We always prayed he would end his brutality. But with each passing day, he gave us reasons to give up on him. Six Sundays ago, we visited Pastor Nathaniel, who gave us an oil he claimed was anointed. It was to be used in a fetish way, my thoughts. Mama was instructed to pour a spoonful of the oil into my father’s bathing water or his soup. It was outlandish. Three Sundays after, it was Prophet Gregory. This man only extorted us in the name of going to the mountain to pray on our behalf. My mother became financially crippled after the last visit to an Apostle of God.
My father was not one man I wished to be. He was everything a man should not be.
Accidentally, if I ever ran into him, my heart raced like horses on track. It doesn’t happen to me alone, Dika told me the same thing. I wondered if it was the same way Mama do feel. His arrival was usually at night, sometimes midnight, when spears of dawn light pieced the farthest corner of the street. He had the eyes of a serpent, they were full of hate, evil and venom too. His greasy voice matched his always scornful look. The previous night, everyone was asleep but me. Papa had just arrived from one of his late outings, where he drinks and chases girls young enough to be my junior.
“Welcome back, Papa” I greeted, after opening the door as a response to his noisy knock.
“Keep quiet! What took you so long? And where is that your mother? ”
His breathe smelled of nothing but cheap whiskeys. He stared at me coldly as though he was expecting me to give him a reason to beat Mama again. My weary eyes closed involuntarily, confirming it was at war with my brain. I opened them and took a deep, heavy breathe. I waited for him to speak again. After two minutes, he smirked and walked away with the exact steps Goliath took when he saw little David in the Christian Biblical tale. I followed with a steady pace when I saw he was heading towards Mama room.
“Why are you sleeping by this time?” Papa asked, with an authoritative tone.
“Nothing, Sir” Mama replied with a tone that reeked of fear and defeat.
Mama started replying him nothing of late since it has saved her punches from the man she said yes to on the alter seventeen years ago. Papa’s Goliath’s strength was no match for anyone, not even Papa Eze, who came to Mama’s rescue the last time with two functional eyes and left with damaged ones.
I stayed back outside, behind the door, praying Mama shouldn’t be manhandled as usual. My heart jittered around the 180 range and my face was decorated with sheen of sweats on the cheek, chin and forehead. I could hear Mama’s cracked voice and toneless responses.
Mama used to be beautiful, smart and intelligent. But, Papa has turned her into a mocking figure. She was no longer a dutiful woman but a duty-fool woman. Depression became her companion. She would run to it by 12am if it refuses to visit by 10pm. It was obvious she has deteriorated. Her tangled hair, overlong nails, lethargic hand movements complimented her gaunt appearance. Day after day, she wore same clothes and each time she lay on bed, she would have to find motivation to get up. Sometimes, she would find one and other times, she wouldn’t.
I lowered my head in disappointment. My father was a modern day disgrace to the men folks. I covered my face with my hands, and collapsed onto a chair.
Our house was a big and uncomfortable flat. I wasn’t ours alone too. It was home to chirping crickets at night, while also accommodating spiders and lizards by daytime. Uncle Kelvin, my father’s younger cousin had given him money to find a good place but his demonic love for money made him choose this one. The roof the house was made of was powerless to heavy downpour. We would place buckets under the leaks; one in the kitchen, two in the sitting room and one in Mama’s room whenever it rained. We didn’t complain, we still tried to feign comfortable smiles each time Uncle Kelvin visits. Three months ago, all we did was bail water from our house. Dad went out while Dika and I followed Mum to one of her numerous prayer appointments. It rained heavily that day. The rain formed a pool inside our house. Papa would whip us with belt on his return. Mama consoled us with wet eyes. That night, I prayed and raised my hands in the why me? Position.
But, it wasn’t the first time my Dad had beaten me. One sunny Friday when the clock was striking thirteen, I came home to find a new pair of slippers at the front of our door. I didn’t knock, I just sat outside on the floor and rested my back on the door. My thoughts were, maybe he is with my Aunty. Aunty Ezinne was his only sister who visits with her car. But, the parking space that day was empty so I knew it wasn’t her. Twenty-four minutes after, I heard close, playful voices. I quickly stood up and faced the opened door. It was Dorcas. Yes, the promiscuous Dorcas. I bit my upper lip as though in physical pain. The shock on their faces was written in big, bold handwritings.
“Hope you enjoyed it? ” were the last words I heard before the door opened. And it was Dorcas’s. That day, Papa beat me that I was left grasping for air after he left me. Till today, I still do not know why he beat me that day, but he succeeded in shutting my mouth. I never told Mama.
