Uzoamaka arrived at her aunt’s house in the early evening. The yellow taxi pulled up in front of the black gate and honked twice to signal her arrival. A young boy, not older than sixteen, opened the gate from inside and the taxi drove into the small compound. Other than the blue water cooler and the silver Toyota Corolla coated in dust, her aunt’s house was empty.
“Omalicha nwa! Welcome, my daughter.” Her aunt shouted from the balcony of her two storied home. The diminutive woman smiled at her niece as the shapeless material of her blue buba slid off her shoulder, revealing a hint of the scar that stood where her left breast should have. The grey in her cropped hair seemed more prominent than the last time she saw her.
The once white walls of her home had darkened with moss from the persistent rain and the peeling paint left grey patches that resembled small maps of Nigeria; both woman and house stood old but resilient in their stance, almost unshakable.
The young boy carried her luggage out of the car and into the house, Uzoamaka paid the driver his balance and went inside.
The house was dark, a result of the daily power cuts that plagued the neighborhood. The yellowing light of the setting sun and the familiar walls steadied her as she made her way upstairs.
She walked onto the balcony and was immediately face to face with her aunt. “Uzoamaka, nwa’m. Nno, come and sit down.” Her aunt motioned to a white plastic chair.
“How is Lagos, nne? We have not seen light for the past two weeks, so now I sit outside here in the evening for breeze. Are you hungry? There is rice in the kitchen. Where are your bags, did Chike take them to the room downstairs?”
“Yes, aunty. He did.”
Her aunt was her mother’s twin sister, but she might as well have been her mother. 10 years after her mother died in childbirth, her father, a short dark-skinned man with a protruding belly and a growing beer habit had reached his threshold when it came to raising a daughter. In search of respite, he sent her to live with her aunt in Enugu.
She looked at her aunt as she fanned herself while complaining about the increasing diesel prices. She studied the way the crow lines around the corner of her eyes tightened when she smiled or the light freckles that fell in no particular order on her custard colored skin; like grains of black sand you could reach over and wipe off. Her face seemed longer, her jaw jutted forward in defiance while her sunken eyes hid in the caves that housed them. Her bone-thin arm waved back and forth as she fanned herself with the newspaper, Uzoamaka wanted to reach out and touch her arm but she was afraid that it would feel rough like sandpaper.
Now she was here, only because during her aunt’s last phone call, she had specifically asked Uzoamaka to return, she gave no explanations and no instructions. She simply said, “Omalicha, I need to see you.”
Her aunty never called her by her real name. After her birth, her father realized that he and Uzoamaka’s mother had never agreed on what to call their daughter and, in a haste, Uzoamaka was named after her late mother. When she arrived in Enugu 12 years ago, she remembers seeing her aunt arrive at the bus station to pick her up in a powder blue Peugeot. She had never seen her aunt before, but she immediately recognized her. She had the same honey colored eyes she had seen in countless sepia tinted photographs of her mother.
“Omalicha nwa, I maka,” her aunt said when she finally made her way to the car. The brown leather of her aunt’s car was hot from the sun and it burned her exposed thigh. She tugged at her skirt uncomfortably.
“Let’s go home, my daughter.”
“Chike, bring some food upstairs.” Her aunt yelled to the young boy.
The young boy came upstairs carrying a large tray containing bowls of food; white rice and stew with a shadow of oil floating at the top. They ate in silence. The only sounds were the scraping of forks on the plates and the moist sound of food moving around in their mouths.
“Omalicha, I’m tired. We will see tomorrow,” her aunt declared halfway through the meal. Uzoamaka looked at her aunt’s plate. She had made no strides in her meal.
“Aunty, aren’t you hungry? You haven’t eaten anything.”
Her aunt stood up, her buba falling even lower as she steadied herself.
“Tomorrow Omalicha, I will see you tomorrow.”
She watched her aunt disappear through the door, her steps slow and her eyes never leaving the ground. She finished the rest of her food and went downstairs to her room; there was still no power so she relied on the grainy walls to make her way around. The room was stuffy and her body was coated with sweat and dust from the trip, she found her way to the bed and began to remove her clothes. As she unclasped her bra, she cupped her aching breast in her hand and pressed it, unconsciously feeling for lumps of her own. When she found nothing, she sighed a deep sigh and let herself lie on the bed, falling asleep moments later.
She dreamt that she was running, but she didn’t know where.The rain woke her up, the heavy thudding sound of drops falling on the zinc roof that housed her aunt’s generator. She loved it when it rained, especially in Enugu. Lagos was so crowded with bodies that when it rained she could not enjoy it. She stood up and rummaged through her luggage for something to wear, discouraged by the effort it took to wear clothes; she wrapped her body with an old wrappa that belonged to her mother. The burgundy and yellow print cloth felt warm against her skin, she wore a pair of slippers and walked up to the balcony where she sat with her aunt the day before.
