In retrospect, I should have foreseen the circumstance under which Mother would tell me about her relationship with father. She was not the type to rant in tears—no. Tears were a loss of restraint to her usually “gathered” self so she would be working as hard as she could to pull herself together again. She would sit on the floor by the wall of her room with her knees up to her chin and she would hug herself so tight that she seemed to shrivel. She usually shrunk into herself in those moments, even the tears stopped as if her body was saying to whoever saw and cared to understand: I will contain all that is me. In the evenings when there was nothing to be done, she liked to sit wherever the shadows of the fence afforded her respite from the curious glare of the sun journeying west. In such moments of quietude, she would look into our home yet somehow past it—as if she wondered what life away from it was like, or as if she juxtaposed her experiences here against her imaginations of somewhere else. I should have known that it was in such serene moments of pensive thoughts she was most likely to tell me why she became my father’s slave.
She cut a forlorn figure where she sat staring blankly, her tea and book forgotten beside her. For a while, I watched her through my window. I had come to understand that sometimes grief demands the solace of aloneness. Like when Arike ran to our church on the next street when Father flogged her for saying she did not like his beer because it made him angry, smelly and unhappy. And Mother was plenty aggrieved, more so than Arike.
When tears began to stream down her cheeks, I knew I had to go to her. Still I could not. My guilt would not let me. In those days, I believed I was in lucky possession of a power that others did not have. I would stare at the sun for a while and when I turned my gaze on other objects, spheres of colours were superimposed on those powerless subjects of mine. I revelled in my newfound power and so at intervals, I would stop and stare at the sun so I could blink colours at people. Somehow, I had come to believe that my powers would grow to the point where I would have to keep my gaze off people lest something bad happened to them and I be at fault. I should have known that Mother would crumble under the weight of my gaze. I felt somehow, a confederate of my father’s sins.
In the end, it took shame to conquer my guilt so that I was finally able to go to her—shame that Arike did what I ought to have done. Arike, appearing out of the corner and finding Mother in tears, ran up to her and they locked each other in a fierce embrace. By the time I made my way to them, Mother looked calmer but her eyes, still glistening with tears, betrayed her grief. What words of comfort did Arike utter? It is only with today’s eyes that I am able to see that no words were required, only a show of solidarity. In truth, Arike beat me to many things in those days and it irked me plenty. She was two years younger yet she was far bolder, and a bit taller. Her boldness was in part the reason Mother was known as Iya Arike instead of Iya Wande and Father’s bitter protests were of little avail.
That day Mother told us of love found too early and lost too quickly. She told us how they once walked hand in hand, threading flowery paths that put them in the focus of lonely hearts. She spoke of love so all-consuming, the world stared on in open-souled amazement. She decried time, toothlessly nibbling at love, and commitment, the rope that binds people to corners they dream of fleeing. By that time, the sun had dipped so low that the green roof hid it from view and the sky was tinted with that reddish-yellow tincture of sunset that never stays long. I remember because I followed Mother’s eyes. She could not look at us as she spoke of leaving. How could she speak of leaving? It sickened my insides. Had she forgotten so quickly our conversation on that dusty path that leads to her tailor’s shop?
‘Wande,’ she had begun, ‘I can no longer find it in me to love your father. There is only so much I can endure yet I cannot leave. I will not leave. Because then he will bring that witch into the house we both struggled to build and then what would happen to you kids? I know how tough it was for me as a child when your grandma, Iyaagba, abandoned us, with our father. I will not let you suffer the same fate.’
I should have thanked her. I should have praised her selfless sacrifice but I could not. I could not, for example, understand why she laid his bed so lovingly every morning if she did not love him. My silence angered her so she walked ahead, leaving me to find my way home.
‘I wonder why I try to make you understand. You are a man is why I try. I am wasting my time. I am alone in this.’
I could not explain to her that though I had a sense of right and wrong, in such complex matters as this, I could not chart the murky waters of human relations without guide. Her pain was obvious but I held on to those words: I will not leave.
Ajẹ welder called to me when she reached him, ‘Wande, ọkọ iya ẹ, your mother has left you behind. Won’t you run up to her?’ So I ran like my back was on fire—the type that slender, flexible pankere ignites in the crook of one’s back. I ran so that I could meet Mother before she walked through our rusted gates without me. I ran so that I could meet Mother before Ajẹ welder’s wife would come out. She was one of those friendly people with an inconvenient inquisitive nature that somehow knows a little—if not too much—of everyone’s business. Mother had warned me about her.
Father was drunk at dinner that night but unlike other nights, he did not pass out immediately after. He remained in the sitting room lamenting as the nine o’clock news announced mishap after mishap in the country. Mother never liked us to see him that way so we were confined to our rooms. I had scarcely laid to rest the turmoil Mother’s words roused in me, when I heard screams above the already loud television. Something was different about the screams we heard that night. I cannot recall who found courage first to leave the room, Arike or I, but Mother was fighting back! Even drunk, he was too much for her but she fought tooth and nail. Every time I held Father’s legs so he would not kick her as she lay beneath him, he turned around and kicked me away. She shouted for me to call Ajẹ Welder to come save her but I was rooted where I was. She was mine to save. Mother who endured his brutal blows and still made his bed lovingly. Mother who mopped up his mess before midnight and made breakfast before sunrise. I could not come to terms with my powerlessness to save her. I stood there in a daze, helpless as she was, watching her throated screams become mouthed songs of horror. Throughout, I did not notice Arike. Now I wonder whether I would have stopped her. Unexpectedly, Arike slapped scalding hot water into Father’s eyes. I remember his screams, worse than Mother’s. He thrashed around wildly, he swore as he cried, and he shouted to God. Mother and I were not spared; inevitably, some of the hot water burned us in places.
That night, that moment in especial is pivotal in how our lives played out. If ever the sullenness of a hundred moonless nights was crammed into a windowless room, it still would be cheerier than our home. Father gradually lost his sight and Mother never again said a word about leaving. Still Arike bloomed, a flower out of concrete. I became an ashen copy of the boy who wanted so much to do the right things, to be a man. By the time I got into junior secondary school my sight had started to fail. Macular degeneration, the doctor said, maybe genetic or continuous damage to my retina over time by UV light. When he asked, ‘Is there any history of blindness in your family, ma’am?’ Mother walked out.
I do not wonder so much anymore why Mother stayed after that memorable night. Though she never once repeated her words, I remember them: commitment, that rope that binds people to corners they dream of fleeing. I still wonder if I would be happier if I had saved Mother, not Arike, but life—it gives no second chances. If it did, I wonder if I would find my bravado. Maybe then, she would be called Iya Wande.
L.P Alani is a writer with a fondness for brown roof cities and the Yoruba culture. His works have appeared on GreenBlackTales, in Brigitte Poirson Poetry Anthologies and on his personal blog. His stories examine the impact of family realities on the lives of individuals. He is currently working on anthology of poems chronicling the lives of people he experienced as a child returning yearly to the heights of Olumo Rock.