On The Shoulders of Pain
IT IS NIGHTTIME. Once again the dark moon spells doom. I am on the bed reading a love story about two birds. I wish this was my story but I am not a bird. I am a woman in the real world; not some fabled city filled with flowers. One day I will tell my story, but not on creamy pages of some book. No. I would tell my story lying silent in my coffin; only the paid mourners would know my story. I have many empty bowls in me, and no water is ever enough to fill them. A mere thought of pleasing me is a taboo like eating pork in Mecca.
I was a clean slate way back in school. The day I don’t know but the period was around the start of the first semester of my second year. I was on queue in the bank, minding my business and waiting for my turn to pay my school fees, when a finger softly poked the shoulder pad of my grey gown. I turned to look at the finger but saw a man, clean shaven, and dressed in a black suit. My mother told me not to be rude to strangers so I smiled at him.
“Good afternoon Ma’am. Please follow me to the bulk room. You have been standing here for too long,” he said with a saintly face. Was I in the Vatican or a coven in New Orleans? I never trusted that gesture but I said ‘Thank you’ and followed him.
Within five minutes, I was out of the bank with a proof of payment, his phone number, and endless questions in heart. The few steps I needed to reach the gate and go home equaled a million miles.
Later in the evening, I was on the bed reading some poems online when the phone vibrated and a strange number occupied the screen. I answered and it was him. He called to say goodnight, and wonder if I would be free on Saturday evening. I don’t know what I said to him but I don’t remember turning down the date.
After a warm meal at a Chinese restaurant downtown, he insisted that we go to his place. He lived in a low-cost housing estate with his parents, directly behind the Cathedral Church of The Word Incarnate. The room had two large windows covered with ox-blood curtains with well-patterned holes in them. The furniture consisted of an oval glass table, two brown one-seater pearl grey leather sofas with embroidered lumbar throw pillows in each of them, a three-seater sofa, and an empty earthen pot close to the bedroom door. In the ceiling, a blue bulb hung bright. The walls smiled of the blue light and hid its real colour behind its cold blue teeth. On the blue walls were framed pictures, one of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Immaculate Heart of Mary, one of a boy smiling over a large bowl of rice and two 7Up bottles. There was a large family picture above a giant TV screen, Felà and Bob Marley wallpapers on both sides of the wall, and a large painting of a basket of goods. On the fridge, there was a sticker that read ‘I AM A 100% MAN’. I read the sticker twice, took a deep breath, and sat down relieved. He was the one. He pressed one of the remote controls on the glass table and soft music occupied the blue room. He stood up from where he sat and slumped into the sofa next to me.
“So, how are you?” He muttered in a shaky voice. This was the hundredth time he asked the same question. Is he afraid as I am? I wondered.
“I am fine. Your place is nice.” I replied. This time, his right hand was stuck on my left thigh like an octopus. My nerves jangled. I had never been in a man’s house in all my years on earth.
“I had a great time.” I added with a smile, and gently pushed the octopus away.
“Baby, I love you with all my heart. Immediately I saw you in the bank, I knew you were my moon, my wife.” The words came out of him with a rare jasmine fragrance. I blushed, fully aware that the moon had many dull shades that I wasn’t proud to be called.
I leaned back, held my phone closer to my face, and typed the words ‘Lock the door. I’ll explain later,’ and sent to my roommate in the off-campus apartment we rented. ‘Lock your legs. I am not at home. I’m spending the night out.’ The reply came back almost immediately. I smiled.
Seconds later, another text entered the phone. I opened it and saw, ‘Virgin Nigeria, missionary style abeg! No turn for am or him go think say you be ashawo.’ My roommate was the craziest girl I ever met!
I don’t know what happened next but I woke up elated without my clothes on. And for the very first time, butterflies played a toccata of schmaltzy tone poems in my stomach. The feeling was precious, weighing a thousand troy, but I regretted the night. This wasn’t how fast I wanted to lose my virginity. I wanted a candle-lit night in a room filled with magical moonbeams scribbling poems on my palms. But the ways of God are not the ways of men after all.
