Animals

Uche Okonkwo

Nedu named the chicken Otuanya because it was missing an eye, a film of pink tissue sealing the space where the organ should have been. He summoned his father, older sister, and unsmiling mother to the backyard for a naming ceremony, where he served peanuts and Fanta and solemnly announced the chicken’s name to polite applause from his father and an eye roll from his sister. After his family dispersed, Nedu lingered in the backyard. He fed Otuanya leftover grains of rice and tickled the fleshy red wattles that dangled under the chicken’s beak.

The chicken had come into their lives two evenings ago, crouched on the floor in the back of his mother Uzoma’s car. Nedu and his sister watched their mother open the rear door of the car as wide as it would go. She bent towards the chicken. It gave a warning cluck and she straightened up, wiping her palms on the front of her skirt. Nedu frowned. He’d never seen his mother afraid of anything. Not too long ago, she’d gotten their whole family dragged to the police station after she called an officer and his future generations useless and unfortunate. In the days following that incident, Nedu had hoped someone would bring it up—maybe his dad would make a joke to open the conversation, or his mother would cite yet another news story about the police. Maybe then, inside the nest of their words, he could confess that since that day, each time he saw the impenetrable black of a police uniform, his heart threw itself against the walls of his chest. Was it just him? That afternoon at the station, his eyes had fixated on this one officer’s weapon: a dull AK-47 with a rash of rust creeping across the barrel like an infection. He’d seen police guns before, but never that close. The way the gun hung by a dirty strap from the officer’s shoulder, with the ease and innocence of an old backpack. The lightheaded dread that had him blindly groping for Cherish, to hide his shaking hand in hers.

“Mum, should I google how to carry a chicken?” Cherish had asked, a hint of amusement in her voice, her phone materializing.

Uzoma waved a dismissive hand. She ducked again into the back of the car and reemerged clutching the squawking chicken by the wings. The chicken’s legs were bound with a length of string, claws scratching at air. Uzoma hurried around the side of the house to the backyard. Nedu and Cherish followed, Cherish brandishing her phone, camera ready, in the hopes of capturing some social-media-worthy shenanigan. In the backyard, their mother undid the string binding the chicken’s legs together and tied one leg to a clothesline pole. Nedu stared at the chicken in the fading evening light. That was when he first noticed the missing eye. Nedu had once had a boil on his left eyelid so big that he couldn’t open it for days. His heart went out to the bird.

When their father returned from work that evening, Cherish had told him about the chicken in the backyard. He seemed pleased. “You can always taste the difference between the frozen kind and the ones that are cooked fresh,” he said. Then, to his wife, “But, Uzoma, I didn’t know you could kill a chicken o.” He smirked at Nedu and Cherish. “You see this my wife of secret talents?”

“Lol,” Cherish said. “Mummy the chicken slayer.”

Nedu knew, of course, that his mother hadn’t bought the chicken as a pet. His parents had made their no-pets policy clear the day he cried himself sick begging to adopt a puppy from his friend’s dog’s litter. Besides, nobody kept chickens as pets. But he lay in bed that night thinking about the chicken, alone in the backyard. He wondered if having one eye made it easier to fall asleep. He crept out of bed to watch the bird from his window, a dark shape barely visible under the blanket of night. That was when the idea for the naming ceremony came to him. It made sense: if you gave a thing a name, you couldn’t turn around and eat it as food. And so after Nedu performed the ceremony, and the third and fourth and fifth days of Otuanya’s life passed uninterrupted, he let his heart settle.

The chicken became the best part of Nedu’s days. When he woke up, he would race from his room down the stairs and out to the backyard. He hung up his mother’s old banana-print wrapper, tying its four corners to the clotheslines and creating a small canopy to protect Otuanya from the sun. He extended the tether that tied Otuanya’s leg to the clothesline pole by using strips of cloth cut from an old dish towel. He took some of his toys out to the backyard and was disappointed when he couldn’t get Otuanya to perch on his remote-controlled monster truck for a ride. Every time Nedu had to leave Otuanya—to make his bed, or for his mandatory study period supervised by Cherish, or to watch reruns of Ben 10 in the cool of the air-conditioned living room—he felt guilty, worried that Otuanya would be lonely without him. The thought was almost enough to bring him to tears.

