You were running.
But not fast enough, not as fast as you would want. It was as if in each step you made there was a double drawback, so your fear kept catching up with you, its fangs trying to snarl you into some deep recess – you are gasping for breath. You wish life was better, was easier, like the neighbours who said nice things to each other and their children. But your life was like that of a rat; you got to run from anything and everything.
You woke up.
You started running all over again.
You wished Papa was here with Mama, and that they behaved like Amarya and her husband who always sat in front of their balcony and giggled into the night, their whisperings filtering in through your open window. You wished Mama smiled more than she frowned. Most time you stared at her, wondering if her nerves were forever frozen. And at the rare times she let the wisps of smile cross her face, you are shocked, surprised, as if smiling was a rare emotion to show. And yes it was a rare emotion because your classmate had a nickname for you: poker-face.
You wished you found joy in the little things you were privileged, like your breasts which had grown rounder and bigger than most of your mates in your Junior Secondary School Two. You wished you could flaunt your oval face and pointed nose, that you could sway your hips like Nneka’s. Most girls, like that Amaka, the one with the flat chest, always sulked each time you passed by, the green jealousy oozing from their pores. But you still don’t smile. You just want to keep running until your legs ached, until they peeled, until the choking pain that always spread around your chest swallowed you.
Most time you wished she was dead. Most time you pretend she was really. She took no notice of you, like when you scrubbed the house clean with a stiff brush and your hands became sore from scrubbing and scrubbing and when she came back in the evening, she walked straight to the kitchen to prepare dinner; she did not comment on the gleaming floors and sink. When you both ate, you stared her right in the eye, willing for her to see that the floor shone, that the tiles in the bathroom gleamed. But she had just sat there, blank faced, rarely passing more than a word to you before eventually slumping on her bed after she was done eating – and snoring. Most time she wasn’t there even though she was around. She was always that way, did not see you, like that last time during your school’s end of the year party when you participated in the cultural dance. You had danced better than the other girls, wriggling and shimmying in line with the drum beats – other girls’ parents clapped and cheered and occasionally sprayed their wards with naira notes. Mama just sat there, bored and irritated, like she wished to be somewhere else.
You dance and danced until your waist ached. You jutted out your chest when they sang “ikpa ji-ji-ji, ikpa ji!” it was an energetic beat. And you did your best to get Mama to smile for you. Just a smile and you would be complete. But she didn’t smile. And when you felt you would break down and cry, or walk away and getting punished or suspended by the principal, Amaka’s father walked onto the stage and sprayed you with naira notes, and clapped, and cheered. You were named the best dancer in your school that day. But at home Mama did the shocking thing.
“Who taught you to dance like that?”
She had stood tall and thin, arms akimbo, the lantern casting orange light on her face. Bones jutted out from her neck line.
You watched her face. She was not smiling. Her nose was turned up in disgust.
“Asim, who taught you to dance like prostitutes? Why did you have to push out your breasts like that? Were you trying to seduce the men, ehn, I ask you?”
You stared at her and wondered if something was wrong with her, if some nuts were coming loose in her head. You wished to give her a snide remark, like those white kids in American movies who always screamed “I hate you!” to their parents. But you knew Mama would punch your mouth if you dared. And she did just that when you opened your mouth to give a sensible answer.
The slap landed beside your mouth. You swayed, felt woozy, and tasted your own blood, before slumping to the floor. She left you there and banged the living room door shut. You cried your heart out until there were no more tears to shed.
“I will run away and never come back!” You screamed at the door separating the rooms. You wished she didn’t hear though.
But she did.
“I don’t care!” She screamed back at you. And then you began to shake and pray she didn’t mean it, even though there was the throbbing fear that told you she wouldn’t care, really. She didn’t say sorry, never said sorry. Though you always hoped she would hold you and apologize. You would forgive her just as easily if she did and wouldn’t mind if she hit you next time so long as she showed remorse.
You wished to prove that she cared. You opened the door, making sure she heard the scraping on the floor. You banged the door and ran out in the night. You ran until you couldn’t breathe. You still ran on. The night was dark and quiet and breezy. There was no soul out there, just you and the darkness and trees and the long endless tarred road. You keep looking back, hoping you will see her running after you and begging you to return home, begging you to forgive. But it was only your breath that drowned your ears – and the thumping of your heart. A car wheezed past at the junction, almost hitting you. The driver screeched and cursed loudly, called you a night witch. You became suddenly afraid of witches. Perhaps they were crawling up on you? You looked up an electric pole and had weird imaginations of spirits staring down at you. You became paralyzed with fear, bile crawling up to your tongue. So you began to run back home, and throwing swift glances at your back, afraid that the night witches would be chasing you. Your heart thumped faster. Your nerves kept twitching. You saw double and almost smashed your head at your gate. You dashed into the compound; it was dark because not a single light bulb was on. The floor seemed to rush up at you and you hastened to get to your front door and twist the knob open. You dashed in and shut the door, double checked again that it was well shut. Then you listened and found Mama’s room was still perfectly shut; she was still asleep. You lay on the couch, wheezing. It was dark in the room too and you hoped the imaginative witches would not crawl into the room. You felt alone, like being stranded in a desert. You cried. And when the time ticked-tocked for a long time, when it seemed as if all creatures were finally asleep you thought of the life before.
