There is nothing overtly unusual about the scenes in and around Emeka Okorie’s one room apartment that evening.
Neighbours mill around the house, smiling, pumping Emeka’s fists with gusto.
You’re now a man.
Welcome to the club.
He looks pleased, accepting the congratulations, slightly discoloured teeth on display, chest puffed with pride.
In the single bedroom, his wife Nkiru is on the bed, back to the wall, slim body curved away from the two swathed bundles lying next to her. The new babies are sleeping, sweat plastered hair curling on the edges of their identical faces.
Nkiru’s oldest sister is seated on a low stool beside the bed, watching over the new mother whose eyes gleam in the early evening light coming from outside the small window over the bed.
And that is where something is not quite right. Their eyes.
Outside, Emeka smiles graciously at another neighbour, but his eyes are tired and haunted.
Nkiru’s sister is watchful; but it is not the gratified, alert gaze of a woman who has happily come to fulfil the rites of omugwo. Her eyes are hooded and worried, flitting from mother to babies.
But most telling are Nkiru’s eyes. They jitter and move, darting from the slowly turning fan to the discoloured low ceiling and then skittering off her sister’s face like a bead of water tossed on a heated pan. Her eyes are restless, touching everything except that which it should.
Nkiru is careful never to look at her babies.
A few minutes later, Emeka enters the room with the only neighbour who knows the truth beneath the dance of deception their eyes do not support.
The young lady has just come back from work. Her starched uniform gleams confident white as she leans over Nkiru and runs an expert eye over her. She checks the young mother’s temperature, prises her lids downwards, and asks her if she feels any pain or discomfort.
Nkiru shakes her head. A baby stirs. The new mother shifts closer to the wall, eyes desperately fixed on the small white cap pinned to the neighbour’s head.
Emeka pulls the nurse aside.
“Oga Emeka, she seems okay o. No unnecessary pain or bleeding.”
He frowns. “She is not okay na. I explained…”
“I heard.” The nurse looks at Nkiru and frowns. “I suspect it’s something called post-partum depression. It happens to new mothers; it’s not commonly diagnosed, but it’s my best guess. She needs to see a specialist- a therapist.”
Emeka’s face falls. Therapist sounds like ‘money’ to him, and he only just managed to pay his wife’s hospital bill that morning. Nkiru stirs again and they both turn to look. She is looking at her husband, eyes screaming at him.
Get me away from here. Get me away from THEM.
He turns away from the mute appeal, turns back to the nurse. “Let’s talk in the parlour.”
They leave and silence returns to the room. Nkiru’s sister makes a huffing sound as she stands up to peer at the babies. They are asleep, but their restless stirring makes her check the bottles of milk sitting in warm water on a stool beside the bed. Her eyes narrow. She turns to her sister.
“Nkiru, but what is all this eh?” her voice is impatient. “How can you not want to breastfeed your babies? See how swollen your breasts are sef. Is it not paining you?”
Tears fill Nkiru’s eyes. She says nothing.
Her sister stands over the bed, arms akimbo. “Nkiru, tell me what you want. Is it peppersoup? Yam? Cold water?” her voice rises when she gets a shake of the head. “Tell me something! First you refused to hold one of your daughters, now you won’t even touch both of them…”
“Because I don’t know.”
There is a shocked silence. It is the first thing Nkiru has said since she returned from the hospital that morning.
Her sister kneels, whispers over the bodies of the sleeping babies. “You don’t know what?”
Nkiru’s eyes are wide and her sister shudders as her warm breath touches her face.
“The nurses mixed them up and I… I don’t know which one is the bad one. They have the same face.”
Nkiru’s sister recoils. The young woman’s breath smells like madness.
“Let me get you water.” The elderly woman sighs. “Your lips are dry.”
When her sister leaves the room, Nkiru raises her head, and climbs carefully over the babies. The jostling of the thin mattress wakes them up and they begin to move, blinking up at the naked yellow bulb on the ceiling as their mother walks to the door. There is a muted click when she locks it.
She adjust the wrapper around her chest and walks over to her sewing machine, rummaging in it till she find what she is looking for- a pair of newly sharpened scissors. The edges gleam as she opens it wide, and walks over to the bed.
Finally she looks into the faces of both babies. And just like she had suspected it would all along, it drives her mad.
It takes them almost five minutes to break the bedroom door open.
When they enter, there is blood everywhere. It is streaked across the ceiling, it drips from the slowly turning fan, and a few drops are still sizzling on the light bulb.
One baby is crying, eyes tightly shut as drops of blood travel down her face. The other is silent.
Emeka sits on the rubber carpet and gathers his wife to his chest with a cry of anguish. The blood is still spurting from her wrists and the gash in her throat, but her eyes are closed and they never open again.
On the bed, the quiet baby laps at the blood that poured on her face, small tongue darting at her lips. Her mother has finally fed her.
“It didn’t actually happen that way, did it?” the doctor asks.
The young woman seated on the other side of the table smiles. Her face is devoid of make-up and her hair is packed up into an unruly bun, but when she smiles her face almost glows. “Of course not. I made some of it up. There was no neighbour to tell my father my mum was suffering from post-partum depression. He was a barely educated man, surrounded by people like him in the slums of Bariga.”
“And your mother…”
“Had no one to help her after childbirth. Her mother was long dead and her sisters stayed away from her because they always thought she was mad bla bla bla.” She rolls her eyes, long lashes fluttering dramatically. “Our aunts were always quick to feed us tales of how strange Nkiru was, growing up, and how it was no surprise that she killed herself.”
The man leans back in his chair. “Well, what do you think, Amauche?”
She shrugs, but the doctor knows she is pleased he asked for her opinion. “I think she was bipolar. But to the people she was surrounded with, that was as foreign a concept as post-partum depression. It’s a wonder they didn’t lock her up somewhere so medical vultures could pick over her brain.” She winks at the man. “No insult intended.”
She stares fixedly at the top button of the doctor’s ward coat. “Unless of course, she was right. Maybe she did have an evil baby.” She shifts her gaze to his eyes. “What do you think, Doc?”
He keeps his face empty. “The concept of ‘evil’ is not one I embrace. There are certain antisocial behavioural traits which are regarded as mental disorders. A priest or philosopher could refer to such a person as evil. I’m more inclined to see it as a state which therapy can ameliorate.”
Although she giggles, he can sense her disappointment at his answer. “Sometimes I wonder if your job isn’t just excelling in the art of extreme optimism.” She bends over and starts to clap in amusement. But the bandages restraining her arms to the chair stops the motion halfway. She leaves her hands hovering over her lap, her thighs moving as she shakes her similarly tied feet. Her unsecured breasts move in rhythm beneath the faded blue gown she has on.
“Only a psychiatrist would say being the first recorded serial killer in Nigeria is a condition which therapy can ameliorate.” She looks away, using boredom to hide whatever is going through her mind. “I think I’ve had enough amelioration for today, Doc.”
The doctor agrees. From experience, he knows that when Amauche Benson is done with talking, it is usually a waste of time to keep asking her questions.
After the orderlies take her away, the doctor is surprised to find he has scrawled one word on his writing pad over and over again.
ABOUT THE WRITER:
Akpan-Nya, Alexandra Emem is a Nigerian writer and poet. Educated in the sciences, she has short stories and poems published in various blogs. She loves to scribble and play with original ideas and has a fascination for speculative fiction and children literature. Her interests include dabbling in flash fiction, travelling and sneakers. She dreams of writing norm-breaking bestsellers that will inspire deep thought and the occasional chuckle. You can see more of her work on her blog.