St. Olaf Creative Writing Awards: Fiction

This week, the English department is hosting its creative writing awards ceremony in conjunction with the Quarry. On Thursday during community time in RML 525, the awards will be presented, pizza will be enjoyed, and students will read their original works!

To lead up to the event, we'll be sharing the winning pieces on the blog throughout the week. Today we’re featuring the winning fiction piece titled “Table for Two” by Melie Ekunno.

Table for Two

Nipples. Gum. Saliva. Tongue. Gasp.

            And gasp, Nneoma did. She gasped when the warmth of her baby’s mouth latched onto her exposed nipple, cold from the air-conditioning in her hospital room. She gasped when her baby began to suckle, steadily drawing fluid from her body with the working of its jaw and tongue, the rhythmic bob of the anterior fontanelle; working away at its task like a mechanical suction engine, like a vacuum cleaner, like a leech. She gasped when she looked up and met the doctor’s eyes, seeing the smile on his face and the slight bulge of his trousers which hadn’t been there five minutes before. She almost told him to “look away you toad!” but she caught herself at the last second remembering that all of her self had become tucked away in a shroud of motherhood. She knew that people would laugh if she told them that she had caught the doctor staring at her boobs especially because, the same doctor had been staring down her vagina ten minutes before. Especially because, all that she is now, came down to a picturesque image of motherliness. Nneoma pulled her eyes away from the doctor’s which had a twinkle in it. She closed them, forcing down bile; trying to ignore how her skin crawled with the awareness that knew he had won this round. She fixed her eyes instead on the calendar, the picture of Madonna and child.

            That was then. Now, Nneoma no longer gasped. This was the consequence of the numbness that now lived where her imagination used to exist. Better still, this was the consequence of a war that left nothing to the imagination. Presently, the growling of her stomach brought her back from daydreaming which, for Nneoma, meant mentally rationing all the food you have in order to stay alive until the next batch of food sent by the allies miraculously appeared. The problem with that however was, how did one make a schedule for things that didn’t operate according to a schedule such as: aid from the allies, hunger and death by starvation? Nneoma pulled herself up from the settee, it was time to eat. The bread in the fridge had mold, green colonies scattered on each slice from one end to the next. The loaf was twenty days old. She knew this because she had counted the number of slices in each loaf at the store before she bought this one; the others had twenty-four, but this one had twenty-five – five days until she had no more bread. Nneoma sat down to her brunch which consisted of one slice of moldy bread and watered-down Milo (cocoa beverage that she had made with room temperature water). She had unripe mangoes and an orange from the tree outside which she wasn’t sure she was going to eat because she had purged once from having too many, defeating the purpose of eating them to begin. She ate her bread slowly, rubbing her tongue over each mold colony, familiarizing herself with its borders and saluting its chief. She drank her beverage. Done with her meal, Nneoma walked to the door and called her son in from play – if you could call it play – a group of boys pretending to be pregnant because they all had swollen stomachs.

            As he made his way towards her, she admired his frame, thankful for the absence of a bulge in his torso. Two months away from his fourth birthday, he was smaller than you would expect a boy of his age to be under normal circumstances but then, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. She held his hands once he reached the door calling him a mini masquerade as she dusted his body of the red earth he had been playing in. Once inside, he walked ahead, past the living room, past the dining area and connecting kitchen, past the toilet and bathroom and all the way to the bedroom. He knew the drill.

            “Mummy look,” he said, pointing to the open blinds.

            Nneoma sighed, she had forgotten to close them. She smiled at her son and said

            “Thank you Obim.” Then she dealt with the offending piece of furniture.

Satisfied, she sat down on the bed and lifting her shirt she said, “Bon appetite,” smiling down into her son’s eyes.

            Nipples. Saliva. Tongue. Teeth.

            Smack! And smack him she did, across his buttocks. He knew better than to bite the nipple that fed him. If he bit her again, she would end this feeding session. Even then, he did not pause, not even once, his face buried in her bosom as he sucked his life force from her body. She could see the veins in his neck clench and unclench. She could feel emptiness grow in places that once held fluid, milk. And still he sucked on, sitting beside her with his hands by his side clutching the mattress. He never paused, not even when there was so little left that he had to stand and help the milk flow better by working her breasts with his hands as she had taught him to. And while his mouth and hands worked, Nneoma thought, this is the stuff of good mothers.

