By Okorie Fabian Ugochukwu (Thailand)
She cradled the baby boy on her laps as if she were handling a lethal, fragile, explosive device. His cuteness was marked by his round face, finely defined dark eyebrows, and a small tipped nose. He was her replica, but for his light skin, like that of her husband, Johnny. The baby had brought back the radiant smile she had always worn, a smile long effaced by her ten years of childless marriage. And as she breastfed him this bright November morning, her heart bubbled with joy. She was now convinced of her surefootedness in her husband’s family. Nobody would whisper around her again about her infertility. God had surely shut many mouths up at a time she had abandoned all hope of conception, when she was two months away from thirty-six. The joy of seeing that she still had breast-milk that could quench her baby’s hunger saturated her, made her feel cocooned in a comfortable palace. When the baby, a week old, opened his eyes, shifted his mouth away from her breast, wagged his pinky tongue between his thin lips in a snake fashion, and threw up his food—whitish and gooey, like raw eggs—she gladly let it slide her partly bare left thigh and coiled down onto the green-carpeted floor of her room. Was this a dream or reality that a baby was at last resting on her laps? Truly, there were still sincere prophets of God. Very sincere ones. But they were few.
Lillian briefly allowed her mind to drift to many places she and her husband had visited for a solution to their ten-year marital trial. Seven medical experts had confirmed that neither of them had any impaired reproductive system. The thought wanted to linger, but she banished it. Dwelling on the past was needless since God had settled the case in her favour. But she could not easily expunge her experience in the office of the last pastor she had met fifteen months ago. She had gone there without her husband’s knowledge, and the pastor had asked her to fast and pray for three days, from six in the morning till six in the evening each day with some Bible reading. She had doubted the efficacy of the prayer, thinking that it was the simplest of all the ones she had made before. She had expected months of fasting and praying and giving offerings, things she had done countlessly in many churches as recommended by the ministers. She had stood up and made towards the exit, deflated and faithless, when the pastor called her back and said, “A child will surely come, but you must be very, very careful to protect its life.”
“If the child ever comes, Pastor, I am ready to lay down my own life for it to live.”
This was now a year and three months later, and the child did come. Lillian smiled at the baby, nodded and acknowledged again that true prophets of God still existed—only that they were scarce.
She threw herself into nurturing the baby, whom she called Chimnonso, and before one year, he had started toddling. By the end of four years, the boy was already a good speaker, a good sprinter, and a good dancer. Additionally, he had started nursery school.
The birth of Chimnonso increasingly cemented the love between Lillian and her forty-year-old husband. She began to discover more the positive side of the man, new handsomeness, fresh intelligence, his openness to her. Though she was a university graduate with a master’s degree in accountancy—unlike Johnny who ended his education in secondary school—she treated him like a duke, saying even in public that no man was as handsome and loving as her husband. Johnny also reciprocated. Sometimes at weekends, he bought her jewellery or cloths or shoes. On her birthdays, he gave her cards and other gifts and played his guitar for her. Lillian would sing and clap and dance and gyrate and feel like one living in a paradise.
“I’ll surprise him next week,” she said to herself this evening as she stepped out of the gate of the Oceanic Bank where she worked in Awka, Anambra State capital in Eastern Nigeria. “He will know that when a woman is saturated with love by her husband, she can do anything even foolish to make the man happy.” She dabbed her face with her handkerchief, glanced at her new black suit and matching blue stilettos. Her figure was shapely, her height average, her face punctuated with two dimples. As she waited along the road for a taxi to take her home, still immersed in the thought of her planned surprise to her husband, she started humming Sing My Sweet Song by a love-song singer Thomson Uranu.
Here was the week. The day was second Saturday in July. Lillian never went to work on Saturdays, but she told her husband this morning that she had something to do in the bank today. Johnny looked at her skeptically from across the dining table.
“Don’t worry, dear.” She touched Johnny’s soft, hairy arm. “I’ll soon be back.”
“Mummy, I’ll go with you,” Chimnonso said and threw his spoon on the floor and climbed onto Lillian’s body. Before she could ask him to get down, he stepped on the big dining table and his leg kicked a plate of rice. Everything in it spattered on the table with some stew smudging his father’s light-blue shirt.
