“The truth is always something that is told, not something that is known.” – Susan Sontag, The Benefactor
She broke your heart. This is what you tell everyone who cares to listen. But this is your side of the story, what about hers? Perhaps it will be better to tell the whole story and let the reader be the judge. I am the only one who can tell this story objectively. You know this.
It is now three months since that afternoon when you dashed into the house to find your wife playing with the children in the sitting room, dolls with amputated limbs and Ludo seeds strewn about the floor. No, three months and five days to be exact. The children had stopped and smiled their welcome to you, but you ignored them and instead swooped down on their mother, gripping her neck and pulling her to her feet. She felt like air in your angry hands. She slapped your hands and kicked your legs to fight you off, but you held her tighter and tighter, determined to draw blood. It was not until the blacks of her eyes disappeared into the roofs of her eyelids that you released her and watched her totter onto a sofa, holding her neck and gasping her life back from its brink. You needed to hear the truth first before you could go on with the killing. You’d planned it out on your way from the hospital: get her to tell the truth, then kill her slowly, the same way she’d broken your heart slowly.
“Oya, start talking before I strangle you and bury you and no damn person will question me.”
It’s been almost four years now since you came to Zoba’s father’s house with your Umunna carrying gourds of palm wine, faces taut with smiles. Zoba’s mama lingered in the doorway, but upon hearing who you were and why you came, she stepped out and sat next to her husband, because you were the very person who had kept them thin with worry. With dignified air, papa asked Zoba whether they should accept the palm wine you brought, and she gave a quick nod which undid her packed braid. Did she really have a choice, with her belly threatening to tear off the front buttons of her nurse dress? They accepted your palm wine in relief – the scandal and shame of having a bastard averted. You puffed up like soaked garri when they called you Oke–ogo, because only great sons-in-law bring palm wine to their in-laws, abi?
The traditional marriage came. She knelt before you and handed you a glassful of palm wine, you downed it all and led her by the hand to kneel before her parents, bowing as they laid their hands on your heads and blessed you both. All of this happened in her father’s compound, with attendance trimmed down to only her Umunna and yours. You didn’t want publicity, you’d told them, because that was less embarrassing than telling them how shy you were of a crowd.
You were the tall, fair-complexioned NYSC member who visited Amorji village on holidays to see your babe Ujunwa. I know you still remember the village, with its gutter-turned-into-farmlands, the cassava and maize growing there whose leaves swayed and flapped in the whoosh of speeding vehicles. The clustered buildings with narrow pathways barely wide enough to take two people walking side by side, since no one could spare a piece of their land for thoroughfare.
So, Zoba and Ujunwa shared a one-bedroom flat in that village. Since both were nurses, you visited only when Zoba worked the night shift. By the time she returned in the morning, you would be preparing to leave. Ujunwa told you it was Zoba who persuaded her to register for a JAMB exam – a university degree added to their nursing experience could place them in a better-paying hospital. Zoba, too, had suggested to Ujunwa the burgundy chino trousers and black T-shirt Ujunwa got you on your birthday. Remember how your fellow Corp members couldn’t stop complimenting you on how the black of the T-shirt brought out your light skin tone? It was this Zoba who noticed you got a bellyache whenever Ujunwa served you coffee instead of normal tea. Later, you’d complain to a doctor who said you’re diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease, a kind of acid reflux. You should avoid spicy foods, alcohol and coffee. You fell into thinking: what other things could she know about you, this Zoba girl you barely knew?
You began to smile wider at her, discuss longer with her, tease her for her voice, which you said was slightly louder than the meow of a cat. She would giggle, slap your arm tenderly and take your eyes briefly in hers.
You met her one evening at Umuna Daily market, where you went to repair your broken phone, and asked her to join the JAMB lesson since she too was planning to sit for the exam. Your voice was unnaturally pitched above the haggling voices around. You wanted her to feel the rich timbre in your tenor, which you thought came better when you spoke aloud.
“But you always have the lessons when I’m on night shift.”
“It’s not a big deal. We can always fix that.”
She put on her dimpled smile, and you thought something was instantly let loose in her: the way she cocked her head to the left, held her nylon bag up to her chest, swaying as though asking for a hug. You did not think that her eyes lingering on your chest was because of her eye level. She might have been sizing you up. It worried you a bit because your chest was as flat as a mirror. She made to leave but tripped on a stone and landed on her left knee.
