I like the way Jerry says my name without really seeing me there. He drawls it out like a silent prayer, like a whisper to a god you know has already answered your prayers, a sigh.
“Get me a cup of Akamu”
“Nesi, take this dirty cup away”
He knows I’m always there and he never needs to yell or look around for me. You know he is at peace. The way he sits still, bent over his books.
Even when Jerry speaks, his body is still. If not for the slim lemon grass that dangles loosely from his lips that gives him away, you would think he is a statue. He is always chewing lemongrass. He says it helps him think. Maybe lemon grass has a thinking spirit, but I am yet to find it. I have tried once or twice, to think and chew. Maybe the fault is mine, and I have no thoughts, or it is one of those things you acquire when you become learned like Jerry, I don’t know. As for me, I have decided I prefer my lemon grass when it is soaked in hot water and cooked with black tea.
I like it when Jerry studies. His brows are furrowed, like he is having a deep conversation with the village Chief. I wish I could do that, but when I flip through the browning leaves, all I see is tiny shapes, printed in ink. Even Jerry’s notebooks make less meaning than those prints. You would think cockerels soaked their feet in ink, and had a party on the pages of his notebooks. The edges of his books flop over like the ears of our house dog, from over use. The new ones are sharp at the edges, but only remain so for a very short time.
I’m always stationed by his reading post, inspecting all his books with a protective eye, and I always take note of these little differences. I keep hoping to absorb some of the knowledge in his books just by being so close to them, but nothing has happened yet. Even when he is gone; I remain firmly rooted at the foot of his reading table. There should be a rank for persons like me who sit by reading posts all day.
When he leaves for mission school, he doesn’t need to take his books out of the verandah. He knows I will keep an eye on them till he returns. He knows for certain that I won’t wander off. I have always begged him, to teach me what those shapes mean, or show me what my name would look like, but he refuses.
I don’t go to mission school. My father says girls aren’t meant to go to school. We are to learn cooking, home keeping and child bearing. It is our duty to care for our men and children. Sometimes, I wonder what it will be like if I were a boy, and I went to school. Maybe I would wear white dresses with the funny hats the nurses in the mission hospital wear.
Papa says nurses are prostitutes who will never find good husbands, but whenever we fall ill, mama and Papa would take us to the hospital, and speak to the nurses with respect. I don’t think it is okay that they expose us to prostitutes.
Sometimes, I pass by them in the village and I make sure to walk on the other side of the road. Yet, I secretly envy their clothing, and wonder if there are other ways I could go to school and dress like that and still make a good wife.
I like the way Jerry dresses too. He wears starch stiffed cotton shirts and tucks them inside Khaki trousers. He holds it together with cow hide belt father insists is Italian leather, but I know it isn’t.
Every morning, I fire up the coals, and fill up the iron. When the shiny plate has become hot, I call on Jerry. He spends hours bent over his shirt everyday, ironing out the creases, till the shirts are so fine, the edges threaten to cut you. Jerry says Father Francis says a dignified man takes care of his looks.
When he is done, he gives me the iron to empty out the hot coals, and douse the heat but when no one is watching, I try to imitate him, and iron over the frayed edges of my skirts. But the iron is usually too hot and it burns me. I make a mental note to take the skirts off before ironing, but I always forget. I only remember after I’ve been burned.
Jerry is the only one who goes by his English name in our household. Jerry’s native name is Ekenedilichukwu, but when he was applying to go into mission school, his name was too long, and wouldn’t fit into the boxes provided in the forms, so father told them to write his baptismal name Jeremiah. Father says a name bonds a man with his people.
If Jerry bears his baptismal name, he will be closer to his teachers because they would understand. One day, he came home and told us to call him Jerry, so we did. No questions asked.
My name is Nesiama, and I have never told anybody to call me Margaret. The only place you will see Margaret is in my birth certificate and Obituary after I am over hundred and dead, because all my teeth have fallen. I am only 9 years old, and hundred is a long time from now. I like Nesi, pending that time.
One day, a long time ago, Jerry forgot his lunch box, and mother made me take it to his school. It was the first day I would be visiting the school. It was a massive building at our village entrance. The classrooms are full of boys in white and grey Khakis like Jerry’s , with only a sprinkle of girls wearing pinafores.
I shook my head in bewilderment. Only an uncaring parent would send a girl child to brave the dangers of school knowing fully well what they could become. But then, the nurses in the hospital today would grow old, and then we would need new people to give us our medicines.
I couldn’t find Jerry in his classroom, so I asked to see the matron who we all called Mother superior in church. Mama asked me to greet her, and also give her a basket of ripe Ube.
“Down the hall, see that office in front? That is her office.” The students directed me.
On entering Mother Superior’s office, I saw Jerry’s head pop up from under her skirt. I walked in and greeted them both respectfully, but they didn’t seem too pleased to see me. I dropped the Ube on her table, and Jerry walked me out of the office immediately.
Jerry seemed relieved to be out of Mother Superiors office. I wonder why he was in her office while his classmates were in the classroom. He took his lunch box from me without a word. He turned around and made for class then paused.
“I was only helping matron pick up her ink pen that fell”
I stared at him, and nodded my head vigorously. I didn’t understand why he felt the need to explain”
“No word of this to anybody at home. Okay?”
“Who is watching my books?”
Scared I had done a grave sin, I rushed all the way home, without stopping to catch my breath. I forgot to tell him his shirt tail was hanging out, but it didn’t matter.
Jerry was different to me ever since. He would lecture me about being your brothers keeper. He even taught me how to draw my name in English alphabets.
He watched me closely, and kept me close to him. Every morning before leaving home, he would ask me if I told anybody anything, and I would shake my head.
Jerry returned from school one day, fuming with anger. I was waiting eagerly to show him that I wrote my name, but he was not interested. He looked me in the face and I saw his eyes were filmy, and glistening as if he was about to cry. That scares me. I always did my best to remain invisible. Invisible children get to eat twice a day, and don’t get lashing tongues of horse whips licking their backs.
“Did the post man come today?” He asked intently.
There’s a pregnant bead of sweat resting on his eyelash, threatening to fall. If he blinks, it might drop in his eye, and the saltiness would sting him there. I was watching anxiously, I forgot to answer.
His huge hands landed across my face, and my palms jerked up rubbing the sting vigorously, before the welts of palm prints formed on my face.The answers came flooding.
“Yes. Posumanu con hia” I blurted out in my heavily accented grammar.
Even in the face of fear, no child of Mr. Dan’s forgets his grammar.
“Which letter did you give to him?!”
“I gi am lettah wey dey top table” I answered.
Jerry had only one assignment for me today. When the post man comes, give him the very important letter on the study table.
The postman came is his shiny bicycle, carrying a leather bag by his side. He asked if we had a parcel and I said yes.
Jerry showed me the letter and told me clearly “This letter is very important. It will take me to the missions headquarters in Lagos for a scholarship test. If I pass, I will go to the university. Do you understand?”
I nodded fervently, rejoicing that Jerry has made it in life. When he buys his new house, he will send for me. I dared not miss the postman.
I watched intently as Jerry licked the stamp, and stuck it on the white envelope. I was happy he trusted me with something so important. The postman came at 11:00am and asked for Jerry’s package.
The envelope he showed me was neatly placed inside his big leather book he writes in every night. That brown book was very precious to Jerry. He would never let even a fly land on it.
“Is that all?” The post man asked, flipping the envelope back and forth, making faces like it looked too flimsy.
“Are you sure?” He queried, and I thought for a second. If the postman thinks this letter is too small, does this mean Jerry would fail to impress them in the school?
He spends his time studying and writing. I also found the envelope too flimsy, so I added the big brown book.
“This one too.” I said, and the postman smiled
“Why did you forget to add that one?”
He packaged the big book and Jerry’s letter in a bigger envelope and sealed it. I stayed with him to make sure everything was secure.
Why I have now earned this slap, I do not know.
One day, a group of people came to look for Jerry. Papa looked up at them. They were dignitaries in well ironed French suits. Papa’s eyes were red, as they had been since the day Jerry left.
“My son has run away. I don’t know why. I tried my best, I gave him all I have” Papas voice trailed off and he dropped his head.
I watched his shoulders shake violently as they whispered some news to him. I heard something about a dreadful woman being fired for molestation. I also heard them saying they would be happy to help find Jerry. Papa sobbed silently through the meeting as he has done many times when he thinks no one is watching.
I remain settled in my corner, where the books are collecting dust; invisible and eagerly waiting for someone to call me.