The Heavens Also Weep by Sarah Udoh-Grossfurthner
The Heavens Also Weep
I call it the day the heavens wept. I’d arrived home unexpectedly and there was my father battering my mother on the kitchen floor. Beyond a sensation of heaviness in the pit of my stomach, three things will ever remain clear about that afternoon. I see it as if it only happened yesterday: the sound of my father’s red Yamaha motorcycle 250 as he rode out of our compound; the crack-crack-aahh-ing sound made by the big avocado tree in our backyard as the ferocity of the wind tore through it, ripping off several branches. And the rain.
It’d seemed as though the heavens were weeping, or protesting the destruction of a young child’s illusion.
It was the same kind of intensity I am witnessing now through the window as I moved back and forth attending to Jessica Ideh.
My name is Usenima Richard. I am a nurse at St. Martha’s Consultant Hospital and today, I am attending the worst case of battering the hospital has ever seen. At least that’s what the other nurses told me. And they should know, having worked here since the hospital was formally opened four years ago; I only arrived six months to the date. Anyway, Jessica Ideh came in with two broken fingers, now encased in plaster of Paris, cracked ribs and, except for a face that was surprisingly blemish-free, an entire body covered in bruises, already turning a dark hue – like the colour of matured aubergine. But the worst injury by far is to her bladder. It’s ruptured as a result of a fractured pelvis. The woman is in her early twenties to early thirties, and really beautiful. That’s plain to see, despite the permanent grimace of pain that spreads across her face.
‘Does seem like he intended to finish her off this time. Sick. Really sick,’ Doctor Lumide commented as he inserted the catheter to achieve the elimination the unconscious woman could no longer perform on her own.
A particularly sharp lightning splays through the room, causing a tray containing needles and gauzes to drop from my hands, and a loud ‘shoot!’ to burst from my lips.
I look across at the injured woman. She remains as still as a log in fireless hearth. My uncharacteristic blasphemy hasn’t brought forth a single twitch.
The elements continue to moan and roar, the resulting viciousness pounds the barbwire at the top of the outside walls and set it crackling like brittle woods in a tropical-bush fire. The whole thing is bringing back memories I have strived my entire life to push into the utmost recesses of my mind.
That, and the constant questions by the sister of the patient who, since arriving six hours earlier, has refused to budge from the injured woman’s bedside.
‘How could she have allowed this to go on without informing anyone? What was she trying to prove?’
The same reason my mother did: shame and fear, not trying to prove anything at all; just plain old fear and shame, I want to say but compress my lips. Instead I mumble ‘mmm,’ for the thousandth time.
For a few seconds the rumbling of the thunderstorm and the ‘plop’ ‘plop’ sound of the I-V liquid are the only audible sounds as I prepare her sister for the next round of the doctor’s visit. Then the rain intensifies and the questions resume.
She gives her name as Eleanor Umeh, and is a younger version of the woman on the hospital cot – same dusky complexion, high cheekbones, and turned-up lips: which tremble now uncontrollably.
Earlier that day she’d barrelled towards the reception desk of the hospital,
‘Where’s my sister? I am looking for my sister, Mrs Jessica Ideh…her name is Jessica Ideh.’ Her tone was a mixture of hope and resignation – as if fearful she might already be too late.
I was walking by the desk at the moment, on my way to attend to the very patient she was asking about.
‘Madam, please follow her. She’s the attending nurse,’ the receptionist pointed towards me.
That was over five hours ago.
She must have come directly from work because she is dressed in a formal charcoal grey suit and purple blouse: her face is a mess of caked mascara, tears and smudged lipstick.
‘Did she not trust us, her own family? How could she have kept quiet about an abuse of this magnitude? Not even a word to me. Not a single word. And I am supposed to be her favourite sister! Nurse…’ she stoops and peers short-sightedly at the badge on my uniform. Nurse Richard, please…what kind of man does a thing like this to a woman he swore before God and several to love and protect?
‘Papa! Papa, please stop. W-w-what are you doing?’ Memories of my father taking well-aimed kicks at the curled up figure of my mother on the kitchen floor intrudes.
‘Why did she stay silent, Nurse?’
‘Papa! Papa, please stop.’ My mother remained curled like a shrimp on the dusty kitchen floor, my father’s black cobra-skin shoes (his favourite pair) with their pointed tips repeatedly thudding into her sides, left and then right, left and then right, left, right, left, right…repeatedly.
‘Not even an animal. Not even an animal deserves to be treated this way,’ Eleanor Ume wails.
Not even an animal…
‘I didn’t know… I didn’t know.’ The weeping woman lays one hand on my arm as if afraid I might not believe her. I pat her arm and make to hold her, but she pulls away and turns again towards her sister.
The rain continues to pour forth and the thunder rolls.
