By Michael Emeka
Night had fallen by the time I returned from hawking banana for Mummy. I stood the large steel tray against the wall and handed her the cash I’d made. Looking stern, she collected it, moistened the tips of her right thumb and forefinger and began counting it. She held the money as if it was millions and counted it at a snail’s pace. Picking up a note, she squeezed it with great attention, to be sure there weren’t two stuck together. If she got distracted even for a second, she’d start afresh. After what seemed like a century, she muttered, ‘O zuru ezu. It’s complete.’
I heaved a secret sigh of relief and walked towards the front door. She had threatened to put pepper in my privates any day I come back from hawking and there’s money missing.
Mummy didn’t thank me for my efforts, nor show even the slightest sign of appreciation. That I would hawk for her wasn’t part of the arrangement she and her husband made with my family, through an intermediary––Onudibia––when he came to our house, looking for a housemaid. The arrangements had stipulated that I would care for their two young sons, Gemezu, six, and Obinna, four, and help in cooking and cleaning. They’d agreed to enroll me in a school while I performed these chores. No one had mentioned hawking. But no sooner did I land at the place than Mummy bought a gigantic head of banana, cut and piled it up on a large tray and beseeched me to go sell it for her. I obeyed that first time, sold off every bunch and handed the money to her in the evening. But she had more set out for me the following day. And this time and in the days that followed, she no longer asked but ordered me with threats of putting ground pepper in my private places if I refused. And as for enrolling me in a school, no one raised the topic anymore.
Parting the curtain to the house, I went in. I greeted Daddy seated on his favourite chair, the shabby two-seater sofa opposite to the television. He returned my greeting, eyeing me. Since I turned fourteen, and then fifteen, Daddy now looked at me with something akin to hunger in his eyes. But Mummy cooked often for him. And sometimes when she’s not around, I’d cook. Either way, he never goes hungry. He even had a potbelly from the beer and pepper soup he drank with friends in the evenings. So it gave me no small discomfiture seeing that hungry expression on his face. But he only looked at me that way in Mummy’s absence.
Daddy and Mummy were not my legitimate parents. My father’s late while my true Mummy lived in our village, Lokpanta. I’d started staying with the couple when I was eight years old. Onudibia, an agent, had brought me to them and he used to visit regularly. But he stopped coming after some years. I learnt many years later that he had died in an accident on his way back from Owerri, where we lived, after one of his visits. As Mummy and Daddy had never met my parents––Onudibia was the only connection between them––I was systemically lost.
Later that night, I went to the bathroom, an unroofed structure with a gaping entrance at the back of the house, to bathe. Finished, I went into the house and straight into the adjoining room, Mummy’s and Daddy’s bedroom, a wrapper wound around my body with its tail end tucked under my left armpit. I lowered the wrapper to my hips and was massaging cream into my skin when the curtain separating both rooms suddenly opened and Daddy came in. Mummy was outside while the children were in the living room. As soon as I saw Daddy, my hands flew to my chest, and I crossed them over my naked bosom, my eyes round and focused on his face.
‘Sorry,’ he croaked. He went to the cupboard by the corner, fumbled around, neither taking nor dropping anything and headed back towards the living room. But as he tried to exit the room, he bumped into Mummy at the door.
‘Papa Gemezu, O gini? What is it?’ Mummy asked because Daddy was acting weird, almost like a thief. She looked past Daddy and saw me standing naked in the room. In shielding my breasts with my hands, I’d forgotten the wrapper. Slowly, it slid down and lay bunched up around my feet. Seeing Mummy now, I snapped out of the shock of Daddy’s unexpected entrance, reached down, drew the wrapper up and wrapped it around me.
The house was in complete silence when I woke at dawn. A cricket trilled from one of the several cracks on the walls of the living room. The old straw mat upon which I slept on the floor was cold. My teeth chattered despite the thin wrapper covering me. But on the warm mattress beside my mat slept Daddy’s and Mummy’s children. They had forbidden me from sleeping with the children, so I don’t inconvenience them. But on some frigid nights, I stole onto the mattress and perched on its edge. Whenever I heard the connecting door to the bedroom opening, I’d rush down to my chilly mat and pretend to be asleep. On certain nights, notwithstanding, I forgot myself and slept on the mattress till daybreak. In the morning, Mummy would smack me awake with oaths pouring from her lips, and once again she’d warn me to stop making her children’s sleep uncomfortable.
