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Ten-year-old Adaugo woke under the udala tree, gasping. The voice of her mother echoed in her thoughts. She had not been sleeping well since the flood and had taken to nodding off in the shade of this tree. From where she sat, she saw a woman struggling to bathe her son as the baby played with the water. Another woman sat in front of her tent, rocking herself back and forth as she breastfed her baby. Men filled different corners of the camp, discussing. Some of them even had the effrontery to laugh. There was nothing funny. It had been two weeks since she was the girl with a father and a mother and a baby brother. One week ago, doctors and nurses in a hospital were telling her that she was an erosion survivor. And now she was alone in this camp, with others grabbed from their homes by what had come to pass between gods, nature, and men. She knew that the doctors were right. If either of her parents had survived, they would have found her by now. Yet, she held on to that hope that she was not alone. She lived in the past. The present was too painful, the future, unimaginable.
A loud belch interrupted her quiet. He was sitting on the other side of the tree, the man who belched. She could see his hairy hands, cracked heels, sand-stuffed toenails, and how his thighs spread and flattened in his faded green trousers. She wondered if the night of the flood he’d been wearing those same trousers or was he wearing, like her, the charity of the Catholic Church? She looked at the dress on her body. Whose was it before? Was the owner happy to let it go? She remembered her padlock. She touched the side of the dress and recalled that it had no side pockets. She sighed. Her eyes misted as she thought of her brother.
She remembered his small pink lips latched to one of her mother’s nipples. Her mother always left her gigantic breast on the baby’s mouth while she conversed with her friends. Adaugo shuddered as she recalled when her brother was just a week old and struggled to hold on to the nipple. It seemed as though that milk-filled sack held his little lips down. So Adaugo gently placed her fingers under her mother’s breasts to assist her brother. Something that felt like a balloon filled with water landed on her head. She turned and saw her mother holding her breast, ready to strike again. “It’s like you need a slap, ọkwia?” her mother said. She recalled when her mother, while they bathed and dressed Baby, told her that Baby’s birth wiped shame from her face, made her a woman, and stamped her presence in her husband’s house. Was she not stamp enough, Adaugo wondered, sitting there, beside her mother? Or would her brother turn to a stamp like the one her headmaster put on her report card?
The man in the green trousers cut short Adaugo’s thoughts.
“Arụ mere!” he said to another man now standing over him. “I tell you, someone committed a sacrilege against Amadioha!”
“It’s not me and you that will discuss this one today. I don’t have time for it,” said his deep-voiced friend, as he also found a spot under the udala tree.
“I am telling you so that we can convince other men here. Let us go and find those people who see, let them help us appease Amadioha.”
Adaugo wondered why diviners were always referred to as “people who see” as though the rest of them were blind.
“Appease Amadioha so that what will happen?”
“So that he will not strike us again with thunder and lightning.”
Adaugo remembered that flash of lightning. She had thought the lightning looked like her father’s palmar flexion, which he used to teach her psychic reading. Accompanying the lightning was a resounding thunderclap. The very ground under their feet shook. Adaugo hugged herself, covering her nose from the dust.
Her father laughed, along with his friend the headmaster, who had just arrived. “Who annoyed Amadioha?” her father asked.
“Good evening, sir,” she greeted.
“I am fine, thank you, sir.”
That was the answer she assumed he expected of her even though he spoke Igbo.
Or should I have said ọ dị mma?
She bent her head shyly. Her eyes caught her headmaster’s sparkling white stockings in his brown shoes. His shirt was red polka-dotted, his tie was black, and his trousers dark green. He looked like a juicy watermelon.
“Bring our bench to our…you know where, Ada m.”
She dashed off, almost trampling on a fleeing fowl, and returned carrying the rain-softened, termite-infested wooden bench in one hand and a stronger wooden stool in the other hand. She settled the furniture on their favorite spot: under the udala tree. She ran back inside to her father’s room, retrieved a bottle of Aromatic Schnapps, and two shot glasses, which she set before them.
Her father smiled and rubbed her tight newly-plaited cornrows. “Good girl. Ngwa, sit beside me and rest.”
Adaugo sat on the ground and folded her legs. That was when her mother came out, knotting her lappa tightly around her chest.
Baby must be asleep.
“I bata go?”
Can’t you see him there already?
“Yes, I am back, my wife. Thank you.”
She smiled at the teacher. “Onye nkuzi, nnọọ.”
“Thank you. Kedụ maka obere nwa?”
“He is asleep,” her mother said. “That one that wants to suck me dry.”
They laughed. The second thunderclap came the moment she smiled. She had caught her father looking at her mother’s onion-shaped backside absentmindedly while her mother returned to the kitchen. She smiled.
Thunderclap. She felt admonished by the thunder. Her feet vibrated.
The headmaster dusted his trousers. “Let me go. This looming rain will be very heavy.”
“But you only just arrived. Would you not join us for dinner?”
“If I eat your own, who will eat my wife’s own? Or you think I want to come and squat in this shithole you live?”
