Life and Death by Teninlanimi Owolabi

Nine.

Nine mouths to feed, excluding her own.

That is what Papa left behind.

No money, no wealth, no land.

Only nine open mouths attached to malnourished, searching faces.

She watched the mouths tremble at her father’s funeral. She watched them wail in sadness, call the name of the man lying in the casket.

Her mother wailed the loudest. She had cried from the minute Papa’s body slammed to the ground in their kitchen, until now. Her will to mourn is unstoppable, she is an endless stream of tears.

Peace, on the other hand, stood stone faced, watching them from afar, thinking mostly of how she desperately needed a cigarette.

Peace works in numbers.

This is how she has learned to survive for the past 17 years. She always had to determine how much rice each person must eat for their bellies to be sustained and for the food to last the next day. She counted how many inches her siblings had grown so she could add more material to their already worn out school uniform for the next year. She also counted how many hours her father was gone at a stretch. What percentage of that time Mama spent crying. The number of times Peace had to find a way to provide the food for the family.

They cry as though they have forgotten.

Like they don’t remember those times that Papa coloured Mama’s body with bruises. As though they don’t remember how he was always with some other woman. They forget how he treated them like ants that he wished to stomp and extinguish.

They cry as though they have lost something.

They say “My father is dead! My father is dead!” as though Peace has not been their father for all their lives.

She spits at their ingratitude.

Peace just wants to leave her family and smoke, but she must start counting. She must count how many times they will be allowed to eat now that their source of income has been extinguished. She must count how many of them must leave school in order to save money. She counts how many hours she must work to feed those nine open mouths.

She watches the pastor law a tentative hand on Mama’s shoulder. He surveys the damage of the weeping family before him, capturing the image in his head and storing the story within an archive in his mind, ready to be whipped out during a sermon on a hot Sunday morning.

How will he begin?

Maybe he will start with how he officiated their wedding. Tell of how something in his spirit told him that their union would only bear rotten fruit. He had warned Bola, but her greed, her open mouth, wanted something that was not for her. Back in the day Tunde was the most handsome man Pastor had seen, his dark skin which was nearly the colour of coal and his structured jaw made him the most desired man in their little village at the time. Even now looking over his bloated, cold body you can spot remnants of a past beauty, evidence of something lost long ago. Bola was a plain girl with a common face. How could she refuse when Tunde took an interest in her? She was possessed by greed. She married against God’s will and look at the consequences…

Or maybe Pastor should begin with Tunde’s promiscuity. How he used his deep voice and sly smile to catch every woman in the village. Tunde’s eyes were a form of bondage. When he wanted to, he would hold a woman in a trans so deep that she would be lost. Only for her to suddenly wake up with their hymen missing and their panties on the floor. Or so the story goes. How many times had Pastor been begged to deliver a girl from the stronghold of Tunde? Baptize them in anointed oil to get rid of his stench? Tunde had harmed many girls with his looseness and his death was simply their retribution. God always avenges his children.

Or maybe he should start later than that, begin in the depth of Bola and Tunde’s turbulent marriage. Speak of how Tunde wounded his wife by his hands and died by God’s. Love your wife as Christ loves the church, he will say. He will purposely shift his eyes to men sitting next to wives who were using scarves to hide brutal stains from their husband’s violence.

Here, Pastor thinks to himself, are so many lessons that the Forever United in Christs’ Dominion church could learn from.

Sade, Bola’s sister, is thinking something along the same lines. Here, she says to herself, is a tragedy. She feels as though a hurricane has passed through the family, the kind that happens in exotic lands like Hawaii. Ones which are in equal parts interesting and horrifying.

Sade had shaved her sister’s hair for her, three days after Tunde died.

Like an Igbo woman, Bola said she no longer wanted it, all her pride disappeared with her husband and to symbolize this, all her hair must go too. Handing her one of the boys’ clippers, Bola sat between Sade’s legs just like she had done when she cornrowed her hair as children. As Sade felt the buzz of the clipper between her fingers and saw the tufts of wooly soft hair fall unto the floor like ripe apples, Sade could not but think about what would happen if she just took the razor down to her sister’s neck and sliced through it. Sade relished the thought, the burst of blood that will suddenly arrive, the thud of her sister’s heavy body on the cold hard concrete and finally the sound of silence due to the absence of Bola’s sobs.

