NOT LETTING GO
Yet the poor fellows think they are safe!
They think that the war is over!
Only the dead have seen the end of war.
― George Santayana, Soliloquies in England
At school I am the silent one. The loner. The one who stiffens at the sight of my classmates. They taunt me. Always. For the kinky hair which I have never relaxed, for the hole-ridden school uniform I never ironed. They come to school with perfumed bodies—skin shiny with sweet-smelling cream. Deftly ironed uniforms. Bright white socks and fitting berets.
But then things begin to change, with your arrival.
You are the new boy in the class with a bright smile and pink lips. I don’t like my classmates talking so loudly. But when you come I want them to make you talk. I want to hear you speak and see you smile.
You take your position beside me and, soon, you begin to steal into my solitude. My reticence doesn’t bother you. When our eyes cross I see always a glint of something like pity at the edges of your eyes. I dislike being pitied. I can’t be a container that holds people’s pity. That can’t be all that I am. But you are different from others, seemingly. You keep defending me against the taunts of our classmates. Why do you quell their collective joy of seeing me wounded in the heart? Why do you always take my side, even when I am not comfortable in my own skin?
“Why don’t you join others for a break?” you ask.
I bend over my desk. My voice will break if I talk. My heart is doing me somehow as if it is skipping on its own. You lean on my desk, refusing to leave.
“Please go,” I mumble, half raising my face.
“You have such a nice voice and you don’t want me to hear it.” Your smile reveals your soul. Gorgeous. You take my shaking hand and pull me up. “Let’s take a walk for a while.”
I give myself to your lead. And for the first time in secondary school, I don’t fear what my classmates will say. Being with you feels perfect and… right. Laughter grows anew inside me. Our school takes on new beauty and meaning. I look forward to each day. We study together during break time. You tell me how beautiful my eyes are. Yellow, you say, like a small fire that warms your heart.
I am too shy to tell you about your pink lips, your smile, your gorgeous Afro.
Every August most Igbo women travel to their hometown for the church August meeting. In previous years, I always followed Mama home to help with the cooking and house chores while she spent hours at their meetings. But I won’t join her this year. I don’t want us to part that long, though I tell you and Mama my reason is to look after her akara business.
“Make sure you don’t run down the shop trying to please customers,” Mama teases me. It’s the night before her travelling and I’m helping her pack her bag. “I left five thousand naira in the box, try and manage it well. But please”—she grabs her right ear and whispers—“don’t ever let your father see where the box is. I don’t need to tell you how he’ll finish it on kai-kai.”
After she travels you begin to visit me at the stall, daily.
“Can’t I visit you in the house also?” you ask one day.
A rancid taste gathers in my mouth and tightens my face. I shake my head violently, as though to yank off the thought of Papa seeing me in the house with you—a boy.
“It will be better if I return the visit,” I say, not knowing what else to say to dissuade you from pressing on.
“Really? That’ll be awesome. I didn’t see that coming. So may I suggest you come on Sunday? My Mum will be around to prepare something delicious for you.”
Since Papa doesn’t go to church, I can leave with you after Mass. It’s even easier since we worship at the same church—St Joseph’s Umuna. On Sunday I sit behind you, three pews away. My eyes fix straight at the back of your head lest I should lose sight of you.
“Do you want to join us now or you want to get home first?” you ask after Mass. As I make to respond, a slim middle-aged woman walks out from the church and heads straight to us. She is dressed in a lace blouse over a floral-patterned George wrapper, like Nollywood women, with the delicately measured gait and expensive carriage that narrate poshness and class.
“Is she the Chinelo?” she asks you, looking me over with her unsteady eyes.
Twice you nod, smiling.
“Come, come, dear.” She hugs me.
Her delicious perfume fills my nostrils. The first hug I’m getting from someone other than my parents. In her embrace, I regain a part of me I never knew existed—a self that yearns to cuddle.
“Sweetheart, how are you? Vincent has said a lot about you. And I can see,” she brushes something off my shoulder, “you look quite pretty. Look at those eyes—”
“Mama!” you say, feigning anger, “can’t you see you’re making her shy?”
“Oh, really? Didn’t know she’s a shy type.”
I stand rooted in my tracks until she takes my hand and leads me into a big Lexus Jeep parked in the church garage.