Her favorite thing about the rain was the smell. It was an obnoxious smell; not pungent, but present. The aroma of the earth hung thick in the air, forcing you to breathe it in. She took it in and looked at the town in front of her. The rain had halted all activity, a blue Peugeot 504 galloped as it tried to avoid the city’s potholes, but the roads were bare.
She loved Enugu. When she actually lived here, she convinced herself that there was nothing to look forward to in the small city, so she moved to Lagos only two weeks after graduating from secondary school. But whenever she visited, she appreciated the way the sun hung languorously in the evenings, as though teasing them. The evenings signaled that it was soccer time for neighborhood boys, their mothers sat in front of their stalls watching their sons and waiting for their husbands to return from their underpaid government jobs with bulging briefcases and even bigger worries. The shuffling feet jolted Uzoamaka out of her daydream; she turned around to see her aunt.
“Omalicha, good morning. Did you sleep well? I hope the mosquito didn’t bite you too much, Lagos girl.”
“Good morning, Aunty. Are you feeling better?”
Her aunt was dressed in a matching white and green ensemble. The blouse hung off her bony shoulders, and the green scarf wrapped around her head looked heavy enough to weigh her down.
“Yes, Omalicha. I’m better. Go and get ready, I’m taking you somewhere with me. I nugo? Have you heard?”
Uzoamaka rushed a bath with the ice-cold water that she had intended to use the night before. She pulled out a skirt from the bottom of her luggage and paired it with the first shirt she could find. She found a scarf and wrapped it around her head; her extensions were damp with sweat and long overdue for a touch up. She looked at herself in the mirror, like her aunt, her fair skin had its own share of sand like freckles that dominated her face but anyone who knew her well enough knew that she looked like her father. Her full lips were one of the tell tale features.
“Madam dey wait for you outside, Aunty.” It was Chike. The young boy stood outside her room. His upper body leaning in but his legs firmly planted outside the door. When she turned to look at him, he dropped his face and repeated the message. Her aunt had adopted Chike the year after Uzoamaka left for university. Although Uzoamaka was only old enough to be his older sister, he insisted on calling her Aunty.
“I’ll be out soon, Chike.”
She walked outside the house and saw her aunt behind the wheel of her silver colored toyota. Uzoamaka got in and strapped on her seatbelt.
“Aunty, where are we going?” She asked.
Before her aunt could respond, she broke out in a fit of loud coughs. Each one more thunderous than the last, her skinny frame heaving as she tried to control her body. Uzoamaka reached out to hold her but her aunt jerked away and turned her body outside the car.
“Chike, bring water. Go and get water, now. Chike!” Uzoamaka screamed.
Chike appeared with a jug full of water and an empty glass. He stood next her aunt and gently stroked her back. His calm demeanor annoyed Uzoamaka, but she could not help but feel like he had done this enough times to know exactly how to act.
Chike filled the cup with water and waited for Aunty’s coughs to subside. As her heaving slowed down, he held the cup to her mouth and she drank. Her gulps loud and urgent. She finished the glass and signaled for more with her eyes, Chike obliged and handed her another glass of water.
Uzoamaka stood back and watched them. Chike wiped the sweat from her aunt’s brow as she looked up at him, thanking him without words. Uzoamaka felt like an intruder. As her aunt tried to catch her breath, Chike lifted her out of the car and walked with her into the house.
Uzoamaka counted her steps as she walked behind them, making sure not to get too close. As they made their way upstairs, Uzoamaka walked into her room and laid down on her bed. Unwilling to think about what she had just seen, Uzoamaka let the sleep that weighed heavy on her eyelids have its way with her. When she woke up to the deep blue of the sky and the whining of the mosquitoes as they circled the room, she knew she had overslept. The house was dark and the evening air hung thick, as she got up and made her way through the darkness, she took the stairs two at a time till she arrived at her aunt’s room. In the deafening silence, she heard her aunt’s labored breathing and she followed the sound to her bedside.
Chike’s body lay strewn on the floor. In the dark, he looked much younger than 16. Glistening pearls of sweat dotted his forehead and his faded orange shirt was so damp that you could see the brown of his back through it.
“Omalicha, is that you?” her aunt asked.
Uzoamaka walked over and knelt at the side of her aunt’s bed,
“Aunty, how are you feeling?
As her aunt’s lips moved to speak, Uzoamaka couldn’t help but focus on her mouth; the coarse skin on her lips and the smell of her breath – it smelled like vomit and sleep.
