The bright crimson lipstick abandoned my mother’s mouth when I was nine. All the extra colours and textures that adorned her lustrous mahogany skin departed like harmattan does in March.
It was 1996 during President Abacha’s regime. Nigerians were expressing more discontent with the military government and starting to demand democracy. My father, the stalwart professor’s articles were published in Newspapers. He travelled often to speak, lead protests or hide from those incited by his controversial work. He would come back to Lagos with thrilling anecdotes of dodging bombings in Ife and Police raids in Ibadan. It never occurred to me that most of them were lies.
One absence stretched months. I watched my mother’s waist gradually expand and her hair grow kinky and grey. It was as though her beauty retreated when it lost its audience. When I finally asked her when my father would be back, her shoulders stiffened, then she turned away from the ugwu leaves she was washing to face me.
“You are no longer a child, Jude. You don’t have a father anymore. From now on, it’s just you and I. I don’t want to catch you crying anyhow. Anything I give you must be enough. You have to keep studying hard. Everybody is watching now, waiting for our failure and I cannot afford to have a useless son.’ She warned. That was how I found out that my father had left us.
Not much changed around our house – its dim warm glow remained alongside the smell of detergent and fried bean cakes. My mother was a Nigerian woman so clearly built to withstand fire with kiln-like resolve. I arose one morning to see her smiling for the first time in months. She was now an entrepreneur. I let her present her new tailoring workshop to me –my father’s old study. I struggled to clap at the riotous pile of fabrics she showcased. Some light finally managed to creep into her eyes.
Four years later when people at church asked about my father she gave brisk detailed updates ‘Prof. is excellent. He is delivering a lecture in Kaduna on ‘The Rule of Law’, She would say nodding proudly. She reframed his whereabouts each time she performed this phony script. It was disgusting to watch. Most of them knew the truth but humoured her anyway. I wanted to scream ‘Wake up! The man abandoned you’ but I just stood there and nodded.
One evening, we received a phone call from Uncle Ike. My father suffered a heart attack and died instantly.
My father’s sisters came two days later to shave off my mother’s hair according to tradition. Naturally, she acquiesced. As she played embittered widow, I was occupied with serious matters. My obsession with rap music was brewing at the time – Nas and Dr Dre were my idols. My cousin Chukwuka gave me his old Walkman in exchange for my father’s wrist- watch. I hadn’t realised it was a parting gift when my father took it off his wrist and shoved it into my hands, years before. I’d needed no memento of his deliberate absence. I memorised lyrics in my spare time so I could impress my friends. All I wanted was to escape the awkward fourteen-year old acne faced life that was mine. While my mother’s presence was suffocating, my father’s absence was just a trivial inconvenience. The truth is, I never really felt connected to either of them.
I remember the day they brought her to the house – my new sister. The evidence of my father’s adultery was a gangly four year old with full dimpled cheeks and shifty eyes. The suitcase beside her made it clear that this was no cursory visit. She stood wordless, gripping a half chewed pair of pink child-sized sunglasses while her pupils shone like a cockroach’s shell. My father’s brothers left her with me while they took my mother aside for a serious discussion. They didn’t tell me who she was at that point but I caught on instantly – blood requires no introduction.
She and I sat on the same couch, inspecting each other with caution and suspicion. The walls of our house were as thin as termites’ wings so we listened to the creaky ceiling fan lazily slice the air. The adults must have been whispering at first because now voices boomed in both Igbo and English. The puzzle was gaining form. The little girl’s mother was the mistress my mother spent years cursing in her prayers. I sat there hoping that this girl could not hear my mother’s sharp and repeated refusals to take her in. Her tiny quivering lip confirmed otherwise. Apparently her mother abandoned her for a new boyfriend after my father passed away. I wanted to hold her hand in reassurance but I also wanted her to never have been born.
In the other room platitudes and proverbs were groaned between restless sighs.
‘Nnenna, you must take the high road and do what is right in God’s eyes.’ Uncle Ike said.