Before I could get up and dress, he came into the room with a white towel round his waist and drops of water hanging on his skin like tiny pearls. “Good morning dear, I am preparing for work. How was your night?”
“OK,” I answered and rolled back into the sheets to cover the small breasts that my roommate called ‘ping pong balls’.
I took a bike home, and fell flat on the bed to finish the sleep I started at his place. I slept and forgot the important meeting I had in church after first service. I woke up some minutes to three o’clock and went straight to the bathroom. I came back and saw fifty-five missed calls and sixteen text messages on my phone, all from him. I called back.
Three weeks passed and I started feeling sick. Nothing edible tasted right for me. I would eat my best meals and vomit instantly; then it occurred to me that I missed the faithful monthly visitor. I quietly went to the pharmacy across the road and bought a pregnancy tester that I first knew about from my roommate. I did everything as instructed on the pack and the result was positive. I was pregnant. I was afraid. My mother will kill herself. My father will kill me. The church will call me names and suspend my parents. I have successfully thrown away my express ticket to Heaven. Hot tears drenched the pink top I wore.
I called him and told him the bad news. He ended my call and called back. “Sweetheart, don’t worry. Everything will be fine. Don’t cry. I will see you after work.” He said and I hugged the phone sobbing. He sounded like he had everything figured out.
It took the two of us and his parents two sorrowful weeks to calm my father’s anger. My mother only cried for a couple of days and was always calling to know how I was. Like the sticker on his fridge, he was a hundred per cent man. He went with his parents and begged my father to allow me move in with him, and after my delivery, he would do the marital rites. My father reluctantly agreed and gave us his blessings.
After sometime together, I owned his place. This was my home. I would sit in front of the giant TV all day, check the calendar on the bedroom wall, watch my protruding belly in the mirror, and come back to continue with the long soaps. It was perfect until one fateful night. The stars slept innocently in the clouds and once in a while, a cricket chirped and a bird sang. The night was a movie and the birds and crickets composed a perfect score. Hours into the night, something banged on the door so hard that the whole house trembled. He sprang up from the bed, hid the box he warned me never to open under the bed and answered the door. “Who is that?” He shouted, with no weapon in his hands. “Open the door, you idiot.” A voice shouted back, and his manliness miraculously disappeared like condiments in soup. He obediently opened the door. I was standing behind the sofa in the parlour, pregnant and wingless.
“Where is she?” A lady barged in and stood in the middle of the room, shaking her right leg with a conqueror’s swagger. She wore the night like an impulsive silhouette with flaring nostrils.
“Calm down, please!” He pleaded and turned to look at me. I had never seen him this humble. The lady angrily pushed the three remote controls down and sat on the glass table. I quietly excused them and went to stay in his sister’s room. I cried all night.
It never really bothered me. I was pregnant for this man and not the Lady of the Night. But the neighbours told their friends and foes, and their friends and foes passed the news on. Everybody started greeting me louder than before; that mischievous loudness that even the deaf could hear. Every night I expected him to wake me up as couples do and explain things to me. He didn’t and I kept quiet; I was ready for the storms of marriage.
Months crawled by at snail-speed; I was exactly thirty-seven weeks heavy. It was a chilly Saturday morning. I was out on the verandah threshing corn. My mother-in-law came back from Mass, looked at me, sighed and went inside. I adjusted the tray on my laps and blew the husks away. My father-in-law returned home gave me a stern look, pouted his lips and dashed inside. Was the boogey man behind me? I stood up, looked around and sat down.
“Have you heard?” My sister-in-law came out and asked me.
“The stupid man you call your husband wedded in church today,” she replied.
