The Key

by Nnedi Okorafor

It was due to a stupid thing done in a fit of panic that Fwadausi Bello altered her life forever. It’s amazing how sometimes the things we worry about most don’t happen and what we should worry about are often those very things we never imagine. So was the case with Fwadausi.

For the last few months, she’d been losing little things, including her favorite pencil from school, the plastic bracelet one of her friends had given her, and her lip gloss. It was infuriating, because her auntie and uncle rarely gave her money, so she couldn’t replace anything. This fateful day, she lost something not so little– she’d lost the key to the house and she was terrified of her uncle’s wrath. She had good reason to be.

Her uncle, a tall man with arms bulging like pineapples, had the violent temper of a demon, especially when it came to money. Only two weeks ago, he had beaten Fwadausi for spilling a pitcher of milk. She’d fallen and hit her head, knocking herself unconscious for thirty seconds. She’d come to still lying on the floor as her uncle was shouting at her auntie not to help her.

“Let her pick herself up,” Fwadausi had heard him growling as her consciousness slowly returned.

Fwadausi remembered this vividly with rage; rage that she would never show her uncle or aunt. Instead, she tried her best to stay out of her uncle’s way and do whatever her auntie told her. Now she’d lost the key to the house and if she didn’t find it, her uncle would have to buy a new one. A new key cost money, and who knew who would find the old one and maybe even use it to break into the house. Uncle would be furious!

But how was Fwadausi to know that her uncle would receive a lofty raise at his job that day? That he would return home so overjoyed that he wouldn’t even notice Fwadausi? She wasn’t a psychic, so she couldn’t tell the future. But Fwadausi knew the past and the past told her that she had to find that key.

Maybe I dropped it on the way from school, she thought. I hope I did. She whimpered and decided to retrace her steps. Not for the first time, she wished the spirits of her mother and father would help her. She walked slowly from the doorstep of the house down the red dirt road and halfway to school, her eyes to the ground.

“Fwadausi, good afternoon,” Mama Amma said.

Fwadausi tried to smile back at the old woman who sat at her front door and watched her pass everyday. “Good afternoon, Mama Amma,” she said in her still high voice. Fwadausi was thirteen years old and everyday, her voice stabilized more, becoming clearer. But at the moment, her mind didn’t match her voice. Her thoughts were jumbled with anxiety.

She quickly moved on, staring at the side of the dirt road, her sandals slapping up dust and crunching on dried leaves and old plantain chip bags. Searching, searching, searching. “Please,” she whispered as she frantically eyed the road. “Please please please.”

She passed the mosque where inside several men were kneeling and praying to Allah. No key. She passed the market, avoiding the eyes of the strange man who always wore red garments and sold vultures with clipped wings. No key. She walked all the way back to her small school where two of her teachers leaned against the building eating agada and fried yam. No key.

When she realized that she’d looked everywhere, her heart skipped a beat. Her uncle would be home in two hours. Her auntie would expect her home preparing dinner. Afterwards, she’d sit by candlelight and do her homework. She should have been gathering dinner’s ingredients right now, not standing out here in the sun fretting. But she couldn’t even get inside the house. The key…it was lost.

Standing there next to the road, just outside her school, cars rushing by enveloping her with dust, Fwadausi’s shoulders curled in as fear and anxiety engulfed and choked her like smoke. She began to sob great heaving sobs that moved her entire being. Her uncle’s fists were like stones, his temper an inferno. Then in mid-sob, quite suddenly, she had a most disturbing idea. “Huh,” she gasped, her body shuddering as she rubbed her hands together. The idea bloomed in her mind like a spark on dry kindling. She wiped the tears from her cheeks. “Yes, ok,” she whispered to herself, as a car rushed by throwing a cloud of dust.

She turned and ran home, taking long strides with her long thin legs. She had to get back before her auntie. When she did, she ran to the back of the house, slipping through the miserable garden of wilted yams, cassava and tomatoes. Her uncle had been burning down some of the old stalks on the other side of the garden and it smelled of smoke.

Fwadausi sighed with relief when she saw that the kerosene lamp was exactly where she’d left it near the back door beside a bucket of water and it was still full of kerosene. There was also a box of matches to light it.

She took a deep breath, trying to ignore the sound of the door unlocking in the front. Her auntie was home. She had to hurry. She unscrewed the kerosene lamp; her nostrils flared and her eyes watered at the strong scent. She poured the oily liquid on her hands. She’d light it and the flames would burn her, but only slightly, because she’d plunge her hands into the bucket of water. The burns would be just enough to garner sympathy from her uncle and then he’d be more lenient in punishing her for losing the house key.

The kerosene was cool and it seeped easily into her skin. Some splattered on her feet and knees, but there was no time to worry about that now. She put the lamp down and picked up the matches. She lit one and the flames shot up her hands, ravenous. She screeched and stumbled back, knocking over the bucket of water.

“Ah!” she shrieked watching the parched earth drink every drop within moments. The flames swept up her arms and quickly caught on to her legs and feet.

“Auntie! Help!” she screamed. She threw herself on the ground and rolled in the dirt, but the flames kept biting, stinging, burning! A thousand things flew through Fwadausi’s mind, but most often it was, “I’m going to die! I’m going to die!” She heard her aunt’s shocked cries and then she remembered nothing but blackness.

