Call Her No One by Frances Ogamba
Frances Ogamba’s short story “Call Her No One” is a piece with enormous restraint. Its nameless narrator is trapped in a desperate cycle, an adoption grift that has worn her body and spirit away to something somber and flimsy. No One speaks to the reader from the bleakest side of psychological realism, favoring pragmatic descriptions of the uses of her body: how she heals it after she is worn ragged, again, by childbirth; how her ersatz-stud Daniel refuses to look her in the eyes when he works to impregnate her.
Passive language is often ineffective, but here, Ogamba uses it as a tool to demonstrate just how long this suffering has gone on. In her author’s note, she describes No One as “hardened, her fire long put out.” This story’s plot has just as much control, and Ogamba uses flashback, setting, and devastating detail (“The baby’s socks are different―one is yellow with two white stripes, the other is covered with pink and green flowers sprinkled on a bone white background. Her new parents will probably buy her socks that match and cotton onesies that are warm, unlike the silky green dress she has on, which reveals scrawny two-day-old knees.”) to give the reader exactly what they need to know to understand the machinations that brought No One to this bleak time and place. —CRAFT
Content Warning—human trafficking
On the day the buyer is to come, my aunt and I put a green dress on the baby, sleek her hair, and fit a cap on her. The baby’s socks are different―one is yellow with two white stripes, the other is covered with pink and green flowers sprinkled on a bone white background. Her new parents will probably buy her socks that match and cotton onesies that are warm, unlike the silky green dress she has on, which reveals scrawny two-day-old knees.
My aunt, her full lips pulled thin with duty, swaddles the baby with a cream-coloured flannel and lays her on the bed. Then she prepares a baby meal out of the big milk tin from which we have fed the other babies. She spoons three scoops of powder into a ten-ounce bottle, adds warm water, and shakes. Her face is lined with experience and the mechanics of apathy. There is a barbed wire around her gentleness. She holds the baby with care―the same routine, now shrunken―but only as a friable and expensive commodity.
The morning sun streaks the sky as an old pickup roars in the distance, tilting to the untarred grassy road until it weaves its way into our low-fenced compound. A man with a ripe stomach creaks the rusty door open. His shirt is buttoned halfway up. The other half is eaten by chest hair. My aunt snaps her fingers at me to pick up the nylon bag containing the baby food, a kerchief, and two diapers. She waits for the man to meet us at the door of our bungalow. She hands him the baby. The trade is fraught with whispers; personal truths tucked in shadows. He lifts the baby in the crook of his arm and slips my aunt a black cellophane. I hear the baby’s drawn-out cries as the vehicle tires rake up dust. I wonder where the baby will go, or if she will get to anywhere at all.
When the man leaves, my aunt sits on the wine-coloured couch and punches numbers on her cell phone. She shows me the screen. It says, Your transfer of 100,000NGN was successful. Make ten more transfers to qualify for Zenith Bank draw―. She pulls the phone away, the red and yellow of her bleached facial skin wrinkling into a smile, nearly mashing into one colour.
“None of the clients have complained so far. Thank God.”
“Not like there’s a return policy. What you are given is what you take,” she says and chuckles.
When we speak to each other, my mind is stripped of opinions. She is not hostile, yet I feel transformed into a nondescript form when her coarse voice tumbles across to me. I do not know what to do half the time except to affirm her words, and to duck the lightning I feel is trapped beneath her frozen stares. A curtain, at all times, falls across her face, planting her at a distance I’d never cover. I do not speak to her about my breasts already weighed down with responsibility, keening a child they’ll never feed.
I place dry foam pads in my bra cup to absorb the milk leaking from my nipples. I make spicy soup with uda seeds to flush out the blood that might clot in the womb and stall the next pregnancy. I sit on a bucket of hot water mixed with salt and disinfectants, slouching deeper until the mouth of my vulva kisses the steam. The therapy repairs the vagina faster, frees it from the reins of childbirth, readies it. I bar the pain from my mind and stare at the rectangular patterns of the tiled bathroom wall until I am ferried into a stream that runs nearby, floating with the town’s debris. In this business, my aunt says, you must learn to forget.
I try to forget the lidded eyes of the first baby, and the dark thin lips that grew surprisingly wide at each yawn, as if he were a canister we could not fill. The labour lasted about ten hours. My aunt gagged me so I would not scream out the pain. The midwife she hired spurred me on with words that bore down from the house’s ceiling with a musical rhythm.
