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Sefi Atta

Toward the End

She and I were in our third trimesters of pregnancy, and as migration will have it, we became neighbors here in a small city in Mississippi. She was American, born in North Carolina; I was Nigerian by birth. We were both out of work and at home during the day. Twenty minutes from the block of apartments we lived was an air force base. Her husband, a pilot, was on their waiting list for housing. My husband worked in the city center, in a community health clinic that employed foreign-trained doctors.

I liked her. She was shorter than me, shapelier, about a decade younger. She had a short blonde bob, turned up nose and defied the roundness of her belly, bouncing along as she walked. I imagined she was a runner because her calve muscles were so tight, but she said she swam and practiced yoga. I was beginning to get out of breath just standing up from a chair. My own belly was smaller; I was carrying low, my husband explained, and, my baby was pressing on my pelvic nerves, which was probably the reason I’d turned into the African version of the girl from the Exorcist. Actually, I was feeling guilty about being constantly irritable, admiring my new neighbor and wishing I could be as maternity perfect. "Come on," she said, snapping her fingers the first time she spoke to me. "Move those feet. You ain’t but this tiny."

I had to laugh. Most white American women seemed nervous around me--my dreads and foreign accent. Even black American women asked where I was from, once I opened my mouth, and here she was, confident enough to bully me.

On the corridor between our apartments, we started chatting about morning sickness. I’d suffered from hyperemesis gravidarum. She’d only just started feeling nauseous and I urged her to see another doctor for a second opinion. I would never tell her I’d stopped having sex with my husband because I deeply resented his deodorant. She never once hinted why she screamed at hers so loud one night I heard her through the walls that separated our apartments. "I’m not your slave!"

Men, she huffed the next day, when I saw her carrying grocery bags, and I said Yup. I knew she adored him. She was always telling me Mike said this and Mike said that. It wasn’t my style to talk this way, but I didn’t mind listening. We had a sort of kinship that was easy from the start because there was little chance our loyalty or patience would be tested. In fact, before the night of the tornado, she’d never stepped into my apartment and I’d never stepped into hers. We’d also benefited from knowing that whatever we said would not be repeated within our separate social circles, and so we talked--about our new Walmart supercenter, babies layettes, terror alerts, swollen feet, piles, strangers who patted our bellies, the absence of our husbands at our prenatal visits. I couldn’t pretend my husband’s on-calls were of the same import as her husband’s subsequent posting to Kuwait.

In our city, we had had three tornado warnings before the bombing on Baghdad began. We expected tornadoes in the spring, together with the rain, pollen and mosquitoes. The last touch down was over a hundred years ago, people said, but there had been recent tornadoes in Tennessee. I’d seen the television coverage of the wrecked communities. They seemed unreal, nothing that could ever happen to me.

I was sitting in front of the television, that night, and the rain was crashing down. I was keeping away from my windows because of the lightning. Each time I heard a thunder crack, I patted my belly. My husband was out admitting a patient. I flicked from station to station, happy to be fully in control of the remote and noted when the ticker tape on the television screen said our city was on a flood warning, tornado watch and then a tornado warning. The sitcom I happened to be watching was interrupted. Our local weather man was gesticulating before a map and yelling about cloud rotations. "Get to the lowest point of your house. The lowest point. Or get into a bath..."

A tornado was about to touch down somewhere in the city, he said. I lay back on the sofa. I was aware of my heart bumping against my womb. Still, I wasn’t going to move, until the lights in my apartment blacked out.

As I sat in the dark, someone knocked on my door. "Who is it?" I asked, easing myself up. My husband would use his key. He would never attempt to drive home in the storm. He would wait in the hospital and phone me as soon as he was able. I looked through the peep hole. It was my neighbor. She carried a lantern. I opened the door.

"I couldn’t stay there on my lonesome," she said and giggled with her hand on her her mouth. She was wearing pink-striped pajamas. Our corridor was wet with rain. Lightning flashed. "Did you see that?" she asked, as if I could have missed the sky turning from indigo to near white for a moment. Trees in our car park were bent over. The wind changed direction. We both jumped at a bang of thunder.

"Come in," I said, above the rumble.

She blocked her ears. "Where’s your husband, girl?"

I shut my door. "He’s working."

"You’re on your own too?"

"I’m glad you came. We don’t have a flashlight in this place."

She lifted her lantern. "What we need is a battery radio. What do they say anyway when it gets like this? Get in the bath and do what?"

Between thunder claps, we remembered that what we needed to do was cover ourselves with blankets, once we were in a bath tub. I only had duvets; she thought we should use my baby mattress instead. I dragged a duvet from my bed and used it to layer the tub. We carried the baby mattress and set it upright. She placed her lantern on top of the sink. I got into the tub, she stepped in and we lowered ourselves until we were both sitting in birthing positions, facing each other. We had to curve our ankles to fit. The lantern cast shadows on the walls. I imagined us delivering our babies in the center of the tub, two newborns with pale skins, joined to us by umbilical chords. 

"Are you okay?" she asked.

I nodded. "You?"

She waved her hand. "So, if we hear a loud noise, we, what, cover our heads with the mattress?"

"This is foolish," I said.

