The burial is a quiet one, mum made sure. Only 7 people are in attendance—dad, mum, Iye (dad’s mother), Tochi (Olivia’s husband), our parish priest, Aituari (Olivia’s best friend) and me. Sadness sags loosely around all of us, in our eyes, from our black clothes. Dad is holding my mum tightly around her waist the way he used to hold his precious kappa purse as if the wind will steal her away like death stole Olivia. Mummy buries her face that is already red from tears in my father’s sunken chest, crying. Dad has gloom on his face, the kind that is sandwiched by guilt. He’s not crying, he’s shaking his head, looking fixated into space, humming intermittently like men are supposed to. Men console others, they do not cry, no matter what, he always says. Like me, he knows that Olivia did not end up in this casket without help. Our help, mum’s too. I’m also not crying, I’m thinking that the future should come in a case of transparent glass, something that makes one see what is coming, prepare for it and not get pummelled by it. But, the future is a renegade, always lurking in some unknown dark corner, plotting, and throwing us unfamiliar fragment after fragment that hits us. Like now. It is 3pm, the sun is indecisive between staying hot or dimming its light. Olivia Damilola Osasere Erhabor 1989-2016; A Daughter, Sister, Friend and Wife is written on the black tombstone. My eyes are fixed on the dug-out crimson sand in front of it as I replay in my head the email Olivia sent to me.
It was on a breezy Sunday evening in November, it was around 6pm, the sun had turned from white to red and began to disappear. The days of sitting outside with your family for the evening breeze were gone. Doors and business closed before 7pm. People started to fence their houses, installing burglary proofs. It was not as if there was imminent danger but the news of armed robbery from other areas in Benin necessitated the change.
NEPA had taken away light that evening and mum was still cooking in the kitchen, so, dad asked me to go turn on the generator. Olivia was attending Ugochi’s birthday two streets away and had not returned. Even though Ugochi’s mother personally came to our house to ask my parents to allow Olivia to come, Olivia still didn’t want to go but my mother told her that if she continued hiding behind novels and avoided friends that life will be lonely for her. “If you don’t do for people, nobody will do for you Olivia” she always told her. Olivia grudgingly went to the party, she wore her blue flowered gown—the same one she wore to mass that morning.
She was going to be fourteen that December. I was four years older than her, the gap in age was as a result of our parents trying for another child after my younger brother died of acute meningitis barely two days after he was born. My father said one needed a name for one to be remembered, he named him Efe after he died. Olivia was my only sibling.
Night fell, my mother had finished cooking. I was in the kitchen cleaning with her. “Bisola”, my father called out to her from the sitting room “you and Osagie should stop whatever you’re doing and come, the news about to start”. My mother knew not to delay me any further, she told me to go that she would join us soon. Dad was sitting in his armchair, the one he said he inherited from his father. The chair close to him was for mum, one she dutifully sat in every evening. I was sitting on the sofa, the one I always shared with Olivia, except today, I was sitting alone. The empty spot reminded me of the evening of the previous day, as usual I was sitting with Olivia watching the Saturday Magazine when a reporter said that the striking university lecturers and other civil servants like them were middle class citizens and were the bedrock of the nation’s economy structure. Olivia drew closer to me and whispered in my ear with that flush of premeditated audacity, “there is no such thing as middle class, you are either rich or poor. Bedrock is just a subtle way of calling them civil bricklayers” she chuckled. “All these reporters sef!” she babbled. I whispered back with a grin that dad had better not hear her.
Dad realised then that Olivia had not come back. He complained that this was not be the first time she was coming up with a ruse to boycott the evening news. He talked about instances where she feigned sleeping, pretended like she lost time reading a novel or doing assignment.
Dad was a public servant, he came home every other evening with The Nation Newspaper. He didn’t speak so much, save for when the government delayed his salary or when we erred. He staunchly emphasised, at every opportunity, the need for his children to always watch the news, a discipline he said saved his father during the civil war, one that was passed down to him and he was going pass to his children come hell or highwater. Watching the news was long a thriving culture in our house, a culture that clearly only he enjoyed. I and Olivia amongst other things shared a parallel detest for the evening news, it wasn’t so much the news as it was the way he compelled us to watch it, like our lives depended on it. Fear stole our mouth from ever enunciating any protest, for children didn’t tell their fathers what they liked or wanted.
Mum shortly joined us. She seemed worried, she must have overheard dad in the kitchen. Her face was in remonstration with my father but she didn’t say anything. She never said anything to my father, not even when he was wrong. She was always the painstakingly loyal wife who did everything to preserve the frail ego of her husband. She did it so repeatedly and well that it turned into a curious art. She had two big businesses—a textile and grocery store. She was a very successful businesswoman, even more so than my government-paid father, but she never spoke much about it out of fear of emasculating her husband.
After the news, mum told my father she was going to get Olivia, it was getting too late. She went into the room to change from her blouse that was reeking of smoke. Dad told me to follow her as it was not safe for a woman to walk alone at night. I fell quietly in line behind her. We were walking towards the gate when she stopped suddenly. Her eyes fixed on a small feature sitting on the bench. She turned on her torch pointing it to the figure, it was Olivia. There were freckles of dirt on her flowery gown, the left hand of her dress was torn. There was another thing on her dress, it was scantily splattered from her waist down, it was blood. There were some scratches on her face, her hair was no longer in a bun. I told myself that maybe she fought or fell, anything else but what was obvious, but there was something in mum’s long gaze that said it was something worse, something evil. Mummy didn’t yell at her or ask what took her so long or how long she’d been sitting outside, instead she sat next to her. They both stared lastingly into the darkness as if they could see what I couldn’t.
“They came from behind, I didn’t see their face” Olivia muttered as she sobbed. “My thing and bum bum hurt mum” she added. With tears in her eyes threatening to trickle down anytime, mum delicately wrapped her hands around her as if she would break if she held on too tightly. “Animals. Animals. Animals” she babbled. I took the torch from her, switched it off, then I sat next to Olivia and like mum, I too wrapped my hands around her delicately. That was when I saw what they’ve been staring at in the dark—stillness. When there’s pain, there are no words. People are kinsmen in pain.
Olivia went to school on Monday, dad said it was important that she appeared normal. He said we should go on as if it never happened. I bought my JAMB form again and started attending Standard Lectures again. Dad went to work. Mummy went to her business. Things got back to normal or so it appeared. We never talked about that night. The days that followed taught me there are not two sides to a coin, but three—the head, the tail and the edge. But nobody talks about the edge of a coin, and like the elephant in the room, if they pretend it’s not there long enough, they believe it to be true. Nobody flips a coin expecting the edge, nobody bets on the edge. The edge was not supposed to turn up, that night was not supposed to happen. Olivia grew quieter by the day, answering almost all questions in monosyllables. There was an empty look on Olivia eyes now, the kind that you find in the eyes of people who knew too much pain. The kind some women in my area had.
Some days, silence dripped from everywhere in our house, from the lips of everyone. On such days, I knew how to go mute, speaking only when it’s absolutely necessary, not to ask stupid questions, any questions. I knew just like everybody else that things were different.
One evening in January, I had just finished watching a soap opera and I was going to the storeroom to fetch the note I wrote the TV schedule. I was passing my parents room when I overheard them talking about my sister. Olivia was still on holiday from school and was sleeping in our shared room. She had recently started to sleep a lot, too much on some days. She had also begun to glow. Mum told him how Olivia told her she had not seen blood in two cycles. Mum had always been graceful with her words and how she said it, never saying too much but always saying enough. She spoke that evening with a tone that wobbled with worry in such a slow manner like her words could break if she went any faster. She mentioned how she observed that Olivia had grown fatter since that night, that she feared Olivia is pregnant. A chill ran through my body that made my hairs stand, my breathing stopped, it could only have been for a few second but it felt like hours. I did not hear anything for a while. I imagine darkness swallowing the red sun outside, the cricket waiting anxiously to take over the reign of the night while the frogs connive to drown the chirping choir with their croaking songs. “You know what that means Bisola? We will have to remove it” daddy finally said in hushed tone like he feared the wall will hear. Remove it like Olivia was a fridge with a spoilt meat that must be removed. “My daughter cannot bear a devil’s child, awua. I’ll go see Philip tomorrow morning“.
We were Catholics, mum was a part of group of women in our parish that taught young girls that virginity was virtue and abortion was murder. But she didn’t argue with daddy, instead there was a conforming silence, the kind that came when daddy gave any order. A silence that said mum agreed.
Two days later, mum came to our room to announce that we will all be going to the hospital the following day.
