They say the devil attacks in strange ways, sometimes in concrete things that can be spotted from a distance. But yours does not strike this way. It starts with a primal knowledge, a knowledge that sets your whole body on fire; electric currents coursing through your body, an itch down your honeypot and a pair of bulbous boobs. This is the beginning of the things that will see you to ruins.
You have a single parent; a mother, who prepares you for school every morning in front of an L-shaped building. She puts a stocking on your left foot. Your other leg bounces free. She holds you firm so you won’t fall. This is what she does to you every morning: covering your feet with white stockings, turning you around before her as she scratches your hair with the teeth of a comb, the comb warm on your scalp. She does these things for you because you are her precious egg, fresh and plum. Because you are in senior secondary school one and already late for school. You know fully well that Mrs B., your pigsty haired integrated-science teacher must be by the gate waiting to punish you.
In a few minutes, she slings your school bag over your shoulders and you wave at her, she waves back.
On the road to school, the ground is miry. There was a heavy downpour the previous night. The air smells fresh as you run. Your sandal soles catch reddish mud and you slip. Your hands flailing on air, your bag rotating to hit the floor when he comes by to grip your hands.
“Thank you,” you say, after he takes you to an extreme, away from the soggy earth.
“It’s nothing,” he says. His serpentine eyes are the first thing you look at, but deep down under his pair of ripped jean trousers, there exists a bulge.
“I can see you are heading to school.” He beams a smile. You are breathless. This is the first time someone, except your mother, looks at you while smiling.
“Yes. I am almost late,” you say, fiddling with your school bag.
“I’m Kelvin, my friends call me eagle.”
“Eagle? What does that mean?” You are confounded.
“Story for another day, let me see you off to school.”
He holds your hand, you clench his still. You both are on a swagger fit down the road.
At the roads’ junction, under a huge tree where a woman stoops frying akara, he waves at someone; a guy with dreadlocks.
“Who is that guy?” You ask.
He is silent. You are sure he heard you, but ignored. His gaze locates another lad standing on a veranda of an uncompleted building upstairs, wreaths of bluish smoke emitting from his lips, dancing across his face. You watch as Kelvin takes in a breath, as though he longs to join the guy ahead.
The next minute, he is waving at you and your footsteps bring you to the school gate.
In the classroom, you are not concentrating. You are fantasizing on the fall. On his hands holding you, on his breath close to yours and you didn’t perceive a thing as insignificant as his tom-tom mixed with cigarette breath. You just cared about the walk, about you holding hands with him, walking down the road like couples.
A question which has been revolving over the air falls on your head. Mrs B points at you and says “you at the extreme, what is photosynthesis?”
You stand, sluggish. Your eyes dart over your friend, Jessica. She’s mouthing indecipherable words, cupping her palm over her mouth. Mrs B walks to your seat and you feel the whole class’s eyes on you. You feel ashamed. That’s how you feel these days since you began noticing the roundedness of your breasts.
Later, outside the school field, after Mrs B tells you to pick pin in front of the whole class, with your legs trembling and hurting till you feel tears leak from the corners of your eyes, you will ask Jessica, “do you feel ashamed when people look at you?”
Jessica clucks and says, “Yes, I do”
“I felt strange today, with one guy?”
“Hian! Which guy?”
“One boy who prevented me from falling inside mud this morning on my way to school.”
“Ok, how did you feel then?”
“He was all over me. I couldn’t get enough of his weight, strength and masculinity.” You gasp. “I have never felt like this before, a sweet sensation on my breasts.”
“Chai! My friend is crushing on someone, who is this fine bobo that my girlfriend is crushing on that even made her forget the meaning of photosynthesis?”
Jessica rambles on. You wander off with her question again. The mango tree you both are sitting under blows fresh air, reaching your nostrils with a slight whoosh.
At home, you try not to think about him. You fight so hard not to tell your mother about him, about how you felt towards the incident that happened earlier today. But soon, she notices everything from how you sing through your chores. How you shake your waist majestically, beaming as you sweep the compound. How you pause at intervals, gazing at nothing in the air.
