Nenebe’s marriage with Agu gave away all the signs of what would be turbulent but one target or another that verged on self-interest distracted each of them from taking note and not starting it at all. There was the wide gap in social status: the woman was a corporate manager and classy, while the man, a potter rooted in rustic life and manners, belonged to the marked off world of the artisans. There was also the disparity of age; she was almost ten years older.
With the woman’s age and the economic power in her hands, which conferred on her the family head, the man found himself on the receiving end, and so at her beck and call. This meant his nodding to her every decision.
‘Madam, when you get home go down on your knees and offer prayers of gratitude to God.’
Those were Agu’s words when he casually met Nenebe. They were his reaction to the woman’s striking beauty put in high relief by her skirt, blouse and jacket spangled with the cashew fruit.
‘Were you at the meeting?’ she asked, thinking of her narrow escape from being toppled as the second in command in her company.
‘No, I am meeting you for the first time, and I just felt like giving you the message,’ answered Agu.
The mention of message quickly took Nenebe to prophecy. Since prophecies from men of God started harping on her imminent marriage, she had become addicted to prophetic messages. They put her on the lookout for the man that would be her husband.
‘If you want to follow me to the bar, I don’t mind,’ she said as she continued on her way, weighing whether to be reserved or slightly free.
His smile answered for him.
Taking her seat at the bar, her expectations tinged with anxiety, she said, ‘Please, now give me the full message.’
‘Message!’ Agu mused, looking lost.
Dabbling into the pastime of many young men was now about to put him in trouble. He quickly recomposed himself, and racked his brains but found nothing. He then said, ‘I, myself, am the message.’
These words, said matter-of-factly, prompted Nenebe to run her eyes all over him, looking for what made him her would-be husband. Nothing of interest struck her; moreover, he was decidedly not handsome. In fact, she was already plotting a way to dismiss him when it dawned on her that he might in effect be the answer to her prayers and generous donations in her place of worship. It was after this that she started changing her mind. She might end up conceding him some beauty, or even being infatuated on that basis.
‘You obviously are younger than I,’ returned Nenebe. Her words were more of maths for the man than merely affirming what was obvious.
‘So it seems to me,’ Agu, unaware of the mathematical undertone, responded innocently. ‘In any case, permit me to say that I can satisfy you.’
‘I don’t know what you mean by that. However,’ her voice became stronger, ‘be aware that I don’t have time to waste with gigolos; I am interested in the man who wants to form a family, and above all have children.’
‘Gigolos? Who looks like one? Well, forming a family with you is too far a dream to me. Only a spiral of hope will make me kiss you from head to toe in front of everybody.’
‘Then be ready for the kiss, but not here,’ were the words that ignited the fire of frenzied love in Agu.
Without giving Nenebe a hint of what he was about to do, he climbed on a table at the centre of the bar and asked for attention.
As everywhere became eerily silent, he started, ‘Friends, romantics, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come…’
As the buzz from the people dwarfed his voice, he stopped. Many took him for a drunkard, and so hurled insults at him. The few who had noticed a smattering of Shakespeare in his monologue shouted down on others to give him a chance.
The bar owner quickly furnished him with a microphone.
‘Well, ladies and gentlemen,’ he continued. ‘The truth is that today is Nenebe’s birthday, so you can understand why I have taken the liberty. Permit me also to say that it is the happiest day of my life, but please don’t ask me why.’
As Agu paused, someone intoned, ‘Happy Birthday’. Everybody stood up and sang with spirit. The bar owner ordered his baristas to set a table and put on it a cake with a lit candle and a bottle of Asti spumante. The people toasted to Nenebe’s health. As many of them were busy conversing, obviously dwelling on the pair’s oddity, Agu, who had eavesdropped and heard when someone in a group called him an impostor, took the woman’s hand and disappeared after paying the bill.
‘Why did you tell the people it is my birthday instead of yours?’ Nenebe asked, still weird out by the inexplicable change of her date of birth.
