Ifeoma always wore her hair long. She looked like the angels painted in the dome of our church, with her narrow nose and long legs. The way her hair draped down her back, fluttering at every gush of air, always pricked my envy. Twice a month she plaited it while I sat under the buzzing clipper scowling at my kinky hairs as they cascade down the floor, leaving my naked scalp to the scorching kiss of the sun.
We slept in the same room. Some mornings I would find myself on the floor while Ifeoma sprawled in the bed like a baby kite testing its growing wings, ignorant that she had kicked me out of the bed. Pneumonia soon crept into me from the cold floor. She left the bed and started lying on the floor, saying it was a punishment for her bad sleeping habit.
Ifeoma was waiting for admission into the university and I was in primary one. I loved her bathing me. Often when she was done bathing me she would prod me out and lock the door, leaving me shivering down to my room.
Dad and Mum were dust. They breezed in and out of the house on weekdays and settled down on Sundays to suffocate me with their smothering presence. Sometimes while drifting into that blurred space before sleep I’d catch a glimpse of Mum in my room, pecking me on the forehead and tucking me properly into bed.
Dad was an odour, you never see it but it comes and goes; Mum was a seconds hand on the clock, you never see it steady in a position. They stayed at home only on Sundays. Dad always spent his Sunday mornings flipping through newspapers and shouting curses and frowning at newscasters on Channels TV and CNN. He said they reported only lies because truth wasn’t lucrative. But he never stopped watching them. I would have asked him the meaning of lucrative but his face never invited me for a chat. After church Mum would scrub the kitchen floor until it shone. I enjoyed standing there watching my reflection swim on the surface. Then she would spend the rest of the day sleeping on the couch, croaking like our neighbour’s rusted generator.
Ifeoma was Mum’s sister’s daughter. I learned in school that she was supposed to be my cousin but I never called her that. Cousins were people we met in the village during Christmas, not someone like Ifeoma. Ifeoma could tell my thought by merely glancing at my face, something Mum could never do. At night she read me stories from Picture Book of the Bible and sang me to sleep. In the morning we prayed kneeling against the edge of the bed, she holding my hand lest I drift back to sleep.
One Sunday morning I woke up to see Ifeoma packing. Mum said she was going to the University. Don’t worry I would join her later when I grow up. But it would be long before I grew so tall like Ifeoma; I could barely measure up to her midriff.
“Bobo, I’ll soon come back,” Ifeoma said, stroking my head.
The faint grin on her lips exposed her lie. She wasn’t returning any time soon. University people didn’t return home always. I gripped her skirt, rammed my feet on the ground, teeth clenched, determined to stop her from leaving.
“Let her be,” Mum said slapping off my grip from her skirt. “She has told you she’ll soon be back, why are you disturbing the neighbours?”
I fell on the floor, screaming and bouncing up and down like I was bitten by an ant.
“Go on and scrub the whole place with your bum-bum,” Mum said. “Come on get up from there now do you think I’m your washing machine?”
Ifeoma pushed her head out from the car as Dad drove out like a snail. She waved without tears in her eyes. Our noisy street swallowed my loud cry. From upstairs, children poked out their blockheads from the gallery, giggling and mimicking my cry.
Mum clenched my wrist and yanked me inside. “You won’t bring my legs out in this yard this boy.” She spanked my back. Pain flooded my chest and burst out in torrents of yells.
Days grew into weeks and weeks matured to months still Ifeoma didn’t return. One November evening, Mum entered the house with a boy. His head had the shape of a cashew nut, his nose a tiny cave, his eyes dirty and his hair dangerously turning into dreadlocks, the type old madmen wear. Round his wrist was a rosary, the white type they sold for fifty naira at Trinitas Bookshop.
I bent over my homework, bit my pencil and hummed a song to myself.
“Sweetheart, Mum is back,” Mum said. “Can’t you say welcome to Mum?”
“Mum welcome,” I mumbled, head still bent over my book.
“This is UC…Bobo, Mum is talking to you.”
I took in the ugly sight of the boy again and I felt my face scrunch.
“What’s that face for?” She took his wrist. “Anyway, he’s your uncle.”
“Is he your brother?”
“No, Bobo, but that’s what you’ll call him because he’s your elder. He’ll—”
“I don’t want any uncle. Uncle flogs people.” I threw my pencil on the floor; it danced and disappeared under the couch.
“No, Sweetheart,” She squatted and held my shoulders, “not every uncle flogs.”