Adaugo’s father laughed, patting his friend’s back. Adaugo sighted her mother approaching, carrying a tray of two covered stainless-steel bowls. The headmaster stood.
“Ahn-ahn, Onye nkuzi, you can see me bringing food and you are going.”
“Eeh, let me rush home before the rain starts. Next time I will settle in for a meal of nsala and mgbaduga.”
Adaugo’s mother tipped her head backward, closed her eyes, and laughed out loud, exposing her midline diastema and left-sided dimple. Adaugo smiled. It felt good to see her mother enjoying herself. Her mother dropped the tray on the stool, retrieved one bowl, and walked away. They bade goodbye to Onye Nkuzi.
“Come closer, Ada m, I will feed you.”
Adaugo grinned and went to her father. He carried her on his lap. He uncovered the bowl and the sweet aroma of jollof rice caressed their noses. Her father pushed the rice away from the middle of the bowl, creating a hole like a volcano in the middle of the rice. Adaugo watched as steam escaped.
“Jide please leave me alone,” said the deep-voiced man, making it seem like the udala tree was in fact speaking. “I am not in the mood.”
“I cannot leave you alone, Eze,” said, Jide, raising his voice even louder as though he wanted others to hear him. “I saw it with my two eyes. Is it today that rain started falling in this town? Why then did this one kill people? Have you seen the mountain of corpses?”
Adaugo shivered. Were her parents two of the stones in that mountain?
Eze sounded angry and impatient. “I have told you that Anambra State is erosion-prone. What happened is simply erosion, mbuze. Mbuze! It has nothing to do with Amadioha. The rains have been very heavy recently and this is the peak of the rainy season. So what do you expect?”
“What I expect is for the rain to fall and go, not to cause havoc. This is no ordinary rain, Eze, I am telling you now. I saw a white ram in the sky that night. It was licking its lips as if it was drinking water. It made the lightning brighter, the rain heavier, the thunder louder. What else is a white ram if not Amadioha? If we do not do something, he will strike again, and this time, we might not survive.”
Eze sighed heavily. “Were you not an illiterate, you would have heard of climate change.”
“I am talking of rainy season and you are talking of climate. I don’t even understand you!”
It was the rainy month of July when fresh cashew and mango gave way to fresh corn and groundnut. Adaugo listened to the harmonious songs of the women, the laughter of playing children, the bleating of goats, and the gbum-gbum-gbum pecks between the hoe and the soil. She cradled her three-week-old brother under the orange tree while her mother combed her ridges for weeds, stopping occasionally to stretch her arms and wipe sweat from her face and neck. As dusk approached, the women and children gathered their corn, groundnuts, peppers, okra, and whatever else they’d harvested into their raffia baskets for the journey home. Adaugo frowned when her mother traded some of her beloved okra for some crazy spinach. Adaugo’s mother secured Baby safely on her back using a lappa and ụja. She balanced her basket of corn and vegetables on her head and gave the hoe to Adaugo while they joined others in the walk back to the village, via the dusty narrow road, in groups of twos and threes, children in front. Adaugo tagged along with her friend, Ngozi. Whenever a car approached, they made way, almost entering the bush. Most times, the sputtering of the crawling car or motorcycle interfered with their discussions.
“Did I tell you that . . . ”
“Say that again?”
When they got home, Adaugo did not need to be told. First, she wiped her father’s radio clean of any speck of dust. Second, she set the rubber bath and buckets for her mother to bathe Baby. She also placed the clear medium-sized plastic container, which held all Baby’s clothes, on the bed. She unhooked its green lid, wondering why it had a lock hasp that was never used. After that, she picked her mud-caked blue pail from the backyard and rushed out to fetch water. Adaugo was grateful for the borehole dug by Senator Ezegbo. They no longer had to go down the two-hundred-and-fifty steps of the Ezekoro stream, carrying a pail of water on their heads. Luckily for her, the borehole was close to her house, but she missed fetching water from the stream because she no longer had an excuse to go swimming with her friends. After seven trips to the borehole, Adaugo filled their blue, plastic water drum to the brim. She snapped the drum shut but left its padlock in the side pocket of her cream-colored dress. She made a mental note to lock it up before going to bed.
“I am telling you, Jide,” Eze said, “look at all the boreholes dug by that useless senator on this weak soil.”
“You only wish the borehole was closer to your own house. Which other politician, apart from this one that you have tagged useless, has ever done something for this our town, Achina? Eeh?”
“All these politicians are riff-raff. Had the useless man done his assignment before drilling that bomb down the road, he would have realized that this area is very weak. His stupid borehole is what has landed us here. What has happened to us,” Eze said, waving his hand at their new tent city, “will happen again and again. Achina will all sink at the very thought of an earthquake.”
“Then I am not afraid. Earthquake is the white man’s cross,” Jide said, hissing.
“You are just impossible, you this civil servant.”
“And you are too unreasonable, you this akada,” Jide retorted.
Adaugo wondered when “Akada” became an insult. She used to smile whenever her headmaster called her “Akada” when she excelled in class. It made her happy that an educated man called her “Academic.”
