Originally published in Fiyah Magazine, June 2018, Music Issue
Sometimes, when I listen to my mother sing, I wish for a bit of imperfection in the tune.
I go red in the face at the thought of her. My eyes go accusing, my fists balled, and though we aren’t supposed to let her go, I hope she’d at least stumble and her never ending songs would be cut short.
Sure, she has to riiise in voice when the nightmares invade and come back stronger—the monsters never going away forever, only being pushed back by songs to the point we can survive—but her voice is still a light, strong and radiant, never flickering.
I wish she would show us the stages, that she would miss it sometimes. That her never-ending voice will be cut off by a parched or itchy throat. Even the need to scratch her hair.
I wish it would be messy so it can feel real, so I can relate. Maybe because it feels so perfect, that’s why Sister and I can’t catch up, can’t sing; leaving the next generation in questions we aren’t too ready to answer. But she doesn’t; she multitasks, doing every bit of the work in this household while we live on her voice.
And sometimes, Mother hits us.
Bares teeth. Slaps out colour from skin. Pulls out hair from follicle the way one separates muscle from bone. All because she is a fighter, and we let her release her anger on us, the anger brought from the everlasting song.
We do not speak out. My voice is as silent as the songs I cannot sing. Who are we to believe in fairytales when everyday is a living nightmare we are barely living through? Even when my throat hurts once more, as it has been doing this week, from holding so much back, I shut myself up.
Until one day, the words I thought were wishes become all too real, because her voice breaks.
My family and I’s eyes snap open, like all our ancestors have risen up with one jerking movement—panic destroying the calm.
Minutes ago, we were just on her bed, listening to her voice, letting her sing away the demons for us. Now, we watch in horror as my words come into fruition as Mama chokes on her words.
I can feel my chest contract in guilt. My body lurches up a little, on high alert. Brother starts to vibrate, burying his hands on the floor and trying to grasp at something when all that’s left for him is slippery wood.
Mama almost stops, but she corrects herself, singing again like the moment was all a dream, left in the past when time is still fresh on the situation, putting all her passion into the crumbling voice, lost to what the problem is. She’s scared about what’s happening to her, I can tell from her eyes. We don’t know what’s going on either.
What can we do? Is there something we need to do? I bite my nails, squeeze them between by teeth; scratch my neck, digging fingers into my purple birthmark like it’s a boil that I can pop and rupture.
Voices don’t fall, break. Songs don’t end. This doesn’t happen in the family. Not once has it ever been heard of, not in all the histories of never-ending singers that have pleased and saved the ears of multiple generations, that a voice ends. Mother can be singing in her heart and rolling in her grave, and we will be tapping our feet, even as she turns to dust, her core still a song in smooth fashion, perfect and natural, till another in our generation takes over.
Which is why I don’t understand this.
We all join our voices with Mother’s song, the best we can do. We let our crooked notes and bad voices give balance to hers. We are practically screeching, the sound of ourselves grating eardrums, the sound old generators make as our bodies smoke and rust—voices unused, barely used, never used.
Mama looks like she wants to tell us to shut up, but she doesn’t, rather putting every fiber of her being into the song. Her neck becomes veiny, tracing itself across her skin like a map with fat bumps, and then engorged with blood, like it’s about to burst wide open, and her eyes close, lost in the music. It’s not a stable sound, but she’s trying, trying so hard even when it’s so dangerously clear she’s not going to last.
I’m the first to notice when she starts to wobble, digging her hands on her bed and holding the bedsheets like they’re the last thing that will save her.
“Stop!” Everyone looks at me. Papa raises a hand to slap me for interrupting, but he’s nothing like Mama so he wouldn’t dare, and he lowers it anyway due to the strange circumstances; so sudden, unexplained, and causing hearts to skip a beat. I direct my siblings to Mama and Brother grasps her hand, massages it. He traces prayers across her palms, eyes fixated on her the way puppies beg for food, doing his best to keep her afloat. He is her favourite.
And Songs don’t end, they’re not supposed to; they float eternally in the mind, in that particular chorus that goes on and on in a steady repetition; a forever lyric while time stands still.
Maybe they do. Or maybe I hate seeing her this way: losing everything, turning pale and hollow, voice being cut off by shallow breaths. Or maybe I feel guilty that my wish came true and now she’s failing herself and failing us, and without her voice she’s just another feral animal that has been torturing us for generations. Without her voice, I’m losing her, and everything we can justify about her behaviour, my mother, and we need her and need those reasons, so I help her.
