Anatomy of Innocence
By Ifeanyichukwu Peter Eze
Mama and Papa.
Of their oneness, I become an embryo, then a foetus dwelling in a pear-shaped space inside Mama. The space expands. I grow bigger, and kick when I am happy. Mama is happy. Papa listens, and traces me with his hands. I don’t know what he is talking about when he says it’s going to be a boy. Their voices echo in my space. I am getting bigger. The space is shrinking. I want more space.
My stay ends in a protest, a rebellious cry, not against the hot, northern sunshine, but this sojourn of nine months. A joyous outpouring of gratitude and acceptance greets me. But louder I cry, until Mama’s arms snuggle and pamper me with the elixir from her breasts.
I am five, six or seven, or thereabout, and back from school. I fling my bag under the twelve-inch spring bed, and run off under the blazing eye of the sky to join a game of the round leather. I make an interception, run past two and slide the round thing through the legs of another. My left foot positions the rolling object to my right so that it swings effortlessly. Bello’s dive is fruitless. I punch the air as they do on screen, for having put two past him. But I do not hear Mama’s call until my right ear strains from her pull, and my body is dragged behind.
“The clothes are still on the line, and the dry okra needs to be pounded,” Mama’s voice confronts me in Igbo. I rattle some Hausa. She pounds her knuckle on my head. My face is a grin of pain, and I swallow the scream that is about to leave me. “If I hear kpim,” Mama thunders. I swallow it hard. “You can’t speak Igbo anymore, ehh?”
We enter our house. I do not look at Papa. He will ask me to write an essay and answer comprehension questions. And there are math exercises he has pasted by the door for me to see each time I walk in or out. I must see them even if I do not want to.
At school, my class teacher writes Ibo. She says the Ibo are one of the three major ethnic groups in Nigeria. The other two are Hausa and Yoruba. The Ibo are the third largest. They occupy the eastern part of the country. She also says there are those called Wawa among the Ibos. My family belongs to that classification. So, when I miss my sums, she calls me a Wawa Ibo. The way she says it tells me she means counterfeit Ibo. But Mama says it is Igbo. We are Igbos. She emphasizes the ‘gb’. I do not tell her about my teacher, about Wawa Ibo or Wawa Igbo.
Wawa Ibo. Wawa Igbo. It rings in my head. I do not want to be asked if I am Ibo or Igbo. I do not want to be in the position to say I am from Enugu, which still raises the question, ‘from where in Enugu State?’ Nsukka. No. I do not want. Kabiru does not ask. We do not question whether to converse in Hausa or not.
We are playing Whots. It is his turn. He slams two cards. His eyes are holding mine. “Last card,” he says. I blink at the cards. The one on top is a triangle. The one below is a square. Their numbers are three and four. Kabiru’s lips spread wide without parting. When they do, slices of cackles burst out. “I caught you,” I say, calling him wawa kawai. Macuci.
He picks at his beardless chin as if to weed hairs that have refused to grow. His eyes sparkle, gazing at the area between my legs, through the tear in my shorts.
“What?” I snap at him, closing my legs.
“Nothing. When it is erect, do you feel like pissing?” he asks, dragging his body closer to mine, his eyes smiling in my face.
“Maybe. But I don’t know.”
His hand glides down my groin. “Let’s try. When you feel anything, you can piss into my nyash.”
I slap his hands away and shoot him a stare.
“I heard my elder brother and his friend talk about that,” he says. “They even talk about how to play between the legs of a girl, using your tongue or your finger.”
I can only pick something from the shelf or hang clothes on the line by standing on my toes. Kabiru enjoys laughing at me. He is my age-mate but he can see the top of my head. But that is not the issue. Papa is worried I am thin and short. And Tina, our neighbour’s daughter, no longer bathes herself in the open, in our big compound. It is three times a day, and she now wears colourful dresses too.
“But her breasts are not like the ones I see in my brother’s magazines,” Kabiru says.
“So, you peep on her?”
“No. I was coming out from the toilet the other day. She was in the bathroom, and the door was open.”
Then, I am names: Gajere. Tsoho. Wawa Ibo. But I am aware of my Self, or beginning to be. My nakedness is a ceremony I attend to, under the watch of my eyes. Alone. My voice is growing deep and deeper; tufts of hair on my body sprout here and there, except on my face - no beard like Papa’s. My eyes see, and things begin to stew in me. A female presence engulfs me in a cloud of sensations. The first caught glimpse is an accident. Tina must not catch me looking at her behind when the lines of her panties glare at me from under her dress, or admiring her cleavage or where it leads to when she doubles over a washbowl of clothes under a lather of white by the tap. No. I must not allow it the second time. Else she will swallow me with her eyes. Attractive. Sexy, I say with the mouth of my mind. It glides down my body where it bobs between my legs, but I remain blank on my face.
