“Mothers and Sons”
Mothers and Sons
Kamarudeen Mamoudu’s misfortune reached his parents’ ears in Uzairue, at 10:05 p.m., on one of the most momentous days of 2015. The presenter, Cyril Stober, had been recapping network news that evening, announcing the ruling party’s exit from power after eight years. A few minutes later, Sikiru Mamoudu screamed above the sounds of multiple television sets like a woman experiencing labour for the first time. Mama Kamaru’s green tasbih – the gift that her best friend shared with women of their quarter upon return from Makkah – dropped, as she leapt up from the mat. She ran to her husband and shook him, asking, “wetin happen daddy Kamaru?” but he and his phone remained side-by-side on the floor. He frowned at her as if she was an unwelcome stranger. The man could not speak. There was a tightness in his head.
Limota Mamoudu picked up his phone, saw the name of Kamaru’s roommate in the call history, and then sighing a prayer, dialled. It took five seconds. Mama Kamaru threw off her jilbab and raced into the dark, yelling nonsensical jabber. After a brisk pursuit, two men from the left row of flats arrested her, pinning the poor woman against a small rock behind the borehole near their gate. She grasped the hands of their landlord and in a wretched voice, wailed, “They . . . have killed . . . Kamaru.” Nothing travels faster than bad news. The entire street soon became aware of the Mamoudus’ tragedy. For the rest of that night, nobody there cared about Nigeria welcoming a new president.
The couple’s two-bedroom filled with sympathisers distributed in uneven proportions into gossipmongers and well-wishers. Once the sun woke and until it retired, they’d congregate in the Mamoudu living room and courtyard to share stories. These discussions never lulled; Limota found herself in the role of hostess. Somebody always knew, and volunteered sans prompting, information of other unlucky families whose boys were cut off in their prime by death’s wickedest schemes.
One week prior to the aforementioned shock, on a Saturday evening no different from its predecessors, a gentle breeze glided over Limota and Sikiru on their porch, observing dusk set in. As the muezzin of their neighbourhood mosque called the faithful to worship, the sun transformed into a golden fireball. These two sat for a while watching magic unfold; her head reclining on his shoulder, his touch bewitching, and her eyes yearning in response. They wanted to make love – an everyday occurrence since they had the house to themselves and little else to do. Just that morning, the second-hand transformer serving their street exploded, leaving them with no hope of electricity to power the ceiling fan. They moved from outdoors into the bedroom, then the inner courtyard, where their mattress was exchanged for a raffia mat.
The lyrics to “Tala’alBadru‘Alayna” blasted through a pile of laundry squeezed into Limota’s washing basin, interrupting their sexual congress. At first both froze for the few seconds it took the phone to quieten, but when the irksome interruption returned, Sikiru was compelled to halt proceedings. Limota dragged a wrapper over her nakedness and rummaged through the clutter for the culprit. Noticing her husband’s instant frown, she put the call on speaker. He massaged the square imprints on her back and used the mat to cover his flaccid penis.
Kamaru was calling, he said, about his father’s new medicines, asking if they were working better than the old ones. She told the boy Sikiru’s palpitations were now sporadic. An electronic monitoring device for home use had been ordered. He reminded them of his pathology exams and tried to act unfazed, but she could sense his fear, which straight off became hers. After the customary prayers and blessings a mother must bestow on her child, she picked up a kettle, and prepared to wash.
That night, while courting sleep, Limota counted the years left until graduation. They’d build and furbish their own place with his doctor’s salary. Forty-three hours later, a Friday, she dropped one thousand naira in the offering bowl passed around during jumat – a nine hundred percent increase on her usual subscription, but these were desperate times. She planned to visit her sister’s shrine as well and drop a big hen for Ojà. But the next time that somebody mentioned Kamaru’s name to her, it was to say that he was dead.
For several days, on and off, the sky wept in solidarity. Her tears plummeting rusted zinc rooftops with relentless rage. The nights which followed were bleak, heralding demons who tortured Sikiru and Limota in their catnap, turning limbs to mush long after eyelashes flew apart. The black bags under their eyes fattened. They bumbled about like those zombies from Dawn of the Dead. Nobody attacked the floor with a broom or mop. When you spoke to either, you had a distinct impression, though they locked eyeballs on you, their minds now lived in another universe. The villagers told each other, “Something has to happen or God forbid, we may end up burying them with Kamaru.” Their condolence visits doubled in frequency and duration. Although the poor couple wished to be alone, the shame of seeming ungrateful sealed their mouths.