I heard rustling sounds from the bedroom. Then the drone of Daddy’s voice. He seemed to tell Mummy something. But for a moment she didn’t respond to whatever he was telling her. And when she did, it was a low and grudging mumble. She must be angry at him for disturbing her sleep. She often complained that whenever he woke, he always expected her to wake too.
Daddy was saying something; Mummy responded less grudgingly than before. And after a while, they were having a proper conversation.
‘… I know,’ Daddy was saying. ‘But do you think she hears us sometimes?’ They were talking about me.
I didn’t hear Mummy’s response. She spoke in such whispers. But Daddy didn’t care. He spoke with his normal voice.
‘I don’t think so.’ She sighed. ‘She sleeps early; and deeply. But wakes on time.’
‘So she might be awake now?’
‘Maybe. I trained her to be rising early.’
Their voices went down a fraction. Daddy’s voice became a drone. Mummy’s just ceased to exist. I sharpened my ears and listened. The man was telling his wife something about selling his old motorcycle and buying a tricycle. He always waxed with plans in the morning. But most of the things he told his wife he’d do, he never did.
‘Keke is safer and yields a lot more money,’ he was saying.
‘Ezi okwu? Really?’
‘Ehenu! There’s even talk that the government is considering banning ina-aga in the city centres.’ Ina-aga is motorcycle transportation, popularly called okada. That was what Daddy did for a living.
‘Why would they do that?’
‘They said people are using it to do evil.’
Mummy snorted. ‘What’s the work of the security agents then? Banning ina-aga won’t end crime. Excuse me.’
I quickly shut my eyes and rolled over. A rustle of sheets. A squeak of the bed. A bolt being drawn. The connecting door creaked open and Mummy stepped out. Left arm clamped to her side, holding down the end of the wrapper wound around her plump body, she stopped and surveyed the semi-dark room.
After a moment she went to the lantern by the corner and turned it up. Shadows receded. Lifting the lantern, the woman went over to her children on the mattress. She checked them, adjusting their sleeping wrapper, which was in a tangle at their feet, and displaying motherly affection and all.
Finished with the children, she rose with the lantern and went out. The sound of fast-rushing liquid striking a hard surface came from outside within seconds. Back in, she bolted the door, returned the lantern to its former position, turned the wick down, surveyed the room once more and returned to the bedroom.
Their bed squeaked as she lay back down.
‘Do you sometimes consider that she should be in school instead of hawking banana?’ That was Daddy’s voice. Mummy hated the idea of me going to school because it meant no one would hawk her precious banana for her. And whenever her husband raised the subject, she always responded with a harsh rejoinder that often bereft the man of words.
‘Do you have the money?’ Mummy fired at Daddy. In the silence that followed, that simple question seemly grew roots, sprouted branches, flowered and birthed fruits. But they were not the fruits Daddy would have liked and enjoyed. They were fruits of introspection and self-assessment. If he had money, we wouldn’t be living in this house, and he’d own a car, not a fairly used motorcycle he had bought from a friend. If he had money, they would have sent me to school, in Mummy’s estimation. Though they weren’t rich, they could still have sent me to school if they had wanted.
Mummy’s question must have knocked Daddy off balance, for he said nothing for long moments. The squeak and groan of their bed as they shifted on it punctuated the silence.
‘What about her people?’ The woman deftly changed the topic, not unaware of the toxic atmosphere her question had generated. ‘Have you made any progress in locating them?’
‘No. I’m still working on it. But any day we decide she has stayed enough with us, we can take her back to her village ourselves. I’m sure…’
‘Any day we decide she has stayed enough?’ Mummy sounded angry and displeased. ‘When will that day be? Are you prepared to do all the dirty jobs she does around the house if you take her back?’ Another harsh question and as before Daddy clammed up. After a while, he sighed and said, ‘But she can’t be here forever.’
