“When you are ripe for marriage,
you will understand.
But this is my last words to you my child:
never challenge your husband,
love him, care for him,
and it will be well with you.”
Mkpuruma still remembers Mama’s words, which felt like a threat instead of an advice to her.
Those words first came to her at the village, in her father’s house, where Mama was in the backyard plucking fresh bitter leaves for soup. Then she began to summon her daughter in terrifying, long, intermittent screeches. If screaming were a course offered at the university, Mama wouldn’t only be a major in it but she would ace it without remorse. She was a pro.
Mkpuruma was in the kitchen when she overheard her mother screaming out her name. With the speed of light, she zoomed out of the kitchen almost tipping off a flight of stairs to attend to the call. She stood a few meters away from Mama and tried not to maintain sufficient glances with her, something she had learnt painfully by experience. Once, Mama screamed her out of the toilet and she drew closer to her, only for a slap to land on the side of her face, leaving a wound which resulted in a grotesque scar. She was guilty of fighting with Rufus, their neighbor’s only child.
“But Mama what have I done?” Mkpuruma inquired in between tears. Still she knew the reason for which she was being punished.
“Why did you have to fight with that boy?”
“If you ask me that foolish question again, I will…” Mama threw her lumpy hand forward in bid to hit her again.
“I didn’t beat any boy o”
“Shut up! Rufu’s mother accosted me on my way to the market. Come and hear the insults. That woman humiliated me. Don’t you know that boy is SS?”
“Mama, please o, what is SS?”
“He’s a sickle cell patient. If you had killed him, it would have been jail, straight away. Bia nwa, biko! Don’t kill me.”
How could she have known he was a sickle cell anemia patient? They were like Rey mysterio and Kane, if you know what I mean. But she wouldn’t have wrestled Rufus if he had learned to hush his tongue to rest and zip his lips. Mkpuruma enjoyed playing football with the boys and as the game was getting tense and in all that air of euphoria, she mistakenly kicked the ball towards a stack of woods with nails festooned all over them. The ball cracked open and breathed its last. Rufus cried and threatened to beat her up if another replacement wasn’t provided, and soon. So the duo ventured into combat.
The girl, Rey mysterio, pulled the thin, almost flabby boy, Kane, looking like an Iroko tree, from the ground and threw him against the ground. The football match had come to an abrupt end. The rest of the boys gathered around to cheer and hail the winner of the wrestling contest.
But she wished Mama was still around to see how well she was doing, how far she had gone in carrying out her assignment as a wife and mother. Sometimes she blamed her mother for not schooling her enough on the rudiments of a housewife, or may she wasn’t paying as much attention as needed to ace that course. Still she was sure she had listened attentively to her mother, lending her ears and heart to every iota of detail that mattered, every information that would make her a perfect housewife. Mkpuruma never agreed with the statement “It’s a man’s world,” but she was afraid to disagree with the counsel of her mother, nonetheless. She held Mama at high esteem.
So Mkpuruma never made a case whenever she was made to join Mama at the kitchen every single day trying to make sense of the next possible meal for the family—Mama enjoyed cooking and saw it as a hobby in addition to knitting, but Mkpuruma never did—while her brothers snored out their lungs in the coziness of their bed. Then they rolled out of bed only when the meals were served.
Neither did she complain whenever her parents argued so loud, then in hushed tones, and their argument which sometimes alternated between vicious words and physical abuse irritated her and made her scream. On the contrary she complained terribly to her mother. At best, Mama only knew how to cry and use the phrase “you won’t understand my child.” But there was nothing to understand. Mkpuruma knew her mother was weak and grief was one of her numerous traits, and she herself had obviously inherited both.