Most times you tried to remember his face; it seems as if you have forgotten what he looked like, though it was just a year ago he left. You only remember a sketchy physique; tall and slim with a nose Mama had said was one to die for and eyes set wide apart on his face. He was the Papa you loved, that always came home to read and play with you until it all changed after government stopped paying salaries. Papa had become frustrated and began to spend more time at the beer parlours. At first Mama had said it was a passing phase. You had hoped it was so too, but you knew deep down that Papa had drifted away. It was confirmed that weeks later after he gave Mama a weak excuse that since she couldn’t give him more children that he was marrying again. Life after that had been hell – Mama did more of crying than living.
Most days, you took the bus to the part of the town Papa lived with his new wife. The first was a few months after Papa left, when Mama dragged you to his house, pounded on the front door, slapped and spat into the face of the new wife when she opened. Papa was not home that time and she dumped you on the shocked wife and walked away, warning you to remain there. You cried for a long time and stared at the tall beautiful woman. You tried to comprehend that striking face Mama had said belong to women that took other people’s husband away. But you couldn’t understand why such beauty was destructive. You hoped to never grow into such beauty and cause pain for others. The wife had stared at you as if she was afraid you would do something stupid. Then she prepared the couch for you to sleep in. You sat on the couch and listened as she walked into the connecting room. You ran away. It was the easiest thing to do. The wife gave you a chase, begging for you to come back, but she couldn’t catch up with you – not with her heavy pregnancy. You ran for a long time and came to that dimly lit church with its open door. It was late in the night and you couldn’t find a bus back home. You lay on the rugged altar and watch rats run across the floor until it was morning.
It was just you and Mama. She didn’t send you away or try to drag you to Papa’s house again. Instead, she pretended you didn’t exist, rarely talked to you, but you still loved her like crazy. You did things to draw her attention, to have her say words to you other than “Eat, or “Go to bed” or “You are late for school”. You wished you both chatted like school girls. You did crazy things like when people were catching meningitis and the neighbour’s son suffered the killer disease, you watched him writhe and twist and turn his neck like a sick hen’s. You planned and waited for the perfect time when Mama came home in the evening, opened the door and saw you writhing and twisting on the floor. You foamed just enough spittle and soon she was screaming and squalling. The neighbours rushed you to the hospital. But the doctor saw through you like water in a glass and chastised you for a long time. You begged him not to tell.
“Please don’t tell her. Please. Just say I am okay now.”
And when you and the doctor walked out of the emergency room to Mama who was crying in the waiting room, her eyes red and swollen, you felt sad that you caused her pain. She rushed up to you and hugged and turned you around, all the while her nose running and tears coursing their ways down her eyes. Then the doctor invited her for a private chat; you squirmed and wished the familiar strength would come to your leg and you would run. But they betrayed you and you sat there like a doll in a shop and waited for her to return. And when she finally came out, that blank set on her face, you stood up and waited for an outburst. You got none.
She held your hand and took you home. You kept passing frenzied glances at her face, hoping to catch any expression. You got none. And after the neighbours were through thanking God for your quick recovery, she took you in and shut the door with a key. You stood and watched like a cornered rat. She took her time undressing and changing into her pajamas – a pink flowered trouser and a matching top. She did not speak. You wished she said something, something that will give you inkling to what she was thinking. She said nothing, but got the low stool closer to the wardrobe, climbed atop it and reached over the top of the wardrobe cupboard. You knew what was coming and you were crying even before the first wham! landed on your arm. She flogged you with the horsewhip everywhere. You didn’t know what to do. To go crazy or to faint. You got the beating of your life and were left in your pool of hot urine after she was done. And for a long time your lips still moved “I’m sorry, I won’t do it again, Mama.”
You never tried a pretend-sick again.
You didn’t complain when your neck ached and your head pounded days later, not even when you became slightly delirious and had visions of swelling walls and burning bridges, not even after you started talking gibberish, your tongue swollen and you were writhing and choking in your own vomit. The real meningitis caught you with a real punch and you hated it, and were mostly grateful she didn’t cry. Soon you got better and Mama said you deserved it.
“You got just what you ordered for.”
You got better and older. You counted the calendar and waited for Junior Secondary School Three. Mama had said you would attend boarding school for your senior years. You couldn’t wait. Mama worsened overtime, mourned Papa everyday as if he was already dead. To her, he was. To her, you were the reason for him leaving, for her misfortune in love.
