By Ottih Onyedikachi
The lightning flashed across our grime-filled louvers. Mother was always too busy in the shop to notice them or to instruct my older siblings to clean them. The flash struck sharp against the dark sky, throwing light on earth as it came and went.
Nnaemeka, my elder brother, rushed with the wrapper that was always left in the parlour even when we had visitors, and he threw it over the long-standing mirror. It was a general belief that lightning from heaven could strike an open mirror. i always imagined the mirror to be a sensitive woman who did not like rain, always stood there, protected, and reflecting whatever was before it.
We all sat in the parlour. Nnaemeka was the eldest at fifteen years old. Obioma, my elder sister was twelve years old. i, Nzube, am eight years old. Adaku and Chibuzo, the twins and little ones, were five years old. They waited more eagerly for Mother to return from her travel. Adaku sat quietly on the single cushion, her index fingers covering her ears tightly as pellets of rain began to drop on the roof. The lightning came again. Adaku scurried over to Obioma and shut her eyes tightly. The thunder rumbled down in booms. i shuddered and bent my head, clasping my hands to my ears.
i saw in my mind’s eye those huge balls of rain that dropped sometimes when we were in school. The older ones said that it was God who sent those rains when he was angry with humanity, and that the balls were so big it bore tiny holes in your skin. They also said that rain was God’s urine. i also heard that it rained whenever God was bathing.
i had seen the heavy raindrops, but had never felt them on my skin. First was because we were not allowed to play in it. Second was because i was afraid. i wondered why they did not pierce the zinc roofing if they were that big and strong.
Obioma entered the girls’ room and returned to the parlour with a bunch of clothes under her arm. She had with her Adaku’s wooly, pink sweater, pink socks and a muffler, and the same set in colour blue for Chibuzo. She also brought along the same things in varieties and shades of colours for me. Mother never bought the same colours for Adaku and Chibuzo. She said pink was for girls and blue for boys; and because Adaku fought with everyone over everything that had the same colour as her clothes.
Obioma helped the twins put on their clothes. The wind blew strongly, flapping weak zinc sheets against their wooden supports. There was no electricity. The only source of light was supplied from three torches and ‘after Nepa,’ a rechargeable torch with four tiny bulbs sold by Hausas and smart kids who replicated the invention. Nnaemeka proceeded to lock the iron door, slamming it harder than usual because the breeze was trying to wrestle with him. He locked up and looked at me.
“Did you lock the gate?” He asked. i nodded. He did not look at me as i nodded, but walked past me and headed into the small room we used as a store, and came out with four thick rags. He began to place them on the sills of the louvres, pushing them in to absorb the drops of water the wind blew to our mosquito nets and that trickled down to the sills.
We lived alone in the compound, in a three-bedroom house with a kitchen, toilet, bathroom, dining room and the small room we used as a store. Adaku, Obioma and i, the girls, slept in one room. My parents slept in one of the other rooms, and Nnaemeka and Chibuzo had the last room.
The rain fell hard. Nnaemeka sat down, picked up his Nokia 300 and looked at the time.
“It’s 8:30pm.” Nobody needed the announcement, but he gave it, anyway. As the opara, Mother left him in charge. He looked at me and asked, “did you lock the gate?”
“I asked if you locked the gate!” His voice rose.
“Yes, I did.”
“Why did you nod? Eh? You don’t know that you don’t nod in the dark?”
i kept quiet.
“Go and warm the food, let’s eat. I will try mummy’s number again.” This time, he spoke to Obioma. She promptly stood up and entered the kitchen. Soon, we heard the gas blaze. The night seemed unusually quiet with us being alone in the house. Nobody talked or laughed. Adaku could not help herself anymore. “Will mummy come back again?” She asked Nnaemeka.
“I don’t know, Ada. Don’t ask me.”
Adaku began to suck her mouth, and we knew she was going to cry. Her twin, Chibuzo, rushed over to her immediately and held her. i sat tight in my seat and muttered ndo to her. It did not matter that sorry would not solve the problem. We were not used to staying home without Mother, and the twins were the most scared. Father worked as a police officer at an oil company. He was not home most times. We were used to that, but never of Mother’s absence.
