A Pinch of Sugar
By Emeka Chinagorom
I still see your face. It is your face the morning you died - your face as the neighbors carried you away - and the faces moments before that and after. You winced as the pain shot through you, as though by squeezing your face you could stop what was about to happen. Minutes later, your mouth frothed. Then on your burial day, your lifeless face with the balls of cotton wool plugged into your nostrils.
It has been seven years, but your face is still everywhere; has been in my food, on the faces of my classmates, and even in the pages of my books where I apply my mind sometimes just to escape you. Which only works for a short while before you are there again, stealing in when, while reading, I pause and try to make sense of those elusive mathematical methods and incomprehensible laws of physics.
Even now, as I sit by these dust-layered louvers looking into the senior girls’ football field where harmattan air swirls and a junior girl, a newbie, walks into my eyeshot with her family. It is her first Visiting Day. She is pointing out the school’s buildings to her family. Pointing as though she were a surveyor indicating land boundaries; that’s the refectory, that’s the chapel, there is the infirmary, and here are the dormitories.
With her: a woman who has a toddler balanced on her right hip, a boy of the same height and plumpness as the junior girl - a twin maybe - and a man on whose square face I now see yours. He is tall like you. He has on a black trouser and a black shirt like he just came from a funeral or from singing in a choir, and his face - a shade less darker than yours - is beaming with a happy smile that is much like the one in the picture at the bottom of my box.
One of them has said something quite funny, for now, the man throws back his head in an unrestrained laughter that resembles yours. I remember this, this throwing your head back in powerful gusts of hearty laughter because it was the same deep voice, devoid of the laughter, that terrified me those quiet nights leading to your death. The man keeps on laughing. I want him to stay there, bearing your face of laughter that is rare to come by among other less appealing faces that have come to me. Your smiling face appears as though it is from a previous lifetime, a lifetime before the troubles started.
They move on now, the man taking you with him. The girl still points, and they chatter as they walk along. Something about the scene reminds me of when Ma used to say we were “the family they want to be like.” On visiting days like today, I see so many such families, and I remember how ours used to be. I see them with their fine smiles and beautiful clothes walking around the school, adding color with their beautiful presence to the drab that the Federal Government Girls’ College, Onitsha can be. I sit by these louvers, ignored by other girls in my dormitory and unseen by those I watch as they pass, and watch all these. And as I watch and remember I try to fight thoughts of us on Bernard Street, thoughts that seeing your face on these visiting fathers brings me.
The wind picks up and blows a gust of harmattan air across the fields, a swift impermanent flow, gorgeous in that dusty smell of approaching December. It is the sort of dry wind that cracks lips and leaves the edges of nostrils in a peppery irritation. Another family comes into view. The father has a face so oblong, so fair and so hairless that it is hard to see you on it at first, but shortly, your face makes an entrance and takes over. This time, remembering goes beyond your face because the family’s number is perfect, too: dad, mom, son and the girl in checkered pinafore – you, Ma, Gozie and me. Another gust of wind blows by, stronger and rustling, and on its nostalgic whiff, my thoughts are conducted away to Bernard Street, to us before the day you were carried away.
Do you remember those days, Bernard Street? How Ma always said, “The family they want to be like,” - ‘they’ being our neighbors - and how so true it felt on those Sundays when we all walked down to the Basilica for the 10 A.M. mass by the Archbishop? Those Sundays when we dressed in our best clothes and Gozie held my hands as we walked the short distance to the church, with you and Ma trailing behind. Ma said our neighbors peeped at us through their windows, admiring our colorful clothes and wishing they were us.
I believed her though she seemed to be the only one who somehow heard and knew their preferences. Gozie said she was happy crazy. Do you remember that those were Sundays without blemish, Sundays before the fights began and Ma’s face in the morning was a pulp with the areas around her eyes that were so black?
Sundays before you started staying out late and coming back after midnight with that thunderous bang on the door that sent up a thousand echoes into the still night, yanking me out of my sleep, terrifying me and making me reach for Gozie and holding him closer?
