Here you are, on a mat in your mother’s small, dark living room, wet with your own sweat, burning with an interminable fever. But it doesn’t begin here. Not really. So how does it—this dampness in your soul, this fading of your memories, this pain—begin?
Let’s say it begins your mother. Your mother, belle of the ball, wanter of things your father cannot provide. If it begins with her, then it must include your father, too. Your father, acquirer of things beyond him, husband of an exotic woman whose maintenance tag his clerk salary cannot settle.
Your parents said that it was love at first sight, that they met each other at the lobby of a banking hall in the nineties and had simply fallen in love with each other and married months later, but you learned later that this was not totally true. “It was your father that fell in love with me first,” your mother told you when you turned fourteen, when she flung a bowl of soup at your father because he could not buy her the imported Carossi shoes that was the new craze among Lagos socialite women.
She held you as she wept for the things she could have had, things your father could of course never afford, your father who answered Yessah! to boys he could have given birth to if he’d married early, your father who owns three shirts, two trousers and one tie, clothes he wears with the pious devotion of a Jehovah Witness persistently knocking on doors that were slammed shut in his face.
“You are the light of my life.” Your father’s first words when he held you the day you came into the world. But you did not know this, little baby that you were. You did not know that you were, to your father, everything your mother never was.
You, named Imole seven days after your birth, were an avenue for your mother to need more, to stretch your father thin, like elastic. Baby clothes from Macy’s or Kingsway, or nothing. Thirty thousand naira to buy diapers and wipes, or nothing. All these your father provided, sinking steadily into debts.
And then your father, neck-deep in debt, could not afford Carossi shoes to make your mother stay, your mother who was already one leg out the door. So she left, with a bag full of the things she’d bled your father to buy. With you.
End of your father’s chapter. Now, your mother’s.
To leave a man because of a pair of shoes was silly, yes, but your mother didn’t care. She’d always wanted to be set free, to fly, like a bird. So she flew, with you in tow; mother hawk teaching her daughter to walk. She flew straight into the bed of Alhaji Owoseni, pot-bellied, with rings of fat for a neck. And you followed her choicelessly, like a lady-in-waiting for the queen.
Alhaji was, as they say, rich as sekere, and this he clothed your mother in: Yards and yards of expensive lace. Imported hair so soft, so out-of-this-world. Jewelry enough to tempt a robber. Brassieres and panties so flimsy it seemed cut out of mosquito nets. And all these your mother soaked herself in, while your father pined for you, his happiness. And for her, the love he never stopped loving.
And then, Alhaji died while in bed with your mother. They had been going at it that afternoon, your mother yes-yess-yesssing, Alhaji ah-oh-ahhing. All of a sudden, Alhaji began to shiver violently, foaming at the mouth, white froth of saliva and things unknown. Your mother’s scream called you in, to see Alhaji’s penis, short and fat, standing up, like David on a fallen Goliath, to see her too, naked, her vagina fenced with wisps of curly black hair, her breasts already taking the downward slope home.
Your mother picked the nearest dress she could find: her boubou, and fled. The rest of the news you heard in bits: Alhaji was epileptic. Alhaji almost died. Alhaji’s wives would rip your mother apart if they ever set eyes on her. Your mother with her vagina like burial food. Ashewo olobo saara.
One question: How do you come crawling back into dirt after months of affluence?
Your mother swore she would not return. Never. So she became a street light, heavily bright by night, and sleepily unadorned by day. Your mother became a woman who pleasured other women’s men. With the money in her account from her time with Alhaji, she got herself a small apartment in town. This you stayed in and waited while she slept by day. And at night when she morphed into a streetlight, you began your own dreams.
You, sweet sixteen, with breasts as round as sweet oranges. You, flower-pretty, a carbon copy of your mother. You swore you would not be her, but would go out and, like your name Imole, be a light unto the world. You would be an actress or a singer or a writer. You would have fame and money so much that even a wave of your hand will rain money. You would bring your father back, make him become the man he had always wanted to be. You would fix your mother too, seal up the hunger in her belly with enough money and she would have all the things she wanted. You would be a light.
That was what your mother called him the day she brought him home. This is Sir, she said simply. You thought she meant Sa as in Samuel but she said no, Sir as in Yes Sir.
Sir had legs as thick as tubers of yam. On his chest and up his neck was hair so dense, you could make wigs out of it. Sir enrolled you in college, paid your school fees and bought you underwear and earrings that brought out the glow in your eyes. Sir called you Delight and when you complained, he said that Light, which was the English form of your name was still there. You liked Sir. At least you thought you did, until the day your mother told you while Sir was out that Erm, she needed a car and Sir had promised to buy it for her, but … but he wanted something else in exchange.
Of course, you would not do it, you said to her and walked away, angry. But your mother, wanter of things beyond her capacity, never take no for answer. You ought to know this.
It happened while you slept. Your mother herself ground the tablets and poured them in your soup. And when you woke up to the sharp pain between your legs, dried semen on your thighs, you felt your light begin to dim, to fade.
Your mother got the car and you, a pregnancy. All of a sudden, the car didn’t seem to matter anymore. Your mother wept and tore at her braids and said, “Yeh! Temi baje.”
You wanted to stab her with a kitchen knife until your fingers were sticky with her blood.
Afterwards, Sir came and said he was sorry, that perhaps the condom tore or something. Your mother screamed, a scream that died when Sir wrote her a cheque. Minutes of whispered discussion passed, and then, Sir said he would be back. Your mother cuddled the cheque. You waited. One hour later, Sir returned with another man.
He smelled like stale bread, this man. He pulled down your eyelids and gave you a multicolored selection of drugs that looked like sweets. You swallowed, and while you were resting, lumpy blood ran down your legs. Pain shot up your belly and you screamed. Your mother herself drove you to the hospital, where it was said that Sir’s man gave you an overdose of the wrong drugs and these drugs would begin to corrode your womb. They would try their best, they said, but if only you’d not taken those drugs, perhaps things might not be complicated.
A medical way to say: begin to make funeral arrangements.
You lie on a mat in your mother’s house now, your belly too sore to hold anything down. Your dreams are slipping away. You are your own light, but in the harshness of your pains, the world is too dark to see anything. Beside you is your mother, you know that. Your mother, belle of the ball, root of your calamity. “You will be fine, my baby,” she says. You know you won’t. She has called your father, the same man she once swore she would never go back to. Your father will come rushing in thirty-eight minutes from now, eleven minutes and two seconds after you are dead. Your father will not meet any light. He will, instead, meet nothing but darkness.