When I was ten years old, I watched a movie where a Russian Doll was a symbolic relic. I do not remember what the movie was about or anything about the characters for that matter, but I remember the doll. And it’s because then, I found it fascinating, how replicas of the doll were inside the casing when broken. The more you broke it, the more replicas you found, getting smaller and smaller in size. At first, I thought it was endearing but much later, when I was a bit older, with scrawny sideburns that refused to connect and a goatee framing my chin, I thought that the existence of such a doll, the idea behind it, symbolized something for me, for overthinkers, for anyone who searches for meanings in things that ordinarily should not garner much attention. I thought it represented the many layers of life, and that representation was something to unpack, something to marvel at. Are these layers replicas of one another but in smaller facets? And do they suffocate us when they come undone? I ask these questions, because someone once told me that life is a bulb of onions; there are layers to it.
Shortly after I discovered the Russian Doll, my mother got tired of living in a rented apartment and was determined to move into the house she had been building for seven years. From what I observed, she needed about five more years to complete the building, five more years to save enough for the finishing. She needed to complete the roofing, but wanted it to be with fine aluminum sheets. The floors had to be tiled. Glass windows were to be fixed, strong doors too. A deep soakaway pit was to be dug. The walls needed plastering. And painting with textured paints. She wasn’t ready but she wished and believed that there were things she could skip. Like, do the floors really need to be tiled? Can’t it be done later? And, aren’t carpets perfect substitutes?
I remember the year she decided she wanted a house; I remember it being the year she grabbed all of her savings and bought a land. Laying the foundation was next, and this didn’t take time at all. In exactly ten months, a skeleton of her dream house stood on the vast piece of land she had bought. It was the first time I would learn that after the foundation comes the window level , then the roofing. It was the first time I understood that there are layers to buildings and that houses are like puzzles. That my mother’s lecturing job in Okene Federal College of Education gave her access to soft loans, emergency loans, overdrafts, and what have you. That she snatched at all the opportunities she could, everything that would make her sleep in a building of her own, even if it meant selling her Mazda 323 car. That she was sweating and working hard for her money. Later, I would learn that my mother’s house threatened my father, that it was the crux of my parents’ separation.
I was twelve years old, and as it was on most breezy evenings during the rainy season, we sat on the balcony to complete the rest of the day’s chores, to play, to let the breeze caress our skins. Mother did most of the sitting. She was always seated on a small wooden stool, peeling soaked beans for Moi-Moi, or rinsing tomato fruits she would blend for stew, or picking ugwu, efo or bitter leaf sticks; sometimes it was Okra she would be grating. Our names found homes at the base of her throat. She would call us for this and that; to get her a bowl of water, or a table knife, or a spoon she had kept somewhere in the kitchen store, or to quickly rush to the grocery store down the street and buy her some spices. My father would be tending to his Datsun Laurel car and my brothers and I would be playing, waiting for my mother’s call. He loved that car the way tortoises love their shells. Sadly, he couldn’t go everywhere with it because it was always faulty. There are many problems in this world for many people, but my father’s Datsun Laurel had many more problems than the problems of this world. They were endless.
That evening, we were playing the game of cashew nuts but with stones instead of nuts. We would bury the nuts in tiny ridges we made with the soles of our feet and, from a distance, try to shoot as many nuts as we could out of the ridges. The more nuts you shot out of the ridges, the more you kept for yourself. It was like bowling. The differences were the tiny ridges, the moments shared with siblings, punctuated with laughter, and the fact that you didn’t keep the bowling pins you had knocked off for yourself. But you kept the nuts.
I was throwing stones. My father had warned us not to throw stones because of his car. But I was throwing stones, because I had thought that if I kept a safe distance from the car, everything would be okay. But everything was not okay when one of the tiny stones found the Datsun Laurel and shattered its windscreen. I ran. Past the gate, past the grocery store down the street, my legs kicking dust almost to the back of my head, my chest heaving; I was afraid of what my father would do to me for hurting his car. Wondering the number of strokes he would cane my bum. I was afraid of the cane. And my father, in shorts and singlet, barefooted, chased after me.
My father is many things, but one thing about the many things he is stands out. Yes, he is a father. And yes, for the insignificant amount of time that I remember, he was a husband. It is not my place to say if he excelled at being either. There are many things that define what it means for something to be good. These roles are heavy roles, each bearing a burden that can drown a soul. If I say he was not a good father, I would be an unjust judge. And if I say that he was not a good husband, would I be certain that what I have said is true? Do I have the authority to be a person who knows what it means to be a good father or husband? One thing is certain, I am sure: he was a man who would rather sweat and do the hard work than let his wife sweat and do the hard work. Not to prove anything or to cloak himself with the societal construct of what men should do, what husbands ought to do—that fathers should be pillars, should bear the weight of their spouse’s problems and that of their children. Just because. That is how it is supposed to be: our women don’t sweat or do the hard work, just because. It is tradition.
