Prose: Shapes by Eloghosa Osunde

This piece was originally published by Olisa.Tv for a literary supplement by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Looking into that kitchen is my first memory of real regret.

Before it, it was still just a dusty Wednesday morning, and everybody was still loved.

First, Grandpa banged the table while saying something. Grandma was still frying puff puff. He turned her around and slapped her. Twice. Her hand flew up towards him in response, but it met her side again, by itself. She lowered her body at the knees, and then said something, but I only saw her mouth move. She looked weak like this – hands flailing feebly in the air, trying to catch the words, her thinning, jet-black hair reaching for her shoulders. She always dyed it. Always.

Her mouth was still moving when he swung his left hand to her jaw. After, he made, with his right hand, a tight fist inside her hair. When he had secured the tuft, he turned his hand clockwise on her head. I could see the middle. There were stray grey hairs there; and for the first time, I imagined Grandma’s whole head grey. She wouldn’t look the same.

As he was pulling it, his eyes were protruding, glass hard, catching the light from the kerosene lamp. Surrendering now, her own eyes withdrew, until they were half-open slits, bloated with water and betrayal.

When he released her, strands came crying down. He did not look like this was the first time he’d done this. Grandma’s mouth was ajar, but I couldn’t tell if it was in shock.

It was over – until he pushed her out of his way, towards the raging oil. I imagined myself running fast and far into the street, red sand bloodying my sandals, clinging to my calves — but my chest was tight and my parents and relatives were in the living room – so I stood there under the window and willed my lungs to catch the air.

When I got back into the living room, Grandpa had brought in the puff-puff and everybody was eating it while he sat and talked bitterly about the government. Grandma came back in looking normal. She said- “I knew you people would clear it.”

Everyone else laughed. I stayed bent over, eating and eating to quiet the anger, to level the pity. She sat next to my dad. After me, he was the first to notice her arm. He asked.

“Eze yo e,” Grandpa was the one who replied. Don’t mind her. “You know your mother. When she’s in the kitchen, it’s like she forgets that oil can burn. I always tell her to reduce it, she doesn’t listen.”

Grandma picked up some tissue and dabbed it to my father’s mouth. “You want to complain, but see, na you enjoy pass.”

His concern did not fade, so she looked this man – my father, her son – right in the face and she smiled. “Ihon ne. I have heard. Next time, I’ll be more careful.”

Some women are candles; will weep under the heat of the fire, and then wax cold.

I found the exit to my own childhood at ten. That was also the year I stopped looking my mother in the eye.

When you see a person you respect shattered into pieces by someone they love, there’s an illogical resentment that eats your mind. At first, you grow to hate them for not helping themselves. Then you hate yourself for not being mighty enough to save. The aggressor stays untouched in a faraway bubble of forced reverence.

He burnt her with a cigarette. He cut her hair in her sleep. He threw her down the stairs. She stayed. He brought home a third wife. He threw her across the room. She stayed. He took her favourite clothes outside and burnt them. He locked her outside the house. He threatened to leave if she didn’t lose weight. She starved, and stayed.

She stayed, and it was that anger that continued to heat my heart, until one day, all that was left was a hard black thing.

The day it broke, I had just returned from school with a Best In English certificate that I was dying to show her. In the corridor, I heard her talking. When I got close enough to the door, I realised I was eavesdropping on a conversation with God. It was not the first time. I did not leave.

I knew that what she was doing was crying, but this was the type of cry that sounded like it belonged to something specific; like dying, like death, like mourning.

When I later learned the word groan at school, I thought of that hot afternoon, crouched outside my mother’s door, the sound of ache dragging itself out of her small throat.

I did not tell her I heard her begging God to either shove my father back into his senses or take her life. I didn’t tell her that I heard her voice go raw from pleading. I didn’t tell her that I thought there had to be other options.

I thought instead, that if the feeling she was feeling was a real, tangible thing, it would have looked like a deep pool of thick black liquid; and if I fell inside, I would never be able to come out.

Well, some women swim.

Lamide had just come back from London for the summer and I went to her house to sleep over. Her parents had brought a whole suitcase of sweets, toys and movies. There were so many things I was itching to tell her, like that thing about Toyosi and Benjamin and there were things she wanted to tell me too, like her crush on the white boy with grey eyes; so we stayed up even when her parents locked up and went to bed. At midnight, we went downstairs as quietly as we could, to steal more green Skittles.

When we got down, I told Lamide that we should play hide and seek one more time. She was the one to hide. When it was time for me to go seek, I heard the door slam from upstairs.

Somebody was coming downstairs very quickly, so I switched off the lights and hid under the stairs. It was Uncle Femi. I knew this because the steps were heavy, and Aunty Eseosa’s voice was trailing behind him.

“Femi, come back.”

“No, you want to disrespect me in my own house, abi? Is it not because you see me at home that you can ask me stupid questions? I’m the one that caused it. It’s my fault.”

“Femi, you’ll wake the girls…”

“And I don’t care. Let them wake up. I try my bloody best. Do you hear me? I try.” I’d never heard him talk to Aunty like this before. Hearing him raise his voice, I felt like there was traffic in my chest.

They were by the kitchen now and Aunty Eseosa held him by the back of his shirt and knelt down. “Ok Femi,” she said. “You’re right. I just thought that…”

“Thought what? That I would apologise and promise to never do it again? Is that what you want?”

“Listen, I beg you Femi, calm down. People can’t find out about this. Think of me. Am I not enough? What will people say? Tell me what she is giving you. Tell me what she is doing. I will do it, I swear. I will do it.”

