At the small open space by the kitchen in their backyard, Mrs. Ego Eleke pounded grains of beans in a wooden mortar. She had been on the task long enough that the early-morning Akokwa village sun rays had caught up with her.
As her mind sought whom to blame for the tedious labor, Eddie came into focus. ‘If only Edwin would wake up and relieve me, maybe the pestle would go quicker. Every night he drinks heavily, sleeps heavily and snores heavily.’
Between one pounding and another, she kept two weepy eyes on objects in her visual field. In front of her, warped wood fired a pot of oil set on a tripod, and slightly to her left a pail of water rested on the ground next to a cup with no handles, which she placed at arm’s reach on top of a shaky wooden stool. Even the two useless knives on the left side of the low kitchen entrance wall could not escape her scrutiny.
Nearby, fowls had assembled, looking for ants and earthworms while they fidgeted and waited for Mrs. Ego Eleke to throw out some bean crumbs again. Four starving chicks, two black, two white, followed every turn their mother made, reexamining every shallow hole she dug with her long toes. Of the black chicks, one was more frightened than the other. And of the white chicks, one behaved more restlessly than the other.
Ego lifted and hammered the beans some more, poured on a little water and crushed five more times, making a circular move around the inside curves of the mortar, to the left and the right.
‘Go away, kpas-kpas,’ she would say with a backhand wave anytime the fowl or the chicks raised dust with their feet. ‘These chickens,’ she moaned, ‘they scratch the soil like a toddler with scabies.’
At her disgust, the frightened black chick and the restless white chick would flee with their mother. Less than three minutes later they would rejoin the others, circling her feet for more crumbs.
Mr. Edwin Eleke would have slept through the ‘kpom kpom’ sound of the pestle on the mortar had his phone not rung.
‘Master,’ he said when he picked up his phone.
‘Come over forthwith; you will drive me to Aguleri.’
‘Okay, Master,’ and Eleke hurriedly hung up the phone. Aided by sun rays from the window he headed to the bathroom. Though an experienced night drunk, this morning he wondered why he wee-weed all over, like a teenager getting drunk for the first time. He returned to the bedroom, slipped his head through a gray caftan, tunneled both arms at the same time, and straightened the caftan down to the level of his ankles. He spotted his slippers and shoved in his toes.
From the top of a cloth cabinet he retrieved his stumped chewing stick, trapping the flared part between his side teeth before exiting to the backyard, at which time he too came under Mrs. Eleke’s surveillance.
Mrs. Eleke watched Mr. Eleke move the chewing stick up and down his mouth, lower his head and spit on the ground. Edwin gathered more saliva and spat a second time.
Done with brushing, he reached for the cup, scooped water from the bucket, sucked half a mouthful, swished and spat diagonally, dispersing the frightened black chick and the nervous white chick.
‘Where are you going?’ cried Mrs. Eleke. She had suspended her pounding and from nowhere had planted herself in front of Eddie. She was a good three inches taller than him, but a lot more gifted in arm muscles; when Eddie thought about it, he realized her superior upper strength came from daily mortar pounding.
As spouses frequently do when confrontation arises, Eleke’s mind went back for a moment, probing the life of years gone. Edwin, like Samson and several other men, had gone from being powerful to being powerless after breaking their vows and revealing the source of their strength.
‘She could have chosen to be a seamstress like her friend Azuka, who lives on the opposite of the street; that way she would not have to call on me to pound the mortar, using a pestle the size of a horse’s head,’ he thought.
‘Eddie, did you hear me? Where are you going?’
‘To work – Master wants me to come immediately, to drive him to Aguleri.’
‘You must finish with the beans first,’ said Ego, staring down into his eyes.
‘Biko, please, Master needs me to come over now,’ a statement which Eddie supported by producing the sound of car keys from the right pocket of his caftan.
At the same time as Ego was tied up with Eddie, the four chicks and their mother got a break. The quiet white chick flew up on the wobbly chair and began drinking from the cup. The frightened black one perched on the edge of the mortar and pecked around the inner lining. Their mother, stretching her neck, began to peck furiously at the partially crushed beans.
Surprise! Edwin was not yet ready to comply. His strength, Ego thought, like that of the shaved Samson, was beginning to come back. Force was required to crush whatever growing strength he possessed.
Wait for an opportunity, her devious mind told her. She turned away from Eddie and walked off to deal with the chickens.
Eddie stood alone for a while and hesitated like a man who had forgotten something important. Suddenly he realized that the chewing stick had gotten soft. It needed sharpening. He turned and walked towards the two knives on top of the flat kitchen entrance wall.
He shook his head in dismay. The shorter knife looked sharper but had no handle. The longer knife, which had a handle, had a blade (as he discovered after trying it on his palm) as blunt as Ego’s pestle.
Mrs. Eleke indeed had not walked far, and had not bothered with the chickens and their menace. She had backtracked and tiptoed up while Eddie was engaged with the knives.
Her left hand grabbed Mr. Eleke’s caftan by the right shoulder. As he began to trip backward, her right palm, soiled with grainy beans, smashed him on the left cheek and across both eyes.
‘I can’t see! I’m going blind!’ screamed Eddie. ‘Wait until I’m done with you!’ Ego yelled back.
‘Blink those eyes open,’ said Eddie to himself. His left eye was almost open when a stream of spit showered on him and shut both eyes down again.
While his wife’s grip prevented his escape, her right palm continued to pummel the back of his head. The beating ceased after five wet fingers picked his pockets and took control of the car keys.