“Oh these? They are hundred naira each,” she said, watching the customer’s expression, the slight furrowing of his forehead as he debated which fruit to buy.
Finally, he said, “First, tie watermelon hundred naira, then anara hundred.”
She plucked a plastic waterproof from underneath the tray on the table and put in the precisely cut piece of watermelon. She did the same with the garden eggs, mixing up the small and large ones to strike a balance.
The customer paid and she sat down again on her high stool as he left and crossed the road to his small Volkswagen Golf parked on the other side. The customer gone, she continued her concentrated gazing on the road before her.
It was a busy bus-stop on the old road to Awka. Bread sellers, motor-park touts, and hawkers seemed to be perpetually running after commuter buses like forgotten tails. It was a narrow road, and when a bus stopped by the side, it almost always blocked a good part of the road, so that vehicles passing honked loudly, creating the cacophony for which the bus-stop was known for.
Rhoda was only one of the three fruit sellers on the roadside. They had large tables set out on the edge of the road and sold an assortment of apples, oranges, cucumber, watermelons, pawpaw, pineapples, carrots and garden eggs. Rhoda was not loud and chatty like the other fruit sellers. It was rather her face that gave her away. Some of her customers saw the quiescent turbulence that hid itself in the darkness of her face, its vestiges hanging like a bated storm on the waves of her forehead. “Are you alright?” one or two might ask her.
The sun was sizzling, but she was used to it. She did not mind that it darkened her skin even more or that it caused her headaches that throbbed in her forehead all night and pushed sleep far away from her no matter how much Paracetamol or Panadol she bought from Ebenezer’s shop.
By the end of the day, that is to say at around eight-thirty PM, when she had sold to many more customers, she would pack her wares and take some of them to the communal storehouse shared by other roadside vendors. At nine she would be home. She would warm the soup and make eba for supper without going outside her single room in the long U-shaped building that housed nine other rooms occupied by other tenants. All the tenants used the only toilet and bathroom at the back of the yard. It was hard living in such conditions, but Rhoda had learnt to manage.
While she lay on her bed for the night, she would try not to listen to the rising voice of one of her neighbours going through her daily routine of scolding her drunkard husband for wasting so much money on drinking binges while his family went hungry, or to the other tenant, whom everyone called “panel beater,” flogging her children. She was always flogging those children, and either she was simply a wicked woman who perfectly deserved that nasty nickname or her children were stubborn beyond words. Rhoda’s anger, though, was focused on the young man who occupied the room to her left (she never cared to know his name), who seemed to have made it a point, through his loud grunts, to let everyone know he was making love to one of the prostitutes he brought home every night. Rhoda sighed deeply. She remembered the day he had patted her behind on her way to the bathroom and she had turned quickly and gifted him a slap that she hoped would dull his memories for years to come. For, though she may have a face that certainly no one could die for, with those irregular lines beneath her eyes and the crooked slope of her nose, she was not unaware that she was a voluptuous woman, perhaps too voluptuous, with big hips that curved vertiginously downward, a figure that defined the bulbous crenellation of a bold 8-shaped body. What she lacked in her face, she made up for in other parts of her body.
Rhoda had never been happy with her body, long deciding it as the root of her problems; for these men, blinded by what they saw, all wanted to ravish her without caring to know who or what she was. It embittered her to think that they all wanted her but did not really want her; she was for the short term but never for the long. They all came with their well-rehearsed stories, and she sometimes fell for it. She could not even understand herself sometimes. Perhaps her problem ran even deeper.
The kerosene lantern burned slowly through the night and all gradually went quiet, disturbed only by the puttering of a rat scratching at the small bags of beans and rice and the tubers of yam she kept under the bed, its noise an accompaniment to the troubled dreams of her life before Onitsha.
Her father was sitting outside the house, his wrinkled face twisted slightly to one side. He jerked his head a little at intervals and adjusted his wrapper. He had stopped talking to her when she refused his request to cover the family obi. How could he foist the burden of continuing the family lineage on her? She had a life to live; she was in love with Onyemaechi, and why would she give that up to stay at home and conceive male children? Her father’s second wife supported this. Your first male will be called Obiechina, that our lineage may never become extinct. And so, it was the memory of that wrinkled face illustrating the geography of anguish that she last saw on her way to the motor park to take a bus to Onitsha.
Some recurring thoughts become recurring dreams. Some pains crystallise in the body, becoming organs hanging on the edge of atrophy and activity. Not once in all these years taking lovers did she conceive. It drove her far, so far into a personal darkness to think of it, of her father whose slow, forlorn death was attended in its last days by ghastly dreams of sprightly bushes overrunning his compound like a swarm of locusts darkening the day sky, of this ignoble close to a once lustrous life.
