Originally published in the 2015 Caine Prize Anthology, Lusaka Punk & Other Stories.
My mother had this dressing table that was all reddened wood and black velvet with oval mirrors, streaks of metal marring the glass. She told me it had been shipped from London when she and Papa left their flat in Brixton and came to Nigeria because he was tired of the snow. Later, Papa told me that it was second-hand, like the wall unit and the leather sofa set. I asked him what snow looked like and he opened the freezer, scraping soft white off its inside walls and heaping it into my small hands.
‘Just like that,’ he said. ‘Only much more.’ He knew how to answer questions in straight lines, never taking a detour just because I was young, never deviating in the name of protecting me. I was twelve when he became sick, so quickly, and bedridden. My mother said we would travel soon because the doctors here were more likely to kill him than save him, but she was talking in corners. He waited till she left their bedroom to let me crawl under the quilt into the damp heat of his skin against the mattress, then told me he was going to die before she could get him on a plane. I didn’t believe him – my father was also a storyman, a mouthy trickster for all his straight lines. I let him sleep before I wandered over to the dressing table to smell my mother’s lipsticks. I sat on the velvet stool and crayoned a deep burgundy across my mouth, smacking my lips and frowning. My reflection looked like a bundle of pale kola-nuts,rotten blood smeared on my teeth, Papa’s eyes looking back at me from inside my face.
He died a week later, just the way he said he would, before she could get him on a plane, and the family immediately got involved. Aunty Nonye, Papa’s younger sister, drove up from the village with her daughter Ify while my mother called Papa’s brother in London, Uncle Jachi, who dropped everything and flew home.
On the day of the burial, I sat on the edge of my bed with my hands pressed against the hard foam as I retched and sobbed, refusing to come out. My mother stood outside my door, her voice like a metal ruler.
‘Unlock this thing.’
I glared at the small bolt that I’d slid closed, the one Papa had put in for me when I insisted I was old enough to have some privacy, and I screamed my refusal at her. She was meant to be helping me finish my hair; the car was waiting outside and they wanted to soak Papa’s body into the thick pale earth before the sun sank. Aunty Nonye had already gone there to oversee things,leaving Ify to come with us. I could hear Uncle Jachi’s voice from the corridor, raised and raging at how I was delaying everyone. He used to be my favourite uncle when I was much younger; he always brought me Archie comics and bars of Cadbury chocolate when he came to visit us. My mother also called him her little brother because they were close, she saw him often when she flew through London, but I had seen the way his nostrils flared every time she called him that, just a fraction, just a small muscle betraying him. She would laugh as she said it, as close as she came to a laugh, and touch his arm.
‘Gabriele,’my mother said, calmly. ‘I don’t have time for this. We are not going to be late to the burial.’
There was no way we could be late. It was still morning and the burial wasn’t until early in the evening but my mother liked to plan things ahead. Immediately after Papa died, she’d called Uncle Anton, her brother in Cologne. I’d listened in on the conversation, to her voice grating against itself in rapid German, a stray word or two clicking into place in my head. The rest had been an unintelligible guttural thing, a quick rearranging of my life over a piece of static. We were leaving, moving to Cologne before I would start school inSwitzerland because I only had a few years left and her brother was paying for it and it was a good place to finish me. Those countries meant nothing to me.My country was the patch of grass in the front of our compound; it was the cactus garden next to the front door, the ridges of corn under swelling avocadoes, the terrorist creepers of sweet potato we could never kill once we planted them. My country’s flag was a cocoyam leaf.
‘Fuck the burial!’ I answered. The first time I’d heard that word was a few years ago when the driver from next door had used it while sitting outside under the water tank, talking to our househelp, Grace. He’d been drinking bottle after bottle of Star beer while she filled up the plastic gallons, water muddying her feet as he complained about his employer roughly. I was watching the fireflies as evening crawled over us, ignoring their conversation until he dropped his Igbo and switched to Pidgin.
‘Nna mehn. Fuck Oga sha.’
