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The Origin of Nightmares

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I.

The dead talk. No one listens, but we talk. We do. Silence is a curse no man, or ghost, can bear. Especially when you wallow in timelessness like we do. I used to know a mute who baited death. Professor Ekwensi’s gardener. Poor man got tipped over by his own silence. Tried sleeping himself to death four times. Increased his dosage of sleeping pills each try. He died eventually, in his sleep, without pills. Death, whoever the crook is, has a thing for poetry. Look at yourself for instance, a kid—eleventh birthday marked with pomp three days ago—on life support. You are dying, that is how you can hear me. Only the dying hear the dead.

I saw you come in yesterday morning. Your mother wailing—an alarm system triggered as death reached for you—invoking her ancestors. Gurney racing past wards where conversations turned toward you. Bored nurses darting around. Some propelled by the tips your father gave generously on previous visits. Others truly concerned for your life. Files pulled. IVs plugged in. The doctor’s eyes misted up as he grappled with the ventilator. He has lost someone this way, one could tell.

The melancholy submersing you spread like sonic waves to other patients in other wards who shook their heads and said several variants of the same half-witted prayer: that you are the last of your kind. Your kind means sickler. You can’t fault them. They brought their bodies, condemned by their own bad habits, believing they have lived a full life. They don’t know what it means to live a half-life. To requite for another’s pleasures.

Your father approaches, strides long, folding his sleeves, a nurse beside him. Your mother rises from a chair in the corner. She hauls herself at your father, reclines in his arms and lets free a fresh stream of tears. If you weren’t lying on this bed supplying both background and context, I would laugh.

“Babe, see our daughter.” Your mother sobs. Her face is plain now, the makeover from yesterday washed off, wig tucked away in her crocodile leather handbag. She is pretty.

“She will be fine, dear. Our daughter will be fine.” Your father coos.

Scrutinizing the couple—level-headed man, lithe body like a handmade mannequin’s; benign, chinless wife—how they could damn consequences and get married against the counsel of blood tests become fathomable. You are blessed you know? I didn’t have parents like yours.

I am not like you anymore but I once was: a girl, alive, living. My sister Henrietta thinks the girl I was was the fairest thing God made. That if she walked into a battle, all the men would lay down their weapons and bow. She was that pretty, the girl I was. Of course there was never a way to prove this as there was never a war. And you know how people juggle their memories of the dead until the gauntness vanishes and only beauty remains.

Well, the girl I was wasn’t only the fairest thing God made, she was also the brightest. She attended the community school and was brighter than most of her mates and some of her teachers. You have to forgive her larger than life persona. I’m trying to tell this story the way Sister Henrietta—God bless her sweet soul—tells it.

II.

The Principal has sent for the girl. She is standing in his office, hands crossed at her midriff, eyes on the old man. The Principal doesn’t offer her a seat and she doesn’t take one. When he finally closes the book before him and focuses on her, her heart slows down. The old man lays his glasses on the table. He scrutinizes her, narrowing his eyes until they are just slits on his face. She doesn’t look away. She reads his face like a book, discovers a period on his forehead. She sees the crow’s feet beside his eyes.

“What is your name again?” the principal asks.

“Enwongo, sir.”

“Yes, yes. Enwongo, your teachers think you deserve an opportunity to go to the university.”

The girl’s face is luminous. Her chubby cheeks swell into a smile which the principal borrows and multiplies by his age. The crow’s feet beside his eyes thaw.

The principal is one of only two university graduates in Ikot Ekpene. The other is a late chief’s son who drifts with his naked buttocks through the village now. They had been sent to the University College London on a late British missionary’s trust fund, the principal for being the best student in the village, the chief’s son for royalty. They had both returned to fame among all the clans of the Igbo people. While the principal peddled knowledge to younger men under Udala trees, the chief’s son travelled across clans and bartered London stories with palm wine in village squares. After the chief had transmigrated, on the day the son was to be installed as chief, his brain had lifted and levitated in the sky as a red cloud. The people say too much education took it from him.

