Shedding the Weight
Uche leaves before cockcrow and returns at sundown, work clothes and feet bathed in cement and mortar, a sprinkle of white sand in his brunette hair, the front part compressed by the headpans he carries to build other people’s houses. But everyone thinks our house would collapse on them if they stepped in. Who would not? Above the colony of spiders under the eaves, holes the eyes of a honeycomb dapple the browned zinc. Small cracks spread across the face of the celeste walls, the lower ends damp, speckled with mildew like a hyperpigmentation. The floor has self-destructed to mere ground. The purlieu is a field of elephant grass. Uche hardly clears it.
A mischief of mice scamper in the ceiling, as if running from a great fire. Uche is a koala at night. I tap him persistently before he twitches. The glow of the kerosene lamp flushes into his face on rising.
“You hear that?” I ask.
He blinks, yawns to the width of his mouth, and heaves.
“They are just mice.”
“We need to renovate this house, Uche.” Deep down, I prefer a new one.
“It has not fallen yet.”
“You want it to fall and kill us before you build another one?”
“My father lived in it and grew old.”
The imminent storm makes me panic. I have seen one dislodge a roof stronger than ours. In the other room, between the bedroom and the lounge, the ceiling boards either hang by a thread or carry leak water like undeliverable pregnancies. Buckets stay fixed at the leak spots for collection. I need to check if any has been displaced, else everywhere is flooded.
I pick my LED torch and leave Uche and the kerosene lamp. The torch always lies beside me like a second husband; you don’t live in a place power comes like surprises and not expect oddities. I turn it on. The light is dim.
I slap the single-panel cotton curtain aside. I sniff a foul smell similar to a skunk’s. I scan the floor, then point the torch to the roof. A shiny rope-like object hangs down the opening left by a missing ceiling board. The top end curls tightly around a rafter. I trace the black skin downwards. It twists and hisses, revealing a single row of scales on its white underbelly. Volts of shock spasm through me. The torch slips off my hand.
“Snake!” I scream and run outside. Uche shouts my name in a voice strained with anxiety, “Ify! Ify!” I pick the low stool outside the kitchen and sit at my favourite grassless spot at the front yard. The cold, dry air tingles my nostrils.
Uche meets me outside after a while. “It’s gone,” he says, lending a hand. “It’s about to rain.”
“I will never enter that house again,” I declare.
His pleas fail. He walks back into the house. I am about to curse the cruelty of him leaving me when he returns, carrying a plastic chair. He places it gently beside me. Dendritic strikes of lightning and inharmonic stridulations of an orchestra of nearby crickets send my memo to heaven: the storm ceases without a raindrop. Uche falls asleep, but the illusion of the snake keeps gingering my eyes in the path of my torch light until a bright orange sun rises in the east.
Uche scours the house for the snake’s possible company and finds a huge slough cocooned somewhere in the cobwebs under the eaves. It freaks me out. I tell him I may need to clear my head at a friend’s for few days after my appointment with a doctor. He knows his apologies have become stale, but he tenders them anyway, and my heart accepts them as fresh, again.
Just before I leave for the clinic, he leaves the house in his plaid native wear and red cap, his animated phone call full of promise, his gait reminiscent of old titled chiefs. At the clinic, the sphygmomanometer reads 165/80 on my arm. The HCG test says high. But I have carried a whale of three stillbirths already, so it doesn’t excite.
I walk into Uche at home turning a shovel this way and that in a heap of sharp sand and cement. It melds into a fine grey. He digs the shovel into the centre of the heap, rowing sand backwards in different directions. A wide hollow underscored by brown topsoil appears.
He doesn’t notice anything around him whenever he is working, but he looks up this time and creases his forehead at me. I am dangling under a 50-litre jerry can of water footsteps away. I hold it in between my legs, my two hands on the handle, handbag dropped behind.
“Ah. You just came back,” he says. “Let me help”.
“You think you don’t need help?”
“It’s my job. My co-workers will join tomorrow.”
He walks up to me to take the jerry can. I hold onto it and reach the heap.
“You should know I have carried heavier things,” I say, flumping the jerry can to the ground.
I lower the mouth of the jerry can into the hollow. Water disgorges in multiple spurts. He smiles and asks me if I want to liquefy the cement.
I stand the jerry can upright. I lower it and feign another pour. He screams playfully in dissuasion. There is a warmness in his voice now, the warmness I felt the first time we met. I reel out a belly laugh. He scoops shovelfuls of the sand-cement into the puddle and mixes slowly, trapping and scraping back any stream of liquid that escapes. The mixture thickens to concrete. He moulds the first block, the type with a hollow either side of the top. Tears converge in my eyes. I do not see the block as a sturdy rectangle of concrete. It is first the piece of my joy, the silence to all these creepers and mongers rattling in my head.
Chiemeziem Everest Udochukwu’s work appears in Jellyfish Review, Lolwe, The Yellow House, Peatsmoke Journal, Punocracy, Salamander Ink, Second Chance Lit, Fiction Niche and elsewhere. He won the EC Michaels’ Short Story Prize and was a finalist in The Black Warrior Review Contest, The Quramo Writers Prize and The Nigerian NewsDirect Poetry Prize. He tweets @everdoch
Art (cropped) Maarten van Dis NSAG CC4.0 ALT A crowd of smiling people watches a squatting man charm snakes
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