by Ijeoma Ossi
When Odera came back from the US on holiday the first surprise she brought was her guest. The day my parents brought them home from the airport our youngest brother, five-year-old Jemie pointed at the newcomer and declared, “Daddy, it’s CNN!” CNN was the only place he had ever seen white people.
Heather was a pretty, grey-eyed redhead with a calm face. She was good with my two younger siblings Princess and Jemie, although this was largely because they were all over her. Princess badgered her with questions about the America she saw on TV; did High School Musical represent the teenagers? Could children really wear mufti to school? Why were the smart kids over there tormented by the dumb ones? The last question needed a great deal of explanation, because being a few points shy of a genius Princess was very popular among her classmates in Primary 3.
Jemie would just stare at Heather and occasionally pull her long, straight hair. I repeatedly scolded him to stop, not because it actually bothered her, but because I wished my own stubborn finger-length hair would take a cue from hers.
Mommy and Daddy were nice to her, but I could tell Mommy disapproved. “It’s not as if I’m racist or anything,” I overheard her telling Daddy one night in their bedroom, “But couldn’t she have invited another Nigerian student, even if it was a Yoruba person?”
They were speaking in low voices and in Igbo, in case the only non-Igbo in the house overheard them.
I was having too much fun hanging out with my eldest sister and her friends to care. Sometimes the three of us would go sight-seeing round Enugu. I took hundreds of pictures with Daddy’s new Polaroid, Odera’s gift to him. The photos would definitely raise my status in SS2 when I returned to the boarding house. It was also hilarious watching Heather’s reactions to different places and experiences. The first time she ate okpa and fiofio in the same day, she reportedly dozed off in the club later that night. Other days Odera’s friends from university would come bringing gossip and memories. One of them, a loud guy nicknamed H.O.(Humble Opinion) kept trying to get Heather to go out with him. She always refused with a laugh, saying she ‘didn’t bat for his team.’ None of us quite knew what she meant, and when I asked Odera she said, “Senior jokes. Not for anyone below university!”
“Dalu, leave that meat for her!” Mommy snapped as I guiltily dropped my fork with a clatter. “I don’t need to tell you at this age not to play with each other’s food.”
“Mommy it’s ok, I don’t eat meat anymore.”
All eyes turned to Odera. “Why not?” asked Princess, after a heavy pause.
Odera smiled nervously. “I’m a vegetarian. For a while now, actually…”
“Why?” Princess demanded. Odera now looked a little nonplussed, and Mommy watched her steadily. “Why I’m a vegetarian?”
My younger sister nodded. So Odera said, “Well, because it’s a healthier way to eat, and uh…”
“And because it’s wrong to hurt other living creatures,” Heather finished for her, brushing some loose strands from her oval face.
“But plants are living things too,” Princess argued, pointing her spoon at the boiled rice and stew on her plate, “They breathe and eat and science has proved that they have sensitivity similar to emotion. So why not just starve yourself?”
I bit my lower lip, trying not to laugh. It wasn’t as if she was trying to show them up; she was genuinely expecting them to give her a better answer to add to her knowledge. However as neither of them could give any the discussion was quicky shifted to other topics. I heard my father chuckling from the parlour where he was eating; somehow we knew it wasn’t Osuofia’s antics on AfricaMagic that was making him laugh.
“Vegetarian, my foot,” Mommy muttered to herself as she slipped an extra piece of fried goat meat onto my plate. I ate it happily, though I couldn’t help remembering a time when Odera would have given me a solid knock for even looking at her goat meat.
My little brother wandered into my room one afternoon that week. “Dalu,” he began solemnly, “Odera bought new eyes.”
“Her eyes are now another colour. She looks like ogbanje.”
I took his hand and we trooped upstairs to Odera’s room to make sense of his statement. The door was ajar, and I heard snatches of conversation from inside. “…too soon to tell them…different society altogether…won’t understand-“
“Kpai kpai,” I announced our entry with a verbal knock. Odera turned to face us, startled. Sure enough, our older sister’s eyes were a weird shade of greenish blue. Heather was looking strained, but she smiled at us.
I’d heard of contact lenses, but I’d never actually seen anyone wear them. “What happened to your glasses?” I asked her.
She shrugged. “Heather said these ones were good with my skin tone. But I still have my glasses.”
I stared at Heather, trying to figure out how her mind worked for her to deduce that green eyes would fit anyone other than a white person. To Odera I said evenly, “You scared Jemie with them.”
“He’s afraid of my dreadlocks too.” She absently fingered her short, spidery tresses. “Do you like them?”
The dreads or the eyes? “They’re fine,” I lied.