“I keep telling you,” Eze said, pulling himself up off the ground now. “I keep telling you all. Climate change is a reality. The world has to do something about it.”
“And as I was telling you, just as with World War I and II, climate change is the white man’s problem. It will not reach here.”
“What kind of reasoning is that? Is it not the same earth we have?”
“We always have this discussion in my office. This earth is big. That America and Co. destroyed their air does not mean that our own air is destroyed. After all, their people die of air pollution but have you ever heard anyone here dying of air pollution?”
“What do you bunch of groundnut-eating state ministry workers know about the world?”
“Don’t worry your educated head, my friend, we are safe here. Let the earth even destroy these white men, let us rule the world.”
“Adaugo, they are calling you in the office.”
Adaugo saw Emeka standing in front of her. She had not noticed when he came there. He looked undeterred by their refugee status. Maybe because he was with his family.
“Yes. They are waiting for you in the office,” he said, waved at his fellow scruffy-looking friend, grinned, and ran away.
So many things crossed Adaugo’s mind. Maybe Esther, the tiny woman who was in charge of feeding them, had located her parents. She was so slim that Adaugo felt she too needed the food she distributed to them. Adaugo watched her every evening as she walked around the camp, made small talk with some women, laughed, waved to others; and Adaugo wondered why she was here. Had she no family?
As Adaugo ran to the office tent after Emeka’s news, she imagined her mother, sitting on a chair, breastfeeding her brother. But when she entered the room, only Esther was there. And Esther clearly read the disappointment on the girl’s face.
“Adaugo, I want you to know that I have contacted your headmaster. He will come for you soon.”
Onye Nkuzi is coming? Adaugo’s eyes brightened. She smiled. He is coming to take me to my parents and my brother. She beamed. She was going home!
That night in the tent she shared with the other children still waiting for their parents, she had the recurring dream, a rearview mirror of her reality: her head heavy as if a big stone was on her neck, forcing her down, her legs immersed in water.
Her brother cries out. Her mother jumps up from the bed, clutching her chest.
“Adaugo, kedụ ihe ọ bụ?”
Adaugo’s mother scoops Adaugo from the floor and drops her on the bed beside her crying brother. Her father rushes in. Screams of misery everywhere.
Her mother shouts, “What is going on?”
The thunder claps louder. Strong sounds of rain on the zinc roof.
Adaugo watches her mother’s hand retreat from the bed. She walks to the window, the water on the floor making woosh-swash sounds as her mother moves. The next lightning accompanies another thunderclap. The house shakes. Baby cries louder, waving his arms. Her mother staggers but does not fall. Adaugo watches as the water rises to her father’s legs. Her mother parts the brown window curtain and looks outside, then back at her husband and children, shaking her head. She is bewildered. Another bolt of lightning. This time, it is so close that the house is illuminated for ten seconds.
“Mbuze!” her mother screams.
In a flash, that part of the house gives way with her mother in it.
Adaugo deafens herself calling, “Nnem!”
Water swashes into the house and drags her father’s leg. He falls but grabs one of the iron legs of the bed. Angry, hungry, the rippling water pulls at her father tearing off his lappa and exposing his manhood. The waves fling the lappa and grip the man even more forcefully. Screaming, frantic, Adaugo catches his free hand and tries to pull him up, but the water is stronger than both of them. The iron leg squeaks. Adaugo looks at her father. Shrieks of “Ewoo! Anwụọla mo!” rent the air, but apart from the baby’s wails, Adaugo’s house is suddenly silent. Even if her father’s face drips water, she sees tears fall from his eyes.
“All is well, Ada m.”
Adaugo shakes her head. “No! Nnam! Please! Stay with me!”
Her father lets go of the iron leg. The water licks him up instantly. She wails, watching him struggle to stay afloat until his arms stop moving and disappear into the water. Rain pours on her, slapping her skin. Her brother shrieks. She remembers she is not alone. She turns to him. The water swallows the legs of the bed inch by inch. She turns to carry her brother, but the key in her pocket pinches her. The transparent medium-sized plastic box suddenly looks like a castle. She grabs the box and opens it. The water level grows higher to the edge of the bed. She places her brother inside the plastic box, locks it with the padlock from her pocket, and sets her brother’s vessel on the water.
She watches her crying brother float away. Floating away beside him is the head of the neighbor Azuka, her body buried in the water. Her friend, Ngozi, screams as the water sweeps her away. Adaugo’s house shakes again, and this time, it dissolves like salt into the roaring flood. She hears a bang as loud as thunder crashing on her head. She feels vertiginous, her head heavy again. Everywhere becomes black, but the cries of woe still drum in her ears as her body surrenders to the unrelenting current.
The roar of water fills her ears; the words of others fill her thoughts.
That one that wants to suck me dry.
All is well, Ada m.
A man who fears a lot dies so many times.
Copyright © 2021 Kasimma, from All Shades of Iberibe, used with permission from Sandorf Passage.