Illustration by Pedro Gomes

My twin sister’s name is Nkemakonam. Mine, Nkemjika. Both names are twin siblings of the word ownership. Silly names from silly parents with no things, given to girls with no one, maybe, a quarter-parent. Our father, when he was here, was a brain of dreams, always reclining to smile, to say riches would be his. That the winds of the world would dry his sweats to blow in wealth.

Our mother was a runner. She began running after our father died drunk in a nearby dump. People said he was poisoned, our father. It didn’t matter. He was a truck driver who, every other night, drove plastics from Lagos to Awka and back. On the rare days he was home, we would be in school, but by evening he would be out drinking. He was a screamer, our father. He once bashed my head against the wall for coming home late, and for weeks I carried around the wound, a watermark saying, hey, I’m the stung child of a strong man. I liked him the way thieves didn’t take things, and because thieves were always taking things, it meant I didn’t like him at all. The way he burned my skin and my sister’s skin, our injuries, our bruises, clanging bells — bells telling men to flee.

But I might guess our father made our mother happy — that much I could say — so happy his death took something from her. It would start with her in the kitchen prepping meals, cascades of meals. Jesus brought her home to cook for Him, for His twelve disciples too. It was what she said. In the days following, she would sit before the served meals, hands on her lap. The food would sour; the food would rot; ants would come, but she would sit, eyes on the clock. Always, I tried to clear the food. But she would smile and, with one finger, touch my hand. Then, calmly, like all of it was the norm, the way every mother lived, she would pack the plates, wash the plates. Nothing else seeming absurd, or less than normal. She, staying calm, singing happy, talking fast, returning to her shop, stuffing the house with foods, paying rents, paying bills, dashing out money, buying clothes: for orphanages, for wealthier cousins, for her mother.

The spending was usually the last phase. From there, she would swallow air and take a flight. For more than three times we tried to follow her, but either one of us fell and got injured or a big bus blocked our views, so we stopped. Anyway, we knew she would be gone three to four days, say, and then return.

Controlled madness. Our mother was a controlled madness.

This time it was burnt beans that launched her. I’d smelled smoke from the kitchen, dashed there, found the smoke seizing the air, asked my sister, o gini, Jesus, Nkemakonam, where was your mind? Then our mother, coughing, she everywhere, moving from room to room, picking up and dropping her clothes and ignoring us all through it. My sister stood swayback, fumbling with the kitchen ladle, saying, sorry, Mum, sorry. But our mother ignored us, as if me and my sister were strangers, as if we were blocking her pavement or about to steal her purse. Our Mum, look at me and our Mum, please stop did nothing. When an excited fire gets eager to rake things, what water can stop it?

Without checking the mirror to see how bad she looked, Mother kicked open the door, ran down the stairs, ran into the night, screaming, take me, Jesus, Jesus, take me! We heard our neighbors rustling or laughing, and we were sure they leaned against their balconies to watch. From the second floor, we traced her — our mother — as she ran, her satin nightgown buried in her body, shadow leaning. And again, we wished our street had more than four functional lights. My sister slipped to the floor, her face in her hands. When she pulled the hands away, she said, let’s kill ourselves. My sister was always talking stupid.

Three days after, when school closed, we didn’t go for our result sheets. No one to show them to because no one would ask. No one had ever asked, even when our father was alive, though there was one unfortunate time. My sister had brought home her result sheet, had opened it, shrugged, then thrown it on the floor — probably to be torn up later. But suddenly our father ran in from a pepper-stew party with his two hands on his butt. The pressure of the shit with the fear on his face, with the sweats on his face. Jesus Christ. I was standing there, and I was worried for him. Because what if? Before he rushed to the toilet, I watched him pick up the innocent-looking brown paper that contained my sister’s failure. Later, our father ran from that toilet to break my sister’s forehead.

