To love Mother was to negotiate. The spaces in my life she could take up, and in what manner, and at what time. To hate her was to remember, faggot striking from her tongue on various days for various reasons, like when the young male cashier with the bubblegum lips and the bright-pink nails took too long to return her change, or when her favorite Nigerian-American singer released a song about the first man he ever kissed, said the taste was diamond, like, that faggot wasted my time, did you see how he moved like a woman, or, The West turned him into a faggot, they don’t fear hell there. Months passed between strikes, but I relived them every night, as if she screamed that word at every hour, the name for a son she did not know she loathed. I folded on the cliff of my bed, my tears like rain. A decade-long storm. All these years later, she lived alone, and so did I, wishing for more oceans between the oceans between us. Her daily text messages lit my screen. Nights passed until I called. I fit her into the shrivel of Sunday afternoons, the after of precise noon that sat between 2 P.M. and 3 P.M. She did most of the talking, which friends had lost their daughters, and which sons had babies now, and where her bones hurt even when sitting, and I nodded as if she could see. Still, I had no words to offer. Not for lack of trying. I slithered across the dirt of the past, seeking small jewels. But all the hugs and all the forehead kisses and the spoon-feeding of hot noodle soup on fevered nights and the gentle promises, like, you can be anything you want, yes, my dear child, even an astronaut, high above Earth’s troubles, or, I will keep you safe and sound until my dying day, they covered my tongue with charcoal dust. The same yearning tongue that yet flinched from the lips of beautiful men because she loomed in their caress, striking still in my sacred space. So I shuffled in my chair and glanced at the clock. On the other end, past my equator’s shadow, she coughed, and said, “Well...”, as in, well, this is it, or, well, thank you for listening, or most likely, simply, precisely that, well..., the ellipsis stretching across air until it was taut enough to collapse into a crater. 2 P.M to 3 P.M. shortened by half, and then another half, and then there was the eternal silence, the flight in a small and stuffy cabin. Full of sweat and strangers, and my own endless wondering about the look and feel of their mothers, alive, dead, dancing, weeping, loving, and in my mind brimming with animation, with hearts beating so violently they ached, and therefore why, why the dull clatter-clang of mine, wilting on the rain-drenched ground where she was lowered, deeper and deeper to be reclaimed by the shriveling springtails, and the dust fell on mahogany wood, and she was covered up well enough to have never existed at all, and strangers from a past life offered their platitudes, their somberness overwrought, as if the universe were suddenly granite, breakable, and their words only recalled the stalemate of conversation, the half-of-the-half-of-the-hour, and the well..., because what else could I say to them, and what else could I say to her, now that we were alone and together, and I was soaked and she was silent, forever, and all my anger built up like waves, and the hate too, and all the what ifs, like what if faggot danced on her tongue because she never knew the truth, how could she, or secretly did, how could she not, tossed it the way one flicks a cigarette, and it lands on grass, and they turn away, never seeing the ring of small ash from a temporary and final flame, but the burnt green never grows again, always stays flat and dead, and what if all that running away had brought me back here, wondering if my shameless confessing could have saved her, undone decades of her mother’s programming, and mine too, filled our charred pits with the trees of Eden, certain except for the question mark, well..., like, well, shed your tears, but they refused to fall, not anymore, and so I pushed my knees into the mud, until day turned into night, my hands scraping the same crust of earth, and bits of loose grass with it, dirty fingernails still searching for the holes inside me that belonged to her.
Vincent Anioke is a software engineer at Google. He was born and raised in Nigeria, but now lives in Canada. His short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Carve Magazine, Bending Genres, Pithead Chapel, and Callaloo, among others. He was also a fiction finalist in the 2020 Thomas Morton Prize for Literary Excellence. Find him on Twitter at @AniokeVincent.