Mummy didn’t answer him.
‘Does she want to keep me here forever, running errands for them and hawking banana for her?’ I wondered as I rolled over on my cold mat. Tears sprouted in my eyes and coursed down my left temple.
After that night, Mummy began loading my tray with extra bananas. The load became heavier, the work more tasking. I started coming home late.
One day, feeling feverish and running high temperatures, I cut my hawking short and went home to rest. Few minutes after I’d returned, the front door opened and Daddy came in. He filled the doorway with his enormous frame and stared at me as I jumped to my feet to greet him. He asked what I’d come home to do, and I replied that I wasn’t feeling well. Daddy left me there and went into the bedroom. He muttered he had come home to get the receipts to his motorcycle as he planned to sell it. After a while, he re-emerged and stared down at me stretched out on my mat on the floor, covered up to the neck with a wrapper. He said nothing to me at first, just stood there like a statue, staring soulfully at me. I thought he looked hungry and wanted to ask him if I should prepare something for him.
Rousing himself, Daddy went to the curtain, parted it and looked outside. Then he brought his head back in and closed the curtain properly.
I followed him with meek, puzzled eyes as he went to the curtain. And as he began towards me, I stared on at him, his face, his eyes. I was at a loss regarding what he was trying to do.
Daddy came towards me. ‘Amaka, I like you. Inu? Do you hear me? I like you.’ He squatted and placed his large hand on my chest. My hand flew to his, to push it away, but I was unable to. His hand was rock solid. I gazed up at him with tremulous eyes, gazed deep into his eyes.
Daddy breathed faster as he squeezed me. ‘Don’t worry. I’ll marry you. You’ll be my second wife. You hear me?’
I didn’t seem to hear. Everything in the room shimmered as my eyes misted with tears. Daddy’s face blurred. I had an urge to blur him out of existence. But the weight of his hand on my body reminded me starkly of the inevitability of this moment.
‘I said you shouldn’t worry. You’ll be my second wife. Why are you crying? You don’t believe me? I said I’ll marry you. This is my house. If I want to marry a hundred wives, I’ll marry a hundred wives.’
‘Mummy, somebody’s in our house.’
Daddy was so shocked to hear his son’s voice, he rose at once and dashed into the bedroom. In seconds he was out again: ‘Dry your eyes, dry your eyes.’ I obeyed and began drying my eyes. Hardly had I finished doing that when Mummy came in.
Something didn’t seem right to the woman as she stepped into the living room. She stared at me for a few seconds, then she glanced around the room. Her eyes settled on the tray still full of bananas.
‘You sold nothing,’ she muttered, frowning. ‘What happened?’
‘I’m not feeling fine.’
‘That’s why you rushed home? You could have stayed and sold a little more. Bananas are perishable.’
‘Aren’t I?’ I asked in my mind. But to Mummy, I said nothing. Daddy emerged from the living room. The frown on his wife’s face stayed in place as if it were a mask. She didn’t even bother to say a greeting, and the man himself, not unaware of the tension in the air, said none to her.
Daddy went to the large TV cabinet and continued his search, even as I suspected he may have found the motorcycle receipt.
‘What are you looking for?’ Mummy’s mouth barely opened as she asked the question. Her firm jaws, set in lines of displeasure, moved slightly as she ground her teeth.
‘My motorcycle receipt,’ Daddy answered airily, not bothering to look at her. He raced back inside and soon emerged holding the thick wad of receipts aloft. ‘Found it.’
Mummy just gazed at him, her eyes dark and brooding.
The man looked around. ‘What? Why are you so quiet? Isn’t your day going well?’
‘My day has been going well.’
‘Okay. See you later.’ And he fled from the house.
One day, just as I was about to go out, Mummy reiterated the warnings she’d been hammering into me since I started hawking for her.
‘Be careful with men,’ she began. ‘Any man who calls you but shows no interest in buying a bunch, ignore him. If you’ve already brought your tray of banana down, lift it, replace it on your head and walk away.
‘Don’t allow any man to touch your body.’ My mind flew to Daddy at once. I saw his hungry eyes and his huge hand closing in on my body and shuddered inwardly.