Sometimes as late as eleven or twelve in the night her dreams would be broken by Dumebi’s soft knock on the door and she, knowing by the long pauses between raps that it was him, would slide down the bed and open the door. She would wish him a good evening and he would begin almost immediately to tell her about his day.
“They said they want to abolish okada in Onitsha.”
“Eh?” His Afikpo dialect made what he said a little garbled to her.
“I said that the news today is that the government is banning commercial motorcycles.”
“You know, too many robberies with okada.” He sighed.
She looked at him, at the varnished ebony of his skin shining even in the semi-darkness. Perhaps it was what drew her to him at first, this polished sheen, but she couldn’t be too sure, for she forgot such things easily, how she met them, it was always too trivial in the long run, too puny, she had realised; it was how things ended that mattered.
She listened to him moan about the members of the government task force and the police who pursued okada riders in the city. Didn’t they know lots of people would be losing their livelihood?
“You told me you were saving up money to buy keke,” she said as she warmed the soup for him.
“Yes . . . but it doesn’t take a day to save up money for keke.”
“O di egwu. This life is very tiring.”
“Yes, very tiring.”
And later, he would pull her to him and thrust hard into her and she would lie still, open and subservient to his hungry touch. She was helpless here, helpless with hope. She would always submit to them and hope. Their thrusts were her prayer, an unvoiced plea for the miracle of creation. The burden of centuries weighed her pleasure down so that there was no longer the ecstasy of sweat for her but simply a sterile hope.
Rhoda had become a sure presence at the doors of several churches in the city. Even after a busy Friday (and Friday was always a weekend boom for fruit vendors), she dragged her tired body to an all-night crusade. The minister, always the large puffy young man in his late twenties who had the rare ability to shout all night, pranced about the dais despite his body size, calling people randomly and telling them things about their lives. He called up a thin woman in a faded head tie.
“Your husband is dead and you are left to cater for your children alone. Am I right?”
“You live in Ojedi and sell cocoyams at Ochanja market. Am I right?”
“The holy spirit says I should tell you now that your suffering is over!”
“Amen!” The entire church vibrated with the affirmation.
The minister scanned the church. He turned to one side as if listening to something and turned back towards the woman.
“Before your husband died, he was building a house in the village. Am I right?”
“Let me tell you what the Holy Spirit is telling me. It says that your husband did not die a natural death. He was murdered!”
And the woman, hypnotised, shouted “Yes, daddy!” again.
The minister jumped up and shook his head vigorously.
“Arrrgh! I can see it, I can see it!” he shouted. “In the name of the Holy Ghost, I come against every spirit of darkness in your family!”
“Amen!” The congregation chorused.
And the minister broke into a song:
“Anam asi onye ji oke ahu rurum aka . . . Anam asi onye oke ahu rurum aka . . .”
These performances, these visions, had an effect on Rhoda. She would follow the proceedings of the services with awe and hopeful curiosity, praying fervently with all the strength in her until she felt rills of sweat making their way down her face and neck.
The miracles of the ministry fascinated her and the minister was, to her, a divine conjuror. Amidst the caterwauling of speakers and the lofty voices of tongue speakers, the minister would come down from the altar to touch people’s forehead. Their eyes closed shut, they lost balance and stumbled around a while before falling.
“By the power vested in me by the Holy Ghost, receive your healing now!” A voice near her said. A hand nudged her forehead, but she did not fall. Her legs refused to budge. She never found a solution. She had become a traveler, a seeker in a world of people seeking frantically for their obscure destination. Or perhaps it was the inability of her spirit to succumb to the Holy Spirit.
Rhoda believed in time, too, this immeasurable companion of God’s authority. Time will tell. God’s time is the best. He will fulfill your needs in the fullness of time. Years are but a second to our God. And at thirty-nine she still believed that in the universe of time there was no late or later, only time. If Aunty Caro could marry at fifty-eight and have a baby, then anything was possible.
Rainy seasons were difficult times for Rhoda at the bus-stop, for she stayed in the open. She would cover her goods in a transparent waterproof if the rain was light, but if it was heavy, she would pack up and run into the shade of a shop in one of the plazas facing the road. And from here she would watch the rain come down, heavy and lachrymal, across the now deserted road, drop by drop, and then the drop would blur into a continuous fabric of water that stretched for miles, and passing vehicles would spray high sheets of water behind them. If the rain fell too heavily, the gutters would overflow and spew out detritus and nondescript bits of rubbish onto the road so that it looked as though it had not been swept in a decade.