The words came like salvos, the morning winds turned ice-cold; I sat there deaf, dumb, and dead. Was it the Lady of the Night? This question rang inside my head like a zillion bells. I hurriedly put on slippers, tied wrapper and ran to church. When I reached the church premises, I saw a congregation of other couples preparing to go in for the next wedding. I explained the situation to the gate man and he advised me to see the Catechist. I met the Catechist in his office close to the chapel; the old man was finely dressed in a purple soutane and spoke in strange tongues. I didn’t understand a word and a malignant senescence bewitched me. So I groped home like a senile widow, with a heavy heart and a child inside me.
When I reached home, he was in the room packing his things to leave. I opened my mouth to ask ‘Why’ and a heavy slap landed on my face. I saw stars, staggered and fell. More slaps rained on me like moraines. As he dragged me out of the room, my water broke. “Maaaaaaaama!” I screamed.
I gave birth to a baby girl around midnight and the fevers started. The midwives brought ice blocks, placed them on me; and the stone-hard blocks melted like margarines. I opened my swollen eyes and saw a giant standing close to the window. He wore a long black cloak and held a scythe. He was not a midwife. He was not the nurse that kept shouting at me in the labour room. He looked like the grim reaper I call a husband; he was Death. I gave him a long begging look until a tear rolled from my left eye and disappeared into the blue pillow. Death swirled in a shadowy circle and went out through the white wall. On the windowpanes, a thin sheet of mist covered the glass, and blurred the grace to see the sun before my journey’s end.
In the morning, a doctor came to my bed and said I was very fortunate to have survived the labour. He asked of my husband and I turned my face away. “You will be alright,” the doctor said and went out of the room.
On the hospital bed, it felt as if I was standing on the shoulders of pain. I saw a clearer picture of life. Everything played out like a soap opera. I remembered the day I met him, the starry night I went against expert counsel and refused to lock my legs.
Dark clouds enveloped my bedside as I walked the aisle with a silk bridal bouquet. The priest stood at the altar smiling, dressed in a crimson red chasuble. At every step, the pews melted into blood. He stood next to the priest holding a shovel and a watering can – ersatz wedding presents for all the trouble we went through playing house. The choristers wore bloodied choir robes and joyfully sang This Is The Day The Lord Has Made with slit throats and acoustic drum sets. I was on a memorable march to the graveyard. On the other side of the bed, the wedding gown was pegged on a yellow clothesline and two dragonflies dangled close on the line as they mated. A famished dog slept quietly beneath a brand new Mercedes-Benz wagon with long blind rear quarters, a red cross crested on its bonnet and a purple light bar on its heavily-padded vinyl roof. The driver’s door opened and he came out with a garden fork. He gave me a hard smile, tapped his wristwatch in a no-time-to-waste manner and gestured me to hurry up and come over. I tried to stand up but my legs suddenly became Mount Zion, immovable, enduring in endless pain.
I saw everything, before my mother opened the door and entered. She looked like a moonless night when she came closer. She fell on her knees and started crying. I joined her and we wept. Mother and daughter mourned together like blind barren widows.
It is over seven years now, and every night I lull this moppet to sleep, I think different things. Should I regret bearing his child or unlearn hating him? I wonder and squeeze myself beside my daughter. I would have felt different but I’m just a woman. You see, women don’t have castles in them; we have torn tents inside us. I’m imprisoned in one of these tents, on the outskirts of the walls of empathy. I still see him coming with his manhood pointing hard at me, and his heart in another woman’s bra. A razor blade is in the wooden cupboard close to the bed and he is getting closer and closer. Let him dare take one more step!
Andrew Aondosoo Labe is a critically-acclaimed poet, creative fiction writer, news media publisher, editor, and music and film critic. He resides in Benue State, North-Central Nigeria with his wife and son Peregrine Gilgamesh Mone, and blogs at http://andrewaondosoolabe.wordpress.com |Twitter: @andylabe2586 | @gabadayanews | Phone: +234 8099208880 +234 8090695743