GENERAL ABIODUN’S RESIDENCE
Chioma was dazed. She couldn’t speak; she could hardly move a muscle. Her eyes sore and gritty from extreme crying, drowsed against her will as she sat sandwiched between her sister and her best friend who were both holding her hands and also crying intensely. A nurse had injected her earlier with something to put her to sleep but Chioma hadn’t yet succumbed to the drug.
“How can I when my child’s body is still warm?” she asked into the air. No one replied her. They were now used to the short questions she asked herself every now and then. The tranquilizing drug in her bloodstream dragged her into an unwilling yawn and she became angry at herself for giving in to it. The only thing her weary eyes wanted to do was cry for her child. And cry she did non-stop. Each time a new sympathizer walked in through the open doors of her living room and began a new wail, Chioma would join also and she would often throw herself to the floor and hold her broken heart until the pain in it threatened to stop her from breathing.
Now she was lifting her hands to the air after prying them off her sister and best friend who had held them to stop her from another fall.
“God what did I do?! My only daughter! My only child!” she hit her chest. “You took her away even after I have served you faithfully! Even after I have lived my entire life for you! What have I done?!”
The mourners chided her gently.
“Aunty Chi, don’t say such things.”
“No one questions God’s actions.”
“It happened for a reason.”
“God knows best.”
“Happened for a reason. God’s knows best.” She nodded in sarcasm. “Okay nau. He knows best.” She folded her arms and bent her head and began a fresh sob. “Justina, so this is what you’ll do to your mommy? This is how you’ll just go, ehn, Tina? This is how you’ll go, nwaoma. So that your phone call yesterday was you telling me that you weren’t going to see me again. That was you saying goodbye, Tina! Come back o! Come back! Me, I can’t stay like this without you! Come back!”
She filled the room with a choked cry and her consolers joined her. They went on all day and as the evening neared, a sensible relative asked most of them to leave. Chioma was then carted away to her bedroom where she found her husband reading a newspaper without a care in the world. She was filled with instantaneous rage and she picked her jewelry box from her dressing table and hurled at him.
“YOUR DAUGHTER IS DEAD, YOU FOOL!” she bawled, her choked voice almost non-existent. “Tina is dead and you sit there reading your newspaper like the devil that you are, Biodun! You killed my baby! You killed my child! You killed her!”
“Oh, please, shut your mouth.” The unaffected man took out an earring from his beard and sat up, pushing aside Chioma’s entire jewelry box.
“You are not fit to live, Biodun,” she lowered her tone but it still carried the initial venom. “You should burn in hell! You should burn! Shame on you!”
“No,” he smiled, “shame on your child. She dug her grave, now she should lie in it.”
Biodun laughed, buckled tight his belt around his waist and walked out of the room. Chioma almost kicked him as he walked past. She was beside herself, her grief gone for the moment. She thought of ways to kill him.
Where did he keep his guns these days?
She dashed to his wardrobe and threw it open and after a few desperate minutes of searching, she found nothing. She peeped under the bed, in the toilet tank, in the safe embedded in the wall and even in his shoes but still she found nothing. When she was done, the room was a mess and her anger was bursting at the seams, yet she fought herself and stilled her wild heart. She could clearly hear Tina’s voice in her head:
“Mommy, you’re too old to be getting angry like this. Calm down, ma. Calm down. Breathe.”
“I’m calm. I’m calm. I’m okay.” She breathed in a couple of times and melted into tears all over again. While she cried, she murmured incoherent words and dragged her feet to her wardrobe. There she picked an old handbag containing some important documents. She also slipped into a pair of carton-brown slippers Tina had given her for her last birthday. She stood, turned her feet this way and that and shook her head as more tears rushed down her cheeks. A packet of white handkerchiefs lay before her and she picked one, sending the rest to the floor. Not minding the mess, she made her way out.
