In partnership with the Commonwealth Writers, Granta is publishing the regional winners of the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Akwaeke Emezi’s ‘Who is Like God’ is the winning entry from Africa.
My mother talked about God all the time, as if they were best friends, as if He was borrowing her mouth because maybe He trusted her that much or it was easier than burning bushes or He was just tired of thundering down from the skies and having no one listen to Him. I grew up thinking He was folded into her body, very gently, like when she folded sifted icing sugar into beaten egg whites, those kinds of loving corners. Because I was a boy, I wasn’t supposed to be in the kitchen to see her hands do such tender things – my sister Ure should’ve been the one helping with the mixing and the stirring and the spreading. But Ure hated baking with a purity of emotion that only a child could summon, and so she’d hide in the wardrobe behind a wall of hung clothes and stick out her tongue at me when Mama sent me to get her.
‘It’s too hot. And it’s so boring,’ she complained. ‘I don’t want.’ She made sweet eyes at me. ‘Go and help her for me, Kachi.’
I sighed and left her alone with her book and torchlight. When Mama asked where Ure was, I didn’t meet her eyes in case God was looking through them.
‘I didn’t see her,’ I lied. I was nine. Mama shook her head and tightened the roll of her wrapper.
‘That girl. Already so stubborn – I don’t know how she’s going to find a husband when she grows up. I pray she develops some sense.’ She looked down at me and thought for a moment, then handed me a bowl with a wooden spoon sticking out of it.
‘Oya, cream this together for me.’
I looked down at the lumps of margarine surrounded by rivers and pools of granulated sugar.
‘Can I take it to the dining room?’ I asked. This was my favorite part and I wanted to be alone with it. Mama nodded and I ran off, setting the bowl down on the dining table and kneeling on one of the chairs so I could use both hands to stir and mash the mixture together. Once it had turned into a yellow grainy cream, I dipped my finger in and scooped some of it out, licking it slowly, the oiled sweetness filling my tongue. From the kitchen, I could hear Mama singing a gospel song in Igbo as if it was a love song, her voice quavering with feeling. I was young then, I didn’t know that it really was a love song, directed at the only being she loved more than us. I didn’t know that she would choose Him over me, or what a choice like that could even look like. No one had told me about Abraham or Isaac or the horrifying things parents can do when you call them up a mountain. I was just happy that Mama was letting me bake with her, that it was our little secret, that neither of us would tell my father, not even when he was eating the cake and grunting with pleasure at what my hands had been involved in. If he knew, both Ure and I would be in trouble.
‘Your father doesn’t like you to be in the kitchen,’ Mama had explained to me. ‘It’s better if he comes home and finds you facing your books.’
She assigned us Bible verses to read, and my favorites were the ones which said that God, whether in Spirit or Son, was also in me. It made complete sense. Since I was my mother’s child and also God’s child, and since He was in her, then of course it had to be true that he was also inside me. Sometimes I would just lie down and think about it, God being inside my body. I wondered if something like that should feel heavy, because it didn’t, not even a little bit. I became careful. I didn’t want to play too roughly with Ure in case I got hurt. I worried that if I bled too much, maybe some of God would bleed out also, and I didn’t want to lose any part of Him that was being stored in me. Even when I turned twelve and realized that God wasn’t specifically in my blood, I had already become fastidious about my body. I hated to be dirty or hurt or untidy, and my mother was delighted with this. ‘That is how you should be,’ she’d tell my sister, who always managed to tear her clothes or scrape her knees and elbows. ‘Follow Kachi’s example. Have some pride in your appearance.’
Ure glared at me and a few days later, when we were riding down the street on our bicycles, we had a quarrel and she lost her temper. She used her front wheel to ram me off my bike, knocking me to the ground and splitting my lip. I cried all the way home, blood running down my chin. Mama twisted Ure’s ear and forced her to face me.
‘Look at what you did to your brother!’ she shouted. Ure looked at the ground, at her slippers, anywhere so she wouldn’t have to look at me. Later that night, she reached over from her bed and slipped a roll of Trebor peppermints under my pillow.
‘Sorry, Kachi,’ she whispered. I pretended to be asleep, but the next morning I entered the bathroom when she was brushing her teeth and offered her a peppermint. I didn’t say anything. I just wanted to show her that I wasn’t angry anymore. Ure glanced at the door to make sure neither of our parents was around and then she kissed me for the first time, very gently. It felt warm and soft, like the inside of fresh akara, pain stinging from my cut like a strip of pepper. I stared at her with my swollen mouth when she pulled away, but she continued brushing her teeth as if nothing had happened. I walked away with my heart pounding. The next time Mama sent me to look for her, I found my sister reading in the wardrobe, just like when we were younger. I closed the door and kissed her back, soft clothes pressing on us with the dark. My lip had started healing by then.
A few years later, by the time I was sixteen, all that was left was a small puckered scar on my top lip and the confusing heat in my chest whenever I thought about Ure. At school, when my friends and I exchanged stories about our encounters with girls, I didn’t know how to say that my first kiss had been with her. Some of the boys would mention a cousin in the village during Christmas, a house help in a locked storeroom, one of them even talked about a teacher and a classroom after everyone had gone home. But I knew my own was different, that if I said it out loud people would look at me somehow. So I kept my secret. At home, I watched my sister. She wore tight jeans and spaghetti-strap tops now, and Mama was always shouting at her to go and change her clothes. Her lip gloss glittered and her mascara widened her eyes. Her eyeshadow looked like a celebration. Ure was bright, beautiful, mine and at the same time, very much not mine.
She still refused to help Mama in the kitchen but when our parents were out, she would watch me make cakes and scones, laughing at my lopsided icing, helping me clean up afterwards. Mama was pleased that I was baking because it was something we had in common, but she never said it directly in case it came across as encouragement. I was still a boy, after all. Instead she would sample whatever I’d made when she got back and announce to nobody in particular, ‘Whoever made this tried. Not bad, not bad. More baking powder next time.’ Ure would roll her eyes and laugh, her teeth coming out from a shiny red mouth. I wanted to kiss her again.
Alone, I sat in my room with a hand mirror wedged between my thighs, blue plastic against loose khaki, and I looked at my mouth in the glass. It looked like my father’s. I tilted the mirror back until I could see my eyes and the beige wall behind my head. The room used to be my father’s office – Ure had stayed behind in our old bedroom with the sky blue walls and I had moved into a new bedroom because Mama said we were too old to be sharing a room. I was holding one of Mama’s retractable eye pencils, a thin plastic tube that was light green, like a grass snake. I twisted it till the soft black tip showed and wondered how to start applying it. Both Ure and Mama wore eyeliner but they wore it so differently. Mama liked to draw hers thickly along her lower eyelashes, the pen bumping into the lashes so that they bent and shifted like stalks of tall grass. Her eyeliner was like a fence that made you want to look to see what was inside. Ure’s own was to pull her eyelid down until the veined raw red of the inside was showing, and then she would draw the line on the small shiny shelf of flesh there. I liked her style better, the blackness of the pencil hugged intimately to the white curve of her eye, as if it had always been there.
I stopped for a moment, the mirror trapped in my thighs, the pencil weightless in my hand, and I looked at my reflection.
‘Onyedikachi,’ I said to my face. ‘What are you doing?’
My father would kill me if he saw me now. Mama would go crazy. Maybe God inside her would go crazy too, I wasn’t sure. Maybe God was looking at me as I looked at myself. God could even be in my eye right now, using it as a window. I pulled down my eyelid and found the thin line of wet flesh. When I tried to draw on it, my eye started stinging and tears came. They dampened the tip of the pencil and I had to pause, dry it off and blink my eye until it felt better. I tried again and it went on well – not smooth, but mostly intact, the outer corner swooping in. I looked in the mirror and one eye was holy. I did the other one. My face became a flattened and sudden self in the glass, my pupils chasms. I wanted to show Ure.
