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Shoulder High

By Ify Okoli (Nigeria)


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 BIODATA: Ifesinachi Okoli is an artist and a writer who has written several
 short stories including FULL MOON, GONE, among many others and a self
 published novel she wrote as a teenager. She is currently working on a
 full length novel. Ifesinachi lives and works in Lagos, Nigeria.


 Her earliest memories were of the times spent riding high on her father’s shoulders. It was from up there that she learnt that if she stretched out her hand far enough, she could almost touch the dark blue sky littered with the brilliant winking stars. It was from up there that she learnt that the igbo name for the moon was onwa, the sun was anwu. It was from up there she watched squirrels chase each other up the giant mango trees, their bushy tails swinging daintily from left to right. It was from up there she watched Dede climb up the steep graceful body of the palm tree with the rope tied securely around his back and it was from up there that she nibbled on pieces of smoked fish her mother had tied up in a cocoyam leaf while she chatted incessantly with her father.

 Life for Adanna had started high up on her father’s shoulders.

 Anytime her father was going for a meeting, he would whistle a special tune just for her and she would abandon everything she was doing and run on her spindly legs into his arms. She would hold her breath as he lifted her through the air and then balanced her on his strong broad shoulders. Sighing deeply, she would wrap her arms around his head for fear that she would fall off the great height but laughingly, he would pull her arms away so that she would not block his view. Right into her sixth year, she listened for the tune that would send her darting across the room, almost bumping into her mother, as she searched for him. Her mother complained that she was too old for that and that her father was spoiling her but he chided her that she was only jealous of the attention little Adanna was getting.

 She was an only child, her father’s only daughter and the pride of his manhood. He took her everywhere with him and at nights when he was about to sleep, he would lay her on his chest. Sometimes, she would stay awake, content to hear his deep snoring as it rumbled through his chest, entranced by the tiny flies that hovered around the yellowish glow of the lantern until her mother shook him awake and he had to carry her to her bed. She was used to her father sneaking her pieces of meat when he thought her mother was not looking. Her father doted on her and always, he would say that one day, she would bring home a fine young man to marry who would take care of her the way he did her mother but she could not imagine living anywhere but in her father’s home. Grumbling she would mumble, “tufiakwa!

God forbid!" and her mother would rebuke her, twisting her mouth painfully and warning her not to speak evil of her future.

Then one day, she noticed something that made her cold and withdrawn. Her mother’s stomach was getting unusually big. Mama Ada, as her mother was called had on a peculiar smile on her face and she would allow her husband to rub her naked stomach, giggling and whispering with him. It made Adanna uneasy and when she sat under her favourite mango tree, sulking, it made her angrier still that nobody looked for her until it was time for lunch.

Then the baby came. It was a boy – a tiny thing with the most irritating wail. The first day she was introduced to Baby, Adanna stared at it with such resentment, refusing to touch it. In despair, she watched as her father carried Baby around on his chest, crooning songs to him while Adanna tagged along, looking longingly at them. Her father had sidelined her and sometimes, she would tug at her father’s hand to remind him that he had not carried her in a while but he would say gently, “your turn has passed, Ada m. It is Baby’s turn now.” Adanna would stalk outside, her little fists pummeling the air in anger, thinking of how to get back at her father.

She reached a decision a few weeks later after careful thought. She remembered what her father used to say when she was younger, something about her bringing home a fine young  man to marry who would take care of her. She would get married so that her husband would take care of her and lift her up the way her father used to. She thought hard of a man who was tall and strong like her father, someone who could carry her with ease. The only person that
 came to her mind was Dede, the palmwine tapper that lived in the next compound. Dede was the only man as tall as her father and though he was not as good looking, he was not as ugly as Ogene, the farmer who called her, “my wife”. She loathed Ogene with his big teeth and big ears.

Adanna went over to Dede’s house the next afternoon. He was sitting in front of his house, eating, when she burst into his compound. She eyed him reluctantly and crossed her arms in defiance. She greeted him.

“My dear, how are you? Won’t you eat?” he asked.

“No. Dede, I have come to ask you to marry me so that you can carry me about on your shoulders now that my father has a new baby.”

The pronouncement, so innocently said, shocked Dede and launched him into a coughing fit which he tried to stop with water. The seven year old stood with her head held high, her chin jutting out stubbornly and her right foot tapping the ground impatiently, much like her father.

Dede shook his head and smiled, thoroughly amused. He knew how close she was to her father and with the baby, he could tell that she was jealous but he knew that he had to handle her with care. Women, he thought. It was one of the reasons he was not married yet. No matter how old they were, they behaved alike. They got jealous easily and over the most trivial of things.

“Alright Ada. When do we get married?” he asked.

“Today. We will go over and tell my father right now.”

“Can I at least finish my meal?”

She looked at his half eaten meal in annoyance and sat down on the stool he had provided for her earlier, her cheek cradled in her hand. When he finished, Dede washed his hands and wiped them against his shorts. Then he led her by the hand to her father’s house.

Her father met them on his way out at the entrance to his compound. Dede could see the wisps of smoke rising from somewhere in the compound. The smell of roasted meat filled the air.

“Nna anyi Ezeugo, good afternoon” the younger man greeted her father.

“Good afternoon Dede. Adanna, where have you been? Your mother has been looking for you. She wants you to look after the baby.”

“Eh, nna anyi, that is why we have come. Adanna, tell your father what you told me,” Dede said gently pushing Adanna who was suddenly shy forward.

Faced with her father, Adanna doubted her decision. After all, how many of her mates were married? But she strengthened her resolve and with her arms akimbo, she announced, “Dede and I are getting married so that he will carry me about on his shoulders like you used to before Baby came!” Ezeugo stared at his little daughter open mouthed. Dede’s eyes had started to water from the mirth he tried so hard to suppress. His shoulders were shaking.

“Married? Err…that is good, very wonderful. I hope that you know what it means to be married?”

“Yes,” came the sharp retort.

“Okay. You know how to cook, don’t you?”

“I…I…mother will teach me.”

“Really? I see. I hope you can go to the stream and fetch water for your husband.”

“The stream? But it’s too far,” she whined. Looking at Dede, she asked, “will I have to go to the stream?”

“Sometimes,” Dede answered.

“And I hope you will be able to take care of your baby when you have one?” her father asked.
“Baby? Which baby? I don’t want to have a baby,” she protested.

“Well, my dear,” her father replied, squatting so that he could be at eye level with her, “it will be part of your duty if you become a wife. Still want to get married?”

She looked doubtfully from her father to Dede whose body shook in a funny way and dropped her arms. The idea didn’t seem so rosy anymore.

“But who will carry me now that you are always with Baby?” she asked in a small voice. Tears filled her eyes and her lips trembled. Her father lifted her up gently onto his body and as he grunted, she could feel how difficult it was for him to carry her. It was the most humiliating feeling. She wished she could go back to being little. She wished Baby had not come.

“Adanna, you will always be my own Ada. See how big you have grown? I can’t even lift you up easily anymore. One day, when you are older and ready for marriage, I will tell you this story and you will laugh over it.”

“I won’t...I won’t…” she cried burying her face in her father’s shoulders. Throughout that day and deep into the night, Adanna would not be pacified. Not even her favourite smoked fish snack could stop the tears from flowing.

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