Sisters Cheta and Zam couldn’t be more different. Cheta, sharp-tongued and stubborn, never shies away from conflict—either at school or at home, where her mother fires abuse at her. Timid Zam escapes most of her mother’s anger, skating under the radar and avoiding her sister whenever possible. In a turn of good fortune, Zam is invited to live with her aunt’s family in the lap of luxury. Jealous, Cheta also leaves home, but to a harder existence that will drive her to terrible decisions. When the sisters are reunited, Zam alone will recognize justhowfar Cheta has fallen—and Cheta’s fate will rest in Zam’s hands.
Debut author Rimma Onoseta deftly explores classism, colorism, cycles of abuse, howloyalty doesn’t always come attached to love, andthe messy truths that sometimes, family is not a source of comfort, and that morality is all shades of grey.
Release date: August 9, 2022
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers
Print pages: 333
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How You Grow Wings
I WATCHED REVEREND Sister Benedicta’s mouth and tried very hard to concentrate on what she was saying. She had thin lips that pulled back when she spoke to reveal bright pink gums and a chipped tooth. It was hard to understand her because she spoke as if she had ogbono soup stuck in her throat. Cheta said she sounded like that because her tongue was too big for her mouth. I didn’t know if Cheta was telling the truth; I was never really sure about anything Cheta said.
Sister Benedicta folded the piece of paper before putting it in a white envelope and licking the flap. I stared at her tongue, trying to gauge if it was bigger than normal but I couldn’t tell.
“Zam, put this in your bag,” she said, handing me the envelope.
I unzipped my bag slowly; it had to be done just right or the teeth wouldn’t close. “Give it to your parents,” she instructed. I nodded but what I really wanted to do was tell her that there was a mistake. I wasn’t the person they wanted, there had to be some sort of misunderstanding, but I kept my mouth closed.
It was a Friday and it was also the last day of school. Exams ended the day before, so the only thing in my schoolbag was a pen and a notebook—just in case—but when I slipped the straps on my shoulders, I felt like I would topple over.
The first thing I noticed when I stepped out of the office was how still everything was. I had been in Sister Benedicta’s office for less than ten minutes and in that time everyone had cleared out, eager to begin the school break. A heavy silence blanketed the compound. The steady hum that usually thrummed through the walls, floated along the hallways, and threaded through the concrete floors was gone. I hurried towards the open gates, where Baba, the gateman, was sitting at his usual post.
Baba had been doing this job long before I had been born. His tenure started over four decades ago when a wealthy benefactor had bought a generator for the school. Baba was hired to protect the generator from thieves who tried to sneak into the school after dark to steal parts to sell. The generator stopped working almost a decade ago. I wondered if they had let him keep his job because
everyone was so used to seeing his smiling face or if they had simply forgotten there was nothing worth stealing in the school.
“Ma a ba,” I greeted.
Baba waved at me. “Ndo ó nwam. Greet your parents for me,” he said with an uneven smile. His weathered skin was soft and saggy and even though I had never touched it, I knew his face would be as soft and stretchy as my grandmother’s had been.
As I walked home, I stared at my feet navigating the bumpy road. The road had been tarred just three years ago by a politician who wanted our votes. The crew paving the road had stopped working the day after he won the election, leaving half unfinished. A few months later, potholes started appearing on the tarred half. I wondered if the rest of the road would finally be completed when election campaigning began next year.
I walked the route from school to the house so often, I didn’t have to look up to see where I was going. My feet automatically traced the familiar steps, giving my brain the chance to think of other things, like what I was going to do about the letter Sister Benedicta had given me.
As I got closer to the house, I heard the sound of a generator running. The noise pulled me out of my thoughts and snapped my head up. We had the biggest generator on the street and it was also the loudest—the sound was distinct. And if the sun had not set and the generator was on, that meant we had special visitors. Petrol was expensive and it had become even more expensive since the government removed the subsidy. Last week, Papa had spent seven hours at the petrol station queuing for petrol for the car and diesel for the generator. There was only one person important enough for Mama to consider putting on the generator before the sky darkened: Uncle Emeke.
Uncle Emeke usually travelled with at least three cars, all black, expensive, and bulletproof, but when I turned into the compound, I did not see any car that looked like it could belong to him. Parked in our compound was a baby blue Toyota and a grey Volvo that had seen better days. The Toyota belonged to Father Charles, the Catholic priest at St. Cecilia’s church. The grey Volvo was coated in layers of dust, as though it had not been used in months. Underneath the dust and grime, I recognized Uncle Festus’s car. A black okada was leaning against the wall and that meant Brother Chudi, my older cousin, was also here.
