Up, Down, Appendices, Postscript.
Not much good to say - so I might as well put it up-front and you can skip the rest if you like.
Lester Brown is still at it (God bless 'im). From his Earth Policy Institute comes a PBS film, Journey to Planet Earth, Plan B: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. You can watch streaming video on the PBS site, but just for the month of April for some reason (?). Or you can download it at IsoHunt.
Not a great film per se. In one of those rare boomer turnabouts - it is the content, the substance, that carries it, not the style. And while Elizabeth May couldn't end a speech on a hopeful note to save her life - our Lester Brown certainly well can.
Let your conscience be your guide - they need donations.
All questions answered by symmetry:
Stephen Harper IS Lady Gaga!
(or, say, Lord Gaga?) Is that it?
I am thinking of Robertson Davies' character, Dunstan Ramsey, who instructs his fictional students to write in "the plain style."
Of course it means different things to different people. How about, "say what you mean and mean what you say."?
For those of you who dont know what 'doing a Christo' means (I didn't) you can check it out here.
The daemonic parody becomes less and less equivocal, more and more explicit, until (I guess) everyone just runs right amok, off the rails simultaneously and all-at-once (independently of course). Thinking of the derailment this week in Cobourg - the thing about railcar wheels is that they really only work when they are on the tracks eh? (And humans really only work when they are in touch.)
Two bits of William Blake:
This Lifes dim Windows of the SoulSo many proper nouns ... such confusing punctuation ... another version:
Distorts the Heavens from Pole to Pole
And leads you to Believe a Lie
When you see with not thro the Eye
This life's five windows of the souland
Distorts the Heavens from pole to pole,
And leads you to believe a lie
When you see with, not thro' the eye.
For double the vision my eyes do see,There is no quick & searchable on-line resource for Blake as there is for Shakespeare and the KJV (that I can find). There used to be a good one for Bob Dylan but it is gone now, done in by Sony's corporate greed, AND you have to pay big-time for the OED ... AND until the academic maggots over at the University of Toronto get their copyright thumbs out you can't find (much of) Northrop Frye on-line ... AND Google doesn't really work very well at all at all AT ALL! ... AI AI AI!!!
And a double vision is always with me:
With my inward eye 'tis an old man grey;
With my outward a thistle across my way.
Hannah Arendt's Men In Dark Times is good, but when things really get me down I re-read Northrop Frye's The Double Vision (which sets out from the second bit of Blake quoted above).
The Everlasting Gospel ... is it Blake or is it Rosetti? This enigmatic couplet seems to follow on after 'with not thro the eye':
That was born in a night to perish in a nightLeaving me completely mystified (but not yet quite confounded).
When the Soul slept in the beams of Light.
Here's the nut: One is simply not permitted to approach either public or private ground with any niggling notion of need these days. No dependence allowed! We are deep into the box canyon of atomist correctitude. Understand and accept or be doubly damned. But the fact is that human societies don't work this way - that's to say don't function; that's to say STOP, dead in their tracks!
Maybe it is unsentimental and even uncomfortable to transactionalize everything in society. It is worse to then make the sine qua non transaction more-and-more impossible - permanently expunged from the social imaginary and illegal. And in bad taste too.
My thinking (such as it is) brings me up with a thump, again and again and again, at The Golden Rule & The Good Samaritan, and in the last few years at Ivan Illich's notions around these two stalwart beacons of transcendence (which may very well be opposed). I have no idea how to effectively forgive, cleanse, and possibly even expiate without plain straight talk, which is (you know) an intimate, messy and mutual affair. A-and without cleansing forgiveness and expiation the garbage tends to pile up at the curb.
I sensed a miraculous clue in Chimamanda Adichie's Purple Hibiscus. A glimpse of 'open space' as my friend said of Newfoundland way back when (see here). But I have read it three times already, and I know there is something very important in there somewhere but I can't seem to ... get it (!) (yet). Feeling about in the dark like Chris Alexander going after The Quality Without A Name.
(And given my evident obsession with brown-skinned women the whole landscape here simply quakes with murk.)
What follows is no more than a 'summary to date'. (Who is that clue-seeker in Pynchon? ... Oh yeah, Stencil, Herbert Stencil. Was Herbet the father or the son? Can't remember.)
2003 Purple Hibiscus (translated as A Cor do Hibisco but in Portugal not Brazil).
2006 Half of a Yellow Sun.
2009 The Thing Around Your Neck: Cell One; Imitation; A Private Experience; Ghosts; On Monday of Last Week; Jumping Monkey Hill; The Thing Around Your Neck; The American Embassy; The Shivering; The Arrangers of Marriage (New Husband); Tomorrow Is Too Far; & The Headstrong Historian.
The 'unofficial' website has an extensive bibliography (though it does not include 'The Shivering' yet). A quick look at the list of 'Primary Sources' there was ... daunting. She writes. A lot.
Two longish excerpts: The last story in The Thing Around Your Neck, The Headstrong Historian (because Nwamgba is admirable by any standard I know of); and the first chapter of Half of a Yellow Sun (because this portrait of Ugwu, of a man written by a woman, gives him dignity).
The moment (I am told) at which your retina begins to detach, you see a flash at the edge of your vision. This happened to me again and again as I read Purple Hibiscus.
Two videos, both from 2009: a 20 minute lecture at TED (also here) on 'The danger of a single story' resonating a little with Northrop Frye maybe; and in an interview discussing The Thing Around Your Neck here.
Is that a Michael Jackson kiss-curl dangling there? Could such a woman possibly be a fan of Michael Jackson?
Just to demonstrate how lame I am, how completely elementary symmetries prevail - I have ordered a few Toni Morrison stories from the library for a brief 'compare & contrast' exercise later on sometime. Maybe I will find a picture of her sporting a kiss-curl too?
The two novels of Tsitsi Dangarembga: Nervous conditions, and The book of not; also have to figgure into the exercise somehow.
For now at least, (as the Eskimo said to the Scotsman) "You can't get there from here."
I tried to use this $#@!-ing computer to remind me to turn off the lights for Earth Hour and ended up turning them off on Friday instead of Saturday. Doh!? But it was apparently a fiasco all round - harmonic convergence I guess.
350.org is at it again. A b-b-big idea to be revealed during a b-b-big conference call with b-b-big Bill McKibben later on today sometime. B-b-but the problem for these people is not having big ideas - they've got them - the problem is not doing anything with some of the big ideas they've got. (Eaarth you may remember ends with a vision of renewed community.)
A-and Elizabeth May will not be in the debates, ho hum.
(The rest of these links are not in the Appendix this week - fuck it!)
Meanwhile, the press is astounded that two young Somali women, teenagers, from the west end of Toronto ran away to join Al Shabaab. They were 'lured by terrorists' of course.
In the UK it is left to the Black Bloc to make a half-assed-ly coherent case. In North America the Koch brothers are in control.
Lots of cops (including our very own 'Officer Bubbles' aka Adam Josephs) & bus drivers are making over the ton (Ralph Kramden eat your heart out!), and lots of other bureaucrats too, 71,000 of 'em altogether they say ... the 'sunshine list' they call it.
Back in the day 'sunshine' meant something else altogether.
But no surprises ... unless ... why it is that three of these hundred-grand-a-year stories all show up in The Star on the same day? And at the outset of an election run? And the kindly Police Officers are called 'cops' and the maggoty lard-arses are called 'public servants' ... the implications are interesting ...
Hell, if you're making 100 grand+ a year who cares what they call you? I know it's not really that much ... but it's enough.
So then ... is forever a cop and a cheerio walking hand-in-hand into the sunrise (sunset?) with a red heart pasted up in the sky?
"At dawn my lover comes to me and tells me of her dreams, with no attempt to shovel the glimpse into the ditch of what each one means. At times I think there are no words but these to tell what’s true."
Oh ... I did sort of figgure out one thing: the trailing 'o' in Fela and here-and-there you come across it; works like 'eh?' in k-k-Canada and 'viu?' in Brasil ... though the trailing 'oh' in Igbo seems to be somewhat more definite (as explained in Half of a Yellow Sun), more like a simple affirmation, 'yes.' not 'yes?'.
This seems like a suitable recessional, Leonard Cohen on his 2008-2009 refill-the-coffers tour: in Belfast, Lisbon, and Toronto.
When you've fallen on the highwayA-and just a small slice of Zhu Zhe-qin aka Dadawa, Tear Lake, proof to warn that The Chieftans are not an unqualified-ly positive influence either. It was the very same English prof who showed me 'open space' way back when who recommended listening to Dadawa.
and you're lying in the rain,
and they ask you how you're doing
of course you'll say you can't complain ...
All of this is quite silly isn't it? Some people must learn something in a life? Don't they? I mostly don't get it. That much is obvious. It might have easily been different. Who knows? Maybe the best is yet to come? (Is that it?)
Just waiting see if this seedling turns out to be a Sumac.
In the NYT we have, Cleanup Questions as Radiation Spreads:
On Wednesday, the International Atomic Energy Agency said a soil sample from Iitate, a village of 7,000 people about 25 miles northwest of the plant, showed very high concentrations of cesium 137 — an isotope that produces harmful gamma rays, accumulates in the food chain and persists in the environment for hundreds of years.And also in the NYT is this, Radioactive Iodine Detected in Ocean, Despite Gains at Japanese Plant:
The cesium levels were about double the minimums found in the area declared uninhabitable around the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine, raising the question whether the evacuation zones around Fukushima should be extended beyond the current 18 miles. On Thursday, the Japanese government said it had no plans to expand the zone.
Mr. Edano also noted that radiation above the acceptable limit had been found in beef from Fukushima prefecture, and he said the government was repeating the tests to confirm them. In any case, he said, “the radiation is not of a level sufficient to be harmful to human health if someone eats it once or twice.”'No problem' says Robert Peter Gale in the Guardian, Radiation rises in seawater near Fukushima plant:
Contamination has already been found in vegetables and raw milk near the plant.
A Health Ministry spokesman, Taku Ohara, said the cow had been slaughtered on March 15 more than 40 miles from the plant, The Associated Press reported. The beef was found to have a total cesium level of 510 becquerels per kilogram; the limit is 500.
Experts say the radiation will be diluted by the sea, lessening the contamination of fish and other marine life.Say what!? Dump it in the fucking ocean!? ... But of course! It's sooo obvious eh? There's no biology going on in the ocean so ...
