Maria, a woman from my age grade, takes the condolence messages on my behalf, and makes sure that everyone eats kola and has something chilled to drink.
“She is resting.” Her voice confronts someone who must have been making their way to my room.
I am listening to the voices rooting into every cranny of the house. To the pots and plates leaving the racks. I am thinking of the hands rummaging through my food store without my permission and wondering if they strike more matchstick than I would while attempting to light the stove. Maria hastens her two daughters serving the garden eggs.
Her two older daughters married ‘janded’ men. Her first daughter, Ewelum, a lithe beautiful thing, married an Igbo man living in Ireland. Her second daughter lives in London with her husband and children. The wick of our friendship lit itself when my daughter, Ijenu, married an Edinburgh Igbo man.
The air stealing in through my window tempers the uziza and uda scents coming from the kitchen. I look out and watch an owl sitting on the wall nut’s smooth sinuous stem. It bobs its head at every side, and then disappears behind the leaves haloing green in the cold evening. My eyes sting in the boredom of staring at the white-washed walls of my room for hours, and watching for the owl, which no longer reappears.
My sudden apparition in the living room stirs mild commotion. People stand and sit, unsure of how to engage with the fresh gore of my loss. The familiar faces commingle into one gigantic image encroaching into my space, their voices veiled as one.
“Mama Nurse, ndo. So sorry,” they chorus. I nod as expected. “How did this happen?” Ngozi, a woman from our kindred asks. Someone shushes her. “There are questions you should not ask,” another says. I want to indeed tell of how it happened, but I have not pursued the details. A man who identified himself as Emeka had called me with a number, which began with +4475. I believed at first that it was my daughter, Ijenu. Her calls came mostly on weekends when she was off work, or at night when her small voice warmed my ears. Though it was a Wednesday morning, and she had to be at work, I had said, “Hello, Ije nwa,” but was startled by a hasty male voice asking for a younger person he could speak to.
‘I live alone,” I remembered saying and being invested in freeing my thoughts from the gullies they loped into. Suggestions echoed from the background, people speaking Igbo, asking him to ‘tell her’. They all sounded unified with some important truth. Simdi, my boy, was away at the University of Port Harcourt. I wished he could emerge from anywhere and take the phone.
“It is Ije, mama. Ije and her husband. Something happened here, to them, to Ije.”
It’s been two days, yet the moment a phrase takes shape in my mouth, a wisp of air stumbles forth. The caller had broken off with what sounded like a low sob. I heard myself screaming for affirmation and yet hoping that one of them would say they dialed my number in error. “What did you say? What are you saying? Please! What are you saying? Where is Ije?”
A female took over, her voice sturdier despite the information she needed to convey. The clouds had been bluer than usual, and a mild sun was just breaking out across them. I had left a kettle of water on the stove. I did not remember running out of my room and crumbling into the sand, or how some of our relatives found me at the edge of my cocoyam farm where I lay flattened. I only remembered speaking as one recovering from a trance, though my words were delivered in reverse meaning,
“Ije anwubero. Ije is not dead.”
Their gasps and questions suffocated me in the open space. A hand swiped across my phone screen, an attempt to seek out the informant. Someone dusted the sand off my arms and face, erasing the gritty comfort they offered. The kettle of water was a red metal when someone found it.
The condolences stream in like the ambiguous bible verses I often parse as God’s wisdom. They mean nothing. I yearn for some external infliction of pain, for a knife to cut my finger or a thorn to impale my heels. The barrenness I feel is exhausting. My body feels parched, yet water does not put a footing to the raging fire.
People whisper about the oddity of the news. I hear questions being hurled in loud-enough voices, the caution worn off. They talk endlessly, their voices remote from me as an aircraft thundering in the sky. I do not call the number back to ask how it happened. The crucial details frighten me. I hope that nobody else learns of it, and that the wind sweeps it away forever, leaving all of us submerged in speculation.
Maggi, my aunt, visits on the third day. Her grandchild wheels in her frail form, and briefly, I wonder if she fell off the sky. Her words arrive wobbly, like her hands seeking to cradle my face. A low sob fringes her next words,
“Did my child really die at the hands of her husband?”
A spiky feeling travels up my blood capillaries. The house grows still. I do not know what to say.
It is Simdi who mentions the internet. He returns four days later, and the sight of him is both reassuring and heart breaking. I sink into his arms when he holds them out. The stubble on his chin grazes my forehead. I think of how tall he is, how like his sister, how like his father. The house has now emptied. I sit with him in the living room, afraid to go into the other rooms and reclaim the spaces long occupied by other people.