“Stop!” I get up, run to Mama, put a hand over her mouth, but that doesn’t help. We can still hear her voice, her hums. Mother has always been stubborn, feet rooted underneath the soil, and even as she’s struggling, we’re still holding her to these firm traditions and beliefs, forcing her voice. They all frown at me, like I’m in the wrong and this is the worst idea when they have not proved themselves capable of anything else but standing still.
Perhaps Mama needs a break. Maybe if she stops singing, even just for a moment, she can recollect herself, and then we can all forget about this moment of weakness that we don’t understand and will probably never will. To allow her go on is reckless.
“Mama, please stop, you’re hurting yourself.”
No one listens to me. I sigh, starting to rush downstairs to get her a bottle of water. I’m about to go but I stop in my tracks when I hear a scream, one so loud it makes my heart still.
Mama totters, stutters, words becoming senseless babbling, songs becoming mutters, spinning, eyes heavier with each word, breaths hard and painful, voice cracking, till she falls, falls, falls down her rabbit hole, slamming her head first on the wooden table near, passing out, but Father holds her before her head hits the ground.
I can’t believe this. I can’t believe that Mama fell, that she stopped singing. Who will protect us from nightmares now?
I am the first to cry, let down tears that stream across my cheeks through silence as the others process the situation, faces grave. My throat closes up, eyes soggy when salt fills them. I feel choked and hurt picturing the situation where she keeps on falling in memory, and I don’t want to look at her. I don’t want to see her. I just want to get these emotions out in ten easy steps, and that I can control. It’s better to get it over with quickly. I let out my resentment at no one listening to me, my frustrations and anger and building guilt. I play the blame game, whispering evil, hard things unto myself, then I stop, wipe my face, and check her pulse.
She’s breathing, little by little; a step of things. I laugh with bitter hope. Mama has a temperature, her head hot, burning like the fire she put my hand into one day while entering the hardest verse in a song, but we are not supposed to think about that. Will she come to? It’s hard to tell and I’m not an expert.
“What do we now?” Brother’s eyes look pitiful, round and helpless. Should I take charge? Should I sing, protect my family from the monsters? Should I lead in her absence?
I don’t give it much thought. I start, rise on the first notes that fumble in my brain, screaming how does it go again? How does it go again? My vocal cords disagree with me as they spin webs and entangle themselves to shut me up, even as I try to convince to myself that I just need to riise past this incoherence, that I just need to break the surface to reach my true voice, before Papa raises a hand.
“No. We will sleep in silence,” he says, not sure if he can himself. My voice is never going to be the one chosen to continue the songs, and we all know this.
“Do we take her to the hospital?” Brother says, points at Mama’s body. She looks dead already, a corpse on the ground, though her chest heaves in silent protest.
“I…don’t know? Do any of you know a good hospital?” Papa scratches his head. When songs are our remedy, we know no other medicine. And now, we face the consequences of this; our source is floating between realms, the core of her not in a verse. He rubs his temples, and you can feel the heat of him against his burning breath, a raging fire. This must be so much stress for him. What if he has a heart attack? Two parents incapacitated seems too much to bear. I’m not sure we would live past day, reach night. Nightmares would consume us, and silence will keep us afraid.
With uncertainty, I go to sleep, but I’m alert. It’s not the peaceful, no-holds-barred kind of rest, because I’m waiting for something.
I arrive at the point of my dreams with weary expectation. The space is white and eerie, and I remain immovable, petrified of what happens next.
The monster comes.
Clink, clink, clink, clink.
No skin, just taut muscles wrapped around bone that shifts while it moves, as he opens himself from a zipper that appears out of nowhere, climbing out the way babies leave the womb. He stop for a minute, just stares at me. Frozen. I think: Will it stop? Will he go away? Will I be Safe?
Then he lunges, feeds on me; pulls my hair from the scalp, grabs it in clumps and feeds it to me in bits, stuffing it down my throat. I struggle to scream and swallow.
There are no songs to stop this.
I leap up from bed to see my legs shaking and beads of sweat falling from my face. My throat is raw; my scalp is tender. I feel violated, and my wrists burn with red bruises all over.
The room is hot, or it could be my anxieties. I still feel chills. There is no point in sleeping. I sneak into Papa’s room and take another good look at Mama. It feels like he’s stuffing a dead body in his bed and that causes my skin to crawl. It also brings another lump to my throat. I swallow it. No tears, only solutions.
Once everyone gets up, I see I’m not the only person that did not sleep the night. Brother shakes, heavy bags pulling down his eyes while he jumps at each word. His nightmare must have been particularly brutal.
“I don’t think we should take her to the hospital,” Papa announces. I can’t stop my fist from curling up; it’s instinct. He goes on. “The doctors–they’ll ask too many questions.”