Robert Peter Gale, a US medical researcher who was brought in by Soviet authorities after the Chernobyl disaster, said recent higher readings of radioactive iodine-131 and caesium-137 should be of greater concern than reports earlier this week of tiny quantities of plutonium found in soil samples.
But he added: "It's obviously alarming when you talk about radiation, but if you have radiation in non-gas form I would say dump it in the ocean."
Gale, who has been advising the Japanese government, said: "To some extent that's why some nuclear power plants are built along the coast, to be in an area where the wind is blowing out to sea, and because the safest way to deposit radiation is in the ocean.
"The dilutional factor could not be better – there's no better place. If you deposit it on earth or in places where people live there is no dilutional effect. From a safety point of view the ocean is the safest place."
(more on Robert Gale here)
That's the second time the intrepid Guardian nitwit Justin McCurry (Que féladaputa!) has passed on such nonsense, Japanese nuclear firm admits error on radiation reading:
Concern over food safety spread to fishing over the weekend when officials said seawater samples taken 20 miles off the coast of Fukushima contained 1,850 times the normal level of radioactivity.
Nisa said the tainted seawater posed no risk: "Ocean currents will disperse radiation particles and so it will be very diluted by the time it is consumed by fish and seaweed, and even more by the time they are consumed by humans. There is no need to worry about health risks."
Doh¡¿ WTF-ing F¡¿¡
1. The Headstrong Historian.
2. Half of a Yellow Sun, Chapter 1.
Many years after her husband died, Nwamgba still closed her eyes from time to time to relive his nightly visits to her hut and the mornings after, when she would walk to the stream humming a song, thinking of the smoky scent of him, the firmness of his weight, those secrets she shared with herself, and feeling as if she were surrounded by light. Other memories of Obierika remained clear—his stubby fingers curled around his flute when he played in the evenings, his delight when she set down his bowls of food, his sweaty back when he returned with baskets filled with fresh clay for her pottery. From the moment she first saw him at a wrestling match, both of them staring and staring at each other, both of them too young, her waist not yet wearing the menstruation cloth, she had believed with a quiet stubbornness that her chi and his chi had destined their marriage, and so when he came to her father a few years later bringing pots of palm wine and accompanied by his relatives, she told her mother that this was the man she would marry. Her mother was aghast. Did Nwambga not know that Obierika was an only child, that his late father had been an only child whose wives had lost pregnancies and buried babies? Perhaps somebody in their family had committed the taboo of selling a girl into slavery and the earth god Ani was visiting misfortune on them. Nwamgba ignored her mother. She went into her father's obi and told him she would run away from any other man's house if she was not allowed to marry Obierika. Her father found her exhausting, this sharp-tongued, headstrong daughter who had once wrestled her brother to the ground. (After which her father had warned everybody not to let the news leave the compound that the girl had thrown a boy.) He, too, was concerned about the infertility in Obierika's family, but it was not a bad family: Obierika's late father had taken the ozo title; Obierika was already giving out his seed yams to sharecroppers. Nwamgba would not do badly if she married him. Besides, it was better that he let her go with the man she chose, to save himself years of trouble when she would keep returning home after confrontations with in-laws. And so he gave his blessing and she smiled and called him by his praise name.
To pay her bride price, Obierika came with two maternal cousins, Okafo and Okoye, who were like brothers to him. Nwamgba loathed them at first sight. She saw a grasping envy in their eyes that afternoon as they drank palm wine in her father's obi, and in the following years, years in which Obierika took titles and widened his compound and sold his yams to strangers from afar, she saw their envy blacken. But she tolerated them, because they mattered to Obierika, because he pretended not to notice that they didn't work but came to him for yams and chickens, because he wanted to imagine that he had brothers. It was they who urged him, after her third miscarriage, to marry another wife. Obierika told them he would give it some thought but when he and Nwamgba were alone in her hut at night, he told her that he was sure they would have a home full of children, and that he would not marry another wife until they were old, so that they would have somebody to care for them. She thought this strange of him, a prosperous man with only one wife, and she worried more than he did about their childlessness, about the songs that people sang, melodious mean-spirited words: She has sold her womb. She has eaten his penis. He plays his flute and hands over his wealth to her.
Once, at a moonlight gathering, the square full of women telling stories and learning new dances, a group of girls saw Nwamgba and began to sing, their aggressive breasts pointing at her. She stopped and asked whether they would mind singing a little louder so that she could hear the words and then show them who was the greater of two tortoises. They stopped singing. She enjoyed their fear, the way they backed away from; her, but it was then that she decided to find a wife for Obierika herself.
Nwamgba liked going to the Oyi stream, untying her wrapper from her waist and walking down the slope to the silvery rush of water that burst out from a rock. The waters of Oyi were fresher than those of the other stream, Ogalanya, or perhaps it was simply that she felt comforted by the shrine of the Oyi goddess, tucked away in a corner; as a child she had learned that Oyi was the protector of women, the reason women were not to be sold into slavery. Her closest friend, Ayaju, was already at the stream, and as Nwamgba helped her raise her pot to her head, she asked Ayaju who might be a good second wife for Obierika.
She and Ayaju had grown up together and married men from the same clan. The difference between them, though, was that Ayaju was of slave descent; her father had been brought as a slave after a war. Ayaju did not care for her husband, Okenwa, who she said resembled and smelled like a rat, but her marriage prospects had been limited; no man from a freeborn family would have come for her hand. Ayaju's long-limbed, quick-moving body spoke of her many trading journeys; she had traveled even beyond Onicha. It was she who had first brought tales of the strange customs of the Igala and Edo traders, she who first told of the white-skinned men who arrived in Onicha with mirrors and fabrics and the biggest guns the people of those parts had ever seen. This cosmopolitanism earned her respect, and she was the only person of slave descent who talked loudly at the Women's Council, the only person who had answers for everything.
And so she promptly suggested, for Obierika's second wife, the young girl from the Okonkwo family; the girl had beautiful wide hips and was respectful, nothing like the young girls of today with their heads full of nonsense. As they walked home from the stream, Ayaju said that perhaps Nwamgba should do what other women in her situation did—take a lover and get pregnant in order to continue Obierika's lineage. Nwamgba's retort was sharp, because she did not like Ayaju's tone, which suggested that Obierika was impotent, and as if in response to her thoughts she felt a furious stab in her back and knew that she was pregnant again, but she said nothing, because she knew, too, that she would lose the baby again.
Her miscarriage happened a few weeks later, lumpy blood running down her legs. Obierika comforted her and suggested they go to the famous oracle, Kisa, as soon as she was well enough for the half day's journey. After the dibia had consulted the oracle, Nwamgba cringed at the thought of sacrificing a whole cow; Obierika certainly had greedy ancestors. But they did the ritual cleansings and the sacrifices, and when she suggested he go and see the Okonkwo family about their daughter, he delayed and delayed until another sharp pain spliced her back; and months later, she was lying on a pile of freshly washed banana leaves behind her hut, straining and pushing until the baby slipped out.
They named him Anikwenwa: the earth god Ani had finally granted a child. He was dark and solidly built and had Obierika's happy curiosity. Obierika took him to pick medicinal herbs, to collect clay for Nwamgba's pottery, to twist yam vines at the farm. Obierika's cousins Okafo and Okoye visited too often. They marveled at how well Anikwenwa played the flute, how quickly he was learning poetry and wrestling moves from his father, but Nwamgba saw the glowing malevolence that their smiles could not hide. She feared for her child and her husband, and when Obierika died—a man who had been hearty and laughing and drinking palm wine moments before he slumped—she knew that they had killed him with medicine. She clung to his corpse until a neighbor slapped her to make her let go; she lay in the cold ash for days; she tore at the patterns shaved into her hair. Obierika's death left her with an unending despair. She thought often of the woman who, after her tenth successive child died, had gone to her backyard and hanged herself on a kola tree. But she would not do it, because of Anikwenwa.
Later, she wished she had insisted that his cousins drink Obierika's mmili ozu before the oracle. She had witnessed this once, when a wealthy man died and his family insisted his rival drink his mmili ozu. Nwamgba had watched the unmarried woman take a cupped leaf full of water, touch it to the dead man's body, all the time speaking solemnly, and give the leaf-cup to the accused man. He drank. Everyone watched to make sure he swallowed, a grave silence in the air because they knew that if he was guilty he would die. He died days later, and his family lowered their heads in shame and Nwamgba felt strangely shaken by it all. She should have insisted on this with Obierika's cousins, but she had been blinded by grief and now Obierika was buried and it was too late.
His cousins, during the funeral, took his ivory tusk, claiming that the trappings of titles went to brothers and not to sons. It was when they emptied his barn of yams and led away the adult goats in his pen that she confronted them, shouting, and when they brushed her aside, she waited until evening and then walked around the clan singing about their wickedness, the. abominations they were heaping on the land by cheating a widow, until the elders asked them to leave her alone. She complained to the Women's Council, and twenty women went at night to Okafo and Okoye's home, brandishing pestles, warning them to leave Nwamgba alone. Members of Obierika's age grade, too, told them to leave her alone. But Nwamgba knew those grasping cousins would never really stop. She dreamed of killing them. She certainly could—those weaklings who had spent their lives scrounging off Obierika instead of working—but of course she would be banished and there would be nobody to care for her son. So she took Anikwenwa on long walks, telling him that the land from that palm tree to that plantain tree was theirs, that his grandfather had passed it on to his father. She told him the same things over and over, even though he looked bored and bewildered, and she did not let him go and play at moonlight unless she was watching.
Ayaju came back from a trading journey with another story: the women in Onicha were complaining about the white men. They had welcomed the white men's trading station, but now the white men wanted to tell them how to trade, and when the elders of Agueke, a clan of Onicha, refused to place their thumbs on a paper, the white men came at night with their normal-men helpers and razed the village. There was nothing left. Nwamgba did not understand. What sort of guns did these white men have? Ayaju laughed and said their guns were nothing like the rusty thing her own husband owned. Some white men were visiting different clans, asking parents to send their children to school, and she had decided to send Azuka, the son who was laziest on the farm, because although she was respected and wealthy, she was still of slave descent, her sons still barred from taking titles. She wanted Azuka to learn the ways of these foreigners, since people ruled over others not because they were better people but because they had better guns; after all, her own father would not have been brought as a slave if his clan had been as well armed as Nwamgba's clan. As Nwamgba listened to her friend, she dreamed of killing Obierika's cousins with the white men's guns.