“It’s trending on social media. News blogs are writing about it.”
“They are writing about Ije?”
“Yes. How it happened. There is a recording. The bastard…that devil…mummy,” he fumbles with his words. Pain and anger meld on his face like alloys of steel. He falls off the couch, bearing his face in his palms as if it has become too heavy. I sit beside him and gather him in my arms. I am grateful that he does not go on with the story, and that one of us is at least crying.
“What can make a man to kill his wife?” Maria asked once. She wondered if they had unresolved quarrels. “Whatever Ije’s crime was, why will Uzoma lift a finger at her? Imagine Ije who was raised well,” she complimented me, searching my face to mirror how I feel, to see if she overstepped any boundaries. The rainy Saturday they got married flits into my thoughts. The streams of blessings from the community; the flowers pouring like mist from the maids’ fingers; the congregants’ tears as Ije’s husband made an achingly beautiful pledge on his knees,
Ije, I will always love you. I will always protect you. So help me God. So help me God.
The sky was filled with colours despite the heavy showers, and the day contracted with contentment. Ije’s friend from the university had recommended her to him. Most Nigerian men living overseas were seeking nurses as wives. Ije had just completed her nursing degree. Ije and Uzoma started off as Facebook friends, and one year later, he arrived Lagos from Edinburgh and asked to meet her people.
My late husband’s kinsmen hold a meeting on how to contact our in-laws. After about half an hour of arguing why Ije’s husband’s family has not reached out first to our family, their discussion hovers on how Nigerian marriages thrive abroad.
“You know, some of our daughters go there and forget how to be under a man. I hear they start behaving like white women, rubbing shoulders with their husbands, asking the men to wash plates and change diapers,” Ezika, my husband’s cousin, says.
“It doesn’t matter if a man does house chores. Didn’t we all do laundry and bathe babies as growing children? Why does it become a woman’s job once a man marries one?” Mbene, another cousin, a university lecturer, asks. They fall silent.
Maria visits often and elaborates on the importance of crying. “Crying frees up your chest. You still have Simdi.” I try to tell her that I have two children, not one, and that Ije will call me when she’s free to. But the words only flutter in my chest.
I trail Ije in the twilight as she leaps to the walnut tree, her favourite play spot when she was a child. Her papery feet barely touch the soil. The curls of her bronzed hair freeze in the mist. She circles the tree with little dances, her feathery weight hardly snapping the dead twigs. She makes an abrupt stop and digs the soil at the base of the tree, pointing me to something in the brown depths. Then she breaks into a run.
I wake up tired. The walnut tree stares back at me, unchanged, the soil at the base well compact. I hear Simdi on the phone, the new drone of his voice needing me to adjust to it. He stops speaking when I walk into the living room. A faint perspiration of beards taints his upper lip. I tear my gaze away from his red-rimmed eyes.
“I’m speaking with Emeka, the man who called you. He is the president of the Igbo Association in Edinburgh. He is saying it is not possible to send Ije home.”
“Most air cargoes do not take such consignment, and it is expensive.”
“I saw her last night. She was showing me something.”
Simdi nods. I want him to challenge Emeka’s proposal, to say that Ije can come home on her own. He does not say anything else. I pull back into my room and spend the next couple of hours rummaging through the wooden drawers. I picture Ije supine in a hospital bed, plugged to oxygen. I hope that her life is not yet extinguished. The pictures I find in the drawers are of Ije’s teenage self. Her skirts ride above her knees. I search for a picture of us as a family, six months before their father died. I panic when I do not find it. What if Ije had taken it? What if I never have the whole pie back, even in pictorial representation? My eyes fall on a picture of her taken during her university days. Her back is turned on the camera, while her face snaps towards the lens as if for a final glance, offering a terminal smile. She must have been twenty-five. She must have wallowed in the dream of a lengthy life.
I remember the night I listened to her talk about work while a man’s voice roared in the background. The voice hitched up, “Don’t try me! Don’t try me in this house!” Ije kept speaking as if the intrusion slammed in from outside their house.
“Who is that?”
“Mummy, you wanted to say something.”
“No. Is that Uzoma?”
“Mummy, please continue what you were saying.”
I was hesitant to go on. I no longer remembered what I wanted to say. It was the fourth year of their marriage. Though they had no children yet, there hadn’t been tales of any rift. The slap that hit Ije’s cheeks reached me, and my breath was pushed out of me. Their voices tumbled away. What seemed like a deathly scuffle ensued.
