My mum was in the room like a flash of lightning, while Ncheta was hovering at the door, rubbing the sleep from her eyes, asking over and over again, “What’s wrong, what’s wrong?”
Honestly, Ncheta really is a pure and applied blithering idiot! With all the love I have for her, as a sibling I never had, she can still be a blithering idiot! I mean, what wasn’t wrong? Couldn’t she see that I couldn’t speak, that I was shivering with fear, like a person suffering from iba, fever?
Until I realised the screaming was coming from me.
In between gasping for air and my mum gently rubbing my back in small, circular motions, I told my dream. The old woman guide of Ogbunike cave stood at the foot of my bed and wagged a bony finger in my face; a finger that seemed to stretch all the way from where she stood to the tip of my nose.
“You shouldn’t have come in with your possession.”
“What possession? I had no possessions,” I replied, nonplussed.
“A book is a possession.”
“And with that, her finger became a long claw that grew and grew and grew till I could feel it about to rest on the tip of my nose when I woke up”. I finished off, wiping the sweat from my brow.
“Did you take a book with you into the cave?” My mum probed gently.
I was about to shake my head in denial but a clearing of throat by Ncheta stopped me. I nodded instead.
“Then it’s just a dream,” my mother concluded. “Just your mind catching up with all that has happened over the weekend. I wouldn’t be surprised if you have another dream about Nkechi throwing a book at you,” she finished off with a cheeky grin, trying to lighten the atmosphere.
“Get her a fresh nightgown and change her bed sheet and cover cloth; they are damp with sweat.”
My mum turned to me, “Let Ncheta stay with you tonight o? It will be alright, inugo, you hear?”
“Yes, mummy, anugom, I’ve heard.” I must have been really terrified; I haven’t called my mum ‘mummy’ in a long time.
Sheets and nightgown changed, I went back to bed with Ncheta watching over me, seated on my rattan chair. I knew she was waiting for me to drop off so she could return to her room; she knew how much I hated sharing my bed with anyone.
Not that it helped.
I dreamt again, this time I sat somewhere, doing nothing and the devil became bolstered. It made so much sense in the dream in the way that most dreams do but when I awoke again in another cold sweat, no scream this time, I couldn’t make head or tail out of it.
I went into the bathroom, washed my face, drew back the curtains; it wasn’t daybreak yet. Ncheta had gone back to her room. So I picked up my geography book and tried to go over my homework but nothing I read seemed to register. I sat on my bed, my back against the headboard, determined to stay awake until the first cockcrow. Next thing I knew, I was standing outside an empty house, warning Tom and Dick not to move in as their neighbour was a barrel of gunpowder! I knew I was dreaming and tried to jerk myself awake but I couldn’t because I heard someone call my name from the empty house and I walked over to eavesdrop and it was about me but nothing good was being said.
“Blessing! Blé-Blé! Wake up! You’re going to be late for school!” It was Ncheta shaking me awake. There was no time to ponder on the series of dreams I had. I was in and out of the bathroom before Ncheta returned with my ironed uniform. Grabbed my sandwich from the kitchen counter and ran to the car where my mum was waiting impatiently.
“Sorry, mum,” I mumbled through a mouthful of bread and corned beef.
“Did you sleep well?” my mum peered into my face as she negotiated a turn unto the main road. “You have shadows under your eyes.”
“I’m fine mum, I just slept late, that’s all.”
She didn’t look convinced but she didn’t press the issue either. There was no time anyway, we were approaching the school gate.
“Have a good day!”
“You too, mum.”
I almost ran past Amazie in my hurry to get to class before the school bell.
“What happened, Blessing? I had to hitch a ride with Manny. My mum thought you had returned to the village to see Auntie Beatrice.
“Sorry, I slept late.” Let’s talk later; you know how I hate talking and running at the same time.”
We got to the classroom area before the first bell and to Dr Jayah’s lesson before the second. Thankfully, he was late too.
