by Umari Ayim
Thump! Thump! Thump!
I push my chair backwards and abandon the red ball point pen that I have been hitting against the surface of the polished mahogany table. Flexing my hands, I stand up from the leather swivel chair and walk to the window. The venetian blinds are rolled halfway up, leaving me with enough view of the stone cobbled driveway of the compound. I know he is on his way upstairs now. I know this because I can hear his thoughts even though they come to me garbled up like a bad radio signal.
….mustbe….should…will work….check up on her.
I stiffen and step away from the window. Why? Why now? What did they want from me this time? Richard’s mind is now open to me just like it used to be before the light, but I wish I did not hear his thoughts. The last thing I want is a visit from his parents. I have not forgotten the last invocation and how I almost lost my life.
“I cannot. I will not,” I tell myself and plop down wearily into my chair. “I am not an object to be used whenever they feel like it.” I lift a hand to my chest and look down to see two small wet circles forming over the top of each breast. I sigh and drop my hands and wonder why the nursing pads failed to stop the leaking.
“God, I wish I knew what to do,” I tell no one in that cold office where an L- shaped sofa is sitting next to a bookshelf that is scantily filled with books and a small carton with new books is on the top of a bottleless water dispenser unit. I resolve to take that down as soon as I find the will to. I stare at the burgundy rug on the floor, willing myself to forget the growing wetness on my chest.
The baby. The baby. The baby. The baby.
“I am not touching that baby again.”
You have to. You have to. You have to.
I cross my arms against my chest and lean back on the chair.
“I don’t want it.”
Thankfully Shadda shuts up and I enjoy a moment of peace but even that is shattered when I feel the tingling that usually precedes Shadda’s approach and soon enough the door is thrown open and she marches in, baby in one hand and diaper bag in the other.
“No,” I groan and let my hands fall to my side. “Why not feed him yourself?”
Shadda shoots me an irritated look, uses one of her knees to push my chair sideways so I am facing her.
“You cannot hate an innocent,” she snarls into my face as she drops the baby on my thighs. She drops the diaper bag on the table and crosses her arms against her chest. “Now, go on and feed it.”
I am not afraid of Shadda’s domineering presence. To an extent, she is like the mother I never knew but with a height that is short of the office ceiling and stoutness that resembles that of an unrepentant body builder, Shadda can be quite a pushover. I make a face and then look down at the baby. A pair of big white eyes and iris that is almost so transparent, I can see several prisms of light bursting through, look up to me with a solemnity that makes me contrite for a moment but just then the resemblance strikes me and I see how alike they are. Richard and the baby. I lose my motherly instinct again.
“Please,” I say, holding out the baby to Shadda and averting my eyes. “I can’t.”
Shadda snorts, shakes her head and turns away before I can grab hold of her three quarter length flower print dress. A burst of light fills the entire room seconds later as she walks through the bookshelf and disappears, leaving me alone with the bundle in my arms. Slowly and almost painfully, I lift up the hem of my black doll top and begin to feed the baby for the third time since it was born. The process is painful and I want to stop but I can almost feel Shadda’s disapproving eyes in the room. You cannot hate the innocent. Maybe, but I cannot love the one who holds me against my will.
I close my eyes and try to forget the suckling child at my breast. I succeed, at least for a while until I feel its head lolling back in my arms. I lift the baby to my shoulder and begin to pat its back as Shadda has taught me. Three low burps and a wetness on my shoulder is signal that I should stop and I return the baby back to the crook of my arms. Leaning forward, I reach for the diaper bag on the table and search its contents for anything to wipe the mess at my shoulder. Soon I find a small white napkin.
Wonder…if…not bother….should work….dad…call
I shut out Richard’s thoughts as I move the napkin back and forth over my shoulder. I wish I did not regain the power to read people’s minds after that night. I don’t want to hear him think about calling his father. I don’t want to be reminded of that evil family. Please God. The baby in your arms is part of that family. You must learn to love them. I bite down my lower lip and look at the sleeping child nestled against my chest, its mouth half opened in sleep. Automatically I reach down and push his lower lip to meet the upper lip. The baby sighs and twitches in his sleep before settling down again. I turn the swivel chair towards the window and see how dark the evening has become. Holding the edge of the table for support, I push myself to my feet and pick the diaper bag from the table. Time to leave my prison for today.
I lean against the sink counter top in the pink tiled bathroom and look at my reflection for a long time. The woman I see in the mirror is different from the woman that walked into this house one year ago. The angry lines on my forehead are gone and in their place a weariness has settled in my eyes. I shake my head and pick the expensive cream that was part of the gift Richard bought for me on his recent trip to London.
“I wish he stayed there,” I tell my reflection and when I am not satisfied with talking to myself, I close my eyes and concentrate hard enough. When I open them again, my reflection is smiling at me. Good.
“Hi,” I say to it, pushing my index finger deep into the cup of cream and picking a sizeable lump.
“Why didn’t he just stay in London?”
My reflection throws back her head and laughs. I massage the cream into my arms, watching her from the corner of my eyes. I can’t help marveling at her freedom. The other me.
