Posted in Contemporary, Short story

Of losses and opportunities

Of losses and opportunities

(c) July 2020 Folakemi Emem-Akpan

He lost him to the land of opportunities. It is a thirty year long pain that still hurts, that still throbs and sears whenever he allows himself the luxury of remembering.

 

He had been four, that tremulous age when one is too young to remember and yet too old to forget. For he does not, cannot remember the details of his father’s face or of his body. Had he been fat or slim, swarthy or fair, tall or short? Yet he remembers the warm feeling that rose up in him when his father smiled at him, when he picked him up from amidst his toys as he returned from the office, when he ran his five O clock shadow against his stomach.

 

Biodun shakes his head, sticks his thoughts into his remembrance box for later, and turns to his wife of three years. Beatrice’s belly is huge, showing effortlessly through the extra extra large maternity blouse she has on. He hates to leave at a time like this, does not want to be cast in the same light as his father, desperately needs to be by his wife’s side in the labor room.

 

“Relax already.” Beatrice nudges him sharply at the sides and dazzles him with a smile when he faces her. “I’ll be fine. And if things go the way the editor said, you should be home by next week.”

 

“What if…”

 

“I give birth before you come? Honest, we’ll be fine.”

 

He closes his eyes, sucks in a breath, is about to expel it when the public address system comes to life. It is time to board the New York bound flight, time to kiss his wife goodbye.

 

He does so quickly, not wanting her to see the tears that suddenly well up in his eyes. As he walks towards the door, he does not look back, assaulted with images from another age, from another era of his life.

 

He remembers that afternoon at the airport, waving hard at his father as the latter went into the departure lounge, smiling his customary thousand watt smile.

 

That was the last time he saw him.

 

Three days later, his mother gave birth to his sister. His father called that day for the first time, to say he’d arrived safely.

 

In the next four months, he called exactly four times, once each month to report his progress.

 

And then the calls stopped.

 

For three years, little Biodun pestered his Mum. He wanted to know where daddy was, why he didn’t come home anymore, why he couldn’t go with him to school functions. Always he was told, “Daddy is in the US. He is working hard to make life better for all of us.”

 

He learnt the truth when he reached the all-wise age of ten. He came home from school to meet his mother curled up in bed, her face white and streaked with gray lines of tears. He thought she was dying. Then she told him the truth.

 

Someone had played the Green Card Lottery but had died before the results came out, before he could learn that he was about to become an American citizen. The family searched for an alternative, someone who looked as close as possible to their late son; they found Segun, Biodun’s father.

 

One month later, he paid the asking price, shaved his hair and grew out his beard, took on the identity of a dead man, and waved his family goodbye with promises of getting established in the US and sending for them.

 

He didn’t. Instead, he found himself a white woman, well-off, single and desperate for marriage. Before the year ran out, she was pregnant and they were married. In four years, they’d produced three children.

 

A distant friend ran into him, returned to Nigeria with the news for Biodun’s mother. And there was nothing they could do. On their marriage certificate here in Nigeria, he was Segun Adeboye. In New York, in his new life, he was Uche Adaeze.

 

When Biodun settles into his seat on the plane, the initial agreement for the publishing of his script in his hands, he calms himself.

 

He is not his father. He can have his future and his family both. He will sign the final agreement, make final corrections to his manuscript. Then he will return.

 

To his wife, to their soon-to-be-born son.

 

Posted in Contemporary, Life commentary, Short story

Fool’s gold

Fool’s gold                

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s happening here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Posted in Christian fiction, Short story

Still searching

 

mothers love

Still searching

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

The first man stole my money and dignity and left me with an unwanted baby.

The second drove all my friends away and turned me into a recluse.

The third…well, the third man put my daughter in the family way and made me an untimely grandmother.

I have stopped searching. What’s the big deal about love anyway? I am all of my thirty-four years and will not be fooled anymore.

How can a man whisper love to you, yet rob you and turn tail when your shared love produces a child? Or, how can a man profess love when he’s all consumed by jealousy and can’t bear to share you with others, not even your family and friends. And how can you talk about love when a man heads over heels in love with you makes a baby with your fifteen-year-old daughter?

They tell me I’ve become a cynic. Overcautious, skeptical, too wrung out.

