There is a scar at the back of my hand, close to my thumb. It is black and shaped like a pear. I know Ikemdi the way I know my scar. He won’t eat his yams. Something is wrong. Smoke wafts from the plates of yams and palm oil, and a portion of the paint on the ceiling peels and falls to the ground, next to the stool that carries the plates. I look down to see Chiadika crawling to where the peel lays. I snatch him off the ground without thinking. The palm oil is hot and if he topples the stool and it pours on him, then my life is over, since he is now my life.
“The yams are cut too small, are they not?” I ask. “They cook faster that way. You know I have to be very early. Please don’t forget your medicine.”
Ikemdi removes his gaze from the louvers and rests it on the tray of food in front of him He shifts away from the food and faces me.
“Don’t go, Ifeoma,” he says. “You can keep buying in small quantities from your Madam Vee.”
Look at him, sitting there with his bald, oval head and large nose, an ugly dwarf of a man. I used to argue with Connie that while Ikemdi was not handsome, he wasn’t ugly either. The realization hits me now. He is ugly.
Ants start to crawl on my skin, under my arms and around my neck. I don’t brush them away because I know they are not really there.
Before Connie and I had a fight, everything was bearable. Ikemdi would leave early in the morning, and I would clean the house, and wash, and cook. It was all bearable because I knew Connie will come. She would come with her last child, and with whatever book her husband bought her that week when he came visiting from the city. She would read it out, and we would howl and shake with laughter or brush tears off our eyes, and we would talk in whispers if her child was asleep, or we had sinful things to say.
She called me barren one day. It was a joke. I knew it was a joke, and I should laugh and shove her and say something a little wicked in return. But this joke sliced my heart. I didn’t find it funny.
“Better it,” I said in reply, “than opening my legs every week for not only that drunkard of a man that is your husband but many other men.”
Connie dropped the book on the stool in front of her. The woman on its cover was naked, her arms wrapped around an equally naked man with too much hair. She stood up and yanked her sleeping child from my arms. The child awoke with a cry. She snatched her book off the stool and stormed out.
Early the next morning, I knew the day ahead would be unbearable because Connie would not come.
“The three of us from Ngwo have begged the Chief Officer,” Ikemdi said as he prepared for work. “Let us come a little later. The stories we hear about the robberies on that bridge are no longer just stories, Ifeoma. Let us come when the sun has risen.”
I wanted to pinch his lips shut but I turned instead to the window. The darkness gently faded outside.
“Ogini?” he asked. “Why is your face that way?”
“When you go now, Ikemdi, I will clean these louvers that I cleaned yesterday because I have nothing else to do.”
“You have come again –”
“I will lose my mind, my husband, I am sure of it.” There were no tears, but I wiped my eyes. “Let me start the business. Bikonu, please, give me some money.”
“We’ve talked about this thing, woman, have we not?” He shook his head. “I don’t see the need. I earn enough. There is no need for the world to think I do not, and that you must support me.”
I felt my nostrils flare, and I think he noticed it.
“You mustn’t get angry now,” he said, smiling. He rummaged through his pockets and found a wad of cash and handed it to me. “Today, you will wash your hand and cook a delicacy for your husband, eh? Surprise me, mhn?” He slung his bag on his shoulder and walked to the door. “Won’t you bid your husband farewell?”
I said nothing and brushed at my arms instead because I felt ants crawling on me.
You see fire, and you stick your hand in it. Connie said this to me once. The sun was out and fiery. I walked to Madam Vee’s shop, and I contemplated Connie’s words. The money in my pocket was for buying foodstuff, but I was headed to Madam Vee’s shop with it.
“Ah, Ikemdi’s wife! How now?” she said as I entered her shop. Something black and round like a pimple sits by her nose. It moves as she talks, and it looked to have grown bigger than the last time I saw it.
“Everything is fine. I have come to buy kerosene.”
Madam Vee smiled and said nothing. The smile was mild and coy, and it made me feel foolish. She reached for a funnel hanging on a nail in the wall.
“I know,” she said finally, and bent to start measuring the usual one litre. She put the funnel into a plastic bottle of Lucozade Boost and filled it. She then reached for a free container, to pour it.
“I want ten litres.”
She paused for a moment. “Is your stove now drinking so much, eh Ikemdi’s wife?” She asked and guffawed. “Chelu, or do you want to start your own…?”
I wished she’d sell the thing without all this talk. I smiled and averted my eyes. Her shop was dingy. The heat in there prickled like little thorns piercing the flesh.
“Please sell me ten litres, Madam Vee.”
“And if I say no?” she responded as sharply as I did. Her forehead was burrowed, her demeanor suddenly challenging.
I decided I disliked her in that moment. I fixed my eyes on her signboard. NO CREDIT TODAY, COME BACK TOMORROW. She hissed and bent and muttered under her breath as she measured more kerosene.
