A short story by Nnorom Azuonye
"Did we really waste our time on you?" Udediya asked Amara, sitting at the foot of her bed in the poorly lit room. For once, she kept her tongue from lecturing on the relationship between Satan and the hearts of people who live in dark rooms.
Amara wept and unable to look her mother in the eye buried her face in her pillow, acknowledging with as painful sincerity and remorse as an eighteen-year-old could muster, that she had let her parents down.
Udediya momentarily permitted her sobbing become an uncomfortable and indicting soundtrack to their lives, but suddenly she erupted like a satanic volcano, roaring, "Flee fornication. Flee fornication. We taught you that, Amara, is this a lie?"
Not wishing to be wrong and strong, Amara only politely protested, begging her mother not to preach, but to help her mop up the oil already spilled. Udediya obliged her and did not preach, but asked if Matthew had any plans to marry her. With no response forthcoming from Amara, Udediya shifted restlessly on the bed, tapping the heel of her right foot hard on the floor, as she informed Amara that her father thought it might be better if she went away for a while, and had in fact spoken to a friend at Uzuakoli about the matter.
Amara felt a deep slash of betrayal, sat up and asked her mother calmly, "For a friend at Uzuakoli to do what? Be my father?"
Udediya hissed in frustration. Now irritated by the calm comportment of her daughter, she reminded Amara that if word about her condition emerged, her father's credibility would be completely destroyed. Amara then remarked that it was she, and not her father that was with child, prompting Udediya's facetious thanks to God that they did not have to deal with that abomination.
A textured silence ensued, and after a short while Udediya took a deep breath and told Amara that it was her father's wish she must leave Aba at the first crow of the cock the next morning.
A totally shocked Amara stared at her mother in disbelief for one second before she burst out laughing, dismissing the idea of her exile as a lousy joke, and told her mother she could not be run off her own father's house, not even by her own mistake. But of course her mother was not joking and explained the situation: It was a matter of honour. There was a motherless babies' home at Uzuakoli. Mr Ekong, her father's good friend would see that she was comfortable there. Money for provisions had been arranged, and after the child arrived, Ekong would arrange for it to be placed in that home, and Amara could return home and be a good daughter-of-a-priest.
A tense pause gained life as Udediya fruitlessly awaited a characteristic outburst from Amara. Almost disappointed, she said rather unnecessarily, "May God forgive us for the sin we must commit for our honour" before another silence that seemed like eternity engulfed them.
"And what is your wish, mother?" Amara asked as calm as a patient hour of death - a calmness that was becoming increasingly unsettling for Udediya who for two heartbeats or so appeared totally unsure of herself and whether or not she was dealing with the problem in an appropriate manner. Then her voice, heavy with emotion said almost inaudibly that her husband's wish was her wish. Thinking aloud, she mumbled something about how they might have considered a termination had they been of the world, and how it was better to live a lie than to soil their hands with the blood of the innocent.
At this, Amara purred like a wild tigress, pointing a finger at Udediya, called her a two-faced witch, wondering aloud about the difference between killing an innocent and banishing it.
"It will be a bastard child." Udediya protested.
"Your Grandchild!" Amara pointed out.
Udediya covered her ears with the palms of her hands. Shaking with rage, she pointed a finger right back at Amara, accused her of whoring with Matthew - the seventeen-year-old weed-smoking rat that Satan wanted to use to destroy her husband's work.
After a while, Amara spoke slowly, and rather condescendingly to Udediya. "First of all, Matthew does not smoke weed. Second, I have no respect for a father whose priesthood is more important than his daughter's welfare. To burning hell with his priesthood! If he spent less time counselling other people on how to run their families, perhaps he might have found a way to run his own. He might even have been a successful father." Amara finished.
Thoroughly scandalised now Udediya screamed at Amara to take her words back, insisting that her father had always been there for her. But Amara had stopped listening, jumped out of bed, stood beside her mother, said she would not have her baby in a motherless babies' home, but would rather go to Port Harcourt, spend time with one of her friends, and cut her own way into the world from there.
She took her clothes out of the wardrobe and began to pile them up on the bed, as she spoke through heavy some soggy sobbing, "I don't want anything from you or that man that calls himself my father. I will leave this house tomorrow and I promise you mother, you will never see me alive again. Mother, I call this floor upon which I stand to witness against you and it shall speak someday and you and your husband will rot in hell for what you have done to me…"
Udediya stemmed her daughter's tirade with one heavy backhanded slap on her mouth and a second on the cheek that dropped her on her clothes. Breathing heavily, fighting back her own tears, Udediya walked out of the room without uttering another word.
For Reverend Obijuru Udeze and his loyal wife Udediya, the years roared by like a polluted storm. Constantly modifying and sweetening the explanation for their daughter's apparent disappearance from Aba, until the final official story became that she was studying for a degree in Theology in an American university, a lie that drew positive responses out of several people who agreed she was on the right path because the mamba afterall would not normally give birth to a python.
Unfortunately for them however, when it seemed like they had tamed the storm, it roared back at them in the form of Matthew Obindueze and flipped their world over on its face into the mud of disgrace.
It had all begun like every other Easter Sunday service. Convinced that Easter ought to be more significant than Christmas to Christians whose faith is anchored on the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ - a chicken versus egg kind of debate really, Easter services were Obijuru's particular favourites.
The service progressed wonderfully. The congregation sang a hymn with palpable joy at the end of which Obijuru stood up, as he had done for nearly three decades and began to deliver a carefully prepared sermon highlighting the unwholesomeness of a sinful man who walked in darkness. He implored members of the congregation to be at peace with each other, to bear no malice or swim in waters of bitterness, but when he said something about the unforgiving being like the Anti-Christ in the sight of God, Matthew sprang up from his pew and said, "I am sorry Reverend, are you saying you are the Anti-Christ?"
"My son, what did you just ask me?" Obijuru asked.
"I am not your son. To hear you talk about forgiveness, you - a heartless bull, makes me want to vomit. Are you the Anti-Christ?" Matthew asked.
"My son - ,"
"I am not your son, are you deaf? You viper!" Matthew snapped.
"Praise God" Obijuru shouted, ignoring Matthew.
"Alleluia" The congregation perfunctorily responded.
Obijuru laughed, swaggered like a wise cow and told the congregation they were witnessing first hand the power of Satan. Desperately trying to play down the situation, he suggested that Satan was using the young man to disrupt their fellowship, an angle at which Matthew laughed, insisting that he had simply grown sick of hearing about forgiveness from the most unforgiving man alive.
Obijuru, growing very impatient now, asked Matthew what exactly he was dying to say, and with a voice stained with pain, Matthew asked him about Amara his only daughter. Stunned, Obijuru wished to hear the question again, and Matthew was happy to ask again. Scandalized, Obijuru asked him what right he had to question him about his own daughter but Matthew chose to ignore him, turning instead to face the congregation, "The reverend pretends he does not recognise me" he began, "My name is Matthew Obindueze and I know the truth. Amara and I were young and in love. We were careless. Yes, but no matter what anyone says, our child was conceived in love. The reverend was afraid of the your condemnation, afraid of the judgment of men, that he, a man of God, exiled his own daughter and his unborn grandchild from his home."
A gasp of horror swept through the church.
"Shut your mouth this very moment, you little rat" Obijuru screamed from the pulpit.
The congregation gasped again in shock, even more at the display of animal fury on the face of their priest. Matthew stood on his toes with triumph and called Obijuru a cruel, hard-hearted man, ignoring his animated protestations and fist raised in violent admonition. He tormented him, told him his granddaughter Uchenna had grown into a wonderful sixteen-year-old, and with exaggerated incredulity asked if he simply did not care? Obijuru was saying he did not care when he suddenly stopped, clutched desperately at his heart and kept trying to breathe through his mouth as he fell to the floor like a big bundle of firewood.
Pandemonium broke out in the church as some members rushed to assist him. A doctor among them quickly took charge, stabilised Obijuru and arranged for him to be taken to hospital. The service quickly broke up. People gathered in small groups to talk. Eyes hot with accusation and disgust poked at Udediya, who stayed back with some elders to try to restore order and complete the service. But nobody would have it and people streamed out of Church.
Obijuru survived the heart attack, soon returned to the pulpit and although things were never quite the same, he soldiered on for some time, turning his story into a positive one by trying to show that nobody was perfect. It worked on some, and did not work on others. Those it did not work on, left and either started their own churches, or joined one of the other churches in Aba, a town that probably has more churches per square mile than any other town in Nigeria.
Three years later, Obijuru went into transition, and Udediya fell apart completely, attending church services infrequently and avoiding Easter services altogether.
But one weekend was to both restore her joy and also destroy it. Incidentally, it began on a Good Friday. If Obijuru were still alive, he would on that day bounce his Easter sermon off her. Udediya say in her sitting room, in front of a large television, weeping and dying of aloneness.
Outside the house, the wind raged. Pines whistled. Terrifying noises filtered into the house. An owl hooted without ceasing, and a whirlwind grooved up her street, picking up discarded cans, polythene bags, and take-away food wraps, joggling them like a possessed circus act in her cyclonic arms as she roared past a coconut tree outside Udediya's house just as an owl leapt off one of its fronds into the ominous darkness of the night.
Inside the house, Udediya rocked in her chair, eyes fixed on the flickering screen of a large, loud, television. She turned towards the noise outside her front door, as it swung open, letting a blinding bright light into the room. A sudden chill descended on the room as flashes of lightening ripped through it and growling thunder rocked the foundations of the house.
Udediya's cat, Olugo, leapt off her laps and stood between her and the light, howling at it until it retreated and the door slammed shut.
"What was that? What did you see?" Udediya asked, tenderly stroking Olugo's trembling body. Soon after that, the room became quiet and Udediya drifted into a deep dream-locked sleep in which she journeyed back to a version of one of her husband's Easter services:
She sat in the front pew at church. Her face was a picture of contentment and pride. Young and full of life, her sparkling eyes were fixed on her husband Obijuru Udeze, magnificent in his English suit and priest's collar. But as Obijuru began to speak, the church went suddenly dark, and out of the darkness, Olugo's eyes blazed like beacons at her, then faded away as the eyes of an owl took over their spots and its hoots charged the air, followed by the creaking of a door opening to her right. Udediya turned curiously towards the door through which rays of a bright light seeped into the church, making a silhouette of a naked woman carrying a crying baby walking towards her. The woman placed the baby on the floor and retreated into the light. Udediya jumped to her feet and coasted towards the baby, screaming, "My baby. Amara, My baby." But as she bent over and picked it up, Olugo came from nowhere, and pounced on her so hard that she dropped the baby, and screamed in horror as it fizzled out with the light.
She woke up in a start, struggling for breath and covered in sweat. When she calmed down a little, she turned off the television and said to Olugo, "I am going up to bed. If I stay down here I will lose my mind."
The following evening, Magdalene and Eziuno stood chatting outside Eziuno's house, next door from Udediya's. At a time in the past Magdalene and Eziuno were close friends who spent time with Udediya. However, since Matthew exposed her secret, they kept a distance from her.
They ate groundnuts and bananas as they talked and laughed until they saw Udediya walking up the street towards them, so they began to talk about her, commenting on how sad she was, how she carried on as if she were the only widow in the world, and wondered why they, also widows did not appear nearly as dead themselves and reckoned she might be better off dead. Magdalene particularly spoke with a voice of hate, proclaiming that Udediya was getting her due recompense, especially after all the years lording it over them, being the righteous one whose sins eventually found out. But Eziuno was more charitable, and pleaded with Magdalene to give Udediya the mental room to bear her cross in peace.
As Udediya came close to them, they stopped talking about her. She looked tenderly at her neighbours, greeted them warmly and asked about their families. They responded with equal enthusiasm and asked how she was doing.
"God has been kind. You are alright I trust." Udediya said.
"By His special grace, we have seen another Holy Saturday." Eziuno said.
"Although we are yet to have any rain this year." Magdalene chipped in almost as if it were Udediya's fault.
"Yes" Udediya said and looked up at the sky, "I wonder…" as her eyes came down, she observed Magdalene nudging Eziuno away from the little conference. She shut up, strode towards her door and in her smallest voice charged them to be gone to their covens.
