Ijeoma’s hands were clammy as she pulled the car to a stop in front of the blue gates. The air in the car was cold. She had turned the AC in the car down to the lowest. Her armpits felt too wet despite the cold air that was biting her skin. Home. She was back home, the house she left years ago. She could still remember her father standing at the balcony, watching her leave the gate. Her mother had retired to her room sticking to her promise to ‘wash her hands off her case’.
It was a Sunday. She had driven here after the church service. People rushed past the car—a mother dragging with a child on her back, pulling one of her children; two young girls in high heels—trying to meet up with their various church services. It took more than thirty minutes before she finally worked up the courage to come out of the car. And a few minutes for her to raise up her hand and knock on the gate. Almost immediately she did, she heard footsteps coming towards the gate.
“Who is that?” Iyora.
“It’s me,” she croaked out.
The footsteps stopped. “Ijeoma?”
“Hmm.” The gate opened.
Ijeoma shivered when the critical eyes of her sister fell on her. She had known it was Iyora but she was still surprised to see her.
“This one you visited today?” Iyora asked, but she moved away from the gate to let Ijeoma come in.
A paralyzing fear gripped her as she crossed a foot over the gate. She rubbed her palms together, tucking her purse under her wet armpits. Under the hot sun, she had gathered more sweat that was now spreading through her cloth and the middle of her blouse.
“Yes, um…eh…Are they around?” She took a proper look at Iyora. She was dressed in loose shorts and a singlet. Her nipples were poking holes through the silk singlet. The cornrows on her head looked like she had worn it for weeks.
“Yes. You came just at the right time. We are about to have lunch.” Iyora smiled at her. Ijeoma blinked, she forced a smile to return it.
“I heard you were in the hospital last week. Hope you’re better now?” Iyora started walking towards the house.
“We thank God, all is okay now.” Ijeoma followed her into the house. The aroma of ofada stew filled the house. Her stomach grumbled. She didn’t take breakfast in the morning, merely eating a slice of bread as she rushed out with Apham to meet up with the morning service. She suddenly realized how much she had missed her mother’s cooking.
“Yora, who is that?” The sound of steel utensils against ceramic accompanied the voice of her mother from the dining.
The dining was just as it had been when she left. Pale walls, a fridge at the corner of the room, the glossy rectangular table barely moved from its position in the center of the room, surrounded by six chairs of similar material and color. White plates sat on the table, on flowery table cloths. Her father sat at his usual position at the head of the table. His eyes were on the door through which they had walked in. Her mother, beside him, was scooping out rice from the plate in her hand into flat plates in front of her and her father.
“Ijeoma?” Her father looked at her. He could hardly disguise the surprise on his face.
“What are you doing here?” Her mother’s voice was harsh, which surprised Ijeoma given that it was the same woman that had come to visit her in the hospital when she was unconscious.
“Tina.” Her father placed a hand on her wrist, shaking his head when she turned to look at him. “Come and sit. Let’s eat,” her father said to her.
Her mother grunted. “Go and get yourself a plate in the kitchen. And bring more rice when you are coming.” She returned the bowl of rice to the table and sat down.
Iyora patted her as she dropped her purse on the table by the door, and she went into the kitchen. In no time, she was seated beside her sister, spooning delicious rice coated with stew into her mouth. She was lost in the taste of the food that she barely noticed the looks her mother was throwing her. When she did, she ignored it, scooping more rice into her plate and using more stew than she usually would have used.
“Don’t you have food in your house?” her mother asked when she reached for a third helping.
Ijeoma shrugged. “I’m hungry.”
Her mother humphed, but she picked up the now empty plate and went to the kitchen to get more rice. Iyora nudged her.
Lunch continued in silence. It was not unusual. Her father disliked it when someone disturbed the peace of meals with discussions and questions. Eating time was eating time, anything else could wait until they were done eating and the food began its digesting process. Ijeoma was glad for this, it gave her time to get used to being back with her family as the silence was not as awkward as she had expected it to be. Maybe it wouldn’t be as bad as she thought it would be.
Iyora was the first to finish eating. She thanked their parents and took her plate to the kitchen. She didn’t return to the dining, Ijeoma imagined that she had retired to her personal world, leaving her to deal with her parents first before coming to see her.
