Jan/Feb 2004  •   Spotlight


by Chika Unigwe

He has hair like the fibres of a well-eaten mango, sparse and white. His hands are like you expect: sandpaper. But as he touches, you do not flinch. Not even when he rubs the sandpaper against your bare arms. His touch reminds you of the cleanser that keeps your face spot-free. The cleanser hurts, but no beauty comes without its pains. Everybody knows that. Or ought to at least.

When he licks your ears and makes a kissing sound (except the sound comes out sounding like a bottle-cover scratching a cement floor), you do not move away in repulsion. Instead, you smile and count your blessings. He cannot see that your smile is no more than an ochi eze—the sort of smile that hurts at the jaws, a smile that stays on the surface like skimmed milk. He sees your teeth gleaming in the light and smiles back, exposing a full set of teeth. The teeth sit awkwardly in his wrinkled mouth. They seem to be too much for that cavity, and his lips barely cover them. He reminds you of a rabbit. You wonder for a minute if the teeth are all his. You wonder if he has bought them like he buys everything else in his life. He tells you he pays a huge bride price on his wife, tells you about the three cows he slaughters for the wedding, about the sacks of rice that he has imported from Thailand especially for the ceremony, about the bales of lace from Vienna he gives his mother-in-law and the 24 karat gold chain he buys from a Jewish merchant in Antwerp for his wife. You know all about his cars (the Mercedes, the Peugeot 505, the Land Rover Jeep, and the Land Cruiser that he has just imported from Belgium). Brand new, he says. Not tokunbo, those second-hand cars that litter the streets. You know all about his houses (the ones in London and New York, the apartments in Enugu and Onitsha, and the mansion he is building in his village, which has fifteen self-contained bedrooms and a lawn tennis court).

He thinks he makes you happy. And maybe, in a way he does. Happiness is not a quality that stays static. Its parameters change, swelling or shrinking. This is a lesson you have learned. It is one you are still learning as a matter of fact. What made you happy a few years ago is no longer there. Now, you are teaching yourself to be made happy by other things. So maybe the sand-paper hands grate your taut arms, but you are close to your goal. And that makes you happy. You give him another smile, the one that floats on the surface, not coming deep from your heart. It has been awhile since you smiled from your heart, anyway. You do not know if you are capable of doing that anymore. Besides, it is easier to smile this way, even though it hurts at the jaws. It is a smile that comes without you having to search too deep for a reason. It is instantly gratifying to the receiver.

Obi is the first man you fall in love with. You marry him and your life is a fairy tale: a husband with a smile like a full moon. His smile lights up a room, lights up your universe. That smile steals your heart the first time he sends it to you across a crowded wedding reception. He says it is fate that brings you together when you tell him that you have stumbled into the wrong room. Your second cousin's reception is in the hall on the upper floor. Somehow, not having listened properly to your mother's hurried directions, you end up in this hall. You do not mind. You never did like your second cousin much, and you do like this man with a thin mustache above his upper lip. He has a voice that sounds like a low rumble. And when he tells you in that low rumble that fate brings you together, you fall in love with the word "fate." Fate is beautiful. It pushes you into the wrong hall to meet the man you stumble into love with. You will explain to your mother later why you do not turn up at your cousin's wedding. She will scold you and tell you off for missing it. She will warn you that everybody is going to think it is because you are jealous. After all, the cousin whose wedding you miss is three years younger than you, and you are still to get a marriage proposal. She will cry and beat her chest and ask her gods why she is burdened with a daughter like you? What did she do in her former life to earn this punishment? What is she being punished for? She will lament that you are a bad child, a disgrace, and how can you hope to find a husband if you miss weddings where so many eligible men are present? Do you not know that your cousin has at least four brothers-in-law of marriageable age? Ewo, her gods have given her the worst daughter ever. She will say and do all these things, but you will not mind. You will not care because you are confident that fate is taking care of you.

The day you mention to your mother that there is a man interested in marrying you, she dances around your small sitting-room. She waves a handkerchief in the air and sings praises to her gods who have finally smiled on her:

chim di mma chim di mma onye si na chim adighi mma bia fulu ife o melu m ooo chim ooo, tanku you

She holds you close in happiness, pressing your nose against her neck (your mother is a few inches taller than you), and you fear she will suffocate you with her happiness. The happiness fills her arms with a strength that surprises you, and it is a while before you can extricate yourself from her embrace. You are embarrassed. It has been so long since she has hugged you. In fact, it has been such a long time that even though you try to remember it, you cannot.

