by Steve Carr
Ifeoma sat by Bunkechukwu’s bed holding his hand, squeezing it tightly, as if to hold him tethered to her and to the Earth. She had the right eye open, keeping it on him, and the left in readiness to open when the right one grew tired. She had been winking her eyes at him since the last remaining rooster in the chicken enclosure had crowed at dawn. Silently her lips trembled non-stop as she mumbled one prayer after another, asking that her husband be healed, and soon, as the well had gone practically dry with only a few feet of water still at the bottom and only Bunkechukwu would know what to do about it.
He stared blankly, blindly at the ceiling, seldom blinking. His breathing was steady, but shallow. The feel of his hand, of his brow when she laid her hand on it, was clammy. The nearest hospital in Kano was nearly 99 kilometers away and they had already kicked him out when the money he had in the bank to pay for his care ran out. She had left the hospital with him wrapped in a blanket and lying in the back seat of the car, a few fresh wound bandages lying on his stomach.
Getting him to the hospital would have been a near impossibility anyway. Their car had been stolen and the local police claimed they were too busy fending off terrorists to look for it or for the thief who took it. She made matters worse when she angrily reminded them that the terrorists hadn’t come this far north, and if they did, “They would be met by cowards wearing Nigerian Police uniforms.” The police left her house swearing they wouldn’t return under any circumstances.
Their neighbor, Azubuike Abara, who owned the oxen that gored her husband only laughed and said “better you try to sue my ox” when she demanded he pay her husband’s medical expenses or she would take him to court.
Adamma kicked the front door open with her barefoot and came into the house holding a squirming monitor lizard that she had pierced through its tail with a sharpened stick. “Look Mama, can I put this in the soup?” the five year-old asked, her face beaming with excitement.
Ifeoma opened her left eye and at first wanted to yell at the child for breaking her connection with The Creator, and then quickly changed her mind. Lizard meat added to the miyan kuka would be tasty. “Kill it first so that I can cut it up.”
“Yes, Mama,” the girl replied. She raised the lizard in the air and then expertly, swiftly brought it down whip-like, striking its head on the floor, instantly killing it. With the lizard dangling on the stick, the girl gazed at it for a moment. “It’s dead, Mama.”
“That’s a good girl,” Ifeoma said, “go put it on the table.”
As Adamma crossed the room to the table piled with okra, onions and chili peppers, removing the lizard from the stick, Ifeoma returned her attention to her husband. He was lying so still – no more than usual but in that moment it seemed so – that she panicked and quickly laid her head on his chest to listen for a heartbeat. Hearing a slow, rhythmic thumping from deep inside him, she raised her head and looked heavenward and uttered aloud, “Why must these things always happen to poor Ifeoma, me, your lowly servant?”
Holding a peeled onion, Adamma joined her mother at her father’s bedside. “Is Baba going to be okay?” she asked and then took a large bite of the onion.
“He must get better, and soon, Adamma. The well is going dry.” She looked at the onion. “Give your Mama that to take a bite from it.”
Kwento leaned on the edge of the well and looked down at the dark, shallow pool of water at its bottom as Ifeoma looked on, nervously tapping her foot.
“Yep, appears your source of groundwater may be running dry,” he said.
She had only known Kwento since marrying Bunkechukwu four years before and instantly took a dislike to him. He had smugly told her that she was lucky to find a man willing to marry a woman with a child born out of wedlock. His expression as he was asked to advise her about the well was no less smug.
“What does that mean?” She crossed and then uncrossed her arms and then crossed them again. Her foot was tapping an unintelligible Morse code.
“The spring that feeds it has stopped feeding it.”
She briefly glanced down the well, then looked at him, befuddled. “How does that happen?”
“It just happens.”
She bit into her lower lip. “What can be done?”
“A new well will need to be dug in a place where there’s a source of groundwater.”
She looked at the dusty, dry land on which the house, the gardens, and the chicken coups encircled by a mesh fence stood. A whirling gathering of dirt and dead vegetation blew across the dirt road that led to their property. Sunlight glinted from the corrugated tin roof of the house. “How do I find where to dig another well?”
“You don’t,” he said, turning and leaning back against the wall. “You’ll need to hire someone to find another source of groundwater. That is where another well can be dug.”
