SHE INSPIRED THIS COMPARISON!
To the memory of a lady from Bauchi,
Who I most certainly here will never meet.
In the peace and sanctuary of only He,
May we dwell as conquerors of this feat.
THIS IS NOT HER STORY!
To the memory of this oldest woman,
Who I most certainly here will never have.
In the pieces and mortuary of her son man
May the duel they conjure pray behave.
THIS CAN ONLY BE HER STORY
Is to live a curse or gift?
If you wonder, you need a lift;
Up to the skies of living memory,
Back and forth man’s own glory.
She must have come on a visit. Though not the ‘all-talking’ type, she did all the talking. This story can only be told by her.
“She made her way; her own, very own way through life. No one helped. She wasn’t alone, but no one helped. She had to start quite late in life too, but she did it all on her own.”
The maid coughed softly. She reached to her right hip and unfolded her wrapper. She untied a knot at the wrapper’s edge with both hands and got out a piece of kola nut which she offered round. No one wanted some. She threw the whole piece of kola into her mouth and started to chew it noisily.
“Everyday I look at her and I say to myself, ‘God, is this what we struggle all our lives to be, alive; only alive?’ I look at her and she looks back at me. Again I ask myself, ‘Where is the fun in living?’ You are born to want to live, to live and live. Is that it? The answer was in the depth of her mind’s inner recesses somewhere, out of sight, but I wasn’t looking for it.”
Somewhere in the street outside, in the breezeless thick humid dusk air, a hawker calls out loudly the names of her wares, as she quite noisily solicits patronage from those she disturbs. The maid is silent. Only the soft sound of her chewing reaches her listeners for a short while. The kola in her mouth is slowly being broken down into small pieces.
“She might have been eighty, ninety, hundred or more. I did not know which was closest nor had I any way of telling. She was so old she seemed to need help to cough or even whisper. But the Lord has mercy for the things that came out of her mouth! The things that old woman will say, you never would have thought it possible of a ‘Believer’. The curses! God! She could call anything or anyone with names off a list as long as my arms, both! And she still manages not to repeat a single name again for ages, like only the aged could. Ha!”
She shrugged like only African women do, pulled back her lips and a deliberate click is heard somewhere in the borders of her mouth and throat. With a sinister grin and an unforced hard stare she very carefully shook her head. She paused in her chewing and it looked like she winked with both her eyes. Then she slowly closed them for a short while, firmly. And quite suddenly, she swiftly opened them again, focused.
“I think it is because she grew up with the Hausas. You know how free with curses and mockery they can be. She must have gotten this vast abusive vocabulary from them. That is the only reason possible. That notwithstanding, she became a Believer! Well, anyhow you do not expect a life time long habitual way of talking to change abruptly, do you?”
The maid was silent, as if waiting for the solicited answer she had insinuated she didn’t want. The listeners looked on, obviously waiting for her to fill the silence with some more words or action, but she made none for that brief while. The so many ways people fill up those uncomfortable periods of brief silence reveals, more than it is often acknowledged, the hypocrisy in their act of honest conversation; which is most often just the two sided polite hearing of the others’ boastful revelations of privileged experiences already known and felt.
“The Pastor promised to look her up all the time. ‘The Pastor promised to see me a lot!’ The old woman would complain always. The way she said it always, it was obvious that the holy man didn’t show up as often as ‘a lot’ interprets itself to her. The man was visiting her almost thrice weekly! I know how large his ‘flock’ is. And at the rate of thrice weekly visits to every family; even for a few minutes a visit, no sleeping or office work and ignoring travel time; it is impossible! The old woman was getting special treatment and she knew it. She not only knew it but demanded it with her continuous bickering. Like the desert traveler gulping more than the helpful bowl of water, I knew the Pastor’s patience will soon start to hurt.”
She grabbed the edge of her wrapper, where the kola nut had been, and suddenly folded it back into place on her right hip. She made an unpleasant face and that click is heard again, faintly above the fading voices of a passing group of people just outside the wall. Their conversing voices just audible enough to hum out words not loud enough to render the said words comprehendible, as the sound came over the wall.
“The smell was sickening. She smelt like…I don’t know. Her body just smelt badly. The rooms always smelt like someone just threw out a rat that had been dead in the room for weeks. You could never get use to the smell. You may think coming and going, in and out of the smell will help, well maybe staying in it all the time like she did might help. I doubt if it did. The smell hovered over the densely furnished rooms like an invincible ceiling and depending on the humidity, it changes its intense offensiveness incredibly so regularly.”
She untied her slacken head tie and firmly retied it again.
“I really didn’t like the job that much, but the pay wasn’t too bad. I did very well with the extra money I got. Little as it was, it helped. Everybody would do well with extra money these days, things are so hard. Kai! Things are so hard.”
She widened her eyes and looked hard at her listeners, craning and stretching her long neck almost painfully. For only a brief while, it looked like a habitual facial expression.
“My youngest; Markus, just got into secondary school and I have to give him money for transportation everyday. I am planning to buy him a bicycle. It will make things easier.”
