When Tomorrow Calls (Short Story)

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When Tomorrow Calls

By Veronica Nkwocha

Words swirl around my head, like a twitter of birds I can’t control. It is morning but I remain prone, on my bed. I sink deeper into the sheets and pluck a phrase here and another there from free singing birds outside my window. It is not good. I search and pluck despair from the twits that won’t stop. They sound chirpy enough but I refuse their reign, I fold myself. Away from any happiness. I do not deserve it.

Yesterday it rained. Hard pelting rocks that resembled white walls crumbling down like the foam surfers leave in their wake. I could not see through the slush that ran down my face, my cheeks. I stood in the rain.

My penance fizzled. In an instant, bright sunshine ruled. I craved the wet. A shower from a passing car slicing through the flooded street washed over me. I stood waiting.

‘Lord wash me, cleanse me.’

A resolute silence clung to me like my wet clothes draped around me like a morbid shroud.

A honking car slowed to a near stop waiting for me to move to safety, the driver nodding politely, I pitied him. I trudged away from his path.

My wet feet left soggy prints on the thin carpeting, I peeled of my clothes as I walked to my bedroom, the warmth indoors cloying, draining.

Sleep eluded me. Dark thoughts consumed me.

In a basin along with others, my baby lay. Given up before their time. I had thought long and hard and reached the same conclusion every time. For me there was no choice. As had the others. But mine was worse. I had gone of my own volition. I Laraba Nelson.

It began, many months ago. A day like any other in the dry season. Lectures had ended and I had gone to the lady down the road just at the road that forked left to the grounds of the Theatre Arts Department to buy recharge cards.

As usual, I pretended that was all I was out to do but after I loaded the digits on to my phone, I stared long and hard to make sure I wasn’t cheated. Then I asked for another card all the while looking through a veil of my braids to see if he would come.

The birds continue their dance of whatever it was that had them singing this un-merry morning. I get up to shush them. I grab a broom and fling it against the netting on my window. A cloud of dust and the thudding sound send them flying. The momentary silence has me floundering. I sink into the sheets and they resume their chirping.

They make sweet music. Like we made sweet love. Their notes hold a tenderness and a gentleness. Like Ahmed. They call and another answers, rolling the sounds, floating, merry, crisp. Ahmed. Ah Ahmed.

It has to be a sin. To love so strongly and to cut so deeply.

Soyayya, ruwan zuma.

Love and honey. It must be a sage who thought up the saying.

My eyes are like fire when they spy him walking down that fork in the road. He is not alone. The bright sunshine that surrounds him, bounding off the near white sands of the encroaching deserts in the savannah make like one walking on a sheet of pouring gold. I drink him. Silently through a veil of my braids.

He walks past me, as always. He asks the lady for a recharge card. His companion asks for a bottle of coke.

“Would you like a drink, sister?”

His companion asks. I stutter. I can’t believe Ahmed is looking at me intently, a question in his eyes. The voice of Jacob but the hand of Esau. Nothing good will come of this. I am warm from the gold of his gaze, I take the drink from the outstretched hand of his companion.

I am so shy I sit under the mango tree as we finish our drinks. I do not say one word. They argue about the latest results from the Premier League. It is strange living in my dreams. I am sitting next to Ahmed. I spy the fuzz on his arm resting next to me. I want to run my hands down through the hairs, they look soft. He tells his point to Joseph and they nearly stand up at odds with each other about a particular point.

“What’s your name?”

It is Joseph again.

“Laraba”

“Ah, lovely name. Ahmed here just smashed his medical exams.”

Ahmed and I lock eyes. I notice his has a question in them.

“You’re so beautiful Laraba” Ahmed says.

I lower my gaze

They both smile.

Of course I know who he is, his pedigree, and his renown. Everyone on campus knew of his family, his ancestry, a long line of royals.

I only ever came here to day dream, out of his league. Even I Laraba knew to be honest with myself.

I pinched myself. I winced.

We part. I thank them for the drinks.

The canaries flit and float, they sing trapped in their very large cage. Their yellow bellies are the part I love best about them. Like tiny balls of cotton. Ahmed loves my fascination with them. They are his favourite. Of all the animals in their sprawling compound, the horses, ostriches, peacocks, his mum’s Pomeranians and more.

He likes to wake up to their singing. I love that about him. That he would love them, fragile, beautiful.

“What gives you the right to intrude on our peace? How can you even do this to yourself? You realise this will end badly don’t you?”

It is Sameera. His sister back home from Law School in Lagos. We had tried to be discreet. Him sneaking me into his room, his parents blissfully unaware.

Love made me. I knew I should have put boundaries. To stop after I had my fill. I knew to make memories for my old age, for when I would sit at the porch like other old women and have a knowing smile, of my one true love. The one we love and can’t be with.

But I couldn’t help myself. I was everywhere with Ahmed. I moved my daydreams a notch further. I began to envisage marriage. Maybe someone would sweep into our compound, take a look at the forlorn nondescript house, shake his head at the irony and march to the door asking for my father. A letter in hand, he would open it with a flourish. An official letter bearing a coat of arms would fall to the ground and he would pick it up with manicured hands.

We would in the blink of an eye move from being paupers to co inheritors of a royal lineage. The family tree traced by a fluke of a historian bearing a record from a forgotten time. And then I would become able to marry my prince.

To be honest, I tried to pinch myself every time the day dreams began to run off. But the sweetness of honey is addictive. Ahmed was as addicted to me. We wove tales. Of how he would come into his own money and set up a new business for dad and my brothers, surely we could latch on to a faraway uncle or chief who would agree we met the pedigree of those who could marry royalty.

Sameera invaded my dreams. Every time I drifted off, she followed. A trail of ‘end badly, end badly, end badly…’ lingered like the waft from our backyard after the rains. Plumbing was a luxury out of our reach.

