x0: read 5 chapters
Book Description: Somewhere between fanciful places and the world one knows is the universe of x0, where an ancient organization prefers to stay hidden while seven billion people lead normal lives and seven hundred or so do not. This latter group includes Lola, a Texan geophysicist who doesn’t believe in nonsense, and Somadina, a young Nigerian who thinks her abilities are perfectly normal. These women have at least two important things in common, and they are about to learn how well that will forge a powerful link. When Somadina’s sister becomes a captive, the young Igbo woman draws upon her telepathic powers to find an ally. Across an ocean, an unexpected lay-off and a near fatal accident combine to reintroduce into Lola’s mind what she considered a rather disturbing phenomenon. Lola disregards it. Medicates it. Analyzes it. Sips more wine on her porch. However, the changes taking place inside her will not be ignored. While the rest of the world lives out a perfectly normal 2009, Somadina accepts that her sister has become a strategic pawn in a larger and more dangerous game and that she must get the attention of this kindred, uncooperative lady. x0 reluctantly emerges from the shadows, because somebody really needs to intervene. Both women are far more powerful than they realize, and to make matters worse, a fringe fanatic may be on the verge of altering a nation’s future.
Chapter 1. A START: FEBRUARY 1986
Who was making those noises? Gurgling … loud … intermittent … they had woken her just as she was finally falling asleep. And yet, instead of finding the sounds annoying she found them intriguing. She repeated the latest one in her head. Not quite right. She tried again. A little higher in pitch, a little faster in pace. Yes, that was better. She started to try to match it again, but was interrupted with delight by a new sound. Oh good. Another one. A little softer and lower. And shorter in duration. She tried duplicating that one. Oh, that was not even close. Try again.
What the hell am I doing? She awkwardly pushed herself up into a semi-sitting position against the pillows and looked down at her giant belly. As her mind cleared, she realized that in fact she herself was making those noises, keeping a gentle syncopated rhythm with her husband’s soft snoring by producing a series of mildly unhappy gurgling sounds. They were coming from a stomach that was clearly and understandably tired of trying to digest food while being crammed into an increasingly smaller corner of her body. She gave her belly a gentle rub through the sheet. Just a few days more, she promised it. Then came the realization that she had asked the wrong question.
Who had been listening to the noises? She eyed her belly curiously as she took slow breaths, willing herself to calm back down. And after awhile, the rhythm of the revolving blades on the ceiling fan combined with her sheer fatigue to finally let her doze back into a restless sleep.
Lola Zeitman woke up early the next morning, eager to get the day done. Her teacher husband was already out the door, as was his habit, with a note left behind saying he would check in by phone later, maybe several times, and to call him if anything, anything at all, started to happen. She smiled. It would have been nice to linger over his stark handwriting, savoring that sense that it was all going to be all right which he somehow managed to convey. However, being late to work today was not an option.
Lola considered herself mature at twenty-six, good at meeting life’s responsibilities like showing up to work on time, and dressing better than usual when she was making a presentation. She knew the rules. But unfortunately, dressing better had become increasingly more difficult as the pregnancy had advanced. Today’s other presenters would be all male of course, most of them also hired over the last few years fresh out of school with their shiny new master’s degrees, brought here to fill the oil industry’s sudden burgeoning need for geoscientists.
Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior James Watt had made many a bad decision, in Lola’s opinion, including banning the Beach Boys from performing in the D.C. mall. But even though his social conservatism and apparent disregard for the environment made him one of Lola’s least favorite cabinet members ever, his decision three years ago to open up virtually all offshore federal waters to drilling had personally affected Lola in ways that politics seldom did.
Lola had originally seen herself researching earthquakes, or maybe in the best of all worlds becoming an expert on the geophysics of other planets. Then the oil companies had come to campus, dangling riches as they scrambled for new hires who could interpret the massive amounts of seismic data they were acquiring to compete for the “billion acres” James Watt bragged that he had just made available to them. She and Alex were newly married, very broke, and wanted children before too long. Just a few years could get the debts paid off. The other planets could wait.
And thanks to the Watts decree, in 1983 the number of offshore tracts leased by oil companies jumped from over a hundred to over a thousand, and in 1984 Lola and Alex joined the mass of young professionals who over the years quadrupled the size of the sleepy little Cajun town of Lafayette, Louisiana. Even the 1986 dip in oil prices had not significantly slowed the offshore machine, and Lola and her colleagues were about to recommend more leasing and more drilling. The guys would be clad in their inexpensive suits, selling their scientific interpretations and their ideas to a sea of older men in more expensive suits whose career advancement would have granted them a slight bit more freedom in tie color choices.
Only Lola would stand out in her giant wine-colored jumper, carefully laid out last night before the hours of tossing uncomfortably had begun. She had bought it to wear just for occasions like this because she loved the deep intense red of it, and she thought it maybe, kind of, brought out the reddish highlights in her dark brown hair, which frankly was just about the only part of her which still looked good right now. And she had paired it with a very conservative white blouse. But she sighed as she picked it up. No. It really was too intense. She stood out enough. Lola turned to the meager supply of “big enough” clothes left in her closet and with resignation she reached for the navy pinstripe jumper that she had almost worn the stripes off these past few months. It was still her best shot at blending in. One more time, she promised the well-worn material. If there is ever a baby number two I promise I will buy you reinforcements.
As she brushed on just a touch of blush, she caught her own eye in the makeup mirror. She had been avoiding thinking about last night’s odd disruption. “Weird night, huh?” she asked the eye in the mirror. The magnified iris seemed to widen slightly at the question.
“Yeah. Right. No time to deal with metaphysical mysteries this morning. We have an offshore oil prospect to sell to upper management today. We are going to be responsible for our first federal lease. We are going to show that we are just one fine geophysicist no matter how pregnant we are. I am. Why do I always talk to myself like there are more of me? … Get a grip Lola. Go act like a scientist.” She pulled on the now barely adequate maternity pantyhose with a brusque efficiency, stuck her swollen feet and ankles into her lowest navy heels and achieved something that was a cross between an uncomfortable waddle and a confident stride as she headed out the door.
The office was lively with the expectation of the arrival of upper management from Houston. Upper. Like they would drift in on clouds. Lola chuckled at the image. People often told her that she didn’t have much of a sense of humor, but that was because they were generally people who told jokes that Lola did not find funny. She had no trouble coming up with jokes of her own that made her laugh.
She smelled fresh pastries in the conference room mixed with printing fluids from the rolls of meticulously drafted maps. The walls were covered with poster-sized displays which had been carefully colored by two overworked techs who had been overly supervised by all the eager young geologists and geophysicists anxious for the brief chance to show just how smart and savvy they were. Nervous middle management types were double-checking the displays, the pastries, the ties of the presenters. And the pastries again. Lola thought that her boss Chuck was on his third donut. His bulging waistline attested to his habit of eating when nervous. It also attested to the fact that being geophysical manager for the Offshore Gulf of Mexico Western Exploration Division made him nervous a lot.
“Zeitman, you’re not gonna pop that baby out in the middle of our big presentation are you?”
Chuck called all the guys by their last names, all the secretaries by their first. He had been a little confused about what exactly to do with her when she had started there a year and a half ago fresh out of school, but after a few awkward months of almost never referring to her by name at all, he had settled on considering her an honorary guy—called by last name only. And even though after fewer than two years of marriage “Zeitman” still seemed to Lola to be her husband, not her, Chuck’s decision had still suited her well. She knew she was a fairly pretty young woman, and it set a genderless tone with her coworkers that she liked. In fact, after she became Zeitman to Chuck, almost everybody had been relieved simply to consider her a short and slightly misshapen guy who could interpret symbols produced by sound waves bouncing off rocks as well as the next guy. Maybe even better than some. And until she had the poor taste to shatter that illusion by becoming increasingly more pregnant, Chuck had actually gotten fairly comfortable with her. Now it seemed that he was back to the awkward jokes.
“Oh God. Not the blue pinstripe jumper again Zeitman. We’re gonna take up a collection and buy you some new clothes. Wait. You don’t need new clothes. Or maybe you do. You gonna be pregnant forever?” And so on.
She picked up her roll of maps, smiled nervously, and headed to her office to run through her presentation one last time in her mind.
Chuck watched Lola walk to her office with a small sense of amazement. He honestly admired the hell out of her, though he would never have considered saying so. His own wife had spent most of her ninth month of pregnancy on their couch, generally complaining, while he fetched ice cream and anything containing bacon bits which she had inexplicably started to love. But Lola, to Chuck’s pleasant surprise, had shown up to work every single day. Smiling. True, her thick, normally unruly dark hair had gotten noticeably wilder over the last few months and her wardrobe had diminished, but otherwise she had looked professional, worked hard, and asked for nothing special. Hell, she had even expected to take her rotation going offshore to oversee data acquisition from a wellbore, before the health and safety guys had informed him that there was no way he was to send a pregnant woman offshore. And then the legal folks had shown up in person in his office to make sure he had gotten the message.
Which was fine. He had been content to watch Lola’s quick little bird-like movements and ever-present goofy smile as she approached her due date. Chuck knew it probably wasn’t obvious from the way he acted, but he always liked meeting people who exceeded his own expectations. It was he who had originally gone to bat for this petite female geek with a certain fearlessness about her, agreeing to add her to his team by recommending not only that the company make her a job offer, but that they even offer her the same salary they offered to the guys. He’d been warned against the latter, told that she’d probably get pregnant, and he would lose productivity from her. No, Chuck thought, he did not regret his decision a bit. Hell, she even smiled at his dumb jokes, which was more than she did for a lot of the other guys.
Lola knew that she smiled too much. She smiled when she was happy, or amused, or even just content, and now she was smiling as she sat in her office reviewing her materials and munching on the apple slices she had brought for breakfast. People thought she was always happy, but they did not understand that she unfortunately also smiled when she was nervous, sometimes when she was sad—she didn’t know why—and she certainly smiled when she was embarrassed or felt awkward or just plain didn’t know what to say. Which, being on the shy side, happened a lot. She’d smiled often in college, especially in all the math and physics classes when the professors looked at her funny on the first day of class. She’d smiled her way through every doctor’s exam she’d had to have since she got pregnant, and she smiled her way through the most awkward moments at work. She’d smiled like crazy the three times they’d sent her out to offshore drilling platforms before she got pregnant, with the ironic effect that the guys offshore seemed to like her because, as one bluntly pointed out to her, she seemed so much friendlier than the other stuck-up women (okay, he had not actually used the term “women”) who occasionally showed up out there in one professional capacity or another. “We like you because you smile at us,” he’d explained. And with that, she had smiled again.
And the last couple of months … well, she’d smiled through spontaneously offered child-rearing advice, uninvited labor horror stories, and two male coworkers asking if they could please put their hands on her belly. She’d said yes, she really wasn’t sure why, and then stood and smiled uncomfortably while they marveled at how firm and taut a pregnant stomach actually was.
Now she was smiling, and eating her apple slices, which she did enjoy. Alex kept buying other alternatives for their grab-and-go breakfasts, but she kept choosing the simple apple, over and over. She looked over the agenda and noted that she was fourth on the list of presenters. As was customary, she would be called by the secretary after the first presentation ended and allowed to enter and sit quietly in the back of the room after the second presenter finished. Normally she would be expected to return to her office and work after her own presentation was over, but given that she was three days away from her due date and everyone was glad that she had made it as far as today, she had already received permission to go home and put her feet up when done. Maternity leave would officially start tomorrow.
When her turn came, Lola walked to the front of the room and smiled. The president of the company, an older attractive man with a great deal of charisma, sat in the center seat and, upon seeing a young female, smiled and raised one eyebrow out of habit in a more than friendly greeting back. He was flanked by the two most important senior executive vice presidents, both seated close enough to lean in and whisper sage advice as required. Other assorted VPs, directors and managers had established themselves in approximate order of importance on either side of the trio, with the occasional overly aggressive or politically naive manager seated above or below his station. Lola’s boss and his two counterparts, the reservoir engineering and geology managers, sat at one extreme end. Chuck looked like he needed another donut. Chuck’s boss cleared his throat.
“Our fourth prospect today will be presented by, uh, Lola. Zeitman. Lola got her master’s degree just eighteen months ago from UT and started with us straight out of school and she has done a great job mapping in the West Cameron area. That is despite a little, uh, inconvenient medical situation which we hear can be remedied.”
There was assorted laughter.
“Please gentlemen, do not say anything to upset her. The last thing any of us wants to do is to deliver a baby here in this room today!”
Slightly louder and more boisterous laughter followed.
“No, no, no,” the president surprised his entourage by throwing up his beautifully manicured hands in mock agitation. He was in a good mood today.
“Say anything you want, gentlemen. Talking is not the activity that sets off labor with a very pregnant woman,” he chuckled knowingly. “Trust me, I know what really sets labor off”.
The chuckle spread to others and took on an even more knowing tone, first from those who really knew what he meant and somewhat more slowly but no less knowingly from those who didn’t. Lola, knowing damn well what activity he was referring to, was aware that any response from her at all would be unwelcome. So she waited quietly for the noise to die down before she began to speak. She pursed her lips to forcibly reduce her nervous smile.
“I am here today to recommend that this company make a substantial bid on a block in southern West Cameron,” she began quietly. “The map behind me shows a faulted four-way structural trap with sizable potential.”
Her delivery was professional, courteous, calm. She knew that her ability to read a room and deliver recommendations accordingly was one of her more unique assets, and this was no time not to rely on it. Most anyone trained in her profession could analyze data and make a decent map. Most could study those maps and assess the best places for oil to likely be trapped. But few scientists seem to possess that ability to take the numerous points of a recommendation and sense how to best present all that data. Few could read a room so well, knowing instinctively when and what to push and when to step back, how hard to sell various aspects, or not, and how jovial or serious or humble or confident to be.
When Lola finished, she knew she had done her job well. The block would receive a good-sized bid from her company and the company might well win the lease from the Mineral Management Service. Then they might drill a well. They might find oil. And if they did, more cars and planes would run and more homes would be lit and heated. In 1986, to Lola and those trained in her profession, the discovery of oil in the Gulf of Mexico seemed like only a fine and beneficial thing.
She left the presentation feeling proud of her own part in it, although slightly bothered by its boisterous preamble. She could not quite put her finger on why. She knew well enough that no offense had been meant and she would hardly have expected Chuck, or his boss or his boss’s boss, to ever interfere with whatever good cheer they were fortunate enough to have upper management exhibit while visiting them. But somehow, it seemed smarmy. Like she was the butt of a mildly dirty joke that she had been forced to listen to without being permitted to respond. Wait, there was no “like”. Actually, she thought, that is exactly what had happened.
When she got back to her office, she saw that the secretaries had carefully taped three pink phone message forms to her door. The first one said, “Alex called to wish you luck.” It was the careful cursive handwriting of the secretary that liked Lola and went out of her way to be helpful to her. It had a little smiley face added for effect. A different cursive script advised that “Your sister called to make sure everything was okay.” Oh dear. Lola’s younger sister Summer had been very emotionally involved in this upcoming first arrival in the family and Lola had not called her in days. Worse, this personal piece of information was from the secretary who had made it fairly clear that she was not pleased at having a professional woman in the group, and, near as Lola could tell, even less pleased that said professional woman had the audacity to defy stereotypes by finding a perfectly fine man to marry her. The second cursive script informed her curtly on note three that “Alex called. Again.”
