There is a huge pile of corn husks at the entrance to the market. The sides of the pile are flattened and stained red by hundreds of marching feet and speeding wheelbarrows. The steady rainfall has turned the ground to thick red mush that sticks to my slippers. I should have brought my black rubber boots.
I used to hate this market. It was not impressive. I hated the red mud; the sellers who just assumed you were Igbo and started all their conversations in Igbo.
“Aunty kedu ife I na acho?”
Aunty what are you looking for?
Enugu never impressed me. Too many hills that put pressure in my ears when I ascended them. Too much red sand and the sun was unforgiving. The people were too Catholic, and they spoke Igbo a lot. They looked at me when I said I couldn’t understand Igbo, when I insisted they spoke English. The English was strange on their tongues, thick with accents and rolling with a lot of r. Some unknowingly slipped back into Igbo.
I miss Lagos, the Danfo buses, the loudness and mad rush, the Celestians who are not ashamed to walk barefoot, the Oro worshippers who make eerie noises at night. I miss speaking Yoruba.
Ezekwe didn’t impress me at first. He kept this thick beard he thought made him look like Ojukwu. He laughed a lot, and spoke Igbo a lot, at work, to anybody, even the white people that came to the shopping mall. The first time we met, I told him I couldn’t understand what he was saying. He smiled and said he felt sorry for me. From that day he took to talking to me in Igbo, speaking it slowly and only speaking English when I was desperate. He irritated me. I surprised myself when I married him a year later. My sisters were even more surprised.
“I thought you hated the weather and the red sand?”
“Why an Igbo man? They can be very irrational you know, and too traditional.”
“They have wicked mother-in-laws, Tosan at least you should have learnt that from Nollywood.”
I should have told them Ezekwe takes his time to touch me. He is never in a hurry. It is as if he is eating his favourite meal and he must take his time to dive in. They won’t understand. Five years and they can’t figure out how we function as a couple. I love him. It’s that simple, and because I love him, I love Enugu, I love attending mass with him, and even if I still get restless during the Prayer of the Faithful, the Communion Rite soothes me.
And yes, I love this market.
The meat seller has pieces of goat stacked on his table. There are chunks of stomach, liver and lungs stacked in two different sections. Some offal in one section is black and stained, the other shiny and white. I’ve learnt to choose the black offal, because they are from a male goat whose meat is surprisingly tenderer than a female’s. I’ve learnt to poke meat, hold it in my palm and weigh the bulk. I inspect it, looking for the meat that has gone green and like every woman, I say,
“Anu a epeka.”
This meat is small.
And then he cuts an extra piece or two.
Ezekwe calls me Nwanyi Enugu. In the first two years of our marriage I protested when he called me that. It seemed as if he came to my village in Itsekeri, claimed and then converted me.
But now I make okpa with my eyes closed. They say Enugu people own okpa. I have mastered the craft, making the sweetest okpa with meat stock and fresh basil leaves. I have mastered preparing ukwa, akidi and Ezekwe’s favourite, ofe onugbu.
And there are other things I’ve mastered, too.
I jump out of the way when the barrow boys scream “Uzo! Uzo!”
And whizz past with piles of rice bags and food stuff. I knot my wrapper effortlessly for CWO, and hit the Udu expertly for the choir. I speak the little Igbo I’ve learnt with such confidence that the others have come to accept me, and in ShopRite, I hustle for hot brown loaves of Auntie’s Bread on Sunday afternoons.
I’ve mastered it all. Except childbearing.
None of my pregnancies have lasted six months. The longest was five. I had a mound I was so proud of, until I cramped severely and bled for days. At the hospital, after the doctors induced labour and made me deliver a dead baby, Ezekwe insisted I stopped trying. His eyes were blood shot. He had been crying for the both of us. I wanted to tell him we should pray harder to the Virgin Mary or see Father Mbaka a second time. I wanted to tell him I badly desired to give him sons. But I couldn’t, my lips were paper white and my mouth was dry.
The doctors said I have an incompetent cervix.
Ezekwe suggested we try surrogacy. The day he suggested adoption I refused to talk to him for a week.
When we got over the silence, I got pregnant again. Two weeks later, the baby went as unceremoniously as it came, painless, blood running down my legs.
Ezekwe had no idea.
I look at my list.
I have all I need. I should go home and prepare Ezekwe’s favourite, but I stand in the centre of two opposite stalls and stare at the list again. There is a last item.
One Live Baby.
This market has almost anything. A live baby shouldn’t be hard to find.
There is a stall that sells babies. The babies sleep in polished wooden cradles. The stall owner is a huge man with a smiling face and kind eyes.
“Nwanyi Oma,” he starts.
“Kedi nwa nke ichoro?”
Which baby do you want?
I tell him I want a dark, chubby boy with a mass of dark hair and full lips like his father. He should have a large appetite. The man doesn’t laugh at me, he nods and hands me a baby wrapped in soft baby shawl. The baby stirs in my arms and parts his pink lips. He cries the throaty cry of a hungry newborn.
The barrow boy must have shouted Uzo! Uzo! countless times.
The force of his speeding barrow pushes me to the ground. Beans and tomato tins pour down over my head. At first the onlookers are stern and shout at me for my carelessness. When I burst into tears they stop shouting. Two men lift me up and sit me down on a stool. A woman dusts off my dress. They offer me pure water; they ask if I am okay. Have I eaten? Why did I stand at the centre of a busy market? What is on my mind?
“Ndo, ndo,” they say over and over.
I look for my bag. My meat is smeared with mud, my vegetables and fish float in a pool of dirty rain water. Dinner is ruined.
I have failed in something as ordinary as making dinner. I can’t give Ezekwe something as simple as ofe onugbu.
I burst into fresh tears.
Ifediba Zube writes from the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital, Nigeria. When she is not neck deep in clinical postings she is in hiding with a good book. She has been published in Kalahari Review, Bella Naija, African Writer, Windmill Journal and Brilliant Flash Fiction.