I could hear raised voices drifting from the open window in the living room. Aunty Ngozi’s voice was the most noticeable. Aunty Ngozi, my father’s half sister, was the most soft-spoken of all my relatives. Whatever was going on in the house had to be big for her voice to get that loud.
I knew better than to enter the house through the front door with all the visitors present; Mama would be angry if I greeted them and I didn’t look presentable. My sandals were caked with red mud that had also splattered on my white socks. I wondered how I had stared at my feet all the way
home but somehow failed to notice I hadn’t taken off my socks. The Reverend sisters that ran the school insisted we wear clean white socks and clean white shirts, because white signified purity. The cleaner we were, on the inside and the outside, the closer to God we will feel, they said.
The red sand was unforgiving and it was impossible to walk to school without getting my socks dirty. This was the first time in years I had ever forgotten to take them off. I would have to soak my socks in bleach overnight to get the stains out.
Behind the house was an ukonu made of laterite with corrugated-metal roofing sheets. This was where the actual cooking happened. The kitchen in the house held a fridge, a deep freezer, and a storage room and was no use for anything else. The cloying scent of fried fish wafted through the air as I got closer. I walked into the ukonu and saw my older sister, Cheta, bent over a pot. Inside the pot was hot yam. She scooped the yam into the mortar and grabbed the big pestle that was almost as tall as her.
“Madam, you’re back,” she said in that sarcastic way of hers, without turning around. “Of course she came back after I’ve done all the work,” Cheta muttered to herself, but she made sure it was loud enough that I heard.
“I’ll go and change out of my uniform and come and help you,” I said.
She huffed and began to pound the hot yam. “Take the chin chin to the living room,” she commanded. Cheta never simply spoke, her voice always rang with authority. Papa used to say she must have been a military general in her past life.
I was the one who served guests because Mama did not like Cheta spending too much time with visitors. Cheta had the most expressive face I had ever seen. Every emotion, every thought, was reflected in her gaze, in the set of her lips, and in the lines on her forehead—and the most prominent emotion she expressed was disapproval. It oozed off of her in waves. Her presence was so intense, being around her was oppressive.
I tiptoed into the living room, making sure to keep my head out of sight. Scanning the room, I counted seven bodies: Mama and Papa, Aunty Ngozi and Uncle Festus, Brother Chudi and his new wife Sister Blessing, and Father Charles. Everyone but Uncle Festus was seated around the center table. Uncle Festus was standing at the side of the room, gesticulating wildly with his arms. With the exception of Papa, they were all talking at once, a chaotic mix of pidgin and Ika. I couldn’t make out what they were saying but I could hear a distinctive and steady thwacking noise.
I carefully poured the chin chin into seven bowls and placed the bowls on the silver tray we used just for visitors. Conversation stopped when I walked into the room. I felt all eyes on me, but I kept my eyes on the tray. As I placed the tray on the table, movement from the corner of the room
caught my eye. Ezinne, my older cousin, lay on the floor. Uncle Festus stood over her, his worn-out leather belt in his hand. Her clothes were torn and one eye was swollen shut. My heart beat faster when I realized that the thwacking noise I had heard was the belt hitting her flesh. I quickly looked away, pretending not to see her.
I turned to Father Charles. “Good afternoon, Father,” I said. He smiled at me, examining me in a way that made me uncomfortable, like he was remembering the night Mama had summoned him. The night he had spent sprinkling holy water on my head and screaming words of prayer at the ceiling as I trembled in the corner. Maybe that night had been the most eventful night of his priestly career and he wanted a repeat.
I turned to the side to greet Mama and Papa. Papa acknowledged me with a quick nod I would have missed if I blinked. Mama’s sharp eyes drifted down to my stained socks and muddy sandals. She said nothing but I knew she would give me an earful once all the visitors left. She might even pull my ears, but she would never do anything that would leave a scar on my body, though sometimes I wished she would. Maybe then Cheta wouldn’t hate me so much.
I heeded Mama’s silent warning and quickly served the chin chin before escaping upstairs to my room to change out of my school uniform. Walking into my room was like entering into forbidden land. Cheta and I had shared the room our whole lives, but somehow I was still an unwelcome visitor. Even though the room was divided in half by an invisible line, Cheta’s personality had somehow managed to leak into all four corners. Her twin bed was at the far right corner by the only window. There were printed-out pictures of her favorite celebrities tacked to the wall and the bright orange curtain she had sewn in clothing and textile class hung over the window. My corner had only my bed and dresser. I had never felt the need to decorate because all my life, I felt as though I was just passing through. I didn’t really belong here.
