THE YELLOW WRAPPER
The Yellow Wrapper
by Deborah Igbe Ocholi
As soapy water floods a stainless-steel sink and her hands become submerged in white translucent foam, Ene remembers the river thousands of miles away from Vancouver. It flowed in Nigeria, just down the road from the home she had shared with her mother. They would go there to wash clothes. Her mother’s calloused hands would shuffle roughly against each other, kneading stains out of criss-crossed fabrics hairs, while Ene stripped down and handed her mother the clothes on her back. Then she would jump, never wading in like the others, trying to catch the moment after she lands, when multiple droplets of water from her splash were propelled directly into the air. She would imagine they formed a wall around her, so that looking through it, the sun seemed blurred, but yellow all the same.
“Stop splashing water at me, silly girl,” her mother would say as she continued to wash, a smile glittering in her eyes.
Then Ene would use her small hands to splash more water at her mother.
Some days, when the Nigerian humidity was particularly unbearable, her mother would leave her washing post to remove her wrapper and wade in. She would paddle towards Ene as quickly as she could, while Ene tried to run away, slowed down by powerful fits of giggles. When her mother would catch her, they would collapse into the river in each other’s arms, still laughing uncontrollably.
More and more now, 26 years into life in Canada, Ene remembers the river and her mother as she cleans dishes in her spacious home, the tile floor cold against her manicured feet. Her arms rotate mechanically, slathering suds onto food-caked dishes. She watches bubbles of soap blanket her fingers and food remnants clog up the sink. When water pours from the tap, she lets it course over the dishes and her hands, all the way down her arm, until it is dripping quickly from short black hairs onto the blue square tiles. The floors can mold and rot for all she cares.
Behind her, Frances enjoys his meal. It’s clear that he is satisfied because he makes that god-forsaken slurping sound, sucking his fingers intensely after each bite of Semolina to savour the Okoho soup.
He is a large man, her husband, but not like a bodybuilder. Nor is he round and cute like that cartoon character on those biscuits in the tv advertisements. No, he is large in ego and brutish and seems to get uglier each day. It is probably because he is getting so old. Frances is nearing 60 and his hair would already be grey if he could still grow any in the places Ene cares to see them. When he eats, he lets soup drip down his forearm, not caring that he stains the clothes she just washed the night before. He slurps and swallows loudly, as if it is her honour to hear him ingest the food she prepares.
Ene is 37; she was 12 when they married and Frances, 34. They wedded in their village, in the backyard of his father’s house, which was right next to the home she was raised in by her mother. Her face throbbed slightly from smiling so wide and she almost succeeded in tuning out the sound of her mother’s sobs. They exchanged rings facing the river as the sun set. She could see its yellow tint fade into orange and glint against the wetness.
Frances finishes eating and comes up behind Ene at the sink. Without turning around, she knows his plates still litter the glass surface of the dining table, along with the bowl of washing hand water. Brown spots decorate the table and even the floor nearby, where he must have missed his mouth like a child. His large palms grasp her thighs from behind and he pulls her forcefully towards himself in a way he must believe is sensual.
Ene sighs bitterly, angling her bottom away from his groin. “Can you not see I am busy?”
Frances buries his head in her neck, blowing stale air against her skin. “All I can see is your body.” He begins to sway his hips as he hums. “My sweetie, my sugar,” he sings teasingly. His voice is raspy against her ear.
She shrugs away from his face, leaning against the sink counter. “Biko, leave me. I’m not in the mood.”
“You are never in the mood,” Frances snaps as he detaches his body from hers and takes two small steps back.
Ene uses the opportunity to fix her wrapper cloth with her wet fingers. She opens the yellow cotton fabric before tucking the right side in and then covering it with the left side. Her hands grasp the top of the cloth, and the small box she keeps hidden there. She folds down the hem until it is bundled enough to rest gently on her hips and the box is secure. The wrapper is all that she took from her mother’s house the day she and Frances left Nigeria. It is subtly embroidered all along its length, with zig zagged lines of tiny sunflowers.
26 years ago, her mother had shoved the material into Ene’s hands forcefully, eyeballs gleaming. Even bundled up, it was still the most beautiful cloth Ene had ever seen, but she had known that Frances would buy her all the wrappers she wanted—wrappers much more expensive and just as pretty—when they landed in Canada. She had taken it reluctantly, rolling her eyes at her mother’s dramatics. She was in love and married to a rich man who would whisk her away, her mother should have been happy, instead of making a scene with all her crying during the wedding. As Ene had turned to walk away, liquid tumbled from her mother’s eyes, trailing down her face and to her neck, until it was lost beneath her worn-out blouse.
