Bay Leaf Zobo: by Sifa Asani Gowon

The solitary shoot springing out of the crack, breaking through concrete, fills me with a grudging and somewhat twisted sense of admiration. I can’t help but wonder at the power in this tiny living thing, and the irony that, in this single act of natural defiance, life has triumphed over death. And death is what the concrete slab represents.

The words carved in are almost illegible; time and the elements taking their toll. But I can still see them, and even if I couldn’t, they are carved into my memory.

Ekaterina Nemchovna Davou. Loving wife, mother and friend. 1958- 1991.

It’s funny how those clichéd words could, in a nutshell, spell out and sanitize an entire existence.

I haven’t been here in years; this secluded enclave of brushes, thorns and harsh beauty. The fact that I had to meander through overgrown shrubbery, looking out for snakes and scorpions and almost getting lost on the way showed that no one had been here in years either. No one had cared enough to visit her resting place. It was to be expected. I feel the sharp sting of tears in my eyes and a thick knot forming at my throat as I look up. I can see Lamingo Dam from this vantage point, and the smattering of hills framing it. In the distance I can make out the behemoth of a compound that makes up the new Jos University Teaching Hospital. It amazes me how so much and so little can change over time. I close my eyes tightly, willing the memories to make pictures behind my lids and sounds in my ears.

It seemed a lifetime ago that I had laughed in this place. I remember my lips and fingers stained with the burgundy juice from lemu tsuntsu,the aptly named Plateau berries and the tummy aches I would have after gulping down too much of my Mamachka’s zobo, the local drink she had learned to make so much better than my aunties, much to their chagrin. She would add ginger, cucumbers and a single Bay leaf to the mixture; the bay leaf  her ode to Russian cuisine.  It upset them that a white woman, a baturiya, could outdo them in anything culinary.

And there were the times we would come here to watch the builders stack block upon block of what would become our own house; a home away from the Family House full of sly-eyed aunties and hair-pulling cousins. Papa’s face would crease into a smile- his teeth stark against his skin that reminded me of the warm, brown silt that slipped between my toes when I ventured out to the edge of the dam, the water lapping at my feet. His face had so much character and colour then.

Dochenka, tam apasna,” he would say, his accented Russian tinged with worry. It’s dangerous, my daughter.

Nu astav iyo.”  Leave her be. Mamachka would respond with that half-smile, almost mocking, on her face as the sun caught the wayward hairs about her head, forming a halo. Her hair, under ordinary light, had been a non-descript brown, as straight as the dry grass of harmattan. But in the sunlight it transformed: entire sections glinting like gold, and the brown becoming more alive, if that was possible. Even the lank texture of her hair seemed to protest as the smallest puff of wind would send it flying about her face. I don’t know why that image stuck with me until now: my Mamachka, the haloed angel with sun rays trapped in her hair. Even the sun had been caught up in her spell.

And all that remained of that sun was buried under the cracked cement slab that bore the remains of an epitaph, thousands of miles away from her place of birth. She’d been dead for 12 years and nobody liked to talk about it: how she died. They had spoken in hushed tones around me, those pretentious adults, unaware of the fact that at the age of 12, snared in that amorphous space between the burgeoning awareness of the woman I would become and the child I still was, I understood far more than they gave me credit for. They never understood me. Neither did those children in the playground of the Russian school, especially Anastacia, or Nastinka as she was called; a scrawny blonde with an overbite. Ironic that, when giving her nickname its Anglicized form she really was nasty. I hear she’s a drug addict now, shooting up heroin in her more lucid moments and spending the rest of her time swimming in cheap vodka. A part of me revels at this knowledge: poetic justice at its best. She had made my life miserable.

Obyezanka, obyezan,” she would taunt. Monkey. I hated that word. “Nuka idyi, idyi sibya ubi”. Go on and kill yourself.

I would sit down at the wooden table in the playground, my hands in tight fists against my ears trying to drown out her cruel voice and words but she was relentless. Monkey, go and kill yourself. Monkey, go and die.

Mamachka killed herself.

My eyes snap open.

Suicide isn’t something we talk about much here in Jos now, and we spoke even less when it happened then. It was something that people just didn’t do.  Wives and mothers did not just wake up one day and decide to end their lives. She hadn’t done it on impulse though, I’m sure and I should have seen it coming. And I cursed myself then for not seeing and understanding her more.

