Nkem was worried about Chizu. Each time they saw, and they rarely saw each other these days. She had a busier schedule and Chizu seemed to prefer to spend time with her new friends than with her. Whenever she made time for them to see, it was either she had already made plans with Annuli or there was some occasion to attend or a shopping trip to go on with women who seemed to have no regard on how they spend money.
It wasn’t just the money and time spent on shopping unneeded stuff that worried her. It was Chizu herself; it was her state of mind. She was most often absentminded when they were together and when she wasn’t inattentive and distracted, she acted in a jumpy manner. It was as if something continually kept her ill at ease. She was nervy and tense—and she always wanted to be on the move. Restless.
“I think it’s this their close association with Onwa that makes her this way.” She confided in her friend, Ogonna. “Even Ifee’s changed. He used to be so down-to-earth, so easy-going and simple of heart. Now he talks big and pompous and there’s no end to the things he will buy next. The wealth—” Nkem shook her head. “It practically came out of nowhere and seems to be all they talk about these days.”
“If they are close to Onwa then something must not be right.” Ogonna said in a quiet tone.
Nkem stared at her. “How do you mean?”
Ogonna lifted her shoulders. “Everyone knows who he is—or is it, what he is?” She paused, because she the kind that preferred to mind her business. But Nkem was her friend. Closer than a friend. “He’s a member of the occult world, Nkem. He’s a cultist and many who associate closely with him belong to his confraternity.” Again she allowed a meagre pause and then finished. “There’s even talk about town these days that your brother-in-law is their newest member. They say he is highly favoured by Onwa. That he is his right-hand man now.”
“God forbid!” But even as she rebuked the idea, Nkem half believed in its truth. Had she not protested the same to Chizu just before they moved into that luxurious house? “Ifee would not so debase himself. He would not stoop so low as to—” She shook her head. It seemed too implausible. Become a cultist? “Blood money? No, it cannot be! Not Ifee. Not Chizu. Chizu would never permit such.”
“Many wives never know when their husbands get into these confraternities, Nkem.” Ogonna reasoned. She thought of Nkem’s younger sister, her carefree, loving nature and figured she must belong to the gullible many who believed that their husbands just got lucky in business. “It is likely your sister in the dark as to what Ifee really does for money. All that import and export business operations are just fronts. The source of this kind of inexplicable and limitless wealth usually lies in a blood covenant.”
“But whose blood?” And at Ogonna’s slowly arched brows, Nkem vigorously shook her head. “No, that cannot be. Not him. Don’t even think it, Ogo. He was their only child. Ifee loved him greatly and took him everywhere. He was broken by his sudden death. They both were. One cannot destroy a thing one loves that much. No! Impossible!”
“Where were you when the movie Living in Bondage spread far and wide this nation?” Ogonna asked. And then because she knew that the reality was always harder to comprehend and accept than fiction, she added more softly. “These are only speculations, Nkem. We are humans and when we cannot find an understanding of a thing, we present it with a safe explanation. I, and many others speculating, might be wrong. I hope I am. But the truth is that there is no real good in Onwa. His mother died mysteriously whilst in his home and his first two daughters died same way. I only pray that your brother-in-law has not taken a wrong step.”
“I cannot accept this. It cannot be true of Ifee.” Nkem had worried about Onwa’s influence over Ifee but not because she considered that he was capable of sacrificing his own son? “He didn’t do this. That boy would still be alive today if I had done what I should have done and had not been overcome by my ambition.”
Ogonna frowned as she leaned forward on the leather armchair. “What do you mean?”
Nkem gave a low derisive laugh directed at herself and no one else. “This. This office. This position. I sacrificed my nephew to win this appointment.”
“I am not getting you, Nkem.” Ogonna’s frown deepened.
Nkem leaned back against the executive leather swivel chair and wished she had gotten as much satisfaction as she’d anticipated fighting for it. “This is the civil service, Ogo. It is all about politics and lobbying. Even when you are qualified for a position, you still have to pay a price to be given what should rightfully be yours.”
“And what price did you pay?” Ogonna felt it, the sudden disquiet that arose in her.
“I paid for it—literally.” Because her eyes filmed, Nkem blinked severally. “I offered an acceptable monetary bribe to be made a Special Adviser to the Governor. Many say that I am blessed to have paid only that price for some paid in ways that their conscience cannot live with. But I think I paid the biggest price of all, Ogo. I paid with the life of my nephew, Jamuike.”
“How? I still do not comprehend you.”
“Chizu, even Ifee, came to me when Jamuike’s illness started. They needed money. You know how tough things were for them in those days after Ifee had lost his job. Jam was critically ill and they needed to take him to the hospital but could not afford it. They begged my help. I told them I couldn’t help.” Nkem blinked again but one tear escaped. “I told them I had no money. That Obim had borrowed all of my savings to handle a pressing business deal. I lied to my sister and to her husband because I had already concluded plans to make payment with all of that money to begin processing this appointment. Just four days after I made the payment, Jamuike died. He died and all because I couldn’t spare a couple of thousands to save his life.”
“Oh my God, that was why you were so distraught in his hospital ward that day.” Comprehension widened Ogonna’s eyes and made her dip her head in several nods. “But my God, I’m speechless as to what to say.” It was too new an information to be processed fully. “Still, I don’t think you are responsible for his dying. Maybe the money would have elongated his days but I think he was already destined to die.” Destined by God or by the powers of darkness, she couldn’t tell now.
