The photo album glistened in the poor light. A delicate dark hand turned the first page. The clear wallet showed the picture of a man and a woman in traditional wedding attire. The woman had a tired frown while the man gazed at her with a small grin. Atikah traced his features with a sad smile.
In the small room, Atikah sat on a round mat with her father, stepmother and stepsister. They were both smiling at her but her father wore a serious frown when he spoke. “Atikah we have…well I have accepted a marriage proposal for you” he thoughtfully chewed on his kola nut before continuing “you don’t need to do anything…just be a good wife to your future husband”
Atikah shifted in her seat, her red eyes were downcast as she asked: “Baba let me get this straight, the emergency reason you called me back from Lagos down to Kano during my last semester exam period was, to marry me off?”
“Yes, and so?” her stepmother interjected.
“Please I wasn’t talking to you” she hissed
“Atikah! Have you forgotten your manners from just four years in Lagos?” her father yelled
She lowered her head “Uba forgive me, but why isn’t Amira getting married instead, after all she’s older than me”
He cleared his throat with a frown “That does not concern you…besides the man asked for your hand in marriage, not hers”
Atikah knew that was not the case. Even if her hand had been asked, her stepmother would have found a way to steal the proposal for Amira…unless the man was very unsuitable.
She sighed “do I at least get to see my husband-to-be”
Her father shook his head “he declined, he said there was no need since you already knew each other”
“And you allowed him to make such a decision!” She was flabbergasted. “why?”
“he is your husband…” her stepmother interposed
Atikah snapped “not yet he’s not!” She turned to her father “why can’t I see him if he has nothing to hide, after all he claims that we know each other”
“Look the preparations are in place and in a few days time your new family will be here with the Sadaki, you will be getting married and that’s final!” her father returned to chewing his kola nut, indicating the end of the conversation.
Atikah frowned and grumbled under her breath “Why didn’t you kwukwu just wait until the wedding day before informing me of my own marriage”
She stood up to leave when her father spoke again “And by the way he already has a young daughter”
Atikah dropped the photo album and dabbed the tears in her eyes. It was getting late and the small birds that gathered behind their house were turning in for the night. She watched the flock of bee-eaters play, although they were right in front of her, she didn’t see them, her mind was elsewhere.
A week later. The Walimah was over, the exhausted bride bore through the traditions and prayers before finally being delivered to her husband’s room. Once alone, Atikah slowly and systematically took off her wedding dress. Then she put on a light nightgown before sitting on the bed to wait for her husband’s arrival. A bed lamp was on and she stared at the black henna swirls on her hand, trying to calm her nerves. She was not totally ignorant of the event that transpired during the wedding night, but she still dreaded it. Then again half of what she knew was from taking a sneak peek at a Daren Farko.
The door opened with a creak and her heart thumped wildly. She got down from the bed, and walked hesitantly towards her husband, then she began helping him remove his attire. At first, he gave her a quizzical glance but he let her help him disrobe. Once there was only a singlet and trousers remaining, she paused and went back to the bed. She could feel his eyes following her. With a deep breath, she tugged on the thin strap of her nightgown, letting it fall off her shoulder and exposing her dark slender neck. She reached for the second one, but a hand enveloped hers.
“What are you doing?” Sadiq asked her.
His warm palm over hers gave her goosebumps, she swallowed before stammering ”T…the wedding night…I’m getting ready”
He raised a brow and gazed at her “well are you ready?”
She felt uncomfortable but answered nonetheless “no! But ready or not, I’d rather do it willingly than be forcibly taken”
Sadiq’s expression darkened “Be rest assured you did not marry a brute, I will never force myself on you”
Atikah felt small hands tug at her own, she turned from watching the birds to look down at the cute little girl grinning up at her. She lifted her up, balancing her on her waist, then gave her a fond smile “Baby are you ready?”
The little girl’s small voice replied “eh mother”
Atikah nodded “zo let’s go”
A few months into the marriage and one could count how many times the couple spoke to each other on one hand. The only person who Atikah comfortably interacted with was the six-year-old daughter. It turned out that the girl was mute, and scribbled words on a small board to communicate. And although Atikah was worried that she would be treated as an evil stepmother, she soon realised all her worries were for nought. In the beginning, they were both polite and distant but soon they warmed up to each other, they were close so much so that one could hardly tell that they were not biologically related.
Aside from the fact that she could not talk Zainab was a very cute, tiny art genius, even at so young an age her drawings and paintings were nearly life-like. Atikah envied her amazing genes.
She soon realised who Zainab got her great genes from when one day she walked into her husband working in the sitting room. He sat on a low stool. Both his hands were moving rapidly across two sheets of papers. The amazing thing was that he was writing with one hand and sketching a vague figure of a woman with the other.
