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Unfurling | Chideraa Ike-Akaenyi

Unfurling | Chideraa Ike-Akaenyi

UNFURLING - Chideraa Ike-Akaenyi | Agbowo


What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you sicken and die of them, still in silence?

—Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you sicken and die of them, still in silence?

____Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

April, 2022

We often lament that ana eligo ife, an anguished exclamation, expressing our helplessness in the face of an earth that is insatiable, that keeps taking and taking from us until it rips life out of our throats. I do not find the strength to spill these words. On some days, I wake not believing the reality of this. Is it okay to say that onwu has swallowed her? Onwu was not the collision that rocked the cars, thrust them in the night air and watched as they became flaming balls of yellow. It was not in the ravaging flames that turned their car to charred metal and sizzled flesh from bone. It was in the little choices, or better still, minions that set the stage for the merciless pillager that death is.

“I went to pick your mother’s bones”, she says, “We sorted her bones from the ashes of the car, the wreckage left.” My mother burned to bones. Photos of blackened metal and skulls, wailing nuns and priests. Sort, sort, sort them out. The large bones are the driver’s, the small ones are the nuns. We can’t find anything of Monica’s, she burnt to ashes, they said. I listen to the nuns cry, to my birth mother as she kneels and wails.

I am broken, torn apart by grief, undone by the cruelty of it. I am unshackled and bound, my chest palpitates, emotions pool in my belly as I scramble for sanity, for a good reason to make sense of this. Everything spins, like thread caught on a nail, tearing through. I am wracked by loss; it snatches my breath. Burial dates are announced and I force a foot of steel into my spine. I bite down on a rock, pack my clothes and prepare to meet the others at the park. 

The air that Wednesday morning is chilly, or perhaps my body chooses what to feel, disregarding the burning ball in the sky. We sit at the crowded bus station, waiting, wanting to go to Akwa Ibom, to bury my mother’s bones, and pay our last respects. They make jokes. How each of the nuns’ eyes was a gleaming red when they cried, how my mother would be missed. I want to clamp a hand over their lips and shut the noise out. My chest is heavy. I am not crying, not tired, just numb, fighting whatever may come in the next hours, praying that I do not collapse. I want to cry at them to shut up, to not argue over getting grilled meat to eat, to not laugh. Do they not feel it? The tightness in my chest that refuses to unfurl. The regret that sits heavy in my head. I get on a bus.

Five miles from home, a long way from Akwa Ibom, the tears I have been guarding slam into my gut, and hold my breath in a tight fist. I cannot cry, I can only whimper at the pain. Shaky hands motion to the bus driver and he drops me at the next bus stop. I go home and collapse into my birth mother’s arms. It is on that night, seeking reprieve in my head, that she inhabits my head, the little Gollum I had dumbed for months with work and school.

You have failed her, she hisses.

You are no true daughter of your mother.

I have failed her, I moan. I am not deserving, not if I cannot be there as they lay my mother’s bones to rest. I am not there for she who funded my education, pushed me to limits, and praised me at every turn. Food is sawdust in my mouth. I want to apologize, for not living true, for not being the perfect daughter – loves God, attends masses, avoids boys, and makes excellent grades. I do only the last bit. For the others, I oscillate between extremes, devout Catholic to discerning agnostic, from obedient handmaid to fire-spitting, unapologetic feminist.

No grateful daughter of her mother sleeps in on Sundays. 

Only ingrates read books by women who bear fire in their eyes and tongues, denouncing everything your mother stands for.

I wanted to be both a year ago; woke every morning to read at mass, compiled mass intentions, spent hours with the fold, dousing the fumes that swirled when Father said snarky things about women and young girls. Mother was pleased. I bristled with anger, and longing and a yearning. I pulled myself up until I wearied and reach for more books – Lorde, Eltahawy, Woolf. I subsume myself in schoolwork and find a worthy excuse to stand before God only once a week.

I do not fear hell anymore. All my fear has been drained and contracted, deposited in the Gollum that sits on my shoulders. I shudder at the sights of habits, dodging behind cars and people to evade explanations.

You cannot condemn servitude and be bankrolled by it, she hisses again, pulling the hair at my nape until she leaves a shiny spot. 

May, 2022

A priest cousin invites me for a fortnight and gifts me an envelope. “You have made us proud,” he says. I do not think so. I may have graduated summa cum laude but my beliefs do not fit the bill, the prescription, the laws that say who should be or not be a good daughter. I do not think I have. I have avoided a confessional all year. I drag my tired body into church every Sunday. I no longer say the rosary. 

She lists these out and then some, kicking at my head, gripping my heart and shredding it to pieces. Remorse wishes for a portal, some leeway out of this. Perhaps I am all that she says and then some, perhaps being raised by nuns and men in robes mean one thing – I am their dream child. A task I try to achieve at every turn and excel in only one, the stench of my failure following me after the Tuesday of Holy Week, the night of the day that my mother burned. I tried to be good, the one that they wish for. Becoming the picture of obedience, hair cropped close to the scalp, no trousers (at least in her presence), saying little, sleeping and waking in the study and library, downing mugs of coffee as I trudged to ace my quizzes and exams. 

A month and a half finds me on the floor in my room, sweating and straining in a half plough pose and failing. It is then that my birth mother calls. “Today is Sister’s funeral in her ancestral home. You must go.”

“Yes, I will,” I croak, feeling my hands pool with sweat. Gollum snarls again.

