July 6, 2015
Chris Abani: Abigail and My Becoming
Posted on Apr 19, 2006
By Chris Abani
Editor’s note: The following are the first four chapters of “Becoming Abigail” by Chris Abani (Akashic Books, 2006)
Chapter 1: Lay It As It Plays
Even this. This memory like all the others was a lie. Like the sound of someone ascending wooden stairs, which she couldn’t know because she had never heard it. Still it was as real as this one. A coffin sinking reluctantly into the open mouth of a grave, earth in clods collected around it in a pile like froth from the mouth of a mad dog. And women. Gathered in a cluster of black, like angry crows. Weeping. The sound was something she had heard only in her dreams and in these moments of memory?a keening, loud and sharp, but not brittle like the screeching of glass or the imagined sound of women crying. This was something entirely different. A deep lowing, a presence, dark and palpable, like a shadow emanating from the women, becoming a thing that circled the grave and the
Always in this memory she stood next to her father, a tall whip of blackness like an undecided but upright cobra. And he held her hand in his, another lie. He was silent, but tears ran down his face. It wasn’t the tears that bothered her. It was the way his body shuddered every few moments. Not a sob, it was more like his body was struggling to remember how to breathe, fighting the knowledge that most of him was riding in that coffin sinking into the soft dark loam.
Square, Site wide
But how could she be sure she remembered this correctly? He was her father and the coffin held all that was left of her mother, Abigail. This much she was sure of. However, judging by the way everyone spoke of Abigail, there was nothing of her in that dark iroko casket. But how do you remember an event you were not there for? Abigail had died in childbirth and she, Abigail, this Abigail, the daughter not the dead one, the mother, was a baby sleeping in the crook of some aunt’s arm completely unaware of the world.
She looked up. Her father stood in the doorway to the kitchen and the expression she saw on his face wasn’t a lie.
?Dad,? she said.
He stood in the doorframe. Light, from the outside security lights and wet from the rain, blew in. He swallowed and collected himself. She was doing the dishes buried up to her elbows in suds.
?Uh, carry on,? he said. Turning abruptly, he left.
The first time she saw that expression she’d been eight. He had been drinking, which he did sometimes when he was sad. Although that word, sad, seemed inadequate. And this sadness was the memory of Abigail overwhelming him. When he felt it rise, he would drink and play jazz.
It was late and she should have been in bed. Asleep. But the loud music woke her and drew her out into the living room. It was bright, the light sterile almost, the same fluorescent lighting used in hospitals. The furnishing was sparse. One armchair with wide wooden arms and leather seats and backrest, the leather fading and worn bald in some spots. A couple of beanbags scattered around a fraying rug, and a room divider sloping on one side; broken. Beyond the divider was the dining room. But here, in the living room, under the window that looked out onto a hill and the savanna sloping down it, stood the record player and the stack of records. Her father was in the middle of the room swaying along to ?The Girl From Ipanema,? clutching a photograph of Abigail to his chest. She walked in and took the photograph from his hands.
?Abigail,? he said. Over and over.
?It’s all right, Dad, it’s just the beer.?
?I’m not drunk.?
?Then it’s the jazz. You know it’s not good for you.?
But she knew this thing wasn’t the jazz, at least not the way he had told her about it on other countless drunken nights. That jazz, she imagined, was something you find down a dark alley taken as a shortcut, and brushing rain from your hair in the dimness of the club found there, you hear the singer crying just for you, while behind her a horn collects all the things she forgot to say, the brushes sweeping it all up against the skin of the drum. This thing with her father, however, was something else, Abigail suspected, something dead and rotting.
?Shhh, go to bed, Dad,? she said.
He turned and looked at her and she saw it and recognized what it was. She looked so much like her mother that when he saw her suddenly, she knew he wanted her to be Abigail. Now she realized that there was also something else: a patience, a longing. The way she imagined a devoted bonsai grower stood over a tree.
Chapter II: Now
She thought it might rain but so far it hadn’t and though a slight breeze ruffled the trees, it wasn’t cold. Even down here on the embankment, the night was as crisp and clear as a new banknote. She suddenly wished she had seen a London fog, the kind she had read about; a decent respectable fog that masked a fleeing Jack the Ripper or hid Moriarty from Sherlock’s chase. She stopped walking. She was here.
The sphinxes faced the wrong way, gazing inward contemplatively at Cleopatra’s Needle rather than outward, protectively, but Queen Victoria had ruled against the expense of correcting the mistake. The obelisk, an Egyptian souvenir, had been a gift from Mohammed Ali. She wasn’t sure who he was, but she was pretty sure he wasn’t the boxer. Abigail looked at the cold smiles of the sphinxes. Like them, she was amused at the ridiculous impotence of the phallus they stared at. A time capsule was buried beneath the stone tumescence containing, among other things, fashion photos of the most beautiful women of the nineteenth century.
She stood gazing out at the dark cold presence of the Thames. Breaking open a packet of cigarettes she fumbled clumsily to light one. She didn’t smoke. With her first drag she imagined she could see the ghosts of those who had also ended it here. At the Needle. Suddenly afraid she smothered a sob, choking on the harshness of the tobacco, eyes tearing. Like the loss of her virginity.
None of the men who had taken her in her short lifetime had seen her. That she wore bronze lipstick, or had a beautiful smile that was punctuated perfectly by dimples. That she plaited her hair herself, into tight cornrows. That her light complexion was a throwback from that time a Portuguese sailor had mistaken her great-grandmother’s cries.
None of them noticed the gentle shadow her breasts cast on her stomach as she reached on tiptoe for the relief of a stretch. Never explored the dip in her lower back where perspiration collected like gentle dew. They never weighed the heft of her breast the way she did, had, from the moment of her first bump. Sitting in her room, the darkness softened by a tired moon straining through dirty windows, she had rolled her growing breast between her palms like dough being shaped for a lover’s bread. This wasn’t an erotic exercise, though it became that, inevitably. At first it was a curiosity, a genuine wonder at the burgeoning of a self, a self that was still Abigail, yet still her. With the tip of a wax crayon she would write ?me,? over and over on the brown rise of them. And when she washed in the shower the next day, the color would bleed, but the wax left a sheen, the memory of night and her reclamation. But not the men in her life; they hadn’t really stopped long enough. She was a foreign country to them. One they wanted to pass through as quickly as possible. None of them knew she had cracked her left molar falling out of a mango tree like a common urchin. Or that in his fear for her safety and the shame of her tomboy nature, her father beat her. Nor did they know that since then, the lushness of mangoes stolen and eaten behind sacks of rice in the storeroom brought her a near sexual release.
But then neither had she really seen them. She tried to. Staring. Watching from the corner of her eye. Trying to piece them together. But they gave nothing, these men. They were experts at hiding themselves, the details of their lives. Even when they walked hand in hand with her in public, it was never the luxuriating of one person in the presence of an equal. No. They led her, pulled her behind their chest-thrust-forward-see-how-lucky-I-am-to-get-such-a-pretty-young-thing walk. They never undressed with her, or for her. There was always a furtive shame to their nudity, and a need to be done quickly, to hide it, theirs and hers, behind clothes again. And this thing that was shameful about them, they put on her, into her, made hers. They left her holding it, like the squish of a tree slug in the mouth, slimy and warm. Something you wanted to spit out and yet swallow at the same time. And though there had only been a few men, sometimes she felt like there had been whole hordes.
She had been ten when her first, fifteen-year-old cousin Edwin, swapped her cherry for a bag of sweets. The caramel and treacle was the full measure of his guilt. Then while stroking her hair tenderly, he whispered softly.
?I will kill you if you tell anyone.?
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