Happiness’ father had been glum since she had a disagreement with him about her pregnancy. It was the first exchange between them, besides the routine morning salutations. It was, as much as Happiness could remember, the first time they actually talked. Before, it had been her father talking to her: her father talking and she listening, or giving sparse replies, her father sitting and she standing, her father issuing commands and she executing. This was nothing unusual; children were meant to listen to their parents. It was the way most homes she knew were run. What was unusual was her father telling her ahead that they needed to talk, asking her to come when she had time, inviting her to sit when she came, and asking why she had done this. She had seen it coming, had known that it could only be about her pregnancy, yet for half a minute or so she was at a loss what to say, the appropriate response to give. She had never been in the unfortunate predicament of carrying a child, or sitting side by side her father and having a discussion, so nothing had prepped her for this, no experience of how to sit or what to say. And it did not help that her father was calm, unexpectedly calm. Perhaps she would not have felt so awkward sitting there beside him, groping for words, if he had raised his voice and threatened to disown her.

She found her voice at last. But the talk did not end well, because she demurred when he suggested that she would not marry the boy. The boy had disregarded her and her family by putting her in this state, a girl barely eighteen, the father had said. It was true that he had come to apologize, saying he wanted to marry her, and not many young men of his age would have taken responsibility, most would have denied and maybe even absconded, still her father was not going to let his daughter marry at that age, much less to a boy who had cost the family so much shame.

But Happiness was not having any of it. She told her father that Okon, the boy in question, was not really a boy but a young man of twenty-five, a mechanic who repaired generators, and so he was buoyant enough to take care of a pregnant wife and the baby when she put to bed. And talking about shame, did her father not realize how shameful it would be for her to be toting about a child? No, she could not bear it, she could not even bring herself to contemplate it. It was enough shame that she had kept the pregnancy until he and her mother found out, until her mates in school began to cup their hands over their mouths to whisper in each other’s ears when they saw her, until other tenants in their house began to make snide comments about cheap prostitutes when she passed. She had anticipated the gossip and could have forestalled it by aborting the baby, but she decided against it because she trusted Okon. Yes, she knew Okon loved her and would not let her down no matter the straits.

A different light nestled in her father’s eyes and Happiness wondered if it was because she mentioned love, if he found the word abstract. Her father belonged to a generation that did things for practical purposes, that married because they had to bear children and preserve their names, not for qualities as flimsy as love and trust. And if this Okon boy loved her as much as she claimed, why was he not careful?

Well, it had happened, and they were gutted. They were sorry for their carelessness.

Happiness was relieved when the long-winded talk ended. But her father became withdrawn again, like he had been since he learned of the pregnancy. She felt sorry for him, wished she could humour him. The days of regret were far behind her, those early days of the missed period when she prayed that the worst had not happened, but she could not help blaming herself now for letting Okon have sex with her without protection. It was their first time without a condom; they had wanted something more, a different kind of bliss.

Her father let her move in with Okon some days later. It was not the best decision if all things were normal. But all things were not normal, and she wondered if he had budged because he feared that she might elope with the boy to a faraway town where he would not set eyes on her again. She chuckled at this thought. She would not have had the nerve to do that, to make things more miserable for him, no matter how much she loved Okon. She loved her father too and understood he meant the best for her. And even if she had wanted to elope, there was her mother, her best friend and confidant, whom she had let down. She would not want to cause her more troubles.

It was her mother who told her that the catalyst for her father’s decision was his belief that the boy had acted differently, responsibly, compared to other boys, a belief ossified by the boy’s questions about ibu mmanya and paying her dowry. It was not how he had hoped her daughter would end up, getting entangled in an emergency marriage when she had not even completed secondary school. He was not part of the majority that thought a girl who got pregnant out of wedlock must marry whoever was responsible. But he was a down-to-earth man and saw no point in being strong-willed once he realized he could not turn her daughter’s mind.