“So, tell me,” Amazie spread the inside of her cardigan on the low wall that separated the classroom area and the administrative block, “What on earth made the almighty, ever-ready Blessing sleep late!” she mimicked a shouting gesture on the last word as she sat on her cardigan.
“You wouldn’t believe me.”
“Alright, let’s go somewhere else, the walls have ears.”
“Blessing, there’s no one here; at least none that can hear us! Everyone’s over at the tuck shop. Blessing? Blessing!” Amazie shook me hard.
I didn’t hear her. I was looking over at the walls of the administrative block. They had suddenly sprouted a giant pair of ears. I rubbed my eyes and looked again. No, I wasn’t dreaming.
“Can you see that?” I pulled at the sleeve of Amazie’s blouse, pointing at the wall.
“So you can’t see that?”
“See what nau? What? What are you seeing?”
“Come, come with me. I drew her to the girls’ toilet but there was a long queue. We tried the back of the science lab but there were some senior students there, smoking. In desperation, I practically dragged her to the back of the teachers’ common room.
“Blessing,” Amazie shook my hand off, “You know we shouldn’t be here. If we’re caught…” She pulled her lower earlobe down in warning.
“Amazie, just listen!”
And I told her.
My anger, the trip to Ogidi, my grandmother’s whispering in my ear about letting the anger go before it invites its kinsmen and wrecks everything, the book, my dreams, everything.
Before she could respond, the bell went, signifying the end of break-time and we had to return to lesson.
I’m not sure if the teachers were having meetings before each lesson because Miss Obed was also late to lesson as well…almost ten minutes late.
Toady Simon-Peter Njoku, after a few minutes of waiting, wrote the date on the board and suggested we go over past lessons. I gave him a cutting look, hissed and turned away. ‘Past lessons’, my foot! Why would I want to revise those boring chants? Some students agreed with him, some brought out their books and went over homework or unfinished notes, while others simply read.
“Blessing, can I talk to you?” Wonder of all wonders, it was Nkechi ‘Big-Mouth’ Mgb’orie. Luckily, I had my hard-back English exercise book to hand. If she tried anything, it will be her head that will be cut open this time. I didn’t even open my mouth to respond, I just stared at her.
“I’m sorry I brought your mother into the quarrel. I know you wouldn’t have thrown your book at me if I hadn’t.”
“Save it, Nkechi. The leopard never changes its spots! Isn’t it the same thing you did to Amazie the last time? Have you apologised to her? Or is it because she’s quiet and will not throw something at you?” I hissed at her and turned away. I wasn’t going to accept that cheap apology. At least not yet.
Luckily for her or whatever, Limp Lettuce Obed came in, apologising for her tardiness and thanking Toady Simon-Peter for stepping into her shoes. I looked down at Limp Lettuce’s shoes and a mischievous thought took hold. What if he actually found his size ten feet in her size six shoes? An evil chuckle escaped my throat; that will serve the smarmy snake right! Religious deceivers, the worst kind of vermin! At least that’s what the book of wise sayings said.
As Limp Lettuce turned her back to the class to write the day’s topic on the board, a mighty shriek came from two desks behind. It was Nkechi Mgb’orie. She had turned dark with spots! It wasn’t just her face, it was her arms, her legs and as she lifted her school blouse, it was her torso as well! Her whole body had become a mass of spots; spots shaped like that of a leopard’s!
Class was hurriedly dismissed while Miss Obed took her to the dispensary. The rest of us milled around the Form Four corridor. Amazie came up to me, eyes wide.
I nodded in response. There was no time to let her know what I told Nkechi as another shout went up! It was coming from the direction of the boys; they had gathered in a group round Simon-Peter, all staring at his feet. His feet that weren’t his feet but Miss Obed’s feet with her black, slightly scuffed, three-inch heeled, court shoes.