The child seemed stuck in the middle of my ribs, in my chest, and in all the rooms impossible for babies to grow in. It dived about in my body for so long, as if there were no door, or there was one it was afraid to pass through. I remember the bloodless fingers curled into a fist, reaching for his mouth, perhaps reaching for me too.
The second baby was flabby. It felt like shitting out a large ball of cotton wool. The midwife turned on my aunt with an uneasy smile, and my aunt glared at me with accusation. I forgot to register its face or the sex. My mind was holed up in the unpainted walls of the windowless room stretching around me. Light from a rechargeable lamp placed on an old cupboard nudged some of the dimness away. Chirps from the bushy fields beyond the wall seeped into the new void. Children are not things to be given back merely because they are hare-lipped or have a congenital anomaly or the Down syndrome. The woman whose face has been blackened in my memory, who took the first baby, later arrived to take away the second. Only my aunt held those babies. I imagined holding them, their little bodies nestled against my chest.
I sit on a low stool in the bathroom. My aunt dips a towel into a bucket of hot water and slams the towel against my stomach, her arms swinging from the act. She smells of expensive body oils and has exotic fingers that sparkle under the lights. She smiles often―at me, at the midwife, at the delivery man who buys us supplies from town, at Daniel, the young man she pays to live with us each month for the seven fertile days of my cycle―but her beams do nothing to unfreeze her eyes.
The skin of my vagina grows taut again. The soreness transmutes into a painless callus. My stomach, near-flat albeit frayed, rids itself of unwanted fluids, bearing witness to the three lives it has borne.
Three months after the silky-green-dress baby, she asks me, “Nne, hope you still take the folates?”
“Yes,” I reply, shrugging off the comfort the appellation is meant to bring me. I often trip over heaps of dread rippling in my head. Sometimes, in the silence that spreads over the house, I hear a shout. I imagine someone from my old life standing on the edge of a cliff, calling out to me with urgency. Nne is reserved for affectionate relationships, but we do not share that kind of camaraderie. I make babies. She sells them.
Two days before my Senior Certificate Examination at Saint John’s, the English teacher summoned me to the staff room and hitched up her small voice. Some other teachers gathered around me asking who the boy was. I was not even dating anyone seriously. I’d only tried out stuff with Kay, the university guy that lived on my street.
“Who do you live with?” the English teacher asked.
“My uncle,” I replied, evading her fiery eyes.
“You must not return to school without your uncle. Do you hear me?”
The story skipped ahead of me and settled in the classrooms. Pupils spilled to the classroom doors, staring. Kalifa, my desk neighbour, helped empty my desk into my bag, and walked me to the gate. Her hands lingered on my shoulders, a protective shield against the whispers and laughter.
I refused to go back to my uncle and stuck with Kalifa for as long as she would have me. Her father worked away from home. Her mother was a busy hotelier. When Kalifa was at school, I crossed the compound and stared at the ube trees blooming in their garden. Sometimes, I burrowed a cavern underneath the bed sheets and cried myself to sleep.
“Someone came to school today, asking for you. A man,” Kalifa said. The breeze whipped open her unbuttoned school shirt. I was looking at the Biology practical exam paper, wishing I’d been granted a chance to answer question number 3a. Draw and label the thorax of a cockroach.
“What did he look like?”
“Fat. Dark-skinned. Short.”
It was my uncle. I imagined him screaming at the school management, demanding that they provide his ward. Though I knew he would do nothing like that. I was not his niece, just some girl who was from the same town as him and somehow got on his charity programme to enroll in a good school for the senior secondary school years. I wanted to know if he kept coming, but Kalifa did not mention him again.
The afternoon light illuminated a face as I walked into Kalifa’s living room one day. Her cousin who lived in Port Harcourt was in the business of helping girls like me. The woman filled the couch she sat on; the rich scent of her perfume swirled in the room. The strands of her gold-coloured wig glittered in the fluorescent lights.
“How many months gone?” she waved her curved nails in the direction of my stomach.
“I don’t know.”
She scoffed; the laughter did not soften her eyes.
“Did you try to remove it?”
“I told her not to,” Kalifa interjected. I tried to affix their faces on one canvas but it did not fit. Their resemblance most likely lived on the insides, and manifested in the throaty voice they shared.
“Do you want the child?”
There were ways to make money from this, the woman said, waving at the small bulge of my stomach again. The slit of her gown revealed thick, smooth thighs. Even when Kalifa assured me with her eyes as the woman stood to go, gesturing that I follow her, a blurred knowledge that I was wading into a white fog filled my head.
