I’ve been told the stars have names, every single one of them. That some people who did not have problems decided to pass their time by naming them. White people! How is that even possible? There are too many of them and they all look alike, how could the namers tell them apart?
I try to concentrate more as I look at them, to see if I will notice some differences that had earlier eluded me but I see none, the only difference is that some are bigger and brighter. I choose the brightest one I can find and focus all my attention on it. Soon, my world narrows down to just that star. A great pain in my mid-section soon shatters that focus. I stiffen. The star separates into multiple blurry stars as tears pool in my eyes and then converges when the tears snake down my temple. I do not bother to wipe them.
I’m lucky. I’m lucky, I tell myself. With great effort, I shift my attention from the pain and focus on the star once again. Fortunate; that is the name I would give this star if I were to name stars. My head slams against the concrete of the lower step again and again with each thrust my body receives. When I hear the characteristic grunt I prepare to exhale, it’s almost over. Seconds later, the weight leaves my body. I wait minutes after I hear footsteps shuffling up the stairs, minutes spent looking at the sky and wishing my life could be as devoid of human presence as the sky is. When I’m sure he’s far gone I stand and go to mother. She’s under the bridge, waiting for me with a cup of lime and salt.
I down it in one gulp, move deeper under the cover of the train terminal overhead and away from the din of traffic, then I squat and push with all my might, stopping only after I feel warm liquid slide down my thighs.
“We are lucky, Uloaku. Things are better now than before.” Mother repeats to me. I make a sound in my throat, spread a thread bare wrapper on the floor and lie down on it in such a way that my head is outside the shelter provided by the building above. I do this so I can continue stargazing. Though mother is certain of it, I do not feel things are better now.
When we took shelter under the Mile Two bridge, after we were thrown out of our one room home, the bridge and the train terminal had just been completed. As mother and I picked our way over the gravel of the newly built train track and walked toward the stairs leading to a magnificent building suspended on strong concrete pillars, I wondered why anyone would want to build such a big house in the middle of a highway and I voiced my thought to mother. It’s not a house, it’s where people will buy ticket and wait for the train when it starts running. That might take years.
I followed mother, expecting her to climb the stairs and enter the big building which will be our home from now on. My heart swelled at the thought. I have only ever lived in a one room house. I imagined my friends coming to visit. I wouldn’t feel so ashamed having people over anymore. To my disappointment, rather than climb up, mother continued below the building and, choosing a spot, dropped our bags on the floor. The eyes that followed us were numerous and predatory and gave me something else to worry about other than why we were not moving into the big house. They reminded me of the cat in a cartoon I had seen through my neighbor’s window, waiting to pounce on a rat. And they did pounce. At night, when traffic died down and we spread our wrappers to sleep, I felt human presence and opened my eyes to find a group of young men at my feet, looking down at me. Though I was too young to understand the danger I was in, fear dried my throat and I looked up at them, unable to blink.
Mother pleaded, told them to take her instead of me. Curiosity at what it was they planned to do with mother was replaced with horror as I watched this interplay of genitals, confused. Why would anyone want to do that, what did they stand to gain from this? Private parts of others were things people found revolting and stayed away from. At only twelve, the sight was haunting. I averted my curious gaze when they met mother’s resigned one and shifted my body so my back was turned to them. That night, I knew a new kind of shame as I listened to the unique grunts of different men, the slapping of flesh against flesh and the total silence of mother a few feet away from me. I closed my eyes and stiffened my entire body to create a buzz in my ear so that I wouldn’t hear anything else, but they were loud and their grunts cut through.
I could not look at mother the morning after as we left to go to her spot by the road side where she roasted plantain to sell. We were both silent, we had nothing to say to each other. By the third night, I ran out of luck. Mother was no longer enough, not when they could have me too.
I struggled as they held me down. They had divided themselves into two groups; the smaller group went to mother, I did not stand a chance against the larger group of men who surrounded me. Pain tore through my body as it was invaded time and time again. Disgust had me struggling even when I knew it was futile, until I was completely drained of strength and numbness mercifully took over.
That night, as the men snored on flattened cartons and I wondered at the possibility of catching them unawares and slitting their throat, mother called me aside, gave me my first mixture of lime and salt and taught me how to force the men’s juice out of my body. It became a routine. Every night, when we return, I will lie down, my legs slightly apart in wait for as many as will come all through the night till morning. Struggling, I knew, was a waste of effort. Afterwards, I will go to wherever mother waited, mixture in hand. Some nights I had the mixture multiple times.
But it was not enough for them that they had access to our bodies. They soon began to demand access to our money. Most of the guys who took shelter with us under the bridge were jobless, a few of them were agberos and an even fewer percentage were beggars. While I peeled plantain as mother fanned the flames and positioned the plantains, I would often sight some of them as they navigated the length of the Mile two road, looking for pockets to pick during the day and at night for car windows to smash and grab phones from car owners. It became a habit for them to pass by mother’s table at different times during the day. They would leer at me, select plantain and groundnut, pinch my breast or any other part of my body they fancy, and walk away without paying. Once when I demanded that one of them pay, he called me ashawo, upturned the pan and wire gauze that held the hot charcoal and the plantains. Most of them landed on the floor and a few on mother’s feet, scalding her.
