“Don’t keep the palm oil on the fire too long. It will lose its red color,” she instructed. Her son’s eyes teared as he diced onions and let them fall from his hands to the sizzling red hot oil in the big orange pot.
“Burn the onions if you have to. Their flavors are important for the taste and aroma of the soup.”
“Why must I learn to cook?” His face contorted in a frown.
The corners of her lips lifted in a smile. His hands were always healing from knife cuts, and people wondered why she kept him in the kitchen rather than letting him play with other boys.
His voice had begun to deepen, hair grew under his arms, he had an aversion to sitting on her lap now, and he took increasingly more time on the phone talking with friends, but she had to be there for him so he could become who she felt he was supposed to be.
“But if the onions burn, the soup will look all wrong,” he said, pouting.
“It won’t matter,” she responded. “You have kitchen talent, just like me. We’ll make this work.”
He looked at her with sparkling eyes that bulged like her brother’s had–eyes that shone with intellect, eyes that shone in disbelief. His short nose, small lips and bushy eyebrows were hers. The small jaw belonged to her husband, but his eyes were definitely those of her departed brother.
“Your father likes my cooking very much.” She spoke of the man who returned late afternoons from work, kissed her, ruffled her son’s head and thought the boy looked like him.
“What next, Mum?”
“Soak the egusi.”
Soft like milk, the gray morsel waddled as he held the bowl and stirred it with a spoon.
“Sometimes you fry it first. When fried, the ground pumpkin seeds soak in the oil and become tastier. The less popular method is the one where you put the Egusi in just before you shred the leaves. The stock has to be superb for that.”
He stopped stirring and looked at his mother with wrinkled brows. “Which one are we doing?”
The sizzling oil complained about the water. Bubbles exploded from the surface of the gray paste and rivulets of oil formed on the surface. When she asked him to step back, he glanced at her–relieved.
“Cooking is one way to steal a woman’s heart, you know.”
“I don’t want to steal anything,” he responded.
That was what the boy people took for her brother had told her when they were young, but he had stolen her heart, nevertheless. But she didn’t feel empty–not anymore. She had a son who reminded her of him.
She could almost smell the acrid air, almost feel her eyes water and fingers burn from black masses of millet gruel that clung to walls and bottoms of aluminum pots.
“You’ll get it right next time,” he’d say as he put his hand on her shoulder. He’d been her friend for as long as she could remember, one of those people able to awake sleeping emotions with a gentle touch. He smiled at her with teeth standing at uneven heights on his gums, like people in a bus queue, but his smile had nothing to do with her awakening to him, any more than did his squared shoulders or new beard. Her attraction to him was more than physical; it was human. She wanted to cook and clean and take care of him.
Though her parents had been firm, he had a strong yet gentle hold on life, like a feathery breeze that blew the smell of lemons to those who loved lemonade. He held her hands, taught her everything she wanted to know, except for the one thing she longed to have from him.
She tried to console him about being adopted, but he joked that blood relationships were overrated. “You’re really no more like your mother than you’re like Michael Jackson.” His easy smile and demeanor convinced her more than the words he spoke, and she bought into his evaluation of things based on his breezy attitude.
When she turned sixteen, he made her popular by throwing her a party. He gave her a gold watch with her name inscribed on the band for her eighteenth birthday.
At twenty, their parents were buried, and she asked him to marry her. But he laughed.
“I’m serious,” she insisted.
“I’m your brother,” he said as he walked away.
But her heart refused to break. She was convinced he loved her. Only the people who might think their marriage improper kept them apart, but to her, their opinions were insignificant. Having him as a husband would be a cherry for her life. He was the only one who loved her left alive.
Boys she met left furious because she held her heart for someone else.
But then he found a girlfriend–tall and lean, with hips that sashayed like a curtain in the breeze. She wore short pleated skirts set off with high heels, but she was a block head, careless about the eyes that followed her.
He was irate when his girlfriend visited one night covered with mosquito bites, dried leaves and the smell of fresh cut grass. His voice increased to levels his sister had never heard from him, and it scalded her.
“You’re not a teenager,” she chided after his girlfriend left. Stop following her. She doesn’t deserve you! You know this, yet you turn a blind eye to it.”