He came, bearing a letter. The stranger refused to sit gravely delivering his message. My father jumped up calling out to my mother. A doctor. Laraba. Marriage. My mother ululating, my neighbour ululating, my aunties danced into the compound. I was made to sit down. It was all too much to bear.

Dreams do come true. What better gift to a grown daughter. The gods had smiled down. Just finishing university and I am getting married. A good marriage.

The days are heavy with the threat of the first rains. The clouds are grey and heavy. The rumble of thunder comes but it is a message from afar. It is pouring in the neighbouring town but we remain dry. A cloud of dust lifts up here and dissipates creeping up unexpectedly raining a shimmer of fine sand on corn and beans drying on top of granaries dotted here and there.

The voice on the other end of the phone is unfamiliar yet polite and gentle.

“You will enjoy England. Your nursing degree is valued here.”

I nod through my tears, under the guava tree. I speak to him and caress my midriff.

I must tell Ahmed. That our tender baby lies cradled in my belly. Made with the sweetest love possible. The most beautiful baby ever. He or she will take the best of both of us. His laugh and his kindness, my smile.

In my dreams I tell him and he hugs me excitedly. He takes me to his mother. She is overcome with joy for her grandchild. Eons of tradition fall like a pack of cards. His father rises like a king over all, over pariahs and taboos. We are knit together by time and by a beautiful ceremony, I the blushing bride.

I walk out of my father’s compound, a prelude to my new life. First I stopped for an appointment with the doctors. For my journey to England, I have to walk alone, empty of my child. Bereft of Ahmed.

First Cut (Short Story)

Rose

First Cut

By Veronica Nkwocha

“I am strong. I’ll just pick myself up and move on!”

She banged on the stool and then moved to the mirror. She hit her reflection shattering the glass to a hundred shards.

One whole, a hundred pieces. They clung to each other refusing to let go. One mirror, crackled like a map drawn by the insane.

She drew blood. It started like a trickle from the edge of her palm and as she raised her hand to look at it closer, it made a bright red trail to her inner elbow staining her sleeve as it went along unheeded.

She grabbed the first piece of cloth she could find and after making sure there were no pieces of glass embedded in the gash, she wrapped it around and around stopping only when she had a tiny bit of cloth left. She tucked it into the flat part on her palm. She looked at her reflection, there were a hundred of her staring back at her.

“I am me. I’ll get up, again and again and again and again! I will never give up. Oh God!”

Then she started to cry.

“Why me? Why? Oh God.”

She wiped her tears and left a smudge of blood. Even as she ran her good hand through her hair, wild and sticking out in places. Her eyes were red, her mascara ran like melting wax staining her cheeks.

With quick movements, she tidied up. In a flash, the bed was made, stained bedding replaced by fresh sheets, the upturned table was back in its place and all the cosmetics and books were arranged back to their own place.

She undressed with deliberate care. Peeled off the remains of her blouse; already ripped, the buttons already popped from their holes with his violent movement. Her torn skirt was still partly ridden up her ample hips. A rivulet from his claw marks marred her soft thighs.

“Oh why?” she moaned when she saw the trickle of blood. From within her. Down her legs. She left sticky footprints.

She ran a bath. She soaked in the warm waters and imagined herself in a peaceful place.

‘If only I could lie here forever’, she thought as she immersed herself deeper into the lavender fragrance of the foam bath and into her thoughts.

But she got up. She dressed. And made up with skill in the one good part of the mirror that she could still see half a face. She smiled at her reflection as she smacked her lips. Her eyes refused to embrace her lips, they were as cold as death.

Knock! Knock!! Knock!!!

She ignored them. This intrusion into her peaceful place.

She swayed. In front of the mirror. A hundred swayed. They danced when she danced. They smiled, her pearly teeth were like pearl necklaces strewn across a dark sky glinting as they spied the stars.

A pirouette and her pink gown flared, rose petals dancing in the mirror.

She ran her fingers down her hair. She caressed her hair. She removed them. Quickly. It reminded her of him. Her countenance changed.

“I hate him”

She looked at her hands. She placed them in her hair again. And removed them.

She grabbed nail polish, she painted her nails. Bright red. Then she ran them through her hair again.

“That’s better, nothing to remind me of him.”

She pulled at her hair.

“I hate him! I hate him!! I hate him!!!”

The wet polish left red flecks in her hair.

“I hate me”

And she folded. And they all folded, her reflections in the mirror.

She lay, a dark shadow in the corner.

Knock! Knock!! Knock!!

Shouts of “Halima! Halima!”

She looked at the mirror

She spoke softly “Halima? They are calling you. Answer them”

Then she laughed.

“Which one of you will answer them? She asked the hundred Halimas.

She heard breaking. Sounds alien, from near and yet far. She crouched, in her corner staring at her nails damaged from running them through her hair.

She got up, picked up the bottle of bright red polish and went back to her corner. She imagined it her cradle. She rocked. She sang. A lullaby.

She was painting the last little finger when the door gave way.

A group of worried friends burst into her room.

“Halima!” they said worried.

“Pretty isn’t it, see my nails, they are pretty.”

The crowded around her, helped her up, and took in the scene. Her wild hair dripping with nail polish and her nails poorly done, smudged and streaky. The shattered mirror and the pristine room. Her pretty pink dress.

“Are you okay? We’ve been worried about you. It’s been two days, where’ve you been? We thought you travelled or something, you didn’t come for lectures or meals or even to Sade’s party. Ore here has been so worried about you.”

He loomed over them. Ore. They made a path for him to make a beeline for her.

She opened her arms, it knocked the mirror and the shards fell.

His arms wide open. His eyes hesitant. Knowing. Pleading. Shame faced.

She smiled, that smile that always had him wanting, needing, hoping.

Her eyes were cold, as always. Closed. As always. To him.

Her arms open, and they embraced.

“Aww, Halima and Ore sitting on a tree” some in the group sang.

She sat in his arms, on the very same bed.

He stopped. Eyes wide open. His side bearing a large piece of glass.

