I don’t remember. I might have been eight, or nine, or twelve; what does it matter? It was certainly during those years that always, in retrospect, seemed glazed with a certain surrealism. I sat wedged between them, caught in the middle—literally and figuratively—and they talked over me with voices so loud you could tell a great distance stretched between their hearts. Today, as the toddling ambulance drew away into the November twilight, swallowed inch by inch until only the dense whiteness of fog was left, I recalled the feeling I felt as their spittle bathed me like acid rain. Unseen. I felt unseen. Strange, since they were fighting over me.
We were a fairly large family living in a small compound, occupying rooms in a row of lodges built like a typical primary school block, with lean mudbrick walls the only obstacles between the couple’s secrets and the compound ear. So everyone was omniscient. Aunty Soso thundered a loud witchy laughter from her saloon when my father said he would take me far away, even to Americans! – the sound came as though from the sky. Aunty Gloria’s hiss came from two rooms away, sharper than a snake’s rattle. I remember Aunt Jumai’s approach because no one dragged their feet like her. She knocked heavily on the living room door. Through the glass, her pastel pink lappa danced like water. When my parents kept on quarrelling and didn’t answer, she pushed open the door slightly and poked irritated eyes into the murky room, anh anh, she sang, because her voice was too soft, Oga Johnson, Aunty Mary, una still dey fight in front of your child! It’s not good mana. Is only a boy!”
As I recall, my father and mother teamed up and unleashed a barrage of curses at her. She fled. But the words didn’t. Only a boy. Mimiko, my father’s boss, said the same thing many times as he tried to broker peace one dateless evening. Two women who were my mother’s friends from church, murmured it among themselves as they plodded disappointedly out of our house. And when Father Dabiri had exhausted all the bible verses he could think of, he latched on to it too like a prayer. Look at your son, he said. Look at him. He’s only a boy.
Of course, none of them looked.
Perhaps you know you’re a man when they start talking to you about lands. About Uncle Domino’s land at Datun-Wada; it was said that his first son sold it to three different buyers, each visiting the land separately, only to encounter bricklayers hired by the other buyer. About Sister Ewa from church and the land she bought near Kaduna Estate for an outrageous sum, how one day a man saw her and her construction engineer on site and told them, this is family land, who sold family land to you? If you don’t leave it right now, you will die. During land disputes, people were frighteningly direct. And that was very manly.
Half the time though, I was uninterested, and I think my mother knew. I think she might have embellished her stories somewhat to excite me too, because there’s no way in the world the bricklayers who attempted to build on Mallam Boki’s land all picked up brooms and swept the land repeatedly, afternoon through night, until he returned from his palace visit in the morning. But anyways, I was a man, spoken to as a man. I knew the borders of my father’s land at Sopi, and had thought about renovating the beacons myself, fresh cement, bolder lettering. Until one day I overheard my mother, in a fierce argument with Soso in the salon say, how’s he going to fight for his father’s land when he’s only a boy?
That was that then. Still not a man. I was 17, so maybe they were right, but 360 was also 17. And he certainly didn’t seem boyish to me- dreadlocked hair, teeth braces and all, tattoos in the upper arms, and very tight-lipped. He looked like he could fight for his father’s land, if his father had one. Deep night was his favorite time to return home and sometimes by morning you’d see bruises plastered on his bright yellow chin like little pink flowers – surely there was something manly about danger. And you heard them argue, him and his equally ridiculously light-skinned mother, the quarrel erupting like a popped pimple onto the veranda, her voice a near whistle-like scream, his head held low as he stormed out, hardly ever answering. One day I heard him yell back, I’m a man now, mummy, you can’t fucking control me anymore! And I thought, this was the connection then. A boy is a man when his mother cannot control him.
So I joined 360 one day at the backyard and asked if I could smoke with him. He said nothing, only passed me the weed. And when I coughed and nearly choked, he laughed a muted laugh. It was the only time I ever heard him laugh. I still remember the sound because for a long time, I tried to laugh like that. Like the slow-starting engine of a stately car. The kind you used to ease up beside flashy women and ask if they wanted a ride. But my voice was too light, there wasn’t enough smoke in it for the laugh to hum, and it wasn’t musical if it did not hum. I eventually gave it up.
