Green has always been my colour for pain.
My class teacher always grades our papers with a green pen, and each time I see my scores, the green stares at me, mocking, with the wicked curve of a D, or the sharp edges of an F. Nna Anyi was driving a green car when he crashed into a petrol tanker, killing my younger sister and elder brother, but strangely sparing his own life. Green is the colour my veins turn to whenever I have one of my numerous asthma attacks, and my entire body becomes a rainbow sensation, making me feel inches closer to that place called hell, with its arrow-tailed man and his large pitchfork. I had been wearing mint-green panties four years ago, when I got my first period, and although the swooning red caused a recoiling pain in the deep of my stomach and the small of my back – pain which made that of appendicitis seem like child’s play – the mint-green was vicious, collecting as much red as possible and transferring it to my school skirt, making me the laughing stock of my entire class.
Pot-throwing Nne always wears a green shirt, and she has just completed an episode on Nna Anyi’s head, giving Omenuko an ample opportunity to utilise his newly acquired first aid skills.
Nne has become too violent since my siblings died. The doctors say that it is bipolar disorder which stemmed from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, our pastor says that she has been possessed by the demons of prolonged grief, and the people in our village say that the Ogbanje in her is resurfacing. Whatever the case is, I don’t know her anymore. One minute, she has the embarrassing meekness of a lamb, and the next, she is breaking bottles and throwing pots, with that treacherous green shirt as her sidekick.
She beats me, but she beats Nna Anyi more, and he has since lost that intrinsic strength of masculinity, which is best for him, because pot-throwing Nne is relentless, and she always wins. She blames him for her terrible agony, and he harbours everything silently, like a lamb being led to the slaughter, because he feels a deep sense of regret and the continuous need to do penance.
I feel strangely lucky because I have not acquired several stitches from being wounded by pot-throwing Nne. Physically, though. Because the wounds that have been inflicted within me are much more than the one hundred and fifty-five stitches on Nna Anyi’s body. I pity him, but a very tiny, very guilty corner of me thinks that he deserves it, because he took my siblings away, and Nne has no other reason to live. Neither him, nor I.
Nne and Nna Anyi’s marriage had been arranged, so there has never been any real love between them; they only tolerated each other, and Echezona and Olachi Jnr. were Nne’s sole consolation, until Nna Anyi took them away. If I were Nne, I would have killed him a long time ago. But Nne is worse than I am. For her, death is too easy for him.
Wazit, our gate woman, is now my only true friend and confidante. Her English stings my ears badly, but I don’t bother, because she listens, and to me, that is all that matters. It was because Wazit’s full name, Oluwazitere, was so similar to Nne’s name that Nne employed her, so I was terrified when Omenuko and Wazit began to have an affair, because I thought that Nne would send her away for good. I feared that my only companion would slip through my fingers, like Okro soup did when we ate it on Tuesday nights, but Nne did not fire her; she said that Wazit knew her job, and that she was much more competent than the young sweaty men who roamed about our streets, with pleading eyes and sad stories as curriculum vitaes.
Nne hates me, and I know it. She has never told me bluntly, but her actions speak very loudly. She once said that I remind her of a very dark time in her life when she had been most vulnerable, and I had pondered that ceaselessly until I learned, in one of her pot-throwing moments, that she was raped by a man who is just like me when she was fifteen years old; two years prior to her marriage to Nna Anyi. The hatred had been subtle when Echezona and Olachi Jnr. were still alive, and she made no attempt to hide her favouritism, but that did not matter to me. When they died, I cried endlessly, not because I lost my siblings, but because the bridge between Nne’s hatred and I had been pulverised.
I know that Nne wished I had been in that green car instead of her two precious ones, and she said it all the time, whether she was in her meek lamb or pot-throwing moments. I, too, wished that I had been in that green car, but not in the way that she did. I wished that Nna Anyi had decided to take me to Shoprite that Christmas Eve, along with Echezona and Olachi Jnr. . I wanted the three of us to be gone, so that my ghost could watch gleefully just how well Nne and Nna Anyi would handle it. It was a wicked wish, I know, but I cried for days unending because that wish had not been granted.
Nne named me Nnennannaya after giving birth to me. Nnennannaya, ‘the mother of her father’s father,’ but she calls me Nnedim, ‘my husband’s mother,’ disregarding the two fathers before. She and Nna Anyi had wanted to name me Olachi Jnr., after Nne, but she changed her mind once she set her eyes on me for the first time. She said that the name ‘Nnennannaya’ saved her the stress of explaining to curious people why I was so different. It spoke for itself, with its demanding tone and numerous ‘n’s.
I am a copy of my great grandmother; Nna Anyi’s grandmother. She, too, had hair the colour of corn silk, and skin which bore the reduced radiance of an evening sun. Her pupils, too, always danced around her eyeballs, as though constantly searching for a lost cause, and she was also desperately sought out by predatory ritualists. She was albino. Like me. Like the man who had raped Nne all those years ago.
“Nnedim, irigo nri, have you eaten?
Nne’s voice reaches deep into my consciousness and pulls it back, the way asthma always pulls it away. I bolt upright and look at her with dancing eyes. Her dark hair now bears an intriguing coiffure, neatly tucked into a French pleat. She has changed her clothes, and the white dress hangs loosely on her hips, accentuating her wonderful curves. The sharp contrast between the immaculateness of the dress and the darkness of her skin looks somewhat artistic, reminding me of Yin and Yang; the head and the heart.
“Yes, Nne, I ate the rice and ofe akwu.”
She nods meditatively, and I notice the big gash on her neck. There is ointment on it now; she must have slashed herself in the process of beating Nna Anyi.
