I didn’t slide out of my mother with a silver spoon grasped between the gums inside my mouth. I never tasted the luxury of wealth, I only smelled it from others because even the nurse that hoisted me while I was crying, I think, was draped in a tattered gown that must have lost its whiteness and I imagined my laying-face-up-mother, in a breathless chase of happiness, wet her ears with joyful tears snaking from the corners of her eyes.
My father wasn’t born with a silver spoon either, and just like him, my life was equally fettered by poverty and toil. It was almost like a legacy as his father was poor too. But unlike my father, I didn’t handle our impoverished life with a familiar and endearing intimacy maybe because I just got to know what it felt like to be poor or because I held big dreams in a tight clasp. I had hoped to fetch my parents out from the fathomless depth of our suffering as though I was not inside. But each time I ruminate on how my father was born poor and grew up that way without wealth appearing his way, even in flashes like ghosts I saw in my nightmares, fear would hold me in a vice as if to tell me, ‘who are you to succeed where your father failed?’
But that wasn’t the problem. I didn’t come from a poor family alone. I came from a family so poor that every wealthy family who saw life as a fashion became evil or according to my father, ‘the devil’s footstool,’ and being poor was never the problem, we wanted everything and everyone else to be poor. My father made us believe that the lives of the wealthy were disaster areas. Comfort became a fairly tale for my family; it never existed, it never should. I remembered vividly the troubles that wrapped around us like a shroud and how we in turn, wrapped ourselves like spool. Whenever I thought of hell, home sprouted up in the soil of my mind.
‘Riches is in the mind, not in money,’ he’d say without looking at anyone in particular so we always assumed it was directed to all of us; my brother, my mother, and I as we settled our frames on our chequered sofa in our two room apartment.
‘When you pursue money and get it, it enters inside your head to control you and this will make you forget your creator. Don’t chase money, chase God,’ he’d continue. And from there – where he’d mentioned God – we’d know that the rest of our night would be spent listening to my father’s misconstrued Bible verses where he either replaced John with Matthews or called Solomon the father of David. He would continue until we snore into the ocean of sleep.
We left the village for Lagos state when I was two. The two room apartment we managed to get was in one of the busy streets of Alaba where empty sachets of water and transparent nylons – both white and black – competed for spaces inside the ground like weeds fighting to outgrow roses, only that I was never able to tell which was the weed or rose. One room belonged to my parents, we called it Father’s room, while my brother and I shared the other room where rats gnawed on our fingers and toes and mosquitoes feasted on our ears. We never had a sitting room because the only sofa in our house and television were inside my father’s room.
One Friday night when I’d just told my parents about my scholarship to study in one of the prestigious secondary schools in our environ, my father’s throaty laughter burned my heart as we sat in his room to eat the oil-drenched rice my mother had served.
‘You see what I tell you people every time,’ he said, almost like a question. ‘Don’t envy the rich. God does not look like their lives.’ He shook his head as if pitying their torments in the afterworld. ‘You can only be successful when you try to be like me,’ he said looking at me, and I almost let out my suppressed laughter after I felt the ironic rebound of his words. He continued, ‘Your father should be your first teacher. You hear me?’ I nodded. He sighed and stopped talking, holding his breath as if recouping the oxygen he had lost through his garrulity. We had become so familiar with Papa’s hackneyed prognoses that sometimes we recited them before him in the mouth of our minds, like when he said Mama Abike had clothed her children with the witchery of misfortune that only affected those who associated with them. That night, my brows furrowed and the lines on my forehead became contorted as I paused to think back to the moments when Abike and I ran after each other in a joyful play, and after my father said he’d pray for me so that the Holy Spirit would enshroud me with protection, the lines straightened out again in relief. He said it again when he saw my brother with one of her children and we discovered he only said it whenever we were with her children so we kept them at arm’s length anytime he was home.
My father was an autocrat who made us sit on thorns and smile comfortably. He brought us up to fear him. The thing was we always accosted him with trepidation; slumped shoulders, face buried downwards and hands crossed at our buttocks before we spoke as if he was an invisible god. We grew up that way, my mother was no exception.
‘Papa, I’d love to further my education. I want to be a computer scientist,’ Michael said after dinner, as though picking off on an old discussion.
Papa’s brows raised and for a moment, I thought they’d roll to the back of his head. We just finished eating in his room and normally, we were supposed to wait till it digested then Papa would lead us to an evening prayer before we could go to bed. No one was supposed to speak, it was forbidden.
‘You see how the devil is controlling this boy, eh?’ Papa said, his forefinger was in Michael’s direction.
‘But Papa, I finished my secondary school three years ago. I want to further.’
‘The devil is a liar, a big liar. He must leave you this night. Why didn’t he come in the morning or afternoon? It shows he’s a coward,’ Papa said, searching for his Bible as he continued talking about the devil.
