You wanted your house to have a vast courtyard, packed with flowering shrubs and clean carpet grass—just like Papa’s. You remember riding your first bicycle through the field and tainting the neat lawn Papa had worked so tirelessly on. He’d beaten you that day, spanking your buttocks until they were so red and painful you couldn’t sit without discomfort. Afterwards, he’d drawn you close to his chest and pushed a can of Guinness malt into your hand.
But there are no hibiscus bushes or carpet grass around your house. Instead, there’s red earth wet from the heavy rains of this tempestuous season.
You try not to look down. You try to focus on what your brother tells you about the important events you’ve missed in the many years you’ve been away from home. You try to plough through the mushy earth without a word of complaint, ignoring the greetings of the matchstick-thin gateman who offers to help with your luggage. It is as difficult as forcing metal coins down your throat.
The house is not what you expect. You wanted creamy walls with a tinge of light brown. Two things inspired this colour choice. The first was the month you spent at St Joseph and Mary’s College; the neatly ironed cream and brown uniform you wore to school. It was the month before your school principal called you out of class and quietly told you that Mama was dead. One moment she’d been talking to one of her customers in the market about how expensive your school fee was and how much food she’d had to sell to raise it, and the moment that followed, she was on the ground, frothing at the mouth and gasping for breath. They said it was too much thinking that killed her. They said she was foolish because no man was worth a woman’s high blood pressure.
“You haven’t been able to pay your school fees for this term, have you?” Your principal asked right after he delivered the news. “I’ll give you until next week Monday as a week-of-grace. You must pay your school fees by then,” he added, even though you both knew you wouldn’t be able to pay by the next week—or ever. Mama was gone.
You’d gone home immediately after he’d told you, peeled off your cream and brown uniform and gently folded it inside your ‘Ghana-Must-Go’ bag. That was the last day you went to St Joseph and Mary’s.
The second inspiration came from that snowy evening you were running errands for your professor. You were in the University library when you met her; Liz with her chocolate brown eyes that held sprinkles of gold in them. She’d been sipping steaming hot coffee, taking a break from studying, when you approached her. As she told you her name—Elizabeth Thompson—her eyes sparkling, you’d thought of how perfect it would be right there and then: a backdrop of milk and chocolate, a lover with irises like brown sugar.
But the house isn’t painted cream and light brown. Rather, it is splashed with a dull and spiritless blue and yellow. The colour hurts your eyes and heart so much that you can’t ignore it any longer. You ask your brother why he painted your house blue and yellow. You ask him if he didn’t hear you when you told him you wanted cream and light brown.
“Ah ah… you won’t even come inside first before you quarrel… You’ve not changed. Our doctor!” he says. “Do you know how much cream paint costs nowadays? This yeye President said they should close the border, so things are very expensive now. I had no choice. But this colour is fine na…come inside. Vhare, how can you just arrive and be talking about the colour the house is painted?”
You look at him briefly before shrugging and moving inside. Your eyes meet more splashes of the distasteful blue and yellow, and then the appalling condition of the living room. You freeze. The living room is so tiny that you imagine that if you stood in its middle and stretched your arms wide, the tips of your fingers would touch the walls. Two medium-sized sofas face you, and one armchair rests by the side, in front of a small, glass table. A large television, displaying cartoons and making a hell of a noise sits atop a wooden shelf that has seen better days. A faint smell of urine hangs in the air. You try to ignore the stench and concentrate instead on the lines of dirt on the carpet.
Your brother says: “We didn’t have enough time to clean up. We thought you were coming much later.” Before you have a chance to reply, three little boys run in, screaming wildly and flying over the sofas. Your brother barks at them. “Will you urchins be quiet?! Oya, leave there! Leave the TV! Can’t you see there is a visitor?”
The children disappear, and your brother takes the remote and turns the volume down.
It takes a while before you can say anything. When you finally speak, your voice manifests in whimpers, as though your mouth has been stuffed with cotton wool.
“You live here?” You ask. You clear your throat and try again. “You’ve been living here? You’ve been living in this house?”
Your brother’s mouth opens to answer, but his wife interrupts him.
“Christie, welcome.” She embraces you awkwardly, the overpowering scent of curry and thyme on her wrapper filling your nose. You don’t know it, but when you smile at her, your face looks like rumpled Brocade. Your memories have preserved your sister-in-law as a cold, cruel, new wife who’d struck your knuckles with a wooden ruler because you took a piece of meat from her pot of Egusi without her permission. Now, you see a bony, aging woman with ominous creases under her eyes and drooping shoulders weighed down by a protracted married and mothering life.
