by Chideraa Ike-Akaenyi
It is August. You feel the damp and the cold of the rains sliding into your body and wedging itself between your bones. The days go in long stretches and nights in short bursts, like little firecrackers, glorious but dying quickly. It suits you, this weather, you mumble each morning as you leave your apartment. You say it with quiet certainty even when you stand before teenagers, teaching them of an eternal father you did not believe was yours and his son who was a blur. You mumble the words over and over again as you walk the muddy streets that spray you with streams of red and brown. You hiss it when you mingle with this never-ending crowd of people moving, noses in the air, brisk steps, eyes distant like people under hypnosis.
The walls of your room are moulting. You observe it this morning as you drag your skirt over your hips. These walls, they had been a sullen witness and companion. They had stood there, solid and unbending to the batter of arms, legs and objects thrown, hauled and landed into smithereens or the screams and moans it had failed to stifle. It sucked these sounds; of anger, pleasure and grief, transporting them to every room in this building.
It used to be blue, the cyan hue it wore told you. It is shedding now, it’s skin bloating and falling off, like flakes of dry, dead skin. You share a history with these walls, you feel like they do. And before you clutch your bag and head to school, you smile at your ever-present, ever-supportive confidante.
You enter the school with light steps, slipping through people on the assembly ground to stand in front of the queue where teachers as young as you belong. The principal is on the podium, marshalling out instructions. His shirts and trousers are as always, starches so well they look like cardboard boxes. You are not listening to him, your ears are focused on the murmurs behind you, from your fellow teachers.
You don’t like them, and you will never. They smile and are nice, but you know the warmth is not in their eyes or their souls. You want the basicness of their lives; they want the enigma that is yours. You say little, they murmur, you do not smile and you work harder at your job than everyone else. “Ladies should always smile”, they joke, poking your belly in jest and giving little lectures. Lectures on how to be or not to be, prayers on your head during staff meetings for a husband and a subtle snobbery in their words and gestures when they complain of their husbands and children. Still, they say, they wish they had your freedom.
The principal is singing a martial song. The students march into their classes, hands flailing, legs thrown out in determination till they are out of the assembly hall. You greet everyone in a voice turned low enough to be respectful. Demure good mornings to the women in beaded lace tops, with bellies swaddled in rows and rows of George wrappers. Good morning Sirs, with your eyes fixed on their necks, to the men in isiagu outfits and then, to the ones like yourself, who have not “fixed themselves somewhere”, Kee ka I mee? A cautious how are you? eyes focused on the floor because you don’t want to ignite hope. You don’t want anyone to share in the cavern that is your life.
It is Cultural Day and the festivities will begin at two in the afternoon. You don’t stay for long. After teaching the students, you excuse yourself and head to the church. You are not going to pray, you never do. You kneel in the small chapel with the aroma of incense that seeps into the curtains and chairs and never leaves. You clamp your eyes shut and clasp your hands and mumble threats. Prayers are too easy, so you don’t say them. They absolve you of this weight and fill this hole in your chest and something creates another hole and you pray, and it all goes in that familiar cycle. No! God only loves people like you to give you crosses to bear. So, you go to church to remind this God that sinners need punishment. You go through the scripted performance on Sundays to save you sometimes, from imploding, scattering into little bits to be flung far away from each other by fate.
As you step out of the dim chapel into the piercing sunlight of the afternoon, you feel your phone buzzing. It’s Mama.
‘Ugoo, aru adikwa?’
‘Yes, I am well’
‘Have you thought about it?’
‘Nne, biko, forgive us whatever we’ve done to you. Things like this happen and God…
You switch off the phone, your teeth grinding against each other, your eyes burning. You wanted to escape this apology, that is why you came to this town famous for its anonymity. You walk home watching the children at street corners screaming, squealing and playing Oga or running half-clothed; chasing their rubber, dust-coated bicycle tires.
Later that night, you rise from your bed and rummage in your cupboard for your trophies. They are in a box, your souvenirs. You sit on the floor and look at each. You lay out the white sneakers and smile. There are rust-coloured stains on it, splatters on the laces, where his blood touched as he sat, bleeding out.
Okwudili, that one loved his sneakers more than life. You run your hands over the shoes, inhaling its musty smell and reminiscing. You had met him at your cousin’s wedding. He had walked up to you, stomach first, with a self-satisfied grin and a bawl for a voice. You took him in, seeing the familiar haughty tilt to his chin, just like your father’s. You said yes, you would go out with him. Mama held her breath and dreamt of trains of women in matching lace tops and expensive abada at your wedding. Papa nodded without conviction and told you to be safe.