She was quiet again, her forehead lined with thought, like she was wondering where the money for the bicycle would come from. She moist her lips with her tongue and noisily cleared her throat, all the while she continued to chew. The kola nut in her mouth had slowly tuned into a saliva soaked mash, leaving dark brown stains on her lighter coloured full plumb lips, which she almost ceaselessly protrudes habitually.
“She said she has four sons and six daughters, all living married and doing very well. Her husband had been dead for a very long time now. She was his only wife but he had many mistresses. There were nineteen children in their house then; ten of them were hers with him and the remaining nine were his, with the other women. They all lived together in the big house her husband had built, but she showed no difference. She looked after all the children like they were all hers. I figured, they were all his anyway and she hadn’t a choice. That is why he had them all in his home anyway. Her hands were twisted all along and there was only pain in her gain.”
She shrugged and moved in her seat, protruding those lips.
“She hated taking her drugs. She promised to give me money if I don’t make her take them. I protested only briefly; and falsely, and then I told her I agreed. Then I collected the miserly money she offered me and I still secretly mashed and mixed her so many colourful drugs into whatever food I fed her. I would not lie that I didn’t want the money, meager as it was. Everybody would do well with extra money these days, things are hard. Kai! Things are so hard. But honestly, it was only fair to her I reasoned. If I didn’t take the money and promised not to make her take the drugs, she wouldn’t believe me or trust me. I will accept that my only sin is not telling the Pastor about this. But he would have made me return the money, which would have made things harder for me. I mean, I gave her the drugs, not him. Then he would have probably insisted I give the money to his church as an offering, since it was ill-gotten money. I would have refused still. So I kept it quiet.”
She choked and coughed but continued to chew softly.
“She lost all sense of most things; touch, taste and smell, definitely. But she still had complete cognizance of her money, her hate and her God. She could curse and pray in one short sentence. It is a first for me. I don’t know about you, but it is new to me. She is the only person I know that can do that and she did it in a way that almost normalizes it, making it appear proper and not the blasphemy it really is.”
She laughed. It was a good laugh; short, just the necessary length. Her listeners join her, politely. The unheralded burst of all kinds of sounds, which mostly should pass for wailing, encouraged her. She went on before the noise settled down.
“The old woman’s house is very big. I grew up in a village, but even now in the pigs ‘infested’ part of town I live in with my family, there are no bigger compounds. Her house has as many as fifty doubled rooms, with tenants in all of them. She occupied four rooms with connecting doors, a toilet and a kitchen. I slept in the room that served as a sitting room. That is not to say that I slept much while I was there with her.”
The maid cleaned the dark moist stains on the corners of her mouth with her right hand’s thumb and fore-finger, in one swift elegant move. Then the annoying protruding lips again.
“She always wants something. Sometimes I wonder if she doesn’t spend her days sleeping so that she could be awake all night to torment my nights. But I suppose, it was what I was paid for and she was just putting me to work, typical.”
She looks away with an insinuated disgust her expression hid.
“I have wondered for very long what I will find myself doing more of when I’m really old. They say with the insane, it is always those things one thought of the most when still sane. But what of the really old, they are still sane and mentally alert to know what they would prefer to do. Being mainly unable to physically do most of what they would rather do, what options are open to them? It’s like being in prison. I think it is worse. It is worse than insanity too, because the old have complete knowledge of everything and everyone. It is worse than being in prison too, because in jail your body still has its physical abilities. It is like being physically disabled. It is.”
She smiled. It was a good smile too. She didn’t look middle-aged when she smiled. Her smile lies about her age.
Master though you be,
Lord over life as it’s set.
Moments looms for we;
Conquered mortals, you we net.
“I got married the same year as her last child, going by what she told me. Mind you, I wasn’t a teenager when I got married. But from both our calculations of the years involved, we worked out that her last daughter is just twelve years older than my first son; that is her last child. She didn’t say how many children her last daughter has though. I tried to work it out this way on my own. I thought that with the kind of early start she must have had, she should be well beyond my five by now. And mind you, she is still going on strong, full strength! One thing is very clear though, the old woman is quite fond of her last child.”
She smiled at her listeners in her most pleasant manner, some of them smiled back at her genuinely. Some looked on hard faced, while others looked away politely. She didn’t show she noticed their countenances or mind in the least, as she turned away and blinked at the slowly setting sun, sneaking down behind the ‘horizoned’ western wall. The weaken sun rays it casts looked brighter from within the shadowed shaded surroundings of the fenced buildings. The small tree’s shade she was seated beneath had crept on eastwards, just behind her, unnoticed. She sat in the glow of the late twilight sunlight like the witness she is, shielding in the lonely guilt of the shade while facing the all knowing celestial Judge, seated on its all seeing pedestal, the unsmiling, unblinking and uncompromising everlasting high presence; a true master of the universe, setting in our east.
