The Guardian, Saturday 21 December 2013
On the day our new neighbours came to our house, my brother Ofodile bit my mother on the arm. She was feeding him, pushing soft mashed yam into his mouth. She did it quickly, she always did, spoonful chasing another spoonful, then a plastic cup of water forced into his mouth to make him swallow. She did it silently, without really looking at him, her movements thick with duty, in his bedroom with the foam-carpeted floor that caught his falls. The door was always shut. Never ajar. When guests visited, the door was not just shut but locked, Ofodile sleeping inside. Sometimes she asked me to lock his door and I did it as she did, key turned swiftly, not looking in to see him first.
His piercing cries scared me. Sounds that ached and keened. High drawn-out screams filled with loneliness. They shattered the silence of every room in the house, and I would press my hands against my ears. My mother said that since he was fed and dry, he was merely expressing himself, and his crying would exhaust him and bring sleep. She would shut the door and let him cry, in that bedroom that was his life, where he ate and cried and slept. He slept more now that my mother was taking care of him. He always slept. He slept for hours and he woke up red-eyed and screaming, and my mother pushed food into his mouth between his cries. She had been taking care of him for almost a year, since she lost her job. When the new state was created, she became, overnight, a native of Anambra, a non-indigene who could no longer work in Enugu. She found another job in Anambra, and was preparing to start – she would go on Mondays and come back on Thursdays – when, one evening, a lump began to swell on Ofodile’s forehead. The nanny, Ukalechi, said Ofodile had not fallen down. Then she said Ofodile could not have fallen down, then she said she did not know if he had fallen down, because most of the time when she was taking care of him, he was alone in his room while she stayed in the parlour and watched TV. My father asked my mother: “Are you going to work out of state and let your son be killed by strangers?” He always said “your son”. Ofodile was her fault, her sin.
He was six years old and could not talk. My mother knew at his birth that something was wrong, a silent baby lying awkward in the doctor’s arms. My father’s family said she had brought this thing to them. She cancelled her job, sent Ukalechi away, and a few weeks passed before I noticed how often Ofodile slept now. With Ukalechi, Ofodile had screamed and screamed, but with my mother he screamed and slept.
On that day when our new neighbours came, Ofodile paused between screams, and sank his teeth deep in the soft flesh of my mother’s arm. She jumped, and tried to pull away from him, but his teeth held fast. In her flailing, in her pain and surprise, she hit the bottle of medicine next to Ofodile’s bowl of mashed yam. The bottle fell and spilled oval tablets, pink like sweets. Finally, my mother pushed him away and got up and looked at him as if she did not know who he was. Ofodile’s face was blank. His screams returned. My mother was examining her bleeding arm, mumbling, “He bit me seriously.” She asked me to gather the vitamin tablets and put them back in the bottle.
“Can I take one?” I asked her. I had never seen pink vitamin C tablets, not white like the sour kind or orange like the sugary kind.
“No!” my mother said. Her “No!” swelled and rose and startled me. “This one is a special vitamin for your brother, and I have to give him now.” She waited for a scream to tear open his mouth, pushed in two pink tablets and backed away as though he might bite her again. “When did he start doing this kind of thing?” she asked, as though asking herself. “Look at this blood. Let me go and find cotton wool and methylated spirit.” As she left the room, she told me, “Lock the door.”
“Have you finished feeding him?” I asked. His bowl was half-filled with mashed yam.
“Lock the door!”
Before I locked the door, I looked at Ofodile sitting up on the bed, a slack-mouthed boy, his body round and defeated, his chin slumped on to his chest. I did not often look at him.
The neighbours came a few hours later. They knocked on the front door.
They looked like a couple from a TV drama. Husband and wife, attractive and tall and dressed in impossibly neat clothes just to stay at home. “Good evening. We’re your new neighbours at number 311. We stopped by to greet you. I’m Doctor Igwe, I’m with the Medical Centre. This is my wife.”
Doctor Igwe had a thick, shiny moustache that I had seen only in drawings, never on a real person. He towered over my mother and filled the door frame. Mrs Igwe’s large slanting eyes looked sketched into her dark-skinned face. She was standing quietly behind her husband, arms folded, and seemed also somehow apart from him.
“We’re from Onitsha,” Doctor Igwe said. “My wife stayed there while I completed a fellowship abroad, but now we’re reunited and I’m looking forward to life in this, our new home!”
