“It is finished,” I mumble to myself. It is finished reminds me of Jesus Christ who said the same on the cross before giving up his spirit into his Father’s hands. Jesus, as the preachers say, defeated the devil by his death on the cross. I, too, with what I have just done, have defeated this devil. The whites of his eyes stare at me. I hear this calm voice tell me, you have done well. You have defeated the devil. It is definitely finished.
I sit at the door and watch the sky. I can see the stars. I notice one of them, gliding gently. It disappears beneath a small mass of cloud, and then almost immediately becomes visible again. That star is me. At some point, I was obliterated. But I have overcome. Like a phoenix, I have emerged from the ashes. I can make out some children struggling to get hold of something. A beam of light from a motorcycle exposes the children’s nudity but for tatty pants worn around their tiny waists. They are struggling for a mango that has just fallen from its tree. The motorcycle zooms past, restoring the darkness. I hear our neighbour, Mummy Amanda’s voice as she steps out of their house. I hear the sounds of cars horn in the distance — civil servants returning home after a stressful day. A dog barks two flats away from ours. Against my expectation, Mother doesn’t seem to be coming home anytime soon. I cannot wait any longer. I wish she would come home immediately. I want her to see what I have done and know why I did it. That way, she’d see how much of a swine her husband had been. Maybe Mama would applaud me, or maybe she wouldn’t. I care less. All I want is for her to see that I have salvaged myself from the claws of the devil.
I walk into the house, pack a few clothes into my bag and leave without washing. It is dark, so nobody will notice the bloodstains on my feet and my dress. Even if someone did notice them, it does not matter. Those bloodstains are signs of my victory over the devil. As I walk, the memories pester. Memories are obstinate. It’s difficult to let go of them. I cannot withstand them, not at this point. So I let them have their way…
I was in senior secondary class three, ready to sit for the West African Senior School Examinations when Papa announced one morning that he could no longer afford to pay my fees. And so I joined my mother in her petty trade. The previous night before his return, Mama and I had prepared a cheap soup of okra. I hadn’t eaten, and Mama did not care. After she had slept off on the only mat in the one room flat we lived in, I crossed over to sit at the door, staring into the skies, trying to count the stars. Papa reeled through drunk, holding a green bottle of Heineken in his flailing right hand, while the left snuggled a cigarette. He pulled his slippers and kicked them as far from the house as possible, as if they were something that shouldn’t follow him home. Before proceeding into the house, he stared at me, mute, a lopsided smile on his face. Later, I would wonder whether it was at this point that he eventually realised he could no longer afford my fees. The next morning, after I had my bath at the back of the house, I went into the room and met him awake.
“Where are you going to?” He rubbed his eyes with his fingers and turned to face me fully.
“I’m going to school.”
“There’s no school for you. I can no longer afford your fees. You will follow your mother to the market when she wakes up from her slumber,” he said and stood up from the mat, using his shirt to slap his shoulders. He fumbled with the knot of his wrapper just below his navel and went outside, obviously to pee. Mama stirred immediately, as if she had been waiting for him to leave before she woke. She yawned and stretched and rubbed her sleepy eyes before sitting up.
“Ogini?” she asked me. “Are you not going to school?”
“Papa said there is no school for me.”
She stood up from the mat and went outside without saying a word. Minutes later, I heard her shout, “Erima, get ready!” An ominous pause. “Don’t delay me or else I’ll deal ruthlessly with you!”
The market was bustling with activities by the time we arrived. Mama sold matches, dried and unattractive uziza leaves, ugwu leaves and candles. I carried the small squeaky stool on which she would place the round tray that displayed her wares. The market was few metres away from the grandiose St. Luke’s Cathedral. Mama’s stand was in the crammed Amarachi Square. The square harboured majorly vegetable sellers, aging women with fat arms and those who rushed out of their houses early enough to catch the morning buses just to sell off their vegetables. Mama was one of these women, eager to shove her perishables into the faces of customers. Buy your fresh ugwu! Okazi di ebe a! Fine woman, come and buy my nchawu. Use it to cook yam! I watched the women battle for customers with keenness, sometimes wrangling among themselves. That woman was going to buy from me! Ochiama, I won’t take this from you o! Stop collecting my customers! Leave her. Fine Madam, come this way. Leave her, she’s with me!