What would save us from the falling debris? The apartments we lived in were those fake colonial designs made of wood and stucco. I was surprised to find that most residential buildings in our city were constructed this way. In Nigeria, we built luxury homes with cement bricks. She laughed at my vexed expression.

"How’s your business coming along?"

Evidently, she too was used to tornado warnings. She sounded as if we were sitting down to iced tea.

"I’ve given that up for now."

I’d been researching starting a craft business, using semi-precious stones like malachite and lapis lazuli to make hair pins for black women with natural hair. I was dreaming I would be one of those stay-at-home moms who became successful entrepreneurs. It was the end of my career as an architect. With my Nigerian diploma, finding work in America was almost impossible. She was thinking of going to community college. She wanted to work with children.

"How’s your application going?" I asked.

"I haven’t got round to it," she said.

She scratched her arms. I fanned my face with my hands. The air in the bathroom was swamp warm.

"To be honest I watch too much television," I said.

"Me too," she said. "Shock and Awe. I can’t stop."

"Oh, that. I don’t watch that."

The rain beat faster on the roof. There was another roll of thunder.

I was not following the war coverage. Even with the journalists embedded, I didn’t trust what I saw on television, not because of the political wrangling and spinning, but because I’d been through Princess Diana and JFK Junior. I couldn’t believe I had people calling from Nigeria saying they were glued to CNN over their deaths. September 11, again people called from Nigeria saying they were depressed and I couldn’t justify my own grief for weeks, coming from a continent with the lowest life expectancy, the highest rate of unexpected deaths; a continent where people had no fear of terrorists, really. Of course, there was the bombing of the US embassy in Kenya, but no one called me from Nigeria over that. So, by the grace of television, some deaths were catastrophic, other deaths were insignificant and now, death was virtual reality viewing.

"I have to watch," she said, shutting her eyes. "I’m just praying for our boys to win this war and come home."

She had a cousin in Baghdad. She went to church on Sundays and during the week to pray for him and her husband in Kuwait. In our city, there was a church on every street corner. People attended church at least once a week and they were always inviting others to church. Perhaps they had much to pray about--their history of trading Africans, in particular. I could sometimes trace the ancestry of black Americans to Nigeria by studying their features: Yoruba lips, Fulani eyes. A colleague of my husband’s invited us to his Presbyterian church; we were the only black people there. We attended a black Methodist church the Sunday before Martin Luther King Day; the congregation sang We Shall Overcome. I refused to. "It’s so Deep South," I said to my husband, when what I meant to say was wasn’t this the saddest twist in history that, these days, Africans like us came over voluntarily to live and work in Mississippi and we were grateful for the opportunity.

The tornado siren began like a wail.

"We’re in trouble tonight," I said.

"Christ," she murmured. "There must be one downtown."

She could be the last person I saw. I really didn’t believe there would be a touch down, but would I not tell her what I thought about the war?

"Can you imagine," I said, feeling my heartbeat quicken, "how it is for people in Baghdad? Bombs, day and night, not knowing when or how. It must be like twenty-four hours of tornadoes."

She frowned. "Yeah."

She wasn’t ready. Just after September 11, we’d both heard of the death threats on a dry-cleaning business in the city. The owner was a Mr. Habib. I told her then that I thought the threats were ignorant. She said, "It’s devilish, but I kind of understand why. I mean, look what they did to us."

They. Us. I was neither. Regardless, I was keeping my mouth closed these days. I even smiled at another neighbor who gave me a bumper sticker saying, "Go Get ’Em George."

The siren was shrill now. My heart scrambled around my chest.

"We’d best put that over our heads," she said.

"I’ll be so glad when this is over," I said, crouching. "So glad."

I was thinking of the tornado season, the war, my pregnancy. We reached for the baby mattress and lifted it. I wondered what was going through her mind. She had her own concept of time and space, especially at a time like this, with respect to America’s place and future in the world: other countries hated America and they had to be stopped, immediately. Their deaths were their own damn business. She could change her views no more than I could mine. As we huddled, I smelled pickles on her fingers. I knew I reeked of fried plantain.
We must have been there for about two minutes when the siren stopped. We placed the mattress back on the floor.

"Well," I said trying to get up. "At least, we live to give birth to a new generation of Americans."

She laughed. "Amen to that."

My heartbeat slowed down. I helped her out of the tub. She stayed with me until the lights came on. We were lucky that night that the tornado passed over Mississippi. We found out the next morning, it hit Alabama.

Sefi Atta was born in Lagos, Nigeria. She was educated there and in England. A former chartered accountant and CPA, she has a masters in creative writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles. Her short stories have appeared in In Posse Review, Carve, Eclectica and Los Angeles Review. She has won prizes from Zoetrope and Red Hen Press, and has been short-listed for Glimmertrain and Fish Publishing awards. Her radio stories and play have been broadcast by the BBC and Commonwealth Broadcasting Association. Her first novel was a finalist for the Macmillan Writers Prize for Africa. The novel, now titled A State of Silence will be published by Interlink Publishing in fall 2004. Sefi has completed a second novel Swallow and a collection of short stories titled Hailstones on Zamfara. She lives in Meridian, Mississippi with her husband and daughter and teaches at Meridian Community College.

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