Today, Ene returns to the dishes, choosing to ignore Frances’ bait.
“I’ve been patient for many years,” Frances says. He is not ready to let this fight dissipate into the grey walls of their home, as he and Ene often do. “I resisted my mother when she told me to leave you for a woman who would bear me a child.”
Ene walks to the dining table and calmly begins to collect his plates.
Frances sighs pointedly. “I will have a child.”
She dumps the dishes in the empty sink and fixes her wrapper once more before turning on the tap and pouring a sizable amount of dish soap onto the sponge. “Or what?”
Silence. Spit swishes as he opens and closes his mouth, finding no words. She imagines he looks like a big, ugly fish when he does that, but does not care to turn to see.
“Or what Frances?” she repeats. “You’ll leave me?”
“You think because I have stayed for so long, I will not leave you?”
She scoffs as she observes droplets stream down her arm and onto the floor. “Please. Who would cook for you? Who would wash your disgusting drawers? If you were going to leave me, you would have done so a long time ago.”
Frances’ voice is barely above a whisper. “I am becoming an old man, Ene.” He takes a small step closer to her. “When will I get to call a child mine?”
Her chest tightens slightly. He sounds small and frail in this moment and she almost pities him. Almost.
Ene cannot pinpoint the exact moment she stopped loving Frances. It may have been a week after their wedding, when they landed in Vancouver. The brisk January air penetrated the fluffy pink jacket she had purchased at the market before leaving Nigeria. When they arrived at Frances’ house, he began to remove her clothes, exposing more of her to the cold. He had been patient for that first week, but she had known she could not postpone their consummation for much longer. As he lay on top of her, she turned her head to the right where her jacket was strewn on the floor. She fixed her gaze on the pocket, where a small section of sunflower fabric peeked out.
She had been a late bloomer, her menarche arriving just shy of her 18th birthday. She was in the bath, white bubbles coating her skin, when a red tint arose in the water. As she emerged from the tub, blood trickled quickly down her legs, forming two small pools on the tile floor. Ene had wiped desperately at herself with toilet paper, tossing red clump after clump into the toilet. The bleeding would not stop and when she went to flush, water gurgled furiously, filling up the bowl until it spilled over the edge. Frances found her there, her face wet with tears. He wore a horrified expression as his eyes met with hers. Then he shut the door gently and left the house. When he came back, they did not speak of the earlier scene. Within the silence lay the understanding that she could now bear children. She stood at the stove tending to a pot of stew as he took his place at the dining table. The toilet had been cleaned and there was no reminder of what had occurred, except for the wad of toilet paper underneath her skirt, bunched up between her thighs.
That had been the first time, since her marriage, that Ene felt a longing for her mother. She tried to recreate moments like the ones they spent at the river by their home, but it was only warm for four months out of 12 and no outdoor pool or beach resembled her village enough. Still, she did not call her mother, nor did her mother reach out to her.
When her mother died, Ene was 22. She only recalls two things after the phone call with her aunt. The first, a distant, gut wrenching, shrieking that she soon realized was projecting from her own mouth. The second was how it intensified when Frances tried to hold her. Her volume amplified until he was confined to the carpeted floor in the dark hallway outside their bedroom. She watched him through the open door, sitting on the bed, arms wrapping her knees tightly against her chest as her shoulders shuddered repeatedly. Small whimpers escaped from her lips as liquid tumbled from her eyes, all the way down her face and neck, until it disappeared beneath her blouse.
Now she approaches the bed where Frances has been sulking for the past half hour. Her hands are still wet from the dishes and her soiled feet leave dark imprints in the burgundy carpet.
She settles her bottom against the mattress next to him. “I was driving to the beach a month after my mother died.” She takes a breath and begins to fidget with the yellow wrapper. “You know that road behind our house where there is a playground zone and then a school zone, where traffic always builds up?”
Frances’ head is bowed, his chin almost touching his chest, but he nods gently.
Ene continues to speak, a heaviness in her throat. “I was driving at 30 for what felt like forever when it dawned on me. Children are foolish. They make dumb decisions. A parent’s job is only to make sure their child does not kill themselves or worse.”
Frances looks at her, both eyebrows raised, speechless.
