My husband is a fist. It is in his voice when he talks to me. His words punching the air in front of me in big, bold wild letters chased by multiple exclamation marks—words pounding my face and heart to pulp.
He looks blows at me in public when I have said a stupid thing like how pretty another woman’s dress is or said something intelligent about politics without his permission to spread my dirty opinions out in the open.
His look pummels me to the ground and my spirit shrinks into a corner of the earth until I’m just a dot and nobody notices me. Even his lovemaking is a fight. I can feel his blows inside the pit of my stomach; the jabs, beating tender flesh until I’m bleeding beneath him, and dying.
He was shouting his uppercuts at me one night. The landlord came downstairs and banged on our door.
“What is going on in there?”
“Open the door.”
“Nothing is happening. We’re just having a conversation.”
“That is no way to talk to a woman, young man.”
“She is my wife.”
“And this is my house. You won’t kill your wife in it.”
When the man left, he turned on me, narrowed eyes and voice. “You’re fucking that old rag, aren’t you? While I’m away your legs are up in the air for him, abi?”
I have been reduced to a speck, to a place where silence is the only shield I have against this fist of a man, against the blows that jump at me out of his throat.
I remained silent. That’s what usually tips him over the edge. I tightened my face, and waited, waited for him to throw the rocks of his fist in my face, for his blows to eat my face up. I felt the air in the room shrink, tighten; my lungs closed up, like a fist, holding the little shred of breath I had left inside. Sometimes it feels as if it is my last.
No, something did, was happening; but it was not to me.
He was on the floor, clutching his chest, the left side, as if he was trying to hold his heart in his hands. As if the holding of the heart would stop it from stopping. I could see it in his face that his heart was ceasing, see it in the twist of his mouth that he was slipping, dying. But that’s all I could do…look.
You do not expect some people to die. It’s like how we had not expected Abacha to die. Yes, we had wanted something to happen, but I don’t think many people expected it to be death. I remember when I heard he was dead–my neighbours shouting it!–I didn’t feel anything, just like now, because I hadn’t been expecting it.
I didn’t understand the people that filled the streets and shouted and laughed and cried and drank and danced. I did nothing, just sat there, and continued living; continued feeling nothing.
“I have killed him,” I thought, even though I knew I couldn’t. Not because of love, but because I do not have the capacity for murder. But watching him die like this just left me numb. I had never seen anyone die before, die this real, so real I could reach out and touch his dying.
To see someone die this tight, this roughly, holding their heart, opening their mouth to catch a little air, white helplessness in their eyes. I had never seen it before.
The fist in his throat had opened into feeble fingers clutching at empty air, not making any sound, fingers begging to hold on to life a little longer; fingers trying to touch your name, to say please, or help, or something else, anything but nothing comes out.
If you have held a fist in your throat for too long, when you open it, there’s nothing in it, nothing comes out of it, because it has never been opened to receive anything. I just watched. A tailless gecko on the wall distracted me for a second, it stopped. When I returned my eyes to my husband he had stopped; fallen asleep.
I joined him. I lay beside him, in the same position, facing the ceiling. There was a sound on the ceiling. A chair was being scraped across the floor above us, as if somebody was leaving a table, perhaps the landlord, or his wife. They don’t talk. They have not spoken to each other for years. Only sounds; scraping of chairs, shutting of doors, creaking of beds, clinking of cutlery.
It is better than speaking with fists in your voice. This not speaking at all, a silence like death, or sleep or just going away inside yourself; somewhere far away where there are no voices.
The landlord came downstairs in the morning to check if we were okay. He does that every morning, after a night of fighting. He would knock, and ask if we were okay. My husband would answer through the closed door, “Yes, we are”. The old man would go back upstairs unsatisfied.
This morning, I answered, not through the door; I opened it. I showed him the new light on my face and answered his heavy “are you okay?” with a bright, warm, “Yes sir, I am. Thank you, sir.”
He must have smiled for a second before asking, “And your husband too?”
“Yes, he is fine. Sleeping late.”
“Fine,” he said, finally satisfied.
“Have a fine day.”
“You too, sir.”
I shut the door.
He reminded me of my father. Quiet old men reminded me of my father. My father never talked to me, or my mother. He carried his silence around like a burden of wisdom on his shoulders with the dignity of a sage or an elder statesman.
This, his silence, was so sacred that you never wanted to breach it with any silly question, request or warm conversation. My mother and I only exchanged whispers between us whenever he was around. We maintained the sanctity of my father’s grave, patriarchal silence. There was nothing strange about it.
But, like my landlord, my father would come to the door of my room and ask if I was okay. He did it when I stayed locked in there for days, enjoying my own silence, and darkness.
I had married my husband because of his silence, because he reminded me of my father; because he was the only young person I knew who possessed the laden silence of an old man, and who reminded me of my father. It was attractive.
But his own pus-filled silence was different. Soon after the wedding, this silence began to erupt in small flashes of wrath that scorched. It exploded into bigger things as the marriage progressed; the fists in his voice growing in size every day until they had reduced me to that speck that couldn’t feel anything, not even when someone was dying in front of me.
“I think something has happened down there. It is strange. Too quiet,” I heard the landlord say to his wife, on their balcony. She does not answer. I know why. Not because she does not want to answer. She does not know what to answer.
When someone has not spoken to you for years you don’t know what to say to them when they finally do speak to you. Do you say all what you have always wanted to all those years? All the accumulated grouse. Do you just respond to what they have said? Do you just say nothing, as if nothing has been said to you, as you have grown used to?
She said nothing. She continued reading her book. I heard a page turn. He continued, “She has never come to the door herself in the morning like this. It is strange.”
I was in our verandah, just below them, listening. The sun was shining a yellow smile down and the sky was beautiful, even though it was a vast empty thing, it was beautiful. It was white, blue, white, grey, blue. My feeling used to be a colour too…purple.
Olubunmi Familoni writes short fiction, plays and screenplays. His debut collection of stories, “Smithereens of Death”, won the ANA Prize for short stories in 2015 and his play “Every Single Day” was selected by the British Council as part of the Lagos Theatre Festival (2016).