Marshall ‘Blockhead’ Dike took off, who he was going to summon, no one knew. By now, Simon-Peter was crying his eyes out, pulling and yanking at the shoes on ‘his’ feet to no avail. There was pandemonium everywhere. Girls screaming, boys wailing, everyone beating their heads in confusion; except Amazie and I.
“We have to leave this place before anyone notices that neither you nor I are crying.”
“Why? I countered. ‘”It’s not like anyone of these slowpokes can link us, well, me to what’s going on. I’m usually indifferent to their issues anyway so how’s this any different?”
“Blessing, surely, you can’t be that mean?”
“Amazie, please spare me! Who’s being mean here? Swear that, deep down inside, you’re not happy that those two got their comeuppance? Swear that you’re not!”
Amazie didn’t reply.
I knew somewhere inside of her she was happy. Being my friend had its pitfalls and those two were chief amongst our classmates, who never let her forget.
“You’re right, she admitted grudgingly, “But Blessing, you need to be very careful. What do you know about this thing anyway? Can you reverse it? What if you harm someone close to you? Me, for instance.” A note of fear crept into her voice.
“So long as you don’t annoy me.” I jabbed her playfully.
“What?” she squeaked, her fear palpable.
“I’m only joking Amazie! I would never do anything to harm you. It’s not like you annoy me or are nasty to me like those two.”
“I know but…”
“No buts. Let’s forget it. I have some money from my weekly allowance. Let’s go to the tuck shop.”
“Bu…but it’s still lesson time…”
“…with no teacher in sight. Come on!”
We spent the rest of the English lesson at the tuck shop. When the bell rang and we went to our next lesson, the situation was almost the same – no teachers…students loitering about on the corridor, still looking confused, befuddled and bemused. It was obvious there were to be no lessons for the rest of the day.
The bell rang again, this time, four times in quick succession, indicating an emergency assembly. By now, the whole school must have heard what happened to Nkechi and Simon-Peter; I doubt that Miss Obed, or indeed Mr Kalu, would have succeeded in keeping any of it a secret.
“There has been an…incident,” The usually articulate Mrs Greenford was stumbling over what to say; how to describe the recent events. “For this reason, we will be dismissing the school early. Some of your parents have been notified and are on their way to collect you. Mrs Lomaji will call out your names and you are to follow her to the school library to wait there for your parents. Everyone else is to proceed to the main hall, while we sort out other travel arrangements.”
There was no confusion here.
Everything was done with military precision. It was as if the teachers, having recovered from their initial shock, were back to business as usual. Mrs Lomaji shepherded some of us to the library, while Mr Kalu, Limp Lettuce Obed and a few other teachers herded the rest into the main hall. The excitement and glee that usually followed a shorter school day was visibly absent. Most students looked curious, not quite sure what to make of the rumours flying around; some of which had grown to become ‘a boy in Form Four had sprouted cloven feet’ and ‘ a senior student had turned into an ostrich!’ Others, particularly those in our English class, who had witnessed both transformations, looked petrified, sick and disgusted all in various measures.
“Blessing…” Amazie began.
“Don’t say anything. The walls have…I mean you don’t know who’s listening. My mum will soon be here anyway. I’ll ask her to drop me off at yours then we can talk, okay?”
“Okay.” She nodded frantically, clamping both lips tightly shut.
“Blessing Mark-Tambo,” Mrs Lomaji called out my name after conferring with someone by the library desk; I couldn’t quite make out whom.
“Your mother is waiting for you by the school entrance. You may go.”
“Miss, what of Amazie Ug’oji?”
“What of her?” Mrs Lomaji looked a bit irritated.
“She comes home with me, Miss.”
“Amazie?” Mrs Lomaji quizzed, eyebrows raised in Amazie’s direction.
“Yes, Miss. I’ve been going home with Blessing since Form Three; the school office knows.”
“Hmm…I’m not sure…I need to confirm with…”
“But Miss,” I butted in, “Who will be in charge of the rest of the students if you go off to confirm?” I tried not to let the sarcasm I felt show in my voice…tried hard not to think of any idiom that would describe Mrs Lomaji’s actions even though I was sorely tempted to. The woman was such a stickler for rules; it was unbelievable! Apparently, the metal ruler she always had in her hand wasn’t for rapping the knuckles of ‘miscreants’, it was for measuring the length of girls’ skirts and sleeves of boys shirts! Too short and you were sent home to go and change!
“It’s true Miss. At other times, she goes home with me, if she has any extra-curricular activities after school, that is.” It was Manny to the rescue. Amazie and I didn’t even notice he was there.
“Are you going home with them then?” Mrs Lomaji inquired trying to make things clearer in her head.
“No,” Manny replied. “I’ll wait for my older brother, to avoid any confusion.”
Mrs Lomaji nodded in approval while I turned to look at Manny, I mean, really look at him; something I never bothered to do with stupid people. He didn’t have Marshal ‘Blockhead’ Dike’s stupid look. I assumed that he’d be just as stupid because Amazie often complained, albeit, good-naturedly, that Manny was always asking her for help with school work even though he is a year ahead of us. I suppose he’s smart but not intelligent, at least not when it comes to school stuff, I thought to myself.
By the time Amazie and I had made our way to the school’s main gate, my mum was bathed in a film of sweat and impatience.
“Auntie Mark-Tambo,” Amazie beamed a great, big, sunny smile in my mum’s direction, “We are terribly sorry for taking so long. As you can imagine, the teachers, in the middle of a school day, had to contact as many parents as possible, organise us all into groups and also ensure everyone gets home safely.
That deflated my mother with immediate effect. I could almost hear the hiss of the air of irritation as it escaped her and merged with the slight breeze that began wafting from nowhere after Amazie’s speech.
“I’ll have to take you to ours.” My mum looked at Amazie, “Except of course you’d…”
“…actually Auntie, ” It seemed to be a day of butting in and interrupting adults, “Since you still have to return to work, why don’t you take us all to my house? You can come and pick Blessing up later or better still, Ncheta can take a taxi and collect her.”
The cocking of head to the side and eyes off into the distance indicated my mum was ruminating, like a cow…I squashed the thought swiftly before it could take root. I know by saying it, I could make it happen but I still wasn’t completely sure that only by thinking it, would it come to pass.
“Let me pick Ncheta up first and then take all three of you to your house,” My mum replied, glancing at her watch. “It will be lonely for her, to be left all alone at home.”
I am not sure why, but my mum didn’t ask us anything about what went on in school on the way to pick up Ncheta who was excited about going to Amazie’s instead of straight home. As thrilling as it all sounded – missing school, hanging out with Amazie and Ncheta, my two favourite people – I didn’t really want to go to Amazie’s. I mean, Amazie is the next best thing to a sibling after Ncheta but she lives in a flat! A ground floor flat for that matter!
I hate flats!
They’re usually poky little things with a shared backyard, shared staircase, shared central well or tap, as the case may be and a shared entrance to the staircase. Maybe not in Amazie’s case; her flat had a balcony of some sorts and the entrance faced the front yard not the staircase, as was the case in most of the block of flats dotted around the city.
A flat was a flat was a flat!
I hadn’t been in Amazie’s in a long while (I always found a compelling reason why we should go to my house instead) and so I was pleasantly surprised at how bright and cheerful it was. Her mum was obviously green-fingered, seeing the rows of potted plants in the balcony, luxuriant indoor plants in the sitting-room, a vase of red and white roses on their mantelpiece alongside various graduation pictures and small pots of lemon-grass lining the short hallway that led to Amazie’s room.
“My mum doesn’t believe in mosquito coils or insecticides; she says they’re harmful to humans as well so we use lemon grass to ward off mosquitoes.”
“Your house is lovely,” Ncheta gushed, eyes darting this way and that.
“Flat, Ncheta, flat not house!”
Amazie looked at me askance.
“And yes, Amazie, it is lovely and it smells really wonderful.” I meant it. I wasn’t trying to redeem myself, or anything, it really did smell wonderful.
“Hmph!” was all she gave me in return.
“Thank you, Ncheta.” She bestowed another sunny smile, like the grand old owl she was turning out to be as she led us to her room. My projections were confirmed. Amazie’s was indeed an owl and her room, her nest. Stuffed, not with dried twigs and leaves but books. Books, books everywhere. Books on the bedside table, window-sill, inside the floor of her wardrobe, overflowing from the twin medium-sized bookcases and her reading table. There were her school books, the whole Pacesetter series (all one hundred and thirty of them!), a row on one of the bookshelves, dedicated to annuals – ‘Whizzer & Chips’ ‘Beano’, ‘Judy’, even ‘Commando’! The rest of that same bookcase was taken up by African Writers Series, the ever-present Heinemann upside-down fish-like logo, staring us in the face with a few dog-eared copies of Drum magazine and cartoon sketches of Benbella and Lulu from old copies of the Daily Times, keeping them company. The other bookcase held her ‘baby’ books, ranging from ‘Obi’s Big Shoe’, to ‘How The Leopard Got Its Claws’; from ‘Mallory Towers’ to ‘Chike And The River’. Then there was a whole shelf devoted to Encyclopaedia Britannica with the Children’s Illustrated Bible, bringing up the end.
Ncheta looked like she had died and gone to book heaven, particularly when she sighted the annuals and illustrated books. She always complained that my books were too thick and had barely any pictures or none at all. How was it my fault that she didn’t enjoy ‘Weep Not, Child’ or ‘Arrow of God’? I wasn’t about to stock those silly fairy tales in my bookcase for her sake! She was quite welcome to my old ones!
“Help yourself,” Amazie nodded in the direction of books Ncheta was drooling over. ‘I’ll go see if there’s anything for us to eat, if not, I might have to go to the nearest kiosk and get some snacks for us.”
It wasn’t up to ten minutes when Amazie hop-skipped back into her room excitedly and just as I was about to exclaim, ‘that was quick!’, she announced cheerfully, “Look who I came back with!” I sighted Manny and Marshal ‘Blockhead’ Dike. ‘Marshal ‘Blockhead’ Dike’! I shook my head, rubbing my eyes to be sure I wasn’t dreaming or projecting to life, the book I was reading. I looked down at my hands – it wasn’t a book; it was Drum magazine and I had been reading an article about a man who returned to ‘civilisation’ three years after the Nigeria/Biafra war ended, refusing to believe it was over. So no, no projection there. Then what on earth was Amazie thinking, coming back with those two? Manny, I could understand; he lived in one of the flats above but ‘Blockhead’? Mbanu!
I didn’t realise I was glaring until I saw my expression mirrored in Marshal Dike’s own.
He jumped in before I could.
“It was you!” he shouted, pointing his thick forefinger in my direction. “That thing that happened today, it was you!”
“It was me what?” I didn’t even bat an eyelid, just returned the Drum magazine in my hands to the shelf, folded my arms calmly and carried on glaring at him.
That threw him.
Perhaps he was expecting an outright denial so he could counter it or a nervous admission so he could be vindicated by it but I gave him none and for that reason, he didn’t know what to do next. He was truly a blockhead!
“Blessing, is it true?” Manny stepped in.
“It is! It is! I’m in her class nau and I saw Nkechi talking to her before her skin changed!” ‘Blockhead’ carried on.
That’s another thing that’s always puzzled me, how this slowpoke of a person ended up in my class; a class meant for high-achievers. Anyway, it wasn’t a thought I could process fully because by now, all four pairs of eyes were resting on me. Waiting, it appeared, for an acknowledgement from me.
A slow, boiling cauldron of anger began to rise from the pit of my stomach. Who does Marshal think he is that he can come between Amazie, Ncheta and I? And Manny? Manny that needs Amazie to explain the basics of interpreting literary texts! Manny, a year above, yet still requires support from someone supposedly academically below! What does he know? He still struggles to distinguish between ‘simile’ and ‘metaphor’ and can barely identify figures of speech when studying any of the prescribed ‘O’ Level texts. How dare he question me?
“Blessing…I mean, Manny”, Amazie must have seen the red mist in my eyes and so turned to her neighbour, “Why don’t we talk about this later ehn? I was on my way to get some snacks for Blessing, Ncheta and I when I bumped into you guys so I’m going to go back to the kiosk to buy the snacks while you take Marshal to your house; I will come up to see you later.” She didn’t wait for an acquiescence, just shepherded the boys out of her room towards the front door. Ncheta and I didn’t hear the rest of their low-voiced conversation but the atmosphere in Amazie’s room had changed. Even Ncheta felt it. She’d lost the look of bliss at being surrounded by so many accessible books that she shuffled around looking, in that way she does, when she’s finished her chores and hasn’t been told what to do next. I just wanted to go home before I threw something at someone but it seemed like that wasn’t going to happen because rather than take the hint and make his way upstairs with his friend, Marshal, like the blockhead he truly was, came thundering back inside Ncheta’s room, shoving Manny and my dear friend aside.
“Marshal, listen to me,” An arm outstretched, Amazie didn’t break her stride as she reached for him. Ncheta had stopped shuffling. She stood wringing her hands helplessly. Not so me. I was ready for that blundering idiot. What did he think he could to do me? Mispronounce my name like he did ‘rhyme’ and ‘rhythm’, in a fit of anger?
Mschew! I hissed at the thought.
“You!” He had succeeded in eluding Amazie’s grasp. Thick forefinger back in my face.
“It was you who…who…” he spluttered to a stop like the dying engine of an ancient mammy wagon.
“Marshal Dike! It was me who what?” I yelled into that stupid face. I was tired of letting this slowpoke who could barely read to save his life, point his unintelligent forefinger in my face. “It was me who what? Go on! Say it! Blockhead! Numskull! You never listen do you? And when you do, you hear nothing!”
I was too far gone in my anger to hear Amazie’s frantic pleas or sense the increased tempo of Ncheta’s hand wringing.
“Didn’t Amazie and your other slow friend over there ask you to go upstairs? Didn’t they? None so deaf as those who will not hear! Idiot!”
His forefinger fell away from my face and he stood there staring at me blankly as if trying to make sense of what I just said to him. I shook my head in exasperation. What a waste of time, telling him off. I bet he understood nothing of what I’d just said! But, it must have been more than that because in a space of a heartbeat, his facial expression permuted from blankness to anger to perplexity and finally, to panic. He shook his head vigorously from side to side, slapped both ears with open palms; first the left, then the right; shook his head again, poked a finger in one ear, wiggled it about then did the same to the other ear.
The look on his face told of his findings.
He let out a shout; confused at first, then a long, sustained sound of sheer helplessness. With tears running down his face, a face that still looked stupid and by extension pathetic, he placed both palms together in supplication and offered them to me. Not sure what he expected me to do with those fat, sausage fingers of his, I walked backwards keeping him in sight, reached behind, feeling for the strap of my school satchel. Once I had it, I grabbed it and headed out. I didn’t even want to be there in the first place.
“Ncheta, let’s go.”
She turned wide-eyed to Amazie instead, hands almost wrung out of their sockets.
“Blessing,” Amazie stood just outside her bedroom door, “Blessing, you can’t go, you can’t …” she whispered the rest, “…leave him in this condition.”
Ncheta nodded frantically in agreement. I wanted to slap them both like ‘Blockhead’ had slapped his own ears! Where were they when he was pointing his carrot-sized fingers in my face? When he was shouting, ‘it was you’, ‘it was you’? Why didn’t they stop him before he opened that foolish mouth of his? Why didn’t Amazie? This condition indeed! I hoped Amazie had no plans of standing in my way because she was my friend and I didn’t want her hurt on purpose or by accident. I needed to leave her room, her flat…I needed to leave at that exact moment or I won’t be responsible for what happens next!
Words were swirling round furiously in my head –
- Least said, soonest mended!
- Anger resides in the bosom of fools!
- A wise man never argues with a mad dog!
- Do not grab the tiger by the tail!
and so many more. I couldn’t control them; couldn’t stop them. It seemed my fury towards Marshal had opened up a dam and words were threatening to burst out! I had to leave before I opened my mouth and let out a deluge that could drown my friend, my cousin and myself.
My school satchel firmly in my grasp, I bowed my head to hide the hurt in my eyes and the pain I knew I would see in Amazie’s as I shoved her out of the way. I ran down the lemongrass-lined hallway into the living-room, almost tripping over some empty flower pots that someone had left by an alcove beside the front door. I dashed out unto the balcony, down the wide steps – three of them – straight into the first droplets of rain.
The clouds must have been lowering while we were indoors because there wasn’t any sign of rain earlier on and we, well, I, was too busy being angry to notice. That, nor the distance I had to walk, stopped me. Head down, I followed the major road, keeping to the grassy pavement. I knew there was a short-cut; Ncheta spoke of it from time to time but I didn’t know it and wasn’t about to chance it and risk getting lost in the process. Thinking of Ncheta, I wondered if she was standing beside Amazie’s bookcase of ‘baby’ books, wringing her hands still. Not that it mattered…well, it did, but I could not turn back. My head was a boiling mass of idioms, proverbs and wise sayings. I needed to get away, be away from everyone, anyone…three people were changed…transformed, because of me. Not that I didn’t think they deserved it but to involve people I cared about? My anger didn’t stretch that far. Walking home in the rain was little sacrifice compared to what could have happened had I stayed.
It took me over half an hour. Something that was usually less than ten minutes by car. It took me that long because not only did I take the major road, I had to avoid bumping into people in the danger that I might blurt something out.
I arrived home soaked to skin as expected. Hyginus didn’t seemed too surprised to see me, which was strange, till I spotted Ncheta coming out of the house with an umbrella – a massive black dome given to us by Auntie Beatrice during one of our visits to Ogidi. She must have taken that shortcut but an umbrella! An umbrella for goodness’ sake! For someone already soaked to the skin, it was like closing the stable d… No! I wasn’t going to think that! I wasn’t! I wasn’t! I forced myself to nod in gratitude and took the shelter she offered.
“You need to take a hot shower, Blé so you don’t catch a cold. Let me heat up some of the left-over goat-meat pepper soup for you.”
I nodded my thanks again, too apprehensive to speak lest the dam burst forth. Dripping wet all over the living-room floor, I rushed straight to my room and into the bathroom. Ncheta had run a bath but it was cooling so I turned on the shower and fully clothed, stood under its blast for what seemed like half an hour until I heard Ncheta call me that the pepper soup was re-heated and ready to be eaten. I wasn’t sure I wanted to eat anything, wasn’t sure that anything could pass through my food pipe. It felt like an obstruction of words had lodged itself there; words, words, everywhere! In my head, my heart, my mouth…I tried not to speak, tried not to think. Sitting down to eat with Ncheta was out of the question so was staying up and waiting for my mum. I would have to speak, to say something, explain things and I wasn’t sure what would come out of my mouth so I did the one thing none of them would expect me to do…I took the easy way out. Changing out of my wet clothes, I dried myself with my big, pink, fluffy towel, put on a pair of pyjamas and socks instead of my usual hand-sewn nightgown, buried myself under my cover cloth and closed my eyes. I don’t know how, but it worked. I feel asleep, instantly.
The cave guide appeared again.
This time, she sat on my rattan chair, her long, bony finger wagging in my face.
