By Socrates Mbamalu
I thought Aunty Nike would weep when the casket was opened to reveal the stiff body of Uncle Dele. He was dressed in the same white agbada that he had worn some weeks earlier, when he kicked her in her stomach and rained blows on her delicate face. Her face was now plastered with a smile, red lipstick and dark sunglasses. She didn’t shed a tear or throw herself to the ground as was expected. She did not roll on the floor, soiling herself with the ochre coloured sand either. Her attire was red not black. I wondered, shouldn’t one mourn a husband of ten years?
The last time I saw Aunty Nike, I was four years old. The image I had of her was that of a young unmarried woman, sharp witted and free. Now I was much older, but the Aunty I met was not my Aunty Nike of childhood. She looked forlorn, with a creased forehead and a pregnant husband. Instead of his chest shooting out, his stomach did. But that was not what made me not to take a liking to him immediately. I just wondered why my Aunty would look so old and haggard with her hair cut low and her smile forced in a manner that belied wretchedness, while her husband seemed to glow, his tribal marks cut across his face like a strike from the Gods. The house they lived in was depressed and the depression got to me. The walls were unpainted and cracked like mini tsunamis had passed through. Even the bulb that lit the sitting room was of such dull light you would think it were in mourning.
When I came to my aunt’s house to stay, she was six months pregnant. But she still turned amala and gbegiri for her husband and his six brothers. I thought that these elaborate meals were supposed to be a once in a blue moon occurrence. No! It was a banal tradition, to cook when asked to, at whatever time of the day. And Uncle Dele’s brothers were the consumers of her feasts, and that is what they always came to do. Eat. Get filled. And leave dirty plates piled up high for us to wash. One night I heard the pounding of a pestle in the mortar, only to find my aunt who had just delivered by caesarean pounding away at yam. Her husband was hungry and wanted to eat pounded yam. Meanwhile, her little child was crying, so he had brought the little one into the kitchen. My eyes blazed, my body tensed and my fingers shook with anger.
“Uncle Dele, you just treat your wife anyhow. Why?” I asked.
“Better shut up! This is my house!” Uncle Dele said and slapped my left eye.
My aunt had just kept quiet and looked on like a docile hen. It irritated me, the way she was treated like a rag doll. I could see in her eyes a plea to be quiet though. For one day the water would flow under the bridge. If you saw Aunty Nike in the courtroom, you would kick yourself twice, slap yourself four times and shake your head many times to confirm she was the same woman at home. The first time I escorted her to the courtroom, my mouth became a cave for houseflies. What had happened to my Aunty? Was this how marriage put one in a shell? The only time I thought they both talked was when money was being discussed.
Kunmi, our crossed eyed neighbour that I passed hot leisurely afternoons with under the jacaranda tree, told me of how she saw my aunt weeping on the road one day.
“She looked like a mad woman. Her hair was tousled and her eyes were red. She kept wiping the mucus off her nose with the end of her wrapper. I wondered what was wrong? Cradled in her arms was her daughter, a beautiful girl that resembled her. I did not know that she was carrying a spiritless child o,” said Kunmi.
I stared at Kunmi, not sure if she was looking at me or at the side of the house. Aunty had never mentioned that incident to me; she had never even told me that she had a daughter. And then Kunmi whispered, “We heard that the husband did not even do anything. That he just asked her to get him amala and ewedu. You can imagine! That man is a monster. Me, I cannot marry somebody like that o.”
I looked at Kunmi in disbelief.
“Don’t you see that he drives her car even when he has his own?” She continued.
“And if she buys any clothes for herself, she must also buy for her husband.”
Kunmi looked sideways as if what she was saying smelled of repugnant shit.
“But does my aunty not do anything?”
“Do? What do you want her to do? Besides, her case is not new. The world has heard of worse cases than hers.”
“Oh really? So that is why she must not do anything about it?”
“What I mean is that any woman running away from her house because her husband does this or that to her is not considered a woman enough.”
“A woman is expected to understand her man and work according to his weaknesses and behaviour. If he likes beans and bread or pounded yam and egusi soup, you prepare it for him. You give him what he likes.”
I was irritated by Kunmi’s words, even though they conveyed the truth of what happened often. Then I asked Kunmi, “Does your dad do that to your mum?”
“Hmm, listen, every woman shields her home from the eyes of other women. It is only very few people that know what transpires in each other’s homes.”
I don’t think Uncle Dele died on the day he slipped and fell in the bathroom. Aunty Nike and I had rushed him to the hospital even if we knew it was futile. While on the way, Aunty Nike had calmly told me that many years before I came to live with them, Uncle Dele had kicked her in the stomach. She had lost her second pregnancy, and that was when he had first died in her mind. So when he fell down in the bathroom on the morning of his second death, Aunty Nike just watched him beg for his life. He spasmed, clutching at his chest as her smile curved into a plastic smile. As far as she was concerned, the corpse only awaited burial.
