My mother left my father’s house on a Sunday. We had just returned from her new church when she started throwing our shoes and dresses into bags. There had been a studied vehemence to the way she gathered our things, as though the very act in itself required some violence. The brothers from the church formed a line outside and heaved our bags into a waiting lorry, while the sisters sang hymns about a sinner who had ‘come home.’ With their white robes and dreads, they were quite the sight so that our neighbours all came out to watch.
My father stood by the front door, observing the spectacle with a pained smile on his face. It would have been beneath him to try to stop us; my mother was his second wife. It was his other wife, Nnenna, who went with her from room to room asking her in a sing-song manner, kedu ihe di ihea? My mother seemed not to hear her. She had a glazed look in her eyes, and would often stop to peer deeply into the distance before continuing.
When my mother was done packing, she grabbed my hand and began marching outside. Nnenna ran after us. She caught up with us at the top of the short stairway leading outside. She pulled me from my mother’s grasp and squatted till her eyes were level with mine and said,
“This man,” she pointed towards my father, “he will always be your father. It is in this house they will pay your bride price. My boys will always be your brothers.”
She paused to wipe her face with the back of her hand.
“I want you to never forget that. I don’t know why your Mother is behaving like a goat,” she said.
We left afterwards.
Our new house was close to the rail road. It was one room in a row of identical rooms an ambitious man had built as close to the tracks as the government would allow. Sometimes at night, the blaring of the trains’ trumpets would encroach into my dreams, making my heart race and leaving my bones shaking. Those times, the house would convulse like it was having a coughing fit, and Mother would sprinkle the house with the blood of Jesus. This–sprinkling of the blood of Jesus at regular intervals–was one of the many things that my mother took with her as we left my father’s house. The march to religiosity that had begun with us going to the new church gathered momentum till the point where our lives became heavily sautéed in the religious. My mother stopped calling me Madonna, choosing rather to call me Chibuoyim, Jesus pikin. She stopped using makeup. She flushed all her gold jewelry into the toilet, and started wearing long flowing skirts she called ‘printing’. She also began to pray.
Nights after we closed our shop and she had taken her bath, she would come in, a towel hugging her tall frame, the stinging scent of Dettol soap announcing that it was time for prayers. She would get me to kneel at the foot of the bed, her hands clasping mine. Her voice would rise as she sang hymns that sounded like dirges. She’d end with “Daddy Chineke…” then launch into long discourses. It was there that she went through the events of the entire day, asking God to forgive that woman who refused to give her change for her customers, asking God to help Sister Clementina get a new job seeing as her husband just died, asking that I remain an obedient child of God, one who did not give her mother grief. My mother told Daddy Chineke everything. He was the custodian of her every secret. It was as though with him, a tap came undone and bits of her came flowing out.
It was there, on my knees, that I learned that adultery could be living with a man who was already married. And because adultery was a sin, my mother had had to leave my father.
Those early days, her prayers were light and beautiful. Full of hope. It was where we bonded; she and I and God against the day. So it was only natural that after our prayers one night, two weeks after my fifteenth birthday, that I said to my mother,
“Mummy, I am pregnant.”
When you left your husband’s home, your heart housed no malice. As you slung your fears over your shoulder and walked out the door, it was another kind of burning zeal that drove you: the knowledge that you were doing the right thing. You had had a singular purpose. You had seen the light. You were Paul after the Lord threw him from his horse.
When people laughed at you for throwing away a perfectly good marriage, you paid them no mind. Their mirth did you no harm as long as you knew you were doing the Lord’s bidding. Samson did not go about explaining to everyone why he carried dreadlocks now, did he?
You also gave no place to regrets. There were times when you thought of your husband, about how he had been such a loving father to your Chibuoyim, and the weight of what you did to him would sting you. Those times your heart would fill to the brim with sadness. Sadness was what you felt, but never regret.
However, the day your daughter told you she was pregnant, you found doubt at the door of your heart. You wondered if you had made the right call. That was why you did not shout at her. You simply turned the other way and went to sleep.
The days after the announcement her eyes followed you everywhere as you cooked and washed and opened your shop, yet you did not say anything to her. You left unspoken words hanging between you both. You did not even give her the satisfaction of a beating or a yelling. You left her an anti-climax.
One month passed. Then two. Her breasts got fuller, and her skin lusher. She developed a gentle slope on her stomach, almost imperceptible, one an unsuspecting person could attribute to overeating. As you watched her transition into motherhood, you realized that all of those markers were biting indictments of how you had failed at the one thing God had entrusted into your hand.