At first, Uzoma was amused by her son’s fondness for the chicken and allowed him responsibility for its care. With school on break, she figured, the bird would keep the seven-year- old occupied. But, as the days passed, Uzoma became wary of her son’s growing attachment to the animal. She began reminding him of Otuanya’s ultimate destiny. Pulling her earlobes and adopting a singsong voice, she’d say, “Remember, remember, all roads lead to my pepper soup pot.”

But it was now two weeks since she’d brought the chicken home, and even as Uzoma sung her reminders to Nedu, she was losing confidence in her ability to usher the bird to its savory fate. Ebube, her husband, had sounded so impressed that she’d bought a live chicken and, with each day that passed, it became harder to admit to him that she hadn’t given prior thought to the logistics of the killing. The first week they’d had it, her husband had returned from work each evening sniffing his way to the kitchen, wide-eyed and hopeful. She’d made excuses all that week, her tone getting sharper each day, and was relieved when he stopped asking. But her relief soon turned to shame. This past week, she’d imagined the chicken taunting her each time she went to the backyard to set out the trash or bring in laundry from the clothesline. She considered returning to the market for pre-cut chicken parts to make her soup with, but then her husband would know she was avoiding having to kill the chicken she’d bought on impulse.

She still wasn’t sure why she’d bought a live chicken in the first place—she’d never killed one before. Maybe this was a new iteration of the strange unrest she’d been feeling for weeks, ever since that thing with the policeman. Or perhaps it was simply the curl of the chicken seller’s lip when Uzoma had asked for the price on a whim. The woman gestured towards her freezer full of chicken parts instead. “Fine madam like you,” she said, “you go fit kill chicken?”

She would do it today, she decided, while it was still weekend. She’d spent all of Saturday watching video after video on the internet showing how to kill a chicken at home. She’d learned that a sharp knife, a firm hand, would minimize the chicken’s pain and prevent it from running around the backyard with blood spouting and a partially severed head flopping about.

She stepped out to the backyard with a stainless steel bowl and her sharpest knife, which she sharpened further against the concrete step that led down from the kitchen. She held the knife in front of her face. She was pleased at the glint of the blade, the way it grazed the skin of her palm with the threat of blood.

As Uzoma approached the chicken, she could feel Nedu gazing at her from his upstairs bedroom window. Sometimes she worried she was failing her children, raising them too soft. There Nedu was, acting like a great tragedy was about to befall him. The other day, he’d untied the chicken’s tether and snuck the bird into the house. He’d almost reached the second floor before Uzoma caught him. He stared back at her with wet eyes, mouth gaping open like his lips were made of melting wax. When she asked what Nedu was doing, he said he wanted to give the chicken a shower. It was almost funny. She made Nedu return the chicken to the backyard and watched as he retied the tether. “All roads lead to where?” she’d said. “To your pepper soup pot,” Nedu responded, with an incongruous gravity, as if he wouldn’t lick clean the bowl of pepper soup she’d place before him when all of this was over and the smell of uziza and scent leaf filled the house. And now here Cherish was, fluttering around Uzoma with her phone’s camera recording. She wanted to point out to her daughter that at age fourteen she herself had been attending school and working part-time at a big supermarket in Awka. And yet Cherish sat around all day, pressing phone like it was paid work.

Uzoma untied and retied her wrapper around her waist. The chicken was staring her down with its single eye. Her pot of water, to dunk the body in after the deed was done, was simmering on the stove. Her knife was sharp enough to cut breeze. She took a breath. It was time.

Uzoma placed the knife on the ground and returned to the house, ignoring Cherish’s “Where are you going?” She went to find her husband in the study. When she opened the door, he snapped his laptop shut.

“Husby, sorry o… are you busy?”

He was probably watching porn. She didn’t care about his occasional indulgence, but she would never tell him this. She thought it potentially useful to make a man feel like he had more to be guilty of than he really did. And her husband, he was see-through, with his guileless face, his lack of ego—a thing she at once loved and despised about him. It was this lack of ego that had freed him to pursue her without shame, his besotted heart adorning his sleeve for the world to see. It was what made him the children’s preferred parent. Not that they’d ever said as much to her; they wouldn’t dare. But it was clear from the way they gravitated towards him, offering him jokes and jabs they would never send her way. He was particularly good with Cherish, who seemed to grow further away from her mother as her young body filled out. Wasn’t it only a year or so ago that she and Cherish would spend Sunday afternoons watching Africa Magic and taking turns scratching dandruff from each other’s scalps? Now, Cherish preferred to sit for hours with her father while they each scrolled through their individual social media pages; every once in a while, one of them would thrust their phone in the other’s face and they’d laugh in sync, their heads colliding. And Nedu. How her husband indulged him, rallying her and Cherish to attend that silly naming ceremony for the chicken, breaking the peanuts Nedu had offered as if they were the kolanuts one would serve at a child’s naming.

