It was some years back. I was young. Shy. Bespectacled. Gap-toothed with a cranky smile, boyish poise and a heart full of doubts. The world was for me an unsafe place, and safety was in books. So I read till I got thicker lenses, till I forgot that people existed, and till the teacher shouted my name in class and asked me for the formula of the area of a circle. I never thought in circles or triangles or squares. Not in shapes. Nor in numbers. Shapes amused me. Like the shape of Uche’s head, the class prefect. I thought it looked square. Becky’s was oval. Becky was my seatmate and we hardly spoke. My head was always bent under my desk reading Peter Pan or some Ladybird book series. I hardly answered questions in class either, unless asked directly. And when it was time for P.E. lessons, I sat under the jacaranda tree with one of my books and read. Obsessing over little things my mates did not even notice. Like how the ants greeted when they passed each other. It was this aloneness that made the teachers call my mother to school one day.
‘She is always alone.’
‘Even in school?’ my mother asked.
‘You mean at home . . .?’
‘She’s always on her own. We literally beg her to eat sometimes. She doesn’t even mix with her siblings.’
They looked at me like I was a special child. Maybe I was. Never smiling. Despite the complaints of Mr. Tom, my Mathematics teacher, that I read Things Fall Apart during Math class, I always topped the class and passed his subject.
Once when we got into an argument about solving x and y to find z, I told him, ‘Literature is the prism through which life is solved. There is a solution to every conflict.’ I was in grade seven then. He stared at me like I was a stillborn. I walked away. My gait was not so girly. I was used to the taunts from boys that I was a tomboy. One boy, Eugene, liked picking on me. He was dark and tall, with a nose like a cobbler’s shoe.
‘You think you’re special, eh? You walk around like your father’s the president.’
I never responded, until one day when I was in a funny mood. I walked up to him. He retreated until his back hit the wall. I stepped on his shoe and whispered in his ears, my hand inside his shorts.
‘Pick on me again and I’ll break your balls.’
He held his breath and stared at me. His eyes held a new way of looking at me. His friends looked at me like I was possessed by demons. I didn’t care. That was the last time Eugene said anything to me.
My head was full of grotesquely fantastical things. One of these things inside my head was a hole. I don’t know when the hole started growing. I think it was when I started hearing whispers, shrieks, screams and when blurred images began swimming in and out of my mind. The hole was a house for these strange voices and images that flew in and out. This dark house in my head was surrounded by tangled wires. Every time I tripped on them I would disappear into the hole in my head. I started disappearing into this hole rather often the older I grew. Sometimes quickly, other times slowly. I would slip into a realm I never knew existed, a space I could not explain. The hole, every time I slipped into it, seemed to shapeshift. I was always led to different places.
My mother was a career woman moving from one city to another, travelling from one country to the next. Sleeping in hotels. Attending conferences. And coming home once or twice in a month. My father did more or less the same thing. I was the last born. My sister said I cried a lot when I was small. Mother hated changing my diapers. And father seldom held me. My siblings were either busy watching cartoons or playing soccer outside. It was the nanny who took care of me, and when she left in the evening I would be all alone. I never knew, growing up, that resentment and anger were growing in me too. The anger and resentment manifested occasionally, in little ways, like once when my brother James came into my room to wake me up. I hit him with a mirror on the head.
‘Are you crazy?’ My sister screamed at me. She shook me like I was a doll.
‘He disturbed me!’ She slapped me twice on the cheek. I stared at her like I would devour her. I sulked that day, and I slipped into the tangled wires that led to my house in the hole. I took my sister to the highest mountain and held her by the neck on top of the cliff.
‘Never you touch me, do you hear me?’
She shivered and screamed. Her eyes almost popped out of their sockets.
Then I released her, and she started crying. I did not care. But when she said, ‘I love you Cynthia,’ I was instantly overwhelmed. I fell to the ground and wept like the child I wasn’t. She hugged me.
‘Don’t cry, Cynthia. I’ve always loved you, even when mama was not around to love you.’
My heart melted. No one had ever told me that they loved me before.
But my resentment kept growing still. When mother came home from her trip to Ghana, she brought clothes, chocolates and all those sweet things that fascinated the minds of children. I walked quietly into her room. My siblings were ecstatic.
‘Hello, my baby.’
‘I bought you new clothes. Come and try them on. I brought chocolates too.’
I turned around and went back to my room. I was annoyed. I didn’t want any of that stuff.
That night, I had my first period. My sister, and not my mother, guided me through the confusion. In the morning mother barged into my room. I had my earphones on.
‘Toyin, I’ve been calling you.’ When she called me by my native name, I knew shit was about to go down.
‘I didn’t hear you.’
‘So you think I would come all the way from Ghana and you’d just reject what I brought?’
I didn’t answer.
‘Hey, I’m talking to you.’
I stared at the floor, counting the tiles and connecting different patterns on them. She slapped me across the face.
‘You don’t ignore me when I talk to you, do you hear me?’
I held my cheeks and wept.
‘Keep your gifts. I hate you.’
I said those words and immediately stepped on the tangled wires and slipped into the old hole in my head and I was teleported to another secret world. The chief demon in there, Isaka, was at work right away helping me get my revenge. I could hear mother screaming at the top of her voice.
‘Leave her alone!’ Mother was crying. I was stripped like a kaffir and nailed to a tree, and flogged until I bled. But I wasn’t crying. Isaka had bound my hands to the tree and cut gashes on my thighs with a razor blade. I was bleeding in a million places. I was laughing.
‘Please, leave my child alone.’
‘Hahaha!’ I laughed with more contempt. Isaka squeezed my nipples till I screamed. Drops of blood fell from my breasts. Mother was horrified.
‘Please. I beg you! Leave my daughter alone. Please!’
I’d never seen mother cry. It was nice to see her cry. Before I knew it, my father was there. He seemed frightened by what he saw, the sight of me being maimed and taking some pleasure out of it. He was quieter than my mother. In fact, he was the one who’d always taken an interest in me. When he was around we’d discuss literature. Shakespeare. Achebe. Poetry. It was matters of taste which brought us together, and not matters of the heart.
Occasionally, he would say, ‘Cynthia, read the Odyssey.’ His glasses were always moist with the steam from his coffee. He took it without cream.
‘But I prefer to read Arrow of God or The Wizard of the Crow.’
‘That’s good. But widen your horizons, child.’
Such was my conversation with my dad. I pitied him, seeing me like that. And I felt guilty. I was causing him pain. I didn’t care about my mother. She didn’t even know that I preferred books to chocolates. But with Papa, even though we never hugged or anything, there was still that closeness that we shared. Papa came to where Mama was. I stopped smiling. Isaka hit me a painful blow and I yelped like a puppy. Mama wept some more.
‘Cynthia, child. Why are you doing this to us? Don’t you know that we love you?’ It was my father. He had a right to talk about love. He’d shown me love before. Like when he ate half the chicken my mother cooked for him and gave the other half to me. Or the coffee he shared with me when I read Odyssey to him. I wondered if his love was halved, like the things he always gave me. Maybe he gave me all the halves to say, implicitly, that I made him whole.
So when Papa said, ‘Cynthia, I love you,’ it made me happy, even happier than when my sister had once said it.
Isaka was the giant that I always slipped to meet through the tangled wires in the hole. There was always noise and laughter between him and his friends, but today, they were quiet. My head throbbed painfully, like it was punishing me for punishing my parents. I slipped out of the hole back to the real world. Things never got better between me and my mother.
Sometimes when I fell on the tangled wires, things were bloody. Horrible. And the screams inside the house were unusual. Sometimes they kept me awake all night. I was filled with so much pain and bitterness that I thought I would never know how to love. Then I met Charles at the university. He brought me roses one time, but I hated roses. He didn’t give up. He tried a few other things, and one day he wrote me a letter. It was a stupid, old-fashioned thing to do, but it did the trick. His words found my core. I thought about Charles the whole day. Was this what love was? Feeling like the other half? But did my father with all his half eaten chicken and cookies and coffee consider me a half of himself? Love confused me.
‘Charles, you promise not to break my heart?’
He said I was beautiful, and that he loved me without makeup. But three months later, he wanted me to wear skirts even when I preferred pants, and he asked me to wear makeup. I got confused. Was love not supposed to be natural? I started sinking back into my loneliness. Tripping over the tangled wires more. Slipping more frequently into the hole that I thought I’d escaped. Screaming more and more. Love was deceit. Charles shattered my heart. Isaka was back in my life. I brought Charles to a valley. The valley was full of bones, and the place stunk of death.
‘What am I doing here?’ he asked. He looked around confused. He was stripped down to his boxers. A chilly wind whistled through the valley and a dark cloud hovered above him.
‘Where am I?’ His voice quaked. His dark skin was full of goose pimples. His teeth clattered. Then a loud bang reverberated down the valley, followed by a sinister laughter.
‘Please don’t harm me.’ He looked around for the source of the sinister laugh, but it was too dark and he couldn’t see. The laughter increased and the darkness seemed to get thicker. He couldn’t see me, but I was there.
‘You failed in your promise.’
‘You broke my heart.’
‘It’s too late.’
He heard heavy footsteps striding towards him. It was Jaka, the wicked. This was where he broke the bones of those who failed to keep their promises. He had one big eye and iron hands. He grabbed Charles around the ears and crushed his head like a rotten orange. After that incident in the hole, I kept away from Charles forever. I’d purged myself of him and I was at peace.
Then one day, during the semester, I received a phone call to come home at once. Papa was lying in his room. The room was dark.
‘Daddy, are you okay?’ I could not see his face. He wanted the curtains closed. He wanted the door to his room shut.
‘I’m fine, child.’ The voice did not sound like my father’s voice.
‘You’re not fine, daddy. What’s the matter?’
‘I have cancer. Prostate cancer.’
My thoughts ran wild. It was then that I realized that I loved somebody.
‘I asked you to come because I know how you feel sometimes.’
‘How I feel? How I feel about what exactly?’ my voice trembled.
‘You are a lonely thing, my child. And I am responsible for your loneliness.’
My throat parched up.
‘Don’t ever think I never loved you. Your mother too. She loves you, much more than you think. I’m sorry we put our careers before you. We just wanted to give you children the best.’
My mother walked in just then. I could feel her presence. A bitterness rose from my gall to my throat.
‘Mother what are you doing here?’ I felt I was the only one close to father, the only one who cared about him, the only one who had a sole right to him.
‘Child, leave your mother.’
‘I want her out now. She is the cause of every mess in this house. I want her to leave. Now!’
I couldn’t see Mother’s face, but I could picture the shock in her eyes. She broke into tears and walked out the way she’d come in. I held my dad’s hands. He was thinner than he’d ever been. Some weeks later, my father died.
At his funeral, I went up and made a speech. The man in the coffin was not my father. It couldn’t be him.
‘My father is immortal. Death can never take a life that big. My father isn’t dead!’
I was pulled away and the service continued. When the undertakers put his coffin down in the grave, and the priest said something about dust returning to dust and ashes to ashes, something about God giving and taking, I jumped into the grave and spread myself over the box. I was my father’s half. If he really was dead, I had to go too. How would I survive without him? Men picked up shovels, the earth came down on my face.
At last the hole in my head closed shut and Isaka perished. And I died, with my father’s love inside of me.
IMAGE: gfpeck via Flickr