Failed Rescue

Can’t breathe.
Grasping at veins.
Drowning in a pool of her tears and blood.
Mind in fragments.
Entangled by nerves.
Drifting in and out of consciousness and sheol.
Peace, come!
Gather her essence, take her home.
A thud.
Peace, come!
Bind her together, mummy in tomb.
Two thuds.
Peace.
False air in her lungs.
Two thuds.
Peace, come!
Chaos. Cries.
Peace.

 

 

 

Mist

She had never wanted to meet anyone before like she wanted to meet him. He fascinated her in the way unfamiliar yet alluring things do. She wanted to explore the depths of his mind and uncover the treasures she knew were hidden therein, but it would be another year before she had any opportunity to see him. In the meantime, she would try to be content with the occasional email.

The occasional email.

Ndu had read those emails too many times; musing over every word–words she believed were carefully thought out and typed–and pausing to relish the times he wrote dear, or wonderful, or beautiful, or smiling when she came across the word Nnem. He was an enigma. There was much about him she did not yet know since they had exchanged their first message only five months ago, but she could sense he was fighting an internal battle. There was something about the way he cautiously constructed his sentences, the way he emphasized the words take care of yourself and the way he politely thanked her for their conversation, that suggested he was being more than just perfunctory. She often imagined his inner tempest howling as he struggled with the likelihood of falling in love with someone he had never met, and this thought, of his brows in deep furrows, his heart thumping and his trembling fingers suspended over the keyboard while he pondered what to type, made her heart dance. Oh, how she wanted these thoughts to be true! Granted, he was yet to be explicit about his feelings for her; after all, it had only been five months of sending emails back and forth. Regardless, she knew. She was good at deciphering these things. There was something about his sentences…

Did he know she felt the same way?

She had been careful not to reveal too much, playing him at his own game, and together, it seemed, they tiptoed on eggshells–careful not to say anything about how they both really felt–as their conversations steadily grew both intense and circuitous. Nnem, you should rest. You work too hard. She had read those words in his most recent email over fifty times, and each time she did, they gave her rest. Could she be wrong? I need you to be happy. Please take care of yourself. Could she be projecting her own feelings on to him? He ended all his emails with love and light to you. Could his emails be nothing? Disturbing, ludicrous, platonic nothing? No. She was good at deciphering these things…

Her strong desire to meet him reminded her of tangerine. Peeling the rubbery skin of the fruit releases a fine mist of fragrant oils that cruelly stimulate the taste buds. Yet, gratification must be delayed and the peeling must be complete for the tangerine to be enjoyed. Meeting Chimso would be a delicious end to the current peeling process. For now, she would enjoy the sweet-smelling mist of their conversations that seem to gently but consistently nudge the boundaries of mere friendship.

Image credit: Instructables

The painting

DAY 13

“Hold out your hand.”

“Why?” She asked.

“Do you trust me?” He asked.

She hesitated. “Yes?”

“Seems like a half-hearted yes to me.” He smiled a half-smile. It wasn’t really a smile; a corner of his lips simply curled up when he was seriously contemplating something.

They were standing in front of the easel holding the white 8 x 10 canvas in his small basement studio. The walls and shelves were lined with completed and near-completed paintings of different sizes. Some were commissioned paintings for clients, others were inspired works he hoped to eventually sell or gift out or keep. The air from the vents in the ceiling was cool but the smell of oil paint and acrylic hung heavy. There were several humming sounds from the refrigerator, the dehumidifier and the air vents that combined to fill the studio with a low, comfortable drone. The studio had no windows, but it was well lit with bright white lights. Nate had his palette in one hand, brush in the other.

“It is a half-hearted yes.” She replied.

He nodded. “I’ll never hurt you. You know that, right?”

Silence.

“Cécile?”

Silence. She held out her hand. Her fingers trembled as her arm hung in the air, palm open. She looked away, fighting back the tears.

She felt something cold on her palm. Nate had placed a paint brush in her hand. He closed her fingers over the handle of the brush.

“What?” She gasped and turned to face him. “No. Nate, you know I can’t.”

“I know you can do anything you set your mind to.” He let her hand go. “I’ll go grab us some coffee. How does that sound?”

“I don’t want to do this.”

“I won’t hurt you Cécile.” He whispered. “Just try. Take the palette.”

“I haven’t done this since….”

“You are an artist Cécile.”

She took the palette from him and struggled to wrap her fingers around it. Nate watched. As soon as she had the palette well positioned, he gave her shoulder a soft squeeze and left.

Nate returned with two cups of steaming coffee and placed them on the small table that served as a dining table located in a corner of the studio. He had been gone for a long time, about an hour. She knew his prolonged absence was deliberate because the coffee shop was only a block away from the studio. He walked up to the canvas.

“Well done Cécile.” He smiled. This time, the sides of his eyes crinkled, revealing soft lines. He was thrilled.

She smiled too. “It’s a branch.” She said. On the canvas was a long, bent, brown line.

“Yes, I can see that.” He replied, still staring at the painting. “Would you like to continue?”

“I think I’m done for now. The coffee smells so good.”

“Very well.” They walked to the dining table and sat.

The heat from the coffee cup felt good against her fingers. Her spirit was lifted. “Thank you for letting me do this.”

“You have to promise me something.” He said, as his eyes danced in mischief.

“What?”

He sipped his coffee. “You have to finish it.”

“What?” She almost dropped the Styrofoam coffee cup.

“Hey, Cécile,” He whispered. “You can take as long as you want. No pressure. OK?” He sipped again, “It’s just that you had an idea, some inspiration when you started. I want to see what it was. My studio is your studio.”

She nodded. Painting for the first time since the diagnosis felt good. Painting that bent line, even though it took an hour, made her feel better than she had felt in a long time. She’d try to finish the painting.

DAY 25

His phone rang while he was having cold cereal for breakfast in his studio. “Hello?”

“Nate? James here.”

“Mr. Oliver? How can I help you?”

“Yes.” A pause, “Cécile won’t be coming to the studio today.”

Nate’s heart skipped a beat, but he responded coolly. “Is she alright? She was doing much better yesterday.”

“Yes. She is just fine. My wife and I need to attend an important function today. I’m sorry she didn’t let you know earlier. You know how she forgets things these days. It’s…it’s the disease.”

Silence.

“Err, I’ll drop her off tomorrow,” James continued.

“That’s alright. Have a good—”

“Oh, Nate?”

“Yes, Mr. Oliver?”

“I want to thank you for helping my wife. Her mood has improved since she started painting at your studio. She never uses her studio here at the house anymore, but I know how much she loved to paint before the disease.”

“Cécile is an artist.” His jaw was clenched and his eyes were slits, but his voice gave nothing away.

“Yes, yes. Well, till tomorrow.” James hung up.

Nate hated the way James said the word ‘disease,’ as if his wife was dirty and could contaminate anything she touched. He knew James stopped appreciating Cécile’s artistry and berated her feeble attempts at painting soon after the diagnosis. There wasn’t any money to be made from her work since she could no longer brandish a brush with the dexterity she once had. The constant criticism from her husband led her to vow never to paint again. He also knew James only took Cécile out to events when he knew he could use his wife’s illness to garner favor from potential clients. James was scum. He was using his wife’s illness to his advantage, and he dumped her at the studio the rest of the time so that he wouldn’t have to deal with her.

