HOME by Tochukwu Okafor
She hit me. She didn’t stop, even when my arms and legs started to redden and swell, and small cuts appeared on my neck, and my eyes were the colour of blood, shedding streams and streams of water. Her son climbed onto the leather chair in the parlour and turned up the volume of Tom & Jerry so that my cries were no longer loud enough to be heard. I tried falling on my side. But she let go of the belt in her hand and caught me with both hands, quickly, as though she could read my mind. She slapped me on the back and cursed. I felt her spittle crawl on my shoulder the way a millipede would creep along a wall, and her blows struck me like a blunt axe beating dead wood. The last thing I heard was the ding-dong of the doorbell, or maybe it was just Jerry on television fiddling with Tom’s bell, or Madam’s phone ringing. Whatever it was, I didn’t know, because my eyes drooped before they closed and all I could see was grey sparks bursting in pitch-black.
My name is Enebeli Matthew Chukwuemeka. I am a boy of fourteen. My mother sells akpu at Nkwo market, which is at the heart of a town I grew up in, where the men take up strenuous jobs and the women are like sisters and the boys are sent off as apprentices before they clock twelve—most times, ten—and only girls and weak boys are allowed to go to school. My father, I don’t know what he does. Every morning before sunrise or before the first cockcrow, he sits on a low wooden stool, chewing at his stick he hardly replaces. In the evening, when I return from helping my mother sell her akpu or from working in other people’s farms, he is already stretching himself on the cold floor, snoring away to the wind and the chickens and goats playing outside.
On a day sometime last year, the last of my brothers was taken away by one rich Chief who lives in Lagos. I didn’t see him leave. In fact, I never saw any of my brothers leave, the three of them. But it was best that way; who could bear the pain of saying goodbye? Of a long-time separation? Maybe my little sister could. Whenever I returned home after one of my brothers had gone, my sister would tell me what I had missed: the shiny beauty of the visitor’s car, the colourful yards of brocade given to my parents, another chicken and goat. That was how Madam came, except that she brought money and drinks, and her words were as sweet as freshly prepared abacha decorated with ukpaka. The sweetest of her words the day she took me away from my parents to live with her was: “Your son will be like a son to me.”
Suppose I tell you I woke up on a wet toilet floor with smelly rags covering my legs, unable to recognise where I was at first, I’m certain you would look at me with puzzled, unbelieving eyes and say things like, “Haba! But Madam can’t be that wicked,” or “Ah. Don’t make your story sound uglier than it is,” or “Maybe that never happened. Remember you said you couldn’t recognise where you were, then how sure are you to say you woke up on a toilet floor?” Perhaps, I will smile and nod my head if you make the first statement. Madam can’t be that wicked, you know, she is more generous than the last time I slept outside on a nice long bench with mosquitoes fluttering about my ears like performing singers.
But yes, I wake up on the toilet floor. Half of my face is wetted with what I think to be Madam’s son’s urine. The tattered rags spread over my legs smell of shit and other dirty things I can’t describe to you. For a minute, I think I am back at home, at the backyard, inside the small rusty aluminium-roofed room that is everyone’s toilet. I think I hear my brothers’ voices, the three of them, playing football outside. Have they returned home—a home where our fondest memories lay untouched under fresh green shades? But this toilet floor has orange-yellow tiles unlike the toilet floor I once knew, and then, I remember Madam’s beatings and the broken plates in the kitchen and my mind tells me this toilet is the safest place I can be at the moment. This toilet is my heaven.
I can only imagine what you are thinking right now. You may think Madam is an evil person, or she isn’t human, or her son will someday grow into the monster that she is. I don’t know. But I can tell you this: I like Madam. The other children like me on Madam’s street by no means enjoy the kind of things I enjoy. There is this girl in the opposite house, she sleeps outside everyday and hawks boiled groundnuts for her Madam, and you can even count the number of bones in her body. Or the boy in the provisions store down the street, whose Madam feeds him only bread and water all through the day and makes him dust shelves with his bare hands. Me, I only broke Madam’s plates and she allowed me to sleep in her toilet.
But I prefer sleeping in the toilet in the home I grew up in. I prefer waking in the morning to see my father brush his teeth with his chewing stick, and helping my mother sell her akpu, and listening to my little sister’s sing-song voice. And my brothers, hoping we will re-unite soon again, and laugh and tease each other like old times. So when I sneak out of the house, after stealing Madam’s money left atop the deep freezer, I know I am heading to a place where my heart lies.