I was running through the bushes behind Mazi Uwa’s compound, and my hands were full with the udara fruits I’ve managed to pluck; behind me, I could hear him shouting my name, and cursing at the same time.
“Come back here this good-for-nothing boy! Why have you chosen to torment me all the time?” he shouted as he chased me. I knew that he couldn’t catch me even if I crawled, he was so old, but that didn’t deter him. I rounded a corner and soon his voice wasn’t audible. I’d lost him again.
I ran towards the stream, wanting to wash myself before heading home. As I untied my wrapper, I heard sniffles coming from behind one of the trees along the bank of the stream. Ever curious, I retired my cloth and went to investigate. As I approached, I became sure that someone was crying; and when I reached the tree, I saw a girl huddled behind the tree, her head on her knees.
I touched her arm and with teary eyes, she looked up at me. Her eyes were full of immense sadness and loneliness. My heart went out to her immediately.
“Young girl, why are you crying?” I asked, careful to keep my distance from her so as not to scare her. But she didn’t reply. Instead she increased the tempo of her cries. I then risked getting close to her and helping her up her feet. As I did so, her feet have way and she landed on my bare chest, her palms were wet with tears and her lips were quivering with barely controlled weeping.
“What is your name?”
“Nnenna,” she answered, still sniffing.
“My dear, talk to me. I won’t hurt you OK?”
When she nodded, I continued, “Why are you crying?”
“It’s my parents. They want me to get married to a man I don’t want to marry,” she answered. Her eyes were bloodshot and saliva was coming out from the corners of her mouth. I used to hem of my wrapper to wipe it off.
“Who are your parents?”
“My father is Mazi Okonkwo of Uwaezue clan and my mother is Nnedi the seamstress.”
I knew her parents; her father was the village town crier, who was always borrowing from people and never paying back. He had had a run-in with my father over some yam tubers my father had sold to him. He had refused to pay the full amount, saying that my father had wanted to cheat him. In the end, my father had been advised to forget the remainder of the money for peace to reign. Now, he was also tormenting his daughter.
“It’s all right. Let’s go back to your parents. I will talk to them.” I didn’t know what I would tell them if I met them, but I had to calm her down. She was stronger than she looked, and soon the cries reduced to whimpers. She arranged her clothes, smoothening the roughened edges of her wrapper.
“I don’t think you can change their mind about my marriage. Unfortunately, that is my lot in life.”
The way she resigned to her fate stabbed at my heart. I silently vowed to find a way to extricate her from the present predicament. I went to the place I kept my stolen udara, brought them out and offered her some. Joyfully, she took six of them and left four for me.
Seeing her so ecstatic made me forgive her for the way she unthinkingly took more than half of the juicy fruit.
“Oh, thank you! Udara is my best fruit. Where did you get it?” she asked.
“I think you’d rather not know,” I replied, winking at her. She let out a throaty giggle which sent tingles to the tips of my fingers.
We then walked the narrow path to her father’s house, all the while chatting and getting to know each other better. I learnt that she was twenty-one years old (quite old enough to be married) and was planning to start up sewing soon. When she told me about her intended, her face darkened again and I was instantly sorry I had pried.
“I was betrothed to the wrestler, Ikemefuna when I was three years old; he had wanted to pay my bride price when I was eighteen but I never wanted to marry him. I had delayed him by saying that I was not ready. But I’m afraid that this time, nothing would deter him from going on with it.”
“How old is he?” I was concerned that she was so much against this marriage. She never smiled whenever she talked about him.
“He would be thirty-five years by the next full moon. He wants me to be his third wife!”
“What would it take to make this marriage not to work?” As I stared into her dreamy eyes, I was shocked and thrilled about the feelings that coursed through me. I totally wanted to remove her from all manner of pain.
“Nothing. There’s nothing you or anyone else can do to change my father’s mind. My fate is sealed,” she lamented, streams of hot tears cascading down her magnificent face.
As I was about to say something to console her, her father stormed out of the barn very close to where we were and shouted, “What is my daughter, the wife of another man doing with the son of a village charlatan?” He dragged her away from me, and glared at me with vicious eyes, “I don’t want to ever see you near my daughter ever again. If I do, I will report you to the village council.”
Because of the delicate girl whose eyes were wide with terror, I backed down and started off towards my house. I hoped that I would find a way to make that marriage impossible.
When I got home, I decided on what to do. In the evening, I went into my father’s obi and told him that I wanted to talk to him about something very important.
“What is my son?” he asked. He was in a boisterous mood after having conducted a successful business deal and eating a very delicious onugbu soup prepared by my mother.
“I would prefer if both you and mother were around. It is a very delicate issue.”
He asked me to fetch my mother. When she arrived, I repeated what I had said to my father. With avid curiosity, they looked at me to spill the beans.
“Father, Mother, I’ve decided to get married,” I announced, a little worried. Was I right in what I was doing?
My father immediately brightened up, took my hand and pumped it up and down. “You’re indeed my son! This is what we have been waiting for.” My mother got up, and untying her wrapper half way, swayed her hips to a rhythm only her could hear; again she reminded us that she was the best dancer of her time. After about thirty seconds of jubilation, she sat down and asked me, “Nwa m, have you found any girl or should we look for one?”
“Yes mama, I’ve found one, so don’t bother about looking for a girl.”
“Who is she?” my father queried.
“She’s the daughter of Mazi Okonkwo of Uwaezue clan,” I answered.
What was it about what I said that was bad? Their faces turned sour at the mention of her father’s name.
“Who did you just say?” they asked in unison.
“I said she’s the daughter of Mazi Okon—”
He cut me off, “Of all the damsels in this village, you chose the daughter of that troublemaker?”
My mother chipped in, “Wait, isn’t that the same girl who I heard was getting married in four market days time?”
This was harder than I thought. “Yes, it is the same girl. We can meet her parents tomorrow or next so as to quicken the pace of proceedings.”
“Have you started drinking?” questioned my father. He was angry, and whenever he was angry, the nerves on his bald head bulged.
“Even if it was possible to meet them, would you expect them to disappoint the man she had been betrothed to?”
“But she doesn’t want to marry him! She does not love him!” I protested.
“What do know about love?” my mother asked, “You think she loves you?”
“I love her and I believe she would grow to love me too.”
“My son, there is no need going after a girl who has already been promised to another person. It would not look well at all where people are concerned. Our village is full of beautiful girls whom you can chose from.”
“I know all these things. But my heart is set on Nnenna,” I announced as I quietly left them staring open-mouthed at me.
Two days later, and my parents haven’t yet agreed. I went to her place hoping to see her and inform her of my plans. She wasn’t around but her mother was. Her mother, the antithesis of her father welcomed me happily and offered me some abacha to eat. I asked about Nnenna and was told that she went to her betrothed place for some errands. After eating my abacha, I went back home.
My mother then asked me to visit my maternal grandmother; according to her, she’d missed me and wanted to see me. The most terrible thing happened while I was gone. Nnenna’s mother had innocently mentioned my interest in their daughter to her husband. The man told Ikemefuna to hasten his plans of marrying Nnenna. Three days after I was gone, Nnenna was married. Married to a she never loved.
When I came back and got the news, I was so devastated that I didn’t eat for two days. All my parents’ efforts to make me take something were futile. A girl I’d met for just a day had completely influenced my life forever.
I then wondered about the idea of betrothing two people who barely knew each other; was it no time we scraped such a custom? Why subject people to loveless marriages simply because the respective parents deemed it fit?
As I sat at the foot of the tree where I’d first seen her, I thought about her and wished that in the end, she would have a happy marriage.