Her hands clutching the piece of glass. Bright red. From polish. And from his and hers. Their blood.

Halima. Singing.

“Halima and Ore. Sitting on a tree. K.I.S.SI.N.G. Halima and Ore. Sitting on a tree. K.I.S.S.I.N.G.”

A lone voice cutting through her friends’ looks of fear and confusion..

Halima swaying.

Ore, sightless in death. Ore embracing the bed. Where he drew first blood.

A Timeless Dance (Short Story)

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A Timeless Dance

By Veronica Nkwocha

 

Ochanya swayed with the young women, content under the full moon. A cool breeze lifted their short ceremonial skirts ever so slightly mesmerising the young men into thinking forbidden thoughts. The old men lay, half way upright on their Ukonobo seats, an eye open even though they lay tranquil, in a bid to catch any young man attempting a bit more than looking.

Lithe, fluid bodies twisted and turned to the rhythmic and haunting thumping of the Uba drums. This was the best part of the evening of the festival; when men sated on the refreshing and slightly sour palm wine and women, half way pliant and slightly drunk, their drink fermented just right by the old women of the village went quiet, their singing barely heard.

Ochanya’s waist beads and anklet tinkered as she twisted her hips here and there. Ameh, the hunter’s son could bear it no longer. As she passed by him, he grabbed her arm and she, anticipating this very move, slithered away with him into the night. For a moment, her father’s friend thought he saw her disappear. He tapped Elika on the arm as he snored away.

“Elika, Elika, I can’t see Ochanya.”

“Eh Eh?” Elika replied from his sleep. “Is ok, is ok.”

“You’re a foolish man Elika, you sleep while your flower disappears into the night.”

Elika made a sucking sound with his gums as he tucked his head further into the crook of his arm. He snored and farted simultaneously. “Ahh!!” His friends hissed. How this buffoon fathered the queenly beauty Ochanya; hardworking and beloved of all was beyond them. He was wry and ‘comely’ was a word that would never be used to describe him. His stature was of no consequence. He would be overlooked in a room of few. His laziness did him no favours either; he was so full of excuses, Atimakpa the village musician used him in the songs chanted as a rite of passage for boys on what not to be.

Ochanya ran along with Ameh. The leaves caressed her arms as she ducked here and there avoiding low branches. The plants poured a carpet of flowers on the path Ameh led her through. Their fragrance was heady and hinted at something new and beautiful. As they slowed to a stop listening intently to see if they were followed, she mouthed the song in her heart, ‘happy tomorrows’.

“Happy” she whispered.

Ameh asked “What?”

“It’s nothing” she said.

He walked around peering here and there to make sure they were safe.

“I’ll love you forever my Ochanya, I’ll do everything it takes to make you my wife.”

“Promise you’ll never leave me,” Ochanya purred.

“Never” he said “I’d rather die.”

Calls of “Ochanya, Ochanya” sent the lovebirds scurrying home.

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Elika strolled out with as much pomposity as he could and walked into the Itakpa crammed full of gaily dressed men and women.  A loud rancorous laughter punctuated the soft voices that hummed like a hive of bees. He wore an atrocious hat; an attempt by a poor craftsman at copying the latest style of turbans perched gingerly on the corner of his small head, smooth as a pebble. His oversize but brightly coloured robes caught momentarily on an empty stool at the entrance and he stumbled in. His countenance changed to a slight annoyance as no-one noticed him walk in; he had practiced the entrance for months, now spoiled by the silly stool.

This was his time to shine, his time to be covered in adulation after all the years of derision from his peers. He was after all, giving his daughter Ochanya, his comely damsel of folk tales and a hundred songs to Adeyi, the doctor son of one of the neighbouring town’s earliest converts and catechist. Adeyi was newly returned from England, the home of the Queen where he studied under a much deserved scholarship. Giving her in marriage to him was a very big achievement.

Elika had decided very quickly that he couldn’t wait for tomorrow to get pregnant when today was already suffering labour pangs.  There were rumours of Ameh’s interest and Elika had been quite eager at first, saying his greetings to the hunter, Ameh’s father over and over again and waiting but he had received nary a hint.  Her other suitors who had gone a bit further hadn’t quite asked for her hand with the finality of a proposal. Just a word here and there from an elderly male relative about seeing a lovely flower in his garden; their vagueness, part of the process dictated by tradition. But Adeyi’s family had been ready from the start. He mouthed a silent thanksgiving to the God of heaven, Owo icho for his daughter’s startling looks for all the noble men in the village had tried with as much subtlety as they could, to rope their own daughters with the esteemed doctor. Ojari the Palmwine tapper of note went further. He discussed openly with Adeyi’s grandfather on an Eke market day and was overheard; the shame of it all. One didn’t act as though daughters were goats to be haggled for right at the market!

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Adeyi sat in another hut with his cousins as the marriage ceremony carried on in the Itakpa, he would be called in when it was time. He sighed. His legs felt as though they were lead. There was a lot weighing him down. He had only ever had a cursory look at Ochanya, once before today and was nervous. He lifted his chin and held his head upright. He was only doing what had been done, from time immemorial. When it was time, one married. The family researched and chose who one married, it was the way of his ancestors. His father was so pleased at his being so agreeable. There were others whose sons had brought strange women from other lands, who spoke languages so foreign they had never heard them before. It was the price one paid for allowing them be educated in the western ways.

In a sense Adeyi was tired of doing things differently from everyone else in his family, his sense of isolation heightened by his lone experiences of life outside his community. He had seen enough changes to last a lifetime being born at the eclipse of colonialism and growing up in the cusp of the tender shoot of a nation. He was the first of many things in his family; the first to attend school and the first to travel a few hundred miles from Elekwu with the coming of motor vehicles and then further along to far flung towns and then England.