The phone continued to blare like a goat and Mkpuruma rushed out of the bathroom with soap lathered over her hair. She was scared to pick the call; she had no idea who or what to expect this time. She was not sure if the caller was the rusty masculine voice from yesterday; the caller had rained curses on her via the phone. Or the child from two days ago. Or the guy that suddenly became all chatty and friendly with her, but their friendship had terminated the moment she realized she had been scammed and her account frozen, he had introduced her to this dating app. Or the feminine voice from two weeks back, which sounded both sanguine and lurid at the same time; she could have mistaken the voice for Olunna, her first child or Ebere, the second, or Nnenna, or Adaora, or Amara. But she didn’t. Several years buried within the archives of loneliness, and of all things that had grown pale and antiquated within and around her, the voices of her girls remained new and fresh like morning dew. Not just their voices, but their faces, the way each one smiled, cried and laughed. All of them felt like yesterday. This was what she found herself doing most days, dialing up strange numbers in a bid to get all chatty with someone new. And whenever she found someone new, they never met in person. They only did over the phone, she preferred it that way.
The phone rested on a bookshelf. She limped forward and started to ransack the shelf for it, groping like a blind bat. She put her spectacles back on after holding onto the phone, and began to squint at the screen. And who could this be? She said to herself in soft whispers. The number looked both familiar and strange to her. But the call had ended. Five missed calls.
Do I call back? No, I don’t think it’s the right thing to do. Just wait. But it wouldn’t kill you, just call. Maybe It could be her. She found herself limping back and forth in her thoughts and her inability to reach a decision weighed down on her. In a bid to hit the dial button, the call reinstated its authority. Hastily, she took the call.
“Hello! Who’s this?” The callers voice, without a shroud of politeness. It was a feminine voice. Probably a young woman. Mkpuruma remained mute. She was completely stunned. How is it possible? She recognized the voice. For a minute there, she did not know the next thing to do—whether to cry, scream or smile. She just stood like a tree, silently.
“Who is this?” The voice pressed further. “If you don’t answer me now I will hang up. And never you call this line again.” The voice threatened. But she refused to respond, instead she ended the call as briskly as possible. She tried to strain back the tears, but they would break out of her eyes, inevitably. There was so much to say and nothing to say at the same time. Actually, she didn’t know how to put them. She knew Ebere’s voice very much and it had not changed any bit. Although her voice had grown more womanly, like a wife, like a mother. She slouched on the sofa.
The memory, clear as a beam of light, suddenly took Mkpuruma back to the time she had her first child, and the joy of having to be a mother felt both painful and sweet. She was rushed to the hospital, Ifemelu by her side the pangs of childbirth tearing her apart. Then the doctor announced that it was a girl. The look on Ifemelu’s face was like a disease. Disappointing. He had been expecting a boy. Mkpuruma saw the frustration all over him.
Maybe I didn’t shoot my shot very well, or it went into a wrong corner. But there are many more attempts, and this time around, I will shoot well and a boy must come. Ifemelu assured himself as he tried to feign a smile when the doctor broke the news to him, at best to conceal his rage.
Then the second issue was a girl. The smile on Ifemelu’s face ceased and his expectation doused as soon as the doctor announced that another girl had arrived. He left the hospital in a fit and carried himself to the bar to drown himself in alcohol. He didn’t return to pick his wife until it was near midnight. Before then, Mkpuruma had to help herself home. And after the third girl, Ifemelu became mean. Mkpuruma began to see her late father in him. And her subservient mother in herself.
Sex became a burden to her rather than pleasurable; whenever she was not in the mood, he forced her. She had no choice. And each time she was, she begged for it, she had to.
Then she took in again.
His frustration grew darker.
The violence intensified.
Her grief welled up.
She became scared of him.
He grew tired of her.
Her in-laws wore her out. They needed a male child, real soon. An heir for their son.
Mkpuruma started to take pills after her fifth child—she was as fertile as a hen, and feared she would take in again and a female child would be born. She prayed. She cried. Still no male child. Her womb was only built to carry girls. A fact she had painfully reconciled with. But not her husband, and certainly not her in laws.