“Welcome, welcome,” my mother said. She asked me to come and greet them. She said, “My husband is the dean of physical sciences. I was in the state ministry but decided to leave my job to pursue some business.” Her accent became vaguely foreign. She was awed and admiring and flirtatious. She wanted to be their friend. She asked them to come to dinner, a welcome to the neighbourhood dinner, as though it was something she did for new neighbours. “Please, my sister, I know this town well, so if there is anything I can help you with, just let me know,” my mother said.
Mrs Igwe was not a smiling person. She stared at my mother with steady eyes. Then a sudden question, with no reason, no cause: “How many children do you have?”
My mother paused before she said, “Two. I have two.”
“Where is the other one?”
“He’s not feeling well.”
“Where is he?”
“He’s… he’s sleeping,” my mother said.
Doctor Igwe cut in, “OK, let’s not take up your time. We’re just going around greeting our immediate neighbours.”
After they left, my mother said, “What a strange woman. She is not what I imagined for a man like him. Yes, she is beautiful, but she is bush, she speaks English like somebody from the village and she has no manners. But him, he is a real gentleman.”
Sometimes days passed before my father saw Ofodile. He left very early for work, and came home very late, vague and sad-eyed, carrying files and papers. Sometimes while Ofodile was screaming, my father would open the door, glance in and shut it again. I did not remember the last time I had seen my father close enough to my brother to touch him.
My mother cooked the dinner herself. Rich and glistening jollof rice. Catfish pepper soup flecked with green herbs. She did not trust the housegirl, Josephine, even to fry the plantains. Doctor Igwe and his wife arrived in a light cloud of citrus, as if they both used the same body cream scented with tangerines. Doctor Igwe talked and laughed. Mrs Igwe sat silently staring at the wall. My father tried to talk to her.
“So, you’re from Onitsha,” he said.
“Yes.” She said nothing else.
“I went to secondary school there,” my father said.
“OK,” she responded.
“Doctor said you don’t eat fish,” my mother told her. “So sorry. If I had known, I would have made the pepper soup with beef.”
Mrs Igwe nodded. “Yes, I don’t eat fish.”
Doctor Igwe said, “Just before we got married, when my grandmother heard that Chidinma didn’t eat fish because it made her break out in hives, my grandmother concluded that Chidinma was a water spirit from the sea, not a real person, which is why she can’t eat fish, because fish are her siblings, and which is also why she is so beautiful. It was such an elegant theory that there was no need explaining a food allergy to the old woman!” Doctor Igwe laughed and my parents laughed.
Mrs Igwe asked, “Where is your son?”
For a moment, my mother looked startled. Mrs Igwe’s eyes were hard, black pebbles and in them was something of an accusation.
“He’s asleep. He’s not feeling well.”
“Since that day?” Mrs Igwe asked.
“Yes,” my mother said firmly and turned back to Doctor Igwe. She touched his shoulder. She touched people when she told a story. “Do you know,” she would start with a tap on a shoulder, a hand.
Josephine was serving bowls of pawpaw and pineapple. Mrs Igwe turned to my father. “Is it malaria?”
“What your son has.”
My father faltered. “Em… yes… no, actually, it appears to be some kind of virus.” Mrs Igwe looked at him silent and unblinking.
Later, after my parents escorted the Igwes to their front door across the street, my mother said, “Something is not right with that woman.”
My father was silent for a while. “I have never seen a human being so beautiful.”
Then he went up to his study. Most nights, he slept in his study.
In the morning, my mother asked what I had done with the key to Ofodile’s room.
“I don’t have it,” I said.
“Then where is it?”
“Mummy, you locked the door when the neighbours came.”
“Yes, and left the key as I always do, but now it’s gone.”
My mother called Josephine. Josephine got on her knees and searched every corner of the floor in the house. She searched Ofodile’s room. My mother searched the study, and also searched my room, in case I took the key without knowing. Even the spare key was gone, absent from the bunch of house keys kept in the corridor.
“What kind of thing is this?” my mother asked irritably.
We never found the keys.
At first, I thought the sound I heard that afternoon was from Ofodile. My mother was upstairs feeding him. But the sound did not pierce through the walls, it was dull and low-pitched. It was my mother. My mother was shouting. I ran upstairs and saw her scratching at her face and neck and arms, screeching and writhing, scratching at her legs and arms. “It must be spiders! Ants!” She scratched and shouted. But there was nothing on her body, no insects in the room. She had scratched open her face and needle-thin lines of blood ran down her cheek.
“Bring me water! Bring water!” she said, but before I could go for the water, she ran out of the room, towards the bathroom. On the corridor, she stopped. She looked around, bewildered. “It has stopped!” she said. She went into the bathroom, splashed water on her face. Then, back in Ofodile’s room, she began again to scratch and shout. “What is this? What is this?” She shouted, running out of the room. “There is something in this room!”
