By Hannah Onoguwe
The chair shifts and I recall it is the one with an unstable leg. But it is too late to get another. No time. My nose brushes against the dusty wooden surface of the wardrobe as I reach again for the edge of the carton in front of me. There are about a half-dozen of them up here. Which one will have the picture frame? I feel the tickle of dust and I attempt to snort air out of my nostrils, but still I erupt in a sneeze. The chair lurches and I freeze, heart wobbling along with the furniture, until it comes to rest. Whew.
A horn sounds at the gate, two short blasts and a longer one. And I hear Tempest, the gateman, shout from the back of the house, followed by the sound of his thundering feet. Kai! Of course today Port Harcourt traffic has to disappoint by being free-flowing. I shove the carton back into the corner and almost lose a leg getting down from the chair. I drag the chair out of the spare room and back to the dining table, use a napkin to wipe the sweat from my face and the dust from my arms, and I have just parked myself in front of the TV when the front door opens. Through it, I see Tempest leaving the compound, likely on an errand for Mom.
“Welcome, Mom.” I am out of breath, does she notice?
Lugging in a bag emblazoned with the Everyday Supermarket logo, she only hums a reply. Her eyes sting with their glare.
“Queen Wakama,” she says derisively.
I jump up to collect the bag, mumbling, “Sorry.” A well-trained Nigerian child should have met her outside to help carry stuff inside. Instead here I was in front of the TV, seemingly unbothered. Mom is not to know that this is as a result of what I’ve been up to. I hope she never does.
As she rustles past me, the flowing sleeves of her bright green ankara dress brush my cheek. The fabric holds the sweet scent of her mango-based eau de toilette, a scent she’s caught me trying on many times.
Later, I help her with dinner. I start peeling the yam, but after a minute of watching me impatiently, she collects the knife and drags the tuber towards her, murmuring something about us being here all night. So instead I wash the green vegetables which will go into the pottage last, and for that she is willing to relinquish control. Through it all I am weighing her mood and what her reaction might be to what I want to say. Since the answer is uncertain, in the end I just spit it out.
“Mom, they gave us an assignment in school.”
Just turning back from balancing the jerry can of palm oil near the burner so it can melt, she shoots me a so what look.
I swallow. “We’re to write an essay–”
“Wakama, is this the first time you’re writing an essay?”
“–on our fathers.”
She grows so still that for a moment she looks like a mannequin.
“So I need to get some information on—”
Mom’s raised palm dries up the words in my throat. When her nose flares in that particular way, it’s never good. But does this woman really expect me to suppress all curiosity about him?
“Are you speaking the truth?”
“Yes, Mom, I—”
“Don’t ‘yes-mom’ me. We talked about this when you were little, and I thought it was over.”
I gape. “I don’t even remember that conversation!”
“No matter, it took place.”
“But it’s for school.” My voice is beginning to thin out and it’s annoying, as I have promised myself I will stop whining. It is unbecoming of someone who will soon be a teenager. That’s what my best friend Powei says.
“Well,” she says, lifting the cover of the pot forcefully, “those teachers are aware that there are single parent families without a father in the picture, so what do they mean?”
“But…if I just had a picture of him, that might help.”
Mom spins around, a fork clenched in her fist like a weapon. “There is nothing, you hear me?” As I flinch, she shakes her head sharply. “Wakama. Growing up without a father is not the worst thing in the world. I mean, have you ever wanted for anything?”
My father, I nearly throw back, but shake my head slowly, looking at my feet in their bright orange flip-flops.
“And that is more than many others have,” she says in a self-defeated, perplexed manner, hurt radiating from every pore.
OMG, not again! She’s an expert at this, making me feel like the most ungrateful child in the world.
The tension in the room vies with the hum from the refrigerator and I keep my gaze respectfully trained on the pulse beating in her neck.
“I’m sorry,” I mutter finally. Reluctantly.
She lets the moment swell, to give the apology room to breathe, to ferment and mire me in penitence. Then she yanks on my arm and pulls me to her, smearing my cheek with a film of sweat and at least one layer of Mac foundation.