The day she meets Obi for the first time, she tells you he will make you very happy, that mothers know such things. She makes him yam porridge with spinach leaves, and even though he does not like yam, he eats to make your mother happy. He knows you do not reject your prospective mother-in-law's first meal! And especially not if she has killed a whole chicken for you. She hangs around while he eats, asking him questions about his family, what he does, where he lives. Obi answers between mouthfuls. It is not really your mother's place to question a prospective son-in-law, but she takes on the duty because there is no man to challenge her. Your father is dead and you have no brothers. She will tell your paternal uncles that you have a suitor, and they will ask their own questions and perform their own investigations. But that will be later.

When he leaves, your mother tells you he does not eat like a greedy man. He does not fill his mouth with food so much so that it is impossible for him to talk. Greedy men do not make good husbands, she says, and you wonder if that is why she makes the food, to test him.

After a meeting with your uncles, Obi pays your bride-price and takes wine to your people. You do not want a huge traditional wedding. You want to save the money for a remarkable white wedding. You want the city to talk about your wedding.

Your wedding day is a drizzly Saturday. Your mother worriedly tells you it is bad luck to marry in the rain, but you cast her worries away with a high laugh and the back of your palm, telling her it is merely superstition. You are beyond superstition. It has no power over you. Your mother smiles, but her eyes still look worried.

She is in a red George wrapper and a white lace blouse with sleeves that puff up to her ears. They are Obi's presents to her, her first set of new clothes in years. You love her very much, and you do not want her happiness marred by the rain. You smile at her and tell her not to worry, that nothing could possible go wrong. She places her soft palm on yours and tells you you look very beautiful, but she wishes you had chosen a white wedding dress. It is more virginal. And you are a virgin, are you not? You pretend not to hear her. You have had the colour argument before, but you are happy that she does not seem to be thinking of the rain anymore.

The church is full, and some guests have to stand outside, huddled under umbrellas to hear you tell Obi (in a voice thick with tears of joy) that you will be his forever and forever and forever. His! His! His! It is a vow that is easy for you to make because you cannot imagine ever wanting to be with anyone else. Obi is the zenith. Your soul mate. Your perfect fate. He is where you want to be. When you walk down the aisle, holding to the hem of your cream wedding dress, the flower girls spray you with confetti and rice. You do not mind that a grain of rice gets into your left eye and that you have to rub and rub to get it out (which makes that eye puffy and red and makes it look as if you have apollo, conjuctivitis, in the wedding pictures).

The pregnancies come soon after. You have three healthy children in two years: twin beautiful girls with their father's smile and their mother's nose (the perfect nose, Obi calls it) and a son who is the apple of your eye (he looks very much like Obi) and who, your mother delights, has secured your place in your husband's home. They are the kind of children who strangers like to coo over, pinching their cheeks and rubbing their heads, saying how very healthy they look:

Chei! These are very beautiful children.
They are as healthy as okuko agriculture, those chickens that are so plump all over.
You must be proud of such children.
See how their skin glows with health and good living. Ndi uwa oma!

You have a house. A duplex in a quiet part of town. Your house is proof of the comfortable lives you live inside: wall to wall carpeting with a rug so deep and so lush that your feet practically disappear as soon as you step in, a huge colour television (that guests admire and your neighbour tells you jealously looks like a cinema screen and says she does not know what you need such a huge screen for anyway, it looks out of place in a sitting-room), and a Sony CD player, on which you and Obi play all your favourite tunes (you are both in love with Barry White, and when you hear that he is dead, you actually cry). The children have a room each with air-conditioning to protect them from the temperature that goes as high as a high fever (and the guest room your mother uses has air-conditioning too, but she never uses it, saying it makes her feel as if she is in a mortuary and even though she is old, she is not dead yet, thank you very much!).

But when Obi dies at thirty-six (and you are thirty-four), your life shatters like china. You cannot even begin to pick up the pieces.

Obi is too young to die, and your mother-in-law wants to know why his fate has been so cruel to him. She invites the prophet of her church to your house and demands from him the answer to the question that is burning her, threatening to consume her. Who is to blame for her healthy son's death? The wild-haired prophet burns incense in all the rooms, his white prophet's gown sweeping the rug that has swallowed his bare feet. He rings his little bell and chants incantations in a loud, strange voice that sounds like he is singing (but he is not singing). He sways from side to side and points the finger of blame at you (it is his index finger on his right hand, its nail bandaged with a browning bandaid, and when he points it at you, it looks as if he is offering you a cigar). He tells her you have a binding marriage in the ocean with a water spirit. A water spirit who is jealous of Obi. It is this spirit who afflicts him with an illness. This marriage is news to you, but nobody believes you. You do not know whether to laugh or cry. How can anyone believe that marriages are contracted between spirits and humans? Your mother-in-law claps her hands in your face and almost spits at you for daring to cast aspersion on the prophet. The prophet shakes his head, sending his locks gently flying from side to side, and accepts the glass of cola Obi's mother brings for him.

"A young man like that, he just died in his sleep. That's not normal," your mother-in-law proclaims as she gathers support from relatives to turn you out of your home, the duplex on the quiet side of town with the air-conditioned rooms.

"The doctors say he had a heart attack. The autopsy concluded that," you protest, but nobody is listening to you.

Obi's incensed mother shouts above your voice, "You killed my son. Why did you not just stay with your water-spirit husband? Why? You may deceive everybody else, but you cannot deceive the prophet. He has seen you for what you are," she sobs as Obi's uncle assures her that you will pay for your evil. Evil of which you know nothing. How could you begin to pay for the prophet's imagination, an imagination as wild as his over-grown hair?

You move out with nothing but your clothes and your two wailing daughters, out of the comfortable duplex with the air-conditioned rooms. Obi's family will keep your four year-old son. He is theirs. Heir to the family name. But your five year-old twin daughters are yours. They do not want the burden of raising the female children of an evil mother.

Obi's mother swaggers her way into the house with his two younger brothers. From now on, your mother-in-law will hold court in your former house. You will no longer be welcome. Not even to see your son, the perfect image of his father. That bit of Obi that you hold onto at his funeral, crying until your eyes swell like bunched-up fists.

Your father is dead, and your mother is poor and depends on you for financial support. You have no family to ask for help, and you have mouths to feed. You swear that your children must go to school. This has always been your dream, and one shared by Obi. You do not have to listen hard to hear him say, "Uche, our children must go to school until there is nothing more for them to learn. I want them to see the end of school."

You cannot get a job because you have no qualifications. You do not have even a standard six certificate. Your mother always says that all a woman needs is a generous husband. She is wrong. A woman needs more than that. She needs generous in-laws too. Above that, she needs an education, a job, independence. These are what you want for your daughters. Your dream for them.

It is this dream that pulls you into this blue-lit room that you rent while your daughters sleep in your other apartment at the other side of town. They think that you have a job helping out at the university hospital.

You are lucky that even after three pregnancies, your body is still as firm as a just-ripe tomato. Your stomach is taut and has just a little bulge, the size of an orange right under the navel. People say you still look like you did at sixteen (and unlike many compliments, you know that this is entirely true).

Your mother says you have a body like a rubber band. No matter how far it is stretched, it always snaps back to its normal shape. This body becomes your money-spinner.

The first night you work, you are shy. You want to cover your eyes when the pot-bellied man takes your nipples between his teeth. You keep your legs tight together, hardly daring to open them. He laughs and says it is just like being with a virgin. He likes it. He thinks you are a tease, and that the coyness is part of an act. He growls in pleasure, and when he gets up to go, his eyes shine like a cat's in the dark. He reaches into a black leather wallet with gold lettering at the side and pulls out a bunch of notes, suffocating the room with its smell of central bank. He is a big spender, and he is happy with you. He gives you enough money to pay your house-rent for two months. The money helps de-shy you and soon, you are able to chuck the shyness in a bin where it mildews.

As the man with the sandpaper hands whispers into your ears, you close your nose to the stench of his breath (it smells like the raw fish stand of the local Kenyatta market), and you count your blessings: your daughters are in a private school, your mother is being taken good care of, and your retirement plans are already in motion. You will be the owner of the biggest bakery in Enugu. You can already see the bakery, a white bungalow with "Dream Bread" emblazoned in red, a huge neon light lighting it up, its fame spreading from Enugu to Onitsha.