To our surprise, Princess suddenly had an about-face about Heather. She didn’t talk to her unless asked a question, and she didn’t want to sit near her at the dining table. Once I saw her get up and leave the kitchen as Heather entered, wanting to help out. She was muttering to herself, “…take a lot of things but this…”
I grabbed her hand. “What did she do to you?” I asked in a low voice.
She wouldn’t look at me, head down and mouth pinched mutinously. “Nothing.”
“Tell me what ‘nothing’ is.”
When she finally gave in and told me what she had seen in Heather’s laptop, the shock initially made me speechless. “Don’t tell anybody,” I warned her when I found my voice. She gave me a look that said ‘How on earth do you intend to keep this secret?’ but she left quietly. Bits of eavesdropping floated through my brain as I stood in the corridor… ‘different society altogether…wouldn’t understand…”
Odera is an idiot, I thought miserably.
“EEEEEEIIIII! NWA EGBUO M OOOOO!”
Even as I jolted awake from my nap I knew exactly where the shout had come from. The shit had finally hit the fan.
I heard the solid slap while I ran up the staircase, and I got to the landing just as Mommy dragged Odera out of her room by the ear, the latter holding her right cheek and looking dazed. Princess was already standing at a distance near the balcony, holding her hand to her mouth.
I glanced at Mommy and hastily turned away again. I had never seen her look so livid; her plump cheeks were quivering, a vein twitched at her temple, and her generous lips were pulled into a wildcat snarl. When she let go of Odera’s ear her hand stayed hanging next to her face.
“We sent you to do a master’s degree and you come back with this…this abomination!” Her voice had dropped to a hissing whisper, which all her children knew was worse than her yelling. “Instead of bringing back knowledge, you have brought back the stupidity, the disgrace-“
“Being a lesbian is nothing to be ashamed of,” Heather shrilly interjected as she stepped from behind Odera and put her fingers on her shoulder. “It’s completely natural and she took a very brave step in coming out to her family. My family is okay with it. You just need to accept and support-“
Mommy whirled to face her so fast she took a step back in alarm. “Accept and support,” she spat, “You teach my daughter to embrace madness and you expect us to swallow it. How dare you come into my house, into my country, to try and force us to abandon our morals? How dare you?!”
Frightened but determined, Heather pressed on, “I don’t expect you to understand right now, you’re upset and confused-”
Bad move, I thought, and hearing Odera’s whimper I guess she figured as much too.
Mommy raised herself to her full height (which wasn’t much but seemed to increase with her fury) and pressed her finger to Heather’s nose, scratching it with a nail. “If I hear another word from you, one more syllable filled with American idiocy, you will not leave this country with the same nose.”
Honestly I’ve never heard my mother speak so much big English. Pale and wide-eyed, Heather finally shut up.
“As for you, anu ohia,” my mother addressed Odera, looking at her up and down, “you think you can shed everything we taught you like snakeskin, eh? Lesbian indeed… You listen to whatever this girl and her friends tell you just to be like them and you come back here thinking we will fall for it. You think I will allow you to break your father’s heart? You will die first – you and whichever demon that sent you!”
“Mommy I wasn’t trying to fit in, I’ve never wanted to sleep with men. Don’t you remember, you were so proud of me that I didn’t have boyfriends till final year!”
Mommy talked over Odera’s cries as if she hadn’t heard anything. “Now you listen to me. You will leave tomorrow morning first flight. You will tell your father that classes have unexpectedly resumed, and you will go back there and vomit whatever medicine she,”-pointing at Heather-“has given you. Don’t come back until you are clean, do you hear me? Because if I ever hear it again from your mouth, I will beat it out of you. Now both of you get out of my sight. Get out!”
It was a mixed atmosphere surrounding our little group the next morning as we all saw Odera and Heather off at the airport. Jemie and Daddy had the normal emotions; the sadness at parting and whatever other concerns they would face at home. The rest of us kept faces like wood.
At the departure lounge Odera turned hesitantly to hug Mommy, who gave her a brief one-sided hug and a warning glare. To Heather she gave nothing at all, while Daddy asked like a good host, “When will you come again to visit us?”
She replied, “Oh, whenever things change around here.” She was smiling at my father, but her eyes were on Mommy. “Too many obsolete mindsets right now.”
“What’s obsolete?” Princess piped up.
Mommy didn’t even bat an eye. “We don’t breed chameleons here,” she informed her tartly. Daddy looked at her curiously, but she was done.
Later that day I joined Mommy in the kitchen where she was chopping up utazi for soup. A single tear rolled down her cheek and dropped onto the vegetables. “The girl was like a shark,” she murmured, impatiently rubbing her face and wiping her hand on her blouse. “Any sign of fear and she would have won.”
I gently pried the knife from her fingers and continued cutting.