This is what happens when my dad says to me; Barakat, this is your mother. I stare as if I do not hear him – the weight of the words, their implication: I stare at her head wrapped with a multi-coloured scarf, her parched lips – the smile on them. I want to rub my palms around the rash on her forehead. I wonder if they feel like sand. I look at the sweat patch on the neckline of her red boubou. My eyes roam about her skin which is as dark as the back of walnuts.
“As-salamu alaykum.” I finally say, my eyes staring at a broken tile and her ugly feet wriggling like worms on it. I say it rather slowly, punctuating each sound so the words, peace be upon you, lose their meaning. I say it as if I am speaking to her brown feet – to the black soot, clayed around the edges, welcoming them and thinking at once of the need to massage and wash them in water and baking soda.
I feel her eyes on me, probably searching for similarities. She is staring at my thick eyebrows and the henna design on my hand. Then, at my height – she later says I got it from her side of the family and referred to a faceless relative. She found our resemblance in odd places: Look here, your fingers are long and slender like mine. Our voices sound just the same way. Masha’Allah!
When she finally stops observing me and pulls me into her bosom, I inhale her different scents from shea butter to grass. “Wa-alaikum salaam,” she says first, then, “Allahu akbar.” The way she keeps nodding her head makes me think of agama lizards, the way they nod their orange heads.
“Your mother has been healed. All these years your mum was sick, but insh’Allah, she is well again.” My dad says confidently as though the words should fill my curiosity. All these years he never told me about her and now he just brings her here and says she’s healed? Come on dad, you can do better. He hates being questioned, especially about her. So I know my new questions – What sickness was it? Why didn’t we visit her? Why was it Halima’s mum, who taught me about sanitary towels and boys? – would go unanswered.
That was how it happened. And every day since then I wake up praying it was only a dream. Why? Because she is changing my life without even asking for permission. I spent the first few weeks of my long holiday drawing henna on Halima’s hands, knitting crop tops and reading Khaled Hosseini and Chimamanda before she arrived. I loved every minute of the holiday until her.
I should be grateful about her return. But I cannot be. Not with her telling me what to do and being so strange and silent about her past. What mother does that? She tells me I have to learn how to cook because I am a woman. But when I am in the kitchen with her, I just sit on a stool texting, while she does all the work. I would help but she never says anything to me. The food she cooks ends up spicy as if she deliberately pours excess ground akaun or maggi. Once, they had the nasty smell of Iya Basira’s spoilt beans but my dad did not see anything wrong in how the gbegiri tasted or smelt.
My dad treats her like a god. This annoys me. He has even gotten her a smartphone, which she never uses. It also annoys me that when he comes home beaming, the smell of Masa and carrot soup welcoming him, I have to prepare a speech on how well mum and I bonded. But mum and I do not bond at all. She is very quiet. As a child, I had dreams where she was slim and tall like Halima’s mum and had the enthusiastic voice of Mrs Ogunleye, my Primary Five class teacher. But Mum is nothing close to any of the women I used to mould her imaginary life. She is shy, always smiling a closed smile as if she is afraid to show off her brown teeth and the wide gap in front. Her steps are slow and calculated as if walking too fast would cause her fat to fall off. The only time she speaks to me is when she is telling me what to do. She is full of commands like a school teacher; don’t watch this, it’s haram. Don’t do this, it’s not lady like.
On Friday last week, we went to Yaba and after she bought me dresses, she said to me: Barakat, these clothes I bought you are more appropriate clothes to wear. Don’t wear those blouses that show your stomach anymore. The clothes she bought me looked like they were from decades ago but I did not protest. I did not say to her: I don’t know if you are stuck somewhere in the past, but no one wears these in 2015.
I did not voice my reservations because I had no opportunity to. With theatrical distraction, she walked behind me towards a woman in a red ankara dress standing by a stall with chiffon blouses. At first I thought she might know her somehow, maybe someone from her past. I was wrong. She stood behind the woman and inhaled her. I was more disturbed and shocked than embarrassed. It happened two more times that day to two more people, before I flared up.