“Is the food not ready yet?” Your brother’s voice cuts clean through the silence that engulfs the room. “Bring food for my sister nau… Don’t you see how skinny she is? She’s been eating those rubber-rubber American foods since. See as she don lean!”
“She’s fine now. She was getting too fat before,” his wife says.
“Which fat? Abeg o, we African men like it thick! Christie, while you’re here you will eat very well. At this rate, you will never bring a husband home o. Abi you want to die childless and husbandless like those old Oyibo women?”
Growing more uncomfortable by the minute, you move your heavy traveling bag from your left hand to your right.
“Tell Okunna to come and carry her bag,” your brother says to your sister-in-law, and she vanishes. Seconds later, a boy not more than seventeen comes to get your luggage. Your brother tells you that he’s your sister-in-law’s nephew who came to write his Post-Utme exams for the University and is staying for a few days.
“Sit down. Totia. Why are you still standing?” your brother asks. You eye the brown sofa with peeling leather revealing patches of yellowy foam. You hesitate for a few more seconds before perching on the armrest. The smell of urine is stronger now.
“How was the journey nau?” your brother asks. It’s the second time he’s asking. When he asked you in the taxi, turning his head to look at you from the front seat, you told him in short sentences how exhausting your twelve-hour flight was. You talked about the terrible Benin express-way traffic, about policemen who openly collected bribes from taxi drivers, including yours. You asked about some kids who were beaten and carted away in police vans.
“Ehn…they are yahoo boys, those ones,” he’d said. “You have heard of them nau…those boys who scam people on the internet these days. You should see the way they dress on the streets. If they want to do yahoo yahoo, must they start going to the saloon to plait their hair and letting their trousers begin at the knees?”
Now, you don’t say anything as he speaks, blaming himself for condoning his children’s nonsense, asking himself why this was here and that was there, calling for unresponsive occupants of the house to come and clear the table. Your gaze shifts to the pictures on the wall. You see one of your brother’s entire family—him, his wife, and his three boys, all standing, beaming vacantly at the camera, clad in Ankara, an awful blend of green shades. You see the next one; it’s just him, wearing an oversized suit and looking so much like Papa that it startles you. Then, you see the only photo you are in—you, in your matriculation gown, your brother’s arm thrown awkwardly around your shoulder, and a tight, worn-outsmile pasted on your face. You turn away, realisation slapping you hard on the chest. Your elder brother lives here; he lives here with his entire family—in your house.
“Iyebagbe will get your room cleaned up in no time,” he says. “Oya, before she sets the table, let’s go to the other flat. I want to introduce you to them.”
“Tenants?” You almost choke.
Your brother takes you to the other flats at the back of the main house. It turns out two families live there. The first is a family of four—a father, a mother, and two little girls. The second is a dysfunctional family of seven—an old grandmother, two sisters, and their children. Your brother introduces you to them as ‘my sister who came from the abroad’. He tells them in a loud voice that they were supposed to tidy up the compound as he’d instructed. He complains about the veranda that wasn’t swept, and the public lavatory that stinks. The women apologise, murmuring, “Sorry, landlord. Sorry, landlord.”
Then, your brother turns to you. He asks if you can imagine, he let the useless tenants into the compound a few months ago and they’ve been giving him trouble. He asks if you can imagine that one of the women turned a part of the flat into a poultry house, making his family bear the stench daily, and still, she enjoyed the chickens alone last Christmas.
You shake your head in a daze and tell him that you cannot imagine. You cannot imagine at all.
One day, when you were seven years old, your mother scrubbed you on the bathroom floor while hot tears flowed from her own eyes. She scrubbed you hard, almost peeling your skin with the sponge, but didn’t stop. You asked her what was wrong, with soap lather rushing into your mouth. Why was she crying? What happened? She didn’t answer at first. But as she poured a bucket full of water on your head, she said, “Your father has done something terrible, Christie.”
You didn’t understand. She didn’t say anything more. The water continued to flow from your head downwards, never-ending.
It’s the same now, standing in the shower. You don’t close your eyes as the water descends, and afterwards, as you wipe your eyes with your hand, you feel your eyes ache and your vision blur.
You dress quickly. When you come into the room, your sister-in-law and her nephew are busy sweeping and cleaning. The room smells of Dettol, scented detergent, and raised dust. Your brother is standing by the door.
“Christie, come and greet my visitors,” he says.
There are three men in the living room talking boisterously, fingers around half-filled glasses of wine. Your brother introduces you to them.
