Sweet Bitterleaf

The day Daddy’s release from prison was announced on the radio was the day I discovered that feelings could taste sweet. Mama fell to the floor crying. Grandma and Aunty Nina, Mama’s mother and sister held her while thanking God for his work. Big Papa looked pleased and his pleasure seemed to increase when Uncle Clovis came home with the palm wine he’d gone out to get for him just before the announcement was made. My joy seemed to bubble up from my stomach and spill over my tongue and it tasted sweet like honey. Me and my cousin Shirley jumped up and down happily hugging each other close. A few minutes after the announcement was made, a large crowd of people flooded into the compound of our house in Bonduma, in their jubilation, trampling over and completely destroying the vegetable and flower gardens Mama worked so hard to keep neat and productive. The crowd grew big, so wide reaching was Daddy’s influence, the gendarmes had eventually shown up to disperse them, careful to behave appropriately, because they knew that anyone who had so quickly been arrested, taken to Yaoundé and then released by the Regime without anything untoward happening to them, was someone to treat with care. My cousin Shirley and I exchanged wide eyed looks after as we surveyed the yard, concerned what Mama’s reaction might be when she saw the damage to her years of hard work. She had barely noticed, so great was her joy. I walked around that day and the days that followed until Daddy came home, with the sweet taste of joy sitting at the back of my tongue, drawing its fullness out to savor fully when I remembered that soon, I will be able to hug my Daddy and smell his perfume again, read newspapers with him, ask him all my questions, and drive around with him as he checked on his farms and various projects in Buea. It feels good to see how loved and respected my father is. His workers always look very happy when he shows up. These activities with my father are the highlights of my life. It’s not a very long life as I am six years old. I used to say “only” six years old but Daddy told me to embrace my age. I was not sure what he meant so I asked him. He told me it means to be ok with being a six year old girl and learning how to be the best six year old girl I could be.

The day Daddy came home from prison is the day I learned that feelings could also taste bitter.  Grandma and Aunty Nina had come to our house from the village the day after Daddy was arrested. So had Big Papa, daddy’s father and Uncle Clovis who was a distant relation I couldn’t explain but who always travelled with Big Papa to assist him. I had not like being made to say hello to all of them when they arrived. Their attention made me itchy and I did not like being touched by anyone but my Daddy. Big Papa patted us on the cheeks and commented on how we were big women already. He asked Shirley when she was getting married. I frowned in confusion when he asked that because Shirley is only 13 but everyone laughed, like it was the most normal question in the world. Maybe they were just glad to be given a reason to laugh because it felt like a cloud of tension and fear had descended over our house after Daddy got arrested.  As everyone laughed, I noticed Uncle Clovis looking at Shirley, his eyes lingering on her the way Daddy’s eyes linger on Mama when she forgot to wear her house coat over nightgown. Shirley didn’t like this very much. I think so because I looked at her right at the moment she caught Uncle Clovis staring. Her eyes grew bigger then she looked at the floor. Her body then slouched over as if she was trying to hide her chest. The whole exchange caused my heart to skip a beat. I wasn’t sure why but I was sure the tight feeling I got between my eyes and nose after was not something I wanted to feel again. More relatives showed up from the village the next day, crowding into our house. The day of the return itself, even more relatives and friends started showing up as early as 6am, bringing food, drinks and anything they thought would contribute to the celebration.  It was a happy festive mood in the house. A little bit like Christmas but the buzz of excitement held something more to it. I heard the uncles sitting and talking in the parlor say Daddy is a true son and protector of his people. They continued to list Daddy’s good qualities: a well-known business man, a family man, young and dynamic, with good values and ideas as demonstrated in the scathing takedown of the Regime he had penned that got him arrested. The conversation shifted to politics with the men debating loudly if secession was really an option and if they could trust any of the people likely to run in the presidential elections next year. I heard some suggest that Daddy should run in the presidential elections or even lead the move for secession. The men in the room seemed to like the idea. Uncle Kome, Daddy’s classmate from Sasse seemed to like it the most.

“He is the best we have right now, I can’t believe we didn’t see this before!” he said in his typical forceful manner, his booming voice rattling the small cavity of my chest. As he talked, I saw small drops of spittle fly from his lips from where I sat in the corner fiddling with the food I didn’t really want to eat because I didn’t want to spoil the taste of joy in my mouth as I listened to everyone talk about my father.

“The man has had integrity since from our school days, so what he wrote did not surprise me” Uncle Kome continued, proud of his long relationship with my father. “We thought he was quiet but the teachers would always read his essays to the class because they were so brilliant. He is a natural leader. One article in the Post! Just one! And the Regime gets so afraid they send goons to arrest him. What a failure of a government!”

The men in the room agreed heartily. They talked about Mama too. She would be a real asset, a whole professor, and of course a beautiful woman.

In the kitchen, Mama and the women cooked.

