Fermenting

This story is paired with “Second Epoch, The Story Continued by Frederick Fairlie, Esq.” from The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. 

botn-2016-1Hameed’s lips stretched from one bulging cheek to the other, and stayed there, as if clipped at both ends. His imitation of a smile reminded Maryam of a puppet she once saw in a kiddies’ learning video—the static, upturned sketch that was its mouth and the eyes that did not match. Minutes earlier, she had fixed her makeup, standing before her bathroom mirror, staring at her sweaty face, and wondering if she could still hold it together. Menene haka, what is this? Stage fright? If it was, it had never been like this. Not even pounding tuwo shinkafa for two hours nonstop could have left her arms feeling the way they did: like the long sleeves of a dripping-wet shirt that she pulled out of a bucket of soapy water. She watched her hands, unable to recognize them as her own, as they unrolled slips of paper, a eulogy she had written days ago. Slowly, the opening line, ‘My dearest husband, Hameed’, converged before her eyes.

True, Hameed had his shortcomings as a partner. And true, it would seem ungrateful for someone like her, with so much to thank him for, to expect even more. But what could she do? She was unhappy. She could not help how she felt.

It was not that he bored her. He did. But that was not it. He was not much of a talker. She had no problem with that. In fact, when he was chatty, she wished he would stop because, most times, he was acting on alcohol. If there was one thing she did not mind about those times, it was the fact that he did not put much thought into the things he said. A welcome change for a man who was a brooder. Not his fault, really. Allah made him that way. And Allah, too, had given her the fortitude to accept it. But lately, the poor man was trying to shed that image by clowning around more. Sadly, his attempts at humor stung in their nearness to truth. He had to show his power of observation in everything. Allah had no hand in that.

At an AU Trade Ministers Conference to foster trade between African countries, Hammed had delivered a speech where he remarked, “The world is partly to blame for the plight of countries like Ethiopia and Somalia. Words are powerful. We Africans believe the names we give our children can make or mar their futures. Why then do we resort to calling that sub-region ‘the Horn of Africa’? A horn is a non-consumable, a hard deposit, something animals can survive without. A name like that can impoverish.

“When I was studying for my masters in UCL, I had an American roommate whose last name was ‘Stone’. Just imagine. Why do you think he was always broke?—stone broke?” He had laughed at his joke, oblivious to the fact that Kenya, the host nation for the conference, took her name from a mountain. A century must have passed before volar pitter-patters of politeness appreciated his effort.

Even when the conversation was light and did not require his probe, Hameed would try to show his learning. He would analyze a joke instead of simply seeing the funny side.

When Bala Ndanusa, his old classmate, returned from Amurka (America), he told a joke: “There are two things you never say to a cab driver, ‘I get off here’ and ‘Take me through the back’.”

Hameed had not understood this ribald joke due to cultural differences. But even after Bala explained it, he had gone on to pick holes in it. Maryam remembered feeling embarrassed for him.

At an end-of-year party organized by Great Savannah Sugar, Hameed had teased his friend, Musa Yelwa, over his choice of a luxury sedan—a Nissan Maxima, a model of vehicle he considered beneath him. “I would not be caught dead in that car unless I were a kabu-kabu (commercial) driver. It is ironic, don’t you think? That you would object to flying economy-class, yet you would allow yourself be driven in a car like that.”

Whatever Hameed said in a light mood, funny or not, earned him laughs. For him, especially him, listeners would fawn and put on window dressings.

Maryam’s focus returned to the eyes in the room, all waiting on her. This was Hameed’s post-award soiree, and she was standing before their dinner guests, ready with her tribute. And so naturally, it came as a shock when she found herself at a Durbar, at an event where she was no longer the center, but one of those doing the watching, watching Hameed, a dignitary on a horse. In the strangest of twists, Hameed gritted his teeth, pulled on the reins of his beast, and steered it towards her. He dug his heels into its sides and rode faster and faster, the clippety-clop of its canter rising to the thunderous crashing of a charge. He swore at her, brandishing his sword in the air, and the worst of it—he drew attention to her, to them. Within the blink of an eye, she was back to leaning on a reading stand facing party guests, thumbing slips of paper. Shege! She was losing her mind. How in the holy prophet’s name did she get like this?

