The couple who live in the apartment behind mine is expecting. Olanna’s caramel skin is radiant. There’s a new sheen to her angular shoulders. I imagine that it’s cocoa butter.
“Bimbo, guess what?” I hear Olanna say.
Her phone nestles between ear and shoulder as she moves out of sight with a casserole dish. She returns and wipes her oily palms on a threadbare napkin nearby. Careful with that Olanna, you know that fabric is delicate, I muse as I watch her. She is wearing that her special dress again—the dark green satin one with a lace hem, the one that the man likes.
She’d worn it some few weeks back as the aroma of fried rice wafted through her kitchen window. She’d swayed gently to Asa’s melody, the fabric flowing rhythmically alongside her narrow hips. And later that night, as was usual, the man sauntered in and joined the dance. Perhaps it was something with the negligee. His fingers stroked the coils of her week-old cornrows as they moved. On beat at first, a little offbeat in a moment. Then they danced frantically—limbs tangling till I could hardly make out Olanna’s slender figure. They danced across their dining room till I could see them no more. I could, however, still hear them. Olanna had sung a strange and strangled refrain.
“Wahidi, omo Sekina; omo Muyina,” I whispered along with the music, mimicking Olanna’s former steps. It reminded me of Tochi’s favourite song.
I glance at the door and frown and wonder when my Tochi will come back home.
Olanna’s man will be back soon. The sky tells me so. She holds the phone away from her ear and pulls a face.
“Don’t tell anyone oh, Bimbo. You are the first to know.”
Bimbo is the shrill one whose nails always resemble bloodied claws. I know this because Bimbo speaks with her hands, her beaded bangles echoing her every word.
Her other friend, Cecilia, was also the first to know. And then her sister Ndali, a few minutes prior. Her mother, however, hadn’t heard the news and Ndali was to make sure it stayed so.
“What’s wrong with the name?” Olanna asks, reaching into the wooden cupboard for the jar of salt. “No, I don’t think it sounds local. I happen to think it’s very chic,” she says, bringing the ladle to her lips for a taste. “Na you sabi, Ndali,” she drawls, rolling her eyes. “Alright, daalu… bye.”
I watch as she hangs up the phone and wipes at the beads of sweat threatening to slide down the sharp edges of her prominent cheekbones. My Olanna. I had never caught wind of her name, so I named her myself. Olanna—my fine jewel. A befitting name I suppose. I do wonder what her real name is—something equally delicate, I hope. The man, however, is a rather plain-looking creature, a non-entity, a weak breeze, so I have not bothered to think up a name for him. He simply is.
I cradle my own little one closer; her fragile body writhes against my chest. She is only a few days old, my Hope.
“Shh, it’s okay little one. Your father will be home shortly,” I say, glancing first at the clock, then back at the window.
In a single vertigo-inducing movement, Olanna glances in the direction of the door. She wipes, once more at her forehead, grasps at her breasts, does a quick pat-down, and with a loud exhale, she charges forward and out of sight.
Olanna’s man has returned.
I prefer it when the man is not home. His presence steals my jewel from my sight and causes her to speak in subdued tones. But that is not who she really is.
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. I often enjoy the music that she plays and the spectacle that accompanies it. The lyrics no longer stumble but slide off my dry lips. I run my tongue over the blood-clotted creases and mutter the lyrics. O to bi o l’omo.
I will sing this song to Tochi when he returns to me. Yes, I am sure he will like it very much. He usually likes the music of the Yorubas. I sure hope he returns with some water for us, I muse, casting another glance at the door, bouncing my baby in my arms. She is beginning to get uneasy, but not to worry, her father will be home soon. He promised.
I gaze once more into the arched frame that permits me into Olanna’s universe. The faint whispers punctuated by the metallic clang of cutlery betray their presence in the dining area. It is too far off for my liking. I wonder when Olanna will break the news; she seemed angst upon his arrival. But she always does—transforms into this person immediately the man steps into their apartment, slamming the door behind him in his usual manner; a woman more to be pitied than admired. She wrings her fingers and skirts and scuttles around, fetching and replacing. Ndali had noticed too, even more than I could from where I sat.
“Olanna, look at your whole body! That man is a monster!” she had said, grabbing her little sister’s arms, shaking her with a tenderness and vigour I hadn’t known could coexist. Olanna tore herself away from her sister’s grip and stepped back with the stiffness of one who had suddenly been doused with a bucket of frigid water.
“He is my husband, Ndali.”
The pair stared at each other a moment, and then, like a violent gust of wind, Ndali was gone, banging the door with such force, the vibration rippled throughout the apartment; the pendant ceiling lamp swung rhythmically, mirroring the movement of Olanna’s heaving chest. It wasn’t until last month that Ndali returned to the apartment, with word from their mother: she’d had a bad dream.
The mother, at first, did not seem like their mother at all—at least in looks. Their father must have been a head-turner. He is only spoken of in hushed and somber tones, so I presume that “must have” is appropriate. These things are difficult to decipher at times. First, there was “your father,” then there was “that other man,” whose descriptors seemed almost identical to that of Olanna’s husband.
I had thought the previous night’s cries had sounded slightly different. But the curtains were drawn and the windows snatched shut. It wasn’t until Ndali arrived at Olanna’s apartment the following day that I noticed she had her mother’s nose. Olanna had sat on the kitchen counter, staring as her sister went in and out of what I imagined to be their guest room.
“Enough is enough,” Ndali said. “Mummy, if it is because of those slippers, I will buy you another one. Let us go.” Her nostrils flared, threatening to suck all the air in the room, so it was only natural that whenever she encountered the man—the one who was like a breeze—there was resistance. They didn’t have much time left; it’d been over an hour since he left for his early morning run.
