When she was three the girl accidentally upturned the boiling pan with which her mother was frying bean cakes on herself. The hot oil left two thick lumps of scar tissue across her eyes, blinding her. Her mother had told everyone who came to sympathize with her that she believed that a nurse had said they’d cut off the scar tissue in the hospital and the girl would be able to see again. Actually, she had not been told this by a real nurse but by a doll-baby nurse. This was the name given to auxiliary nurses in the general hospital where she had stayed with the child for three months, watching the eyes covered by gauze and gentian violet.
No one blamed her for what happened to the child. No one in the village spent all their days watching their children. A woman had thousands of chores—fetching water and firewood, washing clothes, cooking for the family—and looking after the children somehow fitted itself around these activities. She had left the child by the boiling oil and had run inside to fetch her salt container. She needed to sprinkle a pinch of salt into the boiling oil to know if it was time to dunk the ground beans into it. By the time she ran back out, the little girl had grabbed the boiling pan of oil. She had screamed and a crowd had gathered quickly. As is traditional in the village when such things happen, many took a look at the child and ran back to their homes to bring different medications, some useful but most useless. Some came with an expired bottle of gentian violet, another came with a smelly black bottle filled with the fat from the boa constrictor killed five years back. One came with a lump of wet cassava which she said would cool the skin and leave no scars. All these were dumped on the girl’s face. Someone screamed for the Midwife. The Mid ran the village dispensary. She did more than deliver babies: she wrote prescriptions, sold drugs, and gave injections. Mid took a look at the child and ordered that she be taken to the General Hospital in the local government headquarters which was a good ten miles away. A commercial motorcycle taxi was called, and the woman, holding the child close to her, rode away to the hospital. The crowd gathered around the fire which had grown cold and began to talk about the incident.
“It is always money, money, money for the young women nowadays. In my time this would not have happened.”
“It was not her fault. She has to take care of herself and the baby. You know her husband simply woke up one morning and walked away.”
“I have seen worse burns in my time. She is young and the skin will heal very nicely. You’ll be shocked when you see the same child many years hence. There will be no single blemish on her skin.”
“My boa oil can heal anything. They need not have taken her to the hospital—just a drop of the oil every morning and she would heal perfectly.”
“Oh the oil from the boa constrictor that was killed years back, I remember it was so big people thought it was a log of wood that had fallen across the road. From the black marks on its back you can tell it had lived for close to forty years.”
“I have a bottle of the oil myself. I simply forgot to bring it.”
“I wonder why Mid told her to take the child to the General Hospital. With the different medications we have applied even if the skin was burnt by the fires of purgatory she should heal.”
“You know she is the eyes and ears of the government among us here. Her job is more than giving babies with running stomach salt and sugar solution to drink. They sent her here to speak as the voice of the government. If you disobey her you could get into trouble.”
“You know since she got here the tax collectors now know the best days to come, they now come on days when everyone is at home. Who do you think tells them?”
People in the crowd looked at each other as if they had spoken too much and began to disperse. Towards evening, the driver of the motorcycle taxi came to tell the woman’s neighbors that she had asked that they bring a few of her clothes to the hospital. She also told them to search under her sleeping mat and bring all the money there to the hospital.
The people in the village gathered and drew up a roster of people who would take food to her in the hospital. Some volunteered to go pass a night with her in the hospital but were told not to bother by the woman. The hospitals were overcrowded and families of patients slept in the open verandah of the hospital. Those who had gone to the hospital said the place stank of carbolic acid and death. They said that because of frequent power outages, the ice melted from the bodies of the corpses in the mortuary and the corpses stank like decomposed frozen mackerel. They said the doctors and nurses had their own private clinics and preferred that patients came to consult them there rather than in the general hospital. They said the child’s eyes were covered with gauze and that she could not swallow and had to be fed through a straw.
The woman and her daughter stayed in the hospital for a long time. Longer than people stayed in the hospital when they went to have their hernias removed. No one followed the roster anymore; the villagers became busy with planting of their crops. Another woman began to fry akara by the roadside and people began to buy from her. Occasionally people spoke of the woman and her daughter and then looked away embarrassedly.
One day the woman returned with the little girl who had by now grown a bit. Two thick layers of scar tissue now covered the girl’s eyes. She was blind, which was rather odd. A blind little girl was unheard of. In the village, people became blind when they grew old. They said everyone chooses the part of his body that would age more than the other parts. Some chose their ears and became deaf as they grew old. Others chose to age in their teeth and lost all of them.
The girl’s mother smiled and did not say much. She did not complain that she had been abandoned in the hospital. She soon went back to her business of frying akara by the side of the road. There was no animosity between her and the other woman who had also started frying akara. She said the sky was wide enough for birds to fly without their wings touching each other.
