On April Fool’s Day, as Ofodile drives his wife out of the hospital, he tells her their five-month-old baby has died. But Uju knows he is joking. There is something about him, something theatrical in that gentle way he places his hands on the steering that makes her feel he is faking everything. People who broke bad news held tight to things because what they were about to say was too heavy for them, too difficult for them to say. But he, he had said it easily, without any remorse. Yet, she nods, pretending to believe.
She is dizzy. Her head weighed down with pain. It is the same way she had felt in the hospital earlier on when she woke up from sleep and found herself in a room that smelled strongly of antiseptic, a drip attached to her left hand. The same way she felt in the doctor’s office, but there, her vision was blurred, and the doctor’s face looked so large and oily that she could not stare at it when he asked her: Who is the president of Nigeria? What is your name? Where do you live? Questions that now, she cannot remember what she answered because she had been too busy staring at the framed picture of the doctor’s son on the table, perhaps seven years old, leaning on a car. She had imagined how soon her own child would grow. “Concussion” was what the doctor told her husband. “You still have to come for more treatment,” the doctor had said before walking them out of his office.
Ofodile honks at a red car driving slowly ahead of them. “He will be buried at the cemetery today,” he says, staring ahead as he drives through the streets. She nods again. Another reason that shows he is joking. Perhaps, she thinks, he will burst out laughing if he looks at her face and might probably shout, “April Fool’s” or more formally, “Happy April Fool’s Day” like the cleaner who greeted the doctor in the hallway while mopping the floor. “Same to you,” the doctor had responded, and she, in that tiredness slowing her body, wanted to ask why Nigerians responded to people’s compliments with “same to you,” even on one’s birthday.
“Why was I in the hospital?” she asks, her words slurred.
“You were in a mild coma yesterday,” Ofodile says, “and now you’ve been diagnosed with a concussion.”
“Coma? How?” Uju asks. She remembers following Ofodile to the front door of their house yesterday morning, waved at him when he drove out of the compound, then she went inside the house and later woke up on a hospital bed. “What is going on?” She thinks.
“We will talk about it later,” her husband says with that false softness he uses whenever she is sick, his voice sounding so silly, and unlike him.
They are silent. She looks out the window and watches the houses sitting side-by-side with their cream-colored walls and tall, wired fences. She watches the few people jogging on the street, holding bottled water. It is a chilly Saturday morning: the kind covered in a blanket of haze as if the hills surrounding Enugu Town are breathing out smoke.
At the cemetery, her husband parks the car behind a Honda car and walks to her side. She waits for his laugh as he opens the door, but he does not laugh. You are not the only one that can act, she wants to say to him.
They have been married for four years. She remembers how, on the first April Fool’s Day after they got married, she had fried onions that made their house smell savory. When Ofodile came to eat, opening the plate, he was shocked to find, instead of a delicious meal, “April Fools” written on a note. “You should join Nollywood,” he had said, laughing.
She trails behind Ofodile who is walking fast into the cemetery compound full of trees. She wonders how long he had nursed this thought of pranking her. They join their few friends and family members who had gathered close to a mango tree. They nod at her as she and her husband walk to the front, and it amuses her, how their eyes hold sympathy. She wants to ask how much her husband paid them. But she does not. Rather, she stares at the large white coffin placed on a wooden table, a red flower placed on top. She wants to ask Ofodile if he thinks she would believe her baby would be buried in a large coffin. Do people come for a baby’s funeral? Do people even celebrate funerals for babies? But she does not. She will wait till the end when they will shout their “April Fools,” and she will respond with evidence of their prank.
Ofodile’s shoulder brushes her and jars her out of her thoughts. She turns to look at him, at his still face, at the tears sliding down. But it is not the tears that bother her and create panic; it is the way his body shudders every few moments, like a body struggling to breathe. Was the baby’s death real? Did Ofodile kill their only child? What is going on? Her head throbs.
