Fall 2011, Volume 11

Fiction by Samuel Sabo

Shuttered Windows

I have told the women in our block to stop comparing me to Amarya. Just because we got married in the same year does not make me her mate. She was brought from the village to her husband’s house while mine courted me for months before I introduced him to my parents. She cannot even read properly and still uses Baju words when she speaks. Till she got married and moved to Kaduna, she had never been to a city before and in the last two years she has not been outside the barracks much. When she first arrived Mama Odion paired us together when we did sanitation on Saturday. My husband encouraged me to teach her things because he was now friends with Amarya’s husband and they both went on sentry duties together.

She came to my house one day with a film and said we should watch it together. I asked if there was something wrong with their VHS player and she said no. I told her I did not like the film. She said I should choose what we should watch. She was not going to leave easily and I figured if I do this now it will buy me breathing space for some time. I had rented Bridgestone and saved it for when my husband left for work. So together we sat on the cushion and watched it. She laughed at every joke and did not even notice that I did not join her. She then said RMD resembled her husband and I looked at her as if to slap her. I should have played Osofia instead. Halfway through the film she fell asleep. I was going to wake her up but changed my mind and watched the rest in peace.

I had one miscarriage and it took my husband and I some time before we started trying again. Months passed and nothing happened. Amarya’s husband told mine that his mother said he might have to marry another woman and that he was thinking seriously about it. It did not occur to me till the next morning when he was dressing for work who in fact had given him this advice.

So your mother thinks you should marry again? I said and he carried on lacing his boots. I threw his belt on the floor and left the room.

Outside in the veranda, Amarya was mopping her floor. She waved and I quickly turned my face. The talk in our block then became about which of us would get pregnant first. The other women would tease us both especially Mama Odion. After raising again the matter of cementing the mouth of the well she held me by the waist and placed her ear on my belly. Then went over to Amarya, did the same and raised her voice.

The babies are coming, somebody shout hallelujah. The women chorused hallelujah and laughed. Amarya picked up her basin and hurried up the stairs to her house. This only made the women laugh harder.

I thought she would be happy for another reason for us to be in the same bracket but she hated it when people talked about children in her presence. She was not nice to the ones in our block and she even beat Mama Zugwai’s last born when the poor boy did not greet her. When Mama Zugwai confronted her she cowered to her veranda. She said to Amarya that if she continued treating children badly she will never have hers and this made Amarya flare up in such a rage she had to be restrained. Mama Zugwai quietly returned to her veranda. Everyone was shocked. I avoided her for some time and no one knocked on her door the next day Saturday when we cleaned.

Me, I gave away sweets to the children in our block and even offered to help at the Sunday school class but they had enough teachers. The older girls came over to my house and hung about sometimes helping me with chores. They told me I would be a good mother because I paid attention to them unlike their mothers who never let them speak.

I asked them what they thought of Amarya and they said women like her have a closed womb which is why they hate children. I told them not to talk about an elderly person that way and that we should all have regard for people even when we do not like them.

One morning, Amarya turned up at the well with a little girl beside her. The padlock Mama Odion closed the well with had been broken again. She said to us all that whoever did it should know that she has enough money to buy a thousand more and if she ever caught that person she would report him or her to the commanding officer. And it was true she could. As Magajiya the CO always listened to her especially when he drank at her beer parlour. I turned to Amarya who let the little girl stand in the queue with her basin and metal bucket while she stood beside her. It’s only three hundred Naira, said Mama Odion raising three fingers, three hundred Naira from each house to pay for the cement and workmanship. It is dangerous to leave the well wet and slippery when there are children running about.

There was a collective murmur but no one paid. The way she said ‘three hundred Naira’ with her fat fingers, you would think it was a piece of paper you could find anywhere. She finished and opened the well asking us all to form a straight line. It was soon my turn. I filled both of my basins and took the first one upstairs. When I came back for the second I saw Amarya watching the girl tie a gomo. She weaved the wrapper smoothly into a circle and placed it on her head before lifting the basin, with Amarya’s help, onto it.