When it became impossible to bear, Sikiru felt for Limota in bed. He aligned his frame with hers. “You can consult your sister,” he murmured. The woman needed no further encouragement. She pushed herself into the curve of his crotch and crashed out. Upon cockcrow, she took a warm bath – the first since the start of their grief. She polished her skin with Shea butter, grabbed three of the bigger cockerels in her coop, then headed for Ojà’s shrine.
In those days, Ojà inhabited the body of a puff-adder living inside a ramshackle building made of fire-hardened, weather-beaten mud. The villagers kept her inside a terracotta set in the middle of the room, surrounded by cocoyam, eggs, soybeans, and several tins of palm oil. There was a time when people offered goats or big tubers of yam, but after Pastor Elisha stormed Uzairue with healings and miracles, the gross majority of rich adherents transferred their obeisance to the altar of monotheism. Limota reached the entrance and halted to steel her nerves, before stepping into the hut.
Her sister listened to the petition – for one must allow a visitor to speak, even if one knows beforehand the facts of the matter – before selecting cowries from five clay pots with which she encircled the complainant. She invited the oracle to possess her supplicant. Limota did not waver when a coldness slipped into her woman’s part and slithered upwards to her head. The whites of her eyes swallowed the black. A dark force spoke through her, in spurts like an elder on his deathbed, “Fourteen nights ago, seven witches assembled under the wings of a dead bat, following summons by a sorcerer who suffered great pains to hide his identity. He gave them a gift; his own blood, young and strong, so the sickness in his chest would not claim his life. Before break of dawn, these wretched beings launched gourds of evil into Sikiru Mamoudu’s residence. Come back with your husband. The spirits under my command return unwelcome presents to their owners.”
In a flash, Ojà exited its hostess. The snake wiggled, and with stunning swiftness, seized the chicken before returning to its home. Limota squeezed her trembling palms – that gesture often seen amongst folk whom fate has dealt cruel blows. Her sister looked away, perhaps at the ancient designs on the wall. Sikiru was not somebody to provoke with bullshitery, so when his wife told him of the prophecy, he did not schedule a consultation despite the danger dancing above their heads. Several hours of intense internal struggle resulted in him telling Allah to either resolve things or prepare to receive him.
By the morning of Kamaru’s janaza, the violent mental agitation that consumed Limota had settled into an aching, consuming melancholy. Subsequent to circumstances beyond the family’s control, this event happened seven days after his passing. For her boy’s farewell, Limota chose his favourite outfit of hers; a lime green brocade gown styled into that loose-fitting form which was the rave amongst middle-aged petite bourgeois women. Over this, she draped a black ankle-length jilbab with arms. A bevvy of friends clustered around her as she watched, unresponsive, the people pouring in and out of the compound. They defied a downpour, leaving slipper-shaped mud stains over terrazzo floors she promised to mop that night. Bilyaminu Mamoudu rented a few dozen chairs and two canopies which were mounted outside the flat. Little children ran rampage, free from minding by their otherwise occupied parents. The bowls her sister left on stools for the water leaking from holes in the ceiling filled up and overflowed.
She wondered how much longer her living room could withstand the mass of visitors crammed into it. Few came alone, the rest with relatives. Umbrellas reclined against the pillars, and they hung yellow raincoats on the front door before marching into the parlour. People thought grief had dumbed her, but within her head, a riot was afoot. As soon as she caught hold of a thought, another clouded it until she feared any moment, she might combust from the inside out. From the backyard, the aroma of burning jollof rice swam through the house. Somebody sent somebody to collect five bags of sachet water and a crate of soft drinks on credit from the easterner who owned a kiosk nearby, in case people wished to wet their tongues before prayers.
Sikiru and his brothers stayed in the dining hall, deliberating in tones they tried hard to subdue. Bilyaminu took a whiff from his snuffbox and doubled over in a coughing fit. When he recovered himself, he removed an effigy tied to a vulture’s skull, with strips of red satin from the breast pocket of his kaftan. This he kept at the centre of the table. “Bury this charm with Kamarudeen,” he ordered, in his characteristic drawl, words melting into space. “We must chain his spirit, or more Mamoudu offspring shall die.” The siblings all bobbed their heads, except one. They faced Sikiru, ready to counter his objections, but the man was as mute as he was stiff.
Limota fixed her palm on his thigh and squeezed. “Why will Kamaru come after his innocent cousins?” She stressed the ‘innocent’ because who was to say they hadn’t had a hand in her misfortune? The boy was a medical doctor in training; the first in this jealousy-ridden family.
