It was dark in the room they were in. Evening had come and had met both of them sitting there on the bed in the small room they called home. He had come back from school some hours earlier and had done his homework and also taken a nap. A nap he had protested. A nap she had sternly told him to take. He had done all these without eating. He now stared at her, with his big eyes that were the colour of honey, like her father’s, and asked her where the food was.
“You’re hungry?” she asked him with mock surprise in her voice like she thought it amazing that the boy was hungry.
“Yes!” he said. He drew out the yes and feigned tears. Tears that would become real soon if he did not get food.
“Oya spell hungry.”
“H-U-N–gry” he said, laughing after he found that he was stuck. She laughed too and told him food was coming. He nodded and asked no more questions, laying his head on her lap. His confidence in her made tears tease the corners of her eyes even as she fought them. She hated that she had to lie to him. She had no food. She had no money. She was unsure of where the next meal would come and she had spent the entire day asking for loans from people she already owed. She ran her hands over his head as he hummed a tune to a song she had heard coming from the neighbour’s speakers the day before. She had thought the song to be noisy. As darkness descended and the noise of the bars on the street began to seep in, she struck a match and lit a candle, silently cursing the government for not giving her the light she had managed to tap from her neighbours without their knowledge.
“Did anything happen at school today?” she asked him. She wanted to keep talking, stalling. Maybe his stomach would forget. Maybe hers would as well.
“Yes. Plenty things. Someone said that Bala is a bed wetter and Musa then said that the only way he can stop is if they put pepper on the top of his peepee.”
“What? Who said that?” she gasped.
“Musa said that’s what his daddy told him.”
“Ah! It’s different where I’m from o.” she started. This was how she started the stories she told him. She drew him in, teased him, made him ask.
“Mummy how is it there?” he asked with eyes suddenly wide with wonder and excitement at the prospect of having an amazing story to tell his friends.
She started to tell him the story. The stories she would tell him were usually made up, hard to believe, but that night, with just the candle as light and the sound of afrobeats and their own growling tummies filling the air around them, she told him a story that was as true as it was horrifying.
She had grown up in the town of Amanze in the eastern part of the country. Her father had been a tapper of palm wine. It was whispered that his was the best to be found around. Some suggested he used a certain type of potent medicine when growing his trees. Even with his fame, however, her father remained poor till the day he was put in the ground. His was a cautionary tale of why not to get high on your own supply. Her memories of him were in a basic loop – him guzzling wine from one jar to the other – never breaking – and him shouting, he loved to shout. The wine that was usually left to be sold was considerably small and hence he got just enough to buy some food and the money would be finished. Her mother sold peppers and plantains she grew behind their house and palm oil from her father’s palm trees. Both her parents were simple people and theirs was a normal house – with its red walls and thatched roof and hard red floors – as normal as things could be in Amanze at the time. In this house she lived, the younger of two children.
Before the day it happened, she had not known of the existence of this culture, this method of punishing children who wet the bed. She had done it several times. Many mornings she woke up to the sound of her elder sister Chikodi crying with her mouth wide open to their mother, informing her of the discomfort she felt waking up to a pool of piss on the bed she shared with her sister. Many of those mornings, her mother would tell Chikodi to be quiet in her lamenting and not to let their father, who was usually fast asleep on the floor of the small sitting room from a night of drinking, hear her. Her mother knew what would come of a fit of rage from the man and she would be unable to save her daughter from an unwarranted beating. So that was the way most mornings went, there was usually a scurry here and there and soon a mattress with big wet patches that resembled the outlines of countries on a map would be out under the gaze of the harsh sun, all these done before her father awoke with a loud yawn that was always closely followed by a demand for food.
But these were for many mornings but not all of them. The morning of that day, she had wet the bed again and Chikodi had repeated the ritual, running to their mother’s room and screaming her complaint before looking to see who she was shouting to. Their father, who had finally exhausted his palm wine supply, had not drank the night before and was very sober when Chikodi informed them of the pool on her bed.
“What did you say?” his voice boomed. It did not sound like the voice of someone who had been asleep. Her mother would later admit that thoughts of alcohol had kept him up most of that night and he was exceptionally cranky that morning.
There was silence. Chikodi had only just realized the error in what she had just done.
