Monday morning and I was up at 6am. I don’t really know what woke me that early – the clucking of the chickens or bleating of the goats but I didn’t roll over and try and grab some extra minutes of sleep. I got straight up, went into my bathroom, brushed my teeth, showered and got dressed in my school uniform. Looked around for my school satchel and its offending contents, there was nought; Ncheta had picked them all up and put them back in.
It was 6.30 by the time I was done; my tummy rumbling like Mount Cameroon. I went into the kitchen to rustle up something to eat, as I couldn’t wait for Ncheta to make breakfast for the house. To my surprise, my mum was making sandwiches at the kitchen counter, a tub of butter and two tins of sardine, resting by the sink.
“Blessing, can you dilute the orange squash and put it in the other flask,” she said to me pointing in the direction of the flasks before I could get a ‘good morning’ out.
I did as she asked.
Ncheta came in with a bag of fruits – mangoes, tangelos and one soursop.
“Good morning mum”, I looked around in confusion.
My mum came to my rescue.
“I received a phone call from Ogidi, late last night. Auntie Beatrice was taken ill, suddenly. Uncle Felix wasn’t even sure she would survive the night.”
That was all the explanation I needed.
Auntie Beatrice was my great aunt. She raised my mum as her own. My grandmother died at childbirth and left her infant daughter in the hands of her childless, older sister.
It was then I noticed that my mother’s eyes had a reddish tinge to them.
Silently, I made and ate a bread and butter sandwich while I helped pack the drinks and fruits that will serve as lunch for the journey to Auntie Beatrice’s.
“You’re coming with us,” my mother threw over her shoulder as I made my way to the phone extension to call Amazie and ask if I could hitch a ride with her to school. Dropping the receiver in its cradle, I swung round to my mum in disbelief. I don’t miss school, ever! And I still had some unfinished business with that tittle-tattle, Limp Obed and Nkechi ‘Big-Mouth’ Mgb’orie.
“Mum!” I raised my voice in protest.
“Get a cardigan and bring your school satchel along. We might return in time for you to meet the last lesson and I can drive you straight to school.”
She was just trying to mollify me. If my great Aunt Beatrice was as ill as Uncle Felix claimed, there was no way we will be returning today. My mum will take a week off, if she had to, stay back and nurse her mum back to health.
The bubble of rage returned in full force.
We left the house at 7 O’clock sharp.
Hyginus’ face resembled crumpled wrapping paper as he held the gate open for us to drive through.
“Hygi, I will bring back aki n’ukwa for you o?” my mum promised. He smiled tremulously and some of the creases disappeared.
“I wish he could come with us,” Ncheta said from the backseat, twisting her neck to give one last look and wave goodbye. Ncheta and Hyginus were among the many relatives that passed through Auntie Beatrice’s care and tutelage. She was much loved by many.
“Well, he can’t!” I snapped in return. “Someone has to stay back, watch the house and feed the goats and chickens!”
“Blé-Blé, softly nau. I know he can’t come, I just said, ‘I wish’ ” Ncheta also looked hurt.
“Why wish then, when you know there’s no point!” I wasn’t going to make it easy for them.
My mum halted the car, gave me a cold look. It was my cue to be quiet. Fine! I wasn’t going to speak but she couldn’t stop me from being angry.
It was another quiet journey but obviously for different reasons. We didn’t even stop along the way to buy anything from the roadside stalls. The journey usually took roughly an hour; we arrived in fifty minutes, driving straight into the family compound.
It was my great aunt herself who came out to greet us at the sound of my mother’s tyres crunching the gravel. I love my Aunt Beatrice dearly; like my mother, she is an amazon of a woman, but this? I missed out on a whole day of school for this? A day I had planned carefully and extensively in my head; a day that will… I didn’t finish the thought. I was enveloped in a bear hug and lifted up my feet.
“Ngozichukwuka!” My great aunt always called me by the Igbo version of my name, the full Igbo version – God’s blessing is supreme.
It transpired that Auntie Beatrice wasn’t dying after all. It wasn’t a heart attack, stroke or any other of the deadly sicknesses that strike people of her age.
“It was just gas!” Uncle Felix explained to my mum, laughing out loud, in nervous relief. “You know how your mother loves her boiled groundnuts, particularly the ones boiled in their shells? Well, she ate just a little too much and it kept her awake almost all night!”
“I told him it was nothing,” Auntie Beatrice looked fondly at her husband, holding his hand, “But you know your father likes to panic!”
My mum didn’t say anything; she just shook her head and hugged them both tightly. “Thank God we didn’t stop and buy anymore groundnuts for you then!” All three laughed aloud in relief with Ncheta giggling in the background as she pottered about, waiting, as usual, to be told what to do. Auntie Beatrice put her out of her confusion.
“Ncheta, you can go and see your cousins. You too, Ngozichukwuka,” She nodded in my direction, “We will talk later.”
The excitement on Ncheta’s face was enough to take the edge off the anger that had been brewing inside of me; something that seeing my great auntie hadn’t succeeded in doing. Ncheta could be a blithering idiot sometimes but she was the closest I had to a sibling and sometimes, I forget how lonely it can get for her when I’m at school and my mum is at work. I know she attends this commercial school, a few hours a day, where she learns secretarial skills, but she’s still mostly home alone. For her sake, I tucked the anger away and raced her to the extended family compound. Everyone had heard that we were coming and coupled with Auntie Beatrice’s hospitalisation, no one went into school. It was a mini-carnival!
I didn’t even realise how long we’d been out playing and catching up until someone shouted something about these children coming in to eat.
I checked my wristwatch; it was way past mid-day.
Ncheta and I ran back to the house for lunch. Auntie Beatrice had prepared a family-sized feast – fried yam and plantain, spicy tomato stew, a side dish of peppery black-eyed beans and spinach and a fruit salad made with some of the left-over fruit we came with and some from her backyard.
“So, mum, what time are we leaving for Enugu?” I inquired, between mouthfuls.
All three adults exchanged looks and I got my answer.
I knew it! There was no way we were going back today! I sat there, forcing myself to finish my meal then excused myself and went to have a wash and change out of my school uniform.
“Let me wash it for you,” Ncheta picked it up from the floor where I’d dropped it. “You can’t wear it like this tomorrow.”
I nodded in reply. I didn’t trust myself to speak. She returned about half an hour later and sat beside me quietly. We must have dozed off after all that playing and the heavy meal; a light tapping on the door woke us up.
Obinna, one of the many ‘cousins’, asked if we wanted to join the story-telling session as Uncle something-or-the-other was around. Apparently, he was very good; a descendant from a long line of story-tellers.
And he was.
As we sat there on woven raffia mats, yellow corn and African pear roasting in the background over hot coals, he told the story of why the tortoise has a cracked shell; a story we had heard more times than we could remember. But this Uncle, I couldn’t remember his name now, told it with such flair and vitality that we could almost see the tortoise as he fell from the sky, landing on the hard earth, bits of shell flying everywhere.
The sun had set. Mothers were gathering their brood. It was time to go in.
We grabbed the last of the roasted corn and African pear, sought our cousins out, hugged them goodnight and goodbye, knowing that we might not have the time the next morning and dashed back to the family house.
I was up at 6am again but Ncheta was already washed and dressed, my school uniform pressed and folded on the dressing table stool.
“Blé, your mother wants us to leave at 6.30 sharp so be quick o?”
As if I was anything but.
This time I was determined to get to school even if it was only for the last lesson of the day.
I don’t know why but I didn’t put on my school uniform for the journey home. Instead, I put on an outfit I’d left behind on our last visit – a white and black polka dot blouse and a black skirt with an elasticated waistband. Shrugging my cardigan on, I headed for my great auntie’s room to say my farewell but there was no need. She was already up and putting together food for us to eat on the journey home. She hugged me tightly and whispered softly in my ear. I rolled my eyes in reply. She gave a cryptic smile and let me go so that my Uncle Felix could hug me too.
“Safe journey.” They called from the doorway as my mum reversed out of the compound.
“Ncheta, check that we’re not forgetting anything. Did you go and greet Hyginus’ mother as I asked you to?”
Ncheta nodded twice in response. She had also put my folded school uniform in a flat carton and placed it beside her.
“Did you purchase the aki n’ukwa…”
“…I didn’t need to,” Ncheta didn’t let my mum finish, “His mother gave me a big bag!”
My mum smiled at her through the rear-view mirror.
“Here,” Ncheta handed me my school satchel.
As we exited the compound, my mum pressed the car horn twice. Some cousins ran out and ran alongside the car, waving frantically. Ncheta and I waved back until they were out of sight.
“I know you don’t want to miss another day of school,” my mum turned briefly to me before we hit the main expressway, “but I thought we should do a little sight-seeing while we are in the area.”
If she thought that that would appease me, she was mistaken. I just wanted to get back to school. Saying nothing, I nodded, barely.
She turned on the radio, fiddling with the knob, trying to find a music station. I turned to Ncheta to ask for my school satchel when I remembered that she had already handed it to me as we left Ogidi. I rummaged through the satchel for something to read, there was that blasted book again. I had no choice really, except I wanted to read my Geography textbook on rocks – Igneous, Sedimentary and Metamorphic.
That wasn’t happening. I had had enough of it in Miss Bature’s Geography class, chanting ‘phacolith’ and ‘laccolith’!
I flicked the blasted book open. Another long list of those ‘wise sayings’ and idioms –
‘An empty sack never stands upright.’
‘Religious deceivers are the worst of vermin.’
‘He needs have a long spoon who would eat, of the same dish with Satan.’
Lost once again in the unfamiliar, It was Ncheta’s nudge that alerted me to the fact that we had arrived at our destination – the mystical Ogbunike cave – a fifteen-minute drive from our ancestral village. She gestured towards the car window. I looked out. It was just as I feared…a long, steep and winding trail down to the cave’s entrance!
I would have enjoyed the trip on any other day, but not today. Ogbunike cave might be fifteen minutes away but that winding trail was another fifteen minutes, then exploring the cave, then coming back out, climbing the trail back to the main expressway, then back to Enugu. An extra two or three hours added to our journey!
I was incensed with my mum and the world in general.
Did I ask for this stupid visit to Ogidi to see Aunt Beatrice who wasn’t dying anyway?
Did I ask for this stupid sightseeing?
Why couldn’t we just drive back to Enugu and my mum take me straight to school?
“Mum,” my tone was as polite as I could make it, given the molten lava roiling in my stomach, “Is it alright if I stayed in the car and read my book? You and Ncheta can go on.”
“No, it’s not alright.” My mum replied, her own tone as icy as hailstones.
There was no arguing with her; there never was anyway. My mother’s word was law.
The guide at the entrance of the cave looked as old as the cave itself. She leaned on a walking staff that had a round knob worn smooth by the rubbing motion of her hands. Her voice on the other hand was strong and stentorious like the ogene of the town-crier. It rang loud and clear, carrying into the belly of the cave.
“May all who seek to enter, leave all possessions behind!”
That, was for old, wrinkly and gullible people. I didn’t have ‘possessions’ as she put it, so that ‘proclamation’, didn’t apply to me.
Then she pointed in the direction of a board that had been mounted outside the cave, with the title – ‘Rules of the Cave’. It listed about nine or ten rules which I didn’t bother reading. What was the point of her proclamation if there were written rules?
I just wanted to get the whole thing over and done with.
Ncheta nudged me again and pointed to my feet. I looked at her quizzically. She had taken off her shoes and so had my mum. In fact, there were a few other people around; people I hadn’t noticed in my anger. They were all barefoot, dressed, from head to toe, in white and carrying empty bottles.
I took my school shoes off. She pointed to my hand. I hadn’t realised that I was still holding on to the book of 49 Wise Sayings e.t.c. It must have been my own form of defiance against my mum. Well, there was nothing for it. I wasn’t dropping it out here, on the ground, with people’s possessions and shoes. It was coming with me! So, in full glare of Ncheta’s disapproving look, I stuffed it down the back of my elasticated skirt and pulled down my black and white polka-dot blouse over it.
What time we spent in the cave seemed like hours but in reality, only forty-five minutes had passed when we returned to the cave’s entrance, put our shoes back on, returned to the car and continued on our journey home.
Ncheta was chattering excitedly about the magnificence of the cave, the bats, the streams that ran through the tunnels in the caves, that supposedly have healing powers; which was why those people in white had empty bottles. I later found out that they were from White-Garment churches and got their ‘holy’ water from the cave.
All I could recollect was getting angrier by the minute especially having to crawl on my hands and knees through certain parts of the cave. Thank God, I didn’t wear my school uniform!
My mother managed to keep her word and I got to school in time for lesson three – Limp Lettuce’s lesson on Comparatives and Superlatives.
I should have gone home with Ncheta.