That is a sin. We chant from our catechism booklet, caressed by the evening breeze, in the shades of trees. Our voices rise and build tents of echoes that meet the vertical nods of Father Mark, the parish priest. Sin is to offend my God in thoughts, words, deeds and omission. Who is God? God is our loving Father, the Maker of heaven and earth. Can we see God? No, for God is a spirit. Why did God make you? God made me to know him, to love him, to serve him in this world, and to be happy with him forever.
I muffle a siren of arousal in me under the rug of discipline. But it crawls out at night like Nicodemus when my resistance sleeps, in the tunnel of my boredom, in the pit of my loneliness to fill the spaces of emptiness. No way. I should not have such feelings. I must have a pure heart. But I am in need of a touch. Just. A. Touch. I want to hold a hand and squeeze, lean my head on some shoulder, give myself away to the warmth of a hug. I want to speak and be listened to. No, I must not. I shield myself with forced indifference. That way, I will not fall into the trap of desire. Temptation.
I do not speak about it. Not even to Mama. What will I tell her? That my thing feels like getting into a swamp? Or that I am attracted to Tina? Or what? That I feel feelings? And Papa? He must not hear. It is unspeakable.
In my head, a gaggle of laughter and jeers meet to conspire against me. Shut up, I say. My voice bangs in my head. I am dizzy and blank. I am talking to Mama but she is not listening because my voice is hiding inside me. I am still rattling when her voice tugs me to wakefulness, and I rush to the kitchen to get the plates washed, her eyes sitting on my back.
When Papa and Mama were like me, how did they do it? Papa did not feel this way. He was busy fending for his mama. That is how it should be. He is a strong man. Strong men are masters of such things. So, I am trying to be a master like Papa. That is why I am a boy. Papa’s boy. Have I forgotten? And I am happy when they say I take after him—eyes, broad nose, and lips. And Mama? She must have kept herself till marriage took her virginity.
At the dinner table, my eyes are dancing on Papa’s profile. They rest on his pencil moustache. His mouth opens and collects a lump of eba from his hand, and his throat bulges for the slide. I want to say something to Papa. My mouth opens, but the word runs away as if it was scampering from the ball of eba sloping down my own throat and hiding somewhere, where it whines wordlessly. What do I want to tell Papa? “Table manners. Don’t speak at the table,” my teacher says.
But Papa and Mama, I do not hear them talk about these things, even when they do their early morning or late night talk, which comes off like whisperings garnished with chuckles. Their voices trail my waking. I trundle on the tide of expectation.
“He is going to be a priest.” Papa says, sitting cross-legged in his rocking chair.
“A priest?” Mama retorts.
“Yes, don’t you see?”
“I don’t see anything. Let’s leave it to God to decide.”
I let myself into Papa’s vision as I soap myself in the bathroom. I am Papa’s boy, after all, a priest resplendent in immaculate robes, celebrating a high mass, singing the Eucharist, spreading my hands to my sides like wings, spraying effusive grace and blessings in the fashion of Father Mark.
“You’ll make a good priest,” Kabiru says, splashing water from the bucket between us. “What will you use that thing between your legs for? Maybe that’s why it’s slightly bent like the knife of mai suya. Mine is straight like the ones in my brother’s magazine.”
At night, in bed, I straighten the fellow between my legs and lie on my belly. In the morning it works back to its curve.
In the parlour, a soap opera is running on the TV. A man and woman are talking. They are holding hands. Their bodies are inching, their faces close. Papa shifts in his chair. It squeaks. He scratches his thigh. Mama looks his way. Me, I throw my glance to the ground. The persons on screen are still talking, now in whispers. There is a pause, then an advert. Mama sends me to get her a glass of water.
Curiosity marries me to the invitation to watch a video on my mobile. Download. I watch. A man’s face is covered like a secret. A woman is bare like an access-free football field, moaning and yearning for more of the man’s fill between her legs. Images gyrate in my head, fleeting like quick instances of memory. I am burning restlessly. Faces and bodies steam in me. We are naked and thrusting into space, with each pleasure a face in the measure of our friendship. The feeling dies as if it never existed. The faces and bodies fade. I breathe normally again.
