This short story forms part of our Tales of Christmas series. Learn about the authors and find more exclusive fiction here.
In our little bungalow in Port Harcourt, the festive atmosphere lasted the whole first week and into the second: the gathering of the neighbours, the gulping down of bottles of soft drinks, gourds and jerrycans of palm wine. There was all the usual gift giving, the well-wishing from family and friends. Mama and Chibundu’s mother had come and had been waiting for me at the flat when I arrived from the hospital, all of them eager to welcome baby Chidinma home.
The first sign of trouble was when Chibundu refused to purchase a goat. Without the goat there would be no butchering, no digging of the hole, no letting of its blood into the earth. The roasting of the goat would have been the hallmark of the celebration, serving it for all to enjoy.
But Chibundu refused. Instead, he walked around moping, barely greeting the visitors.
Mama could not help but notice. She had taken the child and had been carrying her around the flat when she crossed paths with Chibundu. She returned to me immediately. “Whatever is the matter between you two,” she said in a low voice, “you must find a way to work it out. Do you hear me?”
I was in Chidinma’s bedroom – the nursery – sitting on a recliner. I took the baby from her. “I hear you,” I said. “The only thing is that I actually don’t know what the matter is.”
“He is your husband,” she said. “Something is wrong, and you are telling me you don’t know what it is?”
I examined my baby, no longer listening to Mama’s questioning. Here was my child, my flesh and my blood. Tiny hands and feet. Nails as thin as paper. Eyes hardly more than slits. Her skin was smooth and soft, and her scent was sweet and pure, a little like the aroma of fresh coconut oil. Through her, this perfect representation of me and of Chibundu, God had indeed been good.
It was all Chidinma those days after Mama packed her bags and left. In the afternoon, I tied Chidinma to my back with a wrapper and carried her on long walks, with no real destination in mind.
Once, I waited until the evening to see if Chibundu wanted to come along. He was sitting in the parlour chewing on a garden egg. The question had hardly left my mouth when he looked sharply at me, his face twisted in a scowl. He responded that his work had rendered him useless for everyday life, that it wore him out so much that, he was sorry to say, he’d probably never have the energy to come along. Not in the evenings after he returned from work, and not in general, because didn’t I see? Didn’t I see that even on the weekends they were now sometimes calling him in? And those weekends when they did not, he preferred to rest, he said.
I nodded, not saying a word, but it was clear that something had gotten into him. The way he was snapping more often than ever. As if all the world, and especially me and Chidinma, had become like thorns on his skin.
December arrived, and Mama was back again. All over Port Harcourt, the usual end-of-year festivities had begun. Masquerades – colorful ojuju dancers dancing to the beat of their metal ogene bells and clay udu drums, soft bass sounds forming the music that guided their steps. Ojujus in glittering gowns, shaking their ichaka gourds, causing the bead coverings to rattle. Frightening ojujus dressed in grass and raffia skirts dancing to the beat of some ekwe and igba drums. Ojujus with lion heads and covered in lion hides.
It was the season when the ojujus paraded on the roads, dancing and collecting money and sweets. The time of year when the children ran toward the ojujus, then ran away from them with fright, back and forth, back and forth, because between their bouts of fear was a heightened state of enjoyment. The ojuju dancers blocked the roadways so that even automobile drivers had to stop their cars and pay their passage in order to be allowed to go.
Neither Chibundu nor I had been particularly interested in celebrating Christmas, and Chidinma was too little yet to care. But by the end of her first day back, Mama was concocting ways to celebrate.
“We’ve not had a real Christmas since the year before the war came. I just imagined that maybe, with Chidinma here, we could get back to the way things used to be. How about a trip to Kingsway?”
“I don’t know if it’s a good idea,” I said to Mama. We were in the parlour. Mama was looking at me with such excitement and anticipation. Chidinma was napping in my arms.
“You don’t know if it’s a good idea?” Mama asked.
She too had been a new mother, but it seemed that she had forgotten how hard it could be to go traipsing around with a small baby.
Mama sighed, then painted the reminder: “Don’t you remember the way Christmas festivities used to be, those days when your father would take us on those trips to Port Harcourt? I remember it like it was yesterday,” she said, “the way we headed straight to Kingsway, and your little face full of excitement as you rode the toy train that ran through the entire shopping centre, which dropped off all the children at Father Christmas’s little alcove of a hut? Do you remember the gifts you got from Father Christmas?”
I remembered. One year, he had given me a set of plastic plates that could be used as Frisbees. I used them to play with my primary school classmates during recess and after school. Another year he had given me an oyibo doll, a baby with eyes so big and lashes so long that it had frightened me, and I had thrown it and ran. Father Christmas had then exchanged the doll for a children’s tea set.
“I can just see it all over again, you and Father Christmas in that small, artificial hut of his, covered with small chunks of artificial snow. And your papa, the way he always crouched down to smile at you as you sat on Father Christmas’s lap.” Mama sighed a lengthy sigh.
Nothing could have made me feel worse than to hear her sigh this way. There was something incandescent about it, a sigh that glowed with a sad kind of nostalgia.
“OK,” I said. “We can go.”
Mama smiled brightly and stood up to embrace me.
That December would become one of my most vivid Christmases of all time. Mama led us all, Chibundu included, to Kingsway. She had insisted that he accompany us, because this would, after all, become a new family tradition, which he and I and Chidinma would spend years reminiscing about, just like she and I had just done.
At Kingsway, I rode on the little train, carrying a wide-eyed Chidinma on my lap. Mama and Chibundu waved at us as the train rode, very slowly, past them. Chidinma giggled and smiled back.
We did not stay at Kingsway very long, but for those couple of hours that we did, Chibundu beamed with what appeared to be happiness, reminding me of his former self. We returned home with him carrying a full Ghana-must-go bag. But instead of the bags being filled with heavy produce like those used in the markets, ours was filled with toys for Chidinma and gifts for us – dresses and shoes for me, shirts and trousers and ties for Chibundu – Christmas presents that Mama insisted on buying for us in order to ensure that we passed a good holiday.
For those hours at Kingsway, things were indeed looking up.
Under The Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta (£12.99, Granta Books), out 4 February 2016, pre-order here
Copyright © 2015 by Chinelo Okparanta
All rights reserved
Illustration: Hattie Stewart