We moved to Nigeria from Moscow, then part of the USSR in the 1980s, when there was promise in Nigeria. I don’t remember much, having been only three years old at the time. By all accounts she settled in well enough, remaining patient even when we had to live in one room in the Family House. We lived there until I was 9. My grandmother was politely aloof to Mamachka and indulgent towards us. I couldn’t blame my grandmother, I suppose: her brilliant son had gone to the USSR with the promise of education and a bright future…and had returned with a sylph-like Russian girl speaking heavy English taught to her by her husband, everything about her screaming ‘hippy’.  Grandmother was confused: she hadn’t known what to do with Ekaterina, or Katya as Papa called her. It didn’t help that Mamachka had a tongue that matched her acerbic humour. And so a truce of grudging respect was formed, with one giving ample space to the other, wiggle room for peculiarities. Mamachka would sometimes mutter things under her breath in Russian and then glance at me and wink, her eyes twinkling as we shared in secret understanding. I loved those moments when the bond we shared seemed to go beyond that of a mother and child and cross over into sisterhood, like we were giggling members of a sorority.

When we finally moved into our new house it hadn’t even been painted, the grey concrete smooth over the walls. It was a small 3 bedroom house, with tiny bathrooms, but my mother loved it, saying it had ‘character’. She sewed curtains, stitched on tablecloths, cut wild zinnias and placed them in clean jam jars on the tables. She made pirozhki and blini and sang Russian folk songs. And she sat by the window sometimes, gazing out, her eyes glazed and her face fixed in wistfulness.

She would alternate from an effervescent and almost buzzing joy to a withdrawn silence that puzzled and hurt me at the same time. Papa seemed to sense her periods of darkness, slipping away to his Family House and ‘friends’ after work, appearing only to drop and pick us from school. Then when we turned 11, we were sent to boarding school.

When I returned for the holidays I noticed a new brittleness to Mamachka, an edge in her voice that had not been there and a wan tone to her skin; skin that had been beautifully tanned before, now holding a grayish tinge that had the effect of appearing water-logged.

I knew she missed her home. She had not been able to return to visit, with each passing year presenting new ways and avenues ‘vacation’ money needed to be re-routed: building the house, opening a new office, buying a new car.  She never complained but, in retrospect, the long absence from her home affected her much more than she let on. She had been draining slowly.

“Moscow is beautiful in winter,” she said once in a dream-like haze, her voice removed from her surroundings.

I didn’t think Moscow was beautiful in winter. I thought it was cold and that the snow was more grey than white. It was ugly because she wasn’t there. I spent my first winter in Moscow after Mamachka’s death in her sister Elena’s apartment. Tyotya Elena was brusque but kind- the polar opposite of Mamachka physically, with curly red hair, sharp grey eyes and a voice that reminded me of scratched record LPs. She had been unable to come for Mamachka’s funeral, only getting to Jos a month later.

“It is the perestroika,” she had said in stilted English, her words awkward and halting. “They make it difficult for me to come.”  To my young and traumatized ears her voice, gravelly as it sounded, was a welcome relief, the closest I could get to my dead mother. She stayed for a few weeks and left. I remember the short trip to the airport in Heipang, and the feeling of dread I had as we approached the lonely stretch of road leading up to what seemed to me a portal that would suck away my Tyotya Elena. When it was time for her to board the flight I clung to her, refusing to let go until I was pried away by my father and Auntie Kaneng. I cried non-stop all the way back to Jos.

“This is what happens when you go and marry these strange white women,” Auntie Kaneng said to Papa from the passenger seat in an exaggerated whisper. I heard her careless words and they cut deep. “It is a bad omen, Gyang. A very bad omen. What did you do to deserve it? Eh? Why did she bring this disaster on us by killing herself?”

“Kaneng, it is enough,” Papa had said. “What has happened, has happened.”

“Did she suffer so much in your hands? Were you not a good husband to her? Did you not provide food, shelter and clothing? Pay the children’s school fees? You did not beat her or mistreat her. She should have been grateful.”

Each word was an accusation, each question a condemnation. After that, I never spoke to Auntie Kaneng unless spoken to.

The year after Mamachka died was filled with outward silence and inward screaming. I did badly in school and I didn’t want to talk to anyone. Papa’s family pressured him to remarry and he seemed to be caving in to the idea, if the new woman constantly hanging around the house was any indication. Chundusu was a bland mixture of niceties and pained devotedness to Papa- not mean to us but I always had the feeling that we were a kink in the otherwise smooth fabric of her plans. She wanted to marry Papa and his family approved. One day she turned up at our house with a bag full of clothing, announced that she was pregnant and moved in without ceremony. My half-brother, Chuwang, was born a few months after my 13th birthday. That was when Tyotya Elena returned to Nigeria.

My memories are sharply interrupted as the sound of crunching leaves startle me, dry twigs snapping under the pressure of footsteps. I turn around and see him walking toward me slowly, his face stoic and unmoved, much like it had been those years back. Vasilev may not have aged much in his features but his eyes were old and tired. My brother bears the scars as I do.

“I thought I would find you here,” he says.

“Why aren’t you at the house, Vasia?” I speak in perfectly inflected Russian.

“Because I’ve had enough of fake tears and endearments and people telling me how much I’ve ‘grown’ and changed.” He responds in Russian with ease, the words a seamless blend in the beige and green background. Some things are better expressed when nobody but we understand, even if we are the only two for miles around.

“That’s to be expected.”

“I just want it to be over and done with. I want to go home.”

America is home to Vasia. He’s been there for 6 years. He left Russia when he was 18. A few weeks after his departure from Russia he called Tyotya Elena and I to inform us of his marriage to a 32 year old American divorcée called Piper. I remember thinking she had a ridiculous name and imagined her to have brassy, dyed hair, huge porcelain veneers and a facelift. I never even got to see a picture of her, which was just as well because 6 months later, she and Vasia divorced. I had never understood how his character could be so paradoxically impulsive and calculated- maybe I never really knew him.

When Tyotya Elena returned to Nigeria that summer, it was to convince Papa to let her take us back to Russia. We could get Russian passports and citizenship, she reasoned. We could get a better education and stay in the apartment that we would inherit as she had no children and her only sibling was dead. We could finish university and return to Nigeria afterwards, she cajoled. We all didn’t believe the last part, though. Her eyes told us she didn’t want us remaining or returning to the place her sister had chosen to end her life.

Papa agreed with little protest, which irked me. I had hoped he would fight for us a little more but I guess the events of the past year had knocked all the fight out of him. Chundusu couldn’t hide her relief at getting us out of way- the path for her children’s future was clear. We left with Tyotya Elena and I’ve been back to Nigeria, to Jos only thrice since then- when I was sixteen, twenty and now, at twenty four. With each visit I understood more and more Papa’s choice to remain silent about Mamachka. He had nothing to say because he really had nothing to say.  I tried bringing up the subject of the suicide when I was 16 and he asked me never to speak on it again. I didn’t. Our communication, relegated to phone calls, was cordial but distant. I don’t suppose I blame him. Vasia and I are part of a past that he wanted to blot out, pain he couldn’t explain. I dealt with his distance better than Vasia. Vasia had stopped talking to him altogether. And now Papa was dead too and we would attend his funeral.

“I tried to make zobo the way Mamachka made it. I put too much ginger…the bay leaf drowned in the flavor. I couldn’t taste it anymore.”

I don’t even know why I’m telling him this.  It doesn’t make sense and seems inane in the face of this emptiness.

“You’re thinking about why she did it” Vasia states with measured calm, his tone almost flippant. I look into his eyes, the brown a mirror of mine, and feel my tears coming. His face is soft.

“She was depressed and she couldn’t help herself.”

“Do you ever wonder why he didn’t see it? He must have.”

“You can’t blame him. He didn’t understand her. She was our mother and we didn’t understand her either. She was like a gust of wind, like sunshine…”

“You’re romanticizing this too much, Irina. Life is messy and people die. That’s life.” I recognize that sharpness; it’s been there since that day. As if he senses my shrinking, he lets a smile tip the side of his lips and reaches out to hold my hand.

“That’s how we get through these things, Ira. We have to be strong about it and learn not to sink.”

“We’re burying Papa tomorrow, Vasia.  We weren’t even here when he died.”