If the men needed money, mostly to buy igbo or shepe, they came to mother and demanded it. If she told them she did not have, they put their hands in her underwear and fished it out, taking as much as they wanted, sometimes all. Mother soon began to fold her money into a thin roll and stick it up her anus. We never spoke about it. I pretended I never saw her do it and she pretended she did not know that I knew about it. Then Theo came into our lives and laid claim to mother. He became mother’s ‘husband’. There was no ceremony or anything, still he made it known to the other occupants of under bridge that mother and I were now his.
Mother said our lives will be better thereafter and because of that I forgave his nauseating odorand the fact that we had an additional mouth to feed, but it was only better for a fortnight, until he started to look at me in a funny way. When the heavy weight of a human body pressed against mine one night, I woke up instantly because it had been a while since I was invaded in such manner and my mouth was ready to scream for Theo but then I noticed he was the one on top of me. I called him daddy for the first time with the hopes that it will activate his conscience; instead he flung my wrapper aside and told me he was not my daddy.
That began my fascination with the stars. Theo liked to do it in the open air, just at the base of the steps leading up to the suspended building at the train terminal. From my position at that spot, facing upwards, I could see the sky and it proved a distraction for me, the only way I survived months of being invaded by the same man who was supposed to belong to my mother.
I am convinced that nothing is better about our life with Theo in it. What difference does it make if you are taken against your will by one man fifty times and if you are mounted by fifty men, one time each? But I say nothing to mother.
I gaze at Fortunate and think about our options out of life lived on the expressway. My consideration takes me on different paths, hard work being one of them, begging another and eventually leads me back to the only feasible way to get us out of here fast, but I know better than to suggest that to mother again. I recall the day I suggested a change of trade and the speed with which her countenance changed.
“Ehn, Uloaku? Ashawo. That is what you want us to do?”
Mother’s glare dared me to repeat my statement, yet I did. How different were we from prostitutes? Why do it for free when we could be paid for it? I said as much to mother and that led to a long lecture on my family history and what kind of people my ancestors were.
Our women have pride, mother informed me. We would rather die than sleep with men for money. She warned me never to consider the topic again.
The night of my thirteenth birthday and three months into living on the road, I am sitting on the pavement separating the highway from the train tracks, my back turned to the traffic and my eyes scanning the dots of red light scattered around me as men puffed on wraps of igbo, when I hearTheo’s voice saying to mother, “Turn your back for me.”
I hear mother reply in a pleading tone, “But what is wrong with the front?”Silence follows afterwards. I try to make sense of what is going on. My mind balks at accepting the possibility my thoughts arrive at. Moments later, mother calls for me in a strained voice.
I find her curled on the floor in a foetal position, her hands hugging her tummy. Dread dries my throat and I pick my way towards her, dragging my feet, trying to prolong the moment before I discover what is amiss. I squat by her and wait.
“Please, help me bring out the money.” Mother gasps each word with difficulty. I remain motionless. Mother and I never discuss the money she hides in her anus.
“Please.” The way she begs, how helpless she sounds, brings tears to my eyes. I lift the edge of her wrapper and reach behind her, using a small torchlight to see, then I start bawling. The sight of blood dripping down mother’s anus combined with my attempt to control my outburst made my cry come out in loud hiccups until it was hard to breathe.
“There’s too much blood, mama.”
“It’s the money. It has become too much so it’s wounding me.”
The effort she makes to cover up for Theo causes me to feel even sorrier for her and for myself. I reach in, dig around and come out with nothing.
“It’s there.” Mother insists. I hold my breath and go in again, deeper. It takes a while before my middle finger touches paper. Easing it out is harder, but I succeed after several attempts. I sit beside her until she gathers enough energy and stands to go clean up. From a distance I watch and notice she does not take the lime and salt mixture this time.
After that incident I stop sleeping at my spot beside mother. I make it a habit to wander about till midnight, then after almost everyone has gone to bed I return, quietly climb the steps to the building above and curl up in a secluded spot. I am curled up that way, almost unconscious, when Theo finds me. I obediently spread my legs, but he orders me to turn my back to him.
“No!” I struggle, the memory of mother’s bleeding anus giving me strength to fight him for once, but he is stronger and pulls my underwear down. As his male member brushes the cheeks of my buttocks, a feverish desperation seizes me and I fling Theo off my body. He quickly regains balance, springing up like a cat and lunges at me, but I am prepared. I fly down the stairs and run, jumping over sleeping bodies, dodging speeding cars as I cross the highway, the slap of Theo’s slippers against gravel spurring me on. When I am tired of running I walk, but I did not stop moving for hours until I get to a dark street, nearly empty save for a few figures standing by the corner. Exhausted, I throw myself on the floor and hold on to the feet of one of the women. She kicks to dislodge my arm but I do not budge. My tears wet her suede sandals. Other girls seeing what is going on come closer and start to help pull me off from her, but she stops them.