You found solace in doing the mundane things. The familiar gave you reassurance. It told you that the world was still firm under your feet, and that the little things over which you had control were still intact. Thus it was that you were at your station on a Tuesday, mopping the church’s tiles in preparation for that evening’s service when you noticed the woman.
It wouldn’t be entirely correct to say you noticed her just then, because before then, she had always existed at the periphery of your vision. She was one of the ushers in your church. She had no child and you always felt sorry for her whenever the pastor made jokes about barren women. One day he had made jokes about David’s wife’s barrenness, saying, if the Lord ties your womb, forget it. Even your village people cannot untie it. The church had roared with laughter, and you had caught the look on the woman’s face; the look that said she wasn’t sure if it was appropriate to laugh, the look you have on your face the days women in the church made jokes about girls who run after other women’s husbands and then settled in to become second wives.
That day, when you got to the place she was seated, you realized that she was sobbing. Quiet, gentle tears racked through her being. You laid down the mop, sat across from her. She lifted her face to look at you briefly and continued crying. You said to her,
“My daughter is pregnant.”
It was the first time you were saying that to anyone, even yourself. As you said those words, it was as though a dam burst open and words came tumbling out, rivers and rivers that carried fear and regret as it swept you along. The flood was so great that you went into a fit of hiccups. The woman had looked a little startled, but still she took your hands and cooed, “Take it easy, take it easy oo.”
After service that day the woman called you to her car. You stood by the side of the car while she tinkered about, preparing to drive home. She did not give you a glance the whole time. You kept thinking, “Did she forget me?” Then as she turned the ignition she finally looked your way and said,
“There is a woman I know. She stays at 88 Faulks Road. She can help your daughter.”
It took you two weeks to visit the address she gave you. That was because the address kept slipping your mind. It’d come and you’d push it to the back of your thoughts where it’d disappear out of sight for a while, only to appear again. It’d be scratching the back of your throat, teasing you, and then disappearing. On the Tuesday that you eventually tried to locate this woman you took a bus, after your midweek service, when your resolve was strongest. You stopped at 45 Faulks Road. That used to be the group headquarters of your church. You used to be in the choir there before your cell was considered big enough to form a new branch. You decided to walk the rest of the way. You walked fast, keeping your head bowed so no one would recognize you.
It had rained earlier, so you were careful to sidestep the puddles, your feet nimble and lithe. As you walked you mumbled the tags on the gates under your breath, 23, 42, 87, then 88. You stared at the gate. It was brown and huge. You stood there for more than thirty minutes; no one came out of the compound. Then you turned and went home.
You repeated the cycle a couple more times before you finally found the courage to walk up to the gate and knock.
My mother came home one evening and announced,
“I am taking you somewhere. Pack your bags.”
She did not add any other detail, and I did not ask. The next morning my bags were packed when the taxi man she hired showed up. He made a joke about my travelling even while school was still in session, but neither Mother nor I laughed. The ride was quiet, with Wizkid’s voice pouring out from the car’s speakers. At some point the driver increased the volume to drown out the silence that enveloped the car.
It was almost 9am when we got to the place. My mother rapped at the gate and a woman peeped at from a small opening by the side of the gate. She did not first ask who it was. When she saw my mother, she opened the gate. She had strikingly clear eyes and a smile that enfolded one like an embrace. She and my mother exchanged looks and I knew that my mother had been there before; transactions had gone ahead of me.
As the woman took us on a tour of the compound, she kept saying to my mother,
“She will be fine, don’t worry. We will take care of her.” She did not say anything to me.
My mother followed me to the room I was allocated. As we walked along the corridor, several girls in different stages of pregnancy looked out, and as though finding us uninteresting, went back to whatever they had been doing. My room was at the end of the hallway. I was to share it with another girl. It was simple, with two single beds, a table and no other piece of furniture. The girl sighed when she saw us enter, then cleared one side of the bed.
My mother helped me unpack. When we were done, she sat on the edge of the bed.
“You will stay here till everything settles.” She looked at the ceiling. “I will be coming to visit you from time to time. I have made arrangements with the Madam. It is better that way.”
She left five crumpled one thousand naira notes on the table, then left.
