My body went missing when I started to touch myself. It disappeared totally into the brim of darkness with my shadows fighting to be seen. It was before men knew me, even before I knew myself. I was mining my way through everything I could not tell Uzo. I found a cure for my loneliness on the atlas of my body.
My sheets smelt of saliva and raw emotions. I only washed them when my Chi sent moulds as a reminder that my prayers would choke before they reached the heavens. It was important to me that God answered my prayers. I did not pound my fist on the floor and ask God to kill every obstacle and provide a good life as Uzo did. That prayer point was the reason she tried to abort me seven times and failed. Unlike hers, my method was more solemn and sensual, reciting proverbs as I engulfed the fullness of my chestnuts. I asked God to protect the children I had turned to blood, then I bit my lips hard in amen. There is an old figurine beside my bed. It is the only legacy I have of my grandmother. When she was alive, she polished it with oil and potash, massaging every nook and cranny with what was left of her index finger. Her turban always sat firmly on her skull, her waist bent from carrying boys who returned to their ancestors at the taste of her breast milk. Women in my lineage had ill-luck with keeping men from fleeing. She did not speak or see. Too bad her last hearing memories were sounds of moaning from my sacrilegious body entanglements.
When one of Uzo’s husbands first came to my room, he said he could smell death. He said I should take down the picture of my grandfather that hung loosely on the wall and dispose of the basket of rotten onions growing stems beneath my bed.
He was a short, bearded man shrunken by lust and alcohol. I imagined him on top of my mother, how his small frame would be invisible when it met with the vastness of her hips. He thought it disrespectful that I called my mother by her name, but I liked to think that I had earned that right. I had tasted the things she’d tasted and fought battles she could not even imagine. I was the reason men did not come to her for leftovers.
Uzo complained of slow sales, but she had enough money to pay her bus fare to Lagos every weekend for parties. I would have asked her to save up the money and send me back to the community school, but the children there mocked me. Plus, Uzo always brought souvenirs from her trip. Some of them I liked, while others forced themselves on me. After all, children were a gift from God, and if my mother gave her blessing, who was I?
I never knew my father because my mother never knew him. She said she was drunk, upset. My grandfather had just died in an accident, and that day she was angry; she just wanted to fuck out her emotions, never cared for the man’s face. Auntie Julie said she saw Uzo leave with the bartender that night.
I was still pale and pink when I was brought to him. He said nobody in his lineage had dark spots, and none of his forefathers were light-skinned. He said my mother would have to do a DNA test with all the men in the area to figure out my paternity. She did not argue. We had similar traits, me and Uzo. We wear our baggage like a silver lining; the woman I know as my mother can spread her legs for anything with a tail to pass through. My father could be any man.
The first time it happened, I had gone to buy bread across the street. It was normal for men to catcall women on our street. Nobody complained about it. If anything, it was motivation for your bum to jiggle more at their wagging tongues. People stared at me weirdly, like I was both an eyesore and a sight to behold.
Izu was the first man to grab me. He took me to the side of a rickety bus and asked me to bend over, and I obeyed. It was polite of him to ask. Uzo’s souvenirs did not ask her anything, they ripped off her wrapper at the door and just banged.
Izu paid for my bread, and I thanked him. I became a regular customer at his workshop, allowing his apprentices to work on me like a spoilt Benz. They took turns on me, and gave me boli, fish, egusi and assorted meat, in return. My mother said I marked my territory in her womb for a reason, that she knew my star would bring her good fortune. She never asked me how I got the delicacies. She only devoured the meat, her eyes wide, allowing condiments to splash into her pupils as atonement for what she dreaded had been done to me.
As she chewed, I understood what it meant to starve on a full stomach. She looked at me like she was trying to convince me that swallowing the heaviness that came with the meat was better than opening her heart to the inevitable truth. She told me to boil water, put it in an iron bucket, sit on it and allow the steam to make its way into my womanhood. I did not ask why.
I should have known that my mother’s sudden interest in the mansion was not without cause. She bantered with Aunty Julie over how it was only ndi Malay—people from Malaysia that had the money to build and paint a mansion white. She went there every evening to beg for water, even though it was the rainy season and our well had not dried.
It was not long before this pale man, Ahmed, fair, with a well-structured face and pointed nose, started sleeping over at our house. There was something about him that was not foreign. He told us he had been in Nigeria for three weeks because of a contract and was travelling back abroad soon. This man swallowed akpu like Mother Nature had him in mind when she blessed the earth with cassava. He devoured peppery Jollof like it was garri and sugar, and he knew how to haggle like a seasoned businessman. He promised Uzo that they would fly to Kuala Lumpur after the wedding. My name was never in the plan. An unwanted seed should not be allowed to cross countries. I cannot say how they agreed on a date to travel, or if Ahmed agreed he was from Malaysia, all I know is that Uzo is very impulsive, a master at finishing people’s sentences and trusting penises more than her God-given instinct.
Aunty Julie was nothing like Uzo. Julie was petite and very busty with a smile that made her head look too heavy for her short neck. She met my mother at the club, and that is as far as I know. Uzo teases that God was hell-bent on finishing the work in front and got exhausted when he came to the back, so he abandoned it. Julie was a simple woman, worked in a government office and made a decent living. She did not have any children.
When Uzo gave all the savings she made from her sales to Ahmed for the processing of papers, Aunty Julie was there. She was still there when my mother knocked at the white mansion and the owners told her that there was no one named Ahmed. That it was Malik, their former housekeeper, and he had finally returned to his family in Sudan after serving them for 10 years. While my mother was moving mad with Ahmed and planning to leave me behind, I was catching up on her old flings: Mike, Akpan, Jide, Cole and other nameless men that had a feel of my mother. I got testimonials from them on how I knacked better than Uzo. It became my guilty pleasure to swallow substances and use a hanger to poke half-formed things in my vagina. They said my mother could not bear any more children because of the complications she encountered at my birth. I wondered when my time would come, when I would have my own complications and my body would refuse to house any more bodies. If Uzo said she did not know that my skin had become a dumping ground for men to release all the emotions they could not confront, then she is a liar, and God will spit her out like lukewarm water.
She knew that when Ike had complained of the smell of death and onions in my room, he was only trying to make the room more conducive for him to enjoy an extension of her. She was old wine, and I was the new wineskin. Men liked to pour themselves in, new and raw.
Ike became my stepfather the same night he unlocked my womanhood. I was fourteen. He said I did not look my age and many men must want me now. I needed to be wanted because it was something my mother did not have. She was not wanted; she was always taken. Everyday someone took a part of her, and she let them chew on it like kola.
Ike said children like me could not handle cash, and each time he had me, he would give extra money to Uzo, it was part of his fatherly duties. I was not mature enough to handle money, but I was ripe enough to feel his warmth. Aunty Julie walked in on him trying to climb into my pants one time. The air felt smaller when she barged in. She was fuming and staring at Ike like he was a suck away poop. Ike sheepishly picked up his shirt and walked out of the room; that was the last we saw of him. If Julie told my mother what she saw, it didn’t matter. That night, Uzo came to my room with an iron pail to ask if I still wanted to sit on hot water, and I nodded.
I pretend that my skin is not a problem, and I am good at it. Uzo made me aware of my curse when she mixed charcoal with kernel oil and asked me to apply it as lotion every morning. Our conversations were always a thin line between hot water and charcoal, so I didn’t tell her the boys said that I was bad luck and should stop coming to the workshop. The treasure under my skirt had suddenly become trash.
Uzo was ashamed of me. One day, she told me not to leave the house except if it was very important. She made up a story about area boys looking for Albinos for rituals. I stayed put.
I have never seen my birth certificate. I didn’t have a christening. Aunty Julie wanted to give me a name, she thought Ifechi would be good—God’s thing, but it was not her place to name another woman’s child. Uzo did not call me anything. She spoke her piece whenever she needed to. Her tongue spiralled into sentences, and I had to decipher which one was intended for me mid-air. I mastered her tone. I understood her silences. Whenever she spoke into the void of her room, I knew which words were mine. She called God with a shameful temerity as though she was sure he owed her everything, yet she was unworthy to receive it. With me, she started loosely, her voice sounding like water, slippery. I was always attentive, waiting to hear that there was food in the kitchen or that she had a special visitor and Julie was coming to get me.
If Julie wanted to get married, she would have done it. A lot of men would pay anything for the space in-between her breasts. Her house was clear; nothing clogged my spirit like it did in my mother’s house. She even used white bed sheets. She cared for me like I was her child, and even though she had questions, she saved me the trauma of answering them. I wanted her to ask me about the time she saw me leaving the mansion with Ahmed, or the number of children I had removed from my body, and how many of them belonged to the men who slipped from my mother’s thighs. I would answer that one.
Julie’s eyes were watery and full of assumptions I could not refute. She kept me company till she was sure my mother had finished her escapades. She was not a coward like the men in our lives who took flight at the sight of our baggage. Nothing was too much for her to handle; my mother was broken, and she was balm. I wished she would just leave and forget that Uzo and I existed.
It had been a while since I said a prayer. I cleaned my room and anointed my body with lantern oil. This time, I let my fists pound mercilessly on the hard concrete and I laid down without my clothes, ready to go up like incense.
Heaven would reject this offering. It was not sweet smelling like grandmother described from the Bible before she became mute. There was foulness associated with my life and I embraced it more when I saw Uzo kissing Auntie Julie. It was not a sisterly kiss. It is the type of kiss you give to show openness, to welcome your lover. They made unforgiving noises in the living room, and I watched their butterflies dance all over the house till they died at the entrance of my room. It was unfair that Uzo got something she did not need to work hard to keep.
I lay on my bed and stared numbly at my grandfather’s portrait. I massaged my body with lantern oil and I lit the matches. The pain was not excruciating because my whole life had been both fire and ice. I would be burnt crisp before Uzo and Julie could try to quench anything. My spirit was leaving, and because of that, something in Uzo dies. I know Auntie Julie will try to save it, but this damage is permanent.
For once my skin turned brown without a darkening cream or charcoal. Uzo would like this new tone.
About the Author:
Roseline Mgbodichinma is a Nigerian writer, blogger, and poet whose works have appeared or are forthcoming in The Hellebore Press, Serotonin Poetry, Down River Road, Blue Marbel Review, Kalahari Review, X-ray Lit Mag, Native Skin and elsewhere. She is a poetry mentor & Alumna at SprinNG, an NF2W scholar in poetry, and a fiction contributing editor for Barren magazine. Roseline won the audience favourite award for the Union Bank Campus Writing Challenge – Okada books. She is the third prize winner for the PIN food poetry contest. You can reach her on her blog: www.mgbodichi.com