*
Her auntie burst through the back door just in time and used her wrapper to put out the flames that were trying to consume Fwadausi. Then the two of them lay there in the dusty dirt panting, weeping, coughing. Her auntie didn’t ask what happened and Fwadausi didn’t tell her. Instead, they avoided each other’s eyes as her auntie took Fwadausi to the local hospital.  And when her uncle came home, he never heard about the issue of the key because he was too drunk from celebrating with his friends and it was 3 AM, so he’d missed all the excitement.

Somehow, Fwadausi only suffered mild burns, except for on her hands. When she told her aunt that she must have lost her house key when it all happened, her auntie simply went to the kitchen and gave her the spare house key and that was that.

Over time, though the burned flesh on her hands healed, it turned from her natural rich brown to a pale yellow. Her uncle liked to joke that now she permanently wore cleaning gloves like the maid she was destined to be. Then he’d laugh hard because his new job had fattened his salary and thus Fwadausi’s medical bills were easy to pay. Her uncle was not a nice man at all.

For months, Fwadausi shook and quivered, seeing fire around every corner. She was sure she saw djinn swirling in every plume of dust sent up by cars or the wind. But no one can shake and quiver forever and there is no such thing as a djinni. You either die or live on. And when things don’t go up in flames, seeing fire that’s not really there eventually loses its spark. Fwadausi returned to school and she returned to being her uncle’s relative-treated-as-servant. And she grew used to the sight of her own hands.

Then one day, as she sat on her bed doing homework, she heard a creak from under her bed. When she looked at the floor, she saw her long lost tube of lip-gloss roll to a stop in the middle of her room.  She frowned as realization washed over her. Then she felt angry as all hell. She went to her bedroom door and softly shut it. Her auntie and uncle were downstairs watching a Nollywood movie and she was glad the volume was so high. She clenched her strong yellow hands into fists, tightly enough for her knuckles to crack.

That night, no one but Fwadausi heard the thieving gremlin under her bed scream. And by this time, Fwadausi didn’t need the house key the filthy furry thing gave back to her before it fled into the large hole beneath her bed. Though no one ever knew what happened that night in Fwadausi’s room, her uncle intuitively knew to never beat her again. In addition, from that night on, Fwadausi wore that house key on a chain around her neck like a medal.

 

 

This story is based on the news story below, the only story out there to remember the girl named Fwadausi Bello, who was so afraid of her uncle. I wanted to write her into story and in that story give her power, a future and triumph.

Teen loses life over lost key

KANO, Nigeria, April 10 (AFP), 2002 – A teenage girl in Nigeria has burnt herself to death in an attempt to escape being punished by her uncle for losing the key to their house, the girl’s aunt told AFP on Wednesday.

Fwadausi Bello, 13, who lived with her uncle in the outskirts of the northern city of Kano, poured kerosene over herself and set herself alight.

She had only intended to sustain minor burns to avoid being beaten for losing the key, her aunt said.

“From what I gathered from her friend next door, Bello confided in her that she would burn a part of her hand to attract sympathy from my husband, who is her uncle, and escape beating,” Bello’s  aunt Aisha Gambo said.

“But the fire went out of hand and the friend, who was scared, rushed out for help and before help came, she was engulfed in flames,” she added.

Gambo said neither she nor Bello’s uncle had been present at the time.

The teenager later died in the house from her wounds, she said.

Kano State Police Commissioner Yakubu Bello said he had not yet received any report of the tragic accident.

Bello’s death comes only two weeks after a 27-year-old woman immolated herself in the northwestern city of Sokoto to protest at her husband’s decision to take a second wife.

 

About the Author:

Nnedi Okorafor is a novelist of African-based science fiction, fantasy and magical realism for both children and adults. Born in the United States to Nigerian immigrant parents, Nnedi is known for weaving African culture into creative evocative settings and memorable characters. In a profile of Nnedi’s work titled, “Weapons of Mass Creation”, the New York Times called Nnedi’s imagination “stunning”.
Nnedi Okorafor’s novels include Who Fears Death (winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel and Le Prix Imaginales for Best Translated Novel), Akata Witch (an Amazon.com Best Book of the Year), Zahrah the Windseeker (winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature), and The Shadow Speaker (winner of the CBS Parallax Award). Her latest releases include her short story collection Kabu Kabu (A Publisher’s Weekly Best Book for Fall 2013) and science fiction novel Lagoon (finalist for Best Novel in the British Science Fiction Association award for Best Novel and a Red Tentacle Award for Best Novel). In addition, her novelette, “The Girl with the Magic Hands” was released through Amazon.com’s Worldreader program , where it became their most read young adult title (read by thousands in Africa).

Her adult novel The Book of Phoenix (a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award) was released in 2015 and her young adult novel Akata Witch 2: Akata Warrior will be released in Fall 2017. In September 2015, Lantana Publishing released her children’s book Chicken in the Kitchen (winner of Children’s Africana Book Award for Best Book for Young Readers) and Tor.com released her space opera novella Binti (winner of the Nebula and Hugo Awards for Best Novella) to much critical acclaim. Nnedi’s novels Who Fears Death and Akata Witch have both been optioned for films. A producer is also currently writing a screenplay for her novel Zahrah the Windseeker. In addition, Nnedi’s screenplay Wrapped in Magic was filmed and produced in Nigeria in 2011 by award-winning Nollywood film director, Tchidi Chikere.

Nnedi earned her BA in Rhetoric from the University of Illinois, C-U. Her MA in journalism from Michigan State University. And her MA and PhD in English at the University of Illinois , Chicago. She is also a graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop (2001). She is an associate professor of creative writing and literature at the University at Buffalo.

You can also find Nnedi on twitter (@Nnedi)

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