“Hold him, Ebere,” Johnny ordered a seven-year-old girl, their house help.
Before Ebere reached the boy, he hopped down and darted into his mother’s bedroom, giggling.
Lillian was not surprised. Chimnonso’s hyperactivity was always at its apogee whenever he was full up, and sometimes on such an occasion, he did cause some damage. He had destroyed her things like compacts, necklaces, deodorants, and lipsticks. He had even thrown her mobile phone into a bowl of water. Had Ebere not rushed and saved the phone that day, it might have drunk water enough to refuse to work again. Although Lillian had raged at that phone incident, she was not angry now. In fact, whenever the boy tempted her to flog him, she would recall what the pastor had said about protecting the life of the child. And she would relish the thought that she eventually had a child who could occasionally annoy her or destroy her things.
“I’ll buy a cane for you, Chimnonso,” Johnny said, cleaning the smear of stew on his shirt, his face scrunched.
“Don’t, darling,” Lillian said. “I’ll buy a better size myself.”
The breakfast over, Lillian got dressed and left the house, reminding her husband that she would soon return home.
The morning had been exceptionally sunny and windy as well unlike most days in July here. Johnny was standing outside on the step, musing over what could ignite his house. He had had a dream last night and had seen his house on fire. He had not told anybody about the dream and didn’t want to. Perhaps that was the cause of his vacillation to go to his jewel shop today. He had put on his clothes twice to go out and had twice undressed to stay at home. Now he wore baggy shorts and a white singlet.
He began to move from one part of the compound to another, inspecting different corners to detect what might trigger off fire. The place was fairly wide and could accommodate ten to twelve cars comfortably. The house itself stood far back near the low compound wall. He walked to the car park. It was empty, but for a heap of useless planks, an easy fuel for fire. Maybe he should evacuate them to leave no room for any emergency. Besides they should not usurp the position of a car. He had wanted to buy a car when they were living elsewhere, but he had considered it a better choice securing a house of his own. A car should come later, he had concluded. Nobody would think he acted foolishly by buying a four-bedroom bungalow with his own share of the proceeds from his late father’s property. Even if people thought so, he was answerable to nobody. He walked into the car park and began to carry the planks to the backyard, where they eventually formed a heap.
Finally he was through with the exercise, and went and took a second bath. He decided to stay home today. He was not a prophet, but sometimes the instincts of a prophet could surface in those who are not prophets. He lay in bed and soon dozed off.
Three hours later, repeated bangs on his door woke him. He listened and discovered they were generated by Chimnonso. Johnny hissed and rolled over and faced the wall. But after forty minutes of vain attempt to sleep again, he got up and sat on a plastic stool beside his open window. Peeping outside, he noticed that the face of the sky had turned aggressive. Thick, dark clouds were descending slowly, accompanied by a fresh breeze. He glanced at his bronze wall clock directly above him. It was quarter past two. He wondered what had still kept Lillian outside in this looming rain. She had told him she would be back soon. Well, he wouldn’t ring her yet. On a desk by the window lay a magazine. He picked it up, leafed it through until he found his favourite page. He began to read the story and was soon immersed in it. Then came a knock on the door. He kept the magazine open on the desk and went and unbolted the door.
Lillian entered. “You didn’t go to the market?”
“I wasn’t moved again to.”
“Nothing. I just kind of…kind of…feel—”
“I had been home for more than half an hour.”
“Of course. It was Chimnonso who told me you’re inside.”
“That boy couldn’t allow me to enjoy my sleep.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I didn’t feel like leaving here today.” He returned to his seat.
Lillian was not worried. Sometimes at weekends, Johnny stayed indoors.
“What kept you so long?”
“Nothing much.” Lillian closed the door. “Just decided to read today’s papers on the stand.”
Johnny picked up again the magazine to finish the story. “The rain can go mad now that you are here.”
Lillian was glad to hear that. She shuffled to the bed and lay backwards, her feet on the carpet, her gaze up at the ceiling. “What are you reading, honey?”
“An interesting story. Care to read?”
She stood up, moved to him and peered at the magazine. “I’ve got a more interesting one to tell you.”