Nate had lost his appetite. He left the unfinished bowl of cereal on the table and walked to the tall stool which stood in front of a painting he was yet to finish. Picking up his palette and brush, he continued where he had left off.

DAY 26

Cécile continuously wept for what seemed like an eternity. She lay on the hardwood floor of Nate’s studio, her short yellow gown stained with the paint she had accidentally brushed on herself several times while trying to finish her artwork. Her tremors had worsened and she was frustrated. Nate sat on the floor next to her, a box of tissue in his hands. He didn’t say a word. Somehow, he knew there was something else causing her to cry this hard for this long besides an inability to paint. She took another tissue, blew her nose and dumped it on the pile that had accumulated on the floor next to her. When she sat up, her eyes were bloodshot. She breathed in deeply and shakily exhaled.

“I’m so sorry, Nate. I feel embarrassed.”

“Nonsense.” His hand reached for her face. He cupped her chin, then gently brushed away a tear from her right cheek with his thumb. “Tell me about yesterday.”

Her eyes filled with tears again. “It was awful. I didn’t want to go. He threatened to stop bringing me here if I didn’t go with him. I need him to bring me here. I can’t drive anymore.”

Nate nodded.

“I couldn’t hold the wine glass. I couldn’t handle a spoon! It’s worsening Nate, and yesterday, he seemed to really enjoy my embarrassment. Everyone was staring at me like I was a freak.” The tears flowed down her face. Nate wiped them away with a tissue. “And now, I can’t seem to handle a paint brush.” She continued. “I thought doing this would give me a sense of hope. Now it fills me with dread. I’m afraid to do anything with my hands.”

He moved closer and embraced her. She fell on his shoulders and sobbed. “Shhhhh. It’s alright Cécile.” He whispered as he patted her back. “There are good days and bad days. You’ve been having a couple of bad days. It’ll be OK.”

“I can’t paint.”

“Of course, you can.” He replied. “Look at this!” He released her from his embrace and they both gazed at the 8 x 10 canvas where she had painted an Oak tree with reddish-brown leaves. Above the tree was a clear blue sky and below were fallen branches and leaves on a carpet of green grass. “You did that in under 2 weeks. You can paint. It is beautiful.”

“It’s not even finished.” She whispered.

“Then you’ll finish it. No pressure, remember?”

She nodded. “Thank you, Nate.”

“Feeling better?” He asked. “Does coffee sound good?”

“Yes, please.” She replied. He helped her to her feet. “Look at my dress! What a mess.”

“It’s the dress of an artist.” He responded as he helped her sit at the dining table. “Although it looks like we may have to get you to finally wear an apron.” He smiled. “You think you’ll be ok by yourself while I go and get coffee?”

She nodded.

“Good.” He replied. “No more attempts at painting today.” He said before walking out.

DAY 43

“What is THAT on your wrist Cécile?” Nate asked. He was furious; she could tell from the tone of his voice. She turned away from her painting to look at him. His eyes brimmed with tears. His jaw was clenched. His breathing was labored. He looked like he was in actual physical pain. She knew he knew what was on her wrist.

“It’s nothing.” She replied and returned her gaze to the canvas.

He made a guttural sound, turned around and stormed out of the studio, banging the door shut behind him.

DAY 47

He had not seen Cécile in 4 days, and with each day that passed without a word from James, he grew increasingly irate. Was she alright? Was she very ill? Should he call James? James had insisted on Nate having both the house phone number and his cell phone number in case something happened to Cécile while she was in the studio. Nate had come close to hitting the call button several times in the past few days but always decided against it. It was now four days and he couldn’t bear the silence anymore. Her painting was still up on the easel, complete except for a few small details. He had not been able to take it down since the last time she was here, the day he saw the red scar across her wrist. The day she had refused to tell him what happened to her. He was almost certain James had hurt her. He didn’t think Cécile’s condition had progressed to the point where she would hurt herself trying to do something.

He picked up his cell phone and dialed James’ mobile number. After gazing at the number for four days, he knew it from memory. This time, he hit the call button. It rang five times and as he was about to give up and hang up someone picked up.

“Nate?” James sounded cold.

“Mr. Oliver?”

“If you’re calling to ask about my wife, I’m surprised you haven’t gotten the message after all this time. She won’t be visiting your studio anymore.” He spat.

James had emphasized the words ‘my wife.’ Nate immediately knew something wasn’t right. “She isn’t done with her painting, Mr. Oliver.” Nate’s voice matched James’ in coldness.

“She is now.”

“Don’t keep her away from something that gives her so much joy. She doesn’t deserve that. You know this.”

“I can do whatever the hell I want!”

Nate paused. His heart was racing. He was hoping James hadn’t done anything stupid. “How is she?” He asked.

“Now, why would that concern you Nate?”

“She’s my friend. I have a right to know.”

“Right?” He scoffed. “You have the right? Let me warn you, never call this number or my home phone again. Henceforth, you do not know my wife. You understand me?”

“I saw the scar on her wrist, Mr. Oliver. If you try to hurt her—”

James had hung up.

Nate was livid. He let out a loud growl that rose from the pit of his stomach. In anger, he threw his phone across the room. It fell on the hardwood floor but remained intact. He stood from the dining chair and paced his studio. What happened? Did Cécile tell James something to upset him? He groaned. He had to see Cécile. He missed her scent. Ever since she began visiting his studio, he couldn’t get enough of her scent. It smelled of jasmine and wild orange and it filled his studio. He missed her smile and the soft skin of her cheeks. He missed holding her hand and guiding them over the canvas as he painted, his steady fingers over her quivering ones. He missed sharing coffee with her, and their many conversations. He missed staring into the deep brown circles that were her eyes or stroking her curly hair when she was tired. He missed seeing the longing in her eyes when she had to leave or hearing her say the words I don’t want to go. He knew what his feelings for Cécile were. He wanted to protect her, to care for her, to love on her. She didn’t deserve to be with James. He was a selfish, deceitful piece of filth. He never loved her, only her art. Before they were married, and while he worked as her manager, he fell in love with the money she made from her paintings, so he charmed his way into her heart. With her present condition, he had no use for her except as a puppet for his egocentric needs. She deserved care, not heartbreak or disdain. Nate shook his head. The more he thought about what might have transpired between James and Cécile, the more he couldn’t shake the ominous feeling that James was responsible for that scar and worse, he may have hurt her again. He needed to see Cécile. He had to.

DAY 49

Nate knew where James and Cécile lived. She had described it in detail severally, including how to get there. As he sat in the back of the taxi on its way to the Oliver home, he had a knot in his stomach. He knew James wouldn’t be home at this time. James now worked at an insurance firm owned by a friend who took pity on him after he had to quit his job as Cécile’s agent following her diagnosis. Nate also knew that James and Cécile lived alone. The thought of Cécile alone in the house with her tremors sent an angry shiver down Nate’s spine. He would get her out of that house, then call the police and have James arrested for neglect and abuse.

As the taxi neared the house, Nate knew it had to be the right one. He recognized the remains of the tulip patch Cécile had planted and tended before her diagnosis prevented her from gardening. He noticed the classic French window on the side of the building. Drapes covered the glass, but he knew behind the glass was Cecile’s studio. The front yard had a picket fence around it, and he remembered Cécile mentioning that theirs was the only fenced house in the neighborhood. He ordered the taxi to stop and paid the driver. The fence had a small gate that opened to a red brick path towards the front door. He knocked twice on the front door and waited. Soon, he heard the shuffling of feet as they slowly approached. He heard the knob turn very slowly and his anticipation rose as the door began to swing inward.

