Akwaeke Zara Emezi
“Do you ever get afraid?” he asks me, his long butterscotch legs folded into mixed up angles of ankles and
knee bones and his father’s feet.
“Afraid of what, baby?” I’m kneading dough for chapattis, just like I used to years ago when I was his age.
Today my hair is brass and curving tight to my skull, and I am in another hot kitchen. I reach for some more flour
and glance over at him, this tall boy moving his narrow shoulders in an uncertain shrug.
“I don’t know, anything,” he says. “Everything? Being.” I press my knuckles into softness and my old wedding
rings bruise the dough.
“Yeah, I get scared. All the time.”
“Of what?” His voice is like the unfolding of a bird’s wing, primary feathers sifting through the air. I copy his
earlier shrug, smoke rising off the skin of my shoulders. Because I hold a sun, there is always heat distorting the
air around me. We don’t know what the boy holds yet because he’s too young. His father wants him to have a sun
like us, burning through the world.
“Loss, mostly. Like maybe one day I’ll wake up and all of this won’t be real, you know? I’ll be somewhere else
and this could all be just a story I made up in my head.” It’s hard to have a sun, though. Sometimes I think I’d like
him to hold something gentler.
“Like a dream?” he asks. I reach for a towel and wipe my hands on it, staring down at the thick puddle of
bread on my counter. My nights are full of things people call dreams.
“Yeah, baby...like a dream.” There’s the soft pat of his feet landing on the floor and I feel his arms wrap
around my middle in a tight squeeze. He presses his face against the center of my back, on the dark side of my sun.
“I’m real,” he whispers. “Papa is real. You didn’t make either of us up.” You, this child, I think, you burst my
heart like a soft fruit. I fold my hands over his, black ink in solid squares over the backs and fingers. He wants to
get inked like us. Wait another decade, I tell him.
“I know you’re real, baby.”
“So why are you scared we won’t be here?” My throat ripples. How do you explain how life can rip things off
you like glass limbs, like gods pulling wings for fun, explain that air is cruel. I’ve seen him die in the things I see at
“Sometimes,” I manage, “real things go away. Or just because they’re real, it doesn’t mean you can always
have them.” I can almost feel him thinking about this, in that intense way that simmers behind his eyes. He wears
his hair with the sides shaved down, soft curls in the middle punching towards clouds.
“Sometimes they stay,” he replies conclusively. I smile through an exhalation and turn around inside the circle
of his thin arms so that his head is under my ribs. I drop him a kiss and hug him carefully, not wanting to crush him.
The steam that always pours from my skin is wrapping around him in a slow mist.
“Sometimes they stay,” I agree, and run my thumb down the silk of his cheek. The brick walls rise above us
and the sky is wooden beams, dark with age. “Why are you asking about fear?” He presses his ear to the drumming
of the yellow sun that lives at the junction of my ribs and is quiet for a while. You can see it right beneath my skin,
a golden glow that makes my cells pulse with light. His father’s sun is an old red, old lava sun, a different kind of
“I just wanted to know what it tastes like,” he finally answers. That makes sense. He’s afraid of nothing,
with that invincibility that comes from being eleven and thinking the thing in the world which can hurt you does not
“You are your father’s child,” I murmur, releasing him from the hug and smiling.
“Not yours,” he says. I look at his face. He likes to clarify this often, especially when we’re out together,
even when it’s three of us. “Oh, no. She’s not my mother,” he’ll say politely to mistaken strangers. I don’t mind
because it’s all true.
Sometimes we make it a game of who can correct them faster and we giggle together about the slants of
their confused faces, how their eyebrows twist, the cadence of their stuttered apologies. We’re terrible, I’ll
whisper to him as his father just shakes his head and ignores us. I know, he’ll whisper back with his eyes glinting,
his hand pressed into mine. We revel in being terrible together, in silliness and open-mouthed laughter that
exhausts the muscles stretching between our ribs.
“Not mine,” I say back to him and we grin in silent understanding. There’s a roar of an engine outside, then it
growls into a rumbling quiet.
“Papa’s back!” he shouts, and runs off to the window to wave at his father.
“Oya, go get your things,” I tell him. “So he can drop you at home in time for dinner.” The boy pouts at me.
“Ohmm, but I wanted to eat chapattis.”
“Tomorrow,” I promise. “I’ll save some for you and you can collect them after school.” He breaks into the
wide smile I’m always waiting for.
“Don’t let him eat them all tonight,” he cautions, running up the stairs into his floating room. I throw a damp
cloth over the dough and I’m searching through the drawers for my rolling pin when he flashes through the kitchen
again, dropping a kiss on my cheek and a quick hug. As he makes to barrel out of the door and to his father,
something shoots through me and I call out to him, wanting to hear his voice wing through my air before he leaves.
“Hey, not mine!” I say. He chuckles richly as he turns to look at me, poised at the threshold.
“Why do we always remember that?” I ask, a test question we both know the answer to. He moves the strap
of his leather satchel on his shoulder and tilts his head at me.
“Because it’s true,” he says. “And true is better.” I look at him with a world of softness as his father calls his
name impatiently from outside.
“And?” I prompt. His eyes crinkle with his smile. We had this conversation years ago for the first time, when
he was small and crying that I didn’t love him because he wasn’t mine. That’s when I told him the story about how
we met, how I held his small body in my arms like he could melt through them and decided.
“Because it means we didn’t have to love each other,” he answers. “But we chose to.” He is now confident
in how many people love him, no matter how many homes he has. I nod in approval.
“I choose you,” I tell him. His father yells again, and in the moment before he flies out of our door, his small
face is serious and there is a world of softness in his eyes.
“I choose you, too,” he says and then he is gone. I smile to myself and turn back to the counter, rolling out
bread in the place that is not a dream.