Uzoma told herself there were advantages to having parents with different styles, one with a gentle touch, one to lay down the law. But sometimes she would hear the echoes of laughter in the house and feel her heart sink into her stomach, knowing from experience that if she tried to join in, the laughter would sputter into silence. She’d learned to comfort herself with her practicality, her sheer usefulness. She was the one the kids came to when they suddenly remembered on a Sunday night that they needed sheets of cardboard paper for school on Monday. She was the one who could tell, before Cherish could tell, that the pain pulsing in her daughter’s abdomen, the fist clenching and unclenching, was heralding her first period. She was the one who’d hunted down Panadol Extra and soda water after midnight while her husband slept.

As Uzoma watched her husband watch her, she decided that he too had grown to over- rely on her. Why else would he assume that she would be the one to kill the chicken? Why should she have to kill an entire animal when she had an entire man in the house? She could picture him telling her, without shame, sorry, he had never killed a chicken before and he didn’t feel like starting today. Just like he’d been without shame that day—what was it, two months ago?—when that lousy policeman had taken their family to the police station and made him lie flat on the ground and beg before they were allowed to leave. She remembered how the officer had stopped their car that afternoon at the checkpoint, how his belly strained against the black police-issue belt, how unbothered he’d seemed by her threats to call her friend, the wife of the police commissioner, to report his demand for “weekend allowance.” No such friend existed, but the officer had no way of knowing this. Still, he stood very calm as she plucked her phone from her handbag and waved it at him through the car window that she’d refused to roll down beyond a crack. He regarded her with eyes that looked half-open, as though he couldn’t be bothered to give her his full attention. “Madam,” he said, his voice unhurried, even playful. “You can return that phone to your bag. You have phone and mouth, I have gun and bullet.” And then, to her utmost horror, he’d winked at her! Or she’d imagined him winking at her? She would never be sure. The toothpick in the corner of the officer’s mouth bobbed, and a pink slice of tongue slipped out to moisten his bottom lip. She looked away, let the phone fall back into her bag. It was at this point that the officer got into the back of their car—Cherish and Nedu squished themselves in a corner and left a wide space between their bodies and the officer’s—and ordered her husband to drive, giving him directions to a police station at Onipanu.

Uzoma and her husband hadn’t had sex since then. At first, it was because he was angry, at her—he didn’t speak to her for the rest of that day! But even after his anger faded, after he started reaching for her again, her body would curl into itself like a disturbed millipede. Each time his hands grazed the insides of her thighs, she would think of those same hands flat on the ground outside the police station, those hands that had come away darkened with dirt after he’d prostrated before the policeman, so low that sand kissed his forehead, and her thighs would clench closed. She’d imagine him thrusting on top of her and cringe at how similar that motion was to him pushing off the ground when the policeman finally gave him permission to stand. He’d even managed to smile with Officer Toothpick after the whole thing, after the policeman had warned him to control his wife or she would get him in trouble one day. “Officer, I don already dey the trouble,” her husband had said, his laughter loud like fireworks as the policeman slapped him on the back. You’d think they were old friends.

It was bad enough, this new aversion to her husband’s touch, for no reason that made sense. But, to compound her frustrations and further unseat her sense of self, her wayward brain chose to entertain thoughts of that horrible police officer, while she lathered herself in the shower, or as she stirred pancake batter, or in those formless moments just before sleep claimed her. She imagined him putting her in handcuffs, making her kneel, prodding that saliva- moistened toothpick with his tongue, grabbing her by the back of the head, telling her to put that foul mouth of hers to good use. By the time she caught herself there’d be a creeping wetness between her legs. Yet, for her own husband she was dry like dead skin.

Uzoma looked away from her husband, who was now leaning forward in his chair. She imagined he could suddenly see into her depraved depths, see that there was something very wrong with her. She imagined his insides filling with disgust.

