Writivism Flash Fiction Friday: “Early”, “For Nwacheta”, “Games of Guilt”, “A Question of Underwear” and “The Axe”
For this week’s Fiction Friday, we bring you another batch of stories to come out of the Writivism Flash Fiction workshops held last year. Aspiring writers from all over the continent took part in this project, initiated by the Centre for African Cultural Excellence, in partnership with the Global Changemakers programme.
In June this year, one deserving short story writer will be named the Writivist of the Year during the Writivism festial in Kampala, Uganda.
Get a taste of the talent that’s out there by reading the following flash fiction stories: “Early” by Michelle Preen, “For Nwacheta” by Chioma Precious Ezeano, “Games of Guilt” by Miracle Adebayo, “A Question of Underwear” by Gwendolene Mugodi and “The Axe” by Harriet Anena.
My voice has shunned my body. I hear it over there, dissociated from my being.
“Give me my baby,” it says. First frantic and then more softly, over and over until I can hardly hear it.Sobs rack my soul, merging eventually with the cries of my baby, in perfect harmony.
“I told you it was too early,” a sterile voice says. I cannot see who it belongs to because they are all hiding behind masks.
But early is good, I think. I can hear my father’s reassuring voice. The early bird catches the worm.
He loved idioms. My sister and I always used to joke and call them idiots. “Dad loves idiots”, we would shriek, dissolving into girlie giggles. Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise. I hear him again.
“A woman too,” I would say to him now if he were still with us.
Then another voice, shrill and piercing, tweezes my wandering mind back to the operating theatre. My baby is quiet now and I can’t see where he is.
“What have you done with him?” I say, searching the room with my bloodshot eyes.
“You need to get her out of here. She’s disturbing the patient.” It’s the shrill one again.
“DoctorJill.” A hand touches my shoulder. Is he talking to me? “We need to go. You aren’t well.”
“I’m not going anywhere without my baby,” I say. I wipe my nose on the back of my sleeve.
Then I see him on the operating table, all red and crumpled, and in the arms of a strange woman. She looks worried and I start to panic.
“Is he alright?” I say. I am crying again. “Is he alright?” The nurse is trying to guide me out, first gently, but now more firmly.
“Please doctor, you’re making this worse,” he says to me.
I lunge forward towards the operating table in a desperate attempt to grab my baby, but the nurse has me in a firm grip. The woman on the table is crying now, confused-looking.
“She lost her baby recently,” one of the masks says to the woman on the table.“Advised not to come back to work so early, but she insisted she was fine. I’m so sorry about this. We’ll get her out now.”
Lost. What? I wasn’t careless. I didn’t lose him! The blood-stained hands of Death wrenched him from me. I tried so hard to hold on, but Death was too strong.
“I didn’t lose him,” I hear myself whisper. “He was taken.”
They all look at me.
“Let her go,” says the woman holding the baby.
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea, ma’am. She’s unstable.”
“Let her go,” she says again. “Please.”
Our eyes meet for the first time. I see the jumbled emotions in hers, mirroring my own – exhaustion, confusion, sadness – but in hers there is also a trace of joy, whichreflects back into mine as resentment.
“Do you want to hold my baby?” she says to me.
“Ma’am,” the nurse says. “I don’t…” But she interrupts him.
“Do you, doctor?” she says to me again.
I step forward slowly, unsure now whether this is what I want. She holds him out to me and I can see now that he is not mine. I have delivered hundreds of babies, but I feel afraid to take this fragile creature in my arms. I take another step towards them and stretch out my hands. I hear a collective intake of breath as I take him and hold him to me.
His little wrinkled face looks troubled and in it I see my father. I smile faintly. His little body feels comforting against my chest. Time heals all wounds, my father whispers. The wound in my womb, the wound in my heart, the wound in my soul. They just need time. Better late than never.
