THE THING ABOUT SPILT MILK By Akunna James-Ibe

I preferred to believe she smelled like rotten eggs. That was the best simile I could come up with to describe how much her perpetual presence nauseated me. You see, eggs really disgusted me even when they were fresh from the poultry. But they didn’t disgust me as much as this woman did. So I guess ‘rotten’ was apt.

She had been my neighbour for 8 years now.
She lived happily in the gutter very close to my apartment.
Most of the time, she looked liked cow shit plastered with cloth patches.
I didn’t know her…and I didn’t want to.
I never really spoke to her…and I didn’t want to.
You see, she was deranged. I would have said ‘mad’, but ‘deranged’ was the best adjective I could come up with to qualify her state. It also sounded caustic enough to qualify my disgust.

It was not like she harassed me. In fact, she particularly bared her yellowed fangs at me whenever I passed by. Some people would call that a smile though.
It was not like I was a supercilious monster. I even gave her some of my foodstuffs before they spoiled completely. I really was a good man.
It was just that her presence disconcerted me.
It was just that it didn’t make sense that a mad woman would stay in a particular place for so long.
It was just that it was quite suspicious that she had moved into her ‘apartment’ the same time I had moved into mine.
It was just that she didn’t really seem as mad as her appearance suggested.
It was just that my pastor had suggested she could be a monitoring spirit.

“Brother…you say this woman has been there for 5 years now?” he had asked the day I complained
“Yes sir.”
“You say they said she came here the same time you did?”
“Yes pastor.”
“Makorisha!” He had replied then staggered a bit. “You say she smiles at you in an evil way whenever you pass by?”
“Em…I can’t really say.”
“Brother! Brother! that’s how the enemy works…He’ll even appear as an angel of light to deceive the very elect. People are wicked!” he had spat.
“Oh.”
I began to wish I had let sleeping dogs lie.
“You are from Nsukka eh?”
I hadn’t replied.
“You are from Nsukka…we have to pray now” he said. “I heard most people there are not uh…godly.”
I heard so too.
I also heard most people from his Mbaise were not uh…godly.

Later, we had a very long prayer session. And he gave me a dozen bottles of Annointing oil whose empty bottles were still in my kitchen cabinet. I heard olive oil was healthier for cooking than other types.

Well, nothing happened. The woman didn’t leave and no bad thing occured to disrupt my doctorate program. So I let her be even though I still inadvertently screwed up my face when I crossed her path.

Sometimes, I listened to her conversations with her imaginary people about her daughter who was about to become a professor. I even noticed that she kept aside some money and food that some people gave her. They were for the education of her daughter she told her imaginary people. It was good to know that even lunatics could dream big. It also felt good that I knew this bit about my neighbour.

I also got to learn more the day Papa came to Lagos to see me.
That day, as we approached my apartment, we saw a small crowd hovering like a dark cloud near my place. They dispersed when we got closer. As soon as we got there I wished they had not left.
The mad woman was sprawled on the floor stark naked…not even her rags were on.
She was dead.
My neighbour was cold dead.
This woman I never thought could leave.
“My God! how did this happen?” I cried. And I meant it.
“My God!” My father cried. And I think he meant it more than I did.
The unexpected emotion in his cry threw me of balance.
Papa was quite old. I didn’t want him to be traumatized, so I spat over the corpse to make light of the matter. But he cast the most chilling glance ever. It was a glance mixed with disgust, horror and pity.
I regretted that act that instant and for the rest of my life.

“I’m…sorry…But we have to go now.” I murmured.
But no. Instead, Papa dropped to his knees and began to wail loudly.
“Jesus Christ papa! Stop this…let’s go. You’ll cause a scene.”
He pointed to a scar on her stomach that looked like a petrified earthworm.
I tried to pull him up, but he was effortlessly rigid.
I became terrified.
“Please stand up…let’s go. The police might come here….God…please!” I pleaded in Igbo
“Your mother…” he muttered.
“Eh?”
“Your mother…” he repeated.
I felt dizzy at once. The gravity of his words brought me to my knees too.
“No…she’s a mad woman…”
“Your mother…” he said again then held up her limp right hand. There was an inconspicuous wedding band on her ring finger. It was a replica of the one on Papa’s finger.

No, God, no…these things only happened in Nollywood.

“What are you saying?” I whispered.
No response.
“What are you saying?!” I screamed.
No response.
“Papa! Answer me? Answer me?” I wailed.
No response.
“You said she left…she says she has a daughter…was she mistaken? what are you saying? Papa?! Papa?!”
No response.
I didn’t even care about the crowd that was beginning to form.
I shook him. He stared on.
He squatted there, rocking himself back and forth as tears streamed down his dying eyes.
Papa never spoke a word again.

The doctor didn’t let me stay with Papa throughout the night. He said I needed to do something humans did called ‘rest.’
But I wasn’t human.
I wasn’t human!
How couldn’t he see I wasn’t human?
What human spat over the corpse of his mother?
What human let his mother live in the gutter?
What human gave his mother spoiled food?
What human treated his mother like the devil’s shit?
How could a doctor be unable to distinguish a human from a beast?

Still, I couldn’t bring myself to stay with papa. I felt the stench of my bestiality would choke him to death, so I left.
That night, I bought a crate of eggs on my way home from the hospital.
That night, I sat naked in the living room and gorged myself with the raw eggs till I almost threw up my entire gut. I cried like it was possible for my wails to reach the land of the dead where they would become a lullaby to caress mama.
Yet, no amount of torture could compare to the recurring images in my mind of the way i had treated her for 8 years.
I tried concoct a memory where I had actually returned her smiles.
I tried to stir an illusion where I had given her something more than rotten food.
All I could see was the ambulance I had called over to pick her stiff body.
The truth became clear. The only thing I would ever give her was death all dressed in a princely garb.

I should have…
If only I had…
I wish I had…
I wish I hadn’t…
I wish I could…
I wish it were…
I wish it wasn’t…

The most painful thing was that I would only offer my dead mother sour bits of what I should have given her – wishes…

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