HOW TO LOVE A VILLAGE BOY WITHOUT BURNING

Beautiful black girl

This story you are about to read was my Entry for the Afritondo short story prize. I wrote it and got ready to send it the next morning when I noticed I had misplaced the deadline with another writing contest.
I was a day late. I couldn't submit. Felt bad, but we move. Read. Then tell me how you feel about my story.

HOW TO LOVE A VILLAGE BOY WITHOUT BURNING


"Now that a part of your face is gone who will marry you, They say they can cover it with plastic. But who will marry plastic"  
Mama said with trauma in her eyes.

 Emeka was fine in a way village boys were fine. He had bright yellow teeth and a mustache that exaggerated his cupid bow. His hair was neatly shaven at the back, save for the small chunk left in front. He called it ‘punk’ with his Igbo baritone accent.

 You met him first at his stall; he sold fabric and rubber sandals at the main market. Mother said he was the honest one in the business because he sold at a fair price unlike other area sales boys in Onitsha market. He was the only one she bought Ankara from and he soon introduced you and your mother to rubber sandals.
‘’this one is like leather’’ he bragged, he said it was stronger than the Gucci slides you had on.
‘’ Na tear rubber, wear and tear!’’ he yelled with a smile that celebrated the gap in between his tooth. You bought rubber sandals from him even though you knew you would never be caught dead wearing them.

When you started going to the market just to buy a bar of soap or one box of matches which was easily sold across your street, it became obvious it was his company you enjoyed.

He gave you a wooden stool to sit on and teased you for being too oyibo for the market sun, never mind that you were almost as brown as the palm kernel nuts he served you with garri.

Had anyone asked your mother why you went out every afternoon, she would say it was because you had been away for a long time, that it was only normal for you to go out and get accustomed to the hustle and bustle of town. It would have been true except, you kissed  Emeka on his rough cheeks and he pecked you back.
It became normalcy to stay with him till he made his sales and misspelled the sum total in his 2A brown covered notebook.

Rubba sandals – 12,500
Hollandia wrapper – 20,000
Lianin-5000
Total = 43,000

He would smile and tell you how proud his Oga Festus must be of his big sales that day. You just stared at his short fingernails and gave him a nod. His nails were very short and they were chewed due to shyness. You wondered what Chizalu your twin sister would say if she found out you were making out with a grown man who could not keep his fingernails out of his mouth.

Her boyfriend Bokamoso was from Germany, his mother was South African. He maintained a clean shave and had well-manicured Fingernails. She was going to bring him home and hope that mother did not have a heart attack because she made it clear when she sent you both to Oxford that the only thing you should bring back home was a degree and an Igbo man ready to settle down. They had been dating for a year now, and from the picture of the ring Chizalu sent you, Bokamoso was now ready to be a husband.

Emeka’s shop was closed that afternoon, his neighbor Chude said he closed early the previous day. You didn’t know why you asked for the address, but you knew your heart would not stop racing if you did not ask. It was the same feeling you had when you suspected Taylor, your ex-boyfriend was cheating on you and you did not ask or confront him till you found them smooching in your bedroom.

The ear-deafening sound of an overused I pass my neighbor generator welcomed you into the compound.
Emeka lived in a small room at the extreme of a large face me I face you public yard.  He had a flat mattress in the corner of his room. And a  small stereo that blasted tracks from famous Oliver de coque beside his flat pillow. His face lit up when he saw you, like a child tasting cotton candy for the first time. This was also the first time you saw him shirtless. His firm muscles glistened as sweat fell from his chest and brows.

The yard people could not afford electricity, so he had two handmade fans on standby. He used his fingers to make circles shapes on the concrete floor when you offered to give him aspirin and caressed his chin.

‘’ I fall for ground from warehouse’’
‘’ oga give me one day off ’’ he said calmly as you pressed his body with warm water.

You wondered which one was more absurd, that a master’s degree holder from Oxford had feelings for a sales boy without a first school leaving certificate or how one day off was enough to heal from a swollen head and foot.
He told you that Madam Nkechi the market trouble maker had paid him for two wrappers and he must deliver today or she would call him onye oshi, a thief.

