The Girl with Fire in Her Hands

Like a dawn unheralded at midnight

it opened abruptly before me — a rough

circular clearing, high cliffs of deep

forest guarding it in amber-tinted spell…

-The Explorer,

Collected Poems, Chinua Achebe.

Chapter 1

Bí ajá wọ agbádá iná, tí àmọ̀tẹ́kùn wọ ẹ̀wù ẹ̀jẹ̀, tí ológìnní sán àkísà mọ̀ ìdí, ẹgbẹ́ apẹranjẹ ni wọ́n ńṣe

If the dog dons a fiery robe, the tiger a bloodied vest, and the cat could only gird its loin with mere rags, carnivores they still all are.

Cigarettes and ash.

I smelt that almost every morning at 6am for the three weeks she had been back. And almost every morning, I pulled my covers up close to my nose waging a silent war on the scent that made my nose tingle and eyes water. I could have told my mum about it but things were already tense between her and Nani and I didn’t want to make it worse.

I groaned as I sat up, a ray of sunlight had snuck past my curtains and now played on my sheets. I raised my hand, playing with it and smiling as I made it appear and disappear again. If mummy had seen me doing that, she would definitely have shouted, then given a thirty-minute talk on how I was sixteen and should act older, then maybe as I left the room, she would do the exact same thing.

People normally wondered if my mother and I were sisters, stopping us on the road sometimes, not knowing that sometimes, even we weren’t sure.

I slipped off the bedsheets, running my hands through my afro as my feet planted themselves on the ground. My room wasn’t much, really. You could only tell it was a bedroom because, well, there was a bed in it. I liked it like that, stripped down to the bare minimum. All my curtains were permanently pulled shut, the only one I allowed light through was the one behind my bed. It felt good somehow, the sunlight falling on my body the first thing in the morning.

“Mọ́remí!” my mother shouted from the kitchen which really wasn’t that far away. “Please tell me you’ve woken up.”

“Yes, mummy, I’m up!” I shouted back, standing up and stretching.

“Would I be pushing my luck if I also asked if your room was arranged?” She shouted.

“Maybe just a little.” I said, kicking a striped pink sock out of the way.

“Just dress up, it’s almost 7:30, let me drop you at school.”

“Okay, I’m about to have a shower now.” I said, taking my clothes off.

“We thank God.” She shouted and I swear I could hear the smile in her voice.

I wrapped my Darth Vader towel around me as I went into the bathroom, removing it as I turned on the water and stepped in. The water always felt good on my body, hot or cold, it always felt nice. I used to swim in the estate pool though, but then my mother stopped me as my body started to, in her words, ‘change.’ She said it would start making the men around uncomfortable, being in my swimsuit, but it never made sense to me.

What was their business?

If she had a way, she would probably even home-school me while I was chained to the chair. It’s gotten to the point where she doesn’t even let me walk to school anymore (it’s 9 minutes away), insisting that she drive me. But on the Sunday that week, I wanted to try my luck and ask if I could maybe just go out on my own for once.

I was done with my shower in record time and I whizzed out, cleaning my body and searching for where I threw my clothes the day before.

The chair, I thought to myself. It was always the chair or as I liked to call it, the Land of the Lost Clothes.

I found the ugly white shirt they made us wear as part of the uniform along with the God-awful checked blue skirt. But I wore it anyways, “Riverside is the best school in the area,” my mother kept on saying, over and over again.

To me, it was just where I slept for most of the day.

“Mọ́remi!” She called again. “I’m done making the puff puff for today, we’ll soon go, let me pack them up.”

My mother works for a bakery somewhere in Ikoyi and that means that I have probably tasted every variation there could possibly be of puff puff. Cinnamon covered? Tasted it. Sugar sprinkled with toffee filling? Tried it. There was even one time she tried a new barbecue sauce recipe with them. But that was a recipe she tried once.

Just once.

She doesn’t like the oven at work for some reason so she normally makes a batch at home and takes it to work, piling them all on metal trays. It’s unprofessional, I know, but the customers at the bakery love her. I don’t think any of her pastries have ever made it to the afternoon, always selling out before it hits twelve. Whether they were sausage rolls, meat pies, anything, she could make it with amazing skill.

