Mama refused to move in with Uncle Maximus. He didn’t like it at all. If, Mama was Aunty Ebube, he probably would have beaten her to death. That day, when Mama told him to his face that she was not leaving her husband’s house or any of his property for him to squander, I was so happy. His face swelled big like a ripe boil; his eyes bulging with tiny red blood vessels gathering inside it; he was angry. I didn’t care. As far as I was concerned, Mama had won. I was naive.
Mama still cried at night. I guess she missed the creaking bed that she and Papa made at night especially. I cried too but it was more because Mama was crying than because I mourned Papa’s passing. What did I know of mourning, of death, of pain then? My biggest fears in life then, were food, Christmas gifts and bullies in my class. I was naive.
The funeral came and went without a hitch. The necessary things were bought and paid for; Papa had died prepared. Papa’s friends, business associates, distant family members, and not so distant family members came to pay their last respects. No one from Mama’s family came though. She last spoke to them, the day she signed the marriage certificate in the marriage registry, I heard.
There was food; lots of food and drinks. I ate a lot and spent most of the day watching people through the window. Mama didn’t let me go out of her sight. She sat in the room with some old women, who spent the whole day talking about how so and so person died and what caused his death. They seemed to know a lot, that I wondered if they had a hand in the deaths they spoke about.
Then my uncle Jonathan came. Uncle Jonathan was the youngest of my father’s brothers. He lived in the big city in the North, Kano. Papa used to promise to take me there for holidays but he never fulfilled the promise. He was funny and he always had a new girl anytime he came. This time, he had a very tall dark skinned girl by his side. He said her name was Emily Osunbor. She was beautiful. I told her so; she smiled and rubbed my head. I grinned then turned to see Uncle Maximus staring at us like we were plotting to steal from him.
Uncle Maximus: “Jonathan come, I want to speak to you outside.” He said.
I saw the frown appear on Uncle Jonathan’s face then disappear as quickly as it had appeared. He patted Mama’s hand then he stepped out of the house with his elder brother. I was curious. I followed them out of the room. I entered the sitting room and spied through a curtain. I saw them standing close to some plantain trees. It was too far to hear. The only way I could hear what was being said was to go to the kitchen. So I rushed into the kitchen, bumping into women with big buttocks and bossoms. I apologized as I twisted and turned, bent and dodged to the back door. I arrived there with charcoal stains on my clothes and on my skin but I didn’t care; I could hear the two men talk
Jonathan: “brother, this is not right. You know this woman needs all the help she can get. She sacrificed her family, the love of her father to marry our late brother and now you want to turn her to a beggar because of your greed…” he said.
The slap sounded like a loud clap of thunder in my ears. My eyes widened as Uncle Jonathan’s hands formed fist; his face grim with anger.
I expected a fight but suddenly the tension fled his body like a deflated balloon. He walked away and Uncle Maximus smirked. I knew I had missed something important. I wished I had reached that spot on time but what was done was done.
When I got back to Mama’s room, Uncle Jonathan was already there. There was no sign that he had just received a hard slap some minutes ago. I remembered the slap at the hospital; Uncle Maximus’ palm was hard. I entered the room to see Uncle Jonathan putting something into mama’s hands. She looked up and her eyes widened in shock
Matilda: “young lady, where have you been? Look at your clothes! Are you mad?” she shouted, getting up to strike me.
I didn’t shift back in fear. She always threatens me like that but she has never struck me; never. I looked at Uncle Jonathan and he was looking at me in a funny way.
Jonathan: “you have to be a good girl now. You should not give your mother stress. Both of you have to take care of each other, okay?” he asked.
Princess: “why did big uncle slap you?” I asked, ignoring his advice.
Anger flashed on his face and disappeared. He looked from me to Mama but I don’t think Mama heard; even then, she was already closing up within herself. He turned to me and beckoned me to the doorway;
Jonathan: “Princess, you are still a child but now you have a responsibility. You have to protect your mother from your Uncle, Maximus. I know it is a big thing I ask of you, and I am not sure you understand what I mean. Your uncles do not mean you and your mother well. I wished I could help but am the baby of the family and no one listens to me. Take this; if anything happens, call me. Do you hear me? Call me.” He said, drawing his ear with his hand as he gave me piece of paper that had a phone number on it. I nodded; my eyes wide. I was too scared to speak.