“Jesus!” You grabbed her up by the elbow. When she removed the palm cupped over her left knee, the bruise there was reddening. You guided her to a nearby stall, bought a sachet of water and washed the bruise. You wiped it with your neat hanky, the hanky you never used on anyone, and which you would discard after a month’s use. However, you knew you would not throw this one away, you would archive it – this one that touched her blood
When Ujunwa called off the relationship, you couldn’t think of any other person but Zoba to pour out your confusion on. There was no apparent reason for her decision. She just phoned you one evening to say she was done. Just like that. You felt used and discarded. Girls should feel this way, not a guy as you, you thought. You, the guy, should be the one ditching the girl, not the other way around. Men are scarce after all. Still, you pestered Zoba, asked her to talk to her friend. Weeks later Zoba told you that Ujunwa had got admission to the Immaculate Heart Sisters. “She’s now a reverend sister-o.”
How come? When did she…? Why? Was she not the one planning to go to university?
This was before you completed your national youth service. You gave Zoba your address: No. 3 Urualla road, Umuchima. You’d got an accounting job at the MCC construction company after your youth service. The pay was huge. You didn’t know why you had to tell her this, still, you told her, as though somehow you were making a prelude to a future you two could share. Since you wouldn’t be visiting them anymore, Zoba asked, could she be coming to your place for her JAMB lesson? You said yes hastily, and even promised to pay for her transport fare each day she visited.
On Saturdays, she visited, and after the lesson, she’d mop your floor, do your laundry and cook –her way of showing appreciation. But you chose to believe there was more to this “appreciation.” She could be giving you the green light, what with the show-lap skirts and low-neckline tops that were reluctant to cover her solid cleavage. Some days, you noticed she had no bra on, with the way her tits poked from under her blouse, firm and erect. Because you wanted to see more, your eyes became restless wanderers on the hilly end of her back. You gawked at its roundaboutness, the way it danced to the heavy falls of her legs on the ground, wobbled right and left, rudderless, as though inviting you to grab and navigate. Her lips were glossy with blood-red lipstick. But you worried about one lanky guy you often saw dropping her off from the hospital. Could he be her boyfriend? She had never said anything about having one, not to your hearing anyway, and to say Ujunwa the “newscaster” had not brought him up in one of her daily reports was solid enough evidence that Zoba was single. Still, someone like that guy who drove a rickety okada up and down the streets of Orlu could not take care of a girl.
The evening she leaned on your back as you showed her the solution to a maths problem, you felt your penis poke at your trouser zipper. She tip-fingered about your chest and then started to unbutton your shirt. You had such a nice tummy, could she feel it? You mumbled something about her focusing on the maths problem. But then, you let her walk her nimble fingers through the shallow grooves on your abs. Shivers rose and splintered inside you. Ujunwa had never touched you this way, not in any way even. You froze when she slid into your boxers and took you up.
“Wait,” she said when you parted her legs, then deftly slipped off the condom. She needed you raw, she said. Not behind a rubber. What did you care? Damn whatever consequence! Three minutes, that’s all it took, and you collapsed on her.
But soon the consequence of your sex reared its head from where you damned it. When she showed you the result of her pregnancy test, you cringed, tasting the bitter scrawl of fear on the back of your throat. You told this to your uncle, Mazi Nduka, who patted you on the back and called you ‘Agunwa’ and ‘Omekannaya’ even though you both knew you were nowhere near your father’s match. Married at twenty-six, your father built his house at thirty, then left the world at fifty, the year you turned fifteen, and your mother joined him two years later, out of grief. As an only son, you should marry someone like Zoba – someone fertile – Mazi Nduka egged you on.
Zoba was delivered of a girl. Your forehead furrowed as you lifted her from her cot in the hospital. With the way Zoba held out her hands hesitantly towards you, you thought she feared you might drop the baby in disgust. “A girl,” you said slurring the ‘girl’ into a whisper of uncertainty. The word was emptied of taste on your tongue as if you just licked a mirror. You admired her plumpness, the folds of skin at her joints, but you still wished she were a boy. You named her Nkiru – the future is better, for she was more a preamble to a much-needed male child.