They made the decision not to have children when they were in their final year at the university. One Saturday morning, they joined the students crowded at the gate of their apartment, to see the body of another student lying on the ground: head cut off, and thick blood ran from his neck. 4RM BLACK AXE was boldly written on his white shirt with his blood. It was a season when there were a series of cult fights between the Black Axe and the Buccaneers, the top reigning cults on campus, both of them playing a reprisal game, littering corpses in different places on campus. She and Ofodile returned to the room they shared and Ofodile, trying to recover from what he had seen, told her how it reminded him of his father’s body when people brought it from his shop after a robbery attack. Blood ran down his father’s forehead, the place he was shot. He was twelve years old then.
She too had seen her father’s body when he died from a car accident and days later, after her father’s burial, her mother died of starvation, not grief, she told him. It was Ofodile who said, as he sat on their large bed, his chest hugging his knees, “What is the use of people coming into a world full of tragedies?” Ofodile said he would not be having a child. She agreed with him, unsure if they would get married or if they would both graduate and find someone else. So it did not surprise her, months after they married, that they never talked about having a child.
Before their child came, their lives had flown with so much ease: she working in the trade and exchange department at the CBN office along Garden Avenue, not too far from their estate, and Ofodile spent some weeks in Asaba or any other state where he was acting or directing a movie. On the weeks he was not home, they would spend their nights talking on the phone, ending their conversations with I love you or I miss you or I can’t wait to see you. She hurried home to spend time with him on the days he was around, pretending to enjoy the bland stew and soup he prepared when she was at work.
On Saturdays, she watched him practice his acting while she read the scripts, making sure he got his words and pronunciation right, and when she reminded him of the words he missed, she would raise her hand, shouting dramatically, “Cut! Cut! Cut!” Ofodile loved to tease that she looked like a wicked person whenever she did that; they would have poisoned her if she were a movie director.
On Sundays, they went for ice cream at Polo Park Mall, where they sat beside the heavy glass at Cold Stone Creamery, and watched kids in their best Sunday dresses, riding on the roller coaster outside. It was their favorite place, dark and quiet, where Ofodile could easily take off his sunglasses, and not be recognized as the Arinze character from the movie Arinze the Village Lover. It was the way their lives were until Ofodile’s mother came to shake off that easiness; until their baby came into their lives.
Thinking makes the throbbing tightness at her temple more intense; so hot it makes her want to fall. The sun is out now: the kind that is gentle on the skin, the kind they said provided vitamin D. But it dazes her, makes the graveyard smell of the rotten mangoes that litter the ground, buzzing with flies. She is not listening to the pastor who lays his hand on the coffin praying, his eyes shut tight. Too much rushing, she thinks to herself. They had rushed the pastor into joining their prank and did not let him put on his clergy collar well; one end of the detachable collar pokes out.
She stares at the graves, how grotesque they look: the way the graves are scattered everywhere, as though they are in competition with the grass that grew alongside, almost swallowing them. Some graves are marbled, others cemented as though the people who had done it, did it for doing sake. But what bothers her now is her baby. She wonders if he has eaten, or if he is sleeping in Ofodile’s mother’s room that always smelled of something strong. She wonders if Ofodile’s mother is also aware of this prank. How could she allow her son to do this? Uju remembers seeing Ofodile’s mother throw their baby in the air after bathing him yesterday before she stepped out with Ofodile. The throbbing in her head moves from one side to another. It is so painful that she winces and places her hands on her forehead. Why is her memory slipping from her, playing with her? Why is Ofodile pranking her with the baby that took them so long to have?
It was Ofodile’s mother who forced the baby into their lives. She started visiting their house seven months after their wedding. She came in September, the month Ofodile returned from a film festival in New York. At first, Uju thought Ofodile’s mother had come to see what her son brought from America, but she was wrong. Ofodile’s mother kept coming after she received handbags and shoes and the “American” sweets. She came visiting on those weekends Ofodile was around. It was the strong smell of the soup Ofodile’s mother cooked that often announced her presence; that reminded Uju not to walk in her underpants and bra so as not to air her body.
“Has Ofodile not planted his seed in you?” Ofodile’s mother started questioning Uju each time she visited. Her question frightened Uju and made her mind choke each time Ofodile was home because she knew his mother would visit.
