I walked with the basket of vegetables expertly perched on my crown. My arms were stylishly poised around my waist….like Nne Ngozi’s. My neck didn’t ache. I had practised in from of my mother’s full length mirror before I left home. I’ve been practising for weeks. Today I have been allowed to visit Chuka alone. Prior to today, on all my trips I had been accompanied by my older brother, Emeka. Emeka was free to roam with his friends now, or visit with Nneka…. his intended.
My waist was adorned by four rows of brightly colored beads. My thick curly hair were in six shiny corn rows. I wore no shoes. I never did.
Marriage. The word unleashed a plethora of emotions within me. All my older cousins had married earlier….sixteen, seventeen. My mother said she came to my father’s homestead a week short of her sixteenth birthday. So, I guess at eighteen, I would be considered over the hill. My mother had requested I finish high school. My father reluctantly agreed. “She will bring more to a marriage well schooled”. He didn’t argue. All their bantering on the subject had been done behind closed doors. She won. I won. As my slender limbs drew me closer to my destination I thought about the many suitors that has made their intentions clear. There was Mazi Ochuko, the village carpenter. My skin crawled. A short, stocky fellow with a unibrow. He always drooled like a lecher whenever he saw me in the market. When he came to ask for my hand in marriage, my father threw his head back and laughed. My father was a tall man with broad shoulders. His skin like polished wood. His teeth a sharp contrast to his complexion.
“You want to marry my Adaeze?!” God forbid I give my prized jewel to a man as old as my father! I heard Ochuko stammer in anger. “….what do you mean old? There maybe snow on a mountain but there is fire below….” My father offered him palm wine and escorted him off after a meal of pounded yam and Nsala. When he returned he went into Nne’s chambers.
There were more like Ochuko. More came from the town…with big cars and plenty of presents for my parents. My father would always go into my mother’s chambers after each visit. I would hear his deep voice asking her thoughts. She would respond in a low voice….and then she would laugh a little. He would eat. She would bring out a gourd of coconut oil and massage his shoulders. It was their own little ritual. I grew up watching that routine. Talk. Eat. Massage. Then, silence.
Chuka was different though. When I saw him alight from his father’s Volvo that rainy day in May…I know it’s a cliche but my heart did skip a beat. He was dark….like night. His shoulders were broad..almost like my father’s. His hair was thick and curly like mine. We looked like siblings. In my heart, I hoped he had come for me. Unfortunately, he didn’t come to look for a wife. No. He came with his father to visit an ailing relative whose homestead shared a boundary with ours. His father was my father’s childhood friend. They exchanged pleasantries.
I was giddy with excitement when Papa called for palm wine. My mother didn’t have to call me twice before I ran for the refreshments. My hair had just been braided. Six long cornrows fell down my shoulders. Six rows of beads adorned my slender waist. My complexion bright from the home-made coconut cream my mother was partial to. My hands were steady as I poured their drinks. I smiled at them, with my eyes lowered.
“Ehhn Adaeze. What a beautiful flower you have become”. Chuka’s father exclaimed. I could feel both their eyes on me. My father laughed. That deep throaty laughter that I loved so much.
‘Yes my brother. I don’t know what to do about her. The suitors want to set my house on fire. I have not yet decided whether I will send her away for all our sakes…’
I almost dropped the palm wine gourd. ‘Send me away? ‘My head felt like it had doubled in size. I ran as fast as my legs could carry me into my mother’s chambers. “What happened? Why are you crying my daughter?’ My mother tried to comfort me. I continued to wail. ‘He wants to send me away.’ I finally got out.
‘No one is sending you away Ada.’
‘I heard him say it Nne. He says I am too much trouble.’
My mother waited for the visitors to leave and sure enough, as usual, my father entered her chambers. His smile vanished when he saw my swollen eyes.
‘Ewoo…what did you do to her?’ He asked my mother. She repeated what I had said. He threw his head back and laughed….that laugh for now, irritated me.
‘I would never send you away Ada. I was just joking. Go and wash your face my jewel’.
Relief loosened the knots in my chest. That night while I slept, I dreamt of a tall dark stranger…with broad shoulders like my father’s.
Two weeks later, I saw the Volvo again. This time I didn’t pay much attention. I did notice Chuka’s father came with three older gentlemen. They wore the traditional akwa-ocha. It was a beautiful attire and I wondered what the occasion was. My father has asked my mother to make my hair in a special way. He called for me towards the end of their meeting. I was totally oblivious to what was happening. I guess my father played it close to his chest because of how upset I had been by the first visit. I greeted each of them politely. They all nodded and smiled in agreement. I heard one whisper..’…a great choice. What a beautiful girl…’
My parents told me together. Chuka wanted to marry me. I kept a straight face. My heart was beating wildly within the narrow confines of my chest.’But…I don’t know him’.
‘You will have plenty of time to get to know him Jewel. He will visit you here and you will be accompanied by your brother to visit him with his family. He is a good boy. His father and mother are good people. They will take good care of you.’ I was silent. My father rose from his stool and put his arms around me. ‘Say something.’
‘You are sending me away’. I whispered.
‘No. I am not. I am helping to start another chapter of your life my daughter. I am always with you.’
And that was it.
Chuka has visited me several times. With each visit, a budding flower was added to the banquet.
Today, for the first time…I am visiting his home without my brother in tow. As I walked down the windy path that led to my future home, I sighted his tall gangly frame in the door way. My heart skipped a beat and for a split second, my basket slipped off my head. I quickly steadied it. His smile was broad…mine was broader.