The house was a little silent. She could hear the cook pounding something in the kitchen, she could also hear someone sobbing in a room down the corridor. She strained her ears to catch Biodun’s voice but she heard nothing and began her journey out. The living room was now empty and a maid was cleaning it out as she appeared.
“Tell one of the drivers to get my Mercedes ready.”
The maid curtsied and went out the front door. Chioma directed her eyes over a portrait of Tina on the wall. She walked to it and disengaged it from its hook.
“Ma, the car is ready.” The maid returned and Chioma nodded, hugging the portrait to herself. She walked out of the house and slipped herself into the backseat of her waiting car.
The evening brought with it an unusual laziness that had nothing to do with the cloudy skies outside Captain’s bedroom window. Placed on compulsory bed rest by his doctor, Captain had slept for the most part of the day and had woken up later than he planned, missing his evening jog for the first time in two years. He sat up to ward off the slow feeling in him but he found himself closing his eyes once more.
“Good evening, my husband.”
The voice was something angelic, like the sound of a bubbling fountain and Captain smiled with shut eyes before he opened them to gaze upon the goddess that was standing by the door of his room.
“Come, Emem.” His hand reached out to her and she walked to him gracefully but stood a few inches away.
“Emem…” he murmured, “I have missed you a lot. Please, don’t go away like that again.”
He stretched to touch her but she moved back slightly and rested her left hand on her swollen abdomen while her right hand clasped a rosary.
“Come,” he called. “Let me talk to the twins,” he begged. “Let me say something to my sons.”
Emem shook her head vigorously and took another step backwards. Captain rose from the bed and looked at her fully. Her hair was a rich shade of black and it fell to her face in wet strands. Her eyes, outlined by long, curly lashes, were the hue of a dying flame. Her lips sloped down in sadness and it seemed like she was on the verge of tears. He moved forward but she pulled back as before and began to weep.
“Em, please, don’t cry. I’m here; don’t cry.”
“What have you done?” she held her abdomen protectively and looked down as blood began to flow from her legs to the marbled floor.
“You shouldn’t have.”
“Let me hold you. Let me stop the blood from flowing. Please!”
“You shouldn’t have….”
A soft rap on the door made Captain turn away from her sharply.
“Who is it?”
“Pops, you have a visitor.” Ramsey’s deep voice resonated into the room. “General Abiodun’s wife, I think.”
“Tell her I’ll be down,” Captain replied and left his head craned in the direction of the door not only to be sure Ramsey had left but also because he was afraid to turn back and find Emem gone.
“Em?” He turned eventually and as his fears had confirmed she was no longer there. Nothing was left of her brief visit, not even the blood that had spilled to the floor. But he still sensed her essence in the room.
“Come back soon, Em,” he spoke into emptiness. “Don’t stay too long again. All I have around me are snakes. You are the only true person. And please don’t make me feel bad by asking what I have done. I did it because it had to be done. Traitors do not deserve to be happy. Not even the woman waiting to see me downstairs who sold me out. She is a two-timer and I’m glad that I have finally gotten my revenge on her and her husband. They’ll feel the pain in their hearts as I felt on my body when those cruel men in Casablanca did revolting, horrifying things to me. They will wish for death as I did and they will not find it. And I have not even begun with them.”
He stopped and scratched his brows. “But please, do come back, Em. Tonight, tomorrow morning…I’ll be waiting. I’m going insane without you here.”
He slipped into a robe and walked to the door but Emem’s voice stopped him.
“You’re weak, Luke, but go…. go and kiss away her pain like you did so many years ago while I was rotting in the grave you dug for me with your own hands.”
Captain spun around but the room was still empty. He opened the door and walked out.
Chioma hugged Tina’s framed photograph restlessly as she sat on the single chair Ramsey had offered her in the sitting room. She was still crying and still infuriated at Biodun. She rocked herself forwards and backwards and looked ruefully at the framed life-size portraits of Captain’s three sons on the walls surrounding her.
Young, strong handsome men, she thought.
