For as long as I can remember, my mother had two wishes; to hold my hand on my wedding day and marry me off well- preferably to Abubakar; our Imam’s first son. Humble, handsome Abu who always had on giant specs and stood so tall, most people had to raise their heads to make eye contact.
By all definitions Mama was extra; her happiness as infectious as her anger, terrifying. She and Papa were on first name terms and spoke to each other only when necessary. She complained about everything; money, food, clothes, even his family. In times of anger, the veins in her neck popped up and her facial wrinkles deepened. Papa knew then to be quiet. As I got older and understood biology, I often wondered how they managed to make me; this frigid mismatched couple.
That Abu and I end up together was desired and ordered. As often as she could, Mama admonished me to pay greater attention to make-up and house-hold chores. “Bend properly and hold that broom. Your waist is not made of iron is it?” Other times, she’d look me over and take off my wrapper, retying it to the left: “It goes to the left. Nobody can say I did not teach you.” My complaints against this odd betrothal got weaker with time until I was wholeheartedly enthralled. Every Friday with a fast-beating heart, I wore one of my favorite jellabas and stayed behind for Muslim Students’ meetings. With all my heart, I wished someday, Abu would notice me even with as little as a nod but repeated stolen glances confirmed my suspicions. He did not fancy me.
Papa died in his sleep on a cold September morning two days before my fourteenth birthday. A vicious sandstorm caused formalities to be postponed till the next day. I don’t quite remember which was worse; the whirling, blinding haze or Mama’s insufferable theatrics. We had to show a proper level of grief. “Bring my scissors and mirror Hafsa” she ordered. I sat on the tiled floor between her corpulent legs, eyes shut and careful not to enrage her by any form of disobedience. Masses of rich black curly hair caressed my face as they fell enveloping me in an aura of what I considered naked ugliness. Quivering with sobs, I took off my pink flowery gown and covered the thin frame underneath in an oversize wrapper. Waves of hot harmattan air blew into our dimly lit room provoking a cough spasm and leaving brown dust on Mama’s favorite blue coverlet.
“Allah, be quiet. Your hair will grow back.” she hissed with disgust. Dry weather always put her in a rage. “You should be angry with your father, not me. What did I ever do to make him treat me this way?”
The words hung on my lips. Did she really expect him to defeat rabies? If she had not demanded pap at all costs that night, Papa would not have jumped our new neighbor’s fence and bang repeatedly on the deaf trader’s door only to get bitten by her mad dog. She should have insisted on taking him to the hospital even when family and friends said native herbs worked best. Dying is better than ceaseless barking anyway.
“Your classmate, Amina is getting married this weekend” Mama said shifting her stool so she could face me square, her face enclosed in a frown. I was home on holiday from university. She continued the speech, apparently reassured by my silence while I chastised myself for not making my visit shorter.
“Her mother invited me last week. I have sewn my aso-ebi and told my union people to prepare, that you and Abu are next.”
I grunted okay but my mother will never back down.
“Everybody is already talking about it. I keep showing up for people. When will they show up for me too?”
“Mummy I will not marry Abubakar.” I stared hard at her, eyes narrowed to slits.
If my warning was perceived, it had no effect as she simply ignored it. “And why won’t you? What is wrong with him? He has graduated, is working and Muslim.”
“Why? Perhaps, you can force him to marry me” I shouted, angry in spite of myself.
“Who do you want then? It is not as if you tell me anything. I have not heard you on the phone with a man since you came back despite my careful watch. Nor has one come calling. Do you think it is your books you will marry?”
This was my cue. I returned to school and cannabis. I was no addict. Only a little now and then to keep body and soul together.
Mama was ecstatic when she learnt I had graduated with my mates. She hugged me, crying and laughing at the same time. Her old, puffy cheeks against my youthful skin felt made a dream of heaven. For a moment, I imagined what it would feel like to stay this way forever; this old woman happy because of me. “You get your brains from me” she repeated over a dozen times. We invited friends, hired a caterer and bought souvenirs for the induction party. A night to my big day, Mama threw herself into hysteria.
“It’s nothing my dear” she said wheezing while I pleaded with her to confide in me.
“Your father should be here. First your brother- Ismail was stillborn and Mama had never mentioned him, now him. I cannot do this.”
“You can’t what ma?” I could hear my heartbeats and the unsolicited excuses I’d be making to friends on her behalf with a fake smile the next day.
“Sorry Hafsa but I am too tired. I must be ill. Oh, I am so unlucky” she wailed.
Nobody whistled loudly or clapped too long when the Head of Students called out: “Yakubu Hafsa.” That day marked a turning point in my relationship with Mama. We wouldn’t talk for years.
Time flew by and in June 2000, she texted me her diagnosis. We had a cold, formal relationship in place by then. I journeyed back to meet a withered lady in dirty, tattered clothes. When she smiled, the mouth sores were painful to see. The stench from her diabetic foot ulcer gave me goose bumps. Massive cobwebs dangled from the ceiling everywhere in the house. Rodents lived amongst her unsold wares.
I cleaned, burned the stock, washed Mama’s clothes, cooked her a healthy meal, dressed the wounds and drove to see a specialist. The town’s general hospital offered me a post which I accepted. At first, I missed the hustle of the big city terribly but soon came to appreciate the ordered, predictable nature of my work. Mama stayed on admission for four months. Following her discharge, we sat on the porch every evening and gossiped; about Abubakar and his three wives, the new set of stalls being built for which she will be named: “market Chairlady,” my promotion to Chief Laboratory Scientist and my future husband- our Imam offered his hand and I said yes although, Mama thinks he is too old.
The wedding held two days before eid. My friends from the city attended. I asked for the Qur’an as dowry. Mama wore a flowing brown jellaba and matching silver shoes. Her grey hair rolled in a knot, uncovered. I wore a maroon-purple jellaba and veil encrusted with tiny, shiny stones. My unruly hair was carefully oiled and combed into a bun. Black medium heels completed the ensemble. We did our make-up, she designed shapes with red henna on my fairish skin and held my hand as we trekked to the nearby mosque in a small group of family and friends. I became a married woman within minutes.
At the outskirts of our village far away from areas inhabited by men and crops, accessible only through a narrow path lined on both sides by frightful shoulder-high weeds, lies a patch of land ever so slightly undulating. There are no visible markers of any kind but my cousin swears he can point at both spots blindfolded. It often worries me that I will never know where Mama and Papa rest in their final sleep. I supplicate to The Merciful One on their behalf as I hope somebody would for me, when my turn comes. The moon will be a silvery orb tonight, glimmering from its fortress in the sky. Who knows, I might see those two chase each other again; the twinkling stars I can’t help but think, are Mama and Papa.