He waved his beer bottle drowsily as he said this and Grace hissed furiously,snatching it out from his hand as she glanced over at me. ‘Shut your detty mouth! Abi you dey craze? You no dey see pikin?’ She quickly bustled me back into the house, ordering him to go home and warning me to forget what I just heard. I didn’t forget it, that word that upset Grace so much, and I heard it again on TV when Papa had dozed off in his armchair and didn’t check what films I was watching. It felt like the right word to convey exactly how much I didn’t want to be in a car driving towards the grey flesh they claimed was him.
After I said that, after those words winged out of my mouth, there was a stunned silence outside my door. I clutched my throat, feeling like the air was being sucked away from me into my mother’s inhaling rage. I expected her to scream back at me but instead her shoes clicked twice as she stepped away from the door. Her voice was so low that, if not for the shocked and stilled air, I might not have heard her.
‘Jachi.’ Heavy footsteps thudded on the tile as my uncle walked down the corridor towards us. His weight stopped in front of my door.
‘Open her door for me, please.’ My mother’s voice stayed low and the air was still paralyzed. He shattered that, slamming the bulk of his shoulder against my door and breaking it open. The pitiful bolt flew off and I threw my arms up to protect my head from the hurling metal. It clattered harmlessly against my wall and echoed off the floor as I lowered my arms slowly to see my mother standing in front of me, her cheekbones washed with furious red. She’d scraped her blonde hair back from her thin face, winding it into a strict bun on the nape of her neck. Her mouth was a dark burgundy print against her skin, slightly spaced teeth bared between her lips. I stared back up at her with my father’s eyes and she cracked a slap across my face, her arm tight. My jaw swung a slow path sideways under the force of her hand, which she then used to smooth down her dress. The black velvet hissed under her touch, a severe sheath that cut off in the middle of her shins.
‘Fix your hair and get into the car. We’re leaving in five minutes.’ She turned and walked out of my room, her heels tapping out a precise beat as she faded down the corridor. I pressed both hands to the side of my face as my blood took fire, hot salt steeping in my eyes. Uncle Jachi reached his hand towards me,surprised at my mother’s small violence, but I flinched and he stopped himself.I thought he was gathering air to say something to me but Ify entered the room with a brush and a jar of hair gel.
‘You people should hurry up,’ he said instead, to us.
‘Yes,Uncle.’ Her reply was automatic as she dropped the gel and brush on my bed,crouching to hug me. I stared at Jachi over her shoulder, watching him as he backed out of my room. He looked uneasy, the way I wanted him to look. I wanted him to have trouble in his soul forever.
The morning they told me Uncle Jachi had arrived from London, Papa had been dead for five days. I had run into the parlour to greet him, still wearing my nightdress, stumbling to a halt when I saw his face. People used to mistake him and Papa for twins, even though he was a few years younger. My relief at seeing him dissolved into grief and I stood there in numb shock, only sinking down to the sofa when he pulled my arm to sit next to him. I let him envelop me in one of his warm hugs, his palm against my spine in solid reassuring pats.
‘It’s okay,’ he said. ‘Don’t cry, ehn?’ The pats became strokes, long applications of pressure along my back. I felt shrivelled from all the weeping I had done already, dried up.
For my last birthday, Papa had got me a tortoise to add to the small menagerie of animals that we kept: the canary that escaped during a cage cleaning and sang rebelliously from the avocado tree where it settled down, the ungrateful green parrots that pecked everyone who tried to feed them, the endless cats and Heidi, the dog. The tortoise died a few weeks later and we buried it under the guava tree. Papa said that in a few years the flesh would have dried away and we could dig it up and I could keep the shell on my bookshelf. When I heard we would be moving away, I had gone outside and sat by the tree, then sobbed so hard that the turkeys lying in the shade by me stood up and jogged off slowly in alarm.
