Honour of a Woman
By Dipita Kwa (Cameroon)
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I knelt on our bed – the one I shared with my sister Muto – and peeped through a crack on the termite-infested plank window. I wasn’t surprised that my mother was still sitting on the veranda, waiting for Muto’s return. Muto and Mama never stopped fighting. There was something repulsive between the two of them that pulled them apart if not together for a fight.
I couldn’t understand what made my sister to stay out this late almost every night – she was only 18, three years older than me. It was past 11; I could tell from the stillness that hung like sackcloth over the village of Mondoni.
I shrugged and went back under my sheets, covered my ears from mosquitoes, and thinking about Papa who died when I was ten. And Mama went away, left us with my father’s elder sister Auntie Katty, who was 60’s or 70’s. For four years she took care of us from the meagre income she got from selling miondo. I was happy because the frequent quarrels and fights between Muto and Mama ceased. I re-lived those beautiful evenings when Mama was away and we used to sit around Auntie, cracking egusi under bright moonlight with the cold wind whistling across the leaves of the trees in the surrounding bush. We would listen reverently to what she taught us as the Honour of a Woman. Muto hardly ever went out. She seemed to love those evenings too. Then last year Mama came back and took us away to live in a rented two-roomed plank house while our father’s house, situated at the outskirts of the village, was shrouded with grass and almost collapsing from lack of use…
“Where have you been?” I heard my mother demand. “Why are you coming back at this late hour?”
I quietly crept back to the window.
I saw Muto try to push past Mama but was violently pulled back by her forearm. She almost toppled over. I held my breath and waited for the worst.
“I’m talking to you. Stand here and tell me which devil you have been chasing around Mondoni all night while girls of your age are all in bed!”
Muto pulled her arm free.
“What do you want from me?” She snapped.
I recognised that vicious glare in her eyes that often announced her readiness to claw like an angry cat.
Mama sighed. She looked as though cold water had just been poured on her flaming heart. In fact I realized that she was probably getting old. If it had been five years ago when she was 41, Mama would have welcomed her with a questioning slap. Now instead, I heard her saying in a too subdued voice: “My daughter, roving the neighbourhood from one room and off-license to another like an evil spirit, will yield you nothing but dishonour and destruction…. Look, this world is fast becoming the proverbial calabash of diseases….”
“It’s my life; let me live it the way I want!” Muto shouted. “Maybe I should ask you this question,” she went on, “when it was your turn to change men the way you changed your underwear, with the outstanding result of giving birth to two bastards, whose advice did you heed to? And if you hadn’t killed someone’s husband in your bed, would you have run back here to bore me with your hypocrisy?”
It was true that Ewolo had died on her bed last year, precipitating her return to Mondoni to avoid his widow’s wrath. By reminding Mama of this, Muto had stepped on a dry branch.
I heard the slap fall hard and loud on her face, sending her staggering backward for balance. Like the cat tattooed on her thigh, Muto recoiled quickly. Before Mama knew, she was all over her, punching and clawing. Her fingers soon found the top of Mama’s blouse and ripped it open. The next second, her mouth found one of Mama’s breasts. Like a hungry carnivore, Muto’s teeth sank into it and neatly bit off the nipple.
I screamed and ran out in my torn nightie. Mama was holding her breast with blood trickling down her fingers, and screaming in pain.
The neighbourhood was now fully awake.
I thought I would faint as I saw Muto hastily swallow the piece of human flesh – our mother’s nipple – and race into the dark night, wiping her bloody mouth with the back of her hand.
The atmosphere calmed somehow after the wound was dressed and Mama given some drugs. But she couldn’t stop mouthing curses:
“Bad luck will follow you all the miserable days of your life!” she shouted.
“Take those was back!” one woman rebuked her.
“I won’t! Muto will never see peace as long as she lives if I am the one who gave birth to her,” She kept shrieking as she lay on her bed. “Wherever she goes, it will hang on her head like a hive of wasps –”. She went on speaking right into her sleep.
Three days after the fight, Auntie Katty was sitting on a low stool and leaning forward on her walking stick, shaking her head in an all-knowing fashion. She said she had come to inquire about Mama’s health and if Muto had returned home. Mama was now feeling better. The wound had been stitched. But Muto had not been seen.
“Come here, Penda, and sit down,” she said to me, shifting to create space for me on the stool. “I want you to listen, and listen well.”
She then turned to face my mother.
“People say I speak too much. And I won’t stop speaking. I have been quiet for too long that I am afraid if I die today without emptying my mind, I too may not see peace in the other world. After all, who has ever developed rotten teeth from giving advice? My mouth is even too full at my age.” She bit into a piece of kola nut she was holding, and crunched.
“Endale, you are the cause of all your misfortunes,” She went on slowly. “You thought youthfulness was like a cowry that never faded. I will tell you again that you lived a dirty life that you never thought could rub onto your daughter. When your mother complained and begged you to slow down, you beat her and dragged her about like a dog with rabies. You told her that a cripple like her, couldn’t give birth to a beautiful girl like you. You left the house and abandoned her to die in misery. And the poor woman actually grieved to her death –”
“Stop it, Katty, please,” my mother cried.
“I won’t stop!”
“I wish Muto had killed me!” Mama muttered, covering her face with a pillow that was already wet with tears.
“Muto can’t kill you because you didn’t kill your mother. She is merely repaying you the debt you owe. And this is how the circle will go on and on; you owing your mother, Muto owing you, her daughter owing her, her grand-daughter owing her daughter, and so on.
“Like others before you, you are caught in that vicious circle of woe– an endless chain of curses –” She paused to reflect. “Your mother died and was buried without you. You gave my brother the worst days of a man’s life. If Muto thinks today that she is a bastard, she has the right. If after all those years of marriage to my brother you could still stand in public and tell him he wasn’t man enough to make a woman pregnant, I doubt what you want your daughters to feel. Thank God I was there for them. Now you are afraid that your daughter is taking after your dirty life. Who do you blame?” She paused long enough to have another bite of the kola nut.
“However, I think you can help yourself break this spell. That is why I came. As soon as you are strong again, go to your mother’s grave and plead with her. Tell her – tell God – you are sorry.”
After she left, my mother cried.
Every morning she would peep into our room to see if Muto had secretly returned. And I would see the deep feeling of disappointment and gloom in her eyes when she saw that I was there alone. Soon I began to feel that she didn’t care about me. She spent herself worrying about Muto who had caused her so much pain. When I complained to Auntie, she reminded me of the story of the prodigal son and advised me to cheer up.
“You are still a young woman,” She said, “Soon you will know the mother’s love for her children even the one that is a thief.” From then I tried to understand what my mother was going through. Though I couldn’t really feel it, I tried my best to make her happy. This was very hard indeed.
And it became worse when Malodi Steven was bitten to death by a green mamba that had caught in his trap. Malodi was the man who used to pay our rents. Though he was married, he kept hanging around my mother. I hated him for cheating on his wife. But he was the only one who succeeded in making Mama really laugh during these miserable two months after Muto’s disappearance. His death plunged Mama into the worst of dark glooms that I had ever known her to be in. This was the third man she had lost within five years. She went for days without food and hardly spoke to anyone. I thought of running away to live with Auntie. But I didn’t want to increase Mama’s pain, so I stayed.
Then one Saturday morning, six weeks after Malodi’s death, she told me she had decided that Auntie should accompany us to my grandmother’s grave. She needed to be cleansed.
* * *
The house was like I had expected; buried with climbers and filled with the stench of death. Death! Yes, that was what I instantly felt. I went crawling around while Auntie and Mama cleared the grass from the graves in readiness for the cleansing ceremony. I was at the corridor, opposite what had once been the children’s room, when I heard the groan. At first I thought it was my mother. But outside, I could hear Mama crying out, ‘Turn away your face from my sins, strengthen me…” Then I heard the groan a second time, clear but very feeble. It was coming from our room. One thought crossed my mind: there was a ghost in there.
But it wasn’t a ghost. It was the ragged remains of my sister which must have been brought back lethally sick and abandoned here by a kind-hearted lover who hadn’t the courage to confront any member of our family. There were moulded pieces of bread around the urine-soaked clothes on which she laid – probably her only food during whatever number of days she had been here, and bus tickets to or from eleven towns of the coastal region of Cameroon. She must have had a very heated schedule during those three months to make her now unable to walk or talk.
The next day we packed back to my father’s house – our real home – to nurse our sorrows.
Two days after our return home – Mama and I were sitting on the bed beside Muto. I saw my mother wrestle in futility with the sobbing lump in her throat as she watched her source of pride now looking like a masquerader with sunken eyes on a fleshless skull.
I saw Muto’s lips twitch in an effort to speak.
Mama held her hand.
“I forgave you long ago,” She said hoarsely, somehow imagining what Muto might have wanted to say. The tears now ran freely down our cheeks.
Then I heard Muto call my name. She held the tips of my hand with her cold and trembling fingers.
“Do you think I will live again?” she whispered faintly.
I wouldn’t cry, I told myself, even though my heart was on the verge of splitting in halves with grief.
“You are not dead, Sister,” I said. “Yes, you will be fine again. Mama and I shall take you to the hospital tomorrow. Auntie promised she will pay the bills.”
Muto sighed, withdrew her hand and stirred to face the wall.
I stared out of the window. Stars had dimmed and the moon was mournfully hiding behind a thick blanket of clouds. Far away an owl hooted what my mind registered as the wasted honour of a woman.
Take your ill-luck away from our home, I said to the owl. It was already past 11, but I didn’t feel as to sleep.