The day that the white men visited her clan, Nwamgba left the pot she was about to put in her oven, took Anikwenwa and her girl apprentices, and hurried to the square. She was at first disappointed by the ordinariness of the two white men; they were harmless-looking, the color of albinos, with frail and slender limbs. Their companions were normal men, but there was something foreign about them, too, and only one spoke a strangely accented Igbo. He said that he was from Elele; the other normal men were from Sierra Leone, and the white men from France, far across the sea. They were all of the Holy Ghost Congregation; they had arrived in Onicha in 1885 and were building their school and church there. Nwamgba was first to ask a question: Had they brought their guns by any chance, the ones used to destroy the people of Agueke, and could she see one? The man said unhappily that it was the soldiers of the British government and merchants of the Royal Niger Company who destroyed villages; they, instead, brought good news. He spoke about their god, who had come to the world to die, and who had a son but no wife, and who was three but also one. Many of the people around Nwamgba laughed loudly. Some walked away, because they had imagined that the white man was full of wisdom. Others stayed and offered cool bowls of water.
Weeks later, Ayaju brought another story: the white men had set up a courthouse in Onicha where they judged disputes. They had indeed come to stay. For the first time, Nwamgba doubted her friend. Surely the people of Onicha had their own courts. The clan next to Nwamgba's, for example, held its courts only during the new yam festival, so that people's rancor grew while they awaited justice. A stupid system, Nwamgba thought, but surely everyone had one. Ayaju laughed and told Nwamgba again that people ruled others when they had better guns. Her son was already learning about these foreign ways, and perhaps Anikwenwa should, too. Nwamgba refused. It was unthinkable that her only son, her single eye, should be given to the white men, never mind how superior their guns might be.
Three events, in the following years, caused Nwamgba to change her mind. The first was that Obierika's cousins took over a large piece of land and told the elders that they were farming it for her, a woman who had emasculated their dead brother and now refused to remarry even though suitors were coming and her breasts were still round. The elders sided with them. The second was that Ayaju told a story of two people who took a land case to the white men's court; the first man was lying but could speak the white men's language, while the second man, the rightful owner of the land, could not, and so he lost his case, was beaten and locked up and ordered to give up his land. The third was the story of the boy Iroegbunam, who had gone missing many years ago and then suddenly reappeared, a grown man, his widowed mother mute with shock! at his story: a neighbor, whom his father often shouted down at age-grade meetings, had abducted him when his mother was at the market and taken him to the Aro slave dealers, who looked him over and complained that the wound on his leg would reduce his price. Then he and some others were tied together by the hands, forming a long human column, and he was hit with a stick and asked to walk faster. There was only one woman among them. She shouted herself hoarse, telling the abductors that they were heartless, that her spirit would torment them and their children, that she knew she was to be sold to the white man, and did they not know that the white man's slavery was very different, that people were treated like goats, taken on large ships a long way away and eventually eaten? Iroegbunam walked and walked and walked, his feet bloodied, his body numb, with a little water poured into his mouth from time to time, until all he could remember later was the smell of dust. Finally they stopped at a coastal clan, where a man spoke a nearly incomprehensible Igbo, but Iroegbunam made out enough to understand that another man, who was to sell the abductees to the white people on the ship, had gone up to bargain with the white people but had himself been kidnapped. There were loud arguments, scuffling; some of the abductees yanked at the ropes and Iroegbunam passed out. He awoke to find a white man rubbing his feet with oil, and at first he was terrified, certain that he was being prepared for the white man's meal. But this was a different kind of white man, a missionary who bought slaves only to free them, and he took Iroegbunam to live with him and trained him to be a Christian missionary.
Iroegbunam s story haunted Nwamgba, because this, she was sure, was the way Obierika's cousins were likely to get rid of her son. Killing him was too dangerous, the risk of misfortunes from the oracle too high, but they would be able to sell him as long as they had strong medicine to protect themselves. She was struck, too, by how Iroegbunam lapsed into the white man's language from time to time. It sounded nasal and disgusting. Nwamgba had no desire to speak such a thing herself, but she was suddenly determined that Anikwenwa would speak it well enough to go to the white men's court with Obierika's cousins and defeat them and take control of what was his. And so, shortly after Iroegbunam's return, she told Ayaju that she wanted to take her son to school.
They went first to the Anglican mission. The classroom had more girls than boys—a few curious boys wandered in with their catapaults and then wandered out. The students sat with slates on their laps while the teacher stood in front of them, holding a big cane, telling them a story about a man who transformed a bowl of water into wine. Nwamgba was impressed by the teacher's spectacles, and she thought that the man in the story must have had fairly powerful medicine to be able to transform water into wine. But when the girls were separated and a woman teacher came to teach them how to sew, Nwamgba found this silly; in her clan girls learned to make pottery and a man sewed cloth. What dissuaded her completely about the school, however, was that the instruction was done in Igbo. Nwamgba asked the first teacher why. He said that of course the students were taught English—he held up the English primer—but children learned best in their own language, and the children in the white men's land were taught in their own language, too. Nwamgba turned to leave. The teacher stood in her way and told her that the Catholic missionaries were harsh and did not have the best interests of the natives at \ heart. Nwamgba was amused by these foreigners, who did not seem to know that one must, in front of strangers, pretend to have unity. But she had come in search of English, and so she walked past him and went to the Catholic mission.
Father Shanahan told her that Anikwenwa would have to take an English name, because it was not possible to be baptized with a heathen name. She agreed easily. His name was Anikwenwa as far as she was concerned; if they wanted to name him something she could not pronounce before teaching him their language, she did not mind at all. All that mattered was that he learn enough of the language to fight his father's cousins. Father Shanahan looked at Anikwenwa, a dark-skinned, well-muscled child, and guessed that he was about twelve, although he found it difficult to estimate the ages of these people; sometimes a mere boy would look like a man, nothing like in Eastern Africa, where he had previously worked and where the natives tended to be slender, less confusingly muscular. As he poured some water on the boy's head, he said, "Michael, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
He gave the boy a singlet and a pair of shorts, because the people of the living God did not walk around naked, and he tried to preach to the boy's mother, but she looked at him as if he were a child who did not know any better.There was something troublingly assertive about her, something he had seen in many women here; there was much potential to be harnessed if their wildness could be tamed. This Nwamgba would make a marvelous missionary among the women. He watched her leave. There was a grace in her straight back, and she, unlike others, had not spent too much time going round and round in her speech. It infuriated him, their overlong talk and circuitous proverbs, their never getting to the point, but he was determined to excel here; it was the reason he had joined the Holy Ghost Congregation, whose special vocation was the redemption of black heathens.
Nwamgba was alarmed by how indiscriminately the missionaries flogged students—for being late, for being lazy, for being slow, for being idle. And once, as Anikwenwa told her, Father Lutz had put metal cuffs around a girl's wrists to teach her a lesson about lying, all the time saying in Igbo—for Father Lutz spoke a broken brand of Igbo—that native parents pampered their children too much, that teaching the Gospel also meant teaching proper discipline. The first weekend Anikwenwa came home, Nwamgba saw angry welts on his back. She tightened her wrapper on her waist and went to the school. She told the teacher that she would gouge out the eyes of everyone at the mission if they ever did that to him again. She knew that Anikwenwa did not want to go to school, and she told him that it was only for a year or two, so that he would learn English, and although the mission people told her not to come so often, she insistently came every weekend to take him home. Anikwenwa always took off his clothes even before they left the mission compound. He disliked the shorts and shirt that made him sweat, the fabric that was itchy around his armpits. He disliked, too, being in the same class as old men and missing out on wrestling contests.
Perhaps it was because he began to notice the admiring glances his clothes brought in the clan but Anikwenwa's attitude to school slowly changed. Nwamgba first noticed this when some of the other boys with whom he swept the village square complained that he no longer did his share because he was at school, and Anikwenwa said something in English, something sharp-sounding, which shut them up and filled Nwamgba with an indulgent pride. Her pride turned to a vague worry when she noticed that the curiosity in his eyes had diminished. There was a new ponderousness in him, as if he had suddenly found himself bearing the weight of a too-heavy world. He stared at things for too long. He stopped eating her food, because, he said, it was sacrificed to idols. He told her to tie her wrapper around her chest instead of her waist, because her nakedness was sinful. She looked at him, amused by his earnestness, but worried nonetheless, and asked why he had only just begun to notice her nakedness.
When it was time for his ima mmuo ceremony, he said he would not participate, because it was a heathen custom for boys to be initiated into the world of spirits, a custom that Father Shanahan had said would have to stop. Nwamgba roughly yanked his ear and told him that a foreign albino could not determine when their customs would change, so until the clan itself decided that the initiation would stop, he would participate or else he would tell her whether he was her son or the white man's son. Anikwenwa reluctantly agreed, but as he was taken away with a group of boys, she noticed that he lacked their excitement. His sadness saddened her. She felt her son slipping away from her, and yet she was proud that he was learning so much, that he could become a court interpreter or a letter writer, and that with Father Lutz s help he had brought home some papers that showed that their lands belonged to him and his mother. Her proudest moment was when he went to his father's cousins Okafo and Okoye and asked for his father's ivory tusk back. And they gave it to him.
Nwamgba knew that her son now inhabited a mental space that was foreign to her. He told her that he was going to Lagos to learn how to be a teacher, and even as she screamed—How can you leave me? Who will bury me when I die?—she knew he would go. She did not see him for many years, years during which his father's cousin Okafo died. She often consulted the oracle to ask whether Anikwenwa was still alive; the dibia admonished her and sent her away, because of course he was alive. At last Anikwenwa returned, in the year that the clan banned all dogs after a dog killed a member of the Mmangala age grade, the age grade to which Anikwenwa would have belonged if he had not said that such things were devilish.
Nwamgba said nothing when he announced that he had been appointed catechist at the new mission. She was sharpening her aguba on the palm of her hand, about to shave patterns in the hair of a little girl, and she continued to do so—flick-flick-flick—while Anikwenwa talked about winning souls in their clan. The plate of breadfruit seeds she had offered him was untouched—he no longer ate anything at all of hers—and she looked at him, this man wearing trousers, and a rosary around his neck, and wondered whether she had meddled with his destiny. Was this what his chi had ordained for him, this life in which he was like a person diligently acting a bizarre pantomime?