I slipped out of my room and down the corridor into hers. I could hear her shower running above the hum of the generator outside. When I entered her bathroom, Ure wiped the wet shower glass to see who it was.
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘It’s just you.’ She smiled and went back to washing her hair. ‘How far?’
I shrugged and sat on the toilet lid, looking at her silhouette through the mottled glass. Her underwear was on the floor, a pair of panties and an underwired bra. I bent to pick up the panties and they had a liner sticking to the gusset, rumpled and unstained. I pulled it off and it was still hot, a memory of her flesh on my palm. I crumpled it up and threw it into the wastepaper basket, then leaned back against the porcelain tank, the cotton of her panties like a white bird in my hand. My chest was pounding.
From behind the steam, Ure’s voice piped up. ‘Is Mama back?’
‘I heard her car come in,’ I answered. My throat was dry and I felt anxious, uncertain. I needed to show Ure but I also needed to wash off the eyeliner before Mama came upstairs. ‘You’re finishing the hot water,’ I added. Ure turned it off and slid the shower door open. I looked over and her skin was a long wet plain of deep brown. She reached out and her fingers drifted in the air between us.
‘Pass me my towel?’
I kept my body between her and my hand holding her panties so she wouldn’t see, dropping them to the floor. They fell without a sound. Ure’s pink towel was hanging off the rail, just out of her reach. I handed it to her, watching the water drip off her hair and down her neck. She smiled at me and then saw the eyeliner.
‘Ahn ahn! What’s this?’
I tried to read her voice. It was amused, not disgusted, that was good. Still, I lowered my eyes, awkward and with the heat still in my chest.
‘It suits you,’ she said, and there it was, sweet as a stolen sugar cube, approval shining in her voice. I felt relief bursting through me like many small lights and I looked up to smile at her and the next thing I knew, I was kissing her, my hands braced against the shower walls. I suppose I thought it would be like the first time in the bathroom or the second time in the wardrobe, just an innocent loving thing, but unbelievably, I felt her recoil under my mouth and her hand planted itself in my chest, pushing, leaving a damp print.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’ she asked, and her voice was a warning already starting to ice over, that I better have something good to say. I stood there like an idiot, stranded and silent. Ure wrapped her towel around herself quickly, covering against me.
‘I’m sorry,’ I choked out. My chest was twisting up. ‘I thought that . . . since before . . . I thought it would be okay.’
She frowned and shoved me out of the way, going into her bedroom. ‘Since before? You mean after the bicycle thing? For God’s sake, Kachi, we were children!’
I followed her mutely and stood on her carpet. It was only four years ago, had things changed that much? How could I have gotten it so wrong? We were so close, closer than even a lot of the boyfriends and girlfriends I knew. I didn’t think it would mean anything, one small kiss like that, wasn’t it just a way to tell her I loved her? My eyes filled up and my humiliation swelled. To cry in front of her would be even worse. Ure watched me, her face blank, water dripping around her.
‘Was it my eyeliner you used?’ she asked.
I shook my head. ‘I took one of Mama’s own.’
‘You better put it back before she finds out.’
I nodded and started heading to the door but her voice stopped me.
I turned my head back to her. She still looked angry, but it was like she was trying to find something kind to say. It didn’t make me feel any better. Her blankness had slid away and there was barely restrained disgust showing through.
‘Whatever it is you think you’re feeling about me, it’s not actually about me, you get?’
I didn’t understand what she was saying. She sighed and hitched up her towel.
‘You don’t want me. You just want to be me.’