Then, the shoe and sneaker madness started. You noticed that he bought new pairs each week: sneakers, boots, shoes. Each one shinier, and costing more than the other. And he gave you a monologue when you asked, of the latest addition. He meant well, with his asking after your well-being and buying you gifts you didn’t need. Still, you felt stifled. A rock had lodged itself in your head and you began to plot and scheme at work while attending to customers. On those nights when you’d visit, as his body moved above yours, you stifled the screams rising in your throat.
You waited three months and finally struck. You knocked him out with one of your platform heels, heavy enough to stun but not kill, you had been practicing. You tied him to a chair and stuffed his mouth. You slit his wrist and then his throat with the kitchen knife you’d sharpened and carried in your bag. And as you watched him convulse, you study your incisions. They were perfect! you think. Maybe, you should have studied surgery instead. You watched him bleed out, eating his half-finished plate of rice. When his eyes rolled back, you slipped out of his house as deftly as you had slipped in, taking his sneakers with you.
The singlet belonged to him; the childhood crush you met after almost a decade of silence. ‘He’ll treat you well’, Mama had said, her voice heavy with hope, prodding.
‘You need to forget Okwudili. May God punish whoever did this to him’, she muttered when she saw you crying. Of course, the tears were not for him, but for the laughter that eluded you. You wanted joy, you wanted ecstasy and all you got was a numbing disgust. So, you went out with Chukwudi, to events and bookstores, always smiling, dressing appropriately for each occasion with smiles and bows and kindness wafting from you, to settle in the hearts of his father, mother and sisters.
‘O nwelu ezigbo obi, she has a good heart’, his mother said on those hot afternoons that you send everyone out of the kitchen and take charge. You smile when you hear this. Mothers always determine the lucky girl who gets their trophy son in the end. You are grateful.
‘Ada mmadu,’ his father hails when he sees you, displaying teeth as white as piano keys. Because you can bow low enough when greeting and don’t raise your voice. Because you defer to Chukwudi in conversations and always hint; that you would consider a job that gave you more time with the children after the marriage.
Children. You feel your womb clench in disgust at this thought, but you smile. Maybe, in this kind house with warm people, you will find peace.
Still, happiness ran through yours hands like water and on the eighth of June, you slipped two, not one tablet of his diabetes medication into his palm. It should have been your ‘day’. You had dressed up and gone to church, said your vows and waited till that moment after communion when he slumped and began to convulse. And as they said, you were made a widow while still in your wedding dress.
He had to go; you murmur to yourself. Chukwudi with the lean body and lips always frozen in that curve that could pass for a smile. Chukwudi who read a lot and filled your ears with long talks on American news, history and politics that made you wish you wore hearing aids. Aids that you could turn low to dull and silence his voice. He meant well, showing you books and taking you to book launches. You did not care though. The only books you read were not ‘literature’ to him; tales of murder, fear and monsters. Books on darkness and the comfort it brought. So, you let him rant sometimes when you did not read his books.
And when you were in bed with him, there was an unsettling urgency to his motions, like he was taking and giving nothing of himself. You dreaded those nights when he would invite you over. You went anyway, he was too good to be true and you should be grateful. You still could not help staring at that tilt to his chin, just like your father’s, haughty and defying, and staring at it on that hazy morning, you did not think twice as you handed him the tablets, two instead of one, a replacement for another.
After the burial, you burnt his clothes, taking only the singlet. You had bought it for him. He had worn it only once, complaining afterwards that vests were more comfortable and appropriate. And every week, on Sundays, after the incense-filled haze that is the mass at the church, you spray a little of his favourite cologne and cry into it. Sundays smell like Chukwudi.
You are hugging it to yourself and crying when you remember and find the cigarettes; a gold case and inbuilt lighter. You had gotten them off a stranger at a bar, four months after Chukwudi’s death. He had been nice, in his sharp jeans and t-shirt, speaking carefully, enunciating every word. You watch him in the dimness of the bar, the slow music weaving through the air as stick after stick disappeared between his fingers, each reduced to glowing ash. You loved his voice, the deep yet smooth sound of it. You watched your bottle of Star Radler sweat away as you listened to his voice and not what he said.
When he excused himself to use the restroom, you grabbed the case and slipped out of the bar. You were seeing a therapist then, a woman with a large afro and pinched features. You tell her everything, but not that you slit your boyfriend’s throat and overdosed your groom on your wedding day. You instead speak to her of the hollowness in your soul and how every man you are attracted to, has a haughty chin, like the one who birthed you. You tell her that you hope someday, you will find happiness in the bodies of these men. She consoles you, the fool! You act out your expected role; griever to the end. And so that night in the bar, you remember your next session and fold in this part of you, stifling the hunger to snuff out anything that hints at joy.
