Dearest Mama,

“It has been thirty years since I left home, without leaving a word or kissing you goodbye.”

  • Homecoming (A Play)

Chetachi Igbokwe

The sun is blue today because there is no sun at all. I am on my fifty-somethingth scrap paper and my fingers are shaking. If I let them win, they will grab the paper with anger that should not be associated with such frail bones. The prices of these papers are tight neck-ties but the fumes in my head and the number of playlists I have organised do not know this. In my early days, the smell from my neighbour’s kitchen came to my nose as new words. I would leap up from my single bed, my journal open and welcoming, my pen never drying up. But the old woman whose face I have never seen seems to be losing it too. Everything she cooks burns, and I have been unable to write.

This is the truth, Mama, I have grown tired of writing because I thought by now you would be tired of reading.

My fingers pull the paper before I say yes. The paper folds under the sweat of my palm and I feel sorry for it – this one must have believed it would do the trick. My eyes follow my hand as it surrenders this new crunch to its members; all of them white and angry; all of them sad but unwilling to try again. Beside the pile, my open window welcomes smoke stringing along from my neighbour’s kitchen. I hear her faint cough and I remember when I used to wish I were an old man. I would show up at her door without smiling, so my broken teeth would not put her off.

“I hear your cat needs a walk,” I would say to her and she would let me in. I would hold her hand and lead her to the stereo.

“Have you ever been in love?” I would ask her, my voice croaky because I want her to say no. Because I want to be her first and ever.

“Yes,” she would answer. And to my surprise, it would not hurt. I, too, have been in love.

My lover had flabby arms, and she hugged me in bed as though she knew I would one day leave. She would hold up my face and put her nose to mine so that I could smell the onions and garlic in her breath, the prayers to Holy Mary during morning mass on Sundays, the endless stifled sniffs on the nights after I finally disappeared. It was my lover who first told me about America, my four-year-old mind too small to understand that the world was big and big. When I tried to think of this bigness, my head swelled and I began to cry.

Once, I thought that Mama had found me. I got her letter somehow; it was written in red ink and in a hurry, as though she was scared that someone would see her writing to her lost son. Her neighbours thought she was crazy, she told me, and Papa would not stop laughing at her. I chuckled, imagining Papa’s big frame shaking as he mocked the wife he loved. Mama did not write again.

The old woman’s cat meows as if in surrender, but I rest my back on my chair. I pull the cigarette box on the table and the last stick falls out. My writing table is my ashtray and every time I think of cleaning it, something tells me, you do not need to clean it. You need to go home. I stick this last one to my lips and close my eyes. There is no music playing but I know what I should be listening to. A song to keep my heartbeat steady, a song to drown out the old woman’s coughing. In my head, a little child is dancing before a large tv screen. Above the screen is a black-and-white picture of a person the child does not know, and a large wooden cross. The child is alone. A war movie is showing and there are bullets flying, but this child is giggling. He hears his father shouting on the phone in the kitchen. His mother is in the other room, laughing with her sister. He thinks they are asking him to leave. But the bullets are still flying and he is not tired of dancing. There will be bullets outside, he thinks. So he leaves. 

My art pieces are still in the galleries — images I formed in my head as the cat cried for attention every early morning. At first, I called to ask if I had made any sales yet, if someone had stopped twice to ponder over my piece, if they could see from my angry colours that I was away, away from home, and I could not tell how. I called until one Chinese receptionist said in a voice so thin I thought she was having an asthma attack, “You might want to stop by and pick up your pieces, you know.”

“No, no. That will not be necessary,” I answered quickly and dropped the call.

I hear something like a whimper from the cat, something like death. I open my eyes. The smoke has made a hovering over my room and it is comforting in a weird way. I think of lying face up in my bed, forcing my nose open until my lungs blacken to the grave. I sigh and push back my chair with my legs.

The doorknob responds with ease, more than eager to let me into the breathless hallway. I hold my breath to her door and knock on it, gentle at first because I expect that she would open in a hurry. She does not. I knock harder and hit and it is coming to me, the meaning of all this smoke, all this silence from inside her flat. Now, I want to see her face, to see the owner of the voice always screaming at Nelly to, “Get down right now!” Nelly was quiet too and there were hands pulling me away from the door.

“Neby! Neby!” They nudge me. I feel my hands slip into my pocket and my eyes freeze on the door still locked.

“Neby, step aside, please. They need to go in.”

I nod and take two steps back. It makes more sense. The sound in the background is the siren of the ambulance. I spit out the cigarette stick and ball my fists inside my pocket. There are men in black and lemon jackets kicking at the door. I worry that they will hurt the old woman. I worry that I have gone too far back, too detached from the smokiness spiralling before me. The door caves in the middle and then falls open. Everyone is coughing but I am waiting for her to run out of her apartment, chasing Nelly, laughing, “Oh, Nelly! You naughty, old cat.”

A stretcher wheels out a thin white woman, green veins jagged all over her face. Nelly is a black cat.

“It is such a tragedy,” I hear over my shoulder, five soft fingers gripping my shirt. I can feel the caution in the holder’s palm. The ambulance is crawling away. I follow it. I walk until its lights are gone and its siren too. I walk until I meet the small hiding sun. I walk until I see my lover’s flabby arms and I know, Mama, Neby is coming home.

Sharon Onyinyechukwu Okey-Onyema has works published in The Muse Journal, Liminal Transit Review, ArtsLounge Magazine, amongst others. She was the Assistant Editor of The Muse No. 49. Sharon lives in Lagos, Nigeria.