“Where is your mother?” she asked as the bus we boarded rolled away from the familiar, cruising through hill and valley towns, bursting into crowds of people from time to time. The sun’s evening glow was soft.
“She lives in my hometown.”
“You did not tell her?”
I wanted to say that it did not matter if my mother did not know. She was raising her new family. I would not distract her with bad tidings. I focused instead on nature rustling in the wind and whizzing past in such hurry. I wondered how far away we were going to live from everything I knew.
I long to do something different from waiting for monthly cycles and for the pregnancies to grow. The rope plants and mimosa shrubs beyond the property beckon me when the breeze breaks through them, triggering their smells. I desire to hear the stream’s pulsing, to catch a real glimpse of the ripples. I often think of strolling out into the compound and planting something so I can witness its growth. But I am limited to house chores, and can only go out into the yard when my aunt is watching.
Daniel arrives on the first day of my cycle. I hear him from the kitchen as his feet plod up the front steps. I hear my aunt cross the living room to welcome him. My heart dithers as my eyes fall on his muscled body and bored eyes. He looks radiant for the job. Always.
“Babe, how far?” he asks gently, as he would speak to a friend. I smile in response. We do not discuss the sex or the babies or our backstories or anything about the job. We barely speak to each other, except to pass a comment on the abrupt power cuts, or the heavy rainfall that tears windows open with its breeze. I wish sometimes that he’d see me more, or that the mist in his eyes could mean a flicker of interest.
Sex with me is a chore to be performed. Daniel does it about five times daily throughout the fertile days. The sex would be less frictional if Daniel would pretend to feel something for me. But the light in his eyes is the same spectrum he wears when cleaning out the bedroom or making his breakfast. I hear him sometimes muttering into the phone, his tone pinched: “I will send you money once I am paid.”
I wonder whether his wife, if he has one, knows the kind of job he does. I imagine his children, hazel-eyed like him. Does he think of the children he has spun with me, those fractions of ourselves? Does he worry about their place in the world, or about our anonymity in their journeys?
Outside the house, I feel the sun’s mild stings on my skin. My vagina feels sore because we have run out of the lubricant lotion, and my aunt buys only one bottle for each cycle. Daniel is by the corner of the compound, just by my aunt’s window. He uses a rusty iron bed to do his sit-ups. His head disappears behind him like one being dunked into the deep, and then he rises, his face and eyes unchanged. No wrinkles or groans against the pain. He is the same in the bedroom. He barely makes a sound. His thrusts carry a measured strength, unchanging. Mostly, we fuck from the back. When we switch to missionary, he looks away, trains his eyes on the window panes. Only a slight twitch of his body signals his ejaculation. I wonder if there are other women, other businesses he runs.
After watching him for some time, I turn my attention to the horizon. My aunt’s house stands on a mildly elevated ground, which grants me a view of some of the town. Scutch grass borders the pathway that leads to the main road on both sides. From somewhere, smoke escapes into the sky. I hear a distant chatter followed by a loud horn. The wind then carts the sounds away. Beyond the cheerless sky is my old life. I could be with my mother now, if my father had not disappeared. I could be with my uncle now, but I am here. I hear my aunt’s faint shuffle in her room. I know she monitors me, and she wants me to know that she does.
Two weeks after Daniel leaves, I pee on the home pregnancy test strip and two red lines splash across it. My aunt squeals and texts Daniel the news and then the proof of a successful bank transfer.
I immerse myself into the affair of forgetting. I wake early and dust the rooms and the louvres already collecting the dust of the season. It is November, but I do not know the dates. You will get a phone when the contract expires, and an ATM card to access your account, my aunt says. I am afraid to ask about the contract’s date of expiry. I remember signing a paper shortly after my arrival without fully understanding what the conditions were. When I announced my intention of leaving after the lidded-eyes baby, she asked, a sad glint burning in her eyes: “And what does the contract say?”
In my dreams, I see a little girl who comes to me bearing a gift from my family’s past generations. I dream of us curling away into the dark where the light cannot reach us. I try to exorcise myself of such dreams, such longing. I try to shut my heart against the kicks in my stomach, but it flutters at each fetal movement. When my aunt asks if it moves now, I strip my voice of emotions and reply, “Yes, it does.” I am afraid to feel too much, to hold this one too close. It will be taken like the others. It is best to forget.
By the seventh month, my aunt makes frequent calls―either shrieking with laughter or bargaining with bidders. I often feel fidgety, as if a knot that has cobbled my parts together has malfunctioned and is coming loose. The feeling unties me at each dawn, and I come apart. I cough when speaking to my aunt, because my voice also rattles.
