A Body Art Exhibit

Pamela Erhiakeme

“Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they resent them; sometimes they forgive them.” – Oscar Wilde.
The scar on my right arm has faded into a dull, dark brown, with slight puckers formed at the stitch marks. It is a long, straight, crimped cicatrix from a knife, the chef's knife that you sharpened every two weeks, the knife you cut ugwu and waterleaf with because the other knives weren’t as sharp or efficient enough, the knife you cut me with.
It’s almost as if it is still burning, as if the dried, ground shombo Mummy Akin puts in mini cellophane wraps to sell in her provision stall is still in the wound and the spot on my arm is on fire, and somehow the heat reaches my bone, and my bone begins to burn, too, and as I scratch it, my fingers sting as some of the pepper transfers onto them. I’m bawling loudly, begging you for water, please, Mummy please, my hand-o!, and impulsively, I blow on the pepper to make it cool, but some of it gets into my eyes.
My whole body is ablaze, the sounds coming from my mouth raw and guttural. I’m howling like someone possessed. Sobs rack my body, causing my entire frame to jerk and vibrate as I beg you to take the knife and cut out my entire arm this time, that you should’ve just cut it off if you wanted to torture me, Mummy, it’s peppering me, abeg, remove it, abeg, abeg! My eyes are stinging so bad that I use the back of my left palm to scratch them, but somehow there’s pepper there, too, and the contact with my eyes makes me scream.
Minutes before that, when you’d whiffed at the pot of soup I’d forgotten to warm and the rancid odor hit your nostrils, you'd vowed, “You will see pepper.” I see it, literally – it’s in my eyes. I feel it all over, brushing over the tiny open marks from the slim cane you'd used to flog me. It's everywhere, everywhere. Why did I put my hands everywhere? Someone pours water on the wound, yet it’s like fuel in fire. The agony causes a scream to regurgitate from the depths of my belly onto my throat, which lingers there then gets pushed down by reality, because it’s been two years since that incident and the wound has fully healed. I’m not thrashing around in our living room, but rather I’m seated in class, staring at the board.
Yet the scar itches.
I scratch it instinctively, the strokes of my nails accompanying the squeaking noises the marker makes as Mr Lucky drags it against the whiteboard. I scratch it till it’s ashy, flakes of skin peeling, and it becomes red, red, red, like ground shombo, resembling how it looked when the wound got infected because a friend of yours was using agbo to dress the wound since you didn’t want to take me to the hospital. The site started breaking down after two weeks so we had ended up going to the hospital, and upon removing the soiled bandages and gauze, the nurse shook her head slightly. I knew she frowned even though she had her mask on; I knew what her head shake meant.
So I keep scratching it as a memo, until Rhoda looks up from her notebook and gives me a firm look.
I drop my fingers. 
“It’s itching me,” I mumble.
It’s the only one of many that still does.
The day of my accident almost a year ago, you threw the navy blue pumps Big Aunty sent you from the UK at my face.
Your flying projectiles were customary – ‘bathroom' slippers, the TV remote, your purse, Pa's wallet if it was close by  – but I’d never expected those pumps, not after you’d fussed over the sturdy leather and high-quality rubber sole when it arrived a fortnight ago. Big Aunty really knows what best for me, you’d drooled. Big Aunty this, the shoes that. The shoes were perfect for Bose's wedding in two weeks, so everyone would know that you have arrived and Pa's declining business had nothing on you.
I guess they were also perfect for landing on my nose.
When I got home that day, I should’ve peeped through the wooden front door as I opened it to have a better view of how close you were to the entryway, then on seeing you so deadly calm as you eyed the door, shoe in hand, I should’ve ducked. But I wasn’t thinking – I just couldn’t think, not after Mene Aboyowa had bought me two tubes of Smarties with a smile, a smile that Rhoda and all the other girls in my class could die for. I knew all of his smiles – could pen poetry about them, even; I, who was no poet – and he had never smiled at anyone the way he smiled at me. Rhoda would call me obsessed and delusional, but why would anything matter when MENE HAD SMILED AT ME, all five words CAPITALIZED and italicized and in bold, and his eyes were smiling, too? Really, how could I think about anything other than that, especially if said thought involved peeping through windows and doors and avoiding flying shoes?
So I skipped home, wearing a stupid grin on my face. I had a reason to smile, and nothing was going to spoil my day.
Until the shoe.
“You are a fool!” you shrieked. “Did I send you to school to talk to boys? Eh?
When Mene had asked if he could escort me further home, I’d declined and told him, “My mum could be around and I don’t want to get into trouble.” But it wasn’t you I should’ve been worried about. It’s the Eyes and Ears that freely and gladly labor for you. The ones who would leave their open stalls to ask you how Bose’s marriage went, if really Asake performed at the reception, and as you’re politely asking about their kids, they’re asking about yours, especially your first daughter, the one they saw going to school despite that day being a Saturday, or is it because she has started WAEC lessons? Your pikin school too good, even during August break dem dey prepare for WAEC. She never come back yet? E don tey since I see her o, though they’d seen me twice that day, when I was going and when I was coming.
You would look at the wall clock and note that I should’ve been home thirty minutes ago. “No. She is not back yet.”
“Oh. But I thought I saw Akin in his mother’s shop.”
You would pause, the alarm bells going off in your head, then say, “She doesn’t come home with Akin.”
You were close with Akin’s mother, yet you’d never allowed me to be close to him. But now you do, your fear of me getting hit again outweighing your displeasure of intersex friendships and possible scandals that could taint our family's name, one which wasn’t all that to begin with.
“But I saw her with a boy from her school. Oh, okayyyy. It wasn’t Akin. The boy tall pass Akin,” they would’ve stressed, even though the inch Mene had on Akin was so negligible you’d have to very close to notice, “and Akin grab pass am.” They’d flex their arm, as if Mene was some lanky, emancipated kid and Akin was a bulky wrestler.
Eyes and Ears would go on for three more minutes about Mene and his family’s money, how they live in “that estate for inside Warri wey big men dey stay”, and his mother’s infamous gele “wey wide pass the door” and the heavily-jeweled dress she wore for Bose’s wedding, at which point you’d ask them to leave. You would sit on the sofa, and then Mummy Akin would join you, adding her version of my story. Both accounts, coupled with my delay, would build up to a theory you’ve been conjuring but wanting to confirm: Your daughter, Fega, has been sleeping around with a rich kid from school.
  So you’d be waiting in the living room with a shoe in hand for your wayward, promiscuous daughter, and hit her nose with it.
“But ma, he is my classmate–"
You threw the other shoe at me.
Mummy Akin sat beside you, her legs crossed over the other, covered by the cheap I Shall Not Die Ankara material that you begrudgingly bought from Mummy Bose at a rate of two thousand naira per three yards, although it normally sold for two thousand five hundred naira per six yards, the material with printed red lions that would begin to fade before the first wash, and on Mummy Akin's feet were black platforms, same platforms that alighted from a keke just as Mene bode me goodbye with a shy smile. 
You were yelling, yet my mind was wandering, wondering why Mummy Akin just had to tell you that Akin had been home for twenty minutes now; how she knew to ask Akin if he came home with me; how she was so sharp-eyed to notice Mene; how many more Eyes and Ears I needed to be wary of; why people brought their outside shoes inside someone else’s house, my business into their lives.
You said I wouldn’t go for WAEC lessons anymore, that we’d go straight to the hospital to check for my hymen. “You want to be pregnant for a rich kid? They will disown you.”
I said I wasn’t pregnant and would still go to school. I wasn’t going to serve any punishment; I did nothing wrong.
“Your mates are bringing praise to their families,” you screamed. “Don’t you see Bose, eh? Do you know how happy her mum is? Why must my own be different?”
