By Okonkwor Oyor
My name is Ada and I live in the East. I don’t know when this hurt will leave. This yawning gap that exists in my heart is like a wound that has refused to heal. You see, it is Christmas and mama is doing it again. Did I mention that I hate Christmas? Yes, I hate Christmas, and I hate God, whoever He is.
This morning we went to church for Christ-mass. Yes, that is the full word. I sat at the back because I hate the front pews. They smell of death, burnt flesh and excruciating loss. But mama sat there in front. She was unusually bright this morning, like she always is at Christmas. Her joy was plastic and glass, not natural. It was fragile. I dislike mass in this place, for it is foreign to me. I miss home. The thick Igbo accent here puts me off. I dislike their hymns, the looks people give us and their over cheerful smiles. I mean, it has been five years now –I am twenty and in the University, why won’t they stop with the pity?
We went home and mama continued with it again. She told me to set the table for four. And I did. I stopped complaining two years ago. I just let her be. Mama sat at the head of the table and I sat on the adjacent chair: just the two of us.
Silence crept into the room, permeating every corner. Five minutes later, mama got up from her chair and walked towards empty space.
“Nduka my love, welcome, how was mass? Sit down and eat,” she said. Then she moved forward, bending down to pat the empty air, “My Juju, how was mass?”, she said, groaning like she was lifting something heavy. “Did Father touch your head, and bless you? Were your friends jealous of your shoe?” She asked question after question, never pausing for a response. “Ngwanu sit down,” she said finally, dropping the empty air on the chair, at the other head of the table. She groaned dramatically as she did so, and then she pushed the chair in, carefully tucking in imaginary legs. The chair was empty.Then she came to me, “Ada hmm, always quiet, why are you looking sad, was mass boring? I prepared coconut rice, your favorite, ngwa eat.”
She rubbed my head and smiled, but the smile did not reach her eyes, and the spark in them eyes was eerie, almost maniacal. She returned to her seat and led the prayer, then we began to eat.
I don’t like the taste of Christmas rice anymore. So, I poked at the food on my plate with my fork, and used the knife to scatter it about. I was almost perfect in the art of making food look like it had been eaten, when it was really just carefully scattered across my plate. The aroma of the food was really nice. But I found it terrible. Mama made it just the way she always did, the way I had always liked it. Coconut rice, with shredded vegetables on one side and a huge drumstick on the other, garnished with sweet corn and diced carrot. Tears welled in my eyes. I promised myself that I would not to cry.
At some point Mama stopped eating and looked up.
I fought my tears as Mama addressed the empty space. I knew what was coming next. I stood up and went to get paper towels and when I came back, I was just in time to witness it happen all over again.
“Why are you not eating? Nduka,” she said and looked at the other end of the table, “Juju?” Then she stood up and walked to the other end of the table, “Eat now, Juju nwa hmm, you don’t like mummy’s food?” she said. Her voice was low and tight. I could see the cracks in her demeanor. She walked over and suspended her hand midair. She motioned like she was rubbing someone’s head. “Obi hmm, I’m sorry about this morning, but you know I was not well, I will go for mass tomorrow now, oya eat,” she said.
The tears broke free of their floodgates and I dropped the fork with anger. My hands shook as I went to her. Slowly. My legs shook with every step.
“Yes Ada hmm? O gini.”
“Papa and Juju, they are dead, sun mutu, five years ago, five years mama! Bomb blast, Boko Haram, they died mama,” I screamed. Her eyes widened and I held on to her as tremors ran down her body. Mama had always been petite, light skinned, and beautiful. Her eyes were light brown as the light fell into her irises. I watched as those same eyes became lucid.
“Yes mama, dead,” I said.
The maniacal light died in her eyes. The glass had shattered. The tremors stopped, and then mama’s scream came. I shut my ears; it was like my heart was torn open. I remembered it all in clear detail. My heart has never healed. Each Christmas it is torn anew.
I remember when mama woke up ill that morning. She was vomiting and so we left for church reluctantly. I waved at Halimat as I entered the car and she waved back from her window. I made a sign with my hand, drawing a circle with my index finger. It meant that we would talk later. I had wanted to tell her about my crush on Abdul but I never did. Then the smell came, the dusty, biting and cold smell of Harmattan in the North. I shuddered. Juju had been quiet as we rode to church that morning. I had thought that it was because mama was not coming with us. For he was mummy’s boy. When we were inside the church, I sat in front with Juju and papa. Most of what happened is blurred now. I cannot remember how the church looked; I cannot remember who sat next to me. All I remember was knocking Juju on his head when he refused to kneel down during Consecration. Consecration was the high point of mass; it was the time the bread and wine on the altar was transformed into the body and blood of Christ, through the action of the priest. Tears had welled in his eyes and I held his hand, I made a mental note to properly apologize later, probably with promises of bits of my Christmas turkey. Papa gave me a scolding look, and I looked up again, mortified. The last thing I remember were the words, “Through him, With Him and in Him,” resonating throughout the church. The priest raised the chalice and held the host above it. I felt a force rip Juju’s hands from mine. I felt myself thrown up in the air, a rippling heat tore across my back and I heard screams. In the noise, I heard Juju’s tiny scream. I heard him shout Ada, as I hit the ground and felt no more, heard no more.