Ebube felt a lot of things in the moments after his wife appeared before him, but disgust was not one of them. First, Ebube felt surprised—Uzoma usually knocked, but there she was standing inside the study door in her T-shirt and her wrapper snug around her hips. Then there was a twinge of shame. Before his wife showed up, he’d been festering in a cloud of self-pity, troubling Google with queries: Wife sex drive vanished. How to turn wife on. Why won’t wife have sex with me? His search history wouldn’t spark any fires in his wife’s loins, that was for sure. And then came annoyance, at Uzoma and the new agility with which she shrank from his touch.

But his annoyance was short-lived. Something in his wife’s stance, in her voice as she said “Husby,” was causing him to melt.

He made his voice soft. “I’m not busy. Do you need something?”

She took a step into the room, said not to worry, it was nothing. Then she was gone.

Ebube stared at his closed laptop. He tried to remember the exact time they’d last had sex, but he couldn’t pin it down. They definitely hadn’t had sex since the day of Tosin’s wedding, which they’d ended up missing because his darling wife wouldn’t keep her mouth shut and let him grease that officer’s waiting palm, like most Lagosians, most Nigerians, did literally every day. Was she still angry at him for humoring the chubby policeman when he’d made that joke about putting a leash on her? See, that was her problem, she’d never understood the little things normal people did to defuse situations, to oil the wheels of ordinary interaction. It was why she had so few friends, why his mother had never quite warmed to her, pleading with him up until a week before their wedding to reconsider. “You are too soft for that woman,” his mother had warned.

His mother was wrong. His wife’s self-reliance, which his mother read as hardness, didn’t bother him; it drew him to her like a spell. And over the years, even as the excitement of their union mellowed and settled into normalcy, the dexterity with which she managed their lives continued to amaze him. But some days he understood his mother’s reservations. He could imagine Uzoma getting suddenly bored with him and marching out of his life. She’d demonstrated many times that she didn’t need him. She hadn’t needed him when she’d started her accounting business. Or when she’d gone into early labor with Nedu and driven herself to the hospital while he was trapped in Third Mainland Bridge after-work traffic. And now she’d shown it again. Whatever she’d needed, whatever had made her stand before him for those few seconds, she would go take charge of it, as though the sight of him sitting flaccid in his chair had fed new resolve into her bones.

Always get the last word.

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That evening, Ebube, Nedu, and Cherish congregated around the dinner table.

“What are we having?” Ebube asked.

“Rice,” Nedu said.

“With chicken stew?” Ebube asked hopefully.

“Mum couldn’t kill the chicken,” Cherish said. “Lol.”

“Cherish, you know you’re allowed to just laugh,” Ebube said, tucking the nugget of information about the still-alive chicken in a corner of his mind

“Ha ha ha,” Cherish said. Ebube shook his head in mock disapproval.

“Dad, Mum couldn’t kill Otuanya because he’s now part of the family,” Nedu said. “His name is Otuanya Isichie.”

“I know,” Ebube said. “I was at the naming.”

“The next time we take a family portrait,” Cherish said, “Otuanya can sit on Nedu’s head; it’s kuku shaped like a nest.”

Uzoma walked in from the kitchen holding a serving bowl filled with stew, in time to catch the laughter from Ebube and Cherish. “What’s the joke?” she asked merrily.

“Nothing,” Cherish said.

Cherish noticed her mother lower her eyes to the floor, the subtle pucker of her mouth. She felt a pinch of remorse. But if Cherish told the joke, her mother would think she was the butt of it, that her family was mocking her for Otuanya’s continued state of aliveness. Instead of playing along, she might point out the impracticalities of preparing a chicken to pose for a family photograph, the same way she sucked the fun, like marrow out of bone, from every meme or viral video Cherish dared to share with her. It wasn’t Cherish’s fault that her mother’s sense of humor was fixated on the likes of Aki and Pawpaw and their fellow Nollywood pranksters.

Cherish couldn’t believe she used to sit through those silly movies with her mother. The woman became an entirely different person once the opening credits began, with her honking laugh and running commentary. “These boys will soon tackle the old man to the ground… Cherish, lekwa, lekwa…” Cherish would groan, “Mummy, I’m seeingggg.” Still, she’d enjoyed those afternoons, not for the movies themselves but because of her mother’s childlike engagement with them, her overreactions to plot twists even when they watched reruns.

