“Your father’s people can have you on Christmas Eve and Christmas sef, but you’re coming to my place for Boxing Day Jollof Rice and Chicken.”
Since she had left her husband and was being shunned by the rest of the family, this was the way Aunty Sola had invited Faridah and Banji for the holidays.
At her flat, Sola spread a turquoise Adire bedsheet on the living room floor because there wasn’t enough space for a dining table. Faridah sat beside her cousin Temi in front of the sofa where Banji reclined. She nestled her shoulders between his linen clad knees. The burnt sugar aroma of overripe plantains searing in hot oil wafted into the room and Faridah let her mind wander with thoughts of the audacious cluster of cells growing inside of her. It would probably be a girl. She would name her something like Aisha, just for being alive. Or Sada for luck. Or Omolola for wealth.
Faridah, you mustn’t name it, she told herself.
She remembered yesterday morning when Banj left her alone in the kitchen with his mother, Folake, who walked into most rooms as if she was aware of every occupant’s darkest deeds.
“Does he know?” she asked without looking away from the onions she sliced with deft hands.
Faridah pulse quickened, she couldn’t have heard right.
“Does he know?” Folake asked again, this time looking Faridah square in the face. Faridah looked back unable to identify the rush of emotion that choked her. She shook her head, silent.
Folake nodded, turning her attention back to the onions. “I know that you’re not children. I had him when I was younger than you are. But I don’t believe that my son is ready to be a father.”
The way she said it, my son, Faridah flinched from the sharpness, but she didn’t shift her gaze away from Folake’s face.
“What will you do?” Folake asked.
“I don’t know,” Faridah said after a long moment.
“Well, Faridah,” Folake put the knife down and emptied the pile of slivered onions into the pan of smoking palm oil. “I suggest that you make that decision before involving anyone else. Banji is a good boy, but he is still just a man, despite himself, he’s a man.”
She reached out and covered Faridah’s trembling hand with hers, an abrupt act of tenderness that startled Faridah. “It's you, the woman, who is truly bound to whatever choice you make. Okay?”
Faridah nodded, and bit her lip, freeing her hand from Folake’s grasp.
“Babe,” Banji said and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Aunty Sola is talking to you.”
He said Aunty Sola as one word, Antsola.
“Sorry Aunty, what did you say?”
They had shown up at Sola’s place early because Banji was a chef and wanted to help with the cooking. Raised in a house by many mothers, strong willed Yoruba women, Banji wore his sensitivity like a second skin. He wasn’t even aware of the ways that it endeared women to him.
“Jor come and help me serve the food,” Aunty Sola shouted from the kitchen at the opposite end of the flat.
Aunty Sola was busying herself at the stove, frying the plantains. “Oya pass me the plates from the top cupboard, no not those ones, the blue ceramic ones. I’m looking forward to eating one of your husband’s creations.”
“Aunty,” Faridah whined, “he’s not my husband!”
“Well, he better be eventually. Marry the kind one.” She put her hands up in mock defense and said quietly, “I’m just telling you, kindness is important.”
Sola would know. It was only in February that she left Uncle Farouq. She picked Temi up from school with their things packed up in the boot of the red Honda. Her eyes — badly bruised, the left one swollen almost completely shut — were hidden behind oversized dark tinted glasses. She called Faridah several days later.
“Aburo,” she said, her voice cracking, “I didn’t want you to hear it from somebody else o, I left your uncle.”
Faridah was in Montreal at the time. It was the dead of winter and there was a storm rattling her windows, blowing the snow in blinding white cascades. She looked out the window without seeing and listened to her aunt sob at the other end of the line. She pictured her aunty, small and round — Temi at twelve, had already overtaken her in height — her bruised face recounting the details in ragged whispers over the phone.
“It wasn’t the first time but it was the worst ever. I fainted, I bled eh. I refuse to let me daughter see me like that,” she sobbed. “God forbid. She will never think it is normal for her husband to beat her, never!”
They were only related through marriage. It was with Uncle Farouq that Faridah shared blood. But ever since the day Faridah first saw Sola in her lace wedding dress, with its high embroidered pearl collar, and the deep brown henna flowers climbing up and around her wrists and arms, she never stayed more than three paces behind her. They were only ten years apart in age. Sola married at twenty three, had Temi two years later at twenty-five, and received the first blow from Farouq at twenty-six. She’d told no one until that evening two weeks from her thirty-seventh birthday.
Faridah was the youngest child of seven from a polygamous household. She often felt forgotten; Sola’s attention was cherished. Even after Faridah went to Canada for university, they frequently sent each other pictures and messages. Faridah mailed packages of lotions, lipsticks, and eyeliner to Sola. And Sola found a way to send Faridah newspaper-wrapped smoked fish, Yaji, and Zobo leaves whenever friends, or friends of friends travelled to North America. When Sola wept on the phone that day, Faridah seethed.
“Mummy, I don’t want to kill it anymore,” Temi said, tears spilling out her remarkably round brown eyes.
Originally, Temi had wanted to slaughter their Christmas chicken, but after selecting a scrawny fowl from the mammy market by the barracks, she had changed her mind.
“This girl, na wa for you o!”
Banji had offered to kill the chicken that morning, but now presented with the fowl, feet bound, flapping its wings in terror, he reconsidered. “I don’t know, I think it knows it's about to die.”
“Oh my God, you people that like to eat meat but don’t like to kill it.” Faridah took the bird from Banji. She was gentle when she placed it on yellow tile floor of the kitchen. It continued to flap its wing in a noisy frenzy.
“It's because you named it,” Sola said to Temi. “You gave it a personality when you named it.”
Temi walked out of the kitchen wringing her small hands. Sola burst into laughter and went after her daughter.
“I’ll do it,” Faridah said, “but Banji you have to cook it.”
She went down the winding back stairs with the frantic chicken swinging by its feet in one hand and a large butcher knife and a plastic bowl in the other. Under her arm she tucked a worn wooden chopping block. In the boys’ quarters, she sat on a wooden stool facing the fence, her back against the clothesline, a rainbow of clothes flapping in the morning breeze. The gray paint covering the wall bubbled and peeled to reveal dark moss and another layer of discolouration. Between Faridah and the dirty wall, in the cement ground, ran an open gutter. It was halfway full of stagnant water and it stunk. She let the image of her body form in her mind’s eye, let her imagined belly expand and deflate in slow alternation. In time, she would either swell or bleed. She would have to choose.
The chicken struggled to flap its wings, but Faridah’s grip was firm. She looked down at the bird and its beady eyes seemed to look right through her. With a loud exhale she said “Pele my friend, man must chop.”
Faridah fed the bird some clean water from a tap spouting out of the wall. She laid the bird down on the chopping block and pinned each wing down with her feet. She did her best to be swift when plucking the feathers from the chicken’s neck. She recited “Bismillah; Allahu Akbar,” then she fell the knife, stopped just before reaching the bone. She didn’t cut the the chicken’s head clean off, just through its windpipe and jugular vein. She watched the life blood pour out of the fowl and said, “Thank you.”