There are two variables in my life. One is that I’m the apple of my father’s eye; and the second is that I don’t care very much for my stepmother. Before my mother died five years ago, we were a tight-knit family – Daddy, Mummy and I. For eight years, I was the only child my parents had – a miracle child after five years of marriage, they told me –, and because of that, they doted on me. Following the crunch of tyres on the gravel of our front yard – an indication of my father’s homecoming from work –, I would run out to greet him, my pleated skirts swirling about my skipping feet, and launch myself into his arms. And he would toss me up into the air, the sounds of our mirth echoing, the envy of the birds with their melodies and Nature with its beauty.
And Mummy – whilst her fingers worked through my abundant tresses, humming a song to accompany her weaving of my hair into the braids I would wear to school the next day, I called softly, “Mummy.”
“Eh, Nne mummy?” I was Nnenna, but my mother was adamant I was a reincarnation of her own mother. Nne mummy, the sobriquet she called me, made me want to curl up in her embrace and breathe in the earthy smells of her motherliness each time I heard it said.
“What will I be when I grow?” I asked. “Will I be pretty, will I be rich?”
She turned me around, her eyes gazing at me with a lambency that warmed me. “You will be both, my dear child. And more. You see those stars?” She pointed up through the open windows at the dazzling constellation that dotted the umbral blanket of the skies. “You will shine brighter than those. When you were born, you became a miracle in this household. When you grow, you will be a miracle in the world.”
That was five years ago. And in the passage of that time, Daddy had married a new wife. A bosomy and, in my opinion, plain-faced woman named Constance. And she expected me to call her ‘mummy’. What a joke. I have only one mother, and she is now resting with other angels in heaven. And come tomorrow – Mother’s Day – I will light a candle and pray for that day when He who took her away will reunite her with me and Daddy. Just us three. The way it was and should always be.
I was awakened by the silence. It was not the usual silence of the night. It was a moving silence, a hurried rush of air, a whisper of bodies. I was suddenly filled with a premonition that something was wrong. A sudden flash of light dragged my gaze to the window. Chain lightning flared outside, and with arachnid frenzy, the turbulent black shadows of wind-shaken trees thrashed across the glass. Thunder boomed, roared and tumbled down the coal chute of the night.
With this amount of ruckus, how could I have heard the silence move? It suddenly seemed ridiculous that I would be afraid. I lay back down on my bedcovers, grabbing my pillow tighter around me, my gaze drawn to the turbulence that characterized the beginning of a rainfall. I tried to relax, but that frisson refused to stop its dance up and down my spine. Nnenna, will you stop! I told myself firmly. I was probably fretting because my father was not home on this night. He traveled to Calabar for an important work meeting two days ago, was scheduled to come back tomorrow. And the fact that my big strong Daddy was absent from home was most certainly the source of my fears.
I was the firstborn of the house. The one who was in charge. How often had Daddy told me that in the past? Countless times. What would he do if plagued with these doubts? Probably get up and check that the house was still safe and undisturbed. And so, I threw back my bedspread, sat up and slid my feet into my bedroom slippers that were on the ground before my bed. I picked up my wrapper from the chair over which I’d flung it earlier and wrapped it around my softly-swelling, thirteen-year-old bosom over the nightgown I’d been wearing. My slippers flapped as I walked out of the room. The small corridor outside my room was lit by a softly-shining bulb, a lone light that cast the other open doorways into ominous shadows. A cold trickle worked its way up my spine. What lay beyond those darkened recesses? What nightly phantoms lurked inside those yawning glooms? Was I sure I wanted to go further than my own room threshold? Shouldn’t I just go back to bed and sleep like my stepmother and Kelechi, the eighteen-month-old tot she’d delivered not long after marrying my father, were obviously now doing? What if –
Okay, that’s enough, Nnenna! I sharply reprimanded myself inwardly. There’s nothing wrong – you have seen that. Now go back to bed. Outside, I could hear the storm climbing up to a crescendo, hammering the night with a greater barrage of lightning and thunder than it had produced thus far. Reluctantly giving in to my cowardice, I decided I needed to pee first before retiring. So I trudged to the toilet, let myself in and did my business. When I stepped out, the faint eau of body odour was all the warning I had before I felt a hand clasp my mouth to knock back the scream that had started to swell inside me. Then the hand pulled me back roughly to slam my body against the hard trunk that made up my captor’s body. I suddenly began to struggle, especially when someone else walked into my line of vision – a masked man, clad in black, his eyes glittering maniacally through the slits that were on his guise. I wriggled and squirmed, thrusting my feet this way and that. Terror fountained inside me, and the scream stuck inside my mouth refused to die.
“Control the girl, Bruno!” the man in front of me growled in a low menacing baritone.
“I am trying to,” snapped the voice of the person who owned the palm around my mouth. And he was trying to, his other hand trying to hold my wildly-writhing body in place.
Suddenly inspired, I peeled back my lips against his palm, nearly gagging as the thenal skin rubbed against my dentition. I jerked my teeth apart and brought them down upon the skin, clenching hard, bones tearing at flesh. The captor gave a strangled yelp and released me. But that was how far my satisfaction went. He swung me around and in an instant – the instant it took me to see that he was clad in much the same way as his partner – I saw his intention in his eyes. The following moment, his hand crashed into my face. The world went white, as I reeled back against the wall, stumbling to the floor, blinking away the tears of shock.
“Bitch! The fucking bitch bit me!” I heard him complain with a pained grunt.
Suddenly, the terrified scream of my stepmother pealed and moments later, I saw the other man pull her out of her room, his hand clasping her hair and threw her down on the floor beside me. Moments later, Kelechi’s cries rose in concomitance with his mother’s, reverberating all over the house even after my stepmother’s scream had dwindled into whimpers when her shocked eyes took in the scene in the corridor. “Nnenna…” she gasped and reached out to grab me close to her. But I pulled back from her; even at this moment of crisis, I could not bear the maternal touch of her. And as it had always been in the past, whenever I rejected her overtures of familiarity, she gazed at me with sadness and a longing for something I couldn’t give.
The moment was cut brutally short when one of the intruders – the one who had assaulted her – stepped forward. He bent towards my stepmother, and she recoiled from his manic eyes. “Where is the money?” he said in a low snarl.
“Wh-wh-what money?” she faltered. “I don’t have any money…please…”
“Where is the money?!” A gun leaped into his hand, a gun which he thrust into the area before my stepmother’s face, each thrust an interjection between words.
“Please…there’s no mo–” And her protest ended in a strangled gasp as his hand swung sharply across her face. I flinched when she was struck and her body whirled on the floor, a few inches away from me.
The man straightened, peeled the mask from his dark-complected face and waved the gun again. “I won’t repeat my question. It’s the end of the month, a time when you workers collect your salary. You collect yours, we collect ours.” He waved his hand between him and his partner. “Now, where’s your money?”
My stepmother’s voice came in between dejected sobs. “I haven’t been to work…not for the past week because I’m on leave… please, there’s no money here…”
“You hear that, Bruno?” the man addressed his partner. “She is still insisting that there’s no money.”
Both men cackled viciously. Then Bruno said, “Benji, what if we motivate her to give us what we want? What if we…” His voice trailed off as his eyes swung on me. His face was masked but I could envision the wide grin that had split across it. His eyes glowed with deadly intent as he marched purposefully toward me. Benji began to snigger as his partner reached for me; I shrank back; his hand snatched at my wrist, pulling me forward, the other hand ripping the wrapper from my body.
“NO!” Constance cried out.
I began to struggle again, the fresh surge of terror I felt lending more frenzy to my kicking feet, slashing fingers and snapping teeth. He tried to strike me again, but my thrashing limbs made the effort futile.
“Bitch!” he grunted.
“Please…No!” my stepmother shrieked.
I kept on screaming. Benji cackled. Kelechi’s cries rang on incessantly. And outside, the storm raged on, lashing against the roof; the trees groaned and creaked in the gale-force wind, and from time to time, the house itself shuddered, as if it were alive.
The tearing sound my nightwear made as my assailant’s hand rent it from my body seemed to galvanize my stepmother into action. She leaped up from the ground, taking Benji unawares and raking her hooked fingers across his face. The man screamed and staggered back, his hands clutching at his face. Constance pushed him forward with a fierce shove and he tumbled to the ground, his head hitting the ground with a crack. Bruno was startled around, a gun jumping into his hand as he swung on my stepmother.
“Mummy!” The words escaped my mouth before I knew it. “Mummy, look out!”
Constance whirled around to face Bruno’s gun lifting in her direction. Her eyes bright with rage and unshed tears, she sprang like a lioness at the man. The way her fingers were curled – like claws – it was clear she was aiming for my attacker’s eyes.
However, with a sinking feeling, I knew she wouldn’t make it. No one was faster than a bullet. And Bruno seemed to know this as he smiled cruelly whilst tugging the trigger.
I awoke to the sound of my own scream. Halfway out of bed in a leap and disoriented in the dimness, I stumbled and fell to my hands and knees. Icy chills quaked over my skin and I was so nauseated that I hung my head and panted sickly. Finally, I forced myself to my feet and looked around. It was morning, and the rays of light of dawn that filtered into my room seemed weak and watery from the strength of the storm that whupped the night before. The storm! Oh my God! The thought slammed into me with a horror that pushed me into a sprint outside my room. The corridor was empty, as was my stepmother’s room. My heart was starting to beat frantically, then it stilled when I heard a sound coming from the dining room. A happy sound. A gurgle, which escalated into peals of baby laughter. Kelechi! I ran into the room and stopped short when I saw Constance in there with him, making breakfast. She looked up upon my hurried entry and beamed an uncertain smile at me. “Nne, good morning.”
It had been a nightmare! Just a horrible dream! The relief I felt surge through me brought a sharp sting of tears to my eyes. There had been no intruders. No terrors in the night. No ugliness. Just love. My stepmother’s love which I could now see. I recalled my dream; and I remembered her foolhardy, her fearlessness, her determination to save me in the face of the odds that were not in her favor. I walked up to her, and much to my surprise – and I’m sure, to hers too – I hugged her. Tightly. My arms nearly going round. Burrowing into her warmth. “Happy Mother’s day, mum,” I whispered with feeling.
A split second later, she hugged back. Her arms weren’t like my mother’s, and she didn’t smell the same. But she was the ‘mummy’ I had now. And she loved me just as I was going to start loving her back.
Happy Mother’s Day!