The moment Chinelo walked into Adaobi’s hut she knew her daughter had done it. She didn’t have to be a fortune-teller to see the outcome of this virginity test. From the way her shoulders slouched to the lost and hopeless expression she wore, Adaobi’s face was struck with the kind of fear that no kind of acting could cover. Her body language spoke clearly of her guilt. Chinelo felt her daughter’s anxiety stab through her heart like a sword of cold steel. Chinelo was angry, she was disappointed in her daughter for making such a mistake, but she could not stop herself from sharing the agony the girl seemed to be going through.
Chinelo tried to imagine what exactly her daughter was thinking at that moment. She looked closer and noticed her cheeks quivering. Her breathing deepened as she fought hard against tears her mother knew would be shed eventually. She sensed her daughter’s fear so strongly that it became hers as well.
Mother and daughter caught each other’s eyes and it was then that Adaobi noticed that her mother was also trying to fight tears. In her mother’s eyes she recognised dismay and it broke what was left of her heart that it was she who had put Chinelo in this place. It was startling how her relationship with Afam had exploded and spilled into every facet of her life. It was like bitter and deadly venom spreading through her life, killing everything it touched.
As grief consumed the room with its cold unstoppable hands, a feeling of love crept up. Chinelo’s maternal instinct emerged and with it an uncontrollable and uncontainable urge to protect her child from immediate danger. It was almost impossible to tell what Onwa was going to do, but one thing was certain; he was not going to take likely to this. Chinelo could only imagine the limits his anger would stretch to, and she knew he would probably exceed what she imagined. Onwa loved Adaobi, she was the first and most beautiful of all his daughters. But he was a man who believed in the power of reputation. He cared too much about his honour, about his name.
Even though Adaobi did not realise it at that moment, she had put her mother in so much turmoil. In Aboh, where a woman had little or no place at all, Chinelo was disadvantaged when it was time for the sharing of Onwa’s wealth. The sons all took preference, and then the women who bore sons followed. Even though Chinelo wanted her daughter to live the life she chose, she wished her daughter to marry the prince. As the mother of the queen, she was sure of a life without want after Onwa passed away. She knew the wives with male children would take both what were theirs and hers. She knew they were going to leave next to nothing for her and her daughter. Oh, only if she had a male child, she wished. After Adaobi’s birth Chinelo could not conceive children anymore. It had worried Onwa a lot and he, too, had prayed to the gods to help her, but her barrenness would not go away. He slept with her over and over again but all their endeavours proved to be fruitless. The pain of not being able to bear a son never really left Chinelo but she did not spoke of it to her daughter.
Chinelo thought beyond this day and the anger her husband would visit on her daughter should he know the truth. She thought of life after Onwa. She visualised the suffering for both her and Adaobi. Should this secret come out into the open, it was more likely that Onwa would disown Adaobi instead of keeping her and living with the shame. Chinelo knew that Onwa disowning her child left little space in his heart for her. If Adaobi was going, she too would have to go. She wondered how it was that Adaobi could be so stupid. It was astonishing how one little girl’s foolish mistake could ripple into disaster. It was as Chinelo imagined the horrible future, should the truth about Adaobi leave the hut, that she decided to bury the secret where even Onwa would never find it.
Adaobi stood still, not knowing exactly how she was feeling. Emotions churned inside her leaving her completely vulnerable to all sorts of feelings. She watched her mother take careful steps to approach her. Adaobi did not know how exactly how Chinelo was feeling so she could not tell what she was going to do next. Tired of fighting tears, she let them stream down her face. She did not even attempt to hide or wipe them away. With each step her mother took, her heart leaped and she feared her knees would buckle under her. Adaobi knew that at her mother’s touch, the emotions in her would be too much for her legs to hold. Then it happened.
It happened so suddenly it took both mother and daughter by surprise. They had not said a word to each other. But somehow in the silence so much was said and realised. The moment Chinelo was within arm’s reach, Adaobi grabbed her. She couldn’t stand a breath more of this emotional torture. She couldn’t tell where the instinct came from, but it felt so right, she was sure of it. A voice in the roots of her mind told Adaobi that her mother would not let her fall. Her legs gave up on holding her body and she fell. On her way down, she blindly reached for her mother.
Chinelo noticed her daughter take a step forward and by some instinct she couldn’t explain she knew Adaobi couldn’t take another step. For an instance too sudden to be remembered or held onto, they both felt like they were in each other’s body. They shared each other’s pain, sorrow, grief, despair and regret. In that moment they felt an aching hunger for love. It was not only Adaobi who needed a shoulder to lean on. Chinelo could hardly contain her heavy heart.
Once they were locked in a tight embrace, feelings began to run deep as they allowed their tears to fall on each other’s shoulder. They managed to suppress their cries into quiet sobs because screams would only give away the secret they both desperately wanted to bury.
They held on tightly to each other as if their lives depended on it, as if they were going to shrivel and disappear should they be separated. They could feel each other trembling as they drew every drop of comfort from the embrace. The depth of Adaboi’s regret was enough to tell Chinelo how sorry she was for this betrayal, but she still voiced it. As Adaobi mouthed words of apology, her mother begged her not to say a thing because she feared losing what little control she had over her emotions and couldn’t risk screaming.