When the car carrying Daddy showed up, I was the first to see it because I was waiting near the gate. My excited scream when I caught a glimpse of the familiar silhouette of my father’s head drew everyone’s attention and people came pouring out of the house. They and everything else disappeared as I focused on the man whose presence in my life was love, safety and joy. I flew into his arms, his laughter washing over me like a sweet, warm river of love. All was right in my world again. I fell asleep that night curled in Daddy’s arms, against a backdrop of music, the thick scent of beer and palm wine and excited talk about elections and secession. That word again. I told myself I had to ask Daddy it means.

I woke up in my bed from one of the bad dreams I started having when Daddy got arrested. Normally, I went to Shirley’s bed but I was already sharing my bed with her, since Grandma and Aunty Nina shared the other bed in the room. I listened to her soft breathing for a few seconds before deciding tonight was a night I couldn’t bear to be separated from my father. Still half asleep, I made for my parent’s room hoping to get in their bed. I stopped at the door when I heard sounds from inside the room, then froze in surprise, coming fully awake when I realized the sound I heard was the sound of Mama crying. Why is Mama crying? I thought. Daddy is home! She should be happy. Why is she crying? Was he in there with her?  I wanted to open the door, go into the room and ask why she was crying but then I heard Daddy’s voice low and deep. I could not make out what he said but he sounded angry. The volume of her crying seemed to increase just a little before being abruptly cut off then I heard a sharp intake of breath, a scuffle, footsteps and what sounded like a muffled yelp. I got that tight feeling between my eyes and nose again and the sweetness of joy I had pulled to my tongue as I thought about sleeping close to my parents seemed to intensify to the point my tongue felt numb then as the intensity dissipated, a flat bitterness was all I could taste. A small crack formed where my chest used to be solid and sure. It frightened me. Why is Mama crying? I decided to go back to the room I shared with my cousin. As I turned away from the door, a rhythmic sound, similar to the sound Daddy and Mama’s bed made when I jumped on it came through the closed door. I would have had to be jumping very fast to mimic this sound, though.

The next day, Daddy and Mama seemed happy with each other so I asked none of the bitter-tasting questions that had lodged themselves in my mouth. Over the next weeks, things slowly returned to a new kind of normal. Grandma, Aunty Nina and Uncle Clovis stayed after everyone else left. I was glad Grandma and Aunty Nina stayed even though that meant I had to share the bed with Shirley but Uncle Clovis’s presence confused me. He was always with Big Papa, and I wondered who would fetch the beer and palm wine Big Papa seemed to exist on if they were apart. When I asked Daddy about it, he said Big Papa was worried what might happen to him next, he wanted Uncle Clovis to stay and keep watch over the family. Daddy now spends a lot of time travelling and meeting with different people to talk about politics. He doesn’t take me to these meetings as he would his other meetings. I asked him why and he told me these discussions would be too heavy for a little girl. It made me want to go even more. I wanted to spend time with my Daddy in case the Regime came and arrested him again. I wanted to know about politics if that was how one stood up to the Regime that arrests people’s fathers because they write well. I continued to have bad dreams which seemed to increase every time Daddy came home from one of his trips. Sometimes, I would wake up and go to their room to sleep with them. The nights I heard Mama crying and those strange sounds, I went back to my room after licking some toothpaste to lessen the bitter taste that coated my tongue, breathing through my mouth as if that would stop the crack in my chest from growing bigger, spreading from the point in the center. Very soon I began to hate this politics thing that had come into our lives and taken my Daddy away from me. I felt like crying and the broken glass screen that was my chest vibrated in a weird way when I thought about it for too long. Is that why Mama cries at night too sometimes? I wondered.

The tightness between my eyes and nose and the bitter taste on my tongue have become a fixture of my life since then. A few weeks later, however, when I saw Fatou, our Francophone neighbor’s house help crying behind their firewood kitchen, the tightness bloomed into a headache. Mama sent me to get bitterleaf from the garden in the backyard which was the one the part of our yard that had not been trampled upon weeks earlier. I was glad to have something to do in the kitchen because I always felt like I was underfoot when Mama and Shirley were cooking. Today, with Aunty Nina and Grandma present, my services were scarcely needed at all. I went off on my errand happily and picked the leaves carefully as I’d been taught to. The first thing I heard was hurried footsteps then a heavy sob followed by hysterical crying. I peered through the wood fence and shrubs that divided our compound from theirs and saw her sitting on the ground, her plump body folded in on itself, shaking as she wept. The crying was many things I didn’t have words for yet but the sound, the keening, hollow, hopeless sound of it hit the already fragile space in my chest, exploding its fractured solidity into many tiny slivers. A big yawning, seemingly bottomless hole was left and I felt myself falling into it and the bitterness flooded my tongue so strongly I felt I could scrape it off with my teeth.

“Fatou?” My voice trembled.

Her head swung up in shock when she heard her name. She scrambled up from her sitting position and ran to the fence, her eyes wide with fear. She had sought out the spot hoping to hide, I realized. From who? I thought frantically, feeling my own fear rise. I walked to a spot in the partition that had little shrubbery so I could see her. She moved over to where I stood.