Once, my excitement nudges me to ask, “How is Kalifa?” It’s been a little over three years since I last saw her. My aunt glares at me. Her artificial lens mutates into a static pool of blood, and then she blinks and the figment melts away.
“Kalifa is fine. She sends her regards.” Her tone bears a touch of finality, though this would not deter me if my excitement had not suddenly vanished. I sink back into my act. Taciturn. Subservient.
When the midwife comes to check my blood pressure and take half a pint of my urine for tests, I yearn to ask her if I am the first girl who has lived here. What were the others like? Did they complete their contract? How long before the contract expired? I focus on her feet instead, on the bunion jutting out of her big toe like a bump on the path of aging.
The baby arrives mid-February. The morning fog hugs the house for hours and days. We dress this one in a yellow coverall and my aunt makes so many calls, scolding, threatening, and begging. We give the baby its milk each day, expecting the real owners to show up. I steal glances at the baby’s pitch black pupils and green irises. Her scleras are the colour of a clear blue sky.
We walk up to the tarred road that runs through our neighbourhood. The baby reclines in the crook of my arm. My aunt is spitting and swearing on the phone. It is the eighth day since the birth and the buyer has not shown up. The midwife is not able to steal away the BCG serum. We board a taxi that will take us to the health centre. Trees stretch along the road, interrupted by street shops and other buildings. Dumpsites sit in almost every valley. I smell burnt plastic. I lip-read the names of bus stops―St. John’s, Iwofe, Pepperoni, Mile 4, Orazi, GRA, Water Lines, Garrison.
We alight at the gate of the health centre, just by the fringe of the crowd cluttering the nearby train station and waiting for the train’s doors to slide open. My aunt moves away from the disjointed voices of the throng, cupping her words on the phone with her hand. I hear her say, “Yes, yes, after the BCG, we will meet you where?”
I do not see it coming. The crowd makes a dash for the doors of the train, wrestling one another to board.
“Are you not travelling? You won’t get a seat!” a woman’s voice squeaks behind me. Her hand nudges me towards the chaos, shielding the baby’s head with her hand. My feet are immobile, as if fatigued from overuse. My head aches with a sidling blankness as the stream of people gathers, enveloping me in their movement, jostling me into the train. The woman pushes me into a seat and plops into the one next to mine.
“We got seats. I am so happy,” she exhales.
The train coughs, and staggers out of the station. More people fly into it. They crowd the aisle. Luggage pushes into our faces. Everything moves too fast to stay still. I hear a shout. From the corner of my eyes, I make out the outline of someone trying to catch up with the train, shouting and waving. My heart swells in fear and I bend my head, feigning interest in the patterns on the baby’s flannel. I dread that someone will take notice of the racer and ask who they seek. A girl? Did you say she has your child?
Nobody gives me up and the train thunders toward the city’s outskirts. I ask the woman where the train is going.
“Many destinations. Umuahia, Enugu, Kogi, Abuja, Kaduna. Where are you going to?”
“The last stop.”
After a moment’s lapse, I ask her,
“Is there a Zenith Bank in Kaduna?”
“Yes. In every city.”
I watch the baby sleep. I study the arc of her cheekbone and her eyebrows, my eyes flipping from identifying trait to identifying trait, marking out the specifics of what belongs to Daniel or to me. The baby stirs suddenly and gives a weak cry. I do not have the milk tin or the feeding bottle.
“She is hungry,” the woman says, turning to me.
“I forgot to take her food.”
“Which one is forgot to take food? Give her breast milk. You can breastfeed, right?”
The memory that I bore this child floods into my head. I nod. The fear of being found out snips away my speech. Can she tell? The woman helps me raise my blouse and shows me how to hold the nipple with the index and middle fingers. She helps me guide it into the baby’s mouth.
The baby suckles hard and I gasp.
FRANCES OGAMBA is the winner of the 2020 Inaugural Kalahari Short Story Competition and the 2019 Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction. She is also a finalist for the 2019 Writivism Short Story Prize and 2019 Brittle Paper Awards for short fiction. Her fiction appears in Chestnut Review, CRAFT, The Dark Magazine, Jalada Africa, The /tƐmz/ Review, and elsewhere. She is an alumna of the Purple Hibiscus Creative Writing Workshop taught by Chimamanda Adichie.
Featured image by Jiří Rotrekl courtesy of Pixabay