“Tina, this should have been your home,” she said. “These boys should have been your brothers. I should have married their father. I should have said yes when he asked me. I should have said yes.”
She looked into the frame in her hands and allowed her tears pour over it for the umpteenth time.
“I did you grave injustice, my child.”
Chioma raised her head to meet Captain’s tall frame standing over her. He had his hand out to her and she took it as he lifted her up into a comforting embrace. She felt strength coming from him and her memories dragged her to a place long ago of cigarette smoke and mild aftershave, of soft cotton sheets warmed by the heat of lovemaking, of brown and orange drapes let down over a small, dim room, of the sound of Teddy Pendergrass playing from a brand new stereo beside a tiny mattress lying on the floor with a handsome Lieutenant Colonel sprawled on it.
“Stay away from the window and come here, Chi.”
Chioma turned to Captain and smiled but her heart pounded heavily within her. It was dark outside and she watched her neighbors scurry home after their Christmas shopping. Excited children ran unrestrained on the streets and their mothers let them be. After all it was 1985, the world was good and prosaic and it was just a day to Christmas.
But nothing was good for Chioma, even though she had just been loved by the man of her dreams, the president’s son, the man who was devoted enough to put a stop to his very busy life to be with her on this special of days. She was about to betray him to his worst enemy.
“Chi?” he called again. “Are you expecting it to snow? Because it’s only white people that stand by their windows on Christmas Eve to watch the snow. If you want winter, I would fly you in a wink to the States or to the UK or East Berlin,” he teased. Chioma smiled and slowly closed the drapes. As she turned in his direction, she darted her eyes to the door.
Any moment now, they would be here. Should I tell him?
“Chi-o-ma?” Captain sat straight and she moved away from the window and walked to the mattress. He drew her down and leaned over her.
“Marry me, woman. How many times do I have to ask you?”
Chioma laughed uneasily. “Marry you? But you have a wife, Luke.”
“An ex-wife, Chioma. Emem and I are divorced and for all I know she could be with a lover in Brazil or China.”
“Do you know the rumors circulating about you and this Emem’s disappearance?”
Captain’s face became serious. “What rumors?”
“What rumors?” Captain sat up.
“Some people say you killed her and buried her secretly.”
Captain smirked. “Some people like her father, I’m sure.”
“Why does the man hate you so much?”
“Well, every good father is protective of his daughter. A man as powerful as Kentoro Abassi who is also the former president, would be ten times more protective. Emem was beautiful and intelligent and I can see why he would want someone like me away from her.”
Chioma rose to a sitting position. “Luke… you just said Emem ‘was’ beautiful. Was? Is she…dead?”
“What? No, I meant… Come on, you think I killed the mother of my own children?”
“Luke, you’re a soldier. I have lived with your type long enough to know how mad blood runs in your heads and gets you to do evil things. I understand how it is. If you killed Emem mistakenly or in a fit of rage, just tell me.”
“Tell you what, Chi? I didn’t kill her. She just simply disappeared. Trust me. I would never lie to you.” Captain drew Chioma to him. “I love you so much. I really do. And…I’m not a murderer.”
Chioma looked into his eyes and melted. Without helping it, tears filled her eyes as her heart began to race wildly.
I have to tell him. There is still time. Maybe he can escape them. I have to tell him.
He let go of her and reached for the cup of coffee she had served him on a tray beside the mattress. It was now cold but she was certain the drug Biodun had made her put in it was still potent. As Captain put the cup to his lips to drink, she hit it and it went crashing to the floor.
“Why did you do that?” he asked.
Kneeling on the mattress, Chioma twisted her fingers nervously. “It was cold. I, I… didn’t want you to drink it like…like that,” she stuttered.
“I take my coffee cold, Chioma. You know that.” Captain’s eyes instantly became dark. “I’ll ask you again. Why did you do what you just did, Chioma?”
Chioma bit her lips and moved backwards but Captain’s hand clasped around her neck firmly.