Three days ago, Father had received a call shortly after he returned home that his elder sister was dead. Her corpse had been found on the road. That was the first time i saw Father cry. He was in the compound that evening when his phone rang. He did not say much. All i heard him say was, “Jesus? Where? When? How? Jesus,” after which he bent his head and cried in Mother’s lap.
We had looked on dumfounded. Obioma said something bad had happened, and Nnaemeka said it was death. We crowded round him and patted his back as he cried. Adaku and Chibuzo looked sympathetic and stunned at once. Many times when Mother beat any of my brothers, she would hush them immediately, and remind them that men did not cry. Adakụ, Obiọma and i were allowed to cry, and were mocked till we stopped crying and slept. Men did not cry. They are strong and powerful. How could my father cry?
We were simply told that Father’s elder sister died, and that he would travel back home tomorrow. Mother said Father would stay long because they needed to hold meetings and bury the woman as soon as possible. She also added that when the body was found, it was already rotting. Mother told us between deep sighs that because Father’s sister, a third wife, had not given her husband a son, she would be buried in her own father’s compound and not her husband’s.
Father travelled early the next morning. i spent all day trying to imagine a rotten human being. Two days after, Mother said she needed to travel and would be back the same day. We stayed home that day. Nnaemeka and Obioma cooked together. We did not go to school. We did not leave the compound.
It was 9pm and Mother was not back yet. The night was unusually dark, quiet and cold. The rain had not slowed down. i knew we were all worried about how she would make it home in that rainy night if she was already on the way. Nnaemeka said she stopped picking up her calls around 8pm after she had asked him to not call again because it was late, and she did not want her phone to draw attention to her.
The road leading into our street was filled with potholes and dirt wrappings stuck into the ground. It was part of the reasons we were ordered home if the rain touched the ground. Only Nnaemeka and Obioma were allowed out.
Obioma brought out the rice in a big plate. Five spoons were arranged around the plate, stuck deep into the food to prevent them from falling. Adaku refused to eat. Obioma carried her and petted her till she agreed to a few spoonfuls.
We finished dinner and i cleared the plate and carried it to the kitchen. i was sleepy. Nnaemeka suggested that we enter our different rooms to sleep. He said that Mother would call us if she came into town. Obioma vehemently refused. i knew that she, too, was scared of being without Mother.
She held Adaku and Chibuzo close to her, relaxed her back on the cushion and closed her eyes. i sat alone and stared.
A loud knock brought me back from my dream. i was grateful for the knock because someone had been chasing me in my dream. In the dream, i had let go of Mother’s hand while we stood in a very busy place. Father called out to me in a distance. i had turned to look when I saw an evil grin staring intently at me. i started to run, and was still running when the knock jolted me.
Adaku and Chibuzo lay asleep on the floor. Obioma had covered them with a blanket.
“Nnaemeka! Obioma!” It was Mother. i squealed out her name and stood up. Nnaemeka looked to the door. He did not answer. We were taught to wait for second calls at nights because spirits moved in the dark, and if you were unfortunate to answer a spirit’s call at night, you would die.
“Nnaemeka, your mother is back. Come and open your gate,” came Brother Onyeka’s loud voice from the gate. Onyeka lived in our street, and had become close to us. He was a grown man. i wondered why and how he was with Mother so late.
Nnaemeka hurried up and rushed to the door on the second call, grabbing the bunch of keys on the double-cushion; Obioma on his heels, jittered impatiently and hurried him.
We all went out together besides the sleeping twins. We had torch lights in our hands, as we braved the cold pelting of the rain that drenched us. We reached the gate. Nnaemeka fumbled with the key, while we waited for him to open it.
He finally opened it and our torches flashed to reveal two rain-soaked figures. Brother Onyeka stood there with Mother, carrying her sack bag. We clambered to hug her, ignoring her hands which clutched a small bag and her handbag.