This was not the first time Sade had imagined killing her sister. She had fantasized about it for years after Bola stole Tunde away from her.

Sade and Tunde’s marriage, many said, was already written. There were no two people in the village more destined for each other than the two. They were both distinctively beautiful, too beautiful for anyone else in the village and they were always drawn to each other like lost souls. Tunde even called Sade “My wife” for as long as she could remember. She played up to the name, often at his arm and always cooking for him. Her parents encouraged it, they were so proud that their daughter would be married to such a handsome man.

Tunde told her frequently how much he loved her, often over a bowl of amala and ewedu soup. All the same she dreamt of their wedding day, of the clothes the guests will wear, of her own garments. She had pictured the events so often in her mind it seemed as though it had already happened.

But, soon the love ran dry and Tunde stopped speaking to her. He rejected her meals and the invitations to her house. He flung her from his arm and shouted at her to stop following him. Sade remembers how much she cried, how she wept in her mother’s arms and her friends’ arms and Bola’s arms. Bola, that snake, had stroked her hair softly, and used her sweet tongue to tell lies to make her feel better. Her words like honey, dropped soothingly into Sade’s ears.

“He still loves you. He even told me yesterday of how much he loves you. This time will pass and your love will emerge stronger”

All the while Bola knew.

Bola whose belly was growing heavy with his child, knew that he had distanced himself because of her.

Soon, the symptoms of Bola’s pregnancy grew too obvious for Mama. She, who had been pregnant up to 12 times knew the gait of a woman with child. She had tugged and twisted Bola’s ears until blood threatened to pour out. Sade remembers watching Bola heave with tears as Mama prodded the name of the child’s father out of her. Sade’s heart wrenched when she heard her lover’s name.

“Tunde. Tunde, Tunde, Tunde”.

Sade does not know if it was the guilt or the fear or the pain, but Bola shook and spat his name like it was a curse.

Mama and Papa dragged Bola to Tunde’s house and Papa threatened to shoot him if he did not marry Bola. Everyone knew Papa was telling the truth, he was crazy like that. They were married before Bola’s belly began to show.

When Tunde announced that he was marrying Bola, the village was puzzled. Bola, ugly and scaly like a lizard, slow and stupid like a goat. What spell had she cast on him to drag him to her? How had she done what no other girl could do? Many warned her not to go through with it, they tried to knock sense into Tunde. People cried at his doorstep, offered him money to marry their daughters, promised him the world. Still, they got married on a lazy afternoon in July, before a reluctant pastor and a confused congregation.

As Sade stood next to Bola at the altar, forced into being her maid of honour, all feelings for Tunde soured. He became just as ugly, if not uglier than Bola. His smooth dark skin began to resemble dung and looking at him only made her want to gauge out his eyes.

Anyway, you must be wondering how Sade forgave her sister? Why is she now, standing like a soldier at her side, feeding her children and taking care of her household? Sade had gotten her revenge. She, not too long ago had gotten her fill of Tunde at the expense of her sister, on a Saturday night in a dingy hotel just outside Lagos. Watching her sister mourn her dead husband only made the revenge sweeter, as she recalled how Tunde had told her that she was a hundred times better than Bola. Sade relished it and she relished even more the idea of her smell lingering on Tunde, of Bola suddenly catching it as he passed by, of being the cause of her insecurity. Now, even at the funeral, Sade cannot help but smile at the aftermath of this hurricane. At the family falling to pieces, unable to pick themselves back up and rebuild. As she does this she feels that she is being watched, she turns to see cold hard eyes shielded by oval glasses watching her patiently. Sade frowns and walks past the skinny man, brushing him slightly.

It is odd how Sade did not remember Ben and walks past him like a stranger. Maybe he looks different. Perhaps it’s the grey hair that’s rising prematurely out of his head. Or maybe it’s his amassing beard clinging to his face. Most likely it’s the glasses, everyone said he looked different with the glasses on. Tunde had screamed this when they met up but a month ago for drinks, on the outskirts of Lagos. Ben offered to just meet in the village despite the fact that he knew Tunde would refuse. Tunde took any excuse to be as close to the city as possible. That is where is heart was, beating to the rhythm of the traffic in Lagos. When they were children they dreamt about escaping to Lagos. They told each other made up stories while sitting side by side under the mango tree. They imagined Lagos and its beauty- the epitome of civilization, so unlike the lazy planes of their quiet village. Lagos is dynamic, dramatic and somewhere within its fast pace lied their dream.

“Lagos, Lagos, Lagos”

They spoke about the city so often it began to sound like their names.

Now Ben hates Lagos, he would give anything to relocate back to the village, but his wife would never allow. She is an embodiment of the city, a high-powered lawyer who has little time for anything other than her work- she moves at the speed of light, on the phone 24/7, commandeering any room she walks into. Ben looks at Tunde’s widow, how though she cries she moves so slowly, like she is unaware that the clock is moving, and the day is leaking away. Ben wishes he could go back to the village and live his life in slow motion like her.

Once, during their meetings Tunde had joked that they should swap lives, before laughing bitterly. Ben could not help but feel like a constant reminder to Tunde of his failures, of a golden life that could have been. This is why Ben always makes sure to tell Tunde about the stressful things of Lagos, the plume of black smoke that resides in the air, the noise that never seems to leave, the extortionate prices! This, Ben soon realised only made Tunde want Lagos more, he wanted to complain like a Lagosian- of the pollution and the prices.

When he was too drunk to swallow his pride, Tunde cried about his missed opportunity. He would fall into his friend’s arms and recount the worst day of his life. Ben remembers it well too -

How they had sat in the hot classroom, sharing a desk. The rest of the class screamed and played- but those two were locked in anxiety. They had both jumped at the opportunity to take the scholarship exam that was presented to the class a few months ago.

“Scholarship positions for two boys in Tafawa Balewa Boys’ Academy Lagos” The teacher had mentioned at the front of the class “Everyone interested should write their name down so we can bring the exam papers”

Tunde called the teacher’s words prophecy.

“We are the two boys Ben!” He had said after school “Ah Olorun, Ese oh!” he said his blessings to God “Thank God that he has given us this opportunity, he has finally answered our prayers Ben!”

Ben tried to swallow his excitement, his expectations. In a quiet voice he explained to his louder friend that scholarship exams are competitive and hard, neither of them was top of their class, in fact Tunde always narrowly escaped being dead bottom.

“Ben oh ye of little faith” Tunde shook his head “God has given us this opportunity for a reason, we will pass, as long as we study!”

Ben took his words and they both took to their books. Never in his life had Ben seen Tunde so focused and determined, every day after school, solving equations and writing essays. Ben was assured they would both get in and daydreamed about their shared room in the dormitories at Tafawa Balewa Boys’ Academy.

That is why on that hot day, they sat in their classroom, furnished with a few thirty desks, a bare cement door and missing doors and they held each other’s hands under the desk, shaking so badly they needed support.

The teacher entered the classroom, accompanied by the headmaster, whose name Ben forgets now, but remembers they called him Mr Frog head behind his back. Mr Froghead sported a smile so wide you could see his spaced, blackening teeth. He was so obviously excited he is sweating often taking his handkerchief to wipe his face. Then he stood as tall as he could at 5’’2 and announced:

“Two students from this class have successfully gained the scholarship to an academy in Lagos”

Ben and Tunde’s hands tightened

“I would like those boys to stand up and come to the front so I can congratulate them, they are moving on to better things”

Both of them readied their feet to stand.

“Segun and Benjamin, rise, come to the front and collect your handshake!” The head teacher announced

Ben did not get up, his hand remained clasped in Tunde’s, who was only squeezing tighter and tighter. Segun, who was sitting at the back of the class was already at the front by the time their class teacher walked to Ben and asked him to stop being rude and stand up. Tunde, slowly released his hand and though initially shocked gave a silent smile and clapped with the rest of the children. Ben stood and walked to the front to receive the handshake, eerily cautious of the bleeding half-moons Tunde’s fingernails had left on his palm.

Tunde understandably stayed away for a while, in order to mourn the death of his dream. This, stole all the sweetness away from moving. While his family celebrated and everyone in the village treated him like a celebrity, all Ben could think about was Tunde, alone in the village without him.

He did not see Tunde until the night before he left for school, when he lay down on his mat watching the dancing shadow the candle made on the ceiling. Tunde’s knock on the window had startled him. He unlatched the window and allowed Tunde to fall in, reeking of alcohol.