“This is my younger sister who just came back from studying abroad,” he says. You greet them, bending your knee a little even though one of the men looks about your age. The men ask you questions. How long have you stayed away? What did you study? What are your plans now? You give them answers. You say you lived in Cambridge for 15 years. You tell them you just obtained your doctorate in philosophy. You are evasive about your future plans.
“I hope you’ve not come to sit down in your brother’s house after all these years?” One of the two older men asks.
“Now that you’re back you should be thinking of marriage. Do you have anybody in mind already? I have an unmarried nephew who’s about your age I can introduce you to.”
You stare at the man for some seconds before turning to your brother, expecting him to say something, anything. He does not. Instead, he laughs and says in his loud voice; “Yes o! I already told her that she should be thinking of settling down. She’s not getting any younger.” And when he adds, “Though, she will not marry your nephew,” the older men laugh, throwing their heads back and rubbing their pot-bellies.
Later, your brother would tell you, “Don’t mind that idiot. He wants to have a doctor from abroad married into his gold-digging family. He thought I would actually allow you to link up with his useless nephew who doesn’t even have a first degree. Awa! Abomination!” And then, he would drop his tone and whisper, “What do you think of the young man? The young man who was with them? I’ve already told him all about you. I just wanted to talk to you first. Shey, he’s handsome? He’s from a good family too. His father is a big man in Chevron. He finished his doctorate some years ago. Talk with him o, I’ve gone through the stress of selecting him.”
You’d nod and say, “Yes, Broda,”
Now, you sit on the bed in your just cleaned room and observe particles of dust swirling in the air. You hear your brother’s visitors’ voices coming from the living room. You can make out your brother’s voice, assertive and confident, just like how Papa had sounded when he explained during the first family meeting how it was largely Mama’s fault that he’d had an affair. You didn’t really attend now that you re-think it. You and your brother were imprisoned upstairs while the meeting was in progress. You could hear Papa’s voice—and then Mama’s—strangled and pained as she repeatedly asked Papa how she’d endorsed his adultery by breadwinning for the family.
You sound like Mama, now, as though the life is slowly being siphoned out of you, when you pick up Aunt Itohan’s call after what seems like a lifetime of sitting still, observing swirling dust particles.
“Christie, behkhin? What is it? Are you okay?”
You say yes, you are alright. It is only the network connection. You tell her you can’t hear her very well. The line shakes and you know she’s moving.
“Can you hear me now? This network of a thing sef.”
You say yes.
She says, “Thank God,” and asks about your brother. “I hope he’s fine? He didn’t even call to tell me he’d taken you home. Is he alright?”
“Yes. He’s fine. I’m sure he will call you later. He has visitors.” He is living in my house, Auntie, you want to say. He is living in the house I sent him money for three years to build. But you don’t say it, even when she says, “Tell me if something goes wrong, hmm?” Instead, you nod and answer, “Yes, Auntie”.
Ofure calls you next and begins to narrate all that has happened to her in the last twelve hours. How her husband Felix refused to prepare breakfast when she was very heavy with her pregnancy. How she drove the kids to school afterwards, her protruding belly bumping into the steering wheel many times even when the doctor previously advised her not to drive all because Felix said he would be late for work. How she had ‘prized’ one fresh fish in the market and the hot-blooded seller almost insulted her. She would’ve bought Titus sardine, but they had reduced the number in the tin from four to two. “I don’t understand these people. So oil-oil that has filled the sardine now. Even rice sef. Can you imagine that foreign rice now has stones? They say it’s foreign rice o, those people, just so they can sell one bag for 16,000…” she rambles on.
You listen patiently to your half-sister’s tales, your eyes tracing the edges of the PVC ceiling for the long minutes before you speak.
“You didn’t tell me Broda was living in my house, Ofure.”
There was silence on the other side of the line.
“He was the one who moved in. He was the one who ought to tell you. If I had told you, they would say Ofure is doing Amebo—that Ofure is sticking her nose where it doesn’t concern her. Broda will go and meet the elders and tell them that his father’s little ‘mistake’ cannot mind her business.”
You are quiet. Then you look away from the ceiling to the shrubs outside the netted window, swaying with the gentle breeze.
“You should have told me, Ofure. You talk to me every day. You tell me everything.” You remember that Sunday evening many years ago, months after Ofure’s mother moved into your father’s house. You and Ofure were urinating at the back of the house when she told you:
“Christie, last Sunday, Pastor Benedict said that he will give me one bottle of Pepsi if I allow him to pull my pants down and touch my bum-bum. I told him I will tell Mama, but I’ve not told her yet.”
“You used to tell me everything, Ofure,” you repeat.
“I warned you. When you said you were going to be giving him money to build your house for you. It’s like you still don’t know him after all these years. What did you expect him to do?”
