The Scarcity of Common Goods by Molara Wood
Aduke, in full wail, answered my mother. “Did you ask your father, our father, if in truth I was fatherless? Did Mother, your mother, ever tell you about the ‘kindness’ that meant I was never sent to school? Why she gave me to the load-carrier after our father died and shut the door on me and in my poor mother’s face?”
“All that is ancient history.” Mother brandished the broom and Aduke ran back. “All I know is that I owe you nothing. If you have information to the contrary, I challenge you to say it here once and for all and let the devil be ashamed.”
“Ah, Sister, your Alhaja here is not the only one with proverbs.” With her headscarf, Aduke wiped the tears from her eyes, the snot from her nose. Her corn-rows spiralled down from the crown in the circular Koroba style. In her distress, spit issued from her mouth with every utterance. “I know my own proverbs too, make no mistake. It is not every cloth that one hangs out in the sun. I will not spread our secrets before the whole street. You shame me, but I will not shame you. Consanguinity forbids me to say more. Farewell.”
“Consangui-rubbish! Go look for your sister somewhere else!”
We watched as Aduke grew smaller and smaller in the long uneven street. I went inside the house, and watched through the louvres of the parlour’s front window as Mother gravitated towards Alhaja’s fence.
The gold tooth in Alhaja’s mouth gleamed. She had acquired the golden smile after her first pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, after which she attained the status of Alhaja. My mother had done the right thing, she said, seeing off that parasite of a so-called sister. Kòkòrò ajenirun was what Alhaja called Aduke. The devouring insect that eats one to ruin. Alhaja informed that in the next town, Aduke had put up a little stall outside the overcrowded face-me-I-face-you tenement where she lived in a tiny rented room with her children, selling the foodstuffs and cast-offs she got from us.
“Imagine, a business founded upon my generosity!” Mother slapped her palms together and turned down the edges of her mouth.
They fell silent when my father’s car pulled up outside. I could tell from his face he knew something was going on. He looked from Alhaja to my mother, then fished a handkerchief from the breast pocket of his safari suit, removed his ‘Awo’ glasses and mopped invisible sweat from his brows. He did not like Mother mixing with Alhaja who he saw as not only a gossip but a bad influence. Alhaja was on her third husband, a put-upon man fifteen years her junior. She ordered him about the house the way she ordered her children. Father said she sat on men’s heads, his way of saying she turned them into puppets. I could see that she quietly disapproved of the authority my own father had over his home. Now she scratched her cheek, pulling a theatrically blank face.
“Welcome, Mr. Falode.”
“Good afternoon, Alhaja.” Father gave a shallow cough and walked straight into our house. Mother took the cue to follow. My parents went into their bedroom and shut the door. I imagined them arguing about Aduke, and Alhaja, but I heard nothing.
The pastor finished praying and we said ‘Amen’. Alhaja stood like a tree trunk, strong and resolute behind my mother. Though a Muslim, Alhaja was no stranger to ‘Abide With Me’ and her soprano had dominated this side of the grave. On the other side stood the second principal mourner. My father’s mistress wore a black dress with a thin white bow detail on the collar, teamed with a black net hat that veiled half her face. She held on to small hands on either side; her children, a four-year-old boy and a three-year-old girl. She wept silently and her shoulders shook. Mother had not so much as looked at her, but Alhaja glared pointedly that way.
Alhaja traded in the surrounding towns, and it was she who brought news, delivered with inappropriate glee, that Aduke had lost her mind. She had run loose in the market, pulling faces at people and shouting, “Kerosene is now cocaine!” They took her to a Babalawo who specialised in treating the mentally ill. He had several of them in restraints within his compound. Still Aduke escaped regularly and caused mayhem in the local area until someone, concerned she would go into the chronic stage - the naked in public stage - dragged her back to the medicine man. Her children, Allah be praised, were being looked after by their father’s family.
Mother showed no emotion. She had her own worries by then. Father’s business was in trouble. He had cut back our expenses and was spending more and more time away from home. Alhaja wasn’t so loose-lipped after all; she never mentioned my father’s mistress who lived on the other end of town. The first we knew, was when the mistress turned up at the hospital after father’s death. Grief had erased her habits of discretion. Father was driving back from her place when he had the accident. Alhaja gasped on seeing the woman. She had known, but perhaps she had her own worries by then too, the young husband having run off with her buxom housegirl.
