When the Butterfly Loses its Petals
A short tiled dusty road led to the school compound; its gates were painted in red and black. Into the gates, a visitor enters through another side to a children-friendly-learning atmosphere. The landscaping is simply breathtaking: A combination of shrubs, trees and carpet grass. A waiting hall by the side, and some meters away, the school’s playground, and then the colourful bungalows, situated here and there, which housed the kids’ learning facilities. The food court is a major site to behold. Every student goes straight to the court when it was time for lunch, while the younger ones stayed back in class and are fed by their nurses.
The couple kept quiet throughout the tour; they only nodded to show that they paid rapt attention, as the principal took them round the school. She was an elderly woman in her mid-sixties. Her grandparents were the founders of St Mary’s Nursery and Primary school, and she was among the first pioneers. When her grandparents died, they willed everything to her mother who took up the daunting task of running a school at the early age of twenty-four. Her mother met and married her father, a school teacher, and both raised the standard so high that only the best were produced for the enrichment of the society. As a result of the standard of education the school had attained, prominent people in the country sent their kids all over the world to get the right start-up to life.
Lady Nkem did not only pass through the school as a pioneer; she worked as a member of staff at the early age of fifteen, after high school, up until she left for the university. And to everyone’s surprise, she graduated from the University with double honours in Education. She was the best among the best. She was automatically offered an employment as a lecturer. Unfortunately at that time, she entered into an abusive marriage and bore the brunt for years. While she tenaciously pursued her doctorate, despite her woes, the sad news of her parents’ demise got to her: They died a peaceful death while in their sleep at the cringing age of eighty and ninety. Her marriage was already at its tail-end. She quickly rounded off her program and embarked on a sorrowful journey with her kids, to lay her parents to rest while taking up the mantle of leadership in the school.
They were led back to her office where they began the tour. Throughout their tour, she would pause to take a good look at one or two classes, to be rest assured that everything was in order. The walls were painted in sparkly yellow and all manner of kids’ art were neatly arranged on the walls. Back to her large office, which was a separate bungalow on its own, the receptionist and secretary welcomed them back while some workers moved about busily. It was obvious that they busily prepared for something very important. The walls of her office were lined by different awards and trophies, pictures of her grandparents and parents, different events or awards received by the school and so much more. Her office was spacious, neat and airy. The couple stepped into the large space with her and she said:
“You may have your seat.”
Both sat back and still looked around as though they had never been to the office before. She smiled, knowing that it was the same reaction she got each time she had to sit in a meeting with her pupils’ parents. She patiently waited for them to feed their eyes before the meeting commenced. Meanwhile, she gave the woman a long look and worried about how tense she looked throughout the tour. The fear in her eyes was as naked as nudity itself. Nkem wondered what could possibly be wrong. This took her back to those days, when Joe would hit her at every slight opportunity that she lived to accommodate fear or have the taste of her blood in her mouth.
When she came back, after the burial, she found out that nothing had changed. The only thing she did was to add a tall building which served as the new teachers’ offices and an administrative block. In other words, she did nothing but maintain the standard. Looking at the couple, she remembered the call she got from Aby earlier that week – a family friend of hers that had returned from The States – they both worked for a humanitarian organization and were on a short transfer. Both were in great need of where to fix their only daughter who just turned five. Lady Nkem was thrilled with the referral. Her friend said that the couple would love to come over to inspect the school first before a decision would be made. It was obvious that they were meticulous or didn’t trust Aby’s judgment. Due to the familiarity, Lady Nkem decided to postpone her vacation until after their visit. She wanted to attend to them personally, and examine the child herself.
Apart from maintaining the standard of the school, they were afraid of one thing: Enrolling students who would lower their standard by either corrupting other kids or being insubordinate to their teachers. The school was fully aware of the effect of ineptitude on the part of most parents who do nothing but bring up unruly children. They rather send such kids away to their parents for proper home grooming than use the resources not appreciated by such parents on their kids. It was unfortunate that some parents had tried to move the motion of non-disciplinary measures in the school. Such would only bind the school’s hands and legs and disrupt its activities. In order words, the school adamantly refused to allow such law to be made, and to show their grievances, some of such parents went to the extent of threatening to sue the school through Human Right organizations, but upon getting a letter from the school’s lawyer, they backed off by withdrawing their wards from the school. It was a too easy battle not to win.
After a minute of contemplation, the couple turned to her; it was the man who spoke:
“We will bring her. We love the school, and we believe she would love it too.”
Lady Nkem searched their faces, just to make sure that they weren’t drawn by the good things they had seen. It was usually difficult to know the intents of the mind through the face. They were young, but the woman looked some worth quiet, too quiet to be precise. Lady Nkem smiled; she nodded her head to show that she was aware of what he just said:
“I am happy to hear that. So, school resumes for our little princess on Monday?”
They both nodded, and the man added:
“Yes. Thank you very much for having us.”
Both got up and shook hands, while the man led the way out.
The cook dropped off the last set of plate for dinner that night and left to tend to other things. The man had busily kept a close watch and noticed that his wife hadn’t touched her meal. It bothered him a lot because he knew her well for more than twenty years of being together. She had brought one of her pupils to the hospital for a routine checkup. He was then doing his ‘housemanship’ as a pediatrician at a teaching hospital. He had fallen in love with her tenacity the first time he set his eyes on her. There was this calmness hidden below her bushy eyebrows and he didn’t stop at checking the pupil, but her, too. They got married one year after their meeting. Shortly after that, he travelled out of the country to further his education, and on returning, his benevolent parents made him practice under them for some years before passing unto him their hospital till the time of their death. She had been his rock for years, and still was.
“Omalicha,” she jumped at the pet name he fondly called her by. “You haven’t scratched your meal. Is anything the matter?”
Lady Nkem looked at her husband; she didn’t want him to use one of his medical terms on her, not just yet. She decided to keep quiet and pretend; but unfortunately, Obi was one man who knew her well, like scheming through a pan full of clear water. He took a sip of water from the glass before him while his wife nibbled at her plate of cold Agidi and pepper soup. Due to their age, they have been advised to keep to strict diet.
“What are you hiding from your lover?”
His words made Lady Nkem giggle as though she were eighteen. He knew how to get her talking without feeling guilty about it. Lady Nkem looked down and her eyes caught the sparkly rosary bead her son sent her. Ikem would soon become a priest; he was on his last race and had promised to pay them a short visit before going back to complete his studies in Rome. They only saw him twice a year: At the beginning and end of the year. Nkem and her husband had five children: three girls and two boys; they were all married except Ikem, who was the second and wanted above any other thing to become a priest. Nkem could not resist to touch the gold rosary which shorn under the bright light. Her fingers went for it, as though she counted her prayers. It had never been in her intention to have her son become a priest of the Catholic Church; not that she had anything in mind against it, except that it seemed too much of a sacrifice for her. Ikem was her favourite among the others. She missed him so much. She looked at her husband and said:
“Ikem would be home before Easter.”
He chuckled; it was obvious she tried to get him talking on another thing but she had failed woefully.
“Nkem, you are always meddling about with your problems. Why don’t you cut some piece for me to hang on? I know the boy would be on his way quite soon. So, what happened today?”
Her husband usually referred to him as ‘boy’.
“I would love him to be about the school before he leaves. He could help me with some things while he is around.”
Her husband pretended to go along.
“He won’t refuse his sweet mother a favour, would he?”
“Do you think it’s too late?”
“Too late for what?”
“For a rethink.”
“Who is doing the rethinking?”
The air turned chokingly quiet that one could slice through it with a knife. Her husband couldn’t believe his ears.
“What happened at work today? I thought we have gone through this before? The boy’s mind is made up.”
She sighed, showing that hers wasn’t made up, not just yet.
“I want above any other thing to carry his child, you know, to have grandkids through him. I feel I have lost him.”
Her husband’s forehead gathered some dark flesh to form a frown. He looked closely at her and said:
“You haven’t lost him. He is still your son, you know. It’s just that he had taken a decision to be somewhere else.”
A wave of calm cloud descended over the room. Ikem witnessed all the abuse during her first marriage, and at a young age, he learned to be afraid of marriage. She knew that it must be one of the reasons behind his decision. Nkem flashed her eagle eyes on him. Her grandparents had been staunch Catholics, and as a result, they named their school after a Saint. Fortunately, her parents took the same line, resulting to one of her brothers becoming a priest of the Catholic Church. Her son had grown to adore this one uncle as a mentor and he came back one day to announce to them that his mind was made up to join the profession. It was a shock to everyone; it nearly broke her heart. Her husband got up from his seat and came to stand behind her; he recalled the incident of their son announcing his decision, and how his going away to Rome affected everything. He placed his two hands on her shoulders; he needed to get her to unburden her heart before the boy gets home.