Ofure continues to scold you, calls you mumu, tells you that she would have preferred to give the money to a complete stranger than Broda of all people. She tells you that you were the one who made the biggest mistake of your life. “And what has he said? Has he explained himself to you?”
“No. He has guests.”
Your brother’s guests do not leave until the night is far spent. As the men walk out of the living room to the veranda, he tells you to escort his young friend.
“Walk him out. You will see his tear-rubber hummer-jeep. The guy is a big man,” he whispers in your ear.
You walk side by side to the gate, you and the young man, Daniel Akugbe. He tells you he studied abroad—first degree, second and third. His father is a Managing Director at Chevron, and his mother owns a five-star hotel in Lekki. He says he thinks he has found the perfect wife, his better half. He calls you beautiful and asks when he can see you next.
You study his handsome face, dark skin, full brows, flirty smile.
“I’m a lesbian,” you say.
His expression turns sour; he knows you’re not joking.
You don’t tell him you’re sorry. You smile, tell him, “I hope you had a nice time,” and walk back into the house.
“He’s really nice, isn’t he? Did you see the jeep?” Your brother asks as soon as you walk inside.
You don’t reply. Your eyes go to the photographs on the walls.
“Ehen. Oya, come. I have some things to say. Vhare foh, come first.”
You follow him into the study through the dining room, where Iyebagbe is helping one of her sons with his homework. Your brother settles in the swivel chair behind a large desk while he beckons you to sit on the chair opposite him. Your buttocks feel sweaty when you sit.
He clears his throat noisily and places both hands on the desk. For a moment, you see Papa’s hands, hairy and muscled on the dining table. You see Papa the first time he confessed to Mama about Ofure’s mother.
There is another woman, Ateso, Papa said. Another woman is pregnant for me.
Your father did something terrible, replays in your head, until the woman you see squatting in front of you, scrubbing your body hard with the sponge becomes you.
You give your brother a hard look and ask him in your mind. Why? Why did you do it?
“Christie, a lot has happened. You must understand,” he begins. Then, he tells you how he lost his job at the secretariat a few weeks before Christmas, the previous year, and how his wife, Iyebagbe’s stall in Uselu market got burnt to ashes in a fire caused by a neighbour’s problematic generator. How his wahala landlord gave him ‘quick notice’ days after, forcing him to leave the apartment and move into your house. He tells you about the dirty tenants from whom he collects rent every month to pay his children’s school fees. He tells you it hadn’t been necessary to discuss the details while you were away, since you weren’t going to live here permanently. He tells you that he will make sure to find a rich husband for you, who would build a big house, and drive a big jeep like Daniel Akugbe. He tells you that you can stay in the house for as long as you like, until you decide to leave, or until you get married. He tells you the house is as much yours as it is his.
There is a mirror on the wall just over your brother’s head which glitters in the darkening room. You study your reflection carefully, observing your blank eyes, pale skin, and dry lips, until the face in the mirror ripples like a stream. Mama stares back at you from the mirror, the same blank, disbelieving eyes and pale skin. You know what she sees. You know she is looking at a scene that terrorised her for the rest of her life. You know she sees Papa, sitting opposite her, big-eyed, saying; There is another woman, Ateso. She is carrying my child.
You don’t speak for minutes after he finishes. Then you nod your head like a red-necked lizard and say I understand many times.
When you get up to leave, your arms and legs feel weak. Your fingers shake and your teeth chatter when at last you are in the confines of the room your sister-in-law prepared for you. The phone rings and rings but you make no move to answer, walking instead like a Zombie to your bed. You lie unblinking, facing the ceiling. The darkness of the room seems to swallow you whole, even with your eyes wide open.
The traffic along the Iyaya-Ipapa expressway is so heavy that even the Okada riders find it difficult to meander between the motor vehicles. A particular Okada man, trying to twist his steering wheel this way and that, some yards away from my car, ends up almost crashing into the gutter. Hawkers of pure water, Plantain chips, and soft drinks mill about as passengers in commercial vehicles call out to them: Chips! Water! Abeg call that boy wey dey sell Pepsi for me!
When a sachet water hawker strolls leisurely past one commercial bus, the driver screams at him— “You nor go comot there?! Foolish boy!”
As car horns blast, my phone beeps on my dashboard. I know it’s my wife without looking at the screen; she has been sending messages since morning, giving me directions to the location where I am to pick up her sister, asking me where I am, telling me to hurry up and not keep her waiting. I glance at the paper to be sure of the address—Sambana Hotel. Just a few blocks away. Knowing the traffic jam isn’t likely to loosen up anytime soon, I let out an exasperated sigh and loosen my necktie.
As I park my car in the spacious parking lot of the hotel, I glance around, trying to spot my wife’s sister. It takes a while before I realise that even if I saw her, I may not be able to recognise her. There’s so little I remember about Chris. I try to picture her face from when I last saw her: small, with eyes that squeeze shut when she smiles, and skin as dark brown as my wife’s. Does she resemble a foreigner now from the many years she has spent abroad? Did she bring her girlfriend along? I try to think of Chris with a white, blonde-haired woman, holding a cigarette in between her lips, puffing out cigarette smoke rings into the air.
When I see Chris, I am both surprised and not. If she has changed at all in appearance, it’s not visible. She’s sitting on an aluminium bench at the garage, her luggage resting by her feet and her face turned upward toward the sky. When I call out her name, she turns, her lips spread in a slow smile; her eyes still close when she smiles.
We talk a little during the ride home. She asks about her sister, about our kids, and about work, and I ask how she’s been enjoying the hot weather, the blood-sucking mosquitoes, and the local food she’s missed for so long. She tells me she’s enjoying the warm weather, but not the mosquitoes.
She says that it appears the mosquitoes can differentiate overseas blood from local blood the way Nigerians differentiate foreign rice from local.
I laugh and say she might be right. As for the local food, she says she didn’t miss it very much. During her first year abroad, she’d complained about the bland and unappetising food she bought in the school cafeteria to her father’s sister, Itohan, who lived in Lagos. So, Aunt Itohan sent her some dry Ogbolo and Egusi seeds when she could. I crack a joke on how funny it would’ve been to get the Ogbolo and Egusi seeds past the immigration officers in America and she laughs.
When my wife embraces Chris, she flings herself at her, momentarily forgetting her large stomach, squeezing hersister’s shoulders, and crying out—
“Christie! Welcome! Bo khian!”
I’m surprised when I see tears in her eyes when my wife releases her.
Ofure tells Chris everything. She tells her about the new caregiver job she has, about the dirty, smelly children she has to take care of from morning to evening even in her condition. She tells her about our first daughter’s difficulty in forming coherent sentences and how the yeye paediatrician has no explanation for it. She even tells her how I have stubbornly refused to change schools. I defend myself and say that Uwa is just a slow learner and will pick up in time. She ignores me and goes on with her gisting, telling Chris how her old friends have been asking about her, wanting to know when she would be back from America, how they will be so excited to hear that she’s back.
My wife’s sister listens to all of her stories until the sun begins to retreat into the clouds. I’m helping Uwa and Itobi with their homework at the dining table when I hear Chris speak for the first time since the gist started.
“You really should have told me about Broda, Ofure.”
“Christie…” Ofure’s voice trails off.
Chris is quiet for a minute then looks away.
My wife takes advantage of her silence and scolds her, accusing her of ignoring her calls after she disappeared the night of her arrival, only calling this morning to say that she’d been wasting money at an expensive hotel in the GRA for the past two weeks, not wanting to spend a day in the house her brother built for her.
“I know what he did was terrible, but how can you just disappear like that? If you look at it, you’re the one to blame. God knows that no one in his or her right mind would give Broda money. I warned you before.”
Chris explains that she entrusted him with the building funds because her uncle had advised her to. She’d called her Uncle Sam, Aunt Itohan’s husband, to ask for advice. Truly, she’d wanted him to be the caretaker of her house, but then he’d told her that Eghowanre was her brother and out of respect for him, he ought to be the one she should entrust her house to.
Ofure tells her again and again that she would’ve preferred to give the money to a complete stranger than to their brother.
“And what happened? What did you say to him?”
Chris says that Eghowanre promised to give the tenants in the back flat two weeks quick notice so that she would at least have somewhere to stay while they came to a settlement. Later this week, she is to go back to the house.
My wife doesn’t like this development.
“Broda will not give you that house. I’m telling you.”
“What else do you want me to do?” Chris raises her hands and brings them down in frustration.
Ofure shakes her head and clicks her tongue. “Lie, lie. He won’t give you. Just pray that God touches his heart.”
After a while, Ofure asks, “What about Liz? How is she? She isn’t active on Facebook these days.”
Liz is Chris’ girlfriend—a blonde, bronze-eyed American with the face of a Hollywood actress. Chris introduced us to her via Skype some time ago and she and my wife have been interacting through Facebook ever since.
Chris smiles. “She’s fine. She’s been very busy with schoolwork.”
“Ehenhen? I like that girl o. You must marry her. I need a sister-in-law.”
Chris laughs. “You already have a sister-in-law, Ofure.”
