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 Contemporary, Short story

Garlic Breath

Garlic breath

(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan

I remember too clearly. The day he left was not the kind of day anyone should leave his family. The sun was directly overhead, and I remember our throats being parched beyond redemption. By the time Mama got us ice-cream, I’d already developed sores on my lips. We were hot, sweaty and miserable.

But not my Papa.

The joy that bubbled in his being was visible but not contagious, as if Mama already had the prophecy of what would happen, and as if we children concurred with her. Papa was oblivious to us, mopping his big bald head, and gnawing on the garlic clover he never went anywhere without.

There was no direct flight, so he was catching a first flight to Amsterdam. Eight tedious hours, he’d say, but the pleasure was all there in his eyes. He was the first in our family to travel abroad, and the fact that he wasn’t doing so legally didn’t bother him. A man had applied for the American DV lottery but had died before the results showed he was a winner. His brother shopped around for a look-alike, located my father, discussed business with him, and sealed the deal.

Four months later, my father, now bearing a dead man’s name, was going to the land of promise. The plan was for him to get established somehow, anyhow, and then send for Mama and us. We were initially delirious with joy but Mama’s obvious displeasure eventually rubbed off on us. It would be years later that I would begin to understand her reluctance.

Papa was a natural womaniser, a man blessed with too much good looks. A straight well-packed body, an oblong face that housed piercing dark eyes, an aristocratic nose, and full lips that bordered on pretty. The only thing that tainted his handsomeness was teeth that were slightly off colour, stained yellow by garlic juice. Being married and being a father to four children didn’t, couldn’t stop his wandering ways.

When the public address system announced that his flight was ready, he flashed us a thousand watt smile, waved goodbye and was off.

Little did I know that I’d never see him again.

*

He called twenty-two hours later. Mama came back from our neighbour’s house where she’d received the call, not exactly smiling but not frowning either.

“Your Pa called. He’s in America now. Says to say hello to you all.” That said, she took a seat and started to dish our dinner, food that already gone cold and congealed at the edges.

“Ma,” I began in my ten year old wisdom, a part of me eager to go live in America, the other not wanting to irk my mother. “When do you think Papa will send for us? Will it be very soon?”

She didn’t answer for a moment, but her spoon clanked against her plate. Then she stared me right in the eyes. “There are things you’re too young to understand. Perhaps your Pa will send for us, and perhaps he won’t.”

“But why?”

“Because he is who he is. And as I said, there are certain things you’re too young to understand.”

Her answer did not satisfy me, yet in that secret part of me where I know what things are true and what things are not, I knew it had fallen upon me to be the man of the house. After all, I was already ten years old, soon to be eleven. And I had three younger ones to look after. Not to talk of my mother, my Ma with the habitually pinched face and trembling hands.

*

I found a dried clove of garlic in his trousers. Without any hesitation, I pocketed it. It made all the sense in the world. If I had to take my father’s place, I had to be like him. I had to be him.

The first gnaw filled my mouth with heat and a horrible taste. I wondered how he could stand it, enjoy it even. But I persevered. I had to be Papa.

In their room, I found a picture of Papa and Mama. She looked very different, with a smile curving her lips. And there was none of that gauntness in her face. In fact, she looked radiant. Positively glowing, like there was nothing more to do in life than savour it. Based on the date on the right hand corner of the picture, I realised the picture had been taken a few months to their wedding. And I also understood something else.

Twelve years of being Papa’s wife had drained the life from my mother.

*

To my surprise, he called again a month after he left. Even though I didn’t speak to him, I gathered from Mama that he was finding America exciting. He told her he was already getting used to being called something other than his real name, that his new country had dizzying sights and sounds. He didn’t talk about getting a job.

I wanted to ask her if his call meant that we would soon be joining him, but didn’t.

“Ma, didn’t he ask to speak to us?” Ambrose, my eight year old brother asked. I gave him the evil eye. Didn’t he know one didn’t ask Mama that kind of question?

Mama shook her head. “He said to greet you all. Making calls from there is very expensive and he has to save money to send for us.”

“So when are we going?” Ambrose persisted.

“When all is good and ready.” And with that, she turned on her heels and went to her room. Even though she held her head high, I knew stupid Ambrose’s questions had rattled her, made her reconsider that Papa might not come back, as she so strongly believed.