“We saved a child today at the hospital. He had a brain tumour.”
He allowed some minutes to pass before he continued. He wanted his words to sink in as much as possible. He wanted to explain to her as much as possible that they didn’t lose their son, but it was a choice he had made – a path he had created for himself.
“The growth was quite too much for us to handle. We thought we had lost him until his little fingers gently squeezed my hands. I read him his first story after we waited ten hours for a vital sign of recovery.”
As he talked about the day, he gently massaged her shoulders and drew his hands down her arms. Marrying a woman like her required a lot of perseverance and patience. He was aware of her first marriage; she begun to command authority at a very tender age, and that took a lot out of her when she lost her parents. Although she had older siblings, her parents knew she was the one to be handed over their years of hard work. He deliberately brought down his jaw to touch her head. It was a move to keep her awake while he gently worked his magic. After some minutes, his patience paid off. Lady Nkem knew that her husband was almost dragging her problems out through her jaws. She couldn’t hold back anything. In a low guilty voice, she said:
“A couple visited the office today.”
“They reminded me about a lot of things; they were young, too young.”
“What did they remind you of? Of us?”
She giggled, to show that he was being mischievous.
“Nah, they were so young that they reminded me of Ikem. Perhaps, he would have had a son or daughter with his wife, or something….”
Her words trailed off. She knew she had been caught looking through the wrong glass.
“How come they got you thinking about our son?”
“You know young people; happy, marriage, children, life… He would have been so happy with a woman.”
Her husband nodded his head in disagreement.
“He has found happiness, I am sure.”
The room went back to being silent. It was as though she chewed over what he said in her thoughts. He always pushed the idea of their son getting married out of his mind, but she always tried to bring it up.
He kept quiet, but it was as though she weighed saying it or not. One of the things about being married to Obi is to know his point of attack: She always availed herself to most of the possibilities he would bring up to back a particular point, and in most cases, she ended up feeling bad or guilty for thinking in such a direction. Obi always had a way to tackling problems or questions.
“The woman… The woman, she didn’t look…”
“Didn’t look what?”
“Happy. I think. There was this glint of sadness, deep down her eyes. It lay beneath the black eyes; I sensed it, no matter how she tried to hide it.”
Her husband didn’t say a word. She was the one who felt out of place, and as a result, she raised her head to face him.
“I also noticed that it was the man who talked throughout the tour. You know…”
Her husband raised a brow.
“Maybe she was shy, meeting you for the first time. You said they were too young or something.”
“Well, don’t say am being irrational or paranoia.”
Both busted out in laughter. He gently lifted her to her feet and turned her around to face him; he placed one steady finger upon her forehead and said:
“Darling, it was all in your head. It is a natural feeling for you to have: it could be any of your relatives. There is this sense of belonging women usually feel towards each other.”
“Oh! Come off it! Well, maybe I was too suspicious or something.”
He gradually led her out of the dining area and through the staircase to their room. Obi had gotten used to many things being out of place when it comes to Nkem.
Nkem’s first husband was abusive towards her. She had two children – a girl and boy -- when they were married. He always accused her of cheating, which she never did. Joe only suffered from low self esteem. They had met on graduation from college and wedded. The fight began right from the moment she started up her doctorate degree. She would go to work only to come home and meet Joe waiting and demanding to know why he had to come home before her, and if she answered the wrong way, he would descend heavily on her. Sometimes, he trailed her or she comes into the room to find that he had gone through her text messages and call log: She lived virtually in perpetual fear for more than five years. Nkem had always hid the violence from her parents until he beat her one day that she ended up unconscious in the hospital. That was when someone called her next of kin. When she was discharged from the hospital, her parents fought and made sure they got a divorce. Down the line, she lost her parents and came back to the country with her kids. When Obi met Nkem, he knew he had met a broken woman with a heart of gold.
The cars stopped in front of the school gate. The kids disembarked and flew into their teacher’s arms. This has been a routine for years: The teachers would gently hand them over to nursing teachers who would match these kids to their various classes. The older ones usually found their way around. Soon, the classes got busier, and the students would settle with their books.