*   *   *

The guests had arrived in their usual glitzy manner. From the minute they stepped out of luxury cars, they wore their full-toothed grins of freshly polished teeth like badges, and lavished skin-deep fondness on the ‘rabbles’ they met on their way in. The false sense of closeness that was common to these parties was again in the air. Though it was not as obvious as the aroma of the hors d’oeuvres that went past on trays or the wafts of cigarette smoke tanged with strong designer perfumes, it was there. Several groups of laughers gathered outside the venue, where the indoor music was faint, to tease one another and imagine that they were familiar. Their occasional cackles complemented the symphony of clinking wineglasses and voices reduced to hums.

From the balcony overlooking the living room, Maryam had observed the sea of heads and headgears forming below, wondering which one was Hameed. Their living room was now a large dinner hall with guests hemmed in by four long buffet tables, a perimeter with three gaps to allow free movement into the entrance hall, the kitchen and a second dinner hall.

She clomped down the spiral staircase in her high heels, making sure she supported herself with the banister whenever she got to a winder, her long dress sweeping over the steps, flowing like the music of the Dinkas that played in the background: the soft, subtle theme for the party. Hameed loved to relax to South Sudanese music.

Maryam wore a mauve evening gown, gossamer with a ‘breastplate’—a corseted bodice—with dress straps that fell just below her deltoids. She liked the way it made her look partly peeled, as if she was shrugging off her clothes. Her tight-fitting dress flared out in a bouffant that could pass for a mermaid’s tailfin. For a crown, she turbaned her braids, except for the bangs, with a deep purple headscarf.

She covered her partly peeled upper body and ‘breastplate’ with a black shawl that hung over her shoulders. She wore it like a wreath of shame. She had done so only because she knew she would offend some if she did not. After all, there were people who shared Hameed’s outdated idea that women could look attractive without being seductive. Going by the trends in fashion, one sought the other. By Islamic teaching, there was no consensus on the matter; what one husband thought indecent another thought moderate. In the end, what were they to do but dress within the clear margins laid out for them?

The dinner hall, radiant as it was, did not quite match her mood. Having attended many of these parties in the past, she found her impression of the guests most unlike her. She had never seen them as pretenders before. It was not the way they put on airs; it was the way they appeared to be happy when they were not, as if wearing a deodorant called ‘mirth’. She recognized a number of faces but did not approach, choosing to conjure up a smile, or a simple nod—whatever would not make her seem rude—or just sneak away when she was sure they hadn’t seen her.

She spotted Hameed. He had changed from his dinner suit into a white babanriga with lovely embroidery. He stood out in a regal way: an Emir among attendants. From the way he flung his head back and laughed after he spoke, he seemed to be enjoying himself. Let’s hope it stays this way, Maryam thought.

Hameed’s charity and contributions to the sub region as the M.D. of Great Savannah Sugar, an enterprise his father started, had just earned him a Member of the Order of the Niger (M.O.N.). From all indicators, this was to be a sweet occasion. After an elaborate award ceremony at Transcorps Hilton Hotel, the family had returned home, she had gone up to her room for a change of clothes, waited in vain for her three friends to meet up with her, as they had agreed, before joining the guests downstairs.

Finding her friends, if they were already in the dinner halls or hallways, would mean taking extra precautions not to run into Hameed. She did not want to catch his eye just yet, not after what happened last night.

Hameed’s father-figure persona must have been what she had found attractive. Her biological father fell well short of what she thought ideal and so it may have been because of that. Unfortunately, she was now no longer the little child in awe of him. She had come to understand him well, and wished she could say the same for him. These days, he seemed confused as to what she wanted from him. Either that or he preferred to hide behind tipples, thinking he could grow a personality that would interest her. Stupid man.

