LADY CHATTERLEY’S MANSION
By Unoma N. Azuah
Saturday, May 1, 2010.
Editor’s note: Culled from her short story collection, The Length of Light.
Medua was not expecting to be admitted into the writing program at the Brooks University of Virginia. Most of her Professors at Leeland Heights University had told her not to hope for much. Brooks University was for the elite; not for a struggling African student. She ignored them and applied. When she had heard nothing by late August, she gave up any hope she might have had and sent in her letter of acceptance to Lantern University. That same day, when she got to the mail room, she found a letter from the Brooks University of Virginia. They had offered her admission. She was ecstatic and made copies of the admission letter and slipped one under the doors of all the Professors who had told her she would never be admitted. Struggling student she might be, but she had never underestimated her capabilities.
When she got to Brooks University, most of the housing was filled up. Her tour guide suggested Lady Chatterley’s Mansion: there was always a room to spare though her rent was pretty costly. Lady Chatterley’s building was indeed a mansion: four floors with porches and an orchard in the backyard.
Even the one self-contained room she got had its own back porch. Lady Chatterley, tall and elegant looking carried herself arrogantly. It was obvious she was a snob. Although she was probably in her seventies, she still wore high-heeled shoes which jabbed hard on the concrete floor of her building. Her make-up concealed the many wrinkles on her face. She barely responded to Medua when she said to her, “Hello ma’am.” Then she gave Medua instructions on how to pay her rent directly into her account.
Medua fell in love with her room as soon as she saw it: spacious. She could do loads of writing here. And the other students in the rooms close to hers were quiet, studious types. They only said few words to her whenever she met them in the common room. But she was grateful for such housemates who were nothing like the party revelers she had had as housemates in Leeland Heights University.
Her neighborhood was full of brick houses and massive statues of Virginian heroes. The caretaker of her building once told her that the brick mansions were built by her people: African slaves. Medua didn’t know what to make of the information: a mixture of pride and anger. And besides, that word, slaves, made her shudder. Medua settled into the normal school rhythm until one day, she was running late to mass and decided to sprint. A few feet away from the church, she noticed that her bunch of keys was hanging out of her jacket. She stopped, tried to grab them, but bumped into a lady. She stretched out her hands in apology, but the lady ignored her and swept past her.
After a few days, she observed that every morning at about 6:30 am on her way to morning mass at Saint Anthony Catholic church she would always run into the hooded lady. She had a black shawl wrapped around her head and her shoulders. Medua noticed that the lady goes into her building. She decided to follow her one morning and discovered that she always went to the basement of her building and then went to work in the Orchard.
Medua wondered why the woman turned up so early; it was still dark. Surely, she could barely see the shrubs she pruned. And why spend so much time in the basement when her work tools were in a shack close to the orchard?
Curiosity got the better of Medua and she started to trail the woman. Always, she would stop short of entering the basement. One day, however, Medua gathered enough courage to walk into the basement after the woman. It was too dark in there for Medua to see anything but she saw the blazing red eyes of a cat and its bared white teeth coming towards her. She turned on her heels and screamed her way out of the basement. She chided herself later for being scared of a cat and wondered how the woman could have disappeared so quickly into the orchard. But when she looked in the orchard, the lady was not there. Medua ran through a gamut of emotions: surprise. Worry. Then settled on fear. She had encountered situations at home in Nigeria where humans change into animals, but this was America. In America you were laughed at for even telling such a story.
The next day Medua waited for the woman, determined this time to confront her. The woman did not show. Nor did she turn up the day after. Days ran into weeks and weeks ran into months. The orchard became overgrown with weeds, but neither the woman nor the black cat was anywhere to be found. Then one fall morning, after five months, the air was a bit chilly, the lady appeared and shuffled past Medua. She looked down; her hooded face was not visible. Medua followed her; she didn’t care if the woman knew she was being followed or not. She headed to the basement closely behind her. The lady sat on the floor, on the same spot where the cat sat.
“Who are you, and why do you come here?” Medua asked. She could see the lady’s shadow in the dark. There was no response. Medua asked again. This time, the woman cleared her throat but still said nothing.
Medua ran up to her room to get a flash light. She needed to see the lady’s face. When she returned to the basement, for some reason it seemed darker. She directed her flashlight at the spot where the lady sat. She was not there. Medua stepped deeper into the basement. As she moved her flashlight around the basement, she heard heavy breathing behind her. She almost keeled over, afraid, and she felt a stab of a sharp blade on her shoulder. She grabbed her shoulder with both hands. The flashlight fell. Then she yelled with all the energy she could summon, ran into her room and dialed 911, before she started banging on her neighbors’ doors. Nobody answered.
