I love it when she smiles like this. She looks like an angel with the way her head is thrown back in wild abandon. Am I insane to want to keep her smiling like this forever?
I remember a time it wasn’t this way. Her face would be like the Lagos skies in June as they darkened with the promise of angry rain. It’s like she was stuck in that state, as if she was always chewing on foliage from a bitter-leaf tree. There are no half measures with Mama. There are no flashes across the sky of her face or the crack of a smile to herald it. It’s either she smiles or she doesn’t. But when she does, the clouds peel back from her moon face the color of kuli-kuli and her smile shines through. The skin around the sides of her mouth would fold back like the curtain over our door. These curtains reveal a set of white teeth she religiously washes every morning with stalks of Mama Chichi’s bitter-leaf tree. My favorite part of Mama’s smile is her eyes. They tinkle with mischief as the sides of her eyes wrinkle with the footprints of a pigeon.
She smiled when Papa left.
Papa of early bird specials at Mama Tobore’s Paraga stall down the road. It is always better to get the Paraga when the gin is still strong with the herbs and barks that are soaked in it, was Papa’s argument when Mama darkened at his alcoholic dragon’s breath. Papa of afternoons sprawled out on the couch in our cramped one room, his snores and the smell of his alcohol tainted sweat causing the words on the pages of my homework to jumble up into a mess. Papa of nights of fights with Mama over topics as diverse as the different types of clouds there are. Yesterday it was over how she gave him N40 instead of N100 for his Paraga, the day before it was how there was less dried fish in his Ogbono soup than last week. He had argued that an abundance of fish in the soup for a man would aid the journey of the Fufu down the throat and into belly.
One day he had come back late in the afternoon, while Mama cleaned the photographs of Jesus and Our Lady at the family altar. Neither of us bothered about Papa’s absence, we assumed he had slept off his hangover on the ground in front of Mama Tobore’s stall. Papa’s smile made his face shining like mine from the coconut oil Mama always made me rub every morning. He had the grace of an eagle in captivity set free to roam the skies. He looked sober when he told Mama that a Prophet said she was the source of his problem. It was a surprise that he mentioned that, since he was always passed out when we went for the morning mass on Sunday. He had looked surprised that she did not fight him over it like she did everything. So he gathered his belongings in his favorite threadbare Rapa.
The ankara cloth of the Rapa was the color of Egusi soup, its designs of big cowries were bordered by smaller cowries, once black but now faded to a dark grey. It had seen better days even before it became an almost permanent fixture on his waist along with his formerly white singlet that had many holes from the tireless work of cockroaches. The left strap of the singlet was slack and used to hang over his arm, like an off-shoulder dress. It was a memento from the day Mama Tobore had accosted him publicly for the debt he owed her from last Christmas. But the day he left, he was dressed more formally. He wore the sky as a shirt, the blue full of hope. I didn’t even I didn’t know he had one of those. He had them tucked in black trousers that stopped just before his ankles. The shirt billowed the way Mama’s wrappers do when blown by the breeze on the clothesline.
He had an urgency to his movements like the roof was going to cave in, as he tied the knots on the wrapper. His right arm bulged into a spidery network of veins when he hoisted the knotted wrapper on his back. He looked once at me, then at Mama and without a word stalked out of our room. There was nothing different about the whine of the screen door’s spring or its eventual slam on its frame.
Even though I felt like a bottle of Coke devoid of its contents, I didn’t cry when he left. It wasn’t because Mama broke into the first smile I remember from her, soon as he was gone. I wasn’t sad even after and it was not because Mama gave me meat with my Sunday rice the week after he left — a ritual left for Easter and Christmas. I thought I’d be glad that Mama’s face wouldn’t have to darken so often anymore. But I wasn’t happy either. It seemed like there was a comfort in the variability that Papa provided. Somehow, I became dissatisfied with doing my homework because I was done sooner, because papa’s alcohol-laced sweat didn’t fill the room with that stench that my homework had become accustomed to. The silent nights didn’t bring comfort either. I’d wake up at different times of the night willing myself to hear Papa’s snores that sounded like he was continually hacking phlegm.
The clouds didn’t leave with Papa.
The first indication of this was two weeks after he had gone. Mama sent me to the local miller, two streets away to grind pepper for the stew she wanted to make for the week. On my way to the miller, I had this private ritual. Since it was the only opportunity I ever had to go out anyway, I would maximize it. I’d do a quick stop at Abdullahi the Hausa man’s Kiosk to buy one Okin biscuit. I favoured the rectangular ones over the circular ones because they had more sugar. The biscuits were four in a satchet and shaped with borders like a miniature picture frame. With the sachet of biscuits in hand, I’d run over to the edge of the deep black drains, gutters, we called them. I’d break off one of the shorter borders and eat the rest. I’d then crumple that short piece of biscuit and sprinkle the dust the way I’d sprinkle sand over the play dishes we made in the playground. The fishes, that Mrs. Okonkwo said were not fishes but baby frogs, would swarm around the biscuit crumbs. With the small bowl of tomatoes, peppers and onions seated next to me by the gutter, I’d sit and watch till every single crumb was gone. I’d do the same to the three other biscuits.