At home, Zoba swaddled her up in thick wrappers, as though to save you the agony of having to look at her. After weaning Nkiru, she wanted to resume her nursing work or to go to university. You had the money after all. Yes, you had the money, you said. Why then should she work instead of sitting at home and enjoying the wealth? Who would she leave the child with when she went to school? “Don’t even think of bringing a maid in this house.” You couldn’t understand why she wanted to stress herself with work or schooling.
Two years went by, and she kept nagging about finding something to do. You didn’t tell her that your heart seared with jealousy when you thought of how men would gawk at her, that you couldn’t stand the sun on her light skin tone, that you wanted to take care of her and Nkiru as a real man should.
“I can never be a housewife if that’s what you’re trying to turn me into.”
“Is it me you’re beating your chest for like that?”
She balanced her weight on one leg and bounced, fists lodged on hips. It annoyed you, this posture that questioned your authority as a man. You slapped her, lightly, you were sure it was light. You didn’t want to tattoo your fingers on her plump cheeks. She clutched the collar of your shirt, tugged and yelled curses in your face. Nkiru crouched in a corner crying, afraid to get close to either of you. To get her to loosen her grip, you slapped her, hard this time. She slumped on the sofa, and before she could stagger up, you had left the house.
You returned in the evening, after you’d gone to Madam Isiazu’s joint to drown your worries in bottles. You met her absence: her two travel bags gone, her wardrobe empty, silence creeping eerily about the house. You found your suits and expensive agbada in the backyard, floating in a pool of algae-infested water.
You didn’t know what she did after she left your house. But I did. I know everything, remember.
Her parents were in the house front receiving the cool evening breeze when she knocked on the beat-up gate, three angry raps, which started her mother. She shouted, “Who’s that that wants to break down the gate for us?” The blue-grey evening was fast greying into night, but Zoba could see her parents clearly. Mama stood, knotted the head of her wrapper tightly under her armpit and came to the gate.
“Hia nne, this one you came back with all these bags, udo odikwa? Hope all is well?”
Zoba bounced lightly to balance the child on her back. With her tongue, she tucked her chewing gum in the corner of her mouth. “Mama biko, open the gate. I don’t have the strength to answer your questions.” She yanked at the gate. She walked in lugging her travel bags in both hands. She stopped at the front door where papa sat fanning himself with a raffia hand fan. He replied to her greeting with, “Chizoba, this one you visited without telling anyone, and with all these bags” – gesturing at the bags – “hope all is well?”
“Help me ask her-o.” Mama slapped the back of her left hand on her right palm.
Zoba murmured something about being tired and dragged her bags into the house. It was hot and, for a moment, she wanted the air-conditioned rooms in your flat. Mama followed her and stood at the doorway. Zoba heard papa walk into the sitting room and later the squeak of a couch. She used her Nokia torchlight to get a candle and lit it.
“Zoba, you know you can’t hide things from me. Better tell me what the problem is or you won’t get any rest in this house tonight.”
Zoba sat on the edge of the bed, unfastened Nkiru and laid her calmly onto the bed. The dust from the bed tickled her nostril to a sneeze but she pinched her nose.
“I can see you don’t want—”
“Mama bikonu, let me have some peace, tomorrow I’ll explain everything to you.”
Mama shook her head, “Ajurum aju, you have to explain it now. The Bible says, ‘do not let the sun go down while you’re still angry,’ so we must settle whatever it is that brought you home right now and here.”
She slapped her palm on the bed. “I don’t have energy for all this, please. I will just find somewhere and sleep.”
“It won’t be the first time. But before then, give me my granddaughter.” She reached out and scooped up the child. “See the heap of dust where you put your child. What sort of a mother are you? You didn’t learn tugbai from your mother.”
“Could you women let me have some peace in my house?” Papa shouted from the sitting room.
Zoba stamped into the living room, complaining loudly about Mama’s disturbance.
“You should be in your husband’s house not in your father’s house,” Mama was saying behind her. “Did your husband even know you are here?”
In a barrage of complaints Zoba couldn’t control, she told her parents about your refusal to let her do anything, always wanting to be in control, not letting her associate with people – every one of your vices.
“And so, is that all?” Mama asked.
“You should be thinking of how to get him to complete your marriage rite and wed you in the church,” Papa said, “not running back here and talking all this rubbish.”