“Vin, you’ll have to stay in the backseat today, let the ladies take the front seat,” she says.
The exquisite space frightens me into muteness. She keeps talking over the soft music on the radio.
You live alone with your Mum in a large compound. Your dog, too hairy and small like a cat, tries to lick my fingers; I wave him off. After eating I want to lick the plate, but I don’t because you two are looking at me and talking about me. Your mother drives me home. On the way, she asks if I love you. The question scrawls rapidly through me like an electric shock. What kind of mother is your Mum? This is not what mothers normally discuss with their son’s female friend. I bite at my finger, refusing to say anything. Even if I want to, my heart now in my throat won’t allow words to pass.
“Shy, shy,” she teases and drops me at a walking distance from our house. She shoves an envelope into my hand. “Don’t hesitate to call me anytime you need help. My number is on the envelope.”
I tuck the envelope behind me in my waistband and step out. Papa stands in front of the house looking with narrowed eyes as your Mum drives past. I mutter my greeting to him and make to enter the house. He grabs my wrist and pulls me back.
“Where do you think you’re going? And who is that person that just dropped you now?”
“It is—I am coming from church.”
“Are you deaf? I’m asking about the person who just dropped you, not where you’re coming from.”
I hug myself at the sudden rise in his voice, just remembering how he’d always leave Mama with swollen face anytime he’s this angry. Neighbours are beginning to poke out their heads from their windows. Starving rumourmongers!
“So, your mother has injected her loose life into you, okwa ya? I will bleed it out from you this afternoon.”
He pulls me inside, yanks off his trouser belt and flogs out thunderous shouts from my throat. The next day when you see me, welts sprawl on my arms like swollen stretch marks, you ask what happened.
“It’s the masquerade,” I say. “They ambushed me and some of my friends when we went to fetch water yesterday at the borehole.”
You know it is not the season for masquerades. The look on your face is doubtful, but you don’t press it. Instead, you take me to the chemist on the other side of the road.
Late that night, Papa is still at Mama Ife’s bar. I must stay awake until he returns, so I can lock the door. But my eyelids are drooping. Soon the kerosene in the lamp drains off and the light dies. I lie close to the door. That way I will know when Papa opens the door.
I drift off to sleep before something crawls in my lap. My underpants are pulled off from me. I rise with a start and crawl to a corner. A hand pulls me by the leg. I kick it away but it quickly returns, forceful and insistent. I catch the stench of alcohol in the person’s breath.
He presses his large palm over my mouth and parts my legs with his free hand and my teeth cannot sink into the hollow of his palm I squirm and kick but he’s too strong and then he drops himself inside me.
In October Mama returns. School resumes and I’m now in SS1. Papa is going nuts. He always bites his lower lip when looking at me with the sideways look a lizard gives its prey. I no longer stay alone with him in the house, what has always been my childhood pastime—hanging around Papa.
So, I start frequenting your house. Many times, I meet your Mum at home. When she’s at home she’s always working on something. Says she’s working on her doctoral thesis. I’ll get there one day if I work hard, she always says. Then one day she throws a jarring question at me.
“When last did you see your period?”
I grab myself in shock. Thank God you’re outside washing car. I don’t keep records of such. It’s been long I had such discussion with Mama, in the hidden corner of our bedroom, talking in whispers the way people discuss obscenities. I can remember that was when I started seeing it for the first time. Mama never calls it menses; she calls it nso—something filthy and repulsive, contrary to the sacredness the term denotes. But here is your Mum laughing at my shock.
“My dear, it is okay to discuss it with me. Remember I’m a woman, a mother and a doctor. Besides, this is the genesis of all the seven billion human beings on earth.”
I can’t still my shoulders from shuddering.
“Tell me, Sweetheart, has anyone touched you before?” She seems to sense my confusion and then rephrases: “Have you had sex, recently? Have you and Vin done it?”
I can’t speak. My mouth moves, not with words but with fright that is sprinkled with perplexity. Why is she asking all these? She takes a syringe and draws blood from my vein. Perhaps I look sick to her; though I don’t feel it. Later she tells you to bring me to the house after school. She drives me into her office and leaves you back home. Says she will bring me back herself. Leaning behind her seat she stares long at me so that panic squirms in me.
“Why didn’t you tell me about it?” she asks finally. My panic grows limbs and begins to leap. “When did you two start having sex?”
