Lesley Arimah, winner of the ROSL Readers’ Award at last year’s Caine Prize for African Writing, presents her specially commissioned short story for ROSL members, Hannah

Forty minutes late. And no Lagos traffic to blame, either. Figures the girl was still a mess. Chikamma Ekweremadu exchanged her phone for a madeleine and bit into it, savouring. Too much sugar, not nearly enough lemon zest. After a brief, intense struggle, she decided that eating the rest of the madeleine was fine, but the others weren’t worth the calories. Munachi could have the rest. Even at her most pregnant, Chikamma’s former student had been rail thin, her distended belly easily obscured with a loose shirt and blazer. The girl could eat Chikamma’s husband under the table and had done so many times while living under their roof. Ike had been apprehensive at first but had grown fond of Munachi. One couldn’t help it. She was endearingly disastrous, what Antoinette—the first friend she’d made upon moving to Minnesota—would have called “a hot mess”.

A second madeleine crooned at her, and Chikamma distracted herself with the café’s patrons. A study group had annexed several tables and occupied a corner. It wasn’t hard to overhear that an exam a mere 1.5 days from now would determine most of their grades. It didn’t bode well for said grades that none of them had figured out an eight-person study group wasn’t going to get anything done. She’d always told her students to find one person (maybe two), preferably someone who cared just as much or as little as they did. Munachi—chronically late, chronically missing books, pens, paper—could never find anyone to pair with. Hadn’t mattered though; the girl had aced every test or, as in Chikamma’s history class, turned in water-stained essays that were unambiguously brilliant. But in the end, that hadn’t mattered, either.

A text came through, an update from Munachi, surely. It wasn’t, but Chikamma’s annoyance melted when she saw her daughter. Hannah’s school did things like send picture updates and host parent luncheons and ban peanuts and other allergens from the premises. Chikamma and Ike could probably have found Hannah such a school in Nigeria, for sure Lagos, but her university often went months without paying salaries, and while he did okay in engineering, they would have buckled under the cost. In their Edina neighborhood, Hannah’s school was public, free, and if the move to the States had cost them much, it had eventually been worth it.

Hannah grinned photogenically, one of two dark faces among pale ones. The other was Antoinette’s daughter, who Hannah had somehow convinced to partner with her for Costume Day—so in the midst of superheroes, boarding school wizards, freezing princesses and various livestock, stood Bert and Ernie, bros for life. As she bit into the second madeleine, Chikamma calculated her calories so far. 2,930 and it was early afternoon. Sighing, she scrolled through the rest of the photos, looking for Hannah. If there was only one thing she’d done right, it was raising this child.

Just the other day, Hannah had leaned into her while she stirred dinner and said, “I’d give you my kidney.” And in the gut punch of that moment, before Chikamma could muster words, her daughter had added “…BEANS! I’d give you my kidney beans!” Hannah then ran around the kitchen island handing out invisible high fives. That girl laughed so hard at her own joke it became contagious and Ike had found the two of them bent at the waist, breathless.

As she’d suspected, a child had eased the tension in their marriage. Her in-laws had often berated her for not giving their child a child.

“Did a spirit born him? You, who have married someone’s child, will you not provide a child for someone to marry?”

The relentless reproach calmed but continued in its own fashion after her infertility was confirmed. It was only when Ike stopped defending her, after years of presenting an impenetrable united front, that Chikamma began to worry about her future. At her age, she could hardly return to the marriage market and erect a stall peddling youth. Add infertility, a mediocre job, and a body that had quit a long time ago. But then Munachi in a spot of trouble, pregnant and disowned, crying outside her office. A pregnant 19-year-old with no resources, few, if any, close friends; and none with the wherewithal to be of any use.

Munachi had started as a grateful, reluctant guest, but soon became family. Ike was endlessly amused by her, the little sister he never knew he’d wanted. They could hold entire conversations quoting absurd Nollywood lines. She continued calling Chikamma Professor, despite objections, and took to calling him Mr. Prof. Chikamma taught her to cook, and Munachi introduced her to wild romance novels and something called twerking. She felt for Munachi what a mother would for a daughter. At least she’d thought so until Hannah. Sometimes, Chikamma and Ike would just look at Hannah—singing, baking, doing cartwheels that she’d emailed them an e-vite to watch—and then they’d look at each other and grin. We did that. This lovely force of nature? Us. High fives all around.

