THE LANDSCAPE OF TALLY, AN INHERITANCE
Someone once told me lies are necessary. I agree. Some lies are subtle, like the smell of clothes that have not been properly dried. It is intangible, you know it is there, but you cannot place your finger on it.
Some lies are necessary to keep the world rotating, necessary to keep from going mad, necessary. However, the lies we tell ourselves to keep from going mad are the very ones that make us go mad.
I started cutting when I was 13. There was no great, tragic event leading up to it. It was a public holiday and I was bored in bed, fiddling with a keychain that had this generic nail file set and trying not to think about my mom. The blade wasn’t even a blade, it was not made for slicing through flesh.
I’d watched as the crimson seeped, rich with life. It bubbled like Mom’s laughter and I laughed along with her. I felt full, I felt like I could breathe again and so I did it again, and again and again. And again. That night, as Dad saw the plaster on my arm, alarmed, he asked what happened. I can’t remember the answer I gave but it must have worked. Of course, I stopped wearing short-sleeved and sleeveless clothing. It wasn’t that I was ashamed. No, I wanted to keep it my little secret, like a stray kitten, kept without permission.
My inner arm was now a landscape of hash marks. I caressed it softly, and purred, like that kitten. But kittens grow into cats, and their purrs become louder and louder until they are roars.
Dad found me. I’d cut a little too deep and passed out. I woke up in the hospital, wrists heavily bandaged, arms bare.
I scrambled to cover them, shame swelling in my throat, thinking frantically:
I’m too open, I’m too open. Nobody is supposed to see.
The shame surprised me. It wasn’t something I’d ever associated with this habit of release.
Dad stared at me, tears trembling in his eyes.
“This is what I tried to protect you from, this illness.”
I stared back at him, not understanding.
“Your mother, she had this same sickness.”
My heart started to pound as I continued to stare at my father. He hadn’t mentioned my mom since she died.
I remember her laughter. The texture and depth of it, how it always sounded like it burst out of her on its own volition, like the bubbles in champagne or like lava from a volcano – unstoppable. I remember how happy it always made me, how I used to laugh along even when I didn’t know why she laughed. I remember searching for her one day and followed the sound of that laugh to the bathroom. I remember seeing her seated on the closed toilet seat, the tiny starbursts of colour contrasting with the stark white of the bathroom tile. I remember the raised lines on the dark skin of her forearm and the brightness of her eyes as she looked up and saw me. Pulling down the sleeve of her blouse to hide the scars, she smiled at me.
“Mummy, blood!!” Strangely upset at the tiny drops on the floor, I started to cry, forgetting why I had been searching for her in the first place.
Drawing me to her body, she hugged me and wiped my face, her blood mixing with my tears, gliding across my cheek.
“It’s okay, Feyi. I’m okay. Let me tell you a secret.”
She whispered a long-forgotten joke in my ear and we both giggled.
Soon the bathroom was filled with sounds of our laughter, my high-pitched giggles complementing the more rounded sound of hers.
“I love you, mommy,” I said, my small hand patting her cheek. She looked at me, eyes bright with tears, from all the laughter or maybe not.
“I love you more, Feyisope mi. Light of my life.”
I remember her laughter and I remember the day it started and didn’t stop. I had been laughing with her as I usually did. It had dragged on and on, a warbling thing. The laughter stopped only when she paused to murmur something in a conversation only she could witness.
My laughter faded as hers grew more intense, a lot less like hilarity.
At the hospital, they referred us to the other hospital. The one they said was for mad people. The doctor said she had psychosis.
“Daddy, what is that?” I asked, tugging on the sleeve of his shirt.
“It means that mommy’s brain is sick, Feyi. But don’t worry, mommy will get better and she can come back home.” I nodded, completely trusting. But she hadn’t come back home. She died in that hospital six years later, the year I turned twelve. The cutting began after that. I lied when I said there was no great tragedy leading up to it. One of my necessary lies.
Now, another six years later, fear creeping up my throat like spiders, I stared at my father as he told me I had become my mother. The spiders burst out my mouth, becoming words, quivering.
“Are you going to send me away like mommy?”
Dad stared at me, his tears finally falling.
My terror was an alive thing, feeding on me from the inside as I waited for his answer. I started making promises I knew I could never keep.
Along with the necessary lies, there are those lies we tell others and they choose to believe because they are afraid of the truth. Or maybe they are all one and the same. Two years after, two years after Dad had refused to have me committed despite the advice of the doctors, the kitten had become a tiger and was craving its release. I gave in, how could I not? Another lie. Or maybe a truth? I do not know anymore.
As I watched the familiar swell of lifeblood, the vice around my chest loosened just a little bit.
This time it was Didi, our housekeeper, who found me. When I opened my eyes, three days later, the truth sat on my chest and stared me down. She was heavy and brutal. She forced me to look at the lies and see the havoc they wreaked. I saw the damage in the lines on my father’s face and the bend of his back as he napped in a chair beside my bed. Truth gave me a choice: I could continue with the lies that would eventually end us like it ended my mom. End the only other person I loved more than myself. Or I could do the other thing, the one that made terror become a wild animal inside of me. I had to become my mother, but I had to be victorious this time.
When Dad blinked awake, I let go of the lies. The necessary ones, the ones that kept me from going mad. The ones that drove me mad and spoke the truth even when she shred my lips to ribbons with her thorns.
“Dad, I need help.” The sobs came out of nowhere, heaving from my chest, freeing me.
“I know, Feyi. I know, my darling.”