The place where I live with other mad people in Enugu is never clean.
This is by no means the fault of our caretakers because ten times a day or more, two bored cleaners pick up a broom or a mop to clean up after us. They work hard at picking up the pieces of our mind that have found its way to the floor. Sometimes they have to clean the walls as well.
I sometimes offer to help them but they brush me off kindly; their eyes filled with pity and something else I don’t recognize. Thankfulness maybe, gratitude that they are not me and that at the end of the day, they can escape and go home.
I am probably the cleanest person that lives here. The nurses and cleaners never have to clean up after me. The room I share with Obiageli is relatively clean for a room in a psychiatric hospital. Well except for the days when Obiageli’s madness wearies me and she makes more mess than my soul can handle. On days like that, I curl up in my bed and sleep, hoping that while I sleep, someone would clean up the nightmare that is my reality.
The doctors never clean up. It is beneath their white coats you see. The nurses also wear white but they are angels. There is nothing beneath angels. The doctors on the other hand fancy themselves human gods, saviors, healers and as such they keep away from the stain that is us. They make their rounds twice a day; they ask us the patients, if we are better but no matter what we answer, they prescribe more pills.
Obiageli throws up her pills as often as she swallows them. I like Obiageli but I wish she would stop throwing up. It makes our room smell. Still she is the best roommate I have had since coming here two years ago so I do not complain.
Two years? Has it really been that long?
Two years since the voices first started to speak. Two years since I started to listen to them. Two years since I last set eyes on Ikemefuna…
The good thing about being mad is time stands still. There is no difference between today and tomorrow, yesterday and today; hope becomes a lost cause.
But when I woke up this morning, I knew that there was a yesterday and even now, I know that there is a tomorrow.
I used to be mad. My doctors have a nice name for it; ‘schizophrenia’ they call it. I cannot pronounce the word, maybe because the pills they give me makes my tongue heavy.
Two years ago, I started to hear the voices. Maybe if it had stopped at just hearing voices, I wouldn’t be here. But I heard the voices and agreed with everything they said. I approved when they said tomorrow would never come. Of what use were all the tomorrows in the world without Ikemefuna anyway?
I met him on a hill overlooking the red earth of the valley I had grown up in. We had been so young, so naïve and so stupid. If I knew then what I know now, I would have made him sit on that hill with me forever. We would have sat on the hill and spent the rest of our lives looking out on Enugu. We would never have descended down to a city that was named for the darkness of the hearts of men that inhabited it. The coal city, they called it. Coal for the dark places children disappeared to, never to be seen again. Coal for the forest groves where money rituals were carried out. Coal for the poverty, the hopelessness, the inhumanity of humans towards each other.
It had been someone’s picnic party. I do not remember whose but that was university life at ESUT after all; party after party till you had no memory of ever picking up a book or attending a class.
My friends had insisted on my attendance. I was too much of a recluse, they complained.
‘If I had your fine bone structure, and figure 8 eh, I would have at least three boyfriends. One to pay my rent, one for recharge cards, and one to pay the bills at Mama Caro’s buka.’ One friend said.
‘Are you minding her? All she knows is book, book. And your father is rich oh. I don’t know why you bother reading. If my father was Chief Umeh, books would be the last thing of my mind,’ Another friend added.
‘Books are the last thing on your mind anyway. All you know is to straff anything in trouser.’ The first friend accused the second.
‘You are in trousers, am I straffing you? Nne abeg shift! You think I am like you with all those your short short boyfriends can’t straff well.’
And so it continued until I agreed to attend the party at Ngwo hills with them.
Ikemefuna was standing in a group of other young men, debating whether democracy was a feasible project in Nigeria when I first laid eyes on him.
The earth didn’t move. The stars didn’t fall. The heavens didn’t drop down. But my heart was convinced otherwise.
I stared at him and he must felt my eyes searching his face because he turned in my direction.
We spent the rest of the party in each other’s company. It was like I had always known the hands that held onto mine like they would never let go. It was like I had always been this happy, always felt this safe. It felt like it was always Ikemefuna’s love guiding my steps till the day it led me to find him on the hill.
His eyes were liquid fire; his smile, the river that cooled them. He took off the jean jacket he had been wearing and placed it on the grass so we could sit away from the others. He held my hand and I
‘We should get married.’ He said that first night as we walked down the hill with other revelers.
‘Yes, yes we should.’ I breathed and then we laughed because we knew it was possible and impossible at the same time.
He was in final year of business school and I was a lowly third year medical student whose life was ruled by her dictator of a father.
But we dreamed anyway. Ikemefuna would get a job after school and my father would agree to our love once he saw I would be taken care of. We would get married and leave Enugu. We talked about the kind of cities we would like to build our lives in. Ibadan; my mother had gone to school there and loved it. She had learned to speak the language of the people and I had memories of her singing in Yoruba. Accra; Ikemefuna’s uncle lived there and had a successful vehicle importation business. It was far away from my father but I didn’t mind. So long as I had Ikemefuna. Lagos was too noisy, too busy, a conundrum that people like I and Ikemefuna would never be able to figure out so it was the first one we ruled out.
We watched American movies and I encouraged Ikemefuna to try the green card lottery so we could run far away to New York, a place neither of us had ever been but were sure would welcome us with open arms and keep our children safe from the stain of coal.
We dreamed loudly every chance we got. We named our first daughter ‘Olanna’ because Ikemefuna was more precious than gold to me. He insisted on ‘Nneoma’ for our second daughter so she would know where her goodness came from.
‘And our son? What shall we name our son?’ I asked him one night after we had made love in his tiny room. There were posters of Usher, the American singer covering the cracks on the wall. NEPA had struck so we stayed naked, unashamed of our bodies and of the love that clothed our hearts. His head was on my womb, listening to the laughter of our unborn children.