The day that he told her about the woman he would marry, she was not surprised. He did not do it as it was done, did not consult people to ask about the bride's family, but simply said that somebody at the mission had seen a suitable young woman from Ifite Ukpo and the suitable young woman would be taken to the Sisters of the Holy Rosary in Onicha to learn how to be a good Christian wife. Nwamgba was sick with malaria on that day, lying on her mud bed, rubbing her aching joints, and she asked Anikwenwa the young woman's name. Anikwenwa said it was Agnes. Nwamgba asked for the young woman's real name. Anikwenwa cleared his throat and said she had been called Mgbeke before she became a Christian, and Nwamgba asked whether Mgbeke would at least do the confession ceremony even if Anikwenwa would not follow the other marriage rites of their clan. He shook his head furiously and told her that the confession made by a woman before marriage, in which she, surrounded by female relatives, swore that no man had touched her since her husband had declared his interest, was sinful, because Christian wives should not have been touched at all.
The marriage ceremony in church was laughably strange, but Nwamgba bore it silently and told herself that she would die soon and join Obierika and be free of a world that increasingly made no sense. She was determined to dislike her son's wife, but Mgbeke was difficult to dislike; she was small-waisted and gentle, eager to please the man to whom she was married, eager to please everyone, quick to cry, apologetic about things over which she had no control. And so, instead, Nwamgba pitied her. Mgbeke often visited Nwamgba in tears, saying that Anikwenwa had refused to eat dinner because he was upset with her or that Anikwenwa had banned her from going to a friend's Anglican wedding because Anglicans did not preach the truth, and Nwamgba would silently carve designs on her pottery while Mgbeke cried, uncertain of how to handle a woman crying about things that did not deserve tears.
Mgbeke was called "missus" by everyone, even the non-Christians, all of whom respected the catechist's wife, but on the day she went to the Oyi stream and refused to remove her clothes because she was a Christian, the women of the clan, outraged that she dared to disrespect the goddess, beat her and dumped her at the grove. The news spread quickly. Missus had been harassed. Anikwenwa threatened to lock up all the elders if his wife was treated that way again, but Father O'Donnell, on his next trek from his station in Onicha, visited the elders and apologized on Mgbeke s behalf and asked whether perhaps Christian women could be allowed to fetch water fully clothed. The elders refused—if one wanted Oyi's waters, then one had to follow Oyi's rules—but they were courteous to Father O'Donnell, who listened to them and did not behave like their own son Anikwenwa.
Nwamgba was ashamed of her son, irritated with his wife, upset by their rarefied life in which they treated non-Christians as if they had smallpox, but she held out her hope for a grandchild; she prayed and sacrificed for Mgbeke to have a boy, because it would be Obierika come back and would bring a semblance of sense back into her world. She did not know of Mgbeke's first or second miscarriage, it was only after the third that Mgbeke, sniffling and blowing her nose, told her.They had to consult the oracle, as this was a family misfortune, Nwamgba said, but Mgbeke's eyes widened with fear. Michael would be very angry if he ever heard of this oracle suggestion. Nwamgba, who still found it difficult to remember that Michael was Anikwenwa, went to the oracle herself, and afterwards thought it ludicrous how even the gods had changed and no longer asked for palm wine but for gin. Had they converted, too?
A few months later, Mgbeke visited, smiling, bringing a covered bowl of one of those concoctions that Nwamgba found inedible, and Nwamgba knew that her chi was still wide awake and that her daughter-in-law was pregnant. Anikwenwa had decreed that Mgbeke would have the baby at the mission in Onicha, but the gods had different plans and she went into early labor on a rainy afternoon; somebody ran in the drenching rain to Nwamgba's hut to call her. It was a boy. Father O'Donnell baptized him Peter, but Nwamgba called him Nnamdi, because she believed he was Obierika come back. She sang to him, and when he cried she pushed her dried-up nipple into his mouth, but try as she might, she did not feel the spirit of her magnificent husband Obierika. Mgbeke had three more miscarriages and Nwamgba went to the oracle many times until a pregnancy stayed and the second baby was born, this time at the mission in Onicha. A girl. From the moment Nwamgba held her, the baby's bright eyes delightfully focused on her, she knew that it was the spirit of Obierika that had returned; odd, to have come in a girl, but who could predict the ways of the ancestors? Father O'Donnell baptized her Grace, but Nwamgba called her Afamefuna, "My Name Will Not Be Lost," and was thrilled by the child's solemn interest in her poetry and her stories, the teenager's keen watchfulness as Nwamgba struggled to make pottery with newly shaky hands. But Nwamgba was not thrilled that Afamefuna was to go away to secondary school (Peter was already living with the priests in Onicha), because she feared that, at boarding school, the new ways would dissolve her granddaughter's fighting spirit and replace it either with an incurious rigidity, like Anikwenwa's, or a limp helplessness, like Mgbeke's.
The year that Afamefuna left for secondary school in Onicha, Nwamgba felt as if a lamp had been blown out on a moonless night. It was a strange year, the year that darkness suddenly descended on the land in the middle of the afternoon, and when Nwamgba felt the deep-seated ache in her joints, she knew her end was near. She lay on her bed gasping for breath, while Anikwenwa pleaded with her to be baptized and anointed so that he could hold a Christian funeral for her, as he could not participate in a heathen ceremony. Nwamgba told him that if he dared to bring anybody to rub some filthy oil on her, she would slap that person with her last strength. All she wanted was to see Afamefuna before she joined the ancestors, but Anikwenwa said that Grace was taking exams in school and could not come home. But she came. Nwamgba heard the squeaky swing of her door and there was Afamefuna, her granddaughter who had come on her own from Onicha because she had been unable to sleep for days, her restless spirit urging her home. Grace put down her schoolbag, inside of which was her textbook with a chapter called "The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of Southern Nigeria," by an administrator from Worcestershire who had lived among them for seven years.
It was Grace who would read about these savages, titillated by their curious and meaningless customs, not connecting them to herself until her teacher, Sister Maureen, told her she could not refer to the call-and-response her grandmother had taught her as poetry because primitive tribes did not have poetry. It was Grace who would laugh loudly until Sister Maureen took her to detention and then summoned her father, who slapped Grace in front of the teachers to show them how well he disciplined his children. It was Grace who would nurse a deep scorn for her father for years, spending holidays working as a maid in Onicha so as to avoid the sanctimonies, the dour certainties, of her parents and brother. It was Grace who, after graduating from secondary school, would teach elementary school in Agueke, where people told stories of the destruction of their village years before by the white men's guns, stories she was not sure she believed, because they also told stories of mermaids appearing from the River Niger holding wads of crisp cash. It was Grace who, as one of the few women at the University College in Ibadan in 1950, would change her degree from chemistry to history after she heard, while drinking tea at the home of a friend, the story of Mr. Gboyega. The eminent Mr. Gboyega, a chocolate-skinned Nigerian, educated in London, distinguished expert on the history of the British Empire, had resigned in disgust when the West African Examinations Council began talking of adding African history to the curriculum, because he was appalled that African history would even be considered a subject. Grace would ponder this story for a long time, with great sadness, and it would cause her to make a clear link between education and dignity, between the hard, obvious things that are printed in books and the soft, subtle things that lodge themselves into the soul. It was Grace who would begin to rethink her own schooling—how lustily she had sung, on Empire Day, "God bless our Gracious King. Send him victorious, happy and glorious: Long to reign over us"; how she had puzzled over words like "wallpaper" and "dandelions" in her textbooks, unable to picture those things; how she had struggled with arithmetic problems that had to do with mixtures, because what was coffee and what was chicory and why did they have to be mixed? It was Grace who would begin to rethink her father's schooling and then hurry home to see him, his eyes watery with age, telling him she had not received all the letters she had ignored, saying amen when he prayed, pressing her lips against his forehead. It was Grace who, driving past Agueke on her way back, would become haunted by the image of a destroyed village and would go to London and to Paris and to Onicha, sifting through moldy files in archives, reimagining the lives and smells of her grandmother's world, for the book she would write called Pacifying with Bullets: A Reclaimed History of Southern Nigeria. It was Grace who, in a conversation about the early manuscript with her fiancé, George Chikadibia—stylish graduate of Kings College, Lagos; engineer-to-be; wearer of three-piece suits; expert ballroom dancer who often said that a grammar school without Latin was like a cup of tea without sugar—knew that the marriage would not last when George told her she was misguided to write about primitive culture instead of a worthwhile topic like African Alliances in the American-Soviet Tension. They would divorce in 1972, not because of the four miscarriages Grace had suffered but because she woke up sweating one night and realized that she would strangle him to death if she had to listen to one more rapturous monologue about his Cambridge days. It was Grace who, as she received faculty prizes, as she spoke to solemn-faced people at conferences about the Ijaw and Ibibio and Igbo and Efik peoples of Southern Nigeria, as she wrote reports for international organizations about commonsense things for "which she nevertheless received generous pay, would imagine her grandmother looking on and chuckling with great amusement. It was Grace who, feeling an odd rootlessness in the later years of her life, surrounded by her awards, her friends, her garden of peerless roses, would go to the courthouse in Lagos and officially change her first name from Grace to Afamefuna.
But on that day as she sat at her grandmother's bedside in the fading evening light, Grace was not contemplating her future. She simply held her grandmother's hand, the palm thickened from years of making pottery.
Half of a Yellow Sun, Chapter 1.
Master was a little crazy; he had spent too many years reading books overseas, talked to himself in his office, did not always return greetings, and had too much hair. Ugwu's aunty said this in a low voice as they walked on the path. 'But he is a good man,' she added. 'And as long as you work well, you will eat well. You will even eat meat every day.' She stopped to spit; the saliva left her mouth with a sucking sound and landed on the grass.
Ugwu did not believe that anybody, not even this master he was going to live with, ate meat every day. He did not disagree with his aunty, though, because he was too choked with expectation, too busy imagining his new life away from the village. They had been walking for a while now, since they got off the lorry at the motor park, and the afternoon sun burned the back of his neck. But he did not mind. He was prepared to walk hours more in even hotter sun. He had never seen anything like the streets that appeared after they went past the university gates, streets so smooth and tarred that he itched to lay his cheek down on them. He would never be able to describe to his sister Anulika how the bungalows here were painted the colour of the sky and sat side by side like polite, well-dressed men, how the hedges separating them were trimmed so flat on top that they looked like tables wrapped with leaves.