“The uncles in school flog people very well. Uncles are wicked people. I hate uncles. He’ll flog me when you leave, you’ll see—”
“Okay, okay, Sweetheart. Don’t call him uncle again. Call him UC.”
His dirty eyes roved in their sockets as he stared at me. I shrieked.
“What is it again?” Mum asked.
I swiftly pointed at his eyes. “His eyes, his eyes, they are scary.”
“O my God, would you prefer he plucks them out? Oya, go back to your homework.”
I steadied my eyes on him. He remained motionless, holding his bag before him like a shy person.
“Will you beat me?”
He shook his head and smiled, magnifying his ugliness.
“Can you do homework for me?”
Mum took his bag. “Don’t worry Sweetheart, I was teasing you. He won’t stay long. He came for a holiday.” She took his hand and led him to the guestroom.
UC was no way like Ifeoma. He scrubbed the floor crawling on his knees. He used rags instead of mops. He added too much pepper in his food. He lapped the ladle when he wanted to taste what he was cooking. I always peeked at him in hiding, and that has always exposed me to many ridiculous things he did that increased my repulsion for him. His food tasted like crayon, not the bright-coloured one that had a confused scent of sweet in it but the black one that stained your teeth black when you cut it with your teeth. Still every Sunday in the dining room Mum and Dad would smack their lips after eating his food.
I never knew the kind of work my parents did, and every time our teacher stood me up in the class to recite a composition about my parents I would stand and stare as if all the words in me have been dug out. The only thing I knew was that Dad always left the house every morning in a black suit, carrying a brown suitcase that looked weightless and a tiny pair of glasses perching on the ridge of his nose, like it was just there for fancy. Mum had this white wig on her head I hated. She looked like a black witch in it.
The next week, I went to the guestroom to call UC. It was 6:45 a.m. and he was still in bed. I poked his shoulder like it was a dirty thing. The room has taken on the stifling odour of his body. The odour took monopoly of the air and I could hardly locate a spot to breathe in fresh air. He heeled over in bed and faced me. The dimple in his left cheek could swallow my pinkie. See how he was smiling like a goat.
“You sleep too much, now I’m late for school,” I said gesticulating my anger.
“Dad and Mum don go?” he sat up and stretched himself in bed. He pushed down from the bed, took my hand and led me to the bathroom.
“You no go tell Mum say I wake late, abi?” he asked.
“Leave me alone.” I snatched off my hands from his dirty hold. “Why don’t you speak good English?”
“Broken don master my tongue.”
“No tell Mummy eh, you know say we be friends.”
“I don’t make friends with grown-ups.”
“Who say I be grown-up?” His voice accented a note of anger.
“I want to go to school now.”
“Oya remove your clothes.”
I pulled off my pyjamas; and, raising my head, I saw him before me…naked.
“See o, your thing dey too small,” he said. “Make I see.” He made to reach for my thing but I steered and covered my thing with my palms. His grip felt hard on my hand and I screamed. He shushed me.
“If they flog me for going late I will tell my Mum.”
I woke from siesta to hear UC crying in the parlour. It was strange to hear Mum’s voice at this time of the day. She was cooing softly, and when I entered the parlour I saw her cradling UC on her lap as if he just fell out from her womb. His body was shaking and sweating, and his voice came out in stutters. Mum was sniffing and wiping the back of her hand over her reddening nose.
The family had called her at work informing her that UC’s mother was dead, I heard Mum telling Dad in the night. Life has not been easy on him. So, UC was now an orphan, a child barely sixteen? But Dad said he would be his responsibility henceforth. I didn’t hear the rest of the discussion because sleep snatched me away.
That was how UC never went back home. He would start from SS1 in September. He didn’t know anything. From my evaluation he should be in the same class as me, or even lower, since I knew many things more than him. Dad promised to take him to BSC Orlu, that notorious school known for their relentless spewing of violence. There was no other school close to Trinitas Nursery and Primary where I studied, so no alternative was available. He would henceforth be taking and bringing me from school; even though I knew the way better than him.
We were still preparing for his schooling when Ifeoma returned for holiday. I was so glad I hugged her for what felt like forever. She pulled me out and sized me up and down.
“You look skinny. Have you been eating at all?” she asked.
“Of course na,” UC retorted. “Na grow he dey grow. You no know say children dey grow thin when they wan grow tall?”
“Then we should double his food,” she said. “Don’t worry, Bobo, I will make sure you regain your chubby body, Okay?”
I nodded, my face aching with smiles.
“By the way, UC what are you doing here?” she said, standing erect from me and resting her weight on one leg.
“I dey stay here now. Aunty and brother say them go train me for school since my mama don die.”
“Eyaa, so sorry,” she held her chest, “Aunty mentioned it to me on phone…such a pity.”
“Will you stay long?” I said, trying to bleach off the sudden moodiness.
She hunkered down before me and stroked my chin. “I’ll stay until you get tired of me.”
“I won’t get tired of you.”
“We shall see about that.”
I saw UC staring at her and smacking his lips as if her presence was a lollipop he could lap up with his fang-like tongue.
“Ifeoma, make I take your bag inside,” UC said, reaching for her bag that sat on the floor.
“That’s true.” Ifeoma shifted her weight to the other leg and turned to UC. “Where should I stay now since you’re obviously in the guest room?”
“Hmm…” UC murmured steering his gaze around the house. “The guess room dey large sha…” He corked his head ominously; the way rattle snakes did in the zoo when you stare at them through the protective glass.
Ifeoma scowled at him and muttered something I couldn’t get.
“I say anything wrong?” Both sides of his mouth lowered in mock innocence.
“Come to my room,” I shouted suddenly.
“Yes, Bobo, but I’ll need Mummy to come back first.” She sprawled herself on the cushion and pillowed her head on her hands. I was sleeping in my room when I felt my blanket pulled away. I jerked awake and saw it was Ifeoma smiling down at me.
“Mum said I should stay with you.”
“I told you, I told you,” I said triumphantly and flung the other half of the blanket to her.
“No. I will sleep in the bed. I don’t sleep badly anymore.”
Something woke me. A gentle noise, the type that says, “Listen, something sinister is happening.” My eyes groped uselessly in the dark room. It was a sound birthing many noises—moans, heavy breathing and muffled squeaks.
In my temples, tiny veins pulsated like some hideous demons were stretching them taut. My mouth tasted like dry sand. I pried my eyes wide to accommodate the darkness. My knees collected together and felt numb. In a minute my eyes became one with the darkness and I could see vague figures of the almanac on the wall. Ifeoma wasn’t in bed. Maybe she was on the floor as she always did during hot nights. I crawled gently to where the sound was rising.
“Wait-wait, let’s see if Bobo is awake I heard a noise.”
“No worry, make I check.”
I rolled over to the other side and began to ease out light snores.
“He don go far for sleep.”
“Are you sure?”
There was silence. I rolled over again and peered. I heard sounds rising from a hazy shape of tangled bodies. Soon Ifeoma began to laugh like a toddler.
“We only need him around for his mother’s burial,” said an old man in our parlour.
UC was crying again like the first time I saw him cry. I stood beside Ifeoma who held UC’s travelling bag in front of her. It was a Sunday and Ifeoma and I had returned from church to meet two old men and an old woman in the parlour with Mum and Dad, and UC was in the guestroom parking his bag. He told Ifeoma he was going back for his mother’s burial, but he would be back. Very, very soon, make him go say bye-bye to his dead Mama.
“How long will he be staying?” Mum said, her eyes glistening with unshed tears.
The old man in a worn-out Ishiagu raised four fingers in the air. “Just four weeks.”
“That’s a month or thereabouts,” Dad said.
“Don’t worry, my son. We shall surely return him back,” the old woman said. “You are the only home he has now and we can’t keep him in the village knowing that someone with such a good heart like yours is willing to raise him as his child.” She adjusted her puffed sleeve blouse that has sagged to reveal her brown, or formerly-white, bra strap.
Dad shook hands with them and patted the old woman on the back. Mum didn’t shake hands, she gave her back, and they tapped her pam-pam. They all brushed their palms on my head as they left as if my head was some kind of hand towel. Dad drove them to the park with UC, leaving Mum, Ifeoma and me behind.
Ifeoma became moody. Not just for that day, she remained so even after two weeks.
“Are you angry with me?” I asked her once in the room.
She turned quickly with shock quickening her eyes and said:
“Why should you say that, Bobo?”
“You don’t play with me again. You’re always on your own.”
“Come, come here.” She reached for my head and rested it on her bosom. “It’s just that I miss UC.”
“I miss him too.”
She giggled. “No, not the way you do.”
“Yes, I do.”
“You’re too small anyway, you won’t understand.” She held her face aside as though hiding something on her face.
“Tell me I’ll understand. I understand many things.”
“Okay. He makes me happy.”
“But I also make you happy.”
“No, Bobo, not that way.”
“Which other way?”
She let herself flop on the couch and sighed in exhaustion. “You ask too many questions.”
“Is it because he makes you laugh every night in our room?”
