PHOTO CREDIT: (poison) Tee Jay Dan
POISON by Okafor Emmanuel Tochukwu
We hoped she would end her Sunday visits, but on her every last visit, there was always a sign that she would return the next Sunday. Her arrival was always at noon when a dinner of rice and palm-kernel soup in big round aluminium pots was hot and ready in the kitchen. Today, one Sunday in an early warm October, she drove in, in her old-fashioned Mercedes. The loud excited chatter of her two boys – both small and ebony-skinned – echoed round the house; they talked about nothing else but football. “For God’s sake, will you two keep quiet?” she shouted in her rooted Yoruba accent, announcing her own presence in the house. Through the louvre window, I watched her bend forward and pull the ears of her boys. Maybe she was instructing them to be of proper behaviour while their stay lasted. To each boy she handed a nylon bag and a plastic toy. Walking in through the kitchen door, she was greeted by Bisi, the housemaid, who grabbed the bags from the boys, which, from the dull look on their faces, they felt reluctant to carry. Instead of replying Bisi’s greeting, she said, “I forgot my shawl in the guest room last Sunday. Did you see it?” The Sunday before last Sunday, it was a tin of baby food. Three Sundays earlier, it was her necklace, left somewhere around the front balcony.
Once, my sister told me it was not forgetfulness or mere carelessness, this constant habit of Folake. She called her onye apili. Why did Folake visit only on Sundays? Couldn’t she visit on other days of the week, say, Saturday, or Friday, after all, she was a housewife? My sister said it was the chicken she used to prepare Sunday meals that enticed Folake. “They can’t afford to buy chicken to put in their food,” she said, in her dismissing tone of pride, as if chicken was something luxurious, “That is why she frequents my house every Sunday.” “My house” was not really her house. It was built by her husband who worked as a contractor for the state government. Perhaps, if my sister avoided jumping into conclusions about the kind of person Folake was, she would stop putting on airs of pretense whenever Folake visited. I didn’t know much about Folake to call her onye apili, but I knew enough not to call her such. Her husband, the younger brother to my sister’s husband, seemed well-to-do. He worked outside Nigeria, in America. He barely returned home, but from what I could gather from my sister, I heard he sent money on a regular basis to Folake. Although Folake spoke of him in high esteem, my sister told me Folake’s husband had a child out of wedlock, with an American woman, but he never brought the child to Nigeria. She said it was better that way – to avoid trouble. Besides, did they have enough money to raise three kids?
Still, my sister and Folake’s closeness was something. Maybe it was my sister’s assistance to Folake during the period she faced opposition from her husband’s kinsmen for not having a child after their first two years of marriage. Maybe it was the kind of overwhelming familiarity with which my sister spoke Folake’s language. I wasn’t too sure. What was different about Folake’s visit this Sunday was the absence of my sister’s husband. He was away at a child dedication service. Folake must have noticed the empty parking space in the cobbled front yard. So when she asked Bisi, “Is Oga not around?” Bisi’s response rested her doubt. Folake knew her way around the house. Her boys knew better. They shrieked and ran and jumped all around the house, from the sitting room to the visitor’s room and then to my room, where I lay on my bed reading. They had, all too soon, forgotten Folake’s warning. The noise they made sounded like gravels in a half-empty barrel crashing down a hill. It was hearing Folake cursing and shouting that made her boys maintain silence. I could only imagine the punishment they would receive and the height of the mess in the other rooms and the labourious clean-up Bisi would later subject herself to.
“Ah. You’re here,” my sister said to Folake, climbing down a short flight of stairs that snaked upwards.
“Yes,” Folake said.
In a few minutes, they were sat on the sofa upstairs, each of them pouring out to the other stories of how their previous week went. They talked about fashion and politics. Folake complained of Mr. President, of his being rather soft about the issue of Boko Haram attacks in northern Nigeria. “I don’t understand why he cannot take solid action against them,” she added. She talked at great length with an undivided attention. When she spoke of the traffic gridlock in Lagos, her lips pouted, letting out frequent hisses. Did my sister hear of one lawyer who proposed a bill that women should seek the consent of their husbands before getting a passport? Did she know that flared jeans were back in vogue? Did she hear of a white woman who came to her friend’s hair salon and requested her blonde hair be styled with Afro Kinky braids, because the white woman had said her husband felt she was not yet African enough? My sister scarcely had chance to speak. All the while, she laughed and stroked her hair. Later, when Folake had taken her leave, she would tell me all these things.
When Folake was served dinner, she sent for her boys. They were hungry. Slashes of earth stains and golden brown dust covered their shirts and shorts. “Oh. See how dirty your clothes are,” Folake said, drawing each boy closer and brushing at the stains. And when her boys sat to eat on the tiled floor, she poked at their food with her spoon, checking the sizes of their chicken, scrutinizing them. “Look at the small meat Bisi served my boys,” she murmured, entirely in Yoruba, “she didn’t do well.” Meanwhile, my sister stood behind a door, watching the disgusted expression on Folake’s face. My sister would tell me she was right about Folake, she would tell me, as a matter of fact, that next time I should trust whatever she said. Moreover, my sister said, what an elder sees while sitting, a child cannot see while standing even if he stands on the peak of a mountain. But, I wondered, could there be more to Folake’s visits, other than the jolly opportunity of eating chicken every Sunday?
It was a few minutes after four when Bisi rapped on the door of my bedroom. At first I thought I had heard nothing. There was the unpleasant bleating of a generator set. The loud noise of an ongoing football match filtered through the air. The ceiling fan creaked in noisy stretches high above my head. I stretched myself on the bed, somewhat relieved from an hour’s nap. The book I was reading lay upturned by my head. The raps came on the door again. “Who is there?” I asked. No response. I levered myself on to my feet, avoiding the plate and empty bottles littering the floor. A new kind of smell permeated my room: a thick scent of melted paint, of scorched wood. Was something burning within the house? I thought. I walked to the door and opened it.
Bisi walked in, something furtive about her motions, like she was hiding from something or someone. Before she said anything, I asked her, “Is something burning within the house?”
She looked at me, confused. Then she said, “Oh. Sah, it is Iya Bola our neighbor. She cooks with firewood this afternoon.”
With relief, I said, “Oh. I see.” I wasn’t really seeing anything. The smell was strong as though this person cooking with firewood was right inside my room. Time and experience must have bled into Bisi for her English had improved. But the sah willed me to correct her for the umpteenth time. It was sir, not sah.
“Sah, you must come quick,” she said, “I see Aunty Folake in the kitchen. She spray powder inside food when I am not there.”
“Powder. What powder?”
“Sah, I think it is juju. Poison. Poison.”
“Are you sure of this?”
“Ah! I see her with my two eyes.” She pointed at her eyes with two fingers. “She do it sharp-sharp.”
“This is something serious,” I said, willing myself to believe her. But as hard as I tried to, I couldn’t. Placing such an accusation against Folake would tamper with everything. “Are you sure it was not salt?”
“Salt ke?” Bisi looked up at me. “She bring out one small bottle. Very small bottle. She talk something inside the bottle. After, she spray powder inside rice and soup.”
I look at her, stunned.
“Poison sah. Poison. Poison sah,” she chanted in her singsong voice, her hands flailing in mid-air.
Here was something serious: a matter of the gravest urgency. It was almost incredible at the same time. Should I raise an alarm that, perhaps, my sister would hear of this thing Folake had done? By way of critical thought, why did Bisi inform me about this first, instead of my sister- her madam? We must have stood there for a few minutes, me mulling over and over in my mind whether I should confront Folake or tell my sister about it, Bisi shivering all over and muttering, “Jesu. Jesu. Jesus. Jesus,” as if we were in a prayer session, waiting for a miracle to besiege us. I told Bisi to wait for me in my room while I went to my sister. I warned her, severally, to stay there: her nervous mood was bound to give telltale signs, and Folake might end up denying ever poisoning the food.
Outside my room, the whole house seemed empty. Through the windows came the pale yellow light of a fading sun. For a brief moment, I thought Folake and her boys had left. But as I edged closer and closer to the guest room, I found her boys lying on the floor by the doorway. They were deep in sleep. Their toys lay about them. I lifted each boy off the floor and tucked them in bed. And there they slept, curling and uncurling like hair tendrils. Upstairs, I saw Folake flipping through the pages of a fashion magazine, her stares gliding over the colourful pictures that sprawled the pages of the magazine. She did not look up at me. I ambled to my sister’s room and found her door open.
“Emeka, you are up,” she said with sudden animation, without looking up from the mirror facing her, her hands on her hair, playing it into a small bun at her nape.
“Yes,” I said, “Are you going somewhere?”
“Yes. I want to show Folake a new boutique that just opened in the estate. This is the best time, now her kids are asleep.”
“Oh. That’s nice,” I said, “Nkoli, there’s something you should know.”
“What is it?” Her face brightened with utmost curiosity as she turned to look at me.
I motioned to a stool, sat and told her what Bisi had told me. I told her I wasn’t sure of the time Folake poisoned the food. “But it couldn’t have been so long a while ago,” I said. She asked if anyone had eaten out of the food. No, I shook my head; nobody had eaten out of it. She grew quiet, her eyes sunk and mellowed. The thought of Folake poisoning the food must have shaken her, broken her. Folake was no longer just an in-law, but a friend. Who trusts a friend so much that, one day, they repays good with evil? She told me her husband would return in an hour and that she had a plan. What plan? I asked her. She shrugged, smiled and told me to wait outside, in the living room.
Waiting was difficult, especially waiting in a room that grew dark with ghostly scenes in the evening, with a potential murderer sitting across on the same sofa. I stirred in my seat, staring from walls to figurines, churning and churning the questions in my mind. Still, Folake did not glance my way. Her slouched form looked as though it melded with the sofa in the half-lit room. There was an ominous silence. Power had been disrupted and was restored a few minutes later. The fluorescent bulbs crackled back to life, flooding the room with white light once again. When the silence grew unbearable and the patience for my sister’s plan waned, I stood up, walked to the many-inch TV screen and turned it on. CNN aired a political debate. Half an hour later, I heard my sister calling for Bisi. She ordered her to bring Folake’s boys upstairs and to serve her rice. “And for the boys too,” she said as she padded into the living room. I shot her a piercing gaze. Was this her plan: to eat the poisoned food together with Folake’s boys?
“Nkoli, the boys ate about an hour ago,” Folake said, “I don’t think they are hungry by now.”
“Oh. It doesn’t matter,” my sister said.
Folake’s boys were wide awake. They cheered behind Bisi, tugging at her pleated skirt. Bisi liked the boys. She would laugh and, oftentimes, said, “Stop that,” or “I don’t like that,” till she walked into the room and placed a big tray containing three plates of food on the glass table. She looked at me, puzzled. She was hesitant to leave the room until I waved at her to go.
“Join us,” my sister said to Folake.
“Thank you Nkoli,” Folake said, getting up to retrieve her boys, “I don’t want them to fall ill from eating too much.”
“Ah, Folake. Does one fall ill from eating too much?”
Folake struggled with her two boys who wanted to have another meal. And when she overpowered them, they grumbled and said in unison, “Mummy, we want to eat.” They were almost in tears.
“Please,” my sister said, “Allow them.”
“In fact, we are about leaving,” Folake said, “Thank you Nkoli for today. I will return some other time to see the boutique.” She grabbed her car keys, her handbag and the fashion magazine, which was not hers. Her boys cried all the way to the car. Bisi followed behind, in slow paces, bearing the boys’ toys.
I told my sister that there was time to call the police to have Folake arrested. Before Folake’s boys were forced to enter the car and before Folake could rev her engine and before the gateman could begin his helpless search for the keys to unlock the metal gate, there was time. But my sister let Folake go. The next morning, Bisi would find Folake’s purse cushioned in the small space near the right edge of the sofa. It was another sign. We would wait for Folake to return the next Sunday and the next two Sundays. We would wait for a month; the year would drift away. But Folake never returned.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Okafor Emmanuel Tochukwu was born in Lagos, Nigeria. He won the Comptroller Charles Edike Prize for Outstanding Essays (2014). Most recently, three of his stories were shortlisted for the 2015 University of Benin Literary Prize for Poetry and Short Stories. He won the second prize in the Earthplus Essay Competition in celebration of World Environment Day (2015). Tochukwu writes from Lagos.