arrival.

 

 

 

 

In ancient Africa, the mortality rate was very high as there were no equipment to save premature babies.

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, 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.