I waited ten full minutes before I knocked on her door. When she didn’t bid me enter, I did anyway. She was curled up in the foetal position, her back to me.

“Ma, are you all right?”

A huge heave went through her body before she pushed herself up and turned to face me. “Yes, I am.” But her eyes were red-rimmed, as red as ripe tomato fruits. “It’s just that…just that…”

“Just that what, Mama?” I moved closer and put my arms around her and was startled when she stiffened. “I’m old enough, Mama. You can tell me what’s wrong?”

Closing her eyes, she sniffed the air. “What’s that smell? Didn’t I tell you not to ever chew garlic again? Didn’t I?”

I’d chewed a bit of a clover about two hours ago, before she came back home from work. After a month of practice, my tongue didn’t recoil in horror anymore even though I still detested the tangy taste.

“Don’t ever chew that noxious stuff in this house again, you hear me.” She was shaking me so hard I thought my teeth would fall out of my skull. Then she burst into tears.

I was confused and frightened, and slowly removed my arms from around her.

“I’m sorry.” She finally said. “It’s just that I don’t want you to be like him. Never.”

“But…but he’s my pa, and now that he’s gone, I have to take his place.”

She sighed. “No, you don’t have to take his place. I love you just as you are. Do you understand?”

Even though I didn’t, I nodded nevertheless.

“Even though you’re still too young, I’m going to tell you some things. Perhaps then, you’d stop trying to be like your father.”

I didn’t want to hear things about my father; at least not right then. I was still too frightened. I slid off the bed and stood.

“Sit.”

The command was soft but sharp and I quickly scrambled for a seat.

“Do you know what a womaniser is?”

I shook my head no, and was startled by Mama’s bark of laughter. “I thought not. A womaniser is a man who loves women too much. He just can’t do without them, and the more they are, the merrier.”

“Is Papa a womaniser?”

She nodded. “Yes. My mother didn’t want me to marry him. She saw right through him, but by God, you father could turn on the charm. Of course I went right ahead and married him. A year later, as I gave birth to you, I heard news that another woman had also just given him a son. You have a half-brother. Do you know what that means?”

I shook my head.

“It means you have another sibling that is different from Ambrose, Elvis, and Lilah. He’s about your age now.” For a minute she seemed to withdraw inside herself.  “If your father had stopped at that, it would have been all right. He’s not made another mistake of knocking someone else up, but he’s done just as well. Over the years, I’ve caught him with several women, some not much older than sixteen.”

“But…”

“But nothing. And now that he’s travelled, I’m sure he’s going to find himself some American woman and forget all about us.”

“But…”

“Shh. I’m tired. Could you close the door after you when you leave?”

Bewilderment surged through me. Was the conversation over? “Mama…”

“I’m sorry I told you all this, but you’ve got to stop acting like your father. I don’t like it.”

*

I never chewed garlic again. We never continued that conversation. And none of my younger siblings ever bothered Mama with questions about Papa again.

A year rolled by, with Papa calling about every month with promises of getting a job and sending for us. Then two years passed and then three years. The calls became spaced out, like every four months. And then they stopped.

Mama’s face lost its pinched look, and slowly she began to resemble the woman I’d seen in the picture.

Before I knew it, I was sixteen and virtually fatherless.

*

I came home from school to find Mama on the couch. There were no tears this time but there was a hardness in her face that could cut diamonds.

“An old friend called. She somehow heard the news.”

“What news, Mama?” My voice was now fully broken and still embarrassed me.

“The news we’ve been waiting for for five years.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand you.” I dropped my school satchel and sat opposite her. “What happened?”

“It’s you father.”

A knot of an emotion I couldn’t quite define gripped my midsection. “Is he dead?”

“No. He’s alive and doing very well. And by the way, he’s remarried to a white American, and has another child. Obviously, he got her by telling her he was never married. And as he is going by a new name…” She shrugged and stopped.

She was trying to be nonchallant but I knew, had an inkling of how it must feel. Your worst dream come true. I wanted to tell her it would be all right, but I also knew it was no time for platitudes.

Like that time five years ago, I slipped my arms around her waist, only that she didn’t stiffen now. Instead, she rested her head on my shoulder. In no time, I felt wetness. She was crying.

*

The next day, after she’d left for work, I came back from school. Rounding up Papa’s clothes did not take too long. Emptying the pockets, I found a grey mess that must some years ago have been garlic.