Mama and Papa were still in the room while I sat in the sitting room talking to myself with a weakened voice. Dika was sound asleep. I watched his peaceful posture and wished our family was like that. I was fifteen, he was ten. I later sank on my knees to pray, but the sound that followed in the next settled minutes disturbed my prayers. It was like the restless grumble of the sky that threatens of rain. It was like a roar even. The stillness the house had enjoyed was disrupted by a loud wail.
“Idiot! Next time, you will learn to respect me” Papa said in his usual tone of pride as he ran out.
His speed scared me, I had to go into Mama’s room. There, I saw her laying lifelessly. I quickly called on Papa Eze, who helped me rush her to a hospital.
I slept at the hospital that night while Papa Eze returned home to his family. Dika slept at his flat that night.
The hospital was old, and its bed was weak. The bed would make odd sounds whenever a patient climbed on it or climbed down. It was the one Papa Eze could afford; a cheap hospital. After all, Mama wasn’t his wife. He gave the doctor some money so he could commence treatment. The hospital had numerous smells. Above all, was the smell of sickness. The dull beige tiles were neat, so were the nurses and doctors but, even at that, the hospital wasn’t a place to be. It was a place to be forgotten after each unplanned visit. I stared blankly at everywhere. It was my first time in a hospital.
The next day, I prepared hot tea for Mama after she had gained consciousness. I watched as she tried to get the hot tea beside her. Her shaky hands revealed so much of the woman she has become. It was only then I realized how evil Papa was. I quickly helped her to it as I couldn’t fight the torture of heartaches anymore.
“Thank you, Gozie’m” She said. Her face was beaming with smiles, but I knew those smiles were fake. She only wanted to console me.
“Good morning, Ma. I’ll be your nurse for today. How are you feeling today? ” A beautiful nurse, whose eyes sparked and gleamed, informed us.
“ Thank you, my dear. I’m fine. This is my son”
“Good morning, Nurse” I greeted.
“Good morning, dear. I’ll be back to give you some drugs. Until then, you must make sure to eat as much as you can”
“Okay, thank you. Gozie, go get me water”
I came inside with a bottle of water. I saw a man talking to Mama, but it was his back I saw. As he turned, I quickly rushed into his embrace.
“Uncle Mike! Welcome” I exclaimed, my voice disturbing the still, quiet room.
“I’m okay. I just quickly rushed here when I heard your mum had an accident”
“Acc–ide–nt? ” I stuttered unintentionally, thinking of the next articulation like a nursery pupil learning pronunciation for the first time.
“Yes, she told me on phone that she had an accident while returning from the market two days ago” Uncle Mike said, this time he spoke with certainty.
He believed so much in Mama, his elder sister, while I was looking at her in confusion. She kept blinking her eyes, a form of communication I had understood, but it was different and difficult this time. Different because the blinks were accompanied by uncontrolled whimpering, and difficult because Mama had never lied.
I passed the bottled water to my left hand while I swept my right hand across my forehead to get rid of sweat that confusion had brought.
Mama collected the water from me while I rushed back outside to pick Dika from school.
I came back with Dika, who ran to hug Mama. She patted him at the back as she rose with great difficulty. Uncle Mike was still there. He carried Dika and continued talking to Mama.
I watched them; Mama, Uncle Mike, Dika and the yellow liquid called drip that seemed motionless. I was troubled, not that it was something I have not felt before, it was just different this time. Why did Mama lie? What was her intention? The rhetorical questions only arrived with more confusion. All I wanted to do was cut in and tell Uncle Mike everything that happened. I would tell him how Papa pushed his sister to the floor and hit her with forceful blows until she lost consciousness. Lastly, I would tell him how Papa ran away and how we have not heard from him since then.
My eyebrows squished together and I swallowed saliva excessively. I tilted my head to the left side with pursed lips. I just wished I could match Papa’s strength. I wanted to beat him the way I beat Dika four years ago when he refused to run an errand for me. Aside an unknown fluttering in my stomach, I was feeling overheated.
“Gozie!!! ” Mama yelled.
I jumped up in fear. She was angry, I had responded to her fifth call.
“I’m sorry, Mama” I apologized, with a defeated tone.
She paused to examine me.
“Are you okay?”
I nodded in affirmation.
Uncle Mike helped us settle the bills without even waiting for Papa, who Mama had said would show up later in the evening. My smile couldn’t be contained. I felt rejuvenated, maybe it was my adrenaline, and threw a fist into the sky as if I just won myself Millions. I was happy.