Mama said she must learn to tolerate you, that way you would ‘come around.’ Men were like that.
She shrugged off mama’s arm. “It’s even useless telling you anything.”
“Go and fix your home,” Mama said. She said ‘fix’ in a way that suggested a certain fixing organ pre-installed inside women she might not be aware of.
Later Zoba would pull down her underpants and probe her vagina, then unhook her bra and grope at her breasts – just to check if the fixer was there; because, she thought, if there could be any fixer in a woman, then it must be hidden away in any of the two zones of her womanhood. But now, she stared at her parents, hot ache rising at the back of her eyes.
She grabbed her handbag and dashed out, passed through the gate and started down the road, with nowhere in mind. Night had swallowed up the streets; the only visible things were the twinkling lights of fireflies and shafts of light from cars speeding past the main road in the distance. It was then she remembered Echezona.
Echezona was her boyfriend before you came into the scene. Remember the okada guy you vowed could never be her boyfriend?
She didn’t let him in when you were around, because she thought it improper to have two men in the same house with their girlfriends, and because she feared Echezona might misconstrue your presence. He was an understanding man alright, she always told Ujunwa, but you never can tell – jealousy has no logic. But there was another reason, a vague reason she couldn’t accept, which I alone knew was the main reason: she didn’t want you to know she had a boyfriend. She even made Ujunwa swear not to reveal her relationship status to you under the pretence that she hated people nosing into her personal life.
You ask if she loved him. Well, yes, until she met you.
She had hedged her life around him. She cooked her food with too much pepper because Echezona liked peppery foods. “Heavily peppered,” he’d add, after telling her what to cook for him. But the only problem with Echezona was money. He couldn’t take care of her; you were right about that. So she wanted out. One night, while she was in a drunken stupor after attending a bachelor’s night, she slept at Echezona’s place and sex happened, without a condom.
Why are you looking at me like that? I should spill everything at once, you say. Calm down. I need to take this story slowly, do not rush me. But the reader will get bored, you say. Remember, the reader needs the whole story to make a proper judgment. You close your eyes and sigh.
So, when Ujunwa broke up with you, she knew there could be no better opportunity. You had a good job, money and everything else a woman would need in a man – though she was yet to learn of your three-minute capacity in bed.
She could think of none of her friends to spend the night with. There were a lot of them here in Umuna, but what would she tell them had brought her out of her husband’s house? If her parents could be this callous to her…she shook her head and a line of hot tears seared a path down her left cheek. For once, she felt glad that their house was at a cul de sac. No one would peek at her, a lonely woman in the road.
She was sure Echezona would not exhaust her with questions, at least not tonight. But how could she just call someone in the middle of the night, someone she hadn’t spoken to for almost two years, a man she ditched? What if he was married?
Echezona picked her call at the first ring. He was at Unit 1 Bar and Restaurant hanging out with friends, he said merrily: “Okay, just wait for me there I de come now, now.”
“God, let him still be unmarried,” she said and quickly turned to see if there was someone close to hear her. Cars were still speeding past at the other end of the road, their headlamps at full beam. But he could not have stayed out this late if he were married. She had stopped now to sit on a sprouting stump of an ube tree by the roadside. No, she shook her head, he wouldn’t be married. She’d surely know if he had. She wanted to reminisce about the few times Echezona had taken her out to Unit 1, but the memory surfaced like a scrambled channel, blurred – a memory so useless and tasteless like the burnt bottom of a pot of rice, black and hard to scrape up. She wondered whether he still cared about her. Her body was getting weaker, and soon she was drifting into sleep. She woke with a start at the beams of headlamps punching at her face. Placing a hand over the light, she pulled herself up.
“Jesus!” Echezona rushed out from the Toyota Camry. “What…please, enter the car, let me take you out of here.” He gave her a scanty look that worried her, and it worried her that this worried her. What was she expecting him to do, pause and admire her before taking her into the car, with her now flabby and slack body? As he picked her handbag and went to open the door, she noted his muscles, taut and bulging as always. Could she still fold herself in his strong arms and listen to him shout, ‘Ukwu gi nke a g’egbum,’ exclaiming how her waist would be his doom? It frightened her, the fact that her heart still revved up at the sight of this body.
“Your parents don start their wahala again, I see,” he said, turning the key in the ignition.