* * *

            As a girl, Nneoma once wondered out loud about her name. She was sitting at the top of a cashew tree and taking out the braids of another girl who sat on a branch below.

            “Ihuoma, were you really that beautiful at birth? I thought when babies are born, they barely even have a face not to talk of a beautiful one.” She asked, referring to her friend’s name which meant ‘beautiful face’.

            Without giving Ihuoma a chance to reply, she continued, “Take Chiboy for instance,” she said, referring to Ihuoma’s week-old brother, “He looks like a lizard”.

            “Don’t call my brother a lizard!” Ihuoma scowled.

            “Ihuoma”, Nneoma said with a sigh. “It is so like you to fixate on little things. Who cares whose brother gets called a lizard – even though no one was actually called a lizard? I used a metaphor, M E T A P H O R E,” she spelt out.

            She went on to explain what metaphors were in her overtly pedantic manner. More than anything else, she wished in that moment that she was beside her chalkboard and not atop a tree – the presence of a chalk board always made for a more convincing lesson.

            “So you see,” she said concluding her explanation, “there was no need for a fuss especially because my questions are for the purpose of science.”

            Ihuoma didn’t ask for an explanation for that statement for, in those days, even the adults knew that all Nneoma did was for the sake of science – and who wanted to argue with that?

            “Take myself for instance,” Nneoma said, finally able to go on having dealt with the interruption to her satisfaction. “Did I come out of the womb with a spatula and scowl? Did I immediately proceed to scold the nurses for soiling their dresses? Did I sing the doctors a lullaby?” Nneoma went on, listing all the things mothers were known to do; all the things her mother did. Did the doctors yell “it’s a mother!” when they congratulated my anxious father on the birth of his child?” Nneoma continued, referring to the fact that her name meant “good mother”. “Did I do something to make my parents think they had birthed a fully developed baby making machine and not an infant? Nneoma concluded and was rewarded with a burst of laughter from her companion.

            “You really shouldn’t be saying things like this,” Ihuoma chided.

            “And why is that?” Nneoma asked.

            “For one, we’re up in a tree and I could fall to the ground laughing at your dumbness and secondly it’s just a dumb thing to say.”

            “Nothing is ever a dumb thing to say if its for the sake of science”, Nneoma concluded with a humph. That was then.

* * *

            Now, Nneoma no longer asked questions; questions made a mother look ungraceful. They didn’t help you clean a soiled nappy or silence a hungry child.

            The war started before her baby turned one. Just as she had decided that time had come to wean her child. She had planned it all out in her head as she tended to do. She was going to start her son on a diet of millet and guinea corn gruel. They were ideal transitions into solid food because they were highly nutritious, semisolid and smooth and could be fed to a baby using a bottle – none of that chemical-infused baby formula for her precious son. She was going to do this right or else, her name didn’t mean good mother.

            Her plans were cut short as the war broke out and the first things that disappeared from market stalls were millet and guinea corn which only grew in the savannah of the north and not in her Biafran forests. Soon enough, other potential baby foods were out of the question. Maize for one became scarce and too expensive to start a child on – what would happen to your child when you couldn’t get anymore? Farmers weren’t cultivating any crops. It had become too dangerous to be out in open field. It made no sense to process any grains into the pudding-like consistency that infants were fed – too much potential food, stuff that had been considered chaff in ordinary time, would be lost in the process. And even if she courageously braved the challenge, ignoring scorn from her fellow hungry country people, and went on to attempt to

process the grain, her efforts would fail because there was no fuel to run the grinding engines. So, Nneoma kept on breastfeeding. Besides, the war was going to be only for a while until normalcy returned was what she thought.

It was dinner time according to her stomach’s churnings which she could no longer ignore. Having spent the entire day recovering from the morning’s breastfeeding session, it was time for Nneoma to soak and travel. Nobody in war time ate garri simply; the rustic cereal took on a life-altering significance.

NNEOMA’S RECIPE FOR WARTIME GARRI.