Five years ago my church was bombed on Christmas day. Five years ago, papa died, Juju died, and mama died with them too. Not physically, just metaphysically. I lost everything I loved in one minute, because of God. It was His fault that they died, His fault that at every Christmas, mama forgot it all. She would reenact the perfect way in which the day was supposed to go.
We left the North, mama and I, and went back to the East. Halimat tried to call, she even visited. But I hate Halimat. When she came, our conversation was strained. I replay it in my head every time. I knew it by heart now. I can still hear mama say, “She is in her room, the second one on the left, down the hall.”
I can still hear her footsteps, slow, unsure, and scared. She knocked feebly, “Ada”, she said, “Open the door, it is me, Halimat.”
I remember opening the door, and staring at her face for a minute. There was silence between us, a yawning chasm that never used to be. I don’t know why, but the sight of her hijab, the very one I gave her on her birthday, in that fateful year, was too painful for me to bear. It was the same shade of orange as the rising sun. The sight of her white teeth, her fine nose with its high bridge. The look in her dark brown eyes and chiseled features were too beautiful and too painful all at once. And so I shut the door. She knocked and knocked, till she got tired. I was on the other side of the door, and each knock replayed what we once were, and the memories that we shared. She stopped knocking and I heard her body slide down on the door, down to the floor. Then she began to talk, her soft sweet voice sailing across the door and warming my cold heart. She told me all about home, about how Abdul kept asking about me. She talked till she began to cry, and then she left me with the rose Abdul had sent. It had a note attached to it, written by her.
I had lost my home. The North. I had lost it all, she still called, even after all this while. I’ve never picked her calls, I just watch the phone ring.
Every Christmas mama made me relive that day. As I lay curled up on the floor, I hear mama sing me a lullaby, in Hausa. It was the one she often sung to put me to sleep when I was a little girl. I would feel the air shift as she knelt down and stroked my hair. It was funny how I had long soft hair like the Fulani and their skin tone, which was the colour of copper. Somehow even if I was Igbo, my heart was always at home in the North. Yet some people took all that away from me.
I still ache for home. For the cold, biting dry Harmattan, dusty and cloudless sky. My ears still long for Hausa music, their thin soups made of vegetables with little oil and meat, and spiced with dawadawa. I really miss fura da nono, mia kuka, pate and masa. I wish I could apologize to Juju, hug papa once more and rub my face against his stubbly chin. I miss Halimat and how we used to talk. But now I feel something akin to hatred for her. When I think of her, the hole where my heart used to be widens, and I feel a deep kind of pain tear through me. My eyes water and my head pounds. My hands shake, and then breathing becomes a chore. My lungs begin to feel heavy and so I stop. I try not to think about Halimat. And I don’t feel much anymore, for this feeling has slowly consumed me. Or is this an absence of feeling? I hate her not for who she is but for who she represents. I do not want to hate her, really. I try to love. But it seems that love is too hard; my heart is glass now. Plastic and glass, unnatural, twisted and mangled like the metal that impaled papa. Broken like the glass the killed Juju. Lost, like the light in mama’s eyes.
We get by; we wake up each morning to run through the motions. I don’t even know why I am in the University. I am in my third year already, studying psychology, trying to understand what I feel, and what is wrong with mama and me. I don’t know why mama even bothers to get up every morning? Why had God allowed me to be thrown away by the explosion, with just broken bones that healed? What kind of God created people that planted a bomb in a church full of people on Christmas day? “Why didn’t He strike them dead too?” I asked, as I lay in my mother’s laps. We were both sharing paper towels in mourning. My heart spoke soundless words, bitter lines against the cruelty of the world.
When I released myself from my nightmare, I looked up at the fan. The spinning blades were white and for a moment the fan looked like a big white circle. Just like the host the priest raised up five years ago. I fell asleep, with wounds still bleeding from deep within. I had dreams of peace and a normal perfect Christ-mass with many voices singing a Hausa hymn in church.
Okonkwor is a medical student. His profile is here.