Her boldness infuriated Bilyaminu. “I’m repeating what Oshiobugie, the great oracle’s mouthpiece, told me. You may ask foolish questions at your sister’s shrine.” He reached for the snuff again while his brothers hissed to show their disapproval of her behaviour. “We only allowed you to be part of this meeting, because you are his mother,” Tiamiyu, the youngest, tossed in. Limota bowed and did not speak again.
Sikiru’s landlord strolled in, noticed the tension around the dining hall, and promising to rendezvous at the cemetery, escaped. His primary worry was deciphering when the right time would be to resume conversation about next year’s rent increment. Mr Adebayo, who Kamaru helped ferry jerrycans of water from the community borehole with a wheelbarrow for, defied his polio-wasted leg and entered the compound, just after midday. He sat beside Alhaji Jimoh who lifted everyone’s spirits by reminiscing about the amusing events from the four years that Kamaru had spent working at his dispensary. Until the time that he aced the unified tertiary matriculation examinations for medicine and surgery. Limota joined her guests in time to watch her son’s secondary school classmates – Friday, Kazeem, and Aminu – arrive in a shiny black Lexus matching their bespoke suits. Gold-plated tassels dangled from their earlobes as they walked in with a slight swagger, spiky dreadlocks the colour of rotting mangoes sprouted from their scalps. A reminder of why she never liked them.
In between gulps from his second bottle of Coca-Cola and taking advantage of a lull, Jimoh went to empty his bladder, while Kazeem informed the assembly that as soon as he heard the news, he’d posted it on Facebook. “Condolences have been pouring in nonstop,” he announced with unbridled pride. “We should ask for donations.”
Does he want a plaque and standing ovation? Adebayo wondered, stretching his neck for any sign of his friend. Limota asked Bilyaminu’s daughter, Maryam, to open the app on her Blackberry for her. Sure enough, Kamaru’s picture was there. A far from flattering photograph of him in white singlet and blue tight-fitting jeans. He paired this with screenshots of WhatsApp chats – her son asking for fifty thousand naira to be repaid before month’s end. She realised this deadline was two months overdue. Kazeem watermarked these pictures, RIP Brother. So glad I came through for you, in bold red, Times New Roman, 24. It was distasteful, this advertisement of the debt and death. She swallowed the ugly words that rose in her throat. When she looked up, her eyes caught Kazeem’s smirk, and a shiver raced through her slim frame; both were thinking the same thing. But a grieving mother must stay deaf, dumb, and blind to all things except for her tears. She made a mental note to return his money before that day ran its course.
At 1:40 p.m., the crowd departed; most to offer Zuhr prayers in the mosque where Kamaru had served as muezzin during holidays. Abandoned to her own devices, Limota popped into his room. Everything was as he left it; textbooks stacked; half a dozen caps on the bed; one life-size poster of Olu Maintain in front of a Hummer from his “Yahooze” music video, glued to the wall; and an armchair filled with old clothes several sizes too small. Sikiru, experiencing a crisis of faith for the first time in his forty-six years, sneaked in after her, having entirely given up salawat. He perched on the edge of the mattress like a shy bird, face propped up by his palms, arguing with the void.
According to his roommates, Kamaru and two friends, as well as a guy they’d never met before, went to douse post-examination nerves in a hotel off-campus, on that unfortunate evening. The series of events which followed this jaunt, and up until nurses in the university teaching hospital tagged him: ‘Brought in Dead,’ were unclear. Four staff swore they found him at the bottom of their swimming pool. Kamaru’s pals insisted they gave him space to woo a girl, whose whereabouts after the incident, like the out-of-town friend they referred to as K-Slow, remained a mystery. Wherever Limota turned, the word “cultist” drifted past her ears. They were saying it was a revenge killing. Kamaru had blood on his hands. These words snuck into her thoughts, bringing along a frightful tremor to which her powerless body succumbed. Yes, she could not stop herself from suspecting dreadful things about her own son.
Many questions lingered on, unanswered. Misgivings that Sikiru and Limota feared articulating, alone in his tiny room, lest they take on the semblance of truth. Why did a horde of boys garbed in black robes block the boy’s corpse from leaving the mortuary? In exchange for the affidavit demanded, Bilyaminu pledged, as a man well over the age for telling lies, that the family would not conduct an autopsy. Why had none of Kamaru’s friends from school signified interest in escorting him home – not even those he was with towards the end?
