We Don’t Sweep At Night
by Suzanne Ushie
When I first saw the slender girl in Dad’s Passat, I asked Mum if she was our new housegirl. But Mum said, “No. That’s your cousin, Agwukiwhun,” in a low and grave tone, as if I’d said something unforgivable. In truth, Agwukiwhun wasn’t my cousin. Our late grandfathers were best friends. They’d fought together with the Nigerian troops during the Second World War. If Mum was telling the story they were stationed in Kenya, and if it was Dad they were stationed in Burma, and if Mum corrected Dad, he said the story involved his father not hers so he was right.
I didn’t know what to make of Agwukiwhun. When we were introduced on the veranda she said, “How are you? I’m happy to meet you,” without mixing up her tenses. She looked me right in the eye. Her fair skin had an uneven tone, darker on her face than her body, suggesting frequent sunlight. She had a brittle jheri curl and wore an ill-fitting dress. After I put away the sack of corn her parents sent to thank us for taking her in, Dad told me to show her around. She said little in the kitchen while I explained that the fridge prevented food from going bad. In the living room, where I turned on the television with the remote control, she said they had a black and white TV back home. I felt silly, yet grudgingly impressed. Our red brick house, with its chintz sofas and high ceilings, didn’t seem to awe her. She didn’t stare at the King Louis XV-style desk in the hallway. She was nothing like the other village girls who had come from our hometown Bedia to live with us in Calabar.
In the past, those village girls, essentially housegirls, slept in the room beside the garage. Sometimes, just before Mum left for work at the Ministry of Agriculture, she carried out raids and found cubes of Maggi and packets of salt they’d stolen. Afterward she gave a long lecture, solemn-faced, that often ended with the housegirl weeping. Sometimes Mum wept too. “They steal because they have so little,” she often said. Her ideals were marred when our last housegirl drained half her Chanel No. 5 with a syringe. “Common thief! You’re leaving this house today,” she’d said as she smacked her. That was months before Agwukiwhun came and flung her frayed green wrapper over my closet door. I didn’t like sharing my territory with her. The wrapper weighed on my mind and one day, while she showered, I slipped it under her pillow.
When Agwukiwhun returned I watched her search the closet, fling open the drawers, fiddle with the paper garland draped over the dresser as if her wrapper could possibly be there. She picked up the notebook where I had doodled Udoka’s name. I quickly said in Bette, “It’s under your pillow,” not wanting her to know I had a crush.
“You should have told me to keep it somewhere else if it was disturbing you,” she replied in English.
I wanted to slap her. What stopped me was the fear that she would slap me back and my brain would turn to mousse. Something about her toned arms convinced me. Besides, she was sixteen, two years older than me, though it was hard to tell since I was taller than her. None of this mattered to Mum. She didn’t want me to be a spoiled only child so I cleaned and cooked with Agwukiwhun. On humid afternoons I chopped fresh green ugu, lumpy carrot sticks, dry fingers of okro for ushaw soup.
“Those slices are too big,” Mum would say to me.
Agwukiwhun knew exactly how to curve the knife, to cut the okro into jagged pieces. I tried to mimic her motions but mine lacked the effortlessness of hers. By the afternoon she wrote the poem, my slices were almost perfect. I had just stepped back into the kitchen after lunch when I heard Mum sobbing. She stood by the granite-topped counter, a sheet of lined paper in her hands, Agwukiwhun’s body pressed against hers in a haphazard embrace. The poem itself was rather banal: stanza after stanza of praise for my parents, a sun and a star in every other sentence, Thank you spelled as Thenk you. I hoped—prayed—it didn’t mean Agwukiwhun would attend Canaan Model School with me. It would have been a travesty for my parents’ charity to stretch that far.
“Oh my God! She has so much potential,” Mum said to Dad, breathless with discovery, when he returned from a conference in Benin. He told her everyone had an innate potential so that word itself, potential, was meaningless. Sometimes when Dad shared one of his numerous self-made theories, I was certain he would have been better off being a philosopher instead of an engineer. To my relief, he wasn’t moved by Agwukiwhun’s affection-winning tactics. Still, he enrolled her in Holy Child, the all-girls secondary school on Marian Hill, altering the order of her destiny. She was spared from the commercial academy with its broken louvres and bumpy floors.