The night of the fourth day, we played swell; we played uga, but my sister cheated so many good times I got bored. She went to cook rice, burned the rice, had her hands over her face. I believed my sister was going to cry. But she said, no, not at all, I was doing ugly face. We watched ourselves. We would’ve watched TV, but two years ago, two thieves tried to steal the transformer in the middle of the night, until the rain started, shocked them dead. From then on, when we passed by the transformer, we remembered the dead thieves. Once, my sister asked if I thought those thieves were afraid. I said, yes, they were afraid of hunger, also of being nothing, which makes sense because now they are things, death things. My sister said, better to be afraid of shame than hunger. I said, yes, that. We were returning from school, our mouths not as hungry as our stomachs, so we talked, talked, stayed away from the expressway because death glued people there. An okada rider ran into a boy returning from school, and he lost his schoolbag, his food flask, his water bottle, his wallet, and his head. But we, we were in our royal-blue pinafores, icy-blue inner blouses, feeling well. Earlier in school, during recess, Dr. Ken Katas kept the whole school on the assembly ground, his head bopping, all sweats, his right hand clasping the microphone, his other hand flapping a white handkerchief, his mouth his gunfire. He said, humans are nothing but ashes, but God is life. Then he asked if we’ve ever held something in our hands while still looking for the same thing. Everyone shouted, yes! He spread his palms, and the microphone screeched as he said, you see, you see. Humans don’t even know what humans have. Humans will never know what humans have. Until we run to God. My sister asked me why he used the word run. I shrugged. She asked me if God created us as runners, like our mother. I shrugged. Then she asked me if I knew what I have. I said, who knows?

Six days after. Jesus hadn’t wheeled back our mother. Me and my sister held hands and prayed, my sister bopping her head, saying, God, please help, saying, God, we will fast tomorrow, I promise you, God. We fasted. We were running out of food anyway. While we were waiting, our neighbors had dashed us foodstuff, took gossips from our mouths, but our gossips had run out. Still, our mother didn’t return. We walked to the police station by Aroma Junction to make a report, and the first man we met was tall with red eyes. My sister’s legs became wobbly. Three years ago, when we were ten, policepeople killed our cousin. I remembered our mother, the way her hands shook as she told us the story, holding our cousin’s picture, the one in which he stood behind a church, bare-chested in chino shorts, doing his face like beauty was all he wanted.

My sister said, let’s go. I turned. But the man had seen us, called after us, small girls, small girls. We walked to him, my sister hiding behind me. Yet the man saw her clear enough to say, your lips are small and puffed, fine like a celebrity own, you get boyfriend, eh small girl? He laughed, his head falling back. I wished I was adult enough to snap that head. I held my sister’s hand, said, okay, let’s go. He called after us, laughing.

We decided to do what we didn’t want to do: go to our grandma’s village. By grandma, I mean our mother’s mother. Grandma was a lot. A politician stole her house. The politician, nearing old age, knew it was time to die but, wanting his name to stay forevermore, decided it was time to build a ministadium, and so he paid people miserly sums to steal their lands. Grandma refused the money. Said over her dead body. Still, Grandma lived to stare as yellow Caterpillars carried her house, to watch dust make nothing from her things. She fell to the earth, begged the politician to take her life. He said over his own dead body. He said he was kind, too kind; it was why he secured the area, kept it swamped with men. Our mother said one of them picked up Grandma like she was a slice of dry bread, carried Grandma on his head, ignored her throwing of hands, her throwing of legs, the curses in her mouth. The excavation was over in a minute. All the memories in that house, all the love shared, buried secrets, home jokes — everything went off in a puff, that easily ruined, like burning braids. When our mother finished this story, my sister said, when I become a president, I’ll build a church, build a mosque, burn the church, tell the priests the imams did it. While they fight, I’ll steal their houses. I hissed, closed my eyes, thanked Jesus for keeping my head in order.

After breaking our mother’s safe, a wooden box, we saw just two thousand naira. We wanted to cry but weren’t surprised. It was our mother’s eighth safe since this year. Throwing clothes into our schoolbags, we locked the door. When we got to Temp-Site, we stood opposite the flyover. It was sunny, drizzling on trays of boiled groundnuts, Gala, hawkers who pushed bowls to our faces, and music shops with their booms of Falz or Wizkid. One woman stepped on my sister’s toes, then turned around to accuse my sister of stepping on her toes. To be sincere, I wasn’t sure who stepped on whom, but, of course, my sister’s eyes were red immediately. I faced the woman, asked, are you mad? She said, what? I said, are you okay in the head? Her eyes widened. I said, fuck you, said, talk to my sister again, and then I pulled my sister, ran. We thought she chased us. But when I looked and saw no one, we stopped, bent over laughing, panting.

We took Anambra Mass Transit, a green bus that traveled straight to Okija. The bus sang rickety-rickety, then Fonsi’s “Despacito,” the air endlessly foul. My sister said the passengers wore smells reserved for goats. A man at the back raised his neck to shout at the driver, said, Oga, stop playing white people’s English songs; biko play Flavour’s “Nnekata” — weird because who said “Despacito” was English? My sister placed her bag on my lap, placed her head on the bag. Things went smooth — well, not the roads, as potholed as they were. Few police checkpoints. Even the driver was no-nonsense, meaning he had enough money to pay off police bullying. He drove so fast. A big woman shouted, easy o, Oga, biko! I’ve got mouths to feed. He didn’t stop till the wind snatched a woman’s wig. The woman was on the phone before then, but as soon as the breeze snatched her wig, she hit the bus, shouted, wig m dapulu, kwuzi, hey, ah! The driver stopped. But he saw a dreadlocked boy running off with the wig and said, it is finished. The woman said, God forbid. She got down, chased after the boy. The driver sped off. He said, the woman might be a thief, you people know, right? He began to say it in English, but when he stammered after one sentence, he switched to Igbo and then to Engligbo, said, this woman bu onye oshi, I swear to God ife a bu planned deal.

Our uncle James, living in Lagos, gave Grandma a room in his bungalow. So she stayed alone in that brown house. We peeped through a small hole in her door: Grandma was eating beans, ignoring our knock, her wrinkled eyes watery, her gray hair in a black headwrap. When we knocked the third time, she hid the plate under a table, jiggled to the door. After she saw us, she pulled out the beans, presented the half-finished food to our faces, asked if we would want to eat.

The rest of the night heard her complaining. About our mother. She went on, on: what kind of a woman runs out of the house? James my in-law ran from his bad wife because she gave birth to eight girls. At least that was logical. Eight girls? God forbid the trouble. Ah! Trouble brewing trouble. Aru. Me too, as a man, I’d run. Too many girls. I had a bad daughter like her but didn’t run, yet here she is running. Are you girls bad? Tell me. Are you girls bad? Unu enwere boyfriend? Answer me. We shook our heads. She said, I know. You girls are not bad, but really good, you girls are good. My daughter is bad from birth. Does she even cook? I tell you girls, when she was thirteen like you, she flushed the soups in my pot, said an angel said I looked like a witch. Tell me, do I look like a witch? My God, I beat her so bad she got lost for weeks.

Two days later, my sister became sick. Our grandma spread her hands to say, wo, no money o. She toweled my sister’s body with cold water, left the window open, turned on her fan, said it would chill the hot skin. I said, okay. I cooked rice and sat near the pot so it wouldn’t burn. Still, my sister would not eat. Our grandma said, it’s fine — my sister was getting fat, after all — but she agreed we would go to the hospital. But that night, she took us to a chemist’s shop, which I think was a fair move because we knew how other people took their people to a nearby church named Hospital of Jesus. We sidled into the shop, sat on the bench, scrunched our noses to avoid the drugs smelling. The chemist was a bleached man, his face the color of fried groundnut oil. I pitied my sister, the way he touched her. Across the road, by the church, girls stood in the dark for men. I stole a small torch from the counter, went out to ask if they knew my mother. They laughed with their heels dragging them back, with their clownish lipsticks. One of them said I shouldn’t pretend too much that she was a giver who could free me a man. I flashed the light onto her face, said, my mother is tall and fair, with a big bald head. But that one was indeed a giver, as she freed her time to pull off her wig and hit me with it. When I staggered back to the chemist’s shop, Grandma carried her hands on her head, her tears reaching her nose, and so I said to myself that Grandma wasn’t crying this real because I received beats. Grandma was crying this real because she would spend money to treat me.