You are still sprawled on the floor sleeping when Mama calls the next morning. You drop the call and place these trophies of yours back in your cupboard.
They had put you on house arrest when you started acting out, going for parties after work, getting drunk and sleeping with nameless men that you met in clubs and house parties.
‘Is something wrong with your head? Don’t you have shame?’ Mama had asked on the morning you greeted her by vomiting on her dressing gown. A murk of brown and yellow, a sharp contrast to the deep red of her woollen coat. Papa had ignored you and threatened that your genes were from your wayward mother.
‘This is not the way to grieve’, Chukwudi’s father moaned.
Grieve? You knew these people were daft but, blind too? Why couldn’t they see that you were celebrating a freedom you had never had before, from rules and expectations.
They asked a priest to see you. You smiled during your long sessions with him and nodded when he wanted you to. You began to say the rosary and attend mass daily. When he saw that the Lord was doing good in your life, he praised God. You forged a bond with him, a version of you that you created, polished and hung out for him to see. And you said proudly to his hearing, ‘Our Mother Mary saved me’.
Deep into the night, every fortnight, without fail, you sit on the toilet in your bathroom and slice your upper arm, just where the sleeves of your dresses wouldn’t reveal them. You revelled in the pleasure that comes from pain, smiling in satisfaction. Sometimes it was your back, while standing naked before the mirror, little slices here and there that bled and filled you with so much joy and love. And the therapist? You did the same with her. You created a cast of what she wanted to see and made yourself fit into it like a glove. And all this while, the hollow in your chest widened.
On a boring, humid afternoon like every other, when you could not bear it any longer, when there was no air good enough for you to breathe, you left. You gave up your job at the bank, fled to this town and reinvented yourself. You know still, in the whirlpool that is your head, that this storm brewing will spill over and corrode everything and everyone next to you.
You are home today. You are not running, not fleeing, not panicking, just home. You have listened to Mama and you are outside their house, waiting as the gatekeeper unlatches the gate and lets you in.
The house is quiet as you walk in. The loud whirring of your suitcase tires and clump-clump of your sandals are the only sounds. Your head is wrapped in a light fog and so you don’t notice, that the masquerade trees that you were scared of as a child have not been trimmed in years, that the ixoras you used to suck have no flowers. They are now well-trimmed, flat-topped beds of green leaves.
Mama is grateful. She hugs you and cries. She kneels with her arms in the air, waving them and thanking her God. This nauseates you. You bite back the words you want to throw at her, walk past her into the house and into the room that used to be yours. It is almost as you left it, there are several empty hangers and missing dresses in your wardrobe. You settle in and begin to assume this you, this Ugochi that lived before the demons came for her; before nights of urgent fumbling under her blanket and harsh whispers in the eerie stillness of night turned her into this.
Papa returns later in the evening and gives you a lecture. You sit still as he talks, eyes focused on the upward tilt of his chin that had defied aging. You hear apologies and buts.
‘I apologise for X but you shouldn’t have done Y’
And he yammers about honour, dignity, respect and a thanksgiving procession in church. You nod in agreement; what else were you supposed to do? You play this script well and queue up on Sunday, clutching the poor turkey’s wings so hard you can almost hear a bone snap. You dance to the altar with them; Papa, Mama, Aunties, Uncles and friends of the family. You scream thanks to Jesus and Mother Mary like every prodigal daughter should. You serve the guests that flood your home later and allow yourself to be introduced to everyone. In all this noise and happiness, you feel it yawning, demeaning and taunting you, the hollow.
Mama bought a new utensil. A curious-looking thing, wooden handle and metal spikes. You watch and learn as she uses it on whole slabs of meat, reducing them to soft cottony pieces that will float in stews and speckle the jollof rice she makes for Papa. Sometimes, you wonder, what it would look like on real flesh.
Papa speaks carefully to you these days, asking you to stay and talk to his friends when they visit. His friends who talk loudly and laugh without mirth. His friends always dressed in kaftans, babariga and gaudy jewelry. You refuse sometimes and wrap yourself securely in this shroud you’ve weaved on the loom of silence. Another One? No! You had come home to redeem yourself, to confess your sins and set your soul free. No other man but Papa dearest could do that for you.
The sons of his friends visit and grin and smile too much, speaking of businesses and money and investments and being ready to ‘settle down’. You smile back and tell them you are eight years older than you really are. Thirty-eight. It always worked. The smiles waned and the charm dulled. The fools couldn’t stand the thought of dating or even marrying an older lady. So, your days weaved into each other in introductions, silences and hours spent comforting yourself in books. Till the day he snapped.