He wanted to stay rooted to his ancestral home even though he had drifted off a long time ago; he was tired of straddling both worlds a stranger to both. Marrying someone who would understand him implicitly, the many nuances that made him; hunting with his cousins for small game in the savannah grasslands stripped of his fancy clothes, eating deliciously prepared okoho with smoked fish that stretched like rubber to the uninitiated and having his wife speak to him and his unborn children in their mother tongue drew him like a moth to an open flame. He would grow to love her in the most important way they said, not the whimsical and fancy way the movies he watched made it out to be. He sighed, his hand cupping his chin.

Ochanya wept softly. Her mother, Ehi, cajoled and tended to her gently. She remembered her own marriage so many years ago, all the apprehension and fear of marrying someone she didn’t know well. She also knew she was going to have to do more than most women for Elika’s laziness did not start recently. Fathers kept their daughters far away from him as though his laziness were contagious. Her impoverished family was glad to have her taken out of their hands practically shoving her into his waiting arms. They were practically squatters on the corners of their ancestral lands doomed to work the fallow lands in the hopes of a meagre harvest. At least with Elika she had a home in a vibrant community and could work a small patch of very fertile land for vegetables for her use and for sale. Yams, the crop men farmed were given to them by Elika’s extended family to cover their shame at his refusal to work.

She wiped Ochanya’s tears and spoke to her in low tones. She sang her favourite songs and soon Ochanya was smiling again even though her heart cried bitter tears. Her father had chosen and it was final. A web of older women made up of aunties and grandmas held her trapped in invisible age-old bonds of submission and acceptance of a Patriarch’s word. The prison she lay in to be primed with gems and trussed with silk was crafted by time and she was powerless against it.

Ehi brought out the makeup and skilfully applied the Otanjile dark and fine lining around Ochanya’s eyes, the whites glistened. Next she applied the Ewo, bright red on her lips. A few spots of black were applied in the middle of her brows and her face was dusted with powder. Her hair was braided high and extended a long graceful line past her neck corralled with beads. Her grandmother held out her new bridal waist beads, all the women agreed they were expensive and the latest fashion as were the wrappers and jewellery from her in-laws. They showed their approval with admiring glances.

Someone offered her a drink. She took a sip and told her mother she needed the toilet.

“It’s just her being nervous Ehi”, her grandmother said fleetingly suspicious as the toilet was located at the edge of the group of huts that made up the homestead.

“Are you sure? Ochanya” Ehi implored.

“Yes mama, and I need to go now” Ochanya replied.

“Ah ah!” The women murmured. “Go on quickly and be back, go with your cousin Ada”

Ada rose and wrapped her cloth around her breasts tighter, making a knot under her armpit. Ochanya also wore something similar as she hadn’t changed into the ones specially made for the traditional marriage. One would find it difficult to tell who the bride was apart from Ochanya’s elaborate hair do and makeup. They snuck out of her mother’s hut throwing on a piece of nondescript cloth over her hair in disguise. She was meant to be sequestered away until the appointed time.

Ochanya ran along with Ada. The leaves caressed her arms as she ducked here and there avoiding low branches. The plants poured a carpet of flowers on the path. The fragrance was heady as always and was tinged with a hint of sadness. They slowed to a stop listening intently to see if they were being followed, Ochanya mouthed the song in her heart, ‘sad tomorrows’.

A tear drop marred her makeup but she trudged along, hoping to see Ameh. Would he go to their secret place in anticipation? After all they were kindred souls and she willed him to be there. For one last kiss, one last touch. They walked gingerly so as not to disturb the leaves; silently they peered through the branches and she saw him.

Ochanya paused, mid motion and drank in the sight of Ameh. Strong, brawny and rippling Ameh; handsome Ameh was beneath the trees, on a bed of palm fronds and banana leaves. But his arms were wrapped around the ebony form of another woman; an undulating breast peeked betwixt their embrace. Ochanya shrieked, the sound was quickly trapped in Ada’s palm as she reached across and covered her mouth. She dropped to the floor in agony shocked at the ease with which he had moved on, un-prodded by the weight of duty and tradition.  Ada wouldn’t let her be. She half dragged her along as they walked homewards, along the path from where they came.

The dance troupe called to entertain the guests was belting out their most popular tunes. Both families were trying their best to outdo the other dancing and there was laughter all around. Adeyi strode in majestically like a young prince. He and his friends squatted in obeisance to the elders of Ochanya’s family. Elika’s grin was permanently plastered on.

When the bride was ushered in, resplendent in her beautiful clothes, there was ululating and singing. She was more subdued than her friends and cousins who walked her in to the itakpa. They danced and clapped their joy. She looked around wildly like a trapped animal and went through the motions to show her consent. Her father watched her carefully; glad she didn’t disgrace the family by publicly showing her hesitation.

Adeyi sat quietly watching her intently. Her eyes cold as glass rested momentarily upon him and turned abruptly away. An icy chill gripped his heart and he wondered what he had gotten himself into. He would have thought she would be grateful, eager. He was stunned at the idea that she may not be as keen as all the other women who constantly threw themselves at him. Her shoulders stiff as an iroko tree looked like an impregnable wall.

He should have stayed with Samantha, his West Indian ex-girlfriend; the laughter they shared walking on the beach and gazing lazily at the sky on summer evenings, the setting sun showing off her artistry painting different colours and hues which they tried in vain to capture in lilting poetry. She said they were soul mates; it seemed he might just be wedding himself to a mate from hell instead.

Ochanya’s beauty had captivated him from that first time he saw her and he had been glad and relieved the wife chosen wasn’t some gnarled woman baked by the harshness of the tropical sun. The fact that she was a person with feelings hardly occurred to him, it ran like an undercurrent utterly unimportant in the grand scheme of things; the goal of bringing up the next generation with some tribute to their ancestors had appeared paramount above all else. Now, why was he waxing philosophical he thought to himself pensive. The beautiful music refused to lift his mood.

The ceremony was over by nightfall, the lone chirping from an insect cut through the night’s silence like the constant dribble from a thatched roof after a rainy day.  Adeyi and Ochanya sat on the stools in his room in silence. He tried to make small talk but she refused to answer any of his questions. She held unto a handbag he bought as part of her wedding trousseau as though her life depended on it.

