Saturday, July 4, 2015

MERAN by James McAdams

“Then at least tell me what the doctors say, to prove you care,” Meran had said. She was alone in the darkened apartment, splayed between blankets and heating pads, propped up by Hello Kitty pillows. Aromatherapy candles illuminated crumpled tissues, pill bottles, and insurance forms on the table where I used to snort cocaine and play drinking games with my old roommates. I felt domesticated, my life a numb vector between our apartment and The Recovery Lodge just down the road. I was annoyed thinking of Meran whining on the couch, researching symptoms on her iPad; resentful that her vague illness had diminished my life’s promised fun, distracting me from proximate pleasures; ashamed when I lied about working in order to see Vanessa (like I had earlier that day), which I used to believe was justified, but now realize what Meran knew all along — that there is no grace like serving, and no betrayal like neglect. Meran was 32 and I was 23 then, but her illness made her look pale and elfin, her features adolescent. While her body had wilted and whitened, her slender face had swelled from the prednisone. There was a rash in a U-shape above her lip from her constantly crying and blowing her nose, and her nose had begun to bleed a few weeks before. Our roles had reversed from when we first met at my older sister’s wedding a year ago (the two of them had been in Student Council together in high school), when I’d stagger from bars or parties to her place with my bloody and swollen face, which she’d tend to before putting me on the couch with water and aspirin. Meran skeeved my apartment because it was “gross”: the dishes gobbed with cheese and stacked in the sink, the soiled cushions on the couch, the smell of cigarettes and beer, semen stains on my deflated air-mattress. Unwashed towels hung over the windows and clothes laid in corners. “This place smells skunky,” she always said. The backyard plot was strewn with ripped trash bags, overflowing green bins of Keystone Ice, pizza boxes molded into Cubist shapes by the rain. I was unemployed at the time and slept all day, only awakening to texts from Meran with little sunshine emoticons accompanied by messages like “Get Up Mattie!” and “It’s a beautiful day!” I never thought of my behaviors or decisions as "Activities of Daily Living," or ADLs as they are termed at The Recovery Lodge. For months Meran had suggested I get a job at The Recovery Lodge as a Human Health Aide. I ignored her until I got my second DUI and my probation officer demanded I either become employed or enter rehab again. Meran helped me get a job where I’d assist clients with their ADLs. Most clients had just been released from mental hospitals, and most of the staff were work-release probates or divorced alcoholics. Together, The Recovery Lodge clients and I learned how to clean ovens, water plants, request money orders, avoid the evils of preservatives. We watched YouTube videos about "How to Tie Ties" and attended GED preparation meetings. On Saturday mornings we cleaned — usually with me using the vacuum, and the clients spraying Lysol on the counters and Febreze on the furniture. On Monday and Wednesday evenings I took them to AA and NA meetings on Lispert St, and I sat in the back, where it was harder to hear the stories of recovery. Then on Saturday afternoons, we all convened at the office for a community meal. The clients brought whatever they could make or purchase, small things like diet soda or crackers, while Meran taught me how to bake casseroles, peel potatoes, place the silverware in the proper arrangement. I had never before prepared anything aside from boiled pasta or burned Ellios pizza. When we all sat down to eat at the two plastic tables that had been moved together, Meran served everyone and then asked every person to tell the group about One Good Thing that had happened that week. Whenever she asked me, I said I thought I might be falling in love, and she blushed. Meran moved into my apartment like six months before that night — I think of it as the last night, at least the last night in spirit. With a kerchief tied around her flowing hair, she scrubbed the linoleum in the bathroom and kitchen, and removed and washed the towels in the windows, folding the towels in the bathroom closet and arranging the windows with tulips and peonies. I replaced my air mattress with a Queen-sized bed from Target and junked my desk from IKEA for a maple one her grandfather had built. For the first time in my life, I slept regular hours, stopped drinking and getting high. We vacationed at the shore and ate at restaurants requiring reservations; Meran giggled with her bright green eyes every time the manager made me wear a rented blazer. I learned what it’s like to share life with another person, to feel connected — that safe feeling I had never experienced before or since, knowing that whatever happened to me, with Meran I wouldn’t relapse, I wouldn’t use. One time we were on the couch watching the show LOST on some rainy Saturday. Neither of us were what you might call socialites, instead preferring to snuggle and talk, watch TV, play rummy, make models of each other from her construction paper and scissors. I asked her the question that had been on my mind since we’d met, “Why are you here? You could be with anyone. Not some junkie loser.” “You don’t have to know, Mattie,” she said. It wasn’t even a big moment. She said it so matter-of-factly. “Just hush,” she continued. “Enjoy yourself, enjoy us, being here now.” “So I’m like your project?” I asked. She rolled over so her eyes were looking up from my lap, folding her strong tan arms around my neck. She looked at me seriously and said, “I pick you. It’s my decision. You can hate yourself, but I love you, and you don’t have any right to ask me about it.” We were silent for a moment and then she broke into a gummy smile, all her perfect teeth showing, and said, “So stop worrying!” She pulled my face down to kiss her, biting my lip before letting go, and turned towards the TV and said, “Put on the next episode, it’s the one I was telling you about, the one with the Smoke Monster.” I hid the remote under the cushion. “You’ll have to earn it,” I said, my voice suggestive. She turned back towards me, her voice sarcastic, asking, “What are you thinking?” “Take care of the kid,” I said, gesturing towards my pants. “You mean this guy?” she asked, rubbing