She could not have been more than eight. We thought she was her niece or something till she instructed the children in our building to call her Maman Zuwaira. She then referred to the girl as her daughter. Maybe she thought we were too consumed in our lives not to notice. To help her, I and the other women decided to call her Maman Zuwaira. We would ask how her daughter was and when she was going to start school. She either played along or believed we were convinced. The girl never said much and would watch from the second floor balcony as other kids played downstairs. Amarya did nothing about her matted hair that looked like a frayed mop that was browned with dirt and always wet. She couldn’t even plait it for her or cut it off so that it grew back into a bed. If I were her I would put her in a good school. Children like her will succeed and owe you for life.

It turned out the girl could not speak pidgin, only Baju and a little Hausa.  She must have grown up in a deep deep village which might explain why she worked like a grown woman. I used to see her in the backyard washing Amarya’s clothes and scraping the insides of pots with a spoon. When she scrubbed, the floor was never too wet to leave messy footprints when someone stepped on yet it was clean enough to make my husband ask me why I haven’t mopped our veranda - even when I had. Stupid girl! She made my husband even consider bringing a girl from his hometown as if I don’t know how these things go. He gets tempted, impregnates the naff and then what, I leave or become a second wife?

I woke him up one night and told him I was in my season and he said he had been on sentry for twelve hours and was too tired. I told him it might be his best opportunity to impregnate me. He hissed and turned over. Next thing I heard was a snore. Can you imagine? There are men out there paying to sleep with prostitutes and there I was offering myself only for him to hiss.

I shook him awake and he just shrugged me off. I lay back down and tried to sleep but could not. I got up and parted my curtains. It was too dark to see who it was though I could tell it was a woman because she took off her first wrapper, rolled it into a gomo and placed it on her head before lifting a bucket onto it. When she bent I saw a girl behind her and I knew it was Zuwaira.

Amarya must have been stealing the well water for a long time. No wonder it was sometimes brown in the morning having been stirred by their fetching. And she must have been hiding it in her bedroom which is why I never saw it. She came up the stairs while Zuwaira filled a second bucket at the well. I thought about going to Mama Odion’s house and waking her so she could see for herself. Or maybe catch her when she walked past my veranda and call everyone out to see. Before I decided, she crept past my window to her house. I tapped my husband awake so he could be a witness but the useless man did not even move.

I decided to catch her when she returned with a full bucket on her head and call out our neighbours. That way she would not be able to deny it. I got up and went to the living room window near the door. Zuwaira gently lowered the fetcher, wiggled the rope and when it was full she hoisted it up taking as much care not to graze the bucket against the wall of the well. She emptied the water in a bucket and continued. Amarya returned with a basin in one hand and a mop in the other. She bent down and swiftly wiped the water trail on the veranda and went down the stairs. Then it happened, I heard a screech and saw Zuwaira struggling to pull the fetcher out of the well. It appeared stuck. She planted her foot by the mouth and dragged the rope. Amarya emerged from the building and hurried to help beckoning her to be quiet. Just then she slipped and in one movement fell into the well making this splashing sound. Amarya froze. The rest of the fetcher’s rope slithered into the hole, the knot at its end clanged against the metal rim and left a brief echo.

I stepped back from the window and hit my legs on the centre table. I stood there my hands on my breasts not sure what to do. Maybe she fell beside it. I parted the curtain again. Amarya remained standing there staring at the well. I went back to bed, lay back down and pulled the blanket over myself. I don’t know why but I fell asleep immediately.

A chorus of voices woke me in the morning. Blocks of sunlight fell in through the window brightening up the room and illuminating swirls of dust particles. My head still foggy with sleep I felt around the bed and found a big lump. It was my husband. I climbed down the bed and parted the curtain. The sunlight blinded me. I closed it, took a moment to recover before going to the living room window. A mass of bodies crowded the mouth of the well held back by the ringside of soldiers with canes. I came out to the balcony and leaned over the metal rails. 

Amarya was groveling in the mud. Someone had to stand between her and the well to prevent her from rolling into it. With ropes around their waists, a row of men tugged the body out of it. Madam Odion stood near them with fingers clasped behind her head.  Her wrapper was loose exposing her white underwear. When the men finally pulled the body to the surface, the chorus of murmurs swelled and bodies pressed forward stretching the barricade of soldiers.

That evening, an emergency meeting was called and it was agreed that we should pay the money for the repair. I told them to wait till month’s end when my husband got paid and they looked at me as if I killed the child. Mama Odion offered to pay for me. I told her I might not have a beer parlour but I am very capable of coming up with five hundred Naira.

