Linda N. Masi
I attended cousin Adanna’s wedding with Mother at the St. Andrew’s Church in Umuahia, one Saturday morning in March, and it felt as though the mouths of everyone in the village lived inside my stomach. Ever since father died two years before, the food on our plates kept shrinking in size until lunch disappeared altogether from our dining table. On Adanna’s wedding day, breakfast was two sticks of cabin biscuit and one sachet of 50cl water. I clutched on to Mother’s promise that there would be plenty to eat—this was a rich wedding.
Inside the church, Mother and I sat in the second row of the pews. Our eyes were glued to Adanna, the young bride (whatever angle she turned her head, the lights in the church tangoed with her tiara and made it pregnant with a thousand sparkling colours), and her groom, Mr. Jacob. He seemed to have lost his moustache and had borrowed a pair of Mother’s black pencil eye liners as replacement.
“Mr Jacob Obi, do you take Miss Adanna Ibekwe to be your lawfully wedded wife, to love and to cherish, in sickness and in health, until death do you part?”
“Yes, I do,” said Mr. Jacob.
The congregation cheered loudly with Aunty Callister’s catchy voice rising above the others with an AMEN, I now have an American son-in-law.
Mother sometimes said ugly things about Aunty Callister at home even though they were cousins. Statements like “Look at her, going on and on about her daughter’s good fate in marrying up” or “I hope we can drink water after this mighty wedding”. The last was when Aunty Callister, in the company of Aunty Ofodile and Aunty Ugonna, brought the aso ebi uniform fabric for Adanna’s wedding to our house for Mother and asked her to pay twelve thousand naira for six yards of veritable wax and one and a half yards of cotton lace. It was the cheapest grade (that she hoped Mother could afford) out of the four different aso ebis planned for the wedding. Mother squeezed out four hundred naira from her crawfish business capital as deposit. That night, before I slept, mother was grumbling about the high cost, and when I woke up the next morning, mother was still grumbling.
From where we sat in the pews, I saw mother eye Aunty Callister. “What else would she say if not that?” I thought I heard Mother murmur. When Aunty Callister looked backwards to wave her white handkerchief to the congregation, her eyes met mother’s eyes. Mother planted a smile on her face but immediately the woman turned away, she rooted it out, sending the edges of her mouth on a dive for the cement floor. A pang of hunger gripped my stomach and I tugged at the sleeve of Mother’s cream cotton lace blouse.
“Moor-mee, I am hungry.”
“Mona, wait a little. The time for the food will soon come.”
The Bishop asked Adanna if she would take Mr. Jacob as her husband. Just before Adanna responded, a woman’s voice rang from the back of the church.
“So, it’s true, Jacob?”
Everyone turned to behold a white woman with flowing blonde hair and swollen red eyes in a little black dress standing at the doorway.
“This is your grandmother’s burial you came to attend at Umuahia, Nigeria, and left me and Grace in New York for over a month? After the visa, the green card? After everything?”
“Uhmm…Nicole, I can explain…” Mr. Jacob said.
Nicole dipped her hand into her black purse and retrieved a small silver pistol and pointed it at Mr. Jacob’s head.
That was the first time I saw a pistol in the physical. There was a picture of one in my grade three English reader. All manner of exclamations from all corners of the church hit the air. Chineke! Olololo-o! Ewe-eh! Some people cowered at the sight of the pistol. Some others scared mosquitoes away from beneath the pews as they sought cover.
“The blood of Jesus!” escaped Mother’s mouth. She gripped me to her body, almost snuffing out my air supply yet I still stretched my neck to peer at Nicole’s red face.
As Nicole hastened toward the altar, Mr. Jacob dashed for the open stained glass window on the left side of the altar and dived out.
“Rot in hell for all I care!” Nicole said, and turned to the Bishop who had his mouth half open as though he were waiting to receive communion bread. “Bishop, I am sorry for this.” She lifted the pistol in the air, her hand shook uncontrollably. “It’s Grace’s.” Her face crumpled up. She sniffled, turned on her heels and scuttled out of the door, not heeding the Bishop’s call or any comments from anyone. Several male ushers and some female welfare workers in the church hurried after her at the Bishop’s order to make sure she was fine.
Adanna seemed to have swallowed her tongue. Tears rolled down her cheeks, ruining her make-up.
All eyes turned to the cross-eyed Mr. Calculus in his brown suit, Jacob’s acclaimed only living brother, where he stood at the front of the parallel pews. Mr. Ibekwe, Adanna’s father, marched toward him, but he dashed for a window. Brother Lazarus, the albino organist, and some other young men standing close by caught him by the coat.
“So, what do you have to say about Jacob, your brother,” said Mr. Ibekwe with a square gaze fixed on the man’s face.
“Sir, I swear…swear, I don’t really know Mr. Jacob. I sell electronics at Ariaria Market, Aba. I got to know him when he came by my shop early last month to buy a 52 inch LED TV for his mother-in-law. That was when he hired me to pose as his cousin.”
He-wu! People exclaimed in synchronization as though someone had just fallen off a cliff.
“Chai! Didn’t I have a certain knowing in my spirit?” Mr. Ibekwe turned and faced his wife. “But you were blinded by everything, the Pathfinder, the LED TV, the boxes of expensive wrappers, and the American Dollars, and for what?”
“Heekwa!” Aunty Callister said in a low tone, and looking the other way, she added, “I’m sure someone will bear witness to who drove the Pathfinder to the church this morning.”
Mr. Ibekwe looked glum, his lower lip protruded as though he had just tasted a slice of lime. My stomach started grumbling. I saw a small toast-coloured spider crawl down the oak pew where Aunty Callista sat and wished it was a meat pie.
Adanna began to hyperventilate, and started fanning herself with her hands.
“What is it child?” the Bishop asked with a hand on her shoulder.
She whimpered. “Bishop, I have a confession to make.”
“Would you like to speak in private?” said the Bishop.
“No.” Mr. Ibekwe said. “Whatever she has to say, she must say it here and now. No more surprises.”
Adanna looked from her father’s emotionless face to the Bishop. The Bishop nodded to her.
“I’m expecting a child,” Adanna said.
Ewoo! The congregation exclaimed almost in unison.
“Holy Mother of God!” said Mother in a low tone. “Adanna has one foot in hell.”
I tip-toed on my spot to have a good look at Adanna’s feet and saw the tips of her white shoes protruding from the front hemline of her white goddess wedding gown. How can she have one foot in hell when she’s standing on both feet inside the church?
“Moor-mee, which one of Adanna’s foot is in hell?” I said, and received a glare from Mother.
“He-wu! Adanna nwam nwanyi egbugom—Adanna, my daughter, has killed me.” Aunty Callister fell backwards in the pew as though she were paralysed. Her eyes were fixed on the replica painting of the Last Supper on the concrete ceiling of the church but I guess she wasn’t taking anything in. Not even noticing Judas Iscariot looking daggers at Jesus while Jesus was breaking bread with his twelve disciples.
“I hope that scoundrel, Jacob, is not the father of your child,” Mr. Ibekwe said.
Adanna shook her head vehemently, her eyes fixed on the cement floor. She could pass for a cement floor reader.
“My daughter, who is the father of the child you carry?” the Bishop said.
Adanna’s shoulders drooped. She stole a look across the pews, people stood in wonderment watching her. She looked down at her hands and wrung them before her as though she would squeeze out the answer from her palms. Tears gushed down her cheeks. Her mascara left black blotches on her cheeks.
“Adanna, if you don’t say who the father of your child is, consider yourself disowned.” Her father said.
“Papa, it is Brother Lazarus.”
Chineke! The congregation’s exclamation reached the high ceiling and shook it.