Some minutes later, Uncle Jonathan left with his tall girlfriend. I will not see him again for many years to come. I had gone to have my bath and changed my clothes, when he left. I came back to Mama’s room, very hungry. I demanded for food and jollof rice and meat was given to me. I sat down on the bed and ate my food.
The door curtain moved aside and Papa’s two younger sisters; Auntie Debbie and Auntie Priscilla entered the room. Both of them were unmarried women in their mid-30s; busybodies and gossips and they also disliked Mama.
Auntie Debbie: “Matilda, the family wants to see you.” she said; looking around the room with her nose in the air.
Matilda: “let me get properly dressed, I am coming.” She said softly, moving off the bed.
Auntie Priscilla: “abeg, fast o; I don’t have all day. I have places to be. Moving like cows… are you pregnant?” she asked, jutting her chin forward aggressively.
I removed bits of meat stuck in my teeth and spat it at their feet. Their eyes blazed with fury and Auntie Debbie moved as if to strike me but Mama stood up in front of me
Matilda: “let’s go.” She said, then she turned to look at me and wagged her finger at me; “behave yourself young lady.” She added in a stern voice. I smiled; she was struggling to hold the laughter from her face. It felt good to see her cheerful. Then she turned and walked away with the two witches.
I was asleep when Mama crept into my room. It was late in the night, I am sure. I could hear crickets chirping in the cupboard close to the window and the moon was high in the sky. I opened my eyes and turned to look at her as she climbed my bed and laid beside me.
Matilda:”I could not sleep.” She said and wrapped her hands around me. I snuggled closer to her, reveling in the warmth and softness of her skin. “Your father’s family wants me to marry your Uncle Maximus.” She added, speaking into my hair.
I remembered what Uncle Maximus had said in my room several months earlier.
Princess: “I don’t like him. He beats his wife.” I replied. I didn’t share my fears or my uncle’s warnings with her. Would it have turned out any different if I had? I will never know. We cannot see the future, no matter how much we speculate at the past.
Matilda: “I refused them sha. Your father had a will, so they cannot force me out of this house or anything but we have to be prepared. So I am selling this house and we are going to move to Benin.” She said.
Princess: “Benin! Yeah! I always wanted to go to Benin. We will be staying there? I will see the zoo, and the museum and the Oba’s palace…” I said excitedly, jumping up on my bed.
Matilda: “shh… you will wake our guests. You will see it. You will go to school there, and make new friends there.” She replied, smiling in the dark.
I laid back down on the bed and started playing with the gold necklace around her neck. She started rubbing my head;
Princess: “Mama, is it true that bats fly during the day in Benin?” I asked, as my eyes closed again, in the protective embrace of mama. I never heard her reply but I am sure it was yes.
I came back from school, two weeks after papa’s burial, to find the door locked. Mama was always home to welcome me from school. Or did she go to the shop? I wondered. I dropped my school bag on the floor near the door and turned back to the road. I arrived at the shop, to find it also locked. This was not normal. The shop was always open except on Sundays. I loitered about, unsure of what to do, when the landlady, Mrs. Otite, came out of the compound and saw me;
Mrs. Otite: “Ha princess, how are you? You have closed from school?”She asked smiling.
Princess: “yes ma. Good afternoon ma. Please ma, did you see my mother?” I asked.
Mrs Otite: “ha… hmmm… it was unbelievable o, my daughter. Police just appeared from nowhere as if they were pursuing kidnappers or armed robbers o; as if they can pursue armed robbers like that sef. They packed your mother into their Hilux truck and took her away o. I think it is Ekpan Police Station. One of the policemen looked familiar… where are you going to? Wait!” she shouted.
I was already running as fast as my tiny legs could carry me. My heart was beating fast. “You have to protect your mother” those were the only words in my head as I headed to the police station.
Question: Uncle Maximus does not want the widow and her daughter to live in peace. Is it by force to marry? Shuo! Do you think Uncle Maximus is responsible for Matilda’s arrest? If you were Matilda what will you do?