Amarachi was the girl’s name. After we said our goodbyes and I locked our front door, the three of us sat there in silence. The uncles came to drop this bombshell leaving it to forage and dislodge our hearth just for them to drift away now like entitled Fulani herdsmen. Life gave my mother and I no opportunity to rehearse for a guest of this significance. Was I supposed to treat her like my sister? Was she someone we were taking in until she was old enough to be our housemaid? We needed a family meeting for my mother to cast our roles. Wicked step-mother or fairy godmother, I wondered what narrative her script would contain.
I searched my mother’s eyes for instructions about Amarachi, and found nothing. Reassuringly, A few minutes later she announced that she was going to make jollof rice and ordered me to carry Amarachi’s luggage to her bedroom. The girl did not speak at all, that night. When spoken to, she nodded or shook her head and just did whatever my mother told her to. Whenever she saw me, she put on those ridiculous sunglasses. I’d overheard my mother, in an attempt to make her feel welcome, telling Amarachi that whenever she was nervous, wearing the glasses would make her powerful. She did not need to be nervous around me. I didn’t want anything to do with her.
How would my mother explain Amarachi’s appearance to her friends? A few years ago Mr and Mrs Eze suddenly started coming to Church with a set of mixed-race eight year old twin boys who blatantly resembled Mr Eze. We all knew their seventeen-year old daughter, Uloma as their only child. They were our neighbours right through my childhood. We only moved away after my father’s promotion and a problem with a housemaid. Both Mr and Mrs Eze had skin the colour of agbalumo seeds. The twins’ skin tone was a puzzle. After morning mass my father had pulled his friend, Mr Eze aside to ask about the mysterious children. Mr Eze, known for inflated storytelling was quick to explain. ‘I said to the woman, if they cant stay, you must leave! In fact she started begging me to let her stay. She knew her replacement would move in if she carried on with all that shakara. Is it every husband that is paying for new lace and handbag every weekend? Hian! Prof you know I’m a rascal,’ He smirked revealing large yellow teeth and giving my father an ill timed hi -five.
I ached for a younger sibling for years before my father left. I was fed up with parents, teachers and sadistic prefects bruising my skin and dignity with flogging and frog jumps. I wanted someone on my team, someone who would take instructions from me just because the instructions came from me. I didn’t want to further tyrannical ambitions or torture anyone. I just wanted to have the taste of respect dull my senses like fresh palm wine, for the first time.
I could not stand this Amarachi character. The age gap between us entitled me to a considerable level of reverence, at least. My parents made me call my older cousins, who were five and six years my senior respectively, Uncle Chike and Aunty Ada. Uncle Chike had failed the JAMB examinations so many times, the whole famiIy often joked that I would complete a four-year degree before he gained admission to university. Yet, Uncle Chike he was. Amarachi neither greeted nor acknowledged me whenever we were together. I reported the situation to my mother who shrugged and said I should find somewhere else to flex my muscles because there was no room for such behavior under her roof. The woman had to be crazy. She had gone from being the military despot that raised me to a Spice Girl with Amarachi as her ‘girl power’ warbling band mate. This strange girl had restored my mother’s radiance over night. Were we even sure she was really related to us? I had my doubts.
Amarachi seemed consumed in a world I could not see. She chased insects to add to her bevy of unwilling pets and brought weeds into the house to expand her personal garden. My mother would lovingly chastise her and Amarachi’s response was the same. ‘He was lonely outside. He wants to stay inside with us.’ She said, pulling down her cheeks and batting her eyelashes. My mother accepted the explanation of the lonely weed each time without the further questions about the state of her mental health, which I would have received, if I had done the same thing at that age. If the girl murdered someone, my mother would have buried the body and served her fried plantains and Coca-cola afterwards to celebrate. Then there was the counting. From tiles on the bathroom floor to patterns in the fabrics my mother used for her work. Every moment that passed, met Amarachi tracing and retracing her steps while exhaling numbers like gently dispersed smoke rings. She was always arranging and rearranging things around the house, almost obsessively. What kind four year old was this? My mother constantly praised her for tidying this and that while throwing me accusatory glances for not doing the same. I did not want this girl in our house. She was not part of my family.
It all got out of hand one day when I returned from school to find that the little rat had stolen both my Walkman and my favourite cassette and pulled out all the magnetic tape of the latter. In one reckless move she deleted months of effort begging cousin Chukwuka to help me record the playlist of my dreams. From K-ci and Jojo’s ‘All My Life to Nelly’s ‘Ride wit me’, it was all gone. My heart raced as the ruined cassette stared up at me like a Biafran war casualty. I hadn’t even finished learning all the lyrics to ‘Big Pimpin’. Rage built momentum in my stomach. I warned her to stay away from my stuff! Now she was going to pay. I was not going to take her rubbish like my mother who laughed it off when Amarachi used her toothbrush to style a barbie doll’s hair. She was about to see a different side of me.
I summoned her to my room immediately. She seemed even smaller than usual under the dim fluorescent bulb, standing in front of my Ja-Rule poster. I presented the destroyed tape to her and asked what happened to it.
‘I don’t know, B-b-brother Jude.’ She whispered. Her fingers trembled and her eyes were glued to the floor.
‘You don’t know who did this to my tape?’ I shouted at her waving it an inch from her face. She cowered and clasped her shaking fingers over her face as though protecting herself from a slap and started crying. I felt bad but not bad enough to stop.
‘I don’t care if you cry crocodile tears. You must tell me what happened to my tape! I am not your age mate. Didn’t I tell you to stay away from my things?’ The crying was louder now, rivaling a medium sized generator.
My mother was suddenly there lifting Amarachi into her arms for comfort and shouting at me. ‘Jude what have you done? Do you know what this child has been through?! How can you treat your sister like this? Have you lost your mind? Beyond stoking up my guilt, her rhetorical questions were giving me a migraine. ‘Shame on you!’ My mother carried on shouting. ‘I did not raise you to terrorize little girls! This your music obsession has gotten out of hand. You want to beat your sister over a cassette. Stupid boy! I’m seizing that Walkman that you have attached to yourself like a blood transfusion bag. Instead of you to face your studies, you’re shouting over a cassette. Nonsense! ’ We both knew I’d taken first place in school every year since JSS2. My academic prizes and plaques lined our small living room.
I found a note by my bedroom door ten minutes later.
‘Deer Broder Jude, am very sori, Pleaze forgive me. Take my magic glasiz it will make you strong and hapi. Am very very sori’.
Next to the note was her most valuable possession – the chewed up pair of pink sunglasses. My heart was gradually emerging from the thick forest that shrouded it. I stretched the tiny glasses across my face, careful not to break them and went to ask Amarachi if she had any idea where her glasses were. She giggled and pointed to my face as I made silly expressions and danced around to avoid her reach. I gave her the nickname ‘Cricket’ that day. She loved it. I don’t know how I hadn’t fallen under her spell sooner. She was insane, just like me. She introduced me to her humble garden of weeds that lived in two coffee mugs, with pride. Naturally, each one had a name so I addressed them accordingly.
I quickly grew fond of the strange little sister of mine. She told me quick fractured stories all the time as though she was running late, about to miss her flight. Cricket loved pineapples and anything yellow. She drew the Nigerian flag on everything, from walls to people’s unattended arms. She got excited every time it rained so that after grabbing all the clothes off the line, she would run back to play in the downpour. She hated garden eggs so had several of them neatly hidden like landmines underneath the bed she shared with my mother.
I also discussed my rap aspirations with Cricket. She shared my passion for music naturally. In her own way, she understood how serious it was and listened each time nodding so her four twisted pigtails flapped and rattled with the colourful plastic hair clips my mother fastened to them. ‘Brother Jude don’t forget me when you go to America’. She said every time. Each time I promised I wouldn’t. I also taught her how to be my hype man. We listed to music on my Walkman all the time, with one ear bud each. She loved to be part of the action. I knew that wherever I went, Amarachi would come with me.
