I didn’t know my father. I couldn’t recognize him in the room full of uncles and cousins all wearing different versions of the same face.
“Ah,” I heard a woman exclaim in the soft roll of Lokạạ , “so you don’t know your own father.”
I looked up from where I had wrapped myself around my auntie’s knee and stared. This was before I lost the language, before my tongue became a useless fish in my mouth as the words disappeared before my brain transferred them to my voice. That was still a year or so away. Until then, I had more words than a three-year-old was allowed.
“I know him.” I felt my soft mouth fall into a pout and squinted like I had misplaced my glasses. “I know him” again, this time scanning those withered, photocopied men. They were all laughing and shouting in that distinct Nigerian way where even the kindest words felt like a quarrel. Nobody noticed the sleep-deprived child hidden behind her auntie’s wrapper. Except for one. The one that made her shrink into herself.
I escaped his gaze and found the man next to him. The man with the big arms and broad smile was new among the usual mess of men who gathered in the parlor every so often. His face was softer. It didn’t own the hard lines and deep frowns that usually accessorized the laughing and smiling men. He laughed the loudest and the deepest. His words leapt from him and danced around the room. I was unsure if I had seen him before; I was three and had a limited lineup of faces in my head. I also didn’t know how I went from sound asleep and dreaming of the sky to awake and blinking in a dingy room. I only knew that I was there now struggling with sleep and losing. Green bottles of the water I wasn’t allowed to touch crowded a table.
I had held my nose close to one once. It was a week or a month or a day before. An “uncle” lay motionless on the chair, a colony of empty bottles sprinkled around him. I pressed my nose to it wondering what it was about the water that caused him to shout and strike out at anybody near him. I pushed my face to it and immediately recoiled. It smelled like when grandmother would forget beans for days. I carried the bottle outside and began pouring onto the red dirt that surrounded the compound.
I didn’t notice the uncle awake and grumbling behind me. I was too fascinated with how the liquid bubbled and hissed as it ran from the bottle. I could not stand the smell. It was sour and bitter; it was nothing like the syrupy sweet minerals I often took with my food. No wonder it made my uncle mean and sleepy. Nothing in that bottle could bring happiness, certainly not kindness. I didn’t notice when the uncle stirred from his sleep and reached for the bottle that wasn’t there. I didn’t see him standing behind me, watching as his money created a river around this small, useless child’s feet. I didn’t know why the sky fell as I landed heavily on my back.
“See you useless child! Is this how you waste money? Is this how you come to my house . . . ”
His Lokạạ was slurred. I could barely understand him but I knew that it was not his house. He came over sometimes to see the auntie and often fell asleep slumped in the chair surrounded by his bottles. I scrambled onto my feet, my dress covered in sour water and the mud it created. My small body shivered in fear waiting for the next sky to fall. It wouldn’t be the first time. The man was a dog—an angry, hungry dog—and he was showing me all of his teeth.
“Spoilt. Useless. Where are your parents? Do you have a father?”
I couldn’t make sense of his words—only the anger that burst from him like bullets. I felt the warm wet trickling down my legs. I closed my eyes in a slow blink and left him there. When I returned, I was on fire. My face felt like it had been stung by millions of mosquitos at once. My tiny body was inside the compound, the soiled dress removed, as the auntie held a cold cloth to my face. She murmured words of comfort that I couldn’t understand.
“ Yaka . Yaka . Sorry, baby, sorry.”
I remembered all of this as I watched that same uncle laugh pathetically at the new man’s stories. “Brother, you are something!” He was no longer the foaming animal. He was a pathetic puppy. He had no bones. The uncle looked over and caught my eye. His eyes flashed a warning. I held his gaze. The boneless puppy didn’t frighten me but I could feel sleep returning to my body. I had forgotten about the search for my father.
The light from the kerosene lamps flickered and flayed, casting a shadow that distorted the laughing and shouting faces.
I closed my eyes and leaned into the leg, hoping that I could be made invisible. I still wasn’t sure why my auntie had roused me from sleep but I was ready to return. Someone, as always, would see my nodding off and carry me back to the quiet and safety of my sky dreaming. I fell into a familiar nod, welcoming the sleep tugging at me. I anticipated being lifted up. Even sighed into the shoulders that held me. But these weren’t the slightly bony shoulders of auntie—these shoulders were broader, and the arms held me more securely.
“Why is she awake,” a man’s voice hissed.
It entered my chest and forced my heart to fly into my rib cage. The voice sounded like the one that usually spoke to me in my dreams. The one who would disappear again when morning came. My eyes did a slow drag open.
“I said I did not want to wake her. It is too late. She should sleep. I don’t like this kind of thing. Is this how you behave when we are not around?” We.
“Brother, I am sorry, abeg. I thought you would want to see her.” My auntie’s voice was twisted with pleading apologies.
“I want her to rest. She is a child.”
“Brother, I am sorry.”
My eyes snapped wide, I pushed away from the body carrying me and stared into the face of the man who had been holding court in the parlour.
“Da-ddy,” I managed to say. The new man’s face melted from stern to steady and soft.
“Nyono, Aploka ?”
The man with big arms and laugh. He had seen me losing the fight with sleep; half hidden behind my auntie.
I didn’t remember when I saw him last only that he responded to “daddy.” A few of the uncles had tried to cajole me into calling them “daddy” or “papa.” I knew early on that the word was not for barter. No coconut sweet or ice cold bottle of Fanta was a fair trade. Not for the way this face opened and exposed every tooth for “daddy.” I liked his smile. I said it again. “Daddy.”