Story by: Ejine Okoroafor (Part 3 of 6)
I was absolutely convinced that the shock of this squalid and sordid environ would have proved to be too rough on my gentle Maryam. I wouldn’t have endured exposing her to the constant sight of drunken men clutching alcoholic beverages half-disguised in brown paper bags while staggering precariously on the streets. Neither would I have liked her accosted by those darting glazed-eyed and shifty youths on the streets, begging for quarters that will surely go towards buying another joint to feed their addiction. There were also the wantonly dressed females who leave nothing to the imagination regarding their trade, the menacing looking men wearing dark shades and caps pulled halfway down their faces, conducting dubious business on street corners and breaking into a run when they hear police siren. I could imagine her horror on hearing a fitful of gunshots noises’ shattering the innocence of the nights. The pile of rubbish on the streets and the stench of urine in the elevators would only have helped to disillusion Maryam, possibly kill her.
Oh no, but Maryam was dead. She is dead. She hung herself. It is my fault. The same damning and repetitive line of thought reechoed in my mind. My reality once again reduced me to more tears and agonizing lamentations.
I recollected the first time when I saw Maryam. It was dusk and I was basking by the riverside with some friends. We loved to hang out near the waters, sitting across the low bridge on Obana River in the evenings or weekends when there is less traffic and fewer folks out. We loved to jump off the bridge into the water, making huge splashes. We used to challenge and race one another, swimming across to the other side of the creek. We occasionally tried our hands at fishing when the tide was up, gamely throwing our long fishing lines with baited hook at the end, hoping some fish will swallow the hook and sink, or else, we could just be sitting on the bridge, tossing stones into the water, ribbing each other or teasing our ladies that came around to fetch water at the same time.
On that particular evening when I had met Maryam for the first time, we were sitting on the bridge as usual; idly throwing stones into the water and with no other immediate plan of action in mind. After running out of stones to throw, my gaze was unwittingly drawn to the sloppy hill, observing the sunset that had bathed a twilight shadow at the tip of the hills leading down to the river basin. As if on cue, Maryam had appeared or rather her shadow had. She seemed ensconced within the center of the disappearing orb and surrounding hazy shade. The contour of her shapely body outlined. She was a sun goddess. I was mesmerized by her shadow as it loomed nearer and the rest of her features were starting to become clearer and more prominent. She had balanced her empty bucket with the help of a small roll of padded cloth, tipped slightly and strategically to the side of her head for balance to prevent it from falling. She walked gracefully and gingerly, swinging her arms to the gentle sway of her body as she walked down the hills. I was strongly drawn to her for some unknown reason. I didn’t recognize her face as she came into full vision. I would definitely have remembered that face if I had met her before. It was evident to me that I hadn’t met her before. Everyone knew everyone else in Oguta.
I continued to stare at her as she drew closer. She looked different from other girls in my village. She was very dark skinned and doe-eyed. She bore facial marks, two faint long lines on either side of her cheeks. Our people don’t usually bear tribal facial marks. She wore a loose scarf on her head with her short natural braids sticking out. She was dressed more conservatively, although her short-sleeve blouse accentuated her pert breasts. Her skirt was long.
She slowed down when she noticed our roving eyes were on her. Her gait became less assured. I flinched, watching her nearly stumble, tipping her empty bucket off of her head but she had managed to catch it timely enough to prevent it falling to the ground.
My boys roared in laughter but I refused to join in as usual. I felt protective towards her instead. She held her bucket in her hand now as she quickly walked past us on the bridge and made her way down the slope leading to the river bank. We turned around and continued watching her. Her long skirt unable to conceal her shapely tiny waist or the wiggle of her well rounded buttocks.
Ndudi whistled in appreciation but I made a small jab at his ribs, warning him to stop. My boys were surprised at my reaction. After all I was usually the most boisterous when it came to teasing pretty ladies.
‘Who is she?’ I asked.
‘You mean that you don’t know her?’ They didn’t believe me.
‘That’s why I am asking.’ I was exasperated at their delay in answering. How come I don’t know this divine creature? I prided myself on knowing all the pretty ladies in my village and have dated quite a number already in my time.
I was told that her name was Maryam. She and her family had recently relocated back to our village. They had used to live in the Northern region of our country but were currently on exodus. They had escaped along with the rest of fellow Easterners forced to evacuate from their former homes and livelihood. This was a result of growing hostility from some indigenous Northerners and renegade Muslims, agitating to turn the Northern states to purely Sharia-law governed and Muslim states. They were attacking Easterners or Ibos and mainly Christians, looting and setting fire to their homes, churches and market places. Most Easterners were therefore forced to evacuate and relocate back to their respective hometowns. Maryam and her family were similarly affected and had returned to resettle back home at our village, Oguta.
It was clear to me why she was unfamiliar. She was new in town. I had to meet her.