All Holy Child students wore their hair short and natural. As Mum chopped off Agwukiwhun’s jheri curls, I subdued the urge to shred the dark tufts and fling them far away.
* * *
I was sitting in the backyard when Mum called me from her bedroom. I pretended not to hear. I knew she wanted me to clasp her bracelet, or do up her zip—another mundane task to help prepare her for the usual evening outing with Dad. I glared at Agwukiwhun when she leaned out of the kitchen to say Mum was calling me. Surely Agwukiwhun knew I had ears.
Mum looked chic in a floral print dress. I fastened her necklace and she did a mock twirl in the middle of the room, smelling of Shalimar, coaxing Dad to change out of his tweed blazer into something more cheery. I had dinner after they left. A tumbler slid out of my hand while I did the dishes, the foam-covered splinters splashing across the terrazzo floor.
Agwukiwhun walked in as I picked up a broom. “Our people don’t sweep at night,” she said, her voice laughingly ominous. “It’s against our culture.”
I rolled my eyes and began to sweep. She pried the broom from my hands, tossed the splinters into the bin. I disliked the way she was looking at me. Mum had given me the same unflinching look during our last trip to Bedia. “Don’t embrace anyone apart from your grandmother,” she’d said with no further explanation. The holiday morphed into one of avoiding strangers and sidestepping relatives. When an effusive aunt succeeded in embracing me, I tottered on the cusp of despair. I went into the bedroom, took off my clothes, and examined my whole body. Because I didn’t find anything strange, I didn’t tell Mum. But this was different. I had knowingly defied a warning, probably brought on some cultural curse.
The next day, I waited until Agwukiwhun had left for the market before going in
search of Mum, plotting the best way to share my unease without sounding crazy. Mum was reading Homes and Gardens in the living room. When she saw me in the doorway, she straightened herself and removed her feet from the leather ottoman. “Aha! I was just going to call you. Please get me a Fanta from the fridge.”
I placed the frosted bottle on the side stool and left. I should have known she was the wrong person to talk to anyway, especially when she was planning to plant another vicious shrub on the lawn.
I found Dad unscrewing a lamp holder on the porch. I asked him if it was true that we don’t sweep at night.
“What do you mean by we? Our family?”
“Not just our family. All Obudu people.”
“I see. And where did you hear this?” He didn’t wait for my response, for which I was thankful. “Well, some of our people believe that when you sweep at night, you sweep away your family’s wealth. Absurd, of course.”
“What if it isn’t?”
He turned to me, his serious face in place. I knew he was about to say something interesting and mystifying. He removed his glasses and smeared a lens with his fingers. He told me to wear them and I did. He asked me to tell him what I saw. I could barely see anything. It was like looking out of a window on an early harmattan morning. I told him I could see the bougainvillea on the fence through the lens he hadn’t touched, and through the other, a cluster of blurry shapes.
“We can either decide to view the world clearly or decide to complicate it for ourselves,” Dad said. “People usually choose one over the other because that’s all they’ve been taught to do.”
Did he mean Agwukiwhun was right? Wrong? That I shouldn’t be frightened? I didn’t get it. I was just pleased he thought me high-thinking enough for one of his little nuggets of intellectualism. I memorized those words and waited for an opportunity to show them off.
Days later, Mum and I were watching Quiz Time. The presenter was wearing a tight white shirt and bright red shorts. Mum said he resembled a capsule in that outfit and what was he thinking when he got dressed? I repeated Dad’s words. Mum laughed and laughed, and when her mirth quietened to soft pants, she said I must have been spending too much time with Dad.
* * *
At the end of the term, Agwukiwhun’s report card arrived, cluttered with As and Bs. Mum stopped hovering around the kitchen. Her conviction that Agwukiwhun was different, that she wouldn’t mix pepper into chin-chin dough or pour salad cream into groundnut soup was sealed.
The first time we took Agwukiwhun to Akpe, the monthly get-together of Obudu people, Mum showed her off to the other women in identical bouffant blouses.
“This is our new girl,” she began, beaming.
As always, one of the women commented on how big my breasts were while Mum smiled a small, victorious smile, as though she were responsible for their growth.
Agwukiwhun and I sat under the awning with the other children. A group of them were playing musical chairs to a Remedies song on the stereo. Someone asked me to join in and I mumbled something about being tired. I had outgrown the phase where I could dance around white plastic chairs without looking dim-witted.
A surly-looking girl laughed. “Don’t mind her. She has no brother or sister yet she feels she’s bigger than all of us.”
In spite of the music and the laughter, the mood turned grim. I should have told her she had mosquito legs but I couldn’t bring myself to speak.
Agwukiwhun got up and pulled the girl’s ears in a swift, experienced motion.
“You better say sorry now or I’ll deal with you.”
“Sorry oh. I’m very sorry,” the girl said, sounding as stunned as I was. I had never really had anyone fight for me, with me, and it brought on a new lightness.
Agwukiwhun and I were silent on the drive home. Even Dad noticed. He glanced in the rearview mirror and asked if we were still in the car. I thanked Agwukiwhun later, not only because I felt that by defending me she created a bond, but also because I owed it to her. She shrugged and said, “That girl is stupid,” and continued unpegging her clothes from the worn twine by the water tank.
We didn’t speak until the next week when Dad and Mum travelled to Eket for a wedding. I sat before the mirror and redid my plaits. Agwukiwhun said I wasn’t doing it properly. She collected the comb, parted my hair, and made a neat cornrow.
“Hey!” I pulled the unbraided section of my hair together. “Doesn’t it look like a big bunny bum?”
Agwukiwhun said nothing. I realized then that she couldn’t possibly know what a bunny bum was. When we watched Friends that evening, it became clear that she waited for me to laugh before laughing.
I told her about Udoka. My exact words were this: I think a boy in my class likes me. He sat two rows away from me, good looking in a non-threatening way. The kind of boy who could be your best friend or your boyfriend. Every so often I pictured his long arms wrapped around me—of course I never told Agwukiwhun this silly part. She gave me her forthright look. “How do you know he likes you when he has never spoken to you?” she asked, chuckling in a way that made me long to prove her wrong.
She was right, though, about one thing: menstrual periods were a nuisance. She would rush out of the bathroom, a forgotten blob of foam at the back of her neck, water from her body dripping onto the Berber carpet, just in time to wear a sanitary pad. I wondered how it felt to do that.
“Show me your pad,” I said after watching for the fortieth time.
Agwukiwhun stopped. “What?”
“Show me. I want to see what colour the blood is.”
“Your head is not correct. You better enjoy yourself now.”
I had no idea what she meant. Until the day I felt my intestines constrict. In the toilet I found a map of blood, the weak red of ground tomatoes, spreading across my panties. Mum embraced me as if I had come first in my class and said I should behave myself since I was now a woman. My stomach hurt so much I could hardly focus.
“I told you to enjoy yourself,” Agwukiwhun said when I moaned about the pain.
* * *
Late one night, in the deep yellow flicker of a candle flame, Agwukiwhun taught me the Lord’s Prayer in Bette. Soon I was singing the mournful, stirring lyrics along with her.
Mum peered into our room, a hard white mask applied to her face. “Your Bette
is improving,” she said admiringly to me. But by the third straight night, her tone grew blunted by irritation. “If I hear a single sound from this room again I’ll knock common sense into both of you.”
Agwukiwhun didn’t laugh along with me after Mum left. I thought it a bit too respectful.
“Come on, laugh,” I teased. “Mum doesn’t really mean it.”
“I don’t feel like making noise,” Agwukiwhun said.
“Weren’t you singing just now?”
It was then that she told me about the woman she had lived with in Port Harcourt. She kept her voice low at first, gaining momentum as she went along, stumbling over English words when it would have been easier to tell the story in Bette.
