Scent Leaf – Adanna Ogbonna
Too wrinkled and dry, I thought, examining the scent leaf. It had lost its freshness but was still useful. Mother used to say it was better this way, that it added a different flavor to the soup, one only time can create.
I stirred the soup a few more steamy bubbles and it’ll be ready. After a while, I dished it onto a small bowl, wrapped the akpu in cellophane just the way she liked it and hurried into her room. It was dark and stuffy with the scent of urine. I dragged the shut curtains apart. Her eyelids flung open, exposing bleak eyeballs; she hissed.
“Anurika!” she yelled in a strained voice. “Leave my husband’s house for me o hmm.” I stared at her with pity, and yet a part of me felt intense hatred. Pity and hate were spices in this dish of acrimony we’ve cooked over the years.
“Mma get up, my name is not Anurika,” I replied angrily. I’d grown weary of reminding her. At first, I had been confused and scared. Her voice had sounded distant and strange, and she had looked through me, not at me, like she was in a different world.
“Get up and eat your food,” I mumbled. “Every time, Anurika! I wonder how I look like that dead old woman to you.” I share no semblance with the woman except that Mma hated us both. She must have really relished hating her; even after the old woman’s death, she still saw her through me. Anurika had been her co-wife. “Si ebe a pu a osisiso!” she spat out in a voice that meant to scream with contempt, cataract swimming in her rheumy eyes.
“Old age has made Mma bitter,” Nzube, my twin sister, once said. But age is not to blame; she had always been bitter and cranky. Anurika’s moments in this house were doused in squabbles and memorable fights. One of such happened eight years ago, it jolted me up from dream of a twirling cotton and white dress flounced around the waistline; I was just about to step into it when the piercing bleat of Anurika’s goat sliced through my momentary feeling of bliss. I stared open-mouthed as Mma firmly fettered Anurika’s goat while she set fire for a roast. She had earlier complained that the goat took her precious vegetables as fodder and trampled the tendrils.
Anurika who had just returned from the stream that evening crashed into her like a bull while the duo thrashed around the kitchen. The fire burnt down the Uha tree at which foot it was set. The goat bleated itself to exhaustion, all the while eyeing the knife in helpless despair. Anurika lost a part of her ear that day while Mma’s lips tasted blood and loved it.
My grandfather had married Anurika in the twilight of her years. She had been mourning the absence of her son who left the village to learn a trade in Lagos but got so absorbed in the bustling city that he grew impassive to his mother’s needs. The story is that my grandfather married her against mma’s wish after saving her from a suicidal mission in the Ikwu stream. Anurika died ten years after my grandfather without seeing her son. The son returned and built a bungalow where her hut had been and sprayed naira notes like a lunatic at her burial.
Mma once uprooted the neigbour’s yam seedling for not telling her what brand of fertilizer’s he used for his plants; no one knew who did it but I saw remnants of the severed greenness clinging to her muddy hoe at the back of the yard. Nzube wouldn’t know this, she is the lucky daughter extricated by the bind of marriage and alas! never saw the acrid side of our grandmother.
Nzube is the pretty twin sister; the better part of the split egg, our school mates once teased. She was wooed and chased by every man we knew: Ikem the village tailor sold his motorcycle to replace the school fees she squandered with her friends. He was wiled by the coyness of her frequent smile, hexed with the fullness of her lips and bewitched by the sway of her curvy hips. He wasn’t the last. The carpenter built her shelves and tables while she paid with a teasing smile that fanned the ambers of his flattened ego.
Everyone doubted I was her sister let alone her twin. I was the girl who her friends called ugly under their breaths while she tapped them lightly and said “stop that, she has fine nails”. Each time she said that, she glanced at her own nails, and in her eyes, I saw a flitting tinge of regret, or maybe I imagined that. She got married immediately after secondary school. No one was surprised. That was seventeen years ago, and I haven’t been as lucky.
As a result, Nzube wasn’t there when Mma drowned Nkem. She had grizzly fur with sprinkles of black that tickled when she curled around my legs, and sparkly eyes that pried kindness out of the stoniest of hearts. She was Udeme’s kitten, a souvenir of a broken heart, and a broken man that had once grappled the tender edges of my beating heart.