I didn’t want to break inside my uncle’s arms, so I started to pull away. That was when I felt his other hand on my chest and my throat seized. It was not a passing brush or a quick squeeze – he cupped his fingers under my left breast and encircled it with his thumb, then slowly pulled down, stroking every inch till his hand was pinching my nipple, then he let go. I jerked back from him,sour swirling up from my stomach and he looked back at me like a lizard, his nostrils slightly flared. Grace walked into the parlour with a tray and my mother came behind her, wrapping herself in a robe.
‘Jachi,you landed safe. Thank God,’ she was saying. He stood up to hug my mother and I sat there, feeling my pulse shake my skin as my mother wrapped her arms around his neck and put her face in his collarbone.
Papa used to have a thing for insects. He would show me the beetles that grew on the bitterleaf plant and he let them crawl over his hands. We would tie strings around the waists of the bumblebees that buzzed around the mango tree and fly them like kites for a few minutes before Papa would release them.
‘You have to let them go,’ he explained to me when I threw a little tantrum because I wasn’t done playing with them. ‘They don’t belong to you.’
My favourite insect was a little crawling thing that reminded me of both armour and a mimosa plant. When you poked this little bug, it would curl up into a ball, plates of its exoskeleton locking you out. We called mimosa‘touch-and-die’; if you touched it, the lines of leaves would flutter and fold inwards, against each other, drooping and closing and withering. That was what happened to me that morning when Jachi arrived from London. My mother looked down at me, my hair flattened from sleep, my nightdress rumpled. His arm was around her waist.
‘Go put some clothes on, Gabriele,’ she said. ‘And brush your teeth, we’re having breakfast soon.’
I wanted to say something but Grace was pouring tea and asking my uncle how much sugar he took, my throat was crippled and my father was dead. I left the parlour and in the nine long days between his arrival and the burial, I avoided being in the same room as him. It was obvious since many people were paying us condolence visits and we were expected to receive them as a family. As soon as he walked into the room, I would stand up and walk out, making a quick excuse to my mother. It would have been considered rude, but I was a half-orphan andso people assumed I was sick with sorrow.
‘It’s because Jachi resembles her father,’ they said. ‘Ei-yah, poor girl.’ My mother must have believed this because she never ordered me to stay.
The only person I told about what happened was Ify and her face blanched into dullness when she heard. There was a silence that I cried into and when she spoke, even her voice was blunted.
‘He touched me too, a few years ago. When I was around your age.’ She didn’t look at me.
‘Did you tell Aunty Nonye?’ Ify nodded slowly.
‘She told me to pray for him.’
My mouth fell soft and open. I already knew I wasn’t telling my mother, not after she’d just lost Papa. This would break her heart and she’d just blame herself for not protecting me better. I couldn’t do that to her, not when she was already so splintered. If I didn’t tell her, maybe I could just forget it one day. I didn’t want it to scatter the whole family and I didn’t want to become the centre of a storm. Forcing back tears, I realized that Jachi had waited until Papa was gone, until Papa couldn’t save me. But Ify’s mother knew. She knew and she didn’t do anything. I stared at my cousin until she shrugged.
‘I think he did things to her when she was small.’ We sat together, the gentle horror of blood linking us. I reached out and held Ify’s hand tightly, in silence.
After Jachi left, I let Ify brush my hair into a puff, slicking it down with gel. We would be wearing matching traditional during the burial ceremony, all my aunts and uncles and cousins, except my mother. I’d been meant to wear black like her but Ify had begged her to let me to wear the wine lace traditional, to be one of them, just for this day, for his sake. My mother had looked at me first, at Papa’s black copper eyes, his snub nose and wide mouth living on my face, before she gave her permission.
They sewed me a long dress with a fishtail skirt that made me feel like my back was straight. My mother had always refused to have anything sewn for her, even when Papa was alive. When we all went to functions together, she stood out in her edged dresses and scant jewellery, tightening her jaw and staring everyone down. The aunts resented the way she refused to even try and fit in, the time she spent teaching me how to make waffles from scratch instead of learning how to cook jollof rice. It was only in our house that we understood, that she stayed in this country only out of love, that all of this was just how she looked when compromising, that she spoke English to me because it was the only language she shared with his mouth.
The burial would take place in the village, an hour’s drive away, because that’s where Papa was born and where his body belonged. I sat in the car and watched my mother stare out of the window, watched her wedding ring collect the sun as we drove off. Cars were packed on the expressway until it branched off into the smaller tarred roads and then again into the compacted white clay. It was still early when we arrived at Aunty Nonye’s house, so Ify took my hand and asked if we could go to her room. I looked at my mother, who raised her chin and stared at us with her wet moss eyes before dipping her head in a slight nod. We slid past the adults and barricaded ourselves in her room, where I dropped my bag,unbuckled my sandals, and pressed my soles against the stretches of cold tile.Ify flopped onto the bed, dangling her skull off the edge and watching me. She had threaded her hair into sleek shiny worms lying in neat rows against her scalp and her skin was taut from the corners of her eyes.
‘I can’t believe she finally let me out of her sight,’ I said, spinning morosely on my heel.
‘You’re the only thing she has remaining.’ Ify stretched her arms out over her head and her fingers brushed the floor. I stopped spinning and looked down at the tiles,my mouth heavy. She jumped off the bed and pulled my hairband off, letting my hair burst out into a thick cloud.
‘You should wear it like this for the burial,’ she said. I twisted a section of it between my fingers, the scent of pink oil wrapping around my nails. I was not allowed to wear it loose.
‘Can you do it so that it looks like your own?’ I asked shyly, raising my eyes to my cousin’s. She held my gaze, locked. We both knew that my mother dictated how I wore my hair, that I needed permission to thread it. It wasn’t the sleek gold that poured off her scalp nor was it the iron tight coal of my father’s head and neck. It was a watered sanded brown, uncommitted spirals and confused straight pieces, full and soft. Ify touched it.
I nodded. At least it wouldn’t be loose.
‘I think I have remainder thread,’ she murmured to herself, before flashing her strong teeth. ‘We can do it.’
I clapped my hands as she slid over the bed and dragged open a drawer, pulling out the spools of rubber thread and tossing them on her sheets. I picked one up and turned it in my fingers. Ify glanced at the clock – the burial was starting in three hours.
‘We have enough time. Sit down.’ She gestured to the floor between her legs as she arranged herself at the foot of the bed and dropped a pillow down. I obediently sat and she switched on the television before parting my hair into small sections.
There was always something about having my hair touched that spun me away from my body and so I let the noise from the TV wash over me, feeling the tug of her hands and the answering wrench at my scalp. I wondered how Papa would have felt to see me with threaded hair. He’d shown me old pictures of his mother with carefully woven branches of hair and a bladed jaw. I looked nothing like her.Every time I thought of Papa, I became partially eroded, portions of my throat made rare and blue. I didn’t know it was possible to cry this much, till there was nothing except a sun burning dry and hot in my mouth.
Our house didn’t feel alive now that we were moving out; I had felt the grieving as we packed. I saw how my mother’s heart was broken because she couldn’t say it with her mouth, so she’d said it in the way she wrapped up the silver they got at the wedding, the way she looked at his portrait for long minutes before burying it in a trunk. She had stroked her thumb over the picture the way she used to stroke it over the lined map of Papa’s palm all the time, a gesture that said more than I’d ever heard from her mouth. He would let his hand lie in hers like a captivated wing, like she was telling his future, his knuckles in the cup of hers.
One night after he died, I’d peered around the corner of their bedroom door and seen her kneeling on the carpet with her shoes off and her hair collapsing on her shoulders. I’d wanted to touch her but she was like her fine crystal, forever on a shelf I couldn’t reach. We grieved as we took down the lace curtains and sold the dining table, as Grace left and went back to her hometown. When they were clearing out Papa’s clothes, I stole one of his favourite shirts from the wardrobe. It was in mild green cotton and still smelled like him, faint threads of cologne that would eventually die like he had. I hid it in my room and, when my mother told me we would spend the night at Aunty Nonye’s house once the burial was over, I carefully packed the shirt in my bag under folded underwear,my pyjamas for that night, and a sundress for the next day.