As soon as he saw her, he bit his lower lip and resisted the urge to curse. He almost couldn’t recognize the woman standing before him. She had large bags under her eyes, a cut on her forehead, her curls were unkempt and she looked like she had been starved for days. Cécile let out a soft moan and fell on Nate. As he wrapped his arms around her he noticed how cold she was. She couldn’t lift her arms and he could feel the persistent quivering of her right hand. Without thinking, he lifted her and walked into the house. He gently placed her on the couch in the living room and stroked her curls. His face twisted in anguish as he held her shaking hand.

“Cécile,” his voice broke, “What can I do? Tell me what I can do. How could he leave you like this?”

“My medicine,” she whispered

“Where are they? Tell me and I’ll get them!”

“James took them. I can’t find them. I’ve been searching for four days.”

“Shit! Shit! He hid your drugs? Is he crazy?”

She tried to sit up on the couch but Nate was not going to allow it. “No, Cécile. Please lay down.” He sniffed and blinked back tears. “What do we do? I have to get you to a hospital. Have you eaten?” He could already guess the answer to that question.

Cécile shook her head. “He emptied the fridge and pantry.” She sighed, “He’s punishing me.”

“FOR WHAT?” Nate shouted. He was finding it increasingly harder to control his rage.

“I asked for a divorce, Nate. I…think I want to be with you.”

Nate froze as her words echoed in his head. When he finally spoke, his voice was soft, and the tears he had been fighting back were falling down his face. “Cécile,” He whispered, wrapping her trembling fingers with his, “I love you. I’ve loved you since that fine evening you walked into my studio asking if you could watch me paint. I’ve watched you gain confidence in your ability to paint again. I know you are strong despite this illness. I know you deserve better. I won’t hurt you. I promise.” As he spoke he felt her hand go limp in his. The trembling stopped and her eyes rolled shut. “Cécile? Cécile?” He shook her. She didn’t respond. “No, no!” He retrieved his cell phone from his pocket and dialed emergency services. As he waited for someone to pick up he prayed she would be OK, that she only fainted, that the worst had not happened. An operator picked and he quickly described the situation and their location. As he waited for an ambulance to arrive, he lay on the couch next to her, held her as tightly as he could and wept.

DAY 50

“She’s my goddamn wife! Let me see my wife!” James could be heard arguing with the police outside Cécile’s hospital room. He was finally ushered into the room, hands in cuffs and two officers on either side of him. “You will regret this Cécile,” He shouted at her, “You know I didn’t mean no harm. It was just to teach you a little lesson is all. You’re still my wife!” His gaze turned to Nate who was sitting next to Cecile’s bed and his face burned with anger as he watched Nate place his hand over Cécile’s and gently caress her arm.

“She’s sedated, Mr. Oliver. She can’t hear your yelling.” Nate said calmly. “Count yourself lucky she’s still alive. You would have had more trouble on your hands otherwise.”

“Arrest this man too! He broke into my home!” James shouted. A doctor rushed into the room and asked the officers to escort James out as he was disturbing the hospital with his yelling. He followed reluctantly as the officers led him out of the premises into the waiting police car.

DAY 73

“I’m finished!” Cécile giggled. She let the paint brush fall to the floor. “You can turn around now.”

Nate turned to face the canvas. He smiled as he beheld the finished painting of the Oak tree. “it’s beautiful, Cécile,” He whispered.

“How much do you think it will sell for?”

“Sell? We’re keeping this one sweetheart. It’s too special to sell. We’ll mount it up on the wall over the fireplace.” He walked over and wrapped his arms around her waist. “I’m so proud of you.”

“I can’t believe I did this. I never thought I would do this again.”

“I told you to trust me.”

“And I did.”

He smiled, “And you did.”

“I don’t regret it.”

“You have made me one happy man.” He turned her stool around to face him, then slowly leaned forward and planted a soft kiss on her lips.

oak

Image credit: Pinterest

Murky Waters

What is the one thing you would do, if you knew you would never fail?

Those words hung in the air around me long after the empowerment seminar was over. I was glad I had attended the seminar organized by the student union government for all undergraduates. This was the first in what was to be an annual event, and this year, speakers—successful people—from different sectors of the economy were thoughtful enough to come to campus and speak to us. They inspired me. I learnt a lot; however, those words, what is the one thing you would do, if you knew you would never fail haunted me. As soon as Dr. Mrs. Badeshi, a PhD holder and business mogul asked the rhetorical question in a hall full of attentive students, the silence that followed was palpable. She had gotten the students right where she wanted them—thinking. I was thinking too. I had an answer to her question immediately after she asked. For me, the answer was a no-brainer. I had grown up wanting to be a missionary. My father had been one before his untimely death and we travelled all over the West African coast when I was a child. I enjoyed the constant travelling, and even though we lived in poor conditions most of the time, I saw the joy my father experienced preaching at local churches and helping the different communities in the ways he could. His eyes shone when he smiled, and he was a man who loved people deeply. We didn’t stay at a village or town for more than a year before having to move again. Wherever we went, we relied on churches and the goodwill of the people for our needs. Dad made a little money from offerings raised when he visited local churches to preach, and he would sometimes take on short-term jobs, but we were not rich by any measure, and could only afford the basic things we needed.

We were living in Nhacra, a small town in the Oio region of Guinea-Bissau when a cholera epidemic hit the country. Father contracted the disease and because his body was already weak from malnutrition and a recent bout of malaria, he did not survive. That year, the cholera epidemic affected over 14, 000 people and killed over 200. In fear—and sometimes I think relief—mother and I returned to Nigeria. I was seven. Her family was quick to receive us into their home. Mother soon found a job and began to earn a good wage. We moved out of her parent’s home into our own apartment. The travelling ended, and we soon settled into a typical life. I could tell she was very happy to be living stably. She had never been happy with father’s constant travelling and our penurious living, and she made it known many times. They frequently had heated arguments at night while I pretended to be asleep. On such nights, father would sleep outside on a bench, at the mercy of the heat or cold—depending on the month of the year—and mosquitoes.

In the years following father’s death, two things never left my mind: his deep satisfaction with, and love for his vocation, and the love I had developed for travelling. I wanted to be like my father, to do the things he did. I wanted to go from place to place telling people about the value of a relationship with God, and how it is capable of providing deep satisfaction. I wanted to tell people about my father; to let them know that there was fulfillment beyond simply acquiring and amassing material wealth. I had watched my father touch hearts and change lives with his message. I wanted to do the same. It became a dream I would dream every night. I would close my eyes and see myself back in Guinea-Bissau, or Burkina Faso or Mali or any of the other countries we once called home, living in a small house, welcoming the young and old and speaking words of encouragement to them. I would envision myself helping to build small schools and clinics. I would dream of the wind blowing over my face as I stuck my head out of the bus window while I traveled from one town to another, from one church to another, from one country to another.