One evening, I returned from after-school lessons to find my mother standing outside barefooted with her rosary in her hand. Her distress became clearer as I drew nearer.
‘Jude! Have you seen your sister?
‘No Mummy I haven’t.’
She has gone missing! I have just searched the whole compound…Jesus have mercy on me! I gave her lunch then put her to nap and went to finish up the outfits for that naming ceremony next week.’
‘Mummy did you check under the dining table?’
‘Look at this boy. Are you trying to say I’m stupid? I checked everywhere!
‘Don’t worry, we will find her.’ I said failing to reassure either of us. Cricket was terrified of going anywhere on her own. This did not make sense. I battled down the urge to tell my mother about the visitor we had last Sunday. I could not risk her concluding that I was responsible for Cricket’s disappearance.
Last Sunday had an ordinary start. I told my mother I wasn’t feeling well so I would be allowed to skip Church. As long as I used this lie sparingly, it worked well. Usually I went to play football with some boys in our neighbourhood. It was easy to pass my post-game sweat off as a broken fever. On my way back I saw her. The visitor was a skinny woman with protruding kneecaps, repeatedly twirling a lock of unevenly dyed hair between chipped red fingernails.
‘Do you live here? Where is you mother?’ She asked
‘Good afternoon Ma’ I replied testily
‘I’m looking for Mrs Nnenna Ononye, Prof’s wife.’
We recognised each other’s faces instantly. She was the mami wata priestess that seduced my innocent father and the matryoshka doll that once housed my half sister. In her fatigued eyes, I was the son of her dead lover. It was eerie to see the replicated version of such familiar features unravel before us. We silently competed in pretending to be unfazed by it. Before I registered her visually, I recognised her perfume. My mother wore the same one just for special occasions. My father had distributed perfumes and children between both women like cheap toys at an orphanage. She glanced back at what I assume was our address on a sweat soaked piece of paper and looked at the numbered fence behind me for confirmation.
‘Is this where Mrs Ononye lives?’ She asked tapping one foot and eyeing our surroundings warily.
‘I don’t know.’ We both knew I was lying.
‘I know your mother lives here, I just want to talk to her.’ She said
‘Information comes at a price.’ I replied. I hoped I hadn’t taken it too far but I was saving for real Adidas trainers. I couldn’t wear the four striped ‘Abibas’ knockoffs my mother surprised me with for my last Birthday. She sighed but handed me a one hundred naira note. It was nothing earth- shattering for my savings fund but enough to have a small shopping spree at the tuck shop in school.
‘Yes we live here.’ I said
‘I’m not coming to take her….I just wanted to give this to her.’ I had not realised how quickly my heart rate had risen until she admitted she wasn’t taking Cricket away.
‘I don’t know who you’re talking about’ I was back to being undercover, then looked down to see that she was pushing a photograph into my hands.
‘Please just make sure Amarachi gets this. I can’t look after her myself. I don’t want her to forget me. Your mother is a good woman. I know she will give her a better life than I can’. She seemed to be bracing herself for my judgement. I just collected the photograph and nodded. The picture was taken at the beach with the chubbier two- year old version of Cricket in this woman’s arms. The two faces nuzzled each other, Crickets gleeful and her mother’s expression vacuous but for a trace of sadness.
The photograph! I remembered and rushed to my bedroom recalling that my Walkman always found its way out from underneath my pillow to Crickets arms so she might have found the photograph. I ransacked my bedroom pulling out pockets and emptying drawers. It was not there. What if Cricket decided to go searching for her mother? My classmate, Gbolahan’s younger brother was kidnapped last year. The kidnappers made his parents pay Two Million Naira for his release. I was busy here getting Abibas for my birthday because we couldn’t afford the real thing. Where would we find millions of naira? Maybe my mother would decide Cricket was not worth that much and let the kidnappers keep her. A lump the size of puff daddy’s bling formed in my throat. I was starting to feel the pounded yam I ate for lunch, threaten insurrection in my stomach.
