Mr. and Mrs. Doctor

By Julie Iromuanya

Coffee House Press
May 2015


This was the first of many pleasures that he took from her. On her back, the water to her chest, Ifi allowed her breath to rise through her body in its slow way. Her feet were red, red as they had been back then, after she mixed the boiling water with the cold. She remembered her body sinking lower and lower into the water until it filled the space between her legs, her navel, her breasts. Now, each part was taken over by the baby. Back then, sweat beaded her brow. She tasted it in her lips. Salt stung in her eyes. All after a long day.

Her days began like this:

As the dust-tinged morning light rose, filtering out the dusk, Ifi sat up in her bed. The grit of scattered sand tangled into her sheets, and she felt the familiar scratch against her thighs, her calves, her feet. Before the people of the house rose, goats, chickens, and roosters let out their chatter, rummaging about through the potholed alleyway, shifting through the broken, discarded bits of sandstone that jutted in and out of the streets. Church services blared through megaphones, and the women who heralded the cry ululated ecstatically in response. Sometimes their neighbors simply sat on their narrow stoops, swinging their feet along the heavy, misshapen stones that led the way to their storefront homes.

The man who arrived with the water each day, filling a large drum, had a face stretched thin from the many smiles he offered to Ifi every morning. Each day he would propose to her, stooping so low that his knees nearly touched the ground, offering his hand in marriage.

"You are old enough to be my father's father," Ifi would chastise, and the old man would swing his head in dismay, knocking his chest and proclaiming the strength in his powerful legs. Then, gingerly, he would right himself, the pain shooting up the backs of his legs and his spine until it registered in his face. But he would sift his stretched-thin face into a serious gaze, only broken by the flirtatious wink that filled his eyes with lashes.

After he left each morning, Ifi filled a pot with water and set it on the stove. And when it was warm, she poured some into a bucket and the rest into an old oversized coffee flask to keep it warm for the rest of the family.

But her day only truly began in the moments that would follow, as she sank into the bathtub, alone. Before the morning had passed, Ifi would have cleared the sticks and twigs surrounding the house. After, she soaped away the lime and rust-colored mold along the walkway. Inside, she swept the red sand all along the tile floors, scattering the debris out into the street. Next, breakfast was to be prepared, the family fed, dishes washed. Darkness or light. Nepa did not discriminate. Light could be taken at any moment of the day or night. By the dancing flame of kerosene, Ifi would finish her chores in earnest.

On the day the motley crew arrived, boys and men—some lanky, some stocky, some dark, some pallid—Ifi watched from her window in dismay. Ashy, red, bare feet and jeans rolled to their ankles were the only features they shared in common. They were loud, raucous, rapping quickly in pidgin. And they worked from dusk till dawn each day, arriving just as Ifi rose every morning to do her chores and leaving as Ifi, finally, exhausted and spent, sank to sleep.

No one told Ifi what they came to do, or whom they came to work for. But through the curtains in her window, she could see the progress of their task, beginning with the deep hole they bore into the ground with a loud sandblasting drill that pierced the hard, stony earth. Then came the pipes: long metal structures fitted deep inside the hole.

One day they did not arrive, and Ifi knew their task was complete.

Ifi's uncle stood in the kitchen over the sink and turned the old, rusted tap, and water came spewing out into his palm. He slapped his thigh and Aunty danced. Ifi's cousins spilled into the doorway, watching with big eyes until their mother's shrill cheer and gyrations gave their cue. Then, suddenly, they were all dancing their way to the sink, cupping their hands below the tepid water released from the tap.

After that, the entire neighborhood no longer called her Ifi; she became "Mrs. Doctor.”

Ifi's mornings changed. No flirtation from the old man delivering the water barrel. The tepid water did not need to be heated when it came from the showerhead. Instead, Ifi stood angling her head forward into the burst of water at the strongest part of the stream.


Excerpt is reprinted by permission from Mr. and Mrs. Doctor (Coffee House Press, 2015). Copyright © 2015 by Julie Iromuanya.