It started with the cat’s feces Mma saw at her door in July that year. She sputtered invectives at me as if I was a stranger and not the first fruit of her son. This hassle tarried a few weeks until I found Nkem’s lifeless form circling the surface of the well. I stayed thirsty for days as I couldn’t bring myself to guzzle down the vestiges of my truest friend.
I was growing impatient with Mma lying down and cursing at me. Dementia was what the doctor called it; at least that explained the constant irritability and loss of memory. Papa thought the doctor was the one with dementia. “That is an illness for crazy people not my mother, God forbids! We don’t have madness in my lineage, stupid diagnoses,” he had blurted out on our way back from the hospital three years ago. “Okay, papa if you think the doctor is mad, what do you think is wrong with Mma?” I asked, laughter teasing the corners of my mouth. “Ah, she simply communicates more with our ancestors now,” he answered with self-assurance. “She is closer to them than to us now,” he added.
Papa never got a real education, but prided himself on reading more books than those who had degrees. He would drop each book with scorn, claiming the writers needed to go back to school. Papa agreed with nothing except what mother and mma thought was worth it. The two women were of opposing ideologies, so he was in a constant battle of wills.
Our mother got sick when I was twelve. She spent months in the hospital; there was no space or time for our needs, so Mma thought it was worth it for us to live in the village with her. Mother’s illness wasn’t contagious, but the gloom it brought was. So, deep down, a part of me was glad when we left Enugu for the village, leaving my father to battle with the fiendish shadow of cancer that clenched its stony fists around our mother’s neck. She died two years later; father leased the house and joined us.
“Mma biko, please stand up and eat, I need to go somewhere,” I said, glancing at my wrist watch.
He would be there now; the thought alone thrilled me, I have learnt to look forward to our furtive meetings; they had a pinch of youthfulness to them. I looked at Mma’s frail, almost helpless, form and anger surged through me. Her pale crinkled lips were slightly parted, and my first instinct was to shove the entire rap of akpu down her throat. No one but Papa would blame me if I did. I still remember her words with poignant clarity: “Find yourself a husband, look at Nzube she is happily married but all you do is lie around the house and finish my son’s money, go and marry.” That was five years ago.
“Papa!” I called, “come o, Mma does not want to eat her food.” I left the room with the food on the floor and walked away. Papa met me half way. “What are you calling me for, so if I am not around you cannot feed your grandmother eh?” he asked. “Her food is on the floor,” I let out slowly, inching towards the gate, leaving the house. “Where are you going?” he called after me, “to meet that small boy eh…may God deliver you.” “Amen,” I muttered softly, not breaking my stride.
Papa knew I was seeing him. He had seen us once behind the fence where Mama had planted her favourite scent leaves. My mother cherished scent leaves and planted it everywhere she could; she had one in the backyard of our house in Enugu. She put them in almost every meal she made: in her stew, it added a unique taste while the sizzle on the hot pan made our bellies rumble and our mouths watery. In her room, she burnt the stem of the leaves, and let the smoky aroma fill her lungs. In her words: they chase mosquitoes kpata kpata. “Why do you think they are called Nchuanwu?” she would ask with an amused look on her face.
Fresh, green and beautiful they were that day, an exact symbol of how I felt deep inside. Udo’s hands were expertly kneading my buttocks when Papa walked in. The look on Papa’s face that day still haunts my private thoughts. “You are a disgrace to this family, marry you won’t marry, but you go messing around with children you can bear tufiakwa!” He had screamed it as if Udo was a baby, and not a man of twenty two. I was only thirteen years older than him, but Papa made it sound like I was fifty and unmarried. “You are too old for this Eberechi, agadi n’enweghi ihere. Shameless…”
I hated that word agadi. Even in the most innocent conversations, it made me feel guilty, like the whole world could see the agedness beneath my petite form and expensive makeup.
I spent my meager salary as a local government typist on dresses and makeup. I walked with measured steps and swayed my non-existent hips. I kept up with recent trends and told anyone who cared that I was twenty five, so each time that stupid driver in front of the office called me Da Ebere with a slight bow of respect I hiss while he laughs loudly and breaks into the song Agadi ekwe nka; an aged who refuses to age. My blood boils and new wrinkles form. He was permanently stationed so it was a constant inconvenience.
Papa didn’t speak to me for a month after that; he made his own meals and went on his own errands. It was as if I didn’t exist. I yearned for the huskiness of the voice that called for tea every morning, but Papa didn’t stop until a crevice so wide was dug between us that even egusi and okuko couldn’t bridge. In those days, I heard a silence so loud it threatened to awaken a stream of remorse and self-consciousness, so I shot my thoughts away and focused on the essentiality of the forbidden tryst.
Papa spoke eventually, when he tired of the silence or the bad taste of his own tea; I’m yet to decide. “Eberechi, there is no justification anywhere for what you have done.” I didn’t respond so the statement hung thick in the air and hovered around us with a tension that didn’t quite break even after our seeming reconciliation. I wanted to tell him that for me justification was for those whose actions begged for it. So, he was right; there was no justification for loving a man a decade and some years younger, neither was there any justification for a heart battered into bits by men of appropriate age to a point that not just the heart but its proprietor felt torn apart limb by limb.
I hastened my pace, taking a wide turn down the road away from home, away from Mma’s lunatic accusations and Papa’s captious gaze. It felt liberating like gulping in a breath of fresh air after inhaling the acrid stench of fart.
I greeted everyone I came across. “Good evening,” I kept mouthing, trying hard to smile, trying hard not to come off bitter or sad. I did this daily, the smile and good-natured greetings was a mask I learnt to wear a long time ago; a mask that hid my true feelings of failure and self-loath. A mask that elicited statements like, “it’s a wonder you aren’t married, men are blind since they can’t see the angel in you” instead of “no wonder she is not married, bitter old hag.”
I caught sight of Njide from secondary school. From a distance, I took in the lingering traces of the years spent. Her slightly drooped jaw and slackened stomach hung out by the sides of her clinging dress, it gave away that she was a mother of three. One of the perks of having stayed unmarried is that I didn’t look anything like Njide, except for the settled skin in my arm that had lost it tautness. I smiled to myself, and walked faster to meet up with her. My gladness was cut short when a toddler emerged from the stall tugging her hands. I turned around immediately and took the longer route so our paths wouldn’t cross. Unshed tears burnt my eyes while I fought hard not to blink. I loved children but I didn’t have any.
I strived to contain my thoughts as I galloped towards Udo, but it wasn’t hard to take in the overt changes the road had seen in many years. I couldn’t remember the last time I treaded that path; the short cut to Kaduna Street was eked out so many years ago, so there has been justifiably no need for the long route. I noticed that the giant gate to late Prof. Idemili’s house had become a rusty shade of brown instead of the bright red colour it used to have. I could still see traces of red, but that is what they had become, traces.
The corn plants by the road side effloresced in healthy greenness, it was hard to imagine that they would wither away someday and become fibrous fuel to burning firewood. The thought of withering corn stalks reminded me of Mma, she was withering away. She had lived her full life and, just like the blooming corn, she had also bloomed in her youth. I still remember her in her mid-life; despite the constant combat with wrinkles, her beauty was never hidden. The rumour was that she used to be smeared with charcoal and given a walking stick during the war to mask her true beauty so she wouldn’t be whisked away by the Nigerian soldiers.
The walk appeared longer than I remember it to be, but soon I was standing face to face with Udo, the man that had touched my ageing soul with his youthful palms. I took a minute to look at him. I did that all the time, but the novelty never seemed to wear off. This time his bushy brows knitted into a frown when he saw me, his full lips paused and no smile broke from them. He must be sad about something I thought. “Anty Ebere,” he said, avoiding my eyes, “this thing we are doing, I’m no longer comfortable with it. I just gained admission, and I am going back to school. I need to focus.” Anty, it felt vile coming from him. He stopped calling me Anty when his palms and fingers learnt every corner and inch of my skin.
Rage burnt through me, and I hit him hard on the face. I felt a sting in my palm, and almost immediately I began to rub his face repentantly. He stared at me in disbelief; did nothing but stare. I swallowed hard, fighting to hold back willful tears but they cascaded in salty torrents. I wondered if he understood the desire for a twirling white dress and sparkling tiara that sat regally every Saturday on the neatly coifed hair of women I knew from the days they played with childish glee.
