This is what should happen, or rather, what they say happens, when your life starts to wane. It begins with the hairs on the head, because that is the first place the eyes meets when it starts searching. My hair is now completely grey. But your pubic hairs could remain black. And this has always made me wonder: why would the hairs, occupants of the same body, choose to disagree with each other? Why do they die at separate times, or don’t they? Is there a department that checks the hair on dead bodies, to ascertain that they, too, are dead?
Another thing I believe that sets in is the paranoia, a thing my children now taunt me with. C says, rather peremptorily, mummy, stop o, it is just the pot and not a gunshot, or mummy, it is just people on the TV, and not Ca and M fighting. They don’t even live here anymore. And that’s another one, forgetfulness, or the fancy word my first child, P, has for it; dementia, which she utters with a trail of laughter. Nonsense!
I am well. At least I am not like my friends who wait till their maids return from the market so they can warm their soup. I don’t have arthritis like my neighbour Eliza, so I walk to the kitchen and warm the nsala soup P has made for me. Neither do I have Parkinson’s disease like Brother Joseph of The Charismatic Renewal of Saint Dominic’s parish, who has vowed never to step into my home again, after my last child, C, refused to be prayed for. It is terrible, these diseases that has held my friends. It ought to be ridiculous, but I try not to ask them about their drugs, because it would seem odd talking to people about what you don’t even understand yourself. I only try to switch between African Magic Epic and Zee World, whenever they are around, to keep them quiet, and to avoid guilt on my own side.
Sometimes, when an intense nervousness creeps up on me, I cook beans with dry fish, and on evenings when C (who has been tasked to look after me) sneaks out with her girlfriend, I sneak out, too. I understand that C doesn’t have plans of marrying a man, and what does that even mean? I am trying to get myself to understand this fast generation. To understand what it means for a woman to wake up one day and decide that she won’t marry a man o, that she has now found herself. God forbid! C’s matter is too much to think about, I have found that it gives way to my high blood pressure, and so I try to ignore, to not see her kissing that dreadlocked girl and singing stupid songs to her. I pretend, but it gives me a feeling of great nausea, logged between my throat and mouth, I whisper to God in prayer. My mothers must be disappointed in me for failing in my raising of C.
The last time she snuck out, I was found at a drugstore, trying to educate the undesirable broad-shouldered pharmacist of about thirty, what Donepezil does to people’s brain, not mine. It was a curious night, with the clouds receding in an accentuated vigour. Some teenagers lurked around, whispering the items they wanted to the pharmacist’s assistants.
See, I started, what’s that your name again? But you can’t keep giving these people those poison to bring home to me. Do you want to be a murderer or what? The essence of the chemical used in weaving… and then my daughters P and C come running in, panting and screaming mummy o mummy o. Why did you leave the house? Do you want to put us in trouble? This one, that one.
P said they were about to contact the district police office to report me missing, when the waif who stays around our street casually pointed towards the drugstore. That little gossip is twelve years old, and I wonder if she would have turned out different had she a mother. I don’t understand, why am I being confined? I asked.
C says, mummy there is a Coronavirus from abroad killing our people o. You have to remain indoors. That thing is lethal. Stupid girl. How is China the same thing with abroad please? I cannot believe this dumb child of mine. Well, it’s no surprise since all her post-primary school examinations were done for her by Ca, who is now a priest. My husband suffered a fatal stroke the day Ca announced his interest in the catholic priesthood. An only son, trying to close his father’s lineage? I tell you; the children of this age do not have hearts. How do you explain these abominations? The worst of it all is the ease with which they announce these things, casually throwing it to your face like they own themselves. Hey mummy, I’m no longer interested in studying Medicine o, it is Forestry I now want to learn. When P said that to me, I first thought to myself, oh maybe this one has been called by our ancestors to deal on herbal medicines. Well, isn’t medicine medicine? I asked her, get on with it. I supported her and began to watch her closely, but all she did was sit in front of her computer all day, staring at some badly-drawn graph, and eating cans upon cans of Pringles.
My children think of me as a passive observer of things. In my own judgement, I can’t read e-mails. Heck, do you even know what it means? P would say. I won’t understand how Facebook works. Don’t worry, mum, let’s not add to your blood pressure, that place is heavy. And with a sort of dullness settled on her face, C would trudge into the living room, where I am lying and watching MTV Base, and say, Oh poor mum, who left that obscene channel for you? then go on to change it to something like Nat Geo Wild or EWTN. And that’s the other sign to it: the assumption by the rest of the human race that you have dwindled in your living rate, even when the skin has not started creasing. It is their confidence cadence in saying things like, oh she won’t like pizza, let’s get her okpa and agidi Jollof that unsettles me. The directness of this to my face, the languid outpouring of ehya and chai from those tiny mouths I once fed dawa. What’s in a combination of bread and tomatoes and meat that is too much for me to handle?