She felt a vague thrill of pleasure, a thick dark pleasure, that Echezona, this intimate stranger, could still remember her parents and possibly the many stories she told him of their uncouth piety. She nodded slowly, not wanting the pool in her eyes to spill. She couldn’t tell why the tears were gathering – was she regretting leaving him? From the corners of her eyes, she stared at his fingers placed on the steering wheel. No ring. She couldn’t see the fingers clearly to tell if there was an indent mark around the base of his ring finger. Or any finger. He might have dropped his wedding band at home. Some men are like that. She hoped secretly that there was still a romantic spark between them. But what was between them was not something; it was someone.
“It’s okay if you no wan talk about it.”
She batted her eyelids to suck in the tears.
“Zoba, whatever happened between us, just know that I—”
“Not now, please.”
A long, screaming silence descended. Could this be his car? Perhaps he borrowed it from a friend. Didn’t he say he was with friends? But she could tell the cologne in the car was Echezona’s, the rosary dangling on the rear mirror was the same that always sat under his pillow in those days. She told him once how sacrilegious it was to have sex on top of a rosary, and Echezona had laughed, tipping his head back and, mimicking her voice, he said: “Uncouth piety.”
“It’s late and I no know if I fit find any hotel wey dey open by now.”
“You don’t have a house?”
“Sorry. I thought you…”
He pulled over in front of a three-story building. His headlights flung to a corner where a cock roosted on a short wall. It squawked and flapped its wings briefly and then stilled.
“You live here?”
“I jus pack in. Three months ago.”
The air in the strange, familiar Amaigbo road was refreshing in the damp night. A few frogs were croaking away in the distance. She wanted to lie on her back on this rain-washed tarred road and gaze into the starless sky. Her feet were noiseless on the tiled staircase as she stepped on behind Echezona. She desperately needed to understand this sudden transformation in him. Echezona who once lived in one room on Ebenato road, who shared one toilet with other tenants, who went about on a second-hand okada. Now, he had rented a flat on Amaigbo road, a new flat with tiles everywhere for that matter. How could he have gotten so rich in just a short time?
He turned on the light and asked her to make herself at home. The sofa glittered fresh with newness. There was a Sony flat-screen TV on the wall. Dull blue curtains in rich folds draped down the windows. She didn’t want to sit. He must have noticed her eyes sweeping about the house, for he said:
“You fit look around if you want.”
It was a two-bedroom flat. One of the rooms was padlocked. In the other room, there was a king-size bed pushed to the end of the wall, piles of worn clothes by its left side. The bed was made, but she noticed the flatness on one side of the bed. Her breathing became less strenuous.
From the way she looked at the bed, he mistakenly read a certain fear in her that they might be sleeping together on the same bed. “No worry, I go sleep for parlour,” he said.
“No!” she said, as though waking from a trance. She wanted to roll her eyes at him but thought against it. “The bed is large enough.” She sat on it and stretched her legs out in front of her.
Echezona’s mouth moved but he said nothing, as though deliberating on what next to say. His eyes combed through the room in obvious uncertainty. “I don’t know…do you need anything?”
“I just need to freshen up. I’m very tired.” She yawned. “Do you have any wrapper I can wear?”
He reached into a box in a corner and pulled out a neat ankara wrapper. It smelled of camphor, unused. The bathroom was down the end of the passageway, he said. He had to go and settle things with the friends he left at Unit 1. He would not stay long. She wanted to shout him back and ask if the ‘settling’ could not wait till the morrow, but she held herself back, remembering that this Echezona was not her Echezona. This was an upgraded Echezona. An Echezona she had no place in. She simply nodded and listened as his footfalls melted away down the staircase.
Hours later, as she lay drowsing in bed, she felt a hand slip under her blouse. It was first in her dream, the feeling, then it surfaced in reality. She dreamily imagined the hand to be yours, but there was something in the touch she knew could not come from you, a paced carefulness, a familiar movement which seemed to know the right places to pluck up feelings. Her breathing quickened. Her toes curled in. She shivered and grabbed the pillow propping her head and squeezed. She thought she was in another body. The feeling was alien to her body which had gotten used to your three-minute lovemaking. Her eyes opened to the dying light of the candle stuck in the mouth of a beer bottle which cast cinematic shadows on the roof. Echezona’s hand still surveyed her body under her blouse, feeling every crease and crevice in her, as though to smooth out the aches in her body. She perceived his alcohol-laced breaths and smelled his moan. Her first instinct was to lap off the hand. But she had been greatly aroused. Feelings long buried and crusted inside her flecked out through her mouth in a loud, stuttering groan, squirmed and shook her on the inside. She led him in, and soon he was panting on top of her, she screaming and begging him not to stop.
