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Fragile

By Uche Peter Umez

 

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the past returns
uneasy ghoul, like Hamlet’s father’s
seeking solace…


Ijeoma went about on campus with the aura of a model. You would assume she was destined for stardom. But I knew she had no brains; she was just a bewitching bimbo who was too haughty for my liking. When she went overseas, I did not think she would return, at least for a long time. But she did.
I thought I would not see her again. But I saw her –– or rather, we met at the Medical Centre in Owerri. I actually listened to her for the first time, even though I had all the opportunity in my undergraduate years. Really, the few hours I spent with her could pass for the most touching moments of my life.

* * *


Late Nineties


Ijeoma and I were course-mates. We did not get along as friends, and I never tried. I was the bookish, skirt-and-blouse type, black like the bark of ebony. She was the carefree, miniskirt-or-jeans girl, with peanut butter skin. I wore thick glasses that gave me the unexciting looks of a bore. I disliked putting them on; but without those glasses, I would only grope around because of myopia.
Ijeoma had limpid brown eyes. They twinkled when she smiled her lovely smile. She must have been using Colgate from childhood. Stark white teeth, glistening like snow-peaked mountains one sees in postcards. She also had the brown hue of varnished wood. She stood 5’9", elegant satin legs, and ethereal.

She walks in beauty, like the night
of cloudless climes and starry skies


I was petite. I was ordinary-looking like a village girl. Sometimes I had to put on shorts to pad out my buttocks, for a well-rounded effect. Ijeoma had the right curves for skin-tight wear. Shapely hips, plump backside, slim waist. She was stunning in jeans or tights, and men used to stare at her while in the presence of their girlfriends. Remember one of those commercials you see on TV: a fragrant lady breezes into a room of people, and heads spin!
That was the kind of sensation Ijeoma created; she electrified the air the instant she strolled into the classroom or auditorium. Every male student strove to know her, and hang out with her. Every female student also struggled to be her friend. Expectedly, she was always in the midst of both sexes, radiant like a lighted bulb in a dark gathering of students. She was as quintessential as any girl dreamt to be.
As for me, I tried hard not to wish to be like her.
Ijeoma was also endowed with enough grace to outshine Genevieve, Stephanie, Omotola, or any of our regular Nollywood actresses. She was really popular. More popular than Professor Chimdi, the fiery vice chancellor, who vowed to flush out unqualified students from the university only to back out and sell ‘admission’ to ignorant children of government officials. He was later ridiculed on the campus bulletin board as a fat cat lapping up creamy milk. Girls spent months practising and preparing for the annual Campus Queen pageant.
Ijeoma won the crown, without straining a muscle. She often behaved meekly. But how could she, was it possible? Doesn’t beauty and pride move hand in hand? Didn’t I have four eyes? The other students were too besotted with her charms to notice her arrogance!
One afternoon Ugomma and I were eating at the refectory. She was my reading partner, a bibliophile. I asked her if she had noticed anything about Miss Peacock. I personally referred to Ijeoma as Miss Peacock.
“Like what?” Ugomma asked.
I sipped some water from my stainless steel cup, then looked at her. “I feel something is not quite right with her,” I said.
“You’re funny, Nky. Nothing is wrong with Ijeoma.”
“You don’t feel it?”
She dropped her spoon.
“Christ! I feel you don’t really fancy her style,” she spoke a bit too loud.
The other students looked across at us.
“There’s something fishy around Miss Peacock, I tell you,” I said after a while.
“She’d better not hear you call her that.”
“Girl, I’m serious.”
“I hope you’re serious enough to keep your mouth shut,” she said.
“There is something strange…I think she’s…” I couldn’t say exactly.
I was sure Ijeoma was not what she seemed to be. She was hiding something, a foible, perhaps. I could almost see it, that spurious thing in her twinkling eyes and graceful gait. Like a watch-dog, I began suspecting her every gesture. At a point, she suddenly struck me as a mermaid.
Ijeoma sat next to me during lectures. Occasionally, though. We barely spoke; we ignored each other like two girls bearing malice. For months, it was as though we waged bets on who would speak first to the other. I would not speak to her, for all I cared. She, too, might have taken a similar stand.
Like a spy shadowing a target, I still had to keep my distance as my suspicions grew. I took caution as befitted a rival. I reminded myself:

Do not play
With the Daughter of the Sea


Ijeoma began grinning at me whenever we met in class. I scarcely grinned back, because I perceived she was making fun of me in a secret way. Before then, she and Anne, a close friend of hers, would look at me and whisper to each other when they saw me sitting outside the Humanities Hall waiting for a lecture. She would ask:
Did you buy that hand-out?
Were you in the lecture?
Did they sign attendance register?
I heard we are taking a test. When?


Trivialities. Anyway, I answered her enquiries with the crisp tact a politician adopts in replying to a journalist. I didn’t consider it wise to get on with her. Have you heard of a fabled snake that befriends its prey before it spits its venom? Still, students warmed to Ijeoma easily as if she gave out the most-sought-after bursary allowance. She was a magnet. Indeed, she mesmerized every heart. Think of that sorceress in the Odyssey.
I fumed inwardly as they fought to gain her attention, squirmed when the lousy male-folk lavished her with more compliments than was normal. She made me feel inadequate like a misfit, neglected like an unloved child, and inferior as if I were the ugliest girl on campus! And so, waiting for lectures became unbearable. Hell. I started avoiding lectures. Why steam away in a class of fulsome fools when I could read in the library?

Later, with inch-thick specs,
Evil was just my lark:


Lying on my bed at nights, I would wonder how a student could be so fortunate. I was familiar with tales of how girls from the “Spirit World” lived among humans. They drank life to the lees and seldom lacked anything. Ijeoma did not even get the dreaded carry-over. She wasn’t intelligent as such. How come she didn’t flunk a course? The male lecturers could be “sucking her juice” to enhance her exam scores. Everything was rosy for her. Really.
Quite often, before I slept, I did wish I would wake up and hear something bad had befallen her. Wouldn’t it be interesting if she were raped by some cult members? She would also be caricatured on the campus bulletin board as a cringing bitch, fleeing from foamy bull-dogs. What would be left of her dignity?
One early morning I woke to the sound of merry “Girls ayes!” I jumped down from my bunk bed. I didn’t even think it might have been a student strike, a burglar, or a fire that had burst out from a student’s cooker in the hostel. Some girls were crying out, stamping their feet. With the speed of light, I darted out of the room.
I thought what I had wished for Ijeoma had come true!

the toxin of Jealousy
burns the heart with fervour


I shuddered. My stomach tightened. My heart, like a banshee, let out a deafening shriek that only shook within the fragile walls of my head. What greeted my ears was definitely not true! No, it could not be. No, no! It must be some blatant lie, some outrageous rumour. Miss Peacock was travelling abroad?
Weeks later, her friends hosted a party for her in the lounge of the female hostel. She’d accepted a part-time modelling contract in Johannesburg. In two months’ time, she would relocate to South Africa. She would start her third year in a beauty & fashion institute over there. She would wallow in good fortune all because of her beauty?
It couldn’t get worse!
It was as if she had pushed me into a stinking gutter and all the other students were mocking me. She was a mermaid, I was now convinced. Her kind knew how to hurt those whom they felt never liked them.
That night I slept off campus, in town, with a friend. I almost smashed my glasses against the wall of her room as I lay in bed, fever heating up my head, cursing the cruel whore that Fate was.
Soon after, Ijeoma went abroad. Good riddance, I said. Thankfully enough, my results did not drop. I’d begun making very high grades. I became one of the best three students in my class. On few occasions, my name was announced: the only student with the highest score for a particular course.

And my name blew
Like a horn
Among the Payira


You remember the tale of The Ugly Duckling? I grew to a personality among my course-mates. In the entire languages & literature department I was talked about as soon as my shadow was spotted. In class and during exams, boys and girls struggled to sit beside me. My jotter and jottings became sought after like valued gems.
Nky, you are brilliant!
That’s Nky, the girl…
Who? Oh, she’s the one?
Yes, she is the brightest in her class.
My name rang like a popular jingle. Miss Peacock was no more. I was not shaped for beauty but I was singled out for brilliance. Like her, I basked in popularity; but, I was naturally unassuming. I did not want to be seen as an arrogant person. I could never forget my humble background. And unlike her, I was esteemed, an academic award winner.
I had seized her spot-light. I would have trodden barefoot over shards of bottles to make her see the excited number of students that gathered around me for photographs on Convocation day.

* * *
 

Five years later.


It was by sheer happenstance that we met again. One sunny noon, I had boarded an inaga (motorbike) to the market, when another cyclist swished off a narrow road onto Zander Street.

Constantly risking absurdity
and death
whenever he performs


The cyclist was singing like a sot. Bystanders looked at him; some fellow cyclists cheered him on; others sneered at him. He shot out a hand, waved it vigorously, like a politician, and sang the more. It was a stupid act, but he seemed thrilled. The man was one of those exuberant cyclists who installed a cassette player on their motorcycles so they could play music while in motion (you often see them at the university gate waiting to pick up passengers).
A noisy song wafted from his motorcycle. This cyclist sang along, approaching us.
A wide pothole that yawned like the jaws of a shark lay on the road. We were some metres from it. I knew that cyclist wouldn’t see the pothole in time. He dodged it, deftly though.
A child tentatively ran across the road. Onlookers cried out. But the cyclist, trying to avoid spilling innocent blood, veered off his lane onto ours. Brakes squealed like wounded pigs. Tires screeched as both motorcycles went into a skid. Tiny sparks flew off the roughly tarred road.
I was thrown off the motorcycle before I could scream. I fell on my chest. Spots of black and white, like moths, flickered before my eyes, as if I were underwater. I squeezed my eyes shut but I was spiralling down a dark, dark hole.
Afterwards, my eyes opened. I was sitting on the ground, legs spread-out, too dazed to stand, the sculpture of a sorrowing widow.
Strange voices rapped on my eardrums: Is it fighting?
They’re lucky. How did it happen?
Poor girl…
This type of inaga people! Useless, reckless, daredevil drivers!
My ribs ached. I tasted the salty tang of blood in my mouth. My teeth had bitten my tongue. I examined myself. Bruises were scattered along my arms, my legs. My skin had peeled off in some parts of my elbows and palms; snips of bloodied skin still clung to my body, like weak threads.
A crowd had flocked about me. My cyclist was also inspecting himself. The other cyclist, hitherto noisy, sat huddled up, his hands on his head. He was staring at the ground like a stupid clown. The two bikes lay sprawled apart on the road.
A hand pulled me up as I struggled to my feet.
“Are you okay?” a man asked.
I steadied myself by placing a hand on his chest.
“I think…” I stammered.

In the common world of the uninjured, and cannot
Imagine isolation.


Hours later, I met the roadside physician who lived in our street. He gave me analgesic that eased the pain in my body. Blood capsules, even barbiturates. But that night was like a nightmare for me. Listless fits marked my sleep. I tossed and turned. I cried and cursed. A sudden awful pain seemed to wrench at my chest. I clutched my Bible and, thinking death had come for me, burst into prayers.
Kene sat up on the bed, grumbling quietly. I didn’t bother if he was annoyed with me. It was past midnight.
“We need to see a doctor,” he said after I had finished praying.
I was in complete agony. He began stroking my neck, my arm.
“I shall call your office in the morning. I’ll let them know you’re too ill to get up,” he said.
I crept into his arms. He placed my head on his shoulder, and whispered endearments in my ear.
I got a week off from office. Kene scheduled an appointment with a doctor who was once his schoolmate, after I had had breakfast. His boss called him before eight o’clock and requested they meet at the office. It was something urgent, something that needed his attention. He came back late. We couldn’t see the doctor.
That night the pain was excruciating: I thought I would go insane! I whimpered and whimpered like a newborn. Kene must have hated me for all those wretched sounds I made; he too could not sleep. He was kind enough to cuddle me, though.
The next morning I woke and felt a strange relief. I imagined I was in a painless world, a nirvana. I ran my hands all over my body, rubbed my chest, squeezed my breasts, and poked my stomach.
No pain; I was whole again.
I called Kene but he was in the bathroom. When he came out, a towel draped around his waist, looking refreshed, I jumped out of the bed, and threw my arms around his neck.
“It’s a miracle. It is gone,” I said, with tears in my eyes.
He gazed at me, amazed for a while, then affectionately. “Honeycomb, you are well?” he asked.
I nodded. He asked again if I was sure. I nodded again.
“We still have to see the doctor,” he said, and rubbed my shoulders.
“I don’t feel like leaving this room,” I said, feeling heat hardening my nipples. “I need you…” I stuck a hand under his towel and fingered his manhood. He let out a husky sound, and swept me off my feet.
That morning we made love without restraint, like two lovers long starved of sex.

* * *
I resumed work three days later. I got bored with staying at home, even though Kene and I pampered each other with pure affections. On the fourth day, I began going through an unusual sensation, feeling easily tired like a pregnant woman, and growing dizzy from walking a few yards to the bus stop where I normally boarded the staff bus. I had a premonition that I would pass out soon.
And I did.
Just on the fifth day, I was waiting for a taxi because the staff bus was grounded. I became unaccountably hot. It was like the sun was right behind me. I looked upwards. But the sun was distant in the sapphire sky. Something was wrong. Was it the weather? Was it the ozone layer? Or was it my mind?
I wasn’t sure if it were pedestrians closing in on me like a hoary swarm of locusts. Like a mass of blackness. And I swayed.
Then I heard voices, taut. I blinked, squinted at the unfamiliar faces. I was in a stadium as the sounds of man and machine floated all around me, perhaps.
What happened?
Is she ogbanje (spirit child)? Is this a demonic attack?
She has opened her eyes.
Look, she’s breathing!
Hey, thank God.
Bah, girls of today. Who knows if she hasn’t committed abortion?
Hands, like cockroaches, were running across my body. I realized I was being lifted off the asphalted surface of a busy road.

the body aches for its mirth
strapped to the infirm bed


* * *

A rib bone had shifted and pierced through a vessel. It caused a rupture in the pleural cavity. That was what happened the moment I spun off the motorbike and landed on my chest. Intra-pleural haemorrhage, the doctor said, was the reason I had finally blacked out. I was placed under observation like a guinea-pig, then infused with some blood, and passed on for surgery.
How did I get to the hospital? I still could not recollect. A passer-by must have borne the burden to bring me to the Medical Centre. I remembered how a young man had lain on Works Road shaking in spasms. People ignored him as if he was acting out a script. Someone must have also mentioned that he was “under demonic influence”.
I had undergone cardio-thoracic surgery. Even though I had lost a large amount of blood, I was recuperating, rapidly. I had been on intravenous fluid. I was getting better; yet, my body seemed empty of bones, light as air. I was placed under observation again. This time to “ascertain your stability,” the doctor told me. I was soon moved out of intensive care unit to a ward occupied by six patients with different health conditions.

Waft me about, O zephyr,
As a butterfly on merry wings


* * *

Two days before my discharge.
Nurse Jane beamed as she entered my ward. It was late noon. The air was moist. It had drizzled earlier. From my window, the sun was a smoky ball in the aluminium sky. I could see a bird, a hawk, a kite, perhaps, gliding against the white and grey clouds. The bird and the clouds were like patterns in a quilt.
Nurse Jane sat down on the edge of my bed. She was young, not up to twenty, but she acted like a big sister. She exuded affection. I had thought nurses were as hard-hearted as old spinsters. She was from Kogi State, that expansive land of biting sunshine, craggy hills, and fascinating myths. We usually chatted. And she was quite humorous, unlike the other nurses who acted like every patient was an irritant.
Now, she urged me to go for a walk around the hospital premises. I hadn’t stepped out of the ward since I was admitted as a patient. I grumbled to myself as I got off the bed. Nurse Jane went into another ward. I picked up my handkerchief and some money. I dressed up.
Outside, the accident scene popped up in my head. That singing inaga should have slowed down after the pothole. He would have lain dead had it been a car. In an attempt to dodge him, my cyclist had skidded.
I walked down a corridor, grateful that I would be free of the antiseptic odour soon. I would be free of the cheerless folks with whom I shared the walled world of the unwell and dying. Again, I would embrace the open world of the healthy and living. These past eight days in the hospital had been like a sojourn in the cell. Nevertheless, my colleagues had been very supportive. Beverages, cards and other provisions littered my cupboard.
I passed a ward and heard voices that sounded like the doleful sigh that rose in a confluence between Oguta Lake and River Urashi. A few persons were surrounding a man lying still in the bed. I wondered, just fleetingly, if he had breathed his last.

Fill me with fragrances of wine!
Fill me with hymns of the living!


I continued walking. I paused at a pavement. I closed my eyes, dreamily, smiling. Kene would be coming before nightfall. We had been courting for a year. He had promised to take introductory drinks to my uncle before this Christmas. I couldn’t wait to be his wife. He had shown me more love than one could ever wish for; to me, he was the family I had, I would ever know. Every day he checked up on me, like a brother. He slept in the chair at my bedside most nights. As a friend he regaled me with jokes, teased me till my ribs ached from laughter. Honeycomb was the pet name we called each other.
I sat down on a long bench on the pavement. There was a waiting room a yard or two away. There were elderly people coming out of that room. Thoughts of getting old started to scratch at my feelings. And I wondered if it was selfish if someone took her life before she got to ninety when she was too weak to “pooh-pooh”.

The panic
of growing older
spreads fluttering wings


Two women came towards me. One was a stout nurse, prim in her starched white uniform, with a stern look on her face: that called to mind the image of a proverbial wicked headmistress. The other, a skinny patient, moved slowly behind the nurse. She was clad in a long towelling-like dress, which made her seem as a mannequin in over-sized clothes.
“Du ngaa. Sit here,” said the nurse, her Owerri accent evident, and pointed to the bench where I was sitting. The patient sat down, not too close to me.
“You can enjoy the fresh air. I’ll be back,” the nurse added and walked away.
The patient had young brown eyes. But her body was geriatric. As a child I would have feared that this woman beside me could pass for a witch. Instead of fleeing I stared at her, thinking I had seen her before. She too was looking at me. Both of us were like a squirrel and a snake watching each other at a distance.
She coughed dryly, her cheekbones rose, and seemed to pierce through the thin skin of her face. There was something allure-like about this patient; something that defied the ravages of sickness; something that gave off an air of fearlessness. She noticed I was still watching her, so she wanted to grin. But what showed on her face was the kind of fixed grin one would see on a Bini bronze head.

Head of a large tuber
of yam. Hair, scant tufts
of scorched grass…


Discreetly, I inched away from her. You would never have touched her lips with your finger, even if it earned you a stinging lash on the yansh (bottom). Why didn’t the starchy nurse take her elsewhere?
I knew what was destroying her life. It was not tuberculosis. She was dying of AIDS, I mused, and felt splinters of ice cut into my flesh. Chilly as the feeling I had one night. There was a power cut and I was sitting on the veranda, when a mighty rat rolled over my foot. I jumped up at once, screaming Blood o’ Jesus.
A bald man hobbled towards us. He sat down on the floor, leaned his body against the pillar, staring skywards. He had crow eyes, with a watery hint in them. One would have assumed he was crying.
I imagined a haze of gloom was hanging above our heads. The three of us were sitting in a cocoon of solitude: three lonely souls adrift on a lonely sea.
The bald man began to murmur to himself.

Child, you cannot know
Why folks talk alone…



Someone made a choked sound, a cough, hollow. The type of cough one emits in a room blanketed with thick fumes. It came from the female patient. I began to feel that she might not have any friend or family. Sometimes, I tried to imagine how my parents had died. Were they doused in petrol and set alight? Were their stomachs sliced open like fish?
I was familiar with gory tales of massacres in the North, yet it barely curdled my blood. I believed the demise of my parents probably had made me a little hardy, a little undisturbed by other people’s death.
My father and mother used to live in Kano, a land which was known as the “groundnut pyramid” during the colonial era. Father was a railway worker, while my mother was a seamstress (so my uncle had told me). Then a religious riot broke out at the twilight of the Second Republic. It was incited by some hegemonic Northerners, newspapers had claimed. The Arewa were unhappy with the drastic power shift to the South, the shake-up in the military (which affected mostly their people, the Hausa), and the agitation of the Niger Delta for resource control.
I sighed, remembering what difficulties I passed through growing up in someone else’s home. I gazed at a puddle of water. It was stagnant, greening on the surface, around the edges. It had the ochre tint of urine. I thought of algae and mosquito larvae spawning.
A dragonfly appeared. It skimmed over the water, rippling its surface, then disappeared.

My land like the Middle East is
a vortex of hate


My parents had died in that riot. Houses, cars, shops belonging to Southerners had been torched. Men and women were strangled, amputated, halved, or butchered. My father’s younger brother came very close to being beheaded by flaming-eyed zealots, wielding blood-stained swords. He was quite lucky. The Sabongari quarters were not readily penetrated: most Southerners resident there kept handy guns. Before the killings had grown wanton some Christians had made it to the barracks. I was among the lucky refugees. Our neighbour’s wife had picked me up and carried me on her back while the slaughterers raced after the fleeing throng.
Uncle Amaechi showed up as my guardian at the police barrack, a month or two later. He had gone round searching for my parents. He found me; together with his wife and two children, we relocated to the East. I was just a five-year-old then.
His wife wasn’t pleased with my staying with them however, she barely liked me. I was an inconvenience, someone who would deprive her own children of their father’s love. She refused to understand why her husband should spend the little money he earned as a carpenter to educate a future housewife (me). She managed Mama Put, a woman who did not have a restaurant but sold cooked food in a wheelbarrow in the street. Some of them set up a makeshift eating place by the road. So why couldn’t her husband act sensibly enough to invest in her business?
Uncle Amaechi had visited me twice in the hospital. Once before the surgery; the second time was four days after. I was consoled that he had not stayed away like his pain-in-the-neck wife. She could only send her measly wishes.
I watched a boy holding the hand of a woman. He was smartly-dressed. But he wore a worried look on his face. She was bulbous like a sow, and walked stooped as though a giant abscess was on her rear. The boy pulled the back door open. Clutching the knotted part of her wrapper, the woman tried to lift herself into the car. A stocky man came out from the driver’s seat and assisted her. I was wondering whether the woman was the boy’s step-mother because she reminded me of my uncle’s wife, the kind of woman who would maltreat another woman’s child.
Someone touched my shoulder. It was the skinny female patient. She had shifted nearer, unknown to me.

buried though in a morass
of present pursuits, the past returns


“You don’t recognize me?” her voice sounded groan-like.
I squinted. “No,” I said, disliking her audacity.
“It is the AIDS,” she said.
Although I had suspected all along, I was taken aback by the casual tone in which she said it, as though it were Hello. I started wondering whether the disease had eaten away her sensibility.
“You were in IMSU?” she asked again.
“Yes.”
“You don’t remember me?”
“Sorry, I can’t remember. If you don’t mind.” Placing her face was like looking for a lost child in a busy market. Her questions were beginning to vex me. I rose from the bench. But she grabbed my wrist.
“You remember Ijeoma?” she intoned.
“Who?” I managed to ask.
“Ijeoma.”
“Which?”
“Your course-mate,” she answered, with a hint of excitement in her voice.
“Miss Peacock; I do remember her,” I murmured, and shook her fingers off my wrist.
The patient was hurt. I made to leave and heard “your handkerchief”. I looked at her; I didn’t notice I had dropped my handkerchief. I took it from her gratefully, and suddenly realized that she shared some waning semblance with Ijeoma.
I heard Ijeoma had two brothers, no sisters. She probably was enjoying life’s sweet hors-d’oeuvre in South Africa, if she had not relocated to New York or Paris.
“You are related to her?”
“I’m Ijeoma.”
“You…?” I stammered.
She nodded her head.
My mind went into a whirl. I almost reeled from the deadening blow her disclosure dealt me.

Should I weep for fishes flopping in the Delta of oil?
Or of farms burrowed through by crude pipes of despoliation?


Look at her now! I could make fun of her right away. Recall the bile I had borne against her, how wretched like a disgraced mistress, she had made me feel back then in university. But something stronger than glee overwhelmed me. Swiftly, pity swept me into its humbling hold.
How could I accept her in her ‘new’ looks? Ijeoma was born beautiful. Nothing could wilt her flesh. She was not bony and long like a bamboo, like this sickly female before me. She ought to know I never liked her. She must be very brave to expose her identity, to check her pride, and say this much, without fearing that I would gloat over her misfortune.
This situation was tricky; it bred unease around me. How could I talk freely with someone whom I had often wished evil? Have you seen an adversary lying prostrate before you?
Drawing a deep breath, I sat down again.
She glanced up at a group of female student nurses drifting by. They chattered like pigeons, excited. Young just like us.

Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes


Ijeoma and I should be age mates, 25 years old. Now she looked like a hag, hopelessly aged by AIDS. What happened to those papaya boobs that stoked heat between a man’s thighs? Big, firm breasts, men once ogled at, were now slack, and dry like withered grapefruits.
The nurse did not look in my direction as she came up behind her patient.
“You’ll need it,” she said and draped a browning shawl over Ijeoma’s shoulders. “So you don’t catch cold.”
“Oh thanks,” Ijeoma said.
The nurse stared at me. Her patient told her my name was Nky. We greeted in Igbo. With her hands at her hips, like a female Yellow Fever officer, the nurse asked her patient whether she would want to go in now because it would soon get cold.
Ijeoma shook her head languidly.
“You shouldn’t stay out too late, understand?” And the nurse walked off.
Ijeoma pulled the shawl tightly around her body, and gazed out into the horizon. The sky was aglow with clouds of lily, clouds of lilac. Birds floating like nylon bags. Like paper kites in the air.
“When the initial shock had left me, that is, after I’d been told about the virus, I began sitting on the patio, dreaming of an after-life where nothing counts, where nothing really matters,” Ijeoma said. “I would watch the sky turn to gold, and then indigo. I would picture my life blending into their colours. I loved listening to birds singing in the bushes. Also I would picture my voice mixing with their songs. I own a duplex in SA (South Africa). That was years ago before the accident. Four years ago. I was in Nigeria. I was home for Easter break.”
Four years before I had been serving with a private media house. That was where I met Kene. Sporty, dressed in white short sleeves and blue jeans, he had come to install some computers in our office, an ultra-modern publishing house.
The bald man heaved himself up, ambled away, half-heartedly, still murmuring.
“I’d gone to visit Anne. You may not remember her,” she said.
Anne also graduated from IMSU. She did her National Youth Service Corps with a bank. Anne and Ijeoma were friends. Very close. She wasn’t our course-mate, yet she hung around our classes. Sometimes, she waited outside for her friend to finish lectures. They both gossiped about me. I remembered.
“We still keep in touch. Anne’s been an angel. I was driving back to my village after I left her place. Another car bolted out of the blues into mine. That was on Enugu-Port Harcourt Expressway. I was rushed to a nearby hospital…” She paused and looked at me. “You are crying?” she asked.
I was not. I just didn’t know why tears trickled down my cheeks at that moment.
“I’m sorry,” I said, a tender lump bobbing in my throat. I pulled out the handkerchief and dabbed my eyes.
Lightly, she touched the bridge of my nose.
“I’ve always admired you. You were strong, and cool,” she remarked. “Thank God. I survived the accident. I went back to SA. About a year later, one winter, I was frightfully ill and very cold. Pneumonia, I thought. I was diagnosed. My doctor said it could be managed, though hopeless. It was needless taking an ART. He sounded vague. What do you mean? I asked. I was nearing hysteria. He held my hand and talked about being strong in the teeth of crisis. ‘You’ve AIDS,’ he said. I fainted. You know, everyone seems to think I got it through blood transfusion.”
I jerked. The lump dissolved.
“It was critical, and I needed some pints of blood. I was unconscious. I almost died from that accident. It was critical, believe me.”
Hadn’t I been infused with blood too? A wild emotion began stamping around, like a restive mare within my chest. I squinted at her, feeling odd.
“You don’t believe me?” she asked.
My mind began searching frantically for the face of the doctor who had administered the blood into my system. But fuzzy shapes confronted it instead.
“You think I became loose in SA?”
I grunted. I wasn’t responsible for her actions, so she need not convince me. It was her life.
Darkness abruptly descended on the hospital. Someone shouted out a name. Someone else yelled, “Have you changed over?”

Sieve-brained, you think me? -
Don’t be puzzled if I see through you
for I wear a mask too


“You were free with guys, you forgot,” I mentioned peevishly, as more shadowy shapes butted into my head. I could not remember the doctor’s face, surprisingly.
“None of them saw the colour of my panties,” Ijeoma said.
You hardly saw Ijeoma alone. Guys, like bees, kept buzzing around her. So, would you believe she did not sleep with any of them? How could she act righteous even in her poor state? This was no way to obtain sympathy. It was as cheap and infuriating as when a drug peddler tried to convince you that you could cure malaria from drinking she-goat’s piss.
The gurgling sound of a generator lessened my fears, and the lights came back. I assured myself that I could not get positive. Somehow. The blood was uncontaminated.
“You have to believe me,” her tone was desperate.
“You were famous,” my tone was firm.
“That doesn’t mean I slept with men!”
She trembled, and then broke out coughing. I wanted to rub her back soothingly as mothers do when a child is retching. I wasn’t sure if I should – or could. I was not even sure how she would react since we were not intimate. I told her, I BELIEVE YOU. But I felt she knew I was lying, so I glanced away.
The shawl dropped off her body to the floor. I picked it up, aiming to place it back on her shoulder, but she took it from me, and wiped her nose on it. I wanted to draw close to her, though I felt a bit uncomfortable. I scratched my head.
Was she a virgin? Every student in our school knew she was the irresistible Campus Queen no full-blooded male could ignore.
“That blood was not infected,” she said, sounding as though her nostrils were congested.
“You can’t be so certain.”
“I know. I’m certain. I didn’t get the virus through transfusion.”
She was trying to confuse me. I knew I had to keep steady.
“How else could you’ve gotten it?” I asked.
“You may not understand.”
I suddenly remembered that there was something unearthly about her. I had suspected long ago even when other students were blinded by pulchritude. I observed she was breathing as someone with a boulder on her chest.
“You can trust me.”
She tittered. “Trust you? Indeed!”
Trust me as a fellow patient at least, I considered saying. That was not convincing enough.
“Tell me. I’ll understand,” I said instead.
“I’m not what you think I am,” she said, drawing nearer to me.
I thought of putting an arm around her shoulder, as a sly gesture that she could confide in me. But I was too anxious to hold myself. I didn’t want her to know that I suspected she was from the Sea. If you see mammy-water, never (you) run away…I recalled that song, and thought of fleeing. But I did not.
I patted her knee. “I could be of help, you never know.”
Ijeoma stared at me in an eerie way that made my buttocks twitch and my palms sweaty.
“You wouldn’t tell a soul if I told you something dear to me?”
“Yes, yes.” I was curious and scared at the same time. If a spirit being showed you her true identity, you either disappeared or died on the spot.
Doubts were troubling Ijeoma because I could see she was finding it difficult to speak her mind.
“It’s something I learnt in my secondary school. In the dormitory we girls…” she began. “Forget it.”
“Tell me,” I insisted. “Please.”
She seemed to hold her breath a moment.
“I found pleasure in the presence of girls,” she said in a tone that was tense, so inaudible one might miss hearing her correctly.
I arched my brow at her, hoping she would give details. She said nothing more. She bore the face of a mirror, empty of emotion, unfeeling. She did not even bat an eyelid. Her words replayed in my head.
What kind of pleasure did you find in the presence of girls? I wanted to ask her. I even tried asking her if she was serious. But my tongue felt like a metal ladle, as I made out what she had implied. And something, like a whisk, began to stir my stomach.

Untie the tongue
Yet, the song is dumb


“I had never gone for a test,” she spoke unhurriedly. “I didn’t have any reason to see a doctor. I couldn’t get HIV because I was different. So I believed. Moreover, I’d never fallen sick in spite of the busy scope of my job. I had to shelve my job; my world had collapsed. I grew worse each day. My manager and the agency were sympathetic. A tough decision, but I decided to leave for Nigeria...”
There is a tale about passenger X who sat beside passenger Y in a car. They began talking. The next stop was X’s. Both passengers shook hands. As X alighted from the car, he saw he was holding something, a hand? The lifeless hand of Y. He turned and peered through the window. Y was grinning back at him.
I felt just like X.
Although, I was shaking my head as if I could lose some of the grim revelation Ijeoma had funnelled into my ears. She paused when she saw I was not paying attention. What could have made a girl whom everyone regarded as le beau ideal turn a deviant? I had always known something was wrong with her, but never did I expect her to be…different!
“You have some money?” she asked.
I looked at her. She pointed to a boy carrying a large pail of “pure water” on his head.

