I’ll be reading from my illustrated children’s book, Rat Race on Children’s Day at Patabah Books. Nothing beats getting our kids falling in love with reading young. So, bring your kids in on that day. See the details in the image below. I got this beautiful story from Olaoluwa Oni and I thought to share it with you guys. Enjoy Dance of Shame. Should post something from Guardians of the Seals sometime soon. Hope you’re looking forward to it. 🙂
I found myself running as quickly as my fragile breathing would allow, and, even though I ran with all that I had, enduring the sharp stabbing pain in my chest, a nudging irksome voice inside my head told me that it was all to naught. Still, I did my best to ignore the voice as I ran down the brightly lit, tastefully decorated corridor. I felt the sharp jolt of pain before I realised that I had stubbed my left toe against the clay flower pot that accommodated a healthy, green, Aloe Vera plant- its haphazard growth boasted of the freedom I craved so badly. But there was no time to stop and cradle the toe; I was barely seconds away from the door. Instinctively, I reached towards the handle of the door, barely acknowledging the warm, calmly-seeping crimson that now marked the path of my footstep, and tried the handle of the door- it was locked.
Of course I had known it would be locked- we never left the front door open past 10:00 pm, but I wouldn’t be me if I hadn’t learned to hope against the odds. It was this hope that kept me tugging at the brass door handle, willing it to budge, but knowing that it wouldn’t. Finally, it was foolish to continue to hope, so I let the handle slip out of my furiously sweating palm and turned to face fate. Resignedly, I slithered to the floor and waited what even my hope had to acknowledge, was the inevitable- my one-minute race to freedom had come to an end.
From my position on the floor, my blood began to form a noticeable pool beneath the toe; my thick hair standing disheveled on my head; sweat, tears and mucus forming a revolting mess on my face; my pajamas sleeve torn and hanging almost artistically on my shoulder; I saw him.
It was the word that came to mind the moment I laid eyes on his features, closely followed by ‘fury’ and then ‘anger’.
It was the emotion that began the ritual dance whose rhythm I knew all too well. And so, as he took calm, unhurried, almost lazy steps towards me- rage personified, a cold unfeeling smile on his lips, his eyes bright from the bottomless darkness that they echoed, I knew what to expect; what to anticipate; what to fear.
Pain, familiar but still excruciating, seared across my face and for a brief second, stars flashed across my eyes. Automatically, I adopted the fetal position, attempting to shield the most of me from the assault I knew had just begun.
‘Have you finished running?’ he asked, his voice a jeering taunt.
But I knew better than to answer- answering was not part of this dance. I felt a sharp pain as his well-aimed kick caught my rib and I knew that there was nothing I could do- it was the turn of this side to take the beating. I could hear his breathing become more and more laboured as he kicked at me, and before long, as always before, my mind was freed from the pain my body felt. And so, as my body took the beating, waiting for the dance to come to an end, my mind, out of boredom wandered.
I was about six, huddled in the dark cupboard in my room. The door to their room was locked. I could hear her cries for help; his maniac laugh- I remember that as a child, I had always associated his laughter with her pain. I heard a thud on the wall and hoped that was him hitting the wall in a show of strength- even then, I had learned to hope. The next sound-her high pitched cry of pain, told me I was wrong. I heard him walk around the room, heavy stomping footsteps, befitting of a man in his position, mumbling something about his food not being ready on time. I heard her hiccupped explanations, her stuttered apologies all delivered amidst tears. Even at my young age, I had a vivid imagination and I could picture her on her knees, her hands wrapped protectively over her head to protect her face. If she thought she could placate him with her pleas, she was wrong as it only seemed to infuriate him some more. I heard another dull thud followed by the sound of splintering, large wood. Again, I heard her cry for help; his maniac laugh; over and over and over again.
Neighbors knocking on the door stopped the charade- if there was anything he liked to do; it was keep up a good image. I heard him unlock the door; heard the concerned voices of the neighbors; his reassuring tone –‘nothing to worry about. We are doing some heavy moving; the television was on too loud; sorry about the noise’.
I heard their murmurs of relief; offers of thanks for his recent good deed- ‘don’t mention; it’s the work of the Lord. After all He expects us to love one another as he has loved us.’
I heard his apologies for ushering them out so quickly- ‘he needed to go and continue his ‘heavy moving’’.
The front door was locked once again, leaving me wondering if these neighbors really believed the overused ‘heavy moving’ phrase.
I always wondered why she never once stepped out- showed herself to the neighbors. It would have been entertaining to see his face. Hear his stammered explanation. But wondering was a futile exercise. She never once did, she never once will.
The door to their room was shut again and from inside the locked door, I heard her fearful voice, his angry but hushed tones-
‘How dare you make such loud noises as to alert the neighbors? That is a crime and crime begged punishment.’
Another dull but this time, unrecognizable thud; a whispered howl of pain; yet again, her plea for mercy, why she bothered, I never know. He never stopped. He never once did, he never once will- a dull thud, a howl of pain; a vicious cycle; a dance of shame.
The sharp pain shooting across my head brought me hurtling back into reality. I could sense that he was squatting over me and could feel, even through the commotion raging in me, his humid, short breaths. The little things you notice in times of pain.
I felt pain shoot through my scalp as he yanked at my hair and all I could do was sigh. Bile rose in my throat as my body felt like it was being stretched to its highest threshold- but I knew that it could take more; it had taken more in the past. I kept my head down, trying to diffuse the nausea by taking steady breaths; acknowledging that there was still more to come. Almost on autopilot, I raised both hands, attempting to cover the most possible surface area of my face- I already knew what to expect and he did not disappoint me.
I tuned my ears out in anticipation of the verbal insults but vaguely, from my inner recluse, I still heard them as they were being hurled out. I sighed and to drown the voice even further, I took yet another trip down memory lane.
I remember Bisoye– he was the one thing that made my childhood worth living. I was nine and convinced I had met the love of my life. He had a rich brown complexion that reminded me of the ogi baba that my mother used to make us for breakfast on Saturdays; his hair was a thick kinky black that curled into itself several times, bringing him to tears each time his mother ran a comb through it and best of all, he was full of fairytales that always ended in ‘happily ever after.’ He had the sort of assertiveness that made him a natural leader among his peers but also the sort of sensitivity that made him gravitate towards the person that was hurting the most- me.
I remember the day he sat beside me on the swing. It was a Monday afternoon and I was waiting for him to pick me up from school. Normally, my mother would have picked me up but she could not leave the house because her bruises from the last ‘incident’ (his self- generated euphemism for his assault) had not healed. As it would have been awkward trying to explain away the black eyes and swollen lips, he had put her on house arrest until she had fully recovered. And so I had to wait till he was done at work, (usually at about 5:00 pm) before he could pick me up. But I didn’t mind the wait- not really. It afforded me the opportunity to play on the swings and run in the sand without inhibitions. When I was alone, there were no mean kids muttering about ‘that strange girl’; no teachers trying to psycho-analyze why the only child of the town philanthropist was such a recluse and there was no father to hit me for as little as breathing too loud.
But today Bisoye was there, like a rude jar in the familiar rhythm of a song; a cancerous growth that somehow brought much needed relief.
‘What is your name?’ he demanded of me, all the airs of someone used to being answered, oozing out.
From my position where I was slowly rocking the swing on which I sat, I watched him without answering, not really understanding this dance that I was being introduced to- an apparent dance of love.
‘Why don’t you like talking to anybody?’ he pressed further, nonplussed by my silence.
Shock held my tongue in place, which was just as well because my nine-year old brain had somehow ceased to come up with answers.
‘I am coming to push you’ he said taking wide purposeful steps towards the swing. He must have decided that I was deaf because he mimed his intention by pushing out his hands, his palms opened wide and indicating the swing. Still, I watched curiously- this creature, it seemed, had come from another planet.
