NO CHILD CHOOSES whom to be born to but I am happy I landed on the better part of life;If truly it is. My parents always take Junior, my twin brother, and I to the village for Christmas. The unveiling of new relatives is endless and expected and reunion with the ones already known is often less and less exciting. This year is not going to be an exception and as usual I have to pack the best clothes, shoes and bags. I love the attention I receive in the village and nobody is permitted to look better than me on Christmas day especially the daughter of my father’s step sister. Ijeoma.
We live in Port-Harcourt. The gate is always locked; we are not to step out of our house unsupervised. Enough to keep us busy and far away from the rest of the world, we have more than enough gadgets to ourselves. When there is power outage, Musa, the gateman, makes sure to put on the generator immediately. Constant light is our norm.
Junior and I are always together. Together we do everything and together everything happens to us. As the only children of our parents, mummy says she prefers to see us together all the time. So we stay in the same room, attend the same school and join the same groups in school and church.
Today is the last day before we travel to the village. We are playing football outside in the front yard when Aunty Peace, our help, calls, “Junior! Amara! Come inside and pack your things. We have to be done packing before your father gets back home.”
I run into the house immediately while Junior takes the ball away so he can wash it up and bring it into the house clean. Mummy always warns us against bringing dirty balls into the house.
“Here are your boxes and the clothes on top of the bed are the ones your mother said you will take to the village. Fold and arrange them neatly into your boxes. I will be back to confirm that they are neatly arranged and if there is anyone you do not want to take along or you do not like. You will go and talk to your mother about it but that will be after you have showed me first.” Aunty Peace says. “Be quick about it. If you start talking and get distracted, I will hear you from my room and you know what I can.”
“Where is my mummy?” I ask.
“She is sleeping in her room. Don’t go and disturb her, she needs to rest.”
She leaves us alone and we start looking at the clothes mummy brought out for us. I do not like what I am seeing.
“I cannot wear any of these,” I lift up the red gown right in front of me. “Can you remember the last time I wore this gown to school?”
Junior shakes his head.
“I forgot you are very dumb. Have you forgotten that day Queen and Benjamin laughed at me because they said this gown made me look like their maid?”
“Oh, I remember. That was the day I warned them to never laugh at you again. They became scared of my huge muscles,” he pauses. Tightens his fist upwards and touches his muscles. “I don’t see anything wrong with the gown. It’s actually beautiful.”
I throw the gown at Junior, “Feel free to wear it since you like it. I cannot wear any of these in the village so those local children will laugh at me and say upon our exposure, we do not know fashion.”
Junior makes a hissing sound and looks inside his box.
“Calm Down, I do not have a problem with any of mine.”
“I do not expect you to have a problem; you can wear anything you like because you are not a girl.”
“So what do you want to do now?”
“What else? I am going to tell mummy immediately.”
“You want to disturb her? Remember Aunt Peace said we shouldn’t go to mummy’s room now.”
“Excuse me, Last time I checked she’s the maid,” I feel the urge to pee so I stand up to go to the toilet.
“Let me go to the toilet. I will go and meet mummy as soon as I come out from the toi—“
Tripping over, I hit my stomach on Junior’s bed frame.
Junior apologizes as he offers to help me get up. But I can’t but insist that he did it intentionally.
“No, I swear. I didn’t do it intentionally. I am sorry.”
But I get up and keep walking to the toilet. “Leave me alone,” I say, “You are lucky I didn’t hit my head.”
I go to the toilet and ease myself. By the time I am done, turning to flush the toilet I notice a faint drop of blood on the toilet seat. I look at my panties. There is blood too.
At first thought, it comes to mind that Junior has burst and damaged either my liver or kidney. The only other possible explanation is menstrual period but it can’t be because Miss Rhonda said one day, I will sleep and when I wake up and look at my bed, there will be blood stains all over my bed. I didn’t just wake up from sleep so it is definitely not my period. Indeed Junior has successfully damaged my internal organ and if I am to die, I am determined to make sure that I am not leaving this world alone.
“Junior!” I am so loud I can interrupt the sleep of the dead.
“Why are you shouting my name when I am just here?” I heard Junior’s reply faintly from the toilet.
“Come inside here now.”
Junior comes inside the toilet. His hands are covering his eyes.
“Don’t close your eyes; I want to show you something.”
“I am not supposed to see you naked remember?”
“Shut up, I am not naked. Look!” I hold out my stained underwear. “I am bleeding internally because of you. You pushed me down and I have damaged my kidney.”
Junior’s eyes widen.
“I-i-i-is that blood?”
“No silly, it is oil. I am dying.”
I put my finger inside my vagina and Junior shifts back, closing his eyes with his hand.
“Stop that, I’m a guy.”
“See. There’s more blood,” I say, almost crying. “The scary part is I can’t feel any pain.”
“Wait here, I am going to tell Aunty Peace, I think one of daddy’s patients died like this the other day and I heard them call it internal bleeding.” Junior says.
He leaves the toilet and goes to call for help from Aunty Peace. Almost immediately he is back with her. She seems surprised to see me.
“Junior, What kind of stupid joke is this? I thought you said she was bleeding internally. Amarachukwu, Is it true you are dying?”
“Aunty, it is true. Junior is not lying,” I say. “I fell down when I was coming to the toilet, I hit my stomach on the edge of the bed frame and now one of my organs has burst. See my panties.”
Mummy enters the room as Aunt Peace takes the panties from me and she too seems very surprised. She tries to know why Junior was shouting. Aunty Peace tells her the little we have told her and she asks Junior to leave the toilet. As he walks away he keeps apologizing.
Mummy and Aunty Peace look at each other and start laughing. Confusion replaces my fear.
“We have to prepare another room for you. You have to have our own privacy now. I have been telling that you’re growing and I’m sure that it sounded like I was joking right?” Mummy rolls out some toilet papers and cleans the blood. “If it was in the time of your great grandmothers, your father and I will shoot gun for you tonight and suitors will start frequenting this house and before you know it, you are married.”
“Mummy,” I shout. I am angry, “I am just 10 years.”
“I am sorry but it’s the truth. You call 10 just? My grandmother married when she was 12 so what are you talking about?” she places her hand on my chest and moves it around. “Why are you not wearing the bra I bought for you? Your nipples are very visible. Can’t you see that your breasts are now forming?”
“All of them are very tight and I don’t feel free when I wear them.”
“Young woman, you are not a child anymore and just so you know, your period has started.”
I insist it cannot be my period.
Mummy asks, “Why can’t it be?”
While I keep on explaining reasons why my period hasn’t started, Mummy puts on the water heater and tells me to take off my clothes and enters the bath tub for a bath. Mummy tells Aunty Peace to go to her room and bring something; she shows up later with a sanitary pad. She shows me how to put a pad carefully on my panties and then she goes back to her room to continue her sleep.
“Did they find out what was wrong?” Junior asks as soon as I come out. He is nervous.
Later that evening, Aunty Peace, Junior and I go to the mall to buy things we will be using in the village. This is her last duty with us before she goes back to her family to spend the holiday with them.
Early the next morning, we leave for the village and we got there by 3pm.Coming down from the car, I feel numb on both feet. The harmattan breeze is always intense in the village carrying along dust so I quickly cover my nose and I move to one side of the car and watch as things are moved from the car into the house. Our house in the village is by far bigger than our rented apartment in Port-Harcourt. What I may never understand is why Daddy can’t also get us a big house like this in Port-Harcourt. I will be a lot happier if we don’t have to spend only some weeks here.
We are later having dinner when De Elizabeth, Daddy’s stepsister comes into the compound with Ijeoma, Prince and Goodness, her children. De Elizabeth doesn’t look like Daddy in anyway in fact she is his exact opposite. Daddy is short and fat but she is almost six feet tall and very slender. I understand that they are poor so I am not surprised that their collarbones have no flesh to hide them. She is the only relative Daddy allows in the house with us so they stay in the boy’s quarters of our house whenever they are around. As soon as they are done changing their wear they came into the house to join us.
“My children, how are you?” She asks.
“Fine.” Junior answers. I stare at her. I really do not like her.
She turns to mummy and says “Umu ejima anyi na eto-eto. Our twins are growing.”
I mutter under my breath,” No, we won’t grow. We will wait for you.” Mummy smiles and hugs her children. She goes to the kitchen to get food for them to eat immediately. So typical of her.
They sit on the floor in the sitting room and eat their food. As they eat their food they laugh and play with their sachet of water, testing the sachet’s elasticity and make fingers of the four points. I watch them from the dining area as they eat with so much impunity. Everything about these people disgusts me. Goodness beckons on us to give him our chicken bone if we don’t want to chew it. I’d rather throw it away than give them. We kept the fowl that died for them so they will have more than enough bones to chew for some days. They keep on laughing and I wonder what reason people like them have to laugh? They remain the losers especially Ijeoma. There always seems to be a competition between the both of us and I am obviously winning. I stay in the main house; she squats in our boy’s quarters. Every Christmas I show up fatter but the opposite is her fate. I always give her the clothes I am tired of wearing and she has no other option than to collect them. I know she is going to wear one of my old clothes on Christmas day. What surprises me is that she makes them look different when she wears them; she always wore my old clothes with something extra. I once complained to mummy about it and she said Ijeoma wore them with “Gratitude.” I don’t believe that. It makes no sense. Yet it baffles me that she has one thing that I don’t have. It gives me sleepless nights that it is something I didn’t give her. I don’t know how to give her. I have an unsettled need inside of me. I don’t just have the need to feel better than her; I have to be better than her. Always.
Mummy leaves the kitchen and joins us at the table. She is eating from a bowl of fruits.
“Why didn’t any of you say hi to your cousin?” Mummy says.
“I had food in my mouth and you said that we shouldn’t talk while eating.” I reply.
“You had food in your mouth? Is that your excuse? All the while they were standing here; you didn’t find time to swallow what was in your mouth. I have told you that you need to learn to be humble. I don’t like the way you treat people. You don’t have everything in the world. You are not better than them.”
“Every time, they like competing with us but they forget that they are the ones in the village and we are in the Port-Harcourt. We are the better ones.”
“Amarachukwu, shut up before I shut it up. Don’t ever talk like that close to me if not you won’t recognize yourself. I don’t believe that they are the ones initiating any competition for who is better. I know my children very well and it is something the both of you are capable of doing especially you. Your father has made two of you feel like you are better than everybody. Listen, no one is like you but you are not better or worse than anybody.”
“Mummy, I’m not like Amara oh. I don’t have any issue with playing with them.” Junior says.
“Junior Keep quiet,” I turn to mummy. “Mummy you’re saying that because you don’t get to play with them and you are not forced to relate with them. Ijeoma is really something and I won’t lie. I don’t like her. I don’t think I can ever like her.”
“Amara, Let me tell you something. You like acting strong all the time but this is not how it is done. Strong women don’t compete with each other. They build each other up.”
“I have heard you.” I say. I am done eating. I place my palms on the table and stand up to leave.
“Take your plates to the kitchen. Then go upstairs and bath. I’ll join you soon.” Mummy says.
Daddy goes for a meeting at the town hall. Our movements are restricted to the back of the house where De Elizabeth stays with her children. The boys decide that we must play football instead of pretend cooking. Ijeoma is sitting quietly on a stool very close to the main entrance of the boy’s quarters.
As she sits still tying into a big bundle freshly scraped midribs of palm fronts, she seems bigger and taller than me though we are of the same age. But then something is different about her. Her skin is shining as though she immersed herself in oil. . Her breasts are forming too. Just like mine, they look like two little sprouting buds. She normally would play the ball with us showing off her dribbling skills and making sure she wins us at the end of the game but she sits on the stool for a long time and smiles at her brother whenever he shouts “I.J., did you see that? We are wining.”
“I am tired. I don’t want to play again. I am going inside.” I say.
Junior tries to find out if I’m hurt or feeling sick but I insist I simply do not want to play again. He knows better than to continue interrogating me. I am going into the house to do something else. As I am leaving De Elizabeth comes back and asks Ijeoma to go inside with her immediately and she obeys. As I get to the sitting room, the thought of Ijeoma being useful to her mum while I am not bothers me so I go to the kitchen to join mummy.
“Amara, what are you doing here?” Mummy asks, “I thought you said you don’t like the smell of village kitchen.”
“Mummy, I really want to start helping you in the kitchen after all I’m a big girl now.”
“Mm-hmmm, I’m done cooking already,” Mummy says, turning the cooking spoon inside the pot, after a while, she continues. “Amara what you can do for me right now is to go to the back and tell Elizabeth and her children that food is now ready. They can come and eat.”
I step out of the kitchen and I am surprised to meet Junior sitting all by himself at the backyard.
“The game ended because Ijeoma was crying from inside their house. Prince and Goodness said they didn’t want to play again so they left the ball and ran inside.”
“I am sure she did something wrong and her mummy was beating her?”
“I don’t know oh.” Junior says and returns to what he was doing.
I run quickly to be able to catch up on Ijeoma crying. I get a little bit close to their door and I hear her crying though it seems as though something in her mouth is preventing her from being louder. I decide to look through the window first before entering inside. I see Ijeoma topless and her mother continually using the head of the broom she assembled earlier to hit her breast. Prince and Goodness stand by the side begging their mother to stop; but she doesn’t. I know parents do different painful things to their children for misbehaving, mummy twists my ear and lifts me up sometimes uses knife to slap my arm, but this is different. I try to imagine what she could have done to deserve this kind of punishment? If Junior isn’t allowed to see me naked at this age why are Ijeoma’s brothers allowed to look at their half-naked sister? I keep on watching as De Elizabeth stops to apply something like Shea butter on the breast and continues hitting them. There is a twitching in my own breast and I feel a sharp pain in my breast as though mine is also being hit. Goodness and Prince keep crying and she sends them out. I leave their window to avoid being caught. I have to do something to help Ijeoma. Daddy will be the best person to report to but he is not around. I return back to mummy, narrating all that I just saw De Elizabeth doing to Ijeoma and beg her to come out and help Ijeoma.
