She stayed up all night stitching scraps of cloth. It made me want to weep. I wondered how our lives had gone so downhill so fast. We served the king, we honoured Him. We tried hard to do His will. Of course, there were hitches. Nobody could be perfect. But we got by, we survived somehow. Or I thought we did.
Now she stayed up all night, tattooing our prelate’s name on handkerchiefs. We should always carry it around, she explained. For protection, favour and discouragement of arrows from the enemy. It seemed everything had a rule. Scarves to show piety, long skirts for modesty, woven hair for holiness, no makeup, no heels, a lot of nos.
We had been an average family. Not rich, but we hadn’t been poor either. You could say we swam in the middle of the sea where every fish was welcome. Everyone around us served the king. He was a weird king as far as I was concerned. He didn’t force his subjects to serve him. He demanded the usual: absolute obedience and loyalty, tithes and offerings…but even his demands were to be met with love. It was a funny arrangement but I didn’t start thinking of it until I grew up and saw how some other kings taxed their subjects and made their life miserable. They had such rules and drama and they couldn’t even leave. Their own brethren would stone them if they tried to defect. It could be a real war sometimes.
I was in middle school when our troubles started. My father fell off a mechanical horse and had to be taken to the healers. He got healed; barely, but it took all our money. Then he lost his job at the money counter and had to drive the buggies for rich people. We kids clawed our way through school. Hunger makes you read. One of my sisters became a healer, the other one made jewellery for the nobles, I was a mechanic and my brother was in the gentlemen’s school. Things were good, but they could be better. Some days I felt like we were continually swimming against the tide. As we solved one problem, another rose up in its place until we felt like we were battling with a hydra headed dragon.
I looked at the woman who had given me life and felt depressed. Her thin hands shook as she struggled to sew the name into the kerchief. It’s just a piece of cloth, I felt like saying. The real power is from your faith, but at what point did faith turn to a fetish and a love for talismans? This is not what my king wants I thought.
She looked up then and saw me watching her. Why, mama? Why do you waste yourself this way? Your fasts have made you weak, yet you don’t stop. Why not give it a rest? She smiled sadly and shook her head. This is what I can do now, so I try my best. I will walk through hell to protect my children, and this kerchief will keep you safe. It has the name of the prelate on it and it will keep you safe. All of you. No accidents, nothing, by the king! I nodded and left her, not trusting myself to speak, not believing her reasons but knowing that when she was done, I will use the handkerchiefs and keep them, not seeing the prelate’s name but seeing tired hands sewing with love by candlelight…
His mother had been fighting the darkness for as long as he could remember. He was the last child and he didn’t understand at first why she was always traveling. Or why she didn’t leave her room some days. He got used to seeing her take drugs every night. She told him she had to take vitamins to stay healthy and strong. He vowed to take vitamins all the time when he grew up.
His father left when he was twelve. By then, he knew that she only traveled to the psychiatric ward of the hospital and her vitamins were anti- psychotic drugs. He knew everything about her condition because he wanted to be ready to take care of her. He was not a normal twelve year old. He didn’t stay after school to play. His worst fear was that she would one day slit her wrists while he was in school. The fears were unfounded, however. He would get home to meet her frying plantain for his lunch, a pot of rice bubbling on the stove. His siblings were all grown and had lives of their own. Nigeria didn’t have old people’s homes or she would have been put there for sure. Instead, he convinced them to let him take care of her. Oh he still managed to raise some hell but it was all under control.
Now he was thirty five, unmarried and he still lived with his mother. He had a good job, a fast car, a trim body and a nice smile. By day, he was a respectable, slightly flirty bachelor with money to spend and jokes to crack. By night, he went home to take care of her and make sure she took her drugs. He had girls come over but he made sure the two parts of his life didn’t meet. They only came when she had to travel.
His siblings kept him in money, but money couldn’t buy all the heartache in the world that lodged in his chest every day. It couldn’t erase the years he had lost or she had been wandering in the darkness. They talked more now, and his awe grew as she spoke of how hard it had been to wake up in the mornings and go to her teaching job. She had taught English to snotty private preschoolers and each day was a fight to keep the spirits away. How did you do it? Why did you keep on? She didn’t answer but told him how each trip to the hospital was torture. They didn’t hurt you mum. I made sure of that. No, they didn’t hurt her. It was torture because she never wanted to leave. But she did because she had kids who had to be fed and clothed and sent to school. So every time she came back, a little part of her stayed behind. Now she spent most of her time in a private room in the hospital. He didn’t begrudge her the rest. She had suffered all her life. The kids were grown now so she could stop worrying and let the darkness win.
He was the only one not married, and he knew that was why she still made an effort. No matter how bad it was, she had attended all her children’s weddings. She would hold on to attend his, her last child’s wedding….then the darkness could come and take her away….
He had three jobs. Or four. He could never keep count. All he knew was he had three children and an illiterate wife and they had to eat. He wasn’t that well read but he could speak English passably and semi- intelligently. In the mornings, he worked as a security man for a bank in town. His job ended at five in the evenings. Then he would rush home to eat bean- cakes fried in oil and cassava flour. He would grab a few winks while the kids tried to be quiet. His job as a night watchman started at ten p.m. in a Bodija suburb till Five thirty in the mornings. The bank job started at seven.
His friends made fun of him for killing himself over children who would one day grow up and go their own way. Weekends were a bit better. He could relax a bit and actually play with the kids. It was on Saturdays that he caught up with what their school work, dispensed the week’s worth of punishment his wife had stored up and got to see his friends and drink a few bottles. Early Saturday morning was for him and the wife. They were careful though. The thought of another baby was enough to cool his ardor. Saturday nights, he acted as a bouncer in one of the clubs in town. He was big and fit the criteria. That was probably his least favourite job. Teenagers and a few old fools jumping up and down to the most atrocious music he had ever heard. He wondered if they were paid to stay awake all night.
His fourth job was as an usher in church. He wasn’t paid but he considered it a job in the house of God. God never owed a man, so he would be paid when he got to heaven. Someday. He couldn’t save a dime what with fees and clothes and food, but he was sure his savings from the ushering job would be enough when he got to heaven. So the days passed and the months went.
His first child finished from secondary school in flying colours. He wanted to do something nice for her so he had been saving his tips for three weeks so he could take them to Mr. Biggs for a celebratory lunch. All the kids were excited at the thought. They discussed what they would order even as their mum fretted about University costs and books. He calmed her down. He was sure God would do something. Maybe advance him some money from the heavenly stash… He would do anything for his family. Surely God was like that too….
His kids finally settled on jollof rice with chicken. He paid the bill when they were done, wincing inwardly as the bills left his hands, but glad to be able to do this small thing for his kids.
Today, was for his daughter, his wife with her poor chapped hands and his two little ones. Tomorrow, he will go back to his three jobs. Or maybe four.