My mother called my father and asked him to come home immediately. “It is not a joke! Something is happening!” she said.
Ofodile was screaming.
“Go and lock the door,” my mother said.
“But Mummy, the key…”
“Then close the door!”
“The door is closed.”
“Why is he so loud?” My mother sat on the stairs, confused. “I have not given him his medicine.”
After a while, she opened the door of Ofodile’s room. He was still screaming. She walked in slowly. One careful step followed by a pause. By the second step she was slapping at her shoulder, scratching viciously at her face, and she ran back out of the room.
“Maybe it is an allergy to something there,” she said.
Ofodile’s screams were painful to hear. “Go and give him his medicine, two tablets,” my mother said.
I looked at her. I had never fed him, never given him medicine.
I went to the door, opened it. Ofodile was still sitting up on his bed. He opened his mouth and out came a long, piercing wail, then silence, then another drawn-out scream. I stepped in, waited to see if what had happened to my mother would happen to me. Nothing happened. Then I felt a sensation. A presence. Somebody was standing behind me. I turned quickly. “Mummy?”
But my mother was still by the stairs. “Give him two tablets,” she called.
I heard breathing. Someone was breathing close to me. Someone who was not Ofodile, because Ofodile was on his bed. But of course it couldn’t be. I grabbed the medicine from the table. My hands shook as I tried to open it. The bottle fell. Ofodile was now silent, watching me. I felt again the presence of breathing, of shadow. I was frozen, too afraid to stay and too afraid to leave. Ofodile began again to scream. I turned and ran out.
My mother took me out to the veranda and we sat there, looking out at the yard and saying nothing until my father came home.
“What kind of story is this?” he asked, exasperated, slightly amused. “You need to rest,” he said to my mother. But he saw how shaken she was, and how dazed I looked.
“Daddy, something was in that room,” I said.
For the slightest of moments, my father looked uncertain. His demeanour sobered. He got up to go and see. I followed him and stopped at the top of the stairs. Ofodile was still screaming, his pauses between screams were longer, but he had not stopped in more than an hour.
My father opened the door. He peered in first, and then stepped in. “I don’t…” he began, perhaps to say he did not see why we were so frightened. But his voice cut off and he said, “Oh God! Oh!” and ran back out of the room, scratching at his body as my mother had done.
Josephine served our boiled yam and greens dinner out on the veranda. My father barely ate. He looked like a person dumped blindfolded into a foreign market. My mother did not eat, could not eat; she sat there shivering, even though the weather was warm. She said she was going to sleep at Aunty Betty’s. She could not be in that house until something was done.
“What about your son?” my father asked.
My mother ignored him.
“Can I come to Aunty Betty’s with you?” I asked my mother.
“We’re staying here,” my father said. “We’ll just stay out of the room and tomorrow I will call in people to look at it.”
I said, “Ofodile is hungry.”
My parents looked at me.
“He has not stopped crying since. He usually sleeps by now.”
“He didn’t take the medicine,” my mother said.
“What?” my father asked, looking even more bewildered.
“I was going to give him his vitamins when that thing happened,” I told my father.
“Why does it matter whether or not he took vitamins, for goodness sake?” my father said.
“They are not vitamins. They are sleeping pills,” my mother said.
My father took a deep breath. “You give him sleeping pills?”
“Yes, I give him sleeping pills. Every day I give him sleeping pills,” my mother said. She stood up, defiant and defeated. “If you want, you can say you did not know.”
I felt, in that dusk-deep moment, separated from both of them. A single floating stalk. The sister of a boy who could not talk, who slept for hours and screamed for hours. I got up and ran upstairs.
“Where are you going?” my mother called.
“Chinelo!” my father said.
But they did not come after me. I went into Ofodile’s room. I sensed, again, that presence. But it was different now, perhaps because I was different now or perhaps it really was different, benign, slightly scented of tangerines. I pulled my brother up from the bed where he lay on his back. He was heavier than I imagined. I tried to carry him. He had stopped crying. He was warm; his hands were warm. I wiped at his eyes with my palm. He looked like me. His mouth was slack but he looked like me, the sparse eyebrows, the nose that flared. I tried again to carry him. I picked him up and stumbled out of the room with him. At the stairs, I put him down and held his hand as we descended. His gait was shaky. Twice his legs buckled.
My parents stood side by side staring at my brother and me.
“I’ll feed him,” I said. “In the dining room.”
CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE