Children can be cruel, you know?
• • • •
The first man stands at the bedside of his sweating wife. He is watching their baby emerge from inside her. What he does not know is that he is watching their son destroy her insides, shredding, making sure there will be no others to follow. This man’s wife is screaming and screaming and the sound gives the man a headache, an electric thing like lightning, striking the middle of his forehead. He reaches to hold her hand, to remind her of his presence. But he is surprised by the power of her latch, this strength born of pain, the way she crushes the bones of his fingers. He has to bite down to prevent himself from crying out.
And here is the baby; bloody and outside for the first time.
The baby opens his eyes, and the first man flinches at the sudden appearance of white eyeballs in the midst of all that slimy red. The baby is blinking now, and watching, but not crying, just watching?
“Um,” the doctor says, frowning. “You have a son.”
The first man leans down to catch the mumbled words from his wife’s mouth. “Yes, hon. He’s alive,” he reassures her. The whites of his baby’s eyes are impressed in his mind, behind the headache, like an image from biology class, so long ago. He looks up to the doctor who is still holding onto the baby, brows furrowed. “He’s alive, right, doctor? Is everything fine? Isn’t he supposed to cry?”
The doctor looks everywhere but at the first man. They fuss around, the doctor and the nurses, snipping, cleaning, moving.
“Doctor?” the man prompts.
“Mr. Man, you have a son! Congratulations! A living breathing boy!”
• • • •
The second man huffs beneath the weight of his wife. The Ikeja General hospital has sent them home even though his wife is still bleeding from the birth. “Sorry, no space,” the head nurse had told him, her attention moving so easily to the next patient. “Take her home; everybody bleeds.”
The second man’s mother holds the door to their apartment open, one elbow cradling the baby like an expert. She trails them to the bedroom, where the man gently lowers his wife to their bed—still messy with signs of frantic packing for the hospital. Once his arms are free, the mother transfers the baby to him, as if she has been waiting to rid herself of the infant.
“Maami,” he starts to say, but his mother leaves the room.
The baby is sleeping and his eyes move around beneath his thin lids. The second man is repulsed by this movement, this unconscious shifting that strangely brings to mind the Goosebumps books he read and traded as a teenager, so long ago. The man is discomfited by this reaction to his child. He deposits his new son in the new cradle that smells like wood polish, then goes to find his mother in the kitchen.
“Maami, will you make peppersoup for her? Will that help?”
The mother is staring out the kitchen window, her fingers steeping in a bowl of uncleaned fish. “That baby is not yours, I’m sure of it.”
“Maami, please. Don’t start this rubbish again.”
“That baby is not yours; I can swear on it! I know it. I feel it.” Her hands move again, lifting a gill flap, gutting the fish with a soft snap.
• • • •
The third man is startled when he walks into the dining room to find his wife dozing off while their baby quietly suckles at the feeding bottle’s nib. The image he encounters is this: her neck tilted backwards and to the side so that the muscles seem contorted unnaturally, the tendons and veins pushing against skin. For a moment, he is sure she is dead.
She jerks awake when he tries to lift their son from her arms. Her hands instinctively tighten, then loosen. “Thanks,” she whispers, her eyes drifting to close again. The man is impressed at how quickly she seems to have bonded with the baby they had accepted from the arms of a teenage mother—whose name they were not allowed to know—only three weeks ago.
The third man rocks the baby the way they’d been taught at adoption classes. Softly, softly, back and forth. The baby’s eyes flutter open and the man smiles down at his son, his first child, his baby. “Who’s a good boy?” he sings, hoping that bond will grow between them too. “Who? Who?”
The baby does not smile, but do babies even smile? The third man now feels silly because of what seems like such a stern gaze from the infant, as if the voice he has put on is simply ridiculous, beneath him. How does one feel embarrassed in the sight of a three-week-old baby? He frowns at his child, noticing for the first time the flecks of grey in his pupils. Black and grey, like the stones he used to collect in boarding school—so long ago—from the pile of gravel in the school’s parking lot, purchased for the new vocational labs that never got built.
“You’re not a good boy,” he whispers, no longer singing. “Are you?”
• • • •
There was another boy, once. But that was so long ago.
