By Emmanuel Iduma
Wednesday, September 15, 2010.
When she thinks she has forgotten, she remembers again from the start. It happens in widening whorls, as if it would never end. In her memory there is no seal; changing her name did not seal her past. Her name is Atna now. It was once Anta. She writes it backward. Her husband says it makes no sense; why didn’t she change the name altogether? She asks herself this too, often, each time she writes her new name. But she thinks there is something in her past that must be retained. This is why she cannot forget. This is why she will always remember.
Atna plays a game each time she comes to this restaurant. The game of Forget-Remember. Sitting with or without a bottle, she would stare at a blank space on the wall, one of the only corners without dirt or wallpaper, and she would try to see her mother’s face. Then her mother’s face will disappear, because she will remove it from the blank space. Somewhat, it is an invocation and revocation, a play and replay, a deposit and withdrawal. At the end of the game, she is unsatisfied.
Today she is in the restaurant again, and she is staring at that blank space. It has become hers now. Each time she enters here, which is called Papa Lick Finger, with “PLF” bracketed on its signpost, she looks for her blank space. When she sees it today, she sits down and waves at a waiter. He comes over and smiles to her, uneasily. The waiter knows she will ask for a Legend, but he asks her what she wants.
“Legend,” she says, and he smiles again. She is the only woman he knows that drinks beer in open – here in Afikpo, beer is known to be drunk by men, not women. He brings the beer, and asks her if she wants anything more. She wants to say pepper-soup, but she recalls that the last time she ate it she kept using the toilet. So she waves her hand in the negative. And the waiter smiles away. Then she sips her Legend and turns to the blank space.
In PLF there is a portrait of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It hangs beside Atna’s blank space. The Reverend’s face is like Big Brother’s, although his head is bent and his hands are clasped. What Atna sees each time is not his face or head but the ring on his finger. She sees this before she turns to her blank space.
She should not have turned her eyes away from the portrait. If her eyes had been focused on it, if she had not turned to her blank space, she would not have seen the shadow of a woman entering PLF. She sees a woman’s shadow, and she turns to see who it is.
It is her mother that enters PLF. Atna stands as soon as she sees it is her mother.
Atna is not shocked. She does not know what shock is. She does not know what it is she is feeling, or how she is feeling it. Her mother, tall as in the past, her hair plaited with rubber threads, does not seem to see Atna, or anyone. She walks right past Atna. She is wearing a patterned white gown, a gown patterned with roses, red roses. Her gait is slowed, as Atna would have wanted, as she had created in her remaking of the past.
But it is surprising to Atna that her mother is looking straight ahead, so she should have seen her.
Or does she see her? Atna does not know. She cannot know. Her body is at war with her. It is carrying her away. She wants to stay, she wants to watch her mother eat, or drink, or fall dead. But her body wants her to leave. She tries to rebel against her body. She wants to sit still, but she is standing. In this war between her body and her, the bottle of Legend tumbles, its content spills. But her body catches it before it falls to the floor. The waiter hurries over, smiling, but her mother, who is now at the counter, does not turn. While her body sees the smiling face of the waiter, she sees her mother at the counter.
It is her body that wins their war. It takes her away from PLF, stands her up and moves her outside. Outside, though, her body gives in to her, and begins to shake, to feel the sun, although the day is humid and there is a forecast of rainfall. She suddenly feels sympathy for her body, and she begins to shake too.
If her mother just entered PLF - her mother from her past – she and her body must shake. It is utterly impossible for her to reach her house with her senses intact. The crowd cheers her, boos her opponent, she scores several goals; but she loses the game still.
. . .
Barth has no will, or cannot tell if he has ever had one. Was it his will to be sitting here tonight, when the band is rendering a poor rehash of Osadebe? Or more significantly, was it his will to be married to Anta? But the question of will, in a historical context, had always enamored him, especially how complex it could be, how indefinable. Was it even Shagari’s will to become President? And so, turning the table to himself, was it his will to be married to Anta? Was it his will to see unknown cars (and their drivers) drop her off in front of his house? Was it his will to have no words to confront her promiscuity, to feel soaked, drawn, to what he thought was her Bermuda Triangle? What was his will?
