Uchenna Awoke




Olive


A Plate of Rice

I remember now what a blissful spring it was the season my sister, coaxed by Papa and I, married the dry old man. The suitor had a thin face, all nose and nothing else, and a fine motorcar with a hot metallic smell.

 My sister was eleven years old, two years older than I, and had a year left to complete primary school, but of what use was education to her fine mahogany skin and sparkling eyes with a wealthy suitor standing by. Of what use was education without wealth? After all, amongst the successful young men in Ozara, Atangwu was rich and more prosperous than most, but he never went beyond primary school. His achievements were as many as swifts in a spring sky: a large fully stocked cosmetic shop in Ogige market, a two-storey rented house in the most expensive residential area of the city, another bungalow in the province occupied by his parents, a beautiful wife and three private cars; whereas Ikpeama who graduated as a lawyer nearly ten years ago only boasts of an unfinished bungalow and one private car.

 “But I want to finish at school,” my sister Oyibo protested, face flushing like an overripe mango and eyes bright as a firefly in the dark. She got them from Papa, her eyes and her skin. I had Mama’s oil bean skin. Mama had said that when she gave birth to my sister Oyibo, Onukwu the village clown had told her that she did not need an oil lamp anymore because my sister’s skin lightened up the darkness that enveloped Ozara. He was the first person to call her Oyibo, but some people now called her electric-nwanyi, bright as electricity.

 I went to bed and dreamt of white flowers and woke up wondering whenever they called her by that name.

 “You will be the most foolish girl in this village to throw away such an opportunity for school,” Papa said. “For some other girl to grab.”

 “But he is old and his nose is too big. He is ugly,” she pouted.

 “A man is only ugly if his pocket is empty,” Papa said.

 “He has other wives.”

 “It doesn’t matter as long as he takes good care of them.” Papa’s voice struck a note of decisiveness.


 Before the start of this rancour, we were a large and not unhappy family. Though sometimes Mama and my stepmothers bickered and displayed acts of petty jealousy, our family would sit in the moonlight and share stories. Papa was just and fair to us all even if he spent a little more time with my younger stepmother and helped to pound her fufu and chop her firewood. He had given each wife a room in the mud brick house with rusted tin roof. Mama lived at one end, the south end, and my big stepmother lived at the other end.

 On our way to the river, Oyibo and I, my heartbeats quickened. I did not know how she would react to what I was about to say to her. I wanted to reason with her and possibly convince her to marry her suitor. If she married him Papa would get a large herd of cattle as part of the dowry and my dream of becoming a big herder would become realized. Papa had lost his herd to an epidemic. They had died one by one down to a miserable, sickly calf left in the crumbled cowshed at the back of our house. With a new herd of cattle for the family, I would spend fine, sunny and breezy days at the hills pasturing and hunting birds with a catapult instead of working at the farm or trekking four miles to school.

 After many turns and twists around compounds and clumps of bushes we came clear in the open countryside. Before us, lay a broad sweep of country with a geometric pattern of farmlands. I fell into step with my sister as we entered the rocky and hilly track into the river.

 “If you marry him you will ride in his fine motorcar,” I said.

 She ignored me.

 “You will live in his big city house and eat rice every Sunday,” I pressed on.

 She snapped at me. “Why don’t you marry him?”

 “But I am not a girl.”

 She chuckled. “It is not my fault that you are not a girl. But it’s easy to become one. Just ask God to make you a girl so that you can change your name from Ekwe to Oyibo and marry my suitor? So that you can live in his big city house and ride in his fine motorcar and eat rice every Sunday?”

 She was making a joke out of it and it angered me. “Ocha ka omaka,” I said in a retort likening her to a light skinned person who appeared flashy from a distance, but whose beauty faded out when she drew closer.

 She threw a glare at me and we walked into the river.

 The water was thinning out into wet spongy land in some areas after the long hard dry season. In other areas sunlight was floating on dark swamps. We fetched water all morning, pouring the water into a huge black rubber cask kept at the farm from which Mama drew water and watered the plants. Papa was working in my younger stepmother’s section of the farm, resenting Mama even at the farm for Oyibo not saying yes to her suitor right away. His attitude towards Mama was cold and distant. When he became thirsty he went and drank water from my big stepmother who was working on her own part of the field with her children.

 The field stretched to the foothills in the distance in a crisscross of farmlands. Papa had divided his portion of the field in three parts: one part for my big stepmother, one for Mama, and the other for my other stepmother who was too heavy with a child to work. Papa helped his women to prep the site where the seedlings were grown. He then tilled and plowed the field. We did the rest: transplanting and watering, mulching and weeding and harvesting. Mulching would soon start and weeding would follow in a matter of few weeks. Because of the long hard dry season, mulching would be done in thick layers. And because of the hotness of the weather, the plants were drinking water like a herd of thirsty cattle.

 But then we had seen the first stirrings of spring.

 Mama was roasting yams for our lunch. When the yams were done she brushed soot off their backs and began to cut them in slices into a gourd. When she finished slicing, she sprinkled palm oil and salt on the slices and allowed the oil to penetrate into the crumbly flesh. I bit into the appetizingly yellow flesh savouring the earthy, salty flavour.

 Papa did not eat with us in protest; he went over and ate with his other wife and children. The wind blew my big stepmother’s laughter over at intervals. Each time Mama paused and glanced in that direction, I wondered why Papa blamed her because my sister had rejected her suitor.

 My resentment of my sister grew when on the way home I saw boys my age watching over their large herds of cattle grazing in the meadows. If she married the suitor, I would have a large herd to look over too.

 The air grew still and heavy as evening drew closer. A thin orange wash had formed in the distant evening sky. It spread and became fused with gray. The grayness that summoned the chickens to their roost.

 There would be no moon.

 Mama made dinner and we ate and went to bed tired. Mama and my sister slept on the only iron bed in the room. It was a quiet night. The only sounds in the world were the drones that came from my little siblings sleeping with me on a mat on the bare cold floor, the endless hissing of beetles and cockroaches amplified by the silence of the old framed family photographs gracing the mud walls, and rats scuttling around and nosing into every corner that had the faintest smell of food.

 Oyibo went on hunger strike to protest the pressure on her to marry her suitor. If Papa noticed he ignored her, but Mama pleaded with her. “Everyone is being affected by your rejection of your suitor.” Mama’s tone was persuasive. “Your father as you know is mad at me. He is waging war against me and now you won’t eat. Do you want to kill me? At eleven you are not too young to be married. I was not yet your age when I married your father. I was a little over five years when he took me away from my family. I grew up in his household working in his farmlands and bearing children when I had come of age. In your case you are lucky to have a rich suitor. You won’t end up slaving in the farm day in day out to have something to eat. I am begging you, my daughter, Oyoom, please accept this man and restore peace in our home. No good girl rejects a suitor chosen for her by her parents.”

 Oyibo continued to starve herself even after Mama’s pleas, but was forced into submission when Mama stopped eating too and sat up late into the night recounting her many misfortunes in a melancholy song.


**

 The days following my sister’s departure to her husband’s were fine days glorified by early spring sunshine. The rolling green flood plains offered a rich meadow pasture for our new herd of cattle. Papa took delivery of the cattle prior to my sister’s wedding ceremonies as part of her dowry. The herd chose a great time to arrive, in the midst of abundance. We were starting to feel the full effect of having a wealthy and generous suitor for my sister. I had nothing to complain about with Sunday rice assured and the new herd to pasture.

 I was obsessed with rice.

 Mama cooked rice only three times in a year before now: on Christmas Day, New Year Day and Easter Day. The other time that she cooked rice outside those festive days was during the harvest season when she sold our chilies and bought a bowl of rice. So I envied the families that could afford to eat rice every Sunday or even one Sunday in a month. The scent of their stew as it hissed loudly tormented me. I hated Mama’s fufu and soup which we ate almost on daily basis.

