‘Ukene’ By Chisom Ugwu

“One hundred and twenty nine years… One hundred and twenty nine years…” I mumbled to myself.

My great grandchildren Ifeatu and Chiamaka looked at me with their usual expression of disgust and started mocking me in English.

“Why can’t this old woman just die?“ Ifeatu asked.

“Abi? She’s just here taking up space and mumbling to herself. She’s a lunatic.” Chiamaka added.

I could understand everything they were saying, after all, I wasn’t an illiterate. But I never let them know that I could understand every single word; letting them feel superior with their English. I just smiled to myself, grabbed my walking stick and found my way to my room.
My room was the coldest room in the house – and the dirtiest. No one ever wanted to help me clean up.

I could’ve cleaned it up myself but at 129 years I was the oldest woman in the village, and I must confess, though I liked acting ever young and strong, my strength was beginning to fail me.

With the support of my walking stick and the wall, I slowly lowered myself to my mat – I wasn’t allowed to sleep on any mattress for I had lost control of my bladder when I was 98 or so… I can’t really remember, and using a mattress only meant misery for the ‘unlucky’ person who had to sun it for me the next day.

Sitting on the mat, I went back to my previous train of thoughts before the show of insolence by my great grandchildren.

So where was I?

Aha! One hundred and twenty nine years and what did I have to show for it?
Out of the eight children my womb housed, only two were still living. Everyone knows It’s quite unnatural for a parent to outlive their own child.Tufiakwa!

My grandchildren were also dying. Uchechi, the third child of my first daughter Nneoma, who died during the civil war, had just died last three weeks. They told me she was ill or something like that.

What was I saying again?… Aha! I remember. So out of eight children, only two lived.
My first daughter Nneoma ,like I said, died during the civil war. I remember vividly that unhappy day… Nneoma was a successful food vendor and had gone to Nkwo Awgu market to purchase some food items.

My breasts had been itching all day long, they only itched when something bad was about to happen. I told Nneoma about it, but she waved it off saying that a man called ‘Jesus’ was with her. I looked around but didn’t see anyone called ‘Jesus’ with her and I told her to stay put, but she didn’t heed my warning.

News came later that the Nigerian troops had dropped a bomb at Nkwo Awgu, sending so many souls (including Nneoma ‘s ) to their early graves.

My second child Ikenna was a chemist. Armed robbers had attacked him and killed him one night while he was returning from his store.

My third child Dilinna was a barrister. His case was quite pathetic. His evil wife poisoned him and took all his property away with her to whatever vile cesspool she crawled out of.

The fourth and fifth, Chinenye and Chinonye were twins. Their case was mysterious. Chinenye had ‘iba’ (malaria) and died within four days, Chinonye her ‘ejima’ cried so much, and the next morning we found her lying on Chinenye’s grave dead. People believed that it was just the way twins worked; one couldn’t survive without the other.

Nkiruka, my sweetheart of a daughter died after stepping on a poisonous snake. Though the snake didn’t bite her, nobody could understand why she suddenly slumped and died.

Matthew and Theresa were the only surviving children I had. But Matthew couldn’t get a good job, while Theresa wasn’t married at 50!

I consider myself a cursed woman.

What was the point of being able to live for so long if life could only throw stones at me?
Why couldn’t my longevity be passed to my offspring?

My father and mother had lived to the ripe ages of 150 and 143 respectively and they died together.

Apparently the universe was playing a twisted game with me, and it had a dangerous sense of humor.

While pondering, I heard a slight shuffle of feet. Looking up I saw Acho, my personal Chi. He had the structure of a two year old child and a bloated stomach. His eyes were completely black and he had two little horns sticking out of the sides of his head and a long tail.

At birth we’re all assigned a personal Chi (god) by the Almighty One to watch over us all the days of our lives. But only few had the privilege of seeing their Chi. It was a spiritual gift of some sort – luckily ,I was among the ‘few’.

As a child, when the Chi is assigned, it appears at your birthplace and whispers its name into your ears, after which you’ll never forget it.

I looked at Acho and asked him the same question I had been asking everyday for the past ten years, “Is it time?”.

The wiry little spirit shook its head and gave me the usual reply, “Not yet” in its guttural voice. I looked away from the spirit and after a while, he vanished.

Adaeze my granddaughter walked into the room without knocking and immediately pinched her nostrils to depict disgust.

“Smelling, mad old woman,” she said in English, before telling me in our dialect that food was ready. I nodded and gave her a warm smile as she strutted out like a peahen.

That night as I slept, my breasts itched uncontrollably and I knew something bad was about to happen.

The next morning, when Matthew came into my room, his eyes as red as a baboon’s buttocks, I simply asked him, “Who was it?”, and when he confirmed my suspicions by telling me it was Theresa, I told him not to tell me anymore. He nodded once and left my room.

Acho shuffled his feet to indicate his presence, I turned to acknowledge the little spirit with his arms behind his back, and his tail whipping around nervously. Enough was enough.

“Acho!” I called his name.

The spirit widened its eyes in surprise, but before it could say anything, I went on…

“Acho, I am tired. You’ve kept me here for too long. I am now a burden to my family – or at least what’s left of them. My children and their children are dying all the time and I am tortured by being made to watch them die. I have no right to be alive. Acho release me, I beg of you!!” .

The spirit said nothing and vanished. Alone, I mourned Theresa and fell asleep.

The second shuffling of feet woke me up. I was surprised for Acho only visited once a day.
But when I looked up, I not only saw Acho, but another darker spirit dressed in a long hooded cloak. Its very essence emanated pure icy evil, and I could feel it chill my old bones.

“Is it time?” I asked Acho

“Yes Ukene. It’s time. Meet Death,” he replied, motioning to the hooded spirit.

I boldly stood up without the aid of my walking stick, and without thinking, I made a move to slap Death!

For everyone I’d lost, I made a move to slap Death!

Maybe the sorrow made me delirious, or maybe I needed retribution of some sort, but I’d never really understand why I tried to slap DEATH.

Sadly, the spirit was intangible, so my hand went right through it and began to peel and wither.

Acho looked at me with pity, “Ukene, lie down,” he said.

I obeyed my Chi, and in a matter of seconds, I was looking at my lifeless body lying on the mat with a withered hand. Acho turned to me and said, “It was good to be your Chi,” then he turned to Death and spoke in the tongue of the spirits.

Ifeatu walked into the room with her usual face of disgust at the sight of my unmoving body and pinched her nostrils; probably thinking I was asleep, “Mama food is ready.” and she walked out.

Acho vanished and Death told me it was time to go, “Sooner or later they’ll find out” he told me in what must’ve been reassurance of some sort.

“It seems it would be later.” I whispered to myself as I slowly drifted away with Death into the darkness.

The next morning, the story on everyone’s lips was that Ukene was dead. But no one ever figured out why her hand was withered.