The door to one of the nursery classrooms gently opened and Lady Nkem and Ikem walked in. The students stopped what they were doing and turned their attention on their new visitors. The kids wore smiles on their faces like sunshine. Lady Nkem called one of the teachers by the side and said:
“Good morning, Mrs Kate. This is Mr Ikem, my son. He would be in charge of the guidance and counseling unit for a short period. So, if you have any report, please let him know.”
The teacher smiled from ear to ear and answered:
“Yes, Madam. We will do just that.”
When they were about to leave, the teacher gave a cough and both Nkem and her son turned to face her. The teacher looked left and right; the assistant teacher had already engaged the kids in an exercise. She came closer and ushered her visitors to the hallway and shut the door behind her.
“Well, madam… I don’t know how to say this or if I should say it, but the new little angel that started the other day…”
Lady Nkem drew back a bit and went to the door and peered through the glass shutters. Through the door, she could see little Nzube; she was busy colouring along with the others, just like any other normal child. Nkem gave the teacher a questioning look. Lady Nkem hadn’t been around for a while. She had travelled right after the meeting with the young couple. Coming back, she made all necessary preparations for her son to take charge of some responsibilities. When he arrived, the first thing she did was to take him round all the classes and introduce him.
“I don’t see anything?”
The teacher was already rubbing her two palms together.
“Madam, I think we need to examine her closely.”
Ikem went and peered too. He hadn’t talked much since he came back.
“Which of the girls?”
The teacher came back and pointed to Nzube.
Ikem adjusted his glasses and looked closely. The first thing he noticed was that the little girl looked too keen on what was before her, even when others were busy trying to talk her into playing with them. He didn’t turn to look at his mother before he said:
“Bring her to the clinic. I think we have a huge problem in our hands. Who are her parents?”
His mother came to join him. She was stunned at his sudden reaction. She still couldn’t place anything out of the ordinary, even as the little girl was led towards the school clinic.
Ikem watched closely as the little girl played idly with the toys in his new office. He had been there during the close examination and heard everything. The doctor’s words struck him like bullets. He looked down at the result of the tests that were immediately carried out; when they were sure of what they were up against, they opened it. The first few sentences struck the delicate chord in his gut: ‘…evidence of multiple forceful entry by the penis of a male adult… Bruises on the anus and outer layer of the vagina… Child exposed to years of sexual assault and molestation…’
He shut the file and looked at the poor girl. She walked like a limbless chicken: it was too obvious she had endured much pains. His mind went straight to those days when they lived with his father, and how he would abuse their mother right in front of them. He got up from where he sat and went over to seat on the mat. She didn’t pay him much attention until he called her by her name.
The little smiley face looked at him and came over to seat beside him with one of the dolls. She began combing its hair, diligently.
“How are you?”
She looked at him, thinking if she could trust him. He reached into his pocket and brought out a stick sweet. She smiled, showing off a set of milk teeth. She reached for the sweet and he asked:
“I heard chocolate is your favourite?”
She nodded happily, took the sweet and gave him a tight warm hug. Trickles of tears nearly escaped from his eyes, but he held them back. The words on the report came back to haunt his thoughts: ‘fractured uterus….’
“Does daddy use to give you chocolates?”
Nzube froze. She frowned and tightened her grip around the sweet. She looked down. He knew he had struck something hard.
“How? Tell me. Does daddy used to give you warm hugs?”
“Does daddy used to touch his little princess?”
He looked up and saw that the camera that was installed in his office was right above them.
“Where? Show uncle.”
Her hand tightened into a fist. She had dropped her doll and comb on the mat.
“I promise not to tell anyone.”
She slowly lifted her hand and pointed in-between her legs.
“Does it hurt?”
She nodded without looking at him.
“How many times?”
She kept quiet. It was obvious that it could have happened a million times and she might have lost count.
“Does mummy know about this? Have you ever told mummy?”
She put up her head, and when she was about to say something, the door opened and a young woman rushed into the room, followed by his mother and a police officer. She ran and carried Nzube. She didn’t look at Ikem, but he saw the close semblance.
“My baby! My babay! I am so sorry, forgive me.”