Uncle Mike left with a promise to visit later in the week. Few minutes later, Papa Eze came in with his son, Eze. Eze was both a classmate and a friend to Dika. They both exchanged pleasantries with affable smiles. I envied Papa Eze’s family. Mama once told me that no family was flawless, but I was yet to see the flaws in Papa Eze’s family.
Night drew closer and the darkness became more and more oppressive.
“Take Dika home. I have talked to Papa Eze, you will sleep at his flat ” Mama said, arranging Dika’s books in his bag.
I felt disappointed. I could take care of myself and my brother. Why sleep elsewhere when we have a home?
“No. We will sleep in our house” I said, dragging Dika outside.
I turned back to look at Mama. She smiled and looked outside, into the dark clouds. I saw a smile on her face as she watched the beautiful sky. Maybe she was looking at them, and wishing her life was like that. Her favorite phrase would be had I known.
I resumed school the next day with Dika. I was in the senior class. For three days, Mama stayed in the hospital and breathe into its scent that nauseated me. I pitied Mama, I really did. She married such a monster.
After school one Friday, I sat under the mango tree. Dika sat beside me, resting on my chest with his breathe warming my bare hairy chest. The metallic crisscrossed gates made some odd noises but I paid no attention to it. I felt a presence behind me, its scent was well remembered. It was the voice that confirmed everything.
“Where is that your mother?” A voice, the exact one I heard the night Mama went to the hospital, hit my ears.
I sat still, utterly still, looking at the ugly paintings of the buildings that filled the compound. I looked at them as if I was admiring the riots in the colors. By this time, I was already feeling the closeness behind me and I held Dika tighter.
A hand turned my head backwards and I looked straight into a face that so much resembled mine. Papa! Why did he return? Has he come to complete his mission?
“Answer me! ” He yelled.
“ Mama is at t–he hos–pital ” I stuttered.
He quickly left my head, and sighed heavily like he was happy of not being a murderer yet. Papa eyes were sad as he looked at me, and there was a single tear pooling in his left eye before coursing down the cheek. I was shocked, it was the first time I saw him cry. Maybe he was thinking about our happy days. The days he taunted and chased me round the mango tree, or when he would help Mama Fetch water from the stream. Maybe it was when he taught me how to squeeze the skin on my forehead, or when we would play football till food was ready. Or maybe it was nostalgia for what used to be. I wasn’t sure, but I was sure of the fact that I once had a father. A real father.
“I am going away. Take care of your mother and your brother” Papa said, walking with great speed into the house.
He would come out with two boxes and bid me goodbye. I was still sitting there, holding the sleeping Dika. That moment, I knew what it was to be indifferent. I stared at him emotionlessly with a polite smile that wasn’t a bit genuine. When he finally left, I turned away and yawned hungrily. The breeze was blowing bitter dust. The clouds began to gather, and it was all set to rain. It started out as lazy drizzle before pouring down in serious torrents. By then, I was already inside placing buckets under leaks at various places. Just immediately, I moved Dika from the sitting room into Mama’s room, on the bed where he laid on his stomach. I sat at the bedroom window and pressed my forehead against the window louvres, to see outside.
The gate opened and Mama came in, still on the brown shirt she wore every other day. Sometimes, I would think it was because of the TRUST IN GOD written on the shirt in white ink, just below her breast, that made her wore it. But, I could only conjecture. Mama announced herself with her gentle tap on the door. I opened the door, and hugged her so tight, like it was going to be the last. I missed her. She sat on the armchair while I had gone inside to get her water. She would ask about me, even though I was in front of her, then about Dika who was still deep in sleep, and then about Papa.
“ Gone? What is gone? Where did he go to? ” Mama asked curiously, which surprised me.
I was quiet. It was the best I could do, remain quiet. We sat in silence and the silence stretched out further with each passing seconds.
“You know, your father used to be my everything, I mean, everything I wanted” Mama broke the silence.
“What happened?” I asked, drawing close to her.
Mama spoke at length that evening. It was the first time she had talked this much for years. She talked in a soft, forgiving manner with her eyes fixed on her long nails, as if it was not Papa’s fault.
She met Papa at a birthday party. It was her best friend’s party. But, before then, they had met before only that she didn’t recall at once. Papa began to explain where they had met before, until a vigorous hug affirmed recollection. Papa came initially, as an unruffled gentleman only to become a stranger with just a known name later on; a restless thug. It was a mystery.
She hoped Papa would return. We would wait for days, we waited for weeks, months even. The year drifted away swiftly but Papa never returned.
by Joseph Chimezie
Image source – Drawing Image