I was just 18 but I felt I was only 9 inside me. How I felt the heavy bruises of Aunty Lucia’s fist against my fragile chest almost gave me a seizure. Aunty Lucia believed that so long as I had a snake, big or small dangling in between my legs, then I was worthy of some sort of crucifixion.
A clock ticked loudly in the hall. It was stifling where I stood, my eyes wide in the darkness, waiting, barely to breathe, as I heard muffled footsteps approaching from the distance. The sharp clicking of Aunty Lucia’s heel clattered past like an express train roaring thunderously through the city, i could almost feel the air whoosh past my face with relief in the crowded closet. I let myself breathe again, just once, and then held my breath, as though even the sound of it would draw Aunty Lucia’s attention. Even at 18, I knew that Aunty Lucia had supernatural powers. She could tell where I was and what my fears were. And almost as though I could detect her scent, the pull of a big Aunty to a young man inevitable, avoidable. Aunty Lucia had inky-brown eyes, all-seeing, all-knowing. I knew that no matter where I hid, eventually she would find me. But I hid anyway, had to try at least to escape her.
I was undersize, underweight and dark in complexion.
Aunty Lucia’s heels rattled past again, pounding harder on the floor this time. I knew instinctively that the search had heightened. The closet in my own room would have been torn apart by then, also the equipment closet under the stairs, behind the kitchen, the shed outside the house, in the garden. We lived in a narrow town house, with a small, well-kept garden. Aunty Lucia hated gardening, a Yoruba man came twice a week to cut things, mow the tiny patch of lawn, and keep it tidy. More than anything, Aunty Lucia hated disorder, she hated noise, dirt and lies. I was always being told to stay clean, to stay in my room, and not disturb anything. I wasn’t allowed to listen to the radio, or watch the Tv.
Mum had been gone for two years, and come back the year before. She still had a uniform in the back of a closet somewhere, for she was a police officer. I had seen the uniform there once, when I was hiding. It had bright shiny buttons on it, and it was a bit scratchy. Mum was tall, lean and beautiful, with the same eyes the same color as mine. But hers was just a little darker.
The thin high heels walked past the closet again, more slowly this time, and I knew what that meant. The search was ending. I had narrowed it down to the last of the hiding places, and it was only a matter of time before Aunty Lucia found me. I thought of turning myself in, sometimes Aunty Lucia told me that I wouldn’t have been punished if I had been brave enough to do that. But most of the time, I wasn’t. She had tried it once or twice, but it was always too late, by then, Aunty Lucia said, if only I had confessed earlier, it would have been different. It would have been good if I didn’t push my food around the table angrily and let the lead fall over the edge until they left grease spots on the table.
The footsteps stopped outside the closet door this time, and for brief moment, there was an interminable silence before the door was suddenly yanked open. Light filtered back into the bowels of the closet where I hid, and I closed my eyes as though to shield myself from it. It was the nearest crack of light reaching toward me through the coats. But to me it felt like the bright sunlight of exposure. I could smell Aunty Lucia’s perfume heavy in the air, and sense her closeness. The rustle of the petticoats Aunty Lucia wore were like a raging warning sound to me. And the slowly the coats were pushed apart, creating a deep canyon leading straight into the back of the closet. And for a long, silent moment my eyes met the eyes of Aunty Lucia. There was no sound, no word, no exchange between us.
I knew better than to explain, apologize, or even to cry. My already too-small eyes seemed to outgrow my face as I watched the inevitable rage grow in Aunty Lucia’s eyes and with a super human gesture, Aunty Lucia’s arm lunged toward me, grabbed me by one arm, yanked me off the ground, and pulled me forward with such speed that the air seemed to leave my lungs with a small whooshing sound as I landed unsteadily on my feet next to Aunty Lucia. And within an instant the first blow fell, dropping me to the ground with such force it left me breathless. There was no whimper of pain, no sound at all, as Aunty Lucia slapped me hard across the top of my head, and then pulled me to get my feet again with one hand, and hit me as hard as I could across the face with the other. To me the sound of the blow was deafening…