‘If any man forcefully tries to grab your private parts,’ Mummy went on, ‘shout for help.’ If I’d shouted for help that day Daddy grabbed my private part in the living room, I’m sure Mummy would have heard my voice as she approached the house. Some neighbours, too, might have heard me. I wondered what would have happened afterwards.
‘Are you listening to me?’
‘Even if they promise you heaven and earth, you know men are natural-born tricksters, don’t agree.’ I remembered Daddy’s promise that he’d marry me if I let him have his way. But I knew that was a barefaced lie.
‘Do you understand me?’
Handling my male customers on the road based on Mummy’s instructions wasn’t much of an issue. My biggest headache was Daddy. He had ramped up pressure on me after that first day, promising to buy me whatever I desired. Aware that our meeting that day was coincidental, he now tried to sweet-talk me into cutting my hawking short and coming to meet him at home at a prearranged time. But despite all his promises and cajolery, I did not for once heed him. One morning I awoke and found Mummy dressing up and packing a bag.
‘I’m travelling home,’ she told me at the curious glances I threw her way. She then gave me instructions on how to run the house while she’s gone. I thought she would leave out hawking. But after the long chores she had set out daily for me, she still expected me to go hawk for her, even if it’s for a few brief hours.
When she finished dressing and was ready to leave, she took me outside and told me, frowning, ‘Make sure you do nothing stupid with my husband. Do you understand me?’
‘Yes, ma.’ I wasn’t the one trying to do something stupid with her husband, but her husband trying to do something stupid with me.
‘I see the way he looks at you nowadays,’ she continued.
‘Which way ma?’
‘My friend will you shut up! Mechie onu gi! Do you think I’m blind? I’m warning you. Stay away from my husband if you don’t want me to put pepper in your vagina.’ I wondered why she was warning me instead of her husband.
She pointed at my crotch. ‘You’re still a virgin and I know it for sure. When I come back, I’ll check. God help you you’re no longer a virgin when I return.’
Mummy spent seven days in her village, Ndielu. Throughout that week, I didn’t once go out to hawk. Daddy saw to it. As soon as his wife left, he gave me the money for that week’s worth of bananas. And each day, after I’d taken the children to school, I’d come back home and meet him. We would sit in the living room, chatting like mates, watching movies and eating bananas.
Those seven days passed with the speed of a Christmas day. Daddy went to work late each day and returned with loads of gifts he spoilt me with. He became more relaxed and approachable and smiled more often. Not used to such treatment, I became intoxicated by it. I let my vigilance down, as a result, feeling like I was the woman of the house. And by the time I realized what was happening, it was already too late.
Something happened to my boldness during those days Mummy was away. It grew to such a level that when she eventually returned and was speaking to me, gazing at my eyeballs, I gazed back at her. She must have felt a frisson of fear run down her spine on one occasion, for she kept stumbling over her words and stuttering. She then tried injecting steel into her voice.
‘Get me a bowl of clean water and come and meet me in the bathroom.’ She wanted to do her virginity test. I stood around indecisively after she gave me this instruction, considering my options. Not in this life was I going to let her stick her grubby hand in me.
‘Did you hear what I just said?’
‘Now, go get what I asked and meet me at the back.’ She stomped off towards the bathroom.
In the living room now, I stood, looking around. I’d rather run away than let her carry through with this plan. Just as I about to gather my things, a tumult of shouting and screaming erupted in the neighbouring compound. I parted the curtain, looked out and saw Mummy and other neighbours running towards the compound. I waited until they were out of sight, then lifting and placing the tray of bananas set out for me on my head, I went out.
In the days that followed, Mummy did not talk about the test again. But she never failed to threaten me with it.
Midday. The weather was swelteringly hot, and the air shimmered with the heat. Dressed in a red blouse and blue knee-length skirt, I stood at the kerbside and waited for the yellow old bus approaching to stop. Squeaking and groaning like an overburdened beast, the rickety bus drew abreast of me and stopped. The main door rumbled open and passengers dismounted.
I hurried towards it. ‘Buy banana. Banana. Madam, make I bring am?’ I asked a certain woman staring at me in Pidgin English. The woman shook her head.