I gasped as Ify parted a section of my hair with more force than usual. She patted my head in distracted apology, rubber thread winding over her fingers as she pulled my scalp taut.
When my mother walked in later, I locked the bones of my mouth, fixing my eyes anywhere but on hers. I had looked up pictures of Uncle Anton and his family in Cologne and they all looked like smooth milk and corn silk. Even my mother didn’t look like them any more; her skin was tanned into tiny lines and her hair was less like silk and more like metal. She went to visit them nearly every year and she must have looked more and more like a foreigner there each time, just like she did here.
I felt the heat of her stare on the branches of thread Ify had created and nervousness coiled in my stomach. There was no time to take the thread out. I could almost taste her calculations, deciding if my small rebellion was worth addressing.
‘Let’s go,’ she finally said. Ify exhaled and, as we trotted obediently past my mother, her fingers brushed against the sculpture of my head.
They held the service at the grave and my mother latched her spine with iron,ignoring the wailing relatives and shielding her eyes with mirrored sunglasses.I saw them curl lips at her, but they couldn’t feel the fine tremble in her skin as she ground the bones of my hands together with hers. His sisters were angry because she had refused to let us participate in the wake-keeping,staying in town while the family gathered at Aunty Nonye’s house to mourn. She paid for everything but it was a slap, a reminder that she knew how they saw her and she was not going to pretend over his body, that I was hers and she could deny them his only child.
Everyone was kinder to me; I heard broken wisps of conversation about ‘that poor half-caste girl’ and women were constantly pulling me into their hot lacy chests, patting my face and touching my hair as they unleashed a pattering stream of Igbo over me. I shook my head politely to indicate that I didn’t understand,and they were taken aback.
‘Ah,ah! You don’t speak it?’
‘Her mother is white, na. They probably don’t speak it in their house.’
‘What a shame!’
‘Ehn,I’m sure she didn’t allow the father to speak it to her.’
‘May he rest in peace…’
I broke away from their voices as unobtrusively as I could. My mother had once taught me how to be deaf. She used to take Grace to the market with her and one day I begged and whined until she agreed to take me instead. We drove down Faulks Road until we were smothered in the noise and life of the market.
‘This is Ariaria?’ I asked as she parked the car, my eyes greedy.
‘Ariaria International Market,’ she answered, amused. She knew her way, weaving through the narrow aisles and dodging the grasping hands and calls. A few children started running after us and singing in raucous voices that threaded up into amocking question as they repeated their lines over and over again.
‘Onye ocha/ I biara n’ala Igbo?’
She acted like she had no ears, keeping her fingers locked like a convulsion around my wrist. When we got home that day, she called Grace to unload the car and said she was going to lie down. Papa was balancing a long stick of bamboo,knocking down oranges in the backyard, bright sunlight falling over him. I ran to help him pick them up from the ground, then tried to catch them as he broke them out from the tree, dancing under its branches to arrest them in mid-air.When I asked him what the song meant, he smiled at the way I sang it.
‘It means, “White person/ you have come to Igboland?”’
‘Poor Mama,’ I giggled. ‘Do they sing that for her every time she goes out? She must get tired of it.’ My father leaned the bamboo against the tree and lifted his hand to shade his face as he looked at me.
‘I’m sure she does,’ he said. I thought he was sad for her but after he died, I went to the market with Ify and the children sang the song at me. Ify squeezed my hand as tightly as Papa had done that other day as we carried the oranges back into the house, when he spared me the knowledge that I would be as displaced as my mother.
