I remember the first time I saw my father hit my mother. We were seated around the dining table having breakfast. My parents were arguing about something, their voices low, when suddenly, my father leaped out of his chair and in one forceful movement, reached down and slapped my mother. It was so unexpected my brother, Lekan, and I froze in the middle of eating our cereal, our spoons half-way to our mouths. The shock of the act was written on all our faces, even on my father’s. It was as though he never thought himself capable of hitting my mother and so, was apprehensive of the consequence of his brashness. But that look lasted only a moment. As it passed, his stance changed, he stood taller, broader, emboldened, his title as the head of the house coming to life before my eyes in shiny, bold letters above his head. He sat back down and continued eating as if nothing had transpired. My stomach churned from fear and nerves, and Lekan and I stared at each other for long minutes, as long as the tense silence lasted.
The second time I saw my father hit my mother, I was more prepared for it, but my mother wasn’t. Perhaps she thought the first time was a fluke, a mishap, but I knew differently. It was in the way my father looked at all of us and in the way he spoke to us after the first time he slapped her. There was a newness to his authority, something unfamiliar and hostile, something that demanded absolute submissiveness with no room for disobedience or opposition. But perhaps I was the only one who felt it, for no one said anything, and so I kept my mouth shut.
Lekan and I were watching TV in the sitting room before bedtime, laughing at Tom and Jerry classics. We had done our homework and had had dinner. My mother was in the kitchen cooking stew for the next day’s lunch. My father was somewhere in the house–he had taken to isolating himself away from us as much as he could. I often imagined him locked away in his solitude feeding his metamorphosis like a growing child. Lekan and I were jolted out of concentration by a loud crash. We ran to the kitchen to see my father holding my mother by the neckline of her blouse, his face a palette of fury. The same look of shock that had captured my mother’s features during the historic breakfast disfigured her face. Tears ran down her face as my father hit her over and over.
Lekan, a few years younger than I was, hid behind me, his shaky hands gripped me tightly. But I was not surprised at the picture I saw. The novelty of my father’s anger had worn off long before that evening. I had already glimpsed the darkness in him I knew was capable of escalating even further. But I was afraid. I feared he would hurt my mother beyond reparation. I feared he would destroy the family and life I loved. I feared he would kill us all. I feared for my mother. I feared for Lekan. I feared for myself. And I feared for our family.
The third and final time I saw him hit my mother, she was ready, armed as if she had been lying in wait for him. I, too, was ready but not for what she had planned for my father. I think my mother started to sense his change after the second time, the same sensation I felt after the first time, and she prepared herself well, ready for whenever he would strike again.
It happened on a Saturday morning. The estate was quiet, everyone still indoors savoring the Saturday morning calm before the bustle of the day ignited. Lekan and I were watching cartoons, the volume low so as not to disturb our parents. One time, Lekan laughed loudly at something on the TV and the sound roared in contrast to the surrounding quiet, so much so that I felt the house rumble.
In the middle of an episode of Scooby Doo, my mother ran out of the bedroom cutting through the early morning tranquility. She winced as she hit her arm against the door frame. She ran straight to the kitchen and my father followed soon after, shouting at her to come back into the room. Lekan and I pursued the mayhem. In the kitchen, my mother stood with her back pressed against the refrigerator, the robe she usually wore over her nightie askew, one side of the rope hanging limply on the ground. One of her eyes was still swollen from the night my father had beat her and her hair was in disarray. My father’s hands were wrapped tightly around her arms shaking her, causing her head to bang against the refrigerator door. He raised his hand and hit her in her face. I felt the blow as if it were delivered to my own face. My mother slumped to the floor.
Lekan was crying silently behind me, his tears falling on my arm. I wanted to run towards my mother but I couldn’t get my legs to move. She looked like a lifeless pile of flesh and fabric. My father stared at her for a few seconds before turning to march out of the kitchen. His eyes had darkened to an unrecognizable shade and he was oblivious to anything else around him, including us. He had killed my mother. I wanted to hurt him, to pound my fists against his chest and demand he bring her back to life, but I stood still, silently praying that by some miracle she would rise and say everything was okay.
As if God were standing right next to me, listening to my heart, my mother stood up on shaky legs. She reached for the rolling pin on the counter top and lunged forward with all the strength she could gather, screaming like a woman who had nothing else to lose.
“Tom!” Her voice thundered and I felt the echo in my bones as she called out to my father.
She stomped past us, also oblivious to anything else around her. It was as if we had suddenly become invisible to them. Lekan’s hold tightened and it hurt my arm, but I couldn’t shake him off, I was meant to be his protector so I allowed him transfer his fear and pain into my body.
“This is the last time you will ever lay your hands on me. Do you hear me?”
My mother spoke to my father’s back. He had stopped in the middle of the hallway at the sound of my mother’s roar. I could see him trembling as he waited for my mother, his shoulders heaving, his anger feeding the darkness and giving it renewed purpose. I was afraid. I thought my mother’s thunder was no match for his dark storm. He would have her laying on the ground once again, a lifeless pile.
“Bukky, come and say it to my face,” he said, his voice was surprisingly steady.