When Munachi gave birth, they’d all three been in the delivery room. Chikamma joked that after having their knuckles squeezed to oblivion and taking turns to sit with her through nine hours of labour, the baby was theirs, too. The girl was christened Sylvia, Chikamma’s middle name, and they called her Sylvie or Sliver. Lil CaCa when she stank. And, eventually, Hannah.

And if Munachi thought she could take the girl back, Chikamma would be happy to complete her education.

Munachi had reached out last week through a borrowed email address to say she would be in America, in Chikamma’s city, and they should catch up. After a frantic internet search of the name in the borrowed email handle, Chikamma gathered that Munachi worked for some prominent Cameroonian family. Relief. No court would take a child from a stable, American home to live with a housegirl in Africa, no matter how eminent her employers. She’d imagined the picture she would paint to the judge, one of naive young housegirls, certain their future held more, only to find themselves feeding the children of the children to whom they’d given their first baths.

A hand waved away her daydream, and she looked up to see Munachi trying for her attention.

There are certain women who are so well put together—by nature, money and their own fashion knowhow—that it’s useless to be jealous. It would dissolve you. And despite her calorie counting and weight watching—which tested her maths but did nothing to contain her figure—Chikamma had never been the sort to compete with other women, shrugging off envy with ease. Munachi had, somehow, become one of those women. Tasteful brocade trousers, chic button down with billowy sleeves. Chikamma blanked, unable to reconcile this woman with the scrawny, disheveled teen. Then, unexpectedly, fear. This was no housegirl to be dismissed by any court.

That girl laughed so hard at her own joke it became contagious and Ike had found the two of them bent at the waist, breathless. As she’d suspected, a child had eased the tension in their marriage

Forty minutes late. And no Lagos traffic to blame, either. Figures the girl was still a mess. Chikamma Ekweremadu exchanged her phone for a madeleine and bit into it, savouring. Too much sugar, not nearly enough lemon zest. After a brief, intense struggle, she decided that eating the rest of the madeleine was fine, but the others weren’t worth the calories. Munachi could have the rest. Even at her most pregnant, Chikamma’s former student had been rail thin, her distended belly easily obscured with a loose shirt and blazer. The girl could eat Chikamma’s husband under the table and had done so many times while living under their roof. Ike had been apprehensive at first but had grown fond of Munachi. One couldn’t help it. She was endearingly disastrous, what Antoinette—the first friend she’d made upon moving to Minnesota—would have called “a hot mess”.

A second madeleine crooned at her, and Chikamma distracted herself with the café’s patrons. A study group had annexed several tables and occupied a corner. It wasn’t hard to overhear that an exam a mere 1.5 days from now would determine most of their grades. It didn’t bode well for said grades that none of them had figured out an eight-person study group wasn’t going to get anything done. She’d always told her students to find one person (maybe two), preferably someone who cared just as much or as little as they did. Munachi—chronically late, chronically missing books, pens, paper—could never find anyone to pair with. Hadn’t mattered though; the girl had aced every test or, as in Chikamma’s history class, turned in water-stained essays that were unambiguously brilliant. But in the end, that hadn’t mattered, either.

A text came through, an update from Munachi, surely. It wasn’t, but Chikamma’s annoyance melted when she saw her daughter. Hannah’s school did things like send picture updates and host parent luncheons and ban peanuts and other allergens from the premises. Chikamma and Ike could probably have found Hannah such a school in Nigeria, for sure Lagos, but her university often went months without paying salaries, and while he did okay in engineering, they would have buckled under the cost. In their Edina neighborhood, Hannah’s school was public, free, and if the move to the States had cost them much, it had eventually been worth it.

Hannah grinned photogenically, one of two dark faces among pale ones. The other was Antoinette’s daughter, who Hannah had somehow convinced to partner with her for Costume Day—so in the midst of superheroes, boarding school wizards, freezing princesses and various livestock, stood Bert and Ernie, bros for life. As she bit into the second madeleine, Chikamma calculated her calories so far. 2,930 and it was early afternoon. Sighing, she scrolled through the rest of the photos, looking for Hannah. If there was only one thing she’d done right, it was raising this child.

Just the other day, Hannah had leaned into her while she stirred dinner and said, “I’d give you my kidney.” And in the gut punch of that moment, before Chikamma could muster words, her daughter had added “…BEANS! I’d give you my kidney beans!” Hannah then ran around the kitchen island handing out invisible high fives. That girl laughed so hard at her own joke it became contagious and Ike had found the two of them bent at the waist, breathless.

As she’d suspected, a child had eased the tension in their marriage. Her in-laws had often berated her for not giving their child a child.

“Did a spirit born him? You, who have married someone’s child, will you not provide a child for someone to marry?”

The relentless reproach calmed but continued in its own fashion after her infertility was confirmed. It was only when Ike stopped defending her, after years of presenting an impenetrable united front, that Chikamma began to worry about her future. At her age, she could hardly return to the marriage market and erect a stall peddling youth. Add infertility, a mediocre job, and a body that had quit a long time ago. But then Munachi in a spot of trouble, pregnant and disowned, crying outside her office. A pregnant 19-year-old with no resources, few, if any, close friends; and none with the wherewithal to be of any use.

Munachi had started as a grateful, reluctant guest, but soon became family. Ike was endlessly amused by her, the little sister he never knew he’d wanted. They could hold entire conversations quoting absurd Nollywood lines. She continued calling Chikamma Professor, despite objections, and took to calling him Mr. Prof. Chikamma taught her to cook, and Munachi introduced her to wild romance novels and something called twerking. She felt for Munachi what a mother would for a daughter. At least she’d thought so until Hannah. Sometimes, Chikamma and Ike would just look at Hannah—singing, baking, doing cartwheels that she’d emailed them an e-vite to watch—and then they’d look at each other and grin. We did that. This lovely force of nature? Us. High fives all around.

When Munachi gave birth, they’d all three been in the delivery room. Chikamma joked that after having their knuckles squeezed to oblivion and taking turns to sit with her through nine hours of labour, the baby was theirs, too. The girl was christened Sylvia, Chikamma’s middle name, and they called her Sylvie or Sliver. Lil CaCa when she stank. And, eventually, Hannah.

And if Munachi thought she could take the girl back, Chikamma would be happy to complete her education.

Munachi had reached out last week through a borrowed email address to say she would be in America, in Chikamma’s city, and they should catch up. After a frantic internet search of the name in the borrowed email handle, Chikamma gathered that Munachi worked for some prominent Cameroonian family. Relief. No court would take a child from a stable, American home to live with a housegirl in Africa, no matter how eminent her employers. She’d imagined the picture she would paint to the judge, one of naive young housegirls, certain their future held more, only to find themselves feeding the children of the children to whom they’d given their first baths.

A hand waved away her daydream, and she looked up to see Munachi trying for her attention.

There are certain women who are so well put together—by nature, money and their own fashion knowhow—that it’s useless to be jealous. It would dissolve you. And despite her calorie counting and weight watching—which tested her maths but did nothing to contain her figure—Chikamma had never been the sort to compete with other women, shrugging off envy with ease. Munachi had, somehow, become one of those women. Tasteful brocade trousers, chic button down with billowy sleeves. Chikamma blanked, unable to reconcile this woman with the scrawny, disheveled teen. Then, unexpectedly, fear. This was no housegirl to be dismissed by any court.

That girl laughed so hard at her own joke it became contagious and Ike had found the two of them bent at the waist, breathless. As she’d suspected, a child had eased the tension in their marriage

Lesley Nneka

Lesley Nneka Arimah was born in the UK and grew up in Nigeria and wherever else her father was stationed for work. Her stories have been honored with a National Magazine Award, a Commonwealth Short Story Prize and an O. Henry Award. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, GRANTA and has received support from The Elizabeth George Foundation and MacDowell. She lives in Las Vegas and is working on a novel about you.

She waited for Munachi’s expression to match in anger what she felt in fear, but the other woman lit up. She actually squealed and trapped Chikamma in a tight hug. When they released each other, Munachi was tear-stained and Chikamma had gathered herself.

“Ah, Professor,” she said, holding onto Chikamma’s hands and glancing down at her. “You have become comfortable, well done!” It was said with such congratulatory cheer, Chikamma felt churlish annoyance at herself for feeling some way about the note on her increased weight.

The intervening decade had been so kind to Munachi as to ignore her, and her 29 looked much like her 19 with a stunning fullness to her figure.

“Munachi,” she managed. “How?”

The younger woman gave a delighted spin, as a child would show off a new Easter dress. She bumped into a nearby table and apologised, which the occupants waved away, charmed.