Tunde had hugged him and cried until he threw up on the floor and told Ben how much he would miss his best friend, then promised to write every day and swore that he would make it to Lagos, just wait and see.

Now, watching the grave diggers pour soil atop his casket, Ben feels the burden of failure and loss. He wonders that maybe if he had abandoned the scholarship, begged for Tunde to have it instead, maybe things would have been different and now they would both have both been happy. Perhaps Tunde would not have died of the mysterious illness that had taken his life.

Ben catches sight of Segun who stood, across from him on the other side of the grave. They nodded at each other, having grown close as the only two village boys in their Lagos Secondary School.

Segun knew immediately that Lagos life was not for him, and when he was still a nobler fellow he dreamt of building a state of the art hospital for his village full of world class nurses and doctors and settle there.

Now he works in Ibadan, a one-hour drive from the village. The villagers frequent his hospital whenever they are very sick. They shower greetings and blessings upon him when they see him at special request-

“Our doctor!” They exclaim

He nods in respect and laughs at their jokes, he treats their malaria and their typhoid. He prescribes drugs and orders the nurses to get extra water to make them feel special. Then at the end of their visit, they are surprised when they see the bill, expecting for some reason a discount or free treatment from him as though Segun owned the hospital. Segun, whose salary is barely enough to feed his family.

The worst of all his patients was this man lying in the casket now. Segun saw him often, as the man was usually plagued with one STD or another. At some point Segun had slapped a pile of condoms into his hand, saying:

“If you must be unfaithful to your wife, at least spare me the cost of it. Using these will stop all the infections from happening”

Tunde had enthusiastically slapped the back of the doctor

“AH! Our doctor oh, you are too smart. You mean to say if I wear it, none of this will happen to me again?”

Segun rolled his eyes and nodded, then proceeded to use the banana he had brought with him to demonstrate its use. While he did, Tunde “ooohed” and “aaahed”. Then he blessed God for the miracle of science. Segun was glad to see and hear this enthusiastic display, at least it meant that he would not see Tunde with mangled genitals again. That was until Tunde arrived two weeks later with yet another STD.

“Why didn’t you use the condoms I gave you? Did they finish? You can buy them in the shop you know?”

Tunde had laughed “Yes our doctor, I know- but when I went to church on Sunday, the pastor he preached that using rubber- eh, I mean condom- is sin”

Segun could not hold his laughter. Tunde, lost to the irony laughed with him cautiously. When Segun could finally pull himself up to wipe his tears and speak, he said-

“So, you will refrain from the sin of using contraception, while you commit the sin of adultery? You are truly stupid”

Segun had never spoken this way to Tunde before, but when he said this, the vein in the front of Tunde’s head grew so large he was afraid it might emerge and crawl off his head.

“Because you went to school and university, you think you’re smarter than me eh?” Tunde spat “Look at you with all your talk about condom yet even your wife refuses to use it when she sleeps with me”

With that he stormed out of the door, leaving Segun wondering whether he was bluffing or telling the truth.

Segun stands here at the funeral in the place of his wife, who suddenly said she could not go because their daughter is sick. Now looking back on it, Segun thinks that perhaps she did not want to go because she did not want to show any excess emotion for a man she has supposedly no relationship with. Now Segun is thinking about the logistics of it all. How did they meet to sleep with each other when his wife lived in the city and Tunde lived in the village? Was that what she was doing on all those long trips to the market? Segun thinks on it as he begins his long walk towards the site where he parked his car.

Yewande watches him from her seat beside the window of her house. He is nothing but a fading figure in the distance, but watching him now, tall, large with a perplexed look on his face, it is hard for Yewande to believe he was that boy who played in her house with Tunde when they were babies. If only Yemisi, her closest friend, had lived to see what her son, Segun had grown up to be. She would be proud. Yewande on the other hand, cried silently in disappointment. That is all her son was. Tunde was a disappointment and if only she had seen this in life, maybe she could have prevented this shameful death. If she had not brushed his hair and whispered to him how he was the most handsome man in all the world, if she had not blown on his hot food and fed it to him, if she had not fought his father whenever he wanted to spank him. Maybe the boy would have been driven. But who could blame her? Tunde blossomed in her womb and silenced the rumors that it was an empty drum. Tunde, her first born, her son; the boy who made her husband start loving her again, who returned her life to sweet honey and delicious fragrance. She still remembers how his dark skin shone when they placed him in her arms after ten hours of labour. The pride and joy of her life, her greatest achievement.

