The Courage Flower
By Michael Umoh
THE DAY BEFORE YESTERDAY, my father told me he wanted to talk. I knew something was wrong when I walked into the sitting room and saw him seated on the chair my elder brother and I called ‘the advice chair’. Onyedika and I suspected, in the privacy of our conversations, that the painting of Jesus Christ blessing a crowd which hung on the wall behind the chair gave him the strength to discipline us with his mouth.
When I sat down, my father, in his booming voice said, “We, me and your mother, we have agreed that you’ll go and stay with my sister in Enugu. It’ll be better for you there. Do you understand, Nkem?”
I nodded and because he was waiting, I said, “Yes, Daddy. I understand”. And I really did. I understood what he wasn’t saying. What was happening here was a symptom of my family’s refusal to master directness. When my mother apologized – usually for something like a well deserved slap – she would ask, “Have you eaten?” or “What do you want to eat?” If we accepted her apology, we would say, “Bitter leaf soup” or “Rice and Stew”. Most times, Onyedika told her, “I am not hungry”.
My father was the exact same way, except he consistently ended what he assumed was subtlety with the prodding, “Do you understand?” Once, after a particular quarrel with my mother over slippers, he pulled me aside and advised, “Nkem, when you grow up, learn control. Do you understand?”
I was five. I lacked the capacity to understand.
But I did now. What he wasn’t saying was that they had gotten tired of the stress and the gossip and the false sympathy. And the only way to escape it all was to send me away.
I think they had both suffered. Mom had left the Catholic Women Organization at St. Mary’s. Dad no longer sat in the front row during Sunday Mass. He sat with me now; on the sixth row – not enough to be holy like the church council members in the first and second row, but certainly not close to the noise makers and sinners at the back rows.
The first Sunday Papa did this, Chinwe’s father, whom everyone called Sir Ezike because he was a Knight of the order of St. Mulumba, told him, “I am very displeased. Obi adighi m mma. Things like this don’t just happen”. Then he waited. Papa nodded, held my hand and led me away. And the darkness in my heart sank to my stomach and I loved him a little more.
This was why I couldn’t blame them: four months ago, I told them, with a straight face, shaky hands and the directness they avoided, that I was pregnant.
They reacted differently. Daddy removed his glasses and used the hem of his white shirt to clean them in slow, circular motions. Then he wore them and said nothing. Mommy asked, “I rikwala ihe n’ututu a?”
I nodded. Yes, I had eaten that morning. And there it was. With that nod, I told her that I was serious. She nodded in return, sighed, cleared her throat and said, “Go to your room”.
Things got worse when Onyedika came back from the football field. While my parents and I treasured calmness and mostly kept things in, my brother thought spontaneity was priceless. It was simply not in him to let things settle. He talked, shouted and raged without thinking. At least, I thought he didn’t think. It was strange for me to breed anger within me and give it voice. For me, thinking was enough. But not for him.
That was why he was usually the one telling mommy he wasn’t hungry.
I knew he had been told when he marched into my room without a knock, slammed the door closed and screamed into my face, “What did you do? What did you do?” I wished they had allowed him to bathe before telling him. The stench of sweat, dirt and damp grasses oozing from his Chelsea jersey made everything worse.
I remained silent.
He moved back and gave me a look. I had disappointed him and at this moment, he hated me.
“You will remove it”.
His tone was grim. He wasn’t making a suggestion. But it lacked power. He couldn’t raise his voice for fear that my parents would hear.
“No,” I told him. It was a tiny thing, this refusal, but it felt good.
“Haven’t you done enough?”
I shrugged. How does one measure what is enough in situations like this?
I AM ON A BUS NOW.
This morning, I asked mommy what my father’s sister was like. After a long pause, she replied, “Complicated. Your aunty is complicated. Pass me the knife. The blue one”.
I didn’t understand so I asked my father. “My sister is just different. She is over forty and she listens to that noisy music with all that shout shout”.
“Uh hmmm”. He sighed. “You’ll understand her”.
“But will she understand me?”
Daddy nodded. “I think so. You people behave the same”.
“Mommy said she’s complicated”.
He laughed then. A low, rumbling sound. “Your mother thinks everyone is complicated. Even me. Stop worrying. It doesn’t fit you”.
Then he hugged me.
When the bus begins moving, the boy seated beside me takes it as permission to speak. When he boarded, everyone had stared at him. He had smirked. I stared longer than most because he wore a bright yellow shirt and green trousers. It was the oddest thing. And he was fair. No fair person I knew wore those colours together.
“Hey, good morning,” he greets. “What’s up?”
“Good morning,” I reply.
Even though I am looking out the window and away from him, I can feel him waiting. I say nothing.
“Hm. You’re one of those quiet people”.
He triggers a memory.
“YOU’RE ONE OF THOSE QUIET PEOPLE,” Bayo told me. I was in my second term, in SS2 at Overcomers Secondary School, Suleja. It was long break and the school field, which wasn’t really a field since no grasses had survived the constant burden of human shoes, was populated by students talking in groups, eating Spaghetti and Stew at Mama Andrew’s small spot, running around or like me, respecting their business.