The geoscientists who had already made their presentations were gathering in the break room, laughing, kidding each other, giddy with the relief of being done and no longer needing to be nervous that they would inadvertently make that one stupid remark or observation which everyone laughingly referred to as the CLM. Career limiting move. You want to promote whom? Isn’t he the idiot who once said …?”
In a corporate culture in which almost everyone was smart and good at what they did, it was the little memories of “farting in church” as one coworker called it, that would stall a rise upward. Apparently, no one had “farted”. The relief was so thick Lola felt as if she could smell and taste it.
“Hey. Lola,” a friendly young geophysicist greeted her as she joined them, welcoming her into the circle of laughter. “What do you call it when a school bus in New Orleans filled with little black kids drives off a bridge into Lake Ponchartrain?”
Lola was confused by the question. What? Was this a tragedy off the news? Surely not a joke. “I don’t know. What do you call it?”
“It’s a start,” the young man chortled. At Lola’s blank face, he tried harder. “Get it? Lola, it’s a start.”
Lola was so surprised she honestly didn’t know what to say. The first thing that came out of her mouth was a response she had given no thought to at all. “So what do you call it if a bus full of white kids goes off a bridge into Lake Ponchartrain?”
The whole break room looked at Lola. Unspoken office rules were that if someone made a joke, you laughed. If it was a bad joke or it offended you, you only laughed politely and then you were free to complain to them or, more likely, to others about it later in private. Folks worked long hours together and public confrontations were as unacceptable as, well, public farting. Lola could sense that she was inching across a line. She tried to soften it without backing off.
“So what do you think a group of black people call it if a bus full of white kids goes off a bridge into Lake Ponchartrain?” she rephrased her question carefully.
And he looked back at her as if she had just grown three turquoise heads. “I guess they’d call it a start too,” he said lamely.
And because neither one of them knew what else to say after that, pretty much everyone in the room started saying something about anything else. Once no one was looking directly at her, Lola quietly went back to her office. She felt annoyed with herself for not having confronted the man more directly. What was wrong with her? She in no way supported this kind of racism toward any group, and she’d been frankly shocked to hear it from one of her educated coworkers. On the other hand, she knew that even with her meekly offended response, she’d pay the price for “not having a sense of humor” by now being excluded from the office banter even more than she had been. Great.
She sat at her desk for a minute. You know, she really did not feel like saying goodbye to anyone now that she thought about it. Time to go home, even if the only home they’d been able to find in the middle of this housing boom was a rental without central air or heat, sitting above ground on cinderblock stilts allowing who-knew-what to live underneath. She picked up her purse, and left without saying a word.
Alex was waiting for her at the small house they were renting, stretched out on the well-worn hand-me-down couch, his soft blue eyes checking her carefully for damage of any type, his long arms outstretched to hug her. He was a tall man, and stocky at twenty-eight years old. He was always trying to lose weight, to drop down to the level of those wonderful college athlete days he had had before she had known him, but the truth was that she liked him the way he was now. He felt solid, like no matter how hard the winds of her own emotions blew she could hang on tight to him and it would all be okay. She let herself be engulfed by his arms, enjoying his freckled skin, the soft sandy hair on his arms that matched the unkempt dirty blond hair on his head.
“So how is my favorite geophysicist doing?” His hug pushed away much of the strange feelings swimming inside. She let herself be held for a minute. Then she had a very odd idea, one she could not begin to justify to herself, much less to him.
“I am really ready to have this baby,” she began.
“Hey, me too,” he answered. “My back has been killing me since you got pregnant, remember?”
“Do you recall learning about oxytocin and how it sets off labor?” she persisted. “You know, a woman releases it when she breastfeeds and when, well, you know …”
“Yes, I was listening during Lamaze classes,” he laughed. “Okay, at least during any part that actually used the word ‘orgasm.’”
“So,” she began. And let her hand continue the thought.
“Hey, wait a minute Lola. Easy girl. Not that I want to ever discourage this sort of behavior, but I am not sure this is a terribly good idea right now. I am not even sure it is a terribly possible idea. It has been at least three weeks since we have … and geez dear, no offense, but you have gotten huge in the—”
Alex stopped. It did not take a genius to see that this was not going in the loving, concerned direction he had intended. She was tired. Uncomfortable. Probably overwrought from the presentation, certainly on a hormonal trapeze, and he was willing to bet the house that she was about to cry. So he did the only sensible thing he could think of. Which of course led to the next thing and the next and of course it was possible … What was he thinking? It was always possible. And four hours later after a pleasant afterglow nap during which Lola seemed particularly pleased with herself, they left for the hospital just as the contractions were approaching ten minutes apart with consistency.
And the hospital sent them back home. With instructions to go walking. Thus it would be twenty more long hours before they were actually in the birthing room, by then both of them sleep-deprived, scared, and crabby. It would have been nice if the birth had been the joyous and easy experience they had imagined, but the fact was that this was a first pregnancy and the baby, although in the correct position, was big, with a large head. The end of labor was particularly slow and difficult, and another, less understanding doctor would have given up and done a C-section. As it was, Lola ended up on oxygen with an IV, neither of which she wanted, and at the very end she gave in further and accepted an analgesic as well. Alex curtly informed the nurse that he personally was ready for any drugs WHATSOEVER which they were willing to give him.
And so it was that Zane Alphonse Zeitman was born at 6:48 p.m. CST on February 20, 1986, to tired but happy parents. He was a pretty baby, with his father’s long lashes, and his mother and father eyed him with the wonder that most first time parents do their child. He exhibited an easy-going cooperative nature from the very start. As Lola tentatively held his face close to her breast for the first time, she could not help thinking, “Ye gads. What the hell do I think I am doing? I have no idea.” Then Zane latched on with an instinct possessed by virtually every newborn mammal on earth, and Lola muttered to herself, “okay … that’s it. We are going to show them that we are just one fine mother child team here no matter how good a scientist we are. I am. Good grief. Get a grip Lola. Relax and act like a mama.” And she did.
Because giving birth is followed by the mind-numbing exhaustion that comes with raising a newborn, it is understandable that for the next several weeks Lola gave no thought to the odd little experience with the noises in her belly. In fact, by the time she finally remembered it, she wasn’t even sure it had really happened.
Raising a child is hard work too, and it does get harder when there are more children, no matter what anyone says. And over time, there were more. Holding a job where an boss tries to milk all the energy he can from one does not exactly create a situation conducive to much reflective thought. Ask almost anyone with a job about that situation. And let’s face it, being a decent and caring spouse takes time and energy, particularly when time and energy are in short supply. Hell, sometimes just getting out of bed in the morning and managing a bit of occasional compassion along with basic hygiene and on-time bill paying can pretty much fill up one’s time and one’s head. So, clearly Lola did not spend time thinking or wondering about hearing anyone else’s thoughts in her brain. She was busy. In fact, for the next two decades she was usually very, very busy and often very tired as well. And, there was never a real reason for it to come up. Not, that is, until twenty-three years later, when the memory would come storming back and demand to be recognized.
Chapter 2. A BEGINNING: FEBRUARY 1993
The noises were the worst part for five-year-old Somadina only because she knew who was making them. As the women came and went from her mother’s tiny house amid her very own mama’s cries and moans, Somadina could sense their worry in the way she could sense so many things that the grown-ups thought she could not, and she knew in her vague child’s way that something was terribly wrong.
“This time next month you will have a little brother,” her father Ikenna had proudly told her a few weeks ago.
“Yes papa.” She knew that her father loved her dearly, as she loved him, but she also knew that for some reason this second child, this son, meant the world to him.
“Remember what your name means, Somadina.”
“I know papa. May I never be alone. And starting soon I will not be. I will have a little brother to help mama take care of always.”
He smiled at her sharp mind. This little girl was bright and would be a source of great pride to him. And it was only an extra blessing that she was pretty already. With her mother’s very large eyes and direct clear gaze, she sometimes seemed like a little carbon copy of his dear Amaka. With all of her gifts, Somadina would do well in life, possibly a run a little business or be a leader in the women’s community, and she would likely bring a high bride price as well. For all the great hardship in his childhood and youth, Ikenna recognized that today he was, beyond a doubt, a very lucky man.
But that had been fourteen days ago and Ikenna knew that during just this short amount of time his luck had changed. True, the depth of his love for Amaka was unusual. Wives with his people were often taken as more of a matter of practical arrangement, and Ikenna had defied convention by passing on taking a second wife even though there was adequate money to support one, and it was of course an expected thing to do when Amaka produced a girl child for him as his first born and then failed to get pregnant again for such a long while. But no, he had ignored his own father’s vehement wishes and instead further professed his love for only Amaka, cherishing and embracing their fine daughter, and assuring all that a fine son would be produced as well in due time.
And then the second pregnancy had begun and gone so nicely. Amaka had glowed with a health and joy which had fortified his belief that not only was a son on the way, as it should be to reward him for his love and loyalty, but that it was also a son who would be strong and smart and capable, to make up for the sad loss of Ikenna’s only two brothers those many years ago. And then Ikenna’s father, the great and proud man that he was, would no longer have to watch his lineage wither on the vine. He would no longer be frustrated with his only surviving son, this immature younger child who had been too slow to grow and marry for the aging old man’s impatient nature and who had then compounded the situation by falling so deeply in love with one woman that he would not even try to make sons with others.
But now his son was having a problem being born. In his haste to come into the world and greet his father and grandfather, the midwife had said, the son had entered the birth canal wrong and now beautiful Amaka had been in labor much too long. Ikenna spit in disgust. It was hard for him to ignore completely the old Igbo discomfort with any unusual problems involved in giving birth. He told himself that it was not Amaka’s fault. The midwife in this village was not as good as in many others, it was plain to see. It was a skill to bring life into this world, and she had little modern training. He should have taken Amaka back to her own hometown, where her village had lifted itself up by building an up-to-date maternity center and where the women who handled such things were Amaka’s own relations and were well known for their abilities. Amaka had asked this of him, just fourteen days ago. But no, he had to listen to his own stupid pride, his own stupid desire to have his son born here on his father’s compound, to see his father’s face himself when the old man was given the news. He had put his wife and unborn son at risk for a personal moment of satisfaction. He no longer deserved his good fortune. Ikenna sat on the ground in despair.
Meanwhile, the women attending to Amaka were beside themselves. They also knew that the midwife was relatively untrained and inexperienced, having taken the business over from her own recently and prematurely deceased mother. She had struggled with every difficult birth she had attended to since she had been on her own, and this baby was butt first, once considered an abomination by the older and more superstitious. The problem was worsened by the fact that this baby’s knees were bent, with one foot stuck alongside the butt. Amaka was fully dilated and had been pushing now for hours without success. Gentle attempts to move the baby or even the baby’s one stuck foot by hand had yielded nothing but more intense screams, and the midwife knew that eventually neither mother nor child would survive. What to do? What to do?
One of her youngest assistants came back with more hot water. “You know the Hausa woman nobody likes?” she whispered. The midwife nodded. Everyone knew the Hausa woman, who kept to her home and almost never came out. “She actually left her house to call to me because she feels sorry for Amaka. She has heard the screaming. She guessed what is happening. Her sister is a midwife! With the Hausa. And she says that they have remedy for a case like this and she wants to talk to you.”
“Will she come here?”
“I do not think so. But go to her quick and I will watch Amaka.” And so the midwife ran.
Ikenna looked up from his grief. The stupid inexperienced midwife was standing in front of him and she looked happy. Ikenna jumped up. “My son?!”
“Not yet,” she said. “But I may have a solution. It is something the Hausa do, called a gishiri cut. If we do it the boy should be born just fine. But there is some risk to Amaka, and to her ability to bear more children later.”
Ikenna said nothing. “We will certainly lose them both if we do not try this,” she added. “With your permission?” Ikenna sighed. Really, what choice did he have?
Any well-trained midwife the world over would understand that cutting the vaginal wall cannot solve a problem caused by a baby stuck inside pelvic bones. But this midwife was not particularly well-taught, inexperienced, and was desperately open to suggestion. To make matters worse, in her fear and ignorance, she made the cuts large and deep. As a result, Amaka’s shock and trauma stopped the contractions long enough for the desperate midwife to force the baby’s body upward to dislodge the foot, and for a rapid breech birth to then occur. In that sense the midwife was very lucky. The baby lived. But the exhausted and nearly unconscious Amaka bled out before the midwife was even awareof how serious the situation was.
Ikenna watched the midwife come toward him with fear in her eyes. She held a bundled crying child. This was most unusual. “Amaka?” he asked.
She only stared at him, dazed, and Ikenna knew. He stood motionless for a few seconds. Though he was a modern man who made every effort to put superstitions aside, it was hard for him to suppress the sense of dishonor and shame which the Igbo had long associated with death in childbirth. He swallowed with a very dry mouth and focused on his affection for Amaka. That is what mattered. How would she want him to greet his son?
Softly he turned to the baby and said the best he could come up with. “You must be a very special son,” he whispered, “to have cost me so much.” Then he saw the look in the midwife’s eyes and he knew the rest of the story.
As deep disappointment sank in, the pity in the woman’s eyes began to offend him in a way he could not explain. His anger towards her started as only small ripples of irritation, but before he could stop them the little undulations had grown into into larger and larger waves of rage. He yelled to the midwife.
“Get. Out. Of. Here.” The young woman stood horrified. “Do you understand me?”
The midwife opened her mouth to speak but Ikenna cut her short. “No, you do not speak to me. Not now. Not at any time in the future. Do not ever even look at me. Do not even breathe in my presence.”
The woman froze. Ikenna knew that his fury was reaching unreasonable proportions but he was unable to stop it. If he were not careful he knew that he would hurt the midwife and he also knew that that would accomplish nothing. He took a few ragged breaths and turned away so he could think. His breathing became more normal. His mouth once again had saliva. Indeed, the midwife was only stupid. She couldn’t be blamed for that. He must try to be rationale. His first problem was that he now had this tiny baby girl who had taken from him what he had loved most. He could ask that this child go live with her mother’s kin, which was tempting and would be acceptable under the circumstances. But, wait. There was little Somadina, pulling on his shirt.
“Papa?” Her wide eyes were full of questions. And Ikenna thought to himself that she was the only piece of joy he had left in life. If the baby girl went, then Somadina too might go to live with her maternal aunts in another town, and then he would see her only on occasion. But if he insisted on keeping both girls close, Somadina would still bring him comfort. Meanwhile he’d just have to find someone to watch the infant and to see to it that she brought him a minimum of trouble.
That meant, of course, that now he would need a new wife. Make that two. And quickly. Any fertile women would do. He knew his father well enough to know that neither condolences nor congratulations would be forthcoming from the old man for today’s events, and if he set something matrimonial in motion quickly, he could share that news with his father the next time they spoke. It would make the encounter so much easier.