“Omalicha, I’m sick,” she said.
“It’s okay, aunty. You’ll start treatments again. I’ve heard a lot of good things about radiation. We can beat this, aunty.”
She hated herself for using the word, “we”. She hated the sound of her voice, the way the words rushed out of her mouth, weightless and without promise. She hoped that her aunt couldn’t detect her ingenuity.
She had heard people refer to cancer as something you beat, a disease that you and your loved one wrestled. She would never know what it was like to beat cancer but she knew that’s what you said, she knew that’s what you were supposed to say.
“Omalicha, it’s done. It’s okay.”
Her aunt said those last words with a tiredness that signalled the end of the conversation. Uzoamaka rested her head on her aunt’s stomach and let the quiet rumblings lull her to sleep.
She woke up to her aunt’s soft breathing and the sun spilling into the room through the metal bars of the window. She put on her slippers and walked downstairs to find Chike. When she smelled the nauseating scent of uncooked eggs and the sizzling sound of onions being thrown into a frying pan she knew that he was in the kitchen.
She stood by the black door of the kitchen, an outdated calendar celebrating the ordination of a priest from her aunt’s catholic church hung on a nail on the door. She watched him, as he sauted onions and tomatoes and mixed maggi cubes into eggs. His movements deft and quick, his skinny body clad in the old checkered school uniform of a school she’s sure he never attended. His bare feet shuffled on the black and white concrete floor of the kitchen, picking up dirt as he moved around. He didn’t hear her, he was too preoccupied with the eggs, flipping them to make the perfect omelette.
As Uzoamaka leaned on the door to observe him, the door squeaked and Chike jumped, dropping the metal spatula on the floor.
“Ah, aunty. I didn’t see you. Kedu? Will you eat egg?”
Uzoamaka walked to pick up the spatula, but he leaped to the ground and beat her to it. He rinsed the spatula in the sink and returned to flipping the eggs in the frying pan.
“No, I’m okay. I’m not hungry. I’ll just make tea.”
She opened a black cabinet where the tea used to be when she lived there.
“Aunty, we no dey keep tea there. We dey keep am for store. Make I go get am.” He threw the egg on a plate he had placed by the frying pan, and shuffled to the storage room in the back of the kitchen.
She followed him, curious to see if the store room looked any different than the last time she had been there. The room, no bigger than 25 square feet, was stuffed with bags of beans, rice and garri, all open with a rusted tin can sitting on top of each bag, tubers of yam were shoved in the crevices of the room. On a shelf of tin cans of milk, milo and packets of sugar sat the familiar yellow lipton tea box. He collected the lipton, milk and sugar and carried them in his arms like spoils from a war.
He placed them on the counter and filled a small pot with water to place on the stove.
“Chike, how long has my aunty been sick like this?” Uzoamaka asked.
He didn’t look at her, instead he concentrated on lighting the match to turn the stove on.
“Chike, am I not talking to you?” she repeated. Her voice growing impatient.
“Aunty, e don tey wey she be like this. Sometimes she go chop, other times she go just lie down de cough. She no gree take medicine, she no gree do anything. Na only rosary wey she dey pray, morning and night.”
“Even this egg wey I make for am, she no go chop. She no dey eat,” he continued.
His voice quivered as he spoke, to avoid looking at Uzoamaka, he put his head down and continued to try and light the match. He tried three matchsticks before he lit one and placed it on the stove top.
He busied himself with washing the dishes in the sink and Uzoamaka just stood there, looking at Chike who knew as well as she did that her aunt was going to die much sooner than they were both prepared for.
“You don chop? Have you eaten?” she asked Chike
“No aunty, I never chop.”
“You wan follow me drink tea?”
He nodded his head slowly as if it was too large for him to carry on his neck. As the water boiled, she signalled him to hand her two cups from the pile of dishes he had just washed. He handed her two stainless steel cups. She poured hot water into both cups and and dropped in two tea bags. As they soaked, she poured in a spoonful of powdered milk and 2 cubes of sugar.
“Do we have bread?” she asked.
He opened a cabinet and pulled out a long rectangular loaf of bread. She ripped the cellophane wrap that surrounded it and tore a chunk, she picked up her cup and walked through the backdoor of the kitchen and into the backyard. They both sat on low stools, Uzoamaka took a bite of her bread and a sip of her tea, while Chike tore pieces of his bread and dipped it into the stainless steel cup, bringing the soaked bread to his mouth.
She looked at him and wondered what would become of him after her aunt died. He could go home to his family, although her aunt had never mentioned them. But she assumed that he had family, everyone had family.