“Would you believe that despite her poor state of health, the old woman knew how much money she had, to the very last coin? And don’t you go thinking that it was some small amount. It was plenty, so much money. Not kept in some bank somewhere. No! Banks were not for her. She never had any dealings with banks. The money she hid was plenty. I knew where she kept it. She knew every coin and note by heart. She clearly thought I had no idea where she hid her money. She went through a lot of trouble to secretly ‘fondle’ some of it, when she thought I wasn’t looking, and then quietly hid it all again. But I knew. I had never seen so much money in my entire life. She also knew who owed her what and when exactly she should be paid.”
Another fine smile graced her face nicely.
“The old woman told me her sixth child came to see her once, not too long ago. She said that daughter of hers told her if her husband knew she came, he would divorce her and send her packing. When you are the current fourth wife of a man that has sent away three other wives before you, you know he doesn’t need much prompting or excuse to send you packing too. But can you believe that? Your child, who you carried and bore in and out of you for many selfless eventful years, cannot come to see you because of a stranger she married?”
The maid hissed surprisingly loudly and shook her head from side to side as she protrudes her plump lips in apparent awe.
“Her husband was a good looking man. His pictures were all over the place. She even had one of his framed large pictures placed on a cushioned armchair. I had silently crept in on her talking to that large picture a number of times. She spoke to it as if it heard her and was capable of talking back to her.”
She coughed once, with her full mouth open and uncovered.
“It is so strange what pictures can tell you or confirm. Her husband loved life; that much was clear. He was always dressed in very fashionable attire in every picture and the pictures were always taken in the most breath-taking scenery. Her husband’s pictures spoke volumes. The pictures she took had lots of family members and friends in them; and some few foes too, you would imagine. There were pictures of all her children too; she affectionately pointed them out to me.
“Most of her pictures were quite old-fashioned and funny-like; going by our current modernly coloured tastes. Posers all had their hands crossed at their wrists and she proudly introduced them all. ‘They are all alive and somewhere, some place,’ she said of some people in a picture one day. ‘They will not come to me.’ She said it painfully even though she smiled. I knew it hurt her so much. I saw her sacrifice, recognized her pain and honestly, I really do respect her for them.”
She smiled and swallowed visibly. What was left of the kola nut went down her throat with that gross action. A quick lick of her wide mouth, accompanying the hiding and revealing of her lips, only served to make her listeners more anxious.
“There was no way; definitely, no way I could possibly carry her to the toilet by myself. It was just not possible because of her large size. It was all I could do to carry her off and on her big and average waist-high metal cage-like framed bed. She was a big woman. I was alone with her every night and it is a task quite beyond my considerable physical capabilities”
She asked for some water and someone left for some.
“She was a pretty woman in her early married years. The pictures said so abundantly. Hers was a very big and happy family. She said so proudly. Her husband had worked at the railways. He was the fellow in-charge of what goods the trains carried; what was weighed, billed and paid. And you know, in those days everything traveled by rail. He made a lot of money from either over-weighing or under-weighing goods, as well as from over-billing and under-billing the customers. It is one of those jobs were the system is at the complete mercy of the worker’s sense of proper values and the customers deliberate ignorance, usually expressed in both relief and astonishment.
“Her husband made lots of money from his dubious dealings, lots of money for himself and his bosses who ensured he stayed at the same lucrative job for much longer than it was ethically right, because it was convenient. He had many houses built and bought for him. He and his family lacked nothing. He wanted everyone to be provided for, long after his death. She told me all these. She said it slowly and took her time in saying it, but it all came out clearly and surely.
“In front of the old woman’s house is a mosque. It wasn’t much of a building. It had no loud amplified speakers or rugs or ceiling fans (or ceiling) or window and door frames. The building was simply cement bricks erected walls with the usually edged out spaces left to fit in the doors and windows. The building had reused zinc roof sheets neatly fitted over it. And for a floor, it had only loose building sand on the ground inside. It was far from finished, though it was in full use.”
She licked her lips and swallowed, betraying that she missed the sensation of the kola nut. The water arrived and she paused to noisily drink quickly. She cleared her throat after emptying the cup. It looked like she had just started the story.
“Every morning, after the first Muslim prayer, two elderly men came to greet the old woman (if she was awake) and then left for their respective places of work. They were not important to me, but they were to my work. I got to know later on, that one of the elderly men was the muezzin who called for prayers, and the other led the worshipers in prayers at the mosque. Also in front of the old woman’s house is a young Yoruba lady who fried beans cakes and yams in the evenings.
“This lady pays the old woman a certain amount of money as a daily rent for using the front of her building for her small business. Since the lady leaves for home late every day, she brings the money quite late at night. She had to pay up after each day’s sales because the old woman will have it no other way. The old woman is always awake to collect the daily payments, no matter how late. It is a daily event we both looked forward to for our own different reasons each.”
The maid is quiet for only a while.
