I like the way Jerry says my name without really seeing me there; a drawl like a silent prayer, like a whisper to a god you know has already answered your prayers, a sigh.
“Get me a cup of Akamu.”
“Nesi, take this dirty cup away.”
He knows I’m always there and he never needs to yell or look around for me.
You know he is at peace, the way he sits still, bent over his books. Even when Jerry speaks, his body is still. If not for the slim lemon grass that dangles loosely from his lips, that gives him away, you would think he is a statue. He is always chewing lemongrass.
He says it helps him think. Maybe lemon grass has a thinking spirit, but I am yet to find it. I have tried once or twice, to chew and think. Maybe the fault is mine, and I have no thoughts, or maybe it is one of those things you are able to do when you become learned like Jerry. I don’t know. As for me, I have decided I prefer my lemon grass when it is soaked in hot water and cooked with black tea
I like it when Jerry studies. His brows are furrowed, like he is having a deep conversation with the village Chief. I wish I could do that, but when I flip through the browning leaves, all I see are tiny shapes, printed in ink. When you look in Jerry’s notebooks, you would think cockerels soaked their feet in ink, and had a party on the pages.
The edges of most of his books flop over like the ears of our house dog, Mungo. The new ones are sharp at the edges, but they only remain so for a very short time. I’m always stationed by his reading post, inspecting all his books with a protective eye, and I take note of these little differences. I’m always hoping some of the knowledge in his books would pour on me just by being so close to them. Even when he is gone, I remain firmly rooted at the foot of his reading table.
There should be a level, higher than the others, for persons like me who sit beside reading posts all day. When he leaves for mission school, he doesn’t need to take his books out of the verandah. He knows I will keep an eye on them till he returns. He knows for certain that I won’t wander off. I have always begged him to teach me what those shapes mean, or show me what my name would look like, but he refuses.
I don’t go to mission school. My father says girls aren’t meant to go to school. We are made to learn cooking, home keeping and child bearing. It is our duty to keep our men and children safe. Sometimes, I wonder, if I was a boy, if I went to school, what it would be like.
Maybe I would wear white dresses with the funny hats the nurses in the mission hospital wear. Papa says nurses are prostitutes who will never find good husbands, but whenever we fall ill, mama and papa take us to the hospital, and speak to the nurses with respect. I wonder if it is okay that they expose us to prostitutes like so.
Sometimes, I pass by them in the village and I make sure to walk on the other side of the road. I can only pray the misfortune of illness that will bring me close to a nurse will stay far from me. Yet, I secretly envy their clothing, and wonder if there are other ways I could go to school and dress like that and still make a good wife.
I like the way Jerry dresses too. He wears starch-stiffed cotton shirts and tucks them inside Khaki trousers. He holds it together with cow hide belt father insists is Italian leather, but I know it isn’t.
Every morning, I fire up the coals, and fill up the iron. When the shiny plate becomes hot, I call on Jerry. He spends hours bent over his shirt everyday, ironing out the creases till the shirts are so fine, the edges threaten to cut you. Jerry says Father Francis says a dignified man takes care of his looks.
When he is done, he gives me the iron to empty out the hot coals, and douse the heat but when no one is watching, I try to imitate him, and iron over the frayed edges of my skirts. But the iron is usually too hot and it burns me. I make a mental note to take the skirts off before ironing, but I always forget. I only remember after I’ve been burned.
Jerry is the only one who goes by his English name in our household. Jerry’s native name is Ekenedilichukwu, but when he was applying to go into mission school, his name was too long, and wouldn’t fit into the boxes provided in the forms, so father told them to write his baptismal name Jeremiah.
Father says a name binds a man with his people. If Jerry bears his baptismal name, he will be closer to his teachers because they would understand. One day, he came home and told us to call him Jerry, so we did. No questions asked.
My name is Nesiama, and I have never told anybody to call me Margaret. The only place you will see Margaret is in my birth certificate and Obituary after I am over hundred and dead, because all my teeth would have fallen.
I am only 9 years old, and hundred is a long time from now. I like Nesi, pending that time.
One day, a long time ago, Jerry forgot his lunch box, and mother made me take it to his school. It was the first day I visited the school. It was a massive building at our village entrance. The classrooms were full of boys in white and grey Khakis like Jerry’s, with only a sprinkle of girls wearing pinafore. I shook my head in bewilderment.
