When I came out in the morning, Mrs. Okwuchi was walking about the front yard, studying the ground closely and muttering to herself. Three times I saw her bend forward and sweep the gravel with her plastic hand fan. After the third sweep, the muttering climbed up to a cry: “Umu amusu!” Witches.
I sighed and (not for the first time since I started living with her) wished there was a back-gate I could take out of the compound when I needed to avoid her early-morning feline-pawprint-searching ritual. I started walking briskly towards the gate, not even slowing down when I passed her and rapped out a “Good morning, Ma!”
She straightened up, red earth on the fringe of the lemon plastic hand fan in her right hand, and called to me: “My son, biakaali. Please, come.” She must have seen my shoulders slump in despair in that moment. But like she did two nights ago when I made a disgusted sound after she prayed God to strike her debtors with madness, she chose to ignore it.
“Take a look at my compound,” she said now, slowly swinging her left hand over the swathe of land that was her front yard. “Just look at what these people did to my compound.”
I looked. The rake-marks left by yesterday’s cleaning were still visible on the earth – beautiful patterns like the whorls of a giant fingerprint. Gravel was evenly spread over the sand, and here and there, green tufts of weed were sprouting up. I did not see what she wanted me to see.
She continued, “Human beings will be on their beds sleeping, and another human being will turn into a cat, and be walking all over another person’s compound. Eh? Look, look, prints from a cat’s paw everywhere! Eh?”
I still couldn’t see the cat’s prints. Maybe it was all the rake-marks. Or maybe I didn’t know what a mark left by a cat’s paw looked like.
“They even left shit here!” she cried, guiding my eyes to three spots cleared of gravel by her hand fan. This time I saw it, calcareous fingers of faeces, conspicuous against the brown earth.
“It…is…true,” I said trying to sound as sympathetic as I could.
My tone must have convinced her I was really sympathetic, because she now opened her palms towards me, like a victim pleading innocence, and moaned, “My son, what have I done to them. There are many houses on this street, but it is in my own that they must come and shit. Every morning I keep packing cat shit. What did I do?”
Well, for one you have a kitchen full of rats, I wanted to say. The little smart quick ones – Belgian rats. And I would have said it if she was my mother. But I stood, nodding patiently as she began a mournful story of her battles with maleficent forces. I glanced at my watch after every half-sentence, hoping she would understand that I really needed to be somewhere else.
“… It is the old woman in that compound” – she pointed across the wall to the other house, a low bungalow, hunched under the weight of nearly a dozen satellite dishes – “very old woman that has refused to die. You may have seen her. Evil has blinded her in both eyes. She sits on the verandah all day muttering to herself. Even her own children are afraid to go near her. You know that stage where evil oozes from your pores and even innocent little children can perceive the stench…”
I was thinking of the schoolgirls I had to teach by 8:05 am. It was 7:45 am. It took at least 30 minutes in the Monday morning traffic to get to the school.
Mrs. Okwuchi however wasn’t nearly done yet. “…Ogoni woman. Yes, she is Ogoni. Those ones, fear them! Their witchcraft chop belleful. Ha! I haven’t told you what one young Ogoni boy I brought into my house did to my family last year. God! Chuka my son would have been long dead by now, if not for the power of my prayers. This Ogoni boy and his fellow witch-boys gathered and decided to strike him with typhoid and malaria in the middle of his WAEC exams…”
I looked at my watch again and my brow creased impatiently.
“You have a class this morning? You’ve looked at that watch too much.”
“It is good. I shouldn’t delay you then.”
“I’ll see you, Ma.” I grinned and turned towards the gate.
“Biakaali, come. Yes, I know you have a class. But there’s a little something I need you to do for me. It won’t take you three minutes. Three minutes.”
She bent down again and began gathering the cat faeces into a little shit-mound, shepherding them with the lemon hand fan.
“You’ll find a small plastic bottle and a small hose by the generator, behind the house. Help me suck out some petrol from the generator. Just enough to fill the bottle halfway up. I’m going to burn this cat shit.”
I looked at her with the calmest countenance I could assemble. Behind the countenance I was screaming in lame impotent anger, “You see, this is why you need a back-gate! No one needs to run into you in the morning when you are like this!”
I began to shuffle towards the back of the house.
“And as I burn this shit, may the nyash that that old woman used to defile my household catch fire. Amen!” she shouted loud enough for people in the other compounds to hear.
The hose was not a very narrow one. After nine or ten unsuccessful sucks, I decided I needed a more spirited effort to get the liquid to work up the wide hose. I let a good inch of pipe into my mouth, wrapped my lips around it firmly and sucked with all the strength of my cheeks. With a spurt, my palate and upper throat received a dash of cool fluid, quickly spreading into a warm and sharp methyl-rich vapour that turned my stomach.
“Corper, are you trying to untie the petrol from a tree?” Mrs. Okwuchi called from the front yard.
“You will not keep your mouth shut there,” I muttered in-between bitter spits.
Written by Nonso Uche Nnajide, tweets @Nawski