“The Yoruba lady was also not important to me either, but she was to my work. She and the two elderly men from the mosque saw me everyday, so I had witnesses to account for my being present at work always. I am sure the Pastor asks them. He had warned me not to stay away from work. He said when he finds out I stayed away, he would not pay me for being absent. So I made certain the Yoruba lady saw me every night when I arrived and the two elderly men saw me before I leave the next morning, everyday. It was a daily routine I was to personally follow through, religiously. I felt a time will come when I will need somebody else besides the old woman to prove I was present for work. With her vindictive nature, there is no telling what she is capable of saying or doing for extra attention.”
A baby starts to wail in the next house. The maid looks in the general direction of the next house; slightly left of the fast setting sun. She shook her head with contempt and quickly picked out the few other mothers amongst her listeners with her eyes. They incredibly join her in meaningfully piercing through the view obstructing wall with their eyes, in what appears like a cultish attempt at soothing the poor wailing baby’s troubles and/or its erring mother’s desperation too, or whatever way they choose to understand it at that moment.
They all showed clear contempt, in complete irony to the vagueness of the situation. It is always a ‘mothers only’ thing it seems. No one else comprehends it fully because it is a ‘mothers’ only’ concord. Only they comprehend it; that is every other mother at that point but that single mother of the crying child who is presently marooned in the lonely embrace of motherhood’s daily dilemma; the mother’s instant comfort or her child’s? It’s a ‘mothers only’ thing, only they venture.
“She was born a Muslim, she is so quick to remind all and sundry. At least she never lost an opportunity to remind me, repeatedly. You wonder, why the pride still! I understood this better when she once pointed out, with the words; ‘I have been there and I know what it is like to be an Unbeliever.’ I saw her point. Her father, mother, uncles, aunts, cousins, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, in-laws, husband, children, village and clan were, are and will always be Muslims.
“Everybody she had anything to do with was a Muslim. She only had something to do with non-Muslims when it became unavoidable. Like a Doctor here, a nurse there or a taxi driver here and fellow bus passengers she must tolerate on a bus ride. These were the only contacts she had with non-Muslims and they were as far between as they were unavoidable.”
The baby’s sobs became silent as the maid stretched out her fleshy legs to its straight full length in front of her and crossed them at the ankles. With her wrapper now pulled up, just above her revealed knees and the hollow indentation at the back of her fleshy knees filled out, it is much more clear how close to the ground she is seated and how low the traditional round wooden stool she is sitting on is. It didn’t look like a comfortable way to sit from the bodily posture, but it is.
“When her first son started formal school; to learn European-styled education, he returned home very excited daily and she easily make him repeat all he had learnt in school. It was her husband’s idea and it worked like clockwork. She followed it through with unwavering discipline and focused dedication. Before long she could write her name and say all the alphabets. By the time her last son was old enough for school, she taught him his alphabets, and to read and write elementarily.
“None of her daughters went to school, but no one heard the last of their intelligent mother who could read and write. And it turned out to be a very good thing she could too, because it became her only real source of joy and entertainment in her old age. With her still very strong eyes, clear as good boiled water, she reads and reads. Fortunately for her, she never lacked things to read; the Pastor made very sure of that.”
The impatience of her listeners was beginning to appear on their faces. Their body language was not as truthful because while their limbs aimlessly wandered in a reflection of their real lack of rapt attention, their heads routinely nodded the falsehood in their deceptive minds. The maid was indifferent to all this as she told her story still. Momentarily she paused to scratch her left forearm; it was a very simple act she made look flawlessly graceful and pleasant, like her cheery smiles.
Let us play a game of trading places,
Pausing triggers of mud slinging tongues.
Viewing with glasses that mirror chances,
We will find all toes fit the shoes it belongs.
“When the old woman’s husband died suddenly, she knew exactly what to expect. Similar drama had been played around her many times before and she was knowledgeable if not experienced, prepared if not ready. She broke into his cupboard, opened the cardboard box she knew he kept his money in, took all the money he had left there and hid it somewhere else. Events soon overtook the family’s grief, as it most quickly does for the wealthy families and attention veered towards his assets.
“There was enough assets to go round his extended family twice over and no one bothered about a ‘few change’ they didn’t even know existed. There were no quarrels at all. ‘It was hardly surprising because there was enough to go round,’ she told me. No one complained. She got nothing of course; she was just a ‘wife’ and mother to ‘some’ of his nineteen children. Her husband’s brothers took over, promising to handle all his affairs until his sons were old enough to take care of things themselves. But that was the end of it. They simply kept it all.”
The old woman’s main swung an arm and accidentally knocked over the empty water cup beside her. It rolled in an uneven semi-circle, as far as its one curved arm will allow it and stopped. She picked it up lazily and placed it carefully beside her stool, right where it was before. Deliberately fitting it precisely in the same small moist ring it had earlier made on the concrete ground, where she had placed it down initially.
“She didn’t go back to her parents in the village because it was clear that she was now ‘too’ literate for that kind of life. She also didn’t like the idea of another husband. She said nothing about the offers that were made for her hand, yet it could be imagined that for the sheer pride or luck of having a late wealthy man’s wife, offers were certainly not short in coming. Also for the purpose of getting her permanently out of the inheritance picture, persuasions were surely plentiful too from her in-laws. Not to mention her own desire to fit in somehow into the traditional and religious scheme of things.
