There is a striking integrity in Umar Turaki's story-telling - and in Umar himself, by the way. I loved this beautiful recollection of childhood, the loss and yearning, the restraint that never desceneds to coyness, the honesty and humanity. It was an utter pleasure to read and edit. I hope it finds the many readers it deserves.
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
There is a memory I have of being a young boy and returning home from school to see her crying in the kitchen. She stood there with her back to me, shoulders shaking. I watched her, confused, witnessing for the first time an adult in genuine distress. She turned and saw me there, took me by the hand and gave me my lunch. That moment shared in the kitchen with her became the beginning of what would become her end.
Years later, her face is still emblazoned across my mind. Two vertical tribal marks, one on each cheek, perfectly measured into place. Through my new adolescent eyes, I can now see how beautiful she was. A few other things this vantage point affords me: the sharp edge in my mother’s voice that seemed to grow worse whenever she spoke to her; the careless manner in which my father’s eyes managed to always find her hips as she served him dinner; the sense that there was a powerful sexual force at work under the surface of our home because of her.
I remember the day Luka came into our lives. I remember the man – a boy, really, when I think of it – the clothes he wore, and the bare, unadorned smell he gave off. And I remember having a sense that this poor, handsome stranger who was taking up lodging in our home was going to somehow alter the balance of our lives, and change everything forever. The only reason I could have felt threatened by the presence of Luka was because I myself was in love with her.
My entire life revolved around her. My own mother had been relegated to the background of my consciousness. Whenever I was away from her, my one desire was to return to her. She would embrace me and rock me to sleep. For some reason still unknown to me, she liked to read me stories from the book of Genesis. She read me the story of Isaac and Rebecca. She read me the story of Jacob and Esau. She read me the story of Noah and his ark. But most strikingly, she read me the story of Adam and Eve and the forbidden apples. Again and again. Her kisses on my cheeks were wet and warm, and her skin smelled of rosewater and cinnamon. She made cupcakes on the weekends and sold them in little transparent smoky bags, and the whole house took up the aroma of baking flour, until that smell became the essence of her to me. On special days, when my parents were out or away, she would run a bath in my mother’s large tub and pour all sorts of scents and oils into it. Then she would take off her clothes and climb in. At first, I would sit on the edge of the bathtub or on the floor and watch her as she sang that song:
In ya zo
In ya zo za mu je tare
One day I cried to be let into the bath with her, so she helped me undress and cradled me in her arms, the warm water covering our naked bodies like a blanket while she sang. I can’t remember on which of the days it was that she flicked my tiny penis with a finger.
“Does it hurt?”
I shook my head and she took hold of my genitals in one hand and fondled them for a moment.
“Do you like that?”
I wasn’t sure what my answer should be. Looking back now, what I find most striking about the memory is the tabula rasa of my mind, my utter inability to associate this one action with any meaning whatsoever. My face must have reflected the blankness of my mind, for she squealed in delight, told me she was sorry, and only cradled and sang to me in the tub from then on. Those were days of peace and happiness.
Luka came and changed all that.
At first, he took up his duties with desperation, as though a single slip up would ensure his return to wherever it was he had come from. He swept and dusted and mopped and washed and ironed, and at mealtimes, he would sit alone outside under the guava tree listening to a transistor radio while he ate. He couldn’t speak a word of English, and he never could look her in the eye, not even when she addressed him. Next thing I knew, he was spreading his mouth open in a wide smile, laughing, playing stupid pranks on her, trying to get her attention. She never seemed to be in the mood.
A few weeks into Luka’s arrival in the house, I went up to him as he ate under the guava tree and stretched out my hand towards him, all five of my fingers extended like the rays of the sun in my colouring book.
“Uwa ka,” I said. Your mother.
Luka flung his plate of yam and plantains aside as he came after me, an unfamiliar rage in his eyes. I ran straight to my favourite hiding place, the gap between the wall and the living room divider, where I was certain nobody, except God, could find me. It only took Luka a matter of seconds to fish me out of the gap. His hand was already raised to hit me when she appeared in the doorway.
“What are you doing?” She spoke in English. She had always addressed him in Hausa before then. But in that moment, she chose to speak in English.
“Ya zage ni.”
“He abused you. Is that why you want to kill him with beating?”
That was when Luka decided to switch to English too. “Him bad boy.”
“I said is that why you want to beat him?”
Luka gave up with a hiss, said, “Stupid,” and walked outside.
That should have put an end to it. And at the time, I believe it had. We still had bubble baths when my parents were away, she still put me to bed and read to me, and she still sometimes fed me herself using the plastic fork so she wouldn’t wound me in the process.
One night she was in the middle of closing the backdoor behind her when I appeared in the dining room doorway and said I wanted to follow her. She told me she had to go to Monica’s house next door, and that the big dogs in Monica’s house would bite me if I went with her. My parents had already had their evening meal and were watching the news in the living room. She told me in a hushed voice to go back, and that I should keep this as one of our special secrets, like the bubble baths. The way she closed the door quietly and went away into the night, only this vantage point of adolescence could allow me to understand that she wasn’t going out as much as sneaking out. My child’s mind couldn’t have paired her sneaking out and the fact that Luka lived in the boy’s quarters behind the house together into meaningful information.
And then the end began with her crying in the kitchen. She would spend hours inside her room, and when I went in, she wasn’t by her usual place in front of the dressing mirror, putting on cream or makeup. She was lying in bed, or spending stretches of time alone in the bathroom. Soon I couldn’t enter again because the door was locked. When she reappeared, in time to welcome my parents home from work, her face was puffy. I thought it was from the crying, though I didn’t know why she was crying. This was also the time Luka went missing. He just vanished one day without a trace. The maroon suitcase with the wheels that my mother had bought for him after he arrived at our house carrying his belongings inside a big plastic bag was also gone. I remember the way he had changed. His face had filled out, he could now afford to wear a fresh set of clothes several times each week, and he was able to look at her in the eye when they spoke. I didn’t like the way he did it, looking at her, because it made me feel, even then in my little child’s soul, that he knew something about her that I could never know. In the end, he had even begun to speak a little English.
Now I understand. When he left, he took a piece of her with him. She also changed. Her face continued to look puffy, even when she wasn’t crying. Her body seemed a little bloated, heavier. Her singing stopped and the house grew quiet and the days stretched into endless hours of gloom, especially on the holidays. I hated those days. She stopped baking, and the house no longer smelled of fresh cake, and when my parents were away for the weekend, there were no bubble baths. It was like I was all by myself in that big house. She became a counterfeit version of her original self. I don’t know if my mother ever took note when she gave her errands to run, or my father when he stole those glances at her body. But it couldn’t have been plainer that something was draining away her happiness, her soul. And then, without warning, without so much as an indication, she too disappeared.
One day stands out among the rest in those days of darkness. The sound of a woman constantly sniffing combined with the low voices of the commiserating visitors. My mother held me close to her for a long time, rocking me gently. I don’t remember her ever holding me like that before then. And I had never seen my mother’s bedroom so full, or the entire house for that matter. A letter was passed around that always made its way back to my mother, and she would clutch it tight in her hand like a handkerchief and remain still and calm. That letter filled my thoughts and my dreams for a long time. My ambition after that was to learn how to read so I could steal it and read it myself. Once I could read a string of words together and deduce their meaning a year and a half later, I set out to find it. I searched through my mother’s belongings for months on end. It held the key to solving the mystery of her. But I never found it.
At the funeral, my father stood up in front of the church and said a few words. Her face stared out at us from the table top beside the coffin. As I watched the coffin being lowered into the ground, I wondered whether there really was someone inside it, how someone could stay in it, why anyone would be put inside it in the first place. I was still wondering about these things when someone said I shouldn’t be there and led me away. That night, I tried to imagine what she might be doing inside that wooden box. It seemed too small and uncomfortable. For the first time, without realising it, I was trying to wrap my mind around the idea of death, but the idea was too big, its girth too wide, so I gave up. The conclusion I came to was that death was a kind of disappearing act. One moment you saw someone, and the next moment you didn’t.
My parents never spoke about her after that. They never brought anyone else to take her place. Looking back now, it was as though they were determined to kill the memory of her, as well. In a way, they succeeded. Her name vanished from our lips and, eventually, from our minds. Soon, it vanished from my memory.
This is all that’s left of her.