She was stunned “wow you’re dex…det…no! Aha! It’s ambidextrous yes, you’re ambidextrous”
She stared at him in awe for a few seconds when she realised that he hadn’t answered. There was no way he didn’t hear because she had been very loud which means that he was ignoring her. She glared at his back and the drawing, it was probably a drawing of his first wife, she huffed and stomped out of the parlour. The door slammed close. Due to the loud bang, Sadiq looked up from the drawing. He gave a confused glance around the room, when he saw no one he shrugged and went back to his work.
Akira stopped the car by a road side vendor. She bought suya then passed it to Zainab.
“Eat this lafiya okay? There is traffic so you won’t get hungry”
“thank you ma”
They stopped at a red light. Atikah’s fingers drummed a restless beat on the steering wheel before she was once again lost in memories.
“h…hello Sadiq please come home quickly Zainab is having a bad fever!”
Atikah anxiously squeezed another cold towel before placing it on the Zainab’s forehead. She removed the towel and dabbed the light sheen of sweat from the little girl’s face.
Ten minutes later Sadiq’s running footsteps were heard. He was still in his doctor’s coat with a stethoscope hanging out of his coat pocket. Atikah moved over and he laid a palm on Zainab’s head. “what happened?”
“She was vomiting in school, so they called me to pick her up when I got there she was just a little warm so instead of the hospital I brought her home, then suddenly, she started burning up” Atikah sniffed and cleaned her eyes “it’s my fault, I shouldn’t have taken her fever for granted, I’m sorry”
After checking Zainab’s temperature and some other things Sadiq turned to the crying woman “don’t worry, it’s just a slight case of food poisoning, she will be fine after she takes some drugs”
Atikah was shocked “f…food poisoning, how?”
Sadiq shrugged “probably something bad she ate at school” he gave Atikah a knowing look “now don’t go and start blaming yourself”
Atikah sat by the bed gently caressing the little girl’s hair. How cruel, her precious baby is in so much pain. Sadiq stood by the door watching her, she looked up and their eyes met. “the drugs?”
“yes I’ll get them now, take care” he turned to leave
“was she born like this?”
He frowned “like what?”
“well, mute” Atikah tentatively asked
“then why can’t she talk?”
He pinched his glabella and sighed “it’s not that she can’t she just won’t”
He continued “about a year ago I met a girl I hoped to marry, I let her meet with Zainab to establish a relationship. I didn’t know that she was instead maltreating Zainab and threatening to send her away once we married”
He gave a dry chuckle “actually in a way I knew, Zainab had told me, but I didn’t believe her, I thought she was just kicking up a fuss because she didn’t want a new mother, so I punished her for lying instead. It continued and soon she stopped complaining so I thought she’d finally accepted my soon to be wife. This continued until I came home early one day and saw it for myself, the beatings and insults so I called off our relationship but…Zainab hasn’t spoken to me or anyone since”
Atikah was surprised “oh!”
Sadiq chuckled “oh! that’s all you have to say”
Atikah turned from him “what am I supposed to say?”
He walked up to her and turned her towards him “don’t hide, I can see the judgement in your eyes, but it’s understandable”
Sadiq smiled “what do I get in return for answering all these questions?”
Atikah’s eyes widened and she covered her chest area
Sadiq laughed at her exaggerated reaction “come on just ask”
She looked at him suspiciously “why do you have a memorial hospital named after you?”
The smile seemed to freeze on his face “take care of Zainab I’ll be back with the drugs soon” he seemed sad as he left
Atikah tsked “so vain”
“mummy the light is green, and green means go!”
Atikah snapped out of her reverie then immediately turned on the car and quickly drove off, before any of the angry drivers behind her will start throwing insults. She smiled at Zainab “hmm my baby is so smart”
Zainab preened at the praise then she frowned “mummy was distracted”
“sorry love mummy will concentrate from now”
A few days later when Zainab’s fever finally broke, Atikah carried her sleeping form, with a bowl of kunun aya. Zainab sneezed and opened her eyes, she gave Atikah a confused look “mummy?”
Atikah scooped a bit of the tigernut porridge and drew it to her lips, she blew on it and then brought it to the girl “here baby eat this so you can get well quickly”
Zainab nodded and swallowed the food. As Atikah went for the second spoon she realised something, although it felt like the figment of her imagination, an old unclear memory. She stared wide-eyed at the little girl “b…baby did you just talk?”
The little girl looked at her but didn’t react. After failing to coax her to talk Atikah gave up and finished feeding her. Perhaps she was just hearing things.
She rocked her back and forth “Oya sleep”
Zainab nodded off to sleep “thank you”
Later that evening when Sadiq returned Atikah rushed to him, she grabbed his hand excitedly.
“Calm down wifey”
“oh forget that I’m not even excited enough, guess what happened today…my baby talked” she suddenly started crying “my baby called me mommy, oh don’t look at me like that at first I also thought that I was hearing things then she said ‘thank you’, gosh am so happy I could…I could”
“kiss me?” he interrupted her rant
She gave him a disapproving frown “can you stop flirting with me for once and go see my daughter”
He was amused “your daughter?”
She childishly stuck out her tongue “better mine than yours”
There were only a few cars in the parking lot so she quickly found a space to park. The mother and daughter alighted from the vehicle and entered the large hospital building. The interior was white and clean. It also had the pungent smell of drugs and disinfectant. They walked towards the lift. Once inside Atikah pressed the button for the VIP area on the top floor. With a gentle hum, the elevator began ascending.
Atikah mingled with the crowd as best as she could, politely answering questions and drinking toasts. She glared at Sadiq who was smiling cheekily at her. He’d returned home that day and whisked her away for a visit to his friends, who knew it would be such a large gathering. Finally able to be alone she stood by the drinks table slowly sipping her cocktail.
Then there was a voice behind “look who it is, the stepmother of the year”
Atikah hissed “and the darling wife of Sadiq Tijani so mind yourself” she may have had a little too much to drink
“Pfft, darling wife indeed it seems you don’t know that due to his cancer he married you to get a mother for his daughter not a wife, but, I can’t believe he was desperate enough to marry an illiterate”
“Am not an illiterate” Atikah snapped indignantly.
“Oh so you’re a graduate”
“No? But am not dumb either burrrp!” Atikah covered her mouth “oops”
Fa’izah glared at her when suddenly a hand pulled Atikah by the waist. Sadiq drew Atikah to him and kissed her cheek. “love are you okay?” he completely ignored Fa’izah’s presence. When she saw him Atikah’s mood brightened up, she hugged his neck and pulled him down for a kiss.
Fa’izah watched their public display of affection with angry red eyes.
“Hmm you’re drunk, come on let’s go home” before they left he finally glanced at Fa’izah “Miss Sanusi be grateful that I didn’t have you arrested after all you did to my daughter, you better stay away from my family”
At home, Atikah refused to lay down and instead grumbled to him “you’re such a mean snub…I said you’re dex…ambitesrous and you snubbed me”
“Do you mean ambidextrous?”
“yes that day you were writing and drawing” she teared up “I was so sad”
“I don’t remember that day but when I’m writing I usually don’t notice things around me, even if the walls are falling”
She hiccupped “pfft liar”
His right hand drew her close and his free one tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear “Do you think I’d blow off a chance to talk to my beautiful wife” he tilted her face and placed a chaste kiss on her cheek “don’t be silly my love”
She pinched his chest “And you didn’t tell me you had cancer” her lids were drooping and she fell asleep.
He sighed “I’m sorry my love”
The next morning she woke up to see a sheet of paper by her bed. It was the drawing. But it wasn’t one of his late wife as she thought. Even through the haze and searing headache of a hangover, she could clearly see that the smiling lady in the drawing was her.
She found him in his study “good morning miji”
He looked up from his papers “morning love”
Her face heated up at the endearment
He stood up and guided her to a seat. “do you remember what happened last night?”
“no, but I do remember you having cancer, why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t think it was necessary”
He saw she was getting furious
“You hated me in the beginning so I didn’t think you’d care”
She looked at his attractive face “I didn’t hate you”
“Don’t lie to a dying man love”
Her eyes became red “shut up don’t say that!”
He sighed “but it’s true, I have an early stage cancer of the liver, easy to treat but there is no matching donor, I hoped for Zainab to have a good mother that’s why I married you. But then after I met you I started craving for a wife”
Atikah hugged him and sniffed “there is really no way?”
He sighed “none that I can think of”
Atikah and Zainab got off the lift and straight into the nearest room. On the bed lay a man who although thin and sickly was still very handsome.
Zainab ran to him “daddy”
Atikah came closer “how are you, my love?”
Sadiq patted his daughter’s hair and turned to his wife “I’m better now that you’re here”
Atikah felt her cheeks heat up “stop flirting, Zainab is here”
“The doctor came by earlier”
Atikah frowned and her expression turned miserable “and what did he say?”
“well…he said they found it”
Atikah gaped at him in shocked disbelief “you mean?”
“Yes darling, they’ve found me a donor” he grinned “am going to live”
Zainab doodled a picture on her notepad, blissfully ignorant of the change in the atmosphere of the room. After a few seconds of shocked silence, tears streamed down Atikah’s face. She flew into his arms and placed a kiss on his lips.
Sadiq wiped her tears with a smile “be careful darling remember Zainab’s here” he tapped her nose “with my lucky star here of course everything will be okay”