When it was time for me to go to college, I told my mother I was interested in studying Religion as an undergraduate major. She asked me why, and I answered, “So that I can be equipped for missionary work.” My mother screamed at me, telling me I was out of my mind. She said over her dead body will I be a missionary. She banned me from speaking about it and demanded that I throw the desire out the window. At first, I was adamant. I gave counter-arguments and defended my decision. Mother then resorted to emotional blackmail. She would cry and beat her chest, calling me her only child, her only boy, reminding me of Father’s death and the poverty we once experienced. She said times had changed, and as a missionary, I would not be able to afford to start a family of my own. When her emotional blackmail didn’t work, she called a family meeting where I heard the dreaded word disown. My own extended family threatened to disown me if I decided to cause my mother unbearable grief by becoming a missionary. I bowed under the pressure. I gave in to their demands. I certainly did not want to cause my mother unbearable grief and lose my entire family. I got into college to study Business. I was in my second year when the student union government decided to organize the empowerment seminar. I still had the strong desire to become a missionary when Dr. Badeshi’s voice thundered from the speakers in the hall and she asked the question I couldn’t shake off. What is the one thing you would do, if you knew you would never fail?

I knew Dr. Badeshi asked that question to encourage people to look beyond potential obstacles and failures and launch out into the fulfillment of their dreams. She went on to say that on the road to success, failure is inevitable; that the people who truly succeed are those who pick themselves up after failure and keep moving.

What about me?

I wanted to ask Dr. Badeshi what she had to say to people like me, whose fear is not necessarily failure on the path to success; whose barrier to fulfillment is not necessarily money or opportunity, but the loss of loved ones? What about people who are willing to launch out and take risks and fail and get back up, but are held back because they will hurt and disappoint or even lose family and friends if they dared? What advice does Dr. Badeshi have for us? The one thing I would do, if I knew I would never lose the love, trust and respect of my family is to be a missionary. But here I am, studying Business. I’ll likely graduate in another 2 years and get a job. I’ll earn a good wage and live a stable life. I’ll get married and have children and everyone will be happy. I may travel occasionally, alone or with family, but it won’t be to the places I have grown to love. It won’t be to those villages where they smile in the midst of lack and pray even when surrounded by uncertainty; where their happiness is not anchored on how much wealth they have, and where they will die having lived what I consider a fulfilled life.

How about you? What is the one thing you would do, if you knew you would never fail? Or hurt those you love? Should I even care about disappointing or hurting loved ones? What do you think?

Of Layers and Pain

“Die.”

“Die!”

“Die. Die. Die. Die!”

I placed both palms over my ears and closed my eyes as if that would stop me from hearing it.

“Hahahahahahaha. Die!”

I shook my head. “No!” I replied.

Silence.

It seemed my firm reply had shut the voice up. Slowly, I moved my hands away from my head and opened my eyes. I was still in my bedroom; still seated cross-legged on my bed. The unopened bottle of pills still lay in front of me. I took a deep breath.

“You know dying is better than living, right?”

“Aaaaarrrrgh!” I shouted. My hands flew to my ears again. “Leave me alone!”

The voice chuckled. “Why?” It asked. “I’m your only friend. I’m the only one who cares. Do you really want me to leave?”

I jumped from the bed and rushed out of my bedroom, down the stairs and into the kitchen. I turned the faucet and washed my face in the sink, then wiped it with a paper towel. I was panting. I looked out the window above the sink and saw through our overgrown lawn the house across the road from ours. Mr. and Mrs. Sunders and their three children Maya, Sarah, and Justin lived there. Mrs. Sunders was out on their lawn playing with her three toddlers. They looked happy. Justin was the youngest, and the love his older sisters had for the little chap was obvious as they played. I looked down into the sink, blinking away the tears that had formed in my eyes.

The voice was no more. I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself. I won’t kill myself. Not yet. I thought.

“You should.” It was the voice again.

This time, I decided to engage it.

“Why?” I whispered as I walked back to my bedroom.

“No one will notice. No one cares.” It responded.

“And how will killing myself solve anything?”

It chuckled, “You will be happier. You will finally rest.”

I opened my bedroom door, walked to the bed and lay down. “I feel like I need to stick around to protect mom,” I said.

Another chuckle, “She couldn’t care less. She’s far gone now. Why do you think she won’t leave Jeremy? Why do you think she won’t press charges?”

I sighed.

“You know I’m right.” It coaxed.

“You are,” I replied.

My mother and I constantly fought because she continued to allow Jeremy hurt her and treat her like shit. Even after he murdered my little brother Promise in a fit of rage by repeatedly slamming his head against the bathroom wall and later claimed it was an accident, she believed him. She didn’t report to the police. She said she was in love and that Jeremy was her soul mate. During one of our fights, she threw a kitchen knife in my direction as she screamed obscenities at me. The knife grazed my neck. An inch closer and I would have been dead. That day, she called me a mistake. She called my late father a weakling; she said Jeremy was strong; that Jeremy would not die on her like my wimp of a father, who died of Malaria shortly after returning from a brief working trip to Malawi. She said she hated me. I no longer existed to her. She spat at me and warned that if I didn’t quit bothering her about Jeremy, she would throw me out of the house. I couldn’t believe my own mother had thrown a knife at me. I was only trying to protect her from a monster. She was the only family I had left. That day, over a month ago, was the day we had our last major fight. It was the day I started hearing the voice.

I heard the door slam shut downstairs. Someone had just walked into the house. I sat up abruptly and my eyes flew to the round clock hanging on my wall. It was 4:12 pm. I sighed, relieved. It could not be Jeremy, probably mom. I never knew where she went these days. She would just up and leave the house once Jeremy was gone to his truck-driving job for the paint company ColorWorld. She would not return till early evening to make dinner for him. I didn’t matter of course. I had to care for myself. The time Jeremy arrived from work at nine and mom didn’t have dinner ready yet because she had been sick all day and slow to finish, he unleashed his rage on her and almost killed her. I tried to intervene and ended up with the wide scar on my upper arm where he twisted it so hard, it broke. My mother woke the next day with one eye swollen shut and bruises all over her body. She did not go to the hospital, and she did not send me to the hospital either. She tied my broken arm in a tourniquet and applied cold compress to her wounds. She fed me with Ibuprofen pills till I was almost numb. I couldn’t believe she was going to let everything slide. The voice, which had started as a whisper, became louder and more frequent.

I could hear clattering sounds coming from the kitchen and I knew for sure that it was mom who had returned. Before Jeremy, whenever she returned from work, she would call out my name, or Promise’s name, to know if we were home from school. We would run downstairs and engulf her in a hug. Now, she didn’t call. The voice was right. If I killed myself, she wouldn’t care. These days, she didn’t care if I was alive or dead anyway. She had thrown a knife at me. My life meant nothing to her.

I walked down the stairs into the kitchen. Mom was by the sink; in the same spot I had been standing and washing my face just minutes ago. Her head was bent and I could hear her quietly weeping. What has happened now? I thought. I looked over to the stovetop. Something was cooking. It smelled like potatoes. She was obviously in the process of making dinner. I was afraid to walk up to her, but something drew me. I took a step forward and she raised her head. She turned around to face me and I swallowed a gasp. Her eyes were darkened from her mascara running. They left black marks on her face where her tears had run. I took a good look at her. We had not seen much of each other lately although we lived in the same building. I did my best to avoid her since the last fight we had. She looked terrible. Her eyes were hollow sockets and she had wrinkles all over her face. She looked seventy when she was only thirty-eight. She was gaunt, her thin neck extending from her very visible collarbones. Her arms were skinny and covered in light purple scars in different places.

“W—would you like dinner?” She stammered. “I’m m—making mashed potatoes.”

My head spun. I could not believe what I had just heard, but I slowly nodded a yes. Mother had not asked me if I wanted to eat in a long time. “Why are you crying?” I whispered hoarsely. My mouth was dry.

Fresh tears ran down her face. “J—Jeremy died.”

This time, I couldn’t hold back the gasp, “What?”

“His truck was in an accident.” Mom replied. “He died instantly. I just identified his body at the morgue.” A pause. “Would you—would you like dinner? Would you?” She asked again. Her eyes, bloodshot and brimming with fresh tears, were pleading. They were apologetic. They showed regret. They were penitent.

I knew she was trying to say how sorry she was, but she couldn’t mouth the words. I saw it all in her eyes, in her offer to make me dinner, in her tears, and then I knew. I knew that if I had killed myself today someone would have cared. She would have cared. Relief washed all over me and tears brimmed in my eyes as I whispered, “Yes, mom. I’d like dinner very much.”

She smiled, nodded, then turned around and began sobbing. I watched her for a few minutes, wiping my own tears with the back of my palm. My mother was still in there somewhere, buried deep within the shell whose shoulders were now shaking vigorously. All hope was not lost. I turned around and walked back up the stairs to my bedroom, leaving her to grieve.

Once inside my bedroom, I closed the door and rested my back on it, let out a deep breath and whispered to the voice, “I knew I shouldn’t have killed myself today.”

Silence.

“Are you there?”

Silence.

I smiled. “Well, goodbye then.”

I walked to the bed, lay down and soon drifted into a peaceful sleep.

Rivalry

Nnedinma and I stepped out of the old Volkswagen that had transported us from Sam Mbakwe international airport in Owerri to Isiekenesi, our hometown. I had enjoyed most of the ride. The dense forests that flanked both sides of the road during our journey conjured up countless imaginations in my head. I wondered what wild animals lived in the thickets near the road and the bushes beyond. I imagined myself as a young savage woman living amongst the animals, a female version of Tarzan. I chuckled when I imagined a young, handsome prince cutting down dried tree trunks and overgrown grasses, swatting at flies and other insects, braving lions and monkeys just to reach me. I closed my eyes and pictured him kneeling and asking my hand in marriage, taking me out of the forest to live in his lavish palace while all my animal friends said goodbye. I was rudely jolted from my daydream when the Volkswagen shook violently as we hit yet another pothole in the road. The constant shaking and squealing and groaning of the old car as it struggled through harsh roads irked me. I did not enjoy the disturbing part of the journey. Moreover, I was glad I had my imaginations to keep me company because I did not want to talk to my older sister, Nnedinma. It helped that she was sitting next to the driver while I had the back of the car all to myself.

As we stepped out of the car, we were met with an onslaught of relatives. Children ran towards and grabbed Nnedinma and me in a tight embrace, then danced around the large compound singing welcome songs. Men and women took turns to greet us with “Nno” and “Kedu?” I tried to keep the smile plastered on my face but my cheeks were starting to hurt from faking a smile for so long. I hated the dirty looking people touching me. They all seemed genuinely happy to see us, but I just wanted to get inside and rest from the long journey. I slid a sideward glance at Nnedinma. She was warmly embracing everyone, responding to greetings and smiling. Her smile was genuine! I couldn’t believe it. What would she not do to please people?

Uncle Ugochukwu bounced out of the house, a huge grin on his face. He was a heavily set man, with strong, muscular arms and wide shoulders. He pushed through the crowd of relatives that had come to welcome us home and held Nnedinma and me, hugging us one by one, and looking us over in that affectionate manner one does when they have not seen a relative in a long time.

“Welcome home my darlings!” His voice boomed. “You must be very tired, come inside. Your room is prepared.” He dragged us by our arms and led us to the front door of the house, yelling in Igbo for the children to help us with our bags.

Once inside, away from the commotion and people, I let out an exasperated sigh. Uncle Ugo took notice.

“You are tired Uloma,” He said. It wasn’t a question.

“Uncle,” I replied, “It was a long trip.”

“Yes, I know,” He responded, “But everyone is so happy to see both of you. You must not let them sense your unhappiness.”

“Uncle, pay Uloma no mind,” Nnedinma spoke up. “I’m sure after a long rest she will come around.”

Uncle Ugo smiled, “That’s my Nnedi!” He exclaimed. “You remind me so much of your mother, always wanting peace.”

Nnedinma smiled shyly. We had heard mentions of her striking resemblance to our mother both in looks and mannerisms so many times since we arrived, it irritated me. I bet she was not tired of hearing it.

“Uncle where shall we sleep?” I asked.

“Come with me to the back, my wife has prepared a room for you and Nnedi.” He walked ahead of us, leading the way to the back of the bungalow.

“We’re staying in the same room?” I could not hide my disdain.

Uncle Ugo stopped, turned around and stared at me, “Uloma, you know this is not America.” He smiled, “Manage our small bungalow, i nugo?” He turned around and kept walking.

Nnedinma, who was walking behind Uncle Ugo, turned to glare at me. I returned the glare. I was not going to pretend to be happy to be in this place. Thank goodness there was a power generating set. It meant I would not sweat in my sleep and have mosquitoes sing in my ears.

We entered ‘our’ room. It was a tiny room with a bunk bed. It looked like it had been recently cleaned. The beds had fresh covers. There was only one window overlooking the back of the compound where the outhouse and bathroom were located. It disgusted me that I would have to walk out of the house to be able to take a shower, urinate or defecate. Uncle Ugo opened a tall wooden wardrobe. It was empty. There were a few hangers on a rack and some drawers underneath the rack.

“You can store your belongings here,” He motioned to the empty wardrobe.

“Uncle,” Nnedinma began, “Thank you so much. I can see that you cleaned up for us. Daalu so.

Nnem,” He responded, “Both of you are my blood. I’m glad you could come home even if it’s for a short visit. Manage the room.”

“Nonsense,” Nnedinma replied, a wide smile on her face. “Manage gini? You and auntie Ngozi have really tried.”

I plopped on the bed on the bottom bunk. “I’ll take this one,” I announced.

“I guess I’ll take the top bunk then,” Nnedinma replied.

Just then, the children who had busied themselves carrying our heavy luggage entered the room and dropped our bags. Nnedinma smiled and thanked them. I was too tired to care. Nnedinma promised to distribute goodies among them the next day. They ran out excited.

“My darlings,” Uncle Ugo said, “Relax OK? Ngozi is making dinner. It is already evening. If you would like to shower, let Ngozi know. In fact, whatever you need, let us know. We’re here for you. OK?”

“Yes, Uncle,” Nnedinma and I chorused.

Uncle Ugo walked out.

Nnedinma opened one bag and began taking out clothes and toiletries and placing them inside the wardrobe.

“Don’t fill up the entire space with your stuff,” I spat.

Nnedinma paused, “What’s the matter with you Uloma?” She asked. “You’re so cranky.”

“Don’t tell me you’re glad to be here,” I said and lay down on the bed. The mattress was soft, and the pillow even softer. I stretched.

“Of course I am,” Nnedinma replied. “Why wouldn’t I be? Look how happy everyone is. When was the last time we came here? Was it not when mom and dad were buried?”

“We don’t even know most of the people that came to welcome us.” I sneered, “And you kept smiling like ewu.”

“Watch your tongue Uloma,” Nnedinma’s tone turned angry. “Show some respect. I really hope this is only tiredness, and that by tomorrow morning you’ll be better.”

I scoffed, “I need to get back to New York.” I said.

Nnedinma ignored me and continued unpacking.

Later that night, when all the relatives who had welcomed us returned to their homes leaving myself, Nnedinma, Uncle Ugo, auntie Ngozi and their two young children Adaora and Chike—who were five and three years old respectively—alone, we sat around a large fire in the backyard and ate fufu na ofe egusi. After dinner, I decided I needed a shower. Auntie Ngozi gave me one of her rappa and I tied it around my chest. She showed me the well that was dug in the middle of the compound where I had to draw water from. After adding some hot water she had boiled over the fire, I carried the heavy metal bucket as she led me to the bathroom. The generator had been turned on, and a single, yellow incandescent bulb lit the bathroom. Once inside, I nearly vomited. The cement wall was slimy and caked with green, filamentous matter. There were iron nails sticking out of the wooden door where I was to hang my towel, rappa, and sponge. I carefully showered, making sure my body did not touch the wall. Nnedinma did not seem to be irritated by anything at all. She even offered to carry Chike on her back to help auntie Ngozi put him to sleep. She seemed at home in this horrible place. She disgusted me even more.

It was afternoon. The sun was hot and the sky was a clear blue. Nnedinma had just finished distributing candy to the children who had come around, and they had gone outside to play. We were in the wide living room where uncles and aunts sat eating garden egg and ose. Uncle Ugo came in with a keg of palm wine and everyone cheered.

Nwoke, you have come with what we have been waiting for.” Uncle Ndubuisi chimed.

Uncle Ugo laughed heartily, “I had to wait for Okoro to bring the best. Sorry to have kept you waiting. Biko, ewe n’iwe.

Cups were passed around and everyone poured some palm wine and began to sip, making smacking sounds with their lips as they relished the taste of the drink.

“Try some,” A woman who had identified herself as auntie Amaka said to Nnedinma.

“Yes, give them cups to try.” Another uncle responded.

Soon, everyone in the room was urging me and Nnedinma to taste some palm wine. I vehemently refused, while Nnedinma succumbed to their pressure and had a sip. Her facial expression caused everyone in the room to burst out in laughter, and then idle chatter began. The men and women in the room teased us, saying we had become too ‘americanized.’ I did not find their jesting funny, but Nnedinma seemed to have no problem with it. She even contributed to the conversation by describing an exaggerated version of New York to them, simply to entertain them.

“So, what do you do now Nnedi?” Uncle Ugo, who had taken a seat amongst the guests asked. “You know we have not seen you girls since you were much younger.”

“I’m done with medical school,” Nnedinma answered. “I work at a very big hospital in New York now.”

Chai!” Uncle Ndubuisi exclaimed. “Won’t you come home and build a hospital here for us?”

Nnedinma giggled, “Maybe when I have enough money to do so,” she answered.

“What of all the dollars you make?” Uncle Ndubuisi continued teasing, “I hear doctors are well paid. O wu eziokwu?

“It’s somewhat true Uncle,” Nnedinma replied, “But the hours are terrible.”

Ngi kwanu, Uloma? Gini ka i n’eme? What do you do?” Auntie Amaka asked.

There was silence in the room. I had tuned out of their boring conversation because I simply wasn’t interested. I knew Nnedinma would get all the attention as usual, so I didn’t bother pretending to pay attention. When I heard my name, my head snapped up from admiring my colored toenails.

“I—I am still looking for a job.” I responded.

“And what did you study? Medicine too?” Uncle Ndubuisi asked.

“I did not go to university,” I muttered.

The silence that followed was loud. Uncle Ugo stared at me with wide eyes. He was stunned. He turned to Nnedinma and asked, “Why?”

Nnedinma glanced at me. I gave her a menacing look. “Um,” She began, “In America, not everyone goes to university, Uncle. It’s not a problem. She can still find work.”

“So, where does she live?” He asked.

“She lives with me, Uncle,” Nnedinma answered.

“You mean you pay house rent and provide money for food and she stays at home and does nothing?”

Silence.

Uncle Ugo turned to Uloma, “Is this true Uloma?”

I was seething. I was sure Nnedinma was happy with the sudden turn of the conversation. She was always the goody-two-shoes and never hesitated to show off. “And what if it is true Uncle?” I spat, “She makes a lot of money, she might as well share it.”

“Uloma!” Nnedinma exclaimed, shocked at my rudeness.

The guests were alarmed at the manner in which I had responded to uncle Ugo but I didn’t care. “What?” I shouted. I was too angry now, “Is it a crime not to work? I enjoy my life, and I hate this fucking place!” I stood up and walked out of the living room to the bedroom and began packing my belongings into my suitcase. I heard Nnedinma hurriedly apologize to everyone and rush after me.

“What is wrong with you?” She shouted as she entered the bedroom, “And what do you think you are doing?”

“Are you blind?” I shouted back. “I’m leaving this God-forsaken village. So dirty, so irritating.”

“Uloma,” Nnedinma relaxed and spoke softly. “You are overreacting. Please go to the living room and apologize to everyone. They came here to welcome us and find out how we are doing. Your behavior was unacceptable.”

I paused and laughed a wicked laugh. “Me? Apologize for what? I’m not sorry for anything.”

Uncle Ugo and auntie Ngozi rushed into the room.

O gini?” Uncle Ugo asked. “Both of you are shouting. What is it?”

“I was only asking her to go and apologize,” Nnedinma sounded distraught. “Now she is packing her things and saying she is leaving.”

“But, where are you going Uloma?” Auntie Ngozi asked.

“I’m going to Lagos.” I screamed. “I’m going to book myself into a nice hotel and actually enjoy my stay in Nigeria!”

Auntie Ngozi stumbled backward, shocked at how I had screamed at her. She ran out of the room, crying. Uncle Ugo was furious. He glared at me for a few seconds, breathing heavily. He looked like he was going to say something, but decided against it and ran after his wife to console her. At this point, I didn’t care. I was so angry that I would hurt anyone who came close to me. I was tired of living under Nnedinma’s shadow. She was the excellent one, the one who made all the right decisions, who was never wrong. She was the one who looked and acted like our mother, the one everyone turned to for advice, the one with the handsome boyfriend who confided in me that he would be proposing to her in a month. The one with the well-paying job, the kind one, the one who would put others before herself, the one who would be comfortable staying in a dump like this village! I hated her for convincing me to come here. I hated her for feeling at home here knowing that I wasn’t comfortable. I hated her, period.

“Uloma!” Nnedinma screamed. “How dare you shout at auntie Ngozi like that? What did that poor woman do to you? Have you lost your mind?”

“Shut up, you bitch!” I responded.

Nnedinma walked forward and slapped me. I placed my hand on my cheek, astounded that she had dared to slap me. My eyes glanced around the room and fell on a pair of scissors lying on a side table. Without thinking, I picked it up and stabbed her in the chest.

Nnedinma’s eyes widened. “U—Uloma…” She spluttered.

“Yes?” My eyes were red from the rage I felt, “Let me see how you will be a doctor in New York now,” I whispered. I withdrew the scissors and stabbed her again. “Let me see how Marcus will propose to you now,” I stabbed her again. She fell to the ground. “Let me see how everyone will like you now. It’s a good thing I’m next of kin. I will inherit everything you have!” I laughed. Nnedinma lay on the concrete floor, dead.

No one had seen me kill Nnedinma. I hurriedly stuffed a suitcase with the rest of my belongings and ran out of the house. The living room was empty as I fled. All the old fools were gone. Uncle Ugo was somewhere consoling his fat, ugly wife, and his children were probably with him. What a disgusting way to live, I thought as I ran out of the compound. An okada was passing by. I stopped it and quickly hopped on the motorbike, instructing the rider to take me to the nearest motor park. I knew it would be a matter of time before Nnedinma’s body was discovered, and I wanted to be as far away from Isiekenesi as possible. There was no way they would find me. There was no way I would ever return to this nasty village anyway.

The rider dropped me off at the motor park and I paid him. Thankfully, only one passenger seat was left. I quickly paid for my bus ticket to Owerri and boarded the bus. I had escaped. I felt free. I felt content.

The Beauty of Grace

Grace stood outside the gate leading to the massive castle and stared in awe at the monstrosity in the distance. It was very late, and in the dark, she could make out the shapes of large domes and tall steeples piercing the night’s sky. She could see the soft glow of lights behind stained glass windows and as a gust of wind blew by, she heard the rattling of leaves on the trees that dotted the huge courtyard surrounding the castle. From the wrought iron gate she could make out the brick path which the trees bordered. The path led directly from the gate to the front door. The door was too far away for her to tell what it was made of, but she guessed either some metal alloy or hardwood. The building—what she could make of it in the dark—was intimidating and at the same time magnificent. She pushed the gate and it creaked as it opened. Slowly, she strolled down the path, looking left and right as she made her way to the front door and clutching the wide skirt of her gown that was being blown by the wind. The courtyard was beautiful. For a castle that held many myths, the grounds were well kept. The grass was neatly mowed, and as she walked, she recognized the trees on either side of the path: orange, peach, apple. It was an orchard. She smiled. The sight of the trees brought back memories of her and her little brother Tom hitting the orange tree in their father’s house with a stick and subsequently enjoying the fruit of their labor while laying on the grass. Their father did not have an orchard, just that lone orange tree in the middle of the compound. However, it yielded so much fruit in its season that many got spoiled because her family could not eat all the oranges fast enough. They often managed to sell plenty at the local market, but there was always a surplus of oranges. Tom called it the enchanted orange tree. She wondered if the trees on the castle grounds were enchanted. The orchard went as far as her eyes could see. With these many fruit trees, she tried to fathom why the locals never came in to steal some fruit, then she quickly remembered one of the myths surrounding the castle: the one who enters will never come out. Of course, she did not believe the myth, but most people believed it strongly. That explained why the gates could be open and people would never venture inside its walls.

She arrived the front door. As she had guessed, it was made of heavy wood. There was a large metal knocker shaped like a human skull on the door.

Castle Door Knocker

Grace shuddered and proceeded to knock. The door creaked open and she jumped. A howling gust of wind blew that sounded like an owl hooting “Who!” The door remained ajar and she pushed it all the way in. She had to push hard because it was very heavy, but finally, she was inside. The door slammed shut behind her and she could have sworn she heard a click, like a key turning in a lock. She turned around to look, but no one was behind her. As she peered around, she figured she was standing in a hallway, dimly lit by wall-mounted candles. It was quiet, and fear began to creep up her spine. Perhaps the myths were right. Perhaps it was a bad idea to come here. But when she thought of her brother, laying on his bed back home, withering away, she reminded herself that she was doing the right thing. The walls on either side of her were decorated with old, framed photos of people. Perhaps they had lived here, she thought. She took a step forward, then another, and another, pausing after every step and listening for sounds. Her fourth step saw her engulfed in a thin mesh of cobwebs. “Ugh!” she cried as she pulled them off her body. She heard the sound of critters moving. She must have disturbed them with her exclamation, she thought. She dusted her gown with the palms of her hands to ensure there were no more cobwebs on her, then kept walking. She didn’t know where the long hallway led, but she hoped she would find someone at the end of it. She could see a door at the far end. Perhaps it would open up into a living room. She regarded the pictures on the wall as she walked towards the door. The people looked wealthy from their attires. A royal family? They must have been, to live in such a grand castle. The men stood with their chests out, heads held high, adorned in red robes and holding golden staffs. The staffs looked the same in all the pictures. The women wore purple ball gowns and black shawls with black gloves. They looked eerily alike and were beautiful beyond words. There were no names on the pictures or the frames that held them. Grace had started to increase her pace–in a bid not to waste too much time admiring the pictures–when she stopped abruptly in front of the photo of a child. She let out a faint gasp and her heart raced as she beheld the picture. It was a little girl, probably no more than seven or eight. Her cheeks glowed red and her pink lips curled in a smile. It was the cruelest smile Grace had ever seen. It seemed more like a snarl. All her teeth appeared to have sharp, pointy ends and her huge eyes bulged; the red veins in them easily visible. The child looked possessed; like she knew something, or was about to do something…something evil. Grace turned from the horrifying picture and ran. The image of the little girl was etched in her memory, she couldn’t shake it off. She reached the door at the end of the hallway, quickly turned the knob and screamed as the knob, shaped like a human hand held her hand in a tight grip, then quickly let go.

Human Hand Door Knob

The door opened, and instead of leading into a room, Grace saw a spiral stairwell. Without thinking, she ran through the door and up the stairwell. She heard the door slam shut behind her and that clicking sound again. Hot tears streamed down her face as she ran, jumping two stairs at a time. She was afraid. There was definitely something strange going on in this castle and she didn’t know if she would make it out alive. Something told her it was too late to try, that none of the doors she had come through would open to let her out. The spiral staircase was very long, and soon, exhaustion began to set in. Panting, she reached the top of the stairwell and entered a lush living space. There was a fireplace in the middle of the room where a roaring fire was slowly licking the wood. The carpet was thick, decorated with golden skull patterns set on a red background. The cushions looked plush and inviting, complete with throw pillows all in a pattern similar to that of the carpet. Like the rest of the castle, the room was lit by wall candles.

“Well, well. What have we here?”

Grace jumped and let out a tired yelp. Her nerves were still raw from the picture of the possessed girl and the thing with the door knob. She was getting frustrated with the sudden surprises of the castle. She turned around to see a small woman standing behind her. The woman looked very old and wrinkled. She was stooped, bent as if she could not stand straight, and her face was stern, almost malicious as she stared at Grace. The woman was completely bald in the middle of her head but had long white strands extend from the edges of her scalp to the floor. She wore a long black robe that was too big and dragged on behind her as she moved closer to Grace.

“Shhhhhh,” The woman breathed shakily. “I’m in no mood to quell the Masters if you wake them from their slumber.”

Grace stood rooted to the floor, too tired to do anything else. Beads of sweat glistened on her forehead. The woman stood in front of Grace, her height barely reaching Grace’s waist.

“Bend,” The woman commanded.

Grace knelt, and the woman reached out and held her face between her small wrinkly palms, looked into her fearful eyes, then let her go.

“Sit,” The woman instructed, and Grace sat on one of the cushions. “Grace Middlehorn,” The woman began in her shaky voice that sounded like the rattling of a snake’s tail. “You have come because of your brother.”

“H—how did you know?” Grace sounded alarmed.

The woman took a seat across from Grace.

“The eyes tell a great many secrets,” She chuckled. Then her face became stern again.

“Please,” Grace said, “You have to help me. My father is no more, and my brother is all I have. I’ve tried everything I can think of to make him better. I’ve gone to other towns and villages in search of elixirs, I’ve bought strange potions, yet nothing makes him better.”

“So, why are you here?”

Grace paused. She did not believe in superstitions, but everyone in town seemed to think there was something magical about this castle; dark, but magical nonetheless. So if all the natural remedies she had tried did nothing for her brother, she figured she might as well try any alternative. She was that desperate to help him. “I—people say there is something about this place. It holds magic.” She said, “If you are able to help my brother, I’ll be very grateful.”

“Ah, the myths of the great castle,” The old woman sat back on the cushion, “There are many stories about this old place, no?”

Silence. The fire crackled and hissed as the old woman held Grace’s gaze.

Suddenly, the old woman jerked as she sat up. She widened her eyes and they bulged like they were going to pop out of their sockets. “They are true, you know.” She whispered, “The stories, every single one of them.” She smiled. Her lips parted to reveal her teeth. They looked very familiar, like those of the little girl in the photo.

Grace shuddered. Her heart began to race as she recalled those pointy teeth and bulging eyes and malicious snarl. She swallowed, “P—please, h—help us.”

“Me? Help you?” The woman burst out laughing. Her face twisted into the ugliest thing Grace had ever seen and as she cackled, Grace saw that her tongue was cut in two, down the middle, giving it the appearance of a snake’s. How she spoke coherently was a mystery to Grace. “I can’t help you, the Masters can. But at a price!”

“Anything!” Grace shouted, “I’ll give anything, I’ll do anything to have my brother well again. He’s too young to die!”

Suddenly, there was a sound like a rushing wind. Grace heard it coming up the stairwell. It whooshed into the room and all the candles went out, including the fire in the fireplace. The entire room was thrown into darkness so thick that Grace could not see her hands lying on her thighs.

The old woman whispered, “Looks like we have succeeded in waking the Masters.”

A figure appeared in the dark. It was very tall. So tall, that Grace had to bend her neck backward to see its head. Its arms were long, reaching the floor and its fingers were long, jagged claws. It glowed green in the darkness, casting a green glow around the dark room and illuminating it. Grace gasped as she saw its head. It had 3 faces attached to a single neck. She quickly closed her eyes.

3_face21

They spoke at once, “How dare you wake us from our slumber?” Their voices sounded livid, and Grace shut her eyes even tighter.

The old woman stood from the chair she had been sitting on, and knelt before the creature, making her appear even smaller than she really was. “Masters, it is this vermin who had the impudence to infiltrate our home that has woken you from your wonderful slumber,” She croaked. “But Masters, hear what she says! She asks for you to heal her sick brother.” The woman smiled a bone-chilling smile. “Here is a good chance to reward me, Masters.” She rubbed her palms together and licked her lips with her forked tongue.

The Masters looked at Grace, curled into a ball on the chair, eyes shut tight and they laughed. Their laughter hurt her ear drums so she covered her ears with her palms. “Open your eyes!” They shouted. “Is it true what Welda says?”

Grace opened her eyes. She was shivering from fear. Her lips quivered as she spoke, and she was holding back tears. “Y—yes.” She managed to whisper.

“You will have what you seek!”

Grace looked up at them, surprised that they had agreed so easily to help her. “Thank you! Oh, thank—”

“There is a price.” They chorused.

“Anything. I’ll pay anything.”

“We will take in return for your brother’s health, your beauty!”

Grace was stunned. Indeed she was beautiful. The entire town knew it. She knew it. Her long pointed nose, perfectly shaped lips and wide eyes were the envy of many town maidens. They often asked for the secret behind her glowing complexion and begged for her beauty regimen. Of course, Grace did not see her beauty as anything extraordinary, but faced with a decision to lose it or lose her brother, she was unsure; hesitant. “W—what will I look like?” She whispered.

“You will look like Welda!” They exclaimed. “She will take your beauty, and you will take her ugliness.”

Welda’s smile widened to reveal sharp teeth. Grace let out a moan of agony.

“You have three seconds to decide,” Welda said. “One,”

Grace could not do it. She could not be trapped in Welda’s hideous body for the rest of her life. She remembered the picture she saw downstairs and knew she did not want to be that person.

“Two,”

But she also thought of her dear brother Tom, and how he was suffering terribly. She knew that if she did not agree to pay the price, he would die. Would she rather watch her brother die than give up her beauty to save him?”

“Thr—“

“I’ll do it!” She sobbed. I’ll let you take my beauty in exchange for my brother’s health.”

“Very well,” The Masters said.

The floor began to quake. Grace fell down as she felt a force creep up her body. Suddenly, she felt like she was on fire. A sharp pain shot through her body. She thrashed about and shrieked over and over as she felt her skin peel; twisting and turning on the floor and crying for help. This continued for what seemed like ages before all became still. She was too weak to lift herself from the floor. It was quiet. She opened her eyes. The room was lit again with candles and the fire was burning in the fireplace. The Masters were gone and the room appeared like they had never been in it. She sat up and looked at her hands. They were wrinkled and covered in ugly scabs and spots. As she stared at the hands which were now hers, she knew what the rest of her body looked like. She tried to stand but found that she could not stand up straight. She looked around for Welda, but she too had disappeared from the room. Grace knew she was free to go. She sat on a chair and sobbed. Outside, a cock was crowing incessantly. It was dawn.

The cock kept crowing, and she suddenly sensed brightness through her closed eyes as her blanket was dragged off her head by Tom. “Wake up woman!” He shouted. He sounded excited. “It’s the market day. We have oranges to sell!”

Grace opened her eyes and squinted. She was on her bed. Remembering what had happened, she quickly jumped from the bed and looked at her hands. They were smooth, no spots or scabs. They were hers! That was when she realized that she was actually standing tall, not stooped down. Her heart began to race. her breath came in deep puffs. What happened? She was supposed to be ugly. “Tom! TOM!” She screamed.

Tom’s expression changed from excitement to alarm. “What’s the matter Grace?” He asked.

“Tom…” She whispered, and held his shoulders, “Were you sick? I mean, seriously sick to the point of death?”

Tom was even more perplexed, “No. What are you talking about? I’ve not been ill in years!” He laughed, “I’m as strong as an Ox.”

Grace was still panting. She observed her body, her feet. She walked to the vanity table her father had made for her a year before he died and looked in the mirror. It was her face. She felt her forehead, her cheeks. She opened her mouth. No pointy teeth. She turned to look at her brother in horror. She gulped her saliva, “I—I think I just had the most terrifying dream,” She whispered. Her mouth was dry. “It felt so real.”

Tom walked to his sister and embraced her, “Grace,” He whispered, “You’re as pale as if you just saw a ghost. I was not sick. I was not dying. It was just a dream.”

“I—I went to that castle…I exchanged my beauty for your health.”

He chuckled, “Now, that sounds ridiculous. No one goes into that haunted castle. And you’re still the most beautiful young woman alive!”

She nodded.

“It was just a dream,” He hugged her tighter, then let her go, “It was just a dream, alright?”

She nodded, still dazed.

“Get ready, or we’ll be late for the market day!” He bounded out of her room.