“She should continue saying what she was saying, abi?”
“She is my…mother!”
“She should continue talking, abi?”
I screamed their names until my voice grew coarse. I was afraid to hang up so I lingered on the line as an unwelcome witness, my heart a splintered glass, wishing I could whizz into their house through some wire and save my child. Then the connection snapped. By the time Ije called back two days later, my heart had been squeezed out of my chest like lotion in a tube. She was at work. Her voice was free of knots.
“It was just a little misunderstanding. We sorted it out.”
“Ije, he beats you?”
“Mummy, don’t worry. I’m fine.”
“I will call him and warn him.”
“Mummy. Please. I’m fine.”
I wooed other options: speaking to Uzoma’s parents and the elders of our kindred, but I knew she would not approve of any. I was also afraid of skidding off the special status her marriage gave me.
A number calls me and I pick without checking. It is a woman with a Nigerian accent, softened by a long stay abroad. She says the Igbo community is planning a service of songs for Ije, and we will really love it if you can scan some of her pictures and send to us, and also write a tribute. My silence grows awkward. “I understand this is quite hard for you,” she says in one breath. “I’m so sorry for your loss, ma. Maybe if there’s someone else we can speak to. The service is scheduled for this Sunday –” Her words are weighted by the burden of duty. I wonder how many more liaisons she’s made with grieving families, repeating her glib speech from one parent of a dead child to another. I end the call and dial Ije’s number, mindlessly hoping to dislodge her from the slumber she fell into. I plan to tell her the instant she picks, “People are behaving as if you can no longer speak for yourself. I don’t want to learn from others or the internet. Tell your mother what Uzoma did to you.” But her number is not available.
The evening sun touches on all the edges of our small town and I feel drawn to the spectacle. I leave the house and roam the narrow paths, the pebbles crunching under my feet. People wave from grocery stalls, from small town bars built out of raffia. Their pity is scribbled on their faces like a large writing. When Ije was a toddler, I plied these routes during walks. Simdi was in his eighth month, glued tightly to my back with a lappa. Ije would toddle towards the golden light of the early evening, the whole town beaming at her beauty, and I would keep calling out, “Don’t run, Ijenu. Stop running.”
Twilight hovers. Birds speckle the clouds as they put themselves away. I see, just trailing some distance behind the birds, an eagle shredding into a procession of all my daughters: newborn Ije, the four-year-old Ije who did the dishes, the teen-age Ije cradling my shoulders, protecting me from my grief when her father succumbed to diabetes. The eagle flies low and I nearly call out to her.
The doors are open when I get home but the house is not lighted. A whimper escapes through the door of the room Simdi and Ije shared. I listen to the deep-toned sob. Simdi coughs and sniffles. I linger at the door, poked by a sense of guilt. We are far apart in our sorrow, each one too broken to mend the other. He is too accepting of the news, and it annoys me. He has refused to return to school for his exams. He refuses food too. Whenever Ije calls back, she will be shocked at how too quickly we have all failed her.
I grasped a sense of trouble when the communication between Ije and I began to waver. She stopped sending my monthly allowances. I tried to regenerate the link, calling her often, ignoring the strange frost that had crept into her voice. Her husband lost his job and her income supported both of them. I understood the need to patch loopholes in her family, but I didn’t know why she was leaning away.
“Ije nwa, are you feeling well?” I asked her.
“I think I should leave him, mummy.”
Her confession was sudden, and threw me into a shock. Maria’s daughters were doing well. The other mothers get invitations to babysit their grandchildren in the United States and United Kingdom. I didn’t want to be the woman whose daughter got divorced first. So I asked her to clothe up her marriage.
“I covered for your father. He was not a saint.”
“Mummy, you don’t understand.”
“Please manage until you are able to have a child.”
She was silent. Only the gentle rustle of the network filled our ears.
“It is not my fault that a child is absent in this marriage.”
“Ije nwa, your mother is asking you to be a little patient. Bikozienu, please.”
Maria’s younger daughters come to help with the chores. They make the meals, most of which they end up taking back with them. My mind is sealed in a whorl. I skip on the conflicting edges of hope: that the Igbo community brings Ije home to fetch me closure; or that they never bring her so that I can keep hoping.
I think of ways I could have saved her. I feel the presence of a vicious eye studying me, blaming me for never trying, for failing. Maria’s daughters prattle from the kitchen. Their voices get lost in the din that, only recently, has built up in my head. One of the girls mentions a file she downloaded from the internet, says it captures what happened. A small stillness passes between the two girls. Then I hear a voice, far removed from our immediate environment, shouting.