“He-wu, Adanna? Brother Lazarus?” Aunty Callister jerked up, flung her gele away and slid to the floor, flailing around, gripping her big black afro wig, weeping hoarsely. About a dozen women in varied aso ebi rushed to her side to console her.
I heard Mother murmur. “Hee? A weeping show?”
All eyes fell on Brother Lazarus. His albinism gave away his emotions. His face and ears glowed deep red.
“It was the devil,” said Brother Lazarus with a grimace on his freckled face, his hazel eyes blinked rapidly.
The Bishop’s crests fell as he looked at Brother Lazarus.
“Lazarus, you blame the devil for your lusts?”
Brother Lazarus planted his eyes on the floor before him. “Mazi Ibekwe, with your permission, please, let me marry Adanna now, if she would have me so that I would assume my responsibilities as the father of our child.”
“Why now? Oh, you’re looking for a free wedding at no expense on your part?”
“Sir—Sir, Adanna turned me down when she met Mr. Jacob last Christmas and he started lavishing Dollars on her, and on her mother, and on you. Sorry, Sir.”
Mr. Ibekwe crumpled his nose as though Brother Lazarus’ words stank like rotten eggs.
A certain light shone in Brother Lazarus’ eyes. He seemed happy to be having his moment of revenge on Adanna and her family for shunning him. “Sir, she said she wanted to marry someone who was rich enough to take her to America…”
“Papa, Mr. Jacob didn’t tell me he was already married and had a daughter. He only said he wanted to have a male child and that his family in Nigeria was pressuring him for a male child. So I told him I was expecting his child.”
“And in the end, who fooled who?” said Mr. Ibekwe.
Brother Lazarus raised his hand to speak but Mr. Ibekwe cut him off. “Brother Lazarus, my answer is no. There shall be no wedding. Well, not today.”
Talks broke out from every corner of the church. Everyone seemed to have something to say about the wedding at the same time.
I felt a sharp pinch in my stomach. “Moor-mee, what will we eat for dinner now that the deception will not hold again?”
“Keep quiet, Mona,” Mother said in a hushed tone. “Do you want the world to know how many strands of hair I have under my armpits? And the word is REception. Sit here and wait for me. I have to join those women to console your aunty Callister before people will start thinking that I do not wish her well.”
The reception was to hold at the Mission’s Teens’ Church, adjacent to the Bishop’s lodge. I can’t get lost. I have to get to the jollof rice and chicken, the Fanta and Coca Cola before Aunty Callister makes away with it all. I stole one last look at Mother and saw tears roll down her cheeks as she knelt beside Aunty Callister, patting her shoulder. I wished Mother would excel in her crawfish business as she did in manufacturing smiles, and tears, and pats to please Aunty Callister. The Bishop started making an announcement, something about organising a service for general repentance and cleansing.
I stepped outside the church and saw some ushers and welfare workers talking gently with Nicole beside a red Sedan at the parking lot. She was no longer sniffling but she still looked miserable. Her hair was all over the place. Each time she spoke, she ran a hand through her golden hair.
I turned left and headed for the sandy path by the Bishop’s lodge. I loved how the stretch of sand was imprinted with diverse footprints like a wall of hieroglyphics. I spied on my footprints—plain and smooth from the soles of my cream Aba-made gladiator sandals. No wonder I had to walk extra carefully on wet floors to keep from tripping. There was a fresh print of what seemed like a cartoon figure face, about my shoe size, that disappeared behind the Bishop’s lodge. That person must have gone to play with water from the Mono pump set installed there. That was one of my favourite pastimes, watering the Bishop’s gravels, washing off the dust, if no adult caught me, whenever I had to wait for Mother in the church premises while she attended women’s meetings after service on Sundays. The Bishop’s cream bungalow was asleep. Its brown windows and entrance door were shut. I heard a girl’s chatty voice as I approached the backyard. “All right Daddy, let me hear your apology again from the top.”
