Egobi knew her husband was a thief, a man who stole a calabash full of palm-wine and hid it inside his sooty roof, a man who stole a wooden hoe, dug the ground with it and threw the farm implement into the ground and closed it with his stubby legs. Chikelu had stolen almost everything he ever saw: yam seedlings, peppers, vegetables, a pot of steaming Egwusi soup from his neighbors.
Although his wife could not stop him, she always wondered who would marry her daughters, children of a thieving father. She would visit her husband in the night to have him fondle her body, and the next night she was in another man’s house to get pregnant. She called this act “a permission to clear the bush for a better plantation.” This was what she did, or tried to do, to get her three daughters.
The first daughter resembled her man, tall and light-skinned, with a nose pinched at the sides, and Egobi was very happy for this. The second daughter was a mistake as far as Egobi was concerned. The girl looked like Chikelu, dark and short with crimpy knees, because he had insisted that Egobi would never go out at nights anymore to fetch her midnight snails, an excuse she gave so as to sneak into her man’s house to get pregnant. So Chikelu was able to empty his entire self into her, and the result was a second daughter with eyes that never opened wide, and skin the colour of midnight, and teeth that clamped together in her dark gums to struggle for space in her large mouth with heavy, droopy lips.
Egobi was saddened for this ugly species, and kept the daughter under her roof, never went to farm with her. She had even stayed indoors throughout the pregnancy period, so nobody knew except Chikelu. When the girl grew up, Egobi punished her with domestic duties: fetch the firewood, cook the food, feed the goats, sweep the compound, wash the plates, wash the clothes, weed the garden, guard the brooding hens so the eggs would not break, clean the cobwebs off the roofs.
She was even ashamed to let her own mother know she had given birth to a second daughter, and the mother always thought the girl was a nanny who neither noticed nor interpreted the movement of her shadows because she was too busy to look around herself.
And the third daughter? She was her man’s look-alike, just like the first daughter. Egobi couldn’t wait, couldn’t be muzzled to stay at home any longer. She had slunk to the man’s house one silent afternoon, knocked furtively on the wooden gate. He opened it, took her into his hut and slept with her on his raffia mat.
Chikelu always wondered why he had a brood of daughters with different complexions, whether his thefts had been responsible for this, perhaps a punishment from the gods. But he would not stop stealing.
Egobi came home one day and discovered that three of her eggs were missing. She always counted them before going out in the morning, and recounted when she came back. She did not want Chikelu to steal them, too.
“Ugly-Tortoise,” Egobi called the second daughter. That was what she called her.
“Yes mother, nne m,” Ugly-Tortoise answered, and came into the pen where the mother stood, wondering what must have happened to the eggs. The hen in question was there too, poor hen, sitting on the remaining eggs. Sometimes the hen croaked to mourn the missing eggs, an act that aggravated Egobi’s anger, frustrated her, because she had already promised her man five chickens out of the eight that would have been available for hatching. She would let Ugly-Tortoise grow the rest for sales.
“Three eggs are missing here,” Egobi said, grimaced, pointing down at the hen.
“Three eggs?” Ugly-Tortoise said, grimaced too.
“I asked you, and don’t ask me back.” Egobi slapped her.
“I don’t know what has happened to the eggs,” Ugly-Tortoise said, sobbing, bent down to clean her eyes with the hem of her thick wrapper, which ended several inches above her knees. Crying was very easy for her. It was something that baffled her siblings because they had concluded that a woman that looked like a man should behave like a man, should not cry like a woman. Ugly-Tortoise was male, according to them, and should never cry anyhow, but she did, always.
“I saw eight eggs in the morning; now I can see only five. Ugly-Tortoise, tell me what you know about the eggs. Did your father come back home in the afternoon to steal them?”
“I don’t know.”
She slapped her again. “You must know. Ugly-Tortoise, I said you must know because you are the only one at home.”
“Nne, I swear. Eziokwu m nile, maka chukwu. I don’t know anything about the eggs.”
Egobi grew weak. She started to examine the mouths of the goats tethered in the front row of the pen. Perhaps, the goats had begun to chew raw eggs. It was very easy for her to open the mouths of the she-goats, but the he-goats would not let her. She simply kicked their stomachs and cursed them for behaving so obstinate like her husband, Chikelu.