In the backyard, I built a huge bonfire, feeding it Papa’s clothes one at a time. When all had turned to ashes, I turned back and went into the house. Now, my father was officially dead.

Posted in Contemporary, Short story

Two worlds

Two worlds

(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

The air felt deliciously warm, and my skin began to burn, a sensation I’d not felt in six years. In my country, it was always hot, seldom cold, and never freezing. Unlike Idaho where I was coming from.

 

I stepped into the arrival lounge, into the cool world of air conditioners and felt temporary relief. I was surprised that I had forgotten how it felt to be hot, sweaty, miserable.

 

Of course no one was waiting for me; no one knew I was arriving. For a minute or so, I lounged against a wall, watching the comings and goings around me, drinking in the scenery.

 

Even while I had been in Nigeria, it hadn’t been my scene. I hadn’t been rich enough to hobnob with the cream of the society, had never boarded a plane until that sunny day six years ago, had never even been to Lagos, the commercial nerve-centre of my country before then.

 

It began almost like a joke.

 

Walking the dusty road home from school, telling not-so-funny jokes to Bade, my best friend, I’d stepped on a floating piece of paper. Then I’d crumpled it to give it better weight and had kicked it the rest of the way home.

 

Later in the evening, as my mother fried gaari in the kitchen and my father sat in the low parlour with his drinking buddies, I’d searched for what to read in vain.

 

Our house contained no reading surprises. I didn’t have textbooks for school; I was lucky enough to even be in school. I was the first child, the only boy, and my father farmed extra hard, slaved all week long to send me to school.

 

I had a sharp mind, one that constantly agitated over what books to read, novels where I was swept to distant lands I’d never been, that I might never go physically. In the books that I borrowed from our meagre school library, I traveled to the prairie lands of the old USA, to Canadian canyons, to the Australian outback, to English castles and glades.

 

That evening, I stepped outside my room and immediately came upon the paper I’d kicked all the way home. I stooped, picked it up, unwrapped it.

 

It was a cutting from a week-old newspaper.

 

Students all over my state were invited to send in articles about the United States, the aim of the exercise being to examine how well read secondary school students were and how knowledgeable we were about other countries.

 

For the very first time in my life, I wrote an article, not because I at that time knew the prize involved, but because it felt liberating to commit knowledge to paper, to test the boundaries of my imagination.

 

I wrote late into the night, by candle light, the words tumbling out of places I never knew even existed.

 

The following day, I walked to Ilesha, the town nearest to us, the one that boasted a post office. When I slid my enveloped entry into the receiving tray, I felt free, unchained.

 

Four months to the day, a postman brought the letter that would change my life.

 

I was the winner of the competition, was invited to a dinner with the state governor in Osogbo at which ceremony I would be able to choose at which US University I intended to study.

 

A two-year long preparation, waiting to finish my secondary education, applying to schools that taught writing, being accepted at Idaho State University, buying clothes, attending press conferences with the governor who was determined to show the world the difference he was making in the life of an ordinary village boy with the aid of his wife who was a born American.

 

And then that day.

 

I waved goodbye to my parents and sisters in the village, travelled to Osogbo where I slept in the governor’s lodge and was presented with my passport and visa. The following day, I was driven to Lagos, put aboard a plane.

 

I arrived Idaho in December, in the deadest of winters, the land completely obscured by snow. I was cold, chilled to my bones, as I would be for the next six years. Despite winter coats, despite electric fires, despite everything. I guess I was too much of an African to be used to anything but the yellow sun.

 

Shaking my head as if to clear it of cobwebby thoughts, I drew myself back to the present. I must have been standing in the same spot for more than ten minutes. Because a man was staring strangely at me, shaking his head.

 

I picked up my box and stepped outside, into the waiting area of taxis.

 

“The airport hotel.” I said to a driver whose cap was pulled low over his head and who appeared to want nothing more than just sit where he was, doing nothing.

 

“A thousand Naira.”

 

Incredulity coloured the whites of my eyes. A thousand naira? Then I remembered he was not talking in dollars. One thousand Naira was only $8.33.

 

At the hotel, I gave him ten dollars, signed in at the concierge’s, and finally sank into the warm softness of the hotel bed.

 

I woke up the next morning to a yellow sky and a dish of white rice and palm oil soup. It was good to be home.