 One Sunday afternoon, before my sister married and left the house, I fled to the road away from the irritating sound the fufu made in the mortar as Mama pounded away. The soft, squelchy sound was driving me out of my mind with its persistent and rhythmic kpokonyapiaka kpokonyapiaka.

 So I sat by the road and sulked.

 The marriage ceremonies were done and dusted. The land of Ozara was still trembling from the stomp of feet, still sucking up the downpour. The Igbankwu was a feast like no other. On that April day the suitor costumed Papa like a king in a Baba rigan and tall proud cap, and Mama in cord lace and coral beads. How many women in the whole of Ozara had worn coral beads or cord lace? Cows were slaughtered, barbecue made as well as Suya and peppersoup. The suitor closed the palm wine market at Umuagama, emptied the NBL brewery at 9th Mile Corner and made richer a textile dealer in Ogige market for the many groups of Ashebi. On the white wedding day my sister stood there at the altar before the whole world like a goose in its white plumage.

 I had more meat and rice to eat than I ever dreamed of.


 After the wedding I visited my sister in her new home. I had never been to any city. We rode with her husband Chief Agubata in his fine motorcar, Mama and I, to his large and beautiful city house. I wasn’t disappointed with my visions of the city and the image of white flowers that had helped my mental picture of electric bulbs, but I never imagined there would be so many cars and houses. In her new home with built in kitchen and built in toilet and bathroom, my sister was treated as a queen. With the other senior wives left behind in the province to look after farmlands and cattle, she had the city house to herself chaperoned by a dotting husband and a maid. It seemed like a house built in heaven. I had never seen a house that large and baffling, approached via a long drive with trimmed hedges. Her life revolved around shower baths and gas-cooked meals and a cold drink of Malt; around pictures of fast moving cars crashing with loud screeching sounds, and men in all black pursuing and shooting at each other, and then kissing thin half dressed women with long hair and high heels in a TV set.


**

 Our new herd grew in number by two after I returned from the city. I watched a heifer give birth to a calf that flopped down on the grass like a dollop of grey dung. While the mother gave her a thorough lick the other cows came around and smelt the newborn calf. I watched the baby as it flailed its spindly legs in a weary attempt to rise to its feet. But it kept crashing down again with each pathetic attempt. To my delight another baby calf started to pop out of the mother’s vaginal tract, head and forelegs first, as the heifer pushed up a second twin. Motivated by the birth of a twin the first baby calf staggered to its hind legs and took its first tottering steps towards the twin.

 When I visited my sister again she had started to look like a city woman who had had an electric bath. Over the weeks she had sloughed her sun bronzed skin from those days we had toiled all day at the farm and now her skin shone, pure manila, like it used to be when she had been born back then when Onukwu had described her in luminous adjectives and metaphors. She had even gained some flesh and a bit of roundness around her hips so that she was no longer so skinny but delicate and shapely.

 The roundness would progress to her abdomen, her stomach sphering; curving out as if she had had too much to eat, and slowing her movement. Later her tummy ballooned out of her thin body for she had lost weight and now was so thin her ribcage protruded through her thinness. As the days wore on she became heavier and nauseous, now sick, now well again. And then she put to bed a baby boy. The boy right from when he slithered out of his mother was the very ochre of a fresh planed mahogany, but his thick nose already defined his patrilineal features.

**

 One of the bullocks dropped dead. I watched him helplessly as he buckled and dropped on his knees. And then he started foaming at the mouth. I made him drink antibiotic capsules Papa had mixed in a bowl of water, but minutes after forcing the medicine into him, he collapsed on his back and began kicking out in an agony of death.

 And then he stilled. I sat with a heavy heart and watched crows beaking each other’s eyes out in the valley and feeding on the blind with wide-eyed horror. The valley was dyed blue.