Now he returns here, where he sits. Unlike his wife, he is a teetotaler; he has no grouse with alcohol, but he thinks he has the tendency to become a drunkard, an addict. Like in every other thing, he thinks he has the tendency to become an addict. He has become an addict to Atna. As he knows, an addict is hooked, an addict never leaves, irrespective of negativity, of prevailing contrary evidence. But he takes his mind off Atna. This is the umpteenth time.
Unlike his wife, he does not think of PLF as PLF, but in full, Papa Lick Finger. He dislikes summarizations in history as in everything; what can be the summary of World War Two? Also, he likes to come here at night, when the band is playing, when he can drink and listen, when he can shut out the noise while the band has played only a number, and then listen.
Like tonight. It is a poor rehash of Osadebe, and being a longtime fan, he is disconcerted, letdown. He is sitting at a table far away from the door. His wife had sat on the same table. If he had known that fact he would not have thought of it as a coincidence. But while his wife saw a woman after she turned backward, like Lot’s wife, he sees the same woman when he raises his head from his pepper-soup and looks forward, like Lot himself.
He sees his mother-in-law.
He takes it more calmly. He does not war with his body; his body does not war with him. He looks at her carefully, since he is looking from behind. She walks to the counter and stands. She starts talking to the Manager. The Manager seems to have met her before, because he begins to talk to her immediately. The Band, playing from a makeshift stage beside the counter, seems unaware of any ongoing conversation. But Barth is aware of a conversation.
She seems to have retained her liveliness, a sort of liveliness that you could easily mistake as listlessness. He has the passing thought that it is not her, but it is the same gown she wore that night; night of a thousand demons, he likes to think, like the night before the Kano Riots.
Unlike his wife, he remains in Papa Lick Finger, and watches his Mother-in-Law. She would not have been his mother-in-law, if he had a will.
. . .
Barth and Atna look at each other in a bereaved way. It is the morning after Barth saw his mother-in-law. But none of them have talked about seeing her. Barth is afraid for Atna, how she would take it; Atna feels it is her problem, not Barth’s. Their daughter is in between them. She is having breakfast in the sitting room, where Barth is reading the day’s newspaper and Atna is packing the girl’s schoolbag. Once in a while she throws glances at Barth’s direction, and their eyes meet, in that bereaved way, as though one expects the other to tell bad news. The problem is not the bad news; it is a question of who and how to tell it.
Barth says to her, when she has finished packing the schoolbag and their daughter is in the kitchen, “You are not going to school today?”
“I don’t feel like going.”
He wants to ask why, but he thinks she has started another affair and the man would come to the house. He knows this is impossible; she has never brought a man to the house. If he had been strong enough to match her strength, he would have asked her. But he has never been. He sees how her eyes dart to him, on and off - or is it his that darts to hers? It is a long time since she looked at him this way, with a mixture of guilt and defiance. So he asks her, “What is wrong?”
“Nothing,” she says, and stands. Their daughter is ready now. Atna gives her the bag. Her school bus is honking outside.
Atna remembers that it was the same question he asked her, twelve years ago. Sitting there, looking at him with the newspaper over his face, the newspaper she knows he is not reading, she thinks he is the man of twenty she first met. It was him she saw first, with her bleeding legs, her scared head, her scarred heart. She has walked a long way to get to him. Not him, though, but him. For when she sees him, standing by the door of his parent’s house, she knows she has found Salvation. Salvation in the capitalized sense, for the place where she has turned away from she has found no salvation, although it is named Salvation Church of Christ Ministries.
She ran from being tied for three days. In Esit Eket, at that time, three days could be a thousand years. Children like her, pre-teenagers, who had been identified witches, whom had been named daughters of Jezebel (or rarely, sons of Nimrod), three days could mean death or fatal injury or an eternal heart of scars. But she escaped three days of being tied to a tree: night and night and night, day by day by day.
She does not escape alone. Alongside her twin sister. Born five minutes before her.