On this day however, I didn’t stop over at Abdullahi’s kiosk made of iron roofing sheets. It wasn’t because I hadn’t saved money from my N5 a day lunch money at school. It was in my pocket. But before I left, the clock on top of the TV had its longer hand on the number 8 and its smaller hand on 4. That meant that my favorite TV station would soon start their programs for the day with my favorite cartoon – Voltron. The joy that came over my soul when the show would begin with how the Voltron force made me feel like a citizen of Aurora. So I ran, for Voltron and for Aurora. I jumped over the gutter in front of our house. I ran past the boys playing football on the road in front of the house. I jumped over potholes on the road, when I would have walked through them. When I crossed the road without looking both ways, I prayed the blessed virgin would protect me from Okada men’s motorcycles. I ran like I was representing Blue House in the Inter-House sports competitions at school.
It was the Miller’s snores I heard before I saw him at his shop. The back of his left wrist was over his closed eyes like he was shielding it from some glare in dreamland. His other hand was over his belly. It looked like he had hidden a smooth but very large calabash underneath the skin of his belly. Like a smaller hill on the mountain that was his belly, his belly button also protruded in the same manner. He didn’t flinch when I cleared my throat or even when I clapped my hands like those people who wore white dresses to church with no slippers or shoes. I put down my bowl of pepper and picked up a little stone and tossed it at his cheek. Thankfully, he woke up this time even though he scowled like he would have beaten me up for disturbing his nap. He looked at me and snapped, Pepper fifteen naira! I frowned and told him that I had only ten naira that Mama had given me. No light, we go use gen, he said with a finality as he began to recline again. It was almost 4 o’clock. If I went back home to ask Mama for the remaining five naira and then come back, I’d have missed over half of Voltron. I remembered the 5 Naira that I always kept in my pocket for the Okin. Oga, I said with an urgency, I will pay you. He groaned again, as if he had hoped I wouldn’t have the money. He snatched the little bowl from my hand and stalked over to the mill. He walked past me back out of the shop to where the mill connected to a generator was installed. He pulled at the ignition cord with effort, it sputtered to life at the third pull and I sighed with relief. I willed his slow movements to move faster as I felt the clock ticking in my head.
I ran faster than I had the first time around. The wind that rushed past my ears spurred me to run even faster. I ran past ice cream men that ambled along on their bicycles with an ice box mounted in front of it. I ran past children playing Suwe in front of their houses. I ran past kids running around playing catch on the road where cars didn’t pass often. I was now in view of the boys playing football near our house. I slowed down to a walk, with my chest heaving and the sweat pouring down my face and forearms. I was on the wide plank looking at the door to the house when it hit me. It’s odd because when this happened, I was thinking of how I had finally made it home. I felt like the five fearless warriors that manned the lions that made up Voltron. They must have felt like this every time they defeated their enemies against all odds. While I thought that, I felt something soft hit my head hard and I felt the already shaky plank tilt at an angle. Both my hands were holding the bowl full of red liquid as the sides of the gutter rushed up to meet me.
Call it reflex, but I shut my eyes and my mouth tight. I hit the bottom with a splash. Mrs. Okonkwo always said that there were harmful germs everywhere. She said that the best thing to do to avoid them would be to wash our hands as often as we could, and stay away from the easiest places to find germs. These places were the pools made by the portholes on the road after it rained, and the gutters, she said. I’m sure Mrs. Okonkwo must have felt that the only contact we’d have with the gutter would be when we played football by the road and the ball rolled in. She would never have bet that I’d be here, like this.
My eyes were still shut tight and I clamped my lips shut. I didn’t know what made me more hesitant to open them more. Was it the laughter I heard from the boys approaching to retrieve their ball and mock me? Or was it the thought of Mama flogging me without mercy, while she asked me whether money grew on trees? Or was it the shame of just being in the gutter or the fear of the germs that would by now have made a home in my body. I still held the bowl in my hands as I lay on my side. I heard a little girl say to someone near her, see, he likes it there, he’s a dirty pig. I was willing myself to dissolve into dust when the worst happened. I heard Mama’s voice.
Stand up, she commanded. She had said it the second time with a change in the lilt of her voice when I stood, eyes still clamped shut. Give me the bowl, her voice boomed. By now, the boys had gotten bored of me because I could hear them continue their game. I released the bowl to the sound of her voice. Once I’d done that, I felt strong hands pull me out. I flinched when I felt the shock of cold water wash over me because I was expecting a slap. Open your eyes, she said finally. I faltered at first, and by the time I did. Mama wasn’t there. All I could see was the green bucket of water only a quarter way full, with a small bowl dancing in it. I heard my mother call to me from behind me to follow her back into the house. Mama’s tone was like listening to a transistor radio at the beach, because the boys playing football had scored and they were celebrating. I followed nonetheless.
You wasted the pepper, she said when I had finally entered in our room. I looked at her nose, then at the portrait of Jesus on the wall and finally at the ground. Somehow, the water, shame and the germs that all clung to my skin made the Koboko sting even harder. I felt too defeated to even cry out from the pain. In that moment, I thought of the kind of horse it would be whose life was so miserable that even in death, its hide was a source of pain and suffering.
Sometimes, the dark clouds turn to rain.
I knelt waiting for the evil horse whip. Mama’s now usual frown had become as sure as the rising and setting of the Sun. It was usually one thing or the other but this time, I had brought my result home and had failed Biology. I looked at her and I knew something was different. She took a step forward and she began. Her eyes rained as steadily as the horse whip screamed its thunderous applause. I had never seen Mama cry. I tasted tears, and iron. I wasn’t sure which was mine and which was mother’s and which was from the blood in my mouth. It was like watching Voltron in fast forward. There were no words, well none decipherable anyway. It was just that buzzing in my ears and faltering speedy actions. Soon it became a blur, it could have been the tears. We have this game, Mama and I play when she flogs me like this. It is this macabre version of catch. I run, in what little space (haha! Space) there is to run (run! Haha!) in our cramped room. I know I can go nowhere that her horsewhip won’t reach but I try still. Going out of the door is not an option. I am that canary we learnt about in Biology that had gotten so used to captivity that it didn’t escape an open door. Biology. God. The reason Mama got so angry this time around.
I cowered like I’d seen the Madam Koikoi; the female boogeyman that torments the boarding school students at my school. Maybe she was. That look in her eyes was anything but human. I had crossed a line, and we both knew it. I don’t know why I didn’t run any further than a few steps from our door. A part of me knew I’d broken our unspoken rule. She moved the dangling whip to her left hand and strode to me. She had to stand on the tip of her toes to pull my ear. The Okro will never be taller than its planter, she said to me. It will not. The Okro will never be taller than its planter. It will not. She said it again and again as she dragged me back into our room. She dropped the whip and reached from my shirt.
I cried and she did too. I love you. Why are you doing this to me? Do you want to end up like your father? After all I have done for you, you want to become a vagabond like Cain? I will not allow it. Jesus will not let it come to pass.
The rain of blows, bites and scratches stopped only for a moment. I opened my eyes to see what had stopped the storm. Mama had reached for something on the altar. What was tha– My world exploded into white as my head erupted in pain sharp as a razor. I could scream no more. I opened my eyes as she turned me away from her, possibly to give her hand a wider arc. I only saw the picture of Our Lady looking in from the corner of my eye before the storm faded into a darkness that rivaled a moonless night.
As I drifted on the now familiar terrains of the inky blackness. It’s depths spoken reason to me. I began to see why Mama was so hard on me. Finally! I understood it! I will never know why it took me so long to figure it out. The servant that master loves, he chastises. You chastise the one you love. No longer would the stings from Mama’s Koboko hurt me and make me cry. It was all for my own good. How could I not understand it after so long. Of course I failed Biology. I was too slow. So I began to plan how to make Mama smile for always. It took me three weeks to get everything together but I did. In that time, she flogged me for taking too long in fetching water for her to bath. I took the lashes with a smile on my face. I don’t know what it was, but the look of adoration I gave Mama as she flogged me made her stop. So I was right! On that fateful night, I couldn’t sleep. I listened to everything. The grunts of the various power generators outside each apartment to supplement to incessant power cuts. The sounds of the crickets . Somewhere in the next compound, in one of the 15 rooms of the bungalow, a couple was shouting each other down. I heard the distant rumble of Trailers on the expressway. Finally, I heard the steadiness of Mama’s snore. So I snuck over to where I hid the things with which I’d finally make Mama happy.
When the dark skies usher in the night, my whole world is covered in the sepia hue of kerosene lamps and the blue tint of LED lamps.
It takes a smile from the Government’s power company to end this world of darkness and shadows, but that is like winning the lottery. When the darkness lingers long enough, the dark clouds on Mama’s face float away and she gives way to peace that is the colour of blue skies interspersed by fluffy white clouds. This peace never finds me. It hasn’t since I came home with that evil biology result. I’m tormented by the darkness. No, it’s not the shadows, it is the light that bothers me – that hazy light like in a fever dream. It is a being, omnipresent like Mama says God is. It brings with it memories like a shy perfume on the wind. You sniff too hard and it is gone. You take them in whiffs and they spread through you with their essence. Since I had no peace, the scents were all I had.