You attended the 6 am mass instead of the 10 am one that you often attended with them. He had reminded you of a big thanksgiving party that you had to be present at afterwards the day before. You saw the fire in his glare when you returned, and he ordered you to dress up. You said no. Mama was herself as always, pleading with you to obey and him to keep his voice down.
“Bikokenenu, let today not start on a bad note for us”; she cries, wringing her hands, the gold bangles on them jangling.
Her face is greasy from the foundation she’d applied without powder; you fear the sun will melt it off her face. You ignore them and enter your room. You can hear him fuming, ‘What did you give birth to and call it a child? I am trying to save her from wasting and she doesn’t want to help herself!’
The shroud that you have wound around yourself snags on his words and begins to unravel. It begins to slide carefully off you like skin over well-boiled cocoyams.
You spend Sunday in your room, opening your door only to receive your food in enamel plates from Mum, after she has banged and screamed enough. The days that follow blend carefully into each other and slowly your head does too. You gain clarity and start to dream.
The dreams start with whispers, then murmurs and finally voices; of people like you with no space here, speaking of the bodies they had scarred and burnt, the lives they had shortened and how they felt sated after it all. You dream of sirens calling you to embrace this new normal. This being with passions unhinged.
On other days, you dream in sepia. You watch through the rust-coloured haze as a man with a tilt to his chin goes in at nights to read his daughter bedtime stories. She is six or ten in some and is as big as fourteen years old in others. He holds her to himself and rocks her to sleep. You dream of the fondling under the nightdress as years whirled by and the white mess left on your nightgown on most mornings. You watch the girl begin to refuse her akamu. She vomits it after eating and when nobody is looking, washes it down the kitchen drain.
You see the mother, pristine and lovely, the scapula-wearing, God-loving, CWO-President mother. She sees the signs and buys her daughter pyjamas. She clutches her rosary tighter, ordering her daughter not to go around the house in skimpy outfits. “He is not your birth father”, she explains.
You watch the little girl grow and wait for God to protect his own and begin to look for stories and freedom in the bodies of men. You watch as she picks carefully, men of whom everyone approved, who did not smile much but talked and had that lift to the chin, just like her father. And slowly, your head unravels. You now know the demons building in your head and chest were here in your room with you. They were jumping off the walls and bouncing on the bed, screeching like banshees and deafening you. The voices assure you of the closure you could have and show you the way, to that drawer in the kitchen where it lay.
It is Wednesday. Mum has given you money to buy tomatoes for the spicy stew she said your father loved. You get the awalawa ones, because you don’t want what he loves. Nothing that pleased him would ever please you. You go through the motions; welcoming him, serving him lunch as you promise a spicy stew in the evening. He grunts in acknowledgement. He trudges into his room and you switch on the fan. You are still staring at him as he begins to snore.
Crimson, that is the colour of skin when the layer that holds its hue is peeled away. At first, a pale pink, sometimes white, always glaring.
Squashed, that is the state these tomatoes take. The half-rotten ones you bought at the market and smashed them all against the whiteness that is the kitchen wall. You hate its perfect whiteness, without bumps or smears. You feel the adrenaline surging through you as the smelly insides run down, fouling the air, filling you with triumph. And afterwards, when your head is clearer than it has been in years, you search in a frenzy, flinging drawers till you find it.
Everybody knows and understands these things, but nobody explains the texture and hue of skin stabbed, violently and persistently; till it has the mushiness of minced meat and you stare as life’s essence, soaks the sheets, runs down to pool on the floor, away from your dainty slippers.
Nobody again, of course, they never do, these fools, tells you of the ecstasy; that comes with raising this tenderizer in the air, over and over again. Nobody spoke of the beauty in helplessness, the thrilling pleasure that the fear in his eyes inspires. It comes in waves, scintillating, from the scalp of your head to the toes of your feet, leaving you almost breathless.
You like it, this power, this fear, this hate brewed inside you. You like the startled horror on his face and in his body as he watches you plunge it over and over into him. He sees, feels and knows this pain. This will always resonate with you. You do not stop. No, you can’t. Not until he has pulp for his face and his body is a quivering mass of mangled flesh and blood. Not until the whistling in your head silences and you hear his gurgle and grunts. Only then, do you find peace. Only then, do you stop and let loose the laughter bubbling in your throat.
Source: From the Isolation Issue (September 2020)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
CHIDERAA IKE-AKAENYI is twenty years old. She is in her third year of studying English Language and Literature in Nigeria. She is fascinated by the complexities of human nature and spends her time reading literary fiction, watching thrillers or writing about people and issues she feels deeply about.
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