Our wall enclosure saved my husband from neighbours' eyes when he fell. He bumped into a clothesline pole in the backyard and it gave. Clothes, still heavy with water, flopped down over him. The baby's cotton nappies were almost dry; they drifted down last and settled upon the heap. The family cat, ever sluggish, rediscovered speed and tore away. And the mother-hen plumed its wings and feathers and oscillated around Gani, clucking threateningly, ready to defend its chicks from what it perceived as danger. My mouth opened and refused to close for the shock.
Ah, Clara, it has come to this!" The lament issued from under clothes which Gani picked off himself. He removed them slowly, like a humiliation ritual to which he was resigned. The wildness had left Clara’s eyes and she backed away. I watched as she edged closer to the tree at the far end of the backyard, by the kitchen whose arched entrance was darkened by smoke from the stoves. "Ah, it has come to this!" Gani said once more, his voice rising.
Amina, my eldest daughter, came out with her sisters. In her arms was Clara’s baby girl, from whom she had become almost inseparable. Wise beyond her fifteen years, Amina handed the baby to me so she could help her father up. The ground on which he fell was wet from dripping clothes, muddying his trousers. I turned to the baby. The seven-month old gnawed her fingers between her gums to relieve teething irritation.
"Ah, this child needs bonjela," I said out loud. I went inside the house to search for the jel. I could not bear to hear my husband lament once more about how it had come to this. I said that to myself before, not so long ago. It had come to this. It was the day I first knew of Clara. The day my in-laws arrived unannounced, so many of them that they filled up my parlour. Amina rushed to my room to tell me.
“Even Baba is here,” she said, then retreated from my curtained doorway.
The extended family normally went to visit Baba in the village, an hour's drive away. In my seventeen years of marriage, he had come this way only a few times, for important occasions. He presided over the naming ceremonies of my four girls. With the lastborn, he asked in front of everyone, and only half in jest, why he had to leave his house yet again for the birth of a girl, especially as none resembled his wife in heaven? I smiled demurely at the question, adjusted my veil and avoided my mother's eyes. I knew Baba's question would worry her. She would think that if I had given birth to at least one boy, I would not have to endure such undignified queries.
I moisturised my hand with Nku Cream as I prepared to face the in-laws. I looked in the mirror, my face brightened by light from the facing window. In my younger days they called me 'yellow pawpaw', because of my fair complexion. In this light I looked almost ghostly. Hafsanat would be out there in the parlour, all aglow, dressed to her fingertips. I decided to gloss over my drabness with make-up; matt powder, kohl to darken the eyes, and dark brown rouge to deepen the lips. Another look in the mirror, and I allowed myself to entertain the thought that my husband might come to hurry me out. To show that he still cared.
Back when I still shared his bed, I went to Gani's room late at night with only a wrap-cloth for cover. The wrapper came off the minute he let me in, his smile a dim glow in the darkness. After the first two children, going to him unbidden became too direct, too frivolous. My mother-in-law was alive then, and stayed with us for months after each birth. To assist me, she said. To keep me in line, I thought. She stayed in my room, and was a light sleeper. If I got up late at night she wanted to know where to. "Don't you know you are now a mother?" she asked, whenever she thought I did anything untoward. Other family and friends did it too. Anything deemed unconventional in a wife and they chided, "You are a wife now, you know?"
So I stayed in my room at night, even as my insides coiled with longing for my husband. From then on, it needed Gani’s direct invitation for me to dare go to his room at nightfall. Mealtimes were good for soliciting trysts. The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, I had come to understand. I smiled indulgently as I set Gani’s food down on a wide enamel tray decorated with drawings of vines. He washed his hand and shook the water off his fingers into the bowl that I held up. It must have crept in so slowly I hardly noticed, this rule about not eating the same time as him. This unspoken requirement to wait on him as he ate, this subservience to his ostensible gravity.
A satisfied belch, then he rubbed his stomach as his mind turned to matters of the loins.
“Can I see you tonight?” He met my eyes for the briefest moment during which I looked away. A mother should be ashamed to openly show desire. I had come to understand this too. But I heeded the call when the moon hung low outside the windows, then crept back to my room at dawn.
My husband had not asked me to his room for a whole year when the in-laws came. Their laughter filtered down the corridor into my ears. Hafsanat's voice rose higher than the others. "When are you going to give my brother a son?" she once asked me.
I rose from the stool and slipped my hennaed feet into rubber flip-flops. The hem of my bou-bou dropped down to my ankles. I smoothed out the creases and wrapped my scarf loose round my head and shoulders. Any more delay would be seen as rudeness. And I knew better than to annoy my husband’s people. I walked into the corridor.
Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
Gani’s Fall by Molara Wood