The child sat by her mother and would sometimes pass salt and other items to her. The mother would leave her to go into the house and people would come and buy akara and the girl would collect their money and give them the correct change. This was very strange because the girl had not been to school and even if she had she was blind, so how could she distinguish between one currency note and another?
One day a little girl went missing in the village. Sometimes children would go missing but they would normally be found within a few hours. This was different. No one had seen the girl. When a child went missing, the mother of the child would tie her headscarf tightly around her waist and go around the village crying and asking Who has seen my child? It was generally believed that by the time she lost her voice, the missing child would be found. By the second day the child was still missing. The mother had lost her voice but the child was not yet found. When the mother walked past the woman frying bean cakes, crying and screaming, “Who has seen my child?”, the blind girl spoke for the first time.
“I know who stole the missing girl.”
“Be quiet and don’t get us both into trouble.”
“I saw him give the girl a piece of candy; he tied her mouth with a rag, and threw her into a jute bag and rode away on his motorcycle.”
The woman had never heard the child say that many words. Whenever the child chose to speak, she spoke in a whisper. Many people assumed she never spoke at all.
The mother called out to the woman. She said out loud what the child had said. The villagers gathered. There was only one man they knew who rode a motorcycle and had a jute bag: the man who bought cocoa beans from the villagers. They sent some young men after him. They caught him with the child two towns away. He had cut a hole in the bag through which he fed the girl. He had kidnapped the child for juju money-making rituals. It was rumored that little virgin girls could be charmed and made to vomit money through juju. He cried and said the devil made him do it.
The parents of the kidnapped girl brought a gift for the blind girl and her mother. There was no attempt to explain how the girl arrived at the knowledge she had. Some people said she must have heard something. They said her blindness had sharpened her ears. Her mother suspected something but said nothing.
One day the girl said softly to the mother, “Father is never coming back.”
“Why do you say that? I am not sure you remember your father, you were so tiny when he left.”
“He ran away with the Catechist’s wife’s younger sister.”
“How do you know that?” the woman asked, puzzled and frightened.
“They were traveling to Mokwa. He was going to start a new life with her, the car in which they were traveling broke down on the way; all the passengers came down while the driver opened the bonnet to find out what was wrong. He was crossing to the other side of the road to ease piss, and a car coming from the other side knocked him down.”
“Oh my child how do you know these things?” the woman asked.
“They buried him by the roadside, his grave is overgrown with weeds, he’s never coming back.”
The woman was quiet for a while. Everything about the story sounded true. She began to cry quietly to herself.
All things eventually come to light. People in the village sensed the girl’s true powers and began to come to her for answers.
“Will there be plenty of rain this year so I can plant cassava instead of yams?”
“My black sheep did not come home with the rest of my sheep last night. Where could it be?”
“My son who lives in the city has not come home for five years. Is he dead or in prison?”
“My son who died three years ago: was his death a natural death or did my husband’s other wife poison him while I was out of the house?”
“Is the price of cocoa going to rise or fall this year?”
“My husband has been sick for years now; do you think he will recover?”
The girl answered all their questions in a whisper, she answered honestly. Her answers sometimes caused trouble, tore families apart. Her mother would sometimes speak to her by way of signs to be quiet but she spoke up all the time. The answers flowed out of her mouth like a gentle stream. She said what she had to say and was quiet.
Prosperity began to come to the village because of her. People planted the right crops at the right time and got very rich harvests. Evil was rare. People stopped stealing because they knew she would find them out. More farmers bought motorcycles. Life had never been better.
The mother stopped frying akara. She made a comfortable living from the gifts the girl received. She was happy for once in all her life. She always felt the girl’s eyes on her and sometimes shivered slightly when she felt the girl was looking at her. The girl’s voice did not change, her breasts were small. The mother was happy when she began to bleed in tiny drops every month. Thank goodness she is a woman she said to herself.
People said different things about the source of her power but no one denied it.
“Her power is from the river goddess. When she speaks it is the river goddess speaking.”
“It is the Holy Virgin that gives people such gifts, that is why she is called the voice of the dumb and the eyes of the sightless.”
“She is not Catholic, not even Christian—she does not mention the name of God.”
“God who took away her eyes gave her the gift of sight, and now she sees more than those of us with two eyes.”
People said all sorts of things but still came to her for answers. On occasion the mother would say the girl was tired and needed to rest, but the girl would come out of her room and provide answers to whomever needed them. People reminded the mother that she could now afford to take the child to the Baptist Missionary Hospital in the big city. The mother acted as if she did not hear them. She did not think it was wise to tamper with the will of God, she told those who were bold enough to ask her. Besides, if the girl thought it was such a good thing she would have said so. Quite a few agreed with the Mother; after all, those of them with two eyes did not see as much as she did.
