I just sat immobile, long after the plates had been cleared and Aunty Ekwi had retired for the night. Conversation had been stilted after her shocking revelation, with Anuli suddenly tongue tied, and me drained of every drop of blood in my body. We sat like strangers in the room.
“That Aunty Ekwi just talks too much!” Anuli suddenly retorted. “Chu chu chu chu! Her mouth can never stop moving! Tufia!”
I turned to look at my cousin, and as our eyes met, I saw her physically deflate from what I reckoned must have been the look in my own eyes; hurt and disappointment.
“Golibe, I was going to tell you. That’s one of the reasons I brought you here now…”
“Does Chuka know? About Awele?” I asked, my voice but a mere croak.
She sighed deeply. “Nobody really knows for sure. It’s not something anybody has really confirmed. It’s just one of those unofficially official family theories…”
“This is my life we’re talking about!” I yelled and slammed the table with my palm so hard, the old wooden legs wobbled, shocking even myself. “Not a theory! My life! I flew thousands of miles just to try to make sense of my entire existence, and you’re here talking like it’s a joke!”
She reached for my hand. “Nobody thinks it’s a joke, Golibe! Awele is my sister, but even I don’t know for sure…”
And there, in the old family dining room, I was told Awele’s story.
“We used to be very close…Awele and I…” Anuli said. “Despite the wide age gap, we were very close. I guess it’s because we were the only girls in a house full of boys. But then, the year she turned 15, she just…changed. She started spending more and more time out of the house…with her ‘friends’, as she used to put it. And then on Christmas day…Christmas of 1988, I walked into the bathroom and saw her sprawled on the floor, bleeding profusely. I thought she was dying. If I had known what was really happening, I would have kept my mouth shut and tried to help her somehow…but I truly thought she was dying…”
Her voice trailed, and for a few minutes, she said nothing more. The only noice in the room was from the old ceiling fan overhead, and the chirping crickets which seemed much closer than comfort.
“It turns out she’d had an abortion…” Anuli continued. “I guess it wasn’t done properly, which is why it left her bleeding that way. As soon as our mother walked into the bathroom, she knew. I could see it in her eyes. She didn’t have the frenzied look of a woman whose child was in mortal danger. No. Instead, she was furious. And because I’d raised such a loud alarm, very soon almost the entire house was huddled in the bathroom, witnessing my sister’s shame…” she shrugged, as if trying to shake off the memory. “Anyway, they took her to the hospital…but the stigma stayed with her. She became even more withdrawn from the family. Our dad forbade her from hanging with her friends, so she pretty much became a recluse.”
The whirl of the fan punctuated another lengthy silence. It was almost like the old machine was as impatient as I was to hear the rest of it…except it probably knew more about the mystery that was Awele, than I did. She had probably sat beneath this very same fan at some point in her life or the other…
“February 10, 1990 was the day she disappeared…” she smiled ruefully. “I know because that’s my birthday. I woke up that morning, and she was gone. Nobody seemed to know where she was, but the odd part was that our parents didn’t even seem to care. There were no real efforts made to look for her. It was almost like they were complicit in her disappearance. That was when the rumors started swirling that she was probably pregnant. Then a few months after she disappeared, our mother left town for a while…only for Proff and his wife to return with a baby girl…” she looked me in the eye for the first time since her narration. “It was an easy postulation for anyone to make.”
I nodded as what she said sank in. Her older sister, Awele, had gotten pregnant a second time and had been smuggled out of town by their parents, to cover her shame. And when she’d had her baby, her childless Uncle and his wife had happily taken charge of the child.
“We never talked about it…my mother and I. Never ever! I would hear the likes of Aunty Ekwi discussing it around the house, but our parents never confirmed it to anyone!”
“What about Awele? Did she?” I asked. “Did she confirm it?”
“I didn’t see my sister for almost ten years after that.” she answered. “She just stayed away. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that she returned to Ogwashi, to introduce her fiancé. I couldn’t ask her about the circumstances that had led to her disappearance. I couldn’t ask her about the baby she gave up for adoption. She was like a stranger to me. It took us years to rebuild our relationship.”
“And now? Are you still like strangers?” I asked.
“No, we’re much closer now. Not quite like the way we were as kids, but a lot better than what it was before. And when our parents passed away in quick succession, first with dad in 2005 and then mom in 2006, we were there for each other. But we just have never discussed it…”
“I asked you a question earlier…but you didn’t answer. Does Chuka know?” I asked, desperate to hear how involved my brother was in all of this.
“Like everyone else, he heard the stories. It became something of an urban legend for us. At the time it happened, we hadn’t met him. He was still living with his mother in Abraka or Warri somewhere. He met her for the first time at our father’s funeral in 2005…shortly before he left for the UK to stay with you guys.”
“Where is she now?” I asked.
“She lives in Abuja with her husband…” Anuli answered.
“Why didn’t you tell me all this in Lagos?” I asked. “Why did you have to bring me here, acting like you’re also in the dark about who my parents are?”
