Oluchi carried the 13 year old on her back as she walked and ran intermittently, all the way to the hospital which was some kilometres away from their house. Her legs were swollen and she was almost losing her breath when she got to the hospital. She almost passed out from fatigue for the girl was heavy coupled with the distance she had trekked. Some minutes later, a nurse took over from her. She hadn’t sat down for five minutes when Umeka rushed in. In a twinkling of an eye, Oluchi was struggling for her life on the floor. Umeka had dealt her a blow on her stomach and soon she was bleeding. An older man and a nurse tried to hold him back but he would not. He gave her a hard kick with his right foot on her side and was cursing on top of his voice when the Doctor arrived the spot. He called the security and Umeka was arrested immediately. Oluchi losed the baby and passed away an hour later after losing so much blood. She had kept the pregnancy away from her husband for fear that he might not accept the child.
Umeka had lost his first wife to asthma two months ago. He was having a hard time taking care of his three daughters, Nonye, 6, Ugo, 4 and Kamsy, 2 and still go food hunting all by himself when Oluchi, his one time business partner in rubber foot wears who had been out of the village for a year, came to his rescue upon her return when she heard the news. She had come to sympathize with him one day when she saw the two year old on his back tied with a wrap cloth crying while he knelt down to make the fire. She had compassion on him and immediately relieved him of the little girl he was carrying. Surprisingly, Kamsy immediately stopped crying when Oluchi carried her. Thereafter, she volunteered to come check on them every two days as she desperately wanted to help. Sooner than Umeka had expected, his daughters quickly bonded with Oluchi and had began to call her mama already. They had loved her so much and she in turn treated them with love and care as if they were her own.
Meanwhile, Umeka had something for his neighbour, Chidinma. He loved her so much and wanted to tie the knot with her but his only problem were his children. They detested her so much and found it very difficult to be happy whenever she was around and she too, lacked the patience to condone their misdemeanors. She would beat them mercilessly at the slightest mistake. Umeka had taken note of all these and was confused on what to do. Chidimma soon stopped visiting completely after she began to see Oluchi more often in his house. Umeka could not particularly point out what attracted her to him. Perhaps, it was her shapely and curvy body that attracted him to her. Or could it be because she was very fair in complexion? Umeka soon realized that his daughters’ happiness mattered more to him than his after seeking for advice from a Friend. One thing led to another and three months later, he married Oluchi. Some months later after their wedding, Chidimma left the village. Rumour had it that she went to marry her heartthrob in the city.
Everything returned to normality for Umeka and his daughters save the fact that no matter how hard a person works, one can never be another but a close substitute for another. Oluchi would never be Umeka’s late wife but she definitely was a perfect substitute for her. The family were so knitted into one that one could hardly tell them apart. Their income as a family was steady as the erstwhile business partners were together again.
Seven months later, Oluchi and Umeka discovered that Ugo, their second daughter was asthmatic. She had had five asthmatic attacks in the last five months and this condition had made Umeka to begin to see things, particularly his daughters and Oluchi, differently. He became fearful and overreacted anytime she tried to discipline his daughters. The fear of losing any of his daughters to asthma tormented him like hell as his dear wife had died because of the disease. He would scold her and sometimes even slap or beat her in front of his daughters even when they were wrong thus making his daughter, Nonye, to lose her respect for her. The closest to her heart was Kamsy, for she had from a tender age regarded her as her mother and obeyed her. In Kamsy, Oluchi found understanding and comfort and it was because of her that she did not lose her respect for Umeka despite the undeserved maltreatment he meted out to her without cause. Because of her health, Ugo was not as much of a headache as Nonye. She was always by herself.
Until Oluchi died Umeka had blinded his own eyes and heart from seeing reality. Nonye had taken to some bad habits when she was fifteen. She frequently followed their next-door neighbour’s daughter, Uju, to fetch water in the village stream. On one of such occasions, Uju persuaded Nonye to accompany her to collect a parcel from a friend. After collecting it, they went straight to the stream to fetch water. Nonye was curious about the content of the beautifully wrapped gift and had asked Uju about it for the umpteenth time when she gave her a condition that must be fulfilled if she must know the content. Naïve Nonye accepted without giving it a second thought. The condition Uju gave her was that she would take a little of the content if she unwrapped it. When she unwrapped it, alas! It was tobacco! Nonye still did not know what it was until Uju told her the name. She had refused to take it at first but Uju enticed her into smoking the substance with her.
