Every August, I try to post an August-themed story here. Last year I posted The August Proposal, you should read it if you haven’t (or read it again). Now, let’s do this.
Three weeks after I officially (or traditionally) stopped mourning my husband, my husband’s father, his mother and uncle paid me a visit. I had formally stopped mourning by removing my black mourning dress and having it burnt, and going to church for thanksgiving. This meant I mourned my man for a mere three months. The mourning span used to be one year (my mother mourned our father for one year); then it became six months (my aunty mourned for six months). Now it is three months, some do it for a month, some do not even bother, calling it heathen.
But a year of wearing black and staying out of any activity that entails making merry wouldn’t be enough to mourn Mark, my kindhearted husband of six years. It was painful, shocking event, his death. One day, he was bubbling, overflowing with life, the next day he was ill and shaking like a bird on a thin branch; he died after a week. My heart was broken and my happiness crushed. I thought I would die, and would have let myself taken in the wings of death if not for my kids who would be left as orphans, and from whom I summon the will to continue to live. Additionally, fortunately, I am alive with my sanity in tact.
I was still in mourning mood when my parents-in-law came calling. I was still trying to get used to the mystery of widowhood and being father and mother to my three years old daughter and one and half year old son.
It was 9pm, my kids were asleep in the next room. I sat in the parlour, on the only armchair, facing the guests who were seated in the only good sofa. The lamp which lit the room stood on the table. After the small ceremony of pleasantries, and my weak offer to fetch food was politely declined, my father-in-law cleared his throat. He was about seventy, tall and aging with dignity. A visit of this kind four months back would have made me nervous. But tonight, I felt nothing; whatever news brought them would never match the agony of Mark’s demise. I listened.
“My people say that it is only when a child receives a haircut that we know the real size of his head. Nneka, we have always known you as a brave woman but even we might have underestimated your strength because it demands only a woman of super strength to endure what you have endured. My son was kind, strong and responsible. We know you enjoyed him. My wife and I have lost a great son but we have the luck of other children, so the pain is a little lesser for us…” He sighed bitterly
The uncle and mother made sympathetic grunts. My father-in-law continued. “The tragedy has happened and we cannot sue God. But we cannot continue to look at one direction otherwise we will have stiff neck.”
I got closer to what he had in mind; but by getting this close I was further removed from the subject. I listened. “You have two kids, a daughter and a son. We regard female children highly but it is only a boy that will keep his father’s name. A girl grows to become a woman and marries out. So in the aspect of keeping our son’s lineage you have only one child.” He paused to let this sink in; if it sank in, my expression didn’t show it.
“My father used to say let my thing not one. If you have only one thing you have nothing. A man with one eye does not play with sticks.”
Now, I got what he was trying to say but I wasn’t so sure. I looked at my mother-in-law who smiled benignly. She was a small woman in her early sixties; she was what we call “every year young” and looked fifty. She said, “It is true that the unexpected defiles the strong, but the unexpected is the test of strength. A great harm has befallen you but you have endured it well. You are still young and in the height of your fertility.”
“My husband is dead,” I said in a small.
“Yes,” she agreed, “but as long as we do not ask for our bride price, as long as you still live under his roof and bear his name any baby born by you belongs to him. That is the custom.”
“That is the custom,” the uncle affirmed. He was the younger version of his brother and wearing a black shirt over something the manufacturer had designed as skirt but sold as knickers in the last minute.
I didn’t understand. “Why should I have babies?”
My uncle-in-law answered. “Because we do not know tomorrow. The fowl says it will eat and eat until it becomes too dark to eat, because it does not know what tomorrow will bring. You have only one boy. We do not pray for anything to happen to him. In fact, nothing will happen to him but getting him more brothers will put our mind at rest.”
A wave of anger swept from my chest and filled my head with gaseous fury. “I do not understand what you are saying. How can I have more children now that my husband is no more?”
My husband’s father smiled. His teeth, too white for his age, shone. “Your husband is dead and buried but for the mortar to get food it must turn its back to the ground.
I see; I should turn my back on my husband, I should abuse his memory, interrupt my mourning and open my legs for a man (any man) to give me children to keep my husband’s name. I found the suggestion obscene, ironic, and my tongue burnt to hurl bad words; I bit it down. I took a long breath then sighed. I would bare my mind to them the way they bore theirs, with wise sayings, riddles.
“One does not use another person’s eyes to see the road. I had been married to my husband, your son, for six years and in that time I have conceived five times. The first baby died the day it was born, the second conception ended in a miscarriage; and the third died before it turned one. I am fortunate to have these two with me. My husband is dead and I am not going to look for, at night, the black goat I couldn’t find in the day.”