Did he hear the frantic beat of my heart, when I first saw him scoop buckets of turbid water at the stream? Did he think I fell in because I couldn’t swim, or that I asked for swimming lessons because I couldn’t? Did he know he had picked and mended the pieces of a shattered heart?
I turned around quickly, and a flood of nausea washed through me. I staggered; he steadied me, all the while staring at me with a look I knew too well: astonishment. I let my hands linger while he starred wondering why I was distraught. Just like the others he had assumed it was mutual exploitation. He dallied and stared torn between an urge to walk away and a responsibility to dry my eyes. He chose the former. I watched his back just like I’ve watched many men before him, but then my mother’s voice chimed in my ears like the ancient clock in Mma’s room. “I want you girls to grow up fulfilled and happy, man or no man but how can you.” she uttered those words when Nzube failed her primary six exams just before the illness levelled her to a shadow of herself.
I wanted to call him back and tell him that school wouldn’t stand between us, that I could visit and cook for him, but I knew he wouldn’t want his mates to see him with me, and then I loathed the youngish school girl he’d touch with those magic palms of his. On my way home, I made a decision.
I got home to find Papa and Mma sitting in the verandah. “Are you not tired of seeing that child?” Papa queried again, peeking through the wire rimmed glasses perching on the bridge of his nose.” “Eberechi, growing older comes with a lot of wisdom but in your case the reverse is the case,” he said. “I’m not seeing him anymore,” I yielded with no fight left in me.
Mma had her hands in her lap. She stared into space, muttering and smiling to herself like a little girl with outrageous wrinkles.
“Your sister has given birth to a baby girl,” Papa said, “Ekele was here when you were away. He brought the news.” He rose gradually, holding his waist; he did that more often now. “You would go and help your sister.” “I’m going to Lagos next week,” I blurted abruptly. He opened his mouth to say something but thought better of it. “Do you know anyone in Lagos?” he asked quietly. “No,” I exhaled. “What about your job here?” I shrugged, staring him in the face. I knew my decision was rash and unfounded but there has to be something out there for me, something this small town has failed to offer.
I turned away and headed straight to my room. I caught a glimpse of my face in the blurry wooden mirror, and I saw the seemingly deep line beside my nose, a doleful reminder of the rapid recession of youth. Beside the wooden mirror lay a mildly shrunken scent leaf, patterned in sallow ageing streaks. I stared at it for a while and looked into the mirror, there was a quiet semblance and yet a huge difference.
That night, sleep eluded me, I tossed and turned warring against anger and hate staunch enough to keep my thoughts roving. Udo’s breakup and many others played out rapidly in my head until it became a jumbled mixture of thoughts. Finally, sleep rested on my brows; soon, their faces merged and they became one man. In his eyes, I saw a person in a long tiring search for validation, a person looking for happiness in the wrong places, a person battered with lifelong revilement, a person in a constant combat with societal expectations. And then, I felt that this person unknowingly gave himself up for a contest with fate measured by the achievements and approval of others. In that face, I saw my reflection.
My eyes flung open, and I felt a wave of heat. I sat up, opened a drawer and searched. I retrieved a stack of pictures and with my fingers I traced the images like a person savouring a moment. I lit a candle, and in the same manner I brought the candle slowly for a soft kiss with the photo. Gradually, the kiss consumed them all and soon they became gray ashes of a spinster’s past.
I lay down quietly and my father’s footsteps resounded down the hall, “Ebere, Ogini?”
“Something is burning,” his voice was hoarse from sleep, it’s nothing Papa, just a few papers.
“Are you sure?”
“Hmm,” he grunted, and I heard his retracing steps.
I remembered the dream, and I knew I needed a clean start, a new environment, with an ambience not choked with so much hate and anger, and I was convinced that I had to make the trip to Lagos.
Adanna Ogbonna was born and raised in Abia, she is a graduate student of Literature in the University of Ibadan, Ibadan. She chose to write to stay busy, but now writes to find life’s meaning. She blogs at www.litbrainsite.wordpress.com. Adanna loves the appellation writer but doesn’t feel she’s earned it yet.