I can’t fight with a small girl like you. Just one curse and you will be begging for an early grave.
The air is frigid in Mgbidi, where we convene around her freshly dug grave, bowing our heads to the hoarse voice of Father Vincent, the presiding priest at Grand-pa’s church. We will bury her in a place where she is accepted, Mummy had said the day we paid a condolence visit to Tonye, glancing fearfully in his direction as though expecting him to object. He didn’t. Everyone knew that Tonye’s family detested the Igbo woman who couldn’t even birth a normal child.
My arm is draped around Aunty Amaka’s shoulders and I am worried that she will buckle beneath the weight of her pregnancy, but she has refused to sit down, just as she had refused the bread and tea I had offered her for breakfast.
The compound is silent but for Father Vincent’s voice. It is as though even Grand-Pa’s goats and chickens understand the severity of the occasion. Father Vincent’s voice is grating in my head, haunting, and I know before I look up that Tonye’s eyes are on me. He is standing wide-legged behind the priest with his arms folded across his chest and there is a twitch around the corners of his mouth, a hint of a smile that does not seem to belong to him. Suddenly, she is there in this smile, and it is her eyes I see instead. Her smile widens to a toothy grin, her arms like sticks dangling lifelessly in the billowing wind, one sleeve of her bou-bou slipping downwards to reveal her left shoulder.
You must already know how much I hate you, Filthy little bitch.
I cannot take my eyes off her. I am paralyzed by fear and cold.
“Na aha Jesus!”
Heads rise. I stare hard at the spot where Tonye is standing but she is not there. Tonye is staring at me still, his eyes are concerned. His lips form silent words, are you okay? But I pretend not to see.
It is Tonye’s turn to step forward, and when he opens his mouth, his voice is trembling with all the right notes. He tells us about how blessed he is to have been married to such a person, about her beautiful face and her kind soul, her relentless faith in the Lord and in their marriage. Now that she is gone, he is lost, clueless as to how to care for their child. The last statement elicits murmurs amidst a loud cry from Mummy and a grunt from Grand-pa, who leans dangerously on his walking stick, as Chukwuedo lunges forward and holds him steady while saying “Ozugo” to Mummy. My brother, anxiety etched in his handsome face, is overseeing things as a nwoke should. I feel proud.
All along, Tonye had been speaking with his head bowed, and when he looks up at the end of his speech, his expression is unreadable. As is tradition, he picks up a shovel, scoops some mud, and sprinkles it over her coffin.
“I love you forever, my wife,” He says quietly.
Grand-Pa bursts out next in rapid Igbo, thanking everyone in attendance for the farewell of his youngest. Good parents allow their children bury them, and not the other way round, he rasps out before launching into an Igbo song, one that she had loved as a child.
Voices rise and meld into the air as one, to the soulful tone of this song I do not recognize. Three stout bare-chested men come forward to cover the grave. The singing is louder, and then the wailing. It is the sight of Aunty Amaka, pulling away from me and walking back in the direction of Grand-Pa’s house which unfurls something deep within me. I sway a little, dazed by the cacophony of sounds reverberating in my brain. Still, her voice is clear and distinct amidst it all, asking if I will eat ogbono soup or native soup. Thanking me for taking the time to visit her home.
“Hey,” All of a sudden Tonye is here, gathering me in his arms.
I start to weep like a child, my shoulders racking with sobs.
“Seeing you like this is tearing me apart. Please, Munachimso.”
I try to wriggle away, but his is a solid, possessive embrace.
“What do you think you are doing?” I wail.
“I can’t bear to see you like this.”
“She is dead. She is fucking dead!”
“And I am sorry.”
I look up into his eyes, again there is no expression.
“Tonye!” My eyes are searching.
As Tonye opens his mouth in reply, Chukwuedo swoops in on us and taps his shoulder.
“Oh! Hey Big man,” He turns around with a cheerful smile.
“Uncle T!” Chukwuedo smiles back, taking my hand and pulling me to his side.
“Take care of your sister, son.” Tonye says.
“Sure thing Sir. Really sorry about your loss.”
Tonye shrugs, “It is our loss, and indeed, God knows best.”
As I walk back towards our grand-father’s house with my brother, his grip on me intensifies and I still myself against the yelp of surprise that threatens to spill out of my mouth.
“What are you doing, Muna?” He demands.
“You are going to break my arm into two!”
“I rather break your arm than see you getting cosy with that bastard. God, Muna. Do you see the way he looks at you?”
I snatch back my hand. “Uncle Tonye just lost his wife! Why would you say a thing like that?”
His cold stare is like a thousand needles pricking my skin. “If you are honest with yourself, you will admit that this paedophile has wanted you since you were a child. You better think with your head, Smallie.”
At night, I toss and turn on the mat where I am sandwiched between my mother and Aunty Amaka. I think about the day I met Tonye in the waiting hall of my hostel, of yelling in his face about her finding out and all her threats. I think of Tonye’s soothing arms around me, of him kissing me on the mouth right there in the hall, telling me that nobody would hurt me. I think of the unnatural calm in Aunty Amaka’s voice when she explained to me that she slept and did not wake up, that she went peacefully. Then I think of her in that boubou dress, standing in the same spot that Tonye had been, smiling at me.
Then, there is Tonye, holding on to me inches away from her body, his face devoid of any emotion.
I stop taking his phone calls or replying his texts, yet when the new semester begins and my account is credited with zeros that leave me dizzy, I do not call him demanding to return the money. Soon, the texts become shorter and the calls fewer. Months pass since she was buried and I have not seen him. I have moved out of the hostel and rented a room in Choba. On Thursdays, I train with the rest of Mr.Henry’s models at Everrich hotel, and on weekends, I come home to my mother, regaling her only with the stories that thrill yet annoy her, like how my Economics Lecturer said I was too pretty to score so high in a test. I laugh at the high-pitched quality to her tone when she says, “Inukwa! Has he not met a beautiful girl that knows book? The audacity!” I love to watch her eyes become watery, crinkling at the corners as she flings her head back in laughter at some of my silly, sometimes made up stories. I like to finish with news about Chukwuedo, who is never consistent with phone calls. Once, I showed her pictures of Chukwuedo’s yellow pawpaw girlfriend and she said, ehen! with a little dance, adding that this one was definitely better than that one who never smiles
On some Sundays, I go to Aunty Amaka’s house in Woji and I crunch on her extra sweet chin-chin while I rock her chubby-faced baby boy. I listen to her complain about the husband who is never home, but not without the twinkle in her eyes before she reminds me yet again that he is working hard so that they can relocate to Europe.
Piece by piece, the women who matter the most in my life are coming to terms with the loss of their sister, and I find some semblance of sanity in their healing. Some days, I find that I am truly happy, and other days, I grasp again.
I receive a text from Tonye saying that he has sent his son away to some facility in America on the same day that I meet Ifeanyi. I am sharing a large tray of bole and fish with three of my department girls when he sidles past with a duffel sports bag slung over one shoulder. One of the girls, Soso, looks him over, says, “That boy is fine sha,” and when I look up from my phone to catch his eye, he stops midway and heads back in our direction.
“Girl, he heard you!” I and Nneka say simultaneously, giggling with our oily palms cupped over our mouths.
Ifeanyi stands before us, his head a crown of unruly twists that spill onto his forehead, his body lean like a teenager’s. He asks if he can sit with us girls, a lopsided smile on his boyish face, and I reply, teasingly, “What are you bringing to the table?”
He cocks his head to the side. “Err, Poetry?”
I laugh; “Just who are you?”
“My name is Ifeanyi Echezona, 300 level student of Theatre Ar-“
Soso stops him with a slap to her forehead. “You were not supposed to respond. That was rhetorical!” She asserts.
His eyes stroll lazily in my direction as he asks, “Was it?”
I am suddenly shy, choosing instead to focus on the tattoo snaking its way around the fingers that clutch the bag’s strap. I say, “Okay Ifeanyi, you can sit with us,” with a smile, and he clears a space beside me on the wooden bench, saying breathlessly, “Oh thank you Ma’am! I almost died from standing!” to our collective eye-rolling.
For the next hour, Ifeanyi belts out the words to some poems he has written, stopping at intervals only to sip from a water bottle he had retrieved from his bag.
His voice, more than the poetry itself, high and low in turns, is what I remember the most about this day. Sometimes, we would interrupt to ask if he wants plantain or yam or fish, but he would shake his head and continue.
By the time he finishes with his poems, I am tracing the last of the bole sauce with my fingers and sucking on them noisily, unhinged. As I down my bottle of water, he bursts into a short round of applause.
“What is wrong with this one?” I laugh, again shocked at my own uninhibitedness.
“There is some art to the way you eat bole, some fieriness that I cannot help but admire,” He explains solemnly.
“There is some load of crap to the things you say though!” I retort, doubling over in laughter as my girls join in.
Ifeanyi’s forehead furrows in bemusement. “It’s not that funny!” He groans but we only laugh louder, mine the loudest. This water-bottle carrying, poetry belting, tattooed boy is a paradox that I am curious about.
Later that evening, while I stroll home with a new spring to my step, I see Tonye’s car in front of my lodge before I notice him leaning on its bonnet, gaunt and unshaven.
“Muna?” He edges forward.
I move towards my gate and start to hit it with both palms.
“Muna? I am talking to you.”
He moves behind me, so close that his breath fans my neck. I hit the gate even harder. How novel of the gateman to choose this exact moment to be nowhere near his duty post!
“Muna!” He yells. “Why won’t you talk to me?”
“Leave me alone!” I scream.
“Is this all you have got to say to me?”
“Leave me alone!” I start to yell my gateman’s name. My head throbs to the same crazed tune of my heartbeat.
Then, he grabs a fistful of my braids and turns me around to face him.
“Muna Baby, What are you saying to me?”
I glance around me in panic but the street is a lonely stretch of pebbles and gravel.
My eyes lock with his, pits of brown, darkened by the receding daylight, and my chest rises and falls in quick succession.
“I am sorry,” I blurt out, again and again. I am sorry. I am sorry. I am sorry.