The last year in college is a weight sitting on my groin. Final exams are approaching like a monster on the horizon. Math class is a podium for doom’s prophecy. On the threshold of desire is a cocoon of reluctance: If you want to leave singlehood, it has to be for someone special. Sex, yes, but not just with anybody. After sex, then what? My mind is a river of doubts. Fear swims in it. Rejection catches and feeds on it.
I like a girl. No, not Tina. I do not see much of her these days. Even when I do, she is either leaving or coming. She leaves in the evening and comes back in the morning. Her tastes come in Mercedes, BMWs, Jeeps, and Land Cruisers. Her mother does not have to care, since her daughter’s goings and comings bring food.
The girls I like until college run away in memory’s company. Didi’s almond eyes glitter even when she is not laughing. In our boring math class, her hair sits on her head like a black hood, she prattles without cease, drives the class on laughing sprees as though to defer the fear of the coming final exam, and she always has the best result. Sada’s chiselled slimness fidgets in her white shirt and blue skirt that seem to tire her, and her high-heeled sandals give her a catwalk-swag. Kate’s lips rarely part when she smiles. She smiles only in literature class. Always, she is reading romance novels in the guise of attending to her notebooks. And she wonders what I need a romance novel for.
Behind the façade of rest, the garbage room at work pulses with our chat. Mara is my colleague at work. I see her eyes leap in their sockets. And I am basking in the softness of her words. Her aching joints invite me to massage them. My hands, tentative at first, meet no resistance, nibble around her, press and drill their fingers into her flesh, freeing her of stiffness. I am awed by the softness of her body, warm, and smooth like water. Her relief is a spark on her face and a hardness rearing its head down there.
Our hands decide to play. Hers fidget with my belt. I do not see my hands travel under her clothes to find what is there, or feel my lips rest on the tiny bulge of flesh in the center of her belly until a groan escapes her. We stop. We should not go further. Our eyes catch our stares, hiding our shame behind our blinks, as though to acknowledge a heavy knocking on the door.
But my heart is thumping within the walls of my chest. Papa’s unwavering eyes are still holding me, as when I have not put a comma in the right place, or a full stop to end a sentence, or when I am yet to find the X in an equation. Mama’s voice is a silent rebuke. You know where you are coming from.
Mouths curve in mock surprise when they salute me with competing wonderment.
You are a virgin?
Not even a first kiss?
How come about that?
Life is short.
What are you waiting for?
I do not want to keep speaking and banging myself in my head. I want to be listened to. I mean, I want to say I am horny, and say it loud. I want to say fuck. I want to say it without having a noose of guilt around my mind. I do not want it to hang on the tip of my mouth, heavy like some load of shame, and then clogged down in my throat like some rot.
Kate’s hands fit into mine as if they were purposely created for them. She squeezes. I squeeze. We swing the entwined fold between us as we walk. Playfully. We stop under a mango tree. Leaves crack under our feet. Her eyes hold mine. Between our faces, our breaths collide. My heart shreds into bits of thumping.
“Kate, I love you,” my mouth stutters.
“I love you too, Chris,” she says. “But you kept me waiting.”
The evening breeze seeps through the trees and fans our bodies. Warm and naked. Entwined in a boundless lock. Leaves crackle underneath, drenched with our pleasure. The ones above, canopies of lush green, descend to carpet the ground. For us. Ripe mangoes dance. Birds chirp, and the fading light of the sinking sun winks at us through the spaces in the trees.
I awake, blinking at the sight on the threshold. How long has Mama been here? She walks over and sits on the bed with me.
Away from my twenties, into the early years of another decade, taller than most who have called me Gajere, the Wawa thing still bothers me. Kabiru is living with his boyfriend. Didi adorns her Facebook page with photos of a boy and a girl. There is another of a man smiling, too. On her wall, sailing on a sea of friends, Sada paints the exploits of her fashion outfit. Kate is championing a campaign of building libraries in communities. Mara displays her ring of being taken. I am still susceptible to visitations of this other feeling, but taking pride in its presence, leaving myself bare to it. I should move on with my life.
Ifeanyichukwu Peter Eze studied Philosophy at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. His works have appeared in adda, Fresh Ink, Tiny Essays, Red Coyote, Pangolin Review, Praxis, and a few other places. A fellow of the Ebedi International Writers’ Residency, he was Longlisted for the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.