Children are born with plastic ears, not one comes with ears that work. It is the mother who fashions ears of flesh for the child. The change of ears is done with shouts and pulling the ears and forgetting her open palm on their chubby faces. With time the plastic loosens for the flesh to emerge, when the child needs no words to know his mother’s heartbeat and when he can feel her ‘look’ even though she is ten thousand miles away.
I cannot remember what age I was when I lost my plastic ears, perhaps I never had them because it is inconceivable for a child of my mother to have ears that weren’t attuned to her innermost thoughts. But my children are adults and they all have ears of concrete.
There is a memory I try to suppress, an event I wish to take back. It is of me in our tiny sitting room in Calabar and David running into the little flat with a letter in his hand.
“I made it,” he crowed as he attempted a little dance in the centre of the parlour.
“No! we made it my darling. You and I are leaving this place in two weeks.” He sang.
I barely had time to wonder at his madness before he thrust the paper at me.
“Read it! I am finally saying goodbye to those motherfuc…”
“Don’t say such dirty words in front of the baby,” I cut in as I rubbed my belly to protect my child’s budding ears from uncouth language.
The letter said he had gotten a role at some university overseas where he could complete his PhD. Yes, the PhD he started nearly a decade earlier and thousands of grey hair later, he was no closer to finishing it than when he began.
“What of visas and everything? What if they refuse you at the embassy?”
“Eka!” his breath hot against my nape.
“Read it to the end. I don’t need a visa because I am going as an exchange scholar, and I am entitled to bring my family.”
“Just think of it Eka, our baby will not be born on Nigerian soil. He will be a foreign baby.”
“She,” I answered automatically while my head whirled from the implications. What would happen to my job, my shop? Could I survive life without okporoko?
Because enemies and friends and family are often the same people, we didn’t tell anyone we were leaving. I told my mother though, I tell my mother everything.
We brought our son to the wooden walled tiny flat campus housing allotted to us, David made paper signs around the house to welcome us. I hated how fragile the walls seemed, how you could hear your neighbour breathing, and I especially hated all the whites and greys. Not a splash of colour for rows and rows of house, not one balcony to spy on the next compound and judge them, no smell of browning dodo or okporoko bubbling in a soup pot from a kitchen three houses down the street. I wept for days, while David cared for the boy. One morning, he told me to stop calling him Bomboy. He lifted the boy to the ceiling and told him his name was Josh.
What kind of name is Josh?
David finished his PhD before Josh grew his first tooth. He would get tenure in a year or two, the future is bright he declared. But my heart shrunk a little because I had more years of greyness ahead. So, I went to the hardware store and bought red paint, green paint and yellow paint and pink paint and blue paint and a dozen brushes, rollers and ladders and I began to paint.
Jessica was born in our second year abroad, her feet pressed against my pelvis just before they slashed my skin to bring her out, as she had turned around my womb several times before she was born. When she won her first juniors medal for gymnastics at six, I wondered why it had taken so long.
When they started preschool, I found a job while I began business classes at David’s college. I sat in a room at the back and sorted inventory, I had started at the shop floor but we soon discovered that I had too much melanin for the customers’ comfort. At least I didn’t have to deal with snooty customers anymore. I consoled myself with that even as I wondered who the bagger would have been to keep me in the backroom of a store in Calabar.
When a child starts to crawl, her mother buys a cane that is appropriate for her size but there are no stores to find canes here. David said the police would take the children from us if we caned them. I wondered who the bagger would have been to take my children from me because I flogged my children in Calabar.
David still said he would get tenure within a year, even though it was now six years since he finished his PhD and we had four children. His voice was still as firm when he said it but his eyes weren’t quite as bright.
The third pregnancy was arduous and scary, I told the doctor to tie my tubes after she brought out the second baby. Two sons and two daughters were enough even though David wanted a basketball team and some players on the bench.
“You’re not the boss of me,” Josh had taken to saying that when I asked him to do simple tasks around the house.
“He’s just a kid,” David said when I fumed.
“How can a child grow straight if there is no cane to lead on the right path? I can’t guide this child without a few well-aimed knocks.” I said once out of frustration but David’s look quelled my words.
“You might think yourself as one of them David, with your golf clubs and refusal to handle these children. But your nyash will always be black.” I said to him that night as he turned off the nightlamp and slid into bed.
“Well, I have to get a bleaching cream just for my arse then,” he intoned and I smiled. It was his biggest flaw and the best thing about living with him. He never took words seriously.
I know I will have three mansions in heaven just for mothering Jane and Jerry without offering them as a sacrifice to any god wanting human sacrifice. They did things in the house and said things to me that I wouldn’t have imagined as a child even if I was delirious. David asked me to be calm while I seethed at the injustice. Why was my story different? Why was I enduring things from my children which my sisters couldn’t even dream about from theirs?
Josh got a full ride to study drama at the premier academy hundreds of miles away. He was glad to get away from our university town as David’s school didn’t have a drama programme.
The boy made excellent grades and could have studied medicine or engineering or law but he said he wanted to be an actor, and David thought it was cool. A brilliant Nigerian child wasting his gifts and his father is ok with it. By the gods! I don’t know who I offended.
“I wish we hadn’t left Nigeria,” I said to David one night as he rubbed the kinks out of my shoulder muscles. He had finally gotten tenure, his job was secure, and I was a regional supervisor at the store now. David’s advice to get an MBA had worked brilliantly.
“You’d rather I stayed at that university pursuing my PhD for two more decades while begging my sister for hard currency like your brothers do, right?”
We slept with our backs facing each other and I went to work without seeing him or his children.
I came back to find Officer Kyle waiting for me with a crestfallen Jerry by his side, Jane his twin had begged me not to get mad when she opened the door.
“I’m here because David was my favourite professor and I don’t want his son’s life ruined so I’m letting him off with a private warning.” Officer Kyle said as he let himself out after telling me he caught Jerry with a few hundred grams of marijuana.
“Mom! It’s just grass. I’m not using, I sell, the money’s good.” Jerry said as I sat fixed in the living room long after the officer left.
I sat there without moving or talking until David came home. The twins were already red-eyed from crying and their older siblings at college had called a dozen times to speak with me. Even David was at loss when he came home. Even he couldn’t find words, there was nothing in his pouch of tricks.
We hugged each other to sleep, the terror of what could have been binding us together. A brown boy with brown dust and the wrong officer would cut his chances at a good life before he had a chance to start.