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The Urn

I dusted the window panes and rolled up the curtains because Akwaugo was visiting. I first met her at the Lagos book festival. Someone in the crowd had stood up and asked a question on race in Africa, especially in black Africa. Did it exist? If we were all cleped ‘dark skinned’, was racism existent in our communities and office spaces? I stared at the direction from where the voice had come, but I only saw the few people sitting across from me. The rest was a blur. The facilitator cleared his voice to acknowledge the question when Akwaugo’s hand shot up. She sat about four seats away from me. My eyes could make out her hands, pale as milk. White.

“Another question?” the facilitator asked.

“No. An answer,” her shrill voice rang through the hall like small lightning. The facilitator looked confused. The audience wasn’t allowed to share their views until the end of the session. A volunteer, before the facilitator could make up his mind, handed a microphone to Akwaugo.

“Hi, thanks for this opportunity.” She sounded eager and excited. “Race has little to do with skin colour or the tribes and languages of people. Racism manifests in our preference of English to our mother tongue, and as colourism when our jobs favour only the light-skinned men and women, and our advert boards hold pictures of light-skinned people. Racism is the track of thought that our blackness is inferior to reds and yellows.”

A loud applause rocked the hall. Even the disgruntled facilitator nodded. Akwaugo sat down and looked across the room, at me because I was staring at her. She smiled. Googly eyes. White teeth. Had she spoken from a position of privilege?

She approached me after the session, her slender figure swishing to the left and right.

“Hi, my name is Akwaugo. Congratulations on the DAB award.”

“Thank you,” I murmured, “thank you so much.”

“I hear you live in Enugu.”

“Yes.”

“I live there too,” she said and smiled.

My bird cawed in the dream.

“I found someone for the urn,” I said to it.

“The lady from the festival?”

“Yes.”

“Do not let her near the urn.”

My bird’s voice did not resonate from yonder. It rang close; around the windows; on the ceilings. The year before, when I turned my thirty-five, the nub of my existence had started shriveling. I’d made futile searches for jobs, tried to engage with sewing and painting and writing. Nothing worked. I owed my apartment’s rent. The depressive episodes kicked in and I felt hunted and submerged by an inexplicable force. My mother took me to her one of her brothers, an old custodian of Udo, the oracle from her lineage.

“Udo!” my mother hailed the oracle from the entrance, “does anyone who knows you go hungry? Your daughter has come in lack. Will you not let her leave in abundance?” Her chubby arms shook as she ululated to the goddesses of her people. She was barefoot. She’d nudged me to remove my shoes too. The shrine was a mud house that stood at the base of Udi escarpment. The burbles of a nearby stream, Nwangele, filled our ears. Overgrown shrubs towered over the hut, giving the building a veiled look. It had a paved corridor. A closed door stood in the wall. There were about five carvings of goddesses sitting at the corridor. Three of the statues had a human face. Streaks of red paint ran from their eyes to their chin. Their arms birthed newer arms that entwined with one another. The remaining two was carved in human form, with birdlike heads. A smudge of fear spread in my heart.

The custodian, unbelievably thin and oblong-faced, appeared from the door in the wall and stood beside the carved deities. He looked like he was locked in a trance. His glassy eyes bore into us, unmoving. Then his body was racked with a loud sneeze, and he jumped, as if into sudden awareness. His eyes were blood shot like one who tumbled down from a place of deep slumber. He glared at us, looking at my mother first, and then at me. I clutched my mother’s arm and half hid behind her. A ripple of recognition crossed his face and he opened his mouth in surprise, as if he was seeing us for the first time.

“Ei! Ada! Ada nne m, my mother’s daughter, it is you?”

“It is me, our great Ezedibia,” my mother replied and knelt, pulling me down to do the same.

“Ei! My mother’s daughters are here. Please rise. Please rise.” He pointed at a red mat and we sat on it.

“Thank you, Ezedibia. This is my daughter, your own child. The stone of her destiny is sinking,”

“May the old mothers forbid it!” my uncle said and performed the ritual of rejection by swinging his right hand over his head. He snapped his fingers.

“Her chi, her guardian goddess is silent.”

“May the old mothers forbid it!”

He disappeared into the hut and dashed out like one charged to undo every misfortune that had marked my existence. He blew some white powder into our faces until my eyes stung.

He placed a lidless urn, an ornamental vase fashioned by his hand, in my palms. It was of a deep blue colour, a beautiful rose plant was patterned into its rounded body. Perched on the rose plant was a bird of mixed breed, a finch perhaps with the size of an eagle and the feathers of a parrot. A gift of luck, he called it. No person (apart from me) who touched it or gazed at the content lived after. There were rules. I must dip my hand in it every morning, and say a prayer. For the urn to remain active, I must fill it with only humans whose destinies were immersed in large reserves of good fortune and success. I would be given a guardian bird, an extension of my soul. The bird had the ability to detect the humans with luck, and signal for me to feed them to the urn. I wasn’t sure I understood what the uncle meant by fill it with only humans or feed them to the urn. Would someone have to die? Would I, along this path of chasing prosperity, taint my hands with human deaths? I looked to my mother for disapproval but she was nodding, smiling, genuflecting. Before we left, my mother did a dance of gratitude, chanting, “Udo! Thank you for not letting your daughters wallow in lack. Have you not filled our cups to the brim?”

“I would have liked to take some time and think about this,” I said to her as we walked to the bus park. The urn was hidden in a leather bag, swaddled in layers of corduroy to protect it from harm.

“The oracle of my mothers do not make proposals twice. Walking into their shrine means you accept their terms.”

“But we are not killing anyone, right?”

“Don’t worry. You will see.”

My soul was sealed up in the bird, my guide. It bore an unsettling resemblance with the bird on the urn’s body. Its responsibility was to detect the fortunate people I knew or had met. Then it informed me in dreams.

The first person I met after the visit to the shrine was Nonso, a stocky young man who worked as a human resource manager in a restaurant. We had shared seats in a taxi and he took my phone number. My bird chose him in a dream because he had great prospects. I invited him home on our second date. I retrieved the urn from the bag and showed him. An antique vase I bought. Oh, wow! He was fascinated. He touched it, peered inside.

I panicked as I dialed my mother’s phone. My palms were sweaty and I mistyped the figures. When the call finally went through, I heard nothing of the things she was saying, only the things I said to her.

“What will happen now? He was sitting right here on the couch, and boom, he has melted into some liquid inside the urn. Will he come out? Please, I can’t do this.”

“Shut up your mouth,” my mother said in a steely voice. I had stopped ranting. I only sniffled and dabbed at my tears. “You are a disgrace to my mothers. Are you not your mother’s daughter?”

“What if the police traces this man to my house? What if I get into trouble for this?” I heard her laugh. The sound seemed to move farther away from her body.

“Do what your bird asks you to do. Don’t forget that only your bird knows the right people for the urn.”

“I know.”

“If someone with little luck touches the urn, things will get even worse than they were.”

“I know.”

“Follow the instructions carefully,” she said with finality.

The bird pointed me to others; the plumber who fixed the pipes in my flat, the electrician who installed the wall switches. I received tons of success mails as a result, got slots at literary festivals, and won grants. Every month, I sent money to my mother for her expenses. She called me each time and chanted her gratitude to Udo.

My bird, however, grunted her disapproval of Akwaugo.

“I need a publishing deal to go through.”

“Akwaugo is marred by misfortunes.”

After the bird left, Akwaugo crawled out of my mouth as a doe. The doe threw herself against my room walls, seeking escape in the dream.

I arranged the books on the shelf in my room. The urn sat on top of the wardrobe, shielded from view by reams of papers and some books. I heard a knock and went to the door. She’d made her hair into black braids. They were lengthy and reached the small of her back. She crouched near my stack of books in the living room. Her trimmed nail buds were coated in black varnish that had caked and cracked. Her eyebrows were full and uncombed, strewn well beyond the brow lines. She asked for a glass of water. Her neck was filled with bones that sharply inclined towards one another when she gulped down the drink. She looked almost stick-like. I wondered if she liked to eat at all.