My wife’s lips scrunch up. “A sister-in-law that I like.”
I tell my wife later, while we lie on our bed, that if Eghowanre has a conscience, he will do as he’s promised.
“I know my brother, Felix,” is all she says.
I give Chris a ride to the house on my way to work, watch her pull her luggage through the gate until she disappears. So, it comes as a surprise when I return home from work in the evening to find Chris sitting on our sofa, staring blankly into space. Ofure sits beside her, one hand over her stomach and the other on her sister’s shoulder. On the floor at their feet is Chris’ luggage.
“What’s going on? What happened? Beh sunu?” I ask.
“Broda is at the police station,” Ofure says, her eyes on Chris.
I turn to Chris. “Ehn? Police?”
“He didn’t give them the quick notice. The tenants tried to beat her up.”
I notice now how disheveled my wife’s sister is, refusing to look at us or say a word.
“But Chris… the police station? You should not let your brother sleep in the cell o. Do you know what that means? Abeg, tell them to release him,” I say.
Chris shoots me a glare so viscous I take a step back. She slowly gets up, fists clenched by her sides, her eyes cold.
“Can you hear yourself, Felix? He shouldn’t sleep in the cell? They should release him? You have no right to say that!” Chris walks away.
Ofure looks at me. “I told you Broda will do nothing. That heartless and selfish man!”
Chris’ brother spends the night in jail. The next morning, I take Chris to the police station in my car. She catches me glancing at her from my mirror, turns to the window and sighs.
“Felix, I’m sorry about yesterday. I lost my temper.” She looks in the mirror and sees me smile.
Eghowanre’s wife is already at the police station when we get there. She grabs Chris’ shirt as we walk into the administrative office and half-kneels, begging Chris to release her husband. Chris ignores her and goes to meet the DPO. I go out to wait in my car.
Chris comes out of the station after a while, her brother and his wife behind her. She gets in the car without a second glance at the duo and stares straight ahead as I zoom off.
“The Egbee have called for a meeting,” Ofure says solemnly as she cooks Egusi soup with Chris in the kitchen, as though a meeting with the family elders is a death sentence. “Those old men and how they reason. I wouldn’t expect much from them if I were you. They will side with Broda. All of them are the same.”
“When is the meeting?” Chris asks.
Ofure looks at the bitter-leaf her sister has just put down from the fire. “Ewoh! That Oriwo is not cooked at all! Have you forgotten that if you don’t boil it properly it will make the soup bitter? Don’t be doing like an Oyibo that likes to eat raw vegetables.”
Chris frowns. I can tell she doesn’t like it when people say she no longer behaves like a Nigerian woman because she has stayed abroad for a long time.
“It’s not good to boil away the nutrients, Ofure.”
My wife laughs. “What nutrient are you trying to save in bitter-leaf? Abeg o. Let it cook well. I am not a goat.”
“Abeg, Chris, tell your sister to stop allowing vegetables to melt inside soup.” I cut in.
Ofure looks at me. “Don’t mind him. Ask him if he has ever cooked Egusi in this house.”
“Why should I, when you are here?”
“See?” Ofure makes a face. “Then, don’t talk about how I cook my Oriwo.”
“Felix, you should help cook too. Don’t make Ofure do everything in the house,” Chris says.
“Yes, don’t just sit there after work and watch football,” my wife adds. Then, she turns to her sister. “Akhue. Tomorrow. At Uncle Benji’s house.”
“I will go then.” Chris nods.
The next day, I drive Chris to Uncle Benji’s house. Ofure goes to the daycare.
“I would’ve loved to hear what he says, that heartless man!” Ofure says regretfully, hands akimbo, when I drop her off.
Eghowanre doesn’t even speak at the meeting; he sits hunched in a corner looking stunned while Chris and the elders speak. Chris tells them she’s been sending her brother money for three years to help build her house; she told him what she wanted, told him all of her plans. Now, she has come home to find that her brother has moved into her house, or what was supposed to be her house, brought in two tenant families in the back flats without her permission, and has been collecting rent from them for months. Finding that she couldn’t stay in the house, she decided to stay in a hotel after her brother promised to make the tenants leave in two weeks. The two weeks have come and gone but Eghowanre has done nothing about the tenants. When she went back to the house, found that her brother had not fulfilled his promise, and was assaulted by the tenants he was supposed to send away, she ordered for her brother’s arrest and then had him released the next day.
Chris adds that she no longer wants the back flats for herself. She tried being considerate but her brother didn’t appreciate it, so she’s decided that Eghomwanre should pay back the money she’d been sending him within one year—every single penny. This is what she wants.