“Tell me how many abortions you did in the university?” Ofodile’s mother said one windy Saturday she visited.
Uju kept quiet, expecting Ofodile to tell his mother about their plan, about how they were the kind of couple who could not stand the chance of seeing children go through tragedies. But Ofodile only stared at the tiled floor. His mother left that afternoon. She did not stay with them.
“Coward!” Uju shouted at Ofodile when he touched her. “You are a coward! You are weak before your mother!” She watched Ofodile leave the house. Later, when he came back in the evening, drunk and smelling of alcohol, he called his mother, told her not to come to his house again. It irritated her that Ofodile used alcohol to strengthen himself, to mask his fears. She slept in the living room that night, but the next morning, when Ofodile kissed her with his clammy mouth, she hugged him and said, “I want a child.”
She threw her remaining contraceptive away, and they had sex every day Ofodile was around. But one month later, she saw her period. Two months later, another period. The fourth month, she panicked.
She and Ofodile visited a fertility clinic at Buxtin Paints Road where she was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome. The doctor placed her on an oral medication—Clomid for five days, continuously per month. At first, when she started bloating each month, especially after eating, she believed it was the baby forming. She held the same belief when she felt the tenderness of her breast, the headaches that came, her sweaty body, and it became a habit for her to stand in front of the mirror in their room, examining her stomach every morning.
“We have to try IUI,” her doctor told her after four months of taking Clomid, and there were no symptoms of pregnancy. The doctor’s eyes were squinted behind his large glasses when Uju narrated the symptoms she felt since she started taking the drugs, as though she was a mad person that needed careful study. “It’s just the side effects,” he had said with amusement. Eight months later, they started the IUI treatment.
It cost them millions of naira.
Uju resigned from work so she could concentrate and give her body the rest it needed, and Ofodile took supporting roles in different movies so they could have enough money. A day before the IUI treatment, Ofodile came home for his sperm sample. He looked different, thinner and darker, and that night as they curled on the bed, she realized he had lost weight. He had pretended on the phone calls they made every night that he was fine when he was not fine.
On the day of her IUI treatment, she was wheeled to a cold X-ray room, a lead apron fastened on her abdomen. She closed her eyes and listened to the whine. Later she was wheeled to another room where she laid on a table, her knees raised up and a catheter, a small thin setting tub, was placed on her cervix. She felt the mild cramp as the doctor transferred Ofodile’s semen into her uterus. She had remained there for an hour, waiting for the sperm to go deep inside her, to dissolve in her body, while she stared at the pictures of pregnant women on the wall, and itched to tear everything. She felt, with their soft eyes and their smiling faces, that they were mocking her, that she would never become pregnant.
“How was it?” Ofodile asked in the car as he drove her home. She nodded, then began to cry.
For six days she went for intravaginal progesterone gel. It left her dizzy, and a few days later, she started her Post-IUI to check for her progesterone and estrogen level. Then, she took a pregnancy test. She told Ofodile, who had travelled the day after the IUI treatment, everything she had done with an excited tone. But she had been full of anxiety during the two weeks she waited for the pregnancy result. What if it did not work? What would happen if there was no other way? Did they waste money? The questions sapped her energy, her strength of living, and she felt an aura of hopelessness, frightened by the endless stretch of the days. Each morning, she woke up feeling torpid, smitten by sadness.
The morning the result came, it was raining. She was in the kitchen making tea, and as she listened to the doctor’s hoarse voice, the phone lodged in between her ear and shoulder, she stopped.
“Congratulations,” the doctor said in a high-spirited voice, like that of an excited child, but before he could finish, Uju had slid to the floor, and cried.
They are gathered now beside the grave that looks too wide for her baby’s body. The smell of the wet red earth packed by the side of the grave nauseates her. She watches the pastor spray holy water on the grave, saying, “From dust to dust.”
It irritates her, that he would say those words, dust to dust, so easily—as if he can create life, as if her baby’s body was a mere thing flung everywhere and one can grab it anytime and create a child. Everything irritates her now: the scattered graves, Ofodile’s crocodile tears. She feels like slapping him. How was it possible for their baby to die? One who has not yet placed his feet firmly in the world?