There had been no goodbyes exchanged that day, only mutterings from Ndali. She will not open her eyes and watch their mother endure the same thing twice.
I wonder what sort of child Olanna is carrying this time. I hope her little one takes after her. I hope it’s a beautiful girl, and I hope that she has a stronger will—more like Ndali in this sense.
The first one hadn’t made it past eleven weeks; the man made sure of it. Olanna seemed to have sensed this preemptively so she placed no calls—except to her mother. Of course, all of that happened shortly before that day in November.
This time, though, Olanna is hopeful. This one will withstand him—they both will, and the little girl will be my Hope’s playmate.
Hope takes after her father. Dark skinned with even darker hair. I remember the look on his face when she was born. Tochi knew he had met his person.
I notice my little girl’s eyelids beginning to glide shut. Our time is far spent. Slowly, I pull myself up, making my way to Hope’s bassinet. I hear a knock and the door creaks open as I set my girl down to rest. My Tochi has, at last, returned. With a wide grin, I turn to welcome him home. It has been a long day’s wait.
“My love, you will not believe what I discov—oh…” I cock my head as a tall, poised-looking woman steps into my home, a neatly dressed man follows suit.
“Hello,” I say, looking between the rather odd pair. Are they friends of my husband? They look a little different from his usual kind. Their movements are stiff and their shoes perfectly polished. But Tochi has never been one to judge. The two exchange a cautious look before the woman steps forward and finally says, “H-hello dear.”
Her eyes are sorrowful, her companion’s, equally morose.
“I wasn’t told to expect guests tonight,” I start. The two, once more, share a look—a surprised one this time. “I was just getting to prepare supper!”
The man clears his throat, shifting his weight from his right foot to the left.
“You both are welcome to join in. My husband will be back any moment now.” I say, with a smile. I turn and make my way towards the kitchen, throwing a curious glance at the pair slowly trailing behind me. Their eyes dance around, as if desperate to memorise the interior of Tochi’s and my small, cosy apartment before finally settling on my baby’s sleeping form.
I giggle and say, “We need to keep it down. I just put Hope to sleep.”
A strangled groan escapes the lady’s lips and the man grabs her arm, giving her a stern yet pleading look.
In three quick movements, I stretch out a tall, tepid glass. “Water?” I ask the lady, whose eyes stay glued to the place where Hope’s bassinet stands before finding mine. Her scanty brows pinch together. The man reluctantly moves to retrieve the glass, nodding and muttering a “thank you” as I slowly let go. Finally, some courtesy.
“Please, do sit,” I say, before turning to resume work in the kitchen. An awkward silence envelopes us as I begin dutifully dicing garlic cloves. Where on Earth is Tochi? Certainly, he will understand his friends much better than I do. Looking up, the couple stays frozen in their spots, staring. If only I can think up something to lighten the mood. A funny anecdote perhaps?
“I’m making fried rice! I hope you guys like garlic.” I look up, and the man cracks another forced smile. “My husband loves them,” I continue. “Me...not so much, but I put them in everything for him.”
Silence again descends, a wet blanket carefully laid over the room.
“My neighbours are expecting!” I blurt out, desperate for some lightness. “I was going to wait for Tochi to return but I’m just so excited I had to tell someone!” I squeal, biting my lips in glee.
“Your neighbours?” the man echoes slowly. Why is he so perpetually sluggish? “What neighbours?”
I drop the clove and make my way to the window that faces Olanna’s kitchen. “Over there, see? Well of course you can’t see anything right now,” I say, pointing through the window to the closed curtains.
“No, we cannot,” he replies, folding his arms.
“Yes, because she just drew the curtains shut. They are in the dining area at the moment. It’s sort of a private moment.” Desperate for the lady’s participation, I glance over my shoulder and wink. “Olanna is just about to break the good news to her husband.”
Suddenly, the lady throws her hands up and cries out, “Oh my God!” The man reaches out to grab her, but she only gets louder and more hysterical. Lurching forward, she grabs my shoulders and shakes me vigorously.
“Olanna!” The saliva in her mouth draws like the thinnest columns of silver I have ever seen. I wrestle my way out of her iron grip and stumble across to my baby’s bassinet. The woman’s screams are stirring her awake.
“Stop it at once, you’re scaring her!” the man orders, grabbing the woman’s wrists. She is now wailing, fighting her way towards me and my daughter.
“Allow me to talk to her, Richard! She is losing her mind, how can you ask me to be calm?”
I watch, horrified, as the man successfully escorts the raving woman out of our apartment. Bouncing a sobbing Hope in my arms, I walk towards the door and listen.
“It’s been three weeks, Richard. Three weeks since we brought her and look,” the lady says.
“And where do you intend to keep her instead? Our guest room?”
“If it comes to that,” she retorts.
“This is a hospital, Ndali.”
“Oh, is that what this is?” she pauses. “What good is this place for her if she keeps getting worse, Richard?” Her voice cracks into a desperate whisper.
“Perhaps it’s something with the medicine. A component triggering hallucinations maybe?” he responds.
“What sort of medication causes a woman to nurse a slipper like a dead child!”
“You’re raising your voice.” A moment of silence goes by. “I’ll get the nurse.”
The heels of the man’s shoes ricocheted on the hardwood floors, indicating his movement through the hall.
Tochi has always taken to strange people. It sometimes frustrates me how little I fully grasp the things they say when they come visiting.
My heart sinks at the thought of the woman with the dead child. I cannot imagine losing my Hope. I place a kiss on my girl’s temple as her sobs subside. They really did rattle us both.
“I’m sorry baby. I’m sure daddy has an explanation for all this.” Humming Olanna’s melody by her ear, I rock my baby girl back to sleep. “It’s okay sweet girl, your daddy will return home to us soon. I know he can explain all that’s happening.”
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.”