“She was then still quite young by our modern standards; considering the age in which she got married, her two-children-every-three-years average and her less than a total of seventeen years of married life. She would have been a good ‘buy’ in the scrap market of the ‘once-married.’ But she wasn’t going to have that again. She wanted her life back the way it was before. Since that is not possible again, then she would only settle for something else, according to her own terms. She started a little trade and rented a room. Her late husband had left many houses scattered all over the place, yet there she was renting a small room on a side road. Her children stayed with their uncles.”
Soon the sun can barely be seen over the top of the broken bottles lined western wall. The mild sun rays glowed through the all green pieces of broken glass, casting a halo light-green display of lined lighting on the opposite eastern wall, far behind the maid. The sight achieved more of a viewing attraction at this time of day than it achieves the anti-burglary objective the crudely enforced walls were conceived and defaced for.
“A number of years passed by and as soon as she could pass off all the money she took from her late husband’s stash as money she had made from her business, she bought her own house.”
She exhaled as she conquered a yawn and rapped two sharp knocks on the centre of her head to warn the onset of an itch.
“Her late husband’s brothers started to peddle silly tales about her. They were saying that she was now a whore. Her children were ordered to stop seeing her and they came to see her only in secret. Soon they stopped altogether. She only heard when they got married. As years added up into decades, she saw her daughters, daughter in-laws and grand-daughters when they were pregnant, then their babies. She never knew when they gave birth. It hurt her so much but there was nothing she could do about it. They tried to come to see her secretly but she wasn’t allowed to go to them, ever. Their uncles did not allow that and they had ‘poisoned’ the minds of her sons too.”
The strain of talking is usually managed with the love for ones own voice and not the point being made or the reason for it. With the old woman’s maid, it had to be something else. Maybe it is the silent encouragement? It could be the attentive eyes following her every twitch, or all those knowledgeable nods she kept getting. Maybe it is the apparent riddles snared inside another person’s misfortune in the almost reluctantly unfolding story she is telling in her own jerky wavy self-entertaining way?
“The years didn’t change anything in her situation. Still she prospered in her trade, she grew older and she started to have great grandchildren. She grew so old. Some of her great granddaughters got married! That in itself was an unusual thing. The years were not being fair though. With so many years beneath her skin, her body organs started to wear-out. She became very ill. It started quite normally though, like the onset of most fatal ailments; common headache, knees and back hurt, belly ache, that sort of thing. She was turning bad inside out”
She cleared her throat and appeared to swallow with difficulty. Her eyes fazed up momentarily then cleared up as she blinked.
“For someone her age, not being ill is very abnormal. She was alone and that in itself was an illness. Over the years she had massively changed the little building she had bought on a huge piece of land. The price was ridiculously low. Finally, she had sold off two-thirds of the land and built an impressive house on the remaining land. Later she had the old renovated building initially on the land completely demolished and further expanded the new house. A huge modern building now graced her land, instead of the original one. It is a simple styled solid structure, common in all its four sides, a very well made house.”
She choked, coughed and cleared her throat. She appeared relieved, with no trace of the brief discomfort she had earlier experienced. It almost epitomized her personal decision to tell this story, which like the cough, she had initially tried to suppress, had been choking her up. Telling this story was theoretically relieving her conscience, which is why she must.
“Her illness took a turn for the worse and some of her tenants took her to a nearby government owned hospital, but all the Doctors were on strike. So they rallied round and took her to a private clinic instead. None of her family members came to visit her during those two months she was in the clinic. But honestly, they didn’t even know. All the time she was admitted in the clinic her most frequent visitor was the Pastor, who came to visit and pray with all the patients in the clinic’s wards. They had met on her third day in the clinic, chatted for a while and the Pastor was impressed with her mind.”
The maid politely asked for more water and the cup beside her was taken away as someone left for more water for her.
“The Pastor took a special interest in the old woman, and unpredictably, in addition to his regular routine of Saturday morning visits; he came mainly to see her every Tuesday afternoon too. They talked some more and he brought along books for her to read. He prayed for her at the end of every visit; even though she kept telling him that she is a Muslim. She got slowly better and her bill slowly grew into a huge sum. Sometime after she got to know about her bill, she chose to tell the Pastor her whole story. Smart move, if you ask me. He then seized the opportunity to preach to her. An even smarter move, if you ask me. But hey, I am only telling a story here.”
She laughs in her gaily way, a shade longer this time and then she stole an impatient look in the wake of her yet to appear water, her discomfort worsened with her evident impatience.
“She told me that it was on that rain soaked Tuesday afternoon, after the Pastor had preached to her, that she made up her mind to give what was left of her life to this new faith; that is new to her. And she did, though not on the same day. But she did on the Pastor’s very next visit. The owner of the clinic, who is a member of the Pastor’s church, told her not to bother about her bill. A nurse in the clinic revealed to her later that the Pastor’s church had paid up her bill in full.”