The room smelled like Cheta’s body spray. The new one she had bought from Nne Adanna’s market stall. The label said Passion Fruit and Vanilla Blend, but it smelled more like wilted flowers dipped in antiseptic. Not that I would ever voice that thought to Cheta. The expensive perfume Aunty Sophie had given her two years ago at Christmas was reserved for special occasions. The bottle wasn’t on the rickety bedside table by the head of her bed, where she kept all her creams and cosmetics. It was in a locked suitcase under her bed.
I changed quickly, knowing that every second I wasn’t in the kitchen helping Cheta was another second her anger grew.
When I walked downstairs, Uncle Festus was still towering over Ezinne. Her head was downcast and she made whimpering noises that resembled the cries of an injured puppy. Everyone was so focused on the display, they didn’t notice me standing in the corner. Uncle Festus’s brown belt had spots darkened with blood. He stood over Ezinne, calling her ugly names that no daughter should ever hear from her father’s mouth. Just like she had taken the beating, Ezinne took the insults in silence and that only seemed to make Uncle angrier. I looked around the room, wondering if anyone would intervene. I couldn’t imagine what Ezinne must have done to deserve this. But no one did anything; they just watched. Tears streamed down Aunty Ngozi’s face as she watched her husband berate their daughter.
Brother Chudi wore a pained expression, but his eyes were resolutely fixed on the floor. Sister Blessing sat next to him on the couch, her fingers wrapped around his upper arm tightly. Her nails were long and fake and I imagined that her grip had to sting, but he did not pull away. She had a triumphant smile on her face, the look of someone who had won a race. Father Charles said nothing. He stared at Ezinne with that familiar serene expression he wore during Mass. Mama watched the scene with disgust. Her nose wrinkled as if she was smelling something bad. Her hand twitched and knowing Mama she probably wanted to grab the belt from Uncle Festus and beat Ezinne herself. Papa wasn’t watching. He was staring out the window, his expression blank as he absent-mindedly chewed kola nut. He didn’t seem to notice the scene happening right in front of him, or maybe he didn’t care. Uncle Festus cracked the belt in the air so close to Ezinne’s face she flinched. “I will beat the fear of God into you today,” he said. “So that from now on you will remember that I did not raise an igbaraja.” Whore.
Spare the rod and spoil the child. That was what Mama said when she broke a cane on Cheta’s back. Spare the rod and spoil the child. That was what Mama said after she slapped Cheta so hard, her ring sliced Cheta’s face. Spare the rod and spoil the child. That was what Mama said when she flung a frying pan at Cheta’s head and Cheta missed school because she had to get stitches at the hospital. Spare the rod and spoil the child. It was for our own good. That’s what they told us. But this . . . this was different. It wasn’t discipline, it was assault. Uncle Festus literally wanted to beat the sin out of her.
Uncle Festus raised his hand to strike and I quickly turned around knowing that if I continued to watch, I would vomit on the floor. “Uncle Festus is beating Ezinne,” I said quietly when I walked into the outside kitchen.
Cheta said nothing, continuing to pound the yam as though she had not heard me speak. She gestured at the bowl on the floor in the corner of the room. “Fry the puff-puff,” she instructed.
After washing my hands, I grabbed a stool and sat by the large pot of oil. I scooped the puff-puff dough with my hands and dropped half a handful into the pot. The dough sank in the oil and then almost immediately bounced back up. The scent of puff-puff warred with the smell of the fried fish that still hung in the air.
“They caught Brother Chudi cheating on his new wife with Ezinne,” Cheta said dryly after a few minutes of silence passed. “Can you imagine? Useless man. They hadn’t even been married three months and he’s already sleeping with another woman. Tufiakwa!” God forbid.
The thought of our cousins, Chudi and Ezinne, rolling around on a bed with his penis inside her body made me nauseous. “They’re related by marriage not by blood,” I said, trying to rationalize it, trying to make it seem less disgusting.
“They grew up together so it’s basically incest as far as I’m concerned.” Cheta circled her hand around her head, then snapped her fingers at the floor in the way people did when they rebuked something. I had asked Mama once why people did that. She said that it was a way to cast curses back to the devil.
“If he cheated why aren’t they beating him up too?” It didn’t seem fair that they had both sinned but she was the one being punished.
Cheta snorted in that unladylike way of hers Mama hated. “Zam, don’t be naïve. He’s a man. Of course nothing will happen to him.” Her tone was condescending. The voice a frustrated teacher used on a thick student. I opened my mouth to respond but thought better of it. Nothing good ever came from arguing with her.