“You know, if you had been easy at birth, I wouldn’t have had a hard labour that left my womb worn out. I would have had another child for him. He would have stayed with me,” she had said on one tantrum night.
You found peace in church. You attended the entire fellowship program just not to be near her, just not to get her saying those hurtful words. You finally smiled after the choirmaster took notice of you and drafted you into the church choir. You found your calling.
“You have a lovely voice,” he said that day he sat near you during the youth fellowship week. “You sing like the angels,” he added, and you wished to ask if he ever heard an angel sing – but you dared not, for fear he would change his mind.
Mama let you attend. Hell, it was church and you were free to be there for night vigils, to sing until you were light in the head and high. You sang with all your heart and the choir members always clapped after you were done. You were made the lead vocal on special days, and you never told Mama; she never attended the weekly programs.
The choirmaster, he was God sent. You developed feelings for him, feelings that made you cry and wish to crush him in a hug every time. He was old enough to be your father and wasn’t married. You liked that he always held your hands in short prayers. He let you cry on his shoulder when you were sad – the feelings grew. It was the feeling you would have had for your own father. It was pure and overwhelming and calming. Soon, he invited you to his home and gave you free piano lessons. In weeks you were so good he let you play and for other members during practices.
They praised you and made you feel loved. You wished Mama was there, did same. You wrote a song, one that had been beckoning on you for a long time, the one about the purest form of love. You wrote down the lyrics and perfected the song. And on the night you were sure that Mama was asleep, you went to the sitting room and practiced. You shut your eyes and sang for a long time. It was healing, the song, and you knew it would set you free. And when you opened your eyes, you saw that Mama stood over you and you weren’t sure how long she had been there. Her eyes were like that of a puppy dog, longed for affection. Then she went back into the living room and moments later her, whimpers filled the night. You felt bad because you knew you brought her only sadness. She changed towards you, saw you differently and commented on little things that didn’t use to matter. You never stayed to see her smile because you were afraid it was a wicked trick by the devil. She wished to talk during breakfast and dinner, but you pretended busy and buried your head in your books. She lingered a lot in front of you, like a stammerer trying to woo a girl. You were unsure what she would start too, for it seemed the gully separating you from her was deeper and wider. You filled your vacuum with music.
The special day came. The Bishop and his wife visited the church, and the choirmaster let you perform. At first you were giddy, then afraid, then shaking.
“You were born for this,” he said. You wished it was Mama who said those words. You climbed to the side of the altar and sat at the church’s piano. You felt your hands go stiff and immobile immediately you saw Mama’s face among the crowd. You were afraid, suddenly, that she would disapprove or have that blank set face after. But the choirmaster saw your apprehension and caught your eyes. Nudged you mentally, smiled the way your father would have. You closed your eyes tightly and willed the fear away. Strength came to your hands, and you pressed the keys, softly and caressingly at first. The words came. You were free again. And you were singing and crying for the only one in your head.
She, the queen of my dream
She, that stood by me
like Mary did to Jesus
She, the symbol of love and pain
She, the mother of earth
Even when she breathed first
under my feet after the sun
Even when she sank my feet
after the rain was done
She, the one that held my step
She, the mother of our lord
You sang and the words kept coming. Your words were booming in your ears. Your eyes were wide shut. You were confronting your pain and hoped it unfurled, like petals, and finally displayed its secret sweet nectar. And when you were done, you opened your eyes. Faces were frozen, as if life was sucked out of them. The world seemed to stand still. You passed a glance to the Bishop and his wife; his hands were clasped close to his chest, his wife’s mouth hung open. You turned to the choirmaster; he looked shaken and about to cry. You turned to your mother, she was openly crying, her eyes different. Then a clap started from somewhere in the crowd, first like dew drops, then like rain, then it pounded –like a storm. People screamed and hooted. The Bishop’s wife was wiping tears.
And then you turned and saw her. She was walking up to you like a scared child, one whose eyes were free of scales, the scales of pain that had once blinded them. She was shaking, her hands unsteady. She looked so old and aged, like a battered tree, even though she was still young. She held you tight and whimpered.
“Set me free, Ebele my daughter,” she cried, sniffing.
“I love you, Mama,” you whispered in her ears.
She shook terribly, cried a lot. No words were needed. She was there, and finally noticed. It was all you needed, all that mattered. Not the Bishop and his wife, not the cheering crowd that still stood and clapped. Not even the choirmaster. It was that moment, the one that would determine how you spend the next years.
You were crying again.
And then you knew you would stop running.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Ukamaka Olisakwe was selected as one of the most promising writers under the age of 40 from Sub-Saharan Africa and Diaspora, iincelebration of UNESCO World Book Capital 2014. Her debut novel, Eyes of a Goddess, was published in 2012.
Running was first published in the 2013 edition of ANA Review and is published here in partnership with the Association of Nigerian Authors.