“Don’t ask me how, it’s God, o. You would not believe me if I told you. Did you know your friend rescinded that my job when I arrived? He offed his phone or maybe the network was down because I couldn’t reach you or Mr. Prof and…”

What followed was a fascinating and horrifying account of Munachi’s first years in Kumasi, but Chikamma was less interested in the details than in filtering them for any latent desire to take Hannah back. While Munachi had apparently been sleeping in secret spots to avoid street boys, Chikamma had been packing to start a new life, one where she wasn’t pitied for having to raise the “bastard child of some small, immoral girl”, a phrase that was the straw that sent the camel applying for a visa lottery to the United States.

“…and do you know that man, the very same one, was the pastor of the largest church in the whole country. I am telling you, God is good. It wasn’t up to three years after that I met my husband. I tried finding you in that time, but they said you people have moved. Hai, I could have cried. My Sylvia, my Prof. They must think I’m dead.”

“Hannah.” My Hannah. “Daughters don’t carry their mother’s name, so we changed it.”

She emphasised daughters, mothers, with mild infection while her hands clenched in her lap. Munachi laughed, clapped.

“Do you know, I prayed that you would treat her as your own. Remember what you said at the airport? ‘God will bless you for blessing me.’ I just thought you were trying not to distress me. But He did it. He gave my child a mother.”

Munachi’s loving gratefulness uncoiled a knot of dread she’d carried in her stomach for ten years. Munachi wasn’t coming for her daughter. She knew Hannah was Chikamma and Ike’s. Chikamma surprised herself, Munachi, the staff behind the counter and eight doomed students by bursting into tears. Munachi hugged her and made soothing noises. She diverted the curious onlookers, procured a glass of water, fished out a handkerchief.

As Chikamma calmed, her decade-old dread gave way. The possibility that her daughter could one day be taken had been such an unfathomable horror that she’d had no imagination left to feel guilty. But with that gone…

Chikamma had joked shortly after “Sylvia’s” delivery that the child belonged to them all. But buried inside that joke was the truth of Chikamma’s sudden, blinding envy. Every time she handed the child back to Munachi, every time Munachi took the girl into her bedroom and shut the door. Even Munachi’s admirable vow to breastfeed for a full year roused Chikamma’s envy. She wanted to feed the baby, too. She wanted to hold her without someone standing over her shoulder, waiting to take her back. She wanted to nap in her own chair, in her own house, cradling a child that wasn’t borrowed.

She’d gone from wanting a baby to wanting this one, with the bounteous shock of crinkled hair and that gurgling laugh. The hair, the laugh, the girl, all had grown into the smartest, silliest, dearest wonder of the modern world. 10/10. Would raise again.

Munachi distracted her with questions about Hannah, and she was so careful to call her Hannah, to reassure Chikamma that the girl was hers alone. Chikamma’s guilt made a meal of that tender reassurance, growing stronger, stretching its legs, beginning the chase. She’d never considered that Munachi wouldn’t work out that the job offer that’d lured her away from her baby, from her country, wasn’t real. That Chikamma had colluded with an old friend to draw Munachi away so that she and Ike could keep the “abandoned” child. Chikamma hadn’t wanted to think of what could happen to a penniless young woman living on the streets of a foreign country. And so, she didn’t. She told herself the girl had died peacefully on the Kumasi-bound flight. She told Ike nothing. He would have combed the streets until he found his “little sister” or her remains.

Chikamma answered Munachi’s questions. Hannah’s first words. Hannah’s first steps, Hannah first friend. And after exhausting those questions, Chikamma volunteered story after story: Hannah at four returning the favour and offering Ike piggyback rides. Hannah storing Halloween candy throughout the house like a squirrel prepping for winter. The memories poured at a velocity that outpaced her shame and Chikamma began to pull ahead, powered by joy.

There are certain women who are so well put together—by nature, money and their own fashion knowhow—that it’s useless to be jealous. It would dissolve you

Lesley Nneka

Lesley Nneka Arimah was born in the UK and grew up in Nigeria and wherever else her father was stationed for work. Her stories have been honored with a National Magazine Award, a Commonwealth Short Story Prize and an O. Henry Award. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, GRANTA and has received support from The Elizabeth George Foundation and MacDowell. She lives in Las Vegas and is working on a novel about you.

There are certain women who are so well put together—by nature, money and their own fashion knowhow—that it’s useless to be jealous. It would dissolve you

She waited for Munachi’s expression to match in anger what she felt in fear, but the other woman lit up. She actually squealed and trapped Chikamma in a tight hug. When they released each other, Munachi was tear-stained and Chikamma had gathered herself.

