The Itch, by Faith Arkorful

 

I wasn’t born in this country, but my mother had brought me back to the island when I was young. Here, it got dark at six, every evening, every day. I had gotten used to darkness easily, but I never got used to living without my father.

It was during a dark night, without a semblance of warning, that an overwhelming itchiness had awoken me. I jumped out of bed, disoriented, and stumbled out of my bedroom to the living room. I stood at the window, the room illuminated by moonlight. Both my arms were coated in hives, swollen copper-coloured whorls that looked as if they had been brushed onto my body. I was seventeen.

After a few minutes, my mother found me and dragged me onto the living room couch. Turning on the lamp, she pulled out an old glass bottle of witch hazel from the cupboard and dabbed my arms in the liquid before wrapping both in bandages.

“Your father has the same problem,” she finally said. Mom always spoke about my father as if he were very close, just waiting to pounce out of the nearest room. But she was telling me this now as a way of reminding me to not ask for a doctor. Mom always rebuked doctors; family visits were limited to mandatory school vaccines.

“Doctors are where people go to get sick,” she once said. I had been complaining about a reoccurring upset stomach.

My youngest sister, Ellen, eleven years old, raised her hand. “It’s called a nosocomial infection.”

My other sister, Abena, interjected. “Spell it,” she said, smugly. She was two years older than Ellen. Unlike me, both my sisters resembled Mom – they shared her suspicious eyes, her thick black hair and petite frame. The suspicious eyes were necessary – people always commented that Mom looked too young to have a child already seventeen.

“N-O-S-”

“Enough,” Ellen’s father said sternly. Ellen’s father came over on the odd weekends, Abena’s father on the even. There was no room for my father. I had come to learn about him in little increments from others, accepting the details that everyone seemed to agree upon, and ignoring the others. He lived in Canada. Was a large man, was once a police officer. What I personally knew of my father was preserved in only my earliest, vaguest memories: the sensation of being held, his laugh. I searched through my mind for something more definite, real. I came up with nothing, and Mom had seemingly no interest in helping me. Over the years I began to resent her for it, get flushed and frustrated just thinking about the myth of my father.

The night Mom had bandaged my arms for the first time, I stayed in the living room and lay down on the couch. I curled my feet into my nightdress and wrapped my arms around my legs, trying to ignore the itchiness.

When the morning came, Mom woke me up and pushed a cup of bush tea into my hands. She took off the bandages as I drank. The welts had left with no remnants. But every night I awoke to a new body part covered in welts. And every night, Mom would come, pour witch hazel on me and wrap me in bandages. The ritual lasted a week. The first night after the hives had stopped, my mother stood in the kitchen, smirking at me.

“Sleep good?”

“Maybe I need an allergy test.”

“Your father has the same problem.”

My skin burned, but the itch stayed away for months.

Abena got her first period. Mom took her out of school and she stayed in bed, shaking like a leaf. I never had cramps so painful. Abena’s father stood at her bedroom door like an unwanted visitor. Mom gave her painkillers, pushed a hot water bottle against her stomach and made her bush tea.

“The first day is always the worst,” mother said over dinner.

“Yeah! Abena screamed at me today,” Ellen said bluntly, raising her fork in the air.

“For what?” asked Mom.

“Because I pulled out my tooth yesterday. So I told her, “Look! We’re both bleeding miraculously!” And she got mad.”

Mom laughed and shook her head. “You’re too much, Ellen. Just like your daddy.”

“Daddy will find it funny,” she said. “I’ll tell him next week, when he comes.” She paused and looked up at me. “Why doesn’t your dad ever come?”

“He lives in Canada.” My skin felt hot, itchy. I scratched my arm in irritation.

“Liar,” Ellen countered. Mom pinched her arm, silencing her. I abruptly left the dinner table.

A few minutes later, my arm was covered in hives, long straight welts where I had scratched. Skin writing. Mom came into my bedroom with the bottle of witch hazel.

“So,” she began shakily. “When I met your father, I was very young. Very. The…the town’s sheriff…” Her voice cracked and she began to tear up. She clutched the bottle tightly in her hands.

I pushed past her in frustration and left the house for the beach, a close walk. The sun was losing the fight for dominance against the encroaching night sky, but I found my way easily through the dark. I dug my arms into the wet sand by the shore, letting the waves coat my arms. I could swim to my father, I thought. He’d look at my sick arms and tell me the cure, the myth of my birth. I would never get the whole story from my mother. I could only depend on her for fragments. How much longer could she keep him broken up?

I pulled my arms out of the water, the hives now gone. I felt comforted in the dark. My father could come to me in here. Come down, dad, I beckoned. My arms are stronger than they look. I raised my hands and relinquished them to the night sky, waiting for my father to descend.

 


Faith Arkorful is the second place winner in the 2016 running for the HHLLC prose contest. She was the first runner-up in Echolocation‘s 2013 ‘The Chase’ chapbook contest. She lives in Toronto.