My friend Elisha says I should watch out for frogs after it rains. She says, if a frog jumps on you, you’ll turn into a man. I don’t want to be a man and have hair growing around my mouth—that’s the worst thing that can happen to a girl. Elisha is eleven, so she knows more things, and she’s named after a prophet in the Bible. I am only nine, with an ordinary name, Esi, the name they give to every girl who is born on Sunday.
Papa and I are spending the night in a hotel room in Accra because I have to see the ear doctor tomorrow. I’ll never tickle my ears again with rolled-up paper or sticks of grass. I did that because my ears kept itching from the day I got sick and Papa drove me up the mountain to the medicine woman with half a lip who ground up wet leaves and squeezed them into my ears. Even though he says we who have gone to school should stay away from juju men and women with their potions. Now my ear is swollen and the pain feels as if someone is hammering a nail inside it.
The hotel has lovely little houses sitting around a circular lawn. We have a room with a bed that Papa calls king-size. We don’t need a sitting room or kitchen because we can sit at tables on the marble floor around the lawn, and men and women in white uniforms bring us anything we want to eat or drink. The jollof rice with fried-fish stew was so delicious I nearly chewed my tongue.
I’m in bed alone now. I don’t mind because I can hear Papa sitting on the veranda talking to a woman. I want to stay awake and wait for him, but the night is warm and he and the woman speak in low voices that hum me to sleep.
Papa is the person I love most. At home he opens his accordion and music pours out and he laughs when I dance. He makes me a cup of Milo every night before I sleep, and then we lie on his bed and read the Uncle Arthur’s bedtime stories that come in big boxes from England.
The bed is making shweequaw shweequaw shweequaw sounds. I open my eyes. The moon is shining and Papa is a shadow on top of a woman who is also a shadow. The shweequaw shweequaw is because of the way they are moving. Something tells me I shouldn’t be watching, but my eyes won’t close. The bed rocks harder than before. Papa is groaning and twisting like something is poking him everywhere. Then he falls down beside me. I can see his white teeth and hear his lips smack. He is whispering Thank you, thank you, so I know he’s happy. How can he be groaning when he’s happy?
It’s not so dark now. The woman’s copper-colored skin is light against Papa’s very black skin. When I sit up, she lifts her head and looks directly at me and I have to cover my mouth with both hands because it is the woman who served us our supper.
“She’s awake,” she whispers, shaking my father. I lie back down immediately and pretend to be asleep.
“She’s asleep, she’s asleep,” Papa mutters.
“No, she’s awake.”
“She’s asleep, I tell you.” Papa sounds awake now. “I gave her the medicine. She can’t be awake.”
I remember the tablet he gave me to swallow when we were eating our supper by the fountain. The way he looked around him and blinked made me think of someone telling a lie. So, I brought the glass of water to my mouth, and when he looked away, I threw the tablet under the table. Now I understand. The medicine would have made me sleep and I wouldn’t have heard any shweequaw shweequaw.
The woman props herself up on her elbow and clutches the sheet to her chest and says, “But I saw her sit up.”
Papa laughs. “I’ll prove to you that she’s asleep. Her ear is very painful. If she’s awake, she’ll shout the moment I touch it.”
I quickly make my body go hard so it won’t hurt that much. He reaches over and tugs my ear. The pain is like a knife cutting me but I stay quiet.
He heaves away. “See? I told you she was asleep.”
“Shh. Come here.”
“Do you have a baby in your stomach?”
“No… please… aaah.”
“If you have a baby in your stomach, tell me.”
“My stomach is empty. Please… do it.”
The bed is squeaking again so I open my eyes. Papa is climbing like a baby trying to get on his mother’s back, which is weird because he is too big for that. I close my eyes. There are slapping sounds but I know they’re not fighting. They bounce me up and down and groan and weep and then Papa’s nose is like a car engine. I feel like running the way ants scatter when something interrupts their line.
Once, when I saw two dogs stuck together outside the house and pointed them out to Papa, he got angry and told me to get away from the window, as if I had seen something bad. So why is he doing it with a woman? I can’t ask my stepmother, Auntie, because she’ll wave me away and say that only a bad child asks so many questions. I can’t ask my mother either, because she disappeared when I was four.
We used to live in Lagos, with my brother Kwabena. Just the four of us: Papa, Mother, me, and my brother. It was fun when Papa danced with Mother and they laughed, and when they let me sleep in their bed. There was no bouncing or groaning. But everything changed. The only thing I remember is being at the airport with my mother. She was standing between Kwabena and me, holding each of us by the hand. A man in a uniform asked for boarding passes. She was supposed to let us go but she didn’t. She held my hand so tightly it almost hurt.
“I am not going to cry,” she said. Her voice was firm. “I am not going to… Oh God. My daughter. My son. They’re leaving, but I’m not going to cry.” Her voice broke and she crushed us to her, sobbing, her powdery smell all over me. I didn’t understand why she was upset. My chest hurt to see her cry, so I cried, too. So did Kwabena. The man felt so sorry for her he let her climb into the plane with us. She whimpered like a wounded dog. But she wouldn’t leave so the men took her by the elbows. I reached both hands for her, fighting against the belt, ìyá mi o! Then the door slammed shut. It fries my stomach that I can’t remember anything else.
Now we live in a town called Kumawu. It’s not like Lagos where the streets were clogged with squeaking cars and hawkers yelling and music pouring from every store. Kumawu is a forest. Nothing but plantain trees and insect noises. Elisha says the town got its name from a fetish priest. He planted a kum tree in the town but the tree died. That’s where Kumawu comes from. Wu means dying, which to me is the loneliest thing of all. Because that’s the way I feel when I want my mother.
When I am lying next to him, I am happier and warmer than an egg under a hen. His loud snoring doesn’t bother me, and I don’t dream of the giant animal with wings spread wide, swooping down on me and screeching. But I can hear the frogs outside the window. I know they’re hopping around, waiting to jump on me and turn me into a man, even now as Papa snores between the woman and me.
My ear is on fire. I feel a trickle of warmth running down where I wear my earring. I don’t want to wake Papa up. But what if something bad is happening to my ear? I reach with my forefinger and poke his shoulder.
“Papa.” He doesn’t move. I poke harder. “Papa.”
He jerks up, breathing as if he is carrying something heavy. “What is it?”
“My ear hurts. Something is coming out of it.”
“Is that so?”
“All right, let’s go check it out in the bathroom.” He covers the whole bed with a sheet so that the woman is hidden. In the bathroom, he flicks on the light and peers into my ear. I like how his breath warms my face. “Hmm,” he says, “it’s a little bloody. Looks like you had a boil in there that burst open. Let me clean it for you.” He tears some toilet paper and dabs at my ear the way you touch an egg. He is smiling at me. Breathing soothing air on me. The opposite of what he did when he tugged my ear. “You’ll feel better in the morning,” he says.
By morning, the woman is gone.
Rumpus original art by Leesa Travis.
Excerpted from The Teller of Secrets by Bisi Adjapon. Copyright © 2021 by Bisi Adjapon. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of HarperVia.