“You play too much!” she shouts at him. “Give me the car keys! Give me!”
Everyone stares at her, and the way their eyes still hold sympathy annoys her as she wades through them and walks out of the cemetery.
It is her sister who joins her in the car; who drives the car. Ofodile plays too much, she thinks to herself, watching the traders selling along roadsides. How can he just give up on their child? She remembers now, as her sister drives past the estate gate, both of them still silent, those nights she turned to Celine Dion because her baby would not sleep, and she had to sing until her voice dried up. Or those days she and Ofodile watched the baby asleep on his cot, a tiny smile lingering on his face, while both of them argued quietly about what he would be in the future.
“How can he just give up on him,” she says now, as her sister parks the car beside the water tank in the compound.
“You will be fine,” her sister says. She places her hand on Uju’s. “Another one will come.”
Uju pushes her sister’s hand away. She who has five children, and is pregnant with the sixth. She walks into the house which smells of antiseptic, as though they washed the whole house with it. In the hallway, as she is about to climb the stairs to see if their baby is with Ofodile’s mother in her room, she stops and screams. Her head throbs more.
“What is it?” her sister is saying, holding her.
Uju remembers watching Ofodile’s mother rub baby that red herbal medicine which she believed would maintain the baby's light skin. She had come to live with them after Uju gave birth. It was in the hallway Ofodile’s mother loved bathing their baby with the plastic bath. The images play in her head now, like a movie. She can hear Ofodile’s mother talk about how mothers fail to maintain their baby’s skin because they buy imported creams that contain chemicals.
Uju screams louder now, holding the banister, her head hurts as she remembers how their baby died.
“What is it?” Her sister is still asking, shaking her. “What is it?”
She sees Ofodile taking pictures of the baby as his mother threw their baby up in the air, saying gwam as she caught the baby. Her baby laughed, showing his pink gums, blabbing. She remembers following Ofodile to the door, where they kissed, where she stood waving at him as he drove out to buy bread for breakfast. It was the thud sound, as if a bag of rice dropped on the floor that had made her rush to the hallway. She stood still as she watched the blood from the baby's head stain the white tiles; he had fallen from Ofodile’s mother’s wet hand. She wanted to scream but something stuffed her throat; the words could not come out. She wanted to call her baby, to scream at Ofodile’s mother who was standing there frozen, but instead, Uju had slipped to the ground, hitting her head on the tiled floor.
Now she feels the gradual fading of consciousness: everything is going dark except the light that comes beneath one of the room’s doors that is half-closed. Her eyes are closing. The tightness at her temple increases.
“Uju, are you all right? Uju!” her sister is saying, but the voice is so distant, echoing.
Hours later, when she wakes up, she finds herself lying on the bed in their room. A wet towel is placed on her forehead, a pillow is propped behind her head. She feels light-headed as she watches her husband put their baby’s clothes in a waste bag.
“Where is our baby?” she asks, her speech slurred.
Ofodile turns to look at her. His face is wet and puffy. “Baby is dead,” he says softly, stretching to hold her hand, but she is shaking her head. Everything still confuses her, and she feels within her, how parenting could be a thing of falling into a love that would never end.
“Where is our baby?” she asks again...because she does not want to believe him.
I felt as though I couldn’t breathe. I said: “These times are hard.” But I was a junior member of the clan, and female on top of that. When the summer dawned I would leave the homestead to be married. My sorrow was unimportant.
With pursed lips, Olanna returns into view. She kills the music and snatches the lace curtains closed. She loves to peel back the curtains. She does the tango with the breeze.
“With your porcupine teeth, you could even be a cashile.… enhe. What Chief would you be with that enormous nose that is good for smelling dung, utShaka?” they would scorn.
She sees Ofodile taking pictures of the baby as his mother threw their baby up in the air, saying gwam as she caught the baby. Her baby laughed, showing his pink gums, blabbing.
“But caution, always,” he added. “For some days I doubt the river’s friendship.”