Somadina gently let go of her father’s sleeve and waited. She knew from everything she picked up that her mother was gone, even if she had no idea of where. Though Somadina was both saddened and scared by that knowledge, at the moment she was focused on her father, who was right there but seemed in a very real sense to be gone as well. She could not think of words to describe his lack of presence, even to herself. But she knew that in her mind she usually saw a door when she approached her papa and that the door was usually open wide. And when that happened, she knew that he would be happy to see her and play with her. Every once in awhile when she approached him she would instead see that the door was only open a crack, and then she would know that he was busy or bothered, and she should leave him alone. She had heard him say often how she was such a wonderful child because she never asked for his attention when he had other matters to attend to. That comment baffled her. She wasn’t doing anything unusual, she just checked his door before she spoke to him. But now she saw his door, and it was shut tight like she had never seen it before, with locks and bolts and huge scary vines with giant thorns growing over it at a frightening speed. Baffled, she backed away carefully.
In spite of the most unfortunate circumstances of Amaka’s death, Amaka’s family was not happy to leave the girls in the father’s village. But others intervened to explain that given how very much the father loved Somadina, her presence might help him heal in his grief. It was a reasonable hope, and so Amaka’s family acquiesced. However, the family had concerns. To begin with, Ikenna showed no interest in selecting a name for the new daughter and there was a good bit of consternation in both families as the naming ceremony approached. Finally, one of his sisters suggested Nwanyibuife. Ikenna snorted a mirthless laugh, and agreed. For although the name translates literally as “a female is worth something too”, it was often used in an ironic sense by a disappointed father.
Causing even more consternation was Ikenna’s total lack of involvement in the well-being of the child. He showed no desire to play with or display any affection to the little girl. His youngest sister was making milk for both her own infant and her one-year-old, and she was willing to suckle Nwanyi (Nuh WAN yee) while she was at it. Although Nwanyi received quick feedings from her tired and busy aunt, and was given cursory care by Ikenna’s two new wives, the fact was that she received remarkably little genuine affection during her first months of life.
Except for her time with Somadina. For when Somadina listened to her little sister’s cries, she cried herself. She understood that little Nwanyi was supposed to be a brother and was now in trouble because she had not been one. And she understood that the coming of the baby had made her mother very sick and that was why her mother was gone. But Nwanyi was cute in a scrawny way and so helpless and sometimes so very unhappy. Somadina, who felt the baby’s hunger and loneliness every day in ways she could not explain, just wanted to hold and comfort her little sister and make it all better for her. So Somadina did what she could.
As for her father, she mostly avoided him after Nwanyi’s birth. Ikenna, when he was not engulfed in his grief, was generally preoccupied with his new wives, neither of whom seemed to have all that much use for Somadina. And then after the almost simultaneous arrival of not one but two baby half-brothers a little over a year after Nwanyi was born, Somadina barely saw her father at all, losing touch with the one living person with whom she once had the closest of emotional ties.
So Somadina changed too. She began to withdraw, and the ability to sense what others were thinking that she had simply taken for granted, began to fade. Others noticed that she seemed to have lost much of her almost eerie perceptiveness. By her seventh birthday, she was an unusually independent little girl, willingly doing the chores assigned to her and excelling in the local grade school to which Ikenna had decided to send her for at least a few years, but otherwise most content to just be alone.
One day when seven-year-old Somadina was watching Nwanyi while she was napping, her sister began whimpering in her sleep. She brushed her cheek gently to wake her from the bad dream, but Nwanyi just curled up tighter and whimpered more. So Somadina made a solemn promise to her two-year-old sister that when she, Somadina, was bigger and had more power, she would look out for Nwanyi and would keep her safe. In fact, Somadina swore to become as powerful and influential as a woman could become, just so she could do a good job of keeping her promise. And after the “promise ceremony,” as she thought of it in her own head, Somadina felt much better, even if the sleeping Nwanyi had not understood just how serious Somadina had been.
Part I. Face Painting for World Peace Chapter 3. JANUARY 2009
Who wouldn’t be nervous? Lola eyed herself carefully in the full-length mirror, hoping her best floral print skirt and matching jacket weren’t too colorful. She felt like a child headed off to her first day of school. It had been more than twenty-four years since she had started a new job, and she still wasn’t sure how the time had flown by. Today’s uncertainty was both disconcerting and a little exhilarating. “So how do I look?” she asked 13-year-old Teddie, her resident fashion expert and her only child still living at home.
“Mmmmm … not bad mom. It is a little ‘90s. And try to calm the hair down if you can. Here. Use my straightener. It’s already hot.”
“You know I really cannot believe that these things are safe for one’s hair,” Lola said as she reluctantly pulled Teddie’s gizmo around her thick auburn brown hair. She sighed. It was a fact that most of her better clothes were from the ‘90s, back when standard office fashion had still been more formal. They had been bought as Lola’s company had consolidated in Houston, and as she had flirted briefly with being in middle management before returning, with some relief, to the role of rank-and-file worker. She smiled ruefully, realizing that decision was pretty much what had doomed her to an eventual lay off in a world where you either rose into management, segued into a related specialty, or worked your way into becoming “overpaid” compared to the youngsters with whom you could be replaced. With whom, in fact, she had been replaced.
So, the usually brightly dressed woman with congenitally unkempt hair, a too frequent smile, and a knack for finding oil, had found herself back in the job market, “severed” from her allegedly deeply appreciative former employer of almost two and a half decades, and about to start work as the sole geophysicist for a small start-up company in Houston whose best opportunity to date was acquiring shallow drilling rights on a land deal in the Niger Delta. Offshore Nigeria.
Well, Lola thought, oil was oil. And though the stuff had turned out to be incredibly nastier for planet earth than she’d known it was when she started to look for it way back when, the fact remained that the world still needed it for now, and she was still good at finding it. And people were still willing to pay her well for doing so. Which was particularly good given the mortgage on their beautiful home and all the expenses they had somehow managed to amass over the last twenty-four years.
“So how is my favorite geophysicist?” At the end of day one, Alex met her with a hug as she entered the kitchen. The smells of sautéed onions and garlic added to their friendly hello. As a teacher, he had always gotten home before her, and it was the family’s good fortune that he liked to cook. He hadn’t said much about what she’d gone through the last few months—the surprise layoff last fall, her reluctant job search at forty-nine years old, the contacts at the old company too nervous to return her calls lest she be contagious, and finally, the interviews, the waiting, the getting hired. But she knew that he knew, and both his culinary efforts and his giant engulfing hug tonight said it all.
“Well, I’m in a little room with no windows for the first time in twenty years,” she laughed, “and I’m on lousy loaner computer ‘til mine comes in, and these guys have a drilling obligation and need me to work up a location on this lease by the end of March.”
“Sounds like fun.”
“The more interesting news is that this company actually employs two Nigerian geologists. Right here in Houston. They have more Nigerians in the office here too, and they have a little office in Lagos because they believe in being involved in the country where they do business. I think that they are trying to be the good guys compared to big multinationals that just come in and take what they can.”
“It’s got to be nice to be working for the good guys? Relatively speaking, anyway?”
“Yeah,” she mused. “It is. And the folks I met today were great. At least with this particular group it seems like office politics isn’t their main activity.”
“No one tried to get you to put forty million dollars of theirs in our bank account, did they?”
Lola rolled her eyes. “You know, I bet the average Nigerian is pretty damn embarrassed by that. Don’t you dare make that joke near my office.”
And Alex thought to himself, That’s interesting. She likes these folks already.
Ikenna was genuinely undecided, and it was an uncomfortable feeling which he did not enjoy. For the past fifteen years his life had been predictable and pleasant, more so than he had thought possible. There were still times, of course, when he thought of his one great young love Amaka with sadness, but his two new wives had been fertile and friendly and had brought him no cause for grief. He could not say he shared that much of his heart or mind with either, but socially and physically each of them met all his needs, and the fact that they had become friends with each other was certainly an added bonus. And the nine children they produced between them were, well, more than he deserved. He thanked God every day for the mercy of a second chance.
And now that he was older and more sensible, he regretted his emotional withdrawal in that dark time after Amaka’s death. Heaven knows he had tried hard over the years since to regain the understanding and affection of his oldest daughter Somadina. But Somadina seemed to still blame him for his lack of affection for Nwany and his neglect of both girls as he wallowed in his own grief. She had never warmed to his new wives or to her half-siblings, or for that matter to much of anyone in the years after her mother died. In fact, she had become something of a rarity for an Igbo girl—a person who preferred solitude.
Which was why the acceptance of a marriage offer for her had been such an easy decision. True, Somadina had expressed no desire to be married, and so Ikenna had waited patiently until she was well past eighteen. When Azuka (Ah ZOO kah) and his parents had asked for her hand, Ikenna knew that although the family lived in the same village, they had moved there only a generation ago and luckily bore no relationship to Somadina, making the union acceptable. Better yet, Ikenna knew Azuka to be a reasonable young man, of a good traditional family, with skills he was learning from his own father on how to repair small devices and machinery, and Ikenna knew that those skills would one day help provide for Somadina and her children in a changing world.
It was true that the boy was only Somadina’s age and rather young for marriage, but he seemed genuinely to like Somadina, and she seemed to at least not object to him, and she clearly had no particular attraction to another that would interfere. At eighteen it had been time, and so Ikenna had readily agreed, believing that whatever affection he had not been able to give Somadina himself while she was growing up could now somehow be made up for by providing her with a good husband. And once her first child, a grandson, had arrived to the joy of all, he had felt that he had at last done right by her and some of his guilt was eased. But not all.
Which is why this second decision was so difficult. He had barely managed over the years to demonstrate a forced warmth to his second daughter Nwanyi, but he had genuinely tried, after the combination of time, his new wives, and the arrival of more children had helped heal the throbbing gash in his heart. And God himself must know that Nwanyi had not been easy to love. She had not had the good fortune to inherit her mother’s warm nature nor her beauty, but had grown instead into a short, scrawny girl who tended to be silent and secretive. She did not have Somadina’s intelligence or confidence, but tended to hang back nervously, all too obviously craving encouragement and approval. Ikenna had tried to find something he liked about the child, but it had been hard.
Nonetheless, the guilt for his poor behavior persisted, as did the feeling that he would never be whole in Somadina’s wide and penetrating eyes until Nwanyi somehow found some happiness. So the plan seemed simple enough. Secure an equally reasonable young man from an equally respected family to marry Nwanyi. It was of course understood and accepted by Ikenna that this would require a significant reduction in the normal bride-price, a sacrifice that, under the circumstances, he was more than willing to make because once Nwanyi was a happy wife and mother herself, then certainly all would be forgiven and Ikenna’s self-respect could be fully restored.
Then several weeks ago had come the unexpected but very generous offer from the Yoruba man named Djimon (JEE mahn). He was a very serious man, a bit thinner and shorter than most, but well muscled, and his stature paired nicely with Nwanyi’s own. His age, perhaps mid-thirties, had its benefits and disadvantages. He was obviously well off, which was a plus, and well educated with an advanced degree in some fancy field Ikenna knew little about. However, there was prestige in the fact that he taught university classes in the subject.
Nwanyi would be a second wife, which could be good or bad. It certainly would put less pressure on Nwanyi to perform household chores and to reproduce often, which might be better for Nwanyi’s reticent nature. She would of course move to Lagos, to her husband’s home in Western Nigeria, which would not sit well with Somadina, but would probably be a relief to everyone else. Including, he had to admit, to himself.
Nwanyi, safely married, well cared for, and out of sight. And a huge bride price, as Djimon had insisted, given entirely to the father. Why was he hesitating? For starters, the entire process was far too rushed for Igbo tradition. Furthermore, Ikenna was not a stupid man. He knew when a situation might be too good to be true. Things about this unusual arrangement bothered him. What was the hurry? Why not take the time for a proper courtship? Furthermore, these days some of the bride price often went directly to the bride, to give her a little independence, perhaps a means for education. Ikenna was well aware that he had done poorly by not sending Nwanyi to any formal schooling, leaving it to Somadina to educate her younger sister. She could remedy this as an adult, but Djimon had insisted that in his household such would not be necessary.
Perhaps that was a cultural difference. Ikenna thought to himself that he knew too little of this household. A typical Igbo father and mother would investigate the background of a suitor thoroughly if it was not already known, and would turn down an offer in which the family exhibited qualities that caused them concern. But Ikenna had no real means with which to investigate this older stranger from a distance. And he had to admit that the man’s choice of Nwanyi was strange. Ikenna decided, for the time being at least, on not deciding. Rather, he would arrange a second meeting with Djimon to discuss his concerns. It was only right, for both Nwanyi and to honor Amaka’s memory.
The first couple of weeks in the new office left Lola with the realization that she actually knew almost nothing about Nigeria. She could only name one town (Lagos, which it turned out wasn’t even the capital anymore). She wasn’t sure who had colonized it (though she was willing to bet on England) or when it had become an independent state. In fact she had to face the sad fact that she knew almost nothing about Africa in general, and now that she thought about it her knowledge of anything outside of North American and Western Europe was pretty damn limited. Time for a little work on the internet.
In 1994 Lola’s father had been diagnosed with cancer. He was fifty-nine years young at the time, and she, her mother, and her sister had been determined to help him fight the disease with all the love, medicine, and technology they could collectively muster. Lola—as the scientist—had investigated the newfangled thing known as the world wide web. It was a scarier place then, with few safe pathways, harder to avoid coarse pornography and sites boasting offensive crass jokes. But she learned to hold her nose while she navigated her way to medical websites, subscribed to bulletin boards on cancer research, set herself up to receive alerts on clinical trials. And she got answers the real live doctors would not give. How does cancer kill? How does chemo work? What really are the odds of remission for a particular type of cancer at a particular stage? The amount of available information was massive, the presentation was sterile and, in her father’s case, the news was bleak. But it was knowledge, there for the taking—and in the end it was valuable to really know. Lola had embraced the full possibilities of the internet before many of her cohorts had learned to use email. By 2009 she considered the internet almost an appendage. She typed “Nigeria history” into her favorite search engine at lunch and studied the various ornate and enticing doorways into her new world. Pick a door, Lola.
Well, for starters, door number one informed her that there was no such place as Nigeria. Not until recently anyway. There were groups, tribes, clans—some loosely affiliated and others sincere enemies—all trying to live their lives as best they could, to care for their own, eek out what small comforts and joys they were able to. Then along came these strange pale-skinned people willing to provide lavish gifts in exchange for enemies captured and provided to them. Less enemies around? And lavish gifts as well? What was not to like about that arrangement?
And so what started out as an apparently sensible response to an offer grew into a situation where, for about sixteen generations entire kingdoms became rich by selling to the white people far more Africans than they could ever have procured for themselves. Over those several hundred years, somewhere between thirty and three hundred million, that’s right – three hundred million, of Africa’s hopeful and strong young people were shipped off of the continent never to return.
And then, one day out of the blue, some of the strangers arrived and declared, “Selling people is morally wrong. It is bad to sell people of any kind. You must not do it any more.” This would have been confusing enough after all of this time but some of the other strangers, the ones from a place called the New World, said, “Do not listen to them. They are British. We have a great large land that needs more and more of you and we will pay an even better price if you bring us more enemies.” And so they did, paying much better prices for a few generations.