“Okwy, don’t mind her, she does not know what she is saying.” Her mother whispered to him, letting her hands, warm from sleeping on them, run from the top of his arm to his elbow.
“Amaka, the girl used her mouth to say something, let her use her mouth to repeat it please.” He said it with venom lacing the words. He gently pushed her hand off him and turned to face Chikodi.
“Kambido wet the bed.” She let her head fall as the words left her mouth. He stared at her as the light of the morning, seeping through a hole in the roof he had sworn to fix, highlighted the brownness of her full head of hair. His descent from the bed to the floor was quick. His movement from his room to the girls’ room seemed quicker.
“You used to do like you don’t have sense Chikodi.” Her mother said to Chikodi even with her head still bowed. She slowly began to stand up from the bed, wrapping her fabric over her sweat covered breasts, it had been a hot night. The noise of a slap from the other room quickened her wrapping and soon her feet had touched the floor and carried her to the other room.
“Papa sorry.” Sobs that were mixed with hiccups escaped Kambido’s swollen lips as her mother ran into the room to save her from another swelling-inducing slap.
“Okwy ozugo. Biko.” Her mother pleaded with him, making sure to stand in the middle of the two of them to ensure he would listen. His hands were already raised.
“How old is she that she is wetting the bed? Is she a baby?” he looked at her mother when he asked the first question and, moving his head slightly to the left, looked at her while he asked the second. Both were asked with his hand still in the air.
“She will stop Okwy, please.”
He let his hand fall slowly as he turned. He walked past Chikodi who had been at the mouth of the door, weeping her own silent tears for a calamity she had unintentionally orchestrated. What followed was a scurrying like those of most other mornings and soon the mattress, with its wet patches, was reunited with the sun’s rays.
It was unknown to her at the time, but in Amanze there was a way to deal with children who wet the beds on which they slept. Whenever a snake was killed, all the villagers were to bring all the children who had at any point wet their beds since the last time a snake was killed to the village square. When they were finally gathered there, the limp body of the dead snake was momentarily placed around the waists of the children. On the days when the people would gather to do this, loud screams pierced the tranquil air of the village as the voices of terrified children spoke of horrors unseen.
It was early in the afternoon when her father returned to the house. His countenance was not like she had seen it before and she made sure to stay away from him even as he passed by her and headed to his room. She noticed his clothes were stained from the chest to the knees. Like he had fallen down in mud.
“You, stand up, you are following me to the village square.” He had emerged again from his room and this time had changed his clothes.
“Ke ebe unu ne je” Her mother, following fast behind him, asked where they were headed. She was polite in her asking, as she already suspected what he planned to do.
“This thing cannot repeat itself. We are going to make sure of that.”
“Okwy, which thing again? I told you she won’t do it again. Do you want me to swear?”
“Don’t start with me please. I cannot have a child of mine– it is bad enough I have two girls, one of them will not now get a husband quick because she wets the bed? Tufia!”
There was a loud noise then that filled the room. It came from the gong at the village square. It was rarely rung, but when it was, the people knew they were to gather. This must have been what he was taking her for.
“Okay let us all go.” Her mother held her hand as she suggested this, dragging Chikodi with her other hand and not waiting for her father’s response before bolting out the door towards the square.
The entire village had gathered at the village square. The village square was a wide expanse of land with a small structure in the middle that looked like a roofed hut with no walls. This was where the elders stood and made announcements and had meetings before the announcements. That was where Ichie Ofudo stood now, telling the people why they were gathered. Although they arrived reasonably later, Kambido could see children standing behind Ichie Ofudo. Each one of them carried a variation of confusion in their eyes as they stood facing the crowd of people murmuring. She soon joined them, after her father had asked her to. She now stood there on one end of the straight line they had formed and stared into the crowd, searching for her mother’s face in this sea of faces, her own confusion settling on her face.
“So each of the parents will take the snake Okwy helped us kill and place it briefly around the child’s waist.” Ichie Ofudo said this as a hush fell over the crowd and the looks of confusion on the faces of the children soon became looks of horror as they stared at no one in particular from one side to the other.