As I continued my search, I heard my mother shouting my name from outside the house. I immediately started arranging my room. She was already angry about the disappearance of one child. I would not give her a reason to offer me to the kidnappers for free. She was screaming my name now. I quickly threw the rest of my things into my wardrobe and ran to answer her. When I saw her, she was leaning against the front door. ‘Our fugitive has returned.’ She said to me with playful bewilderment.
I looked out to see Cricket standing beside Mrs Eze. She was wearing her pink sunglasses and hugging my Walkman with one hand. A stuffed giraffe’s head stuck out from her second-hand Minnie mouse schoolbag. She stood with a hunch to support the weight of the belongings on her back. When I called out to her, ‘Cricket!’ she removed her sunglasses with one miniature hand and squinted as if to confirm that I was the person she suspected me to be. Then her feet sped towards me.
‘Brother Jude, you didn’t forget me!’ She cried with glee ‘You didn’t forget me! I was going to America to find you. Mummy say you going to America and leave me because I didn’t finish my food.’
I looked back at my mother who rolled her eyes. ‘Chineke! These children will not kill me before my time.’ She muttered as she thanked Mrs Eze, for finding Cricket. That was when I noticed something peeking out from my mother’s wrapper. She had put the photograph of Cricket and her mother there the way female market traders stuffed weathered naira notes between their bellies and the fabrics that bound their midriffs. I was definitely in trouble. I couldn’t let them notice my panic so I lifted my prodigal sister and her belongings into my arms and followed the women inside. Mrs Eze who was on the way to our house for fellowship spotted Cricket walking by herself.
‘My dear, it was a battle to get this girl inside my car. She, first of all, told me to wait for her to count the cement block by the roadside where I found her before she would enter the car, then I had to promise that I would drive her to America.’ Mrs Eze said.
That night, as we ate dinner, Cricket did most of the talking. It seemed her temporary absence had further emboldened her. She was like a performer, live before thousands of devoted fans with her sparsely populated dentition sparkling and endearing like her dimpled cheeks. I stared down at my plate throughout, punctuating Crickets excitement with the occasional yes as she explained that she needed a purple dress for our first performance in America because she now hated yellow (her favourite colour the week before). She also asked if she could have a black stripe of paint under her left eye like Lisa ‘left eye’ Lopez from TLC. I responded to Cricket all that time wondering what my mother would use to flog me when I explained why I had a picture of my father’s mistress.
After what seemed like hours, I washed our plates as my mother put Cricket to sleep. Soon enough, I heard my name. ‘Jude Chukwuemeka Ononye, come here now!’ My mother sat at the dining table. I knew I had real cause to worry because she didn’t look upset at all. She was calm and I didn’t like it. Like many Nigerian children, my upbringing was an ambush, rife with trick questions and encoded expressions. She had placed the photograph in question on the white lace tablecloth.
‘Jude, she came to this house and you didn’t mention it to me?’.
‘Mummy, I wanted to..’
When did she give this to you?’
‘Mummy, I’m sorry, I should have told you. When she told me who she was, I was scared that you would be angry if…’My mother burst out laughing which made my heart rate rise and palms get even sweatier.
‘Jude, You mean you did not recognise her? She looked at me as if I had picked up my shoe and started eating it.
‘Do you remember my half –sister Uche? She lived with us and looked after you. You were so young then but you were very fond of her. There was a huge fight between your father and I when she left. I was confused before realisation was fertilized, then bloomed and finally harvested in my mind.
All that happened twelve years ago. Today I’m sitting in the waiting room of the most sought after record label in Los Angeles. Cricket is by my side. She’s sixteen now. The receptionist announces that they are ready for us. I wipe a single tear before anyone notices, full of disbelief that we have made it to this point. Cricket seems calm but grabs my hand. ‘Jude, we made it!’ she whispers. Nobody deserved to have her dreams come true more than my little sister. Today Cricket would be the youngest female rap artist signed by a major label. Her music has already exploded globally through social media and gained the support of the music industry’s harshest critics. I was able to finish my PHD thesis in time to be here for my sister. Cricket was the rap star after all.