Do you remember how the reason for the commotion in the compound was either Papa Uju, his daughters, and wife or Papa Obidigbo with his brood of two girls and five boys? During their fights, Ma would peep through the curtained window, hush Gozie and me to a breathless silence, and later share the details of the quarrels she had pilfered with her friends.
If only she knew that soon you would bring whatever clouds that rained trouble on the roofs of these other families and hang it over ours where commotion started to rain without intermission. It is true that the confusion often began with Ma singing those songs you felt were laden with cryptic messages aimed at you like darts at a bull’s-eye, her songs about green bottles and a certain Uju (Was it Pa Uju’s daughter?). But did you always have to respond with your fists like they were the chorus to her songs?
I learned the lyrics of her song and would hum them to myself sometimes. Until that day you caught me singing the song and slapped me so hard I thought my ears would never stop echoing. After which, you said I would grow up to be an ugly nagging bitch like Ma. I began to hate you that day. That evening I waited for Uju (you remember she always announced her presence with the koi koi sounds of her pointy heels) and asked if she was the Uju in Ma's songs.
I was going to tell her to leave you alone and get out of Ma’s songs. But she looked down at me, the way Goliath did David in the drawing in our picture Bible, only for her lips that shone a red pepper color and the cracking sounds escaping her mouth as she chewed maliciously on gum. She rolled her black penciled eyelashes at me and said, "You're too small to be concerned about adult issues like that. You've not even seen your first period." She rolled her eyes again and batted them a hundred times in two seconds, derisively.
"Just too small!"
"Mr. Essien said period was another name for a full stop," I said, rolling and batting my eyes, too.
She laughed out loud, tears coming to her eyes. When she walked away wagging her big buttocks at me, the ears of her hips jutting out against the tight trousers she wore, I stood there thinking how stupid she must be not to know the meaning of a period. I was very mad at her, at you. I made up my mind to never let you carry me again, although I couldn’t remember the last time you did. I still hope she was not the Uju of Ma’s songs because I did not get the chance to find out.
Ma had another song about General Abacha and his evil government. I did not learn the words of that song, but it was not long before I tore out Abacha’s eyes from that calendar picture of him in the parlor, and lied that it was not me when you asked. Now you know.
From Ma’s many songs I knew it was a terrible time for us. Your business had failed, and you were in debt. But that is no excuse for what you became. Ma’s salary had not been paid for months as well, but she did not go out and come home drunk. She did not hit us nor did she break things. She sold her wrappers and trinkets as secondhand to make sure we had food and to refill Gozie’s inhaler that soon ran out again.
I bet you did not know that Gozie had began fighting a lot in the streets and would come back gasping for air, his mouth wide open, his popping eyes bloodshot. One day, Ma threatened to smack his buttocks if he got into another fight. He looked at her and in a small dull voice said, "I fight because Pa Obidigbo’s children tease me about the way Pa beat you."
Ma sniffed and went away, her head bowed down, her face sorrowful.
Did you know any of this?
Gozie got furious whenever there was a fight, and he would tell me how he would remind you of the way you beat up Ma when he grew up. While I curled up in a corner when the disquieting thuds echoed through the walls, he would pace the room, his face swollen with anger and threatening to burst like a ripe boil.
“Just one day,” he always said. His stammer would worsen when he talked about it, and he would sound like a man which he was not. He would bite his lips and sometimes I could see lines of tears break loose from his eyes and wander down his fair lean cheeks. When I cried, he would hug me into his thin body and tell me not to cry. Then he would make me sit between his legs and braided my hair into new okoso styles.
Those were on the nights he was home because it was not long before I had to sit and cry through another fight alone because Gozie was ever rarely home anymore. Did you even notice how much he was gone?
The evening before the day they carried you away, Gozie was home, and a strangeness played around him. You had just stormed into the night after another fierce argument. Thankfully, it was not a lengthy fight that night, and I was grateful because Ma’s face was safe from more purple patches. She still had the bag in her left eye and the stitches that ran from her eyebrows to eyelashes.
We were behind the door of our small room where Gozie’s leg, serving as a wedge, provided a little gap. It was from there we watched you, although we mostly heard the blows more than we could see them in the illumination the kerosene lanterns provided. But we saw their imprints the following morning.
We saw Ma slump into a seat in the parlor and bury her face in her palms after you slammed shut the door on your way out. When he couldn’t watch anymore, Gozie moved away from the door, and I did, too.
“Is he coming back?” I asked Gozie.
“I…I don’t know,” he said. “It is good for him to stay out there before he kills our Ma for…for us.”
He went and sat on the bed, and I joined him. The kerosene lantern in the middle of the room was turned flat, and although darkness masked a larger part of the room, I could see his face. It looked like it always did whenever you and Ma fought. Sad. Swollen, almost like Ma’s. His eyes squinted in the dim light, and I heard his heavy breathing.
“Are you alright? Where’s your inhaler?” I asked, feeling his breathing galloping towards those frustrated gasps that made me fear for him.
“I’m fine,” he snapped and resumed pacing, walking from the bed to the door and from the door to the bed. After a while, he took a deep breath and his face softened a bit. He looked at me and half-smiled his remorse for snapping at me. He came and hugged me in his usual tight embrace.
The next I knew, I was waking up to the noise of the tin box of clothes he was pulling from under our bed. It took a minute for my eyes and mind to adjust to the shadows in the room. The lantern had almost burned out, and there was not a sound of life in the world around except the screech screech of the box on the cement floor that woke me up. He poked around inside the box and withdrew a pouch that looked a dull brown in the sparsely lit room.
“What is that?” I whispered. He had not said anything since I woke up, but from the deathly silence around I knew we were trying to be quiet. I climbed down from the bed and drew closer to get a better look. Cautiously, he unwrapped the parcel; he seemed to be taking extra care with the contents of the paper.
“S-sugar,” he whispered back.
He was silent a while. He sat on the floor and spread his leg into a wide V. He brought the dying lantern closer and spread the paper on the floor, revealing a small mound of sugar. I drew close.
“This sugar can make Pa stop beating Ma. Will you like Pa to…to stop b-beating Ma?” Don’t touch it!” His voice was stern.
I withdrew my hand that was already reaching out for this sugar that possessed such great powers. When I did not say anything, he continued.
“It is a different kind of sugar. If we give Pa s-small bit, he will not b-beat Ma again.” His face lightened, and he began wrapping the paper.
“Just a pinch like this,” he said.
Soon he was telling me how to add the sugar to your Lipton in the morning. Did I not want things to be back to the way they used to be before the laughter went away and the fighting took its place? Did I not want to be Pa’s girl again? I remember the way the dim light in the room cast a faint glow on his face moments later when he handed me the parcel. It must have been past midnight for the night was very lifeless that even the rats and cockroaches did not interfere.
He pulled on his ear the way adults do when they are giving strict instructions to children. I must not taste the sugar myself. It was not for small children.
And then he said, whispering, "When you t-take his Lipton to him in the morning, add small l-like this." With his thumb and forefinger, he caught the air to demonstrate his instructions. "W-wash your hand v-very well and throw the remaining inside the toilet." His voice tremored, and I felt the steam from his mouth on my cold, stiff face. My voice, when I spoke frightened me, as did everything from that night.
I asked, "Are you not going to be here in the morning?"
He looked at me hesitantly, with some emotion that had the likeness of pity. When I remember that look now, I see that it contained his goodbye. That night, I was just so afraid of sitting through another fight alone that my body started to shiver.
"I'm afraid," I said.
He took the wrapped paper from me and placed it on the stool beside our bed. He put his hands on my shoulder and pulled me closer.
"Come here,” he said. “Don't be afraid. It-it will be all right." But even embracing my shoulders did not communicate any reassurance; there was in those whispered words an uncertainty that did not agree with the fineness he promised. I did not believe him, and right there I decided against his instructions.
I must have fallen asleep in his embrace, for being in it is the last moment I remember of him. The next morning, I woke up to Ma’s scream and the sound of your punches, and to Gozie’s absence, my body having been laid down on the bed. The sound came through from the room you and Ma shared. I came there and true to the sounds, you were squeezing in blows into the sagged punching bag that was Ma's curled body. You stopped momentarily to look at me, and when I caught your gaze for the brief moment before you went back to your brutality, a strong bitterness rose in me.