She was tired of his fatherliness, the didactic nature of his conversations and his moral high ground. She needed a friend—a soul mate. A man who spoke more from the dynamics of his heart than the logic in his head. She wanted his spontaneity more than anything—she wanted it so much that, sometimes, she would annoy him just so he would lash out. Even if he spoke angry words, at least she would know it had come from his heart. Rather than lose his temper, Hameed would simply storm off.

The last few months were unbearable. Like a good wife, she had opened up to him, expecting the same. But what did he do? He continued to hide behind a machismo that made her feel foolish. She never minded their age gap of twenty-two years. In the last eight of them or so, she had grown considerably. Was it not time that he started treating her like an adult? Like his life partner? Like the best friend that she was meant to be. Like how it was in western movies? No? Well, to hell with him. Hameed’s idea of romance was to sit at the table, lick his fingers and sigh at her culinary skills. He would go on to reward her with the boring details of his work. There was little else. He never so much as asked her opinion on any matter. It was as if it counted little; she was just some silly girl he pandered to whenever he wanted something in return—a ruse he abused. Barawo. No wonder he chose the times he was in the mood for sex to enjoy her kind of music: American Pop.

Hameed was one of those men who hid their vulnerabilities, the type that liked to stay larger than life in the eyes of their wives and kids. The whole thing had become quite distancing that she had long realized she was married to a man who wore a façade more often than she wore a burqa. If there was someone he confided in, someone he felt comfortable showing his weaker side, then, that person had to be his mother, Sadia.

For days in a row, Maryam would lock herself up in her room, forsaking her wifely duties, choosing the company of her wardrobe, her jewelry, her makeup, and her television over Hameed. Even the reruns of her favorite American TV drama, Pretty Little Liars, were more fun. She would watch them and wonder how much longer her secrets would stay secret.

As a lover, she was wistful—wishful and waiting—a carnal being wasting. As a woman, she needed a moment of madness to ease her enduring sadness, any break from the norm that could salve her frame of mind.

In Hameed’s house, she was a singing bird in a very small cage; a house pet that truckled to its owner, never to do as it pleased. With so much not suited to her, it felt as if her womanhood, her urbaneness and her husband’s family name were fashioned to please others. She now lived with a waning regard for the wont of society and a rising awareness of her want of somebody—sometimes, anybody—someone who was flesh and blood and not ashamed to admit it. She wanted to express the vibrant feelings she knew she still held in her heart and have them requited. She desired a husband’s love, not his loyalty. Understandable as this was, yet, each night, loud echoes bounced off her walls calling her selfish. Religion and Tradition, identical twins in Islam, spelled doom for anyone who dared question the handed-down ‘truths’. And so, every now and then, she would steal away to her den, a place where few were welcome, and feed the full sinew of her growing iconoclast.

Through a gap in the crowded dinner hall, Halima and Aisha—the other members of her harem—stood at the kitchen entrance, watching her with their lips moving. Gossips. Fools. She stopped and stared back at them and they looked away. Before the moving guests impeded her line of sight, they did a brief patty-cake and laughed—a gesture that suggested a sense of triumph. They were probably wondering how a hen with her feathers plucked could still fluff up.

I am brave, not brazen. She heard voices in her head replying those she thought she had heard. If you could only do away with your bushman, brainwashed and bullied mentalities, you would see what I see.

She put on her poker face and pranced passed them, exaggerating her hip movements before she entered the second dinner hall, all the while thinking how they should have worn funeral black.

They had always been jealous of her. She was the youngest, the prettiest, the smartest—their husband’s pride. She was the one he took to social events because he knew she would make a worthy deputy. Those two were scolds who considered her Americanized—lost—another victim of an infidel master plan, without thinking that she could see their envy. They had turned down Adult Education Class not because they feared the taint of western civilization, as they made Hameed believe, but because they had known that they would fall short of the standard she had set. She was a journalist, a university graduate, a second-class upper bachelor’s degree holder in Mass Communication.

She jumped at the sound of her name and a voice she thought sounded familiar.

“Maryam,” it said.

La illah, could it be who she thought? She considered ducking under the table, behind the pink napery. Not her typical reaction, but today was not a typical day.

If she was right, then, her caller was back from Dubai. When? More importantly, had she heard?

“Maryam,” the voice said again.

She felt her neck towing the rest of her body to face her new object of dread, a chill going down her spine. “Na’am,” she said.

She was right. It was her mother-in-law, Sadia.

They embraced with the stiffness of socialites who think it slatternly to be enthused at such gatherings. In Maryam’s case, there was more. Sadia’s angelic smile told her she had nothing to fear. She was still her favorite, still her protégée.

“You look beautiful.” Sadia, except for her face, was covered from head to toe in a lilac galabeya and a hijab of shimmery gold and black. “Are you ready with your tribute?” she asked.

“I am, insha Allah.”

“Nervous?”

“Not really. It’s good to see you.” She lied—twice.

“I flew in this morning. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get here on time. I missed the awards. Imagine Hameed, trying to discourage me from making the trip by belittling his big occasion. Would I have come if he were becoming a dogara? But an M.O.N.—? How can that not be ‘all that important’?”

The hall grew rowdier as more guests arrived. Loud outbursts of ‘mirth’ punctuated the hubbubs of voices. One, oddly hearty, caught her attention for reasons other than its originality. She thought she knew the owner but, Allah forbid, she sincerely prayed not. To her great distress, she was right s second time. It was…

Sani.

He laughed again. This time, his high-pitched cackles thrummed her soul like a Goje playing a tune that paired off with her adrenaline rush. He was standing in the hallway, surrounded by his usual flock, his back against the wall adjacent to the giant vase that potted a young guava tree, which leaned towards a runaway sun in the central courtyard. How in the world could he be showing his teeth at a time like this?—after what she had told him had happened? Foolish of her to think he would mourn a while.

Sani was Hameed’s younger brother. He was a man of fine physical form and arresting good looks, who could afford to laze all day because his eligibility as a bachelor, if it ever was in doubt, had now been signed, sealed and delivered, now that that his late father’s property had been shared. He was a charmer with an openness that made him popular with friends. His charisma and apparent levity to life was a sharp contrast to Hameed’s serious-minded personality. Women came to him in droves. Even now, it was no different. With him were her three friends: Bilkisu, Zainab and Fati—the ones she had expected in her room, the ones she was scouting around for.

*   *   *

Maryam’s eyes returned to the room, to the rolled-out slips of paper before her. She tried to keep them there, but they kept going from her handwriting to Hameed, who was still simpering at her like a fool. She had seen liquor break him enough times to know the signs. There was something else too: the harbinger of her public humiliation. She could have sworn it had streaked across the room.

She started her speech.

Her lips trembled as words scraped through, low at first, but with Sadia’s encouraging eyes, they gained volume. Hameed leaned to his right, towards Hassan Yero, and whispered something in the oil magnate’s ear. She could have sworn she had seen the most transient shock in his eyes—a tiny spark.

In the name of Allah, Hameed do not dare, you this foolish man.

Hameed raised his glass to her, but this time, he did not take it to his lips.

Why? Why do you choose to eat yourself up over a suspicion? So you saw his shirt in my room. So what? Like I said, it was there because I was helping him remove a stubborn stain. And after that, he—bedded me to say nagode.

Oh Hameed, when sugar ferments, it turns to alcohol. Frankly, that is the story of our marriage. If only you had met the demands of this customer, things could have been much different.

She made a hash of her speech, unable to keep her eyes on her paper. Sadia looked daggers at her. But it wasn’t her mother-in-law’s glare, which must have had a Fatwa for her head, which worsened her mental throes. In the middle of her speech, a maudlin outburst shocked everyone. That is, everyone but her. Yes, she had seen it coming, long before the images of her seated audience began to wobble like reflections in a swimming pool.

“Hypocrite! Why don’t you stop the act?” Hameed got up and spat. “Tell us how you’ve been sleeping with my brother.” He threw his drink at her but, in his state, misjudged the flight path.

Sheepish, Maryam laughed.

Friends quickly surrounded Hameed and restrained him. But not one of them thought of cupping his mouth while they dragged him away. They all wanted to listen. Shame on them.

Will someone shut that man up? The voices in her head screamed over Hameed’s words. Wallaahi, billaahi, tallaahi, I swear to God, you have gone mad!

But Hameed wouldn’t stop. He kept ranting at the top of his voice, saying things that shocked and insulted sensibilities. He tried to demonstrate his words with obscene gestures but could only squirm against his captors.

Sani lowered his head and slinked away from the crowd before his brother’s alcohol-glazed eyes met his. A whistling teapot sang in Maryam’s head. It was hardly amusing—her being able to anticipate Hameed’s next words yet feel overwhelmed by a description more characterful than she imagined possible. Her thoughts fell over each other.

And then… They froze.

The frenetic beating of Kalangu drums finally ends with one final thump. Silence returned to the room. Her verbal violation was—over. For her, that was all that mattered. Blank as someone regaining consciousness, she felt the calm that succeeds a war. The past was not repeatable; it was gone forever. She could drink to that.

Willing herself to believe it all a dream, she discovered it was much easier to bear her shame if, in her mind, she became someone else. She took off her scarf and felt her braids fall to her nape. So much for her masquerade. Why was the room so hot all of a sudden? Had someone switched off the air conditioner?

The silence in the room had eyes. And with it, she felt an onus to stand tall and say something to dispel all the questions that were now searching her face for answers. Conscious of her breathing, she heaved a big sigh that she hoped would not be her last. Honestly, it was much easier to drop dead than to explain her agrarian roots—how her family had practically sold her off to escape poverty. She was thirteen at the time, and involved with a stepbrother twelve years her senior. It started when she was nine, after her mother’s passing. Her father, a lazy man, who—with the coaxing licks of a mongrel—cuddled up against anyone who provided for him, had been too craven to challenge his son, the breadwinner at the time. Her marrying Hameed had come as a stone that killed two birds; it had brought relief in more than one way.

Hameed had given too much away. It was social suicide. And she had died with him. Was there any recovering from this? Honestly. Was there? Were the words of the intoxicated not arrows tipped with the poison of unbridled honesty and unsheathed truth? All she could do now was stretch out on the floor and wait for a slow, silent death. Hameed had said things she wished he had in private. He had stood up in front of all the guests and let them know that their marriage was a hoax. As if that was not bad enough, he had, in the filthiest language, called her a good-for-nothing, ex-street-hawker-slash-sex-worker, a leg-spreading nymphomaniac whose wretch of a father had only been too willing to be rid of because she was sleeping with her—brothers?

In a way, she had had her wish. She had finally broken him. He had spoken out of impulse. He had looked penetrable, vulnerable, human—pathetically human, much unlike the rock she had idolized as a child bride.

Flustered from weathering his verbal attacks without a word, she avoided the eyes in the room and did her best to gather her thoughts. Her attention returned to the sheets of paper in front of her. To the lies on them.

Yi hak’uri, sorry,” she said. “Please forgive us for that. Sometimes he forgets to sugar-coat these things.”

It took the giggles of a few to make her realize that she had just made a wisecrack.

Their laughter spread as her joke claimed more lives. Just seeing their teary eyes did wonders for her nerves, and she added, “That man ought to be sugar-caned.”

The crowd roared with laughter.


NBR7OparasmallCharles Opara is a Nigerian-born writer who began writing stories when he drew superhero-inspired comic books for his friends in primary school. Although a speculative fiction novelist, as a short story writer, his stories cuts across an eclectic range of topics and people. He is a software programmer with the National Population Commission in his country, and a member of the Association of Nigerian Authors. In 2015, his horror fiction story, ‘It Happened’, was shortlisted for the Awele Creative Trust short story prize. He enjoys the logic in writing programs and stories.