Mother declined the use of the shovel to heap earth on Father’s coffin, perhaps because the shovel had just been in the mistress’ hands. Instead Mother bent down and scooped the soil with her right hand. As the palmed mound hovered over the grave while Mother no doubt emptied what remained of her heart silently to Father’s philandering soul, we heard it again. Right behind us. Mother turned round, in deep recognition of something.
“Kerosene is now cocaine, expensive and hard to find!”
A four-deep huddle of mourners moved aside, flinching from the filthy figure that came forward. She was clothed in the tattered remnant of a dress, torn and partly exposing one breast. The dress was blackened with dirt, greasy, like it had been used by a mechanic to wipe his hands free of engine oil. She carried a calabash on her head. Nothing spilled from it as she bent forward and swiped the ground lightly with a broom.
“Remember, Sister,” she said as she came to a stop two paces from Mother. “Remember how you swatted me away back then, with a broom, as one does a flea!” Her eyes were big round orbs, and she smiled a wide, maniacal smile.
Mother’s mouth dropped open. She was still riveted upon the new arrival when she absently dislodged the handful of earth upon Father’s coffin. It was then that she began to weep, loudly. “Ah, don’t cry, Mrs. Falode,” mourners consoled her, “the dead has gone to a better place.” I wasn’t sure for whom or what she wept; Father, her deranged sister Aduke, or something regrettable she did once. Aduke’s broomed hand was gripped tightly by Mother as we left the graveside. Several more shovels had materialised, and men of the extended family were already filling up the grave, the sound of earth on wood drumming in my ears.
“Ah, Aduke, what has become of you?” Mother asked. She tried to remove the calabash but Aduke pulled back.
She called the calabash, “Igba shortage.” Shortage basin. Mother looked on, disbelieving.
“This is my shortage basin; see how empty it is?” Aduke said. “You remember what I used to tell you, Sister, about scarcity? Well, I’m afraid it has remained so. Scarcity of rice, gaari, even bread. And scarcity of men!”
Mother started to weep again, leaning into Aduke. The uneducated Aduke who always wore traditional iro-and-buba, and who in some lunatic alleyway of the mind came upon an uncharacteristic attire, a dress. Sympathisers followed but not closely, put off by the stench of the woman with the calabash on her head. Even Alhaja kept her distance.
Aduke came back from treatment at Aro Mental Hospital a year later; bills footed by Mother. It was around this time that Father’s mistress paid her second visit to our home. She first came about six months after the funeral. When I opened the door and saw her standing there with her children, I stepped aside to let them in, then I went to get Mother.
“I hear you,” was all Mother said.
“She is on the way,” I reported back.
The mistress nodded, permed hair waving elegantly away from an oval face. She was perched on the edge of her seat, as though she recognised she had no business being here. She tried to keep her gaze lowered to the floor, but her eyes kept getting drawn upwards. To the walls. To a picture of Father as a young man in his graduation gown; to one of my parents’ wedding; to another of them with me as a baby; and to a picture of the paternal grandfather who died before I was born. I wondered what glimpses of my father, her lover, were revealed to the mistress in this life hitherto hidden from her, the way she’d been hidden from us. I did not know whether to be jubilant or sorry.
Twenty minutes and still no sign of Mother, I asked if the mistress would like a drink. She shook her head, then she gently pushed the children towards me. “Go to your big sister,” she told them.
I smiled at the children who looked up questioningly at me. Another long while, and I took them out for some fresh air in the concreted-over inner courtyard. The pantry, diagonally opposite the parlour, cast a huge shadow across the courtyard. Sunlight slanted through the remaining space. On a bench in the shade, I grasped for things to say to the children. Would we have to share foodstuffs with the mistress now too? I wondered. The shadow had claimed the whole courtyard when the mistress called to her children, “We have to go now.” She had waited three hours, and my mother refused to show. From the veranda I watched the mistress depart, her battered taxi dipping in and out of gullies on the poorly maintained road, trailing exhaust fumes.