It’s only the beginning of the rainy season, but you could not guess that from the deluge coming down as if every single tap in heaven has been turned on. It soaks the parched earth and produces a musky, but fresh tang that wafts through the mosquito nettings and into the hospital room. Beyond the room, the sky is darkening even further. Flashes of lightning snake through dark clouds and disappear into the horizon. The winds slash and whip at the branches of eucalyptus trees lining the fence of the hospital. Every now and then the woman interrupts her monologue and looks through the window in annoyance, as if she protesting the thoughtlessness of the elements and what appears an apparent lack of concern for her sister’s plight.
‘He’s so likable, Nurse Richard, always has been.’
I want to tell her that Papa had also been likeable…really likeable. He’d thought nothing of dropping down on all fours to bring a smile to the face of a sad child. Everyone in Ekene village liked and respected Dominic Richard. ‘A man to be counted upon in times of trouble,’ said the elders. ‘Nse Richard is so lucky,’ added the women, their eyes lingering long after my father’s tall, leaned frame had disappeared around the bend.
‘Jokes with everyone. Calls me his favourite in-law. oh God! He calls me his favourite in-law and I always thought that so cute. That evil…that evil bastard!’ Her voice goes up an octave, as if by accepting his flattery she had somehow encouraged the abuse.
‘Forgive me! Please forgive me.’ Perching on the edge of her sister’s bed, she took the comatose woman’s hand and caressed it, gently.
Other children had thought us very lucky when Papa took us to church every Sunday on his red Yamaha 250 motorcycle. He was ‘Papa’ who told us jokes and tickled us every evening until we were squirming, helpless bundles of giggles. It was this hypocrisy – although I did not fully understand the word at that time – that made me leave home at the first opportunity after my mother died. I wanted to get as far away from our village as possible… to forget. I loved my father, but I couldn’t stand to look at the man responsible for her untimely death. So I sought escape in books, while my friends were out doing teenage things. I took part in every competition and when, right after my A levels, I won a scholarship to study nursing and midwifery I jumped at the opportunity. In retrospect, this was probably not the kind of study I should have chosen, as it brought me face to face on a daily basis with the very thing I was running away from, women suffering.
‘My family is right. How could I not have known this was going on? On the other hand, Nurse Richard, my sister is such a private person; you know only what she wants you to know. The one time I witnessed him smack her, she was quick to assure it was only in jest. “Lover’s tussle,” she called it; couples do have that every now and then, don’t they, Nurse? That was the one and only time,’ she points one manicured finger, shakes it vigorously.
I nod and hand her tissue to stem her running nose. She pauses, blows loudly into it and continues.
‘The bastard didn’t touch her face, he knew exactly what he was doing, didn’t he? Perhaps we would have been able to prevent this he if only he’d hit her face,’ she points at her sister.
As she rants and raves I grunt every now and then, even though I know her questions are rhetorical. My heart is beginning to open up to her pain. Her steps continue to keep track with every one of mine, but that did not bother me anymore. She needs an outlet for her frustration. I understand that. After all, had I not been a front-row witness to wife battering? I understand the victim’s need to manufacture logical explanations for an illogical situation. Hadn’t my own mother thought that my father’s abuse a direct result of her inability to give him a son? Hadn’t she’d validated his abuse every time she lied about the reason for her frequent limps?
‘Mommy’s bad knee is acting up today, Usenima,’ she had offered by way of explanation. Or the more frequent, ‘Mommy has a touch of malaria today.’ As result, I grew up thinking ‘malaria’ was similar to Mr. James, my primary school teacher whose liberal use of his long cane caused many in his class to hobble and limp, just like Mama.
‘I should have been more attentive, Nurse Richard, I know that now.’
I even understood the guilt building up in this young woman’s heart, as the pockets of doubts begin to grow and gnaw.
I am 36. My mother died when I was 13. Still, I too continue to carry the guilt that she would have lived had I only spoken up…say something, anything to somebody.
‘You know, Nurse?’ Eleanor Umeh continues, sotto voce. ‘Somehow, even in the midst of this, I can’t help but blame my sister a bit. She is highly educated, you know? Masters in banking and finance, she has. How does someone with that kind of exposure allow some stupid man to batter her to the point of putting her in a comma? Does that make me a terrible person…to be blaming her, even with the way she is.’
Even that, I also understand. Warped as it may sound, her sister must have held herself responsible for her husband’s aggression. Same thing had happened to my mother. She had blamed my father’s aggression on her inability to produce a male child. My father sensed her acceptance and began hitting her more often. I’d felt my mother’s pain…felt sorry for her even… but I had not been able to disguise my disgust at her inability to stand up to my father’s tyranny. In a way, I blamed her for dying so young, for letting my little sisters and I go through the anguish of her growing up without her. Truth be told, I was still blaming her after so many years. That’s why I never talk about her to anyone…not even to my sisters. I loved my mother very much, but I could not bring myself to respect her. How could I? She’d taught me the importance of self-respect, and yet she’d allowed herself to be humiliated in front of her own children. She must have seen that in my eyes. That was probably the reason she never told her own family about her suffering. She could not bear the thought of losing their respect as well. She suffered in silence until the day she died, at the tender age of 34 – supposedly of cancer of the ovaries – right after I turned 13.
And so, I can sympathize with this young woman who’s wearing the hospital rug thin, striding back and forth, ranting her pains and frustrations at the heavens.
The first clue I had that Papa was not quite as honourable as we all thought him to be was that afternoon. I must have been around seven years old at the time.
That morning, I had skipped to the village primary school along with other children. By first recess I had a funny feeling in my stomach and my eyes were red and cakey at the corners. Halfway through the second class of the day I vomited twice and my skin was as hot as the big iron pot Mama used for frying garri. An older girl from a class higher up was assigned to escort me home.
It was the peak of the rainy season. I remember my teacher, Mrs Okon
‘Hurry up, girls, before the rains come. Look at those clouds.’
Our house was 15 minutes walk from the school. I remember the howling winds. We had half-walked and half-ran towards my home as the sky darkened with every step and the trees along the path bent almost double, fighting valiantly against the driving force.
‘This one is going to un-roof lots of thatched houses in the village,’ the older girl had predicted, as howling wind whipped the nature around us into frenzy.
When we got home my father’s Yamaha was parked under the mango tree on the left side of our home. I remember wondering why. He did not usually return from his bicycle spare-parts shop until the evening sun had left our rooftop to visit another village. I was still thinking about that as we rounded the bend towards the kitchen in search of my mother. A noise came from behind the closed door. It was a strange keening sound interspersed with inaudible pleas; it made me stop dead. I reached for Uyime’s hand, let go again, then took tentative steps towards the kitchen door and gently pushed it open.
My mother was on all fours with Papa standing over her: his right foot drawn back like a footballer preparing for a kick. Mama’s hands were up near her face, trying to ward off the blows. Her eyes were swollen red, her entire face puffy and wet with tears. The deep keening sound I’d heard was from her. Both of them rounded at the sound of the kitchen door.
While my father’s took on the look of a person caught in a secret they had no wish to make public, it was the look on my mother’s face that rooted me to the spot. As I watched it underwent changes like that of a chameleon. Fear was replaced by surprise, then disbelief and finally shame. A very private person, my mother was an ardent believer in ‘keeping one’s dirty linen deeply hidden in one’s cupboard.’ Having me witness her in such a state was bad enough; knowing that an outsider (and one who would certainly announce the story to the entire Ekene village the moment she left) had also witnessed the scene must have cut to her very soul. As the wind howled and the sky darkened, I watched her struggle to regain some semblance of dignity. She got to her feet, and clearing her throat repeatedly, enquired as to why I was not in school. My illness now forgotten, I rushed to her and held her tight, as though my young mind could already grasp that our ‘perfect’ life had come to an end.
I’d never seen my father raise his hand against my mother. I had thought him incapable of beating his wife as some men in our village did. Everything changed after that. Perhaps being found out liberated him from pretending. Either that, or it was something he saw in my eyes. Whatever it was, my father became less careful in his abuse of my mother. On the other hand, he must have sensed that my hero-worship for him died that afternoon. As a result, an act that was at first committed when my siblings and I were not at home now became a frequent occurrence that took place regardless of where we happened to be at the time. I finally understood the source of my mother’s frequent limps; the reason behind the bruises on her skin when she asked me to help lotion her back; and the heart-stopping sadness in her eyes.
A violent noise just outside window brings Eleanor Umeh’s questions to a momentary stop. We both look at each other. Then move as one and peer outside the window facing the backyard. A large tree branch lies across the half wall, its brambles covered in hailstones and feathers from several dislodged bird nests. As we watch, a tiny bird, completely devoid of feathers, plops out of one of the broken nests.
My young companion exhales, deep and harsh. Her face crumbles anew. The look in those heart-rending eyes brake the last barrier and restraint I have been holding unto these many years. She turns. I too turn, and we envelope each other in a tight hug.
As renew thunder rolls and fresh rain pour forth, my tears mingle alongside hers.
Sarah Udoh-Grossfurthner is a Nigerian-born writer and poet whose work covers the highs and lows of the human heart, as seen in her many writings. Her published work include BUT HE CALLS ME BLESSED; JUST AN ORDINARY GUY, PATHWAYS OF LIFE, a podcast in TIME magazine, as well as several features in both online and print media. Born in southern Nigeria, her poem ‘Mirror Image’ was converted into the theme song for a Nigerian breast cancer awareness concert in 2005. Sarah has a BA (Hons) in Diplomatic Studies, and an MA in Professional Writing. Sarah lives in Vienna, Austria. The Heavens Also Weep was shortlisted for the Wasafiri New Writing Prize 2017.