 When the rains came they were not the soft spring rains drumming a melody on the roof; they beat a violent rhythm and hailed with stones as big as fists; storms that left a trail of their destruction on roofs blown away from their base.

 Our house was spared, but the south end of the house remained quiet and dark. However, there was still the unmistakable hint of irony in the air over the other end, my big step-mother’s. Mama’s cat went feral. The cat suddenly stopped coming home. Her hens were losing their chicks too. Papa–and I, sometimes when I am home–fed them every morning as they were being let out of their coop, but they returned from their daily forage with a chick less, given up as meal to some famished hawk. And now each hen–three of them–was down to a chick or two in place of the fluffy flock of tweeting chicks that crowded home at the fall of dusk.

 Traditionally omugwo lasted for two months, a period Mama was supposed to spend at the in-law’s house performing her postnatal duties to my sister. Oyibo was an inexperienced first mother and Mama was expected to help nurse her baby. She bathed the baby and soaped him the right way. She oiled his tender body with palm kernel oil and applied Vaseline to aid the smooth fall of his umbilical cord. But because a situation came up, Mama moved house taking along with her my little siblings. Her duty to Oyibo had turned out twice as demanding. Besides bathing and caring for the baby and its mother–a lot of cleaning and washing that needed to be done to which the maid was overrun–there was the support of a mother vital in an emotional warfare of epic proportions.

 More than in protest against the injustices and conspiracies against her, I knew that Oyibo will not see the doctor again no matter how hard her husband pressed her, to save herself the embarrassment and shame it brought her. The first day she went to see the doctor she came back in tears. A woman who sat by her as they waited for the doctor in the OPD had wrinkled her nose to her smell. The woman had fled from her seat to stand outside when she could no longer bear the smell. Other patients had stared at my sister, their curious eyes following the furtive movements of her hand as she tried to conceal the handkerchief she used in soaking the urine that slipped out of her and ran down her legs to form a small pool on the floor at her feet.

 This had become the sad story of my sister from the day she gave birth to her baby. She had returned from the hospital a different person, the ruins of her succulent self, after she developed a complication as a result of a protracted labour which took away from her the power to control the passage of urine and stool from her body.

 She was an emotional wreck, a social outcast afraid to leave the house. Even when a close neighbour suggested seeing a Dr. Amun somewhere who could correct the complication with a surgery she would not bulge. We stopped persuading her to go and see the doctor, Mama and I.

 Even the maid was beginning to show signs of exhaustion.


 I sat around the door of our house and pondered how quickly our fortunes had changed switching from bad to good and now it was worse. My sister whom men had stared at with a lost look like that of sheep chewing the cud now stank to the point that they could no longer stand her. I remembered how their crooked hands had itched to touch her fine mahogany skin. Some of them had got mischievous and tried to touch the small pointy breasts that only started to grow on her chest like the young seeds growing on our coconut tree. She had pouted and sulked, but their temerity had annoyed me.

 Papa was sitting under the neem tree in the centre of our compound. His guilt crossed his forehead like a birthmark as he sought solace in snuff and alcohol. Nowadays he had a little bit too much of them. He overfed his nose with snuff blowing his nose and clearing his voice over the night. He had neglected my mother’s chili pepper farm and allowed a reign of ruin. I felt it too, this sense of guilt that snuck up on me whenever I am alone, mostly in the night when everyone had gone to bed and the only sounds within hearing range were the ceaseless chirping of insects providing a percussion soundtrack to Papa’s drunken snores. This was punctuated by the odd hooting of an owl somewhere in the garden, everything adding up to a sad acoustic disharmony.

**

 My sister’s husband hardly came home nowadays either in protest to her refusal to see a doctor or he was running away because he could no longer stand her stench. One day he came and took them in his car, Mama and my sister and her baby and belongings. He drove them to the house in the province and dumped them there with his other wives. He had long since returned to his house in the city.

 We heard he was planning to take a new wife.