At the graveside, Jachi stood on the other side of her body with his hand on the plane of her shoulder. Because it was him, she tipped her body weight and rested some of it against him – not a lot, just a little. I stood straight beside her, my weight on myself. The rest of the family stood some distance away from us and the pastor was screaming prayers, his mouth flecked with spit.The rhythm of his words drummed the air around us. I couldn’t look over at my uncle. Ever since he had come back, there were nights when I woke up struggling to breathe and clawing the bed sheet off my body because it had touched my chest and it had felt like him. Other nights, he had my father’s voice; those were the nights when I did not sleep again. With him the width of my mother’s body away from me, my heart was beating so hard that I could feel my pulse stretch from armpit to armpit.
She was speaking softly to him but I couldn’t hear her for the wind or the pastor’s voice. As she talked, she relaxed and took her hand out of mine, resting it instead on the back of my neck. The touch of her skin flooded me; my mother was not given to caresses. It had been Papa who used to scoop me into his arms when I fell asleep on the sofa, carrying me to my bed while a sock dangled off my foot. He was the one I kissed goodnight, the one who sat me on his knee and bucked it about till I was screaming and giggling in laughter.
They were lowering his coffin and throwing earth over it, white sandy loam. Someone handed me a shovel and I took it numbly. One of my chores used to be weeding the compound, using a small hoe to hack up tangles of roots and patting the soil to even it out afterwards. They took me for a tetanus shot after I cut my foot with the blade and I told Papa that I had not expected it to be so sharp.He told me all useful tools have an edge. I wanted to take the shovel and swing it at my uncle’s smile, splatter him over the black pit of her dress. But instead I dug and lifted and threw and a pale mottled rain fell on my father’s casket.
Afterwards,almost everyone was in the parlour of the house and I was walking through the corridor, towards the kitchen, when I overheard Jachi speaking to my mother.
‘Think about what I said,’ he was saying, earnestly. ‘You know I’d love to have you and Gabriele come to London for a bit, spend some time with me.’
My mother was leaning against the heavy curtains. I stood back from the doorway and watched her sigh. ‘I’m tired, Jachi,’ she answered. ‘I just want to go home.’
‘I understand.’ He twisted his mouth in sympathy and took her hand in his. ‘What if Gabriele comes to London with me while you go to Cologne and sort things out there? Take some pressure off you. And then you can come and join us when you collect her.’
Jachi had leaned in to make his suggestion and it dropped across her collarbone,tumbled off her breast and splattered on the floor, where it slithered damply until it found me in the doorway, clawed its way up my body and sank viciously into my head. A briny fear rushed through me and the waves of it battered against my eyes. I watched her tilt her head at him and give him a small grateful smile.
‘Thank you, Jachi. That might simplify things a little.’
His eyes were soft. ‘It’s not easy to grieve and take care of a child at the same time.’
‘And Gabriele hasn’t been to London in a while.’
‘Neither have you,’ he pointed out. It had been two or three years since her last trip to Germany, with her usual stopover to see him. Papa had sent Jachi packages through my mother when she flew, books and suya spice and egusi. ‘I missed my presents. I miss him.’
‘I know,’ she said, her voice weighed. ‘I miss him, too.’ I was listening to them through the storm in me but I was stone on the outside, a hiding gargoyle, with the thought of a few days, a week, two, alone with him in that flat in London making me oscillate tightly on the inside. I wanted to jump out and scream and stop her from sending me away with him, rip that arranged concern off his face,distract the caving sadness on hers. I took deep breaths and steadied myself. I could do it, tell her what happened, right now, and she would never let him near us again. I stepped out, halfway into the doorway, and that was when I saw it, when my gaze dripped down his arm, his arm that ended in his hand, his hand that was cupped halfway and sideways with hers, her thumb that moved in an intimate stroke against the grain of his palm.
I stepped back. I turned with my heart withering and ran upstairs, away from the woman who had touched the thread of my hair and the back of my neck, away from her hand, away from her wine-tipped thumb. I ripped off my dress in Ify’s room and put on Papa’s shirt, buttoning the gentle green all the way up my throat, then I locked myself out on the balcony and crunched into a tight little ball so that I was buried in the charcoal black of the night, with the smell of my father holding me. I cried and cried forever, a gasping breeze drifting through my chest, bringing in the scent of a slow rot.