When she is finished, the Egbee tell her many things. They say that she had no right to send the police to arrest her elder brother because of a mere quarrel. Do you no longer respect him? You’re beginning to behave like an American—arresting your own brother?! Awa! An abomination! They tell her she should not ask her brother for the money. Do you not know that you are only a woman? A woman who is not married and isn’t entitled to a house of her own? Is this how you repay Eghomwanre for all he did for you? Do you not appreciate your brother’s efforts?
Chris stands up, her body trembling. “I thought you were here to question my elder brother. To ask him why he did what he did. I thought you were here to ask how he was to pacify me—how we were to solve this issue. It turns out I was wrong. There is no reason for me to be at this meeting, you have already taken sides.”
When my wife hears what happened at the meeting with the elders, she’s furious.
“Those useless old men have the right to say things like that?! They actually said that you’re only a woman and shouldn’t be fighting over a house with your brother? Do they know that it’s your money? The money you worked for with your sweat and blood?! It’s good he slept in the cell that night! How is it that you have to go find somewhere to sleep while he sleeps peacefully in your house?” She pauses to take a deep breath and then continues, “So, what are you supposed to do now, ehn?! They should tell you what you’re going to do o, ah…” Ofure touches her tongue with her index finger and lifts it to the sky. “God knows it wouldn’t have been well with them if I had been there! God knows!”
Aunt Itohan phones for Chris while she and my wife are talking. I can hear the old woman’s high-pitched voice at the other end of the line.
“I’m in Benin o. I’m here with your uncle.”
“Auntie, you didn’t come because of Broda and I, did you?” Chris holds the phone against her ear, frowning.
“I heard about what happened nau. You should’ve told me when I called before. I will attend the next meeting at Benji’s House. Shey it’s the day after tomorrow? To-tie. Sorry. Don’t worry, we will talk this out. How can he do that to you?”
The next day, a group of “Jesus women” come to our house. They wear collared Jesus Loves You shirts and tie their hair with shiny black scarfs. They say they are from Eghomwanre’s wife’s church and have come to beg Chris to forgive her brother. They say that Eghomwanre is still very afraid that he will go to jail again, that he won’t be able to pay the entire amount she’d sent to him for three years, and that he wants to come to a compromise. They tell her that he wants to pay the cumulative rents of the tenants for the last six months as compensation. That is all he has to give her.
“How much is the rent?” my wife asks.
When one of the women says that both tenants pay a sum total of ten thousand naira a month, my wife threatens to pour hot water on them. “Ten thousand! What can ten thousand naira do for my sister ehn?! How much is one bag of rice now? My sister wants to build her house o. She doesn’t want to buy crayfish!”
Before the end of the week, more ‘arbitrators’ have come to the house with their various offers of settlement. Chris doesn’t accept any of them. My wife chases them away one by one with threats of witchcraft and hot water.
I drive my wife and her sister to Uncle Benji’s house. Aunt Itohan is already there. She’s a big woman, clad in fine lace and an umbrella-wide gele head tie. She comes over and squeezes her nieces in a giant hug.
“Auntie, welcome,” They greet her.
“Auntie Itohan, welcome ma,” I say. Aunt Itohan flashes me a smile.
“Ehen, Ofure’s husband. How are you?”
“I’m fine, Auntie.”
The three of them walk into the house with me trailing behind.
We greet many aunts and uncles in the living room before settling on a sofa, awaiting the start of the meeting.
Eghomwanre and his wife come in and sit opposite us in the living room. Uncle Benji and some elders declare the meeting to start.
“You know we’re all family,” an elder begins. “And it would be something to be ashamed of when we have simple quarrels like this, if we allow it to go on unresolved.”
Eghomwanre and Chris are told to each give their sides of the story. Chris goes first, narrating her tale just as she’d done at the past meeting. Then, Eghomwanre gets up and explains his side. The elders start to attack Chris again. Aunt Itohan gets up.
“Did you not just hear the both of them? The house in question doesn’t belong to my nephew o. It belongs to my niece who has just told you how she sent money to her brother for years to build it. Why are you saying that she has no right to claim the house and not demand the money she sent to him?”
An elder responds, “Itohan, did you hear that she sent the police to arrest her brother? Because of this house? Did you hear how disrespectful she was towards him?”
Eghomwanre springs up like one stung by ants on his buttocks. “Auntie, you’re supporting her? You’re supporting Christie? Do you know how much I suffered in that station? And afterward, I promised her some reparation for the house. I didn’t want to take the house from her.”