I wonder if Eliza’s children are hard-hearted like mine. They all grew up in this same neighbourhood, attended the same primary school and received holy communion the same Easter Sunday at Saint Dominic’s Parish. Except for that son of hers, who went on to marry a girl from the Internet – who treats everyone like a devil – we could have praised Eliza for doing a decent job where those ones are. Everyone called him T-boy, and I could have bet my gratuity on that lovely child being the priest amongst the neighbourhood children, and not my Ca. Something must have been taken from the poor boy. From his jaundiced eyes to his gait – a body thin as cane, yet too heavy to be moved. He no longer cared for Eliza, nor his siblings, just the bad girl from the Internet who Eliza says he calls boo boo, and what does that even mean? I see how my Eliza’s face grow red with anger, her chin swollen.
That whore must be stressing the hell out of your friend, M would throw at me while gossiping with C.
Why call her a whore kwanu? I would ask, you’ve not even seen her. Yes, we all know she has got a hard heart, but mind your tongue, child, you’ve not seen her to judge. And the two of them would let out a disturbing mirth. Laughing at your sins, or what? But of course, who would have thought M to not know things like these, the secret lives of everyone on that their Internet. Oh mum, leave the judging to us, you no go fi understand o. But you see that bitch, we all sabi am as ashawo for Instagram. Na only T-boy I dey pity, that girl go suck life commot im eye.
Is this what they speak at that Port Harcourt you stay? I cannot understand her pidgin.
In all honesty, I don’t understand her, too. My husband and I spent a good fortune in giving our children good education in the federal schools, since we were educators ourselves. We celebrated the children’s result, and encouraged them to excellence in their oral English. M was exceptional amongst all of them. My husband would have had a heart attack was he here to watch M’s mouth – a small, dark, decrepit thing, running with fervour. And what is this Instagram they speak of?
M is the tallest of my children, filled with the sort of beauty, apparently real, yet somehow uninspiring. I am always delighted by her charming smile, for it blurs the otherwise rigid expression on her face which would have made her look mean. I have had more faith in her than I have had in any of my children, and it wrings tight around my neck to see her in this over-the-edge demeanour. One evening, some years ago, she came to me, her voice ringing out with surprising clarity, demanding independence. But you haven’t even finished university, my dear child, you are still such a young girl to be left to wander around this sinful world. She made no attempt to listen to my words, nor to eat the dinner (her favourite) which I had prepared. By morning, I was told that my M, barely twenty years old at that time, had left for Port Harcourt. To whose house? To do what? My Chi has killed me o!
Not long after her disappearance, C started showing me pictures of M’s newly-acquired skin, so radiant for our harsh weather, her body sucked into dresses, which made her breasts seem to struggle for air. In these pictures, her head was always tilted to the back, a foot raised from the knee, and a hand, and why always the left? hung in the air, revealing opulent jewelries. The houses she shot the photographs in were palatial, and one time, she stood behind a small car C said could buy the whole of our neighborhood. Is that M? My M? I would ask.
The make-up business is paying very well, and you know how posh Port Harcourt is, C would say.
And it was indeed paying well. From her new wealth, we renovated our old building with glitzy stucco decorations and stone-tiles roofing sheets. There was more meat in our meals, money to send P to an Institute in Europe where she would learn – what I later understood to be – Forex Trading, and enough to pay for the high-end channels on DSTV.
But Anthonia my daughter is also doing this make-up thing, Eliza would say, where is she hiding her own money? Odikwaegwu o!
Ca would drag his feet into the house on each visit, screaming of his weariness at such ill-gotten wealth of a little girl. The disgust stuck on his face while he picked his food slowly. When he came across a new piece of furniture, he chattered endlessly. Disturbed by this lifestyle transition, Ca withdrew his monthly visits to quarterlies, and then we stopped seeing him, except rarely, in fractured WhatsApp video calls.
There are no laboured breaths, no grunting nor sighing at the children’s obstinacy; only silence. This is how I choose to mark this waning. For those with purposes and lovers, death is deemed conquerable. And for those whose happiness have been traded for their children’s successes, life can only be a strange reality.
The children only took my silence as a sign of my impending death, and so every Wednesday, C took me to a Neurology Clinic to yarn about my disinterest in everything. Even nsala, she would yell, she doesn’t even eat that again. And the young doctor, with his dark velvet eyes would train his gaze on me.
How old is she? Seventy-eight is not bad, does she drink enough water? Take her for long walks at dawn when the world is still at peace. She will be fine.
The girls sigh with disappointment over the WhatsApp video call C had set up to address my age-related issues.
Mum can you tell us what you want? M says with a purposeful curiousity.
I had forgotten what her calmness felt like, and for a moment, I thought of reminding her how much her father loved her, how much we both hoped she would graduate from Law school and become the first lawyer in our neighbourhood. But I am quickly distracted by the colour of her hair, an unusual shade of green with a tinge of yellow. And as I try to keep my eyes off it, it meets her nose, which has a ring nearly the size of my finger rosary. My chest tightens.