Enwongo floats to her father’s house like the spirit of God but is rebuked at the entrance by Mazi Nwonwu’s eyes ogling at her. Talks cease as she approaches, her father trails her with prayers after she curtsies and escapes into the house. She hears Mazi Nwonwu ask her father why he lets her go to school. Doesn’t he fear that she may end up like Eke, the late chief’s son? When Mazi Nwonwu leaves, her father calls her to come and sit with him. He tells her that Mazi is a hardworking man. His farm is one of the largest in the village. He is a titled chief but the gods have not blessed his wife with children. Can she imagine?

Enwongo interrupts her father. “The school principal wants to send me to the university.”

Her father chuckles and leans forward in his chair before saying, “Does your principal want to take my daughter from me? Is he going to pay your bride price?”

“Papa–“

“Mazi Nwonwu has come to ask for your hand. You will be his second wife and bear him beautiful children.”

“Papa, but I want to–“

“Your sister was not as old as you when she started having children for her husband. Now, shut up and fetch my snuff.”

Night finds Enwongo knocking on the principal’s door. Age is abreast with him at night, when he has traded his immaculate shirt and trousers for oversize singlet and knickers. His student falls to his feet when he opens the door a crack. In one minute, Enwongo unpacks her family history, starting with her mother who was barely thirteen when her father married her. Her sister, Henrietta, had stopped hopping to school with her the year she started menstruating and had started breeding in a man’s house the year after that. She doesn’t want to be caught in the wave.

“Please sir, I’ve always wanted to go to the university.”

The principal, who also spearheads a social revolution in the village, sees a chance to make a statement. He asks Enwongo to sleep on his mattress while he sits by his table to draft a letter by lamplight. He rouses her from sleep at first light and they leave for the neighboring village where he puts the girl on a mammy wagon with instructions and overpays for the driver to deliver her to the threshold of a certain professor. Enwongo arrives in Nsukka with a headful of dreams and a letter for Professor Ekwensi about the same time, at night, her father brandishes a machete in the principal’s face.

The principal does not talk, he simply judges the raging father of his student through his slightly open door. He wills himself to remember his younger days—pre-London—when he was friends and classmates with this man. Was it his own pride that splintered them, clear cut, into adversaries, or was it the other man’s envy? He can’t be sure.

“Chibuihe, enter your house and give me my daughter,” the man says.

“But your daughter is not in my house,” the principal replies.

“Chibuihe, give me my daughter before I burn down your house.”

“Obi, your daughter is not in my house.”

“Chibuihe, I will burn down your school.”

In Nsukka, Enwongo is shown a warm bed. She crashes into it with all the grime she accumulated during the long wagon ride, tucked between a mother and infant pair, and a man with common cold and no handkerchief, from Ikot Ekpene. Tomorrow evening, the professor will drive her to preparatory classes where she will learn to pass the required examinations to qualify her for university. He will assign her domestic duties that used to be performed by desperate students trying to win his favor. She will cook and wash and clean.

But tonight, Enwongo wakes into a dream: A mischievous crowd of machetes try their edges against a gnarled oak tree at the northern extreme of her village. They hit it in all its crooked places. They hack at its roots. They strike at its branches. The embattled tree is forced to shed its dense red head. It begins to walk away from the village, into the wild. The tree moves, the village moves with it, expands around it, and makes space for the machetes to continue their mischief.

Enwongo’s eyes unclose when a surreal, orange aurora appears in the eastern sky. By this time the tree is already bleeding.

The gnarled oak tree is her, but she doesn’t know it yet.

Second year in the University of Nigeria, Kelechi, a carryover student, is testing Enwongo’s underpants for slacks. He is sitting beside her in General Studies class, providing commentary and laughing at his own lowbrow jokes. Kelechi does comedy at student parties and nightclubs to survive on campus. He is a hit with the girls but here he is, telling stories to impress Enwongo who would rather have him clam up and let her hear the tiny lecturer’s tiny voice. When she realizes that it won’t happen, he won’t shut up, she says to him, “Kelechi, your mouth smells.” She carries her bag and bristles out of the class. Kelechi stares after her. He breathes into his palms and inhales.

Enwongo transports herself from class, on a motorbike taxi, to Professor Ekwensi’s house where she lives. She is welcomed by the clanging of utensils. She pussyfoots to the kitchen where she halts in the doorway, shoulders drooped and jaw dropped at the sight of Prof by the sink, his bust framed by the window. The sky is lit by the pink of the sun which has lost its roundness to the shape of chaos as the evening emerges.

Prof notices Enwongo gawking at him from the doorway and says, “Onions make my eyes water.” He puts the bowl of sliced onions aside and starts on the vegetables. Enwongo pleads with Prof to leave the cooking to her. She asks him to tell her exactly how he wants it, she will make it, but the man laughs and says it’s not like that.

“Leave the soup to me,” he says, “you can make the garri.”

They claim portions of the kitchen for themselves. Prof uses the kerosene stove, Enwongo takes the electric cooker and they try to ignore each other. Enwongo dart glances at Prof. What an adult, educated man is doing in a kitchen evades her. She is thinking that maybe Prof is not really a man when he says, “I used to cook with my wife in this kitchen.”

Enwongo tries to remember all the places she has seen her father. The kitchen is not one of them.

Prof says, “I sent my wife to study in the United States. When she finished, she called to say she wanted to stay abroad for longer. I said okay, I'll be waiting for you at home. Last I heard my wife is married to a white man.”

An awkward silence follows, softened by the clanging of utensils and the thwack of spatula against pot as Enwongo makes the garri.

“I miss her,” he says. “Don't you miss your family?”

Enwongo grimaces.

“Don't squeeze your face like that,” Prof says. “They are your parents. You shouldn't blame them for trying to do what parents in our culture do.”

She says nothing. Prof stirs the soup, turns off the kerosene stove, and wipes his hands with a rag as he walks out of the kitchen.

“You should visit them sometime soon.”

This is how Enwongo comes to be entering her father’s house on a glum Friday evening, burdened with a small bag containing long bottles of seasoning to tempt her mother, a new tobacco pipe to bribe her father, and two baguettes to shoo the village kids away. She doesn’t factor in Mazi Nwonwu, who has brokered an exchange with her father in her absence, parting with a jaw-dropping number of yam tubers as bride price. Or her father’s homily as he received the tubers of yam: “You must put a child in my daughter’s belly the moment she returns.”

So at midnight, Mazi Nwonwu slips into Enwongo’s bed and extends her gnarled oak tree nightmare when he rigs his phallus in her loin, then further. Her parents hear her howls—like a storm about to ravage the farmlands—and shiver. Then Mazi Nwonwu roars, the rain god’s roar, and they fear that their roof will not hold till the break of day. They leech into each other.

When, the next day, Enwongo’s bath water boiling over a stove disappears from the kettle while she lies on her back, unmoving, except for the consistent rasping of her breath; when she won’t echo the pleasantries of the people who have collected on the veranda to pay homage to her for being so ambitious; when five days later, she has still not risen from her bed, moving her bowels and thinning on the same spot, the village decide that she has lost her sanity. The people say too much education took it from her.

III.

The girl I was starved to death. Don’t pity her. Being a woman is a kind of death anyway. And again, death loves poetry. This is why the doctor is telling your parents that you will live. You have been stabilized and should wake up anytime soon. You should see your mother’s face, warm, rendered glossy by tears. See your father looking at you, eyes aglow, hands rubbing life into your forehead, praying silently. Love is in the eyes. And hands.

The doctor interrupts the communion—why do doctors do that?

“Get these drugs before she awakens,” he says to your father, handing him a long list.

And to your mother, he says, “She will wake up hungry.”

Father, mother, and doctor totter out in different directions, counting down to your awakening. Me, I’m counting down to your next crisis. Perhaps by then, I will have happier stories to tell.

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