We had been robbed. Our longtime shop assistants, Ebube and Ebenezer, had robbed us.
They had been spotted loading the items to a van over a week before. When they were questioned by neighbours, they told them the goods were being delivered to a new customer in Awka. This hadn’t sounded odd to the neighbours, neither had the fact that the shop remained locked in the days following. They’d thought my mother had decided to give up the shop, following her husband’s death. If only they knew how far, how very far, this would set us back, maybe they wouldn’t have let the dreadful ingrates my father had taken care of like they were his own children, run away with the goods that had cost him his life. We tried tracing them to the small apartment they’d been living in with Ebube’s older brother, only to find the place completely empty.
“Ha apụọla,” an old man who lived nearby had volunteered.
Truly, they had indeed moved out of the house. Myself and a few of my father’s friends had combed their neighbourhood, but nobody seemed to know their new location. Either that or they just chose to protect them.
“They have finished me,” my mother, who had tried to control her emotions in the days following our discovery of the theft, lamented as we sat alone in our living room one evening. “Ebee ka m ga-esi malite? Where on earth can I start from? What am I supposed to do?”
As her tears finally came forth, I held her in my arms, rocking her back and forth. I had no words of comfort for her, because there were none. We were truly finished.
My mother awoke very early the next morning. As I lay in bed, I saw her apply her makeup for the first time since my father’s death and she took extra care in tying her head tie. This was the first time in a long while that I would see her bother about her appearance.
“I’ll be back. Take care of your younger ones,” she said, before dashing out of the house. It wasn’t even 6am.
As we were yet to return to school, Jidenna had since resumed his apprenticeship, so the only person I had to worry about was Ahunna. Taking care of her was getting more and more difficult, as she was fast degenerating. The swelling was worsening, she was constantly out of breath, and she was now always in excruciating pain. There was hardly anything that could alleviate her persistent abdominal pain, and anytime I looked at her, swollen and writhing in pain, all I could see was death.
I was later to hear from the grapevine how Coach had lured her to his bed, under the promise of cancelling our indebtedness, only to renege on it the very moment the act was over. To make matters worse, he chose to boast about this, making my mother lose for us the little amount of goodwill and respect we still had. For a woman whose husband had been dead only a couple of months, her action was deemed despicable and disgraceful. Nobody wanted to think of what kind of hardship could have pushed an otherwise upstanding woman to do something like that. Nobody wanted to remember that the same Coach was constantly harassing us to pay money we could never have dreamt of in a whole lifetime, or the fact that the life of one of her daughters was hanging by a thread. She was now considered a good-for-nothing harlot.
The weeks became months, and we were finally able to agree on a payment plan with Coach, one which would see us paying him for the longest foreseeable future. My mother took on several menial jobs, just to be able to raise enough to meet this obligation, and send Jidenna and I back to school at the same time. Even though we had missed most of the term, we were able to catch up. Jidenna continued his apprenticeship after school, and his wonderful boss chose to pay him a small stipend, to help him support his widowed mother. But despite the fact that we were in a slightly better financial position, Ahunna continued to fade away a little more each day. My mother had resumed giving her local herbal concoctions, which, rather than improve her situation, only served to worsen it. She was dying before our very eyes.
And then one day, a Saturday afternoon, everything changed.
I was hanging clothes on the washing line when I saw a sparkling white Mercedes 200 pull up in front of the house. As it would when flashy cars like that came to our neighbourhood, children were soon openly gawking and adults peeping from their windows. I glanced in its direction briefly, but wasn’t curious enough to continue looking.
I guess I should have been.
“Adanna,” came a deep, familiar voice. “Ọ bụ aha gị, isn’t it?”
I looked up and almost had a heart attack when I saw who stood before me; Chief Arinze Nsofor himself. I stepped back unconsciously, knocking down my bucket of clothes in the process. “Yes…yes, Sir. It’s my name. Good afternoon.”
He smiled, revealing crystal white teeth. “Don’t be afraid, Princess. I’m not here to hurt you.”
I looked around, and realised we had become the neighbourhood spectacle. Everyone around was watching us keenly. I suddenly wished I was anywhere but there. I also feared the dripping wet clothes he stood amongst would soon ruin his immaculate white kaftan.
Everything about him seemed to be white.
Noticing my discomfort, he decided to put me out of my misery. “Is your mother at home?”
Thankfully, she was, as she’d made it a point of duty to work herself to the bone from Monday to Friday, but to leave her weekends free for her kids. I nodded and led him upstairs to our apartment. I’d never before realised how shabby our flat was until that very moment. Having Chief Nsofor standing there, as ethereal as he looked, the place looked like a pig pen. Yes, it was spotlessly clean, but with our torn chairs and faded curtains, it looked like the place would contaminate him if he as much as spent more than a second there. But instead, the man sat down without giving it a second thought.
“Chief!” my mother exclaimed, when she walked into the living room from Ahunna’s room. She threw me a questioning look, to which I simply shrugged. I too had no idea why the Asaba millionaire was in our house.