You spit on the floor and say, “Aru.” Did we not agree that you shouldn’t do that in my presence? Please, let me tell this story without having to throw up.
She left early the next day, before the light of dawn.
“Zoba, where did you sleep last night? We have been looking for you.”
She felt her head harden with anger. Was it not because of her nagging that she left the house? Mama held her wrist and said she was sorry, she didn’t mean it. She was only worried and needed to know what happened.
“Hmm, Mama, you’re surprising me. Why are you now talking like the Holy Spirit?”
“Me and your father, we were worried. We don’t want stories. And besides, your daughter would not let us sleep last night.”
She had started towards the house when mama said: “Your husband called-o. He said you are not picking his calls.”
She walked into the house.
Two months after, you came for your wife and child. When she shook her head defiantly not to go with you, lips pouted in a definite no, Papa’s eyes bulged in fierce censure.
“Nne, remember your daughter and the one in your stomach,” Mama whispered. “They need a father.”
Better to stay fatherless than have a man like you for a father, she whispered back with clenched teeth. They couldn’t speak out loud, because in matters of marriage only the voices of men count.
“She will join you right away.” Papa’s final words came hotly, daring any defiance.
You shook his hand with both hands, promising to take her to church when she delivered. Hope sprouted anew within you. You were sure this one would be a boy. You had made sure to eat all the fruits and herbs and drugs your friends told you were good to boost the sperm, as though your begetting a girl child were a result of ‘unboosted’ sperm.
So, that early morning when Doctor Canice tapped you awake in the waiting room to tell you she’d been delivered of a boy, you jumped to his neck and shouted, “I know it!”
Back home, you cradled him in the crook of your arms and tears welled up behind your eyes. Zoba stroked your arms, and Nkiru tugged at your trousers as she tried to have a look at her brother. You sat her on the rug, pushed her legs out and placed your son in her eager three-year-old hands. The war was over, the rhythmic throbbing in your chest seemed to say. You forgot that war ends only in death.
It is now two months since you got that frantic call from Doctor Canice. He’d always been a close friend right from your university days. He said you should go to the hospital right away, there’s something he needed to tell you, his croaky voice came through when you picked his call.
“What’s your genotype?” he asked once you stepped into his office, ignoring your hearty greeting.
For no apparent reason, the question placed you in a spot. He knew your genotype, your blood group, your medical history. Why then was he asking you? Couldn’t he simply pull out your file and search it out himself?
“Yes, you are right, but I wasn’t asking to know, please sit, sit down please and” – he looked about in confusion – “can I get you something to drink?”
“Since when do you start offering me drink in your office?” You tried to slip in a dose of humour.
“Oh, yes, sorry, just that I’m really caught in the web right now, I tell you, there’s this secret I’ve been keeping from you for far too long and I can no longer bear the weight of it in my conscience.”
“Can you slow down a bit? I can hardly hear what you’re saying.”
He sighed deeply and stood. He went to the water dispenser in the corner and poured himself a glass of water. Drank it in a quick gulp and returned to his desk. His armpits and neck were soaked with sweat.
“I know you’re an educated person, and you’ll surely treat what I’m about to reveal to you with maturity and a good sense of judgment.”
You shifted in your seat. This was getting serious. You would have dipped your hand into his throat and dragged out the words if you had your way.
“You’re AA, right?”
“I think so, since one’s genotype doesn’t change.” You laughed awkwardly at your own half-hearted joke. His face was sealed tight.
“And your wife is also AA?”
You shook your head, not knowing where the question was snaking into. His eyes took in yours, and what you saw in his scraped at a delicate part of your heart: fear, sorrow, sympathy, remorse, guilt – all meant for you.
“Talk to me, Canice. What is it? You know I can take anything.”