I was naked in our backyard, under the sun, laying another coat of ground charcoal on a board. I was under the sun because that way, the board would dry faster. The heat was maddening. I was sure the blackness under my fingernails was not charcoal alone.
The board dried. It was now a blackboard. I wrote with white chalk:
BUY YOUR KEROZENE HERE
Connie was my first customer. She only noticed the signboard in front of the house by accident. She was walking by the house, swinging a can when she saw the sign. She continued walking, head raised.
“Connie,” I said, softly. She halted but didn’t turn. She couldn’t have heard if she hadn’t been straining to hear. I knew, at that moment, we would reconcile. I called her name again, a little loudly. She turned.
“What is it?” Her voice was sharp but the venom in it didn’t sting. “Do you want kerosene?”
“I have, Connie. I now sell, but I can give you.”
“You have kerozene,” she said, pointing to the signboard. “I want kerosene.”
There was a moment of silence. The thing she said, it was registering. I let out a small and uncertain cackle when it did. Then, I laughed. She laughed too, and soon, we were bent over, laughing, and swaying about. She came and sat next to me, wiping her eyes.
“You’re an iti. You don’t know how to spell.”
She left as evening started to descend. Ikemdi would return anytime now, and he shouldn’t see all of this yet. I wanted to ready him for the knowledge, let him know slowly, over time. There was a hen pretending to peck at a grain on the floor, but its eyes were aimed at the approaching figure. It was ready for flight; it raised its clipped wings. I didn’t pack my consignment away. Instead. I sat and watched Ikemdi walk up to me, a smile slowly receding from his face.
“What is all of this?” he asked.
I rose, to greet him. “Welcome, my husband.”
“What, Ifeoma, is all of this?”
“I started the business today.”
He looked around us, at the containers and can of kerosene and funnel and board, and then he looked at me for a long time. Twice, he opened his mouth to say something, but the words did not come out. He charged past me. Inside, I heard the impatient clinking of his belt being unbuckled and the sharp clanging of pot covers. He must be hungry. I was in trouble because I hadn’t cooked any food. I had seen fire and stuck my hand in it. When I entered, he didn’t speak to me. Not a word. He took off his clothing and lay on the bed. I packed my consignment away and considered speaking to him. I didn’t know what to say. I slowly got in bed, placing my body beside his, careful not to touch.
He got on top of me without warning and pinned my hands down. He rocked till he was completely stiff, and then he slid into me. I chose not to struggle. Let him have his way. He pummeled and huffed and grunted but didn’t look at my face. He rolled away when he was done and did not speak to me. He did not speak to me for weeks.
He broke his silence on the morning I awoke with a sharp pain shooting through in my back, suspending my movement and leaving my mouth ajar.
“Ogini?” he asked, folding one of his shirts. “Are you alright?”
I didn’t answer because the pain sat on my throat like a rock, and then there was the resentment that had formed from the weeks of silence. Eventually, the pain eased to a faint strain. I went to the toilet to ease myself.
“Did you drink a drum of water?” he asked on my fourth trip to the toilet, later that night.
He knew. He knew because there was a calm suspicion in his voice. He bit his fingernail and peered at me. I willed it in my spirit that he would not say it.
Connie noticed earlier in the day, before now, after I vomited in the backyard and heaped sand on it. She understood. I did not want my hopes to be up and then dashed. It was better not to say it that early, not yet.
Ikemdi said it, however, the pig. “Idi ime.” It was not a question.
“I want to sleep, Ikemdi.”
“You are carrying my child,’ he repeated.
“I drank a lot of water.”
He watched as I got in bed beside him and shut my eyes.
Ikemdi says he’s had a dream, a bad one, and so I should not go. Of course, he’s had a bad dream on such an important day for my business. I do not care to know about the dream, and so I did not ask. I am at Madam Vee’s shop, waiting for her.
The sun hasn’t risen and everywhere still is a little dark, but I can tell a person from a spirit. Chiadika sits on me, and I sit on a cold chair by the shop. He is sleeping, a finger in his mouth. He makes a soft and precious sound, and I can tell he is content in his sleep.
I hug him close; this is my child. My child. I no longer know what the time before him is like. He has changed my life. I often watch him sleep, without realizing that I do, and I say to myself, “So this is my child?” I am grateful for him, to him. He is my fortress and has saved me from shame. At times, as I change his napkin, I look up to catch him gazing at me. I cherish such moments, moments where we hold our gazes, and I can see in his eyes that he loves me too.
Madam Vee stomps out without warning. She is wearing buba, and a small leather bag is slung on her shoulder and is tightly clutched by her arm.
“Ifeoma, you brought your son.” Her tone makes it hard to tell if it is a question, but I can hear the sourness in it clearly.