“But, she…” I look at the body and stare at him. I think, let them ask. How long have we lived that we would be terminated with a single word? The doctors don’t have to know the truth. A good cover story would fix that problem easily, even though we’re not the best set of liars. It reminds me of how Mama is good at everything, and how we need her back. A little part of me whispers resentment, of how I’m still latching on to someone that also destroys me. My scars ache in response.
I shut it down, close the blinds, do not open myself up for that conversation. One day, we will be ready to discuss my mother’s faults with nuance; the years of pain she caused and helped to take away, but we are not ready yet.
“Just give me some time to figure this out,” he sighs, rubbing his temples.
I nod at Papa, going along with his plan. If I were to be completely honest, a cover story wouldn’t be enough. We would have to watch over her in the hospital, and the singing she would start if she came to would raise more questions than we could answer.
I get that bottle of water for Mama, even though it’s a bit late for that, and pry her mouth open, pouring it down her throat. It is better to keep her hydrated.
“Are we going to school?” Brother asks. I’m surprised I never thought of that question, but it’s a valid point. Not that I want to go–they make me stand in front of everyone on the assembly ground, questioning why I haven’t plaited my hair. The school doesn’t care too much for lovingly combed afros, and I don’t care too much for them; the perfect relationship.
“No.” Father clasps his hand together, and I shuffle to the kitchen cupboards, bringing out milk and Bournvita to make my tea. Despite the situation, I still shoot Brother a dirty look for dipping his bread inside his tea, raising up the soggy brown mess like paper left out in the rain.
“We are going to visit your grandmother.”
This is such a good idea. We carry Mama’s body into the car first, and Sister keeps watch to make sure the gateman does not see us. Grandma lives far away, so I take a bag and fill it with a bunch of puzzle pieces that can be a source of entertainment to help me forget these troubles.
On our way, my throat itches, burns, and it feels painful to swallow. It doesn’t stop, halt when I gulp down bottles of water like some greedy little thing. I have an urge, a burning sensation deep within my soul.
I want to sing.
I have never wanted it this badly, never wanted to express myself, to create with such passion. I have never felt such a forceful inspiration. What is this?
Instead, I shut up. My father tries to open the gate but causes too much of a ruckus, and the gateman wakes up from his quarters, walking closer to us. My shoulders stiffen, but relax shortly after. He won’t be able to figure out what’s wrong for the life of him.
“Let me help you, Sir,” he rushes, pushing Papa out of the way and letting us out, waving at Mummy while we leave, but looking confused shortly after because she does not wave back.
The gateman really ought to mind his business.
At least we stop for road ice-cream on the way. I think Daddy is trying his best to pacify us, trying to make us stay still because passiveness is all he knows, but my mind races and the car moves, so I guess I’m not the only thing that’s running.
The way Mama hit her head, she could have a concussion. She could have a brain injury.
If she sleeps forever, we will lie waking in agony. Nightmares will come and slap us in the face, spit in our hair, cut our skin, and break bones; suck out the marrow out of those bones and use them as chewing sticks.
Songs don’t end.
The lack of melodies is haunting, makes my two siblings and I shift in our seats. Sister tries to doze up but a few minutes later she sits up, checking her body parts like she’s wondering if she’s still her, still there.
The answer is barely. The way we live; we are empty vessels, but we make peace with it. Ours is relief and desperation, depression and anxiety.
I solve crossword puzzles, drown my burning throat with cold ice-cream and the akara I brought in a plastic container. Don’t judge me. Everyone has poor food combinations.
I know we’re close to Grandma’s house when we reach the bumpy roads with scattered rocks everywhere; the part the road makers know nobody is seeing so they don’t have to do eye-service. My head bumps from side to side, crossword leaping from my laps, and I slam into the side of the car door.
“Be careful, o!” I scream, rubbing my head. If we’re not, we’ll have two problems on our hands, and then we might as well tear off our flesh and go live as muscle-born children in the nightmarish hell-scape that long awaits us.
We pull up at Grandma’s house, located in one of the dusty corners of the street after hours of driving, and knock on the gate of the house with the steadiest foundation I’ve ever seen—surviving floods and winds in its blue-black shine longer than I’ve been born—basically the woman herself. We knock fast, with desperation, as we are ajebota children, not comfortable waiting outside for too long in the dirty red soil, watching men with shifty eyes glance at us, and we stare at them, back and forth, back and forth; the game of awkwardness.
Grandma lets us in, doesn’t offer us anything other than the smell of jollof rice we won’t be eating, because she’s not that kind of person.
The old woman is lost in her tune, now only for her and no one else.