Limota struggled to breathe. Her eyes were fiery, heavy, and engorged. She sizzled from within like boiling tomato sauce. Maybe it was a sacred vision or the devil playing tricks on her, but a scenario continued to unfold in her subconscious:
Kamaru, Kazeem, and a young lady are hanging out poolside. The men drink Heineken and their companion, Hollandia strawberry-flavoured yoghurt. There’s chicken kebab on the table. Kamaru whispers into the girl’s ear. She throws her head back and laughs, her entire frame jerking. He looks proud, and somewhat surprised that this stunning creature finds his jokes hilarious. A party of nine guys stroll into the vicinity. Kazeem, facing the gate, lifts his arm to draw their attention. Kamaru turns, spots them, and seizes his date’s hand. He tries to escape, but Kazeem blocks the way. The assailants approach. Kazeem joins them. The girl slips away. A quarrel ensues and eyewitnesses try to intervene, but then retreat when the men bare their weapons. The argument continues. They slap him, punch him, kick him. He staggers to his knees and begs Kazeem for his life. A tear has decimated his lower lip. They push him into the water. He struggles. They wait until his arms cease flaying and the last bubble bursts. Then they turn around and leave.
The sound of a door opening pierced her thoughts. Sikiru bolted from the bed and blocked their visitor’s entrance as though it were the natural thing to do. Limota wanted to push him aside, envelop her sister in a hug, and ask if everybody was mad – Kamaru wasn’t dead. They would not bring him in an ambulance. Rather, he’d arrive on a motorcycle’s pillion with his travelling bag and a sack of onions for her. Her purse must be somewhere at hand so that she could dash the driver two times his fare. Kamaru might raise his tone, fake annoyed: “I have money to settle him o.” A smile alighted on her face, but on the point of speaking, a siren’s whistle reached her ears and the bulb of spit that gagged her throat, also swallowed her words.
Transferring the ceramic plate balancing on her right hand, to her left, Limota’s sister complained, “Will she not eat? I brought jollof rice cooked with ugba and smoked fish.”
Sikiru did not know how to respond, so merely shook his head.
“She cannot go on without sustenance. Abi she wants to kill herself?”
The sweet aroma floating from the saucer made Limota’s belly growl. “What is the use for food that Kamaru cannot enjoy!” she screamed.
Sikiru spread out his palms, mumbled a phrase resembling see what I have to bear. He moved aside to let his in-law pass, despair fastened to him like a midday shadow.
Asr prayer passed. The sky greyed. Pain – heavy and limber, wriggled through Limota’s veins, coming to rest in the yawning abyss that was her stomach. An overwhelming urge to vomit consumed the poor woman. She begged either of them to check if the vehicle had arrived, but it was Sikiru who shifted the curtain and peeped. Fat beads of sweat grew out of his forehead, and he trembled worse than ever.
Something in the shape of his back, disgusted Limota. She asked, her voice sore and guttural, “Will you do what your people want?”
He flinched because the question unsettled him. “There is no way to prevent it,” he murmured, tightening his grip around the window bars.
“Yes, you don’t have a choice, Sikiru. You agreed to bury your only child with a charm, because Bilyaminu said so.” Limota heaved, unable to make sense of what she heard, afraid to speak further, lest she utter unforgivable things. Tears came easily to her during those dark days. She fetched them from a deep well; however much tears she drew out from it, were replaced twofold. “Is Bilyaminu your God?”
Sikiru busied himself with a hole in the mosquito net as if he had not heard her.
The vehicle bringing Kamaru slowed to a halt in front of the house. Limota curled into a ball and let loose a wail. It bore the full weight of her misery. Her husband fell, losing consciousness.
“Oh Kamaru, singular fruit of Limota’s womb, you were born to ruin your parents.”
Murmurings of eewoo followed the boy into his mother’s provision store, converted that morning, into a viewing area. Sikiru (awake after his sister-in-law emptied jugs of water on him) and Limota both shuffled in, each using the other’s shoulder as support. The distinct odour of formalin filled the place, causing Limota’s glaucomatous eyes to fill up. She could not believe it, though it was plain to see. Kamaru lay still under the white shroud. Did he suffer terribly? Was it quick? When it became obvious death was upon him, did he bear his cross without complaint, or cry for her? “Stand up and show us who wreaked havoc on you,” she ordered the still form, who did nothing.
That she had stayed barren. What a terrible reward dying is for a parent’s labour.
Sikiru removed the cover. The boy’s neck was at least twice its normal size. The eyelashes grew longer and blacker, as if they stretched out to spare the world from his stare. Something brown caked his mouth. After several nights in a refrigerator compartment, the high cheekbones he’d inherited from his mother, had sunk into his bloated face. A dried stream of blood somehow travelled from the left junction of his lips, traversed his cheek, and stopped just before the jaw. It worried Limota. She unwrapped her headgear and scrubbed the stain. Her gaze fell on the tourniquet necklace whose pendant was a square carton with BID scrawled in blue ink.