I should have left him at home, for such an important business as this. Madam Vee and I are going to the city to buy kerosene directly from the people who sell it from large tanks.
Ikemdi is a good man, really, and a good father and he loves his son. But love is not enough. He can love him and forget to feed him. He can love Chiadika and let him slip from his grip. Not me. I would fall flat face first before I let my son slip from my hands.
I should feel bad, but I am already used to Madam Vee’s sourness. She no longer hides it. She wants me to know she is not happy about my business. The much she can do, is this. What more can she do anyway?
“Yes,” I say and start to arrange myself off the chair. “His father has iba. He is too ill to look after our son.”
She frowns further. “Since I’ve been doing this business and going to the city, I’ve never seen anyone come along with their children. Your own must be different,” she hisses. “If I refuse to take you along now, you’ll gossip me to that wide-mouthed Connie, and she will tell the whole of Ngwo that Vee is a wicked woman that doesn’t want the progress of her fellow woman.”
“Sorry, Madam Vee.”
“Sorry for yourself,” she says sharply. “I hope you’re with your money.”
I touch my purse even though I know my money is there. That is everything from my business. There will be bigger gains now because I will no longer be buying from Madam Vee but straight from whoever she buys from in the city, at a cheaper price.
“It’s here, in my purse, Madam Vee.” She walks off and says nothing more.
She doesn’t speak to me still, even as we are on the bus. The bus is packed tight and filled with people that smell of different soaps. The faces are not familiar. I know, however, that the two men who sit in front with the coughing driver are Ikemdi’s colleagues. Their boots resemble his, so I know.
The next passenger will never believe that Madam Vee knows or has anything to do with me. She sits in a manner that turns her body away. I don’t care for this, however. I would look out the window, but there is nothing to see except tall stalks of grass. I sit still with my sleeping child in my arms. I suddenly realize I am cold. The window is open, and the breeze is chilling. There are pimples on my arms. I pray my son does not catch a cold, as I shut the window. The bus is quieter. I look ahead and notice we are nearing a bridge.
I look down at my son. Someone shouts, “Chi m o!” When I look up, another person whispers, “Ndi oshi.”
I am not scared until I turn to Madam Vee, and I see the fear in her face. “Guns,” someone whispers again. “They are with guns.”
I look ahead again, and I can make out four figures, but I do not see them clearly. I don’t think about it, but I quickly remove the money in my purse and slip it into my son’s napkin. The bus stops and the door is violently dragged open. I can see them clearly now, and they are terrifying to look at, the four robbers. Their eyes look painfully red. They board the bus. The one who speaks, speaks with some calm.
“Quietly give us your bags and wallets,” he says, “and we will be on our way.”
My hands are shaking. Chiadika is awake now. He calmly peers at me. The other three robbers round up the various bags and wallets and purses in the bus. A woman is crying.
“No one touched you and you’re crying, Madam,” the one who speaks, says. He slaps her, hard. She slumps into her seat. Her neighbor gasps.
Madam Vee hands over her bag when one of them gets to us. Her chin is quivering. I hand him my purse. He smells strongly of igbo and dry gin. We are the last in the bus, so they are done. They all turn to leave, casually waving their guns.
“This woman didn’t give you her money,” Madam Vee quietly says beside me. I do not believe my ears. I turn to her. This is not real. The robbers turn. Every eye is on me, I can tell. “She hid her money in her son’s napkin.”
“Agu!” the one who speaks, sharply says. “Bring the child!” He points his gun at me.
I can hear my heart pound in my ears. I am not in my body. From wherever I am, I watch as my child is wrenched from my hands. He is crying now. His shorts are pulled down, and his napkin is undone. The roll of money falls out. The one who speaks stuffs the money into his breast pocket and jumps off the bus with my son.
“Get the woman,” he says.
I am dragged by my hair down the bus. I know it should hurt, but I do not feel the pain. “Watch.”
It is like a dream. It is a dream. Watching the child being thrown into the rushing river ahead of us. The child, because that is not my Chiadika. It cannot be. This is an evil, evil dream, and when I awake, my son will be asleep in my arms.
The robbers leave; they hurry off the bridge, each carrying two to three bags, and into the neighboring bush that is ahead of the bridge.
I look around and pinch myself. I pinch myself again. I am not waking up. I start to run.
“Hold that woman,” a voice says somewhere from behind. The voice is mighty. “Hold her!”
I reach the bridge but as I start to climb it, firm hands clamp me down. Tears are in my eyes, but I am foolish to cry since this is a bad dream. This is a bad dream. I will wake up and tell Connie about it, and she will snap her fingers and say, “God forbid,” and my Chiadika will cry for hunger, and I will breastfeed him. I will breastfeed him. I will breastfeed my son again.