“Oh, my child. You’re something else. It’s alright, now,” she says soothingly, even though it isn’t. Air whooshes out of her nose in an exhale, her usual end to a heavy conversation. “How about beginning your essay with: ‘My mother embodies all the characteristics of a good father and more’?” she says. When I draw back to look at her quizzically, she lets out a trill of laughter. “That should give you extra marks for creativity.”
This time I wait until Mom has gone for a verification exercise at her office. They were told to bring all the certificates they had accrued before and after getting the job, as well as documents like their acceptance letters, pay slips and the like. She’d grumbled all night as she brought down cartons and suitcases, because even though most of her documents and certificates were in a certain folder, there had been a stray few she’d had to chase down like hidden treasure. I am searching for my father’s picture within the first hour of her departure.
I had seen it before, a glimpse at least, if not a proper look. I was much younger when I had chanced upon it in a cupboard somewhere. I had a vague impression of a light-skinned man with a thin line of hair on his upper lip. I had turned the frame over, feeling its edges, my fingertips travelling over smooth wood to something I could peel. Then Mom had appeared screeching and snatched it out of my hands. I don’t remember anything she said, but I will never forget that she was almost crying as she smacked my hands repeatedly and, when I burst into tears, she held me tightly to her chest. Even after we moved house I never laid eyes on it again. But seeing her rooting through things looking to complete the requirements for her verification at the Civil Service Commission, it crossed my mind that I might have been looking in the wrong places.
The first suitcase yields nothing besides the smell of unaired clothes, uncut wax materials still in their bundles, a necklace with missing stones wrapped in tissue, coral beads in a small drawstring pouch. I scrunch up my nose at some string and lace lingerie and two ancient wigs that remind me of the goats our principal keeps in his compound.
The second suitcase appears to be much the same, except there are also some books with yellowed pages authored by Barbara Taylor Bradford, Bessie Head, James Hadley Chase, and Cyprian Ekwensi. There’s also a copy of Every Woman which I thumb through. My stomach clenches at the intriguing sex illustrations so I keep the book aside for further investigation. An unopened pack of long expired tampons, plastic bags folded with lace-heirloom-care bearing M&S logos, Dubai something-something, Sahaad Stores in Abuja.
When my fingers touch wood, I think maybe it’s a broken animal carving from Jos. I remember seeing one or two a couple of years ago. But my heart cheers. It’s the picture I’m looking for. It looks both familiar and not, like an image from a half-forgotten dream, and I hold my breath as I turn it over, savouring the satisfaction of discovery. The back is covered with rubber tape, but my searching fingers register something hard and knobby underneath the tape. Strangely, though, the many repeated layers of tape are fresh, their edges still adhesive, as if someone—my mother, obviously—had only recently replaced the tape that was there before.
Excitement clogs my throat even as the illicitness of what I’m doing vibrates through my limbs, so that the fingers that clutch the picture hesitate to go further. What if Mom just shows up out of nowhere, saying they had finished early or that it’s been postponed or…something? No. I let out a breath and steel myself. I just have to hurry. When next will I have another such opportunity? Left to her, never.
After putting the suitcases away exactly the way I found them, I leave her room for mine and settle on the chair in front of my dresser. I wipe the surface of the frame with a shirt destined for the laundry basket and look at it fully for the first time since retrieving it from the suitcase. My heart thrums. This is he. Light-skinned as I remember from my last viewing, but only now can I see the wave in his hair, the wide nose, eyes that are kind of like mine. He has one leg propped on the low rung of a wooden chair, his forearms crossed over his knee, and he looks straight at the camera, intelligence and knowledge in his gaze, confidence in his stance. Why did he leave us?
Well, if I can’t get answers to that, I can at least get something from the picture which I can use for my essay. I’ll have to make stuff up, but what do I do if Mom asks to see it out of the blue? Maybe I can tell her the assignment is to be used for some kind of African exhibition, some study by foreign researchers, and we aren’t getting any copies? Yeah, right, Wakama. I can almost hear Powei’s disbelieving laughter. You don’t lie enough, she always says, that’s why when you do, it always sounds like an alien abduction theory.
I take time to remove the strips of rubber tape, laying them sticky-side up so I can replace them when I’m done. Then I turn the frame over in my hands repeatedly, but see no opening through which I can slide the picture out. Not your regular picture frame, then. The picture itself might hold some clue, then – his name or address, the date it was taken. Something. The small knob I had felt through the rubber tape glints and winks intermittently like Christmas lights. Strange. I glance out the window. There’s a bit of sunlight coming in, but it can’t be responsible for the shine. I touch it. It feels kind of warm. Maybe it’s custom-made and if I turn it a certain way, the picture will come loose. I try to lift it, but it doesn’t budge. So I twist it and it turns. Bingo. I twist it again and again but although it seems to be loosening, it doesn’t come off. I quicken my movements.
“Look at you, all grown up.”
I scream and leap to my feet, the picture frame clattering to the floor. I was so focused on my fingers that I hadn’t noticed anyone enter the room. The back of my knees hit the edge of the bed as I turn towards the source. Mom can’t be back so soon, can she? Why didn’t I hear the car?
But of course it isn’t her. It’s him. Standing a few feet away and occupying the space between the bed and the wardrobe. I appraise him in quick glances, disbelieving my eyes. There are new lines in his face, some grey in his wavy hair, and his moustache is thicker. His clothes are wrinkled, somewhat outdated. A faint smell of mothballs tickles my nose. He looks round the room with a furrow on his forehead and a twist to his mouth as if he doesn’t particularly like the décor.
He waves a dismissive hand at the stuffed Kermit the Frog on the bed. “You’re older than this, my dear, aren’t you?” Then he looks at me with a smile, a gentle one although there is something in his eyes that keeps my throat tight. He cocks his head. “Wakama, isn’t it?”
“Wha-wha—” I scramble onto the bed to put some distance between us, my heart and lungs fractured. Am I dreaming? “Where did you come from?”
“Where do you think?”
Not through the door, which is shut. Besides, I would have heard it open – or footsteps at least. I look wildly around, and my gaze halts on the frame now lying face down on the floor where I had flung it in my fright. The knob is still glinting and winking at me. As if to say, mockingly, Here’s your clue. All that twisting…OMG. My gaze lifts in degrees to clash with his, this stranger who is no stranger.
He nods somewhat indulgently. “I see you’ve got the gist of it.” He gestures to the chair. “May I?”
I don’t reply, wondering if he can actually sit. Isn’t he some sort of spirit? He takes my silence as consent and settles on the chair with a sigh, looking quite solid as he bends to picks up the frame. He stares at it a long moment, mouth hard, and then places it on the dresser. His stillness raises the hair on my nape, but when he looks at me again, it is with that same benign, but somehow scary, smile. What is happening? Is it permanent? Is he here to stay? My desires are mixed on this. What will Mom think?
“Hmm. You’re getting quite tall.”
He looks me over, his eyes running leisurely over my plaited hair and bare shoulders in my patchwork dress and lingering on my bare feet. For a moment, I want to dive into the wardrobe to escape his scrutiny.
His words register belatedly and I feel compelled to say something to make him stop staring. “I must get it from you,” I say haltingly.
“Is that so?” And now his smile is more a snarl. Likely seeing the alarm in my demeanour, his face softens and he gestures to the copy of Every Woman I had put on the bed. “Interesting book?”
I feel myself go hot and wish I hadn’t picked the book up.
“Do you enjoy such books, such pictures?” I am unable to look away from the mesmerizing hold of his gaze, and my skin prickles unpleasantly as his voice drops. “Do they serve as good company at night, when you are all alone and your fingers creep underneath your nightgown and in between your legs—”
“Shut up!” I don’t know when the words escape, my heart shivering in my chest. What kind of man is this?
He only looks amused. “Now, now. Is that any way to talk to your father?”
“You’re not my father!” Fear grows into a barbed, sour thing on my tongue and I hop off of the bed to the other side so that it is between us. He only watches me, hands on his knees.
His gaze sharpens. “Did Oko confess that to you?”
It takes a while before I understand he is referring to my mother and I shake my head sharply. I don’t want to hear this. I don’t want to hear anything more. “Please leave.”
“I said, please—”
“Oh, I heard you the first time,” he says with a chuckle. “But what do you suggest?”
“Where do you suggest I go to? Owerri? Enugu? Maybe Lagos?”
His voice is so reasonable I want to shit myself. “Wherever…you’ve been all this while.”
He rises and although he doesn’t advance further, I take a step back.
“You know that’s not possible.”
There is a long silence, and my eyes skid off his to the window beyond his shoulder. Through it I can hear the hoot of a lorry from the nearby expressway, the buzz of the generator at the business centre down the street, and Tempest speaking on the phone in his lilting pidgin interspersed with cackling laughter. I feel removed from all of that, shut up in this space with this man. My dreams of the tears and explanations that would come when I eventually met him seem ridiculous now. Why hadn’t I listened to Mom? This is no father ready to affirm his love, but a cold stranger devoid of feeling.
I want to run out the door and hope he disappears, an awful dream, but deep down I know that won’t happen. And I’m not sure how he will react to a sudden move like that. If my mother had really trapped him in that picture frame, how had she done it? All by herself, or had someone helped? More importantly, how can I put him back? I wish Mom would return now; she would know what to do.
“How…” False start. I try again. If I am calm enough, maybe he will inadvertently tell me what I need to know. “How did you get in there in the first place?”
“How do you think?” And from the lift of his eyebrows, I fear he is one step ahead of me.
Then I hear it. First the low distinctive hum of the Honda and then, like the sound of the final trumpet, the horn at the gate, two short blasts, another longer one. She’s home! I see a flash of panic light up my father’s eyes, but it is swiftly chased away by something that resembles regret.
“Mom’s home. You have to go.”
“I wish we’d had longer to talk.”
Me too would be the polite response, but I can’t voice the lie. “Maybe next time.” But never again, I promise myself. Never, ever, ever…
He nods slowly, his gaze unwavering, then holds out his arms. “A hug for your old man?”
The very idea makes my flesh prickle and I shake my head. “I don’t think so.” I hear the drawn-out whine of the gate and faint voices, likely an exchange between Tempest and my mother. Suddenly those suggestive words my father had spoken to me flash across my mind. They had been a violation. Of something fledgling and precious and unaware.
“No,” I say firmly.
“Please.” I swear his eyes shine with tears. “Whatever my failings, you’re my daughter. One embrace, to tide me until the next time we see each other – if we ever do,” he adds on a low note.
My heart is too pure for this world. That’s what Powei tells me. But the thought of the man who sired me begging for one hug from me, his daughter, knocks down some of my defences. Mom is almost inside the house so he will want to be gone before she sees him. I give a jerky nod and with a small smile he lopes round the edge of the bed.
From then on it is just impressions: the calculating gleam in his eye, the dull shine off the edge of the picture frame in his hand—when had he picked it up from the dresser?—the sound of the front door and Mom calling out, “Wakama!” And like a slap, it dawns on me: No, I don’t want this man to hug me after all, and I don’t care if Mom knows what I’ve been up to, I just want her here.
“Mommy!” And even I can hear the fear, urgency and tears crammed in that one word.
I try to rush towards the door, but I’m out of room to manoeuvre and with bared teeth he is upon me, his long arms clasping me tightly, his fingers furiously twisting the knob of the picture frame. And the words that fall in a dark stream from his lips will be forever stained in my memory:
“As pictures do, as pictures fall
They do not speak or move at all
They watch us voiceless from the wall
So too will your soul hear this call.”
He finishes as Mom bursts into the room. He says, “Welcome home, Oko. I could never forget those words,” and she screams and screams as I black out.
When I come to, I feel like industrial wax has been poured over my limbs. Even my brain, for all that I’m still able to think, seems immobilized. I don’t know how the picture frame has been placed, but I can see them clearly. My mother, shocked gaze looking right at me, is on the floor, her back against the wall and my father standing above her.
“Fascinating piece of work, this picture frame, isn’t it? Where does it get these shots from? I mean, she looks so peaceful and happy in her Sunday best, wouldn’t you say?”
My mother is silent.
“Hmm. You never did convince me that she was mine, my darling. Is she? Was she? Although I’m not sure if it matters now. I’ve missed you. God. Your skin…”
“Don’t touch me!”
And then Tempest’s voice from outside the room, some paces away from the sound of it. “Madam, madam!”
Mom clears her throat and her voice, when it comes, is sudden and startling. “Tempest, come o! Thief!”