“Am I not talking to you? You think I fear you? Are you not a mere man? No one has died and made you God, and I will never bow down to you. I do not fear you, do you hear me? I do not fear you.” She spoke as though she were addressing the darkness and not my father. She reached him and circled to his front.
Her words held me captive. The strength in her voice entranced me. The power of her courage seemed to form a shield around her.
“Bukky, I said, say it to my face.”
I imagined my father’s face contorted with anger, his eyes bulging, and his fists itching to make contact with my mother’s skin.
“I said,” my mother said slowly, looking into his eyes, “I do not fear you.”
My father’s shaking became more intense. “Bukky, I will show you that you should be afraid of me.” My father also spoke slowly. “I am the head of this house and if you will not respect me the way I should be respected, then I will force that respect out of you.”
“Do your worst. If you think you can force respect out of me, go ahead and try it, and I will show you that you have no control over me. Go ahead, try it. You hear me? Do your worst.” She stood her ground.
Pride bubbled in my chest. She was a vision standing in that hallway, eye to eye with my father, her courage matching his darkness.
All the while, Lekan and I stood by the kitchen door watching them as if watching a movie.
My father raised his hand to strike. My breath caught in my throat. That was it, my mother was going to die. But if she too saw her death, she chose to challenge it for she also raised her hand, the rolling pin strong as a sword in her grip. My father hesitated, surprised. Then my mother struck, the rolling pin coming in contact with my father’s head. The sound reverberated through the house.
Lekan gasped behind me. I felt it in my body. Or was I the one who gasped?
My father sank to the floor, and my mother stood over him, peering down at him.
“Do you hear me now, Tom?” She stood tall like a fortress, never arching closer to his level. “Can you see that I am not afraid of you. Is it because I allowed you to slap me a few times that you thought you could continue to beat me whenever you felt like it? And in front of our children, too? Don’t you feel any shame, Tom? You of all people should know that I am not that type of a woman to sit still and take beatings anyhow.” She paused, taking in a deep breath as if reining in her emotions. “You are supposed to know better, Tom, to treat me better. How can you be showing our children it is okay to treat your wife in this way? No, I will not allow you to continue to do so, I will not.”
She threw down the rolling pin. My father seemed to cower. I let out a deep breath as my body started to relax.
I wanted to applaud my mother. My heart leapt in my chest with admiration. I was proud of the woman I saw before me, the woman who was usually not a violent person but whose silent will had endured enough at the risk of being trampled on. A woman whose usual way was to approach life with a calmness that was sure to set your spirit at ease just by being in her presence. This woman I had never seen be violent–not even once did she hit us when she corrected us–had me looking at her in amazement.
My mother, as if finally noticing we were standing close by, straightened her robe and looked at us with a softness in her eyes. The look spoke to me more than any words could have conveyed her emotions. I looked back, hoping my look conveyed everything I felt for her. She walked towards us, and taking us by the hands, she led us out of the house.
It was my turn to hold tightly to someone’s hand, and I held on to my mother’s hand like she was my lifeline. My heart urged her forward, silently cheering her on and swelling with awe at her transformation which had been catapulted by my father’s own transformation. I had seen her rise out from her trials, like a warrior emerging from surrounding flames. It was truly a sight to behold.
My mother took us to the car, buckled us in, started the engine and drove off. Not once did she pause to look back at the house. It was a statement that she was done with it; she had dusted her hands and shaken off all the dirt.
“Mummy, where are we going?” Lekan asked, his voice full of unspoken emotions.
“I don’t know, Lekan,” my mother replied, suddenly sounding defeated.
The adrenaline that pushed her to take action had subsided and her shoulders dropped low as if she had lost all her courage. She seemed to be shrinking in size as she clung to the steering wheel with both hands. She hadn’t planned for the aftermath of that morning, none of us had.
“It’s okay, Mummy. As long as we are together, it doesn’t matter where we go. We will be fine.” My voice sounded big as if it knew the new responsibilities I now had before me.
Looking at us through the rearview mirror, she said, “Seye, Lekan, listen to me and remember this always. You must never let any one walk all over you like you are a piece of rag. No one has a right to drag you down through the dirt and treat you like you are nothing. You are not nothing; you are human beings created in the image of God, remember that. You are beautiful, you are intelligent, you are powerful beyond what you can ever imagine, and you are special and will always be special to me. Do not let fear ever hold you back.” Tears glistened in her eyes.
“Yes, Mummy,” Lekan and I both responded.
Tears glistened in my own eyes, but I wiped them away before they fell. I didn’t want Lekan or my mother to see me cry. I had to be strong, just like my mother was. The way she had been that morning as I saw her soar before my eyes as though she had sprouted wings from her back. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
I stared out of the window as my thoughts drifted to other homes with fathers and mothers locked away in their solitudes feeding their metamorphoses like growing children. Of children watching cartoons with the volume low so as not to disturb their parents, ignorant of what was happening around them. I wondered what journeys their roads would take them on. If they would end up like my mother, Lekan and me, choosing to revolt and drive away, or if they would stand still in the darkness with their eyes closed praying not be left a pile of flesh and fabric.
We drove out of the estate, the tranquility around us seemingly unaffected by the uprising that occurred in our house.