Issue #19 |

There Are Many Ways to Kill A Child

railroad crossing

When she was twenty-one and in her third year of university, my mother’s younger sister, my Aunt Toun, became pregnant. She sat in our flat, her eyes red and raw from crying, a tissue crumpled into a ball in her fist, but my mother’s takeaway was that Aunt Toun was in a relationship and having sex even though she had been warned to wait. Aunt Toun’s explanation made a Nollywood campus love story of the whole matter: the guy’s name was Yinka, a handsome but unserious guy who was always missing classes, always getting into trouble with the lecturers but who, quite surprisingly, managed to win the heart of the brilliant class snob. She let him photocopy her notes, offered help with his assignments, and sometimes fed him when he’d been at her place the whole day. She was sure that she would never get into his bed, clever girl that she was. But he had a way with words, and after a night out and a goodnight kiss that went on too long, well. When she confronted him with the pregnancy, he suggested an abortion. They were students, he said. He could not afford it, he said. Finally, he confessed that he was engaged to someone else in his hometown, and that she, too, was carrying his child. And then he vanished. He stopped coming to class, his phone number became unreachable, and a giant padlock appeared on his apartment door. Feeling all of the emotions possible to be felt in such a situation, Aunt Toun ran home to my mother.

That time, we lived in Adeolu Close in Isheri, in one of those similarly structured flats with Storex water tanks in the backyard and looming metal gates in front. Our flat was painted green—the stark, deep green of unripe bananas—and the tar of our gate was flecked with bits of gold paint. Within walking distance was Roemichs Academy, which I attended. I was sixteen, a few months away from finishing secondary school and about a year away from applying to a university outside Lagos, where I would finally be free of my mother. Aunt Toun did not live with us. She lived in Iyana Iba, closer to the Lagos State University campus where she was studying marketing. She was like my mother in features: ears sticking out the sides of her head like God’s afterthought, skin the alluring brown of polished wood. But while my mother was short, fattened by motherhood and age, Aunt Toun rose tall, nearly 5’9” when measured. Her face was a soft-edged oval, slanted eyes, narrow nose, and small round lips uniting to make her striking, attracting a second glance from people meeting her for the first time. When she smiled, dimples appeared in the soft of her cheeks like a pinky pressed into dough. She planned to contest in a beauty pageant after university, win, and be shot into stardom. If she didn’t win, she would network with the elites of the fashion world who would attend the pageant. They would be the link to her aspirations: runway modeling, starting a shoe and bag line, hosting her own TV show, starting an NGO, and becoming a brand ambassador for luxury businesses. Her whole life was planned, one ambition stacked atop another like Lego bricks. But when she became pregnant, this skyscraper of dreams toppled and fell, as though in obeisance to a greater power.

Perhaps my mother knew such a thing would occur—or perhaps she was just being herself, but after Aunt Toun finished explaining how the pregnancy came about, her response was: “Look how you have destroyed your life with your own hands.” There and then, she insisted against an abortion, and told Aunt Toun that there was nothing she could do, even though we all knew there was something she could do, and that this ability to help, to undo what would come to change the course of our lives forever, was one of the reasons Aunt Toun ran home to her in tears.

“Please, Sister mi,” Aunt Toun said. “Please.”

But my mother refused. “This one you’re begging me, Toun,” she said. “What do you want me to do? Answer me now. What do you want me to do? You know what I went through and yet you opened your two eyes and did the same thing. Now, you’re begging me. Am I God? You should have begged yourself not to spread your legs.”

Now when I think of it, I often think it was a mix of both: my mother knew such a thing would occur, and yet she was herself, the mother of my teenage years who gave several warnings so that when the consequences of my actions came, I knew better than to complain to her. She worked in a pharmacy. It was how she met my father. He was the tall, sweet-tongued man who supplied her boss Chemiron blood tonic and Solotone tablets, and she was the shopgirl who had just moved to Lagos from Ondo state and did not know that Lagos men had tongues dipped in sugar. He courted her, first with his smiles; his generous, unexpected gifts—a wristwatch, a bottle of perfume, a blouse whose sleeves were too long; and finally with his words, asking her to please go on a date with him, come visit him in his apartment, stay a bit longer, all of which my mother said yes to, first with a little hesitation, and then with subdued eagerness, so she would not be considered too desperate. When I appeared in the story, my father vanished. One day he was assuring my mother that he would take care of the pregnancy, the next day he was gone; his belongings harvested from his small apartment in Surulere, the room left bare, dead, as though he never existed. My mother returned to the pharmacy, heartbroken and pregnant, with a younger sister who depended on her. This, always, was where the story ended.

What never ended, though, were the horror stories about her job. Her boss was a retired doctor, and he had at the back of the pharmacy, a small room with a small bed where he treated wounds, administered solutions, and aborted pregnancies. Slipped into her conversations with us were stories of torn skin stitched with transparent fishing line, bloodied wounds described so vividly I came close to throwing up. When I began to menstruate, she gave me a pack of Lady Care. And as sex education, she told me of young girls like me and older ladies like Aunt Toun who came to the pharmacy to buy what she called pills, or went to the back room with her boss for an abortion.

“Who knows,” she would say, “maybe the only child God destined them to have is what they have aborted. When they get married in five, ten years and can’t give birth, they’ll wonder who they offended. They won’t remember when they let one night of enjoyment ruin their whole lives.”

Aunt Toun would scoff, but that never stopped my mother.

If I was not careful, she would continue, if I let a boy touch me now that I had begun to menstruate, I too would be one of those women. “Ordinary touch will make you pregnant. You hear me?” And whenever she saw me with a boy, she didn’t care if he was a classmate, a church member, or a neighbour. She simply assumed I was sleeping with him. After the boy left, she would turn on me and shout, “Ashewo. You want to get pregnant, abi? You want to get pregnant! Don’t worry, go ahead. I will make sure you give birth to that child so you can experience that thing you want to experience.”

A lot of things my mother did back then didn’t make sense to me. For example, she forbade me from using coloured hair attachments. She refused to let me wear make-up too, even though she herself did whenever she had a party to attend. And it was badly done: lipstick cracking on her mouth, slapdash brown powder a shade lighter than her skin, eyelashes sticking out of her face like baby feathers. According to her, things like bright hair and a made up face would signify to men that I was ripe, and they would chase after me until they’d tasted whatever I had to offer.

 

To read this story, please purchase a print edition of Issue #19 or, to never miss an issue of Story, subscribe to the magazine

Olakunle Ologunro is a Nigerian writer and MFA candidate at Johns Hopkins University. His work has appeared in Lolwe, Queer Africa, the Feel Good anthology, and elsewhere.

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