The Smile

For the first time since I was folded in my sleep, I noticed dawn smelled of burning wood. Flipping myself like a turtle’s shell on my old bed, my feet have a purpose of running outside and seeing who set the fire burning. 

Ma takes the flat pieces of wood and shoves them into the throat of the fire. Her eyes are pink, red, and teary, and her wrapper is loosely squeezed around her chest. 

“I’m going inside now,” she said, rubbing her eyes.

Her flip-flops scratch the ground as she walks away. Turning, she said, “Please don’t wake up late again. I can’t afford to be late to work next time.”

A trail of steam follows up in the air and has a feel. I empty the kettle into a bucket. Ma’s persistent insomnia and nightmares in-between slumber have her eyes sinking into their sockets each day. She can’t keep them open long enough, or read in little light. Her new glasses, a huge bite from her salary, is much more of a burden to her than her sight. 

She smells like freshly plucked mint leaves and has warmth cloaked in the room as she appears dressed. Her carefully ironed-out atampa grates against her legs. She scurries to our only couch, crouches and drags out her textbooks and glasses.

“Simmer the food in the pot,” she turns around, tucking the large books into her bag, “make yourself some tea,” she sounds breathless, “and please, don’t open the door for anyone.”

The door slams shut, and I’m left alone to brood over a million thoughts. I wonder if the sound of the roof creaking in protest to the hot afternoon sun is a sign of God checking up on me. 

Peeled films of candle wax intersperse around the living room. The Labours of Hercules lie beside the hill of the burnt-out candle. I shove spoonfuls of cold boiled beans into my mouth, chewing without care. The taste of salt and moisture rubs around my teeth.

A side of the roof squeaked, then was hammered down by the sound of running rats. I knew the difference between gravitational force and electrical force equations from my study. It didn’t matter in this case, but to free my mind from a prison built with more than just walls, a little thinking goes a long way.

The window is a lens to break free from the sight of the dirt around before I get to clean the place up.

Most people, I thought, would forget my mother has such a child as Mrs Neighbor. She would file out with her guests, every evening, lay a table and pour out kola nuts. They could chew it till their gums gave up and their teeth blackened. In her absence, there was some relief from her chittering and gurgling laughs. But her grey house, as I looked at it, has a voice, I felt, lurking like invisible murmurs.

The wire gauze ate into my nose as I leaned in to watch passers-by. Feeling ten floors up, I watch two guys move at the same pace. Both right legs proceeded forward at the same time the other commenced. A woman, behind them, fixed into a suit, struggled to hold two bags in one hand as she pulled out her purse.

School Children, lined up with their parents by their side, holding their hands. I look down at my dirty feet. My thighs look shrunken in the pair of knickers my rich mother’s sister’s ex-friend gave me. I think it belonged to one of her sons.

Ma’s room is a foot away from mine. I push the door open, and the room is quieter than the house. A lizard, with its creamed belly, lays flattened on her window. I waved it away and rested my body on her bed. 

It smells of talcum and lavender air freshener. My fingers observe the texture of every item. Her old lipstick, her box of jewellery, her black radio and her grey rug. Her mirror, resting as a broken smile, has no texture. Somehow, I’m not just my mother’s daughter. I’m her. The bridge that separates dreams from reality is broken, snapped off without any connection. My hands fold my hair, then coax to find an atom of reality somewhere in my nerves. Intensity is vital here, I use pain then. I grab my hair till my body convinces me of its reality. 

Into that disconnected smile, I watch as the locks of my woolly hair stand as a sheaf of unrolled threads. I observe, around my eyes, a bleed of rivulose from insomnia. I smile to force a little beauty to spark the image I saw, but even Ma’s lipstick would never fix it. Parting my hair, I took a section of it and sank a comb into that black sea. 

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