I remember when I was five years old and my mother was pregnant with the last born. Long before we knew that all the times my older brother and I whispered ‘Ahe Mama, sorry,’ from behind the bathroom door of our rented apartment to our mother after she was done puking, our fingers curled up tight against our palms, willing her to be well, my father would fetch buckets of water from the neighborhood borehole, clean the house, and sometimes, try to cook. We would laugh, bemused by the fact that Daddy was fetching water and sweeping the floors. My father was many things, different replicas of who he was beneath his body. My father, like the Russian Doll, has many layers.
I read somewhere that the Russian Doll is one of the many things that brought fame to Russia. There’s symbolism in its existence, plugged within the traditional values of Russian society. It is symbolism for respecting the elderly, uniting extended families, and for fertility and abundance. It symbolized the relentless search for truth and meaning and justice. That what is true is often concealed within many layers of meaning is a leitmotif in Russian tales.
A character in one of the many folktales I read searches for a needle meant to lead to the death of an evil character. But the needle is inside an egg, and the egg is inside a duck, and the duck is inside a hare, and the hare is inside a box, and the box is buried under an oak tree. Hence, that single, most important item, is concealed within layers of other items. This was the way I experienced truths growing up, and even now, a lot of things about my life exist in concealed forms, one from the other, needing to be unfurled to reveal multiple versions of myself that I am yet to discover.
For a short while during the year I was fifteen and had just moved into my mother’s house, our home felt incomplete. I thought it was because everything was new, and it was not easy getting used to new spaces. But it felt incomplete not because the house wasn’t completely finished (only the sitting room floors were tiled; the rooms had no doors but curtains; only the interior walls were painted; the roofing sheets were not aluminum), but because my father refused to move in with us. His silence and immediate refusal summed up to one thing: he could not live under the roof of a woman. My father is a stubborn man.
I’m not supposed to tell you this but I figure it won’t hurt if you don’t tell. After we moved into the new house, after my father’s refusal to live under the roof of his wife, came endless meetings and visits from relatives roping us into uncomfortable conversations on how to solve the matter. They wanted to save the marriage. When we were much younger, my brothers and I, we were not allowed to witness my parents’ subtle fights and disagreements and how they settled them. We never saw them raise their voices or physically disagree in any way. Sometimes, mother would nudge us, telling us that our father had refused to eat dinner. Could we tell him to go eat? My father’s reply would be, “One has to save food sometimes, there are people with nothing to eat in this world.”
Most times, we’d return from Islamiyyah and my grandmother would be the one to welcome us home. She would pat us on the head and say, “Go and play outside eh.” Every time she said this, my parents would have taken seats on opposite ends on the large sofa in the living room, an invisible line of separation between them, emptiness climbing up their faces. That was how we knew that something was wrong. And by morning, when grandmother would have left, things would go back to normal: my parents’ faces would turn bright and shiny, with happiness resting at the base.
In one of those uncomfortable visits, my father came with three of his friends. They came to settle the matter. They sat outside our new house, on wooden benches, and talked in hushed tones so we would not hear what they were saying. But our ears were pressed against the door, listening. Our eyes stole glances from behind the window curtains. We heard and saw the night unfold in layers, piece by piece. My father’s friends, all in their fifties, had patchy grey hair resting at the base of their heads, almost reaching the nape of their necks, spoke in one voice.“This is the solution we have come to.”
What came after was rather shocking. How could they say that my mother should leave the house she had spent years building, monetize it by renting it out, and go back to my father’s rented apartment? Because my father living with us under my mother’s roof was emasculating. My mother told them to leave and, when they refused, walked out on them. She, too, is stubborn.
About the Author:
Mustapha Enesi is Ebira and his works has appeared in several literary magazines. His writing explores grief, longing, and acceptance. His short stories, ‘Kesandu’ and ‘Safety Pins Are Good Omens’ won the 2021 K & L Prize for African Literature and the 2021 Awele Creative Trust Award respectively. He was a finalist for the 2021 Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize and the 2021 Arthur Flowers Flash Fiction Prize. His flash fiction piece, ‘Shoes’ was highly commended in Litro Magazine’s 2021 summer flash fiction contest. He writes from Lagos, Nigeria.
Feature image by Loke_Artemis / Pixabay
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