Rotten Tooth by Kenneth Nwabuisi

June 2006

Tolu my elder sister had such beautiful legs longer than mine. We were two little gifts the heavens blessed our mother with. We’d hold hands, walking down the streets. We had similar gaits. Our legs moved in the same direction, our arms swinging with the same gusto.Tolu and I were two sides of a coin. Her hair was soft and silky, but mine would always grow tufts no matter how long I matted it inside water. Tolu’s yellow face would always lighten up a room like a glitter of an electric bulb. The smooth texture of her skin glowed against the darker shade of mine.

“Black girl,” Tolu called, teasing me. We were inside the one-bedroom apartment we shared with neighbors. We were ransacking the whole place, searching for Tolu’s stocking.

“Don’t call me that, I’m brown-skinned, not black,” I corrected.

Tolu smirked. It wasn’t a smirk after all, it was that glorious stance she kept her face that often worked up the veins in my forehead.

“Why are you laughing? Who is shining teeth with you?”I told her, pursing my lips. She didn’t stop. She kept her face that way.

The door creaked, Mother entered, a scowl on her face. “Have you found your stocking?”

Tolu’s back was bent beside the wardrobe. She didn’t say a word.

“No, mama. She hasn’t found it yet,” I replied.

“This girl is so so clumsy.” Mother sputtered in annoyance. I craned my neck, gazing at Mother, a supportive stare. It was in moments like this that I felt tall, taller than Tolu, almost sizing up to Mother because Mother was a few inches taller than Tolu. And mother was the bearer of all the authorities in the house.

Despite Mother’s unquenchable love for us, most especially for Tolu, she didn’t hesitate to hit Tolu each time she loses any of her things. Mother had once dashed Tolu a hot slap for misplacing our garri turner.

Tolu was always careless with everything, and it came as a result of her being too carefree. This morning, Mother didn’t slap Tolu with her backhand, instead, she instructed her to go to school without a stocking so we wouldn’t be late. Tolu would face the wrath of whoever would stand to punish her in school.

August 2009

Tolu’s school uniform got missing. This was the morning she was to write her last paper for the SSCE examination. I was seated beside Mother inside the kitchen, watching her fan the lukewarm embers alive. Tolu breezed in, her breath heavy.

“Bisi, did you see my skirt?” she asked me.

I threw my face away. Mother was busy with the fire that she didn’t hear Tolu at first. Tolu walked closer to me, moving my elbow. Mother turned from the fireplace, her face trapped in smoke in a way that her eyes were squinted.

“Kilode?” Mother spluttered.

“Mami,” Tolu’s voice began to quiver. “I can’t seem to find my school uniform.”

“You can’t seem to find your school uniform? Where did you keep it?”

“We washed them yesterday when it was about to rain. I told Bisi to help me bring them in because you sent me to Mama Iya’s place. I can’t find them now in the room.”

“Egba mi ooo!” Mother’s scream stretched, barraged to the threshold of the compound. She stirred, fixing a questioning gaze upon me. “Where is your sister’s uniform?”

“Mami, I brought them in oo. I even ironed both clothes. Mine and hers.”

There was no fleck of doubt in Mother’s eyes. She stood up, and hacked a hand on Tolu’s ear, threatening to pluck it out. I planted a hand on my mouth, suppressing a burst of loud laughter. It was a pleasure watching as Tolu writhed in pain, hitching up a cry as Mother dragged her into the room.

Soon, Tolu went to school and she was sent back home. Barred from taking the final exam. This made Mother detest the sight of her. Tolu was no longer her little fair princess. I swept and scrubbed her gritty presence away and took her place in Mother’s heart. Tolu’s results were withheld for absenteeism on her last paper.

April 2011

As if losing out on her set wasn’t enough, Tolu joined my set. We were to take the exams together because Mama had vehemently refused to buy her another form the year after. We were walking to the venue, where we had extracurricular classes, somewhere in the heart of our street. The room with plaque number 3 hanging on its door was our classroom.

In this lesson center, there was a fat girl, Confidence, whose armpits were often damp and brown and she smelt like a pig. Confidence was always eating. Tiny Ijeoma, a smallish girl, was Confidence’s bosom friend, they both shared the same love for food.