But mummy keeps quiet. She remains unmoved and continues eating.
“Mummy. Please. Do something”
“There’s nothing I can do,” She says. “You amaze me. One minute you hate Ijeoma and the next minute you are concerned about what her mother is doing to her. She didn’t do anything wrong and her mother is not punishing her. She’s only protecting her.”
“You call that protection? How?”
“Ijeoma’s breasts are growing and it has a way of attracting young men especially the useless ones in the village. She was telling me earlier that some men attempted to rape her before vigilante boys caught them. Her mum doesn’t want it to happen again so the best thing she can do for her is to make sure that it doesn’t drag attention.”
Tears gather in my eyes and then I forget completely that it is Ijeoma I am pleading for.
“But mummy you made me wear a bra saying it will keep attention away from my breast. Why can she just buy a bra for her daughter?”
“Don’t take for granted your luxuries. Some people can’t afford one. The fact that you can have them doesn’t mean that others have them too. ”
“Then give her some of the new ones you bought for me.”
“I can’t rub it on their faces any further that they are poor. Elizabeth knows the best way to raise her daughter so let her do what’s best for her while I do what’s best for you. Now that you know how important a bra is, clean your eyes go upstairs and wear a bra. It’s obvious you are not wearing one.”
I run upstairs with my hand over my chest as though to protect them and wear one of my bras before coming down for lunch. I select and squeeze the most colorful of my new bras inside my pocket and come downstairs. I am going to give it to Ijeoma after lunch.
De Elizabeth goes to see someone immediately so only Ijeoma and her brothers are joining us for lunch.
“The three of you can join us at the dining table. There is enough space for all of us.” I say pulling out chairs for everyone.
“Really?” Goodness asks.
I nod. I assign a seat to everyone and ask Ijeoma to sit next to me. She seems too tired to object. I believe Mummy knows I am angry at her for not helping Ijeoma so she stays away from the table. I am thinking of how guilty I feel for not being able to help when mummy returns with two plates, one containing more white rice and the other fried chicken. I can tell Ijeoma is still in pain, from time to time she places her left hand on her chest while using her right hand to eat. Prince and Goodness don’t seem sad. They are too occupied with Junior talking about which is greater between Arsenal and Chelsea.
Mummy comes in to take our plate inside as soon as she sees that we are done.
“Thank you Ma.” Ijeoma says, smiling for the first time since we started eating. I am convinced it is the right time to start a conversation with her.
“Ijeoma, how are you?” I ask slanting my hands close to hers.
She looks at me and smiles. Her eyes are red and swollen. The tiny little buds I saw sprouting through her shirt earlier are gone. She looks to me as though she wants to collapse.
“I saw you through the window.” She says.
“Do you want more food? Mummy baked cake, want some?”
She shakes her head.
“Does it really hurt?” I say unconsciously placing my hands on my chest.
“A little. But don’t worry. I’ll be fine.”
“Do you hate your mummy?” I ask. The tears I have been holding back for so long finally finds their way out. I put the bra inside her pocket she brings it out a bit and smiles.
“No. I can’t hate her. She was scared to death when she was told I was almost raped. She struggles to take care of my brothers and me alone so I can’t hate her. The pain will soon go away. Don’t cry for me. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”
Its Christmas Day, There is no more urge to showcase the cloths I brought home. The day is still dripping with fresh memories of the previous day. We get to church and Daddy loves it when we all sit in the front pew. The attention it brings usually makes me excited but throughout the service I imagine every girl being protected like Ijeoma. After service, I give her my old clothes I brought for her and some of the cloths I am still wearing.
“Amara, Thank you so much,” She brings out the cloths one by one. “I don’t know if I’ll be allowed to wear them.”
“Why? We’ve been given you our old cloths all these years.”
“My mother told me that she has been looking for who will help her and train me in school. A family has requested that I follow them to Lagos as their house help and in turn they train me in school and then Eze Amaifeke wants me to get married to him. He has also promised to take me to school. I think she prefers me marrying Eze that way she doesn’t have to be bothered about me being defiled by anybody except my husband. They may be taking me away this evening.”
“Do you really want to go?”
“I don’t know.”
I hear mummy’s call from the kitchen. There are visitors to greet and places she wants us to visit.
We are standing at Oguta Lake watching the boats and imagining what it’s like on the other side when Mummy receives a call.
“She is not here with us.” She says and turns to me. “What happened?” Mummy walks away from us so we can’t hear her. By the time she is done, she walks briskly towards us.
“Amara, Did Ijeoma tell you she was going anywhere?”
“No ooh. Is she not at home?”
She explains that De Eliza called to ask if we went out with Ijeoma or saw her as we were leaving the house. Some people are there to take her somewhere important but she is nowhere to be found.