It’s in those little quiet moments of yours that her voice jolts you to reality, “Nneka nwa m, you are happy. Since you came back from school yesterday, I noticed you are happy.”
“Yes mama, let’s say, I had a very fantastic day.”
“O si no fantastic? Kedu maka cocastic? Eh nne?”
You drop the broom in excitement and run to hug your mother. She sits on a wooden bench in your compound and you climb over her back, giggling like a little puppy.
You meet Kelvin again in the evening of the next day, while you are returning with your friend from the market square where you went to get some egusi for dinner. Somewhere under arching trees, a place dark owing to green leaves.
Jessica is the first to notice a figure trembling the leaves. From the shadow lurking around the forest, you say it could be Nico, the drunk. Jessica quickens her step, you follow suit; the shadow fastens its pace to your trail till you both wriggle yourselves away from the trees.
Lo! And Behold, the shadow is Kelvin.
Your heartbeat slows. You suck your teeth. Jessica’s face furrows. You saunter towards Kelvin. He motions close, lending you his left shoulder. You lean on it. After a long stare at you, Jessica moves to another tree, away from where you and Kelvin were both standing.
“Your friend is not happy with me, maybe she doesn’t like me.”
“Oh! Forget it, she is my friend. That’s how she reacts any time she faces a terrifying situation. Gush! You scared us.”
He throws his left hand over your shoulder. He’s smelling again, tom-tom mixed with a cigarette kind of smell, but you can’t perceive it. Later when Jessica tells you she doesn’t like the bloke at all, you will say he smells good, you will say you love the scent of his aftershave.
These are the things you were not taught about men. About how they cajole you so bad that you can’t feel your breath in your pulse anymore. About how they look deep into your eyes burning with passion until the green grasses beside you turns dry, catches fire that scalds your skin. Maybe the only way you can regain sanity is when the sky turns dark and shapes of stars start to form, and Jessica starts to wave at you and you will once again reclaim your lucidity with him howling, “We’ll see tomorrow, under the Udala tree.”
The Udala tree holds memories, memories of sunny afternoons with you and Kelvin sitting under its shade, memories of unripe Udala fruits suddenly developing a tint of bright orange. Memories of how its leaves twirl and shed, and its stem carving the face of a newborn baby. Mama used to tell you that evil spirits live under the Udala trees at noon times. But you don’t care even, this other spirit inside this man is much more terrific, hypnotic and desiring, this man’s demon beats an ominous kind of drum in your chest. The drumbeat makes you forget Mama. It makes you forget that Papa got into a ghastly motor accident on his way to town to get you a particular toy you demanded from him on your 6th birthday. None of those things matter now, the only thing that matters is his muscly arm lying across your laps.
“I love you so much,” He says. Your heart skip.
“I don’t know what to say,” you say, drawing circles with your right foot on the floor. You can’t say the other complementing words you hear them say in movies. Maybe Mama will know such sinful words escaped your lips, maybe the winds will bring those words into her ears right there at the market.
A fruit brushes against the Udala tree’s gargantuan stem and falls in front of you. Kelvin picks it, he jags the ripe substance by placing it in between his both palms and its juice drips from the top. He divides them and arranges the fruit sumptuously. Your mouth opens in salivation of the tasty fruit.
A seed touches your lips, you lick alongside the white, liquid juice. He reminds you that tomorrow is 14th February, Valentine’s day, and his friend will be hosting a birthday party. He asks you to join so he’ll introduce you to his friends.
That thing inside makes you agree and he chuckles.
“You are a good girl.” He says.
At home, Mama is sitting on the torn sofa, resting. You enter and your eyes dart to the wall clock beside where an old portrait of Mama and Papa hangs.
“Kedu ebe I ga, gbo Nneka?” Mama stands, fuming mad.
“I — — I — — “
“Don’t tell me you have turned to a stammerer overnight because I’m sure I didn’t raise a stutterer in this house,” Mama says, eyes out of the socket.
