ILEMA (Short story)
It was dark. The darkness was so thick that you could carve it. Dark and wet. Very wet indeed, for it had rained non-stop for over two hours, beginning from 10 p.m. But now it had ceased completely. Everywhere was quiet and still, except for the hooting of an owl on the palm tree near the students? hostels. It was a cool night and the students were fast asleep.
Ilema was, however, fully awake. She was in her usual depression; that psychological agony that normally seized her whenever she thought of the mystery surrounding her birth. How unfortunate to be without a father, she thought, pressing her face against the pillow. How humiliating to have no knowledge of who your father was; knowing only your mother as your route to this wide world. And not that it was as a result of death; not that you were told that your father was dead - that would have been understandable since countless people have late fathers - but just like that: fatherless! She bit the pillow.
Maybe her father was dead now. Or maybe he was still alive, among the numerous fathers around. But who was her own father? This was the question she had been asking Mummy since her childhood, but up till now, at the age of eighteen, she was yet to get the answer. Sometimes Mummy would tell her to forget the issue, she would tell her at the right time. At other times she would just break into tears. On such occasions she would be almost convinced that even Mummy did not know who the man was.
She squeezed her eyebrows hard, as she strained her memory, trying to remember something. But all she could remember was Mummy?s single parenthood. Had she been single from her youth or had she been married and divorced before she gave birth to her? If she had married, could it be that she was concealing the identity of her father in order to hide the circumstances that led to the divorce?
But what sort of circumstances could make a mother deny her child the right to know her father or prevent a father from claiming his child? She couldn?t think of any. Maybe the truth was that Mummy had been single all her life. And it could be that in her casual relationships with men she got the pregnancy without knowing who exactly was responsible. It was a possibility. But even if this was the case, was it also possible that she didn?t know those she had affairs with at that particular time? No! She knew. They usually know. Then, why didn?t she just hold one of them responsible? Why didn?t she just point to one of them and say: "This is your father?" Yes, even if the man wasn?t the real father, that would have still been all right since the reality would remain unknown to her. And that would have given her the privilege of telling her children in future who and what her father was. How brave and upright her father was. But Mummy was trying to deny her this simple privilege!
Suddenly she remembered the words of that old man. A week ago, an old man she meet on her way to the stream had told her she was an outcast. He said she was forsaken on account of her being a female child; she was discarded in a rubbish dump by her mother when she was an infant. She didn?t understand it and she didn?t bother to ask the old man to explain. She merely smiled it off respectfully. He was just an old man trying to claim some mysterious power, she had thought.
Now she could understand, for the old man?s words perfectly explained Mummy?s attitude towards her. She hated her because of her sex, so she was avenging it on her by denying her the knowledge of her father. But, did she create herself? Would she not have chosen to be a male child if she had the choice? This was sheer wickedness!
She was now boiling over with rage. She would go to Mummy and find out once and for all, she decided. She couldn?t take it any longer. She would go home and persuade Mummy to tell her who her father was. She would persuade her?. But if she refused to co-operate, she wouldn?t mind manhandling her. Or even killing her!
The following day Ilema took permission from the principal and set out. The distance from Dekina to Makurdi was not much but due to the bad road and the condition of the bus she boarded, she arrived very late in the evening when the sun had turned cold.
The sky was thoroughly pregnant with gloomy clouds, reminding her of her dark mission, as she entered the compound. The compound too was in an ominous desolation. There was no one in sight. Where was everyone? Where was the house-girl? What about Mummy? Was she still in the market?? Then she heard sounds behind the kitchen door.
"Who is there?" she asked, easing the door open. It was the house-girl. She was sitting in a corner, sobbing. "What is the matter?"
"Welcome?? the girl greeted with a voice heavy with sorrow.
?What?s the problem??
?Madam is sick!? Her face was a mask of utter sadness.
Without waiting for a reply Ilema hurried towards Mummy?s room. She jerked the door open and popped in. The first look at Mummy, as she lay on the bed, confirmed she was indeed sick. She was pale, frail and terribly emaciated. Stunned beyond words, Ilema stood for a long moment without uttering a word. She couldn?t believe her eyes. When she left for school a month ago Mummy was perfectly healthy. How come??
"Mummy, what is the matter?" she asked at last, suppressing her rising panic. Mummy opened her eyes briefly. They were almost lifeless.
"Oh, you are here... I intended sending your uncle to you? I need to see you now?" Her weak voice was ominously urgent.
Just then uncle Adejo walked in.
"So you?ve heard about it?" he asked Ilema, who was surprised to see him.
"Welcome? uncle?? she stammered. ?I didn?t hear about the sickness, I just came home? When did you come?"
"Three weeks ago." he said. ?I came to spend just two days? and met her in this condition??
He moved to the bed and took a close look at his sister. He shook his head sadly and began to narrate to Ilema how the illness started and how it had been handled so far.