“You have really interesting book titles. I will borrow some. Thank you,” she glanced at me and then pulled her eyes away as if that was the only permission she needed. I didn’t like to give out my books to anyone. Something about Akwaugo weakened this resolve. She wore a skirt that flowed well beyond her knees. It was a canvass of hand-drawn flowers scattered in a gray field. She filled the house beyond the floor where she was sprawled, where her lips moved as she whispered the titles of books to herself. She seemed supercilious, like she bore with her a hex of awareness for everything. She frightened me.

“I will take a couple of short story collections.”

I nodded my approval before I realized.

“What do you think about marriage? You have plans? You want to live with a man? You are a feminist, right?” Akwaugo asked and immediately plunged into another subject.

She swept through the house, spilling into every cranny. I ran after her, hoping to stop her before she reached anything that was forbidden from touch. The urn stood well behind the pile of books on the wardrobe in my room. I didn’t let anyone into my room. Yet I felt powerless against Akwaugo’s presence in my apartment. What if she reached for everything until she found the books on that sacred wardrobe? What if she liked every book I’d ever bought, and tried to look at everything? Why was my voice tucked away in such a distant place in my throat?

Akwaugo sat on my bed, painting her finger nails, and yapped about men’s privilege. Her neck moved too quickly, tipping forwards and backwards. I wished I could tell her about her own privilege―speckless light skin, beautiful eyes, long neck. A driblet of the varnish escaped from the brush and domed the sheets. I showed her the bathroom where she ran water on her painted nails, willing them to dry up fast.

We talked about our mothers or rather, she talked about hers. She seemed to enjoy being at the hub of attention. She barely ever skidded to a stop. She hadn’t seen her parents in two years. She’d travelled to countries filled with white people, where her pale skin stood unnoticed for the first time. She worked as a model. She had so many influential men chasing after her.

“Do you do any other work apart from writing?” she asked when it seemed she’d grown tired of hearing her voice.

“No. I work as a writer.”

“You are always holed up in here, writing?”

“No. I go out sometimes to buy the things I need.”

“That’s insane. I will come here to spend some time away from my house.”

“See, I–”

She peeled off her skirt and the hugging blouse. Her panties and bra were lacy, sewn from alike fabric. A navel stud shone from her middle, its shine punctuated her flawless body. Something flipped in me, turning dark, turning brown. It fluttered to life―a mild feeling of resentment towards her. She seemed so sure of everything and I lacked that kind of confidence. We sat there for a long stretch of time. I was afraid to ask if she needed anything. I didn’t want to leave her alone in the room. I had to protect her from everything.

Warm breeze knocked the open windows against each other. She lay on her back, peering into a book she’d taken from the pile lying in the living room. I lay beside her and took in her scent. There was a thick pink scar on her chest.

“I had a hole here some years ago. It was patched.” She smiled, pointing at the scar.

“Sorry about that.”

“It’s fine.”

I remembered the bird’s words. I wondered if she had other scars, if some deep gash tunneled in parts of her that I couldn’t see―the intestines, the liver, or the kidneys. What if she had other conditions unfurling inside of her, ailments so small that only scan machines could detect them?

When I was sure she was trapped in the book she was reading, I slipped out of the room and made a quick beverage. She gulped it down, and smacked her lips, nodding many times. The sun had dipped in the horizon the time she left. We strolled to the bus stop. Her bag was crammed with the books she borrowed. She scuttled into a taxi and waved as it zoomed off.

On my way home, I strolled past the houses on my street. Each building was protected from view by a high wall. Occasionally, when I walked by, I heard chidings from mothers and howls of children, reminders that life went on within the confines of the wall. They reminded me of what life used to be with my parents. Mother was the fire, the whirlwind. Father was the cold gravel. If mother’s anger erupted and overflowed, the cold gravel transformed her into cooled lava. When father died, our kinsmen threatened our ownership to father’s lands. They said it was because he had only me as a child. My mother cried to the old mothers of her genealogy in the dead hours of the night. All the contenders for our lands fell away, and the threats died in their throats.

Akwaugo’s visit had tainted my apartment with life. The cavern widened after she left, and the walls reechoed her voice: sounds that died hours ago. I didn’t do much that night besides read. I checked my mails too, keeping abreast of new information.

“You like her,” my bird said, looking worn out. The bright ring of red feathers around its neck had faded into a wine colour. Its eyes were shut while it spoke. It could not fly with much dexterity, or dare the vile winds with its wings.