After my mother’s departure, the girls crowded into my room. They were girls in all shapes and sizes, bonded by their bulging stomachs. They appeared animated as they fired me with a barrage of questions: how old was I? Had I even taken my WAEC? Was that my mother? She was so young! I had never seen so many pregnant women in the same room before. In their midst, I felt the stilling of the trepidation of my heart, it was as though I was finally allowed to unclench my fist.
I tried keeping up as much as I could, but whenever I reached up for air another question was thrown at me. When they had exhausted their questions I asked my roommate, “How far along are you?”
There was silence, then uncomfortable coughs and shuffling feet. Then the girl smiled brightly and answered,
“I am six months along.” Then added, “Erm, we don’t talk usually about it like that.”
“Oh,” I replied. “This is my third month, I think.” The girls started laughing, asking, “What do you mean by, ‘I think’?”
In the coming weeks, I would come to notice that the girls studiously avoided the subject of their pregnancies. When they discussed amongst themselves, they made plans around it. They talked about going back to school. About finding jobs. It was as though it was a momentary glitch, that when they walked out of the gates they had the intentions of picking up their lives where they left off.
It was during the quarrels that the secrets came spilling out. Grace who was raped and carrying her father’s child. Ekpereka whose third child it was, who had the ability to get pregnant like a chicken. Nnedi whose family disowned her because her father was a pastor and she had gotten pregnant for one of the church’s elders.
We had a communal sort of existence. There was a roster for cooking, and washing the bathrooms and toilet. We shared rooms and spoons and body heat. Between us we found cures for back aches, offered foot rubs, braided each other’s hairs, and survived. The routine was the same: we woke up, swept the compound and then prepared to eat. After breakfast, those who were not too far along did other things like sewing, or weaving, or making hair. The others just laid down in their rooms. Sometimes a nurse would come in to check in on us, bringing tonics and blood supplements. In the evenings, we sat around the verandah and told stories. Nobody ventured past the gates. It was like a secondary school boarding house only that everybody actually respected the rules.
Madam operated a ministry. It was unorthodox, and the flock was mostly women looking for children or needing deliverance from marine husbands. We constituted half of the congregation on any given Thursday. During sermons, she would go on about hell and promiscuity and girls who made it a business having sex with boys. We would sit on the other side of the hall, exhibits to how true her testimony was. She believed in rituals that sometimes bordered on the theatrical. She once asked a woman to buy a wedding gown, and makeup and performed a mock wedding in the church, with her son, Junior acting as the groom. In about six months, she came in to tell us how the lady had done her introductions, her face beaming with smiles, her voice lyrical as she knelt in the middle of the compound, with her hands raised to heaven, the sun drawing a rough sketch of her figure on the floor.
Your favorite bible story is the story about the meeting between Abraham’s servant and Rachel. It was one of the few times you viewed the bible as romantic. Also it reminded you of how two lives could meet, like streams, and flow into each other, upsetting nature’s set course. Your pastor called such meetings divine encounters.
You believe in divine encounters. You started believing in them from the day you became born-again. That day, the man who would later become your pastor had come to your shop asking to spend only ten minutes with you. You had let him because it had been a slow day and you were bored, and also, he had been so polite. Those ten minutes changed your life forever. At the end of it, you had become born again, and two weeks after it, you had packed out of your husband’s house, dedicated fully to your Lord and personal savior.
The day Daa Ngozi showed up at your shop, however, you were not certain if the Lord’s hand had directed her steps, or whether she had been on the voyage by herself. Daa Ngozi was the Local Government Chairman’s third wife. People made jokes behind her back about how she was his third wife and he, her third husband.
When she came in, she sat near the door and received the market women as they came to ask her if her husband, the LG chairman was well; if he going to seek re-election (Their cards were ready, he need only declare.)
She presided over the fiefdom with quite some finesse. After the visits had trickled down, she cleared her voice and said to you,
“Nma Chibuoyim, there is something I wanted us to discuss.”
She continued after you did not respond.
“My son said he and your daughter made a mistake.” She gave you a conspiratory wink that said you were supposed to understand these things. But you did not think it was funny, and you liked the idea of conspiracy even less.
“Is that what he said? So, he now boasts in his sin?” You asked,.
“This woman sef.” she slapped your thigh. “They are children nau. Besides he is making amends now, isn’t it? That is why I am here to talk to you, woman to woman.”