And then she sees her daughter.
Oh. Songs do end. Because Grandma screams, albeit in a melodious voice
“Mama,” my father begs, voice scratchy. Stress will be the death of him. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know.” Grandma’s sing-song voice is low and her hand touches every part of her daughter’s body, lips quivering as though she might cry. Not for too long, I hope. We need to get this sorted out.
“No,” my father screams, grabbing at his hair. This was his last hope, so his voice spirals in tone like he’s descending to madness. “No, no, no, no. Ah! I thought…so, what do we now do?”
“I want to sing,” I point out, since the time seems as good as any. They all stare at me.
And then they start laughing, bellies bursting with giggles and chuckles. They wipe tears from their eyes, turning in my direction then cackling once more, almost unaware of the almost-comatose woman on the floor. What kind of people are these?
But comic relief is better than hysterics, so I take it as a victory and let them have their moment.
Then I let out my voice, and every other person stops.
I am not a joke, something to ignore. I scream my lungs out until I break every notion once thought of me, all ideas once disregarded, all nightmares breaking me. Grandma joins in with me. I make them listen, allow them to understand that yes, I can sing.
Maybe, since I can do it now, we won’t need Mama to keep the nightmares away. Maybe now she can stay asleep and take her abusive good-for-nothing attitude with her. The sense of urgency goes away. I don’t need her. We don’t need her.
With my voice, I make a path. But the path trails off when I forget the lyrics. Grandma continues, amazed at me.
The old woman grabs my hand so tenderly it makes me believe we’re going on a journey, but then twists it till I can taste fire. I swear under my breath. Her eyes pierce into my soul, judges every fiber of my being. Have I not solved the problem? Are we not free?
“You could never sing before, but now you can?” She wags a finger at me, stepping back. “You are the cause of this.”
It makes a bit of sense. I grab Mama’s pulse again with force, run a hand over her nose, feel that her breath grows more shallow each time my voice hits a note.
I am killing her.
“It seems,” the old woman ponders, “that when your voice pre—”
My father starts. “This did not happen to your daughter, so why’s it hap—”
Grandma glares, shuts him up, waves her hand. She’s already getting over the image of a barely breathing daughter. “You only married in and you think your voice holds weight to mine? Do you know how many generations, how many women I’ve seen go through this, and you think you have an opinion?”
He hangs his head low like a bent lamp, swinging from side to side, muttering breaths to the wind in a childish manner.
“It is different in each family, a separate unit on its own,” Grandma says. “Maybe because she started late.”
And then there’s silence. In the quiet, I see my family glance at me every once in a while, and they look at me differently. I hold so much power now, but what am I to do with it?
My throat croaks, and I stare at Mama. My feelings with my mother are…complicated. I’ve never wanted to need her, but I knew she was the only source that helped me sleep at night, helped me live.
“Teach me the lyrics to the songs,” I whisper to my Grandma. There are so many, and I’ve heard them so many times, but now it’s time to learn, time to step up, even though I am not ready for a decision yet. It’s easy to feel lost in the moment, but Mama is a woman, and her life is a right she’s allowed to have, even though she doesn’t deserve it.
I want to sing, the song to go on and on, but in my piece: let everyone hear my break, cough, and stutter. But there is also the option in which I keep quiet, save Mama’s soul. I have not mastered things yet. At this point, I don’t want to make the decision. Not yet.
And I don’t know how everything goes, but there is the present, a moment in time, and that’s fine with me.
This is not fine with everyone else. For months, they hover around me, flies with no purpose, their only goal being to pester and disturb. In my nightmares, the monster comes from the zipper and scratches my eyes out the way I do recharge cards while I scream bloody murder, the little flakes of my pupils falling into his nails growing from muscle.
The monster adapts to what he needs each time for his torment, patterns we can’t comprehend.
Every day, I write down lyrics to the song, scribble them down because I’m scared to forget. I carve them into skin, lockers, tables, walls in school, screaming new words, combining, mixing. I start my own songs, crying, pulling out my hair each time I think not good enough, not good enough, even when I can’t test my own voice. I sink to my knees and wish to make a puddle of myself that I know will only taste of disappointment.
It seems, this perfection I never wanted before, I’m striving towards it now, because I’ve never heard of girls with voices filled with brokenness and hope and mistakes being the heroes and saving the day. Yet, I think, I can’t be her, Mama, because there has to be a difference. We must have these partitions, even though it feels so hard to linger in these inadequacies to prove something to myself.
Every day, my brother and sister pop pills in their mouth because now Western medicine is their new song now that Mama is incapacitated. And the pills go in and into their mouths in a reckless repetition, until I snatch it from their hands with a fire in my voice.
“Overdose and die na!” I yell, while their eyes sink into their skulls. They could hide away forever in this state. Until Sister comes out of her shell and snaps back.
“Oya, come and sing for us! That’s what we’re waiting for,” she sniffs, her hand raised out for the prescriptions, expecting to get them back.
“It’s not that simple,” I tell her, louder and louder till my eardrums ring.
“Do it,” Sister says with contempt, like if I just hovered too close that she’d reach into my throat and steal my voice. “We don’t need her. I don’t need her.”
I reduce my voice. “It’s so easy because then I’d be the one who killed her. And then there’d be the burial, and all the sorry for your loss, and during that time you wouldn’t be able to look at me as anything else than the murderer. Than the one to blame if things don’t go well. And maybe you, Sister, might not do that, but you,” I throw a finger to my brother. “Where are your scars?”
“Don’t act like we didn’t all suffer the cost,” he spits, eyes ablaze. “This isn’t some oppression olympics game you can play be—”
“Where are they?” I block his voice. I tune him out. I really want to know, when Mama was hugging him, feeding him, playing with him—where are the burn marks across his hands? Where are the memories like scars, the torment that never ends? Where are the spots on his skin, red and raw, like paper just stretched thin enough to break?
To answer, he waves a middle finger. I sigh and sit down, knowing I sound unfair and unreasonable.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” My feet stare back up at me when I look at them for answers. My body stirs in the silence. “But if I do it, you won’t hate me, right?”
“I think it’s time,” Sister nods. We both stare at my brother, expecting his answer.
“I…don’t know, okay?” He blurts Out, sweaty, panicked.
“What?” I almost hiss. It feels as though he’s ruining a moment when there’s nothing sweet about this at all.
“I can’t tell you how I’d feel.” He throws up his hands, flustered. “You can’t expect me to just know. How would I? It’s hard.”
“Then,” I say, “we wait.”
We don’t wait too long. In the end, we decide to let her rest. Mostly because a life, our life, is a right we deserve to have. It will never be fair, never be Mama’s actual decision, because it’s complicated but we need release.
I stand by while my grandmother sings a loving tribute to her daughter. Sister and Brother try to perch off Grandma’s song once more, but it doesn’t work that way because the connection is too far gone, and one generation in our own family is clearly missing, so we stay sober. Papa wipes his forehead and puts his head in his hand for what I believe are hours till I tap him.
“We need to sort this out,” I tell him.
He nods, driving home, Mama’s body in the front seat like an inflatable doll while we all stay alert, awake. I think to alternate realities, to a man that divorced a woman once he discovered her curse, to a man named my father who saved himself, then saved us, and I imagine how peaceful it would have been to not been born, to not have the stress of a little world on your shoulders.
When we get to the house, we lay her on the sofa, her favourite spot, and I begin to sing.
And sing. Soprano to the highest pitch, the range and bellow. The song of an ending. The primal roar. And it’s a joy just to use my voice again, to begin, even though Brother’s hands rest upon Mama’s pulse in the most ominous manner, his eyes widening each lyric I go, till he drops her hand, no beat there left, no steady progression.
It’s been too long for me since I felt relieved, so I laugh. I breathe. My breaths come in too fast and pretty soon I’m sucking up air like a vacuum cleaner while my body makes sounds I’ve never heard before. When I go back to silence, the room feels stuffy, and I sincerely believe that I’ve eaten up the air, that there’s nothing left for the rest of them. That I’ve always been a greedy little thing.
I know I’m crying now, I’m sobbing again as my knees buckle under me, but this time I’m not in a hurry so I don’t rush myself. My thoughts don’t pace. My body doesn’t run. Time stands still.
Then Mother vomits herself.
Slowly, she spits herself out like a rising apparition, tears herself from skin until she’s nothing but muscle and bone in the nightmares, her blood pooling in her sack of discarded skin like drinks turned over in a nylon bag, feral and threatening once more.
The part where her mouth is supposed to be tears open, and we can hear her screams, her now savage voice, all songs now noise, all roles changed.
Brother vomits on the floor in response. She jumps on him first, her favourite, holding him in a tight embrace, squeezing his windpipe and forcing his undigested food substances back in, spoon-feeding, trying to get back to motherly instincts.
There’s no fear here.
She stares up at me and I stumble back. My vision hits somewhere between dream and reality, drenched in blurred colours and changing lines like hallucinatory drugs. I should be afraid, but I am not. I’m not. I’m ready for her.
And she lunges at me.
But I hold myself as others run, fury as my guide as I clutch slipping straws, launching into the next verse of my new twisted song.