 

*

 

Six years in a foreign land where things worked as they should had wisened me. I looked at my village with new eyes. Dusty roads, more mud houses than concrete, little children that ran about naked or almost so.

 

The taxi stopped in front of my father’s house and I stepped out, paid the fare and walked hesitantly towards the front porch.

 

An old man sat there, cleaning his teeth with a piece of chewing stick, spitting at a dog that lay at his feet and refused to budge despite the missiles.

 

“Excuse me…” I began to say before I realised that the old man was not an old man at all; it was my father gone to seed.

 

“Baba?”

 

He looked up and squinted uncomprehendingly at me for a bit. Then his face blossomed into a large smile, full of yellow teeth.

 

“Gboyega?” He asked.

 

I hadn’t been called Gboyega in five years. One year of students and lecturers alike tripping their tongues all over my name at Idaho State had necessitated a change. To George.

 

“Yes Baba.”

 

He grabbed me around the waist and I was about to hug him back when I remembered that in Africa, in my village, children prostrate to their parents, not hug them.

 

I dropped to my knees, genuflected and allowed myself to be lifted up.

 

“You’ve grown so big. How are you? You never even said you were coming? You…Come, your mother is in the backyard.”

 

As usual, Mama was frying gaari, huge beads of sweat glistening on her dark face. When she saw me, she turned the shade of a colour hard to define, closed her eyes, opened then again, and asked, “Gboyega?”

 

Again I prostrated, again I was pulled up, again I was pulled into a warm embrace, one that smelled of cassava and sweat.

 

“Good God, see how you’ve grown.”

 

I’d not eaten gaari in all the time I’d been gone, and the smell of the one frying taunted my nostrils. I took some from the huge frying pan, transferred it to my mouth and ruminated on how heavenly it was to be home, even if it was for s short while.

 

*

 

It was no longer fun to be home. The relentless heat (and our house had no air conditioner, only the parlour had a rickety ceiling fan) was unbearable, and so was the tiny grits of sand that found their way everywhere; into my nostrils, underneath my clothing, in between my teeth and onto my tongue, into my hair.

 

Then there was the business of passing waste. I’d been born , twenty-five years ago, to the knowledge of our pit latrine, to the drone of flies as one did one’s business. Six years ago, I started unlearning my intimacy with the pit latrine. Got used to the water system.

 

The first day after I returned, using the pit latrine was an adventure. Two days later, it was an inconvenience. By the fourth day, it was a major irritation.

 

Our one TV, the one Baba bought after I left for the US, was black and white and had to be slapped severally before the picture would stop jumping.

 

In ten days, I wished I had not planned to stay for a month, was longing for the coldness and starkness of Idaho streets, the warmth of my bed-sit, the intellectuality of my fellow writing students.

 

On the eleventh day, Baba and I had a serious talk. He was the first to knock on my door in the morning, his perpetual chewing stick stuck in his mouth.

 

“Oluwagboyega.” He called me by my full name as I staggered awake. “I’ve been meaning to have this talk with you for a while.” He said as he lowered his body onto my childhood bed.

 

“Good morning Baba.” I managed to say as I sat up.

 

“I’ve been meaning to ask you. Are you planning to come and stay back in the village after you finish from school?”

 

I would finish school the coming year, was vacillating between staying back in Idaho and coming back to Nigeria. But never, not once had I considered coming back to the village. If I ever came back, it would be to Lagos. For heaven’s sake, what would a dramatic writer do in a village that seldom got newspapers?

 

I weighed my answer carefully. Coming back or not depended on many things that I could not yet tell Baba, one of which was Valerie. To a white, pampered girl, even Lagos would be a jungle. How could I bring her to Iperindo?

 

“I am still thinking about it, Baba.”

 

He scratched his head, cleared his voice and said the most unimaginable thing. “Because I was thinking if you were planning to move back here, you would have to pull down this house and build a more befitting one.”

 

I bit back on what would have been an abrasive reply and nodded in agreement, too sleepy to even contemplate argument.

 

*

 

I never stayed the whole month I’d intended to. Much as I loved my parents and my siblings, there was an unease that constantly sat on my shoulders. Of not fitting in, of not remembering the customs I was supposed to.

 

Twenty days after I arrived, I was on another plane headed towards the US, towards Valerie, towards life as I had come to know it.