But the goats could not have eaten the eggs, she knew. Ugly-Tortoise fed them well with palm fronds and ogbu leaves and fresh green reeds, so the goats would not have grown so hungry and angry to extend their mouths to the back of the pen, unseat the brooding hen and chew the raw eggs.
Egobi was vaguely sure that Chikelu could not have done it, either. He had been sent a fortnight ago to the village borders to help catch thieves that came from a neighbouring village to steal corns and yams and coconuts from the farms. She had smiled when Chikelu informed her of the mission, because it sounded funny that the village sent a thief to catch thieves. She still considered the possibility of Chikelu tiptoeing into the pen from the borders to steal the eggs. But the border was far from the village centre where they lived.
Then she remembered another threat: snakes. But snakes could not have been the culprits, she thought. She placed her left hand on her lower jaw and looked up at the pen roof, searching for snakes, because the last time a snake had visited the pen at night, Chikelu sighted it on top of the roof and killed it. She looked down to search for spoors of a snake visit or departure, but found nothing.
“It can’t have been snakes,” she burst out, and wondered if maybe the hen had pecked on the eggs and drunk them. If the hen had done so, Egobi thought, the empty pieces of eggshells would have been scattered on the ground. And the hen had been vindicated, too, because there were no eggshells, and the hen had brooded on the eggs for two weeks, and new chicks had grown inside them.
Just then, her third daughter strolled into the pen, holding a small calabash of uli which she had used to decorate her eyelids, chest and cheeks, wondering why her mother’s face was a stream of filthy, unsettled water – so uninviting with bold dots of sweat.
“Mother, what’s the problem,” the third daughter asked, and sneered at Ugly-Tortoise who never behaved as though someone had walked in.
“There is a big problem here, Nneka,” Egobi said.
She called her Nneka – mother is more precious – and had forced Chikelu, who detested the name, to accept it. He had reasoned that the name was too provocative and condescending for him because it questioned his fatherhood as though father was not precious, too; the name rendered his status as the head of the house valueless. “Mother is more precious than what?” Chikelu always contested. But Egobi insisted the girl must bear the name, and told everyone in the village about it.
And since then, he had been asking the gods to make him bear a son whom he would name “father is more precious.” However, Egobi had not borne him a son, was not even eager to bear him a son whom she feared would also become a thief. If she was able to convince suitors to marry her daughters, she would be going to their husbands’ houses for omugwo and to pamper her grandchildren.
The girl, Nneka, lost her grip on the small calabash; she thought her pregnant goat had miscarried, and she looked around the pen, but could not see the goat.
“Has my goat killed her own child?” she shouted, and placed her hands above her head.
“No, not your goat, nne,” Egobi yelled, and pulled up her own wrapper to cover her breasts. The wrapper had loosened, to reveal her cleavage, an abominable thing for a married woman to show. Only young and unmarried girls were allowed to expose their young breasts so that suitors would determine if they liked them.
“Where is my goat then?”
Egobi pointed towards an ogbu tree, far from the pen, where the white goat sat down, chewing cud.
“That’s your goat down there, nne. I freed her from her tether before I went out in the morning, because her pregnancy is due. Her baby might arrive any moment from now. O kwa ima? It’s a double punishment, with the tethers around her neck.”
Nneka felt relieved. She bent down to pick her uli calabash from the ground, asking, “But why are you so alarmed? I’m afraid, mother.”
“Three eggs are missing,” Egobi snapped, “and Ugly-Tortoise has denied knowing anything about it.”
“What?” Nneka screamed. “Mother, wait, wait, cherukwa o. I noticed something when I came home briefly some hours ago to drink water from the earthen pot inside –”
“What did you notice? Tell me quickly,” Egobi interrupted her.
“I saw Ugly-Tortoise throw a white substance over the fence, but I didn’t consider the act serious, so I ignored it.”
Egobi turned to Ugly-Tortoise. “What did you throw?” she charged. A smoke of silence broke out inside Ugly-Tortoise. She refused to talk until her mother grabbed her two ears and drew them out so hard that Ugly-Tortoise fell flat on the ground, on top of the greenish droppings of the animals. “I am asking you, zaa m ajuju. What did you throw?”
“Nothing,” Ugly-Tortoise muttered, staggering as she tried to stand. Her mother grabbed a handful of farmyard manure and deposited it on the plaited head of the accused.
“Ngwa puta kita kita, come and show me where you threw it, now,” Egobi said.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Ugly-Tortoise said.
“You must show me the place.”
“I won’t,” Ugly-Tortoise said, defiantly.
“Let’s go there ourselves and see,” Nneka suggested, and her mother agreed.
Both of them went down to the backyard door, opened it and went outside. They found nothing after some minutes of searching. Then Egobi stepped upon a soft substance which spurted stinking water to her calves. She bent down and examined it, covering her nose, and it was an egg. She screamed, alerting Nneka who rushed to her immediately and sighted two other eggs lying beside an empty coconut shell. They started to shout, Egobi’s voice sounding like an antelope’s.
They closed the backyard door and flew to the pen. Ugly-Tortoise was still there.
“Ugly-Tortoise, what is this?” Egobi exclaimed, showing her the boiled, spoiled eggs.
“I was hungry, so I cooked the eggs,” Ugly-Tortoise confessed. “I didn’t know chicks had already formed inside them. I could not eat them, so I threw them away.”
“My God, chimooooo!” Egobi shrieked. “So you have taken after your father, eh. Thief!”
Ugly-Tortoise shuddered. Then thuds of blows with thundering sounds started to fall on her face and neck and chest and back and shoulders. Egobi concentrated on hitting the front, while Nneka focused on the back. Even after Ugly-Tortoise had slumped, they did not stop.
“We are going to blow that spirit of thievery out of you today,” Egobi gasped.
“Stinking tortoise, abuke,” Nneka said, as she hit her with two hands at the same time.
All the goats turned to watch them, seemed to enjoy the battle. A he-goat raised a hind leg up to dispatch urine on the ground. The mother hen ran, leaving the remaining eggs, as Egobi raised dusts with her legs, stumping around like a lioness.
“Do you want to kill her? What has she done? Stop. Stop, kwusi nu!” Chikelu shouted as he ran towards the pen to rescue his favourite daughter from being skinned alive. He had just returned home from the borders. He got hold of Egobi and shoved her down; Nneka stopped and skittered away. “What did she do? What atrocity has she committed to deserve this?”
“She’s a thief,” Egobi said, as she struggled to stand up.
“A thief? What did she steal?” Chikelu asked, pulling up Ugly-Tortoise whose face had been wounded, blood streaming down.
“She stole eggs with the chickens inside them.”
“Just eggs,” Chikelu said, startled. “Is that why you want to kill her?”
Egobi placed her hands on her head to shout, out of astonishment, her eyes wide open. “Chikelu chimpanzee, so you’re so shameless to support her, eh. Thief by birth!”
Chikelu grabbed her hair and gave her a blow on the forehead. Her legs started a downward journey to the ground. He hit her again on the head. Ugly-Tortoise came to retaliate, too, and hit her mother as she finally collapsed. The pummelling continued as father and daughter descended on Egobi to devour her. When they were through, the goats felt entertained, almost laughing, wished the squabbles had continued.
The pregnant goat far away started to bleat loudly under the tree. She was in labor. Chikelu left Egobi for the moment and rushed down to assist the goat. After some minutes, the goat gave birth to triplets.
Days later, Egobi and Nneka were on their way to fetch water from the stream, each with an earthen water pot under her arm, when they met a man coming back from his farm. The path was narrow, bordered on the sides by green shrubs and acacia trees, so Egobi was in the front and Nneka followed, trying to imitate the way her mother walked, each footstep covering a distance of five inches. The man had a hoe over his left shoulder, his machete and bag in either hand. He was tired, his skin the color of a spoiled orange peel, having worked for long on his cotton farm, which Nneka had described as the farm of white bats because she loved the way birds and bats perched on the farm, to take on the color of the cottons. The man greeted the two women, hugged Egobi. But Nneka wished she had been hugged instead. He gave Nneka some pears from his bag, and she collected them smiling. He departed, as the two women continued trekking down to the stream.
“That man is such a handsome man that is rare to find elsewhere,” Nneka said. “I know him very well. His name is Usuocha.”
“I know him too. He is my man,” Egobi said.
“Your man?” Nneka was astonished.
“Yes, my daughter. That man has been the one interpreting my womanhood since I got married.”
“I don’t understand, mother,” Nneka said.
“You need not understand. The story is older than your life.”
“Anyway, I love him,” Nneka said. “I went to his house last month. I want him to marry me, nne.”
Egobi turned to look at her daughter, shocked.
“Will you shut up? Mechie onu gi,” Egobi shouted, feeling insulted. Something snapped inside her. She shook her head, pretended she had not heard anything abominable coming from her daughter. A whirl of wind blew dusts across her face; she rubbed her hand over it, to smooth the face.
“I am very serious,” Nneka continued as though she had not been shunned. “I want to marry him. I want to marry Osuocha. He says his wife is an ugly cockroach who doesn’t know how to cook but infests the air with diseases.”
“I said shut up, Nneka. You can’t marry him. You can’t afford to be a second wife. There are other handsome, capable men to marry in this village.”
“It’s Usuocha I want to marry. My friends say I look like him, and that our children will be very beautiful if we become husband and wife.”
Egobi turned and whacked her. Nneka started to cry as her water pot fell and broke into pieces.
“You will marry Usuocha only when I am dead,” Egobi said. “His family has a history of going to ugwa when they die; they come back to torment their family members. It’s an evil family.”
“Then I want to die and come back to marry him,” Nneka insisted.
“You can’t marry Usuocha! He is too old for you,” Egobi said, and turned to continue going to the stream. Nneka refused to go further with her. She sat down on a stone beside the path, daydreaming of her marriage with Usuocha. She closed her eyes to refresh the memory of her last visit to Usuocha the previous month. She started to croon.
Usuocha, my white bat,
Your light skin is my memory,
Your pointed nose my compass.
Perch inside my palms,
Let’s perch on your farm,
And meld into white.
Let’s become Ugwa,
And die and come back again
And torment our enemies
Including my own mother.
She was still singing when Egobi returned with a water pot full of fresh water on her head. They both went back home, saying nothing to each other.
Chikelu had been with Usuocha’s wife inside his hut. They were eating roast yam with ukpaka drenched in palm oil when Egobi and Nneka came in from the stream. Egobi caught him rubbing the woman’s stomach and got incensed.
“Abomination!” Egobi screamed. “Chikelu, what are you doing with another man’s wife?”
Chikelu smiled. “She’s carrying my son,” he said. “She’s going to bear me a lovely son, since you’re incapable of doing it.”
“You’re just joking. It’s not your son; it’s Usuocha’s, unless you’re going to steal a baby, too.”
“Shut up,” Usuocha’s wife said, stood up and flaunted her large, round stomach, pointing at it. “This baby is Chikelu’s, and I’m here to stay in this house, forever.”
“Impossible. You prostitute,” Egobi said.
Fire was let loose.
“Was it not my husband, Usuocha, who deflowered you?” Usuocha’s wife shouted. “And you gave birth to your first daughter. Do you think I did not see you sneak into his hut at nights? You later went back to him for your third daughter, Nneka, because you thought your own husband was not handsome enough to father your children. Now that I have Chikelu to myself, I will show you what evil spirits do with the ears of a rat.”
“Yes, Usuocha got me pregnant. So what?” Egobi said.
“Then you’re the first prostitute,” Usuocha’s wife said.
Chikelu was confounded. That was the first time he got to know he was not responsible for the birth of two of his daughters. He sprang up to smack his wife. Usuocha’s wife stopped him, because she had more to say.
“Chikelu, you’re going to have a new in-law soon,” Usuocha’s wife said.
He did not understand, could not understand. “In-law, who?” Chikelu asked, dazed.
“Usuocha has impregnated your third daughter, Nneka, too. I caught them red-handed in my house the day they did it,” Usuocha’s wife revealed.
“Yes, he’s going to be my husband,” Nneka said, happily, coming into her father’s hut, rubbing her stomach. “I am carrying Usuocha’s baby.”
Egobi’s ears seemed to have been shattered by thunder, her head full of confusion.
“No!” Egobi yelled, crying. “This is an abomination.”
“It’s not,” Usuocha’s wife said. “Remember, chetakwa, a dog eating what he has vomited is not an abomination.”
“It is! This is incest,” Chikelu said, started to sob.
“You can call it whatever you wish,” Usuocha’s wife said, sat down on the mat, stretched her hand into the bowl of roast yams, picked a piece, dipped it into the red oil, and threw it into her mouth.
The next morning news spread round the village that a poisonous snake had bitten Usuocha to death; and Chikelu had died in his sleep. He could not bear the shame. Egobi’s corpse was seen dangling on an orange tree at the back of her hut, like a white bat.
Photo Source: Free Extras