His aunty walked faster, her slippers making slap-slap sounds that echoed in the silent street. Ugwu wondered if she, too, could feel the coal tar getting hotter underneath, through her thin soles. They went past a sign, ODIM STREET, and Ugwu mouthed street, as he did whenever he saw an English word that was not too long. He smelt something sweet, heady, as they walked into a compound, and was sure it came from the white flowers clustered on the bushes at the entrance. The bushes were shaped like slender hills. The lawn glistened. Butterflies hovered above.
'I told Master you will learn everything fast, osiso-osiso,' his aunty said. Ugwu nodded attentively although she had already told him this many times, as often as she told him the story of how his good fortune came about: While she was sweeping the corridor in the Mathematics Department a week ago, she heard Master say that he needed a houseboy to do his cleaning, and she immediately said she could help, speaking before his typist or office messenger could offer to bring someone.
'I will learn fast, Aunty,' Ugwu said. He was staring at the car in the garage; a strip of metal ran around its blue body like a necklace.
'Remember, what you will answer whenever he calls you is Yes, sah!'
'Yes, sah!' Ugwu repeated.
They were standing before the glass door. Ugwu held back from reaching out to touch the cement wall, to see how different it would feel from the mud walls of his mother's hut that still bore the faint patterns of moulding fingers. For a brief moment, he wished he were back there now, in his mother's hut, under the dim coolness of the thatch roof; or in his aunty's hut, the only one in the village with a corrugated-iron roof.
His aunty tapped on the glass. Ugwu could see the white curtains behind the door. A voice said, in English, 'Yes? Come in.'
They took off their slippers before walking in. Ugwu had never seen a room so wide. Despite the brown sofas arranged in a semicircle, the side tables between them, the shelves crammed with books, and the centre table with a vase of red and white plastic flowers, the room still seemed to have too much space. Master sat in an armchair, wearing a singlet and a pair of shorts. He was not sitting upright but slanted, a book covering his face, as though oblivious that he had just asked people in.
'Good afternoon, sah! This is the child,' Ugwu's aunty said.
Master looked up. His complexion was very dark, like old bark, and the hair that covered his chest and legs was a lustrous, darker shade. He pulled off his glasses. 'The child?'
'The houseboy, sah.'
'Oh, yes, you have brought the houseboy. I kpotago ya.' Master's Igbo felt feathery in Ugwu's ears. It was Igbo coloured by the sliding sounds of English, the Igbo of one who spoke English often.
'He will work hard,' his aunty said. 'He is a very good boy. Just tell him what he should do. Thank, sah!'
Master grunted in response, watching Ugwu and his aunty with a faintly distracted expression, as if their presence made it difficult for him to remember something important. Ugwu's aunty patted Ugwu's shoulder, whispered that he should do well, and turned to the door. After she left, Master put his glasses back on and faced his book, relaxing further into a slanting position, legs stretched out. Even when he turned the pages he did so with his eyes on the book.
Ugwu stood by the door, waiting. Sunlight streamed in through the windows, and from time to time, a gentle breeze lifted the curtains. The room was silent except for the rustle of Master's page turning. Ugwu stood for a while before he began to edge closer and closer to the bookshelf, as though to hide in it, and then, after a while, he sank down to the floor, cradling his raffia bag between his knees. He looked up at the ceiling, so high up, so piercingly white. He closed his eyes and tried to reimagine this spacious room with the alien furniture, but he couldn't. He opened his eyes, overcome by a new wonder, and looked around to make sure it was all real. To think that he would sit on these sofas, polish this slippery-smooth floor, wash these gauzy curtains.
'Kedu afa gi? What's your name?' Master asked, startling him.
Ugwu stood up.
'What's your name?' Master asked again and sat up straight. He filled the armchair, his thick hair that stood high on his head, his muscled arms, his broad shoulders; Ugwu had imagined an older man, somebody frail, and now he felt a sudden fear that he might not please this master who looked so youthfully capable, who looked as if he needed nothing.
'Ugwu. And you've come from Obukpa?'
'From Opi, sah.'
'You could be anything from twelve to thirty.' Master narrowed his eyes. 'Probably thirteen.' He said thirteen in English.
Master turned back to his book. Ugwu stood there. Master flipped past some pages and looked up. 'Ngwa, go to the kitchen; there should be something you can eat in the fridge.'
Ugwu entered the kitchen cautiously, placing one foot slowly after the other. When he saw the white thing, almost as tall as he was, he knew it was the fridge. His aunty had told him about it. A cold barn, she had said, that kept food from going off. He opened it and gasped as the cool air rushed into his face. Oranges, bread, beer, soft drinks: many things in packets and cans were arranged on different levels and, at the top, a roasted, shimmering chicken, whole but for a leg. Ugwu reached out and touched the chicken. The fridge breathed heavily in his ears. He touched the chicken again and licked his finger before he yanked the other leg off, eating it until he had only the cracked, sucked pieces of bones left in his hand. Next, he broke off some bread, a chunk that he would have been excited to share with his siblings if a relative had visited and brought it as a gift. He ate quickly, before Master could come in and change his mind. He had finished eating and was standing by the sink, trying to remember what his aunty had told him about opening it to have water gush out like a spring, when Master walked in. He had put on a print shirt and a pair of trousers. His toes, which peeked through leather slippers, seemed feminine, perhaps because they were so clean; they belonged to feet that always wore shoes.
'What is it?' Master asked.
'Sah?' Ugwu gestured to the sink.
Master came over and turned the metal tap. 'You should look around the house and put your bag in the first room on the corridor. I'm going for a walk, to clear my head, i nugo?'
'Yes, sah.' Ugwu watched him leave through the back door. He was not tall. His walk was brisk, energetic, and he looked like Ezeagu, the man who held the wrestling record in Ugwu's village.
Ugwu turned off the tap, turned it on again, then off. On and off and on and off until he was laughing at the magic of the running water and the chicken and bread that lay balmy in his stomach. He went past the living room and into the corridor. There were books piled on the shelves and tables in the three bedrooms, on the sink and cabinets in the bathroom, stacked from floor to ceiling in the study, and in the storeroom, old journals were stacked next to crates of Coke and cartons of Premier beer. Some of the books were placed face down, open, as though Master had not yet finished reading them but had hastily gone on to another. Ugwu tried to read the titles, but most were too long, too difficult. Non-Parametric Methods. An African Survey. The Great Chain of Being. The Norman Impact Upon England. He walked on tiptoe from room to room, because his feet felt dirty, and as he did so he grew increasingly determined to please Master, to stay in this house of meat and cool floors. He was examining the toilet, running his hand over the black plastic seat, when he heard Master's voice.
'Where are you, my good man?' He said my good man in English.
Ugwu dashed out to the living room. 'Yes, sah!'
'What's your name again?'
'Yes, Ugwu. Look here, nee anya, do you know what that is?' Master pointed, and Ugwu looked at the metal box studded with dangerous-looking knobs.
'No, sah,' Ugwu said.
'It's a radiogram. It's new and very good. It's not like those old gramophones that you have to wind and wind. You have to be very careful around it, very careful. You must never let water touch it.'
'I'm off to play tennis, and then I'll go on to the staff club.' Master picked up a few books from the table. 'I may be back late. So get settled and have a rest.'
After Ugwu watched Master drive out of the compound, he went and stood beside the radiogram and looked at it carefully, without touching it. Then he walked around the house, up and down, touching books and curtains and furniture and plates, and when it got dark, he turned the light on and marvelled at how bright the bulb that dangled from the ceiling was, how it did not cast long shadows on the wall like the palm oil lamps back home. His mother would be preparing the evening meal now, pounding akpu in the mortar, the pestle grasped tightly with both hands. Chioke, the junior wife, would be tending the pot of watery soup balanced on three stones over the fire. The children would have come back from the stream and would be taunting and chasing one another under the breadfruit tree. Perhaps Anulika would be watching them. She was the oldest child in the household now, and as they all sat around the fire to eat, she would break up the fights when the younger ones struggled over the strips of dried fish in the soup. She would wait until all the akpu was eaten and then divide the fish so that each child had a piece, and she would keep the biggest for herself, as he had always done.
Ugwu opened the fridge and ate some more bread and chicken, quickly stuffing the food in his mouth while his heart beat as if he were running; then he dug out extra chunks of meat and pulled out the wings. He slipped the pieces into his shorts' pockets before going to the bedroom. He would keep them until his aunty visited and he would ask her to give them to Anulika. Perhaps he could ask her to give some to Nnesinachi too. That might make Nnesinachi finally notice him. He had never been sure exactly how he and Nnesinachi were related, but he knew they were from the same umunna and therefore could never marry. Yet he wished that his mother would not keep referring to Nnesinachi as his sister, saying things like, 'Please take this palm oil down to Mama Nnesinachi, and if she is not in, leave it with your sister.'
Nnesinachi always spoke to him in a vague voice, her eyes unfocused, as if his presence made no difference to her either way. Sometimes she called him Chiejina, the name of his cousin who looked nothing at all like him, and when he said, 'It's me', she would say, 'Forgive me, Ugwu my brother,' with a distant formality that meant she had no wish to make further conversation. But he liked going on errands to her house. They were opportunities to find her bent over, fanning the firewood or chopping ugu leaves for her mother's soup pot, or just sitting outside looking after her younger siblings, her wrapper hanging low enough for him to see the tops of her breasts. Ever since they started to push out, those pointy breasts, he had wondered if they would feel mushy-soft or hard like the unripe fruit from the ube tree. He often wished that Anulika wasn't so flat-chested - he wondered what was taking her so long anyway, since she and Nnesinachi were about the same age — so that he could feel her breasts. Anulika would slap his hand away, of course, and perhaps even slap his face as well, but he would do it quickly — squeeze and run — and that way he would at least have an idea and know what to expect when he finally touched Nnesinachi's.