He tried one more time. “You should at least change from your clothes and go to sleep?”

She ignored him staring straight ahead. A few minutes later, he was fast asleep tired from the long day. Ochanya stared at him; this stranger lying on the bed across from her. She gingerly changed, happy to take off her uncomfortable wedding clothes and careful not to wake him up. She moved closer to the lantern and lowered the wick but did not turn it off entirely. A hard bound cover on the table caught her eye. She sat on the chair and picked it up and her countenance changed, lifted by a happy smile. It was ‘Pride and Prejudice’!

The reverend sister at her primary school which she hadn’t yet completed at eighteen having started her education late for a lack of schools had allowed her read it by chance. She loved reading. The texts that were a part of their curriculum could not satisfy her hunger once she discovered fiction books. Sister Jane had noticed her love of reading and fed the hunger with a wide variety from her ample library.

She held the hard cover excitedly. She had read it almost to the very end, enjoying every morsel from Jane Austen every chance she got; one of her regrets was not finishing the book due to her marriage. Oh how she looked forward to finishing school whilst married, the only hope in a long tunnel. She turned the wick, setting the flame to as high as she could and settled down to Mr Darcy and Elizabeth.

Adeyi found her curled up at dawn the book opened flat across her face. His stunned expression was a picture. He was shocked his wife had any interest in literature. Instead of cuddling up to his new bride through the night, there she lay clinging to one his favourite books of all time. A tender smile played around his mouth. She lifted the book waking up and her gaze met his; hers, tired from reading through the night.

“A lady’s imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”

She smiled at the incredulity of his quote from the much loved book.

“Imagination, yes. Admiration, love and matrimony? Surely Adeyi, you and I are mirroring the quote backwards, if at all?”

She turned her gaze away from him in embarrassment; maybe she was being too forward she thought suddenly shy.

“Ah imagination, I love imagination” he said a glint in his eyes. He stretched out his hands for a handshake.

“I am Adeyi, good morning and how do you do?”

“I’m Ochanya,” she answered airily taking the proffered hand, “pleased to meet you, how do you do?”

They laughed out loud at their silliness, surprising each other with the sudden conspiratorial and near chummy tint. He leaned over her chatting excitedly both of them flitting across the pages; him sharing his thoughts and she lending him her eyes.

The future looming large and unknown may not be a desert after all; it may well be a thriving garden blossoming out of the seeds of a faltering friendship and watered with the tentative hope that trailed like a ribbon encircling them on the very first morning of their married life.

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Saving Bitrus (Flash Fiction)

Eko

Saving Bitrus

By Veronica Nkwocha

Bitrus answered; “When all these arguments fade as time does its thing and we all pass on handing our baton to the next generation, it is posterity that will judge what strides each one of our elected leaders have made. It has a way of washing away all the dross and only the gold will remain. The yardstick that will be used will by many; how do they compare to others in their same situation, have they taken the cause for which they were elected as their primary duty or have they become distracted, aflush with the wealth of the masses and pissing in the wind? We are but a cacophony of voices eager to be heard but only the truth will remain; we turn their actions this way and that and some fiddle with the dross and hold it up in triumph, mediocrity reigns. From where she seats, posterity shakes her head, you can white wash a sepulchre but the inside will still be full of remains. May those who are working circumspect and leaving a legacy for the next generation be blessed.”

James laughed heartily, “Tori, all na story my brother, wetin all dis ya grammar come mean na?”

Okoro interjected, “Abi, no mind am, too much grammar mtcheww”, he concluded with a long drawn hiss.

James continued agreeing whole heartedly with Okoro, “Na too much book naim come be im problem, abeg give me food chop, make my pickin go school naim be my own”.

Bitrus perplexed that he could not reach them, supposing them intellectually incompetent ranted even louder.

“You must remove your gaze from your bellies and your wants and seek out the common good. Of what use is it to you if you are fed to the brim and your neighbour starves? What good is it if only your own children have an education and the rest wallow in government induced ignorance due to a lack of funding for good schools?”

They looked at him worried, both Okoro and James.

“This man don sick finish”, Okoro said and they both shook their heads with pity.

They walked away, they had only gone a few meters when they looked back and beheld a sight that had them nodding in understanding. Bitrus stood facing a wall, his book tucked tightly under his armpit, a discreet air about him. He was peeing, its trajectory directed at the base of the wall where it splattered against the dull and faded painting.

James said out loud in wonder, “This one naim be the ‘pissing in the wind’ wey im dey talk?”

Okoro shouted, “Hey, hey you dere, abi you no fit see the tin wey dem write for wall?”

Bitrus looked up at the bold and bright red lettering; DO NOT URINATE HERE.

The Lone Elephant

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The Lone Elephant
By Veronica Nkwocha

A certain family of Elephants were on a long journey across vast plains, deserts in search of water. The journey would take them weeks upon weeks.

The Matriarch was strong, she was wise and above all, she had the fire of ten thousand men. She led them, walking alone. Apart and slightly ahead, a lone powerful beacon; through the hills she triumphed, through the valleys, she inspired. And the elephants all followed her. They were tired, they were growing weaker by the day but they had the fire of mama’s leading to urge them on. To the hope of water for everyone, to life.

As the sun set one terrible day, a lion found them. It sniffed for the weakest and trailed the broken. Those who had undergone the journey over the years had the experience to carry on; they were at the fore of the journey, right behind the Matriarch, each one eager for the oasis that was nearly within sight. They could smell it in the air, and most importantly, they saw their old faded footprints from a distant past to show them the way.

At the far end limping along though, were the calves. They tried with all their waning strength to keep up with the herd but their small legs betrayed them.

The lion was getting closer and closer. It gnawed at the heels of the last of them all, a lone yearling, the smallest calf, drawing blood. She limped along frightened and yelping in pain.