Who am I kidding? Who’s the idiot now? The wounds might recover, but they will leave their ghosts behind. The scars will never disappear. I know I can never create and nurture another life inside me. Delivering babies, but never my own. I clutch my baby tighter to my chest and glance across at the anxious eyes. Then I spin around and run.
When are you coming home? It is over fifteen years now. Mama always said things would get better when you leave America and come back home. She would renovate the house, and Papa would fix the van and get back to his business and stop drinking so much palmy and beer. And what about my tea? In Mama’s favourite photo of you – the one with you wearing green shorts, laughing and sweating from soccer practice – you are towering over your friends. Mama used to point you out to me, and tell me that if I was a good boy, you would send tea that I could drink to make me grow as tall as you. Mama says you went to America when I was just a little baby, and now I am in class one, and I am still not as tall as you.
So, when are you coming home brother? Mama has stopped pointing you out to me in her photos, she has stopped making renovation plans about the house, she has stopped talking to the neighbours about her son Nwacheta living in America. These days, she only mutters your name under her breath. The other day I heard her, holding her chin, muttering that you have deceived everyone. Deceive! That word she uses only for the devil. ‘Devil deceived me,’ she would say and go on to sprinkle holy water on herself. Sometimes, sitting with her legs outstretched on the floor, she mutters ‘Nwacheeeeta….You are not supposed to forget. Is it not your name, Nwacheta?’ She re-reads that one letter you sent long ago, when you said things are hard, that not all Americans live in big houses, that jobs were not easy to come by.
Mama always holds her chin to say how you have deceived everyone. She retells how you promised to write us letters weekly and send papa drugs that would stop him from drinking beer and palmy, and send her supplements, and send Chidera a gun to kill all those uncles struggling for papa’s small land with papa.
I look at your photo sometimes, trying to imagine the way you talk, the way you kick a ball, the way your laughter fills the room as Mama used to say. Will it only be through Mama’s talk that that I know you?
But then I realise that there also things you know only in small doses. Like Papa’s death. You simply know that Papa is dead. Do you know what killed him? Debt did. It was Mama Nkechi, one woman that sells palmy and beer in Nkwo market. Papa was owing her big amount. So, she started chasing papa everywhere she saw him. The last day was at the market square. Papa fell. Eyewitnesses said he hit his head on a block. He died, immediately. I didn’t go to school for some weeks because it was embarrassing.
Now, mama has started her own. She has not been to the house for three days now, because she’s running from Madam Agnes from the market women association. Mama is one of them, though she has not paid her dues for many years. I had a dream where her creditors were chasing her too, only that in my dream, mama was running faster than them because her tiny legs were good for her small body. Nowadays, Mama is so small it looks like she’s shrinking.
Pastor Obi said the rate at which my family owes is a curse. I am beginning to agree because Chidera has come back from the University in Awka, where he attends, to say that he too owes his classmate some bucks. That was what he said, ‘some bucks’. Maybe I am not owing because I am too young to owe. But you never can tell. Am I not owing Okwy five mangoes? We plucked them from their mango tree. I was to sell and give him commission. But I didn’t because mama took the money from me and used it to cook the watery egusi soup Pastor Obi ate the day he came. We were thinking that he wouldn’t eat. He did, and said it’s a blessing to eat anything served by a widow. Chidera and I laughed. Now, we say, ‘stop licking plate like Pastor Obi.’ Mother had asked us to stop mocking him, that it is a sin, but everything is a sin for mama. Everything, except running from creditors.
Mother does other things too. You know how hardworking she is. She farms even though her farm products are mostly sent to Pastor Obi. They call it first seed offering. The Offering is supposed to bring about blessings for other seeds. Me, I am yet to see the blessings. But I believe mama. She has faith, plenty plenty faith. That is why she believes that her debts could be wiped out by fasting and praying. I believe too. And I fast with her, especially when there’s no food in the house.