Barth does not ask them what they want. He simply asks, “What is wrong?” But suddenly thinking it is a stupid question, he calls his parents; in frenzy, for he hates blood. His parents, too, do not ask what the girls want. They take them in. They do not even ask what is wrong. Everyone in Esit Eket knows what is wrong. The question is whether everyone has chosen to remember. And to be honest. Like Barth’s parents.
. . .
It’s always fast-forwarded in Atna’s head. She scarcely thinks of the other girls that join them. Of the old kiosk that is cleaned into a sleeping room for the increasing number of girls. Girls with similar stories, of being called witches by a Prophet, and being persecuted by their parents for being witches, for dining with the devil, for causing accidents and cancer and deaths and other mishaps. All these lack detail in Atna’s head. She thinks instead of the night that defined her life. Barth, her husband, would think of it as the night of a thousand demons. It is not a question of whether Atna feels there were demons that night. It matters less to her. That night, to her, is a standing unicorn with wings that attracts wind. One wing faces east, the other faces west. West is the past; East is the present and future. But the wind of the past and present and future are attracted to the unicorn.
She does not know why she thinks of it in this surrealistic manner. All she knows is that she wants to forget the night that defined her life. But she cannot.
. . .
Barth stopped sleepwalking that night. He had always thought of his sleepwalk as half-sleepwalk, for he would wake in the midst of his walking and remember the dream that made him stand. There was always a dream that made him start walking, thinking he was yet in the land of dreams. Usually, it was a dream that he was running away from a field of hostility. It could be the First World War or the Second, or the unfought Third. Or it could be, simply, a battle in the pre-Middle Ages, when conventional weapons were not guns. Whichever it was, he always walked away, and branched into a long dark alley, which on most occasions, turned out to be the entrance to the old kiosk. But this was when the kiosk had no occupants.
Now it did, on the night he stopped sleepwalking. It was three days after the kiosk had been renovated to house the growing number of outcast children. As usual, his sleepwalk ended when he got to the end of the long dark alley; when he was scarred that his adversaries from the field of hostilities would undoubtedly catch up with him. His eyes would open, he would find that he was in front of the kiosk.
But when his eyes opened, that night, of a thousand demons, he saw the dim light of a torch and the figure of a woman. She was bent over one of the children. Then there was a shout. And another. Then shouts filled the kiosk.
He was fixed to where he was, at the end of the long dark alley. But he shouted, “Who is there?” The woman turned. There was increased shouting now. Then the woman began to exit the kiosk, as quickly as she could. She met him in front of the kiosk. She said nothing to him. He saw her gown, and the dagger in her hand. Then she began to run.
His parents would ask him why he had not stopped her. How could she kill someone before his eyes and he did nothing? How could he remain where he was and watch the death of another person? They made him guilty. This, perhaps, is why he is addicted to a survivor of that night, whose twin had been killed. He does not know that the woman-killer did a half-job. Her plan had been to kill both girls.
His parents sent him to Afikpo, where his uncle taught in Akanu Ibiam Federal Polytechnic. The surviving twin went with him; or did he go with her? His parents wrote a letter to his uncle: Would he be kind enough to take care of this child, whose own mother had killed her twin sister? The uncle would agree, by a simple glance at the twelve year old, who looked twenty, and older than his twenty year old nephew.
The rest between Barth and Anta (Atna), as they say, is history. She went to a Teacher’s College, became one, by which time he had began teaching in his uncle’s stead. He taught the same subject, History, and lived in the house his unmarried uncle once lived. The only difference is that he is married, to a largely unfaithful wife, with an obscure past.
. . .
Atna is unfaithful to Barth because she is bored by his doting. She likes activity. She has seen much activity. There is some sense of responsibility, for her, to maintain it. Even if she despises the activity of her mother, she cannot despise the inexorable gusto of the man that appeared in her house one Friday evening. Before long, two days later, he had gathered her mother, herself and Ansa. And he preached the gospel of St. John the Baptist, of St. Elijah the Man of War, and of St. Joel the Man of the Latter Rain.