Mkpuruma rose to wipe her face, she sneezed into her blouse, and turned to take the stairs, when her gaze fell on a book kept on the dusty shelf. Picking it up, she adjusted the drooping glasses to focus properly on the title of the book. Americannah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She recalled Ebere saying she loved and admired Chimamanda a lot and aspired to be like her. So she ensured she bought books written by the afore-mentioned author. And many other books. She flipped the front cover and a cloud of old dust rose to their feet to pay allegiance, a dry cough escaped her, then she continued to the first page and paused. A little below the Author’s name was boldly written: Don’t steal. Ebere’s copy. Thank you. And at the top right corner, “I love you mummy.” A tear tried to escape her eyes and she caught it. I love you too, she whispered the second time, as if her daughter were physically present. Every second that rolled by, she blamed herself for abandoning her girls just like Ifemelu did. He left them with poverty and scurried away with his mistress. Ever since, her conscience had continued to scourge her for deserting her children at a time when it mattered the most.
Mkpuruma was married off to Ifemelu at the age of sixteen, at a time when her father felt the kitchen was a woman’s place. It had always been her dream to further her education and become a renowned professor; but she was only given the opportunity to finish her secondary education. Mama had no contrary view; even if she did, her opinion was invalid. And her brothers were given the liberty to further. Of all the men that came for her hand in marriage and she refused, she decided to let Ifemelu have not just her hand but her entire members. Although he was wealthy, she loved him without holding back. She didn’t care so much about his money. Even before Ifemelu’s death, many years ago, she had learnt to forgive him. It was difficult for her at first, but she finally did. And peace smelled all over her like a sweet fragrance. But peace lived for a while before it died, and then grief wielded its sword again.
She hauled herself upstairs to attend to her hair. The shampoo had dried on it. Standing before the mirror hung on the wall beside the bathtub, she began to examine her scalp. Only a few tuft of dark hairs rested on her scalp. She used to have long, beautiful, curly hairs while she was much younger. Now, all that remained was a hungry looking scalp. And she was gradually losing weight. Suddenly, she coughed out a yellowish substance mixed with blood. She didn’t fret. She knew what it meant. Her doctor had informed her two weeks ago. Lung cancer. Forcefully, she had quit smoking, but the cancer had eaten deep into her lungs and journeyed further to other organs to wreck more havoc before she realized it. There was chemotherapy always before her. Still, death continued to hover about her. She knew she had little time left.
She washed off, and the last bunch of dark hairs hurried into the bathtub, she gathered them up and flushed down the toilet. She sighed, distress sat over her face. She exited the bathroom for the room. She changed into a set of fresh clothes. She clothed her face with makeup to bury the numerous acne. Then she wore her wig.
That afternoon she had a chitchat—something she did in a bid to cool off some steam—with her professor colleagues, not friends. She never saw them as friends. She had no friend. She had no need for one. Thereafter, there was an appointment with her doctor. Then she visited the gym for her regular dose of work out. Later in the day, she hurried over to the restaurant across the street, where Samuel, her PhD student came with his thesis and they discussed it over a plate of food and drinks. This was her daily routine. The defence for Samuel’s thesis had been scheduled in a couple of months by the faculty. People rarely paid her a visit. Except Samuel, who lived just across her street. He came every morning to assist in washing her car and driving her off to school. She had started to develop a sudden affection for him. And Samuel felt the same way. But he was looking for the right time to table his feelings before her.
Whenever she was too busy, she attended conferences overseas and seminars within the University. During December, precisely the Christmas season, no one visited her nor did she visit anyone. The storeroom of her house was littered with chunks of untouched presents meddled in dust, presents from people she had no idea where and when she had met them. Most of them were from people she had helped with their projects, thesis, etc. And most times, the brightest and most expensive apparels were delivered from different parts of the country to her. But she had no need of them, her wardrobe was already crammed to the teeth. Instead of piling them up in her box or setting them ablaze, she gave them out to those who needed them.
The rest of the girls except Olunna had stopped sending her gifts during Christmas. They never visited. She didn’t know why Olunna insisted, but she never parted with her gifts even though she knew she had lots of them. As long as they came from her daughters, she cherished them; she wouldn’t give them out. She didn’t know the gift Olunna would decide to bring her this Christmas, if she survived up to that time.
She was all by herself as usual. It was a Saturday evening. The air outside was frigid and tense. Dark clouds had been summoned on the sky, preparing to bathe the earth in a downpour. She decided to dial Amara’s number. Her fear would almost get the best of her. The first time she had called, Amara didn’t stop to hurl her anger and frustration at her, all at once.
She hesitated. And then started to pant heavily. In that moment of tension and indecision, a call wired in. She picked and it was Samuel on the line. Incredible. Why was he calling? It was the weekend and they had no fixed appointment whatsoever.
“Good evening Ma, I called to check on you.”
“Oh, thank you.” She said as hastily as possible, in a bid to put to death the premature conversation.
“But Ma, I’m at your door,” he announced.
“Ehm… You mean it… I’m sorry, I would be right there.” A thought of anxiety and gladness breezed past. She tried to collect herself and then ran a quick check on her appearance, before wearing her wig to cover her baldness. She made her way past the glass table stationed at the center of five black sofas, which sat in an almost concentric style. And headed towards the door.
The door moaned open. Samuel rushed in wet. The rains had arrived. The force with which they came would almost bludgeon the roof of the house to death.
“Hope I did not keep you so long in the rain.” Mkpuruma apologized
“No, you didn’t. I should have informed you of my arrival. I’m sorry.”
“Oh, no. Take a seat.” Gently, he squeezed out of his jacket. A tall dark silhouette of a man in tight jeans and white shirt stood before her with his muscles bulging out. He turned towards her, and the ripped abs perfectly stacked one on top of the other like a nice sandwich declared their presence. He noticed she was staring and probably lost in her train of thoughts, so he coughed to call her out of her reverie.
“Coffee!” Samuel declared
“Yea, coffee. Right away!”
She was back with a miniature, ceramic cup of coffee sitting on a small, ceramic plate. Samuel had started to move around the living room in no particular sequence and with no particular intention in mind. He stopped. Then received the coffee with both hands before taking his seat.
He had lots of questions in his heart. Yet he needed to take it slowly. They chatted for long, until night had begun to settle. Each time they talked, he called her first name—Elizabeth. Sometimes he called her by her pet name—Lizzy. Besides, Ifemelu was the only man who had the right to call her by that name. But he lost that right and more the moment he cheated, and continued to treat her like a piece of trash.
She had offered to make dinner for him, but he objected. By this time the rains had returned to the sky. Only drizzles persisted. Samuel was about to rise and take his leave at the same time Mkpuruma rose to retrieve his jacket from the arm of the sofa adjacent to her, when their faces collided into each other. Softly, swiftly, their lips locked in gently, her whole members pulsated with intense ecstasy. Resisting and tossing him away could have helped. But she had come undone. And her thoughts seemed incoherent to her. She wanted him. Yet she knew she couldn’t have him. He held her tightly to himself, uncoiling each string which held her bound. Still the will to resist grew stronger. Suddenly, she pushed him away.
“I’m sorry, it’s not going to be possible between us. Please, forget it.”
“Why? But I like you. Is it because you are my supervisor”
“Stop that. That’s not the point.”
“Then tell me, please.”
“You wouldn’t understand Sam,” she dismissed him.
“Make me understand,” he insisted.
“Please leave, I beg you. Let’s not start what we can’t finish at the end of the day.”
He didn’t understand what she meant and even if he inquired, there was no use, she wouldn’t inform him. She pushed him to the door. Then paused as he made his way out of her house by himself. Her eyes followed him into the darkness, until there was not even a speck of him left. She slammed the door behind her, plunged herself to the floor, back tilted against the door, and hot tears streamed out of those eyes.
One early morning, she was about to head for campus, when she slummed and bashed her head strongly against the tiled floor. She was just making her way from the bathtub when it happened. Luckily, Samuel was just in time as usual to check on her and to collect her bag and books. He knocked lightly. Then called out her name. And knocked again, heavily. But there was no reply. It was quite strange to him. The door was locked from inside. It was past ten in the morning. So he forced it open until its padlock broke and fell to the ground. He called her name again, no response, there was utter silence. He knew something was amiss. He took the speed of light upstairs.
