by Enit’ayanfe Ayosojumi Akinsanya
The Time: 7.30pm, May 2018
Our mother’s head knocks the wall, a dull slam, a single jerky twitch, and then a sliding to the floor. The exact way she used to slide her arm from our grasp—weeks after Papa’s skin burned—and fall back into bed. This was to scare us and make us shout and rock her until she flipped her eyes open and laughed. We stoop over her supine body now and shake it so that she will wake again. She does not wake. She will never wake. When Big Brother pushed her with both hands against the blackened, gravelly-paint wall, we knew that would be the last time he would ever push her.
We shrink from her, our hands clutching our chests.
Our mother’s head has left the wall red. The head lolls now like a limp rag, over the low stool placed by the corner of the dingy room. Her lips are loose in the calm of tired death, as if all she needs is for one of us to walk over again and lift her head and tap her face gently until she opens her eyes.
Her big black eyes.
“It was those eyes. Those witch eyes. It was those eyes that killed Papa.” Big Brother’s words, spoken in the months that trailed Papa’s blackened skull, come back tonight to haunt us. This time, they bring the echo of our mother’s last living sound to us: her laughter when Diekolore, our lastborn, while sharing her fruit juice with our mother, poked the straw into our mother’s nostril, and said, “Mama, tenk Capri-Show!” Mama’s laugh swayed her body as in a dance; it rang out like a million small bells. We will never know how she hid the pain of pointed plastic poking through her nostril. That was seconds before Big Brother kicked the door open, strode over and slapped her hard on the face.
Our mother’s laughter could change. When she was really relaxed, it curdled, became a deep, wholesome rumble. She rumbled like that after the slap cracked her face. It was if she had not passed through Papa’s hands, now through her first son’s hands. She used to say to us, “Laugh when you can no longer cry.” She laughed that laugh again and again, and madness passed from Big Brother’s hands and legs, and entered his eyes. And he slapped her again, again and again, before flinging her against the wall that refused to protect her head.
“How could she kill Papa?” He froths in the mouth. “Papa married another woman, so what! Is it not a man that marries when and who he likes? Which sensible man would hang his life on a woman who has six children, and all of them are girls! Who is she to disrespect Papa for doing what a real man does?”
We’ve seen things that will never be washed off.
We watched Diekolore’s Capri-Sonne splash—a vapid yellow—against the bed, which our mother had laid minutes ago for us to sleep. Just before Diekolore started crying for the Capri-Sonne in the fridge.
We watch, now, how the color changed, now that our mother’s blood teems across the worn carpet.
Blood is red, always red.
Big Brother whirls upon us now. We spread back against the opposite wall, red on our minds. A constant throbbing. Perhaps it is in our eyes, too, because vision is as of a blurry film. But we cannot see our own eyes, not with Big Brother looming before us. He steps calmly, too calmly, into where we huddle into a ball of limbs and flesh and hips and breasts.
“You bastards.” His fists are giant punctuation marks around every sentence that follows. “Papa died because of you, I hope you know. If you had stayed put in heaven or wherever you came from, he wouldn’t have seen the need to look outside and invite that disaster on his head.”
We look up at him, bound by silence and a breathing, beautiful future condemnation. The present condemnation is a mantra that still hurts. But this is a hurt that comes with an eerie assurance. We have nowhere to run to, no one to cry out to. We can freely embrace death now. It’s his night, his home, after all. Papa’s relatives had been so eager to send us packing when Papa died in the fire outbreak at the factory. Their words were, “Finally, she has killed him. Oluwa o*, she has killed our son o-o-o! Out of jealousy! After putting him in her pocket and making him cook for her, and sending worthless girls to school at the expense of our own sons! Aje!” They clapped and struck our mother. We wondered if they had told this story of our worthlessness and Mama’s witchcraft to their sons.
“That man sent me to university and to law school.” Big Brother’s voice is a rasp; we can barely hear it. “He did not even think about Mother bringing me in from her first marriage. He liked me. He was like my own father.”
We think he is crying—until we look again and see that the madness has entered his mouth; he is cackling.
“I couldn’t finish law school because he died unexpectedly, no will, no agreements, nothing-nothing.” His eyes swivel towards our mother. “Abiyagi! I always suspected her, the mother of witches. Since Papa’s death, I’ve been dashing from pillar to pillar.”
We keep watching him. The first time he yelled at our mother in Papa’s presence, Papa told him that children didn’t raise their voices at their mother. Then that same evening, Papa balled up his palms and pounded our mother until red ran from her nose. We did not know that evening would continue into tonight.
“I regret ever letting you people in here. When a woman keeps producing girls that way, she is a witch. I never forgave her for killing my biological father, too. He always told me about having nightmares, especially after he impregnated his secretary. I feared that the same thing would happen with Papa. I went to Pastor Depo; he kept telling me to rest, assuring me that all would be well. He finally told me the truth sha. He confirmed it to me this afternoon. He held his Bible and danced around…and confirmed it. He said that is why you are all girls, so she can pass the evil to you. A witch! Not under my roof!”
By now, we can see our own red. Blood is rushing into our heads, in currents. We are quiet. We are listening to our sins. We are listening to why we should never have been born.
“I have to begin a new life. You have to join Mother. All of you. One by one.”
Is this what the TV shows mean by “serial killing”? He brushes our mother’s head aside and picks up the stool. The stool is heavy, the heaviest in the cramped room. None of us could lift it when Papa brought it in three months ago to stretch his legs on it. He grabs Modele’s leg and begins to drag her out from amongst us. Modele shrieks and shuts her teeth around his arm. He yelps and strikes her once, across the neck, and the force tears the stool from his grip. The stool is flung into our linked hands. We stare at it. Our mother’s blood drips at the edge, like a steady call.
I rise from us. I rise with the stool in my hand. My sisters find what their hands can touch and carry. Even Diekolore, who is four, grabs something. And together we echo our mother’s living sound and hear nothing. We mime endless series of the jerky dance of our mother’s red head and feel no wind. We run as one until we cannot determine who struck first. And we do not stop until there is no more terror from the other side of the room.
Oluwa o! – Yoruba (Western Nigerian) interjection to express shock. It means “Oh Lord!”
Aje!– Witch! (In Yoruba)
Abiyagi!– a colloquial term in Yoruba to mean “terrible parent” or “terrible mother”.
Sha– a common Yoruba inflection that means a variety of things, among which is “anyway”.