If only her mother could be that person all the time. Easy. Maybe then Cherish could tell her about the boy she liked, Afolabi; ask her why, whenever he came close, it suddenly felt like her limbs belonged to someone else. And also, maybe that thing with the police officer would never have happened. She’d held Nedu’s hand that afternoon and looked away from the spectacle of her dad lying on the ground begging the officer while her mother stood aside, defiant and arms folded. On the drive home she’d felt the force of her father’s anger, so rare, so alien, that it sat on him like a costume that kept slipping off to reveal glimpses of the familiar person hidden inside it. The way he’d slammed on the brakes, the curses he threw at the other drivers who were too slow or too stupid and needed to park their cars at home before they killed someone. Cherish hadn’t forgiven her mother for that day. Not that Uzoma would ever ask.

Uzoma placed the bowl of stew on the table with a little more force than Cherish thought was necessary and headed back into the kitchen, calling over her shoulder, “You people can keep laughing, or you can help set the table. Whichever you think is best.”

Of the many possible reasons offered by the internet know-it-alls for his wife’s recent coldness in the bedroom, one listicle item from an obscure Christian website worried Ebube’s mind like a flickering neon sign: She’s lost respect for you.

Are you a poor decision maker? A bad father? Riddled with vices?

Ebube was none of those things. Yes, Uzoma made most of the household decisions, but she liked it that way. It was easier for everyone. And he was a great father; the kids adored him! Even Cherish, who was in her so-called difficult teen years. He did worry about Nedu sometimes: what kind of child got teary-eyed at the pretend naming ceremony for a chicken? And vices… well, if you wanted to call them that, sure. But “riddled with” wasn’t the way he’d describe his relationship to them.

Cowardly?

His behavior with the police officer was not a show of cowardice. That was him doing what was needed to get his family out of an unnecessary altercation. But he could see how someone—someone like Uzoma, perhaps—might read it as cowardly.

The judgy listicle had called for self-reflection. Perhaps there was something Ebube could do to arouse some respect from Uzoma. A plan began to form in his mind, one that wasn’t entirely selfish. First, he’d do some research on chicken slaughter. He’d pick a time when his wife was busy in the kitchen. He would stroll to the backyard and be nonchalant. At the tail end of a yawn and a stretch, he would offer to kill the chicken for her. Casually. Like it was an afterthought.

He practiced in front of the bedroom mirror.

Yawn, stretch. “Ah, Uzoma, Otuanya still hasn’t entered your soup pot?” No, too playful. She could interpret this as mockery.

Yawn, stretch. “Uzoma, you know, I can help you kill the chicken.” Too direct. She might take it as a challenge.

Yawn, stretch. “Uzoma, ngwa, bring knife let me kill this chicken.” No, too authoritative. He’d never pull that off.

How about: no yawn, no stretch. “Uzoma, I think you’re having a hard time killing the chicken. I say this because you’ve been bent on making chicken pepper soup for weeks. Would you like me to handle it?

You don’t have to do everything all the time. You’d still be a wonder to me.”

He discarded the idea. Uzoma would hate that.

He would just go into the kitchen and begin sharpening a knife, ask his wife to put a large pot of water on the fire. She would get it. Her eyes would tear up with gratitude. And so, after fortifying himself with chicken-killing knowledge, he went into the kitchen, began sharpening a knife, asked his wife to put a large pot of water on the fire. Her eyes did not tear up.

“Have you killed a chicken before?” she asked.

“Have you?”

She regarded him in silence for a moment. “Thank you,” she said.

She was welcome. She didn’t need to know how many videos he’d watched in preparation, or that his goals went beyond helping to manifest Otuanya’s destiny.

“But not now,” his wife said. “It’s too hot outside.”

He agreed. “We’ll do it in the evening.”

“Do what?” Nedu asked as he walked into the kitchen.

Ebube hesitated. If Nedu were a different kind of boy, this might be a chance to teach him something; something about doing difficult things, maybe? It wasn’t entirely clear to Ebube how to frame the death of a chicken as a teachable moment. “I’m going to kill the chicken.”

Nedu’s face looked stricken. “You’re still killing Otuanya?”

Ebube tried to be gentle. “Nedu, your mother has been talking about making chicken pepper soup for weeks; which chicken did you think was going to feature in the soup?”

“But… he’s one of us now,” Nedu said. “All of you came to his naming!”

Cherish appeared in the kitchen doorway. “Nedu,” she said. “It’s not a ‘he,’ it’s an ‘it,’ and it is a chicken.”

As Nedu turned and ran towards the stairs, Uzoma saw an opportunity for a joke. She called after her son, “Nedu, the chicken will fully become one with our family when he dwells inside our tummies!” She laughed too loud, hoping her husband and daughter would join in, but her laughter died alone.

