It is one of those nights when Father comes in late. Those nights when he staggers his way home from Mama Ese’s ogogoro shack three compounds away, the stench of the liquor trailing behind him, its compulsion on him seeming like a game of otori as he lurches from his right feet to his left, as though seeking to evade the grip of his insobriety.
Father sings too. Breaking the wax of the dark with his uncoordinated voice, he sings what is clearly his version of the National anthem – something about the risen compatriot in his shorts, eager to obey the call of Mother’s land.
It had always been about the National anthem with Father. It was the only song I remembered ever hearing him sing out loud; the rest, he just hummed even though he was familiar with their lyrics. But that was a long time ago, before he left Mother and me to go fight the war in Chad.
The words of the National anthem were Father’s guide to life. They were words that led him to join the local police force when, at a young age, his mates were fighting their way into the universities. Those same words would years later lead Father to enlist with the local troops meant to hold defense against the Islamic rebels closing in on Nigeria’s border.
Father left us – Mother and me. He left us with nothing but his old police revolver, the fading sound of his singing voice, and the promise to return in a couple of months.
But war, just like death, oftentimes proves itself a master over time. And ‘a couple of months’ in war gradually distended to three years.
I know something is wrong when I pull the trigger of Father’s old revolver, the gun which I’d armed with bullets I begged Vwede, the night guard’s son, to steal from his father’s closet. I know something is wrong when my forefinger pulls at that small lever on the gun and there is no sharp report. There is no loud sound, no flash of light, no projectile escaping forcefully from the gun in my hand. And yet, the scene before me is still as it was – Father’s naked figure panting over Mother, blood mixed with saliva staining the side of her mouth turned down with anguish.
But Father is not too far gone in his violent seizure of pleasure from Mother to hear the unmistakable sound of a pulled trigger, that click that has him turning to see his thirteen-year-old son standing meters away from him, his old gun upraised in his trembling hands. Father’s features contort when he realizes that his son had just missed an attempt to put a bullet in his head – that I had just tried to kill him.
I see that mask of rage, and driven by fear and a desperation to finish what I’d started, I pull the trigger again, harder this time, with my finger pushing back to its full extent.
Click… Click – BANG!
Father eventually returned from the war. But the man who came back to us wasn’t the same person who left Mother and me with the pledge of the nation dropping from his lips. No, this was a different man… a haunted man.
I’d hoped and prayed for his homecoming for so long, and even when he returned, I still prayed for his homecoming – for the return of the father I knew. Not this cruel man with a tongue quick to anger and an arm quicker to strike. Not this man with a sudden unending thirst for Mama Ese’s mixes. Not this man whose wild rage and spirits-induced madness had quickly become legendary at home. He had become the man who tied heavy rocks to my feet and took me to the edge of the well with the fulminating threat to throw me in because I kept calling him ‘Daddy’ and not ‘General’. He was now the man whose violent grunts filled the nocturnal atmosphere in the house whenever he ravaged Mother’s body, a violation that was often precluded by a sound beating should Mother so much as protest with a soft plea or a desperate wail.
Perhaps the war had taken Father’s soul, his substance, and sent back to us the husk, the hollowness that was his body. Without his soul, he became someone who Mother and I feared.
The pain is sharp, with a searing savageness that stills me, turning my fingers nerveless so that Father’s gun is able to slip through and fall from the enclaves of my palm.
I hear Mother scream – a long, frantic wail, poignant with anguish.
The blood flows in a warm trickle at first, slowly tracing a pattern from the point of penetration on my forehead down the valley between my eyes and the sides of my nose, dribbling down my chin in drops.
“My son, what have you done?! NO!” Mother springs up from underneath Father, her hands outstretched, her eyes frenziedly pleading for a do-over.
I stand there, confused, feeling a strange darkness crowding in on my vision. My insides begin to feel weak, to liquefy.
“The old, faulty bastard…!” I hear Father curse.
I look at him look down at the gun. I look down too, and sudden realization dawns on me. I had wanted to kill him, to stop him from violating Mother so. But the weapon had proved unreliable, and the end is mine instead.
My knees give way and I crumble to the floor. I do not fall onto the hardness of it though. I drop into the fraught arms of Mother, whose tormented cries hasten the darkness that falls over me – a darkness that has nothing to do with leaden clouds and a starless sky.
Written by Eric Atie