her palm softly over my crotch. “Has he been feeling neglected?” I nodded, hardening, leaning back on the couch as she shifted onto her knees and unzipped my jeans. “Perv,” she said, giggling. “He is a cute little guy, though.” It was the happiest time in my life, and it lasted less than six months before she became sick — something the monster in me blamed her for, no matter how much I tried to be good. *** My eyes adjusted to the darkened room, where it seemed like midnight even though it was only 7 at night. The National Geographic Channel broadcasted something about flowers, but Meran had muted the volume because she claimed the noise worsened her migraines. Outside, the others had finished-off the grill and threw now Frisbees at buckets, or red Dixie cups of Yuengling by their feet. “Nothing’s wrong with you,” I said, answering her question. I directed a clownish expression at her that used to make her laugh before everything bad began: the diseases, my cheating, the miscarriage, my written warnings from The Recovery Lodge for stealing pills. She blew her nose and said, “That’s the point. You won’t talk about it, you won’t say the names of the diseases, you’re just pretending that this isn’t happening." She stuffed the used Kleenex into a CVS bag full of them, not looking at me, her cat crouched on the couch’s arm, peering at the wallpaper’s design. “You know something’s wrong,” she persisted. “Look at me and tell me nothing’s wrong. Tell me what I have. Just share this with me, that’s all I’m asking. We both know what’s happening.” I knew some of the names of the diseases, but I didn’t like to discuss it. I didn’t know why she always wanted to, and changed the subject. “Want me to go get some tulips?” “Tulips smell too strong, they’re not good for my head. I’ve told you that.” “Maybe those chocolate things? You should treat yourself. It’ll get your mind off it.” “What’s it ?” she said. “Me being sick? Having crazy diseases nobody’s ever heard of and people all think I’m just whining and my own boyfriend can’t even be on my side?” Her declining health was the only thing she talked about anymore. She cringed forward, motioning with her one free arm (the other attached to her heart monitor) around the emptied room, sliding the iPad onto the ground beside the rumpled CVS bag. My Wii controllers and old drug paraphernalia were packed in her shoeboxes she’d stacked in the closet. The posters of supermodels and Death Metal bands had been removed and replaced with floral wallpaper. I sat on the rocking chair her grandmother had bequeathed to her when Meran announced her pregnancy at two months, the rocking making my buzz return as I slid towards the couch. “Hush babe,” I said, taking out the meds I’d hooked from the office. “‘Don’t tell me what to do, how I feel.’ Remember when you told me that? I’m here, I love you. Just be here with me.” I didn’t know if my words were true but I knew I needed to say them. I moved the bag with medications onto the table, helplessly holding the pills out to Meran like sacraments. Meran rocked, holding her stomach, two translucent strands of hair resting on her chapped lips. She inspected the pills, separating the chalky white painkillers, Percocet, Vicodin, and Talwin, from the Xanax footballs and cobalt Ambiens. She pointed at the Vicodin. “I can’t swallow those,” she said. “Instead of actually understanding, you just steal meds to shut me up.” “It’s just I don’t want to see you in pain.” “It’s not the pain, Mattie, it’s that it doesn’t work. That’s why it happened, the accident. It’s my stomach, and everything down there, y’know.” She sniffed and grabbed a tissue. “You’re never here anymore. Only if you’re feeling guilty. Even if you’re here you’re not really here. I can tell, I’m not stupid. This shit hasn’t affected my brain yet.” “I have to work, since you can’t...” “Oh right, I forgot everything’s my fault because I can’t work. You don’t think I want to work? You think I want to whine in the dark taking pills all day? Maybe that’s what you want but I have a life and values and things to offer, Mattie. This is bullshit. Everyone pretends to care until it’s inconvenient. It’s like I’m invisible. Just leave, give yourself a break.” She folded a pillow over her head and whipped back onto the couch, her face pressed into the cushions. “Close the window,” she mumbled. “I can’t stand hearing those people laughing.” I was chewing gum to hide the smell of alcohol, and placed my hoodie on the windowsill so she couldn’t smell smoke on it. From the window I saw them; it seemed the entire neighborhood was walking in sandals towards the community pool, beach towels slung over their shoulders or tied around their waists. The pool was located between the playground and the apartment complex’s fitness center (the triad advertised as the “Fun Zone” by the real estate company). It was situated as a sort of buffer between the condos and townhouses on our side of the rise — populated by college students and young unmarried couples — and the county-subsidized studio units of The Recovery Lodge on the lower side of the hill, where the constant floods turned the lawn a perpetual brown. The design was fucked up; often you couldn’t tell who was in recovery and who was not. Vanessa stood on the diving board, her blonde hair swaying, laughing with her head bent back and eyes closed. She wore a commercial smile that turned serious as she sloped her lean body down, splashing through the pool’s surface and gliding underwater until she emerged on the other side, elbow on the edge. Meran was either crying or moaning in pain, and I returned to sit on the couch without touching her. I was high and slightly buzzed from the three tequila shots and paranoid that I smelled like Vanessa’s strawberry conditioner. Meran and I stayed like that for minutes. I did not know how things had started with Vanessa and did not know how to end things with her. It was a thing that was happening that I pretended had no meaning, certainly nothing to do with Meran’s illnesses or inability to have sex. “Mattie?” Meran whispered. I rubbed her through a blanket her hips’ blades jutting out. “Sorry I was a bitch,” she said. I moved closer and rubbed her more, somewhere around her shoulders or neck. She didn’t respond. I rubbed her now the way I rubbed my dog as a boy, completely unlike the way I used to caress Meran. I removed the blanket as she groaned and sighed and turned towards me smiling, insatiable. This memory is still painful and awkward in a way I could never explain, except to ask someone to imagine what it’d be like to masturbate to the image of a dead person. “You don’t need to pretend you love me,” Meran said, mumbling into the pillows. “Don’t talk,” I said, stroking her hair and feeling her forehead. “Get some sleep.” “Will you be here tonight?” I told her I needed to work the overnight shift, but would only be a minute away if she needed me. “Is Vanessa working too?” she asked. “I don’t know,” I lied. “Doesn’t matter, I have GED stuff.” She was quiet for a minute, one of those periods of silence where you just know things are fucked, that silence says more than words. “Return the meds,” she said, “The Lodge needs them more than me. I can deal.” That evening, after Meran fell asleep I wiped away her tears and checked the heart monitor attached to her sternum for proper functioning. I cradled her body under one arm and tucked her into the bed we used to share, making sure she was on her right side so her heart wasn’t pressed down. I checked that the thermostat was set as her doctor had suggested and then returned to the room with the couch to dust off the table, throw away the tissues, and fold the blankets I’d sprayed with Febreze. Those were the days with Meran I remember, when I think of her now, a decade later. It’s a story I don’t tell because it makes me look like an asshole, there’s no getting around it. At the same time it reminds me of Meran’s heart — not her diseased heart, too sluggish to pump blood to her depleted body, but her soul’s heart, its compassion, love, empathy. Of all those who’d worked at The Recovery Lodge in those days, she was the only one who had started and ended her involvement as a volunteer, the only one who didn’t steal meds from patients. The only one who forwarded the office number to her own phone even when she was sleeping or too ill to intervene, just so she would know how everyone was. When I think of Meran’s heart I think of the possibilities of the human heart, those deep, curious passions I never felt except with her. I got crayons and construction paper and scissors Meran had used as an occupational therapist and took them out on the roof via the fire escape. From there you could see over the Fun Zone down to The Recovery Lodge, which consisted of roughly 25 to 30 identical brown brick units. I smoked a bowl I kept hidden with some pills and a flask behind the heat vent in what would have been the baby’s room; I located Meran’s browser history on her iPad, found bookmarked sites and apps for clinics and 501(3) organizations and FAQS for disease names I had heard her mention and seen on insurance forms. I drew a cartoon picture of Meran as a little girl with black pigtails and puffy cartoonish hands and feet and described the conditions in little text-clouds with arrows pointing to the parts of the body involved (for example, “Meran’s heart has an arrhythmia that causes dehydration and fatigue”), and on the other side I drew that same reversed body with different text-clouds (for example, “Meran’s heart is full of love and deserving of my love”). I cut shards of pink paper and folded them into hearts like Mrs. Wendelsam taught us in third grade, and then texted Vanessa that I would be at the office in 20 minutes if she were in the mood. At the time I didn’t intend the hearts to be a break-up note, but rather an indication that I understood what was wrong and cared and was declaring my vows to stick by her — yet now I realize it was me pushing her away. I called it “What’s Wrong with Meran/What’s Right with Meran” and left it beside her bed (I no longer considered it “our” bed), hoping it would make her happy or provide a moment’s relief, while already feeling on her cheeks the night sweats that would soak her covers in two hours. And it did help for a while, she told me once later, before it didn’t matter anymore. *** There is no language for a confession or expression of guilt that doesn’t at the same time implicitly ask forgiveness, even if the person betrayed is absent. The language I’m using is insufficient to convey the tragedy of Meran’s isolation and the forfeiture of my opportunity to save her the way she had, for a while, saved me. What Meran had taught me about the nature of love and sacrifice and the ethos of the gift — where you give without considering compensation — was backwards from the way I lived. The latter reminded me of what Mr. Spomane and the counselors said repeatedly about substances: that we Addicts used them because substances required nothing from us. *** After I left her, I talked to Meran only once before she died. I was back in the same rehab again. The people there were the same people who were there in-and-out over the past decade. My family had long since given up on me and my friends were all dead or in other rehabs. I spent my days curled up on the couch alone, thinking of where my life had gone wrong, all the pivotal moments that had led to this, all the girls I had been with and I questioned what had gone wrong with each one. I couldn’t identify anything. I told myself it was just bad luck, bad timing, it wasn’t meant to be, but when I thought of Meran I knew that I had been at fault, that I had allowed my thoughts about what my life should be like to distract me from the truth and reality of that life. Our counselor, Mr. Spomane, liked to say you do something before you think of something, and the doing creates the emotion. That’s the opposite from how we normally conceive of how emotions work. This is why we felt better even after praying to a God we didn’t believe in, he said; the behavior created the emotion. What I prayed was that I could have ignored Vanessa and my idealized visions of fun, not thought about Meran’s illness as being unfair, and just acted with Meran the way I did with my clients. I should have helped her with her ADLs, I should have listened, I should have left our connection unsevered. I wanted to tell her this, to apologize. I got my chance when she showed up unannounced at the rehab unit with her fiancée. This was like two years ago. A strange man wheeled her in, clearing a spot in front of the soiled couch I was lying on. Meran looked even frailer than before, with some kind of port distending from her abdomen, and her legs were so palsied it was like half her body was in a fetal position. But there was still an aura or a spark — I think I loved her again then, but I might just think that now, looking back, trying to be a good person. I stumbled up from the couch, repeating Meran’s name in a weird cadence, hugging her gently in the chair, barely touching her, as if she would crack if touched. “You look good,” I said. She smirked. “We’re past all that, Mattie. I know what I look like.” Her teeth were yellow and her gums splotched with blood. She had what she identified as a PICC line in her arm’s vein, connected to a fluid container taped to the wheelchair. Even though it was summer, she was wearing a hoodie and sweatpants with heavy exercise socks. I noticed her nails, which had always been manicured and painted, were chewed up and grey, as if they weren’t part of her anymore, like old gloves. “Well it’s not like I’m model of the year either,” I joked. I was wearing a tracksuit from Goodwill I hated but which adsorbed my sweating and concealed my weight gain. She smiled and looked over at the man beside her. He was taller and older. They clenched palms. He was completely bald and had one of those tracheotomy things from smoking inserted into his throat. He gave me a thumbs-up and then kissed her on the cheek. “This is quite a girl,” he said, his voice sounding robotic. “She’s an angel.” “She is.” “Mattie?” Meran paused. “Mattie, this is Gottfried, we’re getting married next week. Nothing big, just family, friends, a civil union thing, but there will be food and dancing and stuff for people who can do that. You should come.” “Next week?” I said. “Well, we better do it soon before we’re dead,” she said, looking up at Gottfried with a smile. He caressed her PICC line, ensuring it stayed inserted. “We met at a recovery meeting,” Gottfried told me, as if I had asked. He smiled and pulled at his moustache. I didn’t know what to say. I just stared at her, a thin vague memory in my mind of vomiting at my sister’s wedding all those years ago, and Meran cleaning me up, holding me over the toilet, making me drink water. Gottfried stuck his hand out. “Nice meeting you,” his robotic voice said. “I figure I’ll give you two some time alone.” He bent down and kissed Meran. “Let me know when you need me." Meran gave me one of those smiles that looks like a wince. She rotated her wheelchair so she was sitting closer to me. We tangled our fingers together. “I was an asshole,” I said. “I should have stayed, been there for you.” I paused. “I deserve to rot in this place.” “You were,” she said. “That doesn’t mean you still are. You’re young, Mattie, you have time, you have life. That’s all you need to recover.” “I’m sorry...” “Stop,” she said. “I don’t hate you. That was a hard time for a lot of people, I lost a lot of friends. The way to tell who your friends are is to get sick, believe me.” We traced our fingers more, in a sort of trance. Meran looked up at me with concern but also a smile, a weak smile that seemed to contain special knowledge. “I don’t blame you Mattie, you just couldn’t handle it,” she finally whispered in my ear, before motioning for Gottfried. “Please come to the wedding.” She left me with some flowers and a little cutout figurine that said “What’s Right About Mattie.” I reversed the figurine but the other side was empty; all it said was “What’s Wrong with Mattie?” with the question mark circled with a heart. They left and I flaked out on the couch, in awe of Meran’s grace, her strength and bravery. I went to the rec room, signed out scissors and markers that some of us huffed, and asked for construction paper from the staff. “What for?” “A wedding card,” I said. “For fuck’s sake,” he said. I made the same card as I did that last night with Meran, but only used one side this time, focusing on what was right about her, what I loved about her, what I was sorry for. The only way to truly apologize, I figured, would be to ensure that Meran knew how I’d never forgotten her, how nobody had, how she had changed everyone’s life for the better. I wrote all that and finished the card, and wrote Meran a letter of confession, signed it “Love Always” and folded it inside the card. The next day a counselor my height brought in one of his suits for me, and the other patients in rehab pitched in for me to purchase a $20 gift card for Starbucks as a wedding gift. I’d just received a special pass to leave the unit when Gottfried called the nurse’s office two days before the wedding, his robot voice informing me that Meran was dead. The head nurse only let me listen to the message twice before she deleted it. I didn’t attend the funeral but used my pass for the memorial, where only Gottfried recognized me. He shook my hand weakly and said, “She’d be glad you’re here. I’ll leave you to pay your respects.” As I waited in line, my heart palpitating and hands trembling, I looked with an odd kind of reverence at the picture of her on the mantle over the coffin. She was standing in the Fun Zone surrounded by clients from The Recovery Lodge — standing in the middle, smaller than all of those who huddled over her in awkward embraces. Her gummy smile, her alert eyes peered directly at the camera, at me. I had taken that picture. That picnic occurred only one week after the miscarriage, which she swore me not to tell anyone about because she never wanted anyone to feel sorry for her. I stared down at her corpse. Not having come up with a better plan, I removed a slip of paper from my pocket and began reciting the names of the diseases (most of which I couldn’t pronounce) — Ulcerative Colitis, Marvan Disorder, Dysautonomia, Panic Disorder, Mantle Cell Leukemia/Blastoid Variant — hoping that the God Mr. Spomane encouraged me to pray to would allow Meran’s soul to observe me finally accede to her desires, that is, to acknowledge in person what had happened to her, to understand her life, to tell it straight like she always wanted. I doubt it’ll help this time, but I’m going to act like it will. James McAdams has published fiction in TINGE Magazine and Carbon Culture Review, serial microfictions in the Annals of American Psychotherapy, as well as forthcoming fiction pieces in per contra and Literary Orphans. He received his B.A. in English/Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh and his M.A. in English from Villanova. Currently, he is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Lehigh University, where he also teaches and edits the university's literary journal, Amaranth.

SOUP by Chikodili Emelumadu

Chikodili Emelumadu is a Nigerian writer and broadcaster living in London. When she is not writing, she spends her time looking for a way through platform 9¾ in Kings’ Cross station, Yggdrasil, or any other portals between worlds — she’s not picky. She has been published in Eclectica Magazine, Luna Station Quarterly, Apex Magazine and is currently nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award.
Akwaugo swore at the catfish, as she tossed and caught the short machete by its handle. She hated the smell of fresh fish and this one possessed a particularly nasty odour. Akwaugo couldn’t wait to turn it into a fragrant, fresh fish pepper-soup. The knife, which once belonged to her mother, had tackled every edible creature, from fish to pig to cow and then some. When she was young, Akwaugo had hung around her mother’s feet in the kitchen, the woman’s own dwarf shadow. She could see her mother now in her mind’s eye. Her mother would be wearing a red and yellow English Gold Dutch wax tied around her chest or waist, and lifting out a goat’s head from her industrial-sized pot with two perforated spoons the size of side-plates. The steam would give her face the dewy glow of a new bride. She’d make short work of the skull to reveal the gelatinous brain beneath. Her husband, Akwaugo’s father, had always been partial to a bit of brain in his ngwo-ngwo. Akwaugo made to wipe the dusty knife against her skirt and paused. She’d just sharpened it against a stone in the backyard. It would not do to cut her clothing after she had to wait so long for her father to give her the money for it. Akwaugo cleaned the blade on her forearm instead, nicking her flesh. Three droplets of blood swelled out and she smudged them with her thumb. The catfish in the basin stared up at Akwaugo, its mud-grey flesh glistening. It was as big as a grown man’s thighs, placed end to end and lay still as if to save energy. There was barely enough water in the basin for it to swim about. That was the best way of keeping a creature of its size submissive. Killing it would prove difficult otherwise. The catfish’s tail hung over the side of the basin. Akwaugo prodded it with the square head of the blade, but the fish paid her no mind. It had grown weaker in the hour that she had waited for her father to come home and tell her what to do with the gift his friend Onuigbo had dropped off. “Useless man,” Akwaugo muttered under her breath. She saw through Onuigbo. He only brought the fish so her father would forgive Onuigbo’s debt — which her father would probably do, because he was bad with money. Worse, the “gift-giver” had returned with her father to fill his stomach. Akwaugo kissed her teeth. What kind of person did that? Now, the fish would be finished today. If it were up to her, she would have saved a great deal of the meat for smoking. The woodsy flavour went better with her favourite palm oil-based stews like ora and egusi. Her mouth watered. Akwaugo was tempted to spit in the pot, but why? She was a good cook and the fish would still taste divine. “Is the soup ready?” her father shouted from the parlour. There was a chorus of assent from his cohorts. Even if Onuigbo had not dropped off the gift, there would be guests. Her father diligently gathered the neighbours every evening, before he even knew if there was enough to feed them. It was as if he was afraid to be alone with his children, now that his wife, the buffer, was no longer alive. Her father held his visitors captive, pouring drinks, ordering dishes from the kitchen, sending out for more bottles of beer when reserves ran low. They’d chat into the night, as Akwaugo nodded off on the kitchen stool. It was only after the wives started ringing their husbands’ mobiles that her father relented. Even then, he lingered by the gate, drawing out the goodbyes. Akwaugo sighed. The bottom of her pot had only just touched the flame and already the natives were getting restless. She raised her fingers to her nostrils. The smell of the roasted calabash nutmeg she had pounded for the soup clung to her fingers. Her mouth still watered, but she knew she would not get a bite of the delicious fish, not until all the men were done. Even her younger brother Ifeanyi — the brat — would eat before she did. Akwaugo would end up with the bone-plated head of the fish, if she was lucky. But it was only good manners, after all. They had guests. She had spread newspapers all over the painted concrete floor of the kitchen, around the aluminium basin that was as wide as an inflatable paddling pool. The fish was not one for the kitchen counter — the force required to kill it would destroy the worktops. She’d have to carry the fish like a baby and place it on the newspapers for gutting. Her shirt would stink. Akwaugo stepped onto the newspapers now, bracing herself for the weight of the fish. Turning her face away from its beady eyes and the whiskers that gave it its name, she laid the knife on the floor, bent over the basin, clutched the fish in both hands and pulled. It did not budge. She bent lower and heaved, gagging at the smell. The fish’s eyes roved in sharp, sudden movements. Akwaugo bent lower still, until her cheek was almost against it. The fish felt as heavy as a sack of wet rice. The pot was on the cusp of boiling. The scent of spices wafted up, borne on invisible wisps of steam. The pepper scratched at her nostrils. Akwaugo froze. She sneezed so hard, the skin of the catfish became mottled. “To your life,” said the catfish, its voice rising no more than a whisper. Akwaugo fell back empty-handed against the newspapers, legs flailing. Her breath echoed in the kitchen. The knife had skidded under the cracked, imitation-wood, Formica cabinet. Akwaugo scooted on her bottom and slowly reached for the knife, without taking her eyes off the fish in front of her. Flies buzzed against the mosquito-netted windows. And someone stomped along the tiled corridor coming towards the kitchen. “What are you doing lying on the floor?” asked her brother, Ifeanyi. His voice had a peculiar, manlike quality to it which usually annoyed Akwaugo, but she did not even notice that this time. “Dad wants to know what is keeping you. People are hungry. How long does it take to—” “The fish—” she said, pointing. “Yes. The fish. You’re supposed to cook it. Our guests are hungry.” He sighed and Akwaugo knew all he wanted to do was get back to the game on his phone. The boredom in his voice caused her to recover a bit of composure. She stood up, big sisterly. “You know you could help,” she said. “I can,” said Ifeanyi. “But it’s a girl’s job.” “When mummy was alive—” “Well, she isn’t. And you’re not her.” “Stupid boy,” Akwaugo growled. “Go and tell them I am coming.” Ifeanyi was gone before she’d even finished talking. She approached the fish, heart rattling like an avocado seed in her chest. She bent over it again. “That boy...needs teaching some manners,” said the fish. It spoke softly, with plenty of pauses in between, as if covering for a stutter. This time, even though Akwaugo jolted, she did not move away. “You are talking,” she said. The fish sighed, blowing bubbles out of the side of its mouth. “Water,” it said. Akwaugo rushed to the water drum in the kitchen, filled a bowl and poured it over the fish. She did it again and again until the water was almost to the brim. The fish sighed once more, bubbles breaking out. It started to change colour; from a dark blue-grey, to a lighter metallic blue, to silver. It flipped its tail and caught the sunlight pouring through the mosquito-netted back porch. Akwaugo shielded her eyes. The fish glimmered like tinfoil. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. The fish slid more of its tail into the basin. “What are you trying to do?” asked Akwaugo. “Sit up. How else are we to see each other, have a proper conversation? Unless you want to lie down?” replied the fish, gargling. It popped up, nose holes first, then mouth. Catfish always confused Akwaugo with those holes that looked like eyes, and so for a second, she found herself observing the wrong part of its face. When she finally found its eyes, it was watching her again. “Look, if you’ve finished staring, there’s something I must tell you,” it said. “You know Onuigbo came for your hand in marriage, right? I am his asking-gift.” Akwaugo’s jaw dropped open. “What?” “We are both in the same pot of soup. But if you help me, I’ll help you too.” “I’m too young for marriage!” Akwaugo’s eyes flashed. “Well, he’s not. He’s been a bachelor all his life, supposedly waiting for the right woman.” The fish flicked its eyes to her face and then around the room. “Waiting for you.” Silence as Akwaugo pondered this new information. It was true that Onuigbo often called her ”my wife,” but so did a lot of men. It was just a thing they said to young girls. It meant nothing, surely? The fish’s jerky eye motion made her anxious. The lid on the pot began to tap out a rhythm, tap, tap, tap, borne by the bubbles within. The air thickened with vapour. Sweat travelled along the line of Akwaugo’s spine, slipping under the waistband of her skirt and between her buttocks. She squirmed. Her eyes narrowed. “How do you know?” she asked the fish. “I’m a fish that talks, and that is what you ask me?” It turned over on its other side, sloshing water over the rim of the basin and onto the newspaper. Light from the ripples over its skin danced on the ceiling. “Akwaugo!” shouted her father. “What is keeping you?!” “I am coming, father, just bringing it,” she shouted back. “What should I do?” she asked the fish. “The food should be ready by now. If I go in there with nothing, my father will flog me after his friends leave.” “Mm,” said the fish, looking deep in thought. It paused, slipping its head back under the water, opening and closing its mouth silently. Akwaugo cast her eyes back towards the living room, wrung her hands. “If it were me, I would flog him first,” it said. “What kind of nonsense talk is that?” asked Akwaugo. Her throat tightened so that she hissed the question. “Or you can do nothing. What do I know? I am a fish. It’s not as if anyone can marry me off against my will.” “My father wouldn’t do that,” said Akwaugo. “No, no. Of course not,” said the fish. “I’m sure your mother wouldn’t let him.” “My mother is dead.” “Oh,” said the fish. Its eye flicked this way and that. “Then I am sure he wouldn’t. I am sure he loves you.” “What reason would he have to marry me off to Onuigbo?” asked Akwaugo, not listening. “Or marry me off to anyone for that matter? I mean, I haven’t finished secondary school!” “Akwaugo Maria!” her father yelled. “Just adding the salt, father!” Akwaugo got up and banged a few cupboard doors for effect. “This house we live in is ours, we don’t owe anybody,” she continued, talking very fast. “We are not starving and even if we were, how would marrying Onuigbo help? The man is my father’s debtor.” As she poked holes in the fish’s story, Akwaugo’s voice grew stronger and stronger. The fish shrugged. “I can’t explain it.” Akwaugo straightened up. She picked up the machete again. “You are a very bad fish. You just want to save yourself from being eaten which is why you are telling me all these lies.” She advanced. “Now hold still. I’m going to kill you.” “Who’s this Timi I keep hearing about?” asked the fish, suddenly. Akwaugo paused with her hand upraised. “Timi? Why? Who is talking about her?” The fish shrugged again. “Nothing o. It’s just...well,” its eyes glanced at Akwaugo and away again. “Your father seems very interested in her. In making her the second Mrs Mmaku. Or so I hear.” “That’s a lie,” said Akwaugo. “Why are you lying?” She felt power go out of her. The hand with the machete lay limp at her side. If the fish was a goat’s head, she would have finished preparing it by now, she thought. They didn’t talk back. “Exactly. Why would I lie? I am telling you what I heard, that’s all. You know the Timi that cooks by old UNIZIK junction?” Akwaugo knew who Timi was — Aunty T, they called her. Everyone did. She owned the famous Timi’s Place, a buka and beer parlour. It had somehow been allowed not only to stand, but expand into a proper breezeblock structure, long after the state governor cleared the junction of other illegal stalls. They said Timi cooked more than food in that place at night. Her girls were legendary. They said politicians came to her under the cover of night, that she helped them move things. What things, no one ever told Akwaugo, but somehow the ambiguity added to Timi’s mystique. How would her father have met Timi? Akwaugo made all her father’s meals as she had repeatedly promised her mother, in what turned out to be her final days. “A man who is allowed to frequent beer parlours is a lost cause,” her mother often said, as they laboured in the kitchen. Shame pounded in the pit of Akwaugo’s belly. Was her father now a lost cause? In her mind, she ran through the years since her mother had died. He had been late coming back more than a few times, especially in the last few months. Could it be that he had not been avoiding her and Ifeanyi after all? A chemically sweet whiff often emanated from his laundry — was that what Timi smelled like? Timi was a Big Madam, a gold ring on every finger. What would she want with her old father? He was not as rich as a politician, nor young, nor particularly interesting. He ran a pharmacy. Akwaugo asked the fish as much. “Well,” the fish began in its low voice full of pauses. “Erm, people fulfil different functions in life, don’t they? She likes him, he likes her. Your father, he is not made of firewood, you know. You cannot do your job, Akwaugo, and do someone else’s.” “What’s that supposed to mean?” Then as the meaning of the fish’s words became apparent, Akwaugo’s brow wrinkled. “That is disgusting,” she said. “Exactly. Look, you’re a smart girl,” said the fish, lowering its tone further so that she had to kneel down to hear it. “Do you think your father wants you in the house when he brings in his new lady love? And you, looking so very like your mother...” Akwaugo’s sharp intake of breath caused her lungs to fill with the peppery air. She sneezed again. The pot was boiling over. The house filled up with a fragrant steam and the silence from the parlour told her that its occupants were not oblivious to the aroma. Her own stomach rumbled. Akwaugo scrambled to her feet and turned down the flame on the stove. She closed the door leading into the corridor as well. “How do you know my mother?” asked Akwaugo. “I don’t. But I know Timi. That woman can cook, no juju necessary. Many of my comrades have perished in her pot. A few went willingly, I’m told. Some are just like that, I suppose. They just give up, go along with things.” It sighed. “I am tired of talking. Kill me if you’re going to kill me, but don’t bore me to death with indecisiveness.” It rolled over and presented Akwaugo with its spine. Akwaugo started to pace. “Am I that kind of person?” she asked herself. “Do I just go along with things?” She thought about how wild her brother Ifeanyi had become. Anyone else in her position, six years older, would have been firmer with him. Instead, she let their relatives indulge him, as if he was the only one who had lost a mother. They served him treats like guinea fowl eggs and sugared buns, in place of proper meals. They allowed him to stay home from school for longer than was necessary. If anything, their sympathy was misplaced; Ifeanyi had been too young to remember their mother properly, Akwaugo thought. The woman had been sick for half his life. Akwaugo had their mother to herself for years before Ifeanyi was born. She should have known what their mother planned to do. She should have suspected. By the time she was four, Akwaugo knew all her mother’s moods, had studied them with the single-minded devotion a child bestows on its obsessions. She knew the woman even better than her father did. That day, her mother had dressed up in front of the revolving mirror on her dressing table. Akwaugo watched her sitting there in a white bra and slip, dabbing several brushes on the little square windows of colour in her make-up palette. She favoured roses and reds and pinks, to offset a golden complexion. Akwaugo’s mother spotted her child peeking through the door; she called her into the room and while Akwaugo zipped her into her dress, made Akwaugo promise to look after the family. Then she went and threw herself in front of a lorry laden with tomatoes from Jos. There had not even been enough of her to bury. Akwaugo did not realise until today how much she’d failed in her duty. Her mother had trusted her to raise her little brother. Akwaugo tried, in the beginning. She’d made sure Ifeanyi did his homework, did his chores, and brushed his teeth. He had worn clean socks and had his uniforms washed and ironed. Then, when Ifeanyi’s behaviour worsened, Akwaugo had tried to step in. Her father had stopped her. “Let the boy grieve — not that she deserves it,” he’d said, taking a swig of his beer. As if Ifeanyi even understood grief, she thought. The males in the family seemed to have moved on okay. Her brother played his games while her father entertained friends and — now, Akwaugo had learned — also chased Timi. Only she, Akwaugo, still remembered their mother. And now they wanted to marry her off, so that they could just forget her too? As she paced, the newspaper crinkled underfoot. She looked up at the ceiling, lost in contemplation and caught sight of a cobweb just above the corner of the door. Her nostrils flared. She had asked Ifeanyi to get rid of it during the morning’s weekend clean-up. “Akwaugo!” came her father’s loud voice again. A mumble of voices in the corridor. She recognised her father and Onuigbo. The fish flicked water at her with its tail. “Do you have mushrooms?” it asked. “I hear sometimes Timi puts mushrooms in her pepper-soup instead of fish, and nobody can tell the difference.” Akwaugo could detect a hint of panic beneath the languorous tone it used. The situation ignited the same emotion in her. Panic. And rage. Rage against the cobweb, against the rumble in her stomach. Against the corridor which distorted voices, making them seem louder and nearer than they were. Akwaugo’s rage was so powerful it nearly threw her to the ground. She gripped her machete tighter, gritted her teeth. Shadows lengthened on the kitchen floor as the sun slipped its feet behind a cloud. “What is keeping this girl?” said her father’s voice. “Here they come,” said the fish. “He sounds mad.” The door handle twisted and Akwaugo swung at the gap without thinking, entirely on instinct. The first blow caught Onuigbo in the middle of his face. Always make sure you split goat head in the middle, Akwaugo. You see? Where the bones are joined? Makes it easy to take out the brain. It was the wet, popping sound of a coconut breaking. She pulled on the machete and Onuigbo lurched forward, mouth open, in a scream without sound. Akwaugo held on with two hands and yanked, crunching, splintering. She pulled out the machete, swung again and caught her father’s surprised face on the jaw, right under his teeth. Don’t let the teeth get into the meat mixture, Akwa m. It will spoil the ngwo-ngwo and is unpleasant to eat. Her father’s teeth scattered like kernels of corn all over the concrete. On his knees he stared at her, hands over where his jaw used to be. The noise brought the guests running. Akwaugo sliced the air in front of her, not seeing where she was going, what she was doing. The ears are nice and crunchy. Just make sure you clean the insides well. Pay attention, Akwaugo, or they will say I did not raise you well. An ear fell juddering to her foot. The guests pushed and climbed over one another to get out of the corridor. They sped past the reception room, toppling the extra chairs brought in from the dining room. They left behind mobile phones, wallets, half-empty bottles and glasses lined with foam. Akwaugo gave chase, glorying in the movement of her body, the destructive force of her might. She was fascinated by her own arms, her own legs. She hacked through the glass-topped nesting stools and the coffee table, smashed bottles, only stopping when she came upon her brother, who was cowering by the speakers. The whites of his eyes shone in his face. “You didn’t remove the cobwebs like I asked,” she said, hands on her hip. He nodded or shook his head, Akwaugo was not sure. Something slithered into her eye. She rubbed her hand over it, flicked it away. “Tidy up this place,” she said, taking his phone. “And no more games.” “Yes, sister.” He got up, picking up the pieces of broken glass, clearing the remains. He held out the front of his shirt like a basket to carry the debris. Akwaugo returned to the kitchen to survey her handiwork. The newspaper on the floor was a paper mache of carnage. The fish’s mouth opened and closed, opened and closed. It gulped the now rose-tinted water, breathed it back out. Outside, a wind started up. “I guess you showed them,” said the fish. Akwaugo considered its words and decided that yes, she had. She was proud. Her mother would be too. Her father was not lost anymore, not while lying in a broken heap, trying to keep his tongue from snaking out all over his neck. Timi certainly wouldn’t want him now. Her father was safe. And her brother was tidying up. She had a feeling it would not be the last time he cleaned. Akwaugo rustled around in the pantry and came out with a waterproof Ghana-Must-Go bag. She filled it part-ways from the tap. “Are we going somewhere?” the fish asked, twitching its tiny, glassy eyes. “I’m taking you home,” said Akwaugo. “No soup pots for either of us today.” She clutched the fish to her bosom and lifted it, plonking it in the bag. She grasped both zips in her hands and closed it, leaving a gap in the middle for air. Outside, Akwaugo hailed an okada. “Where to?” its rider asked. Akwaugo thought for a while. The fish jiggled in the bag. “Tell him Ezu River,” it stuttered. Akwaugo relayed the request, tucking her skirt in between her thighs to stop it blowing up over her hips. The okada man noted the wildness in her eyes, the blood on her clothing. He hesitated. But the skies had darkened, as though shaded by a pencil. She would probably be the last fare he picked up until the rains were over. “Hop on.” All the way, the fish jiggled and splashed in the bag. The wind pushed at the okada’s back, doubling their speed. Lightning winked between rain clouds. “Stop here!” Akwaugo said. The thunder seemed to echo her command. The wind was almost a solid force now, pushing her into the underbrush as she walked the path down to the water. Akwaugo took care to place her feet into footholds gouged out of the packed, red earth. She clutched the handles of the bag in tacky hands. Akwaugo got to the bank of the tossing Ezu, the river as wide as three dual carriageways. Goose pimples erupted on her skin from the cold. The trees lining the banks flung their heads in the gale, their euphoria the same as hers. The fish wiggled, glad to smell home again. Akwaugo stepped into the water and immersed the open bag. The fish flipped and pranced, looking all the while like liquid lightning beneath the churning water, a mirror image of the sky.