Do you remember how you looked up with that grim expression that accompanied your brutality - a look that had replaced your chunky smile of long gone happy days when you would come back in the evening, throw me in the air and ask how your little girl was doing? It was that look that reminded me of the sugar. And not long after, when it was over, and Ma sat tearfully in the backyard pressing out her new injuries with the rag she soaked in hot water mixed with Robb balm, I poured your Lipton, and all that sugar into it.
I made sure that every single grain got in before I stirred. After I had served it to you, I went and sat quietly beside Ma as she nursed her wounds in the backyard. As I sat with her, she attempted a smile that soon died for its falseness. I saw her face that looked like something once full, now desolate, her wounded eyes that were a constant plea for what we used to be. I wanted to console her and tell her it would be over soon. Today.
While we were still sitting in the backyard, the sun rose with a new brightness. I felt a far-off departed happiness seep back into my heart. I smiled. It was going to be okay, after all. You wouldn’t beat Ma anymore, and on Sundays, we would dress up and march down to the basilica, “The family they want to be like” again and our neighbors would admire us and wish they were like us, and not only Ma would hear them this time; I would, too.
It is your face, the contours it had the first time you twisted in excruciating pain after taking the Lipton, that has stayed with me. After I left Ma’s side in the backyard, I hid behind the door from where I spied you. I wanted to see the moment when you drank some sense back into you.
It is your frothing mouth as the neighbors carried you away. Their wives gathered around Ma in that short-lived show of solidarity only misfortune can inspire among neighbors who bickered all the time.
It is your swollen face and the cotton wool-stuffed nose as you laid in-state. These are the faces I see on these fathers’ faces most times – rarely your smile, but surely these. It is what I see on this fair man’s face – your smile, then your pain. I cannot look away, and my gaze follows him as he walks out of my view with his family.
My eyes start to feel heavy, and I walk back to my bunk. There, I lie down and draw my blanket over me and try to shut out the giggles around me. Regular Sunday timetable does not apply on Visiting Day, but I plan to get a little siesta and find an empty classroom for afternoon studies. I am not expecting any visitors; I never have one.
Ma lies in eternal rest beside you. I have not laid eyes on Gozie after that night. Aunty Esther is in Italy from where she sends my tuition. There is only grandma who has not stopped looking at me like a stranger, not once in the past seven years. Her old body has fallen into great disrepair these past years, and her rheumatic legs can barely hold her up. She would sooner get out of her bed than pay me a visit.
So I close my eyes, and your cotton-plugged face is prominent in the brown darkness of my eyelids. That is the one that comes whenever I close my eyes. Noise floats in the dormitory, words running into each other. Then a voice says, "You have a visitor." Closely it sounds, but being sure it was not said for me, I don’t bother to open my eyes and see to whom.
"Is she sleeping?" the voice says.
A giggling voice to my right scoffs and says, "Witches don't sleep." That is how I know. I don’t even bother to see who said it; the taunting is all too familiar now.
I sit up and take the Visitors' Form from the girl standing at the end of the bed. It is the same wavy print, only now carelessly written, that had written, “For my sweet sis, Ifunanya,” on my copy of Chike and the River.
VISITOR: Gozie Madu HOST: Ifunanya Madu RELATIONSHIP: Big brother
I cannot believe it. A surge of coldness runs through my back, and I hurry into my day dress.
I follow the student receptionist toward the dormitory entrance, my leaden legs barely holding up my body. Halfway out the dormitory, the same voice says, "I wonder who is visiting her. Didn’t she kill all of them yet?" More voices giggle.
I stumble as I start out the distance to the Visitors’ Rooms, through dormitories’ corridors and courtyards, different games’ courts and classroom blocks, a spell of shivering sweeping through me. Nervous, I skip, I gallop. I forget to walk, in short, crisp steps, in a straight line the way house mistresses instruct us that cultured girls were supposed to.
My head is spinning, I feel like one of the whistling pines that are swaying in the dry wind. Each step I take is like journeying through a different space of life, outside of myself. Seven years have gone by in which I have taken these steps – a restart for our lives that you broke – countless times in my head, but never arriving at this end to which I now charge.