What do you think you’re doing? I asked. I don’t know where you were the last fourteen years, but here we do not smell people like that. My voice was loud and shaky like it would fall. Though I was being rude, I kept at it. What the freaking hell?
But that was not that day I concluded she was insane, because I eventually do. Come to think of it, from the very first day I saw her, I knew there was something off about her. I could not place my hand on it then, but now, I can.
The day I conclude she is insane, is the day I meet Ibrahim. I am standing at the doorway of the dining table, watching her. She has served herself and the opposite side of the table. She cannot see me, but I can see her, and she is the only one there, at the dining table, talking about me to herself or somebody else I just cannot see.
The soup tastes good abi? I knew you would like it….Barakat hates it…don’t mind her jare. She does not know what is good…Ibrahim! Don’t stain your clothes, you know how hard it is to wash white shirts. She says this while I watch her, shocked.
Who are you talking to? I ask, walking towards her.
She turns to me and then turns away. Ibrahim. She answers, indifferent, pointing in front of her.
But there’s no one there.
She shrugs and continues talking.
It only happens when Dad is not around. Dad is barely home during weekdays. He leaves the house immediately after the Salat in the morning. Immediately he leaves, this invisible Ibrahim somehow appears to her. She talks in whispers to him—ignoring my presence. Sometimes she talks about me. She says: that girl is so rude and disrespectful. Sometimes, I find her quietly sobbing, her back heaving and threatening to crack open like the skin of a boiled groundnut. In between tears, she says: Ibrahim, You really hurt me.
Then there are the rainy days when she goes totally crazy. Standing in the open space in the backyard, amidst the grass and rubbles of stone, the rain soaking her clothes, she throws out her hands, so that they are stretched forward as if she is holding someone and then twirls and twirls. She is singing, ‘I Remember my Darling’, an old song by IK Dairo that my Dad usually hums. When she comes back inside, wet as the earth, she replies my stare with a look that says dancing in the rain is normal for an adult woman and her invisible friend. When Dad comes home on days like that, her eyes stray to a distant corner in the room—as if she is pleading that I keep her secret.
On hot lazy weekends she sometimes has hush arguments with my dad, about something that happened long ago. I try and try to listen but their words are quiet and far. When my dad rushes out of the room after such arguments, his face is wet with tears. Later they would embrace, a gesture that seemed to say; all is forgiven. They are both old and greying but they remind me of teens in love. I cannot tell my Dad about Mum’s behaviour. I want to tell him about Ibrahim. I want to tell him Mum is not healed but I don’t know how. I don’t know how to say it in a way that would not hurt him. But it’s wearing me down and I need to tell someone. I cannot tell Halima either. I am afraid she would judge me or laugh like she did the last time.
Your mum is weird, Halima says.
I look at my feet and pick the dirt in my finger nails. I can’t even deal anymore. It’s like she’s stuck somewhere in the past.
Where was she all that time?
I think a mental hospital.
Like Bayo the mental guy with the locks who thinks he invented the telephone?
Fuck you! No, not like that. She’s always talking to herself sha.
Oh that sucks oh. But it’s funny still.
I refused to care when they took you. I ignored the void in my womb, the lump in my throat and the way my belly sagged. I should have been grateful. Life is harder for children where I was. I remember how tiny you were when I held you in my hands in the unsanitary room reserved for giving birth. 2001. Fourteen years ago. Now, I can’t even look at you, big as you are like a mountain or a tree, wallahi. Your lush dark skin is as smooth as the surface of a black board. And your smile so bright and clean. Not like mine. You intimidate me wallahi. That is why every time we are together, I do not know how to apologize for lost time. There are so many things I want to say, but cannot say. But if you bother to look in my eyes, you will see and hear, loud and clear, that I am sorry. Barakat my daughter, listen to my eyes.
My daughter, this place I was, they say it is the place just above hell, but to me, it is hell and the warden is Satan. Yes, I was in prison where I ate brown-coloured rice and beans that looked like pieces of rat shit. In the beginning, I complained and squeezed my face. No one had to tell me that I would soon forget the taste of good food and learn to accept stone hard yam and grass soup as good food.
Prison was plagued with stories – loud and quiet stories. I listened to quiet stories told by women of crimes they did or did not commit. Other nights, my ears against the straw of the mat on my metal bed, I listened to screams that stole the night from wall geckos and crickets. I walked without a gait, as if I was preparing for a fall, because my back, legs and arms hurt from working on the farm. I attempted to count the days at first using the sun and the moon as indicators but some weeks seemed like very long days that refused to end.
Here and now, I stare at people a lot. I stare at their faces, hair, clothes, smile, teeth, shape, and movement. You think I’m crazy, staring at strangers like that, touching them slightly and sniffing them. Prison made me appreciate the smallest things like being in the fresh air and smelling perfume and tasting spice in soup. You do not understand the epiphany I get when the rain strokes my face. You think I am crazy dancing in the rain like that.
But wallahi, your father has done a poor job raising you. That is why you are so uncouth and loud. In the nineties, things were not like this. Children did not roll their eyes and hiss at or yell at their parents. I know things have changed but I do not think anyone behaves as you do. You are eccentric – the complete opposite of what I am. Sometimes, when you and Halima are laughing, I wonder if you are really my daughter.
Of course, I had a baby fourteen years ago – right after the trial judge sentenced me to life imprisonment, not death as I ought to have gotten. The grey-haired lawyer in his oversized grey suit, successfully pleaded insanity, reducing my sentence to life imprisonment; from murder to manslaughter. Manslaughter. Womanslaughter. Babyslaughter.
But I am not insane and I did not kill my baby. Only an insane woman can kill her child.
During the trial, a doctor visited to assess my mental health in jail. He did this in a windowless room which the policemen said is reserved for torture. He tried to make conversation with me but I clawed at him and laughed. After a while, I relaxed. Please help me, I said. I didn’t kill my son. Ibrahim is well. He is alive. Just let me get out of here—I will show him to you. I need to give him good food—he likes his akara with ogi.
He thought I was mad, so he did not answer. His face was complacent and he constantly shook his head. He just kept scribbling notes like a math teacher dishing grades. She should be put in a mental hospital, he said to your father when he left me. She might be dangerous.
I am not mad, I yelled back.
How could I, with my bachelor’s degree in English be crazy? No. It was just a ploy to put me away.
Your father was worse. He condemned me. He was ashamed of me. In the courtroom, he bent his bald head to his laps and sobbed quietly. He said to people “she is not the woman I married but I love her and will not divorce her”
Some media outlets covered my story, giving my alleged mental illness several strange names. “Schizophrenic woman murders son.” Others said it might be postnatal depression. Scheesophrenic, I said aloud often. Today, I am insane. Tomorrow, I am scheesophrenic. Next tomorrow, I have postnatal depression. Nawa oh.
Then prison came – worse than jail. Looking at my cell mates in the overpopulated hell-hole and other times, listening to the whining children confined with their mothers, I thought of you. Unlike the children of other women, my child born in prison did not live with me in prison. Court order elicited probably by a bribe. Maybe they thought I would kill you as I allegedly did Ibrahim. Stupid people.
When I discovered I was going to have you in prison, I cried. How can I, with all my education, have my baby in prison? I suddenly did not want you. I wanted Ibrahim. This was fourteen years ago. Fourteen years and now we are the way we were when you sat in my womb – together, yet separate. Your mind is here. My mind is there, over there in the year 2001.