“Why is Erima not in school?” one of Mama’s colleagues, who sat next to her, asked. She was fat and had ugly stretch marks running down her hands from her scapula.
“Her father cannot pay her fees any longer,” Mama replied, as if it was normal that a child should drop out of school because her father could no longer afford her fees. “So she has to follow me to the market.”
“Chai,” the woman expressed her sympathy that faded quickly when she turned to wave to a woman carrying a big brown bag and sizing up her vegetables. “They are fresh!” she chanted. The customer didn’t seem convinced and walked past her. “Things have gone bad in this country” she added as if the customer’s refusal to buy her vegetables affirmed the spoilage of the country.
“Let Erima learn a trade o. Maybe sewing, or hawking, or even… you know na. That one where they carry young girls abroad,” the woman chuckled.
“Of course she has to learn a trade, but definitely not that one that will take her abroad.”
The other woman laughed jeeringly. “Did you know that those girls who are lucky to travel abroad become instant millionaires?” I watched them as they talked, indirectly deliberating on my future. A future now marred because a father who could not sleep a day without getting drunk had finally chosen to spend on alcohol rather than invest in his daughter’s education.
That night, Papa did not return home and I stayed awake thinking about what I could do to help my family. Things were falling apart and I needed to act fast before it became too late. I remembered my classmate, Ireti, who lived very close to school. Ireti had narrated to me how her sister in Berlin sent pounds every month for her. Ireti never owed fees at school. Her uniform had been sewn using very durable and expensive fabrics, not the cheap ones people like me used. During break periods in school, Ireti spent extravagantly on meat pies, bags of popcorn, and canned drinks. Ireti was rich. One day Ireti said to me. “My sister says I will join her in Germany when I’m done with WAEC.”
“What does your sister do in Germany?” I asked.
“She takes care of people and gets paid for it,” Ireti answered. Ireti could help me, I thought. Maybe she could talk to her sister on my behalf. Maybe the latter would decide to help me either by bringing me over to Germany alongside Ireti or send lots of cash to me. Yes, I would talk to Ireti. I would cry bitterly. I would let Ireti see my pains. That way, it would be easier to decide to help me. I was convinced Ireti’s sister was the miracle my family needed. I decided to see Ireti the next day. Before I slept that night, I prayed that God would touch Ireti’s heart to help me.
When I woke up the next morning, Mama had already left for the market. It occurred to me that there was no water in the house. I got up and reached for the yellow twenty-five litre keg to fetch water. As I fetched and tried to balance the keg on my head, I heard someone call out my name. “Erima!”
I turned. It was Osas, my classmate at school. She was easy to recognise even from afar. She was dressed in the checkered white blouse upon blue skirts that stopped at appreciable centimetres above her knees. The girls in my school, especially the big ones in SS2 and SS3 were fond of keeping the length of their skirts above their knees. Osas was short and fat, or rather round. She barreled towards me, smiling broadly as if she had just encountered a miracle. “Erima, so this is you, eh. You were not in school yesterday?”
“I am not coming back to school.” I wished she would let me go.
“Why na?” she pestered.
“I don’t know. I’m just not coming back to school. I will take my WAEC somewhere else.”
“Erima na you o!” Osas hailed. “Me too. My father is making arrangements to take me to another centre. I need to pass this WAEC o!”
“That reminds me,” I said almost interjecting her. “Was Ireti in school yesterday?”
“Uhm, yes,” Osas answered and put in immediately “But she is leaving for Lagos today. She’s going to Germany.”
“Ah! I thought it was after WAEC?” I brought my can down from my head and stared at Osas, hoping she would tell me it was a joke. Did she know all the plans I had made last night? How I wanted to cry for Ireti. How I wanted Ireti to beg her sister to bring me alongside her to Germany.
“Yes, we all thought so. But it seems her sister changed her mind,” Osas said. There was calm for few minutes before Osas said, “I need to rush to school before that Sir Monkey head will flog me.”
