By A. Igoni Barrett
The morning he slapped his mother, Dimié Abrakasa was preparing to leave for school when she rose from bed, drank the last of the gin he had bought her the previous night, threw the bottle in the corner, then bent close and said, ‘I hate your eyes, my son.’
Daoju Anabraba turned to alcohol after she and her three children were forced to abandon the comfort of her husband’s house. Before her eviction, she was for five long months engaged in a tooth-and-nail battle to secure what was hers by right of marriage. Her husband, Pa Goodnews Abrakasa, seventy-eight years old but still strong enough to make the bedsprings squeal every night, had one day thrown a quizzical glance at his chest, scratched his chin, and died. His death struck his household like a thunderclap: no one had seen it coming.
Pa Abrakasa’s widows reacted to his passing by bursting into wails and tearing at their clothes, beating their heads, their breasts, the ground, running around like headless chickens, their footsteps drawn to the compound well where the menfolk stood guard. Prevented from joining their husband, they turned to his corpse. They wept over a face whose lines rigor mortis had altered; their cries shook the walls and made the ceiling rain down plaster. After three days’ mourning, they dried their tears, and each herding her friends and sympathizers into the kitchen, they vied in the preparation of a feast worthy of an emperor’s coronation.
The trouble began after Pa Abrakasa was placed in the earth. First, the inheritance: there was no will, and no consensus. While the family fought over the tangled task of sharing one house, two cars and five plots of land among four wives and twenty-two children—five of whom had been conceived out of wedlock but whose claims were given weight because they, unlike the two who appeared after the worms had begun work on the man they accused of fathering them, had been acknowledged by Pa Abrakasa during his lifetime; while this scrabble was at its most frenzied, and the brothers of the deceased fanned the flames of his burning house with whispers that were soaked in the turpentine of ulterior motives; while this dogfight dragged the dead man’s name through the mud of public contumely and held it up for his enemies to point at with glee; while all this went on, the children of Pa Abrakasa began one by one to die off.
The first Abrakasa to follow the father into the ground succumbed to a two-day bout of malaria fever. The second, who had all her life been a war prisoner to sickle-cell anaemia, died of a twisted intestine. The third and fourth, who as undergraduates had symbolized for their mother a bragging point, together met their fate in an automobile crash from which every other passenger emerged unscathed. It was after this double tragedy that the haggling family began to suspect that someone had a hand in all these deaths.
As the second and third wives had both lost children the spotlight of suspicion fell on the first and fourth wives. But the first wife soon left Daoju Anabraba to alone bear the burden. She gathered up her clothes and trinkets, her cooking pots and photo albums and the one child who still lived with her, and renouncing all claim to the property of a man she had cohabited with for fifty-six years, she fled. It was some time afterwards that news reached the family that the first son of this frightened woman (who was a wealthy banker in some Eastern European country and his mother’s sole hope for a comfortable existence in the autumn of her life) had fallen victim to a strange ailment that ate up all his hair and caused toadstools to sprout on his lips and eyelids.
Daoju Anabraba, youngest wife, fatherless daughter, full-brood mother, became the focus of the family’s fears and accusations, and thus was thrust into a chapter of her life that ultimately left her a broken woman.
Dimié Abrakasa blossomed in the season of anomie that followed their expulsion from the family house. While Daoju Anabraba drowned her despair in alcohol, her son, freed from the constraints of an upbringing, discovered himself. While his mother sank deeper into the swamps of self-pity and every day relegated some more of her moral authority, Dimié Abrakasa grew stronger on the air of his emancipation. Faced with the abyss from which his mother shrank, his young mind burst its cocoon, unfurled its wings, and flew.
After their move to new quarters, Dimié Abrakasa relieved his mother of responsibility for domestic affairs. He took over the preparation of meals, the cleaning of the room they shared, and the role of caregiver to Benaebi and Méneia, his younger brother and sister. He took over the laundry, the shopping, and later, when his mother lay defeated from the onslaught of her addiction, he provided the balm she craved. The only task for which his arms were too short was financial provision, a duty his mother fulfilled by total dependence on her mother.
After Dimié Abrakasa slapped his mother he felt in the pit of his belly the nagging pain of a severed bond, but he shrugged off that warning. His mother, he told himself, deserved the slap. Yet he hadn’t delivered it to return a hurt but to stop those words that left no secrets between mother and child. It worked, it shut her up. For that he wasn’t sorry, he wasn’t afraid. But when he looked her in the face—as he told her he was leaving for school—he perceived in her eyes a glimmer that turned his belly to a marsh of apprehension. Even after he shut the door behind him, even over the distances he traversed that day, running away, that look in his mother’s eyes did not give up the chase.
A. Igoni Barrett was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. He is the recipient of an Ebedi International Writers residency and a Chinua Achebe Center fellowship, among others. His first book, the story collection From Caves of Rotten Teeth, was published in Nigeria in 2005. His second story collection, Love Is Power, Or Something Like That, will be published in 2013 by Farafina. Visit his blog.