When he got to the swing set, he went behind me and screamed ‘ready?’ and before I was given a moment to consider, I felt myself soaring in the air seamlessly. I immediately felt panic overtake me, and panic quickly turned to hysteria and within the few seconds that I was air-bound, I was screaming frantic with fear. I landed with a loud thud on the floor, scraping my elbow and knees on the playground sand, crawling into a fetal position.
I saw him rush towards me and was immediately thrown back two days before where I had lain in the fetal position on the lush- carpeted floor of my house and my father had bounded towards me to give me a good spanking for screaming too loud while he hit my mother. My nine-year old brain connected the two incidents and I closed my eyes waiting for the blows to start but instead I felt a surprisingly tender touch and instinctively, my eyes fluttered open in confusion. The face that stared back at me was not the face of my brutal father but the anxious caring face of the nine-year old lad that, that day, became my best friend.
‘Sorry. Are you alright?’ he asked his panting heavy from the short distance he ran.
I nodded and tried to sit up; I felt very shy- I was not used to being the centre of attention even if the audience was a singular nine year old boy. He helped me up and brushed off the rough stone particles of the playground sand from my pinafore. Then he examined my knees and elbows
‘Sorry. Do you know first aid?’ he asked eagerly, willing to do anything to help.
I shook my head once again, looking down at my feet.
‘Me too. We are supposed to start it tomorrow in class.’ he explained as he led me to one of the stone pavements.
I followed quietly behind him, quite unsure of what to say. We both sat on the stone pavement.
‘What’s your name?’ he asked again, miming a little- he still wasn’t sure if I was deaf or not.
‘Sandra’ I answered finally and felt a strange rush of euphoria as I did- a mixture of freedom and heady, reckless confidence.
‘My name is Bisoye’ he said, offering his hand out the way I had seen only grown-ups do. I found his gesture slightly amusing so I just stared at his proffered hand instead of taking it.
‘What’s funny?’ he asked, looking down at the ostensibly amusing hand that dangled mindlessly between us.
‘Children don’t shake hands’ I said now actively laughing, it was the first time in nine years I had ever voiced an opinion.
‘Are you sure? Because my daddy says a good handshake is the beginning of a beautiful friendship’ he explained sagely, although withdrawing the offered hand.
I shrugged, not sure how to defend an opinion.
‘Was it your daddy that told you that children don’t shake?’ he asked
I shook my head.
‘Was it your mummy?’ he enquired further
Still I shook my head
‘Then how do you know?’ he asked, his brows furrowed in confusion and his arms crossed in skepticism.
‘I don’t know I just do’ I said shrugging; even I knew that was a weak explanation.
He regarded me closely, obviously judging whether or not I was a fraud. Then he uncrossed his hands.
‘So what do children do?’ he asked.
‘They hug’ I answered confidently.
And right there, on the playground, as he threw his arms around me innocently and sincerely, I experienced my first feeling of acceptance.
‘Are you deaf? I said stand up’ I heard the order dished out, accompanied by a violent pain in my side. I struggled out of my fetal position and tried to unravel myself, standing. My limbs seemed to have gone numb from all the hitting and so refused to support my weight
‘Kneel down’ he ordered further
This order was easier to obey because it took the weight off my legs that seemed to be made of fast melting butter so I hurried to comply. I watched him unhook his belt and remove it, detangling it meticulously from the slim contraptions that held it in place at intervals. He then wrapped the metal end around his palm, holding it securely, and my subconscious registered that we were done with phases one (fist punches) and two (verbal assault), now was phase three- the belt whip.
‘So now tell me why you didn’t serve me my omi isowon?’ he asked me
I shook my head, mute
‘You are now too big to serve me properly abiiii?’ he asked again.
Still I shook my head knowing that I was not yet required to answer.
‘You are expecting me to go and serve it myself, not so?’ he asked.
I looked towards the ground, waiting for the next phase to begin.
‘I said answer me’ he ordered.
‘I forgot’ I muttered quietly.