She places a palm on the back of his hand. “I hate children, Frances.”
He stands up and begins to pace in front of her. His large feet sink into the carpet and lift and sink into the carpet again. He desperately needs a manicure. She follows his feet as they stomp out of the room, through the hallway, across the blue tiled kitchen floors, and down the steps to the living area.
The fireplace is on, as it often is, fire crackling quietly, fighting desperately to warm the frigid air within the house. He continues to pace in the living room and Ene grows tired of watching his feet, so she sinks into their black leather loveseat and observes the orange and yellow flames while still fidgeting with her wrapper edge.
“What kind of woman hates children?” Frances spits finally. His heavy Nigerian accent reaches her ears, but she does not turn away from the flames. He was too old when they arrived, to pick up the Canadian accent, but hers had changed within the year, wiping any trace of who she used to be.
He continues: “When we got married, I told you I wanted somebody who would have my children and continue my family line.”
Ene rolls her eyes and stands up. She steps towards the fireplace as Frances reaches out to grab her. Missing her arm, his hand catches her wrapper instead, and as she steps forward, the cloth unravels, leaving her only in a white tank top and black underwear. Out of the fold, a thin box of pills glides across the room. She dives for it, but he gets there first. His eyes widen as he holds the box of birth control pills in his hand, breath quickening while his eyes travel from the box, to her, and to the box again. She takes a cautious step back as his eyes cloud over; they resemble rooms of smoke.
“What the fuck is this?”
She takes another step back and extends a hand, protectively, in front of her. On her backside, she can feel the heat from the flames.
Frances’ rage extends into the air, too much for his body to hold. “How long have you been taking these?”
“Since my mother died.”
Deep grooves appear on his forehead as he does a quick calculation in his head. “16 years? You have been lying to me for 16 years!” He whips the box at her stomach violently. “You are not the woman I married.”
As the pills bounce off her tank top and fall to the floor, she looks down at her bare legs, unblemished and uncovered. She mumbles softly, “You married a child.”
“What did you say?”
Ene looks into his eyes, heat intensifying against her back, and begins to approach him. Her voice is louder this time. “You did not marry a woman. You married a child. A foolish child.” She grabs at the yellow fabric still in his hands. “You saw my widowed mother, and knew she had no power in the village. You filled my head with lies and took my childhood. I would never allow you to do that to another child.”
She pulls the wrapper towards her, he resists, and the striking sound of tearing cloth fills the room. In her hand, half of her mother’s wrapper rests, the other half, Frances holds. A sob attacks her entire body and tears pool in her eyes. She reaches for the other half, but he evades her, marching towards the fireplace and tossing the cloth into the flames.
Ene releases a tortured cry and dives towards the fireplace, hoping to save whatever is left, but Frances’ arms circle her waist, holding her tight against him. She is forced to watch as licks of orange flame envelope each embroidered sunflower leaf and the stems turn black. She screams until there is no more yellow, until all that is visible is angry red burning, until it feels as if the flame is in her stomach and reaching her throat.
Frances’ rough hand pets her hair from behind as she cries soundlessly.
“You asked if I would leave you,” he whispers directly into her ear, “but I should be asking you the same question.” He chuckles bitterly. “Sure, you could have left when you turned 18 or at any point within the past 20 years, but you didn’t, and you never will.”
He releases her and tosses the pill box in the flames as well. Her body melts to the floor like a pillar of salt in water. She continues to stare at the fireplace even as the front door slams shut.
Ene stays in place, a puddle in the carpet, until the room is completely dark, except for the fire which continues to roar, providing the only source of light. The ripped cloth that she clutches tightly is slightly dampened with sweat. Like she has done every day since she was 22, she considers leaving. She daydreams about Frances’ face when he gets home and does not see her dutifully cleaning. But where would she go? She trusts no one in Canada and since her mother’s death, no one in Nigeria: there’s only Frances. She trusts him to never change. She trusts the simplicity of his mind, such that she knows exactly how to tame it.
She pushes herself off the ground and onto shaky feet, fighting her body, which wants desperately to collapse back onto the floor. She stumbles towards the fireplace, drawing energy from the swelling heat, and tosses the remaining yellow cloth into the flames. This time she does not watch as it is swallowed whole. Ene turns swiftly on her toes and heads towards the stairs. In the kitchen, she rifles through cupboards until she finds the pot she is looking for. She sticks the pot under the tap and watches it fill with clear, unfiltered water.