Few months after I turned 17, a black Toyota Corolla drove into my father’s compound in the village. A tall man whose head was shaped almost as perfectly round as my mother’s fried buns stepped out of the car followed closely by his elegantly-dressed, robust wife. She was wearing a blue, beautifully patterned dress, a shiny necklace hung from her neck. Outwardly, she appeared happy and satisfied with her position in the world, almost thankful to the universe for all she has but also there was a thinly-veiled unhappiness and fear embedded underneath the skin of her smiling cheeks and hidden within her eyes, as if she was afraid for all that can vanish from her very hands.
They spent a very long time speaking in hushed tones with my father inside our shabbily-furnished living room. My little brother hovered around the room, eavesdropping to their conversation. He ran over to the kitchen where I was bent over the fireplace preparing food for our guests.
“Ogoo, you’re going to the city!!!” he squealed excitedly, tap-dancing around the kitchen entrance. Often when he gets excitedly, he hops around dancing with his feet.
“What?” I asked, confused.
He grabbed my hands, twirling around. “You’re going to Onitsha. Those people in the parlour want to take you to Onitsha to live with them”, he managed to speak coherently despite his mounting excitement. I froze for a moment, swatting at the smoke coming from the fireplace.
People come from the city all the time looking for maids, house girls, cooks etc. in the village. They make all sorts of promises even those they can’t keep. They promise better housing, education, and a generally better lifestyle. Few years ago, they came for my best friend, Kelechi. The woman who took her promised she’d come back every Christmas to visit her family in the village but for over five years, we’ve not seen Kelechi.
Some people came for Tochi last year. She returned to the village a few months later with a body full of scars and bruises. Her madam was very wicked, she said. She showed us the scars all over her body and told us the story behind each and every scar. Once, the madam had used the electric iron on her hands because someone had stolen her jewelry and she thought it was Tochi. Tochi ran away when the wicked madam tried rubbing hot Cameroon pepper into her vagina as punishment for breaking her china.
At some point, I dreamt about leaving the village. I dreamt about going to the university like the ones in the movies I often watch in Ogechukwu’s house most evenings. I dreamt of putting on make-up like the corps members who taught us briefly in the community secondary school. I liked a particular corps member. Helen was her name. She taught us literature in English. She said she was a make-up artist. I remember the day she asked me to let her put make-up on my face. We met in the market where she was buying foodstuffs. I was selling abacha that market day.
“You know you have such a beautiful face structure,” she said after I greeted her. “Thank you Ms. Helen” I replied. She insisted we call her “Ms. Helen” instead of “Aunty” like we called all the other female teachers.
“I’ve been thinking…I’d like you to model for me” she suggested. I was confused. “Model?” I asked.
“Yes, I’ll make your face up and take pictures of your made-up face so I can share those pictures online to get customers.” She explained patiently. I’d never made my face up…at least not like in the glam way the actresses I see in movies do.
“I will like that” I agreed excitedly. She smiled broadly showing the dimples on her left cheek. Then she hesitated. “If your parents won’t like it, you don’t have to tell them. We’ll clean it all off afterward,” she said in a low tone, conspiratorially. I giggled happily. “You can come over to my room in the school quarters,” she said before leaving.
Her room was the smallest but cleanest room I’d ever seen. There was a wallpaper of a white couple pressing their lips together glued to the wall painted cream. There was an iron rack filled with beauty products, books and other cluttered items. There was a shoe rack hanging from a nail on the wall. A picture of a bearded black man hung on the wall above her bed. I stared at it. “Oh, that’s just my boyfriend.” She explained. She brought out her black makeup bag filled with beauty products and set to work on my face, cleaning, rubbing in, and dusting. When she was done, I couldn’t recognize my own face. My jawlines seemed sharper than mama’s kitchen knife. My lips were coated in a bright shade of red that made my teeth shine whiter when I smile. I didn’t want to wipe all that away even after taking the pictures. Cleaning all that beauty seemed wasteful and saddened me a lot.
Mama’s interest in my physical wellbeing increased tremendously. She always wanted to know if I felt alright, if I was healthy. Her curious eyes followed me around. If I coughed, she rushed around thumping down on my back, providing water and saying sorry for over a hundred times. My father became curiously overjoyed, humming to songs and handling his responsibilities without frustrated groans. I suspected it had something to do with the couple’s visit.
Then the night of the last Orie Market Day of the month, my mother came into the kitchen where I was preparing dinner to talk to me. The couple had not come for a maid, cook or house girl. They wanted to borrow a womb, my womb.