It was hard work, though. Even if I didn’t her the clangs of metal at night and her frustrated groans, the lines on her eyes and face spoke volumes of her tiredness even though she was just 36. But she never let me help at night, “You need your sleep,” she’d say. “And besides, I’m fine, I was only shouting because, uhm, my favourite team scored.”

She didn’t even watch football and the tv in the kitchen wasn’t on.

I dressed up hurriedly, putting everything on and then scurrying under my bed to find where my shoes were. I laced them on tight and got my school bag from the door squeezing my sports bag inside it.

My mother didn’t like me playing sports or things like that, but I still found my way. Always.

I was headed for the door when a bad headache suddenly hit me. I had been getting them for a while now. Sudden waves of pain that made me want to collapse. But just as soon as it had come, it left. But I don’t know, I felt different after every flash, it was like something was happening, stirring.

I shook my head and opened my door, just as the hinges came off. I groaned as I tried to put it together for just long enough to close it. I know I should have told my mum, but she just paid to have the sink fixed last week and I knew money was getting harder and harder to come by. She never said it, though.

She never does.

I entered the hallway and walked past my mother and Nani’s room. I rapped lightly with my knuckles on the door.

“Nani, I’m going to school!” I said.

I heard a groan from the other side and then, “Oh, have fun Momo! See you when you’re back.” But I knew I wouldn’t see her when I was back, she’d still be holed up in the room by that time.

My mother and Nani were best friends, or that’s what mummy has been telling me since I was born. They went to the same secondary school and later met again in Unilag, becoming roommates as well. Since then, they had been glued together.

Nani, was strange, her hair was always wild and her eyes striking, contrasting my mother’s soft features and collected appearance. She always came and went, though, sometimes, for weeks or months at a time. But that was Nani, she always came back, always.

I remember when I was younger, 10 or so, and I asked my mummy where Nani always left to. She smiled that day, but it was a sad smile, one you gave when even you didn’t have the whole answer. “She’s looking for something.”

“What?” I asked.

“A part of herself.” My mother said, and I don’t know, something about the way she said it. Her low voice. It stuck to my mind.

Sometimes it felt like I was looking for a part of myself too. A part I didn’t even know I lost.

But whatever my mother said. I knew that her and Nani were more than friends. More than best friends even.

It wasn’t the fact that they had been sleeping together in the same room for more than eighteen years. Or that they shared meals, went on dinners, or sometimes fell asleep in each other’s arms on the couch some nights watching some dumb show with me bringing a cover to make sure they were warm and comfortable.

It wasn’t even any of those things that made my mind wonder. It was the way they looked at each other, the way their eyes locked and it was like their spirits were caught, tangled voluntarily.

I don’t have that many friends now but I used to have a friend when I was 13, Ifeoma, and I used to go to her house all the time. One night, we were playing with some dolls in the living room and her dad came home from work, his wife coming to greet him. When they hugged, the way they looked at each other after. With affection and maybe something even deeper. It was like, a deep yearning for someone else that understood you on a level even you didn’t understand.

It was a look that doubled as a promise, one of love, care and eternity.

That was the way mummy looked at Nani.

The same way Nani looked at mummy.

I call her by her name because she asked me to but I know, in truth, I grew up with two mothers.

Most people apparently had one and even a daddy to boot but my father left when I was young. I didn’t really care, mummy and Nani where all I ever needed. I never talked about them outside, though. When I was younger, ad I had friends over, they’d inevitably ask where my dad was or why in all the pictures on the wall, it was just me, mummy and Nani. I’d always tell them that my daddy travelled a long time ago, and mummy and Nani were close sisters.

If people found out the truth, I shivered thinking about it. I’d seen the way people reacted to other people who were different in the way Nani and mummy were.

Two years ago, on the street at night, I heard them shouting and peaked at my window, looking at the commotion. It was a mob and they were holding two men in the middle. I didn’t understand until I heard someone say that word. That disgusting hateful word and then it clicked.

The two men were together, like mummy and Nani were.

Someone had lit tyres and it looked like things were getting bad fast. Sweat beaded my face as fear rippled through my spine. In my tearing eyes, it wasn’t those men anymore but Nani and mummy, my mothers, and it terrified me more than anything else in the world.

And then a hooded figure that was made of shadows, came in with two guns in each hand and fired them in the air. Even from that distance, I could see the intricate carvings on the guns, they were so dangerous, yet so beautiful. The crowd quickly dispersed, running and screaming. I heard my mother enter my room to check on me, and I immediately tucked myself in my bed, pretending I was asleep. She stood there for so long that I thought she had left but then she closed the door and I raised my head up again but the person in the hood and the men were all gone.