“Don’t be a moron,” he rejoined.
She yelled at him before returning to her guest room in his apartment where she had decamped the university hostel to live with him.
In the dead of night, she sneaked into his room to watch him sleep, but the bed was empty, bedclothes roughly strewn about. She dissolved into them and remembered when he used to cuddle with her to help her get past the nightmares.
When they were younger, he’d often returned from boarding school, and unknowing tantalized her with dry kisses of hello. When she was sick, he fussed over her, spending time searching for the most delicious chocolate in the market place. He brought her treats whenever he returned from school, the way one would buy tickets for shows. In all the decades of her life, he’d never raised his voice to her, only given wistful smiles, shakes of head or exasperated sighs followed by “No problem, Sis.”
It had taken a tall bimbo with long, honey-colored legs to change the relationship they shared.
Breakfast waited on the table for her the next morning. He had come home from wherever and left for work without a word. Some of the worst days of her life followed. She was suspended because she’d mauled a boy at school. Her brother didn’t talk about it, except to ask if she was all right.
Then he and his girlfriend cooed and cuddled on the couch. Later that evening the dumb bitch had said something about how difficult it was to live with his weird sister. She suggested he buy her a house so she could concentrate on school and they would have some time alone. He never responded to her comment, only changed the topic of conversation.
She was angry when he hadn’t defended her and frustrated that he didn’t see her for the manipulating bitch she was. Then the woman touched him again, touching, touching, always treating him like a cheap toy. This girlfriend had to go!
One afternoon while he had his hands deep in a bowl of flour, brother and sister laughed and carried on about their teenage crushes.
“I remember that girl with the fringe haircut,” she said. She was so perky!”
“And jealous too.” He licked the batter off his finger. The lone dimple in his cheek deepened as he swallowed. She loved watching him as he ate but willed herself against thinking too much about it.
“I used to be the girl who could make your frivolous girlfriends go away.”
He sighed at her half smile as if he’d peeked into her soul and seen her inner self. His deep brown eyes lit up in amusement. “You’ve always been that girl.”
She stood in silent contemplation as he set the oven and ended their conversation.
As far as she was concerned, his girlfriend would soon be an ex as well. The task was easy enough. A university was the perfect place to make this happen. Someone posted the tramp’s half-naked picture on an escort site. Without interference, her brother got the link. At first he considered it a ruse, but then he and his girlfriend were given an invitation to kick off her modelling career.
Fake smiles adorned her cheeks, and a gag reflex went into play as she spoke proudly about how popular she’d become due to her new account online. She didn’t even pause to wonder how pictures of her became public.
Yet this popularity had drawbacks. She’d had to press pillows against her ears to block sounds of lovemaking in the other room. Those sounds wouldn’t go away and made her ill the next day. She refused to eat pudding because he hadn’t made it. He had allowed someone else to fix their food when he went to work. She cried in his absence, losing hope of things ever being as they’d been. She threw away all the food his new girlfriend fixed. Everyone has his or her own preferences for food tastes and for cooks.
A week later he’d come home dejected. He loosened his tie slowly. She was getting over her own illness and heartbreak, but she sat beside him, quietly listening to the tale of his relationship gone bad.
His recent ex had told him their lives were not going in the same direction. “I’d always known it would end,” he said, as he held his sister to him, his chest heaving like the chug of a train when he looked into her eyes. “She didn’t care about things that were important to me. What do women really want, anyway?”
He asked, but she couldn’t answer. As he talked about it, his voice was light and grew weaker yet. She’d hoped he would cry on her shoulder so she could comfort him and save him from his grief. This was the unhappiest he had been since their parents died.
“It’ll be all right.” She assured him. “Maybe what you’re looking for has been here all along. Don’t let it wither.”
Light warmed his expression as he studied her face. “I think it has.”
He spent the next few months jogging every morning till he glowed. He stocked the fridge with milk and quick proteins instead of vegetables and fruits. He cooked less, read more, and bought spectacles to match the scarves and jackets in his new wardrobe, and he had the buttons of his jackets replaced with jeweled stones. Even his hair grew darker, and the silence that had once been bright and warm and therapeutic took on the mien of a cold, dark thunderstorm.
Leaving his girlfriend had taken its toll. It left a shell filled with explosives where there’d been fertilizer.
She couldn’t reach him. He was busy working on his body, his mind and his career with a wild frenzy as if to make up for lost time. Silence hung about the house. Books stole him away from her, and she had to settle for writing things she wanted to say.
Sometimes silence begged her to rip the spectacles from his eyes so he would see her, but she feared that might do more harm than good. On occasion she’d find him in a tantrum, howling like a wind strafed coyote on a cold night. One evening she walked into the kitchen to find a stack of plastic bowls in random formation across the floor, and there he was, coughing and wheezing.
The short hairs of his scalp prickled her palm like so many black pins. When they got to the hospital, that sharpness traveled to her brain after one of the doctors declared he had a terminal illness. She didn’t know the name of his disease, but it had left him anemic.
The doctor warned her, “His bone marrow looks like a dried out sponge. He has a month to live.”
She stopped to check on him before she left for home.
“They told you, didn’t they? How many weeks?”
She didn’t answer.
“Four weeks?” He’d always been able to read her.
“I struggled for an entire lifetime, and just when I think I’m human, Death sends me a text. We met in a park once. There is no scythe, no ragged, black cloak, just a woman with almond eyes, brown as puddles in the sand. She seemed lonely and told me she hated her job, told me she’d have to stop stalking me and abduct me one day. I wanted to be dressed in a tan suit to meet her, wanted my mind and body to be fit and be in the best of moods. She’s good for throwing surprise parties, isn’t she? Well, I’m in better shape now than the last time we talked. Maybe I’m ready for the party. At least I can tell her how it feels to sing in the shower, make faces at the mirror as you brush your teeth, things she can’t do because of her job. I shouldn’t have let her walk away back then. I should have had her take me with her when we first met.”
She could hear no more of his resignation. She did what she’d always wanted to do but never had the courage to do all those years he’d let her fall asleep watching TV with him. She kissed him deeply, tasted him, timidly at first, until he let her in. Her bottom lip disappeared in his mouth, and she enjoyed its magnificence! It felt far better than she’d imagined, but she was the one to pull away, and she looked back at him pensively.
“She left you. That’s her loss. She’s never coming back. I’m the one who is here for you now!” She wanted him to live, would have done anything for it to be so, for him to stay with her–forever.
He looked at her the way she wanted to be looked at their entire life together, as if his world depended on her. “When Death returns,” he whispered, “I’ll tell her how it feels to love a sister.”
She tore up the letter he would have read had he come home to an empty apartment, for he returned to being the person she had known, and she spent more time at the hospital than at school.
He was more playful now, more child than man–but racked with wisdom. He scooted to the other side of the bed for her to sit there every day. They talked quietly all night, ate cuisine from the hospital canteen, and she read to him. He complained to his captors he wanted to breath fresh air again, and as much as they advised against it, he walked her to school and sat through a lecture with her one Friday, awkwardly folding into his auditorium chair, his eyes more piercing, more intense than ever, an elfish handsomeness about him. She clung to his arm more tightly, fluttered her fingers more eagerly in greeting to the world.
“I thought he was your brother,” one of her friends said.
“But you two have lived together.”
People considered them incestuous, but he laughed over it, regretted his lifelong folly of listening to them, recalling his comment to her when they were children, “Blood is nothing. It’s the crudest form of relationship, an illusion to keep us safe when we don’t know the truth. Actually, everything you see is just the smoke of energy and a few grains of matter smaller than sand to the sixtieth power. Solidity is an illusion. Everything is energy.” Words he’d uttered in the past struck home!
She put the physics book down and shut him up with a kiss, then made macaroni.
“But I wonder, if we are just dust and smoke and really related to everything, the soul must be some kind of energy that is like nothing else before.”
He seemed to be slowly losing his battle against death, going to a dusty book in a library…. What had he been reading? There was a yearning when he looked at her, a helplessness fraught with some new strain of regret whenever she pressed herself against him.
She took his hand and placed it on her heart. “You have always been here–inside of me. No other woman, not even death, can take that away.”
“Will you let me be with you?” She asked, when he drew her close, and she felt his harsh breathing. She forgot about the half cooked macaroni when his arms went around her. Second rate plans for dinner slipped from her thoughts. His hands flipped the switch of her bare skin. His mouth went everywhere, and she followed his touch, magnet to iron dust, the way the moon pulled waters. Her body came alive through him. They made their own colors behind closed eyelids. Muscles obeyed otherworldly commands, clenching, unclenching, circling, pushing, pressing down on regions below and squeezing filings within.
For him it was different than the times he’d been there before, or he wouldn’t have taught her the things he did or mapped out her body into provinces. The world, the hospital, his disease disappeared when they made love. They were Atlanteans who explored oceans together. He–the sailor who gave a mermaid legs and taught her how to circle him when they came together in a climax.
How do you make love to man at the end of life? When his bones have failed and the rest of him cannot rise from softness? Will his seed preserve him? Is he a young shoot that can rise from a shrunken diskette? Or must his stem be cut to grant immortality?
He chuckled when he read it and then fingered strands of her hair as she waited for his verdict.
“Shoots are organic. Disks are magnetic but my heart remains with you.” She only laughed and kissed him again for not understanding what she meant. Part of him would always live independent of her.
He went into organ failure two days later. His lungs collapsed, and he asked his doctors to pull the plug, in order to preserve his organs. She made a scene in the hospital and berated him for how quickly he ran from his fight, but he ignored the confrontations. He’d been weak and afraid of fighting all his life she screamed, blaming him for the years they hadn’t had together. If only he’d walked away or ignored his concerns about approaching the boundaries of incest that he boldly sank into while he lay dying!
She tore at her hair that night, before she went into heart failure. He held her as she slipped off into unconsciousness, but he never had the chance to tell her that her heart had failed when she was two, that she’d been kept alive by a pacemaker. He couldn’t tell her that her parents adopted him because they thought an elder sibling would make her life easier. He hadn’t had the chance to let her know he’d loved her since she was dressed in a pink frock dress and singing shoes. But now, his heart was for her only.
She woke in the hospital, stitches in her chest. He had died two days before she regained consciousness. He left a will that bequeathed her everything, including the diamond ring intended for his ex. He also left a letter explaining what he’d felt for her, including all the things about him she thought were cowardly.
“How could I give you any trouble when your parents pulled at my ears like rubber bands? I wouldn’t ever have hurt you. You were precious to me, my weak-hearted one. I wanted only to protect you. Do not argue, and do not marry for love, for that will break your heart. Now, I live in you. You are all that’s left of me in your reality, and my heart will be yours until the time you join me.”
Tears fell on the letter, but they would dry to become a treasured possession.
In the hospital, a nice paramedic tended her. He saw her home, but she didn’t offer to cook, due to the stench of unwashed dishes.
“Can we eat out instead?” he asked, then ordered the food in so she didn’t have to walk. She offered him her smile, feeling safe–knowing he could never steal her heart or be half the only man she wanted.
She was pregnant when she married fourteen years ago. The paramedic and a rich college girl were stained with gossip that she married just to save her reputation after an incestuous pregnancy.
The child in her had grown to the one she looked at now, having her walnut brown skin and long neck. She watched her boy fold his arms as he considered her comment about stealing a woman’s heart. It was exactly what her brother said. She was overcome with a feeling of deja vu.
“Who likes your cooking, Mum?” her son asked.
She blinked. “The man who stole my heart.”
“Dad?” Her son responded.
She stared at him. He was his father–incarnate, with all the same dark expressions and sure-of-fact manner he acquired in his last days.
“Yes. Your father was the one who stole my heart before he gave his heart to me.”
Can smells and tastes make the heart beat faster? Do memories tied to them evoke ghosts that visit us from the past and brighten present thoughts?
“I do not want to take anybody’s heart.” He turned and began to stir the soup, holding the pot like a wheel and shifting the gears of lunch He exuded the aura she had cherished–the aura of her brother.
“I pray she steals yours first.” She said more quietly.
She placed a hand on her fast beating heart–still in love with its new home.
Godoz Shammah is a Biochemistry Student of Federal University of Technology, Minna. He loves to cook, to write and to daydream about hosting people. He also loves to travel.
Instagram Shammah Godoz
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