Mazpa Ejikem’s All His Scents won the June 2020 Collins Elesiro Literary Prize.
“. . . Suffering is one very long moment. We cannot divide it by seasons. We can only record its moods, and chronicle their return.”
— Oscar Wilde, De Profundis
If my husband, Uzoechina, wakes up right now and walks into our sitting room, he will find my naked body standing in the warm sunlight, a slice of dawn cutting through the curtains and turning my skin a gleaming brown. He will see that my arms are wrapped around my body, across my fallen breasts, as though I’m cold–and my gaze fixed on nothing. But what he will not know is that now I feel a bit lighter, a bit freer, a bit readier to move out of this apartment because yesterday, I packed everything that belonged to my son and set them on fire.
It was in the evening while Uzoechina was away at his friend’s for a drink. I’d rummaged through the closets and cupboards, gathered the things that smelled of my son, and dumped them before the low mossed fence at the backyard. Then, I’d emptied a bottle of kerosene into the colourful heap and took a lit match stick to it. And I had been afraid he’d come back to meet me all covered in sweat as I stoked the fire, watching them burn, the flames licking through my son’s knickers and napkins and stockings, crackling as it chewed on his feeding bottles and hairbrush, everything becoming soft ash and fumes.
So this morning, I stand in the nude not minding the chattering of voices outside, the dogs barking in the distance, the zoom-zoom of dashing motorcycles. Because somehow, I am lost in a sudden awareness that even as my caramel-skinned, wide-eyed son isn’t here to crush, as usual, the early morning silence with his piercing squeal; even as I have burnt everything that he’d owned and cast the ash into the bush, I can still smell him through the brisk cold air of the harmattan. All of him. I move towards the TV on which a dusty photograph of him still sits. I take him into my hands; in that wood-framed black and white picture of him staring and smiling and showing two white teeth in front. I rub my thumb over his face, wiping off the thin layer of dirt. Then I call him by his name, Ifeakandu, and I think I just saw him blink.
Yesterday, over a breakfast of sizzling akamu and akara balls, Uzoechina told me that he’d found a nice place in Umuojima Town and that he’d like us to move out of this house as soon as possible. I was surprised. We’d come to love the place. The way it perched on the far end of the street away from all the commotion that popularized Thompson Avenue so that a peaceful quiet always prevailed. We loved also that it was the first place we’d been together as husband and wife; the first place we welcomed Ifeakandu.
So I lifted my head and, through a mouthful, asked, “Why? What happened?”
Uzoechina dropped his spoon and took my hand in his. He said that this place wasn’t allowing me to heal. That it was important that we relocated so that we could forget about everything and start afresh. But I shook my head ever so slightly in disapproval. I did not want to go. Uzoechina must have seen it in my eyes. He squeezed my fingers, gently, and told me that it was going to be alright. “I like it here,” I told him. “I don’t want to start afresh, biko.”
“Why?” he asked. “Why would you want to stay here and keep feeling bad. See, you haven’t gone to work for over a year now. You haven’t made your hair or anything. How long do you hope to remain in grief?”
“For as long as he wants me to! I cannot. I cannot.” I began to sob. He stood from the table, put his arm around me and pressed me against his belly.
“You are not helping yourself, Onyi. Ma ncha, at all.” He stroked my hair. “Let us go to someplace else, Inugo?”
I did not know how to explain it to him. How would he understand that my son is still here and that I hear his giggles from time to time? Does he not perceive all his scents the way that I do? The other afternoon, I’d forgotten about the porridge cooking on the stove because I chose to sit on the veranda listening as my son gurgled, bubbles rippling from his mouth. And I only realized he was not really there when the thick smoke filled the house and sent me into a coughing frenzy.
It is not easy to comprehend, you see? Those nights that I wake up, climb over him and out of bed only to perceive my son here and there, a reminder that he still lingers in narrow imperceptible spaces, looking at me, reaching for me. Uzoechina would call me crazy. I did not stop soaking his shirt in tears and he did not stop holding me, stroking my hair and rubbing my shoulders. I heard the sadness in his voice as he spoke, “Onyi m,” he said, “we have to go.” It was like he was begging. I sniffed and nodded, and he returned to his chair.
We finished our food.
Then I took the heart-shearing decision to get rid of everything that was once his, my son’s. If we must start afresh, if we must turn our backs on this house where Ifeakandu was torn away from me, I will not feel the guilt of leaving something behind. Of leaving him behind. Not even a whiff of him.
I am holding my son’s photograph against my chest, close to my heart, when I make up my mind to clean this house thoroughly; since the burning would not purge this house of every smell, I will wash his scents off the floors, the surfaces, the walls, everything. So while Uzoechina is still snoring like a pig, I gather myself together, throw a wrapper over my breasts and march over to Ma Petu’s shop, just across from our house. When I enter, Ma Petu is dressed in a long embroidered gown, a white handkerchief tied around her nostrils. She is in high spirits, dusting the shelves and singing a Christian song that says something about her enemies being defeated by the fire of the Holy Ghost.
“Ma, good morning O!”
She turns to look at me. “Onyinyechi, good morning nwanyi oma, kedu?”