“Story.” She laughed, her purplish gum and sparkling white teeth decorative of her smooth, dark-brown face. “My own story is more gripping. Come so that I can narrate it to you.” She leaned on his back, and her breasts pressed on him.
“Please don’t ignite me now,” Johnny said, pretending as though he disliked the warmth her body had started generating.
“Even if I do, that will dispel the impending cold.” She kissed her ears, held him by the hand and pulled him up. Then they walked out to the front yard.
“Who has the car?” he asked, surprised.
Lillian kept silent until they stopped beside a fairly used ash-coloured Toyota Camry posing in the middle of the compound. She unzipped her handbag, brought out a bunch of keys, threw it up twice, caught it twice, and handed it to him. “This is my story to you.”
Lillian repeated herself, her face alive with smile and dimples.
He stared at her. “I can’t believe—what—you bought me a—oh, I don’t know.”
She held him by the shoulder. “Take it easy, dear. The car is yours.”
Johnny started enjoying his gift.
This was neither the first Sunday nor the first time Lillian had warned her husband against pulling up along the road for a woman. In fact, a week after she bought the car, she had diplomatically unveiled her objection to Johnny giving any woman a lift.
“How will you feel if you see me in the car alone with a man?” she had asked.
“What prompted the question?”
“I need an answer, not a question.”
Johnny sighed wearily. He got out of his bed and went to the toilet. When he returned, he rather moved to the window and sat on the stool, facing the darkness outside. It was eleven pm.
“Are you angry, babe?” Lillian asked.
He turned. “Why should I?”
“Then answer my question.” Lillian sat up on the bed.
“What was your question?”
“How will you feel if you see me in the car alone with another man?”
“That question is unnecessary.”
“It may be unnecessary to you. But it is important to me.”
After a half minute of silence Johnny said, “I may feel somehow.”
“What does somehow mean?”
“Why are you asking me this kind of question?”
“Why are you avoiding a specific answer?”
Realizing that his wife would continue pestering him for a definite answer if he provided none, Johnny said, “I may be suspicious.”
“Suspicious, eh? Suspicious of what?”
Johnny did not answer.
“Why would you be suspicious?”
“I don’t know. Stopping asking me questions.” Johnny faced the window again.
Lillian looked hard at his back for a few seconds. Quietly, she stood up and walked over to him. Leaning on his back, she nibbled his ear and said, “My first and only commandment to you is this: let no woman sit in that car alone with you.”
Johnny kept his wife’s commandment for three months. But Lillian felt he had broken it this Sunday. Their church, Holy Land, was dismissed at noon, and there was impending rain. Everybody was scampering to reach home before it started. Johnny and his family rushed into their car and drove off.
On the way, he saw a lady he knew in the church and pulled up. Lillian was in the front seat with Chimnonso, and the woman entered the back and sat with Ebere. Three minutes later, at the woman’s request, Johnny pulled over and she alighted and went her way.
Immediately they returned home, Lillian flung her Bible on her bed and stormed into Johnny’s room.
“Don’t ever try this again. Never!” Her eyes flamed and she gnarled her face.
“What?” Johnny, who had just entered his room, stood bewildered. “What are you talking about?”
“Lady? Which lady? What are you—?”
“Why did you pick her up? Did she tell you that she had lost her way?”
“Oh, that girl? She is a member of our care group in the church.”
“I don’t care about her identity.”
Johnny stared at her. “But you were in the car with us so—”
“Don’t tell me that crap. Don’t!”
“What’s wrong with my giving a sister in the church a lift?”
Lillian shook her head vigorously and slapped her hips three times. “There are so many things wrong. So many!”
She flounced out back to her own room and slammed her door shut. Standing in the middle of the room, she began to blow up. She should have driven the car home herself. Then, there wouldn’t have been any opportunity to pick up that rat of a girl. Just imagine her. Exchanging phone number with Johnny brazenly. She couldn’t even keep her mouth shut in the car. Chattering like a whore. Very seductive. Oh, God of Lillian! She clapped her hands heavily and plonked herself down on her bed and started shaking her head, her toes wiggling on the carpet as if they would pierce it. She bit her lower lip and sucked it. If this happened again…
Unsettled by his wife’s incursion, Johnny sat on his bed, his head bowed in reflection. Was he guilty by picking up that woman? Had he made a mistake by accepting the gift of a car from his wife? He had not. A few minutes later, he changed into his casual wear and left the room.