Every time my father spoke about the devil, and because of the way he talked about him, I always imagined a stout man dressed in black suit with an equally black broad brim clamped beneath his arm, either seating on the weak chequered sofa in his room or standing behind our red-rose designed curtain, looking at everyone insidiously with a cigarette perched lightly between two of his fingers, taking a drag and blowing the smoke out through his nostrils to my father’s face because he was the one always calling him. He blamed the devil for everything, even his own mistakes. That night, we spent almost an hour praying for my brother for something that wasn’t particularly sinful. My father could have just said he didn’t have the money to send him to the University instead of casting and binding demons that never existed inside my brother. And that was when things started to fall apart in our house, our lives.
Michael stopped greeting our father and for four months, he didn’t care until one rainy night in March. He came back that night looking worn out, drenched and his black eyes had sunk under the precipice of their brows. That night, I didn’t see the man who’d never been tortured by doubts, I instead saw a man weighed down by his own decisions.
‘Welcome, Sir,’ I said, unsure of how the words came out.
‘Emma, how are you?’
‘And you. We’ve become mates in this house, isn’t it?’ he said, staring at Michael who lay on our mat, face up, his head propped up on his two palms. Michael kept quiet as if he didn’t hear someone say something to him and my eyes dilated with fear of what would happen. My mother was cooking in the general kitchen at that time.
‘Are you deaf?’
‘What do you want me to say or do?’ Michael said, still lying in the same position.
And in one swift move, my father removed his belt but Michael made a feint and evaded his first attempt to flog him and in the process, dragged the belt from his grip. As if a bucket of flaming coals had just being poured on my father’s bare back, he scattered his strength on Michael in fits of angry blows that met him at fine precisions. His gait, as he escaped from my father, was laced with uncertainty like the unsure steps of a walking baby. My brows furrowed perplexedly and I fought many words before I finally let out the ones I thought was right, respectful.
‘Are you okay, Papa?’ I asked. The words tasted bad after they slipped out of my mouth and I feared the stench would annoy Papa.
‘What?’ he said, his face rough with a baffled stare.
‘Errmm.. I mean, is everything fine?’
He walked out. Michael never came home that night. We didn’t even see him again that year.
My father taught us to be reticent, and if by mistake our discreet reticence was ripped into sheds like when I told Abike of how I had won a scholarship in a very big school, something that my father forced me abandon because of my large mouth, you’d be sure to sleep on your stomach for days. The day Papa found out through Mama Abike’s ‘Papa Michael, good morning. I hear wetin them give your pikin o, e go reach us.’ After my father snorted into our room, he laid me on our creaky bed; my trousers pulled out completely and as Michael held my hands with my eyes shut tight, his firm grip on me crushed the bones guarding my heart. I started with shouting, then it melted into moans which became weak breaths, and even at that I could still hear the swishes of cane in between my mother’s pleas and wails that paled into insignificance. In my home, my father was our Lord. From that day, I became drowned in the deep reticence of my father’s sea and sometimes, to avoid too many questions from people either about my father’s whereabouts or about my mother’s health, I would feign tiredness and flutter my eyes in a manner that seemed like drowsiness was trapped behind my eyelids and run inside the house. After my mother, I was the next who feared my father the most.
The night my father shivered my ambition into pickable fragments, I had just turned seventeen, three years after Michael left. When I told him I wanted to be a medical doctor, he chiseled its lofty ends into rough shards. As usual, my mother came by to raise my dreams from their sepulchers with her honey-yoked words.
My mother talked slowly like one unsure of what to say but I felt her fear was on whether the moist words on her tongue would roll out to hurt someone or not. She’d become used to finding happiness in other people’s laughter that she most times forgot about her own needs. And whenever you listened to my mother talk, there was no way your eyes wouldn’t moisten with an eager hopefulness. In our house, the wind of Papa’s doctrine blew us like chaffs and sometimes while we shrugged, we always smiled as if blithe with the bliss of a morning sun; our teeth exposed so that the furtive air of his dominance hovered over the house.
‘Nnam, God’s plan for you will not fail. Just believe, inugo?’ she said, as she rested my head on her chest. Her presence became a prop for my dying heart.
‘But Mama, I want to be a doctor,’ I said, before breaking in a stupendous roar of tears.
It wasn’t just her sympathy I wanted, I’d told Mama that Papa’s conception of my dreams was tainted and that before his belief of everything civilization had brought is bad sink into the quicksand of his ignorance, someone better orient him or better still, re-orient him. I’d always carried that dream in the eyes of my mind wherever I went.
That night, I was empty of thoughts but even my discreet silences in the days that followed didn’t shield me from the claw-sharp arrows of Mama’s glare or the moisturized stares of my father that encompassed me like a caught thief and I smelled of poverty for the first time, my gait tilting like someone utterly detached from life.
My father’s life comes at you fast.
