Today, our guidance and counselling teacher taught us the meaning of growing up. “Growing up,” she said, pacing up and down the cramped space in front of the class, “does not necessarily have to do with age.
“It has to do, instead, with the mind. You could be thirty and still think like a kid who just turned seven. Remember that myth about seven being the age of reason? And you could be seven. Okay, seven may be an illogical overstatement. Let’s say fourteen. You could be fourteen and think like you’re forty.”
When I was fourteen, I began to wobble on the word ‘God’ and wondered if those who easily uttered it as though it were some word of greeting felt what I felt. Na God, God dey, by God’s grace, they would say impulsively at a question about their well-being, feats they achieved or something they intended doing.
Since then, I’ve felt my heart twitch at that G-word, something akin to a deep-rooted unanswered question; an unutterable doubt. I still say ‘God bless you,’ after an acute heart twitch or when I deeply appreciate a kind gesture done to me. Often though, I add ‘your’ before the word–I can’t even utter it now–and visualize the ‘g’ in lower case.
I told Mum, whom I always confide in with every issue, when I had the first twitch. “What should we call that one?” alarmingly escaped her full lips, so I knew the issue was a bog where no one dared tread lest they slipped and dislocated their hips. “You shouldn’t feel that way. Just believe. Believe.”
In the classroom this morning, I learned what that could be called: growing up.
Dad has not grown up. He still goes to church every Sunday and swallows every gibberish the priest spews, hook, line and sinker. I still go, too, but only because Dad will toss me out of the front balcony of our flat if I don’t.
If he could do so to Abụchi and Nneka–now don’t be a fool, he didn’t actually throw them downstairs from the balcony–big boy and girl like them, how much more me?
Over the years, we’ve had to bear the brunt of Dad’s training; the harsh scolding and flogging with twisted wire at the slightest, most trivial erring.
“Nnaa, this is not the way to rear children,” Mum would say each time he hit us. “You’ll inflict them with perpetual foolishness by hitting them so.”
Later, she would boil water, bathe us and rub Robb all over our bodies, all the while saying, “He remains your father. He means well. I’m sure he’ll mellow by the time you’ve grown up.”
But Dad never mellowed, grew up. At any rate, he grew, has grown, worse.
One day when Nneka–big girl like her–had completed secondary school and began to plait her hair and I just turned fourteen, Dad beat her till she became a mash, like the alibo we often eat.
I don’t remember how it all started, but I know Nneka sassed Dad and Dad asked her who she sassed and she threw her face away and did as though it wasn’t her Dad was talking to and made to leave–see Nneka oo! Dad’s face became puffy that instant, like he just woke up from sleep, and his eyes became bloodshot, like he just took snuff, as he yanked Nneka back by her left arm.
Then he socked Nneka on the face. Then he socked her again, and again, and again. He wouldn’t stop even when Nneka dribbled tears and blood and snot and saliva from her eyes, mouth and nose. And Nneka–wherever went that Dad-dread?–was all the while hurling incoherent abuses at Dad.
Dad held her tightly by the collar of her blouse as he unbuckled his leather belt. He pushed her to the ground and flogged her on all her body. Yet Nneka wouldn’t shut up as she thrashed and rolled on the floor of the living room.
Nneka was really unlucky that day; Mum had travelled home to Ichi for August meeting.
I burst into tears, pleading with Nneka to shut up. Did she want Dad to kill her? But, apparently, she was bent on dying, as she continued abusing Dad. My sobs had heightened when, miraculously, Dad stopped hitting her. I muttered ‘thank God’ for the first time in months without wobbling on the word or feeling any heart twitch. Nneka fell asleep almost immediately and I watched her, her wounds and welts, till my lids succumbed to the pounding in my head and I slept, too.
“Sorry, Nne,” I said when we were in the bathroom later that evening.
She smirked, a gleeful stretch of her lips that exposed two buck teeth. Her stark naked body was draped in red welts and her face was bumpy like Papa’s yam farm at Ichi with mountainous ridges.
“You shouldn’t have talked back at him.” I peeled off my black nylon underpants.
She glanced down at my sparsely haired vulva. “I wanted to deflate his blom-blom ego,” she drawled, as though the movement of her jaws and lips caused her pain.
“Sorry.” I fought the hot tears that raged within me.
“He told me sorry. He took me to Doc’s shop. Come.” She bent her face towards mine. “My face reeks of Spirit, doesn’t it?”
