The walk back home was long. A heavy silence had descended on us. It was too painful a topic to discuss and we could not find the words to express our thoughts. I studied her face but there was no anger there, only bruises and scars.
“How is your body?”
“It is fine, my son” Mama smiled in appreciation, wincing in pain, as she ran a finger down a huge wound on the left side of her face.
I tried to say more, to apologize, but no words came out. I tightened my grip on the bottle of herbal medicine that I had been carrying as we made way through the muddy road that led to our compound.
She walked feebly towards the kitchen and began to prepare a pot of soup. I stayed with her and helped slice the onions and bitter leaf.
“Why don’t you go inside and rest while the food cooks?” I suggested.
“No.” She shook her head in disagreement. “I must keep watch over the food so that it does not get burnt.”
“I will watch it for you, I promise.”
She smiled, as she stood up from her stool to walk into the bedroom.
The soup still needed sometime to boil so I went in search of Mary, my sister, who had suddenly began to cry. She sat sprawled on the floor in front of the television. Mary had a piercing and sorrowful voice; she cried a lot. I sat beside her and made her lay down on the cushion, then settled down to think about the events that had taken place in our house in the last few days, I put my head on the arm-rest of the couch and slowly fell asleep.
“Woman”, I heard Papa yelling from the backyard as he stormed into the house, “You have planned with your coven of witches to burn down my house, but you will not succeed.” I jerked up from my slumber. The whole house was filled with smoke, I could barely breathe.
I saw mama shudder. She started to run into the kitchen in order to turn off the cooking stove, but Papa dragged her from behind, so that she fell on the chair we’d been sitting on and he started to hit her, sowing fist after fist of pain all over the molded soil that was Mama’s fragile frame. I stood there with muscles twitching in anger, mind roving like a madman, chest heaving like the ebb and tide of the ocean, eyes burning with tears.
She tried wearily to wade through the slaps that fell on her like a pelting rain, but he pinned her down; sat on her belly and rained blows on her soft frame, pulling her long black hair along with her whole body to the ground, his eyes bulging with red fury as though two evil demons from the realm of the dead were dancing ‘atilogwu’ within and mama staggered helplessly along like one possessed by spirits. Papa’s fists landed in quick succession so that she could do nothing but whimper and moan.
Mama, the only sane person in the house, called out to me, asking me to put off the stove. I ran into the kitchen, with my heart beating at its highest pace and by now clouds of smoke had filled the kitchen. The atmosphere was charged by the terrible smell of burning food, my loud coughing and Mama’s high pitched screaming as Papa continued to do abominable things to her.
I wanted to put off the stove, but the smoke had slowly seeped into my mind causing a haze. I couldn’t think. I just grabbed the kitchen knife.
“Leave her alone” My voice was like the bark of a dog and it startled all, including me.
Papa lifted his thick brows in surprise. I did not know that my father felt insulted at my show of manliness, until he wrestled the knife to the ground and gave me a thundering slap. I must have seen seven stars at once.
After the hits were over, she lay down there in the same spot for what seemed like eternity, the whole house silent and hollow. Then she picked herself up with all the strength she could muster, occasionally leaning on the wall as she walked into the wide expanse of land that was our compound. Then the loud throaty sobs released themselves into the silent fabric of the night. Thick, long strings of mucus mixed with blood struck the floor, forming a line on the sand as she trudged bare footed along the narrow path that led away from home. Her face was swollen in many different places, with bruises all over.
For two nights, I waited outside for mama to come back. On the third day, Papa announced that she had been found dangling from a tree in the forest, dead.
Living without mama was unbearable. Many days, I sat down on a bench with Mary, who held her stomach in pain, crying a lot more as she suffered hunger, but papa didn’t know how to cook. I guess he started to wish mama was around when it came to food, as the sizzling aroma from the kitchen always sent him scurrying towards her like a rat chasing after the smell of fish. His anger and hunger were like two tigers living inside Papa, feasting upon mama. Papa should have tamed them, but he never seemed to bother about her disfigured face and broken heart; he never bothered about anything as long as she was carrying a tray of delicious food, with an inviting scent that mocked the smell of death lurking around the house.
