My stomach produced some agitated sounds. It, obviously, was being aroused by the aroma that wafted into my nostrils from the big pot of “Ekpang Nkukwo” that sat heavily on the tripod stand in the kitchen. I had assisted Mama with wrapping the grated water yam in the small pieces of freshly collected “Nkukwo leaves”, the nicely soft light green coco-yam leaves which I had gone for that morning and the huge pumpkin leaves mama had brought back home from the market the night before. I also assisted with the cutting of the “Mfi”; big sized chunks of periwinkles that are quite popular in Calabar South Watt market. I washed my hands to get rid of the itchy felling from the water yam before retiring to the sitting room.
I loved Ekpang a great deal and staying with mama always afforded me the opportunity of enjoying it. Not that we never ate it back home but there was something about how mama went about preparing the meal each time I visited her in the village. The taste was quite unique and she always went further to add bits of fish, meat and cow-hides to the food when preparing it, just the way I loved it.
“Agyeii!” my cousin screamed clutching his stomach. “Is the food not ready, brother?” he asked with wet eyes and gave a wide yawn.
It was 10:45AM already so, I understood his plight. Back at Lagos, I would have been done with breakfast and would be in school, probably getting ready for snack break by that time but mama’s meal was worth the wait and I didn’t mind.
Just then, mama’s voice came from the kitchen inviting us to go for our food. My cousin jumped up and dashed towards the kitchen like a soldier. I stood watching as his slightly obese form bounced up and down like the” Danfos” that plied the bumpy and pot-holed ridden roads of Ikeja.
It was amusing and I shook my head as I chuckled. “Mr. Food, if you like you burst”, I said after him.
The meal was delicious as usual. I sat with mama in the kitchen and watched her swallow the chunks of cooked wrapped yam with obvious relish. Mama never ate Ekpang with spoons. She ate such meals with her bare hands and the way she ate could make anyone long for just a taste. After a few trials with the spoon, I decided to eat with my hands the way mama was eating.
As I dropped the spoon, mama chuckled and raised her blouse to wipe sweat off her face and my eyes caught sight of the shiny purple jade on her neck. I had seen it on several occasions but each time I wanted asking mama about it, I lost the confidence to do so. I had a feeling that there was some romance connected with the jade on her neck and I didn’t know how to breach the subject to mama who saw me as a good boy.
The jade looked expensive, attached to a rope made of polyester fibres and hooked behind her neck. It must have cost a fortune.
I swallowed with some efforts making sure my face showed no reaction and then, I sipped some water as I thought about how best to ask.
“That is a nice jade, mama”, I said and watched her startled face. She took her left hands to the jade and caressed it fondly in her fingers.
“Will you tell me about how you got it?” I asked carefully. I didn’t want to make a wrong move.
Mama smiled and looked piercingly at me.
“ This jade is one of the most special things in my life”, mama said with a smile, a sweet glow that warmed up her face and made her look many years younger. “I was a dancer when I was young, Bassey”, she said and I chuckled.
Mama always called me Bassey although, my real name was Kelechi. She never accepted the idea of calling me by my Igbo name so, when in Calabar, I was Bassey and when home, I was Kelechi. My father had tried to have mama call me by my name but mama had been adamant and he had given up eventually.
“I was well versed in the ‘Ekombi’ dance and was always the centre of attraction during the ‘Ekpe festival’. Your grandfather was a very gifted fisherman who made a name for himself as the king of Calabar River” mama paused and chuckled.
“You see, when your grandfather gave me this jade which he got from the white man at a very high price, I had won a contest in the village as the best dancer. He had given me the jade with a written poem. Etekamba, as your grandfather was known, did not go to school but he was a clever man and had learnt English from his encounters with the white men”.
Mama got up suddenly and rushed into the house. “Wait for me”, she said and left. I sat there thinking about how things were different in our days. How materialism is now the centre of relationship, how love was lacking.
Mama came back shortly holding an envelope. It was dog-eared with age but showed signs of being properly taken care of.
“This is the poem, Bassey, read it she said giving it to me”. I took it and extracted the piece of paper in it which to my surprise was still crisp. I opened the paper and read through with mounting interest as the first lines caught my attention.
“You are an effusion of beauty, a rare diadem, an exotic species which could never be believed to be an off-spring of man.
You are a surreal entity, a living progression of a master artistic imagination and you are one who affects me in no small way.
My love, I so much want to see the smile on your face, how it breaks on that aquiline face of yours, transforming your beauty into something that leaves me breathless, your dentition and the dimples which, even now, I lack words to describe. I want to keep them there on you forever.
I have to tell you this, a secret I have kept and which has threatened to rip my heart in two if I do not say it now. I’m saying this from my heart and with everything I have.
I love you.
The only regret I will ever have in this life is not having you, not taking you to my mother, not being able to make little versions of ourselves.
Let this jade remind you every day that my heart will teach itself to love you more everyday that I live and even in death.”
Mama’s face looked radiant and there were tears in her eyes as I finished reading but she was smiling.
“That was the kind of love that your grandfather had for me, Bassey and it was pure; it was beautiful. I wear this jade on my neck all the time. I have not taken it off for 60 years. This jade keeps him alive and near me”, Mama said and turned into the house.
I sat down for a while thinking about the jade. It was beautiful and mama had kept it so well for such a long time, even after gradpa was gone. I thought about love and I knew that if I were to define it, I would say it was the jade mama wore around her neck.
I tidied up the kitchen and went in. My cousin was fast asleep on the sofa and his bulky form made me chuckle once again. He had missed the story of the purple jade, a jade that defined love.