Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away | Chapter 14 of 45

Author: Christie Watson | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 4353 Views | Add a Review

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Mama seemed to be working more and more and leaving earlier and earlier. She did not return until long after the sun had disappeared, and she woke up a long time before dawn to apply her makeup. After the sun came up, she took some off. Even with some makeup taken off, it was thick, like a mask, a different face covering hers.

“Your makeup is too much. It is not modest.” Alhaji was angry. I could hear his raised voice all the way from the back of the garden where Ezikiel and I were looking at an old snakeskin with a twig. We had stopped using our fingers to touch the snakeskin, as the scales were melting against the heat of our fingertips.

“Makeup is a necessary part of the job. I have to look my best. The prettiest girls get the best tips.” Mama’s voice was also raised enough that we could hear it clearly. “Oh. And I’ve left some tips under your breakfast plate. Anyway, we need the money. What else can I do?”

“Aha. The money situation is not so bad that you need to change your face.”

“We have no money for Ezikiel’s medication, the school fees, food and water! And even if NEPA gave us electricity, we couldn’t pay for it now.”

Ezikiel dropped his twig and looked up. I looked at him.

“Eh! Things are not too bad. I have excellent moneymaking ideas. There is plenty of business at the Executive Club …”

“It is fine,” I whispered. “Mama is exaggerating.”

But every morning, Alhaji pretended to sniff his plantain and eggs on his way to pray, but I knew that he was checking to see how many dollar bills Mama had left for him. He did not mention the makeup situation again.

“What can he say?” asked Mama. She was standing next to Grandma in the river, washing her arms with soap. They were both wearing wrappers tied underneath their armpits. I did not see the point. None of the boys or men ever came that far downstream. I was about to join them to bathe, but something about Mama’s voice made me stop and stand behind the bushes.

“He hasn’t even paid Celestine’s bride price installment this month,” Mama continued. “And that Executive Club! He says he’s doing business there, but it’s just a drain on finances. All the Big Men do there is drink Rémy Martin and tell each other how important they are. Executive Club! Just a club for men to go and show off at. Who has the best car, the youngest girlfriend, the most wives—I know, I’ve seen it. The old men just go there to watch Sky Sports and sit around in the air-conditioning. It’s not exactly moneymaking!”

Grandma giggled. “All men are foolish! He is a bloody foolish man. But he has been going to that club for years. And a good name is better than gold. But the bride price for that woman. Paying installments. For her! Imagine. That woman is no big dowry wife. Anyway, we are not too poor. We have a house and a garden and food. That is not poor!”

But although Grandma’s words said one thing, her voice said another. It was higher than usual and she was breathless. Was she worried about money?

“We may have a house and food and a garden, I agree. Of course, there are people worse off than us. But what about Ezikiel’s medications? His asthma inhaler and injections. Ezikiel’s medicines have to take priority over anything else.”

“Alhaji will not let Ezikiel’s health suffer,” said Grandma.

I waited behind the bushes for Mama to say something, but it was quiet after that. All I could hear were the sounds of the river birds and the scrubbing of skin.

Grandma did as she promised with Celestine. At night she tied a large coin around Celestine’s middle with green string, and pushed the dodo in, placing a ten-kobo coin on top of it. The coin did not cover the swelling and Grandma had to borrow Alhaji’s English fifty-pence coin, which was bigger and shiny silver. Celestine was happy to have an English coin next to her skin.

“It is probably worth millions,” she said.

The swelling was fixed in no time. Celestine began to wear her T-shirts in a high knot above her waist, showing off her newly normal belly button. Alhaji told her she was too fat for such a display, but Grandma just laughed whenever she saw Celestine carrying water in a bucket balanced on her hair weave, or sweeping the floor with her breasts almost hanging out of her clothes. She wore a bra that was three sizes too tight, which gave her the appearance of having four breasts. She kept her lipstick in the bra, even after it seeped out and stained her right breast a color called “Luscious Loganberry.” Celestine pointed out the color to anyone who appeared to be looking at the stain. No matter how often Alhaji told her to be modest, she ignored him, and Grandma laughed even more.

“Each man gets what each man deserves,” said Grandma.

Within a month, Alhaji had stopped visiting Celestine’s room at night and began to say, “Be quiet, silly woman,” during the evenings when he preferred peace. Celestine walked around the compound sucking her teeth and saying, “If we had a generator we could have television” or, “There is never a party here. I am so bored I could die.”

“I am so lonely,” she said once. Her English was improving.

I was on my way to collect water, with a pail in each hand. I ignored her and carried on walking. Celestine sniffed. I turned around. She was sitting on the ground, her wrapper fanned around her in the dirt. She looked like an overgrown baby. I thought of how lonely I felt when I had first arrived. Of how much I had missed Lagos. “How can you feel lonely? There are so many people here.”

Celestine smiled at me. “All the people here hate me,” she said.

I walked toward Celestine and put my hand on her shoulder. “Nobody hates you,” I said. “It is just different, that is all.”

Celestine looked up at me and smiled. “Because of my status as the wife of Alhaji. He paid a big bride price for me! But I am a very nice and educated person. If only they would give me a chance. I would even share my things. I have many items. Even my films. I am buying these films, and you people don’t even have a television. Or DVD player, or even electric generator.” She started crying again. “Kung fu dwarf film,” she said between wails. “Very funny. And no way of watching it.” She took a box from her bag and showed it to me. I looked at the cover. A tiny man was in midair, legs split, his foot about to kick the head of another tiny man. Celestine beckoned me closer with her hand. I squatted on the ground next to her. She leaned toward my ear, covering her mouth with her hand. “If we had a DVD player,” she whispered, “I could even show you a dwarf sex film. Very, very, very funny.”

“Please test this.” It was a week later. Celestine waved a piece of meat in front of Alhaji. Grandma had just served cow leg and I was already sucking and chewing, sucking and chewing. The cow leg tasted sweet. My stomach was swollen full, but I could not stop eating. Grandma said the meat was too cheap and would need to be fried in groundnut oil, so Ezikiel had to stick to yam dipped in palm oil. He looked at my cow leg. My next mouthful did not taste sweet at all.

Celestine held the white fat, bone, and gristle up to the light. “This could be poisoned.”

“Stupid woman. Eat.” Alhaji looked up at the sky, sighed, and lifted the bowl to his chin.

“That rival could have poisoned me.”

“Eat the food. And stop this stupidness.”

Celestine put the cow leg back in her bowl. She looked from the side of her eye at Grandma, who continued serving the dinner as though Celestine did not exist.

“Everyone knows she is amusu. A witch.”

There was silence. Nobody dared swallow. Cow leg juice dripped down my chin, but I did not wipe it away. It felt like an insect crawling down my face.

Suddenly Grandma came at Celestine with a wooden spoon. I had never seen a person move so quickly. “I will break you, stupid bloody woman!” She hit Celestine over the head and began to shout. “A fly that accepts to walk in the house of a spider may never live to see another day!” The red wispy hair weave somehow got hooked onto the spoon and was pulled off Celestine’s head, then flicked across the veranda, where it lay like a dead rat. Celestine’s nearly bald head shone. Grandma smacked it repeatedly. The spoon against Celestine’s head made a sound like someone was clapping very loudly. It sounded like the faraway clapping that I sometimes heard at night, but nearer. Mama, Ezikiel, and I ran into the house and stood in the doorway. The two women moved around the veranda, Grandma smacking Celestine and Celestine trying to move away. Grandma was quicker. No matter where Celestine moved to, the spoon stayed near her head.

Ezikiel began to laugh. He pointed to the weave-rat on the ground. I felt laughter in my stomach mix with the cow leg and fear and become bigger and bigger until I could not help laughing with him. Mama slapped the top of his head and then the top of mine, but we could not stop laughing. Every time I opened my eyes there was something funny to look at: Alhaji covering his face, Celestine’s bald head, Grandma with the wooden spoon.

“Stop!” Mama shouted, as Celestine screamed.

“Stop!” Ezikiel shouted, as her screams became so loud it was as if she was dying.

“Stop!” I shouted.

But Grandma continued, clap, clap, clap, clap, until Alhaji stood and raised his hand in the air. Celestine was folded up on the ground, her hands trying to cover her head, but the spoon found its way through.

“Stop,” Alhaji said. And she did. Grandma lowered the spoon, leaving a darker area on Celestine’s head. Grandma stepped back, and Celestine stood up. She looked as if she would jump on Grandma for a second, with her hands outstretched, as if reaching in order to grab Grandma’s neck. Alhaji took Celestine’s arm. Her eyes were bulging outward toward Grandma.

“Never ever accuse my chief wife of witchcraft,” he said. He opened his cosmetic case and took out a pot, from which he took four tablets and swallowed them one after the other with no water. “You are the junior wife, you see? You will listen to the chief wife and do as she says! Never blame my chief wife of such a thing as witchcraft! It is a dangerous accusation. A very dangerous thing to say.” Alhaji pointed to the boys’ quarters. “A stupid and dangerous accusation.”

“Please, please.” Celestine was crying. Her eyes were flat against her head again. “Please, sorry sorry. I am scared that she will poison me. She is jealous, jealous of me—”

“Get!” said Alhaji. “I will not tell you again.” He pointed his arm farther away from his body toward the boys’ quarters. His arm was very long. It was the length of one of his legs.

Celestine walked slowly away, rubbing her head and wailing. “Sorry, sorry …”

I began to watch Grandma more closely. Was she really a witch? Could it be true? Could she perform juju? I knew she believed in witchcraft, and she had told me stories of charms and juju that had done harm or good. She had told me of juju witches and wizards that needed toenail clippings and human hair and sometimes body parts to perform their spells. She told me that witches and wizards were thrown into the river after they had died—which was another reason not to drink the river water.

Grandma was on the other side of the veranda braiding the hair of one of Youseff’s daughters. The other daughters all stood in a line behind Grandma’s chair, waiting. I did not see the point. It would take Grandma hours.

I leaned forward to Ezikiel’s ear. “Could it be true?” I whispered.

“What?” Ezikiel shouted and moved away from my face.

“Shh.” I put my finger to my lips and moved it away quickly. I did not want Grandma overhearing and coming at me with a wooden spoon. But I could not stop wondering if it could be true. Grandma was called away during the night, and during the day, and sometimes she ran toward the car where Youseff would be sitting with the engine running, or sometimes she would run toward the river, pulling down a thin canoe on the way. Always, she had the bag by her side. Every time I asked someone about Grandma’s job, they sent me away.

Ezikiel leaned his ear back down toward my mouth.

“Could it be true?” I whispered again, this time pointing at Grandma.

“What are you talking about?” Ezikiel hushed his voice.

I looked at Grandma. She was pulling the girl’s hair so tightly even her nose had raised upward and I could see straight into her nostrils.

“Grandma. Could she be a witch?”

Ezikiel laughed immediately. He held his sides and moved his head back and forth. Grandma looked over at us and let the girl’s hair go enough that her nostrils flattened down. I turned my head and kicked Ezikiel’s foot.

He stopped laughing and started shaking his head. “You are so funny,” he said.

Later, Ezikiel went with Alhaji to an important meeting about Islam. When I asked him what it was, he shrugged and opened his eyes wide, before getting into the back of the car next to Alhaji. The car pulled away. I waved, but Ezikiel did not wave back. He kept his eyes facing forward the same as Alhaji’s, as though he could not see me standing there at all. He seemed to be following Alhaji more and more. And instead of laughing at him, or making jokes at what Alhaji said, Ezikiel began to ask him questions: What side effects are common with beta-blockers? What medical school is best for me? Do you think I will make a good doctor? I had no idea why Ezikiel was suddenly interested in Alhaji and ignoring me. What had I done?

When all the girls’ hair was plaited, Grandma fell asleep on the veranda chair with her head tipped back. I did not realize what I had gone looking for until I was in her bedroom pulling it toward me. The bag was heavy and smelled of rotten meat. I opened the clasp and looked at the doorway. I listened for noises but could hear only the sound of my heart thumping in my neck. Something was shining in the bag. I put my hand in slowly. My fingers were shaking. I could feel something cold and wet, hard objects, something metal. A piece of material. Farther inside, my hand hit something. I pulled it back out suddenly. Something sharp had pierced my finger. My skin looked normal for many seconds before a tiny line of blood appeared. A knife. Would a witch carry a knife? What other job would need a knife? Grandma couldn’t be a butcher, as we hardly ever had meat. Surely a butcher would bring home meat every day. And butchers were always men; I had never seen a woman butcher. And a butcher would be paid every week. If Grandma was a butcher, Mama and Grandma and Alhaji would not be so worried about money. But why else would Grandma carry a knife?

I put the knife back, shut the bag, and crept from the room.

“One day I will open my European Fashion Boutique,” Celestine said, after our dinner of kpokpo garri. I thought of the market shop, which had nothing but naked dolls and large canisters full of lace. “Lycra is the fashion in the U.S.,” she continued. “It will take off here. Whatever fashion starts in the West, Nigeria follows behind.”

“What is Lycra?” I asked. I had finished my garri and was crunching a bag of out-of-date potato chips.

“Very special material. Contours to a woman’s own shape.” Celestine pulled her wrapper up to reveal a petticoat, and tugged it. It stretched and then sprang back when she let go. I darted my eyes to Alhaji, who went on eating his bag of chips. “All clothes will be Lycra in the future,” she said. “Very slimming.” I raised my eyebrows enough for Ezikiel to pinch my arm.

“It is a stupid idea for a job,” said Grandma. “It is not a modest job.”

Celestine shook her head. “No, Sister. Is very good business idea. Lycra holds sweat in close, very good in hot weathers. Keeps the body cooler.”

“It is a stupid idea, bloody stupid woman,” continued Grandma. “Lycra? For a Muslim wife of a chief? It is not modest. It might be good for Christians, but Islam states that Lycra on women is not modest.”

“Where does it say Lycra is no good? It is not in the Koran. You show me where.”

“You cannot read, bloody stupid woman. So I cannot show you.”

Alhaji had his mouth open to speak, but there was no gap between the women’s words to fit his in, until Grandma asked, “What do you think?”

Alhaji sighed. He looked tired; his loose face skin was even looser, hanging around his neck. “As an engineer, I know about materials,” he said. “Grandma is right. Lycra is too hot.” Celestine stuck her bottom jaw out and folded her arms. “Also it is too tight. Not modest at all. It is not suitable for the wife of Alhaji to be wearing such tight clothes. You see?”

Nobody spoke. For several minutes there was the sound of crunching and faraway shouting. The faraway shouting was happening more and more. It still sounded far away but seemed to creep closer every day. Snap circled the bottom of the veranda area for leftover bones. He was always nearby during mealtimes. Most mealtimes somebody felt sorry enough for him to throw him something.

Grandma sucked the meat off a bone, then picked between her teeth with it, before throwing it to Snap. “There you are, boy,” she said. Snap danced around the bone and jumped to his hind legs. It was a trick that Boneboy had taught him. We laughed as Snap spun around in a circle chasing the bone already in his mouth. Boneboy laughed the loudest. He had an infectious laugh. He was sitting in the shade at the side of the house, leaning his back against the wall. I had not noticed him there until he laughed.

“Also,” said Celestine, above the laughter, “Lycra comes in many colors.” Alhaji stood up, walking toward the house. “Bright colors, like pinks and purples, beautiful greens.” One by one, we walked away, leaving Celestine talking to Snap. “Blues, bright greens, every shade.” When I looked back, Snap had stopped running in circles and was crunching his bone with his ears flattened down.

There was nearly a full moon that night. We were sitting on the veranda listening to Alhaji talk about the future of petroleum quality testing, when it appeared as if a giant tin barrel was floating toward the compound. I half closed my eyes. Then I rubbed them. I thought I was seeing things. Everyone looked surprised, even Grandma, who believed that objects could float. Celestine jumped to her feet, and then up and down. “It has arrived!” She ran toward the barrel and opened the gate. Then a Citroën car crept in. The driver was a small man with a large clipboard. His eyes flitted over me and rested on Celestine.

“Celestine Kentabe residence?” he asked. He got out of the low car and stretched his arms high. He had a lopsided mustache. Celestine jumped excitedly; her breasts followed. I tried not to look at the driver’s eyes looking at Celestine’s breasts.

“That’s me, that’s me, it is for me.”

Alhaji frowned and Grandma shrugged her shoulders. He walked over to the car, everyone following a few steps behind him. I walked slowly. I felt scared about what was coming.

“What is this?” Alhaji spoke to the driver, who was by then staring so hard at Celestine’s breasts that he had not noticed Alhaji coming. He jumped and nearly fell over.

“The shipment for Miss Kentabe,” said the man, waving his clipboard and beginning to untie the barrel.

“Mrs. Kentabe,” said Alhaji. He stood in the way of the driver’s eyes and Celestine’s breasts. The barrel rolled off the car and crashed onto the ground. Grandma put her hand on Celestine’s shoulders and Celestine stopped bouncing around. I hovered behind Grandma, trying to make myself invisible. Ezikiel stood close to me. I could feel him holding laughter in his stomach.

“What is it?” Grandma asked.

Celestine smiled widely; her eyes disappeared. She started a bottom-shuffling owigiri dance to imaginary music. Her bottom stuck out like a shelf. It could have been used to balance a cup on.

“Lycra!” she shouted. “Lycra for my European Fashion Boutique!”

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user comment image
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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