“Deck the halls with boughs of holly, falalala…” Christmas songs blared from the speakers in the Town Square. It was just few days to Christmas Eve and I walked through the Square, an empty shell of my former self, tired, dirty, young and restless in spirit. I imagined what Christmas would have been in my home. Every year, we travelled to our village nestled deep in the enclaves of South Eastern Nigeria, our car overburdened with our belongings, one big foam toppled against cage of screeching chickens. Shouts of nno would rent the air as our Range Rover Evoque pulled up in our big compound in the village; everybody asking what we brought back for them, whether the big bags in the boot held packets of milk, Milo, bags of rice and sacks of okporoko. Christmas was incomplete at home without the colourful sparks of fireworks, village football tournaments and the metallic, dry smell of harmattan that hung constantly in the air making us carry Vaseline jars in our bags to tender to our cracked lips. Papa would play the old cassettes of the musical group Boney M with their catalogue of evergreen Christmas songs announcing our arrival from the city. That was the last Christmas, the last Christmas we spent with Papa. The best Christmas ever when Papa had taken me to see Father Christmas at the amusement Park in town. The last Christmas before that rainy day in March when Mama received the heartbreaking call; Papa had just slumped in his office and was placed on oxygen. I remember Mama’s tear jerking scream and how the house soon flooded with members of her prayer committee, each person praying and begging God to spare Papa’s life. They told God that Papa was a good man; he was the reason that many children in church were in school and also the reason widows smiled every Christmas when he gave out countless bags of rice and beans. They told God to look at the family Papa had left behind, his young wife, teenage daughter, who would take care of them in his absence? That evening, the crowd even got bigger but my father was long gone. Everyone was coming to say ndo to my mother, some were sorry for her loss, others snapped their fingers at what tragic fate had befallen such a good woman and rendered her a widow with a young daughter.
I was so caught up in the web of my own thoughts that I didn’tsee the old woman in front of me, she raised up a metal bowl to me.
“Merry Christmas child and may all your wishes come through”
I dipped my hand in my small satchel and retrieved a two hundred naira note. I turned to leave before the woman held me back.
“Wait, child. I know you. You are the girl from the TV; your mother has been to all the radio and TV stations in this town asking anyone with vital information about your whereabouts to come forward to the police in exchange for a handsome reward”
My heart skipped a beat. How did this woman recognize me? I wanted to run but the haunting voice seeped into my mind again.
“Wait child. I won’t turn you in but your mother is worried about you. She misses you and wants you home”
I didn’t know when a tear snaked down my face from my eyes.
“No, my mother hates me now. I know she doesn’t want to see me now”
“No child. The night is cold; my shack is just around the corner. Why not follow me for a hot bowl of soup and warm up near a fireplace?”
I had every reason to distrust this old woman with her weather beaten wrapper and shaggy grey hair but something about that soothing voice made me oblige and follow her to her home, a small bacha which held all her earthly possessions. She drew soup from a pot in the corner of the room, handed me a steaming bowl and sat beside me.
She stared dreamily into space and spoke like a seer looking through her crystal ball.
“Christmas is my favourite time of the year. Everyone is kind and happy”
I watched her eyes light up at the mention of the festive season and I wondered why a woman with so little would be so happy. A woman that just had a tiny room crammed up with bags and bags of worn out clothing and tiny custard buckets situated in different parts of the room.
“The buckets prevent the rains from sweeping me away. You need to see this place during the wet season.” She spoke as if reading my thoughts with a little smile on her face.
I imagined her culled up in the corner of the room all wrapped up in her old torn wrappers as the rain pounded on her roof threatening to sink her.
“I have survived through the rainy days and God has been merciful, I look forward to Christmas because it is a season of hope, my bowl fills up and there is a lot of kindness to go round”
Another question swept through my mind. Where was her family, her children, her husband? Why was she spending Christmas cold and alone?
“I was once a happy woman. A woman married to a loving husband with my only son, my angelic cherub that completed our joy. We lived happily as a family only for a few years before my husband was sent on a peace keeping mission. That was the last time I saw him on his feet. The next time I saw him, a flag was draped across his coffin and a last parade held in his honour. My boy could not cope with the loss of his father. He wanted to be the man, everything his father was but it was so much for such a young child. We quarrelled day and night before he left me, vanished without a trace and a note”
She paused as her as her eyes grew misty. I knew it was a story she seldom told and didn’t want to tell.