Head erect, eyes flared, she cupped her palms over my mouth.
“Jesus! What? Don’t say that…who told you that?” Her eyes darted over my shoulders this way and that.
“I always heard you laughing with him every night.”
“Did you see us?”
I pursed my lips.
“What did you see? No-no, don’t answer that. Have you told anybody?”
I shook my head.
“Are you sure you’ve not told Mum and Dad?”
“No. But why should I not tell them that you are laughing every night with UC? Is it bad?”
“No-no, it’s not bad. Just that Dad and Mum will be angry that UC didn’t stay where they asked him to stay. And they may shout at us for allowing him inside our room. Do you want them to shout at you?”
I shook my head vigorously.
“So don’t tell anybody, you hear?”
“But I want to make you laugh like that.”
“Bobo—” Her mouth hung open like a broken louvre and I could see speckles of saliva frothing on either sides of her mouth. “Just don’t tell anybody. You always make me laugh.”
“Shhh.” She placed her index finger over her lips.
Ifeoma rolled restlessly in bed all night. When she woke me in the morning her face hung stiff with gloom. Mum and Dad have gone. She needed to be quick lest she should be late to where she was planning to go at 7:40 a.m. From the bathroom window, I could see the sun limply hanging in the sky like a red flat plate. It was full and slightly red, the type that doesn’t hurt when you glance at it. She pulled my shirt and led me to the bathroom.
“You may have to bathe yourself,” she said.
“Stop asking and start bathing first. I told you I’ll be going somewhere and you’ll waste my time. They’re calling off our strike. I need to see my course mate before she travels this morning.”
I was still gazing into the bucket of warm water when she pulled off her dress and began lathering herself. That was the first time I saw her naked. And her body didn’t in any way look like UC’s. I was lathering my body when she finished towelling hers. She looked at me and smiled. Her hastiness slackened. “Come,” she said and took the sponge from me.
The next day, she wasn’t hasty. The news was a sham. The strike wasn’t called off. She didn’t wear her clothes as she bathed me. She was naked, again.
“What is it?” she said.
I was gaping at the two mounds on her chest. It was interesting, the way they held tight to her chest, swinging and dangling yet not falling.
“You want me to cover myself?” she asked.
I shook my head without taking my eyes off the object of my bewilderment.
“Oya touch it.” She inched closer, pushing out her chest with the things on it.
I stepped back, one-two-three and stopped.
“Don’t be afraid.” She laughed like the witches on Africa Magic. “Come.” She took my hand and pressed it against one of the dangling things. It felt like a balloon. I snatched my hand away.
She called it a game of touch. “You touch me and I touch you.” She touched my thing also. She rubbed it between her palms and told me it was smaller than UC’s. She continued the game every morning and evening until I began to always linger about waiting to hear when she would invite me over. Any time she rubbed it that way something seemed to snap and dissolve and congeal all at once inside me. I loved moaning the pleasure that came with her touch. She warned me never to tell anyone, not even to whisper it to the night or even dream it. People could steal my secret in my dream. She would discontinue the game if I told anyone. I loved the game and couldn’t stand the thought of its termination.
Later the strike was called off and she went back to school. Mum had to prepare me very early in the morning and drop me off before going to work. In the class, I’d bring out my thing under my desk and touch it the way Ifeoma did. I’d enter the school toilet and allow the girls in my class to touch my thing. But I never felt like I was flying, the way I felt at Ifeoma’s touch.
It was mid-December and people had started returning home for Christmas. I was watching Mum cook in the kitchen when the doorbell rang.
“I’m coming,” I said and trotted towards the door.
UC was standing before the door, his backpack sitting on the doormat. I fell into his arms and he caught me and wound his arms around me, smothering me in his tight embrace. He stroked my head and dropped me.
“Did you bring all the village things I asked you to bring?” I said.
He grinned and slung his bag on his shoulder.
“You’re back, UC?” Mum asked, leaning on the kitchen door, oil-stained ladle in her hand.
“Good afternoon, Aunty.”
“I hope everything went well?”
He smiled lightly and nodded.
“Okay, settle down. I may need your help if you’re not tired. Housework wants to kill me these days and I have a case to research.”
“Okay, aunty. Make I drop my things.”
He lugged his bag to the guestroom.
“Ifeoma never come back?” He asked when we got into the guestroom.
“No. But she’ll soon return for Christmas. I’m sure.”
Day after day UC kept asking about Ifeoma. He said I should tell Mum to call her to know when she was returning.
“Are you missing her?” I said.
“No. I no fit miss am.”
“Nothing sha. I just no fit miss am.”
“But she’s always happy when you’re with her.”
“This boy you too dey talk.”
“She missed you when you left.”
A smile widened his face. “You mean am?”
“Yes, of course. She missed you very, very well.”
His laughter came out a little too loud.
“She had nobody to make her laugh in the night that’s why she was missing you.”
“Wetin you mean?” he said gruffly.
“Ah!” My palms flew over my mouth immediately. “I don’t want to break my promise.”
“Which promise? Tell me I no fit tell anybody.”
“No!” I shouted and rushed out.
Mum slapped my hand often as though she has suddenly grown a passion for slapping. But why was it always my hand and always when I rubbed my thing? The time she double-slapped me tai-tai on both cheeks was when I grabbed her breast in the bathroom. She was tying wrapper. I’d imagined how her own might feel. So, I grabbed it. Instead of smiling like Ifeoma, she left two slaps on my face with her leather-flecked palms. “Don’t ever touch Mum like that again” was the only explanation she gave me.
Mum always kept a tight face whenever she was in the house. I only see her laugh and smile in the street and in the church with people I could hardly tell their faces apart. I tried always to get her to play, but she was always too serious. So I devised she might like the game of touch.
“Mum, do you know the game of touch?”
I craved to play with her the way my classmates played with their parents when they came to pick them from school. I envied them for the way their parents tickled them and threw them in the air with boundless laughter.
“What’s that?” she asked. She was sprawling on the couch, head resting on the armrest.
“Ifeoma taught me.”
She sat up calmly, muttering, “Game of touch,” curiosity swimming in her eyes. I saw it and smiled aloud. “Sweetheart, tell Mummy how it’s played.”
“It’s played in the bathroom.”
“Bathroom…?” Her eyes shot out.
I hugged myself.
“Sweetheart,” she pulled me to her side, “please tell Mum everything.”
“She said I shouldn’t tell anybody.”
“No, Sweetheart. Bobo, my darling, tell me. Mum wants to play. I won’t be angry.”
“Cross your heart you won’t be angry and that you won’t tell Ifeoma.”
She crossed her heart. The smile in her face was ugly as if she was about to poo.
“I touched her here,” I said, pointing at Mum’s chest. “She touched my thing also.”
“Jesus!” She sprang up, her hand gripping her sagging wrapper. “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Not my son. This is not happening. Child abuse…in my house…with my own son?”
“Mum, you promised not to be angry.”
She didn’t seem to hear me.
“Kennedy, Kennedy, Daddy Bobo. Come-come, there’s big problem.” She stomped into their bedroom.
Mum was making frantic calls to people in the village. She paced the sitting room frantically and never left the house. Even Dad was at home. And it was Monday of all days. They had tried calling Ifeoma, but she wasn’t picking up. Mum was speaking with Ifeoma’s mother. Her words came in rapid succession. She was not going to spare Ifeoma; if she likes, let her hide inside the belly of a fish, they must fetch her and send her where she belonged, Mum screamed into the phone.
We drove to IMSUTH—Mum, Dad, UC and myself. The hospital smelled of Lysol, like the Dettol Ifeoma used in cleaning our toilet. It made my stomach grumble, and I felt like throwing up. A tall, lanky man in white overall gestured me to a spring bed. The bed cried when I sat on it. He poked my thing with a tiny rod, as though weighing it or reaching for the urine inside it.
“Does it pain you?” he asked, still poking at my thing.
“How did—what’s that her name again?—”
“Ifeoma,” Mum said.
“—Yes. How did Ifeoma touch your thing?”
Mum adjusted noisily on her seat. I turned to her. She returned another ugly smile.
“Nna, answer him,” Dad said. “I will buy big ice cream for you when we get back.”
I didn’t look at him because I didn’t want to see his own ugly smile. I turned to the tall man and said:
“She touched me with her two hands like this,” I held the stick in his hand between my palms and rubbed them together, “and she also licked it like sweet in her mouth and put her finger in my bum-bum.”
“Chim o.” She fluttered her hands about like the wings of a rattled cockroach.
“When did she start playing the game with you?” the tall man continued, smiling painfully.
I couldn’t remember, not with Mum pacing up and down like the hen in our backyard when kite took its chick. Dad’s shoes were hitting Koi-koi-koi on the tiled floor. UC stood, face drenched with tears, and sat himself beside me. Seeing the horrid faces around me and the terrible sentence their silence made, I yelled:
“Where’s my Ifeoma?”
Photo by Karina Vorozheeva on Unsplash