A sudden loud car horn pierced through the air. It was the sound of a car that was well serviced—a car in its prime. It was not the kind of sound we were used to hearing. Most of the cars in the village were second hand; rusting metals and broken mirrors, barely held together with tape. Father Charles’s faded Toyota was the nicest car in the village and it was at least ten years old and the horn sounded like a deflating balloon. There was only one person with a car that could make such a hearty noise.
Cheta groaned. “We are going to have to kill the big chicken for Uncle Emeke, even though he won’t stay long enough to eat it.”
Uncle Emeke, my father’s older brother, was the richest man in the village. He had a house down the road from ours, with a living room bigger than the entire ground floor of our home. It seemed unreasonable to have a house that big when he only came to visit a few times a year. Even though he sometimes came with his wife and children, four people didn’t need that much space.
Go and get the drinks, you know how Mama gets when we don’t serve Uncle on time,” Cheta snapped at me.
I quickly wiped my hands on a rag and went into the in-house kitchen. I grabbed the drinks from the back of the fridge where they were kept specifically for Uncle Emeke. He usually showed up without warning and so Mama always wanted to be prepared. The drinks weren’t cold because the generator was not powerful enough to run both the air conditioners and the freezer. I searched through the kitchen cabinets for our nice tray and glasses, which we only ever used for Uncle Emeke and his wife. They were in the top shelf of the cabinets covered in a layer of dust. I washed them in the sink, making sure to handle them with care.
But it wasn’t Uncle Emeke who came out of the car, it was his half-caste wife. Aunty Sophie was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She had magic eyes that were sometimes brown, sometimes green, sometimes both, and skin that reminded me of the champagne we kept exclusively for her and Uncle Emeke. I had tried the champagne once. Uncle Emeke had taken only a sip before leaving. Instead of pouring the liquid back into the bottle like Mama asked, I had gulped down the golden liquid. It was somehow sweet and bitter at the same time, and it made my chest feel warm. The way the champagne made me feel was the same way Aunty Sophie made me feel when she smiled at me.
My favorite thing about Aunty Sophie wasn’t her beauty or her generosity. It was her voice. It was so melodic, so unlike anything I had ever heard. I once read a book about beautiful creatures who sat on cliffs and lured men to their deaths with their voices. I wouldn’t be surprised if those creatures looked and sounded like her. Sometimes, when I was home alone, I would sneak into Mama and Papa’s room, where the only full-length mirror was, and stand in front it, mimicking the way she moved her hands, the way she tilted her head when she smiled, the way her lips curved when she spoke.
“Our wife. Welcome,” Papa said. His voice sounded scratchy, probably because of underuse. It was the first time I had heard Papa speak in three days. I kept a tally. The longest silent streak was eight days.
“Sophie! We were not expecting you! Welcome!” Mama said in a tone that implied that Aunty Sophie was not at all welcome.
“I wasn’t planning on coming, but I was in Benin visiting my family and I decided to stop by,” Aunty Sophie said with a genuine smile. I never could tell if Aunty Sophie knew Mama didn’t like her, or if she just chose to ignore it.
Cheta said Mama disliked Aunty Sophie because Mama was jealous that Aunty Sophie married the rich brother. I often wondered how Papa felt, knowing his wife would have preferred to be married
to his older brother.
“Our wife! It is good to see you again. It has been too long,” Uncle Festus said with a huge smile on his face, all thoughts of his wayward daughter forgotten. Aunt Ngozi had already wiped her tears, and somehow the redness in her eyes had disappeared.
Everyone in the room had diverted their eyes from Ezinne to Aunty Sophie. Their attention was unwavering, expressions expectant and eyes slightly dazed, probably already making plans for the money. It was common knowledge that people often left Aunty Sophie and Uncle Emeke’s presence with their wallets thousands of naira heavier.
Aunty smiled at Father Charles. “Father! You’re here! That’s very convenient. I was planning on stopping by the church after.” She gestured towards Boniface, the unsmiling man that followed her everywhere. A long strap was slung casually across his body and attached to it was a rifle. Boniface stepped forward, the gun slapping against his thigh as he moved. I wondered if it was really loaded. It made no sense for anyone to hold an object that could kill a person so carelessly. He unzipped the black duffle bag he was holding in one hand and I saw that it was full of crisp naira notes.
“I heard that the church needed to be repainted. I just wanted to make a small contribution,” Aunty Sophie said as Boniface pulled out a stack of bills, firmly tied with a yellow rubber band and handed it to her. “Our daughter! God will continue to bless you and your husband, ...
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