“Maybe because this is his house?”
I shrug and pick another dollop of cream. This time I concentrate on the front and back of my thighs. When I look up the mirror is empty.
“Where are you?” I ask, leaning towards the mirror and peering into the other bathroom. My reflection returns back with the white cotton T-shirt I plan to wear for the night. She is looking down at it with a dour expression.
“What is this?”
“Er….a night shirt?”
My reflection rolls her eyes at me. “Obviously it is.” She looks down again and shakes her head.
“A very ugly night shirt.”
I ignore her as she throws the shirt behind her. I walk to the night shirt on the plastic hook on the door and slip into it. At the other side of the mirror, my reflection is standing with arms crossed against her chest. Very naked and very defiant. I sigh, close my eyes and concentrate. When I open it again, my reflection is in my night shirt and mimicking my movements.
“That is better,” I say to myself, pushing down the light switch on the wall and reaching for the door. As I enter the room, I almost choke at the sight that greets me.
“Hi,” Richard says from the bed, a bland expression on his face. I want to turn and run away from the bedroom but I force myself to move towards the bed, one small step after the other.
“Good evening,” I manage to croak, bending down to pull the sheets down. I straighten back up and stretch to turn off the bedroom light with the switch that is above the bed. Richard stops me with a hold on my wrist.
“Leave it on.”
I am shaking when I return to the bed. “Can’t we just turn it off this one time?”
I resign myself to my fate and pull the T shirt over my head. I will try not to be embarrassed by the softness of my stomach or the heaviness of my breasts. This is but a duty.
So I close my eyes and hide in the darkness behind my lids. The sensations will come. I know I will yield and then afterwards hate myself when he leaves for the night. All this I know but I will not watch.
That night when my eyes are half swollen from crying, I turn on my side, away from the rumpled sheets and remember……. I was always a quiet child. My mother’s death at my birth meant that I was raised by a grieving father. One who was saddled with the responsibility of taking care of three other young girls he could not afford to raise. Our house was a derelict structure with cracked walls that housed transparent wall geckos and red head lizards. The corrugated iron sheets of the roof were torn in many places that exposed the house to the elements when nature unleashed her fury on us. Those nights we either sat up in small dark corners while buckets, pans and bowls caught up the rain that leaked into the house, or we huddled against each other in flimsy blankets as the winds of the harmattan howled outside our windows.
Food was always an issue. My father worked hard from dawn to dusk in the town market as a carpenter but not everyone wanted to build cupboards, tables, and chairs everyday, so sometimes we went to bed without food or filled with the thin gruel we made from soaking garri in water.
Our lack of food meant that we grew up waif like with spindly arms and legs. The fact that we were growing faster than our friends did not help as we were taunted for being the tallest in our play groups. I was the smallest of the quartet with a small elfin face, and unlike my sisters who loved to chase each other around the house in a game of hide and seek, all I wanted to do was stay outside the house and stare at the hills beyond the rusting rooftops of the houses below us. From that young age, I knew I was different. I remember the wall geckos. How they would watch me for long seconds with big lidless eyes that scared my sisters. Sometimes I thought I heard them whisper where my pencil had fallen on days when I crawled on my knees looking for it.
I was five when Shadda finally appeared. I had ventured down the path that led to the nearest house, a stately building with columns and high steps that led to a heavy looking wooden door. The fence surrounding the house was broken and the black gates always stood open as if beckoning the world to come and explore whatever secrets it held. Stories were told about that house. My sisters told me how an old witch died inside the house. They said there were ghosts who ate little girls like me, and that they had long teeth that could break your bones easily like biscuits.
Yet that evening, I felt a pull towards that old house and stood by the gates watching out for old women with long teeth. After several minutes of witnessing nothing extraordinary, I began taking small tentative steps towards the house. I was only three steps away from the last step of the house when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I still remember the urge to pee when I stopped and looked into the strong unsmiling face above me.
“Where are you going?”
“There…the house,” I said, pointing towards the house as if it was to blame for my expedition.
Her hand still on my shoulder, the woman looked at the house and then back at me.
“What is your name?”
An unexpected smile broke out on the woman’s face and I found my fear dissolving like the cubes of sugar we sometimes threw into soaked garri. I held my hand over my eyes as the sun suddenly moved from the dark clouds above us. The blinding sunlight had formed a halo around the woman’s head but she was oblivious to it. I thought she was rather tall, even more than my father who people said was one of the tallest men in our town. As if sensing my contemplation of her height, the woman lowered herself to her haunches, coming face to face with me.
“Tamisho,” she said, her voice melodic and soothing to a motherless five year old. “Are you afraid?”
I did not waste a second to answer. “No.”
“Good,” the woman said with a nod. “You are one of us, you should never be afraid.”
Her words did not make sense to me then, but I remember taking her hand when she asked me to walk with her to the house. Her name was Shadda. She was my guide. I trusted her. I had grown into a twenty one year old with a mysterious air that kept people away. My sisters were all married and I was in my third year at the local university that was barely five years old.
My father’s fortunes had somehow reversed when I turned seventeen. Nothing in his thoughts told me where he got the money from, and when I asked Shadda, she always found a way to change the subject.
It was that slow evening on my twenty one year old birthday I found the reason for my father’s wealth. I had spent the evening listening to my father’s thoughts and I found them disconcerting.
Should I tell her now? No…yes…maybe later….no she will meet them this evening. When I was tired of wondering who ‘they’ were, I cornered my father in the living room where he stood barking out instructions to a group of men carrying cartons of wines into the house. His latest girlfriend Amara, a light skinned woman with a constant fixation on her nails, stood at the kitchen doorway, supplementing my father’s barking with a litany of instructions while filing her nails.
“Are we expecting guests tonight?”
“Yes, yes…of course…yes,” my father said, waving his hands like the choir master in the Catholic Church he forced me to attend every Sunday.
Her nail file in hand, Amara stood in my room later that evening playing wardrobe assistant. After much arguing, I settled for the ankle length dress with a clinched waist that she picked for me. Our guests were on time. I watched them arrive at the window, Shadda standing by my side.
“Who are they?”
“Friends of your father,” Shadda said and walked into the wall, appearing beside the nervous looking elderly woman adjusting the wide neckline of her black bou bou as she walked towards the house. Her head down, the woman passed Shadda who was looking at the last figure walking with slumped shoulders behind the woman. The figure was a man and all I could see was the top of his head which was full of curly hair. Shadda seemed interested in him and from my spot at the window, I watched as she leaned to whisper something in his ears.
“He can’t hear you,” I whispered to Shadda from the window.
“Oh, he hears me inside his head,” Shadda said, appearing beside me again.
I sighed and turned to Shadda who had chosen to appear that evening, wearing a silk button up top with puffed sleeves over black pants, her long hair is piled into a tight knot on her head. I remember thinking that Shadda had an impeccable fashion sense for a spirit.
“So who are they then?”
“Tamisho, there are things you must find out for yourself.”
So I find out. I find out two things actually. The Abidemi family were the benefactors of my father and the reason for his wealth. They were there that evening for me.
“Why?” I wailed to my father as soon as the guests were gone that night. “I don’t want to get married to him!”
“I am sorry Tamisho, but I promised your mother I would do anything to send you and your sisters to school.”
“But why me? Why not Sarah?” When my father continued to shake his head, I remembered my other sisters, “why not Sandra? Why not Rose?”
“They said you were the one with the power to change their fortune.”
It was then that I found out that my father had known about my abilities a long time ago.
“They said you could stop a curse from claiming their only son.”
There were other things. The blood of my virginity would be the cleansing elixir in a ritual that would see me invoking blessings on the Abidemis.
“Invoke blessings?” I asked Shadda later that night with a laugh of incredulity. “What am I? A priest?”
“It is nothing,” Shadda told me with a comforting smile and a shake of her head.
Shadda was wrong, or maybe she was hiding the truth from me because it was not ‘nothing’.
The first was the encounter with the handsome but sullen man I was supposed to save. Richard Abidemi.
“Just so you know,” he said, unbuttoning his shirt as I lay shivering in the air conditioned room on a bed covered in plain white sheets and a wedding ring I was doing my best to get used to. “I have a girlfriend back in London and I do not like you.”
Shooting up from the bed with the full force of the anger I felt, I stared up at him with equal loathing.
“Well, guess what, I do not like you too.”
“Fine,” Richard said, stomping across the room in nothing but his polka dots boxer shorts. “Good to know. Now let’s get down to business, shall we?”
And it was business. That evening, the passion I read about in the novels was proven to be a lie. After the searing pain, all I could do was pray for it to end, and when it did, Richard was back in his clothes with a cold,
“We are downstairs in the room I showed you earlier.”
I stumbled to the bathroom as soon as the door was closed behind him and called for Shadda but she refused to appear. Everything was a blur after that. The sheets that were no longer on the bed when I returned to back to the elegant but sparsely furnished white painted guest bedroom of the Abidemis. The simple white dress waiting for me on the black leather sofa. The room where the family were gathered, the three of them in white dresses and with head bowed. The invocations of blessing on a silver bowl with crystal clear water, The flash of light and the silence that followed.
After that night I lost the ability to read people’s minds, and like the new toy you soon grow bored with, the Abidemis moved on and left me in a big mansion in Ajah with a man that hated me just as much as I hated him.
These days, my gifts are coming back and Shadda still walks through the walls of the house more frequently than ever. I have a feeling that Richard’s parents are coming to visit soon. They will coo over their grandson and pretend that the bag of goodies trailing their wake is the reason why they took the last plane to Paris. They won’t know that I know that it is an afterthought. They won’t know that I know that they need a favour from me.
I turn back to the middle of the bed where the imprint of Richard’s body is and I know that as much as I want to, it is too late to run now.
– Read Episode 2 of the compelling story HERE.
Umari Ayim is the author of ‘Twilight at Terracotta Indigo’ and ‘Inside my Head’ both winners of the 2011 ANA NDDC Flora Nwapa prize and 2012 Poetry prize respectively.
Umari blogs at www.umariayim.com and tweets from @umariayim
Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija