“You’re not eating, abi” mother said breaking into my thought. I was so startled that I spilled some grains of rice. Mother’s eyes were fixed on me although she couldn’t see me well because the light from the lamp was dim. Mother must have noticed that I was not knocking my spoon against the plate as was my habit. Her eyes were still on me as she carried my younger sister, Aku from the sofa to the floor. I hastily beat my spoon against the stainless plate but mother was not fooled. She turned the wick of the lamp but the fire flared against the glass and touched the paper that had been used to patch the broken glass. The smell of burnt paper caressed my nose and I sneezed. The lamp continued to burn slowly. I watched as mother lifted the lamp from the stool and shook it, placing her ear close to the base. The sandy rattle finally convinced her that there was no kerosene in it. She placed it back on the stool and in slow measured steps, walked across the small room to where I sat in one corner like a cornered animal. I trembled under her unseen gaze.
“You want to waste the food, abi”. Do you know what I went through to be able to prepare that rice for you? Let me find out that you did not finish the food and I will pour a cup of toilet water down your throat. You know I can do it.” She hissed and limped back; placing her weight on her good left leg. I had no doubt that she could do it because she had done worse things before. I grabbed the spoon and began to scoop the rice into my mouth unappetizingly. I didn’t stop until it got into my throat and choked me. I could smell mother’s strong garlic in it. I took two cups of water and coughed for a while. Tears swelled in my eyes. I could perceive the curry and thyme mother had used to season the rice. It tasted like burnt hair. When I finally forced the last spoon into my mouth, I read the Lord’s Prayer silently. It was 10pm on dot.
“Ude is dead. That your father has to go out to look for her means she’s buried already.” Mother said casually as if she was talking about the weather. She leaned behind the sofa and rummaged through the space behind it. I could hear the plastics and metals being knocked together as mother searched for the koboko or whip. My heart was beating furiously now. There would be trouble if the koboko went missing.
“You have stolen the koboko, abi” mother said giving me a side long look. Her mouth was twisted into a funny grin.
“I didn’t take it” I replied trying to sound as innocently as possible. I doubted if my shaky voice sounded convincing “You kept it there when you used it to beat me yesterday”.
“So you decided to hide it after I beat you yesterday, abi” mother shouted. Aku opened her eyes in fright but went back to sleep almost immediately. I envied her.
I felt relieved when mother finally pulled the koboko out with a flourish. She smiled as she stroked the leather almost affectionately. She deftly bent it into two and sat on it on the sofa. She placed her bad leg on the other and began to shake them. It was a sign we associated with wicked expectation.
Mother was snoring lightly when Ude walked inside noiselessly. Her eyes darted from mother to me and back to mother again. The door was still opened so the light from the passage made me see her clearly. Ude was trembling and her lips shook uncontrollably. I observed that her white gown was dirty and torn. I was surprised because before she went out earlier, I had joked that her snow white gown made her look like a bride. I could see patches of dark colours on it although at first, I felt it was the bad light casting shadows on it. Her hair which she had neatly folded into a scarf before she went out was now dishevelled with the scarf missing. Cakes of dirt clung to her hair and they stood like crooked fingers. I knew something was wrong. Ude would never go out and come back late especially when father had sent her to go and collect money from a debtor. Ude took a step forward and I heard her gasp sharply in pain. She seemed to pull her right leg to be able to work with it. I thought I saw blood on her gown but I wasn’t sure.
Suddenly, mother jumped up, pulling the koboko under her and in one motion, lashed at Ude. The whip climbed her left shoulder and turned her back to settle around her waist with a snake-like motion. Ude went down on her knees wordlessly. Mother had already taken an attacking pose even though Ude didn’t prepare to dodge the whip which began to rain in swift motions. Ude bowed her head and whimpered like a cat. Ordinarily, she would have screamed at the first lashing to attract the attention of the neighbours to come to her rescue. It was a ploy we used to reduce the number of lashes we got. This time however, it was mother who was screaming at Ude to tell her why she had come back late. Ude’s silence was making mother angrier who thought she was being stubborn. The lashing became more frenzy as the whip landed swiftly on her bowed head, neck, back and naked arms. I could hear our neighbours whispering in the passage. Feet hurried from one room to another and even neighbours who lived upstairs began to descend on the rickety stairs pulling at the rusty iron banister for support. Mother’s voice had begun to sound like a thin whale and in between gasps of breathe, she was asking “where?” it rhymed with the swift descent of the koboko. She looked like one of those women who went into trance as soon as the white garment pastor touched their foreheads. She didn’t stop until the neighbours had filed in and one of them wrestled the koboko from her hand.
“hun hun” the woman cried when she saw the blood on Ude’s back. Her neck was bleeding and blood plastered the dress to her body. Ude’s head was still bowed so we could not see her face but she was shaking uncontrollably. Someone had brought in a rechargeable lamp and the full beam illuminated the whole room revealing cracked walls, broken asbestos, the familiar taste of chalk and the acrid odour of ginger. Some of our neighbour had not entered our room before and I could see them turn their nose up and run their eyes around taking in the poverty. They would talk about it the next time they had a fight with mother which happened occasionally.
“What did she do that necessitated these inhuman and inhumane treatments?” the woman who had wrestled the whip from mother asked. “Can’t you see that the poor girl is bleeding and in shock?” she looked around the crowded room for support but got none. Someone snickered and another person muttered that they were not there for English language lessons.
I knew the woman who had spoken. She was the only person who had a car in the house and she worked at the ministry. Once she caught me toss a biscuit nylon carelessly away and she called me back to “dispose it properly”. Nobody knew who her husband was or where he lived because she lived alone. It was even rumoured that she didn’t have a husband. Her visitors were rare and the few that came were from the ministry. They were shirt-and-tie people who came in big cars and spoke Queen’s English.
“What did she do?” she asked again.
“Ask her where she went to” mother replied. “Her father sent her to collect money from someone since 7pm. The place is just about seven streets away” mother paused to regain her breathe. “Her father waited and waited till 9pm before going to look for her. She just came back now” mother hissed and belched unapologetically. The ministry woman turned her face away in disgust.
“Where is the money?” mother asked suddenly propping up in her seat. She looked ready to strike again. When Ude didn’t respond after the second time, mother sprang up and slapped her hard across the face. The suddenness sent Ude crashing to the floor, falling on the sleeping Aku. This infuriated mother but she was restrained by ministry woman. I wondered what the rest had come to do. I wish I could seize a stick and beat it on their heads till they cried. They were enjoying the show.
“For goodness sake, give her the chance to talk” ministry woman cried. She knelt beside Ude and gently raised her face to her chest. “She’s hot” she said as if to inform the crowd. She turned to Ude and whispered:
“Tell us what happened. Why did you come back late and where is the money?”
That was when Ude burst into tears. She sobbed and wound her arms affectionately round ministry woman’s neck. It was a gesture I had never seen her extend to mother before. In between her tears, she said “They raped me and collected the money. They raped me!”
The whole room gasped in different shades of vocal expressions. One of the neighbours threw himself forward as if he had been pushed at the back. Others tilted their body to the front to catch everything Ude would say. I wished they hadn’t come. They were mentally congratulating themselves for being there. They had found something to chew on for days. The only person who remained calm was ministry woman who turned sharply to cut mother short. She turned back to the crowd who were sweating in their own heat.
I don’t want anyone making stupid remarks. If I knew this would be an issue of great concern I wouldn’t have allowed you to hear it. In fact I would have loved to take her to my room but as it is now, it doesn’t look possible. The best you can do for her is to sympathise with her.”
While ministry woman was talking, the neighbours were sowing their hisses together until it became a long dirty and patched hiss. It ended with mother’s own that sounded like a drawn zip.
“Who were they and how did it happen?” ministry woman asked ignoring the murmur that had started to sprinkle around.
“ I used the main road when I was going but when I got to Baba Samson’s house, his wife told me he had gone out to collect money from his debtor too. She said he wouldn’t be long so I waited for him because I know if I come back to tell father that, he would be angry that I didn’t wait. When I saw that it was getting late, I told his wife but she kept telling me to wait a little. When he came back, it was very late so I decided to take the short cut route. That was where I met five young men who appeared from nowhere smoking cigarettes. They seized my arm and pulled me to the ground. I fought hard but I was no match for them. One of them tore my pant and …and…”
For a while, no one said anything. Mother stared long at the ceiling as if she had just noticed the cracked asbestos. Ministry woman cradled Ude’s head on her lap and I saw tears falling from her eyes. Ude herself kept on whimpering. At last, one woman stood up and clapped her hand thrice in astonishment. She turned her big frame easily and cocked her head to one side. We called her fat fat woman because she always repeated her adjectives when talking. She spoke with a heavy Yoruba-accented English of uneducated people who picked strands of the language around and became self-pompous master of it.
“These small small children of nowadays” she began “they can’t keep their big big yansh in place. Me, I don’t know what other people think but I don’t believe this girl at all at all. How can a girl like this say someone raped her?” she turned to face Ude “Your father sent you to go and collect money and you went to your boyfriend’s house. You forget that it is late when you allowed him to touch you. You now come back with this funny funny story that someone raped you. Me I don’t believe you” she replied and turned to the neighbours “Or do you believe her?”
“Believe her?” uncle Wolex asked; I recognised him as the person that threw himself forward exaggeratedly when Ude said she had been raped. He was the only unmarried person in the group and there was a time when he used to send love letters to Ude which we took our time to read. Ude would copy out the exact words in the letter into another paper for me. I would peruse it and pick out all his spelling errors and grammatical blunders which we would compare later. When he realized that Ude was not yielding to his advances, he became angry. Once, he slapped her for splashing water to the floor of the passage when fetching water. The teeth mark at the back of his neck was a testimony of the fight between him and mother that day.
“Anybody that believes her is a fool” uncle Wolex continued, adjusting his face cap in a characteristic manner.
“Everybody knows that Benson alley is not the place to pass at night” he said referring to the short cut that Ude said she had taken. “Me gan, I can’t pass that place at night with all my swagger. In the afternoon, you’ll see guys smoking weed and sniffing cocaine. You now dress like this at night”. He paused to touch her gown. I felt his hand lingered far too long on her. “How can you dress in this transparent nylon and pass Benson alley at night! See all your pants showing and you walk through that place. Do you think if am there too and you pass, I will not teach you a lesson?” a few people laughed. Uncle Wolex was enjoying himself. Mother hung her head with arms folded across her chest.
“If your body is itching you and you want someone to touch you, you should at least come home and see if you will not find someone who will satisfy you. You now go to Benson alley showing your yellow laps and you think someone will not touch you. I don’t blame those guys. It is you that should be blamed. Anybody that wants to blame them should put himself in their situation.”
Ministry woman was clearly furious, she gave uncle Wolex an angry look which made him flinch and turn his face away. She turned to fat fat woman and riveted her with a long deadly look which the latter returned equally. The detestation was evidently mutual.
“How can you talk like that?” ministry woman said with tears in her eyes. “Do you know the physical and emotional pain the young girl is going through? If you cannot proffer any reasonable solution, you should at least spare the young girl the blame. Most of you here are mothers who have female children” her eyes were still on fat fat woman. “Would you blame your daughters if something like this happened to them?”
Fat fat woman was about to respond when mother stood up, startling them. In a flash, she snatched the koboko, lunged at Ude and swiftly lashed at her. Ministry woman who had crouched all the while fell backward with Ude falling on her.
“You’re a disgrace to the family” Mother panted as she lashed on. “No member of my family has ever been raped before. Shame on you. You’re dead already. I will strip you naked tomorrow morning and tell the whole street what you have done. I will put pepper in that thing making you feel like a woman and beat you round the street.” Mother kept the lashing going to punctuate each sentence. The whip tore Ude's flesh and drew blood but she didn’t cry for mercy. Her face was buried in ministry woman’s bosom. The neighbours stood up as if to intervene but none of them got very close to mother.
