Of Layers and Pain



“Die. Die. Die. Die!”

I placed both palms over my ears and closed my eyes as if that would stop me from hearing it.

“Hahahahahahaha. Die!”

I shook my head. “No!” I replied.


It seemed my firm reply had shut the voice up. Slowly, I moved my hands away from my head and opened my eyes. I was still in my bedroom; still seated cross-legged on my bed. The unopened bottle of pills still lay in front of me. I took a deep breath.

“You know dying is better than living, right?”

“Aaaaarrrrgh!” I shouted. My hands flew to my ears again. “Leave me alone!”

The voice chuckled. “Why?” It asked. “I’m your only friend. I’m the only one who cares. Do you really want me to leave?”

I jumped from the bed and rushed out of my bedroom, down the stairs and into the kitchen. I turned the faucet and washed my face in the sink, then wiped it with a paper towel. I was panting. I looked out the window above the sink and saw through our overgrown lawn the house across the road from ours. Mr. and Mrs. Sunders and their three children Maya, Sarah, and Justin lived there. Mrs. Sunders was out on their lawn playing with her three toddlers. They looked happy. Justin was the youngest, and the love his older sisters had for the little chap was obvious as they played. I looked down into the sink, blinking away the tears that had formed in my eyes.

The voice was no more. I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself. I won’t kill myself. Not yet. I thought.

“You should.” It was the voice again.

This time, I decided to engage it.

“Why?” I whispered as I walked back to my bedroom.

“No one will notice. No one cares.” It responded.

“And how will killing myself solve anything?”

It chuckled, “You will be happier. You will finally rest.”

I opened my bedroom door, walked to the bed and lay down. “I feel like I need to stick around to protect mom,” I said.

Another chuckle, “She couldn’t care less. She’s far gone now. Why do you think she won’t leave Jeremy? Why do you think she won’t press charges?”

I sighed.

“You know I’m right.” It coaxed.

“You are,” I replied.

My mother and I constantly fought because she continued to allow Jeremy hurt her and treat her like shit. Even after he murdered my little brother Promise in a fit of rage by repeatedly slamming his head against the bathroom wall and later claimed it was an accident, she believed him. She didn’t report to the police. She said she was in love and that Jeremy was her soul mate. During one of our fights, she threw a kitchen knife in my direction as she screamed obscenities at me. The knife grazed my neck. An inch closer and I would have been dead. That day, she called me a mistake. She called my late father a weakling; she said Jeremy was strong; that Jeremy would not die on her like my wimp of a father, who died of Malaria shortly after returning from a brief working trip to Malawi. She said she hated me. I no longer existed to her. She spat at me and warned that if I didn’t quit bothering her about Jeremy, she would throw me out of the house. I couldn’t believe my own mother had thrown a knife at me. I was only trying to protect her from a monster. She was the only family I had left. That day, over a month ago, was the day we had our last major fight. It was the day I started hearing the voice.

I heard the door slam shut downstairs. Someone had just walked into the house. I sat up abruptly and my eyes flew to the round clock hanging on my wall. It was 4:12 pm. I sighed, relieved. It could not be Jeremy, probably mom. I never knew where she went these days. She would just up and leave the house once Jeremy was gone to his truck-driving job for the paint company ColorWorld. She would not return till early evening to make dinner for him. I didn’t matter of course. I had to care for myself. The time Jeremy arrived from work at nine and mom didn’t have dinner ready yet because she had been sick all day and slow to finish, he unleashed his rage on her and almost killed her. I tried to intervene and ended up with the wide scar on my upper arm where he twisted it so hard, it broke. My mother woke the next day with one eye swollen shut and bruises all over her body. She did not go to the hospital, and she did not send me to the hospital either. She tied my broken arm in a tourniquet and applied cold compress to her wounds. She fed me with Ibuprofen pills till I was almost numb. I couldn’t believe she was going to let everything slide. The voice, which had started as a whisper, became louder and more frequent.

I could hear clattering sounds coming from the kitchen and I knew for sure that it was mom who had returned. Before Jeremy, whenever she returned from work, she would call out my name, or Promise’s name, to know if we were home from school. We would run downstairs and engulf her in a hug. Now, she didn’t call. The voice was right. If I killed myself, she wouldn’t care. These days, she didn’t care if I was alive or dead anyway. She had thrown a knife at me. My life meant nothing to her.

I walked down the stairs into the kitchen. Mom was by the sink; in the same spot I had been standing and washing my face just minutes ago. Her head was bent and I could hear her quietly weeping. What has happened now? I thought. I looked over to the stovetop. Something was cooking. It smelled like potatoes. She was obviously in the process of making dinner. I was afraid to walk up to her, but something drew me. I took a step forward and she raised her head. She turned around to face me and I swallowed a gasp. Her eyes were darkened from her mascara running. They left black marks on her face where her tears had run. I took a good look at her. We had not seen much of each other lately although we lived in the same building. I did my best to avoid her since the last fight we had. She looked terrible. Her eyes were hollow sockets and she had wrinkles all over her face. She looked seventy when she was only thirty-eight. She was gaunt, her thin neck extending from her very visible collarbones. Her arms were skinny and covered in light purple scars in different places.

