It all began like a dream: my mother opened the door and walked in. Then Ngozi entered the room, too. I had just stretched in bed to sleep when I felt a hot stinging in the back of my eyes and opened them, only to find these people I had loved, who’d left me a long time ago. My mother sat on my right side. Ngozi leaned in from the left.
Time had not changed or shrunk them. I was in my early sixties, but Ngozi still looked sixteen, still wore the blue dress I had often teased her was too snug around her chest. My mother was as she had been when she died twenty years ago. It was as though they’d stepped out of a photo taken in my youth, both still dressed in familiar clothes from the past, my mother’s hair swept up in her usual loose up-do. Ngozi touched my shoulder, her fingers, long and thin, like okra. A ripple ran through me. These hands that had stroked my body. These hands that had once wiped away my tears.
Ngozi and my mother helped me off the bed, each holding my arms on either side, and the three of us trudged into the lazy morning sun. The air smelled of freshly dug up earth, the ground wet with just-fallen dew. A squirrel raced across my fence, tittering as it hopped onto the coconut tree. A bird perched on the guava tree, singing with a voice that was larger than its tight-fist size. My ears had never paid that much attention before now to the singing, how sharply every other sound came: the cries of children at the nearby playground, the thumping of pestles into mortars, the clang of lids and spoons against iron pots, the thwack of an axe on firewood.
We sat on the wooden bench which my housegirl Onyema had set by the door, our backs against the cold brick wall.
“My heart, that girl has finally learned how to sweep,” Ngozi said, pointing at the yard. The palm broom Onyema swept with left neat zigzags on the sandy floor.
My mother hissed and muttered something. My heart. It was what Ngozi had called me when we were young and inseparable. It had always made my mother uncomfortable; perhaps it was something about the way Ngozi said the words, her tone at once nonchalant and forceful.
I could not ignore the fact that this no longer felt like a dream. For one, I was sitting, something I hadn’t been able to do in many months, not since my legs failed and I had been confined to bed. Plus, how could Ngozi know about Onyema’s earlier days with me? The housegirl had only come to live with me three years ago. I turned to my mother.
“How long have you two been here?”
She began to speak but then Onyema grabbed a yellow pail of water she’d set at a corner, whistling a song as she walked past us. She didn’t say greetings, didn’t even acknowledge our presence. I felt the beginnings of anger twitch my fingers. Which Igbo child walked past her elders in such a manner? But Ngozi shook her head.
“Let the girl be,” I heard her say, though she didn’t even open her mouth to speak.
My mother looked at us, at our intertwined fingers and her lips thinned out and a dark cloud began to gather in her eyes. And I saw in those eyes the memories I had buried in my mental attic: me as a girl, begging her to approve of my relationship with Ngozi. She had regarded Ngozi as one would a cat to their basket of fish, and would die before she accepted the girl. But Ngozi had been unperturbed by the disapproval; she was blinded by her strong-headed belief that we were meant to be together, and I was blinded by my stubborn loyalty to our relationship. We had clung to each other like meat to a bone.
But then I turned sixteen and a man had appeared at our door — a man who my mother had arranged for me –– whose proposal I immediately rejected. And Ngozi was gone. When I went by her house, her mother said she had married hastily and moved to the city with her husband.
My mother had attempted to console me but nothing made sense, and food no longer had any taste. I barely spoke after Ngozi left, barely left my room at all. There was some rumor I had lost my mind. My eyes sunk into their sockets, my belly to the back of my waist, my limbs thinning to broomsticks, and my dresses hung on my body like sacks of garri. My mother knew she could lose the only seed rooting her in her late husband’s home. She knew that my uncles would swoop in on her and my father’s properties if she did nothing, so she arranged another hasty marriage. I was too tired and did not rebel this time.
My relationship with my mother shriveled like a parched plant. We had polite conversations over the years, but they were rife with empty pauses, and the maw between us widened, swallowing whatever affection we had felt for each other. Then one day she went to sleep and did not wake up. That was forty-five years ago.
We sat in silence, listening to the neighborhood mothers as they shouted greetings to each other from across their low thatched fences, listening to the laughter of the children as they rushed past in groups, listening to our own pounding hearts. For a moment, no one said anything. In the past, my mother would have begun shouting, asking Ngozi to leave. “I have told you, I don’t want that uncouth girl in my house,” she would have said to me, but Ngozi would have ignored the rudeness.
“How long have you both been here?” I asked them. “How are you even here with me?” I reminded them that it was the year 2016 and I was sixty-two and people no longer wore their hair in knots or tinged their lips with dyes. I strung out the happenings of this time like a nervous reporter. My mother gripped my anxious, trembling hands.
“Feel my face,” my mother said, and rested my hands on her cheeks. “We are here.”
“Am I dead?” I asked.
Ngozi glanced at my mother, who took a long deep breath. When my mother didn’t say anything, Ngozi sighed, said, “My heart, you are now here with us.”
For some minutes I couldn’t speak. I could only breathe. Ngozi said she had been there when I gave birth to my two daughters, when these daughters married and left, and when my husband died. She said she had never left my side, that she had been waiting for this day when I would finally be able to see her. I felt a sudden wave of dizziness. My mind had been muddled in a haze of uncertainty, and now I struggled with the vividness of my new truth.
I looked down at my arms. Every bare inch of skin was shriveled and covered in gray tufts, and my usually-dead legs were still riddled with liver spots. But I no longer breathed in laborious gasps and found I could move my legs without effort. I could feel the grits of sand on the floor biting against my heels.
“I have been waiting for this day, my heart,” she said, and rested her head on my shoulder. Her hair smelled of coconut. She began to knead my tensed shoulder, and I felt the beginnings of calm settle inside my stomach. I threw an arm around her and held on, too. And my mother, who could never bear to see our bodies touch, stood and walked away with a hiss. Her slippers made slap-slap sounds under her feet. Without warning, another memory of my childhood came back: of me willing her to allow Ngozi into our house, crying in my room after she’d chased Ngozi away and locked me inside. A ripple of anger surged through me. A brisk wind swept up the reddish soil into the air.
“The mothers have refused to let us in,” Ngozi said, calmly. If she noticed my mother’s irritation, she did not show it.
“Let you in where?”
“Into the next life. We have been trapped here all these years. The mothers insist we make peace or we will wander here forever.” She sounded so casual, as if the afterlife was a normal conversation we’d had many times in the past.
The yard was still; the dust had settled and the walls and the corrugated roofs of the houses nearby were now coated with a fresh reddish film. The neighborhood noise returned again, the melodious symphony of the voices of the young and the old, and clangs of objects. Someone was singing an Igbo song of praise in the compound next to mine, Mama Nkechi, her voice deep and quavering, as if the song rose from the pit of her stomach. I sat still on the edge of my seat, my stomach rumbling, wanting to tell Ngozi that I did not know what to do with this information, that I had never worried about what happened after death, where I would go afterward. All I ever longed for was to see her again. That was enough for me.
“We have to leave,” I said, standing, but Ngozi remained seated.
“What are we going to do about her?” She pointed to my mother’s direction. “We can’t move on without her.” She was looking at me, and I wondered if she was searching my face for confirmation that I was ready to finally, boldly, confront my mother.
I thought for a moment and then said something I had never said before about my mother. “She must have to accept what she can’t change this time.”
“Come, Mama,” I called out to where she stood in the corner of the courtyard. “We have to talk.”
Ngozi wore a polite smile, her hands folded on her lap. My mother stopped before us, flicked her gaze from me to Ngozi, her lips pressed shut.
“This thing you two are doing is a taboo,” my mother said.
“Says, who?” Ngozi stood up.
This started an argument between them, minor at first, but then they were inches from throwing their hands on each other, till I stood and pulled the two of them apart.
“Shut up and sit down, Mama,” I yelled, and my mother gasped. She looked at me as if he had finally realized that many years had passed and I no longer needed her approval. She sat quietly down.
To my mother’s astonishment, I told her that she had brought this purgatory on herself and Ngozi, ruined everything by playing god with my future.
She blinked furiously. She looked sideways at Ngozi, as if to see if the girl was enjoying her ridicule, and sniffed when she saw her fixed smile. Then the tears came, streaking down her cheeks and her neck. I couldn’t tell if her cries were due to what I said or because of her fight with Ngozi.
“Are you ready to make peace?” I asked her.
“I am not ready,” Ngozi blurted. “She must tell you the truth.”
“What truth?” I asked her. But Ngozi stared straight ahead, not ready to break whatever the news was to me. I looked at my mother; she was staring everywhere but at me.
“What truth, Mama?”
My mother buried her face in her palms. She stayed that way for a long time; it was if she had turned to rock. When she looked at me again, I saw that her lips were trembling.
“Ngozi hung herself in her grandmother’s kitchen the month after you married,” she said.
I froze on my seat, felt my pounding in my head that drowned out all sounds. Every nerve inside my body twisted into a painful knot and it suddenly hurt to breathe. I looked at Ngozi, but she stared blankly ahead. Her face had morphed into a wooden mask. Those pursed lips, the stubborn set of her jaw. Perhaps if my mother had not resumed talking, I would have thought this was all in my imagination.
“Her mother and I had to do something about you two. So we sent her to her maternal grandmother and told you that she got married.”
Ngozi made a sound, like a choke, and hastily walked away. She stood in the yard hugging herself, her back turned to us. I felt as if I had somehow failed her by believing the lies and marrying. I wished I could twist something in the air and undo everything.
“I hope you won’t say you are sorry,” I told my mother. “Because that will be stupid.”
“I am tired,” was the only thing she said.
I was filled with a mix of emotions in my chest I could not name. And my mother felt transparent; I was looking at her but it was as if I could see the paint flaking off the wall behind her.
“My daughter,” she began. “I am tired of this purgatory.”
I stood up and walked away.
Ngozi was kicking at pebbles on the compound floor and she wore a smile, but her eyes were wet. “You remember when we used to roll papers into cigarette sticks and smoke them behind your house?” she laughed. “I want to smoke a real cigarette now.”
I touched her neck, ran a finger along the length of it, looked down to check it for marks. A whimper escaped her lips, and her body went taut under my touch. She leaned her head on my shoulder. I folded my arms around her when I felt her tears on my neck. The birds had resumed chirping from the trees, the last joyful sounds we heard, before Onyema’s cries tore through the warm afternoon.
“She is dead o! Mama-Nnukwu is dead o!”
A crowd began to gather. Mama Nkechi rushed into the yard, past us and into the house, clutching at her wrapper which was wound loosely wound around her waist. Other women soon followed, raising a cloud of dust in their haste.
“Do you want to go inside?” Ngozi asked.
I nodded. She held my hand as we walked through the door of the house. “Everything is so awkward now, isn’t it?” I said, “You are still so young and I am a very old woman.”
She shook her head no. “You are transforming,” she said. “Look at your hands.” And I saw that my skin had stretched taut, become less spotted.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Come, you’ll see.”
My mother stood by the door, but I ignored her. My joints no longer ached. I felt filled with a strength I had not known in a long time, and my steps quickened as I entered the room where the clan’s women had gathered. Mama Nkechi was dabbing at her tears with an end of her wrapper. Mama Nonso had placed her hands on her head. Another woman dropped on her knees, at the foot of my bed. All of them crying. They did not acknowledge us; they did not seem to notice our presence. Ngozi pointed at my bed. “Take a look,” she said.
I looked at my body on the bed, and saw the woman I used to be, how pale and shriveled she was, like the soil after harmattan had sucked it of all liquid. Her hair was a mat of gray and stringy black, patches of her balding head showing through. Her long, flat breasts slung down from each side of her chest. One woman pulled a wrapper over her chest.
As we left the room, I looked at the small mirror hanging from my wall and it showed my reflection as I was as a girl, when Ngozi and I stilled played the game of ncho and fetched water from the Ali stream, when my skin was still firm and Ngozi stood a head taller than me.
I looked at Ngozi, but she smiled in a way that said she knew this transformation was going to happen. “The mothers have given us a chance to start again from where we stopped,” she said. She took my hand and together we walked outside.
In the yard, Ngozi looked elegant in the blue dress, the sun shining behind her. It was that time of the day when the morning glories had fully bloomed and the frangipanis tinged the air with their sickly-sweet smell. I extended both of my arms, and Ngozi moved forward. Our embrace was long, our bodies relaxing into each other’s.
My mother approached us, folding and unfolding her arms. I knew from her nervous movements, from the panic on her face and her desperate attempt to appear calm, that she was sorry. Ngozi’s gaze was unflinching, her mouth pressed shut, and she neither smiled nor acknowledged my mother’s presence. But I knew that her anger was one I could appease, her sorrows I could calm. I was finally here and I was the key to her locks.
“Are you ready to move on?” I asked them. The question was just a formality at this point. Still, they said, “Yes.”
I shut my eyes and breathed, carrying in the fresh smell of the earth, the voices of the women who were in my room weeping over my body, the songs of the birds in the trees. When I opened my eyes again, we were standing in front of the stream and my mother and Ngozi were holding my hands, squeezing.
“So, how do we summon the mothers?” I asked them.
“We sing,” my mother said.
And she lifted her voice.
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