“How much will that cost?” She tried to ask it nonchalantly, having told no one how broke they were. She had shoved to the back of her mind her anger at Bunkechukwu for not planning ahead for the emergency she now found herself in. He had married her inflating the amount of money he had in the bank, something she didn’t discover until he ended up in the hospital. He had always managed the finances in secret. Her job was to care for the garden, the chickens and his needs, and not ask questions. She knew Kwento had lots of money, but she would rather jump into the well and end her life than ask him for a loan.
“Finding a place to dig a well and having the well dug costs plenty,” he answered. He fixed his eyes on hers. “Has Bunkechukwu enough money in the bank so that you can do such a thing?”
“Of course,” she replied.
The dry dirt under Ifeoma’s best shoes rose up in small clouds with every step she took. She counted the number of lizards she saw crossing the road as she hurried along, thinking about Adamma’s skill at catching them with anything that had a sharp point. The child had been left home under the watchful eye of Chimoa, at eighty-two, the oldest woman in the church. Adamma was scared of the old woman, likening her to the witches in the stories that Bunkechukwu had read to her. Chimoa forbade Adamma from hunting lizards, or do anything other than draw pictures based on Bible stories.
It was a five mile walk to the home of Mr. Nwaokocha, the wealthiest man in the region, who Bunkechukwu was related to – distant cousins. To make the walk bearable, and survivable, Ifeoma carried with her a large glass bottle filled with water. She took small sips from it and at times dipped her fingers in and then splashed the water on her face.
She arrived at his front door, sweating, her shoes, dress and hair coated with a thin layer of dust. Before knocking she bent over and shook the dust from her hair, brushed off her dress, and took off her shoes and wiped them clean using the last of the water. She set the empty jar behind a potted plant, took a deep breath, and knocked lightly. The maid answered the door. She eyed Ifeoma head to toe and with her face scrunched disapprovingly, asked, “Are you the woman whose husband is dying?”
Ifeoma was momentarily taken aback that the reason for her visit had been discussed with the maid. “Yes, I am. My husband is a cousin of Mr. Nwaokocha.”
“Here, everyone is someone’s cousin. Mr. Nwaokocha is waiting. Come in.” She stepped aside and waved Ifeoma in.
Ifeoma was immediately struck by the air conditioning aided in circulation by fans attached to the ceiling. Walking down the hallway, led by the maid, she stared, mouth agape, at the paintings of Chappal Waddi, the tallest mountain in Nigeria. Each one was the length and width of her front door and framed in ornate gold frames. She understood their meaning: she was entering the home of a man of great stature. At a closed door near the end of the hall, the maid stopped and tapped lightly. “Your cousin’s wife is here,” she said.
“Show her in,” answered a gruff baritone voice.
The maid opened the door. Her knees shaking, Ifeoma walked in. Mr. Nwaokocha was seated behind a large mahogany desk. His hands were folded and resting on the desktop. She had seen him several times before since marrying Bunkechukwu, but never this up close and in an enclosed space. He was so large it was difficult to see anything but him.
He didn’t invite her to sit down and didn’t inquire into Bunkechukwu’s condition. “I understood by your letter that you’ve come for a loan to have a new well dug.”
“Yes, if you’d be so kind and God willing,” she stuttered.
“If I make this loan you must pay it back within thirty days. Do you understand?”
“I understand,” she replied. “Thank you and God bless you.”
“I don’t believe in God,” he replied. “The universe will deal with you on its own terms should you not repay me. Your God can attend to other business.”
“Yes, sir,” she said with a giggle, not because she found what he said humorous, but because she had never heard anyone dismiss God in such a way.
Five minutes later she left Mr. Nwaokocha’s home carrying a leather pouch filled with the money and a full jar of water. She floated on a cloud of happiness all the way home, reaching there only minutes after Bunkechukwu had died.
Ifeoma stood at the site where Bunkechukwu had been buried an hour before. According to Chimoa his death had come quickly, and with little suffering. His death didn’t upset her as much as the thought that some of the money she had borrowed from Mr. Nwaokocha had to be spent burying him. It seemed like wasted money to pile dirt on a corpse. She then saw Adamma was poking at the mound of dirt that covered the grave with a pointed stick. She took the stick from her daughter’s hand and tossed it aside, took her daughter by the arm and led her out of the cemetery and down the long road back home.