‘Banana. Buy banana.’ I went round to the other side of the bus. ‘Buy banana. Dey dey very ripe.’ I lifted a bunch and held it up. ‘Banana.’ Some people glanced my way but didn’t show any interest in buying.
The last set of passengers disembarked and the conductor of the bus, a shaggy-haired youth, drew the door shut. The bus shuddered into life and rolled along. It picked up speed in a moment and sped away.
I sighed. I hadn’t even sold a bunch since I came out. Almost starting to despair, I walked over and sat in the shade of a willow tree close to the road. I placed the tray of banana on the ground beside me and began tracing out patterns on the ground with my fingers.
‘Hey! Banana!’ someone called.
I looked up at the person and she pointed towards a certain man down the road, on the opposite side. The man beckoned me over as he got my attention. Quickly lifting the tray of banana, I placed it gingerly on my head and went off in the direction. The man was tall and dark and looked rough.
‘How much is your banana?’
I brought down the tray and placed it on the ground. I pointed at each bunch and told him how much it cost.
The man whistled. ‘Your banana is expensive.’ He picked up a bunch and bargained the price down to a point I found acceptable. As I waited for him to count out the agreed sum from his wallet, my eyes strayed beyond him to the road. At that very instant, a child, in his bid to pick up what looked like a toy lying in the middle of the main road, darted into it and narrowly missed getting hit by an over speeding Chevrolet saloon car. Cries of alarm erupted from every side.
‘What happened?’ the man asked me in surprise.
I didn’t know how to narrate everything I’d just witnessed. So shocked was I that I lunged into exclamations of surprise full of invectives against the woman who had been walking with the child.
‘Lele watawanyin. O dika o di ihe nle emeye la ishi ye….’
As soon as I began, the man turned and fastened his gaze on me. ‘Where are you from?’
‘Where are you from?’
I said nothing still, recalling Mummy’s repeated warnings about engaging customers in private conversations.
‘Are you not from Umunneochi?’
I shook my head quickly like an imbecile, collected the money we’d agreed on, put his banana in a black polythene bag and handed it to him. ‘Thank you, sir.’ And then I bent, lifted my tray of banana, set it gently on my head and began walking away.
The man lifted a hand. ‘Wait. Are you not from Lokpanta?’
That halted me in my tracks. ‘Eh?’
‘Are you not from Lokpanta? That thing you spoke now, is it not Lokpanta dialect?’
I stared, too shocked for words. ‘How… How do you know?’
‘How do I know?’ He chuckled.
‘How do you know, sir? Are you from Lokpanta?’
‘Oh, I thought you were not interested. Have a nice day.’ He turned and began walking away.
I stood stock-still and irresolute, gazing after the man’s retreating figure. Then suddenly, as if something just clicked on in my brain: ‘Sir! Sir! Brother! Brother!’ But he didn’t stop. ‘Sir, biko chere! Please wait!’ Seeing that the space between us was fast widening, I dropped the tray of banana on the sidewalk and ran after him. I reached and held him by the arm, halting him. ‘Sir, biko, please. Are you from Lokpanta? Are you from my village?’
‘So it’s your village after all?’
‘Are you from there? Are you from Lokpanta?’
He sighed. ‘Yes. I’m from Lokpanta.’
I screamed with joy and began jumping up and down. ‘Oh! I’m going home! I’m going home to my mother!’
He bridled and gazed at me in utter consternation. ‘What are you talking about?’
When I finally sobered down, I explained to him the circumstances of my life and how I’d ended up with Mummy and Daddy. At the end of my long narrative, Mazi Onyekwere, as they called him, understood he would take me home.
Three months after I left Mummy’s and Daddy’s house to return to my village, I came back. But this time I didn’t come alone. I came with my mother and my kinsmen.
I was three months pregnant for Daddy.
Michael Emeka is a writer, a teacher and lover of nature. His works have appeared in Volney Road Review, Potato Soup Journal and Eboquills. A believer in the saying that the world is the writer’s workshop and an avid reader, he lives in Lagos, Nigeria and can be found on Twitter @michael64639151.