The air is thick, more fit for gills than lungs, so that I pant as I breathe. I am squatting by the grave, scooping the freshly dug-up earth with my palms, pressing and letting it spill between my fingers. How can you bury a child who only stops breathing? When did no breathing translate to no life?
Our parish priest, an albino with a pack of pimples feasting on his sunburnt face, asks that we gather for the last rite. I wince. Last rite! It couldn’t have been more painful if he’d pushed a knife in my ribs. He says it as he says Itte missa est, with voice vacillating between exhaustion and relief as if it’s not the end of a life he’s announcing, someone’s life—my baby’s.
From under the tree branches where they are taking shade, people are gathering around the graveside. Fear curdles hotly inside me; I have a profound dread my baby is about to be parceled out for some hideous ritual. At once, something raw and sharp brushes past my throat: it comes out a piercing screech that leaves my ears ringing. Kalu’s palm rushes to my mouth, sweating hot. He drags me to a corner. He is saying something, but my frazzled mind cannot soak up meaning. I snatch away from him then walk back to the graveside, the hot sharp sand digging into my soles. Of the many faces here I recognize only a handful: our three neighbors, my baby’s school teacher, and two of Kalu’s colleagues. The rest, I’m sure, are here to see the woman who was careless enough to let her child die.
How can my son be dead when I can still feel the rise and fall of my chest, the rapid pulse coursing through my veins?
In the delivery room, Mmeri was the breath that filled my air-drained lungs, the ache of life that stopped me from drifting to death. He was the victory that was placed on my arms in a glorious cherubic body, almond eyes and balled tiny fists.
My doctor said I had a problem. “You will need a C-section,” he said during one of my antenatal visits. “Your pelvis is too narrow. I doubt you can have a vaginal delivery.” I didn’t fret; I never wanted to go through vaginal birth. But Mom flared up when I told her about it. “He’s only a doctor, not God,” she said. By the following week, she had visited all the men of God she knew, collating prayers like ballot papers. She stacked the prayers on our centre table, each paper containing prayers so detailed it felt like drug prescriptions from a mischievous pharmacist. She asked that I say all of them; her daughter cannot be cut open. Mom lives on prayer. She will literally die if she goes a day without prayer, I bet you. As a child, I got so bored staying alone in the house with no one to play with. So I devised means to catch fun: I played many pranks on her. I would fake nightmares, cooking up stories of being pursued by dogs or cats or vultures or other animals with a devilish connotation. I would revel in the fear that tinged her eyes, the endless prayers shouted over my head. Although I hated the part when she’d lay hands on me; it left me dizzy with a throbbing headache. The day I genuinely asked her to pray for me was the day my water broke. I lay in the labour ward listening to her praying in the hospital lobby until I was wheeled into the delivery room.
Something happened in the delivery room that stuck a fear deep inside me that until now I am yet to repel. A nurse injected the epidural up my spine instead of down my waist. It numbed my lungs. I couldn’t breathe. I saw the frightened and confused looks on the faces of the medical staff and knew right there that I was going to die. I have never come so close to death. I vowed to God and to myself that if I made it out of there alive, I would never get pregnant again.
But later, with my baby in my arms, sucking at my breast, I knew I would give everything to have another of this victory. I named him Mmerim—My Victory.
I feel Kalu take my hand gently and start rubbing his thumb on my knuckles. It’s like sandpaper grazing my skin. I pull away. Two men lift the tiny casket and lower it into the grave. Something snaps inside me, and my body gives way, crumbling. Kalu catches me before I reach the ground; he puts his hand at the small of my back and strokes. I catch sight of his mother sitting on a plastic armchair under a barren cashew tree which often litters the backyard with shrunken leaves. She stretches out her legs before her. A dark thought flit into me: I will a branch of the tree to crash down on her legs. She shoots me a furious glance, as if reading my thought. I look away. I still wonder: what will she do if she eventually knows the truth of her grandson’s death?
We are working professionals, Kalu and I. When Mmeri was born we needed an extra pair of hands. My mom had returned home after the two months she stayed with us for my omugwo. Kalu said no; he wouldn’t have a help in the house. What would he have me do? Bring the baby to the lecture rooms? The debate lingered for weeks. Then he acceded.
I pressured my mom to find a girl from our hometown. She did, after rounds of convincing. “Ozioma is a very humble girl from a good home,” she said, describing the girl as if she was arranging a second wife for Kalu.
Kalu did not like Ozioma; I deduced this from his endless yelling, the barrage of insults, and occasional slaps he visited on her when she erred even in the slightest way. I’d find myself sometimes wedged between them, shouting back at Kalu to behave, which seemed to fuel his hatred all the more. At the sound of his car, Ozioma would literally scurry into her room and lock the door.
It bugged me to no end. Mom raised me to believe in the intrinsic dignity of all, rich or poor, black or white, and I hold this belief as an axiom. When I couldn’t bear it again, Kalu’s insensitivity, I offered to return Ozioma to her people. Earlier in the day, I had told Ozioma about it, and she had sobbed throughout the day, knowing her chance of going to the university was slipping through her fingers. She was a brilliant little girl; denying her this opportunity nagged at me.
