My grandfather started stealing my mum’s childhood when she turned five. He’d enter her room, his mouth laden with promises of sweets and playgrounds, and leave with fists full of my mother’s innocence. This went on for eight years, till my mother’s womb became a temporary home for me. When the consequences of his actions began to manifest, my grandfather took a gun to his head. My mother, barely a child herself, lost her hold on life after releasing me into this world. Into hatred. My grandmother named me Ozoemena, meaning “it shouldn’t happen again.”
When flashbacks from my childhood resurface through the fog of my mind, it is a kaleidoscope of my grandmother rewarding my attempts at seeking love from her with wrath. I once asked my Grandma for the date of my birth, and that day, she spewed liquid fury. My body bore marks that reminded me my voice wasn’t mine to use.
I was five when she began digging the hole in our backyard. I watched her through the blinds of the kitchen, the muscles of her small back pulsating with each thump-thump of the shovel. The next day, she woke me at the crack of dawn. “Come,” she said. I followed her to the backyard with my heart hammering against my chest. I thought she had finally gathered the courage to kill me. Instead, she pointed at the hole with a maniacal grin and said I should enter. I had spent so long absorbing her anger and hate—each slice of words and wave of the cane bleeding everything I had to say—that I stopped talking. When she said I should get in, I entered and willed myself not to cry. I was silent but what I wanted was to fade away.
I spent my childhood confined to spaces within the hole and my Grandma’s house. The only consolation I had was watching the kids that lived opposite my house. From my window, I watched them grow and when they left, it felt like I lost my siblings. I cried while the gentle rain reminded me that I wasn’t alone with my grief. I mourned because they kept me company on days when I was nursing the scars that came from love’s absence. I’d see the children playing in the yard and imagine I was there. I’d pretend there was love at home.
The dry season had begun giving way to rain when I spotted moving vans opposite the newly empty house. Intrigued, I watched the woman with purple low-cut bark orders at the movers who seemed to be mishandling her luggage. Her navy shirt complimented her fair skin, and her khakis gave way to long legs. She looked like she’d be the same age as my mum if life didn’t spin its wheel of tragedies. I was immediately drawn to her.
After a week, I watched her cross the threshold that separated our houses to ring my grandmother’s doorbell. I ran downstairs to watch the exchange, giddy, because it felt surreal to have another person in this place. On opening the door, I noticed she wore a pink sundress and had invitation cards in her hands.
“Hi, I’m Amara. I just moved in next door. I’m throwing a housewarming party on Thursday, and I was wondering if you’d like to come,” Amara said with a wide smile plastered on her face.
After a moment of what I presumed to be uncomfortable silence, my grandmother said, “ I know what you are,” vitriol dripping with each word that escaped her lips. I watched anger take the place of the smile on Amara’s face.
“What am I, abeg?” she said, crossing her arms.
“An abomination. I saw you kissing another woman yesterday. If I were wicked, I would have called the police to arrest you.”
Amara let out a raucous laugh and said, “It’s because of my wife you’re pressed? Why should the person I choose to love bother you to the extent that you spit venom in my face?” Her voice grew louder, “I won’t stand here and have you insult my wife and me. The invitation is retracted.”
All my grandmother replied with was a loud hiss. As Amara turned to leave, our eyes locked, confusion flashing across her face. As usual, I bore the brunt of the anger that welled up inside my grandmother. She saw me sitting at the bottom of the stairs and immediately began raining curses.
“Stupid girl, you want to be like her, abi?” She planted a slap on my face. “You already have sin flowing within you, and you want to add to it? I’ll kill you before you kill me.” She punched, kicked and spat while I was curled up in a ball, and after what seemed like an eternity, she left me alone.
That night I dreamt of lavender fields.
And I began a ritual of watching Amara’s walks with her wife. They would hold hands, punctuating their conversations with laughter. They were beautiful. During one night’s walk, Amara threw a slight wave in my direction. I ran, scared Grandma would somehow figure out our interaction.
Each day passed with my heart in my mouth, and I expected my Grandma to storm in, bearing fire and reaffirming that I did not deserve to take up space. The days bled into weeks, and nothing out of the ordinary happened. I gathered the will to look out of the blinds, and Amara waved again. This time, I didn’t run, nor did I respond.
The ritual of waving and staring went on for a while. One night, after I had spent the previous days in the hole, I decided to escape. I snuck out after making sure my Grandma was asleep. I had no plan and no idea where I was going. Still, I knew living anywhere else was better than with my Grandma. On getting to the bend that curved into another street, I ran into Amara and her wife. I watched recognition light up her face.
“It’s you! It’s nice to see you up close. What’s your name?” she inched closer, and I recoiled.
She noticed the scars strewn around my body, and horror registered on her face.
“Babe, see the marks around her body. Who could do this to another human being?” she whispered to her wife. “She’s the girl I saw when I went to that despicable old woman’s house.”
“Oh! Hey, I’m Glory.” Glory’s voice was deeper than expected. “Do you want to come with us? It’s dangerous to roam the streets at night.”
I nodded and noticed Amara hiding her tears on the walk to their home. When I got to their house, they sat me on a white sofa and tried to get me to talk, to tell them if I was being maltreated. But I had spent so long in silence I didn’t have the words to say to them.
The next day, Grandma came banging on the door and I ran to hide. Glory noticed my apprehension, then she brought out her headphones.
“It’s okay, girl. We won’t let her take you. Amara will deal with it.” She placed the headphones on my ears and played soft music.
“You’re crying.” I hadn’t noticed the tears on my face until she pointed it out. She gently pulled me to her and gave me a warm hug. “You can take your time. We haven’t even had a proper introduction, but I want you to know that Amara and I will fight for you.” She sounded like fulfilled promises and answered prayers.
After that day, we had an unspoken agreement. I’d sit and listen to calming music while they talked about themselves and their backgrounds. I could tell they were trying to find me. The problem was that I had spent so much time hiding that I didn’t even know who I was.
Grandma came over a couple more times, but I didn’t hear the contents of their conversations because Amara and Glory would wrap me in soft love and music. One day, they appeared jittery after a heated spout with my grandmother. Amara gently took my hands into her palms. “I don’t know if you want this, but we want to adopt you. We will take your Grandma to court.”
Heavy sobs began to wrack my body, and for the first time in my life, I felt like I was deserving of space. “My name is Ozoemena,” I whispered it so softly that I was scared they wouldn’t hear.
Glory and Amara looked at each other in disbelief, with tears in both their eyes.
“Ozoemena, you’re beautiful, and we can’t wait for you to be our daughter officially.”
They felt like home and soft love.
About the author:
Akinyemi Olajesutofunmi is a graduate of biomedical science who enjoys exploring art and its various
forms. When she’s not nose-deep in a book, you can find her tweeting @toffie_xoxo.