“Will you stop this nonsense!” ministry woman cried seizing the whip for the second time “what sort of mother are you? Do you want to kill her? Is she to be blamed for the misadventure?”
“Shut up and don’t tell me nonsense!” mother shouted at the ministry woman “who are you to tell me what a mother is supposed to do? I don’t blame you. If it’s your own child, you won’t be saying this this. A person without a child will not know how it feels like.”
A sudden hush fell across the room and the only sound that could be heard was Ude’s whimpering. Ministry woman looked dazed and she slowly scanned the room but no one said anything. She turned back to look at mother who was tapping a foot and her hand wound into a fist rested on her hip. She was poised for a fight. Slowly, ministry woman stood up. Ude held on to her wrapper and hugged her. Ministry woman whispered something into Ude’s ear and firmly pulled her hand from her wrapper. She said she was sorry and went out without another word. Mother hissed long and hard.
Just as ministry woman went out father announced his presence with a loud song. His voice was slurred and it was as if he was doing more talking than singing. We heard him fall in the passage and he cursed the devil. It took him almost ages to pick himself up and resume his singing. When he finally got to the entrance he looked a pitiable sight. He stopped and stared at the foot wares that were scattered there.
“Is a party going on in my room or why are all these slippers here?” He kicked at them and flung some away. I looked at the neighbours. Some of them had fears in their eyes while others had stood up. Uncle Wolex attempted to go out briefly but father seized his neck and slapped his face.
“Have come to steal in my room?” father asked menacingly in clenched teeth. Uncle Wolex was too choked up to respond so he gestured frantically with his hands. Father peered into the room and opened his eyes wide in surprise. He released his grip on uncle Wolex and the latter dashed away. Father entered the room and slapped the person closest to him.
“Get out, thieves. You want to come and steal my money. Get out!” He turned around the room drunkenly and fell. The neighbours seized the opportunity to run out. Father grabbed fat fat woman’s wrapper and she was forced to run out without it. He wanted to slap mother too but stopped when he saw Ude. He bent beside her and she turned her face away.
“Where is my money young lady?” he asked “I was looking for you around and I didn’t see you. Where is my money?”
Ude turned to look at mother for help. I watched as mother eyed her and looked away. Ude turned back to father and muttered that the money was gone. I was already anticipating the two successive slaps that followed. Ude scrambled to where I stood. He kicked the stool breaking, the lamp. He dug his teeth into fat fat woman’s wrapper and tore it. I was scared. I had never seen him so furious. He kicked the lamp again until the rest of the glass shattered. Smoke filled the room and I heard Aku cough. “I will kill someone today. You and your mother have shared my money.”
“Who took your money?” mother asked in the darkness “she said some boys collected it at Benson alley and raped her”
My eyes had gotten accustomed to the darkness and I saw father stand straight. He slowly brought out his small touch and shone the light on Ude’s face. He asked her if it was true and she nodded. He let out an animal cry and swore. He threw the torch angrily at her and I caught the side of her face. Father swore again. He said Ude was a taboo and a black cat in the family. She was a shame. He said she was not his daughter again and he would not use things she had touched. I couldn’t tell if it was the drunkenness or if he was serious. He staggered out and vomited at the entrance screaming “shame! shame! shame!” he spat noisily and came back inside. He pointed at Ude and spat at her. He lay on the sofa and kept on muttering “shame”.
“You heard what your father said” mother whispered. “You are a shame to his heritage. It has never happened in this family before. Who knows maybe you are already pregnant. If you are, I will make life miserable for you. You’ll see what will happen to you tomorrow morning. I will make you dance naked in the street…”
Ude kept on staring at the floor. It was long into the night before she came to lie beside me. I asked if she was hungry so I could go and sneak some food for her but she shook her head and pressed her hot body against mine. She smelled of blood. She whispered in my ear that she loved me.
It was Aku’s piercing shriek that woke us. I sprang to my feet and looked at where she pointed. Ude’s lifeless body dangled lifelessly from the ceiling. Her stained gown held her neck taut.
Mother tore her dress and nakedly ran into the street crying.