All those insults, slurs and hate for no reason. I didn’t care if some god didn’t accept Nani and mummy, I accepted them and they accepted me, anyone else could go to hell for all I cared.

When mummy was at work sometimes, Nani would help with my homework or tell me a funny story. Recently, she had been acting weird, shutting herself off but it was probably just a phase. Nani had off moments sometimes. She would go cold and her eyes would hover. It was like she was reliving something. Like a soldier back from war, experiencing a- moment that never truly ended in her head.

Opposite their room was the red room that nobody entered and had been locked for as long as I could remember. I had stopped bothering about it but sometimes I wondered, what was in it?

“Mọ́ — ” mummy was about to shout until she turned around and saw me. She was wearing a flowing flower gown covered with her bakery apron with her favourite pink bandana wrapped around her head keeping her wild hair somewhat in check. Teachers in school, especially Mrs Anyanwu, always talked about my hair and how ‘rough’ it was because of how tough it was, if they had ever met my mother or worse still, Nani, they’d probably have a collective heart attack.

“Good morning,” I said to her moving to help her carry the metal tray she was holding but she shooed me away.

“Good morning, thank you but I can handle this myself. You, on the other hand, have breakfast to eat, we’re leaving soon.” She said, opening the front door with her foot.

I went over to the kitchen and saw that she had made some akara and custard with another plate laid out. For Nani maybe?

I love akara but custard wasn’t really anything much to me. Mummy always made it with so little sugar so while she was outside I quickly got another two cubes from the container in the cabinet and put it inside my bowl.

As I ate, mummy came back inside and as she was about to put away some plates, she paused and turned back to look at me.

We were there looking at each other for almost two minutes until she smiled from the corner of her mouth.

“All that sugar will kill you one day,” she said, crossing her arms.

“I have no idea of what you’re talking about.” I said, with a mouthful of akara.

She rolled her eyes as she passed me and went to her and Nani’s room, roughing my hair up as she went. “Let me go and say bye to Nani, please be ready when I’m out, plus, take another cube of sugar and I’ll throw away the whole tin.” She said as she went.

“Yes, mummy,” I replied putting a spoon of custard hurriedly in my mouth, the sugar really made all the difference.

I heard laughter and some muffled talk from their room and I was actually shocked. A moment ago, Nani sounded like she was dying but with my mother, she sounded more alive than ever.

I finished my food and washed my plates. Some people had house helps, in fact, most did, but mummy and Nani made it clear a long time ago that they were not getting a maid.

I think they just hated the idea of someone else in the house. Someone else who could jeopardise what they had.

Mummy came out from the room. “Mọ́remi, I hope you’re ready.”

“Yup,” I said, cleaning my mouth with my forearm.

She saw me and just shook her head as she picked her car keys up from the table.

“What?” I said in defence. “I couldn’t find the napkins.”

“Sure,” She muttered under her breath. She looked at my bag for perhaps the first time that day. “Why is you bag so bulky?”

“Oh, I’m carrying more books to read during our free period.” I said, hoping my tone would be convincing enough. Luckily, we were in a rush so she waved her hands, beckoning me to follow her through the door.

“Come, come, let’s go.” She said already halfway out.

I came out with my bag slung on my back and she locked the door behind us. We both entered her aged Toyota Corolla with me in the front seat, the smell of puff puff filling the car.

She put her key in the ignition and the car wheezed but didn’t come on.

“Dammit,” she said, her frustration apparent. “Please, please, please, not today.”

She tried it again, still the same wheeze. “Oh, no, no, no, no. Please.” She said pleading, with, the car?

She held her head in her hands, the stress building up.

“Mummy, it’s okay, just be calm okay?” I said, rubbing her shoulder. “Maybe you should just try it one more time?”

“Yes,” she said, as if in a daze. “One more time.”

She tried it and after a long cough, the car came to life. “Yes!” she shouted, then closed her mouth realising she practically screamed and then she looked at me as I looked at her and we both just burst out laughing as she drove off our street.

Anthony Azekwoh is a Nigerian-based author and artist. He has written five books so far, and is now working on the sequel to his fourth book Ṣàngó, Oya.