‘You forgot abi? I will now give you a reason never to forget’ he declared and I was not surprised when the belt came slapping hard across my side. Instinctively, I put out my hand to protect my face as I had always done in the past.
I was ten years old and kneeling before him as he brandished the belt in front of me. Tears were streaming down my eyes, but they were not tears borne out of fear of the rod but tears that I had lost my best friend forever. I remember as Bisoye told me earlier that day that his parents were taking him to the United Kingdom for his Secondary School education and I remember, even today the pain I felt in my ten-year old heart.
From the day we had met at the swings, he had become my best friend, my confidant and the only thing that had gotten me through the day for the last one year. I had come to depend on him in an almost unhealthy manner.
The day Bisoye broke the news to me, I had rushed into my room and whipped out the diary that he, Bisoye, had encouraged me to keep and began to pour my heart and soul into it. When I was done, I started flipping through the pages that I had filled over the year and began reliving all the emotions I had felt when I wrote them- when my father had broken my mother’s arm – fear; when my mother told me she had suffered a miscarriage and so I wouldn’t be having a little brother or sister anymore – sadness, when he gave me a wide cut on my back, rubbing on it with ata gungun for breaking a glass cup while washing-pain; and when I had shared my first kiss with Bisoye -joy. There were a lot more entries journaling my activities through the year- so many that I fell asleep as I was reading them.
I was roughly woken up by a well-position abara, the type that landed right in the middle of the back, making it impossible to massage the spot. I did not have to ask or be told what I had done wrong as I saw him brandishing my purple backed personal diary that Bisoye had given me for Christmas. The sleep vanished from my eyes as I hurried to my knees, obeying a silent command. He took his time to unknot his tie and roll his sleeves to a point just below the elbow, assuming the airs of a professor about to start a thesis, before he turned to address me.
‘What is this supposed to be?’ he asked as his 6ft5in frame towered over me menacingly, his belt lying threatingly in his hand.
I was silent, looking down at my feet my- knees were already aching from their prolonged contact with the cold floor
‘So what if someone else had seen this nonsense eh? How would you explain it?’ he asked as the first blow landed across my shoulder
I howled in pain as I rolled on the floor clutching my shoulder, my ten-year old reasoning convinced that it would never heal. I felt several blows hit my back, stomach arms and legs and I writhed in pain, tears and sweat pouring out and causing my wounds to sting even more. Then from the haze of my misery, I saw him take a pair of scissors to my much beloved diary, the only other listening ear I had- the only one that was not going abroad. And so in spite of myself, I begged him not to, promised to keep it safe but he simply hacked away unfeelingly, not even pausing to acknowledge my entreaties.
…And so I did not beg, I had learned not to -begging never did anyone any good. I was still on my knees at this point, shielding my face from the blows delivered by the belt, wondering when the next step would begin; already getting bored of my pain. Then the blows stopped as suddenly as they had started and I knew that the next step was about to begin. I looked up and saw the now familiar tears running down his face, mixing with his own sweat. I saw him rub at them with his bloodied knuckles- knuckles bloodied with my blood.
‘I don’t know why you constantly choose to defy me when you know how much I love you’ he said sadly, causing the belt to lie limply at his side. The next phase had begun (his absolution)
‘You know how much it hurts me to discipline you but still you choose to do wrong. Why?’ he asked and paused but I knew this was a mere rhetoric.
‘I love you so much’ he declared reaching out and hugging me tightly but my skin stung from the contact of his sweat with my open wounds. However, I knew not to shrink away- shrinking was not part of this routine.
Then he took my face in his hand and asked me the question that usually marked the end of my torture
‘Do you love me?’
I was 11, returning back from secondary school where I existed in a dark, hollow, friendless abyss. Although a loner in school, I loved it there; I could not risk making a friend that would be taken away from me as Bisoye was; so I simply made friends with the one person I knew would always be there for me- myself.