Aunty was touching Uncle’s waist in the way I should not have been seeing, but I could not stop looking. He had calmed down now. She undid his belt.

After a long blank stare at her, he held her hand and lifting it slowly, he said: “Eseosa, you forgot to clear that table.”

He did not give her a chance to get up before he turned around, tall and square shouldered, and made those six big steps to the front door.

Some women stay in the mess, and beg.

It can be anything or anyone. It can be the door. It can be the restless, ruthless ghost of your relationship. It can be your own self. It can be the man you thought you loved. It can even be God.

But someone must suffer.

This is what Grandpa said that Christmas, in the heat of the conversation about politics.

Somebody must suffer.

So, on her way back to her room, Aunty stopped at Lamide’s room to check if we were there. She turned on the light and when she did not see us there, she shut the door and I stopped hearing footsteps. Usually, she would let us stay up all night if we liked, as long as we didn’t make too much noise; but that night seemed like it would be different. Afraid now, I started tiptoeing away from under the stairs. I don’t know where I was trying to go, but I kept going until Aunty suddenly yelled. “OLAMIDE!” I tripped over myself. She shouted again. “Olamide, don’t let me count to five.”

By the time I got up there, my friend had already surrendered herself to her mother and was screaming. Aunty was almost at the end of the cane, pieces scattering around her feet.

When she looked at me and pointed at me with the half cane, her face was ablaze with something. “I’m using your friend as the scapegoat so you will know next time. When adults are talking, you, you should be fast asleep.” Afterwards, I watched my friend pick up the pieces of the cane.

I bent down to help and started crying. I told her I was sorry. As I was saying it, she sat down on the floor and held her nose so her own cry wouldn’t make noise.

Aunty called up the stairs asking Lamide to bring her car keys. It was almost 1 am; I checked. When she came back upstairs, we did not talk. She turned off the light and we laid there with our backs to each other.

Later, she tried to wake me.

I heard her because I wasn’t sleeping in the first place; but because I didn’t know how to talk to her, I closed my eyes tighter.

Then she said, “Babe, wake up. Seriously, wake up. My mum went out with a knife.”

Some women crack at the head, break open, and bleed a tidy trail of madness.

She had a soft voice once. She was tall, with smooth light skin. She’s still the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known, but all the while, she carried herself like she thought life was heavy – like her own beauty was a secret she was left out of.

Two years after she got married, Aunty Sasu, my mother’s sister, had become half her size. She was drowning in her clothes. Everybody saw. She always wore sunglasses. Everybody knew.

After she called their father crying for help that day, she called my mother. His final word had been- “Stay. Them no dey send pikin go husband house make e quick return. Stay.”

She left behind four children and many questions.

My mother brought her journals home, because she did not want anyone else reading into Aunty’s head. I picked one up one day. At the bottom left corner of the middle page, she wrote an isolated sentence.

Some things you’ll never know for sure, because nobody talks about them. But also, because that is how this life is. Before the answers,

Some women get buried.

Grandma left him on his 70th birthday. He woke up that morning and did not see her in the kitchen. This is how he knew. The flour was there, to make the mixture. The sugar was there, to sweeten things up. The yeast was there, to raise everything. But she wasn’t. She left four whole full bowls of puff-puff on the table. Beside them, her key to the front door. She did not explain herself to anyone. It has been ten years since.

We were sitting outside that day – her on the brown stool, and me on the floor – when Aunty Glory, our help at the time, told me that she had called off her upcoming wedding.

Earlier in the year, he’d asked her to submit her phone to him every weekend. He’d also told her that she would have to stop doing hair too, to focus on the house. She agreed. One day, she forgot to hand in the phone, so in the name of anger, he punched the wall right by her head. She called for the neighbours and after she’d left, she opened the back of the phone and threw the SIM in a nearby bush. She said that was how she knew that she would not go back.

We had six braids to go. Her hands were shaking in my hair. “See, I no fit lie, I still love Kenneth die.” “But”, she said, “I no fit let person kill me on top love. After all, no be only him dey.”

When Aunty Itohan, my mother’s best friend, found out that her husband Uyi had been cheating on her with a banker named Tope, she did not make a scene. He left his phone at home that day. She didn’t know, and quite frankly, it wouldn’t have made a difference if she did – she never checked his phone. But she was tidying his side of the room when the notification came in. There had been six missed calls earlier, which she did not hear, and now one text message that read: “Make time tonight.”

She was still holding the phone when the picture came in. It was taken in front of a bathroom mirror. The woman stood in front of it, slender and tall; her bare body, full in all the right ways. She looked like sin.

Looking at this woman, Aunty thought of her husband – his hands, her hips, his lips, her stomach, his tongue, her thighs, her mouth, his waist, below, their bodies, the motion, their bodies, the sweat, the bodies – and she decided then, that she would not wait.

Imaghi setin. I could not.

It was our house she came to. It was my mother’s shoulders she cried on.

“I’ll be okay”. She said this, dipping her tongue in and out of English and Edo. “It’s just that for now, this pain is raw in my chest.”

This year, we sat together in her house with her new husband Uncle Nosa, and in an unrelated conversation about peer pressure, she said to my sister “…and listen, you must just be careful love, because we are malleable, you know? Every single one of us”.
We are.

We are.

But, some women will not bend.
— Eloghosa Osunde

Source: Olisa TV, 2015. Permission Obtained From Author. All Rights Reserved.

Image: Eloghosa Osunde