We left the house very early before dawn brought its light and our neighbours saw us, neighbours who had started peddling conjectures. We left by 5am. My father was driving that Saturday morning in his green Mercedes Benz 200 with mum at the front seat. I sat at the back with Olivia, her hands in mine lifeless like a mannequin. We never drove together except on Sunday. Dad drove through the bushy Igbesamwan street, we rarely passed by other cars as very few people had vehicles. The silence in the car grew and soon started to suck the tense air in the car, I plastered my face to the glass on the window like I was sucking for air. Outside the car the sun had not come up, dust formed brown firmaments behind as we thread the untarred road and the deciduous leaves swamped weightlessly at the gushy nudge of the merciless wind. It was still too early for the scorching hold of harmattan to loosen its mean grip. Harmattan did not agree with me, my chapped lips, snowy skin and cracked sole bore proof to it. But it had nothing on Olivia. Her oily skin didn’t seem to be affected by the fierce dryness that heralded harmattan. My mother said she took after her mother. “We are here” dad said speaking for the first time since we left the house.
We were ushered into stuffy examination room of the Ebenezer Clinic by a nurse. It was my father who went in first followed by my mother. Olivia and I that got in last, she held on so tightly to my hand as we walked in like she was silently telling me to take her far away from here. I saw the dread on her face, the face that once knew nothing but sheer mischievous smile. The nurse asked us to sit down and wait for the doctor. If it was a normal Saturday, dad would have been sitting in our sitting room in his crisp caftan reading his newspaper. Mum would be making moi moi and akamu in the kitchen while Olivia and I would probably be arguing about which novelist was the worst or which girl I had crush on as we ran errands for our mother. But it was not a normal Saturday, nothing was normal. “Victor howfar? Mrs. Erhabor, it’s good to see you. I’ll see you guys now” Dr. Philip spoke to my parents. He was my father’s friend from secondary school, his small feature surprised me, I thought for a doctor he should be bigger. He was wearing a black tailored suit with a red pinstripe shirt and a black tie. He had a smile on his face that oozed confidence and comfort. He looked at Olivia like an artist will look on a work they are to replicate and asked “is she the one?”. “Yes”, dad answered as they walked into his office.
It was just I and Olivia in the room, her hand still in mine. That’s how she spoke to me most of the time, with her hands. As I looked at her, I remember almost a year ago when she was suspended from her girls only school. Mr. Kalu, her social studies teacher had advised her class that if they took their studies seriously, they could become the wives of presidents, governors, ministers, and rich men. He told Olivia that they were just girls when she asked why they couldn’t be those he mentioned instead of the wives. She had called him a sexist. I helped her write the letter of apology.
“Don’t look so sad Olivia, it will be fine again, soon” I finally said to her. She turned to me with a look that bordered on pity, “sadness is not a look, Osagie” she said, “it is a feeling.” There was always this simple sophistication about her anytime she spoke.
Some children grew up quicker than others, Olivia had grown and I wondered whether it was a good thing.
Our parents came out a few minutes later, dad told Olivia to follow mum into the examination room. Nothing in that hospital that day would have made anyone suspect that it was a subtle commercial hub for abortion. Hours later, Mummy propped Olivia as they came out with Dr. Philip trailing them with a grin shabbily smeared on his face. “It went well” my mother quietly told my father looking apologetically at Olivia, as if such a thing could ever be said to have gone well. Olivia took my hand and smiled tiredly at me. In that moment, I knew this was another thing we would never talk about, another edge of a coin we had to pretend never turned up. Our drive home was quiet.
After dropping off my parents back at home, I drive home. My girlfriend Ufuoma is sleeping on the sofa in the sitting room, her pitch-black hair dancing to the sway of the standing fan, I plant a kiss on her cheek lightly, enough not to wake her. I walk to the dining table, where my laptop is, and open the email again.
When you hear about it Osagie, don’t beat yourself up. It is not your fault, it’s life that has cursed me. Tell mummy and daddy that I know they did all they did because they love me. Tell them I forgive them. Tell them to forgive themselves too.
Osagie, my doctor said I can’t have children because I don’t have a womb. A woman without womb is half dead and half alive and I cannot live a half life anymore. Tell everyone I’m sorry.
I’m sorry, Osagie. Be my brother again in another life. Tell your children about me. I love you.
PS: Ufuoma is a good girl, put a ring on it. I read all the books you sent last month, THE ATONEMENT CHILD by FRANCINE RIVERS was my favourite.
Your sister, Olivia.
‘Samu Ekhator (@samuhub) is a farmer. He writes when he’s not playing or wondering why cooking takes so much time. He thinks every matter has two handles.
Related country: Nigeria