And as she spoke to you, a thought ran past the corridors of your mind. You raced after it, all the while listening to Daa Ngozi’s voice as it rattled on in the background. When you caught up with it, you stared into its eyes, it was filled with mischief. It giggled. It whispered to you, ‘What if the baby is dead.’ You told it, ‘Stop, you trickster. My grandchild cannot die, in Jesus name.’ But it obviously did not hear you, or it did not believe in the power of Jesus’ name because it kept repeating it to you, painting pictures in your head, pictures that became so vivid that when the thoughts faded you found tears leaking from the sides of your eyes. You began to sob, quaking in your seat.
Daa Ngozi stopped and stared at you. She asked,
“My daughter lost the baby.” You said.
Her eyes narrowed in disbelief, and the smile in her eyes dried up. In that frozen moment, you both recognized the lie for what it was. She could have asked you, ‘But why did you not say that earlier?’ She could have shouted, ‘You are a liar, you have sold the baby for money. You think I don’t know?’ But she chose the path less onerous for her son. What she did was blink, grab you and start weeping. By the time she left your shop that evening, half of the women on your street knew that your daughter lost her child.
That became the story you remember, and in the days to come when you narrate it, the story would grow in leaps, the tapestry woven so tight to hold the untruth.
Whenever you were asked, you said: Yes, your daughter had been living with your sister. Yes, she carried the baby to term but when she had tried giving birth the baby had died. Yes, it was very unfortunate, but she would be back, maybe it was just God’s will.
You’d forget 88. You’d forget the first time an errant thought had run through your mind as your pastor preached in your shop one day. That time, what it had whispered was, “Don’t you know Jesus needs you to leave your husband?”
We rarely had visitors. Most of us at 88 had escaped our homes for exactly the solitude it offered. My mother usually showed up every Saturday evening. I would carry a bench out to the verandah and we would sit. She would be careful to avoid looking at my stomach while I sorted the provisions she brought. She always added things I did not need, like sanitary pads or my WAEC past question sheets. I would remove them and push them towards her. She would look at them as though surprised, then pack them away to take home.
I kept waiting for her to ask me about the pregnancy. About how it happened, but she did not. She told me about our neighbors, about church, about how the members of the choir missed me, but she never asked about the baby. One day I said to her,
“Do you want to feel the baby, it has started kicking.” I took her hands and placed it on my stomach.
Immediately, I saw her eyes dilate in fear. Her whole being became rigid with terror, as though I had ambushed her. She snatched her hand away from my stomach and got up to leave. Her fear had been so palpable that I wanted to run after her to find out if she was okay.
I wanted to show her the words lodged in my heart and the stories they tell. I wanted to apologize. I wanted to tell her that all the times she preached to me, that I listened, that I still thought fornication was a grave sin. I wanted to let her know she was a good mother, that it was I who had been the terrible one. Above all, I wanted her to believe me. I wanted to run into the cleansing embrace her forgiveness would bring.
As my stomach grew, it became harder to avoid the subject so the time we spent together became shorter, till the only thing that told me she visited was the box of provisions Madam left at my door.
There were days we had foreigners visit. They usually came with their cameras, and always insisted they wanted to see us in our natural state, which meant that they wanted us looking ragged, our rooms reeking of squalor, picture friendly for their cameras. They seemed to get a certain high from gory stories. The grimier the better. So I began telling them that I was brutally raped when I was on my way back from school. That it had been retaliation for even attempting going to school. I also told them that my mother had been with me. That she had tried to fight for me, but that the hoodlums had clobbered her with a stick and that she lay in the hospital fighting for her life. The first time I told this story, the woman called me a survivor, she called my mother brave.
Her declaration seemed to quell my hunger a little. So I began to look forward to these visits, so I could gorge on the tears they shed and the hugs they gave me. The stories I told varied depending on the audience, but the endings remained the same; my mother was always incapacitated from helping me. Not because she chose not to, but because she couldn’t.
Some days you remember you have a daughter. When, perhaps, you are arranging the provision in your shop or when you hear the members of the choir in church singing ‘There is a new name written down in glory’, you’d remember you have a daughter and that she had been pregnant. A certain kind of panic would seize your heart. But then, you’d also remember that the baby died. And you’ll relax.
Other times what you remember is that you do not know where your daughter was. Those times, snatches of memory would sail down to meet you. You would remember that she was supposed to be writing WAEC. Or has she already taken it sef? You’d crease your forehead and try to untangle the mess in your head and sort out the times and dates correctly. But you’d begin to feel dizzy and you’d leave it alone. After a while, it would be your default response, leaving it alone. And so darkness became comfortable in that part of your brain that had light. Soon, you were forgetting other things, little details like locking your shop and wearing underwear before leaving the house. You would become totally consumed and the rays of light would become farther and farther apart.