Brother, find a way to get back to us. Mama’s fear lives in her eyes; the way she doesn’t want to talk about you anymore, especially since papa died. She used to look at my fair skin and say, you look like your brother, Nwacheta. But not anymore. When Aunty Mgbochiekamma gave birth after many uncountable years, Papa asked her to name the boy Nwacheta. She refused. It caused quarrel oo, big time. Chidera believes you are doing well. He brags about you to his friends. Me, I just know it’s over fifteen years now. And I still know you like I know winter; in pictures, in sketches, from descriptions let out by mama’s under-breath words and Chidera’s loud brags. Don’t you think I deserve better? Write. Even if there’s nothing to write about, write!
I am sick of the sight of lawyers; sick of the black and white robes, the cold courtroom and the gnawing fears. In my twenty years of medical practice, I have never fallen into the hands of the law. I hadn’t killed anyone on my operating table. The handful of deaths had been no one’s fault.
Except this one time.
I am on trial and every day is filled with apprehension that has me in pins and needles. I stand in the courtroom as Mayowa’s lawyer spouts terms like negligence, liability and damages.
Mayowa! Her face haunts me night and day, etched in pain and grey as the life ebbed out of her. I have to close my eyes to block the picture of her baby as he writhed in my hands, taking his first and last breaths.
I wipe my brow. I am helpless against the memories. Flashes of my hands shaking as I wielded the scalpel, my blurry vision as I tried to focus on the bulge in Mayowa’s belly that was supposed to emerge as a baby. Voices in my head as I made contact with her clammy skin.
“Focus,” my lips had seemed detached from the rest of my body. But I couldn’t focus, not when my mind was thinking of other things.
I glance at my lawyer. There is a calm unruffled look on his face. My eyes move across the courtroom and meet the hateful gaze of Mayowa’s husband- not just hateful, but determined. A man demanding compensation for his loss, a loss he blames on me.
The prosecutor is done and gives Mayowa’s husband a look that seems to seal my fate. Even though I can’t understand the legal jargon I have a feeling he’s done a good job.
I clench my jaw – they are requesting damages not prison – yet I want to win. Losing would be an admission of guilt. Losing would damage the reputation I’ve built over twenty years. I hold my breath.
Five hundred million. Damages
My hands are beginning to shake; I should have fortified myself with a drink before coming to court. I scan the room again, looking for a familiar face. I’m hoping my wife will show up in spite of her harsh words. Our last conversation is still making headlines in my head.
“I can’t believe I married a man like you!” Nancy had shouted. ‘You’re spineless!”
“Can’t you understand? It’s my reputation at stake here.”
“How dare you mention reputation? Your so-called reputation has gone down the drain since you became an alcoholic, so, face reality! See this as a way of doing penance.”
“I do feel bad,’ I’d insisted, ‘I really do. But I have a chance of getting out of this…’
She’d given me a strange look. ‘A woman died, Mike. A baby also died. All because of your problem. How can that not bother you?’
“It does. But I can’t change anything now. I’m not the first doctor to lose a patient. We’re going to be bankrupt if they win this case…”
“I’d rather be penniless than live with the guilt of two deaths,” Nancy shuddered. ‘I don’t care about your money!”
I remained silent.
“And,” she continued, “whether you win or lose this case, you’ve already lost me.”
“What do you mean?”
“When you get back from ‘winning’ your case; don’t count on seeing me in this house.”
I reached out to hold her but she moved away. ‘ I’ll never taste alcohol ever again,” I said.
She snorted, “You and I both know you’re fooling yourself.”
Whenever Nancy gets hysterical, there’s no convincing her. “You need help” she said, “Your conscience is dead”
Her words ring in my ears. She is wrong. My conscience is alive and well. Gnawing its way through my sleepless nights, seeping into my nightmares. She doesn’t know that I wept when she told me she would leave me. I can’t afford to lose her. Or my money. Or my reputation. I stop myself from rocking back and forth. Perhaps I am losing my sanity.
I grit my teeth as my lawyer begins to speak. I block out his words. He rambles on about my spectacular medical history. I wish I can help myself, I wish I can control the urge to drink. God! Let me get off and I’ll never operate under the influence again. I am sweating profusely as the judge bangs his gavel.