“Nwunye Aloy, ana m ekele,” he said to her. “I greet you. How have you been? After the last time we saw, my staff and I have been waiting for you. When we didn’t hear from you after a while, I sent them to the shop to take delivery of the items and was surprised when they came back to say the place was locked. I thought you said you were desperate to sell.”
“Chief, I…we didn’t…I…” my mother stuttered.
“Nne, please sit down,” he said, patting the spot on the sofa beside him. “How can I be talking to a lady and she’ll be standing. Biko,nọdụ.”
My mother sat reluctantly, casting an imploring look at me. I didn’t even understand if she wanted me to rescue her or leave them alone. But my curiosity wouldn’t allow me leave the spot where I stood rooted.
“We were robbed, Chief,” she said, finally regaining her composure. “When we got back from Asaba, we found out our staff had robbed us. They took everything and ran away.”
Chief Nsofor sat quietly for a short while, before nodding. “Yes. I heard about that. When my people went to your shop, your neighbours told them. Actually, that is why I came. I was very worried about you, especially after all the things you told me you’re dealing with. How are you handling your late husband’s creditors? And your daughter’s health?”
My mother sighed deeply. “We’ve been struggling, I won’t lie to you, Chief,” she answered. “We had to agree on a repayment plan for the loan, and almost everything I make from the small, small jobs I’m able to get here and there, go into paying it. As for my daughter,” at this point, her eyes welled up with tears and she dabbed at them with her wrapper. “My daughter is dying, Chief. My daughter is dying.”
Chief Nsofor patted her shoulder as she cried, and I still struggled to understand his motive for being in our house. Even as he consoled my mother, he appeared neither a kind nor empathetic man. Deep in my heart, I knew there was an ulterior motive.
And I wasn’t wrong.
“Well, I am here with a solution for you,” Chief said. “Ugochi, I can make all your problems go away.”
I stared at the man, wondering how he knew our names, as we’d told him neither the one time we’d met him in Asaba. I couldn’t help but wonder just how much digging he’d done on my family.
My mother stared at him imploringly, and I knew that she was ready to do just about anything. “Adanna, please go into the room so Chief and I can talk.”
“No, let her stay,” he cut in, looking at me. “The solution involves her.”
My mother and I exchanged a puzzled look. “What do you mean?” she finally asked.
“I will pay off your loan with Coach. I will also take care of your daughter’s medical costs to the country of her choice,” he said, his eyes still on me. “But in exchange, I want to marry Adanna.”
“Marry Adanna?” my mother repeated, her eyes wide with shock. “Marry my daughter?”
A slow smile formed on the older man’s face. “Does that seem like such a shocking thing to you? Isn’t she of marriageable age? She is 16, I’m told. From what I hear, you weren’t too far from that age when you married Aloy.”
“Heiiiii!” my mother exclaimed, throwing her hands in the air. “It has finally happened. O mechaala mee, ooooo! Aloy, ì nwere ike ihu ihe i meworo ayi. Can you see what you have done to us, Aloy? Can you see?”
I looked on as my mother wept, my own heart breaking for her pain. Chief Nsofor, on the other hand, just sat there unbothered.
“Adanna, banye n’ime,” she whimpered. “Go inside and stay with your sister.”
“I said go inside!” she yelled, throwing her slipper at me, making me scamper into Ahunna’s bedroom. But I left the door slightly ajar to enable me hear their conversation.
“Please, Chief. Not my daughter. Take me instead. Let me marry you instead. Please.”
Chief laughed, and I could tell he was genuinely amused by her proposition. “Marry you? No offence, Nne. But I didn’t say I’m bringing you tubers of yam. I’m here offering to spend millions of naira, and I expect a decent exchange. Not a haggard mother of three, who has been sleeping around not even up to a year after her husband’s death.”
I flinched, feeling the impact of the insult. Her response was so quiet, I had to strain extra hard to hear her words.
“I made a mistake with Coach. He said he would write off our loan, and I believed him.”
“Nobody is here to judge you, my dear. You did what you had to do, I suppose,” was Chief’s patronising response. “All I’m saying is, you are not the one I’m here for. I have had my eye on your daughter since the time you both came to Asaba. She has been my sleeping and waking thought. For her, I would spend my entire fortune if it means having her to call my own.”
Chief chuckled as he rose to his feet. “Don’t allow your pride prevent you from doing the wise thing for you and your family, Ugochi.”
“You are old enough to be even my father,” my mother retorted. “How can you want to marry my daughter, a mere child? I can never give Adanna to you, no matter what you’re promising.”
“Ngwanu, Ugochi. As you like it. I thought you had your other daughter’s health in mind,” he taunted. “Coach, I know you can handle. Between the five, five kobo you pay him, and the sex you throw in here and there, I’m sure you can take care of that situation. It’s just a shame you’ll have to watch your daughter die because of your pride.”
My mother rose to her feet. “Ehn, let it be like that. You are not God. We will find a solution for Ahunna with or without you.”
There was another chuckle from Chief and I was tempted to peep to catch a glimpse of his face, to see if he was truly amused or angered by my mother’s rejection.
“I will spend the night here in Onitsha. I have some business to take care of,” I finally heard him say. “I will be back here tomorrow before I leave for Asaba. That should give you enough time to think through this properly.”