“I wanted you to hear it from her yourself. I knew she would be here this weekend, for her friend’s younger sister’s wedding. I wanted you to have that discussion with her, face-to-face.” she answered.
I felt my heart rate quadruple. “She’s coming here?”
“O na abia echi. She’s coming tomorrow.” and with that, she rose to her feet and walked out of the room.
Reluctantly, I stood and followed her, as I wasn’t down for the other option of sleeping in the dining room, with the singing of the night crickets for company. I followed her to the bedroom where we’d dropped our things, and we silently got out of our clothes and retired for the night.
But sleep eluded me. It just couldn’t find me. I was haunted by vivid thoughts of a pregnant teenager tearfully giving up her child for adoption. I was also haunted by the prospect of coming face-to-face with her the following day. It was one thing to imagine it…and another to actually live it. For someone who hadn’t talked about it in 25 years, would she be happy to see me? Excited? Angry? Inconvenienced?
As dawn broke, I finally fell into a fitful sleep and was awoken by the shrill sound of my phone. Lifting it, I frowned when I saw that it was Chuka. It also occurred to me that I had been in Nigeria 48 hours, but with no word from Dozie yet.
Reluctantly, I answered the phone. “What do you want?”
“Emma? Emma, are you okay?” came the deep baritone that was always sure to comfort me in the past…in the past, before I found out he was nothing but a deceitful cad!
“Why didn’t you tell me you’re dad’s biological son?” I asked, my voice breaking.
“Oh Emma!” he sighed, and my heart broke even more, realizing it was true. “It wasn’t my place to tell you. Dad was supposed to, but when I saw that he didn’t, I realized he probably didn’t want you to know…I guess out of respect for his wife…your mother. She hated the very idea of me, so I thought he wanted to have me remain anonymous. But Emma, would it really have made a difference? You’ve always been my baby sister…”
“It would have made all the difference! Both of you were connected by blood! I was the outsider! It would have made a lot of difference!” I exclaimed tearfully, making Anuli open her eyes.
“Emma, you are talking nonsense! What outsider?! You know how much the old man loved you!” Chuka exclaimed, his voice also rising. “In fact, I now see why neither he nor myself told you, especially if this is how you would have reacted!”
“What about Awele? Why didn’t you tell me about her?!” I demanded.
“Again, Emma, not my story to tell! Besides, it was never really confirmed. Just a theory…” he went on. “Besides, why am I calling your UK number, when I’ve been informed Anuli has bought the Nigerian SIM I instructed her to buy for you. This call is very expensive.”
“I meet Awele tomorrow.” I answered, not to anything in particular. “After 25 years, I finally meet the woman who could be my mother. But you, my brother, knew about her all along.”
“Please don’t call me that! I’m Golibe now. You know that’s what dad called me. I told you that before I left…”
He sighed. “Golibe…I need you to understand that anything I’ve done was for your own good…”
Still holding the phone to my ear, I looked up as the first beams of morning sunshine shone into the room. “Don’t call me for a while, Chuka. I need to figure a lot of things out.” and with that, I ended the conversation.
Standing to my feet, I rummaged through my suitcase, looking for my new Nigerian SIM card. Even though I knew Anuli would most surely share my phone number with Chuka eventually, if it meant I could have a few days of peace and quiet, then so be it.
By now, it was 7am, and I was desperate for my endorphin fix. Staring out of the window and the quaint town, I figured it would be harmless to go for a run around the neighborhood. Yes, Anuli and Aunty Ekwi would most surely explode at the thought of me venturing out alone, but I knew if I didn’t go, I would most surely implode!
Changing into a pair of track-downs, t-shirt and running shoes, I snuck out of the bedroom, down the squeaky staircase, and finally out of the house. I knew there was very little chance of getting lost, as the old house was higher than almost all the others in the neighborhood.
Choosing a small area, I hit the road, running and trying to make sense of the bombshells that had been dropped in my laps. In a few short hours, Awele would have arrived, and I would be able to speak with her…finally. Finally be able to have a face to the image I’d carried in my heart for years…my mother.
After circling the neighborhood, and ignoring the curious stares from passers by, I decided it was a good idea to start heading back home. Walking back down the road leading to the old house, the sound of Fela’s Water No Get Enemy made me look up at the direction of its source.
Leaning on the balcony of a single story house was a man, smoking what I couldn’t immediately ascertain was a cigarette or…or something else. He had a 70’s style afro, and his face was so heavily bearded, one couldn’t make out his features. But his eyes stood distinct, despite all the facial hair…and they immediately locked with mine. He was bare chested and even though there was a chilly early morning breeze, his body glistened with sweat…
For some reason, I couldn’t tear my eyes away. It was almost like watching a car crash…you know you shouldn’t look, but you just can’t help yourself. As I kept on looking, he stared right back, unflinching as he held my gaze. It wasn’t until he took another lazy drag from whatever it was he was smoking that I found the strength to look away.
I had more important things to worry about than a staring competition with a bearded stranger. In only hours, my possible mother would have arrived.
Catch up on Golibe’s story here: