Fiction by Benjamin Arthur
Each year towards the beginning of the rainy season, Tilapinne species, or tilapia as locals call it, swim down from the upper reaches of Africa into the Volta river. The fishermen, although still in a state of fatigue and excitement from the just-ended annual Hogbetsotso festival, still go knowing their nets would be full because the gods have blessed them and promised them a fruitful year. They sit in their canoes and wait for the fishes to swim down to them.
The tilapia is not unique to the Volta river. Shaped like sunfish, they are a symbol of rebirth in Egyptian art and can live up to 10 years forming pairs from monogamous bonds and later patriarchal or matriarchal families, something humans are known for. When pulled out of the river, they simply wag their tails slightly; their dark scales suffused with a sheen, like raindrops on a fine morning, their gills crying to breathe.
Once they get to land, the fishermen, their wives, mothers, and children hasten to put them into big bowls whiles smiling proudly. They have no idea how old the river is, where the fishes came from, or if they also had families of their own. As far as they are concerned, selling the tilapia will give them a warm bed and a roof over their head.
It was early December and the winds danced refreshingly over the banks of the river. Auntie Senya, a woman of maybe sixty years was on her way from the river banks, her little blue bucket filled with water from the river and two live tilapias swimming in it. It was never difficult to recognize her, she always wore that bright blue sundress now faded with age and her brown hat. People greeted her as she walked by. she smiled in response. Everyone knew her, even the unborn child of sister Etornam. To them, she was the old woman who lived by the sea, always alone yet content. Her hair, almost white and set in a bun, her limpid eyes and bright smile blessed with wrinkles. Every day at dawn, you’d find her by the river sitting quietly staring at the horizon. Some say she speaks to the gods, others say old age has sucked the sense out of her.
“If not, then why would she always buy two live tilapias? Always two, always alive?” Someone asked
“Have you seen an educated witch before?” Another replied and they burst into laughter.
Indeed Auntie Senya was educated, thanks to her; the community could boast of a school. No one knew where she came, from. She arrived 30 years ago bearing the name Akweley. In time, the people came to love and understand the stranger. They gave her the Ewe name Senya because just like the name, only God knows who she was or where she came from. As Auntie Senya lived among them, she soon learned their language but chose not to disclose this knowledge. She would walk among them listening to them and their mundane conversations.
The women as usual praise their husbands in front of others. Their only source of accomplishment was marrying a decent man who provided for them.
“Selasi bought me that flat-screen television we saw in Graphic.”
“Efo bought me this skirt from Accra.” Another announced twirling happily to the jealousy of others.
“Dela got the job in Kumasi.”
“Really! Congrats!” Some rejoiced. But as soon as the speaker left, the remaining women burst into laughter.
“The Dela that is passed out drunk in Adjo’s bar,”
“My sister, she’s lying.” someone replied. Slapping their chests, they would laugh until they couldn’t laugh anymore.
Auntie Senya could also hear the cries and laughter of children loitering about. The curious ones worry their mothers with unnecessary questions.
“Maa,” one kid called out. “Is the water male or female?”
The mother who was tired of the little boy’s questions chose to answer it the only way she knew.
“our forefathers say it is male. According to them, they went fishing on a Tuesday which was forbidden, and saw the sea, he was a man. a huge giant.” She smiled after she finished answering the question. No scientific terms to confuse the little boy. The little boy remained silent for a while then he spoke again.
“Maa?” he said quietly.
“What Edem! What!”
“What is the meaning of forbidden?” he asked innocently.
“You are forbidden from ever following me to the market ever again! You will stay at home with your father!”
Auntie Senya laughed. She loved the cacophony of voices, it made her not feel too alone.
The atmospheric pressure was low, just clouds, and a cool breeze. The weather forecast said it would rain in the afternoon but the rain came at night. Auntie Senya got up and walked from her bed to the balcony. She looked emotionally at the long-awaited moon now clouded with thunder and lightning. The electricity soon went off leaving the entire community in darkness. Her tired eyes gazed at the flashes of lightning. Her cat walked up to her and rubbed its head on her left foot. She lifted the delicate creature and petted it as if she was touching soft moonlight. A calming gentle feeling slowly rose in her, she was happy. A sudden honk of a car drew her attention. Putting on her slippers, she walked up to the oil lamp and signaled the little boy living with her to open the gate. An unknown car drove into the yard. As soon as the car stopped, an old man got out of it and walked briskly towards her. Immediately Auntie Senya’s eyes fell on him, she shivered. There was a quality to the silence like that of a graveyard. Her pulse jumped rapidly.
“Akweley.” The man said in a dejected tone. He must have left home in a rush; he was dressed in a pair of blue trousers and a black shirt. Nothing to fight the cold weather. The changing years had whitened his hair.
“You shouldn’t be here.” Auntie Senya replied.
“Can’t a brother visit his twin sister?”
“Are we still twins if one of us hates the other to the point of wanting her dead?”
“I never wanted you dead.”
“The past might disagree. What you did was worse than stabbing me with a knife.” The orange flame of the oil lamp flickered in the night breeze.
The old man sat down in a chair and sighed. “it took me the day after the wedding to realize what I had done. Then 20 years of searching for you. I did find you but I was too much of a coward to come apologize.