I didn’t smell antiseptic; her warm breath was what hit me.
She moved away and, with lightning-speed, stooped over the bucket and splashed water on my belly. I shuddered with a chill. I moved to splash her, but she gripped my arm, giggling. I used the other hand and she let out a soft gasp and swivelled in a circle. We splashed more water, all the while giggling and trying to block each other but those subsequent splashes didn’t have the ice-cold chill of the first.
Dad quarrelled with Mum about a year later, when Nneka had become a campus babe who wore heavy make-up, wore skin-clinging nylon trousers, and said ‘as in’ and ‘like seriously’ several times in a conversation.
He had come home from the market one evening chuntering to no one in particular about how nowadays girls preferred to ‘spoil’ before getting married. Mum and I were in the kitchen preparing onugbu soup and Abụchi had gone to fetch water at Bishop’s place. We knew it was about Nneka—not as though we would have asked if we didn’t—who was away at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
“Nne Nneka,” Dad hailed from the passageway linking the kitchen to the living room when no one responded to his chuntering. “So it’s a dog that has been barking, eh?” I stopped pounding the pepper and crayfish in the mortar immediately he called Mum, fraught.
Mum’s reply amused as much as it surprised me. “Dog kwa?”
“Didn’t you hear what I was saying about your daughter?” His footsteps could be heard approaching the kitchen.
Mum turned on her low stool to face him. “Did I know it was her you were talking about?”
Dad was dumbfounded as he stared at her, chagrin glinting in his eyes.
“But I think we have been through this” Mum continued. “If Nneka suddenly realized, like you think, though I know she has known all the while, that she can’t live with the man, then why not let her be? Nne is still a baby. She’ll still find a man she’s comfortable with. If it’s about money, a richer man will come.”
“O, o!” Dad exclaimed. “So you knew all this while? Yes, Nneka is a suckling! Because I sent her to university. Some of her mates, haven’t they nursed up to three babies?”
“Not only three, seven! Yes, I knew. You shoo away your children, that’s why they tell you nothing.” I tugged at a fringe of Mum’s wrapper, a silent plea to her to keep quiet. “Leave me!” she cried, and, in my alarm, the bulbous handle of the pestle hit my chin. “Pound what you were pounding, ọsọ!”
Abụchi and I were in the kitchen to drink water when we heard Dad’s voice. We had been playing swell on the back balcony, hopping about on one foot within a wide rectangle of smaller rectangles. Was Dad back already? He had left for a Catholic Men’s Organization meeting at the church. Fearful, Abụchi dropped the glass he had been slurping from. The rasp of the chattering glass grated on my ears.
“Ha for this Abụchi! What kind of Dad-dread is this one kwa?” I snickered.
He made no attempt to deny that Dad’s voice and presence were a terror to him, like I would have. “Fast fast, let’s pack it before he sees it,” he panted, his embarrassed tone charged with a ring of self-pity.
I felt bad that I’d mocked him. I dashed towards the kitchen door and took the dustpan and broom propped up against the wall behind it. We had disposed of most of the bigger splinters when a dark silhouette loomed around the kitchen door. My knees were already buckling, my heart pounding, when I looked up and saw Mum.
“These children.” Mum cast a sympathetic eye over the scene. “Such haste! He remains your father, warts and all. You shouldn’t fear him.”
We both said nothing. Mum was the towering guardian angel that kept watch over us as we hastily, carefully disposed of the tiny shards.
The next day, at the dining table after church, Abụchi requested for an audience. He was going to leave home because of Dad. He couldn’t stay with him any longer. He needed peace of mind. He’d find some relatives to stay with or go and stay with Papa in the village. Anybody, anywhere but here, not with Dad. Abuchi’s belongings were ready. He’d packed them last night.
Dad swallowed hard, as though he choked on a chunk of akara. He got up quietly and went towards Abụchi’s room. Next, we saw him carrying out luggage to his own room.
“Nnaa,” Mum called out to dad with an affection she hadn’t expressed in a long time. “This is why your son would want to do these kinds of things, abscond from home. Why confiscate his luggage?”
Dad returned to the table and snatched Abụchi’s phone, with a speed that upended the big bowl of pap.
“Do you think you can stop him this way?” Mum continued, her tearful voice having lost some of its affection.
“I see you’re the one backing them,” Dad responded matter-of-factly.
“Yes.” The tears now flowed. “Why won’t I back them? Do you think you’d still be a father today if I had added to their horror by treating them the way you do? They all would have been dead by now.”
Dad seemed to have no time responding to what he always offhandedly dismissed as ‘women’s talk.’ He went out through the back door of the living room and returned with the gate key.
That key, clasped by a stainless steel ring, had been in my custody. I usually left it in the keyhole on the padlock – Mum and Dad had a spare each – since Abụchi finished secondary school and joined Dad at Ochanja.
Mum and I spent the Sunday with Abụchi in his room. She tried to convince him not to run away from home, stating that she’d die if he did. Abụchi just sat on his bed with his back against the wall, knees bent up towards his chin, and stared at whatever. I lay prone beside him, my elbow propping my torso, and watched his big misshapen feet with bulging insteps.
I fell asleep beside him and woke up very hungry. The curtains were drawn back and the sun rays came in through the polycarbonate window, blinding my eyes. Mum and Abụchi were not in the room. I went outside and saw Abụchi closing the toilet door behind him. Mum was in the kitchen drinking from a bottle of chilled water. I padded towards the cupboard.
Dad detained Abụchi for a week and ran every errand that would have had him leave the flat. He told Abụchi he didn’t need his help again at the shop and made sure he was at my school just before or after dismissal each day to pick me up since he’d confiscated my key.
But after a week he began to tire or think Abụchi wouldn’t run away again. Abụchi began to fetch water again and run other errands that were his due. In the evening of his second day of freedom, Abuchi went to dispose of refuse at Nwaṅgene when the sun was only beginning to turn into the orange-red of rusted iron.
His prolonged absence only struck Dad, who was recumbent on the brocaded sofa in the living room watching AkụkọỤwa on ABS, when Mum came from the kitchen and said, “Is Abụchi not yet back?”
Dad flared up, a stoked fire. “I’ll beat the drum of the spirits for this child to dance!” He flounced out of the room, wearing his black polo shirt which had been on his lap while he watched TV.
I went to the front balcony and leaned on the iron railing. It was twilight. I saw Dad skitter across the busy road our house was along and continue his flouncing into the squalid expanse of rank puddles and garbage and fresh and decaying pig turds that is Nwaṅgene. Mum joined me in the balcony and we hoped in brooding silence for Dad to return with Abụchi.
Our house has been as sombre and taut as Obinagụ Cemetery since Abụchi disappeared. Dad had reported to the police the next day, even given them Abuchi’s picture where he clutched theugili tree in the church compound, but it’s over a week now and he is yet to be found.
Dad reported to ABS, too, and they showed the picture that night during the commercials before Akụkọ Ụwa, with ‘missing boy’ written in a bold red font just above his head. Dad sulks and stays alone in the Master bedroom he shares with Mum after market each evening. He doesn’t watch Akụkọ Ụwaagain, on the telly anymore. His eyes are always swollen, like he just stopped crying.
Mum sleeps in Abụchi’s room; that space with bare floors and decrepit household tools stacked at a corner and mosquitoes buzzing endlessly like Dad’s Volvo engine. She doesn’t tell me stories of her brilliant students anymore, of Abụchi’s namesake whom she said was more brilliant than she. We just cook in a disconcerting silence that amplifies the pounding of pestle in the mortar, the sizzling of frying oil on fire and the gurgling of washing water in the sink.
Dad still has my key and comes just in time to pick me up. He has mellowed; he doesn’t howl and glower at me anymore. He strokes my hair, chucks me under the chin, calls me ‘my dear daughter.’
Dad has taken too long to come pick me up today. Is this my chance to find Abụchi? I trundle out of the school premises. Dad hasn’t put in enough effort in the search. How can he trust the police and the ABS people so? So he can have time for his shop? Is Abụchi not worth much more than money? Those police and ABS people–who knows if they still show Abụchi?–only care about the money Dad paid them, not Abụchi’s whereabouts. Lock up your shop, ransack every crevice of Onitsha, search and search till you’ve found your one son!
Let me take this bend, the other is a cul-de-sac. I’ll search and search, stare at every boy’s face I come across to be sure he’s not Abụchi. No going home until I’ve found him, I must find him. We will return home together this evening and Mum and Dad will sleep together again. Life will return to that hollow husk of a home this evening.
Nzube Ifechukwu grew up in Onitsha, where he was born on May 25 1992, and Ichi, his father’s hometown. He holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He has published poems in English and Igbo and an Igbo translation of a fable by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, all on Jalada.