What will they say, these nuns? That she spoilt you for three years less than a decade and you could not spare a tear, did not come to the burial?

I cry in the bathroom, punching the tiled walls until my palms throb, loathing this being that I am – one that benefits from charity but gives nothing back – a typical scoundrel. I take a pill to calm my nerves. You need to be strong, I mutter as I hurl my unwilling body into the next bus and inside the church, where my mother’s ancestral home is.

After mass, people dance and share their grief, with limp handshakes and teary eyes. Some dance, to honour her they say, to guide her soul on a peaceful journey to the underworld. I cannot join them, not with the prickliness I feel, at the stares I receive for refusing to be there when my mother was laid to rest. It haunts me, like shadows in dim lights haunt their owners.

A nun saunters up to me as I go around, greeting everyone, trying to absolve myself of this stain. Her white habit is a dizzying glare in the sun. “You have forgotten us. Your mother died and you forgot us”.

I leave that afternoon, a wreck. I wanted to sob and wail like the girl whose head I bore on my shoulders for most of the afternoon as she cried. I wanted to sob and curse careless drivers and fires and roll on the hot loam of the church’s field, something to convince them that I did, indeed feel this hurt. To stop them from seeing me as unfeeling. I want to but I do nothing of the sorts. Everything gathers in my head, seals my lips and numbs me only enough to sigh at intervals. I go home and say prayers for their souls:

Dear God, if you’re there, please have mercy on the soul that lived to serve you. Do not do it for me, I am a lost soul. I must journey to myself to find my truth. I pray, a tremor in my voice. God is silent, as always.

I return to my apartment and submerge my body and mind in work, books and studying – a few online courses here, a few books there. Mother’s smiles haunt me, the wide parting of satisfied lips as she posed for the camera at my convocation, slipping naira notes into my bag as she left, telling other nuns that her daughter made her proud. I miss you; I whisper and the silence of my room echoes it back. I try to go to church, must honour her memory, I goad. Robes are washed and ironed, readings are practiced, heels are cleaned, outfits are chosen. Nothing works. The void in my chest spreads, claiming more land, more space with a taunting obstinacy.

You must go and confess your sins, she whispers again, jarring me into numbness when I least expect it.

What sins, I ask.

Forgive me, father for I have sinned. I have been a feminist and murderer. I cavort with queer people. I think women should be allowed to murder their babies.

I try to shut her out, spray anti-Gollum wherever she pops up, seek peace in the stillness of my mind, in the calm that being alone brings. 

I go out with friends, let liquid fire burn down my throat, fantasize about fingers raking over backs as I explore my partner’s body. Getting drunk would be nice too, I think. I never finish well, hurrying home, scathed by the idea that Mother would want better for me. Mother’s better meant keeping myself until someone nice and “responsible” desires me for a wife, gets her blessings, receives my birth mother’s blessings and be wedded, to their joy, before God. My core contracts, clenches… whatever it is the tightening of muscles is called. I do not think I want it – Mother’s dream – the perfect Catholic wedding. I wish to study – a master’s, a PhD in writing, own a dog or two and when and if, the desire grips me, share my body and space with a lover. 

June, 2022

The month slips in like a thief to heal. I do more yoga, think less of Mother, more about the grimness of my future – the strike drags on. When my birth mother calls, I say “Don’t worry, I am well” Until I wake one morning and like leaves in sunlight, begin to unfurl. 

They say something about a law being repealed, decisions about wombs and unwelcome inhabitants are thrown open to states. I am angry and tired, enraged and hateful. 

It is not your business. Face the problems in your home country, Gollum hisses again.

I don’t listen. Fingers clack over keyboards, retweets and denouncements. WhatsApp status updates, shares on Facebook. I wait for the deluge…it is a trickle first, bewildered emojis, shakes of the head and finally, epistles on how much I have disappointed the ones who expected more from me.

A twinge. Trembling fingers hover over my screens. 

Delete those things. You could lose respect in the eyes of people. 

My fingers reach, tap but retreat, curling back into my palms. I freeze the apps and slide into bed with a book. 

Mother has not visited. Others speak of her being in their dreams, forgiving them, promising to always be there but I see nothing. I desire to, I want to. 

The next day is a Sunday. Mass is at 7:30. I am in the kitchen preparing a meal at 7:45, jamming to Prince’s When Doves Cry. I have begun to believe that she’d want me to be honest and true. When I log in, later in the afternoon, the gold shaft of light from the window streaking a line on my skin, I feel like cotton, with little weight. I ignore the texts, delete those I can and type some more. I eat a soursop and write a little. My chest is no longer heavy. My voice, hidden under Gollum’s screams and condemnation, emerges, wrings her neck and tosses her into oblivion. Like a scared, rain-beaten puppy, my voice returns to me. I reach out, wrap a warm towel around her, dry her fur, whispering sweet nothings. I hold her close, in the space between my shoulders and neck and listen to her sated whimpering, music to my ears.


Chideraa Ike-Akaenyi

Chideraa ‘s short stories on enuresis, trauma and being bi-racial have appeared in Itanile, Ngiga Review and Kreative Diadem. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in English  & Literature and was a finalist for the Awele Creative Trust Prize for Fiction in 2021. At the moment, she wishes to experiment by writing about whatever catches her fancy, or subjects she feels deeply about. An Assistant Editor at Isele magazine, she splits her time between her day job, seeing wildlife documentaries and working on her craft.

Photo by Veri Ivanova on Unsplash

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