But he was worried that he might never get to touch them, now that her uncle had asked her to come and learn a trade in Kano. She would be leaving for the North by the end of the year, when her mother's last child, whom she was carrying, began to walk. Ugwu wanted to be as pleased and grateful as the rest of the family. There was, after all, a fortune to be made in the North; he knew of people who had gone up there to trade and came home to tear down huts
and build houses with corrugated-iron roofs. He feared, though, that one of those pot-bellied traders in the North would take one look at her, and the next thing he knew somebody would bring palm wine to her father and he would never get to touch those breasts. They - her breasts - were the images saved for last on the many nights when he touched himself, slowly at first and then vigorously, until a muffled moan escaped him. He always started with her face, the fullness of her cheeks and the ivory tone of her teeth, and then he imagined her arms around him, her body moulded to his. Finally, he let her breasts form; sometimes they felt hard, tempting him to bite into them, and other times they were so soft he was afraid his imaginary squeezing caused her pain.
For a moment, he considered thinking of her tonight. He decided not to. Not on his first night in Master's house, on this bed that was nothing like his hand-woven raffia mat. First, he pressed his hands into the springy softness of the mattress. Then, he examined the layers of cloth on top of it, unsure whether to sleep on them or to remove them and put them away before sleeping. Finally, he climbed up and lay on top of the layers of cloth, his body curled in a tight knot.
He dreamed that Master was calling him — Ugwu, my good man! - and when he woke up Master was standing at the door, watching him. Perhaps it had not been a dream. He scrambled out of bed and glanced at the windows with the drawn curtains, in confusion. Was it late? Had that soft bed deceived him and made him oversleep? He usually woke with the first cockcrows.
'Good morning, sah!'
'There is a strong roasted-chicken smell here.'
'Where is the chicken?'
Ugwu fumbled in his shorts' pockets and brought out the chicken pieces.
'Do your people eat while they sleep?' Master asked. He was wearing something that looked like a woman's coat and was absently twirling the rope tied round his waist.
'Did you want to eat the chicken while in bed?'
'Food will stay in the dining room and the kitchen.'
The kitchen and bathroom will have to be cleaned today.'
Master turned and left. Ugwu stood trembling in the middle of the room, still holding the chicken pieces with his hand outstretched. He wished he did not have to walk past the dining room to get to the kitchen. Finally, he put the chicken back in his pockets, took a deep breath, and left the room. Master was at the dining table, the teacup in front of him placed on a pile of books.
'You know who really killed Lumumba?' Master said, looking up from a magazine. 'It was the Americans and the Belgians. It had nothing to do with Katanga.'
'Yes, sah,' Ugwu said. He wanted Master to keep talking, so he could listen to the sonorous voice, the musical blend of English words in his Igbo sentences.
'You are my houseboy,' Master said. 'If I order you to go outside and beat a woman walking on the street with a stick, and you then give her a bloody wound on her leg, who is responsible for the wound, you or me?'
Ugwu stared at Master, shaking his head, wondering if Master was referring to the chicken pieces in some roundabout way.
'Lumumba was prime minister of Congo. Do you know where Congo is?' Master asked.
Master got up quickly and went into the study. Ugwu's confused fear made his eyelids quiver. Would Master send him home because he did not speak English well, kept chicken in his pocket overnight, did not know the strange places Master named? Master came back with a wide piece of paper that he unfolded and laid out on the dining table, pushing aside books and magazines. He pointed with his pen. 'This is our world, although the people who drew this map decided to put their own land on top of ours. There is no top or bottom, you see.' Master picked up the paper and folded it, so that one edge touched the other, leaving a hollow between. 'Our world is round, it never ends. Nee anya, this is all water, the seas and oceans, and here's Europe and here's our own continent, Africa, and the Congo is in the middle. Farther up here is Nigeria, and Nsukka is here, in the southeast; this is where we are.' He tapped with his pen.
'Did you go to school?'
'Standard two, sah. But I learn everything fast.'
'Standard two? How long ago?'
'Many years now, sah. But I learn everything very fast!'
'Why did you stop school?'
'My father's crops failed, sah.'
Master nodded slowly. 'Why didn't your father find somebody to lend him your school fees?'
'Your father should have borrowed!' Master snapped, and then, in English, 'Education is a priority! How can we resist exploitation if we don't have the tools to understand exploitation?'
'Yes, sah!' Ugwu nodded vigorously. He was determined to appear as alert as he could, because of the wild shine that had appeared in Master's eyes.
'I will enrol you in the staff primary school,' Master said, still tapping on the piece of paper with his pen.
Ugwu's aunty had told him that if he served well for a few years, Master would send him to commercial school where he would learn typing and shorthand. She had mentioned the staff primary school, but only to tell him that it was for the children of the lecturers, who wore blue uniforms and white socks so intricately trimmed with wisps of lace that you wondered why anybody had wasted so much time on mere socks.
'Yes, sah,' he said. Thank, sah.'
'I suppose you will be the oldest in class, starting in standard three at your age,' Master said. And the only way you can get their respect is to be the best. Do you understand?'
'Sit down, my good man.'
Ugwu chose the chair farthest from Master, awkwardly placing his feet close together. He preferred to stand.
There are two answers to the things they will teach you about our land: the real answer and the answer you give in school to pass. You must read books and learn both answers. I will give you books, excellent books.' Master stopped to sip his tea. They will teach you that a white man called Mungo Park discovered River Niger. That is rubbish. Our people fished in the Niger long before Mungo Park's grandfather was born. But in your exam, write that it was Mungo Park.'
'Yes, sah.' Ugwu wished that this person called Mungo Park had not offended Master so much.
'Can't you say anything else?'
'Sing me a song.'
'Sing me a song. What songs do you know? Sing!' Master pulled his glasses off. His eyebrows were furrowed, serious. Ugwu began to sing an old song he had learned on his father's farm. His heart hit his chest painfully. 'Nzogbo nzogbu enyimba, enyi ...'
He sang in a low voice at first, but Master tapped his pen on the table and said 'Louder!' so he raised his voice, and Master kept saying 'Louder!' until he was screaming. After singing over and over a few times, Master asked him to stop. 'Good, good,' he said. 'Can you make tea?'
'No, sah. But I learn fast,' Ugwu said. The singing had loosened something inside him, he was breathing easily and his heart no longer pounded. And he was convinced that Master was mad.
'I eat mostly at the staff club. I suppose I shall have to bring more food home now that you are here.'
'Sah, I can cook.'
Ugwu nodded. He had spent many evenings watching his mother cook. He had started the fire for her, or fanned the embers when it started to die out. He had peeled and pounded yams and cassava, blown out the husks in rice, picked out the weevils from beans, peeled onions, and ground peppers. Often, when his mother was sick with the coughing, he wished that he, and not Anulika, would cook. He had never told anyone this, not even Anulika; she had already told him he spent too much time around women cooking, and he might never grow a beard if he kept doing that.
'Well, you can cook your own food then,' Master said. 'Write a list of what you'll need.'
'You wouldn't know how to get to the market, would you? I'll ask Jomo to show you.'
'Jomo takes care of the compound. He comes in three times a week. Funny man, I've seen him talking to the croton plant.' Master paused. Anyway, he'll be here tomorrow.'
Later, Ugwu wrote a list of food items and gave it to Master.
Master stared at the list for a while. 'Remarkable blend,' he said in English. 'I suppose they'll teach you to use more vowels in school.'
Ugwu disliked the amusement in Master's face. 'We need wood, sah,' he said.
For your books, sah. So that I can arrange them.'
'Oh, yes, shelves. I suppose we could fit more shelves somewhere, perhaps in the corridor. I will speak to somebody at the Works Department.'
'Odenigbo. Call me Odenigbo.'
Ugwu stared at him doubtfully. 'Sah?'
'My name is not Sah. Call me Odenigbo.'
'Odenigbo will always be my name. Sir is arbitrary. You could be the sir tomorrow.'
'Yes, sah - Odenigbo.'
Ugwu really preferred sah, the crisp power behind the word, and when two men from the Works Department came a few days later to install shelves in the corridor, he told them that they would have to wait for Sah to come home; he himself could not sign the white paper with typewritten words. He said Sah proudly.
'He's one of these village houseboys,' one of the men said dismissively, and Ugwu looked at the man's face and murmured a curse about acute diarrhoea following him and all of his offspring for life. As he arranged Master's books, he promised himself, stopping short of speaking aloud, that he would learn how to sign forms.
In the following weeks, the weeks when he examined every corner of the bungalow, when he discovered that a beehive was lodged in the cashew tree and that the butterflies converged in the front yard when the sun was brightest, he was just as careful in learning the rhythms of Master's life. Every morning, he picked up the Daily Times and Renaissance that the vendor dropped off at the door and folded them on the table next to Master's tea and bread. He had the Opel washed before Master finished breakfast, and when Master came back from work and was taking a siesta, he dusted the car over again, before Master left for the tennis courts. He moved around silently on the days that Master retired to the study for hours. When Master paced the corridor talking in a loud voice, he made sure that there was hot water ready for tea. He scrubbed the floors daily. He wiped the louvres until they sparkled in the afternoon sunlight, paid attention to the tiny cracks in the bathtub, polished the saucers that he used to serve kola nut to Master's friends. There were at least two visitors in the living room each day, the radiogram turned on low to strange flutelike music, low enough for the talking and laughing and glass clinking to come clearly to Ugwu in the kitchen or in the corridor as he ironed Master's clothes.
He wanted to do more, wanted to give Master every reason to keep him, and so one morning, he ironed Master's socks. They didn't look rumpled, the black ribbed socks, but he thought they would look even better straightened. The hot iron hissed and when he raised it, he saw that half of the sock was glued to it. He froze. Master was at the dining table, finishing up breakfast, and would come in any minute now to pull on his socks and shoes and take the files on the shelf and leave for work. Ugwu wanted to hide the sock under the chair and dash to the drawer for a new pair but his legs would not move. He stood there with the burnt sock, knowing Master would find him that way.
'You've ironed my socks, haven't you?' Master asked. 'You stupid ignoramus.' Stupid ignoramus slid out of his mouth like music.
'Sorry, sah! Sorry, sah!'
'I told you not to call me sir.' Master picked up a file from the shelf. Tm late.'
'Sah? Should I bring another pair?' Ugwu asked. But Master had already slipped on his shoes, without socks, and hurried out. Ugwu heard him bang the car door and drive away. His chest felt weighty; he did not know why he had ironed the socks, why he had not simply done the safari suit. Evil spirits, that was it. The evil spirits had made him do it. They lurked everywhere, after all. Whenever he was ill with the fever, or once when he fell from a tree, his mother would rub his body with okwuma, all the while muttering, *We shall defeat them, they will not win.'
