|Jan/Feb 2014 Fiction|
Image courtesy of British Library Photostream
Our dog Jermyn ate everything. So at my brother's naming ceremony, it was not unusual to see him attacking a gift-wrapped box so vigorously. It was easily the best-wrapped present, all pink and green and shiny.
"Jermyn!" I took it from him. He leapt to snatch it back. Standing on his hind legs, he's almost taller than I am.
"What's wrong with that fool dog?" My mother asked. Her lips thinned.
"Dunno." I was enjoying having Jermyn leap for it. Even if he was almost pushing me to the ground.
"Well you better lock him up before he ruins things for us today." She gave him an evil look.
Jermyn was my step-father's dog. He had a taste for my mother's lace skirts. He waited until they were washed and hung out to dry, flapping in the breeze. And not any old ones. The ones with sequins or diamante. Expensive lace. He liked to shit sequins. Afterwards he'd sit and lick his bloody bum dry. Right now, he looked at her like she was lunch and all she had on were oversized earrings and a silk robe.
"He likes you, you know."
Her response was a harrumph. Then she sashayed upstairs.
"She likes you Jermyn. And so do I." I swatted him on the rump.
Everyone said my mother would marry again. But when she did, it was with a lightning speed that surprised a lot of people.
"What kind of woman does not wait the full mourning year before marrying again?"
"She carries the stench of her dead husband."
"She is lucky a man wanted to take her on with two children."
"Can't blame him. The woman is as fine as Mami Wata."
Indeed. If anyone could be compared to the water goddess, it was my mother. She was stunning. And charming. And graceful. Everything I was not. You should have seen the way she used her hands. Even moving them in silent commands to the servants, they whispered through the air as if motion could bruise them. I admired my mother.
I liked my step-father well enough. He was crazy about my mother. Not crazy enough to give up the dog, though.
"I'll buy you new ones," he said to my mother when confronted with evidence of Jermyn's misdeeds.
"That's not the point!"
Jermyn stole meat from the pot while it was still cooking on the fire. He crept in through the back doors, nosed the lid off and snapped up as much as he could. It was his howls of pain that brought us running.
My step-father gave him the whole pot of meat when it was done.
"I'll buy you another pot," he said to my mother.
He wanted us to call him "Dad" straightaway, and I did. It helped our image. I am pragmatic about such things. My sister is not.
"He disgusts me," she said. I knew she didn't mean it. She was a daddy's girl who missed her dead dad.
"His beard is too weird. He looks like Pharaoh." That was true. Our new dad had a beard, heavy, black, shaped so it curved away from his face like a banana.
"What kind of man does not wait for a woman to take off mourning clothes anyway?" Now she was just listening to gossip. Nwala did not know anything about funeral rites before our father died. We had never been exposed to death.
"I bet he cannot have children." She was wrong. My mother was pregnant within the year. She gave birth to my sister Ugo, and now three years later, our baby brother was finally born.
Our step-father had taken him in his arms after he was born and performed the full Lion King. He raised him up high. "All of this belongs to you!" he exclaimed. "I will give you the world." Nwala hissed and left the room.
"Darling, mind the fan," said my mother, filing her nails.
"Yes, yes." He handed my brother over and went out to give cash gifts to all of the hospital staff and anyone who so much as looked at him.
I stroked the tight O curls on my brother's head. His eyes were open. I lowered my face to his. "Hello baby. I am your sister. Edwina."
When I looked up, tears were pouring down my mother's face.
"Are you in pain? Should I call a nurse?"
But she merely laughed, the sound of gears grinding. "I wish your father's brothers could see me now."
Throughout my brother's ceremony, Jermyn barked. My mum shuddered each time, fingering her newest frothy attire: creamy yellow lace that seemed fine as cobwebs. It looked fit to collapse like a Victorian maiden if you looked at it sternly. I should have put that in quotes since I borrowed it. My new grandmother said it first.
Finally, my father could take the staccato barks no more.
"Somebody release that mutt," he said. "I'll give him some palm wine. He'll soon join in the swing of things."
My grandmother tutted. She said in Igbo, "When you treat a dog like a son, why be surprised when it acts like one?" In English she added: "He's just jealous you finally have a boy. He's going to be replaced."