The rain still fell like punches thrown from heaven. i felt the cold drops penetrate my sweater and touch my skin, but it did not matter. Mother was back. Mother stood there and smiled at us, unable to hug us.
“Brother Onyeka, good evening.” It was Nnaemeka who greeted him first. We had ignored him in the rush to welcome Mother. He did not seem angry. i knew Mother would caution us when we entered the house.
Obioma and i followed suit in the greeting which Onyeka heartily responded to. He handed us the bag and turned to leave. Mother thanked him profusely and we chorused along with the greeting and farewell. He laughed and said nnoo as he turned his back.
In the house, Mother said we should not worry about boiling water for her because the rain washed her clean. She explained that the traffic on the road was heavy and that she had called Onyeka to come accompany her home because we were still too young to come out late at night. He had obliged.
Obioma carried out the bags and removed the things inside them into two large, round trays, while Mother went into their room to undress and change.
The three of us also left to change our wet clothes. When we all returned to the parlour, Mother hugged us and commended us for being good and patient with ourselves. We knew she was referring to Nnaemeka and me. She then proceeded to caution us for not greeting Brother Onyeka immediately we had seen him.
Mother told us all that happened in the village. i was asleep before she finished her story. She tapped me gently to wake up for prayers. i was too sleepy to follow.
“We pray in Jesus’ name. We thank you merciful Father for our lives…for safe journey…we ask for mercy…and for your protection as we sleep. Amen.”
Her prayer as usual was long. i only woke up to hear bits of words to which I would chorus amen and doze off. Nnaemeka giggled and i knew Mother would look at him with murderous eyes. When she was done, she said we would all sleep together in their room. i did not protest. Obioma helped me into the room so i would not fall, while Mother and Nnaemeka carried Adaku and Chibuzo.
We lay horizontally on the large bed so it could accommodate us.
“I’ll call your father,” Mother said.
Our gate rattled loudly. A dog barked in the distance. i stirred but did not open my eyes. The rattling intensified and continued for some more minutes. Mother shook me.
“Wake up. Nzube, wake up.”
i drudged up and forced my eyes to open. Nnaemeka and Obioma were sitting down, wide-eyed at Mother who was struggling to wear Father’s trousers. There was panic in her movements.
“Nnaemeka, put the money under the rug. Obioma, dismember the phones.” Then, like an afterthought, “Nzube, get the machetes.”
My heart skipped. What was happening? The voices mumbled outside. They were hitting the door of the store. The house had two entrances from outside: our parlour and store room. The parlour door was made of iron while the store was of wood.
“Open this door! Who’s in this house? Open this door, now.” The voice was dry.
My heart pounded hard. i could not believe that thieves were at our door. i was holding up the machetes, trembling like a leaf. Obioma had tears in her eyes. Mother collected the machetes from me and handed one to Nnaemeka.
“Obioma, get the small knife on the stool.” Obioma fidgeted to the stool and picked up the knife. Nnaemeka stood gallantly behind Mother, shaking the hand which clutched the machete.
i remembered how the machetes came to be in our house, in my parents’ room. Years ago, my dad heard the story of a family that was butchered in their sleep by armed robbers. He returned home that day with two machetes in their paper sheaths. He had taken extra pains to sharpen them again by giving the Hausa men who sold and sharpened knives with stones which rolled by turning a handle. He had said that evening that he would rather die killing an intruder than be killed like a coward. Since then, the machetes had stood against the wall at the back of their room. They had never been used till this night.
i always imagined Father cutting off people’s heads with the machetes. Now, i tried in this brief period to see Nnaemeka cutting off heads. i could absolutely not see Mother do it. Nnaemeka must be stronger.
A loud, hard kick brought an unwelcome noise of a door rammed down, and the clattering of things displaced by the fall of the door. The men slowly opened the room doors as they came in. i tried to imagine myself dead.
“Would they kill me?” i cried quietly, scared to upset Mother. i prayed to God in my heart to bring in my Father into the room to help us. He was a strong man and he had a gun. He would shoot them and keep us safe.