I know she has been talking about repairing that well since last year when the rains washed the mud around it. Few people paid and God knows I had the money then. But if the older women whose husbands have higher ranks than my husband don’t pay, why should I? These same women were now sitting in Amarya’s room shaking their heads. Who knows, maybe they were moaning the fact that our well was now closed and we all had to continue begging for the sandy brown water from other buildings. Even Mama Odion was shaking her fat head. Someone must have paid for me because days later some men began filling the puddle with sand and mixing cement on the patch of grass nearby. I watched them through my bedroom louvers and one man even stood right at the spot where Zuwaira was just before she fell.

I visited Amarya once but my husband insisted that I spend more time with her. I told him I had house work to do. He said he would do it. So I had to sit on Amarya’s bedroom floor by her bed because the older women sat on the benches and stools. She did not bother preparing food for the mourners and we all had to share a bottle of coke, one to a pair. We also had to wear grey-clouded faces, listen to her pretend sobs and say sorry again and again. What a joke! Some of those women did not even know who Zuwaira was and none of us had ever spoken to her. If they had paid for the repairs back when we were asked to, she might still be alive. And nobody has asked Amarya what she was doing at the well at that time of the night.

No one was truly going to miss that girl. Her parents could probably not feed her and so they parceled her to the first person that wanted her. And now that she is dead they had one less child to worry about without carrying the guilt. If she were to live to see Amarya give birth, her only purpose would be to wash its clothes, feed, strap it to her back and later walk her to school. Amarya might put her in LEA primary school and God knows children only turn to blockheads there. When she drops out they will make her learn handiwork and then marry her off to one of these barrack boys who sniff glue and sell engine oils. She’s better off wherever she is now.

Three weeks passed and there was no talk of a funeral for Zuwaira. It would have been impolite to ask why. At first we thought she was too engulfed with grief to organise one or her husband’s family just did not want us in the building involved. Next thing we heard was that they had sent the child’s body to the village for her real parents to bury.

Mama Odion asked the men to put a new lid on the well and this one had a jam lock. By the time the cement around it dried up fewer women went to visit Amarya. She soon stopped wearing her black dress but left her scarf on. I watched her walk to mammy market by herself and when she was home she remained indoors. I now had to sweep her portion on sanitation days. I asked Mama Odion to reduce my share because it was just me and she said I did not feel sorry for Amarya and did not want to help her.

Mama Odion finally decided to reopen the well. She called a meeting and we all gathered downstairs where the tap used to be. I looked around but Amarya was not there. Mama Odion spoke about what a great loss Zuwaira was and that we should continue praying for Amarya. She told us about the extra bag of cement she had to buy because the money we contributed was not enough.

She was still talking when Amarya emerged from the stairs with a big smile on her face, rubbing her belly as she made for the gathering. A murmur swelled and I think it was Mama Zugwai who yelled, She’s pregnant.

They all rose and flocked to Amarya making that shrill noise they do when they clip two fingers over their noses. Someone started a chorus, the women joined in and Mama Zugwai of all people broke out of the gathering and began dancing. Amarya kept giggling like a pig. That evening when my husband returned from work, I allowed him to take his bath, eat and as he sat down to watch Samanja I told him about Amarya’s news. He told me that God’s time is the best, I told him that night was the best. He said he has been on sentry since morning and I told him I had been made to look like a small woman all day. He said I should leave it till the morning. I got up, hurried into the bedroom and banged the door. In bed, I realised that I had been crying. It must have been when I was speaking to him because he soon came into the room. But little else will change after this. The women will always greet Amarya before the greet me.



BIO: S.A Sabo was born in Nigeria in 1984. He has been living in London since 2005 and has had a series of stories published in The Trumpet newspaper in 2008. In 2009 he was one of ten writers who won a place on the Arts Council of England/The Literature Consultancy mentoring scheme. He has written two plays: This Earth We Seek and Everybody Knows. Later this year, his short story, Quandary, will feature in the 12th edition of African Writing Online (http://www.african-writing.com/eleven/ ). He is a member of Narrative Drive, a craft-based creative writing workshop run by novelist and leading tutor, Jacob Ross (www.jacobrossonline.com) who is also mentoring him on his novel in progress, Herenowhe