Perhaps yes, perhaps no. All I know is that I’ve finally grown up, and grownups use their senses, and not their hearts.

“Hello mum.” Femi, my daughter bounds into the room with Bolu slung over her shoulder.

“Hi.” I return, reaching out automatically for my four-month-old granddaughter. When I allow myself to think of the circumstances of her birth, grief paralyses me and my heart almost always threatens to explode out of my chest. So I think less often of how she got here and more of how much I love her.

It’s been a long, sad year but the sadness and the tears and the pain has driven Femi and me back together. We’ve spent the past one year weeping and growing together.

“I just finished feeding her. Would you mind watching her awhile? There’s a youth group meeting in church this afternoon.”

Femi has just gotten herself religion, the kind of which I have never seen before. Church on Sundays and two evenings a week. No more mini-skirts and tank tops. At age sixteen? I can’t for the life of me imagine how. Or why?

“You’re not studying as hard as you used to anymore.” I chide her foolishly even though she made straight As in her last exams.

“That’s not true, Mum. You know I try to get in some extra hours when Bolu falls asleep at night. And youth group makes me happy. I’m really learning a lot. Last meeting, our instructor talked about love.”

“Love?” I look up from burping Bolu.

“Yeah. How that one can only find true love in Jesus Christ. He said it is useless trying to find love in things or even in people. Things get destroyed and people change, he said, but only God’s love stays constant.”

“What?”

She sighs and falls into the chair beside me. “I think it’s true talk, Mum. If not, why did all your friends abandon us when I fell pregnant for Uncle Dave? And my friends too? Why is it that the neighbours don’t greet us anymore? Why, if not for the simple reason that people only love you when you do good?”

I find that I cannot talk, that there is a huge ball the size of Lagos in my throat.

Femi went on unrelentingly, “If God didn’t love us unconditionally, He would have killed me for what I did to you…”

“It wasn’t your fault,” I cut in for want of something to say, “Uncle Dave forced himself on you.”

“The first two times, Mum. Afterwards, I gave in willingly.” There are tears in her eyes. For the last one year, she has done nothing but apologise, and I have forgiven her. In fact, I have never blamed her.

Dave was a grown man who had somehow convinced my fifteen year old that he loved her, and that she was the one for him. He had raped her at first, and then somehow gotten her to believe that he was in love with her, and that she was in love with him reciprocally.

“Perhaps it is true what the youth leader says about God and love, Mum.”

I reflect. No one in my life has ever loved me unconditionally. Not one single person. “Go ahead, tell me more.” I tell my daughter.

“He also said that it is only God who is able to put good people in your life who will love you despite anything. Faithful husbands, good mothers. Caring friends.”

“Hmn?”

“I think I’m going to give God a trial. Sounds like a good bargain to me. I love Him; He loves me and puts good people in my life. And I think you should do the same. Then we could perhaps ask for a husband for you?”

“Femi?”

“You’re still young! Only thirty-four. You shouldn’t spend the rest of your life looking after me and Bolu.”

“I think you should go now. Or you’ll be late.”

She wipes the tears from her eyes and smiles broadly, that mischievous smile that is uniquely hers. “Okay Mum, but promise me you’ll give it good thought. It’s going to be worth it.”

I hesitate to reply. No one’s ever loved me unconditionally, so why would God?

“Promise, Mum.”

“Okay, I promise.” I say as I bounce Bolu on my knees. My heart is racing in my chest but perhaps God is worth giving a try, if He would take me, baggage and all.

I will give Him a trial.

For her sake. For Bolu’s sake.

For God’s sake.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Christian fiction, Short story

A patch and a hope

A patch and a hope

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

My back groans in protest as I heave myself to my feet. It’s been a grueling two hours, weeding, trimming, planting. Yet, the sorry excuse of a garden looks forlorn.

Actually, it mirrors the despair in my heart, the terrifying loneliness, the pain.

 

“Mom, haven’t you finished yet?”

 

Pushing tangled hair away from my face, I am assaulted with my daughter’s image. My heart lurches into its familiar dance of pain. At twelve, she’s the size of a three-year-old. Sadly, she can’t even do what three-year-olds do. She slides on her rear end instead of walking, messes up her face while eating, and I have to clean her up every time she has a bowel movement.

 

She hasn’t always been this way. I haven’t always been a widow.

 

Five years ago, I had a husband and Teresa was like any seven-year-old. We lived a simple but happy life. One bright Christmas morning, we loaded our old car full of food, intent on dispensing cheers to as many people as we knew. We started with my mother, wove our way to Mark’s childhood home where his father still lived, then down to an elderly woman Teresa’d adopted.

 

Tired but happy, we set for home at night. The stars weren’t bright enough to light our path and the car’s headlights were weak, had been weak for ages. I will forever regret the fact that I was talking too fast and that Mark was listening too intently.

 

The next bend came round too soon. Our screams rent the still night air as I felt myself dropping through space, the metallic taste of blood on my lips. Then there was nothing but darkness.

 

When I came to, my mom was staring at me with a look that told me all was lost. She was reluctant but I was eager, so the story unfurled. Mark was dead on impact, Teresa was alive but her condition was critical.

 

The memories flood my head this dry afternoon and cause my head to ache. I reply Teresa. “Yes, I have. I am done with them.”

 

“Will they grow fine?”

 

I look at the tomatoes I’d just planted, doubt if they’d grow at all, if my heart would ever be at peace, if tomorrow would be any better than today.

 

“Will they?”

 

“Maybe. Let’s go have breakfast.”

 

She slides along beside me in obedience. I can’t get her to use her wheelchair. She hates it with a passion, and this was the same passion that had made her live, that had made her come back home to me, even though she was still broken and I couldn’t fix her.

 

The prognosis was bad. If she lived, she’d be a paraplegic. She lived, she wasn’t a paraplegic, but for a reason that confounds medical science till tomorrow, her frame began to shrink. The bones, the skin, everything but her head.

 

“Will the tomatoes grow?”

 

Her repeated question crowds my head and before I know it, I’m snapping at her, “I don’t know. Leave me alone.”

 

Life’s been hard and unduly unfair. Before Mark’s death, I didn’t work, only dreamt of one day becoming a writer. After his death, I was coldly thrust into the breadwinner’s field. We are surviving, but barely so. Teresa’s medical bill gulps money faster than the dry patch of garden outside gulps water.

 

In four years, I’ve toiled endlessly in the garden and have only been rewarded by two harvests. Two miserly harvests.

 

I don’t know how I reached my conclusion; the important thing is that I have a conclusion. Either God doesn’t exist or cares nothing for us.

 

Teresa’s eyes fill with tears but she presses on. “I hope the garden grows this time.”

 

I plunk a plate of rice in front of her and begin to play with my own food. She eats in silence while I sulk at a God I’ve ceased believing in.

 

***

 

The sound of horse hooves on the roof jerks me out of an uneasy sleep. What is going on? Jumping off the bed, my first thought is of Teresa’s safety. My heart begins a long and uneven race as I barrel out of the room.

 

She meets me at the door. “It’s raining.”

 

The horse hooves I had imagined mellowed to pelts of rain, and my heart stops racing.

 

“Mom, it’s raining.” She repeats as if I am deaf.

 

It’s not rained in a year.

 

***

 

Teresa slides noisily into the room. I look up from the script I’m trying to write.

 

“The tomatoes.” She’s fairly bursting with excitement.

 

I don’t understand her when she gets this way.

 

“They’re growing. I saw them.”

 

With a speed I didn’t think I had, I was running out of the door, into the rain that’s been falling for two days. Into hope.

 

 

Posted in Christian fiction, Girls, Short story

This wish

This one wish
(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Back so early?”

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

That’s when I see the tree.

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

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

 

***

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

 

***

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

 

Posted in Girls, Life commentary, Short story

Unprepared

young-black-girl-cartoon

(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Girls, Life commentary, Short story

Feyikemi

Feyikemi

(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the blood always came. And the visits continued.

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

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

And then Feyikemi gets pregnant.

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

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

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

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

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

Then, the hesitant tap of fingers on my back.

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

“It’s a girl.” She says simply.

Posted in Girls, Short story

Saving the family

SAVING THE FAMILY

(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, to Lagos you are headed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Girls, Short story

Posterity

african baby

Posterity

(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan

My womb has never cooked babies right.

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

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

I knew then that I was eternally cursed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Adeoye, please.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Posted in 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.