Aalim looked up the meaning of her name. Abd-Aalim, typically given to male children, a servant to knowledge, a learner. She’d done well in school, skipping a few classes and becoming valedictorian, before working as a consultant at an esteemed multinational. Even when Baba and Omi didn’t say it, their pride in her reflected itself. At the airport whenever she used to fly back to university, Omi would ask what time the flight to Yola was, under the pretext of being misinformed.
“She schools there, that’s the former presidents’ school you know?”
Aalim would roll her eyes and gently pull Omi towards the waiting lounge where Baba had bought snacks. She hated most snacks but usually preferred it to the food served on the plane. Once she’d seen her sister, Rahma, mixing ingredients for Chin Chin. Rahma stood, covered in a film of sunlight, as flour danced around her hands and the bowls beneath her. She broke eggs into the flour before adding butter, sugar and condensed milk. Aalim was horrifed.
“You mean Chin Chin contains all these things. And you will still fry?”
Rahma laughed “What did you think before?”
“Ya Allah. I’m never eating dough again. Too much carbs.”
Aalim would smile at Baba, and take a painful bite out of the meat pie or whatever doughy challenge he bought. She couldn’t cut it open and eat only the meat and potatoes like she did with shawarma. She had tried it once, at lunch with her friend Tolani. Tolani followed her initial look of shock with a judgmental stare before warning Aalim about her “disgusting habit”. Aalim soon settled for eating miserly in public, keeping the true pleasures for when she was safe in her room, watching Scandal or reading James Clavell’s Asian Saga.
This afternoon, she’d gotten the day off at work. The cool offices, muted walls, sharp suits, speech patterns, and misplaced air of intelligence held little appeal for her. She felt particularly displaced from everything. Her boss was an English man who tried to buddy up with the employees by making jokes about white privilege. She liked him in spite of his misplaced sense of humour. He was kind and insisted that she went home the moment she complained of a headache. Aalim walked home with little protest, lifting her head towards the sun as she enjoyed the soft heat against her skin.
The door was open when she entered the empty living room. Her cat came to meet her, meowing and rubbing itself all over her legs. She checked its feeding bowl. It was empty. Aalim heard someone cough inside, and followed the sound to the back room where Rahma was quietly folding clothes into a suitcase.
“You guys didn’t feed Kat today.”
Rahma didn’t respond. She folded the clothes efficiently, turning her back to her sister.
“What’s wrong habibti?”
Rahma turned towards her, dark rimmed lashes and reddened whites of her eyes “Baba found out I had sex with Salim. He told me to pack my bags and get out.”
Aalim stared at her adopted sister’s face. When Rahma came, she was three so any difference between them went unnoticed by both. The years had only served to blur those differences even more; to the extent that they had believed they resembled each other. Aalim stared at a face that she could no longer recognise. Rahma’s tiny nose and strong jaw looked nothing like her own oval face and pointed nose.
“I knew it.” she hissed remembering the day Rahma told her she was involved with their cousin. “Not my cousin” Rahma had corrected her, saying it like she believed there was some half hidden sense in a technicality.
“I told you this shit was a bad idea. Sleeping with your damn cousin.”
“He’s not my blood” Rahma retorted squeezing her eyes and shaking her head as if to justify her point.
“So? You’ve been with us since I was three. You should have seen him with the same eyes I did, as a family member”
Rahma’s dark eyes filled with more tears and her voice took on the consistency of popcorn being microwaved. Pop pop, silence, another pop, more silence. In between she was forcing words that only made Aalim more irritated.
“It’s not fair, if it were you he wouldn’t send you packing”.
Aalim titled her head back and recalled the feeling of the sun on her face in hope that her growing annoyance with Rahma would recede. She pictured her sister under Baba’s sigh, the sigh that was worse than all of Omi’s screams combined, the sigh that assured you of your punishment. She pictured Rahma emotional, silent and weepy, unable to explain or defend herself. Waiting, as usual, for her sister to intervene.
“Where is Baba? How did he find out?”
“I don’t know. He just screamed at me to pack and shut the door. I’ve been inside since.”
“How did he find out?”
“Aunty Fali told him.”
“How did she find out?”
“I told her.”
“Why Ya Allah why did you tell her?”
“Stop hissing” Rahma cried out hoarsely.
“She’s a gossip habibti, a gossip. Everybody knows this.”
“When he dumped me, she was in the house and saw me crying. That’s when she asked and I told her. I was heartbro- ”
“Where is Omi?”