“You know he was hypertensive. That was why I did not respond to his attacks or remarks.”
“And is that the reason why you wanted me to keep quiet too?’
“Yes. Karma always deals with such people.”
“But Aunty, what if you had died in the process of waiting for karma?”
“Karma would still have dealt with him, be it natural or man-made.”
I could see the stares directed at Aunty Nike: quizzical looks, glances at her face, followed by hushed whispers. “She doesn’t seem to be moved,” I overheard Mama Tekena tell some women, as I was on my way to the toilet. She was the women’s leader in church.
Uncle Dele’s bald headed brother pointed at Aunty Nike several times and said, “That woman, that woman is the cause of his death, and I will deal with her.” His face was clouded with anger, and he raised his voice so loudly that several necks turned to look at him. Even as more eyes studied my aunt’s body language and facial expression, her smile became permanent. The neighbours looked at her like she was a criminal, and convened into small groups of gossip. They reasoned that even if a lady was happy about her husband’s death, she should at least pretend to mourn, and not put on peacock colours. But I understood where Aunty Nike had come from; a short tempered husband relieved his emotions out on her. Often a history of different bandages on her face, legs and hands told her story.
During the burial service, the Priest said something of how God gave life, and took it all, at his own time and will. I felt that we human beings were mere toys and puppets injected with some air to please our particular master. If we did not please him, he punished us. I wondered if Aunty’s husband had pleased him? I wondered if the way he died was God’s own form of punishment? I wondered if his death was also in God’s time? When the priest had said, ‘Dust to dust, ashes to ashes,’ Aunty Nike sprayed her spittle in the grave and walked away.
Weeks after the burial of their brother, Uncle Dele’s bald headed brother Uncle Tunji, came with his other brothers and called a family meeting. They had come to discuss the will of the deceased.
Aunty Nike welcomed them into the house. She wore blue jeans and a sleeveless top. I had not known how beautiful my aunty was: more beautiful than my mum even, she no longer had heavy bags beneath her eyes. Her lashes were elegant with mascara. Her hair had been plaited a week earlier and she had rearranged the order of her sitting room. This was my aunty. After greetings were exchanged, the tender topic of ownership was discussed.
“We can see you are doing well,” Uncle Tunji started, six other heads nodded. “We are here to discuss the properties my brother left.”
“I am all ears,” Aunty Nike said calmly.
“Some of the land he owns in the city and parts of Ibadan, alongside his farm and cars, will be divided amongst us.”
“We will have mercy on you and allow you keep the house. But we must first address your behaviour at the funeral.”
The word funeral seemed to have pricked a sensitive part of my aunt’s body. She jerked up, her eyes intently looking at Uncle Tunji.
“What did I do at the funeral? Did you not eat and play music?” she said, quite incensed. She had an air of authority, as if she had put them on the dock.
“That is not the issue. We are talking about your behaviour.”
“Did I behave in any strange way?”
They exchanged glances.
“If I did anything, tell me,” Aunty Nike challenged.
Uncle Tunji was quiet for a while, as though he was recollecting his memory.
“You mean your lack of tears was not strange to you?”
“Have you come to discuss my tears or property?” Aunty Nike’s voice rose a pitch higher as she defended her dry eyes. “My tears are my business. What if I tried crying and tears refused to come?”
The other uncles seemed taken aback. They stared at each other in surprise, their eyes nearly popping out of their sockets, their mouths wide open. This was not the Aunty Nike they knew. A new spirit had surely entered her.
“Brother Tunji, can’t you see she is now wearing trousers? She is no longer normal,” one of the uncles said standing up and approaching Aunty Nike.
“If you insult me in my house or lay a finger on me like your rotten brother did, I will call the police and have you arrested. Nincompoops!”
“Aaah!” they all gasped. “You have no regard that we are older than you?”
Aunty Nike stood up.
“All of you get out!” she ordered, ushering them out. “I have tolerated you enough. All the properties you think your brother owns belong to me. I bought them. They are in my name. So out! Your brother, what did he do for a living? Bloody beggars! Out! ”
If I was told that Aunty Nike had a militancy hidden under her docility, I would never have believed it. I was seeing it in action again, just as she did in the courtroom.
The sitting room became empty. I was tempted to clap, to hug this new woman that had broken her shell into fragments, and come out as a lioness.
“Tomorrow we will start stripping the cracked plaster from the walls and put up new ones,” Aunty Nike said when we were in the kitchen snacking on peeled oranges. We pressed the cut oranges our mouths. I sucked the refreshing juice.
“And paint them too,” I added.
“Yes paint them.”
Socrates Mbamalu’s profile can be viewed here.
Amala: A staple in Yoruba cuisine made from yam flour.
Gbegiri: A soup among the Yoruba made from beans.
Ewedu: A vegetable delicacy that is either blended, or hit into small bits with the stiff end of a small broom specifically kept for that purpose. It is similar in texture to okra.