The water arrived; she gulped down half of it and placed the cup beside her again, gracefully and without looking down.
“The old woman was so touched. These are people totally new to her, yet they are doing things for her that her own folk are not doing for her. She concluded that these people must belong to a faith that is actively true. She gave her life to their Christian faith and willed her house to the church.”
Wiping her perspiring palms on her wrapper, just over her thighs, the maid smiled into the space between her and the western wall. Her smile said something to all those who saw it follow her eyes over the wall, transfixed as it followed the fading lightening of the dusk skies, giving up its retiring Judge, who had started his daily trip abroad for just another night.
“Her family heard all this and then they started to visit her in large numbers. They came in doves like vultures to a fallen lifeless corpse. It is strange how word traveled to her family. Even her late husband’s brothers; whom she hadn’t seen since his funeral, came to see her on more than one occasion when the story got out that she was now a Christian. I came into the picture much later, but I have a strong feeling in my guts that those old men from the Mosque outside her house were the early pair of vultures that escorted her juicy story and reported every vowel and syllable of it to her people.”
She stressed her perceived ingenuity by widening her eyes.
“Her grandchildren and their spouses and their own children; some of whom she had not even heard of or seen before, all came to see her. They couldn’t change her mind. They had cut her off completely. She had been like a heavily bandaged bad arm they had neglected, and then they had amputated her with their desertion. She was alone and the Pastor, the Doctor and their fellow church members all became her family now. She was picked up in flashy expensive cars for church services and brought back home with small gifts weekly. She even got a social life again. Her family’s desertion did not hurt so much after her conversion because what relationship she had with them before was not worth weeping for. Soon afterwards the Pastor baptized her in a simple ceremony.”
She leaned forward slightly.
“The church took care of her. Soon, even some short evening prayer sessions were held in her compound. The church got her a young maid to stay with her and paid the maid handsomely too. The church also gave the old woman a monthly allowance. They actually gave her money! Can you imagine that? She is by far, so much richer than eighty-nine percent of the church’s members, who gave money regularly to their church for nothing back in return. Still the church paid only her bills.”
She cleared her throat thunderously and made a face.
“She became ill again. She was so ill this time that the Doctor said there was not much he could do for her. She was just too old and getting older. She was returned home from a second sojourn in the private clinic. The young maid left while she was in the clinic, so I came into the picture when a member of the Pastor’s congregation told me about the job. No one who was approached wanted the job. I already had a morning job at the government general hospital. But when it was agreed that I can manage both jobs and I will cost them much less because I will not be working full time, I started.
“It was established that the old woman is always cared for by her married female tenants during the day and as such, I was to stay with her from the late evenings till dawn. Since in the mornings and afternoon she was cared for; when the women weren’t too caught up in their other daily chores, I naturally assumed that I would just have little to do for her while I was there. Little did I know that I couldn’t have been more wrong in my assessment of the work laid down ahead for me. To think that the old dying lizard had so much money hidden away all this while, was such a rude revelation. No one knew but me, I am certain of this! But that is not why I thought of killing her.”
Emerald green reigns the being,
Capable being all living green.
To scavengers’ bin cometh sin,
To prey lean the unwary being.
The maid unfolded her wrapper once more and wiped her shiny perspiring face with the edge of the wrapper, and then she let it fall off over her right hip, letting it hang there.
“She didn’t know I knew about the money. I wanted the money. Oh how I wanted that money. No one deserved the money as much as I did. No one! The Pastor came around mostly during the day. He stayed around to talk, preach, pray and he brought her loads of books too. Often he will give her the Holy Communion feast. She joked that even the Holy Communion wine was a sort of medicine because it tasted like cough syrup. I almost never saw the Pastor but for my pay days, when I had to go over to the church to collect it.”
The maid sipped some more of the water. She looked down in the faint light and paused before replacing the cup on the ground. She now had two moist cup imprints ringed on the floor beside her stool. She ignored the fresh one, retraced the older almost dried one with the cup and carefully sets it down again.
“I knew I had to be careful. Yes, she was old and very ill. She was a dead body with some life still loitering about in it. Her body became stiffer as the months dragged. The smell grew worse. I was sure something was spoilt and rotten inside her. ‘She will die any day now,’ I told myself. But what if she got worse and is taken to the hospital and she dies there. I would have no reason to be in her house after that.”
She sat back and looked away briefly.
“I knew the Doctor still visits her and could have taken her back to his clinic anytime he considered it necessary. I wanted no one to see me when I carried the money away. Since no one knew about the money, I wanted it to remain so. I planned to go to work…her place, with a very big bag. She must be dead before I move a single note from where she hid the money. I had worked it all out and planned it carefully.”
She picked up the cup beside her and drank up all the water left in the cup. She didn’t return the cup to the ground immediately. She just held on to it, like her slow story.
“There was the Yoruba lady and the two elderly men from the Mosque to consider. I had to plan it well. I could have poisoned her but I had no idea how fast the poison will work. I didn’t want her to die while I was away. If I tried to get the money while she was alive, she could very likely see me because she rarely slept while I was there.”