However, luck was on their side because no other person came to the stream until they left. When she got home her stepmother was inside the room she shared with their father so she staggered to the other room belonging to her and her sisters. She had only laid down for some few minutes when Oluchi’s voice rang like a bell from her room. As she was still experiencing the effect of the hard substance, she did not answer. Angrily, Oluchi stormed the room to see what was preventing her mouth from answering her name. On entering the room, she perceived the smell of tobacco. Unfortunately, Umeka had travelled to the next village to sell his wares and wouldn’t be back until after two days. After several efforts to get her to say how she got the substance, She lied to her stepmother about the person that gave her the substance because she did not want to lose Uju’s friendship. She told her that it was an unfamiliar boy that had forced her to take the substance because she had refused to assist him in fetching his bucket of water. Umeka did not come back the next day as expected, and the food Oluchi prepared to await his return the previous day got spoilt. The next day, Oluchi began to prepare dinner later than usual as no one assisted her in the household chores. Nonye had become too heady to run errands for her ever since Umeka started maltreating her. Ugo was allergic to smoke and Kamsy was not at home. Umeka arrived that day unexpectedly, when she was still preparing dinner. He was enraged as he was famished and had ill luck in selling his wares. He had beaten her black and blue that day until the neighbours came to stop him. The next day, when Oluchi tried to tell him about Nonye’s experience and her view on the matter, she received the beating of her life and he warned her never to speak ill of his daughters again in his hearing.
Nonye soon developed a penchant for tobacco and was slowly getting addicted to it. She would smoke it in her stepmother’s presence and hide it anytime her father was around. It was on one of such occasions that Ugo had the last asthmatic attack that sent her and her stepmother to their early graves. Nonye was sitting by the window, as usual smoking her tobacco while Ugo was lying on the bed inside. Her health conditions had made her abstain from most of the household chores because of dust and smoke. The smoke was pervading the room little by little without the knowledge of Nonye. Soon, Ugo had another attack. Meanwhile, their mother had just returned from the market and had gone into the house to change her clothes when she heard the familiar sound of Ugo’s wheezing. Her inhaler was exhausted and Umeka was to buy it on his way back the previous day but it had escaped his memory. Hence to save the girl’s life, she rushed in and carried her on her back all the way to the hospital. On seeing what had happened as a result of her nonchalant attitude, Nonye was about to run away when her father returned from the market with the inhaler. Immediately, she feigned crocodile tears and told her father how her stepmother had attempted to kill her sister through the dust she was raising as she swept the rooms and that was when Umeka stormed the hospital and murdered his wife.
Meanwhile Ugo had been unconscious ever since she was rushed into the hospital. Some hours later the Doctor confirmed her dead as the smoke from the tobacco had irritated her breathing passages and caused a severe asthma attack which resulted in her death. When Nonye discovered that her sister was dead she ran away. Meanwhile, Kamsy had been sent by her mother to fetch firewood from their little farm that was not so far away from the house. When she returned she met an empty house but was told by their neighbours that her family were in the hospital. When she arrived, her stepmother and sister were dead already and Nonye was gone. She asked about her family from the Doctor and was told of everything that had transpired. She couldn’t face her father, not after he had killed the only woman she’d grown to love as a mother after the demise of her mother. She was too bitter to ask her father why and so she refused to go and see him. She left the hospital after seeing the corpse of her stepmother and sister.
Umeka sat on the cold, bare floor of his solitary confinement with his thin legs stretched in front of him. He had been condemned to life in prison by the Village Head. He was to be hanged to death but Nonye was no where around to reaffirm the story to the Village Head so he was sent to a solitary confinement. He didn’t know if he was to feel sad that he would end up in the prison or that he had used his own hands to kill a woman he had grown to love and his unborn child. The Doctor had told him that his wife was with child when he kicked her. But why didn’t Oluchi tell him about it? Was the child not his own? No, Oluchi was too saintly to commit adultery. In fact, He had married her as a virgin. Perhaps, she was going to tell me or was she afraid of my reaction? Umeka reasoned. But she killed my daughter, he reasoned again trying to justify the guilt he felt within. He had never raised a hand on a woman before so whatever came on him to act the way he did, he wondered. As he inhaled the pungent smell of urine in his cell, Umeka couldn’t help but ask himself, ” Would I have been better off if I had gone for Chidinma?”, “Would it have prevented all these?” He longed daily to see his daughters but none showed up.