“Rosa!” she whispered my name urgently, crushing the “r” as Francophones do. She pressed her face close to mine through the fence, so close I could see the red veins in her eyes, swollen from crying, the tears still forming as the spoke. There was a bruise on her lips with what looked like bite marks on them. I could smell her sweat, the Vaseline she used for body lotion, and the sour breath that accompanied the words that came out of her mouth next. “No tell any man you see me crying. I beg you! Promise!”

“Ok.” I whispered.

I blurted out what I had witnessed the moment I got back to the kitchen. The air seemed to go out of Mama’s body when she heard my words and she cast a worried look towards the neighbor’s house. Grandma and Aunty Nina both looked askance at her. Shirley sat frozen with a faraway look in her eyes.

“Has Aurelie’s father come back from Yaoundé?” Mama asked Shirley.

My cousin nodded, suddenly very interested in the plantains she was peeling.

Mama sighed.

“The least they could do is send the child to school.” Aunty Nina murmured.

“When she’s not a relative?” Grandma asked, sounding scandalized.

“All women need an education these days, Mama.” My mother said softly.

That wuna book wey di make am woman no di want shiddon inside house, so…” Grandma said, her mouth set in a decidedly disapproving line, as she leaned over to poke at the wood fire.

I saw Mama and Aunty Nina exchange looks. No one said anything else. Aunty Nina and Grandma left a couple of days later and Uncle Clovis stayed.

I asked Daddy why Aurelie’s father makes Fatou cry about a week later, when he was in town.  I couldn’t stop thinking about Fatou and the hole in my chest but neither Shirley nor Mama wanted to discuss the topic again. Besides, they always treat me like a child and Daddy answers my questions like I am smart enough to understand.  I had to wait because Daddy is now very busy. He travels a lot and when he is not, he is talking politics with the seemingly endless stream of men who come by to visit in the evenings. I asked him when we sat in his study as was our morning tradition, him reading the newspaper, me halfheartedly doing calligraphy exercises since Daddy wanted me to have perfect cursive writing. I worked quietly waiting for him to share some news from the paper with me so we could discuss it but that had happened less and less since his arrest and release. Now, we mostly spent what he called our daddy-daughter time with him reading and me doing some exercise he assigned. My questions needed answering, though. He’d come back from Bamenda the day before and Mama had cried last night. I wanted to understand what was happening around me and why I now walked around with this hole in my chest I was deathly afraid I would fall into. His lips set into a very hard line when I asked my question and he asked me where I’d heard that. I told him the events of the week before, down to Mama’s conversation with Shirley, Aunty Nina and Grandma. His body vibrated tensely when I finished. I’d never felt that from my father. It frightened me and the hole in my chest seemed to pulse in invitation.

“I’m going to have a talk with your mother about the conversations she has in front of you.  But I will try to answer your question since you asked. Relationships between men and women are complicated and people feel hurt sometimes, so they cry. That’s all that was. You see, the girl told you not to tell anyone, right? That means she will be fine, so do not worry about it. Just remember that no good and honorable man would do anything to make a woman cry, alright?”

I wanted to ask him about Mama and why she cries at night. I wanted to ask him if that meant that he was not a good and honorable man himself. But I already know my Daddy is a good and honorable man and that now, sometimes Mama cries at night. I felt that tightness between my eyes and nose again so I said nothing more. I didn’t want a head ache. That night I slept with my parents. I woke up the next morning from a dream about Fatou, Aurelie’s father and I which involved us falling down that hole in my chest –  her crying bitterly as she had been that day, him laughing as I’ve heard him laugh over the fence from time to time and me listening to them in a detached way. I perked to attention when I heard Fatou’s name and knowing they would stop talking if they knew I was awake, I pretended to still be sleeping.

“Stay out of that business, Beatrice” my father was saying. “First of all, they are Francophones and he is a military man. This is a delicate time for everyone. The girl, they call her Fatou? Didn’t she tell Rosa not to tell anyone? Obviously, she has some stake in keeping the situation as it is, which looking at the man’s wife makes it understandable. She’s young but they pay her probably makes it worth it. She’s always seemed too loose for my taste and reasonable men do not do what you claim that man is doing.  And even if so, that is more reason we must break away from these people. I hope Shirley no longer goes over there.”

Mama assured him that she doesn’t.

I told Shirley what Daddy had said and her eyes took on a glassy look like she would cry. She said nothing for a few seconds, her breath seeming to flutter in and out of her chest.

“He’s right.” She said finally, her normally high-pitched voice a small sound barely louder than a whisper. She wouldn’t meet my eyes when she said it and seemed to be in a bad mood for the rest of the day, avoiding everyone. Her mood was so bad, she disobeyed Mama for the first time I’d ever witnessed and refused to take Uncle Clovis his food in his room when Mama asked her to.

Mama beat Shirley for the first of many times that day.

 

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