We looked at each other for a few moments. She was wrong, but I didn’t know how to speak against the revulsion in her eyes. I wanted to be myself and kiss her, that was all. But if she didn’t understand that, then nobody else would. I dropped my eyes and turned to leave. She closed the door behind me, and I heard her click the lock shut. It hurt. It was as if she thought I was some kind of predator. Some kind of monster she needed to protect herself from.
I went to my room and grabbed the eyeliner from my bed, listening carefully as I went back into the corridor. I could hear the television spitting out voices downstairs, Mama must have turned it on, which meant she was sitting on the sofa. I had some time. I snuck into my parents’ room, to the table where Mama kept all her make-up. The eye pencils were packed into a small container, waxy dark shafts covered in shiny writing, with thin plastic covers tipping their sharpened ends. The ones that weren’t her usual black or dark brown were upside down, so she could tell them apart by the color capping them – silver like soft metal, a gleaming green, navy blue.
I put the retractable pencil back and looked for tissue paper to wipe the black from my eyes. But Ure’s words had punctured me and something was draining out, I felt I would be colorless when it was done. I looked at the container holding all the pencils and I picked up the silver one, uncapping it and leaning towards the mirror. If today was the last day I would ever try this, then I wanted to see myself completely, just for one quick minute, then I would wipe it all off and go downstairs and pretend to be the son and brother they wanted. With a steady hand, I pressed the point to the inside corner of my left eye, just enough to leave a smudge of brightness there. I did the other corner, covered and returned the pencil, then stepped backwards to see myself from a greater distance, to see if that shine would plug up what was falling out of me. I didn’t see one of Mama’s handbags lying on the floor behind me and I tripped over it, falling and knocking over a chair, shoeboxes spilling and clattering to the floor. My elbow hit the ground sharply enough to make my eyes water all over again.
‘Shit, shit, shit!’ I got up quickly and put the chair back where it was, my elbow sending needles of pain up my arm. I was trying to shove the shoes back into their proper boxes when Mama walked through her door, tossing her handbag onto the bed and shouting.
‘Who is making that noise? You people won’t allow me to rest!’ She stopped short when she saw me. ‘Kachi? Are you the one breaking things? Who told you to enter my room, ehn?’
‘Sorry, Mama, I was just looking for something.’ I abandoned the shoes and tried to sidle past her with my head down before she caught me, but there was too much silver in the inside corner of my eye. I shone.
‘My friend, stop right there.’ Her voice was like a cane. I obeyed from habit, my feet sticking to the carpet. ‘What’s that on your face?’
I quickly tried to rub my eyes but she stepped forward and slapped my arms down.
‘Stop that nonsense! Let me see.’ She tilted my face towards her and frowned. ‘Ah, ah! Kachi! What is this, now? Since when did you start wearing eye pencil?’ Her face was distressed, worried surprise drowning out the anger I was expecting.
‘Let me just go and wash it off,’ I mumbled, twisting away from her hand and snaking out of her grasp. I was determined to escape, to leave the room, but she folded her arms over her chest.
‘You want me to tell your father?’
It was like a shovel in my face. I stopped immediately, turning to her in alarm.
‘Eh hehn. You better sit down and explain this nonsense.’
I sat at the foot of their bed and she stood in front of me, her arms still locked.
I fidgeted and looked at the carpet. ‘It’s nothing. I just wanted to see how it looked.’
‘Gini ka i na-ekwu? I don’t even understand what you’re saying to me right now.’ I watched her feet shift uneasily in her house slippers. She hesitated and bit her lip, like she was almost afraid of what she was going to say next. When she spoke, her voice was soft and coaxing, like I imagined a poison would, right before it killed you.
‘Onyedikachi,’ she said. ‘Tell the truth and shame the devil. Are you a homosexual?’
‘Mama!’ Outrage dragged my eyes up to her face. ‘I’m not gay!’
My mother threw up her hands and flung her eyes about, looking everywhere at nothing. ‘Heiii God! See how the devil has come to find my son ooo!’ She stamped her feet and flailed her arms.