My mother caught me one dim March evening with the lighted bud in my hand, beside 360 and, after her initial shock fizzled, wept her eyes off. I’d imagined that discovery going differently. I thought she’d find a rolled bud in my trouser pocket as she took it out to wash the way she sometimes did. And when she quizzed me in anger, I’d get triggered and tell her it’s none of her business, and when she ordered me to stop, I’d repeat the one line I’d been wanting to say all my manly life, I’m a man now, mummy, you can’t control me anymore!
The only problem is that seeing your mother cry makes you hate whatever it is that made her cry, it’s a primal response, even when that thing is yourself. I gave up smoking even before she came into the room that night, her eyes wet and droopy, a sad sight if you’ve ever seen my mother’s eyes in better times, you may suddenly have a thought about fireflies twinkling like stars in the night. She said many things, I don’t remember. But she certainly said, I know you are a big boy now – which warmed my heart – and then she said don’t be like your father – which made the heart contract with cold – and then being a man is not about all these yeye things, it’s about self control.
What is so manly about self-control, I wondered? And why did so few men have it if it were such a man thing? I wanted to ask, but the more questionless the interaction the less time it took up and the less painful it was for everyone. Father Dabiri too liked to talk about self-control a lot, and he was a good man, a great man, even though he visited a little too often. He talked about the denial of impulses and delaying gratification, deep stuff. And he would know because he was a Catholic priest, one of those men whose lives were essentially about denying impulses.
I remember it was around that time the firewood saga happened, the story that’s now been told a hundred times to Modupe and my little cousins. What happened was that I’d made a decision to overcome my firewood aversion, since my first impulse usually was to go seven miles away from them. They were these massive logs of wood harvested from the grove on the outskirts of town and sold to retailers who invited professional wood splitters – you can call them professionals right? – to reduce the sizes of the logs significantly. When we ran out of kerosene for the stove, which was often, we’d pivot to our three-stone cooking fires outdoors – generally, my mother split the wood. I’ll never know how she did it, she never used force. The axe went up a small distance and came down with a definitive thud; you heard a cracking sound. Her precision was very uncanny. In the interest of being a man I decided to take up the wood-splitting duties. I dragged the log into place and put a cautious foot over it, raised the axe to the heavens and slammed it mercilessly at nothing. I dug into earth time and time again and my aunties laughed. My aunties say I farted loudly on one such attempt but I don’t remember it that way. I think it was my trouser that tore, but anyway no one believed me. I do remember Aunty Gloria hailing me, “Strong maaan,” even as sweat dripped into my eyes and I nearly split my toe in two. She was always the wicked one.
I hadn’t cried since the day my mother died, and most people thought it was because I was a man. In reality, there’d been way too many things on my mind since I heard Modupe’s soul-splitting scream that night. You know, when I ran into the room and saw my mother lying on the floor with her eyes open and unseeing, my first thought was of how Modupe, oh Modupe, my mother’s little diamond, had witnessed such a terrible thing. I cradled her head in my arms, hid her face in my body to protect her. I thought of all my aunties – Soso, Gloria, both of them my mother’s younger sisters – and even Jumai who was really my father’s half-sister, but was as much my mother’s sister as the others. I thought of the disconsolate horror in their eyes and in the eyes of their children when the scream brought them through the front door to stare at my mother’s vacant body. How would I comfort them?
Two days later, I committed my mother to a mortuary, dusted myself and went to the Maranaca Hospital construction site. I tossed my trowels, jointer, and tape measure into my tool bag of heavy-duty canvas and walked out before sunrise. When the men at the site who’d heard the news asked what in God’s name I was doing there, I told them I needed to work; the funeral wasn’t going to pay for itself. I heard one say, in the local dialect which I understood but couldn’t speak, something to the effect of he’s using the conkri to cry. Maybe. But this was something I’d known a long time as a man. You need to work, always, all the time. You need to work your way to livelihood, to any kind of security, even to love. What was the worth of man otherwise? I know the first time I ever felt truly worthy was the day I handed my mother five crisp N1000 notes, pulled from right under my carpet. She was anxious about something that day, I don’t remember. But I provided. And you should have seen the look in her eyes; it’s not the way you look at a son but a saviour, and surely, a saviour has got to be a man, right?
That was my savings after my first month laying bricks in several sites across Bojan town. 360 invited me to my first job, and I went because there was nothing else to do after WAEC. I wasn’t going to any university or nothing of the sort and I’d rather build castles in the air than join another tailoring class. At first, they only let me carry sand and concrete in head pans alongside the women as huge concrete mixers rumbled and growled. But the demand for blocks was overwhelming – I think it was a large Pentecostal church looking to erect its permanent site after its former structure got wrecked by rain storms, so time was of the essence. 360 taught me to mix, to pour the mortar into the block mold, smoothen and allow it to cure. I quickly became good. I remember the surge in my muscles after my first full day on site and how my body ached for four days – in the first three, I couldn’t even put on a shirt without trumpeting down the wall of Jericho. Sometimes, the pain made me smile, because I knew it was nurturing my body. And maybe this was very manly, but was I a man yet?
Aunty Jumai certainly looked at me differently. Being my father’s youngest sister from his father’s youngest wife, she was closer in age to me than the other aunties. Maybe seven, eight years older tops, and even with her one child from a sexual assault in her adolescence, she still looked very attractive to me. Meaning when she began to stare, I began to stare back. And when in jest she became fond of pinching my nipples, calling me “big man” with her crisp Hausa accent which I found very sexy, my 20-year-old dong would pitch tents in my trousers fairly rapidly. But despite my best attempts to hide them, she saw it one day and, to my great surprise, rebuked the living daylight out of me.
If my mother ever heard about it – and she must have because everyone was omniscient, remember? – she never betrayed any such knowledge. I returned from wherever I was working on site at the time and she greeted me warmly, with pet names, my lion, my pride. I held my breath, even as I laughed, which I know now is a biological impossibility.
That wasn’t the only thing my mother ostensibly ignored as I metamorphosed into manhood. In fact, one event quite literally involved my manhood. I was doing something in my room, I don’t remember, but I sat on the bed while my mother collected my clothes which I’d heaped carelessly in a plastic chair because sometimes she liked to help me wash. As per her habit, she turned the pockets inside out and a condom fell out of my favorite tar-black chinos, followed by a sharp gasp. I saw the condom. She saw it. She saw that I saw that she saw it. There was no sound in the world for about a tenth of a second. Then she bent and picked it, put it right into the pocket, and walked out of the room with the load. We never spoke of it.
Funny, because now I remember once when I was a child, again in those blissfully blurry years, I found a balloon on the floor and tried to blow it, but the lip was too wide for my small mouth to encapsulate, so I took it to my mother. Aunty Gloria sat beside her chewing something, dried groundnut perhaps, because it was something whose smell I hated.
“Mummy blow for me,” I said.
“What is that?” she asked.
“Eh, what is that?” Aunty Gloria echoed, louder, of course. My first hint that there was fire coming.
“Ba- balloon” I said.
“Where did you find this balloon?”
I didn’t say I found it under Aunty Soso’s bed because the next question would’ve been “what were you looking for there?” plus double portions of cane. But I think they knew too because they called her Aunty Spicy, Aunty Muah-Muah, when she dressed up nicely to go outdoors or after a man who’d been in her room for hours had just disappeared beyond the gate. I’ll never forget the way my mother snatched the rubber from my hand, the disgust, the disdain on her face. And the double team, her and Gloria, eviscerated me for being a bad child and playing with condom. It was the first time I ever heard the word condom.
Here are two myths about manhood you will unlearn someday, if you’re lucky.
- All boys become men. Because some don’t: minus the grim percentage of them that never get the chance to because death loves them more – it would surprise you the number of overgrown boys flouncing around in man clothing.
- A boy becomes a man when _____. Fill in the blank. Whatever you put in there, you’re wrong. As I learnt one unnecessarily cold morning in June, no one event can make you a man. Not even the birth of a child, as we saw with 360 who, 3 days after his daughter was born, was seen sneaking out the back gate before twilight, never to be seen again.
Manhood may resist easy categorization, that doesn’t mean it’s nothing – ask anyone who’s ever seen a real man, like Father Dabiri. It’s a sensibility you acquire, a patchwork that knits itself through time and experience. I cannot tell you the day I became a man. I can tell you though that one day I realized I was checking to see if the doors were properly latched before I went to bed. And that everyone was home, safe. And that I’ve kept a cutlass under my bed ever since our caretaker was accused of molesting our neighbor’s 8-year old – he denied it, but just in case. And that one day, I woke up and thought about something that could hold my family together the way a cupped hand holds a prayer, and I thought maybe I should build a house on that Sopi land lying around in my father’s name. And my hands said, yeah we’re going to build a house.