Before long, a week later, she and Ansa had peeped through her mother’s window to find the Prophet and their mother underneath a blanket. They had never heard their mother make such noise; they had never known their father.
Before long, the prophet found them staring, on another evening when all his body, save his eyes, was underneath the blanket. And before long, two days after he caught them peeping, in his makeshift church under a tree, opposite their house, they were declared witches. His church had more members; as such their persecution was unrestrained.
So she is unfaithful to Barth because he loves her so much, and she does not know what love is, or what the extent of his love is. Didn’t her mother love them? Didn’t she once run around the house with them in a game of hide and seek? How did she change so quickly? How could her love dissipate so easily? This is why she cannot stay committed to a man who loves her so much, but who she thinks can change like the bait of an eyelid. And she does not know whether she loves him or not.
This is why, on the day after she saw her mother again, she is looking at him in a way he thinks is a mixture of guilt and defiance. She knows he thinks she has started another affair. The truth is, she is getting less interested in affairs, in wooing and being wooed, in seeing sex as climax and catharsis. She knows, also, that seeing her mother yesterday changed something in her. Her thought of change coincides with Barth’s standing and moving to the bathroom.
When Barth has returned from the bathroom, he takes her by surprise. She is in the kitchen washing the used plates. He holds her waist from behind. This is surprising because she has long known that his love is not expressed by touches. His romance is in the eyes. But he holds her from behind. She is so surprised she cannot turn. He says, “Let’s eat out somewhere.” She says “Yes,” before she remembers that his favorite place is PLF. It was her favorite place too, until yesterday.
“Where?” she now asks. He is still holding her, so close she can inhale his Aftershave. It is Nivea. She is even surprised she can feel such heavy dose of desire for him. Yet, she sieves her desire from her reason; for PLF would be a bad option. Her mother could still be there. Waiting. Waiting for what?
“Papa Lick Finger.”
His hold is less fierce. She knows he is disappointed, hurt.
“We can go somewhere else.”
“Papa Lick Finger is the best around here.”
Her head is telling her to confront her fears. There is no certainty her mother would be there.
“Okay,” she says, and his hold regains its fierceness. “What time?” she asks.
“Seven,” she repeats, confronting her fears.
. . .
Barth is disappointed. She is not here. They have ordered plates of pepper-soup, two for her and one for him, and malts. They have listened to better renditions of Osadebe, of Oliver de Coque, of Morocco, of Bright Chimezie. They have waited. He thinks he is waiting alone, but he does not know Atna is waiting too. He sees her glance backward, toward the door. Since he is sitting and facing the door, he can see it without turning. As such, their conversation is contrived, and absent.
“Let’s go,” she says, after her second pepper-soup.
“Okay,” he replies. His disappointment seems to be a bucketful of shit being fed to him. He would have wanted to confront his mother-in-law. To call her bluff.
Mama Egwu, their neighbour next door, in whose custody their daughter had been kept, looks alarmed when she sees them.
“A woman came here. Looking for you.” She says, facing Atna.
“What did she say?”
“Nothing. She just said she is looking for Anta.”
“Anta?” Barth asks.
“She knocked at your door?” Atna asks.
“Yes. But I think she had checked your door first.”
They thank her and leave with their daughter. Two hearts are thumping. As one, perhaps, for the first time.
It is this night that Barth would tell her he had seen her mother. It is also tonight that she would tell him she saw her too. He would expect to see her face contorted in worry, in careless abandon, but instead he would see it tired.
“She came here,” Atna says.
“And she asked after me.”
She has told no one that the dagger used on her sister brushed her thigh, and that the scar is still there. But she tells Barth now. And pulls up her nightdress to show him the scar. The thin scar is like the mark of a pen. So Barth traces it with his index finger. He removes his finger after four back-and-forth tracings. But she leaves her nightdress as it is, drawn up to her left thigh.
