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
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
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
"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
"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
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.