Before then, when the thoughts of becoming a successful surgeon – a word I saw from an old newspaper at fifteen – sprang up inside me, I was usually enveloped by a certain assurance of freedom or an overwhelming excitement of its promise; a very shiny future and so no other thing mattered, not even my father’s refusal. But after my mother’s talk, all I waited for was God’s plan for me and my brother’s return. I missed my brother so much, especially the way he pronounced my name with an endearing sweetness that made me swim in a stream of fantasy where I saw a world that consisted of just two of us, living in a wide happily-ever-after.
It was bizarre how after my secondary school, in a Government-owned school my father pushed me to attend, I didn’t make a single friend. Unlike Michael, who had them in abundance, I was very bad at keeping friends. I couldn’t even sustain even a simple discussion. Sometimes, I liked to think it was because Michael was five years my senior so it didn’t matter then. It was now, without Michael, that life began to show me how much time could matter. We usually visited some of his friends at a big primary school field in the evenings. Most of the time, we left the places in stitches in spite of ourselves, our eyes teary from laughter and our faces glowing with haste and happiness. It was such wonderful moments we looked towards sharing; moments that left us feather-light as if we guzzled the healing spirits of the evening, and this goaded us to dream more, big and braced us for the exquisite burden of our tumultuous life. There, our conversations were with colorless fluency as if we already knew what the other person had in mind while listening greedily to our jokes. We were usually thrown into oblivion so that detecting the hollow ring of our fundamental flaws became a labor. There was a guy I took interest in, particularly. His name was Kachi, one of the best football players amongst the boys and easily the oldest. He had this face that glinted with joy every time and sometimes I wondered if he ever got angry. We would roar with delight anytime he rolled and drifted the pupil of his eyes sideways and then push it up slowly as though magically until all that remained of his eyes was whiteness. He was full of majestic tenderness and it was some of the things he did, like this, that made us dream of a big bright future with starry eyes after of course, it must have sank our torturous doubts with laughter that sometimes wormed our foreheads with menacing veins and made our eyes glow with inspired rays. We found everything about happiness there. But that was some years ago, the heyday of our relationship where everything seemed unending.
One night as I left our room that had become so wide with Michael’s absence, there was restlessness in my spirit, an intense travail to my mind, and there was an utter depression to my soul. I sat on the ground outside our compound just close to a neighbor’s window, music blared from all corners and I could hear traders shouting at the top of their voices for things they sold. I began to look back to the years when Michael and I were inspired by the immortal flame of our early days together and how my father extinguished it with air from the snap of his fingers as though the flame feared him, I still felt the stab of disappointment at my father’s words, his ‘you’re not going to be a man by being a doctor, stay here and work.’ Although he didn’t bark as usual that night he said them, his voice was soft and calm with authority. The room became small, the walls pulled themselves towards each other, and oxygen suddenly fell short, terribly insufficient as everyone waited for who would speak next. The breathless night of suspense ended intolerably tragic with everyone going to sleep, I’d thought someone would stand up for my desolating dream, maybe my brother would run in and stand up for me, my dream. A vast silence crept into the room. That was how we lived; if it wasn’t one trouble where we ended the night in a tragic silence, it would be those noisy nights we allowed our father’s dreams for us and teachings overshadow our reasoning.
The sky became empty like the eyeballs of someone dead. Thunder grumbled, and the clouds began to push each other as if they were trying to pave way to the rain that fell in serious torrent. The raindrops sounded like pebbles as they hit our window panes and the next morning, the dirt that covered our street after the heavy rain was in wild luxuriance like vegetation, and it gave the dirty water a crisp sparkle as curtains of opaque rain still drizzled.
That morning I met Kachi, who gave me a clue of where I could find my brother. I waited for my mother to return from her Thursday prayers and immediately I told her when she came back that night, she dropped her Bible inside the house, tightened her scarf and we set off to look for him. The abnormally large moon seemed still, as though looking at us, inside a sky that had gone black. That night, we padded, in nervous trots, a labyrinth of obscure roads that led into streets we’d never been to before; passing the suya joints with their spicy swirling smokes unfurling nostalgia in me. We swan the whole area looking for my brother, and that was when I realized everyone could resemble one person because as though we searched for him in the faces of everybody we saw, they looked like him. We didn’t find him in any of the streets Kachi had told me – Imam, Mosafejo, Alafia, Awoyemi. Still we didn’t give up; the both of us trawled the dark like owls. That night, my mother was painted with a fresh sorrow.
Things began to come back together when my father, too, started to look for Michael. Everything became normal, although our activities rumbled on like cars after a gridlock and aside good mornings we rarely spoke to each other. He would pray earnestly, fast for days and he even invited local prophets. As usual, hopes were given that we’d see Michael again, that he would return. My father became sober. One month, as the prophet prophesied, passed but Michael didn’t return. The year drifted away slowly, two years trickled by and Michael still never returned.