She has never asked anyone this; she has kept the question sealed in her mind. But now, this night that her mother is resurrected, she asks Barth, whose finger has returned to her thigh, “Why did she kill my sister?” Barth does not know, and cannot pretend to know. So he says, “I don’t know.” Honesty is his best policy. How can you ask why Hitler killed six million Jews? But Atna presses on, bringing forth all the questions of twelve years. “Was it because of the prophet?” “Did he have power over her?” She asks him these questions without wanting answers. She knows she can have no answers.
If she would find an answer, she might need to return to the night when she, and her sister, overheard the prophet talking to her mother about them. “They are witches. You should not think they are your daughters. The devil disguises himself like an angel of light. So you must do away with them.” Well, as Atna knew, this doing-away-with began with tying them to trees and asking them to confess all their wrongs. Their wrongs included killing their father; trapping him in a car accident while he returned from one of his endless journeys. How they had made their uncles infertile, such that four of them were married without children. And who knew to what extent they planned to go? Who knew whether their mother wasn’t next on their death list? For who knows to what extent the devil can go?
She stands up abruptly, so that Barth is startled. She says, “What does she want? After all these years?” Barth has no answer. Her questions always override his reasoning.
. . .
The end begins with rainfall. Barth, Atna, and their daughter have taken the same positions of yesterday morning. Barth is with yesterday’s newspaper, which he thinks is a recent version of history. This thought would have had no sense if it were thought by Atna, who is with her daughter’s schoolbag. She is thinking of her daughter, who is eating breakfast on the dining, and how she must have no reason to change her name or write it backwards.
There is a knock on the door. It is faint, but solid. The rain is disguising the knock, making it into something like a pat on the door. But being solid, persistent, it lacks the lackluster quality of a pat. The newspaper drops from Barth’s hand, almost as though he has no nerve. Atna looks at her daughter, not the door. This is a safe thing for her to do.
For when Barth opens the door, he is struck on his chest by a dagger. His white T-shirt is already stained by the time Atna looks up, hearing his whimper. She screams, alongside her daughter, who is calling “Daddy, Daddy.” And this is when Atna sees her mother.
Barth is on the floor, with hands over his chest. Atna’s mother is smiling. “You think I will not find you,” she says, “after all this time. Eh?” her mother is still her mother; Atna is still Anta to her. It is as though she is five years old, and not twenty-four. As she speaks, the dagger is raised, pointed, and she is coming closer. Atna is standing in the dinning area, where she had reclined when her daughter screamed, and she is looking without her eyes at her mother. For her eyes has left her; her body has renounced her, and she is left like a lamb led to the slaughter without any reason. She cannot move away. This is the moment her life has led her to. It has been a single string of existence from that night until now. And this is the moment it will be over, for her mother is coming closer to her, smiling, with the dagger that killed her twin.
Barth does not accept this moment as the final. He can feel his blood pouring away, leaving him. But his eyes, unlike his wife’s, have not left him. He can see a stool; he can see it as a weapon. This exhilarates him: a stool as a weapon. His wife and his daughter share the same frightened face. Their resemblance has never been better pronounced. But he thinks he can end their fright with the stool, he thinks he can jam the stool on their oppressor. The pain on his chest is hurting. Yet, he will try.
. . .
The wagon is slow. Atna is thinking it cannot be as slow as the ferry that took them away from Afikpo. They are headed towards Esit Eket. The driver of the wagon had said it was bad luck to carry a corpse. But Barth promised to pay more than the fare, and he obliged.
In the wagon, Atna gets a bad view of her husband. He is sitting with the driver in front, and she is behind, a seat before the seat where her mother’s body is placed.
She wants to think of her husband as a hero. But she is void of any thinking. She does not feel her mother’s death has brought any end. After all, there is still the question of a burial, and how the people in Esit Eket would accept the death. And what made her mother look for her as though twelve years were days. Was the prophet still there? How would he take her death? What power could he exercise now? It keeps revolving in her head as widening gyres. The end, she thinks, is no end.
From time to time in the slow wagon her husband turns to her. She can see from his eyes that he wants to smile. Very often, she smiles at him, and only then does he smile in return. After he turns his face from her, she closes her eyes to remember. But she cannot.
Emmanuel Iduma is a law student in Nigeria and has been published online and in print.