As the sun started to set, Uzoma prepared the tools for Otuanya’s slaughter. She hoped Nedu would stay in his room; she didn’t want any drama. She briefly worried that killing the chicken might traumatize the boy, but she dismissed that thought. It was only a chicken. By the time the pepper soup was ready, Nedu would have forgotten the bird’s name.

The whole family gathered in the kitchen, except for Nedu. A large pot of water bubbled on the stove. Ebube girded himself. Cherish, with her phone out, camera recording, asked, “Dad, are you ready to slay?”

“Ready,” Ebube said.

Uzoma snorted with mild derision, but the laughter in her eyes warmed Ebube’s heart. Uzoma grabbed the knife and they all stepped out into the backyard. But under the wrapper- canopy where the chicken should have been, there was nothing. The length of rope that had tethered the bird to the clothesline had been snipped in half. Uzoma could think of only one culprit.

“Neduuuu!”

“Shh, shh, shh,” Ebube said. “Look.”

He pointed, and his wife and daughter followed his finger towards the gate, where Otuanya stood, the other half of the tether trailing on the ground. The chicken was at the threshold of the pedestrian gate, which stood wide open. Otuanya was perched on one leg, the other poised to land on the ground, on the other side of the gate. The chicken turned and skewered the family with that single eye before disappearing across the threshold.

The trio chased the chicken down the street. The few people they passed gave them a wide berth, ignoring Uzoma’s cries to “Catch that chicken!”

Near the end of the street, the bird launched itself over a low wall and into a compound with a white house and hibiscus hedges. Without hesitation, Uzoma banged on the gate, and when a bewildered gateman opened, she barged in. “I must cook that pepper soup today!”

They found Otuanya cowering by a banana tree behind the house, legs entangled in the tether. The family left with their prize secured in Ebube’s grip.

That evening, the smell of Otuanya’s destiny filled the house and woke Nedu from his angry nap. But when his mother called him to come down for dinner, he stayed in his bed. Nedu imagined his family, betrayers and murderers all of them, sitting down to eat his friend, not caring that there was literal blood on their hands, blood in their stomachs, and blood on their fangs. They were animals.

His mother sent Cherish up to get him.

“I’m not eating,” Nedu said.

When Cherish reported Nedu’s response, Uzoma felt a twinge of worry. Nedu never refused food. He ate with a fearsome appetite, meals disappearing into his skinny body like stolen evidence. She decided to be annoyed.

“Imagine Nedu releasing the chicken so we wouldn’t eat it,” she said. “What he deserves is a spanking, not my delicious pepper soup.”

There had been a subtle heat in his wife’s gaze all evening, but Ebube stifled his hope. He didn’t want to reach for Uzoma and be rebuffed again. When it was time for bed, he got under the covers and turned his back to her, even though she was wearing that chemise he liked, the one with the red pouted lips all over it, the one whose bodice cupped her small breasts like a prayer.

He felt the sigh of the mattress as she joined him on the bed. And then her hand was on his shirtless shoulder, traveling slowly down his back. Ebube’s eyes flew open.

“Bubu,” she said, the mist of her breath tickling his ear. She hadn’t called him that in ages. “The way you handled that chicken today ehn… I was very impressed.”

Ebube turned towards her. “Really?”

She took his hand and guided it between her legs. “The way you took control…”

In one fluid motion—one that Ebube hadn’t known he was still capable of—he launched himself on top of his wife and pinned her hands above her head. Uzoma yelped, the sound of her laughter bouncing off the walls.

Ebube clamped a hand over his wife’s mouth. “Shhh… the children.”

She shrugged an I-don’t-care and licked the inside of his palm. Maybe she was being a little reckless, but they’d lived in that house long enough to know that the walls weren’t thin. He unclamped her mouth, placed a quick kiss on her lips, and rolled off her.

She held on to his arm. “Where are you going?” “To lock the door.”

Her grip tightened. “Don’t.”

He laughed. “One of the kids might come in.” “They won’t.”

Cherish would be on her phone, and Nedu was either still sulking or had devoured the food she’d left outside his door and was now in a post-meal stupor. Either way, Uzoma was sure her children wouldn’t show up at their bedroom door. Like ninety-two percent sure. There was something about that eight percent uncertainty, though, the danger it represented, that was doing things to her insides. She wanted Ebube to revel with her in the eight percent, to hold her hands above her head again and make her do every single thing he’d ever been afraid to want.