Limota extended her forefinger and caressed the note. She mulled over such words of finality. And the creature taxed, with tagging ex-people, destined for the funeral parlour. “Kamaru is not on her mind anymore,” she sighed. “Why would he be? On an average, how many Kamaru’s does she despatch per day?”
Limota was right about everything, except one. It was a nursing intern, on his second week of rotation who, pressed for time and space, had tagged him with a cut-out from the pack of cornflakes he kept for night snacking. If she had turned the paper, she’d have seen the Nasco label. But we digress. Let us return to our heroine.
Kamaru was far from an unpleasant sight. You could even say he looked handsome. Limota took that image and stored it in a section of her mind (where it lived till she breathed her last). The longing for vengeance made her shudder.
Her sister’s warning rang in her ears: “Oja said you must summon his spirit and redirect its wrath. It has to be done before the customary body washing and perfuming.” She touched her forehead to the ground in obeisance to the Djinn who presides over the court of the dead. When Sikiru tried to stop her, she yanked herself out from his embrace. Then she sang the song their mother taught the girls she birthed. Incantations the late priestess learnt from her mother, who’d learnt the same ones from her own mother, and so forth – sorcery passed from generation to generation. Limota’s voice, soft and bashful at first, grew deeper and wilder with each invocation. “Death to the purveyor of my misfortune. Be he blood or stranger, friend or foe. May you suffer what I have suffered, only worse. You’ll never experience peace in this world or the next. Woe on your offspring and descendants yet unborn. I doom your bloodline to its hundredth generation.”
She chanted these curses over and over until Kamaru’s soul crawled into her. Whilst visitor and host wrestled for supremacy, she smote her face, pulled out her hair, cried, danced, laughed, and rolled on the floor like a being possessed. When the requiem finished, Limota spat into her palms and rubbed it across his torso. “It is well with you,” she prayed. There were tears in her eyes. She pulled the shroud over the body, nodding multiple times, as if answering a question.
Sikiru stood behind, agape with wonder, torn between a wish to speak and common sense cautioning him against such a mistake. He’d shrank away so much that he was one with the wall.
In a harsh falsetto, she spoke, “I have work waiting.” Before leaving the cell, she cautioned, “Bilyaminu better not think of burying any charms.”
There is a motor park at the entrance to Uzairue Township, at walking distance from the mosque, a catholic church, local government council office, and the only bank in a twenty-mile radius. This is where this village derives her name. The exact location from where seventy years hence – if our gazette speaks the truth, Ibrahim Ilyasu led an army of fifty men on a mission to depose their mad usurper king.
If you board one of the many motorcycles in this lot, and its driver takes the straight road opposite, not stopping until two junctions after the market, a footpath rears its head by your left. A northerner relaxing under a tent supplies the everyday beef requirements of the district. From your vantage point, you will see a half cemented, half-painted bungalow near the end of the street. A maize garden is at the side, so you cannot miss it.
Should you enter this house (its doors are never locked), inside the second room on your right, you’d find Bilyaminu; a decade older, in an armchair near a curtainless window. He’d welcome you, I’m sure, but these days his words mingle with gibberish and so they never come out quite okay. He sits there day and night, since the nerves in his legs lost contact with his brain, a slave to memories of happier periods. An ulcer on his foot has taken three toes. You’d need a nose mask to block out the pungent smell. Cataract, that gluttonous thief, swallowed what remained of his sight months ago. He observes the world through a translucent veil. His sons want nothing to do with their father. And he has not heard from the girls in years. Strange as it seems, he refuses to see a doctor. People say the mystery of his mysterious disease, lies at the feet of his brother’s wife. Only Limota can make him whole again. But she suffers as well, poor woman. What with a dried-up womb and three co-wives. Red and white strips of satin— – the uniform of Oja’s priestesses, becomes her well.
Fatima Okhuosami loves to transform her thoughts into short stories and poems. Her works are published with: Isele Magazine, The Kalahari Review, Itanile Magazine, Jalada Africa, Writers Space Africa, and elsewhere. She was first runner-up of the 2020 Collins Elesiro Literary Prize and 2021 Kendeka Prize for African Literature, and longlisted for the 2022 Toyin Falola Prize.
She’s on twitter @fatiokhuosami. In her free time, she blogs for Radio France International’s Mondoblog, and at fatimetu.blogspot.com