“I don’t need your apology; I certainly do not need to see your face ever again.”
The man looked around the balcony, he halted when he saw the bucket of tilapia.
“You hate tilapia.” He said aloud.
“There are a lot of things I use to hate that I now love, and a lot of things I once loved that I now hate.”
“True,” the man muttered. “She hates them now. Since you left, the sight of tilapia makes her angry to the core.”
“I don’t want to”
“She hardly stares at me, avoids me like I’m a disease or something”
“Oko why have you come here?” Auntie Senya asked him.
“I’m dying. The doctors said I have only three months to live.”
“Good luck with that,” Auntie replied and her twin brother smiled. “Those were the exact same words she said to me.” he shook his head. “She also said you cursed me.”
“The only curse I know of, the one most people carry is family. Family is a curse.”
“Makes sense, the day I forced her to marry me, was the day my curse began. After all, she was never mine, to begin with; her heart and soul already belonged to you.”
“You knew that and you…”
“I did but I was angry, I was jealous, and the jealousy blinded me.” he swallowed hard. Tears streaming down his face. In the dim light of the balcony, they both could hear raindrops tapping the windows and the roof in a rhythm known to man. The sound of water on the stove boiling, the steam continuously puffing and pushing up the lid filled up the silence.
“She did what she was supposed to do,” the man continued. She gave me four children and took care of my home. She never looked at me the way she looked at you. The worst day was the birth of our first child. All women during childbirth would think of death and at the brink of it, all she could do was scream your name, not my name nor her mother, yours.
Auntie Senya laughed
“Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“The two of you together was unnatural. Your love”
“So you do acknowledge it was love.” She cut him short.
“Nothing lasts forever, memories fade, love dies.”
“Then why are you alone?” he asked her.
“I’m not alone, I chose this life.”
“You are alone as if you’re waiting for her.”
The shrinking fire suddenly died, forcing both siblings into darkness. Auntie Senya spoke first.
“How can I wait for someone who’s married? She is yours, has always been yours.”
“Then why did you make her fall in love with you before I had the chance.”
“You make it sound as if we have control over who we fall in love with. It is not something that just happens to a person. Moreover, if you truly loved her, you wouldn’t have told our parents.
“No! Oko no! You ruined me!” she exclaimed “and then you took the only thing that mattered to me.” tears streamed down her face as she spoke. “I had to flee from home because our father wanted to kill me. I don’t want you here.” She spoke her lips quivering. “Just go.”
“She’s dead,” Oko said solemnly.
Those words fell heavily on the old woman. She held onto a chair for fear of falling.
“What!” she finally spoke.
“This morning. We found her dangling on the mango tree, the one you two loved climbing. She got tired, tired of me, of a world she couldn’t escape and it’s all my fault.” He cried, “It’s all my fault.”
“Oh my fucking God.”Auntie senya cursed. . Her trembling legs gave up and she fell to the ground, unable to utter a sound.
“Just go Oko, go!” she croaked. She turned around. She did not hear his footsteps, her tears drowned the noise around her
Her workers found her on the floor the next morning. Her bloodshot eyes still had tear stains. Her hair which she always kept in a bun was untied and unkempt. They all gathered around her talking all at once.
“I’m fine, I’m fine” she replied. As they helped her up. She did not say a word; she picked up the bucket of tilapia and walked out of her house. Only the heels of her slipper could be heard. “Tap, tap, tap” they resounded on the floor; she took them off and proceeded to walk barefoot. The fishermen had arrived, and there was a constant stream of people climbing up and down. They stared in surprise.
“Where is the blue dress and hat? They asked as she walked by. She heard the voices of women yelling the prices of fish to their customers. She heard her voice, it was as still as the water before her,
“I read somewhere,” she began. “People can only find a place on the bank, live peacefully and grow old till death grabs them. Then they are buried by the water so that they can continue listening to the gurgling water. That is what we should do; let us go live by the sea. Just you and me”
“Oko was right,” she said aloud. “I was waiting for you.” She made her way towards the river, her bucket still in hand. As soon as she reached the bank, she knelt, stretched her emaciated hands, took the fishes out of the bucket one by one, and placed them back into the river.
“Goodbye.” She whispered. She sat down and stared at the horizon. The early morning fog made the morning seem magical. She felt like singing but her voice was almost coarse so she hummed. She hummed her favorite song. That was all she could do. After she was done, she got up and walked to the fishermen’s wives.
“Good morning Auntie Senya” sister Etornam greeted. “Two live tilapias coming up.”
“No,” Auntie senya replied. ”not today, I have always wondered what octopus tastes like. Meɖekuku Nenie?”
“What?” a surprised sister Etornam asked.
“Gbe deka mede blibo o.” Auntie Senya replied. “deka.” She added and the pregnant fish seller clutched her swollen belly, mouth ajar.
Meɖekuku Nenie: excuse me how much is this
Gbe deka mede blibo o: one language is never enough
Benjamin “Cyril” Arthur is a writer, and music and art lover based in Accra, Ghana. His style of writing and fictional stories are inspired by a diverse list of great authors including Roald Dahl, Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda, George Martin, J. K. Rowling, and Peggy Oppong
Originally published April 4, 2023