Mother whispered something to Nnaemeka and Obioma who moved away. Obioma came to where i stood, speechless, and took me back towards the window by the wall, away from the door and Mother and brother. She stood there and i looked to see she had a small knife in her hand. She did not look as confident as Mother and Nnaemeka. i knew why they did not give me a knife.
Mother stood behind the door while Nnaemeka stood on the other side. They were like guards. Mother raised up three fingers to Nnaemeka who nodded nervously.
The thieves opened the toilet, bathroom and our girls’ room. One of them walked the passage to the parlour and dining room. We heard him retreat to the others. He hit the door with his leg. The door shook from the hinges on the wall, but it stood. The kick came again. Adaku let out a loud cry. Obioma rushed to carry her.
i saw Mother turn to look. Fear and rage glistened in her eyes. Chibuzo sat up, unaware of what was happening. It was the kick that woke him up. Mother always joked that Chibuzo would be stolen from the house while he was sleeping and taken on a day journey and he would sleep through it all. Adaku kept sniffing in Obioma’s hands that had let go of me to pick her up.
“Open this door now or we will kill all of you when we enter. Open this door!”
Mother heaved and made the sign of the cross. The thieves kicked again and grunted.
“I go kill una. Una dey stress me, abi? I go stress una. Open this door now.”
Mother looked hard at Nnaemeka who hunched his back a little, the same posture as Mother’s. This was the posture traditional wrestlers shown on Goge Africa assumed before the gong was hit to signal the start of the fight.
The thieves hit again, and again, and again, and again, and threatened once more to kill us when they entered. My heart stopped further when the lock flung open by the force of a blow. One of the thieves gently opened the door and put his head in. But Mother was ready.
At the sight of the figure coming into the dimly lit room with a flashlight, Mother raised her machete and hit. Nnaemeka followed suit. The knife blows sounded like the butchers’ at Ehi road market. The thief’s cry as he fell from the blows pierced every fibre of my being. The twins started to yell for Mother. Nobody consoled them.
Obioma trembled so much, her legs wobbled under her. Two other thieves came running in at once to be cut from both sides by Mother and Nnaemeka who screamed as he wielded his weapon.
The liquid flew from the tips of their machetes and splattered on the walls and on our faces. Mother kept cutting. Nnaemeka kept on screaming like actors i saw in movies screamed before a fight. i was crying, with my upper arm pressed to my ears and my elbows shielding my face. There was a loud bang. My ears rang. The sounds were muffled. Nnaemeka was stooped and still cutting. The moon cast mild light into the room from the windows.
Nnaemeka stared ahead of him, unseeing. The moon shone. i did not know the time. One of the policemen a neighbour called took us away from Mother as she lay on the ground, anguished, her eyes staring into empty space. They looked around and took the wrapper on the bed. With it, they wrapped Mother up. Obioma screamed so hard, i was sure her head would fall off. She took me and the twins back to the bed. Adaku flayed her arms and legs to be allowed to go to Mother. Chibuzo and i stared at her. My mind whirled about why they would tie Mother up. She would not be breathing well.
Obioma sobbed, shook and shuddered intermittently. Brother Onyeka who now carried the crying twins in his arms, stooped down and looked at me and Obioma.
“Come. You will stay in my house till your daddy returns.” The twins protested angrily. “Your Mother is dead,” he said.
The words resounded in my head till Father returned later in the day. Mother is dead. Mother is dead.
When Father returned, he looked older. i wondered if this was how he looked before he left the house days ago. He had always looked young to me. His neck bone shone so bright, i realised i had never noticed them, his eyes were sunken and he kept swearing to kill. He did not sit down for hours. He left us still at Brother Onyeka’s and went out. When he returned in the evening, without speaking, he sat on the bench in Brother Onyeka’s compound. Many people came from outside to tell him ndo. Some of them rubbed our heads and touched the twins’ cheeks.
At night, he burst out wailing, questioning God. We were shaken. i knew Mother was dead even though i did not truly understand it. i cried because she did not come back; would not come back; and because everyone else cried.
It was the second time we saw him cry. But this time, he did not cry in Mother’s lap