“W—would you like dinner?” She stammered. “I’m m—making mashed potatoes.”

My head spun. I could not believe what I had just heard, but I slowly nodded a yes. Mother had not asked me if I wanted to eat in a long time. “Why are you crying?” I whispered hoarsely. My mouth was dry.

Fresh tears ran down her face. “J—Jeremy died.”

This time, I couldn’t hold back the gasp, “What?”

“His truck was in an accident.” Mom replied. “He died instantly. I just identified his body at the morgue.” A pause. “Would you—would you like dinner? Would you?” She asked again. Her eyes, bloodshot and brimming with fresh tears, were pleading. They were apologetic. They showed regret. They were penitent.

I knew she was trying to say how sorry she was, but she couldn’t mouth the words. I saw it all in her eyes, in her offer to make me dinner, in her tears, and then I knew. I knew that if I had killed myself today someone would have cared. She would have cared. Relief washed all over me and tears brimmed in my eyes as I whispered, “Yes, mom. I’d like dinner very much.”

She smiled, nodded, then turned around and began sobbing. I watched her for a few minutes, wiping my own tears with the back of my palm. My mother was still in there somewhere, buried deep within the shell whose shoulders were now shaking vigorously. All hope was not lost. I turned around and walked back up the stairs to my bedroom, leaving her to grieve.

Once inside my bedroom, I closed the door and rested my back on it, let out a deep breath and whispered to the voice, “I knew I shouldn’t have killed myself today.”


“Are you there?”


I smiled. “Well, goodbye then.”

I walked to the bed, lay down and soon drifted into a peaceful sleep.

Such is Life




Strange, how things happen.

Growing up in an impoverished family is something no one should have to experience. But I experienced it. I, Nnedi, experienced it. I know what it is like to have your mother boil stone, pretending to be making dinner, telling you that the food isn’t ready, until tired and hungry you fall asleep. I know the stabbing feeling of waking up in the middle of the night to pee and hearing your mother sob. Oh, and I know what it is to have a drunkard for a father. He wasn’t always a horrible man. He used to be “normal”, but he got laid off by a company that he sacrificed a lot to help build. He was the victim of a cruel plot by people who envied him. The company did not remember all his years of diligence and loyalty. They did not bother to interrogate him or investigate the matter as a way of giving him the benefit of the doubt. They flung him out like a dirty rag. I guess it made something in him snap. He was never the same. He died drunk, at a beer parlor not far from the house, so I believe he died not thinking of his sorrows, which is a good way to die.

Mother raised her four children by herself after father’s death, but without an education and a decent job, it was not easy. Things degenerated and so we became poor. Family and friends disappeared after father became a different person. I have not seen or heard of them since then.

I grew up angry. I was always getting into fights in the neighborhood. I was getting into fights in the elementary school which I attended free of charge thanks to the government. I had a short fuse. I was hot tempered. I can’t really say why I was so angry as a child. Perhaps it was due to the constant disappointment life handed me. No one seemed to understand me. People laughed at my tattered look. They laughed at my dreadlocks, which emerged because we had no comb, they laughed at my calloused feet and dry palms. They laughed because my mother died by hanging herself. It was a shameful way to die, I admit. She gave up on us, just like father gave up on us. I got angrier. I tried selling goods at the local market, but I never had a customer return because my harsh demeanor drove them away. Nonso, my younger brother died of diarrhea. He apparently had eaten something he shouldn’t have. Nonye my younger sister died while crossing the express road to pick up money we had seen lying on the floor. She was so excited at seeing the money across the highway as we walked back from the market that she didn’t think before dashing across to try to pick it. She must have thought she was on our street. Cars hardly passed our street because the roads were terrible and unmotorable, but rent there was very cheap, so we lived there. The vehicle hit her. It all happened so fast. She flew in the air and landed on her head. I saw her skull split open. I saw gray matter and red matter and goo. The car sped off. I was left with a corpse. I got angrier. Nduka the youngest boy was the victim of a ritual killing. At this point, I had finished elementary school but could not proceed to secondary school because fees had to be paid. I lost my three siblings in six short years. I continued to fight. People couldn’t stop making comments whenever I passed by. I overheard most of them and never ignored. I fought. I defended. Then I would enter the unfurnished one room home that I lived in, lay on the concrete floor that was my bed, and cry. No, wail. No, roll on the floor and scream. I would scream out my frustration and anger while tears poured down my face. I knew I was disturbing the rest of the neighbors in the face-me-I-face-you where I lived, but I also knew they wouldn’t dare confront me about it. I would fight. I always fought.