Then something strange happened. The stronger, older and wiser elephants surrounded their lone kin to protect her from the lion.

They bellowed and trumpeted, they stomped running around wildly, their large frames covered in a canopy of dust wafting from their terrible anger at the prowling lion.

They formed a bulwark against the rampaging hunter and provided a secure refuge for…
their lone beacon, the Matriarch,
closing their ears to the bitter cry of the lone yearling even as the lion took her away,
the smallest of them all.

*It is easy to be strong for the strong, the true test of humanity is whether we can be as strong for the weak.

Baby Ane (Short Story)

Various antique to modern Black dolls from the...

 

Baby Ane 

By Veronica Nkwocha

Ane stirred the dough half asleep and lost in thought. She rubbed one eye and continued the round and round movement increasing her motion when she saw her mum Ela walk in. It was almost dawn. Someone dragged a metal bucket across the cement floor, its scratching sound jarred her to a permanent wakefulness, she stood up from the three legged stool. All around her, the sounds of morning rituals hummed like a faraway thought intruding into the tranquil silence that greeted her an hour earlier. It was as if her neighbours in the set of rooms spread out like a square box, their doors facing the middle courtyard were being chased by an invisible task master.

Across from her, Mama Ezinne smacked her only child lightly across the bottom,

“Hurry now, go brush your teeth den bath before dem full everywhere. I no wan late.”

Ezinne, seven and perpetually tardy dragged her feet and her mother sighed in exasperation. She didn’t want to miss the earliest bus to her shop. Johnny the barber swung the metal bucket as he returned from the communal bathroom.

“Fine fine Ezinne, ya mama say make you quick, no waste time you hear? Mama Ezinne e do, no beat am again, I don talk to am.”

“Morning o my brother, I greet o.”

Ela clapped her hands soundlessly and squeezed her face. She whispered to Ane,

“See that shameless woman, dey talk to man wey tie only towel this early mor mor. Na so, next thing na to carry belle mtcheew.”

Ane stirred furiously, angry with her mother but she looked away to hide her feelings.

Mama Ezinne called from across her front door,

“Mama Ane, good morning, abeg when the puff puff ready, send Ane, I go give you the money when I return from shop.”

“Good morning my sister” Ela answered with a beaming smile, “no problem o.”

She lowered her tone and spoke to Ane,

“Her lazy pikin no fit come collect am abi? No go anywhere, when dey ready, dem go come collect am.”

“But mama, we need their market, what if we end up not selling everything?”

“Dey speak your oyibo dere, ‘What if we end up not selling everything’”, she mimicked with a nasal tone.

Ane stirred. The dough was coming along nicely. She sat next to the fire as her mother scooped tennis ball sizes from the large vat and tossed them in the pan of oil. They sizzled and began to puff. She picked up a few once they were ready and wrapped them in paper and made to hurry towards Ezinne who had just returned from her bath and was entering their rooms. Her mother shrieked.

“Abi craze dey worry you? Sit down there!”

She sat, on the three legged stool, one cheek of her bottom at a funny angle. She daintily tucked her school uniform underneath her and put the puff puff back with the others that were slowly building up in the tray.

“Ane! Ane!!” Mama Ezinne called from across the room.

She pretended she was stirring the vat of dough.

“Send ya pickin. Ane never finish, no vex abeg”, Ela replied.

Ezinne dashed across hopping, her hair uncombed, and one of her sandals missing.

She smiled at Ezinne who smiled back, both of them wearing wide grins.

“Morning ma, morning sis Ane”, she said hopping wildly bearing the food in her small hands.

She tripped over as the sandal came off in her hurry to get back and fell flat spilling the puff puff on the bare cracked cemented floor. She began to cry as the sand coated them like a sprinkling of sugar.

Johnny, now dressed rushed across and helped her up as Ela and Ane crowded around her.

“No worry my pikin, Ane abeg bring another one for dem. I go pay. No cry Ezinne.” He consoled her escorting her to her mother’s room once Ane had given him the replacement.

“This ashawo, hey! See as the man just enter their room piam! Papa Ezinne, where you dey oh, my eye no fit see dis kain nyama nyama.”

“Mummy, I’m almost late. See you later”, she whispered overwhelmed by a creeping feeling of claustrophobia.

“See you later my dear. You don pack your own?”

“Yes ma”, she answered sliding out the single main entrance worried her mother might change her mind and assign one more task.

He was out almost immediately, whistling as he passed by Ela.

“God bless your market my brother”, she said watching him from the corner of her eye as she arranged her merchandise in a display case, the glass steaming with the warm buns.

“You too my sister, you do well.” He answered a jaunty spring in his step.

She stared at him wistfully, her look lingering for longer than socially appropriate.

Mama Ezinne watched the interaction and smiled. Ela was a widow. Maybe she could play matchmaker. Johnny was also a widower, his children grown. Her husband would return from his job as a long-haul truck driver later in the day and she could conscript him into helping these two.

She hurried off with Ezinne who was shedding like leaves from a dried up tree in the harmattan breeze. The clasp of her school bag became undone as she tried to put the strap across her chest like a sling. It turned upside down and the contents fell, first an exercise book, some sheets of paper then a text book. She didn’t notice and carried on walking until her pens and rulers clattered to the ground. Mother and daughter turned to pick them up, the former scolding loudly.

Ela’s disgust was in full gear now. They were blocking the entrance and she was running late for the vantage spot where her puff-puff usually disappeared quickly, gobbled up by workmen on their way to their day labourer jobs. She hissed and exclaimed,

“Ah mama Ezinne, this your pickin too lazy mtcheew! Dey do like Agric fowl wey wan faint. Abeg shift make I pass.”

“Who you dey insult? Eh? You dey craze!”

“Who dey craze”? Ela quickly retorted.

Ane almost ran smack into the two women, she had forgotten her transport fare and was rushing back to pick it up.

“Mummy, is enough!” Ane shouted.

“You dey insult me, your mother?”

“Mama Ezinne, what is it now?” Ane asked.

“No vex Ane my daughter, your mother just dey insult me and Ezinne, wetin we do you?”

Before Ane could answer, her mother grabbed her ears and pulled her along exiting the building.

“Mummy”, she said in tears, “why are you so terrible to these people? Wait, I have something to tell you” she said pulling away and wringing her hands.

They were under the mango tree adjacent to the building. Ezinne and her mother disappeared from sight chasing after a bus that barely stopped.

John rushed out of his shop which was a room at the side of the building.

“Mama Ezinne, you forgot to drop the key for your husband.”

He ran towards her and collected it and went back into his shop.

Elahi put down the display case she had on her head a minute earlier.

“Mummy, these people paid my WAEC fees. Mama Ezinne and her husband saw me crying one day about the problem and decided to help. I begged them not to tell you because I was ashamed. I knew you didn’t have money and I lied that a charity decided to help those who were struggling. Even the rent that landlord said they didn’t increase for our room because we are long time tenants is a lie, they contributed together with bro John to make the balance. Bro John is Mama Ezinne’s relative not her boyfriend. They’re new in the building maybe that’s why you didn’t know all these.”

“Chei!” Ela exclaimed putting both hands on her head.

“I have to go now, I’m already late for school.”

Ela had tears in her eyes. She went about the business of selling her wares with a long face.

“Smile Jesus loves you” a stranger called across to her from a passing vehicle.

She sold everything and stopped to pick up some supplies for the following day’s buns. She added some fruits and a small doll with a pretty pink dress.

Ane was at home when she walked in.

“Ane, abeg help me go and greet Mama Ezinne, say you don tell me everything. I go come greet am myself, make I bath first. Please my daughter, okay?”

Ezinne and Ane were looking through a pile of socks wrapped in cellophane paper when Ela knocked. Mama Ezinne let her in and sat down.

A repentant Ela began in a tremulous voice,

“Forgive me Mama Ezinne, e get as this life be. Person wey be my help na so I come dey throw way, devil come dey cover my eye. Thank you my sister, na God go reward you.”

“See this your daughter Ane, good heart. Just exercise patience, you hear? I know say e no easy. Only you, two children already dey for boarding house for secondary school plus Ane. E no go tey dem go grow for you by God’s grace.”

“Amen my sister. Ezinne, come here, you be better pikin you hear? See wetin I bring for you” she said passing on the presents.

Ezinne turned to look at her mum who nodded.

“See my doll baby” she said excited.

She and Ane started fussing over the clothes and the miniature shoes and fiddling with her tightly coiled hair.

The two women smiled. Mama Ezinne cut up the fruit and they shared laughing as Ezinne tried to feed the new addition to the family whom cheekily she named, baby Ane.

Image from here: © Debbie Behan Garrett Various antique to modern Black dolls in my collection/ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Black_dolls.jpg  / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Dusk’s New Dawn (Short Story)

Abuja Dusk

Abuja Dusk (Photo credit: Jeff Attaway)

Dusk’s New Dawn

By Veronica Nkwocha

Dapper. He stood out like a mannequin had just come to life, its perfect proportions in a fluid movement that made her want to dance to his rhythm. She spied from the corner of her eyes and saw he was wearing the ‘Oswald Boateng’ that had caught her eye at the last fashion event she attended in Ikoyi; where perfectly coiffed women walked nose in the air, their handbags dangling delicately from wrists upturned.

He stood at the doorway of the Hilton, Abuja and she realised in a slight panic that he was probably waiting for his driver. She had only a few moments to make her move. She stood up from the comfortable chair at the lounge and dropped her braids from its band shaking them loose. She tugged her blouse as she walked towards him and was pleased that her jade beads nestled perfectly just above the cleavage, hinting not obvious.

She stood next to him at the crowded entrance and pretended she was waiting for her car, then stretched looking around the corner. She stumbled as though her six inch heels had caught where the marble joined. He reached out to break her fall and her heart winked at his chivalry.

“I beg your pardon” he said apologising as he let go of her waist. Her eyes would do the rest. They looked into his, wide and imploring.

“So, so sorry, I shouldn’t have worn these sandals”, she said delicately angling her feet. She had never been prouder of the lady who did her pedicure. The sandals were ornamented with the same jade beads in a yellow rope twist, a thin line encircled as if she was wearing an anklet.

He stared.

“Bingo”, she whispered silently.

“Hi, I’m Uzoma.”

“I’m Mary.”

“Pleased to meet you”, they exchanged, smiling.

It seemed like years ago. That day three years ago when he couldn’t stop looking at her. Her caramel skin soft as silk he almost reached out and touched it. They parted, him with a vice like grip on her bb pin number. He memorised it.

He was surrounded by mannequins fitting their garments to show their best features when she walked in the next day bearing sushi from Uptown Asian Cuisine; their shared love discovered on that long phone call when they couldn’t stop chatting. They had lunch in his studio, he moved the clutter so she could sit and he was glad she didn’t mind.

Their love story began, a gentle drift. A lovingly crafted paper boat set to sail on calm waters floating tenderly away from the beach, both of them oblivious to the oncoming sogginess.

“Oh Mary”, he whispered.

She was the sassy and sparkly diamond that lit up his life from a darkening limbo when she interjected herself into it, her jade pendant drawing him in to her heady sweetness.

He sat on the bench fleeing from another argument, puffed on the inside filled up with her constant dribble; “cloying, needy and self-righteous to boot”, he muttered.

He didn’t very much care for her preening perfection anymore. He sat in the garden staring at nothing, his appearance was of one fixated on something afar off, his gaze and his back, rigid. He exhaled allowing the garden and setting sun to wash over him, their beauty tempering his insides and calming the annoyance that he had allowed consume him earlier. The evening breeze felt cool, their caress softened his thoughts and his eyes smarted with unshed tears; he was sorry for hurting her and he would forgive her again. And again, as always. But it left him empty inside.