A listless Udediya idly cast a fleeting glance at the cobwebbed ceiling of her kitchen, jerked open the weary door of her refrigerator, scanned its shelves with tearful eyes for something dead and cooked. She took out a plastic food storage bowl, took a long look at the congealed oil on the face of the beef stew, and nearly got sick over the bowl, so she put the bowl back in the fridge and poured herself a glass of Orange juice instead.
Olugo rubbed her soft furs against her shin as she sipped at her drink. Udediya cast a loving glance at her and wiped away her tears with the back of her wrist. Telling her cat that it was cruel to be alone and thanking God for her, Udediya picked her up, turned her around, face level, so that she could look into her eyes, asked if she was hungry and poured her a bowl of milk.
As Olugo enjoyed her milk, Udediya turned to the sink to wash her hands, stopped by a framed photograph of Obijuru, eyeballed him in silence for a moment and asked if he ever missed her. She smiled a weak smile and confessed through a lump in her throat, "If it were not against God's law to take away his greatest gift to me, this very day, I would be by your side in your room in one of His mansions."
The next day, on Sunday Morning, Udediya sat in her favourite rocking chair, eyes glued on the television. There was an Easter service going on and she labouriously sang along to the hymn: "Crown him, crown Him, crown Him, crown Him, crown Him, Crown Him, crown Him, come and crown Him the king of all."
She was still trying to catch her breath from the strain of that hook when the telephone rang. She turned down the television's volume before she answered the phone. It was Nnaemeka, the reverend who took over from Obijuru as the local priest in her church.
Nnaemeka expressed his disappointment with Udediya because she missed Easter service again. But she explained that Easter Services left a bitter taste in her mouth. Nnaemeka was saddened to hear this, and told Udediya that she was much missed in the church. He passionately reminded her that she had helped Obijuru build the church and must not run away from it.
"But we betrayed our flock, Nnaemeka" Udediya protested.
"So what? Don't you remember that we have an advocate with the Father?"
"You are very kind, Nnaemeka, but I cannot bear the shame. I am not as strong as you all want me to be. I am just waiting for the good Lord to call me home."
Nnaemeka laboured hard to get her to reason together with him, taking on board everything she said about her gossiping neighbours, and the feeling she had that even the songs of birds outside her window were nature's own way of mocking her but reminded her that Easter was about letting go of past sins and the pains they cause, he reminded her that Jesus took those sins away on the cross, and wondered why it was so difficult for her to forgive herself when God had forgiven her. Initially it was difficult for her to say it, but she finally confessed that she would never feel free in her spirit until she had made peace with Amara.
"What then is keeping you?" asked Nnaemeka.
"I would make peace with her, believe me, but I don't know where she is." Replied Udediya.
"You told me that somebody once saw her at Lagos. If you wish Udediya, I could help you locate her." Offered Nnaemeka.
"Please don't do that. Not yet - " she was saying, but was interrupted by the ringing of the door bell. "Someone is at my door, Nnaemeka. I will have to call you later. Please greet Lydia for me." Udediya put the phone down, got up and went towards the door. Olugo followed her and began scowling wildly at the door as she unlocked it.
"Calm down Olugo, calm down. I know we are not expecting anyone."
She opened the door and froze at the sight of the two young women smiling at her. An eerie silence ensued, punctuated only by the uncontrolled scowling of Olugo. Udediya tried to pick her up but she dashed past the visitors and out of the house.
"Happy Easter, Mother." The older of the two visitors said.
"Amara? Oh my God!" exclaimed Udediya and began to cry.
"May we come in?" Amara asked, but Udediya did not respond, rather she turned away from her visitors, walked back to her chair, slumped into it and raised the volume of the television again. The visitors followed her in apprehensively, closing the door behind them.
"This is my home. That is my door." Udediya mumbled, feigning anger.
"Mother, it has been twenty years. This war has gone on long enough"
"If you want me to go away, I will leave right now. Shame! Your own daughter shows up at your door twenty years after you threw her out, and you cannot even get yourself to hug her."
"I did not throw you out, Amara."
"Oh, was it Papa then? You did his dirty work for him. You did not fight for your little girl."
"We were afraid. We were afraid, OK?" Udediya sobbed, "and we were blind." Udediya said and ushered an uneasily silence into the room.
