I had heard of men who handpick girls like you would fresh vegetables or fruits at a market stall. I often laugh at this talk till the day I was picked.
I’m supposed to see Bala this afternoon. He is the one I plan to spend the rest of my life with. He is everything to me. I remember the first time we spoke, I was very shy but he made me feel very comfortable till my shyness evaporated. We often meet secretly, when our parents are not watching. Lovers tryst I call it.
I busy myself throwing stones at nothing in particular whilst patiently waiting for a signal at the front of our house from Bala when two men walk towards me. One is tall and the other, quite short and plump, reminding me of the black pig that roams our street. Both are garbed in black. They ask for Pa. They look impatient and I wonder if something bad has happened. Did someone die? That probably explains the black attire I thought but wave it off.
I tell them Pa is inside.
‘Call him. We have a message for him from Alhaji Sanni’ the short one grunts as I make my way into the house.
Pa is saying his prayers. I shift from foot to foot, thinking of Bala as I wait for Pa to finish. Ma is also in the room, her face dressed in a frown, trying to feed little Audu, who constantly twists his mouth away from the direction of the spoon. It is obvious he is not interested in the food but Ma is hell bent on getting every last bit into him. A smile snakes its way to my lips as I watch them. I picture myself feeding a baby –a willing one—unlike my reluctant brother whilst my sweet Bala says his prayers and—
My father clears his throat, disrupting my daydream, signifying with the hand in which he held his brown rosary that I can speak.
‘Pa, there are two men outside waiting for you.’
I do not understand if it was the name or Ma finally decided it was time to give up on Audu. From the corner of my eye, I see her put the bowl of half eaten pap on the table beside her then let Audu slide to the ground from her legs. He gladly crawls away. Pa also looks like he’d seen a ghost.
‘Alhaji’ he mutters.
‘Yes, Pa. Alhaji.’ I say impatiently then turn to Ma.
‘I’m going to see—’
‘Bintu, sit down’ She says quietly patting the chair in between us.
‘But Ma, I told—’
‘Bintu I said, sit down! Your father has something to tell you’
Ma looks at Pa, trying hard to hide the worry in her eyes as she moves closer to me.
‘Pa tell her.’
I find it odd when my mother calls my father Pa as if she is one of his children. I decide to ask her why later.
‘Tell me what?’
‘You are going with them’ He says without looking at us.
Pa’s words scatter on the ground between us as he stares hard at the door as if talking to it. I frown, look at him then back at Ma who is standing beside the chair she asked me to sit in.
‘Going with who?’ I ask.
‘Those men are here for you’ Ma says in a way too calm for my liking as her hand plays with my hair.
A truckload of thoughts, fruits and vegetables drive through my mind. I spring up from the worn out chair as if pricked by a thorn.
‘Ma, what are you talking about?’
Little Salma walks in towards me cutting through the tension, ignoring the adults in the room. I look at her with questioning impatient eyes Not now Salma, not now.
I didn’t know what to say to her.
‘Bintu is leaving.’
As the words roll off my tongue leaving a bitter taste, I question its reality. Salma stares at me. She does not understand.
‘Food’ She repeats, then puts her right thumb in her mouth.
Ma takes her out of the room but not without stopping to take a look at me again. I see tears form in her eyes. Little Salma tugs Ma’s dress to remind her they were leaving for a reason.
I am leaving for the rest of my life. I want to scream and claw out Pa’s eyes.
‘Bintu, I borrowed money. Walahi[i] I’d bring it at the end of the month so you can come back home.’
‘I thought you loved me Pa. You said you’d make sure I become better. Is this how you plan my betterment? By using me as a surety?’
‘Alhaji Sanni will take care of you’ He says putting his hand on my shoulder trying to reassure me.
I eye him with disgust and shake his hand off my shoulder. We both know he would not be coming for me at month’s end. Even if he comes it’d be to Oliver Twist his way into getting more money.
‘Take care of me? You stand there telling me about care when you know fully well what will happen the minute I leave here. You know my innocence will be stolen. Pa, you said you wouldn’t let this happen yet you sold me.’
‘I’ll never forgive you for this Pa.’
I think of Bala and our plans. Tears roll down my cheeks. I feel numb as I walk slowly to the front of our house, Pa behind me.
The men stand up when they see me.
‘What took you so long? Where is your father? We don’t have all day.’
As the short one spoke, you can smell the arrogance oozing from him.
‘You know why we are here. It’s the money or one of your daughters like you promised eh.’
Pa takes me by the shoulders and pushes me slightly towards the men.
‘This is Bintu. Tell Alhaji I’ll bring his money at month’s end so I can take her back.’
‘Take her back?’ the short one sniggers.
‘You know Alhaji won’t let this one go. You are lucky she is beautiful. She’ll be a wife, not a maid.’
‘Do you have any belongings?’
‘Yes, I want to take a few things.’
‘Hurry. We are waiting’
I walk straight to the backyard where Ma is, with little Salma and Audu. She rushes towards me to hug me tight.
‘Pa sold me Ma. Pa sold me. He said he loved me but he sold me.’
‘I’m so sorry Bintu.’
‘Do you sell something so precious for money that disappears in seconds? Ma answer me, do you?’
I release myself from her embrace; wipe away tears with the back of my hand.
‘No. I’m sorry Bintu. I really am’
I glance at little Salma and Audu. The thought of not being able to see them again for a long time make my heart ache. I wasn’t even able to say bye to Bala.
I face Ma, her lovely face with tired eyes, looking older than she really was.
‘Ma I’ll be alone. I don’t want to go’ I hold her dress like Little Salma did earlier. Tears flow freely again but I did not wipe them off this time.
‘I feel useless Bintu. I feel sad and torn because my sixteen year old daughter has to go through this madness and I have no power to stop it. God is with you and will never leave you’
‘Where was God when Pa needed money? Where was God when Pa made this deal? Ma I know this is not your fault but don’t tell me about God!’
Ma bites her lower lip, fighting back tears that refuse to be caged. I hug Ma one last time then walk towards my soon to be old room that I share with Ma and Salma. I look around the small room for few minutes then grab a little bottle and bracelet Bala made me.
Ma walks me to the front of the house and I whisper I’ll be back in her ears. She stares at me, confused. I feel her continuous stare as I walk towards Mr. Tall and Mr. Short. I did not bid my seller farewell. He does not deserve it. The men lead me to a blue car with tinted glasses. I sit at the back, clutching the little bottle and staring at my bracelet. As the car moves off, I see Ma still watching. Her hand moves to wave but instead, she places it at the back of her neck then leans against the wall at the entrance of our house.
I read what is written on the bottle Original Instant Rat Poison. Instruction: Put a few drops on the item needed to lure rodent. Tears well up in my eyes again. I refuse to be a refund. I down the contents of the bottle.
‘I’m sorry Ma’ I whisper.
I close my eyes and count as the car move, like an old man with a walking stick because of the bad road.
[i] I swear by Allah