At about this time, the former American President Jimmy Carter launched his
R iver Blindness Eradication Program. The program sent doctors and nurses to villages to distribute drugs for the prevention of river blindness. They did eye examinations and distributed glasses which the villagers referred to as Anya Jimmy Carter—Jimmy Carter’s Eyes. The frames of the glasses were second-hand, gifts and donations from affluent Americans. This time around though, it was going to be slightly different; they were coming with eye surgeons to help remove cataracts. The bearer of this piece of news was the Midwife. She told the villagers that she had made it happen, that the village was not originally in the plan for the cataract surgery; she had lobbied for them to be included.
People were excited about this piece of good news. One of the old men in the village said the former President was kind because he had been a groundnut farmer before he became a President.
They had already been to the nearby village and had sent a notice to the chiefs that they were coming. The Midwife said they would be moving from house to house.
At first everyone looked forward to the visit until the woman mentioned that this would be an opportunity for her daughter to have the scar tissue covering her eyes removed. It was free and the girl was bleeding, she was now a woman and needed to get married. She had only said this to a few people. It soon got round the village that the girl was going to undergo surgery. There was anger, there were complaints, there was resentment and then people began to complain aloud.
“This program is not for people like her, it is for people losing their eyes to river blindness.”
“She lost her eyes due to her mother’s carelessness. Her mother should bear the cost of her surgery in a proper hospital.”
“What guarantee is there that she will see again? Even if the skin is lifted, I hear the eyeballs are dead and blank. Please, no one should make the poor child suffer for nothing.”
“They say her mother wants a husband for the girl, I know many men that will gladly marry her the way she is, she is a bag of wealth.”
“It is the mother that needs a husband. Why did she never remarry after her husband ran away, as we all know the husband is dead, the girl said it herself.”
“The girl belongs to the entire village now, not to her mother alone. She ceased being the mother’s property as soon as she received her gift.”
“You are right you know—if the gift was for her alone she would have stopped at telling her mother about her father’s disappearance.”
“You are right, she sees things for everyone, she was sent to prosper the village.”
“Why are the Americans sending the eye doctors to us? Do they mean to tell us they have cured all the blind people in America?”
“The Elders should meet and tell the woman what to do just in case she does not know.”
Words got to the ears of the Elders and they being people who acted in the interest of the inhabitants of the village decided to prevail on the mother of the girl to do the right thing. They made their points—they told her that her daughter’s gift was for the good of all, that if it was for her mother alone she would have been seeing things for the mother alone. They spoke to the woman for a very long time. The woman told them that the girl was already bleeding and was a woman. She wanted her to marry and have children. Midwife came along with the Elders. She explained the difference between a cataract and the girl’s condition. It was very possible that the girl would not recover her sight after the surgery, this might traumatize the girl and she may even lose the gift of speech which would be a double tragedy. They talked to the woman for a long time. The elders told her that they would gladly marry the girl off to any of their sons. She cried, and then she nodded and agreed with them.
On the day the American eye doctors came, the woman and her daughter locked their doors and remained inside till they left. Some people got new glasses; some had surgery. Everyone was happy. The girl and her mother were referred to as heroes who had put the interest of the town above their own interest.
When the planting season began, people came to the girl with their questions but alas she had no answers. The stream had dried up.
“It was not our fault. We should not blame ourselves for it,” one of the villagers said.
“Whatever has a beginning must have an end; even the deepest ocean has a bottom. She was bound to stop seeing things one day anyway.”
“It is the white man’s strong juju that did it, or don’t you know that white people are powerful?”
“The blind girl and her mother should consider themselves lucky, if it were in some other village they would have stoned them to death for possessing witchery powers.”
And so life returned to normal in the village and everybody’s conscience was at peace. Occasionally when a sheep went missing, the owner would be heard to bite his fingers and mutter, “If only that blind girl still had her powers.”
E. C. Osondu was born in Nigeria, where he worked for many years as an advertising copywriter. Winner of the 2009 Caine Prize for African Writing, he is the author of a novel, This House Is Not For Sale (Harper, 2015), and two story collections: Alien Stories (BOA Editions, forthcoming 2021), winner of the BOA Short Fiction Prize, and Voice of America (Harper, 2010). His stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Guernica, AGNI, and elsewhere. With William Pierce, he co-edited The AGNI Portfolio of African Fiction. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Syracuse University, where he was a Syracuse University Fellow. He is associate professor of English at Providence College in Rhode Island and a contributing editor of AGNI. (updated 9/2019)
Osondu’s first two published stories appeared in AGNI: “A Letter from Home” was named one of the Top Ten Online Stories of 2006 by storySouth, and “Jimmy Carter’s Eyes” was a finalist for the Caine Prize. Read a conversation between Osondu and Pierce at Critical Flame.