Three fleshy women squeezed Dika on the only free bench she could manage until it was time to board the yellow buses. It wasn’t the first time she had spent mindless hours at Eke Ukwu Park, but today was different because her mind kept skipping, far ahead of the noise in the park, out of Owerri, driving along the dusty road her body would still experience, to Umuahia, to her ancestral home where her sister was waiting. How long had it been? Ten years, twelve years? She hadn’t been counting. Her daughter, Theresa, was a toddler when her sister migrated to Ghana. Dika heard from their mother. And the silence had begun long before Theresa came, before her marriage happened. Theresa is sixteen now. Surely, it’s been more than twelve years.
If she had been here a tad earlier, the last seat of the first bus would have been hers. It was a regret she avoided dwelling in. Ikenna wouldn’t allow his wife out so early, no matter the exigency. Though she often wishes to defy his fears (as she thinks) but her husband’s thoughts had to be respected. She checked her seat number, a calligraphic 3 slanted like an Arabic Ain.
The cold air stirred goosebumps on her pale skin. Women seated by her left chattered the languid time of waiting away, nibbling on topics like their husbands, babies, house helps or relatives. Their husbands’ jobs ranged from banking to businesses. Soon, they were rattling about prices of babies’ foods, household wares and hair extensions. She understood there was an old connection between the women, or was sitting together here in this open park enough reason for bonding? Dika tuned out.
She had been laid off work two weeks ago because of a labour strike she led in the soap factory. A new manager, the owner’s son, had waddled in like a disgruntled peacock and forced new rules down their parched throat. The phone she usually tucked under her apron was now to be submitted to security while she worked tirelessly the whole day. Preposterous! She exclaimed and felt proud of her aging brain for having tucked away the new word from her daughter whose penchant for books was unrivaled. At the security room that morning, she couldn’t think of any other word as her mind struggled to process the unsettling new order. Not even the decency of calling a general meeting. Not even a prior notice. Preposterous! She exclaimed again. Even though the men struggled to hide their amusement, Dika was unfazed because, at least, speech was still unfettered. And preposterous is a perfect word, or isn’t it? This is preposterous!
When she collected her phone in the evening, at close of work, the battery icon bleeped red, and there was a line of unanswered calls. She started with her husband whose worry-laden voice berated her for two minutes in a stretch. The next day, not only her phone but also her handbag was confiscated at the security house. Somehow, the management had come to realise, after several years, that workers were in the habit of pilfering raw materials, soaps and what-have-you from the factory. With their bags safe in the security room, management knew there would be minimised chances of theft. Soon, salaries were deducted for laxity, poor work ethics and what else? Too much grammar for resting your head at work or engaging in chit-chat. Too many rules for the peanuts they were handed on the last day of each month. Her salary was neither enough to restock provisions nor could it cover Theresa’s tuition in a school year.
Planning the strike was easy. Workers were already vexed. She only used words like preposterous, implausible, and few more she got from her daughter that represented their ordeal. They chose dates and effected their strike. The management called for negotiations, enticed them with salary increment, then surreptitiously investigated and fished out the instigators, shamed them, using words like herd-like and gormless to sass others. At last, they were laid off without a dime. Not even a drink for their troubles. For those who were pardoned, she later heard, their salaries were deducted for the losses the factory encountered. Dika wept.
She knew about consequences but wasn’t bothered about it. Well, she had never really bothered about the consequences of her actions, past and present.
Noise broke out – or was it a fight? – near the small office where tickets were sold for twice its price. A lady already had her shirt torn and her midriff lay bare before curious eyes, but she stood her ground raging, spitting fire.
“I know it’s the man in charge of waybills,” the lady by her right muttered, her neck straining to capture the unfolding drama. From the moment Dika sat down, the lady’s heady, chocolate scent had not given her a break. People were soon standing, some drew closer to the scene, some pleaded peace. The lady raged, her piece of her torn shirt dancing to her trembling. Men soon took charge of the situation, coming in between the fighters. People crowded and the noise heightened. The chocolate-scent-lady soon joined the witnesses, followed by the others, making a space for Dika to adjust her squeezed hips. She relaxed her lower back and tuned out again.
“Ahaa! Boxer! Boxer Dikachi!” Dika’s mother scolded her, her attention away from forking the cocoyam boiling on the open hearth. Dika lounged by the kitchen entrance, sulking. Fights with her sister were beginning to perturb their mother. She could tell by the shrillness her mother’s tone had taken.
“One day, I will allow her to beat you until you pass out. Until then, you will not rest,” she concluded, swearing on her father’s grave. “Fetch me water, biko!—please!”
Dika was vexed. Why was she to blame? Always? After each fight, they avoid each other like a plague for days before one spoke to the other, unconsciously, and the tension in between dissolved like it never was there. These fights started out as siblings’ squabbles, but then another fight always bloomed, in the air, around the household, by the corners, waiting, impending. No! She never hated her sister, the tiny voice in her affirmed, willing her to concur, but her attention soon reverted to the dispersing crowd.
A lady traipsed by, a sleepy baby strapped to her back, a tray of sliced fruits balanced on her shaved head. She announced her ware as she passed the seated women.
“That baby will get so much sunlight,” declared the woman whose husband works in a bank, a sneer on her lips. Other women concurred. They were soon talking about their experiences with their kids, before the topic soon shifted to jaundice and its kinds. When the lady passed by again, they called her, each of them purchasing their choice of fruits. They advised her to, at least, cover the bairn’s head. Suggestions tripled. Did she think of sunburn, eye damage, skin damage? It soon moved to patronisation. The baby is too tender noww. Such pretty thing! Is your mother not aware you’re so fragile? The lady smiled, in resignation, as she balanced her tray on the cloth pad folded into a circle and placed perfectly on the middle of her head.
“This your sister that you’re raising shoulder for saved you from a big accident when you were a crawling, annoying toddler,” Dika’s mother told her, a few years after her sister moved to Ghana. Then she went ahead to narrate the whole incident. How the sizzling pan had lost balance and there you were giggling beside the fireplace. She pushed you away, before the pan landed on her feet. True. Dika had always known the large scar that ran from her sister’s calf, through the ankle, down to her feet, like a narrow map. Dika used to trace the line with her little fingers but never asked what happened to your feet? What was she thinking? That people were born with scars? If her sister hadn’t shoved her farther away, what could have been? Would her beauty have been this spotless? Would she have earned Ego Oyibo? What could have been?
“Why will you not speak to your sister?” her mother asked after narrating the story.
“Why will she not speak to me?” Dika retorted. Talks about her sister always put her on edge.
“It is all your father’s fault,” her mother snapped.
How did it become his fault? Dika began thinking when the silence deepened and stretched over the years. Her father bought honey for no other person but his Ego Oyibo. Her father bought Bournvita, Ovaltine, sugar, SUGAR! When most of her mates wouldn’t dare to dream of such sweetness. While her mother sulked and her sister scoffed, her father did not stop restocking those mouth-watering goodies. Her father always handed over his share of meat from the Umunna-whatever to her for any silly delicacy she deemed it fit for. He raved nonstop about how precious she was to him and never scolded or punished her, in any way. Her father beat up her sister the first time she corrected his Ego Oyibo with a thin slap that merely grazed her cheek. But she conjured up random memories and forced herself to cry until her father returned. Was that how it became his fault? Maybe. Her father made it clear that his Ego Oyibo was untouchable. He made sure she got the best of everything while he still could provide.
Perhaps it was all her father’s fault. Her father sowed that seed of discord. When she realised how helpless her sister was, she shamelessly capitalised on it. She began sassing her sister. Swore she was prettier. Ridiculed her to stupor. Insulted her chi out of her miserable life. Her sister couldn’t bear such disrespect. They turned against each other.
When her father was on his deathbed, Dika returned from Enugu that evening, distress forming lines on her face. She wished he would stay. At least until she finished with school. She wept when he did not stay, even till the following morning.