“Think about it Ogoo. This is like a prayer answered. They’re going to pay a huge amount of money just for you to carry their child. God indeed works in mysterious ways. Imagine giving a woman bad womb so that another can make money with her good womb.” Mama went on and on.
“With the money they’ll pay us we can finally change the leaking roof this house.” she continued, stoking the dying fire with a heavy sigh. She already assumed I’d agree to it. “They said you are beautiful…they want their child to be as beautiful as you!” Mama said.
“You’ve not asked me if I want to do it,” I asked softly, searching her face for even the slightest, fleeting nuance of emotion. Over the years of her marriage, my mother mastered the art of not showing her feelings. No matter the situation, her face remained blank and expressionless.
“ibu ezigbo nwa. You’re a good child. That is how I know you will do it for us Ogoo” she replied. She stroked my hair gently. I felt her hands quiver for a passing moment. In that brief moment, I felt her desperation and plea.
So, I packed my bags for Onitsha.
I like to think we mutually disliked each other, the woman and I. Fate, without our permission as usual, trapped us in a situation we didn’t want. When I arrived, she warned me viciously: “I know girls like you… you all pretend to be innocent but you plot and scheme more than the devil. If you think you can milk this situation…if you think that you can get to stay here permanently, that I’d share my home with you, you’re mistaken. You’re here to give me a baby and find your way out, inugo?” she said, waving her long painted nails, jabbing the air angrily. I sat with my ankles crossed, listening to her angry tirade of words and wondering how she met her husband.
The man likes to watch NTA news late into the night. Every night he’d fall asleep in front of the television set with legs propped up on the wooden centre table. It was his wife’s dutiful late-night task to wake him every night the sound of the boring news caster’s voice lulled him to sleep.
He started coming into my room a week after my arrival. They wanted me to rest for the first couple of days. The wife hovered around the door, listening and occasionally peeping in. She’d insisted we do it in my room. “There is no need to be constantly reminded of my failure inside my own bedroom” she’d snapped when her husband raised the question. The man was gentle, afraid. He lay on me grunting, gasping and thrusting. The pain lasted for a while and then nothing. I felt the angry shadow of his wife above us berating and cursing. The shadow’s hands were flailing in the air when the man came inside me and then collapsed onto the bed next to me. The shadow went still.
My mother was so sure my waist/hips were strong enough to carry a child. She didn’t mention the backaches, swollen feet, nausea and the terrible, persistent urge to rip the life growing inside me out. The woman was irritated by my irritation. She grunted unhappily about my obvious misery. “God will just give such a precious gift to ungrateful souls. Many women would die for the chance to be able to carry their own child and here you are doing it so unhappily. Please don’t transfer your aggression on my child oh” she grunted, eyeballing me. I fought the urge to punch her bulbous nose and scratch her skin off her annoying face. We spent each day inside the small flat cursing and avoiding each other.
I gradually started hating the life growing within me. Sometimes when it kicked, I wanted to kick back, to kick it out of my stomach. I felt caged inside the flat. I was not allowed to leave the flat. “I don’t want those nosy neighbours talking nonsense” the woman said each time I asked to be let out. “I really want to know what you’d tell them when you suddenly bring a child home while you were never pregnant” I snapped one evening. She hissed loud and long.
I imagined the child growing up, running around the flat, playing with toys and then I imagined the child as a teenager asking the difficult questions like why she doesn’t look like her parents. I dreamt about flying away. I’d lean on the window sill, watching the birds flying around and resting on trees, electric wires and fantasize about flying away like them.
It was a boy. Doctors said I nearly died birthing him. He had my brown eyes, my caramel skin, and his father’s lumpy lips. I felt slightly victorious that he didn’t get any of the woman’s features. It was almost as if she’d been cheated out of something precious, as if she was not part of the making of something miraculous.
Nnamdi. They named him Nnamdi. The woman insisted on breastfeeding him. My job was done. It was time to go home. They always said mothers always have a special bond with their kids’ even when they are babies still inside their wombs. I felt guilty for not feeling such a special bond with my son. All I felt was rage and betrayal. I was angry at my parents, at the woman and her husband, even at my son. I pleaded with him not to come yet. I thought perhaps if I didn’t get pregnant, they’d let me go but that boy ignored me. Eagerly, he jumped into my stomach and started growing as if he couldn’t wait to see Earth. He’d be so disappointed when he finds out what a cruel world it really is.
The woman’s husband drove me to the motor park. “You made us really happy. It must have been hard for you. Thank you” he said, remorsefully. I slammed the car door without saying a word.
I bought a ticket to Lagos instead of returning to the village as expected.