Irritation entered me, pushing the fear aside. ‘It’s not that serious, Mama. I was about to remove it just now.’
She paused and looked at me, shocked. ‘Ehn? What do you mean it’s not that serious? Some demon of homosexuality is making you wear eye liner and you’re telling me it’s not that serious?’
‘Why is it always some kind of devil or demon with you, ehn? Why can’t it be something else? Like maybe God is speaking to me, for instance –’ I had barely finished when my mother gave me a sharp slap, her rings catching the soft corner of my mouth and cutting it. My fingers flew up to touch the sudden blood and she stared down at me, her chest heaving.
‘Mechie onu gi! Are you mad?’
I sat on the bed, trying not to cry. It was stupid, but I’d thought perhaps she would understand, since she knew God. I thought she’d see Him in my face, the way I had. It felt like there was a hole quickly widening between us, leaving me on a cliff by myself. She was still shouting, but I wasn’t listening. Spit flecked my face from her mouth and the tightness in my heart twisted more and more. She slapped me again.
‘Are you hearing me?’
I looked up at her and in that second, I hated her. The hatred boiled up through my chest and into my eyes, and I let her see it. She gasped and recoiled.
‘Blood of Jesus,’ she whispered. I stood up and turned to leave, tears blocking my way. A sharp pain burst out in the back of my head, and I cried out, falling to my knees. I raised my arms instinctively, turning to look behind me. My mother was standing there, holding one of her high heels, her eyes afire and terrified.
‘No devil is going to take my son away from me,’ she said. ‘Begone! Release him in Jesus’ name!’ She hit me again with the shoe, scraping my forearm.
‘Mama! What are you doing? Mama, stop it!’
‘I can see you in his eyes! Demon of homosexuality! Release him! Release him!’ She punctuated each exclamation with another blow, beating me with all the strength in her arm. I hadn’t known love could do something like this.
She didn’t listen. I curled up into a ball and shielded my head as she hit me with the shoe and the flat of her hand, powerful blows that rocked my body. I screamed and screamed and eventually I remembered to call for help.
‘Ure! Ure, help me! Ure!’
‘You cannot be wearing eyeliner! My son will not be a faggot!’ Mama had moved into a rage directed against me, no longer at the supposed demon possessing me. Had she changed her mind about what had made me wear the eyeliner? Whoever was responsible, it seemed she had decided that this beating would sort it out, one way or the other.
I looked up amidst the flurry of her blows, blood flowing into my left eye, and I saw Ure standing in the doorway, silent and blank. I opened my mouth to call to her and Mama hit me across the face. I was crying, I had been crying since she started. My sister looked at me and my stomach sank. The blankness had gone again and her face said everything – that she wasn’t going to help, she wasn’t going to stop her. That there was something terribly wrong with me and even if Mama was beating me for the wrong reason, I deserved it for the other one, the one Mama didn’t know about, my terrible misstep in the bathroom, my misplaced love.
Mama didn’t even see Ure, she didn’t look up from me, the shoe had fallen aside and now she was slapping me around my head and shouting things about my blasphemy, who did I think I was, that God would talk to me when I was insulting Him by behaving like a woman, not like the man He had made me, His creation, that she should never have allowed me to be in the kitchen as if I was a woman.
‘You are a man, you hear! I won’t allow this kind of abomination in my house!’
Ure dropped her eyes and left. I stared at the empty space in the doorway where she’d been and I think my heart cracked only then. My head was bleeding and my left eye was red. If God was in me, did He feel this pain I was feeling, both inside and out? Was His blood mixing with mine? If God was in Mama, was He beating me too? Did that mean He was also beating a part of Himself?
I pressed my hands to my face and wiped my eyes until the eyeliner was smeared all over my fingers, until God was out of my face and it was just me lying there alone on the carpet, my mother standing over me, breathing hard, her arms tired and blood on her rings.