Her eyes quickly scan the room, and she notices Nna Anyi sitting on the sofa, cradling his already bandaged wound with an ice pack. She moves closer to him, crying, and the two actions remind me of simultaneous equations, and the green F that had been above my exam paper that term.
Her voice climbs out of her throat, and it is strangely clear, even though her powdered face is now caressed with tears, and her lips are quivering dangerously.
“Nna Anyi, di m oma. I’m very sorry. You know that the devil came over me.” She begins to caress the wound. “Did I hurt you too much? Is it painful? Ndo oo? Forgive me, biko.” Nna Anyi smiles and touches her hand, but he says nothing.
That is the norm; he smiles and says nothing, because he is terrified of destroying the fragility of the meek lamb moment. He truly believes that the devil came over her, and he has become incredibly familiar with that devil. I watch them, with the seasoned familiarity of one who has seen the same movie several times.
Nne soothes him for a while, and then turns to me with a start. My heart skips a beat. No, it cannot be pot-throwing Nne already; meek lamb Nne has not been here long enough. Her face is dry now, and the tears have run a sinuous path through it, making her look ghostly, but her lips are still quivering slightly.
“Nnedim, get dressed. We’re going out.”
I am baffled. I want to speak, but my limbs betray me and begin to move towards my room. I have not gone out leisurely in five years – since Echezona and Olachi Jnr. died. I look at Nna Anyi, and his features show no sign of surprise. He must have been aware of this.
I hurry to my room and put on my green dress, because I can already sense the pain I am going to feel. I comb out my blonde Afro which I have always kept ready, like a metamorphosing butterfly, for when this day would come, and tie it with a green headband.
Nne takes the keys to the white car, and I wish she would take the green one instead, so that I am certain of the inevitable pain. Wazit looks surprised to see me leaving with Nne, and she whispers “guud ruck” in my ear. I smile gratefully, because I am going to need it, because I always need luck to survive whenever I am around Nne.
Nne drives slowly through Independence Layout, and when Tatiana Manaois’ Like you comes on the radio, she increases the volume. I shut my eyes, and I hug the words very close to my skin, feeling them drive deep and pulse through my veins. This song had kept me going for a long time; at those times when the words of Wazit’s paralysed vocabulary had proved insufficient in encouraging me. The words float through the space between Nne and I, and seem to cover us in a cloud of invisible magic dust: Baby you are strong, you are wise, you are worth beyond a thousand reasons why. And you can’t be perfect, baby. Cos nobody’s perfect, darling…there’s nobody in the world, like you. Nne sings along, and the sound of her voice ignites the pores of my silken flesh, forming grains of sand on its surface: You are a work of art, bet you didn’t think you’d come this far. Now, here you are.
For a moment, I choose to forget Nne’s hatred, and I assume that she is singing for me. But I know better. I know that she is singing for the ghosts of Echezona and Olachi Jnr. ; the precious children who, even in their death, follow her everywhere, and occupy the entirety of her twisted heart. I feel the tears streaming down my face, but I don’t care. I am not afraid of Nne now, and I am not afraid of dying either. I am armed with my green dress, and ready for any kind of pain. Nne does not notice me, as she is too engrossed in the moment with her precious ones. So, we coexist quietly in the space of invisible magic dust, rendering our unique meanings to the words of the fleeting melody.
Everything happens so fast. Nne pulls into an orphanage home, and the Reverend Sisters in charge run out to welcome her. I feel like a spectator, like an outsider watching the events of my own life. The Sisters bring so many papers for Nne, “Sign here, sign there.” Then they bring a baby boy with cocoa skin and massive dreadlocks, and hand him over to her. I now notice the infant car seat in the back of the car, and the green ribbon on his right hand. Nne straddles him in the car seat, and we head home quietly. She only turns to tell me, “His name is Obiora. We are adopting him.” The pain I feel is gut-wrenching, and it hangs onto my throat, as though hanging on for dear life, threatening to express itself through my tears. Obiora, ‘the heart of the masses.’ The treasure, and not a sin, like me. The pain engulfs my entire being, and I clutch my green dress, feeling very thankful that I had worn it.
At home, Nna Anyi hurries out to welcome the baby. He knew. Omenuko, too. Even Wazit. I feel like a stranger, an outcast, but the feeling is too familiar to surprise me. The sun has set, and night creeps in slowly, mirroring the darkness I feel within.
The scene is very familiar, and I stare at Omenuko, because he was the product of that familiarity. I remember the conversation I had with him seven years ago, when he was newly employed as our houseboy. I don’t understand why he had chosen to trust me. Perhaps it was because I was dangerously placeless in my own family, or because of the lack of focus in my eyes, but he told me that he, too, had been given up for adoption; that he is the child Nne had all those years ago, after she was raped. He said that he had managed to escape from the orphanage with sufficient information to locate Nne, but when he discovered that she despised me because I reminded her of that horrid experience, he chose to work as her servant instead. My emotions had fought tirelessly then, each one trying to gain ground over the others, because the information was too heavy, too sudden, for my little mind to absorb. I finally chose distrust; I did not believe him. I thought that he was seeking attention, wanting to win favour in the eyes of one member of the family to strengthen his place in the house.
I distrusted him for a long time, until Nne revealed to me that she was raped by the man who is just like me. She did not know who Omenuko was, she still doesn’t know, and Nna Anyi doesn’t know either, so the weight of bearing such a heavy secret gave me so much purpose; it made me feel so much more important and much less worthless, that I chose to preserve it, to keep it hidden in the deepest corners of my restless eyes.
I stare at Omenuko for a while, then I look outside. The night of that conversation had been like this one: starless, thick with humidity, the darkness had engulfed us in its ominous embrace, and the rain clouds had hung very low above our heads, threatening, as though they were not afraid to reveal to us that they, too, knew our secret.