‘Of course, it is not my birthday,’ Agu said, laughing and looking comical.
‘Neither is it mine,’ retorted Nenebe, not quite amused.
‘Well, I needed to mark the day in one way or the other; it is a day I will remember all my life – and with happiness.’
These words struck a chord in the woman and made her fall for Agu. She now began to see all she needed in a man: one not physically imposing, or who people would look at and immediately think of beauty; in other words, a man she would not share with other women. Recalling his dalliance with Shakespeare, her evaluation of him jumped up. She was now realising she also wanted a man good at quoting great playwrights and improvising their plays.
As age was no more in Nenebe’s favour – already forty-five, the threshold of menopause – she did not waste time to conceive a baby. It was a pregnancy accompanied by severe nausea, constant vomiting and heartburn. Food and smells revolted her. She could not stand even the smell of water. It was thus a difficult pregnancy.
Agu empathised with her. He wished he was the one undergoing the travail. In fact, he felt all her pains at the exact points she felt them. When the baby started kicking, he also felt the kicks. He was almost carrying the pregnancy with her; it was a shared experience.
In spite of all this, the prospect of his fatherhood filled him with enormous joy, and changed him drastically. It changed him from being reserved to one now known for gonging news about his family, especially about the incoming baby.
He had settled on many things about the child’s training. Love and respect for parents was number one in his scale of preference. This made him opt for a school run by nuns and monks. On second thoughts, he feared that such schools might not guarantee an all-round education, and so he retraced his steps. He ended up suspending the programme, musing that after all the child was not yet born.
When Wata was finally delivered, his mother transferred all her love to him, leaving nothing for her husband. Agu thought that was normal with difficult pregnancies, and so believed it would change with time. Like a patient dog, he kept his cool and waited for the child to be weaned. This came and passed without anything changing. So did the puberty.
Unlike the Jews waiting for the Messiah – known for their untiring impatience – he, at one point, gave up hope. He rebelled against the strange setup, but his wife immediately crushed the rebellion with all her force.
He woke up too late, when his wife’s manner of conceiving child rearing had become second nature to her, and so ossified. Boxed to an angle, he surrendered and accepted his fate with the spirit of a Tibetan monk.
Wata their son was like the young of ruminants that learnt how to chew the cud by watching. He learnt from his mother how to treat his father. His father’s cries that he would like to have a hand in his training fell on deaf ears.
‘Beauty,’ Agu called one day, though not showing whether it was irony, ‘Allow me to have a say in our son’s training. Allow me to scold him when he deserves it.’
‘Handsome,’ Nenebe called in mockery, ‘when you have carried your own child nine months in the womb and delivered him, then you can scold him as you want.’
‘That is not the issue’ – Agu was frustrated as always – ‘the issue is your carefree hand and permissiveness.’
‘Where are you today with your father’s ironclad method?’
‘I may not be anywhere today but we are still here together…’
Agu was still talking when his son pulled his mother away, telling him to continue with the rattle.
‘I will never abandon you; I will always answer you when you call,’ he directed to his son in spite of feeling wounded.
‘Be assured that I will never call you. If I should have any need, mom is there 24/7.’
‘My son, life reserves surprises,’ his father shook his head and gnashed his teeth.
His mood plunged downward as it became clear to him that he had lost his son, a son he was ready to give his life for. He went into the house, locked himself in a room and bemoaned his fate. Tears drizzled profusely down his cheeks. All that he wanted was to separate with his wife and go his way, but because of his son he resisted the temptation.
He might have been influenced by his mother, who told him never for any reason on earth to train his children alone or leave them for his wife only – that only a heartless parent would do such great injustice to their children. He believed his mere presence was education in itself to his son.
However, Wata grew up loving his mother and detesting his father, almost like one overly gripped by the Oedipus complex. It reached the point he started challenging his father, shutting him up at times, and was even ready to exchange blows with him.
The poor man became a common target for the mother and her son; each tried to outdo the other in their hostility to him. They seemed to measure their love for each other through their gratuitous insults.
The first crack in the seemingly watertight relationship between mother and son appeared when the latter, dating a girl, went ahead and married her in spite of his mother’s opposition. Nenebe could not stand a beauty that relegated hers to a second position. Like Venus, who loathed Psyche for the same reason, she was very aggressive to the young lady.
Makaria maintained her calm and bore the woman’s wickedness with grace. She followed the footsteps of a cock in a new place by standing on only one leg. When she had mastered the environment she put down the other leg and her true colour showed. Being the fiery type, she was ready to lock horns with Nenebe.
Finding himself in the centre of two women he loved that hated each other, Wata was confused. He dreaded seeing them pulling each other’s hair or scraping their faces with their nails, so he packed to a new place with his wife. His mother continued to rule his life. All decisions taken there bore her imprint.
Sometimes, she went to the new place to stamp her authority, though such visits often ended in a fierce quarrel between her and her daughter-in-law.
The question of childbearing was what broke the camel’s back. Wata and his mother wanted a child, but for Makaria it was sheer madness to talk of raising a child in their situation. She preferred to have one when his mother in-law was no more.
‘That means you are wishing my mom death?’ Wata was dumbfounded.
When he repeated the question, his wife then said: ‘What is your wish to pests? To continue with their ravage?’
‘You are equating my mom to pests?’ An incredulous stare accompanied Wata’s words.
‘She is worse than pests, if you want the truth,’ answered Makaria in an angered voice.
By trying to defend his mother and portray her in a good light, Wata unwittingly poured fuel on the fire, thereby provoking more words, caustic ones, from his wife.
Her words were not coming to an end: ‘…I know men when I see them, not a pet that is drawn about with a leash like some pets. Like pets your eyes are always on your owner, ready to obey and please, and yet you want to have a child – a pet of a pet, I dare say. I am convinced that natural selection will produce a stupider pet, so count me out…’
When Wata felt that his wife has let off steam enough, he sued for peace. He apologised for the error of allowing his mother to meddle in their affairs, and promised her it would never happen again. What softened Makaria a bit was when he knelt down and asked her to reconsider having a child with him, assuring her that the child would not be stupid. As he continued to kneel and plead with body language, she consented on the condition that his mother should disappear completely from the scene, at least for six months. She hoped that the baby would take everything from her.
‘If the opposite happens, I hope you will not commit murder,’ Wata said, smiling. He moved to embrace her but she stopped him with a wave of the hand. She would embrace him as he wanted, but after six months.
The heavens were let lose when his mother was given the news of her suspension. If curses could kill, Makaria would have died from one terrible ailment or another. Even Arusiokaka, their chief deity, would have stifled her to death in her sleep, or sent thunder and lightning to strike her dead, if she was not very lucky.
Nenebe made it clear to her son that she would jump any barrier placed between them. When she started calling Makaria names and pelting her with insults, he reminded her that she was his wife and so merited respect, but she did not mind him.
After her anger had run its course, she realised that if she needed a grandchild she had no choice than to respect her daughter-in-law’s decision. She reluctantly accepted the prohibition, adding that she would kick her out of the way after delivery.
‘Do you have the mother’s milk to suckle the baby afterwards?’ Wata asked, finding it impossible to justify her anger.
‘I can wait to kick her out after weaning the child,’ Nenebe replied, looking happy she would have her victory.
‘Send her away when you want but be ready to sleep with me and face Jocasta’s end.’
‘Who is Jocasta? And what happened to her?’
‘Jocasta was the mother of Oedipus. She killed herself when she discovered that Oedipus, who killed her husband and married her, was her son.’
‘And nothing happened to her son?’
‘Why are you curious to know what happened to her son?’
‘Just answer my question.’
‘Well, he also killed himself when he realised that the man he killed to marry his wife, who later turned to be his mother, was in effect his father.’
‘Incest is ruled out in our case. I will send that bitch away and get the right woman for you.’
‘My wife need not go for you to get a woman that is right for you.’
