Literary Yard

Search for meaning


By: Olusola Akinwale


My sister Monica’s nickname is Petal. I gave her this moniker when she was two because she loved that colored part of a flower and was just as delicate. Sam was the first born in our family, and I stand between him and Helon on the family tree. Sam is three years older than me, and I am three years older than Helon. Monica’s conception was not intentional. She came twelve years after Helon had been born. Dad once called Monica “accidental” when she was younger. It may have been that Mom had trusted her family planning deviceIUD? Oral contraceptives? so much that she did not think it could fail her. She had wept when she realized that she was pregnant again.

When Dad called Monica accidental, he was grieving over losing his wife. Mum had died after giving birth to Monica. The doctors said she died of complications.

After Mum’s demise, Monica was put in the care of Grandma Vic. When she was two, Grandma Vic suffered congestive heart failure and lay in bed in the hospital. Monica was brought back home, and so my little sister became my daughter, de facto. I was seventeen.

Lynn, I believe you’re old enough to take care of your sister. Just tell me anything she needs. Mrs. Williams will be coming to assist too,” Dad said to me.

Mrs. Williams was our neighbor. Her house was identical and next to ours. Which house was a copy of the other’s red-brick front wall, three-step porches and front door of polished teak? I didn’t know, and I was not inquisitive enough to ask. Or maybe it wasn’t a question that a teen like me would think of asking. Maybe Sam knew; maybe he had asked either Dad or Mum. He was known to reason beyond what was normal for his age, to ask questions that tended to put Dad and Mum on the spot when he had not yet reached ten. For example, who created God? How did he, Sam, come to the world? Why was he the first born? Does Mum truly love Dad, and how did she know she loved him?

Mrs. Williams had asked that Monica be put in her care when Mum died. At the time, Mrs. Williams’ first daughter, Jade, was still living with Mrs. Williams, along with her three-month-old girl, Violet. Jade’s husband had traveled to MonchengladbachI had difficulties pronouncing the German city thenand she was to join him as soon as he had settled down over there.

Meanwhile, Sam had moved to Ahmadu Bello University in Kaduna State. He had chosen the place because his Mai Suya friend had influenced him. Sam wanted to be cross-cultural. He wanted to learn the Hausa language, learn more about their lifestyle, and possibly pick a wife from there. He married one from there eventually: Hauwa.

Monica cried constantly the first few days after she was brought back home. Mrs. Williams said it might be because our house was strange to her, that she was not used to us. How could we be strangers when we were her true blood relatives? Yet all means to comfort her failed.

One afternoon, I strapped her on my back and left the house. As I walked around the yard, I realized that she stopped crying when I neared the flowers. Something had attracted her: the colors. I swung her around from my back into my arms and moved her closer to the flowers. She reached out to touch the petals. I plucked one from the stalk and rotated it between my fingers, humming. She gurgled. She was enjoying the movement of the petal in my hand. I handed it to her. Whenever she cried after that, I took her outside, straight to the flowers, to comfort her.

Dad would go out to buy things little Monica needed. Was there a time I went out to buy her things? I can imagine him now in a shopping centre teeming with people, can see him wheel a trolley down the aisles, with the scent of jasmine, mandarin and carnation from beauty product counters filling the air. He reaches up for diapers, binkies, wash, shampoo and lotion on a shelf, then wheels past a whining boy pointing things out to his mother. At the till, he pays a uniformed cashier who has become familiar with his face and wonders where his wife is. Dad packs those things he has bought into carrier bags, andno doubthe slips a few naira notes into the cashier’s hand. The cashier smiles and thanks him for his gesture.

That was Dad. I only told him what was needed and he delivered it with the speed of a courier master. I had carried the example over and expected my husband, Alloy, to always do the same. One night Alloy found my tone so officious that he fumed that he was not my dad and he could never be like him. I took no offence. Hadn’t I been kind of spoilt by Dad?