Then the British army arrived, angry and with many soldiers, and took control of all the lands saying, if you cannot stop this horrible immoral slave trade then we will do it for you. And once the British came, they never left. Eventually they took all the tribes that hated each other and those that liked each other and those that did not know and could not speak to each other and said, “You are now all one country, and we are in charge of you.” And then there was a Nigeria.
Whoa. Lola looked cautiously across the hall at her coworkers. They were two young Nigerian men, both experienced geologists, both with easy smiles and helpful natures. If they were pissed about how their country got formed, they were hiding it well. “Lola. Staff meeting at one.” This message delivered in a walk-by from Bob, the older American engineer who was loosely in charge of the technical staff. Right. She closed the internet quickly and thought, Have I got a lot to learn.
Djimon seemed surprised at the request, but he agreed to come back to the Ebonyi region where Ikenna lived and meet Ikenna at one of his wives’ houses for tea and more conversation. He drove in on a Saturday morning just after the clearing of the land had begun for the year’s yam crops. After exchanging pleasantries for a full cup and a half, Ikenna took a small sip and a small breath and did his best to tactfully share with Djimon, father to father, his concerns.
The Yoruba man could not have been more understanding. Yes, of course, he already had three children with his first wife and one was a daughter. What had he been thinking, expecting a good father like Ikenna to agree to a marriage so quickly and with such little information. He should clearly have expected more questioning.
Djimon went on to explain to Ikenna that his own mother had come from far away, a Fulani woman from the far north of Nigeria. She had moved to the southwest to marry a Yoruba man, and as Djimon believed himself to be particularly gifted in every arena, he credited his own ample genetic advantages to the mixing of the blood from two such separate regions.
His own first wife had been a local girl selected by his parents, of course, and he had of course respected them and accepted the wife. But now that he was older and had means of his own, he wished to duplicate the wisdom and good fortune of his own father and secure a bride from yet another corner of this fine nation, in hopes of producing sons, and yes even daughters, as physically and mentally gifted as he himself. The specific charms of the girl in question mattered not, as long as she came from a line of fertile, strong, smart people, which Djimon could clearly tell was the case just by meeting Ikenna and seeing all of his fine young children playing in front of the house.
Ikenna nodded at that. Yes, indeed there was a fine strong group of youngsters in his yard. The wife who had just brought in more tea smiled in flattered agreement as well.
“So she is perfect,” Djimon explained. “She is young and healthy, not spoken for, and most importantly she clearly brings excellent lineage.” He paused, hoping for Ikenna’s concurrence. When Ikenna stayed silent, he continued.
“As I explained to you earlier, unlike in your culture, the idea of bringing her into my home to live for awhile as a guest in order for us both to evaluate the situation just isn’t accepted, sensible though your custom is.” He paused again.
“I’ve become rather taken with the idea of marrying her, and if it would help to reassure you of that then I am willing to increase the bride price. Say by twenty percent? And as we discussed, to pay the amount to you in full before the marriage.” Still silence. Unbelievable. An Igbo man who was hard to buy. Djimon hesitated, trying to figure out what possible remaining objection Ikenna could have. There were many seconds of silence.
“Will you be good to her?” the father finally asked.
“Oh. Why yes. Of course. Very good to her. I promise.” And with that, Ikenna was satisfied at last.
When Djimon left a bit later after necessary matrimonial arrangements had been made, Ikenna turned to find the wife and share his relief that this marriage would take place after all. But she was nowhere to be found. She had run over to her co-wife’s house, bursting with news at the amazing, even-better bride price their brilliant husband had negotiated. The two women jumped and hugged with joy.
Somadina had of course heard through the other women, but she had the manners and sense to keep the information to herself as she served juice to her father the next day. She inquired after his health, his wives’ health, his children’s health. Finally, as though as an afterthought, he said, “I have been thinking lately about Nwanyi’s future.” By unspoken agreement they never mentioned Nwanyi to each other, so Somadina was sure that her father was going to give her the news.
“She will be sixteen years old in less than a month,” Somadina remarked.
“Plenty old enough for marriage,” her father replied.
“No, barely old enough,” Somadina corrected. “But a suitable suitor is not always easily found.”
“True. Sometimes a father must be more creative on behalf of his children,” Ikenna said.
“True,” Somadina offered back, at which point Ikenna knew that Somadina knew, and that at the very least she would not fight him on this.
“The stranger about which you have no doubt heard talk has given me his word that he will treat your sister well.” This yielded only a stony silence. “Your sister is closer to you than anyone, closer than to her aunts or to my wives. I was hoping you would talk to her. Prepare her a little for what will happen. You know.”
Yes, Somadina thought. I know. And she assured her father that she would be there in every way for Nwanyi. As always. “Have you told her yet?”
“No,” Ikenna sighed. “That is next.” And he finished his juice with resignation.
Somadina generally worked hard during the day, caring for her small son and husband with diligence, if not with enthusiasm. She almost always fell asleep early and easily, tired from the work and heat and happy to stretch out on the giant double bed that she shared with her husband and son and content to cool off under the large fan in their small bedroom. However, during the night Somadina’s mind seemed to work overtime while she slept, and she often had trouble staying asleep until the morning.
That particular night, Somadina slept poorly and, as was her way when she was worried, she became even more restless as the sky took on the faint dull grey of first light. Dozing and waking, tossing and turning, she kept thinking of the various horrible ways a marriage could go wrong for a shy woman who was far from her family and whose husband had been chosen quickly and unwisely.
That particular night, in the comfortable king-sized bed that she shared with Alex, Lola tossed and turned. She was someone whose body naturally wanted to stay up past bedtime each night, and who therefore always had problems falling asleep. She knew that she tended to do her worrying when she went to bed, and she’d had more restless nights than usual over the past few months, mostly worrying about money.
Alex was a good teacher, he had been a good coach, and he was a man doing exactly what he was meant to be doing. She admired him beyond belief. But he also was not making the salary that was putting kids through college. Zane, turning twenty-three in just a little over two weeks, had finished his bachelor’s degree over a year ago at one very expensive Ivy League school. They’d been so proud of him for even getting in that they had sworn to find a way, and every bonus and extra bit had been funneled into his education. Until lively, capable Ariel had gotten into a very prestigious school two years later, with dreams of her own. Then every extra penny had been split between the two.
Now they were still paying on both educations, while Zane was working and trying to save his own money in hopes of returning to graduate school in a year or two. Alex was still driving his 1996 Taurus, and her 2000 Camry wasn’t far behind on its journey to the scrap heap.
And then, she’d found herself unexpectedly unemployed, with little debt but also no savings to speak of, and a mass of regularly occurring bills that could not be ignored. The severance package had helped get them through the last few months, and they would manage okay, if she could keep this job for at least a few years no matter what happened with the economy. Geez, she was trying. …
But tonight’s restlessness was different. Not money. Safety? She ran through her loved ones. Alex was next to her and Teddie was asleep upstairs. Yes, she was sure. The cats were quiet and so was the house. She tried hard to hear a subtle background noise that might be sending her signals of which she was barely aware, but there truly was nothing. Sometimes she still worried about her mom, before she remembered. Right. No mom to worry about now. So not that. And on a weeknight in January, Zane should be sleeping, and Ariel studying. So who? Well, there had been an odd conversation with her sister today.
She and Summer had been very close growing up, in spite of their five-year age difference. It had been just the two of them, with big sister Lola serving as adviser and protector to sweet but far more mischief prone Summer. Lola smiled to herself, remembering how at eight years old she had promised her little sister that she would always protect her. And in fact she had done so, for years shielding Summer from a stern no-nonsense mother, from the Foley brothers next door, even from the dog down the street.
Then their lives had gone very differently. Lola, in Houston, had pretty much gone straight from grad student to married woman and professional while Summer spent years more enjoying life, dating and partying, and had finally, only a decade ago, married an older man with considerably more means, two ex-wives and a handful of grown children of his own. Each sister cheerfully shared and took vicarious joy from the others life, and Lola felt for years that she and Summer had somehow complemented each other well.
Then when Summer married and moved to Denver where Gregg had his primary residence and most of his businesses, she passed on having kids and embraced a life centered around entertaining, caring for her husband, keeping herself attractive, and overseeing a clothing boutique, which her husband owned, an employee ran, and she played at when it suited her. As the years passed, Summer had more trouble understanding Lola’s long hours at work and at PTA school carnivals, and Lola had not understood Summer’s dedication to pampering herself and Gregg. But beneath the growing lifestyle rift, they still loved each other.
When they had spoken briefly today, Summer’s normal effervescence had been a little too bubbly as she avoided questions and turned the conversation back to Lola every time. The more Lola thought about it, the more sure she became that something was wrong. Damn it, she should have persisted and gotten some answers. She was still big sister and protector.
Images of Summer’s fluffy blond hair and Gregg’s well-trimmed mustache floated through her barely dozing consciousness as she tried to drift off to sleep. It was their images, right? Gregg was a basically friendly man, but he looked harsher than she’d ever seen him. Darker, too. That was weird. And Summer had always been a beauty and had known it. Had she ever seen Summer look that hesitant? It was like she was seeing them, but she wasn’t. This was just goofy. Lola fell into an uneasy sleep, promising herself she would call again this week and ask more direct questions.
Djimon knew that the next few days would be crucial and difficult. Money and flattery had eventually won over the old man, though it had taken more of both than he had anticipated. Word had been that the father cared not at all for the girl, which is what he had been seeking, but some vestigial sense of duty must have kicked in and prompted him to become uncharacteristically concerned about the girl’s welfare. It did not matter. It had been handled. And some of what Djimon had said was even true. His mother was Fulani.
But at the engagement ceremony, which Djimon had gotten the old man to agree to hold just days after consenting to the marriage, he would basically be on display to the whole village. Suspicious behavior on his part could still void the entire arrangement. It was bad enough that he was an unknown stranger with no family at all attending and acting as his own officiating elder, but at least it was less of a breach of etiquette here than it would have been in his own mother’s village. And he had gone to pains to excuse it with a combination of his age, the story he had invented about seeking a wife from afar, and the distance he had traveled.
The greater danger was that someone would see through to his complete lack of interest in the girl. No, more accurately to his repulsion to her. For the biggest lie he had told Ikenna was that he believed that the mixing of genes produced advantages. In fact, Djimon opposed such unions on many levels, and was hoping that he could count on the repulsion he naturally felt towards the unrefined-looking southern Nigerian woman’s features to keep him from ever once losing control and planting his seed within this new bride.
It was true that he had searched hard to find the perfect Igbo woman for his needs. He required a girl with no close ties to parents, one whose family for one reason or another might find it expedient to send a daughter elsewhere and would be willing to ultimately lose track of her. In other parts of the world an unwanted pregnancy might suffice for that purpose, but among the children-loving Southeastern Nigerians there simply was no such thing.
So he had been left to find an Igbo daughter who truly was not wanted. Word travels. He had found Nwanyi. And as soon as he set eyes on her he knew she was perfect. But for the next few days, he did need to convincingly play the eager husband to the probing eyes of her kin.
On the night that had been selected, he arrived at her father’s house in his best clothing, and knelt before her father. He and Ikenna had agreed to honor some of each of their customs, while improvising a bit to accommodate the particulars of the situation and to move things along a little faster than normal, as he was understandably anxious to return home.
He presented a handwritten letter of proposal tied with a pink ribbon to Ikenna who sat against one wall, with his two wives, his two oldest sons, now both fourteen, the two sisters who had taken the largest hands in raising Nwanyi, and Nwanyi’s older sister. All were smiling for joy, except for the older sister who eyed him quizzically. Okay. That was the one with whom he needed to take special care. Everyone else was clearly all for this marriage.
At the father’s gesture giving permission to rise, he stood, opened his letter and read aloud his desire to marry Nwanyi. He thought he gave it a good read, but big sister’s eyes stayed puzzled. Nwanyi was then brought from the kitchen and presented to him. He had asked that she be veiled, as was the custom of his people, and that no alcoholic wine be drunk, though he knew many a Nigerian Muslim who would forego the prohibition against alcohol for such an occasion. He thought that both the veil and the lack of inhibition-reducing liquor would work in his favor. In the spirit of give and take, he had agreed to present the father with the traditional kola nuts, which he happily did now with a flourish.
When Nwanyi nodded her consent with her face still covered, Djimon had no idea whether it was with eagerness or reluctance, nor did he much care. Ikenna voiced consent on behalf of the rest of the family and Djimon produced an envelope with cash which would suffice as the owo-ori-iyawo, to a Yoruba, or the ika-akalika, to an Igbo, either of which was basically a gift from the groom to allegedly compensate Ikenna for the very great expenses he must have incurred to raise such a magnificent daughter.
Food was produced and tables began to fill and overflow as neighbors now arrived and additional kin showed up. The strong smell of pepper soup mixed with the aroma of fried plantain. Cooked goat and chicken was lavishly provided. Djimon helped himself to the jollof rice, savoring the thick tomato taste while he watched a particularly large man deftly fashion a big helping of stiff white pounded yam into an eating utensil which he then used to expertly scoop up a large portion of the hearty greens-laden fish soup.
Wine was being poured, albeit somewhat discretely, in spite of Djimon’s request, which annoyed him. He did not like having his wishes disregarded. But he forced himself to bury his irritation deep, reminding himself that this was all a charade anyway, merely a means to an end, and what was one more tiny piece of play acting in the grand scheme. Nwanyi’s more astute relatives noticed his brief disapproval and his tactful decision to ignore the wine, and it bought Djimon a small measure of approval in their eyes.
As the evening progressed Djimon was hugged and greeted and inquired about by many guests. He assured all that he could not wait to return for the wedding itself in a month. The hospitality here was tremendous. Oh yes, it was all terribly rushed, but what was a busy businessman like himself to do? And really, why delay when it would be such an auspicious start to the marriage for it to take place on the feast day of St. Valentine, celebrated in so much of the world as a patron saint of love. Wasn’t that indeed a fine day and one worth rushing the wedding for? Djimon had been very proud of himself for finding that reason to push the marriage ceremony into the month of February instead of delaying it for months like Ikenna had wanted.
Yes, he agreed, it was indeed true and so very sad that his own mother was ill and his sister attending to her, and they would be unable to make the wedding next month. Mom just was not strong enough to travel. Yes, it was true that his friends and family were mostly busy or gone, so yes he had told Ikenna not to plan on many of his own people there, but then again that was all the more reason to embrace Nwanyi’s lovely family, right?
Of course his own kin would host a wonderful welcoming feast for Nwanyi in Lagos once she arrived. What? Umm, yes, of course Nwanyi’s kin here would be welcome to attend that feast if they were willing to travel all the way to Lagos. He’d send an invitation, as soon as it was all arranged. Of course.
A fair bit of time passed before he saw that his wife-to-be had removed her veil, to eat of course—how could he object to that—and she was eyeing him with nervous anticipation and just a bit of fear. He nodded with satisfaction. That is a good start, he thought, pleased. I can work well with nervousness and fear.
On January 21, 2009, Barack Obama was sworn in as the forty-fourth president of the United States. While most of Lola’s Texan acquaintances were loudly unenthused about the event, Lola’s Nigerian coworkers were genuinely pleased by it. Lola herself was quietly hopeful that this multi-racial intellectual with an apparently kind heart and African roots would be just what America, and maybe the world, needed.
On Monday January 26, The New York Times reported that in one day alone U.S. companies announced over sixty-two thousand job cuts in their offices worldwide. Reuters added that Iceland’s prime minister said he would resign as his coalition government had fallen apart under the pressures of the bankrupt country’s financial crisis. Lola marveled that an entire country could actually go bankrupt.
That same day, Lola celebrated her forty-ninth birthday at a favorite local restaurant. She and Alex toasted to her being employed again. Teddie, always her sensitive cheerleader, gave her a small magnet to keep near her desk at work, and Lola smiled as she read it. “Everything is okay in the end. If it’s not okay, then it’s not the end.” Wisdom from a wise thirteen-year-old.
This could be so much worse, she muttered to herself, wondering how many others could not, would not find work as easily as she had. Times were tough. She resolved quietly to appreciate what had gone right, move on from what had gone wrong, and to do whatever it would take to make this new job work out well for a few more years.
CHAPTER 4. FEBRUARY 2009
Q: What else is easy to communicate telepathically? A: In modern society, popular music seems to have a surprising ability to transmit directly from mind to mind. One may hear a song “playing” in ones head, only to find that another person with mild receptive abilities will “hear’ the song also and start to whistle or hum it. This is frequently unsettling to people, and is often a person’s most concrete encounter with telepathy. (from “FAQ’s about telepathy at http://www.tothepowerofzero.org/)
Over the next few weeks, Lola finished working her way through the interpretation of the small structure located in one corner of her company’s lease. As happened so often in the oil business, her company had subleased the drilling rights from another company which had done so from another company, and now the term of the lease was near expiration and either a well would need to be drilled soon or the lease would need to be relinquished untested.
Because of the convenient fact that oil floats on water (check your salad dressing), one looks for oil in high places where the tiny coarse rock grains have enough spaces in between them to hold a good bit of oil. A rock with ten percent of its volume as space is a good rock to someone in Lola’s profession. Find the highest spot in it, put a nice tight rock like shale above it, which has virtually no spaces into which the wily oil can sneak out over the eons, and someone like Lola gets the message. Drill here.
This part of her job sat somewhere between treasure hunting and puzzle solving, and Lola had to admit that her day-to-day work would not have made a bad 3D video game if someone added a little bit of music and some glossy effects. And, okay, maybe a car chase or two. Lola enjoyed herself as she twisted and turned her 3D visualization of the rocks on her computer screen, humming as she looked for shifts in the rock layers known as faults.
“If you’re lost you can look / And you will find me / Time after time.”
Cyndi Lauper’s 1984 hit Time After Time (BUY) had once been a favorite of hers, and now that Lola thought about it, it made good music to prospect by. She was surprised she hadn’t remembered the song for years. She sang a little louder.
“If you fall I will catch you / I’ll be waiting—”
“Time after time.” Bob, the older engineer in the group, joined in her song as he walked by her door. “Geez Lola,” he said, “I’ve had that song in my head all damn morning. What are you doing singing it?”
“No idea. Maybe we listened to the same radio station on the way to work?” she guessed.
“I only listen to my iPod,” he replied.
Lola shrugged and went back to looking for indicators of what filled those tiny spaces in the rock (Oil? Natural gas? Salt water? It was never anything interesting like tequila or bubble bath. …) and worked until she was satisfied.
Meanwhile, of course, personal life went on as well. On February 1, 2009, the Pittsburg Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals twenty-seven to twenty-three in Super Bowl XXXXIII. An estimated ninety-nine million viewers watched, including Alex. Lola passed on the football, but did watch some of the commercials.
February also brought a special evening Skype session with Zane, with the three of them singing an enthusiastic Happy Birthday. The family songfest clearly embarrassed Zane as his housemates laughed and made faces in the background. He lived with an odd mix of four other recent grads, each one bright and more than a bit unusual. Lola had met and liked every one of them. Zane, who had been an almost scary-smart child and adolescent, had generally had few friends growing up, and in some grades it had seemed he really had none. Yet here it was clear that behind all their good-natured teasing of Zane, these people genuinely liked and appreciated her unique son. Lola suspected that there would be some sort of birthday celebration there as well, after the phone call was over. Meanwhile Summer and Lola played phone tag, each leaving the other cheery warm messages to have a really good day and call back soon.
On February 14, actress Salma Hayek married her beau in a “romantic civil ceremony” according to the celebrity wedding website. NBA player Marko Jaric also opted for a quiet Valentine’s Day wedding with supermodel Adriana Lima, while skiing in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. And, the morning of February 14, 2009, Nwanyi relaxed in the ritual pre-wedding bath and enjoyed the sensation of her older sister and two aunts scrubbing her back and her legs.
She could not remember a single time in her life when she had been the center of attention like this, and in fact most of the time she had the odd suspicion that people just wished she would go away. Somadina tried to tell her that if she believed that then it would become the truth, but that was easy for someone like Somadina to say. But today, just today, was all about her and she had never been happier in her life. “You are glowing just a bit, little one,” an aunt had said with surprise and approval. Somadina beamed.
The wedding day began at Ikenna’s house, with the ceremonially bathed Nwanyi draped in a beautiful gold brocade, which would match the brocade worn by her new husband to the ceremony. Nwanyi had wanted the two of them to wear lavender, her favorite color, but for some reason Djimon had objected, and gold had been selected instead.
Nwanyi was decked with ornate necklaces, bracelets and anklets, and an elaborate gold headdress with a semi-transparent veil. As was the custom with her particular kin, once the guests arrived at the house Nwanyi was expected to engage in a playful tradition of selling eggs to them. While the custom was intended originally to show one’s new husband that one would be an enterprising asset, in today’s world it was of course really just for fun and the guests gleefully bought the eggs, to Nwanyi’s delight.
The next tradition involved Nwanyi offering palm wine to her husband, but in this case Ikenna had agreed to mango juice instead. Nwanyi, with a large, ornate goblet of juice in hand, nervously began her hunt for Djimon. She knew that this part of the ceremony also involved the guests playfully distracting both her and Djimon to prolong her efforts to offer him the drink. But as the game wore on, although the guests were increasingly enjoying their role, Nwanyi began to get genuinely nervous. The guests may have been less playful if they had understood the degree of Nwanyi’s growing distress. She wasn’t just a jittery bride. The joy of being the center of attention had started to wane and she was now a hesitant soul realizing that she was about to leave the only home she had ever known in the company of a man to whom she had never spoken.
By the time Nwanyi found Djimon, she was visibly shaking. From across the room a worried Somadina looked up. Timidly, Nwanyi approached the man she was about to marry. He looked up at the goblet with feigned surprise. As she reached the goblet out towards him, he playfully reached to take it from her, then withdrew his hand an inch in pretend nervousness, with just a touch of fake jitteriness which was almost but not quite a mock of her own behavior. The crowd chuckled good-naturedly. But Nwanyi’s hands, shaking with real nervousness, could not respond so fast, and the ceremonial juice went crashing to the floor.
Given the traditional importance of the offering of the goblet, under other circumstances the crowd might have gasped. But the momentum for laughter was already there, so instead of gasping, the uncomfortable wedding guests laughed, and an overwrought and mortified Nwanyi burst into tears. As Djimon looked closely for the first time at Nwanyi’s lowered eyes that she now dared not raise to him, he saw her deep embarrassment, and sensed the self-loathing behind it. And he thought, This could not be more perfect.
It took both aunts, Somadina, and another cousin to calm Nwanyi down enough to get her to the church. “That goblet nonsense is a silly piece of fluff that doesn’t matter a bit,” the kinder of the two aunts assured her. “They laughed because they did not know what else to do,” Somadina insisted. “Forget it. You are the beautiful bride today. Let’s go.” But Nwanyi did not feel beautiful anymore, and the attention of the crowd no longer felt warm or made her happy.
Thus the teary-eyed bride and the mostly silent groom met in the local church that celebrated both Christ and Chukwu and was friendly to Allah as well. It was agreed that the once-again veiled Nwanyi would present her husband with a Bible, and he would present her with a Qur’an, and a local official would pronounce them wed in the eyes of all Gods and all people, which he did. And so, they became husband and wife without ever once truly looking each other in the eye.
The church ceremony was followed by more food, more drink, live music, and much dancing. Djimon apologized profusely that none of his kin had been able to attend after all, being all aging and ill, or scattered and busy. Nwanyi’s people found the absence exceedingly odd, but fortunately Ikenna had many friends, and his wives both came from big nearby families happy to contribute to the celebration with hearty consumption and lively participation. Ikenna could have sworn that the larger of his brother-in-laws had consumed an entire goat at the wedding feast.
As the celebration wore on, Ikenna watched as his tall and stately daughter Somadina carried her one-year-old son Kwemto on her hip as she visited with relatives, and watched with even more interest as eager husband Azuka attentively brought his wife food and drink. Although Azuka had always been clearly more smitten with Somadina than she with him, Ikenna suspected Azuka’s unusually generous behavior today might have been because Somadina was pregnant again. Could he, Ikenna, really be that lucky? This would be not just a second grandchild, but given Nwanyi’s impending departure, also a happy distraction which would make life easier for all.
Although the dancing would continue on into the night, it would normally be expected that at some point the bride and groom would exit the celebration to do what brides and grooms are expected to do the world over. However, as Djimon had no suitable home of his own or of his family’s to which to take his bride that night and accommodations for travelers in Ikenna’s small town were meager, it had been agreed in the initial discussion that Djimon would continue to lodge with the local family who housed strangers, and that Nwanyi would be permitted to spend her last night there in her sister’s house to say goodbye. Their married life would truly begin after they left the village. Djimon considered the success of that particular piece of negotiation, viewed by others as a concession on his part, as a stroke of immense good fortune.
Azuka was generally an easygoing and considerate man who had eyed Somadina ever since he was a boy. His parents were kindly, and inclined to indulge their quiet, well-behaved only child who had, after all, asked for very little. So they had saved money and worked hard to set his marriage to Somadina in motion because they recognized that there was nothing that would make Azuka happier. Fortunately, Ikenna had no other particular plans for his eldest daughter and had, in fact, been smart enough to recognize that having a devoted husband was a fine situation.
Young Somadina, strong and independent, had neither objected to nor been enthused about the marriage. She had been pragmatic, accepting the duties and responsibilities of being a wife without complaint or apparent resentment and giving Azuka no cause for complaint either. And yet Azuka knew that his ardor was not particularly returned.
And because he was not only physically attracted to Somadina but he also truly cared for her, he responded by giving her ample space, asking for little of her time and attention and keeping his physical demands to a minimum. She seemed to recognize his adjustments on her behalf, and had slowly over the past two years responded to his behavior with a growing appreciation and, maybe, even something that approached friendship.
The night of Nwanyi’s wedding, however, Azuka had danced and drank and danced some more and now he dearly wanted his wife in the most basic of ways. But he also realized that this was one time in which his needs would be less welcome than usual. As he approached the small house that had been given to him on his own wedding day, he saw the two sisters sitting on the porch step, arms around each other, a set of hands entwined. His Somadina was talking softly, chiding Nwanyi into blushing giggles, and he thought, No. Definitely not. I best leave them alone. With a touch of sadness, he headed back to the music, admittedly open to whatever temptations might come his way.
Given all the differences in their natures, it was hard for anyone else to understand why the two sisters were the best of friends. Some thought it had to do with the loss of their mother, each representing to the other that missing piece of their lives that no aunt or stepmother had been able to fill. Others, if they were more perceptive, noticed that Nwanyi needed encouragement, love, and a protector and that Somadina needed to give encouragement, love, and protection. The cynical might add that from such complementary needs the deepest of human bonds are formed. But the simple truth was, well, simpler. They enjoyed each other. For under Nwanyi’s insecurities and Somadina’s stunning poise, they laughed at the same jokes, generally liked the same foods, clothes, and people, and shared many of the same ideas about life. They had fun together. And while motherhood had, of necessity, turned much of Somadina’s attention elsewhere, she was still deeply aware that her best friend was leaving town and entering into a situation where contact could be infrequent.
Protector that she naturally was, however, that night she worked hard to keep Nwanyi laughing and brushed away any return to sadness with reminders of how cell phones and computers had made the country, indeed the world, a much smaller place. They were not so poor, they could both access such items, and then they would laugh every day like they were now, and visit often in person as well. She, Somadina, had plans to start earning income soon, once the baby was just a bit older and suckling less, and so they would be able to talk and be together often. Somadina promised.
They slept side by side that night with the baby Kwemto between them, and the next morning Somadina worked particularly hard to make her thoughts and feelings strong and cheerful as she bid goodbye. She tried to reach out to Djimon with a farewell that was both accepting yet a bit cautionary, but as she clasped his hand all she could feel was a sort of cold, slick metal sensation. How odd. “Take good care of my baby sister,” she tried to keep her voice light.
“Oh I certainly will.” His voice was equally light when he replied, but it filled her mouth with a taste of the same malleable metal that she could almost feel sliding around uncomfortably between her back teeth.
Then as Nwanyi got into the passenger side of Djimon’s car and the car pulled out onto the road, two things happened. One, Somadina saw a disheveled Azuka out of the corner of her eye as he tried to unobtrusively enter their house. Two, she felt the odd sensation of a window opening in her head. Just a crack, but she could swear that she could feel a cool breeze blowing in information, where there had been none for a very long time. So as the car drove away and she fought back tears, mixed in with her questions and her worry and her sorrow, she felt wonder. And a growing sense of power that she had not felt since she was a very small child.
Lola woke from a sound sleep, with a sharp pang of sorrow. She shook her head, trying to remember what the dream had been but she could find no dream. Just worry. Questions. Frustration with someone. Alex? Why? There was sorrow, draped over her like a heavy blanket. Her best girl friend was leaving town? That wasn’t possible. … she didn’t have a best girl friend here, really. Nonetheless Lola found herself fighting back tears as she lay in bed. It was so strange that she started to laugh. Then, she felt something else. A breeze, in her mind, and with it a sense of power that was familiar. Lola felt like an old skill was being reawakened. What was it that she was remembering how to do?
Somadina paused before she entered the house. No, not now. I will only miss Nwanyi and fight with Azuka, she thought as the idea of both activities made her heart sink. So on impulse, Somadina rearranged her half awake baby boy onto her hip and walked the short distance over to her father’s house, looking for one of her maternal aunts. Both aunts were certainly going back home today, and if she could get a ride with either family, she could borrow plenty of clothes for herself and Kwemto and have a short visit. A few days away might do her a world of good, and given how close they all knew that she was with Nwanyi, neither aunt would ask about her lack of packing but would just accept her as a welcome guest. It was good to have relatives like that. And better yet, both aunts had access to cell phones, so she could call Azuka’s father and ask him to let her husband know not to worry. In a few days, when she would get around to making the phone call.
Although oil seeps were seen in the Niger Delta in the 1900s, no one then could have predicted how the discovery of massive quantities of oil would eventually shape the futures of entire countries such as Nigeria and, in fact, would help shape the politics of the world. Shell Oil made the first commercial discovery west of Port Harcourt in 1956 and Nigeria first shipped crude oil to the international market in 1958. A year later the Nigerian government made what was arguably one of its single smartest moves ever and introduced regulation of oil industry profits, originally mandating a fifty/fifty split between the government and the oil company. On October 1, 1960, when Nigeria gained its independence from Britain, it was producing seventeen thousand barrels of oil per day.
Bob was looking over Lola’s presentation materials when he stopped and squinted at her stratigraphic column, designed to show the various important rock layers to her audience as she made her arguments for her drilling location. “Where did you get this?” he asked.
She explained that she had copied it from somewhere in the publicly available literature, the way folks in her profession usually did. Why?
“We just don’t usually refer to it as the Biafra formation here, that’s all,” he said. “You might want to use an alternative name for it.” That was odd. So Lola went back to the internet.
In 1966 and 1967 there were two consecutive revolts as the various larger ethnic groups in Nigeria vied for control of the government. The second one put the Northerners in charge and rather than keep on fighting, or accept this new rule, the southeastern Igbo chose to secede, and they formed the independent nation of Biafra. After a protracted battle and a brutal blockade, somewhere between one and three million Biafrans died, mostly due to starvation and disease. The death toll was of course the highest for the children, the elderly, the ill, and the pregnant and nursing women. Biafra surrendered in 1970.
Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders as it is called here, was one of the few charities the Zeitman family had supported enthusiastically over the years. Lola was surprised to learn that this international medical humanitarian organization, which provides aid worldwide to people whose survival is threatened by violence, neglect, or catastrophe, was founded in response to the painful ordeal of Biafra by frustrated French doctors who were prohibited from speaking out during the conflict. Today, while Doctors Without Borders remains firmly apolitical, it allows and even encourages its volunteers to speak out on behalf of victims anywhere. In 1999, MSF received the Nobel Peace Prize.
Some speculated that the rich oil resources in Biafra’s portion of the Niger Delta were part of the reason both Nigeria and Britain fought so hard to prevent Biafra’s secession. “You think?” Lola muttered as she read on. And, in fact, oil production had risen from seventeen thousand to more than a million barrels of oil a day by 1970. Nigeria joined OPEC in 1971.
Since then, hundreds of billions of dollars have flowed into Nigeria from oil, making up the vast majority of the country’s economy. Although over the decades the government has upped its share of the split to as high as eighty percent on some leases, residents of the Niger delta continue to complain that they receive a disproportionately small amount of that revenue while bearing the brunt of the environmental damage to their land and fishing areas.
Biafra remains a difficult memory for all Nigerians, and to a lesser extent to the British and Russians who supported the highly criticized blockade, and to the Canadians and French who sided and even fought with Biafra. Some Americans remain embarrassed at how easily their own nation was persuaded to look the other direction. After ten minutes on the internet reading about Biafra, Lola agreed with Bob and found another name. It was a matter of simple respect for anyone in her potential audience who might have lost a loved one in the conflict forty years ago.
The well that Lola and her coworkers were proposing had to be approved next by their partner company, an indigenous company headquartered in Lagos. Lola was told to be ready to present the following Monday, when the appropriate parties would be in Houston on other business and wished to see her work while they were nearby. It had been a long time since she had made a real presentation to anyone. These days, in smaller companies it seemed that every layer of management generally just wandered by an individual’s work station for a live update, or one emailed specific slides (okay, they weren’t even slides anymore, they were files) to whomever needed a piece of particular information, cc’ing (okay, there wasn’t any real carbon copy involved here) anyone who might be vaguely interested. The good news was that she no longer spent days overseeing the drafting, coloring, and labeling of paper displays to show her ideas. The bad news was that she, and everyone she knew, had to make time to sort through masses of emails with dozens of pieces of information each day.
But these particular Nigerian dignitaries wanted a formal presentation, so a formal presentation they would have. Lola knew that exhibiting her work to a room full of people had always been one of her strengths, and she welcomed this opportunity to show off just a bit for her new employer. Yet even she was taken aback when she walked into the conference room to get set up.
American meetings had long since become smaller, more informal, and had a tendency to inch into starting later than scheduled, with the occasional self-correcting gimmick like fining the last participant to show up, which would have the effect of setting the “late” clock back to zero so that the creep into lateness could begin again.
Oddly this phenomenon had nothing to do with laziness or lack of promptness, but rather was a function of everyone trying to be more efficient. Because no one wanted to waste their own time waiting for the other attendees, everyone tried to time their arrival to right before the real meeting would start. Thus, time-conscious Americans tended to start their meetings later and later as they each strived to waste less and less time.
So Lola was more than surprised to walk into a room filled with twenty or so people, all more than fifteen minutes early to the meeting, many of them dressed in full formal African regalia and the rest in impeccable Western business attire, both males and females, all sitting respectfully and quietly with their hands folded in their laps, waiting for her. Watching her. Acting courteously like they had not a better thing in the world to do than to listen carefully to everything that she had to say. She smiled nervously and began to hook up her laptop to the projector, explaining that it would be just a few minutes before she would start. No one seemed in any hurry, and of course everyone knew that they had to wait for the Americans who would rush in five minutes late.
Lola regained her usual composure and the presentation went well. A few of the attendees, Lola suspected, had been invited along as a courtesy and were largely disinterested in what she had to say. They simply listened politely, unlike Americans who would have been far more likely to be texting messages. Others, however, asked excellent questions and contributed helpful information in a spirited yet respectful style that Lola found she enjoyed.
As always, she smiled often and adapted her style to the cadence and tone of the audience. Over the years she had learned to keep this latter tendency in check, only because if she was not careful she knew that she would soon be imitating the accents and gestures of those to whom she was speaking. This rather annoying tendency of hers had embarrassed her deeply more than once, and she was afraid that various parties throughout the years had suspected she was making fun of them. Nothing of course could be further from the truth, but Lola had learned to be more careful with this empathetic ability of hers that seemed to sometimes turn into a force of its own. In the end, she kept the empathic thing in check and knew that the presentation had gone smoothly. The well would be drilled. She did not, however, expect the next turn of events.
In the days that followed, Djimon discovered how extraordinarily fortunate his choice in a second wife had been. Throughout the drive southwest toward Lagos, sometimes over major highways and twice over bad roads as he detoured for “business meetings,” Nwanyi was not only timid, she asked for almost nothing and did not even seem to expect kindness from him. She stopped her attempts at conversation early on when they were met with stony silence, only asking twice to use his cell phone to call her sister. He informed her curtly that his charger worked poorly and he was saving the battery for important calls. After the second time she did not ask again.
And she appeared to be fearful about sex, or at least shy enough about it that although they slept in the same bed at night, she never brought up his lack of interest. As they traveled he saw to it that she stayed covered and had whatever meager food and water she required, and in return she simply did not complain to him. He figured with satisfaction that she was scared of him and vowed to see that useful condition continue throughout what he had come to think of as “phase two.” Phase one, of course, had been finding and procuring her.
Four days later they arrived at his home, where Mairo (May row), his true and beloved wife with her beautiful Fulani features, dutifully got Nwanyi settled into a particularly cramped and poorly ventilated room in the rear of the house, and promptly assigned her a sizable share of the less desirable household chores that would normally have fallen to the servants. Djimon had to smile. Even though Mairo understood all too well how important Nwanyi was to their plans, and what little husbandly interest Djimon actually had in the woman, she still was apparently not inspired to exhibit the least bit of kindness to the Igbo. Which, now that Djimon thought about it, was just as well.
It had never occurred to him that the two women could actually become friends, given Mairo’s tough Northern heritage and deep devotion to their cause. However, if such friendship were to happen, it would throw a major kink into the plans. It was just as well that he let Mairo inflict all the petty insults that she wanted.
“You’re going where?” It was one of the rare times that Alex was genuinely annoyed with her. “I thought travel was not part of this job. Come on Lola. Be sensible. They kidnap people in Nigeria. This is not some youthful canoe adventure of yours, or backpacking across Europe with your college boyfriend.”
“We didn’t go to Europe. We went to Canada.”
His scowl prevented further comment. Instead, “Just tell them no. You are not available.”
“In my profession you don’t tell your employer that. It’s not like I work for a school district where they can’t fire you, dear!” Instantly she regretted saying that. Damn. She felt the flash of hurt on his face herself. But the simple fact was of course that she wanted to go. She loved to travel, absolutely anywhere, and travel opportunities that did not involve visiting relatives, attending conferences for work, or cheering on children engaged in kids’ activities, had been few and far between for too many years and all had been predictably tame. She couldn’t remember the last time there had been even a little a adventure involved in going somewhere, and this from the geeky girl with the thrill-seeking side to her who had once spelunked through caves, rappelled off of the side of her dorm building, and jumped out of an airplane practically the minute she turned eighteen. And yes, she did have a bit of an issue with Alex telling her what to do even if he actually wasn’t.
“My company has excellent security,” she lied. In fact, her old company had excellent security worldwide for its traveling employees. Her new company, well, she was under the impression that she would have some sort of an armed escort and a driver while she was there which would certainly be plenty. And she did not want Alex to worry. Really.
“I will be flying there and then whisked from the airport to a perfectly predictable hotel chain which you have heard of and stayed at yourself. I will go to the office, make my presentation which I honestly had no idea they would like so very much, spend another night at the nice hotel, get escorted back to the airport, and come straight home. I promise. You’ll barely have time to rent and watch one of those inane movies about a bad sports team that develops a lot of heart and finally wins that I know you watch when I’m gone.”
“Teddie and I watch them,” he said a little defensively. “She likes the heart part. I like the sports part. It works.”
“Whatever. You won’t even have time to miss me.”
Chapter 5. MARCH 2009
Somadina stayed away longer than she had planned, trying to sort through the strange mix of emotions in her head and working to get a grip on the influx of new information which she was picking up from those around her. She spoke to Azuka twice during the two weeks she was gone, assuring him that she and baby were fine and she would be home soon. Finally she knew that she had to go home if for no other reason than the fact that both Kwemto and Azuka missed each other so much. It was unfair to continue to keep them apart. She caught a ride from her uncle’s brother who was traveling that way anyway, and came home unannounced late Sunday afternoon. She headed to her kitchen, thinking to make a cup of tea and to just sit by herself for a few minutes, but Azuka was already at the kitchen table, his head in his hands and a cup of tea in front of him. To his credit, he made no effort to avoid her, and as she took the chair across from him he met her look. “I’m sorry,” he said simply.
“Don’t be childish Somadina. Please. I know you know. It was your sister’s wedding and your last night with her and I went out and had sex with another woman. It was a very selfish thing to do.”
And of course she knew, and would have known by his behavior even if she could not have felt the shame radiating from him in waves. “Who?” she asked. Oddly enough she was curious.
“Chika (CHEE kah).”
Great. Chika had sex with any man who was willing, which was bad enough. She and Somadina had never particularly liked each other, which was probably worse and Somadina suspected that Chika’s enthusiasm for Azuka might have had more than a bit to do with that, although she would not insult Azuka’s pride by telling him so. But the real problem was Chika’s husband. He traveled often on business and everyone in town knew that he bragged about the prostitutes he bought in the bigger cities. Somadina felt a small sharp worry grow. “Azuka, did you?”
“No,” he sighed. “I did not. I did not have one. And I was too drunk to care.”
“So there could be a child? A disease?”
“Yes. There could be both.” They sat in silence for several minutes. Azuka got up and poured himself more tea and without asking poured her a cup as well. “So,” Azuka offered, “I have decided that I am going to divorce you.”
“What? Don’t be ridiculous. It was one night. Even I do not wish to overreact like that.”
“I’m not overreacting. I understand what a poor choice I made and what a very poor choice Chika was. So it is just a temporary divorce and it is only between us. We will speak of it to no one. I have some money saved. After enough time has passed, it is three months I think, I will go to the clinic and I will get the test. We both know the disease to be feared. Then when I get the results I will bring them to you.”
“I have never heard of a man behaving in such a way.”
“Well it is the way I wish to behave, Somadina. I would not pass this disease on to you, possibly to our unborn child, because I did one stupid thing. Think about it. And if the worst has happened then we will make the divorce permanent.”
Somadina could not believe that Azuka was volunteering to do this most unusual thing for her. So it was only fair to tell him. “My body began its monthly cleaning at the wedding, Azuka. I do not know why it always seems to happen to me on special occasions, which is so annoying. But I did not have a chance to tell you in all the excitement. I am sorry, but it looks like I am not pregnant after all.”
Azuka nodded slowly. “Perhaps, given all this, it is for the best,” he said. He smiled a little sadly. “We remain privately divorced nonetheless.”
“So what happens if your test comes back positive?” Somadina asked.
“Then we make the divorce public and real. You can tell everyone it is my fault. I won’t care. And my family will not ask for the bride price back, of course. I know that my parents will be okay with that, and if they are not, then I make good money in the repair shop already. I can pay them back. Your father can keep his share, you can keep yours.”
“No Azuka. I won’t do that. You will need medicine. After awhile you won’t be able to work.”
“And you Somadina will be raising our wonderful son. You have no real way of making a living, you’ve spent the past two years mostly pregnant and nursing. I want you to open a shop of your own, or learn to make something to sell. You are very resourceful and that money needs to start you on a new life. Unless of course,” he added with more sorrow, “you wish to remarry right away. Then if he is particularly rich, yes I might take the money back after all.”
Somadina had to smile at that. “You know, Azuka, odds are very good that after one night you are fine. Especially if you didn’t do anything particularly, uh, unusual with her.”
He laughed a little. “No dear. We had one very quick and not particularly good bout of the most normal, basic sex imaginable. It was over before it had barely started.”
“So,” she asked, admittedly just a bit comforted by that news, “what exactly is your plan if the test comes back negative? You reclaim me as your rightful wife?”
“No,” he answered very seriously. “We remain divorced.”
“Yes. And I propose to you. All over again. And you may say yes or no.”
“Azuka, don’t be daft. I already said yes once.”
“No you didn’t, Somadina. Your father said yes. What you did was not object.”
In fact, Somadina thought, that was exactly what had happened. She knew quite well that at eighteen heading into nineteen, her father was going to find someone for her and soon, and the gentle boy Azuka seemed like the lesser of many evils. She could count a dozen worse types of husband without even trying. Why she could have ended up herself with Djimon, or someone like him. Clearly her father was not particularly adept at choosing husbands for his daughters. So she had accepted an acceptable situation, when it chose her. What was wrong with that?
“Somadina, I have wanted you for my wife as long as I can remember. My parents indulged me mightily by seeing that I got to have you. But now I understand, that one can have a woman, but not have her. So this time you will really get to choose. If you say no to me, we will divorce quietly. You and your father can both still keep your money. You should still use it to find a way to support yourself and our son. I will still help to raise him. Tell people whatever you want. Tell them I was unfaithful. Tell them I treated you poorly. Tell them I am impotent. No. Wait. Don’t tell them that.”
“You can always disprove that rumor for yourself,” she laughed a little in spite of herself.
“And finally, you should know that I also want you to take your share of the bride money and find a better way to support yourself even in the unlikely event of the remaining third alternative. All women should have a livelihood in this world Somadina. And you are talented. Learn to do whatever suits you.”
“Wait,” she was confused now. “What is this unlikely third alternative?”
“You know. I am fine. I ask you to marry me. This time, you say yes. And you mean it.”
Mairo was quite happy with Djimon’s choice in a second wife. For starters the young woman did not seem overly bright, but of course to Mairo most of the southern women seemed less refined and even less intelligent. This girl was also uneducated, which was a plus, having never been to formal school at all although unfortunately a sister had taught her to read and write English fairly well. She was mostly docile, with unbelievably low self-esteem and expectations. Finally, and most importantly, she was unattractively short and scrawny, with small furtive eyes and a particularly flat, broad nose which Mairo thought made her thoroughly ugly. Mairo’s heart had lifted the second she had set eyes on her.
Over the first few weeks Mairo applied herself to ensuring that Nwanyi remained housebound, as was common enough for women in some of the more traditional households. In order to arouse no suspicions, Nwanyi was allowed a short weekly cell phone call home, which Mairo supervised, encouraging Nwanyi to explain that Djimon wished not to waste money on unnecessary or lengthy contact, and telling her bluntly to be positive if she wished to have dinner. Nwanyi was smart enough to comply.
Mairo also went out of her way to see to it that Nwanyi was pretty much accepted and ignored by her own three small children, who quickly categorized the new woman as an unimportant servant in their own minds. Other nearby kin, neighbors who visited, and even the few household servants which they employed were all told that the new wife was “odd”, a sort of charitable project of Djimon’s. Mairo liked to laugh that she could not imagine what the man was thinking, but all were advised in a friendly conspiratorial whisper that the strange, quiet woman was just a little unbalanced and best left alone. And strangely enough, being ignored seemed to be exactly what Nwanyi was used to.
Djimon had seemed just a little surprised and slightly amused to notice that Mairo was taking such a strict hand with the submissive Nwanyi, even intimating to her that maybe for starters her treatment bordered on the unnecessarily cruel. As far as Mairo was concerned, she didn’t need all that book-learning to understand how to control someone. She had small children. She had female relatives. If you don’t give anyone an inch right from the very beginning, then they can’t find a weakness in you to exploit. Mairo personally thought that one did not need all that schooling to understand psychology.
On March 9, 2009, all the major indices on the New York Stock Exchange hit new lows. Most traders had thought the market had bottomed in late November, but after bouncing back a little in early 2009, stocks had proceeded to fall off a cliff. Though there was no way of knowing it at the time, for years later the stock price chart of virtually every stock publically traded in the world would make a jagged, irregularly shaped V, with March 9, 2009 sitting at the very bottom of the shape.
This particular evening, it was Teddie who greeted her at the door with a hug, her head of thick curly dark hair burrowing into her mom’s shoulder. Lola tried to muster the energy to hug back with equal enthusiasm. She had been on the new job now about two months, and she was still exhausted each night. She had forgotten how being totally out of one’s comfort zone just wore one out. From figuring out parking and lunch to learning new software and email protocol, she had been making a series of small adjustments every time she turned around. The past week had been made worse with the arrival of her new computer, and the resulting software upgrade when they migrated her project to the new machine. Now the damn icons were all a little different and she had just been starting to figure out what was where. She just wanted to sleep all weekend.
But Teddie’s hug had a purpose. “I was hoping we could go shopping tomorrow? Maybe get a few new things to wear to school?” Teddie’s big dark eyes were hopeful and pleading.
Ah yes, now that mom was making money again. Lola told herself not to be so cynical. It was, after all, the start of Teddie and Alex’s spring break, and this year they had opted for a quiet stay at home, with both of the older two staying put as well. Surely they could at least afford a little shopping trip.
“Of course Teddie. Let’s make it in the afternoon, okay? Mom wants to sleep in.” And she told herself that she should consider herself lucky that her thirteen-year-old daughter still wanted to be seen with her. Best get a good night’s sleep, wake up refreshed and enjoy the time together with her youngest child while it lasted.
But sleep that night would not come. At first Lola thought she was just too wound up from work. The bottle of wine and rented movie that she and Alex shared had not done their job of relaxing her, and Teddie’s request that two of her many girlfriends be allowed at the last minute to sleepover had precluded the intimate ending to the evening that Lola would have preferred. Now Alex lay snoring quietly once again while she and her pillow did their dance. Flop. Punch. Tilt. The pillow was never right these days. Lola finally just started to doze.
“You hit me!” Good grief. Lola sat upright, completely awake. It was Summer’s face she had seen, in the start of what seemed like a dream, and it had been contorted with anger and shock. At Lola? At Gregg ? Lola could not even imagine him doing such a thing. But she felt the fear. Summer’s fear? Her own fear? Actually, for the life of her it seemed like someone else’s fear, but that made no sense whatsoever. She stared up at the bedroom ceiling fan, calming down.
Then she remembered staring up at a ceiling fan once before, having had a very similar sensation. That had happened, hadn’t it? Except there had been no punching or fear involved then. It had been something more pleasant. And hadn’t she been almost asleep that time as well? And also overly tired, and overwrought about work?
Of course. The night before she made her first big lease sale presentation. Massively pregnant and highly emotional. At the time it had seemed so real, and lying in bed trying to fall back asleep staring at the ceiling fan, she had decided that it was her baby, little Zane, whose mind she had heard. So. It was happening again.
Somadina remembered as a small child taking for granted how easily she had sensed the feelings of others. After Nwanyi’s birth she guessed that she must have taught herself to muffle the input, although she had no memory of doing so. Now that Nwanyi was gone, she felt the ability coming back. Somadina lived in a world in which she had easily accepted unexplained phenomenon, and being unusual did not frighten her. She found the feelings of those around her to be mostly vague—unfocused joy, fear, anger, discomfort—all of which she was learning how to ignore with only a little concentration.
But Somadina’s worries about her sister remained only a nagging notion. Even as Somadina found that she was picking up more and more from those around her, she still could not get a good grasp on Nwanyi and how she was doing. It frustrated her. Maybe it was because her sister was so far away?
Nwanyi had already made a dutiful call to her father’s cell phone on the two previous Sunday afternoons, the first time to let him know that she had arrived safely in Lagos and the second time to assure him that all was well. After hearing of the timing of the first two calls, Somadina made a point of going to her father’s house on the third Sunday, and, as she hoped, she got to speak to her sister herself. The conversation had been short. It appeared that phone time was unusually closely monitored in the household and, Somadina sensed, it was not a private conversation. Nwanyi sounded more quiet and restrained on the phone than Somadina had ever heard her.
Then, on the following Saturday morning, four weeks after the wedding day, Somadina lay in bed barely awake, as Azuka had taken Kwemto outside to play so that she could sleep. She sat up in bed and felt a surge of confidence and determination, as though she had made up her mind to confront someone with a well-thought out and entirely justified complaint. She felt strong. She felt certain. And then, she felt surprise. Hurt. Physical pain. Complete confusion. What had gone wrong? Where she had expected a little sympathy and even a little affection, there had been none. Nothing.
Somadina got out of bed with her face stinging and a strong feeling of nausea. She stood by the side of the bed, saw Nwanyi in her mind, and felt tears on a burning cheek.
The next day the rains started, coming earlier this year than usual. She walked to her father’s house anyway and waited all Sunday afternoon. There was no call from Nwanyi.
They had been married exactly four weeks when he lost his temper with her, and that really annoyed Djimon. He prided himself on better self-control. Did not he of all people know that it was so important to stick to the plan? Completely? He considered this to be the time period during which he wanted Nwanyi to feel isolated and lonely but more or less safe so that she would not feel the need to make an unexpected escape or call for help. This was the time during which her family was supposed to be getting complacent about her safety.
But the truth was that she had startled him by speaking early that Saturday morning while she was dusting in his private office. She was almost never left alone with him, Djimon noticed, but Mairo hated dusting or even being near anyone dusting, because it aggravated her allergies, and of course Nwanyi could not be allowed in the office by herself. So Nwanyi had been sent in to dust while Djimon worked.
She broke the silence tentatively and even respectfully, but once he raised his eyes up in response her words began to tumble over each other uncontrollably, like they had been rehearsed often and held in for far too long. He found himself listening to a surprisingly bold tirade about the distribution of household duties and it was clear that this woman actually felt like Mairo was the one in charge of her. It seemed to Djimon that she saw him as the weaker partner, the one who might be willing to give her some rights in the household. Like he might lower himself into the sphere of domestic chores and make things better for her!
Djimon was not a particularly cruel man, as he often reminded himself, and he took no joy in violence. But Nwanyi’s turning to him in hopes of fairer treatment had surprised and insulted him, and he would not be insulted. His first response was to administer an instinctive face slap like he would to a sassing child, except that the slap came out considerably more forceful. And when that seemed insufficient for the boldness of her crimes, he added a hard jab into her abdomen with the book he was holding in his other hand, accompanied with a curt “Don’t you dare ever complain to me again.”
As the corner of the book punched deeper into her flesh than he had perhaps intended, Nwanyi’s baffled eyes widened with pain. Then came understanding. Good. She realized completely that his disinterest in her was not to be mistaken for some sort of distracted, preoccupied affection.
“Summer? How are things?” When the two sisters finally connected the next morning the call was weeks overdue. “It is so good to hear from you dear,” Summer sounded better. “You have just been on my mind lately.”
Lola loved how Summer didn’t get pissy about it when they didn’t talk for awhile. “And you’ve been on my mind, believe me,” Lola answered truthfully. First they went over Lola’s new job, then Summer needed updates on her nephew and two nieces. Finally, they got to the part of the information exchange that Lola had been anxious for. “So how are things with Gregg?” She worked at keeping her voice light.
“Oh same old same old,” Summer laughed, but Lola was sure that she heard some tension there. “His golf game keeps getting better, his diet keeps getting worse.”
Lola persisted. “Uh, you two doing well?” Damn. There was a bit more edge in that last question than Lola intended.
“Yeah. We’re doing fine, dear. Marriage has its ups and downs you know. How are you and Alex?” Summer’s answer had a bit of edge back.
Oh hell. Lola just dove in. “Okay. Look. I had, okay, I had this kind of weird dream about you. I know it’s crazy, but, well, hey, I am your big sister. I can’t help worrying. I dreamt he hurt you. Hit you. I know this is dumb and Gregg’s a great guy. But well …” Lola let her voice trail off.
“Lola?” Now Summer did sound just a little bit pissed. “You have this thing where you really think you know what people are thinking and feeling and you know, you’re really not always right. In fact, you are sometimes way off base. Gregg and I have a wonderful relationship. It does happen to be in a bit of a rough spot now and okay it’s not your and Alex’s relationship, and maybe I am not so independent like you think I should be, but we’re working things out, and you are not even in the ballpark about Gregg doing something like that to me. Your weird dream things are something you should probably keep to yourself. Okay?”
“Of course. I am sorry I brought it up. It was just such a vivid dream. I didn’t mean to offend you, honestly.” Sheeshh, that had been a bad way to handle it. What a shame there was no way to unsay something, no way to hit the “undo” button like she did all day long on her computer.
What Lola really wanted to tell her sister was that she was there for her no matter what was going on, that she was happy to listen if need be. But, as was Summer’s way, she changed the subject so quickly and thoroughly that that was the end of that. Even the cat got off of Lola’s lap and walked out of the room like the interesting part of the conversation was over.
Once Somadina had trouble getting any sort of sense of Nwanyi’s state of mind, she started using her own mind to look for help. It wasn’t a conscious choice, it just sort of happened. Like asking passing strangers on the street, “Have you seen my sister??” And at one point, she felt like a stranger had stopped and answered. She had no idea why this particular person had responded, and she could not even say exactly how she knew the person was there at all. But Somadina was certain there was someone out there who had heard her, that it was not anyone she knew, that it was not even anyone she had ever met. Not, in fact, anyone who had a life even remotely like hers. Yet also not an ancestor nor an evil spirit.
In fact, she was certain that this person was basically kind and not only posed no threat to her or Nwanyi, but that this unknown person might have the means to possibly help the two of them. She was a she, Somadina was sure, and she had power and resources at her disposal of which Somadina could only dream. But, in many important ways this person was also like her. She picked up people’s feelings easily. She wanted the world to be fair and right and better than it was. She worried about others.
After that, Somadina concentrated her thoughts and feelings on two things. One of course was sending Nwanyi messages of comfort and support, assuring her that she would get her help somehow. She was not sure at all if Nwanyi received those messages in any way, but she tried to send them as hard as she could. And the second was to reach the other woman. “Help me. I need help. Help me.” She sent the thought over and over like a radio broadcast and hoped that when the other woman received her cries for help she wouldn’t be too baffled.
The night before Lola left for Nigeria, she fell asleep with wonderful ease. Then—
“You will be okay. I promise. I will find a way to help you. I promise. Your big sister still loves you, still cares about you. Knows you are hurting. I am finding a way. I promise. I will help you.”
Lola woke to tears wetting her pillow. Thankfully Alex had not heard her sobs. She saw no faces this time. She just felt sorrow and a sense that she absolutely positively had to find a way to help. Okay. Help whom?
Alex insisted on driving Lola to the airport, an act that Lola thought was both considerate and mildly patronizing. It was like Alex felt like she needed one last bit of being cared for before being sent out into the wild. Lola tried to focus on the considerate part because she and Alex really did not need to have a fight before she left. So Lola and Alex actually held hands that Sunday afternoon while he drove her to Bush Airport’s international terminal, and they alternated between exchanging pleasantries and traveling in comfortable silence.
Lola was not particularly nervous about the trip or the presentation, although she did have a concern that she was certainly going to keep to herself. She was worried about sleeping. It seemed like since the start of the year she had slept far worse than usual, waking often from odd dreams filled with fear, anger, and tears. For all of her fierce independence, she found that the presence of Alex’s sturdy body and gentle snoring helped her get back to sleep. Yes, the days in Nigeria would be fine. She was just a little apprehensive about the nights. But Alex did not need to know that.
Lola boarded the plane and settled in, opting for two glasses of a nice red wine with dinner, followed by two Advil. It worked. As the plane began its descent into Paris, she woke up to the smell of airplane coffee, feeling surprisingly refreshed, and by the time she boarded the plane for the six-hour flight to Lagos she felt a lightness and a sense of purpose that was a bit hard to explain.
Lola was not a woman taken to what she thought of as silliness. She was a more or less lapsed catholic with vague spiritual beliefs that never quite made it to the extreme of agnosticism (much less atheism) and yet also never made it to the other extreme of deep religious faith. Rather, her view of life encompassed a vague sense of some sort of higher power and a universal code of ethics, but not a lot of detail beyond that. If asked in a survey if she believed in God, she would have said yes. But, she did not fill her days believing that God had a plan for her, and in fact she shook her head at acquaintances who prayed for amenities like good parking spaces at the mall, and outright shuddered at those of all faiths who implied that they were on the correct side of some almighty battle and those of other religions were going to be really sorry someday.
She thought that today’s overwhelming sense that she was suddenly exactly where she was supposed to be, doing exactly what she was meant to do, would have been easier to accept if it had been her nature to put it in a religious framework, believing that for some reason arriving in Nigeria was part of God’s plan. Or, for that matter, it would have been easier to dismiss outright if she was certain such feelings were utter nonsense and she was just being a little bit crazy. The problem with trying to keep an open questioning mind, she acknowledged, was that one did not know what to make of sensations like the one that she was having. She did not carry around a framework for easy classification of the unusual.
She did, however, carry around a sense of getting the job done, and so she put aside her newfound sense of purpose as surely as she had put aside all of her recent nighttime disturbances, and sought out her driver and armed escort in the cacophony of colors and noise awaiting those who had just cleared customs and immigration. There they were—the escort was armed and serious, the driver was holding up a sign that sort of looked like her name.
She realized that Alex would have been so relieved if he could just see the front of the Sheraton Lagos Hotel. It was near the airport, which would have reassured him, with palm trees that could have been found in Houston and the familiar red logo clearly displayed. Then, she realized, Alex could see it. Sometimes she just plain forgot that she now lived in a world where such was not only possible, it was common. So she reached into her purse and snapped a quick picture with her phone, rather hoping that the two men with her did not notice her taking a picture of something so stupid. And while it was true that Alex did not know how to text, she could now send the photo to Teddie to show to her dad. Wait. It wasn’t quite six p.m. here so it would be just before noon in Houston. Better not send it now. Teddie was not supposed to have her cell phone with her at school, much less turned on, but one never knew. Lola did not want to have to go to the principal’s office a second time to reclaim a child’s cell phone. Reassuring Alex by photo could wait.
Lola was lucky to get one of the refurbished rooms at the hotel. Though it was fairly basic with only a small window, it was clean and everything worked well. Others had advised her that as an American she might find the Nigerians unhelpful and even surly, but as soon as her smile erupted of its own accord she found the hotel personnel warm and helpful. Later that night, with room service eaten, photo finally sent, and assorted loving messages exchanged by email, Lola found that jet lag and travel fatigue did what she had feared they could not, and she slept in relative peace.
The next morning she was met not only by her familiar driver, but also by Jumoke (joo Moe keh), an operations engineer who headed up the small technical team in Lagos and had been apparently assigned to see that she reached the office safely and adequately briefed. Tall and thin, in his late thirties, with remarkably dark skin, he spoke with a precise and strong British accent. “Driving here is a bit more chaotic than you will be used to,” he explained. Lola, having been to Jakarta, Mexico City, and Cairo on business, smiled. “No, I am serious,” he added. “It is not like other places you have been.” Lola found the comment odd, but, as she discovered in mere minutes, quite accurate.
As the car made its way, alternating between rapid acceleration and lurching stops, Lola watched and listened to her surroundings. Indeed, the extreme poverty that had sprouted up between the more developed areas of Lagos was as dire as she had been led to expect. And the interaction between Nigerians talking to each other along the street was louder and more aggressive than she was used to. She had been told it would look like everyone was arguing, and she could see why. But it didn’t feel like they were arguing. Lola had no trouble sensing the camaraderie and even affection underneath much of the boisterous behavior.
Yes, some of the license plates really did say “Center of Excellence,” a subject of amusement among Americans back in the office. And she must have heard “No wahala” a dozen times. It was like going to Australia and hearing “no worries,” or to Jamaica and hearing “no problem mon.” When one visits a place for the first time, it’s nice to have those little expectations met.
At the Lagos office, Lola’s audience consisted largely of investors involved one way or another in the offshore mineral lease. They were a mix of South African, British, and Nigerian businessmen who, Lola quickly discovered, had the fairly common non-technical person’s interest in hearing about the technical parts of their own industry. So Lola allowed herself to wax a bit eloquent about the components for a successful well.
One needed not dinosaurs nor even remnants of ancient swamp plants so much as one needed millions of years worth of tiny sea creatures to live and die and settle their little organic carcasses into the ocean floor to be buried beneath more sediment and then, more slowly than a human brain could imagine, be turned into a dense, organic, rich shale. Roll the tape for millions of more years of heating and burial, cooking like an incredibly slow casserole.
Lola’s mom had once asked her how we could possibly run out of oil when certainly the earth was making more all the time? She had wanted to answer, “Sure, and whatever species is around, if any, in ten million years just might find some of the fresh stuff,” but she drew the line at sounding like a smartass to her own mother. So she had settled on “The earth just cannot make it fast enough mom.”
In fact Lola had often thought that if the average car owner really understood what it had taken for the earth to make a gallon of gasoline, not to mention for man to find and produce and refine it, he or she would treasure each gallon like the irreplaceable gift from the earth that it was. Twenty-plus years in the oil business had left Lola more in favor of conservation than many of her more liberal but less informed friends.
But from at least one point of view the Niger delta had been blessed, as had the Gulf of Mexico, with plenty of dead tiny sea creatures, plenty of time, and then plenty of nice sand dumped on top thanks to big, hearty rivers. A little tectonic activity to provide cracks and faults and some shale or salt moving around almost like a lava lamp over the eons, and the end result was high spots to trap the stuff and migration pathways for it to get into the traps and plenty of places to drill.
While the people of Nigeria had both suffered heavily and gained mightily from the odd confluence of circumstances which had put what Texans called “black gold” in their backyard, Lola focused on only why this well would be a good well. Why this well should be drilled. By the end of the presentation the room was nodding and smiling along with her. “Some days,” she thought, “it is just a little scary how good I am at this.”
“Do you think you are good at finding oil and gas?” Jumoke, her operations engineer escort, asked her as he and the driver brought her back to the hotel. He had insisted on accompanying her, and apparently planned to buy her dinner at one of the hotel restaurants. Lola had done her best to discourage him. First of all, she almost always preferred her own company to making small talk with someone she did not know. Secondly, for all she was now in her late forties she understood that she was often mistaken for being younger, and so she still avoided situations in the business world which could be misunderstood.
She and Alex had often laughed about how they could each have hardly picked a better profession in which to meet the opposite sex, he surrounded by a largely female teaching staff, and she in the very male oil business. But the fact was that they had both learned how to send out signals. And how not to. Friendly and warm, hopefully. But not interested. Not available. Busy signals, actually. Because if one just plain never got to the point where one had to decline, then, well, one wasn’t going to make the mistake of not declining. Which meant that twenty-five years later one might still have a good marriage. At any rate, it had worked for them.
So Lola was a little annoyed at Jumoke’s insistent hospitality, but she tried to answer his question cordially. “I’m capable at finding oil, but so are most folks who have survived in the profession as long as I have. I guess that I am faster at it than a lot of folks, particularly if there is a rush and I need to be.”
“Then what is it you think you are so good at?” There he went again. Stop asking me these damn odd questions that make me feel like you are reading my mind, she thought with a hard slap of a thought. And saw him smile slightly. Okay. This was getting weird.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I have a habit of reading people really well. A little too well sometimes. It makes them uncomfortable. I’m sorry. It’s like I can—”
“Guess what they’re thinking,” they both said in unison aloud, her with a question mark at the end. And they both laughed uncomfortably.
“You need not worry about me,” he added. “I am taking you to dinner to do you the courtesy of being a good host, without regard to your gender. Plus, to be honest, I wanted to talk to you because while watching you present today, I realized that we are somewhat alike. It’s true that I mostly avoid people like me because at worst they make me uncomfortable, and at best they wear me out quickly. But I also can get a feel for them far faster than others, which is why I am doing such a remarkably good job of reading you. It is a strange thing to explain. And because I do not meet so many people like us, I wanted to talk to you Because I am trying to learn. So help me out please. I am curious. What is it you think you are so good at?”
Lola sighed. “I am good at selling things,” she answered honestly. “I never wanted to be in sales, I have always valued my brain and, yes, my integrity. I think of sales as a profession in which one convinces someone else to buy or sell or commit to that which they would not necessarily choose to do on their own. Maybe with no harm done to them and maybe even, under the best of circumstances, with some good benefit to them. But they have been convinced just the same. And for some odd reason I have always been terribly good at convincing people to do things. Drill wells. Lease properties. Get me into a college class that is already full or reduce the property taxes on my house. I just know what I need to say and what they need to hear. It varies all over the place. It is not like there is a single formula or secret, but if I try, I can find what will work if anything will and then I can do it. I guess I gravitated towards science partly because I never liked that side of myself. So how was I supposed to know that in virtually every scientific profession, you sell your ideas?”
And Lola realized with a start that she had just shared more of her self and her honest feelings with this person she had barely met than she generally shared with friends or coworkers she had known for many years.
“I know,” Jumoke agreed. “You just can’t afford to share much of yourself when you are like us. I don’t even understand why I work the way I work. I certainly don’t expect anyone else to understand.”
“Wife? Girlfriend?” Lola went ahead and asked.
“No.” Jumoke paused. “A brother. He is like me but very different. No, not an evil twin. He is very nice, very kind. But he has the same gift, and yet he is a very different kind of person with it. It is hard to explain. We are very close in some ways and yet cannot be together very long. Friends and girlfriends both come and go. People seem to like me, but I tire of people easily. It is not always a joyful thing to have a feeling for what makes others work, you know? You know.”
She did. Lola thought of all the casual friends who had disappeared over the years, largely because Lola let the friendships go. At some point she tired of listening to so many people, for inevitably she listened in relationships far more than she talked.
“It can be lonely to feel so close to people?” Jumoke offered. True. And so over a lovely Indian meal she and Jumoke found that they were indeed brother and sister of a special kind.
Finally, as dessert of some sort of milk pudding and a strange canned fruit was served, Jumoke asked a different question which stirred the feelings of unease that she had kept out of her mind all day. “You say you are married to a good man. I think you are very lucky in this.”
She nodded. Given Jumoke’s life story, she realized she might have been far luckier to find Alex than she had ever realized.
“But, he has not changed lately has he? He is not hurting you?” Then sensing but not understanding her startled reaction, he tried to sooth. “I am sorry. I do not mean to offend you. It is not my business.”
“No. It is okay. Really.” But the question troubled her in ways she did not immediately understand. Without discussion, they both let the conversation move back to the oil business and the upcoming well, and after awhile Lola took the opportunity to interject an assurance to Jumoke that he had overstepped no bounds with his question, and that in fact Alex was a prince of a man who treated her wonderfully and that she herself was more than fine. Jumoke had seemed relieved but puzzled, yet he let it go. They parted after dessert as old friends.
Lola realized as she headed to her room that while she had held back sharing her own odd experiences that dovetailed with Jumoke’s question, this had also been the only question which Jumoke had uncharacteristically let her avoid answering. Why?
All she could figure out was that she and Jumoke had on some level each come to their own terms with their unusual interpersonal skill sets. They had each rationalized what they could do in terms that made sense to them, did not frighten them, allowed them to function without invoking any beliefs which might label them as kooks. They both believed that they habitually picked up tiny, barely visible and barely audible clues from others and used these clues to read people particularly well, to the point that, combined with a little common sense, they could almost appear to sometimes read minds. It was a fine line. But it invoked nothing disturbing. They were both okay with such a view of their world and their roles of being largely loners in it.
But Lola also realized that the idea of receiving some sort of a distant distress call from an unknown person who was in an abusive relationship challenged this view. It pushed the whole thing into a whole new realm for her, a realm that she was understandably reluctant to enter. And for Jumoke to ask such a question? It pushed him there too.
Q: Do you have to be physically near a person to communicate with them telepathically? A: No. Of course reception and meaning are greatly improved if you can see and hear the other person and use visual and aural clues to provide a better understanding of what is being received. And distance plays a factor, which implies that some sort of physical rules apply even though emotional transmission does not seem to be as absolutely physical as the transmission of light or sound because it doesn’t diminish with distance by a clear mathematical formula, and walls and barriers are not a factor other than barring other input as mentioned above. Also, a link forged between two minds remains for a period of time in spite of an increase in distance. If the link existed just briefly and was relatively superficial, then it will fade quickly once the people are separated. If on the other hand the link was strong, enhanced by a similar situation or an extremely common shared point of view, then the connection appears to be able to jump over large physical distances indefinitely, much like charged electrons can arc across space. Once such a strong link is made it is often permanent, but even that link will be stronger when the two people involved are in close proximity (from “FAQs about telepathy at http://www.tothepowerofzero.org/).
Somadina awoke with the wonderful feeling that the lady was coming physically closer. At first Somadina was confused. Then she realized. Of course. The lady was not Nigerian. That possibility had not occurred to her. But it made sense. And for some reason the lady was actually coming to Nigeria. At least to West Africa. Somadina was sure of it and so she sent thoughts over and over to tell the woman that she was now exactly where she needed to be. Somadina then spent two happy days feeling even closer to the woman, working to make her feel happy to be in Nigeria, and trying to find a way to better connect.
Then, two mornings later, she awoke just as sure that the woman was already leaving. What? Yes, she was heading to an airport. But she had just arrived! Who spends only two days in a country? You’re leaving? You just got here. You can’t go! Somadina knew that she was being immature, but she could not help feeling anger, and disappointment. In the strength of her own emotional outburst, she received the worst kind of confirmation that the mysterious woman had been hearing her all along.
With an evening flight home on Wednesday that required a late afternoon departure from the hotel, Lola had decided to sleep in as late as she liked, to spend a few hours by the pool relaxing (no solo adventures into town, she had promised) and to just have an easy day before the nineteen-hour sojourn home. Sleep came and went that night, with an odd blurry feeling of nervousness but nothing upsetting. It wasn’t until morning, when she woke up naturally with no alarm clock, that she felt the sense of turmoil.
You’re leaving? You just got here. You can’t go! It was an unmistakable thought, as clear as if it had come from a distraught lover, needy parent, clingy friend. Anger and disappointment. Even a bit of panic. Who the hell cared if she stayed in Nigeria?
Impatiently, she got out of bed, began to gather together her toiletries. Leave me alone, she thought with vehemence. I do not want to hear from you. Whoever you are. Get out of my head. And then to herself. Stop thinking this is real. It is not. You have a thirteen-year-old daughter and two other kids counting heavily on you and this is absolutely no time in your life to have mental issues. You are fine. Get a grip. Act like a normal person.
She took a moment and sat in the uncomfortable easy chair and forced herself to use the simple mental imagery she had learned in Lamaze classes so very long ago. But instead of picturing a beautiful lake at sunset like they had taught her to do in order to relax, this time she pictured the giant steel doors to a vault, glimmering in a cold artificial light, clanking closed in her head. The doors seemed to work. She got out of the chair feeling better. As she finished packing and headed poolside for lunch with her email and her internet, she felt fine actually. Although strangely alone.
Leave me alone! Somadina heard the thought, felt the feeling and felt the vehemence behind it. I do not want to hear from you. Get out of my head. And then Somadina could feel the woman picturing giant steel doors, glimmering in a cold artificial light, clanking closed in her head.
No! Somadina pleaded. Don’t shut me out. Please. But the doors were now closed tight, and Somadina, even as a small child, would never have dreamed of trying to force open the doors of another’s mind. So she sat at her kitchen table, devastated by this unexpected setback, and feeling strangely alone.
Yet there was nothing to be done other than to be patient, to hope. Somadina smoothed the folds of her lightweight loose cotton wrap, working to smooth her own emotions as she smoothed the soft worn fabric. She would wait. It would be okay. Sooner or later the door would open, if even only a crack. And then she would be there and she would find a way to demonstrate that she was harmless. A supplicant. One who begged for and deserved help.