Then one day you would find yourself staring into the eyes of a kind old man. He would be flashing a little torch between both your eyes. You would read the label on his labcoat, Dr. Amadi. He would be saying,
“Do you know where you are, ma?”
Madam called it adoption. She said the women who came wearing sunglasses and pointing with their lips, who left carrying babies, that what they did was adoption.
She would say,
“Thank God. Adaolisa’s baby has been adopted. I’m sure the family would take good care of the child.”
She did not disclose what went on in her office, or the bundles of notes the women gave in exchange for the bundles of joy. She didn’t have to: we knew. After the adoption, Madam arranged for the new mother to get a ‘grant’ from her ministry, the purpose of which was to put the girl’s life back on track. The grant varied depending on whether the girl had given birth to a boy or a girl, or twins.
Sometimes, the women came before the babies were born. They were the ones who would rent a room at the hotel across the street few weeks to delivery and leave with the baby as soon as it was born. Those ones were particularly picky, often looking at the pregnant girls and trying to guess how beautiful the babies would be. Madam helped with their selection, she had a knack for telling who would have a boy or a girl.
In my eight month, a woman and her daughter came in. Madam took them round the rooms, reeling off names, ages and states of origin as though we were statistics on a chart. I was lying on my back when they got to my room. It was the only position in which the baby didn’t feel the need to furiously kick. The woman pointed at me and said,
“I like this one. What do you think, Amara?”
Her daughter lifted her face from her iPhone long enough to say,
“Yes, she is beautiful.” It appeared the choice wasn’t really hers.
“Can we arrange with her?” The older woman asked.
Madam smiled genially and whispered loudly for me to hear.
“Of course. It is a matter of cash.”
When they left, Madam called me to her office. She avoided looking directly at me, fiddling with the books on her table as though she was looking for something.
“We have to determine what we will do with your baby. Your mother has stopped coming and her shop is locked.”
“What happened to her? Do you know?”
“The neighbors said she was taken to the hospital. They said she collapsed or something.” She then stopped whatever she was searching for and stared at me. She sighed.
“Look, I honestly do not know what to do. The arrangement was that she would be making payments each month and after your delivery, you would go with your baby.”
Mother and I had not discussed it, but I knew in the same way things unsaid sound louder. I was supposed to have the baby, then leave it with her and continued with my education.
“My mother, she is sick. She forgets things. Sometimes when we are praying, she would tell God to help me pass my common entrance exam. I took the exam five years ago,” I said.
“I don’t know why you are telling me this…”
“I want to have my child adopted.” I cut her short. I had made that decision a few weeks back. It was the only option that gave me even a semblance of peace.
“Eh?” She asked, as though she had expected more resistance. “Are you sure? Should we not wait for your mother?”
I shook my head. She grinned.
“Don’t worry; they will take care of you very well. You are still a young girl, you can go back to school. Shey it was WAEC you were about to write eh?” Her cheerfulness was suffocating.
“I want them to call her Nneka. You said it is a girl abi?”
“Yes, I am sure you are going to have a girl,” Madam said. “There is no problem. I will make sure they call her Nneka. After all, a mother should get to name her baby.”
I sighed. She did not even try hard enough to conceal the lie.
“One last thing,” she said as I got up to leave. “Who is the father, will he give trouble?”
I considered the question for a moment, my thoughts resting on that yellow boy who had asked me to come to his house to collect my Government textbook he had borrowed. The boy who had fumbled with his green boxers when he finally convinced me to lie down for just a brief ‘something’. The boy who was barely a man, whom I had had to push him gently away from me, pick up my textbook and leave afterwards because he had been embarrassed that the condom had broken. The boy who had not met my gaze after we finished and could only respond with, “My father will kill me oo” when I told him I was pregnant. That boy would not give trouble. He couldn’t.
“No, he won’t.” I said. As I stepped out into the sunshine, the baby started kicking again.
Joshua Chizoma is a Nigerian writer. His works have been published in AFREADA, Entropy Magazine, Kalahari Review, Expound Magazine, Prachya Review, and elsewhere. His story, A House Called Joy won the 2018 Kreative Diadem Prize in the Flash fiction category. He is an alumnus of the 2019 Purple Hibiscus Creative Writing Workshop.
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This entry appeared in The Memory Issue