 You said nothing but if the air was a canvas and your eyes a paintbrush, it would say a thousand words because there would be a perfect painting of Emeka stark naked from the way your eyes xrayed his body.

It was the little things that caught your attention, things like the bridge of his nose, his unshaven black armpits, and the outline of his knee cap. Everything was good.
Mother said it was desperate for a woman to woo a man, that a woman must be sought after and the bible said ‘he that findeth’ not she.

You were lost in thought until Emeka shrugged noisily; you forgot to put the towel down. It was dripping on his face as you held it loosely above his head, submerged in your imagination.
‘’Chika water has full my nose’’ he beckoned and you both laughed heartily.

It surprised your mother how the people greeted you at the market. How the market children dragged you by the arm and called you auntie.

 How the barrow pushers smiled at you and asked ‘aunty how market’ some of them beckoning from a small shed ‘my color, my color.’ Madam Njideka praised your mother for training you well. She said she expected your tongue to forbid native delicacies, yet you devoured her Ofe akwu and rice like a hungry lioness. Mother played along. She smiled and said that it was the lords doing.

 What must have struck her was the manner in which you looked at the measuring tin cup when she asked you to buy boiled groundnuts. You took the cup and looked at the ‘bum bum’ like Emeka taught you. The groundnut sellers hit the bottom of the measuring tin cup with a stone so that it would have a bulge on the inside and a little amount of groundnut would fill it up to the oblivion of innocent buyers.

Emeka had the same kind of cup in his shop. He insisted each time that the seller used his own to measure and you marveled at his wisdom.
Your mother gave you the side-eye. She looked at you in an unassuming way, as though she was sure you were lying but unsure whether the lie would be anything she had to worry about.

She knew you came to the market often but she didn’t know you were equivalent to a salesgirl, that Oga Festus now told his fellow market men that the sandals in his shop are imported and you are the sales inspector from America. And very soon his business will become international, or that Emeka asked you to be his girlfriend and you agreed.

If you told her that all the times she sent you to go for night vigil and pray for a husband that you were only really watching Emeka breathe in his sleep, she would not understand. You told her the market people were only exaggerating, that you had only come to buy Shea butter and kinky weaves thrice.
That you only tasted Madam Njidekas Ofe akwu once and you hated it, surely she must not trust you if she believed that you of all persons enjoyed ordinary spiced palm nut extract, you that even hated tomato stew and Egusi soup. She should know Pasta and broccoli was your thing.

For a woman who lost her husband to the bomb blasts in Kano, and possessed two Samsung tablets your mother was quite naïve. She often acted passive and oblivious, in a way that was very mundane. She should have suspected the disappearance of her yam and plantain, the new collection of rubber sandals you now had, the many Ankara wrappers you now tied around your waist or the telephone calls that made you laugh like a hyena in the middle of the night.

But she didn’t notice, you would know if she did. when she saw a picture of Chizalu and her charming red-haired Hispanic project supervisor on Facebook, she called Chizalu and asked her if she wanted to send her to the grave, that the land she sold to send her to school was not to go and be mingling with foreign men who grabbed her waist as if they knew the cost of bride price.

When Chizalu lied that the picture could not be removed, she called Dede from the computer village and asked him if he knew the owner Facebook. He called her mama America! To him, She was the only woman in the village who had the power to send all her children to school abroad.

You desperately wanted to tell them oxford was not in America but the last time you tried, mother shunned you. She said you should wash your mouth, that what an elder sees sitting down even if you traveled oversees or oxford you can’t see it or understand it.

  Chude was caught having sex inside his Oga’s cosmetic shop. His Oga already beat him black and blue. Emeka said he will soon start seeing kiri kiri star because his eyes were swollen shut.
The market people gathered around them and rained abuses.
‘’ I am not surprised is it not Jude’s daughter again’’ A middle-aged pepper seller yelled.
 ‘’What else can one expect from the daughter of a man who sells underwear and bum shorts’’ A woman with skin the color of burnt plantain retorted.
‘’ Ashawo! Akunna! Prostitute’’ They howled at her, others threw rotten tomatoes at them.