“Ah, Professor,” she said, holding onto Chikamma’s hands and glancing down at her. “You have become comfortable, well done!” It was said with such congratulatory cheer, Chikamma felt churlish annoyance at herself for feeling some way about the note on her increased weight.

The intervening decade had been so kind to Munachi as to ignore her, and her 29 looked much like her 19 with a stunning fullness to her figure.

“Munachi,” she managed. “How?”

The younger woman gave a delighted spin, as a child would show off a new Easter dress. She bumped into a nearby table and apologised, which the occupants waved away, charmed.

“Don’t ask me how, it’s God, o. You would not believe me if I told you. Did you know your friend rescinded that my job when I arrived? He offed his phone or maybe the network was down because I couldn’t reach you or Mr. Prof and…”

What followed was a fascinating and horrifying account of Munachi’s first years in Kumasi, but Chikamma was less interested in the details than in filtering them for any latent desire to take Hannah back. While Munachi had apparently been sleeping in secret spots to avoid street boys, Chikamma had been packing to start a new life, one where she wasn’t pitied for having to raise the “bastard child of some small, immoral girl”, a phrase that was the straw that sent the camel applying for a visa lottery to the United States.

“…and do you know that man, the very same one, was the pastor of the largest church in the whole country. I am telling you, God is good. It wasn’t up to three years after that I met my husband. I tried finding you in that time, but they said you people have moved. Hai, I could have cried. My Sylvia, my Prof. They must think I’m dead.”

“Hannah.” My Hannah. “Daughters don’t carry their mother’s name, so we changed it.”

She emphasised daughters, mothers, with mild infection while her hands clenched in her lap. Munachi laughed, clapped.

“Do you know, I prayed that you would treat her as your own. Remember what you said at the airport? ‘God will bless you for blessing me.’ I just thought you were trying not to distress me. But He did it. He gave my child a mother.”

Munachi’s loving gratefulness uncoiled a knot of dread she’d carried in her stomach for ten years. Munachi wasn’t coming for her daughter. She knew Hannah was Chikamma and Ike’s. Chikamma surprised herself, Munachi, the staff behind the counter and eight doomed students by bursting into tears. Munachi hugged her and made soothing noises. She diverted the curious onlookers, procured a glass of water, fished out a handkerchief.

As Chikamma calmed, her decade-old dread gave way. The possibility that her daughter could one day be taken had been such an unfathomable horror that she’d had no imagination left to feel guilty. But with that gone…

Chikamma had joked shortly after “Sylvia’s” delivery that the child belonged to them all. But buried inside that joke was the truth of Chikamma’s sudden, blinding envy. Every time she handed the child back to Munachi, every time Munachi took the girl into her bedroom and shut the door. Even Munachi’s admirable vow to breastfeed for a full year roused Chikamma’s envy. She wanted to feed the baby, too. She wanted to hold her without someone standing over her shoulder, waiting to take her back. She wanted to nap in her own chair, in her own house, cradling a child that wasn’t borrowed.

She’d gone from wanting a baby to wanting this one, with the bounteous shock of crinkled hair and that gurgling laugh. The hair, the laugh, the girl, all had grown into the smartest, silliest, dearest wonder of the modern world. 10/10. Would raise again.

Munachi distracted her with questions about Hannah, and she was so careful to call her Hannah, to reassure Chikamma that the girl was hers alone. Chikamma’s guilt made a meal of that tender reassurance, growing stronger, stretching its legs, beginning the chase. She’d never considered that Munachi wouldn’t work out that the job offer that’d lured her away from her baby, from her country, wasn’t real. That Chikamma had colluded with an old friend to draw Munachi away so that she and Ike could keep the “abandoned” child. Chikamma hadn’t wanted to think of what could happen to a penniless young woman living on the streets of a foreign country. And so, she didn’t. She told herself the girl had died peacefully on the Kumasi-bound flight. She told Ike nothing. He would have combed the streets until he found his “little sister” or her remains.

Chikamma answered Munachi’s questions. Hannah’s first words. Hannah’s first steps, Hannah first friend. And after exhausting those questions, Chikamma volunteered story after story: Hannah at four returning the favour and offering Ike piggyback rides. Hannah storing Halloween candy throughout the house like a squirrel prepping for winter. The memories poured at a velocity that outpaced her shame and Chikamma began to pull ahead, powered by joy.

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