“Not really. She just likes to read as much as I do.”

“I know you like this one. Do not let her near the urn.”

Akwaugo called me a week later. I’d been afraid to contact her, or ask when she’d return the books.

“Are you home?” she asked. Her voice was small and faint, yet it brimmed with life.

“Yes.”

“I’m on your street.”

The urn was still tucked behind the books on the wardrobe. I swept the room quickly, dressed the bed and dusted the couches. Everything was perfect. I smelled her before she knocked. She looked more stunning than the last time she came. The old feeling of helplessness returned and weighed on my shoulders. She put the books back on the pile from where she took them. She wore a pair of brown shorts. Her legs were bare and beautiful.

“All the stories were interesting. I enjoyed reading them.”

She glided towards my room, kicked off her shoes at the door and walked in. She sat on the bed, not pulling her clothes this time. She sat cross-legged, immersed in tales about herself. She confessed she’d been in hospitals more times than she’d been out of them. She spoke about her aversion to cooking, to religion, though she loved God. Her nails were coated in transparent lacquer. They shone like gentle light bulbs.

Akwaugo made me feel small and unsure in ways that I’d never been. She was like wind, merely rolling everywhere. All I did was hasten after her, waiting on her restiveness. She went to the kitchen and asked if she could make lunch. She appraised the small kitchen space. I boiled some water and added two cups of garri to it. Then I warmed the soup.

“I am presently renting a big house. The rooms are so spacey and empty,” she laughed.

I made to ladle some soup into two bowls but she insisted we eat from the same plate. The winds echoed my name, a sound as ordinary as any other. It was a warning, perhaps. I was getting too familiar with Akwaugo.

“You cook well. I wish I knew how to do some of the things you do. I write, but not so extensively,” she said between mouthfuls. I fetched two glasses of water, placed them on a tray and carried them to where she sat on the floor of my room. My phone rang and she reached for it first. I’d left it on the bed. What’s wrong with you? I almost asked, peeved by her meddling. It was my agent. I half ran to the living room.

“The publisher requested full manuscript,” she said. I thumped the air and smothered the scream building in my throat.

“Thank you so much!”

“We will give our fingers crossed. Keep it down for now.”

“Of course. Of course.”

Akwaugo stood on the stool I’d left by the wardrobe, her right hand still tainted with food crumbs. She was fingering a book she’d picked from the top of the wardrobe. Manchester Happened, Jennifer Makumbi, she read out. She was touching or cupping something else I wasn’t sure I clearly saw.

“No, Akwaugo,” I began to craft my refusal. The phone had slipped from my hold. Saying no to her had a stannic taste in my mouth. I was wading through the spell under which she held me―her light skin, the round hoop of her beautiful eyes, her voice that was like a liquid purl from a fountain. It was late. Her curiosity had grown like a living thing. She’d taken out the urn and was twirling it before her eyes.

“That’s a beautiful antique piece. What is it for? My grandmother had one like this.”

I began to run towards her, poised to push her off the stool, to make her crumble against something hard enough. It took long to reach her. Like paddling across an ocean in a dream to save a loved one.

My bird cried, a feast of sirens. I felt it flutter in my chest and stomach. I grabbed her legs first. She was feather weight. The urn was taking her limb by limb. I heard her yell. I moved without thinking and caught the urn as it fell from her hold. I peered inside and found the heart of the people I’d fed to it―the plumber, the electrician, and Nonso―frothing, breathing. I recognized a small patch of black slowly fouling the entire content, restless as ever—Akwaugo.

My bird cawed in anguish.

About the Author

Frances Ogamba is the winner of the 2020 Inaugural Kalahari Short Story Competition and the 2019 Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction. She is also a finalist for the 2019 Writivism Short Story Prize and 2019 Brittle Paper Awards for short fiction. Her fiction appears or is forthcoming on Chestnut Review, CRAFT, The Dark Magazine, midnight & indigo, Jalada Africa, Cinnabar Moth, The /tƐmz/ Review, in The Best of World SF and elsewhere. She is an alumna of the Purple Hibiscus Creative Writing Workshop taught by Chimamanda Adichie.