“Pause it! Pause it!” one of the girls whispers. Then the voice stops. The girls are possibly poked by the fact that I am close by, in the next room. An unseen hand wraps around my neck and I wait for it to tighten. I feel overtaken by the whim to clean out drawers and rooms, to get rid of old flannels and toys I’d reserved for a grandchild.
I ask one of Maria’s girls to do a data subscription for me. Simdi had taught me how to find things on Google. We once tried to find where Ije lived through the Google map. 21 Parkgrove Terrace, AH4 2TD, Old Town.
When the girls leave, and Simdi goes to visit an uncle, I begin to dust the rooms: cobwebbing the ceiling and the walls, arranging Ije’s old clothes in a box, and stacking the rest of her valuables in a bin bag. Her old smell infiltrates my nostrils and I try to picture her body lying somewhere, rosy lips and facial bones jutting out sharply, the bruises from the cause of death gently smoothed out by formaldehyde, yet all I see is an emptied room brimming with echoes.
A lone star shoots across the night sky as I walk to the walnut tree. Simdi is well asleep. I find the spot where Ije’s hands had touched in the dream and kneel against the damp soil. I type into the Google search pane: Ijenu. Nothing. I type “Ije’s fight with husband” afraid to include morbid words like death, demise, and kill. I see on the search results: Nigerian man murders wife in the UK. I clutch my navel, reining in whatever panic may erupt from my stomach region. The page features their wedding picture where Uzoma’s mouth is on hers. The cutline says: Nigerian man kills his wife, a nurse. I scan the page, hovering only on words that catch my attention.
The report says: Ijenu’s friend, Carmella, was visiting Ijenu and was in the restroom when Mr. Uzoma entered the house. Carmella dialed 911 when she heard the first gunshot.
I see a large blue writing with a button: PLAY AUDIO. The pain in my chest thrives, growing and piling up to my throat. I depress the play icon, and a buzzing plugs my ears. Uzoma’s voice, a little faint, fills the background.
I made you. Ijenu, I made you. Without me, you would still be earning peanuts back home. You tell people that I cause you miscarriages. Do you tell them that I beat you only because you provoke me? I swore never to hurt you. You made me this way. Do you tell your sympathisers this? You are silent now? You are silent?
I wait for Ije to say something in her defense. Her voice always struck me as having a similar trait to a stream’s burble. It possesses the ability to put out wildfires. I wait in vain for the final gift of it.
Because I lost my job, abi? You are now claiming that we are equal. Because I brought you here. You cannot give me your salary because you are supporting your mother. Where was your mother when I paid your visa fees and the flight fares? You want to control the house too, abi? Look at you! What are you controlling now?
My body tightens at each word. I wonder where my daughter is. Is she on the floor? Is she hurt, yet? Is she bleeding? I wish I can grab the moment by the handful, this recorded second when I am still a mother of two children. Voices appear sucked in a vacuum. There is a distant blare of sirens, and then the creak of a door opening. I begin to court a new hope.
Calm down, Mr. Uzoma. We will take your wife to the hospital and all this will be resolved.
My throat closes up in expectation, yet I am uncertain. The first lines of prayer from a Catholic devotional float in my mind, “Chukwu m, Chukwu m, my God, my God.” The news on the blogs could be wrong. I can still piece my daughter’s world together if someone helps me from there.
I hear cuffs jangle, and voices, toned low, appear to set the right things in motion. An unexpected gunshot goes off. Two more follow. Shouts erupt in the calm. He shot her! Put the gun down!
My whole body pulses with a new loosening. It fills my ribs with every breath. I begin to cry.
Hours later, as the cold travels up my feet to my heart, a voice rises in the distance. Then it sails closer.
Is that you? Ije?
She courses around the walnut tree. A rippled dress barely reaching her knees. Her hair tucked neatly into cornrows. A subtle bulge of her stomach leaking blood. I keep reaching for her and losing her.
Frances Ogamba is the winner of the 2020 Kalahari Short Story Competition and the 2019 Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction. She is also a finalist for the 2019 Writivism Short Story Prize and 2019 Brittle Paper Awards for short fiction. Her fiction appears or is forthcoming on Chestnut Review, CRAFT, The Dark Magazine, midnight & indigo, Jalada Africa, Cinnabar Moth, Dappled Things, The /tƐmz/ Review, in The Best of World SF and elsewhere. She is an alumna of the Purple Hibiscus Creative Writing Workshop taught by Chimamanda Adichie.