“I’m not thinking of anything. Biko pụọ. Leave, and don’t bother coming back.”
I listened until Chief’s footsteps and the sound of the door closing indicated his departure, before returning to the living room.
“Mommy,” I called out to her, but she just stood there, her face set, save for the tears rolling down her face. “Mommy.”
Without a word, she brushed past me and went to her bedroom, locking the door firmly behind her. For some reason, she seemed angry with me, and I couldn’t understand why. With slouched shoulders, I returned outside to continue hanging the clothes to dry. I could feel the curious and even judgemental stares from our neighbours, but I made sure not to make eye contact with any of them. All they could do was gossip. None of them could make any real impact on our lives, positive or negative.
The rest of the day dragged along, with my mother refusing to say anything to me. Tired of being the one making the effort, I too had resigned myself to the fact that there would be no conversation that night. Jidenna had travelled with his boss to Enugu, and Ahunna’s pain was now so intense that the only sounds that came out of her mouth were moaning and crying, no longer words. After eating alone the meal of rice and stew I had cooked, I retired to bed, hopeful that the atmosphere would be less tense the following day.
But later that night, I was awakened by Ahunna’s agonising cry. Rushing to her room, I saw our mother sitting by her bedside also in tears as she tried unsuccessfully to give her daughter relief by massaging her distended abdomen. I stood by helplessly, not knowing what to do.
“Has she taken her medicine?” I asked, referring to the concoction the herbal doctor had given us.
“That thing is not working,” my mother answered, wiping her tears with the back of her hand. “Ike gwụrụ m. Ada, I’m tired. I’m just tired.”
And then standing there, watching my mother cry and my sister writhe in pain, I knew exactly what needed to be done.
“Mommy, I will marry him.”
My mother’s head snapped up like a taut spring. “You will marry who? Chief Nsofor? Are you out of your mind?”
“We have no other choice. Look at her,” I said, pointing at Ahunna, who stared back at me with dilated eyes. “If we don’t do something about it, she’s going to die, right here on this bed and in this room.”
My mother was silent for what seemed like eternity. “I can’t allow you make that sacrifice, Adanna. I can’t allow you marry a man old enough to be your grandfather.”
“It is my choice, mommy. Nobody is forcing me. I want to do it.”
“Over my dead body will I allow…” she was cut short as Ahunna heaved and vomited violently all over the bed, and our mother’s clothes. As it had been in the last few days, her vomit was tinged with blood. When she was done, she just lay back in bed and shut her eyes, the release having given her some relief, and our mother and I remained immobile, none of us moving to even clean the mess. It was evident to both of us that this could not continue. “How can I ask something so big of my own daughter?” she said, her voice breaking.
I realised then that the decision had been made.
Wordlessly, I proceeded to peel of the stained bed sheets and took them to the bathroom to wash. My mother came in shortly after and dropped her stained wrapper in the bucket, leaving without saying another word to me. But the truth was, no more words needed to be said.
Lying in bed that night, I thought about Anayo, the one who had my heart. For the first time since I made my decision, I was tempted to change my mind as the implication of what I was signing up for hit me in the face. Marrying Chief Nsofor would put paid to any dreams I had of reuniting with Anayo in the future. But who was I kidding? What was the guarantee that Anayo hadn’t already forgotten me? Why would I mortgage my family’s welfare for some childish daydream of being reunited with a guy who very likely had only been toying with me. Yes, I knew it would be awkward the next time I did see him, but at least my family would be well sorted. And for that, I could take anything.
When Chief returned the following afternoon, it was to a more mellow audience.
“You will have to give us the money first,” my mother stated, unable to meet his gaze. “Give us the money for both Coach’s repayment and Ahunna’s treatment, before you can marry her.”
“You must take me for a fool, Ugochi,” the older man chuckled. He seemed to find everything funny. “I will marry her first, and then we can resolve all these issues.”
But on this one, my mother refused to budge. “Mba. No way. That’s how you will change your mind afterwards and my daughter will forever be marked as the girl who married an old man.”
A knowing smile formed on Chief’s face, and he decided to concede. “Fair enough. How about we do it this way. I will give you Coach’s money now, and this week, I will have my medical team evaluate Ahunna. But only after I marry Adanna will we fly her out of the country for her procedure.”
And just like that, a deal was struck.
“How many other wives do you have?” I asked suddenly, surprising the older people. I at least deserved to know how many angry women I would encounter as his new bride.
“None, my dear girl,” he answered, with a cheeky grin. “You will be my only one.”
“What about the Calabar woman?” my mother asked, making me wonder just how much about Chief Nsofor she had investigated.
“Nkoyo was my brief mistake, and she has gone back where she belongs. Before marrying her, I was a widower for almost 10 years,” he answered. “I’m a man of God, Nne. I’m not a polygamist. Adanna will be my only Princess. She will be well taken care of, you have my word.”
My mother and I exchanged a look, and my heart melted at the raw pain I could see in her eyes. But we both knew that neither of us had a choice.
What had to be done just had to be done.
Adanna returns on Wednesday, August 14, 2019. Happy Holidays!
Check out Adanna’s story here: