“Hues of Perfection” by Frances Ogamba
My mother and I strolled on the opposite sides of the road and it was striking that we were in each other’s company, and yet cars swished in between us. It must have been one of my mother’s safety measures: to always place a family in separate vehicles while on a trip, to have eggs in separate baskets so that if fracturing occurred, it would not efface an entire genealogy. Loss was a language my mother fluently interpreted, because she was always cautious, unsure and suspicious of each day, and of every gift that the universe fetched her. She always waited with bated breath to see what would snatch it.
The road was a sinuous runnel of tarmac coursing through the lands of shrubs; of forest burr and wild bauhinia and icheku. It etched and sluiced through fields filled with the pride of Barbados and odaa opue, through my mother and me as we walked home from the Oye town market. It was fall, and the parched winds met the sun halfway, and together they bore down in tempered melancholy.
We had on our heads woven sacks full of melon seeds and onions and dried fish tied in small priced quantities. Apart from the sky’s pallor, or the sepia effect the world took on after the earth god sprinkled some dust into the air, or the boy who walked past me tugging a sack after him, there was nothing notable in that moment, except that my mother and I threw breathless questions and responses to each other across the tarred road as it gleamed underneath the sun’s mild strokes. Cars cut through our words as they whooshed by, sawing out some details.
“Ezinne, did you call ?”
“Yes, I called. They will deliver it by morning.”
“When we get home, you will whoosh prepare the whoosh for me.”
I’d understand months later that it was in this moment, in this one where the winds swore at the universe, twisting trees to painful angles, that we transcended to a new episode of our lives. It hadn’t seemed important to capture facets of that finale, to retain any of those memories of my mother speaking so gaily, or to spare her a glance and see how unaltered she was, how her lips crafted words, how her eyes blinked to shield the beads of sweat from her hair from trickling into her eyes.
I froze when we walked in through the door of our two-room apartment, tired from the walk. We trekked from the market because the taxis charged more on market days.
Our town, where we lived, was small and appeared to engage in a relentless flight towards urbanization but never quite reached it. The town had one clinic, one guest house where the taps didn’t run, one private school, one tea vendor, one filling station with the only POS in town, one fish seller who supplied smoked fish to almost everyone, and the Oye market which sprawled out on the zenith of one of the town’s highlands where the sun’s glint lay often, unstinting, and human voices haggling over the prices of wares clashed on daily basis.
We were standing in our small kitchen space, my mother and I, while she scraped some spaghetti into our plates. Then I saw it on a portion of her right arm: possibly the backwash of a scald, the pigment had been seared off. Our kitchen was so small you occasionally trod on pans and pots. It couldn’t even take two people at a time except one person deliberately became smaller, shrinking the flesh on the buttocks and the stomach. It was also easy, in that small space, to get singed by hot oil or raging boiling water. So I dismissed the tincture of pink skin which now stood prominent on her arm, beautiful and flawed, as the aftermath of a burn. Yet I worried that it hadn’t been there that morning, or in the afternoon while we were returning from the market, in those final moments of wholeness.
I could have pointed it to her, or asked if she might study this patchy erasure of skin pigment which unveiled the inner skin, and gave semblance to bicoloured dog coat. But the ditch between my mother and I was so wide we did not hold beauty talks, skin talks, body talks. We only liberally chatted about the sales: how good, how bad, how fair. We also launched into conversations on how to save more money for my university enrollment the following year. I often blamed her taciturn nature on loss, on my father who was someplace in the ground, dead and silent, on her own parents who lived only long enough to hold her toddler hands and cross busy streets. She seemed to study me through that loupe all my life, held me carefully at a distance, unsure if I’d be staying or leaving. Perhaps this was why I couldn’t tell her that her skin was also deserting her, because there was no different language for explaining loss. It drummed from the same depths and with the same rhythm.
I slept poorly that night and dreamt that we were all pebbles, everyone who lived in our town, littering the brown sands of a river, as disguised as possible in a bid not to be picked. Then a pebble got picked, my mother’s stone, and I was jolted awake. The harmattan night had sloughed off the chills and emerged sunny by morning. I threw off the bed covers and walked to my mother’s room. Her door gaped open and I dropped slight knocks on it and eased inside.
She didn’t look up, and it was unlike her. Her ears usually picked slight sounds. Her slender frame was leaning against the wall adjacent to her bed, and her fingers dug into the skin of her right arm, her eyes widened in worry.
“Ezinne, come and see. I don’t know what to call this, see,” she held out her arm to me and it was the first conversation we’d hold about bodies, about skins that wear off in small flakes, leaving imprints that resembled city maps on our bodies. The patch had spread about three inches further down her arm, the brown blanket of the skin was unevenly shred open. I knew then that it wasn’t a burn, it was something that ran deeper. I was frightened.
My mother quivered like a leaf as I pre-emptively massaged some Shea butter into the affected areas, and then smeared the butter on the rest of her skin. I couldn’t read her eyes but I saw a sea of panic. The waves of losses she’d had to live through were streaming back in. It seemed sufferable to bear the exit of loved ones, and to live with the pain of their abandonment. What I didn’t know was how to deal with the loss of self, where the skin colour suddenly decided it was time to depart in irregular squares.
Did we not bathe it well? Did we not nourish it well? How did we fail it that it became so incensed?
My head was light, powdery. I forgot where I put things, where I placed keys, and I always returned to check if the stove was indeed turned off after I twisted the knob.
We scanned through our food store and sought for what could trigger such depigmentation. We let beans, plantains, and cocoyams stay. The high-carb foodstuff was tied up and tucked away from reach. A black shroud was closing in on us. I felt it always clutching at the nape of my neck, in our walls each time my body fanned them, and the following week when the blotches spread to her armpits. There was a pink trail going upward her shoulder, trying to cross to her neck and face. We were at the heart of a battle and we had no idea how inviolable the enemy was.
My mother’s eyes never left her arm. She examined the colours and murmured to herself. Then she repetitively swung her arm over her head and snapped her fingers to discard any evil that might be circling her. Every dawn birthed newer maps on her body, and they advanced, a filigree of pink and black. I slipped out of the house while she was asleep and called Ego, a woman who belonged to the same prayer group with her. She was the only person with a face familiar enough to be called my mother’s friend.
Ego brought with her other members of the prayer group, the charismatic renewal. My mother was their member only once in a month but you became their own once you stepped into their midst. They filled the house with prayers. I saw my mother kneeling, standing, falling, her muscles straining, the patches spreading, numerous, compact.
I knelt too, and tried to hurl my wishes to the skies.
She strolled about the house grudgingly, as if ashamed to be watched. She laughed in a thin voice, and when the panic spread to her fingers, she dropped things.
Her body was always hot, it was the temperature of tea. I dipped a towel often into a bowl of cold water and tried to stub out the fire spreading in the rooms of her body. The high temperature seemed to melt more archways in the body through which the blood transported and deposited elsewhere the root cause of the skin condition. The patches clambered up to her neckline and completely razed off the entire pigment. My mother’s neck glared in soft pink skin of fresh wound. I strove not to shudder each time I walked around the house and ran into her, not to shrink when she walked too close, or duck when she touched me. I feared that what she had was contagious so I scrubbed my body thrice each day. We both couldn’t be ill at the same time was what I told myself as I tried to scrub out such chances, yet in truth I was only terrified that I’d wake up some morning and find myself wearing many skin shades.
The sun was often harsh on my mother’s exposed skin and stung once in contact. So she went out less and less until she severed all contact with the outside world. Our house was sealed off in a darkness that wasn’t visible, and contained only our whispers, and our breathing. I took over the sales at the market and did all the shopping. It was sometimes exhilarating, the new independence, albeit earned as a result of her pain.
My mother’s body could silence her without regard and carry on with living, deciding what should stay and what should be dispelled. Perhaps only a stroke of luck barred my skin from flaking like hers. If it was a matter of time, then whether it was from the mist, or from the sun rays, or wherever ailments originated from, I was going to be altered after all. That line of thought brought me clarity and I was always scared.
Daily, I found her walking farther away from herself. She doused the pink skin with kernel oil, trying to dim the brightness. When our neighbours gathered in our living room to visit her, they didn’t touch or embrace her. They were kind to her from a distance. Her voice no longer ran carefree. She chatted, laughed soft and low, and every time our door flew open and clicked shut, our world slowly eased back into silence. When some of my peers dropped by, they hung around at the porch, or at the windows. They asked if she was getting better, and then they melted like fog.
There were moments in which I struggled, as if a vicious arm squeezed around my chest. Then I cried. Tears always sort of capped that process of grieving. I was thrust into a thready tumult, hanging between sadness and pity for my mother, and intense fear for myself, for what could be.
My mother tried to make light of the situation sometimes, to see if the universe still retained any memory of her.
“Are my customers asking after me?”
“Yes, everyone is asking.”
“My prayer sisters are telling me to start going out.”
“You should, mummy.”
“People will run away if they see me,” she chuckled and hurt knifed through her voice.
“It’s not that bad, mummy,” I lied.
“I think it is.”
I did not push further because the fragments of truth, like loss, always hung close. My mother had been split into halves, into black and pink, like a human licked halfway by an incendiary and then puked. Half of her face and body was gone. The remaining half which still retained the melanin, though pocked with small pink circles, was a reminder of who she used to be. When I looked at her sometimes, it was the darker part that I trained my eyes on, because it was easier, because it was recognizable. There were days I was exhausted and deeply desirous of fading out from the picture, but I couldn’t leave home.
One evening, I returned from the market and found the front door wide open as a barely discernible sound floated towards me from the interior of the house. It emanated from the throat of an adult human, and as I walked further in, the sound travelled closer and I heard it clearly. I found my mother slumped by the kitchen door, draped in over six yards of wrapper which covered her arms and body. There was a trivial fleshiness on her cheeks, probably because she’d been stuck in the house for too long. Tears streamed down her cheeks, and her body trembled. When I squatted by her she let out low gasps as though she was ashamed to unpeel before me in that manner.