But Kalu refused. “I was wrong,” he said, head propped up on his arm as he lay in bed beside me. He looked genuinely remorseful. “It was wrong of me to turn my anger at the innocent girl,” he said.
I was ecstatic with joy, same with Ozioma, though she barely smiled with her eyes and said, “Thank you, Auntie,” when I informed her she wasn’t going home and that Uncle would not mistreat her again. Though still cagey when he was in the house, she now went about her chores with some level of ease and respite.
Then on an afternoon ablaze with sunlight, I was having a migraine (the effect of the late-night I’d spent working on my PhD dissertation) and returned home, only to walk in on Kalu and Ozioma, in our bedroom. Naked save for her bra and panties, Ozioma nuzzled against Kalu, stroking his bare chest. Two used condoms sat on the headboard. She leapt up as soon as she saw me. “Jesus!” she cried, jolting Kalu, who was enjoying the caressing with closed eyes. They had left the door wide open. The audacity! She clambered down the bed, grabbed her dress from where it lay on the side stool and held it over her bosom. I stared at the symmetry of her frame, which had not borne the weight of a child, the perfection of it, and hot air stirred within me.
“Y-You’re home…” Kalu stuttered, pressing his palm over the front of his boxers as he struggled to stand.
I bunched my fingers in a fist, feeling a wave of liquid anger crawl up my mouth, bitter. I’d never felt anger in such an unfiltered state, so absolving, taking up every inch of my being. I landed Ozioma a slap that floored her.
One hand on cheek, she scrambled to stand. Kalu reached a hand to help her up.
“Do you have to slap her like that?” he said.
I clenched my jaw and stormed into the kitchen to get the pestle. Coming out I heard the soft roar of his SUV and peered through the louvres, over the short fence, to see him driving off, the tires squealing. I spun around. There was a flower vase on the glass center table. I smashed it with the pestle. They scattered in tiny bits across the room like tiny off-white petals. I stepped on them, screaming curses, until my soles felt slippery with blood.
I went to get my son from his room, which he shared with Ozioma. He wasn’t there. The door was open, his toys strewn on the floor. “Baby!” My veins threatened to burst with furious throbbing. I searched everywhere in the house. Then I found him in the kitchen. Somehow my almost-two-year-old son had gotten hold of a piece of bread left in the cupboard and was stuffing his mouth with it.
It was a poisoned piece of bread, a trap we had set for rats.
Hours after the burial, I sprawl on the floor in the bedroom, alone, my vision a blur, my scalp itching like a million pins are stuck into it. Visitors mutter their grief endlessly in the sitting room. Kalu walks in as I’m slapping at my itchy scalp. He shuts the door slowly and rests his back against it, pouring rueful eyes on me. He looks like a scarecrow fluttering in the wind. The white jersey shirt he dons is soaked and sticking to his body, exaggerating the tiny bulge in his once flat belly. He looks so horribly deflated, like I can fling him out with a flick of the finger. But he looks rather at ease, placid even. It was this, his enviable ability to be calm in the storm, which drew me to him.
Kalu had popped up in our church choir stand one Sunday morning, his face etched with a confusion he didn’t bother to conceal. He stayed till the end of the service, even sang along with the choir, surprising us—or perhaps only me—with his baritone, which seemed slightly out-of-place coming from someone of his slim stature. He was sporting an Ankara shirt and trousers, sharp nose, hair cropped low, his jutted out jaw smooth like a toddler’s buttocks. We met—no; I met him after the service, with the guise of asking if it was his first time in our church. But standing before him, watching a wide grin sprout out on his face as he spoke, I told him how much I had enjoyed his voice during the service. Fast-forward to two months later, I was spending nights in his apartment at Amaigbo road, cooking up endless soaps of lie to my deaconess mother.
Kalu opens the door to let in his mother. She walks in dragging her left leg like a tail.
“Mama…” Kalu takes her arm and eases her into an armchair. I pretend to be scratching the back of my hand as a swift unformulated fear and anger froth inside her. With Kalu and his mother in the same space as me, I feel invaded.
Kalu had said Ozioma ran away after the incident, but I know he’s hiding her somewhere, in a hotel perhaps; Mom has not seen her in the village, and her people have not started asking of her. None of our mothers know what happened.
“I thought you’re with the visitors, mama,” Kalu says, straightening up. “Do you need anything?”
“What did you say happened to my grandson?” the old woman asks, her teary eyes fixed on me.
“Please, Mama, this is not the right time,” Kalu says.
We had told them, our mothers, a simple lie: Mmeri caught a cold one night and died in the morning. But even I know that’s not enough reason to lose a child. I lower my eyes, fighting the urge to spill everything.
She ignores Kalu: “I can’t understand how a child will die right under the watch of the woman who calls herself his mother.”
“Mama!” Kalu says.
She nods and shuts her eyes for a moment. When she opens them, they are red. “So when is the right time?”
“The right time for what?” Kalu asks.