They fought over the most mundane things now; whether the newscaster’s blouse was purple or lilac, whether the Governor of a particular state was worse in his stealing of public funds than his predecessor, whether he was falling out of love with her because he didn’t notice her new hairstyle.

He would rather stay in his study, a tiny building at the back of their garden creating ‘masterpieces’, designing clothes and visualising fabrics doing things that only he could make them do. He won the ‘most likely to succeed’ at design school after all. Or be at the orphanage on the other side of town, sharing his skills with the army of eager children gently encouraging them which he did unfailingly once a week.

He would much prefer to hang out with his best mates whom he had known from his ‘A Level’ days when he was fresh out of Nigeria exploring London and then graduating from university five years later. They spent the subsequent three years battling to break into the fashion world as the next big thing. The days when Claudette who was first his best friend and then his fiancée, Japheth and O’Neal and him would pub hop and attend fashion soirees and tease their innards with strange recipes from a hundred restaurants. They would traipse Paris savouring the food and allow themselves get steeped in the language, Claudie urging them on to perfection.

He remembered those days as the most he had laughed, everything excited them; they were on the brink of something new and fresh, suffused with hope. But Claudette had died of stomach cancer. It was sudden and quick and in his brokenness, he had thought to move away from everything that reminded him of her and moved back home to Abuja as one of a large wave of returnees. He had invested the pay-out from her life insurance in a smart studio and show room hoping to ride the tide of the burgeoning entertainment industry and capital city oil wealth but it had petered away. A gaping hole of overheads ate away at the substance until there was nothing left, leaving him a shell of his former boisterous self.

Mary’s face had the pinched look of extreme disappointment. ‘Never judge a book by its cover’ was her current most favourite phrase. Her friends would laugh at one of her many jokes peppered with the phrase but for her it had a deeper meaning. Uzoma. She kept the pretence of a happy thriving home but hated the inside. Nothing was ever right lately, she couldn’t put her finger on it. As though something big was about to happen. Maybe it was the increasing number of fights or the silences and the emptiness on his side of the bed night after night. His excuse for holing away in the study was always another inspiration for designs that died a putative thread in an unending maze.

‘What was he up to, how did she get into this mess?’ The ‘why’ was like a tail that just kept tagging along, wagging and nudging her mind into a niggling that carried on unabated, she became a detective prying through his things. She didn’t like what she found.

Uzoma was planning to leave her. Not only was he a failure and a disappointment, he actually had the gall to shame her. How else would one explain the letter accepting him into a program with a designer in France? He knew very well she couldn’t afford to resign her top job and leave Nigeria for the time it would take for him to complete the program, and in a country where she didn’t even speak the language.

For a moment she paused enraged at his lack of feeling, his disappearing into a world she just couldn’t enter. It happened constantly, he would lapse into French when angry and hold monologues. Once he ignored her and carried on for at least five minutes speaking to himself. She gave him her back and was initially bent over in anger over the piano stool. Then she thought to record his litany on her phone.

She took the recording to a friend’s friend who spoke French and the translation broke her heart. “Why won’t she leave me alone? Let me be. Go on with you pretentious ways and leave me to my failures ‘madam image over substance’.”

What saddened her the most was his ungratefulness, ‘Image over substance’? He was the one without substance she fumed. She had married him when all he had were his good looks, a talent in creative design and ties to a rich uncle who couldn’t be bothered to have a relationship with them. If only she had known his business was on its death throes. All she got was a fancy wedding, the uncle’s famous last name which had all her friends swooning in envy and that was it! No connections or contacts or even further visits to or from the government Minister. They had been forgotten by Uzoma’s late father’s older brother in a land of pedigrees and cronyisms. She had married beneath her station blinded by love she fumed, and then she was contrite seconds later, a shamefaced smallness for being so shallow.

Still she thought, rekindling her anger, she should be the one seeking to extricate herself from the mess. She would be better off without him, carry on without the sad puppy look Uzoma wore she was sure, to annoy her. She lit up with expectation. If he left for France, it would be the perfect excuse to still have the air of a respectable married woman without the appendage of duty that weighed her down. It had chipped away at her initial obsessive love until there was almost nothing left to cling to, leaving her empty.

“Uzoma”, she called as she hurried to the garden.

He turned to look at her. She stopped suddenly transfixed by the sunset, she put her hand on his shoulder to steady herself. He put his hands over hers and he rose from the bench and drew her to him. He cuddled her close. She looked at him as the light bathed his face and she felt his pain. He sighed.

‘This man’, she thought to herself, there was something about him that melted her insides. She wanted to wipe his hurt away, to make things better. He didn’t speak of it but she saw it with sudden clarity as he drank in the glow of evening.

She put her head on his shoulder and they stood until the sun sank slowly from sight, the orange and gold hues embraced white brilliant clouds lingering for a while and then fading into greys and a deepening dark blue.

They walked into the house and sat, knit together.

He started,

“Mary, I know I haven’t been easy to live with. I suppose in failing, I have allowed myself stay down and hurt you in the process. Thank you so much for holding us together. For working so hard for both of us. All I ask is that you bear with me a little longer inugo? Please my love?”

“You know what honey, what are we if not imperfect? Yes, I’ve been upset, confused, hurt by your withdrawal. I’ve said things in anger and have been focused more on the things that are wrong in our relationship rather than see how we can work through this.” She said clutching at the ring of hope she heard in his voice.

“Here’s my surprise. I acted on impulse and applied for a program in France and was accepted but I turned it down. I also sent in a portfolio for the remaking of the bestselling movie ‘King Ramses Temple’ and it’s a shoe-in to my amazement.  So we will be busy in preparation for the shoot which starts in six months. It’s a dream come true.”

“That’s fantastic, I’m happy for you. Happy that you are getting the recognition you deserve cos you’ve worked hard for this. I do love you Uzoma.”

“I love you my angel”, he kissed her, his breath grazing against the jade beads nestling in the dark.