The process was to start with her. Kambido trembled as her father, with the muscles of his forearm taut, carried a snake from a pouch she had not noticed him carrying earlier. The snake was limp. It looked dead. The way he carried it assured her it was dead. She started to scream as the crowds started to gasp. She heard her mother scream within the crowd assuring her it would be over quickly. Her screaming continued even as she tried to run. There were two strong men who prevented that from happening. Her father looked in her eyes as he put the snake round her waist. His eyes said what his mouth wanted to, what he would usually say when beating her for other minor crimes committed at home. Don’t do it again, do you hear me? And she heard him. Louder now than ever before. His eyes soon became teary, his eyes the colour of honey, whispered to be so because the gods had chosen him to be a seer but the wine had taken too much of his senses hence preventing his use of his gifts.
“Okwy, it’s enough, the girl is scared, give to the next parent.” It was Ichie Ofudo who spoke now. His voice thundering.
Kambido, whose screaming had reduced, looked into her father’s eyes with hers, teary as they were and found that they had started to get red. Her father was on his knees holding the snake’s limp body around her waist. He was not moving but the veins in his neck were suddenly prominent. It was not until she looked down to her right that she saw what made her scream again. This time louder than the other times. This was a scream different from the others. The snake was not dead. Its small mouth was around her father’s thumb. A commotion began soon after. Cutlasses appeared and soon the link between her and her father was broken as the head of the snake fell to one side of the floor and the body to the other. She stood there screaming as men with arms like tree trunks carried her father away. He was shaking as they carried him, spittle flying from his mouth. It was the last time she had seen him alive.
The days after that came and went quickly, she stayed in her room for most of them.
They say that he had not killed the snake properly, that he had done it in haste and this was the reason for the snake’s awakening when he put it around Kambido’s waist. None of that mattered to her. She was haunted now. She never wet the bed again, partly because she finally outgrew it and also because his eyes, the colour of honey, fixed in a teary sea of red, stared at her each night as she dreamt.
Those same eyes stared at her now. They were the same eyes but they belonged now to a boy she had borne for a man she had met and married over a decade ago, a man who had lost all he had to gambling, a man who was now dead. The eyes were open, wide in the way children’s eyes can be when amazed.
“Thank God they don’t do it like that again o.” he said, his small hands raised in what looked like a sincere gesture of gratitude.
“Yes o” she laughed, raising her own hands, hers in mockery of his.
A quarter of the candle was burnt now and some of the wax trails on the side had solidified. She stared at the light and in that moment prayed that he would not ask for food again. She would hate to tell him there was no food. In fact, she decided, she wouldn’t.
“Mommy” his voice filled the room as he looked up at her from where his head was on her lap “I can spell hungry now mommy.”
“H-U-N…” he began to spell as she fought back tears. In his head, his spelling the word hungry would quench his. This, the fact that her son felt the need to contest for food, this tore her heart.
In a succession of swift moves, she removed his head from her lap, stood, and slipped her feet into her sandals at the foot of their one big bed. She took a few steps to the door before looking back at him. The clock said it was thirty minutes past 8pm.
“Don’t open the door for anybody Kachi. I’m coming.” And with that she headed out into the darkness of the hallway she shared with other one-room apartments and into the night. She swore under her breath, by her father’s eyes, that she would get him food. The lights of the bar across the street soon fell on her face. Its noise flooded her ears. She listened closely for the familiar clucking of her neighbour Iya Kunle’s ever-straying hen. The sound came soon.
She thought of what she would have to say to Iya Kunle’s loud mouthed screaming and eventual accusations the next day. As she stood there poised to pounce and grab the chicken, she could not think of excuses she could give, none seemed palpable. But it did not matter. For that night her son would eat, the sun would rise tomorrow and bring with it fresh excuses.
Edwin Madu (@DwinTheStoic) is a Nigerian writer born and based in Lagos. He writes short fiction, non-fiction, poetry, reviews, features, and articles. His short stories and poetry have been featured or will be featured in the following: Naijastories, African Writer, Brittle Paper, The Kalahari Review, Jalada Languages Anthology, The Jeli and Per Contra. His features, reviews and articles have appeared in Bella Naija, Olisa.tv, ThisDay Newspaper and Crystal Magazine. His short story was longlisted for the 2015 Awele Creative Trust Award. In 2015, he was one of the selected participants at the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop. He blogs at www.edwinmadu.com
Related country: Nigeria