Aalim had forgotten their mother was away on a trip to their hometown.
“Well we’re definitely fucked.” she sighed “You are.”
Rahma sat down crying as Aalim packed the rest of her clothes. They stayed in the room exchanging silence until Baba’s car honked outside. Aalim went out to open the gate, greeting him with her eyes bowed. They entered the living room where he gestured for her to sit.
“What would you like to have for dinner?”‘ Aalim asked with her eyes still bowed.
Baba sighed so deeply and so sadly, even the inanimate objects responded to his pain. The curtains fluttered, a door creaked and the wooden vase fell to the floor where it spilled water on the rug. She stood to clean it up but Baba stopped her.
His voice shook as he asked “Did you know what your sister did?”
“She just told me when I got home.”
“She is a slut, a disgusting prostitute.”
Aalim responded with silence.
His voice grew sadder as he recounted her sins against him with harsh eyes. Rahma became “her”. He called her a disgrace. He had treated her like his own child and she chose to repay him by opening her legs like a prostitute. He would have to tell Salim’s parents, he sighed as his voice broke. Hiccups escaped from his pot belly. A whole Baba, reporting his daughter’s misbehaviour to his in-laws. Aalim looked up to ask if he wanted water but went cold when she saw his eyes.
“I’m so sorry Baba. She’s so sorry. We’re sorry”
She had never seen her father cry. He was never emotional. He showed his love by asking questions. If they had made good grades, if their outfits were pleasing to the angels on their shoulders, if they needed money, nothing more. Now this man was a heaving spectacle of shame, covering his face as his body expressed all the things he didn’t say. Aalim watched, counting the seconds, frozen in her seat. After ten minutes, Baba stood up and went to his room, emerging minutes later with a clean face, a change of clothes and his travel bag.
“I’m going to Kaduna. I don’t want to see her when I return” he told her. “Come and open the gate.”
Rahma was in the living room when Aalim reentered the house.
“I was listening.”
“I’m not a prostitute. It only happened once and I regret it.”
“We need to call Omi.”
They dialled their mother’s number, expecting her to scold them for not calling sooner.
“You don’t care about your own mother’s safety. You can’t continue living life like this, nonchalant.”
Aalim recounted the story to their mother, picturing her slim frame, going into a room, sitting on the bed and removing her scarf as if she needed her hair out to breathe well. Omi screamed and tutted, cursing once and hanging up. She called back five minutes later. She had tried Baba but he hadn’t picked.
“She has to go. Let her come to Kaduna, she will stay with her real parents until Baba calms down.” she said
“Is Rahma still there?” their mother asked
“No. She’s in the bathroom. Why?”
“Abd Aalim. You too, have you lost your virtue? I will know if you have. A mother has instincts about these things.”
“Omi you have nothing to worry about.” she sighed
“I just want you to know. If you do, you will have sinned against Allah. And you will have really hurt me. You cannot lose your virtue.”
“How much for it?” she laughed “will it guarantee me a happy marriage?”
“I’m telling you. You won’t expect it when I take you for testing.”
“Omi… are you angry because she had sex or because she had sex with my cousin?”
“Are you okay? How dare you ask me such a thing? It’s not your fault.” Omi hissed
Omi hung up. Aalim returned to the room where Rahma was on the bed, freshly showered, with dry eyes. She sat up expectantly when Aalim entered. Her shoulders soon dropped when she heard Omi’s message. She lay back down with a sigh.
“I guess I’m leaving then” Rahma concluded.
“I guess you are” Aalim replied. She wanted to apologise for Baba’s rage, explain that he was just hurt and did not hate her. She wanted to justify Omi’s response; all she could do was follow her husband’s lead because if she wasn’t appropriately outraged, he would feel betrayed by her lack of solidarity.
“I’m sure Allah still loves you. It’s really about what’s on the inside” Aalim said.
She fetched the cat and got into bed with her sister. They watched it chase its tail and tangle itself around Rahma’s earphones. Rahma discussed her post-NYSC plans and they argued over who was more talented; Wizkid or Davido. After Rahma fell asleep, Aalim walked around the dark house. The white fence, the maroon walls and smell of incense became indistinguishable from the grey efficiency of her workplace. She felt the same displacement she had felt in the office hours earlier. Aalim got into bed, opened her can of Pringles and pressed play on Shogun.
Alithnayn (@) is a writer and diplomat in training currently moving around Europe.She writes mostly film criticism and fiction and has been published by bellanaija, thenakedconvos, brittle paper and the Nollywood review.
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