“As much as I sympathize with the appellant,’ he intones, ‘I find no negligence on the part of the respondent. No liability for damages.”
My lawyer slaps my back triumphantly and someone wails – it is a sound of pain and defeat. There is no relief. The guilt has made itself at home and the ghosts hover. Home! My chest constricts as I remember that there’s no longer home to go to. I’ve won the case but lost Nancy.
My legs wobble as I step out of the courtroom and blink in the bright light. I could donate some of my money to Mayowa’s family; maybe it’ll chase away the ghosts, maybe it’ll make me feel less guilty. My lawyer taps my back again, snapping me out of my thoughts.
“What do you think?” he gestures to the bar across the road. “ A drink to celebrate?”
Drinking is one way to keep the ghosts at bay.
My virgin mother stands at the bedroom door, clothed in a brown lace petticoat and nine hours of anger. She lunges at my father the moment he comes out and he, still hung-over, sidesteps to escape her wrath, making his way out of the house. She follows.
“Beat me up now ka. Lay your hands on me now. Prove you are a man in daylight. Man in name only. No. A man in the underwear only! If the roof is leaking, I fix it. My musika puts food on the table. Today you must give me your underwear so I can become a man once and for all.”
Her saggy breasts heave with each punctuation.
“Beat me up, Rangai. Beat me now. Or does your strength come from the bottle? Hehehehe!” she laughs, clapping. “A man who buys his strength for $3!”
Father finally speaks, “Chiiko Amai Haru? This early in the morning.”
Mother’s performance once again draws the attention of Mai Granite. She leans her shapeless upper body over the low fence separating our compounds, feigning concern. But after five years of their bickering, you would think she would stop.
If I had not seen it with my own eyes, I would have never believed at some point my parents did get along. Up until I was seven, they got along like a house on fire. But houses burn down, my father the casualty of this incineration. People say father drinks too much. I know he does it to escape his life. His life, without the job at Waverly Factory where he used to make quality blankets. His new job, collecting anything plastic from people’s trash for a recycling company. Rifling through leftover dinners and soiled sanitary towels. It embarrasses him more because he knows how much it embarrasses mother.
But he’s a quiet man, my father, never talks about things. Mother says I’m way too much like him. Not quiet when he is drunk though. You should see him; comes home a changed man, in a staggering confidence.
“Iwe Virginia!” he would yell close to midnight. “Wake up and prepare my food. What are you good for if you cannot perform the most basic of wifely duties? All you do is complain about how blue the sky is. You know that I paid seven live cows for you? How many men do that? Even for wives of better caliber. Nxaa!”
Often there are threats of a beating I have come to realize will never happen. When not under the influence, my father is too sensible. When inebriated, he is often incapable.
Mother never reacts during the night. She knows to wait for morning—when she is in her best form and her husband at his worst.
Which explains these Saturday morning showdowns.
It is Sunday now, and my pious mother drags me to church to pray for my sins and shortcomings. I mostly pray for them. My father does not believe in a god though. I’m not sure I do anymore myself. He usually spends his Sundays sleeping off his Saturday bhabharasi.
It is a surprise then, when we get back home that he is nowhere in sight. It is not long, however, before we find a pile of his underwear and a note on the dining table;
Chipfeka ka. I have gone to look for more fitting underwear. Don’t expect me back.
Your former wife,
Olanya had not uttered a word to his family since the day Lalam left him for another man. For a year, he spoke only to the bottle of Arege – the bitter local brew – that sat permanently on the lone table in his hut.
He refused to take meals with the rest of the family: Grandma, concerned for his well-being, brought food to his hut every morning and evening. Olanya never thanked her. His face remained expressionless even when Grandma criticized his endless drinking.
One morning, as he sat on the verandah holding a plate of cold food with one hand, and a bottle of Arege in the other, the infant Alinga came tiptoeing towards him. When he saw her, he growled like a lion.