At Lillian’s door, he stopped, his eyes glazed. He lifted his right hand and touched the handle, but his fingers trembled and slid off. He took a deep wheezing breath and released it. Summoning courage, he held the handle again, turned it, pushed the door open, and entered. Quietly, he moved to his wife seated on the bed and sat beside her.
“Honey,” he said and raised his right arm and threw it over her shoulders. But Lillian flung it away with a hiss and shifted her position from him. Johnny rose and watched her for a moment. He made towards the door, but turned and walked back and sat beside her once more. He lifted his hand and held her by the trunk gently. That particular scent from him that often aroused her wafted to her nostrils. She began to dissolve, and finally rested her head on his side. Johnny knew now that the steam in her heart had evaporated. That was his Lillian, quick to calm down after an outburst.
“Do we need to quarrel about this?” Johnny said.
“But you caused the quarrel.” Tears had suffused her cheeks.
“My apple,” he called her and wiped her tears with his hand. “The crown of my life. My dream woman. We need piece, not pieces. Remember that one plus one in God’s marriage cannot be two. We are one in the Lord.” He held her by the neck and kissed her on the forehead, on the left cheek, and finally on the lips, which equally reciprocated. Anger over.
Johnny stood up and reached the door. When he opened it, he turned back to her. “Darling, it’s high time you tamed your temper.”
It was a Friday evening, about quarter to seven. The early October atmosphere was nebulous. Fogs were hugging houses, electric poles and cables; and dews were settling on the earth. There had been torrential rain in the afternoon, and many people stayed in to avoid the cold. Lillian had just opened her bedroom window after having almost an hour nap to ease job stress. She peeped at the deserted, vague street. The cool wind scraped her face, sending chill throughout her body, causing goose pimples to sprout on her naked arms. She shuttered the window quickly, rushed to her wardrobe, put off her light sleeveless blouse, and slipped into a sweater. Then she went to the kitchen to prepare garri for dinner.
Later on, Ebere helped her set the table at the dining room. But Chimnonso repeatedly became a nuisance this evening. He complained of too much pepper in the soup, even though Lillian knew that she added little pepper in it. She asked Ebere to cook rice for the boy, but when the food was presented to him at the living room, he grabbed the plate of stew, overturned it, and started crying.
Annoyed, Lillian picked a cane to flog her son, but her heart melted with compassion. She recalled the pastor’s advice; she remembered the miscarriage she had a year ago. That was a baby that rejected her, that would have made her a mother of two. But Chimnonso had accepted to be born and was ever ready to live. She didn’t know when the cane slipped off her hand, and what came out of her mouth was “What shall I do for you tonight, Chimnonso?”
“I want to eat yam.”
Johnny gave Ebere some money to buy a plate of yam at a nearby restaurant.
When the boy ate his fill, he started capering in the living room as others watched a boring TV documentary. Exhausted, he went to his mother and asked her to tell him a folk tale. Lillian turned him down. She was in bad mood. Chimnonso had upset her by throwing his food away in anger. But as he kept pestering her, she knuckled under, and began searching her memory for a suitable didactic tale against his recent misdemeanor. Her mind settled on a story her mother usually told her whenever Lillian threw a fit as a young girl.
“Story, story,” she said.
“Story,” Chimnonso responded and climbed on his mother’s body.
“Get down and listen.”
He jumped down. “Mummy, is it that one about the vulture and his bald head?”
“In the olden days,” Lillian started, “Bat went to his friend Dog and collected some vegetables. He had never eaten any vegetable before, but Dog had talked him into giving it a try. He came home and handed them to his old mother to cook. He left again to attend a meeting he had with other animals on how to prevent human beings from killing them. His mother prepared the vegetables, cooked them and kept them in a pot to wait for her son.
“When Bat returned and his mother presented to him the cooked vegetables, he got angry?”
“Mummy, why did he get angry?”