Only an uncaring parent would send a girl child to brave the dangers of school knowing fully well what they could become. But then, the nurses in the hospital today would grow old, and then we would need new people to give us our medicines.
I couldn’t find Jerry in his classroom, so I asked to see the matron who we all called “Mother superior” in church. Mama had also asked me to greet her, and give her a basket of ripe Ube.
“Down the hall, see that office in front? That is her office.” The boys in the hallway directed me.
I entered Mother Superior’s office, and saw Jerry’s head pop up from under her skirt. I greeted them both respectfully, but they didn’t seem too pleased to see me. I dropped the Ube on her table, and Jerry walked me out of the office immediately.
Jerry seemed relieved to be out of Mother Superior’s office. I wonder why he was in her office while his classmates were in the classroom. He took his lunch box from me without a word. He turned around and made for class, but then paused.
“I was only helping matron pick up her ink pen that fell”. He said.
I stared at him, and nodded my head vigorously. I didn’t understand why he felt the need to explain.
“No word of this to anybody at home, okay?”
“Who is watching my books?”
Scared I had done a grave sin, I rushed all the way home, without stopping to catch my breath, and in my haste, I’d forgotten to tell him his shirt tail was hanging out.
Jerry has been different to me ever since. He would lecture me about being your brother’s keeper. He even taught me how to draw my name in English alphabets. He watches me closely, and keeps me close to him. Every morning before leaving home, he would ask me if I told anybody anything, and I would shake my head.
Jerry returns from school, fuming with anger. I had been waiting eagerly to show him that I’d written my name, but he is not interested. He looks me in the face and I see his eyes are filmy, and glistening as if he is about to cry. That scares me. I always do my best to remain invisible. Invisible children get to eat twice a day, and don’t get lashing tongues of horse whips licking their skin.
“Did the post man come today?” He asks intently.
There’s a pregnant bead of sweat resting on his eyelash, threatening to fall. If he blinks, it might drop in his eye, and the saltiness would sting him there. I am watching so anxiously that I forget to answer.
His huge hand lands across my face, and my palms jerk up, rubbing vigorously, before the welts of palm prints formed on my face.
The answers came flooding. “Yes. Posumanu con hia” I blurt out in my heavily accented grammar. Even in the face of fear, no child of Mr. Dan forgets his grammar.
“Which letter did you give to him?!”
“I gi am lettah wey dey top table” I answer.
Jerry had given me only one assignment today: When the post man comes, give him the very important letter on the study table.
Jerry had showed me the letter and told me clearly “This letter is very important. It will take me to the missions’ headquarters in Lagos for a scholarship test. If I pass, I will go to the university. Do you understand?”
I had nodded fervently, rejoicing that Jerry had made it in life, and when he bought his new house, he would definitely send for me. I dared not miss the postman.
I had watched intently as Jerry licked the stamp, and stuck it on the white envelope. I was happy he trusted me with something so important. He had then neatly placed the envelope inside his big leather book which he writes in every night. That brown book was very precious to Jerry. He would never let even a fly land on it.
The postman had come on his shiny bicycle at 11:00 am, carrying a leather bag by his side. He asked if we had a parcel, and I said yes.
“Is that all? The postman asked, flipping the envelope back and forth, making faces like it looked too flimsy.
“Are you sure?” He queried, and I thought for a second. If the postman though the letter was too small, did that mean Jerry would fail to impress them in the school? He spent his time studying and writing. I also found the envelope too flimsy, so I added the big brown book.
“This one too.” I said, and the postman smiled “Why did you forget to add that one?”
He had packaged the big book and Jerry’s letter in a bigger envelope and sealed it. I had stayed with him to make sure everything was secure. Why I have now earned this slap, I do not know.
A group of people came to look for Jerry. Papa looks up at them. They are dignitaries in well ironed French suits.
Papa’s eyes are red, as they have been since the day Jerry left. “My son has run away. I don’t know why. I tried my best, I gave him all I have” Papa’s voice trails off and he drops his head. I watch his shoulders shake violently as they whisper some news to him.
I hear something about a dreadful woman being fired. I also hear them saying they would be happy to help find Jerry.
Papa sobs silently through the meeting, as he has done many times when he thinks no one is watching. I remain settled in my corner, where the books are collecting dust; invisible and eagerly waiting for someone to call me.