  1. Take a fistful of garri from the container you keep under the bed to conceal from potential thieves.
  2. Pour fistful of garri into a large bowl, preferably with a garri to bowl ratio of 1:5
  3. Fill up the bowl the rest of the way with water – you want to allow the garri reach its maximum potential of swelling.
  4. Take a stroll, travel, leave this place and never return because only death lives here and death here is slow.
  5. Pray while you walk. Ask God to stretch his mighty hand and work a miracle. Remind him that he is the same God who fed five thousand with five loaves of bread and two fishes. Bargain. Promise to pray more often if the garri swells to half of the bowl and promise to pray without ceasing if the garri swells all the way to the top.
  6. Return home to your swollen bowl of garri and pour off the excess water. Eat. Rest and let your body thank you for taking another step in aiding your stomach’s protrusion liberation from the rest of your frame.

As it was, Nneoma had taken her stroll and was now standing behind the gate. Better still, behind what used to be the gate before it was blown to bits by enemy bombs. She stood as she watched the children play, her son with them. The boys were still pretending to be pregnant. She watched them hold their extended stomachs and writhe on the earth in throes of pretend labor. One of them just lay there like he was too weak to writhe. They played close to the bunker as the adults had told them to; they didn’t need any adult supervision because they had hunger to dissuade them from mischief and their survival instinct which made for very obedient children. Nneoma walked past them into her house. She sat with her dinner and ate slowly. Once she was done, she went to the door, waited until her son met her eyes, then beckoned. He came, dusting his body as he walked. He was still covered in red earth when he reached her. She held his hand as they walked into the house caressing his knuckles with her thumb as they went. It was time for another feeding session. This time, the other breast would get a turn.

            I watched all this happen from a tiny hole in her bedroom wall that she had failed to notice. Just like the many similar holes throughout the house that Nneoma refused to see. They could have been made by bullets, or shards sent flying by a bomb, but I do not care. All I know is that I will remain eternally grateful for the holes it made in Nneoma’s walls. Small enough that I remained undetected but big enough that I saw it all. I had been watching for months even as my son’s stomach extended a little further with Kwashiorkor each day. Today, he lay on the ground while the children played, and he couldn’t even muster enough strength to writhe as the others did. He just lay there on his side, supporting his extended belly with his palm. I only waited this long because I considered myself a pacifist. A non-neighbor-blackmailing pacifist. That was until this morning. My growing consciousness of my son’s impending demise had driven me to scripture, to my Bible. Frantically leafing through its pages to keep my mind from imploding, I

found Hezekiah. I found the famed Jewish king who fought invasion by cutting off the water supply of enemy troops; pushing past the limitations of the technology of his time to innovate engineering miracles that allowed him to harness his most formidable weapon yet, thirst. All along, I had never been a pacifist, Hezekiah taught me, not if my starvation was the greatest weapon in this war.

            I grabbed my son off the ground and we walked into Nneoma’s house hand in hand; an allegiance of weaponized bodies. We walked into the bedroom and my son gasped at the sight of his play mate milking his mother. Nneoma looked up and we stared into each other’s eyes in mourning. My eyes dared Nneoma to refuse me, to protest, to fight the violence that was about to be done to her. I said quietly,

            “Nne, you will feed my son. You will nourish his weakening body until his stomach like your son’s no longer protrudes. You will provide the sustenance that my body cannot provide. You will feed my five-year-old till he is seven if this war chooses to continue. You will do this so that it would not be know why your son’s stomach remains flat amidst a sea of extended torsos”

            I watched as Nneoma, tears running down her face snatched her nipple away from her son’s mouth and beckoned to mine. I led my son to Nneoma’s nipple and helped him suckle, working her breasts with my hands to help the milk flow better. Nneoma stared at the wall. Her son who was getting his first lesson in sharing watched from the doorway with confusion in his eyes. We remained there in silence long after the meal was over, neither of us with the slightest idea that the war would end in a week. No victor, no vanquished the newspaper headline would read.

 

Melie Ekunno (Fiction Winner, 2019 English Dept. Contest) is a sophomore Chemistry and English double major. She grew up in Abuja, Nigeria - the city where her love for literature began. She credits her full recovery from a lifelong addiction to novels to the impossible schedule she currently maintains at St. Olaf College. On a good day, you may spot her ridiculous Afro-puffs (space buns) from miles away; She maintains that they are a symbol of her commitment to not growing up anytime soon.