Alhaja was on her frontage. No more the mischievous remarks, the smirks or gleeful laughter about the peccadilloes of other people’s lives. Weeks before, the wife of the new young man she’d been dallying with came to our street to shout. She snatched Alhaja’s wrapper off and exposed her all-in-one cotton underwear, with its zippered front panel designed for holding money. All young men who still had use for their lives were to steer clear of this old witch, the angry woman hollered. Alhaja liked to put men’s heads under her big buttocks and sap them of every bit of goodness. She took men’s luck supernaturally for her own use; that was how she got rich. After that, neighbours kept their distance from Alhaja, who loved popularity more than she loved men. And the men heeded the vengeful wife’s warning. It was a humbled Alhaja that answered my greeting that late afternoon as my father’s mistress left. I got the sense that Alhaja too, knew something about the scarcity of common goods.
Aduke was a member of our household when the mistress returned. She lived in one of the spare rooms, set in a semi-circle on one side of the inner courtyard. It occurred to me that Father had laid out his home like a polygamist, with enough wings and rooms in our spread out bungalow to accommodate several wives and their offspring. He could never have actualised such notions in life. Now in his death a polygamy of sorts was creeping in, my mother the reluctant matriarch presiding over it all.
Alhaja, still husbandless, rushed in to inform that the mistress was here again. Mother retreated into her room and Alhaja returned next door. The mistress resumed her silent vigil, her children playing at her feet. It was Aduke who strode into the parlour, saw the mistress and strode right back out to ask me, “Who is that woman?”
Shortly after that she demanded of Mother, “Why won’t you see her?”
Mother closed her face, pursed her lips and showed us the back of her head, looking out of her room window. “I have no wish to see her or her bastards. She has a nerve, coming into my home. She is lucky I don’t drive her out.”
“The way you drove me out when all I wanted was sisterhood and sustenance? How are those bastards different from me in our father’s house? Have you thought of that?”
I gasped. It was the first mention of Aduke’s paternity since the broom-fight. Beyond the burglary proof grills of the window, a bird flew past. I thought Mother would correct Aduke and insist that the father belonged to her alone. Instead she stepped into her slippers, lifted up her chin and went to meet her love rival.
“I need assistance,” Aduke and I heard the mistress from where we lurked in the courtyard. “After all, which man is going to marry me now with two small children clinging to me? And things getting dearer and dearer in the market?”
“True,” Aduke whispered to me, “scarcity!” Her condition was controlled with medication, but she still had her quirks. She swept the courtyard twice daily with a broom she kept by her bed.
Mother committed herself to paying the children’s school fees, and said the mistress could come for the money once a term. By this time I was preparing to go to boarding school, at the Government College. Mother also paid school fees for Aduke’s children, who spent their weekends with us. Mother could afford the financial burden. She had appointed a new distribution manager for the cement business, and it was thriving again. Whenever the manager came for his weekly round-ups with Mother, his wife found a reason to tag along. She was a preening woman, full of fawning courtesies, eyes darting here and there like a bird.
One evening, Mother told Aduke and Alhaja that the reason the manager’s wife was so clingy was to guard her husband from the clutches of a still young widow. Mother was a trim forty-five-year-old, and the few grey hairs were only just beginning to show.
“Can you blame the woman?” Alhaja laughed. “Husbands aren’t going begging in the street, and I should know!”
From the parlour I watched the three of them, sitting out in the courtyard and laughing in the early evening breeze. My bags were packed, and next morning I would be driven to my new school. I would have been worried about leaving Mother by herself, but not now. Not with Aduke in the house and Alhaja like an extended house occupant next door. Alhaja had brought round half of the gbegiri stew she cooked, and Aduke made the amala to go with it. They wolfed down the meal out there in the courtyard, a temporary dining arrangement of plastic table and chairs brought out from the pantry. The plates had been cleared away and now they were sipping bitter lemon, leisurely as beer drinkers in a roadside bar.
Mother smiled at Alhaja. “Kerosene is now cocaine, as my sister here is fond of saying. Husbands are dearer than eyes!”
“The age-old scarcity.” Aduke nodded emphatically. “The scarcity of common goods.”
© 2005-2009 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
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