Sunday Stories: “Like Smoke”


Like Smoke
by Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor

Isaac donned his cheaply bought NY cap, squared his shoulders, and adjusted his dark-rimmed glasses until it sat askew on the bridge of his nose from too many adjustments. He looked into the cracked mirror, admiring his slow transformations, but did not see his tender arms jutting out from a cot east of the room. He did not see his mother in a white maternity gown standing by a table, preparing his baby meal of cereal and milk.

His mother sang, her warm mellowed voice drowning Isaac’s wah-wah-wahs. Her baby was hungry. She reached for the thermos flask, loosened its cap and poured, mixing, till the hot water dissolved the solid food and formed a paste, filling the cup to the brim. She felt the body of the cup with the back of her hand, distrusted the temperature, tasted the food, and screamed from the scalding hotness on her tongue. Isaac resumed his wah-wah-wahs, louder this time, as though stung by an ant.

And which is of course why when he raised his arm to extend his cap forward, over his hairline, the way he had seen some university students wear caps, he did not see his father walking hand-in-hand with him through the front door, their other hands bearing ice-cream. He ate into the ice-cream cone, the edges of his mouth stained, dribbling with melted vanilla at the sides onto his naked chest. His father bent over him, eyes closed, and licked the cream. He giggled, his father laughed. They hugged each other, tightly, their two bodies melding into one form in the afterglow, him filling the air around them with the smell of shampoo and boyhood, his father blanketing him with the scent of his aftershave. His mother stood in the doorway, eyes gleaming with affection for both, mouth stuffed with laughter, heart consumed with the glowing sensation of dreams every young woman hoped to see fulfilled in motherhood.

But when Isaac stared at the mirror, stroking his stubble, assessing his disguise, he did not see himself crying at the feet of his father who was leaving. His mother had not slept the previous night, then rolling from one side of the bed to the other, then getting up to say prayers and to read her bible. Her husband was leaving for France. He said that there was a fat chance of making money there. Times were hard; they could barely feed, without borrowing money from friends, which had inadvertently reduced to begging, without making credit purchases, without fighting. Why not America? Why not some other African country, like Ghana? She had asked him. She could not imagine raising a child on her own. Yes, she knew women who survived without husbands, women whose husbands left for white men’s lands and stayed there for many years and returned with foreign accent and foreign money and foreign everything, but the thing was: Didn’t her husband know that people got lost in big, big places, like France?

He promised on his life to return. He wrestled to get away that morning because he did not want to miss his flight. Other men did it, he could do it. He could ingest substances bagged in thick nylon and not eat or drink anything for forty-eight hours. He could hurdle past security checks at international airports. He could shit wrappers of the substances he ingested when he got to France. He could wait out in the cold in dark hideous places for dealers who would pay big money in exchange. He would return home to buy estates and own investments. He would be rich.

Twenty years now and Isaac’s father was like a twist of grey smoke ascending into a vast sky. And, maybe, this was why when Isaac strapped on his gold wristwatch—the only gift he got from Susan—and stood full-length in the mirror for a quick and final observation, his eyes did not catch the naivety written on his boyish face as he watched his mother share what used to be his father’s space with a stranger, in this room that had impressed on him first-hand the smell of cigarettes and alcohol and how colours translated to life. It had been the Friday of his second week at school. Earlier, he was introduced to colours, and after four colour lessons, he still found it difficult to understand why magenta wouldn’t just be red. Or, why he identified blue as blue, yet his teacher called it turquoise. What is crimson? What is violet? He hated the colour lessons. Why didn’t colours stop count at red, blue, yellow, green, black and white? But when he walked in on his mother doing the grown-up thing with the male stranger—and there were many male strangers afterwards—he thought he saw the colour brown, not like the kola-stained teeth of the man on top of his mother grinning at him. Brown. Like the dead leaves littering the floor of the playground at his school. Brown: a reminder of happy memories gone with the wind, a graceless transition into a life phase so peculiar and seething to grasp, like smoke. He would identify pink in the stars he saw in his mind’s eye after his mother beat him senseless with an iron rod and warned that he should never intrude upon her private affairs. He would realize that he could have made good grades in his colour lessons, if only the colours had appeared to him in a purer, more innocent light.

And when, after he tried on his overpriced suede shoes and breathed in the familiar scent of the room and stole a last glance at his reflection, he slipped into the night, to the university campus, and would not see the pitch-black in his mother’s teary eyes as she loses yet another loved one to a world so unkind it would not hide its fangs even in broad daylight.


Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor was born in Lagos, Nigeria. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in No Tokens, Southern Pacific Review, African Writer, Flash Fiction Online, Aerodrome, Bakwa Magazine, and elsewhere. He is an alumnus of Association of Nigerian Authors/Yusuf Ali Creative Writing Workshop (2015). An MTN and Etisalat scholar, he won the Comptroller Charles Edike Prize for Outstanding Essay (2014) and two Festus Iyayi Awards for Excellence for Prose and Playwriting (2015). He is at work on a full-length debut novel.

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