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.

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, Girls, Short story

Preparations

Preparations

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

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

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

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

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

Today, there would be four guests to attend to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chumon – Middle gate

Chasen – Tea whisk

Chakin – Tea cloth

Chashaku – Tea scoop

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

 

 

Posted in Christian fiction, Contemporary, Short story

A white day

A white day

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

*

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

Posted in Contemporary, Life commentary, Short story

Not anymore

Not anymore

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Posted in Contemporary, Girls, Short story

Healing

Healing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mummy, can I have him?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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