I refuse to say anything. Let her believe whatever she wants.
“Who else apart from Vincent have you slept with?” she presses on.
I give a slight shake of the head.
She leans towards me and takes my left shoulder. “You wonder why I’m pestering you with these questions. That’s because you’re pregnant.”
“Jesus Christ!” I spring up, but she grabs my arm and pulls me down, her lips moving with words I cannot hear.
So, you’re carrying Papa’s child? The voice in my head sneers.
My tummy is growing. Mama frets. She thinks a deadly disease is swelling it. She refuses to let me join her at the stall. People will laugh at me so I am confined in the house, alone with Papa.
One Saturday morning Papa tries to force himself again on me. I suddenly tell him about the pregnancy—that he is responsible. I expect him to break down in shame. But he pulls himself up from me and leaves in disgust.
Three days later Mama comes to me, face acute with suspicion. “You’re pregnant, Chinelo.” She says it matter-of-factly so that no hint of doubt is left. She knows. I hide my face in my palms and cry begins to bubble. “Chim-o. This girl egbuo m. You have finally killed me. I suspected it since but was too afraid to accept it.”
My sobbing is now the only sound in the house. Then her pacing feet.
“I can never allow you have a bastard in this house, so you better start telling me who put you in this condition.” She grabs my arm, hard and tight, and yanks it off my face. And still holding it, “You will regret ever knowing me, no less having me as your mother if you don’t tell me who did this.”
“Who did this? Can’t you talk again, idaala ogbi?”
“My classmate…That my classmate.”
At once Papa walks in.
You come to see me in the house with your Mum. On seeing you Mama springs up and clutches your shirt collar. “You spoilt He-Goat! You have succeeded in destroying her future,” she yells.
Your face is torn with horror. You try to catch my eyes with yours. But I keep my gaze far from you. Mama keeps shouting and your Mum is dragging her hand away from your shirt and pleading for her to be calm. You tear off her hand and storm out. Your Mum slouches like a drenched peahen.
“I—we will sort this out,” she says reaching to place a hand on Mama who now sits sprawled on the ground. “These are children, Mama Chinelo. You should understand these are children. Don’t let it get to you.”
Mama is looking into a vacant distance with moribund attention. This sight digs up all the anger and pain I buried inside me all this while; they tear out from my throat with brutal force. I feel faint and drop on the floor. But no matter how much I yell I cannot push out the secret that entangles itself in the pit of my stomach. I am taking this…this secret…to my grave.
But I refuse to run away. I remain with Mama, hoping against hope that this glowing splinter between us will not fade away entirely.
My birth pangs begin at mid-day. Mama rushes me to your mother’s hospital. There I deliver a baby girl. Her piercing cry and delicate body fill my soul with every feeling of well-being. I am a mother.
The next day, you come to my ward with your Mum. Her air is gloomy and suspicious. Something isn’t right, her look seems to say. Soon she mouths her worry. Raising a sheet of blue paper in her hand, she says, “I think someone is not telling us everything we need to know;” her eyes on Mama. “There must be a mistake somewhere. Vincent’s DNA doesn’t match with that of the new child.”
“DNA gini?” Mama springs to her feet, tugging the knots of her wrapper in her left armpit. I start to whimper but Mama’s loud reprimand stalls every sound in me.
Your Mum just stands there, unshaken by Mama’s rising rant. Something in her eyes I can’t make out—seems to be a mix of pity and anger.
Then feeling a surge of guiltI blurt out, “It’s not Vincent.” Not waiting for their quivering mouths to spurt out the obvious question—then who?—I quickly add, “It’s Papa, Papa did it, he raped me.” I speak in rapid succession, not wanting the fear of the unknown to outrun the truth that haunts me on the inside.
There is silence, after I am done talking. Maybe they don’t understand me. Did I just ramble? They stand over me, staring wide-eyed. Mama places her palms over her mouth like she wants to vomit or something.
“It’s Papa—” I start to repeat but your Mum swoops down and cups her palm over my mouth. “Shsh, that will do!” she says. Words freeze in my mouth. Mama doesn’t believe me. It’s in her eyes, her doubt. It’s agitating her lips and causing her to vibrate all over. Then she turns and bangs the door behind her.
Your Mum drives us to our house, to see the idiot that is my father. Baby is left in the care of a nurse in the hospital. She’s rocking, your Mum, but she tries to hiding it. I wonder what you’re thinking of me now; I’m yet to look you in the eyes. Getting to our house we hear noise coming from inside . We rush in.
Mama is pulling at Papa’s collar. She sees us and quickly drops her hand. Their chests are rising and falling. Mama’s eyes are the colour of the sun in twilight. Her doubt has congealed into fury. Papa steps towards me, scowling and straightening his shirt. I feel my legs sinking into the floor.
“Chinelo…” he fumes. Words are too heavy to come out, so he resorts to wagging his fingers as if they’ll help drag out the words he so desperately needs out. “You forced yourself on me while I was drunk and now you have the guts to lie on me.”
The words throw me to the floor. A torrent of outburst rises in my chest, climbs through my throat and bursts out from my mouth. Rushing towards Papa, I grab the tail of his polo shirt. He yanks my hands off him. I return it and he dodges away from my hand. Then a hand grabs me from behind, a strong hand like yours. I squirm for freedom. I want to tear him apart.
Mama screams. Her wrapper has unravelled to expose her hole-ridden slips. She quakes gravely and tries to get a hold at something. She places her left palm on her forehead, saying frantically, “This is not happening, God, this is not happening…” I fear her head will fall off with the way it shakes as if on its own. Then I see her eyes, they carry fire and red water. She pours them on me, as if to blame me for being a girl. She shrieks and flings the door wide open and rushes out. Something tells me I may soon be an orphan. Your Mum rushes after her, shouting her name.
“You’re lying, t-tell them you’re l-lying,” my voice is frantic and stuttering. I’m dragging him now. I can hear rapid footsteps going back and forth outside: our neighbours, surely.
Papa shakes me so violently that everything about me starts to spin. Still I hold on to his collar, ignoring his rabid threats to strangle me if I don’t let go. All the while you’ve been in the corner, silent, until now, now that Papa is choking me with one hand. You reach out and push him so hard he misses his balance and hits the ground with a loud thud. “Was it out of instinct to save a life that you pushed him this hard?” my eyes on your face seem to ask. Your wild eyes focus on Papa. I turn to him lying on the floor. Blood is spurting out from behind his head. He convulses. Your Mum comes back in at once without Mama. She screams, staring down at Papa. She crouches quickly beside him and holds up his head.
“He is losing too much blood,” she says. “Fast, get my phone from the car let’s call the ambulance.”
You race out, leaving the door open.
“Close that door and don’t let anyone inside here,” she says to me.
I can’t move. I struggle but my legs feel like they’re slopping on the ground. I’m shivering all over. Soon you dash in, phone in hand. Your Mum grabs it from you and dials frantically. She calls her hospital and requests an ambulance. She turns to me, eyes drenched with unshed tears and something else, “Vincent, make sure she doesn’t go anywhere, let me go outside and direct them.”
You don’t look at me. I see your chest rising and falling. I draw closer to you, hesitatingly. Eyes still on Papa, you slowly link your fingers to mine. I feel heady and begin to fall. You kneel quickly and grab me.
“Will he die?” I mutter.
You shake your head and say almost inaudibly, “God forbid.”
He’s calm, only his chest rises and falls slowly.
“Leave me,” I snap my hand away from yours, surprising even myself. Then, calmly, I stare at Papa again. “I wish he dies. I wish he dies and suffers in hellfire for everything he has done to—”
“Stop!” You hold my waist and pull me to yourself. You’re not letting go, you say. You know Papa is lying. Your eyes sinking deep into mine: a glorious eternity I don’t want to escape from. I nuzzle into your arm. It is the only refuge from my crumbling world. A brief release from your hold I become a flesh of scandal. You gather me to yourself, the tiny pieces of me that remain, you gather them, and the beating of your heart and the warmth of your embrace weld the pieces together in the right order.
“I’m not letting you go,” you say again.
By the time the siren wails, I expect you too to have gone, but you’re, you are still here.
Ifeanyi Ekpunobi writes from Ibadan where he is currently studying theology. He loves football and spends most of his leisure time listening to Enya. He is a fiction editor (intern) at Praxis Magazine and an alumnus of Purple Hibiscus Creative Writing Workshop 2019. His works have appeared on AfreecanRead, Fragbits and African Writers.