A few days to the ịkụ aka, Okon reneged on his word. He blamed the disappointment on his people, who were supposed to come from a very far place, suddenly saying they could not make it. Happiness knew this was a lie, that he had never seriously considered going to see her people. She had never heard him on the phone talking to his people about any marriage rites—they probably did not even know that he was living with a girl. And some days before he came up with this lie, when she suggested going home to stay with her parents, he had said it did not matter, and had called her father to banter about a man needing to always be with his pregnant wife. Even as an eighteen-year-old, she understood how seriously marriage rites were taken in most cultures. She wanted to know what he meant by his people saying they could no longer make it. Did he not tell them in time? Was there a burial or wedding happening at his place? Did someone die suddenly? By the way, were there none of his townspeople in this town? He always told her whenever he would be attending his townspeople’s meeting, had even asked her to come with him on occasions. Could he not have asked some of them to accompany him, joined by a few close relatives from his village, since this was only an introduction?

Okon hesitated, apparently taken aback by the barrage of questions, and then repeated that they just could no longer make it. Happiness felt really hurt. She told him he was a thickhead who could not even tell a credible lie. Okon flew into a fit of anger and dared her to repeat what she just said. Happiness called him Dear, in a soft, ironic tone, asked him to forgive her, promised never to bother him again. She was appalled at how easily he had changed to a man who uttered words to beguile, to dismiss and threaten and shut up, he who used to be sincere and sensitive. She began to grow distant with him, finding his kisses slobbery, his breath stale, his caresses a bit too rough—things that never mattered before—and she always made sure to scupper every attempt at sex by saying she was too tired or that it was dangerous with her swelling tummy.

Her mother, who sometimes visited, told her that her father was angry and considered Okon a congenital cheat. The news of her father’s anger made her sad but she tried not to dwell on the sadness for the sake of her unborn baby, because the nurse at her antenatal classes had said something about the mother’s mood affecting the development of the foetus. She called her mother more frequently because her voice soothed her. She often felt sadder after each call, though, since their chatter invariably drifted to her father. The months had not dulled her gratefulness to him for letting his daughter cohabit with a boy he never quite agreed she should marry.

It was therefore easy for her to leave Okon, weeks after she gave birth, and return home once her father asked her to. The shame of having a child out of wedlock was still there, but it bothered her more that she had become a jumpy, gloomy girl.


Okon came again with some friends, and it took all of Happiness’ father’s restraint not to turn them back at the door. The visit, of course, came to nothing because father and daughter were together this time.

The days rolled by without fail, and Happiness’ baby, Iroegbunam, rolled with them, growing from an utterly helpless thing to a babbler and then a toddler. The shame was not as mortifying as Happiness had envisaged, and as time blunted the impact of the past, she found that she deeply enjoyed the boy’s company, that she loved to strap him to her back with a wrapper as she took walks around the neighbourhood, loved to breastfeed him at her mother’s stall as patrons watched. It helped, too, that she had her mother, whose little tips went a long way.


Her mother was the first to observe that the rashes breaking out on Iroegbunam’s neck were not normal. Happiness and her father thought she worried too much. Happiness applied dusting powder to Iroegbunam’s neck, hoping that the rashes would clear soon. But they grew into red-tipped boils and spread to other parts of his body, turning the little boy into a sore bag that yelped wherever he was touched. Bathing him became a ritual of terror for both son and mother, and also for Happiness’ parents, whose hearts the strangulated cries of the poor boy broke in pieces. The boy would not wear shirts, since they prickled the boils. He would not lie down because his torso was filled with the mysterious boils. His wakefulness kept everyone in the family awake. They took turns to lend him their arms to lean on.

They took him to a hospital, but the tests confirmed nothing, and the doctor suggested that he might need spiritual help and directed them to a traditional healer in a nearby town. The healer was rather young and neatly dressed, and she consulted with them in a room with a table and chairs. Happiness wondered if they had missed their way. She had expected to see an old man dressed in rags, sitting cross-legged in a shrine with mud walls defaced by nzu markings and wooden carvings of gods.

The lady was soft-spoken. She gave them the backstory to her practice, how she had been on a fast rise in the corporate world before a series of misfortunes pointed her to this path. She asked why they came, asked to see the boy when they told her, and Happiness pulled Iroegbunam’s loose tunic gingerly over his head to expose the festering boils. Iroegbunam began to cry. The healer observed him with rapt concentration, fixing the boils on his biceps with an unblinking stare as if they were about to yield something that a moment of inattention could cost her. She looked up and asked if Happiness’ father was the boy’s father. She sighed when Happiness’ father said no, and told them that it was the boy’s father who was responsible for his suffering. When the boy healed, she continued, they should take him far away from the father, where he would not know the boy’s whereabouts.

She said all this with such assurance, without asking to be furnished with some history or bothering to find out if there was any implausibility that could have voided her vision, and Happiness considered if the show of assurance was all part of a hoax. Why did she have to ask if her father was Iroegbunam’s father? How different would her pronouncement have been if her father had said he was?

The healer rubbed a black oily liquid on Iroegbunam’s body. “Ndo, nnwa,” she said to soothe the crying boy. “You will be well.” She poured some of the substance into a yellow-capped phial and asked them to apply it to the affected parts after bathing him.

Iroegbunam was yanking at his mother’s hair and smiling by the time they left the place, his first signs of health in a while.


About two weeks later, when the boils had completely healed, Happiness and Iroegbunam were on a bus headed for her father’s hometown. She imagined that she was Mary on the run to Egypt to save Baby Jesus. It filled her with pride, this sense of kinship with women from all ages and cultures who go to strenuous lengths for their children’s safety. She looked down at Iroegbunam lodged in her lap, eyes closed in a serene sleep despite the bumpy drive. She could not remember the last time she visited the village, and she was both anxious and excited.


The starkly different environment and manner of doing things thrilled her. The dense stretches of vegetation with submerged adobe houses made her think sometimes that the village had been overrun by wild critters. She considered the long walk to fetch water from the borehole at the community secondary school—the only borehole in the entire community—an adventure. She found it strange that the local market held every five days, and you had to manage until the next market day if you ran out of an essential commodity, or barter with a neighbour, or trek to a nearby village whose market day was sooner. She enjoyed watching the sun rise and set—in the mornings a diffuse white-yellow light gradually peeking out from behind the clouds, in the evenings an orange-red smudge sinking in the horizon.

The villagers often stopped her to ask whose child—or wife—she was, and smiled patronizingly at her puny efforts to reply in the local dialect, which she understood perfectly but never quite articulated right. They let her take the next turn whenever she arrived at the borehole, but sold commodities to her at steep prices, this daughter of their rich son in the city.


She felt estranged from the village once she got used to that manner of life. The village lost its veneer and she saw it for what it was: a place at the back of the world without basic amenities. She missed home—the drab familiarity of the neighbourhood, the busybody gossips of their co-tenants. She missed sitting in her mother’s stall scoping out the customers. She missed her mother, whom she rarely spoke with because the mobile network was terrible, far worse than it was in the city, and her part of the village had no electricity.

She was sitting in the veranda of her father’s three-bedroom bungalow—one of the few houses in the village built with concrete blocks and metal roofs—and Iroegbunam was rolling on the ground under a mango tree in the compound. On other days she would have smiled with gratitude that he was still alive, even if this was not the life she had foreseen for him, but now his happy squeals grated on her. How dare him be happy, he who had removed her from her mother? She wished she had miscarried, or the mysterious boils had killed him. She would have mourned for a while, yes. But she would have got over him by now and not be stuck in this village with everything so foreign.

Iroegbunam’s heart-wrenching cry rocked her to her base. She was running to him even before he could scramble up from the ground. Mother and son met midway between the house and the tree, Iroegbunam thrashing and jumping, barely able to point to his bleeding thigh. Happiness scooped him up and completed her run to the tree, where she saw a scorpion. It was her first time seeing a real scorpion, dead or live. She was gripped with fear, remembering all she knew of this creature’s fatal sting. She stamped it dead into the ground. Then she bounded down a track she and her grandma used to follow to her grandma’s farm. That was in those heady early days before she had broken out in liver spots and her grandma said it was an allergy and stopped taking her along. Her grandma was not on the farm, and after Happiness had screamed her name for some time and heard the garbled echo of her voice for a reply, she began to succumb to her fear. Iroegbunam’s thigh had swollen and he was running a temperature. Happiness scampered towards a path that led to the road, hoping to find someone to ask the way to the community health centre. Her left foot caught in a tangle of weeds and she pitched forward. Iroegbunam’s head landed on a rock along the path. Another heart-wrenching cry for her mother. Then a series of whimpers, each a weaker call than the last. Happiness gathered him on her lap, reassuring him each time he called that she was with him. She saw the smear of red on the rock, the mess of blood in her hand propping Iroegbunam’s head. Her heart had flown out of her chest at his last cry and she was too prostrate with shock to panic or even to weep. E

Nzube Ifechukwu studied electrical engineering at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. His work has appeared in Lolwe and Isele.