One time we took Monica to a hospital after an all-night fever. Her body temperature was running high, as hot as Djibouti, even after a cold bath. It was not a night to sleep a wink. I waited impatiently for the break of day, my heart a ping-pong ball of suffocating thoughts. That night I realized how wicked time could be. It chose to crawl, unmindful of us, leaving the night a seeming eternity. The ceiling fan was blowing at full speed on the bare, listless girl, and my gaze went constantly from her to the clock on the wall and back. My fear heightened with every glance at the clock, as though death would snatch Monica in the next few minutes. Desperation and frustration soon mixed with fear. Should I grab the clock and move its lazy hand forward by two or three hours? Would this quicken the arrival of the much-expected day? Realizing it wouldn’t, I broke into tears that soon edged into hysteria. 

The chains tying down the hands and legs of the new day broke at last, and we headed for the hospital with the first light of dawn. The same fever was to recur over and again, but she always pulled through. She must have been Pyrex in those years. I wouldn’t hesitate to apologize for using the word if she heard and took offence.


By age ten, Monica had developed a love for plants. She could tell the names of various flowers by their scent that hung in the air.

She could grow up to become a horticulturist. Who knows?” I told Dad one evening.

He sat up on his recliner and picked up a stray page of his book, The Law Report, from the lawn. “No, she could end up mixing herbs for sick people,” Dad said.

When we were out together, Monica could pluck any plant she saw and say, “Lynn, do you know that the botanical name of this flower is Felicia amelloides?” And I might reply, “You’ve just said it.” I didn’t want her to know that I had forgotten if it was a name she had told me before. Or while preparing our meal, she might take a blanched vegetable, say spinach, from the colander and ask, “Lynn, what’s the botanical name of this vegetable?” With no answer forth-coming, she might pout and go sit quietly at the Formica kitchen table. A little later, when I’d thought she had forgotten the spot test, she might say, with a drawl and somewhat condescending manner, “Lynn, didn’t I tell you last Saturday that spinach is Spinacia oleracea? How forgetful are you?” She wouldn’t knit her brows to tell me the name of every plant or flower, except the ones she hadn’t come across. And in this instance, she would pluck the leaf, tape it to her plant book, and take it to her teacher at Baylon, the horticultural garden she liked visiting.

 Once at a restaurant, Monica asked a man, skin like the bark of birches, sitting next to us the botanical name of the lettuce in his salad. We were eating fried chicken and chips.

I’m sorry, my girl, I don’t know it,” the man confessed. Monica shook her head and said, “Sir? Why are you eating what you don’t know?”

It is lettuce, my dear,” the man said.

No, the botanical name. Lactuca sativa!” Monica shouted at the man. The clink of silverware and squeak of swiveling bar stools stopped at once, and all stare came to us at one go. I was forced to say, “I’m sorry, sir,” to the man. He was as embarrassed as I was.


One night, I returned home and didn’t meet Monica in the house. Ikong had thought she was with me. Ikong was the housemaid we had employed when Helon moved to a seminary after he had graduated from a Jesuit college.

Ikong said, “Perhaps she is with Violet.” We both started for the Williams’.

Jade had leftor rather dumpedViolet with Mrs. Williams because Violet was autistic. Monica wasn’t at the Williams’. My adrenalin pumped with apprehension. Sweat draped my brows. Violet managed to say some garbled words that sounded like Baylon.

Baylon at this time?” Mrs. Williams said, putting a hand to her chest. I dashed out of the house to the street, taking long strides over the sidewalk slabs as though they were surfaces of fire. I didn’t know Mrs. Williams was trailing behind until I heard, “Wait for me, Lynn. You should know I can’t walk as fast as you.”

It must have been December or January, because the night was murky and the air was filled with humidity. That the street was unusually deserted, at a little past eight, made my heart pound like crazy. We branched off our street to another road leading to an intersection. I was so sure of the direction, yet confusion set in as we neared the intersection. Should we take the road to our left or right? I couldn’t decide quickly enough, but I can’t remember how I decided on the road to the left. We soon came to a bend and took an alley. All the while we had said nothing to one another. But when I saw a dark shape looming up ahead, I halted, and Mrs. Williams asked, “What is it?”

There’s something over there,” I said, not turning to look.

Maybe it is Monica,” Ikong said.

It seems there are two, or even three,” I added.

Just then we saw them running out of the dark toward us. Four scrawny old dogs. Two had a piece of flesh dangling from their bloody mouths. The other two were chasing after them, apparently eager for their share of the booty. The two behind barked and growled as they ran past us. Terrified, we stepped aside.

Do dogs eat human flesh?” I asked Mrs. Williams as we walked farther down the road.

Why did you ask?”

I don’t know. Can they tear a person apart like tigers?”

And you didn’t know why you were asking?”

My breath was coming short. “Those dogs, I mean . . . the flesh in their mouths.”

Don’t say it, Lynn,” Mrs. Williams said. “You believe that could happen to her?”

I’m afraid. I was thinking anything could happen in this place.”

Not to Monica.”

When an acrid stench assaulted our nostrils as we passed through another alley, I knew we had neared Baylon. The stench oozed from the stale odor of urine. We wrinkled our noses in disgust and quickened our pace out of the alley, looking at the bright lights of Baylon ahead of us.

I called out, “Monica!” as we saw her in the garden. She was talking to the flowers of lupine, engrossed, and seemingly never considering that there could be someone worried about her. She shrank back as I trotted toward her. She must have seen my brows pulled together. She knew what that meant. Mrs. Williams grabbed my hand just as I was about to spank her.

Not now, Lynn. Finding her was our mission,” Mrs. Williams cautioned me. She thumped Monica slightly across the head, threatening to destroy her plant book. (It was years later that Monica told me that on that night she had talked to our mother whose face appeared between the plants.)

Another image of Monica in those years was that when she attained the edge of womanhood, she suddenly cut a semblance of our late mum with a broad forehead that curved down to a long pronounced chin and eyes having a distinctive lift at the corners.

Also, she once flunked out of college because she devoted so much of her time to learning about plants at the expense of her education. What an obsession!

About a month ago, Monica married a man who is almost Dad’s age, though she is only twenty-seven. She had met the man at a horticultural garden. I thought it awkward when she first told me about him. What attracted her to him? Money? No. It was love, according to her, the same love that attracted Alloy to me and Hauwa to Sam. But the unquenchable passion they both have for flowers could be said to have solidified their relationship.

I’m sure Dad thought the relationship awkward, too, though he didn’t object. Father Helon told me over the phone that he had prayed for her, that we should support whatever would give her joy. Sam said Monica was my daughter, that I had a say over her more than him, and that he would agree with my decision whether it was yes or no.

Haven’t you proposed another wife for your dad?” Alloy reminded me as we got ready for bed one night. I sat in the window chair and gazed out. A moon like a red lamp in the sycamore shone on the street already slumbering in the night. I looked past the gigantic gate of the Abebe’s to the old dahlias in front of Colonel Akinsanya’s house. Truth to tell, if Dad had agreed on those two occasions, we’d have gone for a woman in her twenties or early thirties for him. Monica had her own life to live, I concluded.

Monica’s wedding brought the family reunion I had longed for. It was the first time that all our own children would be together.

Father Helon arrived last, on the eve of the ceremony. I brought out a digital cam and called for a photograph session the moment he strode into the room with his head high. I had bought the cam for Alloy as a Valentine’s gift, but I didn’t give it to him because I thought he owns me, and whatever I own is his.

I had been looking forward to Father Helon’s arrival. I wanted him photographed in his priestly clothes with everyone. Tall and graciously slim, he wore a black blazer over a medium blue clerical shirt. The blazer fit well on him; it could not have suited anyone else. Father Helon does look fabulous in his priestly garments. When he visited my family a few months earlier, he was in a purple, cotton-snap cassock and he cut quite a dashing figure in it. I suspect a girl somewhere, perhaps in his parish, had had a crush on him and was sad because he was a celibate. This girl might have knelt before him and said, “Bless me, Father. I have sinned again.”

He too might have made the sign of the cross on her forehead and said, “Confess your sins before God, and He will forgive you.” And instead of reeling out her sins, she looked up at Father Helon, arms outstretched, and began to shed tears. He must have thought she was truly sorrowful of her iniquities, whereas in her mind she was saying, “Holy Mary, I’m dying for his love. I can’t get him off my mind. Why didn’t God make him a Catechist instead of being a Father?”

Of course, his reply would be, “Dear sister, God sees your heart. Go and sin no more.”

After the extended family had been photographed, Dad said to me, “Lynn, do you still remember the day you said Monica could become a horticulturist and I said, No, she could end up mixing herbs for sick people?” He was flanked by Father Helon and Hauwa on the couch.

I remember. You’d not grown gray hair then. I thought it was meant to be a joke,” I said as I poured him a glass of white wine.

A joke? Is it a joke now?” He gestured to Monica with his wine glass before sipping the libation.

Does Monica also mix herbs?” Hauwa asked, directing the question to no one in particular.

A bubble of laughter pulsed through us all. I kept my eyes on Hauwa’s face. When she smiled, her cheeks plumped up as if toffees were stuck to the insides of them. She was wearing a floral print dress, and her hands were adorned with henna. She must have been fortunate to have received a university education, fortunate not to have been forced into an early marriage, when she had barely had her second menstruation.  

What do pharmacists do?” Sam asked her, sipping from his cup of green tea.

Hauwa retorted, “Who doesn’t know that they prepare medicines?”

And what do they use in the process?” Alloy asked her.

Oh, now I understand what Dad is saying,” Hauwa said.

Monica stood up from where she sat at the feet of Father Helon. “You must have been a prophet at that time, Dad.” She drank from Dad’s glass.

I wasn’t, Petal. And we didn’t need anyone to tell us what you would become in the future. I don’t mean to undermine the priest in the house. Father Helon?”

Your sins are forgiven, Dad,” Father Helon said.

The room erupted in laughter again.

Dad bowed his head again. “Thank you, my Lord.”

Another round of laughter followed.

No penance?” Dad asked and made a sign of the cross.

I’ll tell you when it’s time,” Father Helon replied.

When I reminded Father Helon and Sam minds back of their rascally adventures of the years past, they couldn’t help but laugh. They had regarded themselves as cats with nine lives.

Are you both still cats with nine lives?” I asked them.

Sam answered that the cat had died long ago. He’d inherited Dad’s bloodshot eyes, thick arms and shoulders, and broad chest. He must have drained all of Dad’s genes, leaving nothing for us. Father Helon said he had exhausted the nine lives; that he now lived on “divine grace.”

On the morning of the wedding, Monica posed for me in her bridal dress ordered from London. With pride, she turned 360 degrees. My daughter, Jasmine, said, “Mama Sita­­­­­­­­­­”(for that is the name my children call her. I guess it is a corrupt form of Senorita)“you look like Grandma.”

Thanks, Jasmine,” Monica said. Her cheekbones were accentuated by the blushes she applied on them. Her lips were the color of Merlot, and her braids fell behind her smooth shoulders. She had indeed become a memory of my mother’s face.

As I handed Monica her bridal bouqueta hundreds of petals wired together to make one enormous flowerI remembered little Monica years ago collecting a flower stalk from my hand, twirling and twirling it until it fell from her hand.

At the wedding, she twirled and twirled the bouquet, but it didn’t drop from her hand. When the wedding was over, she gathered her girl-friends, closed her eyes, and threw the flower high.




Olusola Akinwale is a Nigerian writer. His work has appeared in The Monarch Reviewtrans lit magThe New Black Magazineand Underground Voices. He is an alumnus of the Fidelity Bank Creative Writing Workshop.


Leave a Reply

Related Posts