With two swift simultaneous movements of both her chubby arms, she handed over the cup to the person seated closest to her and at the same time folded her wrapper back into its unusually common right-hip place, with her right hand.
“I had to plan it well. I couldn’t stab her of course; maybe strangle her, if I dared. But I will be doing everyone a favour by putting her out of her pains and misery. Her family will be put out of its shame, the church will get the house it can’t wait to get its hands on, while I was to get all that plentiful free and loose money she had stashed away. I deserved that money, no one but me. I worked it out carefully for days. It had to look very real. One early Monday morning I left her house knowing she would be dead in a day or so, and I was so right.”
She leaned forward, this time resting both her elbows and flattened fore-arms on her thighs. She seemed to roll up like she had stomach pains. She merely concentrated in talking.
“When I got to the old woman’s house early that evening, I had my largest bag with me. Her room smelt like someone had brought back the dead rat. She had eased herself on the mat, right there on the floor, where her female tenants must have placed her at her request. She had eased both her bladder and bowel all over her body, completely ignoring the bed pan beside her, in her innocence and helpless disability.
“I was glad they had moved her from the bed, where I had left her before leaving in the morning. Ordinarily I would have complained because I was certain there was a conspiracy amongst the tenants against me. I always struggled alone to put her back into bed, that was why I wasn’t keen on having her put on the mat. They all knew this but persisted. This once though, I was glad they moved her as I cleaned her up and her mess.”
She paused with a hardened expression and a brief silence noticeably passed like a reflex shiver among the small group. Then she half-yawned as she straightened up in her low seat.
“Her senility had reached an advanced stage. She was so stiff she couldn’t move her fingers to hold properly. I wasn’t sorry for what I was about to do. I refused to think of good and God. I just cleaned the floor and the whole room like always did. I gave her her meal and more out of habit than anything else; I mashed and mixed her drugs into the food. She ate all of it. ‘Your last supper,’ I said without even feeling bad about it.”
She exaggeratedly blinked, repeatedly in quick succession. It was all of a sudden as if she couldn’t wait to say it all.
“Late that evening the Yoruba lady came into the room as usual, she did her business and left. Then the old woman started to talk. She told me about her village, her mother, her brothers and all her friends…. I listened patiently without interrupting her. I was so tired. We had scrubbed the entire general hospital’s wards, where I worked mornings. The Doctors had resumed work that same day, after many months on an industrial strike action. There is no telling how many people died as a direct result of that long medical unions’ strike. We had to clean the whole hospital and I was so very tired. I soon dozed off. When I woke up, I could hear someone sweeping in the compound outside. It was morning! Oh God, I had over slept.”
She paused momentarily, not really to quickly look round at her very attentive listeners; which she still did, but to rest her mouth.
“I looked at the old woman on her high old fashioned green metal caged bed, where I had put her back with much difficulty the night before, as usual. Her eyes were shut and she had a smile on her lips. She must have been dreaming. It was too late for me to do anything then, I mused. ‘Tomorrow,’ I thought. I opened the windows and saw that it will be light soon and I must be at work on time. With the Doctors back now, we had to be at our best behaviour. You don’t play with government jobs these days because they don’t come by easily anymore”
She giggled alone at the honest fact she had just made.
“I didn’t even bother to change the clothes I had on. I left her sound asleep, grabbed my big bag and hurriedly left for work. I greeted a tenant as I walked out; it was an Igbo woman sweeping outside and I left the compound. About twenty yards or so from the house, I didn’t even cringe emotionally as I meaningfully said to the old woman in my mind, ‘Tomorrow!’”
For a short moment the sparkle left her eyes and she looked sad. Realizing this she looked away, but not quick enough to hide the fact that her disappointment was all too evident.
“I turned to look at the old woman’s house just before I turned round into the next street. I saw the two elderly men from the Mosque entering the old woman’s compound. I stopped when I realized that they hadn’t seen me. In my haste I forgot to wait for them before leaving and they will wonder where I was. I made to return, and then thought against it. I figured there was no need since they would meet the Igbo woman sweeping on their way in. ‘She will tell them I just left,’ I comforted myself and hurried away to make good time for work.”
As the skies darkened and the buzz of the mosquitoes over head began to faintly usher in their impending foray into the tropical evening outdoor gathering, the mood in the setting was wholly entrapped in that one female voice moulding it.
“The next evening I arrived with my largest bag again. There was no one about in the compound when I entered. All the tenants were in their rooms watching an international soccer match involving our over-hyped up senior national soccer team. The front door to the old woman’s rooms was locked up. My heart skipped a beat. Her door was never locked.”
She shifted in her low seat.
“I knocked on the next tenant’s door with some urgency. The Igbo woman, I left sweeping that morning when I left for work, appeared at the door. She was surprised to see me. ‘Ah! You have come?’ she exclaimed. ‘The old woman died just after you left this morning,’ she said excitedly. My heart missed another beat, this time I felt a slight pain as it metaphorically dropped.”
