There were two moments in Adaeze’s life when she knew she would never be the same again.
The first was when Obinna, in the presence of all their friends, planted a kiss on her lips. Obinna was unlike any boy she’d known. He had a slim, narrow face and thin limbs, attached to a very tall body and it made him look like a frail tree twig that would snap under any kind of pressure. His skin was smooth and dark, and would always shine when he was sweating. He still turned his face away when he was embarrassed – even though he was all of sixteen years and it was a thing only women and children did.
In a time when a boy didn’t even dance with a girl till his parents had gone to visit her parents with palm wine, Obinna had in the most abominable way possible, claimed Adaeze and they became inseparable.
For months after, all anyone saw of both of them was a blur as they moved about together in a whirlwind of their romance. The one time Adaeze’s friends spotted her without him, they pounced on her. Every one of them had a thing or two to say. Especially fat Ngozi, who was frequently called, ‘onye asiri’ – an Igbo name for someone who went around minding other people’s business and talking about it. Ngozi had told Adaeze that she knew all about the bad, bad things she and Obinna did under the mango tree. Did she not know it was a wrong to kiss a boy that wasn’t her husband on the lips? What kind of girl behaved like that with a boy she wasn’t married to? The other girls had nodded approvingly behind Ngozi as she gripped Adaeze’s shoulders and tried to shake some sense into her. But she had simply smiled at them in pity. They didn’t know, so they couldn’t understand, that love, like rain, does not choose the time to fall. She’d walked away from them basking in her knowledge of what it was to love and be loved by Obinna.
It was a hot afternoon in late 1967. The civil war had come. It brought simple things – like buying and selling in the market, singing and dancing in the village square and even the relationship Obinna had with Adaeze – to a halt.
Obinna had told Adaeze he wasn’t going to wait till he was conscripted. She held his hand in hers as he spoke of how he would acquire an Ogbunigwe – a locally fabricated gun that killed in large numbers. Adaeze had dropped his palm quickly as if it were something hot and turned away from him. When he touched her shoulder and turned her to him, she screamed into his face, “Don’t touch me!” She then balled her palms into fists and hit him on his bony chest.
Every other week for the past ten months, soldiers had been coming into their village and taking more old men and teenage boys away, forcing them to join the army and dispatching them to the battle field. Just last week, they’d come upon her father, who had come outside their house to urinate, and seized him by his wrapper but he’d untied the wrapper from his waist and run into the bush naked. They’d taken her brothers, Gozie and Nduka instead. Her mother had wept bitterly and refused to speak to her father for days.
Obinna knew all these. Was he suicidal? He shook his head in the negative when she asked him that and confessed that he was tired of hiding. Tired of hiding? How could anyone be tired of it? It was the reason some of them were still breathing. Adaeze started crying. Obinna pulled her into his thin arms. He kissed her tears away and vowed to return. He would marry her and they would plant a mango tree in their own compound – Promises they both knew were beyond him.
Later that night, for the first night in hundreds of nights, Ngozi saw Adaeze sitting by herself under the mango tree but her beautiful face was turned up to the inky starless sky and tears were rolling down her cheeks.
More time passed and the fatik operation began. The fatik was a group of very brave women who went into deserted parts of formerly war zones to look for food. It was either death there or in their homes, so they also ventured into the overrun parts, unbothered by stray bullets or bombs. Many people who had escaped conscription were now taking their own lives. It seemed a lot easier than starving to death.
When Adaeze announced she would be joining the fatik, her mother started crying. She blamed her husband. What kind of man hid while his sons were whisked away to death and his daughter decided to become the breadwinner? Adaeze’s father simply rolled over to his side and began to weep silently.
Adaeze set out with Nda Oji, the leader of the fatik, and two other women early the next day. They passed deserted war zones strewn with dismembered human parts. The air buzzed with flies and reeked of rotting flesh, death and of ambition, hopes and dreams that would never be. They arrived at one of the overrun villages in the evening and began to harvest cashews and other crops that the villagers had left behind. Backs were bent and sacks filled up silently. Nda Oji worked fastest, with the speed of someone who could have been born just for this. It was almost dark when they heard strong, male voices approaching them. They dived into a bush like frightened rabbits and lay flat on the plants and held their breaths. Three soldiers appeared a few seconds later, moving stealthily. Adaeze squinted at them. She rubbed her eyes with her fingers and looked again. It had been seven months but she knew that face better than the back of her hand.
Without thinking, she jumped out of the bush and ran to him. His companions turned, ready to shoot but then Obinna laughed and started running towards the hungry looking girl that had emerged from a bush. He caught her in his arms, lifted her up and spun her around like a little child. Salty water leaked from her eyes and she was still laughing when he put her back down.
“You’re alive! You’re alive!” she sounded like a broken record, repeating her words over and over again as she kissed him. It was amazing. He still looked the same, excluding a scar now running the whole length of the left side of his face but he waved her question about it away with more laughter. He wanted to know about everything that had gone on in his absence. Were his parents still alive? Were hers? Did she still love mango? Did she still sit under their tree some nights?
“Every night!” she laughed in response to the last question then threw her arms around him, “You’re real. You’re alive.”
Obinna pulled back to look into her eyes, “I made a promise and I will keep it.” She kissed him again. The fatik women had emerged from the bush and were cheering them on enthusiastically. Obinna’s companions, however, were growing bored with the reunion and called him away from the girl. As they reluctantly parted, Obinna told her of the rumor going round the soldiers, that the war might be over soon and she smiled happily. He called out a greeting to the older women and waved as he turned to catch up with the other soldiers.
Suddenly, the ground vibrated with an explosion. It knocked Adaeze and the other fatik members off their feet. It happened too fast – the second moment Adaeze knew she would never be the same again.
She scrambled to her feet quickly. Everywhere she looked, she saw severed legs and arms, vacant and unblinking eyes, blood gushing from open wounds and seeping into the earth. It felt like a revisit to the deserted war zones she had seen earlier that day. Then she froze. A good distance away, Obinna’s head was separated from his body and his limbs were scattered around.
Adaeze stared and stared, seeing but not understanding. Then her hands started shaking violently. The pain came with a sharp stab at her heart. She screamed. The women moved quickly to hold her but Adaeze was already running. “No, no! Please, no! Please!” she screamed hoarsely. Her vision blurred with fresh tears. She stumbled. She continued running and tears mingled with catarrh and flowed freely down her face. She didn’t see the ICE landmine planted in the soil.
She stepped on it.