At home, I put the can away by a corner and plunged onto the mat. Ireti was gone. The only hope that seemed alive was dead. I had to figure out another means of helping my family. There would always be another way. Mama came home immediately, saying she had to be in Apostle Silas’ church for a program which might last till the next morning. “Your father isn’t back, ikwa?” she asked and I shook my head. She quickly washed her sweaty face, tied a tawdry head tie and disappeared. Minutes after she left, I changed into a wrapper and slept off.
It was a touch, like the cold feel of a slithering serpent that woke me up in the middle of the night. My eyesight was fuzzy from the long sleep, and I couldn’t make out the shape of the room. The touch came again and there was something strange about it. It was when the hands grabbed my breasts that I woke up fully. Papa was already atop me, shirtless and breathing fast. My wrapper was off my body and I lay beneath him, stark naked.
“Papa!” I screamed and he covered my mouth.
“Shh don’t make a noise,” he ordered, even though I could see the plea in his eyes.
“Papa, please don’t do this.”
“Promise you will not make a sound.”
“I promise,” I said. He removed his hands from my mouth and peered into my face. “Listen, Erima,” he started and coughed loudly. I could see the clear outlines of his ribs. Papa had emaciated so badly that one would think he was down with AIDS.
“Do you know how it feels to me that I cannot take care of you and your mother very well? I have been so worried lately about it and I met with a dibia who has promised to help me end this poverty. This is one of the things I have to do to give you and your mother a better life. I must sleep with you.” He stopped and studied me to see how I would react to it. I kept mute. I was dumbfounded, yet at the same time I felt an enormous pity for him. It had not occurred to me that Papa had gone to this extent to provide us with comfort. I was moved and cried the more. Papa used his hands to wipe the tears away.
“Erima, please don’t cry. I know this is difficult for you. It is also for me but trust me it’s going to be just this once. Help me end this poverty that is eating us up,” Papa pleaded the more and started to cry. It felt awkward to see him crying on me. The tears from his eyes dropped on my face as I opened my legs and received him willingly. With this, things could get better.
Papa didn’t come the next night. I didn’t expect it would continue either. Rather I expected the dramatic change. I expected to come home from the market with Mama and hear that Papa had gotten a better job, or that some friend abroad had sent huge sums of money or promised to bring him over. I waited earnestly for the fruits of my intimacy with my father. But days rolled by and there was no sign that any good was on the way. In fact things worsened, and it became clear that Papa had lied to me. I began to understand that my father had simply lusted after me, and in order to have his way, had deceived me in the name of ending our poverty. I felt foolish, less human, and ruined. There was no future for me anymore. I was no longer complete, and no matter how hard I tried to shove the shame away, it perched and perched until I smelt of shame.
Papa came into the room in the evening smiling at me. He rolled beside me on the mat and tried to touch me. I pushed his hands away angrily.
“Erima, what is it?” he asked, his voice gravelly. He grabbed my breasts and squeezed until I slapped his hands away.
“Take your hands off me, filthy beast!” I growled at him. He was taken aback, I could see. I stood from the mat and made to leave the room, but he dragged me back to the mat. He breathed hard, staring greedily at me. All I could see was a beast, hungry for his prey. I kicked him in between his legs and watched him sprawl to the ground, crying out. I reached for the hammer lying close by, and with all my strength hit him on the head, raw hate pouring out of me. He became still immediately, but I continued hitting until I was satisfied he had bled enough.
It was dark now. Before mama returned, I would go out, and once again I would count the stars.
was born in Eastern Nigeria and has a degree in Microbiology. He began writing a literary blog during his university days where a number of his short stories and poems have been published. His short story, Oyinbo, made the list of top ten winners of the Packlight Series Writing Contest. He was part of a virtual discussion organised by Ibua Journal on the topic: Can stories help shape the future of Africa? His novel manuscript Butterflies Will Come came up as a finalist in the 2020 Quramo Writer’s Prize. In the same year, he was a guest at the Quramo Festival of Words. He is a certified participant of the Creative Writing Workshop tagged ‘Self Editing for Writers.’ In 2020, he was a participant at the African Writers’ Conference. His works have appeared in Quaesitum Blog, Ibua Journal, De Erudite Magazine, Elitism6 Blog and he has a published work in the Packlight anthology: Memories of Growing Up in Africa. He currently lives in a world where there are just three activities which he is actively involved in: reading, writing and teaching. He goes by the pen name Chukwuemeka Famous.