Hair, Seashells and Other Names for Love
Mama tucks me between her legs and begins to plait my hair. She pulls the cutting comb through, parting the fluffs with spread fingers. Her hands are so adept at weaving beautiful, intricate patterns that the villagers wonder why she hasn’t woven a rainbow of our lives yet.
Mama doesn’t read the Bible. But today as her thin fingers move through my hair, she says, “A kiss doesn’t always translate to love. Judas taught us this lesson so well.”
I retch at her blasphemy, because this is what a kiss reminds me of: the bell, closing hours in the village primary school, the tree behind our classroom, a boy that had magic for dimples and glory for lips, stolen moments under the watch of a distant sky, the lub-dub of two hearts like bass drums, the music interrupting the silence, two bodies meeting and filling the void; joy, bliss, unrefined ecstasy.
And here is Mama saying a kiss doesn’t always translate to love. I douse the fire raging in me, the urge to shriek off, to tell her of Joshua, to tell her what she doesn’t know of love. I sit still as her hands weave through my hair and try to fight the realization that Mama might be right.
This is how right she might be: before Joshua, before I tasted love on bruised lips, there had been Papa. Thin and tall, like a bamboo stick. He loved us, Mama and me. At least, he said it. And we believed him. His eyes were always lit up, a dazzling yellow glow, fire and brimstone. His veins always stood out. He loved us still. Even when the front door creaked at the break of dawn and he emptied his room of his bags and his smells, he loved us. There was no explanation why. Mama stared and shook her head and snapped at me when I tried to enquire. But one thing was glaring: Papa loved us. So, Mama could be right about a kiss not always translating to love. Did Joshua not also leave too? Lagos, he said. He wouldn’t be long, he said. He’d keep in touch, he said. But here I am, waiting, as Mama weaves patterns into my hair, eight months later. Joshua hasn’t called. Joshua hasn’t returned. Joshua’s last kiss is still fresh on my lips. So, yes, really, a kiss could take other meanings, asides love.
Before he left, Papa lounged on the sofa and grunted and howled. Mama and I crouched in the shadows as though dodging his fistful of angry words. He smelled gin, cheap gin, the one gulped at the shanty down the road where ladies in skimpy dresses flicked their tongues and loud Makossa played. He staggered home afterwards, babbling, vomiting. The bangs at the door always heralded his presence. Now that he was on the sofa, howling while we crouched in the shadows, his anger was rising. He staggered down the corridor and found us. A blow to Mama’s eye. A jab to my stomach. A rain of abuses. And that was love. At least, that was his way of expressing it. Didn’t we know anger and jealousy and drunkeness had tints of love in them?
I didn’t know until Joshua charged at me one night. He took my hand and turned it the wrong way and slapped me when I screamed. All these happened because I refused to walk him down the river. I was seeing someone else, he thought. He was jealous, and so, he loved me. He didn’t understand Mama was waiting for me at home. He didn’t understand boys pierced their way into girls at the river at night.
Still, Joshua is different from Papa in some ways. Unlike Papa, there are exotic things he knows about love. Like the night before he left, when we hugged under the moonlight, he gave me a beautiful blue seashell and promised to be back before I knew it.
Just to see the city and come back.
I swear to God. My uncle. He’s been disturbing me, asking me to come. This is just the right time. I’ll come for you.
I swear to this seashell. It’s the symbol of our love.
In the day, I wear the shell as a pendant; and at night, my dreams find the shell beneath my pillow and I rumple the bedsheets, whispering at an invisible Joshua. I wake up to silence, to emptiness, and the pains gnaw at my belly, reminding me of things I hate to think about.
Now, Mama yanks a tassel of my hair and I yelp. She tucks me tighter between her legs. And I think about the things because she’s saying a kiss doesn’t always translate to love. Why does she say that? Why does she bring Judas into the picture?
It might be true: a kiss doesn’t always translate to love. But Joshua is not Judas, is he?
TIMI SANNI’s works have appeared or are forthcoming in journals like the Radical Art Review, Writers Space Africa, Praxis Magazine and elsewhere. He was selected for the SprinNG Writers’ Fellowship in 2018 and recently won the SprinNG Annual Poetry Contest. He is also an editor at Kalopsia lit and Upwrite Magazine. Twitter: @timisanni.