• • • •
The first man is alone with his toddler, again. His wife is in the hospital, again. Since the birth, six months ago, hospital visits and extended stays have become commonplace in their household. Money is running out. The first man worries about money; he worries about his job—all the time off he’s been asking for; he worries about his wife; he worries about their baby.
But that’s not true. He doesn’t worry about the baby. The baby is fed and cared for by his extended family network in Abeokuta. His cousins and friends take turns to help out. What the first man is really worried about is himself.
The first man worries for himself when he is alone with Jon. Jon is what his wife insisted on calling their son. Short for Jonathan—that man in the Bible only known for being a very good friend to David. This fear of his son, for himself, it is a body thing; a visceral thing; a flinching, recoiling, chilling thing. What father is frightened of their own child, scared to hold him, scared to be looked at by him?
• • • •
The second man’s wife is dead, and now he is alone with Johnny, their six-month-old son. The barrage of love and support that immediately followed his wife’s demise has slowed to a trickle. The bowls of rice and stew have stopped coming. His brother has gone back to Abuja. His cousin no longer stops by on the way to drop her kids off at school. The second man is alone. With Johnny.
His mother showed up at the burial, her nose in the air. But she did not make a scene. She did not hold Johnny, no, but she did not bring up more preposterous accusations about his wife’s fidelity either, about the strange face of his son that she insists does not belong in her family lineage.
The second man watches Johnny roll from his back to his stomach on the multi-coloured mat; then to his back; then to his stomach. Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth.
The man backs away to the other end of the room, one foot behind the other. He sits in the armchair that still holds the cloying scent of his wife’s shea butter. Back and forth, his baby turns, fists flailing, chubby legs kicking. The second man closes his eyes. The sight of his pivoting son makes him dizzy, askew, off-center.
• • • •
The email was short: I can’t do this anymore. Adopting this baby changed me. I need to find myself again. And if I do, I’m not sure I’ll want to return. Be kind to J-Boy. Be kind to yourself.
The third man reads the email every morning before getting out of bed. He reads it again this morning. Then he checks for new messages.
“Fuck,” he whispers when he reads the newest text. The latest nanny has quit. I’m sorry, but I have to go back to the village to care for my family. Bullshit, the man knows, it’s all bullshit. This is the ninth nanny in the three months since his wife’s been gone. The excuses are always unbelievable in their benign flavours.
The third man leans over the cradle beside his bed. J-Boy is awake. Does the boy ever sleep? “Why are you sending everyone away, J-Boy? Why?”
Because the common denominator is the boy, isn’t it? The wife leaving, the nannies scurrying out the door—unable to articulate what they are balking at. Overcome, the third man slams his open palm against the side of the cradle. “Why? Why? Why?”
His hand is throbbing now, but the baby does not startle, does not flinch. He is just staring, still staring, as if he has expected this all along: this breakdown, this debacle, this undoing. Looking at his heaving father like, well, like, hello, like, I knew this you would show up soon.
• • • •
That boy from so long ago. He was just another boy. The same way our three men once were just three boys. Just three boys doing things boys do.
• • • •
The first man can no longer sleep at night. Not while it is just him and Jon alone at home. His wife has gone to live with a cousin in Seychelles; she needed bed rest and ocean breeze after the trauma of the birth. When he opened his mouth to protest what seemed to him like abandonment, she had looked at him so sadly, disappointed, shutting him up.
These days, he catches an hour or two of sleep when he can convince someone to come over, leaving his dwindling friends disgruntled because they thought they were coming to hang out with him, not feed his baby while he naps on the couch, drool glistening his beard. “I’m not your fucking babysitter,” his friend Joy had said, plopping the baby on his chest, startling him fully awake.
The first man’s nights are fraught with a fear of Jon that rises from the top of his stomach, acidic and pungent, like the beginnings of a burp. Tonight, he moves slowly toward the cradle, as if afraid of what he will find. But there, Jon’s eyes are wide open, staring at the turning fan. The baby becomes aware of his presence, and his eyes move in an arc from the ceiling fan to his father’s face. His eyes widen; his mouth trembles; he begins to wail.
The first man’s fatherly instincts kick in. He stamps down his fear. He picks up the baby, pats his back. The wailing stops, but only because the baby’s mouth has now affixed to his exposed shoulder. There is a sharp sting that sends the man’s eyes backwards, upwards. How many teeth does this eight-month-old baby have? How can they be enough to cause such precise, penetrating pain? He gets a finger between and pulls the child off with a smacking sound.
He resists the urge to fling Jon back into the cradle; jaws clenched, he lowers his still son. There is no more wailing.
This is his life now: downgraded to managing social media for a small brand that pays peanuts, but allows him to work remotely with permanent eye strain. This is his life: nappies that stink, formula that smells sickly sweet, and a baby that bites him too often.
He distractedly rubs against an old bite mark adorning his wrist. Then he wipes saliva off his shoulder, wincing at the rawness. Sitting in front of his laptop, he clicks to the Troubled Naija Fathers Forum he’s found recently. I think my baby hates me, he types. The keyboard clacks echo around him. He has taken everything from me. I am afraid of my baby. Is this normal? Before he submits the entry, he remembers to make himself anonymous. Then the first man leans back into the chair, glancing briefly at his now-gurgling son. Is that a gurgle or a laugh? He turns back to his screen. The first man waits.
• • • •
The second man feels seen when he reads the post on the popular forum. “Yes!” he wants to scream at his phone. What he does instead is move to another room, one where Johnny isn’t present. He hunches over the device, somehow afraid that his son—not even one-year-old—will somehow prevent him from replying to this post.
YESSS!!! I feel the exact same way! I want to be a good father, but it feels impossible with this child. I hate to say it, but I feel like his appearance in my life has ruined me. My wife is dead, my mother won’t talk to me. My friends avoid me now. I am afraid to be alone with my own child . . . His very existence has undone me! Is this a medical problem? Something about a version of myself existing outside of me disrupting my balance? And is there a solution? Do I need therapy??? Sorry to ramble, but I feel so strongly about this!!! HELP US!
Then the second man hits Send. He does not make himself anonymous.
• • • •
The third man, who has been eyeing the new post in the forum, clicks on the new and only comment.
He recognizes the name of the commenter immediately. His fingers snatch off the mouse and hover over it, as if electrocuted.
There is no such thing as coincidence.
No, no, no, the third man thinks. He has not allowed himself to think about this person, about what he represents, in so long.
• • • •
Yes, children can be cruel, evil even.
So long ago, when three boys—who were not yet our three men—cornered their classmate, the new boy, the slight boy with asthma who wheezed at the back of biology class, the boy begged to be left alone.
“Please, let me go,” he cried. He promised his pocket money, the chocolate bars, to slide all his dinners to them, to iron their uniforms, to lay their beds, to do their chores, to tend their portions of the school garden, to do all their assignments. He promised everything. “Just don’t put me in there,” he begged. “Please, that space is too tiny,” he cried. “Please. Please.”
But boys will be boys, right? The three best friends bundled him up and stuffed him in the locker at the back of the abandoned woodwork shop. He scratched at their wrists, at their shoulders, his head wagged back and forth, left and right; he pleaded with his white eyes, with the red veins bulging in them, with his wails; he clawed at their faces, thumped at their chests, scratched at their foreheads. But he was nothing but a whiff of a boy. They snapped the padlock shut, giggling, smacking each other on the back, in mirth, in solidarity.
How easily attentions shift. How easily boys can be distracted by other school activities, other friends, other weak students to tease. How easy it is to forget.
• • • •
After they have confirmed what their bodies already know as true—through furtive private messages: Is that you? The same one? From Ibadan High School?—the first man, second man and third man wait till the dead of night. They wait till they think they cannot be seen, when Jon, Johnny and J-Boy are asleep; and then, with trembling fingers, they search the event they are all thinking about. The event. The Event of their boyhoods.
Over a decade later, the search results are not many, and he is faceless, but there it is: Adebayo John—Gone too soon. Adebayo John, who never did anything to them.
Watch as these men, who were once boys, look to their sleeping sons, now alert to the possibilities. The terror latches onto wrists, yanks them in. They look to their sons who have taken everything from them, who are still taking everything from them. The sons bound to them forever.
And two weeks or three months or four years from now, when these men try to rid themselves of their sons: abandon them with relatives or on a park bench wet from rain, they will never be able to walk away. Because they can never be sure where a haunting ends and paranoia begins.
But right now, terrified by the possibilities, watch them behold their sons with hitched breaths, ticking pulses, raised hairs. And do you know, terror can feel like being trapped in a dark tiny place, with no space to move? Like a locker, like a coffin.