“Keep on listening. He became angry because he thought the vegetables were then too small to quench his hunger. He believed his mother had hidden some of them. He searched the room, but found none else. His mother explained to him that she didn’t hide anything, that it was the manner of vegetables to shrink when they had passed through heat.”
“Why didn’t he—?”
“Keep listening. Since he found no other vegetables in the room, Bat thought that his mother had sold some and hidden the money. You know that when you cook vegetables, the size becomes smaller because of the steam. His mother explained this to him but he didn’t believe her. Instead, he continued accusing her of selling some of them. In anger, he began to beat his mother, demanding that she should give him the money. Eventually, she collapsed and died.”
“Died?” Chimnonso asked with a shudder.
“Yes, she died. Bat started eating the vegetables, but could not finish them. It was then that he realized that his mother was telling him the truth, that when you cook vegetables, the size reduces, though the quantity remains the same. But he had done the irreparable damage. He looked at his mother’s corpse on the floor and wept bitterly. So, to avoid the diurnal animals who taunted him for killing his own mother, he turned nocturnal from that day on. That’s why bats don’t fly during the day as they do in the night.”
“Too bad,” said Ebere, who had also been listening zealously.
“I’ll not kill you, Mummy,” Chimnonso said and they all laughed.
“Thank you for saying that. I’ll not kill you either.”
There was brief silence.
“Question time?” Lillian said.
“Testing time,” Chimnonso replied.
“Now, Chimnonso, what did you learn from the story?” Lillian asked.
“It is not good to kill your mother,” he said.
“Good,” Johnny said, and they laughed and applauded the little boy.
“What else did you learn?” Lillian was studying her son’s face.
“You should trust your mother,” Ebere offered.
“Beautiful one,” Lillian said, “though some mothers cannot be trusted. There is still one big lesson, and I want Chimnonso to provide the answer.”
The little boy thought for a while, scratching his head. “I know it, Mummy. It is not good to be hungry.”
They burst into tears of laughter. Johnny got up and headed for his room, saying he was tired of listening to his son’s ridiculous answers.
“But you were hungry tonight,” Lillian reminded the boy. “You don’t decide to be hungry or not to. Hunger must surely strike.”
“Okay.” Chimnonso scratched his head again for a moment. “I know it, Mummy. Anger is not good?”
“Wow!” Lillian sprang up and lifted Chimnonso towards the glowing bulb on the ceiling and quickly put him down. “Good. It is not good to be hot-tempered. Bat killed his mother because of—anger.”
“Mummy, I won’t be angry again. I’ll not kill you.”
“I’ll not kill you either,” Lillian echoed her earlier response.
The next day was Saturday, a day that would remain indelible in Lillian’s memory. She was on her way home from Eke-Awka market around five in the evening. She had gone to buy foodstuffs and other things for celebrating Chimnonso’s birthday the following Sunday. At this time of day, there was usually heavy traffic on the road near the market. She was on a commercial motorcycle, and at a particular intersection, vehicles were stalled. As if someone had whispered to her, she turned to her left and saw her husband’s car, also heading home, trapped in the gridlock. A figure was seated in front of the car with him. Lillian bent slightly and peered into the vehicle. A woman? But she could not see the woman’s face. She dipped her hand into her handbag and fumbled for her mobile phone. Picking it out, she dialed Johnny’s number, her eyes, unblinking, fixed straight on the car, able to make out only the woman’s hand and her white-and-black-stripped skirt. But he did not answer the call. The snarl-up began to clear and her husband’s car advanced and stopped. The motorcyclist also moved forward and stopped. Lillian was in the process of taking the woman’s picture with the phone when another car from behind blocked her view and the camera captured it instead of the woman. “Shit!” she spat. She deleted the car image instantly, stuffed back the phone into her bag and began to grind her teeth. After some moment, she gave her head a few slaps.
“I’ll get down at the next junction,” she said to the man.
“But that is not where you said you were going.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll pay you.”
The motorcyclist braked at the junction, close to a filling station. She got down, paid him, and carried her sack.
She walked to the station and stood at a corner. Although many vehicles were queuing up at the forecourt for fuel, she hardly saw them. She picked her phone and redialled her husband’s number. But this time his phone was switched off. She bit her thumb hard and the pain registered at once. She sucked the finger palliatively. Her brain felt hot, felt full, and nearly burst. What on earth had gone into Johnny’s head? So her car was now for women? He deliberately switched off his phone to avoid her calls. Anyway, everything would end today. Just in a few minutes. Not hours.