Nenebe did not immediately get her son’s pun.
Barely one week had passed when Wata received a message that his mother was very sick. Without wasting time, he precipitated to the family house, only to see his mother wildly excited. She glued herself to him throughout his stay. He succeeded in extricating himself from her grips only when it was already dusk. By then Makaria had no doubts where he went. On getting home, he met her absence and a note telling him it was over forever. He nearly collapsed.
He sent a message to his mother, informing her of the end of his marriage. She leapt into a dance, singing their popular folk songs, which she adapted for the occasion. She sang that Makaria was after all barren, and so ran away when asked to prove her womanhood.
When her son arrived, the two were mad with each other. He called her Jezebel, Devil and witch, wishing her death. She too called him eunuch, and so incapable of impregnating a woman. She named all his mates with their families and children intact. This made him feel like chopping off her head with a machete, but he restrained himself in order not to end up at the gallows tree.
He was now in dire need of his father, especially his support, but did not know how to approach him. His father, on the other hand, had been watching him and his mother, and their quarrels. More than once, he thought of intervening but felt that both might unexpectedly make peace and turn against him.
His son, who had been hanging around his atelier, now summoned the courage to break the ice. His father’s words that he would answer him in his moment of need also encouraged him.
‘What does that design mean, if it means anything?’ Wata asked as he admired one of the designs on the clay pots made by his father.
‘It is only a scribble,’ Agu said and continued with his work.
‘If a scribble is so articulated, the ones with a motif will be amazing,’ his son looked genuine in his praise.
His father raised his head from the pot he was decorating and turned his smiley face briefly toward him, and continued with his decoration.
The young man looked for a follow-up. After a couple of minutes, he started convulsively to apologise to his father for his many mistakes. When he brought in his mother, saying bad things about her, he stopped him, warning him sternly never to go there again.
He made him understand it was a great offence for children to disobey or insult their parents. Such children, he continued, usually ended up badly if their parents did not forgive them. He therefore told him that he had forgiven him, and promised he would procure his mother’s forgiveness.
At the mention of his mother, Wata frowned. His father asked him in an angry voice to disappear from his view, but he did not budge. It was then that the old man asked him if he would like to have his wife back.
‘She said it is over forever,’ he responded, his mood slumped further.
‘That is not the answer to my question.’
‘What I am saying is that it will be a miracle if she reneges on her word, which as I know is very difficult. In short, I will cut to the scalp all the hair on my head like Indian Buddhists if she comes back.’
‘Then give me some time, but you may as well retain your hair; after all, you are not a devotee of the Hindu god Krishna.’
Without delay, Agu went to his wife and asked her if she would like to recover her relationship with their son. She told him that it had gone beyond repair, but he asked her not to worry, that he would do his best, though on the condition that she was ready to apologise to Makaria and make peace with her.
‘Have faith, it is possible,’ he further assured her.
‘I wonder what has made you to remove the ‘im’ in the impossible,’ her words showed her extreme scepticism. ‘Do you know the amount of dirt I poured on that poor lady? I don’t see any hope of recovering the relationship.’
‘All I need from you is the readiness to make peace with her and your son: the first as a precondition to make peace with the second, period,’ Agu this time sounded categorical. He was finally recovering his position as the head.
‘I am, I am,’ intoned Nenebe. ‘I am more than ready, and if you succeed, you will become “Saint Agu” to me.’
Her husband made her write a letter of apology to Makaria, which he delivered to her and assured her that he was now in control, and so a complete break with the past. The wound was still fresh but Agu, a tough negotiator, succeeded at last in getting her back.
He went home and broke the news to Wata and asked him to follow him to his mother. Their own peace was accomplished without difficulty. The celebration lasted a full day.
To mark a new beginning, the family house was renovated and Makaria was happy to live with his husband’s parents as one family. She and her husband were blessed with eight children, who were doted on by their grandparents. All the members of this household lived in peace and ate from the same bowl, loving and respecting one another.