At the hospital, she was taken to the emergency room. And before she was discharged, some of her classmates visited, and when she told them the story behind her attack most of them didn’t believe her. Some who didn’t like Lady Chatterley believed her. They suggested to her to sue Lady Chatterley. She thought about it, but changed her mind. She blamed herself for stalking the strange lady. Nevertheless, word got around to Lady Chatterley that she was contemplating suing her for the attack in her basement. The next day Lady Chatterley invited her to her ranch. The ranch was another white mansion surrounded by thick woods. There were many horses wandering around the open space. Some Mexican men were supplying hays and cleaning out the stables. Lady Chatterley asked her to sit. They were on the porch of the mansion; it overlooked a lake and more woods. The soft cushion of the matted chair was cozy, but Medua perched at the edge of the chair.
“How do you say your name again?” Lady Chatterley asked puffing away at her cigar. Her long scrawny legs were placed on a small stool in front of her.
“I see,” she said and coughed lightly. A young Mexican woman came into the porch with a large tray filled with assorted drinks, including wine and beer. She smiled at Medua and asked her what she wanted to drink.
“Orange juice will be just fine. “
The Mexican lady poured out the orange juice in a long glass, gave it to Medua and kept the rest of the juice filled jar on a stool next to Medua’s chair. She smiled again, nodded at Medua and left. Lady Chatterley gazed ahead at the sparkling lake, and gnashed her teeth. A twirl of her cigarette smoke hung between her and Medua.
“What happened at the basement?” she asked without looking at Medua.
“I was attacked.”
“Who attacked you?”
“How do I know? I heard it had happened before to one of your tenants.”
“I do sympathize with you that is why I will be taking care of your medical bills.”
“It would save us both quite some stress. I’d say you don’t pay rent for the next couple of months.”
“I need to tell you something though. I know that your people believe in spirits and the unusual.”
Medua sat back on the chair. For the first time, Lady Chatterley looked into her eyes without blinking. And she told her a story that haunted her.
Lady Chatterley’s grand father was a slave master. Among his numerous slaves was one called Lucia. Lucia was one of the best of his plantation hands until she had her seventh baby. Lord Chatterley felt that Lucia’s baby was distracting her from performing her best at the plantation. He threatened to sell the baby, but nobody would buy a baby that young. Then he locked him up in the basement. The child crawled into the well in the basement and drowned. Lucia jumped in and ended her own life. It was said that Lucia’s ghost never left the house. She keeps searching for her child. Lady Chatterley had invited many ghost busters to lead Lucia to her final rest; none worked. Part of what Medua’s grandmother did as the keeper of her village shrine in Nigeria was to guide restless ghosts who were trapped on earth into the beyond. Medua remembered watching her grandmother perform the rituals. But where was she going to get the tooth of a black cat, cola nuts, white chalks, and palm fronds. She was surprised that Lady Chatterley provided every piece of item she asked for. When she asked Lady Chatterley why she provided some teeth instead of one, her response was that she had asked her Mexican gardener to get rid of her oldest cat; she needed its whole teeth. The ranch mansion was also haunted.
On the night of the ritual, it was full moon. Medua faced the east. The sacrificial bowl was beside her and she shivered. She pulled the massive white cloth around her shoulder closer, knotted the ends tighter and lifted the bowl into the night. She was not sure about how high her grandmother lifted it. She raised it as high as she thought was right. A thunderous howling of foxes startled her and the water- filled sacrificial bowl almost fell off her hands. She held it firmer; some tilted and splashed on her face. She spat out the water and the foxes shrieked even louder. She was chanting words, words that only her grandmother could have understood, and she heard the deafening sounds of a million human steps scuttling into the night, tearing into the woods. Then the wailings foxes were silent. She looked back at Lady Chatterley’s mansion, and saw her peering through the red curtain of the smallest window in her mansion. There was a flickering candle behind her.
Unoma Nguemo Azuah is an award-winning Nigerian writer and an important new voice in African literature. She holds an MFA in Poetry and Fiction from the Virginia Commonwealth University and has edited literary publications in Nigeria and abroad. She currently teaches in America and she is awaiting the publication of her new book.