“I am”–I sneeze–“fine.” The air is heavy with dust. Ma Petu apologizes, looks at me intently, and asks, “This one your eyes are swollen like this, did Oga allow you sleep at all?’ She grins. I force my lips into a smile. “My dear,” I say, running my index finger over the skin under my baggy eyes, “Is it not these wicked mosquitoes that you people have in this community. Would they ever let anyone have proper sleep around here?”
Ma Petu chuckles. “Come and buy this new insecticide,” she says, reaching across the refrigerator for a canister of Raid. “It is very, very good. That is what I am using in my house now. O na egbu fa pieces!”
I take it from her and study it. The price tag on it reads N450. “I will come another day and get it.”
“It’s alright. Kedu ife i choro? What do you want to buy?”
“Do you have Omo–the small one?”
“Yes. How many do you want?”
“Two”–and here I lift two fingers in the air–“how much?”
I do not have enough money. I hand her fifty-naira note and tell her that I would pay the remainder tomorrow. Ma Petu reminds me that asking for sales on credit this early in the day would spoil the day’s market, but she obliges anyway. “It is because you are my customer,” she adds, smiling and handing me a plastic bag. I turn around and walk away while she continues to sing and smack the surfaces with the cow tail duster.
The day my son died, on that cold morning exactly one year ago, I did not cry. It was just before his first birthday. Just when I had begun to get used to the pitter-patter of little feet around the house. It did not make any sense. The night before, my son was as strong as an ox. I had fed him mashed potatoes and milk. There were no signs. His body was not hot. His breathing was just fine. So you’d imagine my shock when at about five-thirty AM, before the sun began to climb the sky, I went over to his bed to find his body as stiff as a board, stretched hard by the frightening absence of life.
I refused to believe that Ifeakandu was dead. I scooped him into my arms and watched for breathing movements, for a twitch of his eyes or muscles. But there was nothing. I felt a heaviness settling in my chest, my heart beating in my belly. I opened my mouth but no sound came out. I did not scream. I did not throw my arms this way and that, did not crumble to the ground as I’d seen other women do. My wrapper was still tied firmly around my waist. My hair was still intact, shawled under an old cloth. For me, it was like the world had stopped moving and I had to stop with it. I placed my baby back in his cot, picked up my phone and called my husband who had been away for an outside job in Umuahia.
“Hello, Onyi,” Uzoechina said.
I was silent. I had still not decided how I would say it to him. I parted my lips and put them back together.
“Onyi? Are you there?”
“He is no longer breathing, Uzoechina.” My voice came out taut, like the body of my son.
“What are you talking about? I don’t understand you, Onyi. Who is no longer breathing?”
“Ifeakandu. Ifeakandu. His chest is not moving. Come home.” I hung up and sank into nothingness. He called back. I didn’t pick. He called again. I ended it. Four hours later, my husband was with me. Eyes red and sore. He’d called his family and his closest friends to break the news. And soon, every foot that heard marched towards our house. With arms clasped behind their backs, their heads bowed and their shoulders drooping, they dropped their condolences at our feet, telling us to take heart and that God knows best. That everything good will come again. And one of the men, a distant relative of Uzoechina’s whom I’d never met before, held me tenderly and whispered, “It is only a child, our wife, you’d have another one in no time, inugo?”
Still I didn’t cry, even though my first instinct was to slap him hard across his wrinkled face until his nose bled. My eyes only felt heavy and wet but nothing came down my cheeks–because onye kwe, chi ya ekwe, and I did not agree that my son was dead. How do you fill that space when you lose the one you love, when the one who loved you is torn away from you? I’d been married to Uzoechina for seven solid years, and every single day of that time I’d yearned and waited for a child. And every time my husband planted a seed in me, I felt a baby form, but none stayed. They’d fizzle out in days and my happiness would disappear in the wind. But my Ifeakandu was different. It was he who chose to stay; to be born and be cradled in the crook of my arms; to look up at my face and smile. It was he who craved the essence of my breasts, dried my tears and kept me up every night. Truth is, you cannot fill the space or bridge the rift. It only gets wider and wider, until it sucks you in like quicksand, and swallows you.
When I get home from Ma Petu’s, I choose to start at the beginning. To start first at the origin of a road and then follow through till the end. To flow like a river charting it’s course, retracing your steps so you could figure out where it all went wrong. I start cleaning the empty floor space in front of the TV stand, where Ifeakandu was conceived. Right there on that wide patch of faded terrazzo on a slightly boring Saturday afternoon when the sky was a crisp blue sheet and most people hid behind closed doors. That day, I was alone in the house having a cold bath when I heard a knock on the door. It couldn’t have been Uzoechina. He’d left that morning for an age-grade meeting at his hometown. I wondered as I quickly dried my skin, put a cloth over my body and headed towards the sitting room. I opened the door to a dark-skinned, cleanly shaven, unfamiliar man. He was dressed in a loose auburn kaftan and had a steak-coloured cross-body leather bag slung lazily over his shoulder.
“Good morning,” he’d greeted.
“My husband is not around. Please check back tomorrow or–“
“No, I have not come to see your husband or anybody in particular.” He introduced himself as Bro. Johnpaul, a Jehovah’s witness who’d come with the word of God and would love to share it with me. He’d said this like the word in question was a piece of cake too large to be consumed alone. I was not interested. But when you have been married for seven years without a child despite strict compliance to the doctors’ recommendations and prescriptions, you become automatically open to doing things you ordinarily might not want to do, especially with religion, because you do not know what part of the scripture might open your womb and make it a conducive nidus for a growing baby.
I stepped aside and watched as Bro. Johnpaul walked gingerly into the sitting room. I offered him a seat, and in return, he hands me a copy of the Watchtower Magazine, on the front cover of which was written: Why Must We Have Faith? I took a seat across from him and listened as he preached, chin resting on my palm. There was a certain liveliness in the tone of his voice, a touch of certitude and clarity that I liked. And for a long moment I was drawn to his attractiveness: the athletic black body, six-feet of height, controlled by a diamond-shaped head with protruding cheekbones. So taken was I that I didn’t hear when he asked me to read from the book of Hebrews chapter eleven verse one to three until he repeated it. I reached across the table and took the bible from him, still unsure of where I was meant to open to.
He stood up and came over to the sofa where I sat and said, “Here,” his index finger pointing at a corner of the page, “Hebrews eleven verse one to three.” But then in the next moment, we went from sharing the word of God to sharing our bodies. It was he who’d first turned to me, leaned forward and brushed his lips against mine. I was too shocked to react. Then, as though taking my silence as consent, he lifted my chin and kissed me deeply, firmly, holdng the back of my neck with one hand and pushing me into himself with the other. His breath was clean, his lips tasteless. I kissed him back. Then he cupped my breasts in his palms and squeezed my nipples. And when his hand wandered lazily towards my thighs and attempted to go in between, I was suddenly aware that something wasn’t right.
I pulled away from him and told him to stop. To pack his things and leave the house. But Bro. Johnpaul was as persistent a man as he was cunning, and before I knew it, I was on the ground kicking and fighting the man. Overcome by his strength, by a hand firmly pinning my hands against the floor, and another covering my mouth, my resistance remained fruitless. Bro. Johnpaul lodged himself inside me and thrust away until he was grunting and vibrating, emptying himself inside me. When he rolled off my body, I cursed him under my breath and cursed myself too.
He pulled up his trousers, wiped the sweat off his face with my cloth and gathered his books into his bag. I watched as he walked towards the door. There he stopped for a moment, turned to look at me and said, “I am sorry.” It was then that I began to cry.
I am startled by the voice of my husband: “Onyi, what are you doing?” I continue scrubbing in silence. I am thinking that I should’ve told him the truth. That I should have tried a little harder to get rid of the thing that grew inside of me; burying my perineum in a bath of hot water overnight was obviously not enough. Uzoechina does not repeat the question. He comes over to where I am bent on all fours, kneels beside me and throws his arm around my back. He rocks me gently and I feel all the tension start to come loose. He reaches for the scrubbing brush with his right hand and I turn to look at him – long face, wrinkled forehead, thin lips and all – noticing that he looks like a grown Ifeakandu even though he wasn’t his father. I let go of everything and bury my face in his neck. “It is well,” he whispers. “It is well. Our son will come back to us, one way or another.”
I don’t say anything.
“You hear me?’ he asks.
I pull away from him and look him in the eyes. “He is not your son, Uzo m.” And as soon as I say this, I wait for a reaction: anger; rage; hate. Whatever. But my husband’s face is as blank as a cadaver’s. Maybe he doesn’t understand. I blow my nose into the bucket of water and my voice croaks again. “Ifeakandu is not your son, ” I say again, but before I could tell him about the knock on the door, the preacher with a bible or the sex on the floor, Uzoechina reaches out for me and holds me to himself, tighter than ever before–and I feel small.
“I know,” he says, “I know.”
I am stunned. “You know what?”
“Everything, Onyi. Everything. It was all my idea.”
I rise to my feet. “What are you talking about, eh?’
“I saw how desperate you wanted a child,” he says, rising with me. “I was desperate too, so I had to do something.” I spit on his face. He turns around and walks out of the house. I move to the bedroom to continue my work, but I sleep off on the floor almost immediately. I wake up to the slam of the door, Uzoechina staggering past, on his way to our room, accompanied by the smell of alcohol and tobacco. Yet right through the pungent odour, I can still perceive my son. All his scents: the palm-kernel oil I smear into his curly hair; the lotion I use on his skin; the talcum I shower over his back after every bath; the soft smell of baby soap; and the poo that sits in his napkin. My stomach tightens in sadness.
My husband kicks my feet as he tries to mount the bed and as soon as he touches the bed, he starts to snore. I rip off the wrapper from my body so that I am naked again. I start to fold the cloth into a baby, my baby. I fold and look, but it is not quite him. So I unfold and start all over again. And it is still not my Ifeakandu. But I keep trying–through the darkness that falls across the room, through the sounds of chirping crickets in the grass, through the silvery light of the moon that casts shadows on the walls of our room–and I don’t stop until I’m holding my son in my arms, softly rocking him and waiting for him to fall asleep.
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