It was raining the morning they came for me, and I did not want to go.
I had been told a few weeks before that I would be leaving Onitsha for a town in Enugu, where I would live with a couple who needed help with house chores. The same couple Mama met in church the year I was born, who had been sending money for my school fees. I would also go to a good school there, since the schools in Onitsha were not as good as the ones in Enugu. Mama told me about this decision the night we ate garri and ofe ora. There was too much salt in the soup and she complained. I didn’t cook the soup, she did. She cooked it the day before, and Papa said there was no salt in it. So the following day, Mama asked me to add a little salt before heating up the soup on our kerosene stove. Then Papa complained that it was too salty.
I cleared their dishes from the table that night with the briskness of one who had erred. I didn’t want to spend one more second in the room as they argued about my age and the things my age mates were capable of doing. My age mates cut down trees and broke them into pieces for firewood, they were grown enough to make babies, they sold goods at Nkwo market, and did not put too much salt in soup, and even worse, soup they did not cook.
Most of the complaints came from Papa. I could tell that it had to do with my leaving home for Enugu. I was closer to Papa than I was to Mama. He called me his eyes, ofu anya m ji afu uzo.
I always sat on the floor next to him when I served his food and, although he often asked me to go find my mates, I stayed. I would clear his dishes after he finished and return promptly to the floor next to him. If I was lucky, he would tell me the story behind the tortoise’s cracked back. I never tired of listening to him sing the songs that accompanied that tale.
Mama found it amusing how I cuddled beside Papa. She called me Papa’s watchdog. Papa would smile and call her a jealous witch.
The day Papa said he had a meeting with the Traders’ Association very early in the morning, I woke up before him and Mama. I filled his bucket with water in the bathroom, and I served his food. Then I went to their bedroom to remind him about the meeting. He hissed and murmured something about forgetfulness and the need for more sleep. Then he called me his good daughter. Daalu, ezigbo nwa m, that was what he said. His voice was unclear when he said it, as if he had pap in his throat, but it made me smile.
Puff-puff, I told him. The ones that have eggs in them. He laughed and asked how he would know if they had eggs in them. Should I cut each of them open to check? I pondered his question, squinting my eyes and biting my forefinger. He shoved me playfully and said he would ask Nwanyi Ocha for the ones with eggs, and if we found no eggs in them when he returned, we would go for a fight with his cutlass the following day.
When Papa left for his meeting and I went back to bed, thoughts of us marching to the market, cutlass in hand, chanting war hymns, going to fight for the absence of eggs in our puff-puff, made me laugh. Mama said I was laughing in my sleep when she came to my room.
In Mama’s shed at Head Bridge, where she sold yams, the neighbour to our right shared Cabin Biscuits because her daughter had just got married. The women sang and danced as they ate their biscuits. Then they all took turns touching the neighbour’s shoulders and then touching their foreheads. It was a way to show that you appreciated a person’s blessing and would want the same for yourself. Mama told them she would share foreign wines when I got married, and the women laughed and said amen.
I did not eat my Cabin Biscuits. The puff-puff Papa was going to buy for me filled me up, and it was all I could think about. I didn’t want to be full by evening when we went home. Mama insisted I should eat something. She said it was wrong not to have oil in one’s stomach. You will faint on the way home if you don’t eat something, she said.
I smiled and nodded, but I didn’t eat. It was not the first time that I would be starving. I had starved many times at school when I had beans for lunch. People who came to school with beans or moi-moi were mocked during lunch. If there was a foul smell, they would be blamed. I told Mama, but she said that I could not eat rice every day. So I never bothered to eat on those days until I came home. I never fainted on my way home either.
We packed up at the end of the day, and it began to rain. Mama used the tarpaulin sheets to quickly cover her exposed yams. Old yams and water were not good friends. I held the umbrella over her as she bent down to move the yams into the shed. She stood up, forgetting that I was only tall enough to hold the umbrella over her bent frame, and her head sent our umbrella flying across another shed. She laughed as I ran after it. Mama told me to remember that Nwunye Mike owed us for the extra yam she took, and that she owed Mama Obi forty-naira change. I was Mama’s diary and organizer. She said that the beautiful couple in Enugu did not pay so much money to a private school for her to stress her brain remembering things. She was happiest when schools went on break, because she would no longer have to depend on Papa to remind her of anything. She said Papa’s memory was not waterproof like mine.
I could have sworn the man was Papa, except he was lying on the road, dead.
When we walked to the bus stop to get the bus home, we saw a crowd gathered at the junction near Uga Street. I stretched my neck to see if I could make out what was going on, but there were too many people. Mama was not one to stop for such things. She warned me against it too. If the police come to arrest the people there, do you think there will be time for you to explain that you were just observing? Mama would say. More and more people gathered around and I could see a few people leaving the circle with arms folded across their chests, shaking their heads. Some snapped their fingers while others spat on the ground as they left.
Our bus had not arrived yet, so we stood there waiting. Opposite us, the crowd reduced slowly. More people joined in and peeped into the circle, but not as many as the people leaving.
Only God knows who owes who change today, Mama said. It was almost always money that caused people to gather like that, even in the rain. Someone refused to give someone their complete change, or someone caught someone who owed them money but had been avoiding them. They would hold the offender by the neck of his shirt, or by the neck if he had no shirt on, dragging him up and nearly strangling him. People would gather and try to deescalate the tension, in which time pocket pickers picked pockets and hands roamed where they may.
But the gathering opposite us was nothing of the sort. I knew because I could see someone lying in the middle. They were not moving. I thought they had fainted from starvation, but there was blood gushing from their head, mixing with the rain and flowing to the road. They were male, and had Papa’s type of shirt on. I could have sworn the man was Papa, except he was lying on the road, dead. Papa had gone for a meeting, and he would buy me puff-puff when he returned, the one that had eggs in.
I touched Mama’s right wrist lightly, the one she wore her wristwatch on, and startled her. She looked at me, relieved, and I told her that the man lying across the road had Papa’s type of shirt on. Her eyebrows threatened to touch as she frowned. Which shirt? she asked. I told her that Papa wore the yellow floral shirt that morning, the same one the dead man across the road had on.
Mama looked up, and did not stop looking. She was still, like she was trying to remember a name. She suddenly held my hand and crossed the road to the spot where the man lay. The dead man’s hand had been squashed, but he still held on to an equally squashed transparent bag that contained puff-puff. Mama knelt over the body and held his face. It was Papa.
Under all the blood and mud, I could see Papa’s face. When mama turned his face up from the ground, the rain rushed over it and I saw him clearly. He looked alive, like he would wake up and murmur about his meeting. The lines around his mouth gave the impression that he was about to yawn. Mama did not cry, she simply stared, as though waiting for a reaction, as if Papa was merely sleeping and would wake up soon to call her a witch.
When the women from Mama’s shop came to take us home, I thought about the squashed puff-puff. I didn’t see any eggs.