At first, she spoke with the voice of my great aunt Beatrice, “What did I say to you about anger and his kinsmen?” While I was trying to make sense of that, her voice changed to what it sounded like, the day we visited Ogbunike cave, “ You shouldn’t have taken your possession into the cave…your possession…your possession… your possession…the phrase felt more like a missile tracking me than an echo. I couldn’t seem to shake it off as I ran zig-zag into what appeared to be a swamp inside my room which was not really my room, but a cave. My head grew hot and my feet felt heavy and cold as if encased in a bucket of ice blocks. I kept trying to out-run the echo/missile but I couldn’t. I felt weighed down by my hot head and icy cold feet. As if things couldn’t get any worse, the ground beneath me began to growl, shake and tremble like there was a giant underneath ready to awaken from a great slumber.
“Blessing!” The shaking continued.
“Blessing!” The shaking got stronger.
I woke up with a start. It was no giant. It was my mum shaking me awake with Ncheta in the corner of my room, wringing her hands, as usual, in despair or whatever emotion it was etched on her face.
“Blessing, you were thrashing around madly in your sleep, what’s wrong?”
“Mum”, I tried to answer her but it came out sounding like a croak.
“Mum”, I tried again.
It wasn’t happening.
All I was doing was emitting croaks.
That walk in the rain, no doubt had done it; the hot shower afterwards had no effect. Perhaps I should have taken Ncheta up on her offer of the pepper soup, I tried to convince myself.
“Blessing”, my mum shook me again, “What’s wrong? You were saying something about ‘least said, soonest mended’. What is it that you shouldn’t say?”
I opened my mouth to speak, to explain, to say something to her but the words that I was so keen to stop from gushing out, refused to emerge.
“Mum”, I attempted one more time, then, I stopped.
It was no use. I knew what was happening if I was being honest. It was the cave or the gatekeeper or both.
Did Mrs Greenford know, I wondered? Or did my great aunt Beatrice have an inkling? My mum? She didn’t seem too curious about things; never asked me why I threw a book at Nkechi or why we had to leave school so hurriedly the other day. Or did Ncheta tell her? What did Ncheta know or not know? All these questions ran through my mind just as quickly as I blinked back the tears forming. There was no point crying. It wasn’t going to change anything. There was something in my throat, something causing me to croak instead of speak. It wasn’t phlegm; it couldn’t be phlegm. If it was phlegm, I should be able to hawk, bring the mucus up and spit it out but that wasn’t happening. It was some kind of impediment; an obstruction…I gestured to my mum, pointing at my throat and pointing to the mirror.
“Let me see.”
I shook my head.
I wanted to see it first, see what it was that was causing croaks to emanate from my mouth instead of speech.
But my mum would not be dissuaded. She turned my face towards the bedside lamp, gestured to Ncheta to come over, pried my mouth open and peered down my throat.
“Mhmm” was all I heard in reaction.
I looked to Ncheta for verification.
She had stopped wringing her hands. She reached over to my bedside drawer, drew out a hand mirror and passed it over to me. I hesitated for a moment then squared my shoulders. What was the point of being afraid? What has happened has happened; ignoring it won’t make it go away. So I looked, to see what my mum saw but remained noncommittal; what Ncheta saw that caused her to cease that infernal hand-wringing of hers and do something without trepidation – it was a frog, a literal frog in my throat.
It was a yellowy-browny colour, with lime-green spots.
It was supposed to be the cold I should have caught from walking in the rain, from refusing hot goat-meat pepper soup whose spices might have soothed my raw throat and made it uncomfortable for the frog but no, as always, I thought I knew best, I thought that my intelligence made me smarter than everyone else. So now, instead of having the proverbial frog in my throat from a cold, I have a frog, a real frog in my throat.
I will have to learn how to express myself; to speak around it and make myself understood.
No more anger and throwing words like weapons.
No more shouting at blockheads, slowpokes or numskulls.
(The End…for now)