In the streets
the African child,
the leader of tomorrow,
how he hawks about


I called after the boy. He came towards us, barefooted.
“Is it chilled?” I asked.
“Aunty, it’s chill well, well,” the boy said, bringing down his pail.
I stretched a hand and felt the sachets lying among some chunks of ice. Cold water dribbled through my fingers as I offered a sachet to Ijeoma. I took out a rumpled N5 note and paid the boy. As he walked off, I wondered what his parents were doing at home.
She bit off a tip of the sachet. Some water splashed onto her face.
“Shit!” she spat.
“Ndo, sorry,” I sympathized.
She sucked the remaining water from the sachet. Her face showed a deep frown.
“It has a taste.”
“The State Water Board is still on strike,” I said. “One can’t be sure of the source of water one is drinking nowadays.”
“It tastes bad, sour.”
I said to myself, Life is sour.
“Don’t sound cynical.”
“What?”
“I heard you,” she said.
“Oh,” I said.
Ijeoma threw the sachet away.
“It wasn’t Anne,” she began speaking fast as if to spit everything out of her chest. “Cleo is one kinky fairy of a girl. She is fun, but sleeps with men. We quarrelled several times. Lorraine is sort of a live-in mate, cool-headed. And there is Omphile. She has feisty Italian blood. Lerato – she is as erotic as her name. Lovable Olivia. It could have been any of them.” Ijeoma closed her eyes.
I thought she was brooding over her past.
Without opening her eyes, she went on, “It’s said the virus from an infected partner can seep through tiny bruises in one’s mouth. When one brushes one’s teeth, the gums often get injured a little. I don’t know; so they say. I remember hearing something like that, something about the mucous membrane in one’s lips. I mean, when you engage in cunnilingus.”
My head throbbed as I tried to make sense of all she had been saying. This was quite a shocker. So she was this way in the university? So some of those girls were like her?
I could not even think of any reason for her not being straight. I tried to imagine her with one of those girls in bed. I could only see the blurry shapes of a man straddling a woman in an X-rated movie, Kene and I watched the weekend a storm stripped the night of its serenity. I couldn’t imagine another girl fondling my bare body, her tongue writhing between my legs, licking me up.
As she unclosed her eyes her lips began to tilt wryly, like she could discern my thoughts, like she was about to laugh at me.
“Shades,” the word came out slowly, as though she was trying to make out the title of a book, or recite a poem perhaps. “Shades of days kissed by the sun. Hmm; someone said, life is a mirror. Rather an inapt metaphor. I can only say life’s one goddamned delicate piece. Mine was a mirror quite all right. I didn’t take a look in it. I think my life was beautiful to behold. People always tell me. I see my reflection in their eyes. You think it’s now the mirror of fragments? Shards scattered across the sands of time? Maybe, fragments of memory, you aren’t following? Well, I hope my true friends will still see me as a pleasant memory…” She fixed her eyes on me.
“Or what do you think?” she asked.
I should sound reasonable. Yet, I found myself wandering in a maze, getting more befuddled. Her revelations were hard knocks on my head.
“This AIDS business is a mystery,” I said.
“It is more like a curse on mankind,” she said. “Remember that lousy course on Greek Mythology? The gods play with earthlings like toys. Zeus couldn’t hold his randy dick.”
“You mean the Three Sisters?”
“Fates. Bitches. I’m not going to give them the satisfaction of having the last laugh.”
I kept quiet.
She continued after a long pause: “It is not easy to hold fast to something that’s breakable. Trying not to give up, when all round you everything speaks of death. You hear groans that chew your heart. One sees adults crying on their beds. You think of taking your life every so often. Why did I return home? Why did I not stay back? I don’t know. I just don’t know….maybe…” Ijeoma sounded subdued.
I could sense the sadness in her voice. Would she break into tears? Was it not better if she stopped talking?

Ghosts of the past
hovering birds of prey…


She sighed. Her face was ashen, her eyes weak. She lowered her head as one who was drained. I realized I was feeling subdued, too.
Yet, she chattered on: “I’ve hushed up loads of things. Anne alone knows all of them. I wasn’t supposed to say anything. I’m surprised that I told you our most precious secret’s secret. Anne would feel vexed. We’ve been dear friends since our secondary school. It seems strange, my lifestyle, right? Well, all this started one rainy night. We found out that girls cuddled one another whenever the rain pounded on the roofs of our dormitory. Anne and I shared the same bunk bed. When we started shivering like drenched birds, we would just cling to each other; that way we warded off the cold. It started harmlessly. We were two innocents and never thought it was abnormal. In the university, we realized some girls were like us. They made us feel it was a sisterhood kind of fun, feminist stuff. Nothing to be ashamed of, but we had to be very secretive. Anne and I believed we could always drop it when we had had enough of it. Men desired us, pined in their fantasies of us, but then we deprived them the pleasure of taking off our underwear. We gave them kisses on the lips, on the cheeks, but then that was nothing. It was fun to see men burning with lust. It was fun feeling their hard-on. We felt invincible, and extraordinary, and powerful. I’m talking Greek, right? I just have to get all these fucked up secrets off me. I always wondered what knowing you would have been like. You don’t mind me saying that, do you?”
I did not have enough strength to even get offended. I was still befuddled.
“My loving parents could no longer carry the shame. If I’d married an osu (outcast) they would have tolerated me. But telling them my secret (she touched her groin) they would run mad. I placed myself in their shoes. No one could bear the thought of their only daughter dying of AIDS. It was better I kept my lips sealed. I can’t go back to SA now. So, I say to myself, better dead among the dead than at home with the living.”
“Don’t they know you’re…?” I asked.
“That’s sprinkling salt on a sore. It is safer they assume I was promiscuous.”
I rubbed my arms and wished I had worn a sweater. I thought of the blood that was transfused into my body, once again, and prayed it was free of any virus.
“Anne’s been very supportive. She’ll be here tomorrow with her fiancÚ. You’ll like to see her?”
I said nothing. I did not consider meeting any of her ‘friends’ as interesting as they may be. I didn’t want to encourage her to start having any whim. I should be leaving tomorrow if Kene agreed. I was downright bored with lying in bed and fed up with inhaling odour as stomach-churning as fermented cassava.

Let it go, let it flow,
Like a mighty rolling billow


“They deserve to know, right?”
“Who?”
“My parents, I’ve disappointed them,” her tone was lachrymose. “What’s the point? I’m dying. I shall tell them. I can only hope they’ll still accept me as their daughter.”
The despair in her voice yanked my heart. Although she was trying to appear cool in the face of death, she looked pitiable. Somehow, she struck me as a woman who had accepted her fate; no doubt, like a Christian in the hands of persecutors. Did she know beforehand how she would die?
I wasn’t bothered anymore about the how and why of her life, how she got infected, why she turned lesbian. I did not want to appraise the fatal relationship between the virus and kissing. Or oral sex, either. I could not believe a girl so beautiful and full of promises could die that easily, like a rose blossoming with strikingly crimson petals, blossoming with delicious fragrance, but only to be crushed by an angry gardener.
Stirred, I felt the need to cry. Cry loud and long. I had wronged her unjustly. Those grudges I had carried in my breast all that time. What a mean and miserable girl I was!
It appeared Ijeoma was about to cry instead. She raised a hand, but it fluttered over her face. Then, suddenly, she gave a strained sound, a gasp-like sound. She gasped again, her features tensed, her back was arched. She practically dropped down. She was dying?
I wanted to scream for help, when she sputtered, “I’m okay. I’m okay.”
I could hear her breathing as though it were mine. Her breathing was the raucous sound of trees rustling in the harmattan. I began to pat her comfortingly on the back, asking her if she wanted water, if I could fetch the nurse, if I could take her back to her ward.
She sat up and said, “NO, NO, NO”.
I wished I could feel the pulse and content of her thoughts as an amiable silence rose between us. Like a glassy pane shielding one from foul smoke, it was unnecessary breaking it, with speech. We would never go through this rare silence again, I knew.

the song is of silence, harmonious and
a balm to the heart strained too tight


The atmosphere was surreal. The sky was a dusky sea. Stars looked like silver-striped sardines. Crickets had begun chirping. The hospital was getting bare. Most invalids had gone in. A sprinkling of visitors and staff still moved around. Motorcycles horned outside the gates. Voices floated intermittently in the air.
There was an aloof expression on her face. I could see Ijeoma had decided to live with her foibles. She had done away with regrets. She seemed as if she never had any at all. Or was she merely hiding them?
Yet, all the compunction which once troubled her had vanished. Nobody would ever see it. Nobody would make her feel guilty, worthless, or gross. Presently, she did not need pity anymore: she simply wanted ACCEPTANCE.
“I’ve a confession to make,” she said.
My heart skipped a beat. “Not shocking, I hope?” I asked.
“Not really.”
“OK.”
“I always found you attractive.”
I frowned.
“Not what you think,” Ijeoma added. “You were brilliant. I deliberately sat next to you at lectures. I wasn’t brilliant like you. I was smart enough to know that good looks could get one anything. I exploited it. You were cold, always so cold. You looked down on us. We must have seemed like illiterates, right? You were only being proud.”
“O bu asi ! That’s not true!” I said. “I wasn’t the person who won the coveted crown.”
“But you were focused. Annie and I talked about you.”
“I agree. I was only attempting to steal attention by making bright…” I stopped as I heard Kene’s voice.
“Honeycomb, what are you doing out there by yourself?”
Kene hurried towards me. He made me feel like a little kid who had to be protected from strangers whenever he was around.
“Hello honeycomb,” I said in a coo, readying for a hug.
He wrapped me in his arms and then kissed me on the cheek. “You got me so worried.”
“I know.”
Kene released me and squatted in front of me, holding my hands.
“I just spoke with the doctor…”
I placed two fingers on his lips and said, “Meet Ijeoma, my former course-mate.”
Kene glanced up at her; he actually had not noticed her. Now he almost flinched. He straightened up. As he moved towards her, he stuck his hands into his pockets.
“How’re you?”
“Horrible,” she said.
Kene and I shared embarrassed glances.
“You fell for it!” Ijeoma said with a slight laugh. “Don’t mind me, I’m fine.”
Kene and I smiled. He told me to carry on with our girl talk and promised to wait for me in my ward.

The lyre of love unfurls myriad notes
Of fluttering joy and peace!


I watched Kene disappear down a lighted corridor. I could feel some warmth, like a finger, caressing my navel even as a chill gathered in the air, and swarmed all around us; even as mosquitoes buzzed about our legs, pestering us like child beggars.
“Is that your boyfriend?”
“Yes.”
“You love him?”
“He is my heaven.”
She grinned blankly.
“I used to resent you,” I said.
Her expression darkened, and I wondered whether I had offended her.
“I became so frustrated I prayed something nasty would happen to you. I couldn’t see any reason why you should enjoy all the attention. I felt you didn’t deserve it. I think I was merely being jealous.”
She reached for my hand. Without thinking, I curled my fingers around hers.
“Can you forgive me?”
“Nky, I’m glad we had the opportunity to open up to each other,” she remarked. Then she drew two invisible rings in front of her eyes with her other hand.
“What?”
“I mean, where are your glasses?”
“Don’t remind me -” I sounded vehement. “I chucked them into the bin!”
“But they were cool on you.”
“Those ‘bottles’ made me look like an owl.”
“You now see clearly?”
“I squint.”
“I notice.”
“Is it obvious?”
“Yeah.”

Even as night wove its spell of gloom
The larkspur of dawn blossomed still


We were giggling like two naughty teenagers when the headmistress-looking nurse returned again. She told her patient it was almost 8 p.m. The generator would soon be switched off, because the diesel was rationed.
I remembered the hospital was without lights most of the time. I remembered Labour was on strike, and the government was acting crocodile-skinned to their fair demands: stop deregulation of petroleum products; stop privatisation of the country’s refineries; enhance workers’ salary, etc.
We both had to turn in.
“How do I look?” Ijeoma asked me, somewhat impishly.
I saw in her eyes the high-spirited course-mate I once envied like an abandoned old wife, but whose sincerity and courage I now admired. I now realized that I, too, had craved acceptance in our university days, although I’d refused to admit it.
“You look…” I held my mouth.
“Undesirable?”
“No…em…”
“Frightening? Depressed?”
“No; you look contented,” I said.
“That is cool. That’s what I think,” Ijeoma said.
I dropped my hand. The nurse helped her to stand up.
“Nky, it’s been a pleasant evening, right?”
“Yes, Ijeoma. Yes.”
She held out her hand to me.
I wanted to hug her. Clasp my arms around her. But I acted self-consciously, timidly, in the presence of the nurse who was pricking me with the suspicious eyes of a warden.
“I’m happy we met.”
“I’m happy too,” I said, finally shaking hands with her.
“Take care then.”
“Bye.”
The nurse held her by the wrist. It was like the chariot of death had come to bear her away.
My skin turned pimply as they began to move away. I would not see Ijeoma again. This would be the briefest friendship I’d ever experience.
“Chere!” I sprang off the bench.
They both turned back.
“Can I see you tomorrow?” I asked, hugging myself, trying to fight off the tears that filmed my eyes.
Ijeoma hesitated as if the idea unsettled her.
“I’d love to see you again,” she replied and smiled.
For the first time I saw her teeth. They were no longer sparkling pearl; they were now the whiteness of watery milk. Yet, those teeth belonged to the “mermaid” I used to know.
And yet, she had her smile, her lovely smile.

Born of the mellow womb of moon
her smile melts through the shelled heart


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