"No, never." My father sipped his tankard of palm wine. Foam clung to his moustache. He did not wipe it off.
My grandmother looked at him as he said that. I could tell she wanted to ask him if he was "having brain waves," her code for crazy. But she didn't want to insult her son in front of all the guests milling about. She circled her head with her fingers and clicked them to nullify his words.
"Where is your sister? Go and get her to help." My mother looked with alarm as a servant girl laden with plates of oily onugbu soup came her way. She side-stepped quickly. Her fish-tail skirt made it seem as if she was gliding. Her earrings threw patterned sunlight all over her bare shoulders.
"That girl is always dodging. Why do you let her spend so much time by herself? It's not healthy, always going into that bush behind the house." Grandma's legs were almost useless which is probably why she could only carry my sister Ugo for as long as she did. Ugo was the size of an adult pig.
My mother bristled. "You know how she is, Nne," she said. "Can anyone stop her?" She said this in the syrupy tones which meant she was really, really annoyed.
"Don't look to that one for bride price," said grandmother. "But my darling Ugo will fetch more than twice whatever your other two do. Won't you?" She tickled my sister under her dimpled chin. Ugo squealed. My mother pretended not to hear her.
My sister Nwala stood by our fish pond, squeezing udala fruits. She twirled her favorite short twig in her hand. It was a knobby bit of bark she'd picked up from god-knows-where, which she used as a soother. It stained her hand dusty green.
"Mum's calling you."
She said nothing.
"What are you doing?"
"Feeding the fish udala seeds. What does it look like?"
"Do they like it?"
"Mum says you're to come and help.
"Why? It's not my baby."
Nwala had not even held our brother since he had been born. She despised Ugo, called her "half-breed" because she "looked like a pig and had ears like a teddy bear." Don't ask me.
On my way back from the backyard, I saw Jermyn sniffing about in the pile of presents, whimpering. I watched him for a while, nosing packages aside. He saw me and barked, two short high ones. He didn't wag his tail.
"What is it, boy?" I asked like they did in films. "Did Nwala fall in the fish pond? Did dad choke on a fish bone? Is baby on the balcony?" I looked up. "No. So stop that racket."
Jermyn ignored me. He went back to his search.
"You can stop looking. I hid it upstairs. Honestly, you and shiny things."
Jermyn's ears pricked up.
"Don't even think about it," I said.
But he ignored me and rushed to the backyard, making an even bigger racket than before. Many of the serving girls from the local caterer shrank back from his slavering form. He pawed the mosquito netted patio doors.
"Oh, no you don't!" I took him away and locked him up in his kennel again.
A long howl split the air. Even the live band stopped playing. Their lead singer, resplendent in sunglasses and trendy dreadlocks, crossed himself.
"Jesu Kristi. That dog is behaving like somebody's died," he said.
"Why has the music stopped?" My step-father yelled. They started up again. I noticed the lead singer turning a ring rosary around his fingers.
When I went upstairs to keep the rest of the gifts in the cupboard in the baby's room, the first one was gone.
There was a piece of the pink and green wrapping paper on the floor. I picked it up and put it in my pocket. I would look for the present later.
My brother was named Emmanuel Kaosisochukwu Dimazoro Ogugua Achufusi. Everyone agreed his names were fitting.
Jermyn's howling woke me in the middle of the night. I heard a rustling in my room. I thought, "Cockroach!" My skin responded with gooseflesh. I listened. Silence. I was dropping off to sleep when it came again. I sat up.
"Hello?" I definitely watched too many films. I reached beside my bedside table and picked up the metal torch. I clicked it on and aimed the beam at the sound. Again. Rustle, rustle.
It came from my dirty linen basket. My mind swarmed with images. Had a rat managed to get in there? Was it a cockroach? If yes, was it not better being trapped under the lid of my basket until one of the girls could get it out? But no, cockroaches could gnaw through clothes like moths. I had a few clothes I really liked in there.
It was the last thought that sent me almost flying across the cool tiles in desperate bravado. I took the lid off and shone the beam in the basket. The sound stopped. I poked the clothes with the torch.
I bent down to pick up the lid. Something flew straight out and into my face. I dropped the lid. The torch clattered to the floor and went out. I slapped my face several times, my hair a few hundred, my body a thousand. I stomped on the ground, picked up the torch and shone it around.
The piece of wrapping paper from earlier in the day lay on the floor.
As I stared at it, it moved. Slowly at first, as if it didn't want to startle me. Then it scuttled across the floor to slip under my bedroom door.
I stood there holding the torch in both my hands, fogging up the glass with my breath.
"The hell...?" I decided it was probably the wind.
I told you I was pragmatic.
It wasn't the wind. The heat in my room made it impossible to go back to sleep. The windows were closed, and there was no breeze. I timed myself on my mobile phone, trying to talk myself into getting up. Nine minutes. Nine minutes before the rustle started up again. It sounded bigger this time. Like a... what is the collective noun for bits of wrapping paper? A swarm? It was a swarm of wrapping paper. I shone the torch before even I stepped out of my room. I caught the tail of it, tapering off in twos and threes.
I stepped on a piece. It wiggled underneath my feet.
"Ouch!" It cut the skin between my big toe as it fled to join the others. I followed it, hopping on one foot. It was going upstairs. My parents slept upstairs. And so did my baby brother.
My sister's door opened on my right.
"Yaaaa!" She ploughed into me. I fell, scraping an elbow on the pebbledash walls. The torch slid away, spun and caught us in its beam. Nwala looked as if she hadn't been sleeping, either. More than that, she was awake. Too awake. As if she hadn't slept for days. How had I not noticed?
"Nwala, get off me. There is something...!"
"Leave it Edwina. It only wants a little blood. Then it'll go away."
I wanted to ask her what the hell she was talking about, but some part of me must have known not to. In films, this is where people get killed. Asking stupid questions instead of fleeing.
"Get off me, Nwala!"
I struggled, but Nwala was strong. Bony, but strong. She pinned my arms to the floor with her knees.
"Don't you understand? It was hungry. It's been hungry all this while."
"Get off! It could hurt the baby!"
"Good! I'm so sick of that stupid baby!
I pushed her off. She hit her head on the wall. I ran.
"Edwina!" she called after me. Her voice bounced all over place. I could hear her coming as I ran upstairs. Her feet slapped flipper-like against the tiles.
"What's all this racket?" My mother appeared at the top of the stairs. She seemed soft-lit, all rose gold and pinks, her silk nightgown creaseless.
"Nwala is trying to kill the baby!"
"I am not!"
"What?" My mother's hand whispered through the air around her head. Any other person might have scratched their head. I rushed past her into the baby's room.
All was calm. Too calm. The baby breathed softly. I turned to flick on the light and saw it. It swirled in the air behind the door, in the shape of a person. Not a real person. A logo person, the kind cooked up by smart ad men. Pointed arms and feet like the Tour de France cyclist.
It came towards me, swirling, swirling like dust motes. I picked the baby up and held him to my chest.
"Edwina! All it needs is a little blood!" Nwala burst in. "I promised!"
"Then give him yours!" The thing stretched out a swirling, shimmering arm. "What the hell is this thing?"
"Edwina, I promised him the baby. Don't you see? This could solve all our problems. Mum could love us again!"
"Huh?" The nearer the thing moved, the more I could feel the breeze it generated. It tickled the hairs on my face.
"Ugo is a girl, she's no real threat, but a boy, a boy changes everything!"
"I love you," said mum, gliding in. She glanced at the creature. Her lips pursed. "I don't know what she's told you, but if you think I am giving up my son, you have another thing coming."
The paper man looked from one to the other of us. It hovered uncertainly.
"Where did you find this thing?" asked mum. "Is this what you've been doing all this while in the bushes? Good lord."
"It's not my fault. I'm starved for attention. And I want my daddy," said Nwala. She wiped her eyes with the sleeves of her pajamas. "It found me. It said we could be a family again."
"Your father is not coming back, Nwala, you know that." Mum touched her face. "He left us, and that is that. This is our family now."
The creature shimmered into the rocking chair. It held its head in its hands. We could hear Jermyn going crazy, scampering about the compound, looking for a way into the house from the kennels.
"And you," she turned to the creature. "Why don't you get off your lazy behind? Stop looking for small girls to do your dirty work. If it's blood you're after, why don't you pay a visit to my greedy ex-brother-in-laws? They threw me out of my house just because I didn't have a son to carry on the family name."
The thing looked up. I could see its face, swirling like a school of fish. It paused for a moment, then stood to its full height. It almost touched the ceiling. The baby began to wail. Jermyn howled louder.
"Mum, it can't fly that far without a body. It needs..." Nwala began.
"Yes, yes. We know. It needs blood." I rolled my eyes and handed the baby over to mum. She pulled down the neck of her nightgown and attached him to her breast. "How did it get here anyway?"
Nwala brought out the gnarled twig.
"Why don't you take Jermyn's body? He won't mind. He's a loyal dog." Mum sat in the chair the thing had just vacated. She re-latched the baby and rearranged the kimono sleeves to spread out like butterflies' wings. "And he's always eating my clothes."
"Mum, you can't do that!" I stopped. It would be just like the revenge-dog film, Teri Meharbaniyan. My dad loved old Bollywood films. The uncles had taken those DVDs as well. I had begged and begged. I knew the uncles would not watch them. They just had to have all his stuff. It was tradition, they said.
"Actually, that is a good idea," I amended.
"Yes?" She looked to Nwala for confirmation.
"Yes." Nwala's smile was shaky. She stared at the thing as if wishing to communicate something.
"What going on?" Our step-father yawned. His stale palm-wine breath filled the room. He rubbed his chin. "Why is everyone up?" he picked at his eye crust. He clocked the creature near the window.
"Argh!" He turned to run. He slipped on the rug. He fell. He was out like a light. Blood seeped from a cut to his head. The creature stared at it.
"Why isn't it taking that blood?" I asked.
"It didn't earn that. That's just taking the piss," said Nwala.
"I told your father not to put that rug there." Mum burped the baby and put him back in his cot. "Let's go."
We trooped downstairs.
Jermyn barked and barked and barked. The thing just stood there shimmering. Jermyn tried to bite it. It disintegrated and reformed. It made Jermyn chase his tail.
My mother cleared her throat. "This is all well and good, but are you going to take the dog or not?"
The swarm whipped round and round until it was a mini cyclone. In it went arrow-straight into Jermyn's barking mouth. Jermyn howled one more time and then stopped. His eyes flickered, now green, now pink.
"All right, Jermyn," said mum. "Kill!" She pointed in the direction of my father's village.
We gaped at her.
"What?" she shrugged. "I've always wanted to say that."
Jermyn barked. No sound came out. A single piece of paper like the one I stepped on escaped his mouth and flittered over the gate. He gathered himself and leapt after it.
"Sorry mum," said Nwala as we went back to the nursery.
"You should apologize to your father. I'm not the one that's going to wake up with a headache," she looked at herself in the full length mirror in the baby's room. I'd always wondered what it was for. I knew now.
I yawned. I needed my bed.
"I do hope Jermyn eats your Uncle Christian's wife first. The thought of her fat ass forced into my jacquard wrappers gives me the creeps." She patted her hair in its fat, long plaits. "It's such a shame isn't it? The things we women have to do to earn society's protection?"
She lifted my step-father in her arms. Her footfalls were still light, her hips still swung from side to side as she went down the hall to their bedroom.
"Edwina? I think mum's crazy," Nwala whispered.
I sat in the rocking chair and fell asleep.
The next morning at breakfast, Nwala shoveled cornflakes and akara balls into her mouth. Her three-year semi-fast had come to an end.
"Morning, darling," said mum as our step-father came down for breakfast.
I handed him a glass of orange juice, freshly squeezed from one of the trees at the back.
"I must have had too much to drink last night," he winced.
"You fell out of bed." Mum kissed him. So did Nwala. He looked up in surprise. His face melted in pleasure. He wasn't so bad after all.
"So, where is Jermyn today? He hasn't come to greet me."
"I sent him on a little errand," said mum. "He really is a good dog."