There were boys too. Tall boys. Beautiful boys. The tallest of all the boys was Daniel Kwadwo. Daniel was dark. Born of a Yoruba father and a Ghanaian mother. His blackness was a blend of everything black. I used to think I was dark until I met Daniel. I used to think we would be a perfect match until he stopped us shortly, one evening, in the corridor as we were leaving the classroom and said, “Hi, beauties.”

I began to blush inside, rolling my eyes uncontrollably, smacking my lips when I told him, “Hello, handsome.”

Tolu gazed at me, dazed. She hissed and pulled my hand, I shoved her hand away, staggering back. At that moment, Daniel made a move, his figure was cropped between Tolu and me. I wasn’t conscious of the fact that he was scrambling for Tolu. When Tolu paused, shaking her legs, tending to her flurry of fury by the sight of Daniel standing before us, motionless, gazing at her. I looked lost, feeling everything all at once like I had always felt — jealousy, anger, diffidence — toward Tolu.

That night, Daniel was in my dream. The sky looked preempted, a thing I had set in place just for that very moment, him and I, under the glint of a beautiful day. I couldn’t remember telling him a word before he started running, he ran and ran, and I chased and chased.

May 2011

Feeling lonely and feverish after a particular dream, Mother suggested I skipped the day’s class, but I refused. I couldn’t risk not seeing him. He kept popping up on my face, the memory of him growing into my breaths, my lungs. I couldn’t tell anyone. Not even Tolu.

One evening, I decided to summon the courage to tell him how I feel for him. Immediately we stepped into the class, Daniel was already seated with two other boys. They were talking about a football match they had watched. When his eyes caught mine, I flinched, my chest drumming. I squirmed and walked to sit on a desk beside Tolu.

In a few seconds, Confidence and Ijeoma walked in, followed by the other members of our class. The lesson master, Uncle Jude, a light-skinned lad in his mid-twenties, took over the board. His figure was dancing and twisting, revealing words to the class. I was torn between this sole exercise I was to embark on.

After the first subject, I waited patiently until Daniel walked out alone, and I followed him. Tolu was busy with the notes. I told her something about easing myself.

I paused behind Daniel, he was zipping his jean trousers. When he turned and met me, he was shaken.

“Oh. You’re here?” He was more surprised than terrified.

“Yes,” I said, my eyelids fluttering.

“Alright, ease yourself safely.” He walked to me, tapped my shoulder twice in a brotherly way, and floated slowly past me.

“Wait!” My voice, laced with desire, reached his ears. He paused and turned. My back facing him. I didn’t turn. I stood still. A long silence stretched in the little distance between us.

“I want to talk to you.”

“Talk to me? Okay, I’m all ears.”

The air was stiflingly hot. I turned to face him, abashed.

“I have been seeing you in my dreams lately.”

He let out a loud laughter, a laughter I feared could reach the students inside. “Okay,” he said, “I understand you perfectly. It is normal; it is okay if you are crushing on me.”

I squirmed as a wave of recognition tainted with gratitude pulled me close to him. I felt like doing many things all at once: throwing my arms around him, pulling closer, kissing him. But I stood there, lost. “You mean, you understand? You can give us a chance?”

Daniel shook his head, a slow, contemplative decline. “No. I mean I understand how you feel, but I wouldn’t advise you to let this feeling grow. I may be unavailable for it at the moment because I’m currently seeing someone.” A tap on my shoulder again and he left.

Suddenly, there was a bulwark within me. My limbs ached, and my feet were too heavy to walk. I stood there, forlorn. My heart bled.

Later, after the day’s lesson. I avoided an eye to eye contact with him. I pressed my face to my sister. We were walking out of the corridor. I couldn’t tell where he was, but Tolu’s gaze was fast ahead, focused, smiling. She slipped a white piece of paper between her notebook, smiling and nodding. I had never seen Tolu smile that way before, a smile that left her face flushed, awash in admiration. I craned to see who was making me see Tolu in a different light.

It was him, Daniel Kwadwo.

At night, Tolu was in the kitchen with Mother. I entered the room and peered through the louvres. Tolu was shrouded in smoke with mother beside her, busy. I opened the notebook I was sure she was clutching. Flipped through it, and found a letter. I knew who the handwriting belonged to. On the first indent of the letter was written: My love, T.

