Buchi's Girls: An Excerpt From WHAT IT MEANS WHEN A MAN FALLS FROM THE SKY
When Buchi returned to the kitchen, her sister’s husband was there. Dickson sat in that sprawled way of his, unself-conscious, completely believing in his right to take up space. Nnamdi had always disliked his gidi-gidi personality, said only small-minded men acted so big, and efforts to engender friendship between the two men always failed. Precious’s husband was the sort of man people pretended to like because they couldn’t afford not to. His presence in the kitchen disrupted the easy feel of the room. Louisa had squeezed into the corner, as far from Dickson’s energy as she could get without leaving.
“Oya now, your sister said you wanted to talk to me.”
That had been almost two weeks ago, but Buchi knew not to point it out.
“Yes. Louisa, you can go.”
“She should stay. Is this not about her?”
Louisa looked from her uncle to her mother and Buchi put an extra warning in her eye. Louisa should leave. But it had been too long since she’d had to be so firm, and Dickson’s order superseded hers. The girl stayed. Buchi sighed.
“It’s about school. The girls’ school fees. I, I need help with them.”
Dickson sipped his water.
“I can’t afford the proper school.”
He wasn’t going to make it easy.
Before she formed a response that would preserve her dignity in front of her daughter, Damaris went tearing past the kitchen door screaming in her harmless way, the chicken right behind.
Dickson sucked his teeth.
“I should kill that chicken.”
This from Louisa, no longer in the corner, but close now, like she was ready to physically restrain her uncle.
“I will kill it and I will eat it with stew.”
“No, you can’t.”
Dickson was clearly joking, a mean joke made meaner by not backing down at a child’s distress, but still, a joke. But Louisa, whose world had become black and white, couldn’t see that.
“You can’t kill the bird, Damaris is writing a book about it.”
“Book, nko? Well, she can make it a cookbook,” Dickson said, and roared at his jest.
Louisa lost it then and ran up to him and beat her small fists about his head. Dickson and Buchi shared a still, shocked moment, then Buchi grabbed the girl before her uncle could return the blows.
“In my own house! A child will hit me in my own house!”
“Dickson, please,” Buchi said, putting herself between him and her daughter.
“We will eat that bird tonight. We will. Lawrence!”
“You can’t, you can’t.” Louisa was sobbing now.
“Mummy, you have to stop him.”
Buchi thought about the very expensive dollhouse with the very expensive broken furniture.
“Shh, Louisa, be quiet.”
The look her daughter gave her was acid. Louisa ran out, and Buchi knew something had changed between them. There was only so much a mother could ask a daughter to bear before that bond became bondage.
Lawrence opened the screen door.
“Go and kill that chicken.”
“Which one, sah?”
“Shut up and go, you know which one.”
Buchi stepped forward to interject and was met with a quick, hot slap followed by Dickson’s finger in her face.
“Not one word from you. You bring your children into my house to insult me? Me, who has let you stay here all this time? No, not one word.”
Buchi always imagined herself a quiet woman whose well ran deep. That when faced with extreme conditions, she would meet them with an inner fount of strength, a will long dormant electrified to life. But these last few months of folding into herself, of enduring one petty disgrace after another, had drained that well dry.
As the insult throbbed in her cheek, she did not retaliate, did not raise her hand and slap him back. She was never more aware that nothing, not even the food that nourished her children’s bodies, not even her dignity, belonged to her. Dickson lowered his arm. This was a point he would never have to make again.
He left the kitchen and Buchi trembled in his wake. She went outside to find Lawrence holding his machete and looking at Kano, who pecked at his leather sandals like she could taste the salt of sweat. Lawrence looked at Buchi, then back at the bird.
“Damaris?” she asked.
“In the veranda, ma. With her book.”
They shared a moment in quiet thought.
“I won’t do it, oh. There are other chickens, why must it be this one?”
“Lawrence, please, just do it.”
“I won’t, it isn’t—”
“Just kill the bloody bird or I’ll do it myself!”
She was crying now and didn’t know how to stop.
Lawrence took hold of her elbow to guide her to sit, and Buchi exploded.
“Get your hands off me. Who do you think you are, get your hands off me.”
The old man’s eyes shuttered. He removed his hand from her elbow and walked away. Kano followed him, clucking her disagreement with his speed.
Buchi walked around the house, toward the veranda, thinking of irreparable damage, thinking of women bled dry, thinking of Damaris, thinking of Louisa, dear, brave Louisa, who deserved something she could not give. And Buchi knew she would pick up the phone, call Ijeoma, and do something a mother just couldn’t do.
From WHAT IT MEANS WHEN A MAN FALLS FROM THE SKY by Lesley Nneka Arimah, published by Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Lesley Nneka Arimah.
Lesley Nneka Arimah was born in the UK and grew up in Nigeria and the United States. Her work has received grants and awards from Commonwealth Writers, the Elizabeth George Foundation, The MacDowell Colony, Breadloaf and others. She was selected for the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 and is the recipient of an O'Henry Award. Her debut collection, What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, won the Kirkus Prize and the New York Public Library Young Lions Award, and was a finalist for the Aspen Words Literary Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Leonard Prize. She currently lives in Minneapolis.