Ca calls separately. He has vowed not to have anything to do again with M or her bloody money. There was, for instance, him avoiding the reception of his own ordination, because M was there, and the other time, rejecting the abacha I had laboriously prepared, because it came from M’s money. Now when we talked, he spoke longer than usual, expressing his contempt over the nonchalance of the country’s healthcare system, then about me leaving that sinful house, and coming to live with him in the parish house. It’s such an enclave of magnificent things, you know? With all those magenta flowers and cherries you like. Can I send the driver tomorrow morning? OK?
Whatever tenuous sorry he had to utter in his husky voice irritated me, whatever sigh he heaved. I am however, moved to remember a once humble and zealous little boy who we raised to appreciate the bits of privilege he, by no chance, accrued from being an only son. A little beyond eight, he was already a Junior in the State’s Missionary School for Boys, where we allowed him play football. Few years later, his father had secured him an admission into the famous Saint Paul’s Technical College, to lay a good foundation for Ca’s career in Structural Engineering, while he wondered if his civil service salary could send Ca to Ukraine for his Bachelor’s degree.
When the time came for Ca to surrender to his father’s wishes, as we had groomed him to, it seemed he suddenly became a master of his own thoughts and actions. It didn’t end there. With his father already growing a feeling of profound melancholy, Ca walked up to him one day and announced his budding interest in becoming a priest. He waited for a response after his utterance, and in those few seconds, I beckoned onto the Holy Mother of God, to please forgive my son’s sins and not lead him into damnation. But nothing came from Ca; no pity, no tweaking of words, just an ugly smirk and a raised shoulder, all it took for his father’s life to wane.
The next day, C watched me somberly as I packed my clothes. Last night, an argument had ensued between us when I told her about my decision.
Your sudden decision frightens me, mum, she blurted, her voice cracked. Why does he want to take you away from us, as if he even cares. Mummy, but I cannot stay here all by myself, what’s brother Ca’s problem sef?
Often, she would reach for her phone and murmur about calling her sisters, to inform them of Ca’s kidnapping of me, and from a distance, I could hear her snort in disgust.
In the early years of my forties, I had withdrawn all hopes of having a second son, or even another child; but then C came, in ways I did not understand. Had the age for menopause been adjusted? C was a progressive infant, learning quickly to talk and walk and feed, so we let her take the world by herself. It became redundant to watch her closely, or to follow her to Block Rosary and Catechism classes, as we did with her older ones. Her immaculate countenance suggested nothing to question. There were girls, of course, who by their rapid growth, learned to move away from what was right, but not our C. For her respectfulness and obedience, we offered thanksgivings to her guardian angel. And so when in the second year of her senior class she tattooed, “Am a witch and not a bitch” on her wrist, we exchanged blames and disappointing looks, calling on God to please take power from the devil.
Outside, the sun stood perfectly still, flanked by tufts of grey clouds. The dwellings of the neighbours I had known for over thirty years flew past us, as the driver – with a kind smile – drove us slowly. The street was deserted, except for the artisans, lurking about the corners. At the first turn to the main road, I saw C’s dreadlocked girl on an okada, taking the paths we have just trailed. My heart beat quickened.
For about twenty to thirty minutes, we drove in silence, he groaning over the bad roads, and I, slipping in and out of naps. Earlier, I had tried to avoid the driver’s questions of Mummy, are you OK? Is there something you might need from the hawkers? With a tired gesture, he would shush the hawkers leaning into the car with their wares. But as we got closer to the outskirts of the town, I became interested in his small talks.
I hope my son is treating you well? How often do you attend mass? Can you stop by the next electric pole, so I can urinate?
He looked at me with delighted eyes, perhaps realising that he, too, wanted to urinate.
I moved out first, after he parked beside a bush. A cold sweat broke out on my forehead as I tried to find my way amidst twigs and dead leaves.
The very best people in The Charismatic Renewal of Saint Dominic’s parish had all been here for intense prayer sessions. Once, I, too had brought my children here, shortly after they had started derailing from what we groomed them to be, to have the anointed brothers and sisters lay their hands on them.
Now, each step I took found me drawing long breaths, and flailing my arms languidly. With becoming a mother, I lost the knowledge of the little ways by which we could float through the world without being held back by savage little things, the simple ways of being free; and as I vanished into the thick of the bush, I let myself cry and cry and cry, till my body could no longer hold itself.
This story was reprinted with permission in the first edition of the James Currey Anthology, launched on September 3rd, 2022 at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, UK
is an Igbo writer and documentary filmmaker. Fascinated by the new wave of Igbo cultural revitalisation, she has gone on to develop deep interests in its history, literature, technology, philosophy, and spirituality.
She is currently studying English and Literary Studies with a minor in Theatre and Film Studies at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, where she is also a Research Intern with the school’s Institute of African Studies.