"In the hospital the doctors said they couldn?t cure her so I brought her home,? he concluded.
Outside, the sky rumbled dreadfully. The clouds have gathered the final momentum and could let go any moment. Ilema was now panicking. She couldn?t comprehend the situation; couldn?t bring the nightmare to a discernible perspective.
"Mummy!" she called, placing her hand on Mummy?s forehead. Mummy opened her eyes.
"Oh, you are here at last," she said, as if she was seeing her for the first time. "I have a lot to tell you? I owe you some explanation." She gave a raucous cough and swallowed. "Ilema, please forgive me, I did not intend to tell you this yet? But I just have to. I have to get it off my mind now, before I meet my ancestors."
The pregnant sky rumbled, sparked and thundered.
"I am an outcast," she continued. "I was rejected by my people. I was branded a witch and rejected because of my inability to bear a child. Even though in my desperate quest for a child I moved from one husband to another like a harlot, they still failed to understand my plight. They said I couldn?t give birth because I ate my babies in the womb?" She was interrupted by another convulsive cough.
After a long pause, punctuated by the restive rumbling of the sky, she continued:
"The accusation raged on till I could no longer bear it. So at last I decided to put an end to the whole thing. I decided to leave home to a place where they would see me no more?" Again, she coughed. It sounded like a wet rag being yanked apart. She spat. The mucus was bloody. Her face twitched with silent agony as she waited to regain her breath. The sky thundered and tore down the atmosphere with a terrifying lightning.
"Having resolved on leaving home,? she went on, ?I confided in your uncle. I intimated him because he was the only one who understood my problem. When I told him initially he opposed the decision, saying that running away from home was not the right solution. He said I should stay, he would try all he could to find me a viable solution. And to this end, he contacted herbalists far and near and brought me all sorts of herbs and concoctions. I took them all, but they yielded no result.
"Seeing how increasingly hostile my people and those of my husband were becoming, he finally advised that I should leave. And so with pain in my heart, I divorced my husband, the fourth one, and left home. I left my dear home, Ajiolo, for Kaduna. And that was where, Ilema, you came into the pathetic story of my life?" Her voice drifted off with a deep, noisy sigh.
After what seemed to Ilema like an eternity, she proceeded:
"A few days after I arrived Kaduna, your uncle came there to help me settle down. He gave me some money to start a business in order to sustain myself. He also made it a point of duty to visit me regularly. Then, due to some problems, he couldn?t visit me for about a year; he only sent messages. By the end of that year I sent to him that I was leaving Kaduna; I was relocating to Makurdi.
"When he eventually came to me in Makurdi, he met me in a condition that filled him with joy. He discovered that within the period of his absence I had prospered tremendously. My petty business had grown into a large shop full of assorted baby wears. Above all, I was with a child. The child particularly delighted him. And he named her Ilema?" She was seized by another violent fit of cough. At the same time a mournful hooting of an owl rose from a palm tree behind the compound and fell somewhere in the charged atmosphere.
"Adejo," she continued, "I have to apologise to you. I told you Ilema was my real child, that I got her through a relationship I had with a man in Kaduna during the period you did not visit me. That is not true. Forgive me." She turned to Ilema: "Ilema, I beg for your forgiveness too. But I meant no harm to you. It was as a result of my sympathy for you, and my overwhelming desire to own a child that you are here today. That is why you are alive today?" She was again gripped by a heart-tearing cough. She felt the vicious clutch of death trying to suffocate her and she struggled hard to free herself. If only death could spare her a moment!
Outside, it was getting darker and a great storm was sweeping across the earth with a giant black wing that threatened to uproot everything on its way.
Adejo poured some cold water on her and soon she regained her breath. And despite his advice that she should rest for a while, she resumed:
"There is no time to waste? That night I was on my way from the market when I saw you in a rubbish dump, fresh and raw. God, somebody had thrown away her newly born child, I thought, and quickly rescued you. And there and then I decided that I would keep you; I would bring you up as my child, so that you would quench my life-long thirst for one. So I hid you. Then I moved from Kaduna to this place. My neighbours in Kaduna didn?t know, and may never know, why I suddenly decided to leave. And here in Makurdi I?m known by no other name than Mama Ilema. They do not know, and may never know...
"Ilema, you have quenched my thirst. In you I have tasted? have tasted the joy of motherhood. And now your uncle will continue to take care of you when I?m gone. I believe he will give you all the necessary training that will make you grow into a woman of substance, into a man. He will use my entire possession in this direction. Then I will be?happy in my grave?!"
Ilema suddenly lurched forward and slumped to the floor.
The clouds murmured, roared and shattered the sky. And rain came charging down like the anger of a thousand witches. It was as if the earth was being merged with the sky in a mortal combat that spelt doom for all creatures. Everywhere was reduced to nowhere; darkness, lightning, thunderclaps, falling trees, falling houses?and the rain; pouring, pouring, pouring?
© Sumaila Isah Umaisha.
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