Her father had died only a few years after Uzoamaka had been sent to live with her aunt. She was at school when her aunt had gotten the call, a heart attack she said. Years later, Uzoamaka would try and place where she had been as her father writhed on the floor of their home. Was she in her mathematics class when her father’s heart thumped and raced until it outran him? Was she in her social studies class as his body slid from their velvet sofa and landed on their carpet with a thud? Or was she laughing with her friends, a bottle of fanta perched on her lips as she gulped. The last thought hurt the most – the fact that she could have been enjoying herself while her father’s eyes rolled back, his hand placed on his chest the same way they were made to when they said the pledge during the morning assembly. She thought about it as she took a sip of her tea, the now cold liquid nauseated her and she put the cup down.
“Make we go see Aunty, I’m sure she don wake now,” she said to Chike.
Both stood up and walked into the kitchen. Uzoamaka threw her cup into the sink, making a clunking sound. Chike gently placed his cup on the counter.
They climbed up the stairs two at a time. She walked behind Chike, staring at his skinny legs pockmarked with mosquito bites that had been scratched until there was nothing left to scratch.
As Chike opened the door of her aunt’s room, power was restored to the house. The ceiling fan in the room began to whizz obnoxiously and the adaptors hissed violently as they came to life.
Chike’s strides were long and purposeful, his hands clasped in preparation to clean a soiled bed sheet or lift her up so she could get to the bathroom. As Uzoamaka lingered behind him, she saw Chike stop when he approached the bed, his hand gently touching Aunty Nneka’s face. Before she could come any closer, he stopped her. With one hand gently laid on Aunty’s chest and the other outstretched, Chike didn’t have to say anymore. His tearful eyes and guarded stance were enough. Again Uzoamaka felt like an intruder, even in death, Chike had more of a claim than she did. She walked away and went downstairs, in her room, she pulled out her phone and flipped it open. With no one to call, she threw it on her bed. She didn’t want to cry because she felt like she had no right to. But the tears came, like a faulty faucet they fell noisily and without warning, and in the same way they started, they stopped.
She heard Chike enter the room.
“Wetin we go do?” he asked. His eyes were red and swollen.
She looked at him and wondered if he had heard her cry and hopes he hadn’t. Uzoamaka picked up her phone, but put it down, her aunt had never married or had children, her only sibling had died over 20 years ago so there was no one she could really call.
She put on her shoes and walked outside instead and made her way to an arctic blue bungalow with a honey rusted corrugated tin roof and the number 17 written in chalk on the entrance. Mama Nkechi, her aunt’s longtime neighbor lived in the shared compound, and her apartment was on the left of the dank and narrow hallway. Uzoamaka rapped her knuckles on the wooden door twice and was surprised to see Nkechi’s face behind the door.
Nkechi’s smile quickly vanished at the sight of Uzoamaka’s expression. She urged her inside and screamed, “Mama.”
The funeral was quick, and more neighbors than friends traipsed through the small living room offering Uzoamaka their condolences. Chike, Mama Nkechi and Nkechi handled the logistics of feeding the mourners, while Uzoamaka allowed herself to be consoled by people she did not remember. After the guests departed, Uzoamaka sat beside Chike in the living room. She watched as he nervously ran his hand along the leather sofa as if it were a lamp that would grant his wish, whatever it was.
“What will you do, Chike?” it was Uzoamaka’s turn to ask the question she knew the boy didn’t have an answer to.
“I no know. I fit go Lagos,” he replied.
She imagined the small boy in the big city, alone. He would be lost, she had lived there for over five years and she was lost. The city was overwhelming and unkind to people who didn’t have the shrewdness to maneuver it.
“What about your family?” she asked, “can’t you go back to them?”
“My mama and papa don die,” he replied.
His voice sounded hoarse, but she hadn’t seen him cry. Mama Nkechi cleaned silently, the only noise she heard was the faint clattering of glasses.
“I don finish, make I leave una,” said Mama Nkechi as she walked out of the room with plates and cups held high in her arms. Nkechi carried a cooler behind her silently.
“I go come tomorrow,” she said as they mumbled their thank yous and goodbyes.
They both sat on the sofa, equally as defeated from the day’s events. Tomorrow they would reconvene and decide what to do. But in that moment, Uzoamaka let her head rest gently on Chike’s shoulders.
Ashley Okwuosa (@ashleyokwuosa) is a Nigerian writer and journalist based in New York. Her work has appeared in Quartz, OkayAfrica, Ebony.com, Africa Is A Country, Latterly, and OZY.com. She has a degree in Journalism and Women’s and Gender Studies from Rutgers University-Newark. Her interests include reading fiction and writing non-fiction. She is currently studying at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.
Related country: Nigeria