Wordless, I sat beside her on the bare floor. In what other way do you show solidarity to a loved one who mutated right in your face, and you feel equally helpless?
“When I met your father, everyone asked if I was sure I wanted to date a police man. When I decided to marry him, everyone was afraid he wasn’t going to live long. But he lived for four years, long enough to have you.” My mother fell silent and I couldn’t will her to go on. Those snippets of material were all I’d ever extract from her on the subject of my father. When my schoolmates talked about their fathers, I often reproduced everything my mother said about him. I described the framed portrait hanging in our living room which contained his face and chest, and then I invented a little bit more.
The bottles of herbs she’d been taking which failed to resurrect her skin were lined by the kitchen door. She made a movement with her fingers which indicated that I should bin them.
“We should really go to the clinic now, mummy,” I said to her. She didn’t like going to hospitals, and in her manner of supplying bits of her past, I learned that her parents died in one, and my father, in another.
The heavily bearded doctor from Springs Clinic nudged my mother’s body with different apparatus, asking to be let into her medical record. He asked about blood pressure, heart problems, and acute stress. But there was no record, the last time my mother walked into a medical centre was to have me. There were personal questions about my father whom we had present only in pictures. Then the doctor named it, the skin condition that discoloured our reality as much as it cracked my mother open ― vitiligo.
At first, it sounded like the name of a sweet-tasting vitamin. Then it gradually dawned on me that this was the enemy: vitiligo. According to the medic, my mother’s body was simply revolting against her, just like any other skin condition, say acne, say eczema or skin plaques.
In this case, there was no cure.
There were treatments for improving the appearance of the patient. Though the hospital visit tagged my mother’s condition with a term which was less killing than swimming in speculations, it also passed a death sentence on our hopes that she’d ever entirely recover her old skin. There was no outrage left in her. She nodded often to suggestions even when it was clear that she wouldn’t consider them. We couldn’t afford the treatments just yet, but it was a relief to learn that she was safe, that no new condition could be birthed from the current one. When the doctor announced that it was neither contagious nor fatal, and that she may still get some of the old skin back if she bathed with papaya and basil leaves, I fought relief but it drilled holes through me. I was sad that while I worried for my mother, I was even more bothered about myself.
The medic’s voice droned on: there is barely any reason, madam, for you to shut yourself away from living. There are thousands of cases of vitiligo in Nigeria and the affected people are leading normal lives.
He prescribed a white plastic bottle of iron tablets. Tiny round chalks of red poised to repair an entire adult skin.
Nothing new happened after the diagnosis. The days bled into one another, there was no stopping the universe. The world didn’t cease breathing, nor did its heart beat slowly to suit my mother’s pace at getting used to her new reality. She began to battle shame by strolling outside the house and sitting on the porch for long minutes. Then she walked further down the street and bought bread often from the grocer. The words, sorry, tailed her. People stared. People shook their heads. The cosmos acted mostly unhurried to acknowledge or let her negotiate her position in it again. Her progress was slow, but it was also steady.
She began to make meals again, to do the laundry, to laugh a little louder. On the days she joined me to the market, and we marched along the major route, she was usually thrown all the greetings, all the waves. Then right behind us or in front of us, and paying little attention to the hearing distance, the same people chattered,
“Is that Ezinne”s mother?”
“No! You don’t say!”
“Tell me again. What did you say happened?”
“She woke up one morning and saw the poison…” the cars swung past and cut out the final and important words.
There was a picture frame of my mother’s former look hanging on the wall of our living room, right beside my father’s. Her epidermis was brown in detail, in a way I find as intriguing as I find her now after what she’d lost. There were moments in which I glanced at her, fooled by the light perhaps, and found her skin in perfect hue, all brown or black or even pocked as it is, sparkling, like that last time, that day when her voice descended on me from across the road, when nothing pried her open to see what was underneath.
Frances Ogamba explores varying themes in her writing. Her short stories appear in the 2019 New Weather for MEDIA anthology, and in the first issue of Rewrite Reads. Her nonfiction piece, The Valley of Memories, won the 2019 Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Non Fiction. She also won a joint first place for the 2019 Syncity Ng Anniversary Anthology. She is on the 2019 shortlists of the Writivism Short Story Prize and the Brittle Paper Award for Fiction; and on the 2019 longlists of OWT short story prize and the K&L Prize for African Literature. Her stories appear on Enkare Review, Munyori Literary Journal, and Arts and Africa. Few of her stories are interspersed in Afridiaspora and the 2016 and 2018 Writivism prize anthologies, Dwartonline and Ynaija websites. She is a workshop alumnus of Writivism 2016, Winter Tangerine 2016, and YELF 2018. She works as a content developer from Port Harcourt, Nigeria.
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