I ignored Bayo and kept chewing my puff-puff.
Bayo Adekunle transferred to my school from one of the big schools in Abuja. He had only been here a year but with his face, defined by beautiful angles and his considerable height, it was no surprise that he was very popular. He smiled at me and I nibbled my snack.
“You hardly say anything in class”.
While a part of me was flattered that the guy who was arguably the best looking in school, and certainly the best footballer here, was talking to me, a greater part of me was more interested in finishing my snack before the Time Prefect rung his bell with smug authority.
“I am disturbing you,” he observed. “Anyway, I like you”.
Several sensible conversations later, Bayo became my boyfriend.
In SS3, I realised I was in love.
That year I failed the UTME.
A year later, I was pregnant.
I glare at this boy bringing back memories I now detest. Onyedika would like this one. Bold guys, he would say, bold guys rule the world. And mommy would softly caution him that they usually died quickly.
“That’s after they rule,” he would counter.
I am not Onyedika. I do not like this boy with his yellow shirt and the easy familiarity he wears.
“Is it that easy?” I ask him.
“Is it that easy to look at me, just for a moment and conclude I’m quiet?”
He says nothing; looks at me, then at my swell and when his eyes find mine, I expect the usual emotions: disgust, pity, coldness. Each, its own form of judgement. I am not prepared for the amusement I see in them or the smile that teases the edge of his lips.
“You’re angry,” he whispers – low and soft. And that is enough to remind me that we are in a bus, and even though Wizkid’s ‘I Love My Baby’ is playing at full volume, people will still listen to us if I raise my voice.
“I know you’re angry,” he continues. “I am Andrew. My friends call me Chima. You can call me Andrew”.
“Why do you think I’m angry?”
He smiles now. “Your tone. Ve-no-mous”
I cringe. I have transferred my aggression and without meaning to, I have been rude. Both actions cause me some discomfort but the rudeness worries me. I look away. “Sorry”.
He remains silent.
Hours later, when our driver finally stops for a food break in Lokoja, Kogi State, I am relieved. The journey from Abuja has taken longer than I expected. I know this because Papa told me that if the driver was fast, we would get to Lokoja by past 1P.M. The driver is slow. It is almost three.
The first thing I do is pee. It costs me fifty naira. Twenty naira more than the usual price. The man outside the toilet mumbles an apology but feebly defends his action. “Na country cause am. I for even let you enter for free but it’s bad market”.
Most of the passengers have joined the driver to eat at one of several good looking eateries around but I don’t join them. My driver’s meal will be free because he drove us here and “brought customers”. My meal, however, will be expensive and almost certainly bland.
The incident happens when I go to buy fried yams from a woman selling along the road. She seems to be the oldest among four women selling fried yams, potatoes and plantains. Beside them, two boys sell chilled bottles of Coke, Pepsi and Viju Milk. The woman takes in my swell and my ring-free fingers but says nothing. Her welcoming expression remains fixed. And even though I don’t want to, I am grateful.
When Andrew joins me, I am collecting my change.
“Are you ok?” He asks me. Then to the woman, “Plantain, two hundred”.
Yes, I tell him and I am not lying. “Add Pepper,” he tells her. “What’s your name?”
He asks for an English name Even though it’s Mary, I tell him I have none because I hate it. He nods and with a smile, collects his plantains and begins eating them there. As we turn around, the woman says something in Yoruba.
Andrew freezes. Then he turns around and yells, “May that same Jehovah forgive your dirty mouth!” His anger is such a wild thing, the woman pulls back. He spits at the ground and throws the plantains down.
Everyone is staring.
WE ARE MOVING AGAIN AND ANDREW HAS REFUSED TO TELL ME WHAT THE WOMAN SAID TO PROVOKE HIM SO. Moreover, I feel like I owe him and this frustrates me. I hear Papa’s voice, “Find a way to ask without asking. Do you understand?”
Some passengers steal glances our way, no doubt waiting for Andrew to make this journey interesting again. But he has closed the world out. Generic sunglasses shield his eyes and red earphones block his ears. I can hear the sound of angry rap from them. Again, I think Onyedika would like this boy.
ONYEDIKA LIKED MANY THINGS BUT FOOTBALL, Chelsea and boldness topped the list. Once, I was loved and above those things then I fell and he let me go. The things he liked were usually of no consequence but his hatred was a different matter. When my brother hated, he hated with no room for anything else.
I was in JSS1 the first time I heard him use that term. He was in JSS3. He walked into the kitchen where Mama and I were trying our best to get dinner ready in time for Super Story, a show we all saw together, and declared, “I hate Alex”.
Mama frowned but said nothing. And I, slicing Ugu leaves, saw Onyedika’s certainty deflate a little.
“It’s ok to hate him,” he added. “He’s very wicked”. Somehow, he was asking for my mum’s permission to hate. Mama stirred the soup for a several minutes, and the silence which ruled the kitchen was thick. Then she said, “I didn’t bring my children up to die from stress”.
My brother frowned and I assumed he considered her reply inadequate. But he nodded and walked away. That night he didn’t eat. And Mama didn’t ask him.
Onyedika didn’t need Mama’s permission to hate me.
The hate was solely his choice and it flourished as he nurtured it with little drops of meanness here and there. Sometimes, bits of love would sneak past his walls – a smile here, a laugh there – but when I saw them, he would yank them back. Each time his eyes met mine, they would say, Remove it. Remove it and be my sister again.
I stopped looking at his eyes.
He greeted me “Morning” now and each time he said it – when he bothered to – it sounded like a curse. He had decided that I didn’t deserve a good morning, afternoon or evening.
Yet, he found the strength to avoid asking me who had gotten me pregnant. Papa hadn’t asked either. It was my mum, sneaking into my room one night, who did.
Bayo, I told her. Bayo Adekunle.
She nodded, patted my shoulder and assured me that she would make Rice and Stew the next day.
ANDREW HAS REMOVED HIS GLASSES AND THE EARPHONES. He is open to the world again. “Are you hungry?” I ask him.
He turns and looks at me; then past me, out the window. He begins tapping his knees. “It wasn’t about you,” he says. “What happened back there didn’t really have anything to do with you”.
“It’s ok”. I look away.
He isn’t looking at me. We remain like this; unmoving while the world around us moves forward.
“She said you’re the type of girl who should be mad because you don’t know what to do with what Jehovah gave you”. He finally says. “It was somehow”.
Then he tells me about his elder sister, Jenny. He calls her the most beautiful woman in the world. Two years ago, he explains, she came back from the University of Ilorin and told their mother that she was pregnant. He had been delighted at the prospect of the closest thing he could get to a younger sibling but his mother, a secondary school teacher, had been hurt then furious.
“I’ll pay. You’ll get it out and move on with your life”. But Jenny refused and delivered her reason simply. “He’s dying of cancer. I’m keeping our baby”.
Andrew stops tapping his knees. “You remind me of her. You’re courageous too”. He says it with a smile. So sure, this one, that I am strong. So certain of a lie.
But Jenny’s story isn’t mine. If what she showed was courage, then it was a mountain of it. Mine is a tiny flower trying to survive. And Bayo, who isn’t dying of anything as grand as cancer, isn’t my reason for keeping this child. I do this because I can; because my parents want me to; because Onyedika does not want me to.
ON THE DAY ONYEDIKA ASKED ME WHY I KEPT THE BABY, I skipped Sunday Mass and decided to help Mama with the stew and the oha soup. Papa who had no reason to stay back, told us that the God he worshipped would not kill him for skipping Mass.
My brother attended Mass.
When he came back, he met us eating. He smiled. “Father Matthew preached about purity today,” he began. “Purity of mind and body. I don’t know which is more important but I know they must go together”.
I pushed my eyes into my plate.
“He said purity was very important,” Onyedika continued. “And you know Father Matthew is hardly wrong”. I do not know if he was trying to be subtle or just pretending to be, but each time he spoke, I felt smaller. If he continued this way, I would disappear.
“Go to the kitchen, get your food. It’s been waiting for you. Then, go to your room”. This was from my mother. Onyedika didn’t move. My father said nothing. I looked up to see my her glaring at him.
Then, as if, subtlety was a burden too heavy for his mind, Onyedika exploded. “I don’t know why nobody sees anything wrong here. Eh. Why? Why are you keeping it? For who, please? O maka onye? You’re not pure!” He looked frustrated and hurt and confused. It made his face wrong
Then Papa asked, “Are you a pure person, Onyedika?”
My father is a good man.
WE GET TO ENUGU BY PAST SEVEN. When I get down from the bus, the size and activity in the park scares me a little. I can hear people calling the park, “New park”. I wait for the driver to get my bags for me. Andrew, standing beside me, is silent.
“So I’ll be seeing you?” I ask.
He nods. “Maybe. Enugu is actually small”. He waits. I realize this is the moment. I can ask for his number or he can ask for mine but neither happens. The driver pulls my bags from the back of the bus and hands them to me. I hold one and let one drop.
“Later then,” Andrew says. He swings his bag on his shoulder and walks away and I keep looking at him until he boards a keke. I don’t know what I’m feeling but I don’t feel good.
A moment later, I see my Aunt. About an hour before, when we had passed by Nsukka, I called her. She’s chubbier than the photo my father showed me. Her hair is a dark mass of curls running down to her neck. It’s a normal hairstyle made different by a strip of bright purple running across the length of her hair.
When she sees me, her lips stretch to the left in a smile and she begins walking towards me.
I realise it is rude to wait for her so, I begin pulling my bag towards her. I must look funny because she begins laughing.
“Biko, wait there. Don’t kill yourself”. She shouts. “You can’t see me walking towards you, abi?”
I decide that I like her.
Michael E. Umoh is a graduate of Mass Communication from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Obsessed with rock music and most things written, his works have appeared on BrittlePaper, Afridiaspora, Afreada, Expound and in several anthologies.