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 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 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 Christian fiction, Short story

Bare

Bare

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

It took all of three hours for my home to turn from full to empty. Three hours, a drunken truck driver and a faulty traffic light.

 

They called me at work, buried in the midst of the ancient tomes I was quite proficient at translating. I can’t remember going down the elevator, getting into my car, driving. But I found myself at Mary County Hospital, in the ER, clutching at the blue scrubs of one of the attendants.

 

I was in the wrong place, for there was nothing more that could be done for my two kids. They were pronounced DOA by the attending ER physician, had been transferred to the walk-in refrigerators.

 

The week passed in a blur. At the funeral, our pastor tried gamely to speak of short but eventful lives but even he was at a loss. How can a ten-year-old girl and her seven-year-old brother have lived eventful lives?

 

I retreated into myself. Mark sank to the bottom of whiskey bottles. For the first time since we’d been married, the house was exceptionally quiet. No laughter, no sounds of children horsing around, no false-cheer of early morning cartoons. Even the old house refused to creak. It sat there like a dead mouse, unmoving, deathly still.

 

I walked unceasingly through the barren rooms of my home, expecting to see Sarah and Michael as I turned corners. Sometimes I saw them but by the time I hurried to gather them in my arms, they were gone.

 

They took me to a sanatorium where there were no sharp objects, where I was constantly monitored. But I wasn’t suicidal, merely empty, merely hollow.

 

For the two weeks that I spent in that white forlorn room, Mark visited only once. And then he wouldn’t look at me. His eyes were glazed, as if his soul was on another planet. I remember thinking that he needed to be committed even more than I needed it.

 

When they finally let me out, I was surprised to realise that the sun was still shinning, that people still went to work, that the world had moved on without me.

 

I returned to work, and it was good for me. Not that it made me forget, but it made the pain more bearable. It faded to an itch below the skin, accessible yet distant.

 

I returned home late one night, found Mark in the living room, his eyes unusually clear. He smiled at me and my heart started to race. Even though he hadn’t smiled in a long time, he still had such a lovely smile and the haggardness of his face lent him a somewhat exotic but handsome form.

 

When he put his arms around my waist and I smelled not whiskey but shampoo on his skin, I gave in to the tears I’d not shed in months.

 

“It’s okay baby. It’s okay.” He said as he shushed me. “We’ve got each other. We’ll be fine.”

 

In the kitchen, he’d broken every last bottle of whiskey, dumped the contents down the drain. In the middle of the dinning, he’d made a picture collage. When we were newly wedded, when I was pregnant with Sarah, Sarah’s first picture, Mark with Michael. In the centre of them all, in the most prominent place, he’d put a picture of Jesus, torn from Sarah’s preteen Bible.

 

“He’s the one that makes our lives full.” Mark said, “Not alcohol, not work, and not our pain.”

 

In that moment, I started to let go. Not of the memories, because how does one forget ten years of being a mother, of sticky smiles and mischievous grins? But I began to relieve myself of the hurt, of the pain that gripped my heart every time I thought of my children, and of the bitterness that stung when I thought of the drunk driver.

 

And for the first time in months, my heart was full again. Filled with Christ and His healing grace.

 

 

 

Posted in Christian fiction, Short story

In Everything

 

In everything

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

“For good, Mum. This time, I’m leaving him for good.” Theresa is gripping the baby too tightly, and the boy is squirming but not crying, as if he senses his mother’s anguish and does not want to add to it.

Gently, Marie prises her daughter’s fingers away from her grandson’s torso, holds him against her chest.

“Come in Theresa.”

Still grumbling, sometimes cursing, Theresa obliges her mother and steps into the cool foyer of the home where she’d grown up. The sight of her mother’s faded gingham upholstery cools her down somewhat, stops her heart from racing with so much fury.

In the kitchen, Marie brings out a huge pitcher of cold tea and pours both of them a glassful each. The baby gets a soft biscuit.

“He’s so inconsiderate. Yeah, he’s the only one working and earning money for the home, but does he forget that I take care of the home, am a permanent servant to Joshua? Imagine, he asks me why I forgot to pick his suits from the drycleaner’s yesterday?”

Marie hides a smile behind her glass, is amazed that she has raised such a flighty.

“Is that what he did?”

“Yes. Am I his housekeeper or something?”

For the umpteenth time, Marie is glad that her daughter’s family had decided to settle close by. This has enabled her to put out many a fires before her son-in-law even became aware of them.

“That can be insulting, ehn?” Marie finds a good place to start.

“Of course it is. I’m sure Dad never treated you like that?”

Marie is no longer smiling, but she manages to keep herself from frowning. Perhaps Theresa had been too young at the time to understand that her parents had struggled with their marriage or perhaps she’s just chosen to romanticise her dead father.

“No, he didn’t treat me like that.” For a particularly bizarre period in their marriage, he’d treated her worse. He never beat her but would withdraw into days of absolute silence. He wouldn’t speak to her, wouldn’t touch her meals, wouldn’t even look at her. And he wouldn’t talk to his young daughter too. It took Marie a whole year to find out he had a mistress and two children outside the home.

She remembers those dreary years clearly. She’d lost two sons in a fire incident at their preschool, had almost lost her infant daughter too because she had been too grieved and too ill to breastfeed her, had turned to her husband for comfort only to find he was totally emotionally absent from her.

The five years that took them to get back together were dark, lonesome, and absolutely heart-wrenching. It was in those days of deep anguish that she’d met with Jesus and adopted a Bible verse that would tide her over every other heartache she would face.

Despite her hard life, Marie’s had a fullness of joy in her life that defies comprehension or explanation.

In silence, Marie refills her glass and takes a sip of the sweet liquid before speaking again. “There are certain things you need to know, Theresa. The first thing is that things are not always as bad as they initially seem. And there are things that look good on the outside but are really quite rotten on the inside. Your marriage is an example of the first, and my marriage to your father was at a time a mirror of the second.”

She waits for comprehension to hit Theresa, sees only a familiar stubbornness on her face.

“Andrew loves you, you know.”

“Yeah yeah, but why does he treat me like trash?”

“He doesn’t. And you must be careful not to allow his words get you worked up all the time. He means well.”

Theresa doesn’t reply, bends over and wipes a glob of biscuit off Joshua’s face. When she straightens, she’s smiling that smile that melts Marie’s heart again and again. “I don’t know how you put up with me. I’m a regular pain, am I not?”

Marie smiles back, says nothing.

“But he doesn’t have to talk to me in that commanding tone, does he?”

Marie rolls her eyes, smiles wider and returns to her tea.

 

 

 

 

* In everything give thanks. For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

I Thessalonians 5:18

 

Posted in Contemporary, Life commentary, Short story

A legacy of unremoved shoes

A legacy of unremoved shoes

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Then she died.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Cevapcici – Highly-spiced meat patties

Proja – Cornbread

Kajmak – A kind of diary spread

Kum – Godfather

Kuma – Godmother

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

 

 

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

 

 

Posted in Christian fiction, Contemporary, Short story

Choorile

 

Choorile

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

Posted in 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.