Chude cowered out into the streets leaving the girl to the mercy of sellers and bystanders. You hated the market after that day. You told Emeka you will not come to his shop again. He begged you and promised to Cook special food for you. You told him you were scared because one day it would be you at the hands of those people. Nwaanyi garri that sold foodstuffs near the gutter said it would soon be your turn. She said there was no mercy even for Americana’s who had forgotten their roots.
‘’sin is sin, in-mo-ra-rity is in-morarity’’ she said in her failed attempt to put up an accent.
Emeka’s room became solace; you stayed there more often than you stayed in your mother’s house. You told her you were working on a project for the American embassy so you needed to spend more time at the cyber café.

 Emeka made you play hopscotch with him in the dry harmattan sun, your legs cracked and covered in dust. The yard children joined sometimes, other times their mothers sent them away to allow you to play your love play. During the mango season, Emeka plucked overripe mangoes and covered it in a bowl.

He allowed them to become almost rotten and he urged you to eat it, according to him it tasted better than palm wine. The sourness of the mangoes irritated your tongue, Emeka was used to it.
He waited for you on the long line leading to the pit latrine and when you could not endure the stench and the buzzing of flies, he took you to a nearby bush. He cut large plantain leaves for you to use and he told you stories as you eased yourself.

He looked away when he told you he did not know his parents, that even his grandparents did not survive the Biafra war. He lived with different families until he was considered too old and thrown out. Oga Festus picked him up. He told you about his formal girlfriend, Nnedi. She got into the university and stopped talking to him. He was now too local for her.

 It occurred to you that Emeka was only a small boy, your younger brother’s age mate had he not died at childbirth. How was your mother going to take the news of her thirty-year-old daughter, madly in love with a boy who was barely twenty-five? You would not worry about that, instead, you asked Chizalu to buy you Anti-aging cream on her way back. She was coming home in a week with Bokamoso to try and get mother's blessings.

You would pray for her because to get mother to accept a Nigerian man who was not  Igbo was futile, let alone one who was not  Nigerian. It was like frying Akara and expecting it to taste like puff puff.
The atmosphere was covered in smoke and a beautiful aroma. Mother cooked almost everything, she made the dining table look like a buffet and she told the neighbors that her second daughter was bringing an Igbo man all the way from America. The plan would have been to deceive mother into thinking he was Igbo but the last time you spoke with him on the phone, he pronounced Kedu as Kiddo. It was not going to work.

You planned to sit in a corner and watch mother rain fire and brimstone. You would also have Emeka’s wheelbarrow on standby in case she finally had the heart attack and she needed to be taken to the health center.
Emeka gave you rubber sandals and wrappers for your sister and Bokamoso. He had been saving his lunch money to buy it from his Oga’s shop.

They arrived in a Taxi. Everyone waited in a horizontal queue outside the gate to receive them. It was as though the Queen of England was paying a courtesy visit and you all came out to pay homage. Chizalu ran out of the vehicle before it stopped. She ran to embrace her mother.
‘’ where is our husband?’’ was the first thing your mother said.
Bokamoso was already red from the scorching sun. He looked pale. Just one night at a hotel in Onitsha and his skin was full of rashes and mosquito bites. He was decked in his carton colored shorts and a safari shirt.

‘’ this one is albino?’’
‘’ where is he from’’ mother asked but Nobody answered her.

The table was set and it was time to eat. Mother started a long prayer, exalting the lord for journey mercies till the food was almost warm. She said she understood how difficult the journey was so she served Bokomaso goat meat Pepper soup and Agidi to calm his nerves. He exchanged awkward glances with Chizalu.
‘’ He is vegan and he is allergic to pepper’’ Chizalu mumbled.
‘’ Ehe, I heard the federal government have increased minimum wage and reduced the market taxes’’
‘’ Even the price of kerosene has reduced’’ you said trying to cut the tension at the table.
Your mother's face was clouded with anger and confusion. She brought another plate and she served him, Abacha.
He didn’t make it past two spoons before he spat it into the serviette.

‘’where is he from!’’
‘’ What type of child is allergic to food from his motherland’’ your mother Puzzled.

She had a special kind of oblivion for the obvious. She could perceive anything from a mile away but the one happening right under her nose; it blocked her sense of smell. Had her eye problem gotten worse? Could she not see his blue eyes, ginger hair, , and silky chest hair?
You wanted everything to be over with.

‘’Germany’’ Bokamoso said proudly
‘’ I knew it! I knew it the moment he did not remove his cap for prayers’’ Mother yelled with hands Akimbo. She didn’t want you to marry and mingle with people from other tribes, let alone continent. She said Shekau your father’s bosom friend in Kano personally cut off his head during the massacre.

She was convinced Chizalu had signed her death sentence if she decided to marry Bokamoso.
‘’ Is he even a Christian’’
‘’No, we are open to anything’’ Chizalu retorted.
‘’who is we, who is we!’’ mother screamed and rolled on the floor with hands akimbo. She said the gates of heaven will close on them since they were open to anything. Bokamoso ran to her.
‘’ mama kiddo, mama kiddo’’ he couldn’t even pronounce the only Igbo word he learned.
You wanted to tell him that Kedu meant what and Ndo- sorry was more appropriate if he wanted to console her. They left for a guest house that evening.

Emeka chuckled when you told him about the incident. He thought that meeting your mother would make her happy because he was a true Igbo man. But ethnicity and tribe were as much a problem as poverty for your mother.

She sold gold to big madams in the village and she was the head of Umuada- a coming together of daughters in Igbo land. She worked hard and it would be over her dead body for her daughter to marry a rich foreigner or a poor native. You decided to tell her about you and Emeka. You would tell her how he made you happy and treats
you like a queen.

You would tell her that age was just a number and Emeka was hard working. He was the best sales boy any Oga could ask for and he was going back to school to study business administration. She should be happy that you were offered a job at a publishing house in lekki and you were moving into a self-contained apartment with Emeka.

You planned to tell her but you came into Chizalu kneeling down in the middle of the sitting room surrounded by the Umuada. They looked like people who had resigned to fate. One of the women asked Chizalu if her children will learn how to speak Igbo and how often she was going to come home.  Chizalu had gotten married to Bokamoso in a registry before coming home.

Mother said love without a blessing is a curse and they needed to stop the marriage. As though the marriage was a TV show and one could press pause at any time.

‘’ We are legally married’’
‘’ And we have chosen not to have any children’’ Chizalu said wiping mothers' tears with her tattooed fingers. You didn’t want to cause any more sorrow so you kept mute.

It was the morning before your sister was to travel back to London with her husband Bokamoso. He was a journalist and he worked with the BBC. You promised to take them around the market to buy clothes and foodstuffs.  It had been a while since you visited the market.

These days  You met Emeka everywhere except the market, so you hoped for goodness sake the area boys had not displaced the market women to another location in the name of sanitation.

The kpomo seller sold near a wall plastered with the campaign posters of the local government chairman, Ego the bald woman who sold soup ingredients with a child always clinging from her breasts was just beside her, you got to all these places by counting ten stalls behind Emeka’s shop and crossing the big gutter. You wouldn’t know the way if the market arrangements were changed.

Chizalu was decked in her favorite denim bum shorts and a white polo. Her hair was messy and she wore your rubber slides. She looked like a top model in that body of hers but you had to tell her to put on proper clothes. The hot weather will not kill her and it was better to soak in sweat than to have a bandwagon of nosy market women run out to cover you in wrappers that smelled like spice and ice fish.

She went in to change and murmured about how she missed the privacy abroad. You didn’t tell Emeka you were coming to the market, you were going to surprise him. Bokamoso insisted he was coming along, you were not ready for the attention and stares he was about to cause. He just wanted to take pictures of the market place for his new article ‘’ The archaic life’s of the inner African people.’’ The title annoyed you and you taught of him as racist for a moment.

It was typical for people to shout and gather in Onitsha. Sometimes it was because a popular person had passed other times, it was a festival. The streets were packed and the atmosphere was disturbed by uproar and wailing sounds. Chizalu said she overheard a woman praising God that she fell ill and was unable to go to the market.
The road was packed and vehicles were filled with gallons of water. Everybody was headed to the market. Bokamoso and Chizalu had to share a seat on the bus, while you shared a seat with the driver. The uproar confused you.

  There were no firefighters at the market. Just local news reporters and people wailing as they mixed water and detergent to quench the fire.  You could not see clearly from the dust and smoke all over the place. The smell of meat, money, and goods pervaded the air and you hoped it was the butcher’s meat that was burning. You were too blind to see the burnt bodies around you until you got to the pile of ash that once stood as  Emeka’s shop.

They said the tanker fell at the market square and nobody knew how the fire spread. Oga Festus had his monthly sales locked in the shop. You had never seen a middle-aged man cry the way Oga Festus did. He said he would kill Emeka for not going to the bank earlier to deposit the money. His demeanor irritated you.
Your head was starting to spin from inhaling so much smoke.

People had just lost their livelihood to a fire. At this point, Emeka was all you wanted to see. You caught a glimpse of Bokamoso in a heated argument with an angry mob. They had thrown his camera into the fire for filming burnt bodies and were now threatening to beat him. You hoped Chizalu would find him before they beat him and burn him.

 You called Emeka countless times but his line was not reachable. You were going to tell him to pack his bags before Oga Festus came to harass him.
 The fire was starting to reduce. The late firefighters just had few shops to quench.
You met Madam Ndjideka sitting on the gutter with a cooler that was burnt halfway. Her eyes were heavy, they looked like they were going to explode.

You asked her about Emeka and she started to laugh. She took your hands and she walked you to the fence and when you got there you too began to laugh.

The funny thing was, Anybody could have that Chelsea jersey and anybody could wear black rubber sandals but not everybody had the Cartier bracelet you gifted Emeka from your silver collection or the childhood passport in his wallet with the ugly skin cut. His belongings were littered and burnt in bits including his smile. you starred at his gory face wondering if it was a dream.

They said he ran with fire burning on his back and nobody could quench it because they were too busy trying to differentiate horror from the spectacle, they let him burn, as though his wailing was rehearsal for a horror moving casting. You could easily move on with your life but something in you told you couldn't. You turned around and walked into the nearest fire. Hoping to wake up in Emeka's arms.

The needles woke up from your Coma. Your body was wrapped up like Lazarus.  Mother and Chizalu sat at the foot of the bed.

"Now that a part of your face will is gone who will marry you, They say they can cover it with plastic. But who  will marry plastic"
Mama said with trauma in her eyes.

The pain made you motionless. You didn't ask about Bokamaso. Chizalu's stillness explained it.

Congratulations to Jarred Thompson for winning the 2020 Afritondo short story prize.

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13 comments

  1. I'm literally crying, it was not really expected.

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    Replies
    1. Aww. I am happy you resonate with it. Thank you for reading

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  2. Wowww..... I couldn't stop reading and I was not also expecting it to end like that...i feel hurt and sorry too... Roseline, this is amazing..

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  3. Wow... Just wow
    Feels like I just watched a movie... A really good one.

    No words at all

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  4. You have a knack for details that makes me want to curl up on a couch and read till my eyes can't take anymore...This is beautiful and wonderfully plotted. My money is on u luv

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  5. Total chaos��...I'm weeping...this is an amazing story biko!!!

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  6. Like I told you before i hate to read .. but your writeups I cannot miss one, even if network doesn’t let me

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  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  8. Roseline you have come really far. It's been a while since I read prose written by you so this really wowed me. I'm not too surprised though because I've always known you're made for great things. Keep the fire burning sis, forever cheering you on.

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