Johnny had reached home and packed the car near the gate. The lady, who had met Johnny in his shop, got out. He went to the boot and took out her luggage—a rucksack and a sack containing some foodstuffs from her village. Ebere and Chimnonso had run out of the house to welcome him. He ordered Ebere to carry the bags into the house.
As was his custom, Chimnonso entered the car and climbed onto the driving seat. He held the steering wheel and began to simulate driving, his lips vibrating as he buzzed, imitating the sound of a running car. Johnny rolled up the windows, all tinted, and asked him to come down, but he refused.
“Now I’m in Lagos,’’ Chimnonso said. “I want to go to Enugu, the Coal City. Pe-pe-pe-pe-peeeeee.’’ He began again to drone. “I’m now in Enugu. Okay, I’ll go to Abuja next.” He dipped his hand into his shorts pocket and whipped out two five-naira notes. “If the police stop me on the way, I’ll give them this money to allow me to pass. Pe-pe-peeeeee.” He continued fumbling with the steering, horning with his mouth, speeding in his mind.
The lady was amused, but Johnny was not. He had seen his son’s prank a dozen times. He glanced at his watch, which said five-thirty. He wanted to go to church at once, but remembered he had left his phone in his room since morning. He had to get it first before going out again. He held the car door.
“Don’t close it, Daddy,” Chimnonso said sharply. “I want to get down.”
“No. Stay there and enjoy yourself till I return.” Johnny shut the door. Together he and the young woman went into the house.
To his surprise, his phone had switched off. Probably, too many calls had run down the battery.
Lillian was sweating as she approached the gate. She had asked the taxi driver to drop her when they neared home, and had walked the remaining forty-yard distance, her heart already turned into a glowing kiln. Once she zoomed into the compound, she furiously chucked aside her bag of foodstuffs, also containing her son’s birthday presents, and hurried to the car with ten litres of liquid in a blue container. Unscrewing its cap, she hoisted it and poured the content on the car. Quickly, she flicked a flame to it with a new butane lighter. The flame flew up and began to lick its drink and subsequently to eat the main food.
“I bought it and I destroyed it!” she said, standing at a distance watching the fire carrying out her order obediently. “My car is not for womanizing.”
It was Ebere who came out first and saw the fire. She ran back inside and alerted Johnny and the lady.
“What!” Johnny bolted out of the house. Seeing the fire, he rushed to a plastic water tank nearby. It was padlocked. He dashed towards the burning car, pointing and shouting, “Chimnonso, Chimnonso, Chimnonso!” Midway there, he turned and darted back to the water tank and yanked the padlock without a success. He belted into his room to search for the key.
The lady scooped some sand with her hands, ran towards the fire and threw the sand on it. Incidentally she saw her sister, Lillian, standing at a considerable distance outside the gate. She shouted to Lillian that Chimnonso was in the car, and that she should help to save him.
“What, Ngozi?” Lillian burst out. She instantly realized Chimnonso’s custom, that he often entered the car to play whenever his father drove it home. She also realized that it was her twenty-five-year-old younger sister, Ngozi, from their village that she had seen with Johnny in the car. She had invited her for Chimnonso’s birthday. The skirt and part of the blouse she was able to see while on the motorcycle were identical with the ones Ngozi was wearing. Lillian’s mouth puckered and she lifted her hands above her head, squalled and slumped.
Befuddled, Ngozi scurried back to the house and collided with Johnny at the doorstep. Each fell down in a different direction.
“Where is Chimnonso? Where is he?” Ebere was frantically shouting as her eyes darted from the two nursing their pains on the ground to the car being reduced to rubble.
And so it went. Lillian burnt her car and son. Neighbours’ saving intervention was futile. True.
Fabian is from Enugu State, Nigeria, and studied Social Work at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He worked briefly in Nigeria before travelling to Thailand where he is currently residing. He loves written words which he sees as necessary tools for creating orderly society. His works have been published in Africanwriter.com and Nigerstories.com. He is working on his full-length novel.