We would eat in silence. Mama said little. She was a strong woman, an expert at bottling up her emotions; she carried herself with a quiet dignity and never told anyone about her pain or sufferings. To her, one should learn to wash their family’s dirty linen in secret and one must wash it very clean.
When we finished eating, she would kneel down beside his chair at the head of the table and say, “My husband, I am only a child, forgive me”. He’d nod his bald head at her, which shone like a mirror reflecting the light that came from the chandelier above as he bent it to wash his rough palms, pleased.
Papa was miserable the first few days that mama was gone. His drinking increased over a couple of weeks, then I started to realize that she was truly gone forever when Papa came back home with a middle aged woman. Her hair was plaited into cornrows and her face was almost masked by the excessive amount of make-up on her face. Papa said she was a native of Onitsha.
“This is your new mother” He announced to me, putting his arms over her shoulder. “She will take care of you. Greet her properly” Papa commanded.
“Welcome.” I said, feigning respect as I turned to face her.
“How are you, Emeka?”She smiled.
“Fine.” I scowled, when papa was not looking.
On my bed at night, I couldn’t sleep. Mama was dead and this new woman was here to take her place. I couldn’t stop blaming myself for that night. If I hadn’t let the soup burn, my mother would still be alive. Now, everything she had tried to protect was in shambles and another woman was taking her place in the heart of the man she loved so dearly enough to let him destroy her life.
“Will papa replace mama just like that, after everything she went through in his hands?” My heart squeezed when I tried in vain to remember her face again. Mama was gone, never to return.
Mary came into the room with a bowl of rice and two spoons, happily shoving it towards me.
“Where did you get this food from?” I asked suspiciously.
“Aunt Maggie said we should eat together,” she replied, sitting down. Mary’s bulging stomach had become flat since Mama’s demise. Her cheeks didn’t shake up and down, like ‘akamu’ anymore when she spoke.
I turned towards the wall, falling asleep with a huge lump in my heart, but my determination to keep mama’s memory by fighting this new woman did not wane.
Hunger was an insurmountable hurdle I had to conquer. One day, I climbed up a mango tree in an attempt to pluck some fruits. Just as a mouth watering fruit was within reach, an image of mama hanging down a tree flashed through my memory. I jumped down and ran as fast as my sturdy legs could carry me, with tears streaming down my face.
On reaching home, I heard screaming, which caused me to run even faster. Papa was flogging Aunt Maggie with the metallic side of his belt. His trousers sagged down his waist, revealing his blue boxers, but he didn’t seem to care. She was trying desperately to push him away, but he held her firmly with his strong muscles and continued to beat her like a drum.
I knew papa would not stop until he was sure she was badly injured. I looked around and saw Mary’s horror stricken face and a huge stick lying on the floor a short distance away from her. I picked it and in a split second, Papa was in a pool of his own blood.
“Tufia kwa.” Aunt Maggie spat out the word and for a moment, I thought she was about to blame me for making her a widow. She hissed at the corpse of my late father, and then stooped to carry Mary inside after patting me on the back.
We waited until a cloak of darkness fell over the roof of the house before she packed few of our things. Aunt Maggie put Mary, who was shivering, on her back and held an old umbrella to shield us from the thundering rain, but not from the flood in my eyes or the guilt in my heart.
Our feet got stuck in the mud and an owl hooted angrily in the distance, as we crept far away from home.
Aunt Maggie escorted me on my first day at work. It was a spare part shop at the heart of Onitsha market. She bought me a new pair of black sandals, shorts and a red polo shirt to go with it. It was the first time anyone, except Mama, bought me anything.
Many years later, I am the biggest spare part dealer in town, husband to a beautiful wife and father of two sons. I should have peace, throw my head back in laughter as I cuddle my wife and watch my children play football, but Papa’s two demons are dancing ‘atilogwu’ in my own house. The bruises on the face of my wife are a testament to this.
Mary is dead. Her husband, her killer.
Now that I think about it, one thing I have come to understand is that the man is sick too and needs healing as much as the woman. Yes, everyone should take responsibility for their actions and sincerely, I do. I admit that I am just like Papa, but I must change. I must get help and change. I must stop this destructive cycle.
Written by: Iyanu Adebiyi
Photos from Project RAW campaign ( RAW – Respect A Woman)