He went out to the front yard, past stones placed side by side around the manicured lawn. The evil spirits would not win. He would not let them defeat him. There was a round, grassless patch in the middle of the lawn, like an island in a green sea, where a thin palm tree stood. Ugwu had never seen any palm tree that short, or one with leaves that flared out so perfectly. It did not look strong enough to bear fruit, did not look useful at all, like most of the plants here. He picked up a stone and threw it into the distance. So much wasted space. In his village, people farmed the tiniest plots outside their homes and planted useful vegetables and herbs. His grandmother had not needed to grow her favourite herb, arigbe, because it grew wild everywhere. She used to say that arigbe softened a man's heart. She was the second of three wives and did not have the special position that came with being the first or the last, so before she asked her husband for anything, she told Ugwu, she cooked him spicy yam porridge with arigbe. It had worked, always. Perhaps it would work with Master.
Ugwu walked around in search of arigbe. He looked among the pink flowers, under the cashew tree with the spongy beehive lodged on a branch, the lemon tree that had black soldier ants crawling up and down the trunk, and the pawpaw trees whose ripening fruits were dotted with fat, bird-burrowed holes. But the ground was clean, no herbs; Jomo's weeding was thorough and careful, and nothing that was not wanted was allowed to be.
The first time they met, Ugwu had greeted Jomo and Jomo nodded and continued to work, saying nothing. He was a small man with a tough, shrivelled body that Ugwu felt needed a watering more than the plants that he targeted with his metal can. Finally, Jomo looked up at Ugwu. 'Afa m bu Jomo,' he announced, as if Ugwu did not know his name. 'Some people call me Kenyatta, after the great man in Kenya. I am a hunter.'
Ugwu did not know what to say in return because Jomo was staring right into his eyes, as though expecting to hear something remarkable that Ugwu did.
'What kind of animals do you kill?' Ugwu asked. Jomo beamed, as if this was exactly the question he had wanted, and began to talk about his hunting. Ugwu sat on the steps that led to the backyard and listened. From the first day, he did not believe Jomo's stories - of fighting off a leopard barehanded, of killing two baboons with a single shot — but he liked listening to them and he put off washing Master's clothes to the days Jomo came so he could sit outside while Jomo worked. Jomo moved with a slow deliberateness. His raking, watering, and planting all somehow seemed filled with solemn wisdom. He would look up in the middle of trimming a hedge and say, 'That is good meat,' and then walk to the goatskin bag tied behind his bicycle to rummage for his catapult. Once, he shot a bush pigeon down from the cashew tree with a small stone, wrapped it in leaves, and put it into his bag.
'Don't go to that bag unless I am around,' he told Ugwu. 'You might find a human head there.'
Ugwu laughed but had not entirely doubted Jomo. He wished so much that Jomo had come to work today. Jomo would have been the best person to ask about arigbe — indeed, to ask for advice on how best to placate Master.
He walked out of the compound, to the street, and looked through the plants on the roadside until he saw the rumpled leaves close to the root of a whistling pine. He had never smelt anything like the spicy sharpness of arigbe in the bland food Master brought back from the staff club; he would cook a stew with it, and offer Master some with rice, and afterwards plead with him. Please don't send me back home, sah. I will work extra for the burnt sock. I will earn the money to replace it. He did not know exactly what he could do to earn money for the sock, but he planned to tell Master that anyway.
If the arigbe softened Master's heart, perhaps he could grow it and some other herbs in the backyard. He would tell Master that the garden was something to do until he started school, since the headmistress at the staff school had told Master that he could not start midterm. He might be hoping for too much, though. What was the point of thinking about a herb garden if Master asked him to leave, if Master would not forgive the burnt sock? He walked quickly into the kitchen, laid the arigbe down on the counter, and measured out some rice.
Hours later, he felt a tautness in his stomach when he heard Master's car: the crunch of gravel and the hum of the engine before it stopped in the garage. He stood by the pot of stew, stirring, holding the ladle as tightly as the cramps in his stomach felt. Would Master ask him to leave before he had a chance to offer him the food? What would he tell his people?
'Good afternoon, sah - Odenigbo,' he said, even before Master had come into the kitchen.
'Yes, yes,' Master said. He was holding books to his chest with one hand and his briefcase with the other. Ugwu rushed over to help with the books. 'Sah? You will eat?' he asked in English.
Ugwu's stomach got tighter. He feared it might snap as he bent to place the books on the dining table. 'Stew, sah.'
'Yes, sah. Very good stew, sah.'
'I'll try some, then.'
'Call me Odenigbo!' Master snapped before going in to take an afternoon bath.
After Ugwu served the food, he stood by the kitchen door, watching as Master took a first forkful of rice and stew, took another, and then called out, 'Excellent, my good man.'
Ugwu appeared from behind the door. 'Sah? I can plant the herbs in a small garden. To cook more stews like this.'
A garden?' Master stopped to sip some water and turn a journal page. 'No, no, no. Outside is Jomo's territory, and inside is yours. Division of labour, my good man. If we need herbs, we'll ask Jomo to take care of it.' Ugwu loved the sound of Division of labour, my good man, spoken in English.
'Yes, sah,' he said, although he was already thinking of what spot would be best for the herb garden: near the Boys' Quarters where Master never went. He could not trust Jomo with the herb garden and would tend it himself when Master was out, and this way, his arigbe, his herb of forgiveness, would never run out. It was only later in the evening that he realized Master must have forgotten about the burnt sock long before coming home.
Ugwu came to realize other things. He was not a normal house-boy; Dr Okeke's houseboy next door did not sleep on a bed in a room, he slept on the kitchen floor. The houseboy at the end of the street with whom Ugwu went to the market did not decide what would be cooked, he cooked whatever he was ordered to. And they did not have masters or madams who gave them books, saying, 'This one is excellent, just excellent.'
Ugwu did not understand most of the sentences in the books, but he made a show of reading them. Nor did he entirely understand the conversations of Master and his friends but listened anyway and heard that the world had to do more about the black people killed in Sharpeville, that the spy plane shot down in Russia served the Americans right, that De Gaulle was being clumsy in Algeria, that the United Nations would never get rid of Tshombe in Katanga. Once in a while, Master would stand up and raise his glass and his voice - 'To that brave black American led into the University of Mississippi!' 'To Ceylon and to the world's first woman prime minister!' 'To Cuba for beating the Americans at their own game!' - and Ugwu would enjoy the clink of beer bottles against glasses, glasses against glasses, bottles against bottles.
More friends visited on weekends, and when Ugwu came out to serve their drinks, Master would sometimes introduce him - in English, of course. 'Ugwu helps me around the house. Very clever boy.' Ugwu would continue to uncork bottles of beer and Coke silently, while feeling the warm glow of pride spread up from the tips of his toes. He especially liked it when Master introduced him to foreigners, like Mr Johnson, who was from the Caribbean and stammered when he spoke, or Professor Lehman, the nasal white man from America who had eyes that were the piercing green of a fresh leaf. Ugwu was vaguely frightened the first time he saw him because he had always imagined that only evil spirits had grass-coloured eyes.
He soon knew the regular guests and brought out their drinks before Master asked him to. There was Dr Patel, the Indian man who drank Golden Guinea beer mixed with Coke. Master called him Doc. Whenever Ugwu brought out the kola nut, Master would say, 'Doc, you know the kola nut does not understand English,' before going on to bless the kola nut in Igbo. Dr Patel laughed each time, with great pleasure, leaning back on the sofa and throwing his short legs up as if it were a joke he had never heard before. After Master broke the kola nut and passed the saucer around, Dr Patel always took a lobe and put it into his shirt pocket; Ugwu had never seen him eat one.
There was tall, skinny Professor Ezeka, with a voice so hoarse he sounded as if he spoke in whispers. He always picked up his glass and held it up against the light, to make sure Ugwu had washed it well. Sometimes, he brought his own bottle of gin. Other times, he asked for tea and then went on to examine the sugar bowl and the tin of milk, muttering, 'The capabilities of bacteria are quite extraordinary.'
There was Okeoma, who came most often and stayed the longest. He looked younger than the other guests, always wore a pair of shorts, and had bushy hair with a parting at the side that stood higher than Master's. It looked rough and tangled, unlike Master's, as if Okeoma did not like to comb it. Okeoma drank Fanta. He read his poetry aloud on some evenings, holding a sheaf of papers, and Ugwu would look through the kitchen door to see all the guests watching him, their faces half frozen, as if they did not dare breathe. Afterwards, Master would clap and say, in his loud voice, 'The voice of our generation!' and the clapping would go on until Okeoma said sharply, That's enough!'
And there was Miss Adebayo, who drank brandy like Master and was nothing like Ugwu had expected a university woman to be. His aunty had told him a little about university women. She would know, because she worked as a cleaner at the Faculty of Sciences during the day and as a waitress at the staff club in the evenings; sometimes, too, the lecturers paid her to come in and clean their homes. She said university women kept framed photos of their student days in Ibadan and Britain and America on their shelves. For breakfast, they had eggs that were not cooked well, so that the yolk danced around, and they wore bouncy, straight-hair wigs and maxi-dresses that grazed their ankles. She told a story once about a couple at a cocktail party in the staff club who climbed out of a nice Peugeot 404, the man in an elegant cream suit, the woman in a green dress. Everybody turned to watch them, walking hand in hand, and then the wind blew the woman's wig off her head. She was bald. They used hot combs to straighten their hair, his aunty had said, because they wanted to look like white people, although the combs ended up burning their hair off.
Ugwu had imagined the bald woman: beautiful, with a nose that stood up, not the sitting-down, flattened noses that he was used to. He imagined quietness, delicacy, the kind of woman whose sneeze, whose laugh and talk, would be soft as the under feathers closest to a chicken's skin. But the women who visited Master, the ones he saw at the supermarket and on the streets, were different. Most of them did wear wigs (a few had their hair plaited or braided with thread), but they were not delicate stalks of grass. They were loud. The loudest was Miss Adebayo. She was not an Igbo woman; Ugwu could tell from her name, even if he had not once run into her and her housegirl at the market and heard them both speaking rapid, incomprehensible Yoruba. She had asked him to wait so that she could give him a ride back to the campus, but he thanked her and said he still had many things left to buy and would take a taxi, although he had finished shopping. He did not want to ride in her car, did not like how her voice rose above Master's in the living room, challenging and arguing. He often fought the urge to raise his own voice from behind the kitchen door and tell her to shut up, especially when she called Master a sophist. He did not know what sophist meant, but he did not like that she called Master that. Nor did he like the way she looked at Master. Even when somebody else was speaking and she was supposed to be focused on that person, her eyes would be on Master. One Saturday night, Okeoma dropped a glass and Ugwu came in to clean up the shards that lay on the floor. He took his time cleaning. The conversation was clearer from here and it was easier to make out what Professor Ezeka said. It was almost impossible to hear the man from the kitchen.
