The year was 1999. Tupac’s Brenda’s Got a Baby was the anthem in Old Creek ghetto. Yes, I wasn’t born. But the first time, in a beat-up, metal-scrunched blue taxi, on her way back home, when the song came on, Mother felt my first kick coincide with the blistering bass beat. It’s a wonder how I knew that feet were made for dancing.
Second time was in a barbershop, when, in her second trimester, she decided to shave her head. It was Nas’s Undying Love blasting through the bookshelf speakers. I kicked so hard that, for a second, she thought the gunshots imploded in her own belly. She doesn’t tell me about the part where she shudders and looks down at her feet, hoping to see me as blood-red spillage in warm, breathless puddles around her feet.
Before the pandemic, Mother and Felicia were shark and remora; Felicia being the shark, gobbling whoever crossed her path and spitting them out, bone-chewed, palsied; and Mother cleaning up her messes—but each dependent on the other. Felicia’s eyes can stare poison into yours; her hands are so evil they can, they say, reverse Midas’s touch and turn a good thing to rot.
• • • •
Just two months ago, she dated a perfumer named Jarvis, an eccentric man with an eccentric zest for life. He would drive by, waving at everyone, jamming Bon Jovi’s It’s My Life in his 2003 Corolla model. His gifts to her were nothing of the ordinary: bizarre paintings, electric glass figurines, jardiniere of daisies, celosia, hibiscus—flowers he would later experiment with to create enchanting scents for her. All of which now lie in a broken compartment of her wood shelf, biting dust.
“She couldn’t keep ordinary flowers alive for three days,” Mother would scoff, “how much more a relationship?”
But she only says those things when Felicia is halfway down the street.
Once, a boy primly dressed in a school uniform picked an eraser from the dusty road and was seconds away from feeding his stomach, before Mother yelled, hitting it off his palms. We walked him, too shocked by the sudden interference to cry, to his mother, who was all but carried away in an overloud conversation. The clueless lady stopped mid-laughter to thank us. Mother smiled but once she turned back, began grumbling: “If something happened to that boy, wouldn’t she blame the devil? The innocent devil! How can a woman be so clumsy? A woman for that matter.”
The same happens when our neighbour has to borrow a bit of salt in the process of cooking.
“So they can’t afford common salt? Or her good-for-nothing husband didn’t return with his car and cannot walk to the junction to buy salt for her? Can he not see that she’s pregnant? By the way, omo mi, who still drives a beetle in this age and time?”
I wonder what she says about me when I turn my back.
Always, I shudder through her gaze and walk on bloody nails, but I still don’t know what it is about me that upsets her so. Maybe it’s her own self that she despises, and I am merely an extension of that hate. Mother and I are strangers in a home once small, but now so big that our shadows barely cross paths. I do not know of a father. It’s inconceivable to me that any man would weather her storms long enough to put his thing inside her.
I sometimes wish I never made it here. Felicia’s oldest son never did; there are old rumours to account for it. Some say she is a witch and ate him during pregnancy, which is why, months after his sudden demise, her skin donned a brighter glow. Some say she traded him for wealth. But for as long as I know, she lives in the same wood, ramshackle apartment on Benson Drive owned by a church deacon and solid believer of Biafra.
They say fate shit on her when she conceived the twins, Joy and Happiness. Two! She had no idea how the hospital television could see inside of her belly, so she didn’t believe it. Later, Joy would tell me, they could taste the crude mixture of soda and menthol when she tried to turn them into blood. And when she visited the nurse wife who tried to pull them out using some kind of suction cup, they clung to each other, half foetus and half-human, fighting in the belly of death.
“Our brother”—they always assumed he was a boy—“was weak. But we are not o. We no gree.”
Three days after she imagined they were dead, Felicia felt a kick.
“Joy wanted to wait for a month, so it would surprise her that we were still there.” She laughed. “But it might have shocked her to death, and we could not risk our second chance.”
They call her by her name. They don’t believe she is their mother—they believe they are hers.
Crazy. Bat-shit crazy. I hear them talking sometimes:
“I didn’t want to live as a girl in my second life. I wanted to be an owl. Do you know that an owl can turn its head in any direction? It can see everything.”
“Not everyone makes it to the second life. Shut your mouth before you jinx it.” And they giggle and hug each other, like the air between them is a threat, like they must have when Felicia tried to poison her womb. Peter was a boy who confessed his fondness of the wilder twin, Joy, made him restless at night and waked him with a yearning in his groin. They found him the next day without his tongue, tied to the bed in his tousled room that smelled of vinegar and dead rats. From a vintage, sturdy radio, Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing played on and on. See, even I am careful not to get too close.
Winter of 2004, I watched Mobb Deep’s Drink Away The Pain in my grandfather’s parlour on MTV. Even though my village is only a few hundred metres away from the city, it is not the kind of music they are used to, but my grandfather let me do whatever I want. I had considered taking his old rifle and shooting the chickens that would leisurely saunter across the living room, quaking against my hip-hop songs, picking breadcrumbs from the floor. But that particular day, it was my fault for not cleaning up, and grandfather keeps the chickens to feed his gods. And, of course, Christmas.
I’ve always known Mother wanted to escape. Most times, I didn’t know what she needed escaping from, other times, it was to smoke when the women were cooking, so grandfather couldn’t tell that the smoke that followed her wasn’t firewood—but I always could. For years, she’s been smelling like charred wood. Do you know that a fire impulsively yet slowly preys on you before returning your ash to earth? I thank God my addictions don’t have bellies.
I don’t know who or what Felicia’s kids are, and so I keep my distance. As for me, I was born alone, washed up from shores of blue loneliness. It’s even right, now that I think of it, to question their actuality. We never see Felicia with any man. We just know she fucks different men—but we’ve never seen with our own eyes. The same is the case with my mother. Two odd peas in a pod.
Grandfather was a native man. If he took his ear close enough to the ground, he could hear the footsteps of the gods. I didn’t believe in gods, or God, until I heard Tupac’s Only God Can Judge Me. This gangsta whose music I bopped to from the womb. Grandfather also said Felicia’s name tasted like unsalted lime on his tongue.
In the village square, they’ve heard her scores, too. Try speak of her and watch the air quarantine you as everyone moves back in disassociation, like you farted through your mouth.
My mother has too many secrets that she is always angry, always nagging—even in silence. So many secrets that when she opens her mouth to speak it is filled with the stench of decayed years. You can’t put out a fire if you’re a part of it, I wanted to tell her the day she accidentally burnt herself with hot coal. But I couldn’t press pause on Lauryn Hill’s Lost Ones long enough to talk to her. You would know if you’ve heard the song. It’s so consuming.
That Christmas Eve, I woke from a nightmare to the sound of grandfather killing the chickens. I closed my eyes and imagined their necks breaking, spluttering blood, their feet scratching air. He wanted to talk to his gods, which meant he had to feed them first. I wonder who feeds them now that he is gone. Before the bonfire, mother talked to her own God, and all she wanted was for him to erase every mistake from her life. Fifteen years later, here I still am, her prayer dwindling in the cloud, unresolved, or perhaps swept out of God’s reach.