On the night I finally understood everything, the darkness brought with it the memory of the day Papa left. His billowy shirt had been tied to Mama’s Rapa. They had stared at each other with the animosity of the horned devil and Angel Michael in the calendar that hung over the TV. Even with her Sword raised, Papa kissed her. In that moment, the knots dissolved and Mama’s clouds floated away. She found peace. Papa began to float. He was free. On and on, in the light breeze, he floated. He was a pale blue plastic bag dancing in the wind like an airborne tumbleweed. On and on he went, into freedom.
Night after night, these scents came on a rotating schedule. It took a week of these visits from the darkness for truth, freedom and the truth to finally find me. I wish Mama had told me sooner. I would have done something, anything to make her happy. The darkness wore a cologne the scent of Mama’s disappointment. Her eyes were red as the color of the biro used to indicate my failure. In the moment just before, she reached for her horse whip, Jesus stepped down from the shrine over the TV. He had kissed his own mother whose face of peace and repose were unshakable. I am the answer, he said to me. He looked over at Mama who was frozen in the moment. He began to float and shimmer as Papa had done. He ascended through the air and into Mama’s head by her left temple. In that instant, I knew. I just knew as her dark clouds became peace and then that elusive smile I had been longing for. She loved me, and I knew just what to do. Jesus was the answer.
She hadn’t been very excited when I watched myself wake her up at first. I saw her struggle with me, but Jesus had warned me about that. The hands that held her down were mine but there weren’t mine. I watched from the chair as Michael and The Devil fought. I was surprised as I saw how the strength of the Lord helped me prevail. And then I watched me feed her with the bread of life. It was me watching, it was also me doing, like I had the spirit of the Lord upon me. As I tore each morsel of the bread, the crinkling of the paper was like sigh of angels. Psalm 91, Psalm 48, and Psalm 51. The last morsel of the bread was a bonus because on that same page was Psalm 50; her heart could do with a bit of praise to God. I could see the peace on her face had changed to those dark clouds, but it was nothing to worry about. It was not a problem, our sinful nature will always fight with the word of God. I held the rest of the bread of life against my chest and reached for Jesus. The slight niggle was trying to get him into her head so she could find peace again. Mama had always said, when she was trying to get me to do something particularly difficult, that he who must eat honey, must not look at the damage to his cutlass against rock. So I didn’t mind. I would have had to wash the sheets later, with all that evil blood coming out of her. It is good. Jesus will replace it with his, anyway. And finally, the Prince of Peace was in her.
The peace in her, had been enough to keep the darkness and its memories away. I could not help but just stare and stare at her hour after hour. She had that hypnotic quality of fluffy clouds floating by. She didn’t even mind that I had to move her to the couch to clean the room. That peace that surpasses understanding cannot be assailed. Jesus comes down again. I understand. He’s omniscient, that one. How does he know that our knives aren’t sharp and where we keep the razor blade? If the joy of finally making Mama happy weren’t so great, this peace would have been enough.
Drink, he says. I am ready to go 40 days and nights without food or water like he did. Mama and I have done pretty well so far. But who am I to disobey? So I do, and he offers me some more. Those who drink of the water of life will live forever. When he says this, I share with Mama as well. He clears his throat and I know that there is no more time to waste. I will make her smile, and like Papa billow away into my freedom.
Now look at her. I love it when she smiles like this. She looks like an angel with the way her head is thrown back in wild abandon. Am I insane to want to keep her smiling like this forever?
I curl up in the corner and bask in the glory of her smile. It is so bright. I can see all of her teeth and her gums. Most people will never get what it means to grin from ear to ear, but Mama does right now. The beauty is so blinding, dark spots dance in my vision.
I am going to cry. I feel so sleepy. Those infernal flies won’t leave Mama alone even in this moment of glory. I feel so light. This must be what the billowing away part feels like. I look up at the shrine. Mary is smiling. Jesus is back next to her and smiling as well. Mama is so beautiful. Her smile is eternal now. The joy in my heart is turning in my belly like a washing machine.
There is someone banging against the door. Nonsense. They can’t stop us now. Mama won’t like it. But no, her smile is eternal.
I’m billowing away.
I feel so soft.
Ajibola (b.1989) integrates disparate pursuits with a fluidity that breaks strictures of current labels of human endeavor. Entrepreneur. Solutions Architect. Artist. He engages with Art with a multi-disciplinary approach that is medium agnostic – from the written word to photographs and materials. He uses his creations to provoke introspection through a remembrance of our communal cultural identity. This approach leans on the premise that within deeper thought is the capacity for better societal decisions and choices.