She cried so much with the little girl on her shoulder. They all helplessly watched as the woman tried to clear her conscience with everything that had happened. The police man wore a look of disgust on his face, and his mother looked far too older than her age; within a twinkle of an eye, the incident had weighed her down already. He knew that his mother had been down the same lane, and Nzube’s own started just a little too earlier. His mother just said:
“We have to leave. Your father is waiting for us at the hospital.”
“And the father?”
The police man angrily spat out:
“He has gone into hiding.”
They all left at once. They were yet to find out the extent of damage Nzube’s father had done.
A guilty silence flew about the room. Ikem could hear the nurses preparing to take Nzube in for an emergency operation. They were in a meeting with his father, his mother, the policeman, Nzube’s mother and himself. He recalled driving the helpless woman to the hospital; her daughter had driven with his mother in an official car, while the police man followed closely. She had been too distant that he had to engage her in a conversation.
“How often does he do it?”
The young woman, who should be in her late twenties turned from the window to look at him. She was dark skinned, slim with an oblong face. Her features defied motherhood.
“He beats you, right?”
She didn’t answer the question. Rain of tears came down her plain cheeks and she turned back to the busy streets. He felt embarrassed at his question. He felt like gripping the man by the neck. His father’s voice brought him back to reality.
“In a few minutes, we would be carrying out a delicate operation.”
He allowed some air to sweep by before he continued.
“Obviously, this event has been a reoccurring one from the tender age of four: most of the organs there have been highly bruised. I wonder how she survived it. We have a lot to stitch and if need be, evacuate. The most important thing at this moment is to save her life. Having gone through the various tests and X-rays, we would try as much as possible to cut through hard edges.”
The policeman that asked a question:
“What type of damage are we talking about?”
The doctor looked at him in disbelief. He got up and went over to pick up a long rod by the corner and then took the empty coke bottle on his desk.
“Imagine driving a trunk through the mouth of a coke bottle till it shatters into pieces. That is the sort of damage we are talking about.”
He stuck the rod through the mouth of the coke bottle till it shattered before them. Everyone drew back in fear.
“Oh my gush!”
The policeman shouted out of disbelief.
Nzube’s mother broke down in tears. Lady Nkem sat like a stature and the policeman busily kept notes while his fleshy face concocted into a thousand folds. Ikem took the weeping mother into his hands; he lifted her up from her seat and placed her head on his shoulders. He brushed his hands over her head and her back. She couldn’t stop the tears from coming. At that moment, he felt something like a pang; it was something he had never felt before. He felt human. Everything seemed to be a dream to the poor woman: She too suffered a similar predicament, not knowing that her child was the actual victim.
“I think he was aware of the child’s state, that’s why, according to the policeman here, he applied to serve in his home country. And if you would excuse me, I think the room is ready.”
The doctor got up and left them to their fears.
Lady Nkem gently made her way down the hall of the children’s hospital. It was some weeks after the operation. She got to the room where she had been directed and looked through the glass door; she saw something that made her look away: Her son busily cuddled Nzube’s mother while she slept in his arms. She couldn’t believe her eyes: Something new was happening. She noticed that some weeks after the operation, he hadn’t talked about going back to Rome and they never asked. She knocked and roused them up before entering. Nzube’s mother’s eyes were swollen; she hadn’t had rest for weeks. Nzube busily slept on her bed while the monitor beeped. She would soon be discharged.
“I think I have good news.”
Both looked at her.
Their eyes looked expectant. She first of all handed a letter to Ikem: It was from Rome. She hadn’t bothered to open it. Then she turned to Nzube’s mother and said:
“I went to the police station before getting here. I met the detective in charge of the case.”
The poor woman stepped forward. She was eager to know of their findings.
“Your husband… he…”
The air felt tensed.
“He has been found.”
Nzube’s mother held on to her chest.
“In a hotel room.”
She looked at them to know how they felt about the news she just gave them. She was not sure how they would take the one coming next. At that moment, Ikem tore through the letter and read it in a hurry; his eyes busily searched for something.
Lady Nkem continued:
“He was found with a bullet in his head.”
Nzube’s mother wailed and Lady Nkem gathered her in her arms. That was when Ikem’s voice came through.
“Mother! I am free!”
He threw the letter at his mother who caught it at a glance and then he turned to Nzube’s mother and gave her a tight hug. Lady Nkem scanned through the letter, smiling; her son had finally come home to her.
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