When Ijeoma finished eating, her parents were also done. She thanked them, packing the plates and taking them to the kitchen. She washed the plates, enjoying the chore she had once detested.
“How is your husband?” her father asked after she joined them in the parlour where they were enjoying a bottle of red wine.
Ijeoma reached to take the glass that her mother held out to her. Was it wrong of her to imagine that they had forgiven her? That they bore no ill mind against her?
“He is fine, he sends his regards.”
“Hmm.” Her father gulped down the contents of his glass then belched loudly. “So why have you come to visit us?”
In an instant, Ijeoma had dropped the half-glass of wine on the table beside the sofa and her knees found the hard tile.
“Daddy, biko.” She stopped there, she didn’t know how to continue. She had prepared a whole speech, but what she knew now was that none of those speeches would cut through. She remained quiet but not after she said in a small voice. “You are still my parents.”
“Ehen, so you still know that?” her mother said sharply.
“No, don’t mummy me o. When you left this house, what did I say eh? You left without even looking back. Hei, a child that I carried for nine months.” She shook her legs, shaking her head slowly.
“Why did you come back? Your mother was telling me that you had a miscarriage. What did that boy do to you?” her father asked. He eyes narrowed. “Did he touch you? Or is he-”
“Daddy, no! Mba! Nothing like that,” Ijeoma’s voice was loud and sharp. They still suspected Apham of doing drugs? She didn’t know whether to feel angry or sad. They should at least trust her judgment. She settled back on her haunches. She twisted her hands as she spoke, “This is the third time. I had miscarriages through all the accidents.”
Her mother gasped. “Three times? Chineke! I thought it was just this time? Why didn’t you say anything when it happened? My God! Jesus! Why didn’t you tell anybody?”
Ijeoma gaped at her. “I thought you knew. I mean, I-”
“You mean what? That kind of thing happened to you and you didn’t tell any of your family members? Is it that boy that told you not to tell us.” Her mother’s eyes were narrowed into slits.
Her father cleared his throat. “You are angry with your parents, but there is an extent to which anger can go. Four years and you didn’t see it fit to come and see us?”
“You know how many times your father told me not to visit you?” Ijeoma’s mother gave her father a withering look. “She has to come back by herself.’ Now see what happened? Chim!”
Ijeoma didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Here she was thinking her family had ignored her, thinking that they knew about her misfortunes but were adamant about taking her back. They didn’t even have the slightest idea of what was going on in her life. They lived in the same town, didn’t they? She’d assumed that they would be hearing about her from other people. Thinking about it now, she realized that she had cut off contacts with a lot of people. Her friends who were would keep on questioning her decision to marry without having a huge wedding ceremony with her family and relatives in attendance. She had changed churches too, attending Apham’s with him, a church located on the other side of the town, very far from that of her family. How far had she gone with her rebellion?
“Ijeoma, sit down and tell us what happened to you.” Her father was still calm, but in his controlled voice, she could feel the emotions bubbling beneath his skin.
They still loved her, she thought, sitting down on the couch behind her. They really did. Despite her disobedience, they were still willing to listen to her. Sniffling, she told them everything, from the time she got married to Apham in the court in the presence of his father to the prayer session in Abuja and the revelation of the pastor. She emphasized how happy she was with Apham despite their problems and how much she loved him. All the while, she kept on peeking at them, gauging their expressions. Her mother had become restless during the narration. A number of times, she opened her mouth to say something but she would shake her head and continue listening. She made the sign of the cross numerous times too, and sometimes muttered, “Jesus”. Her father remained still. His hands folded under his chest and his legs crossed over each other, shaking to a silent rhythm.
“Come here,” her mother said when she finally finished talking. Her hands were stretched outwards towards her.
Ijeoma complied, rushing into her mother’s arms with the force of a three-year-old child. As she finally felt the warm and the soft scent of nshawu leaves that clung to her mother’s gown, she burst into tears. Her mother clutched her tightly as she cried, rubbing her back and saying, “Cry o, cry it all out. You are with your mother.” She felt comforted by those words. Everything will be okay, my child. You are where you belong.