'We should have a bigger pan-African response to what is happening in the American South really - ' Professor Ezeka said.
Master cut him short. 'You know, pan-Africanism is fundamentally a European notion.'
'You are digressing,' Professor Ezeka said, and shook his head in his usual superior manner.
'Maybe it is a European notion,' Miss Adebayo said, 'but in the bigger picture, we are all one race.'
'What bigger picture?' Master asked. 'The bigger picture of the white man! Can't you see that we are not all alike except to white eyes?' Master's voice rose easily, Ugwu had noticed, and by his third glass of brandy, he would start to gesture with his glass, leaning forwards until he was seated on the very edge of his armchair. Late at night, after Master was in bed, Ugwu would sit on the same chair and imagine himself speaking swift English, talking to rapt imaginary guests, using words like decolonize and pan-African, moulding his voice after Master's, and he would shift and shift until he too was on the edge of the chair.
'Of course we are all alike, we all have white oppression in common,' Miss Adebayo said dryly. 'Pan-Africanism is simply the most sensible response.'
'Of course, of course, but my point is that the only authentic identity for the African is the tribe,' Master said. 'I am Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came.'
Professor Ezeka snorted and shook his head, thin legs crossed. 'But you became aware that you were Igbo because of the white man. The pan-Igbo idea itself came only in the face of white domination. You must see that tribe as it is today is as colonial a product as nation and race.' Professor Ezeka recrossed his legs.
'The pan-Igbo idea existed long before the white man!' Master shouted. 'Go and ask the elders in your village about your history.'
'The problem is that Odenigbo is a hopeless tribalist, we need to keep him quiet,' Miss Adebayo said.
Then she did what startled Ugwu: she got up laughing and went over to Master and pressed his lips close together. She stood there for what seemed a long time, her hand to his mouth. Ugwu imagined Master's brandy-diluted saliva touching her fingers. He stiffened as he picked up the shattered glass. He wished that Master would not sit there shaking his head as if the whole thing were very funny.
Miss Adebayo became a threat after that. She began to look more and more like a fruit bat, with her pinched face and cloudy complexion and print dresses that billowed around her body like wings. Ugwu served her drink last and wasted long minutes drying his hands on a dishcloth before he opened the door to let her in. He worried that she would marry Master and bring her Yoruba-speaking housegirl into the house and destroy his herb garden and tell him what he could and could not cook. Until he heard Master and Okeoma talking.
'She did not look as if she wanted to go home today,' Okeoma said. 'Nwoke m, are you sure you are not planning to do something with her?'
'Don't talk rubbish.'
'If you did, nobody in London would know.'
'Look, look - '
'I know you're not interested in her like that, but what still puzzles me is what these women see in you.'
Okeoma laughed and Ugwu was relieved. He did not want Miss Adebayo - or any woman - coming in to intrude and disrupt their lives. Some evenings, when the visitors left early, he would sit on the floor of the living room and listen to Master talk. Master mostly talked about things Ugwu did not understand, as if the brandy made him forget that Ugwu was not one of his visitors. But it didn't matter. All Ugwu needed was the deep voice, the melody of the English-inflected Igbo, the glint of the thick eyeglasses.
He had been with Master for four months when Master told him, 'A special woman is coming for the weekend. Very special. You make sure the house is clean. I'll order the food from the staff club.'
'But, sah, I can cook,' Ugwu said, with a sad premonition.
'She's just come back from London, my good man, and she likes her rice a certain way. Fried rice, I think. I'm not sure you could make something suitable.' Master turned to walk away.
'I can make that, sah,' Ugwu said quickly, although he had no idea what fried rice was. 'Let me make the rice, and you get the chicken from the staff club.'
'Artful negotiation,' Master said in English. All right, then. You make the rice.'
'Yes, sah,' Ugwu said. Later, he cleaned the rooms and scrubbed the toilet carefully, as he always did, but Master looked at them and said they were not clean enough and went out and bought another jar of Vim powder and asked, sharply, why Ugwu didn't clean the spaces between the tiles. Ugwu cleaned them again. He scrubbed until sweat crawled down the sides of his face, until his arm ached. And on Saturday, he bristled as he cooked. Master had never complained about his work before. It was this woman's fault, this woman that Master considered too special even for him to cook for. Just come back from London, indeed.
When the doorbell rang, he muttered a curse under his breath about her stomach swelling from eating faeces. He heard Master's raised voice, excited and childlike, followed by a long silence and he imagined their hug, and her ugly body pressed to Master's. Then he heard her voice. He stood still. He had always thought that Master's English could not be compared to anybody's, not Professor Ezeka, whose English one could hardly hear, or Okeoma, who spoke English as if he were speaking Igbo, with the same cadences and pauses, or Patel, whose English was a faded lilt. Not even the white man Professor Lehman, with his words forced out through his nose, sounded as dignified as Master. Master's English was music, but what Ugwu was hearing now, from this woman, was magic. Here was a superior tongue, a luminous language, the kind of English he heard on Master's radio, rolling out with clipped precision. It reminded him of slicing a yam with a newly sharpened knife, the easy perfection in every slice.
'Ugwu!' Master called. 'Bring Coke!'
Ugwu walked out to the living room. She smelt of coconuts. He greeted her, his 'Good afternoon' a mumble, his eyes on the floor.
'Kedu?' she asked.
'I'm well, mah.' He still did not look at her. As he uncorked the bottle, she laughed at something Master said. Ugwu was about to pour the cold Coke into her glass when she touched his hand and said, 'Rapuba, don't worry about that.'
Her hand was lightly moist. 'Yes, mah.'
'Your master has told me how well you take care of him, Ugwu,' she said. Her Igbo words were softer than her English, and he was disappointed at how easily they came out. He wished she would stumble in her Igbo; he had not expected English that perfect to sit beside equally perfect Igbo.
'Yes, mah,' he mumbled. His eyes were still focused on the floor.
'What have you cooked us, my good man?' Master asked, as if he did not know. He sounded annoyingly jaunty.
'I serve now, sah,' Ugwu said, in English, and then wished he had said I am serving now, because it sounded better, because it would impress her more. As he set the table, he kept from glancing at the living room, although he could hear her laughter and Master's voice, with its irritating new timbre.
He finally looked at her as she and Master sat down at the table. Her oval face was smooth like an egg, the lush colour of rain-drenched earth, and her eyes were large and slanted and she looked like she was not supposed to be walking and talking like everyone else; she should be in a glass case like the one in Master's study, where people could admire her curvy, fleshy body, where she would be preserved untainted. Her hair was long; each of the plaits that hung down to her neck ended in a soft fuzz. She smiled easily; her teeth were the same bright white of her eyes. He did not know how long he stood staring at her until Master said, 'Ugwu usually does a lot better than this. He makes a fantastic stew.'
'It's quite tasteless, which is better than bad-tasting, of course,' she said, and smiled at Master before turning to Ugwu. 'I'll show you how to cook rice properly, Ugwu, without using so much oil.'
'Yes, mah,' Ugwu said. He had invented what he imagined was fried rice, frying the rice in groundnut oil, and had half-hoped it would send them both to the toilet in a hurry. Now, though, he wanted to cook a perfect meal, a savoury jollof rice or his special stew with arigbe, to show her how well he could cook. He delayed washing up so that the running water would not drown out her voice. When he served them tea, he took his time rearranging the biscuits on the saucer so that he could linger and listen to her, until Master said, 'That's quite all right, my good man.' Her name was Olanna. But Master said it only once; he mostly called her nkem, my own. They talked about the quarrel between the Sardauna and the premier of the Western Region, and then Master said something about waiting until she moved to Nsukka and how it was only a few weeks away after all. Ugwu held his breath to make sure he had heard clearly. Master was laughing now, saying, 'But we will live here together, nkem, and you can keep the Elias Avenue flat as well.'
She would move to Nsukka. She would live in this house. Ugwu walked away from the door and stared at the pot on the stove. His life would change. He would learn to cook fried rice and he would have to use less oil and he would take orders from her. He felt sad, and yet his sadness was incomplete; he felt expectant, too, an excitement he did not entirely understand.
That evening, he was washing Master's linen in the backyard, near the lemon tree, when he looked up from the basin of soapy water and saw her standing by the back door, watching him. At first, he was sure it was his imagination, because the people he thought the most about often appeared to him in visions. He had imaginary conversations with Anulika all the time, and, right after he touched himself at night, Nnesinachi would appear briefly with a mysterious smile on her face. But Olanna was really at the door. She was walking across the yard towards him. She had only a wrapper tied around her chest, and as she walked, he imagined that she was a yellow cashew, shapely and ripe.
'Mah? You want anything?' he asked. He knew that if he reached out and touched her face, it would feel like butter, the kind Master unwrapped from a paper packet and spread on his bread.
'Let me help you with that.' She pointed at the bedsheet he was rinsing, and slowly he took the dripping sheet out. She held one end and moved back. 'Turn yours that way,' she said.
He twisted his end of the sheet to his right while she twisted to her right, and they watched as the water was squeezed out. The sheet was slippery.
'Thank, mah,' he said.
She smiled. Her smile made him feel taller. 'Oh, look, those pawpaws are almost ripe. Lotekwa, don't forget to pluck them.'
There was something polished about her voice, about her; she was like the stone that lay right below a gushing spring, rubbed smooth
by years and years of sparkling water, and looking at her was similar to finding that stone, knowing that there were so few like it. He watched her walk back indoors.
He did not want to share the job of caring for Master with anyone, did not want to disrupt the balance of his life with Master, and yet it was suddenly unbearable to think of not seeing her again. Later, after dinner, he tiptoed to Master's bedroom and rested his ear on the door. She was moaning loudly, sounds that seemed so unlike her, so uncontrolled and stirring and throaty. He stood there for a long time, until the moans stopped, and then he went back to his room.