On the floor beside the bathroom door, her almost lifeless, pale body laid curled up. Her face had started to turn pink, and her skin shrank like dry leaves. So he drove her to the hospital.
The hospital was a beehive of activities. A pregnant woman being rolled in on a wheelchair, another wailing child rushed with a fractioned head, you could see his skull cracked open and the gray matter sticking out like the big red buttocks of a baboon. On the other end, some women dragged themselves out of the maternity ward screaming and wailing; they had lost someone dear to them. Nurses here, nurses there, each one trying to heed the clarion call. The nurses had assisted Samuel in carrying Mkpuruma to the operating room. He could barely sit. He continued to pace back and forth, trying to think only positive things. But what could be possibly wrong with her? He interrogated himself, while he waited for the doctor’s arrival.
Few minutes later the doctor arrived. He shook hands with him and lauded him for bringing her to the hospital on time.
“What’s your name?” The doctor inquired.
“Samuel. Please doctor, what’s wrong with her?”
“Are you a relative?”
“No, I’m just a friend.”
“You have to brace up for this one,” the doctor informed.
“I’m all ears.”
“Some time ago, Elizabeth was diagnosed with cancer, which affected her lungs. But, presently, as we speak, the cancer has reached its worst stage. So, we have to prepare for the worst. If you know any relative of hers, please let them know at once.”
Samuel tried to recoil from the shock of the news. Cancer! Where? He murmured.
“Please, doctor can I see her?” Samuel requested.
“Yea, sure. Come with me.”
Samuel could not believe his eyes. He was unable to differentiate between the woman he once knew, full of life and the one which laid in bed, almost lifeless. Reluctantly, he drew closer to her. He couldn’t continue to hold back the tears. Her voice was slowly dying out. She had approached the brink of death. Then she whispered a few words in his ears. She begged him to call her daughters. He recalled she had said a lot about them to him and how she regretted abandoning them.
Then he stepped outside to make a few calls. Firstly, he called Olunna, and she responded calmly. Then, Ebere, who almost ended the call on him, hesitated when he informed about her mother’s condition. In the same sober and tearful tone he called the rest to notify them.
Within an hour the five girls, all grown up, arrived at the hospital. Olunna arrived with her husband and two girls. Ebere, her husband, and three sons followed almost at the same time. Then Nnenna. Finally, Adaora, who was joined in by Amara and her husband.
As soon as Mkpuruma beheld her girls all grown and happily married and blessed with kids, she began to cry a river. Even when Samuel begged her to stop, she just couldn’t. She knew the depth of her mistake and the dire consequences that came with it. Her daughters had every right to be angry. Aside from being abandoned, they also tried to reach out to their mother. Olunna had invited their mother over to her wedding ceremony, but she failed to show up. And even when she was delivered of her girls, her mother did not attend the omugwo. Then Ebere, Mkpuruma’s favourite, did invite her to hers, still she refused. She did not approve of the man Ebere chose as a husband. The day she wanted to attend Ebere's book launch (she became a renowned writer), cancer slithered in like a snake. And when Amara the last child graduated from the University, she didn’t appear for her convocation, although she had been duly informed.
But Mkpuruma could not bear to look at her children eye to eye. She allowed the thought of her betrayal towards her children to continue to hunt her and push her farther apart from them.
“Please, forgive me,” Mkpuruma cried out. Her grandchildren gathered around her bed.
“Mama, we have forgiven you a long time ago,” Olunna was the first to speak before the rest supported her. She said this in between hot tears.
“All that remains is for you to get well,” Ebere joined in.
"And you have to live for your grandchildren," Nnenna cut in.
“Mama, we love you,” Amara said blithely.
Even if she died, Mkpuruma had found something—peace. And she had the love of her children once again. Whenever death chose to pay a visit, she knew she was ready.
Ewa Gerald Onyebuchi is a writer based in Nigeria. Some of his works have been published on brittle paper, nantygreens.com , zenspen.com , and elsewhere. He was a finalist in origamipoems.com . He plays video games to unwind. You can catch him on Instagram—@Gerald Ewa and facebook — Gerald Ewa.