Something in me snapped. Rage was boiling hot in my veins, fire gushing from my ears. “Had her mother told her that if she stays close to a boy she would be pregnant, she wouldn’t get married at nineteen. Stop comparing me to others! Do I compare you to other mums? Do I say, ‘My classmates’ mums travel out of the country for business and make money while you sit here being miserable?’ Do I?!” I was screaming; you were staring at me in shock. “Do I yell or mock you for being poor when your mates have money? Common textbook you no fit buy. My classmates dey call me borrow-borrow; every time I dey borrow Rhoda textbook. If no be textbook, na T-square. If no be T-square, na calculator. But I don ever tell you say, ‘Your mates dey buy textbooks for their daughters but you no fit buy ordinary math set’? I don ever talk like that before?”
My switch to Pidgin was subconscious with a touch of rebellion, because you never liked me speaking Pidgin. You go to a good school, speak like it.
I grew up with a you as a mother; I would act like it.
Mummy Akin snapped, “Will you respect your mother?”
“She should respect me first.”
You raised your palm and slapped me. My glasses fell off my face and a growl rose from my throat. “For your life, Mummy, for your life, nor ever try that again.”
Stunned into silence at the stern warning in my tone, you looked at me, then your palm, then my glasses which lay on the terrazzo, then me again. Your mouth opened and shut, then you took a cautious step back.
I turned around and walked out the door, finally allowing the angry tears to spill. I knew you wouldn’t allow me into the house for a few days, yet I felt high on a small sense of victory. I was about to shut the main gate loudly as I walked past it when Akin intercepted my movement. 
“Where are you going?” He grabbed my arm. “What were you just saying to your mum? Are you mad?”
“You can’t have that woman as a mother and not be mad.”
“Where are you going?”
“To Mene's house. The next time my mum accuses me of being pregnant, it’ll be true.”
His eyes widened. “You are mad.”
“Yes. I said so.”
“Where are your glasses? Fega! You can’t see without them.”
“I can see.” I pulled Akin's hand away. He held on tight.  “Akin leave me, I can see!” I faced him. “Leave me.”
My vision was a minus six in my good eye, and the tears made my sight worse. Stubbornness was raging hot in my blood, however, so I believed that I could see. But I didn’t see that I was approaching the tarred road, and I didn’t see the car, but I felt it – first the bumper, then the windscreen, and the cold, grainy asphalt of the road.
I was hospitalized for five months. The day I remember the most was a week after my admission, when you were rushing up and down to the pharmacy, the other pharmacies outside the compound, the laboratory, the market, and receiving insults from patients, their relatives and a few cranky hospital staff with Thank you, mas and God bless you, sirs.
As she was giving me my evening medications, the nurse had said, “You’re fortunate to have such a mother.” That sentence barely registered in my head, at least not until after she had finished administering Ceftriaxone, the one sold for five thousand naira, for I was too busy multiplying two times seven days times five thousand naira; I was distracted by the nurse's nose, her perfect, perfect nose, without a mark from the heel of navy blue UK-bought pumps; I was too engrossed with wondering if the nurse had noticed the cane marks on my body, if she could tell where the fresh injuries stopped and the stale scars began.
I’d like to believe that you love me, Mama, although you’ve failed to give me reasons to believe so.
In JSS2, due to Rhoda’s talkativeness and –andFega being an unofficial suffix to her name, our Social Studies teacher had asked us both to stand up and define love. 
“Love is a feeling of mutual affection – " Rhoda began.
The teacher interrupted her and told us she wanted us to define love in our own terms. We both didn’t know what to say.
“How can she just put us on the spot like that, especially for a concept as vast as love?” Rhoda whined during break. “You can’t describe it; you feel it, you just know it.”
“Like you’re in love with Akin?”
“Oh, sush. I don’t mean that kind.”
Rhoda had a knack for making uncomplicated things sound huge and complex and poetic, but that wasn’t the case. There was a stark contrast between her views and mine, a testament to how differently we were raised, something I always had to remind myself about.
She couldn’t describe love because she knew what it was; I couldn’t describe love because I didn’t know what it was. What I knew was obsession, resentment, envy hot and green and ugly – towards models with clear skin; towards kids so blatantly loved by their parents; towards Ese when he was born, for you looked at him in away you’ve never looked at me; towards your favourite mug you kissed multiple times every morning as you drank from it; towards your gold necklace that had been wrapped around your neck more times than my hands have, a necklace that I didn’t steal.
A necklace I didn’t steal.
But mummy, you know that, don’t you?
You’d found it underneath your clothes, sometime past midnight after the ruckus died down. And then you went to sleep. I was outside, shivering in the cold, bristling from false accusations of theft you laid against me, yet when you discovered you were in the wrong, you went to sleep.
You threw out the necklace in the thrash at dawn just before telling Ese to let me in, and you never brought it up again. Things happen in this house but we’re just expected to forget, to move on like it never happened, but I can’t forget what happened that night. It’s branded in my memory, carved in my mind like the marks on my skin. Everyone was begging you to allow me to sleep inside, the Harmattan wind was too cold; you said you wouldn’t allow a thief be under your roof. No one was to let me into their houses, not even Mummy Akin, who had later snuck out to give me a blanket. 
I would’ve frozen to death if not for that blanket. 
The next time you flogged me mercilessly, you apologized. It was an apology brought forward, like balances in Accounting. Your eyes moistened as you blamed the Devil.
A week later, I'd forgotten to warm a pot of soup before leaving for school so it got sour, and you tore my right arm open with your chef’s knife and poured ground pepper in the open wound.
I wonder if it was the Devil who made you do that, too.
Rhoda and I are eating lunch, eba and melon soup, with lumps of egusi that nearly make me gag but which I force down anyways because I hear your voice in my ear and I remember the plenty kids in Africa who don’t have food. Rhoda frowns at me, or at my chest, and her doe eyes narrow in thought. I know she’s about to make one of her odd observations, most of which begins with, “Have you noticed that …?” 
… Mr Lucky always goes to SS1 A when Mrs Oyibo is around?
… Kome puts his hands in his trousers when Lola sits besides him?
“… your right boob is bigger than your left one?”
I really gag this time and nearly spit out the food in my mouth. She coolly passes me my water bottle. “Doh. Eat it small-small. So? Have you noticed?”
I take my time to drink the water. When I’m through swallowing and slowly screwing the cap on, Rhoda is still looking at me in anticipation of my reply. I sigh. “You notice a lot things, most of which aren’t true.”
“No, for real.”
“They are both big.”
“One is bigger.”
“They are both big.”
She wrinkles her nose at me. “Show-off.”
So I make a metal note to add extra padding to my left cup, and when we go to the computer room to practice some CBT questions for our post UTME, I choose the furthest system, away from others' view. I type in the search bar, Reasons why boobs are uneven. 
A long list pops, but my eyes linger on the third: Trauma.
Types of trauma, is my next search.
Number two: Domestic violence.
Rhoda has a theory that the Board of Directors of my school footed my hospital bills because the Chairwoman, Mene’s mum, pressured them to do so, which means that Mene had asked her to do so, which is probably the most logical explanation to why such a favor was given to me. I wasn’t an exceptional student, not pretty enough to be on the school’s poster, never a choice for debate or science competitions.
Had it been Akin whose bills was cleared by the Board, I wouldn’t have raised a brow. Most of my thoughts have a similar preamble, had it been Akin, had I been Akin. . .
Akin has many awards and badges – literary, science, behavioural – yet the ones he shows off the most are those on his body – the marks, the scars. When I was younger, I’d think, maybe if I was as exceptional as Akin, you wouldn’t beat me. Yet, he’s got the same scars as me. So I tried to convince myself that I wasn’t at fault, that I could be the perfect child yet you wouldn’t treat me any better, but that thought doesn’t alleviate my heartache.
I had asked Akin one day, “Do we really need to be traumatized to grow?”
He didn’t know what to say.
We are to write our WAEC exams next week, yet the boys in my class are playing a game of football. Mene gulps down a bottle of water beside me, while Rhoda stares at Akin who is shirtless on the field, flexing his arm muscles. Akin performs a silly dance, making us laugh; Mene is amused, Rhoda is amused but her eyes are slightly narrowed at Akin’s torso which is peppered with light scars, I’m not amused yet I’m laughing, or maybe its my voice making ha ha ha sounds which die as quickly as they begin, and I stare at my tube of Smarties, hoping that even if Rhoda puts two and two together, she wouldn’t vocalize it.
Hope must be laughing in my face, for Rhoda says, “Fega has the same marks as Akin. Like, everywhere. Your mums are besties, yeah?” She turns to Mene. “There was a time she was changing-"
“Rhoda,” Mene warns.
His stern tone is lost on her, and she looks at me and gasps. “That’s why you don’t like changing in front of others.”
Stung at Akin’s abrasive tone, her expression turns sober. “Sorry.” She turns to me. “Fega, I’m sorry.” 
My eyes start filling with tears. I shove more Smarties into my mouth.
“I didn’t mean to say it,” Rhoda apologizes when the boys have returned to the game, “at least not in front of Mene. He’s cool though, so he wouldn’t mind.”
“It’s okay,” I say.
I’m more annoyed at myself, my reaction, at how easily I get triggered into self-consciousness. Akin can easily shrug it off and even joke about it. I can’t.
Mene walks up to me after the game. “Akin said you can beat him at arm wrestling.”
“Hey.” Akin shoves him playfully. “Why did you tell her?”
I let out a quiet laugh. There’s a trick I discovered on YouTube on how to win at arm wrestling. My normal strength is no match for Akin.
“I’m not as strong as Akin is,” I admit. I nod towards Akin. “Let’s go home.”
As I’m dragging Akin away, Mene mouths, You okay?
I nod.
Mene later texts me, You are as strong as Akin is, maybe even stronger. Don’t let anyone make your feelings invalid. You have a right to feel hurt, to be angry, to scream and cry.
I wait for the butterflies to grow in my belly, but they don’t. I sigh and turn my phone screen down. Nothing excites me anymore, not even Mene’s smiles, his attention, his reassuring words. Even the Smarties he gets me don’t taste as good as before. I think back on the text, admitting to myself that the last two sentences are what I need to hear. But not the first one. 
No, I’m not as strong as Akin.
I’m not strong enough to look in the mirror and not weep.
I’m not strong enough to forgive, for forgiving takes strength.
I'm not strong enough to be proud of my scars, but maybe in the future, I would stop being bothered by them. Maybe they would hurt me less.
I’m not strong enough to confront you. But maybe I will in the future, when I feel strong, I would ask you the question, the enigma, “Why?”
But you wouldn’t understand, would you? So I would show you. Show, don’t tell, they say. I could say a hundred, even a thousand words, yet all of it would be vague and gibberish talk in your ears; a waste of my time and yours.
I would show you.
It would be in your room, where I was conceived, where I was born. I’d want the moment to be as intimate as possible, but intimate isn’t necessarily sweet. My scars hurt me, and you have to know to what extent. Facing you, I would then strip bare, slowly, while watching you watch me. You must’ve seen them before, but not with me aware that you’re seeing them. Not with me trying to prove a point, yearning for an answer.
I might probably tear up, and with quivering lips, I would ask again, “Why?”
But you would understand then. Words wouldn’t have gotten the message across. I needed to show you my scars – all of them. On my calves, thighs, buttocks. My chest, torso, back, arms, shoulders. My complexion is fair, like yours, so the scars are as clear as exhibits. None faded so well.
I trace the one that lies vertically on my thigh, recalling when you said, "I will give you this mark so that when you're older, you would remember what you did." Yet I remember not what I did but what you did. I beg God everyday that I should forget, maybe I would grow to forgive, but how can I forget when one look in the mirror is enough to make the memories so vivid as if it happened yesterday?
I stare at my body through the mirror on the door of the wardrobe I share with Ese, and I become the girl of six, running away with snot streaming down my nose as you chase me with a wooden cane. I become seven, scribbling the words goat and cow and mumu all over the back of my book, the words you addressed me as whenever you got mad. I become eight, begging you to flog me the eight strokes times eight on my buttocks instead of my palms. I become nine, holding back tears in shame as you bring the dirty dishes I didn’t wash to school. I become ten, screaming as you place the hot iron on my back. I become eleven, the chill of the night air keeping me and my fresh cane marks company. I become twelve, throwing up over the spoilt okra soup you forced me to eat. I become thirteen, spending the weekend washing all the clothes in your wardrobe because I forgot to remove the clothes you wore that Sunday from the rope before it rained. I become fourteen, crying tears of blood as the pepper stings my wound. I become fifteen, challenging you to slap me again.
I become sixteen, tracing the marks in front of my mirror, wishing they hurt instead of my heart. I start to cry, harsh sobs that make the ground shake. I scream, over and over again, till my voice becomes hoarse. My heart hurts. I hit it with my fist, again, again, again, so it stops beating. My chest is heaving. The room becomes stuffy; I need to breathe. I gasp but come up empty.
I need air.
I need air.
When I open my eyes, you are sleeping in a plastic chair beside me. You’ve always been so pretty, so fair, yet the effect of years of stress is noticeable. You carry the weight you gained after Ese’s birth well, yet there’s an obvious curve in your shoulders. The melasma on your face is obvious, so also the strains and lines. Your head is bent at an unnatural angle as you recline on the uncomfortable chair.
 I wonder if your thoughts go wild if you’re asleep, if you’re thinking about the cost of oxygen, forty–eight thousand naira per daily breathing, or if your eyes are closed so that the bright ceiling lights wouldn’t hurt your eyes.
You open your eyes and catch me staring at you. Yawning, you smile a bit. You ask me if I slept well, if I feel better, that I should get better so I can get discharged quickly, go home and rest.
I ask the question in my tongue. “Why?”
My voice is hoarse, croaky, desperate. 
I’m holding on to hope, though it seems foolish to do so. You’d understand what I mean, right? And your features would soften and you would cry and apologize. Just one sincere apology, Mummy, just one and I will start crying, too. And my forgiveness would come so easily, so naturally. You don’t even have to say that you’re sorry – you can just acknowledge that you hurt me, and I would forgive and let go. I would start to love the skin colour you gave me and wish I took on more of your features, Mama, because you are half of me. And I won’t have to beg God to help me forget because a single apology would wipe the bad memories off. And I will remember some I chose to forget, like you telling Big Aunty about how your father beat you, and I would choose to understand the channeling of trauma – I will choose to understand, Mummy, but only if you do.
So you understand, right?
Your brows only narrow. “Why what?”
I shake my head and try to get up. A cough escapes my lips, you give me a cup of water. It soothes the burn in my throat, but not the ache in my heart. I start getting teary-eyed. “Why?” I ask again.
You look like you want to cry. “You’re writing WAEC next week na. Which one is ‘why'?”
My head sinks back onto the pillow. I focus my eyes elsewhere, like the oxygen cylinder with an invisible tag of Forty–Eight Thousand Naira Per Daily Breathing, the bright light that hurts my eyes.
 It takes strength to let go, move on, forgive, but I guess it takes even more strength to cry. I must not be strong enough, not yet, for the tears form behind my eyeballs yet stay there, not falling, clinging onto their ducts like my fingers gripping the sheets, my skin onto its scars, my mind onto its memories, my heart onto waning hope.
Pamela Erhiakeme is a 19-year old nursing student and creative writer from Delta State, Nigeria. She won first place in the D'Lit Review's June 2023 contest, the 2023 October Ma Keke Contest by Gemspread Publishing, and the 2023 Once Upon A Teen's Flash Fiction Contest. She was shortlisted for the Team Booktu Short Story Competition and the ELS Ikenga Short Story Prize. She is an alumnus of the 2024 Idembeka Creative Writing Workshop. Her love for reading influences her writing, and she hopes to evoke as much emotions through her works as she feels when with a book. When not poring over nursing textbooks, reading or writing, she also enjoys watching movies and TV shows and spending time with her family.

"soup & bread" by anathea is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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