Her parents were reluctant to let her go. But the woman was her mother’s second cousin, recently widowed, and needed help with her three-year-old twin sons. The woman told Agwukiwhun to call her Mummy. And Agwukiwhun did, even with the contrivance in the woman’s easy acceptance, in the unassuming way the woman sent her to the community school and gave her torn novels to read. The twins ate only if Agwukiwhun fed them, sulked if she scolded them. The woman regarded their closeness with an exaggerated fondness. “Go and share this with your big sister,” she told the twins whenever she brought home oily packets of boli and fried fish.
On the day the younger twin called Agwukiwhun Mummy, the woman was disturbingly silent. When it happened again, she said she would show Agwukiwhun who the real Mummy was. She emptied a pot of beans, filled it with water, and ordered Agwukiwhun to drink up. After Agwukiwhun retched, the woman regarded the mess and said, “Now see what you’ve done.” I could just hear it. Her tone would have been pained.
“Did you go back home?” I asked.
“No. I stayed with her,” Agwukiwhun said. “I kept on calling her Mummy even after she started beating me. Then I went home for Christmas. I was annoyed when my parents started touching the Hollandis wrappers she sent to them. They said God will bless her. I didn’t go back to Port Harcourt. How can I live with somebody who disgraces my parents like that?”
“How about the twins? Do you miss them?”
I mulled over her story long after. It seemed to me that something in my head had dislodged and no matter how hard I tried, I wouldn’t fix it back in place.
The next time I saw one of her poems on the dresser, I read the melodramatic lines about the sun and the stars without laughing once, and then put it away.
* * *
At first, when Udoka dropped a note in my locker, I didn’t tell Agwukiwhun. It never occurred to me that the universe could do as I bid. On languid afternoons, after all, I had lain behind the sofa and played FLAME with his name and mine. Despite all my scheming it had always ended on the E: Enemies. So when I read the slanted writing that declared his affection, I tried to ignore the pause in my breath. But he caught up with me right after assembly.
“Did you get my note?”
I said yes, suddenly shy, aware of alien sensations taking anchor inside me. He gave me a jumbo pack of Mars bars the next day. A trinket box that purred as it slid open the following day. I returned them all. I just want to get to know you better, he wrote in another note. I smirked at his unoriginality, and then he stopped sending me gifts, leaving me strangely flattened by loss.
I showed Agwukiwhun the notes at home. She said I should be glad he had given up. “Boys will say anything just to touch that thing between our legs,” she added.
I evaded her eyes.
“So you like him.”
I didn’t deny it.
“Well, you can kiss him if you like. But if he touches your lap…” She switched to Bette for effect. “You’re finished!”
“How do you know?” I asked. “Has anyone touched your own lap?”
“Yes, of course.”
Was that a way of saying she had had sex? I couldn’t believe how casual she sounded. Anyway, who knew what else people did in those murky village streams apart from bathing and urinating and fetching water? I wished for some of her clear-eyed confidence. I wished I could say ‘yes’ but not ‘of course’ if Udoka asked me out. But a week went by. An uneventful week of nursing a tension headache that intensified each time I saw him.
“Stop thinking about your chewing gum boyfriend,” Agwukiwhun would say whenever I didn’t answer a question immediately.
Boyfriend. In it I heard the sound of a beginning. In it I saw a sign that me and Udoka were united. And when Dad said “some stammering chap named Udoka” had phoned while I was at the salon, I found out I could still walk and talk when I wasn’t breathing normally. I hadn’t given Udoka my number; he must have looked it up in the phone book or got it from someone. The implications of this thrilled me: he would not have bothered if he didn’t care. As I made to leave, Dad gestured at the diary in the alcove. Udoka had left a message. I nearly laughed. Dad had written the name of the caller and the time of the call and the purpose of the call: to seek clarification on a class assignment. At least it had been Dad who answered the phone, not Mum. She had begun to stare at my breasts, a tentative smile in place of the victorious smile, perhaps in fear they would grow bigger with her approval.
I practised what I would say to Udoka. I would tell him I knew he really hadn’t called because of an assignment. I would reach out and caress the soft fuzz above his lip while the tiny space between us crackled with our own kind of magic. Only when we were finally alone, in an empty classroom after a physics lesson, all I said was a limp, “I heard you called.”