I had thought I would be ready. I had imagined it through the years, created and recreated this moment. The tears I would shed, the blame I would not speak, the loss mutely acknowledged, the spoken joy and how it would end with me being in Gozie’s arm, in an overlapping embrace as he says to me, "It is alright now, I'm here."
I almost collapse; I have to concentrate to steady my crumbling legs – to just walk on. Over the years, I have created a model of his face, adding some age – a mustache and some pimples – to the boyish dimples I remember. I try to recall it now, but it is your face that looms in my head. With it comes a nervous emptiness, a lifelessness, and it is as though my period, the moisture I feel between my legs, is dripping out my life with it.
I get to the corridor that holds the school's ten visitors’ rooms. I walk through the halls, looking in through the louvers and scanning the merry faces of visitors and students. Laughter and joy hang thick inside the visitors' rooms. In the parking lot, cars drive in and drive off, coughing up clouds of dust into the spirited air. Girls immaculately dressed in sky-blue checkered pinafore are everywhere in the corridor, some to welcome, others bidding farewell. I get to the last room and peer in, but he is not there. I stand there and look back at the length of the long corridor I just walked and to the Main Avenue.
"Are you Ifunanya Madu?" It is a deep mannish voice, the type that could sing bass in an all-girls choir. I turn to face a slender dark girl with firm jaws and new cornrows that is the hairstyle for the week. She is a class my senior, and I don’t know her name.
The creases at the edges of her pinafore show she spends time ironing. The tag above her left breast says, RECEPTIONIST. A precise smile plays across her lips; she is the exact picture of what the house mistresses preach.
"Yes?" I say.
"Here," she says, handing me a basketful of provisions. There is a blue-red embossed envelope on top of the provisions.
"From your brother." There is a learned cordiality about her manners. She smiles again, flashing dark gums and teeth the size and color of peeled melon seeds.
At those words the palpitation in my chest triples, as though something imprisoned in my chest is trying to escape. "Ehh." It is half-exclamation and half-question. My throat tightens, and I feel the last puff of oxygen leave my chest. My heart feels ballooned, the dampness between my thighs now a pool.
"He said I should give these to you," she says.
"Ehhhh," I say again. I pick up the envelope and start to tear it open. But she begins to point toward the gate, to a car parked on the OUT lane of the ixora-divided Main Avenue. My eyes follow her hand.
"He's inside that car, the red one."
Just then, a heavily-bearded head peeps out of the car window looking toward us. The round hairless head that gives an oily sparkle under the sun sits on a bulky shoulder. The sun is on my face, and I blink hard and look again. One arm is out the window and the other on the steering wheel. A line of white breaks out in the thick blackness of beards that matches the large sunglasses. A smile. He waves.
I hear the sound of the basket as it drops, littering its content. Panic settles over me, running like bath water from my head to my buckling legs, animating them and pushing me into the air and over the hedge of yellow bush that circles the courtyard.
I run madly toward the car with my gaze fixed on it like a magnet on steel. I reach only halfway through the yard when the engine revs up. He peeps out the window again, on his face a dying smile, and waves again. It is a slow, hesitant and sad wave, his goodbye, another goodbye. The car vrooms off, a salvo of dust in trail clouding its disappearance.
I still run, a few more steps and I fall on both knees. The car is gone. Oncoming cars drive around me, avoiding me, their dust falling on my face. Faces peep through their windows, a mix of pity and astonishment. Slowly, I get up to my feet and turn toward the visitors’ rooms. A hundred eyes are on me, none moving. I bend to straighten out my pinafore that is dotted with patches of brown dirt here and there. I notice the envelope in my palms. It is squeezed into a small ball and is turning wet with the moist pressure of my palms. I straighten it and open carefully.
The message blurs out against my teary vision, and the ink in some alphabets is smudged. I bring it closer to my face, and it reads:
I wanted to see that you are alive. I'll be back for you. Gozie
I lift my eyes from the note right into the eyes that fix on me from the visitors’ rooms. The first lines of tears roll down my cheeks. I smile, and where your ugly, dying face usually is, it is Gozie’s bearded face I now see.