The silence that followed was long and imposing. They had come with the confidence of experience, assured in the faith of their message. They didn’t expect me to react the way I reacted. They praised me for being strong but wisdom was one thing they didn’t think to accord me with.
My father-in-law was the first to recover. He cleared his throat. I sensed a hint of pride in his throat. “You are a great woman,” he said. “You are equally intelligent. My son chose well. It is said that he who sits on the sideline does not know what the wrestler sees. You have really suffered in your duty as childbearer, and now you suffer the loss of your crown. But each time tragedy comes, you have beaten it back because you are a strong woman.”
I nodded in agreement but my words were clear. “Too much praise makes the brave fight with bare hands and soon his corpse is carried in a long basket.”
“It is the firewood a woman gathered in her youth that keeps her warm in old age,” my mother-in-law said. “We do not advice you to get more children out of our selfishness, we may not be here when they grow up. Most of our concern is born out of sympathy.”
“Yes, but when sympathy becomes too much it looks like mockery.”
“Young woman,” the woman said, trying to suppress her anger, “a child does not defecate in a place where the grass is taller than her. You…”
“No, no my wife,” the uncle said, “let us not quarrel over this issue. Scratching an itchy eye is done with great care. We must not quarrel. The tortoise said that slaughtering a cow for his mother’s funeral is the dignified thing to do but if you ask him to provide the cow he has none.” He shrugged.
My father-in-law spoke. “These things we are trying to suggest are not things that are not done. In plain words, my daughter, why are you averse to the direction of our voice?”
I sighed silently. They started with poetry now they wished to hear me speak in plain prose. No problem. “Firstly,” I began, “I have already suffered greatly in my childbearing journey. I do not think I can endure another conception…”
“An old woman is never old when it comes to a dance she knows how to dance.”
For a moment, I allowed my anger show at my mother-in-law’s words; I successfully overcame this with a painful smile. “You are right Mama, but it is only those who can afford it fight with their walking sticks.”
“Not speaking is the elder’s fault, not listening the child’s,” she fired.
“My wife, I said let us not quarrel about this. It is all about our young wife seated before us. She has the knife and she has the yam. The farmer says if he likes he would shoot his plantain with a gun. It is his own. We cannot quarrel with our daughter over something that has to do with her body.” He turned to me. “My daughter, tell us, assuming you can endure another childbirth, what else are you afraid of?”
“It is not about fear nnam; it is more about respect; respect. I do not believe getting more kids in the name of my husband will do him honour. You have said that for a mortar to get food it must turn its back to the ground. True, but a fowl does not forget the person who pulled its tail in the rainy season. My husband is gone but I still love him, and I do not think frolicking with other men will please him. Secondly, look at the economic hardship today. One must consider the size of his anus before swallowing udala seed. I am a teacher, and a part-time tailor; I have the little money left of my husband’s business. With these, I can effectively carter for my kids. It will be harder, if not impossible to add more mouths…”
“If I may interrupt you my daughter, but an adult who sends a child to catch shrew will definitely provide her with water to wash off the odor.”
My father-in-law agreed with his brother. “One person does not raise a child. Children belong to the community.”
I nodded. “But a goat belonging to the public sometimes die of starvation.”
“Young woman…” the old woman began hotly but I didn’t let her finish. “Do not say I am treating your words with disregard but I do not want to be like the lizard who went to have his teeth filed even when he heard of the man rat bit to death.”
The silence that followed was deep and suffocating. I shut my eyes and eased back on my seat and relaxed. I could hear the gentle hum of my children’s breathing in the next room. The sound pleased my heart and comforted me like a warm blanket.
Someone cleared his throat. I opened my eyes. The uncle spoke. “We have had a good conversation, we have spoken like family, and they are good words.” He swallowed something or nothing. “It is not in our culture for the younger one to close the talk so I will leave it for my brother to say the last word.”
“Thank you Deji, you have spoken like a true son of Nnobi. As a whole, every word we said here tonight is good. Our family is a good one, both we and the wives we marry in are sensible people. Our purpose of coming here is to talk to you our young wife, to let you know our heart because shit in the stomach does not smell. We have done our duty the way we deem it fit. It is now left for you to do your part. You are not in agreement with our words but I implore you to sleep over it. Call yourself to a meeting and turn the matter around. You may be sure you understand all we have said, but I assure you that the snake is never exactly the length of the stick it is likened to. So think over our words. If you accept to do what we suggest, you are our wife; if you do not accept you are still our wife. The penalty for not dancing well is never applied to one who has legs. Thank you for opening your door and ears to our call.”
“Thank you sir.”
They rose to go. I stood up and walked with them to the door.
I shut the door and bolted it. Thanks be to Olisa for keeping my sanity throughout this tumultuous meeting. I allowed a sigh of relief, crossed myself and made for the bedroom to check on my kids.
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