After a moment that neither Adaobi nor her mother would ever forget, they let each other go. They both knew that this moment would define their lives forever. They would have to tell lies, a lot of lies. There is an Igbo saying, ‘Asi na agu-agu’, which means that every liar would one day run out of lies. Due to Adaobi’s youth, she could not see as far as her mother. At that moment she felt the best part of her problems were solved. She couldn’t see that lies and secrets would create the foundation for her life with the Dike. To keep that life from falling apart, she would have to make pillars out of more lies and secrets. The only way of protecting a secret was by covering it with yet more secrets.
In Chinelo’s wisdom she knew a time was going to come when the secrets and lies would have piled up too much to be contained. Some lies would be lost in time and truths would be found. All it took was one mistake and the grave of secrets would be dug up and exposed. Chinelo tried to hope it would be after she had gone. But then that would mean her daughter fighting alone. Well, there was only so much she could do. She tried to hope that somehow this whole thing would go away and both she and her daughter would live their lives without ever having to pay. The possibility seemed very much within the grasp of reality. The osu would be taken care of along with the hair weaver and anyone she had revealed the secret to. Getting the rid of the woman was going to be a problem, but it had to be done. She would find a way to con Onwa into making Afam and the hair weaver go away. But even after all of that, there was still doubt in Chinelo’s faith. Secrets always had a way of rearing up their head in time.
For now, Chinelo told herself that she was doing the right thing. Should there come a time when Adaobi would have to suffer alone for this, then she’d just have to carry her burdens. ‘Adihi ibua eje enigwe’: ‘some places a man has to go only by himself.’ One thing was for certain; they were going to pay, one way or the other. In truth, they were already paying. They had both lost a part of their freedom. For a very long time they would be looking over their shoulders, peering into shadows. The sounds of whispers would bring fear to their hearts. For now they just had to take it as it came, one day at a time.
Chinelo wiped her daughter’s tears and smiled like everything was fine. The smile infected Adaobi and even though she knew this was only the beginning of a long journey she allowed a smile. Perhaps things could have been worse if her mother had chosen to side with her father; she had reason to smile.
‘Nne’m kedu ife anyi ga eme?’ Adaobi asked her mother what they were going to do. There was no exact answer to the question so Chinelo told her that they just had to make sure her father never knew anything about this. Adaobi wanted to ask what was going to happen when she got married. How would she hide this from her husband? But she did not want to give her mother too much to worry about at this moment.
The first step was convincing Onwa that Adaobi was still a virgin. Chinelo knew Onwa better than any other person in the world. This was not going to be easy. Onwa was a very wise and intelligent man. He saw things that were blind to the naked eyes. He could read faces, eyes, and voice tones; he could read people. To convince him on this issue was going to take a lot more than just walking into his hut and telling him Adaobi was still a virgin. Chinelo had to come up with a way of selling the story to remove every form of doubt. And Adaobi too had a part to play. She had to act in a certain way that would reflect her innocence.
‘Ada, I need you to be strong now. It is not going to be easy to keep this from your father. You know he will be watching us closely.’
As Chinelo told her daughter how to act to disguise her guilt, she also prayed that the gods gave them some mercy they did not deserve.
After the heartfelt moment in which Adaobi’s secret was now buried, Chinelo left the hut to find her husband. With each step she took her heart raced. Chinelo was not sure what she was feeling; fear, anxiety, confusion, she decided it was a bit of each. If she and her daughter were going to get away with this, they had to act out their lies perfectly. There was no room for loopholes, unanswered questions, suspicion, or doubt. Onwa had to believe every word she spoke, with mouth and body. It was hard to believe she could fool Onwa into believing her on this occasion. It surprised Chinelo that he’d let her check Adaobi in the first place. He should have known that she would cover anything that unfavourable. Perhaps he had too much faith in her honesty. Chinelo was counting on that when she stood in front of his hut.
Now that she was at his doorstep her stomach was turning in apprehension. Chinelo felt her hands shaking but could not control it. There was no way Onwa was going to believe her if she was acting this nervous. She told herself she was a strong woman, yes. She was below Onwa only because she was a woman in Aboh. If she were a man he would crave her wisdom, she was wiser than him. These were the thoughts she consoled herself with. In one deep breath she picked herself up and walked into the hut like everything was fine.
Onwa was clearly under a lot of tension. There was food before him but he wasn’t eating any of it. He raised his eyes to meet Chinelo’s, which were filled with what Onwa made out to be anger.
‘I cannot believe you would think my daughter would be so foolish.’
From the tone in which Chinelo spoke, Onwa could tell it was only respect keeping her from raising her voice at him. She noticed his eyes sweeping her for lies. With all the courage she could muster she stood unmoved, her eyes burning in pretended anger respect wouldn’t let her vent.
The silence in the room grew louder until Chinelo could hear her heart thumping. Questions were rising in her mind. Did he know? Could he tell? What is happening? What is he trying to see? Chinelo dismissed these questions as quickly as they came because she knew wallowing in them would puncture her lies, leaving truths to escape.
Onwa rose from his chair, leaving his meal untouched.
‘Get your daughter to look her most beautiful tonight.’
Onwa offered no apology but it came as no surprise to Chinelo. A man who lived for pride like Onwa never apologised, not even when he was wrong. Chinelo watched him as he slowly shuffled away and for just a moment she relaxed. But that moment was gone even faster than it came, for she knew the worst was yet to come.
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