Few minutes later, I am in a one room apartment that resembles my former home in size alone. Though small, the room contains furniture and fittings that do not belong in here; like the large flat screen TV on a stand and the portable fridge beside it. There is also a real bed, not just a mattress, in the room.
The woman I had grabbed on to earlier eyes me from her position by the door and asks what I want from her. When I do not answer, she informs me food is all she can offer and I have to leave after that. The following night comes and I am still there, standing before her as she knots a large T-shirt behind my back to make it fit. None of her skirts would suit me so she wraps a pashmina scarf round my waist and knots it at one hip, letting the fringed edges fall free down my thigh to stop just short of my knee.
Our women have pride. We would rather die than sleep with men for money.Mother’s words play in my head as I stand by the roadside, glued to Cassandra’s side. I wonder what she will be doing now, how she coped roasting plantain today without me, what she will be going through worrying about me. I do not notice when a car stops in front of me. The other women run towards the car as the glass lowers. I forget about mother as a new fear surfaces. The other girls have curves that make their dress sit well on them, they also carry themselves in a way I couldn’t. Will anyone want me when they can have these other girls?
Cassandra nudges me from behind, bringing me back to the present and I follow the direction her hand is pointing towards to see the man in the car motioning me forward.
“What is your name?” He asks.
“Fortunate.” The name leaves my mouth before I realize I intended to use it.When he asks how much for my company, I’m not sure what answer to give him.
“Ten thousand cash.” Cassandra supplies on my behalf. He agrees and opens the passenger door, but Cassandra pulls me back before I enter.
“Fifty thousand.” She said. The man drives forward to negotiate with a different girl and I wonder at Cassandra’s action but I’m unable to ask.
“See them they want fresh blood, tight kpekus.” She said loudly and tapped my shoulder conspiratorially. “Don’t worry, you be hot cake. You go get better money.”
I got a lot of money that night and on subsequent nights. Cassandra was right; most of our clients have a preference for younger girls. It favored me and the least I ever made in a day was ten thousand Naira. After paying ten percent of my daily earnings to Cassandra for meal and accommodation, I still had more than enough left.
I go to my bag, retrieve the money and though I know how much it is I count again because of the feeling of freedom owning such an amount gives me. The wad of cash in my hand is thicker than any amount mother ever had up her anus. In less than two months I have made more than mother ever owned at a time. Two more months is all I need to save enough, get a place similar to Cassandra’s and go back to Mile two for mother. I return the money and prepare for work.
I fluff my hair and shoot out one hip as a sleek black Toyota jeep drives by. The car door opens as soon as it stops, an unusual move; others simply wound down and negotiated, they never got down from their car. Our surprise doubles when we discover the occupant of the car is female.
“Ha! Who dey ready to do lele things this night.” One of the girls says.
“I ready to do anybody, whether man or woman. Na money dey talk.” Another answer.
I cringe as the woman moves in my direction and start thinking of the right words with which to tell her off but her words stop me, “My name is Jumoke and I will like to tell you about Jesus.”
The other girls who were shamelessly eavesdropping edge away, leaving just me and the woman.
I do not hear most of what she’s saying because I’m enchanted by her sparkling, even teeth. Her bob hairstyle frames her face without a strand out of place. Her make-up is light, but perfect. Everything about her speaks of understated elegance. Her personality is a perfect match with her car; sleek, clean and expensive. The way her voice lowers suddenly for emphasis brings my attention back to her words.
“You don’t have a reason, none whatsoever in this life to sleep with a man for money. There are many other things you can do to give you money which will also give you dignity and respect. I know because I’ve been down before, yet I rose above poverty. Sowhat is your reason, little girl and is it worth losing your soul for?”
The privilege oozing from her words take me back; to days that started before five and ended past midnight, days spent roasting many bunches of plantain, believing that if we sold just a little more each day we would be richer. It took me back to my first night under the bridge, watching mother get assaulted by men whose names we did not know, the smell of strange men as they climbed my body at will…and I lose it. I walk up to the woman, my 5 feet 2 inches squaring up against her 5 feet 10, gather phlegm, as much as I can, from the back of my throat and spit it at her feet.
“Number one, No dey call me little girl, my name na Fortunate and na me go talk wetin I wan use my body do, who fit touch am and the money dem go pay before dem try am. Wetin your Jesus do when him get control of the life? As you see me so, I don take over.”
Cheers from the other girls trail my words and is soon replaced with boos as the woman scampers off to her car, her head shaking from side to side. My eyes follow the dust raised by her car and continue heavenward even after the dust settles. I search the sky for the dimmest star and give it a name. Jumoke.