“Reparation abi? What did you say to her, ehn? You told her you were going to allow her stay in her own house. You were going to allow her to stay until she decides to leave the house for you or until she leaves to her husband’s house, abi? Then you said you would give the tenants ‘quick notice’. You didn’t do it. It was only when she had you arrested that you said you’d give her the rents. You think I don’t know, Eghomwanre? I know you very well o, just as I knew my brother, your father. Christie does not need to say anything to me. Your mother suffered enough in the hands of a man of this family.”
“Eghomwanre, O ni seh. It’s alright. Oya, let us discuss how we will settle this matter. We have heard the both of you,” Uncle Sam says.
“Itohan, I don’t know why you’re supporting this small girl o—this girl that doesn’t regard her elder brother. Eh Ohuo o khin? Is she not a woman? She should be thinking of marriage instead of fighting over a house with her brother. Let her go and fight for her husband’s house,” an elder with sparse, yellow teeth says. Then he charges at Christie. “Come, you, this girl, will you not go and marry? You won’t go and look for husband? Women like you are the problem of this world.”
Ofure bites her lip beside me fighting hard to restrain herself.
“Baba!” shrieks Uncle Sam.
“Baba, Please, keep quiet,” Auntie Itohan says tartly.
“Itohan!” The elder sitting beside the yellow-toothed man cautions.
“You didn’t hear what Baba just said?!”
“Itohan, you just insulted Baba,” another elder says. “Are you trying to tell us that you have started disregarding older ones too?”
Aunt Itohan clenches her fists but stays quiet.
“Don’t blame Auntie Itohan, Baba,” Eghomwanre spits, his voice thick with malice. “Christie is a bad influence on her. And she doesn’t know the kind of girl she is supporting. Christie must have brainwashed her into thinking she’s the saint here and we’re all devils. But I know her. Christie is the devil!”
“Broda!!” my wife yells.
Chris sits still; she’s as pale as a ghost.
“Ofure, you don’t have any right to speak here. Keep your mouth shut,” Eghomwanre says.
“Eghomwanre, do not speak to your sisters like that,” Uncle Sam warns.
“Of course, I would get blamed. As usual, Christie’s the one with the good head and I’m Esu incarnate. Auntie Itohan, do you really know the niece that you’re supporting?”
I know at once what he’s referring to. Ofure knows too; she glances sideways at me.
“Auntie Itohan, have you ever asked your niece why she seems to have no interest in men? Do you know why she has never brought a man home?”
Auntie Itohan looks at Chris.
It has become as silent as a graveyard in the living room where there is a score of people sitting.
“Auntie Itohan, do you know that Christie likes women?”
Everyone is thrown into confusion—everyone who didn’t know. The elders are murmuring among themselves.
“Christie,” Auntie Itohan finally says after she finds her voice. “Bo tahye? What did he say? Tell me.” I swallow, feeling the pain in the sound of her voice. Then in a whisper, she asks Chris, “Are you a lesbian?”
Auntie Itohan slaps her hard on the cheek.
“Twaak!” She spits. Saliva runs down Chris’ face.
“Auntie!” Ofure screams, but Auntie Itohan is already on her way out.
We are quiet during the ride home. The air seems to be stretched taut and on the verge of snapping in two, so we breathe with care. Even Uwa and her brother, who we pick up from school, are silent, having perceived the tense atmosphere in the car. Chris goes straight to her room when we arrive and Ofure goes to the kitchen. I settle for the television with the kids, though I’m not the least bit interested in football.
Ofure brings a plate of yam and garden egg stew after a while, placing it in front of me. “Have you given your sister her food?” I ask.
“She’s not talking to me. Her door is locked. I want to let her be for now.” She plops down on the sofa beside me. I chew some yam and swallow.
“I truly wished I could urinate on his face,” Ofure says.
I turn to her. “Who?”
“Eghomwanre,” she says, testily, and then decides with a head shake, “All the men in that living room.”
I nod and continue eating. When I’m done, I recline on the sofa and place my arm around my wife. We watch television for a while.
“Do you think she’ll be okay?” Ofure asks. I give her a look, surprised that she’s asking me if her best friend in the whole wide world will be okay.
I rub her shoulders, not knowing what answer to give her.
Chris leaves two days later. We don’t try to make her stay. The night before she departs, we sit in the dining room drinking. Chris tells us that we should always stay in touch. She tells us that she may not come back for a long time. She tells us that she may not come back at all.
About the Author:
Michelle Enehiwealu Iruobe is a writer, storyteller and law student from Nigeria. She has works published in a variety of magazines and journals, including Lolwe, Kalahari Review, and Artmosterrific. She is interested in experimental and speculative fiction. Find her on Twitter @IruobeM.
Feature image by Debby Hudson/Unsplash