“You said this is not the right time. Will the right time be when I die without a grandchild?” Her voice cracks, thick with tears.
I feel a rise of sob and quickly push my palms to my face. Somewhere deep inside me, I want to own the guilt, all of it. I want to tell her everything and free myself from this painful interlacing of secret and grief. But of what use is telling her? She will neither bring back my son nor give me another one.
“Mama, take it easy,” Kalu reaches to pat her on the shoulder.
She wiggles and struggles to rise. Kalu lends her a hand. “You’re a disgrace to motherhood.” She spits on the floor before me.
Her words slit the air. Sound seems to evaporate, leaving only a screaming stillness. She takes her walking stick from the floor and leaves.
Mom’s tongue is unmoored; it strikes with measured fierceness, snagging and puncturing. I am unhinged to see her visit the Monday after the burial. A deaconess with an “impeccable” sense of morality, Mom thrives in sniffing out wrongdoings, meddling, judging, condemning, and crucifying. “Didn’t your mother see you leave the house looking like an ashawo?” she is quick to say to any neighborhood girl unfortunate to cross her path dressed, according to her standard, indecently. The first day I tried on lipstick in school and forgot to wipe it off, she almost made me kiss a hot pressing iron.
Kalu barely speaks now. He nibbles his food. He no longer rushes home to watch Snake in the City with me, and no longer observes his pre-dawn jogging. The house is smoldered in icy silence.
I’ll be deceiving myself if I think Mom is here to sympathize with me. She doesn’t reply when I greet her. She doesn’t pinch my cheek and smile her trademark smile: one eye narrowing into a slit, two tiny dimples settling on the crest of her cheeks. She just shoves her way into the house. In the sitting room, she sits cradling her Dior leather handbag.
“Mom, you didn’t inform—”
“Your husband is not around?” She looks around as if to find him crouching somewhere.
“He’s at work.”
Her head bobs as she studies the PVC ceiling. “Your husband said your son died of a cold.” Her voice is flat and low, as if she’s musing to herself.
“Yes.” I sense a hint of accusation in the way she said “your husband,” as if stressing the fact that it was my husband who told her, not me. I had refused to speak to her, unable to face her with the lie. It’s better to keep silent and let her take the lie instead of being the one to say it to her.
“And you think I will swallow that lie?” Her jaw tightens. Silence. Then she leans closer and touches my knee. “Talk to me, Nne. What really happened?”
It is rare to see Mom this affectionate; I break down in tears. She waits, never in the least attempting to get me to calm down. I wipe my tears myself, swallow my sobs. Then tell her everything. As I speak, I watch her face stretch and tighten as if playing between bewilderment and disappointment. When I’m done talking, she says nothing for a while, only staring into the distance, blinking rapidly as if holding back tears. It is the most difficult part of discussing with her—her silence. You can never tell the acidic words seething behind those tiny lips. Then she speaks:
“You know your child wouldn’t have died if you had stayed at home to look after him, and your husband would not have had time for another woman much less a little housemaid.”
I sit at the edge of my seat. “Are you saying—”
“It’s the truth, Nne,” she cuts me short. “Your husband did what every other man would have done: there is a ripe girl in the house, and his wife is never available.”
“You can’t seriously be saying this, Mom.” My voice slurs with sobs.
“I am your mother; I know you well enough to know that you hardly give that man your time as his wife. You must have pushed him too hard. He’s a very responsible man, you told me that yourself, and I have no doubt about it.”
“Mo-mom…” Words are like coarse pebbles, the more I try to force them out, the more they chafe my throat. My son was dying in the kitchen and my husband was busy fucking in our bedroom.
“This happens when you prefer your career to your son.”
Silence is the only arbiter I can sort.
“Nobody will tell you this but me,” she taps her breast, “me, your mother. If you had stayed home and allowed your husband do the breadwinning business, your son might still be alive now.” She stands, holding her handbag before her in both hands. “I hope this teaches you a lesson.”
Her words dissolve into me, precipitating the crudest meaning: I killed my son. The thought of it cuts deep, scraping at the reins that hold my sanity. Could it be true that I killed my son? I feel myself coming undone, snagged at the jagged end of misery.
I look up to meet Mom’s face. It’s the face of the woman who endured raising me alone after my father’s car ran into a trailer; who trekked the distance to the hospital in the middle of the night, my limp eleven-year-old body strapped to her back, when pneumonia was sniffing at the cuff of my life.
She leaves the house, her heavy footfalls fizzling outside. Our gate squeals before banging shut. I pull my fingernails from where they’ve been hidden, deep in the skin of my thighs. The echo of Mom’s absence drowns the house, the pit she’s drilled waiting for me to plunge headlong.
That night, in bed, Kalu snuggles up to me and parts my legs.
About the Author
Ifeanyi Ekpunobi is an alumnus of Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus Trust Creative Writing Workshop and a fiction editor at Praxis Magazine Online. His works have been published or forthcoming in The Saturday Evening Post, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Praxis Magazine, Lolwe, and Noireledge Anthology. Ifeanyi is a Pushcart Prize nominee.