“I went to see a friend.”
“Which friend?” She retorts as she tightens the ends of her wrapper.
“I’m sorry Mama.” You whimper.
“Which friend? Eh! Nneka?”
You summon courage, a sudden exuberance accentuates it — puberty. “I am seeing a boy, Mama.”
“A boy?” Mama’s voice starts trembling. “So this is it? You are seeing a boy and you forget I told you to pick some avocadoes and slice some abacha for tomorrow’s meal? You disappoint me, Nneka.” You watch as Mama wipes her face with the ends of her wrapper. You hold her. She shoves your hand away. You hold her still. She can’t continue shoving you away anymore, you allow your tears to fall too.
When the sky turns dark and the crickets begin to chirp, you come inside the room. Mama is lying on the bed trying to conjure sleep. You lie beside her, hoping to sleep, but you can’t. You want to tell her you will be attending a party with your new boyfriend tomorrow. Something in you is saying no, you shouldn’t tell her, but you can’t keep it a secret either.
You think you are losing your voice when you say, “Mama,” and she replies with a slight groan. “I have something to tell you.”
“Okay, I’m listening.”
“My new friend invites me to a birthday party tomorrow.”
She shrugs the imminent sleep away, raises her head and props it against the wall in a way she allows herself to sit on the raffia bed. You join her and sit propping your head on the wall too.
“No! You are not going, my daughter. Boys of today are evil.”
You are not surprised. You won’t try to prove defiant by arguing with her. This is mama, you know her well. So you move away from the wall and lie on your back.
The next day, Mama stays at home and refuses to leave. She stays indoors, legs crossed, until at a time she goes to the backyard to have a bath, you sneak out.
When she returns, she thinks you are inside the room. She pours the remnant water on her feet to wash off the wet sand that followed her through the backyard. She hit her feet severally on the outside. It has always been her routine.
As she ambles into the sitting room, her eyes scan through the sofa. You are not there. She tilts her head into the room. Nowhere to find you. She calls you, “Nneka.”
You are already at the foot-trodden pathway leading to the market square.
“Nneka!” Her voice rises this time.
Your feet wag faster.
“Nneka! Nneka!” Echoes. You sneeze twice. You know mama is calling you at home, but you don’t want to listen. The drum in your heart is beating fast. They say the death that will kill a little puppy doesn’t allow it to perceive a tiny smell of faeces.
When you enter inside his room, he welcomes you by giving you malt and a pack of biscuits. You crush them with your premolar. The more you drink, the dizzier you get. Keep drinking. Your eyelids are closing. He is sitting still, watching and waiting as you droop over the bottle of malt in your hand. He’s not talking, not conversing. The echoes of Jessica’s words are reaching you now in phantoms.
Your mother’s voice, calling out your name, is echoing too. While sitting on his bed, you are seeing your little world in his serpentine eyes, maybe this is the party you will be attending. He’s an eagle of little naïve girls like you. Maybe his belt hook loosening, revealing his pack of birthday presents down below, the throbbing of his manhood, to and fro, to and fro, underneath his trousers is your punishment for getting away. This isn’t alcohol, this is Malt Mama has always told you to take. Why does it make you feel this way? Like you are on set for a movie set in another world, and you are feeling tipsy, and you are falling, and you are only hearing echoes of strange voices. Voices you once knew. Voices that now strike your conscience with a twinge of guilt.
These are the only clear words your mother is saying in scattered calves and wrappers, in the company of your neighbors who are consoling her: “Nneka, have you seen the mess you have made of yourself?”
And this is it reaching you now. Mess. This is the crazy, pubescent phantom revolving inside you.
This is him thrusting into your lifeless body.
This is you snoring away.
This is you, in a few hours’ time, leaving your body to an unknown destination, a pathway flanked by well rowed tulips and the sky is white, the birds are chirruping a peaceful tune, and you are heading towards an alien road leading to a faraway place beyond human understanding.