First Light

Kids my age have questions about the most mundane things—how far is the sky from our heads? And when we stretch our hands high enough, can we reach it? First I wanted to be a pilot, but now I am convinced I’ll grow up to become a nurse and nothing else. I spend my days putting pills into categories based on their colors and I already know words like dementia, seizure, and disorientation. I know exactly what to do when Papa has a seizure in the middle of the night and Mother is at the pub with her singer friends or at the police station for drunk driving. Or at another man’s house. It’s always a struggle at the start but I manage to loosen his shirt and turn him on his side to keep his airway clear. And then I grab a jacket from the back of the door and fold it under his head.

Today I’m making soup for Papa, as I stand on a stool and squint to read the recipe in mother’s crabbed handwriting. Onions, cloves of chopped garlic, and dandelion leaves—the only meal Papa will eat without throwing up. Through the window, I see friends from school playing outside. They’re running around a burst pipe, soaking themselves wet. In this game, the one who wins is the boy who gets the least soaked by the sprinkling. There are days we’d run around the neighborhood digging in the dirt, searching for loose pipes we can burst with stones. Such a stupid game, and yet I hate that I’m stuck inside this kitchen stirring a pot of soup.

Like I’ve been taught, I fetch two ladles of soup into a bone-china bowl my parents received on their fifth anniversary and walk down the hall imagining the gold-painted brushes designed on the bowl turning into tiny snakes. In my head, they slither into the pool of soup and float on the surface.

I walk into Papa’s room, which is also now my room, and set the bowl on his bedside. I haven’t slept in my bed in six months. The room has changed so much since Papa’s illness. The floor, made of hard, unpolished wood, has light stains from Papa’s vomit, and a carpet sits rolled to the far end of the room. Mother says, “We’ll roll this back when your father gets well,” and every time I wonder if she means it. I walk toward the bed and see that Papa’s eyes are still closed. I know he’s waiting for me to cup his cheeks in my hands, and so I do. This used to be my favorite part of the day—watching him open his eyes to me, for me. Papa would always tell me, “Kanea a w’ani di kan tua no na ehia.” It matters the first light you see.

“How’s my big boy doing?” His weak voice fills my ears and I try not to look away.

“Fine,” I say. “I made you soup and the boys are playing outside.”

His eyes grow wild in shock, as they always do when I tell him about all the things I’m missing by staying at home.

“What are you still doing here? Little boys belong outside. Playing and running. Chasing after what they’re chasing after.”

This is the same response he gives me every time, and I know it by heart. I help him sit up on the hard bed and I bring a full spoon to his lips. “Eat, Papa.” He opens his mouth slightly to be fed.

There are days I want my first light to be a gush of fresh water from a broken pipe, win or lose. I have thought many times of leaving the soup on the stove to burn and watching the snakes drown in the heat. More than once I have wanted to stand at the door and watch, doing nothing, while Papa’s seizure shakes the room. As for Mother, I think about rolling her up in her lavish carpet, never to see her again. But I don’t run. Perhaps because I have more fear than courage or an equal measure of both to keep me in this room, cleaning my Papa’s body with a wet towel, drying foam from the edges of his mouth, and saying a different name every time he looks at me and goes, “Who are you?”

More from Tryphena L. Yeboah:

To This God I Will Say,” a short short story