“Who wants me dead?!”
Her lips moved into indiscernible words. He shook her fiercely.
“Kentoro! Your-your father-in-law.” She blurted. “But it wasn’t to kill you. It was to make you sleep. Then they’ll come and take you.”
Captain at once dropped his hand and fished around for his clothes.
“Please, forgive me, Luke. It was Biodun who made me do it.”
“Biodun?” Captain looked at her. “My friend, Biodun? What’s your connection with him?”
Chioma replied nothing and Captain’s eyes narrowed. He smiled sarcastically.
“You’re sharing my bed with another man?”
“No, I did not…” Chioma wasn’t able to finish her statement as her head was flung to the mattress with a resounding blow from Captain.
“I picked you from nothing and gave you everything! And you do this to me?!”
Chioma lifted herself to plead her case but the door burst open and four armed men invaded the tiny room. In Captain’s hand was a revolver but he lifted it in surrender to his attackers. They pounced upon him and subdued him with kicks and blows while Chioma was crouched in a corner, crying helplessly.
CAPTAIN’S RESIDENCE/PRESENT DAY
Captain sat facing Chioma in a cozy two-sitter couch in his sitting room. His head was bowed over a couple of old, laminated documents she had given him.
“What does this all mean, Chi? What am I reading here?” he looked at Chioma and she pressed her lips into a sob.
“Tina is your child, Luke. She is…she was your child. I conceived that night.”
Captain dropped the documents and pulled back. “What manner of joke is this, Chi?”
Chioma shook not just her head but her whole body strongly. “Why would I joke in a time like this? Why would I joke? This is her original birth certificate. She bears the Igwe name. And this is the result of the blood group test they carried out for her. She’s B+. I am O+. You must be B.”
“This is some mistake, Chi. Biodun fathered that girl! She looked nothing like me!”
“I never slept with Biodun. When I found out I was pregnant the following month, I went to him and demanded he tell me where he had hidden you but he said you died. That you were killed after you confessed to killing Emem. He showed me pictures of your dead body as proof and I didn’t have to question him. The news of your death was all over. It was then he asked me to marry him. I didn’t want to but I was twenty-seven years old and still single and in those days it was like a taboo to be unmarried at that age. Again, I thought of the shame of having a child out of wedlock and how it would destroy my mother but most of all, I thought of you, Luke. I couldn’t abort your baby. I needed something to remind me of you. And lastly, I also wanted the baby alive as punishment to Biodun for what he did to you. So I kept the pregnancy a secret until he married me four months later. On our wedding night, I revealed that I was carrying your child. He beat me and kicked me hard in my stomach a few times but Tina survived.” Chioma smiled bitterly. “She survived because she was her father’s child.
“Biodun never touched me. He married a second wife and kept her in London. And then you appeared. I wanted to go back to you but Biodun threatened to kill Tina and my mother if I did. So I remained in a joke of a marriage where my husband had six other children by another wife and never as much as pecked my lips even though we shared the same bed. Tina and God were all I had, Luke. So please, understand. There wasn’t a day that I didn’t want to pick the phone to call you and tell you but I was afraid that the past might repeat itself and you could be gone forever. So I just couldn’t.”
Captain stood up quietly. “I think you should leave, Chi.”
“Luke, no. No, don’t tell me to go. I am so, so sorry. Please, forgive me.” Chioma grabbed his legs and locked her arms around them.
“Stop it, Chioma. Let me go.”
He wiggled off her and like one in a haze, turned around and began slowly up the stairs. Her voice as she called him back sounded like it was an eon away. When he arrived at the top of the stairs, he felt a sharp pain in his heart, the familiar sting of death reminding him that he had only a short while to live. He held his chest and the banister but he crumbled down. As his eyes closed, he saw Emem standing above him.
“He who digs a pit for another will fall into it,” she whispered and he grasped the place where she stood, praying for death to take him away.