Another yellow shuttle bus soon parked before them, and a dark, stout man jumped down from it. The park had grown rowdier as the day approached mid-morning. At last, Dika heaved in relief. The women rose, moving their luggage to the boot of the bus. Dika had only packed her daughter’s tote bag whose content should last her for two days max. The stout man, who was to be the driver, announced departure for Umuahia. People clustered around the bus while the luggage were placed in the boot, one on another, two on three others, that way until everything was well packed, set. They began filing into the waiting bus. The chocolate-scent-lady was already seated before Dika got in, but she shifted her knees to allow her passage to her seat, beside the window, directly behind the driver. Soon after, the driver turned on the ignition, ready to leave the park, ready to brave all the bad roads that would lead to their humble destination.
Their father’s death had only intensified their fights. Her sister, with no one to scare her, stood her ground. Somedays, her mother screamed until her voice disappeared and she could only mope. Dika craved for the fights. She poured sand into her sister’s food, mixed her Otangele eyeliner with ground chili pepper, called her ugly, cursed her boyfriend who was hell bent on marrying her, ignored her mother’s worries, defied her pleas.
The day her mother carried out her year-long threat had been one evening Dika called her bluff. She incited her sister who had long given up. She reminded her that Dika needed to be put in her place which was way beneath her. She reminded her that meekness was weakness. She reminded her that Dika needed some molding, not minding her full chest. Six years was not six days, or six minutes or six seconds. And even if it was! It was for a reason, for a cause. Teach her a lesson! She goaded her until Dika was beaten to a near pulp, her lips, broken and bloody; her dress, a rag. Until then, she couldn’t have known that her sister possessed the power to maim her while their mother stood by, cheering her on. It was their last fight.
When Dika could move her body, she dragged it to the stream where she dipped her broken self in the chilly water. Water seeped from her bruises, and hot tears rose up in her throat. Later, she sat by the water and wept until her energy sapped.
Dika rested her head against the window glass, grateful for the clean, fresh air, in contrast to the humid, hot air at the park. The chocolate-scent-lady flipped through her bible, muttering incomprehensible prayers. Her wig shook vigorously on her head. The other women sat behind them, their voices lower than it had been at the park. They had migrated to gender talks. How sons now wished to be daughters. Daughters wished to be sons, but rarely. Isn’t it? It’s mostly the boys wanting to be girls. One of them was either asking or declaring. I am more careful with my children now. Kids can be so impulsive. They all agreed. I am also selective in their choice of books and television programmes. Same voice. They also agreed on that before another voice took over. Just be watchful, especially in this puberty stage. They finally agreed before the bus entered a dusty road. Attention was diverted to closing up windows, to keep their nose clean and safe. Dika stared on.
Before her mother called for her return, she had begun craving for her sister’s forgiveness. She longed to hold her hand and swear it was recklessness. She had felt so reckless. Same recklessness that drove her to quit school. Same recklessness that cost her dream of teaching. Same recklessness that cost her sister’s happiness. Same recklessness that might drive her to do more, more evil. Her sister might not understand this recklessness. But she would explain. She would tell her how fierce it could be, in her bloodstream, in her finger tips. She would tell her how it wouldn’t stop until she broke everything, everybody.
She imagined her sister asking what can my forgiveness do? Her answer is ready. It will heal me, sister. I will be a better person, a better sister, a better daughter, a better mother.
After the last fight, Dika knew she would not stop until she vanquished. She could not condescend to the level her sister’s blows reduced her to. She waited until her sister’s introduction date was fixed, until her dress was ready. When she finally got her revenge, she did not think of her father while doing it. It was easy. Men were easy for her. Her sister’s fiancé was the easiest. She didn’t even employ any tactic. The recklessness did not subside even after she climbed down from his sweaty body, so she went ahead to tell him, she has seven of your type, don’t be fooled. Only then did the trembling in her fingers lessen and she smiled, content.
On her sister’s introduction day, she waited and waited until the sun set, until the sky turned a little grey, mourning her grief. That evening, her sister paced the width and length of their compound until she collapsed in tears. He wasn’t coming. He would never come. Dika scoffed.
Her mother did what every mother would do to console her daughter. Dika sat away, enjoying the fruits of her five-minute labour. Or was it less? Three minutes! It wasn’t even enough. Wait. Was that what her sister coped with? She just saved her a lifelong regret.
