My mother-in-law, known as ‘Sister Seun’ to the women with whom she idly gossiped about which fellow church sister was trying to snatch the other’s husband or who was sleeping with whom in church—their gossip always centered around church as that was their one unifying factor—insisted I call her ‘Mrs. Bayo’ or ‘Mama Sola’ because I wasn’t fit to call her ‘Mummy’ the way other married women endearingly referred to their mothers-in-law.
I stopped using names all together to directly address her. If I had to refer to her at all, I simply said, ‘Ma’. And if I was talking about her, I referred to her as ‘Sola’s mother’.
She lived in our house—the result of a prolonged visit—usually locked away in the guest room on the ground floor shouting prayers at the wall or maybe it was into the still, un-air-conditioned air; I wouldn’t know her assumed stance as I was never invited to join in the prayers.
I know she refused to use the air conditioner because she claimed it was a waste of NEPA, and that only weak, lazy people participated in such a useless lifestyle. After all, she was a strong woman who had lived the entirety of her life without AC, and being this far advanced into her journey, she had no plans to start this new venture.
The room always felt stuffy and smelled stale like dirty clothes left too long in a heap at the corner of one’s room. I knew this because of the few times I dared to venture into her room, knocking timidly on the door, to urge her to come out of the room for a little while. She only left her sanctuary when she had to eat, shout instructions at the help or whenever her darling Sola was at home.
During one of her prayer sessions (a frequent occurrence), Mrs. Bayo would shout out—with few pauses—so that everyone in our house, as well as in the compounds next to ours, would hear her requests, and thus my shame undoubtedly doubled. The prayer requests were always the same: that the Almighty God who had never failed her would deliver her son out of the clutches of the evil witch who was occupying his house and sharing his bed, all the while refusing to produce a child that he could call his own.
She prayed that this same witch would leave her dear boy in order to make way for a real woman to make him happy by authenticating his manhood—of course, she had no doubts in her mind of his abilities to bring forth children as she, a God fearing woman, birthed him herself.
Sometimes, I would sit at her door listening to her for lack of nothing better to occupy my mind. Remarkably enough, Mrs. Bayo’s words had never caused tears to actually escape my eyes, though I’d be lying if I said I was never baffled. The first time I overheard her prayers, I was taken aback and immediately assumed she was talking about spiritual forces she had had the misfortune to have encountered in the house.
After a few days of listening in, as well as hearing my name associated with the witch in her pleas more times than I was comfortable with, I took to sending the housegirl, the cook, and the gateman on useless errands every time my mother-in-law went into her room after lunch and locked the door. I was sure it looked suspicious to our help, and they had likely guessed the reasons behind my strange practise but I didn’t care, it was better to have them guessing than to hear all the vile things my mother-in-law spoke of me in her ‘prayers’. This had been going on for over 2 weeks.
It wasn’t always like this. There had been a time that she insisted I call her ‘Mummy’, and always in my slightly tinted British accent—just the way she liked it. That was when Sola and I had just gotten married. I was her newest daughter, one she was proud of, and she was my new Mummy.
During that period, whenever she had visited us, there were never any locked doors or demoralising insults masked as prayer from behind closed doors. Then, the house was quieter. You could smell the love as richly as you could smell the delicious aroma from the pot of fresh Egusi soup Mummy liked to prepare for Sola and me.
Mrs. Bayo came out of the room one afternoon as I sat by her door with my head between my palms looking like a small child who had been scolded for bad behavior. I had been lost in my thoughts as I listened to her repeat over and over, “By the blood of Jesus, that barren witch, Ijeoma, will leave this house.” (In the earlier days of our marriage, Sola and I had tried to explain to Mummy that we were not yet ready to have children so we weren’t trying. She had rebuked us by saying that kind of talk was demonic and only useless people got married without intending on having children; what was the point of marriage if not for that reason alone?)
When she opened the door that afternoon, I was reflecting back on my life, trying to find instances that justified her belief that I was truly a witch. I couldn’t find any but that could have been my strong bias at work. She looked at me in horror (which could only have been caused by the amount of disrespect I was displaying), and the shock that I would dare sit by her door eavesdropping was plainly written on her face.
I stared at her, too confused to make a move, and the shock of being caught was clearly written on my face. She was about to speak when suddenly something in me snapped. I bolted up from the floor, my bottom sore from the long period of sitting on a hard surface. Without permission from my brain, my right hand left my side, sprung upwards, and landed effortlessly on the side of her dark, powdered face, smearing her brown lipstick as my palm grazed the corner of her lips. I heard the sound as clearly as if a drum was smacked next to my ears.
As soon as my hand left her face, I saw the end of my life flash before my eyes. I was finished. The consequences were playing like a typical Nigerian movie in my head—loud, dramatic, and with little or no subtitles. I could hear the great shouts from Mrs. Bayo that would surely bring the neighbours by; I could see Sola returning home, his disappointment after hearing the tale too much for my heart to bear; the trip back to my village, the same twists and turns that once led me to happiness; the embarrassment on the wrinkled faces of the elders, their eyelids lowered from the weight of the shame I had brought back; my own shame and disgrace evident on my face, in my eyes, in my posture; the overjoyed expression on my mother-in-law’s whole being as she triumphantly marches in Sola’s brand-new young and dutiful wife, who would surely provide her with the grandchildren of whom she had been praying for for weeks on end in voices so thunderous that even the neighbours could hear her, while she was locked away in the guest room on the ground floor of our house, on those same afternoons I systematically sent the housegirl, the cook, and the gateman out on useless errands, as I myself proceeded to sit at her door eavesdropping.
I closed my eyes and I shuddered, waiting for it all to begin.