‘I don’t want a son. They get girls pregnant!’
I laughed then and pushed him off me so I could lead the dance this time.
‘I will give you a son someday.’ I whispered in his ears just before he reached his release.
Ikemefuna graduated and our dreams became reality. He got a job during his NYSC year that was too good to be true. We could get married. We could start building our lives together.
Everything was perfect. That is until my father.
‘Who is he? Who is his father?’ My father asked me when I told him about the man who wanted to bring him wine.
‘His name is Ikemefuna and he loves me. His father is Mazi Oruche, a retired miner,’ I said, knowing that was not what my father wanted to hear and wishing my mother still lived to act as a buffer between me and this monster I called sire.
‘You are just like your mother; soft and stupid! The son of a nobody is who you have chosen to marry? Well, I have news for you. You are not marrying anyone anytime soon talk less of some nobody. Once you are done with medical school, you are going to the US to get another degree. That is what people that make it in this country do. They get degrees from abroad so they can compete successfully,’ My father said even though he had barely graduated from ESUT and sometimes asked me to read out difficult words in the newspaper.
‘I am not going to the US or anywhere else unless Ikemefuna goes with me. I am two months pregnant.’
I had heard stories of the kind of man my father was. The help whispered, my classmates stopped talking when I walked into a room, taxi men stared at me with fear when they dropped me off at the empty mansion my father had built to house his pain. All around me was evidence of the kind of man my father was. Everyone feared him. Everyone except me. He was a monster but he was my father. He was all the parent I knew and he had always shown me nothing but love and affection.
‘Nne’ he called me because he said I reminded him of his long dead mother.
‘Nwakaego,’ he whispered in my ears the night my mother died because I was all that mattered to him now; I mattered more than money, more than his pride, more than anything or anyone else.
Yes, he was part of the vampire government that sucked the lifeblood out of the people of Enugu. Yes, he had been accused of ordering the death of countless political opponents. Yes, he had driven my mother to early death by demanding a son even though the doctors had advised otherwise. Yes, he was all of these things but he was also my father. I was sure he would not harm me. I was all he had left after all.
Two days later, I found out different. I woke up to find myself in a sterile room painted white and the remains of the son I was going to give Ikemefuna in a pail.
They say I screamed and screamed until the doctor begged my father to take me home before his patients started to leave.
They drugged me some more and took me home. That night while my father slept soundly, the voices spoke to me for the first time. They told me to return the favor. My father killed my child so wouldn’t it be just desserts if I killed his? I found his razor blades, the ones he used for shaving, and started work on my left wrist. He found me just as my right wrist started to bleed.
That is how I came to be here, amongst these people that society has rejected for their inability to see beyond the present, for their ability to see what no one else sees, to hear what no one else hears…
Two weeks ago, the voices stopped speaking to me. We had a new nurse join the hospital, you see and she has eyes of liquid fire.
‘Ego!’ She whispered in shock after laying eyes on me for the first time in two years.
I started to cry because it had been such a long time anyone called me that. Mad people are too busy listening to the voices in their head to remember the name you shared with them yesterday. The nurses and doctors called me Miss Umeh or patient in Room 23, Bed A.
‘Ikemefuna has looked everywhere for you,’ The new nurse told me.
‘Is he still looking?’ I asked.
‘Every waking second,’ She said and the first window opened.
‘I will send for him. He will come at once,’ She continued and the second window opened.
Four days ago, she brought me a phone and held it to my ear. I said nothing as the voice sang ‘Adamma Mu Na Gi Ga Ebi’ to me, just like it used to those clammy nights in his one room apartment.
The voices I used to hear, found their way to the open windows and have not returned since.
‘I lost our son,’ I told him
‘We will have many more sons,’ he said, ‘And Olanna and Nneoma…’
He told me he won the US Visa lottery I encouraged him to apply for. He is in a place called Minnesota in America, a place where it snows hard enough to wash away the stains coal has left on my heart. He told me love and tomorrows are easier in Minnesota.
‘I cannot wait to see you, Ego,’
‘Nor I you,’ I replied with my eyes closed, imagining him with the beard he says he has begun to cultivate.
‘I will come home and we will get married and then you will come here and everything will be okay.’
I cried when he said that and he started to sing a new song. It was one I have never heard before but one I know I will hear on the many cold nights Minnesota will bring.
That was some yesterdays ago. Today is another day that brings me closer to the tomorrow Ikemefuna promised. I try to hide my joy from everyone else but it peeps out from underneath my skin that has taken on a new shine. I am afraid someone will tell my father of this happiness that has taken ahold of my heart and shows on my skin. I am afraid he will be back to steal my joy. The fear makes me throw up like Obiageli and when I do, my roommate looks at me with eyes that say ‘oho, you see , you aren’t better than any of us here.’
‘What about my father?’ I ask the girl with fire in her eyes when she brings me dinner. She is on night duty today. I used to hate the night until she started working here.
‘What about him?’ She answers. The look in her eyes is more of a dare than a question.
‘Once Ik gets here, you will both go to the registry and get married. You will become an Oruche. Then your father will have to face the whole Oruche family. And if you didn’t know before, we are a formidable army of five led by Mama Ikemefuna.’ She tells me and I am reminded of the stocky, kind hearted amazon that ruled the Oruche household.
I laugh and eat the Abacha and Ugba Mama Ikemefuna has lovingly prepared for me, that her daughter has smuggled in for me. I can taste the locust beans in it. It tastes like hope. I sleep and it is the next day.
This is how I know I am no longer mad. There is now a tomorrow. And in my tomorrow, love is waiting. Love and a girl named Olanna, her sister, Nneoma, and a brother or two.
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