THE LIFE THAT LENT ITSELF TO POETRY, AND FELL OFF ETERNITY'S TREE.
Tony Mochama, "Underwear Grows Old"
Saturday, July 4, 2015
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.