“What is a little girl like you doing on your own too on the night before Christmas? You should be at home unwrapping Christmas presents and helping your mum spice turkey for Christmas feast”
“I am not a little girl”
She smiled again revealing friendly lines that sat close to her eyes.
“That is what every little girl says but deep down, she’s still her mother’s baby. That was what my son Tony kept saying to me the days before he left”
I bowed my head.
“Everything changed when Daddy died too” a lump got stuck in my throat.
“Daddy had been my best friend, my pillar when he was alive and when he died, my whole walls came crumbling down”
The lump grew thicker as my eyes moistened. Somewhere the sky lit up with bright fire crackers.
“Nobody understood me. Mum suffered so much. All her friends and family abandoned her. She worked for long nights on the farm and always complained of aches. She worked so hard to put clothes on our back and wasn’t getting encouraging results especially from me, her daughter. My school work declined and she told me that I was worthless and would not amount to anything. The last straw that broke the camel’s back was when she gave me money to fill JAMB form and I put Creative Arts instead of Law. She wanted to be called Mama Lawyer. She would not toil day and night under an angry sun to raise fees for my educational pursuit. But I know myself; I am at my best whenever I am in the creative field. . I sleep every night clutching my pillow and soaking it with tears. I plead to see my father. I see my father in my dreams, calling out to me and telling me that everything will be fine. I usually ask him if he is okay, if he is happy wherever he is, if he is among the many angels that sing to God’s glory around his throne; if the streets of heaven are lined with gold and crystals and if he has taken control of his own mansion in heaven as promised by Jesus. It was in these letters I revealed my intentions to run away. As the things grew worse at home, I drew a plan. Then one day when mummy was out, I broke into her safe, took all her savings, left a note and banged the front door, never to be seen again”
By the time I was done, tears were pouring down my face.
The old woman sighed at first before smiling again.
“You know one thing I love about Christmas?”
I shook my head slowly.
“It is a season of second chance, a season of reunion with our loved ones to share in the joy and happiness that the season brings. I have begged for alms in that square for a long time and I know a certain woman, a thin woman who often harasses passersby with a picture of her cocoa coloured skinned daughter asking if anyone had seen her around. She often pleads with tears in her eyes begging anyone with vital information to come forward. I have seen that picture a thousand times that was why I recognized you the moment I saw you. Everyone calls her The Mad Obote woman who hasn’t come to the reality that her daughter is obviously long dead. I am the only one who understands her and the pain of not knowing the fate of a runaway child. It is a different kind of grief, a personal mourning you don’t share with anyone because no one would understand. I miss my son so much. Ever since he left that night I haven’t stopped hoping for his return. Every day I make dinner for two with my eyes fixed on the window and my ears to the door to hear the faintest of steps and my son walking into the house and into my arms. Your mother misses you very much dear and she is looking for you all over the State. I don’t watch the news but rumour has it that she hasn’t stopped holding up your picture begging viewers to help in the search. I am a mother and I feel that peculiar pain. Go home Ezinne. God offers us a chance to start afresh and a shot at a second chance. This is a Christmas to start over. Before the bell tolls into Christmas, go home, I will give you transport fare. Go Ezinne, your mother awaits you”
My heart sank at her words. Were they true? Did my mother love me and miss me so much? I got into the next bus and went down home. All the lights were turned out when I got to our small flat. Mama must be sleeping, I thought to myself as I knocked hard on the door and called out her name.
“Mama, Mummy m”
The neighbors must have heard my voice calling out in the dark as they woke. I heard the voice of Mama Nana one of our neighbors.
“Who’s that?”She quizzed.
“It’s me Ezinne”I answered.
The surprise and shock in her voice could not be hidden.
“Ezinne, Ihe owu anya gi? Is this you?” The torch almost dropped from her hands.
I affirmed. She came closer appraising me, her eyes sweeping from my head to my toe.
“Welcome home my child”
“Thank you Mama Nana. Where’s Mama? I have been knocking on the door”
I saw a flicker of sadness appear and suddenly disappear from her eyes.
“Your mama travelled, no one knows when she’s coming back”
It hit me quickly that Mama Nana was lying. The same feeling that enveloped me on the night of Papa’s death swept through me now, numbing my entire body.
“Tell me what happened to my mother, Mama Nana”
“Calm down Ezinne”
Everyone knew that that was a clause that spelt doom like thunder before the rain.
Mama Nana threw her face away in order not to let her true feelings show.
Tears were already dancing in my eyes.
“Your mother loved you Ezinne. She waited day and night by her window waiting for you to return. Your departure broke her heart and for her, life was meaningless without you”
She paused so as to let the words form in her mouth. I could hear the kpum kpum of my heart in cold night and everywhere suddenly grew darker.
“Your mother is critically ill in the hospital Ezinne, the doctors say there’s no hope of her recovery. God knows best and thank God for your life”
I couldn’t make out the rest of her sentences as my head spun round in circles and I fell to the ground in a faint.
In the days that followed, I blamed myself for everything, I blamed myself for causing Mama heartache, instead of being a comforter to her when Papa died, I accelerated her visit to the hospital ward. As people exchanged flowers and chocolates for Christmas, I placed thousands of bouquets at her bedside where she was surrounded by tubes and machines begging her to come back and wrap me in her warm embrace. Christmas that year was a black Christmas; I kept vigil on bended knees, praying to God to spare Mama’s life. April was still far away but I thought this was all a prank and that soon Mama’s eyes would flutter open and her lips would part into her signature warm smile that melted my gloomy skies away.
I picked up my pen and started writing odes with my tears for ink to the only woman who cared for me. My tears fell from my face and landed on the paper, soaking it.
“Mummy I just want to tell you that I love you so much. My emotions are creeping up my throat and threatening to choke me because I swallowed the kind words I should have said often and ran, leaving you in a lurch. I want to say those words that I didn’t have the chance to say when you were alive. I look at the constellations and see your face carved out among the stars in the skies. I didn’t know that those turbulent moments we had would be the last. Your story is ending too quickly and the pages moving so fast. I am sorry I ran away. I am sorry I didn’t remind you how beautiful you looked every morning. I am sorry I didn’t get the chance to tell you how sorry I am for being a prodigal daughter, if this is your punishment for me running away, I want to tell you that my broken heart is giving up and my life is slowly ebbing away”
This Christmas was a season of lessons; the importance of creating memories and sharing happiness with family while they were still alive. I missed the joy of family sharing Christmas chicken under neon colorful lights singing timeless carols. Now Christmas would be a solemn event in the loneliness of my room with lifeless, unfeeling furniture for company.
Words eluded me and I ended up crying again into my pillows and onto the cannula on my mum’s hand the next day. I got up from bed to stare at the many unfinished letters, letters I would never send. I walked slowly to the hospital deep in thoughts bearing fresh flowers on Christmas morning and gearing to see my frail mother on her sickbed. The first thing I noticed was the noise coming from Mama’s section of this hospital. My mind began to wander on what could be the cause of the commotion? Had my worst fears come true? Had Mama died? The flowers dropped from my hands and I raced to her bed.
“Mama!” I screamed.
There she was sitting upright, a pillow propped to her back with a little smile on her face. I didn’t care she was looking tired; I jumped on the bed and flung my arms around her, tears streaming down my face.
“Mama I am so sorry for running away”
My mum didn’t say a word; she just stayed glued to me, stroking my shaggy dark hair as she often did when I was little.
“I love you very much my little one, the heavens have heard my cry and they have brought you safely back to me. I was in a very dark place, floating in the blackness of despair, and then I heard your voice singing those familiar Christmas songs I used to sing to you when you were little. I tethered my soul to your voice and drifted home”
“It’s a miracle she’s awake. She has been in a comatose state for some time now” the doctor’s words seemed very far away.
Nothing could replace the glow in her misty brown eyes as she appraised me, happy that I was there with her. I would later learn that the true miracle of Christmas is not one but two; celebrating the birth of the Messiah and unwrapping Christmas gifts under the mistletoe tree with the people you love.
I remembered the old woman in her shabby room. I would pay her a visit with a basket of fruits and invite her for dinner sometime.
There was no place I would rather celebrate Christmas than home.
Udochukwu Chidera Amarachi is a pharmacist and award winning writer. She won the 2021 Deborah Itohan Igbe Poetry Contest and the School of Pharmacy UNIZIK poetry contest. She was also a top ten finalist in the Brigitte Poirson Poetry Contest and the 2020 Parousia Christmas Short Story Contest. She is the author of Rum or Tequila, a collection of poetry available on okadabooks.She loves reading, listening to music and writing. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a writer she look up to.