According to the letter, Daniel was to meet Tolu at a restaurant, the next day, Sunday. I beamed a manic smile. Mother must hear this. Trust Mother, Mami was the woman standing by the gate between heaven and hell. All I needed to do was waltz into the kitchen with this piece of paper, and Tolu would be burning in the fiery furnace of hell this night. But my heart melted for my dearest sister.

Come the next day, in our room, Tolu was pouting before a large mirror. Dazzling in a cheap flowing gown she wore.

“Where do you say you are going to?” I asked Tolu, making a sound between closed lips. I listened to Tolu lie again, saying she was only going on an errand. Soon, she left. I lay back in bed, anger pulling on my chest.

Fast forward to the time I led Mother into the restaurant. Tolu and Daniel sitting together, their lips were about to touch under the dim light.

“Oluwa mi ooo…Tolu!” Mother’s voice barked. Eyes flounced. Tolu pushed away from Daniel.

Daniel got up, saying, “Good evening ma.”

“May that evening strike you to death.” Mother fumed. She ran toward Tolu and dashed her a resounding slap, yanking her ear out of the room. I switched my face to a dark corner, beaming.

June 2015

Despite Mother’s occasional flares, Tolu still sneaked out to meet Daniel. There was nothing I could do either, their love grew in leaps and bounds. On a beautiful evening, Daniel and his parents drove to our street They parked their car on the tarred lane and walked into our house. Our gate was too small for his father’s Murano Jeep. It was a boy who ran into our compound, his breath frantic as he informed Mother that one of Tolu’s friends came with a big car.

“Which Tolu’s friend?” Mother looked from the boy to Tolu.

“A big man like that. They’re coming.”

It wasn’t long before Daniel and her parent’s shadows trickled into our compound. Mother took them inside. Daniel’s father spoke in a thick Yoruba accent, “We have come to seek your daughter’s hand in marriage.”

The worm in my stomach got malignant, churning, dancing, and biting. I was restless.

Nov. 2015

Canopies stood high in the middle of our compound. There was plenty of rice, ewedu, and amala inside coolers. People were sauntering into our compound. I watched them taking seats, pulling seats for others who were yet to come. Tolu was facing the mirror, painting her face. Mother was outside, dressed in a new wrapper of hers.

A jubilant air perched on every corner. I took a glance at Tolu’s face on the glass, she was beaming at her make-up artist. She picked up her phone, dialed a number, and placed it on her ear. Soon after, she repeated the same action. Her face before the mirror now was undone, worried. Later, her phone buzzed. A text message. Her face lost its colours, her eyes weak, receding into their sockets.

She slumped.

Someone was ordering some water when I ambled close to her and gripped her phone. The text message read: Sorry, this marriage can’t go on. You’re AS, I’m AS too.

Jan. 2016.

With Tolu’s marriage flopping, I sat on the pavement in our corridor. I was dialing a number. The recipient didn’t pick up at first. But on the second ring, he picked. We talked, a long talk. Tolu came out of the room, she stood looking at me. She complained about her toothache. A rotten tooth, she said.

April 2016

Daniel and I were in our wedding reception hall. I got pregnant by all means and pinned it to him. Tolu was smiley-faced. Trust my carefree sister. She opted to be our wedding planner. She made a big round cake. Ribbons and balloons were everywhere.

We cut the cake, and Daniel and I ate first. The cake was further divided and shared with trays. Everyone who ate the cake clutched their stomach, I wasn’t an exception. I was dying slowly. Tolu walked up from the tail of the dark hallway, laughing. It was as if her voice passed through a hollow edge when she spoke.

“My sister, my sister. Bisi, I trusted you. I loved you as a sister and friend. But you failed me. There is no better moment to make a reckoning than at the point of death. Death itself has a way of flashing the incidents of our misdeeds to our face.”

As I was shuddering and breathing fast to hold my breath, she wiped tears snaking down her face.

“My stocking, years back, I saw you hide it. My school uniform, you allowed the rain to carry it to the gutter. The letter. My man, Bisi. You faked and showed him my genotype result.”

“I’m sorry,” I cried.

“You are a rotten tooth, you don’t deserve to live.”

In my last dying breath, I heard the sound of her heels thudding on the floor.

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