Days to the gubernatorial election, and Grandma told us our mother told us the wrong date of birth. She said we were dwarves, and because we were not thirteen but eighteen, we should go to the square. I wore my Kitos, said to my sister, oya. We walked past boys washing cars for money, walked past women trading at Nkwo market, walked behind cars passing the road with squishes, walked by bus stops and the dust clouding them, eyed the ministadium and its riotous decorations. At the square, we told the man behind the computer exactly what our grandma said, and he nodded without doubts, took our pictures, said, don’t smile, no, do not smile, I need your two ears. After, he gave us voters’ cards, laminated and white, our pictures staring back from insets like we were small girls of God with a mother at home. A policeman and then a man with a big stomach patted our buttocks, said, good girls, good girls, leaders of tomorrow. I called him foolish, forgetting policemen were next to murderers and only remembering after my mouth said it, so in a panic I asked God if the man heard. The policeman didn’t do anything. His silence was God’s answer. I said, thank God. When we got home, our grandma said, good girls, good girls, leaders of tomorrow. She made us three packs of Indomie noodles, asked us to eat fast so we could go for ice cream. I loved ice cream. I shoved my plate under the bed, wore my Kitos again, said, ready o.

We walked behind Grandma as she walked up dust. Where we got to was not an ice-cream shop but a small hall cramped with people. We stood behind a man with a head like a house. We weren’t sure what happened in the front, but we knew that someone there shared rice, that another one shared oil, and that the recipients of these must say yes, swear a promise to vote for the Action Party, or say no and get a slap in the head and then nothing. A promise was an oath, also an emptiness, also a sentence with no doing word, also a soft hum, but basically a mouth movement that was nothing but a no-smell fart.

At once, a fight started, with people running to-from and scattering the queue. The security men, to cause a distraction, stormed out, raised their guns, hid the sky with bullets. I want to say they looked hot like tiny stars, but there should be nothing shiny about terror. Me and my sister dodged behind our grandma, who dodged behind the woman sharing rice in case the woman decided to run with the rice. After a small time, things settled. People calmed themselves with laughter and chatters. In the new queue, we, again, ended up behind the man with a head like a house. Until the man fainted, falling doom like ten drums. People yelled. I yelled too: Jesus me, hey no! Four young men carried him out. They said, it’s heat, go home. Jesus will provide. People murmured. Go home because of just heat? Why? The hunger at home doesn’t kill? Hasn’t hunger smothered bodies till they become bones? A woman behind Grandma begged heat to rise more, make people faint; how else would the line get less? She was laughing, but, trust me, she was serious. It took us two hours to get to the front. I got three painters of rice, half a gallon of groundnut oil, nodded yes, I’ll vote for AP. We went to get more foodstuff from more political parties, said yes, we would vote for this party or that party. We voted zero party. On election day, Grandma bought bottles of Coke, cooked party jollof rice, turned on the TV. We ate. We drank, happy. When she said, thief men, we echoed, madmen. After, she hissed, said: stand under the sun for what?

That night, I could not sleep. Even though my sister’s eyes were closed, I knew she could not sleep, too. She opened her eyes, said to me: what are you thinking about? I said: who, me? I was thinking how water could birth a tiny stone. Our mother was a tiny stone, thrown around by something beyond her. Grandma was water, flowing to where it wanted, as it wanted, when it wanted. I wanted to be Grandma when I grew up. With her heart of armor, bearing things that should be borne and drowning things that should be drowned. My sister asked if I thought our mother was safe. I knew she was safe. She was always safe. Both of us watched a vivid star watching us, listened to the crickets singing, the speeding cars. My sister said we were lucky we were not home because by this time with our mother, we might be cooking or praying, or sewing. Some nights our mother would wake us up and ask us to sew pants, to make new underwear from old curtains or old clothes, anything. The next day she would take them to God knows where. My sister said: orphanage and homeless children. My mouth was full of words, but I said nothing. My sister liked everything about our mother. Me, I liked our mother because a mother is a mother.