Her mind was beginning to drift to her pending semester results when her sister’s figure filled her gaze.
“You did this.”
Dika wasn’t sure if it was an accusation or allegation. What’s the difference between both, anyways? Her sister was neither moving nor shutting up. Her lips quivered as she repeated you did this countless times, unwavering, solid in her stance until Dika caved in, backing up her sister’s whys with a venomous because I can. Her mother spat at her, cursed her life, very much confidently because how come she mothered such a child? Unthinkable!
Dika did not relent. She called her sister ugly again. Who would marry you? She scoffed. And did she really think she would have the last fight? Did she think Dikachukwu let things go? Can she feel pain? Yes. That was how she felt when she boxed up her face. She went on and on until her sister held her head like it was going to explode into bits, then she stopped, exasperated.
Her sister had pulled her feet from the glassy footwear—the one she bought to pair with her shimmering silver gown—and kept pacing the compound.
What did Dika call ugly? A dark version of herself. Taller and more graceful than she would ever be. Her sister’s bright white teeth had withstood whatever challenge hers couldn’t. When she lost her sanity studying for exams, her sister excelled in them.
When her sister finished pacing the compound and stood again before her, she hit her bare palm on the sandy ground and swore never to speak to her again. There was this glint in her eyes while she swore and kept swearing, disowning her, renouncing her, repudiating her, staunchly. Assuring everyone within earshot to accept it, not to interfere or plead because I will never forgive Dika. All these years, the ferocious tone in which she had made her declarations hadn’t waned in Dika’s ears. It was always there, when her daughter pointed to their teenage pictures and asked, mummy who’s this one? When her husband said call your sister, she will forgive you. An everlasting presence.
Dika shut her mind, willing herself to sleep, but like her fears, the road ahead lay bare. She could not sleep. What had she done? What was she thinking? Why? Why? Why?
She was the one who deserved this sickness. It was her supposed to be lying there because she was the bad one, the reckless woman. She deserved penance for everything she broke, for her sister’s pain.
The women had fallen silent. Fatigue must have surely taken its toll. The chocolate-scent-lady had fallen asleep. They would soon arrive Umuahia. Dika could tell even though it’d been years she visited her hometown. She wouldn’t forget its scent. She wouldn’t forget the place where her sister hit her until she cowered into submission. She wouldn’t forget her roots.
The flesh on her sister’s body had thinned. Dika’s first impulse was to cry. But instead she held her sister’s lean arm, stroking her skin. Her mother sat outside tending to phone calls, deciding on the best hospital for Hepatitis B patients. Her sister smelled of talcum powder that dissolved the chocolate-scent that clung to her nose.
“Ego Oyibo,” her sister’s voice was gentle, nothing like what she knew, nothing like what she used to hear.
“Sister, will you forgive me?”
Her sister smiled, weakly but it made Dika’s whole day. Nothing happened to her teeth. It still shone like a cluster of diamonds. She wanted to place a soothing palm over her forehead and heal her instantly. She wanted her sister back. She wanted to nuzzle her face in her neck and inhale all the love she lost. She wished she could protect her from everything, including this sickness that devoured her innards.
“Ego Oyibo, today is a good day.” Her sister smiled more. Dika wished she would never stop. She would have called years ago. On one of those days her husband suggested, or on her birthday, or mothers’ day, or public holidays, or Sundays, or in the middle of the night when guilt slept. She should have barged her phone with calls until eventually, she forgave. Her sister was not like her. Her sister was capable of forgiveness.
“We will take you to the hospital first thing in the morning, sister,” Dika said, willing her mind not to stray. As she wished, her sister did not stop smiling. She only shook her head, in a way that conveyed her fears.
“Ego Oyibo, my baby, today is a good day.”
Dika held her sister’s palm, willing her eyes to stop itching, but it was hard. She placed her sister’s hand over her face and gave in to the sob that had gathered in her chest over these long years.
Chizitere Madeleine Nwaemesi
is a writer whose works have been published by Isele Magazine, Libretto, African Writer Magazine and elsewhere. She currently resides, and writes from Nigeria. Twitter__ @cheezeetere.