I leaned by the edge of the wall and peeked. I saw Mr. Jacob kneeling on the gravel before this tan girl with his hands lifted up in surrender to her. She had dark shoulder length curly hair held back with a pink Alice band and she wore blue denim shorts, a pink tank top and a pair of brown bootees. She was a little taller than me. Water dripped from Mr. Jacob’s chin and moustache onto his white shirt, leaving damp patches. The drops disappeared when they touched his night black merino wool suit. The girl pointed the silver pistol at his head just the way Nicole had done inside the church. She’s going to kill him! But as she pulled the trigger, the pistol pissed on Mr. Jacob’s face. He closed his eyes and grimaced.
“Nicole, I am very sorry for my selfishness. I’m such an idiot. Will you please forgive me and let’s go home?” Mr. Jacob opened his eyes. “How did I fare, Grace?”
“Your apology is still under construction, Daddy,” said Grace. She placed her free hand on her hip, and added, “Mommy wants you to rot in hell not come home. You shouldn’t mention home yet until you’re sure she’s forgiven you. And you should start by telling her why you wanted to marry the other woman in the first place.”
“I—I was just embroiled in this African culture thing about having a male child, a son, and your mom—she doesn’t want more kids….Am I making sense to you?”
“No. From the top. And include nouns like moron and worm in your sentence. Idiot is too simple…”
I liked Grace immediately. I felt my heart knit with hers. I liked her boldness and how she commanded her father, and how he respected her opinion. Their act reminded me of my father. How he used to carry me across the back of his neck and call me the tallest girl in the world, and I’d reach up and brush the white ceiling of our sitting room with my fingertips and dusty white powder from the paint would coat my fingertips. And how he’d hold my hands and spin me in the air, my legs flailing wildly, my squeals bursting the walls and windows, and his breath reeking of beer as he laughed. But then his hair began to turn reddish, and thin out, while his stomach swelled as though he were seven months pregnant. And how he promised to buy me a Baby Alive Doll who talks, eats, pees and poops when he returned from the hospital but the next place I saw him three months later was inside his white coffin. I pressed myself closer to the wall to remain unnoticed and felt the sharp pointing grains of the cream textcoat paint prick my cheek. My eyes clouded with tears. But I knew it wasn’t the prick on my cheek that made me want to cry.
Nicole loomed into view from the other end of the wall with fire in her eyes. It’s over, she said to Mr Jacob. He looked as though his head had caught on fire. I didn’t want to watch them anymore. I turned away and headed for the Teens’ church. Its pink textcoat paint resembled a spread of ice cream on crushed peanuts. I crossed over to the path by the side window of the Teens’ church and heard two women’s voices as they spoke almost in conspiratorial tones inside the church. I could make out Aunty Ugonna’s deep voice and Aunty Ofodile’s soft voice. They always accompanied Aunty Callister on her visits and errands around town. Mother used to call them Aunty Callister’s handbags behind their backs. I guess they were watching over the food and drinks in the reception hall.
“How could Adanna think she would make it to America by trying to steal another woman’s husband?” said Aunty Ugonna. “The oyibo woman said it was Jacob’s cousin, Umunna, who’s based in New York with them, who spilled Jacob’s plan to her.”
“Really? God bless that man, Umunna, wherever he is,” said Aunty Ofodile.
“How can God bless a man who is married to a man?”
“Well, you didn’t hear that part of the story from my mouth.”
“Hm. But he just might have saved someone’s marriage.”
“Better still, now we can breathe without Sister Callister forcing her good fortune down our throats.”
The women broke into laughter and I chose that moment to reveal myself at the entrance door. They sat in the wrought iron love seat reserved for the couple. When they saw me, their laughter ceased. Aunty Ugonna’s face looked as though it was hit by a lorry, while Aunty Ofodile tucked her lips inside her mouth, her eyes almost popped out of her head. I guess they wondered how much of their gossip I must have heard. The delicious smells of assorted foods inside the church tickled my throat.
