by Mark Cassidy

Miss Jo lives on Ikwerre Road, in a single room squeezed into the corner of a crooked little yard in a narrow compound beside a cement factory. Through the mornings, fine white dust drifts down into the yard and is spun into looping whorls and eddies by breezes and draughts, which weave and dip through the gaps between the cinderblock houses. When the rain comes, as it does most afternoons, the dust is washed away, runs before the deluge like thin milk off glossy leaves, off the steps round the yard, out of the rusty troughs of the corrugated zinc roofs overhead. It chases the women, their gossip, and their children inside the houses and fills the trenches along the street until the leeches begin to rise and wiggle.

Miss Jo squats on her stoop, inside the bars of the protector, to crack and sort a bag of periwinkles by the light of a candle, NEPA having abandoned her again before the rain came. Beside her is the little camp stove, which she will use to cook her soup. By the light of the candle you might notice, as you sit behind her with a bottle of warm Star beer, a dense constellation of tiny scars round her neck.

She was young, she’ll tell you, and went with her family to visit her father’s people in the village. This was the first time the entire family had made the journey from the coast into the countryside, and the reason was a newborn first son to be formally introduced. They set off from Calabar early in the morning in a dilapidated Five-Four taxi, Josephine and her sister with the frog eyes and their baby brother and their mother squeezed into the back seat while her father sat up front beside the driver. When the road ended, they climbed down, one heat into another, and trekked single file, Josephine carrying the infant, through the bush past fields of cassava and corn, along the banks of creeks and streams, to reach her grandfather’s house late in the afternoon. The whole village was waiting for them. Her father’s family had prepared huge pots of food for the visit and everyone sat outside in sparkly wrappers and head scarves, shiny suits, to eat and gossip, renew acquaintances, marvel at the baby, everything that families do when they get together following a long time apart.

After the children were put to bed, the adults continued the party with hot drinks and beer, laughing and shouting and talking long into the night. The next morning, she ran with the other girls of the village down to the stream to wash and stood waist deep in a pool to splash water over her body. She was shy about being naked in front of the other children, but such was the custom and she had no choice. Perhaps drawn by a new scent, the whiff of fresh blood, a swarm of bees came out from the forest and attacked her. She had no idea what to do. She had never seen so many bees all at once. The sky turned black with them. She screamed for help, but the other girls laughed and ran off, pattering barefoot in a clattering huddle up the mud path to the huts and houses, the smoky fires along the green shadowed back lanes under the trees. She did not think to immerse herself in the stream and wait until the bees were gone but stood in the water and suffered their stings until one of her cousins came to rescue her and she fainted into his arms.

Ask Miss Jo to lift the braids from her neck and bow her head forward to allow you to run your fingertips over the marks, as though to read that chapter from her life written in living Braille.

Mark Cassidy: Born in the UK, based in Alberta, living in Houston.
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