The money that Mr. Nwaokocha had loaned Ifeoma remained in the leather pouch, hidden under the mattress where Bunkechukwu had died, in the bed where Ifeoma still slept. Five weeks had passed since obtaining the loan during which time Ifeoma took small amounts of money from the pouch to buy new clothes and shoes for herself and Adamma. She also bought a used car from Kwento to stop him from continuing to badger her about her plans for a new well. She replaced the only electric appliance in the house, a run-down refrigerator that frequently stopped working, with a new one. At night she laid in bed and in the darkness she gave a great deal of thought to having a new well dug, feeling anger towards her husband for leaving the problem of the well for her to resolve. Each morning after waking from restless nights of sleep, she climbed out of bed and gave little thought to the matter of the well, despite the water in it decreasing daily. The last she looked there appeared to be a dwindling amount of water in it.
One morning, while sitting at the table where she and her daughter ate their meals, Ifeoma sipped on a steaming cup of Lipton Yellow Label Tea and pondered the matter of how to repay the money she borrowed from Mr. Nwaokocha. She couldn’t understand how a man of such wealth believed that the universe was more powerful than God. She thought, What kind of power over the matter of repaying the money can the universe have anyway? It suddenly occurred to her that it had been several hours since she had seen or heard Adamma. The girl had left the house early that morning carrying an old broom handle that she had sharpened the end of with a kitchen knife.
She got up from the table, believing she would see the girl from the window, she carried her cup of tea with her taking sips from it. At the window Adamma couldn’t be seen in the front yard. She then went to the front door, opened it, and took a step out and looked around. The little girl was nowhere in sight.
She walked to both sides of the house and not seeing Adamma there or in the chicken coup enclosure where a few scrawny chickens lazily pecked at the dirt, she walked completely around the small house, still not seeing her. From the front yard she called out her daughter’s name several times and not getting a response, she walked back into the house, set the cup on the table, and grabbed her car keys.
Driving very slowly up the dirt road she looked out at the scrubland dotted with small groves of dogoyaro trees. The nearest house to hers at a little over .8 km away was that of Azubuike Abara. His oxen were in their enclosure. They barely moved, standing absolutely still in the hot sun, only their ears flapping and their tails batting the flies away. She wondered, How did Bunkechukwu allow such a slow moving, stupid animal, to gore him in the side! She stopped the car in front of his house, got out and not seeing any of the Abara family around, she knocked on their front door. Yetunde, Azubuike’s wife, opened the door. The two women had never liked one another. Ifeoma considered Yetunde to be as dimwitted as the oxen they kept. “Have you seen my little girl?” she asked.
Yetunde glared at Ifeoma. “If she had come this far on her own you might give more thought to what kind of mother you are.”
Ifeoma raised her hand, prepared to slap the other woman, but then the thought that maybe bandits or terrorists had abducted Adamma flashed through her brain. She ran to her car, got in and raced it to the police station a killometer away. She ran in. “My little girl has been taken,” she exclaimed to the two policemen sitting behind the desk, their feet propped up on it. They both recognized her as the women who suggested they were cowards.
“By who?” one of them asked.
“Maybe bandits or terrorists.”
They both laughed.
“I thought terrorists didn’t come this far north,” the other one said.
“Maybe not terrorists,” she stuttered. “But surely maybe it was bandits who kidnapped her in hopes of ransoming her for money.”
“You have money?” the first one asked.
She then remembered she had left her house, and the pouch with the money under the mattress, unguarded and vulnerable to anyone who might want to get to it. Maybe the universe was no more than thugs hired by Mr. Nwaokocha to get his money back. She couldn’t think of a way to explain any of that to them, and Mr. Nwaokocha was highly respected by everyone, including the police, although no one knew how Mr. Nwaokocha had amassed his wealth. She turned and ran back to her car and sped home. She pulled to a sudden stop a few yards from the well and stared at the wall that surrounded it for a few moments.
It can’t be, she thought.
She got out of the car and ran to the well and looked down into the shadowy darkness. At the bottom where only a small puddle of murky water remained, lay Adamma, her body contorted in the way only a broken body could lay. Nearby lay the broom handle, a motionless lizard skewered to the sharpened end.
“Adamma!” she cried out.
The child didn’t respond.
“The universe!” Ifeoma screamed as she collapsed against the wall.
About the Author:
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 560 short stories – new and reprints – published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews, and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.