I can picture the man’s temporary hesitation at the urgency in her voice before I hear his feet begin pounding towards us. My father appears frozen for a moment in shock, likely having expected Mom to get rid of Tempest. Then an ugly expression suffuses his face and he lunges at her. But Mom is on her belly, slithering on the floor and between his legs like palm oil poured from the bottle so that his hands grasp only air. He twists around to look at the woman undulating across the floor towards me, and the bafflement on his face mirrors mine.
Then Tempest slams open the door, transfixed at the sight that meets his eyes. My father’s expression is clear: who to tackle first? But that split second of indecision is all Mom needs to grab me. It’s the picture frame, I know, but I can actually feel her arms around me as she holds it to her chest.
“Kill him!” Mom says to Tempest, but the words come too late as my father’s blow connects with Tempest’s face and he crumples to the floor. She lets out a hiss of frustration as my father spins on his heel and bounds over.
“Ebiye,” she says in an oddly resonating voice whose authority causes a ripple in the room. My father stops in his tracks, looking confused. And then he cocks his head, and the chuckle that shakes his body grows to a full-blown laugh. “Shit, I’m out of practice,” Mom mutters under her breath, just before he takes one long stride over to her and strikes her with an open palm. As she loses her grip on me, I am flung into the air and skid over the side of the bed to land on the floor. Even with the bed somewhat breaking my fall I swear all my bones are fractured.
“You actually want me dead?” I hear my father hiss.
“Well, not before, because I actually thought you had some humanity left in your veins,” Mom says in a strained voice, and although I can’t see anything, I hear the rustle of clothes and a faint grunt, and I guess she is getting to her feet.
Then I am airborne again, and I come face-to-face with my father. He is sweating, his face grim as he stares at the picture frame. “If anyone is going to go, guess who it’s going to be, Oko.” And if I was scared of him before, it’s nothing to how I feel at the malevolence in his eyes.
Suddenly there’s a crash and I hear the splinter of glass—my mirror? My father blurts, “Why did you—?” and then with a guttural cry, his face is pulled backwards and I hear a thump as he falls. I’m unlucky again as the picture frame slips out of his hands and I crash to the floor for the second time, agony reverberating throughout my body.
“Thank you, Tempest,” Mom says quietly. And then I feel her fingers on my face, and they are the most beautiful thing ever. Then she rises, takes a shard of glass from the floor and lances her finger, smears my face and then my father’s with her blood.
As pictures go, as pictures fall
Ebiye, you shall heed my call
Your soul must return, still in thrall
To free my daughter’s from your pall.
This time I’m expecting it. And although what will happen afterwards is unclear, I welcome the darkness with relief.
When I awake I can feel the softness of a bed beneath me. I feel fossilized and as the drama resulting from the picture frame hits me in flashes, my heart twists with fear: am I still trapped in it? Experimentally I wiggle my toes and they comply. A sound must have escaped me because I hear Mom’s voice from beside me.
I force heavy lids open to see her leaning over me, forehead furrowed. Then I peep downwards and see that my legs are draped with a duvet. If Mom is here with me, if I can see myself, then we must be all right. Mom touches the back of her hand to my forehead, my cheek, my neck.
“Here, take a sip.” I steel myself for something vile like juice from strained bitter leaves, but when the cold sweetness of Coke touches my lips, I gulp it down gratefully. It’s so uncharacteristic of Mom that I want to laugh, but my lips are sluggish.
“Rest,” she says. She sets the glass on the table with a thunk, and I see the plaster swathing her thumb. In a few minutes I am close to sleep again, but Mom’s voice penetrates. “I’m sorry, Wakama.”
Why is she apologising? Her eyes are red-rimmed with concern but are also brittle in a way that makes me wary. She must be mad at me. If I had been less curious, none of this would have happened. And then my thoughts splinter: What exactly is Mom? How the heck could she rattle off all those incantations? My mind finds it even harder to grasp the memory of her moving so swiftly over the floor on her belly. Maybe one day I can summon the courage to ask. Will Powei believe me when I tell her all this? Okay, maybe I won’t tell her after all. It’s too complicated, really.
“I’m sorry, too, Mom.”
And as I drift off, I realize there’s a lingering smell of smoke in the room.