“Appolonia’s daughter, why are you here?” said Aunty Ugonna.
“Dear child, where is your mother?” Aunty Ofodile said.
I did not answer their questions. I just stared at the eight large silver food warmers where they sat in a neat file on a long table at the corner (I knew one of them contained the jollof rice I wanted), and then at my sandaled feet. My knee length cream calico gown mapped my thighs whenever the electric fan standing beside the love seat turned and poured breeze in my direction.
“You’re hungry?” said Aunty Ofodile in her sweet cheery voice.
I nodded, too shy to speak up. Aunty Ofodile went and dished out some jollof rice from the first food warmer onto a light blue Styrofoam plate she’d retrieved from a bag beneath the table. She handed the plate of rice to me along with a small white plastic spoon.
I thanked both of them with a courtesy. Aunty Ofodile smiled, revealing her gap teeth in the upper row of her dentition. Mother used to say, in her absence, that she was the most beautiful of Aunty Callister’s friends.
As soon as I left the door, I started spooning rice into my mouth as I walked back the way I had come, wondering what Adanna and Aunty Callister would do with all the delicious food. Perhaps, they’d send it to the orphanage. I hoped Grace and her family would have left the backyard of the Bishop’s lodge so that I would sit there and enjoy my feast and drink water from the Mono pump afterward. I would feel like turning into gravel if Grace caught me munching on my fried chicken wing and sucking the juice out of the bones with my cheeks bulging, deflating and dancing. But as I walked past the side window of the Teens’ Church, I heard Aunty Ofodile say, “Imagine someone like Appolonia who cannot afford to feed her daughter also paid for the wedding aso ebi.”
“Paid what? That is if you’d consider her four hundred naira deposit as payment. Her daughter would have grown grey hairs before she’d finish paying the hospital bills her dead drunk of a husband left her,” said Aunty Ugonna.
“And to think how she used to pride herself, then, in being a full time house wife with no skill or trade while her husband lived.”
“She must be suffering from a high fever if she thinks sucking up to Sister Callister would make the woman release one naira to help pay her bills.”
The women burst into laughter. I stopped eating and fixed my gaze on the wall. The shinning sharp grains of the textcoat paint stuck out like small pink rashes. My skin felt itchy, merely looking at it. The rice felt like dog faeces inside my mouth. I wanted to spit it out and thought of sending the remaining rice back to the women, and telling them how mean they were. But I didn’t. I was hungry. I chewed and swallowed the rice, along with their mockery and my pride. Mother would be hungry too. I have to remain half of the rice and chicken for her. I stooped down and carefully set the plate on the ground, picked up the chicken wing and pulled it apart. It snapped into two parts. I chose the wingette and left the drummette for Mother. Mother and I must find the right wings to fly to new heights in life.
Aso ebi — matching uniform/ fabric used by groups for ceremonies in Nigeria
Gele — Nigerian fashionable head tie
Oyibo woman — white woman
Linda N. Masi is a multi-talented Nigerian Artist. She has a background in Finance and Banking. She is a recording artist (under the name Nkwoma) and she writes fiction, non-fiction, plays, poetry and children fiction. She was a participant of the International Writing Program (How Writers Write Fiction 2015) by IOWA University, USA.
She has read her poetry nationally and internationally and has been in various writing residencies. In 2014, she was chosen as one of the 12 Writers-in-Residence (after a nation-wide call) at Songhai Farms in Rivers State, Nigeria in celebration of the UNESCO Port Harcourt World Book Capital Programme.
In her spare time, when she is not writing, singing, or working at her day job as an Admin Personnel in an Engineering Firm in Port Harcourt, you can catch her designing Tie/Dye fabric, locally called Adire.
Link for music: http://www.hulkshare.com/Nkwoma