"This is Uchenna your granddaughter." Amara broke the silence.
"Happy Easter Grandma" Uchenna said.
Udediya threw a blank glance at her, said nothing and returned her eyes to the television. Uchenna advanced towards the TV set.
"Don't turn it down" Udediya said urgently. "I like the television when it is loud." She paused for a heartbeat, and then asked them what they were doing in her house.
"It is Easter Sunday, mother."
"I know that. I am only sixty." Udediya replied.
"So we are here to spend it with you. And you can at least look at me. I am your daughter, Amara, look at me."
"I know who you are."
"No you don't. You did not even know me when I was a child."
"You could have called before showing up here. I am not yet ready for this." Udediya said vindictively.
"Mother, I tried calling you, but your number has changed."
"The old number worked for eighteen years."
"I was mad at you and papa. I was betrayed."
"Betrayed? Who betrayed you? I am your mother. What did I ever do wrong to you? Eh? You tell me that."
"You threw me out"
"I did not throw you out, stop saying that."
"No, mother I will not stop saying it."
"Good. Please yourself. You slept yourself out. We raised you to be an example to other children, but you passed urine in our eyes."
"You and Father failed me."
"Yes we did, by refusing to circumcise you."
"My God! Woman, the rubbish you say! You hurt me. In my darkest minute, you turned your back on me." Amara said bitterly.
Udediya, neither in the mood nor position to argue, fiddled with her fingernails and silently sat through Amara's monologue about her twenty-year exile. Afterwards she tried to change the subject by inappropriately complaining about Amara's failure to attend Obijuru's funeral.
"Mother! You still don't get it? I swore that you would never see my face alive again." Amara said.
"So why did you come?"
"Because I made her." Uchenna cut in urgently. "She has grieved for the loss of her family for many years. I said to her, this Easter mum, let's leave yesterday behind." Uchenna finished.
"Your mother disgraced us, you know?" Udediya asked Uchenna.
"Am I a disgrace?" Uchenna replied.
"If you are that child."
"Yes, I am that child. Nineteen years old. Medical student at the University of Lagos. Big disgrace!" retorted Uchenna.
"Don't take that tone with your grandmother." Amara admonished her daughter.
"My what? Mum, I make this woman sick."
"Leave her alone. She is your daughter isn't she? Why should she listen to her mother?" Udediya was triumphant.
"My mother is a great woman. Her word is everything to me"
"Uchenna, that is your name? Listen. Your mother, the great woman slept with all the boys in Aba to spite us."
"But mother you are lying. I had one boyfriend. One!"
"Okidi, Efele and Matthew were one person?"
"Okidi and Efele were just friends."
"Why didn't you wait until you were married?"
"Easier said than done."
"Well I did." Udediya snapped.
"It was possible in your time, Mother."
The silence returned and hung over them all like sin. Amara quickly broke it by suggesting to Uchenna to give her Grandmother her presents, but Udediya said the presents could wait, and then reflectively said to nobody in particular, "Obijuru never recovered from the shame you and Matthew brought on him. Spent the rest of his days feeling like a fake in the altar. You heard what that boy did to him in church?"
"Yes." Replied Amara.
"Where is Matthew now?"
"He is at Benin" Uchenna said.
"I thought he left Nigeria a few years ago."
"Who told you that?" Amara asked.
"His poor mother. I visited her when a tree fell on her house." Replied Udediya.
"Yes, my father got a job with a Swedish company. He spent two years in Sweden, but he was returned to their Nigerian office in Benin." Uchenna explained.
"You keep in touch with him then." Udediya said, not wanting it to sound like a question.
"We are getting married. I am carrying our second child." Amara said.
"Nothing changes!" Udediya grunted. "I never hated him you know. Never even blamed him for Obijuru's death. In a way, he saved Obijuru's soul from eternal condemnation. That young man reconciled my husband with God."
"So we have your blessing then?"
"Of course. When you fix the date, I will come. You can now give me those presents of mine." Udediya smiled.
Uchenna packed the presents excitedly off the sofa into Udediya's hands. Their hands touched and Udediya withdrew her hand like somebody who had touched a live electric wire.
"What is the matter?" Uchenna asked.
"I don't know" Udediya said, "Somebody walked over my grave perhaps."
"Come Uchenna, I will show you my old room" Amara said excitedly.
Uchenna began to walk away with her mother.
"Uchenna, may I call you grand-daughter?"
"Please don't ask that." Uchenna smiled warmly at Udediya.
"O my God! You have got my eyes, and Obijuru's fingers. Come here to Grandmother. Let me look at you."
"Later mother, I can't wait to show her my room."
"She is my grandchild you know, I am not going to eat her."
"I said later. Now you know she is your granddaughter. Come Uchenna." Amara said.
"You don't have to be wicked you know. I have paid enough for my sins. You don't have to be wicked." Udediya quipped almost inaudibly.
"Don't worry Gran, we have the rest of our lives. I will be right down." Uchenna said with a reassuring smile.
Amara and Uchenna walked off into the dark corridor as the telephone began to ring again. Udediya answered the call and listened. It was Matthew. He explained that he had obtained her number from the new Reverend Nnaemeka.
"I don't know how to tell you this," Matthew said, "Not that I should care about how you feel. It is about Amara and our daughter Uchenna."
"Don't worry Matthew. We have found our family again." Udediya replied.
"What do you mean by that?"
"That you found your family again."
"You wanted to warn me about their surprise visit, didn't you? You are late. They already came." She informed him.
"Amara could never have visited you without telling me. When was this?"
"Oh they came in about half an hour ago. They have gone to Amara's old room. She loved that room you know."
"They are dead, Mrs Udeze. I don't know what the hell you are talking about. Amara and Uchenna died last night in Benin." Matthew said with anger and irritation.
"You are indeed a wicked soul, Matthew Obindueze. You disgraced my husband. You killed my husband. Now you want kill me. I have a good heart. I am not like Obijuru Udeze. You cannot kill me with wicked words. You wicked mouse."
"Mrs Udeze, they are dead." Interjected Matthew, "They were in a car accident."
Udediya listened impatiently but curiously as Matthew recalled events of the previous day, how he had eagerly waited for Amara and Uchenna to arrive from Lagos. Touching on his story with Amara over the years, partly out of wanting to remember and partly because he thought Udediya might have wanted to hear about the years she missed. He talked about how Amara moved to Lagos to work in a bank, while he joined a Swedish petroleum firm as Public Relations Executive. Choking on tears, he talked about the fateful phone call from Onyeuwa - a close friend of theirs who lived on the same estate in Lagos as Amara. Apparently, Amara and Uchenna had decided to ride with Onyeuwa in his car, because Amara's old Nissan Bluebird was hard-starting that morning and she had been uncomfortable about travelling the distance with a less than perfect car. Onyeuwa was to drop them off at Benin before continuing to his hometown of Umuahia. But unfortunately, armed robbers pursued by the police ran them off the road just outside Benin City.
"To cut a long story short, Mrs Udeze, within an hour of receiving that phone call, doctors at the Benin City General Hospital pronounced them both dead. I knew immediately that my next role was to make arrangements to take them home for burial, but then I realised I did not know where home was for my fugitive fiancée and our daughter." Matthew finished.
"That is a fine story Matthew, but it is all a pack of lies. Amara and Uchenna are in this house, and I will get them on the phone for you if you like." Udediya said.
"I don't care what you believe in that mad head of yours Mrs Udeze. They are dead. I just thought you should know, but I see your guilt and wickedness had already made you mad ahead of the bad news, you bloody witch."
"It is you that have gone mad, Matthew. Please don't call this house again." Udediya slammed down the phone and rose to her feet, calling out to Amara and Uchenna, but they would not respond. So, she walked cautiously through the corridor to Amara's room. It was as quiet, empty and as undisturbed as it had been for twenty years. She reckoned that Amara and Uchenna might have gone into her own room, but when she opened the door, the only person in the room was herself asleep on her bed. She walked closer and studied the motionless mould of herself, eyes shut tight, with a terribly sad smile on her ashen lips. She shook her head, and gasped in horror as tears rolled down her cheeks, "Oh God! I have lost my mind."
©2002 Nnorom Azuonye. "The Homecoming" was first published in The Muse Apprentice Guild in the Summer 2004.