A week to Christmas Day, there was a party at a nearby community school. We went with Grandma. If your mother doesn’t return, Grandma said, you will school here after the holiday. At the school’s party, there was rice and soda and water, laughter, a tiny piece of meat, dust, and performances from the students. I thought the fashion parade in which the kids dressed up like their mothers was cool. If anyone asked me to dress like my mother, I would wear a tracksuit. After the performances, the kids came out to dance, waving at Father Christmas, their steps organized, lifting whiffs of dust. Parents stood up, sprayed them with money. It was my sister who noticed Father Christmas picking the money up from the floor, stuffing it inside a big red pocket, bells jingling. My sister slapped my head to say, see, Father Christmas has familiar eyes. Back at home, I found Grandma sitting on the floor with her legs apart, and before the legs were scatters of folded money. She was picking them up, straightening them, then saw me. I didn’t know what to say, so I smiled. Face paint still under her eyes, she smiled back. Said, you know Father Christmas slept off and forgot who he was. I stepped in, saved the day; showed them Father Christmas is a good job, not a man’s job.

That night my sister had a dream. In her dream, she said, our mother was running inside a big red drum while we were standing outside it, holding a stainless plate. I said, hmm, you think she’s stuck somewhere? But as my sister looked up to the sky like she wanted to cry, I sighed, said, Nkemakonam, your mother may not be coming soon, but wait. Christmas rice is coming; it’s just a dream. She touched her forehead.

On the eve of Christmas, Grandma almost killed a man. Foolish one, that man. He brought two bottles of wine, two bags of rice, said they were gifts from the politician who stole the house. He said the politician saw us at the election hall, felt it right to tell Grandma that he liked us. Well, not both of us, just my sister, which was eye-opening, for I’d always thought I was prettier. The man said the politician said the gifts would be everlasting, the beginning of nice things to come. Grandma said, good. She took the gifts to the kitchen, reemerged with a cutlass. When the man saw her, he stood to his feet, bent to take his wallet from the chair. But Grandma pointed at the wallet with her cutlass, said, leave it there for good. The man said, ah mama, but it’s mine. Grandma said, let that mama word tie your tongue, anu, rie nsi there. Do you and your Oga know my granddaughter’s age? Are you both maniacs? After stealing my house? You want to steal my child? Grandma lifted her cutlass.

Thank God, the man ran out. He hit his head on the wall but didn’t stop. His shirt formed a big balloon behind him as he ran.

Then the door banged open. From wind, I thought. My sister saw her first. I knew from just the way she stood, her eyes open, her palms over her mouth like split leaves. Our mother was wearing our father’s long red robe, her bald head as smooth as her face. I wanted to say, where have you been? But I knew she would say, in my room. It’s what she always said. I asked anyway. She pointed to one of the locked rooms in Uncle James’s house. But she was smiling, her dimples showing. I looked away so that not even me would see my tears. Grandma said, Olaedo, sit down. Our mother slumped into the chair, asked for food. As I dished her meal, I heard my sister going around and picking up our clothes. When I walked into the room, she was crying. She asked if I thought our mother would run again. I hugged her, pinned her to me, said, birds will always fly. I said, we’ll always come stay with Grandma, okay? We’ll always come watch her be Father Christmas, okay? My sister sniffed, nodded. Grandma walked into the room holding underwear; she’d used her old curtains to make them for us. I asked her if she was calling us homeless. My sister said, at least now she won’t hide her beans. Grandma said, okay, go to your mother, good girls, good girls. Our grandma had become ours, the one parent we had. Nke-anyi.

The next day we might go home, and our mother might return to her shop, rebegin savings, be happy, but none of it meant that the things to come would not come. Ready or not, they would. And she, butter-fried with obedience, would give herself away, her strengths, especially her strengths, and then rush off, run, return, nurture the cycle, keep it endless, meaningless, endless. Until maybe, probably, death.

Adachioma Ezeano

Adachioma Ezeano is a 2021 O. Henry Prize recipient. She is an alumna of the Purple Hibiscus Writing Workshop, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Granta, McSweeney’s Quarterly, FlashBack Fiction, The Best Small Fictions 2020, and The Best Short Stories 2021.