Ona’s red skirt was beautiful. She’d made it herself with very fine silk cut with care and sewn to perfection. She called me into the house from where I was seated on the balcony, picking beans for dinner the day her fasting, deafness and dumbness began.
“Chinelo, negodù, is this skirt fine, ó m’alu nmà?” she asked spinning around, almost tripping over the sewing machine Father had gotten her after her Junior WAEC results came out. The skirt clung to her waist like an old clamp that needed greasing to loosen its grip and flowed around her hips loosely so that when she swayed, it moved sensually, stopping just below her knees. It was a simple style. A very ordinary piece of clothing but Ona’s ample figure made this plain skirt appear meteoric.
“it’s very pretty Nne. You look nice”
Mother returned home from church at quarter past five. She gave Ona some money to run to the market two streets away from ours for ingredients to prepare ófé Nsala. Apparently, Father decided beans shouldn’t be on our menu for supper. Ona took out the last plastic bag from the kitchen cupboard and set out in her red skirt.
Quarter past six. Mother cursed and swore that she would break Ona’s head if she didn’t return before Father did.
Quarter past seven. Father returned, Ona had not. Mother tightened her wrapper across her chest and stood on the balcony, a solemn look on her face, eyes etched with worry.
I sat in our small sitting room, waiting patiently for Ona to burst through the door narrating how she had lost Mother’s money, how she’d searched for hours by the roadside, checking gutters pregnant with greenish and blackish waste, crying frantically till a stranger took notice. And perhaps how this stranger had given her the exact amount she’d lost and a little over. I imagined how she would cry and laugh at the same time while telling her tale and how Mother would raise a palm to slap her in anger, and Father would say:
“okwa, ò’ji ègó gi b’ata? Didn’t she bring your money back?”
Eight o’clock. Mother sobbed loudly enough for Mama Destiny from the flat below ours to knock on our front door asking if all was well. I knew she only asked to have juicy gossip to fill her plates with because she barely could afford three square meals since her husband eloped with her younger sister. But I digress – we needed to find Ona.
Then Father became worried. His face drained of color, turning his very dark skin to the color of the ash that the Priest at St Mary’s pressedon our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. Father left the house to search for Ona. And returned without her. He paced the balcony, intertwining his fingers, releasing them, chewing on them, putting hands on his head, and then across his chest as he sank to the floor, his shoulders heaving in a quiet sob.
I heard feeble scratches, followed by faint but consistent knocks on our door. Picking up a broom and holding it by the sweeping end, I opened the door sharply hoping to find the cat Mother believed was Mama Destiny and kill it (or her) once and for all. Instead I found Ona, a crumpled heap of limbs on the “WELCOME HOME” mat, almost unmoving. I stared and stared and stared.
“Chinelo, who’s there, close the… ” Mother’s voice transcended into a pitch as she let out a scream, pushed me out of the way and made futile attempts to pick my elder sister up. Father carried Ona to our room but not before I noticed the wet patches on her red skirt.
Ona didn’t speak that night or the next. She didn’t eat either and if she could hear us asking her one particular question for the umpteenth time, she definitely did not tell us.
Even today as we walk to school with my hand in hers, on her first day of school since that night, she keeps mute. She eats a little now, nods for a yes and shakes her head for a no. After a week of Mother’s constant vigil and Father bathing her head with anointing oil and taking her to church for prayers, I think this is improvement. Just in time for a new session: I in ss1, Ona in ss3.
Our regular route to school isn’t difficult and up our street, a little past the market and not too far from home is our school. We trek this morning because Mother must’ve forgotten to leave us the bus fare. We are almost at the market when we see a group of raggedy looking men by a corner, already reeking of cigarettes and alcohol. They don’t see us. Ona suddenly stops in her tracks and jerks me backwards.
“No… no,” Ona croaked, her voice hoarse from a week of dumbness. I look from where she’s frozen to the ground, to the men and back to Ona. She turns on her heels and runs really fast, she’s already on the floor of the living room by the time I catch up to her.
I wrap my arms around her and think hard. One and two was finally adding up to three – the wet patches on her skir, the muteness, her restless nights and anxiety attacks.
I know what I must do. You see, Ona in Igbo translates to gold and gold is priceless and must be protected at all costs. I understood why those men had touched Ona; everybody wants a taste, a touch, a piece of gold. But gold isn’t for everybody. Gold is a treasure to be admired, to be polished.
Mother returns later that night, asks how school went.
“Fine. Very fine”
I tell her, I’d decided to study Arts and not Science. She gives me food in packs from her church charity program, and obliges me to take them to neighbours, including the men down the road. Those vagabonds! Those humans with animalistic tendencies! But I know what I must do.
I take out the packs one after the other and open them up. I sprinkle in the contents of the bottle I have carried with me. The poison had worked perfectly on rats.
I skip down the road and hand out the packs after greeting them respectfully.
” My mother sent me,” I tell them.
And then, I go around the corner and watch them eat before running back home, heart racing against my rib cage.
Upstairs that night, I wash Ona’s red skirt, like mother had washed it that night. The water turns scarlet as colour leaves the beautiful piece of silk like it did that night.
And I tell her: “Everything would be alright, ìnùgô? “
About the Author
Amara Nnoli is an English and literature student at the University of Benin, where she spends her years learning and interacting with like-minds at the Creative Writers Workshop. She runs a blog in her spare time and enjoys trying out different Igbó soups when she’s not fighting for the rights of women in the patriarchal Nigerian society.
Amara basks in the solace that the Igbó language gives her, which can be seen scattered logically throughout her works. You can also catch Amara reading books, stalking creatives/writers on the internet, or mostly sitting quietly observing nature which she describes as the air we breathe.