“Okay, tell me—” He adjusted in his swivel chair and put on a stolidity that frightened you. “At first, I was doubtful when you told me your girlfriend was pregnant for you, but I didn’t want to spoil the joy I saw on your face with my doubts. So I didn’t take any measures to be sure you actually impregnated someone with such low sperm count. But I became restless when your wife took in again. After I helped deliver the child, I took a blood sample of the child—”
“You took my son’s blood without telling me?” you mumbled nervously.
“I know it’s against medical ethics, but our friendship has gone beyond ethics. I did what I would have done for my blood brother.”
“Here,” he held out your child’s file to you. “That’s your son’s genotype.”
As you took in the bold letters, AS, you slowly slumped down on the floor, the meaning settling into you like a lethal poison administered through a drip.
You were quaking all over with rage. For more than a minute, she had not spoken. She was stroking her neck and trying to regain her breath.
“Who. Is. The. Father. Of. These. Children?” You finally managed to ask.
Her eyes lit up immediately. You could tell she knew she’d been caught. “What nonsense question is that?” Her voice was hoarse.
You stepped towards her, poised to pounce. “I swear by the graves of my parents, if you dare say one more word that is not an answer to my question, I will…” You swallowed the rest of your words in anger.
She knew you were serious. You could see it in her twitching face and dilating eyes.
“Okay. Let me tell you everything.”
As she confessed everything, your shoulders slumped. You stared long at her, willing yourself to disbelieve her, or better yet, to wake from the horrible dream. You sobbed into your hands until it grew into a loud, throaty cry. The children joined in with their ear-piercing screams. She suddenly broke down and stopped talking. You rose and grabbed her by the elbows and shook her so violently you heard her teeth rattle. “You did this to me!”
“Neighbour-o, is everything okay?” It was the voice of Mama Nkechi, the woman who sold fruits next to your house, notorious for her tongue that drooled with gossip.
“We’re fine,” Zoba managed to shout back.
“We’re not done here.” Pushing her to the sofa, you stomped out. You drove to your favourite joint at OWUS avenue, Orlu. You needed somewhere to clear your head. As you emptied bottles of Heineken into your stomach, you couldn’t stop thinking why she did this to you? What could she be looking for in another man that you didn’t have?
It was dark when you started driving back home. Everything looked doubled and blurred. You didn’t know if your trembling hands were from anger or much alcohol. You revved up the engine, yelling curses at slow-pacing cars before you. “Never!” you shouted at the windshield, “I can’t take this.”
Driving down the hilly road in Mgbe, you lost control of the steering wheel.
When you opened your eyes, you were in a hospital bed, left leg in a cast, head wrapped in a bandage, right hand in a sling. Your body sat on you like a heavy duvet.
“Where’s my wife?” you asked the woman in a white smock looking down at you.
She smiled genially and said you needed to rest. You wouldn’t rest until she told you, you said.
“This is your third day here, sir,” she said. “The only person who’d been coming to check on you has been an old man who claims to be your uncle.”
Later that day, when your uncle walked in and saw you awake, he raised both hands to the heavens and praised God. “Agunwa, I know you will make it. Your chi is alive.” He sat on your bed.
“Dede, where is my wife?” you asked.
He left your bed, sat on the chair by your bed and rested his chin on his staff. You repeated the question. He placed a hand on your good arm, “Please, try and recover first. Then we can talk about that.”
“Why is she not here?”
“Your children are fine, Nna.”
“My children…what about my wife?”
Your uncle said to relax. “At least you have your life now.”
“What is life without my family?”
A nurse pushed out his head from the door, “Please sir” – looking at your uncle – “the doctor wants to speak to you immediately.” He followed the nurse. As you glanced at what was left of your body, tears welled behind your eyes. If only you could have your wife and children around you. You heard footfalls, and then the door opened. Your uncle stopped at the doorway. He had to rush out for an emergency, he said with a glum expression.
“But you have not answered me, Dede. Where is my wife? Didn’t she know I’m here?”
“Something urgent just came up. I will be back.” He shut the door behind him, and you heard his hasty footsteps die into the distance.
Ifeanyi Ekpunobi is a co-editor (fiction) at Praxis Magazine Online. An alumnus of Purple Hibiscus Trust Creative Writing Workshop, his work has been published or forthcoming in African Writers, Praxis Magazine Online, Typehouse and elsewhere. He is currently studying in Ibadan, Nigeria.
*Illustration: ‘The Wrath of Love’ by Sef Adeola.