She remembers now and regrets how he outshone the girls in her eyes. How his boyishness and charm eclipsed her daughters’ prizes, scholarships, graduations. Now she sees them in their full glory, an array of beauty and grace. They hold on to their families in one hand and degrees in the other. Tunde, he could hold on to none. She thinks of all of her girls: Kehinde and Taiwo, who crowned her Iya Ibeji (mother of twins); Yinka, the scientist who now resides in the UK and Funke whose creativity has won her more awards than even Yewande knows.

Her girls, with poise, grace and kindness now all encircle Tunde’s widow, embracing her and comforting her as best they can.

“Our sister” they say “Please, stop crying. Your husband has returned to God, he has gone to heaven”

Oh, what wonderful women, if only they knew that Bola was crying for joy! Her tiny body cannot contain her happiness, so it flows out of her in the form of tears. She is a prisoner whose judge, warden and prison have just crumbled and died. This whole bulk of a man, weighing over a 200 kg, as tall as a tree- he had fallen at the hands of nine drops of rat poison. Yes, Bola had killed him with the same concoction used to kill vermin, because that is what he deserves. When planning his death, she realised that it must be shameful, it must be hilarious, it must make her laugh.

Now she laughs, when her head is bowed, and she is ‘crying’, she is really laughing so hard tears drip from her eyes.

Bola cannot believe she finally did it. When she was called to visit him at the morgue, she was afraid those eyelids would lift to reveal his bulging crazed eyes. But now, now that he is beneath a heap of sand he is officially gone. She had fantasized about killing him, ever since he raped her on the day after her twentieth birthday. She had just had a party, Sade had invited him. Bola throughout the day had been wary of his dark eyes that followed her like moths, waiting to devour her skin. She did not breathe until he left mid-way into the party with one of Bola’s friends who had excitedly winked at her as she left. Bola had looked sympathetically at Sade who watched silently as the man she loved made off to sleep with another woman. They would marry anyway, Bola noted, though she didn’t know why Sade would ever want to marry such a piece of scum. Bola knew who she wanted to marry, Peter, her classmate, who kissed her softly and read poems to her. He was so superficially romantic that he melted Bola’s twenty-year-old heart.

Tunde raped her in her room in broad daylight. He’d frequented her house with Sade enough to know when her father was visiting the farm, her mother was at the market and Sade at tailoring school. He had waltzed through the front entrance, like he owned the house and he had caught her lying on her mat, reminiscing about the party the day before. He had asked her casually to sleep with him, ignoring her question about what he was doing there.

Bola explained herself, like she had to give a sensible reason why she would not. She told about her sister’s love for him and her own allegiance to Peter.

Her words fell on deaf ears, as Tunde forced himself upon her anyway.

She remembers how she was impregnated immediately, how she had begged Peter to pretend the child was his, just for him to turn and with speed spread the rumor that she was a whore.

It is painful to remember, she will not do so on this happy occasion.

Instead she will remember the birth of her baby girl. Her Peace, who had been born in the time of trouble, who was the only reason she continued to live. She thought about her other children, the days they were born, how they always seemed to make the pain she was going through worthwhile. It was with the memory of them, of their future that she killed him. She had poured each drop for the nine of them- for their triumph, for their retribution.

Now, this man that had beaten her and stripped her of her pride had finally fallen at her hands. She shaved her head, along with her shame and her pain. She looks at her wailing children, how they beg for their father to be reformed from the dust poured upon him. They will understand the good she has done for them when they are older, when they are rich and powerful, when they are strong and intelligent. Now, they do not know about how he was slowly drinking of the inheritance money her father had placed for her in his house. How he would enter silently in the bright day light and tiptoe behind the blind man to eat of his labour. When Bola caught him, she knew that she had to kill him. The money is enough to feed them and to educate them. Bola will work as a hairdresser, to earn more for them. But for now they must wait until the appointed time, when it does not look suspicious, so they can relocate to Lagos and begin a new life there. Where she will finally breathe the air of a place that is not laden with her pain. Then she will stand tall with all her children surrounding her and she will watch them achieve things their father could not even dream of.

In