I started small, so small it seemed as though I hadn’t, and I mostly worked alone. Later I hired a few people, still the work took forever. Before it was done, my mother was pregnant again.
She broke the news to me like an adult, but maybe I was still a bit of an overgrown boy by then because I asked with a false calmness in my voice that she saw right through:
“Who’s the father?” I said.
My mother shook her head.
“Who. Is. The. Father?”
She shook her head again. But I had my suspicions. Father Dabiri. It had to be Father Dabiri because those fireflies in my mother’s eyes glow brightest when she talks about him. And for a moment, I forgot how much I liked the man and looked up to him. For all I knew, he’d intruded upon my territory, and no true man would let that slide. So I mounted an okada and headed straight for church shaking off my mother’s hold on my shirt sleeve, shrugging off her tears. It was a fine Thursday evening and my honor had been bruised. I entered the church like a mad man. One look at him and I saw the recognition in his eyes. And, in all honesty, the heart-rending apology. But I would not be deterred. He told the children who sat in a semicircle around him to run along – and bid me not towards his office but the parsonage. Once in his living room, before he could speak, I unleashed a right hook on his nose and waited to feel the rush of my honor healing. Because I used to think a man who could overpower another man was more manly than that man. There was blood on his hands as he nursed the spot; strange how it felt like it was mine, my honor, bleeding furiously. I had never felt so small, ever.
When I returned from the church, I went down on my knees. Because, as I later learned, you can be just as manly down on your knees as standing straight, shoulders back. Days later, my mother tried me again.
“I’m two months pregnant,” she said by way of good morning, after days of silent treatment.
“What are we going to do?” she asked, seeing words were stuck in my throat.
I liked how she said we.
I called the undertakers, the ones I met in Dafun side-hustling on a Julius Berger job. It was time. My aunties called other relatives, using the slightest pretext to tell them they were living in my house, not renting, and that I owned two cement depots around town – we’re not a very rich family, so this is a lot. But that is not why they will come. Many of them lived faraway in other towns, other states, and I’d never even met them. However, they all adored my mother, so they would come. My father too would have come, were he alive. Whatever their issues, he loved my mother very much, they both knew.
As they set up canopies and the ram was led to the back to be slaughtered, I watched the kids from my window, especially Modupe, and wondered why my mother gave her a Yoruba name. We’re not Yoruba. I watched Aunty Gloria’s three boys making molds of their legs with sand, and Aunty Soso’s girl, a bit of a loner usually, playing ten-ten with Modupe. There were other kids too, the way they easily cried when they felt cheated, I envied them. Life cheats you very much as a man, and tears will desert you sometimes. But there was a wonder in their eyes that I wondered if I would trade for the deep awareness I now felt. This vine-like importance I had, my aunties running things by me, asking for this or that, asking that I attend to this or that, this trust. I don’t know, really. Later that evening, as a powerful July rain poured from the sky, I trundled out onto the mud and rolled with the children – as peals of laughter flourished, I prayed silently that this would be the sound that ushers me into the afterlife when came my time. Here’s another myth: that you could ever outgrow the little boy inside you. You don’t. And maybe you shouldn’t.
On the day of the funeral, it rained. Nearly ruined everything, but we pulled through, which is what life is; something is always trying to ruin everything, and you keep pulling through until you don’t. It wasn’t all gloomy, about the rain. See, there’s something about thunder rumbling and clapping as the priest says a blessing that makes it seem as though it were God Himself talking. I didn’t know if I had any faith in God, but I knew I had faith in Father Dabiri.
When it was over, he shuffled over, and hugged me. And we wept, like real men.
Divine Inyang Titus is a Nigerian writer living out the crises of his mid-20s in his mother’s house in the Kogi hinterlands. He thinks he has a couple of classics – anthologies, novels, the likes – inside him, if only he’ll put in the work. He is a past winner of the STCW Future Folklore Climate Fiction Contest, 2021 and author of the chapbook A Beautiful Place To Be Born. His stories and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Brittle Paper, The Ex-Puritan Magazine, Blue Marbles Review, The Parliament Literary Journal, The Shallow Tales Review, and elsewhere