I was alone, misunderstood, poor and angry, and soon, homeless. I stopped selling at the market because there were no customers, and I was soon kicked out of my cheap room. I lived under a bridge for a while, showering in public bathrooms without soap and eating whatever I could find in rubbish bins. It was while living under the bridge that I noticed them. They worked at night. They dressed in flashy revealing clothes and they glittered and shone with the heavy jewelry they wore. Big cars stopped to pick them up. They were girls like me but looked nothing like me. They looked well fed and happy. I wanted to know how they did it. I wanted what they had. I summoned the courage to ask one of them one night and was scorned. I was flat, the girl had said. I had nothing that would sell. I looked and smelled like scum. And then she laughed and walked away.  I stood still reeling from the blow that had just been dealt me, thinking of whether to run after her and fight or not, when another called me. I looked back to see her. She was older than the rest. She had on heavy makeup and a very tight fitting gown despite how fat she was. She was Takeaway. What a strange name. She told me not to listen to the other girl. She told me that there were men that liked “them flat,” that I would sell, that she would help me. I slept on a mattress for the first time in a long time that night. I took a shower with soap and ate good food. Next night I looked just like them. I wore flashy clothes that I was not used to, but it felt so good. It was easy to tell that I was the youngest of the girls, and the fact that my growth was stunted did not help. It made me look even smaller, but a “big car” stopped, talked to Takeaway and asked for me. I was ecstatic. Takeaway had told me that if a car stopped to pick me up, it meant money, but I had to do whatever the owner of the car asked me to do.  I went happily with the owner of the big car. He was Princewill. He took me to a hotel and raped me over and over. Painful does not even begin to describe how it felt. The next morning he gave me N2000, told me to get dressed so he could take me back to Takeaway and entered the bathroom. While he was there, I got dressed and I ran off. I was not going back to that evil woman.

The N2000 helped a little, but soon I was back to scavenging for food from bins. I wore that flashy dress until it became tattered; until I became tired of life. Then I walked into a hospital one day and told the first person I saw walking down the hallway that I wanted to die. I’m sure I sounded mad. I told him to make sure I didn’t live to see the next day, but that I wanted to die in a dignified manner, not the way my father or mother or siblings died. I wanted to die at the hands of a hospital worker, on a hospital bed, breathing hospital air, so that people wouldn’t continue to scorn my family; so that at least one of us would die a befitting death. I said these things with all seriousness like I was carrying out a business transaction. The man in the white coat told me he had to see a patient, but that if I waited for him, he would grant my request. I smiled and said, “Thank you. I will wait here.” He walked away.

He came back and led me to his office. There was a bed in it and I thought it was a good place to die. I pointed to that bed and told him I wanted to die in it. He said it was an examination bed. Didn’t I want to die on a bed in one of the wards? Would I prefer to die in an office? He smiled slightly as he asked this. I said no. Bed is bed. He then motioned for me to lie on it. I laid down and waited. He sat behind his desk and watched me, looking amused. I asked him when he would give me the “killing medicine.” He said I had to go to sleep first. I was satisfied. I asked for his name so that I would tell God to bless him when I got to heaven. Victor, he said, with that amused look still on his face. I had no problems falling asleep as I hadn’t felt this comfortable since the night at the brothel with Takeaway.

As I think back on the events that subsequently took place, I can’t help but smile. Victor made sure I died and rose again. I woke up to find myself still on the bed in his office. But the sleep had cleared my head. I must have expressed my 5 minutes of madness when I walked up to him telling him to take my life. But for once, someone went along with me. It was as if he understood me. He was sitting behind his desk when I woke. I must have slept a long time because It was dark outside the window. He didn’t try to scorn me or chase me away, but he had that wry smile on his face still. “What are you laughing at?” I asked. “I’m not laughing, please eat.” He replied. Beside the bed was a covered plate of food. I ate like a starved dog, growling as I bit into some meat. Victor watched quietly. We had a long conversation that night. It started with him asking, “Wouldn’t you like to get rid of this tree you are carrying on your head?” He was referring to my locks. We both burst out laughing. Victor did not misunderstand me. Victor did not sneer or jeer at me. He conversed with me like I was dignified; like I was normal. I looked like shit sitting there in his office/examination room, but he didn’t seem bothered by it. For the first time, I did not feel like I was judged. I did not feel like I had to defend myself. I felt a strange calm. Then I said, “I’m a very angry person.” He whispered, “Tell me all about it.”

I returned to school. I went on to get a degree in psychology and human behavior and became a lecturer at the university where I completed my degree. I married my first friend, my best friend. We had 3 children. I wrote a book on the story of my life. I became a successful speaker and teacher. What did I teach? Be like my husband. Be like Victor. Give people a chance. Look beyond appearances. Look beyond the anger to the anguish. Don’t judge.

Funny. Strange how things happen. Such is life.