“I don’t think he would have died if I’d rendered the help I could have given when they’d demanded it of me.” The guilt of that continued to haunt her and haunted her even more when she saw what her sister had become in her bid to get over the death of her son. “Sometimes I feel like I ought to tell Chizu.”
“And what good would that do?” Ogonna demanded. “The boy is gone, your sister is still struggling with the loss, why ruin your relationship with her too?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I just want to ease my conscience. Maybe I just want to lay down this burden I’ve been bearing for close to a year now.” Nkem sighed. “Sometimes I can’t believe he’s been gone for eleven months now. Jamuike.” And she sighed again.
CHIZU climbed into the Jacuzzi bath, stretched out her legs and relaxed her back against the board. She sighed with pleasure at the soothing warmth of the water and the sheer comfort of tranquillity. Closing her eyes, she breathed in deeply, slid down the bath and slipped her head underneath the water. There was nothing for a moment, just emptiness and palliative peace. Then as the lassitude drew her into a dreamy state, she sensed the flickering of a shadowy light and next, Jamuike’s face sloped down and hovered over her.
Chizu yanked her head out of the water, jumped out of the bathtub, grabbed her bathrobe and jerked it on. Then she reached for the talisman she’d hung over the spray jet nozzle. It wasn’t there.
“Are you looking for this, mummy?”
The screech leapt out of her mouth even as Chizu swung up her gaze and there he was hanging loosely over the showerhead. A louder screech tore out of her and she involuntarily stumbled backward.
“You think this can save you from the judgment of your conscience, mummy?” He let go off of the talisman and Chizu watched in dazed stupefaction as it dangled un-held in the air. “You think this thing can stop me, mummy? So you will seek protection for yourself when you will do nothing for me?”
“Jamuike—” her voice trailed off as tears cascaded down her cheeks. “Show me mercy.” She begged, her eyes imploring his.
“But you showed me none, mummy. You did nothing to save me. So now, nothing can save you.” He shot out his left hand and the air hissed with the forceful swift movement. The black rope of the suspended talisman snapped into two and then the seashell it held shattered into multiple pieces.
Chizu screamed and ran out of the bathroom.
Ifee was coming through the door and grabbed hold of her as she slammed bodily into him. “What is it again, Chizu?” He growled, his eyes quickly darting around the room.
“He— He is—”
“Stop it! He is nothing and he is nowhere!” Ifee snapped and violently shook her. “Where is the talisman? Why aren’t you wearing it?”
Chizu’s teeth rattled at Ifee’s continuous shake and her head spun. She wrenched free of his painful grip. “He destroyed it. I took it off to bathe. I had to because the rope was becoming soggy with water. But he took it and he suspended it in the air and then shattered it into pieces.” Chizu let out a piteous sob and crushed her arms around her quivering body. “He is here, Ifee. I can’t see him now but he is in here. In this room… with us.”
Ifee’s heartbeat lurched. He couldn’t stop it, and he couldn’t stop the fearful glance he cast about the room. But like always, he saw nothing and felt no presence. “He is not here, Chizu.” He muttered, then sighed. “You are only imagining things. You’ve got to stop this. The servants are beginning to think that there is something wrong with your mind.”
“I am not imagining it, Ifee.” Chizu’s voice echoed sharply with her denial. “Jamuike is haunting me. He follows me everywhere. Even when I wore the talisman, I could still faintly sense him in the background, watching and waiting. He says nothing can save me, Ifee.”
“What nonsense!” Ifee hated when she talked of their dead son speaking to her. It was just impossible. “How can he say something like that to you, Chizu? He was just four years old when he died. Too young to say things with such deep meanings.”
“He is different now, Ifee. He is no longer our four year old son. He can do—”
“He can do nothing, Chizutere!” Ifee yelled. “He is dead and can do nothing. Nothing.”
Jamuike snapped violent eyes upwards, fixed his scorching gaze on the hook of the drum chandelier that hung above his father. Stared at it with lethal venom that broke it off its root.
Chizu shrieked as the heavy pendant light came crashing down and Ifee only barely had the time and the presence of mind to leap out of the way before it landed right beside his feet.
“Now tell me who did that?” Chizu sobbed, quivering uncontrollably. “Tell me that it is not Jamuike that sent that chandelier lamp crashing down, Ifee.”
Ifee was shaken. If he hadn’t moved the lamp would have fallen on him. But Jamuike—No! He shook his head, shook off the gripping fear. It cannot be.
“Not him, Chizu.” He stated and made himself believe it. “The lamp was probably becoming loose and we didn’t notice. I think it finally just came off its nuts now.” Ifee breathed, because he needed the calming inhalation, and then walked over to Chizu. He gently took her in his arms. “He is not haunting you, Chizu. He died too young to haunt anyone in such a vengeful manner. In any case, why would he haunt you?”
“Why wouldn’t he haunt me, Ifeanacho?” Self-loathing coated the words. “Why wouldn’t he haunt me when I, as his mother, looked the other way and lied to myself that I did not know what was going to happen to him?”
Ifee felt the spear of the loathing even when it wasn’t directed at him and he turned away from the aversion in her eyes. “There is no turning back the clock, Chizu. What has been done can never be undone, so get over this.” And because he felt stifled, he stalked out of the room.
Get over this. Chizu silently repeated the dispassionate words and then turned in the direction she sensed his silent unseeing presence. No, she would never get over this. None of them would, she feared.