Sometimes when male customers stopped before her table, they stopped because they had seen the jutting peninsula of her behind and would pretend to buy fruits. She always saw the flaming red thing in their eyes, the leer that curved the corners of their mouths. Once she had allowed one to her home. He had the smooth face of a movie star. In his house, he laid her spread-eagled, upside down, and entered her from behind, and she lay, suppressing the disappointment of feeling nothing again. Her silence dominated her life.
Sometimes Dumebi came in the evening and helped her pack up and then take her home in his motorcycle.
“You should talk more. Be like other women,” Dumebi would say.
“Like who and who?”
“Like others na. Like Nneka.”
“I am not like them.”
And he would change the topic.
“What I saw today!”
And she asked what it was and he told her about a popular female beggar at Upper Iweka.
“The blind one that wears red head tie?”
“Yes, you know her. She was caught today. She is not blind! Do you know that she had built a house with proceeds from her begging?”
“Yes, my dear. O business oo.”
She liked his weight on her; it felt as though he was protecting her from certain dangers. But that was all. Long after he had slept, she would touch herself until she felt the explosion of a spring within her. But on some nights that Dumebi was there she did not do this: she would simply lie straight and stare at his body rolled up spherically like the fetal thing that troubled her desires, and bitterness would stay in her tongue till morning. In the morning, he would sit and make long rambling calls in his funny dialect, sometimes removing the tiny phone from his ear to shout into its mouthpiece, while waiting for her to set a plate of corn pap and akara before him. She wondered how he felt at home where she did not; the weird satisfaction of men, these mere transient beings.
On nights she was alone and lucky to have power, she would watch loud Nigerian movies. She laughed a lot because a lot of the movies were funny. And sometimes she cried when the events were sad. If it was one of those harrowing stories about barrenness, her vision would blur after a while, so that she would have to switch off the TV set. And when she slept, she would writhe with dreams filled with shouts of joy and anguish. These vague dreams annoyed her because, most of the time, she remembered nothing. But these also triggered a cruel self-will in her, a resolute yearning to know herself and only herself.
The road was an old thing, ancient and ageless, and it had seen houses and people and things come and go, and yet it stood. The road, to Rhoda, was life itself, a place where she existed, and without which she did not exist, for what was she without her trade?
She loved her regular customers: people like Mama Joe who bought so much fruits it usually made her day, or Madam Choice who came with her daughter, or the tall thin man in sports gears whose name she did not know. With these ones, she would talk and laugh and banter. People loved her, too. People around the road: residents, fellow vendors, customers. And they called her Rhoda beside the road; not Rhoda who sold fruits by the roadside but Rhoda beside the road. No one knew who first called her that, but it stuck.
In the residential tenements down the road, a mother would say to her son, “Go to Rhoda beside the road, tell her to give you hundred-naira worth of paw-paw.” Or her fellow vendors might wonder aloud, “Where is Rhoda beside the road today? Her table is empty!” And they would all be understood.
The ribald conversation of men at Mama Ejima’s bar near the roundabout sometimes included Rhoda. One would say to the other, “You look very dry Udegbe. You should stop drinking dry gin and buy more fruits from Rhoda beside the road.”
“You mean Rhoda with the big behind?”
And the drunken men in the bar would go, “Hohohoho! Rhoda with the big behind! Hahahaha!”
And it was always good-natured laughter. Harmless drunken banter.
Self-will was like a seed buried in soil; it developed in time. With effort, it would ferment and regenerate and then it would blossom and stand against the buffeting of the wind.
The seed in her had fermented for long and now was reborn. She would leave the bathroom one day and enter her room, lock the door and dance alone to Onyeka Onwenu’s homely voice. She would dismiss Dumebi and spend an entire day in the market buying new clothes. She would hold her life in her hands like a shiny precious thing and people would ask what changed in her, why she walked now with a straight gait and held her head up, why her face was phosphorescent with happiness, why, suddenly, she did not sit quiet behind her table but moved about with agility. People would ask, without finding immediate answers, what had happened in so short a time to Rhoda beside the road.
has been published in journals and anthologies including Aerodrome, Brittle Paper, Praxis Magazine, Selfies and Signatures, The Kalahari Review, The Question Marker, amongst others. A finalist for the Africa Book Club Short Reads Competition(2013), he was a participant of the 2015 Writivism Workshop and a 2021 Fellow of the Ebedi International Writer’s Residency, Iseyin. The Incident of the Dog, his first book for children, was published by GriotsKids, an imprint of Griots Lounge, in 2020.