“Papa accepted the fact that we were no longer his to keep the day she died. I hold no grudges toward him at all but I have no ties here.”

“You’re his firstborn.”

“We’re twins, Ira. I’m the firstborn by 6 minutes.” His chuckle is as dry as the twigs he snaps under his feet.

“Still…that must count for something.”

He shrugs. “Not really. It doesn’t mean much to me.”

“They’re waiting to see what they can get.” I angle my head toward the area of the house, where Chundusu and our half-siblings no doubt wait for us. Auntie Kaneng is there too along with some other cousins I can’t remember. I can’t help but imagine them as carrion birds, buzzing around a corpse, waiting for the right moment to swoop in. Perhaps I’m being unfair to Chundusu- she was his wife and companion for the last decade or so. I have to give her that.

“In the end, you decide, though,” I tell my brother. “It’s tradition.”

Vasia lets out a puff of air. “They can have it all, Ira. They can have the house, the cars, the land…”

“Mamachka is buried on this land. Papa will be buried here too.”

“There are only bones left of them, Ira. Nothing else. I’ve made a new life for myself and I’m not staying here or tying myself down to this place in any way.”

I feel him squeeze my hands for a moment as his jaw tightens in resolution as he says the words. I know this look. This is the look he had when he punched one of our tormentors in school in Russia across the face, breaking his tooth. He had found me crying by the stairs near the bathroom after Yuri had called me an ugly monkey and told me to go back to the jungle where I came from. His lips had tightened the same way and he had marched into the boy’s bathroom where Yuri was and beaten him to the point where he had to be restrained. He had been cold and unrepentant afterward, despite his suspension from school.

“They both loved us, you know.” I don’t know why I feel I have to say that. Maybe I’d like to ease his pain, or maybe it’s a feeble attempt to make myself feel better, as though saying the words out loud will make it easier for me to convince myself I believed them. “They just…couldn’t deal with all the…” My words trail away as I realize what little impact they make in the greater scheme of things. Vasia doesn’t respond.

I grip his hand as we stare beyond distance. I glance at him and see his eyes hard and empty, just as mine blur with tears again. We are two sides of the same coin, Vasia and I. Only I think he had it much worse.

The day Mamachka died, it was sunny. She promised to bake a chocolate cake for us if we would just go outside and play and leave her to nap. Vasia went inside for a drink of water and didn’t come out for a long while. When he finally did, I knew something was wrong.

He was breathing fast, his hands shaking but his voice calm. He looked like he had been crying.

“Something is wrong with mamachka…but Papa will be home soon.”

I raced past him and entered our parent’s bedroom. She was lying in bed, the covers pulled up to her chest with one arm splayed to one side and the other dangling over the edge of the bed. She looked like she was sleeping. I touched her hand and found it cold, like the mackerel she often used for selyotka. Looking closely at her face, I noticed the purple tinge of her lips and the paleness of her skin. It dawned on me that she looked like something had been sucked out of her, something vital. I had never seen a dead body before.

I noticed a small container on the bedside table and saw that there were a few pills in it. Everything else after that is a blur: Papa coming home, calling her name out and burying his face in his hands, weeping; my aunts and uncles coming and hurrying us out of the room, as if they could erase the memory of what we had seen.

I would find out later that when Vasia had found her and drawn the covers over her. He had also picked up some of the pills on the floor and put them back into the container on the bedside table. He had smoothed back her hair and attempted to arrange her in a perfect pose on the bed.

“But her arm just kept slipping out,” he said. “I couldn’t keep her arm in the bed.”

I look down again at the little shoot springing out from the concrete slab with Mamachka’s epitaph and say a silent goodbye. I move closer and keep my arm entwined in his: my brother, my twin.

 


Sifa Asani Gowon (@sifascreen) is a Woman. Mother. Daughter. Sister. Writer. Baker. Friend. Redeemed and living in northern Nigeria. All this in no particular order, by the way. She likes to write screenplays and imagine movies so she considers herself a ‘visual amebo’ of sorts. You can catch her doing mom stuff, trying not to procrastinate, and living her life the way she hopes will please her Creator. Did she mention she bakes, too? Yeah, she’s pretty good at that. Oh and she likes food. A lot.

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