At my young age, I had become very skilled at engaging myself in a conversation or simply drifting away to a better place when I wanted to. So more often than not, I was always staring glassily into space, far away from the goings-on in my immediate surroundings. I acknowledge, with the benefit of hindsight, that my behavior might have given more observant parents reason to worry; but nobody ever worried.
As I approached the house I saw him there, the bully- my father, in his immaculately pressed shirt and spotlessly polished shoes-both indicative of the blood labour of my mother. He was there with his just-as-resplendently-dressed friend, another important member of our community.
I advanced towards the pair of them, curtseying and offering up my greeting. The guest was impressed- what a well brought up child.
As my father went into a characteristically loud soliloquy of how much he loved me; of how important it was to discipline children, I zoned out. Just standing and waiting through the routine, having a silent conversation with my new best friend- me.
I knew this cycle. My father would finish his self-praise; the guest would press a wad of notes into my hands; I would refuse; the guest would insist; my father would permit; I would collect it, curtsey and offer up my thanks-then I would be allowed to go free.
The second phase of the routine started- wad of note, refusal, insistence, permission, collection, curtsey, thanks-……….but then the guest broke the cycle of activity. Just as I was about to leave, he asked a question the answer of which I knew but could not offer.
‘Omo daddy. You love your dad so much don’t you?’
It was almost a rhetoric asked with an indulgent reminiscent smile. No harm intended- but every harm caused. I froze. I knew the wise thing to do was just answer yes and get it over and done with. But I could not. Seconds ticked past and both of them waited for my answer. I ventured a look up. My father’s smile was frozen into place, and he looked as though he was an eerie plastic grown-up doll whose creator did not understand what a smile looked like. The guest looked confused and genuinely concerned. Still I could not answer. I stared back down at my feet.
‘She must be really tired. Let her go upstairs and rest.’ My father finally came round
My lifeline- I didn’t need telling twice. I was off.
Minutes later, he came in- a very sad look on his face. He called me to himself and gave me a hug. This was a new dance I did not know, but assuredly it would fit into the old. He told me how much he loved me. Then he asked me the question again.
‘Do you love me?’
I was silent; and at that point the new blended into the old. He pushed me away roughly.
‘Do you love me?’
Still no answer
‘I’m talking to you! Answer my question. Do you love me?’
Blinded by pain; deafened by the slap- still no answer.
‘Do you love me?’
Eyes stinging, ears ringing, I heard a yes whispered. It sounded like my voice; I couldn’t be sure. But it must have been because the slaps stopped. He drew me to himself and whispered once again. I love you too and kissed my forehead.
…And so I knew to answer a yes. But I did not. Why? I don’t know. At this point I was on the ground. My hands had long given up trying to protect my face. He had discarded the leather belt now and was kicking about viciously. He had ceased to ask the question long ago. It seemed every fiber of his being was concentrated on finding the most part of me he could hit. He wasn’t even talking again. Just hitting away and sweating; and hitting and sweating- a vicious cycle.
And then something in me snapped. I don’t know what it was, but the pain seemed insignificant. It had gone on for so long it was just another activity. It freed my mind to think. The only way out was death. I could see that now. I flashed back through the twenty years of my life. Not a year had gone by without this dance of shame. My life revolved around this vicious cycle. It would never end. The only way out was death.
I was weak now. He was still hitting and sweating; and hitting and sweating. The pain was but a dull opiate. It held promise of the end I desired- death- If he went on a bit more, surely I would die. I saw the headlines in my head.
‘Gubernatorial aspirant beats twenty year old law undergraduate daughter to death’
A smile teased my lips at the thought. It was a dark smile that held no trace of humor but was full of evil. He saw the smile and it infuriated him and so he hit harder and sweated harder but still I looked into his eyes.
My father, the one who gave me life, was going to take it back. It was sad twisted humor. But it was also strange logic.
I laughed hard, looking into his eyes all the while. It infuriated him. He hit harder and harder and I laughed harder and harder. The darkness settled over me and with my last conscious thought the lawyer in me wondered….is this suicide or murder? But even as I thought it I knew I would never know because the dead knew these things not.