It is late 2001 in my mind – September, October or November. My shoulders are slumped and my eyes dry, as the judge reads out my sentence. My fingers move around the blue uniform I am dressed in. I put my hands on my belly. Over you; the you that is in me and one with me. It is a rainy day so it is most likely September. If I look in the distance; I know I would see Ibrahim playing on an empty field by the courthouse. But, I do not look. I look at the accusing stares. They all think I killed Ibrahim. Can’t they open their eyes to see him?
It is early 2001 in my mind again and there is fear in my eyes. It is the day they take me away; the day they say I killed my son, the liars.
“What happened?” Your dad asks when he gets back from the factory. He pulls me into the bathroom. I am not wearing my slippers – the floor is wet and there are tiny black worms. There is a small pain in my ankle. All I can think of is the need to put on my slippers. I hate black worms. I do not answer his question.
I do not tell your dad how it happened but I will tell you, and this is how it happened;
When I picked Ibrahim from school, the rain met us halfway home so we had to hide under a small rusty shed on deserted Kensington road. Ibrahim wriggled out of my tight grip and started to dance in the rain. I said “Ibrahim, come back. Come here. Rain is not good for you.” I left the shed running after him on the road.
Ibrahim said: Mummy, dance with me. His voice was a mere squeal under the heavy rain. He was dancing and as he attempted to sing your dad’s favourite song—Paul IK Dairo’s I remember my darling, he spun around and fell into a gutter. Frustration seeped into my hands. Frustration that got me throwing off my hijab and pulling off my slippers. Trying to get crying Ibrahim out of the gutter, I sprained my ankle and dirtied my white lace buba.
Spare the rod, spoil the child, was what I kept saying to myself as I carried Ibrahim home under the rain. When I got home, I dropped my bag on the floor and walked straight to the bathroom to drop Ibrahim asleep as he was in his grimy school uniform in the bathtub. I closed the drain and ran the water. Then I went to my room to take off my dirty clothes, and when I came back in another say fifteen minutes, naked, the water was still running and spilling to the ground, my son was not moving. And I knew he was dead. Goosebumps stained my skin but I stood still. As still as Ibrahim. Watching my son lying perfectly still and helpless underneath the running water, helpless, I said to myself, Spare the rod, spoil the child.
Till today, he does not know this. He really thinks I am insane. But this is how it happened. When I eventually closed the tap I felt a measure of satisfaction I cannot explain. Then the strangest thing happened. I went to the parlour and through the glass window, I saw Ibrahim outside, under the rain, dancing. Oh Merciful Allah. I mumbled. Allah had brought back my son to me. I pressed my breasts and eyes against the sliding door of our home before I slid it open. Ha, see, I said to myself. Ibrahim has learned his lesson. There’s no harm in his playing under the rain some more now that we are home. I went outside naked to dance with him. By the time your dad came home, the rain had stopped and there was no boy dancing outside. There was just a boy lying dead in the bathtub and it was that boy that your dad said I killed.
It is early 2001 and I am saying to the police officer with the triangle head – Inspector Gbenga Afonja: I can never kill my son. I am shaking like a wet cat when he handcuffs my wrists. I look behind the police officer, I remove myself from his words—the announcement that I am being arrested and that I have every right to remain silence, not silent – from the black colour of his uniform, to the brown worn out leather couch where my Ibrahim sits smiling. I expect him to say something, to tell them he is alive. But, he is watching and smiling.
A few bribes and here I am, released to the world after fourteen years. I might be a bad mother but not an insane one. Only an insane mother can kill her son. And I am not insane. Although I cannot kill my child, I would not hesitate to discipline you if you keep up with this bad attitude. Spare the rod, spoil the child.
Ope Adedeji (@) dreams about a lot of things but most especially about bridging the gender equality gap and working with the United Nations. If you do not find her writing, you would find her reading a novel.
This story was published in collaboration with Writivism. Writivism is a Kampala-based initiative that supports and promotes African Literature, they are also the organisers of East Africa’s leading literary festival. You can follow their work on Twitter: @.
Related country: Nigeria