She came closer.
“Go to your mother,” he snapped. Alinga drew closer still, curious to hear him speak.
“What do want? What?” he muttered, pelting the three-year-old with food from his plate. “Do you know that I have a wife?” he asked.
Alinga wiped off food from her skirt
“Are you a dog? I’m speaking to you!”
Alinga sat down in the dirt and began to play with the Arege bottle tops Olanya had discarded there.
“I have a wife,” the drunkard told her. She looked at him and blew spit bubbles.
“Shut up! Just listen. See? I have a wife. Her name is Arege. She is beautiful. I’ll introduce you to her. She is the only one who understands me. She is not like Lalam…that slut!Arege cannot leave me. She knows I would go blind if I don’t see her. How can I, Olanya take a day without sipping her? How?” he asked. Alinga said nothing.
“I loved Lalam. If it wasn’t love then why did I pay her dowry? Why did I give her parents six cows? They were so poor they ate cassava leaves! And what about the twelve goats and chickens and tobacco and…”
“Oh, Lalam! Lalam!” he wailed.
“But what did she do? Tell me, what did Lalam give me in return for all that love?” He took a long gulp of Arege.
When he had removed the bottle from his mouth and swallowed, he closed his eyes and bared his teeth as though the alcohol was a ball of fire rolling down his throat.
Then he belched.
“Ah. What was I saying?” His eyes were bloodshot now.
Alinga reached for the bottle of Arege. Olanya snatched it away.
“See child, Lalam had no eyes. She didn’t see the love I poured on her and her family. Ungrateful wretch. If she did, she would have given me a child. She would have given me a son. But she insulted me by refusing me children. That evil woman made everyone think my axe had fallen into water. Me, whose own father sired fifteen children. The men from Pawel are the most fertile of men. Everyone knows that. Except Lalam.”
Alinga stood on her fat legs and began to toddle away.
“Hey, come back,” Olanya reached out and grabbed her arm, pulling her back towards him. She sat with a bump and began to fuss a little. To stop her from crying, Olanya gave her an empty Arege bottle to play with. She put it in her mouth. Satisfied that he still had an audience, he continued.
“I got tired of her. I couldn’t stand a woman who humiliated me before my elders. I beat her, and the stupid woman summoned my people and told them I was not digging her garden. Lalam said her garden was overgrown with grass because I had stopped tilling it. But how could I? How could I continue digging a garden so infertile that it only produced thorns and bitter fruits. I refused to let Lalam squat over my head. I, Olanya, a man who urinates while standing was not going to let a woman pee on my head.”
Olanya put the bottle to his lips and, for a while, the only sound was of his greedy gulps.
“See, that’s why I got a new love. She sweeps away my worries, takes me to the real world where problems look only for people like Lalam. This woman, this bottle of Arege, is the only one that makes me complete. Even when I take her five times a day, she doesn’t say no. She is sweet. She runs down my throat smoothly, settles gently in my stomach and digests all my problems. Then it travels to my head, erases everything – all the bad things that Lalam left behind when she eloped with that useless son of Rwot Ineka.”
“Go…leave me alone,” he suddenly said, kicking at Alinga.
As the infant Alinga began to cry, a woman entered the compound.
“I see you have found someone new to bully,” she said, rescuing Alinga from her uncle’s vicious foot.
“Who are you?” Olanya demanded, rubbing his eyes to clear his vision.
“Olanya, don’t you recognise me?” she asked, rubbing her swollen belly. “It’s me, Lalam, here to show you that it is not my womb that is thorny but your axe that is blunt.”
Among the Acholi of Uganda, childlessness was largely blamed on women in the past. Even when it had been established that the man of the house was impotent, the issue was hushed so that it didn’t bring shame upon the head of the home. To cover up a man’s impotence, his wife could be forced to become pregnant by his brother. However, if the woman was infertile, her husband could take a second wife without her consultation. Although times have changed, many still blame women for a couple’s childlessness.
Image courtesy Deju African