She shrugged the way only African women do and the latest click that is heard from her conspires to purely accidentally synchronize with the sudden joining in of the early crickets, as they brought in their louder shrill sounds into the tropical evening’s outdoor gathering’s sing-songs for all insects.
“The Igbo woman told me how the two elderly men from the Mosque came to see the old woman just after I left. I didn’t tell her I saw them. She went on to tell me how one of them stayed behind with the old woman while the other one briefly stepped outside the compound, apparently on some errant.”
More crickets legged in and complimented the music of the consciously visible lively breeze of mosquitoes floating over the heads of the gathered people. This left the people no choice but to swing their arms heaven-wards as would conductors of this impromptu tropical orchestra and choir, playing away to the discomfort of the beautiful evening’s outdoor gathering.
“The Igbo woman went on to tell me how she could hear the two of them talking. That is, the elderly man that stayed behind and the old woman. Though she didn’t hear much of the old woman’s weak voice, but she heard the man’s voice clearly. He did most of the talking. She usually would have.”
She chuckled as a short burst of hisses and claps rang round the gathering. This caused a brief lull in the insects’ noise as the tropical orchestra music is forcibly stanza-ed.
“‘Shortly,’ she went on. ‘The other man returned with fruits in a bag, much too big for that purpose. He went straight into the old woman’s rooms. He was away only briefly and I was bathing my son by the tap when he returned. He even gave my child a banana.’ She was adamant that she didn’t see them leave.”
The maid suddenly belched loudly.
“She told me how she had entered the old woman’s rooms to greet her and see if she wanted something. ‘When she didn’t answer my calls from the sitting room, I thought she was asleep so I entered her bedroom and the moment I saw her, I knew she was dead. Her eyes were closed and she had a fixed smile on her face. It looked like she was dreaming.’ She said there was a peeled banana in the old woman’s right palm as it lay lifeless beside her. My heart skipped a third beat, the pain I felt lingered as I went home a sad person that evening. This was my first night at home in months but I didn’t sleep. I couldn’t sleep.”
She looked around at the discerning looks returned at her. She grinned and a glossy white slit showed and split her mouth as her dark lips parted, revealing strong white teeth.
“The very next afternoon, after work I went to see the Pastor at his joint place of work and residence. He excitedly told me how they sent someone to him from the old woman’s house with the news of her death. He didn’t know the loudness in his voice gave away his excitement because he tried to keep a solemn expression on his face. She was buried that same day, like a true Muslim would have been; which she ironically isn’t any more.”
She smiled intelligently; or tried to, like most people try to do when they are pleased with a smart remark they just made. A silly thing we manage to keep repeating always.
“She was summarily buried with a very short grave-side service conducted by the Pastor. He told me this with such pride, as if I should be proud when he should be ashamed he was. He went ahead to thank me for a job well done and gave me two months’ full pay in advance, even though it was only a week into the new month and I had only worked a few days of it.”
She smiled again, in her refreshingly beautiful way.
“I went by the old woman’s house just last weekend. The Mosque has been completed! There is a big thick rug on the smooth ceramic tiled floor. It now has huge glass windows fitted in and four massive wooden doors, a spotlessly white ceiling, lots of ceiling fans and a very loud amplified speakers’ system. I could see all that from the street, since all the doors and windows were wide open. A tenant I met by chance told me the Church had already sold the old woman’s house! It is not yet two months after her death and that house she had been so proud of has been sold out to complete strangers.
She scoffs with contempt.
“I saw the Yoruba lady too. She said the new landlord doesn’t collect any money from her, but simply lets her do her trade undisturbed. Everyone is happy now…. I think. The Church people are happy, the Mosque people are happy, the Yoruba lady and the old woman’s folks are equally happy, the old woman is deadly happy and I am too. Yes! I am! I really am!”
No one argued, but she didn’t look happy and frowns. She laughed her short laugh with her forehead lined up with thought. It said so much for her feelings at that moment.
“You see, I had prayed and thank God for the turn in events. The guilt would have killed me. I am happy because I kept my innocence. But…! Does the old woman get her heaven?”
The late old woman’s maid sat back and shut her eyes. It is obvious that she had finished the story, but no one moved or spoke. The tropical choir continues to moan a low humming tune outside the seated people’s conscious notice, as the night quietly pulls out its dark sleeping blanket overhead.
“That is presumably the ultimately proper destination?”
In the semi-silence ignored by every personal thought in the small gathering seated round her, the old woman’s maid still spoke. Her emotion laden voice sounded as if only to itself, but still quite audible in the hushed attentiveness.
“Do any of us get this heaven?”
Who makes the most noise
And is as dirty in his poise?
Who soils his needs as toys
And spoils all his ego hoist?
History itself nourished,
It might’ve thus been humbled.
In her need she’s again banished
And her steered nurses, all bundled.
Seasons are overlapped famished,
All the shaft and wheat are rumpled.
Her senile stroll is beautifully enriched
And for nothing else, her maids are long rustled.