He stood by the desk next to mine, his pale blue school uniform crease-free, his voice a little too shaky. “Yes,” he said. “I wanted to ask you something.”
He gazed at the floor. I glanced away for a minute or two. Then I felt, on my cheek and neck, the sudden heat of his mint-edged breath. I turned. He was moving closer with his eyes half-closed. My nerves lurched. My courage dissolved. Not once did I look back as I fled. I smoothed my hair in the girls’ bathroom, leaned against the sink to steady my heartbeat. An odd tightness filled my chest.
I wouldn’t have told Agwukiwhun if she hadn’t brought up his name on Saturday afternoon. We were playing Ludo in our bedroom. I threw the dice, another wasted attempt, and Agwukiwhun said some people couldn’t focus because of their chewing gum boyfriends. I told her to leave me alone. It must have stunned her, the acrimony with which I spoke, because she said I should have known that she was just joking. She asked me if I had quarrelled with Udoka. I told her everything. Well, almost everything. I left out the girls’ bathroom bit.
“It’s just like a film,” she said, pronouncing ‘film’ as ‘feem’.
“You’re not serious.”
“It’s good that you didn’t kiss him. All that saliva.” She grimaced. “Don’t worry, you hear? Your chewing gum boyfriend will talk to you on Monday.”
“I don’t care.”
“Is kissing that bad?”
She said, “I don’t know oh,” in a sing-songish tone, and I wondered if indeed she had kissed anyone before.
“You’re the liar,” I said. “You know.”
Agwukiwhun didn’t reply.
“Show me how to do it. Or is it against our culture too?”
“You’re talking nonsense again.”
“Dare me,” I said, illogically bold.
I leaned forward and pressed my lips against hers. She moved sideways, giggling, toppling everything from the Ludo board to the multi-coloured tokens. I’m not sure who shifted closer first. What I’m sure of is that I gulped when we felt the slippery warmth of each other’s mouths, because her saliva tasted very much like mine. I glanced at the doorway—nothing else to look at, after all—and there was Mum, her mouth opening and closing with no sound. This went on for another moment or two. And then she walked towards Agwukiwhun, who had already crouched, a hand raised above her head. A hard slap, a harder knock. A punch. A kick. At some point Agwukiwhun pulled Mum’s sleeve, enraging her more.
I got up and stood between them. “Mum, please stop.”
Mum narrowed her eyes as she struck me. My head grew so hot, so heavy the sounds that had finally begun to come out of her mouth were indistinguishable. Foolish g…Thwack. Idio…Thwack Thwack.
“Aunty, please forgive,” Agwukiwhun said. Mum paused. I ran into Dad’s study and locked the door. I didn’t come out until Dad returned from work. He examined the welts, pinkish-brown like earthworms, streaked across my arm.
“Good grief. They were just curious,” he said to Mum. “It’s normal for girls their age.”
“Normal?” She lifted an eyebrow. “Oh. Is that what they call sin these days?”
Dad sighed in a way that said, “Let it go.”
Again, Mum lifted an eyebrow.
“It’s my fault, Mum,” I said. “I kissed her first.”
Mum winced at the mention of ‘kiss’.
I nudged Agwukiwhun who had been silent and sullen throughout. “Tell her.” I could hear the desperation salting my voice.
Agwukiwhun looked away, sublime in defiance.
The palpable presence of an ending settled in the room. Mum threw Agwukiwhun’s clothes into a blue Ghana Must Go bag. Dad stood by and went on and on about the importance of mercy. Not that it worked. The next morning, Agwukiwhun left for the motor park, waving off my feeble sorrys. They were trite, I know, but I couldn’t think of anything else suitable for the situation. The moment was too surreal for a proper goodbye. When I said I would visit, her smile was hesitant, somewhat mocking, as though she knew, even then, that we would never see each other again.
Suzanne Ushie grew up in Calabar, Nigeria. Her short stories have appeared in several publications including Fiction Fix, Overtime, Open Wide Magazine, Conte Online and Gambit: Newer African Writing. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, England where she received the African Bursary for Creative Writing and made a Distinction. She lives in Lagos, Nigeria.