“Why risk it, though?” He pried his arm free and rolled off the bed. The lock clicked into place. “Much better. Now, where were we?”

Ebube’s eyes fell on the bed, on the wall of Uzoma’s back now turned against him. He lowered his body carefully beside hers. He asked if everything was okay. She said yes. If he believed her, he’d have the courage to reach for her again, to try and tease out the Uzoma who, just moments ago, was aligning her body with his, taking his hand and leading him places. A space was opening up between them, vast and treacherous. He was too tired to navigate. A soft sadness enveloped him.

“What did I do?”

Uzoma sighed. She had no words to account for her new appetites. Her blooming perversions. These thoughts of moist toothpicks and black uniforms.

“Nothing,” she said. “You did nothing.”

Uzoma had been right. The children were occupied. In Cherish’s room, footage of the chicken chase was being intently edited, with added music and sound effects. She kept the video’s caption simple: “Epic chicken chase.” Cherish watched the likes and comments pop up on her phone, each one giving a little thrill. She whispered a thank you to God or the universe for giving her the idea to cut Otuanya’s tether.

Cherish saw a like from Afolabi, and then a comment: [Laughing-crying emoji] omg @CisforCherish your family is comedy goals fr!!!!

Did Afolabi mean comedy goals or comedy gold? Did it matter? All Cherish knew was that her video had made Afolabi laugh. With four exclamation points! Warmth invaded her face, her chest, spreading like fire, claiming territory. On the last day of the school term, standing in line behind him at assembly, she’d pressed her finger to the mole on the back of his neck, something she’d been wanting to do ever since she’d discovered it peeking over the horizon of his uniform collar like a dark, shy sun. He’d turned to her with a quizzical frown, and she’d mouthed sorry and looked away, her stomach quivering with shame. She was sure he’d avoid all interaction with her from that day till forever, but here he was liking her video. Cherish cradled her phone to her heart. She gazed at the ceiling. When they kissed for the first time, she would poke her tongue between the gap in his front teeth.

Meanwhile, Nedu had just woken from a second nap, a hungry nap, and he remembered that Otuanya was gone. Well, not gone gone, not exactly. He was still around, in his mother’s soup pot, his final resting place. Nedu’s stomach growled, reminding him that some things he couldn’t escape. Like hunger. He had taken a stand without thinking, and now, as the pangs pulled at his insides, he hoped none of his family was still downstairs. He didn’t want to encounter anyone when he went scrounging for food in the kitchen.

He opened his bedroom door. A tray with a plate of pounded yam and a bowl of pepper soup had been left there, on the floor beside the door, for him. The pepper soup had a light film over it. The food would be cold by now, the white ball of pounded yam slightly hard on the surface. Nedu wondered if it might be okay to still eat the food his mother had made, without actually eating any of Otuanya. He could eat around Otuanya.

Nedu lifted the tray, careful not to make a sound, and retreated into his room, closing the door quietly behind him. He placed the tray on the floor at the foot of his bed and sat before it. From the pepper soup bowl, a large piece of Otuanya confronted him, and Nedu was distressed to realize that he didn’t remember what side of the chicken’s head had the missing eye. He dipped a finger into the pepper soup. Yes, he would eat around Otuanya. He popped the soup- covered finger into his mouth and sucked on it. His eyes and mouth flooded with liquid as the flavors registered on his tongue, that hint of ginger his mother always added to her pepper soup.

When Nedu tells the story to his family, days later, he will say he left his body, and that by the time he came back, the pounded yam had disappeared, the pepper soup plate was licked dry, and the chewed-up bones of Otuanya’s leg were littering the tray. He will be sincere, and when his mother smiles and calls him her food warrior, when she says she knew he would forget about his chicken friend and make her proud, he will decide that the rest of the story—the part where he’d hidden in the bathroom and stuck a finger down his throat to bring Otuanya back up and into the toilet bowl—will stay with him. That part he will keep for himself.

Uche Okonkwo’s stories have been published in A Public Space, One Story, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2019, and Lagos Noir, among others. A former Bernard O’Keefe Scholar at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and resident at Art Omi, she is a recipient of the George Bennett Fellowship at Phillips Exeter Academy and a Steinbeck Fellowship. Okonkwo grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, and is currently pursuing a creative writing PhD at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Animals” is from Okonkwo’s forthcoming story collection, A Kind of Madness, to be published by Tin House in April.

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